In my Ball Four Outtakes post a few months ago, I discussed the unedited full transcripts of the audio tapes Jim Bouton recorded for the basis of his classic book about his experiences in the 1969 season. These are available at the Library of Congress, though you have to make arrangements to view them in person at the library in Washington, DC. I also detailed some examples of interesting material that didn’t make the book, even if Bouton and his collaborator/editor Leonard Shecter almost always picked the best stories and observations for the final manuscript published in 1970.
There are many other items that didn’t make the book, some trivial or of not nearly as much value as what made the cut. Some of the omissions, however, were noteworthy, even if they weren’t on the level of what you read in Ball Four. Here are a few other examples, for what might be called Ball Four outtakes.
**One of the most colorfully controversial stories of the era in major league baseball took place the year after Ball Four, when Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter, or so he at least sometimes claimed, on LSD. Acid isn’t mentioned in Ball Four, but it turns out shortly before 1969, Bouton and fellow Yankee pitcher Fritz Peterson went to Haight-Ashbury and were offered LSD by a youngster calling himself the Acid Man. Bouton demurred, in part because he thought he might be used in relief (presumably the Yankees were playing in Oakland). Peterson pointed out Jim couldn’t pitch any worse on LSD, considering how he’d been pitching of late.
**There’s an interesting observation on pitcher abuse, before that term was used, that’s both perceptive yet at the same time illustrates how faulty memories could be even four years after the fact — and how difficult it was to check on their accuracy in the days long before baseballreference.com. Bouton’s career went sharply downhill starting in 1965, when he went 4-15 with a 4.82 ERA after winning 21 games in 1963 and 18 in 1964 (and pitching very well in three World Series starts, winning two of them in 1964). He blames the sore arm he developed in 1965 in part on pitching eleven innings on a cold-weather opening day versus future Hall of Famer Jim Kaat, whose Minnesota Twins went on to win the pennant that year.
These days no pitcher goes eleven innings, let alone on a cold opening day after, according to Bouton, going no more than six innings in spring training. As he correctly points out, it’s poor management to risk someone’s long-term career by using a pitcher that way in cold conditions so early in the season.
But when you go to baseballreference.com to check the boxscore, it didn’t happen that way. Bouton went just five innings, not pitching that well, giving up four earned runs. The game did go eleven innings, the Yankees ultimately losing. Maybe Bouton felt sore during or after the game, and retrospectively blamed this on pitching too long when remembering how long the contest lasted. Whatever the case, he never would pitch too well in the majors again, though his status as opening day starter indicates the Yankees were expecting him to.
**In about the only story in the book that reflects badly on a member of the Astros, Bouton writes about a fight breaking out on the team bus after Jimmy Ray makes fun of Wade Blasingame. Several members of the Astros got up to block a coach’s view of what was going on, so the incident didn’t blow up any more than they thought necessary. In the transcript (but not the book), those members are named: future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, star outfielder Jimmy Wynn, and Curt Blefary. Jim especially praises pitcher Denny Lemaster for telling the coach (also named, Buddy Hancken) to get back to the front of the bus where he belonged. Bouton also hails Lemaster, the Astros’ player representative, for not being shy of standing up to coaches and the team’s general manager.
**In a take on baseball politics that didn’t make it into the book, Bouton notes that player representatives seem to get traded more often than others, in the days when a strong baseball union was just getting off the ground under Marvin Miller. This is specifically sparked by relief pitcher Jack Aker, the Pilots’ player rep, getting traded early in 1969. Aker, who generally had a good career (including leading the American League with 32 saves in 1966), was off to a poor start with Seattle, with a 7.56 ERA after fifteen games, which could be seen as reasonable justification. He was traded to the Yankees for Fred Talbot, who had a mediocre career (and barely pitched in the majors after 1969), and to Bouton the trade didn’t make sense. Aker righted himself with the Yankees, putting up a 2.06 ERA the rest of the year, and had five more good-to-average years.
**Mike Marshall would become one of baseball’s most successful relief pitchers for much of the 1970s, albeit with some down years. In 1974, he won 15 games and saved 22, setting a still-standing record for pitchers of appearing in 106 games. In Seattle he was used as a starter and, after some early success, did poorly, getting sent down to the minors in July. Bouton points out that in the minors he quickly pitched better, in part because Marshall was able to set his own pitching program instead of fitting into what Seattle wanted. He also points out that after seeing Jack Aker pitch much better with the Yankees, Pilots manager Joe Schultz might be starting to understand that it was better to leave pitchers alone with their methods instead of trying to impose these on them. Schultz wouldn’t have much of a chance to try that out, getting fired after the season, the only one in which he’d manage in the big leagues.
**There aren’t many comments in the book about then-Washington Senators manager Ted Williams and then-Minnesota Twins manager Billy Martin, but the ones that were used weren’t negative. In the transcripts, Bouton does cite a newspaper article — probably hard to track down now, especially as he doesn’t name the publication — where Martin criticizes Williams for being the kind of player who wouldn’t get his uniform dirty or slide to break up a play. Jim admires Martin for having the guts to say this, considering how canonized Williams, one of the greatest hitters of all time, already was by 1969. Acknowledging he never saw Williams play, Bouton does remember Ted being a player who didn’t give his all on defense or being that well-rounded in his effort.
**Bouton’s very complimentary about Tommy Davis in the book. Briefly a superstar in the early 1960s with the Dodgers, when he one two batting championships, Davis never recaptured his peak performance after breaking his ankle in 1965. But Jim praises Tommy for being one of the Pilots’ team leaders. Of greater interest, he notes that on most other clubs, there were factions in which team leaders gathered around black players or white players, without overlap.
**In a small fun story about how the game is played, Bouton remembers how umpires would speed up games to make sure they finished quickly, whether because of rain or other reasons. Specifically, he relates a story from Tommy Davis of how on the Dodgers, Junior Gilliam was told by an umpire who had an appointment to get to with one out in the ninth inning that if there was a ground ball, Gilliam could get the first out and the umpire would get the second to complete the double play. Gilliam got a ground ball, and the umpire called the runner out at first base before the ball got there.
**In Ball Four, Bouton is very critical of some elements of the Yankees, whether specific players, the culture of the club, the executives he dealt with, or manager Ralph Houk. Yet he wanted very much to be able to play for them again, if in large part because his home and family were in New York and he wanted to be based there. Extraordinarily, he even said he’d be willing to go to New York’s minor league system to work on his knuckleball if he could get back in the organization. He noted he’d be willing to play for the Mets too, though 1969 being the Miracle Mets year of their surprise World Series championship, there wouldn’t have been a place for him on that club. Bouton never did play for the Yankees again, and in fact he wasn’t invited back for a Yankees old-timers day until 1998, with the help of a New York Times article from Jim’s son Michael urging the Yankees to lay aside grudges stemming from his father’s remarks in Ball Four.
The Battersea Power Station was one of London’s most imposing structures in its heyday, which lasted for much of the twentieth century. In the US, and maybe everywhere outside of the UK (and for many people in the UK), it’s most known for its grim, almost fearsome image on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals. It also has a less high-profile, almost cameo role in classic rock when it can be seen in a shot behind the fictional main character of Quadrophenia in the booklet of photos that accompanied that record.
The Battersea Power Station wasn’t just a prop. It did provide a lot of power for the area from around the 1930s through the 1970s, though by the early 1980s it—or more properly, the two stations comprising what was called Battersea Power Station—was closed. The details are pretty technical and not of such great interest to me and, probably, most readers of this blog, though they’re out there if anyone wants them. Basically technological changes had made the station obsolete, but it was so visually striking that many wanted it preserved somehow.
Again the details of how it endured threats to its survival are available, but I think most rock fans, or even general history fans, are more interested in what it’s like today, and what you can see of it if you’re in London. I’ve been to London more than a dozen times, but didn’t actually visit until July 2023, figuring I should check another landmark off my list.
The Battersea Power Station is still there and does look much like it used to, although it’s nothing to do with power anymore. While it probably owes its survival to hopes to preserve it as an architectural landmark, it’s not quite that now. It’s part landmark with one tourist attraction, but more a supermall of sorts, surrounded by almost frighteningly postmodern buildings that I’m guessing are aiming for high-rent residents and businesses.
The four chimneys are still there, but the building’s so big you have a hard time fitting them into one photo, let alone make it look like Animals, unless you have a helicopter or some such thing. I just about fit all four in walking out of the nearby Battersea tube/underground station:
Something you can do that’s more exciting than checking out the mall—full of retailers offering expensive items of no interest to me—or what remains of its vintage architecture is take an elevator to the top of one of the chimneys. Probably most visitors will find the price (just over fifteen pounds, if you reserve a ticket online) not worth the relatively brief ascent and seven minutes you get for a panoramic view at the top. There’s a small display of the history of the power plant while you wait for the ride that probably holds little interest for most visitors.
But hey, you’re in London, you’re interested in Pink Floyd and the Who, and why not do it once, even if you might feel better about spending five pounds instead of fifteen pounds. The panoramic view at the top is nice, even if Battersea Power Station isn’t high enough, and London not riddled with enough skyscrapers or scenic hills and water, to compete with panoramic views in the likes of New York and San Francisco.
On July 8, 2023, I interviewed Richard Morton Jack about his new outstanding biography Nick Drake: The Life at Blackwell’s book shop in Oxford, England. This is a transcript of our conversation.
JAMES ORTON (Blackwell’s): Thank you for joining us this afternoon, and a huge thank you to our musicians. Now we’re into the main event, which is Richie Unterberger discussing the new biography of Nick Drake by Richard Morton Jack. I spent the whole of yesterday reading it. It’s so thoroughly researched, and the love and respect you can feel Richard giving Nick throughout it is incredible – but obviously I’ll let Richard tell you about it. So please join me in giving a very warm welcome to Richie Unterberger and to Richard Morton Jack.
RU: I’m very happy to present this event with Richard, whom I’ve known for about twenty years. We’ve become good friends because of our mutual interest in the era of music in which Nick Drake operated, and I had the pleasure of reading the manuscript of his biography quite a bit before publication. I know some of you have read it already, and I urge those of you who haven’t to get a signed copy today.
I’ll be asking Richard how he came to conceive of a work that’s not just deeply researched, but also, I think just as importantly, has proper perspective on Nick Drake that demythologises a lot of the misperceptions that have arisen around this very talented but troubled artist. The amount of research that went into documenting this figure who, when he was alive, not much was known about, and who didn’t make himself known well to the public, is just amazing. Just a couple of examples. It has so frequently been reported that Nick Drake did just one interview. That is not true: Richard found the other one.
RMJ: Another one!
RU:Another one – which appeared in the most unlikely place, a teen-oriented magazine, and contained some useful information. Another example: contrary to what you might see online, there were many reviews of Nick Drake’s records when he was around, and Richard found one of Pink Moon in Penthouse magazine. Would you have ever thought to look in Penthouse?
Richard interviewed many of Nick’s surviving friends and associates, some of whom have never been on the record before, and they did a great deal to clarify Nick’s personality and musical achievements. My first question is, what did you most want to find out when you decided to do this pretty long biography, and what surprised you the most about what you found?
RMJ: First, thank you very much for that generous introduction. I respect Richie’s work very much, and he is currently in the middle of researching his own enormous biography of the Velvet Underground, so I hope we’ll be able to talk about points of crossover in our work and the careers of the two artists.
But to answer the question, I set out to be as thorough as possible. I knew that I wanted to look through and read absolutely everything that was available, and to speak to everyone. But I didn’t have specific expectations of extraordinary revelations or smoking guns. I knew that Nick’s life was, broadly speaking, accurately represented already, so what I found the most revealing and useful was the consensus that I was able to gather from his friends, his family, his school reports and so on. There wasn’t much departure from that consensus. Most people’s memories of Nick match up uncannily, even if they’d never heard of each other and never met him together. After interviewing them all I didn’t have to work out who to believe and how to navigate different versions of events.
The privilege of being able to speak to his cousins, and musicians, and Chris Blackwell, all sorts of interesting people who don’t usually speak about Nick and haven’t much in the past, is that I was able to put this jigsaw together and get a coherent whole. I think some people were perhaps hoping I’d find evidence that he was a heroin addict, that he was gay, whatever the big stories would be. But I was neither looking for those nor found them. The strength of the consensus is what really gave me confidence in describing his personality and certain aspects of his work. So, in the way that circumstantial evidence can be more compelling [than a smoking gun] in a criminal investigation, that consensus, to me, was more powerful than any amazing single revelation would have been.
RU: Although I will say, even though I had read as much as I could about Nick Drake before Richard’s book, there were quite a few unearthings of significant information that I was not aware of – and not just bits of trivia. For instance, his musical influences. The book illuminates notable under-appreciated influences on his work, not all of them musical. Maybe unfairly, he is thought of as a ‘folk’ or ‘folk-rock’ musician, but I’ll read out some of the influences from when he was starting his professional career: Astrud Gilberto, Jimmy Smith, Segovia, Odetta, John Hammond, Bob Dylan, Booker T & the MGs, Miles Davis, John Coltrane… And he was able to see in person some of the great British blues-rock bands of the 1960s: John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, the Graham Bond Organization, Cream…
Do you think this wide range, the eclecticism of his influences, has been overlooked and underestimated, and is maybe part of what set him apart from so many other singer-songwriters in the folk-rock bag during that time?
RMJ: I think there’s an element of truth in that. I mean, the word ‘folk’ is unhelpful as relates to Nick. It’s used nowadays simply to mean ‘people with acoustic guitars’, not actual ‘folk music’. Almost the only sort of music that I can pretty confidently say I’ve never heard anyone suggesting Nick ever liked or listened to was folk! I mean, proper English trad folk, or indeed traditional American folk (not blues, but Appalachian or whatever).
But, as you rightly say, Nick did have a broad taste in music, which reflected his generation’s exploratory interest in contemporary culture and what was coming over from America and so on. And at boarding school, of course, boys would bring back records and share them and obsess over them. So there was an informal lending library going on, which was helpful to him. And Nick loved pop, he loved rock’n’roll, he loved West Coast rock – the Doors, the Byrds, Love. And why wouldn’t he? He was excellent, and he loved excellent music.
