Eric Andersen came to music through Rimbaud, Baudelaire, the Beats, and his own inveterate wanderlust. After a teen odyssey that took him to San Francisco where he befriended Janis Joplin, met and married musician Debbie Green, he was coaxed to New York by Tom Paxton to join a burgeoning folk scene, playing on bills with Dylan, Baez, Van Ronk, Ochs, et al. while carving out his own more introspective/less topical music. Now, a documentary by Paul Lamont, The Songpoet, captures the panoramic tapestry of Andersen’s life. Musician-writer John Kruth spoke with both Lamont and Andersen for PKM
Like the hundreds of notebooks we see archivist Ian Mac Fadyin diligently scouring in the film’s opening shots, Paul Lamont’s The Songpoet is a personal and fittingly poetic memoir or the folksinger Eric Andersen. Back in the early ‘60s, when folk was catching fire in New York, Boston and San Francisco coffeehouses, Andersen fell in with a crowd of socially-minded pickers and singers that included Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Joan Baez.
“I was never a folk singer,” Eric countered, mystified by his connection to the genre. “I didn’t know any of those songs that folk singers sang. I got into this as a writer, who was lucky enough to have the musical ability to shape my words into songs.” Under the influence of Arthur Rimbaud and the Beat poets, Andersen felt a stronger kinship with his street-rocker friends, Lou Reed and Patti Smith.
Moments and memories flash by, some sharply focused, while others, are more elusive, smudged, like worn pages stained with coffee rings. As Andersen sings: “Time Runs Like a Freight Train” or the white lines of the freeway quickly disappearing behind us.
“You Can’t Relive the Past”-Eric Andersen & Lou Reed:
Lamont possesses a photographer’s eye. His film is tastefully lit and framed, a welcome relief from typical talking head music documentaries. With the likes of Eric, Debbie Green, their daughter Sari, and contact sheets of a beatific Patti Smith, Lamont had plenty of “movie star” faces to work with.
Filled with smart interviews with John Sebastian (and his dog) guitarist Happy Traum, (who along with Eric and Sebastian once comprised the Woodstock Mountains Revue) Tom Paxton, and “next generation” rockers, the ever-adroit Lenny Kaye and Willie Nile, The Songpoet presents numerous black and white clips and stills, evoking the burgeoning Greenwich Village scene, as the director leads us, tramping down MacDougal Street to the long-gone haunts of Folk City, the Gaslight Café, and the Kettle of Fish.
“I was never a folk singer,” Eric countered, mystified by his connection to the genre. “I didn’t know any of those songs that folk singers sang.
In contrast to his scuffling “street urchin” days in San Francisco’s North Beach, Eric felt “secure and happy… needed and accepted” as the new kid in the New York scene. Beyond the friendship he shared with Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs, it was his portfolio of powerful ballads, like the lilting “Violets of Dawn” that opened the door for him. It soon became apparent that Andersen had a broader scope than most of his peers. His quest for knowledge and life drove the earnest seeker of “Thirsty Boots,” to incorporate elements of poetry, philosophy, history and art into his lyrics.
“Violets of Dawn”-Eric Andersen:
Unlike the Coen Brother’s 2013 poison valentine to the Folk Boom, Inside Llewyn Davis, you feel the spirit of camaraderie that existed between a community of aspiring troubadours. It was Phil Ochs who helped boost Eric’s career at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when together they charmed the crowd (famous for abhorring pop music) by singing the Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better.”
Phil Ochs and Eric Andersen performing the Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better” at the Newport Folk Festival:
New York Times critic Robert Shelton (who helped put Dylan on the map) wrote a review of Andersen’s live set at Folk City and he was quickly signed to Maynard Solomon’s prestigious Vanguard Records.
