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“It was a struggle for me trying to get something to present. I tried some independent labels and I felt sort of locked out. Even the small labels, which I thought were so easy, became more difficult--- more competitive and more formal in their dealings.” ---Steve Young
CHAPTER SEVEN: A Stop-Off in Austin
Steve Young is no stranger to Austin, Texas. He played many gigs there, had spent time with musicians who had settled around the area, not the least of whom was Waylon Jennings. He felt at home there--- as at home as he could away from home. And he got to know people. Finding a label, though, was not easy.
“It was a struggle for me trying to get something to present,” explained Young. “I tried some independent labels and I felt sort of locked out. Part of that is my nature. Even the small labels, which I thought were so easy, became more difficult--- more competitive and more formal in their dealings.
“I developed a friendship over a long period of time with Heinz Geissler, this German who had relocated to Austin. We had talked about me doing an album and while we were talking, time was passing by. A year or more, maybe two. This was maybe the late eighties or around '90. He owned Watermelon Records, which was a fledgling label at the time. It had started gaining respect as an independent label and we thought, why not?
“Heinz came up with the idea of recording a live album at a gig at Anderson Faire in Houston. He had a connection to a studio there, so they hooked up the Digital Audio Tape machine and we went for it. Until then, I had never done a solo live recording.”
“Part of the reason for me recording with Watermelon,” explained Young, “was that Heinz and I were friends. I was tired of trying to deal with the bureaucracy and politics, even of the small labels. I was disgusted with the whole process.
“I'm just not good at dealing with the world of business. It's almost like I'm a Native American in that my consciousness seems to be at odds with it. I find it much easier dealing with people as people and not as businessmen.
“In the end, it was almost humorous because here were all these lawyers talking and there wasn't even a signed contract, but the record was already done and paid for. You know, we still don't have a signed contract. But finally, the lawyers somehow got it all worked out and the album was released.”
That deal eventually led to another album on Watermelon, Switchblades of Love, which went through a whole different process. For one thing, it was a studio album, so a producer and studio had to be locked in.
“We talked about different producers,” Young remembered. “Some of them didn't pan out. Bob Neuwirth was interested in my music and he pushed the idea of Steve Soles. Neuwirth introduced me to Soles and then Heinz and Neuwirth and Soles met and Heinz liked the whole idea, so I said, yeah, this feels good. It was a mutual decision but with Neuwirth pulling the train, so to speak. Neuwirth operated more behind the scenes exerting influence--- a lot like A&R might do.”
“I really love If My Eyes Were Blind,” he began. “It is mystical. David Olney wrote it and he is a great writer. I had recorded it before on the Look Homeward Angel album but when we recorded it for Switchblades, I think we really nailed it. Soles did a good job on the production, what with the oud and all. I think we came up with the definitive version.
“Have a Laugh is a song from Long Time Rider which Neuwirth was convinced should be redone and I'm glad we did it. It is an unusual song for me in that it was a positive statement, as I would see it. And I liked the way they handled it. It is a simpler arrangement than on Long Time Rider and the background vocals came out really good. The song is influenced by a character named Emmanuel, supposedly a spirit. There is a book called Emmanuel's Book which is about channeling spirits or something. I think the song reflects my appreciation of Emmanuel and his ideas.
“My Love is a pure song. The Long Time Rider version has this big keyboard sound, much more dramatic than the simple guitar and voice version on Switchblades. It's an off-take, and again, this is Neuwirth's influence. We did it in one day just to put it down on tape as a rough. That was what they ended up using for the album. Don't misunderstand this. I was opposed to this version of it but in the end, after running it by Heinz and a few other people, they thought it was good and should be there. I'm still not convinced, but I was outvoted. I pushed for redoing it because guitar and voice is so simple to do but they were afraid that it wouldn't match up or something. Soles liked to catch things during off-guard moments, trying to catch that natural kind of music, like he did on Love Song, I think. He did an amazing job on that song and the arrangement. I recorded that originally with voice and guitar and they overdubbed some amazing parts. It is also a very pure song. Someone said that it must be about God or something, that it couldn't be about a woman, but I said sure it could because it is. I sometimes think that no one can like that song but myself, that it is too simple or too private or something--- too much in my head. I love the lines in it, like “Let's find life's Nile again.” I like that a lot. Even if I wrote it, I like it.
“Switchblades of Love is a real heavy song. It kind of frightens some people. People have told me that before--- that some of my performances or songs frighten them. I think there are all kinds of levels and layers of what we humans call love and, really, it ends up being some kind of warped version sometimes and..... I don't even know if I can explain it. It seems like some things are mysterious to me. The obvious inference is physical abuse--- like when a guy beats up his wife or girlfriend or vice-versa. But there are many more subtle levels and layers. The way the ego uses love and the power it gains in so-called love. There is a kind of abuse going on there too and I think that all humans do it. In my particular life, it is a kind of disgust at the effort of love. You know. Saying that I'm tired of it and that we should face up to the fact that it is within us. I had to really work on it and edit it down. I had many lyrics which I thought were good and it was really long the way it came out . It was really the only form I could come up with that worked. I remember thinking that you're with or close to someone and all of a sudden, you feel like you've literally been cut and it happened so fast that you're saying, hey, wait a minute! What just happened here?
