Brian Chidester, writer, historian, filmmaker and one-time Beach Boys’ archivist, has kept the flame burning for George A. Aberle, aka eden ahbez, best known for “Nature Boy,” first recorded by Nat King Cole in 1947 and since by the likes of Coltrane, Sinatra, Bowie and 4,000 others. A proto-hippie (‘Father of the Love Generation’), ahbez lived out of a van, slept in caves and under the Hollywood sign, but he also wrote 350 songs and his recordings influenced the likes of the Beatles, Love and the Beach Boys. Chidester’s new project, Dharmaland, with the band Ixtahuele, was inspired by some recently unearthed ahbez manuscripts; he’s now working on a documentary about ahbez’s life. Anthony Petkovich spoke with Brian Chidester for PKM.
The rise of songwriter eden ahbez in stature over the past two decades within popular music can be directly traced to Brian Chidester—writer, editor, historian of the arts and of unusual pop culture. Along with having been a noted Beach Boys historian and curator of outsider art, he is the utmost authority on the life and music of George A. Aberle, aka, George McGrew, aka, eden ahbez. This summer, Chidester completed the twelve-years-in-the-making LP, “Dharmaland,” with the help of Swedish exotica band, Ixtahuele. The double-album is a production whose beginnings flow from Chidester’s having unearthed a cache of long-forgotten sheet music—with the help of archivists at the Library of Congress—which ahbez composed between 1961 to 1963 but never recorded during his lifetime.
For the uninitiated, ahbez is best known as the composer and lyricist of “Nature Boy,” a poignant, haunting, and deeply moving song which follows the journey of a narrator who wanders the earth and returns with the universal dictum, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” Recorded in 1947 by Nat “King” Cole, “Nature Boy” became an unlikely pop hit the following year, giving Cole—already a revered act in jazz and blues—his first crossover record. (It was #1 on the “Billboard” and “Cash Box” charts for eight weeks in spring ’48.)
“Nature Boy”-performed beautifully live by Nat King Cole, written by eden ahbez:
Over the past 70 years, the song has been recorded by more than 4,000 artists, including David Bowie, Alex Chilton, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sara Vaughan, and many other major figures in rock, pop, soul, and jazz. Despite his success with “Nature Boy,” however, ahbez—a hippie before there were hippies—would spend his life cycling in and around the Hollywood music scene without much care or concern for material things.
His ascetic philosophy was rooted in part in the “Naturmensch” movement of the early 20th century—that of being a “natural man”—and as such he eschewed things like owning a home. In fact, he remained itinerant throughout his life, despite the fact that he’d made decent money from “Nature Boy,” and even followed it up with a sizable settlement for unpaid royalties later in life. He preferred to sleep in caves, on L.A.’s beaches, and, most famously (before getting “Nature Boy” on King Cole’s radar), took to living underneath the Hollywood sign.
Despite this—or more correctly, perhaps, because of this—his persona and music have influenced a variety of major artists for decades since, including Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, and even Tom Waits. As it happens, nature boy ahbez actually picked up the scruffy, aspiring troubadour in a VW van when Waits was hitchhiking from San Diego to L.A. as a teenager in search of fame and fortune. (It also happens that singer/songwriter Rickie Lee Jones, Waits’ girlfriend in the seventies, also slept under the Hollywood sign for a spell.
Such was—and is—the gravitational pull of ahbez, the outsider’s outsider whose work, like his 1960 LP “Eden’s Island,” sold a mere hundred copies upon its original release, but has since been re-issued 15 times. It is now thought by many to be the harbinger of the psychedelic concept album and what followed, including the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band,” the Who’s “Tommy,” and many others like it. Though ahbez (b. 1908) died in 1995 at the age of 86 from a head-on collision in the Palm Springs area, he left behind a body of more than 350 unique titles, recorded by other artists as well as himself, including nearly a thousand reel-to-reel tapes of unreleased solo performances.
