"The poets need music and music needs poetry as a way of grounding itself in human life: consider that dance and movement-are connected to music in subtle ways."
Warren Leming: Aristophanes Blues
Warren Leming, co‐director and co‐writer, is a former member of the Second City Touring Group, musical director and actor with Paul Sills' Story Theater, a founder of the rock band Wilderness Road, a theater and cabaret director, the author of several books, and is the creator, with Denis Mueller, of seven documentaries, in addition to American Road and Velvet Prisons. Wilderness Road was a rock band founded in 1968 by Warren Leming, Nate Herman, Andy and Tom Haban. The group, which performed an elaborate stage show, drew on American folklore, and was active in the Anti-War, and Peace Movements of the late Sixties and early Seventies central to Chicago's counterculture movement of the period.
The band's first album was a film scenario disguised as rock album, but could not be labeled a "concept" project for fear that it would not attract an audience. The group produced two albums: Wilderness Road, and Sold for the Prevention of Disease Only. Warren was satirists and deeply influenced by American roots music with Ray Tate co-founded The Urban Renewal Boys, one of Chicago's first "urban Bluegrass" group. Leming had been a folk musician and had worked with Byrds founder Jim (later Roger) McGuinn and guitarist song-writer Richard Toups.
With the waning of the anti-mercantilist "hippy" movements and the marginalizing of the Peace Movement through the election of Richard Nixon, the Road's activist audience was soon overwhelmed by Glam Rock, and the consumerist putsch which ended FM Progressive radio, and the independent "counter cultural" bands shot at airplay.
The Road has been compared with The Byrds, The Band, The Grateful Dead, the Amazing Rhythm Aces, and a number of other groups who created original material and found an audience among the "counter culture."
How do you describe Warren Leming sound and progress, what characterized Wilderness Road philosophy?
The Road was a strange combination of influences... hasidic lore (tales of the old and new masters, Martin Buber), American roots music from Harry Smith's collection of music on folkways, the comedy of: Bob and Ray, the establishment, second city, and Bertolt Brecht. The books of Jack Kerouac, the beatnik author of "On the road." Alan Ginsberg’s poem... Howl. The instrumental playing of Doc Watson, Doc Boggs, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, Earl Scruggs, and the New Lost City Ramblers. Add all of this up and you get a very strange mix-. Nate Herman wrote great satirical songs- not all of which got recorded. Warren tended to stage the performances, as he had a background with Story Theater... and both Tom and Andy Haban were influenced deeply by the blues. Chicago blues. If the Road had a philosophy it was one of total experience: something borrowed from the Beatnik tradition... and something that the Beats preached far and wide.
For me, Satire has always proven the best form of analysis... and it’s also educational. Nate and I came out of radio and theater... we had grown up with radio- whether the Goon shows, or the many theatrical radio productions. It was a great way to tune the ear.
The Road is about acquiring experience... Whitman says it best: "The only home of the soul is the open Road." It’s a great philosophy and we followed it.
"The beats and the hippies were sometimes close, sometimes worlds apart. I came up a Beatnik, read Kerouac's On the Road, which liberated so many, smoked French cigarettes, dated girls who wore only black, and had wine driven discussions about Sartre, and Existentualism..."
Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?
I can't fragment things enough to sort out the best from the worst... the best events had their down side and the worst events had their UP side. Sorry to get dialectical on you- but if I fail at segmentation-it’s 'Times' fault. We're taught to divide and conquer our Past, and mine seems much too diverse to really do that: as if we’re on an ever unfolding trail that’s always opening on something new. We keep ourselves alive and interested by letting things happen... and not over anticipating an event. Just around the next corner is something absolutely unique and real, new and interesting.....
The most interesting periods are when you are most engaged- in flux, changing, moving, and then again: there is movement in stillness, change in repetition, versatility and life in paradox. I keep moving in order to stay still--- inside.
As for careers...I never really had one...but I did have and continue to have A Life. You have to choose between career and Life in this game, and my hope is that you choose Life.
Why did you think that the Acid Folk Blues Rock music continues to generate such a devoted following?
Music is the inexpressible torment of the world attempting to express itself- so we are drawn to it. It has come to give meaning to lives in a world which points away from content; is corporate media dominated; and which attempts to sell us materialism while advertising itself as spiritual but whose transcendence is not Buddhist but escapist.
