Long John Baldry Meets Mad Mark Leviton

WHEN I ARRIVED at the hotel for an interview with Long John Baldry during his most recent swing through Southern California, I half expected to be confronted with five individuals each claiming to be the real John Baldry. They would all appear more or less the same, about 6’7″ tall with thinning blond hair and a well-bred English accent, but each would represent a different era of Baldry’s stormy musical career.

There would be the Baldry of 1957-61, who toured England with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and played folk songs in pubs across the country. There would be the somewhat more extroverted Baldry of Alexis Korner’s Blues Inc., the first white electric blues band in the world (a group which featured such notables as Jack Bruce, Charlie Watts and a kid named Mick Jagger).

Then there would be the bandleader Long John, who ran groups (Hoochie Coochie Men, Steam Packet, Bluesology) featuring his own discoveries like Rod Stewart, Mick Waller and Reg Dwight (who later changed his name to Elton John, combining the first name of Bluesology saxophonist Elton Dean with that of the band’s leader).

The John Baldry of 1968 would be much more prim, for this was John’s “cabaret” period, when his lushly orchestrated pop records were bought up by hundreds of English housewives. One of these records, ‘Let the Heartaches Begin’, was number one for weeks (until dislodged by ‘Lady Madonna’) and was that year’s fastest-selling single.

And standing next to these four Baldry images would be the current Warner Brothers recording artist, who would calmly smoke cigarettes and blow smoke into the identical visages of his doubles, like one of Hitchcock’s cold, calculating murders, perfectly in control and unflustered.

My fantasizing ended once the door opened and I met a single Long John Baldry, very definitely six foot seven, very definitely British, and very definitely wearing a see-through cheesecloth caftan made out of enough material for a good set of curtains.

He sat down with his cigarettes and his two tall glasses of — chocolate milk — and immediately said by way of caution, “You’re not going to ask me those silly questions about my ‘history’ are you? It’s been so well gone over already in the press.” His accent made me want to drop to my knees and humbly reply “No, your grace.”

Assuring him that I had already read the biographies, I plunged into one of my world-renowned, expertly probing interviews, pressing the advantage, stalling for time, feinting with obviously pat questions in order to surprise him with a challenging blockbuster; i.e. employing all the techniques I’ve learned from my course with the Famous Writer’s School. Leviton’s the name, delving’s the game.

The revolving point of my queries was the strange schizophrenia I had noticed in Baldry’s 1972 musical appearance: his LPs were quite enjoyable blends of blues, folk and rock (especially the most recent Everything Stops For Tea, chronicled by this writer in a Spring Quarter issue of the Daily Bruin Icon) but his concert appearances gave all the indications of being unsalvagable trash, long useless boogie-woogie riffs, awful backups and embarrassing musical child’s-play. How somebody could so totally abandon his studio wizardry for such a performance travesty was beyond even my keen intellect. Actually, the question was how Baldry could exercise such good and rotten taste at the same time, and what it was about one medium that so radically separated it from the other.

Long John handled it cool. But so did your ace reporter. We chatted initially about the recent change in Baldry’s backup group. Baldry has been touring the U.S. since March, but a few months ago he had to take a few weeks off to recruit a new band, after having fired the other one (except for long-time friend, pianist Ian Armitt) for being “plain avaricious.” He mentioned how his last two albums were produced on a one-side, one-man basis by “Rod and Elton,” and that most decisions are reached mutually although “Elton has more to say usually. It was his idea, for instance, for me to record ‘Iko Iko’.” Baldry summed up Everything Stops For Tea as “a good album, but not a great album. It’s still my ambition to make a great album.”

I dove in. “Why don’t you do some of the slower folk things on stage,” I questioned, “instead of depending almost entirely on the boogie/blues route?”

Baldry’s eyes registered the shock. In my business we get to know when we have the interview by the balls. He didn’t twitch, or fall onto the floor in a fit, or drop his chocolate milk, or gulp guiltily; just an imperceptible (to anyone but me) change in the eyes. He recovered quickly, trying to fool me into thinking he was still at the wheel. My eyes laughed at his naivete. Didn’t he know who he was dealing with? And if not, why not?

“Well, I’m a very extroverted person on stage. Very much larger than life. On a lot of concerts they want loud and raucous noise. There’d be no point in doing folk stuff. You can’t ram it down their throats if they don’t want it. When they’re 16 or 17 years old you can’t employ any subtleties or anything — it’s just got to go on and on.”