“The Wanderer”-eden ahbez:
Chidester took time out to speak with PKM about his latest deep dive into the fountain of cool that is eden ahbez.
PKM: What got you interested in eden ahbez in the first place?
Brian Chidester: When I was a teenager I worked in a record store near Philadelphia and got introduced to the psychedelic albums of the Beach Boys, and fell deeply under the spell of “Pet Sounds,” “Smile,” and all that stuff. As I started reaching out to other Beach Boys fans, this one collector named Bob Hanes sent me some color Xeroxes of pictures of Brian Wilson in the studio from 1966-67, and in one of them there was this bearded figure who Bob told me was Brian’s drug dealer because I guess he was holding what Bob and some other hardcore fans thought was a bong. When I looked at the picture, however, I thought, ‘That isn’t a bong! That’s like a homemade flute!’ Bob then ended up introducing me to this guy Domenic Priore, a historian of L.A. subculture who had an actual connection to Brian Wilson, and he told me he got the image directly to Brian, and that Brian responded that, yeah, the guy in the picture with the flute was a real beatnik and he wrote the song “Nature Boy.” So, from that there was some information about this mysterious figure, and then after that, Domenic went on to produce a CD re-issue of “Eden’s Island,” and a few years after that, after it was pretty clear that Domenic was not going to do anything else on ahbez, I asked him, ‘Hey, do you mind if I stay on this guy and make it, like, a project for myself to figure out what else he did?’ Domenic, I guess you could say, gave me his blessing at that point.
PKM: What are some of the biographical details of his life?
Brian Chidester: He was born in Brooklyn in 1908. His family was pretty poor. He grew up across the street from a notorious city jail in what is now Fort Greene. His mom died when he was seven or eight and after that he and three other siblings—there were 10 children all together—were sent to live at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in Crown Heights. Eventually he was adopted by a pharmacist named McGrew and his wife in Chanute, Kansas, and was sent on the Orphan Trains to live with them. That was 1917. Once the Great Depression hit, he started hopping freight trains and hitchhiking, and was basically an itinerant musician playing around the Midwest throughout the 1930s. He was in Iowa and Ohio, for instance, and spent time in Kansas City plugging songs and playing the bars. I think the Midwest winters probably beat him up, though, because at one point he took a train to Miami, and in one interview from 1957, after he was already famous from “Nature Boy,” he told this one writer that he was very sick and close to death when he reached Miami, and that a kind of magic woman taught him about healthy living, meditation, and alternative diets. He said she turned his life around.
PKM: How did such an unusual character become part of a true cultural moment in post-World War II?
Brian Chidester: While he was in Miami he wrote and published the first version of “Nature Boy”—which, by the way, is different from Nat “King” Cole’s version of 1948. But abhe, as he was known by friends, was working on something called “The Nature Boy Suite” which was probably based on the popularity of things like “The Grand Canyon Suite” by Ferde Grofé and “The Harlem Suite” by Duke Ellington. These big, conceptual works were in the air at that time, basically hybrid jazz/classical suites, which composers like Gershwin and Kurt Weill wrote as well, and from an early age I think it’s fair to say that ahbe considered himself someone who had something to say. By the time he got to Los Angeles in the mid-1940s, he was playing his music at health food cafes and European coffeehouses, and that’s where he met up with kindred spirits like Gypsy Boots and the other California Nature Boys, and they lived on the fringes of Los Angeles, mostly in the backyards of friends or in caves near Palm Springs or in open landscapes, sleeping outdoors. At one point ahbe was even living under the Hollywoodland sign, as it was spelled on Mt. Lee until 1949, and was at the same time frequenting nightclubs where he would pitch his songs to whomever would bend an ear, and he definitely bent Nat “King” Cole’s ear with “Nature Boy.” Coming out of World War Two, a song about peace and universal love touched a nerve, and “Nature Boy” became a number one hit on the charts for like eight weeks in April and May of 1948. In fact, I read an article in “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” from that time saying the song was heard playing through the windows of appliance shops up and down Fulton Street, and that American GIs returning from the war would stand by the windows and cry as they listened to it.
