American Troubadours:




Mark Brend's book "American Troubadours" profiles 9 American singer-songwriters of the 60s, including David Blue. Other featured artists are, David Ackles, Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, Phil Ochs, Tom Rapp, Tim Rose and Tom Rush. It is published by Backbeat Books (ISBN 0-87930-641-6).

In this extract Brend traces Blue's story from the "Me, S. David Cohen" album through to "Stories".

... an improvement though it was, These 23 Days in September did little to establish Blue in America and was not released in the UK, its intense introspection perhaps a little out of time with the prevailing euphoric cultural mood. Blue retreated for a while, re-emerging in 1970 as S. David Cohen, with a album entitled Me, S. David Cohen again on Reprise, again only released in America. It was recorded in Nashville in a three day session and shared its country influences with roughly contemporaneous work by Dylan, The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. No backing musicians were credited on this very obscure album, but the sound and feel of the record indicates that the Area Code 615 musicians contributed.

In a sense, as David Blue had been to Highway 61, so Me, David S Cohen was to Nashville Skyline. Aspects of the style matched the Dylan album, though the gap between master and pupil was still apparent. But Me, S David Cohen was a much better album than Blue's debut.

Leading with a Merle Haggard song, Mama Tried, Me was a relaxed collection, with many of the songs locking into an easy country-rock swing that The Eagles were soon to exploit to great commercial success. Generally speaking, the slower and simpler the song, the better Blue's voice sounded. The more upbeat songs, like Me and Patty on the Moon, tend to be suffocated by Blue's rather tuneless efforts to inject some urgency into the proceedings. The ambitious closing track, Sara, merges a lengthy spoken-word introduction with a slow Mexican-influenced country ballad section - a more successful attempt to blend poetry with song than on Hardin's Susan Moore album from the same period.

At some point during 1970 Blue had moved to LA. He was to stay there for the next decade, a regular feature on the party circuit with the country rock elite - various members of The Byrds, The Burritos, The Eagles and Crosby, Stills and Nash played on his subsequent recordings. He flirted with heroin, a brief dangerous liaison which, whilst never becoming as all encompassing as the addiction that destroyed Hardin, nevertheless dominated Blue's life for a short while.

The Me album was virtually ignored, leaving Blue was at low ebb professionally and personally. For the best part of two years Blue did little apart from lose his contract with Reprise. "Yeah … I was into heroin. Not a lot but enough to know how fast it can take you down. One of the songs on the album is about a friend who's into the stuff and another's about my own experiences." The album Blue was referring to was Stories.

Recorded in 1971 and released on Asylum in 1972, Blue reverted to his adopted name for Stories, the use of his real name on Me having done nothing for his commercial fortunes. Stories was produced by Blue and guitarist Rafkin, with help from engineer Henry Lewy, who had engineered sessions for the classic first Flying Burrito Brothers' album. Former Buritto Chris Ethridge played bass, and Ry Cooder and Rita Coolidge guested.

Most of Stories' eight songs were based around economical acoustic guitar arrangements. This enabled Blue to softly speak-sing the usual confessional lyrics, an approach that best suited his limited voice. Of these acoustic songs, Sister Rose and Another One Like Me are particularly successful - Blue capturing a mellow groove typical of many singer-songwriter records of the time, and bearing comparison with Tom Rush's work of the same period. The drawn out House of Changing Faces was Blue's heroin confession song, where he tells of still having: "…tracks to remind me, what life was like, high and wasted, when I wanted to die." The accordion-based Marianne appears to be a song about the same women immortalised in the Leonard Cohen classic So Long, Marianne, with Blue singing: "I knew her from another song, her older poet wrote before." The piano ballad Fire in the Morning benefited from a string arrangement by Jack Nitzche. Only Come On, John, the song about an addict friend, disrupts the mood of what is a fine, if unremittingly bleak album. Tellingly it is the only full rock band arrangement on the record, underlining the problem Blue had with singing in such a setting.

Despite the despairing tone of the album, Blue said he had written and recorded it in a positive frame of mind. The depression of his heroin period was past, and his distance from his despair gave him the perspective to capture it effectively in song. It was the first time he had made a record with a real sense of commitment and purpose. "If you listen to that record and say 'God, what a downer!' then I've succeeded in doing exactly what I wanted to do," he said, "… I realised my effectiveness at communicating emotion through that record, because I could put it on and bring everyone down."

Blue came to the UK in June 1972, his first visit, to promote Stories. Although still a very minor name with precious little evidence of public interest in his work, he was committed to his career for the first time. He was scheduled to make his debut at a big open-air concert at the Crystal Palace Bowl, but his performance was cancelled hours before he was due on stage. Poor organisation by the promoters meant that there was simply not room on the schedule for the still virtually unknown Blue. But he was able to complete a small college tour, which he enjoyed, finding British audiences more inclined to sit and pay attention than he was used to. His usual experience prior to the tour had been of an unequal struggle to get his laments heard above bar room chatter whilst performing as a support act to some band in small American rock clubs.

Returning from his UK visit in an optimistic mood and wanting to record an 'up'album, Blue decided it was time to try working with an electric band again - his first attempt to do so since the American Patrol debacle. So in autumn 1972 Blue went to the San Francisco home-studio of Graham Nash to record his next album, with Nash producing and a band that included Rafkin, Ethridge, Dave Mason, and David Lindley. Nice Baby and The Angel was released by Asylum, in an odd silver sleeve, in June 1973.

© Mark Brend