My keen intuition senses that Baldry is afraid I’ll spring the old “artistic integrity” rap on him. But he makes a brilliant move by shifting the conversation before I can move in for the kill, while I’m taking a hard swallow of my triple Black Russian. Smart cookie, this Englishman.

“The fact that I’m so conscious of theatre I think comes across in my work. And the people I’m interested in on the rock scene use theatre. Like Alice Cooper (although I’m not especially keen on them musically: I think they’ve made some of the worst albums I’ve ever heard, but they’re enjoyable on stage.), the Cockettes, and the Faces — they employ theatre. All the great performers had this, Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf. Being an extrovert rather than an introvert. But then you have these other people like Neil Young, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell whose albums I love but wouldn’t go see them perform. They’re really just bores — there’s nothing there. People do say Taylor has an aura about him but I don’t feel it.”

Baldry’s working on his second glass of chocolate milk. I can tell I’m losing control. How did we get onto James Taylor? I’m asking myself. After a few throwaway questions allowing me to gather my wits (including two tactical maneuvers you wouldn’t believe) I guide the conversation back to his touring.

“A lot of groups make the mistake of releasing an album, touring here for six weeks (and you can’t go anywhere in America in six weeks) and expecting that’ll bring them instant stardom. You’ve got to cover everywhere. Just because someone played the Whisky a Go Go — what does that mean to someone in Chicago or Texas? My fees have now reached the same level as Fleetwood Mac, not because I’m any better than them but because I’ve come in and worked so bloody hard here.”

Even so, Baldry tells me he’s still in the hole, money-wise. I inquire about his success in England.

“I’ve sold no records in England for the last four years now. Since I was into cabaret singing in ’68 and ’69 the kids in England are very naturally suspicious of what I do. There’s very much the feeling that I’m jumping on the rock bandwagon — but many don’t realize it is a wagon that for actual fact many years ago I helped to create.”

By this time things have cleared up a bit. I’m exhausted from the intensity, but I’ve got some ideas. Baldry is not very successful in America or Britain, even though the albums are pretty good and involve help from superstars Stewart and John. Maybe his less-than-inspiring live act has something to do with that, but he claims he gives the crowd what it wants. Perhaps Rod and Elton should be given more credit for the good albums than they’re getting. Baldry doesn’t feel he can change his stage act because of the public taste, but it seems to me that since his live routine is so disappointing next to the recordings he ought to. Or else cater his records to the same audience. At least make up his mind. And I’m back where I started from.

I ask him some standard questions. He went to art school but quit soon. Mother wanted him to go to drama school. He feels he’s “destined for movies.” He was approached last year to star in the London version of Jesus Christ Superstar, but turned it down when he wasn’t adequately assured of a good shot at the film role, which he claims was at that time leaning toward — you’ll never guess — Peter Fonda!

His future plans show promise or pretension, depending on how you look at it. He’s going to play the part of Woody Guthrie in a tribute/biography called The Big Rock Candy Mountain which will be staged at Christmas time at the Royal Stratford East in London. He’s working on a musical version of the story of Samson and Delilah with Jimmy Horowitz, which he plans to record later this year.

“I might get some singer like Richard Harris to do it” Baldry muses. Draining his glass of chocolate milk he explains the music is heavily influenced by Carl Orff. Baldry also says he’ll start work soon on another regular Warner Brothers album and will return in October for another U.S. tour. He hasn’t been working in England for 18 months, but he’s not quite looking forward to going back. He likes it here. He may move here. Or possibly Vancouver, B.C. where “the tax structures are very sympathetic.”

Our interview is interrupted when Elton John himself shows up and John and he go through a delightful Lily Tomlin routine. (If you think I’m making this up, you’re welcome to hear the tape.)

I exit.

The next day I cruise out to Long Beach and listen to Long John sing and watch him wiggle, warming up the crowd for Uriah Heep. He’s a bit unstuck because his wardrobe hadn’t arrived and he’s forced to perform sans his familiar hat and coat. He looks awkward. His new band is terrible. The act is terrible. The audience reaction is less than enthusiastic, and they come to see Uriah Heep, who are very “loud and raucous.”

I don’t go back stage to say hello. I go home and play one of his records. It doesn’t cheer me up.

© Mark LevitonUCLA Daily Bruin, 10 August 1972

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