But I think what’s fundamentally important to remember about Nick’s own musical taste is that he came from a classical place as a child, and classical music was very much his companion in his illness – more, I infer (I don’t know for sure) than pop or rock. I mean, we all know that he was listening to classical music shortly before he took his own life that night. And I think classical music informed his sensibility easily as much as pop or rock or folk and so on.
RU: One influence that I always thought was underestimated on him is Donovan. I’m a big fan of his, but until relatively recently he has often been put down by ‘serious’ rock critics. But I’ve always heard – and it’s a compliment – his influence in Nick Drake. And you documented some specific instances: he had a poster of Donovan on his wall, a friend remembered him learning songs off Donovan’s two best albums, Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow, and Joe Boyd – the main producer of Nick Drake, who was interviewed extensively by Richard – enjoyed both those albums when working on what I would consider Nick’s best record, Bryter Layter. Do you agree that Donovan’s an underestimated influence?
RMJ: Yes. I think Donovan was a huge influence on other British songwriters in that era, maybe second only to the Beatles among British artists – more so than the Stones, I would say. But I think his influence is often overlooked, partly because he perhaps hasn’t helped himself with the way he has spoken about that era in recent years. But he’s a very fine guitarist, it goes without saying, and probably put just as much work into his style as Nick did. Donovan’s lyrics depart from Nick’s in obvious ways, but I think they’re similar in terms of the structure of their songs and their approach to the guitar. To me, it’s obvious that Nick was listening closely to Donovan’s fingerpicking, especially on the acoustic second record in A Gift From A Flower To A Garden. So it doesn’t seem at all a stretch to me to call Donovan a vital influence on Nick, from 1965 (when Donovan started releasing records) onwards. I think Nick was listening to him right away.
RU: Going back to Nick Drake’s early years, which you document extensively, I think a key point is that not just his parents but other people, like teachers, were almost trying to herd him onto a specific track: going to Cambridge, probably training to be a professional of some sorts. And you wrote that the one thing that nobody seemed to be taking into account in trying to get this mediocre student into an elite school, was: ‘What does Nick want to do?’ Do you think that fuelled his desire to make his own statement, his own career, outside of what was expected of him?
RMJ: I’m sure that dynamic existed. I also think it’s easy to look on Nick’s non-musical life with hindsight and say, ‘Well, people didn’t understand him, people didn’t realise this or should have done that’. But I think Nick was probably quite a maddening person to be involved with as a young… well, he was always young, sadly, but as a teenager, because he obviously had talents, he obviously had abilities, he was charismatic and younger people respected him at school, this was recognised, he was a good leader and so on. He had qualities that were obviously likely to make him into a useful and helpful member of society as an adult. But he was passive – and there was no suggestion that Nick was mentally unwell as a teenager, that there was something larger militating against his future success.
As a result, I think his parents thought, ‘We need to get him into Cambridge by hook or by crook, because his school has said this is a possible outcome for him. So let’s just keep going, because if we don’t he might end up just being at home without much idea of what to do with his future next summer’, or whatever the timeframe was when they started worrying about this.
To an extent – maybe tacitly – Nick’s parents have been criticised for not having recognised that they had a genius in their midst, but that’s not how life works. I don’t think any parent would say, ‘Our teenage son seems to like playing the guitar quite a lot, so let’s assume that he’s going to create a wonderful career for himself doing that’. I mean, it’s just not realistic. But I’ve never inferred the opposite extreme – that Nick’s parents wanted him to be a ‘career man’ and have letters after his name in a patrician, pompous, Empire-building way – and I don’t think that view is supported by any evidence, easy though it is to assume because of his social background and because there was a degree of tension between him and his parents about his not particularly wanting to go to Cambridge in the first place, and then wanting to leave it quite quickly.
I think his parents were actually rather liberal and permissive, within parameters that were normal for that time, and they did allow Nick a lot more freedom than he might have expected or than some of his friends might have had. As I describe in the book, when he went to Cambridge – slightly against his will, but not kicking and screaming – his father worked out a careful and loving, really, arrangement on paper concerning Nick’s finances, and how he would fund Nick in order to allow him to proceed with his music during the university vacations without having to get jobs or think about income. Because the Drakes, contrary to popular belief, weren’t made of money.
So Nick’s parents were supportive of his musical aspirations while he was at Cambridge. There’s a sweet letter from October 1967 where his father says, ‘We opened a bottle of wine to celebrate’ when they heard some good news about one of his early demo tapes making a mark, and so on. But I think it’s unrealistic for us to assume that they should have recognised that he was a great talent earlier than they did.
RU: Before his musical career, in the school reports, the image of Nick is of someone very reticent and almost passive, so it was surprising to me in the book to learn that he had a fierce streak of ambition. He made demos and was shopping them around in London before he had a recording contract, and he was making contacts in music publishing and the record business. And when he was making records, his producer, Joe Boyd, and sound engineer, John Wood, have remembered how forceful he was and how he wanted the records to be made exactly as he wished, he wanted his songs to be represented just as he envisaged them. Is that something you wanted to bring out?
RMJ: Yes. I think this sense that Nick was always passive, that he didn’t make anything happen, everything happened to him, is not supported by evidence, especially from the summer of 1967. I think that was a particularly important year in Nick’s life because he had ten months to fill between getting into Cambridge and actually going there, so he went to University in France in February, he travelled around Morocco, he came back to England in May, then he went back to Paris for a few weeks on his own, and then he was in London for August and September. And over those few months, starting probably around February, he became a songwriter.
And I think in that time a lot of things made sense to him in a way they hadn’t previously. One of the few utterances that we actually have from Nick about his songwriting is that it was only when he went to France that he had the time and space to think about his own personal reaction to the world around him, and how he wanted to frame it. And that’s when he became a songwriter. So I think by the time he got back from France, and before he went to Cambridge, he was committed to a future in songwriting.
And he hustled! He knew that that the way forward was to find a publisher, sell the songs, find a record company, find a producer, and perform. Performing didn’t come naturally to him, or at least wasn’t something that he enthusiastically aspired to, but he understood the need for it – and did it. The first thing he did when he got back to London that summer was to make a recording and shop it. And, lo and behold, almost immediately a major pop song publisher called Hansa wanted to buy some of his songs. They didn’t want to record him, they wanted to buy the songs and sell them to others – which Nick had the confidence, arrogance, whatever you want to call it, to reject.
But I think he knew that he was good, and that he had to fight to be heard. There are some tantalising glimpses that I wasn’t able to pin down. There’s a rather mysterious figure called Calvin Mark Lee, a Chinese-American research chemist based in London. He was one of the signatories to the famous Times advert against the criminalisation of pot, which the Beatles funded, and he was working on the fringes of the record business. David Bowie was his great discovery, and the person whose name his is connected with for posterity, rather than Nick’s, but somehow he connected with Nick in 1967 and was supporting and encouraging him too. [I did speak to him, but sadly he was suffering from dementia and couldn’t remember Nick.]
What I mean is, Nick was out there making contacts, hoping to find a foothold in the music business rather than just waiting around like the entitled upper-class cliché that some sources have suggested he was, thinking, ‘Well, everyone will just recognise my brilliance…’ That wasn’t how he was.
RU: Before we get into the core of Nick’s career – his albums, the songs that he’s so well known for – what are the most important qualities to you in this biography, and in rock biographies in general? What were you trying to bring to this biography that’s lacking in so many popular music biographies?
RMJ: I’m really interested to discuss this, so thank you for raising it. I think that for too long readers have been tolerant of shoddy research in popular music biographies. I think that’s partially because they want to believe in mythology about rock stars. They want to believe that Keith Moon drove a car into a swimming pool, even though that didn’t happen. They don’t necessarily want to read a book about Keith Moon that says, ‘This is just not true’.
But for me certain popular musicians, Nick being one, deserve sober, sensible treatment, because I think posterity deserves eyewitness accounts that are reliable and properly verified. So I wanted to apply the same standards of research and clarity to his life that I would if I were writing a book about Charles Darwin. I’m not comparing their lives, but I don’t think anyone reading a biography of Darwin would be tolerant of half-baked mistruths, blatantly wrong dates and so on. It’s just not the way that biography should work. But I often read pop books and think, ‘That’s just back-to-front, that record wasn’t out then, and this isn’t possible…’
I think that writers like you and Mark Lewison have already shown that it’s possible to approach rock and pop music with a scholarly, but not dry, eye. There’s plenty of amusing facts and details that can be brought into play without having to repeat myths and glorify bad behaviour and so on. So I wanted this book to stand as a serious biography, irrespective of the fact that it was about a ‘pop’ musician.
I also feel that my book almost turns into something else, because Nick stopped making music in 1971, meaning that the last three full years of his life were not spent doing the thing that has fundamentally made people interested in his life. Instead, it pivots into a story about mental health and a family, a dynamic in a family, which doesn’t lend itself to mythologising and to funny anecdotes, for obvious reasons. So from a writer’s perspective I was quite lucky to have two separate stories to tell, really. And the second was obviously a much more sober and upsetting story to balance and to get right.
RU: And I should add that, to try and get that difficult part of the story right, the Nick Drake Estate made Nick’s father’s diaries available.
RMJ: Absolutely. Nick’s father wrote the diary about Nick. It wasn’t a diary that he was writing of old – he started it in March 1972 because he recognised that Nick’s illness was severe and that it was, as he put it in one of his entries, ‘going to be a long job’ (which I used as one of the chapter titles). He realised that the movement of Nick’s illness needed to be watched, so that he and Molly could start recognising ‘the last time he did this, such and such happened…’, or to record when he was or wasn’t taking his pills, and what the effect on his behaviour was and so on. So the diary is really about Nick.
And it’s a brutal document, it’s got little levity in it – but it did give me the huge benefit of knowing where Nick was most of the time, because he was at home most of the time. So I was able to anchor those last years in detail. I knew exactly what Nick was doing for much of the time – what he was watching on TV, what he was eating. The challenge, really, was not making that tedious to read, because of course there are fans of Nick – of whom I’m one – who do find tiny details interesting and revealing, but you can cross a line into pointlessly repeating information that doesn’t have any wider value. So cherry-picking the most salient bits of the diary was one of the most difficult tasks for me, because it would have been easy just to turn the whole thing into prose.
RU: Going to the core of Nick’s musical achievements, his most important musical associate was the producer Joe Boyd. One of the many things I learned in the book that I was not fully aware of was that, besides producing Nick Drake’s first two albums, he thought Nick’s songs could be covered by other prominent artists, some of whom I didn’t suspect. He sent Nick Drake’s songs to Roberta Flack for consideration, although she didn’t record any, but Millie Small, the pioneering ska / reggae singer most known for My Boy Lollipop, did record one of his songs. And Joe also thought that Nick could have written for films. Do you think he overestimated Nick’s potential, or was he just ahead of his time in seeing it?
RMJ: The latter. I do think that Nick’s songs are difficult to cover, but perfectly possible to do justice to. I think Joe felt an immediate sense of discovery when he first heard Nick [in January 1968]. He was convinced straight away that this was a rare talent, and has openly said that he doesn’t understand why others didn’t feel the same way. I wouldn’t say it’s as crude as him having seen dollar signs, I think he just thought, ‘This guy is obviously going to be hugely successful, and I’m lucky enough to have had the opportunity to be his discoverer, to sign him and to work with him’.
So one of the things that Joe immediately anticipated was that other people would form an orderly queue in order to sing his songs, in the way that was happening with Dylan and Donovan and Leonard Cohen and… you name it. Nick’s songs sounded like standards to Joe. So he was paying Nick a publishing advance every week because he was convinced that this was going to be where Nick was going to have his best shot at earning a decent amount of money.
And one of the many puzzles about Nick’s recording career is why so few people did record his songs. There were five or so covers during his lifetime – very few, and none that would have brought in any money. So yes, I think Joe was absolutely prescient, as has been borne out. Obviously, it’s a tragedy for him, as he says, that the success didn’t come when Nick was around to enjoy it.
RU: Although Boyd and Drake worked really well together, it was like most producer-artist relationships, they had some disagreements which might have led to better results. One is still controversial among some Nick Drake fans. I like the instrumental pieces on his second album, Bryter Layter, very much, but not everybody does, and Boyd wanted more songs with vocals instead. This is an example of how, although Nick Drake’s image is of somebody who barely said anything and didn’t assert himself, he stood his ground and insisted that the instrumentals were on there. Do you think that’s an interesting part of how they could spur each other on, and work together productively even when they didn’t initially have the same end goal in mind?
RMJ: I think it speaks well for Joe that, although he strongly disagreed with Nick on the subject of the instrumentals, he ultimately did what Nick wanted, not what he wanted. Joe’s memory is that Nick’s vision for Bryter Layter was that both sides should be bookended by instrumentals (although what the fourth one would have been is a mystery – there’s no evidence that one was ever either written or recorded). But I think Joe’s vision was, ‘He’s a songwriter, he sings, he’s not a writer of instrumentals that you could hear on bread commercials’ (or whatever) – and to him, that’s what those instrumentals sounded like. So I think he found it frustrating.
But the most fundamental problem for Joe on that specific subject was that Nick had inadvertently, and slightly uncharacteristically, revealed by playing an encore at a concert in September 1969 that he had another song that was good and that was finished, that Joe otherwise wouldn’t have known of. And that was Things Behind The Sun. And Joe’s ears pricked up, obviously, and he said, ‘Well, obviously that’s going on Bryter Layter, right?’ And Nick said, ‘No, it’s not ready, it’s not finished’. Which was a white lie – Joe had heard it, he knew it was finished. Nick didn’t perform songs that weren’t finished, it’s just not how he operated, he never shared anything that wasn’t finished.
So I think Nick was squirreling away songs for Pink Moon as of 1969. I think he always knew that Pink Moonwas what he wanted to do – not as a reaction to Bryter Layter, as is often assumed, but just as the next step he wanted to take. He knew he wanted to do a guitar-and-voice album as a creative experiment. It was one of the avenues he wanted to explore. And he knew that Things Behind The Sun belonged on that, not on Bryter Layter, with strings and drums and so on. So I think that was a more specific area of conflict for Joe: ‘Why are these instrumentals on here when I know you’ve got another good song?’
RU: For someone with such a brief career, who only did two known interviews, there are so many rumours and myths around Nick Drake, many of which are unfounded and unfortunately circulate online and in other places. Here’s one that the book clarifies and refutes. It was reported for many years that when Pink Moon, Nick’s third and final album, was done, he went to Island Records and, without telling anybody, just put the tape at the reception and left. Well, the truth might not be as colourful, but it’s the truth and that’s what’s important: he actually delivered it personally to Chris Blackwell, who ran Island Records. What do you think the book does most to set straight about Nick and his career, whether it’s incidents or his character?
