Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Lovin' Spoonful, Judy Henske and Farewell Aldebaran

If we allow ourselves to follow the development of what became known as “folk-rock” from Bob Dylan to the Byrds to the Jefferson Airplane, this progression creates a neat historical outline we can hang our hats on. Yet this is all hindsight. Maybe these three acts represent the three major changes in the genre -  Dylan making the sea-change from “pure folkie” to “electric” ; The Byrds adapting to current pop trends (Beatles) ; The Jefferson Airplane then carrying the folk-pop football into full-blown psychedelic madness. A reasonable passing of the musical torch from one innovation to the next – from traditional to commercial to esoteric.

Yet there were many interesting off-shoots and pathways along the development of this genre-shift in the1960s. As far as I’m concerned, the only major act to give The Byrds any serious competition in the folk-rock world, in terms of sheer quality of material, was The Lovin’ Spoonful. Though, technically, they called their music “electric jug band music” and did not try to compete with the morose subject matter then prevailing in the lyrics of the folk-rock genre (epitomized by “Eve of Destruction” – what a bummer that record was, eh?). Besides  - they all dressed differently with loud striped shirts and wrote upbeat, catchy tunes. And they sure had chemistry onstage – check out this great clip from the TNT Show:
Alongside their hit singles and great LPs (best heard in mono), the Spoonful worked on films. In fact, one of my favorite songs of theirs is the theme to a Woody Allen film (What’s Up Tiger Lily?) called “Pow”. A real wacky classic – listen here:
They were riding high – well, maybe a little too high. Of all things, guitarist Zalman Yanovsky got busted for the green leafy stuff and, since he was Canadian and facing deportation, cooperated with the authorities a little too much for the burgeoning counter-culture scene to handle. The credibility of the group took a blow and Zally was forced to depart from the band. Scandal! The Spoonful continued on with a replacement – Jerry Yester. But it wasn’t the same. The chemistry was gone and after a few more albums The Spoonful packed it in. Interestingly, Yanovsky remained active in the music business for a few more years before moving back to Canada to become a successful restaurant owner up to his untimely passing at the too-young age of 57. Yet, he did put out one gloriously wacky solo album and a pretty good single – listen here:
But he was more active on the production end of things before bailing out of the music biz for good. Of all people to partner with as a record producer, his replacement in the Spoonful, Jerry Yester, was the guy. No hard feelings apparently! It just so happened that Yester was married to a woman who also had roots to the folk scene of the early 1960s (though she never fit comfortably in that scene either and she missed the boat to folk-rock land when it sailed………):

Judy Henske
“Chanteuse for the Apocalypse” is just one of the many interesting monikers used to describe the astonishing vocal abilities of Judy Henske. I’d read her name for years before I heard her voice. And the first place I did hear her was a pretty unusual record – a collaboration with her then-husband Jerry Yester titled “Farewell Aldebaran” which was co-produced by……Zal Yanovsky! Now, I don’t have a physical copy of this – yet. I only ever heard the tracks from u-toob, but this is one record Frank Zappa should have released on the Bizarre imprint instead of the Straight one. Actually  - the record had zero input from Frank, Henske and Zappa shared the same manager – Herb Cohen (who was Zappa’s business partner for Bizarre/Straight). In recent interviews Henske has spoken highly of Zal Yanovsky – echoing many fans opinions of him that, although John Sebastian is a great songwriter and singer, Yanovsky was THE GUY in the Spoonful – the mystery ingredient. Henske ought to know a thing or two about mystery since she’s got heaps of it hiding behind every nook and crannie of her vocal talent. And her impact on popular music cannot be denied. Ever hear the first Jefferson Airplane album – the one before Grace Slick joined? The Airplane’s original singer – Signe Anderson – was, for all intents and purposes, a Judy Henske wannabe clone. Take a listen to Henske’s version of “High Flyin’ Bird” (released three years before the Airplane’s) here:
The Airplane took this arrangement directly from Henske lock, stock and beatnik. I’ve read at least one writer who called Henske the “female Fred Neil” who was also an influence on the Jefferson Airplane (though my ears tell me I can’t really get with that comparison exactly).
“Farewell Aldebaran”, as it turns out, was actually nearing the end of the first chapter of Judy Henske’s career. Her previous records were more in the folk vein, so this release was quite a departure. It walks a fine line between dual ambitions of being a finely-crafted psych-folk classic while at the same time seeking to update and enhance Henske’s appeal in the marketplace (such as it was then). Yet putting an ambitious psych-folk album out on Frank Zappa’s record label may have been too far out. I am certain this is where most rock fans heard her voice for the first time just as I did and were probably as confused as I was. Trying to unravel Judy Henske’s mysterious identity is not easy when you start off with this record. Is she a rock singer? Folk singer? Jazz singer? Pop singer? Well, she covers all that territory here, only in the context of a pretty ambitious production. In fact, Yester’s production isn’t psychedelic in the stereotypical sense. This album must be one of the earliest (successful) uses of proto-synthesizers. The resulting record is at once folk, rock, psych and PROG. Oh, and there’s this mysterious woman singing on it………….now that I think of it – I’d be mighty surprised if Kate Bush had never heard this record in her formative years. Not that the vocal style sounds like Kate Bush, but the way Henske uses the different shadings of her voice to create moods and characters is utterly groundbreaking in the way that Kate Bush would be in the late 70s and early 80s.

