Saturday, August 11, 2012

Wrapping Things Up With Al Kooper

When I was first trying to put together my interview with Al Kooper, we had a hard time coordinating our schedules to find a point during the day (or night) when we would both be available to have a conversation. After several rejected dates, we finally settled in on a Sunday Morning, right before Al was due to leave to go out on the road for a few shows. (Originally, Al wanted to talk between Midnight and 2 am ... which was virtually impossible for me, since I get up at 5:00 in the morning to get ready for work ... but it turns out that Al Kooper is an early riser, too!)
AL KOOPER: The earlier the better for me as I, too, arise at 5:30 AM.

What?!?! Well, that made the first question an easy one ... what the hell is Al Kooper doing up at 5:00 on a Sunday Morning?!?! GOD isn't even up at 5 am on a Sunday Morning!!!

I mean seriously ... picture this ... God wakes up at 5:00 ... kinda opens up one eye, trying to zero in on the alarm clock ... sees it's 5 am and says "Fuck it!" and goes right back to sleep. And to make matters worse, this is Sunday ... HIS day!!! But all he can think about is "C'mon!!!  It's SUNDAY for Christ's sake!!!" So I HAD to know what it is that Al Kooper DOES at 5:00 on a Sunday Morning!!! (lol)

KENT KOTAL / FORGOTTEN HITS: So I guess the first, most obvious question is, what the hell does Al Kooper do at 5:30 on a Sunday Morning???
AK: Oh no, I'm up at 5:30 EVERY morning ...

kk: REALLY?!?! When do you sleep?
AK: Sometimes 5:00. I don't sleep ... see you don't know that about me ... I sleep 2 - 4 hour a night ... always have. You see, I went to two sleep clinics ... UCLA and University of Texas ... and they both told me the same thing ... that when I go to sleep, I go into the deepest sleep that there is ... a sleep that takes other people 4 - 5 hours to get to ... and that I'm getting enough sleep and not to worry about it.

kk: Wow. Well, you're very fortunate then ... if that's enough for you
AK: Well, that's all I needed to hear.

kk: lol ... so that worked for you! That was good enough for you?

AK: Well, yeah ... I mean I worried about it ... and I thought I was slowly killing myself.
kk: And you don't feel tired during the day at all?
AK: I mean, yeah, my cycle changes about every nine months ... about when I sleep ... and I notice it because the hours change ... but within 2 - 4 hours of each other ... and like right now, I've been sleeping two hours in the morning, from like 9 am to 11 am and then again from about 4 - 6 in the afternoon ... so 9 - 11 and 4 - 6 .. and that's it ... I'm up all the other time. And I have a recording studio here in my house ... and GREAT sets of headphones ... so I'll go in there. And my wife sleeps, you know 10 - 12 hours per night ... and one of the things I do at 5:30 in the morning is make her coffee.
kk: (lol)

kk: I wanted to let the readers out there know about what you're up to these days. Do you have an actual website where people can go to get all this information about what you've got going on?
AK: Yeah, but once I started putting all of the effort into the column, I abandoned the website. It's still there but the last time it was updated is exactly a year ago. There's a picture of me and Bob Dylan together on the front of it from 1965 and it says "Happy 70th Birthday, Bob" ... and he just turned 71, so that's how I know that it was just exactly a year ago.

kk: Funny you should mention that because I read a couple of chapters of your book this morning because I wanted to reread that whole chapter on the Blood, Sweat and Tears thing ... and the Bob Dylan "Like A Rolling Stone" recording session ... before I talked to you and I've got to tell you, it's one of the most fascinating, interesting and entertaining books I've ever read. So I wanted to ask you, not knowing what the future holds for you right now at this point in time ... what about another book? ... What do you think? Did you enjoy doing that? Because you have a real gift for story-telling. Do you think that you might do another one?
AK: Well, yeah ... maybe after I have another life! What am I gonna write about?

kk: (lol) Actually the copy I have is like the revised, revamped version I guess.
AK: Well, there's a 2005 version, which has just a profile of me on the cover ... and that's the latest version.
(EDITOR'S NOTE:  You're not going to find a more entertaining book on the music business.  Al's a real straight shooter ... he doesn't pull any punches telling it like it was ... and he's got some GREAT memories to share.  You can pick up a copy here:

kk: That must be the one I have. I know that when that came out, I picked it up immediately.
AK: It talks about when I lost my eyesight ... so that makes it pretty current, you know ... 'cause that happened in 2001.