RMJ: I think the most important assumption or rumour about Nick that I wanted to clarify is the extent to which he took drugs. It has been said that he smoked dope morning, noon and night, that he was almost addicted to it. The assumption has been that smoking dope defined his days, and probably didn’t help when it came to his descent into mental illness. But most of his friends don’t recall Nick smoking any more of the rest than the rest of them did – which was a fair amount, but socially, and it’s a non-addictive substance.
Now, of course, Nick probably smoked it on his own as well, which didn’t help when he wasn’t in great shape mentally, and I’m not trying to dismiss its possible contribution to his difficulties – but that was an area where I was able to say with confidence: Nick didn’t smoke nearly as much as has been assumed.
In addition, I can find no evidence that he ever took LSD. I mean, it’s perfectly possible, because it was widely around in 1967 and some of the imagery in his songs from that year seem to suggest hallucinatory experiences – but equally, maybe he didn’t. He was a sensible guy, he knew it was a Pandora’s box that not everyone should open. None of his friends remember him taking acid – and they remember taking it themselves, where they were and who they were with. And it was never with Nick.
And then the suggestion that he was a heroin addict, which has often been repeated, including in one or two books, is simply not borne out by anyone’s recollections. So that was something I was glad to be able to set straight.
I suppose the other major area that really came through strongly for me, from all people I spoke to, is that until late 1969 – so, shall we say, for the first 21 full years of Nick’s life – he was a happy, outgoing, productive, popular, forward-facing person. So that’s why I wanted, and everyone agreed, to have a picture of him smiling on the front of the book, because that describes how a lot of his friends remember him: first and foremost as an ambitious, cheerful sort of person who wasn’t doomy or gloomy or bad company. Not a flamboyant extrovert, but a good guy to have in a room. So it was gratifying for me to be able to contextualise Nick’s illness with the first, large part of his life and say that really the illness came down like a shutter on him, and doesn’t define how he always was.
RU: There’s a seeming contradiction in Nick’s career. He didn’t do much to publicise himself, although he did play more concerts than is usually reported, about forty. He did a couple of interviews, but rather reluctantly, and didn’t say much. Yet he seemed disturbed that he didn’t have more success and recognition, especially maybe after the second album, which is in some ways a step forward from Five Leaves Left but didn’t get significantly more acclaim. Do you think that lack of recognition helped spark his mental difficulties, or contributed to them?
RMJ: I can’t speak for the psychiatry involved, but approaching his state of mind as if he weren’t ill, I think the sense that he might as well not be bothering was very hurtful. I don’t think he wanted to have gold records on the wall and drive a fast car and have girls screaming at him, but I do think he wanted to feel validated by some sort of audience, a small but loyal audience, and to know that he wasn’t wasting his time, as would anyone who writes or paints or whatever it may be, yet has barely anyone validate them.
In Nick’s case, there are two things to remember. Firstly, he had been led to believe by all of those on the inside of his career, and with all the right motives, that he was going to be very successful. There was no suggestion by anyone that he was marginal, that he should have low expectations of his sales and the take-up of his work. He was therefore quite confident in leaving Cambridge that this was what he needed to do in order to have the success that everyone had led him to expect.
Secondly, to put it crudely, I think Bryter Layter had been his degree. He knew that he couldn’t make Bryter Layter whilst at Cambridge, especially in his third year when he had finals and would have to do a bit of work: he couldn’t just keep coasting and expect to get through his finals. So Bryter Layter was, in a sense, what he did instead of his degree, in the expectation that it would be released in the summer of 1970. The first published, advertised release date for it was that May, which would have dovetailed with when his friends were sitting their finals, and he could have neatly substituted that achievement for his degree.
But there were problems, John Cale was brought in to do a couple of arrangements in June and the release date started being pushed back. Joe Boyd went back to America, there were postal strikes, Island decided to have a major rebranding exercise which held up a lot of releases, then they decided on a campaign called ‘El Pea’ (which involved circulating giant inflatable peas to record shops), and Bryter Layter was postponed and postponed.
None of this had anything to do with Nick, but his record was clearly not a priority for Island. A Cat Stevens or a King Crimson album would have come out straight away, but I think Nick slowly began to realise that he simply wasn’t a priority for Island. That’s not even much of a criticism of Island, it’s just the reality. Five Leaves Left had barely caused a ripple, so Bryter Layter got put on the back-burner.
And that was upsetting for him, because he had left Cambridge in the teeth of fairly strenuous advice from his parents and others whom he respected in order to do something which then wasn’t happening. And then when it did happen, it was released to indifference. So I think those two factors combined to accelerate his low self-esteem and questioning of what he was doing with his life.
RU: This is hindsight, but – especially because I’m from the United States – it seems like barely anything was done to get him an international audience, especially in North America, which might have helped with his desire for some sort of validation, some sort of recognition. When they did put out a record, Capitol Records clumsily combined material from the first two albums instead of, say, putting out Bryter Layter and then, if it had sold well, putting out Five Leaves Left. Do you think that, had Nick gotten more recognition, even if he had been unable to tour in the States, that might have helped with his career and his general perception of the worth of what he was doing?
RMJ: I’m sure it would have – but I think you’ve identified the problem with that in your question, because in those days you didn’t get recognition without touring. It was too much of a shuffle, there was too much competition, and it was so easy to get lost. And, of course, America is a vast territory. You have to be out there visiting the local radio stations, playing second on the bill to Black Oak Arkansas or whoever. That’s what you did. You see these bizarre bills from those days, with obscure English acts supporting American rock acts, because you had to be out there doing that, getting the catcalls. John Martyn did it relentlessly, and he never ‘broke’ America – but he did build up a certain following there.
But by the summer of 1971, when that compilation album came out, Nick wasn’t in a position to perform, or even to travel, really. But I do think Bryter Layter could have done well in America. There’s enough material on it with a sunny, radio-friendly quality for it plausibly to have broken through and made an impact. But again, he just wasn’t a priority for Capitol. They just had too much else going on, and who’s this English guy who no one can get on the phone? It was just hopeless, unfortunately.
RU: You mentioned John Cale playing on Bryter Layter. Especially because I’m writing a book on the Velvet Underground, it’s an interesting connection to me – when the 1970s start you have these areas of rock which seem separate, but there were these unusual collaborations. At the same time Bryter Layter was being made, Joe Boyd and John Wood were working on Nico’s Desertshore, where John Cale was the arranger. Do you think it’s a reflection of the open-mindedness of that time that producers and artists were willing to bring in ingredients that might not have seemed sensible or logical on paper?
RMJ: Yes, absolutely. I don’t think anyone ever anticipated John Cale being a good fit for Nick, it was just an inspired coincidence that he heard some of Nick’s recordings without adornments and thought, ‘I want to adorn them!’, and therefore did. Joe recalls him hopping into a cab that very day, and just going and hammering on Nick’s door.
Joe has open ears and a broad-minded approach to music. Over the course of 1970, the year that Bryter Layter was recorded, he completed, I think, sixteen albums – an awful lot. And the span of those albums is quite remarkable. There’s folk music (what we call ‘folk’, anyway) – Vashti Bunyan, the Incredible String band. There’s jazz, including some quite avant-garde jazz, there’s rock, there’s Nico, who’s maybe called ‘art-song’ now, but I don’t know how she was categorised at the time, if at all… And I don’t think anyone thought that mixture was strange. I think the mixture was what it was all about.
Bringing together musicians from different traditions and backgrounds in order to see what happened was a joyous part of what was going on at the time, and was taken for granted. I think it’s only in hindsight that we think how remarkable it was to have had avant-garde jazz musicians combining with pop musicians and so on and so forth. These endless collaborations, sessions that were full of seemingly unlikely or disparate people making coherent music together, were taken as read then, I think, and Joe was all about the collaborations, that was the essence of Witchseason. He understood that putting musicians together could create magical results, and John Wood regards that as one of Joe’s greatest strengths as a producer: knowing who to bring onto which session to create the best result.
RU: To bring in another Velvet Underground connection, another surprise to me was that a record Nick listened to toward the end of his life, when he was staying with his parents and having a lot of problems, was by Nico. It’s not specified which, but I’m guessing it was Desertshore.
RMJ: Yes – that was in December 1973, and it’s wonderful that Rodney even mentioned Nico by name. There are several frustrating bits in his diary when, completely understandably, he writes things like, ‘Nick came back from Birmingham with three new records today’. And I’m thinking, ‘What were they?’ There’s an entry from July 1974 that says something like, ‘Nick went to a rock concert in London this evening but left early and came home’. What was the concert? It would be fascinating to know. Was it Roxy Music? Who was it? So yes, it’s great that Rodney did mention Nico, because normally he didn’t name names.
RU: I’m a Nico fan, but it seems to me that if you’re having struggles with depression, Desertshore or The Marble Index are maybe not what you want to hear to lift yourself out of that. So that was a big surprise to me.
RMJ: I imagine that he was interested in it because Joe had done it. There’s another bit in Nick’s father’s diary, from September 1974, where he writes ‘Nick went out and bought Melody Maker’. And these things were worth recording for Rodney, because Nick didn’t always have the energy or confidence to face the world, even in terms of a small transaction like that. I got them out and had a look at which issue it would have been – and it had Nico and John Cale on the cover [with Brian Eno and Kevin Ayers]. So I suspect Nick did keep abreast of the other artists Joe was working with, and of course had it in mind that he wanted to work with Joe again himself. So there was a certain logic to his listening to Nico, I think.
RU: Some musicians of great quality – the Beatles or the Beach Boys – reach an audience immediately. Unfortunately for Nick Drake and the Velvet Underground, it took decades. Do you see that as part of the great frustration that Nick experienced?
RMJ: Yes, absolutely. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to see obviously inferior artists, as you might perceive them, doing a great deal better than you are, attracting that attention. It seems bizarre to me that Five Leaves Left made so little impact. I can’t explain it, no one can. I can understand it not being a number one, or a number ten or a number twenty. But why wasn’t it number 30? I think it could and should have done a lot better than it did. No one has come up with a plausible explanation for that. So Nick must have felt deeply frustrated, especially – as I said earlier – because he had been led to believe that it was going to create ripples.
But, of course, the story of art is of cream rising – Van Gogh and so on. There are so many examples to illustrate the fact that it takes time for it all to settle, and for some of the things that do the best in their day to be forgotten and the artists no one gave any thought to to rise. It’s interesting looking at the charts and reading through the newspapers in those days – there are just so many popular artists from that era that I doubt anyone listens to now. For example, famously – well, famously within Nick Drake’s biographical circles! – one of the only reviews of Five Leaves Left compared it unfavourably to Peter Sarstedt. Now, with all respect to Peter Sarstedt, Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) might be on the radio every now and then, but who sits down and listens to As If It Were A Movie, or another of his albums? They’re not rubbish – far from it – but because he’d had a hit they were widely reviewed. And, inevitably, Nick was compared to whoever was successful in a broadly comparable field, and I think that must have been irritating.
But this process happens, of course, and we end up with the things that resonate the most and that people identify with the most strongly. And I feel there’s an irony about my book, which is that there’s now more knowledge about Nick available than there is about absolute megastars, Jimmy Page or Mick Jagger, say, whose private worlds remain a mystery because they keep them that way, meaning their public face and books are drawn from pretty superficial interviews and so on. But, partly because I’ve got Rodney’s diary, partly because of the amount of people I’ve been able to speak to and so on, I feel that Nick is more known now than they are: his personality and the detail, what he liked doing, what he watched on TV. Because of the access I’ve had and the material his sister has already shared, there’s an awful lot of forensic information that you normally wouldn’t come close to with a major artist.
RU: The first time I spoke to Joe Boyd he was specifically talking about Bryter Layter, and he said, ‘That’s one of the very few records I’ve made where I would not change a thing’. And Joe Boyd has made many records, many really good records. Even at the time, it was inexplicable to him that this achievement was not recognised as such. It wasn’t as bad for him, because he got so much recognition with Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, later REM, there are many examples. But to be the originator of Bryter Layter and not get that feedback immediately must have been tough. I mean, even the Velvet Underground got a lot more positive response when they were active than has generally been acknowledged. A lot more, I think it’s fair to say, than Nick Drake did. So in some ways it was easier for them than for him.
My last question, which is another hindsight question, is: had Nick experienced enough success, even if it was on a cult level or making number thirty, as you say, do you think that might have offset his growing psychological difficulties enough for him to produce more music?
RMJ: It’s a lovely thought, but the answer is ‘no’, as far as I’m aware. Not only did Nick’s illness rob him of certain aspects of his sanity, it also robbed him of his creativity. Bit by bit, his ability to generate material, which he had done prolifically for about three or four years, dwindled until he was simply not able to play the guitar and sing simultaneously, or write lyrics. The story of his illness in 1972, 1973 and 1974 is also the story of him desperately trying, in lots of different ways, to recapture his creativity.
And I don’t see his illness as being related to anything else, really. I just think it was sheer bad luck. It’s not because he went to boarding school, it’s not because he smoked too much dope, it’s not because his records didn’t sell. It just came upon him. It happens to people. It’s a terrible tragedy, and I think it’s nice to think of ways in which Nick’s life could have turned out differently. But I fear his outcome was inevitable, based on his illness: it was eating away at him to the point where he couldn’t see any plausible future. I think it would have gratified him if his records had sold better, but I don’t think it would have helped him be creative in his illness.
RU: If anyone else wants to ask anything, please do.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: To understand Nick’s mind – thinking of when he first went to France, and then the book that was on his bedside table that fateful night – did you have to read a lot of Albert Camus? And secondly, his family’s house, Far Leys, is at some sort of end of a corner of a shady lane. Is it fair to assume, because Nick was there for three years after the last album, he went walking there, and if I walked there, I’d be sort of walking in his spirit?
RMJ: Firstly, I didn’t immerse myself in Camus. That’s the kind of thing I tried to avoid in writing the book – trying to think myself into Nick’s head and read all the books and Romantic poems and reverse-engineer theories about where his songs came from. I interpreted my role as his biographer quite literally, and that was just to describe his life and try to contextualise his work with it, rather than write pages and pages speculating about which Romantic poets might have informed which lines in which songs. I think that’s a separate and perfectly valid exercise, but for someone to do from a different perspective.
