How many great albums get lost? To be released at the wrong time by the wrong company and reviewed if at all by the wrong people is perhaps not much better than not being released at all. Belated recognition of such work may not be of much comfort to the artist, but this series intends to have a look at some of these neglected masterpieces.
And what better way to start this splurge of prejudiced rantings than to examine John Stewart's monumental 'California Bloodlines', one of the finest pieces of missed grist you're ever likely to hear.
For the complete and unabridged John Stewart story, you'll have to wait for a couple of months until I can shuffle it into shape, but to put you in the approximate picture, here is a (very) brief resume: after leading a folk trio called The Cumberland 3, he was summoned to replace Dave Guard in the Kingston Trio, staying with them from Summer 1961 until their split 6 years later, during which time his influence on both the group and the millions of people who heard their music was incalculable. After almost forming a duo with John Denver, writing 'Daydream Believer' for the Monkees, campaigning with Robert Kennedy, and making an album with Buffy Ford, he eventually came to record his first solo album 'California Bloodlines' - first released in May 1969 but still available on order from any worthwhil e record shop as an EMI import on US Capitol ST 203.
The album was cut in Nashville under the guidance of Nik Venet, a Capitol staff producer familiar to Stewart for his work with the Beach Boys and Fred Neil in particular.
I happened to bump into Venet in United Artists' Hollywood Offices and since the mere mention of 'Cal ifornia Bloodlines' was enough to set his pupils twinkling and his memories gurgling, it's primarily through his eyes that we'll be looking at the album, with supplementary and explanatory words from Stewart himself and the odd attempt by me to link the whole shebang into some kind of cohesive whole.
Nik Venet: ''I was an 'uncontrolled' Capitol staff man at the time - they used to keep sending me money even though I wasn't under an exclusive contract or anything like that. I used to get people to finance all the terrible habits I had - terrible, terrible habits like hamburger addictions and fast cars and ladies - but I really believed in John Stewart. His songs knocked me on my arse, and I thought it was so great that he wasn't a pretty singer or a pretty person or a pretty dresser. . . . in fact he was so fxxxing ugly that he was magnificent! Well, I kept after the idea of doing an album with him even though I didn' t get the one that he did with Buffy ('Signals Through The Glass', produced by Voyle Gilmore), and I remember how elated I was, so very fxxxing happy, when they offered me 'Bloodlines'".
''John had never worked in Nashville before, and to tell the truth he wasn' t very enthusiastic when I suggested it...but I'd worked with those cats down there and I just felt that the combination of John's songs and their playing could be a winner . . . . and it was; though I say it myself, it's his best album to date".
"Those Nashville studio men have a marvellous way of sweating, but not through their shirts. You see them play, and it looks so effortless, but some of those guys have 25 years of picking behind them and so if it looks effortless, it's only because they've learned how to control their dance. Their trade and their art is right there in their fingers, where it belongs, and believe me, they are among the finest musicians in the world...... and in the studio they are invaluable because their musical abilities are matched by an abil ity to pick up on what you're doing and to move the way you're moving. They'll do their standard perfect job on most songs, but if they come across a lyric they can relate to, as I thought they would to some of John's, they'll just pull off the most amazing stuff".
''Dylan was recording 'Nashville Skyline' right across the street at Columbia's studios, and I was pulling favours with guys l'd known for 10 or 12 years, saying things like 'Forget Dylan..... if you don't play on these dates for me, our friendship is over'. I wanted the best people for the album, people who would really understand what John had to say''.
"Well, I thought about it and came to the conclusion that John should record live, standing there with the band; the way I saw it, a road folk singer shouldn't be allowed the mechanical freedom or luxury of adding his vocals to a completed track - it would destroy so much of the spontaneity. I mean, his phrasing would become clinical, and his diction too polished, his breathing would be less natural, and besides, I felt that his magnificent horrible voice and his style of picking would fire the musicians if they were all working together. John agreed, and that's how it was done, with him standing up there like he was in a club, with the session guys playing right along behind him. . . . and it worked just the way I thought it would. After all, you don't buy John Stewart albums for the syrup in his voice, you buy them for the honesty in his songs and the depth in his singing. . . . and a performer like that can' t fxxx by remote control - he's got to do it right there with the band! And he did it - with the result that 'California Bloodl ines' is a raw, very natural album. . . . black and white and raw".
