Live albums have been a staple of the music business for ages, and even if you’re someone who loudly proclaims to have no interest in them whatsoever, it’s probable that you have at least one or two buried somewhere in your collection, even if it’s stretching back to your vinyl or cassette days. I’m pretty sure the first live album I ever purchased was Wings Over America, which served as my transition from the Beatles into Paul McCartney’s ’70s solo output – to this day, attempts to sing along to the studio versions of the songs from that record never fail to throw me – but there are quite a few other live records that I’ll spin with regularity, from the Smiths’ Rank to Robyn Hitchcock’s Storefront Hitchcock to Howard Jones’ The Peaceful Tour Live. (Yeah, I know, that last one might sound like a bit of a head-scratcher, but my wife and I saw HoJo in concert while on honeymoon in the UK in 2001, and that disc is a solid representation of the set he performed.)
On the whole, however, I must admit that I tend to prefer those live albums where the artists reinvent their songs by placing them in an acoustic setting. Nowadays, it’s something that everyone does…and more often than not, when they do so, it’s with an attitude generally reserved for someone who’s just reinvented the wheel. It’s as if they’re saying, “I am so awesome because I could take my song and de-rock-ify it,” when the reality is that they probably just figured, “Hey, here’s a way I can make a few more bucks off my old hits!” I’m not saying that I don’t still tend to enjoy them, anyway, but…okay, look, here’s the deal with acoustic live albums: the last one that truly mattered was Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York. Now, as far as the best acoustic live albums that mattered before Nirvana, you can vote for Clapton or Tesla or even McCartney, but I only ever think of one: Richard Barone’s Cool Blue Halo.
Now, if you’re a regular NPR listener or find yourself scouring their website, you may be saying, “Hey, this guy is totally jumping on the bandwagon started by Tom Moon in March 2007!” Not true. I picked up my copy of Cool Blue Halo on cassette in a cut-out bin way back in 1990, and I’ve loved it ever since. The reasons I picked it up were threefold: 1) I’d seen his name in my copy of the Trouser Press Record Guide and remembered the write-up as being favorable, 2) it included a cover of the Beatles’ “Cry Baby Cry,” and 3) it was less than $2.00. (C’mon, gimme a break: I was a poor college student at the time!)
As it turned out, I found myself in love with the album long before I ever hit that Beatles cover.
Indeed, I was enthralled moments after the kick-off of the opening track, “The Bulrushes.” Ever since getting the chills while listening to “Eleanor Rigby” for the first time, I’ve had a love affair with the blending of pop songs and classical instrumentation, and the use of the cello on “The Bulrushes” hit me right where I lived. Little did I know at the time that Barone was actually covering a song by his former band, the Bongos. All I knew was that this was a dark but catchy pop song, with a sound that could inspire you to both sing and sob at the same time, and I wanted to hear more of it. As it turned out, however, Cool Blue Halo was actually Barone’s opening salvo as a proper solo artist. (You can count 1983’s Nuts and Bolts if you want, but since that was with fellow Bongo James Mastro, anyway, I don’t think it really counts.) He’d written the second track, “I Belong To Me,” as somewhat of a declaration of intent, and from there, he went on to celebrate his abilities as a songwriter by restructuring some Bongos classics to fit a new setting that was surprisingly heavy on cello, but he also paid tribute to those who inspired him to become a songwriter in the first place, tackling not only the Beatles but also Marc Bolan and David Bowie.
Iâ€™ve traded the occasional E-mail with Richard Barone over the past few years, but the unique thing about our correspondence is that he was the one who actually kicked it off. In 2002, he dropped me a line to offer his bemusement over a shout-out that I gave to him in a review on PopMatters.com. I was offering my two centsâ€™ worth on Virgin’s Best of Bowieâ€¦the Thin White Duke’s first greatest-hits collection since Rykodiscâ€™s The Singles: 1969 – 1993â€¦and when discussing the inclusion of â€œThe Man Who Sold the World,â€ I wrote, â€œNo, it wasn’t a single, which is why it wasn’t on the original collection, but the song became as familiar as any single as a result of a certain notable recording artist releasing a live cover of the track a few years ago. Yes, of course, I’m talking about Richard Barone.â€
Hey, he introduced me to the song, anyway.
When I told Richard that I had a profound interest in spotlighting Cool Blue Halo for “Hooks ‘N’ You,” he was immediately receptive to the idea of doing a Q&A with me. As it happens, we ended up taking a bit longer to get the conversation knocked out than intended, but if you’d heard how excited he was about the process of recording his new album, you’d be as understanding as I was. (Besides, I don’t want to slow the man’s work down, because I really want to hear the new album!)
Richard Barone: Can you hear me okay?
Popdose: I can, indeed.
RB: Iâ€™m in a park, next to the studio, and I think it may be best if we speak in two segments, because I need to get back into the studio at some point. I canâ€™t really stay outside too long, because weâ€™re in the middle of finishing a song thatâ€™s going to go up on iTunes really soon, and weâ€™re kind of on deadline at the moment.