“Angel of Lyon was a song idea I started and Tom Russell worked on and finished. He wasn't supposed to have done all that work on the song without me but he did and then said how can we work this out? There was at that point nothing to do but say we'd share the song. The song is about an experience I had in Lyon one time, playing. There was this beautiful woman in the back of the room with these haunting eyes and while I was playing, it was almost like she disappeared or something. I said to myself, well, she must be the Angel of Lyon. I told Tom about it and it really caught his imagination so he ended up doing more of the hard work on it than myself. But I'm the one who came up with the idea.
“Going Back To California is a song I really like. I call it the left-wing Merle Haggard song and it is phrased differently than I would normally do, left to my own devices. Soles and the other musicians thought it should be phrased a certain way, so I went along with it. It turned out to be a good version of the song. The song is my reflection on the fact that in 1963 I left Montgomery, Alabama with , literally, a sort of junior Klansman threatening to kill me. So for me, in 1963, California was another world. It was a much more fascinating, vast and liberal world. I've always been in love with California. I see it through rose-colored glasses. I love Los Angeles to this day. People are always saying I'm crazy. How can you like this place, they say, and one reason I do goes way back to that experience in 1963. What do I like about Los Angeles today? I maintain that the spirit of L.A. remains the same in that it is still a fascinating place. It is volatile. You never know what is going to happen. What I like about it are not the slick parts. I like the immigrants. I like all of the cultures. I like the poor and their side of it. It just fascinates me.
“I've always been fascinated by Celtic music and Scotland and a lot of my ancestors on my mother's side were Welsh, Celtic. And there is Scottish lore and Robert Burns. Midnight Rails comes from the experiences of the lonely troubadour in Scotland and Ireland and England. It reflects, for myself, that I do not any more have a family in a normal sense, unlike the guy from the village who gets up every morning to work to support his kids and all that. It is partly about my life and surviving as a musician and an artist--- living the life of a troubadour. And being the sole midnight rider.
“Shelter You is an old song that had been lying around for a long time. I had neither played nor presented it before and one night in Austin I did it as a demo and the people around me were really moved. I was amazed. It's a gospel song, almost, and I think Soles and Katy Moffatt and J.C. Crowley did a great job on it. I got lucky on that one. I hit it just about right. I think Soles really shines there. It's just old-fashioned R&B gospel.
“Silver Lake is my favorite area of Los Angeles. I love that place. I have some kind of soul connection with it. To me, it is a beautiful place. Most people would pass through and say I don't see it, but I figured out a long time ago that somehow, when something really artistic happens, everything at that point in time is, to the artist, beautiful, though it may seem commonplace to others. It is not unlike Montgomery, Alabama. I've heard people say that they went to see the town I wrote about in Montgomery In the Rain and thought it was an ugly town. They don't realize that that doesn't matter. Silver Lake is between Hollywood and downtown L.A., with the hills intact. It has the old look of L.A. with the stucco houses amongst the hills. It is predominately Hispanic and I think it has been for some time. For some reasons, artists tend to like the area. It used to be a cheap place to live. There is a spirit there that I really like. I first lived there back in the sixties over a Chinese grocery store. I had an apartment that cost $75 a month. I couldn't get a job so I took a civil service exam, scored high, and they gave me a job as a mailman. I was the worst mailman they ever had because I drank all night and then tried to go to work. Me and Bukowski. You know the poet, Charles Bukowski? He was a mailman in Silver Lake too, I think. Of course, when I was younger I might have been a little frightened of the place, but not anymore. I have almost come to believe that the comfort I feel there today has to do with body language. I'm part Native American and I'm much more in touch with that side of my consciousness than the other side. I almost suspect that there is an unspoken body language attached to that and that a lot of Hispanics are aware of it. I mean, I like them. I like their style. I find it gracious.”
It seems like it is all tied together with Young: music, culture, philosophy. Perhaps Switchblades of Love was his way of reaching an understanding he had been working toward all of those years. Perhaps the zen of life was taking hold. Yet the critic still struggled with the philosopher in him.
“After I heard the album, I said, man, this is terrible,” he commented. “This is a shame. But that is always part of the process that I go through after every record. I listened to the album some more and thought, well, wait a minute. Maybe it's pretty good, you know? In the end, I decided that it was a pretty good record.
“Don't get me wrong. I certainly think that parts of Switchblades could be much better on my end, on my performance end, but there was this matter of time and money that you run in to eventually and, in this case, I simply had to leave. And I had to leave it as it was. I had done all that I could do. It has happened on other records, too.”
Critical response was mostly positive but one must understand that at the time, the music business was morphing. The major labels were becoming more major than ever and the independent labels were, on the whole, losing ground. Just the sheer number of releases buried projects which would later become collector's classics and many, to this day, are lost to the conscious world. It was then and is now a tough business.
Long Way to Hollywood