Nonesuch Records is a wonderful boutique music label. Like the great publishing houses of old, this little label, headed by Bob Hurwitz, can be trusted to choose, produce, and market timeless music of the highest quality. As a label, it has almost single-handedly kept the idea of music as a true art-form alive.
Nonesuch, in collaboration with legendary producer, Joe Boyd, and engineer, John Wood, has re-released in a fine package, the first two albums, along with a disc of unheard demos and outtakes, by Kate and Anna McGarrigle.
This release has a special meaning to me. As an apprentice recording engineer at A and R studios in New York, I got to observe the massively knowledgeable British engineer, John Wood, record the first eponymously titled album. Even more special was having had the opportunity to be one of the recording engineers on the second album of this release, “Dancer With Bruised Knees.”
If you don’t know Kate and Anna, they were a Canadian folk duo who had a fierce cult following over the last 4 decades. It is more likely that you have heard of Kate’s son, Rufus Wainwright. Kate died last year of cancer, at the age of 63.
Their first album comes close to being a perfect album, and deserves to be one of those taken on the desert island. I never grow tired of listening to it. It is a collection of exquisite jewel-like songs written by both sisters. The diamond in the middle of this setting is a song called, “Heart Like a Wheel.” This song became a hit for Linda Ronstadt. But I don’t think any version matches Kate and Anna’s. As someone who produced many folk albums, this record was the standard that we could never match. The song is astounding in its arrangement: it only has three instruments and vocals, but sounds gigantic. If there is a more perfect song and recording, I haven’t heard it.
The album’s deeply-felt playing features some of the greatest studio musicians from New York of that day, including Steve Gadd, who perhaps is most famous for his drum part on Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover;” bassist Tony Levin, who played with everyone from King Crimson to Peter Gabriel; guitarists David Spinozza and the legendary Greg Prestopino who also co-produced the first record; and fiddler Jay Unger. Years later, I produced Jay’s beautiful work, “Ashokan Farewell,” which became the theme to Ken Burns’ “Civil War.”
One reason that this album achieved such stellar heights was because it was produced by Joe Boyd. In a business filled with – to be kind – crass individuals, Mr, Boyd was a class-act. He was urbane, generous, thoughtful, and had spot-on taste. Not only that, he was a very attractive man. He was the only person I worked with in the studio, who, having attended Harvard, always wore a navy blazer to sessions.
Joe had an impressive career. He produced some of my favorite albums from the ‘60s. He was associated with Elektra Records, which in that era was known for its adventurous folk-based music. His work with the Incredible String Band stands out particularly as unique and important.
In Mr. Boyd’s liner notes for this re-release, he takes a gentle cut at me, saying that one of the reasons he felt the second album didn’t succeed artistically like the first was that it didn’t sound as good. I have to admit that I agree with him. I remember not feeling satisfied with the work I did on those sessions.
When I watched John Wood record the first album, I was always shocked by what he did. He used microphones opposite to the way I had been taught. But he got an amazing sound, and mine never quite came together. Everything I recorded sounded boxy, and the ensemble never cohered. The production itself was meandering. John Cale, famous from the Velvet Underground, was involved. He’d noodle on the organ, or play the cello, but it didn’t quite fit. I think they weren’t satisfied with what I was doing and travelled on to Canada, looking for something else.
It’s ok that I didn’t do my finest work on that record. I was young, and still had much to learn. But I do have regrets.
The poignant beauty of age is the depth of feeling that emerges with the epic arc. When I listen to those records now, I am the 55-year-old driving to work with all the burdens of middle-age; I am the anxious, hungry, and unconscious 20-year-old in the studio; and I am the person who has lived all the moments of love and failure in between. Listening to the music with that ear makes it so rich and sweet I can barely tolerate it. I can’t help but cry.
When I listen now, I feel that ache of the distance between what we know somewhere in the depth of our being, and that which we have lived out in our lives. I feel this sense of loss, because I don’t think I ever had a real conversation with Joe, Kate, Anna, John Wood, or John Cale. Engineers were supposed to be invisible, but I think it was more than that. I was certainly cocky, so it wasn’t fear of speaking. Though I was learning how to listen to sounds, I had a long way to go in learning how to listen to people. It’s no irony that I became a psychotherapist after being a recording engineer. They are both about the art of listening. It was probably only after I trained in my career as therapist that I really learned how to listen to others. Up till then, I was far more interested in presenting myself in a certain way. I wanted to craft how I was seen, and not truly be open to an authentic interaction. I was performing, not being. I never asked them what they were envisioning, what they wanted from me, how they wanted their record to sound, what we could do together to realize their dream. I never allowed them to see how little I knew.
There was a chance for me to make meaningful contact with such interesting people, with great stories to tell, and so much to teach. Yet, I didn’t create that. I got to sit in the same room with Joe Boyd and the McGarrigles, and I never made the attempt to find out who they were, or what made them tick.
Now that time, and that opportunity, is gone.
That one record, that one moment in time, that tiny flower of magic, came into existence, blazed gloriously, and ended so fast. That’s the way these things go. No one of us, when we are young, understands this. No one of us appreciates that preciousness in the moment of youth. Yet the wisdom that this is part of the human story only somewhat alleviates the pain of that loss. That bereft feeling, with a twinkle of wry acceptance, is what permeates Kate and Anna’s music. Maybe the second album wasn’t as good as the first because that magic happens infrequently, if ever.
So what do we do? I am reminded of the words from William Wordsworth’s Ode,
“Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, or glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind;”
The answer for me is, be different now.
I strongly encourage you to visit Nonesuch’s impressive webstore and use the opportunity of this resissue to listen to Kate and Anna, Joe, John, and the rest, at their golden peak.
And Mr. Boyd, if you’re ever in New York City, and you’ve got a free hour, I’d be happy to buy you lunch. I’ve got a few questions I’d love to ask.
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