Lowell "Banana" Levinger of the Youngbloods

 

Youngbloods, from left : Joe Bauer (drums), Jesse Colin Young (lead vocals, guitar, bass), Banana (guitar, electric piano), Jerry Corbitt (guitar).

When I heard that Banana of the Youngbloods, a band I followed from their first album in 1967, was coming to Montreal as part of Little Steven’s Disciples of Soul, I contacted him and he graciously agreed to be interviewed. The interview took place July 8 2019 in the lobby of a downtown hotel. Around the time of their third album, Elephant Mountain (released in 1969), the band moved from New York to Marin County, California. Besides their hit arrangement of "Get Together," their other best known song is "Darkness, Darkness," which has been covered by many artists. Both songs have been used in movie soundtracks. The Youngbloods are on wikipedia. Banana’s website is here.

Lowell “Banana” Levinger : I was born in Manhattan on September 9, 1944. My dad was stationed in New Jersey at officer training school and then departing for Europe. My mother’s father had a gig with Standard Oil and was living in New York with his wife at the time and so she moved in with him to be closer to my father and that’s why I was born in New York. My family is from San Francisco. My mother and my father are both native San Franciscan‘s. We moved back to California in 1947. After moving around from the peninsula to the city to Berkeley we finally settled in Santa Rosa and that is where I was raised.

Are you coming to the show tonight ?

Craig Morrison : Yeah, of course.

LL : Have you seen it before ?

CM : I never have, no.

LL : You will be impressed.

CM : Little Steven was on the radio a couple of days ago, and he said it’s a 15-piece band : five horn players, three lady singers.

LL : .... percussion, drums, two keyboards.

CM : Are you playing keyboards or are you playing mandolin or guitar ?

LL : I’m playing piano. Well, in the last show, I played mandolin on one number, and this show I play my five-string tenor guitar on one number. Also, I play esraj. Last year I played esraj all the way through one song. This time it’s just the first 16 bars and then I hand it off and go back to the Wurlitzer. But yeah, mostly it’s piano. I’ve got the piano over here and the Wurlitzer [electric piano] over here. I switch back and forth. Sometimes I do them both.

CM : Fantastic.

LL : I got my old Wurlitzer. For the first half of the first tour, we were renting Wurlitzers, 200’s. Half of them sucked, so he [Little Steven] bought one, a 200 that was in really good shape. Then I thought, I should just get mine restored. It had been sitting in the garage for 40 years, so I took it to this guy in Berkeley and he completely went over it, completely reworked it, and then I brought it to the gig. I had the road guys order a case and everything. The first gig we did with it was either the Fillmore or the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, and he was blown away, just by the way it looks in the first place, and then it sounds so much better than any 200. It’s the 140B.

CM : So, it’s your old sound ?

LL : It’s my old axe, my old sound. It’s completely regulated. Yeah, it’s really great to be playing that thing again.

CM : How do you like the repertoire ?

LL : I love it ! Our songs all have form, modulations, tempo changes, and bridges and instrumentals that go to a different place. It’s much more like playing in an orchestra than it is like playing in a rock band. Steven’s a brilliant songwriter, a brilliant arranger, a great performer, incredible friend, terrific boss. I’ve never worked for anybody that I respected and admired as much as I do him. He is just amazing. And he never stops working. You heard him on the radio the other day ; he’s constantly doing interviews and Hard Rock Caf ? DJ sessions and, yeah, he never stops.

CM : He was involved in the Cavestomp festival in New York City for a few years. He’s got a radio show called Little Steven’s Underground Garage.

LL : Oh yeah, I had to subscribe to Sirius just to be able to have it in my car.

CM : With Cavestomp, he was part of a gang that brought back those old bands, like the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the Electric Prunes, and they got those guys to reunite.

LL : I’m sure he was the motivator. That’s what he’s into. He’s also a historian, I mean he knows that stuff backwards and forwards. Rock and roll was his religion, and he is steeped in it.

CM : He brought the Rascals back to Broadway, and we went to see them.

LL : Yeah, he’s got this Eddie Brigati [member of the Rascals] show going on now.

CM : I fell in love with the Youngbloods.

LL : Yeah, that was a great ride.

CM : I brought some records. We can pull them out and use them as a show and tell maybe. Let’s start with this one. This is the Youngbloods before the Youngbloods. It’s one-side of Jesse Colin Young solo, right.