The irrepressible Danny Fields chased Andersen down to the Figaro Cafe, on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal. Certain Andersen was a movie star, Fields recalled, somewhat embarrassed now, how he cajoled him into doing a screen test for Andy Warhol’s 1965 film Space. It would be well worth purchasing a wall-size flat-screen TV just to view Warhol’s clips of Eric and an alluring Debbie mugging for the camera. But unlike Warhol, Lamont’s camera seemed to intuitively know when to pull back from its subject. But a few things still left me wondering….
A Conversation with Paul Lamont and Eric Andersen
PKM: For the most part it seemed that Eric opened the book of his life to you, although there is very little about his family, early years, or even early musical influences mentioned in the film. Were there any personal “no fly zones”?
Paul Lamont: In the early stages of research, Eric talked with Lou Reed about the film and Lou told him, ‘Don’t let filmmakers get too close to you.’ I think Eric took that to heart in some ways. If you open up too much and let people get too close, you run a real risk of your soul being naked to the world and I understand that. I’m not too sure I’d want people examining my life with a microscope. But that said, Eric gave me and my producer, Scott Sackett, complete access to everything in his archives. There was nothing in there that was off limits. That’s highly unusual. He never once limited what we had access to. For him, the real invasion was a camera rolling during private moments at home. As a filmmaker, you want the camera to be rolling at all times. The minute you turn it off is usually when you want it on. There were several occasions when he told us to turn it off and we respected his wishes and his privacy. Ironically, it was Eric’s occasional reticence that gave us a unique way to get inside the image that he sometimes projects and see the man. To really understand Eric, we needed to do it through his journals and letters and the idea of the older man reading the words written in his youth really intrigued me. I imagine that must have been difficult for him at times. These were things that he hadn’t seen since he wrote them, and he may have found some of it cringe-worthy. But he never refused to read anything that we gave him. Although one time, while we were in a studio in Cologne, Germany recording some journal passages, he wanted to rewrite one. I told him, ‘Eric, you can’t do that. You can’t change history because you’d write it differently today’. But that’s Eric, always the perfectionist, never satisfied.
PKM: Eric, you were deeply imprinted by Beat poets and the French symbolist Arthur Rimbaud. I am curious about your early formative years. Did you have a hip English teacher who turned you on to poetry?
Eric Andersen: I’m pretty much self-taught in the literary jewel-eye of interest department. My dad retired early and went back to college to study under Robert Creeley at the University of Buffalo. My small circle of musical high school friends and I created folk groups with guitars and banjos and harmonies. We also loved poetry. Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and the Beats including Ferlinghetti. I read a lot of Russian literature on my own. Kerouac’s On the Road was a big deal to any kid like me who harbored dreams of travel and adventure. Books gave you the sense there was a big world out there beyond your backyard waiting for you to visit and take part. Books opened giant palatial-sized windows for me. Where most of my high school friends enjoyed armchair lit. adventures, they would eventually finish their education, get jobs, make families, settle down in the straight, striving secure square life with dreams of serenity. I took every word of these books personally and acted on it. I got away. But alone, on the road would soon come the high lonely risk of getting drafted in a bogus war. Later would come Eliot, Kafka, Ibsen, Hamsun, Joyce and Burroughs. And I loved Whitman.
PKM: Like your fellow folksingers, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan, you wrote socially conscious songs early on in your career. You spoke of the struggle to register voters in Mississippi (some shit never changes), but you seemed to have abandoned such issues, until years later when you wrote the dark and stunning – “Rain Falls Down in Amsterdam,” (on his recent 3-CD set, Woodstock Under the Stars).
“Rain Falls Down in Amsterdam”-Eric Andersen, live performance, Buffalo, N.Y., 2004:
Eric Andersen: There were many who were much better than I as protest songwriters. I never could deal much with ephemeral events, so my songs ended up more like interior documentaries. I always asked myself the question, will this song hold up a hundred years from now? On a trip to McComb County, Mississippi, in ‘65 with journalist Jack Newfield, I did sing “Waves of Freedom” in some surreptitious voting gatherings masqueraded as nighttime black church services. Those were very, very scary days. Newfield got shot at trying to hang voter posters on trees.
