“Hiring folksingers does nothing but encourage them. It’s like letting cockroaches into your house.” –John Sandford, Moral Prey.
“Even if she turned out to be a folksinger, he was going to screw her.” —Kingsley Amis, I Want it Now.
Well, I’m back. (I was so mortified at having confused John Prine with JJ Cale that I wasn’t going to write any more. But I got over it.)
So, the Golden Bear, then. I played in all of the south coast beach towns, but some of those gigs were unmemorable and many of them featured only a single act—me. I think the dynamic was better in the larger clubs; more quality of Show and less of the folksinger having stumbled by accident into a room full of beer-drinking surfers.
Certainly it was dynamic when ERIC BURDON was the headliner at the Bear. This was The Eric Burdon Band, not the Animals. The band was small and Eric was the extreme feature of it. I had never, at that time, seen an entertainer pour so much into a performance, although I was reminded of back when I was a teenager and peeked through the door-window of the hungry i to see Josh White doing a very intense solo act. I was unaccustomed to musicians bathed in sweat, which seems odd considering that my future would hold nothing but sweat-bathed musicians from that time till the present.
I was sick. Come to think of it, I was sick when I played the same club with Elvin Bishop; I remember Elvin earnestly recommending a recipe for some kind of guaranteed flu cure his whole band swore by. If I could remember what it was, I would tell you. Come to think of it, I was sick for an awful lot of gigs. I found the pressure almost unendurable; for a showboat, I am amazingly timid and often wish I could just go home and curl up with a volume of Anthony Trollope.
My sickness this time was that I had no voice, only a croak. But there is something about Huntington Beach, and all those surfers. It was a young audience, extremely unjudgmental and extremely ‘guy.’ I was thirtyish, which in my case was very young also. And I had this dress. Crocheted out of white package twine, it was barely long enough to cover whatever needed covered. Oh yes, and I was barefooted, and tan, and long-haired, and mildly stoned.
My set only really had to be three songs, once Nick, the owner, realized I couldn’t sing. So I played all the blues guitar I could—never my strong point—and talked and croaked my way through Leadbelly’s ‘How Long Blues’ and ‘I got the Key to the Highway’ and ‘Trouble in Mind’ and one I invented on the spot because it turned out I got a huge encore. Now today I think that if I’d made this show my stock-in-trade I would probably have found that superhighway to success. It was exactly, exactly what those people wanted. And because I couldn’t possibly do a very good job, I was relaxed, as in hopeless. As in, roll my eyes back into my head and go for it. Rarely had I been so popular.
After Eric’s next set I went back to the dressing room. He was sitting alone, dripping into a towel like a worn-out boxer. “You’re really something,” I ventured. I felt like a dope, like a fan. He wiped his face and looked up under wet eyebrows and said, “Yeah, you’re really something, too.” After that, there seemed nothing more to say. I went away with that gem in my heart: Eric Burdon had said I was really something, and for once I knew it was true. That’s how convincing he could be.
So how about those DILLARDS at McCABE’S in Santa Monica? McCabe’s was a particularly fun club. By day a well-known folk instrument store, on the weekends it was transformed into one of the best folk venues around, with a classy and knowledgeable audience. I played there quite a few times—once with DOC WATSON and his son MERLE. I recall that Merle liked to drink quite a bit, and his father wasn’t at all pleased with him over that. So he’d drink vodka, with the vain hope that his father couldn’t smell it, and he’d carry the bottle in a plain brown wrapper, which was a surprising strategy since Doc was blind and couldn’t see the bottle anyway but could surely hear the rattle of the paper bag. But mostly, Doc was incredibly proud of his talented son and worked hard not to show it too much on stage. (Merle eventually died in an accident, and now Doc is gone as well.)
