When Andrea Grossman of Writers Bloc booked Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey from the folk music group Peter, Paul and Mary and Theodore Bikel to boot, it was more than a concert and discussion. It was a triumvirate of musical history aided and abetted by other forms of entertainment and social justice. Here is an edit of Peter, Paul, Theo and his wife Amy in the green room of the Writers Guild of America Theatre in Beverly Hills.
Brad Schreiber: Now, I've read that you did comedy plus music in the Village, at the Gaslight and other places. Maybe it was your site that referred to your Adolph Hitler bit that you used to do. What was Noel Paul Stookey's bit like when he was doing both music and comedy at the Gaslight?
Noel Paul Stookey: ... I just ended up being a comic because I had this capacity to do sound effects and a very quirky, only-child's-mind in terms of developing scenarios. So I did everything, besides the toilet, which Dylan has referred to on occasion.
BS: The toilet?
NPS: I can do an American Standard really well.
NPS: I can do it in your ear.
NPS: I can do everything from the flush to the water filling the tank.
BS: Very useful.
Theodore Bikel: He said your ear, not your rear.
BS: Speaking of quirky people, I was lucky enough to work with Frank Zappa on a TV pilot.
NPS: Oh, my.
Peter Yarrow: Stop it!
BS: Quite a brilliant guy. And I saw 200 Motels and I thought, this is fantastic: Theo Bikel, in one of the most insane, unpredictable musical films of all time. So I want to know, did you meet through Herb Cohen?
TB: Herbie Cohen brought Zappa to me. He said, "I'm doing a film and I want you to be in it." I said, "Okay, I'll read the script." He said, "There's no script." So I said, How can I accept the role without a script?" "Well, I'll talk to you about the movie." And so he talked to me for two hours... And he wanted me to play the manager of a rock group on the road, by the name of Rance Muhammitz... And then Herbie Cohen in a Nazi uniform in the tower with a machine gun. And the London Philharmonic was playing some of the score. And when the harpist found out one of the numbers she was supposed to play on was called "Penis Dimension", she walked off the set.
TB: They also wanted me to play a nun in drag. I said, "Listen, Frank, after this picture is out, I can't show my face among the Jews. Now you want it among the Catholics as well. I'm not going to do it..."
BS: Well, here's a larger than life character: Albert Grossman.
NPS: Yes, he was.
BS: Now was that purely pleasurable? Or he's a very strong-willed guy? Was that a pro or con sort of --
PY: I loved Albert. I know other people don't share my admiration. I think he was extraordinarily gifted. He was uncompromisingly committed to music of great quality. He had superb taste. He protected his artists so that we could do what we wanted to do on recordings. You could on certain labels, but generally, not. You couldn't choose your own material. You couldn't have the graphic you want. You had people hanging over you in the studio. He was amazing. And I was very surprised. He worked with me. He worked with Josh White, Theo.
NPS: He worked with Joanie.
PY: Joanie, Joan Baez.
BS: Isnt it true that he enabled Peter, Paul and Mary to have separate tracks in recording, in engineering, rather than mixing them all together on a three-track?
PY: That was his concept. Instead of putting all the voices in the middle, like other recording groups, like The Brothers Four or The Kingston Trio, with the three voices to sound Andrews Sister-like... he split us completely left, right and center. So it was his concept. The guy was a genius...
BS: So tell me truthfully, even though you just met me. You let me have it. Am I an insane purist or is social justice and the idea of political awareness in folk music just something that belonged to an era or does it need to be reinstated in popular music? "The Great Mandala," you know, these kinds of songs? Am I just living in the past?
PY: Well, let me respond. Look, folk music is essentially authentic. People who wrote it were not saying, "How can we make a buck?"... But perhaps the most meaningful effect of this kind of music in the past 50 years has been that it articulated in a way that swept the nation in the folk renaissance. Through the music of Theo and Pete (Seeger) and Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Judy Collins and yes; Peter, Paul and Mary and many; many others, it became a language that said... this is the soundtrack of our consciousness... And so in answer to your question, we need this desperately now. We need this kind of music. We need this kind of caring. We need this kind of heart. We need this kind of spiritual growth. We will not survive without a leap in spirituality. Because that's the only thing that's going to do it.
NPS: ... Everything from hip-hop to reggae to country to you name it, there's a radio station playing it almost exclusively. But in each one of those disciplines is... a social conscience.
BS: And it changed the nature of songwriting too. Even if you don't write folk songs, if you're influenced by the great quality of songwriting that came before --
NPS: That's right... Music as a spectacle is the third stage. We went from music as a meaningful experience to music as wallpaper, ubiquitous, all around us, to music as a spectacle, which in some sense has brought back music but has taken over the music itself.
BS: You guys have been so generous. I don't see how I can walk away without referring to other things you have done. In terms of acting, is there anything you would want to recall? I mean, people always cite being in the West End with Vivien Leigh in Streetcar. But you know, you have this wealth of theatrical experience.
TB: Well, there's the original Sound of Music. I was the original Captain von Trapp on Broadway, long before there was a movie. And thousands of performances of Fiddler that I've done.
BS: More than anyone, right?
Amy Bikel: Theo's favorite was Zorba the Greek. That was his very favorite.
TB: Zorba the Greek really was my favorite.
PY: Really. Is that right?
AB: He says Tevye he can relate to because it's his roots. And Zorba is what he would have liked to have been like, what he'd like to be able to be.
TB: Can you imagine a character that whatever he carries in his knapsack is already too much? He doesn't want to own things because he's convinced the things are going to end up owning him. Which one of us is that free?