Ken Viola interview
Interview with Ken Viola about Shattered Dreams & Broken Songs album. Recording unreleased song by Neil Young backed by members of the E Street Band and working with Grateful Dead for decades.
Let’s first take a look at your album made back in 1976, Shattered Dreams & Broken Songs. What’s the story behind it?
Ken Viola (real name!) – In the late 1960s and very early 1970s, I was a singer/songwriter, accompanied myself on acoustic guitar, played college gigs, a few name clubs. I had met people along the way who encouraged me, notably Wayne Stierle (Candlelight Records), Stan Nowak (who managed Jim Dawson with WNEW FM DJ Pete Fournatale), most importantly Tommy Brannick (Chips & Co on ABC Records, Swampseeds on Epic Records, Privilege on T-Neck Records, Manhattan Transfer with Gene Pistilli) and guitarist Joe Magnifico.
Tommy is a great drummer, who has counted among his band members Dennis Ferrante, Jack Douglas, Joe Zagarino, Eddie Leonetti and Gene Pistilli. He wanted to engineer and produce, and began to record me early on. I had already been recorded at a major NYC studio by Wayne Stierle, for a 45 record “Red Sky” b/w “Once Was Alone.”
My Friend Chris Cooke brought me to see a band, Lewis Carroll, who was breaking up. I was instantly taken by the lead huitar player Joe Magnifico (real name!). Turns out we were born in the same city and had met, as our families knew each other. We started to rehearse in Joe’s basement with the keyboard player, Steve. I had a vision to blend my originals, cool unknown singer/songwriter covers, vocals with unique instrumentation, all with pretty, atmospheric, jammy arrangements. Just when we were ready to seek other instruments, Steve disappeared, turned out, to attend Berklee College in Boston. So Joe (who also played violin, pedal steel) & I formed a real good band named Gran Junction with a few other musicians. We never got out of the attic!
Eventually Joe fell in with John Longo (guitar, then bass, vocals).
We continued to record with Tommy throughout this time, until we formed a new Gran Junction for what turned out to become a legendary show opening up for Ezra at the Playhouse on the Mall in Paramus, New Jersey. (More on this below).
Not long after the gig, our rehearsal space was broken into, and most of our equipment was stolen. We were bummed beyond belief! There was months of inactivity, personnel & instrument changes….and when we finally reformed… new directions!
This lasted awhile, gearing up to go out and play, but by then the mid-70s, post-60s economic depression had hit, and gigs were hard to come by.
So… I decided we would name the band Last Dance, and bring it to the studio. Tommy graciously agreed to play drums, and we made Shattered Dreams & Broken Songs.
It was made in DIY spirit. How many copies were made?
Wayne Stierle sent me to a pressing plant in West Orange, New Jersey, next to Thomas Edison’s Labs. I made 300, I think, but lost 50 in Hurricane Sandy a few years ago. Some were sold in record stores. Most were sent to record companies, promoters, given away.
Would you share your insight on the albums’ tracks?
All of the tracks were recorded live, very little overdubbing, which is the way I’ve always worked. I probably did vocals again, live, as the room we recorded in was average size. The arrangements were all learn the song and go!
Ah, the games between men & women… teenagers… boys & girls…hasn’t changed.
My first love. Our story was tragic & full of twists & turns, too personal & painful to tell. When I went solo again, I performed a slower longer acoustic version with a added middle:
“And the bartender he mumbled Son what’ll it be? You look down in the dumps, how bout havin’ one on me? What’s your problem? Let me guess- you must be frettin’ over some kind of dream that just slipped thru your hands.
And I said How do you know what’s wrong with me? He smiled… See all the people up & down this bar? They’re just like you and me. Some have been pushed too far-others not pushed far enough-the rest in between. It’s hard to cope when you realize life takes back what it means.”
I played the new version for Anne, and she said, “This will make you a Star.” I never wanted to be a Star, I just wanted the Girl!
“Absolutely Sweet Marie”
Bob Dylan is still top 5 for me, and we did “Lo & Behold,” maybe a couple of others… but anytime I did somebody else’s song, I had to feel it all the way, this was in keeping with where I was at, and fit with the diverse musical styles I wanted for the LP.