PKM: A documentary can only answer so much about its subject’s life. At just under two hours long (which thanks to Lamont’s fine direction, just flew by), the film still left me wondering… Like many of us, your life “began” when you left home for San Francisco in 1963, and met Janis Joplin and fell for Debbie Green (a fine musician, fluent on piano, bass, guitar and uke, and a major inspiration on Joan Baez in her Cambridge folkie days) who ran the Cabal coffeehouse in Berkeley. She compares you to James Dean. But you seem more like a sullen teenager who doesn’t want to participate in life’s dumb rituals, than the kind of juvenile delinquent who kicks over the churchyard manger scene on Christmas Eve. Were you a troublesome lad in high school?
Eric Andersen: No, I wasn’t troublesome. Maybe a little sullen. My Buffalo neighbor Dr. Tomas Bardos, an escapee-refugee from the Hungarian uprising, was a cancer researcher from Hungary. He offered me a job in high school and later I would start out as a pre-med student in college, after working two summers at Roswell-Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo under his tutelage. Any film, of course, is a narrative story from a point of view. But a documentary is only the tip of the iceberg of someone’s life. Nine-tenths of the person remains unseen. I had little to do with the film and about 90% of the material in it I had never seen before, until I watched the movie for the first time, though it came from my old undeveloped Super-8s and written archives. So, I watched the film like anybody else would. My view was, I saw a person on screen from the outside looking in at myself. But always remember, every person looks and lives their lives from the inside looking out. Rarely the other way around. So, truth is, I became just like any other typical member of the audience, leaned back watching a movie, sipping a Coke and munching on popcorn like everybody else.
PKM: That’s both hilarious and very perceptive, Eric. Although a few of your early songs like “Plains of Nebrasky-o” bear the stamp of Woody Guthrie, your musical influences are not delved into very much in the film. Who else inspired you? Delta and Chicago blues singers? West Coast Cool Jazz? Who did you hear on the radio?
Eric Andersen – Plains Of Nebrasky’O
Eric Andersen: Like everybody else who sang folk songs, Woody Guthrie and Alan Lomax 101 were a requisite. I went to the listening booths at the University of Buffalo after returning to my parents’ house between my San Francisco Beat sojourn and before starting my new life adventure at Paxton’s behest in the Village in 1964. In high school, I worked in a record store and heard a lot of jazz. My dad took me to see Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue-era quintet (with Coltrane, Adderley, and Bill Evans) at Kleinhan’s Music Hall. He also took me to some Segovia concerts. I snuck out and saw Elvis by myself at the Memorial Auditorium. The gold-suit Elvis period!
PKM: Wow! What about playing guitar? Did you have a teacher?
Eric Andersen: I learned guitar from calypso records, the Kingston Trio, the Everly Brothers, and standing in front of mirrors, strumming along to rockabilly records. In New York, waiting for a year for my first Vanguard record to come out, I sat at the feet of blues greats playing the Gaslight, and marveled at Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Muddy Waters, John Hurt, Big Joe Williams, Fred McDowell, and (Tennessee-born banjo/guitar picker) Clarence Ashley. Watching them, I learned the magic of timing and space. And the power of solo narratives… the spell of a song story. At the Village Vanguard and Gate, I heard Coltrane, Bill Evans, Mingus, and Jimmy Smith, who’d play an organ solo, getting softer instead of louder, to make the audience lean in to listen. That taught me the secret power of dynamics. That was my doctorate! I did love Buddy Holly and Chet Baker’s “Let’s Get Lost.” Bartók and Erik Satie reached me early on. And Beethoven’s late string quartets, which were almost abstract, along with the Arabic realm of micro-tonics.
PKM: That’s some serious sonic diversity! No wonder you never neatly fit into the folk bin! “Blue River” and a lot of your tunes reveal a gospel piano tinge. Was there any particular influence there?
Eric Andersen: Sure. Going to Black gospel churches.
