DAZED AND CONFUSED:
THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE SAGA OF JAKE HOLMES
By Will ShadeHow many musicians can claim to have been in a comedy team with Joan Rivers, written a concept album for Frank Sinatra, had one of their songs stolen by Led Zeppelin and hung out with Nelson Mandela? Only one: Jake Holmes.
Holmes is most famous for two '70's anthems. However, few people know he wrote either of them. One is the aforementioned song that Jimmy Page & Co. nicked, "Dazed And Confused." Holmes has never received a songwriting credit or royalties from the band (for more on that story check out The Thieving Magpies on this website). The other tune is a commmercial that played repeatedly on television, a harangue to join the U.S. Army. C'mon, you remember it . . . "Be all you can be!"
Now, that's a twisted resume! However, Holmes deserves belated recognition for two brilliant albums released on the Tower label in 1967 and 1968. These two records have achieved legendary status and regularly fetch over $100 in collectors' circles. Unfortunately, neither of the albums have ever been released on CD. With the current interest in all things freaky-'60's, they would finally find the audience that was denied them upon initial release.
Holmes' first album for Tower, The Above Ground Sound Of Jake Holmes, is breathtaking in its stark approach. First, Holmes' group employed absolutely no drummer. The trio used almost the same set up that Elvis, Scotty and Bill used in Memphis over a decade earlier - Jake Holmes on acoustic guitar, Teddy Irwin on electric guitar and Rick Randle on bass. Yet, Holmes' sound is so far away from rock n roll, that it is impossible to pigeon-hole. What do you call it? Garage? Well, if you had a crowbar and a some plastique explosive you might pry it into that straitjacket. Folk influences merge with jazz scatting and fuzzed-out acid rock excursions in an bizarre hybrid that has yet to be named. This album is so far in the garage, it's under the garage. But if you're expecting something vaguely like The Seeds, forget it. The Above Ground Sound Of Jake Holmes truly defies description. It is as spartan as a slab of concrete.
Holmes' original version of "Dazed And Confused" vies for attention on this record, which is crammed chock full of miniature masterpieces. "Did You Know" could well be something David Crosby wrote for the Byrds. Just imagine it with 12 string Rickenbackers. And "The Girl Belongs To Me" boasts some of the funniest and strangest lyrics of gender-bending machismo etched in vinyl. The claustrophobic "Lonely" kick-starts a revolutionary album that's so afraid of the sunshine it's crawled under a rock for the last three and a half decades.
His next album for Tower (A Letter To Katherine December) is a little easier to find a comparison for. But not by much. Love's Forever Changes springs to mind. Randle had gone A.W.O.L. by this time because of mental problems. His bizarre bass playing was absent from the album, but Charlie Fox's immaculate string and horn arrangements covered any holes in the mix. Once again, acid-folk gems glitter in the dust, jostling next to Dada rhythms and fractured anti-social Chuck Berry lyrics on warped offerings like "High School Hero." The album investigates the death of a marriage, with the luminous repose of "Chase Your Eyes" in sharp contrast to the melancholia of "Moving Day. " The highpoint of Jake Holmes career appears on this album. "Leaves Never Break" is a pocket symphony to dementia praecox with disembodied vocals and fuzz guitars sprayed all over sumptuous strings.
Unfortunately, after the sepia-toned psychedelia of A Letter To Katherine December, Jake Holmes seemed unsure and unaware of where his true abilities lay. Holmes' eclecticism worked brilliantly on his first two albums. However, that strength now turned into his Achilles heel. His next albums were in keeping with the '70's, singer-songwriter influences merging with country-rock sensibilities and not to this reviewer's taste. Commercially, these albums met with no more success than his earlier hallucinatory efforts. Label changes ensued. Soon, no company would pick him up. With no record contract, Holmes plunged into the world of commercials. Strangely, this is where he finally found success.
So, fasten your seatbelts and prepare for a fascinating ride into the life of a musician who missed out on mythic status, but who might have the last laugh yet.
WS: Before we start, I just want to say that I think The Above Ground Sound Of Jake Holmes and A Letter To Katherine December are two of the most incredible albums I've ever heard.
JH: (kind of surprised) Thank you so very much.
WS: Are these two albums ever going to be released on CD? They haven't been reissued in any form since they originally came out.
JH: The only record that would probably be released is So Close. There's a company in England that's shown a little bit of interest. But as for those two you mention, I don't know.
WS: Have those masters disappeared?
JH: I believe so. I'm trying to find the masters on all the albums. I'd have to find pure, unopened copies of the albums themselves and make CDs from those if I can't find the masters.
WS: Tell me about your musical influences.
JH: My influences started with R & B. I was listening to Chuck Berry and Fats Domino when I was a teenager. I liked that early rock n roll stuff and that do-wop stuff. I liked The Cleftones, The Harptones and The Moonglows.
