|Interviews with David Ackles in Newspapers & Magazines|
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Interview with David by John Tobler and Pete Frame, conducted in 1973, but published in Hot Wacks, edition 18 in 1979.
HOT WACKS: Can we talk about the earlier albums? In England, as I'm sure you're aware, they received initial attention but nobody ever really got into them and why they were made, which is disturbing. You were signed to Elektra by Russ Miller in about '67 and he put you in a studio with him and David Anderle producing.
DAVID ACKLES: Right. David was a friend of mine from school. We went to S.C. together and then a few years later I ran into him again, and he was instrumental in getting me signed with Russ.
HW: Had you made it known at this point that you wanted to become a recording artist?
DA: No I didn't, I was signed as a writer only, and had no intention of ever having to sing my own songs. Russ and his staff peddled all of my first songs, which were about 25 or 30, which I turned into them at about two or three a week. They didn't know what to do with them, and I made occasional tapes playing them so they would know how they sounded, etc. As a result of this, Jac Holzman heard one of the songs and said, "He ought to record his own songs," and that's how it came about. Not at all intentional.
HW: The thing about the first album, it came out in two different versions.
DA: Right, it was re-released. The first sleeve they thought didn't give enough information, it was too down and it didn't really have a personality photograph and all that.
HW: ...The one with the cracked window, yeah?
DA: Yes, which I thought told a great deal and set up a nice mood and was specific, whereas the second is so general as to be meaningless. It's just a personality cover on the reissue.
HW: You were backed by Rhinoceros - whose idea was that?
DA: Well, we went into the studio first with an arranger, not of my choosing, who had arranged some other things quite well. He was very into Henry Mancini type of music, and of course it wasn't right for what I did at all. And we all knew it, but none of us would face the others and say, "Look this is terrible and we're wasting money." We'd spent a fortune - well, not a fortune, but in my terms in those days it seemed to be. Then we all came back from a two-week separation, Russ, David and I, and the first thing we wanted to tell each other was that we hated it. And then there was a great sigh of relief, followed by the fact that Elektra had signed these... They were not yet Rhinoceros, they were just a group of musicians Elektra wanted to encourage, to make into a supergroup. And I went up and met them - I don't know whose idea that was, David and Russ's together, I suppose... at this remove, it's kind of hard to tell - but then I went up and met them and we sat around and I played the songs and they filled in, and we had such a good time. We knew that was the right thing to do, so we did it. But we had to make that album twice to get the one we wanted.
HW: That album perhaps has your most famous songs on it, the ones that have been covered. Julie Driscol...
DA: Yes, Road to Cairo and Down River from that LP have been covered more than any other songs.
HW: I once heard that Down River was based on personal experience?
DA: No, I'll tell you how that rumour came about. I'd had an interview with a guy from the L A Times who's really a nice guy and a good writer and I opened up the paper some days later and there on the front section was my picture. And underneath: "Singer quits crime - finds God" or something; it was incredible. And it went on to say, "He's been in and out of criminal institutions all his life and finally found God, gave up crime and turned to music," and it was just phenomenal. And it all came about - and I have witnesses fortunately because he came to interview me on the day when my former publicist was there, Mike Gershland, who later became my manager; he was there and heard the whole conversation. The fellow was bright, in the way that I would talk to you, I would talk to him. He was not a dullard at all; he was bright, he seemed perceptive and we were just laying it on. And I said, "Well at one point I toured with a choir and we went to the following prisons..." and I listed them all, which I thought was hysterical - that those were the kind of places we played. So I said, "All in all, I've been in prison 22 times." And he took it all down, and that's the way it came out. And unfortunately there was a thing in there, I said, in the way that you make a joke. I had been married before and had just got a divorce at this point about two weeks before. And he said, "How'd you get married?" "Well we ran off to Las Vegas. Well, actually, what happened was I woke up in Las Vegas with this girl who was my wife." And it just went on and on, and we were falling down laughing, and the laughter's got to be on his tape. But he transcribed it word for word. Well, it got me into a lot of trouble, a lot of suits from my ex-wife. Anyway, that's all in the past now, but you can see what happens when you trust somebody to be having the same impressions of what's going on that you are. And, indeed, his impression was totally different from mine.
HW: You won't be doing more interviews with him, right?
DA: Oh, no, and I don't think he will with me either! He got some flak for that too. But here's the really awful part about it too: that article did me more good than any other at that time. Instantly, I had national news service; I had every major magazine wanting to interview me, to find out about my sordid past.
HW: Well, we'll put that straight.
DA: Please do. Oh, I've been in jail for things like traffic fines. I've been arrested falsely twice - that kind of thing. But that isn't being a criminal, with stripes, behind bars.
HW: So Down River was in fact ...
DA: Out of a feeling, more than anything else. When I wrote that, I'd broken up with a girl I'd known on and off for about 3 years and it really did throw me completely. And the situation was exact, because I'd left and gone to South America on a tour. I was gone, oh, 5 months, then I came back and she'd met someone else and got married and had failed to tell me about it; kept on writinf, but she wanted to tell me in person - that kind of thing can throw you. So that is where the song came from, but I think anyone who writes has the privilege of translating their feelings into a different framework if they choose, and I tend to do that a lot. I'll take whatever feeling I've got and put it into a framework that's more romantic or that's cleaner, that you can conjure more easily.
HW: Presumably this record did not set the chart on fire?
DA: Oh, indeed it didn't. I have yet to be a chart burner. I did not even get on the charts until the last album for Elektra. American Gothic was the first one I had on the charts in this country.
HW: So as a result of it not selling too well, presumably you decided you had to change the approach.
DA: No that wasn't it. What happens is, as you go along, you write different kinds of songs. You're the same writer, so obviously they can't differ that much, but you'll sense that the setting for each album is determined by the kind of songs. In the second album, the songs were a little broader stylistically than on the first. We couldn't do it with a small group of 5 or 6 musicians who could play all those styles. That came about because Fred Myrow, who was another guy I'd gone to S.C. with, had gotten some kind of commendation - to be composer-in-residence for a couple of years. I was in New York and ran into him in the street. He said, "I understand you're doing rock 'n' roll," and I said, "Well, not really, but it's popular music, with electrical..." He said, "Well, let me know if you ever need an arranger." So, of course, as soon as the next album was ready to be arranged, I called him, and Fred did the arrangements - which reflect his classical background as much as anything, and his understanding of the music. Of all the arrangers I could select out of the whole world, Fred's probably the only one who could come really close to what I wanted without coming so close as to be boring about it - he would bring his own originality to it. And he did, on that second album: I think there's some wonderfully original ideas on there. Not all the songs on that album were my choosing; they were his, because as an arranger, he thought they were more interesting to arrange than the ones that I thought would make a better album. So we had that going between us, but we'd worked it all out by the time we got it out. That was fun, though.
HW: And some of those studio musicians are heavy cats - Jim Horn, Lonnie Mack, Larry Knechtel - was there any particular reason for getting these people, or did somebody fix it?
DA: Well, we don't have fixers in this country the way you do in England. The producer handles that. We have contractors, but they don't contract - it's just a name, it's just a way of paying somebody a little extra because you want them more than you want someone else. And everyone gets double scale anyway, or a lot of people do. No, I think that the reason for that was I knew some, Fred knew some, David and Russ, all of us knew a few musicians that we wanted to use. Lonnie was very interested and was a friend of us all at the time. And that was really fun to work on as an album, because of the quality of the musicianship.
