A FEW MINUTES WITH… Tom Rush
By Don Wilcock
Posters in the lobby this week trumpet Tom Rush’s Friday night show at the Eighth Step at Proctors with a Chicago Tribune quote: “Probably the only man alive who should be allowed to sing Joni Mitchell.” Of course, any performer who sticks it out for more than half a century in the music business as Rush has can find some critic somewhere to toot his horn, but that quote about Joni Mitchell is not hyperbole. In fact, I would go so far as to say I like Tom Rush’s version of “Urge for Going” better than Joni’s.
Joni Mitchell was largely unknown to the Boston folk community when Rush covered that song on his 1968 Elektra album The Circle Game. By that time Rush was firmly entrenched as the best voice on the Harvard Square folk scene. WBZ’s Dick Summer had been running it as the theme song for his Sunday night folk show for a couple of years, and as a senior at Tufts University, I was totally addicted to Rush’s feelings of impending romantic loss. I identified with the lyrics:
She gets the urge for going
When the meadow grass is turning brown
All her empire’s falling down
And winter’s closing in
And I get the urge for going
When the meadow grass is turning brown
And summertime is falling down…
But it was the creamy, dreamy guitar licks that nailed it for me. I would stop whatever studying I was doing every Sunday night just to hear that fluid run that remains in my long term memory banks to this day. I commented to Rush last week that I was surprised that more people don’t talk about his guitar playing.
“I’m just as glad about that,” he responded. It turns out the signature licks on that song were executed by guitarist Bruce Langhorne.
“Yeah, he was a wizard. My part is pretty basic on ‘Urge for Going,’ but he was the one who did those triple pull-off things, the diddey-bump kinda lines. He’s in California. He had a stroke, and he can’t play much anymore which is really a shame. He was such a good player. Actually as a kid he had blown off most of his thumb and first two fingers on his right hand with fireworks, which got him out of the draft because they figured if he didn’t have a trigger finger, he couldn’t fire a rifle. So, of course, he became a guitar player, and then decided he was going to be a piano player later in life. Since his stroke he doesn’t play much at all. He’s supposedly the guy who inspired ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ Dylan’s song ’cause he also played tambourine and just about anything you can imagine.”
That’s kind of the m.o. for much of Tom’s career. While many of his contemporaries in Harvard Square in the mid-’60s were slavishly copying traditional old folk songs, he was covering songs by Joni, James Taylor and Jackson Browne. He told me in 2000, “I was incapable of slavishly copying the originals. I wasn’t good enough. Basically, my technique was to learn a song. I’d get as close as I could to the original, but then I would listen to the original again, and my version would drift gradually away from the original recording by imperceptible steps. Then if I go back years later and listen to the original, it startles me how different it’s become over time… I was a generalist in a world of specialists.”
As Dave Marsh, easily one of Rolling Stone’s top writers ever, proclaimed on the liner notes to Rush’s 1999 Best of album, “Rush’s 1968 Elektra album, The Circle Game, marks the real beginning of the singer-songwriter movement.” That album included Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” and “Urge for Going,” as well as James Taylor’s “Something in the Way She Moves” and Jackson Browne’s “Shadow Dream Song.”
“Some songs just light up for me like neon signs,” says Rush today. “Some people call it the goose-bump factor. Joni just had a lot of that. But I do Bo Diddley and Joni Mitchell back to back, and I’m all over the lot in terms of sensibilities and up tunes, down tunes, funny songs, sad songs, but sometimes at night I hear a song, and it’s ‘I got to do that.’ And I don’t know why. I wish I could give a cohesive answer to that because it would make my life a lot easier if I could call up publishing companies and say, ‘I’m looking for a song that has these characteristics,’ but basically it’s good songs. It’s songs that for me just stand out from the pack and give me goose bumps.”
Often his selection of songs changed the way other artists looked at their own muse. Rush included a rockin’ side two to his 1965 Take a Little Walk With Me album with arrangements by Al Kooper (of the Blue Project and Dylan fame at the time) and musical contributions by Felix Papppalardi and John Sebastian. Rush’s version alone of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” with Al Kooper on guitar provided a road map for folkies plugging in that was easily as musically exciting as anything Bob Dylan was getting booed for at the time.
