Monday, August 26, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #225 - The Twelve Chairs (1970, dir. Mel Brooks)

In 1970 Mel Brooks was something of a new kid on the scene. His first movie, The Producers, had been a big hit on Broadway and a successful movie so expectation was high. His second movie The Twelve Chairs proved he was both as funny and as talented as he seemed. Set in the post-revolution USSR, the film plays on the historical realities of the newly minted communist government as it obliterates the life known by the former aristocratic class. Ron Moody plays Vorobyaninov, a once rich man who now works as a clerk in a government office. We meet him as he visits his mother-in-law’s death bed. She informs him that before the revolution she sewed a fortune of jewels into the lining of a dining room chair. Unfortunately, she also tells the town priest Father Fyodor, played with wicked glee by Dom DeLuise. Thus we are off on a chase across the USSR to find the missing chair with the missing fortune inside. This is the perfect setup for Mel Brooks to ply his madcap trade of pratfalls, visual humor and Semitic in-jokes. And ply he does. Along with Blazing Saddles, Brooks finds his comedic stride most effectively in The Twelve Chairs. However, he also is surprisingly effective in creating a real relationship between the main characters, who, in spite of their reprehensible greed, actually evoke something resembling pathos by the end of the film.
Immediately upon learning of the chair, Vorobyaninov is joined by handsome con-man Ostap Bender (Frank Langella) who acts as the straight man throughout the movie as Dom DeLuise and Ron Moody offer a master’s class on physical comedy. DeLuise is one of the great clowns of modern film. His physical performance in The Twelve Chairs ranks as one of the best of his career. His rubbery face, loose-limbed movements, and schoolboy goofiness were never used to greater effect. Mel Brooks also offers a brief but hilarious cameo as the drunken servant Tikhon. Ultimately the film belongs to Ron Moody though. His outrage at his lowered social station is palpable and it manifests in a series of physical and verbal tics and twitches that anyone who has experienced loss can relate to. He also is a master of the lost art of the slow burn. His rage and frustration grow and increase throughout the film exploding as he repeatedly fails to get the right chair.
The Twelve Chairs succeeds wildly on this slapstick level, but there is much more to this film. The most surprising element is how effective Brooks is at creating scale and meaning. Filmed in Yugoslavia, Brooks does an admirable job of capturing the post-Revolution Russia, a country suspended between rural village life, old-world aristocratic highs, and the coming bureaucratic lows of the USSR. Brooks succeeds in conveying an epic feel to the landscape and the journey the main characters make across this huge country in search of their chairs. Every one of Brooks strengths is on full display here. The journey for treasure feels like Chaplin’s The Gold Rush while the beautiful travelogue elements are obviously influenced by (or maybe making fun of) Dr. Zhivago. Drawing those comparisons may seem far-fetched, but I’m not sure Mel Brooks’ first five or so films don’t represent the funniest body of work in the second half of the century. His combination of Marx Brothers-like chaotic action and sound filmic technique could be seen as a bridge between old and new Hollywood. There’s more to this great comedy than initially meets the eye.
-         Paul Epstein

Monday, August 19, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #238 - Guelewar Band of Banjul - Warteef Jigeen (1981)

            I often get asked why I listen to African music when I can't understand the language. It's pretty simple, really - when the music is compelling enough, the words simply don't matter. And often enough I find out that the words are also compelling when I can dig up English translations, but I don't really seek them out, because at its best the music slays all by itself. That's certainly the case here, with this album sung in the Wolof language. The band - Guelewar Band of Banjul (or just Guelewar on some records) - doesn't have a lot written about them and I know only slightly more about the group than about the words.
Bandleader Laye N'Gom started his musical career in the late 1960s, eventually finding his way in the 70s to the successful band The Alligators. After the departure of several members, the Alligators fused with the Super Eagles to become Super Alligators. By 1973, after more personnel changes, they renamed themselves Guelewar (Wolof for "noble warrior") and began infusing their sound with the Western influences of rock, funk, and soul. In 1975 they broke up, reforming a year later with yet more new members and finally released their first recordings in 1977. In 1979, two more albums followed - Warteef Jigeen was one of them - and the band continued through 1982 when they seem to have disbanded and Laye N'Gom (now known as Abdel Kabirr) went on to a solo career. It's more complicated than that too - I'm not even sure what's accurate in this data. N'Gom provides the dates I mentioned in one reissue's liner notes, but the fairly authoritative Discogs site pegs their first album as 1980 and this one as 1981, so either they got released in The Gambia and maybe also surrounding Senegal earlier (and N'gom is correct) but elsewhere later (and so Discogs could also be correct). Or N'gom's memory of things that happened almost 40 years ago is hazy. Or whoever entered the data in Discogs is just wrong. This helps point up why I don't sweat little details like understanding the language - you can never really get to the bottom of it anyway, so why worry?
So let's now talk about what we do know. The killer title cut - the shortest thing on the album at a mere 6:51 - starts off the album strong with the horn blast of two saxophones (Laye Salla and Bass Lo Fara Biram) supported by a supple bassline (Malick Njock Njie), with drums (Adama Sall Adu) and percussion (Alieu Chan N’Gom and Koto Biram N’Gom) clattering funkily in the pocket in the background to kick things off before Moussa N’Gom’s soulful vocal comes in. The saxes drop out, and the voice and rhythm section (plus some restrained guitar from Moussa Njobdi Njie) take things for a few with an occasional sax commentary. At about the four-minute mark, Laye N’Gom’s buzzy synthesizer makes its first showing in the proceedings in a fine solo and the horns return in a grand fashion, then everything comes together for the last minute to take things out. Twice again on the album they return to this kind of driving funk - on "N.T.C. The Gambia," which features fuzz guitar, more enticing synth, and a sax solo in addition to the usual unison horn lines, and "Jilanna" which follows right on the heels of "N.T.C." and makes for a killer 17+ consecutive minutes of the album.
Around this they also essay a slow groover with "Leen Te Koun," which throws heavy emphasis on the 1, just like George Clinton would have it, and provides a showcase again for Moussa N'Gom's vocals trading off with Bass Lo Fara Biram, who sets aside his sax for a bit to take the mic. There's also the 12:01 of the slow ballad "Mamadu Bitike," another feature for both vocalists that finds everyone in the band working toward the total moody effect of the music rather than flashy soloing for the first two-thirds of the song before the percussionists come in at about 8:15 and things kick into a high gear and cut loose. The record closes on " President Diawara" which though I don't speak Wolof, I have to assume is in honor of the first President of The Gambia, Dawda Jawara (Diawara in some Anglicized spellings), under whose leadership as Prime Minister The Gambia achieved independence from the British before the country created the office of President, to which he was elected. This song has the most guitar-y solos of the album from Moussa Njobdi Njie (who elsewhere mostly works in deference to the song), plus Laye’s weird synths and more solo sax - everything they the group has done throughout the album is pulled out again at the end to recap what we’ve heard.
All accounts I've read piece together a view of Guelewar as an influence on music throughout The Gambia and Senegal - their early live shows helping form the blueprint for the Senegambian music that would come to be known as mbalax, and those shows were also an acknowledged influence on the primary superstar of mbalax, Youssou N'Dour. Their recordings, hard to find for decades but this one recently reissued by the Austrian PMG label, show them to be one of the most consistent recording acts of the time, with not only Warteef Jigeen out there, but a (now out of print) compilation called Touki Ba Banjul : Acid Trip From Banjul To Dakar that cops the faster half of this album both superb, and a live album of material from 1982 released by Teranga Beat in 2011 only lesser by virtue of slightly inferior (though by no means bad) sound. Do I understand what's being sung about? No. Do I still after picking up these three releases have a clear picture of the band's history? No. Does it matter? Not a bit; not when the music speaks this clearly.
-         Patrick Brown

