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Dan Jansen – Unbreakable

By:  Michael D. McClellan

It’s two hours before the biggest race of  your life and you’ve just seen death.

How do you compete when it goes down like this?

You’ve sacrificed large swaths of your childhood and even larger chunks of your adolescence in exchange for a place at the top of your sport’s elite, and now, with the whole world watching, with the payoff for all that hard work a mere 500 meters away, you’ve got to somehow cope with the grimmest news of your young life.  You toe the line and try to convince yourself that you can do this, that you can hold it together long enough to win this race for your sister.  Thirty-six seconds and change is all that separates you from making good on that promise.  Thirty-six seconds and change and you can finally let go.

But how do you skate with a broken heart?

The news comes on the morning of your big moment and it rattles you to the core.  As a 16-year-old high school sophomore, you’d set a junior world record in the 500 in your first international competition.  Two years later, you’d made U.S. Olympic team.  Competing in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, you surprised everyone by finishing fourth in the 500, just missing out on a medal.  By the time Calgary rolls around you’re setting world sprint records and dominating World Cup events the way Carl Lewis dominates the 100 meter dash.  Calgary was supposed to be a coronation.  A celebration.  Instead, your mind is a mess and your stomach is in knots.  You learn the hard way how fragile life can be, and it buckles you.  You’re twenty-two, as fast as a bullet on the ice and bulletproof off of it.  You’ve never had to deal with death.  Now you’ve gotten the worst news possible, and you’ve had all of two hours to pull yourself together, and just when you think you’ve built a mental flood wall strong enough to keep the sorrow at bay – at least long enough to skate those thirty-six seconds and change – the thought of Jane breaches the barrier and the pain seeps back in.

How can she be gone?

You’re here in Calgary, on this Olympic stage, because of her – because she’d taken you outside on a cold Wisconsin winter day all those years ago and introduced you to skating.  You were only four years old at the time, and in your universe Jane was the sun.  Skating transformed your life.  Jane did that for you.  The past year you’ve had to watch helplessly as the leukemia aggressively transformed Jane’s life in its own insidious ways – from a life with endless possibility to one pockmarked with painful bone marrow transplants and increasingly grim test results.  You’ve trained and competed and donated platelets.  You’ve prayed for your sister, laughed with her, supported her, cried with her…and through it all you’ve stayed focused on the task at hand, because that’s what Jane has wanted you to do.  It’s the only reason you’re in Calgary today and not back home in Wisconsin with her.

And then, on the morning of the race of your life, the news of Jane’s death levels you.

Thirty-six seconds and change.

You toe the line and wait for the start of the second heat.

A lifetime of hard work boils down to this.  A year ago the thought of sprinting for an Olympic medal made you smile.  Now it’s caked with dread.

Thirty-six seconds and change.

Your body might be here in Calgary, but your mind is back home in West Allis, 2,500 kilometers away.

~  ~  ~

You false start.

You never false start.

Yasushi Kuroiwa of Japan is in the lane next to you, but he’s not in your league.  Not even close.  You regroup.  The bell rings.  You get off cleanly but your massive thighs are sluggish, your trademark explosiveness MIA.  Maybe you don’t have it today.  Who would blame you?  You’re on the inside lane, Kuroiwa to your right, and as you reach the first turn you start to find your groove.  That split second of doubt evaporates.  You enter that first turn like you’ve entered dozens of turns on the World Cup circuit, a mix of speed and power and technical perfection that Kuroiwa will be unable to match over the full 500 meters.

And then, five strides into that first turn, the unthinkable happens.

You slip.

Your instinct is to steady yourself with your left hand, but it’s too late – you momentum drives you to the ice and whips your legs around in a centrifugal blur.  The roar of the crowd is instantly transformed into an elongated OOOOOOHHH, the sound gathering force when you clip Kuroiwa’s skate and reaching crescendo when you careen hard off the wall’s protective foam padding.

And just like that, it’s over.

You pop up off the ice in disbelief, your arms raised skyward for an instant, your eyes fixed on the Olympic Oval’s drab gray ceiling.  You remove your racing cap and bury your head in your hands.  Four years ago, in Sarajevo, you’d been an 18-year-old unknown.  No one expected you to medal.  You missed out on the bronze by 16-hundredths of a second, a tough break but hardly the end of the world.  You’d skated your best and come up just short, and you’d gone home without a shred of doubt or disappointment.

But this…

Calgary was supposed to be a fairy tale.  Instead, you can only watch as East Germany’s Uwe-Jens Mey wins the gold medal and 36 other skaters finish ahead of your DNF.  Jane’s death turns you into a household name.  Your teammates offer their support.  Complete strangers break down and cry.  You’re numb inside but you can’t mourn; you’ve got to hold it together long enough to skate the 1,000 meters four days later, and when you blister the first 600 meters in world record time, it looks as if this race – a race you dedicate to Jane – is going to be the one that honors her memory with Olympic gold.

And then, with one lap remaining, you slip again.

The expression on your face says it all.  You spin to a stop and sit there on the ice, legs extended, head in the palms of your hands, the weight of the world crashing down on you.  A thousand what-ifs run through your mind by the time you finally gather the strength to stand, but there’s only one thing you know with absolute certainty.

It’s time to go home.

~  ~  ~

Dan Jansen was a rocket ship on skates, his World Cup brilliance long overshadowed by those heartbreaking slips on the Olympic stage.  He was Scott Norwood before Scott Norwood, the kicker whose field goal attempt sailed wide right and sealed the first of four consecutive Super Bowl defeats for the Buffalo Bills.  The Olympics were Jansen’s Super Bowl.  His own personal wide right.  Failure begetting failure begetting failure, the pain and disappointment amplified by the fact that he was the best speed skater on the planet until the Olympics rolled around.  Sarajevo.  Calgary.  Albertville.  Lillehammer.  Close calls, heartbreaking falls and a reputation for choking with the stakes the highest, Jansen’s repeated Olympic failures were the lone blemish on an otherwise sterling résumé, one that included eight world records, 46 World Cup wins, 7 overall World Cup titles and two World Sprint Championships.

Six years to the day that Jansen’s slip cost him the 500 in Calgary, Jansen was on a world record pace in the same event at Lillehammer when he slipped again, dropping him to eighth place and out of medal contention.  He had one more opportunity in the 1,000, but he would now have to race it with another mistake gnawing at his confidence – and with the pressure of knowing that this would be his final Olympic race.  Sure, we hoped and we prayed that Jansen’s story would end happily ever after,  but deep down we knew how this Shakespearean tragedy would play out.  Dan Jansen was going to slip again, and he was going to go down as the guy who, try as he might, simply couldn’t get it done.

The best that never was.

~  ~  ~

The genesis of Jansen’s story can be traced to West Allis, where he was the youngest of nine children born to Harry and Geraldine, hardworking Midwesterners who had first dropped him off at the rink outside Milwaukee as a four-year-old rather than hiring a sitter to take care of him.  His connection to the ice was instantaneous.

“That’s all it took,” Jansen begins.  “From then on, it was me going along to the rink with my brother and sisters whenever they skated.  That’s really how I started out, just me tagging along and wanting to be a part of it.  I literally started on double runners.  I was four years old and racing by the time I finished that first year on ice.”

Harry Jansen was a police officer, and Gerry Jansen, a nurse.  Money was tight with a family that large, especially with all of the sports and extracurricular activities going on at the time.  Everyone, it seemed, was into skating, but it was Dan who showed the most promise.

“I was the baby of the family – number nine overall.  All of my siblings skated at one point in their life – some didn’t stay with it for very long, and others were quite good and skated for a long time.  My brother also competed on the international level.  They were all very supportive of me when I took it further, because they understood the ups and downs that went along with it, and all of the sacrifices that had to be made.  They were a big part of my team.”

Jansen’s childhood revolved around the rink, regardless of the season.

“Now it’s called long track and short track, but back then it was just indoor and outdoor,” he explains.  “We would skate indoors until the middle of November, and then we would move outdoors until the cold went away, and then we would move back indoors for the indoor season.  I loved it all, but the biggest memories for me  were of skating outside in the cold weather.  We loved it, but it was cold, and it was windy.  I remember traveling on the weekends to the meets and competitions, and those were held on frozen lakes and ponds.  Just great memories.  If you compare it to nowadays, many of the skaters have never even skated outdoors. But that’s how we grew up doing it, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

The Jansens were clean-cut and close-knit, with Harry and Gerry doing their best to juggle evening and weekend schedules to make sure that all of their children were athletically and socially active.  Their sacrifices allowed the Jansen clan to dream, and their ability to stretch a dollar in pursuit of those dreams played a big part in Dan’s rise through the junior speed skating ranks.

 

“It wouldn’t have been a career without my parents.  They were extremely supportive and made incredible sacrifices in order for me to pursue my dream.  My success was made possible through them – the opportunity to grow as a skater was because of them, and certainly the opportunity to continue competing in speed skating was because of them. – Dan Jansen

 

“It wouldn’t have been a career without my parents,” Jansen says plainly.  “They were extremely supportive and made incredible sacrifices in order for me to pursue my dream.  My success was made possible through them – the opportunity to grow as a skater was because of them, and certainly the opportunity to continue competing in speed skating was because of them.

“The financial impact on the family budget was huge, especially with all of the travel and time away from home and everything else that goes along with trying to become an elite athlete.  Believe me, it was a burden.  I honestly don’t know how, looking back, with nine kids…I don’t know where they came up with the money to support me doing what I did.  We had to get creative – we held fundraisers and did other things to make money, anything to help take some of that burden off of them.  They made it work somehow. It’s really pretty remarkable.”

Wisconsin is known as America’s Dairyland, but it’s also a place where winters are long and frozen lakes are plentiful, making it the perfect breeding ground for hockey players.  But in the little corner of suburban Milwaukee that is West Allis, kids who are more inclined to forgo clunky hockey skates in favor of the longer blades of speed skates.  The Jansens were no exception; Jansen’s three brothers and five sisters all skated competitively.

 

Still a star: Dan Jansen shares a light moment with Stephen Colbert during a segment of The Colbert Report.

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“Skating is big in West Allis, and our parents supported our decisions to skate,” Jansen says.  “With that said, we were fortunate in that they never pushed any of us with the sports that we played.  If there was a certain direction that I wanted to go in, they were fine with it even if they might not have agreed.  If I wanted to quit skating and play football – I played football in high school – they weren’t going to stand in my way or try to influence my decision.  So I made my own decision on which sport to choose, and when I chose speed skating over football they never questioned it.  They always supported my passion for skating.”

Jansen was good at football, but he was exceptional at skating.  He progressed quickly, and within four years was winning national meets in his age group.  He was in contention for the 1977 national championship, when he was just eleven years old, but slipped on a lane marker, lost by one point and cried all the way home.  It was during this teachable moment that his father helped put the loss in perspective, explaining that there was more to life than skating around in circles.  It was a life lesson that would later provide strength with Jane at her sickest.

By the age of sixteen he was fully focused on skating, and was competing overseas against the world’s best junior skaters.  He set a junior world record in a 500-meter event, and finished ninth overall 1983.  His success in the shorter-distance events encouraged Jansen to concentrate on sprinting.

“To become elite – at least for me – took a total commitment to training, practice, and nutrition,” Jansen says.  “Becoming the one of the best at something also takes dedication and determination.  There’s a lot of hard work involved, a lot of sacrifices.  It goes all the way back to the early days, back to when I was four, or five, or six years old.  Certainly, I didn’t have any aspirations of becoming an elite skater at that point, but when I look back, all of the time that I spent on the ice at a very young age provided a great foundation for what I was to become.  As I grew stronger and my body matured, I benefited from all of those lessons that I learned along the way.

“And like I said before, you need a support system.  It means everything.  My dad worked two and three jobs just to support us all.  He was a police officer, and I remember that he would come home after the night shift, and then he would go downstairs and sharpen all of our skates for our competitions every weekend.  My parents would drive us all over the Midwest – up to Minnesota, down to Chicago, over into Michigan, and to all those little towns in Wisconsin. That’s how my parents would spend their weekends, driving us around and watching us race.  My father really had no other life as far as I know – he worked and worked, and then he made sure that he was with us while we were doing our thing on the weekend.  My mom made the same sacrifices as well.  She was a nurse who worked hard during the week and then traveled with us on the weekend.  It was that way all the time, especially during the winter months.”

~  ~  ~

So much has changed since the Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo.  Back in 1984, the winner’s podium celebrated the best of the best.  Years later it would be used by the Bosnian army to execute prisoners during the war.  Today, the Olympic facilities are crumbling reminders of both:  Up in the hills above the Bosnian capital is the bobsled and luge track, which was later used as a Bosnian-Serb artillery stronghold during the war.  The graffiti-stained track is overgrown with weeds, and a catchall for everything from natural sediment to man-made debris, with the spectator area below it now nothing but a bombed out, crumbling hull.  Broken bottles litter the ground around the ruins.  There’s a graveyard at the Igman Ski Center, honoring the Bosnian soldiers who lost their lives during the 1992–1995 war.  Behind it, red warning signs dot the hills where Bosnian-Serbs planted thousands of mines, many of which were left unexploded in the now off-limit areas.

 

The luge track haunts the hills near Sarajevo, a sobering reminder of the Bosnian War.

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Sarajevo was a far different place in 1984.  The first Winter Games held in a communist country, Sarajevo also marked the first Olympic confrontation of Soviet and American athletes since the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Games.  The competitions themselves were both spectacular and memorable – this was the Olympics of British ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, American skiers “Wild Bill” Johnson and Debbie Armstrong, and East German skaters Katarina Witt and Karin Enke – and into this theatre stepped Jansen, wide-eyed and eager, and the youngest speed skater to make the Olympic team.

 

“It was such a weird feeling seeing people in person that I’d watched on television, and then it was even stranger interacting with them in the village or in the cafeteria.  One minute you’re turning on the TV and watching their highlights like everyone else, and the next you’re marching with them during the opening ceremonies.”  – Dan Jansen

 

“I guess the way that I would describe that experience is like this:  Take any 18-year-old and have them imagine what it would be like to compete in the Olympics,” Jansen says.  “It’s awe-inspiring.  It’s thrilling.  It’s a dream come true.  And that’s what it was for me, but it was even better than that.  It was such a weird feeling seeing people in person that I’d watched on television, and then it was even stranger interacting with them in the village or in the cafeteria.  One minute you’re turning on the TV and watching their highlights like everyone else, and the next you’re marching with them during the opening ceremonies.  It was surreal.  And then, just the whole Olympic experience – taking part in the opening ceremony, walking into the stadium behind the American flag…I would say that you’re kind of in awe, and maybe even a little overwhelmed by the spectacle of the whole thing, and even slightly intimidated with all that went along with representing the United States in the Olympics.  But the funny thing is, it wasn’t like that on the ice.  I was focused, and I wasn’t nervous at all.  I managed to compete very well.”

It helped having a support system with him – Team Jansen.

“My mom and dad both came to Sarajevo in 1984,” Jansen says proudly.  “It was important having family close, because they really helped me to enjoy the moment.  My brother Mike was there, too.  He showed up the day before my race and surprised me, so that was pretty special.  Like I said, he was a really good skater in his own right, and he competed at a very high level.  He just missed out on qualifying for the Olympic team.”

 

Dan Jansen (USA) skates in the Men’s Speed Skating competition of the 1984 Winter Olympics held in February 1984 at the Zetra Ice Rink in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. Jansen placed fourth in the 500m and sixteenth in the 1000m events in this Olympics.

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Going into his first Olympic Games, Jansen knew the margin for error was razor thin.

“It’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t competed in speed skating, because it’s such a technical sport,” Jansen says.  “And even then when you put together the perfect technical race, there’s always the chance that one little slip can happen that changes everything.  It’s ice.  And if it’s outdoors, it could be a gust of wind or who knows what.  But that’s okay, because that’s part of the sport.  Speed skaters are used to that.”

Missing out on the bronze medal, Jansen wasted little time regrouping.  His speed skating career was just lifting off, The Fall a story for another Olympics, his Ali-Frazier rivalry with Uwe-Jens Mey still somewhere off in the distance.

 

“For me at that point, it wasn’t so much that I missed a medal from something technical.  I skated great for what I had at that time in my life.  That was a really good outcome for me, because nobody really expected me to do that well in my first Olympic Games. ”  – Dan Jansen

 

“For me at that point, it wasn’t so much that I missed a medal from something technical.  I skated great for what I had at that time in my life.  That was a really good outcome for me, because nobody really expected me to do that well in my first Olympic Games.  As a result I almost won a medal, so it wasn’t a disappointment for me at all.  You always have those thoughts that cross your mind, the what-ifs.  What if I had done this differently?  What if I had done that instead of the other?  But at the end of the day, it is what it is.  I couldn’t have done anything differently, or better.  It was a good, solid race, and that was all I had to give at that point in my career.”

Back home in West Allis, Jansen received a hero’s welcome.

“I guess it became kind of a big deal locally, because the community had this kid who went to the Olympics, so it was noticeable from that standpoint.  But it never got to the level where there was any real amount of fame.  It was more a case of people recognizing that this Dan Jansen kid is good and he went to the Olympics.  I had a few people tell me that it was too bad that I didn’t win a medal, and that was a little confusing to me because being in Sarajevo and representing the United States was major accomplishment in itself.  But that’s when you learn that people really don’t understand what goes into it all.  They don’t see the hours of sacrifice on the ice, and they don’t get what an honor it is just to be a part of the U.S. Olympic Team and representing your country.”

Unfazed by coming up short, Jansen threw himself into preparing for the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.  He recovered from hamstring injuries in both of his legs to win the silver medal in the 500 at the 1985 world sprints.  In 1986, he won a medal in every event he raced and became the first American to skate the 500 in under thirty-seven seconds.  A year away from Calgary, a bout with mononucleosis zapped his strength and stamina, casting the first hint of doubt about the upcoming Games, and then Jane’s diagnosis hits like a ton of bricks.

 

“It was a hard year all the way around.  The twelve months leading up to Calgary was when Jane was diagnosed with cancer…I went through a whole summer of trying to train while also trying to support Jane.  It was a difficult period.  She was going through her bone marrow transplants, so I was donating platelets and traveling to Seattle to be with her, and at the same time I’m training for the upcoming Olympics.” – Dan Jansen

 

“It was a hard year all the way around,” Jansen concedes.  “The twelve months leading up to Calgary was when Jane was diagnosed with cancer…she was diagnosed in January, 1987.  I was ill as well – I had mono – and because of that I was never really at full strength, which at times translated into sub-par performances on the ice.  I just didn’t have a good season.  I went through a whole summer of trying to train while also trying to support Jane.  It was a difficult period.  She was going through her bone marrow transplants, so I was donating platelets and traveling to Seattle to be with her, and at the same time I’m training for the upcoming Olympics.

“I was healthy when the next season started, and suddenly I’m winning all of the World Cups.  I also won the Speed Skating World Championship the week before the Olympic Games – thank God they were held in Milwaukee, because that meant I didn’t have to travel and I could spend all of my free time with Jane.  But then I had to leave her when I went to Calgary with the Olympic Team.  I was the clear favorite in Calgary.  I was expected to win.  That was my mindset, too.  Off the ice, I expected to see Jane in March when the season was over.  One week later she was gone, passing away on the day of my race.”

Jane’s passing, on Valentine’s Day, was the hardest blow of Jansen’s life.

“It was impossible to focus,” he says.  “That’s not an excuse, but it didn’t go very well for me.  I tried.  But nobody in Calgary had ever been in that position before, so there was nobody that I could lean on for advice.  I just did what I thought I should do – which we decided as a family – and that was to go out and try my best, because that’s what Jane would have wanted.  And I did.  With having said that, I didn’t have any of that physical or mental preparation that you would normally have on race day.  I just figured that I would go out there and do what I always did, but my level of focus wasn’t where it needed to be.  And with speed skating, when your mind isn’t all there it really shows.”

With four days to prepare for the 1,000 meters, Jansen appeared ready to compete.  Looks, however, can be deceiving.  He was an emotional train wreck.  His fall at the 600 meter mark sealed the most miserable week of his life.

 

Calgary washout – Jansen falls at the 600 meter mark, ending his Olympic bid with two falls in two events.

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“It was very disappointing, but I was empty inside and skating was really the furthest thing from my mind,” he says.  “After that second fall, it was just time.  I needed to go home.  I felt like I’d kept my brothers and sisters that were in Calgary with me long enough, and we all needed to get back and say goodbye to Jane.  We left almost immediately after that race; there was a local company in Wisconsin that donated the use of its airplane to us, so we flew home that night and prepared for the funeral, which was held a couple of days later.  It was just time to try and say our goodbyes.  It was very hard.  Anybody who has lost a family member knows what that’s like.”

Jansen’s heart and resolve not only earned him the admiration of millions – he received more than seven thousand letters in the weeks immediately after the Games – it also resulted in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Spirit Award, an award that goes to the U.S. Olympian who exhibits the Olympic ideal, overcomes adversity and exhibits extraordinary persistence and determination.  Jansen accepted the award in memory of his sister.

“It meant a lot to me then, and it still means a lot today,” he says.  “It was an unbelievably nice gesture to know that the other members of the team – and not just the speed skating team, but the whole U.S. Olympic Team and U.S. Olympic Committee – recognized what I was going through.  It was special to receive their support in the form of that award.  Like I said, it meant a lot to me and still does to this day.  It wasn’t like all was suddenly good in the world, but it certainly helped ease the pain a little bit.  It let me know that there were a lot of people supporting our family during this difficult time.  It was very moving to get that kind of support and recognition from my Olympic teammates.”

Just three weeks after the Olympics, Jansen bounced back to win a World Cup 500-meter race in Savalen, Norway, and placed second in the 1,000.

“I took half of the next year off,” Jansen says.  “I returned to Calgary and went to school.  I didn’t compete because my focus was on taking classes and getting my education.  It was difficult because everything was still so fresh and the emotions were still very raw.  I tried to block a lot of it out.  To a degree I was able to do that, but going back to Calgary was a very difficult time for me.”

When Jansen finally returned to the ice later that year, he was in a healthier place, both physically and mentally.  In December 1991, he skated the fastest 500 meters of the season, winning the U.S. Olympic Trials at 36.59 seconds in Milwaukee. The following month in Davos, Switzerland, he set the 500-meter world record at 36.41, beating the record set a week earlier by Uwe-Jens Mey, now Jansen’s top rival for the title of world’s best sprinter.

 

“Everything on the ice kept going well.  Each year got a little bit better, and I continued to win medals on the World Cup circuit.  I was also having success at the World Championships, so everything was coming together leading up to Albertville Olympics in 1992.  I had also set a world record two weeks before the Games began, so I felt like I was peaking at just the right time.”

 

“Everything on the ice kept going well.  Each year got a little bit better and I continued to win medals on the World Cup circuit.  I was also having success at the World Championships, so everything was coming together leading up to Albertville Olympics in 1992.  I had also set a world record two weeks before the Games began, so I felt like I was peaking at just the right time.  That’s when I decided to shut it down and rest my body before the start of the Games, but in retrospect I feel like I kind of rushed into rest mode.”

To most experts, Albertville seemed the perfect place for Jansen to finally exorcise his Olympic demons, and even Jansen himself felt poised to do big things.  He said he felt good when he woke up Saturday on morning of the 500.  He said Calgary was the farthest thing from his mind. He said he was convinced silver would be the lowest value metal he could win.  But when he got to the Olympic ice rink, an outdoor oval that would be turned into a running track after the Games, it was raining – the first sign that the skating gods weren’t sitting with the fans waving the homemade “Go Dan,” signs clustered among a sea of U.S. umbrellas in the stands.

“Let’s just say that it wasn’t a favorable turn of events,” he says, smiling wryly.

It turns out that rain is not a sprinter’s ideal weather.  Rain creates small bumps – “pebbles,” the skaters call them – that don’t allow for the best grip on the ice, especially with the skates used back then.  Courses with pebbles favor lighter, finesse-type skaters – skaters more the size of the Japanese.  Jansen, at six feet and just under 200 pounds, was a thickly muscled sprinter who’d been dominating the finesse skaters on the World Cup circuit.  But not on this day.  Used to digging his skates into the ice to generate thrust, Jansen wasn’t able to execute that technique as effectively in the rain.  Instead, it was the Japanese who excelled in the unfavorable conditions, with Toshiyuki Kuroiwa and Junichi Inoue winning the silver and bronze medals, placing just behind the winner, Uwe-Jens Mey.

 

Speed skater Dan Jansen of the United States finishing fourth during the Men’s 500 metres Speed skating event on 15 February 1992 at the Olympic Oval in Albertville, France.

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“He certainly should have won a medal,” Mey said at the time.  “I feel sorry for him. The Olympics don’t obey regular rules.”

Jansen followed up that fourth place finish by finishing 26th in the 1,000, completing the washout.

“I regret making the decision to rest,” he says.  “I came in a little flat, and I just wasn’t in top form for those Olympic Games.  I thought I was ready – I was at the top of my game just two weeks before and had that world record to prove it, but I wasn’t the same skater in Albertville.  To finished fourth again and out of medal contention was very disappointing.

“Looking back, I also think I under-trained.  We were fully prepared just two weeks before Albertville.  At that point I can safely say that we hadn’t over-trained or under-trained.  We were right on track.  When I set that world record we’d trained really hard so I decided to cut back.  The plan was to be as fresh as possible at the start of the Games, and I felt like I’d be flying on the ice if I gave my body some time to recover.  Looking back now, we cut it back a little too much.”

 

“Looking back, I also think I under-trained.  We were fully prepared just two weeks before Albertville.  At that point I can safely say that we hadn’t over-trained or under-trained.  We were right on track.  When I set that world record we’d trained really hard so I decided to cut back.  The plan was to be as fresh as possible at the start of the Games, and I felt like I’d be flying on the ice if I gave my body some time to recover.  Looking back now, we cut it back a little too much.” – Dan Jansen

 

For Jansen, Albertville was as disorienting as it was fruitless.

“The whole experience was surreal and kept me off-balance in a lot of ways,” he says.  “We practiced on a track in Italy, which wasn’t familiar to us at all.  We usually went to Germany when we were in Europe, but we weren’t able to go there and practice like we normally did.  When we arrived in Albertville, we quickly learned that the track was not a good track – it wasn’t even a permanent track.  It was thrown together for the Games and torn down immediately afterwards.  And overall, it just didn’t feel like an Olympics – we had strange weather, and we felt like the people really didn’t want us there.  We never felt welcome in Albertville.  So it turned out to be a not-so-good experience for me.  Don’t get me wrong; it was still the Olympics and I was still very thankful to be, and extremely honored to represent my country.  From a competition standpoint, you just want that to be at your peak physically, emotionally, and mentally.  I just feel any of that in ‘92.”

Albertville marked the last time the Winter Olympics was held in the same calendar year as the Summer Olympics.  Beginning with Lillehammer in ’94, the events were spaced two years apart.  Jansen, who’d exited France with a growing reputation as a choke artist, attacked the World Cup circuit with a different attitude and determination.  Between the 1992 and 1994 Olympics, he was the only skater to break 36 seconds in the 500 meters, doing so four times.  In 1994, he won his second World Sprint Championship title, and arrived at the 1994 Winter Olympics for one final attempt at an Olympic medal.  Many speculated that the compressed timeframe between Olympics would help Jansen, both physically and mentally, given his advancing age as a speed skater and the heartbreak he’d endured on the big stage.

“The quick turnaround between Olympics was nice, because I didn’t have as long to dwell on the disappointment in Albertville.  I feel like I would have been in top form even if Lillehammer had been held four years later.  I still was improving, even when I retired.  But it was great to have another Games in two years, because after the disappointment of coming up short I was ready to go again.  I had improved so much during the two seasons between Albertville and Lillehammer, and I was skating better than I had ever skated.  I went into the Lillehammer Olympics with tons of confidence.”

A major part of that confidence was directly related to training.  Peter Mueller, the 1976 gold medalist at Innsbruck, was pushing Jansen harder than ever before.  Gone were the days of focusing on the 500 and treating the 1,000 as an afterthought.

“We worked really hard on the 1000-meter event,” Jansen says, “and we trusted that it would be enough, and that it wouldn’t hurt our chances in the 500.  We actually trained as if we were competing in the 1,500, so that the 1000-meter result would be better.  We were able to keep the speed in the 500, so I think we trained smart.  Mentally, we worked for two solid years to just get into a better state of mind when I stepped to the line in the 1000-meter.  I hadn’t always had the most confidence at that distance, but all of that preparation had me believing in myself for that race.  It’s a good thing that I did work so hard on that event, because it turns out that I needed to. That was my last chance to win a medal after what happened in the 500.”

 

Dan Jansen arrived in Lillehammer at the top of his game. This would be his final chance at Olympic glory.

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Improbably – or as his critics would say, predictably – Jansen slipped on the final turn in the 500, touching the ice with his hand and finishing eighth.  That the 500 in Lillehammer took place exactly six years to the day that Jane had died, on Valentine’s Day, only added to the disappointment.  Suddenly, a snake bit Jansen had one last opportunity for an Olympic medal.

