Frank Gutch Jr: Tracy Nelson (Mother Earth) Talks Sixties San Francisco, The Music Biz, Racism and The Counterculture’s View Toward Women!!! Plus Notes…..

FrankJr2I’ll be a sonofabitch!  I was on page ten of this post when the goddamned computer decided to start a new document from that point, shredding the old one into etherdom.  For a minute, I was pissed, I tell you, because that was two days of work, but the couple of hours trying to retrieve said document made me realize how much I really don’t care.  It may be time and work lost, but this interview, graciously granted by Tracy Nelson, a monumentally talented vocalist, was lost to the ages (computer crash) until I came upon a hard copy I had printed for just that reason.  I cannot begin to tell you how happy I was to find it.

I remember the day and the phone call, but had forgotten how forthcoming was Ms. Nelson with her comments about the band and the times.  Do I mind retyping the whole interview?  Not at all.  This, along with interviews by a handful of survivors of the sixties SF rock scene, is a gem.  It is a no-holds-barred look at San Francisco and the so-called Summer of Love, the music biz and the attitudes toward women, in and out of music, at the time.  Her viewpoint, in fact, has altered my view of that summer.  Hers and that of Gary Duncan (Quicksilver), Dehner Patten (KAK), Peter Albin (Big  Brother & The Holding Company), DBAWIS‘s own Bob Segarini (The Family Tree).  You think everything was all Flower Power and love?  Think again.

popculturepress65 001Before I begin reproducing the whole interview in its entirety, allow me to give a nod to Luke Torn and Kent Benjamin of the in-limbo (I am not one to say defunct because I’m hoping for a Phoenix to arise from the ashes) Pop Culture Press, one of the zines I read and was very happy to have written for.  To give a Cliff’s Notes version of how this interview came about, I was sitting at home in front of my computer one day in early Spring back in 2007 when an email from Mr. Torn appeared in my inbox.  He wanted me to help them gather information about the Summer of Love from musicians who had actually participated, hence the names above.  I was ready.  And I was pumped.  I was a huge Quicksilver fan, had KAK‘s self-titled album on CD (my vinyl copy had disintegrated from so much play), pulled my Mother Earth/Living With the Animals LP out whenever I wanted to hear the “earth” side of the era, still played my original Big Brother & The Holding Company album on Mainstream, and had not only The Family Tree‘s Miss Butters album, but those Segarini-infused later efforts by Roxy, The Wackers, The Dudes and what Segarini calls The Segarini Band, though I call that lineup simply Segarini.  Interview them?  I would pay to do that, I said, and I did because the long distance charges were on me.  Did I mind?  Not even.  I learned more about that whole San Francisco scene from those interviews than I have from a string of articles, books and documentaries I have come across since.  I was maybe not a hippie, but I was a back-to-the-earth proponent and music was a huge part of who I wanted to become.

I owe Mr. Torn and Mr. Benjamin more than I will ever admit (kidding) because without that chance, I more than likely would never have made contact with any of those musicians, all of whom have become very important to me.  Not the least of whom, by the way, is Segarini.  If you have not read the interview I conducted with him, click here and be amazed.  The man is not a one trick pony.  And he has become a colleague and what I would call good friend.

Tracy-NelsonBut this is not about the Bobert, as I call him.  This is about Tracy Nelson‘s view of that time from a variety of angles.  Set yourself.  This is one fascinating interview, especially if you find that whole SF/psychedelia thing intriguing.  Tracy pulls no punches.

And let me be clear.  This is not about me.  I was almost nonexistent here.  Tracy took over shortly after the interview began.  All I did was ask questions.  And she answered them all.  Beautifully.

By the way, this interview has never been printed or posted in its entirety.  The article, printed by  Pop Culture Press in their Fall/Winter Issue of 2007 (Issue 65), was written as an oral history and took excerpts from this interview as well as others conducted by myself, Mr. Torn, and Mr. Benjamin.  I have always thought that each interview deserved to be printed on its own.  Here is Ms. Nelson’s:

While we begin in what seems like mid-interview, it is very close to the beginning, which was cut off due to a computer error—

(regarding Tracy’s move to Nashville)

motherearthjoyfulnoiseTracy:  … and we did a record and I liked it here so I stayed.

PCP:  You did a record, or the band?

Tracy:  We recorded the second Mother Earth album here.  We ended up a tour at Vanderbilt and Harvey Mandel had recorded an album at Bradley’s Barn here outside of Nashville.  He told me how cool it was and what a nice place it was to record and we thought, what the hell, it’s time to make another record.  By the time we’d finished recording it, I just decided I wanted to stay here.

PCP:  Where were you from originally?

Tracy:  Wisconsin.

PCP:  Why did I think Texas?

Tracy:  Because everybody else in the band was from Texas.  Our manager and every single one of our musicians were from Texas.  Except me.

PCP:  You ran into them…

Tracy:  In San Francisco.

PCP:  What were you doing in San Francisco?

Tracy:  I went out there to try to make a career, playing music.

