Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Shawn Phillips: Arias for the Common Man

A new article for Paste Magazine ...


Bruce Springsteen once remarked that Roy Orbison was the only truly operatic singer in rock music. With no disrespect intended toward the great Mr. Orbison, it is apparent that Bruce never heard Shawn Phillips.

Shawn Phillips was and is the original cosmic contra-tenor – a hippie Pavarotti with a waist-length ponytail and a buckskin jacket, a sometimes gifted songwriter with a mastery of several stringed instruments, a prodigious vocal range, and, by most accounts, a formidably drug-shrouded mind. He stopped making albums in the late 1970s, and I had pictured him as the quintessential hippie burnout, the slacker/stoner who flamed out in his mid-thirties and disappeared from the public eye. As usual, the truth is something far different and far more complex, driven more by the vagaries of the music industry than by personal demons or tragedy. In any event, Shawn Phillips may be the greatest singer you’ve never heard. And even if you’ve paid close attention to the music of the past twenty-five years, there’s a good chance you’ve not heard him. Thirty-five years after he played in front of 600,000 people at the Isle of Wight Festival, Shawn Phillips is a nearly forgotten man.

I distinctly remember the first time I heard The Voice. Phillips’ “Song for Mr. C.,” from his 1971 album Second Contribution, was played fairly frequently on Chicago FM radio stations in the early 1970s, and the greasy R&B of that song reminded me of the grit of Leon Russell and Lee Michaels, blue-eyed soul men who were popular at the time. I snatched up the album, thinking that I was in for more of the same. What I got was something altogether different and altogether less prone to easy categorization: tender love ballads that sounded like Johnny Mathis with testosterone, sweeping, romantic strings, strutting R&B horns, sitars, progressive jazz, hushed acoustic folk music with exquisite six-string fingerpicking, and, on “The Ballad of Casey Deiss,” the sound of the human voice soaring into the heavens. A conventional folk ballad for its first four minutes, it suddenly took a turn for the celestial when Phillips’ pure falsetto spiraled upward, more upward, impossibly upward until I could not believe the notes I was hearing. It was my introduction to the most remarkable voice of the singer/songwriter era.

If that voice borrowed influences from almost everywhere it is perhaps because Phillips lived almost everywhere. A military brat who grew up in Texas, Mexico, and Tahiti, he traveled in his young adulthood to California, London (where he befriended Donovan in his Flower Power phase and spent time with Lennon and McCartney), and Paris before finally settling down in the picturesque Italian fishing village of Positano, where he lived throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Phillips absorbed the music around him, from Texas to India, and it all found its way into his own songs. As a result, he made relentlessly eclectic music, impossible to pin down and label. He recorded nine albums for A&M Records between 1970 and 1977. The best of them were bunched at the beginning of the decade – the trio of Collaboration, Second Contribution, and Faces. They rank as some of the most beautiful, ethereal albums to emerge from the singer/songwriter movement.

Unfortunately, much of Phillips’ music sounds hopelessly dated now, the product of the patchouli-scented times in which it was made. It has not aged well, and the sitar drones and “love your brother, man” sentiments only serve to highlight the naiveté and excesses of the Age of Aquarius. The voice still sounds exquisite – soulful, passionate, and gritty on one song, light as a feather and soaring the next. But the song titles tell another story: “Spaceman,” “What’s Happenin’, Jim!” and the ridiculously named, impossibly lovely “She Was Waiting For Her Mother At The Station in Torino And You Know I Love You Baby But It’s Getting Too Heavy To Laugh.” Far out. And therein lies the problem. To listen to Shawn Phillips is to be confronted with stark contrasts. With the possible exception of Al Green, never has a human voice combined such earthy soul with such a soaring, angelic falsetto. And never has such an otherworldly, gorgeous human voice been placed in the service of such hazily muddled hippie tripe.

What renders the tripe palatable, even highly listenable, is The Voice. Possessing a three-octave range that could move effortlessly between a natural baritone and the most astonishing falsetto I’ve ever heard, Phillips sang not so much songs as hippie arias, impossibly dramatic mini-operas that showcased his evocative passion and startling vocal range. If the words have not always aged well, the good news is that the falsetto is often wordless. And it is singing of the highest order; of an unearthly order, for that matter.

Today, Phillips is 62 years old and lives outside Austin, Texas, where he works as a fireman. “I had two dreams as a kid,” he says. “I wanted to be a rock ‘n roll star, and I wanted to drive a big, red truck. I’ve been able to do both.” He’s recorded two albums in the new millennium, his first recorded output in nearly twenty-five years. The second album, 2003’s No Category, was the gift of his longtime fans, who donated more than $20,000 toward the recording expenses. The man who sold over three million albums in the 1970s was broke.

He still has the waist-length ponytail, his once light brown hair now shot through with grey. And he still has The Voice, now a little weathered by the years and the miles. His infrequent concerts still find him soaring impossibly upward, trying to find a place to alight that is not of this earth.


Andy Whitman said...

Thanks for the comments and corrections, Arlo. I appreciate them, and I'll make sure they are incorporated into the article. Any chance of an interview with Shawn? If that's a possibility, please send an e-mail message to whitmana (at) hotmail (dot) com and we'll discuss the logistics.

I don't know if you're familiar with Paste Magazine (http://www.pastemagazine.com), but the article will appear in the August/September issue of the magazine, which will be out in late July. Paste has a circulation base of about 150,000 copies. I'd love to turn the article into a more extended feature on Shawn, and with your help I think that can happen.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

"The Voice" indeed, truly among the most incredible ever recorded. Drug influenced? Yeah and so what? The Ballad of Casey Diess made me cry the first 500 or so times I heard it. My first son is named Casey (middle name Shawn of course). Dated? Only some, most remain relevant and shall continue to. Read the lyrics to Mr. Blunt and Mr. Frank, then consider relevance.

Anonymous said...

I came upon Shawn's music by accident (actually a true serendipity!) in 1971. I own all that is available on vinyl (for the covers) and CD, and have DVD's on order. I'm 52, and into opera crossing Flaming Lips, Marilyn Manson and Regina Spektor, so I'm not stuck in the mud or past. But Shawn, I still play his music every day. His music has inspired my painting and poetry. This is because he invokes colour and words. And like the master painters and poets, much of his work will never age. Did you listen to Early Morning Hours, or Troof, or Whaz At? Who needs drugs to get high? Listen to Shawn. But be prepared to accept that tears will flow. More than fulfilling - inspiring!

York, UK