PKM: ahbez has been written about as a proto-hippie. Why?
Well for one thing, in the 1950s, he was espousing universal love and ecology. And on songs like “Wine, Women, and Gold,” he would admonish listeners to not get too comfortable in materialism. He also warned over and over about the military industrial complex, although he didn’t call it that, but he warned about militarism and the rat race and of the dangers of becoming detached from nature.
“Wine, Women, and Gold”-A cover of an eden ahbez song by the Carsons:
Those were the themes that became his songwriting priority and that stands out in that era because the 1950s was a time where anything that challenged convention, like integration or communism or, like, the horror comics which got banned then, caused a great uproar, and here is ahbe working with Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Hoagy Carmichael, Eartha Kitt, and many others who were willing to put their names and reputations on the line for these new types of songs about spiritual things and nonconformity. These were the top crooners of the day and there he was kind of at the crossroads between music as a trade and pop music as a real artform with something serious to impart. I think that’s why Paul McCartney recognized “Nature Boy” as being worth emulating because McCartney also said in interviews that he wrote “Mother Nature’s Son” directly because of “Nature Boy.” Both McCartney and Brian Wilson were at the center of this change in popular music a decade later and how pop could be a more literary thing, and I think in hindsight it’s sort of obvious how both of them, and many others of the hippie generation, were influenced by ahbe. Even John Coltrane and Grace Slick recorded psychedelic-era versions of “Nature Boy.”
PKM: ahbez experienced a lot of trauma and tragedy in his young life, as well as his adult life. How do you think that informed his work?
Brian Chidester: There was one song from 1959 called “Old Ahb,” later retitled “The Path,” and in it he cites some of his traumas and the difficult experiences he had as a young person being sort of like gateways to wisdom and transcendence. You’ll actually find in a lot of his songs—him negotiating pain. One that comes to mind is “Fire of the Soul,” a song he wrote in 1962, but never recorded during his lifetime. It’s now on “Dharmaland.” To me that is one of the most special pieces on the album because of how ahbe wrote it and how Ixtahuele performed it, but also because he recycled so many of his melodies over the years, but that is one he never revisited for whatever reason. I can only guess it had to do with the difficulty of reliving the pain of his wife Anna dying shortly after he wrote it. She had contracted bone cancer in late 1960, early 1961, and would lose that battle in August 1963. In “Fire of the Soul” you can literally feel ahbe working through his pain in lines like “don’t wait too late” and “when you’re gone, you’re really gone.” He’s dealing with mortality and trying to reach out to the cosmos to understand why these experiences happen to people. But he wasn’t somebody trying to manipulate your senses, trying to get you to buy things or coerce you into a certain kind of worldview, or whatever. He’s just putting it out there as simple and direct as he can. His music is about esoteric journey more than anything—the journey inward which begins with nature and experience
“Fire of the Soul”-Ixtahuele, from Dharmaland:
PKM: How did you get involved in producing Dharmaland?
Brian Chidester: I had been researching ahbe’s life and music for years by 2009, and had acquired almost every 78, 45, and 33 record of his work, and I was going through the Library of Congress archives then to see if there were any outliers in terms of songs that I didn’t know about. Turns out that there were hundreds of titles and handwritten lead sheets by ahbe in the library’s offsite storage that I’d never heard of and he hadn’t recorded a single note of any of these. But he had sent them, I guess, to the Library of Congress to be copyrighted back in the day, and I came to actually think of these lead sheets that now make up the “Dharmaland” album as what would have been his follow-up to “Eden’s Island” had that record been well received in 1960. But, you know, it only sold 100 copies, and then after that his wife got sick
PKM: How did you go about selecting the band?
