Eric Andersen on Camus, Byron, Dylan, and Ochs
When I first saw Eric Andersen perform, I was floored by the sheer beauty of his music, voice, and lyrics. It was 1974 in a tiny downtown Denver club called Ebbets Field that no longer exists, and the entire audience appeared mesmerized by every word he sang. He played “Violets of Dawn,” “Thirsty Boots,” “Is It Really Love at All,” and other songs that were delicate, colorful, insightful, and downright poetic. At that time, I thought no one could write songs as well as two of my favorite musicians, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, but I immediately put Andersen in that company.
I went backstage to interview Andersen between his early and late shows at Ebbets Field, and he was all over the place, talking like a frenetic, distracted genius. He was often more interested in his girlfriend — or playing segments of a cassette recording I had made of the show — than answering my questions. He asked me for a copy of the tape, invited me to return to the next night’s show, and promised to do the interview then.
The following night was another journalist’s nightmare. Our sit-down interview after the late show was frequently interrupted by his fans and friends, and Andersen was unable to focus on the task at hand. I thought “to hell with this” and decided to leave without the interview. As I headed toward the exit, Andersen spotted my departure, sensed my frustration, broke away from a group of friends, and implored me to stay. He led me to a remote area and said, “Ask me some questions.”
It was just one example of his sensitivity. A friend kiddingly called him “a psychotic,” and Andersen responded, “Call me Mr. Emotional Cripple.” He saw me jotting down that description, grabbed my pen, crossed out “Mr.,” and replaced it with “just another.”
Yes, some of Andersen’s best songs reveal his broken romances, his heartache and unfulfilled desires. The songs are powerful, poignant, and steeped in imagery. Consider “Is It Really Love At All” from Andersen’s 1972 masterpiece, Blue River.
Sitting here forgotten like
A book upon a shelf
No one there to turn the page
You’re left to read yourself
Alone to sit and wonder just how the story ends
Cause no one ever told you child
You gotta be your own best friend
Sunny days cloudy days
Always seem the same
If love were made of clouds I
Almost wish that it would rain
Even when the skies are clear
The weather’s always blue
Every day would be nice if I had
Someone I could come home to
That album’s only cover song, David Wiffen’s “More Often than Not,” follows a similar theme.
Well, I rolled into town last night, I’m tired
And would you believe I would like to cry now
I saw my lady laying there with a man
Not another one, oh no
And would you believe
That it happens more often than not
And here’s to all the ladies
That I’m not with tonight
Wherever they are
The unrequited romantic imagery takes a different turn on the title cut, “Blue River,” a gorgeous song with backing vocals by Joni Mitchell. The song evokes riverside imagery, pointing to a gushing river as a refuge from the woes of the world.
Blue River keep right on rollin
All along the shore line
Keep us safe from the deep and the dark
Cause we don’t want to stray too far
Such imagery may be akin to images in the renowned novel, The Stranger, by French author, philosopher, and journalist Albert Camus. In The Stranger, Meursault is in prison thinking about the sea and the crash of waves as freedom from the confines of his cell. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that on April 10 in Manhattan and on April 16 in Brooklyn, Andersen will make two appearances as part of a monthlong festival celebrating the 70th anniversary of Camus’s only visit to New York. (For more festival information go here.) For the first appearance — April 10 at the Bowery Poetry Club — Andersen will read and comment on Camus’ writings, accompanied by percussionist Cheryl Prashker and notable multi-instrumentalist David Amram. On the latter, at National Sawdust, he will perform songs from his most recent EP, Shadow and Light of Albert Camus, with violinist Michele Gazich, multi-instrumentalist Robert Aaron, guitarist Steve Addabbo, and percussionist Jagoda. The EP, which was released on vinyl in 2014 and on CD last year by the German label Meyer Records, consists of four songs Andersen wrote based on Camus’s writings.
“From the vineyards of Camus, I tried to create four bottles of vintage wine that tasted deep and true,” Andersen told me in an interview after releasing the EP.
He also explained the origin of the EP and the Camus festival, which began March 26 and is scheduled to end with Patti Smith reading her favorite Camus works on April 19. “I was visiting my painter friend Oliver Jordan in Cologne, and he asked if I would be interested in writing texts and songs about Albert Camus for two upcoming exhibitions featuring his large Camus portraits. This exhibition was in conjunction with the Camus family, namely Catherine, Albert Camus’s daughter.
