Al Manfredi – ‘Blue Gold’ (2019)
Harrowing, utterly compelling and desperately heartbreaking, Al Manfredi’s story, musical and otherwise, is laid bare by Mike Stax in the booklet which accompanies this astonishing double CD package. An extensive variation of the story also appears in issue # 50 of Stax’s incomparable Ugly Things magazine.
Al Manfredi was the prominent bass player in the Lost & Found, a group from the small seaside town of San Clemente, in Southern California. Through a family connection, after building up a decent local following, the group agreed to move, temporarily, to Phoenix, Arizona. It was whilst there that they recorded, and released what would be their only single, issued on the tiny PINS record label at the tail end of 1966. What a single this was; its contents have only just come to light again in more recent years, but each side is totally awe-inspiring. ‘Don’t Move Girl’ is sprightly and action-packed, with a propulsive rhythmic momentum, magical backing vocals and passages of semi-isolated clanging folk-punk guitar all of which is more than enough to make you want to hear it over and over again! The flipside, ‘To Catch The Sun’, although also uptempo, is an altogether stranger beast, with odd, repeat-echo percussion pattern and deep, often darkly poetic lyrics (especially so given what the near future would hold in store for them) which creates a truly forlorn sounding, intensely moody atmosphere: “I’m growing old my hands are cold… the place I’m going to I say it’s much too far for you to find me in your brand new car”. Both songs are inventive and individual, ultra-special creations which – for us garage, folk punk, introspective-slanted and psychedelically-afflicted – means compulsive listening of the highest order!
The group’s real-life story is immensely sad – with darkness and loss being prevalent. One member, songwriter and rhythm guitar player Mike Ingram was found dead in highly suspicious circumstances; he was only 17, while another member, Mike Ryer, died aged 19, in 1969, following an aggressive cancer diagnosis a couple of years after the group split.
“Blue Gold is a completely stunning collection of songs”
Post-Lost & Found, Al Manfredi’s lifestyle revolved around music, drugs…and (through his mother’s faith as a Jehovah’s Witness) religion … all the while writing and honing his craft – it’s said he lived for his music, later teaching music to others at the music-school and store facility which his father ran in Garden Grove. Here Al would work on, and refine his hugely innovative, oftentimes brave and unique sounding solo material. Until, in 1973, six of his favourite recorded pieces were deemed worthy of being heard by others. Breathtaking; windswept, often hypnotic many titles featured vocals and melodies kissed by the sun and the soothing ocean spray; searching, often reflective lyrics speak of loss, confusion, hope, desire, indifference, unrequited love … yet they also celebrate life, beauty, nature and truth. At its best, Blue Gold – especially those initial compositions that made up his “half-album” project – is the equal of some bigger, more famous names, and, in some instances, is far superior to other artists of renown; often in myriad ways too numerous and exhaustive to put down in words here.
Although Manfredi would kept it all pretty much hidden; friends, family, nobody he knew seemed to know much about these stunning, and beautiful recordings. Thankfully, however, Manfredi eventually found the desire and confidence to share, and they were finally issued by way of a very limited (said to be 100 or less) privately pressed release with hand-made picture, and lyric-adorned sleeves which he only sent to record labels and other potentially interested parties. Success for the somewhat troubled Manfredi wasn’t to be, however, and he resigned himself to a life of playing bass in a few groups, getting high, having fun where he could, and spending time with his also-troubled girlfriend Susan Bainbridge. They would marry, then divorce, and would also bring two children into the world, Alicia, and Alek. His relationship with the Jehovah’s Witnesses would also be an on / off affair, before he found some solace working for, then going into partnership with his father. But drugs, and alcohol, were becoming ever more a destructive influence and, which, would ultimately take their toll on him. Al Manfredi passed away in 1995, with both his children beside him – he was still only in his forties.
Upon first hearing Blue Gold, and then being immersed into the whole structure of its songs, one soon begins to hear, through the diverse confluence of moods, styles and fragrances which pour out from within his songs, echoes of those bold, forward-thinking, ahead of the game type sounds of which certain groups had already had, or were having at that time varying degrees of success with on the recording scene. So aspects of such as Love, Buffalo Springfield, Spirit, Kaleidoscope… plus – particularly throughout such as the mesmerising and cryptic sounding ‘Foggy Night’ and ‘Empty Of Your Possession’ – some of the cracked and mystic muse Bull Of The Woods, the 13th Floor Elevators’ startling, if much maligned at the time (and all but ignored) parting gift to the late 1960s psychedelic scene displayed. As with many great and gifted songwriters / groups there’s no mistaking the focused work ethic, the intention, aptitude and excellent clarity of thought that goes into their work, and in this respect Al Manfredi matches each and every one, as the material unearthed on Blue Gold has that special quality and integrity.
