Oregon Music News: Oregon’s all-genre music magazine since 2009

04/09/2018

Eric Andersen on The Yankees, Songwriting, Good Wine, and Life at 75

Q&A with singer songwriter, Eric Anderson about the release of his new Sony/Legacy Recordings and Real Gone Music 2-CD set titled, “The Essential Eric Andersen,” his upcoming Grammy Museum performance and a Portland concert at the Old Church.

by Lisa Helfer

Eric Anderson told me a story about how in 1967, he was sitting in Hollywood at the Landmark Hotel with his pants rolled up and legs dangling in a swimming pool. No one else was around. A man came up next to him, rolled his pants up too, sat down and also put his legs in the water. He thanked Eric for his song “Violets of Dawn,” because he said it convinced him that he could write songs for himself; put words to music and not just write poetry. The man introduced himself as Leonard Cohen and said he was from Canada. “And that’s how I first met Leonard in LA.”

This vivid recollection is representative of Eric’s illustrious career, because his work has been revered for 50 years. Coveted and covered by many world-renowned musicians, he is the author of such classic songs as “Thirsty Boots,” “Violets of Dawn,” “Close the Door Lightly When You Go,” and “Is It Really Love at All.” One of the greatest singer-songwriters to emerge from the fabled Greenwich Village folk scene of the ‘60s, he has worked with Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Dave Van Ronk, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton (who discovered him), Patti Smith, Allen Ginsburg, and the beat goes on...

Born on Valentine’s Day, Andersen just celebrated his 75th birthday. On March 30, 2018, Sony/Legacy Recordings and Real Gone Music released a 2-CD set titled, “The Essential Eric Andersen.” The album was recorded between 1964–2006 and features guest artists Joan Baez, David Bromberg, Rick Danko, Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, Leon Russell, and Richard Thompson. In conjunction with the release of his new project, on May 3, 2018, the GRAMMY Museum will welcome Andersen to the Clive Davis Theater for an intimate conversation and performance spotlighting his five-decade-long career, hosted by the Museum’s Executive Director, Scott Goldman. 

Andersen also has a documentary coming out about his life this year called “Song Poet” (produced by Paul Lamont and Scott Sackett, directed by Paul Lamont). He will tour coast-to-coast this spring.

We had a very rich conversation about life, the New York state of mind, and his upcoming developments.

You just celebrated 75 with the Sony/Legacy Recordings release of the “The Essential Eric Andersen.” How do you feel about the release and this momentous birthday?

It’s a nice little birthday present to have fifty years of work being presented to the public, it’s a nice achievement that people recognize that my music is valuable. (Eric pauses the interview due to café noise) ‘Ah, these noisy NYC restaurants, Ladies and Gentleman…we are in a NYC restaurant on the lower West Side. I’d like a cappuccino please.’

I lived in NYC for many years and went to school there, I miss it all the time.

I totally get that, I’m from New York, when I’m in Europe or traveling and I go to sleep at night, I start dreaming about how the Yankees did and it’s like January and the Yankees aren’t playing, but your last thought is ‘how did the Yankees do today.’ You are smitten and stricken and you’ve been invaded by an alien called Manhattan and you can’t take it out of you. You can leave, but it never leaves you. And Brooklyn and the Bronx, all of the surrounding areas…it’s really the sea of humanity in constant flow. 

Yes, for sure, it is an incredible place! So, about this release and tour...

I’m very happy about the release and we are doing a tour behind it. We’ll be up in your neck of the woods in Portland on May 11 at The Old Church. Which is nice, I haven’t been in Oregon for a long time and it’s a lovely place. You know what I did though, I saw “The Killing” on Netflix and it was filmed in Portland. I know every restaurant, hotel, and gas station in Portland…and I know where they put the bodies under the bridge!

Portland has a very noir feeling to it for sure. Of all the places I’ve lived, even with it being a metropolitan city going through lots of changes, there are elements of old beatnik 50s and 60s too—it sometimes reminds me of Denver in that way.