Amazingly, I don't think I have a black bone in my music, but I was very much influenced by black music. Then I went through a Louie Prima phase and then went into serious jazz - Coltrane, Miles, Getz, major jazz stuff. That's what I was listening to in high school and my early college years. Then I got interested in what you would call folk music. Music that was more song driven.
I started writing then. I was at Bennington College. I'd fallen in love with this girl. We had this duo called Allen & Grier. It was this comedy thing, a folk parody duo. We did songs like "It's Better To Be Rich Than Ethnic," "Teenage Mother" and "Basketball Bill." Pete Seeger said that we were the most tasteless folk group ever.
WS: Now how about your work with Tim Rose. Were you called The Feldmans or was it Tim Rose and The Thorns?
JH: Goodness gracious. Where did you find out about this? But you're right. It wasn't really called The Feldmans. We were Tim Rose and The Thorns. I have to give Tim credit. He was the one who came up with that thing Jimi Hendrix did later, "Hey Joe." Our idea was to do folk-rock. But our idea of what that would be was to take folk songs and turn them into rock songs. We would take songs like "Tom Dooley" and we made it into a 6/8 blues. We took "Mandy" and rocked it up.
Tim had this friend who had written this folk song called "Hey Joe" (ed. note: Billy Roberts). It actually went (starts singing with a traditional folk rhythm) "Hey Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand." Tim took it and rearranged it for us to play. We were the first band to do it that way. A few other groups picked up on it later, but Hendrix heard Tim do it in England a few years later. That's where he got it and used it. Just like "Dazed And Confused" happened to me. We were both ripped off. That arrangement of "Hey Joe" was something Tim came up with for Tim Rose and The Thorns.
Tim played around a lot as a solo act and I think he exposed other groups to it. It was a great version. The reason it worked well was because it was one of the few folk-rock songs that we did that you didn't already know. We were doing all these standard songs and we were making them into blues and funky stuff. It was actually kind of silly. The Byrds finally got it right. But when we started, nobody was doing folk-rock. The Beatles had just shown up and they were still in their teeny-bopper phase.
WS: Tell me about the trio. Besides you and Tim, there was Rich Hudson?
JH: It turned out that Richie . . . well, when started the band we needed a bass player. Tim was certainly a lead guitar player. So, it was up to me and Richie. Richie said, "I don't play bass." So I tried it. It turned out that I was a far better rhythm guitar player than he was and he was actually a bass player, but he didn't want to tell anybody because he wanted to play guitar. We would have been a much better band if I'd played rhythm and he'd played bass.
WS: How did the trio end? Did it have anything to do with Columbia's offer to Tim?
JH: No, we ended it. I wasn't happy with the band. I wanted to write more and I wanted to do more of my own thing. It was becoming more and more Tim's thing. And I didn't want to do that. I was sort of relegated to being comic relief and I didn't want to do that.
WS: How did you work up a solo act?
JH: I went back to The Bitter End. I'd come out of comedy. My manager, Fred Wientraub, put me together with Joan Rivers and a guy named Jim Connell. We were called Jim, Jake and Joan. She was already a stand-up comedian and he was a comedian and a writer. In the early '50's, there was a group called The Reviewers. They were this little cabaret act that did sketches and music.
Fred Weintraub was the manager of The Bitter End. He put together things like The Serendipity Singers and The Bitter End Singers. He was kind of following in the footsteps of Albert Grossman, who put together Peter, Paul and Mary. He liked the idea of the entrepreneurial aspects of taking people and putting them together, making hybrid groups out of them. So, he decided that it would be a great idea to have The Reviewers. He got Joan and Jim, but the problem was that neither one of them sang a note. Jim could sing okay. Joan Rivers couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. I was going to be the music guy and we would write these musical, theatrical sketches that would be this integrated thing. It would be more folk-based than it would be cabaret, theatre-based.
And there we were doing these sketches. Some of them were actually pretty fun. We would do this news montage thing where I would sing (sings) "news, news, news." We would do jokes on the news. I was the music straight man. Before I'd come out of that duo Allen & Grier, which was a comedy duo. So, I was coming out of comedy oddly enough. We did pretty well for a while, but we didn't get along too well. We got into a huge fight. So, we were on the road and Joan wouldn't speak to us except on stage.
We did a piece where we took the history of a folk song and we took it from the beginning and took it through all the permutations of what happens to a song. It becomes a jazz song, it becomes a pop song and it ends up a jingle. That was the kind of stuff we would do. The music would be integrated with the comedy, which was what I came out of.
Now, I end up doing an act where I'm doing my old comedy stuff as a single artist at The Bitter End, from Allen & Grier and some things from Jim, Jake and Joan. And in the middle of that I wrote one song, this jazz waltz. It got a great response so I started thinking to myself "Hey, wait a minute. Maybe I should write some more serious stuff." Then I actually went and joined this rock band from Canada and it was a disaster!
