Folk-Rock Heroes : Conversations with Steve Forbert, Livingston Taylor and Tom Chapin, Plus Terence P. Minogue & American Voices' 'Gaudete' Exclusive



According to the Conifer Crowd...

"Season of Joy is the latest offering of Christmas songs, old and new, from Terence P. Minogue. The album leads us through three special aspects of Christmas Part 1--The Season is for the weeks before Christmas, the busy time in anticipation of the upcoming festivities. This section has a swirling rendition of the popular 'Gaudete,' a very British version of 'Past Three O'Clock,' and a contemplative but happy 'In Dulci Jubilo.' Christmas Part 2--And Her Name Was Mary tells the story of Mary and opens with 'Advent Song,' a glimpse of waiting and hoping, followed by an upbeat retelling of 'The Annunciation.' In 'Sweet Was The Song,' Mary sings a lullaby to her infant--with premonitions of his fate in this world. The section closes with a hypnotic, rhythmic arrangement of 'What Child Is This?' (the traditional carol based on the melody of 'Greensleeves'). In Christmas Part 3--Celebration, the festivities are in full swing. The 'Gloucestershire Wassail' features tipsy, bubbling orchestration in keeping with season. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 'Christmas Bells,' which gives hope that there will be good will and peace on earth, is sung in classic choral style. 'Enter The New Year' is a medley of three New Year's classics: 'Lo How A Rose E'er Blooming,' 'The Old Year Now Away Has Fled,' and 'Here We Come a Wassailing.' So fill a cup with eggnog, sit by the fire, and enter the Season Of Joy.

"Terence P. Minogue has a long, varied history in composition, and arranging in popular, symphonic, and choral music. Minogue's credits include two RIAA Certified Gold Records for his arrangements on Jim Croce's I Got A Name LP and 'I'll Have to Say I Love You (In A Song).' Minogue has produced various acts including Crack The Sky, and arranged more than 200 recordings, working for many major labels, including Warner Bros., CBS/Epic (now Sony), RCA, Atlantic, Capitol, AVCO-Embassy, ABC, United Artists, MidSong International, A&M Buddah, and Lifesong, where Minogue was a Director of A&R for seven years."



A Conversation with Steve Forbert

Mike Ragogna: Steve! Let's find out what's going on with the seventh son of a seventh son.

Steve Forbert: Okay, fantastic. Well, you know what's happening. I have this deluxe package of Jackrabbit Slim, it's a two-CD set. It's a little confusing because Blue Corn contacted me and wanted to put out the first two albums together, which you know about. I said, "Okay," and honestly, Mike, we had about a thousand Jackrabbits ready to go. But my manager at the time urged me to let Blue Corn put it out, so I did. We held ours to give them a window to put that one out but now we're putting up our own Jackrabbit, which has all of the extras and a few live mixes and we have mastered the Palladium show from years ago in its entirety with no edits. So that's what we've added to the Jackrabbit picture, because that was that tour.

MR: Right, the Palladium concert.

SF: Yeah. It's funny to me because we started out with a lull and did "Romeo's Tune," but ever since then, I do "Romeo's Tune" last. That's just what it was like back then.

MR: I can understand why when you look at the tracklist on the Palladium double-disc. It's a significant concert for you in that it was broadcast on a few different stations and you covered most of the classics from your first and second albums. And I remember this concert being broadcast on WNEW. What is the history of this multicast event?

SF: Well, I owe it to WIOQ, Ed Shockey, who's not with us anymore. He came up from Philly and saw somebody there from WNEW, and it was a real high point. It was kind of a sentimental thing because, as you know, I worked my way up through New York City and Grand Central Station, so it wasn't like I was a native but it had been where it all happened for me. I've got a show at The Iridium and I did a show back at City Winery in July, so New York City is still great. This was really kind of "Okay, you've worked all the way up to this." I didn't go up to Madison Square Garden or even Carnegie Hall but this was certainly a great thing, it was a high point. I don't know, you can just kind of tell it from John Simon's mix and the excitement in the room. We decided to put it out mainly for people that remembered it. I should stress that it's limited to five hundred copies.

left to right: Steve Forbert, Paul Errico (1979)
photo credit: John T. Comerford

MR: And it sounds like a young, fiesty, on the verge of hit-making Steve Forbert at his most energetic.

SF: That's right, it was a real rush of energy. The crowd was... I don't know, some of them were maybe drunk, they were just screaming and yelling. It's hilarious.

MR: I also like the way you performed your early classic, "The Oil Song," like it was important information to get out there. You captured a moment of time with a significant subject of the time.

SF: It was in the air so much. Whereas today, I would end the show today with "Romeo's Tune" at the time I would sing "The Oil Song" pretty near the end. I was still feeling my way out and I don't think "Romeo's Tune" was even a hit yet, so there wasn't any thought of, "Save Romeo's Tune to the end," because this was Thanksgiving of '79. I don't think "Romeo's Tune" got on the charts until February of '80, so this was really right at that point where it took off. Four months later you would never come out and play your hit record second. It was like, "Where are you going to go from there?" but at the time it wasn't yet a radio hit.

MR: Yeah, but you guys believed that song was so strong, I bet you placed it as your second song to immediately raise enthusiasm for the second album.

SF: Right, that's what it was, promoting the album.

MR: And I bet you knew "Romeo's Tune" was a special track all along.

SF: Things have changed so much, but "Romeo's Tune" was a rough mix when we heard it back in the studio and I just said, "We'll record it like this on a piece of quarter-inch tape" and then I said, "It's not going to sound any better." John Simon said, "Well, we've got to mix the record," and I said, "Be my guest, but I don't think you'll beat this." We couldn't beat it. That Gene Eichelberger was a really good recording engineer and what he had up for us to hear when we finished performing it, we just ran that onto some tape. These days, you couldn't think of doing that. Records probably take days to mix. It's just so funny to me how much it's changed. The Beatles would take a couple of hours to mix a song in mono and then just leave and say, "Oh, do the stereo, we'll come in later." They did those stereo mixes probably about as quick as Geoff Emerick could play them and listen to the landscape and move a few things around. "Stereo is just a boring thing we've got to do on Thursday." Now the records sound so good, they're all so technically killer, but this does make me nostalgic for that old thing we all know about where things were just so much more organic.

