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Dana Westover interview

Back in the early 70s Dana Westover recorded an album titled "Memorial To Fear", which is considered as one of the best "loner" folk LP's right next to Perry Leopolds' "Experiment in Metaphysics" these days. Dana had quite an unique style of guitar playing. Recently he took his time to answer a few questions regarding his album. We also discussed his current plans; he is still recording and playing. 

When did you become a musician? 

Thanks to you for the interest! Well, I suppose you could say fairly early, the first paying gig was when I was sixteen or so, although I had been writing quite a while before that. Pretty standard stuff, a blues band called "East Coast Blues Band" with some friends. I played harp (harmonica) and guitar and pretty much fronted it. I had gotten into the Chicago blues masters (Muddy et al) through folks like Paul Butterfield, and also Mississippi John and Lightnin' Hopkins were big influences on me. I doubt we were much good, but I remember some nights we got cooking pretty well.

You were born in Kentucky. How was it to live there as a young kid? What music did you listen to?

Actually, I was born in New York, and my family moved about a bit before we landed in Appalachia-my father was an MD and was instrumental in running a hospital for the  UMW (United Mine Workers) when the coal companies were refusing to help them with black lung disease. Funny how things don't change much- the people who work for the coal companies are still getting the short end of the stick! We lived on a mountain called Pine Mountain, and I spent a lot of my time as a kid wandering around in the woods with my dog, and it's still where I feel most comfortable. I took one guitar lesson from one of the DJs at the local radio station, but I don't remember what he showed me- I expect I was ogling the equipment in the studio! I remember my first record (that I had saved up to buy) was something called "Little Star" by a band called the Elegants. Great falsetto doo-wop. I learned later that they were locked out of radio play because they wouldn't pay payola. Story of life in the music business... Hmm, also Duane Eddy, Lonnie Mack's cover of "Memphis", and of course Little Richard himself, his was just the best band there was at the time. I could go on and on, of course. My mother was a formally trained soprano (she was born in West Virginia),  studied in Saltzberg when she was young, and so I was immersed in all kinds of great orchestral and vocal music at home. My great aunt gave me a recording of Ravel's orchestration of "Ma Mere L'Oye" when I was small, and I pretty much wore the grooves off the record listening to it. I also remember an old 78 of "Appalachian Spring" which I played to death, too. Funny, I got to the roots stuff later in life, especially bluegrass, which was the soundtrack of those years- I guess when something's your environment you can overlook it on the surface, but it's still in the deepest part of my musical sensibility, for want of a better way to put it.

What were you doing as a teenager in the 60s. Were you a part of any bands or perhaps any scene at the time?

My family moved north when I was in sixth grade, so that was a big change- the world looked much bigger suddenly! I think I began to feel a sort of synergy with a lot of people my age (of course always the case with any generation), and that gradually moved into a desire to see a different, maybe more open ended, and perhaps more truthful way of speaking about personal things. The 50's really were a fiercely repressive time- it's romanticized a lot, but it really was a pretty nasty environment, everyone expected to dress the same, think the same. I think a reaction to that was in the origins of rock n roll, which of course was essentially blues, particularly "urban" blues- why not speak plainly and simply about life instead of hiding behind fake conventions? I played with a few bands, and also played a lot solo, My manager at the time and I went down to NY to audition for the head A&R guy at Vanguard after he had heard a couple tracks of Memorial, but I think in the end my stuff was just too weird for him. When I later arrived in Montreal, I worked with a band called Waldon for a couple years, very interesting and brave breaking of all sorts of musical taboos! The great Bob Thiele took an interest in us, and we were booked for studio time in NY with him, but at the last minute our singer signed an exclusive contract with someone else and left the band, so we had to scrap it- she was pretty integral to the sound.  Big disappointment for me. I did mange to get to London, just for a short time, and really liked the scene there- I remember someone telling me that Jimi Hendrix was great, and nodding as an American, when I had no clue who he was a the time! He was first appreciated in England after getting nowhere over here. A genius, who along with Sly & the Family Stone really changed the landscape completely. It's hard to imagine just how revolutionary they were from the perspective of the present, but what they did had never really been done before. Jimi literally reinvented the guitar, freed it from the tight conventions it had been squeezed into, and Sly moved funk into a whole new world- they both spoke eloquently about simple but incredibly powerful notions of real freedom (the kind, not incidentally, that scared the shit out of the politicians, and even, I think, some record company folks).