Monday, August 12, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #224 - All That Heaven Allows (1955, dir. Douglas Sirk)

            Douglas Sirk: “This is the dialectic—there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains an element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.”

And so it is with the series of melodramas (or more dismissively, “women’s weepies” as they were called at the time) that German emigre Sirk made in Hollywood in the 1950s, retiring after making his most financially successful film, Imitation of Life, in 1959. But 1955’s All That Heaven Allows may even be the better film. On its surface, the film tells the story of a society widow, Cary (Jane Wyman) attempting to move past the lonely mourning that has defined her life for herself, her children, and the community around her by falling in love with her Thoreau-reading, free-living young gardener Ron (Rock Hudson), and the consequent fallout with her selfish children and the gossipy community whose standards she violates by not remaining the lonely widow or remarrying with someone appropriately dignified. But working underneath this the film is relentless in its assault on that community; its ideas of making money to keep up with the joneses, its view of a woman as a possession to be walled up in the tomb of the late husband, its view that a woman must bear the responsibilities of tradition at the expense of her own happiness.
The film opens its credit sequence with a high shot of the town square and the clock in the foreground, then slowly works its way to look down the cozy streets (which we will soon learn are largely populated with malicious vipers) before coming down to ground level to introduce us to Cary and her friend Sara (Agnes Moorhead, who alone stands by her side during the drama to follow), quickly and economically setting up the relationships of Cary, her children, her status as widow, and her place outside the country club set. Cary meets her gardener, invites him for the lunch Sara has skipped out on, and a mutual attraction sparks between the two before he continues on his way to work. Cary later joins Sara for a cocktail party in the company of the deeply respectable and stultifying boring Harvey; she's clad in a scandalously low-cut red dress, which does not escape the notice of her children - or the town’s main gossip, the hilariously catty Mona (Jacqueline de Wit), whose every barbed, bitchy line throughout the film is gold.
Cary soon goes on a date with Ron to visit his friends, a group of bohemian non-conformists who could not contrast more sharply with Cary’s rigid society world, and falls in love with him. But when Cary decides to introduce her social circle to Ron, all hell breaks loose - not only is she an older woman (its implied that the age difference is greater than a decade, even though Wyman was in reality only eight years older than Hudson), but she’s disrespecting the memory of her dead husband, and the false insinuation that this affair may have even begun before he passed away is a bit of gossip too delicious for someone like Mona to pass up. But it’s Ron’s non-conformity that rankles as much as any of the above - his goal in work isn’t to make as much money as possible, he drives a beat-up, purely functional car, he lives in a restored old mill - all qualities which add to Cary’s attraction to him and his lifestyle and place her further outside the society she’s inhabited.
These conflicts with her social circle and her children pitted against her emotions and her inner life are the meat of the film, and far more serious than the light soap opera that Sirk's films were taken to be at the time. Dialogue that seems trivial - for example Cary's daughter home from school talking about the ancient Egyptian custom of “walling up the widow alive in the funeral chamber of her dead husband along with all of his other possessions, the theory being that she was a possession too so she was supposed to journey into death with him. And the community saw to it that she did. Of course that doesn’t happen any more.” is answered by a curt retort from Cary “Doesn’t it? Well, perhaps not in Egypt.” And this idea is reflected by the visual palette of the film - not just the bright colors that may seem unmotivated by the actual sets of the film but are always reflective of the emotional states of the characters, but also the framing and composition, which frequently places barriers - doors, screens, banisters - between Cary and her children or fellow townspeople to represent her mental division from them, or mirrors to open up the space and also symbolize the divide between Cary's actual self and the social image she feels the need to present. It's brilliant, layered filmmaking, as masterful in Sirk's chosen genre of melodrama (Sirk preferred the term “dramas of swollen emotions”) as Hitchcock is with his exquisitely planned suspense. He's aided in this by the great cinematographer Russell Metty, who made eight films with Sirk (and also shot Welles' Touch of Evil, Kubrick's Spartacus, Huston's The Misfits, and many more) and is here given a kaleidoscopic range of color to work with.
The story may seem simple and artificial, but the results are anything but. And it’s Sirk’s exploration of this base story - with the added element of craziness in the heated melodrama that ensues that lifts the film that could be a trashy potboiler well into the territory of art.
-         Patrick Brown

