Sunday, September 30, 2018

Everybody Get Together: Jesse Colin Young Returns

Jesse Colin Young
image courtesy of Jesse Colin Young

A great song crystallizes the time and place where it’s first heard, embedding itself into one’s DNA, permanently placed onto the soundtrack of one’s life. As a young child during the summer of 1969, I was captivated by a magical song that featured ethereal guitar playing, angelic vocals, and a timeless message that has lost none of its original resonance nearly fifty years later. Written by Chet Powers a/k/a Dino Valente, the interpretation of “Get Together” recorded by Jesse Colin Young and the Youngbloods is the universally definitive version, one that has retained every ounce of beauty, elegance, grace, and hope for humanity since its release a half-century ago.

Jesse Colin Young personifies the troubadour role of the singer-songwriter. With a career spanning six decades and nearly twenty albums, the outspoken artist is returning to the concert stage, armed with powerful new material and backed by a seven-strong band of young musical wunderkinder, led by his son Tristan. The new album, recorded earlier this year, features topical songs whose mission it is to awaken and inspire listeners to rise to the challenges that face our society during these deeply troubling times. Young and his band will be performing at the Boulton Center in Bay Shore on Thursday, October 4th. In our recent conversation, Young proved that he is back with a vengeance after an eight-year retirement, eager to share these new songs while celebrating the old, ready to take on the status quo and encourage everybody to get together, right now.

Roy Abrams: How are you today?
Jesse Colin Young: Pretty disappointed in my government, but I’m kind of getting used to it.

RA: You’ll be performing on Long Island at the Boulton Center in Bay Shore on Thursday, October 4th, and I understand you’ll be introducing songs from your latest album that’s in the works.
JCY:  It’s not in the works, it’s done. The work is in getting BMG to release it. I wanted a couple of things to come out (first) because there’s some political music on here. I really hate to call it political but that’s the way it is. I don’t think I’ve found a better word for it yet. If I call it “human condition music” everybody will just go blank. So, “Shape Shifters” will come out and that will be our first single on October 12th. In late October, a song called “For My Sisters” (will be released). Just let me quote you a little bit of this. After I’d written thirteen songs, I thought I was done. My wife and I live in Hawaii in our little house over there that we raised our kids in. She came up to my writing room and I said, “Wow, I’m done!” And she said, “I wish you would write a song for my sisters just to let them know that you’re here and that you support them.” She meant all of her sisters in the world. So I did. As we go into the chorus, the lyrics are:

And though the darkness surrounds us
We feel the love that has bound us
And we won’t take it anymore
You can’t take it anymore
Time to even up the score
Don’t mistake it

And I left out “you sons of bitches” …

After I say
This is a song for my sisters
I say:

This is a song for resistors
Everything we hold dear
A world where everyone’s welcome
And all our voices are heard
And though the darkness surrounds us
We feel the love that has bound us.

That’s exactly what I felt. It’s funny: Two days before that, I had watched a film of the Women’s March; the one that came right after Trump took office. In the body language of the women and men who were in that march, I got (the message) clear, right across my brain. It said, “We won’t take it anymore.” And God bless Dr. Ford! As tiny as she is, with that little voice … and the death threats … she’s a hero. To prostrate herself in front of all those—

RA: Whatever you want to call them—
JCY: --and bring that story forward because she felt it was her civic duty. You know, I grew up in a time after World War II when telling the truth was something good, and you were applauded for that. It was kind of like, “Yeah, I was smoking a cigarette. I just wanted to try it.” Even when (telling) the truth was difficult. There was a certain respect for girls and women that I guess I just absorbed from my father. What this event in the judiciary process says to young men is: “You can get away with this. If you cover your ass well, you can get away with this.” That’s the worst thing that we can say to young men growing up.

RA: On your website, you make the statement that you feel “compelled to speak about these times.”  First of all, I applaud you mightily, because in my opinion, I don’t see enough artists that are actually taking a stand.
JCY: It’s kind of weird. I was retired. My son graduated from the Berklee College of Music in 2016 and we went to his senior recital, my wife Connie and I. The band that he had put together to play some fusion were all in their early 20s and they just blew me away. That light had gone out in me. I hadn’t toured in eight years, I think, but it just came back on. I said, “You know, before I hang it up, I’m gonna play my music with some kids like this.” They are amazing, and that’s who I’m bringing with me. There’s seven of them and me; they’re all in their 20s and they’re all young geniuses.

RA: There’s another artist with whom you share that same sociopolitical awareness and outspokenness, and that’s David Crosby. Something that David is doing right now is also working with young people, and from what you just said to me, it sounds like the two of you feel the exact same way about that relationship.
JCY: Yeah. I haven’t seen David on the road, and I haven’t seen him in person since Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young came to Atlanta. I took my grown son, Tristan, who must have been 15 or 16—he’s 27 now—so it must have been about 10 years ago.