LL : Yeah, the initial tracks of that were recorded three-track, and Bobby Scott produced it. Bobby Scott is a jazz pianist, arranger, and producer. He wrote “A Taste of Honey” [co-written by Ric Marlow]. He also wrote “He’s Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” [co-written with Bob Russell].

CM : No way !

LL : Yeah, and an incredible piano player. Boy, was I nervous for those sessions. On one of the tunes, Joe’s playing drums, and he said, “You gotta mute the snare somehow,” putting all kinds of shit on the snare drum to mute it. Finally, he got out a New York phone book, said, “Just play that.” So Joe played a phone book. I forget which song it was. But yeah, that was a very great experience. Half the record is Jesse, without us and the other half is all us, on three track.

CM : And then we have this one.

LL : There’s the first album, which Steven thinks is one of the greatest albums ever made.

CM : I think it’s fantastic.

LL : That’s one thing the Youngbloods share with this band : the songs had form, they had bridges, they had interesting chord changes and lyrics that went somewhere, that told a story or went through emotions. It wasn’t just, you know, “Wooly Bully” or “Peppermint Twist.” Not to knock those !

CM : I wanted to ask you about “Grizzly Bear.”

LL : Do you have my album, Get Together : Banana Recalls Youngbloods Classics ? “Grizzly Bear” is on there too. But “Grizzly Bear” was written in 1926, I think. [The earliest recording is “When I Woke Up This Morning, She Was Gone” by Jim Jackson, 1928, but the song may have earlier roots. The Grizzly Bear dance was popular around 1910, about the same time as other animal-based dances, such as the Bunny Hug and the Turkey Trot, with the fox trot soon after.]

CM : There’s an album called The Blues Project [1964] and it’s on that.

LL : Is it the Blues Project band ?

CM : No, they took their name from that, because [guitarist] Danny Kalb is on it. It’s all acoustic, New York guys, and one of them [Mark Spoelstra] does “Grizzly Bear.” John Sebastian is on it. Bob Dylan’s on it playing piano under a pseudonym and all he does is whack-whack-whack. I wondered, did you guys get it from that album ?

LL : No, Jerry was playing it on his own as a solo artist, before me and Jesse got together, and then later we formed the Youngbloods. He had this cool ragtime guitar arrangement. The Blues Project and the Youngbloods were the two house bands at the Cafe Au Go Go back in ’65.

CM : Alternating or on the same night ?

LL : Occasionally it’d be the same night, or sometimes we’d be the opening act for whoever was playing. Or if some solo artist came in and wanted a band, we would back them up. That usually was us, not the Blues Project. And I still play with [drummer] Roy [Blumenfeld]. Roy and I have both been in Barry Melton’s band for 20 years now or something. That’s an all-star band : there’s Roy, me, Barry [guitarist of Country Joe and the Fish], and Peter Albin [bassist of Big Brother and the Holding Company].

CM : Do you know [guitarist] Bobby Flurie [a touring member of Quicksilver in the 1970s] ?

LL : Oh yeah, he sits in with us quite often. Lots of guys sit in with us. We played the Saloon in San Francisco for 15 years, or something, and finally got tired.

CM : I have a CD from that.

LL : Talk about a tough gig. God !

CM : Really ? Tough crowd or tough management ?

LL : Just a tough situation. The crowd, once they get in there, is great, but right outside the door, whew ! Loading out, you’re taking your life in your own hands. I remember the first time I showed up. Roy said to Barry, “We ought to get Banana in the band, he’d be great.” “Oh yeah, good idea.” So they said, “Ok, we’re playing the Saloon on Saturday night, come on in.” I said, “Well, are we gonna rehearse or anything ?” “No, Barry doesn’t like to rehearse.” “Well, what songs are we gonna play ?” “Oh, I don’t know, he’ll just call them when we get there.” So, “Ok.” I don’t know what the songs are going to be, I haven’t heard them, I don’t know what they’re going to do. That’s cool. I show up and it’s on this little narrow street in North Beach. I pull up to the place and there’s no way to load in. You can’t park and it’s impossible to load in. It’s on a corner, the door’s on the corner.

CM : Nobody told you to go around the back ?

LL : There’s no back. That’s the other thing about the place ; it’s just that front door. There’s no back exit. And so, ok, double-park, put on the flashers, get some Hells’ Angels to help me, start unloading, go in and here’s the bar and this really narrow passageway going past the bar. It’s full of people, so even if you get your stuff out of your car, there’s no way to get it to the stage. But you do it anyway, and then it opens up into this small room where there’s room to dance. Load your stuff in, made me realize there’s no back door. If there was a fire, the band would die because there’d be no way to get through the crowd.

CM : Let’s put everybody at ease ! This first Youngbloods album is a wonderful, wonderful record. “The Other Side Of This Life” is a Fred Neil song.

LL : I’m doing that on my next album. I’ve got a very funky arrangement of it.

CM : Great ! So here’s the second album, Earth Music. Nice cover shot. [Banana, clearly recognizable by his huge head of hair, has his back to the camera.]

LL : Well, I was doing it with a self-timer. Had the camera on a tripod with a self-timer. I would hit it and then race to get into the picture. I didn’t make it to that one but it just seemed so cool, we decided to use it for the cover.

CM : And you got the stone wall here.

LL : Yeah, that’s up by the park, uptown in New York.

CM : That’s similar to the wall depicted on the cover of Elephant Mountain. You play pedal steel guitar on “Reason To Believe.” Man, you played them all.

LL : Yeah. That was an interesting period, the pedal steel period. I decided to learn how to play pedal steel guitar, and I bought this Fender. It was an old Fender and it uses cables for the pedals, just complete hell keeping it in tune for all the pedal settings. It came completely unstrung. I worked with it, thought I had figured it out, tuned it in what seemed like probably a good way to do it. You know, all I’ve done is listen to records, loved the sound of the pedal steel. That and the cello to me are the two things that most emulate the human voice, other than Eric Clapton playing a Stratocaster. So yes, I got it and I got it all tuned up, and then I kind of learned to play it, and played it on this.

Then we had a gig in New York. We used to fly with our own sound and everything, like 5,000 pounds of equipment, 50 pieces. We’d pull up to the airport in San Francisco and the roadies would find three Red Caps, slip ’em each 50 bucks and they would open the gates. The truck would drive to the plane, unload this stuff onto the plane, no excess baggage charges, no nothing, and fly to New York. We get to New York. We rent a Hertz truck and the Hertz guys say, “Ok, we got a parking lot uptown on 11th avenue, and you can park the truck there and be perfectly safe.” The guys take the truck up there, park it and come back, stay in the hotel.

Next day is the gig. We go up there, the doors are wide open and there’s nothing in the truck. So, we’re sitting around, moaning, moping, and these little kids about nine years old go, “Hey, it looks like your stuff got stolen, man.” “Yeah.” “I think the junkies took it.” “You know these junkies ?” “Well, you know, we might be able to get some of it back for you if you...” So, okay... “Oh ! We found an amp ! 20 bucks and you can get it back.” One piece at a time, all day long, they started bringing this stuff back and we got most of it back, but the pedal steel had already been pawned. Best thing that ever happened.

Then, from Gruhn [Gruhn Guitars] in Nashville, I ordered a Sho-Bud [steel guitar, named for the company’s founders, prominent players Shot Jackson and Buddy Emmons]. It had rods to control the pedals instead of cables, which made it much more stable. Infinitely better designed, and it came tuned to the Nashville tuning. What the hell !? [sings the tuning] Really ? That’s how they tune ’em ? I said okay, so start from scratch, relearn the whole thing and then I got obsessed, which is what happens when banjo players switch over to the pedal steel. I’ve seen it happen to lots of them. After that, another year, I realized this could destroy my family. I gotta get off of this. I sold the thing and gave it up.

CM : Did you ever play another one ?

LL : No. It’s either devote your life to it or not become a virtuoso.

CM : I’ve heard people say it’s like three-dimensional chess. You’ve got to have an angle and an awareness and a strategy.

LL : Yeah, it’s amazing. Bill Keith mastered it, of course.

CM : He’s somebody I interviewed. read it here

LL : Oh, yeah ? He was one of my main mentors back in Boston. He was so patient, so kind. I was a budding bluegrass banjo player and he showed me everything, slowed it down, just having to sit at his feet learn it. Wonderful guy.

CM : People always wanted to talk to him about his banjo and his bluegrass career. I said, “Tell me about your time with Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band.” He said it was refreshing : “Aah, that’s nice.”

LL : He sure was a great addition to that band. They were all my good friends, too. Maria [Muldaur] and I are still really good friends.

CM : I love that band too. So you started out in Boston, then you went to New York, then you guys moved to California ?

LL : Yeah.

CM : Can we go back to the Boston days ?

LL : I had deportment problems all through my educational career. I was kicked out of every school I ever went to, and finally I was kicked out of the whole school system in Sonoma county. No school would have me. That was after my sophomore year in high school.

CM : Was there a reason ?

LL : I just spoke my mind too much. I never did anything bad. I never was into drugs or destroying, vandalism, or anything like that. I just had a big mouth. I despised despotism, which was the way schools were run back then, and whenever I thought something was unfair, I would speak out against it. That’s not acceptable, you know ?

CM : You rocked the boat !

LL : So, I was sent to Robert Louis Stevenson School for Boys, Pebble Beach, California, which is a boarding school, where I was kicked out after the first year. That was my junior year. My parents really wanted me to go back for my senior year, so the school took a survey of all the teachers : “Should we let Lowell back ?” And they all, except one, said, “No.” The one was Sybil Fernley, who was from England. She was an 80-year old English teacher and we had hit it off. She said, “Oh no, no, no, Lowell has promise, he’s good, he excels in our classes.” I always got great grades ; it was just my big mouth. My dad went down and had a meeting with them, and I have a feeling there was a donation involved in that meeting. So, between Sybil Fernley and my dad’s meeting, I was accepted back for my senior year. However, I was put in the senior dorm in the room right next to the dorm master’s room, so that they could really keep an eye on me. Alright, so the dorm master turned out to be this new guy, fresh out of Harvard, named David Litton. He was a folk music fan. He was secretly in love, not secretly, he was in love with Joan Baez. He just loved all that stuff, guitar and what not, and I was a musician.

CM : Were you already playing banjo at that point ?

LL : No, I wasn’t playing banjo, I was playing guitar and piano. We hit it off. He didn’t like despotism any more than I did. He was uncomfortable at this private school for boys where, again, despotism reigned. He said to me, “I have some records at home that I think you’d like.” This was before I realized that dixieland was great. I didn’t like dixieland. He said, “It’s banjo music.” I said, “Forget it. I’m not interested. I don’t like banjo music.” He said, “No, no, no, I think you’d really like it. It’s this group called Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.” I said, “Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs ? What do they do out there ? Vaudeville shtick or some comedy act ?” He said, “No, no, no, no ! It’s banjo music and you’d really…” I said, “Don’t bother, man.” He said, “I’m going to get my parents to send these records.”

So the records came. I put Foggy Mountain Jamboree on the turntable, put the needle on, and in ten seconds, my whole life had changed. All I wanted to do was to learn to play banjo like Earl Scruggs. I became totally obsessed with it and I learned to play banjo like Earl Scruggs.

Then it was time to choose a college. I was also an actor. I loved acting. I was in all the school plays and everything from grammar school on up, and I read all the books of actors and comedians and whatnot, all their biographies. I was a huge Bob Hope fan, Marx brothers, all that stuff. He said, “You should go to BU [Boston University]. I’d be coming back to Cambridge from Boston and I’d be on the MTA and there would be three gorgeous girls from BU sitting across from me, and they would look at me and they would snicker, ‘typical Harvard.’ [Banana pronounced it the Boston way : “Hah-vahd.”] He says, “Go to BU. They have a fantastic theatre department.” So I went to BU. I owe him everything, David.

Anyway, at Robert Louis Stevenson, they called demerits termites instead of demerits. I had racked up so many termites. One time, the headmaster called me and my cohorts in and just raked us over the coals, “You guys have a negative attitude and it’s got to change. Change your attitude. Everything we do here you’re against.” You had to wear a blazer and a tie to dinner every night. So that night me and my buddies wore our blazers inside-out to dinner.

CM : Oh, bad boys !

LL : [laughter] Termites ! Yeah, that was me in school. I had so many termites. A : I wasn’t allowed to go into Carmel on the weekends ; B : I wasn’t allowed to go home for vacations, Thanksgiving day vacation, stuff like that.

CM : Where was home ?

LL : My home was in Santa Rosa. I would take the Greyhound bus from home to school. Then also I was assigned to the stables. I spent my weekends at the stables, theoretically shoveling horseshit. Ok, well, David Litton was in charge of the stables, so we worked out this deal where we would show up in the morning, and then the little kids, the freshmen and the sophomores who had termites would show up, and he would assign them, “You shovel shit here, and you do this here, and this there.” I would just watch over them, sit around, smoke cigarettes. He would take a horse and his girlfriend would take a horse and they would go off into the Del Monte Forest. I had no idea what they did out there, but one day he fell off the horse and broke his leg, and the whole house of cards came tumbling down. I never saw him again. He was gone. And I was kicked out, finally. Again my dad went and they agreed to graduate me and give me my diploma, but not participate in the graduation or anything like that. But thank god, I was able to go to BU.

CM : Did you ever have any contact with David ?

LL : No, and I searched Facebook, searched the internet. I’ve googled him and I’ve looked all over. I’ve gone to Robert Louis Stevenson and said, “Do you have any records that show where he might have gone or what happened ?” “We have no record of him whatsoever !”

CM : We don’t know who you are either.

LL : [We laugh.] What I need to do, which I haven’t done, is contact Harvard, the alumni association there, and see if maybe they know something about him. He was probably three or four years older than me, so he’s almost 80 if he’s still around. Boy, would I love to thank him, because if I hadn’t been at BU, I wouldn’t have…

So then I am at BU, majoring in acting. But I get this band together, this little string band, Banana and the Bunch : “old-time music with appeal” [a peel, in other words]. We’re playing gigs and coffeehouses on the North Shore and around Boston. We’re doing okay, playing gigs pretty regularly. It was really hard to keep up with all the homework from the classes and play these gigs at night, so I went to the Dean of Admin, who was new that year. His name was Mouzon Law and he was this little twit. I told him what the deal was and that I really wanted to continue, but I needed to go part-time. He said [putting on a dramatic, condescending accent], “Well, Lowell, you need to devote 110% of your energy to acting or you will never be successful, and you have to give up your music. That means nothing.” I’d been doing okay at BU as far as deportment was concerned. I hadn’t gotten into any trouble. Everything just rose up back inside of me, my middle finger came out and I walked out of the office. That was the end of my college career. I’ve been a professional musician ever since. But if it wasn’t for David Litton, I wouldn’t have. I dropped out, the band continued, I moved to Cambridge, dumped into the heart of Cambridge, right in the middle of the folk scare, all these guys, the Jug Band, the Charles River Valley Boys, Tom Rush, Don West, all these guys.

CM : What was the last name ?

LL : Don West ? Oh, he was an incredible finger picker, yeah. I was an amiable kid, a real quick study, and they all showed me all their shit. They all took me under their wing. They were all about four years older, which was a lot older, then. So, there I was in the middle of the folk scene.

CM : Club 47, which became Club Passim.

LL : Yeah, that was Club 47. After the string band thing, the Rolling Stones came along and they pissed me off. Of course, again, I know better now, but as far as I was concerned then, they were murdering Skip James and Son House, all this stuff that I knew so well. It’s like, “You guys, you heard this, why are you playing it like that ?” “I can do this, I can do this better,” so I started a rhythm and blues band called the Trolls. I got in with the Club 47s. I was the guy who ran the hootenannies at the Club 47 on Sundays. The woman who booked the Club 47, Betsy Siggins, became our manager. We caused a bit of consternation by playing the Club 47 electric before the [Lovin’] Spoonful came through, before Butterfield [the Paul Butterfield Blues Band] came through. I just got dumped into that scene, and the Trolls were not really going anywhere, we were playing Mafia bars in east Cambridge, the occasional, then we would go to these festivals, again, where we caused consternation and division among the factions of, “No, no, no ! It’s gotta be pure folk, pure acoustic, and this electric shit is ruining the whole scene.” Or guys going, “No, no, no, man, this is cool, you can dance to it, and it sounds good.”

CM : Everybody focuses on the Dylan thing in ’65, but it was percolating for a long time.

LL : Oh, we were doing it in early ’64, you know. But not with any success. So, yeah, it was going nowhere. Jesse [Colin Young] used to come through Cambridge as a solo act, playing the coffee houses.

CM : Where was he from ?

LL : He was living in New York. He’s from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Jerry [Corbitt] also was a solo folk performer, and he was a good friend of ours ; he hung out at our house. Our house in Cambridge was a centre for people coming through. People would stay there, crash there, and we would have jam sessions all night. The Kentucky Colonels stayed there. Anybody who would play the Unicorn Coffee House. We were also kind of a house band at the Unicorn ; that was long before New York.

CM : Was that in Harvard Square too ?

LL : No, that was in Boston, Copley Square.

CM : I went to the Berklee College of Music in ’72 and in ’73, and lived in Cambridge and went to Club Passim, but it was several years after all this was happening.

LL : All these guys coming through would stay at our place. Jerry and Jesse hit it off and became good friends and they decided—the Lovin’ Spoonful was happening—“Why don’t we start a folk rock band ?” Joe Bauer had moved from Memphis to New York to become a jazz drummer, which is what he was, a jazz drummer. After about a year and a half in New York, he came slinking into Cambridge with his tail between his legs and licking his wounds, and moved in downstairs from us with Diana Dew, the woman who invented the electric dress. She was from Memphis too, so they were old friends from Memphis. He moved in downstairs and we were still folkies at that point, and he’s practicing his drums all the time. Jerry and Jesse decide to do this folk rock band and they say, “Hey, we need a drummer.” “Oh, we know an incredible drummer - take him !”

CM : Take him out of here.

LL : They had this gig in Toronto, at the Riverboat, for two weeks. They took him and this guy Jim Mairs, who was a parlor guitar player, and they told him, “Why don’t you join and play bass ? We’ll get you a bass. It’s just like the bottom four strings of the guitar ; you’ll catch on real easy.” So the four of them went up to Toronto to do this gig, and then they all went back to New York. Then, one night, at two in the morning, Corbitt shows up at our apartment, “Wake up, wake up, wake up ! You gotta come to New York. We got this band and we want you to join the band, and we want you to play electric piano.” “I don’t even have an electric piano.” “That’s okay, [Bill] Briggs from Barry and the Remains is selling his. He’s going to get a Farfisa organ, he’s selling his piano and I already talked to him. He says he’ll sell it to you.” The Trolls weren’t going anywhere, and it seemed like this might be cool, so, “Sorry guys ! I’m out of here.”

I moved to New York, and we had a gig at Gerdes Folk City, it was like for a week, maybe two weeks. I show up at Gerdes Folk City with my guitar and my electric piano, and my [Fender] Super Reverb amp. And these guys were all playing through Bogen kits or something, just horrible stuff, and when they heard that Super Reverb it blew their minds. First of all, there’s a stage, but there’s no room on the stage for an electric piano. They barely fit with their guitars, so putting an electric piano up there, out of the question ! They said, “That’s okay, there’s a [dining] booth right next to the stage, just put your piano on the table in the booth and you play in the booth.” Then they heard that Super Reverb and they said, “Oh man, we’re running the vocals through your Super Reverb.” Okay, here I am at Gerdes Folk City, playing in a booth, barely being able to hear the piano because all the vocals are going through my amp. They’re calling themselves Jesse Colin Young and the Jerry Corbitt Three. Well, now it’s four, so we had all these meetings and settled on the name Youngbloods. “Ah, his name is Young,” and I loved the B-side of “Searchin’,” which was by the...

CM : ...Coasters : “Young Blood” [1957].

LL : I always like the B-sides better than the A-sides. I share that with Steven ; we all know all the B-sides. We talked Jesse into it. I worked it so that Jesse thought it was his idea. You know how you do that : if you want someone to do something, you just sneak it in and then make them suggest it. We settled on the Youngbloods, instead of Jesse Colin Young and the Jerry Corbitt Three. Finished the gig at Gerdes and started playing the Tin Angel, and the Kettle of Fish, all those little coffeehouses in the Village.

CM : Were you really a piano player ?

LL : I started playing piano when I was four years old. My mother was a concert pianist and also a piano teacher. As soon as I could reach up high enough to plunk the keys, I started doing it and realizing, “Hey, those two sound good together, and this one doesn’t.” Then my mother started ear training and then I started lessons. Thank God she didn’t teach me. She was smart enough to have me go to a different teacher. Yeah, it’s my main instrument, and I’ve got classical training in that.

CM : Did you use the piano to do any of the folk stuff ?

LL : No, it was all banjo and guitar.

CM : So, piano was for classical music.

LL : Yeah, piano was pretty much abandoned until I bought that electric piano. Ever since I heard “What’d I Say” [by Ray Charles, 1959], “I would love to have, to play one of those Wurlitzer pianos. That just sounds so cool !” That was another reason that I said yes. “Piano ? ‘What I’d Say,’ yeah, okay, I’ll do that.” I hadn’t played piano at all in the folk thing or the Trolls, or any of that. I played banjo in the string band and guitar in the Trolls. Then I started playing piano again, and thank God for all that classical training. Jesse and Jerry knew nothing about ensemble playing. They didn’t have a concept of parts, you know : you play this part and it’ll go with that part. They just accompanied themselves so they’re both trying to play everything. When I joined the band, I said, “Listen you guys, why don’t we arrange this, you just play this part, you just play this part, the bass will do this, and I’ll do that.” “Yeah, okay, we’ll try it,” and once they tried it, they said, “Aah, we get it. Ok, let’s rehearse.”

When the Youngbloods ended, I played the piano for a little bit with Banana and the Bunch, a sort of country rock band in Marin County, playing gigs all over northern California, and up Seattle and Oregon a little bit. Then I gradually gravitated back to playing guitar.

About 20 years ago David Grisman got me hooked on the tenor guitar. We’ve been friends for 60 years, and hung out a lot together when he was living in California. He’s up in Port Townsend, Washington now. He introduced me to the tenor guitar and got me hooked on it. Meanwhile I had started playing gigs on my own, as I had decided, “I think I might want to be a folk singer when I grow up.” I started writing a few tunes, a few more tunes, and working out, doing what Jerry and Jesse had done all those years ago, accompanying myself : one guy, one guitar. I was so in love with the tenor guitar and I really enjoyed playing it. When I decided that I want to accompany myself, the folk music, country, bluegrass, blues canon of songs, I also liked playing all those songs. Somebody has to keep all this old music alive, and there’s so much of it. These singer-songwriters, thousands of them, writing thousands of songs everyday that bare the most inner emotions of their souls and are so boring.

CM : Most of them say, “Look at me.”

LL : Yeah, look at me, look at my suffering ! Why don’t you play “Blues My Naughtie Gives to Me” or something ?”

CM : I play that.

LL : I’m a firm believer in keeping the old stuff alive. I write some of my own stuff, but I’m not a singer-songwriter, I’m a singer of songs and a teller of stories. That’s my act. But then I realized, if you want to sing the canon, what you kind of need to do is go boom-chick, boom-chick to accompany yourself. You need the boom [a bass note, the root of the chord typically], you need the chick [a chord] and then you need some filigrees as well. The tenor guitar is tuned in fifths : C, G D, A. It’s like a cello or a mandola. The canon is written in [the keys of] E, A, lot of G, D, and some B-flat and whatnot, so if your lowest string is C, and you want to go boom-chick, you’re out of luck. You want to play something in A, your lowest note is a major third. You want to play something in G, your lowest note is the fifth, you gotta go chick-boom, chick-boom, you can’t go boom-chick. But if you add a lower string, another fifth down, an F, all your forms, your patterns are all the same, nothing changes, it’s just another fifth. Now you have access to the root tonic in the key of G , in the key of A and in the key of B-flat, so you can go boom-chick, boom-chick. I started taking tenor guitars, perfectly good tenor guitars, throwing the necks away and having five-string necks made to put on them. Also, with a short-neck tenor guitar, it has a 23-inch scale. A normal six-string guitar has anywhere from 24 ? to even a 26, the old Stella 12-string has a 26-inch scale. Tenor guitar has 23, and I have these teeny hands, so I thought, “How about 21 ?” I started having necks made, five-string necks with a 21-inch scale length, [tuned :] F, C, G, D, A. It worked for me, and it sounds good and it gives me my own voice as a guitar player.

CM : Nobody else has one.

LL : I don’t understand why everybody doesn’t jump on the bandwagon. I’m sure it’s gonna happen soon…

CM : Maybe you can copyright it.

LL : … but so far it’s only me. Yeah, it gives me my own voice. I’ve got a much wider spread : I can play chords that are impossible to play on a six-string guitar. I’m only at one fret higher than the bass note on the six-string guitar. It’s so logical to me and it’s fifths. Fifths are good enough for the orchestra. It was only a couple of years ago that it dawned on me why I was so in love with fifths. When I was a kid, my parents used to take me to the symphony all the time, and my favourite part of the whole thing was listening to the orchestra tune up. All those fifths ! It starts with an A, and then they play an E, and then they play a D, and just, all these fifths resonating while they’re tuning up. Maybe that’s why I’m so infatuated with fifths, instead of fourths. My axe is fifths all the way. There’s no stupid B- string screwing up your intervals. Guitar is fine up until you get to that B string, it’s all fourths, but then, huh !? You learn to do it, and there’s lots of stuff you can do, and some stuff on my axe, well you just go [makes sound], and on guitar you have to go [makes different sound ]. But you practice and you get good at it.

CM : There’s a book that I saw in a bookstore recently, on how tempered tuning ruined music. [How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care) by Ross W. Duffin, 2008.]

LL : Yeah, it probably has [laughs]. That’s tough on a guitar, you’re never in tune. You’re always compromising.

CM : That’s why the French Horn player puts the hand in the bell. The clarinet teacher says, “lip up for this note.”

LL : All the horn players have to do that. But our horn section plays in tune. [laughs ]

CM : They’d better ! You’ve done all these instruments, incredible.

LL : Yes, Steven introduces me as the man of a thousand instruments. I’m really the man of a dozen instruments. He says to me, “Ah, Banana, surely you must have a tarshenai in your collection of instruments.” “What’s a tarshenai ?” “It’s what the Beatles used on this song, that song, and that song.” “Oh !” He says, “Get one and learn to play it.” My motto was always : if you can pick it or hit it, I can play it, if you have to blow it or bow it, I don’t know it. This is a bowed instrument. I started looking into the tarshenai. It’s like a bowed sitar, and it has this crazy gramophone horn attached to it that comes out. Okay, so an esraj is the same as a tarshenai without the gramophone horn, which means it’s not gonna break every time you try to transport it to another gig, and it will actually go in a road case.

I got an esraj in New York at this crazy Indian music store. It came not set up or anything, not tuned. I tried to set it up and started trying to learn to play it, and I realized, “This is nuts.” Our backline manager, Ben Newberry, in his apartment building where he lives in New York, there’s a guy who lives on the same floor who’s an absolute expert in Indian instruments. He has an esraj and he has a diruba, which is also very similar to an esraj. We’re playing out in Long Island, and he said, “You should contact this guy.” I contacted him, sent him a picture of the esraj and he said, “What the hell, what have you got under that bridge ? You’ve got it set up completely wrong. That thing under the bridge was just for shipping. That’s not supposed to be part of it when you play it !” “Oh, really !? Hey, I’ll pay for your Uber and I’ll buy you dinner if you just come over here and spend an hour with me and get me started on this damn thing.” He came over and we spent about an hour and a half. I showed him the main lick that I was supposed to play in “Solidarity.” He showed me the best way to finger it and showed me a little bit of bow technique, showed me how to rosin the bow. I knew nothing, nothing about this ! I started practicing, and it was nine months before I had the nerve to even bring the thing to soundcheck to show Steven what I was doing. I did, and I fooled him. I got away with it. So we played that, then that came out of the set. “Solidarity” is kind of a reggae thing, and we went with it.

We’re at soundcheck one day, and he says, “Hey Banana, where’s that esraj ?” I said, “Huh !? It’s with the equipment, the crew’s got it.” “Get it out ! You’re gonna play it on ‘Under the Gun.’” Which is this hard-rock tune. “Really ? Okay !” So now I got another tune I gotta learn. I only know one tune on this thing, so I learned that one. And now I’m playing it on the intro to “Education.” I just play it for the first 16 bars. I’m playing piano, and then it’s time for “Education.” I just go like this [stretches out his arm] : it’s in my hand, play it, then my 16 bar ends, I go like that [mimics holding out the instrument], it’s gone, the bow’s gone and I’m back to the piano.

CM : Wow ! All these instruments, what a life.

LL : Yeah. It’s the first bowed instrument I’ve ever played, and still sometimes when I’m trying to get a note, there’ll be a [screech]. “Oh shit ! maybe I didn’t rosin the bow or something.” I took another lesson in Berkeley from a great guy, Jody Stecher, plays a million instruments, and he showed me a bunch of stuff. One of the most valuable things he showed me was to take a piece of rubber matting that carpet installers put under the carpet and put it on your knee and that way the esraj doesn’t slip around all over the place and stays steady while you’re bowing it.

CM : When and why did the Youngbloods move to California ?

LL : We were a New York band but we came out to California for the first time in late 1966 and couldn’t believe how wonderful it was and how everybody loved us as opposed to New York where it was a tough grind. We came back again a couple of times and the third time we went back to New York we said, “Wait a minute. Why do we keep coming back to New York ? They love us in San Francisco and there’s plenty of gigs there an international airport.” Jerry and Jesse were figuring that we would move to LA, which is where Warner Bros. was, but when Joe and I showed them Inverness in West Marin they were convinced. It’s only an hour and a half from SFO [San Francisco International Airport]. An hour to the city. Joe‘s brother John lived in Olema which is about four miles from Inverness and I had visited Inverness many, many times growing up and the beaches that are out there. In 1967, along with the rest of the band, I moved back to California, to Inverness in West Marin County. I have lived there in the same house for 50 years and I have raised seven kids there.


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I have posted interviews with members of British invasion bands, psychedelic bands, 1950s hit makers, folk, blues, country and jazz musicians. To go to the index page, click here.

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006