The real 60s started with the Kennedy assassination and ended with the Nixon resignation 1964-1974. My Father made me join the Young Republicans although I was born left handed. In the republican headquarters above Womrath’s Bookstore in Hackensack, New Jersey, looking for something, I entered a large room. There was Richard Nixon, alone & talking to himself in multiple voices, personalities & gestures! I walked out, quit, and never looked back. A camp councilor saved my life, great young human being. I saw him socially a few times after, he was killed in Viet Nam. I knew others who came home and were never the same. Given what had just happened in the 60s, and the divide of the country at the time, I was appalled by the Bicentennial Celebration. Driving down river road one day, I was struck by a golden vision of the water rising up to flood america. This song was my immediate reaction.
I had seen Bruce Springsteen play a few times when he was known as a lead guitar player down the shore. Joe Magnifico showed me his first LP Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and I loved the next one, too: The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. I started to go hear/see them play a lot, and they were amazing. Serious songs, his enhanced rhythm guitar playing, the Ability to hold people in his hands! I got to know them, really loved the early E Street Band(s) and decided to record “Thunder Crack!”, their set closer prior to him writing “Rosalita.” I added me some Elvis stutter. I gave Springsteen a copy of my LP outside the Stone Pony one night, never heard back, but Bruce, we did you proud.
Oh, the hit single! Everybody is always trying to get! I never thought too much about it… But this song came to me while waiting on Joe. The piano player, Tommy & I cut it, no bass, 2 pianos, drums. At least the arrangement has integrity. We did new recordings of “True Love” (writing the 2nd verse 30 years later) and “Bicentennial Road” on our 2010 LP Feel.
“March Of The Broken Toys”
When you reach for magic in a recording session, you can make magic, but sometimes it just happens. This was just one of those times. And the jazzy vamp was spontaneous!
I believe(d) in love at first sight and although that’s only come twice for me, I was searching.
“Tell Him No!”
For some reason, every woman I wanted was involved, or between relationships or had just broken up! So the theme of this record had become: here I am, with pure true love just waiting for you! What’s the problem? (ha!) I had started with this etherial nebulous called listen! But wanted to end the tug of love & war with “Tell Him No!” (at least an answer). I had known Gene Simmons of Kiss when we were young comic book enthusiasts, and although I never listened to that kind of music, I was thinking of him!
We also almost finished a unreleased LP, Revenge, recorded in 1976 & 1977, with horns, a couple of dual guitar songs with movements, acoustic songs, a pop tune… All written by me.
Side 1 Harder: “Fable,” “Revenge,” “Jenny Broke the Mirror,” “Wind Swept.”
Side 2 Softer: “All Alone Again,” “1/4 Century Blues,” “You Win You Lose Blues,” “The Rose,” “Love Story.”
Alas, the craziness of the late 70s (during which Bob Dylan said “Wounds are still healing from the 60s”) and other circumstances, prevented the LP from being. Joe & I with my son Dylan, did record “Wind Swept & Love Story” on Our 2010 LP Feel.
What can you say about your songwriting?
I’m very proud of my songwriting. Everything I’ve written is from real experience and channeling the essence of feeling. I wrote from about the age of 15 and right from the start, there were some good things. This only increased. Songs are funny, like anything, you have to be prolific. Few write great songs. I was sort of holding myself to the best songwriters. Came a point when I realized I may not be like them, devote my life to songwriting. Turned out to be my vital release of emotions outlet. I wrote a number of great songs, organically, honestly, thoughtfully, personally. I achieved being able to conjure a song out of the atmosphere, have it pass right thru me & emerge fully formed! And when I returned to songwriting after 30 years, on our 2012 LP Incandescence, songs instantly flowed.
You said that you played in various bands. How about concerts?
We played a lot in private, unfortunately. (not ‘rehearsals’ but song after song all the way through, nearly all originals).