PCP:  How old were you?

Tracy:  About 21.

PCP:  So you were an old person there at the time.  Seems to me that in the documentaries I have seen, most of the kids there were in their teens.

Tracy:  Exactly.  I went to college for two years, stayed another year in Madison and when it became clear to me that I wanted to play music, I went out there because I thought it was the practical thing to do.  Which it was.  It made getting into the business a lot easier because everybody was looking there at the time.

dougsahmPCP:  How did you meet the guys?

Tracy:  I can tell this story with impunity now that Doug (Sahm) is gone, God bless him.  He had asked me to not tell this story (laughs) and you will understand why when I tell you.

Travis Rivers was our manager from the beginning and all the way through to the end of the band.  He was from Texas.  I had met Ira Kamin through (I think) Steve Miller.  Ira was the only member of the band who wasn’t from Texas— he was from Chicago.  He and Powell St. John, who was also from Texas,  and I had gotten together and were just throwing things around.  You know, we liked the same kind of music.  We were looking for a rhythm section.  Ira played organ, Powell played mouth harp and I didn’t play anything outside of a little piano.  Travis came up to us one day— Travis was managing the two of them at this point— I’m sorry.  This is a little convoluted, but it gets linear at a point.  Anyway, Travis came up to us and said, I found a perfect rhythm section.   Our problem had been that we couldn’t find anybody who played blues or R&B.  I mean, all of the musicians out there had just started playing, literally.  Pigpen had gone from being a shoe salesman to playing piano.  Everyone was just learning their craft and no one was particularly interested in playing R&B, nor did they have any history in that.  But Travis said it was a really good funky R&B section from Texas and I said, great.  Where’d you find them?  And he said, well, it’s Doug Sahm‘s band.  Doug, after Sir Douglas had done what it was going to do, had put together a band called, I think, The Funky Blues Band or something to that effect.  It was an R&B band and he had brought them up to San Francisco for the same reason we were all there, which was to get discovered.  I said, we can’t just take somebody else’s rhythm section.  Isn’t Doug going to be pissed off?  And Travis said, fuck ‘im.  He just ran off with my wife.  (laughs)  We definitely got the better end of that deal.

PCP:  So, you go to the guys and say we’d like to try it out and they say fine, or…

Tracy:  See, Doug had just kind of split and left them hanging, really.  They were all sitting there with nothing to do and we got together and went from there.

PCP:  Was it good right off the bat?

Tracy:  Absolutely.  I mean, George Rains on drums.  An absolutely magnificent keyboard player named Wayne Talbert, who had some serious heroin problems and couldn’t maintain, really, but God, he was just a magnificent musician.  The guitar player was less wonderful, but just having these guys who were steeped in the music that we loved was something we really didn’t think we were ever going to find.  We thought we were going to have to start importing people.  So yeah, it worked right from the git-go.

motherearthlivingPCP:  Your first album was on Mercury Records?

Tracy:  Yes.

PCP:  How did that deal come about?

Tracy:  Well, all of the labels were there.  Big Brother and the Jefferson Airplane had already been contracted and had put out records, so every label was looking for their versions of that.  The fact that we had a girl singer who was a strong singer made them think that they had the next Janis Joplin.  Really, it was relatively easy.  By the time we started playing gigs, we had record company people sniffing around.  It was just a matter of picking the best deal.

PCP:  So Mercury offered you more money?

Tracy:  Well, I didn’t handle that end of it.  You might want to talk with Travis, as a matter of fact.  He is a fountain of information.  You know, he brought Janis up from Texas and was there from the very beginning.  He was managing editor of the underground paper, The Oracle.  The deal with Mercury, I am sure, was the best terms all the way around.  I didn’t pay too much attention to it at the time.  But like I say, it was easy to get it done.

PCP:  Was it like a whirlwind of everything going on around you?  Kind of not seeing the forest for the trees at times?

Tracy:  I was a musician.  I didn’t handle the business.  Our manager and our lawyer handled the business.  My assumption is that, yes, the deal was better than any of the others offered or that would have not been what we decided on.  That was something I wasn’t paying too much attention to at the time.  We were just dealing with the music.

PCP:  So you got together and thought, hey, this is going to work?  How did the name come about?

Tracy:  That’s exactly it.  We played together and thought it would work.  Everybody was looking to get into the scene because the scene was wide open and quite lucrative.

billgraham1Bill Graham was really responsible for my being able to stay out there and being able to get anything done.  I met him early on, before I had even put a band together.  We kind of hit it off.  He liked the fact that I liked all these different kinds of music— jazz, blues, gospel and R&B.  He loved almost every kind of music, but he was particularly into R&B and blues and what they now call Latin Music— Willie Bobo and Tito Puente and stuff like that.  He loved it and wanted to bring it all into his hall in addition to the local psychedelic bands.  Because he wanted to spoon feed that kind of music to all of the people who were coming to see bands like the Jefferson Airplane.  He was really conscientious about that and he liked us because we were a little different than other bands and had our roots more in roots music.  From the time we got together, he was hiring us.