“I don’t know that I felt snake bit,” Jansen counters.  “I certainly wondered if it was meant to be, but nobody did anything to me to cost me a medal in any of those Olympic Games.  It was just tough luck.  That’s speed skating.  One little slip can cost you, and it did in the 500 at Lillehammer.  But I think the way that I prepared for the 1000-meter made up for all of the bad luck leading up to that event.  It all came together because I was so prepared physically, mentally, and emotionally.  That hadn’t always been the case in the 1000, but this time I believed that I was good enough to win.  My confidence was at an all-time high because I had shown good results leading up to the 1000, especially in December, so I had a lot of good things going on in the back of my mind.  I may not have been known for the 1000, but I knew that I could win a medal.  I knew that I could go to these Olympic Games and win that race.”

If the world expected Jansen to crumble from the pressure of another high stakes slip in the 500, he certainly wasn’t showing it.  In anything, it looked as if a giant invisible weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

 

“Ultimately, I just had to go out there and skate my best, and let the results be what they may.  At some point you have to accept whatever happens, good or bad, and I was prepared to deal with it either way.  I think that helped to diffuse any pressure that may have been building.” – Dan Jansen

 

“Ultimately, I just had to go out there and skate my best, and let the results be what they may.  At some point you have to accept whatever happens, good or bad, and I was prepared to deal with it either way.  I think that helped to diffuse any pressure that may have been building.”

It certainly helped having Mueller in his camp, especially during those long, agonizing hours between events.  He understood the complex calculus running around in Jansen’s head – the feelings of letting down the people who mattered to him most, the falls and out-of-the-money finishes, the energy drain that comes from answering the same questions thousands of times.

“Pete is a great motivator,” Jansen says.  “He just sort of let me overcome the disappointment on my own in terms, which really helped me get past the 500.  He understood that it hurt.  I could tell that it hurt him as well, but he also understood that I was skating extremely well, and he didn’t let me forget that.  He kept reminding me that it was just a slip, but that I’d been flying on the ice up to that point.  It just clicked.  I’d been flying on ice for the past two weeks.  I just won the World Championships again.  I’d lowered the world record.  So nobody was skating better than I was at that point.  But the mind is a funny thing, and sometimes you need to be reminded of things like that, and Pete did that every day.  That’s why he’s such a great motivator, but more than that, that’s why he became a great friend as well.”

Jansen’s Olympic history in the 1,000 was abysmal: a 16th, a fall, a 26th.  He could open up to 600 meters, but the rocket fuel that made him such a talented sprinter would quickly burn out.  To those closest to Jansen, however, something about racing the 1,000 in Lillehammer felt different.  That Mueller had placed a premium on conditioning certainly played a part, as had Jansen’s decision to consult with a sports psychologist in the run-up to the Games, but the biggest difference-maker was having his wife and eight-month-old daughter Jane in Norway to help Jansen keep it all in perspective.

 

“Fatherhood changed everything.  It was my last Olympic race, but I was prepared for whatever happened.  Another slip, another fall, or finishing out of medal contention didn’t matter.  When you become a parent, it changes how you look at everything.” – Dan Jansen

 

“Fatherhood changed everything.  It was my last Olympic race, but I was prepared for whatever happened.  Another slip, another fall, or finishing out of medal contention didn’t matter.  When you become a parent, it changes how you look at everything.”

Paired with Junichi Inoue of Japan, there was a certain looseness to his start that hadn’t been present in previous races.  Instead of pushing too hard from the bell, he held back, covering the first 200 meters in 16.71, not world record pace but fast enough to push him to the top of the leader board.  Where losing his sister in 1988 had proved debilitating, he suddenly seemed liberated from all of the expectations that had been placed on him.  He didn’t press.  Instead, Jansen let the race come to him.  At the 400-meter mark, where the skaters cross over from one lane to the other, Jansen was able to ride briefly in Inoue’s slipstream and slingshot into the next turn.  It was enough to cause those in the Jansen camp to believe, if only for a moment, that this was really happening, that Dan Jansen, the hard luck king, was suddenly on the verge of an historic breakthrough.

“It was all finally coming together for me,” Jansen says quickly.  “It was the strongest that I’d ever raced at that distance.  It was the smartest, too.”

In control but now skating on the inside lane where the turns are tighter and the G forces are heavier, Jansen’s family knew that he’d just entered speed skating’s danger zone, the place that posed the most risk to the final race of his Olympic career.  Then, on the next-to-last turn, it happened again, another Jansen slip, his left hand barely grazing the ice, a mistake that cost him two, perhaps three hundredths of a second.

Groans went up in the crowd.

The old Dan Jansen would have panicked and tried to recover too quickly, but the new Dan Jansen, the father with nothing to lose and everything to gain?  He simply took the misstep in stride and skated through it.

“The 1000 is a little bit longer race, so there’s a little bit more that you can get away with,” Jansen says.  “The chance of something happening did creep into my mind, especially with it being my last race and because of my slip in the 500.  But I was able to keep my composure and recover.  When I slipped in the 500 I panicked.  I tried to get the time back right away because you have to in that race, but I just kept slipping.  My skates didn’t grip the ice in that last turn.  When I slipped in the 1000, that moment instantaneously went through my head, but I thought, ‘Just don’t panic.  Don’t try to get this back too fast, just carry your speed to the end of this turn and then accelerate.’  It worked.  Strangely enough, I think I learned a little bit from my slip in the 500.”

The raucous crowd cheered wildly as Jansen opened it up on the straightaway.  Mueller was as animated as he’d ever been, nearly clapping his protégé on the back as Jansen whizzed by.  And when Jansen crossed the finish line with a time of 1:12.43, not only had he beaten out heavy favorite Igor Zhelezovsky of Belarus and Russia’s Sergei Klevchenya to capture gold in his final race, he’d broken the world record in an event that seemed ill-suited to his strengths.

 

“Overwhelming, that’s all I can say about that moment.  I just said a little prayer of thanks and thought about Jane.  I know she would have been proud of me.  And I knew that she was there somewhere.” – Dan Jansen

 

“Overwhelming, that’s all I can say about that moment.”  He pauses, and then:  “I just said a little prayer of thanks and thought about Jane.  I know she would have been proud of me.  And I knew that she was there somewhere.”

The win also overwhelmed his wife Robin, who hyperventilated and had to be rushed for treatment.  Hamar Olympic Hall was an intoxicating brew of wild celebration and unrestrained tears, as Americans, Norwegians and fans from many other countries showered Jansen with love.  People back home in West Allis and neighboring Milwaukee took to the streets to cheer their favorite son.  Living rooms across the U.S. – scratch that, around the globe – were buzzing over the fact that, in his final Olympic race, Dan Jansen had finally struck gold.

 

Golden Moment – After years of Olympic heartbreak, Dan Jansen finally breaks through.

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“It’s hard to describe that feeling,” Jansen confesses.  “Anyone who’s ever won an Olympic medal can try to describe what it feels like – getting up there on that podium, hearing the national anthem – but words can’t do justice to the emotions that are going through you at that time.  I never felt more patriotic than I did that day.  I never appreciated our national anthem is much as I did that day.  I’d been up there dozens of times at part of the World Cup, but never at the Olympics, so this had so much more meaning.  As I’ve said, other medalists can try to tell you what it feels like, but I’d guess that there are very few, probably, that have had the emotions that I did after going through everything that I went through with my sister and all of the disappointment in the Olympics leading up to that moment.”

Jansen, visibly moved in the moments after the win, waved to the sky in memory of his sister as he took that now iconic victory lap in Lillehammer with eight-month-old daughter Jane in his arms.

“One of the biggest moments in my life,” Jansen says.  “To be able to take that lap with Jane meant everything.”

His mind was still spinning when he stepped up on that podium.

 

“I just remember feeling so much pride.  The national anthem is a short song, and a lot goes through your mind in that short period of time – a lot of things that we’ve talked about tonight.  You remember moments from your childhood.  You remember racing outside on the lake.  You remember everyone who’s ever helped out in any capacity, when you’re up there in that moment you realize that it’s not really about you, it’s about all of those people who’ve sacrificed to help you live your dream.” – Dan Jansen

 

“I just remember feeling so much pride,” Jansen says.  “The national anthem is a short song, and a lot goes through your mind in that short period of time – a lot of things that we’ve talked about tonight.  You remember moments from your childhood.  You remember racing outside on the lake.  You remember everyone who’s ever helped out in any capacity, when you’re up there in that moment you realize that it’s not really about you, it’s about all of those people who’ve sacrificed to help you live your dream.”

 

A promise fulfilled: Dan Jansen celebrates with daughter Jane, six years after his sister Jane passed away.

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If there were any doubts about the significance of Jansen’s victory, those were erased by the congratulatory phone call that he received from President Clinton shortly after the medal ceremony.

“It was cool!” Jansen says proudly.  “It happened during a press conference.  Somebody handed me a cell phone and said, ‘Hold for the president.’  So I had to tell the reporters that I had to hold off on answering their questions because I’ve got to talk to the president.  That got a big laugh out of everyone.  It was pretty special moment.  It was something I’d never even considered happening.  You can dream about the Olympics and winning medals and all of that, but having a conversation with the President of the United States is something that never entered my mind.  It was an amazing moment, and it just added to how special it was to win a gold medal.”

~  ~  ~

The victory meant that the low-key Jansen could no longer fade into the background.  His story of tragedy, perseverance, and triumph created worldwide buzz.  His clean cut image and handsome good looks made him a hit from Main Street to Madison Avenue.

“The attention was different for me,” Jansen concedes.  “I’m not one who loves the spotlight, so it was bizarre and it was intimidating.  After the closing ceremony I went straight to New York and did the talk show circuit – The David Letterman Show, all of the morning shows like The Today Show and Good Morning America.  It was surreal – even just walking around New York people knew who I was.  It was a huge adjustment for me to be someone recognized in that way on a national scale.  It was certainly that way when I came home to Wisconsin.  It was big time. I didn’t even think about going out for dinner or doing anything in public for awhile.”

 

After winning gold, good friends Dan Jansen and Bonnie share the cover of Sports Illustrated.

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Jansen’s newfound celebrity landed him on the February 28, 1994 cover of Sports Illustrated, along with good friend and fellow speed skating legend Bonnie Blair.  His autobiography Full Circle:  An Olympic Champion Shares His Breakthrough Story, hit bookstores later that fall.  In between, Jansen was also very much in demand as an endorser and motivational speaker.  Two years later, on February 14, 1996 – the eight year anniversary of Jane’s passing – A Brother’s Promise: The Dan Jansen Story premiered on national TV, as well as in such far-flung places as Germany, Spain, Finland and Hungary.

 

“It was a phenomena for a while, but eventually the buzzed died down, which suited me just fine because I’m a private person.  People had great intentions, and I’m super appreciative that they were happy for me, but the newfound celebrity was unsettling to say the least.  Even today, after all of these years, it’s still requires an adjustment on my part.” – Dan Jansen

 

“It was a phenomena for a while, but eventually the buzzed died down, which suited me just fine because I’m a private person,” Jansen says.  “People had great intentions, and I’m super appreciative that they were happy for me, but the newfound celebrity was unsettling to say the least.  Even today, after all of these years, it’s still requires an adjustment on my part.  I can appreciate how real celebrities have to deal with that type of lifestyle every day, and how tough it can become on them, but for me I knew fame was fleeting. It was great to celebrate with my hometown people, and I still to this day I get nothing but good things spoken to me.  I’m thankful for that, because I didn’t become famous for something negative or notorious.  I’m just glad to be famous for something that makes people feel good.  That’s always positive.”

Surely, after all these years, Jansen’s fame has led to many good-natured ribbings from his brothers and sisters.

“I can’t say that there’s ever been any ribbing, but occasionally the subject will come up.  My brother was there with me, so there are a lot of good memories that we talk about.  I’ve heard my siblings talk about it among themselves, about how great it was for them immediately afterwards – walking around Lillehammer without me and the people coming up to congratulate them.  There were times when people didn’t know that they were my siblings, they just knew that they were Americans.  That was really special, and to me, that really said a lot about the people of Norway and how much they knew about my story.”

 

Retired and enjoying life:  Dan Jansen at The Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational golf tournament.

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A movie, and autobiography, and a place on People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People list…it would be easy to get caught up in the trappings of fame, or for Dan Jansen to get drunk on his own mythology.  But Jansen was no Icarus – he was raised humble and stayed humble – so there was no danger of him flying to close to the sun, his wax wings melting away, the subsequent fall chronicled on Dateline or 20/20.

“Winning the gold and the fame that came with it didn’t change me,” he says flatly.  “I was still the ninth child in a large family from Wisconsin.  What really changed for me were the opportunities that came my way, in terms of the people that I was able to meet, and still meet today, the friends that I’ve made, things like that.  I am invited to celebrity golf tournaments, or other events that you wouldn’t ordinarily wouldn’t get invited to, so those are perks that I enjoy.  That’s really the biggest way it changed my life.  It’s allowed me to meet some great people.  The negative part, as I’ve mentioned, is the lack of privacy.  That was the biggest negative adjustment to becoming a celebrity, but celebrity is what you make of it.  If you want to make a big deal of it then you will, you will find an entourage to walk around with, or whatever the case may be.  But that’s not really me.  It never has been, and it never will be.”

~  ~  ~

Jansen retired a few months after winning the gold medal in Lillehammer.  In 1995, he won the prestigious AAU James E. Sullivan Award, presented annually to the most outstanding amateur athlete in the United States.  The list of winners is long and impressive:  Bobby Jones.  Dick Button.  Wilma Rudolph.  Mark Spitz.  Carl Lewis.  Tim Tebow.  Jansen’s year was so big that he nudged out golfing phenom Tiger Woods to win the award.

“You know, I think it’s one of the lesser-known things about me, and even one of the lesser-known awards, so I’m glad that you’ve brought that up,” Jansen says.  “For me, the Sullivan Award is one of the most special awards out there.  It’s recognition as the top amateur athlete in the United States, and it covers all sports.  I remember winning it – I was sitting next to Tiger Woods, he was nominated that year.  Tiger was still in college and competing as an amateur golfer.  It was right before he turned pro.  Charlie Ward was also there, as well as several others.  It’s just a great award to look back on, and again, it’s rarely pointed out.  Whenever I’m introduced, the lead-in is always about the gold medal, and the Sullivan Award is rarely mentioned.  But for me, winning that award was very cool.  When somebody wins the Heisman Trophy, they are part of that pantheon forever.  People know all about the Heisman and who the winners are, but most don’t know about the Sullivan Award winner.  Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair are both Sullivan Award winners.  Having three speed skaters win the award is pretty cool.”

The gold medal allowed Jansen to walk away on top.  While Lillehammer is by far the biggest line item on his résumé, the two-time world champion dominated his sport in a way that often gets overlooked.

 

Forever Golden: Forget the slips and the fourth place finishes. Dan Jansen, Olympic champion.

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“The Olympics are huge, but the World Championships and the World Cup are as big as you can get,” Jansen says.  “I won 46 World Cup races and seven overall titles.  If you’re a skier and you had those numbers it would be a pretty big deal, but our sport, at least in this country, isn’t recognized as much. But that’s not really why we do what we do.  We do it because we love the sport.  We want to keep getting better, and trying to go faster.  When you win it’s great.  When you come up short you’re looking forward to the next race.  I loved every minute of it, and I would do it all over again.”

Jansen also knows that speed skating doesn’t carry the same cachet as other Winter Olympic sports, such as figure skating, ice hockey and alpine skiing.

“Speed skaters go into it knowing that they may never become rich or famous.  I’m not saying that we don’t dream and we don’t have these grand illusions when we’re starting out, but we understand the realities of the sport that we’ve chosen.  There are plenty of famous figure skaters, people like Michelle Kwan, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Scott Hamilton and Brian Boitano.  The sport is much more high profile.  Speed skaters fly under the radar, but that was fine with me.  I was happy to compete, and I didn’t go into it looking for fame or celebrity.  I think those things found me because of the way my story played out.”

Even after all of these years, people still remember what Jansen went through, how he persevered, and how he came out whole on the other side.  What’s clear is that he didn’t need that gold medal to validate his career, at least not to the person who matters most.  Yet Dan Jansen understands its significance.

“I guess the reason my story is still known has a lot to do with the tough parts that I went through.  Had I won in the first Olympics, or the second Olympics, who knows?  Who knows if I would still be asked to speak and share my story?  Had my story been different, had the results been different, you may not have even wanted to interview me.  Would I have been considered a failure if I’d slipped in that last 1000 at Lillehammer and finished my career without an Olympic medal?  Fortunately, I was able to win gold and get that monkey off of my back, so to speak.  Life is strange in those ways and I don’t really have the answers for why, but it’s not something that I take for granted.  I’m very thankful for being remembered, so when I speak I try to convey good, positive messages about the lessons that I’ve learned.  I try my best to share those things and speak from the heart.  I feel like a lot of good came from my career, and I’ve tried to enjoy all of the moments along the way.  So as cliché as it sounds, for me it has truly been about the journey and not the end result.”

~  ~  ~

Dan Jansen continues to love his sport.  Today, he is a speed skating commentator for NBC.  In 2014, he was in Sochi, Russia, to take part in his ninth Winter Olympics – four as a competitor, five as a TV analyst – and it’s clear that he still has a passion for the Games.

 

Golden duo Dan Jansen & Apolo Ohno working the Olympic Trials for NBC.

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“I love working as a commentator for the Olympic Games,” he says.  “It’s one of my favorite things to do now.  It’s not as easy as people think, I will be the first to tell you that.  There is a lot of research that goes into it, and a lot of getting to know and understand television and how all of that works, but I love doing it.  I love staying involved in the sport and following along with who’s doing what, so I look forward to covering speed skating at the Olympics.  I’ve also been working all of the World Cup and World Championship events in between Olympics, so that helps keep me on top of things.  It’s a great time and a huge learning experience.  Like I’ve said, it’s not quite as easy as everybody might think.”

Staying connected to his sport means that Jansen has seen the changes since he became the first skater to break the 36-second barrier in the 500.

“You really can’t compare the speed skaters of today with the athletes who competed when I skated,” Jansen says.  “The single biggest reason is because of the skates.  The skates are so much different today, and they’ve dramatically changed the sport.  The skates in use today now have hinged blades, so that when you push off, you’re getting to the end of your push with your toe, which is a significant advantage over the technology that we used.  My skates were all one piece, which meant that the heel had to come up off the ice, but the skates of today work like a cross country ski.  There’s a hinge, so when you push off with the toe the blade stays on the ice.  It’s a dramatic advantage.  Modern skaters are getting much more push with each stride, so much so that it’s making a second-and-a-half per lap difference compared to the skates that we used.  It’s really outrageous to think about.

“When I retired, my world record in the 500-meters was 35.76.  And now there’s a guy named Pavel Kulizhnikov, who just broke 34 seconds for the first time – 34 flat in November, 2015, which is more than a second-and-a-half faster than my fastest time, and then 33.98 in Salt Lake City five days later.  He later tested positive for having meldonium in  his system, but his ban was lifted after the International Skating Union lifted when they determined the concentration of meldonium was below the threshold.  Coincidentally, meldonium is the same drug that Maria Sharapova was tested positive for, and she was banned from tennis for more than a year.  I believe there’s something like 60 athletes that have now tested positive for that drug.”

~  ~  ~

Time flies nearly as fast as Dan Jansen once did around the track.  It seems like yesterday when Jansen skated that memorable victory lap around the track in Hamar Olympic Hall that day.  Jane is a young woman now.  In the blink of an eye she went from the baby in all those victory lap photos to a student at Clemson University, majoring in education, her future as bright and as filled with potential as her famous father.  Jansen’s youngest daughter, Olivia, has also grown into a young woman with hopes and dreams of her own.  Watching his daughters grow up, and being there for them, is Jansen’s priority now.  He lives a quiet life in Mooresville, North Carolina, where he works in real estate, plays golf with his wife (well-known golf pro Karen Palacios-Jensen), and enjoys taking his boat out on Lake Norman.  He’s also started working with a NASCAR team to provide its drivers with mental and physical training, offering them a competitive advantage in a sport every bit as competitive as speed skating.

“I don’t want to mention any names at this point,” he says, “but working with NASCAR drivers is a lot of fun.  Hopefully it will continue to grow.”

All this, and he never forgets.

Jansen’s charity is involved in myriad of causes – helping individuals and families affected by leukemia and related cancers, supporting youth sports programs, and assisting high school seniors in the pursuit of higher education – all in memory of his sister.

 

Dan Jansen speaking to the American golfers traveling to Rio for the 2016 Summer Games.

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“We started the foundation in 1995, the year after I won the gold medal,” Jansen says.  “I just wanted to do something to give back, and to do it in Jane’s memory.  We started helping the families of the victims, because when Jane was sick we had to travel back and forth as a family, and the expenses can pile up quickly.  My mom and dad basically lived in Seattle for a year when Jane was sick, and it was a great financial burden on the family, so we try to help families to be able to travel, to be able to be with their siblings and their children during those difficult times.  The foundation helps to pay for their travel and for their room and board.

“We recently helped a family by paying their mortgage for a couple of months.  Their child was very sick and going through expensive treatments, and they had no other way to do meet their monthly mortgage obligation.  It’s the little things like that, that people don’t always think about.  Most people think in terms of finding a cure, and that’s where they think they should put their money, but that’s not what the focus of my foundation is all about.  Were not a huge charity.  A cure for cancer hasn’t been found yet, so we’re going to help the people who are still in the unfortunate position of fighting it.  It’s a very rewarding and fulfilling cause, so to be able to help with those sorts of things has been great.”

It turns out Jansen was right all along.  He didn’t need a gold medal to make a difference in the lives of others.  Had he slipped during his last race in Lillehammer, the only difference would have been the way people chose to view his legacy.  For Dan Jansen, his life would have been no less fulfilling.

“First and foremost, always do good things for people,” he says.  “Make a positive difference in the lives of others.  Those are the things that have true meaning.  Stardom and celebrity have a short shelf life, and those things don’t really matter in the big scheme of things.  If you can help someone who is going through tough times, then you’ve done something far more meaningful with your life.  Those are the things that matter most.”

Larry Groce – Mountain Stage

Written by:  Michael D. McClellan

I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They sing while you slave
And I just get bored
  – Bob Dylan.  Maggie’s Farm.

‘Some people feel the rain.  Others just get wet.’ – Bob Dylan

Larry Groce enters the room a quiet and benevolent force, this one-time soi-disant vagabond with roots now firmly planted in Charleston, his love letter to the State of West Virginia – a decades-old, two-hour live performance radio program called Mountain Stage – evidence of a life spent feeling the rain, each musical note an affirmation of Dylan’s poetic maxim, every guest artist a droplet rippling across the surface of our imaginations, connecting people to each other, to music, and to the city he loves.  Kathy Mattea.  Norah Jones.  R.E.M.  Jorma Kaukonen.  Groce has conjured them all, delivering acts both renowned and obscure, blending them using the intuition of a natural-born alchemist.  Dig this:  On Mountain Stage, any given Sunday might feature a country singer’s take on good whiskey and bad women, followed by a South African instrumentalist’s struggle against apartheid, topped with an alt-rock band’s acoustic set of platinum-selling hits.  All of it different, but rest assured, all of it damn good.    Whether it’s the emotional gospel strains of Baptist hymns or the simple, fiddle-driven dance tunes of the dirt-poor, Groce brings his creative genius to Mountain Stage, and it pours right into your ear like water from a tap.

 

Kathy Mattea performs 'Coal Tattoo' live on Mountain Stage.

Kathy Mattea performs ‘Coal Tattoo’ live on Mountain Stage.

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Groce settles onto the couch across from me.  For someone who seems to be in such plain sight, he remains hidden, present but opaque, an open book written in cipher.  I know the highlights but I don’t know the details.  He’s the singer-songwriter with a Top 10 hit and a Grammy nom to his credit.  He’s performed on American Bandstand.  He’s lived all over – New York, Los Angeles – but he considers himself one of us, a real West-by-God-Virginian.  And he’s given us Mountain Stage, locally produced yet nationally respected, a show held in such high regard by those in the biz that A-list performers ask to play there, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Martina McBride among them.

As Groce begins to tell his story, a curious mental image forms and I’m suddenly lifted from my living room sofa into the stars, beyond the outermost reaches of our solar system and into the very fringe of interstellar space, where Voyager 2 continues its lonely, one-way journey away from Earth.  Aboard Voyager is something called the Golden Record, and cut into it are the images, sounds, and music selected to represent the human race should the vessel ever be discovered by extraterrestrial life.  The Golden Record is our ‘bottle in the cosmic ocean’, as Carl Sagan once put it.  There are greetings in 55 languages, the sound a dog barking, an image of the Grand Tetons, a photo of the United Nations at night, the sound of a kiss between mother and child.  There is also 90 minutes of music.  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart made the cut.  Beethoven, too, his Cavatina performed by the Budapest String Quartet, six-and-a-half minutes of music so hauntingly sweet, the finality of it so unyieldingly endless and absolute, that it seems written with the vast blackness of deep space in mind.

The penultimate song is one recorded and played by a twentieth-century street musician, Blind Willie Johnson.  The song is Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground, a largely wordless hymn built around the yearning cries of Johnson’s slide guitar and the moans and melodies of his voice.  The two elements intertwine, moving around one another, musician and instrument each taking turns carrying the song for short stretches, as if sharing an oxygen mask at the bottom of a swimming pool.  Johnson hums fragments of a diffused melody, the sound on the verge of drifting away forever, and then answers with the fluttering sighs of steel or glass moving over the strings.  Sometimes the guitar jimmies a low, ascending melody that sounds like a man trying to climb out of a thick bog.  Then the guitar goes up high, playing an inquisitive, hopeful line, and the voice goes high too, copying the melody.  It’s just him and his guitar with no rhythm track, a dispirited and broken man standing in front of a microphone singing the blues, his soul laid bare, his pain bubbling to the surface in a tortured lament.

I can’t help but think that, if he were alive today, Blind Willie Johnson would be right at home on Mountain Stage.  Groce’s first album was a collection of hymns, and to this day he’s drawn to the power in them, so it’s easy to imagine these two musicians connecting on a spiritual level.  It’s just as easy to imagine Groce hanging with any number of late, great musical geniuses were they alive today, from rappers like Tupac and Biggie, who used language as a form of asymmetrical warfare, to country music giants like George Jones.  In fact, Groce honors Jones on his latest CD, Live Forever, with an inspired cover of Choices.  The song is at once real and ironic, given that Jones spent much of his life drinking himself into a straightjacket, and Groce ended up settling down in the West Virginia, a state with a history of moonshine bootlegging.

Groce, who grew up in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas during the 1960s, not only loves the stories of how artists such as Blind Willie Johnson came to be, but also what sets them apart.  To describe the sheer electricity James Brown generated on stage in his prime is virtually impossible to anyone who wasn’t there to witness it firsthand.  You might as well try to describe jazz.  He was the most physical singer who ever lived.  The best dancer.  The master of funk.  But there also was something feral and unrestrained, a hint of danger.  To watch James Brown sing was to watch Muhammad Ali fight.  They were each the baddest thing on the block.  But beyond that, they each used their fame to work for social change.  Those are the stories within the stories – the stuff that enriches the music, and the stuff that Groce explores with the brilliant guests who perform on Mountain Stage.

“We’ve had thousands of guests on Mountain Stage,” Groce says, “and one of the most impressive was a man named Pops Staples.  Pops was the leader of a family group called The Staple Singers, which included his son and three daughters, one of whom was Mavis Staples, who later had solo success.  Pops recalled a story about traveling with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and how The Staples Singers would perform before Dr. King’s speeches.  The night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Dr. King told Pops that he wanted him to sing his favorite song.  Pops asked him which song, and Dr. King answered with Staples’ powerful ‘Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)’.  Knowing those lyrics, you can understand why Dr. King would choose it.  Pops’ story was very moving and heartfelt.  That’s the kind of stuff that Mountain Stage is about.”

 

“We’ve had thousands of guests on Mountain Stage, and one of the most impressive was a man named Pops Staples.  Pops recalled a story about traveling with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and how The Staples Singers would perform before Dr. King’s speeches.  The night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Dr. King told Pops that he wanted him to sing his favorite song.  Pops asked him which song, and Dr. King answered with Staples’ powerful ‘Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)’.  Knowing those lyrics, you can understand why Dr. King would choose it.  Pops’ story was very moving and heartfelt.  That’s the kind of stuff that Mountain Stage is about.” – Larry Groce

 

Groce has accumulated a vast wealth of stories like these.

“We had the South African trumpet player Hugh Masekela on Mountain Stage,” he recalls.  “He had some pop instrumental hits in the ‘60s, including Grazing in the Grass.  He later had a song called Bring Him Back Home, which became the anthem for the movement to free Nelson Mandela.  In fact, Hugh had been exiled from his own country for protesting Apartheid in South Africa and hadn’t been home since 1961.  Well, Hugh Masekela was on Mountain Stage the week that Mandela became president, and Mandela had just invited him back to play at the inauguration.  Hugh shared this incredible news with us right there onstage.  That’s powerful stuff.  We’ve been lucky.  We’ve had some landmark people on the show who make you so grateful to be a part of it.  People like the late Ruth Brown, and the late poet Allen Ginsberg, who appeared on Mountain stage twice.  It doesn’t get any better than that.”

