Interview with Joe Gorfinkle, his life has been an indirect path, leading him to become an experiential artist

"The blues is very direct and real. The songs tell a story. That’s what I liked and wanted to do."

Joe Gorfinkle: New Roots, Fresh Air

As a multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter, Joe Gorfinkle has a broad vocabulary. His life and musical career has been a sometimes difficult and indirect path, struggling with rebellion, overcoming demons, always aimed at music, leading him to become the writer, musician, and artist he is today. He has distilled it into a style that is authentic and to the point. His songs combine humor, stark cynicism and genuine compassion for the real people he sings about.

Born in 1952, Joe grew up in suburban Larchmont, NY. He did his first gig on harmonica at coffee house in Bath, a few days later he left school and hitched to Boston with $8 in his pocket. He worked as a dishwasher, sold underground papers, and busked on Boston Commons. Joe hitching to the ‘68 Newport Folk Festival saw Taj Mahal and Jesse Ed Davis. Back in school in NY City that fall, Joe’s musical education really took off. Meeting players like BB King, Johnny Winter, and Jerry Garcia, he learned that they shared the same ideas, and all encouraged him musically. Joe played around locally and kept a day gig working in music stores and as a live sound engineer. In 1983 Joe moved to LA. He worked selling recording studio equipment, partnered in a studio doing demo and TV soundtrack work. Joe became immersed in his emerging style, writing and playing music. Longtime friend and colleague, LA session guitarist and producer Chuck Kavooras, got him to start with house band at LA’s legendary blues and rock club, Cozy’s.

In the fall of 2011 Joe started 'The Project' which raised funds to help make the current record, “Take a Chance” with a portion going to the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Joe's songs and onstage humor tell stories that affect the spiritual perceptions of listeners and expose the fragility of humankind. They are dark, funny and expose his world in the stark light of honesty, but there is often a payoff at the end. His music really tells the story, listen and find out for yourself.

Interview by Michael Limnios           

Joe on the porch at Studio DIY. Photos by Amber Lee Abbott

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues mean to you?

For me, the blues has been a way to express myself. I didn’t grow up in poverty, or on a plantation, but when I was young I felt like an outsider and identified with the blues and the people who played blues. Many of them lived hard and died hard and that came out in the music. I felt that was the road I had to travel in life. It wasn’t, actually it was the one I chose and put me in some strange places I didn’t need to go to. In the end, it turned out OK. The blues is very direct and real. The songs tell a story.  That’s what I liked and wanted to do.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?

Not sure I am. IF I am, it is because I learned to play by paying attention. I’ve studied the blues pretty seriously. When I was young and first heard guys like Jimi, Mike Bloomfield and Eric Clapton, I tried to find out who THEY listened to. They all listened to Muddy Waters, so I bought HIS records and found out HE listened to Son House. So I went back and tried to get into that stuff. I didn’t copy exactly, but picked up stuff and added it to my style... Life experience has helped a lot with songwriting, because I have real feelings and experiences to draw on. I wrote songs when I was 20, but they were more theoretical than real... Songwriting is about telling a story or creating a picture. There is a structure and form, but it becomes more real if you have situations and experiences to draw on...

How/where do you get inspiration for your songs & who were your mentors in songwriting?

Sometimes I’m playing guitar and a song appears almost complete. Other times, I’ll have a phrase, melody (or both) and work on that. It can take from minutes to months. If I can I like to try the songs out on gigs or by recording them at home to get them sorted out. As far as songwriters, I listen to EVERYONE. I have favorites: Bob Dylan, Hank Williams,  Jerry Ragavoy, Mac Rebbenack, John Prine, John Hiatt, Chester Burnett, Son House, Robert Johnson, Robert Cray, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Carole King,, Warren Zevon, Jimmy Reed....I’m just getting started

How do you describe Joe Gorfinkle sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

Pretty diverse, but always close to the roots… For years I mainly considered myself a guitarist and I specialize in slide. Pretty much everything from pedal steel and Hawaiian, to Delta blues. But for me it is mainly about the songs and I try not to have the guitars take over. My philosophy? I just try to play the music I feel and hope people like it.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues? What is the best ever gave you?

