Joanna in the title is Joanna Krotz. She hosted a mixed-gender consciousness-raising group back in the 60’s. Not sure how much our consciousnesses got raised but there was some romantic linking up and it was here that I first met Carolyn Bell, who is the real subject of this song (Joanna makes a brief appearance in the third verse). The wonderful Joanna was not a love interest (although many years later we took a brief, unsuccessful stab at it). The song is full of the New Age imagery and thinking that I was immersed in at the time. And it’s I believe my longest song. This is one of many songs that my 12-string guitar wrote; I just filled in the blanks.
Judy Pearlman was my first serious girlfriend and we had a rather tumultuous time of it. She was totally one of a kind, a lovely, warm, funny, effervescent soul. She deserved a much more upbeat, celebratory song than this, but all that tumult made its way into the lyrics. I did write a ton of poetry for her. We reconnected many times over the years and she is always an absolute delight to spend time with. My greatest reward from listening to this song is that I rely on Alice in Wonderland (my second favorite book; Looking Glass is my first) to close out the choruses.
I had a band in the mid-60s that was my first introduction to amplification and it expanded my writing style a bit. This song came out of that, but it was uptempo and quite a bit different. I rewrote the song years later because I loved singing the refrain. Not sure who this could have been about. Possibly Judy Perlman.
Can’t think of why this song was written but I have this vague memory that somewhere on a Joni Mitchell album, either in the lyrics to one of her songs or in the liner notes, Beethoven and Sylvia Plath were juxtaposed for some reason. And so this song erupted out of my guitar, with the two of them accounting for the first two verses. I tag Carolyn on this song only because I wrote it during the time I was seeing/not seeing her. The last verse contains the line: I’m heading now towards Bethlehem perhaps to be reborn. Originally it was: I’m slouching now towards Bethlehem… but the song is already so incurably pretentious I didn’t have the guts.
Another song from my late teens that I pretty much never played for anyone. There was no Diane in my life (in fact, at that time there was no one in my life) so I’m not sure why I used the name. And this is also another song that my 12-string wrote, I just filled in the lyrics (which sound like they were written by a not particularly precocious teenager). It’s fun to sing and has a key change that I like and Elliot set it to a bossa nova arrangement.
One of my early neighborhood bands was called Jazgor Seazanspan, a name we came up with by taking the first two or three letters of the band members’ names. The lead singer was Sharon Zane and during a break one night I had a conversation with her husband Ed. And that conversation morphed into this song.
Another song whose origin is lost from my memory. I’ve tagged Carolyn since this fits us (my view of us) but I’m reasonably certain I wrote it before I met her. I knew we sang this song in one of my early bands. Ah well.
Helen Chellin was a girl from my old neighborhood in the Bronx. I didn’t really know her but at one point she started hanging around with my group of friends (I think she had a crush on my buddy Jake). She was very pretty and I quickly developed a crush on her and I wrote this song (my first love song) but never played it for her. She was my first muse, I guess. Fifty years later I Googled her, she is an artist living in San Francisco. I sent her a copy of the song and she seemed pleased (“honored” was the word she used). My pop, who never said anything about my songwriting (for fear of encouraging me to be a singer/songwriter) did confess to me on a few occasions that he loved this song.
Herb was Harvey Bender, with whom I became extremely close in the 60’s after we both had dropped out of college and found ourselves hanging out at The Rail. This is the rare song that I wrote for a man and not a woman. This recording from the Willow I cassette contains one of my favorite band moments, James’ impassioned harmony on the second verse.
Written after I had broken up with Susie Sherman, I can still picture the bench I sat on as I wrote this. From the beginning it was meant to be in the style of The Righteous Brothers, but it was another dozen years until I worked out the bridge with Willow II. The original chorus was: “Susan I’m losing my mind.” Well, I was just 20.
Really a blast to sing back then; I doubt if I could sing it today.