PKM: Your 1968 album More Hits From Tin Can Alley was a real departure from your earlier more straight-ahead stuff, with poppy brass arrangements and a very ‘60s album cover shot, that captured the zeitgeist of the times, like the Doors’ Strange Days.
Eric Andersen: I was very insecure about Tin Can Alley. I thought some of the vocals were hokey and maybe the music was too produced. But what do I know? As you may have noticed Bob Dylan ‘borrowed’ my holding the violin concept for his Basement Tapes cover.
At the Village Vanguard and Gate, I heard Coltrane, Bill Evans, Mingus, and Jimmy Smith, who’d play an organ solo, getting softer instead of louder, to make the audience lean in to listen. That taught me the secret power of dynamics. That was my doctorate!
PKM: In 1969, you did a pair of albums for Warner Bros. Avalanche had some lovely stuff on it, but like a lot of records on that label, it seemed to slip through the cracks.
Eric Andersen: I liked some songs on the Warners’ albums, like ‘Secrets,’ ‘Sign of a Desperate Man’, ‘I will Wait,’ and “For What was Gained.’ Some of it sounds jive now, although Leonard Cohen came to those L.A. sessions and took the title for a song soon after. He told me at the Landmark Hotel, that ‘Violets of Dawn’ was the song that got him started writing songs and no longer just poetry.
“Sign of a Desperate Man”-Eric Andersen:
Between his good looks and wistful ballads, Eric caught the eye and ear of Brian Epstein who believed the future of music lay with “solo balladeering artists” and claimed to be “sincere and seriously excited” about working with him. Andersen corresponded with rock’s most famous manager, singing to Epstein over the phone. But while performing at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in August 1967, Andersen heard the devastating news that Epstein had died of an overdose alone in his apartment. The following year, Debbie Green and Eric married, the ceremony held high atop Mount Tamalpais in Marin County. According to producer Norbert Putnam, the couple had a “fascinating chemistry.” Green gave interviews that were essential to the film’s continuity, and Lamont was fortunate to have captured her commentary before she died in December 2017.
PKM: Paul, what you can tell us about Debbie Green?
Paul Lamont: I have to say that Debbie was one of the most gracious people you could ever find. She and her husband [George Madaraz] opened their home and their hearts to me and the crew. They let us stay in their studio behind their house and although we were only there for a total of three or four days, because of Debbie’s warmth, personality, and genuine sincerity, we all felt a special connection to her. I recall that she had some framed pictures of her and Eric sitting on a table in the living room and I asked her if she put those out for us and she said, ‘No. They’re always there.’ She was a great musician herself and I think she sacrificed a lot for Eric, but I never got the sense that she was resentful of that in any way because the love between them, although turbulent at times, was strong.
PKM: How was her health at the time?
Paul Lamont: When I make a film, I always try to tell the story from the inside out and I knew going in that Debbie was going to be a lynchpin for the film. She was like a prism that gave us a kaleidoscopic view of Eric’s life, relationships, and career. When I first reached out to her in November 2012, I knew that she wasn’t well but didn’t know to what extent. There were often long gaps between emails, and it wasn’t until much later that I found out that during those times of silence she was often away, getting treatments for her cancer. So, it was exactly one year later, in November of 2013 that we were finally able to lock a date and schedule an interview at her home in LA. At the time, she was in great spirits, the illness hadn’t progressed to the point where it hindered her in any way, or in any way that she would let on about. So, we conducted two days of candid interviews with her and really left no stone unturned. She was reflective and often funny and never shied away from any questions. I think she was happy and maybe a bit relieved to finally tell the story of her and Eric. And in telling that story, she was also able to tell her story – and that was important to her. I sent her some clips of the film in the early days of the edit before she passed away and felt strongly about dedicating the film to her. It seemed fitting.