There was one famous show we did at the Playhouse on the mall (plays, underground art movies) in Paramus, N.J. in 1973. Michael Levine, a local entrepreneur, who went on to become one of the best publicists in LA, was promoting a very popular local band, Ezra, featuring Joe Lynn Turner (Fandango, Blackmore’s Rainbow, Deep Purple, Solo), a friend, who grew up in the same section of Hackensack as me. I was working at the legendary Capitol Theatre in Passaic, N.J. During a break, Joe Magnifico & I were sitting on the lobby heater, when Michael approached us to ask if we wanted to open for Ezra. We looked at each other and said yes! We put the band together in just a few days! We opened with a thunderous jamming version of David Blue’s “Outlaw Man.” I had asked the lights to stay black. When they were switched on, I had a double barreled shotgun pointed right at the audience! Played a couple of originals, and songs by Gene Pistelli, Neil Young, Paul Cotton… at the end we were given a standing ovation!
I also made a couple of Guest Appearances with Joe & John’s later Band, each time performing unreleased songs from Revenge.
Now let’s move way back. Where were you born and what would you say were some of the early influences?
“I was born in January in the middle of a snowstorm. My father was fighting in Korea, there was no one to keep my mother warm.”
My early influences were beautiful ballads, Peter Pan, Elvis Presley, reading comic books and magic. At the age of 13-14 (1965-1966), the radio. Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, the Pretty Things, the Yardbirds, the Byrds, Love, 13th Floor Elevators, the Blues Project, the Small Faces, Buffalo Springfield and many others. Teen Set Magazine. Age 15 (1967) Psychedelic, Blues, Soul, Jazz, Country, Folk, Eastern….a melting pot of music!
What was the scene where you grew up?
The scene where I grew was interesting. Because Hackensack was the Bergen county seat, a city with a long main street shopping area, people came there from a distance, and several towns sent their kids to the high school. There were sections of various ethnic & economic differences, a merging clash of cultures. A small city, gateway to the suburbs of north New Jersey. (when people tend to ‘think’ of N.J., it’s the stigma of Newark & the Turnpike, not northern New Jersey or the Jersey Shore).
Would you say local scene had any impact on you as a musician or as a music fan in general?
Huge impact. There were several influential record stores like Karl Olsen, the singer sewing store next to the library (still with listening booth at the time), and the most famous, Relic Rack (where I worked for records with my lifelong friend, Hood, who works with Southside Johnny). Department stores were opening and beginning to carry records, too. There were even a couple of recording studios on main street.
Relic Rack was owned by Eddie Gries and Donn Fileti, who loved vocal groups (doo wop), hence the store name. They even had a record label and put out some successful acapella 45s/LP’s.
They hired a manager Wayne Stierle, who adored Elvis, and let Hood & I hang around to advise him about the emergent new music scene. We also had to spin soul records for some of the clientele, who could only afford a few purchases. Many musicians came in, Tim Bogart, Pete Sando, and others.
The first local bands I remember were the Iridescents (members from several towns). The Filet of soul (ethnically mixed). Sun. The Other Side. My first cousin guitarist Chuck Zurretti in Aphrodisiac. Great guitarist Jim Anderson in Muffin (who in a 60s paradox taught my musician son Dylan at northeastern decades later). Many bands. There were ‘dances’ at the Y, in church halls, gyms, auditoriums, teen clubs. They were playing songs they heard on WMCA am radio, the dawn of fm radio (both out of NYC), rock, soul, motown, British invasion, underground and from records both domestic & imported.
A cool happening was battle of the bands, where several groups would set up in each corner, play a brief set. There was a vote, the winner would encore with the same songs. Often the groups would break up and poach players, resulting in creative configurations.
You attended a lot of concerts, especially in the ‘golden age’ of Fillmore East. What are some of the most memorable artists you saw there? We would appreciate stories from experiencing Fillmore East in its full glory.
The first moment I walked into the Fillmore East, I thought, “my parents are wrong, there is a place for me.” You entered a narrow tunnel with a ticket office (only part left today), then emerged into a dreamlike gold & green mirrored lobby. Through the looking glass, indeed. Straight ahead to half-walls with glass on top and open-air above. Here one could enter several aisles to the velvet orchestra seats. Or float up the sweeping staircase on the left, to bummer palace (a dark space to escape the stimulation, if you needed to), refreshments, the mezz seats (only a few rows hung over the back of the orch), the balcony seats (sloped up over the lobby & vestibule). Every seat was great! Bill Graham & Kip Cohen had offices in the basement. Backstage was small rooms in the stage left corner, accessed by climbing a metal spiral staircase. The staff were all firm and nice, identified by green shirts with gold lettering.