By the way, Le Mythe de Sisyphe wasn’t on his bedside table, so that’s a myth. He bought it in Paris as a birthday present to his mother in November 1974 and posted it to her, but sadly it didn’t arrive because of postal strikes. Instead, rather nicely for her, for obvious reasons, it arrived in around February 1975. So it was ultimately a gift from beyond the grave.
As for walking in Tanworth, I don’t think Nick did much exercise at all in his last years, but of course he knew the village back-to-front. He did occasionally walk a neighbour’s dog, though, so that’s something, and I guess they would go down that path. But if you’re going to walk around Tanworth with the idea in mind that you’re following in Nick’s latter-day footsteps, I would probably say ‘maybe’ but not ‘definitely’. He tended to stay indoors or drive to places.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Do you think the cover of Bryter Layter served him well or not?
RMJ: Your guess is as good as mine! Nick poured so much interest and energy and passion into the creation of his records, not only in writing the songs but also, as Richie was saying, being assertive in the studio – not in a dogmatic, unpleasant way, but he dug his heels in, he knew what he wanted and he got what he wanted – that I find it perplexing that he was so casual about their artwork. He just wasn’t involved in how his albums looked. He didn’t seem to have strong views either way.
Bryter Layter’s cover was photographed by Nigel Waymouth, a friend of Joe Boyd’s. The guitar Nick’s holding belonged to Nigel, the shoes that are in front of Nick belonged to Nigel, as did the chair he’s sitting in. Nick just turned up, then one of the pictures was chosen (by Nigel, not by him), then the artwork was generated. There was a meeting at which it was presented and one of the Island execs present told me that he remembers Nick neither expressing pleasure or displeasure, just not saying anything – and that was that.
But Nick did materialise by Nigel’s side in a crowded room the following year and said, ‘I just want to say that I now understand what you were trying to do with that album cover, and I really like it’. Nigel had no idea what he was on about, but clearly Nick had reverse-engineered some sort of meaning to it and was grateful for it. Nigel remembers the encounter because it was baffling.
I think the picture on the back cover, of Nick watching a car zooming past him on the Westway, speaks more of him in a symbolic sense than a picture of him holding a guitar does. But for me personally, Bryter Layter is so closely tied up with the image of him on the front that I find it impossible to unpick that and imagine it with a different cover.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: My father-in-law was at school with Nick at Marlborough and doesn’t remember a single thing about him. He’s even got a photo of them, but he doesn’t remember him. It’s very irritating! Did you find it funny – which is the wrong word – that towards the end of his life he seemed to be on a bit of an up? Also, I found the diary stuff amazing, just so revealing about his character. Looking through the diary, was there anything which surprised you?
RMJ: Are you basing your feeling that Nick was on the up towards end of his life on what I wrote?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: The hanging out in Paris, yeah.
RMJ: Nick was very depressed at the end of his life. I think there were glimmers, but what Nick tended to do throughout his illness was make a resolution and then not see it through. And often his parents thought, ‘Well, maybe now something’s changing, he’s becoming positive again, he’s actually going to see something through…’ And then he would crash back into indecision and inability. And that’s basically what happened in Paris. He came back determined to make a new album and get on with life, but unfortunately it was beyond him. I found it quite sad that his parents – latterly, after his death – repeatedly said (and perhaps came to believe) that towards the end of his life Nick had been happier than they’d ever seen him and so on.
But I fear that was wishful thinking, and that they were allowing themselves to concoct a narrative that wasn’t supported by what had actually happened. There were glimmers of positive action from Nick towards the end, but many more of him being at his worst, really. In his last fortnight and on his last day or two he was absolutely as bad as he ever was.
As for Rodney’s diary, of course, it contains lots of valuable material relating about Nick. I think Richie was the first person who read a draft of the book, about a year ago, more or less as soon as I finished it. It was around double the length of the published version, and eliminating material from it was, I thought, going to be impossible because it was so intertwined. Everything seemed so relevant to me. But the realisation that a lot of it was actually repetitive and that, whilst different anecdotes have slightly different weight, ultimately you only need one of them to give the picture, was liberating.
And his illness was the most challenging bit to whittle down, because I wanted to convey its relentlessness and hopelessness, and I was worried that if I cut out too much of the doom and gloom, quite honestly, I might create a false idea that Nick was better than he was – because he was very, very ill. And in the last quarter or so of the book I wanted, without being depressingly grim myself, to convey a sense that the outcome was, in a sense, inevitable, and that the counter-narrative that has arisen that there could have been a different outcome, that Nick’s overdose was possibly accidental and so on, just wasn’t the case. It’s not borne out by anything that I saw.
But the hardest task in writing the book was trying to streamline the last part, because there is just a lot of relentless material in Nick’s father’s diary. It’s not an easy read and I don’t think much would be gained from it being published in full, really. It’s a heartbreaking document.
That said, if you strip out the awful tragedy at its heart, there’s a lot of mundane information, most of it relating to Nick, but it’s what they were eating and what they were watching on telly, and Mr. Heath has lost the election, all this sort of stuff, so it’s interesting simply as an account of an early 70s household.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: A bit of an impossible question. How long does it take between someone dying an unknown, then getting known, and then becoming this incredible figure?
RMJ: I think that’s a really interesting question – and of course, it’s case-by-case. How many are we still waiting to hear of? But speaking about Nick, I think it’s interesting to speculate, as a fantasy: had he been willing to play a concert in September, October 1974 and a promoter had said, ‘Yeah, sure’, what would the take-up have been? I suspect larger than Nick might have anticipated. I think he was better known than he realised, and perhaps better known than posterity has acknowledged.
We all know that he had tracks on Island sampler albums in his lifetime, which sold huge numbers, so there was that. But I also think his albums had cumulatively reached a larger audience than has been acknowledged. You see these made-up figures – ‘a combined total of 5000 sales during his lifetime’ – but no one knows what his records sold in his lifetime. The earliest source I have that gives a number is that, at the time of Nick’s death Bryter Layter had sold 15,000. Now, that’s not a large number, that’s not enough to get you into the charts – but it’s not nothing.
So I do think he had a larger fanbase than he realised – because it’s really good music. People picked up on it and said, ‘You should listen to this’ in student halls and so on, and word had spread. But no one knew who he was, no one knew how to contact him, no one could see him live. There was no visibility. So I think Nick was isolated from his audience to the extent that maybe he didn’t even realise there was an audience.
At time of his death, Nick was trying to get an accounting for the last few years. Island hadn’t accounted him properly, and I don’t blame them particularly for that – there was a degree of chaos between Witchseason and Joe Boyd and Island, and it was all being sorted out. But Nick’s arrangement had been that, after recording costs had been met on his albums, he would get 50% and Witchseason would get 50%. Of course, Pink Moon cost barely anything to record, so that was almost immediately profitable. But what Nick wanted to know at the end of his life was, ‘Am I owed any money? What’s the situation?’
Well, I’ve seen the royalty figures for the years immediately following his death. At the end of 1974, shortly after his death, his royalty statement for 1972-1974 was finally organised. That was about £1800, which is about £16,000 now. The figure for 1975 was lower, because it was only for 1975. But for 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, the figure got bigger each year. So there was a growing interest straight away – and this was before he was being revered as a James Dean-type figure.
So I think, whether or not Nick had died, his records were picking up momentum. But then, of course, the whole cult surrounding his death contributed towards his mythology and status, and that process has never stopped.
RU: I want to add that I think it’s been overemphasised that the use of one of his songs in a commercial was responsible for elevating him out of obscurity, because – as Richard notes – the ‘cult of Nick Drake’, if you want to call it that, was building and building way before that. In some ways it’s similar to the artist I’m working on now, the Velvet Underground. If that Volkswagen commercial had not appeared, I think his following now would be about as big, or only slightly less, than if it had not appeared. It’s the music that’s done it, it’s not because of the fluke that it was selected for a commercial.
And a final thing: Joe Boyd deserves an enormous amount of credit for making sure that Nick’s records were still in print, and that a boxed set was still in print. That made sure that awareness could continue to build (unlike with some artists, like Skip Spence, where you couldn’t get the record for many years). And I think it will continue to build indefinitely, for generations beyond us.
RMJ: I agree with that. The suggestion that the Pink Moon advert is where Nick’s story suddenly changed is, as far as I’m concerned, inaccurate because his records were freely available all over England in the 1990s when I was a teenager. Listening to Neil Young, listening to Bob Dylan, listening to Joni Mitchell, listening to Nick Drake, it was all the same by then, in the UK at least. He wasn’t on the level of someone like Townes Van Zandt, where you might still feel, ‘This is really quite an obscure guy’. I mean, Nick was well-known in the 90s, as far as I was concerned, getting to grips with my own musical tastes.
And the sense that his reputation will continue to build was really the main motor for getting my book done. Gabrielle understood that – although it slightly stuck in her craw to reopen the wound, as it were – interest in Nick is not going away. And therefore the facts need to be straight, because too many misapprehensions have been taken as fact in the absence of a sober inspection of everything that there is in her possession, and in the memories of those who knew him but hadn’t necessarily spoken about him publicly.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 5: I’m interested in Nick Drake’s classical influences, which you alluded to – you mentioned that he listened to classical music in the last years of his life, and I hear the influence of Debussy in some of the string arrangements on Five Leaves Left, for example. What have you been able to find about the kind of classical music he listened to?
RMJ: Frustratingly, Nick’s record collection – although really it was more of an accumulation, as he wasn’t a ‘collector’ in any serious way, and I understand he treated his records quite casually – has been dispersed, partly given away by his parents, or pinched by fans, left lying around and eventually chucked, I don’t know. So there isn’t a sort of block of ‘Nick Drake’s record collection’. There are a few which have been kept, including copies of his own albums and one or two John Martyn albums and the Brandenburg Concertos and so on. So I don’t have a clear answer to what classical recordings he most liked.
But I would say, on a tangent of sorts, that another myth about Nick is that ‘Robert Kirby wrote the arrangements’, that the arrangements were just grafted onto Nick’s songs. I actually think one could almost say it was generous of Nick to give Robert the arrangement credit, because the arrangements were by the two of them. Nick was sitting at the piano or with a guitar, making suggestions, and Robert was sitting over there, writing, and Robert would say: ‘Well, how about this instead of that?’ It was absolutely collaborative all the way through those two albums. Nick knew what he wanted, and the arrangements were written very much with him. Robert was much more than an amanuensis, but it was certainly a collaborative effort.
Robert’s main reference points were classical. but he loved the Beatles and George Martin, and understood the difference between writing classical music and pop arrangements, and that you had to have a pop sensibility. So I think the influences on Nick’s arrangements were towards the more pop end of classical, shall we say? Robert referred to the artists or the composers that he and Nick had in mind – Fauré, Debussy, Delius, Vaughan Williams. And I don’t mean to sound insulting to these composers, I just mean the more overtly melodic parts of their work.
In terms of Nick’s private passions within classical music, I don’t know. But I can say his tastes were catholic and he liked symphonic music, he liked solo piano, he had a broad understanding and enjoyment of the canon.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 6: I just want to challenge you. I’m wondering whether you are yourself mythologising a little bit when you talk about the inevitability of his death because he was so ill. I’m just wondering, have you yourself been through a period of acute mental illness for two years or longer?
RMJ: No, not in the least. It’s absolutely fair to take me to task on that.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 6: It’s more a point about mental illness than Nick Drake himself: who knows whether he would have come out of it or not? If you’re in that state for a long time, what happens is there is atrophy generally. You can’t think, you can’t move, it’s difficult to have ideas, it’s difficult to be creative. You feel like you’ll never come back from it and you’re on the brink – and I’ve been through this, I’ve been on the brink – but often there is a return from that. And when you begin to return from it, things come back.
So I think your narrative, that there is no return, is a kind of mythologising and needs to be challenged. It’s a general point about mental illness. I think it’s dangerous to say, ‘There can be no return’. If Nick Drake was at a point where he could take his own life, I think one would have to say that may have been a situation which could have been turned around, just by chance. Someone could have come back who may have had what he needed at the time, and the next day there would perhaps have been onward movement. So I want to challenge you on that point. That’s all I’m saying.
RMJ: I’m happy for you to have done so, and I apologise if what I was saying seemed glib.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 6: I’m not saying that you’re glib. I just want to make that point.
RMJ: I take it on board, and I’m delighted that your experience has been different to Nick’s. And I don’t say he was never going to get better with any levity. What I think I was – perhaps clumsily – trying to express was the fact that the counter-narrative that he was ‘getting better’ towards the end of his life is not borne out by evidence. I think a lot of Nick’s admirers – with the best of motives and goodwill towards him – want the outcome to have been different, and have therefore seized on small glimpses that have entered the history books, as it were, of him having been happier and much better, and of having taken far fewer pills on his last night on Earth than he did.
And for me, revisiting his last weeks or months and trying to construct an accurate version of how he was, day-by-day and week-by-week, left less room than I think has been widely understood for thinking that he was in a more positive frame of mind at the end of his life and therefore that the outcome might have been more positive. But you’re absolutely right, of course. One should never write off anyone psychologically, and I didn’t mean to.
RU: Thanks, everybody, for coming today. And I hope, again, if you have not bought a copy of the book, you will get a signed copy on your way out.
Jim Bouton’s Ball Four is one of the most famous and successful sports books of all time, and deservedly so. There’s not much more that can be said about it that hasn’t already been stated elsewhere. As its Wikipedia entry notes, it’s the only sports book that made the New York Public Library’s 1996 list of Books of the Century, and made Time magazine’s list of the hundred greatest non-fiction books published since 1923 (when Time itself was founded).
But there is a lot more that he wrote, or at least dictated for the transcripts that became the basis for its diary-like text, than has been published. To read it, you have to know where to get it, and make a special effort to access it, especially if you don’t live near Washington, DC.
The Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress has a collection of Jim Bouton papers with more than a hundred containers with about 37,000 items. Probably no one would be able to go through all of those unless they were writing a Bouton biography (and one did come out a few years ago), and maybe not even for that kind of project.