John Stewart: "Unfortunately, the Nashville musicians aren't like that anymore; they' re overworked now and their enthusiasm seems to have dropped a great deal. On those sessions, their playing was inspired - they played with their hearts, for a number of reasons not the least being that they were so glad to be participating in something other than straight country and western music . . . . . there was a magic in that studio - a magic that can't be duplicated. You see, back then in the first part of 1969, the only non-country people to record there before I did were Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, but nowadays great volumes of rock and pop music come out of Nashville. . . . . I guess Nik must take the credit for suggesting we do it there - he knew all the people".
Nik: ''There's a clear path to Nashville these days - flights every half hour and so on, but when I first began to go down there the airport barely functioned and you couldn't even rent a car. I spent a number of years there with Harlan Howard and Johnnny Cash and Buck Wilkin, and at one time we were using Bradley's Barn which Columbia subsequently took over and converted. Even then, Fred Carter was a prize guitarist, and he became one of the backbones of the Nashville music scene. . . .his playing on 'Bloodlines' was just so astounding".
Readers who are already familiar with the album will be well aware of the futility of selecting a "best track", but the first track on side 2 , 'Mother Country', the second half of which details horse-enthusiast E.A. Stuart's last ride, is a cracker and certainly merits closer investigation.
Nik Venet, an incurable romantic and obviously never one to miss the chance to embellish an already colourful story, let his fancies fly: ''That song was recorded first take! After hearing it once, those musicians just went out and captured the whole thing perfectly. I did a Fellini aspect in not telling anyone what to play or when to play because with 'Mother Country' I felt that any such instruction would have cut down on the natural feeling. You see, country people often have an emotional thing that is so childish it's Picasso. . . . Picasso spent 80 years trying to get back to what children do honestly - to lose all those views, ideas and inhibitions which are imposed on you as you go through life. . . .the musicians down in Nashville are primitive Picassos, if you like - and I mean that in the complimentary sense".
"John had told me about this song he had and the lyric just sounded like one that everyone in the studio could relate to. . . . this sounds terribly corny, but it happened. I told John to hold off on the song until the end, until all the other tracks were finished. . . . and I'll never forget that moment when John went out to run through the song. . . . the musicians and I were all huddled in the control booth, drinking Jack Daniels and beer and stuff, and we heard John sing 'Mother Country' for the first time".
"Well, everybody was just struck motionless, maybe partly because they're so heritage orientated, but they were just smitten. . . there were goose pimples, some red faces and even tears - and when John had finished, they just went straight out into the studio and cut it, first take, perfectly, with absolutely no rehearsal, no arrangement - nothing except one hearing of the song and natural country juices flowing through those instruments like a river".
"I held off doing that song, took a chance and delayed it till the very end. Like I said, I'm a great fan of Fellini's and he always does things like that - leaves a section of a movie until he feels that the time is right, the energy level is right. Anyway, the gamble worked''.
Over to John for his version (and let's attribute any discrepencies to Nik's unbridled romanticism): ''I wrote 'Mother Country' from a story my dad told me; before I was born, he'd worked for this man called E.A. Stuart, who used to own Carnation Milk but had a real passion for horses. His favourite was called Malenkthon, but that name didn't seem musical enough somehow and so in retelling the story I changed the name to Sweetheart On Parade, which was another horse that my father helped to train - a 5 gaited saddle horse. I thought that was an incredible name, so I used that".
The song concerns the ailing E.A. Stuart's desire to have one last fling with his favourite horse - an ambition he realises, allowing him to die a happy man a few weeks later.
"My dad was there when it happened" John cont inued, ''and when he told me about it, it just knocked me out so much. Apart from changing the horse's name, my version tells the story exactly as it occured - and it seemed to link up with the other two themes which are contained in the song, the first part of which I got from a newsclipping from the San Francisco Chronicle, and the overall binding thread which I got from a book called 'American Heritage' which had pictures of these pioneer kids. . . . it seemed to me that there were a lot of heroes in America who had become heroes without telling anyone, and that's what the song is all about''.
''I wasn't going to record the song but I played it to Nik to see what he thought about it and he liked it so much that he got me to go into the studio and sing it while he got all the musicians into the booth to listen. So I played it, and on that one hearing they were able to get their bearings . . . . when they write their charts they do it by numbers - like if it's in the key of C, they write 1 for the chord of C, 4 for F, 5 for G and so on - so they can jot it all down very quickly''.
