Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 1. 28 February 1972

Interview with Tom Paxton

page 8

[unclear: Interview] with Tom Paxton

We had no trouble arranging an hour with Tom Pax ton during his recent visit to Wellington. Jo Lustig, manager of Mary Hopkin, Julie Felix, Pentangle and others, was there too, and he offered an occasional comment. Gordon Campbell spoke to them at the White Heron.

We had no trouble arranging an hour with Tom Pax ton during his recent visit to Wellington. Jo Lustig, manager of Mary Hopkin, Julie Felix, Pentangle and others, was there too, and he offered an occasional comment. Gordon Campbell spoke to them at the White Heron.

Did events in America, like the Democratic Convention and People's Park, have anything to do with your decision to leave America?

No, it's really more of a positive decision than a negative one. We haven't left America so much as we have added England. We're there because we like London a great deal. We think it's good for the kids and we like being near the theatre and all the stuff that London has. I like being near the music business and London is a great city to live in if you're going to live in a city.

Do you find it a very different atmosphere working in the English Folk Clubs?

They don't have the non-profit clubs in America like they do in England. In America it is always commercial, for example, when you're working in a club in America you go and work for at least a week.... six days. And one of those days is Monday, right, and no one goes out on Monday [night.] So you end up doing your best work for twelve people. And it's very depressing, whereas when you're doing a club tour in England it happens to be Monday night and that's a Club night and the joint is packed as if it were Saturday night. Makes an incredible difference to an artist.

It seems you are much bigger in England than you are in America. Why do you think this is so?

Once again it comes back to the English folk scene. My first two tours in England were exclusively Folk Song Clubs. I shudder to think of how many of them 1 played. I loved every one of them. But there's this network of Folk Song Clubs, consequently there is a hard core, a very large hard core audience for the kind of songs I was doing. I was successful 'at' it. When I started concerts, I already had a reputation; each time I've gone back to do a concert tour its been bigger, and I never really the chance in America. What I was doing in England was paying my dues, which I've always believed in doing. And I've been paying dues in America for eleven years. In America you have to make it with the right hit record. It's not enough to have a hit record. For example, there's a guy named Ron Dante who was the voice of the Archies; well he's now trying to make it under his own name, and he can't get arrested; God knows how many millions of records the guy's sold. But he can't make it — so you have to have the right record. Nowadays the best way is to make it with a hit album. Best example is Carly Simon. Tremendous impact that album had. And with one album Carly Simon is miles ahead of me in bookability. Another way, tho' I mistrust it intensely, is television, 'cos I find you may be getting to millions of people, but it's the wrong millions of people, you're getting to people who wouldn't pay two cents to go to a concert. You've got to have a hit album and I've never had a hit album. But what I've been doing for eleven years is playing this concert, that concert, this club, that club, building laboriously a following, but it takes a awful lot of people to make a following in America because of distances.

I remember some American singers, Dylan and Paul Simon, have been criticised for going to England, and they'd 'then beg, borrow, steal, adapt, and copyright English folk tunes.

That's something that's always been so badly misunderstood. Paul Simon didn't copyright Scarborough Fair, he copyrighted the arrangement.

But Martin Carthy claims he played that arrangement note for note to Paul Simon...

Lustig: Martin Carthy got it from someone else, I'm sure.

I remember Dominic Behan being pretty mad at Dylan for adapting With God On Our Side from the Patriot Game.

D.B. gets mad at everybody, that's D.B. that's his..... that's his schtick...., he gets mad at people, that's what he does for a living. As far as Dylan's concerned, I know there was outrage in conservative folk circles. It's odd how desperately conservative so-called progressives can be, they were so furious with Dylan for having written a song to the tune of Leaving of Liverpool, well, so what? He didn't destroy L. of L. — last time I heard the song, it was still there for anyone who wants to sing it. I say that traditional music in the form we know it was ripped off from earlier trad, music. If you really want to get cynical and hard and look at it that way, it's all a rip-off. You know — is it a rip-off on the side of the angels or is it a rip-off to make a dollar? Dylan's never written to make a dollar, neither's Paul Simon. They write because they love to write.

Lustig: Have you heard Tom's latest song Greensleeves?

Except I'm going to call it Redsleeves — I'm going to copyright it.

Dylan created a stir when he went electric. Did you have any reservations about introducing a back-up band on Morning Again?