For a while I was obsessed with a three chord progression starting with E and moving it up two frets to a kind of open F#minor and then two more frets to an open G#minor. There are a number of songs on here that use that. It was my version of Richie Havens’ sound (although I’m pretty sure he used open tuning). This song is definitely about someone, and it’s certainly consistent with my time with Carolyn. But I have this nagging recollection that I wrote it before I met her. Oh well…
I wrote this song when I was 18 or 19, making it one of the earliest songs included on this site. At the time I was doing volunteer work for Broadside magazine, which published new songs. I was there every day, and really did a lot of the grunt work in putting the very simple magazine together, including notating songs (which was surprising since I had no training in doing that other than what rubbed off from my remarkably musical Rail friends). As a result, they invited me to sing at a couple of their hoots, which happened monthly at The Village Gate. I was writing social protest songs mainly at the time, and I sang one at a hoot emcee’d by Pete Seeger. When I finished and went back to sit down, Pete had the seat next to me and put his arm around me. But it was at the other hoot, emcee’d by Julius Lester, that I sang this song. I had already sung once, but there was still time and Julius looked around for volunteers. I raised my hand and he picked me. I had my 12-string with me, and this song was meant for a 6-string so I asked another performer, Janice Ian (going by her real name, Fink, at the time) if I could borrow her guitar. I sang the song, it was well received, and afterwards a photographer came over to me and said he had a good shot of me that he was going to send me, and also suggesting that I should forget about the social protest songs and concentrate on songs like this that contained a more personal message. Which, of course, is what I did. That photograph, which I lost to my never-ending regret, was the last good photo ever taken of me.
One of the first songs I ever wrote, back when I was 16 in the summer of ’63. I was at the beach in Goldensbridge watching two of my favorite kids, Jeremy Schneider and Diane Brown, playing in the sand and this song happened. It reflects the social protest sentiments of the time, the music I was brought up listening to, but it’s had enough appeal to last over the years. People responded well when I performed it and that, more than anything else, gave me the confidence to continue on writing. The song is played on a 12-string channeling the style of Pete Seeger, the slight accelerando at the end mimicking Seeger’s playing on The Bells of Rhymney.
Leslie Hall was brought up to Goldensbridge as a teenager to be a mother’s helper. Everyone fell in love with her, including me. The music is just my old Gibson 12 singing, the lyrics are quintessential ’60s imagery. It was totally consistent with her wonderful sense of irony that she could brighten up a room like few others could. I reconnected with Leslie (now Leslie Charles) on Facebook and despite the decades, the core of who she is and why I loved her come through with almost every post. I toyed with mescaline a couple of times and once or twice got off on it, and there was a mellowness to it that permeated my senses like talking to Leslie on an August night.
My first “celebrity” crush was on Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Cree singer/songwriter with a very exotic look, a distinctive vibrato and a haunting repertoire. In my teens I would go to see her perform at the Gaslight every time she played, night after night, sitting at the first table right by the stage. One night I was chatting up the owner in the back when she came out to start her set. She stopped and called out: “Where’s Albi?” I don’t know how she knew my name but that remains one of my most cherished memories. I wrote this song for her (although, of course, she never heard it). At the time, I was singing with two of my closest Rail friends, Marty Bresnick and Jake Koenig (occasionally Dave Seader would join us on drums). We sang mostly folk tunes but included a few of my songs. When I set about arranging this song I complained to Marty (who was, after all, studying music seriously) why was I doing all the arranging. He gave me an indignant look (something which he was really good at), snatched up the lyrics and stormed out of my room to my mom’s Steinway and came back a half hour later with a vocal arrangement, which you can hear, slightly modified, in this recording.
I first met Ann Danoff pirouetting by the Lake in Goldensbridge when she was 13 (I was 17). I was really taken by her Bohemian looks, her charisma, intelligence and talent. I fell in love with that 13 year old and that love has never abated. Over the fifty years since then Ann and I have had intermittent contact as she gracefully moved from being a dancer, to being a Tai Chi instructor, and finally (?) to being a physician. It was always very warm and gratifying for me to see her, even though we could never pull the trigger on coupling. I’m reminded of Leonard Cohen’s Sisters of Mercy: We weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be alright. I’ve never performed the song. I wrote it so I could capture the few romantic moments we shared, and so I would always have someplace to go where I could be with her. It may be my best realized lyric insofar as it reflects so well my impressions of her. Still, listening to the song only underscores for me how unknowable this remarkable lady was and is, and evokes another lyric, this one mine from a different song and time: How can a poet talk of distance to a dancer. And finally, the lines from this song:
Ann moves her own way
There is no choreography
are taken verbatim from the program of a solo dance piece that I saw her perform ages ago. For me that sums it up.
From when I dropped out of Hunter College through my 20s I spent a lot of time in the neighborhood where I was born near Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. The rest of the Bronx called it The Green since we were right next to a golf course but we called it The Rail, since we would all sit on the railing that ran up and down the street. It was the sixties and drugs were rampant but for me it was mostly about a sense of despair that my life wouldn’t start until I got out of there. There is a reference to Hickey in the song; that’s the Hickey in Ice Man Cometh.