MR: Oh yeah, definitely, and speaking of that, let's talk about the New Liberty Half Volume One, the demo tracks for your album The Place And The Time.

SF: You know, I put a lot of work into those and so this is just something honestly for the website. I'm not going to say it's a limited edition, but we won't be pressing a lot of these. This is sort of another side to that story over several weeks of recording these tunes. It's so much fun because Steve Allen's a good friend of mine and Lorne Rall's a good friend of mine. Just to go in with these two guys and some loops and just see if the song is finished, it's a good little record. I love listening to Steve Allen's playing on it.

MR: The CD reads Volume One, is there a Volume Two coming?

SF: Well, Volume Two will be the demos for Over With You. Those will be even more fleshed out. Those have real drums and all that stuff, but as you might have guessed, I can't put those out for a while because Blue Corn wants some length of time without that on the market. But that's my vision of Volume Two.

MR: What's going on as far as new material or what's catching your attention in the news?

SF: Well I do think it's interesting, what's in the news as of late. Raising the taxes of the top earners. There's going to be a lot more talk about that. If you go back to before 1972, it was considerably higher. Let's face it, fifteen percent on capital gains is kind of like a contradiction of terms, isn't it? If you have this kind of wealth and you can make it work for you, you just make your informed decisions or play it safe or make your moves. It's just very ironic that that kind of income should be taxed at a lower rate. How they got that through congress I'll never know.

MR: The premise, I think, was based on a trickle down theory.

SF: Yeah, well maybe it was pretty good before 1972. We had a pretty different system then. I think there's going to be a lot of talk about raising the upper tax bracket.

MR: I think it's a very healthy conversation.

SF: Like I said, lower taxes on capital gains almost seems like a contradiction in terms. Me, I'm writing songs, I'm playing shows, and we're putting together an English tour for March. I like going to England. It looks like I'm going all the way to Scandinavia, I'm going in the middle of Winter.

MR: You'll have to learn their traditional methods of keeping warm.

SF: What do you mean? Make love, not war?

MR: [laughs] Well, I was thinking saunas and food, but absolutely, that works too!

SF: [laughs] So that's what's really happening. I'm always trying to write songs, Mike, and if it takes a few weeks, that's fine; I know I've said that to you before. But even when I start a simple song now, I think, "Well, this one is not going to take that long, it's not going to require a lot of scrutiny," but they invariably do. For as long as I'm able to write songs and sing them, it's just about making them ones I feel proud to sing again and again. So that's what's really going on I suppose. There's so much happening out there. I'm always trying to deal with the digital revolution. It's just inestimable. There's just so many angles to it.

MR: How are you navigating it all these days?

SF: Well, it's true that a website is a great thing, you can let interested people know so easily what you're doing and then you can have your little postings every day if you like. I don't do things every day, but when something comes up... Years ago, I bought a poster at Wal-Mart for like ten dollars. It was before Barack Obama was elected and it was a picture of him with one of his campaign quotes, "There's not a liberal America and a ocnservative America, there's the United States Of America." You probably remember that. I knew at the time that that was not true, but recently, when the government shut down, I put that up on the Facebook because it enriched a point. I was like, "This was the day I was saving that poster for, this is the reason I bought it." I knew it was so absurd at the time. It made a great campaign slogan but it wasn't really the case. Then recently, it was like, "Now I'm going to show everyone this poster I've saved for six years because this is the time I thought would be out there in the future, when you couldn't get the sides to agree on anything."

MR: These guys didn't even give him a honeymoon. I'd just like the democratic representatives, just once, to take off the kid gloves and put on the boxing gloves. Or make things work behind the scenes, just like Tip O'Neill did.

SF: You said it! Now what else can I tell you about these three CDs... The thing with Jackrabbit Slim is it sounds terrific and it's got all of the extras. That's the best-known record. It's just a blast from the past really. I think The Palladium is a good performance; it sounds good and it's really exciting and especially for those people who came to the shows at that time this is kind of a memory lane thing.

MR: Like I said, I remember that broadcast on WNEW. So on behalf of the New York fans who got to hear it live, I thank you, goodly sir.

SF: Well, you're welcome.

MR: Steve, come on, come on, let's talk more.

SF: There might be some more we can talk about, but there you have it. John Simon is still alive; the sax player is not with us anymore; the bass player, Lou Whitney, I think he's got cancer in a pretty bad way. We're a long way down the road but we're still at it, man.

MR: And of course, Nat Weiss, your old label head, passed away. Steve, I'm very happy you're still at it, it's always fun to get the latest Forbert release, man. Congratulations on figuring out how to keep the music fresh and the touring always lively.

SF: Mike, I really appreciate it.

Steve Forbert on Nat Weiss
(taken with permission from Steve Forbert's website:

"Nathan M. Weiss passed away Wednesday night (July 31, 2013) in New York City.
Nat Weiss was indisputably one of the all-time greats of the real music business--a
person whom one would consider themselves very lucky to have known and very lucky
to have worked with. He was the smartest person I've ever met and certainly one of the
strongest. I'm eternally grateful to him.

"Nat, along with Coconut Management's Danny Fields and the late Linda Stein, gave me
my start with Alive On Arrival, which I recorded for his label, Nemperor Records.
For the last couple of years, due to severe knee and then back problems, he wasn't able
to get out and about, and so has been missed, in that sense, by many people for a while
now. (Mark Lewisohn, renowned Beatle authority, was able to interview him extensively
about a year and a half ago.)

