Eric Andersen is a survivor. The term is especially appropriate for a musician of his era. A folk-singer from the first school of singer-songwriters that helped blaze the trails of social revolution embodied in the 1960s, Andersen, watched as many of his contemporaries fell victim to drug and alcohol abuse or simply lost the will to live or perform. In a business marked by fleeting fame, unreasonable artistic pressure fed by recording companies, and an intensely personal form of self-expression, surviving is no mean feat.
Along with his contemporaries, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, Phil
Ochs, and Tim Hardin, Andersen helped form what was to become the definition
of a folk singer. With acoustic guitars and harmonicas slung on braces
around their necks, the early folksinger spoke of revolution and social
injustice through a haze of dingy Greenwich Village coffeehouses and smoky
speakeasys throughout the country.
The songs titles were captions to a photo album of a country in tumult—
"I Ain't Marchin' Anymore," "The Times They Are A Changin'," "Blowin' In
The Wind," and Andersen's own "Thirsty Boots" spoke of the need to re-evaluate
the way Americans lived their lives in peace and in war.
As the times gave way to reform and the marching stopped, many found
their lives empty. Both Phil Ochs and Tim Hardin died at their own hands
and the outpouring of other singer-songwriters lost spark and dwindled as
the winds of change fluttered to disco and having a "nice day."
It was during that time that Andersen released his most successful album,
Blue River. Within that album lies the reason why Andersen survives today
— both physically and artistically. An album of tender love songs thread
together with his soft-spoken vocals, "Blue River" transcends time, fad,
and political jargon. The songs are not founded in the static preaching
of movements or causes, rather they are often sad, poetic glimpses of human
themes. It is essential Eric Andersen.
Andersen who spends half the year in Norway with his girlfriend and their
four children explained in a recent interview from his other home in Staten
Island, New York, "I always tried to write songs that were timeless, songs
that dealt with the real human issues. That and poetry. They are the songs
that last, more than the political ones." Not being bound by political
currents or time-based issues, allowed Andersen and his music the freedom
to move through the decades. He continues, "I am not a political writer.
Politics are too tied to the present. But poetry is forever." Timelessness
is one of the single most endearing qualities of his music. It is also a
quality in his music that bore unusual fruit through an eerie series of events.
In 1973, riding on a wave of critical plaudits for Blue River, Andersen
returned to record a follow-up album. In a business where public awareness
of an artist is determined by their latest work, the timing of a new album
was critical. Under the auspices of Columbia Records president, Clive Davis,
Andersen went to Nashville and recorded the album that all believed would
cement his career.
Produced by veteran Nashville producer, Norbert Putnam, the album Stages,
was recorded with some of the finest musicians in Nashville, successfully
capturing a glimpse of an artist at his peak. The master recordings were
mixed, labelled, and sent to Columbia's New York vaults to be scheduled
for final production work and release.
Somewhere along the journey the forty tapes that held the career of a
singer-songwriter wrapped around their spools disappeared. Coincidentally
at the same time, Clive Davis was fired, and Columbia was under investigation
by the FBI for possible illegal practices. Stages was gone. An album of
work that required the combined efforts of producers, musicians, engineers,
not to mention the time and effort involved in writing and arranging the songs
was gone, vanished, no where to be found.
Close to twenty years after the album disappeared, he received a call
saying the tapes had been located in an unmarked box in the Columbia vaults.
Stages was finally released nearly two decades after it was recorded. The
album sounds like it was recorded last week. The instrumentation, the arrangements
and the topics all reflect current trends in the latest singer-songwriter
movement. Stages is a living testimony to a survivor.
Looking back Andersen recalls, "The album was sabotaged, because Clive
Davis was fired. Since the album was not yet completely finished and because
Clive Davis was my mentor, the people at Columbia hid the tapes. The unfinished
album was a problem for them." As a result, Stages never benefitted from
the head of critical steam Andersen had built with Blue River. His life,
career and sense of self worth all took a serious setback.