HW: Do you know what's happened to Lonnie Mack?
DA: Yeah, Lonnie moved back to... I think Indiana is where his farm is now. He's moved to a couple of places since then, after he left Elektra, he sort of gave up music entirely. He does sponsor... I think he has a bluegrass festival on his farm every year and he also has an antique show which he and his wife operate. Having a wonderful time.
HW: Because Jac Holzman was always terribly upset that Lonnie Mack went off just before that tour of the Alabama State Troupers.
DA: That's right. I don't know - nobody really knows the reason. Lonnie had a very good reason for himself because he's quite an honourable man, and I'm sure that whatever it was, it was good enough to cause him to quit.
HW: He says that he got religion.
DA: Well, I think that's part of it, yes. Which is I think part of why he left music entirely. But also because there is a kind of corruption that sets in if you work within any framework for too long, with a lot of people. I've been lucky in that what I do doesn't involve a lot of people, except once a year when I record, or once every two years, or however long it is. The rest of the time, I'm kinf of independent of all of that. But Lonnie was in a situation out here particularly in which he had to be at Elektra almost every day, and was surrounded with these people. And it is corrupting - not in terms morally, but musically.
HW: You mentioned David Anderle. It's only credited to Russ Miller as producer, the second album, but was it both of them again?
DA: Yes, the second was both of them again.
HW: Yet it's only credited to Russ Miller on my copy.
DA: That's a good point. I wondered if it was. I know David was there a lot, whether or not he actually produced... I suppose the past is so distant to me and yesterday is forgotten. But all the facts begin to run together, and I remember having worked with david and he was still there at the time. I just saw David the other night; he's doing quite well.
HW: Who's he with now?
DA: Well, he's with A & M. He had his own subsidiary label with A & M: he was Willow Productions. He's producing Rita Coolidge. There's a chance he may do Kris as well.
HW: After the second album, there was something of a gap.
DA: Quite a large gap - a couple of years!
HW: And Bernie Taupin did the third one - how did that come about?
DA: Well, I'd met Elton long before, because of doing the Troubadour here and san Francisco and what-have-you. We hit it off instantly, because I think in those days what he was doing was a lot closer to what I was doing, and there was a kind of simpatico feeling between us that worked very well musically. Then Taupin expressed to Jac Holzman at one point that he was interested - jac was talking about casting around for another producer; Lonnie was going to produce me and then he left, and on and on - and Bernie said he'd like to produce me in England. So Jac called me and we talked about it and I said it was a very good idea. So that's what happened.
HW: I couldn't trace any musicians being credited on the album.
DA: There weren't. We used a fixer, which meant I didn't know any of them. Of course I didn't know any English musicians of the kind we wanted anyway. Really, I owe the album to the musicians, because they were uniformly superb - some of the best musicians I have ever worked with are on that album, and I don't know any of their names. I mean, I could tell you that John played oboe, but... what does it mean? I really, honest-to-God don't know their names. Isn't that shocking? It's because there were so many of them too. We used a lot of people on that album.
HW: How long were you in England to do it?
DA: Let's see... went over in September '71, I guess, and came back in July '72. Not all that time was spent working on the album, let me assure you! What we did was, went over first and got Del Newman to arrange a couple of songs on a sort of trial basis. He did I think four songs and we went in, in December and recorded those four songs, and I just hated them - they bore no relationship to the material whatsoever. They were beautiful arrangements - he's a fine arranger - but not for my material. I was very upset by it. I guess that was in November, so in December, I hastily arranged myself. You know, typical musician, I sat at home and listened to it and thought, "I can do better than that!" and did some arrangements and begged Elektra and Bernie and everyone to let us go in and at least try a couple of songs, so we did. We went in and did Billy Whitecloud and American Gothic. I then had the tapes in my hot little hand and ran back to new York with them and talked to Jac, and then to LA and talked to Russ and everybody, and convinced them that they should go ahead with me as arranger, and that's what we did. Then there was this long hiatus while I actually did the arrangements, which, because they were the first things I had ever arranged, took me forever! I had charts for every instrument, what the range was, where the changes were in voicings and all of this. It was just a monumental task, only because of my ignorance - it's the sort of thing anyone with knowledge and training could do like that! There's no trick to arranging, as far as I can see, just guts to go ahead and do it. But it took me a long time to do them. Then we went in the studio and recorded it in a week and mixed it in a week and had it down pretty quickly.
HW: Can you explain a bit more about this arranging - I mean, how does a normal arranger go about it?
DA: I don't know: I'm not a normal arranger. All I know is what I do!
HW: When you said, "A professional arranger could do it just like that..."
DA: Well, you see, I didn't go through music school. I had a nodding acquaintance with the school of music at S.C. because I was in the choir at the time and, by that means, be able to sit in on other classes and occasionally be able to participate in concerts and that sort of thing - which I'm terribly grateful for now. I wish, of course, now that I'd studied music entirely and exclusively - well, not exclusively, but more than I did, because my training in music was six months of piano at the age of twelve or something, at which point, I thought I knew everything. That's why, when I got to S.C. and they said in order to qualify for these upper courses you're going to have to take Harmony One and Counterpoint One, and I said, "What do I need to take that for? I know all about that stuff: I did six months of piano six years ago!" Oh, more fool I! So what I am saying is, if someone did have that training and went through that discipline, their acquaintance with each individual instrument would be so much greater than mine. I know what the instruments sound like, but I don't know how that sound is achieved and I don't have a lot of the details I really ought to know in order to do it - which is why, when I arrange, I have to go to a book and find out, or borrow an instrument and try to play it. And no matter how badly you play it, at least it gives you a sense of how you underblow or overblow or whatever it is - triple-tonguing and all that jazz. Even if you can't play it at all, just trying it gives you an inside track. So, you see, the hours of slavery involved for me arranging, it just takes forever, because I have to try everything. I can't just keep it in my head and write it down and figure that's got to be it; I have to try it out and piece it all together. And if it's a woodwind, I whistle, if it's brass, I shout though my nose, all these things - oh, the sounds, it's like a barnyard at Armageddon: it's terrible! And I think someone with the proper training would be able to sit down and hear the arrangement in his head, which I do too, but be able to translate that onto a score in one easy process. Like, "Well, I hear a clarinet, and I hear it playing this line," and I go, "well, I hear a high reedy sound, and I think it's a clarinet, but it might be an oboe or it might be god knows what." I am often surprised in the studio by some of the things I've written. I've put down things that I think are going to sound one way and they come out another. And then I'm delighted with the other way, so I just leave it - that's my out.
HW: It was an album that got astounding reviews.
DA: Yes, sickening.
HW: It must have been quite embarrassing - I mean, I don't want to put anyone down, but it must have been very embarrassing to receive that kind of acclaim.
DA: Sure, because how can you? All it is, is an album, it's 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 go, "This is a whole new direction to music," is embarrassing, because I can't support that, my music can't support that, nothing can support it. I was thrilled that 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. One, because I knew what the album was worth, and I still know - it's a good album. I'm not putting the album down, but it's only an album, it's only a group of songs. Two, I had to go out and perform, me and piano, and people who had never heard me, ever, who had just read the reviews came to see me and went, "What is it all about? He's just a guy at a piano singing a few songs, some of which are good and some of which I hate." Some of the material I hate too. And then, three, because it meant doing another album; you have to try to come up to or surpass what you just did. Well, I figured there's no way I can surpass what I just did in terms of the reviewers, because they've already committed themselves that this is better than peanut butter. So all I could do was to go in a somewhat different direction on my own terms, and, in the end, finally had to ignore what had gone before, ignore it completely. Because I was literally stymied; within the first few months after that came out, I couldn't write a song. I would sit down and start to write, and I'd get the first eight measures and quit. I'd think to myself, "Oh, that 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.