"I know I'll be missing his friendship and advice a lot from here on out."

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne


An Interview with Livingston Taylor

Mike Ragogna: Hi Livingston, how are you?

Livingston Taylor: I'm really good.

MR: Are you a bit exhausted because of all of the stuff you're doing lately?

LT: What stuff am I doing lately?

MR: Well, you're a teacher at Berklee, you tour, and you're probably working on all kinds of new music.

LT: Yes, exactly. I'm certainly doing all those things, but let's be very clear: Showbusiness is not hard work. The fact is right now, there are people who are cleaning hotel rooms at The Los Angeles Hilton. They're working hard. Right now, there's a construction crew putting wire ties on rebar. They're working hard. I'm sorry, for anybody in my business to speak about hard work is simply laughable.

MR: Okay, let's reboot. What the heck are you doing lately, Livingston?

LT: What I'm doing is I teach at the Berklee College Of Music. I also have a certain quantity of fundraising activities that I do for Berklee because I am passionate about fundraising programs. I do a series of shows and along with the shows that I'm doing these days, I'm recording a new album. That's taking me sort of hither and yon. Next Wednesday, I'll run down to Nashville for a few days and do a series of overdubs down there.

MR: Is the project all Livingston Taylor material?

LT: It's about half me and half songs that I love. Six and six seems to be how it's working out. When it comes to songs that I didn't write, I'm recording a Stephen Bishop song called "On And On," I'm recording a Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil song called "Here You Come Again" that Dolly Parton had a hit on, a wonderful record. I'm recording a Lennon/McCartney song, "Paperback Writer." Those are the types of things. I'm doing a Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields song called "Start All Over Again" and a Richard Rodgers song called "I Have Dreamed." Richard Rodgers is Oscar Hammerstein's second. So that's sort of the lay of the land.

MR: Are you looking for other things to try in or outside of music?

LT: The answer is that I do lots of different things all the time, Mike. My brain is active with things that I'm particularly interested in. I'm fascinated in energy policy, I'm fascinated in finance, lots of things interest me and intrigue me. But above all else, performing and writing songs are what brought me to the dance, so I'm always mindful to keep an eye on them. Certainly, musically, a thing that is really important to me, at this point, is to increase the power of my piano playing, increase my capacity to sight read and in doing those two things, increase the size of the spigot that I can dump music into my brain from. Those things expand the pipe into the brain.

MR: What are you teaching at Berklee?

LT: Well, the course that I teach is a course called Stage Performance. I have a book called Stage Performance that sort of gives a general overview of the course I teach, but it's how to be on stage, how to get an audience to suspend their reality, how to give them your reality and how to make them safe and comfortable that they will want to finance the reality.

MR: And financing could mean anything from fan funding a new album to buying a CD or more?

LT: If you buy a CD or a concert ticket, there's something that's intriguing and safe enough that you would be willing to buy a ticket or go see it or download the music or buy the CD.

MR: Even when you were more or less being funded by a record label, it seems you always knew the importance of performing live and connecting with your audience. I imagine that's why your book is probably an important read.

LT: I've had a lot of experience performing and I also have a lot of experience teaching now. I've taught for twenty-four years, I totaled up the number of performances I've critiqued and it now comes to somewhere over ten-thousand. I've seen a lot of people play.

MR: What about you as an artist? How do you feel that you've grown over the years?

LT: I think that I'm a far more measured melody and lyric writer. My more recent songs tend to be more disciplined, better crafted. I'm more patient with them, I'm able to wait until a great bridge comes along. I don't feel under pressure to force a song. If it's not there, then I just simply can wait. That's the great advantage of writing with an older perspective. I don't have to finish things that aren't ready to be finished.

MR: My normal question is what advice do you have for new artists, but before we get there, I want to ask you, when you look at new artists performing, is there a common problem?

LT: Generally, the most common problem for new performers young and old is that because the performer doesn't internalize rhythm--said simply, tap their feet--then they keep the rhythm in the instrument. The problem is, when you have the rhythm in the instrument, you can't stop playing the instrument, so you can't get the instrument out of the way of the story of your vocal. Then what happens is you start to oversing, and when you overpower your vocals, you tend to slide into the notes because you're singing them too strong and you can't hit them cleanly. When you slide into the notes you don't have time left to enunciate the story of the song clearly. That is universally the biggest problem.

MR: Right. And talk about over-singing, the trend was artists like Justin Timberlake, et cetera, put three thousand notes into one syllable maybe because Michael Jackson did it, though he did it with real soul. It's interesting because it seems like it might be thinning out a little more lately in favor of the pitch-correction effect, but I guess it's like one man's good performance can be interpreted as another person's torture and vice-versa.

LT: I have to tell you, I really don't feel that. Good performance is good performance and should be recognized as such and cruddy performance is cruddy performance whatever the genre that it's in. If you're reasonably open-minded to the musical or visual genre, then you come to understand good performance, and good performance involves being conscious of your audience and making your audience believe that they are of value to you. That's good performance.

MR: Has our culture possibly been dumbed down to the point where they may have problems recognizing good performance over bad performance?

LT: That's a very intersting and perceptive question. The fact is that a Justin Timberlake is only partially a musical experience. Justin Timberlake is predominantly a visual dance medium. The music has become secondary to the video presentation for mega acts. Lady Gaga, although very competent musically, is a visual experiment. Taylor Swift is certainly a visual experience. Justin Timberlake is a visual experience. The music is adequate but it's not particularly compelling. It certainly isn't compelling to the level of success that they're generating. But it's important to remember that great art is the result of wealth concentrating talent. When you eviscerated the distribution channels that generated wealth so talent could be concentrated, you had to go to the mediums that could still concentrate wealth, and those are visual mediums, not musical mediums.