I can't even remember the name of the band it's so bad! (laughs) We went out on the road and I think we were in Montreal at this club called something like Café Pierre and we were doing rock stuff that was pretty much my stuff. And I was going out with this French girl and she said, "You should be a singer-songwriter." At that time there weren't many singer-songwriters and she said, "Why don't you be in the tradition of French singers like Jacques Brel." And that's when it clicked with me and I began to get serious about it and began to write more interesting songs.
But I was obviously never a folk-singer in the strict sense. There was a little bit more jazz in there. I was kind of a folk Cole Porter. I never fit in. That's how it all got started.
WS: How did you get hooked up with Ted Irwin and Rick Randle, the guys you eventually recorded the mythic The Above Ground Sound Of Jake Holmes with?
JH: Teddy Irwin . . . I was looking for a guitar player. A friend of Freddy Weintraub suggested this guy in Washington, this guy who was playing weddings and stuff like that. He came up to New York to audition and he's this incredible jazz guitar player. He was amazing, but he was so unsophisticated. His hair was slicked back, he was like one of those guys from a lounge band. Completely ignorant of the folk world, The Bitter End crowd, the Village scene. He was such a great guy and an amazing guitar player. We hit it right off.
Rick came later. I don't remember how we found him. We were auditioning to go on the road. There was something called the coffeehouse circuit, which was a great thing. You would go to a college for a week and you'd play in the quote unquote coffeehouse. But there were no coffeehouse. They set up in the lunchrooms. They'd set up stages. At night, every night for a week, you'd play in this lunchroom. You'd start out with maybe twenty people and by the end of the week the word would spread through the college. By the time we'd finish, every time we did this we'd start with twenty people, and by the end of the week it'd be packed and people would be hanging off the rafters. You'd be a star. It was the most wonderful experience. You'd start in a town unknown and you'd leave being hugely successful. It was a great system. It was kind of like a farm club for a baseball team.
That's when we needed a bass player to go on the road with us. That's when we got Rick. Rick was absolutely stone, raving mad. None of us did drugs at the time. My guitar player, who ended up being a bad alcoholic, didn't do drugs. I didn't do drugs. We would spend our time at nights in the dormitories or wherever we were experimenting with things, meaning sounds. In a funny kind of way, The Above Ground Sound is based on pretty much all those experiments, all the bass and weird stuff we came up with was all just being able to rehearse every day and just work out weird stuff. We did stuff that we never used. We would take a tape recorder and tape ping pong balls bouncing off walls and try to make music to it. All kinds of great, wonderful, creative stuff that you can do when it's just three lonely guys on the road trying to get along.
Rick did stuff that was very . . . I mean on the song "Lonely" where it's a very fast 4 (starts humming), he's playing that 3 against 4 stuff. He was a really great, innovative guy. Possibly cause he was so nuts. He was also a great draughtsman. He did all these wonderful drawings that were totally mind-boggling. The tragedy is that he really was schizophrenic.
We were in Chicago. We were really starting to go. Things were beginning to go, things were happening. We were playing at Mr. Kelly's I think. He'd be asleep all day. We'd go into the bedroom and say, "It's time to go to work." And he'd say, "You'll have to give me an hour to get back up through my brain." He'd sit by the radio and say that the people were talking to him through the radio and were trying to kill him. It was awful.
And Teddy, they were like brothers, they had a tight friendship. When Rick went off the deep end it really put Teddy in a bad place, too. He was in an airport and Rick just ran. He was afraid to take the plane and he just ran away. Teddy couldn't find him. He felt responsible for him, he felt that he had let him down because he couldn't find him. It was really sad. I didn't hear from Rick and gathered he moved out to Utah and was living with a quote unquote witch. That's the last I heard of him. I haven't heard from him in 25 years. I have no idea where he is.
WS: Rick wasn't on A Letter To Katherine December was he?
JH: No. Teddy was. We had a lot of studio musicians on that. We had this great drummer from a Canadian band, The Orphans I think. That album was done on film. I should get a hold of Elliot Mazer who was the producer. He could help me, too. If that's recorded on film it's probably in better shape than any of the other albums I have. We did it at RCA. We got to hear the album going backwards all the time because when you rolled the film backwards through the sprockets. It wasn't like tape where you just zoom it through. Charlie Fox did all the string and horn arrangements on that album. It's probably my most sophisticated album because we were more daring.
WS: I made us jump way ahead. If we can back up, besides The Village Theatre and The Bitter End, where else did you guys play in New York City?
JH: That was pretty much it in New York. The Village Theatre and The Fillmore East were the same. I played at The Go Go some with Tim. I played The Gaslight by myself sometimes. But with the trio we basically played The Bitter End.