PD: Not a problem. Well, since itâ€™s the reason for our conversation in the first place, why donâ€™t we just talk about Cool Blue Halo today? And then we can talk next week or wheneverâ€™s good for you, at which point we can chat about everything else.
RB: Any time.
PD: Iâ€™m a big fan of the record and have been for yearsâ€¦though I have to admit that I first bought it on cassette from a cut-out bin.
RB: Oh, the cassette! Yeah, I thought the cassette sounded pretty good on that one, actually. That was one of the better cassettes, because I didnâ€™t always like the way the cassettes sounded at that time.
PD: It was pretty crisp, as I recall.
RB: Yeah, they did a good job. They did a chrome cassette, and I remember it was a big deal that they did that.
PD: So how did you come to do an acoustic live album? Because that was something that was pretty unique at that time.
RB: It was very unique, I think. The main thing for me was, at that time, the Bongos were still performing. We were still on the road, and I didnâ€™t want to do anything that would sound anything like the Bongos, really. I didnâ€™t want to duplicate what I was still doing with them on the road or what weâ€™d been doing for the last few years before Cool Blue Halo. So I started stripping things away, and the first thing was the rock drum kit. I think that was the first thing that went, because it couldnâ€™t be the guitar, since thatâ€™s what I play! But we got rid of the backbeat, basically, on that album. That was the first thing to go, and that was a big deal, because in rock music, you depend on a backbeat on the snare, and thatâ€™s what keeps the song going. So we had to kind of find a way to not have a backbeat. I donâ€™t think thereâ€™s any backbeat on that album. Itâ€™s subtle percussion, and we might occasionally hit a backbeat on “The Man Who Sold the World” or something, but, really, itâ€™s not that kind of rhythm. We kind of skirted the issue of a rock beat any way we could, as far as the drums. So thatâ€™s when we started bringing in the symphonic percussion and African percussion on that record. Itâ€™s, like, the opposite of what weâ€™d been doing with the two and four beats. So the core difference was the beats that we used on that album.
Then the idea of not having electric bass was important to me, because the Bongos were very bass and drums driven. As much as it was a guitar group, really, in the mixes, it was the bass and drums that were really quite loud. So I didnâ€™t want to have an overbearingâ€¦well, for that record; I donâ€™t mean that basses are always overbearingâ€¦but I didnâ€™t want to have a dominant bass, letâ€™s say. So I thought, â€œWell, the cello could be really interesting.â€ And I had been sort of exploring the idea of cello before. I remember on â€œNumbers with Wings,â€ when the Bongos did that, we doubled the bass line with a cello on that record. And I thought, â€œWell, the cello really is almost bass-like.â€ (Laughs) And for my timbre of voice, which was really not that low, the cello was low enoughâ€¦itâ€™s, like, when youâ€™re making an album, itâ€™s all about the relative timbres of instruments. And since my voice isnâ€™t that low, I donâ€™t really need a super-low bass. Anything that would be slightly lower than my voice would be the bass. So in that case, the cello in the low register was enough for that album. And, of course, with the low drums and the timpani, I think we covered the sound spectrum pretty well within that part. Then, the guitars and pianoâ€¦on one song, thereâ€™s the piano and vibes, and those are kind of in the middle. Itâ€™s like architecture. Itâ€™s building a sound. And I just wanted to take the elements that we actually needed to create that kind ofâ€¦fullness. You know? Just enough to carry that.
When I heard it in my bedroomâ€¦actually, in my studio apartment that I had at that timeâ€¦when I heard everybody playing together, I realized that we really should record it, because the sound was quite good just the way it was. We didnâ€™t really need much more. So I picked up the phone and called Passport Records, which I didnâ€™t realize was soon to be foldingâ€¦ (Laughs) â€¦but thatâ€™s okay. I just said, â€œLook, we want to do a live album. Will you send a truck? And weâ€™ll record it.â€ So we had to get a big 24-track mobile truck, parked outside of the Bottom Line nightclub, and we recorded it like a real album that night. And we did two shows, so we were able to cut between the two. Mostly, I think itâ€™s theâ€¦well, I think maybe itâ€™s half and half, the first show and second show equally on that album.
PD: How did you come to pick the tracks to cover on that record? Did you have a list that you went through and stripped down to a select few?