When was the turning point in your life in which you began writing songs? What would you say inspired you?

Hmm, well, it was surely hearing so many people singing "folk" music (I put it in quotes because I've never been quite sure what that means exactly- rock is folk music, too, if you look at it that way), but I mean people like Odetta, Pete Seeger, Doc Watson, who were not only collectors of tradition but writers, too. Bob Dylan was a real revelation to me, too, (he was to everyone!). I think perhaps one of the main reasons anyone writes is that they want to hear something that isn't being played by anyone else, you know? I thought maybe I'd try to sort of combine what I knew of a lot of different kinds of music into something that was immediate and tapped the idea of words and music in a different way. As I look back on some of the early stuff, I'm a little embarrassed by it, but it was an attempt, anyway.

In 1972 you released an album titled "Memorial to Fear". What's the story behind it? What do you recall from recording it?

Well, I had been fiddling around with tape recorders for as long as I remember, and so had a lot of recordings, but I finally sat down in a real studio (the old RCA studios in Montreal) in the spring of 1968, after I heard about one of the engineers who moonlighted there for people, so I went in at around midnight or so and slapped down all of it, first takes, until we had to leave in the morning. I actually overdubbed a harmonica onto the last track, which was a fairly new idea for him, but eventually left it off the LP. I still have it around somewhere, maybe I'll resurrect it if I get the thing pressed again. "Song to Sally" and The Effigy" were recorded in Maynard, MA in 1969 (in the summer) at a nice studio that one of the folks who worked there offered to let me use for a couple tracks. I think I had a couple reasons for doing Memorial, the primary one to try to shop it around to get  work, and I realized a little later, to get the old stuff down and out of the way so I could move on. Most of it was written when I was still in my teens. On the later copies I had on the sleeve "This is a collection of bits I wrote primarily while stumbling through the rather bleak desert of adolescence - if any of it offends, please have a little patience with my clumsiness - it was really put together to lay to rest music that I would never play again. I hope there is some value in it somewhere for someone".

You had quite an unique style of "drone" guitar picking and the lyrics were very personal. I heard, the songs were written from 1969 to 1971 and you recorded them in 1972. Where did you record it?

I can't really say exactly where the guitar sound came from, just that when I first picked one up that's pretty much what came out. I was very lucky to find a second hand Epiphone Texan when I was fifteen or so ($75), and I remember hitchhiking around with an old wool shirt buttoned up over it as I couldn't afford a case. That guitar is surely my longest relationship, I still play it every day. I love the sound of open strings, and have always been after tunings that let me get the most of that kind of sound. I remember hearing Buffy Saint Marie sing a song about codeine ("Codine") addiction that I thought was amazingly moving, and she had dropped her two E strings down to D, which made this great open fifth on the bottom, and I wanted some of that! Later on I realized lots of beautiful things were available if I also dropped the B string down to A. Many years later I got to know Pierre Bensusan, and had to chuckle when he told me he invented DADGAD! He's an amazing guitarist from France, if you're not familiar with his music. As for drones, I just have always had a sort of instinct for melodies over static harmonies. Now that I think of it, I immediately understood exactly what Coltrane was after with "My Favorite Things", you know, riffing over a vamp instead of just following changes. It's something that goes back a long way in musical history. As for the lyrics, you sort of have to write what's real to you, I suppose- all of it was just poetry set to music. I read a lot of philosophy and poetry when I was a kid.

Our rehearsal space in Montreal that we shared with Jessie Winchester. The handsome guy with the beard is Mark Gold, my bassist.

This was totally a DIY project and it was self released with no label credit. How many copies were made? Was there any possibilities for distribution? Where could people get ahold of your LP?

Yeah, I sold them at shows. We made 100, not exactly a boatload! RCA had a pressing plant in Montreal, so I did them there. Funny, when I first came to the Boston area one of the owners at Rounder Records offered to distribute it, but I didn't really think anyone would be interested. I tried pretty hard to get folks to listen back when we released it (in 1972), and one of the (new) progressive rock stations there played it for a while, but it certainly wasn't hot stuff!

