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10

Jan

2012

That ’70’s Show

By Kezzie Baker. Posted in Folk, Rock, Vital Albums | 13 Comments »

No, this is not about the old American television sitcom series that stations occasionally re-run late at night.  It is a series, though, and the sitcom title is fitting.  This is about a different ‘70s Show – a “music show” that was inconspicuously (at least to me) being performed just outside the limelight during the 1970’s.  It is only recently that I came to discover some of the outstanding works from a few stars of that ‘70’s show.  In a completely just world, their albums would have received the full recognition they deserve.  Even now, some 30+ years later, they are remarkable.  Here’s one of the best of them (more albums will be discussed in Part 2):

Silent Passage – Bob Carpenter, Warner Reprise 1975 (re-issue 1984 by Stony Plain Records, and 2007 by Riverman Music)  “Bob still lives within all who hear his unforgettable Silent Passage.”  – Ed Ochs, former music editor for Billboard Magazine (from Rising Storm).

I first learned of Silent Passage by the inclusion of its title track on Midlake’s  2011 album, a mixtape contribution to the Late Night Tales series.  Late Night Tales is a series (ongoing since 2001) of “music and stories worth staying up for” in which one artist is invited each year to compile a mixtape of their favorite songs or inspirations.  The contents of each Late Night Tales album are the original pieces by the original artists, with one cover chosen and performed by the invited artist.  GQ Magazine describes the series as “the Rolls Royce of compilations.”  Midlake’s mixtape opens with Bob Carpenter performing his song, “Silent Passage,” which immediately sent me scrambling to find Carpenter’s original album.  Here’s what I had heard:

Bob Carpenter was somewhat more known in his homeland Canada than he was in the rest of the world, where he remained under the radar throughout his short musical career.  A few artists such as Billy Joe Shaver and Tom Rush have recorded some of his songs, but he is still relatively unknown today and confusion abounds when his name is mentioned.  He is often confused with another Bob who played with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and he is not associated with The Carpenters, nor the same person who released the CD, Sun, The Moon & The Stars, as some internet retail sources suggest.  Our Bob Carpenter was a west coast Canadian singer-songwriter, born on an Indian reservation near North Bay, Ontario, and Silent Passage is the only album he ever released.  It is filled with keepers.  The  list of contributors include budding young vocalists Emmylou Harris and Anne Murray, as well as Lowell George and Bill Payne (both of Little Feat), Russ Kunkel (legendary drummer and producer), and pedal steel guitarist Buddy Cage, but this is really Carpenter’s show.  What makes the album work is his excellent songwriting combined with his very striking “world weary” voice that demands empathy, the perfect conduit to get his message of simultaneous despair and hope across to his listeners – despair from a realization that somehow he has lost his way in life, painfully cognizant of the fact that “something” is missing; hope in the resolve to seek and find that “something.”  He is sure of its existence (“before the final curtain fell across my weary eyes / I’m sure I saw the ghost of Truth at least a thousand times”), if only he could find his way to it.  Although Carpenter uses an occasional train as the mode of transport to the “something,” it is more often a ship that takes him there, with stormy weather and tempestuous oceans used as metaphors for life’s trials and troubles.  He is always searching for better weather and smooth sailing. How Carpenter musically expresses this theme elevates mere music to poetic art.

Never is this more evident than in the song “First Light,” a powerful number replete with spiritual undertones.  It begins with a quiet introductory refrain:  “Far across the windy, wavy ocean on a ship prepared for any weather / We sailed upon the sea, the magic ship and me / From the coast of where I’ve been to the place I think I’d rather be…”  The key then changes and lush strings enter, coloring a sonic picture of a ship smoothly sailing across the waters, and we know immediately that this is indeed a “magic” ship on its way to a “magic” destination.  The album’s cover art, Gustave Doré’s etching from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, serves as the perfect thematic complement.  The verses and chorus which follow take us deep into Carpenter’s world of human struggle and plea for deliverance.  The song ends with another key change leading into the closing refrain which is identical to the beginning one, bringing us around full circle.  Magical musical perfection.

Carpenter uses similar seascape imagery in other songs on the album with equally impressive results.  Such imagery would have come naturally to him; he was once a sailor so he actually did sail the “windy, wavy ocean” on the ship of life where, as the lyrics to the title track say, “we are the master’s sails in the wind.”