RB: In my head, I wanted to pay tribute toâ€¦like, I wanted to do a Beatles song. The Bongos never really covered â€“ on recordings, anyway â€“ a Beatles song, so I thought, â€œWell, let me find one that hasnâ€™t really been covered too much.â€ And â€œCry Baby Cry,â€ I always loved that one from The White Album. And, also, on The White Album, that version of it always sounded a bitâ€¦pared down to me. And I thought, â€œWell, we could pull that one off.â€ It really wasnâ€™t a huge production, and it was something we could do. But, also, I loved the song, and the lyrics seemed to go with the magical quality of the album and the other songs we had. But mainly I think it was the idea of trying to find a Beatles song that hadnâ€™t been done to death. And Iâ€™m a real big fan of The White Album, so it was kind of an easy pick for me. It was very much, â€œItâ€™s gonna be â€˜Cry Baby Cry.â€™â€ I just knew it right away. And the same with T. Rex. We had already done â€œMambo Sun,â€ but I wanted to get deeper into Marc Bolanâ€™s more romantic music. But I didnâ€™t want it to be a typical love song, so I thought, â€œHow about â€˜The Visitâ€™?â€ Itâ€™s really more of a love song about an alien! You know, the lyric is about how heâ€™s watching a UFO come down, and you donâ€™t get too many details in the song, but you do get the idea that, somehow, a UFO takes him away and he falls in love with the alien, basically! And I thought, â€œWell, thatâ€™s a good one for me!â€ (Laughs) And, also, it was really beautiful, and it gave a lot of room for the cello to play the melody. And, then, the Bowie song Iâ€™d always loved, and at that time, Iâ€™d never heard a cover, except for Luluâ€™s version.
PD: Actually, I have since heard that, though I hadnâ€™t at the time.
RB: I liked Luluâ€™s version. When I was in college, I worked at the on-campus record store, so I really got pretty much every record I wanted to get, ever. I heard that Lulu singleâ€¦not really when it came out, but not that long afterwards, I started to try and get all of the back Bowie catalog, and I did find that one, so I knew it, but I didnâ€™t want to base my version on it. So, again, we stripped it way down, and the cello became the bass, and we kind of made our own version. But we took the elements of Bowieâ€™s original version, andâ€¦I didnâ€™t really listen to Luluâ€™s version. I think I heard it once and filed it away, but I never really got into it. But, yeah, those were three artists who really influenced me to make records when I was sixteen years old or younger. Certainly, I was younger when I was listening to the Beatles. So I had to pay tribute to them. It was really kind of a no-brainer. The only person who got left off of that group was Donovan, so, soon afterwards, I did â€œGuinevere,â€ from Sunshine Superman, on one of my live albums. I owe a lot to Donovan. I work with him now, and heâ€™s a good friend of mine as well as a mentor. I just did a show with him this year that I produced for him, and thereâ€™s a little snippet of it on a DVD that just came out, also called â€œSunshine Superman.â€
PD: Which is sitting in my to-review pile as we speak.
RB: Oh, itâ€™s good! I actually just finally watched Disc 1 last nightâ€¦and I practically stayed up all night, because itâ€™s something like three or four hours! (Laughs) But itâ€™s really good and a beautiful story. I identified with Donovan when I was much younger. I felt comfortable with what Donovan was doing with his image, that it wasnâ€™t overlyâ€¦letâ€™s say it had no macho quality to it. And I found that very appealing for a pop artist, not to kind of have to be so butch. I felt that was cool, and I remember that, as a kid, I identified with him in many ways â€“ vocally and melodically â€“ and I could tell that he was a Beatles fan. He was a young guy, younger than the Beatles, and in this film, youâ€™ll see that he talks about that. Later, he worked with them and spent time in India with them, but, really, he was also a fan of theirs. And I could see that in his music early on, and I became a fan of his. Oh, and on Disc 2, the very last thing on there, youâ€™ll see me with Donovan.
RB: So, anyway, â€œGuinevereâ€ wouldâ€™ve fit nicely on Cool Blue Halo, but I think we had enough of a balance. A balance of power. (Laughs) But do you know what I mean? We had the triumvirate of the Beatles, Marc Bolan, and David Bowie, and that to me was enough to keep that album afloat. Those covers are what really are the pillars of that album. Those three pillars.
PD: And thatâ€™s what drew me in. It was the first time Iâ€™d ever heard anything by you, so I didnâ€™t have any familiar frame of reference but those songs.
RB: Well, I knew that I was going to go out into the world, and Richard Barone was just kind ofâ€¦I mean, Iâ€™d been in a band called the Bongos, and when youâ€™re a guy in a group, the world doesnâ€™t really want you to leave that group. Not really. So I knew I was going to walk out on a limb with that. Itâ€™s just a guyâ€™ s name, Richard Barone, and I knew Cool Blue Halo was going to be obscure, but I thought, â€œLetâ€™s pick some really strong artists to cover that inspired me.â€ So there was definitely some thought that went into that idea. So, again, the choices were easy, because they were ones that I really felt comfortable singing.
PD: As is typical for me, I did it backwards: I wasnâ€™t familiar with the Bongos when I picked up the album. It wasnâ€™t until afterwards that I discovered their music.
RB: Thatâ€™s okay! And that was kind of cool, actually, because it was a fresh start for me. I loved being in the Bongos, and it was so much fun, butâ€¦I donâ€™t know if you read my book, Frontmanâ€¦?