Among them, however, are the original transcripts of the tapes he dictated during the 1969 baseball season that, with editor Leonard Shecter, were turned into the far more concise prose of the Ball Four book. There are also early drafts of the book, though these are much closer to Ball Four in its published form. All of the transcripts, and much of the early drafts, are in just four of the many boxes comprising the Bouton papers.
I went through all of the transcripts, and one of the early drafts, during two days I devoted to looking at the material recently at the Library of Congress. Anyone could do this, as long as you register for a Library of Congress library card (quick and easy to do there in person) and make an appointment with the Manuscript Division a good deal ahead of time (two weeks at least, I’d say), as the material’s stored off-site. But you do have to do it in person in Washington, DC, which I managed to plan as part of a multi-week East Coast trip that was primarily devoted to a work project.
There is a lot more material in the transcripts than the book, hence a lot of material that didn’t make the book. Is it revelatory, or at least worth reading for serious Ball Four fans, of which there are many?
It’s a question that will take a long time to answer, which I’ll try to in some ways with this blogpost. As interesting as I generally found it, it’s sort of like deluxe box set editions of classic rock albums, which I’ve reviewed and dissected much more often than I have literary works. On most deluxe editions, the extra material — the outtakes, the demos, the live recordings from the same era, the alternate mixes, the home tapes, etc. — aren’t nearly as good as the final record, whether they’re alternate versions or songs that didn’t make the album in any form. They’re often interesting, but not on par with the familiar work, and more of value for insight into the creative process than for listening pleasure. Sometimes they are very good from a pure listening standpoint. More often, they’re just okay, or not very different from the final versions.
That’s kind of the case with the Ball Four transcripts. Bouton and Shecter definitely picked the best of the pitcher’s stories and observations for the published book, though there might be a handful of unused ones that should have been considered. In addition, the stories and observations used in Ball Four — even the very best ones — were virtually always considerably pruned from the much longer, more repetitious, and wordier ways they were first voiced in Bouton’s tapes.
That’s to be expected. Bouton was speaking off the top of his head (though he also took some written notes), not writing even rough versions on a typewriter at the end of each day (this being, of course, long before there were word processors that would have those tasks much easier). Often it’s a little like hearing a long version of a classic song, with fadeouts and rehearsals and false starts that can be trimmed, before it’s whittled down to its most effective essential shape.
If you are the type of fan and reader who knows most or all of the stories from the book by heart —and I bet I’m far from the only one —there are a fair number of reasonably interesting ones, or “outtakes,” that didn’t make the final cut, though it takes a lot of patient weeding through the transcripts. While there aren’t many general conclusions to be drawn from what was chosen other than the most obvious previously stated one that he and Shecter plucked the best anecdotes and comments, I do have one.
When Ball Four was published, it sparked an enormous amount of controversy for its depiction of behavior that wasn’t publicized by professional athletes. These included labor disputes, unfair personnel decisions by managers/coaches/ownership, fighting (seldom physical) among players, frequent use of profanity (if commonplace even in mainstream media more than half a century later), and some sex (tame if fairly sexist by today’s standards) and drugs (limited to amphetamines). From some of the outrage it generated among journalists, fans, and the baseball establishment at the time, you might have thought Bouton went out of his way to be as offensive and sensationalistic as possible.
Yet if anything, Bouton held back quite a bit of controversial material — both in terms of stories and thoughts about what he was experiencing — that he dictated into his tape recorder, but didn’t use in Ball Four itself. This included some specific conflicts with other players, sometimes cited by name, that he omitted; citations of drug use and sexual behavior in which famous players were named that didn’t make the book, or in which the story made the book and the player wasn’t named; and substantial criticism of racist or insensitive actions by other players and one manager that aren’t found in the final version. Maybe Bouton was reluctant to go too far and jeopardize his position as a still-active player, especially when detailing the Astros, with whom he’d still be playing when the book was published in 1970. Maybe he felt that getting too personal and cutting too deep would cause too much specific animosity in a few particular situations. Maybe it was a combination of those concerns.
On the flipside, some quite positive comments Bouton made about some associates, particularly Seattle Pilots manager Joe Schultz, aren’t in the final version. Maybe these weren’t felt colorful enough, or were deemed unnecessary considering there are several pretty positive passages about Schultz in the book, something often overlooked by commentators. Some of Ball Four‘s more interesting incidents are fleshed out considerably more fully, sometimes for stories that are fairly brief or presented more lightheartedly in the final version.
There are many examples I could describe in this post, but I’ll limit myself to just a few of the ones I found among the more interesting:
**Although Bouton generally found race relations—not just between blacks and whites, but also between blacks, whites, and Latin players—friendlier on the Astros than on other teams he’d played with, he’s extremely critical of them at a couple points. He notes that two or three players—he doesn’t name them—used the n-word, and not in a kidding manner. He also muses that if changes should be made to the Astros roster, those players should be dispensed with.
He also felt that the team should have traded a few players (rookie pitcher Tom Griffin, who struck out 200 batters in 1969, is mentioned as a possibility) for slugger Richie Allen, then wrapping up a very controversial season in which it was apparent the Phillies were eager to trade him during the off-season. Bouton’s feeling was that Allen was so good it was worth giving him special treatment to have him on a club, at a time when many teams would have shied away from him (though the Phillies did trade him to the Cardinals, in a famous deal in which Curt Flood was included and refused to report to Philadelphia).
Far from being controversial from our vantage point, Bouton’s attitude toward the prejudiced players seems admirable. Maybe he didn’t, for all the risks he took in Ball Four, want to rock the boat too much with the Astros, for whom he still had to play (if not for much longer) when the book came out. (A brief recommendation that general manager Spec Richardson get fired would have probably caused him far more trouble.) Because Bouton does mention a few white players (particularly Curt Blefary and Doug Rader) who had very good relationships with the blacks on the club, and because he’s generally complimentary about most of his Astros teammates, it’s impossible to say who the offending bigots were, though there might be some suspects more likely than others by process of elimination.
**One of the longest entries in Ball Four is for June 7, when Bouton and some other Seattle players participated in a sports clinic for underprivileged youth in Washington, DC. His friend and roommate Gary Bell was traded minutes after Jim returned to their hotel room, and both events got a lot of space in the book.
On tape, however, an incident at the clinic is treated with much more depth and gravity than it is in the final text. Shortly after arriving at the clinic, Pilots manager Joe Schultz and one of the team’s best players, Don Mincher, simply bailed out as they got impatient and bored with the bureaucracy of getting assigned to run part of the activities. In the book, this is treated as a somewhat quirky and slightly comic turn of events that Bouton views as copping out, without hectoring Schulz and Mincher too much.
In the transcript, it’s obvious this troubled Bouton much more deeply than he let on in the final product. Such was his anger that he talked about it for about half a dozen pages. In part this was because by abandoning the clinic, the pair had failed to come through on commitments that people were counting on, including Hall of Fame player Monte Irvin, then public relations specialist for the baseball commissioner’s office. He states he could never deeply respect either Schultz or Mincher after what happened, though he has a fair amount of positive things to say about both in Ball Four.
**While Bouton held back some of the toughest things he could have revealed, he also held back some comments that would have put his associates in a better light. Maybe this was just done for space reasons, but it’s interesting that in an entry after a good deal of time had passed since Schultz disappointed him in DC, the pitcher’s quite fulsome in his praise of how the manager made sure to put him and Marty Pattin in games after rough outings. He views this as Schultz caring about players and not showing favoritism, looking for the long-range health of the team.
Along the same lines, the Seattle Pilot who comes off worst in the book is outfielder Wayne Comer, mostly as a result of a verbal fight between the pair after Comer profanely insulted a man who’d come by the team bus to thank a teammate for tickets. Bouton makes an important distinction, however, between his view of Comer as a person and his appreciation of him as a player. He’d try to get along with him, he said, and praised his abilities and character in uniform, even if he didn’t care for him as a man.
**In summer 1969, rookie White Sox star Carlos May lost part of a thumb in an accident when he was in the Marine Reserves. He had a decent major league career, but the injury probably cost him a chance at a much better one. The incident isn’t mentioned in the book, but on tape, Bouton is pretty critical of what he sees as the military’s stupidity. When he was fulfilling his own military commitment at Fort Dix, he notes, he was never allowed to participate in the dangerous activities like crawling in live machine gun fire. It’s implied that athletes or reservists who might be known to the public were protected in this fashion, May getting injured in a screw-up of that mode of operation.
**Bouton writes about how a Houston sportswriter seemed to think star Astros pitcher Don Wilson’s arm problems were mental, not physical. The book doesn’t detail how he sat down to dinner with Wilson and Wilson’s wife — still sometimes considered daring in 1969, as Wilson was black — and urged Don’s wife not to let him pitch if her husband’s arm was hurting that much. Jim knew it was hurting because Wilson had told him to be prepared to take his place if his arm felt so bad he couldn’t take the mound. Bouton told Wilson’s wife it wasn’t worth risking a career.
**Yogi Berra was fired as Yankees manager after the team lost the 1964 World Series (in which Bouton won two games) to the Cardinals, with Cardinals manager Johnny Keane replacing Berra. According to Bouton’s tape, this decision had been made before the World Series was over — that the Yankees wouldn’t keep Yogi regardless of the outcome. That led to the odd situation of two managers fighting for a championship with one who’d be leading the team he beat the next year, and the other replaced by his opponent even if the Yankees had won. Bouton thought Keane was the only guy involved in the Series on the field who knew about the situation.
**Reserve catcher Freddie Velazquez isn’t mentioned much in Ball Four, other than the disclosure that he earned the nickname “Poor Devil.” The transcripts reveal that Bouton had a friendlier relationship with him, and with some other marginal players like Gus Gil and Billy Williams (not the Cubs star), than you’d guess from their light presence in the final book. It also reveals that when Velazquez caught pneumonia in spring training with the Giants in 1959, he was told by a club official that he’d be released if he didn’t play, though he was under doctor’s orders not to. Velazquez didn’t, really couldn’t, play, and was released the day he got out of the hospital, in Bouton’s account.
**The risk and uneasy logistics of dictating into a tape recorder while he was on the road aren’t discussed much in Ball Four. Bouton was fortunate to have roommates—Gary Bell, Bob Lasko, Mike Marshall, Steve Hovley, and Norm Miller—with whom he got along and trusted to let know he was writing a book. All of them were supportive and kept it a secret, and if any had told on him, it might have cost him not just some status in the clubhouse, but his actual job.
Bouton faced a dilemma of sorts when Bell was traded, unsure of who his next roommate would be. The transcript discloses, though he doesn’t muse upon this in the book, that he’d prefer fellow reliever John Gelnar — a fairly minor Ball Four character —or Marty Pattin, a starter who comes off better in the book than almost any other Pilot (and who would have one of the most successful subsequent careers of anyone on the team). The book could have been different if he’d roomed with either of them, depending on how they reacted to finding out he was writing one. Or it could have jeopardized the book itself, if they were displeased and restricted what he could say in their presence, or even worse let the secret out.
Bouton ended up rooming with Mike Marshall, but only for a few days, as Marshall got sent to the minors. While Bouton didn’t spell it out in the book, he faced an awkward situation when he was then assigned to room with Steve Barber. Barber is one of the Pilots who comes off worst in the book, mostly because of his refusal to go on the disabled list though a sore arm limited his innings, though Jim did appreciate Steve’s willingness to catch the knuckleball in pregame warmups when catchers didn’t want to. It might well have been tense for the two to room together, even if Bouton had somehow hid the project, or Barber hadn’t objected to the book. Over the objections of a Pilots executive, Bouton and three others switched hotel room keys so Jim could room with his friend Steve Hovley, Barber ending up rooming with Greg Goossen.
Bouton’s book-in-progress might not have been as much of a secret as he would have liked. On tape, he admitted near the end of his time with the Pilots that it must have seemed apparent he was working on one, even quoting a suggestion to put something in the book from coach Eddie O’Brien, the figure from the team that comes off in the weakest light. Maybe it was thought Bouton wouldn’t go through with a book, or that there wouldn’t be publisher interest in one from a player who wasn’t a star (even if he’d been a star for a couple years), and indeed was fighting to hang on in the majors.
**One of the more lighthearted vignettes in the book has veteran pitcher Johnny Podres, who’d be starting his final season with the Padres, giving Bouton some pitching tips in a bar in spring training. Like the Pilots, the Padres were also a new expansion team, and it’s observed that Podres didn’t have a contract when he came to spring training to ask for a chance. After a pretty successful career including four World Series wins with the Dodgers, he’d been out of baseball a full year before taking the chance, aged 36. He even got in the Padres rotation and started their second game as a franchise, and though he was 5-3 with a 3.31 ERA on June 1, he was cut by the end of June after a couple rough outings.
**Mike Marshall was sent to the minors by the Pilots in early July, and Marshall’s refusal to report unless they sent him to Toledo rather than Vancouver is written about in Ball Four. What’s not written about is that Bouton went to the trouble of going to Marshall’s apartment the day after Mike was sent down ready to convince him not to quit, telling him what a great town Vancouver (the Pilots’ AAA team) was, how good the Vancouver manager (Bob Lemon) was, and why he should stay in baseball long enough to get a pension.
Also discussed in the book is how another Pilots pitcher, Garry Roggenburk, actually quit mid-season although he hadn’t been set down, as he didn’t like the game anymore. Not discussed is that Bouton speculated that if he’d known Roggenburk was that unhappy, he would have tried to talk him out of it before it was too late, making the point that you couldn’t reverse that choice. Although Bouton was criticized in some quarters for the criticisms he made about organized baseball, he clearly thought it was worth the sacrifices and indignities to do what was necessary to stay in the majors, even at a time when it was so much lower-paying and afflicted with unfair labor practices.
**Not everything in the book or transcript is about something mildly or very controversial. It’s sometimes overlooked there’s a lot of good insight into how the game’s played, and numerous stories that don’t have social/organizational dimensions. Like this one that didn’t make the final book, about fellow Pilot pitcher George Brunet. Bouton remembers a time Brunet entered a game to pitch to Mickey Mantle with the bases loaded, looking into the Yankees dugout and knocking his knees together to let them know how scared he was.
I hate to ruin a good story, but I went through Brunet’s relief appearances against the Yankees on Baseballreference.com and didn’t find any such game in which this happened. Maybe Bouton was thinking of August 4, 1963, when Brunet did give up a pinch-hit homer to Mantle, though with the bases empty and not right after he’d entered a close game (which the Yankees won 11-10). Or maybe it was a spring training game.