Monday, August 5, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #237 - R.E.M. - Reckoning (1984)

Very few bands have been as persistent and present in my life as R.E.M. have been. Just as my mother smothered me with “Love Me Do” in the car on the way back from my first ski lessons, we would come home to find my dad grilling steaks as Lifes Rich Pageant blared from the Luxman. In my youth, the esoteric cover art and political overtness of albums like Document and Green always felt way over my head, like I wasn’t supposed to know about or listen to it – but it was the 90’s and, thanks to “Losing My Religion,” they were inescapable. The group’s cultish second album, 1984’s Reckoning, was the first album of theirs I bought for myself, and it kick-started my own Rapid-Eyed love affair. Written and recorded immediately after the release of their classic debut, Murmur, the record bears moments of a young band fully actualizing their democratic and unified vision.
The band’s signature urgency is immediately evident as drummer Bill Berry hits rapid fire on his snare to usher in the album’s haunting opener, “Harborcoat.” Like many of the best early R.E.M. songs, “Harborcoat” has an anthemic energy, yet it remains abstract and surreal – almost pagan-like in its search for musical divinity and as primitive as the watercolor snake that adorns the album’s sleeve. As with many of the record’s upbeat numbers, Berry’s agile drumming, the fierce jangle of guitarist Peter Buck, and the angular pulsing of bassist Mike Mills drive and decorate the track. As an opaque and sepia-toned portrait of the horrors of war (and loosely based on The Diary Of Anne Frank), the song serves as an entry point into the beautiful brain and inimitable voice of singer Michael Stipe (with a full head of curly hair, no less!)
While some of his performances retain the same mumbling mysteriousness as Murmur, Stipe has clearly begun to write and sing more directly on Reckoning. This can be noted through the album’s reoccurring themes of deep loss, the Deep South, and water; qualities which are prominent on the record’s first single, “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry),” an autobiographical story where “these rivers of suggestion” force Stipe to end his triad with an otherwise heterosexual couple. He also tackles bereavement on the slow and stunningly sad “Camera,” which takes place at the funeral of another girlfriend who died in a car accident. On the fast and fierce “Pretty Persuasion,” Stipe seems to comment vaguely on capitalism in the verse before uttering one of his most visceral and suggestive choruses: “He’s got a pretty persuasion/She’s got a pretty persuasion/God damn, pure confusion.
Sonically, Reckoning has a more organic quality compared to its predecessor, yet it also contains some tactful and subtle experimentation. At the suggestion of producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, much of the album was recorded binaurally in order to faithfully capture the band’s live sound, allowing each band member to be heard clearly in an accurate stereo image. The brash drone of harmonica in the interlude of “Harborcoat” is the perfect counterpoint to Buck’s brisk guitar arpeggios. “Letter Never Sent” is perhaps the most danceable track on the album, as Berry’s four-on-the-floor drumming accents Stipe’s mumblings of catacombs and homesickness. Most interestingly, on the gorgeous “Time After Time (Annelise),” the band dips its feet into sixties-esque raga-rock and utilizes congas and bongos to give the song an exotic and earthy feel. The Americana-tinged “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,” written by Mike Mills as a plea to his girlfriend not to leave town, is one of the most straightforward entries in the band’s early catalog, with a playfulness that is accented by the southern twang in Stipe’s singing and Buck’s serendipitous piano. 
Serving as a key entry point into early alternative music, as opposed to the sleek sounds of new wave or the bubblegum excess of Madonna, Reckoning captures a band that had no idea what they were getting themselves into – no idea that they would eventually sign the largest record contract in history. It’s simply the sound of four college kids from Athens: three who were just as enamored with Wire’s arty post-punk as they were with the classic chime of the Byrds’ Rickenbackers - plus a uniquely enigmatic singer, equal parts Jack Kerouac and Patti Smith, who wrote cryptically of history, heartbreak, sexuality, enlightenment, and death. It’s a trailblazing sound that’s had a distinct influence, inspiring everyone from Kurt Cobain to Thom Yorke to Bradford Cox to create arresting guitar music that was muscular and robust, yet seeped in critical thought and emotional depth.
        Ethan Griggs

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Dick Weissman - an interview with Paul Epstein

Dick Weissman, Denver, 2000

Dick Weissman is an entirely unique mix of historian, musician, teacher and mensch. He has his curmudgeonly side, but his genuine love of music and understanding of the times he lives in permeates everything he says. His self-effacing manner belies a sharp and incisive wit, whether he is dispensing wisdom to a class full of music industry hopefuls or picking his way through a complicated banjo piece in front of a rapt audience. He is never less than completely honest and authentic. As he speaks, his manner and mind recall a different America and a different type of American. The type for whom art is an occupation not an abstract concept, and to whom civic engagement is an obligation not an antiquated joke. He is part of a tradition of American folk musician that helped define the national character at crucial times in our history. He should be heard and cherished, and he is right here in Colorado. We spoke on St. Patrick’s Day of 2019. As his thoughts unwind in lengthy reminiscences it feels like the history of modern culture is coming alive. His experiences are defining and trace the development of the now thriving music scene we enjoy in Colorado.

