Ramblin’, man

Pub date July 25, 2006
SectionMusicSectionSonic Reducer

› kimberly@sfbg.com
SONIC REDUCER He’s been at home on the range, in the skies overhead, on the South Pacific sea, and on the streets of Greenwich Village. He was taken under the migrant wing of Woody Guthrie, read to Jack Kerouac, backed up Nico, was called the sexiest man in America by Cass Elliott, thieved Allen Ginsberg’s girlfriend, married James Dean’s ex, and was ensconced in the heart of Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue. Mick Jagger said he purchased his first guitar after seeing him play, and his “San Francisco Bay Blues” was one of the first songs Paul McCartney learned to play. ’Nuff said — Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is a legend and would be even if Bill Clinton hadn’t dubbed him an “American treasure.”
I caught up with the singer of cowboy songs, working stiffs’ ballads, salty sailor chanteys, sad songs of the blue, down and out, and lonesome, near his Marshall home, at a Petaluma watering hole, on the occasion of his forthcoming 75th birthday on Aug. 1.
“I don’t like to think about it,” says Elliott of his age. Still sharp, superarticulate, and a consummate flirt, the Brooklyn-born cowboy digs into his Caesar salad — don’t hold the anchovies, man — in the shade of the restaurant, then pokes at our shared plate of fries with his fork. Despite the heat, his hat remains clamped on his head, a bandanna around his neck. “I like to say, in 17 days and 25 years I’m gonna be 100.”
He isn’t quite ready to hang up his boots and sit at home accepting accolades: The still-riveting interpreter of America’s folk songs attended bull-riding school at 47, still harbors an abiding fondness for ponies and long-distance trucks, and hasn’t given up a dream of someday, well, writing songs on a regular basis. “I’ve only written about five songs in 40 years,” he says, proudly sticking to that story. “I’m not a writer. I want to learn to write, I really do. I’m incredibly lazy, though. I can spend 15 days just sleeping after an airplane trip.”
But much travel is on the horizon for this singer of other folks’ songs — he’s now in demand with the release of a wonderful, spare new album of seldom-played tunes, I Stand Alone. David Hidalgo, Corin Tucker, Flea, Nels Cline, and DJ Bonebrake joined him on the Anti- album, in studios of their choosing. Turns out the man truly stood alone — though you wouldn’t be able to tell from the palpable tough love and hardscrabble synchronicity evident on “Careless Darling,” his gritty-sweet pairing with Lucinda Williams.
I tell him I saw him perform five years ago at the Guardian-hosted “Power to the People” show at Crissy Field, put together, incidentally, by I Stand Alone producer Ian Brennan. “Outdoors!” Elliott exclaims. “Right by the bay. I don’t like performing outdoors because I feel nooo connection with the audience. I can see them getting up or eating a sandwich. I want them to be able to be focused on me, because I’m focused on them and I’m trying to focus on what the heck the song is about. Like, what does it mean?”
But let’s wander back to I Stand Alone. “I’ve never been with a hip company before,” Elliott says of Anti-. “My daughter [Aiyana, who directed the 2002 documentary The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack] wanted to call it Not for the Tourists. Her husband asked, ‘Why don’t you sing those songs in your show, Jack?’ And I said, ‘They’re not for the tourists.’” The songs were long gone from his set simply because he tired of them, having sung them so often in his early years. Yet they possess a taken-for-granted ease found in things that are so worn and familiar that they’re second nature.
“It’s like what Woody told me one time. I asked him to show me how to play a certain cowboy song. I loved it, and Woody had a very unusual way of singing that song and playing it on the guitar,” says Elliott, recalling the year as 1951 and Woody as a hard-drinking 39 to his 19 years. “I said, ‘Woody, can you show me how to play that song ‘Buffalo Skinners,’ and he said, ‘That’s on the record, Jack, and you can go listen to it.’ I listened to it about a hundred times, and I pretty much learned what he was doing, but I never could quite do it exactly the way he did it. He just wasn’t in the mood to be teachin’ guitar.”
Those days of shadowing Guthrie around the country and following his every move, which often got Elliott pegged as a mere imitator, are now “like a dream. I think it was one of the happiest times of my young life because I got to hear all his stories. I’m sorry,” he says, pointing to my recorder, “I didn’t have one of these to record with.” SFBG
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