Eric Andersen

By Don Wilcock
Photograph by Andrzej Pilarczyk

“I like blues and rock and roll. That’s how I learned guitar. I mean, I didn’t like that many folk singers either.”

Yes, Eric Andersen first emerged on the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1965 playing The Gaslight and Gerde’s Folk City. And, yes, Saratoga Springs’ Caffe Lena is heralding him in their promotion for this Friday’s (April 13) performance at the storied coffeehouse as “one of the significant artists of the folk revival period working shoulder to shoulder with emerging talents such as Dylan, Paxton, Van Ronk and Baez,” but Andersen sees himself differently. “I got into this because I’m a writer. I don’t do folk songs. And I really didn’t sing folk that much.”

Of course, then again, Dave Van Ronk may have been the den father to the Village’s folkies as early as 1958, but he, too, was way too versatile to be restricted to a folk bag. When I asked Andersen if Van Ronk had mentored him, he responded, “I don’t know. I guess everybody mentored me in some ways. Oh, I saw him every day. We were drinking beers. He taught me bad beer from – I won’t say good beer – but he taught me what a bad beer was from a not very bad beer.”

No, Andersen spends more time listening to Buddy Guy than he does Tom Paxton or Joan Baez. “I listen to him every day. I love Buddy Guy’s playing. I like his singing, and I love the stuff he did with Junior Wells. I do one of the tunes they did called ‘Love Her With a Thrill.’ I recorded that. I worked with a blues group in Norway called Spoonful of Blues. The album was live. It was a great show.”

The Essential Eric Andersen just released on Sony Records is a 53-year retrospective that includes performances by such decidedly unfolk collaborators as Lou Reed, Rick Danko, Joni Mitchell and Leon Russell. His take on country legend Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” (recorded in Nashville in 1971 with David Bromberg) is available on the compilation for the first time.

I asked him what kind of agony and ecstasy he went through putting this album together? “You don’t pay attention to your own history ’cause you’re moving on to a new thing. And I said, ‘Well, they’ve got people that can do this,’ but that’s what everybody does. They all say somebody else should do this. I finally decided I’d better get involved in what’s going on and check this out. Then, I got involved and spent a year working on it. This musical producer said it’s the best thing they’ve ever done because, I guess, they got involved in trying to make it like something you’d do on your own, like in a book or an album.

“It’s essentially perfectly chronological, but some of the earlier songs like ‘Violets of Dawn,’ which we put on later when I did a live performance at the Bitter End and those songs that should have chronologically come at the beginning came a little further down. I think people will be surprised when they hear the opening tracks, the first eight tracks.”

In the liner notes written by Rolling Stone writer and Lou Reed biographer Anthony DeCurtis, Andersen is quoted as saying, “It is always the journey that matters, never the destination.” In our interview he clarified that to say he wasn’t talking about his journey as a performer as much as he was a writer. “It would apply to both universes, but I wasn’t thinking about that when I was talking to Anthony. It’s about the creative (part), but it works both ways.”

He’s also quoted as saying writing is a way of living life twice. “I don’t know when I was aware of this. I don’t know. It just popped into my head one day, and I held onto it.”

In 2012 when we talked, Andersen paraphrased Bob Dylan, and said, “Success isn’t money. Instead, it’s waking up, going to bed, and everything else you want to do in the middle.” Is he at that point now in his life?

“It’s a good thing to do if you can do it. A lot of times life can be 90% maintenance and 10% conflict. You get 1% chance to dream. Ya gotta pay the bills, wake up, make the bed, do the dishes, go to the grocery store, drive the car, pay the toll, turn the light switch off, flush the toilet, brush your teeth. A lot of life is consumed by that stuff, but, I mean, it beats work.”

Yeah, Eric Andersen isn’t your average folksinger. He’s a romantic Lord Byron stuck in the 21st century who writes songs that are “diary entries, musical memories that can evolve and sharpen with time.”

“The Song Poet,” a movie about Andersen’s life, is coming out in the fall. “I think it will tell some stories,” he says. “Very good filmmaking. I saw a little bit. I didn’t recognize any of it. I was just sitting there eating popcorn and Snickers bars like everybody else. I didn’t know where this material came from. I was just watching it like anyone would watch a movie. But it happened to be about me.”

WHO: Eric Andersen
WITH: His band featuring Grammy Award-winning guitarist Steve Addabbo, percussionist Cheryl Prashker and harmony vocalist-fiddler-mandolinist Eric Lee
WHERE: Caffe Lena, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: Friday (April 13), 8pm
HOW MUCH: $35 in advance; $37 at the door

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