RA: It was 2006, the last CSNY tour.
JCY: I was backstage and said to him, “God damn it, you’re singing beautifully, like an angel!” He said, “Yeah, I’m having a good night.”

image courtesy of Jesse Colin Young

RA: Speaking of voices, from the time I was eight years old, your voice has been burned into my consciousness with your calling card, per se, “Get Together.” I’m wondering: As a songwriter, how have you reconciled your relationship with that song as its popularizer as opposed to being the author of so many other songs? How is the relationship similar? How is it different?
JCY: I’m kind of glad I didn’t write it! I would be more like Trump. I would think I was the best thing since white bread if I wrote that song. [chuckles] Because it came straight from the angels. I met Dino years after, in San Francisco, at the motorcycle shop. He was kind of a tough guy; he must have been raised on Long Island, or somewhere on the East Coast, as I was. I thought to myself, “God! How did “Get Together” come out of Dino?” I mean, he was famous for … they would get drunk in Quicksilver and get in fistfights with each other; at least, this was the scuttlebutt. The Youngbloods had already become part of that scene, having moved there in ’67. I don’t think I met Dino until ten years after that. The lyrics are so incredibly angelic. So, when I discovered it, I thought I was kind of a tough guy; at least I was an arrogant, angry young man—I was happy to be an angry young man, and my manager said, “What are you singing that song for? That’s not up your alley.” He was destined to leave … [laughs] It was right up my alley. I knew that it was my path forward; it has always been out there in front of me. It’s like a great eagle, a great message from heaven that flaps its wings and reminds me, “Come on, man. You’re not quite making it here.” And it’s what called me to come back. We had our second rehearsal with this band, which my son Tristan helped me put together; these are all his friends from Berklee. Our second rehearsal was after Election Day, which was a terrible day for me and a terrible day for them. Three of them are here by the grace of the United States government on artist’s visas. I thought, “What’s gonna happen?”And of course, we just went straight forward. But I don’t want to skirt around your question. Nothing that I’ve written has been as accepted as “Get Together”, even “Darkness, Darkness”, and that’s okay. Maybe some of this (new music) … this is some of the best writing I’ve ever done. I look back and see that of all the songs with the Youngbloods, only “Darkness, Darkness” and “Sunlight” have lived on. They’re certainly in the show, with “Get Together,” of course. This album, Dreamers, there’s no filler on it. There are a lot of things that I felt absolutely driven to talk about. I didn’t set out to do this; it just kind of took me by storm. When “For My Sisters” came through at the end, I feel very strongly about it. I feel very strongly about the Dreamers, so I wrote a song called “They Were Dreamers.” On my father’s side, we go back to the first child born on the Mayflower when it was at harbor that winter. They were dreamers; only half of them survived. And then, the Scots and Irish, on my mother’s side, they came in the middle 1800s, starving and hungry for freedom and food. And then the Germans, who came to Nova Scotia, because the English came and wanted stout German peasants to settle Nova Scotia; that’s my Grandma’s people. They were dreamers.

Jesse, guitar, and friend
image courtesy of Jesse Colin Young

RA: How do the members of your band view what’s going on with our country today? Do they see a way out of this? Do they see a way forward?
JCY: [lengthy pause] I don’t know.

RA: I ask because in addition to music journalism, I also teach high school and middle school students. I have a lot of hope for the future because I work with young people all day. They see the way the adults are behaving.
JCY: Do they see it? I’m wondering … [chuckles] of course, I live in the South, I’m surrounded by red, and I’m just not there. I’m from New York and I was raised in New England. I don’t have any people I can speak to. I foolishly opened the political Pandora’s Box in the waiting room of my chiropractor, which was definitely a mistake!

RA: It sounds like we’re on the same page. You listen to what some people have to say and wonder if they’re living on the same planet. It’s extraordinary.
JCY: Do the kids see a way forward?

RA: Yeah! They are taught to never be spoon-fed information, to get their information from as many verifiable sources as possible, carefully think about the information, and draw their own conclusions. They realize that for every person who says that something’s not possible, in general there’s probably a lot of fear behind that negativity.
JCY:  Right.

RA: At least, that’s been my experience since the election. The week after the election, for many of my students, I found that I was acting as a grief counselor.
JCY: Let’s talk about “Shape Shifters”, the first single to come out. As far as I’m concerned, there are no “alternative facts.” [laughs] There is the truth and the facts, and then there’s half-truths and half-lies, and all this other stuff. I just realized the other day when I saw a clip of Nikki Haley—you remember how they laughed at Trump at the U.N., when he was saying that he had the greatest administration since George Washington or something, and there was chuckling going on. And there was Nikki Haley on Fox and Friends saying, “They were laughing with him. They love him because he’s so human and available.” It’s Disneyland! They’ve created another world! How confusing that must be to young people. I mean, what are the facts? They turned that right around to the opposite of what I’m assuming it was, and they’re presenting that as the truth. They’re shape shifters; that’s what I call them, and that’s what the first song we’re releasing is about, and it’s important that it comes out before the election. It’s just crying out, it’s saying for God’s sake, get off your ass and get out there and vote! I mean, there are several things that put Trump in the Oval Office, but I think the main one was voter apathy. It was only 25% of the American people that put him in. That’s pitiful. So, it’s tyranny; it’s tyranny of the minority. I’m amazed, but maybe I shouldn’t be. I mean, when it hits 60%, it’s like a giant thing?