“Jordan is Europe’s preeminent portraitist and was a student of Josef Beuys at the Düsseldorf academy of art,” he continues. “In September 2013, we did an exhibition and concert near his home in Aix-en-Provence. Camus won the Nobel literature prize in 1957 and died in a car crash in 1960. I completed the songs and one extra text based on his books and their titles. I extrapolated from his texts, filtering them through my own poetic lens and then put them to music. The following summer we repeated the exhibition and concert at the art museum in Bonn.
“One year later, the Camus family contacted me in Holland about doing a Camus festival in New York for spring 2016 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of his visit right after the war. I reached out to Dr. Stephen Petrus, the curator of Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival at the Museum of the City of New York. We put together a small team of enthusiasts in the city, and the project took off.”
Prior to Eric’s Camus EP, Meyer Records released The Cologne Concert in 2011, an eight-song live album that includes “Blue River,” two new songs, and two Andersen classics: “Time Run Like a Freight Train” and “Woman She Was Gentle.”
I mention that too few people know the incredible beauty and purity of his music. “I am very honored by your kind words and appraisal,” he responds, “and I hope it is true. I try to write songs that stand the test of time. But artists rarely know how their work strikes others. We live in our own private bandshell.”
Many people familiar with Andersen’s music would say “Thirsty Boots,” “Violets of Dawn,” and “Blue River” are his three masterpiece songs, but such a view shortchanges many other great songs he has written. I ask him which others he regards as his best. “I am also partial,” he says, “to ‘Ghosts Upon the Road,’ ‘Salt on Your Skin,’ ‘Sheila,’ ‘Time Run Like a Freight Train,’ ‘Woman She Was Gentle,’ ‘Sinking Deeper into You,’ and others, including the 14 new Lord Byron works I’ve recorded that will be released in the fall. [They’re on an album] called Mingle with the Universe: The Worlds of Lord Byron.”
Literary giants have long been a staple in Eric’s life. In high school in Buffalo, New York, he shared with friends a love of literature and folk music and had particular affection for the works of Dostoyevsky, Lawrence, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg. He began writing his own stories, poems, and songs and spent many nights at a local folk club listening to the folk harmonies and guitar playing of Don Hackett and Jerry Ravin.
Andersen enrolled as a pre-med student at Hobart College in Geneva, New York, but folk music was also on his mind. After his freshman year in summer 1962, he traveled to Boston with Joe Hutchinson, a friend and banjo player. While performing on a stoop in Boston, they were invited to Cape Cod and later hired as an opening act at the Cape Cod Folk Festival. They called their duo the Cradlers and in Hyannis, Massachusetts, opened shows for the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and others.
Andersen went back to college, but his grades collapsed, and he left to pursue his own career in literature and music. He hitchhiked to San Francisco to sing in North Beach coffeehouses and find the Beat Generation poets. He met Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and went to their poetry reading in Haight-Ashbury on the night President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Afterward, there was a get-together at Ferlinghetti’s house, where Andersen met Neal Cassady, the hero of Kerouac’s On the Road, and poet-playwright Michael McClure.
Tom Paxton heard Andersen performing in North Beach and invited him to New York City. He arrived in the Big Apple in winter 1964 and soon met Greenwich Village-based songwriters Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Fred Neil, and Ramblin’ Jack. His first show in New York City was as an opening act for John Lee Hooker at Gerde’s Folk City, and he began playing protest hootenannies at the Village Gate with Paxton, Ochs, Pete Seeger, and Peter LaFarge.
Andersen signed a contract with Vanguard Records, and the label released a compilation album with four of his songs, one by Ochs and two by other artists. His debut album, Today Is the Highway, was released in 1965, followed by 24 more, excluding greatest-hits albums, that have followed to this day.
There have been so many memorable moments throughout Andersen’s prolific career, but I was lucky enough to be part of a very special one on May 28, 1976, at the Felt Forum adjacent to Madison Square Garden. Phil Ochs had committed suicide a month before, and Andersen and many other musicians, including Van Ronk and Tom Rush, gathered to perform a tribute concert to honor their friend whose life had been devoted not only to music but to civil rights, an end to the Vietnam War, and many other activist causes.
Andersen delivered a teary-eyed rendering of “Thirsty Boots” in front of a hushed, saddened audience.
I know you are no stranger down the crooked rainbow trails
From dancing cliff-edged shattered sills of slandered-shackled jails
For the voices drift up from below as the walls they’re being scaled
Yes, all of this and more, my friend, your song shall not be failed
So take off your thirsty boots and stay for awhile
Your feet are hot and weary from a dusty mile
And maybe I can make you laugh maybe I can try
I’m just looking for the evening the morning in your eyes.
