Jack of Hearts
by Edvins Beitiks (4 Aug. 1996, San Francisco Examiner)
He's Ramblin' Jack Elliott: teller of tall tales, teller of short tales, teller of tales, son of a Brooklyn doctor, card-carrying troubadour, rightful heir to Woody Guthrie, fiend for boats, friend to Tom Waits and Emmylou Harris and Dan Blocker, unofficial mayor of Marshall, owner of Bing Crosby's denim tux, talkin' sailor blues, talkin' miner blues, talkin' Columbia blues, talkin' dustbowl blues, East Texas talkin' blues, talkin' about whatever there is on the table, long as you want..
"I've always been torn between cows and boats," says Elliott, tucking his guitar under one arm and tipping back his black felt hat.
"Longhorns and windjammers I feel like I was born too late, but only a few years too late. If I'd been born a hundred years ago, I might not have made it.
"Ran away from home at 15, left to join the rodeo and just kept going, and going," says the man dubbed the "Last of The Brooklyn Cowboys," born Elliott Charles Adnopoz in 1931. "Used to listen to this New York jazz station, boogie-woogie, they said over the radio, 'If you're listening to this show, call your folks.'But I wasn't there," said Elliott, cracking a smile. "I was out of New York. I was in America."
Elliott smiled again.
"Was hitchiking with Dan Finkel and Carl Margolies, early beatnik-type writers. I caught a truck ride ahead of them, was supposed to meet them at the post office in Wilmington, N.C. Never did. Never seen them since. I'm sure they never forgave me."
The stories fall like that, one after the other, from postwar Brooklyn to the L.A. folk scene to Elliott's latest home, hard by Tomales Bay - from long wanders through Greenwich Village with Ginsberg, Kerouac, Wavy Gravy and Dave Van Ronk, from late-night sets at Gerde's Folk City, where Elliot was thought by many to be the voice communicating to the ear of a very young Bob Dylan, to beatniks in North Beach, to sharing neck-bottle jumps of Southern Comfort with Janis Joplin at the Newport Folk Festival in 1969.
"It was a full moon, and a guy was just stepping on that moon, you know?" said Elliott, rounding the sky in his hands.
"They told me, 'Jack, you're on,' so I looked at the TV and counted the rungs on the ladder - ten rungs - counted off how long that would take him, and when I got to the microphone I told everybody, 'He's just stepping on the moon right about now.' And then I started in to singing."
There's a brief sense of Elliott as a talking-to-himself lab man, moving past beakers of lime green and aquamarine liquid, silvered bubbles climbing through the ooze, turning to say something and turning again, the flaps of his white hospital coat wrapping around his legs, hands moving in the air, eyes darting to where the sounds are coming from - over by the door, maybe, or behind the fireplace - scribbling notes in a yellowed journal, the margins of it filled with piled-up years, with voices left over from the Bronx, from a truck stop at Pensacola to a couple of heys backstage at the Bay Area Music Awards.
After years of being relegated to the fuzzy-goat, folk-weirdo corner of strum music, Elliott - 65 years old and looking a good 10 years younger (at least in the right light) has come full circle. He won the Bill Graham Lifetime Achievement Award at this year Bammies and his "South Coast" album (Red House Records) won Elliott his first Grammy in the traditional folk album category, setting up a new album of duets sung with the likes of Waits, Arlo Guthrie, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark and the Grateful Dead's Bobby Weir.
The album, due out early next year, is being produced by bluesman Roy Rogers.
"When I first started playing, it was Leadbelly," Rogers recalls. "He led me to Woody Guthrie, who led me to Ramblin' Jack. Jack is a musical link, not only back to Woody Guthrie, but back to what that music is about - that great American troubadour tradition "
Elliott started in on Guy Clark's tune, "Lone Star Hotel" ( "Give me a greasy enchilada and a beer to wash it down" ) and laughed once more about sharing stories of a mutual friend from past rambles, Crazy Pete Sheridan.
"We got to talking about him, and it got to pumping us up, like loading a gun," says Elliott. "A recording studio, it's a blank. Tape machines, empty doors. People push buttons, wheels go around, and there it is. But that's not enough. There's got to be something else.
"Talking about Crazy Pete Sheridan when it came time to suit up and sing, we felt like we had something to sing about, you know?"
Sitting in a kitchen alcove of Rogers' home in Novato, Elliott strummed some chords to Hoagy Carmichael's "Hong Kong Blues," his voice sing-songing through, "I need somebody to love me, need somebody to carry me back to San Francisco "
He stopped, tapped a finger against his guitar, and said, "I love that song. Makes me feel like Tom Waits, singing that"
As Elliott sat against the back of the wooden booth, Rogers brought in a tape sent to the house by Waits - a first run on a fresh-broke, slow-cooking song, "Louise."
