Dec 4, 2013
12:19 PMArts & Entertainment
Tom Rush, 1960s Godfather of New England Folk Music, Comes to StageOne in Fairfield Dec. 8
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"I'll keep on moving
Things are bound to be improving these days
These days I sit on corner stones
And count the time in quarter tones to ten, my friend
Don't confront me with my failures
I had not forgotten them . . ."
The words above were some of the first we heard from Jackson Browne, who wrote the song "These Days" when he was only 16. But we didn't hear him sing it, not at first. That honor went to a New Hampshire-born folksinger named Tom Rush, a Harvard University grad (class of '63) who discovered Browne's work while trying to come up with enough material to complete an album he owed to his record label, Elektra, in 1968. By then, Rush already was well on his way to becoming, in the words of allmusic.com, "one of the finest and most unsung performers to come out of the '60s urban folk revival"—a revival that, of course, also brought us Bob Dylan. Unlike Dylan, Rush possessed a warm, full baritone voice, a relaxed style, and a killer interpretive instinct; not only did he come out of the gate with a seemingly unerring skill for picking brilliant songs to sing, but his recordings of those songs—whether written by him or someone else—always seemed definitive. On the 1966 album Take a Little Walk with Me he'd pulled off the tricky feat of combining the '50s rock 'n' roll he loved with the country blues he had become best known for ever since starting to play Club 47 in Cambridge, Mass. during his college days. So with this vexing '68 project he took another leap, deciding to create an album highlighting the work of the best—but not necessarily best-known—contemporary songwriters. The album, titled The Circle Game, featured songs by Browne ("Shadow Dream Song"), James Taylor ("Something in the Way She Moves") and Joni Mitchell ("Urge for Going" and the title track), all of whom were just about to launch recording careers of their own. (And one of Rush's songs, "No Regrets," became his oft-covered signature.) The Circle Game—with a cover photo shot by Linda Eastman, soon to become Linda McCartney—would later be deemed The Album that ushered in the "singer-songwriter" movement that dominated the '70s, led not only by Taylor, Browne and Mitchell but Carole King, Paul Simon and Randy Newman, among others.
In the decades since Rush, now 72, has carried on, performing regularly, winning new admirers, presenting more great songs. He'll play StageOne at Fairfield Theatre Company Dec 8. For more information, call (203) 259-1036 or visit fairfieldtheatre.org.
I see that there's a documentary film out about you, Tom Rush: No Regrets . . .
Well, it seems to be true.
. . . and it just won an award. Tell us about it.
I won an award at the New Hampshire Film Festival, which is very nice. It's made by Todd Kwait and Rob Stegman, two guys I met when they were making a documentary about folk music in Cambridge, Mass. in the 1960s, focusing on Club 47, which is where I got started. They recruited a whole bunch of the old guard to do interviews and perform songs here and there. They then did a video of a children's song for me. Then they decided to do a documentary on me, which started shooting a couple of years ago. And it culminated with a show I did at Symphony Hall in Boston last December, celebrating 50 years in music. They did a six-camera shoot at that show for a video DVD and CD set that just came out. So the documentary is the fourth project we've done, if you count the kid's video. But the documentary is not on DVD yet, and probably won't be until sometime next year.
Well, what do you think of the documentary? Do you think it's of award-winning caliber?
Hey, who am I to argue? I think it'll probably be tweaked some more before it finally appears on DVD. Candidly, it's uncomfortable for me to watch myself or listen to myself. It's never as dazzingly, impossibly terrific as I hoped it would be. [laughs] You know what I mean. And also, they recruited a bunch of people—James Taylor, and Jac Holzman, who used to be the head of Elektra Records, and a couple of others—to sit in front of the camera and say extremely, extravagantly superlative things about me, which I find embarrassing. Makes me squirm.
I guess that's true of all of us. You're always more critical of yourself.
I would hope so.
Does it feel like you've been doing this for 50 years?
Not really, maybe five or ten. It goes like a blur, and everything speeds up as time goes by.
I've been aware of your work for at least 45 years. I heard The Circle Game as a young teenager. My brother, who was a diehard Led Zeppelin fan at the time, used to give me albums by James Taylor and others for Christmas and my birthday, because he said, "you like these guys." Now he does, too. But he gave me your album, which I loved right away and still have. Looking back, what strikes me is that after listening to that record, I was actually disappointed when I actually heard Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell do the songs you covered, because I was so accustomed to your versions.
Well, yes, and that gives me an unfair advantage. I was just writing about this, actually. People get attached to the first version they hear of a song, and then anything else is compared to the degree that it differs and considered a flaw. So, if you're going to redo something, you've got to come up with a version that's so different and so compelling that people are willing to put aside their preconceptions. It's also one of the dangers of demos. If you make a demo of a song and play it for somebody, the twin dangers are that they will love it, and not like the finished version as well . . . or they'll hate it, and their mind is made up that they just don't like the song.
It’s interesting, because you kind of bridged the . . . there was a time when singers were considered to be the mouthpiece of songwriters, because songwriters couldn’t “sing.” But you’re credited with heralding the era of the singer-songwriter.
I’ve been accused of that! I remember Jackson [Browne] telling me at one point that he wished he was a good enough singer to do an album just of other people’s songs. He felt he had to do his own stuff because that was the only reason for him to be singing at all.
Odd. I don’t think of him as a bad singer.
I don’t either. Now, Bob Dylan, yeah! I remember thinking about Dylan, when I heard his first album—I knew him, and I’d heard him sing live a couple of times—“Gee, if he only had a better voice, he might actually get somewhere.” And here we are today . . .
Did you ever work with Dylan? I know that there was always that rumor that he played on one of your albums under another name.
No, and I haven’t worked as hard as I might to dispel that notion. I forget who he was supposed to be—Roosevelt Gook or Daddy Bones—but actually it was . . . I’m blanking here . . .
Was it Al Kooper?
Well, Kooper was one of them, and John Herald was the other, and I’m blanking on who was who. But the reason for the false name was, in those days, if somebody “doubled”—played more than one instrument—you had to pay them twice, for their musician’s union fees. And the musicians themselves didn’t want to push that rule too hard, so for the same fee they would come in under an assumed name.
Kooper went on to form Blood, Sweat and Tears, but before that he was a ubiquitous session man.
Yes he was. There were quite a few guys back them . . . John Sebastian, who went on to form the Lovin’ Spoonful, played harmonica on some of my early stuff. That was the third paying gig he ever had, working with me.