|Articles on David Ackles in Newspapers & Magazines|
This is a long page. You may wish to print it out or save it for viewing offline. Articles are printed in date order. I have sought, where possible, permission of the publishers of each article, but where this has not been given, I will remove the article if the original writer feels it is breaching copyright. Please email me to discuss the matter. The first four items were passed on by Kasper Nijsen, whose lyrics site is outstanding.
first brief piece is a review of a concert given by David in April,
1969 and printed in Cash
on 3 May:
David Ackles, also with Elektra, is another singer/composer. Some of his songs possess incredible beauty (such as Road to Cairo, the title tune from his first LP), some impressive humor (such as Money for Cigarettes) but several of his tunes tend to sound too similar for our taste. Given time to build up a catalogue, Ackles could become important.
|A further concert in December
1969 at New York's "Bitter End" is reviewed by "B.H." in Cash Box on 20 December, 1969:
return of David Ackles to the Bitter End is one of the most significant
events in 1969. As the year and the decade both draw to a
close, the Elektra singer/pianist/composer/poet seems to be a kind of
capstone, a comment on all that has gone before him.
|That same concert is reviewed by Billboard magazine on 27 December, 1969:
Ackles has developed into a more effective folk performer than his first set at the Bitter End, Dec. 13, showed. The show opened with Morgen, a heavy group whose strong lyrics helped the unit succeed in a club accustomed to softer sounds.
Ackles was at his communicative best, both in his interpretations of his fine material, and in his comments to the packed audience. The Electra Records artist opened with bitter smiles as he sang Main Line Saloon from his latest album. That’s No Reason to Cry and Subway to the Country were other good selections from the LP, while What a Happy Day was a good song from his first Elektra album.
A bitterness now asserts itself in Ackles as evidenced by a song based on the killing of two citizens by West Coast police and another number patterned after Brecht. Ackles accompanied himself on piano throughout.
|Cash Box printed
this review by "N.S." of a concert by Al Kooper, with David in
support at the Town Hall, New York on 17 January, 1970:
Kooper headlined a beautifully balanced concert last weekend at Town Hall. The concert’s balance should be noted because it was not the normal run of pop performance where each act on the bill attempts to blast the audience out of its collective seats. Poet/composer/singer David Ackles opened the evening for Kooper, who was backed by the Eddy Jacobs Exchange.
The concert’s balance referred to earlier was effected by the unadorned, subtle, moving performance of David Ackles. As of this moment, Ackles is not a widely known talent. That situation is bound to change with a broadening personal appearances such as these and exposure of his excellent compositions.
Contrasted with Kooper’s performance, Ackles just walked to the piano at centre stage, dressed in blue jeans, work shirt, and construction boots, and proceeded to accompany himself on a half dozen of his own works. The word ‘work’ is much more fitting than ‘song’ to describe the music which David Ackles writes.
Ackles’ ‘works’ transmit a feeling of lived experience, of honest emotion and, as their creator, his rendition of them is totally effective. As a singer, Ackles is a sort of hybrid. Essentially he has the vocal character of a cabaret singer; one perfectly suited for intimate clubs where he can deal with the audience on a note to note basis. But there is also a great deal of the minstrel, the open road singer, in him as well.
All in all a marvelously enjoyable evening.
This John Tobler article was originally printed in Melody Maker in 1973, then later in edition 17 of Hot Wacks in 1979. It deals with the release of the album, Five and Dime. The actual transcribed interview that formed the basis for this article is printed in full in the Interviews section on this website.
Living in this God-forsaken, unfair and unpleasant land, it helps me a great deal to think about California. In Los Angeles, it never seems to get very cold - mind you, the natives reckon that sixty degrees is about as low as they're prepared to go without switching on the central heating. So while I mull over the imminent possibility of a power strike affecting my electric typewriter stone dead, I can also mull over the advantages of perhaps living somewhere close to David Ackles.
He's got a great house in Pacific Palisades, a few miles west of Los Angeles, and thereby close to the ocean, although the imminent sea is somewhat unnecessary because of the private pool. There's no need to reflect on the fortunes of over-fed rock stars and the like, because it's not as simple as that. Sure, there are other advantages, like the avocados and limes that grow in the back garden and the frequent visits from several raccoons, fascinating creatures according to David, not least because instead of run-of-the-mill paws, your raccoon has a thumb, rendering him a fascinating sight as he performs almost-human feats which other animals, lacking the extremity, find quite impossible.
The problem is that the 'coons come from a terrifying abyss about twenty feet behind the house, where the earth has crumbled away, leaving a gaping chasm about a hundred yards across, which creeps nearer whenever there's enough rain to wash some earth away. The intention is to get the walls of the fault shored up, but it hasn't happened yet for various reasons.
Not the place to write the sort of songs that David has become celebrated for, and still less the place that you would expect an album to be recorded. "For the first time in my life, I came in with an album under budget and ahead of schedule, so obviously recording it here is the right thing to do. We did all the basic tracks here, and some of the overdubbing as well, and we had so much time - such a luxury."
You mean actually here? "Oh yes, right here, in this room. There was a string quartet right there in front of the fireplace and, instead of that lamp, we had an umbrella hanging up with some some foam inside it, so the drummer had his own little booth set up under that. We had a concert grand piano, guitar here, bass in the hall, then we closed the door to the bathroom hall and used it as a sort of echo chamber. And the control room is in the office around the corner. We really had a wonderful time."
The album in question is David Ackles' latest masterpiece, Five and Dime, the first from a new contract with Columbia, or CBS as we know it here in the UK. Previously, there had been three albums with Elektra, The Road to Cairo in 1968, Subway to the Country in 1969 and American Gothic in 1972. Fairly obviously, not a man who wanted himself over-recorded, yet each one of these albums had received the sort of reviews that couldn't be bought.
Even more strange was that none of them had made the sort of chart dent that both artist and record company would like, the best placing being for a few weeks in the nineties for American Gothic, which is not what you would expect after not one, but three reviews by respected critics, each comparing the record's quality to Sergeant Pepper or something equally outstanding. Wasn't it rather embarrassing to receive acclaim like that?
"Yes, sickening. How can that be? All it is is an album, one record album of a handful of songs. They can only be so good, right? They can't be any better than that. To have people fall down and say 'This is a whole new direction to music' is embarrassing because I can't support that; my music can't support it; nothing can support it.
"I was thrilled that so many people were that enthusiastic and I appreciate their enthusiasm and their faith and all of that, but at the same time, it caused me no end of grief. I knew what the album was worth, and I still know - it's a good album. I'm not putting it down, but it's only an album, only a group of songs. And it would mean doing another album which would have to try to come up to, or even surpass, what I have done. I figured that there was no way I could surpass what I had done in terms of the reviewers, because they had already committed themselves to it being better than peanut butter, so all I could do was go in a somewhat different direction on my own terms, and in the end, I finally had to ignore completely what had gone before.
"I was literally stymied. Within the first few months after American Gothic came out, I couldn't write a song. I'd sit down and start to write, and I'd get the first eight measures and quit, thinking to myself, 'Oh this isn't nearly as good as what was on the last album - that's not going to impress anyone'. I mean, that's just incredible, it's horrible!"
So David signed a new contract, one of the conditions being that he could record, as he put it, "independent of a label in a sense, which meant I could record it here under circumstances which were more conducive to the making of a rather more personal album than the last one, which I wanted."
Listening to the album, there seems to be little, if any, difference in the quality from the telephone-number budget extravaganzas to which we've become accustomed. Why don't more people make their records this way?
"Because they're told they can't. We did the whole thing on a four track machine, which is unheard of. Obviously, we had to transfer it to sixteen when we went into the studio for some of the larger things, but for the basic tracks, you don't need more than four. Indeed, you shouldn't have more than four, because that's the ideal feeling, and you can respond to one another so easily if there are only four of you.