Appearances on The Johnny Cash Show and the 1970 rock tour Festival Express helped amplify Eric’s presence. Signed to Columbia Records in 1972, his album Blue River became a milestone, not just for him personally, but for the singer-songwriter genre, which by the early ‘70s had become flooded by sincere, hair parted-down-the-middle bards like Neil Young, James Taylor and Jackson Browne.
With the single, “Is It Really Love at All?” Blue River brought Andersen a broader audience. “He got all of the pieces of the puzzle right,” Lenny Kaye said. And it didn’t hurt to have Joni Mitchell’s shimmering voice echoing his every phrase like a reverb-drenched siren on the title track.
“Is It Really Love at All?”-Eric Andersen:
As Debbie Green described Eric when they first met, he was 19 years old and “very handsome” and “bursting with creative energy.” “Being poor wasn’t a crime,” Eric said, but it wasn’t an option either after the birth of their daughter, Sari. Andersen soon found himself torn between his responsibility as a father, and an overwhelming desire to write poetry and explore Europe. While Patti Smith dubbed him “a happy Rimbaud… drunk with dawn,” Debbie, knew he was at “loose ends,” in the wake of Hendrix and Joplin’s sudden deaths. A true bard, Andersen was unable to “give up the dream.”
Stages, the much anticipated follow up to Blue River, was recorded in Nashville and scheduled for release in 1973, when Eric got the fateful phone call that the tapes had inexplicably “disappeared.” This bit of record business cloak and dagger chicanery rivals the legendary clashes Van Morrison faced with his obstreperous producer Bert Berns and, while it didn’t match the life threats Tommy James received from music biz gangster Morris Levy, the effect was equally devastating to Andersen’s career. It wasn’t until October 1989 that the Stages tapes magically appeared at New York’s Columbia Records warehouse. “It just showed up!” Anderson said, after “someone stumbled over my album… Someone had thrown it [a total of forty boxes] on the floor!” Including guest appearances by Joan Baez, Leon Russell and Dan Fogelberg, the album, finally saw the light of day, two years later in 1991.
PKM: Paul, What is your take on how or why Stages disappeared?
Paul Lamont: Eric and I are pretty sure we know what happened. Debbie was pretty sure too. But there’s no way to prove it and I wasn’t about to make allegations or insinuations in the film. Maybe we can leave it for the sequel. But the truth is, it would have been a very different film if we set out to solve the mystery, rather than leaving it a mystery and at that time, it’s not the road we wanted to take.
So, Eric just did what he’s always done… He moved on, down the tracks to life’s next episode. When Andersen sings, “You Can’t Relive the Past,” a three-chord rocker co-written with fellow New Yorker/street poet, Lou Reed, he is speaking from experience.
While Patti Smith dubbed him “a happy Rimbaud… drunk with dawn,” Debbie, knew he was at “loose ends,” in the wake of Hendrix and Joplin’s sudden deaths.
PKM: Paul, did you try to interview any of Eric’s peers/collaborators like Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, or Patti Smith for the film?
Paul Lamont: Patti Smith and Lou Reed were elusive, but we did have an interview lined up with Joni Mitchell to coincide with the time we were out in LA interviewing Debbie. She isn’t one for giving interviews, so we were really looking forward to talking with her. But she wasn’t doing very well at the time, and on the day of the interview, I got an email saying she was cancelling with no reason given. Debbie tried to intervene on our behalf and called her, to change her mind, but she wouldn’t. Was it disappointing? Yes, but things like that happen and you roll with it. One thing about music docs people expect is what you might call the ‘usual suspects,’ big names talking about someone else. But those interviews don’t always give you real depth or a richer understanding of the person they’re talking about. The insights offered are often more anecdotal than substantive and anecdotal was the last thing I wanted in this film.
In the midst of the Stages disaster, a record shop in Norway (where Eric’s father’s family originated) had been selling hundreds of copies of Blue River. In 1980, Andersen went to see what all the fuss was about, planning to stay and play gigs for a month. But instead, he stayed, becoming an ex-pat, re-inventing his life, and falling in love with the artist Unni Askeland. But “trying to be successful,” Andersen soon wound up donning a skinny tie and playing reggae with a Norwegian backing band.