kk: Do you want to talk about that at all? I wasn't sure if that was an "off-limits" thing or not.
AK: No, not at all ... I mean, I'll talk about anything.

kk: Well, I guess the reason I ask is that I was a little bit hesitant at first about trying to do this interview by e-mail because I wasn't even really sure how you did that ... if you had something like that "speak and type" software or whatever it's called ... I mean, how do you even do that? How do you address emails and stuff like that? I know you seemed to prefer talking "live" and so I thought that maybe communicating via email was perhaps a bit of an obstacle for you.
AK: No, I just wanted to do it live because it saved me the time of typing it all out ... and I figured you could put the clip up on your website as an audio track or something.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: We ended up compromising on this one ... part of this was done by email ... but the bulk of this was me and Al sitting on the phone for about 90 minutes just talking about life and music ... and covering the good and bad points of BOTH!!!)

kk: So, if you're okay with this, yes, by all means, please tell us about the loss of your eyesight.
AK: Well, I lost two-thirds of my sight, so I can still see ... and here's the thing ... I'm very thankful that it was my sight ... and not my hands or my ears ... I think I was BLESSED that it was my sight ... I think that was God looking out for me ... because you know, once it was gone ... I had a stroke in my right eye ... and I didn't know it for a while ... I just knew something was off with my vision but I didn't know what it was. And then I closed my left eye and looked through my right eye one day ... you know, I finally came up with THAT idea (lol) ... and I went, "Wow, this is worse than I thought."
So I went to the eye doctor and they said, "Wow, this is very bad." And I went through a month of serious treatment ... but they don't know much about this affliction ... so fortunately I live in Boston and they have amazing doctors here. So I went through this whole month of taking very dangerous medicine ... and that was around Christmas time ... and this was not good.

kk: Now is this recently or ...
AK: No, in 2001. And then nine months later I got it in the other eye ... which they say is about a 90% chance that it wouldn't happen ... and that's when I knew that it was gonna happen. (lol)
And so then, you know, I really couldn't see very well. And the doctor that treated me the first time was away in England ... so I saw another doctor and he told me that I'm not gonna put you through what they put you through 'cause I don't think it does any good. So I said, "Oh, thank you so much" ... and he was the better of the two doctors. And he gave me all these tests and everything and he was very into it ... and the thing is, you just get used to it ... and then you think, "Well, I can see".
I can't read very well. I have glasses designed just for the computer, so I wear those whenever I use the computer ... which is mostly all-day, everyday ... and then I have, you know, sunglasses that are three-way because bright light screws my eyes up. So I wear these sunglasses ... but it's always been like that for me ... I never did well in bright light ... so I wore the sunglasses most of my life before then. So I wear the sunglasses whenever I go out of the house ... and they have three different scripts built into them. The only thing that's tough with that is walking up and down stairs ... and that's tough to do when you've got three scripts on. But I got used to it pretty quick ... and I still think that I was incredibly lucky ... 'cause I can still play ... and that means the most to me.

kk: Now you mentioned earlier that you're going to be going out on the road ... is this doing performances, doing shows, or what?
AK: Yeah, yeah ...

kk: OK ... and now who's involved with that?

AK: At the end of the month I'm playing three shows with Jimmy Vivino, that are tributes to Mike Bloomfield shows ... and then I'm doing two solo shows in a few days in Detroit.
(EDITOR'S NOTE:  The bulk of my interview with Al Kooper took place in May ... then we went on vacation for a week, came home ... and lost our computer for another seven weeks!!!  So you could say that this information is a bit delayed and dated.  As it turned out, Al got the flu and ended up postponing these shows that he referred to above ... but once we were back up and running, he DID let us know about a couple of shows he has coming up later this month ... next week as a matter of fact.  If you happen to be in the New York area, you may wish to check these out!):
AK:  The New Rekooperators (featuring Al Kooper, Jimmy Vivino, Jesse Williams and Mark The Sheriff) will be playing at the Iridium in New York City - two shows a night - on August 14th and 15th.  (8 PM and 10 PM)

kk:  Happy to pass this info along for all of our East Coast Readers.  Thanks, Al!  Jimmy Vivino ... he was part of the ORIGINAL Rekooperators, right?
AK: Jimmy was my musical director in many of my bands for about 25 years. When we formed The Rekooperators, it became Jimmy's band and I started another band (The Funky Faculty) so I could still do my material without screwing up the concept of The Rekooperators. For about ten years, both bands functioned at the same time. Kinda like The Conan O'Brien Band and the Fab Faux.

