Interview by Keith Wallace"Lost" albums are all the rage these days. Underpromoted or too weird to generate sales upon their initial release, recent years have seen the resurgence of the "rediscover and reissue" brigade, whose leading lights so far have been Vashti Bunyan and Linda Perhacs (who literally walked out of the woods carrying the master-tapes to her legendary Parallelograms album). To this ever-evolving list we can now add an album that was consigned to the attics and basements of history due to a pot bust: Red Hash by Gary Higgins.
Having played around New York city in a few fledgling rock’n’roll combos (one with a guy called Simeon who would go on to proto-electronic fame with the Silver Apples), Higgins retreated to rural Connecticut in search of clean country air, where he grew an impressive beard and honed his folk-rock stylings with an acoustic band called Wooden Wheel. Before long, these small-town hippies attracted the Nixonite heat ("I, like many at that time, experimented with drug use and even inhaled" quips Gary) with Higgins and a friend implicated in a pot bust and subsequently jailed - but not before he and the band recorded a classic psych-folk album in 1973 which wouldn’t reach an audience for thirty-two years. It was called Red Hash (after the nickname that the flame-haired Higgins earned while in custody).
Although recorded in a forty-hour session under the shadow of a spell in prison, the album betrays little of the turmoil which surrounded its creation. "I had the feeling I might never get a second chance to complete it or any other musical project for, essentially, ever" says Higgins. "I was unavailable for mixing and final production of the album and watched from afar as Red Hash hit the streets." Listening to it today, one envisions Red Hash emerging as an airy folk-rock document with psychedelic flourishes, slightly eerie overtones and a warm, inviting melodicism evoking bearded bucolia from the sepia-toned 70's: a smoke-folk classic with all the easy charm and group mind of the passive peace pipe while still haunted by the creeping paranoia of the loner stoner.
Higgins was locked up on a two-years-and-nine-months’ sentence for possession of marijuana and the album, released in a limited pressing on his own imprint Nufusmoon, disappeared in a puff of smoke. "At the time the album was very well received" says Gary, "but without live support and carried solely on undying enthusiasm and tireless effort from a small group of friends with essentially no experience in record promotion and sales, momentum slowed and cases of records quietly became collectors of dust, stored in basements along with fond memories and thoughts of what might have been."
On finishing his stint behind bars, Higgins returned to real life and wasn’t heard from again. Then, the myth surrounding the album began to build with Red Hash becoming a much sought –after, gentle psychedelic folk-rock-pastoral pop classic (in the vein of Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day and Perhac’s Parallelograms). Badly dubbed bootlegs started to do the rounds in collectors’ circles and found their way onto the web. Then Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance recorded a version of Higgins’ "Thicker Than a Smokey" on his 2005 Drag City release School of the Flower and included the following plea in the liner notes: "If anyone has any information on the whereabouts or fate of Gary Higgins, please contact us at Drag City." "A friend put it on a cassette tape for me in about 1999" says Chasny, "I had also been covering the song for a few years and it just made sense to put it on the record. Gary’s just a great songwriter. His words seem to flow effortlessly from a very lonely place, though I have met him and he doesn't seem very lonely."
Chasny’s friend at Drag City, Zach Cowie, flipped out upon hearing Chasny’s copy of Red Hash - "It was a joint gift from Ethan Miller and Ben Chasny - both in Comets on Fire - we traded huge packages of music when I met those dudes back in the day and the ‘Hash was in there - it's the first thing I played because Ben said it was one of his favourite albums. Ben’s music means the world to me; it’s the first "new" thing I've truly fallen in love with since high school, so an endorsement like that from him threw it to the top of the pile. Gary’s tunes were exactly what I was looking for. All I was listening to was If I Could Only Remember My Name by David Crosby and this matched the vibe perfectly. There’s an unmatched amount of truth and immediacy in those recordings that chill you to the bone, so real."
Cowie and Chasny instigated a mini-manhunt, ringing and writing to every Gary Higgins in the Connecticut phonebook. Was it hard to track the elusive Higgins down? "Yes and no." says Cowie. "The difficult thing was that I was doing a million things in my day-to-day job (record label and tour managing) and had little time to devote to this Higgins thing. I’d write a letter here and there to any addresses I could find...talk to record nerds ‘round the world - nuthin. The big score was running into this dude Rob (who works for a rad label in Chicago called Numero Group) at a party and hearing from him that a friend of his actually called Gary once. He emailed me the number; I matched the number to an address, too freaked out to cold-call him, prefer the letter...and we took it from there..." According to Devendra Banhart, a fervent acolyte of Gary Higgins, "Zach from Drag City and Ben Chasny just put all their spirits together and just researched and searched and found him. Good music lives on: history makes sure that the good stuff stays. He’s amazing!" Red Hash was re-released to a wave of acclaim which came as a pleasant surprise to it creator - Mr. Gary Higgins…
PSF: You must be delighted that Red Hash is back in circulation. Did you ever think this would happen?
GH: Not in my wildest dreams; this kind of thing just doesn't take place, ever....made it all the more special and in a way "magical."
PSF: What was it like recording the album under the shadow of imminent incarceration?
GH: It was a safe port in a bad storm, and while doing it, the world was right again - if only briefly while in the studio or working out the tunes.
PSF: Your record chimes perfectly with what’s going on at the moment with your new audience of fans like Devendra and Six Organs of Admission and friends (not to mention the beards!) so did you feel you were making a timeless record back in ‘73?
GH: At that time the only real consideration was getting it done period; I was very pleased that much was accomplished and in that time frame; I thought we did a pretty good job. Timeless was the farthest thing from my mind.
PSF: There is a lovely community vibe from the record; did you feel it was a labour of love?
GH: We as a group of people were all a very tight "family"; the surrounding circumstances affected each one of us profoundly, shook our world, and woke us all up - very rudely. It was a labour of love, a way to preserve what we were really all about and not some group of backstreet criminals leering in at the playground.
PSF: Obvious question - how was your spell behind bars?
GH: It was bearable because I HAD to survive it. A very high psychological energy was required to maintain any kind of feelings of safety and well-being. Lots of energy spent not looking at how it must be elsewhere or how things could have been. It was a day-by-day existence: not a good place for human beings and other animals. I highly don't recommend it.
PSF: Your music evokes a sense of being away from the intensity of the city. Is this something you were trying to capture with Red Hash?
GH: I think that is just a natural consequence of living where I do, far away from city hustle: very rural setting, peaceful and quiet. It was and is where I do best.
PSF: What was it like playing live again?
GH: I have played live in different venues over the years but this has been really different. It has been great fun - renewed energy as a result of many appreciative ears from a whole new generation. It has made it fresh and, most of all, fun again.
PSF: Do you have plans for future recordings?
GH: That is ongoing and always will be; there are lots of things in the archives and on the stove...how or what makes it out there is yet to be seen. Having an avenue to make that possible is my greatest realization with all this renewed interest.
Special thanks to Drag City Records
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