Ah, it’s like under a beatnik bell jar, that’s very interesting. You know we were talking about the boroughs before, Staten Island is like that, I lived there and talk about Kerouac, it was really like it was under a bell jar, you felt like you were a ghost walking around the land of the 50s era. Brussels is like that for me too, when I’m there, it’s like how Europe was before the war. The cafes, the wood, the smells. A few places have still retained that atmosphere. They are redolent with these incredible feelings from the past, these emanations from the past and they just don’t go away, but it is rare today. I can go to Europe or Moscow, or Portland, or Mexico and everyone is wearing Nikes, and reading the same books, and wearing the same stuff.

Things are certainly homogenized these days for sure.

Yes, homogeneity, absolutely. I remember going down to Mexico in the 1970s down to Taxco, a little silver mining town, which is between Mexico City and Acapulco. The hotel owner was American and married to a Mexican woman, as we are talking about everything becoming the same, he said he was uptight in the 30s and 40s about this. He said you look at the billboards and all the towns are starting to look the same and this was when America still had some differences.

Yes, I think technology has accomplished this for better for worse. There is a connectivity, but also it makes things bland.

It does make things easier and you get this sense of familiarity for sure, but what you are lacking is what you were talking about how parts of Portland retain these special elements. It’s one of the great things about being alive that these things still exist. We are derailing off the interview, but this is fun.  

Yes, ok, back to it…so, you were born in Pittsburgh…

Yes, and then I grew up in Western New York. I came to New York and then came back. I went to college to study pre-med and I loved it very much. I went to work in a cancer research facility. I didn’t want to be a medical doctor though, I wanted to be a researcher. I was there in the 60s, in Roswell and Buffalo. I was there when they took the cigarettes out of the cafeteria and lounges. But then, ‘it’ caught ahold of me…the music, the movies, the books…and then I flew off the rails. I told my parents, “yah, I’m still going to go back to college, Dad.” They were very supportive, though and that’s how I do what I do. The music and the writing, I love it. It beats work. When I left school, I made an album. Tom Paxton the found me and so I came to New York and stayed at his place. The album didn’t come out for a year, so I hung out in the streets. Got to see Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Lightnin' Hopkins, and John Lee Hooker play—they were playing gigs six nights a week.

How did you go from this pre-med life to music? I understand you were influenced by your artistic parents and heavily influenced by the beats and literature. Why songwriting?

I was in pre-med school and also studying Russian Literature in the Finger Lakes area, I was really into reading, but always had harmony groups in college. I had many musician friends and we started riding freight trains around Lake Seneca where I was, we didn’t know where we would end up or get killed. We were chased by cops and into trouble. I got thrown out of college and went to meet the beats in San Francisco and that’s how it all started. I met Allen Ginsburg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, David Meltzer, and Michel McClure. I was playing in North Beach at a coffee shop, and actually, me and Janis Joplin were also playing gigs at a bar. The actor, Howard Hesseman was the bartender, believe or not. We were all just starting out. Howard let me in to play, because I was too young at the time.  I was also playing blues with the nephew of Sonny Terry.

Then, I came to New York and got into the singer songwriter scene. Phil Ochs took me around and then I met Bob Dylan. Dave Von Ronk and Buffy Saint Marie were there, so many incredible people. It was also a scary time though, like a tectonic land mass plates colliding. The Vietnam war was happening, the Civil Rights Movement, the sexual liberation, and feminism. This was a clash of cultures and people were getting thrown in jail a lot.

It’s funny talking to you from here, my best friend, Lou Reed, used to live around the corner from this restaurant. They say New York back in the day was like Paris in the 20s, but I can tell you something, the wine was much better in Paris. And...it was much better than the stuff they were serving in the Kettle of Fish. I do a duet with Lou Reed on the new album and being here in this neighborhood makes me really miss him.  

So, literature, propelled you and it’s a thread through everything you do.

Yes, yes, and I get everything. I get the "New York Review of Books","Granta Magazine", "Times Literary Supplement", I’m a masochist. I get the NY Times delivered to my house. If you get anything, get the "New York Review of Books"—they cover so much from Roman Empire, to concentration camps, to the punk scene in New York—it’s a living history and it’s cheap.