WS: Now, what was your set-up? An acoustic guitar, an electric guitar and an electric bass?
JH: Yeah, pretty much. Teddy played a jazz guitar. He did use a fuzz and maybe a volume pedal and distortion pedal. He never played anything but a jazz guitar. But those pedals . . . we walked into this club . . . what the hell was it called . . .
WS: The Night Owl?
JH: Yeah, that's it. We worked there, too. Actually, I worked there quite a bit. And with Teddy. I worked there with The Lovin' Spoonful and with Tim Hardin and with Fred Neil. As a matter of fact, Tim Rose and The Thorns worked there . . . I'm lost. It was when I was working with Tim. We were actually in the back room and Zal Yanovsky (ed. note: The Lovin' Spoonful's guitarist) was . . . it was one day when we walked in and he was saying, "Hey, man! You got to hear this!" And he played this thing and says, "See, it's like if the guitar amp had been blown out, but you don't have to blow it out. You just have to step on this thing on the floor." We were so excited. First time we'd seen a fuzz pedal.
As for guitars, Teddy had this Gibson and then he got this Guild Artist Award model. I remember that because one time we were playing in England that guitar flew past my head and down a flight of stairs. (laughs) He was drunk on stage and I got mad at him. He said, "This guitar is no damn good." And I said, "What about the guitar player?" The guitar came past my head and bounced down about a flight and a half of stairs and was decimated. This huge beautiful, inlaid jazz guitar. (both laugh)
WS: Do you remember your extended run with Van Morrison at The Bitter End in '67?
JH: (Irish accent) Do I have the stories for you there, me lad! (chuckling mischievously) We worked with Van at The Bitter End. He had this pick-up band. Charlie Brown and this drummer . . . they were flat-out freaks. They were total drug-crazed people. He decided he was going to get three backup singers. So he hired three black Bronx girls who had never been in The Village before in their life. They didn't know anything about rock n roll or folk music. They were R & B backup singers.
Van had apparently gotten enamoured with The Who. And there he is on stage doing "T.B. Sheets" and he's knocking the glasses off the tables in the front with his feet. He's kicking the microphone stand over. He's smashing into the drum set, crashing into everything. He's taking the microphone . . . and these girls are in the background singing (sings in high falsetto) "Oww, T.B. sheets!" . . . and he's swinging the microphone over his head and it's missing . . . Charlie Brown and the drummer could care less . . . but he's swinging the microphone over the girls' heads and they're ducking and their eyes are getting bigger and bigger. They don't know what the hell's going on. What is this guy doing? They finally look at each other and go off stage. Van keeps on with "T.B. Sheets," screaming and yelling and kicking and breaking shit and just going nuts.
The girls go in the back. I'm sitting in the back of The Bitter End and all of a sudden these girls come out, it was in the winter time, in their fur coats and they walk past the table and I hear one of them say to the other two "That motherfucker's crazy!" All the while Van's still doing "T.B. Sheets." It was one of the funniest moments in my life.
WS: Had you recorded Above Ground Sound yet?
JH: We did Above Ground Sound while we were on this college tour. We went into the studio and did it in about two days. We knew everything cold because we'd been playing it so much and there were only the three of us. We recorded most of it live. We did it the way you did folk music. We didn't have a budget. Freddy Weintraub wouldn't give us any money and we were on a subsidiary label. Our budget was probably five or six thousand bucks. The tragedy was that they lost the stereo mix of that. They did this electronic thing to make it stereo. The stereo album sounds like crap. It sounds like it's delayed. The only decent version is the mono. Then you get to hear the truth of it. It's very raw and simple, but complex musically. It was upsetting. They tried to sell it as a stereo album and it sounded like crap. Anyway, we recorded it in some R & B studio. I can't remember what it was called. James Brown recorded there.
WS: Do you remember playing at The Village Theatre on August 25, 1967 with The Yardbirds and The Youngbloods?
JH: Yes. Yes. And that was the infamous moment of my life when "Dazed And Confused" fell into the loving arms and hands of Jimmy Page.
WS: What exactly is that song about? I've read that it's about a bad acid trip, but the lyrics really don't seem to justify that interpretation.
JH: No, I never took acid. I smoked grass and tripped on it, but I never took acid. I was afraid to take it. The song's about a girl who hasn't decided whether she wants to stay with me or not. It's pretty much one of those love songs. I guess because of the fact that we had this open section, this instrumental break where we were getting into this psychedelic music . . . we weren't really doing it for the actual psychedelic aspects. We were doing it because it was cool to extend songs out and do these long musical ideas, kind of exploding your music out. Letting people riff more.
WS: Was any of the psychedelic music around influencing you directly?