PD: I did, actually. I loved it. (Writer’s note: Seriously, I can’t say enough about it. Whether you’re a fan of Richard’s music or just a fan of biographies, it’s a great read through and through.)
RB: Well, thank you! But as you can see, the Bongos thing really became kinda claustrophobic for me. I felt that, as much as I loved it, I was really confined by it. I wanted to do more. I wanted to do more, but I couldnâ€™t when I was in the group, so Cool Blue Halo happened after that blow-up that we talk about in the bookâ€¦in Chapter 7, I think. It was in the Bahamas, and after that is when things were a little more free. They freed up a little bit. We still toured, but we had more space. Basically, I cracked upâ€¦ (Laughs) â€¦and that created more space!
PD: Yeah, thatâ€™ll do it.
RB: Yeah! Because we couldnâ€™t really work all the time, â€˜cause I was really out there, and I think that kind of gave me the chance to regroup myself and do Cool Blue Halo. The schizophrenia came in when we were still doing Bongos shows at that time. In fact, Iâ€™m sure the week after I recorded Cool Blue Halo, I was back on the road again with the Bongos, and it was a whole different type of energy. It was hyper, just getting faster and faster, and the intensity of the showsâ€¦it just got more extreme each tour, yâ€™know?
PD: So when you picked the Bongos songs on Cool Blue Halo, was it a conscious effort to mix album-track favorites with singles?
RB: I think so. A little bit of that. Some familiar, but there were some more obscure ones that I thought maybe we could do better. Like, I wanted a little bit more space on that song “Sweet Blue Cage,â€ and on the Bongos versionâ€¦which I really like, by the way, and itâ€™s one of my favorite recordings that we didâ€¦but even though it was simple, we had this old drum machine that we used to nail it down. I liked it, and thatâ€™s how we did the Bongos version, but I wanted to free it up. I wanted to free up the rhythm so it floated more, and it was fun to do that live, with cello, vibes, and all that. Andâ€¦letâ€™s see, with â€œThe Bulrushes,â€ again, I loved the Bongos version. It was really fast, and I still like it really fast like that, but I just wanted to see how it sounded slow. And it became the opening song, just really slowed down like that. It just seemed like a good starting point, because the lyrics talk about childhood. It seemed like a good place to start the album. And, then, of course, â€œI Belong to Meâ€ I wrote for that album, because it was my declaration of independence. Right? I mean, even though the Bongos did record that. Strangely enough, we did do a version of it, though I think we recorded it after Cool Blue Halo. In fact, yeah, we did, and itâ€™s never been released. It might be, though. Itâ€™s not bad. Of course, itâ€™s more rhythm-driven. I just performed that at Carnegie Hall on October 1st! It was with Randy Brecker on horn, and he picked the most amazing trumpet solo. I just told Randy that, again, itâ€™s a declaration of independence, the frontman stepping out, and I explained the story and said, â€œI donâ€™t want to hear it until you come on stage and play it.â€ So he just popped out and played that solo, and it was really gorgeous. Thatâ€™s how we open the live â€œFrontmanâ€ show.
PD: Who was the first person to tell you that Nirvana had covered â€œThe Man Who Sold The Worldâ€ and, indeed, that their version sounded suspiciously similar to your own?
RB: (Laughs) Everyone told me. And I knew that they did it. I mean, Iâ€™m pretty much connected to the music scene. I hear everything that comes out. I heard in a record store when it came out, and I went, â€œOh, my God.â€ I knew Nirvana, and I met them…vaguely. We played a lot in Seattle. For some reason, Cool Blue Halo was a smash album in Seattle. I played in Seattle four times. We did a lot of shows there, and thatâ€™s the song that was the hit there, actually, so it didnâ€™t surprise me that someone covered it. Artists get print-outs from radio stations around the country that tell you what theyâ€™re playing, and from whatever service we had that reported to us, it would say what song was being played in what cities. With Cool Blue Halo, there was no single, so different songs were being played everywhere. A big favorite was â€œCry Baby Cry.â€ Actually, we did make a single of that, but it didnâ€™t matter, because people still played whatever they wanted on the radioâ€¦and in Seattle, it was “The Man Who Sold the World.â€ And next to it was the phrase â€œHHH,â€ when meant heavy, heavy, heavy airplay. So I knew we had been getting heavy play there, and it didnâ€™t surprise me that, of all the places, someone from Seattle would cover that. But Iâ€™m happy they did, you know? Itâ€™s nice.
PD: Did you ever get confirmation that they heard your version?
