In the days leading up to an artist’s interview, I spend as much time as I can listening to their music. In Al Kooper’s case, I’ve been listening to his music for my entire life. Most of the time, I didn’t even know it.
If you’re not familiar with Kooper, he’s the man who plays that iconic organ on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” He added in psychedelic whimsy to a Pete Townshend “mini-opera.” He got epic with Lynyrd Skynyrd on “Free Bird.” He kicked in the organ riffs in the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Dig deeper and you’ll find countless gems that he was involved in, including the famous Super Session with Stephen Stills and Mike Bloomfield, and the equally famous Blues Project, to name but two more.
Al Kooper also happened to found Blood, Sweat and Tears; produce both Shuggie Otis and The Tubes; discover Lynrd Skynrd; and has even been sampled by Jay-Z and the Beastie Boys.
But, you know what? I’m probably wrong about all that. You’re wrong, too. In fact, forget everything you think you know about rock and roll, because everything you know is wrong. How do I know? Because Al Kooper told me so, and he was there for most of it.
He’s a destroyer of rock and roll myth, and has a book full of stories set straight, entitled Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards. Kooper continues to write music and tour, and is dedicated to helping those of his generation discover new music that they’ll like with his column, “New Music for Old People.” Check out what he had to say about the album format, rock and roll fallacies, and who he wishes had covered one of his songs.
You continue to have an amazing career. How do you think it would it have been different if you started today?
No one in the music business listens to the music today. It’s primarily cash-motivated. You know, there are pockets of things that are going on… I pay a great deal of attention to new music. The thing I don’t pay attention to is – I probably don’t listen to anything that’s on the charts.
So, when you say “new music”, you mean independent music?
No, music that just doesn’t make the chart, but should make the charts. I have a weekly column called New Music for Old People. I put new material and old things that were obscure that people might not have heard on it. I’ve been doing it for about a year, and it gets a really nice reaction.
I hear a lot of Baby Boomers complain that they’re tired of hearing the same old stuff on classic rock radio, but they also don’t know where to go for new music.
Yeah, yeah – I know that, and fortunately I found an answer. And I also have the time and patience to pursue it. Although, in 2003 when iTunes started, I went on there and found this page that had all the new releases on it every Tuesday – that’s when records come out. And I went, “Wow! It’s all right here! I can listen to it right here!” And so I did, and I started finding incredible music and I said, “This is great! Why are there great bands right now?”
And I thought about it and thought, no, it’s not the timing. It’s that these people have an arena to play in now that they never had before. Either you were on the radio or no one heard you. And now here’s iTunes and you can hear everybody – many more people. I heard all this great music and I started downloading it, and I also liked the fact that you didn’t have to download the whole album, that everybody could have the album of their choice. If you only like three songs, then they bought three songs. As a consumer, I love that. As an artist, I hate it.
But I’m crazed as a listener. I want to hear great music all the time. And so from around November 2003, I‘ve been doing that. One time, in 2009, they took the list away and I went berserk. Bob Lefsetz – he writes a column [The Lefsetz Letter] that pretty much everybody in the music business reads. The best thing in his column is when he has a mailbag, when he just prints what people write to him. You see the names and you can’t believe that these people are communicating with him or reading his column for that matter.
So, I wrote Bob a letter because I was horrified that they took this iTunes list away. And he wrote me a note and said, “I sent your email directly to Apple instead of publishing it.” Two hours later I got an email from Steve Jobs and he said, “Jeeze, don’t be so hot-headed. It’s probably just a mistake. I’ll look into it.” And then the next day I got another email from him that said, “It was a mistake – it’ll be back up next week, calm down.” So, just two weeks ago it happened again and I sent a similar letter to Tim Cook, who replaced Steve Jobs, and I’m waiting to hear back from him. I don’t think I will; I think Steve Jobs was a very special person.
I know that you love the convenience of iTunes as far as discovering new music. But as someone who’s spent a good part of his life in recording studios, do you have an opinion about the quality of the music you hear digitally? Before he passed away, Steve Jobs was supposedly looking into ways of upping the quality of digital recordings.
Well, in fact, digital recordings aren’t much better than analog recordings. There’s no hiss – it’s pure sound. Whereas before it was retarded by the fact that it was analog. A lot of people like that sound, don’t get me wrong, but for quality digital is better. Some people just don’t like quality in their rock and roll. I’ve had situations where I’ll see a band that I sort of collect now – like Deerhoof.
I love them.
Me, too. I’ve talked to [Greg Saunier] and I said, “Wow, the guitar sounds on your album were amazing. How did you do that?” And he said, “Well, the budget for our album was $0, so we did it in my living room and we didn’t use one guitar amplifier. It was all plug-ins.” And I was totally shocked. I said, “Well, you did a great job – the sounds are amazing.”