How do you think your creative vision sets you apart from other singer songwriters? How do you describe your work?

That’s a tough question, because I was one of the original singer songwriters in America. People say, “once there were seven songwriters writing about seven million things, and now there are seven million songwriters writing about seven things.” Tom Paxton who is my mentor is a craftsman, a draftsman. He would sit down at a table and write these highly crafted, highly architected songs. My thing is, I’m like on a kayak on the Amazon River, I describe what I feel on the banks, and I don’t care where I’m going and don’t care where I end up. I have also written songs for the family of Albert Camus—it was a centennial project. Other projects are for the works of Lord Byron and Garcia Lorca, I’d like these to be in the Smithsonian.

I’m currently writing a novella and new songs. One song is about a map of a woman’s heart. They have a map for everything, mars, the moon, the oceans, the Sahara Desert, Himalayas, but there isn’t a map for a woman’s heart is there?  

Nope, I can imagine that would be tough, maybe it’s more like an almanac.

Yes, ha! It is actually probably more like an encyclopedia with a name no one could spell.

Who have you most enjoyed working with creatively? You have worked with so many people. Who are the favorites?

I liked working with Lou Reed, Townes Van Zandt—we did four songs together, Joni Mitchell and I tried to write a couple of songs together, we almost did, but we played together – she’s the Godmother of my daughter who is also a musician.

What have been your favorite performances and why?

Lightnin' Hopkins, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Big Charles, Miles Davis, and the Beatles—we had the same manager, Brian Epstein for a bit. I went to some of their sessions in London. I saw the Rolling Stones at 14th St. Academy of Music (later the Palladium). It was their first gig in the States and some girl stole Charlie Watts’ snare drum. Charlie didn’t miss a beat. The girl ran back, went under a chair and threw up all over herself. A nurse came over and the police, it was nuts.

Who else, hmmm, RL Burnside was great, Tony Joe White, Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, the Everly Brothers. I wish I could have seen Hank Williams, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Charles Brown, Louis Jordan, Maria Callas, and Tupac—man, he was a brilliant writer, a genius, and I love the musical soundscapes behind his raps.

Favorite songs?:

“At Last” Etta James

“Snown’ on Raton” Townes Van Zandt

“Everything” by Hank Willians

“My Funny Valentine” Ella Fitzgerald

“Dirty Boulevard” Lou Reed

“Famous Blue Raincoat” Leonard Cohen

 “John Brown” Bob Dylan

“Luke the Drifter” Hank Williams, actually everything by Hank Williams…it’s endless!!!

How has your music and writing changed over the years? Why didn’t you just become a poet or a writer or an artist? Why did music draw you in?

I find writing almost an act of unconsciousness – like a trance and you are just taking stenography, it’s passing through you and you are just writing it down—that’s how I work. That has remained consistent throughout my career. It’s the journey I care about, not the destination. I think with any artist though, you want to make the invisible, visible. By the way, my favorite color is pomegranate red, not midnight blue, that’s the color of freshly oxygenated blood—arterial blood. You were going to ask me, right?

Ha! The pomegranate is a very powerful symbol. I appreciate the detail.

Yes, a little of that and arterial blood. 

Want to hear a joke?

Sure!

Townes Van Zandt once told me this joke and I love it:

There’s a guy driving down the highway with a penguin in the back seat.

A cop pulls them over and says:

“You can’t drive on the highway with a penguin in the back seat. Take it to the zoo.”

“The man says, yes, officer, I’d be happy to do that.” 

Next day, the guy is getting back on the freeway and the penguin is in the backseat again, but this time he’s wearing shades.

The officer says, “I told you to take him to the beach.”

The man says, “I did that, officer, and today we are going to the beach.”

 

Eric Andersen will play Portland on May 11, 2018 at
The Old Church: 1422 SW 11th Ave Portland, OR

Grammy Museum Performance Information

Eric Anderson on the Web

Eric Anderson Tour Dates

Song Poet Documentary

Purchase the Eric Andersen Essential Box Set

 

Post a comment:

Your Name:

Your Email Address:

Comment:

2000 characters remaining

Captcha:

Web Design & Web Development by LVSYS