David Ackles: Just A Handful Of Songs

DAVID ACKLES has 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 overfed 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.

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, this is the 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 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 and used it as a sort of echo chamber. And the control room is in the office around that 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. 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 those albums had received the sort of reviews that couldn’t be bought.

Even more strange that none of them had made the sort of chart dent that both artist and record company would like, the best placing being a few weeks in the nineties for American Gothic, which is not what you expect after three reviews by respected critics, all of which compared the record’s quality to Sergeant Pepper or something equally outstanding.

“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 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.

“I figured 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.

“I was literally stymied. Within the first few months after American Gothic came out I couldn’t write a song.”

So David signed a new contract, one of the conditions being that he could record, as he put it, “independent of 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.”

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 mind, some of them are friends of Douglas (Graham, the producer of the album). They were all people who knew one another, but most of them are not regular studio musicans. The quartet is the Trojan String Quartet from U.S.C. (University of Southern California), 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 the 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 the things that later became adopted into other lifestyles. I think in a sense it probably was the first viable subculture 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 would allow himself to be got at in a song that he was performing…”Yes, but he understood, and 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 differendt 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 funnest 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 voces – and he had this cold, so that he could barely speak.”

Perhaps the most frequent accusation against David’s previous albums, inevitiably made by those out of sympathy with the sentiments expressed in his songs, is that an Ackles album is somewhat heavy going.

“The 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.”

A couple of what might be called cautionary tales are included, ‘Everybody Has A Story’, which moralises that there’s always someone worse off than yourself, and ‘Jenna Saves’, the story of a poor little rich girl.

“I like parables, little moralty 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 beautful as usual, but still wth 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 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. I 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 I was shocked by it. It was one of those things 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 really 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 made it a better song.”

Mention is made of one hundred and sixteen children, and apparently, that’s exactly the number who died in the disaster. “I had to re-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, 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 suddenly 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 it 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.”

The final ‘message’ song on Five And Dime is ‘I’ve Been Loved’, which starts off as a study in old age.

“Yes, and it’s trying to draw them into the kind of loneliness that we all suffer from 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 ninety nine like the person in the song, but eighty nine, and has been 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.”

All the explanations may lead you to the belief that there’s a special need for the first 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 emoton or anything else, but that simplifies it to the point of being instantly communicable.”

© John ToblerMelody Maker, 16 February 1974

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