When you were teaching at Berklee, what were your impressions of the way young musicians were playing and composing music?
Well, I taught a songwriting class briefly and it was sort of disappointing to me because only about a third of the class was really talented at doing that. It was a waste of the other two-thirds of the class’s time and my time. You can’t teach someone to write a song. You can help people that have the talent to write a song and you can teach them easier ways to do things and smart ways to do things, but you can’t teach someone to write a song – that’s my opinion.
They tell writers if they want to be better writers, they need to read more. Is there something similar for composers?
I don’t do that. [Laughs] I just can’t teach anybody to write a song. I don’t want to teach somebody to write a song. I can help somebody who’s already a talented songwriter that doesn’t have the experience that I have. But somebody that just needs to take another course… I don’t even want to look at them. [Laughs]
Given your career and who you’ve worked with, I don’t think that’s unreasonable.
It’s not even who I’ve worked with, it’s just as a songwriter I’ve had a lot of experience and a lot of people have recorded my songs. And I came up writing songs for Top 40 radio, but in the ’50s and early ‘60s, so it was a little different. It was very exciting back then.
I can only imagine, given the pop song “factories” like the Brill Building––
By the way, since you said the dreadful words, all those songs were not written in the Brill Building. That’s a history fuck-up that annoys me every time anyone says those two words.
Well, I’m really glad you corrected me!
See, that’s what’s wrong with history. Everybody jumps on something and they don’t really explore the actuality of it. I was lucky enough to be at a few historic events in rock and roll and they’re almost 99% reported inaccurately from what happened in the room. Like, booing Dylan at Newport – that’s garbage.
And you hear that all the time.
Right! And you hear “the Brill Building sound” all the time, too. And it made me realize how corrupt all history is for that reason. And there’s a very funny video on YouTube that you should try and see. It’s called “Beatles 3000” and the premise is that the legend of The Beatles lasted to the year 3000 but, [Laughs] all the facts are wrong! They show the history of The Beatles and they don’t even have the correct members of the band. I saw that and I said, “There it is. That’s what’s gonna happen! It’s gonna all get corrupted.” It’s already corrupted in my lifetime, and there’s nothing I can do or say about it because it’s ingrained in everybody.
It’s one of the reasons I wrote a book [Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards], and you should probably read it if you ever have time. It’s… the truth. I didn’t have any reason to lie about the things that I saw because… I saw them, uncorrupted. I wasn’t a journalist – I was just a person participating in it.
I imagine you spend a lot of time correcting people on Bob Dylan.
I do an unbelievable amount of interviews and I do maybe fifteen a year about Dylan, where it’s specifically about Dylan. And I turn down probably 80 interviews because it really doesn’t interest me because the people that are asking the questions already believe the history. If you’re a fan, there is a good Dylan book called Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz. That is the first truthful book I ever saw.
I once wrote him an email because he wrote a piece that I read online which was about the making of Blonde on Blonde, and it was the first time I ever saw it written about truthfully. It was amazing, and I emailed him and told him that. So when his book came out, he sent me an email and said, “I want to send you the galley [of Bob Dylan in America] and maybe you can tell me what you think and if you like it, we can put a little blurb on the back cover.” So I said sure, and he sent it to me, and it was great. And I wrote a few lines about it and [Laughs] they put it on the front cover! First I thought it was just the press release, but then I saw it in the store! I was very flattered, but also I was glad… I haven’t done that for anyone else’s Bob Dylan book.
In addition to working with Dylan, you’ve also been linked to discovering others like Shuggie Otis… which now I’m guessing probably isn’t true –
No, that’s not correct.
There needs to be an addendum to Backstage Passes, a list of rock and roll books that are bullshit.
Well, I wouldn’t want to read the other ones. [Laughs] Also, I’ve lost a great deal of my sight and I can’t read much anyway now. I think my book reading days are just about over.
Actually, I’m very lucky that it was my eyes and not my hands and my ears that got affected. I think it was a gift from God, actually. I don’t mind it at all because I can get through every day quite easily with my short sight, whereas I probably wouldn’t want to live if I couldn’t play or hear music.
It doesn’t seem to keep you from touring and performing…
It does in a way. If they don’t get me the exact equipment I need, I can’t play, ‘cause I play by touch. So if they replace something, I’m screwed.
Do you have any new music that you’re working on?
I have a new album half done. I put it down about six months ago, and then the other day I realized it’s been six months and I should probably get back to it! But that’s the great thing about no deadlines.
Some people might say that’s the worst thing.