**One of the more interesting items in Bouton’s Library of Congress file isn’t from the audio transcripts, but a letter from collaborator Leonard Shecter on September 1, 1969. He expresses pleasure about Bouton’s trade to the Astros just a few days earlier, inferring it will be great for the book. He also urges Jim to speculate on why he was traded from the Pilots, with some tough love that’s both the mark of a good editor and might have been tough for Bouton to read.
Shecter felt that Bouton had become unpopular with fellow players and the front office, acknowledging the pitcher might disagree. He points out that getting his shoes nailed to the floor—by pitcher Gene Brabender, Jim discovered shortly after the letter—was not an indicator of affection. Shecter wonders if Bouton’s just not the kind of guy to get along with more baseball players than not. Jim didn’t really take Shecter’s advice and speculate much about why he was traded, or consider whether it might have been because he was disliked at the Pilots. He did seem to take Shecter’s suggestion to ask Tommy Davis, a fellow Pilot traded to the Astros just after Bouton was, about this, and that exchange did make it into Ball Four.
There are many other interesting extras in the Ball Four transcripts. Interesting I think, at any rate, to longtime readers who want some more behind-the-scenes details into the making of this classic. There are enough that I might add some others in future blogposts, though this gives you a taste of what awaits at the Library of Congress. And, maybe, one day in a superdeluxe edition of Ball Four that adds some of the unpublished material, complete with contextual footnotes.
There are so many music history sites in New York that you could easily fill several books with photos and descriptions of them. In my first visit to New York in six-and-a-half years this spring, I saw a few I hadn’t checked before. While very famous ones like the Strawberry Fields memorial space to John Lennon in Central Park are well worth checking out, this post presents a few of the more offbeat ones I saw on my trip.
Many and perhaps all of these sites are far from striking in the visual sense. Most visitors would shrug and wonder why anything is special about them. It’s what took place there, not how they look, that’s of note, even if some of the interest might be largely limited to fanatics. Yet the first image, however bland it might seem, was where many classic hit records were born.
At 1619 Broadway, the Brill Building was where many songwriters, and often producers and record label owners, worked or at least visited in the early 1960s. They came to be so identified with the inventively produced and arranged fusion of early rock’n’roll and melodic pop—especially, but not always, heard on hits by girl groups—that the Brill Building has long been used as a label for this sound as a whole. Brill Building hits were often written by composers—often Jewish, and often, though not always, married couples—like Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. The Brill Building itself, however, is just one of countless large office buildings in mid-Manhattan:
As unremarkable as it is to look at, this structure really deserves a plaque noting how many hits were written here or nearby. I add “nearby” because this wasn’t the only building in the area where songwriters and their associates worked. In particular, 1650 Broadway, just a few doors up the block, housed Aldon Music, the major publishing company co-founded by Don Kirshner. That large building is even less interesting to look at than the Brill Building, whose ground floor is occupied by a branch of the CVS chain.
Both the Brill Building and 1650 Broadway are just a few blocks north from Times Square, New York’s heart of the beast:
Moving south to 23rd Street, between mid-city and Greenwich Village, the famous Chelsea Hotel is still in business, though it’s had some rocky times in recent years. Plenty of artistic figures stayed or lived there, and in rock history, some of the most famous of those are Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Nico, Leonard Cohen, and Sid Vicious:
You could fill a whole block of plaques honoring famous residents, but there are just a few at the hotel’s interest. Leonard Cohen does get one of those, which was put up fairly recently:
Going way uptown to the north end of Harlem, there really seems nothing special about this building on 138th Street. Yet, as a friend pointed out, it was home to the first record label—first “widely distributed label,” according to Wikipedia”—owned and operated by African Americans, Black Swan Records. Ethel Waters and Alberta Hunter were its most famous artists. In the early-to-mid twentieth century numerous black artists lived on the street or nearby, including Fletcher Henderson, Billie Holiday, and Eubie Blake.
Going way downtown to the Lower East Side, this building at 56 Ludlow Street occupies a huge place in Velvet Underground history. Here more than anywhere else the group got its sound together in 1965, with Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and original VU drummer Angus MacLise all living and/or working on their music in the building as the Velvet Underground got off the ground:
The first photographs of the group, taken before MacLise left and was replaced by Maureen Tucker, were taken around here around mid-1965, including on a nearby stoop, a rooftop, and a bench a couple of blocks or so away in Seward Park. The building looks very much like it did in mid-1965, though the neighborhood’s changed enormously.
When I stayed with a friend a few blocks away in 1986, it was still a fairly rough’n’tumble area with lots of noise and business/industrial deliveries, and few cultural hotspots. In 1965, it must have been a lot more so. Yet in 2023, surrounding blocks feature many hipster-oriented shops and places to eat. There’s even a significant difference since I last walked around there almost fifteen years ago. One cultural (rather than consumer) attraction worth visiting is the Tenement Museum, although an admission only gives you a tour with access to one part of the museum/building (reconstructing circa-1900 tenements) at a time. It will take quite a bit of time and money to go through all the various tours.
There are more Velvets-related sites, of interest to an even more limited circle of fanatics, almost thirty miles away in Long Island. You’ve got to be dedicated to make the trip, which you’ll need to do on the Long Island Railroad line, or with a car, which fortunately I could get a ride with via friends. Lou Reed grew up in one of Long Island’s towns, Freeport, which he longed to escape for a less suburban life, yet occasionally honored in his songs and career. Here’s Freeport High School, from which he graduated in 1959:
This is where Reed, as he sang in “Coney Island Baby,” “wanted to play football for the coach.” While here he was already playing in rock groups, including the Shades, who as the Jades released a single that Reed played guitar on, co-writing one side and writing the other. Again this building isn’t much to look at, but is much the same as it was back in the late 1950s.
Freeport itself isn’t much to look at, with traffic-filled main drags clogged with plenty of suburban industrial businesses and retail outlets. Not far from those boulevards, however, are well-to-do suburban homes, like this neighborhood where Reed lived, within walking distance of the high school:
Four other members of the Velvets also grew up in Long Island, including guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker, who went to Division High School in Levittown, about ten miles away. That building’s even less to look at than Freeport High School. If you’re wondering why I wrote “four other members,” Doug Yule, who replaced Welshman John Cale in 1968, grew up in Great Neck, as did his younger brother Billy, who drummed with the Velvets in summer 1970 at Max’s Kansas City while Maureen Tucker was on a leave of absence owing to the birth of her first child.
It’s back to the big city, however, for a Reed tribute worth checking out even if you’re not a fan. The last stop going north on the Q subway line at 86th Street and Lexington Avenue, which only opened about five years ago, features portraits on the tiled walls by Chuck Close, including this one of Reed:
Maybe some people who’ve read my work are interested in some of the more everyday basic details of how I work. Maybe not, but at least one person was. That’s Todd L. Burns, who runs the Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. This interview recently appeared on the site, and with his permission, I’m reprinting it here.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
I started listening to rock music at the age of five in 1967, after I and the brother I shared a room with got a radio as a holiday gift. I’ve been a big fan of rock since then, starting like so many people did with the Beatles. From there I got into other groups like the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys, and by the time I was in high school, into great but somewhat lesser exposed vintage acts like the Kinks and the Yardbirds. In college I got into more cult acts like the Velvet Underground, and like so many future rock journalists, got a lot of experience listening to and playing records at my college radio station, WXPN in Philadelphia, which had a huge vinyl library.
The more I heard from rock history (and affiliated genres like soul, blues, reggae, and folk), the more I wanted to hear, and wanted to know. I began writing reviews right after college for a magazine specializing in independent/underground music, Op, and from 1985-1991 was managing editor of a similar magazine, OPtion. After working on some All Music Guides in the mid-1990s, the publisher, Miller Freeman, asked if I had ideas for books of my own. That led to my first book, 1998’s Unknown Legends of Rock’n’Roll, which covered sixty cult acts from the 1950s through the 1980s.
Since then I’ve written about fifteen books, including titles on the Velvet Underground, the Who, and 1960s folk-rock. My biggest focus and enthusiasm is for uncovering little known music history, whether it’s little known material by big acts (as in my book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film) or many interesting artists who never got the attention they should have, some of them much more obscure even than cult groups like the Velvet Underground. I’ve never been able to support myself solely through books, which are actually sources of some of the lowest-paying work I’ve done, so I’ve done magazine stories, online stories, liner notes, editing, and other free-lance work all the while. I’ve also presented music history events for about twenty years, and taught full non-credit/adult/community education music history courses in Bay Area colleges for about a dozen years.
But to address the question of how I got to where I am more than what I actually did, some people find the answer boring, but it was perseverance. There’s not a lot of demand for music historians. I pursued every opportunity I could, seldom turning any reasonably interesting work down, and have had to constantly propose book/story/other ideas, many of which have been turned down. I also developed an expertise that not many others have, which has accumulated over a long time, and remains an ongoing process.
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
This might sound pompous, but it’s the truth, although I’m a pretty modest person. I had no specific mentors. I had three older brothers, which gave me more exposure to music history than most people my age, but soon I knew much more about it than any of my siblings. Most of my musical knowledge has come through self-education. There have been people since college that gave me useful professional advice, but usually it’s amounted to “you’re on your own, you have to make your own breaks.”
If there were any figures who taught me things of more specific use, it was from reading the work of people I mostly hadn’t met—the rock writers I liked to read, like Lenny Kaye, Peter Doggett, Johnny Rogan, and numerous others (I did eventually meet all of those guys). I aimed to combine deep research and entertaining prose, as those and many other writers have.
Walk me through a typical day-to-day for you right now.
You might get this answer from a number of people you ask, but there is no typical day. If you’re a self-employed freelancer, as I have been for 26 years, you have to juggle many projects to keep on going. Some days I might have to teach all day. Some days I might have to do and transcribe interviews all day. Some days I might have to write a magazine piece with a deadline. Many days I have to combine all those things. I have to spend more time on rather dull business/financial/organizational stuff—chasing money I’m owed, making sure my taxes are done right, maintaining my computer so I have enough disk space—than most people seem to think.
Generally, a week involves some combination of research, writing, teaching, event presentation (sometimes on Zoom the last few years), and dealing with business stuff as necessary. But there’s not even a typical week, or month. Sometimes I’ve spent weeks at a time traveling to do research. In recent months I’ve had more classes to teach than ever, sometimes every weekday. I can say that generally I get up between 6am-7am (earlier than most writers, it seems) and usually work eight to ten hours from that point. That’s if I’m working at home. Sometimes I need to teach/present in late afternoon or evening, which makes for more like ten-fourteen-hour days. And I have to work on projects from home almost every Saturday and Sunday, often for full weekend days.
What does your media diet look like?
The only rock history magazines I read regularly are a couple to which I contribute: the UK monthly Record Collector, and the ‘60s-oriented rockzine Ugly Things. I usually read parts of the New York Times, Washington Post, and San Francisco Chronicle most days. I don’t watch much TV, and it’s usually public television when I do, though I watch a lot of films of all kinds. Except for baseball and basketball games, I only listen to noncommercial public/college radio, actually more for public affairs than music.
How has your approach to your work changed over the past few years?
The big change was a long time ago, in 1996, when I for the first time became a full-time self-employed free-lancer, working from home except when I was doing research/interviews, or (although not until the 21st century) presenting events and teaching. It’s really always been a jumble of managing multiple projects all along.
How do you organize your work?
I don’t have any special methods, other than labeling my writing and contacts lists on my computer files clearly and backing up what I write every day. I know where to find everything I’ve written on my computers, and where to find the records/books/magazines I regularly consult, though that’s gotten more difficult with my limited space as my collections have grown very big over the years.
Where do you see music journalism headed?
I think any predictions I make would be wrong. There have been a lot of doomsday proclamations about the death of music (and indeed all print) journalism over the last few years, but although there are alarming trends, I don’t think it’s quite that bad. This is hardly an original observation, but there will continue to be a shift toward online platforms rather than print journalism, though I don’t think print journalism will entirely die. I think there will generally be more respect given to music history and non-star artists, though not hugely, and not generally by major publishers.
What would you like to see more of in music journalism right now?
This is pretty selfish, but as a reader and author, I want to see more books on lesser known and cult artists. I’m a big fan of many superstars like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, but I only want books on them if they tell me something new, which is getting harder and harder for such exhaustively covered artists. As many books as I’ve done, I’ve had a hard time getting deals for my books unless they’re on big stars. Hearteningly, there are more and more books on cult artists, but the money involved is so small (as it is, frankly, for many books on more renowned artists) that they’re not worthwhile to do unless authors have other streams of income. Or they can commit to doing one or two such books if they’re really obsessed with the subject, but it’s difficult to do on an ongoing basis.
What’s one tip that you’d give a music journalist starting out right now?
I’m sure you hear snarky answers to this along the lines of: “Don’t do it.” But here’s my one tip, and one that I see given surprisingly infrequently. Write about what you like the most. Tips like “don’t call the main editor, call the managing editor,” “go to the office to pitch in person so they know who you are,” or “study the publications/trends to see what they want/need the most” might be useful for some writers. But I don’t think they’ll make for a very satisfying career if that’s the focus, or if the concentration is more on getting work of any kind than the work you want.
Maybe more importantly, if you write about what you like the most, that enthusiasm and passion will carry through to your writing, and make readers and editors want to read your work more. Also, if you have a thirst for knowing more about and writing about what you like the most, you should develop expertise that will hopefully also help you stand out to editors and publishers if you can write well.
What’s your favorite part of all this?
It’s interviewing the artists and their associates, to get stories and perspectives that haven’t yet been given. Not too far behind is doing research, especially if it’s in sources that few or no one have consulted or yet discovered. I like doing the actual writing too, but finding out new stories and information is what excites me the most.
What was the best track / video or film / book you’ve consumed in the past 12 months?
This is going back a little more than twelve months, and not an offbeat choice, but the Get Back documentary on what the Beatles did in January 1969 had amazing footage that actually unearthed a lot of interesting unknown information in an enjoyable way. If you want something more off the beaten track, the 2022 coffee table book The Byrds: 1964-1967, by Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman & David Crosby, had a lot of good and mostly little known or unknown photos, but more importantly interesting first-hand memories from all three of those Byrds.
If you had to point folks to one piece of yours, what would it be and why?
