Forty eight years on, Scott Fagan tells us about the birth of lost classic South Atlantic Blues; poverty, bad luck, famous children he didn’t know he had, and life’s lessons.
“First; are you from the police?”
Why are you going to do something illegal?
“No, it just might be my past catching up with me.”
And what a past Scott Fagan has had. Within minutes of sitting down with him, we were hearing some of the most fascinating tales of hardship, missed opportunities and the glories of the musical past that you assume no-one is still around to tell.
However, in the present, Scott Fagan has a majestic lost album to promote and if all goes well, as it should, we might get to hear some of the lost wonders from his back catalogue in the near future as a result.
Scott Fagan is a big man, who not surprisingly is a little slow on his feet these days. Wild wisps of grey hair tumble down his back and over his shoulders, whilst a beaded beard makes you consider that had Keith Richards not been available to play Jack Sparrow’s father in Pirates of the Caribbean (from where Scott hails)Scott Fagan would have been a perfect replacement. The young man who looks mournfully shy on the cover of the 1968 album South Atlantic Blues is no more, but this Scott Fagan is here in Manchester, forty eight years later in order to try to gain his masterpiece the kind of justice it deserves.
Taking Dylan Thomas’ advice, it made sense for us “To begin at the beginning…”
“I was originally born in New York and had a musical family. My grandmother Sally Travis was an orphan girl from Scotland, her family died in the Spanish flu. She went alone to New York at 19 years old; a bar room singer, she got pregnant by a nice Irish fellow who was afraid to tell his wife he’d just gotten a barroom singer pregnant, so he denied the child. Sally died of TB and left my father orphaned. We started the tour in Scotland and it was very powerful for me to be back there. We were in Glasgow which was the centre of the Spanish flu epidemic and so we think she was from there. We know nothing about her apart from her whole family died of the Spanish flu. Then we went to Ireland and my mother’s people are Kellys from Galway. I have a parcel of relatives who really want to go there and I must, although this time we got on the ferry to Belfast then down the freeway to Dublin. I am Irish, English French, Scotch, Dutch German, Welsh and a little Mohawk so every place we go is like a little homecoming.
I was raised in the Virgin Islands and sailed up to the states as a crew boy/bilge rat on a 50ft ketch. You know about sailing? Well, a ketch and a sloop are the same boat but they’re rigged differently. We got to Coconut Grove which is South Florida. Sang there and a little fan club of girls formed and came up with $50 to get me to New York. I got to New York with one phone number and eleven cents. I called a phone number which had been given to my mother by a friend of an ex-wife of a cousin’s ex-husband guy that sometimes wrote songs with a professional songwriter. He said “You gotta call him when you get to New York” and I promised him I would, and I did and it was Doc Pomus (Pomus was a legendary blues singer and songwriter who wrote Marie’s the Name of His Latest Flame, Save the Last Dance for Me and Viva Las Vegas amongst others and was responsible for introducing Lou Reed to the music business. Not unlike our own Ian Dury, he also suffered from polio). Pomus said (adopts gruff voice) “Come see me, let’s hear what you got” so I went to the Forrest Hotel which was directly across from the Brill Building (legendary residence of songwriters) on 49th Street and Broadway and I went up to his room and there sitting in the middle of a giant bed; Buddha, bone naked, wrapped in a sheet, was Doc Pomus! He had polio as a child and didn’t walk without braces. He was an enormous fellow with a beard and wild hair and so I sat on the piano bench and played three tunes for him (the three songs that Scott sang for Doc Pomus are on the bonus download card inside the reissue of South Atlantic Blues) and when I had done that he said “I’ll tell you what I am gonna do. I am going to sign you to personal management and I’m gonna sign you to my production company. Now go downstairs and tell the desk clerk to give you a room then come back here and let’s get started”. So I went from being a homeless kid with one cent left after the dime call, to being signed by Doc Pomus. So Doc’s partner of course is Mort Shuman (both he and Doc Pomus have been inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame via the Ahmet Ertegun Award). He got me a deal with Columbia and I loved Columbia but the real label I wanted to be signed to was, y’know…the little doggy? RCA but that would come later. I have been signed to Columbia, Bang, Big Top, Atco, Epic, and RCA. By the time I got to RCA they had changed the logo and it was a bland nothing thing (sighs) I loved that doggy listening to his master’s voice.”