Three of the album’s songs have upbeat tempos.  “Miracle Man” kicks things off with an invitation for “truth-bound lovers and truth-bound brothers” to leave all their cares and troubles behind.  The other two upbeat tunes are “Old Friends,” a song about the value found in the comfort of true brotherhood including a nice trumpet solo, and “Morning Train” which begins with a beautiful and dreamy piano passage and flighty woodwinds, and a chorus consisting of gospel-tinged vocals.  It is a song of joy about an opportunity to take the train ride to “go home someday,” yet hints of persistent loneliness remain (“somebody told me if I wasn’t lonely that I’d be the man to see”).  “Gypsy Boy” stands out as a unique, ahead-of-its-time eerie tune that recounts the lonely wanderings of a young gypsy boy who senses “it’s time to move now, but I don’t know where we’re going.”

The rest of the album consists of slower reflective songs, and it is in these that Carpenter shines his absolute brightest.  The original album jacket displays a photo of a young-looking Carpenter with long dark hair and beard, but songs such as “The Believer,” “Down Along the Border,” “Before My Time,” and “Now and Then,” miraculously transform the youthful singer into a timeless and wise old sage – although the sage in this case has as many questions as answers (“All these words so new to me, are they supposed to set us free? / I don’t believe in liberty, I just believe in life. / How can something perfect change into something less and back again /and in between have all this pain because we’re asking why?”)

Silent Passage is not a born-again testament.  It is a journal, written down in musical form, of one man’s journey in search of the passage that will lead the way to a new world of inner peace.   The journey is not an easy one.  He will be thrown into the center of a clash between shadow and light and there are wars to be fought (both without and within) before he emerges at the end of the passage.  It is a lonely warrior’s painful battle with his own personal dark night of the soul, but when the smoke clears and the dawn finally breaks, the road to his final destination is clearly seen.  For Carpenter, that final destination is the place where Truth and Love dwell.  It can be a most enriching listen for all, however one chooses to define the source of such virtues.  The message is compelling.  The voice makes the message profound.   Former Billboard music editor Ed Ochs (who managed Carpenter for a short time), sums it up by saying,

“Bob was a prophet. His songs are meditations. Certainly he wrote his songs but they were given to him. His music came from the source, in his case a spiritual teacher who gave him a most unusual gift: the vision and the voice to express the inexpressible. He was just a regular guy until he opened his mouth and began to sing. Then, oh Lordy! There was no place to hide, nowhere to go, nothing to do but close your eyes and fly away!”

Say amen, brother, and pass the word.  This one’s too good to remain in obscurity.

Since then:  Bob Carpenter died of brain cancer in 1995, having never released another album, although Stony Plain Records released  a digital download-only album in 2010 of eight previously unreleased demo tracks entitled Eight Demos 1979, and included three of the demos on their 2011 anniversary release 35 Years of Stony Plain.  Riverman Music (Korea) also remastered the original recording of Silent Passage in a 24-bit limited edition remaster in 2009, which was released in a  paper sleeve that reproduced the original LP sleeve in miniature form.  Ed Ochs fictionized his encounter with Carpenter in his novel, “This Rock Can Talk” (published in 2010), a book which he describes as a “rock ‘n’ roll comedy adventure set in today’s fast-paced music business.”   I asked Mr. Ochs about that fictionized encounter with Carpenter, to which he answered a character in the book is based on him and the book itself was inspired by him:  “I guess that underscores what his music meant, and still means, to me…writing the book was my way of getting it out of my system, as far as how much it impacted my life. It is also the story of a rock writer searching for the missing chord, for the music of perfection, one greater than all the other music he’d heard before; and that would be Bob Carpenter. It had to be fiction to make the incredible believable and bring the story down to earth in a form it could be told, therefore the title.”  A free excerpt of the first 8 pages of “This Rock Can Talk” can be read online.  Ochs also writes about Carpenter in his new book, “Freedom Spy: David Jove and The Meaning of Existence.” Ochs knew Jove well and was a partner with him in various ventures, one of the most notable being co-writer with Jove of the pioneering cable-music show “New Wave Theatre,” a precursor to MTV.  “If characters make the story,” said Ochs, “then David Jove’s twisted tale has got to be one of the most interesting ever because he was absolutely one of a kind. Before I met him he had already fled Canada on a felony charge, set up Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for a drug bust in England, and traveled Europe, the Middle East and Mexico.”  Although “Freedom Spy” is labeled as fiction (Ochs had to recreate conversations, change a few names, and merge a few characters), it contains tangential facts about Bob Carpenter and his album Silent Passage, using Carpenter’s real name.  The book is scheduled to be released in early 2012.

