HOYT AXTON’S 1969 LP My Griffin Is Gone, originally released to little notice on Columbia, belongs to that group of orchestrated baroque pop albums that folk-oriented singers, already inspired by Dylan, put out in the wake of Sgt. Pepper. Tim Buckley’s Goodbye and Hello and Phil Ochs’ Pleasures of the Harbor are other notable examples. (Randy Newman, though never a folkie, is a good model, too.)
Griffin is gorgeously produced and makes you instantly recognize one thing that’s endangered in pop songwriting today – the desire to mix major and minor chords in a single song, in order to achieve a musical complexity suitable for the ambitiously introspective lyrics. Axton reached far outside his down-home, emphatic-folkie comfort zone (‘Greenback Dollar’) on this album. According to the liner notes on the new CD reissue, his own mind-opening experiences with LSD – as well as his sadness at watching friends burn out on drugs – may have had something to do with it. So, too, might his search for meaning and personal transformation, so much a part of the times. ‘Revelations’ and ‘Way Before the Time of Towns’ both reveal that, and ‘Kingswood Manor’ has a key line – “I see through my last disguise” – that is so sixties. (So, too, is the interest in romantic myth: On the cover, a cowboyish Axton sits in front of a wall with a framed photo of him posing with, I assume, a griffin.)
Axton, who has a slightly quavering and hard-edged natural baritone, often uses a far gentler, clearer higher voice here – still folksy – that plays beautifully with the string arrangements of Paul Levinson, Perry Botkin Jr. and Al Capps. At times, their work is reminiscent of Jimmy Webb’s inspired music with Glen Campbell. The studio musicians, too, are among L.A.’s best – keyboardists Larry Knechtel and Michael Melvoin, Dobro player James Burton, drummer Jim Gordon and more. They can add muscle or be as quietly supportive as necessary – ‘Chase Down the Sun’ could have been recorded at a lonely campfire.
The album’s best-known song, a lament for a drug-casualty acquaintance called ‘Snowblind Friend’ (Steppenwolf covered it and Axton re-recorded it later), has a subtly bittersweet arrangement that at first assuages and then deepens the song’s delicate start. Axton can also be jaunty and do rousing country-rock. ‘On the Natural’, one of the first counterculture-era songs to glorify Colorado as a natural-high escape from drug culture, starts with a percolating guitar beat and keeps building and climbing, like a drive up Pike’s Peak. The way Axton holds the notes on the word “Colorado” sounds a lot like Buckley, and the song remains a tribute simultaneously to both all that era was and never could be.
This CD includes 12 additional tracks, none the equal of Griffin’s original 12 songs. There are some so-so singles released earlier on Colgems (the Monkees’ label), including a sharp putdown of small-town cops on ‘Speed Trap’ and a trippy song, ‘San Fernando’, that’s a critique of squares in the ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ mode. There are also some demos, including his versions of his own ‘The Pusher’ and Jackson Browne’s early ‘She’s a Flying Thing’.
Columbia dropped Axton following the release of the album, but not long afterwards Three Dog Night scored with his ‘Joy to the World’ and Ringo with ‘The No No Song’. He was reborn on A&M Records as a plainspoken, country-leaning singer-songwriter of funny (and simpler) tunes that brought him considerable success. (He even recut ‘Speed Trap’.) But Griffin is his artistic peak.
© Steven R Rosen, Blurt, 23 October 2008