(photo: Patrick Brayer)
Chris Darrow / Under My Own Disguise / limited edition box set
Everloving Records 2009
In the form of a lavish LP-sized box set from Everloving Records, Chris Darrow / Under My Own Disguise (re-release produced by J.P. Plunier), we have the American re-emergence of two prime and pristine examples of straightforward Vietnam era country rock and folk from the forsaken vaults of United Artists. Part one contains the self-titled Chris Darrow (The Grey Album) from 1973. Part two contains Under My Own Disguise from 1974 (with one additional bonus track). The graffiti inspired box comes with a set of two CDs, two 180 gram vinyl LPs, a forty eight page booklet including within it an array of archival photos by Steve Cahill, and a full sized replica of the Darrow mask used on the cover of the Disguise album. The set lists for $80.00.
The two reissue masterworks here for review finally, 37 years later, present Darrow’s accomplishment in a fashion that brings light his way wherein the pieces might in the present tense find recognition as the contribution that they are and were to their art and era,
For Darrow fans everywhere this is indeed a grand and overdue celebration for what are arguably his grandest lifetime achievements. Yet still you are, due to many calendar pages hence, somehow made keenly aware of the age-old dilemma of the true artist, and there the cost of the many many years of tirelessly re-inventing the self, a cost it seems that one must endure in the pursuit of the genuine muse. Darrow will likely admit that he is today so far removed from the man who made those records in the early 1970’s that you now in present observation are as close to being that man as he. Of course that isn’t true, but he doesn’t have to be told that these are great recordings, it was as evident to him then as it is now in his true honesty. The recordings haven’t changed, but the world in need of them most assuredly has. But proud to look down upon it all he is, like the man behind the curtain in Oz, and happy to celebrate it for sure, but also, with a voice of reason, a tad leery of the dreaded expectations on him to pretend to be wide eyed and naive to the world of wisdom that he now holds, and that which holds together his present world and reality.
Chris Darrow arrived earthward in the July summer of 1944, his father Paul Darrow in military transit, into and unto the Black Hills of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He had a beautiful mother, Nadine, whom yellowing pictures and not just nostalgia will forever deem to attest. Her father managed a Cadillac dealership amongst the dollar bill lawns of Pasadena, and Darrow’s father was then lured in 1948 to Chris’s present hometown of Claremont, California. The culprit of that enticement being Millard Sheets, the legendary founder of the California Style watercolor movement of the 30’s, and noted Public Works genius of the Grand Depression. Chris ran rampant through the orange groves as a youth, the blossom scent of which today only reminds him of the deeper meaning of the strawberry-headed Los Angeles Dodger announcer Vince Scully, whose nasal tenor imagery wafted out through screen doors and on into the desert evenings as if sifted from the lungs of a Greek God.
(photo: Steve Cahill)
When Darrow entered Trident Studios in 1973 London, England to begin recording the first of these two ventures of our desire, it had been a whirlwind six years of concerts and recording since his major label debut back with Epic Records. He was then a founding member of the Inland Empire-based rag tag world-rock pioneers, Kaleidoscope. So walking in he was already officially a fully realized composer and sideman with all the salt and vinegar even more electrified. But you could still hear the far off influences beckoning, as if sneaking out of the dark to sell you a watch. He still toted a good deal of the baggage of the sawed off rasping that had followed him from his early educational tenure in a rather hardnosed variety of neo-nasal bluegrass music. In this unique period in time one can’t help but feel that what Darrow and his peers battled in their search for optimism was to be found in great part in the cultural dregs of a scrawny individual named Charles Manson, who in bodily appearance didn’t look to have enough power to wipe his own ass. But yet this Manson somehow managed to slam the paisley door to free-love and hitchhiking to a close, back in a shipwrecked 1969. And this was a door that still reverberated well into the crux of our story.
Among the many forms of escape, in what now seemed the never ending search for the searching self, the like-minded of the post flower-power era drank heartily off the tall tin cans of Brew 102, and yet still found good enough reason to slip back into the nearest wilderness area and ingest psilocybin mushrooms. They jazzed down culturally on the holy Mexican reefer out of Tijuana, It circulating laughter and deep thought around every corner, with a backing edge of perpetual java. And yet these modernaires mythologized, as a group, a completely ulterior vision for themselves, that of some dream-cloud of mountain laurel cascading amongst a backwoods white lightnin’ still. All this apparition was set to come to life for them in the abouts of some dusty, and centuries removed, iterant sharecropper’s mirage. Darrow and a handful of his fringe cronies were the proud and few who escaped, with Inland Empire bravado, the dreaded tainting and curse of the New Christy Minstrel cycle that cold cocked the 1960’s creativity of many a burgeoning artist, coming off like a double shot of Scientology with a long forgotten hard boiled egg.
