Eric Andersen WITH Van Dyke Parks

And Thou Beside Me at McCabe’s June 7, 2014

By Ross Altman

Eric Andersen
Photo by Carol Rothman.

“McCabe’s is the Old Gray Mare of Santa Monica” said their dedicated concert curator Lincoln Meyerson as he introduced this evening’s show; “if there’s a fire just grab a favorite guitar off the wall and escape through the nearest exit.” And after letting us know that the last of the Brooklyn cowboys, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, would be there on Saturday, June 28, he brought Eric Andersen down from their fabled upstairs green room—who was escorted by Pasadena resident and American music legend Van Dyke Parks, who backed him up on a humongous accordion throughout the concert. It was a magical evening of musical mayhem and insider storytelling from the legendary Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse—ahem, Greenwich Village—with Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton.

Andersen was an integral part of the Greenwich Village folk scene that inspired a renaissance of idealistic songwriting from broadside balladeers Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Buffy St. Marie, Fred Neil, Len Chandler and Eric Andersen himself. Andersen fell in love with a Danish woman, now lives in Denmark and remains a prolific recording artist. He tours across the pond and fresh on the heels of a recent London concert that was reviewed by my FolkWorks colleague Rosa Redoz. He came into McCabe’s with a new album that pays tribute to his fellow Greenwich Village artists with whom he began to make waves in the American popular music scene of 50 years ago. Fittingly, the album is called Waves II.

Actually there must be something in the water as Eric Andersen is not the only great songwriter who has recently turned his eye, ear, voice and guitar to interpreting the work of his colleagues. Neil Young just released an album of cover songs from the 1960s called A Letter Home, though he deigns to call them “covers,” since he says they are not even “produced,” just recorded hand to mouth in a tiny refurbished studio that enabled World War II veterans to record letters home before they shipped out. Jack White bought it as a part of a fully-equipped recording studio and then restored it to its original modest luster. He showed it to Neil Young thinking he might be interested in its historical mission and just like he had, Young too, fell in love with it and wanted to make an archival-sounding album there.

And not just Neil Young: Bob Dylan’s next album—Shadows In the Night—will also be a tribute to much older songs, starting with a Sinatra cover of Full Moon and Empty Arms from the 1940s. So get on board, children, children, we are about to collectively take a train down memory lane with some of our greatest recording artists behind the wheel. Here are some of last night’s highlights from Eric Andersen’s musical self-portrait.

Aric Andersen - Thirsty Boots
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDutkXW4T-M)

Andersen’s Thirsty Boots remains one of the essential songs of the 1960s folk revival, with a chorus that makes it a perfect concert opener:

So take off your thirsty boots and stay for a while

Your feet are hot and weary

From a dusty mile

And maybe I can make you laugh

And maybe I can try

Just looking for the evening

Or the morning in your eye.

It recounts a strenuous journey of an unnamed civil rights worker who’s been “sleepin’ in the rain,” and muddy jail cells with clothes “torn and stained,” along a “crooked rainbow trail,” “marching to be free.” It’s a wonderful homage to the day-in and day-out struggle of freedom fighters to rise above the “prison walls that tumble by degree” who risk their lives to live in a world where equality is not just a dream for a visionary like Martin Luther King, but an everyday reality for us all.

Eric Andersen saved it for the final encore, however, knowing the audience would not let him leave without requesting it. It’s the song I came to hear, the one I still sing, and was not disappointed. It’s a modern freedom song poem that weaves an anthem of hope into its fabric of struggle against the forces of darkness. It could not have come at a better time, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer this coming June 21, marking the 50th anniversary of the murders of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney on June 21, 1964. “Your song shall not be failed,” it concludes, one of the great lines of promise for a better future in American folk music.

Introducing the song Eric Andersen recounted some rebel history that made Pete Seeger’s passing earlier this year an especially poignant remembrance of things past. After humorously observing that Pete “didn’t have a rock and roll bone in his body,” for the first time ever in my attendance at one of McCabe’s concerts going back more than thirty years, I heard the name of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Andersen cited them as part of his affectionate tribute to Pete, who testified before HUAC as an unfriendly witness on August 18, 1955. He refused to answer their prying questions into his political activities, associations and beliefs—not on the grounds of the 5th Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination, but rather the 1st Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and assembly. “The 5th Amendment,” said Pete, “says they have no right to ask me such questions; the 1st Amendment says they have no right to ask any American such questions—especially under this kind of duress.” Six years later, in 1961, the United States Supreme Court sided with America’s favorite folk singer.

Andersen included Pete’s late wife Toshi Seeger in his warmhearted tribute, with her now famous summing up of the challenges of living with an American folk hero—even though he came from “a patrician family” as Eric charmingly put it—and that is how Toshi had once wished (tongue-in-cheek) Pete had been sidetracked by other women instead of constantly absorbed by other causes. “I could have left him then,” she lamented; “but there never were any, so I was stuck having to stand by him.” And stand by him she did, for nearly seventy years, before they died within six months of each other. Pete couldn’t go on without her.

Pete Seeger and the memory of Mississippi Freedom Summer martyrs were not the only rebels Eric Andersen celebrated in his two hour plus show. He spent a wonderful ½ hour reminiscing about the Centennial for Algerian/French existentialist author and philosopher Albert Camus, who wrote the book The Rebel which inspired many such American freedom fighters. I didn’t even realize that 2013 was the Centennial of Camus’ birth until I explored Eric Andersen’s website and began to appreciate the depth of his learning and the literary range of his songwriting. It was Andersen who stepped in when he realized that France was not paying due attention to their own native son and helped put together a proper event to recognize his influence on modern philosophy.

