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gary higgins
article by jennifer kelly | photos by justin carl

During one forty-hour period in 1973, folk musician Gary Higgins and his band of five -- guitarist Jake Bell, cellist Maureen Wells, keyboardist Terry Fenton, mandolin/flutist Paul Tierney and bass player Dave Beaujon -- laid down one of the saddest, loveliest acoustic recordings you'll ever hear, the now semi-legendary Red Hash. Time was tight because Higgins had recently been arrested on drug charges and was facing years, maybe decades in jail. Money, too, was in short supply. The entire album was recorded on four-track, giving it the warmth and immediacy of live performance, but making it hard to hear instruments like bass and drums. Even so, its haunting harmonies and wistful mood are amazing; in addition to being an absolute distillation of 1960s and 1970s folk, it hints at the skewed purity of contemporary psyche folk.

Higgins disappeared after Red Hash was released, first serving out his sentence and later marrying, having a child and spending his time as many of us do, making a living rather than pursuing his dreams. Although Higgins and his friends recorded a few more songs together -- two of them appear on the Red Hash reissue as bonus tracks -- there was never another record. The whole unlikely experience seemed likely to drop into the black hole of lost albums.

Then, during the 1990s, word began to spread about Red Hash. Pirated copies appeared for sale on the Internet. Tracks were played on influential freeform radio stations like WFMU. Musicians, most notably Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance and Comets on Fire, cited the forgotten disc as an influence; Chasny even covered "Thicker than a Smokey" on his 2005 album School of the Flower. Zach Cowie, then negotiating to bring Comets on Fire to Sub Pop, received a burned copy from Chasny and immediately became fascinated with the album. He embarked on a quixotic quest to find its author, mailing off hundreds of letters and calling every Gary Higgins he could find in Connecticut phone books. Finally, he located that Gary Higgins -- still in northwest Connecticut, still writing and playing songs in his spare time, still holding the master tapes to his one and only full-length album. The album was remastered and reissued on Drag City in 2005.

I caught up with Gary Higgins in early July of 2005 as he and his band were preparing for their first concert in decades -- all original members except the guitar player (replaced by Higgins's son) practicing for a gig at Tonic in New York City. We talked about his extraordinary album, plagued by bad luck in the 1970s but now recognized as one of the original texts of the psyche-folk movement, an inspiration to many and a thing of beauty in itself.

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Splendid: The record is beautiful.

Gary Higgins: Thank you very much.

Splendid: Did you ever think it would be released again?

Gary Higgins: No. Not in my wildest dreams.

Splendid: It's such an amazing combination of emotions... Some of the songs are very anxious, some are calm and some are sad, but there's a sort of transcendent quality to it. Where were you, emotionally and mentally, when you wrote and recorded these songs?

Gary Higgins: I'm not really clear on what was going on when I was writing a lot of them. Those were actually pretty good times. Most of them were written when there was a lot of playing going on, and a lot of music happening. Things were pretty good. And then at the time they were recorded, I don't know, when I went off and had my emergency situation. At the time, I thought that that was all that would ever be able to be done. I had no idea how the whole thing was going to develop. So it was a pretty crazy time... Some of that, some of the emotions may have seeped into the recording.

Splendid: So, some of the songs may have changed a little bit. Maybe they were happy songs when you wrote them and they became more anxious as you were recording them.

Gary Higgins: Maybe... That's certainly possible. I never thought of it that way, but it's certainly possible. It wasn't a real good period of time. I think that the surrounding time wasn't good, but the recording situation was very good. Having all those musicians get together and record, that was wonderful, but what was going on in the peripheral areas of my life was absolutely awful. Some of that might have rubbed off.

Splendid: Do you mind talking a little bit about what happened in your life that put all the pressure on? There are some sort of sketchy things that are out there ...

Gary Higgins: I'm not sure I want to go into the details, but what it essentially comes down to is a very complicated mess in which I got arrested for drugs. The charges were, at the time, very, very serious. The number of years that were associated with the charges were pretty steep. At the time that that was going on, I was very, very fortunate to have a lifelong friend who was also a very good lawyer... who basically got me what he got me. He pretty much saved my life in some respects. The law at the time was pretty much out for blood. What they had essentially done, except in a very exact legal sense, it was really entrapment. They made a market and built a market and publicized what they had done as if there was some great benefit to the public. A couple of my friends got involved... That's essentially how I got involved. I'm not saying I was innocent. I certainly was part of it. But they created what they created.