"Also, you have all the time in the world to do it, because they're here, and they're comfortable, and there's no feeling of it being a sterile place, or having any time pressure. Some of the sessions went on till three in the morning from seven at night, and no-one complained because everyone understood the problems, and mostly they were here for the fun of it"
The list of backing musicians on Five and Dime certainly fails to slip easily off the tongue. Presumably they were friends, rather than regular musicians? "Some of them are friends of mine, some are friends of Douglas [Graham, the producer of the album]. They were all people who knew one another, but most of them were not regular studio musicians. The quartet is the Trojan String Quartet from USC, who played at our wedding, as a matter of fact."
Apart from Bruce Langhorne and Red Rhodes on lead and steel guitar respectively, the one name I did recognise was Dean Torrance, who surfing readers will remember as being one half of Jan and Dean. Checking through the song titles, the one he's most likely to be on is Surf's Down, which turns out to be correct. Was there a reason for this spoof on the surfing scene, which this track undoubtedly is?
"I was a surfer once. I still occasionally actually go out with the board and do it, and I will always have tremendous affection for that period because it was funny. It was magic; there was a kind of mystique attached to it and it was still hysterical. It was the first of the long hair and the first of a lot of things that later became adopted into other lifestyles. I think in a sense it was probably the first viable sub-culture for teens. And now I live here and see the ex-surfers still there, still dressing and talking the same..."
It seems odd that Dean Torrance would allow himself to be got at in a song that he was performing... "Yes, but he understood and he thought it was funny. He's singing the high lines. Bruce Johnston was originally going to be on that track too, but he had a cold that morning. We had a great time - Bruce and I sat at the piano, working out different vocal lines for every song on the album, how he would have done it, a la the Beach Boys - and we fell down. It's got to be one of the funniest sessions we've ever done.
"The sad part was that he called me the day we were scheduled to record - we had to do that one in the studio because of the multiple voices - and he had this cold, so that he could barely speak. The low voice on that track is Douglas, the producer, and the trick was to get him drunk to do it, because there's no way a normal person under normal circumstances could hit that note. So it was worth the investment of whatever it was - a fairly largish bottle of brandy. As the day progressed and he got drunker, his voice got lower, to the point where he could finally sing that 'Surf's down' line, really hit it, although he could barely stand!"
Perhaps the most frequent accusations against David's previous albums, inevitably made by those out of sympathy with the sentiments expressed in his songs, is that an Ackles album is somewhat heavy going. "These songs are intended to be much more easy to get into, and I felt that it was time I lightened up a bit and made the album a little more accessible. Columbia didn't suggest that I made things more commercial, for which I'm most grateful."
In fact, Surf's Down is by far the lightest track, but it's certainly not alone in being the sort of track that produces a reaction other than the feeling of despair that non-fans might expect. A couple of what might be called cautionary tales are included - Everybody Has a Story, which quite correctly states that there's always someone worse off than yourself, and Jenna Saves, the story of a poor little rich girl. "I like parables, little morality plays, and I thought it was moderately amusing in its own way, although it wasn't about anyone specific. It's more a compendium of a lot of attitudes."
You also get five love songs, lyrically beautiful as usual, but with the sort of plaintive tune that has become a trademark of Ackles' work. Postcards, he confirmed, was about his stay in England, where the American Gothic album was made, and House Above the Strand referred specifically to his current abode, the strand being the beach. His explanation of A Photograph of You demonstrates, I think, the sort of object or situation which the man feels sufficiently inspired by to write a memorable song.
"It's looking back, although it's not exactly what the lyrics portray. I was going through some effects after I moved here, trying to figure out what to throw away and what to keep, and I came across an old photograph of someone that I had once thought I was desperately in love with and couldn't live without and had managed to live an extra fifteen years since! But it did bring back a sort of keen feeling, so I wrote the song about that feeling, from that standpoint."
Apart from a faintly evangelical song called Berry Tree, the constructive meat of the album comes, for me, in three very meaningful crusading-type pieces, all of which David spoke about at some length. Aberfan was the first one to strike me forcibly, due, no doubt to the fact that it must have been closer to home for me than for the writer.
"I wasn't in England when it happened, but it really appalled me and I was shocked by it. It was one of those thinks that gave me a very strong feeling at the time, and then I very quietly and neatly put it away in a drawer and never thought about it again. Then the facts about My Lai began to come out. I put them together with Aberfan and came up with the same basic problem, which is that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. And indeed, it's true that in both circumstances the children, who had the least to do with it - the most innocent people - are the ones who are most victimised. The original version of Aberfan introduces the mining disaster and then follows it up with the similar circumstances of My Lai, but I cut the second half because it went on and on into a ten minute polemic and there's no need for that any more. I don't think there's ever a great need for polemics, unless they're disguised - and that was ill-disguised! So I cut the second half and I think that made it a better song."
Mention is made of 116 children and apparently that's exactly the number who died in the disaster. "I had to research it because I wrote it last year, not in 1966 when it happened. There are just so many things you can't use in a song, interesting facts that contribute to your feeling for the place or the period, and I did go there when I was last in Wales."
Run Pony Run at first sight appears to concern the hunting of horses for food. Certainly not a familiar concept to me... Why, particularly, ponies? "It's because of the beef shortage here, when the price of beef went up incredibly beyond the price of gasoline and everyone was turning to horsemeat. People were stealing horses and having them butchered, and horsemeat shops opened up. Within one week, all of this seemed suddenly to come to the surface and there were horsemeat butchers opening up in Oregon and Washington and back East. And the more I saw, the more I got sick by it. I can understand that horses do eventually grow old and die and if you want to then turn them into glue, that's all right, once they're dead. But to slaughter horses for food is appalling. The slaughter of animals for food is appalling anyway, but horses, which are bred for their grace and agility and speed and beauty, to be turned into food - it's a sin. It just got to me, and I wrote the song."
In the song, there's a line about 'cowboys have wings now; they can fly'. Were people actually using these methods? "Yes, because mustangs have been the source of dog food in this country for years and years. They're hunted with helicopters and what have you - it's quite mechanised. They just round them up and slaughter them and make dog food out of them. There are so few wild things left, and you take a wild horse - which to see them in the wild is to understand kinetic beauty, it's incredible, absolutely phenomenal - and then to realise that they're running into dog cans... it's more than I can bear, without writing about it. We did have quite a large mustang population at one time, but it has been steadily depleted and it still goes on."
The final 'message' song on Five and Dime is I've Been Loved, which starts off as a study of old age. "Yes, and it's trying to draw that into the kind of loneliness that we all suffer at one time or another, and the similar reasons that we have for going on and not letting the loneliness destroy us. Also, I do have a grandmother who is not 99, like the person in the song, but 89 and has been in hospital for a year and a half now. It builds up to where you have to write a song about it, because it's a very pitiful situation.
"There's absolutely nothing she can look forward to at all, except more of the same, and that's awfully hard to live with. Every time we go to see her, she's always cheerful and she always has something that she wants to tell you that isn't complaining or anything; it's just what happened. And she always wants to see pictures of whatever you're doing. It's a hurtful situation."
All the explanations you've read may lead you to believe that there's a special need for the artist to explain the meanings behind his songs, but such feelings will be found to be incorrect when you hear the record. Is it harder to write a song that's more easily comprehensible to the listener? "Yes, it's a good deal harder to write simple songs. This is no news to anyone who writes songs, or to the world at large, I think, that the most difficult song to write is that which is simplest in terms of actual words and music - not necessarily in ideas or in depth of emotion or anything else, but that simplifies it to the point of being instantly communicable."
It's obvious to me that Five and Dime has the potential to reach a somewhat wider audience than its predecessors. The only problem as far as England goes is that the famous vinyl shortage may make David Ackles' latest album a borderline case, that is, an album that may not be released here unless a definite demand is established. If that is the case, I feel that many minds will be the poorer.
Where Are They Now, by Martin Aston, printed in Q Magazine, edition 93, June 1994.