MR: Very insightful, yeah. And of course, with pop music, you're no longer just buying into the music, it's now about lifestyle, image, and as you coin it, visual dance.

LT: These are visual dance artists and this is branding. Taylor Swift is selling Maybelline Cosmetics. I admire and like Taylor Swift, but this is not a musical experience.

MR: Livingston, how do you think the culture ends up having its artists up front and center? It seems so hard to cut through what's been promoted into those positions.

LT: Yes, but Michael, you can't do that because there is no way for the income stream to finance the gathering of just musicians or things that are associated with that. Until we get a financial stream for the internet's transfer of digitizable creativity, we're not going to concentrate well. With the internet, we put the gatekeepers out of business. We love to hate the gatekeers, and nobody was sorry to see them go, until they actually went. Now we miss them desperately. We miss desperately the record company executives who would tolerate Steely Dan spending one year in the recording studio. Somebody had to pay for that. Somebody had to allow that to happen. That was a recording company executive, and he or she said, "It's fine. Keep working. We have a distribution channel where we will make the money back." And they just gave us unbelievable music. These decisions are made by gatekeepers. We love to hate them, but the John Hammonds, the David Geffens, the Clive Davis', the Ahmet Erteguns, the Jerry Wexlers who gave you Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles and could allow these entities to explore and expand because they knew once they got the product, they would be able to dump it into a distribution channel that would generate millions of dollars.

MR: Right. But then that also goes back into the five-to-ten percent royalty rates.

LT: I'm sorry, but those weren't horrible contracts. Tell me what venture capitalist would invest in a new project without taking ninety percent of it at a certain point. They're writing all the checks!

MR: They're writing all the checks but what's being forgotten in that mix is that it invents in something that isn't about the art or the expression of music. In my opinion, yes, music has benefited from the machine, but on the other hand, it seems that we have created ways where many talented artists can't make a living based on that paradigm.

LT: I'm sorry, the only time artists complain about this arrangement is when the muse has left them and they are no longer creative. The fact is I have made money, I've been exploited and I've been creative and I can tell you, when you're in the middle of creative throes, you already know the money is meaningless next to the creation of the art. That's the miracle. So the only time you complain is when the muse has disappeared, somebody else has the money, and you're destitute with no muse to drive you. By the way, you look at the artists for whom the muse has continued, The Rolling Stones or James Taylor or Elton John... Paul McCartney is hardly destitute. The muse continued, he then became a fairly guaranteed product and he was able to negotiate fantastic royalties that he was able to hold onto for his creativity.

MR: Okay, that's true, but on the other hand, he had to get to that point of making a certain amount of money for the company. I know you're interested in business, how do you keep the artist alive and thriving during the period when they're trying to "make it"? Seems it's up to the record company's discretion as to who they promote.

LT: It is discretionary, but the fact of the matter is I've had record companies sign me, spend three hundred thousand dollars on a project of mine advocating for my music, then releasing it, and I can complain that they didn't promote it hard enough. But guess what? They released it, they put it out and if it didn't make that money back, did I have to pay that money? No! I'm sorry, this notion of the terrible record company... By the way, don't we miss those gatekeepers now? Don't we miss Mo Ostin signing Randy Newman and just standing by him as he loses money record after record after record, going into debt, everybody saying, "Get rid of this clown," and Mo Ostin going, "Uh-uh. This is great music and I'm going to ride it. I'm going to jam it down your throat until you understand how good this is." Again, would you ever have gotten Steely Dan or Joni Mitchell without that gatekeeper in that ferocious advocacy? Or David Geffen saying to Neil Young, "This sucks, do it again!" We need gatekeepers desperately and how you're going to refinance gatekeepers is by figuring out a way to get a revenue stream for the internet's transfer of digitizable creativity. By the way, we not only need it in music, we need it in art, film, television, newspapers, books... All of them are equally decimated by the reality of the no-income stream of the internet.

MR: I think what happened was, Napster aside, we put music on the internet without figuring out how to fairly monetize it for the artists, songwriters, et cetera, first.

LT: But the fact of the matter is there is a way of monetizing it. My solution to this is to have a broad-based tax on internet use that goes into an escrowed account, and when you write an article and you distribute your article, its transfer through the internet will release a modest payment from this escrowed money for your digitized creativities transfer. It's basically a broad ASCAP/BMI payment system. What that gives you is the seed money. So all of a sudden, an editor comes up to you, Michael, and says, "You know, I love your work. I will promote your work, but I really want to sign your distribution rights. This is what I can do for you, this is the editing I can give you, this is the value I can add to your creativity. These are the people I can put around you. I can surround you with great editors and great marketers, great publicity people. Are you interested?" And you go, "What percentage of my internet rights am I going to get for all of this?" "This is going to be a big stint for me, so on the first three books I'm going to take ninety percent and you're going to pay all expenses out of your ten percent," at which point, you go, "Absolutely, I'm on! Who else do you have?" "Well I handle Stephen King and a few other people." "I'm in. Sign me up with that." So this notion that artists need to be paid fairly is laughable. Gatekeepers need to be overpaid and we need to figure out a way to do it. Then once you have an income stream, watch what happens to the quality of music. No longer will you have to depend on the video component. The music itself can be great.

MR: Let me ask you about that. Video has become the married partner of music. Young artists now have to be their own gatekeepers, their own marketers, their own publicists and they've got sites like YouTube to assist them. Do you think that's a good thing or something that's too challenging for the most part?

LT: Well, the problem is that it forces you to do everything without the guidance of a well-financed gatekeeper. If you look through Youtube, it's all just a sea of mediocrity. The sparks of genius can't get the chance to come to the center of an enterprise and surround that spark of genius with the firewood that you need for a conflagration. Great art is wealth concentrating talent, period. You walk into the Sistine chapel, which still exists today, and you look up at the creativity of Michaelangelo--never mind that it was financed by the catholic church, who were also willing to hire a great architect to design it, great builders and great materials so it would last for the centuries necessary for us to view it today. This idea that artists can find their own way is just ludicrous.