We hear skewed jazz, and folk-style bluesiness which effortlessly float across two or three titles. There are also occasional ethnic traits, on ‘Never Had You’ and especially ‘Let It Alone’ plus some warmly evocative Hawaiian-style guitar flourishes clustered here and there. All of this and much more are conjured up time and time again throughout this magnificent bounty.
Opening with the deliriously cool ‘Of The Sea’, with its semi-autobiographical sounding lyric and gorgeously peaceful, melodic vocal lines is a surefire way to instantly hook the listener in. And follow it up with the brilliant, somewhat counterculturally apposite for the time too (remember this was at the height of the turned-on, let’s stay high hippie era) ‘I Don’t Live Today’; there are some sequences within these two opening songs that would have groups like Big Star – and their much later acolytes like Teenage Fan Club – heading straight for that west coast crossroads to re-enact the equivalent of that soul-selling “deal” apocryphal to blues peddlars. Al’s sweetly haunting vocal lines here, and the particular phrasing are gorgeously intoned, melodically and harmonically, with the occasionally jazzy and zingy-sounding guitar phrases providing another strong focal point, this is actually the case within almost all of Blue Gold. The title track itself too is a thing of startling beauty, and which appears to hark back to his teenage years, ringing out with an immense, disconsolate feeling at its core; yearning for something more than the loneliness and despair brought about by the loss of his young pals in the Lost & Found.
It’s worth noting too that the deep prominent bass line patterns, the slinky, sometimes deceptively simple sounding, other times speedy and intricate guitar playing, the on and off the beat, cool and spare, relaxed and occasionally experimental drum-kit dexterity, plus all of those hip and groovy sounding, or melancholic and yearning ocean-sprayed and fantastically keening vocals, everything, is the truly outstanding work of Al Manfredi all on his own.
Another absolute highlight of Blue Gold (there are many) is the lilting ‘What A Way To Be Laughing’, which, in its finished-up electric setting, adds a rich tone, and a deeper significance to the whole picture due to its poignant, heartfelt, gently intense air. Its emotion-racked wonder and melodic greatness are part of what makes this cache of musical jewels such a gift of buried treasure. Amazingly, ‘What A Way To Be Laughing’ wasn’t included as one of the six titles Manfredi had instructed the Band ‘N Vocal mobile record cutting service facility to press up into his fabled vinyl project. One can only presume this was because the song was written, or maybe recorded at a later juncture. On disc two, it also makes an appearance in a slightly more rustic, pared-down acoustic demo-style version. Most of the material that makes up disc two, although much of it already having great potential, isn’t as detailed as regards the overall production compared to the finesse of disc one’s selections. Most are instrumental tracks – including the sprawling, heady ambience of ‘Basking’ – and should perhaps be listened to as such; unfinished works in progress, who knows (?) although as also alluded to earlier, each song is not without merit. If the material showcased on disc two had all been completed to the standard demonstrated throughout the first disc, it would be a much shinier, dare I say more numerously carat-encrusted, diamond hard classic which we would be discussing right here!
As it is we can only offer our immense gratitude to Al Manfredi’s son Alek – known within rap and hip hop circles as “Exile” – for he is largely responsible for this major rediscovery of his father’s musical legacy. Also to Mike Stax for running the Al Manfredi / Lost & Found feature in Ugly Things alluded to earlier, and also for his illuminating sleevenote herein. And finally to Now Again’s Eothen Alapatt for making available the physical realisation of Manfredi’s hitherto largely unheard works. That they have been able to ensure this insanely cool, once obscure and highly coveted trove of west coast-oriented gems now has the potential to be heard by hundreds, if not thousands of new listeners and appreciators of such sounds is an act of altruism worthy of serious celebration – much like how Craig Smith’s brother Gary, and Mike Stax have been able to do with the exceptional body of work which Craig was able to leave behind. Without a shadow of doubt, I’d say we need the music of Al Manfredi much more than we do the majority of solo-style outings by the esteemed likes of David Crosby, Steve Stills … James Taylor … Jackson Browne … later period Tim Buckley… you name it… and a lot more of that ilk that came from this same California-based timeline. Blue Gold is a completely stunning collection of songs, and whose reputation with 60s/70s rock and psychedelic era aficionados will only grow stronger as time passes.
– Lenny Helsing
Al Manfredi – ‘Blue Gold’ (Now-Again Records, 2019)