"Popular music, in all its rich varieties, has milestones." So began the Sunday Times review of David Ackles' 1972 album, American Gothic, which compared the achievement of the Ohio-born singer's third album to Gershwin, Bernstein, Sgt. Pepper and early Dylan and Presley. American Gothic's brilliant distillation of folk, rock, vaudeville, gospel and classical influences followed two albums of evocative folksinger-songwriter excursions (1968's eponymous debut and 1969's Subway to the Country), where Ackles' sonorous, mahogany-tonsilled delivery furthered an air of estranged melancholy.
Covers of such Ackles classics as Down River, The Road to Cairo and Blue Ribbons started making the rounds but, extraordinarily, his first album for Columbia after leaving Elektra, 1974's Five and Dime, proved to be his last. Interest in Ackles was rekindled when his first three Elektra albums were re-issued on CD and long-term fan Phil Collins included Down River in his Desert Island Discs, but 20 years' silence is a milestone in itself. How come?
Part of a showbiz family, (his grandfather was a music hall comedian, his grandmother the leader of an all-woman orchestra) and a child actor, Ackles was a security guard in a toilet factory and a private eye, before being employed as a contract writer. He soon persuaded Elektra label boss Jac Holzman to let him sing his own songs, building a notable reputation (Elton John was his most vocal early supporter), but American Gothic, he feels, "was raved over far beyond what any album deserved. It wasn't as if I was reinventing the wheel, providing a new way forward for the course of popular music. Music doesn't leap forward; it evolves."
American Gothic was deemed a success but never sold "major figures" and he left Elektra by mutual agreement. "It was time to broaden horizons and, having been at Elektra since the start and with Clive Davis at Columbia interested, we thought it would be a fresh, new direction." But when Davis left, Ackles "got stuck. I was a strange, alien presence to them, and I equally didn't understand what made Columbia tick. I got really discouraged and decided that I wouldn't do any more recording or performing. Instead, I concentrated on writing songs for other people. After my contract ran out, I quit the music business entirely. I thought that maybe it wasn't what I was meant to be doing."
Having had experience in his student days, Ackles got into writing film scripts for TV, all with a socially conscious bent. He still wrote songs, "but I kept them to myself", choosing instead a life of diverse creativity - writing scores for ballet and the stage and teaching and lecturing on commercial songwriting and stage choreography.
He has recently completed a musical, Sister Aimee: "A fundamentalist Christian evangelist who staged her own kidnapping and disappearance so that she could get out of the spotlight for a while, after being vilified by the press. I felt an affinity for her conflict between being a committed Christian and someone in love with fleshly things, as it were. She was frustrated by the established Church - she was a social activist and a bit of a showwoman, who wrote her own musicals too, which were fairly dreadful, it must be said. The point was, she was trying to interest people in subjects that weren't particularly part of everyday conversation. Her flamboyance was very attractive."
Some of her aspects are shared by Ackles, who is a member of Pasadena's All Saints Episcopal, "a strongly activist church" whose ventures include running an AIDS centre and lobbying for gun control. However, personal beliefs have never shifted across onto record: "I never adhered to any set dogma. One's beliefs are a way of defining one's own spirituality, not to bludgeon anyone else."
His beliefs must have been sorely tested when a drunk driver ploughed in to his car in 1981, with Ackles almost losing his left arm. "I have some residual numbness and it took years to get back to playing the piano, but I can. I have a steel hip too, and spent six months in a wheelchair, but after getting asked to choreograph a new production of a show I did 20 years beforehand, I got out of the wheelchair to do it and have walked ever since."
Then there was a recent bout of cancer, when he lost part of his left lung: "These events are random - you accept them and move on. If there is a lesson to learn, it's that we a re frail mortals prone to self-pity so we need to fight that. I've been extremely lucky."
Now 57, he lives in Tujunga, with six acres of horse property and plans to make a new album: "I've been talking to Warners. I'd like to get Bernie Taupin (producer of American Gothic) involved again. I hope the record would reflect the changes I've undergone but it would again stem from my Catholic tastes and eclectic interests and my unwillingness to be pigeonholed. But I no longer feel the same kind of urgency as I did. I'm really enjoying my life, which will no doubt come as a shock to fans of my first two albums, in whose angst they swim.!
His dream is to return to the UK and take up residence. "I'd love to do theatre production. Musical theatre has lost that sense of direction into the emotions, which I'd like to change. The craft of writing for the stage is very different, and I've now got really good at it. There's no getting round it, Sister Aimee is sensational. It's certainly on the right track."
With Sister Aimee and his last TV script inspired by homelessness, David Ackles can safely say that he "still carries the faith. I'm not God's last angry man, but you can never abandon your responsibilities."
A Late Flowering: a retrospective review of the first album, David Ackles a.k.a. The Road to Cairo, written by Mark Brend and published in Mojo 57, August 1998.
The basement bar of the Tower of Song. Most of the old regulars - Hardin, Buckley, Blue - are long gone, though Tim Rose makes it in most nights. Everybody lost track of Fred Neil years ago. Cohen, always susceptible to religion, is in a monastery. Should the Tower exist, David Ackles would certainly deserve a residency - though, knowing his luck, it would probably be on a Monday night, when things are a little slow.
Born into a showbusiness family in Ohio in 1937, avid Ackles first performed as a child actor in vaudeville, and echoes of this experience can be heard in his writing and singing. He was a child star in a series of B-movies, attended university in Edinburgh, studied film in California, and worked for a time as a private eye and a security guard. He also found time to compose music for ballet, the theatre and TV. By the late '60s, Ackles was composing highly original songs and signed to Elektra as a contract songwriter on the strength of Blue Ribbons, originally intended for Cher. Elektra boss Jac Holzman encouraged him to make his own records and this, his debut album, was released in 1968, when Ackles was 31.
It's a collection of ten elegant and occasionally complex songs, reminiscent at times of Brecht/Weill and Jimmy Webb. William S Harvey's sleeve, with an out-of-focus Ackles staring out through a cracked window pane, perfectly evokes the mood of the record - nostalgic, lonely and run-down, yet shot through with the dignity of down-at-heel drifters struggling against the odds.
When released, David Ackles proved too rich and too bitter for the collective palate. It was the late '60s, after all, an era dominated by youthful guitar-toting revolutionaries offering a diet of halucinogenically inspired Utopianism: a chap in his thirties, sat at a piano, singing of homelessness and accidie in a ragged, theatrical baritone wasn't exactly what the kids were clammering for. Although out of step with the times, Ackles recalls, "It was pretty well received. I got a lot of [press] attention that I was not expecting at all, having never performed in public."
Elektra organised a promotional tour of radio stations which resulted in some airplay and Julie Driscoll and the Brian Auger Trinity covered The Road to Cairo. Yet despite these promising signs, sales were modest.
Backed effectively by members of the Elektra house band, Rhinoceros, the record starts with The Road to Cairo, a moody blues ballad telling the story of a hitchhiker heading for home. Vacillating between regret and hope, it is a dynamic band performance, featuring guitar from ex-Iron Butterfly Danny Weis. It sounds like the kind of thing Joe Cocker might have had a hit with. The Road to Cairo established the sound of the recording - piano and organ dominating, with occasional guitar flourishes. Ackles confirms that the album was virtually a live-in-the-studio affair: "There were some vocals that we went back and added later, but all of the instrumentation you hear there was done at the moment."
Another highlight was the poignant Down River, surprisingly chosen by Phil Collins as one of his Desert Island Discs a few years back and identified by Elvis Costello as a record that changed his life ("It was kind of my teenage angst record"). The narrative sees Ackles take the role of a man recently released from prison who runs in to an old girlfriend, Rosie, only to find that the reason she didn't write to him was that she had married his best friend. "It sounds like a corny country song," Costello told Q in 1995. "But the way he tells it, the way it unfolds in the course of the song is actually very dramatic." Many of Ackles' best works have this theatrical quality. One wonders whether he'd lived through any of these scenarios. "The songs are [autobiographical] in the sense that any writer has to draw on the experiences of his own life," he says. "Certainly, emotionally they are - in the particulars, no."