Splendid: You were thinking you might have to go away for much longer than a couple of years?

Gary Higgins: Absolutely. Much longer. I was fortunate to have the lawyer I did.

Splendid: Tell me a little about your musical life and career up to that point. What kind of scene were you involved in? What kind of music?

Gary Higgins: By the time that went down, I'd been playing with a couple of people that were on that recording... The people on that record were actually a band that had played pretty actively for a few years before that. We played around New York City a lot at one point, and essentially all of us were pretty much country people at heart. We didn't deal well with city life. We would play there and then try to nestle ourselves back into the fold that we were all very comfortable in. We wrote a lot of songs, and the music was great and the music scene in this particular area was pretty vibrant at the time. We ended up getting involved in a scene that kind of supported itself. We were pretty complacent in doing that. We were having a pretty good time.

Splendid: Where in Connecticut was this?

Gary Higgins: Well, actually, I live in the same area now. It's in the northwest part of the state, close to Massachusetts and near the border with New York State. There were quite a few clubs in the Woodstock area. Sheffield. Stockbridge. There were quite a few around here. Hartford. There were just a lot of places to play and the people were pretty comfortable with the music that we were playing at that point in time. We did a real lot of stuff, and we were received real well. We had a good following. But we were never really good at the business aspect of it. We never could do that properly.

And then, eventually, we grew up a little bit. People got married. A couple of the guys went to school. It just gradually dwindled down to a few of us that were still around. And that's when I got involved with Maureen, the cello player, and Paul Tierney who played flute and mandolin. We played together for a few years... That's pretty much the flavor of the songs on that album -- the acoustic sound that we had developed together. Though some of that's surely due to the way the album was recorded.

Splendid: A couple of them... "Cuckoo" sounds like it could be a rock song?

Gary Higgins: Yeah... That's an interesting idea.

Splendid: You self-recorded this and you had your own label. In 1973, wasn't that pretty unusual?

Gary Higgins: We actually didn't... Well, we self-recorded a lot of stuff, but the album was actually done in a studio in Litchfield, Connecticut. A fellow named Bill Shanley did the recording, and all the recording was done within 40 hours. We're doing a lot of rehearsing for this show in New York. There have been several comments made that we're spending a lot more time on getting those songs together again now than we ever did recording them. It came together pretty quickly and it happened pretty quickly. Some of it I would have changed. If we'd had the technology that we have today... What I was starting to say earlier was that the recording of the drums and the bass was not very good on that album. You could hardly hear them on some songs. If we could have done that slightly better, it would have changed the flavor of the album. It is what it is. It's too late to go back now.

Splendid: I was actually noticing the bass in "It Didn't Take Too Long," and thinking it was really good.

Gary Higgins: That one actually came out... of all of the ones that had bass in them, three or four, that came out the best.

AUDIO: Thicker than a Smokey

Splendid: So, "Thicker Than a Smokey" -- it's such a beautiful song, and that's the one Ben Chasny covered on his last Six Organs of Admittance album. Seems like it's -- you said you wrote these before you knew about this situation, but it's about a young man who's considering his options... Whether he should stay or go down to Mexico. I was wondering if that had any special resonance for you, as you were recording the album.

Gary Higgins: Actually, it did not.

Splendid: No? Tell me about that song. What was it about?

Gary Higgins: Well, a lot of times, the songs that I write tend to be about what they're about at the time. In a lot of cases, when I write songs, they end up being little snippets of what's going on in my head at the moment, rather than any kind of generalized plan or idea that I wanted to get across. They're more snippets of ideas, not well connected. I really can't say that I thought of it. I would love to tell you that I did, but I can't.

Splendid: Yeah? "Windy Child" is another of my favorites, and it has the flute and the cello on it. Those were people you had worked with for a long time?

Gary Higgins: Yup. I probably had played with Maureen and Paul at that time for at least ten years.

Splendid: Have they been playing music all along? I was looking up some of the people on the album, trying to figure out if they were still involved in music, and it looked like the flute player still was.

