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.
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.
Jennie’s real name was Cheryl Kanner, a teenager from The Rail, very pretty and a terrific athlete, both of which drew my attention to her and she became the muse for this tune (although our relationship remained strictly platonic – guess I needed to write a better song). The melody, like so many others, seemed to live in my 12-string and all I did was take it out for a walk. It became a signature song for me and on the rare occasions when I perform, I always start the set with this. When Robin and I were expecting our second child and looking for names, Robin suggested Jennie, partly for her grandmother, and partly because of this song. I sang it at my Jennie’s bat mitzvah.
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.
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.
Josephine was Sara Orenstein, a very pretty, bright and talented girl I met at The Rail in the late ’60s. We hung out together, went to concerts and movies, but despite my best efforts (reflected in the lyrics) I could never get her interested in me. We reconnected years later and have continued to be close friends.
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.