MR: But that also begs the question do you feel that there's any way that the system that's working now can reveal current and future geniuses?

LT: Yes, but the problem is that once you get the spark, you need to surround it with the tinder that will make the blaze. Do you ever get anybody that's equaling the output of The Beatles, or Steely Dan or Earth, Wind, & Fire or Motown? Heck no, because there's no money to put it together.

MR: Plus there's no education.

LT: But education requires gatekeepers. Education requires a system where somebody says, "We're going to teach this and we're not going to teach that and that's the way it is." No, what we lost in the internet and what we need to get back is that infrastructure.

MR: I'll ask you that question now, what advice do you have for new artists?

LT: The advice I have for new artists is keep your head down, learn how to observe, stick your head above the trench, live to fight, the world will find you gatekeepers. Actually, you will probably be some of the new gatekeepers in the newly invented world. Stay tough, stay lean, work on your music and stay alive above all else as we wait for the world to reorder, which it will. But hold on.

MR: Thanks Livingston. Now, to play Devil's Advocate, you have your nephew, young Ben Taylor, in your family's mix. I'm very much a fan of his music, but do you think he would have another perspective from the one you just put out there?

LT: He's certainly an artist that has emerged in the ruins of the old record companies. Ben has benefited from a very good gene pool, number one. Number two, his father is a great, great guitar player and his mother is a great pop songwriter. He's been in the proximity of real accomplished gatekeepers. That's been of huge value to him. The fact is that I believe that Ben is a wonderful artist and had he been able to be signed by a responsible record company that had the capacity to exploit him to their profit, his career would've been far improved from where it is now. Certainly what his father and mother had.

MR: My feeling is that The Legend of Kung Folk was that opportunity, and I think it was a brilliant album for a young artist. It drives me nuts when something is so obvious and the machine around it doesn't even know what it's got.

LT: Yes, and that was the case. It's wonderful, and he's a terrific artist, but the problem is when you have a group like The Eagles and they get a spark, once it grows to a conflagration, there's going to be an income stream. Right now, it's the exact opposite. Once it gets to a certain level, it's scattered into the internet and the income is absolutely eviscerated. Where is the motivation for a gatekeeper who would be somebody my age--I'm sixty-two--with experience? I love it when my kids come up to me and say, "Would you help me?" I say, "Yeah, I can help you a bit. You're really good, you can generate about fifty thousand dollars a year, which is terrific. You make the first fifty thousand, but I don't want the next ten thousand dollars, I want the next ten million dollars and then you make the money after that. That's fine with me, but it's going to cost a million dollars to record you and bring you to the street, and you have a one in twenty chance of being successful. I'm not going to do that if there's not a payout of at least ten million dollars on it. No chance." I have wealthy friends who say to me, "Can we sign somebody?" I go, "No, no you can't. You can't invest your money here. I won't let you. Not with me, because I can't get it back to you." There is no way to making that money. Do you understand the problem? It's the same problem for you as a writer. The fact of the matter is it would be very easy indeed for someone to love your writing and say, "I'm going to promote the bejeepers out of it, but you're going to have to give me all of the profits." And you would say, "Sure, I'll do that for a while," and then as you continue to have wonderful output and creativity, you renegotiate the deal.

MR: Well, to your bigger point, I have found no way to monetize what I do and many of my writer friends can't either.

LT: Believe me, the internet has totally eviscerated all income-producing distribution streams. The solution of that is important and it is essential because the skill set simply disappears and gets lost, and it is getting lost now.

MR: Liv, what's in the immediate future for you?

LT: Well I'm making this record and people call me up and hire me to do shows and all sorts of things. It's a gratifying and a satisfying career, Michael.

MR: I'm happy for you, Livingston, and I love how passionate you are about all this. I think you already know, but some of my greatest joy over the years has been from your family's--and your extended family, like Carly Simon's--recordings. I think, in my world and a lot of other people's worlds, you've pretty much been The Kennedys, and I say that with respect, of music. It's really lovely to listen to what you all have created over the years.

LT: Well I have to tell you, it's been a wonderful, terrific ride. May the travel gods smile graciously on me.

MR: [laughs] Yes indeed. Thank you so much for the interview, Livingston.

LT: A wonderful, wonderful interview and discussion. Really fun for me.

MR: For me as well. We have to do this again.

LT: I cannot wait. Thanks.

MR: Thanks, all the best with everything.

Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne


A Conversation with Tom Chapin

Mike Ragogna: Hey, Tom, what are you working on lately?

Tom Chapin: Well, let's see... I just finished an album, this is my twenty-third, the thirteenth family recording called The Incredible Flexible You. It's aimed at kids high on the autism spectrum, which is really kind of cool because I have a grandson who's on that place and it's the first time I've done something that actually accompanies a book. I did it with a guy named Phil Galdston who has written a whole bunch of great stuff. He's a wonderful collaborator. I've never worked with him before. As it turns out, his wife is one of the authors of the book, so it was a nice thing. It's essentially for high-functioning autistic kids and their families and their therapists and their teachers, but the reality is that this is a world now where, because of electronic media, kids play face to screen more and more rather than face to face, so kids come into school really needing some social teaching and that's really what this is all about. I'm also getting ready to go to a festival, which we do almost every year, so I'm actually playing my guitar and thinking of songs we're going to do with my buddies John Cobert and Michael Mark, my great band, and my friend John McCutcheon just sent me a couple of songs that he's going to do and wants us to accompany him on. These festivals are just great because you get a chance to connect with folks you haven't seen in a while, and I've got a bunch of tunes that I'm not sure what we're going to do with. They're kind of just topical in a sense, a couple of things about education, a couple of things about The Riverkeeper, which is a boat here which kind of keeps an eye on polluters on the Hudson River. A friend of mine is the captain and I wrote a song for them. Songs like that. I'm not sure where they fit in a recording sense other than that we're recording them, in terms of whether they'll make it to a record or not or if they're songs that will live outside that. But I'm basically always busy. This is a wonderful place I find myself in because I'm not trying to get a hit record. I can make a living at this and people want to hear what I say for families, kids four to ten and their parents and grandparents all the way up to my age and beyond. I get the chance to write adult stuff as well. So that's what I'm working on.