kk: Sure. So when you do these shows, what kind of material do you do? Is this kind of a career retrospective sort of thing?
AK: Well, you know, it's changed and sort of evolved over the years. I would say that now I do more old songs than I ever did in the past ... so that's what I do. I mean there are things that I can't do ... I mean I can't really play "Season of the Witch" by myself, you know! And a lot of that Bloomfield stuff. So I do what I think people want to hear ... and it's very complicated because the songs that I wrote in that time period are very complicated songs and some, you know, when I picked them, sometimes it takes me three or four days to relearn them because they're so complicated. Now I don't mean they're good ... I mean they're complicated. And I'm not braggin' about 'em ... I just mean like the chord changes ...

kk: Oh no, I totally understand ... I totally get what you're saying.
AK: And that's just the way I wrote them ... because I was enamored with other people who wrote songs like that ... I mean like Bacharach and Thom Bell and people like that ... were very influential to me as a songwriter ... so they were equally complicated in that respect to those people. Even "This Diamond Ring" is in two keys, you know.

kk: That's a great song ...
AK: Now I had nothing to do with that, other than I wrote the music to it ... the verses are great but it was two other guys who wrote the words.

kk: And I know we talked about this a LONG time ago ... one of the first times I ever talked to you ... but your arrangement was DRASTICALLY different than the way that Gary Lewis did it ... but that's the one that went to #1.
AK: (laughing) Yeah, and see I hated that record!

kk: I know you do ... and I absolutely LOVE that record ... that's one of those rare songs that I still listen to all the way through EVERY time it comes on the radio to this day ... I think it's a great record ... a great sound.
AK: I hate that record because that was a black song ... and I couldn't even IMAGINE somebody doing it white until I heard that Gary Lewis record and I thought, "Oh my God, I hate this!"

kk: And see, I'm totally the opposite ... that's one of the few songs I don't turn off every time it comes on.
AK: No ... no ... "Good Thing" is one of the few songs I don't turn off! (both laughing now ... at the previous reference to the Paul Revere and the Raiders track)

The #1 Hit by Gary Lewis and the Playboys

The original version by Sammy Ambrose

And, years later, Al Kooper even cut his OWN version of this track (doing it HIS way, I would imagine!)

kk: And actually, earlier you mentioned "Season Of The Witch" which of course is just a classic, classic song ... and I don't think I've ever actually told anybody this before, but I knew YOUR version of that song before I knew the Donovan version.
AK: (VERY surprised) ... REALLY?!?!?

kk: Well yeah because yours was the one that they played on FM and the Donovan version was an album track ... it wasn't a single and so back then radio didn't play it ...
AK: Well, yeah, you're right about that.

kk: I think I heard the Donovan version for the first time when one of my cousins played it for me on an album ... but it was YEARS later.  Meanwhile I had already fallen in love with your version. And that's not to say that Donovan doesn't do a great version of it ... I mean it's HIS song ... but I love both of those versions. And, I haven't seen it yet, but my wife tells me that he does that at The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony ... he does "Season Of The Witch"
AK: I tried to watch it ... but I erased it. It's very ... I hate it ... I hate The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

kk: It's just become such a joke ... but if you're inducted, you'll go, right???
AK: No ... I don't think so ... (and this probably shouldn't be in the article either) ... but I used to tell me wife that if they induct me posthumously ... and she said, "I know, I know ... I'll accept the award ... and then throw it into the audience."
(EDITOR'S NOTE:  Al later relented and let me leave this in.  MY feelings on The Rock And Roll Hall of Fame are well documented.)

kk: Or like when McCartney got his ... and his daughter wore the "It's About Fucking Time" T-Shirt. I don't understand why some of these people get inducted three times ... and then we've got this whole list of artists who've just been ignored for years and years and years ... and are just as deserving yet they just keep getting passed over year after year after year.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: We were right in the middle of compiling our latest list of The Top 40 Most Deserving And Denied Artists ... and, believe it or not, as I typed this, Al Kooper had eight votes!!!  That series, too, was lost in our recent computer crash and burn.)
AK: Well here's the thing that I see ... I mean in terms of myself and people like me ... is that a lot of it is predicated on record sales ... of which, I can't say I had many.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: According to The Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, record sales and an artist's popularity have NOTHING to do with the induction process. Our research seems to indicate a far greater determining factor seems to be how much money the record label might be willing to spend on tables and promotion!)