JH: It's kind of hard for me to remember which came first, the chicken or the egg. We were certainly watching The Blues Project at the time. There wasn't anything that they were doing, though, that I remember thinking "Wow, that's cool. I'd like to do something like that." I was very arrogant in that I wanted to be my own person. Nowadays, I think everybody's amazing. Back then I thought nobody could do anything. I thought it was all bad.
I did like a lot of what Dylan was doing, experimenting with words and poetry. Opening up that whole idea of music. But I didn't want to do that. I tried to use a more representational kind of poetry and lyric, but trying to do it so artfully it raised the level up. Like what a Cole Porter would do for a lyric, but putting it into a contemporary setting.
I was influenced by the rock thing in a sense. I didn't want to be rock and roll, but I did like the energy and the mysteriousness and the darkness and the blues of it all. I did like that. I loved The Byrds. And Clarence White. He killed me. I liked a lot of The Stones stuff. That guitar solo on "Honky Tonk Woman" is great. The stuff that influenced me, I never used. The things that I should have been influenced by were the things that I wasn't really doing. I love The Beatles, but not for the music. I do love their music. It was the idea of four guys getting together. I think that's what most of us in the 60s liked, the idea of the camraderie. You know, going on the road and the adventure of rock n roll.
WS: Back to playing live. On "Dazed And Confused" I've read that you would have these dramatic silences, these caesuras.
JH: Yeah, we did do that. We would kind of go down and up and down. We played so much together, especially at The Bitter End, that we would get to our last set and there would still be the same people from our first set. And I've have no more tunes to play. So, I could just get up on stage and Ted and Rick were so great they could just pick it up as I made it up right there and then. Or I'd extend a song out because we had nothing else. We did stuff that would interest us. It wasn't just riffing.
WS: Now, between Above Ground Sound and Katherine December it looks like you had quite a bit of material.
JH: Oh, there's more tunes that never made it. There's a song called "Marionette" that I'll send you. It never got released and it's one of my favorite songs in the same vein as "Leaves Never Break."
WS: I like the sequencing on Katherine, especially how it segues straight from "Leaves Never Break" into "It's Always Somewhere Else." The contrast from the heavy to the light is brilliant.
JH: One of my problems, and it's also my strength, is that I'm very eclectic. Even though it's eclectic, I hope that I'm still there - that it's not just a rock tune, then folk and then jazz. It's the way I look at it all. I'm not a good enough imitator to make those genres . . . oh, I won't get into that! (laughs)
WS: It takes more than one sitting to digest either of these albums. They're very challenging at times.
JH: That's been the bane of my existence. I keep working harder and harder to challenge myself. But the more I challenge myself, the less people want to hear it. (laughs)
WS: Anyway, do you remember that particular show with The Yardbirds?
JH: Great show. They were really great.
WS: Did you interact with them at all before or after the show?
JH: The thing I remember most about interacting with any band was with The Doors. I found them the most hostile, angry, pains-in-the-asses-in-the-world. I spent a whole afternoon in a trailer with them for a TV show and that was a disaster.
But as for The Yardbirds, we were also playing with The Youngbloods. I knew them much better, especially Jesse (Colin Young) from the Go Go. I loved them. Especially Jesse's voice.
WS: Did you know that The Yardbirds had incorporated "Dazed And Confused" into their repertoire when they returned to New York City the next spring?
JH: (laughs) I had no idea. I had no idea.
WS: When did you find out that Zeppelin did it?
JH: When the album came out! And then, stupidly, I never followed up on it. In the early 1980's, I did write them a letter and I said basically "I understand it's a collaborative effort, but I think you should give me some credit at least and some remunity." But they never contacted me.
WS: Well, The Yardbirds just came out with a CD of archival material (ed. note: Cumular Limit) and they included a version of your song that they did on French t.v. in 1968. And it's credited properly! It reads "Jake Holmes; arranged by The Yardbirds."
JH: (laughs) God! Really! Get out of town!
WS: I just interviewed two of The Yardbirds for another piece and they don't split hairs at all. They say the song is definitely yours.
JH: (laughs in disbelief)
WS: Do you want to hear one more thing?
JH: (laughs) I'm starting to get weird here. But yes!
WS: The Yardbirds are back together and they play your song!
JH: (laughs hysterically) Well, that's nice to hear.
WS: Further, there's a compilation out right now that has "Leaves Never Break" on it. It's called Growing Slowly Insane. Actually, WFMU in New Jersey plays that song and "Dazed And Confused" quite a bit.
JH: Please e-mail me this information.
WS: Let's back up. How did you get hooked up with Tower Records? Not exactly a folk label. They were famous for butchering Pink Floyd's first album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and cod-hobbling The Chocolate Watch Band. You would have been better on Elektra.