PCP:  Was he easily accessible?

Tracy:  Bill?  No.  He was one of the few people I’ve known in this business, or in my life, who completely intimidated me.  But he was always very good to us.  It’s not like I would call him up or hang out with him.  But he liked us and gave us work.  And, truly, we weren’t within the mainstream of what was going on then.  We were playing blues and R&B.

Powell (St. John) was totally unique.  Do you know of Powell?  Are you aware of his stuff?  He recently released a record, as a matter of fact.  He was sort of retired for 40 years and just put out a record.  He is a brilliant, brilliant songwriter.  His lyrics…  You have to hear him to understand just how brilliant he is.  His songs are so deep and so complicated and his lyrics just brilliant.  But he wasn’t temperamentally very suited for the music business.  In fact, when he told me he was going to retire, he basically said I just don’t like crowds.  (laughs)  But Powell was the part of the band that was into the psychedelic realm.  The rest of us were playing blues and R&B.

howlwolf2At the time, early on, somebody said, hey, you like the blues, go see the Grateful Dead.  I went to hear them and thought, fuck, this isn’t blues.  (laughs)  I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and went to Chicago every weekend and heard Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and those folks and that, to me, was blues.  So what the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service were playing was not, to me, blues.  When we started playing, we were trying to stay as authentic and true to the roots as possible, what with us all being white people.  So we just weren’t in the mainstream with the rest of the groups, but because we played the Fillmore, people accepted us and that’s all it took.  If you were on stage at The Fillmore, you’d arrived.

PCP:  Did Graham ever go on one of his tirades while you were onstage?

Tracy:  Never.  I’ve seen him do it, but I was never a recipient of it.

PCP:  Bill Pillmore of Cowboy told me a story about the crowd throwing things at the band at the Fillmore East, screaming for the Allman Brothers, and Graham came out and grabbed a microphone and tore into the crowd, saying they would listen to Cowboy or they weren’t getting anybody.

Tracy:  Well, he was a hardass, no two ways about it, but I have great respect and admiration for him because he, I would say single-handedly, made the white youth of America aware of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding, Manitas de Plata, Willie Bobo…  I mean, he force fed this really great music to people who otherwise would really have been only interested in hearing the San Francisco sound.  And he did that because he loved that music.  He promoted music because he liked to make money and was very good at it.  But he also truly loved music.  And I’ve heard him get an extremely bad rap from a lot of people who I think are just bitter and…

PCP:  I often wonder because I’ve read a lot about that.  Bob Segarini has nothing but good to say about him.  I was talking with Bob yesterday and he told me what a really amazing guy he was.

Tracy:  Yes, he was.

PCP:  And a lot of what he called positive had to do with Graham promoting the different genres.

Tracy:  So I’m not alone in that impression of him?  I mean, in the day he used to get— and I still hear it today— a lot of stupid criticism.  Number one, for making money.  Well, sue me.  Early on, it was that he was a crass materialist and all that bullshit.  Even today, from people who were there, I hear stupid negative things about him  that just don’t ring true on any level.  It sounds like so much carping and bitterness, which musicians frequently indulge in.  He was a brilliant and very significant man in terms of modern popular music.

PCP:  Would Mother Earth have done much without him?  Would you have had much of a chance?

Tracy:  I don’t think any of us would have without him.

PCP:  Did you work with Chet Helms at all?

Tracy:  Some, yeah.  We probably played more at the Fillmore, but some at The Avalon.  And I would say the same about Chet as I did with Bill, just that he wasn’t as good at it.  But he had the same impetus, I think.  I didn’t know him at all, but he certainly did the same things and should be credited for it.

familydogPCP:  Did you ever play The Family Dog?

Tracy:  Yeah.

PCP:  So there were three major venues?  The Fillmore, The Avalon and, The Family Dog?

Tracy:  No.  The Family Dog was The Avalon.  Family Dog was the production company which put on the shows at The Avalon.

PCP:  I thought that later on, The Family Dog put on some things that were done outside of the area, up around North Beach?

Tracy:  Yeah, like I said, it was a production company, Chet’s company.  When you see those posters of Family Dog shows, most of them were at The Avalon.

PCP:  Did Graham book The Avalon at all or was that all Helms?

Tracy:  It was all Helms.

PCP:  Boy, I’m way off.  I thought that Bill Graham worked out of the Avalon and then took the Fillmore, too.

Tracy:  No.  What you may be confused about is— and Travis could tell you more about it—  initially, Bill and Chet may have been connected, early on.  Then maybe Bill got the master lease on the Fillmore and moved on.  I don’t really know.  Travis would.

PCP:  It’s hard to vet your information because there are so many conflicting stories out there.

Tracy:  Because everybody was stoned and nobody knew what the fuck was going on.  (laughs)

PCP:  Were you stoned, Tracy?