The more we talk, the more clearly I understand the significance these stories have played in the sustained success of Mountain Stage.  Listening to Pops Staples sing Down in Mississippi without context is still deeply moving, but when you layer in the stories – the late bluesman was born on a cotton plantation, had an eighth grade education, and played with the likes of the great Robert Johnson – the lyrics about the pain of segregation suddenly rise to a whole other level of anguish and shame.

I remember, I use to walk down that gravel road / Walking with my grandma / Mississippi sun, beaming down / I went to get some water / My grandma said, young ‘un you can’t drink that water / She said, you drink from that fountain over there

“People tend to forget that those things happened not that long ago,” Groce says.  “I remember the segregated water fountains, the white and colored bathrooms – they still existed in Dallas when I was a child.  I once asked my mother why this was, and she had no answer, other than that’s just the way things were.  That explanation didn’t sit well with me.  I was young at the time, but I still knew that segregation was wrong.  I later learned that Bill Russell, who probably deserved much more respect than a whole lot of people who were getting treated differently back then, couldn’t stay in the same hotel with his white Boston Celtics teammates in some cities.  I recently read a Frank Sinatra biography, and learned that the same thing happened to Sammy Davis, Jr., who couldn’t stay in the same Las Vegas hotel where he was performing.  Sinatra demanded that the black members of his band be treated equally.  Musicians were musicians to him.  Music was music.”

Groce grew up with music in his blood.  He came by his passion honestly; his grandfather played the fiddle, and his grandmother played the Hawaiian style slide guitar.  He listened to an oddball mix of records – pop songs by Perry Como, novelty songs, country and western songs, Carl Perkins singing Blue Suede Shoes.  His parents sang around the house and were into Broadway, so he had access to their collection of Broadway cast records, productions like Guys and Dolls, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.  They also liked Vegas music, which meant that Groce was exposed to Sinatra at an early age.  He was also heavily influenced by the beautiful hymns he heard in church.

“It wasn’t just one thing, and I think that’s really made a difference in the way that I see music,” he says.  “To this day I don’t like all of any kind of music, but I like some of all kinds of music.  I think that’s reflected in the diversity on Mountain Stage.

 

“It wasn’t just one thing, and I think that’s really made a difference in the way that I see music.  To this day I don’t like all of any kind of music, but I like some of all kinds of music.  I think that’s reflected in the diversity on Mountain Stage.” – Larry Groce

 

The game changer came when Groce was in seventh grade and his mother gave him a vintage Kay F-hole guitar.  His grandfather showed him a few chords, and from there he began to learn songs like every kid does.  Groce was hooked.

“I learned to play without lessons,” he says, proudly.  “The group I hung around would each learn something, and then we would teach the other guy.  Some of us were more interested in playing music, some were more interested in singing, but all of us were interested in writing songs.  We looked at artists like Bob Dylan, who wrote their own songs, and we wanted to emulate them.  We tried to write songs that were about something other than just ‘I love you’.  There’s nothing wrong with love songs, but we all thought that there were other things to write about.”

A year later, Groce and his friends found their musical universe expanding.

“I started singing when I was in the seventh grade,” he says.  “I learned commercial folk songs from groups like the Kingston Trio, which led me to acts like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan.  I bought Dylan’s first record when I was thirteen.  Two years later the Beatles came to the US. The Rolling Stones and the Kinks were some other big groups from the British Invasion that I liked, so these were big influences.  On the other hand, I would listen to country music by Johnny Cash, and bluegrass music by Flatt and Scruggs, so there wasn’t one particular genre that held my attention for very long.”

Groce is years away from his Top 10 hit, the novelty song Junk Food Junkie, but even back then he was comfortable performing in front of crowds.

“My first paying gig came when I was fourteen.  It was me and two other guys singing pop and folk songs at a sock hop.  The rock ‘n roll band would play, and then we would come up and sing during breaks.  We also got paid for singing at other places around town – old folks homes, and places like that.”

If you want to revel in the misery of concrete yard art and sad trees, go to South Dallas.  South Dallas is  the metro area’s redheaded, economically-challenged stepchild, at least when compared to its North Dallas counterparts, with its ridiculous oil money and drill-bit multimillionaires.  Like most who grew up across the Trinity River, Groce didn’t come from great wealth or old money and didn’t go to private school, but he wasn’t exactly George Jones, either, struggling to survive a journey down a rugged road that would have killed lesser men.  What Groce and Jones had in common were Texas roots and a serious love of music, chronic singers who followed completely different paths into the music business, Jones dropping out of high school at sixteen to perform live on a Jasper radio station, Groce staying put through graduation.

“My high school, Adamson High School, was in Oak Cliff,” he says.  “The people of North Dallas always looked down on the people of Oak Cliff and its hardscrabble ways, but that’s where many of the city’s best musicians have come from.  It’s funny, but Adamson had four students in four years who went on to have hit records.  I don’t think any of us were in any music programs, we just played music on our own.  The oldest was a guy named Michael Martin Murphey who had many hits – Wildfire being the biggest.  I used to go watch him play in a Dallas coffeehouse called the Rubaiyat.  That’s where everybody played when they came through town, people like Jerry Jeff Walker. Because the Rubaiyat didn’t serve alcohol, I was able to get in before I was of legal age.

 

Michael Martin Murphey, who went to the same high school as Larry Groce.

Michael Martin Murphey, who went to the same high school as Larry Groce.  A multiple Grammy nominee, Murphey has six gold albums, including Cowboy Songs, the first album of cowboy music to achieve gold status since Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins in 1959. He has recorded the hit singles “Wildfire”, “Carolina in the Pines”, “What’s Forever For”, “A Long Line of Love”, “What She Wants”, and “Don’t Count the Rainy Days”.

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“Ray Hubbard was the next one of the four – Ray Wylie Hubbard is what he goes by today, and he’s enjoying a big well deserved renaissance.  Ray had a song that Jerry Jeff Walker sang called Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother, which was a funny, tongue-in-cheek answer to Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee.  Ray and I were in a jug band that played a lot of weird novelty songs.  We also covered the Rolling Stones, Dylan, Flatt and Scruggs.  We ended up with a regular gig at the Rubaiyat, opening for whatever national act was performing that night.  I was still in high school at the time, Ray was in college.  We played there for several months, which was a great experience because I learned what it was like to play for money.  You had to show up, you had to be there six nights a week, and you had to do two or three shows a night.  The last show was after the bars closed, and then all types would come pouring in…strippers, drunks, you name it.  For me, it all started at the Rubaiyat.  That’s where I learned to play for crowds and please people.”

Hubbard, an against-the-grain, touring road warrior, has appeared on Mountain Stage twelve times through the years.  The two have remained friends.

“I still see Ray regularly on the show.  As a matter of fact, Ray stuck around after his most recent performance on Mountain Stage, and we recorded a song by another Texan, Billy Joe Shaver, called Live Forever, which ended up being the title of the CD.  It’s a wonderful song.  We joked about it, because it’s the kind of song you shouldn’t record until you realize that you’re not going to live forever.  As a kid, you sing that song and you believe it.  It’s better when you’re my age, when you know your long years are behind you and you only have a short time left.  It was very moving to sing this song with Ray, because we hadn’t performed together in more than 45 years.”

Groce pauses a beat to reflect, and then, the way house cats do in the middle of a nap, rouses suddenly, expanding on the musical talent pouring out of Adamson during that era.

“I was the third of the four from our high school to have a hit song.  A year below me was a guy named Chuck Stevenson, who went by Buckwheat for a short time, before shortening it to B.W. Stevenson.  Sadly, he died in his late 30s, but he had two hits of his own, the biggest one being My Maria.  Whatever the reason, it was very odd that we all went to the same school at almost the same time.”

~  ~  ~

OPENING ACT:  LARRY GROCE AND THE STRONG POWER OF WEAK CONNECTIONS
(Stories of the obscure and the fantastical)

Kay Kyser:  “Can you please define a weasel?”

Contestant:  “A weasel is a little man.”

Kyser:  “Are you sure?”

Contestant:  “That’s what I heard my mother call my father.”

~  ~  ~

Before Groce gained national attention with the release of Junk Food Junkie, he embarked on a cross-continent odyssey that would ultimately lead him to West Virginia.  The year was 1966.  He had just graduated from Adamson High and set off on his own, convinced that music would be a big part of his future.  The turbulent Sixties was in full swing, with Vietnam on everyone’s mind, Los Angeles fresh off the heels of the 1965 Watts riot, the assassination of JFK in Dallas two years prior, and the Civil Rights Movement continuing the fight for racial equality.

“There was a lot going on in our nation and in the world.  I went away to college, and everybody else I hung around stayed in Texas,” Groce says.  “I enrolled in a small college in Illinois. I kept writing, and I became an English major.  Words were very important to me.”

So was music.

“I was a college senior when I recorded my first album, which was a collection of traditional hymns.  I recorded it in Nashville and it came out in 1970, the year I graduated.  I recorded my first original, secular album in Los Angeles in 1970, and released it the same year.  That was the beginning of my recording career, such as it was.

“The hymn album was an interesting experience, because I had never recorded before and I knew nothing about the process.  The Christian Science Church, which put out the album, hired an experienced Nashville producer. I think eight track recorders had just come into common use, and I don’t know if sixteen track recorders even existed…the Beatles, for example, started out using four track recorders.  It was a mostly acoustic album, although we did use a primitive synthesizer to emulate the harpsichord on one song.  Synthesizers back then weren’t like today; they were boxes that you plugged into, and if you wanted a different sound you had to change the plugs.  I had no idea how to make a record and when we were done the first mix sounded rough to me but I didn’t trust my ears so I was very grateful when the church got Kay Kyser to step in. He quickly agreed that it needed to be remixed and he helped in that process. It was a very fortunate thing for me that Kay decided to help out.”

 

kay-kyser-and-merwyn-bogue

Kay Kyser, an American bandleader and radio personality of the 1930s and 1940s, influenced the path that Larry Groce would take.

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Everybody knows the names Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Red Skelton.  Mention Kay Kyser and you’re likely to get blank stares, but there was a time when Kyser’s name was just as big as the others, his star just as bright.  Kyser, it turns out, was one of the most outrageous, over-the-top performers of the whole swing era.  From the late 1930s to the late 1940s, his orchestra produced eleven number one records and thirty-five top ten hits, while also appearing in seven feature films with such stars as Lucille Ball and John Barrymore.  Kyser, like Benny, Hope and Skelton, was also a major radio personality, with one of the highest rated shows in the country.  Then, at the height of his popularity, and with TV transforming comedians like Bob Hope into show business royalty, Kyser disappeared from public view.

Poof.

Like Dave Chappelle decades later, Kyser simply quit and never came back.

“Kay Kyser had a popular radio show called Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge, featuring his band, which was in some ways a novelty act like those played on The Dr. Demento Radio Show later on,” Groce recalls.  “Kay was an interesting character.  I believe he was the first radio personality to get a contract that paid $1 million a year, which was an astronomical sum in the 1940s.  Kay was a zany character.  He was also famous for doing a lot of novelty songs, like Three Little Fishes with Ish Kabibble, who was in his band.  That song became a huge hit.  Interestingly enough, Mike Douglas got started as a singer in Kay’s band, years before he had The Mike Douglas Show on TV.  Kay became a religious person later in life and walked away from the entertainment business.  Every now and then he would go on Mike’s show and talk about the old times, but that was it.”

Never known as a shrinking violet, Kyser was head cheerleader and class president at the University of North Carolina before heading north to pursue a career in entertainment.  His audacious personality not only produced big laughs, but was also responsible for his big break in show business.

“Kay told me some great stories, like how he got his national contract with NBC Radio,” Groce says.  “Kay’s band was on WLS in Chicago and was very popular, but at the time he didn’t realize how far the station’s 50,000-watt signal could broadcast.  During one show, he jokingly told his listeners that he’d give a Kollege of Musical Knowledge diploma to anyone who could answer a trivia question, and asked his listeners to mail in their answers.  A couple of weeks later he was shocked to learn that he was getting mail from as far away as Indiana, Arkansas and Missouri.  Well, the station realized it had a marketing opportunity and quickly printed certificates to capitalize on it.  The Kollege of Musical Knowledge became a regular part of the show, with Kay asking a question every week, and it wasn’t before long that he was receiving big loads of mail.  That’s when he told his manager that he wanted to get onto national radio. But they weren’t making any headway so Kay decided and that he needed a stunt to get the attention of national management.

 

Three-time Grammy-winner Keb' Mo' performs live on Mountain Stage.

Three-time Grammy-winner Keb’ Mo’ performs live on Mountain Stage.

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“As luck would have it, the NBC Radio executives were having a board meeting in Chicago.  Kay just pushed his way around the secretary – you have to understand, security back then wasn’t like it is today – and barged in with a big sack of mail.  He walked up to the president of NBC Radio, and, for dramatic effect, poured the letters on his head.  It caused a big commotion, and security was called in.  Kay figured that the police were going to arrest him, but he knew that his stunt was the best way to get board’s attention.  Kay told the president that he’d just dumped one week’s worth of mail on his head, and with that kind of following he should have a national radio show.  The president eventually calmed down and agreed to talk to Kay.  The rest, as they say, is history.”

Kyser had long since receded from public view by the time Groce recorded that first album down in Nashville.  The church knew that it would take a professional’s touch to help save it, and a call was made by someone from there that had a relationship with the retired radio personality.  Fortunately for Groce, Kyser agreed to inject himself into the project.

“Kay looked like someone who might sit around the courthouse in a small town, swapping stories with a bunch of old guys and living in the past,” Groce says, reflecting on that first encounter.  “He wore his pants a little bit too high, and a white shirt with a collar open. He didn’t look hip at all, or like anyone who would be a big fish in the entertainment business, and that fooled a lot of people.  Kay was very sharp.”

 

“Kay looked like someone who might sit around the courthouse in a small town, swapping stories with a bunch of old guys and living in the past,” Groce says, reflecting on that first encounter.  “He wore his pants a little bit too high, and a white shirt with a collar open. He didn’t look hip at all, or like anyone who would be a big fish in the entertainment business, and that fooled a lot of people.  Kay was very sharp.” – Larry Groce

 

Considering that Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge ran for eleven years, and that he presided over it all dressed in an academic gown complete with mortarboard, it’s easy to get lost in the visuals and underestimate the genius inside the man.  Forget that he couldn’t read a note of music, and that his musical training was limited.  Groce’s album needed help, and bringing in Kyser was the perfect remedy.

“We immediately knew that the mix was a mess.  I just said, ‘Here’s what I think, Mr. Kyser – it sounds bad.’  And he said, ‘You’re right, this is no good.  We’re going to remix it.  Let’s go to the studio.’  And we did.

“We connected immediately.  Kay had a great sense of humor and could deliver a line with a straight face.  We went to the office of a graphic designer who the church was talking to about designing the album cover. I had already been there and told Kay that the head man had a sign above his desk that read ‘We don’t give a damn how they do it in L.A.’, probably because Nashville was just emerging as more than just a center of country music, and a lot of people were coming in from Los Angeles, trying to tell people in Nashville how to run their business.  Well, when Kay met the guy he says with a straight face, ‘Let me tell you how we do it in L.A.’  They guy looked at him, and then looked at me and said, “Who is this guy?”  It was a great moment.  That’s the kind of guy Kay was – he looked like an old country gentleman who didn’t know what was going on, but he was very sharp.  He was a great comedian.”

Kyser would later play a pivotal role in Groce’s decision to live in West Virginia, a testament to the strong power of weak connections, but Kyser was hardly alone in this.

“Ron Krisel was a good friend of mine in college, and he and his brother Gary came from a show business family,” Groce says.  “Their mother’s name was Virginia Weidler.”

Like Kay Kyser, Virginia Weidler’s name isn’t immediately recognizable, her story nearly lost through the years.  Weidler was a child actor who appeared in more than 40 movies before the age of twenty-one.  She played Dinah Lord, the little girl in The Philadelphia Story, alongside Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart.  She acted with Clark Gable and Myrna Loy in Too Hot to Handle, Bette Davis in All This and Heaven Too, and Judy Garland in Babes on Broadway.

And then, just like Kay Kyser, Virginia Weidler vanished in plain sight.

“Her mother told her that, in order to be happy, she needed to walk away from acting when she was no longer a child star, and that’s what she did,” Groce says.  “Virginia got married and lived a happy life.  Other child actors of that time period struggled in one way or another; Shirley Temple was one exception, but look at Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.  Sadly, Virginia Weidler passed away at a young age, before I visited Ron’s house in Los Angeles, so I never got to meet her.”

Groce, however, did get to meet the musical side of the Weidler family.

“Virginia Weidler had three saxophone-playing brothers who were also in show business – Warner, Walt, and George Weidler.  Since their last name was a little too German, they ended up changing their stage name to Wilder and became known as the Wilder Brothers.  They were in show business at a young age, working as child extras in the Our Gang comedy series.  They later played in the Dorsey Orchestra and other big bands.  Interestingly, George was married to Doris Day for a few years.

“Ron and Gary had an interesting perspective because their family had been in show business, and it was because of them I was later able to get my foot in the door with Disney.  They introduced me to the Wilder Brothers, who had a little studio on the corner of Beverly Glen and Santa Monica Boulevard.  A lot of people recorded there at the time because it was cheap.  Weirdly enough, even the Manson family had recorded there once.  They knew people, and they helped me get a contract with a new company called Daybreak Records.  The head of Daybreak Records was a guy named Sonny Burke, who was married to Peggy Lee and who produced the last several Sinatra albums.  I did two records with them, one in 1970 and one in ‘71.  They got distributed and got some good reviews, but they didn’t get much airplay or sales.  It was still worthwhile, because I made some good connections and I learned a lot.”

~  ~  ~

Groce settled in New York City as the ‘70s dawned, building his career one gig at a time.  There was no hint that he’d ever have a hit song.  He was just another dude with a guitar trying to find a job, another  songwriter jotting down lyrics in a notebook.  Turns out everyone can’t be Hank Williams, arriving on the music scene like a bolt of lightning, but then again, Hillbilly Shakespeare died in the back of his Cadillac on New Year’s Eve, the drugs and alcohol finally catching up to him, his body laid to rest in a silver casket at age 29.

Groce’s career arc was far less tragic.  He lived in a one studio apartment with his now ex-wife on 93rd and Broadway, playing regularly at an organic restaurant-slash-coffeehouse called Focus, while she pursued her PhD at New York University.

“Focus was owned by two high school teachers who were interested in photography,” Groce says.  “It attracted and eclectic crowd; I met a guy there named Sid Kaplan, who was a developer and printer for several big time, black-and-white photographers, guys like Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

“Playing at Focus was ultimately how I got the idea for Junk Food Junkie.  In 1970, organic food restaurants weren’t so common.  I would eat their brown rice, and then I would sneak and have a hamburger and French fries, and that’s where the lyrics for Junk Food Junkie came from:  ‘Oh yeah, in the daytime I’m Mr. Natural, Just as healthy as I can be, Oh, but at night I’m a junk food junkie, Good Lord have pity on me…’”

Groce performed regularly at Focus, where he continued to meet talented and interesting people, and wherever else he could find work.  He also continued to write songs – reflections of small-town picaresques, studies of drunken ennui, tales of soured romance, whatever moved him at the moment – and although many of them would never see light of day, the exercise kept his creative side sharp.

“There were four of us who played at Focus once or twice a week,” he says.  “One of them was Melissa Manchester.  I became friends with both Melissa and her husband at the time, Larry Brezner, who later became a very successful film producer, with hit movies like Good Morning, Vietnam to his credit.  Melissa took the famous songwriting course from Paul Simon at NYU.  Coincidentally, so did The Roches, who have been on Mountain Stage.  Terre Roche has written about the influence that Paul Simon had on her and her sisters.  As a matter of fact, Paul asked them to sing backup on one of his records.”

After a year in New York, Groce was story rich but pocket poor.

“I didn’t have an agent or a manager until later, so I would have to get my own jobs.  I played wherever I could find work – coffeehouses, college campuses, parks.  It was also a struggle financially.  At Focus, I didn’t get paid a fee to perform; instead, they would pass around a basket.  Some nights I’d make $75 or $100, which wasn’t bad money back then, but a lot of times it was less than that.  Having a record helped, because if you had a record, that meant that you were one step up from somebody who had nothing, even if you weren’t famous.”

 

“I didn’t have an agent or a manager until later, so I would have to get my own jobs.  I played wherever I could find work – coffeehouses, college campuses, parks.  It was also a struggle financially.  At Focus, I didn’t get paid a fee to perform; instead, they would pass around a basket.  Some nights I’d make $75 or $100, which wasn’t bad money back then, but a lot of times it was less than that.  Having a record helped, because if you had a record, that meant that you were one step up from somebody who had nothing, even if you weren’t famous.” – Larry Groce

 

The lack of income expressed a sober arithmetical fact.  He still wanted to pursue his dream, but the bills needed to be paid.

“I moved to Los Angeles sometime in 1971.  I was on the radio a bit out there, thanks to a syndicated show called FolkScene on KPFK, which was a local, left wing, community radio station.  I would go on the show and perform every three or four months.  A mix of artists would come and play – from complete unknowns to national names like Tom Waits.  It was all acoustic.  I played the Troubadour, as well as any other club where I could land jobs.  By 1972, I realized that I wasn’t a very good fit for the commercial music business.  I became convinced that I wasn’t ever going to be commercially successful, and I felt like I just didn’t fit with the people that I met in L.A.  I didn’t particularly like the lifestyle, because I didn’t drink, or smoke, or take drugs – not that everybody did, but that was part of the scene for a lot of musicians.  I wasn’t judging them, because what they did was none of my business, but I knew that it wasn’t for me.  And that’s about the time that I got a phone call from a guy from North Carolina named Loonis McGlohon.”

Like Kay Kyser and Virginia Weidler, Loonis McGlohon comes with a story.  The writer of hundreds of jazz and popular songs, including the cantata A Child’s Christmas, McGlohon also wrote the theme for Charles Kuralt’s On the Road.  He was a well-known songwriter and arranger who worked with Jimmy Dorsey and Judy Garland at various points, and who also co-authored two Sinatra hits.

 

Norah Jones, just one of many great musicians to perform on Mountain Stage through the years.

Norah Jones, just one of many great musicians to perform on Mountain Stage through the years.

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“I can only guess that Loonis learned about me from Kay Kyser, since I think they both were from North Carolina” Groce says.  “One day he called me out of the blue asked if I would like to go to West Virginia as part of a program for the National Endowment for the Arts.  I thought he wanted me to go there for a week and play as an artist in residence, so I said, ‘Sure, I’ll go play anywhere.’  And then he tells me that this isn’t for a week, that it’s for nine months.  The money was good, and we were looking for a chance to go somewhere else anyway, so I talked to my wife about it.  Since we were on the east coast at the time and getting ready to drive cross-country to L.A., we decided to drive down from Connecticut and take a look.  There were a lot of firsts on that trip to Charleston:  It was the first time we’d ever been to West Virginia; it was the first time I’d ever heard the word Kanawha; it was the first time I ever seriously considered doing something so different than what I’d been doing up to that point.”

Certain places, for unknowable reasons, become socio-cultural Petri dishes, but West Virginia has never been one of them.  Groce, who had tried the big city life, felt an instant connection to the Mountain State.  The job itself also had appeal.

“It was both intriguing and challenging, because the State Arts Council was just emerging at the time.  There was no Culture Center yet.  It was very small, maybe three people, and they were the ones who were going to oversee the program, with funding provided by the NEA, the State Arts Council, and some local money.  The job covered Barbour, Tucker, and Randolph counties – I had no idea how big or small an area that was, but I liked the people that I met with, so I immediately had a good feeling about it.  We drove north of Charleston to Philippi, and then to Elkins, so we could explore our potential new home.   I remember sitting and eating in a little restaurant on Main Street in Philippi, and then later crossing a covered bridge and seeing Alderson Broadus College on the hill.”

Smitten, it didn’t take Groce long to make up his mind.

“By the time went got back to Los Angeles I had decided to take the job,” he says.  “I had no idea what I was going to do when I got there, I just knew that I was being hired to serve the community musically.  They gave me a small budget to buy instruments, and some money to bring in people for concerts.  They asked me to visit schools and share my love of music.  The rest was up to me.  I had never done anything like this before, but I loved it.  What I found were two very important things; first, I really liked working with children – playing for them, helping them to write songs, and doing all of those things that you could do musically with children.  Secondly, I found that everybody I met in West Virginia was so friendly, which was unlike where I was before, and I instantly recognized that this is where I fit in – not in Los Angeles, not in New York, but here in West Virginia. Many of the older folks here reminded me of my grandparents”

Feeling really at home for the first time since leaving Oak Cliff, Groce wasted little time establishing roots.

“We decided to live in Philippi, renting a little house from a prominent doctor, and two years later we bought a house on Route 19, just outside of town.  The house was built in 1876 and sat on 19 acres, and the man that built it used oak and poplar cut right there on the property.  The bricks were also made right there.  It was a grand wood frame house, with nine fireplaces – they cut walnut for the mantle pieces, the doors, and the window frames.  The original owner died at 92, after falling off his horse in a fox hunt. I thought, these are the kind of people that I admire.”

While Groce felt connected to the community, there was the small problem of his contract coming to an end.  By then, it was clear that the people of West Virginia loved him back.

“Although the job with the NEA was over in nine months, the people in Randolph County wanted me to stay, and they came up with the money to continue my work.  I traveled all over –  some days I would drive 100 to 120 miles, from Philippi to Hendricks in Tucker County, down to Valley Bend in Randolph County, and then back home.  Those were country miles, two lanes and a lot of curves, and in the winter it could be really difficult.  I visited a couple of one-room elementary schools.  I developed a way to work with kids, and I helped them to write songs.  It was rewarding work.

“That first year, I was one of only three people in the country doing this NEA program…there was an African drummer, a New Orleans jazz player who played clarinet, and me.  Eventually, the program changed; they didn’t pay people to stay in one place for nine months any longer, they paid for shorter stays instead.  I did some of those shorter residencies also because I was on the move and would mix the residency work with regular concerts, even after I had the hit song.  Over a ten year period I ended up doing residencies in 21 states.  I would stay at a school for anywhere from three days to two weeks, work with the kids, and then travel back home or do other gigs. I continued to do it along with clubs and other concert work right up until I started working with Mountain Stage in 1983.”

Groce pauses.  He smiles.

“That’s how I fell in love with West Virginia.  In many ways, I felt like West Virginia was the roots of where I came from.  Even today, there’s a way of life that still seems to carry on here, one that’s gone from a lot of other places.  And that doesn’t mean we are backwards; I think that what people care about here are things that I think are important.  So it fits with me.  I’ve been here since 1972, and I don’t foresee ever leaving West Virginia.”

~  ~  ~

ACT TWO:  FROM JUNK FOOD TO POOH
(Groce blows up)

Oh, folks but lately I have been spotted
With a Big Mac on my breath
Stumbling into a Colonel Sanders
With a face as white as death
I’m afraid someday they’ll find me
Just stretched out on my bed
With a handful of Pringles potato chips
And a Ding Dong by my head
  – Larry Groce.  Junk Food Junkie.

~  ~  ~

Much in the same way that Pulp Fiction resuscitated John Travolta’s acting career, Junk Food Junkie brought Groce’s recording career back from the dead.  Groce had walked away from Los Angeles and turned his back on the music industry.  He was as cold as he could get, but he’d left on good terms and he still had that itch.

“I realized that if I still wanted to be a singer-songwriter I had to make it a priority and get back out into the world,” Groce says, “and some of my LA music friends  encouraged me to get back into circulation.  I went back to L.A. in ‘74 and connected with a guy who would eventually become my manager.  He started finding work, pushing for a record deal, and doing all of the other stuff that people in the business do.  I played in some pretty good coffeehouses and listening clubs around the country during this time.”

One of them, McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, was celebrated for its intimate, acoustic concerts.  A homey hang for L.A. bohemians, it was L.A.’s premier triple threat of musicality: Music store, music school and concert hall.  To enter McCabe’s was to enter a strange world where the ringing of the cash register didn’t seem to matter.  It was a church without the ridiculous theology, a zone where worship of music without commercial baggage was practiced, a retail outlet where humanity prevailed over profit.  It’s still alive and well today, and over the years some big names have walked through the doors.  Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, and Townes Van Zandt have all performed at McCabe’s.  Bob Dylan briefly took lead-guitar lessons there. Joni Mitchell came to hear slack-key guitarists Ledward Ka’apana and Cyril Pahinui.  George Harrison dropped by to shop.

 

McCabe's Guitar Shop, is a musical instrument store and live music venue on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica, California. Opened in 1958, McCabe's specializes in acoustic and folk instruments, including guitars, banjos, mandolins, dulcimers, fiddles, ukuleles, psaltries, bouzoukis, sitars, ouds, and ethnic percussion. Since 1969, McCabe's has also been a noted forum for folk concerts.