Rogers popped the tape into a player, Elliott leaned across the blue and white tablecloth, backlit by the kitchen window, and Waits' voice started in, singing, "Louise, Louise if it's true, tell it to me."
"Like an old Ernest Tubb song," says Elliott, smiling wide. "This song is a killer," Rogers says. "It gives me chills. Oh man, Jack, oh man "
The tape wrapped around "for all your faithless beauty, I give you all my tomorrows," and "you give a kiss to win a heart, you take a kiss to break apart." Elliott shaked his head in pure glee at the sound of the words.
He picks up his guitar and tries the first lines of "Louise," the sound of it taking him back to his early rambles, never lost, each of them rolling off Elliott's tongue in time to the music - a tsunami of names, memories eddying in the hollow.
Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Charlie Daniels, Eric Andersen, Patrick Sky, Mississippi John Hurt, Tom Rush, Eric Von Schmidt ( "tremendous drinker of rum" ), Will James, Bonnie Raitt, John Raitt, Chance Browne ( "Seven guitars on the wall" ), Pancho Scardo, Bunk Johnson, Ian Tyson, Bob Dylan
"They made a tape of Dylan and me," Elliott says. "Hey, Tambourine Man.' I listened to it once, and I never want to hear it again. It was real bad singing. Amazingly bad
"Ian Tyson, we were reminiscing at the end of an evening, pretty near all night, had a couple of drinks with a bunch of ranch-hands, 'Hey, Jack, hey, Jack, teach me how to play the guitar!' Had a great jam session in this hotel room, crammed into this hotel room in Elko."
Elliott talks about Greenwich Village in '53, when he "met Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Kerouac and Helen Parker, the world's first literary groupie."
There was North Beach ( "Ferlinghetti: We didn't get along very well. It was a little harsh" ) and his times in L.A. - the Troubadour, the Ash Grove, Topanga Canyon, rubbing elbows with the likes of jazz riffer Lord Buckley, the cantankerous Sterling Hayden and Dan Blocker, deep in the heyday of "Bonanza."
"He used to have an El Dorado," said Elliott. "An El Dorado and a milk truck. Know what was painted on the side? 'Mother's Milk.' He drove standing up, these big coveralls, no shirt. Weighed 295 pounds - walking behind him was like walking behind a pet elephant."
Fresh from four weeks on the road, 18 concerts in places across the South and Midwest, Elliott says, "Every town I went to, people brought me old albums to autograph, said they'd been listening to my music since they were teenagers, heard me once at some festival or other."
After less than two weeks' rest in Marshall ( "Been there three years - longer than I've lived any one place in my life" ), Elliott picked up stakes for a tour that is taking in Hawaii, Montana, Michigan, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Orleans, where Elliott has been asked to tell stories about his times with Woody Guthrie.
"Friend of mine loaned me his album once," Elliott says of Guthrie. "I liked the way he sang, his way of playing the guitar. It was sort of relaxed, easy-going. He sounded like somebody who'd actually been there."
"Met him when I was 19. He had a tiny apartment in Brighton Beach, called me up one day, said, 'Come on over and bring your guitar.' He didn't know he had Huntington's Chorea until six, 10 months later.
"When I first met Woody, my name was 'Buck' Elliott. He wrote a little song: 'All the Buck Elliott's around, eatin' sody crackers, rollin' on the ground'
Elliott glanced down at his hands, then says, "Saw him in the hospital towards the end, couldn't really talk to him much. He was all doped up, didn't make much sense. Got introduced to little Arlo, though, four years old "
American music lost some big names back in the '50s, says Elliott. He remembers being on the road between New York and Annapolis on New Year's Day, 1952, when he heard Hank Williams died in the back of his Cadillac, snow-drugged and alone.
"Every time I would stop for gas some guy would come out and say, 'Hey, you hear the news? Hank Williams died,' " says Elliott, adding, "I may have been the only one in the world didn't really like his singing style.
"All this sobbing and crying, all this singing about some girl ripping him off. Woody Guthrie, he was singing about the working man getting ripped off. That meant more to me."
That meant more to a lot of people. In a spring concert at the Fillmore, John Wesley Harding, self-proclaimed singer of 'gangster folk,' started off "Hitler's Tears" by saying, "Woody Guthrie's guitar killed fascist criminals. My guitar just killed time." Harding leaned forward from the stage, invoking the memory of Folkways Records from the Sixties, and said, "Ramblin' Jack Elliott, hallowed be thy nickname."
Ron Rainey, manager for the revamped Band, led by Levon Helm and Rick Danko, also praised Elliott.