Gary Higgins: Paul did a lot of solo work. He was really good at that. Everybody involved in this, they were all pretty prolific songwriters in their own right. Paul did a lot of solo work, playing his own songs and singing. He did a lot of that before we did this recording, and he did some afterwards, but I don't think I've heard of him playing out much lately. Maureen's been playing the harp; she's probably spent the last six or seven years working on that instrument. She had to get her cello out and dust it off for this concert that we're doing. Everybody else has been playing and writing on their own. Dave and myself and Terry have been working on each other's songs on and off over the years. We've kept in contact. We're fairly close to each other. Dave lives about ten miles from me.

Splendid: Have you been writing and playing continuously since?

Gary Higgins: I have. I've written tons of stuff. But not really playing out. What happened to me, basically, was getting married and having a child, raising a family, that became pretty much my focus. Playing has always been important to me, but it's pretty difficult to make a living.

Splendid: But your son is playing with you at this concert in New York.

Gary Higgins: He is. That's a very special part of it.

Splendid: Did you teach him how to play?

Gary Higgins: Some stuff. He really... Actually, to be honest with you, I was hoping that he wouldn't. You know, it's such a wonderful thing and I wouldn't want to get rid of it, but there's some agony involved in trying to be a musician, in the whole scene and dealing with it. In a way, part of me wanted him to -- don't take me wrong on this -- to be normal, in a certain way. He's a very bright guy, National Honors Society student, his grade point average is 96. I wanted him to have a happy life and make a good living, despite music. I'm not against him playing music by any means, but he pretty much did it on his own.

Splendid: How old is he?

Gary Higgins: 26

AUDIO: I Can't Sleep At Night

Splendid: Nice...What about influences? What kinds of music were you listening to as you developed your sound?

Gary Higgins: At that point in time, Crosby Stills & Nash. Some of the tunings they used, quite often they used alternative tunings, they lend themselves creatively to a lot of different things. I can't even name the others. They were so many.

Splendid: What about Eastern music? Were you into that at all? Some of it sounds almost Indian.

Gary Higgins: Probably, like everybody else at the time. When the Beatles went towards the Indian influence and the tabla and the sitar, everybody became somewhat into that. I may have heard the sounds, but it wasn't really a major influence at the time. Stuff just sticks.

Splendid: What about the tunings that Crosby Stills & Nash used? What was different about them?

Gary Higgins: Well, they were non-standard tunings. They used a lot of open tunings. They used it quite often, not just in their stuff, but in David's solo work. I don't know. It just has a real haunting, ethereal, spiritual kind of sound to it.

Splendid: That's interesting. I don't play guitar, so the technical stuff kind of...

Gary Higgins: You can hear it, though. David Crosby wrote this song called "Traction in the Rain" that's a really good example of how that tuning just kind of creates... harmonies in itself. There are others like that. It just kind of gives a different flavor to the song.

Splendid: Neat.

Gary Higgins: It creates its own harmonies and melodies. It probably comes a lot from English folk music. There's a lot of that used in that music as well.

Splendid: Do you feel any kinship with some of these other folk bands, like The Incredible String Band, that were active at about the same time?

Gary Higgins: I've listened to them. I've surely listened to Incredible String Band, but it wasn't one of my favorite groups.

Splendid: Tell me about the two additional tracks on Red Hash and where they came from.

Gary Higgins: They were written a few years after. Probably one was written probably in the early 1980s and the other was written right after the original session.

Splendid: That's "The Last Great Sperm Whale"?

Gary Higgins: Sperm whale, right. That was recorded at Shaggy Dog Studios in Stockbridge.

Splendid: Was that sort of a left-over song, from the first set?

Gary Higgins: It actually was a new song, after I'd been (Gary says something inaudible that seems to involve getting out of prison.). We played a couple of years after, I guess it was. The acoustic guitar player got very, very sick. What I was doing at that time was playing more with Maureen and Jake (Bell) and we played together. A whole bunch of new songs came out of that, and that was one of them.

Splendid: But you never made another record, did you?

Gary Higgins: No. That was part of the intention when we went into Shaggy Dog, but something happened that got in the way of doing that. Money was very tight. Although I have no regrets about the Red Hash album, one thing that I always wished... It was done on a four-track. You have so much more control with a multi-track recording system. I really wanted to do it right, and have more control over the sound.

