A Personal Journey, Part 1
Smelling the jasmine with Vince Martin and Fred Neil
Originally published on May 18, 2007 in the Austin Chronicle
"Soft brown warm and tenderSkin cool like summer snow
If the jasmine don't get you
You know the bay breeze will"
– Vince Martin, "Jasmine (If the Jasmine Don't Get You ... the Bay Breeze Will)"
My friend Len had a freelance gig reviewing records at one point, probably in the late Sixties, and he would give me all the rock or rock-seeming albums he received. Len vastly preferred jazz and comedy, and a bit later, he got another freelance job reviewing jazz shows. We'd go see Dizzy Gillespie or a Charlie Parker tribute band in smoky, grownup, New York City jazz clubs. I still felt like a kid. I've always felt like a kid. The clubs would comp our food and drinks, and this was the first time I really encountered that situation.
Most of the albums were crap, but there were some worth keeping. There were even a couple that became a surprisingly permanent part of my listening library, music I have listened to consistently since I first heard it. I know I first encountered Danny O'Keefe because of Len and possibly the first Loudon Wainwright III album. The real treasure was If the Jasmine Don't Get You ... the Bay Breeze Will by Vince Martin from 1969. This was way before the Internet, so though I treasured the album, I knew almost nothing about Martin. It was one of those that slipped through the cracks; I don't think I even saw a review of it.
I'm very lyric-centric, but what knocked me out about this album was the second side (these were the days of vinyl) that had only two songs – "Yonder Comes the Sun" at about eight minutes and the title track at about 13. There were lyrics, but both the songs were essentially extended jams by some of the top Nashville session men of the time. I wasn't sure if this album would be considered great by anyone else. On the Danny O'Keefe album, for example, I knew the song "Steel Guitar" was great, and I was comfortable in that knowledge because it was not just the driving music but also the lyrics that made it so. This second side of Jasmine was brilliant because of the players, the singing, a hint of lyrics, and some inspired scatting.
Instrumentals were something I just didn't care that much about, lacking any kind of special affection for all but a few and any depth of knowledge. The beauty of these two songs was in their near-spiritual mellowness – invocations of the sun and the ocean, celebrations of lazy days with just fishing and the breeze. As little as I was comfortable judging instrumentals, mellow was an area where spelling the word was the full extent of my awareness of that state. Blind people know more about colors than I did about mellowness.
Let me be perfectly clear here: I loved this album, playing at least the second side over and over again. If it had turned out that others regarded it as pabulum, musical crap, it would not have made any difference to me. This isn't about trying to be hip or cool. Here was this album I loved, about which I knew nothing. At the time, there was a lot of music I listened to on which there was little or no information. I realize that now, with information on damn near anything just a few keystrokes away, there are many who listen to music who simply are not interested in anything except the music, having no drive to learn about its creators or context.
But since I was very young when I encountered any aspect of culture, politics, or history that interested me, I became obsessive in my pursuit of more information on and knowledge of it. If I discovered authors I liked, I'd read every book by them. If I fell in love with a film by a director or was particularly influenced by a cinematographer or screenwriter, I'd track down every other film with which they were involved. Keep in mind that in the days before VHS tapes and DVDs existed, this meant scouring the TV listings, especially at the oddest hours, in search of what films were being shown. The first film book I ever read was Theodore Huff's marvelous work on Charlie Chaplin before I had ever seen a single Chaplin film.
Visiting my uncle's family in Queens in 1963 or '64, I went to the corner drugstore to buy comic books. There was a title I didn't recognize, so I bought The Fantastic Four No. 4. In it the Sub-Mariner is reintroduced within the context that there had been comic books during World War II. This began a lifelong interest in the history of comics.
Before the Internet, when there were few books on film or comic books and almost none on rock music, any kind of search needed one to be obsessive and ever vigilant.