kk: Yeah, but Al, you've been involved with some of the biggest names in music over the years. You've got a far more rightful spot there than some of the ridiculous names they bandy about every year at nomination time.
AK: Yeah ... and if they're ever going to induct me, they'll have to induct me as a sideman.

kk: Yes, but what I was going to say is that you've always been in that "family", so to speak, that Rolling Stone seems partial to.
AK: I also thought that it was really bizarre that I wasn't even MENTIONED at the Lynyrd Skynyrd one ... or in the Tom Dowd documentary where he made it sound like HE found them.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Al Kooper produced the first three Lynyrd Skynyrd albums after discovering the band playing in a bar in Atlanta, Georgia.)

kk: Oh, is that right?
AK: Yeah, yeah ... you didn't see the Tom Dowd documentary?

kk: No, I haven't seen that. But I mean they were a bar band, right, when you found them? I mean, weren't they basically just a bar band when you found them?
AK: Yeah, yeah ... I met them in a bar.

kk: That's what I thought.
AK: Yeah, but you know, one of the reasons that I liked 'em ... is because they reminded me of Free ... and it turned out that they were HUGE Free fans ... so that's what we had in common when we worked together.

kk: What was the other one ... I remember something from the book ... where you were in England or something and you kinda helped to break a record that had been pretty dormant here at the time ... pretty much ignored ... but you helped to make it a hit here.
AK: Oh yeah, yeah ... that was "Odyssey and Oracle", the Zombies record.

kk: And now THOSE guys are back together ... and I hear they sound great. I heard some things off their new album ... and there's some REALLY good stuff on there.
AK: Oh no ... they never broke up.

kk: No, but they've gone through changes, right? Haven't they kind of been on the "outs" over the years, each of them going off and doing their own things?
AK: No, not at all. I'm very good friends with them ... we're very good friends. In fact, they played here about a year ago and we went to the show. Actually, here's what I do, now that I'm 68 years old. I go to the sound check and then I have dinner with the artist ... and then I go home.

kk: Yeah, but there's something about the ambiance of an audience ... the whole reaction of the audience ... that's all part of the whole "in concert" experience.
AK: Yes, but usually these people are roughly my age ... unless it's one of the new bands that I like ... in which case they think I'm crazy ... but with some of these new bands, you know, unless their parents are there, there's really nobody that old in the audience ... because these are new bands. So I feel out of place.

kk: Well, you could probably sit back stage at most of these things, couldn't you?
AK: Well then why be there? That's the thing about the sound checks ... I can sit out there in the audience and on occasion, even request my favorite songs ... (lol) ... you know, the ones that I would go and hope to see them play.

kk: lol, yeah right.
AK: I've gone to more shows ... more live gigs of new bands than of anything else.

kk: And no aspirations to maybe produce some of these new artists? I mean, what's the real buzz for you? Recording? Playing? Producing? There's no urge to take one of these new acts under your wing and see what you can do with them?
AK: No, because the music business is so fucked up now ... so what's missing, as a result, is the fun that it used to be to produce an album. It's all gone. Because money, money money is what's important to everybody ... and so it's no fun for me so why do I want to do that? I don't.

kk: And they've been saying for a while now that they're actually not going to be making cds anymore because nobody buys them ... everybody just "cherry picks" their music ... and downloads whatever they like these days ... so what's the point in making them if nobody's going to buy them?
(EDITOR'S NOTE: I went to three different WalMarts this past week ... a place I NEVER go ... but I was trying to pick up this WalMart-only Beach Boys collection that I just HAD to have ... and it was SO disappointing to see that, as big as they are, their so-called music department is now down to one rack of CD's ... every artist, every genre of music ... all diluted down to one rack, with absolutely no selection to choose from. There are days I have more CD's in my CAR than what they have on the shelves for sale! lol)
And I've always been the type who likes to HOLD the whole package in my hands ... and read through the liner notes and read about the artists and the songwriters and the producers ... and where it was recorded ... even just to look at the pictures ... I want something I can hold in my hand and refer back to.
AK: And you know iTunes could do something about that ... I mean they have the space to put that in the notes about each song ... but they don't do that.

kk: Sure, why not? Put down the information as far as who wrote it and who produced it ... I mean that's the kind of stuff that I look for when I listen to new music.
AK: Exactly ... and they could do it ... but they don't. I know that when I write my column I have to do TONS of research ... an unbelievable amount of research ... 'cause I don't know anything about these artists. But fortunately, thank Google ... and I usually get what I need ... but I don't know who these people are. When I find this new music that I like, I know that I'd like to go see them, you know, if they play Boston ... but once again, I'll just go to the sound check.