Splendid: So that you could mix the bass and the drums up, for instance.

Gary Higgins: Yeah, little things like bringing the snare drum up. Bringing the cello up. On a four-track, a lot of the tracks are shared. Basically, you're stuck with what you're stuck with at the time. Going back and changing was a major undertaking. All I'm saying by that is that I wanted to do it that way, with equipment we didn't have. It was expensive. We didn't have money. Excuses, excuses...

Splendid: Well, it's just such a beautiful album, and it's like it dropped from the sky. Nobody knew who you were until a little while ago and there was never anything after that. It's just kind like a gift. So why was it never released -- or was it?

Gary Higgins: It was released in a small printing, basically by a bunch of friends and supporters who didn't know anything about business.

AUDIO: I Pick Notes from the Sky

Splendid: How many copies originally?

Gary Higgins: I'm going to say 5,000. I'm not sure.

Splendid: Do you have any left? They must be worth a ton on Ebay.

Gary Higgins: I have the last batch here, the last unopened case.

Splendid: At some point, people started talking about this album and trading it and burning and telling people about it. It became sort of a whisper campaign. Were you aware of any of this?

Gary Higgins: Yes. Every once in a while I would go onto the Internet and just type in "Red Hash" and see what would happen. A few years ago, I found a pirated CD or a reference to one, which turned out to be real. There were some things being said, and I thought that I really should pursue it a little bit. Part of me felt it was kind of a pipe dream. Part of me just felt the usual... that one of these days, I would get around to it, but I just never did it. I was pretty blown away when Zach (Cowie, then at Sub Pop, now with Red Hash reissuer Drag City) got hold of me. He said that all this peripheral stuff was going on all over the place.

Splendid: I understand it was hard to track you down.

Gary Higgins: He said he'd been looking for me for two years.

Splendid: How did he finally do it?

Gary Higgins: I got a letter in the mail. It said, basically, "If you're the Gary Higgins that had something to do with Red Hash, please get in touch with me. If not, my apologies." I emailed him and one thing led to another.

Splendid: I wonder how many of those letters he sent out.

Gary Higgins: I don't know. I believe that he said he contacted a real, real lot of people.

Splendid: I wonder if anybody else said, "Yeah, that's me."

Gary Higgins: I don't think so.

Splendid: And did you have the master tapes?

Gary Higgins: Yes, I still had them. I kept them from years ago, when we did the CD. I had them remastered and the result is the record you have.

(There's a short break as the tape side ends.)

Splendid: The album artwork...

Gary Higgins: That's all done by Jake, who's done a lot of graphic design and photography.

Splendid: And those are all pictures from 1973 or around then?

Gary Higgins: They were all taken at the time. I actually don't know whose camera it was, but they were all done at that time.

Splendid: It's really nicely packaged.

Gary Higgins: They did a nice job. They really did.

Splendid: So, I know you've got one show coming up in New York. Will there be more?

Gary Higgins: I certainly hope so. We're putting a lot of work into this. The music is coming together really, really well.

Splendid: What's it like playing those songs again?

Gary Higgins: It's great. It's better than it ever was.

Splendid: I know you're getting swept into this psyche-folk category that's popular now. Do you listen to any of the new stuff, like Animal Collective and Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom?

Gary Higgins: I have.

Splendid: And what do you think about it? Do you see any relation between what you're doing and what they're doing?

Gary Higgins: I did. At least, I thought I did. I actually got some inspiration from some of that. I've got so many things sitting around here that were never recorded... visions of really good songs that I felt I'd never finished. But because I've been exposed to some of those newer artists, I feel like I don't have to finish them. They are finished.

Splendid: So you might do another album of unreleased songs?

Gary Higgins: I'd like to do several. This interest in Red Hash has been really great, but hopefully it will create some sort of a following that will demand more music that hasn't been released.

Splendid: It's sort of like what's happened to Vashti Bunyan.

Gary Higgins: Yes. That's a great, wonderful thing.

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Read our review of Red Hash.

Visit Drag City, Higgins's label.

Buy Red Hash at Insound.

· · · · · · ·

All charges against Jennifer Kelly were dismissed.

[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george zahora | photos - justin carl :: credits graphics ]



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