MR: And your focus on kids goes at least all the way back to your days of hosting Make A Wish from 1971 through 1976. What is it about children's issues that makes you hang in there and devote your life to it?

TC: The first thing is that there's nothing better than singing for families. The thing I never expected is how you deal with large issues. I never thought that I was doing kids' records, I always said these are family records. When Abigail and Lily, my daughters, were eight and six, they'd outgrown Raffi, which was really for two and three year olds who were beginning language and stuff. Those were great, but I never really wanted to do those records. Then when they were six and eight, I realized, "Wow, what they want to listen to is Bob Marley and The Beatles and The Eagles because they get to sing harmony with it." I thought it would be really fun to try to write a record that touches this age, and me as a parent, I was looking at these records and thinking, "Boy, this is just jive." You'd really like a great record for families. So I got together with John Forster and we wrote a record called Family Tree, which was the first one in '88, never expecting it to be a career, but because of my name and because the record was really good and we had Judy Collins on it--she sang three songs with me--it went on A&M, which was the label of Raffi at the time and Sharon, Lois & Bram and Fred Penner and people who were on television, and we sold a bunch of records and all of a sudden, I had this career. I found in the process of doing it how much fun it was. Sometimes a limit can become freeing as a writer. Instead of looking at a blank page you say, "Okay, this is going to be for parents and kids to listen to together in the car," and you want this record to be the one where they say, "When we go on long trips, yours is the record we play." Parents can listen to it over and over and over again, and that's really what's happened. Even though my kids outgrew that, the process and the stuff you can write about, you're looking as a writer and a performer and a creative person for stuff that gets you up in the morning, stuff that excites you. We got a chance to do songs about around the world and back again, how the whole world is similar yet different, several songs about the environment, something I feel very strongly about, "This Pretty Planet" and "Mother Earth." Some of these records have just been a collection of songs, but some have been fairly pointed. I don't know what to say except that the concerts are wonderful and I have a group of guys I've been writing with--Michael Moore and John Forster now and John Cobert--and I've got this body of work, which I'm really proud of. They also work not just as kids' content, some of the songs are strong enough that they can really fly.

MR: And all of this ties into your Grammy-winning spoken word projects.

TC: That was totally unexpected. I've been nominated for eight Grammys and the five that were just for music did not win. They were up against Elmo and Mister Rogers had died that year, so it was hard to win a Grammy. It's hard to even be nominated. But the ones that somehow won were the children's narration category, which doesn't even exist anymore, Mike, they changed it now to just "Best Kids' CD," so I doubt you can even win as a narrator anymore. But I just snuck in there. I love narrating, it's great fun because I just take it like I'm reading to my kids and try to make it exciting and interesting. If you're a solo performer, that's what you do, you try to tell stories. It comes very natural to me. But I'd done like thirty of these and never even thought to put it in a Grammy category but Live Oak, which was this little company that could, we did the first one, Mama Don't Allow, and at the last minute, they said, "I think we could put this in the Grammy category." So we did. We were up against, I think, Vanessa Redgrave and a bunch of really great actors so I thought, "There's no way I'm going to win this." But it turns out the people who vote in this category said, "Tom's the only one doing kids' stuff full time," so I think that was part of the reason I won. But regardless, it was just astonishing to win a Grammy. That's one of those things that not many people do, and I won three of them, which was sort of, "Whoa."

MR: And you also narrated the National Geographic Explorer series from '85 to '88.

TC: Yes, I've done a lot of that. I feel comfortable in that kind of narration mode. When I tried out for National Geographic, a friend of mine, Jim Lipscomb, who I had done the movie Blue Water, White Death with, he's the one who called me up and said, "Well you know National Geographic Explorer is looking for a host and I think you'd be really great." But he said, "Don't send them Make A Wish stuff because they won't get it. Just go in and talk to them." So I did and I'm sitting there and two guys go in before me and I go in and they said, "The guy before you has climbed Mount Everest three times. What are you bringing to this show?" And I said, "Well you have this incredible films about that, you don't need an explorer, you need a host. You need somebody who will look at you and say, 'This is why this is interesting.'" For whatever reason, they picked me, which was great. I loved that gig, it was amazing.

MR: You mentioned acting, and you also appeared in Pump Boys And Dinettes.

TC: That actually came from a music thing. I think Loudon Wainwright was doing it on Broadway and they said, "How would you feel about going on the road?" I said, "I don't know," and he said "Well we're putting together a show for Detroit." The Dinettes were Maria Muldaur and Shawn Colvin, who I didn't know at that point. We went to Detroit and that ran for a month during the great recession and I got home for Christmas even though we were supposed to be there for another month. I got home for Christmas and they said "Loudon's running the Broadway show, do you want to jump in there?" and I said, "Hey, I could be home," it's a nice short show, so I was home for the last six months of their Broadway showing.

MR: Beautiful. And of course there's your unforgettable role in Lord Of The Flies.

TC: That wasn't me.

MR: [laughs] I know, you must have gotten that your whole life!

TC: Yeah, that was a British Tom Chapin, but I keep getting calls about it.

MR: Storytelling kind of goes hand-in-hand with the Chapin Dynasty. You still get calls to narrate?