But maybe the most immediately striking song on the album is the wholly original His Name is Andrew, a six-minute epic in which Ackles sings of a spiritual journey, concluding with the refrain, "God is dead, God is dead, and he believed them." Of the recurring religious themes in his music, Ackles says, "I come from a very strong, almost doctrinaire, Christian background which has resulted in a lot of questioning of values." The swirling organ part that underpins this track was provided by Michael Fonfara from the Electric Flag, who'd later appear in Lou Reed's band of the late '70s.
The album closes with a ballad, Be My Friend, which might have sounded twee in other hands, but is saved from sentimentality by a dignified vocal and Fonfara's heart-breaking closing solo.
Ackles released a further three albums, all of which gained critical respect, but sold modestly. The most notable was probably the grandiose American Gothic; produced by Bernie Taupin (Elton was a big fan as well), it was a cycle of songs about picket-fenced, suburban America. Derek Jewell, in the Sunday Times, described it as a "milestone in popular music".
With his wife of 25 years, Janice, David Ackles now lives on a farm in California. Despite releasing no records since the mid-70s, he has remained active in music, writing for TV, films and the stage. In the early '80s, he was involved in a near-fatal car crash, and he has been fighting lung cancer for several years. Despite these personal setbacks and the comparative commercial failure of his records, David Ackles retains a positive outlook on his life and his career. A few years ago, he said, "I would hate for people to think I'm getting all twisted up about what happened 20 years ago. I have a wonderful life."
Laments of an Unknown Muse - printed in "The Guardian", 26th March 1999, written by Jonathan Romney
Last Friday, this paper ran the Obituary of one of those people that you'd have to call a Footnote in pop history - the American singer-songwriter David Ackles, 1937-99. Ackles didn't, as I recall, make the Guardian's alternative poll of great pop records - perhaps he was too shadowy even by the standards of Nick Drake, who was at No 1. Christopher Hawtree's obit told me a lot I didn’t know about Ackles' life (it "resembled a Jim Thompson novel") before and after his recording years. In fact, It made me realise that, although I've owned his first record for over 20 years, 1 actually knew nothing about him at all.
Ackles' third LP, American Gothic (1972), was acclaimed as an ambitious panorama of American imagery, but It hasn't worn well. It's a little too stentorian, the elaborately-orchestrated songs rather heavily wearing their intention to address the state of the nation. But it still resonates, once you realise that Ackles wasn't working remotely in the tradition of American pop, but had more in common with the French chanson tradition. In his disillusioned, caustic lyricism and deep, barbed voice, he was a close cousin of Jacques Brel.
On American Gothic and its predecessor, Subway To The Country, Ackles experimented with styles, from lounge ballads to bluegrass. Subway shows his storytelling capacities at full pitch; in the startling Candy Man, a Vietnam veteran returns to take revenge on his nation by slipping porn booklets into bags of sweets. Ackles plays such stories dead straight, but listen to the scowling richness of his voice, and you hear a direct precursor of Nick Cave's Murder Ballads.
But the great Ackles record is his first, self-titled album on Elektra, from 1968. It has some of that label's trademark morbidity of the period (Elektra also signed the Doors and Nico), but Ackles scrupulously avoided the personality game, writing songs too detached and sardonic to play the wounded-self card. Even on the sleeve he's barely visible, a blur behind a spiderweb of cracked glass.
The opening track, The Road To Cairo, was recorded by Julie Driscoll as a follow-up to her Swinging London anthem, This Wheel's On Fire (imagine a parallel world in which Ackles song, rather than Dylan's, became the theme to Absolutely Fabulous). The title suggests hippie-trail exotica, but the destination is more likely Cairo, Georgia - one of those US locales like Phoenix or Tulsa that the lovelorn in songs are forever trying to reach, but never do. The hero of this solemn blues song hitches a ride from a rich boy, anticipates seeing his folks again, then has second thoughts: "They're better thinking I'm dead."
There's never any safe haven in these songs. The narrator of Sonny Come Home wanders through a nightmare landscape of glass and broken bicycle wheels, keeps hearing the summons to dinner, but expires in a staccato gasp: "I can't come home". Set to the carnival organ that was an atmospheric staple at the time, it's uncannily close to The Swimmer, Burt Lancaster's existential chiller of the same year
His Name Is Andrew is possibly the most desolate song I've ever heard. All we know is that Andrew works in a canning factory, has no friends, is simply passing through life waiting for the day he dies. He's been brought up on hymns, and believes them. But by the end, the songs are telling him God is dead, and he believes them too. We can try to imagine what the story's about - religious crisis, blue collar realism, psychotic dysfunction - but it's the missing details that make the words so telling.
What's even more striking is the sound - the bell-like tolls and swells of organ. Played by Michael Fonfara, who later worked with Lou Reed, the organ, more churchlike than bluesy, gives the album a self-enclosed intensity that Ackles never attempted again. It sounds very much a 1968 record, its after-the-party melancholy suggesting grim sobriety in the wake of the psychedelic boom, although some of flower-power's orientalist hangovers persist to elegant effect - the fluid bass, the feathery guitar lamentations.
The record is an extraordinary one-off achievement - it occupies a universe bordering on Tim Buckley, Leonard Cohen, and the Band's first album, not to mention latter-day Scott Walker, but with a starkness all its own. Somehow, Ackles never went down in history - although there was a brief flurry of interest in the mid-eighties when Elvis Costello covered one of his songs live. These days, Ackles records can't be readily had (I've never heard or seen his fourth one). His debut was re-released on CD a few years ago, but has since vanished. If you find it, jump on it. The footnotes often have the best stories.
Introduction to the interview with David for the Ptolemaic Terrascope, summer 1999 edition (issue 27) by Mark Brend. This is the last interview David did before his death and it also forms the basis for the chapter on David in Mark's book, American Troubadours. The interview is given in the Interviews page of this website.
When the following interview was completed in February 1999, it was not intended as a posthumous tribute. Sadly, that is what it has become, as David Ackles died on March 2nd of this year, finally succumbing to the lung cancer that had dogged him for so long. He was 62. We understand that his family and friends intend to pursue options for releasing some of the unheard songs mentioned below.
The story of this article begins back in September 1985. I chanced upon a tatty album on Elektra (always a good sign) and was intrigued enough by the sleeve, an out-of-focus shot of a man staring through a cracked window pane, to risk a speculative purchase. If ever a gamble paid off, then this was it. The album was the first release by singer-songwriter David Ackles - it immediately captivated me (and most of my friends, who were compelled to listen to it endlessly). So enthralled was I by the record that I quickly tracked down Ackles' other two Elektra releases - Subway to the Country and American Gothic. It was to be another ten years before I found a copy of the elusive fourth album, Five and Dime. My interest in Ackles endured over the years and, pleased as I was to occasionally come across other lonely converts who shared my zeal, I was perpetually bewildered as to why a songwriter so talented, who received much effusive acclaim in his time, could be so forgotten.
I was delighted, of course, to see the final re-emergence of Ackles' first three albums on CD a few years back. This was followed by a few "whatever happened to..." articles in the British music press, but no real signs that the process of beatification enjoyed by the likes of Buckley, Drake, Walker, et al, was underway for Ackles. Determined to do my bit to raise the great man's profile, I approached Jim Irvin at Mojo to talk about the possibility of an article. He was keen, partly because he had, by some strange synchronicity, just ten minutes before my call been talking to someone else about Ackles. It was at this point, Jim told me that one Kenny MacDonald had beaten me to the punch and tracked Ackles down a few years earlier and written a fascinating piece in these very pages. After a few phone calls (to Kenny and Phil) I found myself in possession of Ackles' telephone number and address. After some prevarication, I telephoned David at his home in California and enjoyed a good chat about his life and career. I was, like other writers who have spoken to him in recent years, taken aback that a man whose records were so intense, introspective and grandiose should be so modest, cheerful and downright pleasant. No tortured artist posturing here, I can assure you.
There followed a Buried Treasure feature in the August 1998 issue of Mojo, and a further exchange of emails with David. The interview included here is a spliced-together selection of highlights from both my telephone conversation with David and my later emails. What follows are the bare bones of an account of a varied life and a brief, commercially disappointing but artistically triumphant recording career.
