By Richie Unterberger

David Ackles's 1968 self-titled Elektra debut (also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music) had unveiled one of the most unusual singer-songwriters of the late 1960s. Brooding and intense, if leavened by a certain proud resilience and touches of mordant whimsy, it also merged the late-1960s Elektra house rock sound with elements of Ackles's background in musical theater. His 1969 follow-up Subway to the Country was still, just about, a rock singer-songwriter record. Yet it amplified the theatrical facet of his work, while expanding from a rock base into more involved and orchestrated arrangements.

    Ackles had cut his first album with rock musicians (most of whom would later play in Rhinoceros) who had played with Iron Butterfly, the Electric Flag, and Buffalo Springfield. Only one of those session men, guitarist Doug Hastings, would reappear in the credits to Subway to the Country. More than 20 musicians, in fact, would contribute to the record, produced by Russ Miller (who had co-produced David Ackles with David Anderle), among them such A-team L.A. session cats as drummer Jim Gordon and bassist Larry Knechtel. For all that traffic, the arrangements were sharply honed, with Fredric Myrow adding the most orchestral colors with his arranging and conducting.

    "Because they'd been friends in school, my guess would be that David brought in Fred Myrow," remembers Janice Vogel Ackles, the singer-songwriter's widow, who was in the studio for part of the recording. "My thought would be using more musicians was probably David's concept, because I can't imagine Russ initially coming up with that idea. It seems more complicated than something he might want to do upfront. David always had very, very definite ideas about what he wanted to do, perhaps sometimes to his detriment -- I say that lovingly. He would never take the easy road."

    Like Ackles, Myrow had no background to speak of in rock music, but somehow got drawn into the unpredictable net of Elektra's rock roster in the late 1960s, when borders of all kinds were falling right and left. He'd been a composer-in-residence under Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic, but by the late 1960s was scoring an experimental movie for former UCLA film student-turned-rock-star Jim Morrison, Highway. Myrow would go on to discuss a creating a musical with Morrison, with Myrow doing the music and Morrison the text and lyrics, although those plans were scrapped after the Doors' singer's death in 1971. Fred subsequently scored several movies, most famously Phantasm, before dying in 1999, only about six weeks before Ackles passed away. "Fred Myrow was certainly from a very classical background and discipline," notes Janice Vogel Ackles. "He added some really interesting things, tonally, to the album. I know that David was extremely pleased about that."

    The focus, though, was still very much on Ackles's songs, which were leaning further toward the Brecht-Weillian bent that would become even more pronounced on his next two albums. "Main Line Saloon" and "Inmates of the Institution" in particular were populated by a gallery of disjointed funhouse characters and permeated by a gallows humor. Yet there was also the almost tender and lush balladry of "That's No Reason to Cry," in which Ackles sounds rather like a cross between Randy Newman and Scott Walker; the character study of the grotesque child abuser in "Candy Man," a lyrical field rarely explored in pop music; the hymnal feel of "Out on the Road"; the nearly-country-rock of "Cabin on the Mountain"; and the languorous, yet ominous, lounge jazz of "Woman River." "Subway to the Country" itself was a neat encapsulation of Ackles's penchant for unexpected lyrical juxtapositions, with its anthemic longing for escape from the Big Apple to country bliss set alongside the grim realities of urban squalor and poverty.

    Subway to the Country was not an easy sell, falling between theatrical pop and the rock underground. Like David Ackles, it was a much bigger hit among critics than consumers. Promoting the records onstage wasn't easy either. Although he did some live work, sometimes with up-and-coming stars like Joni Mitchell and Elton John, his only stage accompaniment was his own piano, and Janice Vogel Ackles acknowledges that her husband wasn't the most comfortable of solo performers.

    "He enjoyed singing, but I don't think he enjoyed performing live," she reflects. "Some of that came through in his performances. It was very difficult for him. He was just a bundle of anxiety. He would always get sick, literally, right before he would perform. It was sort of amazing to me because of the amount of stage experience that he'd had in his life. I just don't think he was comfortable being up there as David Ackles. If he was asked to go on and sing and play as Oscar Levant, it might have been easier for him. Any theater piece would have been fine. But to be out there just kind of exposing your soul, I think, was extremely difficult."

    Yet he was winning over important fans such as Elton John, for whom Ackles opened at the Troubadour club in L.A. in 1970, and John's lyricist, Bernie Taupin. The pair were already aware of his first two Elektra albums as avid young British collectors scouring the import bins, and according to Taupin, "There was nothing quite like it. It's been said so many times, but his stuff was sort of [like] Brecht and Weill, and theatrical. It was very different than what the other singer-songwriters of the time were doing. There was also a darkness to it, which I really, really loved, because that was the kind of material that I was drawn to."

    By the time of the Troubadour gig, he adds, "Those albums were firm favorites of both mine and Elton's. We found that David was our opening act, which we were sort of staggered by. The fact that we felt we were usurping his sort of territory was kind of embarrassing to us. But David, being David, was such a gentleman. We became very good friends, and he decided he wanted to come and spend some time in England." That friendship would blossom into a professional relationship when Taupin produced Ackles's third and final Elektra album, a story which is continued on Collectors' Choice Music's reissue of that record, American Gothic. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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