No, no such worries, 'cos in the meantime people like Judy Collins had done her In My Life album, which was a stunning album, very successful.... and it suggested to, me that it could be done artistically, it needn't be selling out, it could be done with integrity. The transition for me was a very rough one because I didn't know how to go about doing what I now felt I wanted to do. We did one entire album which we threw out. It was overdone, too many strings, too syrupy and it was just badly done, so we threw that out, went back to scratch and came up with Morning Again.

You seem much freer, fresher, more sure of yourself on your first Reprise album-How come the sun than on the last one for Elektra. Many good singer/songwriters have recorded successfully for Reprise. Do you prefer working with them?

No. I wouldn't put any of it down to Reprise or Elektra. Just say that I have come a little bit further, that I am a little bit surer of what I want to hear. I'm gradually thinking of myself more as a recording artist instead of choosing between being a songwriter and a recording artist. It's coming simultaneously — maybe my ears are getting a little more sophisticated, getting a little more taste, or something — I thought No. 6 sounded overproduced.

Yeah, the strings, for example, would often restate the point you were trying to create with the lyric.

Judy Collins says somewhere that she was sitting In a kitchen in Gerde's Folk City and Dylan walked In and sang her Masters of War. Was this typical? Were you so tight with Dylan and Ochs that you'd go and, sing them a song that you'd hist written?

Very much like that. On top of which we had a couple of hootenannys — [unclear: yo] what a hootenanny is? — right. [unclear: C] Folk City had one every Monday [unclear: s] started about 9pm went till about [unclear: In] morning, everybody singing about [unclear: for] songs, we'd take turns — that's [unclear: the] Dylan first sang. As luck would [unclear: ha] was in the audience the first night [unclear: y] sang in New York. We were all [unclear: arot] of course we were all working. [unclear: Nigh] we weren't working, we were still [unclear: a] watching each other work. Back [unclear: ir] know they weren't proper dressing [unclear: room] We would be back in the kitchen, [unclear: or] place. And it was a matter of [unclear: cours] when someone had written a [unclear: song] grab a guitar out of someone's [unclear: han] say 'Listen to this'. A great many [unclear: son] passed around that way. Really it [unclear: sti] on, we still see each other from [unclear: ti] time. I did a concert in [unclear: Hamburg] Judy this fall, sang her a couple [unclear: of] in the dressing-room. I sang [unclear: Mary] songs the other night that I wanted [unclear: a] hear and possibly record. It never [unclear: stop]

I remember Dylan in an interview [unclear: t] about "a very interesting song" [unclear: y] written called The Cardinal.

It was one of my throw-away [unclear: soi] wrote it never intending to sing it [unclear: a] very long time. Cardinal Spellman [unclear: use] go over to Vietnam at Christmas to [unclear: se] troops... breathing hypocrisy, blood [unclear: a] guts... war against godless [unclear: Communism] all that crap and I wrote this song [unclear: to] tune of Matty Groves, about him [unclear: wal] on the water over there, you know, [unclear: a] Jesus had been alive he'd be right [unclear: t] with him with a carbine in his hand, [unclear: sh] ing...

And you threw it away? You [unclear: should] an A.J. Weberman running around [unclear: g] through your dustbin.

I haven't seen Dylan since last [unclear: summer] I understand that he caught up [unclear: a] Weberman in the street and [unclear: knocked] shit out of him, and I can only say [unclear: "r] on!" What rock did that character [unclear: cr] out from under is what I'd like to [unclear: know] Jesus Christ!

I wanted to ask you about Dylan. [unclear: Fro] far away we've only had the packaged, [unclear: r] orded myths, you know — son of [unclear: Wo] Guthrie, social conscience, apocalyptic [unclear: ionary] and now the moderate family [unclear: m] Have you any idea of the type of [unclear: mate] he's doing now? I understand he's [unclear: with] a song about Attica.

No, — that's the one I've written ([unclear: Laug] He's written one about George [unclear: Jacks] that is a single that's selling like mad. [unclear: it] very strong song, a beautiful song., [unclear: and] course it's setting the whole music [unclear: est] lishment right on its ear — they [unclear: d] know what to make of it because it's [unclear: li] a throwback to the old Dylan — you [unclear: know] it's like reading the sheep's entrails [unclear: a] trying to find what Dylan's doing [unclear: now]

On the Bangla Desh Concert he does [unclear: Hi] Rain and Blowin In The Wind...

Yeah man, but you don't know, [unclear: nes] month he might do a calypso album. [unclear: He] a very enigmatic cat, he won't give man answers, people have to find their [unclear: ow] answers.

I notice some guys from the early [unclear: six] like Mike Settle and Mark Spoelstra [unclear: ar] playing straight rock —

Jesus Christ! You've really done [unclear: you] homework!