Andersen, in turn, became so inspired by rereading Camus’ seminal works like The Plague, The Fall and The Rebel that he found himself writing a group of songs in tribute—a few of which he shared with us last night. It raised the bar on what one may expect from a concert at McCabe’s. Camus is the philosopher who said “I wish I could love justice and still love my country,” lamenting at how often the two are in conflict; and it was Camus who said that the first question of philosophy is whether to commit suicide. In other words, is life worth living, and how to make it so? That question is what led him to his definition of existentialism, the resolution to create meaning to fill the “existential void” as a personal answer to the questions posed by religion. Camus (and Jean Paul Sartre, as well) paid respect to those questions without accepting their traditional answers, which they argued every person must create for themselves. Indeed, it was that effort which led so many civil rights and antiwar activists to take up those causes—in search of a meaningful life. Eric Andersen turned those questions into songs, including the opening song for Camus’ novel The Plague, about a medical missionary who defied the dangers of the Bubonic Plague by caring for its victims—and discovering that their service to humanity’s most vulnerable is what protected them from the disease.

In the guise of a folk music concert Eric Andersen managed to take us on a journey of spiritual reawakening and discovery. Opening with his early song Dusty Box Car Wall it was a wild ride—and musically amazingly sophisticated with one of America’s great musicians—Van Dyke Parks—along for the ride. He succeeded in finding the most thrilling harmonies and subtexts in his magnificent accordion accompaniments to Andersen’s two acoustic guitars—one in standard tuning and one in open tuning. Both of these glorious instruments were on loan from McCabe’s legendary guitar shop for the evening—since Eric Andersen had inadvertently stepped on his own ‘60s vintage Gibson (the one in almost all of his album photographs) J-45 (“and I was sober,” he regaled us with the details) and had to order a new one from Gibson. Though the replacement custom guitar was completed in time for his current tour Eric Andersen thought so highly of it he did not want to risk it for airline travel and preferred to borrow two of McCabe’s instruments. One of them (with the price tag—Minnie Pearl style—still on it) was priced out at $18,000 he confided to us: “How many do you want?” he asked, and brought down the sold-out house.

Eric Andersen - Violets of Dawn
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KZAyG125_c)

Perhaps the best story of the night, however, came in the aftermath of Eric Andersen’s classic song (the one Rick Nelson recorded and turned into a hit) Violets of Dawn. Back in 1968, he was performing in Los Angeles and staying at a legendary Hollywood hotel and ‘60s hangout The Montmartre, home-away-from home to actors, actresses, rock stars and the occasional folk singer like Eric Andersen. He was sitting out by the pool, with his trousers rolled up and feet dangling in the water, when he noticed a shadowy presence beside him. He glanced up out of curiosity and recognized fellow troubadour Leonard Cohen, who proceeded to sit down beside him and introduce himself, placing his own bare feet in the cool water. Cohen then confided to him that it was Andersen’s early song Violets of Dawn that had inspired Cohen to start writing songs himself, after having been exclusively a poet of the written word. Andersen was so moved to hear this from one of Canada’s best-known songwriters he mentioned it in passing to one of his New York friends—himself now a musical legend—the late Lou Reed, whereupon Reed told him, “That bastard, he told me the same thing” (about one of Reed’s early songs). “Poets lie, lie, lie,” Eric Andersen concluded his tale of literary larceny.

In the second half of his concert Andersen and Parks were joined by master percussionist Don Huffington and later on by a young and brilliant electric guitarist Evan Stanley (son of Kiss’s Paul Stanley). Introducing them as “The Instant Band,” Eric Andersen had a larger point to make: Even though two of the four had never played with him before they created beautiful arrangements of songs he was proud to compare to the recorded originals—with no less than The Band’s Rick Danko. “Music is a universal communication,” he summed it up and this proves it. His beatific smile at just listening to what his brand new band-mates were doing with their parts was one of the highlights of this magical evening for me. McCabe’s for this night—with Eric Andersen at the helm and Van Dyke Parks his first mate—became a house of many wonders, including the rock and roll classic, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s That’s All Right Mama, recorded by both Elvis and Dylan.

And most wonderful of all was a lesson in musicianship from a true American Master; Van Dyke Parks, about half way through the show. In what McCabe’s promised to be “a career retrospective” Eric Andersen went all the way back to the beginning to play the first song he had ever written—the exquisite love song Come To My Bedside, My Darling. I noticed about half way through that Van Dyke Parks was just as mesmerized as the audience, and—for the first time—was sitting this one out. He didn’t play a note…until the final chorus. Then he added a quiet harmony and with just a few elegant notes let the song close in a place an ancient poet once described as “the music of the spheres.” Great musicians always seem to know what and when not to play, as well as what and when to play. Their silences speak volumes.

During intermission I looked for a loaf of bread and jug of wine, but happily settled for an oatmeal cookie and two cups of coffee. That was enough for an unforgettable evening of poetry and song, with Eric Andersen, Van Dyke Parks, and thou beside me at McCabe’s. Call it The Rubaiyat of Eric Andersen. And with that, dear Reader, the moving finger, having writ, moves on.

With thanks to McCabe’s Lincoln Meyerson for press passes to the show.

Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton; Ross may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com