Faraway, So Close
More than four decades ago, remembers Dave Ray in Been Here...Done That, John Koerner saw something like his dream life in a movie. Nothing unusual about that, of course, nor is it so odd that the film was François Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player. This was the early '60s, and Koerner was a with-it college kid. In hip and even not-so-hip collegiate circles of the time, a passing familiarity with foreign films, modern jazz, and folk music was nearly as essential as being able to hold one's liquor at a beer blast. It's not even so unusual that Koerner was attracted to the unassuming life led by Charles Aznavour's character at the beginning and end of Truffaut's movie, which finds a former concert pianist playing music in the corner of a dive bar. Lots of artists, famous and not, claim a yen for a humble, creative life outside the spotlight; often they pine for such anonymity while conducting publicity interviews of their own solicitation.
What is unusual is that Koerner, as demonstrated by this documentary from veteran filmmaker Don McGlynn, has realized his dream. The singer-guitarist has often been celebrated, but has never been a celebrity, and in fact has never courted fame. As a member of Minneapolis's Koerner, Ray & Glover, he had a quiet but important influence on the music of the '60s, but he has never seemed anything other than a guy making music just for kicks in the world's corner.
"Spider" John Koerner, guitarist-singer Dave "Snaker" Ray, and blues harpist-singer Tony "Little Sun" Glover were the finest of all the acolytes playing blues during the Folk Revival. (The group, though a simpatico unit, rarely played all at once: Usually Glover would back Koerner or Ray while the other guitarist sat out, and sometimes a member would fly solo.) It was partly through the trio's efforts that aging Southern bluesmen such as Son House, Skip James, and Mississippi John Hurt were able to record again and reach new audiences during the '60s. What's more, Koerner, Ray & Glover's reverent but never "pure" blues, rags, and hollers gave scores of other middle-class white kids--many an ocean away from the music's source--a new, non-Southern model for blue-eyed blues. Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Bill Wyman, Jimi Hendrix, Bonnie Raitt, The Doors, Beck, and Dinkytown coeval Bob Dylan were or are all fans, and you can hear traces of K, R & G on the acoustic side of Led Zeppelin III. Like most of the blues and folk musicians they took inspiration from, Koerner, Ray & Glover were more influential than they were popular, and they remain more known than they are heard--which is partly why this movie was made.
Like Koerner, McGlynn is apparently happy on the low-budget fringes. A documentarian who has often turned his attention to musicians of oversized talent and character--Charles Mingus, Howlin' Wolf, Spike Jones, Louis Prima--McGlynn is also a Minnesota native and a longtime Spider John Koerner fan. He sees this film and its world premiere in the Twin Cities as something of a homecoming. What he's bringing back is an affectionate portrait, not an exhaustive biography. As he did with his 2003 doc, The Howlin' Wolf Story, McGlynn lets his subject's story emerge slowly and incompletely, casting the music itself as his principal narrator. Koerner is private and laconic. (When asked about his philosophy, for instance, he says, "You don't want to be an asshole.") Accordingly, perhaps, Been Here doesn't linger on the artist's childhood or pry much into his private or inner life. There's scant conflict or drama or critique or heavy analysis here, which might leave you wanting a bit more. To compensate, there's plenty of excellent music--including ten complete performances from (relatively recent) concerts and rehearsals. The absence of much archival footage is a bit of a bummer, but we aren't shortchanged on quality as a result. Koerner's historical moment was in the early '60s--and he made must-hear stuff back then. But in many respects, his percussive, bobbing, emotionally rangy take on American folk music got deeper, weirder, and more original over time.
It makes sense that Koerner has aged well--this is music that people often grow into. There was a touch of unwitting minstrelsy to some of Koerner's early blues work, and as the '60s ended, questions of authenticity and entitlement started to bug the artist. "I'm not a black guy," he sums up dryly. After marrying a Danish woman (whom he later divorced), Koerner moved to Copenhagen and retired from music for a spell. When he picked up his instrument again, he was eschewing blues and originals in favor of vibrant readings of traditional American folk songs such as "Acres of Clams" and "Shenandoah." He later made peace with his blues roots and old material, and was able to wed his diverse musical interests. (A good example of his eclectic, mature style is Been Here's version of 1992's funny and melancholy "Summer of '88.")
At one point in the movie, Ray speculates that Koerner has been driven and blown by two opposing forces: a Protestant sedulousness befitting the son of a Methodist minister, and a deep desire to be a "flagrant vagrant" (Ray's words). Koerner describes himself as a loner. He's no misanthrope--he's married and is a regular at the West Bank's Palmer's Bar, but he also spends a fair amount of time in a tiny shack in the woods up north. Music, he says, doesn't take up much of his time anymore. Described as "ritualistic" by his wife, Koerner is a reader, an amateur astronomer, a boatman, and a tinker. In the movie he shows off several of his self-built and sometimes self-designed possessions--an elegant small boat based on folk models, a cannon-like telescope, a harmonica stand, and a makeshift lawnmower assembled partly from a bicycle. (This last is the silliest-looking cutting and/or clipping device I've laid eyes on, but it seems to work just fine.)
Koerner's hobbies tend to take him away from the world--the stargazing most obviously--and he's long been drawn to songs about ramblers. Been Here's most telling non-performance sequence is a shot of Koerner heading out on the lake, alone in his boat on an overcast day. He'll probably be back in a few hours, or maybe he'll just keep drifting. "If anybody asks you who sang this song," he croons in "Summer of '88," using a traditional motif, "Tell 'em it was some fool that has been here and gone/If anybody asks you where did he go/Far, far away where the cool breezes blow."
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