The music of the sixties and early seventies was made at a time of liberation- when the world seemed to have banded together to throw off the yoke of kapital and rediscover itself as something deeper and collectivist. This world was defeated and now exists only as advertised memory where remembered, and carefully forgotten where too dangerous for media memory.
We live in a world where human love has been reduced to the sad psychoanalytic banality of "bonding"... where true community is seen as a threat to commerce.... where toxic products are promoted in favor of what might cure ...and redeem, and where perpetual war is now an Orwellian reality.
The immediate antidote to all of this- is the momentary dream that music provides.
"My hope is that people will get the message... and unite against what is destroying the world. An ad buster does some good work. Occupy is a good beginning. And of course we have to read, read, and read-- to educate ourselves... it’s to be a long fight. Resistance is never futile."
Do you remember anything funny from the recording and show time with Wilderness Road?
Nate Herman is a great satirical song writer. His songs, many of which did not get recorded by the band, provide a never ending analysis of American religion, society, and theology. The fact that he’s Jewish doesn't hurt either. One of the funniest humans alive, who also happens to be a great lyricist, guitarist and mandolin picker, what the road discovered in knocking around the country and in Chicago where they were based- was that the rock and rollers and musicians of their era were not particularly open to satire-.... and its perhaps not a cliché to suggest that Americans "don't get irony." that’s probably the funniest, and most difficult lesson we learned as a band. If you are going to satirize the institutions of the country you come from be aware that the people in that country, but for a few, are just not going to "get it." we had our equivalents in the Fugs from New York, Country Joe & The Fish in Berkley, and the Amazing Rhythm Aces in Memphis. It was a good time, that period from the late sixties right thru the mid seventies-- when the united states- for a brief time discovered that the joke.... was about them. It’s a lesson they've since forgotten.
What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?
The jams were all good when they occurred but our problem was that we wanted to jam with words and thats not so easily done. We should have done poetry contests, like the poetry slams now done... but alas, we were too early in the game.
Among the most memorable gigs was one in Florida with Harry "Sunflower" Vestine.... the police were searching each and every person as they came into the concert area. I made a comment on this from the stage, as I thought this was an outrage.
Upon learning that we were anti war and on occasion burned a flag while displaying an electric cross some promoters (this is the Viet Nam war period) just refused to book us.
Another gig of note was in Ohio, with Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground, after he had left the underground... I had my guitar set up in a rather strange way, and in looking at the guitar he remarked: "I see that you are an eccentric." A quick witted chap.
The gig with Reed was in Ashland, Ohio, and there had been a gigantic blizzard the day of the show: There was not a truck on the highway as we drove from Chicago to Ohio... it was an amazing storm.
Our real finale, as to gigs - was in Berkeley Calif. where our marvelous road manager-wizard Ray Ward set some phosphorus off as part of the acts closer. He had third degree burns and we got him to a hospital. The following morning the burns were less serious which the Doctors considered a "miracle." We later busted Ray out of the Hospital as they would not release him. We got him into the back of a truck and made the drive from California to Chicago in thirty hours or so... a long, long ride... but he made it. An amazing guy and someone who kept us on the Road for many years.
Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?
We met a great many people on the road, the best of them folks who were just moving- keeping one step ahead of the debt collector, police, landlord, lawyers- and any and all bureaucracy. We met club owners, promoters, the good and the bad mixed together as in that gigantic blender that goes to work as soon as you start to transverse the American continent. The best advice I got in that time was the admonition just to "keep moving." There is safety in movement- ambulant bene.
Of meetings the improvised
Of orgasms the unsanitzed
Of truths the deeply felt
Of enemies, those who move with stealth
Of friends, the compassionate and true
Of debts, those tinged with blue
Of musics, the random and wild
Of intelligences, the old and the child
Of lovers, those given to abandon
Of roads, the difficult and random
Of lyrics, the songs of pain
Of blues, the deep and profane
How started the thought of "Snuk Comics"? Which memory from Skip Williamson makes you smile?