RB: They didnâ€™t acknowledge it, but we had the same soundman. Craig Overbay. Heâ€™s still on the road, and he was a great road managerâ€¦and he was their road manager after Cool Blue Halo, and he loved the record. He worked with us during that era, and he played it constantly and loved that album, so Iâ€™m sure they heard it, if not by him then on the radio. But, yes, everyone told me about it, and I agreed with them! (Laughs) But with music, I think that once youâ€™ve put it out there, itâ€™s out there. And itâ€™s not really my song. But Iâ€™ve worked with Tony Visconti â€“ heâ€™s producing my new album â€“ and he prefers the original versionâ€¦but, then, he played bass on the original version. (Laughs)
PD: Talk about bringing it full circle.
RB: Yeah. And since then, Iâ€™ve met David many times as well, and I always admire his work so much, but itâ€™s great that Nirvana did that song, because it gave it another lifeâ€¦again!
At this point, we wrapped things up, so that Richard could get back to the studio, but we agreed to get back in touch with each other the following week. This proved easier said than done, due to Richardâ€™s hectic studio schedule, but between the two of us, we eventually managed to make it happen, at which point I took the opportunity to ask him about some other moments from his career.
PD: So how cathartic was it to be able to write Frontman?
RB: It was extremely cathartic, but I didnâ€™t know it would be when I first started writing it. Iâ€™m not sure if I mentioned it the first time we spoke, but the original title was How to be Richard Barone, and it was an instructional manual. It was kind of tongue-in-cheek and a funny book. And, then, as I got into it, it became more introspective, and Iâ€¦I hadnâ€™t really gone to those introspective places before, really, as far as trying to re-trace my own steps. And it was extremely eye-opening. And, yes, I think â€œcatharticâ€ is a word that I would use.
PD: Was it something you had been wanting to write for awhile but just hadnâ€™t found the time to do it?
RB: Not in that way. Actually, a few book agencies had contacted me about writing a book for a couple of years, and I finally said, â€œYes.â€ And like I said, the first draft was called How to be Richard Barone, and it was very, very different. Thatâ€™s why the subtitles are often â€œHow toâ€¦â€ They still exist from the original concept for the book, and I kept that because I liked the idea. But it was not so much a personal memoir until about halfway through, when it sort of occurred to me that, â€œOh, I was the frontman. Thatâ€™s why I went nuts.â€ Itâ€™s, like, I didnâ€™t really realize it at the time I was on my path of being with the Bongos, and even when I was doing my first solo album, I was just on a trajectory that I wasnâ€™t really thinking about. I just went ahead, because it was the thing to do. As you can see in the book, it was what I felt I was raised to do, what I was born to do. So I didnâ€™t really look back, and I didnâ€™t really look down, as far as the danger of looking downâ€¦ (Laughs) â€¦I didnâ€™t really do that until I wrote this book. But it was really cathartic, because it made me go, â€œOh, wowâ€¦â€ It was a good experience for me to write it, and it cleared the decks for me to do the new music Iâ€™m doing now. The new album that Iâ€™m coming out with, it would not have existed if was not for writing that book. That cleared the decks for me.
PD: When you recorded Primal Dream, did you have eyes set on the possibility of having more of a mainstream success with that, or were those just the songs that came out of you at that time?
RB: Well, it wasnâ€™t really that I was hell-bent on mainstream success. I never really thought about it like that. What I thought about was that I wanted to combineâ€¦well, here are a couple of thoughts on Primal Dream. One is that I wanted to make the Bongos album that I knew we couldâ€™ve made but didnâ€™t, which was with the big â€˜80s sound, just really going for that big sound, and orchestrated kind of arrangements. And we never really did that, and I kind of wanted to do that with Primal Dream. That was one thing. But secondly, after Cool Blue Halo, I had been touring for a year with just a chamber group, with the cello and percussion and acoustic guitar, and I started seeing rock bands, and I kind of wanted to do a rock album again. I wanted to hear electric guitars! So I started writing, and the songs Iâ€™d started to write at that point were more rock-oriented. “Before You Were Bornâ€ was, I think, one of the first songs I wrote for that album. And then I went to Brazil with Nicholas Schaffner, who was my dear friend that I wrote about, of course, in Frontman, and he was the author of The Beatles Forever.
PD: And Iâ€™d just like to say that, were it not for him and that book, I donâ€™t know that I would necessarily be a music journalist. That really was a life-changing book for me.
RB: Well, me, too. I got it very early on, and I actually got it way before I knew Nicholas. I won that book in a contest when I first came to New York. The New York Daily News had a contest when the book came out, a Beatles trivia contest, and I actually won the contest! And I won a copy of that book: The Beatles Forever. And thatâ€™s how I first found out about Nicholas Schaffner. He was a little older than me, but he was only 21 or 22 when that book was published. I think he was 21 when he wrote it. So, yeah, a very young writer. And I didnâ€™t meet him for many years after that. But when I did, we became very close friends, and when he was working on the Pink Floyd book (A Saucerful of Secrets), which I encouraged him to write, he wanted to get out of the country to write that. And I also had some time, and I needed to write some songs. So he was going to Brazil and invited me, and I thought, â€œWhat a great opportunity for me to write songs while he writes his book!â€ So we went to the Amazon region of Brazil, and I started writing these songs like “Native Tongue,â€ and a few others that are on that album. So Primal Dream kind of took shape there, I think.