David Ackles was born in Rock Island, Illinois, the very heart of the American Midwest, on 20/2/37. "Not a bad place for an incipient songwriter to get a start," he was to say later. Show business was in his blood, his mother's side of the family involved in theatre and music hall and his father an accomplished amateur musician. As a young child, Ackles formed a vaudeville duet with his sister and he later acted in a series of sub-Lassie B-movies about Rusty the dog. His film career came to a premature end with the onset of facial hair.
In his late teens, Ackles went to study English Literature at the University of Southern California, and also for a year in Edinburgh. There followed a decade where he supported himself with a number of strange jobs (private detective, security guard), all the while continuing an involvement with theatre and TV. This era was later romanticised for an Elektra press release that accompanied his first album. He also began composing seriously during this period - musicals, ballet scores and choral pieces. These early experiences were to leave a mark on his songwriting, which likewise began in earnest at this time, and also his distinctively theatrical singing style.
In 1967, one of those early songs, Blue Ribbons (which had at some point been considered for Cher), came to the attention of Elektra producer David Anderle, who was impressed. What happened next has been coloured by myth, but it seems likely that Ackles very quickly followed up this initial interest by producing a number of other songs. He was soon signed to Elektra, initially as a songwriter. After a few months, Elektra supremo Jac Holzman decided Ackles should sing his own songs and, after a false start with an orchestral arranger, he found himself in the studio with producers David Anderle and Russ Miller, engineer Bruce Botnick, and a stellar group of experienced musicians.
Michael Fonfara (organ), Danny Weis (guitar), Douglas Hastings (guitar), Jerry Penrod (bass) and John Keliehor (percussion) were already veterans from the likes of Iron Butterfly (Weis and Penrod) and Electric Flag (Fonfara), whilst Hastings surfaced briefly in Buffalo Springfield. They later provided the nucleus for Rhinoceros, who made two disappointing albums for Elektra. Fonfara, whose wandering, melodic organ style gave the band's sound much of its distinctive identity, later had the very dubious distinction of playing on Lou Reed's worst album, Growing Up in Public, in 1980.
David Ackles (Elektra EKS 74022) was released to good reviews in early 1968, and Elektra went to work promoting it. From the start, Ackles was viewed as something of an artist's artist, with many of the first songs covered by contemporaries (Down River by Spooky Tooth, Road to Cairo by Julie Driscoll & the Brian Auger Trinity). Elektra pulled two singles from the album for release in the UK, the first of which, Down River had a French-language version of Road to Cairo, re-titled La Route á Chicago, as the b-side. The second single paired the Brechtian Laissez Faire with Blue Ribbons. Neither release troubled the charts.
David Ackles was reissued in 1971 (and again on CD, albeit briefly, in 1993. There are two sleeves, the first (and best) a classic William S Harvey design, with an out-of-focus Ackles gazing though a cracked window pane - so perfectly evocative of the mood of the record. The second sleeve, used for the 1871 re-release which was re-titled Road to Cairo, featured a more conventional shot. This is the most immediately accessible of Ackles' records, although it must be said that there are songs on here that could only have been written by him (notably His Name is Andrew) The piano/organ led band sound relaxed, even a little under-rehearsed - note the out of time re-entry after the pause at the end of Road to Cairo - and the whole thing is very much live-in-the-studio. Highlights include the opener, Road to Cairo, a slow, blues-based rocker telling the tale of an Ackles archetype, the drifter who yearns for home, but knows he'll never go back there. It was a near hit for Julie Driscoll & the Brian Auger Trinity (their follow-up to This Wheel's on Fire). Blue Ribbons, the song that got him signed to Elektra, is a literate take on the Watts race riots. Down River, strangely beloved of Phil Collins, is another fine narrative ballad. It is distinguished by one of the great fade-outs, when the drums and lead guitar join in for the last 50 seconds to somehow evoke the pained dignity of the central character as he says goodbye to his ex-love, who has married his best friend. The aforementioned His Name is Andrew is a song which has divided Ackles aficionados over the years. A six-minute torrent of swirling organ and profoundly pessimistic lyrics concerning Andrew's loss of faith and stoic endurance, to some it all sounds just too heavy handed. An unusual theme for a "rock" record - only Scott Walker's Seventh Seal springs to mind as an immediate comparison of a song tackling so intensely the themes of faith, doubt and mortality. The album closes with the plaintive Be My Friend. This is a showcase for the album's unsung star, organist Michael Fonfara. Listen to the closing solo and tell me if you have ever heard anyone wring so much emotion from a Hammond organ.
Although the album, and the various cover versions, did not sell well, there was a sense that Elektra had found themselves a major new talent. A slow burner, yes - someone who would establish himself over time - but a significant new voice nonetheless. Many years later, Holzman was to say that Ackles was the Elektra artist who didn't "make it", who most deserved to.
The second David Ackles album, Subway to the Country (Elektra EKS 74060, 1969) was an altogether bigger production. Fred Myrow, an old college friend of Ackles, was drafted in to do arrangements, and Russ Miller alone got the production credits, although Ackles himself remembers that David Anderle was certainly present. Some 22 musicians appeared on the list of credits, although only Hastings survived from the first album. The whole sound of the record was more upmarket - the rawness of the first record's arrangements being replaced by a sophistication and variety that was to become characteristic of Ackles' later work. Although compared to the first album, there are fewer heart-stopping moments, the songwriting is mature, literate, and consistent. Dealing with such unfashionable and difficult themes as mental illness (Inmates of the Institution) and child abuse (Candy Man), much of the album is "difficult" in the manner of the first album's His Name is Andrew. Many of the arrangements contain elements of film soundtrack music - the introduction to Inmates of the Institution, for example, sounds like a Bernard Herrmann score for the Hitchcock movie you've never seen.
Mainline Saloon is a worthy addition to the inglorious canon of addiction songs in popular music. Ackles barks out the twisted poetry over the backing of a shambling bar band, and in doing so provided the prototype that Tom Waits was to develop to such bizarre extremes a decade or so later. Out on the Road, a Gospel-styled epic, is one of Ackles' most conventional songs and features his most unhinged recorded vocal performance. Twenty two musicians were credited on the album (including Lonnie Mack, incidentally), and it sounds like they were all joining in here - Ackles himself roaring to be heard above them with a passion not normally associated with sensitive singer-songwriter types. Finally, the title track was released as a single, and would have sat quite comfortably in the charts next to the orchestral pop compositions of Jimmy Webb.
Again, Elektra put some effort into promoting the record and Ackles went on the road in the States to good reviews. He supported Joni Mitchell, and was himself supported by struggling newcomer Elton John - a huge Ackles fan at the time. A free single was included with the album, which featured Ackles talking about the genesis of the title track and the song itself, which was a lush ballad. Again, the record failed to sell in significant quantities, but Elektra kept faith.
By this time, Ackles was at the peak of his confidence as a songwriter. In no hurry to record a follow-up to Subway to the Country, he spent a full two years planning the song-cycle that was to become American Gothic. Between September 1971 and July 1972, Ackles lived in the village of Wargrave in Buckinghamshire, performing live in London and even appearing on The Old Grey Whistle Test. The album, produced by Elton's lyricist Bernie Taupin, was recorded in IBC Sound recording studios in London. It was released in 1972 to ecstatic acclaim.