I had met Skip in the late sixties early seventies and we hit it off immediately. He was a great dresser, and looked like a Borgia Prince on acid. I loved Snappy Sammy Smoot and that wonderful collection of American "underground comic" artists who populated the pages of the underground papers..... Gilbert Shelton, Jay Lynch, Robert Crumb, Vaughn Bode, and the creator of Capitan Pissgums.... whose stuff I loved S. Clay Wilson---. What a fantastic bunch... some of them like Crumb gone on to world acclaim and the good life in the South of France. But it was Skip- and I who put together a show at the Wise Fools Pub, of Skips work, and we got some press on it- and I've followed Skips career ever since. He's still among the best, and he always makes me smile: his gift for hyperbole and the Smoot dialogue is marvelous. He’s a one of a kind- and I wish he were still in Chicago. He had a career at Playboy as an art director- and he has always been the mad, bohemian artist whose life and work blend to produce absolute chaos. Before I forget him, let us not forget Ron Cobb, whose work is both underground comic and fine art... he’s now in Australia, and is, I think among the great artists of the century. Why there has been no great show- featuring all of these men is beyond me- but evidence of the countries inability to see what it in front of its eyes: the genius of the underground comic artists of the sixties and seventies.
Are there any memories with Chris Darrow and supported David Bowie which you’d like to share with us?
We met Chris Darrow, late of Kaleidoscope, decades ago at the bitter end in New York. he was backing a singer who had been a late member of the Kingston Trio.... who were a gigantic success in the mid to late fifties with an old southern mountain tune called "Tom Dooley." this guy had a girlfriend along who he was going to make "a star' and the grief between them was obvious and palpable. Darrow I think just wished it would all go away. He did some fine stuff - and we had some good times with him in New York. Chris had a friend who knew Bob Siggins of the Charles River Valley Boys, and we did some hanging out. A great guy and we are still in touch. Chris, like us, had wanted to be one of the New Lost City Ramblers... the Ramblers had basically revived interest in and performed the southern mountain string band music of the 1920's and 30's.
I do recall a gig with Rod Stewart at the auditorium theatre in Chicago... we had a run in with this roadies... who were thuggish and aggressive and nasty. Our guy put up with them, but he had a difficult time avoiding punching one of them out. I remember that Bowie was in his ever changing personae phase... one week a martian, the next week a faux decadent, the next week a "regular guy." you never knew who you were talking to... so we avoided talking. Ron Wood was working with Stewart and had some good on stage moves...he later had to cool this as I don't think Richards with the stones wanted him moving too well on stage. The concert venues leave you feeling you hadn't been there-- better the clubs and smaller venues where at least you had the feeling that you were there with people....
What do you miss most nowadays from the 60s and 70s? What are your hopes and fears for the future?
The sixties and early seventies seem the last gasp of a world now long gone; a world of protests, chaos, tremendous fun, and the withering sense that capitalism was going to murder us all. We were right, but don’t tell the media that… since they continue to promote the opposite view. In fact, in this country, they have no view beyond defending the merchant class against those who scramble for a life under kapital. We have to resist... it’s as simple as that. In whatever way we can, no matter how small the effort seems... we have to resist. my fears for the future are that the present order will persist and we will see the destruction of the planet... global warming, the banking crisis, the "austerity" campaigns, the military industrial complex... all are creatures of a money system bent on profits and not people. My hope is that people will get the message... and unite against what is destroying the world. An ad buster does some good work. Occupy is a good beginning. And of course we have to read, read, and read-- to educate ourselves..... it’s to be a long fight. Resistance is never futile.
Since 60s – what has changed towards the best – for our civilization and what has gone wrong?
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." as Dickens had it... but we now have the worst of it. The triumph of the global money system, its hatred of democracy, the "austerity" campaigns which beggar millions... a militarised United States bent on playing sheriff to the world, the collapse of all sorts of "socialist" resistance, the global reach of corporate money, using the State as reference and apologist, and the pervasive effects of corporate TV with its banalities, play list of personalities, and ownership by the likes of Rupert Murdoch/ and the "leadership" of Right wingers, like Roger Ailes... We live in a corporate winter which is freezing the world into commodified meat-. See the artist Ron Cobb's early work for more on this, works like Raw Sewerage.
We have Occupy Wall Street as antidote, and as Brecht pointed out... the natural world is our ally against those trying to destroy it. If the Amazon Rain Forest disappears we cease to breathe very well, global warming is an incredible threat.... only music and literature can currently point the way to some alternative.