RA: Do you think we’re nearing a time when the era of complacency is over?
JCY: God, I hope so. There a lot of people who have drunk the Kool-Aid. There are many people who just don’t care enough. The Trump administration is busy deconstructing America, deconstructing all of the wonderful and hard-fought things that we’ve earned … to keep poison out of our grandchildren’s mouths, in the air and the water; all kinds of deconstruction … filling the judicial benches with right-wing nut jobs like Kavanaugh.

RA: How long were the recording sessions for the new record? I understand you recorded it in Nashville.
JCY: Yeah, we recorded at Sound Emporium, which was founded in 1969, the year that “Get Together” would hit big. I didn’t discover this until we were already there. I chose it for the sight lines … I’m playing acoustic guitar, so I had to be in the main room (with) drums, bass, and keyboards, but then the sax player had to be in an isolation room, but we all played and sang live on the tracks. It took eight days to cut the tracks, I think. I think five days into it, I had two vocals and seven tracks, and one day I walked in there and there were some visitors; there was the head of the Americana Music Association. I just got out there and whipped off a couple of vocals. It’s nice to meet people that I haven’t met before who love the music who are like a new audience. I said, “Don’t leave, man. I have to do a vocal while you’re here.” I think I went through one or two. We were five days into it and the vocals were not forthcoming and I was not pushing them. I got through four or five in one afternoon.

RA: That’s fantastic.
JCY: I was no longer worried. And then we had another three or four days overdubbing, putting the gals on. They weren’t really backup singers, they were harmony singers. I’d been recording myself for so long, since I built a studio in the ‘70s, but I hadn’t made an album under the gun like that in decades.

RA: Is there a firm release date for the album?
JCY: I don’t think (BMG) wants to bring it out until we’ve released maybe four singles. “For My Sisters” will come out before the election. There’s only two sisters that can save us from Kavanaugh (Senators Collins and Murkowski) but I don’t trust any of them to be a human first. When Corker came out of that room yesterday after he listened to that woman and said he would vote for Kavanaugh, I couldn’t believe it. How could they do this? Oh. They’re lawyers. I don’t know whether Flake’s a lawyer but Corker’s definitely one. Almost all of them are, and they think like lawyers first. If they thought like human beings first, they’d have said, “If this is a true story, this is true. It happened, whether Kavanaugh remembers it or not, that’s not my problem. It happened—he did it; that’s his problem to work out in his life. Obviously, he might have blocked it out, but he ruined her life and he should not be on the Supreme Court.

RA: What’s it like getting back out there on the road after eight years?
JCY: I love to play. I don’t like to drive around. I used to love it. I used to drive around in a motor home with the whole band in the back. I’d climb in the driver’s seat after the show and drive for a while … it was crazy. I did it all, but that love of cruising around America is over. I’ve done it enough, but it’s what necessary to get to the people, and the people are out there. Every time we go to a new place, people fall in love with the new music … God, they love “For My Sisters.” So, this set has four or five songs from the album. It’s not one set; I come out and do a short solo set in the front of the show. The first couple of songs are from my folk career. I wrote a song called “Lyme Life.” I’ve had Lyme Disease for more than twenty years and when you have it for untold decades without being diagnosed, you’re stuck with it. The AMA used to say there’s no such thing as chronic Lyme and now, they admit there might be. Having lived with it, and tried it with and without antibiotics, I couldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t on a regimen that was developed by Dr. Richard Horowitz who lives up in Hyde Park, NY; his wife has chronic Lyme, so he’s trying to figure out a cure for her. He moved to the Hudson Valley when he came out of medical school and it’s just rife with Lyme Disease. It’s one of the hot spots in the country, so he became a Lyme doctor almost out of necessity.

RA: I want to thank you for two reasons: One, for being the voice behind one of the songs that’s been part of the soundtrack to my life for the past fifty years. Two, for continuing to speak up and speak out; I wish it were more prevalent.
JCY: Yeah! Maybe this will spark something. I hope so! I hope my peers will look at this and say, “Hey, we should be writing more of this stuff!”

RA: And it should be an inspiration to young people as well.
JCY: I don’t listen to a lot of (new) music, although when cool stuff comes along, my son usually says, “Dad, look up these guys.”  You said you were a teacher. I experimented with teaching ukulele at the Waldorf School that Connie and I and some others in the community built in Hawaii, and that Waldorf School still stands; it is now a charter school. We couldn’t stay there—Connie wanted to come home where her family is and be with them before they passed away. So, Kona Pacific is now called “charter school” but it still maintains the Waldorf curriculum. Trying to teach ukulele to younger children was okay, but it got harder (as the students got older) and my estimation for teachers soared. I did it for a couple of years. I taught ukulele; I learned it because we needed a ukulele teacher and our aide moved off-island and they didn’t have anybody to hire, so I said, “Well, I can learn this.” My students never knew that I was one song ahead of them! [chuckles]

RA: Thanks so much for your time today.
JCY: Great talking to you!

image courtesy of Jesse Colin Young

© Roy Abrams 2018

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