PD: You know, I guess I felt like it was a mainstream success because our local alternative station, WOFM, played the living hell out of “I Only Took What I Needed.â€
RB: Oh, really? Great! I really like that song a lot. That was writtenâ€¦I think it was written in Brazil, but I finished it in New York. It wasnâ€™t a commercial intention for that album, but we did have mainstream success with “River to Riverâ€ on MTV. I think part of that was the nature of the label it was on, because that was MCA, and they have the clout to make those kinds of things happen. But it wasnâ€™t my intention. Regardless of what label it was on, it wouldâ€™ve been more of a rock album, because thatâ€™s where I wanted to go then. I didnâ€™t want to repeat Cool Blue Halo. I never want to repeat anything I do, but I definitely didnâ€™t want to repeat Cool Blue Halo, because that was a magical night that was captured, and I didnâ€™t want to try and recreate something. So Primal Dream was very different.
PD: How did you enjoy working with Don Dixon? I interviewed him just a couple of columns ago.
RB: I really like Don Dixon a lot. I knew him from going down and working with Mitch Easter when I did the Nuts and Bolts album, and when I produced the Beat Rodeo EP that Mitch engineered with me. Don was just around the studio, and I met him down there at that time, since he was good friends with Mitch Easter, of course. So I always kept an eye on his work, and I liked his work with the Smithereens and R.E.M., so when I signed with MCA, I definitely invited him to work with me on that album. But I also liked Richard Gottehrer, and thatâ€™s why both guys produced that album. And it was interesting to have those two competing forces. Very different guys, very different styles. Donâ€™s style was extremely hands-on, as far as being in the live room with us and performing with us and playing with us, whereas Richard Gottehrer was much more in the control room. However, he would come into the live room, too, and do handclaps and stuff. But Don Dixon was a very hands-on producer, and he was very musician-ly. He would work out bass parts with us, and things like that. We recorded some unreleased Bongos demos with Don Dixon, also, that I really liked. Someday we might release those. But heâ€™s a wonderful producer, and Iâ€™ve also worked with him on some of Marti Jonesâ€™ albums. Iâ€™ve actually written songs on three of Martiâ€™s albums. Theyâ€™re great, and theyâ€™re good friends of mine as well.
PD: When you went in to do Clouds Over Eden, it more acoustic-based, at least comparatively speaking.
RB: Yeah, I think I kind of wanted to do more of a balancing the two albums. You know, I always tend to think conceptually when Iâ€™m making an album. I canâ€™t help it! And with Clouds of Eden, I deliberately wanted to combine Cool Blue Halo and Primal Dream. I wanted to combine the idea of the big band and the big sound with the acoustic chamber sound, and I feel that I struck that balance. In a way, thatâ€™s my most satisfying record, because it came out just the way I intended, combining the two previous albums in a different way.
PD: So what was it that inspired you to return to an acoustic live album for Between Heaven and Cello, then? Was it to give some of the new songs the same treatment youâ€™d already given the old songs?
RB: Well, what happened was, after Clouds Over Eden, I toured with just a cellist, with Jane Scarpantoni or Lisa Haney, so we went on a theater tour and I was performing all of those songsâ€¦all of my songs, reallyâ€¦with just a cello and a guitar. So about halfway through it, I thought, â€œYou know, we should record this, it sounds pretty cool.â€ We started recording it on just a DAT machine, very simple, no overdubs. Just directly to DAT. And I was pleased with it. So we were going over to Europe to tour Germany, and they wanted a new album to release, and so we created Between Heaven and Cello out of all of the tapes that we had. So it was just the nature of how it sounded. It sounded good the way we performed it, so we decided to release it in that form. I kind of like that album. Itâ€™s kind of raw, but I like the rawness of it. But, really, it was because it sounded good. It was never intentional.
PD: As far as collaborations youâ€™ve done, whether they appeared on your own albums or not, what are some of your favorites?
RB: Oh, well, all of my collaborators are such good friends. I really enjoyed my writing with Mark Johnson, who now lives in Nashville. We wrote a couple of songs on Clouds Over Eden. And I really always loved the work I did with George Usher. I had a lot of fun writing with Jill Sobule, and we still write together whenever sheâ€™s in town. On Clouds Over Eden, we had a song called “Waiting for the Train,â€ and that was our first song together, but since then, Jill and I haveâ€¦I think we have songs on three of her solo albums, including “Bitter,â€ which was kind of a hit for her around the world. And, then, of course, with “Miss Jean,â€ on Clouds Over Eden, I was writing with Jules Shear, one of my favorite songwriters. And then there’s Quincy Jones’ daughter Jolie Jones, Johnny Rodgers, and of course, I love writing with Fred Schneider. So, yeah, all of my collaborators Iâ€™m so pleased with, but my most recent collaborator has been Tony Visconti, who was one of my favorite producers when I was a kid, because of his Bowie and T. Rex work. Almost all of my new album was written with Tony.
