The Songpoet dives deep into the career of Eric Andersen, the US singer-songwriter at the vanguard of the 1960s Greenwich Village music scene. Now, based in the Netherlands, Andersen’s 50+ year career has seen many highs and some devastating lows, including the death of newly acquired manager Brian Epstein. Continuing to write and perform, Eric Andersen’s story is one of unrelenting pursuit of purpose, as well as a testament to the power of the creative calling.
The Spongpoet will screen its Dutch Premiere as part of the 2021 IN-EDIT Music Documentary Festival. You can catch The Songpoet on Saturday, 5 June @ Melkweg (15:45), where Lucky Fonz III will introduce the film. This date will also feature a special live performance from Eric Andersen following the screening. Then, the film screens in Amsterdam on Sunday, 6 June @ Het Ketelhuis (17:30). This screening will feature a live Q&A with Eric. Following the Amsterdam screenings, Eric Andersen will again accompany The Songpoet with introducing the film and performing live in cities across the Netherlands.
Here, IN-EDIT spoke with Eric Andersen, a swell as The Songpoet Director Paul Lamont to get some more context into the interesting backstory of one of the 1960s most creative minds.
I want to start by asking you a little bit about your impressions of Greenwich Village. I’m from the New York City area. I lived in Brooklyn for many years and grew up just outside the city. New York will always be home, I guess, but the city is very different from there one you originally moved to. Take me back to the first moments of stepping out into Greenwich Village. How did you feel the atmosphere was there at the time?
Let me start by saying a lot of times and places have to do with who is there. When I went to the village, I knew a lot of writers had gone through there, including the ones I was interested in like the songwriters and the beat generation. When I went there, I didn’t know anybody really. I just knew this one guy, Tom Paxton, who had seen my play in California and invited me to the village with my girlfriend. He gave us a place to stay which was incredible. We started off on a good foot. Soon I met a singer/songwriter, Phil Ochs through him. I met some others through him also, like Fred Neil and Bob Dylan, of course. Paxton had gone to London, so he wasn’t around. We had the whole place to ourselves for about a year.
Then we lived on 14th Street; then I lived on Avenue D, near Tompkins Square Park. At that point, I was cooking for junkies. You know, people from Connecticut that had a lot of money, and all they did was shoot junk and I went and cooked for them. It was really bizarre.
Then I got a loft and then naturally got involved in the scene. There were other scenes too. I met the Warhol scene. I did a film for Warhol. We got friendly because we were both from Pittsburgh. The scene expanded, but New York, of course, was integral to the story.
What would you say were some main differences between the experience in New York and the experience in California?
The heads were in a similar place. I was living up the street from the City Lights bookstore. I had met some writers there who were also singers. One was David Meltzer, who was one of the managers at the store. He was also a poet. Through him. I had some kind of anchor. And my girlfriend and was running a club in Berkeley. But I knew that New York was really where it was at for me. I think going to the west coast was sort of a rehearsal.
I went to New York and then moved into business a little bit because the producer associated with Peter, Paul and Mary started giving me a publishing deal for my songs, so things got a little more serious. I got a recording contract and made a record. It was my first time for Vanguard. I had to wait a very long time before the record came out. So, I was basically just sitting around killing time. I couldn’t really work. I couldn’t really gig, and nobody really knew who I was. I was contributing songs to like a magazine called Broadside, which is a songwriter magazine in New York State run by these lefties from Oklahoma who were friends with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
There was always something to do and at night I would go down to town to the village and catch whatever was to be heard or on view. By not travelling or going around, performing my songs, and doing all those things, I had endless nights in the Village listening to the blues and country music for days at a time. People played shows back in the day for like six nights a week. Miles Davis or John Coltrane came to the Vanguard for six nights. When Phil Ochs, Mississippi John Hurt, or Lightnin’ Hopkins came to New York it was four six nights. That was the routine.
Were there any artists or performances during that time that continue to stick out in your mind?
Oh, yeah! I didn’t even own a record player at the time. Any kind of music I heard, I heard it live. The shows that really mattered to me I would say mainly were the blues. People like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters. Son House – one of the teachers of Robert Johnson – Skip James, and Reverend Gary Davis.
Lightnin’ Hopkins really hit me hard. Mississippi John Hurt hit me hard. Clarence Ashley, who was a white banjo player, a brilliant Appalachian musician. Doc Watson, who I later did shows with.
Then there were village singers too. Phil Ochs and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. He actually was from Brooklyn. Of course, there was Pete Seeger.
How did the blues and those artists play a role in the development of your own songwriting approach?
The honesty and directness. I didn’t come up becoming a blues artist. My main interest was writing new material. Since I was self-taught, I learned how to deal with sound, silence, and space. A blues guy could be singing, and he can almost stop playing, and you’d still be carried along. Even though you weren’t hearing anything, he would just be there with this hidden rhythm. I was tending to overplay. Blues taught me to go quiet and for an audience to listen more.
I want to get an impression on the moment in your life where you ended up moving out of the country and to Europe. First, it was Norway before the Netherlands. What struck you about life in Scandinavia, and in Europe?
Like Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast. Having lived in Paris in the 20s, it was something he carried with him. Like outing a belt on every day, it was something he carried with him everywhere. The same was true when you came from this environment of intense writing with a lot of camaraderie and support. This was the world I carried with me, but eventually, it dispersed. When I went to Europe, I saw that you kind of bring your own world with you. I don’t know if that’s much of an answer for you, but it sure was a true thing for me.