Tracy:  Not very much.  I didn’t go there for that whole cultural thing that was going on.  I went there because I was trying to make a living playing music.  I did drugs, but I wasn’t particularly a part of the drug culture, and I didn’t embrace most of what the people out there were into.  Not culturally and not biochemically.  So I was observing more than participating when I was there.  And in the late sixties, it had really become quite dark.  Way too many drugs.  A lot of very bad energy.  Musicians were starting to get ripped off.  I think it was that the drug culture had become what every drug culture becomes, as people become desperate and destitute and start stealing from one another.

And there were the riots.  We were in Tennessee and Travis had gone back to Berkeley and he called and said that the National Guard was camped on my front lawn.  I had a house in South Berkeley.  So I told him to pack everything and bring it back to Tennessee.  So the whole scene, as far as I was concerned, had started degenerating about that time.  It was inevitable, mainly because of the amount of drugs in the culture.

PCP:  So Travis packed everything up and the band worked out of Tennessee?

tracynelsoncountryTracy:  He packed all my stuff.  We lived together, so it wasn’t like I was making him do all the work.  He brought the stuff and my dogs to Tennessee.  Then I called the guys.  We had been in Tennessee when we were making the record, but they had all gone back to California.  I’d stayed because we had another month on the lease of this lovely big old farmhouse that we were renting.  In fact, that’s when I did my country record.  During that month.  I called the guys and said, I’m moving here, so you guys can either go out on your own or we’ll keep the band together and work out of Nashville.  Which we thought was practical, never mind the fact that I liked Nashville better than San Francisco.  It was more centrally located.  It was easier to get to different parts of the country.

All of the guys were for it, except for the two black musicians in the band.  They said no fucking way were they going to move to Crib Death, Tennessee.  In 1969, I didn’t blame them at all.  But the rest of the guys came down here and that’s when we started working out of Nashville.  It wasn’t a smart business move.

PCP:  Did you care?

Tracy:  No, because I thought it was.  I didn’t understand why it wouldn’t be.  I didn’t see why there would be any difference no matter where we were.  But that’s how little I understood about the business.  We were in Nashville, we recorded our records here, but people didn’t know what to do with us.  People didn’t know which slot to put us into.  Both the business people and the buying public became confused with us.  It affected our and my career to a degree, but not to the degree that it gave me any serious pause.

PCP:  But your direction is tied to that move,  It seems that your move toward the indie market began then.

Tracy:  Yeah, but when we first came here, we were still a band, still Mother Earth, and it made it a little more difficult to get people to understand who and what we were, and it also made the record companies— well, they didn’t know where to put us.  They got confused and didn’t know how to promote us.  I think if we’d have stayed in San Francisco, we probably could have built momentum better.  At least, as opposed to Nashville.  It is kind of ephemeral and hard to state anything categorically about how things work in this business, but it seems in retrospect that that was probably the case.  But again, it wasn’t a huge issue for me.  We were making a living and I was living somewhere that I liked a lot better than where I was living before.  And I’m still alive.

PCP:  You are.  And you’re still in Tennessee.  You must have liked it fine.

Tracy:  I liked it for several years.  I’m kind of over it now.  I’m ready to move somewhere else.  I’m ready for a change.  The Mid-South is still The South.  The degree of racism in this area is just appalling to me.  It’s just appalling.

PCP:  Do you think it would be much different anywhere else, though?

Tracy:  I would hope so.  I do a lot of traveling and, yes, I think it is different in other places.

PCP:  I wonder because I have lived in Oregon and Washington for so many years and it has always been fairly loose.  But ever since this whole Bush thing happened, my concept of what America is has taken a real beating.

Tracy:  I understand what you’re saying, however I find that in certain parts of the country, there are a lot more people who think like we do than here in Tennessee.  I mean, Nashville has supposed to have gotten so hip and all of these people from L.A. moved here.  Well, the people from L.A. who moved here are mostly racist and they moved here so they could be more comfortable in their racism.  I’ve lived here since 1969 and it has gotten progressively more prevalent every single year.  Because people are becoming more and more comfortable with it.  They don’t try to hide it anymore.  And, like I said, I find it appalling.

PCP:  What was it like in San Francisco?  Did you find the racial thing…

Tracy:  The racial thing was cool in San Francisco.  What wasn’t cool was the male/female thing.  Women were really second class citizens in the whole hippie scene.  They might argue that point, but women were expected to be traditional, old-timey— take care of the kids, make tea, cook organic food…

PCP:  Really?  The media sure got that wrong, then.

Tracy:  I don’t know that the media ever addressed that.  Did they?  A lot of people have fantasies about how it was, but they weren’t there.

PCP:  The alternative press did.  The ones considered underground.  The Berkeley Barb and outfits like that.

hippiesTracy:  The Berkeley Barb.  You see, there were two different factions in San Francisco in those days.  There was the flower child – hippie – psychedelic faction, completely apolitical, very traditional in the way they looked at things and, as I say, particularly women.  And then there were the more radical political people.  And the two factions were not necessarily connected.  Even within the radical faction, and I was not really connected to that, womens issues did not really arrive, at least during that time period, that I could see.  If it did, it was probably more on the East Coast and in places where there was more of a well-entrenched and active political scene.  The San Francisco scene was, you know, people staying stoned, laying around and playing or listening to music.