The incredible sound was mixed by John Chester from the house right private box, close to the stage (not 90 or so feet back center, which became the norm). My friend Chris & I went to watch the demolition, the architecture was all curves and depth-no hard surfaces for the sound to bounce! The light shows (hand operated from the elevated upstage horizontal platform behind the full proscenium screen, were amazing! Projected on the groups, on the screen, seemingly in sync to the music, swirling, deep moving colors, shapes, formless….
When the Band (Music from Big Pink) played, on the screen was traveling through the backroads of the Catskill mountains on a most beautiful day, for the entire set. When Traffic played, they lowered a real traffic light. When Jefferson Airplane, with a pregnant Grace Slick, did Volunteers, they lowered a huge American flag.
Procol Harum (many times underrated live band), the Collectors (fantastic “What Love” Suite) , the Hello People (“Anthem”, mime), the Band (Music from Big Pink tour), Jefferson Airplane (several times, when they were on… hypnotics!), CSNY (many times. No light show!), Spirit (fantastic live), the Who (did Tommy +), Humble Pie (many times, one of my favorite live bands), 11/21-22/69 King Crimson (original group), Fleetwood Mac (with the incredible Peter Green-Danny Kirwin jamming madness!), Joe Cocker & the Grease Band (many times, great vocalist, underrated live), the Nice, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, QMS with Nicky Hopkins, Pink Floyd (twice, both great. Atom Heart Mother with ‘orchestra’ & choir), Grateful Dead (“Dark Star”/Mirror Ball/Naked Girl dancing just for me), traffic, Fairport Convention with Richard Thompson, Cat Stevens, Leon Russell, Elton John (believe it or not, fantastic performance), Poco (many times underrated live), Manhattan Transfer with Gene Pistilli & Tommy Brannick, were among many highlights.
In all the decades since, nothing has come close to the wonder-filled Fillmore east. The best place ever!
I think we should divide following questions into two chapters. First being Neil Young and second The Grateful Dead. You wrote the Box Set essay for the Buffalo Springfield and recorded “High School Graduation” by Neil Young backed by members of the E Street Band. You also worked with Grateful Dead for decade(s).
Buffalo Springfield are my favorite band and Neil Young is my favorite artist. I have a broad pallet of music, almost all 20th century from the 50s through today, some things before and after. The best period for me remains 1965-74, I see little progression since. However, the pervasive influence has sustained longer than any other popular music (although classical pieces have lasted in and of themselves).
The why of this was the merging/melting of musical forms into sounds heard as new, the emergence of guitar etc as lead instruments blended (or bleshing, as Sturgeon would say), and the outpouring of youth culture, freedom, rebelling, politics, drugs into a group consciousness. (as put forth by Sturgeon in More Than Human 1953, a book many great 60s musicians read).
I had the habit in the back then of playing the 2nd side of a LP first. Hearing “Flying on the Ground is Wrong” from buffalo Springfield, I felt a flash, a connection to the words, music, singer, group, writer, a feeling so all encompassing & total & beyond… if I close my eyes, I can go there right now!
Being asked to write my essay: incandescence-memories of Buffalo Springfield by archivist/photographer/musician Joel Bernstein, and having all 5 original members allow the inclusion in their box set is a high point in my life.
My over 50 year ‘relationship’ with Neil Young, his songs, music, records, concerts, films, books, life provides me with enlightenment, ecstasy, joy, trance, reflection, psychedelia, sorrow, pathos, repetition…Neil will never let me down, I named my first son because of him.
After I was unable to finish my 2nd LP, I hit the wall of the ‘end’ of the 60s movement. I was post-beat, pre-hippie.
The worldwide contents of the relatively small number of the underground seemed to be composed of rich kids (mostly from divorces), a certain breed of middle class rebels, and weirdo crazies, from various ethnic groups, who accepted each other. Music was the soundtrack, war, civil rights & drugs: the fuel, youth: the energy. All of this changed gradually when the mainstream and middle class was exposed to the music, concerts, drugs, drinking age was lowered to 18 in America, and the war ended (has it?). Some hit the wall during, for me, after.