HW: I think being compared to Sergeant Pepper must be a very daunting thing. What happened: some chap got a pre-release copy and went berserk over it, and then Elektra thought, "Wow, fabulous, we'll capitalise on this." and reprinted it all?
DA: Well, his came out first, that was Chris Van Ness with the Free Press, he got an early copy because he was a friend of Abe's - and a friend of mine: I've known Chris for some time, and through Abe, we got a copy to him just to listen to. I was excited, because I knew it was good, and I think at that time it was certainly the best of the three in terms of what I felt... it was an achievement for me to have done it and I was crowing a bit. And I wanted to get a copy to him, so he could appreciate it too. Well, then he wrote this review that came out a couple of months prior to release, and that didn't help. It did, of course; brought the attention, and I'm not saying it didn't help overall, but what I'm saying it did do was it cued up other people into their reviews. The next one who wrote a review was John Weisman in Detroit, for the Detroit Free Press, which is not an underground paper: it's a major paper in Detroit. John had been a friend of mine here when he was a writer for the LA Times He did book reviews and has since written a book which is, I believe, up for Pulitzer this year. He's a gifted writer and a very bright fellow and we just hit it off instantly. So I got a copy to him and he, without having read Chris's review, gave it another 'fall down and roll over' review. Well, then Elektra got both of them together and thought, "We're on to something," and printed them up and had them distributed and every review thereafter made a reference to the previous reviews. Every single review said either, I agree or disagree, and often to the disregard of the album. I got reviews of reviews!
HW: What about Derek Jewell?
DA: I don't know how much influenced he was or was not by what went on here. Because he was in England, I think not. And because also he got a copy before it was released here or it was released in England first. So he was among the first to get the actual released copy and his review was, I think, unbiased in terms of other reviewers. And it was a wonderful review. But then, you should see the stacks of reviews. Of course, there's this other stack I won't show you, but that's alright too! It's inevitable: any time you make an album a cause, you have immediately involved people in some kind of polarity. Either they must think it's terrific or they must think it's bleauuugh! There's no middle ground. If someone tells you, "You've got to see this movie, it is the best movie ever made." then you'll go see the movie and you'll say, "Well, it's not the best movie ever made." It may be a perfectly good movie, but you're going to come away from it saying, "Uh uh, no way, anybody who says that's the best movie is wrong," and the impression is it must be an awful movie, when indeed that's not the case. So there are problems in that kind of thing.
HW: And you said it hit the charts here?
DA: Yes, actually made the charts. Can't think what it's number was, but it was way down - ninety something - and it was on for about eight or nine weeks.
HW: It makes it very difficult to understand why you should change record companies at that point.
DA: Well, because I felt that with the kind of reviews that we were getting, Elektra could have done more than they did in terms of promotion. And they felt it too: there was a lot of frustration on the part of some people at Elektra. Overall, the problem is that when you're with a label that long, as a loser - because I was in to them for a lot of money - they're most unwilling to spend additional money on a good project, or, at least, one that seems to have some kind of public reaction. Going with a new company means if I get any kind of response, logically they ought to be able to invest a great deal in promotion, given the impetus to do so, whereas Elektra could not. There was just no way they could budget for advertising, promotion, distribution and what-have-you on the basis of what I owed them. So that was the problem. And because, after five or six years, you are no longer new and fresh and there are no new fresh ideas coming your way. It's time to change.
HW: I think Jac Holzman said very much the same - that the chemistry has to be wrong after three tries.
DA: That's right, then something isn't happening the right way.
HW: So he let you go without too much argument?
DA: Oh, no argument at all. I had more time on my contract and I could have held out for another album, or whatever. And they were willing to go. We were already talking about the fourth album when the decision was made that I should leave. It was a mutually arrived-at decision. I'm the one that proposed it and went in one day and said, "Look, I don't think we're getting anywhere; there's nothing new." But I think the thought had been in their heads for a long time before I went in and actually spoke up, and I think they were relieved that I recognised it. Because I was frustrated, and so were they, at the lack of success of the third album in terms of massive sales.
HW: It didn't make the charts in England, despite Derek Jewell, but then the charts in England only go up to about number twenty-one in actual fact!
DA: Oh, good. I like that!
Interview with David for Hot Wacks, edition 19 (Jan 1980) by John Tobler and Pete Frame (rest of above 1973 interview).
Hot Wacks: Now, we got this biography from Columbia. I was unaware, while you were with Elektra, that such a thing existed. Did one exist in these sort of terms, talking about your childhood?
David Ackles: Yes, it's a standard thing: every artist has it done on them - or done to them.
HW: I never saw one from Elektra...
DA: Oh, it's just as well - that was as bad as this!
HW: So, you're not really terribly interested in all this?
DA: Well, whatever facts there are, some of them are incorrect. I think it says my father went to the University of Edinburgh, which he didn't. That's a palpable lie. I think most of the rest of it is fairly factual.
HW: And all this business about being a child film star...?
DA: I wasn't a child film-star. I was in films as a child - that's more honest.
HW: Another Shirley Temple trip, then?
DA: Nowhere near. If I'd been another Shirley Temple, I'd have retired and gone off ot the United Nations when I was thirty!
HW: What films were you in, as a matter of interest?
DA: None of interest! I was only in one series of films, the Rusty series. We made Rusty, The Return of Rusty, Son of Rusty, Rusty Goes to War, Rusty Saves a Life, Rusty at the Races; there were about fourteen of them.
HW: What were they?
DA: Feature-length films, shown in movie theatres.
HW: Was Rusty the dog?
DA: Yes, and I was only a member of the group. I wasn't even the dog's owner! There were five of us in the group, of which Duane Hickman, who did Dobie Gillis was my brother in the series. It was fun to do and it made lots of money for me as a child.
HW: I can't imagine this; was it like a television series?
DA: What you're failing to see is this was before television. I was a mere child. It must have been '48, '49, '50. This was before series on television. I did live television as well, but there were no series. Television was only local shows, like Space Patrol. Every series had its own gesture and everyone would go round and do their gestures at each other as a form of handshake among kids. That was wonderful - tackiest time of my life! But I didn't stay with that; literally, my voice changed and I quit.
HW: It says that you had a moustache in the last one!
DA: That's true. In the last one I had this little moustache and voice croaks; it's really weird.
HW: How did you get into that, though?
DA: My older sister and I - she's older by a year and a half - were a song and dance team originally and did all sorts of shows in the middle West. And we came out to California on a USO [United Service Organizations] tour and stayed. We were doing a show and after it, this guy came up to me with a cigar - it was quite clichéd. "Kid, you wanna be in movies? Ask your mother." "Mommy, can I be in the movies? This man says..." "Yeah, be in the movies." "Here's my card; come and see me." It was William Castle, who has since directed a lot of horror flicks - I think he got his right start! And we made the series for Columbia. Then I quit and went back to school and led quite a normal life.
HW: You say quite a normal life, but one gets the impression from this that you were born in a trunk...