PCP:  Did you feel that you were looked upon as a second class citizen, yourself?

Tracy:  Yes.  Absolutely.

PCP:  Even though you were with a band?  I always thought the bands…

Tracy:  My band wasn’t like that.  I picked people I could get along with.

PCP:  But among the people who followed the music, I always thought that if anybody was attached to a band, they had special status.

Tracy:  You think connection to a band gave you special status?  Yes, that’s probably true, but that was business.  I’m not sure this will make the point I am trying to make, but when I first got to San Francisco and I met Bill Graham, he gave me the telephone numbers of all the managers of all the working bands that he knew of in the area.  He gave me the numbers and said you can use my name.  Just call them up and see if they want to hire a girl singer.  I called every one of them and every one said, absolutely not!  They do not want a girl singer in their group.  They were afraid that they would lose their status, that a woman would get all the attention.  And that was true.  They were right to be concerned about that because everybody was looking for the next Grace or the next Janis.  So the fact that women were in bands… think about it.  How many were there?

But the fact that there were some women who were obviously out there in that time…  I personally would say that I admired Grace Slick more than Janis because…  in retrospect, I must say that I really respect Janis in terms of what she was able to do, but because we were doing basically the same kind of music…  As a singer, I didn’t think that she was that great.  And we were so directly competitive that it was difficult for me to really look at her as she was.  Grace was completely different, but I thought the stuff she did was amazing, especially what she did with the Great Society.  That band and the music they did was really extraordinary.  Very musical, very deep, kind of jazz-oriented.  I thought they were great.

Great_Society_1965PCP:  What made Grace split from theGreat Society?

Tracy:  You’d have to ask her that.  I know that she had the band with her husband and generally there is is built-in potential there, so I really don’t know what made them split.  I don’t think she split because she went with the Airplane.  The Airplane had another singer initially (Signe Tole Anderson), and Grace and and Great Society was working at the same time.  So when Great Society split up, she hooked up with Jefferson Airplane.  There were two women quite prevalently out there, but that was all business.  As far as their being able to…

I have no knowledge of how it was for those women.  I’ve never met Grace, much to my disappointment.  I have always wanted to meet her.  I met Janis several times, but I know nothing about how the inner workings of the band were for her.  I just know what the culture was.

I do know that one of Janis’s musicians once walked into my dressing room at the Fillmore— I think we were both on the bill— I was sitting there with my roommate’s daughter and he asked if that was my daughter and I said no, and he asked if I had any children and I said hell, no.  And he went off on me.  He didn’t understand why women would want to be in the business and he really respected that his wife stayed home and took care of their children and blah blah blah.  He thought women were crazy to try and be in the music business.  Steve Miller told me the same thing.

PCP:  Was that a standard attitude that men in the business seemed to have at the time?

Tracy:  It was the standard attitude that everybody had at the time.  Not just with guys in the business.  But it was no less so because they were in the music business.  And I daresay that the guys who worked with me would have preferred not working with a woman, but pragmatically they realized that it was a plus in terms of the viability of the group.

motherearthporchPCP:  Did you overcome that attitude?  Or was that something mainly at the beginning?

Tracy:  Yes.  If I had the sense of an overt hostility or resistance— and, in fact, with a couple of people I did, and we parted ways, early on.  The band that recorded the first album was— I don’t think there was a person left besides Powell and myself.  And George Rains.  Myself, and Powell and Rains were the only people left from the original Mother Earth which recorded that first album.  And they went their own ways, to a large degree, because they didn’t like working with a woman.  And the fact that they were idiots and assholes. (Pic: Mother Earth and Friends on their porch)

PCP:  My view of what it was is so far off…

Tracy:  Well, you have to remember that you’re only talking to one person.

PCP:  But while I was growing up, I thought it was all about the music.  I never even considered that San Francisco was involved with social castes and the like.

Tracy:  But it’s life.  It’s a segment of life.  And life doesn’t exist in a vacuum in any way.

PCP:  Well, maybe what I thought at the time was that San Francisco broke the bubble.  That things were changing.

Tracy:  What do we know about how the media presents things?  I mean, why would it have been more true than it is now?  I’m sure that some truth filtered through, but generally it was hype and a self-perpetuating myth.

PCP:  Were there times that you saw the media present untruths or skewed views of you and your band?

Tracy:  No, I don’t think so.  When we moved to Nashville, we rented and I ended up staying in this big farmhouse on 600 acres outside of Mount Juliet.  We all lived together when we were making the record.  Then when we decided we were all going to move here, I kept the house and the guys all found their own places.  But somehow, people had gotten the impression that it was a commune.  It was out in the country so of course we didn’t lock doors or anything.  I would get up and come out of my room into the kitchen in the morning and there would be people sleeping on my floor in the dining room.  They had somehow gotten directions to the house, driven up in the middle of the night, walked in and put down their bedrolls and gone to sleep.  They thought it was a commune.  And those people, because the name of the band was Mother Earth, kind of looked at me like I was Mother Earth.  So there was this whole impression that people had which they created themselves.

