Friday, June 4, 2010

Meeting The Songwriter

A few weeks ago, I discovered that a song that I've loved since I was a kid, "Rock Salt and Nails," was written by the late singer/songwriter/labor activist Utah Phillips. What's notable about this is that I had the privelege to meet Mr. Phillips about ten years ago.

I grew up listening to my dad's copy of Joan Baez' "David's Album." Ms. Baez had done the album as a tribute to her husband David Harris, who had submitted to imprisonment by the federal government rather than be drafted into the military during the Vietnam War. The country-tinged album is a beauty, recorded with many of the best country session musicians of the time (Mr. Harris loved country music), with covers of Graham Parsons' "Hickory Wind," some bluegrass standards like "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," and of course Utah Phillips' song, which is a melancholy tale of a jilted lover.

About ten years ago, my now-ex-wife Cynthia (who is in the picture at the top of the post along with Mr. Phillips and I) hosted a benefit concert at the Flamenco dance studio that we owned and operated. I alluded to it in this post on my old blog. Mr. Phillips had graciously agreed to play a benefit to help provide a gravestone for a Lincoln Brigade volunteer.

I wish I'd known Mr. Phillips had written the song. I would have probably requested the song.

Here's Ms. Baez' lovely version of the song.

Around the same time, I discovered I knew the writer of another of my most beloved songs, "The Dutchman." I'd first heard Steve Goodman's version of it as a teenager and just fell in love with it. It's a tale of an old Dutch couple living in Amsterdam. The man has long gone mad, but his wife remembers his better days and cares for him. It was one of the first songs I ever figured out on guitar. One of my favorite memories of my marriage with Cynthia was her crying when I sang and played the song on guitar for her.

Here's a live version with bluegrass legend Jethro Burns:

I couldn't find a vid with the studio version, but it's one of my favorite songs.

I had assumed that Goodman, who wrote many fine tunes, including "The City of New Orleans," which was a hit for Arlo Guthrie in 1972, had written "The Dutchman." I discovered I was wrong-- that another singer-songwriter, Michael Smith had written it. I also discovered that Michael was a friend of ours; it was the same Michael Smith who was a musical partner with my and Cynthia's friend Jamie O'Reilly, who we had met through an organization that centered on Chicago-area Lincoln Brigade veterans. It was really cool for us to be able to tell Michael how much we loved the song and how it held great sentimental value to us as a couple.

In the summer of 1982, I was supposed to live with the woman I'd been dating in college, in Champaign, Illinois, subletting an apartment from a couple of high school friends who were attending the University of Illinois (I was at Eastern Illinois University). She backed out at the last minute and left me in a really bad situation-- bearing the whole rent and scrambling to find a summer job. Fortunately, I was able to find a job-- detassling corn-- and got a little financial help from my mother. The girlfriend and I broke up and I had the most lonely (and hungry-- I had very little money for food) summer of my life.

One of the things that cheered me up was the University of Illinois' excellent radio station. I'd call occasionally to request two songs that I'd heard before on the station-- George Thorogood's cover of John Lee Hooker's "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer," and a song from the new dB's record ("Repercussion")-- "Amplifier."

Amplifier was a serio-comic song about a rock musician who kills himself after his girlfriend leaves him, taking with her everything-- what she didn't take she "found a way to wreck"-- but leaves behind his amplifier.

Here's the video for the song.

A couple of years later, the dB's rerecorded "Amplifier" and included it on their great "Like This" album, one of my favorite records of the eighties.

Over the years, I came to believe that "Amplifier" saved my life during that miserable, depressing summer.

Some time in the late eighties, the dB's toured, and so my friend "Rex the Scumbag" and I went to see them at the fabled Cabaret Metro here in Chicago. The concert was great. Not only did they play "Amplifier," but they included it in a medley with a cover of Elvis' "Suspicious Minds," a song that had a sentimental significance for Rex and I; it was a the theme song for our 1985 pilgrimage to Graceland. After the show, we headed next door to our favorite tavern, the Gingerman.

A little while later, Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple from the dB's, who had written "Amplifier," strolled into the bar and ordered drinks. After a few more of my own drinks, I mustered up the courage to walk up to one of them-- I cannot for the life of me figure out if it was Stamey or Holsapple-- and tell him my "Amplifier" tale.

I was pretty drunk, but I could see that he was a little put off by me-- maybe even a little scared. I backed off, but felt like I'd accomplished one of my life's missions-- thanking him for writing and performing one of my favorite-ever songs. I'm sure that with a few years of therapy, he recovered from his encounter with me.


SkylersDad said...

The breadth of your musical knowledge, and the life you have had continue to amaze me!

halfpear said...

It was probably me that you ran into after the Metro gig as Chris was no longer in the band after 1983. My apologies two decades later if I seemed put off--it did, indeed, take some years before I stopped drinking and was better able to deal with humanity at large, after being rude and insulting for a long time. Thank you in retrospect for the nice words about Amplifier. I sincerely appreciate it. PH

Random Thinker said...

"at the Flamenco dance studio that we owned and operated" Love this phrase. Thrown so non-chalantly into a blog post about music. Saw George Thorogood in concert not too long ago. He was awesome but his light show nearly blinded me.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

You have some of the most amazing stories and have had some incredible encounters. They always make me smile.

Churlita said...

Very cool brushes with greatness. I love to read your stories.

Johnny Rojo said...

Random Thinker-
LOL! It's funny-- I was actually planning a post about the studio, which is still open-- it way outlasted the marriage. A friend of hers runs it now-- Cynthia's busy raising a child (that was what broke up the marriage; she is seven years younger than I and wanted kids of her own). I was very proud of the studio; what little I knew of Flamenco was through Cynthia, who was passionate about it. Since we had the only Flamenco studio not only in Chicago, but the whole midwest, we were treated as royalty whenever we went out to performances. Big fish in a little pond. I have to admit it was kind of fun.

Thanks! I think it comes from knowing interesting people-- present company included.'


I've got a lot of "brushes with fame," particularly from working in restaurants on and off for 30 years. I had a post about it in my old blog. I'm most proud of my encounter with Butt Gravy, the second worst band in America.