Ghost Upon the Road

Champaign, Ill. Nov. 10, 1998.
It's after the show, and Eric Andersen is charming the wine from a waitress. He smiles as placidly as a devil sure in his gentle temptations, and his voice glows through a whisper.

"Can I get half a carafe of wine?" he asks.
"Not with that wine," the young woman says. "Only the burgundy. We sell the petit seras by the bottle."

"The rules are pretty strict," Andersen says with a grin. "But what would this world be without rules and people to adhere to those rules? If I can't break them, I'll adhere to them."

The irony is rich: Adherence or no, the rules have tried just as hard to break Eric Andersen, an artist Bob Dylan has called "one of the best ballad writers," a musician the late music critic Robert Palmer named "one of the masters."

Andersen emerged from the '60s Greenwich Village coffeehouses as the only singer/songwriter whose voice and vision could often equal those of that other master (and close friend), Dylan. But for over two decades he has hovered near obscurity. Up until last year Andersen had no record deal, no agent, and had barely toured in four years. "I was out of commission for a while. Both of my parents died recently," he explains. In 1989 he released his first solo album in a decade, the devastating spiritual autobiography Ghosts Upon the Road, but immediately his label tanked. Ghosts was then picked up by Plump Records, who, as if on cue, lost their distribution deal. He made two albums -- the first remarkable, the second fair -- with Rick Danko and Jonas Fjeld, and both received strong critical reviews -- "The kiss of death," Andersen laughs, quoting Lou Reed -- and then D.A. Pennebaker filmed the trio's European tour. The film has never been shown. Seventeen years earlier his masterpiece Stages had disappeared; it finally resurfaced in '91, but copies are scarce in St. Louis. Now Andersen tells me of songs he wrote with Townes Van Zandt, but the melodies were lost when Van Zandt died.

I drove three hours across the frozen Midwest to see Andersen perform and to talk to him for a story that, until now, I never wrote. His performance was astonishing. When he sang he was transported, and he carried the audience with him. "The endorphins kick in," Andersen says. "The main drug is your brain." He sang and the bones of his face sharpened with an aching history and endurance. He played "Blue River" on a piano, whispered and moaned and marshaled the echoing space of the room: No emotion was beyond his command. He opened with a goodbye song, "Close the Door Lightly When You Go" (which Fairport Convention covered), and he mused, "Who was the one who robbed my time?" At any moment you'd swear his body would break open from the smoldering energy of his songs, "the strangers speaking holy," "the blindfold wonderments."

There are love songs, and there are Eric Andersen love songs. He is that rare confessional writer whose work transcends his own sins, whose loves and losses are rendered with such original intensity, with such a mastery of musical and lyrical language, that they become a shared mystery:

If we are the sum of all what's me and you, then that is one I won't forget
If there was a mouth, a kiss, a heart before we even knew, then we must have touched before we even met

And because he writes of love, he writes of time, "that skinny thief without a face," time that both nourishes and desolates desire. "I always wanted to write a song called 'Time Takes All,'" he says. "Time fascinates me. In Egypt they took the pharaohs and gave them a kind of euthanasia, up to the point of death, and then the priests would bring them back to life. It was to see the path to the everlasting, to the future."

His remarkable compositions include "Thirsty Boots" (recorded by Judy Collins), "Dusty Box Car Wall" (frequently performed by Gillian Welch), "Violets of Dawn" (recorded by Al Kooper) and songs like "Sheila," "Wind and Sand" and, especially, "Time Run Like a Freight Train," as much a vision as an incomparably gorgeous lyric.

There's nothing left but mercy now
For you the one-armed thief
The poet who pawned his mystery
in turn for some relief

"It's kind of a hymn to despair. Remember, in those days I was listening to Leonard Cohen to get cheered up," he laughs. "It's from a time when I was overworked, just wanting to bail out for a while." He stops. "You just write this stuff. If you really knew what it meant, you wouldn't write it. Writing is an unconscious act; thinking is the archenemy. These things just float to the surface. I'm not one of these people who can plot or draw blueprints of songs. It's a chemistry between you and your subconscious. Songs are a key to open doors, push boundaries, stretch the medium. When I went to Nashville to record Blue River and Stages, the musicians were completely excited: Here's a guy who doesn't want us to play Floyd Cramer licks! They were hot to do something new. That's why these records don't sound like country records. When we were doing Stages, we were with Pete Drake, the guy who played on every Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Billy Sherrill record; he could hardly wait to try playing what he wanted to play. His steel on Stages is just bizarre; it's like he dropped acid or something. It was beautiful."

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