As I was closing the door (or so I thought), Southside Johnny introduced me to his managers, who hired me. While on the road with John, I thought of recording some of the better bands playing down in Asbury Park. This was tried, but we could not capture the excitement. So I decided I would produce an anthology studio record, which became The Sounds Of Asbury Park. All of Southside’s band (except Billy Rush, who was busy writing), including Johnny, play. Lord Gunner (lLnce Larson & Rick Desarno) turned out to be the only actual band on the LP, with Tico Torres (Bon Jovi) as their drummer. Kog Nito & the Geeks were a studio band with Ben Newberry & Pete Croken, who worked with Southside. Lisa Lowell, a singer along with Patti Scialfa (married to Bruce Springsteen) & Soozie Tyrell (in Springsteen bands), sang lead on one of their songs. Paul Whistler was backed up by the Jukes & the Ladies (who then joined the group). Sonny Kenn was joined by Garry Tallent, David Sancious, Vini Lopez, Ernst Carter and Southside.
Kevin Kavanaugh, the great Asbury Park keyboard player was a big part of the LP. He knew of my record, and suggested I include myself as an artist. I wrote the song “Janey,” for my true love, my wife Carol, and recorded with Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez on drums and vocals.
I found out from a collector about a song by Neil Young I had never heard of, “High School Graduation” (which turned out to be a song from his unrecorded first solo album post Buffalo Springfield, about the complexities of feelings & experiences in high school). I obtained the lead sheet from the publisher, and Kevin & I arranged the track. We recorded with Garry Tallent and Vini Lopez. This featured a brilliant duel lead feedback Springfield homage by guitarist Joel Gramolini, and a climatic sax solo. With help from the great concert promoter John Scher (I worked for him many years both part & full time), through Elliot Roberts (I had met him & Neil many times over the years), Neil approved our recording. As far as I know, I am the only one to have released a Neil Young song he has not.
The LP was released in 1980 on Thunder Road/Visa Records and received some great reviews, except for a mean spot of revenge by Dave Marsh in Rolling Stone. We did a well attended live concert at the end of the summer at the Paramount in Ap. We tried to get a tour together to promote the LP and played a couple of dates, before the end.
Really proud of my production of the sounds of The Sounds Of Asbury Park. Great record. However, I would not sing, write, play or record for 30 years.
The Grateful Dead
I was never much of a Leary, but you can count me in regarding Ken Kesey and Neal Cassidy. The architects of the real first 60s movement were thinkers, seekers, travelers, doers, not layabouts or stoners reveling in their grooviness. Jerry Garcia is one of the pillars.
I was never a Deadhead, but friends were early fans. They played the first album for me, liked a couple of the songs, not the sound. (Later they would reissue a better version). The 2nd LP had sound issues, too, but that’s it for the other one, the Cassidy biopic is sublime. Aoxomoxoa, adventurous songs & arrangements. “You’ve got to see/hear them live,” so I did, loved “Dark Star,” but had missed the fierce performances, like on the fantastic Live/Dead & Two from the Vault. Workingman’s Dead is their end of the 60s commentary.
Beginning with American Beauty, they started to become big.
Most great 60s bands played for great heights, but to reach so meant inconsistency, also due to poor conditions like weather, travel, bad sound, less than ideal buildings, promoters, etc. When they would attain the group mind and fire on all cylinders, something greater was achieved! So much so many bands could not get the sound on record. Gd’s live consistency (an ongoing musical conversation with each other) would carry them to the top of the concert business (and other imitators after) for decades.
Their audiences, after popularity, dubbed Deadheads, were challenging to say the least, due to imitation hippies, irresponsible drug & alcohol use, violent behavior, overdose, throwing themselves at the straight communities, and battles with authorities.
