THE GENT WHO CHOSE THE STREET
Photos from the JP Jones website
JP Jones, An Interview
by Mark S. Tucker
PSF: When did you first feel the call to become a musician? What had been your other ambitions?
JP JONES: I grew up in Springfield, Mass., at a time when the neighborhood was 90% black. I had a few black friends and a few white friends, but it was clear that I spoke a different language than the blacks - the "king's english,' I suppose - and so I was "better" in my classes than the other kids. Everything I touched was gold. I could have been anything I wanted, except for a good athlete, which I sorely wanted to be. The only game I got good at was golf, and no poet can be a good golfer.
I was sent to Wilbraham Academy where I was near the top of my class all the time. Go figure. I was "a genius." Screw that. Sooner or later, you have to choose: straight or the street. I chose the street. 1975 and I was living at Bard [Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY], sleeping in my brother's room. Outside the window, the sun was coming in on a slant, lighting up the base of the trees.
Late September: I had just fallen in love with this girl, F, with whom I would never have a real relationship. Not for the next 15 years. Or forever. I knelt on the floor and had a vision of what I had always wanted to be. It was horrifying - of all the things you get to be, one happens and the rest go out the door; now you have to be what you are. Yeats, Blake, Whitman - you name 'em - I saw I was in the tradition of the New England Transcendentalists. It didn't mean I was any good, it didn't mean that I would have a place in the years to come, just that I was in that tradition. I wept.
I like your question - "the call" and all. If it's not that, I don't know what it is.
PSF: You seem to really enjoy bouncing between modernist folk and stripped-down old school. Who have your influences been on both sides of the fence?
JPJ: I can't give you a list, because I'd have to include the people who didn't influence me. My influences are obvious. The Mamas and Papas really jazzed me up with "Monday Monday." Where do I go after that? Tchaikovsky? Schoenberg? Bernstein?
PSF: It's also obvious you're a sonic omnivore with many styles blended into your songs. Who do you favor in jazz?
JPJ: I don't get jazz a lot of the time. It's way over my head. John Coltrane...? Not to mention a whole string of players who make me look like the fool I am. But Miles Davis and the whole fusion thing that came out of the '70's was very attractive. I actually attempted to play some of that with friends. Atonal jazz I had to reject the same as atonal "classical" music finally.
My ability to play what I hear is hampered by a lack of technical proficiency. My hands can't keep up with my head. I accept that I'm a writer and composer rather than an improvising player. Another lifetime...
The fact is that jazz, like 18th century Classical, and opera in general have not been a direct influence on what I do, though I like much of what I've heard. My formative years - late teens to mid-twenties - were informed in a haphazard way, as I listened to the radio and picked up albums more or less at random. I don't base my likes and dislikes around any genre. I learned a long time ago that great music exists almost anywhere you look, and a little patience and effort is all it takes to find it.
PSF: How did the signing to Windfall occur and did you ever get a chance to meet the Mountain guys (Leslie West, Felix Pappalardi, Corky Laing)?
JPJ: Nothing and nowhere. That was another lifetime, and I don't feel connected with what happened back then. It doesn't seem like the people I was involved with really knew what they were doing. Better include me in that group.
PSF: Are you looking at getting the rights to the Windfall LP back?
JPJ: I couldn't care less.
PSF: You've shared stages with a number of industry giants. Have any anecdotes?
JPJ: I could do anecdotes with you personally, but not in print. Where my memories are unpleasant, I don't see a point in going over them. Where they were positive, I don't see any need to drop a lot of names. I have to work with what I've got now.
PSF: Why the long period between the collapse of Windfall and your emergence over a decade later as an indie musician?
JPJ: This is personal information. It had to do with my "peeps," those people who supported me when I needed it most. I don't need to share that information with anyone else. I can say that though there wasn't any support from the "industry," I continued to write and play the songs solo and with a number of bands.
PSF: Obvously, your talent was ripe for the exploitation or producers never would have approached you, so what occurred with Freeman and Hammond Sr.?
JPJ: I don't want to talk about Ed or John in print. These are lovely people who had personal problems with who I was/am. Let it be.
PSF: Have you had any recurrence of feelers from big-time scouts over the years?
JPJ: Not that I'm aware of. You got any?
PSF: I only wish! Alvin Lee [guitarist, Ten Years After], in reflecting on the difference between his old superstar days and later cottage-industry label mode, was happy never to go back to the arena circuit, saying that it damn near killed him. What was your experience, when playing on bills with Springsteen and such, in being so close to that milieu?
JPJ: I never was away from it.
JPJ: When I signed on for this job, I never imagined that commercial success and being involved in the "industry" was a qualification. Sure has been a frustration and represents a great danger, but, as it's turned out, not a determining factor in whether I do it or not. The job of any performer in any arena is to receive the projections of his audience. I doubt whether most people who do it are conscious of the responsibility it entails, but everyone's got to feel it on some level. I don't want to die for rock and roll, I want to live for the joy of expressing what somebody else may not be able to express. That's the job.
PSF: Were you concerned about whether or not being honest would screw your chances in a market filled with people professing Christianity but not having a real clue about it, people who don't like much spirituality in their musical fare?
JPJ: I suppose I've been concerned with whether being honest or not might affect my livelihood. Christianity per se is not my main concern. I'm not a Christian and I'm not not a Christian. I believe in God, but that's such a huge issue and why would I want to tie it to my success or relevance? It's a personal matter. Christians, so-called, can be extremely pushy, claiming that they have the only way to live. That's just foolish, albeit well-meaning. And that attitude has more to do with war than love. Some of my freinds at Seminary, who were also "dis-illusioned," used to joke: "So my bliss in heaven is going to be enhanced by looking down and seeing all of the unsaved souls burning in hell forever???"