It is the world’s loss that (for whatever reason) the music industry never produced more recordings from this gifted songwriter, but I am grateful for the solitary masterpiece he left us with; thankful for having shared his vision.  The power inherent in Carpenter’s gift of music cannot be overstated.  Silent Passage is without a doubt one of the best and most rewarding albums I have ever had the privilege to listen to. It is an album that, once heard, cannot be forgotten.  I am left wondering – did Carpenter ever find better weather?  Did he ever catch that morning train?  I hope so.


Kezzie Baker lives in the heartland of America and if there’s one thing she likes better than listening to all kinds of music, it’s talking about it. There are just way too many truly great artists that never receive the notoriety they deserve. She tries to do what she can to change that by spreading the word around to anybody who will listen.
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13 Responses to “That ’70’s Show”

  1. 1
    Warren Meacher. Says:

    Yep, a stunning album and you wrote a great review of it – well done!
    My only gripe is the small piece of pedantry that points out that the lyric sheet included in my copy of the album states in Silent Passage “We are the masts, the sails and the wind”.
    Also, do you play guitar because if you do i could give you a great tab for playing / singing Down along the border – once again, great review and keep spreading the word about Bob!

  2. 2
    kez Says:

    Warren, thank you for your comments. It’s very satisfying to know there are other people out there who appreciate Bob’s music. My purpose in writing the review was to, as you say, “spread the word,” and I do hope there are others out there who will be touched by his music as much as I have been.

    And yes, you are right – I messed up in quoting the lyrics to the title track. I really am without excuse, since I made use of a phrase Ed Ochs gave me, and Ed said it right! (“Bob was a sailor for awhile so he actually did sail the windy, wavy ocean on the ship of life where ‘we are the mast, the sails and the wind.'”) So, apologies for that.

    I don’t play the guitar, but if I did, I would sure want the tabs for Down Along the Border. Thanks for your willingness to share – and thank you again very muich for your comments.

  3. 3
    Randy Cierley-Sterling Says:

    I happened to be at a coffee house in Escondido one night in 1993 for their open mike night and, after listening to some really bad “wannabees” this big, kinda rough looking, guy took the stage and began pouring out some of the best songs I had heard in a long time.  Not only were the songs good but he had a very deceptively simple but exceptional guitar style and a voice I would kill for.  I sat and listened to about four or five songs and was blown away.  Now that doesn’t happen to me very often after being blessed with working with some of the best in the business.  After he got off stage I went up to him and expressed just how much I enjoyed his work and appreciated his talent.  We hit it off right away and I, thinking he was from the area but just hadn’t seen him before, asked where he was living.  He surprised me no end when he told me he was from Canada and just came down here during the winter and was staying at a monastery back in the hills of Escondido.  I was very intrigued but didn’t want to pry and he didn’t offer any more information on that subject .  There were two songs in particular that I really liked and asked if he would mind if our group did them.  He was very flattered and taught me the songs, (I didn’t have anything to record with at the time) and then just sort of disappeared.  I didn’t see him again until about the same time the next year when my doorbell rang and there he was standing at my door with guitar in hand and a big grin on his face.  By that time I had managed to borrow a nice little Tascam recorder and had him sit down in my kitchen and sing as many songs as he had a mind to.  Most were just mind blowers in their musical and lyric content and just a few weren’t bad but just didn’t have that magic feeling you get when you’re transported.  You know exactly what I mean.  We spent the day together and I asked if he wanted to stay for dinner and he said no he had to get back to the monastery.  I was still so curious but, as he didn’t seem to want to offer any more information,  again I decided not to pry and just kinda figured that he had found a way to get free food and lodging, not realizing that he was very serious about his studies and goal of becoming a fully vowed Monk.

    Our group (Spare Change) was beginning to find our voice (with the help of Bob’s and a few other musical friends and heroes songs) and couldn’t wait for his next yearly appearance and perhaps garner a few more musical gems.  Once again he showed up at my door but was kind of in a hurry as he had gotten a late start and said he needed to get up to the monastery.  He assured me that he would get in touch in a few days and off he went.  After about a week or so I was getting a little antsy and, since I had no idea how to get in touch with him at the monastery or for that matter didn’t even know exactly where it was, began making inquires as to whether anybody had seen Bob around at any of the coffee houses.  Nobody knew anything.  Most didn’t even know he was back in town at all.  After about a month I began digging around in some papers on my desk and came across the name of his manager up in Canada.  I finally got the guy on the phone and asked what had become of Bob.  By this time I was getting a bit worried and was hoping he hadn’t been involved in some kind of traffic accident or other incident that would keep him from getting in touch.  Well, his manager gave me the story.  It seems that about two or three days after I saw Bob he woke up one morning at the monastery feeling dizzy and strange and they took him to the emergency room as he also had numbness on one side of his body.  After an MRI they found out that he had a massive, inoperable, brain tumor and only gave him about a month to live.  He immediately returned to Canada, got all his affairs in order and lived out a lifelong dream by taking a train from the extreme far west to the farthest east of Canada ending up in Toronto at a hotel where the elders from the monastery he was studying with came and gave him his final vows and robes and he quietly passed away just as the elder finished.  Yeah, I know, I cried also.  My partner, David’s, wife is from Canada and happened to be up in Vancouver visiting her folks just about the same time and came back with an article from Canada’s version of Time Magazine that told of Bob and his passing.  We had no idea that he was so well known up there and, in the end, felt lucky and honored to have met and known him and his music.