TC: Not as much as I'd like. I've done a few of those. The reality is there's a specific thing called storytelling, which is people who spend their lives doing live short stories and who are wonderful at it, but what I do is that a lot of the songs are story songs and certainly Harry's stuff was that way and I think the same way. We're both kind of steeped in that ballad tradition where the verse tells a story and then there's a repeating refrain or chorus. It works wonderfully for family stuff and that's the world I kind of grew up with and am very comfortable with. There've been places where I bounced into the storytelling stuff but it's not a musical world, it's very much a storytelling world. So they're kind of few and far between, but they're always wonderful.

MR: It's very interesting because you and Harry had different careers and totally different delivery systems, but it's almost like there's a Chapin tradition of storytelling.

TC: Yep, very much so. My dad was the first storytelling writer. He wrote about a bunch of stuff and his father was a painter, James Chapin, whose portraits were kind of stories in a sense that you'd look at these figures, The Marvin Family in Jersey or something, and they would tell a story. My other grandfather was a writer and critic. So it's an artistic family that we grew up in and the storytelling is also what intrigued us about The Weavers and folk music as well. We started out taking classical music, and Steve [Chapin] and I were choir boys, so we had a lot of music in our world. We grew up in a house that was full of music. When I was twelve and Harry was fourteen and Steve was eleven, we heard The Weavers At Carnegie Hall, that seminal record of Pete Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman. It was their return after being blacklisted and they did a concert in Carnegie Hall. We heard it in the summer of 1958 and it just blew us away. It sounded so fresh and interesting and these songs about "Sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt," and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" these great folk songs of America that Pete Seeger spent his whole life bringing to us... He's ninety-four now. So that was really a treat and that became kind of our class. Harry got a banjo and I got a guitar and Steve started playing first the ten-string ukulele and then moved over to bass and we became The Chapin Brothers. At the same time, that was when The Kingston Trio hit and then all the great folk acts, The Journeyman and all of them hit. So we got steeped in the whole folk tradition. We were right at the beginning of it. That became really our education. The great thing about being the age I am is that we went through this incredible history of American music from 1950s until now, which has just been an astonishing run of incredible writing. We got into the songwriting place with Dylan and Paul Simon and The Beatles and on and on. It's just been a wonderful run and the great thing about the kids music is that it's the last bastion of freedom, I think, in the recorded world. There's a quote from a great Sesame Street writer Chris Cerf, he said, "Kids have open ears." You do a kids' record and you can go anywhere you want. You can have a classical song next to a salsa next to a bluegrass next to a rock 'n' roll and the record company will say, "What are you doing? Who are you?" That's been one of the great delights; you can use all of these influences and all of these things. Your palette is huge, you can go anywhere you want. That's a delight as a writer, a producer, and a performer. You get to sing all of those things.

MR: Hey, ain't your daughters The Chapin Sisters?

TC: I could talk about them forever. They're just astonishing, and it's quite the life. Not just Abigail and Lilly, but Jessica, their older sister, originally made it a trio. They've always sung wonderfully, and they grew up in this family where they don't even know how good they are because the whole world is sitting here with this music in it. They never had a band as kids. Boys do bands. Girls don't do that as much in high school. But when they got out of school, I did a recording with them called The Chapin Sisters Sing The Chapin Brothers, which they didn't want as their first recording, of course, because it would tag them. But they moved to LA and they started writing their own stuff and now when they became a duo, they took a master class on doing two-part harmonies instead of three and, of course, discovered The Everly Brothers and now they have that record. They got very excited about that. Everybody was influenced by The Everly Brothers.

MR: Did they grow up on Tom Chapin music?

TC: They were six and eight when they got in the studio for the first time and sang on Family Tree. But kids are kids. When Abigail was twelve and they were going to take a trip for school, I said, "Your teacher asked me to come along," and she said, "Oh. Well don't bring your guitar." I said, "Well, he asked me to bring the guitar." "Oh. Well don't sing any of your songs." Because you know, you're a twelve year old, you're really worried because your dad does kid songs and "I'm not a little kid anymore!" and your friends are going to laugh at you.

MR: Very cute. I wanted to ask you about your brother Harry. In my opinion, Harry's presence was so large even though it was for a short amount of time he made recordings. Is it just my imagination or does Harry Chapin have a legacy?

TC: He does and he doesn't. Everybody knows "Cats In The Cradle" and maybe "Taxi" and maybe "Circle," and if you're steeped in his stuff, you realize there's a whole body of work. But the other side is that the institutions that he founded--Long Island Cares and WhyHunger--are so incredibly effective and strong. There are a bunch of food banks in the country, one in Florida and one up in Crotan, which have been doing wonderful work for thirty-two years. Think about that. It's pretty successful, but not the top tier. You're not talking Springsteen and Simon & Garfunkel and Michael Jackson stuff, but he's well-respected and his fans are totally at it. But here he started these things, which are just to help people. Those institutions, because of people who shared his vision and decided to keep it going, have become astonishing engines of good work in our society. That's an incredible legacy.

MR: Exactly. It seems like you're also working behind the scenes to get some acknowledgement for him, huh?

TC: Well, there's two things we'd like to happen. There's been some wonderful stuff already, but we'd love to get him a stamp, as they do for musicians now and again, and we'd love to get him in the Grammy Hall of Fame and also The Songwriter Hall of Fame. I think he deserves those things. But these things take their time and their own way. I'm not one of the prime movers and shakers, but I'm certainly on board. I do what I can to make some noise about it because he's a unique guy. He's one of only five songwriters who ever won the congressional gold medal, the other four being George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, and the two Gershwin brothers.

MR: I remember when that happened, wow.

TC: In 1987, Congress gave him a gold medal. It really was about how effective and committed he was to the hunger issue. He spent a lot of time down in congress so the congressmen knew him. So that's a pretty remarkable thing. It's been thirty-two years since he died, and we'd like to make sure people remember him. I think Harry's thing was to be really important. That was his drive. "I want to be remembered," so he did these large dreams.

