August 25, 2006
JERRY YESTER ON FAREWELL ALDEBARAN
In December ’05 I was preparing to write the accompanying review of the Farewell Aldebaran reissue, and thought I’d take a chance and e-mail Jerry with a few questions about the album. As it happens, he was coming over to Japan in a few days’ time with the Modern Folk Quartet, and kindly agreed to an interview after their gig at Thumbs Up in Yokohama – David Biasotti
Ugly Things: How did you and Judy come to write stuff together?
Jerry Yester: We started writing together just after the MFQ stopped. I guess it was like ’66. I’d been writing melodies for quite awhile before that. Judy’s a real fine writer of prose and poetry. The first thing we ever wrote together was “Three Ravens,” when we were living up in Laurel Canyon. It’s a tune of mine that I’d recorded in New York in a music room on Bleeker Street. I called it “Mood for Cellos” or some kind of weird name like that. We both liked the tune, but it just kind of sat around for a while. Then Judy wrote the lyric and it just came alive. And that turned us on to writing songs together, and we started writing a bit more. Then John Sebastian called and asked if I wanted to join the Spoonful, and that kind of stopped it for a while. Plus, Judy had gotten pregnant, so it was kind of put on hold. I think we did “Mrs. Connor” [or “One More Time” as it’s titled on the album] in New York City during the Spoonful. She came up with the lyric first. It was about someone she knew in Chippewa Falls. After the Spoonful stopped, that summer we started really writing a lot more out on Long Island. It was [TV pioneer] Dave Garroway’s old place, a five-acre farm.
UT: You and Judy moved back to LA in 1968, I understand.
JY: Yeah, after the Spoonful. We were back east for ’67-’68. June ’68 was when the Spoonful called it a day. We still had three months on our lease on our house, so we stayed the summer on Long Island. So when that was up, we drove back by way of Toronto. We went up and visited [Zal Yanovsky] for about three or four days, and then down to Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin and visited Judy’s folks. They gave us money for an air conditioner for the car, ‘coz it was hot as hell that summer. We drove back to LA and stayed with my brother Jim for a month in Beechwood Canyon. Then we found a place out in Woodland Hills and moved in. Not too long after that, we talked to Herbie [Cohen of Straight Records] and he decided he’d do the album. I called Zally to see if he was interested in co-producing it, and he moved back to LA for a while. We did quite a few things together: Pat Boone [Departure], the Fifth Avenue Band, Tim Buckley [Happy Sad], and us.
UT: In Richie Unterberger’s Unknown Legends of Rock ’n’ Roll, Judy says that Frank Zappa loved her poems and said she should make songs out of them.
JY: Well, I think Frank was very encouraging, ‘coz he really liked Judy’s writing. But as far as the writing is concerned, I’d say it was half and half. I’d have a tune, she’d write to it; she’d come up with a lyric and I’d write to that. If I feel tune coming on, I’ll just compose the tune and get a lyric written to it, but I really like working with a lyric.
UT: Was “St. Nicholas Hall” a case where you set one of Judy’s poems to music?
JY: “St. Nicholas Hall” was a tune of mine, and Judy wrote a lyric to it called “The Children of Light,” which was kind of a psychedelic song. I don’t know if you remember Marcia Strassman’s “The Flower Children.” It wasn’t quite that, but it was in that direction. Sometime during the making of Farewell Aldebaran Judy took that song and rewrote the lyric, and I just loved it. It was all about her days in Catholic school.
UT: About how long did it take to finish the album?
JY: It was done along with the Pat Boone album. We were kind of drifting back and forth, so it took a little longer than it normally would have. It was done in the same studio. The studio was owned by Pat Boone—Sunwest. The studio manager got to like us, and recommended Zally and I as the producers for an album with Pat that he wanted to make, so that’s how that came about. So we just kind of traded off. It was good; it would give us time to let something rest and be able to listen to it later. I think it was probably started in the spring of ’69 and finished in the fall.
UT: You got a number of terrific musicians in for Farewell Aldebaran. Were some of the same guys used on the Pat Boone album?