My next book, Do What You Fear Most: The History of the Velvet Underground, is tentatively scheduled for publication by Omnibus Press in London in spring 2025. I wrote a book on the Velvet Underground published in 2009, but it’s been out of print for quite a few years, and it was a day-by-day reference book. This book will be a standard narrative history, which allows me to present the information for wide circulation again, in a more conventionally readable format. I can also incorporate a lot of new information that came to light after my previous book was published about fifteen years ago.
Peter Checksfield’s recent book Undercover: 500 Rolling Stones Cover Versions That You Must Hear! details, as the title makes clear, a ton of Rolling Stones covers from 1964 to 2022. As many covers as it covers, however, it inevitably has to be selective. Although many of the versions it documents are of 1960s songs, and many of those were released in the 1960s, it didn’t include all of them.
All of most famous ones are there, of course, including the Who’s “The Last Time,” Marianne Faithfull’s “As Tears Go By” and “Sister Morphine,” the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Wild Horses,” both Otis Redding and Devo’s “Satisfaction,” the Searchers’ “Take It Or Leave It,” and Ike & Tina Turner’s “Honky Tonk Women.” A lot of obscure ones are too, like the Swinging Blue Jeans’ 1965 BBC performance of the early Mick Jagger-Keith Richards composition “So Much in Love” (never released by the Stones); the Blue Jeans’ version was only issued on a 2019 digital-only compilation, and even the Blue Jeans’ Ralph Ellis doesn’t remember doing it. Virtually all of the Stones’ originals from the ‘60s were covered at some point, and it took some digging to uncover some of the most obscure; the UK “Paint It Black” B-side “Long, Long While,” for instance, was done in 1968 by a Greek group, the Idols.
Still, a few cool or at least interesting ‘60s Rolling Stones covers didn’t make the cut. While this is not an official supplement to the book, or a criticism of it for not documenting every last cover, here are a few obscurities that might be of interest to serious collectors and/or Stones fans. I’ve listed these not in the order they were released, but in the order the Rolling Stones released the originals.
The Bootjacks, “Stoned” (1965, Sonet 45, Sweden; originally released on the UK B-side of “I Wanna Be Your Man,” November 1, 1963). “Stoned” was the very first Rolling Stones original to be released, albeit a (mostly) instrumental song that was credited to “Nanker-Phelge,” the pseudonym used for early group compositions. With a basic walking blues beat interrupted by periodic stoned/drunken-sounding utterances of the title (and a few other rambling words) by Mick Jagger, it remains particularly obscure in the US, where it didn’t make it onto an album for decades.
It wasn’t particularly well known anywhere else either, which makes it a peculiar choice for a Swedish group to cover a couple of years later. The Bootjacks only issued four singles in their brief career, and their interpretation of “Stoned”—a strange song to begin with—was pretty weird. First, it was a live five-minute recording, at a time when live cuts and songs that lasted five minutes weren’t common on singles. While it sticks pretty close to the original arrangement, the vocals, such as they are, sound a little slowed down and distorted, as if the turntable’s running at the wrong speed. They do accelerate things for a bit of a bashing rave-up at the end. The oddest aspect is the abundance of teenage screams, which are as fervent as if the Rolling Stones themselves are in front of them.
The Bootjacks must have been big Stones fans, since another of their singles was a cover (which I’ve never been able to hear) of the first strong and well known Jagger-Richards original to feature on a Rolling Stones disc, “Tell Me.” They’re most esteemed, however, for their outstanding (and also odd) 1966 Who-ish mod rock single “In the Circle,” which was reissued for the fine Searchin’ for Shakes: Swedish Beat 1965-1968 compilation back in the mid-1980s.
The Termites, “Tell Me” (January 29, 1965, Oriole 45 UK; original release April 26 1964 on the UK LP The Rolling Stones). Despite the Beatles-takeoff name, the Termites were two girls aged 15 and 16, not a rock group. Their harmony-heavy cover of “Tell Me,” with light orchestration, is no great shakes. But it’s refreshing as there weren’t too many girl groups who did Stones covers in the ‘60s. There’s not much info on the Termites, who put out just a couple UK singles. This track was produced by Ted Taylor, who might have been Ted “Kingsize” Taylor, leader of Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes, one of the most locally popular Liverpool groups of the early 1960s, though they didn’t have hits or make many records.
The Fabulous Four, “438 S. Michigan Avenue” (1968, Mystery 45 Sweden; original release August 14, 1964, UK Five By Five EP). Although this is titled “438 S. Michigan Avenue,” it’s obviously a cover of the fabulous 1964 Rolling Stones instrumental “2120 S. Michigan Avenue,” named after the address of Chess Records in Chicago. It’s also properly credited to “Nanker-Phelge,” at least on the reissue compilation I have. While the Swedish group plays pretty tough garage rock on this cover, what really makes this stand out are the presumably overdubbed, downright deranged screams, cat-like yowls, and gunfire and car motor noises, which are almost more dominant than the music. At four and half minutes, it’s considerably longer than the Stones original, too.
Otherwise, the Fabulous Four were a pretty bland, much more pop-oriented band, which makes it all the more astounding when the sixteen-song LP anthology I have ends with this blast. It’s almost as if they were getting all of their repressed unhinged rock’n’roll energy out at once. Like the Bootjacks, they were probably pretty dedicated Stones fans, since the other side of this single was a routine cover of “Sittin’ on a Fence,” a song the Rolling Stones hadn’t put on a UK release by this point (though they did put it on the US 1967 LP Flowers, and it had been covered in 1966 by the UK duo Twice As Much, who took it to #25 in the British charts). The name of the label on this 45, by the way, really was Mystery.
Thee Midniters, “Whittier Boulevard” (June 1965, Chattahoochee 45; original release August 14, 1964, UK Five By Five EP). They might have called it “Whittier Boulevard” and credited the songwriting to Thee Midniters, but this single by this outstanding Latino East Los Angeles group was really “2120 S. Michigan Avenue” in all but name. Sticking to the basic groove of the original, Thee Midniters did add muscular horns and infectious “areeba, areeba” shouts, as well as other miscellaneous screams and the spoken introduction “let’s take a trip down Whittier Boulevard!”—the main drag of East Los Angeles. The parts where the song has a stuttering, emphatic instrumental chorus of sorts aren’t found in the original, either.
On another 1965 single, Thee Midniters also did a good soul-rock version of another song from the Rolling Stones’ Five By Five EP (all five tracks of which were on the 12 X 5 LP in the US), “Empty Heart,” with a stomping beat and marching band-like horns. (That cover is detailed in the Undercover book.) Thee Midniters—that is the correct spelling, with a “Thee”—covered a lot of ground in their career, mixing soul, rock, garage, and some Latin music, though they didn’t get heard much outside of Los Angeles. They were the best Latino rock band before Santana. For their story, you can check out the chapter on the band in my book Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators and Eccentric Visionaries of ‘60s Rock.
The First Four, “Empty Heart” (November 1965, Claridge 45; original release August 14, 1964, UK Five By Five EP). For a song that was just on an EP in the UK and an LP in the US, “Empty Heart” got a fair number of cover versions. Nine are listed in the huge ‘60s garage rock discography TeenBeat Mayhem!, including the ones by Thee Midniters and this one by a group from Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania (near Philadelphia).
An entirely different outfit from the Swedish Fabulous Four noted in a prior entry, they slow the song down a little and seem to be taking it a little more seriously than the Stones, whose original was (in a good way) a bit sloppy and tossed-off, especially in the vocal harmony department. Most notably, the First Four add a soul-like section in the middle where the lead singer urges the others to “bring it on down.” A few other drawn-out lyrics are added in this section that aren’t in the original, though the songwriting credit properly read “Nanker-Phelge.”
Ian & the Zodiacs, “So Much in Love” (May 1965, Philips 45; original release by the Mighty Avengers in August 1964). In their early days as composers, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards “gave away” some songs to others to record that the Rolling Stones didn’t or hadn’t yet put on their own records, though Stones demos of some ended up on the 1975 Metamorphosis compilation. Unlike John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s giveaways, not many of these were hits, with exceptions like Marianne Faithfull’s “As Tears Go By” (later of course a Top Ten US hit for the Stones themselves) and Gene Pitney’s “That Girl Belongs to Yesterday.” All of the Jagger-Richards giveaways not issued by the Stones in the ‘60s are covered in Undercover, including “So Much in Love,” originally recorded by the Mighty Avengers, who did get it into the British charts at #46.
For a rather average number aptly described in Undercover as “one of Jagger-Richards’ most convincing attempts at writing a Mersey-style Beat song,” “So Much in Love” got a good number of covers. As noted in this post’s intro, the Swinging Blue Jeans did one in 1965 on the BBC. British group the Herd tried with a somewhat harder rocking and more soul-influenced arrangement in 1966, though before Peter Frampton joined that band for their late-‘60s British hits. So did Ian & the Zodiacs.
Although they were one of the better Merseybeat groups, Ian & the Zodiacs didn’t have much luck in their own country, and actually got more records released in the US and Germany. Their version is a little better and certainly more lively than the more ponderous one by the Mighty Avengers, as they take it with a notably brisker and Mersey-ish tempo. Oddly, it was titled “So Much in Love With You” for their single. Also incidentally, though the song “The Crying Game” is primarily identified with Dave Berry (who had a #5 hit with it in 1964 in the UK), Ian & the Zodiacs’ version is better, with distinctive tone pedal guitar.
Patti Smith, “Time Is On My Side” (1977, Stoned I Never Talked to Bob Dylan bootleg LP; original release January 15, 1965 on the UK LP The Rolling Stones No. 2). This is taking some liberties as “Time Is On My Side” was definitely not written by the Rolling Stones. It was written by Jerry Ragovoy under the pseudonym Norman Meade, and first done as an instrumental by noted jazz trombonist Kai Winding. With additional lyrics by Jimmy Norman (although Ragovoy disputed this contribution), it was done as a gospel-flavored soul song by the great New Orleans singer Irma Thomas. That, and not Winding’s, is the version through which the Stones learned the song.
Nonetheless, it’s the Stones’ version that is by far more well known, giving them their first US Top Ten single in late 1964. And the Stones’ version—the one starting with an extended guitar solo that appeared in the US on their first greatest hits collection (Big Hits) in 1966, not the organ-led one that was on the 45—is definitely the one on which the Patti Smith Group modeled their arrangement. There are several live ‘70s Smith versions floating around, but the most well known one was recorded in concert in Stockholm on October 3, 1976, in part because it was also filmed for television. It’s been on several bootlegs, and I think the 1977 one titled I Never Talked to Bob Dylan (on the Stoned label) was the first.
Her take isn’t too different from the original, though more oriented toward ‘70s hard rock, and of course featuring her distinctive vocals, sometimes shouted as much as sung. The spoken bit in the middle is kind of different and improvised, too, as it was on some of the other classic rock songs she covered. There’s also a live version from October 21, 1976 recorded in Paris on the B-side of the official French single release of “Ask the Angels” in 1977. One way to distinguish the two is that she gives a shout-out to the Stones at the end of the Stockholm performance, but a shout-out to the MC5 in Paris.
Napoleonic Wars, “The Singer Not the Song” (January 1967, 20th Century Fox 45; original release October 22, 1965 on B-side of “Get Off of My Cloud”). This group from the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania suburb of Greensburg were among the few acts to tackle this relatively obscure Jagger-Richards composition, used as the B-side of “Get Off of My Cloud” in the UK and on the December’s Children LP in the US. As a rather folky number with harmonies, it was also rather atypical of what Mick and Keith were writing by late 1965, and one of the final gasps of the Merseybeat influence on some of their early compositions.
This was the second of Napoleonic Wars’ pair of rare 45s, and while the Stones’ original has been criticized for some off-key guitars and vocals, this group takes it more seriously. Taken at a slightly higher key than the original, the delivery is accomplished and heartfelt, with an organ (and in the instrumental break, brief plunking piano notes) not heard in the Stones’ arrangement. They also go into a higher key for the final verse. It’s not a radical reinvention, but it’s a pleasingly straight and sincere cover of a relatively neglected early Stones song, which Alex Chilton did on a 1977 single (covered in Undercover) to far greater attention.
Rotary Connection, “Lady Jane” (February 1968, Cadet Concept LP; original release February 4, 1966 on the UK Aftermath LP). I’m a little surprised this didn’t make Undercover, and I’m guessing it’s because a couple other Rolling Stones covers by this Chicago psychedelic soul group did. “Lady Jane,” however, is the best known of their Stones interpretations. And it’s quite different from the original, with a lengthy classical instrumental introduction with high operatic vocals that sounds like it’s from an entirely different song.
The bulk of the track, however, gives the actual “Lady Jane” song a distinctive and dramatic orchestral baroque-classical-rock treatment. Those stratospheric high vocals are by Minnie Riperton, seven years before she had her huge hit solo single with “Loving You.” Remarkably, a clip of the Rotary Connection performing (actually miming) the song on local Chicago television in the late 1960s has surfaced–recently, I think, since I only found it a few months ago.
Blondie, “My Obsession” (2016, RoxVox CD The Old Waldorf, SF CA 21 September 1977 Early and Late Shows; original release Between the Buttons LP, January 20, 1967, UK). One of quite a few outstanding songs on Between the Buttons that’s underrated and not terribly well known to most of the public, “My Obsession” was a most unpredictable cover choice for Blondie. Although they didn’t put it on their records, they even led off the early set of their concert with it at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco on September 21, 1977.
As you’d might expect, they speed and fuzz it up, with a clangorous climax. In fact, the drumming’s so fast that it teeters on collapsing on itself. Like Patti Smith’s “Time Is On My Side,” the biggest point of interest is the difference between Jagger’s original vocal and Debbie Harry’s. Blondie probably didn’t endorse this live CD, but it’s been reasonably available since 2016.
The End, “Loving Sacred Loving” (January 1968, Sonoplay 45, Spain). It’s not so well known outside of serious Stones fans, but Bill Wyman wrote a fair number of songs that were recorded in the 1960s, and sometimes released. The only one the Rolling Stones issued was “In Another Land,” a genuine highlight of Their Satanic Majesties Request album that even made the bottom reaches of the Top 100 as a single billed to Bill Wyman. The Stones did record a couple other of his compositions in the ‘60s, but “Downtown Suzie” only saw the light on Metamorphosis in 1975. The other, the routine R&B-rocker “Goodbye Girl,” was recorded in 1964, but remains unissued, although it’s long circulated (with Jagger on lead vocals) on bootleg.