The time I opened for the Dillards was one of the better gigs. They had BYRON BURLINE playing fiddle with them that night, and they were hot. I loved their rambling story about how hilarious it was that Joan Baez sang ‘Old Blue’ like she knew anything about hound dogs, how back home all their hounds would crowd into the outhouse to keep warm in winter so that if you wanted to take a dump you had to elbow sixty pounds of dog-flesh away from the hole, and how their hounds would keep getting run over on account of them living so close to the mill, so there’d be these flat, dried-out hounds in the road and they used to sail them like Frisbees. ‘You good dawg youuuuu. . .’ they sang, and the audience couldn’t help howling along.
It was such fun, in fact, that at intermission Doug Dillard, their banjo player (now gone as well), got drunk or something-or-othered, tried to climb over the chain link fence behind the club and smashed to the pavement where he lay out cold like those flat hounds and had to be carted off to the hospital.
But the show must go on. So each musician moved over one, since everyone could play everything. Dean the mandolin player moved over to the banjo, Rodney the guitar player played mandolin—and who was left to play guitar? Why, that’d be me. Of course. I was glad to. Delighted. Honored.
With no further negotiation they announced they would just kick things off with the old standard, ‘Uncle Penn.’ As soon, that is, as the guitar player played the old standard kick-off, the bluegrass run in D, which starts on the open low E and works its way up to Penn’s-Your-Uncle. Simple. Nothing easier.
I can play that run. You can probably play that run. Joan Baez can probably even play it.* But I stood there like a granite ass and couldn’t play it. See, it has to be played with strong authority, like you mean it. Well, heck, I can play it with strong authority. I just couldn’t then. I couldn’t make my hand reach down and make that bold move, and the boys waited and waited, not looking at me, then staring meaningfully at me, then whispering what I was supposed to do, then exchanging anxious lord-what-now glances until finally Byron, with a grunt of terminal impatience, ripped it off on the fiddle.
Okay, so I didn’t do my job. This doesn’t sound like high drama, does it? Yet these are the moments of show business when you realize awful things, like maybe you don’t quite know what you’re doing, or maybe you really do ‘play like a girl,’ or there’s simply something genetically wrong with you that means you will never make it but will spend your old age in the poorhouse telling boring stories of a life you almost could have lived. I have a lot of these stories. I’ll try to tell cheerier ones, or ones that make me look better, since I carry the burden (no pun, Eric) of being this book’s heroine.
Like, back at the Ash Grove. That was always good. Good in the sense that there was always a strong sense of theater, combined with community and—yes—a sense that somehow we were bringing something very fine to the whole world. Some thought it was a political message. Some thought it was freedom. Some thought it was intellect, or imagination, or culture, or beauty. Some thought it was folk music.
Not that I was a folksinger any more. Now I was a song writer. Now my costumes could be really outrageous. For instance, it is significant that one night at the AG I didn’t even know who I was playing with. That’s because there really wasn’t anyone else, not in my mind. See, I had this dress. Sewed (by me) out of black lace, it resembled a Barbie doll slip and wasn’t much larger. With it I wore black suede shoes with chunky high heels and a criss-cross of strap around the panty-hosed ankles.
Wearing this outfit, I strolled out into the anteroom. Hm! There was my photo in a glass case, lal la la! The place was filling up, buzzing. I thought I might find out who I was opening for, if it mattered. And who should I encounter but Ed Pearl, my boss. He stopped short. I said, “Howdy.” He said, “Howdy.” He looked at me. “What?” I asked. He said, “Well aren’t you going to get dressed?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Like put on your dress?” I said, “This is my dress.” He blinked and said, “Oh.” Because there’s really no arguing with a Barbie doll.
The next person I met was TODD EVERETT, one of my longest-lasting Hollywood friends. Todd was (is) a freelance writer who made the rounds of all the clubs and reviewed the acts. He had come to review Jack. He stood holding his notebook, regarding me quizzically through rather thick glasses, asking questions and jotting my answers. I stood wearing my dress, which was honestly the only thing I was doing at that moment—some things require total attention—and wondered why answering questions seemed so uncomfortably narcissistic. Then next thing I knew, there was a little article in Cash Box, a Hollywood trade magazine, hailing my debut as something worthy of notice and claiming me to be a dead ringer for Joni Mitchell. Signed, Todd Everett.