DA: In a sense, I was. But you have to realise I have two parents. My father is the most conservative of men. He's a businessman - he has a certain flair - and was a musician and still plays bass and viola. My mother's side of the family are all theatrical, all of them, as far back as we can go. Every member of that family was from music hall on down. So I've always had those two elements in life: of having a stable home, going to one school for a long period of time, but also participating in the theatre. For example, even when I was doing the series, I didn't go to the studio school; the folks wouldn't let me. I went to the regular average school, except for the actual weeks that we were filming, when, of course, you go to studio school. But the rest of the time, I was enrolled in a regular school and expected to do normal things.
HW: For which I'm sure you were very glad.
DA: Oh, God, yes! I mean, I'm bad enough as it is: you can't be in Hollywood and turn out not kinky, but at the same time, at least you can pretend to be straight from time to time, and I have a proper background to pretend!
HW: There's like a ten-year period of your life before you were making records. Were you writing songs?
DA: Oh yeah, I was writing songs. My God, I was writing songs! The other day, my folks were cleaning out their harage and came up with several boxes of old shows. I've been playing them: they're awful! Well, there are a few that are actually good, but most of it was just crap. And I wrote musical shows, lots of musicals, revues that were done, legit shows that were not done. I was writing television. I'd worked with a guy as an assistant for a couple of years who was writing the Dobie Gillis Show and the Ann Southern Show. I did that for a while. I was writing ballet scores which were done - I was commissioned for one, which was really nice - and did a lot of choral writing. And I also designed and built sets, choreographed, became a playground director. I did anything to earn a little money.
HW: "Security guard for a toilet paper factory" it says here!
DA: Yeah, that was curious.
HW: Private detective...
DA: Yes, I was a private detective for a house once that had been bombed. A fellow who was a member of the Atomic Energy Commission had evidently at the time prior to the bombing a good deal of important information in his laboratory in the basement. He was on the staff of Caltech [The California Institute of Technology] and all these things. And some - I assume - Russian anarchist or something bombed his basement. So they hired me as a private dick to come around and guard their house while they were gone. They'd refused to live there, but I had to guard the house anyway, because they had valuable rugs! And I had a wonderful time. All night long, I'd sit there playing the piano, till one night - this is the kind of friends I have - I'm out - I made a sort of periodic inspection of the grounds with a flashlight and a gruff voice - and I see these shoes in the bushes. It terrified me, and I had a gun, for which I was not licensed; I could have killed him, this friend of mine, leaps out, "Grrrrooowwww! like this, and gave me a heart attack, I swear to God! I fell down. I thought, "This is it. I've had it. The dirty Russians have got me!" - or whoever was dirty then!
HW: A varied life indeed. So who did you sign to for the songs - to Elektra?
DA: Yeah, I'm not exactly positive how it came about now. It's all gone into the area of myth: no-one else's but my own! I had written quite a number of songs about the Watts riots. I was, at the time, living near Watts and it was horrifying to be part of that. o I wrote this one about this black girl who's having a white man's baby and he's been killed. No, it's the other way round: white girl having black man's baby. It became Blue Ribbons eventually. So I wrote these songs, and that one, which I particularly liked. And a fellow who was arranging songs for a show we were going to do in Portland - it's all too involved to matter - said, "Gee, I like that song!" And he was, at the time, arranging for Sonny & Cher, and he said that Cher could sing that. So he took the song to Cher and she almost bought it, but then she had a miscarriage and it was too close to home and she said, "No, I don't want it." Well, I got so excited about it, I played it for some friends, and one of them was a girl named Lee I'd driven to New York with at one time. And she liked it so much, she said, "Yeah, I'd love for you to come up and play that for David Anderle," with whom she was living. Or... no, well it doesn't matter. Anyway, I said, "OK, I'll play it for David." I didn't know David was in the record business at all; it was just a chance to see him. Last I'd seen him was several years before in a paint-smattered outfit, leaving a set - he was a set designer for S.C. So, I played the song for him. I went up to his house and he was married to the girl that I'd known for a long time, Cheryl, and I played the song and he liked it a lot. He said, "Yeah, I really like that and I want you to write some more." And I said, "Why?" and that's when he divulged the truth: "I'm with Elektra. I'm Elektraman!" So I immediately ran home and whipped out twenty songs and came back and he introduced me to Russ, who was at the house that day. I played the songs for both of them and that's when they signed me.
HW: Have you or Columbia got plans for you to go back on the road again?
DA: Well, I don't know. It really depends a lot on how much Columbia's willing to back such a tour. When you tour clubs in this country, you lose money. It's automatic, because you have so many expenses involved in transportation and housing and what-have-you, and clubs do not pay the kind of money to make it worth your while. Particularly because I want to take Janice with me, and a road manager, somebody to set up stuff, because too many times now I go in to a club and, either there's no piano or the piano they have has half the keyboard missing. You can't give a performance under those circumstances and it's silly to try. You walk in, and if the keys don't work or some of them stick, you can't possibly give a good performance, so you're thrown. Every time you get into a song and you hit something that's wrong, the people don't get their money's worth. You're better off being sure that that's set up ahead of time. So if Columbia's willing to back that, then I'll do it, but so far they haven't shown any willing ness to do that. But I think that depends a great deal on any response the album gets: if the album gets any response, then I think they'll go along with it.
HW: It's a terribly vicious circle thing, isn't it?
DA: Yes, of course it is, because the album's not going to get any response until the label does something. They're not going to advertise until they're shown that there's a reason to. Well, they're never going to be shown a reason to unless they advertise. The only hope is in getting the kind of notices that I'm hoping to get.
HW: One more thing here, about this: "There remains one dream for David Ackles. That is to write a full-blown Broadway-type musical."
DA: Well, that's not correct at all. I have a lot more dreams than that. I'd like to; that would be fun. I've written a lot of "Broadway" musicals, but they've never been done. Yes, I'd even like to write an opera. I think opera is an exciting form, really, that hasn't been explored lately. The only current writer of opera that I really like is Benjamin Britten, and he's certainly not experimental.
HW: There's something of a difference in concept between a Broadway musical and an opera.
DA: There shouldn't be. The problem is that there has been. Musical comedy, or Broadway musicals, have never once broken out of the mould of operetta. What kind of car was that?
HW: That's Mike's car.
DA: Oh, that was Mike. OK, 'cause I'm expecting Douglas to come by; we have a meeting this afternoon. We're also into writing. He's a writer, Douglas is, and he's written a lot of films and that sort of thing. We're going to set up a company to create film musicals. I think that'll be kind of fun.
HW: So, you're not putting all your eggs in one basket, as they say?
DA: Oh, never. Well, you can see by my past experience, I don't trust any one thing to pay off; I've got to have a lot of things going.
HW: What I meant was: a Broadway musical has got to be happy.
DA: No, it doesn't. You see, that's the whole problem. West Side Story is the only thing I can think of that really broke the mould, that said, you don't have to follow the pattern; you can do more interesting and experimental things. I would say Mahogany is more a combination of opera and Broadway musical than any other show ever written. But how successful is it? nobody plays it.
HW: This is really exciting for us; we've never been here before.
DA: Oh, your first trip! You hit us at a terrible time, with all the fires, Yesterday, I had to drive into town and the smog was so bad, I could barely breathe. And here, of course, it was just God-awful - it's jus now beginning to clear up; it is still smoky. Last night, it smelled like everyone had pot; everyone in the whole world was... it just overwhelmed you. The smell was God-awful and it was everywhere. Of course, we could see the actual flames from here. It made us worry a little, because it is a wild area and if it got up further into the mountains, it would go straight down. There's nothing to obstruct it; no house, no nothing. And that's a bit hair-raising.
