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here was a yearning in Eric’s voice, a sense of becoming, like he was beckoning you down some leaf-strewn path to some spider-webbed, candle-lit cabin in the woods, “behind the darkest night,” where there was sure to be a jug of bur- gundy, an old book of poetry and a pipe full of dreams waiting for you. His voice revealed a broken-hearted crack. Beyond that gentle smile was a pair of troubled dark eyes. There was sense of loneliness to Andersen’s music. Not the “feel sorry for me/take me home with you” routine that many folksingers worked on the more vul- nerable of their crowd, nor the self-con- scious oddball inability to fit in that so many rockers have proudly worn as a badge of rebellion and individuality, but more akin to the self-exile of scholars, painters and poets. It always seemed like Andersen’s solitude was more by choice. Yet as he sang in the gentle, rolling Is It Really Love At All, he innately knew that if you’re going to survive in this world, “you gotta be your own best friend.”


T


The pastoral hymns from his 1972 milestone album Blue River captured a similar mood as Robbie Robertson’s sepia- toned portraits of a vanishing America. Eric would later join forces with The Band’s bassist/lonesome vocalist, Rick Danko, and the Norwegian singer/songwriter Jonas Fjeld to cut three albums and tour throughout the nineties.


Speaking of Americana, on January 6, 1971, Eric appeared on The Johnny Cash Show singing a new song, as The Man In Black pointed out, written especially for the occasion, called Born Again. Looking particularly well-groomed, lightly strum- ming his Gibson Hummingbird, with a dis- tant look in his eyes, as members of the Carter Family stood before a stained-glass church window, harmonising effortlessly behind, Andersen slyly slipped lyrics of brotherhood and “fighting men who gave up their lives” over a bouncy country beat that had a distinct Christian ring to it. He might have been, as Johnny said, “One of those people you hardly get to see on tele- vision,” but Eric managed to get his mes- sage across on primetime television while maintaining his cred.


Whether recording in Nashville or


holed up in Woodstock (between 1975 and 1983), Andersen never lost the New York poetic edge that kept him in the same com- pany as Lou Reed, Patti Smith and Andy Warhol, (whose 1965 movie Space featured an Andersen song). But in recent years Eric has taken to slumming with dead literary luminaries like Albert Camus, Lord George Gordon Byron and the German Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Heinrich Böll.


It was a chilly grey LA afternoon in April when I drove out to the Marina Del Rey home/studio of Eric’s ex-wife and for- mer musical collaborator, Debbie Green (the legendary Boston folk singer who taught Joan Baez her original repertoire, showed Eric Clapton to fingerpick and played bass, keys and sang on some of Andersen’s best albums). Debbie passed away last December. Her husband/produc- er/self-described “string plunker” George Madaraz answered the door and led me


out back to where Andersen sat under the electric pink bougainvillea, enjoying a cigar.


There was plenty to talk about. In the last few years Eric, who turned seventy- five last Valentines’ Day, has released a tsunami of recordings that include a two- disc, 42-track life-time overview collection entitled The Essential Eric Andersen.


“I worked on The Essential project with John Jackson [Sony/Legacy Records] who also plays guitar, mandolin and violin with the Jayhawks. Most artists can’t be bothered to get involved in these kinds of collections. They just usually let the record company pick the material, but I had to do it, even though it took over a year to fin- ish. I was the only one who could fill in the missing links. There was forty-five years of music to go through, in all different for- mats. The chronology of this album is unusual as it’s based on when the song was recorded, not when it was written, which is normal for these projects. The sequence really made the record a fresh listening experience, as there are a lot of songs, particularly on the first disc, that no one’s ever heard before.”


Waves Of Freedom is one of those new/unheard stand-out tracks, along with fine live readings of his classics, Thirsty Boots and Violets Of Dawn, that help to cement Eric’s seminal role in the ‘Folk Boom.’ The album’s last track, Plains Of Nebrasky-O, features a high-spirited duet with Phil Ochs.


“I was never a folk singer,” Eric coun- ters, somewhat mystified by his connec- tion to the genre. “I didn’t know any of those songs that folk singers sang. I got into this as a writer, who was lucky enough to have the musical ability to shape my words into songs.” Although he would perform in folk clubs in New York and Boston and sign with Vanguard Records, home to Joan Baez and one of the preemi- nent folk labels of the day, Andersen did- n’t connect with the Folk Movement.


Modelling that bougainvillea


Eliot’s The Waste Land and Allen Gins- berg’s Howl as greatly inspiring, as well as Walt Whitman. Eric recalled first meeting Leonard Cohen sitting beside a Hollywood hotel swimming pool: “I had read his poems – The Spice Box Of Earth and [novel] Beautiful Losers. He told me that Violets Of Dawn inspired him write songs. But y’know, all poets are great liars,” he grinned. “But then, most folk musicians are thieves! Why do you think they call it ‘the folk process?”


R


While Eric’s lyrics border on visionary, his perspective is surprisingly down to earth: “My songwriting is closer to making documentaries. You’ve got to respond to what’s around you.”


Picking up on what was around him


led the ever-curious song-poet to re-read a slender volume of Albert Camus which inspired him to take on the daunting task of “internalising Camus’ work, to make something new out of it,” he explained.


Beyond transforming the famous French philosopher/author’s ideas into lyrics and music, Andersen suddenly found himself taking part in a three-week festi- val of concerts, dramatic readings, films, and panel discussions entitled Camus: A Stranger In The City. This coincided with the 70th anniversary of the writer’s visit to New York, where he delivered an historic speech at Columbia University in 1946, one year after World War II ended. Andersen rolled his dark eyes and laughed, “If I had any idea what I was getting into…”


Andersen’s jam with Camus, Birth Of A Stranger: Shadows And Light Of Albert Camus is a marriage made in, well, per- haps in the coolest corner of purgatory. With echoes of Curtis Mayfield-laced gospel, he beckons us, “People get ready,” not for that train to glory but to warn you that “the plague has finally come.” Yet somehow, there is redemption in the dark- ness… Right? “He lets you see through the crack in the door,” Eric offered.


Andersen’s edgy recitation over multi- instrumentalist Robert Aaron’s haunting sonic soundscape makes Confessions Of A Judge Penitent (Song of Deception) a par- ticularly powerful track.


In recent years dozens of singer/song- writers, rockers and producers have all paid tribute to their favourite literary giants, from Kip Hanrahan’s Conjure albums which framed the poet/novelist Ishmael Reed’s oeuvre with some fine blues and jazz, to Hal Willner’s Poe project, Closed On Account Of Rabies (which followed a trio of recordings he made with Allen Gins- berg, William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso) to the Incredible String Band’s Robin Williamson, who reworked Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas and William Blake, and Lou Reed, who reinterpreted The Raven by Poe. It’s not an easy process and not always suc- cessful, as much of these writers’ work was never originally conceived to be sung, let alone played on instruments they never heard in their lifetime.


eflecting on his days in San Francisco in the early sixties, he said he felt somewhere “in the crack between the beats and the hippies.” Eric cited T.S.


Photo: John Kruth


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