Brian Chidester: I knew Ixtahuele by reputation and thought they were superior to other contemporary exotica groups, and then also Domenic Priore, who I mentioned before, had worked with them and was talking to them and their label owner Stefan Kéry at Subliminal Sounds about what I had found in the Library of Congress. I reached out to Stefan personally after that and he came back right away, very enthusiastic, and we worked out a plan to record “Dharmaland” together. It became important in my mind that it be recorded in Los Angeles, and they all agreed, and so that’s when I started getting the idea of having all the living collaborators and friends of ahbe’s be guests on the album, and that we use ahbe’s hand-carved flute and handmade drums on the album too. Then starting in fall 2018, we worked closely and did Skype sessions and emailed back and forth about how we would record the whole suite, and I gave them a lot of source material, and they were making demos in Sweden and working on it in that way. Finally in July 2019, ten full years after I found those lost songs, we flew out to Los Angeles together with all the collaborators and friends of ahbe’s, and convened at two different studios to record the basic tracks.
That’s when I started to get the idea of having all of the living collaborators and friends of Eden’s be guests on the album and that we use Eden’s hand-carved flute and handmade drums on the album
PKM: The record has gotten good publicity and good reviews. Is there anything that has surprised you?
Brian Chidester: I was really surprised it got chosen as album of the month by the UK “Guardian” newspaper. It got 9 out of 10 stars in “Uncut,” I think, and 5 out of 5 stars in “Shindig” magazine. I obviously didn’t conceive of this project with reviews in mind or even an audience. I was just trying to be true to what the music was saying and the ideas I was hearing. That was the guide. We went through a lot of different versions of the songs for this. There were 70 or 80 mixes of “Fire of the Soul” and so many overdub sessions that it went to the point of obsession [laughs]. But I guess the biggest surprise for me has been the number of people who have reached out and said, like, ‘I’m so drawn into this world, and I’m mystified as to why I am.’ It’s a consistent reaction among listeners. My filmmaking partner for the documentary we’re doing, John Winer, is also an executive producer on “Dharmaland.” He asked me the other day, ‘Why do you think people have this response?’ I can only think it is because we live in a saturated media culture—especially with social media—and that there’s so much push, push, push. It’s like, ‘Look at me, like me, buy me, whatever,’ and “Dharmaland” was not created with any of that in mind. It was more like pull media. And I think that’s rare.
PKM: Where’s the film project now?
Brian Chidester: The film is titled “As the Wind: The Enchanted Life of Eden Ahbez.” I found eleven people who knew him and worked with him at different periods and they retrace their steps and take us back into the ecosystem that his music grew out of. In that way I am editing this film like little cinema verite sections that will become a greater whole. At this point I have a rough cut of eight out of the eleven sections and four of those sections are completely edited. There’s stop-motion animation, traditional animation, and there’s motion graphics animation because I’ve tried to bring to life some of these imaginary landscapes of ahbe’s, like “Eden’s Island,” the place as well as the concept album. I guess that’s why the documentary is taking a little bit longer than some of the other ones that I’ve done traditionally. But to answer your original question, we’re close, and could concievably have a rough cut by the end of the year. More likely 2022.
As The Wind-Official trailer:
PKM: In case there’s someone who’s reading this and knows a bit about eden ahbez whom you’re not in touch with, what’s something that you want to know that you haven’t figured out yet?
Brian Chidester: I would really like to know more about what happened to him in between his leaving rural Kansas as a young man and finding his way to Los Angeles. There are pieces of evidence of places that he lived or camped out or worked as a young man, and there are a few pictures of him in his high school yearbook in 1925 or ’26 in Chanute, but hard evidence of his whereabouts is really difficult to come by. There are a few early manuscripts he wrote. There’s circumstantial evidence of people that knew him then in some old news clippings. There are a few songs that he wrote where the copyright shows that he was in, like, Hampton, Iowa in 1938, and stuff like that. But there’s pretty much a 10-year period where you have about ten small pieces of evidence and that’s it. So it doesn’t paint a detailed picture of what his life was like and the transition he made from George A. Aberle in Brooklyn as a child to George McGrew in Chanute to eden ahbez in the 1940s is vague. Originally I had wanted to call our film “Becoming Nature Boy,” but then I realized there are likely to remain many mysteries about him because of how he lived as a bohemian and off the grid and basically invented himself, gave himself a name, grew his hair out, started to wear robes like an Old Testament prophet. He was very much cultivating an identity and I think in that way he is truly a contemporary artist in that his life is really his art. That’s what makes him such a relevant figure today—his ability to cultivate his independence of mind and spirit and to live outside of convention.