We live in great cities, miles of sewers below them
In them is Nothing, above them is smoke
Life may have joys, but here you can’t grow them
Slowly we die, and slowly the cities choke
What was the relation between music and activism? How close was the hippy and beatnik culture?
Music has been the life force of political and social movements.... go back hundreds of years.... A quick listen to the "vicar of bray" will do more to educate you about English political history- than all the professors currently droning on about what they can't dumb down: a sense of the political in everyday life. Guthrie was an Oakie Communist, and pissed off the professors because he was both political and radical- so much so that he scared his New York pals. See he wasn’t supposed to be anything but something the folklorists could write papers about. The IWW in this country had a Little Red Songbook, and the history of labour song here is wide and deep... witness Aunt Molly Jackson
"I am a union woman, and that’s just what I be
I don't like the bosses and the bosses don't like me
Join the Cio boys, Join the CIO
The boss he rides a big white horse
While we walk in the mud
Their flags the old red white and blue
And ours is dipped in Blood
Join the CIO boys, Join the CIO
The bosses went to my husband
And this is what they said
"Bill Jackson I can' work you sir,
Your wifes a Russian Red"
Join the Cio
Now that’s a labour song.
The beats and the hippies were sometimes close, sometimes worlds apart. I came up a Beatnik, read Kerouac's On the Road, which liberated so many, smoked French cigarettes, dated girls who wore only black, and had wine driven discussions about Sartre, and Existentualism... all to the lascivious pleasings of a lute. Coffee houses, Cafes, and in Chicago, the old Cafe Momartre, /and the Gate of Horn, where Jim McGuinn (later Roger of the Byrds) and I picked banjo. But if the beats were intellecutal, the Hippies had their own take on the spirit, driven by the I Ching, and the tarot card. The Beats listened to Miles
Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain, Mingus, Charlie Parker, and Monk, while the Hippies had their own bands and made much of their own music. Janis Joplin described herself as a Beatnik, and she had much of the hard drinking elan of the old Blues men, who were embraced by both the Beats and the Hippies. But it wasn't all flower power- that’s for a corrupted media insisting that those brave cultures were riddled with failure. Ginsberg's Howl: "I saw the best minds of my generation..... naked, starving, looking for an angry fix." I had a friend in Chicago, Geoffry Stewart, who is mentioned in Howl, and was still to be seen with his shopping bags filled with Anarchist literature stalking the demon Commerce thru the streets of Chicago.
The Beats, and the Hippies ... "twas sweet in that Dawn to be alive."
What are the lines that connect the Poetry with Music and continue to Visual Art and Avant Political Satire?
Poetry, if we are to believe Nietzsche is birthed with Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, and as music is the inexpressible anguish of the world made tangible- we've our beginnings as poets and lyricists on some rather unstable ground, but it is this instability that produces the tension to which all of Art aspires. The poets need music and music needs poetry as a way of grounding itself in human life: consider that dance and movement-are connected to music in subtle ways. Wilde tells us that "all of Art aspires to the condition of Music," and whether he is to be believed we have to allow the point--- if only because the remark has about it the poetic. The aphorists at their best have poetry to their pronouncements. But if we cannot separate poetry and music we can see in visual art and satire- an element of specificity that music is not allowed... or rarely allowed.
If these arguments seem abstract, they are, but then we are trying to fix quicksilver and mercury in a bottle that has no bottom.
Political satire, like politics in the U.S. have been debased by television- consider that what passes for satire here- is neither political or particularly sharp... you simply can't get onto the boob tube if you've an agenda that can't pass corporate censorship. We need satire, as an educative form (which it is) now more than ever- as a method by which people can literally see what’s being done. The Englishman Chris Morris should be seen here (on YouTube) as he has built a whole satirical world from the television screen... a world he then subverts and reveals for the corporate advert it is. He has no equivalent in the United States, where his form of satirical subversion simply hits too close to the corporate media home to be allowed. Morris seems absolutely unique in having been given English TV space to take apart the methods by which the public is lied to, and then betrayed. This is a real attempt at subversion as are current issues of Ad Busters and their advocacy of occupy Wall Street. All this rather theoretical stuff- but do forgive it for the sake of commentary.