kk: Now we talked before about this ... and obviously, you're still performing ... but are you still writing new music, too? Still recording?
AK: I'm not writing ... it sort of fell off ... I may write maybe I'd say four songs a year ... and it was many, many more before that ... but I would say that it's dropped off since about 2000 ... but the thing is, I have SO much stuff that's never been recorded ... I have a backlog because I wrote SO much ... and then I make demos ... or I would record it, but it wouldn't fit on the album that I did. So one of the things that I want to do in the next four years is compile a 4-CD Set of everything I did that's unreleased ... 'cause there's some great stuff on there. When I lived in Nashville, I wrote this great song and I asked Felix Cavaliere to sing the demo for me and he did ... and it was unbelievable ... and all he did was come in and sing ... I mean, I had already done the track and everything ... and now it's just laying there ... and it should come out ... people should be able to hear that. It's really good. And then when I worked on George Harrison's album I was thinking of putting a band together with my girlfriend at the time and we were going to do like live Phil Spector-sort of music ... so we did a demo of "He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss" and again, I had a good arrangement of it ... but I wanted George to play the solo ... so during the course of making that album, he did it for me ... and that's just layin' there. Those are just two of the things that I'm talkin' about that people would just really enjoy hearing.

kk: Do you own all of your own masters for this stuff?
AK: Not everything, no ... a lot of is owned by Sony ... but I mean I'd either have to get their permission or I couldn't use it ... but those two things I'm talking about, I own.

kk: Well those two things alone would drum up enough interest to help sell this new set!
AK: Yeah, I mean there's other stuff like that ... I have a rockabilly cover I did that has Richard Thompson and James Burton played on it. SO I mean there's a lot of stuff like this just layin' there. Do you know who Little Beaver is?

kk: No.
AK: OK, he's an R&B sideman from Florida, most notably remembered for "Clean Up Woman" by Betty Wright ... he arranged that and played all the guitars on it ... so when I heard that record, I got on a plane and went to Florida to find the guitar player who played on that. .. that's him playing on my version of "This Diamond Ring" ... and that's some pretty great guitar playing.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Little Beaver is Willie Hale, a virtuoso guitarist who has played on any number of hit records over the years, primarily for TK Records but, as Al mentioned, most notably on Betty Wright's hit single "Clean Up Woman".  You can hear the Al Kooper version of "This Diamond Ring" ... if you haven't already listened to it! ... by simply scrolling up this web page.)

kk: Anything else you'd like to cover for this?
AK: No, I'm about done.

kk: Well, then, I want to thank you again for taking the time to do this.
AK: I think columns like yours are very important - 'cause God knows they've fucked up history so bad.

kk: Well, you know the lead quote on the other Forgotten Hits Website is from Al Kooper and it says something like "Thank you for spreading the truth", which I thought was just a GREAT line ... and just the HIGHEST compliment anybody could ever pay me because that's exactly what I've always tried to do. Because as you've alluded to numerous times, you don't always find the truth out there anymore, especially on the internet.
AK: Not even the internet ... it's everywhere ... you see it wrong in books all the time because people just keep repeating the same wrong information. I makes me realize how fucked up ALL history is as a result ... ALL history.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Al recently sent us that clip called "Beatles 3000" ... where historians a thousand years from now try to recreate the impact of The Beatles on society and pop culture by using any and all artifacts available as resources at this time ... thereby getting ALL of the facts wrong. It's a pretty funny clip!):
I think the thing that offends me the most, out of ALL those lies, is calling that music "Brill Building Music" ... when NONE of it took place in the Brill Building. That offends me the most. Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Neil Sedaka ... NONE of those people wrote in The Brill Building. 1650 Broadway is the building where all of that stuff was happening. Which didn't have a name like The Brill Building. But really, it could have been "The 1650 Sound", because that's exactly what it really is! That bothers me the most.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: This has been a BIG stickler point with Al Kooper for as many years as he's been communicating with Forgotten Hits ... yet there isn't a week that goes by that we don't see something referred to as Brill Building Music ... something I don't know that we'll EVER be able to really change ... because THAT version of the story has now become accepted as the "fact". But we're trying!!!)
AK: Ok, I'm done now.

kk: OK, well then you have a nice day!
AK: You, too.

kk: Thanks again for doin' this.
AK: And thanks for havin' me.