Visit the Colorado Music Hall of Fame for an edited version of this article and much more cool stuff at

Work Camp Stockbridge, MA, 1959
Q: Tell us about your early life and your first introduction to Colorado.
A: I grew up in Philadelphia… my parents had a commuter marriage: my mother was teaching public school in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and my Dad was a pharmacist in Philadelphia, had a little drug store; it was during the Depression and my Mother didn’t want to quit her job because she was afraid of what happens if this drug store goes under? So my big hobby was collecting travel booklets. I had all of these Western booklets. So I had a box full of this stuff and I was pestering my parents - my father took very few vacations, kind of an immigrant boy who worked 7 1/2 days a week - but, when I was 13 we went to Colorado and New Mexico - driving. This would have been in 1948. That’s where I met this sort of old railroad worker at the state capitol who wanted to talk to me - he fascinated me but frightened my parents. I talked to him for maybe 10 minutes, but it was kind of a peak experience for me at that age because everybody I knew was pretty middle class, my parents palled around mostly with medical people. So that was my first interest in Colorado.
I then went to college in Vermont, which is where I first learned how to play the banjo from a person whose name was Lil’ Blos, whose main claim to fame was her father, Peter Blos who was one of the last living associates of Sigmund Freud. I had heard Pete Seeger at the age of 13, at the Progressive Party convention, because my brother was very active in unions and politics. So Seeger kind of intrigued me and I started to buy all these old records - 78 discs. One of things about me which is different than most of the folkies was that I got equally country-ish and bluesy things. So I had Seeger and Woody but I also had Brownie McGhee and Lonnie Johnson. When 78’s were phased out, Walgreens would have 5 for a dollar and I would buy 78’s by Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie and people like that.

Q: Based on what? How did you know to go buy Big Bill Broonzy?
A: I started doing some reading and also I went to a few Seeger concerts, who was always pretty generous without doing the sort of scholarly schtick that the New Lost City Ramblers did - ‘I learned this from Blind Paul Epstein who learned this from Deaf Dick Weissman, who learned it from his dog.’ Seeger didn’t do that. He said ‘If you like the way I play this you really should really hear Pete Steele do this.' So I would try to find out who’s this Pete Steele, how do I find this out? Seeger was an evangelist that way; that was very constructive and non-egotistical because there’s nothing in this for him to turn people on to those folks.
Weissman observes a set by
Rev. Gary Davis, 1950's
My junior year (1954) at Goddard in Vermont and then The New School in New York City was probably my formative musical period where I took guitar and banjo lessons from Jerry Silverman, who was one of the Hootenanny crowd. In the fall I met The Reverend Gary Davis, who I played banjo with but I never took lessons from him. He was very influential in my understanding. He played at Tiny Ledbetter’s house on Thursday nights. Tiny was Leadbelly’s niece, who lived in the same building that Leadbelly and Martha had lived in. In the spring I had gone to the University of New Mexico and met a guy named Stuart Jamieson. He had collected banjo music from a guy named Rufus Crisp in Kentucky. Rounder later put out a CD called Black Altamont, and Stuart produced a lot of those recordings. So I met these two people, and the way they influenced me was Gary created this atmosphere around himself where you were sort of lost in this world of 1920’s evangelical Black - you know, you’re gonna go to hell if you don’t straighten out kind of thing. Yet there was a schizophrenic kind of thing where he loved to have pretty girls around him, and he’d ask them to hold his hand and do crap. He would sing blues when his wife wasn’t around. After a beer or two and a little coaxing he would do ragtime stuff. So he was one level of inspiration, and Stuart had this certainty about what he did to where the insecurities you associate with people who are struggling - he may have these insecurities, but it’s not apparent. Seeger was not one of those people. I don’t think that what he did came naturally to him. He had to work to do this, and I would, of course, say the same thing about myself. I didn’t grow up in an environment where Blues and banjo music were being played on the predecessors of Dick Clark. So it was partially through Seeger’s influence, partly through buying these records and the radio. I wasn’t a real happy adolescent, so anything that was different appealed to me.

Q: So it was cultural osmosis, sort of the natural alternative to the “grey-flannel 50’s?”
A: Yeah, exactly. So, when I was a senior at Goddard I wrote the first lengthy banjo thing that I had ever done.

Q: Which you learned to do…?
The Journeymen, Photographed
for Capitol Records
A: I made it up. I created a form, that as far as I know no one else has used. It’s called A Day In The Kentucky Mountains, and there’s three instrumental parts and a song. The song does what instrumental music does in most non-classical music - so instead of a banjo break there’s a song break. I don’t know why I did this, and I’ve continued to do it.
So I graduated, came to New York, started working on a degree in Sociology and started to get calls for sessions - there was a music store called Eddie Bell’s and all the session guys would hang out there, and none of them knew how to play 5-string banjo - they all played tenor banjo. I remember I did a session for Raymond Scott that was one of my first sessions. Raymond Scott was this crazy person who wrote experimental music but he also wrote jingles. On the session are Barry Galbraith and Al Caiola who are two of the biggest studio guitar players in New York. They were very curious about what the hell was I doing - they hadn’t really seen anyone paying fingerstyle banjo - not bluegrass banjo but sort of like old-timey music. I would start to get more of these sessions and I took all my credits at Columbia and I wanted to write a thesis on five blind black blues religious artists - Gary Davis, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell and one more. I realized that writing this would be like warfare with my advisor. I had this theory that non-literate blind people - and I was ignorant to the fact that McTell was not non-literate - he actually knew how to read and write braille, and could write music in braille; the idea was that these people who had been blind since birth or an early age were residues of the culture that existed at the time that they went blind. I ended up writing an article, but that was about it.
So that’s sort of where my Colorado thing started. I had hay fever in August for about three weeks, so I tried to get out of New York. The first time I went back to Colorado I was 23, and Dave Van Ronk who was a friend of mine in New York - by the way one of my weird sources of income was that I taught Van Ronk a song called Bamboo, and it was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary on a record that sold multi-platinum and we split the copyright, which was a joke because it was a traditional Jamaican song, but that was the game that was being played in the mid-50’s until the mid-60’s. Dave was in ASCAP and I was in BMI and you were not supposed to work together, so after the first pressing my name was taken off everything after the first pressing, but he continued to pay me my half.