HW: But nevertheless, it's so magical to us. We've been interested in California music for ten or eleven years, and, to come along and see Sunset Strip... You probably think, "Oh, no..."
DA: Oh. no, listen, I think there's a lot here that is quite special. it may be tacky; it may be a lot of things, but it's special. Hollywood Boulevard is hysterical. I mean hysterical! Where else in the world are there so many tacky people, and so many tacky stores, all putting on the flash? It's wonderful! It's better than Chelsea: Chelsea is almost Beverley Hills by comparison. You know, those shops in Kings Road, even though now they're becoming very touristy, are still classier by far than anything on the Strip. I love it: it's tacky Paradise!
HW: And there's all these rituals of the pop music business, because we went and had breakfast in this place called Schwab's, where everybody rushes in and buys the Hollywood Reporter and reads it.
DA: They still do, after all these years! It's absurd! But as many things that I dislike about living here, there are twice as many that I love. The weather is certainly not the least among them. I get awfully tired of grimy weather and you find that in so many places in the world. The only places I've lived where I didn't find it were Rome, which has a much better climate than London, all told, and the canary Islands, where I found it was really lovely. One winter, I stayed there, bumming around, and, God, that was the winter to end them all! I was there with another guy who was also a surfer from Southern California. We were studying at the University of Madrid and I'd gone to Rome to dub Westerns. We both ended up in Cadiz because we had both read the same brochure: "Of all the climates in Europe, Cadiz is the best!" So we both end up there and he speaks Spanish beautifully; it's quite classy! And he was sitting at this outdoor table; I was sitting at another outdoor table and we were the only people in the square. It's the middle of the week in Cadiz in winter and it's cold as Hell - I should tell you now, don't go there for the weather: it's as cold as Hell! And we're sitting there and he motioned to the waiter and said would I like to share a drink with him. And in my stumbling Spanish, which is English-accented because I learnt Spanish at the University of Edinburgh - he didn't know I was American and, of course, I had no idea he was American; I thought he must be Spanish with this wonderful class accent - and the first thing he said to me in English was, "You're wearing a Penny Towncraft T-shirt," and I said, "You're right." Because in those days - and this goes back to Surf's Down - the uniform for surfers was a Penny Towncraft T-shirt.
HW: What exactly is that?
DA: It didn't shrink. You can get an extra-large T-shirt and it just hangs all over you. No matter how many times you wash it, it will not shrink - it still looks awful!
HW: Maybe the ones on the early Beach Boys sleeves...
DA: Yeah, I'm sure they are. Well, the result being that we of course immediately struck up an undying friendship! He is much more dedicated to the life than I am: he is in Hawaii, he and his wife; he is teaching at a school there so he can surf every day. I have to hand it to him for something! Anyway, we ended up going down to the Canary Islands and stealing tomatoes, which are the only things they grow native in the island. We had to eat them green, because if you wait too long, they pick them! We had constant stomach ache and we drank the native wine, which is 14 cents a bottle and tastes like it! It's just incredible. We had a wonderful winter, posing as Beach Boys for the visiting Germans and Swedes, who both share the Canary Islands as sort of their winter base, and they don't know who you are. As long as we had a good tan and we looked like we were Beach Boys and we got lots of money - doing dreadful things I'd be embarrassed to even talk about.
HW: Young ladies? Or older ladies...?
DA: All ladies! Oh, that really was fun!
Interview with David for the Ptolemaic Terrascope 1994 by Kenny MacDonald
AMERICAN GOTHIC - THE ROAD TO DAVID ACKLES
When WEA Records decided to reissue the David Ackles back-catalogue in February 1994 after a mere twenty years out of print, it signalled an immediate upturn in interest in this sadly neglected talent. Music biz gossip has it that the first two 'phone calls WEA Big Cheese Rob Dickens received were from Elvis Costello and Phil Collins, each congratulating him on the renewed availability of Ackles' albums. Collins, a long-time champion, included Ackles' Down River on a subsequent appearance on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, and observed to Sue Lawley: "He taught me that writing songs didn't have to be moon/spoon/June, that you could write intelligently about more serious subjects". All this acclaim would have been rounded off nicely had the man himself been around to bask in the adulation. Which is where your sleuthing correspondent comes in.
When the first three albums, David Ackles, Subway To The Country and American Gothic, came out on CD, I replaced my aging vinyl copies and set about tracking down the artist. Initial calls to WEA went unanswered, the vast monolith clearly under the impression they were dealing with a crank who would in time be found and returned to the bughouse. However, they at least established that Ackles was still alive, since they had received a letter from him expressing his delight at his work being freely available again (this was how the WEA press office put it. I suspect the tone of the call might have been more along the "Here's my address kids; I look forward to those royalty cheques flooding in" variety, but no matter). Next, I rang Elektra Records' New York office, where they could unearth no-one who had even HEARD of David Ackles, displaying once again the record industry's contempt for anyone not deemed to be an artist worth plugging at the precise moment. A friend in the business suggested that a call to MCPS, the music publishers, might bear fruit, since if Ackles was still getting royalties, someone somewhere would have to pass them on to him. The charming Sue Ellen in their Los Angeles branch did indeed have an address for him, but they were, understandably, unable to divulge such information. They did however promise to forward my phone number to the address they had.
The next step was the logical one (which is why I left it till last). I took some interestingly individual-looking names from the sleeves of the Ackles records, dug out a Los Angeles telephone directory and started disturbing people down the transatlantic wire. After a few false starts and a "Gee, yes, I did play on Subway To The Country, but I haven't seen David for years", I tracked down Fred Myrow, who arranged the second album. He proved a fascinating fellow in his own right, probably worthy of a whole separate feature: his father, Joseph, wrote the standard 'You Make Me Feel So Young' and he (Fred) was in the process of writing a musical with Jim Morrison (based, he said, on the Lizard King's response to Myrow's classical collection) when Morrison thoughtlessly checked out in Paris. Fred also claimed to be arranging some work-in-progress involving Van Dyke Parks' songs, as sung by Brian Wilson! As fascinating as all this was, it got me no nearer to Ackles, Myrow being another case of "Oh yes we had such fun making that record, but I haven't seen or heard anything about David since, woah, it must be..."
Then, suddenly, everything clicked merrily into place. A bloke from WEA rang to say he'd just heard of my enquiries and had checked it out with Ackles, who'd given the OK to pass along his phone number! Hallelujah! The following is an account of the conversation which followed after the preliminary niceties and grovelling had finished...
Ptolemaic Terrascope: It must be nice to realise that people are beating a path to record shop counters over here to replace their original copies of the albums.
David Ackles: Well, I'm not sure how beaten that path will be, to be frank! When I heard about the plans to re-issue these albums I really thought it was someone's idea of a joke because they've been unavailable for so long. But I have to be honest and say listening to them again - they sent me some from London - was very interesting, even just from the point of view of hearing them in pristine clarity. I'd become so accustomed to the surface noise I thought it was part of the orchestration!
PT: Of course, American Gothic got all that praise at the time...
DA: (Laughing) Oh yes, I remember! Could I forget! Derek Jewell in the Sunday Times said something about it being a milestone in popular music, all that kind of thing. Derek was trying to help, but it just rebounded. It got outrageous and undeserved praise, praise which put it in the category of being just impossible to follow up. Actually, it all seems kind of unreal now.