When I was 17, I met Johnny Winter in a store in NY City and he told me about National guitars and playing in Open G....a revelation. It was cool, because we instantly were on the same wavelength. In the 1980’s I met Jimmie Vaughn walking down Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles and he and I talked about plying with a capo and using your fingers…same deal as with Johnny-instant connection.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

The best was recording my CD, Take A Chance. I got to play with some of the best musicians anywhere and heard the music come out the way I heard it in my head.  They played on a lot of the recods I listen to and all really made it happen, and not just for the money.  We were between low budget and no budget... They did it because they liked the music. The Worst? Going to an audition for a band in the ‘80s where the guy plugged me into a 200watt Marshall turned all the way up. He flipped the standby switch and it startled me. He told me to go home. End of audition.

What's been their experience from Fillmore East and ‘68 Newport Folk Festival?

1968 was a turning point for me musically (and for a lot of folks). In the spring, on break from Boarding School, I saw Jimi Hendrix with Sly& The Family Stone opening at Fillmore East. It was crazy! In June I saw The Electric Flag, with Quicksilver Messenger Service, Grateful Dead & Jeff Beck. That summer I got kicked out of summer school, lived in Boston and hitchhiked to Newport. For me it was a lot of what people described happening to them at Woodstock, but on a smaller scale. We didn’t have tickets to any shows and mostly camped in a lot and partied. My first psychedelic experience. We heard Janis Joplin from behind the fence and on Sunday I met a friend from Boarding school who had a ticket to the afternoon Workshop. I got to see Taj Mahal & Jesse Ed Davis, Kaleidescope w/David Lindley, Theo Bikel, and Happy & Artie Traum. Taj & Jesse Ed blew me away as did Kaleidescope. I found recordings of the show recently on WolfgangsVault.com. It is very cool to hear it, powerful stuff. I also found the Hendrix show online. The internet is really remarkable. In those days, if you were lucky, someone might mail you a cassette. Finding music was a lot harder then. Now, I can Google things and go to Youtube...and BOOM...or go to Blues.GR and see what is up there! ....very cool!

Which memory from your studies with BB King and Jerry Garcia makes you smile?

Meeting BB was an incredible experience. It was back stage at a free concert in NY. I was 17 and loved his playing (still do). He was very gracious to me and gave me his card and told me to give him a call. I never did. Too scared. He let me play Lucille while he went to the bathroom before his show. I met Jerry the first time at another free show in Central Park, and later hung out with him at Fillmore and Cafe Au GoGo. We talked about Freddie King and Pedal Steel guitar. He was a sharp guy with a brilliant sense of humor. I remember seeing him totally baffle an interviewer once. It was really pretty funny. The guy had no idea Jerry was just making stuff up...

What is the “feeling” you miss most nowadays from the Blues music of past and 60s – 70s era?

This is JUST my vibe and I’m just another Joe, so I hope everyone takes it the right way. A lot of music is too polished and over-rehearsed. Partly because bands play a set show and recordings are done less and less with a whole band playing at once and more with endless overdubs. Concerts are great, but blues is really about playing in clubs. That’s where the magic is.

Are there any memories from the road with the blues which you’d like to share with us?

Nothing remarkable really, mostly we played clubs in the local area.  Some strange gigs- like sitting outside a club smoking on a break and watching  the police go in with shotguns…Some old guy at the bar was bragging to a girl about how tough he was and someone called the SWAT team...I used to do a lot of road work for a sound company doing Oldies and Bluegrass festivals.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Probably the best jams were at a club in New Rochelle NY called the Crazy Horse back in the ‘70s.. all the local players would come in and the owner,  Vincent Pastore, treated everyone right and made it a fun place to play.  He went on to be a famous actor in the TV Show, The Sopranos…Also some of the jams at Cozy’s in Los Angeles. My friend Chuck Kavooras was the musical director, and he got a lot of great players. Memorable gigs? Multimedia Festival in Denver in 1970. I was 18 there must have been 10,000 people. Did a benefit show playing behind Martha Velez in Woodstock in the late ‘70s, it was a great scene. My first recording session was like a dream. I met a guy named Bill Keith, who is one of the best banjoists in the world and a great steel guitarist, in front of Manny’s in NY, and my friend convinced him to let me play harp with him on a session. So I did. We went to the original Hit Factory and recorded, just like that.

Do you know why the slide is connected to the Blues? What are the secrets of?