Q: On an informal basis? “Hey buddy here’s some more money”
A: Yeah, and years and years later, he made it into a shoe commercial in Germany and I got an additional 10 grand over time. I still get money from it, because after Llewyn Davis (Inside Llewyn Davis) Folkways issued a Van Ronk box set and that song is on it.

Q: What did you think of Llewyn Davis?
Journeymen Publicity Photo
A:  I hated it! It presented folk singers as being just like pop singers. The story I just told you about Dave Van Ronk - that wasn’t part of Llewyn Davis. We had personal friendships and relationships - I’m not saying everybody was honorable - I’m not saying there wasn’t some level of competition, but none of that spirit is in Llewyn Davis.The other thing is that Black people are totally invisible. There is no Black person in Llewyn Davis.
So, Dave told me I could get a job at Hermosa Beach working at this club - I didn’t know anything about Los Angeles at this point - I didn’t have a car, I didn’t know how to drive. Hitchhiking back to New York I get stopped in Colorado because it is illegal to hitchhike, and the state cops escort me to the bus station. So I go to Al’s Loans on Larimer Street, and I bought three cheap guitars, go to the bus station and there’s Tom Paxton. I don’t know what he’s doing in Denver, but we were both going to New York, so he and I played for about an hour until I realized that people were trying to sleep. He would have kept playing. There was no stop sign in his vocabulary for that. So that was my first trip to Denver.

Somewhere in there I met Walt Conley who was one of the three best known folk people in the Denver area. Harry Tuft and maybe Judy Collins. A couple of years later, I had a friend who was a guitar student of mine named Art Benjamin, and I said ‘why don’t we drive out to Denver?’ The first thing I did was to look up Walt Conley who lived in a house somewhere between Capitol Hill and Five Points. His house was a 24-hour-a-day party and there were friends and girlfriends, whatever. This was ’59 and he was slightly older than I was. I only recently found out that Walt Conley was working for the F.B.I., reporting on radical folk singers. Because of the nature of Walt’s house, I met a woman named Karen Dalton, and she and I started a relationship, and my friend Art started a relationship with her sister who was 17 years old and had been married for 10 days to a folk singer named Dave Hamill. Walt was booking the Satire Lounge and I ended up as the opening act - Walt would do a set, and then The Smothers Brothers would do a set, and Dickie Smothers, who was the straight man, his wife was working as a waitress at The Satire - it was so early in their career that his wife had to work as a waitress in the club. The Satire was a pretty wild and woolly place in those days. That was great fun for me. I can’t remember what I got paid - probably 10 or 15 dollars a night, but I didn’t go out there to make money, I went to avoid hay fever.

Q: You were on stage by yourself? Did you have patter? Were you a showman?
Public High School ping pong Champs, 1950
Dick: Front row, far left
A: I had no patter. I didn’t have any show. That evolved in Los Angeles the next year.  At The Ashgrove, the opening act there was Rene Heredia who was 17 years old and on fire at that point. He was this kid who had come from Spain, and I guess he had some things to prove, and he just really impressed me. I didn’t see him again for 15 or 20 years when I moved to Denver. I went back to New York and I lived with Karen for 3 or 4 months; and in the course of that time I met John Phillips who had been part of a band called The Smoothies - I played on a session with them - and it was clear that their label Decca wasn’t interested in them as a folkie-pop thing like The Kingston Trio. John knew a guy named Scott McKenzie, who was lead singer in The Smoothies, and the three of us would form a trio. Because I was living with Karen, I suggested we try and put Karen in the group. John was a lot more worldly than I was, and he knew very well that my relationship with Karen wasn’t going to go very far. We had two of the very worst rehearsals I’ve ever had in my life - which consist of Karen arguing about vocal parts with John. John was a great vocal arranger, and his idea of fun was he’d get five people in a room and give each of them a part, and they might sing anything - it might be The Teddybear’s Picnic, it might be Tom Dooley - whatever, he was really into vocal music. I don’t know that I ever became a great showman but I learned how to tell stories on stage and that was a revelation to me.
Around this time I met a woman named Barbara Dane who was a white blues singer and sang with Dixieland bands. She had a tour of the Northwest and she offered me this tour, so I called John Phillips and said ‘are you serious about this band because I just got a chance to play Portland and Seattle.’ He started to laugh and he said he had just turned down a trip to the beach in Ibiza so that he could start a new group. I said ‘Okay John, I’ll be there.’

Q: Before we get too far, give me a couple of sentences more on Karen Dalton and the different sides of her talent and personality.
Journeymen Publicity Photo
A: Okay, when I met Karen, she used to sing a lot of mountain music, some blues, in fact I think she was doing Blues On The Ceiling by Fred Neil even then, and she sang loud, and not in a lethargic way but in an energetic way. She was never a really good performer because she had a lot of unresolved hostility. The audiences tended to bring that out in her and it got a lot worse if she decided she wanted to be drinking. Years later when I heard her first records, there was this sort of behind-the-beat, lethargic, pseudo Billie Holiday type of phrasing, which has turned into, in a small way a vogue among feminist and music historians who’ve typed her as a white Billie Holiday, which to me was a joke. I thought ‘that’s not what she sounds like.’ She was particularly noted for her wild Mountain harmonies not this (affects slowed down, overwrought vocal) “Blues on the ceiling” type thing, which to me just sounds like a junkie…which she was. It’s what she’s famous for. This French record producer and another guy in Nashville who are enamored with Karen have issued at least 5 CDs of Karen, and only one of them has what I’m talking about, which was recorded at Joe Lupe’s place, The Attic, in Boulder has a little bit of that mountain music - open your mouth wide and just let it out-kind of singing.