JY: Well, we had access to some really good players. Jerry Scheff on bass, Toxie French on drums, Joe Osborne on some stuff, David Lindley, Ry Cooder.
UT: Did Ry play on your album?
JY: He just played on Boone’s. I think I said once that he did, but I was confusing it.
UT: On “Raider” Lindley plays this fantastic bowed banjo part.
JY: It was his idea to do it; I’d never even heard of it before, and I said, “Yeah, sure!” And he had his friend from Kaleidoscope on hammered dulcimer.
UT: Solomon Feldthouse?
JY: Yeah, I think that was him. I think he just had it with him, and I have a feeling David suggested it, and it came together pretty quick.
UT: "Snowblind" has a real extemporaneous feel to it. How did that one come together in the studio?
JY: Judy had a lyric that we all liked a lot, but I hadn't gotten around to doing
anything with it. One night in the studio we were kind of in-between, and she brought it up. It was just Judy and Zal and I, and our friend Larry Beckett in the studio. I was playing guitar and working something up with Judy, and Zal grabbed his guitar, and it started coming together. There was a set of drums in the studio, and Beckett—who was Tim Buckley's writing partner at the time, and had also played drums in a high school band with Buckley and Jim Fielder—got behind them, It took about half an hour before we started recording. We did live two-track, as well as eight-track. The two-track sounded really good but we needed a bass. Zal put one down, and doubled his lead, and that was that. We left Beckett's count-off on it, I guess because it was so typically Beckett.
UT: If I were forced to pick a favorite track, I’d say it’s “Rapture.”
JY: I’m real fond of that one too. It was written at my brother’s house. Two songs were written there. He was on the road, and we stayed at his house. He had a nice little music room with a nice piano in it. The music for “Farewell Aldebaran” and the music for “Rapture” both came from that period. I had a tape recorder that I was using, and I called “Farewell Aldebaran” “Zanzibar.” I wanted Judy to get some kind of odd, you know, Middle Eastern desert thing going with it, but she came up with “Farewell Aldebaran.” She was always right, of course! And “Rapture” just killed me, man. I had no ideas on that, but she sure nailed it, I think—that’s one of her best lyrics.
UT: How did you achieve that strange effect on Judy’s vocal on “Rapture?”
JY: That’s reverse echo. Our engineer was Gary Brandt—a young guy. I really liked his ideas and his enthusiasm. He’d recorded the strings on [Bobbie Gentry’s] “Ode to Billie Joe,” and I liked that a lot, so we just took him on board. The reverse echo was his idea. You flip the tape over—the vocal’s recorded already—and then you record the echo chamber on the backward vocal. So then, when you turn it back over, the echo precedes the vocal.
UT: You’re credited as playing banjo on “Rapture,” but where the hell is the banjo on it?
JY: My long-necked banjo is tuned very low on it. I played harmonica on it too, going back and forth, and we’d change the speed of the machine to get in tune with it. So it sounds like one instrument, but it’s a harmonica and a banjo put together. And then the bass of the piano had a lot to do with it—that ponderous boom boom. That’s one of my favorite parts.
UT: Was there any delay in getting the album released after you finished it?
JY: No, I think we finished it in the early fall, and back in those days you had to have it ready by October 15th to be out for Christmas. My mother, when I sent a copy to her, about a week later she called up and says, “Is everything OK? Are you guys all right?” —she thought it was kind of black and depressing—but I said, “Yeah, yeah, what are you talking about? I think it’s a really cheerful record!” (laughs)
UT: Do you remember if Aldebaran received any critical praise at the time?
JY: Not really. It just kind of took a dive off the pier. I was expecting it to do a lot more, but it was pretty eclectic for its day.
UT: I notice you pronounce Aldebaran “Al-DE-ba-ran.”
JY: In the dictionary it says “Al-DE-ba-ran.” I think it sounds better. I’m pretty sure that’s the way I heard Carl Sagan say it—I mean, that’s God, right? (laughs)
Sincerest thanks to Jerry for the interview. For information both on Jerry’s amazing career and his current activities, visit his official website, www.jerryyester.com.
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