"Anyway, I finished the song and they came into the studio for the first take - and some of them had tears in their eyes! 'Jesus' I thought . . . 'I must have really moved these guys!' . . . .. and they just played for all they were worth, played their hearts out"
''Afterwards, I was talking to Nik about how the song had moved them and how they'd played like crazy-men in the studio - and he looked at me, lowered his voice, and said 'actually, John, I told them that you had written the song about your dad who's just died of cancer'".
Back to Nik: "John was happy with the take - dumbfounded, in fact. He couldn't believe that a first take could capture everything like that and he started looking for a weakness finally reckoning that he could do the vocal better - but I assured him that if he tried to cut it again, the magic would disappear. . . .and I was right - the first take was the one. . . . the photograph had been taken".
Too right, mate. Just listen to the tension and build on that track - my spine almost falls out every time I feel that horse ("easily the finest horse the good Lord ever made") coming into sight ("and he's driving her stone blind"), and those cats are just playing their balls off - but get this: that track, and the whole album in fact, was recorded in direct stereo. Two track! From the meticulous clarity you'd have thought old Venet had laboured for weeks, mixing down a 16 track monster - but trust him. . . . .
"lt was a gamble" he says, "because once recorded, you couldn't adjust the level of an individual instrument in the mix, but if you get all the balances right in the studio, and if you're certain of the competence of everybody involved, then the dangers are minimised - and if it works, you can get a beautifully clear and natural recording. I had 2 amazing engineers who had worked with Nashville's best for 20 years, so nobody had to worry about any fxxx-ups on the board. Often, when he was listening to a playback, John would say something like 'can you get that guitar up a bit?' and l'd say 'listen to it again . . .the guitar is alright'. . .".
"The only overdub on the whole album is on 'The Pirates of Stone County Road', where we dubbed on those layers of voices". A fabulous track, and surprisingly not based on recollection: "I was stoned out of my brains" says Stewart, "and it just came to me".
But wait a second; if we look at each track in detail, we'll run out of our miserably inadequate page allocatlon. Suffice it to say that all the cuts are magnificent - as you'll agree when you hear the record - so let's confine our attention to just one other track, 'Never Goin Back', an explanation of the somewhat obscure sleevenotes, and then give full rein to Nik Venet, allowing him to expound freely.
Instead of creditlng the players on the sleeve in the customary way, John reels off their names towards the end of 'Never Goin Back' . . ."l'd like to thank. . . . . ", immortalising each of them with an appropriate nickname.
John: '''Never Goin Back' is still regarded as a legendary track in Nashville. I got the idea from a movie called 'Farenheit 451', where the credits were read out instead of appearing on the screen. . . . it occurred to me as I watched it that no-one had thought of doing that on a record. So I was waiting for the opportunity to implement this idea when I thought of embellishing what would just be a fairly stark list of names. . . so I took a piece of paper and jotted down some ideas. I took a sort of character reading of each of them and tried to think of a name that would at the same time be appropriate and add a dash of colour. 'Diamond' Kelso Herston is a record-biz kind of guy who wore this big diamond ring that always sparkled in the semi-darkness of the studio, 'Gentleman' Lloyd Green is always very polite, 'First Take' Hargus Robbins is an incredible pianist who always gets everything perfect first take - he's blind, and had always been known as 'Pig' up until then. . . .and I just went through them all. I called Nik 'Zapata' - he loved that, as you can imagine, having met him. That came from 'Viva Zapata', which is my favourite movie (that and 'Citlzen Kane'), and the fact that Nik had this sort of guerrilla thing going for him . . . thls Mexican/Greek bandido image''.
Nik (for a slight variation): "I had been down in Mexico excavating some sites there. . . . that's my hobby, archeology - that and the American Indian. . . . I take years off at a time to explore those things. Anyway, I'd been in Mexico just before the album and I guess the Zapata influence had filtered into the studio - maybe because I kept bringing Tequila to the sessions!"
"Anyway, I knew John was going to credit all the musicians just as they thought the track was coming to an end, and so I told them 'continue vamping until you see me coming out of the booth. . . . don' t stop playing' and I waited to see what would happen''.