No, it is. It makes a lot of sense. As a person who has moved around a lot in my life since birth, it makes a lot of sense. Ultimately, your home and familiarity do carry with you wherever you go, especially when you’re essentially a transient being.
How did you decide to settle in the Netherlands? How do you feel the atmosphere of the Netherlands is conducive to this lifestyle of yours?
In Norway, I had a little bit of reflection. I basically just created a library of books. I wrote some albums, a lot of short stories, and was working on several books.
I met my wife, and we came to the Netherlands. She is a social scientist and a singer, and she writes. I have to admit, though, I’m basically on my own. I haven’t interacted with anybody in the years I’ve been here, the only cultural connection is IN-EDIT. I have to say is that because they’re showing my movie. In terms of the culture, I don’t have much dialogue with it.
How long have you been there?
Long enough to prove a point. I’ve been here like 16 years, so I’ve definitely been in my own world. It’s a great, beautiful country. It’s also a safe place to be, and very close to everywhere I want to go. I just get in a car or on the train and I can be anywhere I want very quickly.
Do you get a chance to travel back to New York these days?
I had places there all the time. When I was in Norway, I had apartments in New York. Now, it’s more like a hotel thing, because everything is just so up in the air and so strange, so it is different. I go back and record a lot, and I tour a lot. I also record in Cologne, Germany, but New York has always been the base because it has everything. It’s kind of weird. I will go to sleep at night in the middle of winter and I’ll think, how did the Yankees do today? Even though they are not even playing.
This world that I live in is portable. I carry with me; I use it for all my writing and composing
I wanted to wrap up by asking just a little about the film itself. How involved were you in developing the final version of the film?
I had very little to do with that. I had collected archival material, which I brought from everywhere. I had stuff everywhere. Most of it ended up here in the Netherlands. I thought that maybe I would do something with this someday. Maybe I will write a memoir. I was looking at it and it was completely overwhelming. It was like if some asked me to learn Dutch, Russian, and Chinese in one week. I went to London, and my friend Ian MacFadyen, who narrates the film, showed me some archived work he did. I told him that the filmmakers were coming to my house and I asked him to come too. He knew my story and he put some things together and worked with the filmmakers.
Paul [Lamont], how were you first introduced to Eric’s music and work?
Paul Lamont: My first introduction to Eric and his music was years ago. I was a teenager making enough money with my part-time job to buy a couple of gallons of gas for my car and a few albums. So, to make my money go a little further, I’d shop for music in the 39-cent discount bins in the record department at the local store where I worked. My musical tastes are all over the board, from progressive, to rock, to jazz, to folk, and everything in-between. But at the time, folk, especially contemporary folk, was really beginning to take hold of my interest. So, as I was thumbing through these gems waiting to be discovered, I spotted a double album, and on the cover was a guy sitting on the ground playing an acoustic guitar with a couple of dogs by his side and an intensity in his stare that was almost unnerving. Needless to say, it got my attention. The album was The Best of Eric Andersen. I had never heard of him but figured a double album for 39-cents is a pretty good deal even if I don’t like it. But when the needle dropped on the first cut, “My Land Is A Good Land”, I was hooked. From there, I bought every Eric Andersen album I could get my hands on.
What was it about Eric that made you want to make this film?
Paul Lamont: I remember after the release of Be True To You in 1975 and Sweet Surprise in 1976, Eric seemed to disappear. I lost track of him for over a decade until 1989 when Ghosts Upon The Road was released. It was with the subsequent release of Stages: The Lost Album that I learned about the missing tapes and Brian Epstein’s death that had happened a few years before that. So the more I learned about Eric and his story, the more I realized that his was a bigger, more complex story than just the story of a musician that perhaps didn’t get the credit he deserved. I saw Eric’s life and career as a prism to view a much more personal and compelling story that transcends the music business. But also, there was a part of me that wanted to give something back to the man who gave me so much through his words and music with the hopes that a new generation of listeners might find him and those that lost touch as I did, might rediscover him.
What sort of story did you want to tell in this film?
Paul Lamont: All I knew going in was that I wanted the film to reflect the essence of Eric and his music and to be structured in a way that might break from the typical music documentary format which to me, is often more anecdotal and formulaic than substantive. We were able to make that break because Eric didn’t put any limitations on us. He gave me and my co-producer, Scott Sackett, complete access to his entire archive including thousands of photographs and over 90 reels of 8mm film that he shot between the mid-1960s and early 1970s. But equally important, nothing was off-limits. Hundreds of letters, journals, and documents from 1963 to present day were at our disposal. The fact that Eric reads excerpts from some of those journal entries and letters, all written with raw emotion and searing insight, lets the film unfold with much more depth, intensity, and honesty than you sometimes get from interviews. What emerged was an artistic film about Eric the artist, but more importantly Eric the man comes into sharp relief allowing the artist to be understood. I believe his story resonates with people because it touches on things common to all of us – home, family, career, relationships, ego – and the conflicts that often arise as we attempt to balance and make sense of them while seeking out and pursuing our own purpose in life.
Interview conducted, editing, and transcribed by Steve Rickinson