    I have posted a few of Bob’s tunes on ReverbNation.com under the name, Sterling & Morgan. Bob’s songs are:

    BAND OF GYPSIES
    WHEN THE SUN GOES DOWN OVER TEXAS
    FALLING NIGHT
    MAGDALENA
    DANCE THE NIGHT AWAY
    STRAIT OF GEORGIA
    SATAN’S GOLDEN CHAINS

    I hope you get a chance Ms. Baker to check out some of Bob’s great material that he never got the chance (more’s the pity) to record.

    Thank you,

    Randy Cierley-Sterling

  4. 4
    Kezzie Baker Says:

    Randy – wow! What a testimony! Thank you so much for sharing your experience of discovering Bob Carpenter and the impact he and his music has had on you. I see you, like Ed Ochs, are yet one more person in the music business whom Bob touched deeply through his amazing music. In writing my review of ‘Silent Passage,’ I was greatly inspired by Ed’s stories of his association with Bob and how much Bob’s persona and music meant to him – even after all these years. And, I see, you too!

    I also was immediately drawn in to Bob’s world the moment I heard that one song on the Late Night Tales sampler and still feel his impact more than a year later. I know that impact will remain with me now.

    About ‘Silent Passage,’ Ed mentioned to me during our correspondence: “Now you’ve stumbled across it, it’s 2012, and the album is holding up quite nicely after all this time, isn’t it? It makes me feel good to know you’ve helped make sure he’s not so easily forgotten or dismissed. That it comes from a new generation is a millennial breakthrough for Bob. Finally, he’s sailed the Silent Passage across the Great Divide into the harbor of the 21st Century.” May he rest in peace.

    Bob was no cookie-cutter artist. I suppose his music was too genuine to impress the executives of the big labels who spoon feed the masses with music cut from the same old mold. But, as Ed said, we have the internet now which was not available then. ‘Silent Passage’ was eventually re-issued and can be found by anyone who does just a little searching. To anyone who loves meaningful, deep, magical music – search out ‘Silent Passage’ and keep Bob’s music alive. And if you are touched by it, too, please post a comment to share with us what his music means to you.

    Randy, I looked at your website and you have an amazing, inspirational bio. I am really looking forward to checking out your group, Spare Change, and all the other artists you are promoting.

    Thank you again so much for sharing your comments!

    Best,
    Kez

  5. 5
    Jimmy Fink Says:

    Bob’s neice is up and coming artist Serena Ryder….I’ll be interviewing her tomorrow and hope to get her to talk a bit about her Uncle Bob.

  6. 6
    Kezzie Baker Says:

    Jimmy, thanks for letting us know about Serena Ryder. Good luck with the interview, and do keep us posted about any info she conveys about her Uncle Bob. I’ll be checking her out, too. Thanks again!

    Kezzie

  7. 7
    Mark Barker Says:

    Kezzie,….thanks so much for your review. I fell in love with this record many moons ago. I heard Billy Joe’s version of Gypsy Boy,..and I went searching. Bought it on LP and immediately understood it’s significance. Methinks Billy Joe also recorded “The Believer” on the same record,..and if my memory serves me right I had learned that song from Billy Joe’s record before I purchased Bob’s masterpiece. I still sing it all the time,..and it still breaks my heart.”The forest grows around my door now and I am dreaming of a meadow, where I may lie in frosty sunlight far between the Earth’s grey shadows.” Huh??? Bob says it all, so I’ll say no more. But your review is right on the money. Bless you, my friend. Now let me go back and read the other comments.