PD: How weird was it to write with someone who was such a hero of yours when you were younger?
RB: Well, it was interesting, because if we were working on, say, an arrangement for a song, I could say, â€œLetâ€™s make it really Tony-Visconti-ish!â€ And it was easy because, well, heâ€™s Tony Visconti! But I used to say that and get grimaces from my producers. Now, however, I get a grin and a â€œwhat does that mean?â€ Because he really doesnâ€™t know! He didnâ€™t know what I meant! But I kinda could push him into directions that I was looking for on the songs, like if I wanted to put a little bit of â€œHeroesâ€ or Lodger or Low soundâ€¦ (Laughs) â€¦or a â€œSliderâ€ sound, I could go there with this album. And I was pleased with that, because I do have specific things that I like, and so much of it was inspired by Tonyâ€™s earlier â€˜70s work. So it was a dream come true. I think we have nine songs together on this album that Tony and I wrote. One of my songs, â€œGlow,â€ the title song, was produced by Steve Addabbo, who of course worked with Suzanne Vega, and I did one track with Mike Thorne, whoâ€™s produced Bronski Beat, the Communards, and Wire. And then I wrote a song with Paul Williams, the great songwriter. So itâ€™s a good mix of interesting people.
PD: Now, how did you come to collaborate with Moby on the Bongosâ€™ new version of “The Bulrushes“? By any chance had you known each other back when he was in the Vatican Commandos?
RB: (Laughs) I loved the Vatican Commandos, but, no, I didnâ€™t know him back then. He was a fan of the Bongos, and one of the first things he ever performed in public was “The Bulrushes,â€ from Drums Along the Hudson. So about two years ago, I was doing a show for Central Park called The Not So Great American Songbook, and I invited Moby to do a couple of songs in that. And as soon as I met him, he started telling me about how much he liked Drums Along the Hudson and that he was a big Bongos fan. So I kind of kept that in mind, and when we got this offer to do a special edition of Drums Along the Hudson on Cooking Vinyl Records, the actual day the contracts arrived, Moby e-mailed me and said he was just listening to the album again, and what an amazing album it is. And I wrote back and told him, â€œWell, weâ€™re doing a special edition reissue, why donâ€™t you produce the bonus track?â€ And he of course said â€œyesâ€ right away, and we went into the studio. It was very spontaneous. He played many of the instruments on there, including 12-string guitar and piano andâ€¦a Juno synthesizer that was really cool. So he played quite a lot of it, andâ€¦it was really very fun. And he just recreated that on stage with us at Carnegie Hall not long ago. The Bongos were sort of reunited for one song, â€œNumbers with Wings,â€ and then we also did â€œThe Bulrushes,â€ which he played with us onstage. So, yeah, Mobyâ€™s fantastic. He was a very good producer for us as well.
PD: And, lastly, do you update your own Wikipedia page, or do you have an assistant do it? Because itâ€™s really, really up to date.
RB: (Laughs) I havenâ€™t touched it recently, but I look at it once in awhile, and I like it so much that I link it through my website. But I think a few people go on there and tweak it, and Iâ€™m always happy to see that theyâ€™re pretty accurate.
PD: Well, the reason I ask is that itâ€™s already up to date as far as all the information about your new album that you just gave me!
RB: Yeah, my manager is a real Wikipedia supporter, and Iâ€™m sure she makes sure that whateverâ€™s in there is absolutely up to date. My managerâ€¦we used Wikipedia a lot when I was working on my book as a reference, just as kind of a fact-checking thing. So, yeah, I like Wikipedia, and Iâ€™m glad that itâ€™s accurate. And if it isnâ€™t, Iâ€™m sure my manager will find out and fix it for me! (Laughs) Do you like Wikipedia?
PD: Well, Iâ€™m very pro-Wikipedia, but Iâ€™ve also been burned by research Iâ€™ve done through Wikipedia, so itâ€™s very much a love-hate relationship.
RB: (Laughs) I understand. Well, so far, itâ€™s been pretty accurate, so thatâ€™s why we link it through to my website. By the way, the website for the new album is going to be YouAreTheGlow.com. Thatâ€™s being set up now, and weâ€™re going to be trying some new technologies on that. Iâ€™m not really sure what they are yetâ€¦ (Laughs) â€¦but Iâ€™m told weâ€™re doing some really amazing things with that. Itâ€™ll be launching very, very soon, with the Glow EP, whichâ€™ll be 3 songs from the album.
PD: Actually, just to jump back for a moment, I had meant to ask how the tribute to Peggy Lee that you produced had come about?