In so many ways, just having this album that I loved, not knowing what anyone else thought of it, without any context or history, made it even more wonderful. The relationship between the music and me was in no way tainted. In many ways, Vince Martin was more myth than reality, which, given the dizzying, exuberant winds of the music, was just about perfect.
Over time, I discovered more about Martin, though by and far the most information I've discovered has been in the last couple of years, almost four decades into listening to the album. Much earlier I found a copy of Tear Down the Walls, a record by Vince Martin and the legendary Fred Neil on Elektra, which made me realize Martin had been in that fabled Greenwich Village folk scene that involved so many extraordinary talents. The album was mostly traditional songs or those written by Neil with Martin only contributing one. The record was very interesting, but there was almost nothing about it that just by listening connected it to If the Jasmine Don't Get You.
Now I knew about and had listened to Fred Neil, a brilliant songwriter and eccentric talent who only reluctantly recorded. He had written a number of great songs including "Blues on the Ceiling," "Little Bit of Rain," "The Dolphins," "Please Send Me Somebody to Love," "That's the Bag I'm In," and "The Other Side of This Life." Neil's songs have been covered by such artists as H.P. Lovecraft, Emmylou Harris, Jefferson Airplane, Richie Havens, Linda Rondstadt, the Youngbloods, Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin, Jimmy Buffett, Billy Bragg, and Beth Orton.
In 1961 Roy Orbison had a hit with Neil's song "Candy Man." Oddly, however, his best-known song is "Everybody's Talkin'" that Harry Nilsson covered for Midnight Cowboy, which far too many folks always assume was written by that singer.
Neil has gained some cultural currency again with the rediscovery of the exquisite blues singer Karen Dalton. A reissue of one of her two albums includes a photo of Dalton, Neil, and Bob Dylan playing together.
All this, however, provided little information on Martin and the album.
But the Internet sheds light in even the darkest corners. Martin's career had actually begun when he sang the lead on the Tarriers' hit "Cindy, Oh Cindy" in 1955. The band (including Alan Arkin and Erik Darling) had another hit with "The Banana Boat Song" the same year, but Martin wasn't involved.
In that NYC folk scene, he hung out with John Sebastian, Richie Havens, Karen Dalton, Felix Pappalardi, and Dino Valente (who introduced him to Neil) among others. Martin's live performances with Fred Neil are said to have influenced David Crosby, Mama Cass Elliot, and Havens, among others.
Martin discovered Coconut Grove in Florida in 1961 and soon moved there. This inspired other Greenwich Village talents, including Fred Neil, to not only visit but also move there. John Sebastian wrote "Coconut Grove" while staying with Neil, and other visitors included Crosby, Mama Cass, Lisa Kindred, and Buzzy Linhart. Martin and Neil were living there in 1964 when they went back up to New York to record Tear Down the Walls.
In 1969 Neil had just finished recording sessions with producer Nick Venet in Nashville when Venet went back into the studio to record Martin. Over the years, Venet also produced the Beach Boys, the Hondells, the Leaves, the Walker Brothers, Dalton, Lou Rawls, Glenn Campbell, John Stewart, Gene Clark, and Lothar & the Hand People, the first theremin-centered band.
A stellar cast of Nashville studio musicians was brought in to back up Martin. Famed harmonica player and multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy and drummer Kenny Buttrey had just finished the Bob Johnston-produced Bob Dylan Nashville Skyline sessions. The whole gang was ready to soar. And they did.
As Vince Martin was to recall, "They're geniuses. I just sat and played, and they came along with me." The album's 13-minute title track was wholly improvised. "They wouldn't quit!" Martin exclaims. "I wanted to stop singing, and the fuckers wouldn't quit! So I said, 'Okay, let's go.'"
When I knew none of the history or background of this album, I knew that. Just listening to this vinyl, over and over, even being the most uptight, least-relaxed, dark, existential, big-city kid that I was, I knew what the jasmine smelled like and how the bay breeze felt. Since the very first time I heard the album, they had been as real to me as was anything else in my life.
To be continued ...