Well, Louise on your new album is [unclear: almos] a straight rock song. Have you thought [unclear: of] getting further into rock?

Maybe acoustic rock. Not Crosby, [unclear: Still] & Nash or anything — to me, that's [unclear: too] syrupy.... I'm really open to any kind of messing around with recording, but I am extremely happy with what I am doing on stage tight now, which is my guitar, another acoustic guitar, and a bass, either [unclear: acous]

page 9

[unclear: tie] or Fender, really depending upon what [unclear: the] player wants to play — but I want, [unclear: acoustic] guitars. I used a guitar-player in [unclear: the] States for a while, David's brother, [unclear: Marc] Horowitz, who kept pushing me to [unclear: et] him play his goddam Les Paul, but even on those songs where one thought it would work particularly well like Mister Blue or Clarissa Jones it didn't cut it for me so well as a really well-played hard, brittle acoustic guitar.

The Fireballs had a Top Ten single of your song Bottle of Wine — how did you feel about what they did with it?

Lustig: Do you think that you reach maturity as a songwriter when you stop being possessive about your own songs?

I'm not possessive about my songs. No, [unclear: here's] still an element of that; a song-[unclear: writer] really has a terrific edge on anyone else, because he knows better than any-one else what he meant. This usually comes through in the song, in the singing. About the biggest kick I got out of Bottle of Wine was that it got into the Top Fen in America. I never made a great deal of money from that record because it only old about 125,000 copies and there were text to no cover versions, so it was not a [unclear: tig] money song.

[unclear: You've] been quoted as saying that you've [unclear: topped] writing "protest" songs and that [unclear: our] songs are now more personal

[unclear: light], now, that's what I tell and it's not [unclear: eing] hypocritical of me. That's what I tell [unclear: he] straight press, because I am embarked [unclear: n] a campaign to get them to stop calling [unclear: he] a "protest" singer. Because when they [unclear: o] this they ignore 75% of my songs, and [unclear: costs] me. It can cost me audiences that [unclear: want], want to reach, and if I can get [unclear: lose] people in the same room with me, in [unclear: e] same hall, so they can give all my songs [unclear: chance], then I feel like I've had a fair [unclear: ake], but if people are prevented from [unclear: ming] to see me, because they think that [unclear: a] they're going to hear is a whole evening [unclear: complaining]. So I don't call them "[unclear: prost]" songs anymore — I call them "angry" [unclear: ngs]. Like I wrote a song about Attica. [unclear: 's] called The Hostage. Now for those [unclear: ople], few though they may be, who have [unclear: llowed] my development, who had just [unclear: out] figured well Paxton, you know, [unclear: xton's] mellowing and he and going to [unclear: rite] any more hard songs and suddenly I [unclear: opped] that on them. Well, it's great fun [unclear: watch] them try to figure it out. 'Cos I [unclear: ll] mean all those things. The only thing [unclear: at] has definitely changed forever is that [unclear: on,t] ever intend in a song, ever again to [unclear: to] tell you or anyone else what they [unclear: ould] think or do.

[unclear: well], does a more "personal" song like [unclear: dy's] Crying reflect your own exper-[unclear: ice] of drugs or of people you know, or [unclear: d] you decide to write a song about drugs [unclear: d] then create the characters in the song?

[unclear: a] it's point of departure writing. You [unclear: ve] a point of departure from your own [unclear: erience], but the finished song is a work [unclear: imagination]. Obviously, spending all the [unclear: he] I have in New York, and in the [unclear: sle] business, I have known too many [unclear: ple] who wound up dead. What happens [unclear: hat] the things you're concerned about [unclear: id] up as songs or as books or as poems [unclear: whatever]. So, with rare exceptions, you [unclear: 't] sit down and say, "today is my drug [unclear: g] day." What happens is that some of [unclear: things] you're concerned about, some [unclear: which] amuse you, some of which [unclear: hten] you, they're all bouncin' around [unclear: he] back room. When you sit down you [unclear: t] shakin' up the back room and saying [unclear: at've] you got for me this morning?" [unclear: d] what comes out after a lot of messing [unclear: and] is the song which turns out to be [unclear: it] you've wanted to say about drugs, or [unclear: laps] what you've wanted to say about [unclear: gs] — but-you-didn't quite get it today. I know that I'm going to write some-[unclear: g] for example, about the relationship [unclear: the] sexes, call it, Human Liberation. [unclear: leaders] right now are some women who are opening people's minds to the old roles and stiff. My wife's very heavily involved in it and I'm somewhat committed to it myself — I'm sure that I'm going to write a song. But I won't be able to tell you on what day I'm going to do it.