MR: Yeah. I bought the import, expanded version of Sniper And Other Love Songs album, the original version of what you guys had been trying to do. Right from the beginning, everything was large, there were big visions there. One of my favorite songs by Harry was "Corey's Coming," and one of the funny things about this song, something that really endears it to me, that song could've ended about two verses earlier, but it was almost like he had to keep going to complete the picture. He had to get the rest of it out of his system or something.

TC: Well, John Joseph was a songwriter in one of his classes and he had this idea about this thing but he says, "I don't know what to do with it," and Harry says, "Well, it's a great idea, if you don't want to use it, I'll use it." [begins singing] "Old John Joseph was a..." So that was where the idea came from. The second thing, just in general about Harry, was he was not the best editor. You go through his canon and there was stuff that could've been tightened up, but he really was about, "It's done, let's get it out there and go." He was always moving. My favorite line in "Taxi" is "There was not much more to talk about," and then it goes for another four minutes. [laughs]

MR: [laughs]

TC: Half the song is still going but there wasn't much more to talk about. I think that's one of the things that critics got angry about. But you knew exactly what he was talking about, he was a storyteller. I wouldn't say he was a poet although there was some incredibly poetic stuff there and he was a wonderful melodic writer. Those melodies are just killer. One of my favorite melodies is from "Old College Avenue."

MR: Oh, my god, that's one of my favorites. So touching.

TC: Such a romantic, lovely, lovely melody, but critics want to be important, so Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," you have to explain, but Harry's stuff was he wanted the audience to understand, so he would go, "This is what I'm going to tell you, I'll tell you, I told you." It's like a speech, a live thing as opposed to a poem where you have to sit and ruminate about what it might mean.

MR: Well, it is interesting because that's the educational process, right? Going to tell you, tell you, what I told you is the best way to learn.

TC: Yeah. He very much wanted to be understood. I think he was under appreciated by critics because of that. They expected a different thing somehow. I think some of his lyrics are just astonishing but I also agree that he was not one of the great editors.

MR: Another one of my favorite Harry Chapin songs was "Shooting Star," and I love that Pat Benatar did a version of it on Harry's tribute album.

TC: Oh, and she did a great job of that. It was cool. She credited Harry with getting her to sing rock 'n' roll because she said she sang it sweetly and he said, "You've got to do it a little tougher." When she introduced that song live, she said, "Harry, I've got it." And after, she did that she became a really great rock singer.

MR: Tom, speaking of new artists, what is your advice for new artists?

TC: Oh man. I don't know the business side. My daughters are trying to do it as well, but Randy Newman's advice is never leave your wallet in a dressing room. [laughs] My advice is if you love it, do it, but it's a tough row. If you think you're doing it because you're going to become famous right away, that's a terrible reason to do it. Do it because you really love the music and you want to explore that. There's always a way. I'm thrilled with the life it has given me and part of the reason I've had this incredible life is that I've never had a hit record. You get a big hit record, you're playing that for the rest of your life. Because I never did, I was forced to try other stuff. That's why I ended up in TV, I ended up doing movies and narrations because I didn't want to be a road warrior going to folk clubs two hundred and fifty nights a year. I had a family and kids and a wife I adore. They're really important to me, so I found other ways. My band with Michael Mark wrote the Entertainment Tonight theme song. That's been a career for him. There are many ways to make a living in this business. If you feel like you really must, then go for it and explore the different ways you can do it. Also the other thing I loved and that's been huge for me is collaborating. I've had a chance to write with incredible other writers, starting with John Forster. My first collaborators were my brothers, obviously, and that's continued all through life. Harry would play early versions of songs before I even started writing and because you're in a band with writers, Steve became a great writer and then I was the last one to write. I started writing in the third year of Make A Wish. Harry wrote the songs for Make A Wish and my songwriting class was fixing them. In the first year I did all of his songs, in the second year, he had a hit with "Taxi" and he was so busy, he sent me this tape before I left for England and it was just him the night before with a bunch of lyrics. [hums loudly] "Okay, that's good," and I'm on the plane going, "Oh, my gosh, I've got to sing these on national television." Some of them were great but a lot of them were not and I had to rewrite them. There's nothing that makes you work harder at writing than knowing it's your face on television that has to sing this song. So I learned all the way through there and later, Sandy [Chapin] helped him write, too. But basically, Harry and Sandy would sort of spit it out, write it down and give it to me and I would put them through my filter so I could stomach singing them. It became a really great songwriting class. First of all, you realize how much you know. The deal with songwriting is just do it. You've got to really work at it. You can talk about it all you want, but the more you do it, the more it starts to flow and you start to get someplace.

MR: Where do you picture Tom Chapin a few years up the pike?

TC: I'm never sure. I hope that I'm still performing, which I love. I hope I'm still all right. Part of this is the surprise of it all. I've been blessed. I learned early on that if there's a door that opens, you explore it, you don't just say, "No, I don't do that." SoI never quite know but I assume and I hope that I'll still be writing and performing and watching my girls and my grandchildren and having a full life with them. I'm always astonished every time I see them how much they've grown as performers and writers and stuff. They're working on new albums right now. The big deal in this world is to stay healthy and stay committed to going toward the light. Trying to make things a little better.

MR: I so love your family because they've always been about that. You were blessed into a really beautiful family.

TC: I totally believe that. We just had another wedding this weekend out at our place in Jersey. My wife and I came back and said, "That was just wonderful." The girls are fully grown up with nice guys and you see it's the best of all worlds. Plus we had the summer up in Nova Scotia with Steve, playing up there. It's been a great summer and I'm at that stage of The Incredible Flexible You, which is the real fun part. Creating it is past and now we're into the slog work, which is how to market it, which is not my best part. But it's one of those things that you have to do. It'd be great to just get the word out about this new recording, because there's the audience of the autistic community and then there's the audience of education and then there's the general audience, so we're in that process of figuring out how to move that.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne