Squibs 514-531 [by Alan Ziegler]

Alan by bruce

514: Song lyricist was my dream career: Fill a dozen or so pages with drafts, send them off to my dependent collaborator (with a sweet voice, ear for melody, and recording contract), and live on royalties as I consume experiences for my next set of lyrics. The dream came true—except for the contract and royalties.

515: I was madly in love with the 60s singer-songwriters, playing their albums on repeat (pre-digitally on a turntable) and seeing them at The Gaslight, Fat Black Pussycat, Bitter End, Gerdes Folk City, Club 47, Central Park summer concerts, Palisades Amusement Park, Newport Folk Festival: Phil Ochs, Laura Nyro, Eric Andersen, Buffy St. Marie, Bonnie Raitt, Tim Hardin, Tom Paxton, Fred Neil, Paul Siebel, Patrick Sky, Richard and Mimi Farina, Leonard Cohen, Tim Buckley, Steve Noonan, Janis Ian, and of course Bob Dylan. (Though I was never enamored of “Blowing in the Wind,” which Peter Yarrow introduced on a live Peter, Paul & Mary recording with a Rabbinical “This song asks nine questions.” What motivated him to count the questions? Years later I asked him and he tousled my hair and said, “Oh you!”)

516: I took to the guitar at an early age. Here I am pretending to be a lap-guitar-cowboy (prepared for an unruly-crowd).  

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I toured local backyards as one of the first Elvis impersonators, right down to the cowlick.

Alan Elvis


517: When I was 15, I spent some of my Bar Mitzvah money on a $50 Harmony Sovereign guitar at the recently-opened branch of Sam Ash in Hempstead. Here’s Paul Ash after closing the deal.


On the way home, my mother said, “Is this going to collect dust in the closet?” I took the bait and signed up for lessons from Al Wansor, who had an eponymous store in Lynbrook. At the first lesson, Al “taught” me to play “Love Me Tender”—single notes, no chords. I wanted to strum like Bob Gibson and fingerpick like Mississippi John Hurt. I didn’t return so I never got to know that Al Wansor had toured with bands and did session work on albums. I did enjoy playing the notes to “Love Me Tender,” and eventually realized the repetition was starting to train my ear to recognize note differentials, training that was never completed because I gave up on Al Wansor.


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I played the Harmony Sovereign at dozens of gigs, wrote songs on it, and filled cassettes labelled “noodling” and “messing.” Everyone who picked it up admired its action and tone. Several years later, Jimmy Page would compose Led Zeppelin songs on a Harmony Sovereign (here on display at the Met Museum), and even played it on the recording of “Stairway to Heaven”.  

Harmony sovereign

Also, Pete Townshend had one.


But first I had one.

Closeup socereign

519: I would pretend I wrote songs I admired, and sing them in imagined settings. I also fantasized going to go to my left on a fast break for the Knicks, which was never going to happen, but having my lyrics sung at the Gaslight was remotely possible (and did happen).

Fred Neil’s “Just a Little Bit of Rain,” comprises only 13 discrete lines, including:

                        And if you look back

                        Try to forget all the bad times

                        Lonely blue and sad times

                        And just a little bit of rain

                        And just a little bit of rain

I heard myself adding:

                        And if you look back

                        Try to forget the last words

                        Those hastily caste words

                        And just a little bit of rain

                        And just a little bit of rain

I felt like I had just gone to my left on a fast break.

520: Robert Middleman was my folkie friend throughout high school (and beyond). Somehow, we summoned the gumption to play hoot night at Gerdes Folk City (the original location, positively on Fourth Street), where on Monday nights anyone could do a song or two. The emcee sized us up and put us on first. As the sparse audience scattered politeness for Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind,” the emcee said, “Well, that’s a hootenanny for you,” which we took to mean, “We got that one out of the way.” We were followed by a kid about our age who knew what he was doing. He was Gram Parsons, later of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers (who would OD at 26). Another performer was a cowboy-type with the refrain, “I proceeded to take 3 or 4 steps backwards and give her a dropkick right in the crotch.” Everyone (including me) laughed at the line, which showed up a few years later on Jerry Jeff Walker’s Driftin’ Way of Life album. By then, I didn’t laugh.

521: In the spring of my first year at Union College, my roommate from Carmel Valley said, “One of your folksinger friends was killed near my house.” He said it with a combination of hometown pride and college banter. It took me a couple of days to find out it was one of my heroes, Richard Fariña, who had left a party for his wife (and collaborator) Mimi’s 21st birthday to take a ride on the back of a motorcycle.

Mimi and richard


I mourned by singing “Children of Darkness” to Mimi:

                Now is the time for your loving, dear

                And the time for your company

                Now when the light of reason fails

                And fires burn on the sea….

                For I am a wild and a lonely child

                And the son of an angry land;

                And now with the high wars raging

                I would offer you my hand

I wasn’t wild, I wasn’t particularly lonely, and I wasn’t a child, but I certainly felt the need to imagine Mimi’s company.

522: Though not as momentous an occasion as Ezra Pound showing up at William Carlos Williams’ room at Penn, I first met Carl Rosenstock when he appeared at my dorm room to check out the Harmony Sovereign he’d been hearing about, marking the beginning of a long songwriting/performing friendship. Usually one of us would write a first draft and the other might offer suggestions. Eventually we added Cliff Safane (a true musician who played piano, sax, and bass clarinet) and called ourselves “The 42nd Street Shuttle,” which came to be known around campus as simply “The Shuttle.” We were regulars at the North End, a makeshift campus cafe, where performers included Phil Robinson (later to build the Field of Dreams), and afterwards we might have beers at the Rathskeller with Jeffrey DeMunn (currently with 119 acting credits on IMDB), who blew us away with his Krapp’s Last Tape at the campus theater in the Nott Memorial.

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We also played frequently on Rob Friedman’s Folk Fest radio show on WRPI (which went on for decades). And we somehow got on the stage at Caffe Lena in Saratoga, with Cliff playing bass clarinet (probably a first for a folk club). At the end of the set, Lena declared, “Well, that’s the new music!” which we took to mean, “We got that one out of the way.” Set list:

Lena set (1)

523: Some lies are so unnecessary (and ultimately disprovable) that they could hardly be worth the ephemeral pleasure they might bring. This lie still confounds me: A production company was making a documentary on Union College. The producer called and said he’d heard that “The Shuttle” was the folk group on campus, and could we record one of our songs for the soundtrack? (Maybe someone would see it and offer us a contract.) Weeks after we did the recording, a classmate mentioned he had seen a preview. “Are we in it?” we asked. “Yeah,” he said. “The Shuttle, right in the opening.”

We weren’t in it.

524: I couldn’t sing. I could finger-pick passably (thanks to someone showing me the secret of double thumbing), and my Harmony Sovereign sweetened my strumming. But I couldn’t run a sequence of single notes, a minimal skill set for a lead guitarist. Carl liked—needed—having me around, so I was in the Shuttle lineup, home or away, and the lead lines were keyboarded or blown by Cliff. 

One of my lyrics came out, wholly formed, in my notebook, triggered by my memories of playing the snare drum in the elementary school walking band.

Drummer boy

Carl added a lovely melody, and since there were so few lyrics, Cliff had plenty of time to stretch out. One performance, I felt the music in a way I hadn’t before, and improvised a very brief solo. The show was recorded, and when my solo came up on the tape, Cliff looked at me, smiled, and said, “You had a musical idea.”

The next day, a friend ran up to me on campus, held my shoulders, said, “‘Proud of your brand new shoes’—beautiful!” and ran off.

525: I met a student named Paul Harris when I was being rushed by both Jewish fraternities. Paul asked me if Eric Andersen was any good. “He’s great, why?” His friend Harvey Brooks, a bass player, had asked Paul to join him accompanying Andersen at a concert. They hit it off so well musically that Eric Andersen did something perhaps unprecedented: He rerecorded his current album, ‘Bout Changes ‘N’ Things, this time with Paul and Harvey.

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Paul went on to an  illustrious career with hundreds of credits as accompanist and arranger: The Doors, Nick Drake, B.B. King, Ian and Sylvia, John Sebastian, and so so many more, including a stint as part of Stephen Stills’ group “Manassas.”

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One day Paul excitedly gave me a reel-to-reel of Richie Havens’ forthcoming first album, Mixed Bag. We went to the campus library, and I listened to the whole album through headphones in one of the cushioned chairs on the mezzanine, tingling with the excitement of a career being launched. “What did you think?” Paul asked, and I told him I loved it except for “Sandy,” which sounded more cocktail lounge than folk club. Paul seemed crushed. “I thought that was some of my best playing,” he said, and I listened again and realized that Paul was transcending musical borders, and I should try to keep up.

Paul’s most stunning early achievement was arranging and conducting Tom Rush’s Circle Game album, utilizing compositional approaches he’d picked up from Edgar Curtis, a Union professor. When I ran into Paul backstage at the Newport Folk Festival, we got into a conversation about the merits of the two Jewish fraternities at Union. Tom Rush sidled up and said, “So, what are we talking about?” I tried to change the subject but Paul continued with Phi Ep vs. Phi Sigma.

After graduating, Paul toured with, among others, Judy Collins. By then we had lost touch, so when I saw that Collins was performing in Troy, I tried to reach Paul at the hotel. Someone else came to the phone and said, “My name is Michael Sahl, I’m filling in for Paul.” He promised to give Paul my best. Decades later I was introduced to Michael Sahl at the graduation of his son Ben, my student and friend. I said, “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. Wa talked on the phone.”

525: Carl and I  took a bus to New York to audition for Vanguard Records. Not only didn’t we get a deal, but someone stole my borrowed guitar from the waiting room. (Fortunately, it wasn’t the Harmony Sovereign.) And we auditioned for an A&R man at April Blackwood. His name was Tony, and he told us that our songs needed hooks. He was sympathetic to our artistic impulses and said he had been on the performing side of the business. Then, the pre-Dawn Tony Orlando belted out “Bless you / bless every breath that you take.”

526:  The summer of 1969 I was living with my girlfriend in Riverside, California, working as a newspaper reporter (infiltrating the White Citizens Council, writing about street corner preachers and a women’s liberation group) while occasionally sending  lyrics to Carl, who was passing the basket in Greenwich Village coffee shops.

My girlfriend moved back East on a pre-determined date to start at a new college. As much as I thought I was prepared for the split, after she left for the airport I felt like the world around me had gone empty. I grabbed my notebook and wrote exactly what happened.

            The empty suitcase slowly fills

            You take the candle off the windowsill

            The dresser’s empty now

            You look around

            Make sure there’s nothing you left behind

            You take the ticket that I bought

            For the bus ride to the airport

            Baggage on the sidewalk

            We just sit and talk

            And the driver starts his engine going

            You’re going

                        The driver moves to close the door

                        He says we can’t wait anymore

                        Caught by surprise

                        No time for goodbyes

                        I walk away after you turn the corner

                        You’re going

            We knew at the start that it would end

            And we knew just exactly when

            You’d go back east I’d stay west

            It’s just what places

            It’s just what places

            It’s just what places

            Have to offer

            To offer

Months later, back in New York, I caught one of Carl’s sets. I sat in the corner, alone, paying close attention to the wizard guitarist sitting on my old stool. A young woman with bright red hair yelled, “Do the one about the candle!” (I later found out she was the daughter of a famous folk musician.) 

“You know the poet I’ve been talking about, who wrote the lyrics to that song? He’s here tonight.” Carl pointed towards me, and all eyes turned my way. “But he’s so innocuous looking,” said the young woman with bright red hair.

I couldn’t have felt more flattered.

527: I was writing poetry and editing a literary magazine, but I got down to the Village occasionally. Carl was part of a flock of folksingers, who would play a set or two, then head for drinks at the Kettle Of Fish (above the Gaslight). When the Kettle was full, it was over to Googie’s on Sullivan Street. When the bars closed, the migration might head a few blocks down to Chinatown. Among the crew, the one I thought most likely to make it was Patrick Chamberlain, a singer-songwriter-raconteur born in East Texas and raised in rural Pennsylvania. He greeted me at one of his concerts with “The gentleman from the press has arrived.”

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Back row from left to right: Carl Rosenstock, Pat Chamberlain, and an innocuous lyricist (drawing by singer-songwriter-poet Rich Levine).

And then, tragedy. As I heard it, Pat was on the phone with an ex-girlfriend, threatening to blow his brains out if she didn’t come over. She didn’t come over. I played the cassette I recorded of his recent concert. Pat introduced a song with, “They say you need three things to make it in this business: experience, exposure and an ex old lady so you have some kind of experience to write songs.” Lyrics included “it gets in my veins I can hear her refrains / I hope that she is just fine.”

The memorial service was at Calvary Church. I overhead Paul Siebel say to Steve Goodman, “If it’s all the same to Pat, let’s not do this to each other.” Goodman replied, “It really kicked that shit out of me.” Siebel looked around and said, “He sure threw a good party.”

528: I had some money, so when Erik Frandsen (who once sang “Meet the Mets” at the Gaslight) told me about a Gibson J-45 at Matt Umanov’s shop, I went for a look.

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As I was testing out the guitar, intimidated by all the pros in the room, I started strumming major 7th chords. Someone pointed to a sign that read, “No major 7th chords without a note from your mother,” and I switched to double-thumb fingerpicking and plunked down $350. I still have the guitar.

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529: For a few years I wrote songs with former Shuttle-mate Cliff Safane, more pop than folk. They were performed by an up-and-coming singer (who didn’t come up).

We Lost a Little Something

530: Back in the late 60s, a magazine identified Tim Buckley, Jackson Browne, and Steve Noonan as the Orange County Three. Noonan’s career didn’t take off like the others, but his first album never strayed from my rotation.

Noonan album531: Fast forward to 2014.



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Author: Alan Ziegler