JH: That was Fred Weintraub. He was always making deals. My first album, which was Allen & Grier, was on some subsidiary of Vee Jay Records. He was always coming up with these strange subsidiary labels. I think he had some kind of double deal with the record companies where he got part ownership. He was always putting us on these labels I never heard of. At that point he was managing me. I wasn't up to speed on that business stuff. Very young and foolish. The Columbia deal I actually made for myself. That was later on.
WS: Surprisingly, you seemed to have quite a bit of artistic control for an artist on Tower.
JH: We had good control over it. Certainly for Katherine December there were a few session musicians, but I was overseeing all of it. Charlie Fox came in later and wrote the arrangements off of what we did. We were trying to be like The Beatles and George Martin.
My problems didn't start until So Close. I began to get in trouble because Clive Davis wanted me to repeat the hit. Then I was kind of stuck. I should have been going more and more left, but I was going more and more right. A little success can sometimes hurt you more than none. I would have probably been better off being an unknown drug addict, dead now, all my albums would be . . .
JH: (loud laughter)
WS: As for Katherine, what is "Leaves Never Break" about?
JH: It's about despair. It was at a time when I wasn't in a very happy place. It's about how you appear not to be in trouble, but you're really in trouble. You mask it pretty well. The album itself, Letter To Katherine December is code. It's to my first wife. My first wife was Kay, Katherine. We separated in December. It had been a whole big thing, she ran off with my manager, my other manager. And I had never gotten over it. That album was my chance to say, "I'm over it. I'm on my own. I'm okay." In a sense, success is the best revenge. Kind of "This is how good I am without you." She was my writing partner when we wrote our first comedy album as Allen & Grier. I was always thinking to myself "Can I do this without her?"
WS: Is it kind of a concept album? Or am I reading too much into it?
JH: Not really. I definitely come from a theatre-oriented background. I'm a theatre-writer with a guitar. I'm always thinking theatrically. So, it's not actually a concept, but theatre. The way I programmed an album and sequenced the songs, I would think about how the songs would affect one another. It was part of creating a show. I didn't think along musical lines like "This song is in D and this song is in G so they can go together." It was more along the lines of "This song is about this, this song has this feeling."
And also when you're writing a bunch of songs at the same time you're trying to say some of the same things because you're in the same place, so there is a kind of continuity. It wasn't written as a concept album, but every album I've done is kind of a concept album. The album I did for Frank Sinatra was a definite concept album. But as for Katherine, you're right to a point. It's not an accident that it has a theme running through it. But I didn't sit down and say, "I'm going to write a concept album."
WS: Let's talk about Watertown as long as we're there. You wrote that with Bob Gaudio from The Four Seasons.
JH: (laughs) That was a great experience. Talk about two people who . . . did you ever hear an album that Leonard Cohen did with Phil Spector?
WS: Death Of A Ladies Man.
JH: Yeah. You talk about putting two disparate characters together and coming up with this thing . . . it was the funniest thing in the world. Bobby Gaudio and I are completely different. Yet in a lot of ways we are alike. We really got along. I loved him. I had a great time doing the album. I was going through what would be considered high anxiety at the time. I was having what we now call panic attacks. Half the time I was panicked, but the other half of the time I was having a real good time.
We'd be sitting in his kitchen and have these guys who looked like they were from "The Sopranos" coming in. They'd say (imitating New York Italian accent) "Hey, Bob! I got a jukebox for you." And they'd wheel in a jukebox. Then we'd go outside to the trunk of his car and he'd say "Okay. What do you want. I got three stereos in here. I got a couple coats. What do you like?" It was all his buddies from school, these Mafia-types.
One of my favorite stories is standing out in front of The Bitter End with all my comic buddies. I hung out with the comedians. Anyway, this limo pulls up and one of my friends says (sarcastically) "That's yours, right, Jake?" And I just looked at him and said (cool) "Yep." I got in the limo and drove off! Gaudio used to send a limo to pick me up and drive me to his mansion so we could write. And I left these comics standing there with their mouths hanging open.
My other favorite story is when Bobby was waiting for Sinatra to come to his house. He keeps calling Frank, saying "You coming, Frank?" Finally, Sinatra calls him at the beginning of the week and says, "I'll be there Saturday." And Bobby says, "Oh, my god! I can't have him here. I don't have a pool!" So, he calls all his friends and they come out and dig a pool! (laughing) And there's twenty guys walking around with hair-dryers drying the cement, trying to get this thing done in time. And of course Sinatra calls on Saturday and says that he can't come.
We did two albums actually. We did one with The Four Seasons. They did a version of my song, "Geniune Imitation Life." They wanted to do their Sergeant Pepper's.
WS: The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette album.
JH: Yeah. It is hysterical. We did news article. It's this incredibly baroque album with all these cartoons. All based on The Four Seasons. It's bizarre. It's like a newspaper. It was hugely expensive. They must have spent a fortune on it. I guess they considered the collaboration a success. Sinatra must have heard it and asked us to do an album for him.