“Farewell Aldebaran” came to my attention through the Zappa connection. It was recently given a little profile on a DVD dedicated to celebrating the Bizarre / Straight label (which included such diverse acts as Captain Beefheart, Tim Buckley, Alice Cooper and The Persuasions). It’s a great DVD. And writer Richie Unterberger, through his passionate advocacy of this record, convinced me to give it another listen. Why did I need some extra prodding? Simply put, “Farewell Aldebaran” ranks as one of the most disorienting albums I have ever heard. I literally couldn’t make it past the first four songs without feeling sonically overwhelmed. There’s so much going on in the first 12 minutes of this record it can take time to digest. The overall production is psychedelic, but Henske’s vocal delivery is psychedelic enough without the extra effects!

Here’s a breakdown of the opening four songs with links to hear them….
Snowblind – starts out normally enough, but quickly takes a sharp turn to…….godalmighty! Heavy Metal? The backing music is near-atonal wreckage unconvincingly masquerading as rock and roll. The slapback effect on the vocal chorus just adds to the anarchic cacophony. Henske’s vocal delivery here is so over the top in a way that makes Janis Joplin sound like Nico! I guess this is what one critic described as a “voice that can shatter windshields”.
Horses on a Stick – right away I can’t help but notice the keyboard sound that Zappa used on “Little House I Used to Live In” – the one that sounds like a ringing doorbell. So this is a song about a Merry-Go-Round. Very cheerful pop production with Henske’s voice in a much more sweet and innocent tone. Fits the music perfectly, but …… is this the same singer we heard on the first track? Huh…..alright….two totally different styles right off the bat on the first two tracks of the album. Not unheard of for this era….but still hard to reconcile as coming from one person….hmmm…..

(Can't get the link for "Lullaby" to post here - try clicking the link below to hear it!)

Lullaby – harpsichord…..slow…..tinkling intro with piano. Henske’s voice is a haunted, quivering, spooky – no, …………CREEPY and breathy creature here. Nightmarish lullaby indeed….unsettling…..DISTURBING! Yet, somehow hauntingly beautiful…….now is this THE SAME singer we heard on the previous two songs?? What’s really emerging as a psychedelic motif is the drastic mood-swing vocalizing on just the first three songs alone…chameleon-like. Shape-shifting. Unfixed. Who IS this Judy Henske? I can’t for the life of me come to consensus yet as to what kind of singer covers all this artistic ground in such a short amount of album space…

St. Nicholas Hall – uuhhhh……I’m really dumbfounded with this one. A commentary about how congregational life can become so pre-occupied with mundane concerns that the larger, loftier goals of belief can get drowned out…….set to a parody church choir complete with a very early and creative use of a synthesizer / keyboard effect that is made to sound like a human voice (I don’t know the name of this thing – it’s the same sound Marvin Gaye later used on the “What’s Going On” album – you KNOW that sound….). The effect has this weird creepiness about it – the “inhuman” human-voice keyboard thing just sends it over the edge. Yet this track is one of the high points of the record. It is such a sophisticated performance that hits an admittedly obscure topic so smack on the head it’s unsettling. The result is tragi-comic. It’s funny and weird all at once.

There are many other great moments that follow through the rest of the album, but I’ll let you explore the remainder on your own. In fact, the album culminates on the title track – saved for last – end of side two. “Farewell Aldebaran”, the song, is so outrageously bizarre I won’t spoil the fun. A masterful, albiet creepy and weird, ending to a cult classic of the highest order.

Jerry and Judy would eventually part company as husband and wife in the early 70s, but this record proved that their union, aside from producing the child pictured with them on the front cover, produced a folk-rock classic of such singular artistic merit as to be impossible to follow. “Farewell Aldebaran” is readily available, though in somewhat grey-market conditions as a result of a complicated legal issue that holds other Bizarre/Straight titles in limbo. Perhaps the estate of Herb Cohen will manage to settle whatever outstanding concerns exist so there can be a more proper reissue of this record. It’s not an easy listen, but certainly worth the effort. Here’s a link to a really excellent interview with Jerry Yester about the events leading up to and surrounding the recording of this album – there are some great and surprising twists to the tale.

Who knew how far out folk rock could get? No farther than this, my friends! Unless you consider Sun Ra “folk-jazz”. Next stop, Mars!

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