The same was true of how the media created what was going on.  There was a lot of intellectualizing and critical analysis of the social mores and blah blah blah.  I didn’t pay much attention to it, but I doubt that it had much to do with reality.

PCP:  But isn’t that the reality being presented now?  The whole flower power and love thing?

Tracy:  Pretty much.

PCP:  I find that interesting, because a few people out there are saying that the media’s whole view of the flower power thing was not the way it was, that it was a skewed view of the past.

Tracy:  A lot of people will say, oh yes it was, but most of them weren’t there.  Some people will say no, it wasn’t that way.  But some people fully embrace it.  Like I say, I didn’t, so my perception is markedly different than someone who embraced the whole philosophy.  In fact, whatever it was initially, or whatever people hoped it would be, it deteriorated rapidly into a pretty unseemly scene.  And there was a big dark side to it.  And drugs were the catalyst.  Drugs were the catalyst for the whole fantasy and drugs were the catalyst for the reality being less than people thought it was.  I wasn’t particularly friendly with the people who were firmly entrenched in it and I don’t know any of those people now, so I can’t speak for them.

motherearthrevolutionPCP:  The Revolution soundtrack.  Were those tracks recorded specifically for that soundtrack or were they tracks from other sessions?

Tracy:  Two of the songs, Without Love, and what did Powell do?  Stranger?  Well, there were four bands.  Us, Steve Miller, Quicksilver— were there others?  There had to be.  (Ed. Note:  The bands who had tracks on the soundtrack besides Mother Earth, Quicksilver, and Steve Miller were Ace of Cups, Country Joe & The Fish and Dan Hicks)  They gave us the title track, Revolution.  The other two songs by us were songs we had been doing in our shows.  This was before we’d ever recorded.  I remember them playing us this song, and it was really kind of a hokey song and the lyrics were stupid and self-serving peace and love crap.  It wasn’t an awful song.  It wasn’t anything I would have been particularly embarrassed doing.  It just wasn’t very interesting.  I had been really turned on by The BeatlesAll You Need Is Love— it was an unusual meter, like 7/8 or something like that.  So we put Revolution into 7/4 time, just to tinker with it, to make it more interesting.  That’s how that song came about and, as I said, the other two were just songs which we had been doing.

PCP:  And they had special songs just for those recordings?

Tracy:  Yeah.  We went down to L.A. and recorded down there.   I actually lived there before I lived in San Francisco.

PCP:  So you went to the hub of the record industry, hoping to make it?

tracynelsondeepTracy:  Well, this is probably not in the framework of what you’re interested in, but I started out as a folksinger as a young girl and recorded an album for Prestige Records of folk blues when I was nineteen.  Then I started sitting in with an R&B band and got really hooked on working with a full band.  We had three singers— two black singers and myself—, a full horn section, two keyboards, guitars.  We essentially did the fraternity circuit.  We did sixties R&B covers which were current at the time.

But I needed money and there was this contest— a folk contest that Randy Sparks, who used to have The New Christy Minstrels, was putting on.  It turned out, I discovered later, that he did this all over the country and called people from these contests to put together all these groups— kind of like Up With People, Back Porch Majority, New Christy Minstrels types of groups.  He had like several of these touring groups that he had put together than way.

Anyway, there was a folk contest and I entered and I won.  I entered for the $300 prize, but part of that prize was a two week gig at his club in L.A.  I took him up on that.  He flew me up there and I did two weeks in his club doing my folk act.  As soon as that was done and I had a little money in my pocket, I went up to San Francisco.

PCP:  What made you go to San Francisco?

Tracy:  I didn’t like L.A., to begin with, but also San Francisco seemed like a more interesting scene to me.  L.A. was so huge and kind of glitzy and San Francisco was where all of the new bands were being discovered.  I thought it would be a better shot.

The (Prestige) album, by the way, is out of print.  I’ve made around 24 albums over the years and that’s the only one that isn’t available on CD, except in Japan.  If you want to pay about 40 or 50 bucks, you can get a Japanese import.

PCP:  How many CDs do you have available through your website?  (Ed Note:  Remember, this interview took place in July of 2007)

Tracy:  Probably close to 20.  There are two MCA albums and one we did on Columbia that have been reissued and then unissued.  Meaning that they were reissued, but only briefly.

PCP:  Have you tried to get the rights to them yourself?

Tracy:  Yes.  And I have tried to get the rights to the Prestige record and they won’t give them up.  They periodically release them and all have been reissued overseas.  Prestige kept saying they were going to reissue it, but they didn’t want to give it up to me.  And they have never reissued it.  It’s not a high priority for me.  That record— it’s like a different person who did that record.  It’s not like I have a vested interest in having it out there, but just in point of fact, I would like to have everything available.