(photo: Steve Cahill)
Trident Studios, besides being a state of the art facility of the day, brought along in its wake one of the most brilliant sound engineers of the period, David Hentchel. Coming into Darrow’s project David had just finished engineering Genesis’ Nursery Chrymes, Frank Zappa’s Tracks, and Elton John’s 11-7-70, with his glorious debut as a recording engineer being George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass in 1970. So when we listen to all of those projects side by side, along with the two Darrow offerings, we begin to see the production genius that Chris himself brought to the recordings, yet another aspect it appears of the multiple talents that he possessed. He brought an electrified raw presence to the sound to a height that is not evident in any of those other million sellers. He had somehow managed to bring a wild west sensibility across the pond and along with Hentchel, who added greatness and an ability to stay out of Darrow’s way exactly when needed, and then and there they did a perfect sonic dos-e-do and etched a little piece of history for us and themselves into the making.
When Darrow boarded the cross continental flight for the British Isles at LAX, with his only hometown representative, string-band chum, Steve Cahill, he already had most of part one of the masterpiece safely in his head and heart. Chris’s manager, Michael O’Connor, came packing the clout that you can only learn at the feet of someone like Sinatra, fresh from his employ at Beatle publishing, and was there on the spot able to acquire an A-list of talents. The lineup told a whole other ‘meeting of the minds’ story of its own, and included members of the Elton John camp, the Jeff Beck camp, bardic harpist Alan Stivell, reggae music ex-patriots The Greyhound, and Sussex folk icon Dolly Collins. You could never even crack the album’s cellophane and yet still live a productive life just on the influences of the musicians in-captured in this moment’s time, that and the tastefully covered song references like Cy Coben (Good Woman’s Love), and the dyed in the poetic wool Americana Shakespeare himself, Hoagy Carmichael (Hong Kong Blues).
The year in music of 1973 in the underground form was an open-ended plethora of ground-breaking experimentation for the likes of Darrow and his contemporaries. It was the same year that Pink Floyd released their own masterwork in the form of Dark Side of the Moon. But then if you played Darrow’s record and that one back to back you just might hurt yourself, his sounding more ‘of this planet’. More akin in 73’ then might be Gram Parson’s first solo effort GP, alongside of new offerings from Commander Cody, and The New Riders of the Purple Sage up in San Francisco. San Diego’s Tom Waits debuted that year with his Closing Time, The Eagle’s with Desperado, Jackson Browne with For Everyman, Steve Miller with The Joker, Marvin Gaye with Let’s Get It On, The Band with Moondog Matinee, and the Rolling Stones were even with us in Los Angeles putting the final touches on Goats Head Soup. But I’ll have to say when I put those other albums up along side of the Darrow collection here, for me they pale in a down to earth comparison, his effort feeling more present than nostalgic. And the only way I can explain it is that when I listen to Under My Own Disguise for instance I almost think I hear pictures, that they almost conjure holograms of sorts. I can’t help but feel that when Chris visited Stonehenge during the making of the Grey Album, that a life-size version of it somehow got into the Trident Studios mixing console and then oozed out into my suburban living room in Fontana, California.
(photo: Steve Cahill)
While on a many accounts this was a grand moment in time for change, a lot of the greats however were barking out their weakest work in almost a sad exodus fashion, James Brown’s Black Caesar, Johnny Cash’s Any Old Wind That Blows, Rod Stewart’s Sing It Again Rod, and The Byrds were reduced to putting out a flung together project. All of this so much so that you’d think that all the record buying public would be lined up at the vinyl banks waiting for the second coming, you’d think, but sometimes to think is to way over think
One of Darrow’s grandest accomplishments for me on these two vinyl gems was to finally paint something fresh over top of a stale and struggling folk movement. While doing this he passed in motion the peace pipe with the English folk royalty of the time, The Fairhope Convention, and there and then our immigrant past. Second to that but not least, licking a finger and drawing a humid and furrowed line of his acquired influences across the south most border of his own home country, that being the form and faction of a heady swamp and chicken wire blues.
His cross-cultural mixture of Cajun music and Reggae on Take Good Care of Yourself, although somewhat of a cult secret, is still I believe yet to be topped. It makes Paul Simon’s Graceland look like a Herman’s Hermit’s ringtone. His blend of cowpuncher and ‘meet the queen’ confrontation be-stills his intentions, looking as straight now in retrospect as a row of windbreak eucalyptus below an Earl Grey skyline. The shock that first comes over me when I compare this work to all the popular music that has come since is the grim realization of how rare it is to find an artist that sets out, as an ultimate goal, to create a music that has yet to exist. Then I slap my head in disbelief that there could ever be any other reason. There is always a bandwagon to jump on, only in this instance Darrow paints it chartreuse and has six clones of the Bluegrass madman Jimmy Martin pulling it at a breakneck snarl. It’s all there between the grooves, you could hear the amplifier cabinet’s wood grain straining to their elements, the advent of the close-miked bass drum, the use of dryer recording techniques, creating a room you could actually recreate in your head without being a goldfish. The sound is effervescent as a group, like soul survivors of the melting pot. It seems christened with jug band nods, Woody Guthrie people dusted off and given a macramé furlough, it all comes through the speakers. Look at the original LP cover of the self-titled offering for yourself (closely reproduced in the Everloving Box), with its grey backfield appearing as either fog, pre-historic druid stone, or a mucky junkyard windshield.