American Gothic (Elektra EKS 75030) is significant both for the breadth of its musical range, and also as the debut of Ackles as an orchestral arranger of great inventiveness. Incredibly, It was largely recorded and mixed in only two weeks, although preparations were drawn out. Musically, the record defies categorisation. Although traces of soul, rock, folk, gospel, blues and country can be found throughout, the songs go well beyond the normally accepted boundaries of "pop" music. Avant-garde and classical influences pervade the elaborate orchestral arrangements, and many of the songs sound like they were written for some dark Broadway show. Lyrically, the album is Ackles' State of the Union address, a collection of perceptive cultural observations that derive their clarity, as he says on the sleeve notes, from his temporary exile. So we find Ackles' take on prostitution and alcoholism (American Gothic), divorce (Waiting for the Moving Van), Vietnam (Ballad of the Ship of State) and racism (Blues for Billy Whitecloud). Interspersed between the "issue" songs are a few wistful ballads populated by the usual rootless drifters and dreamers, buckling under a burden of regret. The centrepiece of American Gothic though is the epic 10-minute Montana Song. It is a story of a man looking for his roots and the death of the rural Old West, and as such reads like a précis of a Steinbeck-style generation-spanning novel. Taken as a whole, the music and lyrics combine to create an atmosphere thick with anger, loss and mordant humour, yet shot through with moments of beauty, fragility and optimism. Yet for all its eclecticism, the album retains a unity and sense of identity. Many consider it his masterpiece and yet it is also the most inaccessible of his records. The album was to be Ackles' biggest seller, even briefly visiting the lower reaches of the American album charts, but in a sense it marked the beginning of the end of his recording career. If this was Ackles' definitive statement and nobody got it, what could he do next?
What he did next was leave Elektra by mutual consent. And while this is often taken to be a euphemism for "resign or we'll sack you", in this case it appeared to be genuine. Elektra had funded three significant albums, including what must have been a very costly American Gothic, and their artist, although highly regarded, was still only a modest seller. Ackles was considerably in debt to Elektra, having gone over budget on all three records and there was clearly no way they would, in the circumstances, be able to fund and adequately promote a fourth album. Ackles went to the Elektra office to announce that he thought it was time to move on and he got the sense that they had been thinking the same for some time. There were no hard feelings, with both Ackles and Holzman reminiscing fondly and respectfully in later years.
Clive Davis, head of Columbia at the time, was a long-time Ackles' enthusiast. Ackles signed to Columbia. With a new start at a major label, and riding a wave of critical enthusiasm, it looked as if Ackles' time might come at last.
Although he was grateful for the reviews for American Gothic, they placed Ackles under considerable pressure. He had been credited with discovering a whole new direction in popular music and felt that the burden of sustaining that momentum was more than he could reasonably be expected to bear. He talked in interviews in the mid-seventies of experiencing something like writer's block - every idea he came up with he discarded, thinking, "this is not as good as American Gothic". In the end, he resolved to ignore the pressure and sidestep the issue by going off at a tangent, by scaling down his sound. The record he released as a follow-up to American Gothic was called Five and Dime (Columbia KC 32466, 1973) and it was very different from its predecessor.
Recorded largely at Ackles' home on a four-track, it is, for him, a modest and simple record. As well as writing and arranging it, he this time produced it, gathering together a large group of friends and associates to assist him. The relaxed atmosphere and freedom from time constraints contributed to the warmth of the record. It was the first of his albums to come in on time and under budget. Sadly, this is a completely forgotten record and even many Ackles fans are unaware of its existence. It was never released in the UK and has never been issued anywhere on CD [at the point this article was written]. Obtaining a copy will involve persistence, contacts and patience. There are few standout songs, although the standard of writing and performance is consistently high. One notably unusual song (for Ackles) is the light-hearted, ironic Surf's Down, featuring the inimitable Dean Torrance on falsetto backing vocals. A gentle poke at the surfers of the previous decade - who surprisingly once included Ackles amongst their number - who had grown up but not moved on. The song is musically a plausible pastiche of early Beach Boys/Jan & Dean, with Ackles impressively transforming his seasoned, throaty and theatrical voice into a suitably nasal, adolescent whine. Aberfan, the story of the Welsh mining disaster, when a slag-heap collapsed onto a school, is a complex and challenging piece, more in the American Gothic style and, in a way, sounds out of place here. The lyrical sentiments, although worthy, sound clumsy, but the song is distinguished by a sinister, suspenseful arrangement. The closing track, Postcard, is a typical wistful ballad, apparently inspired by Ackles' stay in England.
Before the release of Five and Dime, Clive Davis left Columbia. Ackles was stranded in an environment where he was either misunderstood or ignored. The contract was honoured and the record released in 1973, but only in the States. It received virtually no promotion and the few copies that did surface were pressed on wafer-thin vinyl. Not surprisingly, Five and Dime sank without trace. Ackles spoke at the time about his frustration at Columbia's attitude - being unwilling to finance a tour because the record wasn't selling, yet failing to acknowledge their responsibility to promote it to make it sell.
Each of David Ackles' four albums has its own identity. Nonetheless, certain themes and types of songs reoccur - the epic gospel-influenced ballad (Out on the Road, Such a Woman); the down home religious country song (Berry Tree, Family Band); the complex stagey story songs (Aberfan, His Name is Andrew, Montana Song). The records stand on their own, therefore and as a complete, coherent body of work.
Five and Dime was David Ackles' final album. He struggled on for a while as a songwriter, but spoke later of wondering whether it wasn't meant to be. By now in his late thirties and recently married to Janice (who appears with him on the cover of American Gothic), he began to feel the need to earn a regular income. By the late '70s he would have looked like yesterday's man. Punk was enjoying its brief moment in the sun and the careers of many of the great singer-songwriters of the '60s - Tim Rose, Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, David Blue, even Leonard Cohen, were over or in the doldrums. Although continuing to write songs for his own amusement, he moved into other areas of work - writing for film and TV, teaching, directing.
In 1981, a drunk driver hit Ackles' can. He was badly injured and in a wheelchair for six months. For 18 months, he could not play the piano. He recalls his wife, after the accident, standing outside the operating theatre shouting, "don't cut off his arm, he's a piano player". A few years later, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and a part of his left lung was removed. Despite these personal setbacks, he seemed to retain an optimistic outlook. The few writers who have tracked him down in recent years, including Kenny Macdonald for the Terrascope, were struck, as I was, by his enthusiasm, good humour and cheerfulness. There remains a palpable love of music and the creative process. In an interview in 1997 on the subject of directing Brecht's Threepenny Opera, he talks about "the pure joy of creating in this wonderful playpen".
In 1993, Elektra reissued the first three albums on CD. This prompted a brief and modest upsurge of interest in Ackles' work. Articles appeared in Q, Mojo, Folk Roots, the Terrascope of course, and recently even the NME. Elvis Costello began to namecheck Ackles; Phil Collins chose Down River as one of his Desert Island Discs. Sadly, the albums were deleted again after a couple of years and remain unavailable at the time of writing. Five and Dime has, to date, not been reissued and it seems that the only chance of it reappearing would be if some enterprising independent rescued it from Columbia's dusty vaults.
Now in his sixties, and still happily married to Janice, David Ackles lives on a farm north of Los Angeles. sadly, he is again fighting lung cancer. A few years ago, he completed a musical, Sister Aimee, based on the life of '20s evangelist Aimee Macpherson. He is currently working on new recordings and hopes to make another album. So, back to my original question: how could a songwriter of such talent, who received so much acclaim, now be so forgotten? There are, with hindsight, a number of obvious clues.
The list of people who recognise him as a major talent - Elton John, Phil Collins, Jac Holzman, Elvis Costello, the readers of publications such as this - make up a strangely motley and disparate bunch. On the one hand, we have Elto and Phil - major chart acts, showbusiness personalities from the very centre of the music business establishment. On the other hand, we have Costello, a successful talent on the fringes of the mainstream, and Holzman, a successful music mogul, but also slightly left of centre. Then, there are the likes of you and me, the sort of people lost in the nether world of musical experimentation and authenticity, who regard commercial success not as a sin, but maybe an irrelevance. This clearly points to the unclassifiable nature of his music. He could not be neatly packaged. Too intense and eccentric for the mainstream, yet not rock 'n' roll enough for eventual cultdom?
Placing David Ackles in the "singer-songwriter" genre does not really do him justice, nor does it serve as an adequate description of his music. Like that other great Elektra innovator, Tim Buckley, Ackles quickly transcended the usual parameters associated with his métier. More than is usual on "singer-songwriter" records, the arrangements (on the last two albums in particular) are an integral part of the artistic package, and worthy of attention in themselves. The songs themselves are often melodically and structurally complex and challenging.