Q: Did you think she was a genuine talent or…
A: I think she was a talent for doing that. I think she was not a good jazz singer. This need to create Billie Holidays among Whiteys is crazy, and it also happened with Judy Roderick.
So, now I’m in New York, we (now called The Journeymen ) rehearse for six weeks, we get a deal with International Talent, who are booking The Brothers Four, Kingston Trio, The Limeliters, and later Bob Dylan, and through them we met these managers in San Francisco. MGM was willing to see us - they wanted to sign us, they didn’t think we had any hits. Ultimately we had this scene where we picked up our manager, we went to MGM. He wanted us to be guaranteed two albums a year and a five thousand dollar a year promotional budget, and one of the MGM producers looked at me and said you’ll never get a deal like that in the record business, and 10 minutes later we were singing at Capitol Records, and got that exact deal. That’s when I became interested in the music business, which really didn’t surface ‘til some years later when I started teaching. I filed that in the back of my mind that this business is not what people say that it is. Somebody can say no and what they really mean is, "I’d rather not."
So, we got the deal with Capitol and we toured for 3 ½ years - we never played in Colorado but I would come here periodically because my friend Harry Tuft had moved here and opened The Denver Folklore Center in ’62. At one point Scott McKenzie, our lead singer, got nodes in his throat and we were out of work for six weeks. I just came to Colorado and Harry and I did a week at Crested Butte. So I went from the three of us making $1,500 a night to playing in Crested Butte to Harry and I each got a room and a hundred dollars, and I went from playing to 2-3 thousand people to 20-30 people.
Scott rehabbed, we got back together and our price went up to $1,750 a night.

Q: And the biggest record sold?
Harry Tuft at the Folklore Center
Denver, 1960's
A: Maybe 15,000. We never got any royalties from Capitol at that point. We never recouped the original advance. Later Bonnie Raitt got Capitol to tear up all their contracts before 1970, and so Capitol reissued all of our stuff in their Legacy Series, all three of our albums and some of our singles on the CDs. I probably ended up making $5,000 dollars from these, in fact I got a check last month for $60 because it still gets streamed.
Scott and I decided to leave at the end of ’64 and I go back to New York - playing on sessions, writing songs and then producing records. I did some sessions with Gram Parsons. Gram Parsons was a fanatical Journeymen fan. He and his band used to follow us around. Gram recorded a couple of my songs. I also did a solo album for Capitol 3 or 4 months before we broke up because they were looking for a “Dylan,” and I was the only one that, even mildly in their mind, could do a Dylan thing. I thought it ridiculous because I really was not doing protest songs and at that point that’s all that Dylan was doing. I had written one song called Lullabye For Medger Evers that later Judy Collins recorded. So I did that on the album and four others that I wrote and Gram recorded the one about mining called They Still Go Down.
In ’68 and ’69 I worked as a producer and there’s a big Colorado connection there because I had maintained my friendship with Harry Tuft and he sent me a tape of a band called Frummox and I ended up producing them in New York. Those were really, really kinda cool sessions. I had hired Eric Weissberg to play some fiddle and mandolin and pedal steel, and at the end of the sessions he came to me, and he said, ‘every 5 years I do something I like and this was it for the next few years.’ They were really good. Everything kind of clicked. Harry also sent me a tape of a band called Zephyr. I didn’t produce them but I did go to see them, and I took the tape to my boss and we all thought I wasn’t the guy to do it.

Q: Did you recognize in Tommy Bolin anything?
A: No. I thought they were a sellable white, psychedelic blues thing, and I wasn’t a huge fan of that music, but Harry and , in effect, I were partially responsible for them getting a record deal. But in ’69 the entire label group I was working for (ABC/Dunhill) was fired. I was still playing on sessions, and more and more of them were jingles. I was studying jazz guitar pretty seriously with Barry Galbraith who was the studio guitarist I admired the most. He was number one and maybe Bucky Pizzarelli was number two. I wasn’t playing the banjo very much and began to question why am I even doing this?

Dick & His Instruments,
Q: So at this point the world of “pop stardom” exists. It is clear. The Beatles and Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan exist. How did you avoid the pitfalls of that lifestyle that both John Phillips and Scott McKenzie suffered?
A: John was in effect my mentor. I saw him destroy himself over a period of years. When I first met him he was drinking too much and taking uppers and it wasn’t real pleasant to be around him. Scott didn’t have a particular vice - whatever he did, he would overdo. It seemed to me like childishness. I started growing up. I got married in ’65 and it never quite made sense to me, that whole business of having to lie to people all the time making everybody unhappy all the time. We stayed in touch after The Mamas And Papas got big, and this must’ve been in ’66 or ’67 and he invited me to a concert at Forest Hills. He forgot to put me on the guest list and it was 10 dollars so I left. I did go to the party at the St. Regis Hotel afterwards. So I got to the party and there’s a table and on the table there’s coke, hash, pills, and another table with vodka, gin, whatever you want. He looks at me and says ‘I’m the perfect host what would you like?’ So I said ‘how about a beer.’ As I’m saying this their road manager was stoned out of his brains on acid and walking on the ledge of the 6th floor balcony. I’m thinking I don’t really want to witness this. So I had a beer and quickly left. I just didn’t see the point in all this.
By the late 60’s I still had my hay fever and came out to Colorado to vacation with my wife. While I’m here I get a call to do a Texaco commercial. I’ve had jingles that end up paying 2 or 3 grand for an hour’s work, cause you don’t know how it’s gonna be used when you’re recording it. So I really couldn’t not do it, plus the fact that if you turn down people very much they stop calling you. I had told Harry, ‘I’m gonna come here.' He said, ‘You’ll never come here, you’ll always get these calls from people, and you’ll end up doing this shit - whatever it is.’ By ’72 I was becoming unhappy enough with the music thing that it was also penetrating a lot of aspects of my work and my life. I came out here. The summer before I had seen a brochure from UCD that they were starting a music business program. David Baskerville was the guy who started all this. I went down and talked to him, and they liked the idea of someone going to school there who had actually had a lot of experience in the industry, so I came out here and enrolled at UCD.
Harry Tuft at Dick's Wedding, 1989
The first thing that happened when I moved here was I started to play the banjo again, which was just bizarre. It wasn’t really a conscious choice.

Q: You immediately got into a music scene in Denver, such as it was, through Harry?
A: Through Harry.

Q: What was the music scene in Denver like then?
A: Well The Folklore Center was the center of stuff. Walt was still sorta in and out, but his preeminence had kind of eroded and he had gotten involved with various clubs where he…somehow he got involved with an Irish pub or something. Harry had a string of people work for him; Kim King who was in Lothar & The Hand People, Mike Kropp, who was a banjo player and ended up in a bluegrass band in New England, Paul Hofstadter a luthier who was a renowned builder, restorer and player of folkie instruments. Those guys had gone by the time I got here, but Harry had a little music school and I taught there about 20 hours a week, going to school, and trying to be a family person. When I stopped teaching lessons there, I pretty much stopped teaching music, except for a very short period at Swallow Hill. I was in a band called The Main Event which was a mediocre lounge group that played Pueblo, Casper, Cheyenne…mostly conventions, I played electric guitar and banjo - did all the Doobie Brothers stuff - whatever was popular at the time-Waylon-some country, some rock, which was basically a paycheck for me, I didn’t enjoy it.
Then I got involved in writing film scores. I wrote 2 feature film scores, I wrote about 5 documentary film scores and I did a TV show for Channel Six (RMPBS). Harry was sort of the executive producer on all this stuff, but I wrote all the music. The main film was called The Edge. It was done by Roger Brown who did Downhill Racer and Barry Corbett who was a film editor who was an Olympic skier who had crashed into a mountain while filming and was paraplegic, and he had a film editing facility on Lookout Mountain. The documentaries were all done with a guy named Dick Alweiss.  I did a number of things for John Deere Tractors - they’d do these little film shows where they’d introduce the new line and you’d come up from Oregon or Missouri in you car, and while we’re trying to convince you to buy a 40 grand tractor we give you some beer, a few pretzels and show you a couple of short films. So these were 3-5 minute films and they were fun to do. So from ’74 to ’80 I was doing that stuff. I was teaching at Colorado Women’s College starting in’75 while still going to school at UCD in music business. Tom McCluskey was the guy who was the head of the department and was the music critic for the Rocky Mountain News, before Justin Mitchell. In ’81 they went out of business.
In the mean time I had met Wesley Westbrooks, who was a Black guy who originally was from Arkadelphia, Arkansas. When he was 10 years old he was driving a wagon delivering milk and ice cream and the guy who owned the store, his daughter ran a retail outlet and people in the town saw Wesley, who was Black, talking to her and she gave him an ice cream cone without charging him. They came to his father’s house that night and said ‘you need to get your kid outta here tonight or he’s gonna get killed…’ He moved to Denver, and he got a job working for United Airlines cleaning airplanes, and he wrote about 4 songs that The Staple Singers recorded, none of which he’s credited with. The most famous one is He Don’t Knock which was recorded by The Kingston Trio. He also did a song called Hear My Song Here which Pentangle recorded in a really nice version. I wrote a grant to The National Endowment For The Humanities to write a biography of him. It’s the only book I have ever written that I couldn’t sell. I got the grant. I spent a year. It was a wonderful experience. I wrote up the whole thing - this was the Reagan years and I still have the manuscript, it’s called A Good Time In Hard Times. I learned a lot of stuff but I couldn’t sell the book.
Dick & Gary Keiski, Astoria, Oregon
Early 2000's
I had written a book called The Folk Music Source Book in ’76. That book came about accidently, where Harry knew somebody who was a writer and she had been at Knopf which was one of the most prestigious publishing companies, and she started talking about - Harry had a written a catalog - The Denver Folklore Company Almanac - or whatever. Knopf said they’d be very interested in talking to this guy. So she came back and talked to him and Harry being Harry he did nothing. So one day I said ‘Look, you’re a moron - here’s one of the best publishers in the whole goddamned world, and they’re asking you to write this book. What can I do to help you to do this?’ He said ‘why don’t you do it? You know how to write, you know how to do this stuff.’ At that point I hadn’t written any books, but I’d written instruction books for banjo and guitar - a lot of them. The book was reviewed everywhere. It was reviewed in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The L.A. Times. Basically, that’s how I got into the book writing game. That book won the ASCAP Music Critics Award.