PCP:  The CDs that you have available on your website,those are albums you bought the rights to?

tracynelsonebonyTracy:  No.  We just buy the CDs at cost and sell them at retail.  There is only one record on my site that I own and that is Ebony and Irony.  Everything else is still owned by the labels which originally issued them.  But they have reissued the records as CDs, so they are available to us.  I bought up a lot of old stock.  When the MCA albums were reissued, at one point they were cut out and I bought a bunch of them then.  As a matter of fact, I am trying to get whoever has MCA to do that again.

PCP:  Who knows what is going on with the major labels.  You have three major record companies now?  What a mess.

Tracy:  It is a mess.  My favorite record that I’ve ever done in my life I own, and that is what I’m really happy about.

PCP:  Which is Ebony and Irony?

Tracy:  Yes.  And the two I’ve done for Memphis International I don’t own, but I know those guys and I like them.  We’re all friends, so that’s fine.  The Mother Earth stuff is out there.  People can get it if they want it.  That’s also good, but I don’t have any real need to own them.

PCP:  Do you see much in terms of royalties off of those albums?

Tracy:  Yeah.

PCP:  I have talked with artists who have never seen a dime from reissues.

Tracy:  Well, I’m sure I only see a fraction of what is owed me.  But every three months, I get some sort of little check.  That’s all through Warner Brothers, because they bought the Mercury stuff.

PCP:  What about publishing rights?

Tracy:  I own my publishing.

PCP:  Do you see substantial royalties there?

Tracy:  Not a lot, but enough.  I’ve never given up my publishing and that is a whole separate entity.  It is also, to a degree, dependent upon the bookkeeping of the label.  So, again, you probably never receive what you are supposed to.

PCP:  Did it ever frustrate you that you couldn’t break through as an artist?  To be appreciated on a mass scale?

Tracy:  Probably more early on.  But I had great optimism early on, too.  But no, because the more I stayed in the business, the more I understood it and understood the choices I was making and what they would mean.  I never expected anything bigger than what my career has been.

tracynelsonatlanticpromoshotPCP:  At what point did the optimism start to fade?

Tracy:  Within the second or third year.  When I started understanding the music business.  When I started paying attention to it.  Let’s put it that way.

PCP:  Did you always have a manager?

Tracy:  I had a manager up through Mother Earth and after that, no.

PCP:  Was that when it all started to fade?  When you didn’t have anyone to cushion you from the real world?

Tracy:  That’s when I started paying attention to it, yeah.  But even before that I knew that either you have to do this or you’re not going to be able to do that.  I never could take the kind of direction which would be required of me to get that kind of support and success that I might have had.  But who knows?  I could have done everything right and still not have done any better.

PCP:  Were there a lot of false promises?

Tracy:  No.  I mean, labels would say we love you and we’re really going to promote your record and then they wouldn’t, but that’s just the way it is.  (laughs)  But I didn’t believe anything anybody told me anyway, so I was rarely disappointed.

PCP:  Were you that way by the time you got to San Francisco?  Outside of the optimism, were you leery of what came out of peoples mouths?

Tracy:  I don’t think I thought much about it in the beginning.  Like I say, initially I had very little to do with the business end of it.  I would want to know how much money we were getting and how much autonomy we would have.  Those were the only two concerns I had in terms of the business.

PCP:  So autonomy was an important issue.

Tracy:  It was primary.  How much money they give us and will they leave us alone.

tracy-nelsonaPCP:  Did they leave you alone?

Tracy:  Yeah.  You know, up until the late seventies, the labels were totally in awe of the artists.  There was that brief little period from about ’65 to ’75 when there was still independent radio and groups and artists were recording whatever they wanted and it didn’t have to fit into certain formats, which before and after was the case.  There was that brief little window where that was the way it was, and the labels accepted it.  Then, I;’m not sure what made it change, but I guess when they started losing money instead of making it, they went back to the old format.  I was completely ruined by starting my career during that period of time because there was no way I was ever going back.  Having had total control and total autonomy, there was no way I was ever going to give that up.

PCP:  Did you ever hear of any groups having problems regarding lack of autonomy?

Tracy:  Not groups as much as individual artists.  Sort of apocryphally.  I would hear about someone getting leaned on in the studio by the label to do this or that, but that was more the case with female artists.  Certainly, most of the women I knew who were singers found it almost impossible to control their studio situations.  That only happened to me once and that person is getting killed in one of my books.  It was out of my control.  He was the producer and he had the purse strings and he acted in a way that I found completely unacceptable, but I got the job done and never spoke to him again.


If you have read this far, you know what I mean when I say that doing this interview was a breeze.  Tracy had obviously done interviews before and had thought about her past enough to articulate what she needed to.  That reference to the book?  She was writing one at the time of the interview.  I would love to read how she killed that producer off.  Musicians have such devious minds…..

Next week, a rundown on the new No Small Children album, Trophy Wife, and if all goes well, a look at bands and artists I either missed or never got to, but not Music Notes smallbecause I wanted to.  In the meantime, here are some more…..