McCabe’s Guitar Shop, is a musical instrument store and live music venue on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica, California. Opened in 1958, McCabe’s specializes in acoustic and folk instruments, including guitars, banjos, mandolins, dulcimers, fiddles, ukuleles, psaltries, bouzoukis, sitars, ouds, and ethnic percussion. Since 1969, McCabe’s has also been a noted forum for folk concerts.  McCabe’s is where Groce recorded ‘Junk Food Junkie’.

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“McCabe’s was an institution.  It was a guitar shop in the front, but in the back they had a room that held about 150 people.  There was a small stage, and all kinds of people played music there through the years.  You had an interesting mix of performers – famous artists and up-and-coming acts.  I played at McCabe’s several times.  We later learned that they were recording the performances, but we didn’t know that.  Since they should have gotten permission, we asked for access to the recordings.”

Groce’s smile carries a hint of nostalgia.  McCabe’s holds a special place for him still.

“McCabe’s is where we recorded Junk Food Junkie.  It was a song that had always resonated, because whenever I sang it people thought it was funny and went crazy.  My manager wanted to put it out as a single.  I was all for it, although at the time I didn’t realize that I might get labeled as a novelty singer. There have always been performers who’ve done those types of songs – Little Jimmy Dickens years ago, Weird Al today – but I wasn’t thinking about being labeled that way at the time.  I just knew that people liked the song.”

 

“McCabe’s is where we recorded Junk Food Junkie.  It was a song that had always resonated, because whenever I sang it people thought it was funny and went crazy.  My manager wanted to put it out as a single.  I was all for it, although at the time I didn’t realize that I might get labeled as a novelty singer. There have always been performers who’ve done those types of songs – Little Jimmy Dickens years ago, Weird Al today – but I wasn’t thinking about being labeled that way at the time.  I just knew that people liked the song.” – Larry Groce

 

There was work to be done before Junkie could be considered commercially viable.  The record couldn’t be successfully marketed and sold in the mainstream without a more polished sound.

“My producer sweetened the sound by adding bass and drums in the studio, which was difficult because the song didn’t stay in time – it was just me on the stage at McCabe’s when it was recorded, so I would slow down and speed up wherever I felt like it.  I’m sure the studio musicians were cursing me as they tried to follow along, but drums and bass were needed to make it sound like a commercial record.  We even added some applause and laughter in certain places to beef it up a little bit.”

His song complete, Groce quickly realized that there were other obstacles.  They couldn’t break through without a record deal.

“The next challenge was getting a record company to take it,” Groce says.  “The novelty of the song had some appeal, but everyone turned us down.  That’s when my manager formed a record company, put the song out himself, and hired an independent promotion guy to promote it to radio stations in four states – California, Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada.  Nowadays, radio stations are programmed by a select few who generate scientifically sampled playlists.  There was a time when you could work with the jocks at the stations and get them to play your records, and I was one of the last people to do that with this song.  The problem was, we didn’t have any distribution.  The song would climb to as high as 18 or 20 in a certain market, and then the station would call my manager’s record company – which didn’t exist, except for the purpose of getting Junk Food Junkie made – begging to get some of the records so they could sell them.  He would get the names of record stores in the area and send out a small batch for them to sell for free.  We didn’t care if we made money on it or not, we just wanted to keep the song going.”

 

'Junk Food Junkie' would would become a Top 10 hit and land Larry Groce on the music map.

‘Junk Food Junkie’ would would become a Top 10 hit and land Larry Groce on the music map.

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The song was gaining regional altitude, but Groce knew it needed additional thrust if it was going to escape the atmosphere and go national.

“There was a station in Colorado that held a song-versus-song contest, with the listeners voting to decide the outcome, and my record stayed on the air for five straight days, beating out some big name acts.  On Friday it was declared the champion for that week, which meant very little, except that the station made a big deal out of it, and it climbed into the Top 10 on the charts at that station.”

That week proved to be the tipping point.  Groce suddenly knew how Kay Kyser felt when he received that avalanche of mail, and he knew that it was his turn to seize the moment.

“That showed us that the song had something going for it.  My manager went back and negotiated with the record companies, and that’s when Warner/Curb, Mike Curb’s label under Warner Brothers, agreed to take it on.  The contract negotiations dragged on and it took almost six months before we could release the song again on a Warner Brothers label.  We thought the delay might have killed it.  Well, it was re-released in 1976 and it started climbing the charts.  It spent 15 weeks on the Billboard Top 100, reached No. 9, and sold a half million copies.  It gave me national exposure.  Dr. Demento chose it as his song of the year in 1976.”

The hit validated Groce’s decision to return his roots.

“Because it was such an oddball song, I got more mileage out of it than if it had been a love song or a rock song.  It was a little weird, it was recorded live, it was funny, and it was about a clash of cultures – healthy and organic versus fast and greasy.  All of those things together made it a fun song.  Deejays liked it.  Radio stations would have contests where listeners would call in, and they would give away everything that was in the song, things like Twinkies, Cheetos, and Dr. Pepper.”

Junk Food Junkie became a national sensation.  The New York Times wrote about it.  People magazine had an article dedicated to it.  Groce appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on a night when Joan Rivers was guest-hosting.  He was on The Merv Griffin Show twice.  He was also on The Midnight Special; the guest host that night was Janis Ian, who later appeared as a guest on Mountain Stage.

“I also performed on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand,” he says.  “Dick Clark had a standing policy that every act appearing on the show had to lip-synch.  I explained to him that I couldn’t lip-synch the song all the way through, because I had recorded it live and some of the parts were tricky.  He told me not to worry about it.  He asked me to point out the tricky parts, and that he’d have the cameras cut away to the kids dancing.  That’s what they did.  They showed the kids’ reactions during those parts. So I lip synched a song that was recorded live.”

~  ~  ~

I’m proud to nominate a bear
Who’s been a friend to me
A bear whose name and story is
known by millions sea to sea
And so right now, without more words
Or any more ado
I give you our next president
The honorable Winnie the Pooh
  – Larry Groce.  Winnie the Pooh for President

~  ~  ~

Walt Disney borrowed against his own life insurance to pay for Disneyland’s original design, and according to friends and family, he never seemed happier.  It was his sandbox.  “You will find yourself in the land of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy,” he crowed in early brochures for the park.  “Nothing of the present exists.”

Disney, it turns out, is very much a part of Groce’s yesterday, and thanks to the magic of music royalties, a pleasant part of his tomorrow.

“Junk Food Junkie was a hit, and then, almost as suddenly, the song Winnie the Pooh for President was nominated for a Grammy,” Groce says, his next story reaffirming the strong power of weak connections.  “Gary Krisel was working for Disney’s record division by this time, and he went to his boss and said, ‘I’ve got a friend who I think could write some fun stuff for us.’  They were doing this marketing campaign with Sears called Winnie the Pooh for President, and they needed a song.  Nothing they had tried to that point had worked, and Gary’s boss was starting to get desperate.  That’s when Gary says, ‘My friend has a hit song on the radio.’  At that time, Junk Food Junkie was number two on KHJ Radio in Los Angeles.  That helped Gary convince the guy that this wasn’t a nobody, and he agreed to give me a chance.  So, I wrote this song, Winnie the Pooh for President, and they liked it.”

 

'Pooh for President' would generate a prestigious Grammy nomination for Larry Groce.

‘Pooh for President’ would generate a prestigious Grammy nomination for Larry Groce.

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So did the Academy’s voting members, who recognized the song with a Grammy nomination.  Whether you’re talking Pooh or Prince, a Grammy nod is heady stuff.

“It wasn’t a hit song or anything, and it wasn’t played on the radio.  It was part of a fun and educational book- record that helped kids understand the election process.  That was 1976, the year Jimmy Carter was elected, so they decided to do a mock campaign, with Winnie the Pooh running for president.  The idea was that Piglet had nominated Winnie the Pooh, so I wrote the song that way, to be sung by two people:  Sterling Holloway, the man famous for doing Winnie the Pooh’s voice, and the guy who did Piglet’s voice.”

Walt Disney originally considered Holloway for the voice of Sleepy in 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but passed at the last minute.  Four years later he chose Holloway as the voice of Mr. Stork in Dumbo, which led to several other prominent roles, including the iconic character Winnie the Pooh.  Groce still finds it hard to believe that Holloway sang his song.  Even harder for him to believe is that he ended up on the record with Holloway.

“The song starts out, ‘I’m proud to nominate a bear…’, but what they found out was, the guy who did Piglet’s voice couldn’t sing very well,” Groce says.  “So they turned to me and said, ‘You’ve got to sing Piglet’s part.’  I was able to pull it off.  Sterling Holloway came in later and overdubbed Pooh’s part.  They played it like it was at a convention, with applause and all this other stuff.  It was cute, and I guess the marketing campaign was a really big success for Sears.  The song was nominated for a Best Recording for Children Grammy in 1976.”

Struggling to find gigs just a few years before, Groce now found himself in demand.

“That was the first thing that I did for Disney.  Around this same time, Disney secured the rights to Little Golden Books in a deal with Western Publishing, and they wanted to turn them into book-records.  They asked me to write at least one song on every recording, so I wrote 36 songs.  It was great fun.”

Groce had found a niche at Disney, thanks to the strong power of weak connections.

“By 1978, Gary was climbing higher in the Disney organization, and he said, ‘We’re going to do a record called Disney’s Children’s Favorites, and we’re going to put 25 or 26 songs on it.  I want you to work on this with us.’  Most of the songs were songs that we all knew but weren’t being recorded anymore.  Songs like Red River Valley, Turkey and the Straw, all of the childhood songs that we use to learn but had been forgotten by the recording industry.  He said, ‘I want you to sing them.’  And I did. I went to Nashville, and worked with some really good musicians.  Everyone had a blast working on these old songs.  When does a serious Nashville musician get a chance to play Red River Valley?”

Groce’s relationship with Disney didn’t end there.

“I worked on several other Disney projects, like one called Goin’ Quackers, which was a collection of funny songs, and also Mousercise.  Gary showed me a vintage a cartoon they wanted to use for a national television commercial to sell it. The cartoon had a bunch of bugs in a tree dancing, and one of the bugs looked like Cab Calloway.  They wanted me to watch it and try to write something, and if they liked it they would put it on the record and use it on the commercial.  So I immediately started writing a song that became Bugaboo and they used it.”

 

“I worked on several other Disney projects, like one called Goin’ Quackers, which was a collection of funny songs, and also Mousercise.  Gary showed me a vintage a cartoon they wanted to use for a national television commercial to sell it. The cartoon had a bunch of bugs in a tree dancing, and one of the bugs looked like Cab Calloway.  They wanted me to watch it and try to write something, and if they liked it they would put it on the record and use it on the commercial.  So I immediately started writing a song that became Bugaboo and they used it”

 

Groce continues to enjoy the fruit of all that hard work because many of those albums continue to sell in their original or repackaged forms.

“I didn’t get royalties as a singer on Disney’s Children’s Favorites, just a fee. Even though my name is on the record, Mickey Mouse appears on the cover and he’s somewhat more famous than me. I did get royalties as a writer.  If I had gotten royalties as a singer, I would be living in a different house right now [laughs].  I ended up doing three more Disney’s Children’s Favorites – volumes two, three, and four.

“One time they called me and explained that they were doing a lullaby album with a variety of singers. They asked, ‘Do you have any lullabies?’  To which I said, ‘Of course I do. I’ll send one to you right away.’  That night I wrote a song called Mountain Lullaby and sent it off the next day.  What did I have to lose?  They thought it was great and put it on the record.  Today, the Appalachian Children’s Chorus here in Charleston often sings Mountain Lullaby and it sounds wonderful with the children’s voices.  So I have these things that are still alive today, almost 40 years after I worked on them.”

Eventually, Groce moved on from Disney.  So did Krisel.

“Gary went on to become head of marketing for Disney.  Then he jumped over to DreamWorks, and he worked there for a while.  He became very successful and then retired in his forties I think.  He did very well for himself.  I’m still very grateful that he helped me get my foot in the door at Disney.”

~  ~  ~

ACT THREE:  THE RISE (AND RISE) OF MOUNTAIN STAGE
(If you build it, they will come)

There’s a spring
In the mountain and it flows down to the town
From the river to the ocean it goes the whole world ‘round
That spring of water goes the whole world ‘round
  – Larry Groce.  A Simple Song

~  ~  ~

Despite the national success of Junkie and the multiple projects at Disney, Groce had yet to find his higher calling.  Looking back now, it’s easy to view his career arc as a beautiful triangulation – singer-songwriter, artist-in-residence, host-producer – but as the ‘80s dawned, Groce was trapped in a kind of pre-iconic limbo, having not yet become the face of a revered performance program, and having not quite gotten his fill of performing on the road.

“I went to England and appeared on a BBC show called Get Set for Summer, which was a Saturday morning children’s entertainment show,” he says.  “I was actually on with Tears for Fears, and I sang Disney songs.  I did Prairie Home Companion three times.  I was on Canada Tonight, and several other Canadian TV shows.  I did a special on the Disney Channel when that network first started.  I was on Nashville Now.  I went on Dr. Demento’s radio show couple of times, which, at the time, was recorded in his basement if I remember right.”

Every stop would play a role in helping shape Mountain Stage.

 

Larry Groce

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“In the beginning, Mountain Stage was something of a variety show and had spoken word performance and comedy as well as music.  We were trying to introduce the show to the NPR stations so we took it to a public radio conference in San Diego. We tapped Kathy Mattea, who was just ascending in the world of country music, and asked Dr. Demento come on and do a comedy routine.  We did the same thing with Gordon Jump, the guy that used to play the Maytag repairman and starred in WKRP in Cincinnati.  I knew him through California connections. We did some comedy and poetry and various things back then, but we eventually evolved into music only.”

Groce is happy to cite the influences that he’s borrowed from through the years, giving credit where credit is due.  Mountain Stage is an amalgam of experiences good and bad, of moments big and seemingly insignificant.  Just as Prince borrowed from Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Muddy Waters and Duke Ellington to name a few, creating his own identity in the process, Groce has built Mountain Stage by using the same philosophy.

“One thing that’s really shaped Mountain Stage is all of the shows that I did leading up to it.  Merv Griffin and Dick Clark were both very nice to me.  These were two huge commercial names in the entertainment business, guys who were millionaires many times over.  Merv Griffin owned the Wheel of Fortune TV show, and nobody was bigger than him in terms of pop television, and yet he was extremely nice to me.  The same was true with Dick Clark.  When I went on Dick’s show in Los Angeles, he had a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the guest room, which was straight from the song [laughs].  So we sat and ate, and he just got to know me.  He said that it was great to have me as his guest, that he loved Junk Food Junkie, and that we would have a fun time with it on the show.”

 

“One thing that’s really shaped Mountain Stage is all of the shows that I did leading up to it.  Merv Griffin and Dick Clark were both very nice to me.  These were two huge commercial names in the entertainment business, guys who were millionaires many times over.  Merv Griffin owned the Wheel of Fortune TV show, and nobody was bigger than him in terms of pop television, and yet he was extremely nice to me.  The same was true with Dick Clark.  When I went on Dick’s show in Los Angeles, he had a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the guest room, which was straight from the song [laughs].  So we sat and ate, and he just got to know me.  He said that it was great to have me as his guest, that he loved Junk Food Junkie, and that we would have a fun time with it on the show.” – Larry Groce

 

What emerged from those experiences was a philosophy that has not only sustained the Mountain Stage for more than thirty years, but one that has endeared it to some of the most talented and successful musicians in the world.

“Three guiding principles were important to me when we started Mountain Stage,” Groce says quickly.  “One, I didn’t want to ever tell anybody what to sing on the show.  That’s up to the artist.  I didn’t care what they sang.  Two, I wanted to give every guest a chance to sing at least three songs and have about the same amount of time as the other guests onstage and in sound check.  There have been a few times where we’ve bent the rules, a few exceptions where people might have complicated setups but we only push it so far.  And three, I wanted everybody to be treated as equally as possible. I didn’t want the headliner to be treated like a star, and then turn around and tell everyone else to go sleep in the toilet. I wanted to make it as egalitarian as possible.  As a rule, every guest gets the same great food to eat, the same quality hotel accommodations, and so forth.  It’s been that way since the very beginning.  Everybody gets about the same amount of time to rehearse and to do sound check.  They use the same dressing rooms.  It makes no difference whether you come on first, last, or anywhere in-between.  Everyone is treated well on Mountain Stage.

~  ~  ~

When I left my home
And my family,
I was no more than a boy
In the company of strangers
In the quiet of the railway station,
Running scared,
Laying low,
Seeking out the poorer quarters
Where the ragged people go,
Looking for the places
Only they would know.
  – Simon & Garfunkel.  The Boxer

~  ~  ~

Larry Groce didn’t do it alone.

He is quick to point out that Mountain Stage is a team effort, that there are many hands involved – have been for decades – and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Hell, Mountain Stage wasn’t even his idea.  Groce is the face of the show, the Elton John to a small army of Bernie Taupins, but he understands that nothing gets done without the hard work of some incredibly talented and dedicated people.  You don’t land a group like R.E.M. without having your shit together.  A show like this doesn’t survive – nay, thrive – for more than thirty years by relying solely on the talent of one person.

Mountain Stage started with two guys who I already knew – Francis Fisher and Andy Ridenour – they called me,” he says.  “We all brought something different to the show.  Francis was the live radio guy and engineer, while Andy had the business acumen and knowledge of the public radio system.  They needed somebody to be the face and voice of Mountain Stage and decide on the talent, and they knew I’d had a hit song, had been on national radio, and had some valuable connections.  I was immediately interested.”

Groce pauses.

“I only had one condition; I wanted Mountain Stage to be a national show, not just statewide.  I know that sounded naïve at the time because we didn’t have any experience, we didn’t have any money, and we didn’t have any equipment, but I knew that if we didn’t think of it as a national show, it would never become a national show.”

 

“I only had one condition; I wanted Mountain Stage to be a national show, not just statewide.  I know that sounded naïve at the time because we didn’t have any experience, we didn’t have any money, and we didn’t have any equipment, but I knew that if we didn’t think of it as a national show, it would never become a national show.” – Larry Groce

 

The mindset was admirable, but few at the time thought a quirky radio show based in West Virginia could make it onto the national stage, especially on a Sunday afternoon.  Groce, Fisher and Ridenour pressed on, undeterred.

“We did our pilot in 1981, but we didn’t get any money until two years later.  We did one show a month from December 1983 until the end of 1984, experimenting with the format and learning from our mistakes.  The productions in those early days were very crude.  We had mostly local acts on the show – basically, anyone that we could get.  By 1985 we had a little more money, so we did this live show from the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, with a satellite uplink so that anybody in the United States could listen to it.  I believe this was the first time that NPR satellite uplink had ever been used, and it showed that we could appeal to a national audience.”

Spoleto brought Mountain Stage a legitimacy it needed to take the next step.

“We knew that Prairie Home Companion was already doing a live show in this way, which provided a roadmap, so we reached out to National Public Radio and pitched the idea of distributing our show.  After a while they agreed, but predicted that we’d never get more than twenty-five stations to pick us up. They also said that it would be difficult to do what we wanted to do while based in West Virginia. In other words, we couldn’t do a show like this from here. They may have been correct from their point of view, but their tone sounded condescending to us.  That’s when I began to realize, as all West Virginians already know, how many people from the outside see this place – and that was strong motivation.  We wanted to prove them wrong.”

Fueled by the sleights, the trio went about the business of growing their show.  There were moments of doubt, as there are with any startup, but these slowly receded with each passing month, and with every new show they produced.

“A funny thing became very clear to us; the higher-ups at NPR were absolutely wrong.  West Virginia was the perfect place to do the kind of show we wanted to do.  We had a low overhead that you couldn’t find in a big city.   Think about it; it would cost way too much money to do this in New York, and there would be constant pressure on you to please some critic, or to be hip and trendy.  You would be in a market with intense competition, and you would always be trying to come up with the next big thing.  But we didn’t have to do that in Charleston.  We’ve never had to do that.  What we’ve found is that the acts coming in here like that we’re on a lot of stations but it still feels like a small venue. They know we’re off the beaten path.  For some, it’s their first time receiving national exposure, and because we’re smaller and more intimate, it doesn’t feel as intimidating.  Most acts think of West Virginians as nice people, and this helps to make them feel more comfortable.  They forget about all the other stuff and lose their inhibitions.  Of course they get nervous sometimes, but we try to make them feel comfortable.  We’ll spend time with them in the green room before they go on, and help them to relax, tell them that the people out there will love them.  And you know what?  They do.”

While having quality acts and a nationwide audience is important, putting butts in seats is also key to the show’s survival.  Groce is quick to point out that many West Virginians have supported Mountain Stage from Day One.

“People outside the state seldom give West Virginians enough credit.  The audiences here are nice and polite, but they are also very smart.  They don’t fawn over someone just because they’re a musician from elsewhere.  They don’t cheer and scream just for showing up, but if you’re good, they respond.  That’s what I love about it.  It’s an honest thing.  We don’t have somebody stirring up the audience, which is what happens on a lot of other shows.  Everything that you hear on Mountain Stage is organic.  We do edit the show – we take out things and we fix things if we can, but we don’t redo a lot of stuff.  What you hear is pretty much how it happens.”

 

“People outside the state seldom give West Virginians enough credit.  The audiences here are nice and polite, but they are also very smart.  They don’t fawn over someone just because they’re a musician from elsewhere.  They don’t cheer and scream just for showing up, but if you’re good, they respond.  That’s what I love about it.  It’s an honest thing.  We don’t have somebody stirring up the audience, which is what happens on a lot of other shows.  Everything that you hear on Mountain Stage is organic.  We do edit the show – we take out things and we fix things if we can, but we don’t redo a lot of stuff.  What you hear is pretty much how it happens.” – Larry Groce

 

Before adopting taped broadcasts, Mountain Stage was truly an open microphone to anyone able to pick up the signal.

“For the first 12 years, from 1983 to 1995, Mountain Stage was completely live.  Everything you heard went out statewide just the way it went down.  And then we went to a taped broadcast, which gave us many advantages that we didn’t have before.  For example, we can let everybody play a little longer; so, if you come to the show to see your favorite act, we don’t have to cut it off after 20 minutes because we need to get off the air. And performers aren’t afraid to tune up or tell a story that might be too long.

“Another advantage of going to taped broadcasts had to do with the Sunday, 3 o’clock show time when we were live.  Charleston isn’t the easiest or quickest place to get in and out of, especially on airplanes. It was hard to get acts who performed on Saturday night in here Sunday on time. And they sure didn’t want to be doing sound checks at 9am. So taping allowed us to start later in the day. We’ve started at 7pm ever since we went to tape. Live radio had an edge, but the downside was too much. Francis still wishes that we still did it live, but there are plenty of reasons why we don’t.”

~  ~  ~

So how did you get here under my skin
Swore that I’d never let you back in
Should’ve known better
Than trying to let you go
‘Cause we go go go again
– Norah Jones & Ray Charles.  Here We Go Again (Genius Loves Company)

~  ~  ~

Invention has its own algorithm – genius, obsession, serendipity, and epiphany in some unknowable combination – and no two fingerprints are the same.  Whether you’re talking Apple or Mercedes or Mountain Stage, every great success story has a certain DNA that sets it apart from everyone else.  For Larry Groce, Francis Fisher, and Andy Ridenour, Mountain Stage has leveraged six genius moves to creation a show unlike any other:

Genius Move #1:  The decision to mash genres.

Today it barely feels edgy, but back then it was a radical concept, something that many felt would crash Mountain Stage into the ground immediately after takeoff.

Mountain Stage is the first live show to mix genres the way that we do,” Groce says.  “There were radio stations that did something similar with recorded music, but we were the first live show to mix folk, acoustic, country, bluegrass, alt rock, you name it.  We didn’t know of anyone else doing it when we started.  There are others who do it today, but we were alone back then.  We were pioneers.”

Genius Move #2:  The decision to keep it real.

“Mixing genres in the same show means that we have mixed audiences that come to our shows.  In West Virginia, most people just aren’t that concerned about being hip.  That isn’t their first concern, whereas it’s very important in some other places.  That’s not what Mountain Stage is about.  If you like the music, great, if you don’t, great.  But if you think we’re trying to be the hippest thing in the world, think again.  That’s not us.  We’re not ever going to do that, at least not as long as I’m here.  We’re going to look for quality, we’re going to try to give you something that’s interesting, and we’re going to take chances.  Some acts may not work as well as others, or as well as we’d hoped, or you may not like them, but that’s okay.  You found out you didn’t like them, and now you don’t have to mess with them anymore.  We want to give you a wide sample, expose you to as many different artists and genres as possible, and then move on to the next show.

Genius Move #3:  The decision to cast a wide net.

“Opening the show up to a broader spectrum of music has been a key to our success.  We realized very early on the advantage of welcoming all kinds of music to Mountain Stage, from old-time fiddlers to African music, from jazz to singer-songwriters, to Americana, to Cajun, to blues, to bluegrass.  When you do all of these things, then you can aim for the best people in all of them.  If you specialize in just one – bluegrass, for example – you soon start to run out of quality acts.  That’s just the way it is.  You’ve got performers like Dale McCoury, The Earls of Leicester, Ricky Skaggs and some others at the top, but Mountain Stage does 26 shows annually.  The diversity in the music helps to ensure that we have quality performances.  That doesn’t mean we always get the very best, because life doesn’t work that way.

“Casting a wide net means that we don’t have to worry about putting someone on just to fit a certain format.  Our only criteria is that we put people on who we think are talented, and that we think have a chance to stay around.  We’re hoping that you’ll be listening to their music 10 or 20 years later.  We’re not geniuses, and we can’t pick them all right, but you’ll find some artists that have been on Mountain Stage ten times.  Robert Earl Keen was recently on the show.  His first appearance was back in 1989, so he’s been coming to Mountain Stage for 27 years.  Why?  Because he’s a high-quality guy.  He’s a great performer, he’s still good, and people like him.”

Genius Move #4:  The decisions to deliver an eclectic show.

“Another thing you learn about West Virginia, is the respect West Virginians have for older people,
Groce says.  “Is someone like the late, legendary bluegrass player Ralph Stanley bad because he’s old?  People here respect talent no matter what the age, and that’s the way it ought to be.  I love to put somebody who’s seventy-five on the show with somebody who’s twenty-two.  That’s one of my favorite things, because the performer who’s twenty-two has something to learn, and the performer who’s seventy-five has something to give.  We had a show down in Bristol, and on it we had two performers in their seventies – Odetta and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott – and I thought that somebody should be making a documentary of these people talking, because, between them, there’s over a hundred years of things that they’ve done musically, with everyone from Woody Guthrie to Paul Robeson.”

Genius Move #5:  The decision to treat all acts equally.

“What we do is give the artists time, and all we ask in return is their help in honoring that time commitment.  We tell them that we’re looking for about twenty minutes if they’re slotted in the first hour; the second half of the show is a little longer, so we’re looking for about twenty-five minutes, unless it’s an act that we know is drawing a lot of people, and then we ask if they can do a little bit more.  Most acts are happy to play longer, but we also understand that we’re not paying them their regular fee, so if they only want to do the standard twenty-five minutes, that’s fine with us.  That’s all we are asking for contractually.”

Genius Move #6:  The decision to forge a public-private business relationship.

“Most of these acts wouldn’t come to West Virginia, because there’s no format for them to perform here, there’s not a suitable venue for a lot of them to play.  Charleston doesn’t have the clubs or smaller concert halls like you have in bigger cities or big college towns.  There are plenty of places for them to play in places like Charlottesville and Chicago.  If it weren’t for Mountain Stage, we wouldn’t get to see a lot of these acts here.  The state has been very supportive; having a permanent venue like the West Virginia Cultural Center has helped to keep it affordable.”

~  ~  ~

Keeping costs low while bringing in incredible talent can present a challenge.  It’s a tightrope that Groce & Co. walk daily, but everyone knows their role and trusts the process.

“We pay the acts who come to Mountain Stage.  We don’t pay them as much as they get for concerts elsewhere, but we pay them more than union scale.  You have to, otherwise it costs them to come on.  We give them free rooms and we feed them, so that stuff helps.  That’s why we do the show on Sunday.  Hopefully these acts have good paying jobs on Friday and Saturday.

“Andy Ridenour (who has now retired) and Adam Harris, who is the executive producer – were and are the bosses of the budget.  If I want a certain act and they say that we can’t afford it, we don’t go after that act.  It’s their world to figure out if it’s financially doable.  Paul Flaherty is our technical director, and he assesses the technical aspects of the shows.  If an act has twelve people, and he doesn’t think we can do it right, then we won’t put them on.  If I explain that it’s important for the mission of Mountain Stage he’ll probably find a way to do it, but otherwise I’m not going to tell him how to do his job.  I’m not the technical director.  When it comes to deciding who goes on the show, that’s my job.  I have to give credit to the State of West Virginia, and to every sponsor and every underwriter that we’ve ever had, because no one has ever forced an act on us or told us not to put someone on.”

Before you paint a mental picture of Larry Groce as a tyrannical control freak, think again.