"I started out in this business, must've been in 1969, and he was a legend then," says Rainey. "The most important thing is, Woody did it until he couldn't do it anymore. Ramblin' Jack's the same way, and so is The Band. All storytellers - stories handed down from one to the other, no end in sight."
It was Elliott's way of telling stories to a background of bell-jar guitar that first drew Jan Currie to his music.
"The first guitar picking I learned was off his version of 'Tennessee Stud,' " says Currie, now Elliott's fiancee. "I was in Los Angeles once, at Sweetwater in Redondo Beach, and he came up and said, 'Hey, you want to go to New Mexico?' I said, 'When?' He said, 'Now.' Everything with him is a constant surprise. His life, his wonderment at life, his constant joy in living."
Elliott's got a denim tuxedo that was custom-made for Bing Crosby in Elkhorn, 1951. He wore it to the Grammies, said Currie, "and it brings out the Crosby in him - he gets to singing, 'When the blue of the night meets the gold of the day' '
"Someone once asked me, 'Is he high maintenance?' No but going from one room to another in a restaurant can take an hour. He hits all the stops, talks to everybody. It's like doing point A to point B in fractions."
Currie laughs, then adds, "They don't call him Ramblin' Jack because he travels "
Elliott shrugs, chuckles to himself, then wanders off into a soliloquy about bumming around London in the late '50s( "best fish and chips I ever had" ), about the cold, cold days, about singing for his supper in a walk-up flat in North Kensington ( "They gave us this Yugoslavian soup with beans and hot peppers - best soup I ever had." )
Elliott grins as he talks about the story the local paper did on him - "My face was on the front page for all to see. Very crestfallen. I looked like a frog," and about his latest tour - "The songs, I take 'em out and blow the dust off 'em every so often. 'Railroad Bill.' 'Buffalo Skinners.' 'Tom Joad.' "
Coming off the road, Elliott gets into his '77 blue-and-gray Buick and drives straight to his boat, a Penguin racing dinghy, tucked in a cove at Marshall.
"This last time I got back to the boat, rubbed it down some, patted it, said 'hello' to the boat," says Elliott. "Don't know why, I just feel good in boats. I guess it's kind of like being back in the womb. I feel real safe in a good boat."
When he's in town, Elliott rolls up his sleeves and signs up for restoration projects on boats like the concrete Brier Rose in Marshall or the Balclutha on Fisherman's Wharf. Whenever Elliott gives a local concert, like the one at Stinson Beach earlier this summer, there are always be a few sailors on the other side of the lights, says Currie.
"There'll be sailors who have known him maybe 30 years. Some up-and-coming guitar players, too. Cowboy poets who call him up and quote 'cowboy rap' over the phone. Firefighters, truck drivers, bikers, bartenders, everybody. A real diverse crowd."
Elliott calls his style of guitar-playing "flat-picking. Carter Family style. Woody Guthrie style. Evolved into bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Donovan says he copied my guitar style, but I don't sound anything like him."
The day was bundling up when Elliott got into his Buick and pointed it toward Marshall. He stepped out by the waterside, remembering a long-ago session on "Oklahoma" with John Raitt. "Everything's up to date in Kansas City," he sang out loud, turning around to change the tune into old Mills Brothers: "I'm gonna buy a paper doll that I can call my own "
Danny McGinley, fellow boatman, Marshall pal, player of Irish tunes, walks over and says, "I went on tour a little while. Couldn't do it. Took too much out of me. And here's Jack, doing it his whole life."
Elliott shrugs again, then admits, "It gets a little harder. The aches and pains won't go away, and the cities - they're not quite as nice the second time around. But they're still nice."
Elliott steps into the Marshall store, past copies of his South Coast tape propped against the cash register, and nods to Holly Heinzmann behind the counter.
"We started paying attention to him once he got the Grammy," she says with a smile. "Before that, we didn't pay any attention at all."
The whole town came out for a post-Grammy party, says Heinzmann - people who shopped for canned soup alongside Elliott tentatively sidling up to wish him the best. "It was touching, actually," she says. "Very, very nice."
Elliott swung slowly out the door, hat jammed down against a cross-cut wind, and walked along the cove to the edge of Tomales Bay. He stopped by a pile of weathered, wooden ties, looking over at boats gurgling in the water, white sides shining.
Elliott took his Martin D28 out of its case, turned it over and started in on the Hong Kong Blues, the wind snatching at his words - "I need somebody to carry me back to old San Francisco. I've got a yen to see that bay again."
Elliott laughs, popping his mouth to the sound of it, and says, "Only guitar I have. My second one. The first one got stolen on a tour with Cat Stevens, 25 years ago. Left it backstage, Miami Beach Auditorium."
But that's another story.
©1998 San Francisco Examiner Page MAG 10
this here article been dug up at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.