Notes….. Whew!  After what seems a hundred years (it was much less), Seattle’s The Soft Hills are back with a new album.  These guys are a somnambulent treat to these ears.  While I can’t wait (okay, I really can) to hear the whole album, I at least get to see the video of White Queen.  You, lucky bastards that you are, do too.  Warning:  Do not operate machinery while listening to this song!

Here’s something you probably don’t know.  Portland’s Music Millennium is giving “prizes” to those who donate to their fundraiser to revamp that hallowed record/music musicmillenniumpintglassinstitution.  The least of which is a Millennium-generated pint glass for you beer and ale lovers.  Those glasses, my friends, WILL NOT BE AVAILABLE outside of the fundraiser.  That’s right.  If you want one (or more), you need to get your order in now, through the kickstarter campaign.  I threw a party once.  We had a keg of Red Hook— the original “banana ale.”  If you showed, you drank out of and took home an original Red Hook pint glass.  It was the highlight of the party,  Now, just how cool would it be for someone in Philadelphia or Toronto to pull out a couple of Music Millennium pint glasses when pouring the brew of choice?  I may be an anomaly, but I would be impressed as hell.  Even if I knew nothing of the Millennium and their run in records (okay, music).  I’m telling you, if you have a friend or loved one you would like to find that very special Christmas present for, this is it!  Buy more than one and help my friends out.  Take it from me, they still have the attitudes and chutzpah that made records so very cool back in the day.  That, I am sure— as long as Terry Currier is around— they will never lose.  Here is your link to get your own pint glass(es)—

Damn, but I’m having flashbacks.  Here are a handful of videos I dug up on Youtube of bands I have enjoyed over the years, starting with Chicago’s Wilderness Road playing Provo Park in Berkeley in June of 1972—  These guys’ first self-titled album is in my collection for a reason.  Ah, what a flashback!

I bought the purple vinyl Frumious Bandersnatch 7” EP at the suggestion of Ron Prindle who opened and ran Oregon’s legendary Chrystalship record store which started in Eugene in the late sixties and moved to Portland in the early seventies.  Ron had a lifeline to San Francisco and made sure I heard everything that came out of that city.  I loved that store.  As tribute to Ron, here is a video of the Bandersnatch itself.

Another EP Prindle practically forced on me was the original EP by Country Joe & The Fish which included my all-time favorite Fish song, Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine.  Here is a video from The Monterey Pop Festival in 1967:

When I was in the Army and surviving at Fort Lewis around 1970 or ’71, my pals and I headed into Seattle one weekend to see Chicago Transit Authority and Illinois Speed Press at the Paramount only to be turned away at the very last second because the show was sold out.  We instead headed over to some skating rink and caught Cold Blood.  I was really disappointed because I was a huge Speed Press nut, but after Cold Blood‘s show, I wasn’t bothered at all.  Lydia Pense may have fronted that band, but they were one hell of a band, period.  This was the band which made me start really listening to horns.


My favorite version of Baby It’s You was recorded by Gary & The Hornets, but I always liked to see Smith because Gayle McCormick was cute!  Sure, they were a little slick and duded up, but I have the album, A Group Called Smith, and they definitely had the goods.

While Hollywood was co-opting anything and everything psychedelic, including the mushrooms, a handful of Seattle bands were psyching out on their own.  I remember hearing this song on the radio in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.  It brings back good memories.  The City Zu…

In the summer of 1969, I knew I was going to be drafted so my buddy Tom Picco and I thumbed our way from Eugene to San Francisco to see our old roommate and guitarist in our band, Lee Eide.  Looking for a show to go see, Lee put the kabosh on every show until we picked up an issue of the San Francisco Chronicle and read Ralph J. Gleason‘s column.  At the end of the column, Gleason wrote that if you didn’t have anything better to do, you should head to The Matrix to catch this band from Madison, Wisconsin (I always thought it was Minnesota) called The Mendelbaum Blues Band, so we did.  With five or six others in the club, we were treated to a show of blues and psych to wake the dead.  They were really good!  That show, by the way, was the one and only show I ever saw in SF.  My loss.  Here is a recording from one of the gigs they played at The Fillmore.

In a rare case of getting it right, Hollywood cast Seattle’s Daily Flash (though I don’t believe they were living in Seattle then) in an episode of The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., using them for background music as well as a prop in the plot.  I wish I had known about this.  This is really cool.


Frank’s column appears every Tuesday

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DBAWIS ButtonFrank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.” 

One Response to “Frank Gutch Jr: Tracy Nelson (Mother Earth) Talks Sixties San Francisco, The Music Biz, Racism and The Counterculture’s View Toward Women!!! Plus Notes…..”

  1. […] Thus began Mother Earth.  You see how incestuous music can be?  I never would have pinpointed Sahm as the man behind Mother Earth, but you cannot deny history.  By the way, if you are interested in reading about Nelson’s take on The Summer of Love (which it evidently was not), just click here. […]

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