Well, I’m about done. I don’t really want to participate in this music business as it is anymore. So I think I’ll probably just do this one album, and then I want to put out a four-CD box set of all the stuff that’s been unreleased from my whole career – because there’s a lot of really good stuff that never got out! I also want to do a documentary because otherwise my grandchildren won’t know what it is that I did, really. Those are my plans for the next four years, and then I think I’ll probably watch a lot of television.
Given that there’s a shorter list of people you haven’t played with, is there anybody at all that you haven’t played with that you’d like to?
Ray Charles and Elvis Presley. Really. I really wanted Ray Charles to record “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” – that would have been so great, but it didn’t happen.
And none of the newer artists that you listen to?
Yeah, but the reason that I listen to them is that I’m drawn to what they do. They don’t need me. The bands that I worked with needed me on some level, you know? These people are capturing my interest immediately without my participating, so I don’t have any interest in producing them or anything because they’re doing such a great job.
Like that story the drummer from Deerhoof told me [about recording at home] – that was great for me to hear. I love the convenience of having a studio in the basement and working when I feel like it, and the meter not being on. I love that – that’s helped me immeasurably. I think the last two albums I made were probably the best albums I ever made because of that.
Can I ask you a question?
What is The Vinyl District?
Well, in a nutshell, we’re an online magazine that’s geared towards promoting the album and the vinyl format and artists that love it. We’re not against technology at all, if that’s what you’re getting at. We love discovering music any way we can, but we also love doing what we can to preserve the LP and the concept of the album and the freedom to create that. I think I’ll stop there so I don’t sound any more pretentious than I already do.
See, the thing is the whole album concept is primarily gone. I mean the way it used to be.
I agree with you to a point.
The motive of making the album – it’s different. Everything’s different. So it’s hard to find music I like because of that – especially an entire album. I probably only download six of them a year – an entire album.
Do you ever miss having the physical copy?
Only in the information department. I don’t mind MP3s, you know. And I do have 23,000 CDs. They’re my friends. [Laughs] But I’m worried that they won’t be accessible in my lifetime.
How do you mean?
I just heard that they’re not going to have a CD/DVD slot in the next Macs. That’s like a knife in my heart. That’s why a guy’s got to watch television now. [Laughs] But the music on television is so bad – I mean the music shows are so bad. I’ve never actually watched one but from what I’ve read, it wouldn’t interest me at all. However, some of the people that pick the records for the shows – I usually hate [the music they choose]. But I’ve heard a couple of really great things.
I used to work on a show called Crime Story. It was a follow-up to Miami Vice and it was by the same guy, Michael Mann. He hired me to write the score, and I talked him into letting me pick the records as well. What was great about that show was the shooting of each episode cost over a million dollars. It was just great-looking for television. I’d never scored a television show so I was trying to do things, and the records we played were just perfect.
But I don’t hear that much now. For instance that movie, The Help – when I read what it was about, a song immediately came to mind to me for the film. It just was the perfect song for the movie, and I watched the movie and they just screwed me so badly at the end. They just had some Jennifer Hudson song or whatever that was meaningless.
There’s a song called “When Will We Be Paid” by the Staple Singers. Can you imagine how strong that would have been at the end of that movie? Because that’s what the whole movie was about! It was a no-brainer to me. Quite a large miss – by a mile! [Laughs] I think I even wrote a letter, that’s how much it upset me.
Shows like Mad Men seem to get it right. I was impressed that they included “Tomorrow Never Knows” in an episode this season––
Nah! I like it, but I’ve heard it a million times. The thing that’s great is when you can take something like “When Will We Be Paid” and it’s the perfect song for the situation, but it hasn’t been used before. That’s greatness, not “Tomorrow Never Knows” – which sometimes is good if you want to get that familiarity. But I’d rather try and get that sound with something else that people have never heard before, where the lyrics are more perfect for the scene.
Are you a Wes Anderson fan? He’s known for selecting most of his soundtracks before he films a frame.
I saw Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited. I worked on a movie with John Waters called Crybaby. When I had dinner with him to be selected for the job, I asked him about the other movies that he’d done and the records that were used, and I said that I thought they were excellent. He said he didn’t do it, that it was a friend that did it, and so I lost a little respect for him. I got fired pretty early in the process. [Laughs] It was all politics that had nothing to do with John Waters.
There’s a song in the film called “Teardrops Are Falling” and there’s this spoken part like, [does deep voice] “Mah, darlin’ I…” that kind of thing. And I had one of the background singers do it and they didn’t do a very good job. So when they left, I decided to do it myself, and I slowed my voice down so that it was more basso profundo. So every time I see that it makes me laugh, because I electronically simulated a black person – but it’s me! It just cracks me up whenever I hear it.