The Darrow penned song Whipping Boy is a gem in its gallows hearted lament, along side a strong but lazy lap slide twang accompaniment. The definition of a ‘whipping boy’ being that of one whom you pay to take your beating for you, and hence it is a love song. Ben Harper carried this song around the world in the 90’s, sharing it like a sacred keepsake with millions of his flock, and on from there into this our newest of centuries. That song, along with To Which Cross Do I Cling (also on the self-titled CD) establishes Darrow once and for all as a lyrical poet to be reckoned with.
Under My Own Disguise was the follow up recording in 1974. Half of it was a return trip to Trident Studios in England, with the inclusion there of pedal steel great B.J. Cole. The other half was recorded at Ike Turner’s Bolic Sound in a Los Angeles, California. This venture was a further blending of Celtic fusion, with marijuana brownie soul, and the agelessness of the whippoorwill. It then took a hard yin and yang turn as Darrow ushered in a cast of his Inland Empire cronies, Frank Reckard, Loren Newkirk, and Kaleidoscopic band-mate Max Buda aka Chester Crill. It was then and there that they together upped the ante on a lot of the dirt parking lot aspects of honky tonk croonery.
(photo: Steve Cahill)
Nobody sings quite like Chris Darrow, his voice is like a well-earned teardrop falling on a very original trailer floor. From a long line of country jowl singers he comes, those whose voices resonate from the chest to the cheeks and out, a time honored hill and bayou technique that was brought to the forefront by such as the rock steady iconical triumvirate of Conway Twitty, Tony Joe White, and Louis Armstrong.
Chris Darrow played on the American debut albums of both Leonard Cohen, and James Taylor, as well as setting Linda Ronstandt on the road to crucial country, and thusly the Eagles then were fabricated in turn as a prom band version of what came before them. Darrow doesn’t need to prove anything really, but he does anyway, and upon the failure of financial recompense he merely reverted back to his prior life of surfing and rotisserating in the San Clemente phoenix. But in the back of his mind uncontrollably new creations still lurked, and they began, almost independently, to calculate their next musical incarnation. He was already happy. That’s how you survive. If you’re thinking something out there will make you happy when your not, you’re setting yourself up. You’re the culprit. You’ve got to be happy when you start or don’t be happy at all. That seems to be the message felt.
(photo: Robert Morrow)
United Artists, with its bankbook up its ass and its tax shelter chess-maneuvers, failed then to properly promote that which was handed to them on a silver platter. A platter full of that which has come to stand not only the test of time, but the meaning of time. For what it’s worth, the shrewd businessmen that they were, their next planned failure after Darrow as tax shelter was to be Ry Cooder. Ry like Chris was an alumni of The Ash Grove, and another hard knocks musical imaganeer cut from the very same cloth.
When you meet Chris Darrow today on his own turf, in his Bauhaus and icon-inspired surroundings, you have a lot to take in. The jutting rooflines giving to tall glass and Navaho blanketness welcomes you with open aura. While witnessing his paintlorn sports car angled into a sun-hammered stand of bamboo, you can’t then help but be amazed at the sheer passing swell of time. With his hair now chromely frosted at 65 he comes at you with a retired surfer’s handsome demeanor. A welcome smile greets you, sporting that same country set of teeth that made him stand out so uniquely on Hefner’s Playboy After Dark with Linda Ronstadt and Bernie Leadon in the 60’s. All this topped with a pair of wry blue eyes, he appears before you like an amigo dressed in all the blackness of a velvet painting.
(photo: Patrick Brayer)
Ultimately, what we have to understand is that in the mind of true creativity this is not a race to any absolute finish line. Art should be the embodiment of patience, so in that this material showed up on its own accord before us at the perfect moment, this moment that we are sharing, you and I. It is very similar to grappling with the wise man’s words “Everything is perfect just the way it is.” So that it is now our sole philosophical job on earth to figure out how that could possibly be. And in the power of creative spirit let us remember that Chris has put forth more than a dozen stellar projects since 1973 (most made available from Taxim Records in Germany), so the whole time, and to this day, his art knows not the meaning of retirement.
What I hope to see for Everlasting Records and Chris Darrow is a resurgence of interest and ‘its day in the sunshine’ for two of Americana Music’s lost treasures. In the same breath, what I fear is that the only ones who will be able to afford this set probably already have them dating back to vinyl, collectors that is. It is not grossly overpriced for what you get by any means, but still goes beyond the scope of the sonic hands of the everyman, which I would dream, in a perfect world, would be the audience of such enlightened fare. It will definitely help you thin out what you thought was your prized collection, tossing out the 50 or 60 odd CDs that now seem to be freeloading, trying to match the mark that Darrow has set, and now, and at the end of my pen’s last breath, jovially failing.
Patrick Brayer / Wrongtario, CA / july 2009
(photo: William Purcell)
Chris Darrow and author outside Studio Nadine 2003