Some other Wyman compositions, however, were recorded and sometimes released by other artists. None of them were hits, and in fact they’re pretty rare. They include a 1965 B-side by the Cheynes, who for a while had Mick Fleetwood on drums. Wyman sometimes wrote with Pete Gosling of Moon’s Train, and there’s a whole CD of Moon’s Train material, cut between 1965-67, with a bunch of their collaborations.
Why hasn’t there been a CD compilation, Moon’s Train aside, of the songs Wyman wrote for others in the 1960s? Well, they’re not very good, unfortunately. “In Another Land” doesn’t seem so much like a sign of untapped potential as an outlier. But Wyman was involved in writing some better psychedelic-flavored material for The End, who evolved from Moon’s Train, and had one Wyman-produced album, 1969’s Introspection.
Introspection has some cult followers, but I’m not too big on the LP. The exceptions are two songs that appeared on singles by The End in early 1968, particularly the first of these, “Loving Sacred Loving.” Although Wyman doesn’t sing or play on it, or even wholly write it (collaborating with Gosling), this is the kind of thing you’d expect more of from the guy responsible for “In Another Land.” It’s beguiling woozy psychedelic pop, with a near-hypnotic haunting melody, and shifts between eerie meditative passages and full-out rock ones – again, like “In Another Land.” Tightening the thread to the Stones, Nicky Hopkins is on harpsichord.
“Loving Sacred Loving” hasn’t been too hard to get in the CD era, with full reissues of material by the End, though it’s hard to say what’s available at any given time. Although it was first released as a single, it was also on Introspection, which also includes “Shades of Orange” (see below).
The End, “Shades of Orange” (March 1968, Decca 45, UK). Similar to but not quite as impressive as “Loving Sacred Loving,” this is another Wyman-Gosling co-write. It’s got more of the whimsical child-friendly bounce you associate with the lighter end of British psychedelic pop, and sounds closer to the kind of psychedelia of early Pink Floyd when Syd Barrett was their leader, though not as good. Wyman’s made clear his love for the blues and R&B, but based on “In Another Land” and the two End singles, for a brief time he seemed quite influenced by Sgt. Pepper-era British psychedelia.
And an honorable mention to:
The Score, “Please Please Me” (November 1966, Decca 45, UK). “Please Please Me,” of course, is a Beatles song, not a Rolling Stones one. So what’s it doing here? Well, this heavy mod-rock makeover of the Beatles’ first hit ranks as one of the most imaginative ‘60s Beatles covers. In part that’s because it wittily, and briefly, quotes the famous main fuzz riff from “Satisfaction” near the end without overdoing it. Not much info has circulated about this London group, who only recorded this one single, which flopped at the time, but fortunately has been reissued on numerous compilations of rare ‘60s British psychedelia.
This article first appeared a few months ago on the Fonoteca Municipal do Porto website in a Portuguese translation. I’m making it available here in the original English since a few people have asked if they could read it in that format. The Portuguese translation is here. Fonoteca Municpal do Porto isa sound archive and public space for music appreciation centered around a large collection of vinyl records from the city of Porto, Portugal.
The Velvet Underground released four albums between 1967 and 1970 while Lou Reed was in the band. Each of them is an important statement, and each of them is entirely different from each other. Had the group only issued these four LPs, their place as one of the greatest rock acts would be assured. But the Velvets also recorded a lot of other music in the studio, much of which is nearly as good as what came out while they were active, and some of which is just as good.
The best of these outtakes, along with some material that clearly wasn’t up to their usual high standards, emerged on the archival compilations VU and Another View in the mid-1980s. VU is an especially vital addition to their discography, featuring much of what would have likely been part of a “missing” fourth album between 1969’s The Velvet Underground and 1970’s Loaded. Another View, sometimes spelled Another VU,is more of a compilation of whatever additional leftovers could be found, although it has some noteworthy highlights.
Much of the material on VU was unofficially circulated on bootleg LPs before its release in February 1985. Back when Velvet Underground bootlegs first started to appear in the 1970s, the possibility of an officially sanctioned collection of the band’s outtakes seemed not only unlikely, but absurd. Their records hadn’t sold well on their official release, and by the early 1970s, some of their early albums were being sold at ridiculously low prices in bargain bins. The MGM label, which had put out the first three LPs, and companies that later acquired the rights to the records clearly thought that interest in the Velvet Underground would disappear.
Instead, the Velvet Underground’s fanatical cult built and built. The mere existence of VU bootlegs, usually reserved for superstars like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, testified to the intensity of the fans’ devotion. As more and more punk and new wave acts cited the Velvets as a seminal influence, occasionally covering Velvet Underground songs on records and (as Patti Smith did) in concert, the music industry realized there was still money to be made from the VU catalog.
VU was the first of the major excavations into the Velvet Underground’s unreleased material, and perhaps the most commercially successful. It reached #85 in the US charts—a much higher peak position than any of their albums had managed while the Velvets were active, when their highest-charting LP (The Velvet Underground & Nico) only crawled to #171. Of equal importance, it helped turn on a younger generation of listeners to the rich Velvet Underground legacy, ensuring that their four original studio albums never went out of print again.
More important than its commercial impact, however, was the actual music on VU. Eight of the ten songs were taken from 1969 sessions between their third and fourth album. The remaining two comprised a sort of unreleased 1968 single taped between their second and third LPs. Although Another View would be the title of the next outtakes compilation, these ten tracks indeed gave us a kind of “another view” of the Velvet Underground than what we hear on their first three albums.
For the most part, the songs and performances have a more light-hearted, even fun approach than the more serious and abrasive ones heard on 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico, still their most famous LP by far; 1968’s White Light/White Heat, easily their noisiest and most aggressive; and 1969’s The Velvet Underground, their quietest and folkiest, yet with lyrics as complex and probing as those heard on their previous work. The Velvet Underground remain most known for their more disturbing and controversial creations, especially those that ventured into previously taboo explorations of hard drug use, unconventional sexual behavior, and dissonant avant-garde drones and electronic distortion. Yet their range also encompassed upbeat, catchy celebrations of pleasure, passion, and rock and roll, as much of the VU compilation demonstrates.
Some of that good-time feel is heard in abundance on one of the two 1968 outtakes, “Temptation Inside Your Heart.” Here the Velvets seem to be trying on soul music for size, though they can’t help letting their inner ambiguity seep through. There aren’t many soul songs, for instance, that would taunt “I know where the evil lies inside of your heart.” Or, for that matter, leave the microphone on so it caught guys murmuring “electricity comes from other planets” or comparing what they’re trying to Motown and Martha & the Vandellas, complete with uncharacteristic upper-register soul harmonies on which they seem on the verge of bursting into laughter.
Also recorded at this February 1968 issue was the lovely ballad “Stephanie Says,” graced with celeste and beautiful John Cale viola, played with as much skill as he brought to the instrument on the more grating drones he employed for the likes of “Venus in Furs.” It seems possible their Verve label (a division of MGM) wanted to somehow coax a commercial single out of the Velvets with these two songs, with the more polished “Stephanie Says” the most likely candidate. Its failure to find release in 1968 is inexplicable, though for all its attractiveness, it coats a typically ambiguous Reed portrait of a globetrotter facing death with bravery.
It also anticipates a few future Lou Reed compositions whose titles follow a woman’s name with “Says,” like “Candy Says” and “Caroline Says.” Also in that sequence is VU’s “Lisa Says,” from the sessions that might have formed the core of a missing 1969 album. This heartbreaking romantic Reed ballad is arguably the highlight of VU, although it’s not as good as the live recording heard on their great concert double LP 1969 Velvet Underground Live (recorded in late 1969, but not released until 1974). That live version has a jaunty second bridge missing from the studio track, and the composition’s failure to get revived for the Loaded sessions is a mystery.
“Ocean” vies with “Lisa Says” as the best song on VU, and is certainly the most serious, Reed and band invoking an almost hypnotic meditative state. The quiet sections contrast with crescendos that ebb and flow like actual ocean waves. This would get attempted again at the Loaded sessions in 1970, though again it’s puzzling that it failed to find a place on that LP.
The other half dozen cuts from the 1969 sessions on VU find the Velvets in a surprisingly cheerful mood, perhaps reflecting a desire to move toward a more rock-oriented and possibly more commercial sound after three years or so of failing to land a hit record. The tunes aren’t in the same league as Reed’s best compositions, but all of them have some charm. “I Can’t Stand It” is an explosive riff-driven rocker, as well as a vehicle for some of Lou’s weirdest humor as he suffers all sorts of indignities while pining for his lost love. “Foggy Notion” isn’t much more than a catchy choppy riff with some engaging absurd lyrics, partially inspired by an obscure mid-1950s B-side by the early rock’n’roll vocal group the Solitaires.
Less impressive, but certainly pleasant, are the uncommonly straightforward midtempo love ode “She’s My Best Friend”; the whimsically wistful “One of These Days,” which shows the Velvets at their bluesiest; and “Andy’s Chest,” an almost comic number with a touch of vaudeville, later explained by Reed as what he thought about Andy Warhol being nearly shot to death in 1968. Drummer Maureen Tucker gets a rare lead vocal on the yet more vaudevillian “I’m Sticking with You,” which almost seems like it could have been used in a western saloon-set musical from the nineteenth century. That puts it in somewhat the same style as the one track on the Velvet Underground’s four principal albums on which she sang lead, “After Hours,” though “After Hours” is better.
Although mildly criticized by some critics and fans for its 1980s-oriented mixes, VU is a valuable supplement to their four fully realized studio albums. It’s more lightweight and not as provoking as any of those records, but consistently entertaining. “Stephanie Says,” “Lisa Says,” and “Ocean” are as artistic as almost anything else the band did at their best. Half of the songs would be remade for Lou Reed solo albums, but in every instance, the Velvet Underground’s version is better and rocks harder.
It’s not exactly the “missing” fourth album between The Velvet Underground and Loaded, however, and not just because two of the songs date from between the second and third LPs. A few more 1969 outtakes were retrieved for 1986’s Another View compilation, which the relative commercial success of VU likely made possible. The album also featured some other outtakes, dating back as far as late 1967. But Another View simply isn’t of nearly as much value as VU, and much more like the sort of random assortment of odds and ends that comprise many archival digs through the vaults.
There are still strong cuts that every Velvet Underground fan will want to hear. The best is the propulsive opening rocker “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together,” which according to a 1969 article in the Distant Drummer was being considered as a single that year, though it didn’t come out. Basic yet supremely joyous, a live version had long been available on 1969 Velvet Underground Live and outdoes the studio take in sheer frenetic energy. The finest other song on Another View, a 1969 studio version of “Rock and Roll,” is likewise outdone by both the 1969 Velvet Underground Live performance and the 1970 remake on Loaded.
Some of what was unearthed for Another View was unfinished, and it’s often obvious why the other tracks were not released at the time or even chosen for VU. The compelling hard rocker “Guess I’m Falling in Love,” “I’m Gonna Move Right In” (which isn’t much more than a repetitive riff), and the innocuous “Ride into the Sun” don’t even have vocals, although versions exist of all of these with singing.
Filling out the album, two versions of “Hey Mr. Rain” are among the most (and few) monotonous numbers in the Velvets’ catalog. “Coney Island Steeplechase” displays Reed’s sometimes regrettable taste for vaudevillian tunes. To a milder degree, so does the strange “Ferryboat Bill,” its nagging circular melody anchored by a forced pun about a dwarf.
There are many Velvet Underground fans who want to hear everything they can by the band, and they’ll treasure, or at least want to own, Another View. But VU is a much better dig into their archives, and one of the rare compilations of unreleased material that hangs together as a consistent and enjoyable listening experience. The music later appeared on other reissues, including as bonus cuts for deluxe box set reissues of White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground. But for the more selective fan, it still serves as the best introduction to the studio material not featured on their 1967-1970 albums, as well as documenting much of the more accessible and rock-and-rolling side of this magnificent band.
Carmel, aka Carmel-by-the-Sea, is another of those world famous Northern California places I’m ashamed to admit I’d never visited. Until early November of last year, the closest I’d gotten was Monterey. But a few months ago I had a work reason to go, and made a weekend out of it, though most of what I did had little to do with the small downtown area that’s its biggest tourist draw.
If you like hiking, as I do, the Carmel area has a few spectacular ones. I only had time to do a couple, both in the Carmel Valley, which is just a bit inland from the downtown area. Both were just off the main route going east just south of downtown, Carmel Valley Road. The trail to Inspiration Point in Palo Corona Regional Park is by far the better known of the pair, though even so, it wasn’t so crowded on a Saturday morning.
The route to Inspiration Point, from a parking lot a couple blocks after turning off Carmel Valley Road at Rio Road, isn’t too long. The 1.3 miles, however, are a little too steep to be called moderate, rising to an elevation of 850 feet at Inspiration Point. You have to wind around a hillside trail that never gets too steep, but the uphill is constant, so you should be in acceptable shape to walk it.
The view from Inspiration Point takes in Carmel Beach and the surrounding area, though the water’s fairly distant:
Although there wasn’t abundant wildlife on my hike, I did see a deer, who wasn’t too alarmed by my presence about fifty years away as my camera zoomed in for pictures:
There are a few pleasant bridges on the way up and down, like these:
Carmel Valley Ranch is a few miles east of the trail to Inspiration Point. You’ve got to know exactly where you’re going to find the trailhead, and if I hadn’t driven there with a local, I wouldn’t have easily gotten to the small path that gets you to the ranch’s corral:
Unusually, there are llamas at the corral, though they’re not to easy to photograph when they’re behind a railing:
There are extensive lengthy trails in the ranch that go up quite a ways, and it would take at least a half-day trip to get to hilltop views. At least you’ll likely be undisturbed by crowds, as I only saw about a half dozen others during my walk. I only had between an hour or two, but that was enough to get some of the countless views in the area of the Carmel Valley:
My brief visit was mostly hiking, but it wasn’t all hiking. Here’s some of what you’re likely to see at Carmel Beach, a quick walk from the large free parking lot at the end of the main drag, Ocean Avenue:
Author Richie Unterberger's views on vintage rock music; San Francisco Bay Area biking and hiking; socially responsible living; and baseball.