So, I decided to write a story for him. What's interesting is that after that album for Sinatra, I went on tour in England. Sinatra had just broken up with Mia Farrow. The English press were thinking "My god. This is brilliant. You've written this album about a man whose been left by this woman." I had no idea! They were together when I wrote the album. I lucked into this whole thing. I became a celebrity in England for a while because I had written this thing that mirrored Frank's life. I just thought it would be cool to write an album that had a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. And that he would do as a television special or something. But it never worked out.
WS: Do you remember the Chad Mitchell covers of your stuff?
JH: Geez no. What did he cover?
WS: It's from Chad in 1968. A thing called "Love Trilogy," which has three of your songs in it - "Wish I Was Anywhere Else," "Chase Your Eyes" and "Late Sleeping Day." And he also does "Genuine Imitation Life."
JH: I've never heard that! Send me a copy! Poor Chad. I loved Chad. He was a very sweet man. When he left that trio, his career began to go downhill. He ended up going down to Mexico and buying a whole vanload of marijuana. It was his last shot. He got busted when he came back over the border. He was such a nice man. I was heartbroken when that happened.
WS: How about your next albums for Polydor, Jake Holmes and So Close, So Very Far To Go? You almost had a hit with the song "So Close."
JH: I did. It was a Top Ten record in a lot of cities. We had a problem with distribution in some cities. It could have been Top Five. At that time, there were five other strong power ballads on the charts. I think there was a Michael Jackson song. It was fighting a pretty hard battle. But the problem with that song was . . . it would get to a radio station and do well after two weeks. Some of the stations would pull it after a week. It was a song that took awhile to get people's attention. Even that song, which I thought was pretty straight-forward, took a while for people to get. And the stations would pull it after a week just as it began to sell, but they wouldn't put it back in rotation.
I had this kid in New York, a place that never breaks records, and he adored it. He just went around and pushed it and pushed it. It was a Top Ten record in New York. It was a Top Ten record in probably ten cities. I got a lot of play out of it. It was a so-called hit. I got a lot of stuff out of it. I was able to do television. It was considered a hit by the industry.
WS: You talked earlier about how a little bit of success is worse than none at all. How did this glimpse of success affect you?
JH: Since those times I've become more and more of a socialist. I think that our country is so oriented on this mindset that not only do you have to be rich, but you have to be famous to be considered successful. At that time, I didn't really have enough confidence in my own ability to be successful within what I liked. I was trying all the time to be a star. I didn't want to be an unknown. I didn't understand that. That song was a turning point. If there had been a record company or somebody like a Lenny Waronker, who nurtured Randy Newman and let him go and be what he was and didn't worry about how much he sold and kept him on the label . . . if I'd had a label that nurtured me and said, "You're a different kind of talent. You're a Tim Buckley or one of those guys that doesn't fit the patterns, but you're interesting and let's keep running with him because he's interesting and maybe he'll come up with something interesting."
Instead, I had these record company executives always saying, "You got to have a hit. If you don't have a hit, we're going to get rid of you." I stopped putting the emphasis on the content of my work and started to concentrate on writing hits. I was trying to figure out how to get into the market, which everybody was trying to do. It's not a unique problem. But that was detrimental to my creative career, not my career itself because I started to make money writing commercials. But it affected my creative career in a negative aspect. I learned to play the game. As I've gotten older I realize that I don't want to play the game. I want to do stuff that I like. You might not like it, but I do. It's not important to me anymore that people like what I do. I just want to do what I want.
I've been working with Harry Belafonte on a lot of projects. And I get a chance to explore the political aspects of my writing. I'm not writing about love as much as about the world. I'm trying to write about it in an artful way, not just polemics. There's a couple of songs I've written that I really, really like. There's one I've written called "Dangerous Time To Love."
WS: Now this is something new?
JH: Yes. I recorded a new album in my house. Basically, it's me and the guitar with a little bit of support. It's very simple. Nothing more than four instruments. I haven't released it yet because I've got so much on my plate.
WS: Now what about your last album, How Much Time, on Columbia? You stopped recording after that, didn't you?
JH: That was a disaster. I stopped recording because they dropped me from the label after that album. I started out with Elliot Mazer in Nashville. I thought we were beginning to find something. Then in the middle of the album he ran off to work with Neil Young. I ended up working with a woman who I had been doing commercials with and that ended up a disaster. We went in with some studio guys and she was really bossy and pushed me into areas that I wouldn't have gone into. At the same time, the more successful I got the more insecure I got. It was the reverse thing. Suddenly, everything meant . . . it was okay when you had nothing on the line. You just did whatever you wanted, even if it was weird. But with success, you had people saying, "You got to do this. You need a hit. If you don't, you can't play here. Or we won't let you make another album."