The beautiful poetry within that song resounded especially loudly that night — a night that had several incredible performances. It was also difficult to keep a dry eye when the burly Van Ronk strode to the microphone and, with his gravelly, harsh-yet-sweet voice, bellowed out the traditional folk song “He Was a Friend of Mine.”
He was a friend of mine
He was a friend of mine
Every time I think about him now
Lord I just can’t keep from cryin’
‘Cause he was a friend of mine
Our friends have tried to turn my nights to day
Strange faces in your place can’t keep the ghosts away
Rush’s classic song “No Regrets” also hit like a sledgehammer. He sang to his departed friend:
Our friends have tried to turn my nights to day
Strange faces in your place can’t keep the ghosts away
Just beyond the darkest hour, just behind the dawn
It feels so strange to lead my life alone
No tears goodbye
Don’t want you back
We’d only cry again
Say goodbye again
Today, Andersen recalls Ochs — a musical poet who fought socially for many downtrodden Americans. “Phil will always remain one of the greats in my book,” he says. “His songs still ring true — just change the names of the countries and people he exposes and writes about.”
Another friend and musician peer of Andersen’s — Rick Danko — also left the world too soon. The two friends lived near one another for a while in Woodstock, New York, and released a few solid albums with Jonas Fjeld under the group name Danko/Fjeld/Andersen. Danko, of course, was best known for being one of the lead singers and the bass player of The Band.
I mention to Andersen that Danko’s death probably hit me harder than the early death of any musician, and he responds: “That would be an accurate assessment. Besides his towering talents, Rick had an infectious chuckle. It’s been said, ‘When you were born and the angels sang, Rick Danko sang harmony.’ We also lost two others — Townes Van Zandt and Lou Reed, who were close souls, song collaborators, and friends of mine.”
Another friend, though, keeps on going and going and going. Bob Dylan’s multi-decade “Never-Ending Tour” is showing no signs of slowing down. In Tokyo tonight (April 4), Dylan kicks off the first of 43 concerts through mid-July. Andersen says he talked to Dylan at length in October 2011 after a Dylan show at the Ahoy Arena in Rotterdam, the Netherlands — about 40 miles from Driebergen, the town where Andersen now lives.
“In Rotterdam, we talked about writing his memoir, his art exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in New York and my novel. Mostly writing. Bob was sweet and in a good mood that night. He invited my Dutch wife and me to his house in the Scottish Highlands. Everyone just needs to find the time, but it would be lovely. An aside: Our first album, Danko/Fjeld/Andersen, was one of Bob’s favorite albums when it came out.”
One of the best concerts Andersen ever attended, he says, was “a great Dylan/Joni Mitchell show” at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 1, 1998. He also recalls a “great” Lightnin’ Hopkins show in Berkeley, California, in 1963 and a top performance by Elvis Presley “in his gold suit in my hometown of Buffalo, at the hockey auditorium.”
Eric adds a few other “best” concerts he has seen: two Lou Reed shows in Amsterdam and Berlin, and Laurie Andersen’s Moby Dick performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Was any concert most influential to him as a musician?
“Probably the Elvis show and the blues players whose knees I sat at, mesmerized, at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village,” he says.
Those blues musicians he watched in awe in New York included Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Skip James, Fred McDowell, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Reverend Gary Davis, Doc Watson, Uncle Dave Macon, and Judy Roderick.
After decades living in different regions of New York state, why has he settled for many recent years in Scandinavia? “My father’s family is Norwegian,” he says. “The same is true on Jackson Browne’s mom’s side. We joke about that. It’s also a very clean, beautiful place to live with lots of green space, blue water, and few people.”
Andersen says he is planning an album of all original songs besides the album about Lord Byron that “hopefully will see light of day in the States.” The Lord Byron album was recorded in a Cologne, Germany, studio “with harmony, violin, Mediterranean oud, and Moroccan percussion.” It’s comprised of 12 songs with Byron’s lyrics and “my music and alterations and some additions,” Andersen says. “In addition, there are two songs about Byron as a person and an artist, penned by me.”
With so much beautiful music in his extensive catalog and so much more to come, what is Eric Andersen’s legacy in folk and popular music? “Well,” he says quite humbly, “hopefully, some of my writing and songs can inspire others to have the courage to create and make the invisible visible.”