Q: That’s about the time I started to know who you were because you really started to get a name in Denver as an academic.
A:  I had worked for 14 months at The Grammys as their educational director. That was pretty horrible. I thought I would be some kind of huge hick there. It turned out everybody there was a huge Streisand or Neil Diamond fan and that I was like a left-wing hippie. In the middle of that I taught at Colorado Mountain College - they had a songwriting workshop for 10 years. In Breckenridge - it was great! You got a condo. I brought Steven Fromholz from Frummox in. I was doing the musician juggling act; I was writing instruction books, I was writing books, for a couple of years I taught at Swallow Hill, I did gigs with The Main Event, and I did what gigs that I could get. I ended up playing at Winnipeg 3 times which was great. And I taught at Colorado Institute Of Art for a year.
 I started teaching at UCD in 1990. While I was there, there was a union called the Oil, Coke, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union and I ended up doing music for two of their conventions, a CD and some of the music led to a play about Karen Silkwood, and I did music for a play by a professor named Larry Bograd who was then at Metro about The Ludlow Massacre. So that was all going on. At UCD I taught music business mostly and I created a lot of classes, like my favorite was Social And Political Implications Of Music. A lot of the stuff I taught about - contracts and stuff after 12 years of it - it wasn’t that interesting to me honestly. Ultimately, I was head of the department for 2 years and the turf wars and the politics just drove me crazy. During this time, for some reason, I got good at writing grants, and I brought Peggy Seeger here with a grant, I brought Len Chandler, who was a Black protest singer who was arrested like 50 times. I brought a Native American guy Vince Two Eagles from Montana, and there was no King Center, no performance space, so they were mostly playing in classrooms. I got a grant and we set up a label - CAM Records. The last thing I did at UCD was a class on Advanced Record Production. I brought three kids in from Jamaica - I had taught at a Jamaican governmental trade show and then at two songwriting bootcamps while I was at UCD. So we selected three writers, they came here, the orchestra was a combination of UCD students and faculty, and the producers were students. It’s a good experience for people.

In 2003 Dick moved to Oregon, where he stayed until 2012 when he returned to Denver.
Q: You were happy to come back here and…it’s different from the place it was one you first came here.
Dick, OME Banjo Co.
Boulder, Mid-2000's
A: The congestion and traffic are troublesome. There have been a lot of generational changes that I don’t especially appreciate. There’s no point in getting upset about it because that is the world. That’s not Denver, that’s everywhere. There are other changes that are not Denver like the demise of the recording medium. I’m very into albums. When I do an album it’s not 12 songs, there’s some relation between the songs, and I’m not really interested in having people pop off one tune in a four-part suite, when in fact, it makes no sense. It would be like taking a Hemingway novel, and you’ve read the first quarter and you just throw it away, because ‘well I read the first quarter, what more do I need?’ That’s the way kids consume music.

Q: That’s exactly where I wanted to come back to, because we talked early on how you discovered music, that process, how there seems to be something of value in that archeological process or the organic process that you did of buying the 78s and going to see Pete Seeger, listening to what he said. It seems that the way people gather information and art now has fundamentally changed the role of art.
A: I think it’s changed the role of art, and also another thing that happened is as a musician at the age of 22, I could work at Folk City for a week or two weeks. Where do you work in Denver for a week? Nowhere. You work one day. There’s no money, and worse than that, there’s no development. I was at The Ashgrove for 3 weeks. During that time I basically learned some performance skills. If I had been there one night what would I have learned?
Right now I’m doing a paper on the musicians' union which I’m presenting next week in Nashville at The Music Business Educators Conference. Go to Nathaniel Rateliff who is a pretty big success. Somebody like that in 2019 - let’s make him 22 - let’s say the young Nate is here now and he’s making his own records, he’s booking his gigs, he’s managing his career - what does he need the union for? So, the union has not been able to…what can they do for him? There are things they could actually do. Suppose they bought a new building and make it into rehearsal studios and if you’re a member of the union, the rent is 20 dollars an hour. That would save him a lot of money. But it’s not available to you if you’re not a member of the union. For the hip-hip people you have classes on - this is what ASCAP does, this is what BMI does, this is what SESAC does. Nobody’s ever done that. The union has no contact with managers. Managers run the game now. Managers often confiscate, or own, depending on your degree of cynicism, half or all of the acts’ publishing. He’s making more money, and then he probably turns ‘round and commissions our songwriting money. Kids don’t know that. The Fray went to UCD, two of them in music business, but they had to sue to get out of their management contract. What if the union actually negotiated with managers? There are things they could do.

Q: So is there a bit of positive that you can see in the modern landscape to give hope?
A: There are a couple of dozen musicians around like Bill Frisell, like Ron Miles, and there’s a niche for these people that are doing something new. The challenge is to create, whether it’s radio, whether it’s streaming, whether it’s the union sponsoring some concerts of music for music’s sake, and I think the university has abrogated its role in that regard. OK let them teach tech and music business, but what about music? So how do we make that bridge? The musicians are out there. There is good stuff around.

Q: How do you find young musicians that you like specifically and do you have hope for this next generation? Or will it keep going at all? If there’s no skin in the game because the internet has accelerated everything so much that nobody actually has to learn anything, what is the incentive to become a great musician?
A: With the explosion of Dylan and The Beatles, we had this explosion of a generation that grew up thinking ‘I could do this, I could make 2-3 million dollars a year, own 2 or 3 houses, have 4 cars, go through multiple wives, multiple drugs' - whatever. Maybe what we’re coming down to is a world where we’re going back to the musician in the loft in a way. The people who are going to do significant work are just going to say, ‘I don’t buy into this, and anyway I can’t win this game. What I’m going to do is what I always wanted to do which is to do music.’ I think the music is there, the question is, how do we create the mechanism for the music to be heard?

Trying to understand Dick Weissman as just a musician, teacher, author, philosopher or historian is simply inadequate. Dick is an incredibly rare bird in the world of music. He is an adult. Someone who made his way in the music business by exploring, mastering and then being the smartest guy in the room about nearly any facet of his chosen field. He did what he wanted at the same time he was doing what he had to do to keep home and hearth together. In a world of tarnished myths and rampant bullshit artists, Dick Weissman is a breath of fresh air.
-         Paul Epstein