Over the years, many reviewers have commented on the theatricality of Ackles' music, What they mean by this, I think, is the Brecht and Broadway style that pervades both his singing and writing. This is a tradition that rarely finds its way into the mainstream of pop/rock music (whatever you want to call it). Whilst Ackles incorporated the usual range of accepted influences (soul, gospel, country, folk, blues, etc), it was this other aspect that came to dominate much of his work and it was not widely understood. This meant that his songs, as they became more rooted in this set of influences, became less attractive to other performers. Consequently, he was deprived of the exposure and earning potential of other artists interpreting his songs, at least after the initial flurry of covers from the first album.
Lastly, I am left wondering the extent to which Ackles did or did not want, really want, success. It is clear that he was in no way inclined to compromise artistically. There are also indications that after Five and Dime his enthusiasm for the life was wearing thin. He certainly had plenty of other strings to his bow - he didn't, in one sense, really need to make a career out of it. His recording career started late - he was in his thirties by the time the first album was released and a few years shy of forty when it ended. Maybe, by the end, his heart was elsewhere?
Of all the stories of seminal and elusive talents consigned to obscurity by the vagaries of the "business" and fashion, the story of David Ackles is one of the most frustrating. If anyone, by virtue of talent alone, deserved commercial success, he did. Yet his career as a singer-songwriter was to be short-lived, punctuated by periodic false dawns of critical acclaim but no bright day of success as enjoyed by so many lesser talents. Yet despite the disappointments, there is a sort of triumph in David Ackles' story. He retained a sense of humour, modesty and proportion. His world did not end when the option on his last contract ran out, and he went on to enjoy a varied career that reflected the range of his talents. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was able to find a life beyond rock and roll - he chose not to forever linger on the fringes of an establishment that, for all its embracing of rebellion and innovation, is as conservative as the House of Lords. It is easy to bemoan the fact that he didn't press on - he surely would have found somebody, somewhere, to release his records. But in moving on when he did, he left a recorded legacy of a consistency and depth, largely unsullied by the compromise and tiredness that came to dog so many of his erstwhile colleagues.
For details of how to subscribe to the Ptolemaic Terrascope, contact the magazine editor, Phil McMullen, at email@example.com.
There is a River: The Elektra Recordings - Review of the pulled album by David Cavanagh in Uncut 122, July 2007.
A mysterious character on the fringes of late '60s American folk music, David Ackles (1937-99) attracted some surprisingly famous fans - Elton John and Phil Collins, for instance - without being in any sense a 'safe' or 'mainstream' artist. Dark as a starless night, Ackles' self-titled 1968 debut is among the most haunting albums in any genre. His third, American Gothic (1972) is conceptually pitched somewhere between an Dyke Parks and Thornton Wilder, a tapestry of a nation woven from the microcosmic secrets and fears of a handful of citizens.
In short, Ackles' songs (which he sang in a grave baritone) offer an experience that is both cinematic and emotional, and he should by rights be better known. There is a River: The Elektra Recordings is an exhilarating chronicle of his four-year stint on Jac Holzman's folk-rock label. The two-CD anthology contains complete remasters of David Ackles and American Gothic as well as the album that came in-between (Subway to the Country), and it also includes 11 unreleased tracks and rarities. One of these, an American Gothic out-take reminiscent of a Baptist hymn, gives this anthology its title.
While Ackles is sometimes compared to Randy Newman, and his gloomier elegies (Blue Ribbons, His Name is Andrew) could be likened - at a pinch - to Tim Rose or Leonard Cohen, he was a versatile writer/arranger, and no comparison really does him justice. We first encounter him on the opening track of his '68 debut (The Road to Cairo) hitching a ride from a stranger. Amid sedate, mournfully descending piano chords, a story emerges. The narrator is returning home to find the wife and kids he abandoned years ago. But as electric guitars sizzle, and organist Michael Fonfara surges like Doug Yule on 1969: Velvet Underground Live, the narrator panics with 22 miles to go, and bails out of the car. ("I can't walk down this road to Cairo; they're better thinking I'm dead.")
Other songs tell similar tales of tight-lipped drifters who've done something harrowing and irreversible, and are ever-doomed to wander America like the living dead, or count out time in solitude. The jaw-dropping His Name is Andrew concerns a man who "works in a canning factory" and "chooses to wait alone for his life to end". Down River is about an ex-convict who's overjoyed to bump into an old girlfriend, until three words, "is that right?" inform us that she has married his former school chum, killing hopes of a reconciliation.
Ackles' follow-up, Subway to the Country (1969), pales next to such a dramatic debut. Much less introspective, even politically satirical in places, it also expands the tonal palette to include horns and strings. Main Line Saloon and Inmates of the Institution (which use a grotty bar and a mental asylum as settings for Hogarthian studies of moral degeneracy) boast peculiar, jazz-inflected arrangements that never linger on one tempo for long. Sadly, there's less to recommend in the album's gospel-flavoured middle section (Out on the Road, Cabin On the Mountain), where melodies tend to be frustratingly predictable. Nevertheless, Subway to the Country is an uneasy proposition when it wants to be. Candy Man is about a disabled war veteran who takes revenge on society by distributing pornography to young children. ("I'm not ashamed; I took their minds as payment due, the healthy for the maimed.")
Ackles befriended Elton John in 1970, after supporting him at the Troubadour in LA. Ackles' third album was recorded in England in 1971-72, and produced by Elton's lyricist Bernie Taupin. Ironically, it's as un-English a music as could ever be imagined. Composed of 11 tragicomic scenes from failing lives (a small-town wife deceiving her husband; a musician having a one-night stand; a Native American exploding in a lethal rage), American Gothic is arranged in a spectacular variety of styles, from boater-and-cane 'show tunes' to blissful country rock. The album's peaks are numerous, with narratives both surreal (Ballad of the Ship of State) and poignant (Waiting for the Moving Van). The sheer musical scope (clarinets, trombones, pedal-steel guitar, Appalachian fiddles) implies a union of Sondheim, Nesmith and The Band. the ten-minute climax, Montana Song, in which a troubled urbanite ventures to a remote rural location to research his ancestors is a shattering experience in sounds and words.
In late 1972, Jac Holzman let Ackles depart for another label, Columbia, where he recorded a fourth and final album (Five and Dime, 1973) before quitting the business to write for the theatre. He died of cancer in 1999. Among the unreleased material on this anthology is a snatch of interview where Ackles talks of a grim time living in New York, which inspired the elegant, pro-ecology title track of Subway to the Country. He sounds exactly like you'd expect: intelligent, deep and caring.
Also intriguing are the out-takes I'm Only Passing Through (American Gothic) and Old Shoes (David Ackles) which recall Scott Walker, of all people, in his jazzier moments. Additional curios include The Road to Cairo crooned in decent French (La Route á Chicago), and a proposed theme for the Jane Fonda movie, Klute (Hold Me in Your World), the anthology's sole banal dud. Otherwise Ackles' quality was, and is, consistently high.
Technical note: the first Ackles CDs, in 1993, carelessly reversed the stereo channels on the first and third albums. There is a River: The Elektra Recordings corrects this error, and all three albums now conform to the original vinyl.
‘I Went out to Montana with a Bible on My Arm’: The American Gothic and the Music of David Ackles (1937-1999) - Presentation at Radboud University, Nijmegen on the Amerikanistendag, 22 March 2013 by Kasper Nijsen
“How could one tell where the American dream ended and the Faustian nightmare began?” Leslie Fiedler asks in a famous 1960 essay; in the same essay, he claims that the literature of America is “essentially a gothic one.” It is from this tension between the lofty religious dreams of America’s first settlers, and the deeply conflicted reality of slavery and greed, that the country’s greatest art emerges. Because it is deeply involved with the dark side of the American dream, much of its literature can, according to Fiedler, be described as a great tree of American gothic art – with branches from Hawthorne and Poe to Hubert Selby and David Lynch.