I began doing ‘security’ at concerts for cash and to make contacts for my music. I felt strongly about helping to make sure live music & the ‘scene’ could continue, come what may. “Be careful what you wish for,” huh? So I started to do a lot of Grateful Dead shows, became ‘friendly’ with the Dead’s road crew (which meant being really great doing your job), and in particular with Jerry Garcia, an amazing human being & conversationalist, who could get right to the essence of the discussion in a succinct way. We would talk about comic books (e.c), science fiction (Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick), movies (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein), drugs (he loved to get high, although LSD was great for the first time, but after awhile it was fighting off the creepy crawlies) or music and anything or everything. Jerry was always in search of new pure bliss, akin to being able to push your endorphins! And man, could he play! When Garcia was on, Grateful Dead could be great!
They stopped doing live shows around the mid-seventies but when they returned, everything for them was enhanced. John Scher started doing all of their show from the Rockies East, and they asked me & Hood to drive around the northeast and help.
A few years later, I would be needed to go on the road with them to allow access to their stage. They continued to get bigger & bigger, as the audience grew to include: camping, selling things outside the venues and three! Generation of Deadheads: older, college age, and younger, all sorts of problems.
With the event of “Touch Of Grey” and In The Dark, everything multiplied, and I became their ‘head of security’, right to the end. (and beyond with Furthur). I dealt with communities, politicians, promoters, venues, Deadheads, road crew, the band… all doing the best I could to try to keep the concerts going. Grateful Dead arranged their concerts in two sets to assimilate the rise & fall of a trip. Everyday with GD was like tripping!
What currently occupies your life?
After rising from the dead, I spent more time with my family, and continued to provide security at concerts in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. In 2009, my son Dylan found a box of tapes in the basement, and was surprised to discover me! At the same time, Joe Magnifico and I reconnected, and 4 of us (including my son Neil on some cuts) recorded Feel. The LP was composed of new versions of 2 songs from Shattered Dreams & Broken Songs, 2 from Revenge, and covers by Love, the Yardbirds, the Byrds, Townes Van Zandt, the Everly Brothers, Rick Nelson, all favorites of mine! In many ways, feel picked up right where we had left off in the late 70s.
In 2011, I was asked to put together a special 30th anniversary concert celebrating the release of The Sounds Of Asbury Park album on April 1 at the legendary Wonder bar on Ocean Avenue in AP (once the longest bar in the world!). Boccigalupe & the Bad Boys, Lance Larson (Lord Gunner), and Sonny Kenn played sets. I did my 2 songs from the LP and one from Cosmocopia, backed up by my son dylan and Asbury legends Steve Schraeger (cahoots), Sonny Kenn (Sonny & the Starfires) and Bobby Bandiera (Southside Johnny, Bon Jovi, solo). My first time onstage in 30 years. Fantastic night!
I set my sights on writing a concept record, capturing my thoughts, feelings and life, from my memories in the womb to imagining what will happen to my consciousness when my body ceases to live. I had just turned 60 years young, and wanted the music to reflect: orchestral, blues, country, rock, power pop, jazz, symphony, folk, psychedelic and free form. Joe Magnifico, Dylan Viola & I wrote, performed and produced this in just 15 days, as time allowed. We released Cosmocopia in 2012.
I selected the following quote from the master film director Tarkovsky to illustrate: “longing for our inner home; inner sense of belonging; a pining for what is far from us; for worlds that cannot be united. The meaning of life; the meaning of freedom & insanity. We suffer from internal fragmentation: that of not being able to unite the entire world within oneself; all that is good; people, emotions & spirit.”
On January 1st, 2018, upon reaching the magic age of 66, I left the work force to continue to pursue knowledge, music, living and beyond!
If you are interested in Shattered Dreams & Broken Songs, my songs from The Sounds Of Asbury Park, and Feel or Cosmocopia go to: https://vmmusic.bandcamp.com
The link is the music streaming, pay what you’d like download (including free), read lyrics (click on the song, then to the right).
Would you like to share some last words for It’s Psychedelic Baby Magazine readers?
Thank You, Klemen! It’s Psychedelic Baby is cool, informative and so vital in this 21st century We find ourselves in, disconnected & connected together.
We seek nature, tribes, true human interaction, rediscovery of magic, visions from dreaming, understanding. Music is the universal language of the gods, harmonic highest consciousness or unconscious existence. Hope, peace & love!
– Klemen Breznikar
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