I realize there are likely to remain many mysteries about him because of how he lived as a bohemian and off the grid because and basically invented himself, gave himself a name, grew his hair out and started to wear robes like an Old Testament prophet.
PKM: There’s a video of ahbez toward the end of his life. What’s your take on that and what do you think it reveals about him at that stage of his life?
Brian Chidester: After his wife died in 1963, his son struggled with drug abuse for a number of years, and he ended up dying of an overdose in 1969. He was 21. So, after that, abhe is not really pitching a lot of songs. He doesn’t pitch his own solo recordings anymore to labels and whatnot. He did release a few singles in the seventies, but by the 1980s, he’s really withdrawn and working mostly on his magnum opus, something he called “The Scripture of the Golden Age.” That was to be a book of poems and sayings as well as a suite of music. The main focus of that project was this association with Einstein, with relativity, with his studies of quantum physics, and with his deep interest in Joseph Campbell and the interconnectedness of spiritual ideas. I think he had become so withdrawn into all of that, and in his grief, that it was almost inevitable he became somewhat paranoid. And remember, when that video was made near the end of his life, 1991, ’92, he was like 84 years old then, and here’s this guy with a video camera up in his face. It might have been an uncomfortable situation for him … but … I like that video. He laughs a lot in it, ahbe, and he says some beautiful, deep things in it too. He recites two poems that I’ve never heard him recite anywhere else. I think the video also provides a window into his psyche at that time, which as a historian, I’m not trying to promote or declare his ideas good or bad or whatever. I’m trying to present him just accurately. So, there’s no reason for me to say, ‘Oh, I wish that didn’t happen,’ or ‘I wish he hadn’t said that.’
PKM: You’re always doing cool work. Do you have a project coming up that you can talk about?
Brian Chidester: I have an exhibition currently at the Buckland Museum of Witchcraft & Magick in Cleveland that focuses on an artist named Burt Shonberg. He was a painter in the 1950s and ’60s of occultic and psychedelic imagery. He’s a forgotten figure in Los Angeles and in midcentury art. I found out about him, I think, in 2000 or 2001, and I have been accumulating information about him and his work over a long period of time. That just came out along with a beautiful full color catalogue which I wrote the main essay and edited. I also have a book coming out next year on the Norton/Fantagraphics imprint titled “Out of My Head: The Imaginary Creatures of Josep Baque.” He was an artist in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s during the Franco era in Spain. Baque came out of Catalonia and created 1,500 imaginary creatures and left them to his niece without ever showing them to anyone or declaring what they meant to him. There’s no notation or anything on them. They’re really phantasmagoric and surreal, but in, like, a Dr. Suess kind of way. It is an enigmatic body of work and I’m really proud to be the first to dive into that and try to understand it, especially because there was nothing written about it by anybody, or even by the artist himself.
PKM: How do you see your career at this point?
Brian Chidester: I have basically built a career out of finding lost voices, lost projects, and things that fall through the cracks. I like that idea that something is out there and not necessarily conforming to academic or popular standards—something so un-formulaic it couldn’t help but be ignored or misunderstood. It’s become my life’s mission to give voice to these forgotten voices. Not because I want to be obscure. It’s that the information you get from looking at failures or things that were misunderstood or lost allows you to look at the times in which something was created and see that world through a different lens. That’s important to me. I’m trying to use what I do to encourage people to see the world we live in now through different eyes. It was unintentional at first; but now I’m really explicit about it.