John: ''The musicians had no idea what was going to happen and were just sitting there with their head phones on, playing away, assuming it was going to be a long fade ending or something. . . . and when I started to reel off their names they couldn' t believe it. They looked at each other and broke out smiling and the energy just grew and grew. . . . you can hear it on the track - as soon as they realised, they just started pouring it on".
Among the amazing qual ities of that track is one of my favourite pedal steel solos of all time. . . .that first solo - a burner!
Nik: "That was Lloyd Green - he came up to me when we were talking about possible arrangements and said 'I've got a thing I've been wanting to get on a record for two years now, but nobody's ever given me the chance'. 'Don' t say another word' I told him, '. . . . you just go in there and do it'. Like you say, he did it!''
"That album is 4 and a half years old now and yet it doesn't sound at all dated. That was the peak energy time in Nashville. . . . those cats were all at their zenith, all masters of their craft. . . . how I admire the ability of those guys, they can do anything - if you'd have given them tap dancing shoes 20 years ago, they'd be the world champion tap dancers today!"
"I love casting an album; I think it's important to make it like a novel - so everybody fits into place as a character - no loose ends or unsuitable pages to spoil a chapter. I mean, someone had suggested that I put strings on certain songs. . . I couldn't see violins beside John Stewart! You may as well stick daffodils up his arse!''
Some clarification of the sleeve note, which appears as blank verse:
"3000 miles, 12 towns, 3 States" refers to the distance from Los Angeles to Nashville, and the twelve towns (count 'em) and three States mentioned in the songs.
"30 Nashville souls'' are the people involved on the session.
"An old campaigner" - that's Sweetheart on Parade.
"One rainbow for Ethel" is a reference to the song 'Omaha Rainbow'
which was written whilst John and Buffy were campaigning for Robert Kennedy
- he was the Attorney General and was running for Senator.
John: ''We'd get to the rally first and sing for the people, who'd been waiting for maybe 3 or 4 hours. . . . . we'd try to get them all singing the campaign song so that there was plenty of energy flying around when Kennedy arrived to speak". Ethel is Kennedy's widow of course.
"Dylan across the street''.
Nik: "Dylan was literally across the street cutting 'Nashville Skyline'. . . . Johnny Cash was there too, and so was Kris Kristofferson, who seemed to spend a lot of time flitting from studio to studio, bringing champagne over from the Cash session. We'd drink it and send the empty bottles back for more! There was just so much electricity in that little one block area that week".
"Champagne cognac and bad machine coffee" - that was the bill of fare for the sessions.
"2 hit casualties''.
John: "That was a Nashville phenomenon no longer so geographically confined; we met 2 guys in the bars there - they had written two of the best country songs ever but had become alcoholics because they couldn't handle their success. . . . I guess that sort of thing has become much more prevalent these days".
Nik: "Sometimes having a hit record can be the end rather than the beginning. A lot of people who had hit records are silent now because they became a parody of what they were, of what they did to get there in the first place".
"5 snuff queens".
Nik: "they're country groupies; they were an integral part of the country music scene long before they became voguish in rock circles. Snuff queens are just magnificent - they wear their hair about 3 feet high, all lacquered up, and very tight and lurid skirts or pants - often made of gold flecked pvc. . . . the sort of thing you'd see on the floor of Andy Warhol 's kitchen''.
Nik: "John has gone a long way; he's had failure and success - enormous success. . . . . remember that the Kingston Trio was bigger than even the Beatles at one time, and he's played for easily a million people in the course of a year. Then he was a successful songwriter and when I was working with him, he was starting to work himself up as a solo. He travels a lot of miles to get where he's going it's - a hard road, but he's got it all there. . . after 16 years of making records and a lifetime listening to them, I contend that John Stewart is one of the 3 greatest songwriters in this country - and I'll back that statement against anyone".
"His interpretations are so honest; he doesn' t dress his songs up or sell them short. . . . he sings them naturally but he was worried about 'California Bloodlines' in as much as it wasn't glitter, it wasn't glamour and it wasn't slick''.