At this point in the interview Scott asked if we minded being filmed as part of a forthcoming documentary; we told him it was fine since we weren’t wanted by the police either, although we do have great faces for radio.
“So we did a single for Columbia, it was with Wes Farrell (another songwriter who for a while was married to Frank Sinatra’s daughter Tina) You Weren’t Meant To Be True, there’s no trace of it, no trace of it. Then we did a single for Bang that Mort Shuman produced.”
Was Surrender to the Sun (a personal favourite) around that time?
“No that was later. I did Surrender to the Sun for RCA. It was for a Canadian film called The Recommendation For Mercy. It wasn’t on my RCA album Many Sunny Places (1975) which has the song Please Be Well on it, which is also the closing song in my rock opera Soon but you know this stuff.
We recorded Many Sunny Places for RCA but then I did it again in St Thomas (Virgin Islands) in 2010. We did a very similar arrangement but we updated the sound of the synthesizer which was dating it, so we updated it. Warren Shatz (Frankie Valli producer) produced that.”
What about the other favourite of mine, Circles. What is the story behind that?
“Circles I recorded in Topanga Canyon. That’s a master that hasn’t be released. My hope, my sincere hope is that because of the South Atlantic Blues reissue and the attention it has generated that we will have a vehicle…brother, I have a lot of material that I’ve tried through the years to keep recording, keep writing, believing that someday, somebody would say “Hey wait a minute, this is worthwhile…”
Why do you think now has been the moment for South Atlantic Blues?
“Well, for years there was a fellow called Jakarta Jive who was writing in the further recesses of the internet about South Atlantic Blues and he was reviewing it and pretty soon a collection of people came round and they were talking about the album and artist and they were really going at it in an erudite and literate way. I peek in from time to time just to know I am still alive and that the work is affecting some folks. The album had been discovered by Jasper Johns (renowned US artist/painter/sculptor) and he did three lithographs that were slightly different entitled Scott Fagan Record. I used to have one but I had to sell it to help my mother to get an apartment. God bless my mother I love her to bits. She was married eight times and was very alcoholic and loved me and I loved her and she died young in the apartment I got for her in New York. Anyway, so we had done South Atlantic Blues and I was a staff writer for Screen Jams and I was signed at the time to Epic (from where I AM and Kings and Pawns were arranged by David Woods, son of Harry Woods who wrote Try A Little Tenderness).
I then began writing Soon, a rock opera which was the follow up to South Atlantic Blues but we made a little too much fun out of the boys (the music industry) and they weren’t too happy about that.”
Do you regret that in anyway looking back?
“Well the only thing I only regret is that I was never able to provide the kind of life for the women that loved me and their children. I have five children by four different lovers and they all believed in me and I disappointed them all so I am not happy about that. However, for the most part we still love one another and there is good fortune down the road that may be leading to enjoying it together. So that’s what I regret. It was foolish of us to think we could change the music business but this was the late 60s and we were marching to end the war in Vietnam and we were all committed to changing the world and we thought we could change the music business but (wistfully) we were wrong! I don’t regret that though because what we have is a 90 minute piece of music that I am very proud of and God Almighty we might finally get it recorded and released.”
I have heard the live version from the Broadway show…
“Well, I was fired from the New York production for refusing to make entertainment orientated changes, because we (Scott and Joseph M Kookolis) weren’t writing entertainment we were writing a serious work having to do with the destructive effect of music on art and by extension, society. And that’s not funny so we had thrown in a few laughs here and there and some colourful stuff but it would never be an amusement or light entertainment so we were fired and barred from the theatre and we went out to California and did it in a much smaller scale. There was a guy that smuggled a little cassette into the New York theatre in his winter overcoat. There’s a parallel universe of Broadway collectors of any show, every show and so I would hear from some of these folks some time. This guy got in touch and asked if I had a recording of Soon and I said I don’t have one, there isn’t one and he said “No there is, such and such a fellow had a bootleg Broadway production of Soon and he willed his whole collection to the Library of Congress”. So I called the Library of Congress and we drizzled around a bit and then they realised that I was the author so I was able to get a copy from them. Of course I am not happy to have that represent our work because it reflects the entertainment changes however when we put the cast together we put together a momma jamma of a cast and in that bootleg recording there are five of women, knowing that the show was closing and each having a solo so each of them looking to outdo the next so we’ve got four of five songs in the middle of it that each of these chicks is killing themselves on which is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful… Nell Carter (Tony and Emmy winner), Vicky Sue Robinson (Turn the Beat Around), Marian Ramsey (Laverne Hooks in Police Academy)…terrific so we have to find a way to get it out.”