Flo is Cheryl Kanner, for whom Jennie’s Song was written. Since we never had any kind of romantic link it’s interesting that I wrote her two songs. I don’t think I ever played this for her, or for anyone else for that matter. I wasn’t really happy with it. But Elliot made it a lot more listenable. The instrumental riff between verses is taken from some melody of Mussorgsky I’m fairly certain, but I have no idea what it is.
One night my wonderful friend Eric Stand asked if I would accompany him to pick up a friend of his, Stephie Bershad, and drive her home to Brooklyn. I agreed and when we got to her house (Union St.?) I met her roommate, Jane Teller, who was sitting at the kitchen table. I developed an immediate interest for this exotically pretty, super smart and funny, and definitely offbeat woman. We would spend many hours at that kitchen table in the months that followed, in many a fanciful mental excursion. I’ve never had conversations quite like that again, but they, like her, were addictive. I’m reasonably certain she liked me a fair amount, but I certainly didn’t generate any romantic sparks with her. Even so, hope springs eternal, and over the course of our friendship I wrote her two songs. She was a wonderful poet, and on a bulletin board in that kitchen was a short poem of hers which ended with the line: And the frog was naked. This song was originally entitled: Confessions of a Naked Frog.
Always loved this incredibly romantic story and at the time, Phil Ochs had set a couple of classic poems to music, The Bells and the Highwayman, both of which I really loved. So I gave this a try. You can hear the iconic music from Wagner’s opera stuck in just before the last chorus.
Another song from my late teens. Sort of meant as a song for kids but really I couldn’t figure it out. At the time I was writing social protest songs mostly and while this has a touch of that, it was something else. I was a counselor at Webatuck, a left wing summer camp, and I had the oldest kids, just a few years younger than I was. One day, when my bunk was off doing some activity that I wasn’t needed at, I took out my 12-string and started playing the song. One kid who had decided to skip the activity was sleeping on his bunk and I didn’t know he was there. After the song, he said to me: “That’s the kind of song you should be writing, not the other junk.” That’s the only reason I even kept this tune and he’s the only person who ever heard it. When I subsequently heard a similar comment about another personal song I wrote I quickly shifted over from the agitprop writing to the more personal stuff that I’ve written ever since. When I recorded the song and started paying attention to the lyrics, I finally got it. This isn’t a song for kids. This is a song for an old man, which is what I am now. And I find it very comforting.
I’m guessing this was early on in my relationship with Carolyn. The frog was my animal (to the extent people have animals) largely because I could draw a reasonable facsimile of the frogs inhabiting Walt Kelly’s Pogo, and so I wrote a fairly tale featuring a frog so I could illustrate it. I had the unfortunate and somewhat sexist propensity to characterize Carolyn as a “princess” so it all fit together. Back at a time when I was writing complaining dirges, this was a refreshingly lighthearted departure. I usually include it on the rare occasions when I perform. The guitar riff in the beginning and then in between the verses is a channeling of a folk dance, Sestorka (a/k/a Hoo Ha) danced regularly at the Goldens Bridge Friday night folk dancing.
Not sure why or when this song was written. The lyrics tell me it was about Carolyn. And they contain the unfortunately (at the time) omnipresent groovy/movie rhyme. But there are some nice phrases and it’s fun to sing and play (or at least it was when I could sing and play). When I recorded it I used the word “charity” in the last verse but clarity, which is what I’ve changed it to, is better.
Oy. In the spirit of the feminist movement, but the lyrics … And the singing contains a fair amount of shrieking and some off-pitch harmony as well. But I had to include this because I love the arrangement (we should have performed this with 4 Tops choreography) and the Ventures like guitar break. Would love to re-record this some day. Of course, there are large portions of my life I feel that way about (see, i.e., my play Nomad).
My shot at an old style country song. The recording omits the first few lines of the second verse and replaces it with a fiddle break.
Both Willow I and II recorded this. The Willow II recording has a funky sax break by Elliot, but this is the more soulful version, with James singing and Helena’s answering harmonies (and I love my guitar break). I was deeply interested in various spiritual matters in the 60’s, mostly because of how I could use them as metaphors. I particularly get off on the gospel like harmonies in the fourth line of the chorus and how I use the break to return to the original key.