Not Fade Away
The Greenwich Village folk scene was about the hippest place on the planet in the early 1960s, when legions of earnest sandal wearers descended on Bleeker and MacDougal toting acoustic guitars and hopes of Guthriedom. Right in the thick of it was Eric Andersen, a pre-med dropout from upstate who quickly fell in with Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk, and the rest. Folksinger Tom Paxton had discovered him playing in a San Francisco coffeehouse and invited him to join the perpetual hootenanny then reigning in lower Manhattan.
Andersen made a splashy debut at Gerde's Folk City in 1964, and within days signed a deal with Vanguard Records. He was soon turning out songs that became minor icons of the era, including "Violets of Dawn," "Thirsty Boots," and "Come to My Bedside." He fit the mold of the quintessential folkie so well that he bears the questionable distinction of being the first in a long line of so-called new Dylans.
Fast-forward 35 years or so and Andersen, now 57, may be a rock-history footnote to the current generation of musical youth. But he has never stopped writing or performing through the ebbs and flows of a decidedly strange career, one that is once again stirring up airplay and critical praise as he returns to the Cedar for a solo gig Thursday. Andersen is even experiencing a miniboom of sorts. In the last year alone, Vanguard issued a new compilation of vintage stuff (Violets of Dawn), and Sony Legacy put out a remastered version of 1972's Blue River (his commercial high point). Meanwhile, tiny Appleseed Records released two first-rate albums of new material: Memory of the Future and, just last month, You Can't Relive the Past.
If The Past is prologue, then Andersen is due for a bona fide revival. In many ways it is his most extraordinary album. He wrote the title track with Lou Reed, who contributes his wiry guitar and Velveteen snarl to the mix. The result is a riveting, edgy rant on the relationship we have with our back pages, the need to acknowledge the past without wallowing in it, without turning from the future--a theme that permeates the disc. "So many loves are dead and gone," the two singers yowl feverishly. "I wake up now that's all I know...the future's constant tyranny."
The bittersweet, inevitably corrosive nature of time is perhaps Andersen's best subject. His songs are often like short stories, chronicling a lifetime of adventures and memorable characters, from neo-Nazis ("Rain Falls Down in Amsterdam") to Janis Joplin ("Pearl's Goodtime Blues") and the young, unknown Patti Smith ("Wild Crow Blues"). Perhaps the peak of Andersen's work on the subject was the title track from his 1989 album Ghosts Upon the Road. In a striking, autobiographical narrative of times and friends lost and found, he detailed the significance of his literary influences. "Ramblin' Jack was wild, but Lowell Jack was first," he sang, referencing Elliot and Kerouac, respectively. The song also vividly recounted how Ochs's suicide abruptly made Andersen aware of his vulnerability: "Life and death were indistinguishable till death put an end to that."
"Any artist, their raw materials are their own life," says Andersen via cell phone while tooling down the highway near Niagara Falls, fresh from a sold-out gig in Toronto. "So everything's drawn from the past. The flame of it is really kept alive through art. You listen to old Bessie Smith records or Robert Johnson, you put the record on, man, it's like he's in the room even though he's been dead for 70 years."
You Can't Relive the Past similarly plops history into the present by resurrecting four gripping songs Andersen wrote in 1986 with another ghost: the late, mercurial Texas songsmith Townes Van Zandt. The tunes were all but forgotten until Andersen discovered the working tape in an old box and decided to record them as a tribute to his friend. These are dark, ominous songs inspired by whiskey and women, grappling with demons that lurk at every turn. "Old Black Bush gonna carry me down/Throw me into the burying ground," Andersen sings in "The Blue March," a harrowing country-blues shuffle.
The Past delves deeply into Americana as well, stoking the flame lit by Johnson and Smith with a handful of tunes recorded in Mississippi that have a gritty, rural blues feel. Andersen conjures up hair-raising howls and moans against the whining slide guitar of Kenny Brown, the rumbling drums of Sam Carr, and the slicing lead of guitarist James "Super Chikan" Johnson, all local denizens of the Fat Possum label. Mississippi is a long way from the Village, but the blues weren't that remote in Andersen's formative creative years, when he heard the likes of Skip James, John Hurt, and Rev. Gary Davis in New York clubs.
Andersen now plies the nation's highways with a cell phone, acoustic guitar, and an eclectic songbook covered by artists as diverse as the Kingston Trio, Johnny Cash, and the Grateful Dead. His recent forays southward show how the erstwhile folkie's wide-ranging interests continue to shift.
"I'm not strictly a Weavers-type," he insists. "I'm my own weaver." Andersen's strong literary streak owes a particular debt to the beats and French symbolist poets like Rimbaud. "Memory of the Future," in fact, uses Burroughs's cut-up technique, yielding such striking, random lines as "chopstick menace smack-stuck slapstuck romance in a chapstick razor wind."
In a way, Andersen's whole career has been one long free association, veering from folkie to classic Seventies singer-songwriter to country dabbler to rootsy rock 'n' roller. His life has encompassed such extremes as starring in an Andy Warhol movie (1966's Space) and supplying a theme song for presidential candidate George McGovern. These experiences provided plenty of raw material for his songwriting, which consistently bucked trends--even those closely identified with him. When protest politics were the thing, Andersen mostly eschewed polemics in favor of love songs full of literary allusions, grown-up complications, and a strain of eroticism that was rare at the time. Only "Thirsty Boots," about the civil-rights freedom riders, dabbled in the topical.
When Andersen tried to play by the elusive rules of the music biz, fate conspired against him. Vanguard repeatedly delayed the release of albums, deflating their popularity. He had agreed to a management deal with Beatles manager Brian Epstein in 1967, with a promise of big things ahead, just months before Epstein's sudden death. All he got out of it was some memorable escapades with the Beatles in London the week Sgt. Pepper's came out. He remembers running into a velvet-clad Jimi Hendrix and eating hash under the table at a club with John Lennon. And he was riding the crest of Blue River's success when the tapes of his nearly completed, highly anticipated follow-up album were mysteriously "lost," just as his mentor, then Columbia president Clive Davis, was being fired. (They were finally found unmarked in the Columbia archives 17 years later and issued in 1991 as Stages: The Lost Album.)
Andersen harbors a certain resilience that has allowed him to weather the twists of his sometimes star-crossed career and avoid the fortunes of so many of his contemporaries. "I didn't get bent out of shape like I probably could've," he allows. "I never thought that way, because I got into the work more because I just loved writing."
Now that there's a perceptible buzz about his work again, he talks confidently of a new studio album, maybe doing a live album at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, maybe taking the Mississippi band on the road. "I'm just trying to hobble along with the torch as long as I can," he says, a memory of the future as past perfect.
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