“It’s funny,” Rush says today. “I was running out of traditional stuff that turned me on. So side one of the LP is pretty traditional folk stuff. Side two is late ’50s rock and roll with Al Kooper and Felix Papppalardi and people like that on the session. I was kind of offended that Dylan got so much flack, and no one seemed to care about what I did. Nobody gave me any shit, but I think they expected purity from Dylan, and nobody expected much purity from me. So they didn’t get upset. Until they did it to Dylan, I didn’t realize it was something you shouldn’t do.”
Journalists are always being accused of taking quotes out of context. So I need to back up here and clue you in that Rush at age 74 is very droll, and at times it’s difficult to discern if what he’s saying isn’t just self-deprecating humor. When he called for our interview, he introduced himself as “the late Tom Rush,” having phoned 20 minutes after the appointed time. He told me that as a child he wanted to sing like operatic baritone Paul Robeson, “but in pre-puberty it really didn’t work very well.” And his take on his aging vocals on Tom Rush Celebrates 50 Years of Music, his latest CD/DVD, is let’s just say interesting.
“Every show people come up to me and tell me how my voice sounds just like it did 50 years ago. I don’t think it does. They think so. The high notes have gotten higher, unfortunately, but the lower notes have gotten better. (These fans) are sincere. They’re misguided. They’re not bullshitting, they’re just misguided.”
Then Rush quotes me a New York Times review of Kris Kristofferson: “Mr. Kristofferson’s voice wavers indicating general pitch rather than specific notes,” and Rush says, “I thought that was glorious. The recording engineer in Nashville that I did the last studio album with, What I Know, took me aside one day and very solemnly said, ‘Tom, Auto-Tune doesn’t work with your voice.’ And it was actually meant as a compliment. He played me some Johnny Cash tracks that had been played through some Auto-Tune, and they were awful. That was awesome.”
His fans know him as an interpreter of songs that brought other singer-songwriters to greater recognition. Rush himself sums up his career in three words, “I’m a generalist.” But veteran journalists well-respected in their field see Rush for what he was and still is, an important and extremely talented singer who quietly changed the way other musicians sculpt their craft.
Scott Alarik, The Boston Globe’s dean of folk music critics and a musician in his own right, wrote in 1999, “Tom Rush’s name is rarely trumpeted among the folk music giants of the past half-century. Yet it can be argued that the New Hampshire native has been the most consistently influential singer-songwriter to emerge from the ’60s folk revival.” And while Rush claims not to remember what Dave Marsh said about him in the Very Best of liner notes, it’s eye-popping how important Marsh sees Rush’s influence considering how sparingly Marsh doles out praise: “Rush was the best interpretive singer of the folk revival, and a fine writer himself. He had an ear for new writing talent and the supple, expressive voice and intelligent vocal phrasing to make it apparent what it was about his selections that made them so good.”
It’s worth considering that his performance at the Eighth Step on Friday will showcase an artist whose current repertoire can be viewed in the same light as the late Johnny Cash and the current Kris Kristofferson. “I didn’t plan to do that,” he says about a late spurt of songwriting. “I did it, but it wasn’t by design.
“Actually, we were moving out of our house in Vermont. Our landlady decided she wanted to sell it, and we were trying to find a school for our daughter, and we were fundamentally homeless for about four months. A friend who has too many houses and too much money told us we could use one of their spare houses in Hinsale, New Hampshire. It was not roughing it. The caretakers had one of the better lines I’ve heard lately. He said, ‘It’s sure quiet around here. The loudest thing that happens is when their helicopter lands.’ But it wasn’t palatial or anything. It was just a very nicely restored old farmhouse, but I had no – all of our stuff was in storage.
“I had a case and a few guitars and a computer. So there was nothing to do a lot of the time. So I sat around and plunked at the guitar. Little by little, songs started happening, and it’s continued now. I’ve just written another one, and I’ve got yet another one in the works. In fact, I was supposed to go up and see my producer Jim Rooney today to talk about my next recording, and I realized I’ve got eight new songs of my own to put in the pot.”
Personally, Rush likes his 1999 studio album The One I Know better than The Very Best of. He’s going to have it at his show in Schenectady. “I’ll give you a discount,” he says. “A deep discount… and I’ll autograph it no extra charge.”
WHO: Tom Rush
WHEN: 7:30pm Friday
WHERE: The Eighth Step at Proctors’ GE Theater, Schenectady
HOW MUCH: $30 in advance; $35 at the door; $50 Gold Circle (includes premium seats and a 6:30pm reception with the artist)