Leonard Cohen ….. told me at the Landmark Hotel, that ‘Violets of Dawn’ was the song that got him started writing songs and no longer just poetry.
About an hour and twenty minutes into the film comes a stunning moment of Nordic despair you might expect from Ingmar Bergman. We see a close-up of a black and white grainy photo of Andersen, isolated in his attic studio while snow falls outside his window. His weary voice alludes to the wolves outside his door, and the “Wolves snapping at the cage inside my soul,” as he confesses his psychological state is “a bloody mess.”” I’m not a poet!” Eric grouses. “I am an animal trainer!” Cut to his “more than wife” Unni who wearily recalls night after night of Eric’s “food getting cold and sending the kids up to get him.”
Once again sense the clock ticking and Eric is soon on to the next phase of his life, joining together with bassist Rick Danko of the Band, and singer/songwriter Jonas Fjeld to create a new trio with a soul “bigger than the members.” But Danko, who radiated such unbounded spirit on stage, privately battled demons of addiction and depression, until his death in December 1999. (Do yourself a favor and check out Rick singing “Blue River” accompanied by Garth Hudson’s accordion, on Eric’s recent album Woodstock Under the Stars). Cut to Andersen standing beside Danko’s grave in Woodstock, New York, dressed in black, eulogizing his friend in a sandpiper rough voice.
“Blue River”-Rick Danko (with Eric Andersen):
PKM: Paul, can you give us any additional insight into the changes Eric went through after moving to Norway?
Paul Lamont: It’s important to understand that when Eric first met Unni, she was just beginning her own artistic career and he was hugely supportive. But within a few years, she was coming into her own as a celebrated artist in Norway, and two creatives with strong personalities can sometimes put a strain on a relationship.
PKM: While he must have felt relieved leaving America in the wake of the Stages debacle, there had to be some challenges in starting over again in a new country…
Paul Lamont: This was a point in Eric’s life when his fans in the States had sort of lost track of him and he was beginning to feel somewhat isolated. I think that was one of the reasons the new trio with him, Rick, and Jonas felt so magical. Eric was involved in something different and meaningful at a time when he needed it. But it was just one more devastating blow when Rick died, and he lost such a good friend and collaborator, as well as the beauty and the magic of that trio.
The Songpoet (2020)-Directed by Paul Lamont, trailer:
Once more, Eric’s life-long salvation, the writing and music, led him on, With a new wife, Inge, who became his harmony-singing partner, and another batch of fine albums, Eric has continued to grow as an artist, writing music to the poetry of Lord Byron (“the first rock star” Andersen dubbed him), Albert Camus and Heinrich Böll.
Andersen’s band, with whom he’s steadily toured for the last few years until COVID, features violinist Scarlet Rivera and guitarist Steve Addabbo.
The film concludes with Eric trading verses with his daughter Sari on his classic, “Violets of Dawn.” “Fini!” the songpoet says, as the film ends with Andersen giving what long-time Village rocker Willie Nile called his “Zen wink.”
Ten years in the making The Songpoet will be broadcast on PBS stations between April 24 & 26th. Check your local listings for broadcast dates and times in your area and watch it! If Andersen is the “songpoet,” then Lamont must be the “filmpoet.” This is a fine match of subject and documentary.
“Filmmakers never work in a vacuum.” Paul Lamont adds. “It’s one of the most collaborative processes I can think of. If it weren’t for the brilliance of cinematographer Jack Cummings, who took vague descriptions of what I was seeing in my head and translate that to such beautiful imagery on the screen, as well as the wisdom of my producer, Scott Sackett who is a poet in his own right, and the nuanced storytelling ability of my editor, Chris Bové, this film would be a fraction of what it is.”
If you don’t know Eric Andersen, this is an excellent introduction to the twists and turns of his life and career. It’s even better if you do.