This was in a studio I built in Sutton Quebec during a session, probably around 1975.

What can you tell me about the cover artwork?

I lived with a fine graphic artist named Christine Musello, who did the watercolor for the cover, and the photo was from some press release or other back then. Chris was a big help on the whole project. The idea was of clouds with a little fragile plane flying out of the center, but the plane never got added. The title was supposed to be Memorial to Fear, but that had to be added later, too. If I remember right, we had a pretty finite time window!

Album is quite dark sounding...Let's comment songs, that appeare on the LP.

Yes, a lot of adolescent angst, I suppose. I would have liked to record them again, to get the singing better.

I had a habit of starting every show with a small instrumental piece, so I wrote lots of them (still do), and this was the one that got on the record.

An odd love song, for a friend who was struggling with an oppressively religious family.

Little Flame
Just a poem that was inspired by the guitar lick. I was looking for ways to expand the use of the harmonica, too.

Crooked Frame Wind
A raggedy observation on the repressiveness of the day.

The Effigy
How to be an artist? So many people grapple with it, only to be sidetracked into other things.

From A Tower Window
A portrait of wasted love.

Meet Me There
Dancing with madness, I think. Lots of chemical craziness in those days, but often an earnest search for some meaning at the bottom of it.

Just a simple little love song. This is the only one from the record that I still sing once in a while.

Song To Sally
I spent a while in Los Angeles working on the music for a play a friend of mine (Michael Franks) was writing, and I lived in a rooming house down in Venice that was run by a woman I got to know a little who had lost her son in Vietnam. This song was for her. She used to wander around in her bathrobe looking lost, she was completely devastated. She was caught between her support for the war and the reality of the pointlessness of it. I guess it seemed horribly unfair to me. Here's a song I wrote in the 70's that focussed a little on the soldiers themselves:

This, I think in retrospect, was for a friend who taught English literature in Montreal and who was kind of a mentor, He was brilliant in his own way, and I learned a lot from him. He was an American, too, and conflicted about that and many other things, as we all are at times. It's kind of a one-note samba, with a chromatic harmonica.

I played a lot of blues in those days, and thought I should have at least one on the record. I think it was the last thing we recorded, and I just wrote it right then.

Did you do any shows?

Yes, I played around a lot, mostly coffee houses and such solo, and clubs with bands. There was a place called the Yellow Door in Montreal and a couple places in Ottawa and Toronto that were regular.

This is the bus I built and lived in on the road in Eastern Canada. She finally died of rust about ten years ago.

How did you saw the folk scene at the times? Now we call this kind of music "loner" folk and you are among the best in the genre…

Well, the same as now, people were listening to each other and passing around old songs. I suppose you get a little from everything you hear. There was a lot of interest in traditional American music as a form of social commentary, you know, and Dylan's recognition of Woody Guthrie was inspiring to a lot of people, just for starters. The idea of writing songs and performing them yourself was something that seemed new at the time. Things tend to go in cycles, and that was when there was a yearning for more connection with tradition, too, much like the present interest in acoustic music. I was looking for ways to expand the use of words into more abstract images from that stating point.

What happened after the LP was out? I know, you are still involved with music. Would you like to share a bit more about that?

Well, I've worked as a producer and audio engineer for many years, and also have been doing radio (down to one 4 hour show playing music from around the world now). As for the LP, I sold it at gigs and that was about it. It came as a shock that people would have any interest in it now! I've been writing all my life, and have recorded quite a bit- a couple new CDs in the works now (one of which is actually some new recordings of old songs that got neglected), so I hope folks might check some of that, too. Here are a couple recent things:  /

Thank you very much, Dana. Would you like to send a message to It's Psychedelic Baby Magazine readers?

Thanks to you, I think it's great that you are running the magazine, lots of much more interesting folks than myself!

Interview made by Klemen Breznikar/2013
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1 comment:

LeeBx said...

Good stuff. Great to get some more details on that LP. Would *love* to be one of the 100. If anyone has a copy they can part with let me know. Cash awaits. (L o n g shot I know, I know.) leebrey at gmail dot com...