Todd, of course, didn’t know that few things could irritate me worse than being a dead ringer for Joni Mitchell**, except being a dead ringer for Joan Baez.* And I do not believe Joni Mitchell would perform in that dress, although she did have some very leggy outfits. Anyway, this proves that you can say something about me I really hate and still be my friend forty years later. Should you wish to know Todd better, I highly recommend his blog, Wisdom of the Aged, which is full of fun interviews and stories about people a lot more famous than me. [Used to be if you called him up you’d hear, “Hi ‘y’all!!! This is Dolly Parton! Todd’s not in raht now, but if y’all leave yer etc., etc.”]
Continuing in the spirit of telling self-congratulatory anecdotes, I remember that as soon as I got on stage I found my guitar was out of tune, probably because I’d been too busy wearing my dress, and for some reason I couldn’t locate the guilty string. I just stood there tuning and tuning, getting more and more flummoxed, until finally I said, “What I really need is a roadie to travel with me and tune this damn guitar.” And lo, after the set an extremely earnest youth came up and said he was applying for the job. I was so sorry to have to tell him there was no such job–but yes, I was gratified that someone actually wanted to take it. And by the way, in the same spirit, I can tune the bejesus out of a guitar, if you want to know.
This wasn’t the time I played with RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT, anyway; I remember, because when I did open for Jack, I wore a different kind of dress—long, silky, whitish, very moonlight. That would be in contrast to Jack, who would certainly be wearing a flamboyant cowboy outfit and big hat. As indeed he was. I came into the dressing room to find him bent over, carefully adjusting his pant cuffs so one was inside his boot, the other raffishly out. He looked up, acknowledging my smirk: “Yes, we have to take our moments to create the illusion.”
After his set we had a long conversation; I know it was about selling snake oil, but I can’t remember why. However, this time I was the one who needed to make certain self-conscious adjustments to my outfit, do something artless with a lock of hair, try to look as though I’d just picked myself up off the floor of a waterfront saloon. Seeing how I was peeking in the mirror without seeming to do so, Jack said, “I’ll leave you alone now, so you can gather your magic around you.”
I was surprised by his straightforwardness on this subject. As much as I loved dressing up for the show, it hadn’t really occurred to me to see myself as a product. I was more like a chick. Now I was forced to reflect: If we (entertainers) really do everything we do with full consciousness of the effect, than it should be possible to choose. Some things I was doing were working, some obviously weren’t. Mightn’t it be a good idea to identify which was which and act on this information? Wow. This was a terrific insight–though I gave it no more thought and kept on making misjudgments.
Always, though, there is a certain instinct—like wearing a romantic long gown when playing with Jack Elliott. To this day I have not come to terms with the concept of Entertainer as Product. I’ve always wanted people to hear, see and understand the real me. Of course this is an unrealistic expectation, perhaps even undesirable in the long run. But of all the things I dread being called, ‘insincere’ is probably the worst. I want to tell everyone my life story (as I seem to be doing), I want to spill my teary memories, I even want to live my life in full view of others—but I don’t want to see myself as a product. And I’d like to take a moment here to say sternly to myself, that is wrong! Because actually, what you, the reader or listener, want from me is the illusion I’ve taken the trouble to weave for you. You don’t want to get that close to the real me, and I don’t blame you. And by the way, everything I just wrote is totally contrived, so you can relax and enjoy it. It’s product.
*Please forgive my constant snarks at Joan Baez. It’s mildly fun for me, and she will survive.
*+One problem is that these girls were cuter and more talented than me, which is kind of a drag to have to admit. I have been trying to add photos to prove this, but aparently I’d need to upgrade to Pro if I want any more pictures in my blog, so phooey.