PSF: Are you aware of the "God beyond God" philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin and Bishop Pike, amongst others? Do you see it as a better description of the divine than what the Bible sets forth?
JPJ: Now you have my attention. Say more.
PSF: Upon a read of scripture and much thought, it occurred to them that the God of the Bible couldn't possibly be the God of Creation. The Biblical God was far too violent, vindictive, childish, evil. They posited that whatever it was the Bible was describing must be a minor deity of some sort and that the true God resided well outside the realm of the Biblical God. In many ways, it approached agnosticism, the idea of the Prime Mover Unmoved, the non-involved deity. Keep in mind that Pike was a radical Catholic progressive, took LSD and such. In many ways, the idea was an advancement of Erasmus' humanism well beyond Christian religious conventions... to me, very Spinozan. How does the notion strike you?
JPJ: That's a long question. You like to push this "Christianity" thing, huh? James Hillman - you know his work? - calls it "Christianism." Bishop Pike and Teilhard de Chardin didn't grab my attention the way Marin Buber and Paul Tillich did. I was reading people like this at the same time I was at Baptist Bible Seminary, a fundamentalist school in Johnson City, NY, and then Clarks Summit, PA. All I remember about Spinoza is the idea that this is the best of all possible worlds, ridiculed by Voltaire in Candide. But Voltaire was a popular writer and missed the point: it's the best of all possible worlds because anything that can be conceived of as existing, exists. That's a sloppy reading of Spinoza, but it works. It's a psychedelic universe - ‘psyche' equaling "mind" and 'delic' equaling "manifesting." It's not a cozy world at all, nor reassuring for people who want their religion literal and fundamentalist. The most important writer/philosopher for me for many years was Jane Roberts. She's the earliest writer I know to popularize the phrase: "You create your own reality." I believe that.
PSF: Where does agnosticism stand in your regard? Atheism?
JPJ: Ideas. Just ideas.
PSF: Equal to religious ideas? Inferior? Superior?
JPJ: Why try to identify your stance? As I said, we create our own reality. The world is as we perceive it: a reflection of our beliefs and attitudes. We are gods, creating the world every moment. That's a gift from God - or All That Is, as some would say.
PSF: What or where is Voluntown?
JPJ: A small town in Connecticut.
PSF: What about it affected you that you'd "dedicate" a CD to it? Is it the Everyman's Everytown or is it one of those particularly affective places that stand out from others?
JPJ: It was my Everyman's Everytown at the time I lived there.
PSF: So many lines in your lyrics are brilliant - for instance, from "Revelation" (from Thugs and Lovers): "One day you wake up with the wind / and know you have to go". Do you labor long and hard over lines and stanzas or does it come naturally?
JPJ: My lyrics come from some place I have no idea about, but they come fast and furious or they don't come at all. "Revelation" is one of my favorite songs.
PSF: The songs, then, play you, rather than the other way around?
JPJ: Yeah, I don't know how to answer this. Here's an example: I'm falling asleep in my little loft bed in Danielson, CT, and I hear a song in my head. Suddenly, I realize that I've never heard it before. And I like it, so I get up, go out to the shop at the front of the building, grab my guitar and a pen and write down the words on a cardboard box while still trying to hear the song as I did in my sleep. That was "Prophet in His Prime." Did I write that, or did it write me?
PSF: Ever thought of adapting Bard to a rehearsed ensemble and expanded version, with strings and etc. - not that I'm saying you could afford it right now, but, if you could, would you?
JPJ: If I could, I'd stage it with a full orchestra and chorus - live, with real musicians.
PSF: What circuit do you follow when you tour?
JPJ: Whatever pays me.
PSF: What's your connection with the Rhode Island Progressive League?
JPJ: Don't know shit about it.
PSF: Given the sentiment of "Poodles from Hell" (from Broken Open), I'm guessing you're about as happy with the present Networking Society - the modus of the advantaged - we live in as I am. As someone who rightly criticizes the too many foibles of the human creature, eventually some sort of political foundation forms. Where do your political convictions - or ideas - fall?
JPJ: I don't really understand politics. I don't feel competent to talk about politics in general, though I have my likes and dislikes. It's curious how the meaning of the word "cynic" has changed. Originally, it meant someone who believes in virtue and self control. Now when we say someone's "cynical," it means they believe people are motivated only by selfishness. You almost see the sneer on someone's face....
We all have the need to experience our personal power in life. That drive is supreme, and if there's a "purpose" to life, it must have something to do with learning how to be effective in expressing personal power. Politics is the public arena for that personal power. Of one thing I'm certain: the desire for power, when understood as power over others, is a dead end, a trap, the opposite of freedom. When all avenues for personal power, which I see as nothing less than personal creativity, are blocked, then violence is the result - violence against the self, violence against others - and violence is the passive surrender to feelings, not the creative expression of them.
Politics is an honorable calling and needs honorable people. This cynicism, which is sexy and seems to be so clever, only alienates, not just from the outside world, but from our most intimate people. Cynicism poisons the soul. What do we do about this disease of our age? It's also curious to me how "liberals" can have such a low opinion of people and "conservatives" don't seem to give a damn about conserving anything except their own lifestyle.
I believe in human beings. I believe people are inherently good, though we sure are capable of a lot of nastiness. I also feel a lot of shame and depression about things I can't control. I'm pretty much like a lot of people I know. I'm probably at my best in my work and from time to time in my close personal relationships. I believe in love and work. I believe in kindness and honesty and having fun. What else ya got?
See our JP Jones two-part article
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