PT: I suspect the part of your career up to American Gothic is reasonably well-known, but what happened between it and Five And Dime? [perfectly-acceptable-lighter-toned-fourth-album on Columbia US, which sank without trace but is well worth tracking down]
DA: Well, the thing was, I'd had three strikes at bat with Elektra and got nowhere. The records had all been well reviewed and hadn't done much else, so Jac Holzman (head of Elektra) and I sat down and decided between us that it might be time to try somewhere new. It was thoroughly mutual. Jac was as frustrated at the lack of sales as I was, and we decided it was an opportune moment to move on. So off I went to Columbia and did Five And Dime.
PT: After which, nothing.
DA: Yes, nothing. They (Columbia) just didn't know what to do with me and after nothing happened with Five And Dime they released me. And I just found it was hard to get a deal. A part of it, I would have to say, was my own doing. I didn't come away from Columbia thinking "well, by God I'm going to go elsewhere!". There was so little support that I thought to myself, maybe this isn't what you're intended to do. Of course, I should have been more aggressive, but in retrospect I took it as more of a sign than I should have. It was kind of hard to get motivated but I kept at it. Finally I decided I had to make a living and started to look at other things.
PT: All music related?
DA: Oh yes. I did the music for a couple of movies, one called Word of Honour starring Kari Maiden [described as "an above-average TV movie" in my guide - Ed.], another called Father Of The Year, nothing particularly great. I did a children's TV series, anything, really, rather than teaching... the dreaded T-word! But I have to confess that I did teach commercial songwriting for a while. The odd thing is that, although the records were never big successes, the royalty cheques come in once a year. From time to time they even creep into five figures.
PT: Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, there are a couple of things I'd like to ask you about your early years. Most of them come from an early Elektra press-release, and they sound, frankly, a bit fanciful. Can I go through it?
DA: Sure. I might say before you begin I think I know the one you mean and it certainly does sound as though it was the product of some fevered PR man...
PT: You were the star of a series of B movies about a dog called Rusty?
DA: Oh yes, that's true. They were second features. This was in the late forties. It was good fun, we did about nine of them. But by the age of about 13 or 14 I was getting too old.
PT: Security guard in a toilet paper factory? Private detective?
DA: Yes, both of those are true. They were just bit-jobs while I was writing music scores, anything to keep going.
PT: It also claims Blue Ribbons from the first album was written for Cher?
DA: Yes, that's right. You have to remember this was in the mid-sixties. Cher looked and sounded a lot, um, different to the way she does now.
PT: It also says you studied at Edinburgh University?
DA: Oh yes, that's true as well. This was in 1957/8, my junior year in college.
PT: What were you studying?
DA: I was studying West Saxon, the origins of the English language. If you know of any gathering which requires to hear the Lord's Prayer recited in West Saxon, I'm their man. I have fond memories of being in Scotland. My father's family came from Aberdeen, and most of my mother's family are from England. I still have some distant cousins around Tring in Hertfordshire.
PT: Can we bring things a bit more up to date? Have you kept writing?
DA: Absolutely. I've written stage pieces, musicals, things that play in community theatres. I've just finished a new musical and I've spoken with Rob (Dickens) about perhaps doing an album of that, which would be fun. Oh yes, I've kept on writing - very much so.
PT: I tracked down some people who worked on the records and they all seemed to lose track of you around the early 80s.
DA: Well, that would make sense, because I was out of commission for a long time. In 1981 I was in a near-fatal car crash when a drunk diver ploughed into my car. My wife was outside the theatre door shouting "Don't cut off his arm! He plays the piano!" I was in a wheelchair for six months with a badly damaged hip, and it was 18 months before I could play again. Then last year I was diagnosed as having lung cancer and had part of my left lung removed. But I'm fine now.
PT: Is your wife the girl on the back of American Gothic?
DA: Yes, indeed. Janice. We've been married 21 years and we have a 16 year old son, George, who plays bass in a band called Tuesday's Child. I'm 57 now and I look nowadays like a really bad drivers' licence picture from that time.
PT: I have to say, David, that given the things that have happened both professionally and privately, you remain a very up-sounding guy.
DA: Well, you know, things happen because of timing. I'm not bitter about a thing that's happened to me. I would hate for people to think I'm over here getting all twisted up about what happened 20 years ago. All that feels like another life, lived by someone else.
PT: So what's an average day for David Ackles?
DA: Well, in the morning I usually go to a gym where I'm a member, just to get the blood moving. I write songs. I work at my computer. I play the piano every day. In the afternoons I'll sometimes go for a hike in the hills around my home. I live at 2000 feet , just North of Los Angeles. In fact the wind blew the roof off my stable a month or two ago. I'm sitting here at my kitchen table talking to you and it's a beautiful sunny morning. The hills have some snow on them, it's lovely. I'm not despondent, not in any way. I have a wonderful life.
For the record, your correspondent was taken aback by Ackles, and I admit confusing the artist with his art. For a man whose work is usually described as 'brooding', 'melancholy' or 'elegant', Ackles' speech is frequently punctuated by hearty chuckles. There's nothing gloomy about him, despite the hand dealt to him by the record industry. And it would be nice to think the revitalisation of interest through the re-issues will lead to Five And Dime also reappearing (although, as the first three haven't been released in America, this seems unlikely), and that his new musical will also be released. It's a nice thought. Write to Rob Dickens and encourage him to make it happen.
Copyright: Ptolemaic Terrascope - used with permission. For details of how to subscribe, contact the magazine editor, Phil McMullen, at email@example.com.
Interview with David By Andrea Parker for the Daily Trojan (University of Southern California newspaper), published on 10 April, 1997. [American spelling retained.]
A heart-to-heart with USC play director: David Ackles talks about his directorial project with Threepenny Opera
David Ackles, the passionate director behind the School of Theatre production of the Threepenny Opera currently running at Bing Theatre, is an articulate man who was intelligent about what he had to say.
Born and raised in Chicago, Ackles moved to Los Angeles at the age of 12 to begin a movie career. Later, he received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from USC and has now returned as a member of the School of Theatre faculty. Ackles has recorded several albums and has received high praise for his poetic lyrics and musical talent.
Ackles shared some of his thoughts on Brecht, society and the joy of directing.
Why did you choose to major in English and not music?
I wanted to learn to do it all, which meant learning the construction of poetry, so I could write my own lyrics and play construction so that I could write the book to whatever musical I was creating. In the end, it in no way limited my horizons, being an English major. In fact it opened up the possibility to do so many things. Then in graduate school, I was a communications major so that I could focus a little more on theater.
How has your music background influenced your work in theater?
I see everything as having rhythm. I think life has rhythm. If you are aware of it, you can hear it all around. So in directing I look for the rhythms in people's speech and emotions and how they relate to each other. Rhythms are a very strong component of my directing style.
Give us some background on Threepenny Opera?
It is based on The Beggar's Opera, which was written 200 years ago prior to the writing of Threepenny in the early 1920s. It is really a strange piece. Any musical that follows in the footsteps of someone who is a notorious thief, housebreaker, womanizer, murderer, all of those things, and follows his life and career all the way to the gallows is unusual.
Was this criminal seen as a hero?
In the modern sense yes, in that he was an antihero. He is in every way the embodiment of the anti-virtues. He lies, he cheats, he steals, he is unfaithful to friends and women. In this sense he thinks that he is above judging, and in a way he's right, because of the type of society and the societal values that he was placed in the midst of. The middle class had such a lack of validity of the life that he represented, which was the lower classes, the depraved way of life, the people who had no chance of ever rising above their station, no chance of ever being able to compete, to rise up into that section of society which forms our sense of ethics and correct social behavior. They were born into a situation where they would never have a chance to conform to these values and so therefore they rejected them. Which is one of the joys of Threepenny, watching how this society functions.