Slide has a very expressive sound. Its like a voice so you can really do a lot. Also on many of the instruments that early blues guys played, the action was pretty tough, so a slide got around it. I’m in love with all the different style from Pedal Steel to Hawaiian to bottleneck. The key to good slide is damping and intonation. Hitting the note and muting the stuff you don’t want. A lot of folks mask sloppy playing with big vibrato and distortion. You don’t always need or want that. I try to learn songs in  several tunings and play non-blues material that I pick up like Vince Guaraldi’s Cast Your Fate to The Wind.  More you play; the better you get...That’s what it gets down to.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

Because it isn’t a fad and it expresses real feelings - whether in the South or New York, California, Greece or wherever. It also takes commitment to learn to play with in the style and find something new, so there is always a challenge for the player and a reward for the listener. My wish is that people recognize the artists who created the artform like Bukka White, Son House, Robert Petway, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Kokomo Arnold and the thousands of others, explore where the music came from, learn and honor them.

When we talk about blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Yes, absolutely !

Do you believe that there is “misuse”, that there is a trend to misappropriate the name of blues?

That is tough. Not sure I’m qualified to judge. A lot of people might find what I’m doing to be something other than blues. I’m trying to take what I love and have learned and apply it to MY life and times. Some folks might feel it isn’t blues. I’m not a big fan of rehashing the same old 12 bar tunes. Hoochie Coochie Man is great, Spoonful is too, but Muddy and Wolf did that. A lot of what people consider being blues sounds like rock and rollers playing rock and roll to blues songs. Is that «misuse»? I don’t know if I can rightly tell.

Which incident of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

One of the sessions for Take A Chance, no specific reason just one of the best experiences I’ve had in life so far. Having a blast playing with those guys...

What from your memories and things (books, records etc.) you would put in a "capsule on time"?

Best Of Muddy Waters, BB KING Live At The Regal, First Albert King, Robert Johnson first Columbia release, complete works of Franz Kafka and Mark Twain, Best of Hank Williams, Chicago The Blues Today, Son Houses recordings, Sonny Boy Williamson More Real Folk Blues, The Art of Rene Magritte and Marcel Duchamp, The Carter Family, recordings of Jimmie Rodgers, Louis Armstrong....a lot of stuff and maybe something to remember me..

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Play a lot. Learn to read music, something I do poorly, play stuff you DON’T like, NEVER QUIT!!

You have an interesting project Take A Chance. Would you tell a little bit about that?

Basically the idea was that I wanted to make an album on 24 tracks with live musicians and not on a computer. I have been lucky to know some truly great musicians and wanted to have a chance to play my tunes with them. I also wanted to get my friends involved to help make that happen. My friend Arnold McCuller had done a listener financed project on Pledgemusic.com and it was really cool. Besides getting listeners to support  him making the record, part of the funds went to charity. I’m not as well known as him, so I chose to go via Pledgemusic.com for part and use my own funds for the rest. I did it with Chuck Kavooras at Slideaway, because he has a great studio, he’s known me for nearly 30 years and understands where I’m at and he also is really good at what he does-as a guitarist, recordist and producer. I kept asking him to play (he is a killer slide player) and he told me he wanted it to sound like me, so all the guitars are me. The charity was obvious for me. My dad had Parkinson’s disease and died as a result. The Michael J. Fox Foundation is doing great work in funding research, so that was it. Didn’t raise a giant amount of money, but it is good to be involved with the people who listen to your music and share the process with them and it feels good to give something back. I’m very fortunate and grateful of all the help I’ve gotten from everyone. Lee Sklar took his day off from rehearsing for the Academy Awards to come out for a day and play.  All the players: Lee, Arnold, Hank Van Sickle, Phil Parlapiano, Lynn Coulter, Mark Tabbert, Joe Romersa, Dusty Watson and Allan Walker really brought their ‘A’ game. I’m really a luck guy. This was a magical experience

What are the differences between of Blues lyrics and the others kind of music?

There is the rhythmic structure and meter:
«Well, I told that woman,  you ain’t cheating me no more

Well, I told that woman, you ain’t cheating me no more

And next time you cheat on me, I’m gonna throw you out the door.»

Usually they are told in first person or addressing someone:

«I rolled and tumbled...» or «I’ll tell you mama...» a lot about men and women in generally rougher more direct terms. It’s really personal, not «Tea for Two» «We all Live in A Yellow Submarine».  Got to have that feeling. Hard to explain, but you know when you hear the blues...and it feels good.

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