Does a song like Rumbling In The Land seem simplistic now? Or nostalgic?

In a way it does. It was written in the first flush of honest anger at what I was beginning to see was the monumental con job, and with the perhaps naive belief that songs could change people's minds, Now, obviously, I wouldn't write a song in that way now, although I haven't really changed the way I thought then. I pretty much feel the same way now. But I wouldn't attack — I wouldn't express myself that way now.

The optimism of that song, and of that whole period are part of what then seemed a reasonable belief that an artist in his singing and writing could play a part in the movement for a change. Now, of course, it seems much more complex. Even in a song like Street Fighting Man which on the surface is about change, revolution, storming the citadel, Jagger ends up by saying "What else can a poor boy do, but sing in a rock 'n' roll band?" I mean, how politically do you see your role as an entertainer?

Well I don't see it as non-political but it's not nearly so political as politics.

We have people now like Ralph Gleason saying if we want to look for the revolution, look at Rock music. He says Rock is the Revolution, because it's what is liberating people's minds.

Oh Bullshit! Gleason is so full of.....we had this saying in Oklahoma about people: "He's as fulla shit as a Christmas turkey."

Sure. Rock is so much at the centre, so dependent upon capitalist structures, it can't in itself be the Revolution. In fact, it sucks off creative people, creative energy

I'll tell the way I feel now, the way I didn't feel ten years ago; the real revolution is in people — like, my wife and her buddies are into consciousness raising, they're not even into demonstrating. They had what looked like one march, but it was more one large consciousness-raising session than anything else. They sit round once a week — and it's very well-organised — there are no leaders, there's an agreed-upon topic for each week, they go around the room expressing themselves on that particular topic supporting each other, helping each other's heads and I've seen the results and it's nothing short of astonishing, what these women are doing to their own heads, their own lives, where it really counts. The thing is that when their lives change as they are changing, they give it off, man, they send off emissions, and sooner or later they express that politically. The politics comes out of the people, it's no joke that we get the government that we deserve. That kind of thing that they're into is spreading in exactly the same form, no leaders, working on their own life; too many people are looking for answers outside their own bodies, outside their own heads, they're looking for.... Ralph Gleason is looking for the rock 'n' roll revolution to get him laid when he's old, I don't know what the hell he thinks he sees — all that is in the Rock revolution is some good music, and some groovy clothes. Great, not putting that down! But that ain't revolution; revolution is deep down nitty-gritty change, rock is only a change in the form of entertainment man.

So you see Rock, political activity, consciousness groups as being equal means to getting people's heads together, even the Jesus movement?

Oh, I get hit on by those cats all the time, and they are the worst.

They're here too, now.

I'm hip, I've been hit on here; I got hit on at a concert in New Plymouth. This moron came up to me hitting on about Jesus. He asked me if I knew Jesus Christ. I said I wasn't sure. Did he used to play for Ginger Baker?

Lustig: Hey, you're right. He used to play saxophone for Ginger Baker.

Didn't everybody? But he didn't last -couldn't cut it.

Lustig: Terrible, a good Oklahoma Presbyterian, Tom, talking this way.

I formally withdrew from the Presbyterian Church — I sent in a letter of resignation.

Is there anyone of the second generation of singer/songwriters — people like Van Morrison or James Taylor — that you particularly like?

Well for a start.. I like both of them. There's a new songwriter named John Prine, who's causing a lot of excitement I've heard some of his songs and they're fabulous. A friend of mine named John Denver's had a really great record — made number one.

How did you feel about groups like the Kingston Trio, and the Highwaymen? They were supposed to be so slick, so commercial, while you guys were supposed to be the truth and soul people.

I was supposed to regard them that way but I really didn't. I thought that the Chad Mitchell Trio was terrific. They chose material with incredible foresight, they did some satirical stuff which was too great to believe.

Talking about the Mitchell Trio, Judy Collins and Tom Rush as interpreters, as discoverers of new material, have you ever thought of recording songs by other people?

No, I haven't because I'm too busy doing my own. Furthermore I think that's what I ought to do, and I think is what I'm supposed to do by my own standards. Furthermore, I don't think I'm that unique a singer.

One reviewer said you had a voice like a tuned clothespeg.

"Tuned clothespeg?" That's fantastic! Well I think I'm a little better singer than that Judy Collins, Tom Rush, Dave Van Ronk, they're such great interpreters, but I feel it's my job to make records of my own songs.

Photo of Tom Paxton playing the guitar