When the unjustly neglected singer-songwriter David Ackles titled his 1972 masterpiece album American Gothic, he was presumably not thinking of Leslie Fiedler’s literary criticism. The cover art includes a clever parody on the iconic painting of the same title (1930) by Grant Wood, with David and his wife Janice posing as Wood’s puritan farmers. Since the title song of the album also clearly references Wood’s painting, with lyrics depicting a farming couple very much like the husband and wife painted by Wood, it is clear that Ackles used his title to hint at the painting.
Yet this does not mean that Fiedler’s discussion of American gothic art is irrelevant to Ackles’s music. In fact, his album, like the famous works of literature discussed by Fiedler, gains its momentum from the hopes and dreams, frustrations and addictions of Americans living in-between religious dreams and an often nightmarish reality. Released at the end of the optimistic Sixties and under the shadow of the Vietnam War, it is a many-faceted and disturbing vision of America – and a worthy chapter in the history of American gothic art.
Beginning with title song ‘American Gothic’, which opens the album, the listener is offered a painfully honest portrait of American dreams gone wrong. While Grant Wood’s painting is sometimes seen as a tribute to the religious pioneer spirit, many view it as an incisive parody of puritan hypocrisy, ridiculing the farming couple with their old-fashioned clothing and ominous pitch-fork. Is it this darker perspective that Ackles’s title song tunes in to.
Musically, ‘American Gothic’ has a strong theatrical feel, built around a repeating piano riff in A minor embellished by brass parts. The combination of piano and horns, shifting rhythms, unexpected harmonic changes, as well as the absence of any sort of instrumental or solo section, all link to 1920s/30s vaudeville or variety music rather than to 1970s pop music, placing the story in a historical setting in keeping with Wood’s painting.
Over this accompaniment, an unnamed narrator dissects the life of farmers Horace and Molly Jenkins, names sufficiently old-fashioned to fit with the backward-looking painting. The singer first describes Molly’s and then Horace’s Saturday night, concluding with a depiction of their Sunday morning and a general summary of their ‘marriage’.
Molly spends her Saturday night ‘snuggling down with strangers’ while dreaming of ‘shoes’. Her husband Horace reads dirty magazines ‘in a half-filled marriage bed’, but is so ashamed of himself that he ‘gets blind drunk instead’. The parallel structure of the first two sections stresses the Jenkins’ complete separation from each other, but also the similarity of their separate suffering. For both have an obsession, or dream, that relates to significant themes in American history.
Molly is materialistically obsessed with shoes and wealth, both unobtainable as a mere farmer’s wife, and resorts to sex with strangers to afford new shoes. Horace desperately wants to be reborn a pious Christian but is inhibited by his wicked wife, and drowns his dream in masturbation and booze. The line ‘trades the milk for booze’ seems a further indication that the setting is 1920s small-town America, where Prohibition laws (1919-1933) prohibited the sale of liquor.
The final verse brings the Jenkins together at the breakfast table at Sunday morning, and sums up their marriage with wry comments on his Christian dream (‘break the bread and cannot speak’), the ‘rustling of his paper’ reminding of ‘paper legs with paper seams’, and her obsession with ‘shoes’. All in all, the song presents a nightmare marriage brought about by dreams gone wrong, with the repetitive marching band music ironically echoing the Jenkins’ lives stood still.
Like Gatsby’s dream of wealth and love, the Jenkins are possessed by dreams that link to wider issues in American history. Molly’s dream of money and shoes clearly resonates with materialistic tendencies in American culture. Similarly, Horace’ desire for a pious, religious life reminds of the first settlers of America, who yearned to build a ‘city upon a hill’, outshining all the world in their uncompromising religious purity. Ackles’s gothic song clearly depicts a situation where these dreams have ended and the Faustian nightmare of alcoholism and sex-obsession has begun.
In the ten songs that follow this disturbing album opener, Ackles paints a varied picture of American life, ranging from redemptive love (‘Love’s Enough’) and religion (‘Family Band’) to the devastating effects of war (‘Ballad of the Ship of State’), racism (‘Blues for Billy Whitecloud’), environmental pollution (‘Oh, California!) and divorce (‘Waiting for the Moving Van’). Many of the songs are peopled by loners who are unable to adapt to the pressures of society – but hold on to their dreams in spite of all.
In all this is a dark vision of America past and present, yet the concluding song of the album, one of Ackles’s greatest achievements, turns to the lofty religious idealism of a family of settlers in nineteenth-century Montana. Gone is all the irony of the song ‘American Gothic’ as the narrator searches among the gravestones for his long-forgotten past. To music reminiscent of Aaron Copeland’s hymn to an Appalachian spring, Ackles salvages the great dreams of the past from the uncertain present.
As the singer goes looking for his fathers, ‘Bible on his arm’, he discovers the story of James McKennon (born 1862) who married Leantha ‘with the fragile name’ in 1882. They tame their bit of prairie, make the land obey to their religious aspirations and found a family that will stand the test of time. Or so they hope. As the music rises to a jazzy syncopated beat, their children head off to the newly built cities, and are lost to the ways of tradition and religion, looking for a new world. James is left to watch until the darkness falls, knowing the boys are gone, and he never loves the land so well ‘from that day on’.
There is no irony or ridicule in Ackles’s lament for an American way of life that has passed away. In its respect for the old farming couple, it reminds one William Wordsworth’s great ‘Michael, a Pastoral Poem’. Like Ackles, Wordsworth uses a farmer couple and their children to depict the painful transition to a different, industrialized way of life. There is a similar poignancy in James McKennon who ‘watched until the darkness fell’ and Wordworth’s old sheep-herd Michael ‘sitting alone’ beside the ruined sheepfold that he once imagined to be his great legacy to pass on to the next generation.
Ackles’s song is a tribute to the religious spirit of those farmers who built the country, whose determination and ideals conquered and civilized the wild fields and mountains. The singer, a city-born child of the 1950s and 1960s, as Ackles was himself, recognizes something of greatness in the spirit of these farmers, the other side of the hypocrisy revealed in the song ‘American Gothic’. We are separated from these distant forefathers by the currents of time and history, he seems to say; and yet, listening to his song, we can feel that, even in our polluted and anonymous cities, something of their blood still runs through our veins.
Between religious dreams and Faustian nightmares Ackles spins his tales of American life. The album opens with a disturbing vision of a 1930s farming couple who drown their religious and materialistic dreams in booze and sex. And yet it ends with a stately tribute to the pioneer spirit, to a couple who tame the land by the sheer power of their religious vision of the future. Squashed in-between, Ackles depicts the possibilities and difficulties of a present fraught with war and pollution, racism and greed.
His ambitious song cycle is a worthy part of the history of American gothic art as described by Leslie Fiedler and others, and one of the rare occasions where popular music rises to the level of great art. And it is by no means outdated: the themes of unsatisfied religious and materialistic longings, cheap pornography, alcoholism, and domestic hypocrisy are closely bound up with the American psyche – but equally so are the high-minded religious ideals and strength of spirit depicted in ‘Montana Song’. Ackles reminds us that the struggle between dreams and nightmares is not only a thing of the past – but also the essential fabric of American life in the present.
References / Further reading
Ackles, David. American Gothic. Elektra, 1972, LP.
*Baker, Michael. The Golden Horse Is in Hell: David Ackles’ Theatre of Melancholy. Perfect Sound Forever. May 2006.
*Brend, Mark. American Troubadours: Ground-Breaking Singer-Songwriters of the 1960s. London: Backbeat Books, 2001.
*Fiedler, Lesley. Love and Death in the American Novel. Champaign: Dalkey Archive, 1960.
Nijsen, Kasper. There Is a River: David Ackles’ Uncertain Legacy: Perfect Sound Forever. September 2012.
Wood, Grant. American Gothic. Art Institute of Chicago, 1930, online.
Wordworth, William. ‘Michael, a Pastoral Poem’. 1800, online.
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