“I have final approval of every act that goes on,” he says, “but I can’t know everything.  I get suggestions from many, many people – from within our organization, and from people on the outside.  There are a lot of ways we hear about new music.  If a stagehand has a suggestion about an act, I’ll listen to it.  We listen to stuff that people call or email in.  We hear about it through the normal channels, like agents, managers, publicists, record companies, and the artists themselves.

 

“I have final approval of every act that goes on, but I can’t know everything.  I get suggestions from many, many people – from within our organization, and from people on the outside.  There are a lot of ways we hear about new music.  If a stagehand has a suggestion about an act, I’ll listen to it.  We listen to stuff that people call or email in.  We hear about it through the normal channels, like agents, managers, publicists, record companies, and the artists themselves.” – Larry Groce

 

“Every day we get many requests to be on the show, or suggestions of acts that should be on the show.  Someone says, ‘I heard this great band, it should be on Mountain Stage.’  And you say, ‘Oh, really?  Tell me about it.’  And the response usually starts out with something like, ‘Well, I was at the Empty Glass (a local bar) last night, and it was about 1 o’clock the morning…’”

Groce smiles at the thought.

“What you find out is that they were drinking a little bit, and they were there with their girlfriend, and it sounded great because of the situation.  But I have to listen to that band in the harsh light of day and hear what it sounds like without the benefit of all the other influences.  Most times, it just doesn’t translate.  You’re not going to have that atmospheric experience on the radio.  With Mountain Stage, you’ve got to have somebody who can sing, who can play, and who has good songs.  That’s not always there when you wring out the clouded experience.  They may be beautiful, they may dance great, their costumes may be cool, and they may be very hip looking.  They can be sexy, fun, funny, whatever, but you can’t see most of that stuff on radio.  But most people never think about it in those terms, nor should they, because it’s not their job.  But that’s the way we have to do it.”

Larry Groce understands that there are no guarantees – whether that’s the next act he chooses, or the next season being planned.  He knows that it could all disappear tomorrow, and that Mountain Stage – a show that has hosted thousands of acts – could simply drift away.

And he’s okay with that.

 

Larry Groce performs live on Mountain Stage.

Larry Groce performs live on Mountain Stage.

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“We’ve never had a guarantee that we would be here the next year, and if we’re no longer relevant, then it’s time to move on to something else.  I’m very grateful, because one thing that I understand very well, is that God didn’t declare that Mountain Stage had to be here.  We’re fortunate that we’re able to do this.  I’m thankful every time we do a show, because there’s no guarantee that this is something that will continue to be done.  This isn’t pop music – pop music pays for itself because it has a massive audience.  We don’t aim at that same audience, obviously.  We do have to connect with people, we do have to be popular, and we do have to be successful with the public, but we don’t have to be totally concentrated on the numbers.  We don’t have to worry about being cancelled because we’ve dropped one percent.  Commercial music has that pressure everywhere – on the radio, at concerts, with record sales, and everything else.  Our pressure is different.  We do understand that we could go away.  We are so fortunate to have the sponsors that we do, and to have major national underwriters like the Bailey & Glasser law firm, West Virginia Tourism and the local Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau.  And there are other large statewide supporters. They are all very generous, and thank goodness they think that what we do is worthwhile. While the show does generate interest in tourism and helps create a positive image of the state, a law firm is unlikely to pick up additional business by supporting Mountain Stage.  They know that.  But they want to support it because they believe in it, and they think it’s a good thing for the city and the state.”

Ticket prices to a Mountain Stage performance remain incredibly low, given the entertainment value. Groce remains committed to the idea of keeping it this way, so that all West Virginians can enjoy a live performance if they so choose.

“We face constant pressure to raise ticket prices.  It’s a bargain at $20 in advance, especially for what you’re getting.  Most people can’t believe how affordable the tickets are, but we want to keep it so that it’s accessible to most people.  We’re able to do that partly because the Educational Broadcasting Authority of West Virginia owns Mountain Stage and helps support our mission.  The state owns the Mountain Stage trademark.  Every governor has supported it, and the legislatures have supported it.  It’s a public-private partnership; we get some from the state, and that helps us keep the shows reasonably priced.”

~  ~  ~

ACT FOUR:  AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE
(Truth can be stranger than fiction)

Oh life, it’s bigger
It’s bigger than you
And you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I set it up
  – R.E.M.  Losing My Religion

~  ~  ~

If you’re looking for the seminal moment in the distinguished history of Mountain Stage, that 1991 R.E.M. performance is easily it, and by a country mile.  It grabbed headlines, heightened the show’s mystique, and transformed it in ways that reverberate today.  Consider:  Like Michael Jackson’s moonwalk on Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, R.E.M. playing in Charleston was in locally iconic moment, indelible, and something that fans of the show still talk about all these years later.  R.E.M could have played anywhere.  In front of anyone.  It chose Charleston.  In West-by-God-Virginia.

How does a show like Mountain Stage land a world renowned, gazillion-record selling alt-rock band at the height of its powers?  How is that possible?  Whose soul do you have to sell?

“R.E.M. called us,” Groce says with a laugh.  “When you see big stars on the show, headline acts that are already established, you can be 99% sure that they have contacted us.  A good example of that is Martina McBride, who has been on the show twice.  There’s no reason for us to go after Martina McBride.  She doesn’t need to be on Mountain Stage.  I remember vividly when former executive director Andy Ridenour called me and said that Martina McBride wanted to perform on Mountain Stage.  I couldn’t understand why she sought us out.  She could buy Mountain Stage.  Why does she want to be on Mountain Stage?  Well, she wanted to be on Mountain Stage because she had released a record that she knew would not get played on country radio.  It didn’t fit the modern format – it was a collection old-style country songs.  The material spanned from Lefty Frizzell to Hank Williams to Kris Kristofferson.  She loved that music and she wanted to make a record – and she knew it wouldn’t get played on the radio. So her people called Mountain Stage and said, ‘You know, she would really like to be on your show.’  The same thing was true with R.E.M.”

 

“R.E.M. called us.  When you see big stars on the show, headline acts that are already established, you can be 99% sure that they have contacted us.  A good example of that is Martina McBride, who has been on the show twice.  There’s no reason for us to go after Martina McBride.  She doesn’t need to be on Mountain Stage.”

 

Pump the brakes.

R.E.M., arguably the greatest alt-rock band in history, and one of the most popular bands on the planet at the time, calls and asks to perform on Mountain Stage?

“Peter Buck, was on the show with a guy named Kevin Kinney as a duo back in 1989, when we did the show in the downtown Capitol Theatre.  It was a terrific performance.  Everyone knew he was the Peter Buck who was in R.E.M., and yet he acted like a regular guy, very nice and unpretentious, even though R.E.M., at that time, were about as famous as you could get, arguably on the same level as U2 is now.  When he left, he said that he was going to tell the band that R.E.M. needed to play Mountain Stage.  I said that we’d love to have them come and play, but all I could think was:  Yeah, right.  But then one day Andy called me, just like he did later with Martina.  He said that we’d gotten a call from R.E.M., and he wanted to know if we’d like to have them on the show.  Of course I did – I wanted them on the show anytime day or night, on any day of the week.  We’ll make the show happen however they want it to happen.  So Andy makes the call, and then he calls me back.  He says, ‘No, they don’t want any special treatment.  They want to do it at the regular time.  But they have one request – they want to do it in the old location that Peter Buck played in.’”

 

Watershed moment: R.E.M. performs live on Mountain Stage, October 24, 2016.

Watershed moment: R.E.M. performs live on Mountain Stage, October 24, 2016.

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“By then we had already moved to our new home at the Cultural Center, so we rented the Capitol Theatre for that one performance.  It turned out great.  I asked them what they wanted – we offered them the whole last hour, and they said, ‘No, we’ll do just what you always do.’  We did seek their input on the acts that performed with them, and we ended up only having four acts instead of the usual five.  They wanted to have Billy Bragg and Robyn Hitchcock, two English singers, and for us it was a resounding, ‘Hell, yeah!’ because wanted to have them on the show anyway.  The other act was Gregson & Collister – R.E.M. had never heard of them, but they ended up loving their music.”

Charleston was buzzing.

R.E.M. had come to play here, on its locally-produced, state-owned, semi-underground performance show, at a time when the band was powerful enough to speed dial the Pope.

“R.E.M. had just put out a record titled Out of Time, which was a big, big record for them.  The hit song on it was Losing My Religion, and there was all of this excitement about the band.  They didn’t tour and Warner Bros. went crazy, which is understandable, because that’s how you sell records.  I think the band had recently signed a big contract with them, and they knew the band could go on the road and easily sell out large stadiums, but that was R.E.M..  It wasn’t totally about the money.  Instead, they said, ‘We’re going to do three shows.  We’re going to do Saturday Night Live, we’re going to do MTV Unplugged, and we’re going to do Mountain Stage.’  We couldn’t believe our luck.  R.E.M.’s decision to play in Charleston put us on a world stage.  It’s still surreal to think about, because Charleston is so small compared to New York and Los Angeles, and yet we had the biggest audience of any of those three shows.  SNL probably held 250 maybe less in studio, and Unplugged was even smaller, and we had probably 1,000 or so people in our audience.  It was a big deal; there were about 50 reporters from all over the world who came to Charleston, just to cover R.E.M.’s performance on Mountain Stage.   The Today Show even came and did a story about it.  It was crazy.  People lined up around the block just to try to get the good seats, because it was still general admission and there were no reserved seats.  Robyn Hitchcock surprised everyone by going out on the street with his guitar and busking for the people waiting to get inside.”

Surreal is right:  The band with the hit Radio Free Europe was available, free for the listening, on West Virginia airwaves.

 

R.E.M. performs live on Mountain Stage.

R.E.M. performs live on Mountain Stage.

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“Back then the show was live on the radio.  There was no chance to screen or filter anything – whatever was said or done went out to the immediate listening area.  We would always wait a week before we put it on satellite for the national audience, but in West Virginia it was live.  R.E.M. played a little bit more than normal, and then at the end of the two hour show they offered to play some more.  We kept the radio feed on, because we knew people were going to love this.  R.E.M. asked Billy and Robyn to get up on the stage with them, and they did stuff I don’t think they’d never done before.  It was great fun.”

Even 25 years later, the significance of that R.E.M. Mountain Stage performance is not lost on Groce.  He remains keenly aware – and deeply appreciative – of the strong power of loose connections.

“That one show was a game-changer for us, and we’ve been able to keep in touch with them through the years.  We’ve had Robyn Hitchcock back on Mountain Stage five times, and would really like to have him back again because he’s such a smart and very talented performer.  Billy Bragg has also continued to do the show and will be back again this year. Michael Stipe wrote to me regularly for a while after that performance, offering suggestions of people to put on the show.  As a matter fact, that’s how I found out about Vic Chesnutt, the great singer-songwriter from Athens, Georgia.  Vic had been in a terrible car accident that left him mostly paralyzed, and he used a wheelchair and only had partial use of his hands.  Such an interesting person, I really liked talking to him when he came to perform on Mountain Stage.  Sadly, he ended his own life about six or seven years ago.  He was a sweet man, and very talented.  I loved his music and his songs.  Stipe produced at least one of his records, and he thought Vic would be great for the show.  That’s how we found him.”

~  ~  ~

Mountain Stage continues to evolve.  Has it really been 33 years?  Groce was 35-years-old when the show started way back in 1983.  He’s 68 today.

“We’ve brought in some young people over the past five years or so, which will hopefully help Mountain Stage to carry on,” he says.  “Francis is still there, and he’s older than me.   Andy retired a few years ago.  Before he did, he trained a young man from Greenbrier County who came to Mountain Stage after going to Radford College, where he studied music business.  He interned at Mountain Stage, and he never left, even after his internship ended and we didn’t have any money to pay him.  He just kept working for nothing, so we found a way to pay him a little something, and then we found a way to pay him a little more.  Finally, we were able to bring him on with a state job.  He’s been here ten years.  Andy took him under his wing and trained him, and in those ten years he’s gone from intern to executive director.  He’s talented, he’s a native West Virginian, he’s smart, he’s responsible, he’s got the values that we want.”

Evolving as the times change, while maintaining the culture that makes Mountain Stage such a beloved show, can be a tricky proposition.  Integrating fresh faces and entertaining new ideas without straying too far from the mission is something that the core group has navigated with aplomb.

“When we bring someone onboard, we try to install our vision and our values about Mountain Stage.  We have one young woman who works for us – Joni Deutsch – who is 24 and who is bringing a lot of acts to my attention now.  She’s grown up with music I’m less familiar with. She has a world of music that she likes, and she has a show of her own called A Change of Tune so she’s always on the lookout for new, young, talent.  That’s what we need, because as soon as you stop evolving then it’s over.  You’re done.

“It’s fun to work with people of all ages on Mountain Stage.  We all get along, and we have a lot of fun together.  The people in the band tend to be closer to my age.  In the office, they are much younger than me.  The tech people are of varying ages.  We all respect each other.  There’s a lot of trust.  We don’t question each other’s judgment, we’re not afraid to ask each other for help, and we’re not afraid to make suggestions.  It’s a true team environment.”

With all of the incredible moments over the past 30-plus years, Groce recognizes the civic duty to preserve these amazing performances.  Archiving it all promises to be a daunting task.

“We are trying to do that, although we haven’t gotten as far as we’d hoped by now.  We’ve been working on dubbing all of the shows into a digital database.  It’s going to be a process, because we’ve got more than 860 shows to archive, and each show is at least two hours long.  Our ultimate goal is to allow anyone to go online and listen to anything that’s ever been on Mountain Stage, and to be able to sort and filter by show, artist, set, and song.  That’s going to take money we don’t currently have, but we hope to someday to be able to do it.

“It’s an important part of our mission to make that accessible, because the Mountain Stage archives are a gold mine.  There is wonderful music from a lot of wonderful, talented people.  You have everything from Malian singer and multi-instrumentalist Ali Farka Touré to Melvin Wine, the old fiddler from Braxton County, to singer-songwriters like Randy Newman and Warren Zevon.  We’ve had Counting Crows on Mountain Stage.  We’ve had Indigo Girls, Bruce Hornsby, Sarah McLachlan, Norah Jones, Crash Test Dummies, Barenaked Ladies, and a lot of these acts were on Mountain Stage before anybody knew about them.  Most people don’t know that Phish has been on the show.  As a matter fact, they told us one time that they wanted to come back, but that they wanted to do the whole two hours.  We told them that we don’t do that.  That’s just not us.”

There was also a stretch when Mountain Stage appeared on television.  Today, the push has been into the digital space.

“We’ve done television in a couple of different ways – Mountain Stage itself got some outside people to film some shows, because WV Public Broadcasting didn’t want to do it for TV because of the costs.  We did three years worth of shows back in the early 2000s working with the private company.  Lately, we’ve been streaming shows online.  It costs a lot of money to do television, a whole lot more than radio, so it’s tough for the State of West Virginia to take on that additional burden.  Nowadays, there aren’t many music-related shows on TV.  Austin City Limits is still around, but I’m not sure how many new shows they make each year, and MTV doesn’t have much music on it anymore.  The new frontier is podcasting, streaming, and things like that, which is what we’re doing more of.”

~  ~  ~

CLOSING ACT:  WHEN THE MIST CLEARS AWAY
(A purpose driven life)

Larry Groce is home.

“I like this place.  Charleston continues to grow and evolve – there’s art, music, theater, dance.  My two girls love it here.  Both of them are in the Charleston Ballet’s school, and they recently performed in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  They’re also both in the Charleston Youth Symphony Orchestra.  I was one of the originators of FestivAll, of which I’m very proud, because my kids are growing up here and I want them to look at their city and say, ‘There’s some good stuff here.’

“My girls go to public school in the city because we believe in public education.  I don’t know where they’re going to college, but it’s still early for those decisions.  They may live here the rest of their lives or they may move away, but that’s their business, that’s their lives.  But wherever they go, I think they will always love Charleston, West Virginia.  Even if they are living on the other side of the world, they will say that it’s a great place.

Turns out, Groce isn’t the only musician in the family.

“My wife is a member of the West Virginia Symphony.  She was the principal viola player for several years, but it was a demanding job, especially with children, so she resigned as principal because she didn’t have time to do all of the things that the first chair has to do.  She is now a member of the section and she still plays.  It’s also great for our girls, because it gives them something else that they can experience.  They get to go to Mountain Stage, they can see the Symphony, they can experience the Charleston Light Opera Guild, they can go to FestivAll.”

Family plays a big part in Groce’s latest project, Live Forever.  The CD packs a punch, with a combination of inspired song choices and self-written material that cut to the essence of the man – a gifted singer-songwriter who possesses a keen sense of what makes a great record, and an artist who is still comfortable in front of a microphone with a guitar in his hands.  When you live life, really live it and breathe it in, what comes out is as authentic and as easily identifiable as a fingerprint.

Surprisingly, Live Forever almost didn’t get made, but the drumbeat to make another record had gotten steadily louder in recent years, and harder to ignore.

“I enjoyed being a singer-songwriter, but there was a transition period for me,” he says.  “Somewhere between 1985 and 1990 I transformed from singer-songwriter to producer-host.  More than 25 years later, several of my friends, including close friend Michael Lipton, who is one of the lead guitarists on Mountain Stage and has a band called the Carpenter Ants, started urging me to make a record.  I initially resisted, telling Michael that nobody wants to hear a record from me, and that I didn’t want to waste everybody’s time and my money.

“The next person who approached me about the project was Don Dixon.  Don is also a friend and a producer.  He produced the first two R.E.M. records.  He’s very talented – he’s a great songwriter, plays bass for Mary Chapin Carpenter, and he knows everybody in the business.  He’s produced 100 records or so, everyone from R.E.M. to James McMurtry to the Smithereens to Red Clay Ramblers.  He’s done old-time music, pop rock, alt rock, you name it.  He’s very smart, and a wonderful man and great friend.  So he approached me and said, ‘Why don’t you make a record?’  And my immediate reaction was, ‘Now you’re starting in on me too?’”

By this point, Groce was on the fence and giving a new record serious thought.

“My wife was really the turning point in my decision to record again.  She had always played in the symphony, and had never really had a chance to play pop music.  She’s not the kind of person who does anything by ear – she has to make it up, write it down, and then read it, which is very structured and very different from just going on stage and jamming.  Well, she wanted to try to play some pop music, so we started playing together, and the next thing you know we were going out and playing some gigs.  She had never done that before.  It was fun for her to play this kind of music.  And that’s when she suggested making a record together.  That’s when it became a little bit more convincing, because it was her wanting to do it, and then she commented on how our girls really needed a record of their mom and dad playing together.  That’s what changed my mind.

“My first thought was to just go in the studio, open the microphone, and play some songs for the girls to have.  And then I thought about Michael and Don, and their willingness to get involved, and suddenly I felt like I could not only make a record that sounds professionally produced, that I could do it without a big fuss and huge cost.  We know people who can lay it out and do all of the stuff that needs done, we have access to some great musicians who would lend their talents to a record like this.  And if it doesn’t sell a lot of copies, so what?

“The thought of taking the next step and marketing it like a commercial release did cross my mind, but I quickly thought better of it.  I know publicists, and I know people who push records to radio stations, and some thought they could get me airplay, but it was going to cost time and money and I was really not looking for a new career as a singer.  That’s when I decided that I’m just going to make the record and perform some locally. I got a nice interview in the Charleston Gazette, and we’re selling a few copies here and there, and I’m happy with the quality of the work.  The girls have their picture on the CD, and this is really about them and for them, so I’m happy with how it’s worked out.”

 

Larry Groce poses for his latest CD, 'Live Forever'.

Larry Groce poses for his latest CD, ‘Live Forever’.

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The record itself is full of gems.  Pancho and Lefty, a Townes Van Zandt song that became widely known when Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard rode it to the top of the country charts in 1983, is a brilliant selection and splendidly done.

“There are twelve songs on Live Forever, and four of them are my songs.  It’s always tough when you put your own songs in with classic songs, because those songs are so much better than yours.  However, they fit the theme.  I worked with Don to pick out the songs, and I picked out songs that I think are strong songs, and songs that I want my girls to know.  I’ve always believed that the best songs are like hymns, and the best hymns are something wonderful.  It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not.  I always joke that, if you are on your deathbed, nobody wants to hear a sermon, but they’ll hear a hymn.  And there’s a reason for that.  Hymns are powerful.  Songs are very powerful.  You listen to the Townes Van Zandt song Pancho and Lefty, which I chose for this record…man, what a song.  What an experience that song is.  You can like my version, or you can not like my version, but if you don’t like the song then you are just wrong because it’s a great song.  Townes Van Zandt was on Mountain Stage three times.  Just to meet Townes was very moving, because he was a man who had serious problems. He was an alcoholic and helpless in some ways…but man, what a visionary, and what a poet.”

There are plenty of tips of the cap when it comes to Mountain Stage, culminating with the closing track Simple Song (Mountain Stage Theme), the uplifting signature song performed by Groce at the kickoff of each show.  Unsurprisingly, Live Forever consistently strikes the right chords.

“One of the songs that I perform on the record, In the Wilderness, is a song that I wrote and then sang on Mountain Stage back in the ‘90s.  Bette Midler called the show, because she heard it in New York, and she wanted to know who wrote it.  I told her that I did, and it was exciting to know that she liked my music.  I talked to Bette about it for awhile, and she asked me to send a copy to her, which I did.  She never did record it, but it was nice to know that she liked it.

“There are other songs on the record that I’ve heard on the show, like Live Forever, the one that I sing with Ray Wylie Hubbard.  It was co-written by the great Billy Joe Shaver and his son, Eddy.  Billy Joe and Eddy sang it on Mountain Stage, and the next year his son died tragically from a heroin overdose. The song lives on and is so powerful that I had to include it on the record.

“Lyle Lovett came on the show in 1987, and he sang If I Had A Boat.  I like that song.  It’s funny, but it has a lot to it.  And then there’s the George Jones song, Choices.  What powerful lyrics.  ‘I’ve had choices since the day that I was born…’  All of the songs on Live Forever are songs about life, about the choices we make, and how sometimes we don’t have a choice, like the lines at the end of Pancho and Lefty: ‘Pancho needs your prayers, it’s true, but save a few for Lefty too, he only did what he had to do, and now he’s growin’ old.’

~  ~  ~

As we prepare to close, I ask Larry Groce about the legacy of Mountain Stage, and my mind again turns to the late Blind Willie Johnson.  I wonder what Blind Willie would make of his record being one of those chosen to represent all of humanity, and how he would feel about his song exiting our solar system, headed for points unknown, along with legendary composers like Beethoven and Mozart.  Would he be proud?  Astounded?  Happy? Humbled?

Probably.

But something tells me that, if Blind Willie had his druthers, he would rather have his music performed live, on Mountain Stage, by a down and dirty bluesman handpicked by Larry Groce, the audience held rapt.

That’s where my song belongs, I can hear Blind Willie say.

And he would be absolutely right.

“Mountain Stage has always been about a vision of songs and their power.  A song is a very special and powerful entity.  It’s a work of art unlike any other, and it has an effect that nothing else does.  In four minutes or less it can literally stop people in their tracks.  It can inspire people when they are desperate.   It can change someone’s mood, and sometimes even change their mind.  It can change feelings.  That’s unbelievable.  Having that effect on people is just astounding.”

I ask Groce if he’s contemplated that moment when it comes time to let go.  I can’t fathom Mountain Stage without him, and I’m sure thousands of others feel the same, some of them some of the biggest names in the music business.

“I don’t know what it’s going to feel like when I finally step aside,” he says thoughtfully.  “The people that are there now, they understand what it’s all about.  They will change the show over time if it continues, as they have to, and it will become theirs, but I think they will hold on to the true spirit of Mountain Stage.

“I hope that Mountain Stage continues long after I leave.  I don’t know if it will or not, but I’ve not known that it will keep going each year for the past thirty-three.  Nothing is guaranteed.  And really and truly, I don’t want a guarantee.  I’d rather have it that way.  If it doesn’t work, let’s get rid of it.  I just pray that’s not the case.  There have been a lot of special moments on Mountain Stage and I’m grateful to have been a part of that. I hope they’ve reflected what’s good about West Virginia.”

Ingrid Chavez – Spirit Child

By:  Michael D. McClellan | Ingrid Chavez vanished into rumor in the 1990s, disappearing before our very eyes, her story climaxing with a high-profile Prince collaboration and punctuated by a public battle over writing credit for Madonna’s sultry number one single, Justify My Love.  What followed wasn’t years of hermit-like isolation, nor was the vacuum filled with a trail of shattered friendships, missed concerts, rioting crowds, irritated promoters, drug problems, band tensions, or burned bridges.  Sure, Chavez may have gone MIA, but she didn’t go the route of music’s great recluses, likened in the press to J. D. Salinger and Howard Hughes.  There was no car accident, like, say, D’Angelo’s Hummer-flipping wake up call that ejected the Black Messiah from his vehicle, hurtling him through pitch-blackness and breaking all the ribs on his left side.  Instead, the one-time Prince muse simply assessed the prevailing musical landscape and decided to pour her creative ambition into something infinitely more rewarding.

Motherhood.

Some in the business might question the timing of Chavez’s self-imposed hiatus, especially with her career on the verge of liftoff, but the decision was an easy one to make.  By then she’d grown weary of the closed door scheming and the backroom legal histrionics – the ugly, emotionally draining side of the music business that everyone with talent, ambition and the dream of making it is ultimately forced to confront.  It was here, at this crossroads, that the hypnotically alluring Ingrid Chavez decided that enough was enough.  She could have chosen to wallow in the muck, bartering her soul for a shot at splashing down in the mainstream, but she had the courage to walk away – no small feat when you’re in your twenties and The Purple One is hyping you to the world.

Chavez released her debut solo album, May 19, 1992, on Prince’s Paisley Park Records, and then disappeared into the ether.  The pop music landscape, as fickle as ever, simply rolled on:  Prince changed his name to a symbol, Madonna kept pushing buttons, and a new wave of hip-hop artists started dominating the charts, Eminem, Dr. Dre, and Jay-Z among them.  Meanwhile, Chavez retreated into relative obscurity, getting married, starting a family, and living vicariously through her husband’s work, English singer-songwriter David Sylvian.  She was forgotten about almost as quickly as she’d come.

 

Ingrid Chavez's debut album, May 19, 1992, released on Prince's Paisley Park Records.

Ingrid Chavez’s debut album, May 19, 1992, released on Prince’s Paisley Park Records.

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“I left when I fell in love with David and had my daughters,” she says.  “That was my focus.  After everything that had happened with Virgin Records, and with the litigation around Justify My Love, it was time to turn the page to something else.”

Content, Chavez happily raised her family and poured her creativity into her children’s lives, but the funny thing about kids is that they eventually grow up.  They find their own identities and move on to pursue their own interests.  That Chavez would find her way back to the music business should come as no surprise, yet Chavez herself never imagined making music again, much less with the freedom of shunning traditional channels.

“The Internet happened while I was away,” Chavez says with a laugh.  Unencumbered by the dollar-driven record companies that churn out formulaic acts to the masses, she released A Flutter and Some Words as an independent artist on January 25, 2010.  The record features Chavez’s brilliant poetry set to the dreamy instrumentation of Lorenzo Scopelliti.  “I felt a newfound sense of creative freedom in making that record with Lorenzo.  He brought a beauty to my life that was pure poetry.  He sees the potential for beauty in all things and I learned a lot from him.  What came out of that collaboration is a body of work that captured the warmth and golden light of Liguria and the snowy landscapes and back roads of New England.”

Prince’s one-time ‘Spirit Child’ has no regrets for her time spent on the sidelines.  She’s simply happy to be making music again, refusing to view her decision to step away as an opportunity lost.  It’s all part of her journey.  She willingly traded big moments for small and would do it all over again, proud of her part in helping set the tone and direction of Prince’s Lovesexy, but thankful for those walks in the woods with her daughters, exploring nature and answering all of the questions that wide-eyed children ask.

 

Ingrid Chavez

Prince’s Spirit Child, Chavez would be hand-picked by The Purple One to play opposite him in Graffiti Bridge

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“Beautiful moments,” she says.  “Being a mother has been a beautiful adventure, one that has changed my life in so many ways.”

Clearly, Ingrid Chavez loved making motherhood her main gig, and while the urge to make music may have been repressed by the desire to be there for her children, it’s hard to imagine that urge ever really going away.  We’re talking about the same Ingrid Chavez who arrived at Paisley Park during one of the darkest, angriest periods in Prince’s life, her positivity prompting him to table The Black Album and embrace a new spiritual awakening.

“I’m happy to be back,” Chavez says, smiling.  “Songwriting is something that I enjoy a great deal.  I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I started doing it again, and it brought back so many memories of my time together with Prince.  We hung out together, played pool, talked about everything from sex to God, and worked on our records together.”

 

“I’m happy to be back.  Songwriting is something that I enjoy a great deal.  I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I started doing it again, and it brought back so many memories of my time together with Prince.  We hung out together, played pool, talked about everything from sex to God, and worked on our records together.” – Ingrid Chavez

 

Prince would later generate headlines by sparring with his record company, writing ‘slave’ on his face and refusing to be called by his name, ultimately returning to Warner Bros. on his own terms.