RB: Oh, I was a fan of Peggy Lee growing up, and becauseâ€¦ (Laughs) …between us gentlemen, the reason is that, as a kid, I heard an interview with Paul McCartney where he said that Peggy Lee was his favorite American singer. So from then on, I always kept an eye out for Peggy Lee, and through my life, she was kind of there as a legendary singer. And then as I got olderâ€¦when I made the Cool Blue Halo album, for instanceâ€¦I started listening to her jazz quartet albums, like the one called Black Coffee, which was this small combo. And I thought, â€œThatâ€™s a great sound for a singer: she doesnâ€™t have to sing very loudly, and it has a very intimate feel.â€ And that was very inspirational to Cool Blue Halo. Later, I met her a few times, and I really started wanted to do a very elaborate tribute to her while she was still alive. And I tried to get a New York venue, and I tried and I tried, but I couldnâ€™t really get the venue to agree to let me do the tribute until finally, when she passed away, I just insisted that we do a tribute at that point, because no-one had really done one yet. So I put together the one for Carnegie Hall, which was held in 2003, and I started calling singers who I knew and who I didnâ€™t know to sing the songs that Peggy wrote. Not just that she performed, but especially the ones that she wrote. And it grew into something really special. I had 18 major performers in that, plus her own rhythm section and a traditional big band, and it was a big sellout at Carnegie Hall. And that night, the Hollywood Bowl people were at the concert, and they asked me to do one at the Hollywood Bowl as well, adding the L.A. Philharmonic. It was a gigantic concert, and people like Nancy Sinatra and Petula Clark and Debbie Harry andâ€¦really, the list went on and on with great singers who came up and did her songs. It was a very, very nice experience for me to be able to do a tribute to Peggy Leeâ€¦and we then brought it to Chicago, to the Ravinia Festival, which was also huge. So, yeah, it was a very satisfying thing, but it was something that I felt like I had to do, because no-one had done it, and she deserved it. She was an American treasure. A national treasure.
PD: So you enjoy the production and direction of projects, then?
RB: Oh, yeah, Iâ€™ve done it several times. The Not So Great American Songbook was also in there, along with the Peggy Lee shows, around the same time. I did several large-scale shows. And every year, I did The Downtown Messiah, which is a pop version of Handelâ€™s â€œMessiah,â€ in New York. It ran for seven years. I like producing big shows. I donâ€™t always like to perform in them, though. If thereâ€™s a spot for me, Iâ€™ll put myself in it, but if not, I like directing also.
PD: Last one, for real this time: how was the experience of producing â€œThe Nomi Songâ€?
RB: Oh, I loved it. I was a big fan of Klaus Nomi. I think it was our first Manhattan concert with the Bongos when we were on a bill with Klaus, and even then, I thought he was amazing. It was such a great combination of new wave and opera that he was doing. So theatrical. He was a big inspiration to me and to the Bongos, because doing shows with him was kind ofâ€¦we kind of realized that a band should not necessarily just get on stage and play. Thereâ€™s more to putting on a show than that, and I think we learned that from Klaus Nomi. Itâ€™s like a presentation, you know? And without him having to tell us that, he really helped us to create our own image and style by just being ourselves and developing a presentation that was unique for the Bongos. So it was a thrill to get involved in that filmâ€¦and to hear “Telephoto Lensâ€ used in it. (Laughs) It was great.
And with that, the conversation began to wind to a close. Richard kindly offered up a few photos for the piece, and although I will note that most of the non-album-cover shots have been borrowed from his MySpace page, where they are appropriately credited, I must mention outright that the first color shot of him – where he’s clutching his instrument and looks suspiciously devoid of clothing – was taken by the great Mick Rock.
“It’s funny, because he’s taken so many great photos,” said Richard. “He was one of my favorite photographers growing up, of course, because of hisZiggy Stardust work. He did the cover photo for Frontman, and he’s also doing all of the photos for my Glow album.”
“Man, you’re just all over Bowie’s people, aren’t you?” I said, with a laugh.
“Well, I’ve worked with David, and the thing is, I keep my distance. I don’t want to crowd him. As much as I love his work and was really inspired by it, I kinda just of feel that, with the same producer and photographer and everything, it’s…it’s just too crazy. He’s just too close! So I keep a discrete distance. It’s great to meet him and to speak with him, but…”
Barone trails off, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, but then he quickly sobers again.
“You know,” he says, “of my heroes – Lennon, Bolan, and Bowie – he’s the only one who’s still around. Well, I take that back: Lou Reed is still around. And Lou’s been both an inspiration and a mentor. He’s fantastic. He just keeps going, and he’s always creative.”
And on that optimistic note, we bid each other adieu…but a few hours later, Richard dropped me an E-mail with a couple of photos. One was the aforementioned Mick Rock shot, but the other was this dandy shot taken by Damien Drake of Mr. Barone and his inspiration / mentor, which is as good a way to close out as I can think of.