I fell into that same trap so many people do. And because I have, I've become more cognizant of writing the song for the song, not writing for the hit. I've learned that if you have more faith in what you do you can make a living doing what you do and being true to your vision. Tom Rush is a great example. You have your own record label, you sell your own records . . . say you sell 100 records a week at clubs where you're gigging or through the mail, that's 1,000 bucks a week. If you're not going to be selling a million records, it's better to own your own record and distribute it yourself. You'll make the same amount of money.
And people have learned that. Everybody does that nowadays. A lot of people now have the mindset that they don't want to be a rock n roll superstar. First of all, who wants to go play stadiums for three million people when none of them are going to hear you? It doesn't mean anything. I'd prefer to play for 500 people who are listening carefully.
Back to Columbia, it was a disaster. It was produced wrong. The songs didn't have the treatment they should have. I was writing it in one direction and they were being produced in another. If I had more confidence in what I was doing, I would have done them much differently than they were done.
WS: Was this country-ish thing a natural progression for you? Or was it because you were in Nashville?
JH: Half of that last album was in Nashville and half was in New York. I have a sort of a country bent. I can identify with it. I've gotten more into this world music over the years, especially working with Harry Belafonte. I've got a great affinity for it, but it's very close to country in a weird way. I've never been a rock and roller. I like the blues and its edginess, but I've never been a rock and roller. I've gotten more into finger-picking guitar and more melody. I like that part of it. And not contemporary country music. That's really pop.
WS: Redneck pop. It's not Hank Senior, that's for sure.
JH: Definitely not. But I love pedal-steel. Anyway, working down there was great. I like the flavor of country. I would have never done that shit-kicking stuff, but I like the influence. I had Kenny Buttrey playing drums down there. A real player. He had this white Cadillac. And on the back he had a peace sticker and a "Vote For Wallace" sticker. I kept asking, "What is that?" And he said (imitating Southern accent), "Well, that means I smoke marijuana and that means I'm voting for Wallace." He didn't understand what the peace sign meant. (laughs)
When I went down there the first time, we did this recording. Wayne Moss, the guitar player, had this tiny little studio. They had a band, Area Code 615. It was this rock-country thing that Elliot Mazer had produced. Anyway, there was this eight-track studio in the garage and they put me in the booth to sing. So, I'm waiting and waiting. And after about ten minutes I leave the booth and there's nobody in the studio. I go outside and they're all playing baseball. And they'd shout at me (imitating Southern accent) "Where you been?" They'd give all the Yankees shit when they came down to record. Then you were part of the gang and we'd go hang out.
WS: Tell me about your commercial career. People probably don't realize they know your stuff more from commercials than your serious music. Growing up in the 1970s, that stuff's still stuck in my head.
JH: Yeah, that would be true, wouldn't it? (laughs) Well, the most famous ones were probably "Be All You Can Be" for the Army and "Raise Your Hand If You're Sure" for Sure deodorant and the "Be A Pepper" for Dr. Pepper. Those are my hits. (laughs)
WS: It's very fascinating because it's such a departure from the standard rock and roll cliche.
JH: (laughs) Yeah, instead of taking drugs I sell them!
WS: Seriously, some people would have never been able to get over getting so close to success. A lot of folks couldn't pull themselves together after getting that close and then go on to success in another arena. That's admirable.
JH: Thanks very much. I don't think I ever became a drug addict because I was too afraid of getting high and losing control. My guitar player could drink 40,000 quarts of liquor and still walk around. I'd drink one glass of wine and fall down. I couldn't compete. People like Keith Moon . . . I was on tour with Stone The Crows . . . Maggie Bell , what fun. They'd start drinking at noon and my guitar player would join them. I couldn't do that. I would be unconscious if I did. I had too much of a survival instinct.
WS: Apparently, you've been a little competitive in the commercial arena with Tom Dawes and Don Dannemann of The Cyrkle (ed. note: of "Red Rubber Ball" fame).
JH: We used to fight a lot for that. Everybody was competing. I still do. I like doing it. I like the challenge. I like writing something that's a challenge. How can you write something about beans and make it interesting? I'm kind of like the scientist who works on the atom bomb because he likes science.
I like any kind of challenge. That's one reason I like working with Harry Belafonte. We write something with meaning. I'm working on an autobiography with him, an album of songs covering his life. It's great working with him because I get to go to places I would never be able to. I've been to Cuba twice and Zimbabwe and South Africa. I go places and see thing that I never would with the show biz crowd. I've met Nelson Mandela, Bishop Tutu and the president of Mozambique. It's beyond show business. It's into the important part of life. I'm beholden to him. My life's been enriched from having had the chance to hang with him.
WS: That's a good place to leave it for now. Jake, thanks so much.
JH: Thank you. It's been fun. I'm having acid flashbacks! (laughs)
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