the california years
So once again, I made plans to play out my final Wheatstraw gigs, I flew out to LA to find a place to live – a great little bungalow in Santa Monica – and prepared for the move. The Nashville sessions had turned out well, and it wasn’t too wild a fantasy to think we might get some national airplay. And then Larry called. His financial backer had backed out, meaning the label was not going to fly but Larry would do all he could to get my single picked up by another label. I hung up from that call deeply disappointed. I comforted myself with the realization that no one was forcing me to leave Boston. But in my heart of hearts I knew I had already moved on. An that’s just they way I’m built. I may agonize over a decision or some situation, but once the planets line up – I’m committed. I decided I was going any way.
I figured that I had a place to live and enough money in the bank to cover a few months rent while I got something going. I had a few old friends from the east coast who had migrated out before me and one gave me a part time gig hauling lighting cable for movie sets. After a month or two of that the phone rang again, and it was my old friend Joe Kennedy. His uncle Teddy had announced his candidacy for the presidency and Joe was going to play a serious role in the campaign. He was about to head to Iowa for the first contest in the race and he was asking me to come meet him there and sign on for the ride. That was as in “meet me there – tomorrow”. I quickly ran through all the reasons in my head why that was totally impractical, then decided “I’m going anyway”.
So for the next 10 months I engaged in a complete submersion exercise in presidential politics. I was part of a cast of characters that went from Iowa to Maine to Illinois to California then on to the convention in New York City. It was a learning experience of unimaginable magnitude. I was one of the few people on the campaign for whom the 18 hours days and a slim paycheck was actually a lifestyle upgrade! An experience like that creates bonds of friendship that never break. I say that from firsthand experience.
After that juggernaut, I returned to LA quite energized and things began to fall in place. I was introduced to a very special person and a wonderful, seasoned drummer named Dennis Kenmore who became my sherpa among the LA musician brotherhood. Dennis had played for many years with the alt-country band Goose Creek Symphony and later with the Sanford Townsend Band who toured with Fleetwood Mac and other mega bands. Dennis brought in bass player Dave Batti and I coaxed keyboard player Jim Mentel to come out from Boston and we now had a band. I had a pretty impressive press kit from the Wheatstraw days so we made fairly quick penetration in the crowded LA music scene. Musically, I pretty much picked up where I had left off with Wheatstraw and we started landing opening act work – and eventually headlining - at the legendary Palomino Club in North Hollywood. Folks at Electra Records took a strong interest in us and put us in the studio to cut demos to send to their people in Nashville.
At this same time, I was introduced to John Stewart, the same John Stewart whose face I stared at on the Kingston Trio album covers and whose banjo playing had mesmerized me at their concerts in DC. I had followed his career through the late 60’s and into the 70’s with albums we would today call the cornerstones of Americana music – California Bloodlines, Cannons in the Rain, Phoenix Concerts. And this being 1981, John was just coming off of a big hit, “Gold”, produced by Lindsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac and featuring Stevie Nicks on vocals. As would happen again along the journey, our early conversations were as much about history and politics as music. John was beginning work on recording demos of some of his new songs and invited me to Larrabee Studios in West LA were he was doing that work. It was just John and an engineer and for me it was a masterclass in recording and mixing technique. On about my third day there, John was working on a tune called “ All the Desperate Men” and he turned to me and said “Do you here a harmony?” I said I did, they threw up a mic, I slapped on some headphones, and started singing along. I continued doing just that on almost everything John recorded over the next four years or so. But before he popped that question, he had never heard me sing a note!
I had started playing a club in Malibu, not far from where John lived, and he would come down and spend the evening with us and eventually began sitting in. (As I got to know him better over the years, I learned that that was somewhat atypical for John. He was a very private person offstage.). As I mentioned I was already doing some opening act work at the Palomino and John often headlined there. John began arranging for me to be his opener. He then invited me to play rhythm guitar in his rather large band. Then after completing a tour with Stevie Nicks, he decided to drop the full band and said we should just go out as a duo. We had become very close personal friends by this time and it seemed completely natural.
It also created an incredible musical opportunity for me. I got to spend years along side one of the best songwriters of his generation and observe his creative process. I got to collaborate and co-produce with him. I got to work with the other musicians he brought into his orbit. Yes, there were a few days there in the studio when I had Linda Ronstadt to my left and Lindsay Buckingham to my right as the three of us sang backup harmony parts! We shared the bill with other heroes of mine – Bonnie Raitt, John Prine, Leo Koetke, Roger McGuinn. And all of this changed my songwriting, leading me away from the most strict aspects of the country genre and giving my self permission to open the aperture on rhythm, melody and subject matter. And in this case, my fellow band mates came right along with me.
The second album I did with John, “The Last Campaign”, was recorded at Shangri-La Studios in Malibu which had been previously owned by The Band and was the setting for most of the interview scenes in the documentary “The Last Waltz”. The manager of the studio was generous enough to let me cut some demos there when the studio wasn’t busy and I put considerable work into a group of songs that represented the evolution in my music at that point. The term Americana had not yet been coined, but that’s how I would describe the music then.
Two things played out simultaneously at this point. One, I had gotten married and we were expecting our first child. Two, musical taste in the mid 80’s had turned toward a new British invasion that was decidedly techno-based, heavy on synthesizers, pop melodies, and fashion. That was only about 180 degrees out from what I was doing. And that’s certainly what I heard from the LA music execs. I did get a lifeline from a label in the UK that focused on folk-rock type artists who released my “most recent” album, “The Turning of the Wheel” in 1984.
I was now facing some difficult choices about how best to meet the demands of fatherhood and marriage. On the one hand, I was totally committed to the evolution that had taken place in my music. I felt I was finding my own voice and that was deeply satisfying. I had built a respectable, loyal following in a highly competitive city. Between my work with John and my own ever-better gigs, there were some truly fabulous nights. But as anyone knows who has supported themselves through music for any length of time, a fatigue can set in. And being in an industry town like LA could in fact rob you of some of the things that attracted you to the craft in the first place. I’d catch myself looking at the door throughout the set to see if that A&R man from Sony Records had come in like he said he would. And if you’re lost in doing that, you’re NOT lost in the song. And Ladies and Gentlemen, the game is about getting lost in the song. Period. The dance was wearing me out.
And I took to impending responsibilities of fatherhood very seriously. The men –and women – in my family were hard workers. I’ve always felt blessed to be only one generation away from the farm, to be the child of depression-era parents who never thought twice about putting their heads down and doing whatever it took to make things work, to make things better. So I began scrambling around LA looking for something music-related that offered the little things – like medical insurance, a luxury that up until then I did not own and could not afford.
In the midst of this, my friend Joe Kennedy called to again make an offer. This time he hoped I would move back to Boston and join a non-profit company he had started to help provide low cost energy supplies to poor people in New England. It would mean that this journey would be over, perhaps forever. Clarity eventually set in, and though it would mean that I hang up my rock’n’roll shoes, I decided we would move back to Boston anyway.