So if you can't join them, destroy them?
Yes, that is exactly what he does.
Any parallels to today's society?
Strong parallels. The sense of the haves and the have-nots. In the 1870s, the haves were very worried that the have-nots were going to take over. The haves worried that the rejection of the bourgeois values of the majority posed a threat to society, and they were right.
What's it like working on a college campus with college performers?
It's a huge advantage. It's like being given a playpen and inviting a bunch of friends in to play. There are so few restrictions, as opposed to the commercial theater, where you are answerable to whoever put up the money. Here you are responsible ... to the educational standards of whatever institution you are working in and it's important to understand them and abide by them. The good side of it is you don't have the egos to deal with. You don't have the people who say, `Well, this is the way we've always done it," because these people have never done this before, so they are fresh to it, they are excited, they have energy and enthusiasm; there is not a diva in the cartload. I mean it is wonderful to work with these kids. Exciting people and so talented, I feel very lucky.
What excites you about doing Threepenny Opera?
I love the show. It is one of the few shows in the 20th century which has truly advanced the art of musical theater because it brings a serious subject matter to what had been frothy entertainment. Now, mind you, I believe that the first obligation of theater is to entertain, which Threepenny does, but the fact that it chose as its subject the examination of our social value system fascinates me. It changed in many ways the course of musical theater; we found that we could address serious topics, and thereafter did--not always, but often. It has a great score, intriguing and lively in musical theater. Very free-form. No rules that say it must be done this way or that way, so that the imagination of the creator is able to rise as much as possible to the imagination of the original creators. Much like Shakespeare.
What is your process, the patterns in your directing and your approach to the work?
The process begins with casting. If the casting is done right in accordance with your vision for the show, the actors will be the right people and will know, given some clues, how the character is to develop. I prefer to come in with the entire show already pre-staged. That doesn't mean that things don't change--I mean, you have to be flexible--but it helps the actors if you are thoroughly and completely organized, so from the first moment to the last they know where they stand and what they say, when they say it and why. And if you have thoroughly thought things through and given them physical clues, the actors will come up with a character that fits the clues.
What advice you will you give your actors in those last moments before opening night?
There's a reason why they call it "play." I want everyone to go out and play and have a wonderful time doing it. If you are playing at the top of your profession, the audience plays along. It is a shared game whose end result is tremendous satisfaction on both parts. And I hope that they can capture that feeling.
Has acting lost that sense of play between actor and audience?
In some ways, yes. Acting has become so introspective that it has been reduced to satisfying the actor rather than fully satisfying the actor, the author and the audience. As an audience member, I like to be in on what's happening. I like that to be shared, and in some cases it is quite frustrating to go and see that what I am supposed to be doing is merely appreciating how wonderful the performance is. That's not what theater is about to me.
How does one incorporate this sense of play into a piece that is considered highly dramatic, like Hamlet or Macbeth?
My feeling is that those plays particularly are written to be played larger than life. Those characters are not life-size, they were never intended to be perceived as life-size, and if you can't play to that dimension then you have cheated the audience out of what they came to see.
If you were to wrap Threepenny up into a box, like a present that you were giving to the audience, what would you like them to find inside--to come away with?
One, the sense of having had a theatrical experience, that they will know that they have been a part of this experience. That they will have been thoroughly entertained and engaged. Even though this is epic theater, which normally puts the audience off, what Brecht wrote is irresistible; you cannot help but be drawn in. And I would also like to have them come away thinking about what Brecht has to say.
Is there a wake-up call to society within the show?
That may be too strong. There is certainly a reminder that says, "Don't be smug. Look at who you are, where you are." But I think that we should do that anyway. It's just too easy to get preoccupied with work and studies and relationships. It is very hard to take the time to step back and look at our society and what your place in it is and what you accept and reject. We just don't have the time. So theater can provide that opportunity to take a step back and look. I think that all good theater does.
How has the rehearsal process changed you?
I have regained the joy of directing. It's been about four years since I have directed. Directing is never less than satisfying. The pure joy of creating in this wonderful playpen is something that I have been missing, and boy, have I regained it.
How have the actors affected your original concept?
Actors always enrich your concept because they are other universes and they are making themselves available to you. So what you begin with as a fairly bare-bones outline of a concept begins to be filled in by what the actors bring to it. They are a rich and varied group of people and they have made the production rich and varied as well.
What is your favorite moment of the show?
For silliness, the end of the army song. For impact, the moment when Mack is approaching the gallows and must face his demise. He has a speech which is quite riveting and to which the actor brings tremendous power.
What are your favorite aspects of directing?
I love the whole process. Nothing can compete with the researching and developing of your concept. The initial creating is very exciting because your mind can go anywhere. Also, the first meeting of the actors--the first time you hear them read the script, their voices become reality. When you first hear the music being rehearsed. The first moments on the set, in costume, with the lights. There are many steps ... that rekindle your love for the entire project.
Copyright 1997 by the Daily Trojan. All rights reserved.
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 introduction to the interview is given in the Press Articles page of this website and is probably the best of all the articles covering David's life and career.
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.
PT: Was it always an ambition of yours to be a songwriter and make records or did it just somehow happen?
DA: A songwriter, yes. From earliest childhood, that was one of my ambitions. I had others, of course, but songwriting was the dominant goal. A recording artist? Not on your life! My intention was to have lots of other, much better, singers record my songs. Alas, it was not to be. I believe the truth is that Jac Holzman couldn't interest any other singers on his label in recording my stuff, so he was forced into offering the chance to me. I had an album released before I had even performed solo in public.
PT: During the '60s and early '70s, Elektra had a number of singer-songwriters on its books - Tom Rush, Fred Neill, etc. Did you consider yourself to be in the same category?
DA: I thought myself lucky to be among them, such a truly gifted bunch - Tim Buckley, Tom Rush, Tom Paxton and numerous others who came and went during my tenure there. It certainly motivated me to want to do my best.
PT: Briefly, on the songs themselves, a lot of them are narrative based; are they autobiographical?
DA: They are to the extent to which any writer has to draw on the experience of his or her own life - certainly emotionally they are - in the particulars, no: I draw the line at that. There are some things that I could tell you are true and some are not and I don't care to make the distinction.
PT: Are you still writing?
DA: Oh, yes, sure, It is increasingly for my own amusement, there not being a lot of ways of getting my music out to the public, these days.
PT: Do you expect to have any more releases?
DA: Well, at the moment I'm expecting that I will, some day - and I hope rather soon - get a production of a musical I have been working on for a number of years, based on a year and a half in the life of Aimee Macpherson, who is someone I'm sure is completely unknown now to anyone, but who was an evangelist in the 1920s who led a rather scandalous life, and I think there are a lot of interesting parallels between that life and this, and I wanted to explore that.
PT: Do you have an interest in Spiritual and Christian themes in general?
DA: Absolutely. I come from a very strong, almost doctrinaire Christian background, having been raised - God help me - a Presbyterian. How I managed to survive that, I've no idea. What it has resulted in is a lot of questioning of the whole area of values as interpreted by those who think themselves in the know, in positions of power within the church. I'm still fascinated by it; I think it's an area that certainly deserves a lot more attention than it normally gets.
PT: Elvis Costello is a fan of yours. What contemporary songwriters do you admire?