How has the music industry changed over the years? Do you believe in the existence of real Folk Rock nowadays?
The old music industry (don’t you love that word.... reducing all that inspiration to a factory floor) were dinosaurs... whether the Chess brothers or Mercury Records or the rest. They knew about selling but when the game changed they all would have been buried had it not been for people like Paul Nelson and Ron Oberman at Mercury, and the blues fanatics like Jeff Karp (or Carf) at Chess. The industry has now fractured into thousands of splinters whether its reggae cum jazz soul, cowboy cum blues bop, etc. ad infinitum. The majors no longer dominate, given that the internet has now made it possible for people to participate... people who had been dollar blocked previously. Look at an Ani DiFranco...she has her own label and has made real money, or John Prine… who got the majors off his back and made some money. See "into the deep dark woods" ... a terrific Canadian group who are extending folk rock in a beautiful way. Folk rock marches on-and the younger bands have heard all the early stuff and can now draw on it thru youtube.com and the other channels of info. There is now so much history out there... people can now go back and listen to the harry smith collection... and wonder at the mastery of the old. Old weird masters whether Buell Kazee, Pete Steele, Son House, or Memphis Minnie. Long live the very first players and singers... we stand on their shoulders. And part of our duty should be to preserve the memory of those who have been forgotten.
"The music of the sixties and early seventies was made at a time of liberation- when the world seemed to have banded together to throw off the yoke of kapital and rediscover itself as something deeper and collectivist."
Which incident of world history you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting with you?
I’d like to feature, as an observer, in a painting I was fascinated with as a child. It was the final charge of the French heavy cavalry at Waterloo. Unknown to Napoleon and the French there was a hidden, sunken road at Waterloo into which the French heavy cavalry charged unwittingly. They were cut to pieces as they lay helpless, piled horribly at the bottom of the trench. It is a great example of the futility and horror of war summed up in a military image. It’s always a small cautionary tale about "not knowing".... and the disasters that occur when we attempt to occupy territory about which we have no information.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?
Let’s return to Herculaneum and Pompeii. The glories of the Greco-Roman world were amazing, and we live with their legacy today. But what was the daily life of a Roman city like; what did its people discuss; what were their interests, and how were they "like' and "unlike" us today. Hollywood feeds as an ahistorical diet of Anthony and Cleopatra, Caesar and Brutus, and all the rest- as if they had just stepped from an American show room, fleshed out with all the absurdities and idiocies we associate with our daily existence. But the Romans and Greeks were wildly, spectacularly different, and reflect a world we would find impossible to comprehend. What was that world like? What were its values and what were its dangers? Like any historian, I'd like answers to these questions... not as dry analytic prose, and the dusty works of the academy, but as living example.... now where is that Time Machine, and when do we leave?
How you would spend a day with Chicago 8? What would you say to Brecht? What would you like to ask Woody Guthrie?
As for Chicago, and the trial, we did what we could... Hoffman long dead, Rubin long since dead and the rest gone. What a long time ago it seems, those noble days
of 68, whem the "whole world was watching" as my friend Don Rose so famously said. The 8 were standing on a mountain composed of all of us in the anit War ovement... which
did win, in the end- tho the War has long since, in the States, been reworked, lied about, obfuscated and turned into another brain dead imperialist moment.
Dear Bertolt, were you here
We'd lift a glass of beer
And salute the dreams of the communards
Now smothered in a bankers lard
We'd toast old Moor and Engels too
And find a way to salute Weigel who
As you said: was not just great but useful
Eisler now long dead, and the state with him, afterall
One of historys great Hegelian jokes --so artful and great
A wall tearing down a state
Woody Guthrie Okemah's son,
whose father was a klansman
and who was forced from his home
as the great crisis ripped the Oakies
from the soil-and drove them to
Calif. where the vigilantes waited for them
Guthrie you put the lie to all that pie in the sky
Woody now let me ask you
Your vision made rich men
Who took your lyrics and reworked them into
a tidy sum
But how did you manage to stay alive?
Amidst all that trouble that adheres to those
Who dam the rich in their fine clothes
Who dam them and ask for their share
Who labor for a pittance
And who still labor here
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