A survivor instinct bore him through, "My career is as a writer, not as
a pop star. I am a writer, I want to explore words. I wasn't devastated.
They could take my tapes, but they could not take the songs." Perhaps
the years have softened the blow or it is the rationale of a man faced with
incalculable luck, but Andersen has remained patient and optimistic. "I
was never bitter about it. I knew what goes around comes around. I let
sleeping dogs lie."
Unfortunately Andersen has been tiptoeing around a lot of dogs. In 1989
he released another gem titled, Ghosts Upon the Road, which received the
critical blessing of none other than Rolling Stone magazine that hailed
it as "one of the best albums of the 1980s." The album was released on
a small Canadian label (Gold Castle) that went bankrupt shortly after Ghosts
was released robbing Andersen of the royalties, distribution and momentum
garnered by critical praise. And yet he remains philosophical and optimistic.
This quality and a personal strength help him to carry on. He continues,
"I am very lucky, doing what I really want to do. You cannot teach songwriting.
You can go to school to be a painter. You can go to school and learn how
to be a musician. But you don't go to school to learn creativity. Putting
words and music together, that is what I love."
The newly-discovered album, Stages is at the forefront of a resurrected
career. While much of his luck has been bad, he managed to be productive
and creative in light of his misfortunes. In 1991 Andersen, former Band
member, Rick Danko and Norwegian singer-songwriter Jonas Fjeld recorded an
album together in Norway. The album, appropriately titled Trio, won the
coveted Spellman Pris award, the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy. Trio
is a diverse blend of American folk images and country lore wrapped around
the rootsy vocals of three musical journeymen. Like three long-lost friends
reunited, the album is a celebration of their common love of American history
Andersen fondly recalls the sessions for the album, "We all have a great
relationship. Rick is a true vocal genius and Jonas has a style of his
own." Andersen's soft spoken vocals provide contrast to Danko's angelic
innocence and Fjeld's gruff honesty. While the album is a jewel and signals
the re-emergence of both, Andersen and Danko, and the discovery of Fjeld,
it is still waiting for a distribution agreement for this country and the
world. Until then, the album remains a coveted collectors item to fans
outside of Norway.
In the meantime, Andersen is evaluating his life at a career crossroads.
At fifty, he is seeing the re-release of his earliest albums on compact
disc, ('Bout Changes and Things and Today is the Highway both on Vanguard)
and the release of The Eric Andersen Songbook, a printed collection of choice
poetry and lyrics spanning his entire career. Also in the works is material
for a new album. The material signals a departure for Andersen. For the
first time in his life he has changed his focus and has begun to write about
a cause he feels too strongly to contain — ethnic cleansing.
For most of his life he has written from first-person experiences, of
lost love, found love, vignettes from his life, until he witnessed the subtle
and quiet rebirth of Nazism in Europe. With decided fervor he explains
in horror, "It is happening all over again. They communicate through a
secret society tied together by FAX machines and computers. They march
openly in Europe and the German leaders do nothing to stop them because
they need their support." It seems hard to believe that such atrocities
can occur again, but he continues, "This is happening all through Europe.
They are young and they are performing ethnic cleansing. Jews, Arabs, Pakistanis,
Muslims are being attacked throughout Europe. People have to hear this.
It is anti-immigration as much as anything."
"I have never been a political writer, but this message has to get out,"
Andersen continues. In an artistic turnaround Andersen, has written lyrics
so powerful, people leave his shows shocked. With his youthful demeanor
on the wane Andersen has seen to taking a stand. Like his friends before
him, he has taken up a banner. In closing he reads a verse from one of
his new songs. It has no title and doesn't really need one, for the words
speak for themselves. "Here comes 1932, here comes deja vu/Those cattle
cars and yellow stars its right back to the roots/Its moving in the open,
something smelling foul/The cages have been broken and the beast is on the