DA: To be honest, there are contemporary bands which I admire and enjoy, but the individual songwriters I admire are from the old school, i.e. Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Paul Simon, David Bowie, Elton John & Bernie Taupin to name only a few who are still writing.
PT: Are there any unreleased David Ackles recordings "in the vaults" that might one day be available?
DA: Stuff in the vaults? You bet! A lot of it is with demo singers, some with just me and the piano, a few with full orchestra. As with any performer, there are cuts which just don't fit the concept when the album was put together. These few still don't make up a coherent collection of songs, but maybe one day...
PT: Your first album (my favourite) - I don't know if it was released first as Road to Cairo or David Ackles?
DA: It came out first as David Ackles and then came out as a re-issue as Road to Cairo.
PT: Was it recorded live in the studio?
DA: Yes, it was. There were some vocals that we went back and added later - it was a combination of both live and tracks - but the group, all the instrumentation you hear there, was all done at the moment.
PT: How was the album received at the time, in the States and in the UK?
DA: It was pretty well received. I got a lot of attention that I was not expecting at all, having never performed in public. I was stunned by the fact that people were actually going out and spending their money on this - not that I thought it wasn't a product worth spending money on - but I felt that they didn't know who I was from anyone and I was quite gratified that they were willing to go out and spend their money based on very little airplay and mostly word of mouth.
PT: There were singles taken from the album?
DA: Yes, but it's a good question which ones were... I know Down River was a single and Road to Cairo was a single...
PT: I have a single with Road to Cairo sung in French.
DA: Oh yes (laughs & speaks in mock French accent) What a choice bit of memorabilia you have there.
PT: Did you tour to promote the record?
DA: Yes, I did. Elektra Records were kind enough to put together a promotional tour to various radio stations and out of that came some additional airplay and exposure and, of course, all that helps - it all adds up. But I was so green and new to the business, I just thought, "well, that's standard; this is the way it's done." I had no idea that Elektra was really putting itself out in order to make this possible. Now, in retrospect, I think how ungrateful I must have been at the time.
PT: One thing I have always wondered about: what is the word "Gilead" in Be My Friend?
DA: It's really drawing on the experience of what I thought was a shared cultural experience using the term "A Balm in Gilead". There is a spiritual called There is a Balm in Gilead That Makes the Wounded Whole, and I was drawing on that. I don't like using terribly arcane or confusing references and I thought that was one that would be universally understood and it was not - you're not the first person to ask what in the Hell I meant by that.
PT: Did you ever perform in the UK?
DA: Oh yes. I didn't do much, I must admit, but I was fortunate enough to do a couple of live concerts. Memory being what it is, I'm not entirely sure what parts of London they were in. I did a club date; I did several television shows: The Old Grey Whistle Test, Colour Me Pop, classics of their time, and had a lot of fun doing them, and got to meet some terrific people. We wished, as a matter of fact, both my wife and I, that I had been able to secure jobs in England so that we could have stayed there. I had this lovely house in the country and a lovely, lovely life and was just not able to put it together to make a career there, so I had to come back here to the States - and that worked out too.
PT: Jac Holzman said in an interview recently that he felt of all the Elektra artists who did not achieve widespread commercial success, you were the one who most deserved to. With the benefit of hindsight, what are your feelings about Elektra?
DA: I remain enormously grateful to Jac Holzman for everything he did personally on my behalf. I don't believe anything more could have been done to make me a commercial success. It just wasn't on the cards.
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Interview with David Anderle and Jac Holzman by David Cavanagh, on the release of There is a River: The Elektra Recordings to accompany the review of the pulled album published in Uncut 122, July 2007.
David Anderle: David Ackles and I were in the drama department at the University of Southern California in 1960-61. We were very good friends. Then there was a five year period when I didn't see him. When I got situated with Elektra in 1967 [running the company's LA office] I think he was the first person I brought to the label.
Jac Holzman: He was signed originally as a songwriter, but his material was such that it took courage for other artists to tackle it. There was a totality about David Ackles, a strong combination of material and voice. He sang with a confessional tone, somewhat introverted, very gentle.
DA: First of all, at university, he was like a song and dance man. He did revues and musicals and little one-act plays, Noel Coward kind of stuff, with clever wordplay. He was, like, 'David Ackles and his witty one-liners'. So when we reconnected and he brought me these songs, like The Road to Cairo and Down River, I was blown away by the depth of the lyrics and by the darkness. I thought: where did this come from?
JH: You could tell there were echoes of stage and cabaret in his music, especially Brecht-Weill on the third album. You can hear the influences of Vaudeville in his piano figures. For me, it was good to have an artist not so anchored in rock.
DA: The first album was very dark, very heavy. I remember being conscious of how to colour My Name is Andrew. It was a very emotional performance by David, and we were trying to make things fit, musically, without losing the emotion. Some of the musicians were going, "What the Hell is this?" The cheery, tongue-in-cheek David of our university days was suddenly singing these dark songs very passionately, and I was trying to figure out where it was coming from.
JH: I would see David at our office, where the artists always hung out. He was very amiable, always a smile on his face.
DA: The girls in the office were crazy about him. He was a real gentleman, good-looking, with a deep voice. He had what I call the 'Disney glint' in his eyes. His eyes sparkled when he smiled.
JH: He was an unexpected voice for a person on Elektra. I think we could have handled him better. I should have paid more attention to his earlier albums. The first two sold about 7,000 copies. But there was no champion, no feeling from anyone out there that we had something special.
DA: I never thought whether he might be a commercial success. I just thought he was unique. He was a long shot, but one worthy of taking. Shame he couldn't make a career out of it, but he's not the only one.
JH: He was shy and bashful, and it was difficult to connect him to an audience. There was a meekness to him that tends not to work in an artist. People find out about you after you've gone, when the meekness is no longer a factor.
DA: When I was at David's memorial, there were two beautiful tributes that came in from Elvis Costello and Elton John. That didn't surprise me, because David had opened for Elton at the Troubadour.
JH: Elton and Bernie are tootling around town and they decide to drive by the Troubadour to see what's happening. Elton sees that David Ackles is on the bill and he assumes that he's supporting David, because he's such a big fan! But I was there that night. Elton went for his audience. Elton was wondrous, outrageous, and he got instant airplay the next morning. David's material demanded much closer attention. If you put David in a small cabaret, where people are used to subtlety, it would have worked beautifully. But he did not play the right venues.
DA: David never really impacted America at all. He wasn't on the radio and very few people knew about him.
JH: We knocked ourselves out for American Gothic. I had the feeling Bernie Taupin, a fellow poet, would bring the best out of him - and maybe, hopefully, Elton looking over his shoulder and making suggestions. The album probably sold 30 to 40,000, which was not terrible, but it should have sold more. The reviews were terrific, and I remember playing it over and over. it was more of a cohesive piece than the other albums. You felt he was making a statement.
DA: David was very spiritual. He was concerned about humanity, the human condition, the big picture in terms of life. He was a unique person at Elektra at that time, because we were very much, you know, The Doors and Love - and here came David Ackles, who was actually, in a way, even deeper than they were. His concern was not just about the ecological problems of the planet, as much as things like the atom bomb and war. His importance could have been as broad as Leonard Cohen's. And today, David's name comes up in the weirdest places. American punk bands from the Midwest in the late '80s talked about David. With a certain kind of young person, in music and art, David has the mantle of the underdog. Could have been. Should have been. He'll always have that legacy.
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