  8. 8
    Kezzie Baker Says:

    Mark – thank you, thank you for letting me know your thoughts about Bob’s music. I, too, fell in love with this record – it just drew me in and I had no choice but to keep listening. There are many, many albums and artists I dearly love, but I can honestly say none has ever effected me like ‘Silent Passage'(and still does). I think you will find when you read the other comments that there are others who feel the same way. I hope more and more people discover Bob’s music.

  9. 9
    Kasper Nijsen Says:

    Thanks for the review and info! I’ve only just discovered this album but even after about four listens, it has already jumped to the top ten of my (fictional) favourite albums list. What a terrific voice, lyrics and music!

  10. 10
    Darren Taylor Says:

    The more I listen to Bob’s music, contained in this beautiful, transcendental album, the more I realize that we’re not dealing with mere music here. It’s more important than that. I am not a person of any religious faith, but I do believe the source of this music and songwriting lies in a very special place. It’s not of man, not of this earth. What an absolutely amazing work. I cannot believe that I only discovered it now. And Kezzie, you did absolute justice to the work in your original review. These songs should go down in music history. They probably won’t. But that says more about the world as it is, than it does about Bob Carpenter.

  11. 11
    Kezzie Baker Says:

    Darren, thank you a million times for your thoughtful comments. I get the biggest charge out of knowing that one more person has discovered Bob Carpenter’s unique and unforgettable gift of music, which as you say, truly does reside in a “special place”. In the course of writing this review, I had the good fortune to be able to correspond quite a lot with Ed Ochs, whose insight and comments particularly touched me since he spoke of things that Bob’s music had stirred up within my own self. Anyone who reads the other comments posted under this review will see there are other people who have been similarly affected. Thank you again so much for your comments. You have summed it all up so very, very well! I hope it serves to make others curious enough to give this overlooked timeless gem of a record a listen.

  12. 12
    Steve Peck Says:

    Thank you for the great review as well as Randy’s story. Wow! I came to know of this amazing album via a post to a Gene Clark forum about “Silent Passage” similarities with Gene’s “No Other” album. As you may know, “No Other” is another well-produced cosmic spiritual journey recorded at the same time as “Silent Passage” with many of the same musicians. Even though Gene Clark achieved notoriety as a founding member of the Byrds, he had an extremely checkered career as he battled personal demons and obscurity, occasionally releasing brilliant music until his untimely death in 1991. While “Silent Passage” and “No Other” are reminiscent of each other in a number of aspects, each album offers up its own unique brilliance. Call them “spiritual cousins” of one another!

    As taken as I was with Bob Carpenter and his story, it inspired me to seek out other obscure folk singers whose names have become lost (or nearly lost) due to circumstance or fate. Thanks to the internet I found several lists of obscure folk singers with many putting American folk singer Jackson C. Frank at the very top. This is due to the amazing quality of his music as well as the tragic tale of his life. Like Carpenter, Frank only released one album in his lifetime, his self-titled LP from 1965 that was produced by Paul Simon when both artists were spending time in England. Although largely unknown, Frank had a significant impact and influence on the burgeoning English folk-rock scene of the time. This was due to his exceptional songwriting skills which were significantly more advanced than future stars like Sandy Denny, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Al Stewart and Roy Harper, who were all on the scene at the same time and who became good friends with Jackson. Frank also served as a MAJOR influence on a young Nick Drake, who recorded numerous Jackson C. Frank songs in the time before he made his first record.

    Sadly, Frank was a tortured individual who was a victim of horrible school fire in his youth in which he was severely burned. His music has an other worldly haunted sound that cannot be forgotten. After his time in England, he descended into mental illness and homelessness, occasionally recording but never releasing any more music. He died in 1999, and subsequently most of his unreleased recordings have come out posthumously). Jackson C. Frank’s music and story has to be heard and stands as great as Bob Carpenter and Gene Clark. Here are some links:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0va3F2PWBJc

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jackson_C._Frank

    I hope you like it!
    Steve

  13. 13
    Kezzie Baker Says:

    Steve, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your comment. I’m very glad to hear you appreciate Bob Carpenter’s music – and thanks for mentioning Gene Clark’s ‘No Other’ album. I have ‘White Light’ but am unfamiliar with ‘No Other.’ I’m streaming it now as I write and already loving it. Yes, it certainly is the perfect ‘spiritual cousin’ to Silent Passage, isn’t it? Thanks so much for the background info. And (saving the best for last) I can’t wait to check out Jackson C. Frank. This is a new artist for me. Really looking forward to reading up on him and listening to the album. It really is amazing how recordings like this sound just as current today as they did 30+ years ago. Thank you so much for visiting MiG and posting your comment.

    Best,
    Kez

 

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