"I understand his worry, because he was trying to get a hit album,
and he was almost ready to sell down to have a hit on the basis that a
hit would enable him to go on and do what he wanted. But I said "no,
just keep doing what you want to do. . . who knows, you may not have a
hit record until after you' re dead - but in your lifetime you can't sell
down and really be happy". But he was worried that the album wasn't
commercial enough, whereas I thought that was its whole charm".
|'CALIFORNIA BLOODLINES' California Bloodlines/Razor Back Woman/She
Me/Omaha Rainbow/The Pirates Of Stone County Road/Shackles and Chains/Mother Country/
Some Lonesome Picker/You Can't Look Back/Missouri Birds/ July,You're A Woman/
Never Goin Back
"As it was, he chose to do his second album, 'Willard', with Peter Asher, and he dubbed on his vocals when all the musicians had gone off home, thereby losing all that great primitive quality he has. When he went into that studio and sat down with headphones on to sing over those almost clinically perfect back tracks, he lost all the rough edges that, to me, characterise one of his best assets . . . . they were seeking too much perfection. . . ."
"Stand up and sing! Perfection is in the soul of the song, not in the cleanliness of the recording and mix. His songs are about people that aren't perfect, so how the fxxx can the recording be perfect? "
"I once had a long conversation with Picasso, and I asked him when he considered a painting finished. He looked at me in total disbelief and said 'I have never finished a painting!' Great! And that's the secret of a lot of music. . . . I tell you, that's one of the great things about people like Bowie - they' re going for feel rather than perfection".
"John Stewart is like you, he's like me; he's the truck driver, the cowboy in 'The Misfits', the American; he's the guy who tracked Indians, he's the guy the Indians tracked, he's the kid driving the Ford in 'July, you're a woman', he's the men in his songs; he understands California, and the Coast and the mountains, the people that hitch-hike, the people that live in the country; he's the heritage and the history; whenever I drive north I think of songs that he' s written. . . . and you can't tell me that a guy like that can fxxx by remote control. He's got to sweat - only then will he do justice to those great songs".
John: ''Nik Venet is a great schucker, a great con-artist, but at the same time, he's a super guy. He was so full of vitality and enthusiasm during the whole of those 'Bloodlines' sessions - he kept the mood way up all the time. . . . it was the most fun I've ever had recording. He has absolutely no idea of what he's doing, except that he can really get the musicians to play, and for that, he's the best. As for myself, I can't get past my own performance on that album. . . . I think the songs were my best, the energy was certainly the best - but I hate my singing. But I've got to say that I remember Nik with great fondness; in his own way, he's an amazing producer and I haven't a bad word to say about him. I feel it might be something of a risk, but I'd dearly love to do another album with him".
Nik: ''Let me tell you a story a true story: my most recent project has been recording a triple album (on United Artists UA-LAI57-J3, on import only) of the reminiscences of John G Neihardt, one of America's greatest poets. He was the last living man ever to have known the great Indian chiefs and he spent his life writing about them. . . .and, as it happened, a couple of days after I was able to show him copies of the completed album and package, he passed away. But during the many hours I spent with him, I played him parts of 'California Bloodlines'. Now, this man was really old and almost deaf; he'd never seen a movie in his life and though he'd heard of Johnny Cash and Marlon Brando, he'd never heard of Bob Dylan. Well, he could hear quite well through headphones, and I played him 'Mother Country'. . . . .he thought it was beautiful - "that boy sounds like he was standing beside me in the Missouri River" he said. Now, for John Neihardt to have even said John Stewart's name is tribute enough, but for a track to make that kind of impact. . . . phew, I can't begin to tell you how that made me feel".
"I guess John doesn't realise how many people love what he's doing but are worried about the frame he's putting his songs in nowadays. He seems to have lost some of his perspective; he labours over the least important things and when he does that, he's in danger of blurring those delicate natural colours. . . . that colour of mud, that shade of crushed roses - to see those get smudged into one . . . ."
"You know, after 'Willard' was a complete turkey and the third one was also a stiff, I thought 'well, maybe no-one's heard those two -- maybe I can do the next one' and I pleaded with his manager, had meetings and wrote letters. . . . . and that xxxxx, do you know what he did? He sent me a note saying that my application had been noted and put on file!"
"Well, speaking with you like this has sort of re-charged my enthusiasm. Since he's just changed managers, maybe I could get to do that second album after all. . . .I'd really love to, you know. But he'd have to work - he needs to go out further and he'd rather stay in and sit here with us, around the fire. . . . he's a fxxxing great person, John Stewart''.