Now Chavez is back, and, like her former muse, she’s doing things her way.

Soul restored, spirit freed, the musical side of Ingrid Chavez ready to make up for lost time.

~  ~  ~

The chain reaction that produced Lovesexy starts with a robbery.

Today, downtown Atlanta contains very little brick and mortar.  A westward view of the city’s skyline – the same image used in the opening credits of AMC’s The Walking Dead – reveals the Georgia capital’s history at a glance:  It burned to the ground in the Civil War and was rebuilt as a transportation hub filled with pulsating veins of highways and eager Fortune 500 companies.  A construction boom during the Reagan years gave the city shiny buildings buttressed by tons of cement, creating an ocean of concrete and glass in a landscape practically devoid of the past.  Now, Atlanta is crawling with movie producers looking for backdrops for their science-fiction thrillers, attracted by buildings that resemble dystopian fortresses, further bolstering its growing reputation as futuristic cinema’s go-to city.

Atlanta today also isn’t much different from Atlanta for the mid-80s, when Ingrid Chavez lived there and dreamed of making it big as a singer.  There were places you didn’t go at night, and places you didn’t go anytime – like the infamous Bluff neighborhood, known for its gangs and its open air heroin market, where dealers swarmed unfamiliar cars looking for new customers.  To locals, Bluff has become the ultimate cautionary acronym – Better Leave U Fucking Fool – and a symbol of a blight that even architect John Portman’s clean lines and neo-futuristic designs couldn’t erase.

Chavez didn’t come from the Bluff.  Didn’t live there, either.  She and her boyfriend moved into an old candy factory on the outskirts of the city, which was big enough for them to live, record, and rehearse in.  It wasn’t exactly Buckhead, but it wasn’t the Bluff, either.  Still, it was in a sketchy enough part of town that someone looking for drug money might target it.

“Steve Snow was a musician and my boyfriend at the time,” Chavez says.  “We had formed a band called China Dance, and the candy factory was the perfect place for us to rehearse – until one day we drove a friend of ours to the airport and returned to find all of our equipment was gone.  The thought of someone breaking in and stealing our stuff was so scary.  We were really young, and I’d just given birth to my son Tinondre.  Steve and I just looked at each other and said, ‘What are we going to do?’  I was afraid to stay in the warehouse after that, because it was in a really bad part of Atlanta.  Someone had just burglarized our place and all I could think was that it would happen again, so we went and stayed with a friend.”

Snow, who was from Minneapolis, had a straightforward idea:  Save up enough money for plane tickets and move back to his hometown.

“I didn’t have a compelling reason to stay in Atlanta,” says Chavez, who was born near Albuquerque and sent by her mother to live with family in Georgia when she was 10.  “I wasn’t leaving anyone behind that I was going to miss terribly, so moving to Minneapolis was like an exciting journey to somewhere new.  It was scary when we first got there, because we moved in with Steve’s uncle on the north side of Minneapolis, which was totally gang infested at the time.  You would hear gunshots in the night.  We were finally able to rent an apartment and start our new life there.”

 

“I didn’t have a compelling reason to stay in Atlanta. I wasn’t leaving anyone behind that I was going to miss terribly, so moving to Minneapolis was like an exciting journey to somewhere new.  It was scary when we first got there, because we moved in with Steve’s uncle on the north side of Minneapolis, which was totally gang infested at the time.  You would hear gunshots in the night.  We were finally able to rent an apartment and start our new life there.” – Ingrid Chavez

 

Musically, Chavez and Snow were polar opposites.  As an adolescent, Chavez was into David Bowie, listening to songs like Fame and Golden Years.  She was also a fan of Fleetwood Mac, whose music seemed like something that came from outer space.  And she loved Gary Numan, who had a hit with Cars.  Her tastes took on a funkier vibe in high school.

“Before I met Steve, I was listening to Prince, The Time, a lot of music like that.  And then I met Steve, and he was into The Cure, David Sylvian, and Kyu Sakamoto…acts that really opened up my world musically.  Steve was a beautiful person.  He was a child prodigy, way beyond his years.  He asked me to start writing with him, which is how we ended up forming China Dance.”

 

Chavez and musician David Sylvian

Chavez and musician David Sylvian

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Songwriting turned out to be a revelation.  It was right in her wheelhouse, something that unlocked the inner poet that she didn’t know existed.

“In high school I was doing a lot of singing, just making up songs, nothing too serious,” Chavez continues.  “Just a young girl making up melodies.  I wasn’t writing a lot of poetry, and I never really considered myself a poet.  I didn’t get into writing until I was 18 or 19.  That’s when I started to seriously think about music being something that I might really pursue.  It was also around the time that I had Tinondre and became a mother, which really changed how I viewed the world.  It was just me and my son.  I had a little keyboard, and a little four-track recorder, and that’s when I started writing in earnest.”

Chavez and Snow slowly grew apart, breaking up after that first year together in Minneapolis and triggering the next step in that Lovesexy chain reaction.

“Artistically, Steve and I did find some common ground,” she says, “but I think there were times when we didn’t share the same creative vision.  The ride got a little bumpy.”

Although her relationship with Snow had soured, Chavez kept writing poetry and staying connected to the Minneapolis music scene.  She also worked part-time in a coffee shop to pay the bills.  It was a gritty, uncertain period in her life, and someone with less moxie might have packed up and moved on.  Not Chavez.  She didn’t have much, but she had confidence in her talent and a belief that a higher power was at work in her life.

Across town, a far more well-known artist was going through trials and tribulations of his own.

~  ~  ~

By the time Prince released 1987’s Sign O’ the Times, he was one of the biggest-selling artists in the world, his reputation growing in lockstep with his popularity, from his debut album For You to his mainstream breakthrough 1999 to the global smash Purple Rain.  To say that Michael Jackson owned 1980s pop music would be only partly true.  Jackson dominated the charts, but Prince was right there with him, matching MJ hit-for-hit, stadium-for-stadium, heart-for-heart.  Artistically, their work couldn’t have been more different.  Sign O’ the Times was as eclectic as Jackson’s Bad was polished, which cut to the very core of the artists themselves:  Jackson made music that appealed to everyone, chained to formula, with an insatiable need to feel loved.  Prince made whatever the hell he wanted, without constraint, which freed him to create brilliant music.

“Prince was always pushing himself artistically, and always challenging those around him,” says Chavez of his music-making.  “The first time I saw Prince was at the club First Avenue.  We passed each other and made eye contact, but on that night we didn’t speak.  When I finally met Prince I was instantly comfortable around him.  He had this ability to see creative potential in a person before they saw it in themselves.”

On September 11, 1987, Paisley Park officially opened.  Prince was between albums, with Sign O’ the Times winding down and something called The Funk Bible in the works.  He had also released the Sign O’ the Times concert movie, which was praised critically and attended en masse by the most hardcore Prince fans.  The movie, with live clips re-shot at Paisley Park, was a svelte jolt of everything that captured Prince at his most dazzling:  The singing, the dancing, the multi-instrumental talent, the rapport with his band, and those bolero-chic outfits that only The Purple One could carry off.

There was something else about Prince that stood out during this era; his music had taken on a decidedly darker edge, matching his mood.  On Cindy C., Prince sang about feeling rejected by a high-class model in Paris.  Rockhard in a Funky Place was about a guy on the prowl for sex in a whorehouse.  Superfunkycalifragisexy urged people to drink blood and dance.  All of these tracks were being readied for inclusion in the 1988 release of The Funk Bible, an album that Prince insisted be produced without printed title, artist name, liner notes, production credits, or photography.  Everybody – family, friends, employees, musicians – was on edge around Paisley Park.  Prince ratcheted up the tension at every turn, demanding more from everyone and pressing forward with a project that was certain to alienate segments of his fan base.  Warner Bros, meanwhile, continued to publicly support The Funk Bible, prepping 400,000 copies for distribution while privately bracing for a commercial failure.  Looking back, it’s hard to imagine a more toxic time than those early days at Paisley Park.

All of that changed on a bitter cold December night, when Prince ventured into a Minneapolis bar with his entourage.  Chavez was also there.  She wasn’t supposed to be – if not for a friend’s incessant coaxing, she would have spent the evening at home, comfortably out of the weather.  But fate has a funny way of working.  Turns out, her decision to go out that night was the final reaction in Lovesexy’s self-amplifying chain of events.

“I wasn’t going to go to the bar,” Chavez says.  “Prince strolled in soon after I got there, and he kept staring at me.  I thought he looked very puzzled, and I was very curious as to why I would puzzle him.  So I sent him a note.  It read, ‘Hi, remember me?  Probably not, but that’s okay, because we’ve never met.  Smile…I love it when you smile.’ I didn’t sign it or anything.  I just gave it to Gilbert Davison, who was Prince’s manager at the time, and who was with him that night.  Prince took the note and read it, and then he had Gilbert come and get me.  So I walked over and sat with him.”

 

“I wasn’t going to go to the bar.  Prince strolled in soon after I got there, and he kept staring at me.  I thought he looked very puzzled, and I was very curious as to why I would puzzle him.  So I sent him a note.  It read, ‘Hi, remember me?  Probably not, but that’s okay, because we’ve never met.  Smile…I love it when you smile.’ I didn’t sign it or anything.  I just gave it to Gilbert Davison, who was Prince’s manager at the time, and who was with him that night.  Prince took the note and read it, and then he had Gilbert come and get me.  So I walked over and sat with him.” – Ingrid Chavez

 

The connection between poet and recluse was immediate.

“This was during the Sign O’ the Times period, when he used to wear those mirror heart bracelets.  He took the one that he had on his wrist and put it on my wrist.  It was so surreal.  It felt like a strange dream that couldn’t possibly be true; one minute I’m sitting at home alone, the next I’m sitting in a bar with Prince, one of the most famous singers in the world, and I’m wearing his mirror heart bracelet on my wrist.”

 

Back at home after promoting his critically-acclaimed Sign 'O the Times, Prince would meet Chavez in a Minneapolis bar, changing the course of history for both artists.

Back at home after promoting his critically-acclaimed Sign ‘O the Times, Prince would meet Chavez in a Minneapolis bar, changing the course of history for both artists.

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Long known for his playful side, Prince quickly warmed to what came next.

“We started talking, and he asked my name because I hadn’t signed my note,” Chavez says.  “I introduced myself as Gertrude and he immediately said that he was Dexter [laughs].  From that moment on, that’s who we were to each other.  When I look back on some of my journal writing from that period, I never referred to him as Prince.  I referred to him as Dexter in all of the passages.”

As they talked, Chavez had no idea of the inner struggle taking place within her new friend.  Warner had grudgingly started sending out advance copies of The Funk Album to dance club deejays in England, with mixed results.  Prince’s latest movie project, Graffiti Bridge, had hit some speed bumps and was on temporary hiatus.  A new form of music – rap – was starting to gain mainstream popularity, and yet Prince had responded with Dead on It, in which he trashed the new art from and incorrectly predicted its demise.

Little could anyone have known that everything would change the night Prince met Ingrid Chavez.

“Prince asked me if I wanted to take a drive,” she says.  “I sat in the front seat next to Gilbert, and he sat in the backseat.  It was nighttime.  Prince had Gilbert put the mirror down so that we could see each other’s eyes.  The next thing you know, we’re on our way to Paisley Park.”

 

“Prince asked me if I wanted to take a drive.  I sat in the front seat next to Gilbert, and he sat in the backseat.  It was nighttime.  Prince had Gilbert put the mirror down so that we could see each other’s eyes.  The next thing you know, we’re on our way to Paisley Park.” – Ingrid Chavez

 

Paisley Park, conceived in 1983 during the filming of Purple Rain, was Prince’s Abbey Road. Two years later, a 23-year-old neophyte architect named Bret Thoeny was asked to build something he had never constructed before:  An all-inclusive artist’s compound.  Thoeny jumped at the chance to work with the reclusive rocker.

“Back then, this type of thing wasn’t done,” Thoeny said when reached by telephone at his California office.  “Artists weren’t building their own compounds, only large companies or record labels were.  But Prince had this vision to have everything under one roof.  And this was decades before it was common for any individual to do that.”

 

The mysterious Paisley Park, where urban legend has it that Chavez's Spirit Child was born and Prince's Black Album was shelved in favor of Lovesexy.

The mysterious Paisley Park, where urban legend has it that Chavez’s Spirit Child was born and Prince’s Black Album was shelved in favor of Lovesexy.

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Paisley Park was Prince’s private palace, a music factory as mysterious as the enigmatic artist himself. Adjacent to Highway 5 in Chanhassen, the 65,000-square-foot compound cost $10 million to construct, a white aluminum-and-metal mansion with a nondescript, prison-like façade, few windows, retail-style parking lots, and encircling grassy knolls.  The complex’s geometric exterior carries all the charm of an Amazon warehouse.  The inside, however, is rumored to be another story, but the landmark’s interior has barely seen the light of day, virtually visible only by word-of-mouth.  Through the years, only professional musicians, privileged friends, special-invite fans, and journalists have seen and felt its ambiance.  Prince forbade virtually all visitors from photographing or recording the inside, demanding that journalists abandon their cell phones, recorders, and notebooks before entering his purple palace.

Which makes it even more surprising that an unknown like Ingrid Chavez would be welcomed so quickly into Prince’s private sanctuary.

“He put me in a room and told me that he’d be back,” she says, “and then he disappeared.  I was just hanging by myself for what seemed like an eternity.  I was left with time on my hands, and I didn’t have anyone in the room with me, so I just did what I do whenever I’m alone, which is write.  He came back eventually [laughs].”

What happened next remains shrouded in mystery and baked into legend, but the end result would prove to be a crossroads moment in Prince’s personal and professional life.  The story goes something like this:  Prince calls Susan Rogers, who was working as his sound engineer at the time, and asks her to come to Paisley Park.  Rogers shows up to find Chavez alone, in a candlelit rehearsal room.  Prince joins them a short time later, and after a brief conversation, Rogers decides to leave.  In the hours that follow, legend has it that Prince experiences an awakening and sees God – not in physical form, but in everything around him.  The legend continues that Prince now sees The Funk Bible for what it is – an evil force full of rage, the lyrics poisoned with guns and violence – and that a voice tells him not to release the record.

This much we know to be true:  Prince moved quickly to convince Warner Bros. to scrap the project.  The company agreed to destroy all of its copies of The Funk Bible, which would famously come to be known by another name:  The Black Album.

“Prince did tell her that she had to meet me,” Chavez says, conceding part of the story.  “She came to Paisley Park later that night, and Prince and I talked about a lot of things after she left.  He did end up cancelling The Black Album, but I didn’t know anything about that record at the time.  All I knew was that it got cancelled.”

 

“Prince did tell her that she had to meet me.  She came to Paisley Park later that night, and Prince and I talked about a lot of things after she left.  He did end up cancelling The Black Album, but I didn’t know anything about that record at the time.  All I knew was that it got cancelled.” – Ingrid Chavez

 

Whatever happened, Prince emerged from the experience a changed man.  Gone was the moody artist prone to tempestuous outbursts.  In his place was an enlightened, spiritual being whose approach to songwriting would be forever altered.

And whether she knew it then or not, Ingrid Chavez’s own world was about to tilt dramatically on its musical axis.

~  ~  ~

The cloud lifted, Prince began work on another record.  Unlike The Black Album, its vibe was fueled by his newfound positivity.  Lovesexy arrived on May 10, 1988, with a naked Prince on the cover, sitting atop an orchid.  It was his most spiritual album to date, recorded in just seven weeks, from mid-December 1987 to late January 1988, its theme rooted in the struggle between good and evil.  Alphabet St. was the first single to hit the airwaves, and immediately become a Top 10 hit.  Lovesexy’s opening track is a song called Eye No, and the spoken lyrics at the beginning of the song belonged to a female that Prince referred to as his ‘Spirit Child’:

Rain is wet and sugar is sweet / Clap your hands and stomp your feet / Everybody, everybody knows / When love calls you gotta go

The voice belongs to Chavez.

“After meeting Prince, we started spending more and more time together,” she says.  “It was a period of great creativity for both of us, and we were inspired by each other.  For me, stepping into his world was like a fairy tale.  Just being exposed to his creativity was unreal.  Lovesexy is like a snapshot of our time together.”

What many don’t realize is that, while Prince was hard at work on Lovesexy, he was simultaneously working with Chavez on material for her debut album.

“It started when he put me in the studio at Paisley Park, just to see what I could do,” Chavez explains.  “It was just me by myself, which was a little intimidating, and I honestly had no idea what I was going to do once I go there.  I was nervous and recorded some very strange pieces, but Prince was great at making me feel comfortable.  It was magical.  He seemed so relaxed during that period when we were together.

“Some of the music that I produced during those sessions was open word.  I wasn’t sure what his reaction would be, but he really liked my speaking voice, so I think that’s where he got this idea for a poetry album.  He said, ‘If you write 21 poems, we’ll do a poetry record.’  Of course I agreed.  I wrote feverishly for the next two weeks to get them done.”

The music that emerged would ultimately be called May 19, 1992.

Lovesexy and May 19, 1992 are two records that almost mirror each other,” she says.  “We were having some very deep, spiritual conversations during that period.  I was writing poems at the same time that he was writing Lovesexy, and we spent a lot of time talking.  Because of that, the two records have the same themes.  Lovesexy has I Wish U Heaven, and my record has Heaven Must Be Near, and they are very similar because we were talking about the same things, challenging each other, sharing our thoughts and emotions.  We talked a lot about God, love, and sex…how we felt about those things.  I don’t remember the specifics of the conversations, but the whole process was more like an experience or a journey – a discovery – rather than two people sitting down and writing lyrics.”

 

Prince's Lovesexy, and Chavez's May 19, 1992 were written when the two artists were together, inspiring each other.

Prince’s Lovesexy, and Chavez’s May 19, 1992 were written when the two artists were together, inspiring each other.

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A nude Prince on the Lovesexy cover was met with commercial resistance; Wal-Mart refused to carry the record, and there were other chains that carried it but wouldn’t put it out on the floor.  By then, Chavez’s run-time with her new friend had run its course.

“The amount of time that we spent with each other was relatively short,” Chavez offers.  “It was maybe three months in total, but in those three months we spent a lot of time together, and we wrote two records – he wrote his, and I wrote mine.  Mine didn’t come out until a few years later, but they were written at the same time.”

Their recordings finished, Prince turned his attention to touring.

“Our work just took us in different directions,” Chavez says.  “That was an intense period of time; it was like being in a winter bunker with him for three months.  We were just together for that whole season.  A year later, I got a call from him, and he said he’d been working on Heaven Must Be Near, so then we started working on it again.”

~  ~  ~

It wasn’t long before Ingrid Chavez connected with another musician, Richard Werbowenko, to form Skyfish.  The duo played acoustic guitar and fretless bass as Chavez sang her poems.  Skyfish would prove to be a short-lived chapter in her life, as Chavez and Werbowenko broke up almost as quickly as they had formed – but not before playing a key role in bringing recluse and muse back together.

“I ran into Prince’s brother one day and gave him a copy of the Skyfish record to give to Prince,” Chavez says.  “I came home a few days later and my little apartment was completely filled with white flowers. Prince called and said that he just finished recording Heaven Must Be Near and that it sounded like springtime in Paris.  He asked me if I would like to finish the Poetry album.”

By then, Prince was riding a new high, scoring a Billboard Number 1 hit with Batdance and restarting his next album / movie project, Graffiti Bridge.  The film, about a magical bridge, was a hard sell to execs at Warner Bros., who were spooked by the incoherent script and the disappointing results of Under the Cherry Moon.  It didn’t help that Madonna had dissed the screenplay after reading it, and that both Kim Basinger and Patti LaBelle had both backed out of the project.  It was then that Prince asked Chavez to play the lead role.  She didn’t blink.

“I guess the only thing that can be said about me is that I’m pretty fearless,” she says.  “I said ‘yes’ a lot back then.  The first time I met him I told him that I was a singer-songwriter, and the next thing I knew, he’s got a session booked for me at Paisley Park and I’ve got two hours to go do something.  I had no idea what I might do in there, but I was up for the challenge. I recorded some very strange pieces [laughs].  I’ve always loved experimenting with flipping tracks so I had backwards guitar and pitched vocals with layers of harmony, a lot of pretty weird stuff.  I had the engineer help me record some percussion.  The vocals were a mix of spoken word and singing.  I recorded two tracks that day, and both were very strange…the look on his face was priceless [laughs].  Prince thought I was crazy, but in a good kind of way.  He could see that I was serious and that I was different…I think that intrigued him.  I think that’s why he wanted me to play Aura in Graffiti Bridge.”

 

Prince and Chavez onscreen in Graffiti Bridge

Prince and Chavez onscreen in Graffiti Bridge

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The movie, shot almost exclusively at Paisley Park, was the ultimate Prince-obsessed project – with Prince credited as screenwriter, director, composer, and star.  Rumors began circulating that the project was not only in trouble, but that it was destined to be a cinematic disaster on every conceivable scale.  With principal photography complete in the spring, the film went through intense editing right up to its national release on November 1, 1990.  His refusal to heed the advice of those around him led to an incoherent storyline, and a movie that failed to connect with audiences.  Graffiti Bridge flopped on both fronts; the album reached No. 6 but quickly fizzled, while the movie was derided by some as an amateurish vanity project gone bad.  For her part, Chavez, who had never acted, handled the criticism with dignity.

“I had already taken on scary challenges with Prince, embracing things that were outside of my comfort zone,” she says.  “Saying ‘yes’ to acting in Graffiti Bridge was scary, but I wanted to do it.  I screen tested, I was offered the part and they went with it.  What am I going to say?  No?”

Despite virtually everything aspect of the movie being panned by critics and moviegoers alike, Chavez walked away from the project changed for the better.

“Am I a good actress?  No.  Would I do it again?  No.  But I did it, and I enjoyed it.  It was part of my journey and it helped me to grow in ways I couldn’t have imagined just a few years before.  There were times when I was pushed and I wanted to cry on the set, because I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’  For me, it was my own personal insecurities that got in the way sometimes.  But most of the time, Prince would be so gentle.  He was always so encouraging.  He would say, ‘You’re doing great.’  He was just so genuine with his encouragement.”

~  ~  ~

Less than a week after the release of Graffiti Bridge, Madonna released Justify My Love.  The trip hop song was the lead single from The Immaculate Collection, and would quickly become Madonna’s ninth Billboard Number 1 hit, dominating the airwaves and generating a frenzy of controversy along the way.  Sadomasochism.  Voyeurism.  Bisexuality.  Justify My Love had it all.  What was designed as an erotic dream turned out to be a nightmare for MTV when execs screened the video on November 26, but the controversy turned out to be another PR genius move by Madonna, as 260,000 copies of the video hit stores at $9.98 a pop.

 

Ingrid Chavez

Madonna scored a monster hit with the provocative Justify My Love, which was fueled in large part by Chavez’s sultry lyrics.

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While the uproar may have cooled by early February, 1991, the spotlight was just about to heat up for Chavez, who, it turned out, had written the lyrics for the song and who claimed that it was practically a heavy-breath-for-heavy-breath copy of a demo tape that she had shared with rocker Lenny Kravitz.  Kravitz, who ultimately produced the single, co-wrote the song with Chavez and Andre Betts, and immediately pitched the concept as a sexually-charged vehicle for Madonna’s upcoming greatest hits album.  Virgin Records pounced on the idea of a Kravitz-Madonna collaboration.  It appeared to be a win-win for all involved, as Justify My Love seemed like the big break that Chavez had been waiting for, a career-boosting writing credit for one of the biggest singers on the planet.  Consider:  If her material was good enough for the Material Girl, then how many others out there would be lining up to work with a songwriter like Ingrid Chavez?  Instead, the excitement of being attached to such a big hit would quickly digress into a publicly litigious battle with Kravitz.

It all started with a chance meeting at a landmark Minneapolis nightclub.

“I had gone to a concert with Prince,” Chavez recalls.  “We went to see Lenny Kravitz play at First Avenue, which was located in downtown Minneapolis.  This was during the filming of Graffiti Bridge, and we decided to see Lenny’s concert after wrapping for the day.  It was a really great show, but Prince wanted to leave the club before Lenny had finished playing.  I remember getting in the car with Prince and driving all the way to Chanhassen, only to have him instruct the driver to take me back to Minneapolis.  I thought, why did he bring me to Chanhassen just to have the driver take me right back home?  It was still early, so I asked the driver to take me back to First Avenue.

 

Forgiven; Chavez has long since let go of her lyric riff with rocker Lenny Kravitz.

Forgiven; Chavez has long since let go of her lyric riff with rocker Lenny Kravitz.

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“After the show, I went backstage and met Lenny.  There was an immediate connection between the two of us.  We hung out and talked for a long time, talking about all kinds of things, and then he asked me if I wanted to go watch him play another show.  So I hopped on the bus and went to Chicago.  It was impulsive but it was also a lot of fun – I remember having to stay the night in the city because it was so late when the show ended, and then going back home the next day.”

Chavez and Kravitz continued to talk.  He was also photographed hanging with Madonna, which fueled the tabloid’s speculation of a high-profile affair.  Kravitz, married to Lisa Bonet at the time, insisted the relationship with Madonna was strictly professional.  True or not, one thing today remains clear:  Justify My Love could not have happened without Ingrid Chavez’s involvement.

“We stayed in touch,” she says.  “Whenever I was in Los Angeles or New York we’d make it a point to connect and hang out if he happened to be in town.  One time we were in L.A. together, and the two of us were in the studio with Andre Betts, who created an interesting loop from a Public Enemy song.  Lenny asked me if I had anything to add.  I had a letter which I had written for him, which was written like my poems, so I pulled it out and pretty much spoke the letter.

“Shortly after that, we took the song to Virgin Records, because Lenny wanted to let an executive he knew at Virgin to hear it. The guy said it was great, that he really loved it, and that he thought we had something hot.  He then asked if he could hold onto the copy we’d just played for him.  I was very naïve, and I didn’t suspect that anything was wrong.  I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’  And that was the last time that I ever had a copy of that song.”

 

“Shortly after that, we took the song to Virgin Records, because Lenny wanted to let an executive he knew at Virgin to hear it. The guy said it was great, that he really loved it, and that he thought we had something hot.  He then asked if he could hold onto the copy we’d just played for him.  I was very naïve, and I didn’t suspect that anything was wrong.  I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’  And that was the last time that I ever had a copy of that song.” – Ingrid Chavez

 

Elated by confused, Chavez quickly learned that there was more to the story; if she wanted to be part of the project, she would have to agree to remain invisible.

“Everything just kind of spiraled out of control from there,” she says.  “The next thing I know, Lenny is telling me that Madonna is going to do the song.  I was initially very excited because she was such a big star and she wanted to record something that I’d worked on, but then I was being told that nobody can know that I wrote it.  It was an extremely emotional and stressful time.  I was torn on what to do, because I really wanted writing credit, but I ultimately signed off on their terms.  I know I should have insisted that my name be included, but there was a tremendous amount of pressure on me to make a decision in a very short period of time.  I felt powerless, because I didn’t have management representing me, but it all happened so fast…I just happened to be in the studio with Lenny Kravitz at the time that he was recording, and suddenly there is this track, with my words on it, that Madonna now wants to do.  I had no one advising me.”

 

No credit;

No credit; Madonna and Lenny Kravitz, but no Ingrid Chavez.  Chavez would receive writing credit only after taking her complaint to court.

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The fallout would reach Paisley Park.

“Prince called to me one day after the song came out, and he said, ‘Ingrid, what’s up with that Justify My Love song?  I just heard it on the radio and I know that’s you.’  I was shocked that he knew immediately, even though I hadn’t told anyone.  I had kept my word.  Only filmmaker Craig Laurence Rice, who happened to be in L.A. at the same time that I recorded it, knew about my involvement in the song.  I admitted to Prince that Justify My Love was me.  He was pretty upset about it, because my record hadn’t come out yet.  He said that people were going to think that I was copying Madonna.”

The controversy couldn’t have happened at worse time, as Prince was focusing his energy on Chavez’s May 19, 1992, and brilliant songs like Candledance and Elephant Box were being created around her spoken word poetry.  Chavez, torn between two paths, had a decision to make.

“That was the first time that I actually went out and hired a lawyer,” she says.  “I fought to at least get my name on the song, which I ultimately did, but it was a long, ugly, drawn out fight.  In terms of money, I could have gotten twice as much as I ended up with, as far as the percentage, but I just couldn’t do it anymore.  The settlement was already double what I had been offered originally.  It should have been doubled one more time out of fairness, but I just couldn’t keep fighting.  It was ugly and I just wanted it over with.”

Chavez was vindicated by the settlement, but the experience left her disillusioned.

“I would like to think that Lenny Kravitz just had so much pressure placed on him from both Virgin Records and his own management, and that’s why he behaved the way that he did.  I am going to choose to believe that.  I just can’t believe that he’s the kind of person who was intentionally trying to take something from me and not give me something back, you know?  I just don’t believe that that’s who he really is.  I think that Virgin just came down on him really hard, because they wanted this song for Madonna and they wanted me out of the picture.  As a result, I think he had a lot of pressure on him. That’s what I want to believe.  I spent quite a bit of time with Lenny, and I never felt like he was that kind of person, but the whole experience really turned me off of the music business.”

~  ~  ~

With Justify My Love in the rear view mirror, the focus turned to May 19, 1992.  While Prince was still engaged in the project, putting the finishing touches on the wildly infectious Elephant Box, he turned much of the production over to Paisley Park’s Michael Koppelman, who immediately worked with Chavez on Winter Song.  Prince liked the result, and Koppelman was hungry for more.  He produced Candledance next, which included Prince on guitar, and followed that up with work on Hippy Blood.  Warner Bros., keenly aware of Madonna’s success with Justify My Love, enthusiastically supported the tracks and felt good about the album’s upcoming release.  The record, released on September 21, 1991, featured promotion around three key songs; Hippy Blood, Heaven Must Be Near, and Elephant Box.

“There was a lot of excitement about it, but when it came out it fizzled for some reason and didn’t do so well,” Koppelman said years later.

For Chavez, the lukewarm reception given to her record was another sign that everything going on in her life needed reevaluation.

“I stuck with my music career for a while,” she says.  “My record had just come out, and Graffiti Bridge and Justify My Love were still relatively fresh, so all of this was happening pretty much at the same time.  I just didn’t realize then how much I really wanted out.”

 

“I stuck with my music career for a while.  My record had just come out, and Graffiti Bridge and Justify My Love were still relatively fresh, so all of this was happening pretty much at the same time.  I just didn’t realize then how much I really wanted out.” – Ingrid Chavez

 

It’s been said that the moments of happiness we enjoy the most take us by surprise.  It’s not that we seize them, but that they seize us.  Chavez was about to learn this beautiful truth firsthand.

“My manager at the time talked Warner Bros. into financing a tour all over Europe to promote my new record,” Chavez says, smiling.  “The first place that I stopped was in Paris.  A journalist was conducting an interview and wanted to know who had influenced me, and who I would most like to work with.  Well, on my trip to Europe, I had listened to Rain Tree Crow, which was the new name for the music group Japan, and David Sylvian was the singer-songwriter for both.  I listened to him all the way to Europe, so when the journalist asked me, that’s the name that came.  He said, ‘Well, I can actually get you in touch with him…if you’re going to London, I can let them know that you would like to stop by and meet David.’  The offer was a total surprise, but I let him know that it sounded good.”

David Sylvian, the one-time ‘most beautiful man in pop’, got his start when he and some friends formed Japan in 1974.  The Brits morphed into a glam rock band in the spirit of David Bowie, until Sylvian began to employ the richer, deeper voice that soon became his trademark.  For Chavez, the prospect of actually meeting Sylvian seemed intriguing, but also unrealistic due to their hectic schedules.  The interview over, she continued to focus on promoting her new album.

 

After getting burned by the Justify My Love experience, Chavez would fall in love with - and marry - English singer-songwriter and musician David Sylvian

After getting burned by the Justify My Love experience, Chavez would fall in love with – and marry – English singer-songwriter and musician David Sylvian

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“When I arrived in Spain, my manager made contact with David’s manager,” she says.  “David was leaving the next day for Paris, the same day that I was coming into London, so there was no way that our paths could cross on this trip.  Even though I didn’t get to meet him, I did stop by his London office and left him a CD and a letter…just a small gift package for when he came back.”

The promotional tour over, Ingrid Chavez returned to the States to decompress.

“I went back home to Minneapolis,” she says.  “About nine days later my manager called me and said, ‘Ingrid, you have a fax here from David Sylvian.’  I threw everything down and ran out the door.  I drove straight to his house and picked up my fax, and then I ran to the store and picked up my own fax machine [laughs].  It’s funny when you look back at it today, but that’s how we first communicated, through faxes.  It was exciting; I would hear the fax machine and I would be like (makes fax sound)…David’s message is coming in!  There were so many faxes sent between us.  I still have them, but they’re faded and you can hardly read them anymore, which is sad.”

The chemistry between the two was obvious to everyone around them, and it wasn’t long before Sylvian was spending a significant amount of time in the States.  Spiritually, mentally, and physically, the connection was simpatico.

“Working with David was so refreshing, it freed me from the ugliness that came with the Justify My Love litigation.  I recorded with David and Ryuichi Sakamoto on the songs Cloud #9 and Tainai Kaiki, and the attraction between us was immediate. David and I fell deeply in love and it wasn’t long before he proposed.  I knew this was it for me.  I decided that I would rather live vicariously through David’s music.  I’d rather get married, make a life together and have babies.  I was ready to start a family.”

 

“Working with David was so refreshing, it freed me from the ugliness that came with the Justify My Love litigation.  I recorded with David and Ryuichi Sakamoto on the songs Cloud #9 and Tainai Kaiki, and the attraction between us was immediate. David and I fell deeply in love and it wasn’t long before he proposed.  I knew this was it for me.  I decided that I would rather live vicariously through David’s music.  I’d rather get married, make a life together and have babies.  I was ready to start a family.” – Ingrid Chavez

 

This is the point in the story where Ingrid Chavez goes MIA.  Drops off the grid.  Leaves the music biz to re-calibrate and refocus.  This is also the point in the story where you absolutely shouldn’t feel sorry for Ingrid Chavez.  Starting a family unlocked a happiness that Chavez had been longing for but couldn’t find musically.  The couple had two girls together, Ameera and Isobel.

“Because I so admired David before I met him, I was able to get my creative fix through him after we were married,” Chavez says.  “In the beginning when the children were young, we were traveling with David a lot.  We would go on tour with him, so I was satisfied to a certain degree with just that.  It was a creative outlet for me in some ways.  And then I took up photography, which was something new and very exciting.  A lot of my energy was going there.”

Chavez would occasionally get the urge to make music, but it wasn’t like the early days when it was the center of her life.  Still, between ’93-’95 Chavez and Sylvian collaborated on a record that Sylvian pitched to Virgin Records.

“Creatively, David and I tried to make a record together, but the musical relationship between us wasn’t flowing naturally.  We recorded Little Girls With 99 Lives, which was a collection of five songs.  But David didn’t seem to be interested in what we were doing at the time, and my heart was only partially in it, so it didn’t really do anything.  David did eventually share it with Virgin, who rejected it.  At that point we didn’t really push it because we felt that nobody really liked the record.

“Musically, I didn’t have management anymore, so that part of my life just kind of fell away.  I stopped making music altogether, and I didn’t do a whole lot of writing during that period of my life, either.  I put all of my creative energy into my children.  We also had a guru at the time – we were following Amma Chi around, and that was a big part of my life…we were on the road with her constantly during the summer.  That was in the 1994 timeframe.  Eventually, we moved to New Hampshire, so I just continued living through David’s music.”

Chavez and Sylvian would divorce after 12 years of marriage.  This created another pivot point in her life, one that would, surprisingly, bring her music career full circle.

“When David and I finally decided that this wasn’t going to work, and that we were both growing apart from each other, that’s when I had to look at my life and say, what am I going to do now?”  She pauses to reflect, part of her heart still clearly tied to the father of her children.  “Making music again was so far from even the realm of possibility for me, at least it seemed that way at the time.  That wasn’t what I was thinking about whatsoever.  My next interest was photography, so I decided to focus on that.  I started taking some classes, I bought some different equipment, and I started to really take it much more seriously.”

What happened next was another of those beautifully unexpected moments.

“Some of my photos appeared in a women’s photography exhibition, and that’s when I received a call from my lawyer at the time.  He said that there was this designer out of Sacramento who would like to have me come and perform live, in San Francisco, during the premiere of his new collection.  I was shocked.  I couldn’t believe that somebody would even remember my record after all of these years.  I liked the concept, so I agreed to do it.  I wanted to see where the journey would take me.”

The designer was Richard Hallmarq, who specialized in bold women’s fashions, and who jumped into the fashion business in 2003, after finding an anonymous note on his car displaying a Thomas Edison quotation:  Many of life’s failures are experienced by people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.

 

Artist, Interrupted: Chavez dropped off the music map for her children, but is back in focus today, working on multiple projects.

Artist, Interrupted: Chavez dropped off the music map for her children, but is back in focus today, working on multiple projects.

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“Richard asked me if I had a MySpace account,” Chavez says, laughing at how old school that statement sounds today.  “I didn’t have one, so when I tried registering, I quickly discovered that there was an Ingrid Chavez out there already.  After logging on, I was surprised to learn that my record had taken on a life of its own.  I was stunned – there was an online community out there dedicated to my work.  So I joined, and people were writing to me, and asking me where I’d been.  They would tell their stories about my record, things like getting married to it, or going to college with it, or getting through a depressing time with it.  I had no idea.

“When I flew to Sacramento to work with Richard, he explained that he wanted me to perform a couple of the songs from May 19, 1992.  The only way to do that would be to remove my voice from the original recordings, so he introduced me to a guy named Dan Walker, who specializes in that type of audio editing.  It was Dan who asked me if I would be interested in writing songs again, and I was like, I don’t know, I haven’t even thought about this.  My focus was on working with Richard and being part of his fashion show.

“We kept talking, and he told me to go to his MySpace site, where he had a bunch of songs from the various people that he was working with.  So I listened to the music and selected three songs that I really liked, which all happened to be by someone named Marco Valentin.  I wrote the lyrics immediately, and I adjusted my schedule so that I would spend the first part of the week recording these tracks…but when I landed in Sacramento I lost my voice, so we cancelled the recording sessions.  We lost touch, and then I started working with Lorenzo Scopelliti instead, spending the next three years making A Flutter and Some Words.”

~  ~  ~

On January 25, 2010, A Flutter and Some Words was released to the world on Ten Windows Records, Ingrid Chavez’s own independent label.  It was her second record, and first since working with Prince.  It represented a rebirth of sorts for Chavez.

“When I met Lorenzo, I didn’t think that I was going to write another record.  But once I came back, there were people who wanted to work with me, and then I began to wonder if this was something that I could do again.  Over time I began writing songs with different people, and that’s when I came across Lorenzo.  We were just writing back and forth; we weren’t trying to write a record.  He sent me a piece of music, which turned out to be Isobel, which was the seed for A Flutter and Some Words.  That started everything.  We went back and forth until the whole record was done.”

Chavez has only fond memories of this project.

By The Water is one of my favorite tracks, and was inspired by the first time that Lorenzo came to America,” she says.  “He came to New Hampshire where I lived, and we would take walks in the woods.  That song just talks about letting someone into your world and trusting them…letting them into your life, your heart, your head…so, that song was about the beginning…about meeting Lorenzo for the first time.   It was about spending time with him and realizing that we had this really strong connection, and along with it, the realization that something beautiful was going to come out of it.  By The Water reflects that initial feeling when you first meet someone and let them in.”

The video for By The Water is beautifully made.  In it, Chavez looks as gorgeous as she did when she made the Elephant Box video way back in the early ‘90s, her timeless beauty bringing to mind one of her idols, Marlena Dietrich.

“I have loved Marlena Dietrich since I was a kid,” she says, smiling.  “I’d watch her in those old, black-and-white movies, and she just seemed so strong, and yet also so dreamy and beautiful.  I loved her voice, and I loved the characters that she played.  I can watch her movies all day long because I love to look at her.”

~  ~  ~

Chavez’s musical journey includes her role as part of Black Eskimo, a collaboration with instrumentalist and indie hip-hop producer Marco Valentin – the same Marco Valentin that Chavez had nearly connected with on her trip to Sacramento.  The duo’s work is an extension of their online radio show that focuses on neo-soul, trip hop, and ambient music.  They recently released their debut EPs, Deep & Heady, which are now available for digital download.  Deep released on June 18, 2013; Heady was released on October 22, 2013.  Deep & Heady are also available on CD at www.10windows.com, as is the My Sky Poetry & Music Journal, a collection of handwritten poems signed by Chavez.  The infectious My Sky, from the Deep EP, recently won Song of the Year (Spoken Word Category) at the 14th Annual Independent Music Awards.

“Even though I never thought I’d make another record, I’d wanted to make a record like this for many years,” Chavez says.  “A Flutter and Some Words is a beautiful set of songs, and it really marks that space and time in my life, but I wanted to put out a record that paints an honest portrait of who I am, in all of my darkness and light.  I wanted to dive a bit deeper into my heart and mind lyrically.  I really wanted to write to something more edgy.  Marco sent over some tracks and I was immediately attracted to his beats and sense of melody.  We started sending recorded ideas back and forth via the Internet and that was how most of this album was conceived.  He finally relocated to New Hampshire where we spent the next two years recording and mixing this album.”

Chavez may have lost touch with Valentin after returning from Richard Hallmarq’s fashion show, but Valentin continued to keep Chavez on his radar.

“We had a phone conversation at one point immediately after Richard’s show,” she says, “but Marco was so quiet and shy on the phone that it really wasn’t much of a conversation.  He said hello and told me that he really liked my music.  I thanked him and said goodbye.  That was basically it.”

The shy and mysterious Valentin would try again.

“I received an anonymous MySpace message that said, ‘Hey, I’d like to write some music for you.’  He then he ended it with, ‘What kind of cereal do you like?’  It was so weird, because he didn’t even sign his name.  I asked him for some music, which he emailed to me, and then I burned his songs to CD and promptly forgot all about them [laughs].”

Little did Ingrid Chavez know that the Marco Valentin tracks she’d selected four years earlier, including the dreamy Beautiful, were all on that disc, waiting to be rediscovered.

“One day I’m taking a long drive, thinking about working on a record with a heavier beat.  I wanted my voice doing more than just floating over the top of stuff.  I want to become a bit more rhythmic with my spoken word.  And then I was like, what about the kid that sent me that music?  I drove straight home and started listening.”

Valentin’s edgy vibe fit the blueprint that she envisioned for her next musical incantation, the blending of gritty urban beats with the ethereal poetry that is uniquely Ingrid Chavez.  She wasted little time in reaching out.

“I let him know that I liked a few of his songs, and that I might try writing lyrics for one of them,” she says.  “When he wrote back, he signed his name – Marco Valentin.  The name sounded so familiar, and then I remembered listening to his tracks in Sacramento four years earlier.  I asked him why he didn’t tell me who he was, and he said that he didn’t think I’d remember him.  My response was, ‘I wrote three songs to your music, and it was the first time that I’d written in a very long time.  Why would I forget that name?’”

From that moment, the two artists clicked, creating the catchy, hypnotic grooves that fuel both Deep and Heady.

“We immediately started writing together,” she says, recalling the early days of their virtual collaboration.  “He would send me songs from Chicago.  I would write that day, record that evening, and send the finished track back to him that night.  He was on fire – there were days when he’d send me two or three songs at a time.  The whole process was conducted over the Internet, but it felt as if space didn’t exist between us.  That was in February; by August he made his first trip to New Hampshire, so we could work in real time with each other.  He liked it so much he moved here a month later.”

With the first Black Eskimo record on the fast track, disaster strikes.

 

Ingrid Chavez as part of Black Eskimo

Ingrid Chavez’s return includes being part of Black Eskimo

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“We lost the music for almost a whole year,” Chavez says.  “Marco’s laptop computer became infected with a virus, and it not only attacked all of the files on the hard drive, it also attacked the files on his backup drive.  So, for about eight months we were mourning the loss of those songs and all of this work that we had done.  When Marco went home to visit his family for Christmas, and he found some early versions of the songs on his family’s computer.  The tracks weren’t anything the finished versions, but we had our foundation again.  We worked off of that.”

Deep & Heady represents an interesting new chapter in the musical career of Ingrid Chavez.

“Black Eskimo has been really good for me because it’s a new way of writing, and also a new way of singing in spoken word.  It’s different than my Skyfish music, and different than the Little Girls With 99 Lives that I recorded with David.  Deep & Heady is also completely different than A Flutter and Some Words or anything that I made with Prince.  I don’t know if I’m losing people along the way, but I don’t ever want to make the same record twice.”

 

“Black Eskimo has been really good for me because it’s a new way of writing, and also a new way of singing in spoken word.  It’s different than my Skyfish music, and different than the Little Girls With 99 Lives that I recorded with David.  Deep & Heady is also completely different than A Flutter and Some Words or anything that I made with Prince.  I don’t know if I’m losing people along the way, but I don’t ever want to make the same record twice.” – Ingrid Chavez

 

Black Eskimo is currently on hiatus, but Chavez is hard at work on a new solo album.  She’s also prepping a new single with Deep Dive Corp., and will be promoting its release with live shows in Germany and Denmark.  For Chavez, every new project is all about rediscovery – finding the person within her that had the courage and confidence to dream big.  Her message is simple:  She wants everyone to know that they can tap into their own reservoirs to achieve success.

“I tell people to imagine what it is that they want, and then believe that it’s theirs already,” Chavez says.  “It’s a form of manifesting.  That’s pretty much what I did when I was 19 and decided that I wanted to be a singer or a songwriter.  When I was starting out and people would ask what I did, I would tell them that I was a singer-songwriter, even though I hadn’t really done much of either up to that point.  It was no different with Prince.  He asked me what I did, and I didn’t hesitate.  The next thing I know, Prince is scheduling studio time for me at Paisley Park.”

~  ~  ~

On April 21, 2016, the world lost a musical icon when Prince was found dead in an elevator at Paisley Park.  The shocking news affected millions, many who continue to mourn his passing.  The outpouring of love in the days following his death was befitting his status as one of this generation’s greatest talents.  From Jennifer Hudson and the cast of The Color Purple, to Bruce Springsteen onstage in Brooklyn, to a socially-connected world mourning as one, Prince’s death prompted tributes that reached all corners of the globe.  For those who knew him personally, Prince’s passing was especially hard to take, a body blow that only the passage of time will ease.  Ingrid Chavez knows.  She was as close to Prince as anyone during his Lovesexy / Graffiti Bridge period.

“It was so sad and so surreal,” she says of learning the news.  “Whenever I’m working on a new song for the first time, or listening to the music and trying to figure out what I might write, or what the melody might be, I will jump in my car and take a drive.  I had met my daughter for lunch at an organic grocery store with a café in it.  We had lunch, and then I got in my car and I said to myself, ‘Okay, I’m going to take my drive now.’

“As soon as I got in the car, there was a text message from my friend Katherine Copeland, who is like my sister and who was my very best friend in Minneapolis during those early days.  Katherine is married to Andre Cymone, who is Prince’s ex-bassist, and her text said for me to call her immediately.  She knows that I don’t like to talk on the telephone, so I knew that something was wrong.  When I called, she said, ‘Did you hear the news?’  I was like, ‘What news?’  She said that TMZ was reporting that Prince had died.  And so, within five minutes my phone started blowing up.  It was flooded with text messages and phone calls, and that’s when I started to believe that it might actually be true.

 

Ingrid Chavez has her sights set on more music in the future.

Ingrid Chavez has her sights set on more music in the future.

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“I was already going to take a drive, because I’m was working on a song that, ironically, speaks about the 1988 period when I was so close to Prince.  I drove a little farther that day, and played the song pretty much the entire hour and a half.  When I got home I just remember sitting in the car for a long time.  I was in shock.”

The thought of Chavez releasing a Prince tribute is music to the ears of Prince fans everywhere.  And what better way to honor him than releasing it on her own independent label?  Especially after Prince devoted so much time and energy freeing himself from his relationship with Warner Bros.?

“The song is called You Gave Me Wings,” she says. “It represents our time together.  For a brief time, it was just me and Prince, sharing a season together, that’s how we started out 1988.  We wrote songs that really designed the next year of his future, which was Lovesexy.  He had the album and the tour, and that was his life for that year.  That was the same year that the poems were written, so it’s really a song about all of that.”

You Gave Me Wings is now available on Chavez’s 10Windows.com website.  The lyrics capture the essence of their special relationship, from that initial meeting in a Minneapolis bar to the release of May 19, 1992.

The lyrics are hauntingly beautiful.

I love it when you smile…
Our love was a winter love to remember…Poetry and laughter in deep, deep December…
You gave me wings to fly so high…I gave you songs to sing…I gave you my words…
You brought them to life…time stood still for a little while…

Ingrid Chavez pauses, reflecting on this intensely personal period in her life and the person who not only helped launch her career, but who also changed her life profoundly.

“Prince is gone, but I have so many great memories of him, and these have helped me to get through this terrible tragedy.  My favorite all-time record is Dirty Mind.  The movie Purple Rain was playing when I decided to get into music.  Vanity 6 and The Time were Prince acts and a huge part of that Minneapolis sound that I loved so much.  So many memories…”

Her voice trails away, and then returns with a dreaminess that is uniquely Ingrid Chavez.

“If I hadn’t met Prince I wouldn’t have met David.  And if I hadn’t met David, I wouldn’t have the two beautiful daughters that I have today.  Either directly or indirectly, I owe so much to Prince.  It was a privilege to share part of my journey with him.”

Sananda Maitreya – The Artist

By:  Michael D. McClellan

“Never regret thy fall,
O Icarus of the fearless flight
For the greatest tragedy of them all
Is never to feel the burning light.”  — Oscar Wilde

 

Terence Trent D’Arby is dead.

The ‘80s enigmatic supernova who, at the height of his popularity, sold more than a million albums in three days, is dead and gone, his ashes scattered over a fickle music landscape, his descent as curious as that of the mythical Icarus himself.  Ironic then that his passing seemed to go unnoticed, given that Terence Trent D’Arby arrived on the music scene with the fury of a young Mike Tyson, landing haymakers and talking shit and seducing the hell out of industry execs willing to sell their firstborns to discover an artist with his magnetism.  There were no dues paid.  D’Arby just happened.  He kicked open the door to the VIP club occupied by music’s Holy Trinity – Michael, Prince, and Madonna – his bravado knocking them on their collective asses and serving notice that he was not simply of their ilk but something more, an amalgam of their talent with the best of Sam Cooke and James Brown thrown in to boot.

And he wasn’t shy to talk about it:  D’Arby famously sat down with Rolling Stone and brashly put all of the motherfuckers out there on notice, screaming at them in print and then reinforcing his dominance with a string of hits, giving the metaphorical middle finger to established stars and one-hit wonders alike, all while usurping them at the top of the charts.

And then he was gone.

It was a slow decay rather than the jolt with which he shook us on the way up, a steady erosion – of record sales, of fan base, of clout – that left him diminished, his legacy in doubt, his promise unfulfilled.  He was Icarus, flying too close to the sun, his wax wings melting away, his upward trajectory cut short by his refusal to follow the rules, his return to earth premature if not inevitable.

 

Terence Trent D'Arby's 1988 Rolling Stone cover shot.

Terence Trent D’Arby’s 1988 Rolling Stone cover shot.

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But this is how every Terence Trent D’Arby interview starts, isn’t it?  A formulaic lead-in with D’Arby’s F5 persona cutting a mile-wide path of destruction across the wide-open spaces of 1980s soul-rock-pop-funk, and then a segue to the slow, laborious cleanup in its aftermath.  Can’t go wrong there, right?  And the comparisons to those all-time greats, aren’t those simply a journalist’s safety net – if Rolling Stone compared D’Arby to Prince and Jimi Hendrix then it must be so, so why not name drop in your own piece, hoping that it somehow legitimizes what you’ve written.

But this isn’t a Terence Trent D’Arby interview.  Not in the traditional sense.  Certainly, there’s no escaping the facts, that D’Arby walked amongst us in a bloated, hubris-fueled rage while his debut album, Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby, breathed fire and backed up his outsized braggadocio, prompting D’Arby to tout the work as superior to the Beatles’ historic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  There’s also no dodging the loaded self-proclamations – that D’Arby was a genius, that Hardline was the most brilliant debut of the decade, that it would be a travesty if the album didn’t debut at Number 1 – and the solipsistic swagger with which he carried himself; laying down ground rules for interviews that he may or may not attend, and then, for a brief time at least, refusing to speak with the press altogether.  Entering D’Arby’s world was an elucidation in the inner workings of a creative process that was at once OCD and bipolar, his desire for perfection matched only by his quest to discover something new – no easy task, given that pop music spends the vast majority of its time regurgitating variations of the same tired themes.

 

The Album: Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D'Arby

The Album: Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D’Arby

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The truth is, D’Arby was more complex than we ever gave him credit for, which is exactly why he had to kill himself.  We wanted to pigeonhole him, to make him conform to our expectations of someone so gifted, but it was never going to work out that way.  He rebelled against convention, refusing to limit himself, recoiling at the thought of going down a worn commercial path just to placate external noise.  Why should he?  He’d stood up and beat his chest and screamed at the top of his lungs just to get his fucking album noticed, and then found himself vilified by the very people who’d made such a big damned deal out of it in the first place.  Today, D’Arby would be celebrated for his outsized ego – Kanye rips the microphone out of Taylor Swift’s hands, and the cash register rings – but in 1987,  D’Arby found himself under siege, the press seizing on his puffed up genius rhetoric and then skewering him for it.

The answer then – the only real recourse for an artist staying true to his art – was to recognize Hardline for what it was; a brushstroke on a broader canvas, a stop on a journey filled with interesting twists and turns, a gateway to undiscovered frontier.  Forget how filthy a debut this LP was, or what it registered on the Richter Scale; D’Arby soaked it in ever so briefly, and then moved on.  He also weighed his superstar status and immediately turned his back on it, releasing Neither Fish Nor Flesh two years later, in 1989, a cyanide capsule under the tongue, a move that would hasten the departure of an artist who seemed both starved for our attention and pained by it.

 

Terence Trent D'Arby and Bono at the 1988 British Rock Industry Awards

Before the Fall:  Terence Trent D’Arby and Bono at the 1988 British Rock Industry Awards

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Brave and nuanced, Neither Fish Nor Flesh sold a paltry 300,000 copies, a cliff dive compared to the nine million copies that Hardline had generated.  And where Hardline had been perfectly set up for a string of hit singles, Neither Fish Nor Flesh was pure jolie laide – unconventionally attractive in its own unique way, a work that more closely resembled Gérard Depardieu than Tom Cruise, which spoke highly of D’Arby’s creative output but spelled disaster for the Columbia execs who banked on it padding the bottom line.

The album, birthed on October 23, 1989, was the beginning of the end of Terence Trent D’Arby.  That it tanked caused him no consternation.  He was happy to be rid of the expectations, an artist liberated, freed to simply create whatever the hell it was he wanted to create.

Symphony or Damn, also under the D’Arby name, arrived in ’93 and produced 4 Top Ten hits in the UK, but caused barely a ripple in the U.S.  American tastes were slowly changing – hip hop was beginning to emerge as the genre du jour, taking root in a post-N.W.A, pre-Eminem world, and Hardline had been largely forgotten by the same fans who’d orgasmed over it a few years before.  That was fine with D’Arby.  He had other plans, and they didn’t involve being a slave to a machine so heavily rigged in favor of a select few.

 

THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 288 -- Pictured: (l-r) Musical guest Terence Trent D'Arby during an interview with host Jay Leno on August 25, 1993-- (Photo by: Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO — Episode 288 — Pictured: (l-r) Musical guest Terence Trent D’Arby during an interview with host Jay Leno on August 25, 1993– (Photo by: Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

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D’Arby’s uncoupling from this world, at least in name, was still a few years away.  He fulfilled his contractual obligations with Sony  in 1995, with the release of Vibrator, which had one European hit, Holding Onto You, the single landing at Number 20 in the UK.  By then the fall of Icarus was complete; wingless, D’Arby plunged metaphorically into the sea and disappeared from view forever, not that anyone cared, least of all D’Arby himself.  He’d won the 1988 Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male.  Wishing Well had delivered a U.S. Number 1 hit.  Hardline had landed squarely in the Top 5 on the album charts.  So he’d been there, done that.

It was time to get on with the business of getting on with it.

~ ~ ~

Sananda Maitreya entered this world in ’95, roughly at the same time that Prince was doing war with Warner Bros., and it would be easy to lump D’Arby’s name change into the same bucket.  But drawing the parallel between The Artist Formerly Known as Prince and Sananda Maitreya would be a meathead move, because timing is all the two really have in common.  Prince was unhappy with his contract, and TAFKAP was born.  Terence Trent D’Arby slipped away from us way back in ’89, his soul finally laid to rest following the release of Vibrator, a new soul emerging to take its place.  It was a different kind of liberation for Maitreya, his rising up to the sun like a flower at the age of thirty-three.  He was finally able to create, unencumbered, his past splashed with color, his future sprinkled with promise, the possibilities limitless and void of the bureaucracy that had stifled him before.

 

Rebirth: His contractual obligations fulfilled, Terence Trent D'Arby gave way to Sananda Maitreya

Rebirth: His contractual obligations fulfilled, Terence Trent D’Arby gave way to Sananda Maitreya

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“As almost always, the best part of the creative process is the part that gets you to commit to the idea,” Maitreya says.  “The initial burst of excitement and recognition that moves your ass and makes you take the idea to the next level. By the time it is done being translated through a primary instrument, whatever it be, it then takes on a more automatic process, experience takes over. But the first spark that inspires motion, that is the best part.”

 

“As almost always, the best part of the creative process is the part that gets you to commit to the idea.  The initial burst of excitement and recognition that moves your ass and makes you take the idea to the next level. By the time it is done being translated through a primary instrument, whatever it be, it then takes on a more automatic process, experience takes over. But the first spark that inspires motion, that is the best part.” – Sananda Maitreya

 

Maitreya is willing to speak about his other life, but it isn’t easy for him.  There is pain.  He acknowledges Terence Trent D’Arby but doesn’t like to dwell on the past.  And he sees Hardline for what it is; the megahit that made D’Arby an international megastar.

“It entered the world mainly through a small flat in Frankfurt, Germany, on Raimundstrasse,” he says, recounting the album’s genesis.  “I was living there at the time, after having gotten out of the U.S Army.  I had been working with a band called The Touch, until getting thrown out of the band in a mutiny led by the manager.  Before that, I wrote with other members of the band.  Well, after getting kicked out, I said, ‘To hell with writing with other bitches,’ or similar words to that effect.  It was a short time later that the songs for that project began to come, all written, if memory serves, on a small Casio keyboard and a Roland 808 Rhythm machine.  Which proves that you do not need a lot of money to make good music. However, you need a lot of money to make people think you’ve made good music.”

He is also aware that, as D’Arby, he was an international sex symbol, athletic as an adolescent, a Golden Gloves boxing champion as a teenager, his body lean and fluid, his facial features a cauldron of androgynous beauty.  Women threw themselves at D’Arby.  Men, too.  D’Arby didn’t traffic in self-modesty, and his overt confidence amplified his magnetic persona.  Clearly, there was no dumpster diving with D’Arby when it came to charisma, and he wasn’t loathe to put it on full display, whether appearing nude on the cover of Q Magazine, or performing live at the 1988 Grammy Awards, or making the rounds on shows like Saturday Night Live and The David Letterman Show.

“Let us not speak too much of the dead, for they have earned their sleep!” he says quickly, when the conversation’s orbit comes perilously close to Planet D’Arby’s atmosphere.  “The attention paid to him was great, but his time has passed.”

 

“Let us not speak too much of the dead, for they have earned their sleep!  The attention paid to Terence Trent D’Arby was great, but his time has passed.” – Sananda Maitreya

 

Maitreya has a point.  Life today is infinitely more interesting, even if name recognition remains elusive.  Mention the name Sananda Maitreya to the average music fan, especially in the States, and blank stares usually follow.  Part of it has to do with the six year hiatus between albums, with Wildcard!  being released in 2001 under the dual names Terence Trent D’Arby / Sananda Maitreya, and Wildcard! (Joker’s Edition) re-released a year later under Maitreya’s name only.  Regardless, Wildcard! more than made up for the unfinished business that D’Arby had left behind, with many critics hailing it as the best R&B album of the year.

By then he’d taken the step of officially changing his name and promptly moved to Munich, Germany, where he set up his own independent label, of which Wildcard! was the maiden release.  It wasn’t his first stint in Germany; as D’Arby, he had been stationed in Frankfurt with Elvis Presley’s old regiment, and had fronted the aforementioned German funk band The Touch.  Insatiably inquisitive, D’Arby, circa 1986, packed up and moved to London, following in the footsteps of Hendrix, hell bent on shaking up the music world – and craving, in his words, ‘fast cars and fast women’.

 

London Calling: D'Arby, photographed in 1988, connected immediately with the music scene, tapping it for the inspiration behind his mega-hit, 'Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D'Arby'

London Calling: D’Arby, photographed in 1988, connected immediately with the music scene, tapping it for the inspiration behind his mega-hit, ‘Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D’Arby’

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What he found in London was the perfect breeding ground for his art, a Petri dish teeming with strains of rock, R&B, soul, techno and indie music.  In the U.S., it was almost unthinkable to have a black crossover star doing anything other than pop music, or occupying monolithic space at the top of anything other than traditionally black genres – R&B and soul among them.  Rock was off limits, a door closed, a glass ceiling that couldn’t be busted.  D’Arby wanted none of it.  He wanted to be a star, and he wanted to do it his way, and if you weren’t down with him harnessing his inner Mick Jagger…well, then you could kiss his ass.

“Maybe it’s easier to hear how Sam Cooke has influenced me because of the way I sing,” he was quoted as saying in that Rolling Stone interview back in ‘88.  “But it’s also true that I am aping Pete Townshend at certain moments in my show, and I get slightly paranoid when people ignore that just to concentrate on one aspect of my musical character.  I also wonder why it is that we constantly invent terms to keep black artists from being considered rock & roll artists.”

No one seemed to get that back then.  But the truth is, D’Arby, for all of the ‘manufactured superstar’ rhetoric written over the years, never received his just due for paving the way – and not just for black artists looking to cross over into rock.  Look at who is singing country today – Taylor Swift and Luke Bryan are two that leap from a crowded page, pop-drippy singers raking in vast fortunes by tapping into the younger, cheerier, post-millennium country music scene.  Funny how times change:  Back in ’88, D’Arby was bum-rushed for being a ‘shameless, self-absorbed self-promoter’, and yet today Bryan prances around the stage every bit as concerned about his image as D’Arby had been back then – his hair perfectly coiffed, teeth glistening, just enough shadow on his face to complete the look.  Look at me, it screams, and we eat it up, knowing full well that Luke Bryan is shamelessly pimping Luke Bryan.

 

Terence Trent D'arby, also named "Sananda Maitreya", in an Open Air Concert at the "Plaza Mayor" in Madrid, Opens Popular Parties Week of "San Isidro" "San Isidro" is the "Saint" of Madrid and Every Year, for May 15th, There is a One Week Celebrations and Parties (Photo by Lalo Yasky/WireImage)

Terence Trent D’arby, also named “Sananda Maitreya”, in an Open Air Concert at the “Plaza Mayor” in Madrid, Opens Popular Parties Week of “San Isidro” “San Isidro” is the “Saint” of Madrid and Every Year, for May 15th, There is a One Week Celebrations and Parties (Photo by Lalo Yasky/WireImage)

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In London, D’Arby hooked up with producer Martyn Ware – a founding member of Heaven 17 and the Human League – and worked with him on forming Hardline and it’s hit songs If You Let Me Stay and Wishing Well, the latter which charted for 17 weeks before landing at Number 1.  The LP was lightning in a bottle, its singles both a curse and a Godsend.  What emerged was genuine conflict – on the part of the critics who alternately hailed and assailed his live performances, on the part of a media that fanned the hype and punked his ego-tripping, and on the part of record company executives threatened by D’Arby’s impulsiveness but seduced by the promise of his bankability.  Maitreya has long since grown weary of talking about it, but he circles back to D’Arby’s Hardline period for one last glance.

“The LP checked into the timeline as had been preordained, shifted the situation, and having done so moved on,” he says.  “It lived and breathed, and it served its purpose.”

It also set the bar incredibly high.  How could he possibly live up to that?

“There was simply no point in repeating what had been done,” Maitreya says now.  “Nor was the structure available to us at that time for us to have gone any deeper into the well, since we had already caused quite a political stir and raised quite a few eyebrows at very high levels of society, where whispers become decisions.  Once I became seen as a potential political threat, that pretty much put an end to my exciting ride.  Understand that, to the system, what you are singing about is nowhere nearly as important as the people you bring together from across the lines created to keep people apart.”

Maitreya’s contempt for music as a business remains as strong as ever.  And while it’s easy for us to sit and judge, we weren’t on the inside with him, riding the wave.  And we’ve never had to sit in a boardroom with lawyers and record company executives, trying to coalesce our art with a suit’s vision of how to ring a cash register.

“His [Darby’s] music at the time blended people back together who had been stitched up and kept fearful of the other, and because of this, he could as well have been singing about oatmeal and they would have come after him,” Maitreya continues, cryptically.  “He spoke to people beyond politics, so, naturally, he was regarded as a politician by some rather nervous and diligent people.

 

“His [Darby’s] music at the time blended people back together who had been stitched up and kept fearful of the other, and because of this, he could as well have been singing about oatmeal and they would have come after him.  He spoke to people beyond politics, so, naturally, he was regarded as a politician by some rather nervous and diligent people.” – Sananda Maitreya

 

“More power to him!  He believed in the power of music to bring people together, and he did, and he paid for it with his life.  But that is how he would have wanted to die, and so he did.  They killed him, and this hurt like the hell that it was, but he didn’t mind!”

After all these years, the death of Terence Trent D’Arby still resonates.

 

Often compared to Prince, the colorful D'Arby ruled the music universe for an instant before his Sananda Maitreya rebirth

Often compared to Prince, the colorful D’Arby ruled the music universe for an instant before his Sananda Maitreya rebirth

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“He took his death as if it were his job,” Maitreya says.  “After all, this is what we do with our idols, is it not?  We kill them.  First, we fatten them up like turkeys or pigs, and then, when they least expect it, BAM!  We slaughter them!

“It’s what we do.  And he wasn’t caught by surprise.  He knew that, just as his idols had been worthy sacrifices before him, more than likely he too was going to get his.  And he did.  And now, he is like his heroes who got their asses roasted over the spit – a bit more tanned, perhaps, but none the worse for the wear.”

~ ~ ~

Sananda Maitreya ultimately moved from Munich to Milan, settling there in 2002.  The following year, he married the Italian architect and television host Francesca Francone.  And he kept creating; Angels & Vampires – Volume 1 was released under his own label, in 2005; Angels & Vampires – Volume 2 a year later; Nigor Mortis in 2009; The Sphinx in 2011; Return to Zooathalon in 2013; and The Rise of the Zugebrian Time Lords in 2015.  The albums adhere to no formula, and are unconstrained by rules.  Rather, they represent pure artistic freedom.

Picasso followed a similar path, and the world is better off for it.  Picasso was cocky.  A rock star with a paintbrush.  A womanizer.  Friendly with a drink.  He operated on a level inhabited by a select few – only Matisse rivaled Picasso’s innovation.  Had he continued painting life as we saw it, Picasso would still have been damned good, but there would have been no Cubism.  There would have been no Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, arguably one of the most important paintings ever created.  Picasso challenged convention, daring to go where others couldn’t, and he opened our minds to a whole new way of thinking.  Does Maitreya see his work in a similar vein?  Ahead of its time?  Does he feel that it is fully appreciated, or does he think that true appreciation will come at some point down the road?  And does it matter to him how history will ultimately judge his work?

“I am not sure that I am ahead of my time,” Maitreya says after careful consideration.  “I am certain that I am exactly where I need to be.  I expect my work to be judged fairly for the amount of time and effort put into it.  I have very high standards, which I have gotten from my overall musical education over the years, and I apply to myself whatever level I can raise myself to, in order to achieve the music.  I trust that time will honor the work I put into it.  I gave it my best, kept my intentions as pure as possible and always felt grateful to be able to make music that others were interested in listening to.  I know that time will judge me according to my works, while history will judge me according to my karma.  We will see if they wind up close enough to be cousins!”

 

“I am not sure that I am ahead of my time.  I am certain that I am exactly where I need to be.  I expect my work to be judged fairly for the amount of time and effort put into it.  I have very high standards, which I have gotten from my overall musical education over the years, and I apply to myself whatever level I can raise myself to, in order to achieve the music.  I trust that time will honor the work I put into it.” – Sananda Maitreya

 

To date, Maitreya’s albums have been called everything from choppy to brilliant, from messy to soaring, from inconsistent to incomparable.  The material is a result of wherever his imagination takes him.  Has living in Milan, and being so close to other forms of timeless art, had an influence on his work in the studio?

“The main ways that painting and sculpting differ from what I do is that painters and sculptors do not get their balls busted for doing their work alone,” he says.  “I am always questioned as to my motives for not collaborating as much, yet no one asked Rembrandt why he kicked bitches out of the studio when he wanted to paint. In any event, it is all about the same.  Seeing a vision, being inspired by a sound, an idea, a look, a feel, and then translating that into reality.  All artists are the same, just using different mediums for their presentations.  One person uses wood, another paint, another sound, others use words.  At the end of the day the purpose is still the same, to arouse the union between nature and human consciousness.

“It is certainly true that living in Italy has great advantages as far as being able to draw from such a rich inheritance of world class culture.  Master Leonardo Da Vinci lived in Milano for many years and had a huge hand in its design and evolution.  I live amidst great cathedrals, art galleries, universities, music academies, gardens where poets have walked and great works of architecture.  I also live among people who love music and culture and treat artists with great professional respect, much as other societies treat doctors.  It does me a great deal of good as an artist to be immersed in a culture where art has value.  It benefits anyone to be in a friendly environment as it pertains to their living.”

~ ~ ~

One last thought on Terence Trent D’Arby and the music royalty to which he’s been compared; whether true or not, or warranted or not, the comparisons provided the rocket fuel for the spacecraft that D’Arby had built in that Raimundstrasse flat.  Never mind that the LP was dope; the buzz generated by all of the incongruous name-dropping was more than enough to propel D’Arby skyward, while a string of hit singles, including the amped-up Dance Little Sister, provided the extra thrust needed to escape the atmosphere and make him a star.  Ironically, the comparisons worked against D’Arby in the beginning, as he struggled with rejection.

“They [British record companies] couldn’t see past the obvious,” he said during a 1988 interview. “They looked at me and said, ‘Oh, here is another Michael Jackson or Prince.  Who needs that?’  They couldn’t get past the surface similarities and see that there was something else there.”

 

“They [British record companies] couldn’t see past the obvious.  They looked at me and said, ‘Oh, here is another Michael Jackson or Prince.  Who needs that?’  They couldn’t get past the surface similarities and see that there was something else there.”

 

The comparisons only escalated after he broke through.  It was almost as if D’Arby had been concocted in a lab, the result of careful market research:  He was black – but not too black; he was easy on the eyes; he was built like Michael and could move like Prince; and he had trace amounts of Hendrix, James Brown, and Sam Cooke coursing through his veins.

Being linked to black musical icons was flattering, but what people didn’t get then – and perhaps still don’t get today – is that D’Arby was just as hip to white artists such as David Bowie and Mick Jagger as he was to their black superstar counterparts.  Music, in his estimation, was colorblind.  He grew up hooked on the Beatles, and as Maitreya, honored them on the first track of the expansive, 27-song LP The Rise of the Zugebrian Time Lords.

 

Every Sananda Maitreya LP offers something different, and 'The Rise of the Zugebrian Time Lords' is no exception

Every Sananda Maitreya LP offers something different, and ‘The Rise of the Zugebrian Time Lords’ is no exception

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You’re Going To Lose That Girl was not only an early favorite of mine as a very young Beatles fan,” he says, “but many years later, during a great and debilitating depression, I can recall spending a weekend listening to this song being played over and over as many as 30 times a day, as if hearing it was the only thing keeping me alive.  It has a certain magic that inspires life, at least mine, and I wanted to give that feeling back to the world in my own way.”

D’Arby cultivated A-List relationships – black and white – back in the day, bending Bruce Springsteen’s ear and chatting up Prince on a regular basis.  Springsteen, it turns out, was a fan from the get-go, seeking out D’Arby during his first tour in the U.S., and the two became fast friends.  He was one of the few who were there for D’Arby when Neither Fish Nor Flesh hit the market stillborn.

“Springsteen took a complicated man under his wing and helped him through a dark time,” Maitreya says.  “And then he was off to tackle the things going on in his own life.”

D’Arby and Springsteen make for an odd pairing, at least on the surface – the blue-collar, Born in the U.S.A. singer and the slightly androgynous singer who skipped out on the army, going AWOL to pursue his music career – but the Manhattan-born, illegitimately-born D’Arby was far grittier than most would ever give him credit.  To say that he entered this world swinging wouldn’t be far from the truth; D’Arby’s childhood was a series of fistfights, which later made his transition to boxing such a natural act.  By then his family had moved to Florida, where his Golden Glove championship caught the attention of Orlando-area army recruiters.  D’Arby tried college but ultimately chose the military, motivated by a chance to see the world and broaden his own understanding of it.  And although he never boxed again, the parallels between pugilism and music still resonate today.

 

Friends for Life: Bruce Springsteen and Terence Trent D'Arby share a moment onstage

Friends for Life: Bruce Springsteen and Sananda Maitreya share a moment onstage

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“The parallels are even more appropriate between boxing and the music business,” Maitreya says, “although all sciences apply themselves in other applications. From the military I got the necessity of discipline and organization, commitment to goals.  From boxing I got the ability to get smacked in the head real hard by other bitches and still be able to retain the image of who I thought I was, which was very valuable when I got caught up in the corporate network of the business.  Boxing was warrior training, and to be an artist, it really helps to be a warrior.”

D’Arby was tight with Pete Townshend.  Leonard Cohen, too.  Not bad for a dude that seemingly rose up from nowhere to lord over the music world, if ever so briefly, like a lyrical Vito Corleone.  But all of this had to start somewhere.  Does Maitreya’s memory bank still store any clues?  Was there anything in his childhood that suggested stardom?

“I recall walking back to my seat after singing a song in a church in Newark New Jersey at the age of 4 perhaps,” he says, “and then being instantly mobbed by this very excited lady with what seemed to me like breasts the size of clouds!  Those heavenly pillows of love smothered me in their bosom until I felt like I needed a snorkel to survive.  But what a death – I was hooked.  Oh yes, I knew right then that this would be my life!

 

“I recall walking back to my seat after singing a song in a church in Newark New Jersey at the age of 4 perhaps, and then being instantly mobbed by this very excited lady with what seemed to me like breasts the size of clouds!  Those heavenly pillows of love smothered me in their bosom until I felt like I needed a snorkel to survive.  But what a death – I was hooked.  Oh yes, I knew right then that this would be my life!” – Sananda Maitreya

 

“I have mostly fond memories of my childhood.  I can remember the times I used to spend with my favorite babysitter as a child, a lovely Scottish lady in East Orange, New Jersey, who lived across the street from our home.  Her name was Mrs. MacIntyre, and she and I would have saltine crackers and tomato soup each day for lunch.  I loved her very much.  I was about two or three years old at the time.”

 

The Artist: Sananda Maitreya at home in Milano, Italy

The Artist: Sananda Maitreya at home in Milano, Italy

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D’Arby and Maitreya share the same DNA, so it should come as no surprise that Maitreya restlessly innovates, at times taking great care and precision in his work, at other times throwing paint on canvas and watching the patterns emerge.  And therein lies the beauty of a Sananda Maitreya LP:  While you know what you’re getting with certain artists – Michael Bublé, for all his talent, only has one gear – Maitreya has the requisite chops to go where his imagination takes him.  The result may yield a head scratcher, but it won’t be the yawn-fest that comes with releasing the same mindless dribble.  Case in point:  The Rise of the Zugebrian Time Lords is classic Maitreya, a 27-track journey from the artist’s heart to his head and back again, an unpredictable tome that Maitreya refers to as ‘Post Millennium Rock’.  The album is anything but boring.  Allergic is a hypnotizing soul ballad that damn near steals the show, while Les Paul Man (Love is Love) needs context to be fully appreciated, as not everyone knows (or cares) that Les Paul was a guitarist and inventor of the solid body electric guitar – blunting the effect of the carefully crafted line ‘…it will never work because you are a lesbian and I am a Les Paul man’.

As far as Maitreya is concerned, form your own opinions about the album.  Just don’t make the mistake of calling it experimental.

“Experimental, while a compliment, and a welcome one, also implies that one is taking directions in the dark as were one unaware of where they were going,” Maitreya says.  “And while sometimes this is exactly where artists need to go, it is nevertheless true that most of the time, I am not ‘experimenting’, I am fulfilling a vision.  Experimental might indicate that luck is involved more than hard work and forethought.  My mind, as twisted as it is, is like this.  It is like when politicians admit that they ‘experimented’ with drugs.  It sounds more forgiving than saying that they just ‘took’ them.

“In any event, this is admittedly a sore spot because earlier in my career spoke of my records were spoken of by the record label as ‘experimental’ as a way of getting out of spending the money promoting them.  Once they label it ‘experimental’ it simply sends a message to the industry machine that they shouldn’t expect too much merchandise from the product, because there won’t be much.”

~ ~ ~

“I think I’m a genius.  Point fucking blank.”

Terence Trent D’Arby made that outlandish proclamation back in ’88, to Rolling Stone, at the zenith of his popularity.  The thing is, the media fixated on the cockiness, creating a distorted caricature of D’Arby that didn’t exactly jive with the public persona that he was trying to create.  The incessant boasting drowned out the fact that he was articulate, well-read, thoughtful, and above all, sensitive.  The backlash followed him to the grave.  It bothers Maitreya today.  And it angers him, because he knows that scores of writers took the easy way out, stereotyping his former self instead of doing their homework, fixating on the veneer instead of doing a deeper dive into the inner workings of Terence Trent D’Arby.  It irks him that they took him way too seriously, breezing past the lighter side of D’Arby to instead print massive amounts of copy about his arrogance.

“Dude, could I possibly answer these questions and not have a sense of humor?” he asks playfully.  “Could I have married an Italian woman over 12 years ago and not have survived the culture shock without a sense of humor?  Though more important may be a sense of irony, especially in our business. After all, seen through the appropriate lens, how can this all not be funny?”

 

“Dude, could I possibly answer these questions and not have a sense of humor?  Could I have married an Italian woman over 12 years ago and not have survived the culture shock without a sense of humor?  Though more important may be a sense of irony, especially in our business. After all, seen through the appropriate lens, how can this all not be funny?” – Sananda Maitreya

 

Life is good.  Maitreya is blessed with a beautiful wife and two sons, and he’s been able to fill his days doing what he loves most – making music.  The Rise of the Zugebrian Time Lords is 100% Maitreya on all 27 tracks…every instrument, every lyric, everything.  No record company executive in her right mind would greenlight a project like this, but that’s the beauty of Maitreya being able to do his own thing.  It’s his label, his studio, and his dollars backing each project he puts out.  Maitreya answers to Maitreya.  Does the thrill being on his own boss help fuel the passion for what comes next?

“I am never looking for ‘what’s next’,” he says, “because I do not really care about what is next, I only care about ‘what does this song or piece of music require?’  I live in a world where, as a creator, a producer, I can simply stay in the moment and listen to what the song is evolving as, with no limitations imposed other than to make the coolest record possible with the idea that came to you, and not have to superimpose restrictions based on marketing demographics and quarterly market trends.  What is next is never a consideration, only ‘what is now’, ‘what is right’, and what is timeless?  Even more importantly, ‘what works’?”

What about the ambitiousness of it all?

“As far as ambition, as an independent artist, there can be no viable excuse to not forever be reaching for the stars! I think it was master Oscar Wilde who may have said, ‘All of us are lying in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’  The Rise of the Zugebrian Time Lords is me lying in the gutter and dreaming of a life beyond it, like dreamers do.  All of Post Millennium Rock so far is me living out this great opportunity to express myself as an artist and not just as a demographic.”

It boggles the mind to think of the work involved in laying down 27 tracks and being involved in every nook and cranny.  Others have done it – Prince, perhaps most famously, with his 1978 debut For You, in which he  produced, arranged, composed and played all 27 instruments on the recording.  What is Maitreya most proud of when it comes to The Rise of the Zugebrian Time Lords?

“To be honest, I am always most proud of finishing and of having survived the ambition of the project,” he says.  “We all learn as creators that we must each be willing to be responsible for what we create.  And each of my projects is its own little world, and to be able to go from conception to birth with them is always its own peculiar journey.  With the Zugebrian project, I conjured up a world that I would have to answer to and come to see how very real it was, no matter what name I gave it.

“And because of the Time Lords subject matter, concerning time travel, subjugation, mind theft, history manipulation, oppression and the like, I had to live with the dark subject matter for a while and bear it, to better feel and understand what it was that I was explaining.  Needless to say, 27 songs worth of this can be exhilarating and at the same time take a tremendous toll on the psyche.  It is like an actor taking on a role and getting lost in it.  To have survived it is the greatest achievement.  I do not know how well this bodes for the next project in planning, Prometheus & Pandora, since it will also be fiery subject matter.  But it is also a love story, so it should be a much easier time period to bear. I should hope.”

 

The Artist Unencumbered - Maitreya, free from commercial expectations, creates on his own terms today

The Artist Unencumbered – Maitreya, free from commercial expectations, creates on his own terms today

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Post Millennium Rock, is, at its essence, pure Sananda Maitreya – anything goes, and be sure to enjoy the ride.  It’s a path mainstream artists are reluctant to take, the risk not worth the reward.  For Maitreya, it is another brushstroke on the broader canvas.

“Most artists are limited by the restrictions imposed upon them by their record labels,” he says quickly.  “The result of all of the executive meetings and decisions, the latest trends, the corporate boardroom competitions, the rivalries, inept management and perhaps the artists not being mature enough yet to project and protect themselves.  Being a successful artist is like being an actor, you have to project from a role you have created for yourself that you can believe in.  If others reject that, it can have a negative effect on your psyche, from the place from where you project your persona as an artist.  And most artists do not have the power to resist doing and being what they are told, by a committee of revolving door executives with each their own agenda.  To wit: If you do not know who you are and are determined to be that, then you are fucked.  Just turn in your boat, your oars, your helmet, the keys to the locker and move on. Because the next time you see your sanity will be the last time, again.”

Terence Trent D’Arby was notoriously genre averse.  Does Sananda Maitreya feel the same way?

“I am less a fan of genres per se, than of great artists and pieces of inspiration wherever I find it,” he says.  “As an artist, I am always curious about other designs that bring attention to form and function, as well as things that prove the validity of existing just for its own sake.  The point is, if I say that I love Bob Marley, then, especially in these digital times, I risk to get spammed to hell with nothing but reggae, when in fact, I said nothing about reggae, only about Master Marley.  Same with Mozart.  Say you love Mozart and Beethoven and it is naturally assumed that you love all classical music.  But most classical music sucks, just like much of most music sucks.  I love Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, and Duke Ellington for example, but most ‘jazz’ music puts me to sleep well before I am ready to go.  I can also name quite a few country artists that I love, though not because they are country, but because they for me are simply great and angels of the music.  Not everyone is Hank Williams or Merle Haggard.  But just give me anything that I can square dance to, and I am as happy as an ant in a maze!”

Today, the top artists frequently collaborate with one another.  Rihanna makes her own music, but she’s also appeared on umpteen songs starring other artists, collaborating with everyone from Eminem to Maroon 5.  That just didn’t happen when D’Arby was alive and kicking.

“I would have loved to have written songs with Beethoven,” Maitreya says.  “I would have loved to have taken out an acoustic guitar and written songs with John Lennon, though I understand that he might have been preoccupied at the time, with other priorities. As for the living, I cannot say which artists I would want to collaborate with.  Most of them are still angry at me for leaving and for getting off the train before it wrecked.”

 

“I would have loved to have written songs with Beethoven.  I would have loved to have taken out an acoustic guitar and written songs with John Lennon, though I understand that he might have been preoccupied at the time, with other priorities. As for the living, I cannot say which artists I would want to collaborate with.  Most of them are still angry at me for leaving and for getting off the train before it wrecked.”  – Sananda Maitreya

 

One artist who would want to collaborate with Maitreya is jazz legend Al Jarreau.  The seven-time Grammy-winner raves about Maitreya and his work, notably Wildcard! (The Jokers’ Edition) and its opening track, O Divina.  It’s proof positive that, while the public has largely moved on, there are still heavy hitters out there that believe in Maitreya and support his journey.

“Dude – please return the compliment to Master Jarreau because he influenced everybody’s sensibility one way or another when I was coming through.  His sensibility was a gap filler between what was being sold as jazz and what was being sold as pop.  Either way, he was a huge influence on so many people navigating their own way through, a guiding light, which as we know, is no easy gig!  There is also the point that Master Al’s style and choice of music allows him to experience it for much longer because his music is not based on trends but on timeless values, which is where every true artist’s roots should be.  As important, if not more than his music, was the elegance, grace & class he exuded.  His karma is why he is able to still perform at master levels at this mature stage of his great career.  And people love him, which inspires and creates further good karma for him to work with.

“Quite frankly, I aspire to work for as long as I am still inspired and do not shit myself onstage.  If I can get through a show without turning people off, then I am still good!  And it helps that I remain limber enough to dodge any items that might be thrown at my head or general facial area.  When I lose the mobility required in avoiding projectile objects, then we will know that it is time to retire to golf, if not the wonderful Italian gentlemen’s game of bocce.”

And what does Sananda Maitreya want his legacy to be?

“You mean besides the fact that I answered all of these questions in my favorite orange socks & yellow underpants?” he says with a hearty laugh.  “I want my legacy to somehow contain the understanding that what was done to my former life by the powers that be, did neither of us any favors.  Other than that, I showed up and took my turn on the cross before handing it over to the next young idealistic fool.  Is there anything else?  I fulfilled that life as a blood sacrifice, and now I aim to fulfill this life as an artist.  Not the smartest thing to be for sure but the only thing they would allow me to learn where I do not have to shoot at anyone.  I was determined not to be defined by the limits of other people’s imagination and I trusted my own, since it was the one closest to me.  My greatest achievement is simply that I SURVIVED MY OWN LIFE!”