Are you more proud of Soon or South Atlantic Blues?
“Well, it’s like your children…which one do you love most? You love each for their own reason right? South Atlantic Blues was my first album, we were dead serious boys coming from very hard knocks and I did my God most-best to make it great. Then Soon was like the same stream, it’s the follow up record so they are certainly related in my mind. As a matter of fact, the song In Your Hands from South Atlantic Blues is the opening number for Soon, and Please Be Well which we are playing tonight is the closing song on Soon.”
I’ve always considered South Atlantic Blues opening song, In My Head to have a Serge Gainsbourg feel about it.
A brief explanation of Serge’s place in the pop pantheon ensues, as well as a suggestion that outside of France he is best known for a scurrilous interview with Whitney Houston.
“I don’t know, but Mort Shuman loved Jacques Brel and I imagine Jacques Brel was similar? I’m guessing that’s good though?
It was Herb Gart (manager of Bill Cosby, Tim Hardin, Don Mclean, Mississippi John Hurt amongst others) who discovered me playing at the Café GoGo and he said “Sign with me and in six months you will be bigger than Elvis Presley!” which was pretty unbelievable and then he said “I manage Buffy St Marie!” and that clinched the deal for me. That girl is fantastic looking man, boy, if she and Whitney had been on that same show Serge would have been in double trouble! Herb was the executive producer and he was shopping the album and it was being held by Apple(the Beatles label) as potentially their first release but between South Atlantic Blues and the James Taylor record. Peter Asher was the A&R guy and he was very partial to James Taylor. At the time Verve Forecast was the most successful folk-rock label and Jerry Schoenbaum was the president of the label. Jerry said “Hey, I want the record, I’m going to be the new president of Atlantic Records and I’m taking it with me to be my first release”. That was very good news so I signed with Atco, which is Atlantic but Jerry Schoenbaum and Ahmet Ertegun never came to terms about Jerry’s deal. So Jerry went off to California and there was no deal. So the next guy that becomes President of Atco is guy called Jerry Greenberg and he was not interested in hyping Jerry Schoembaum’s pet project so South Atlantic Blues was essentially buried and was not promoted.
However, (the aforementioned) Jasper Johns found it in a cut out bin and fell in love with it. So I am at Screen Jams writing Soon when the phone rings. It’s some guy saying “Oh, my friend loves your record” and it this point I had no idea which record he was talking about; I Am, Kings and Pawns…what record is he talking about? “My friend loves your record and he made a lithograph and he’s gonna have an opening and we want you to come, please say you’ll come”. And I am thinking “Jesus God this is some little art gallery down in the East Village and there is going to be a canvas with Day-Glo paint and chicken bones and watermelon seeds and not only will that be the case but if I go there they’re gonna insist I buy the damn thing!” But my mother, God bless her had always taught me to be polite so he asked for my address so he could send an invite. Now, as I had become known I had been getting fan mail and I had gotten some letters that you wouldn’t believe so I was very wary giving my address out. One of them that stays in my mind today and will never go away says “I got your record South Atlantic Blues and see that song In Your Head? See where you are talking about reflections and see between this word and that word? I know what you mean…and I don’t like it!” So I’m leery about giving my address but in the end I do and this wonderful invitation comes and I take my writing partner Joe Kookolis and his wife…Joe’s a real hard luck kid too, shoeshine boy…his mother is an illiterate Venezuelan lady…and my beautiful sweetie from the Isles. We all get into a taxi and I’m still thinking we’re going to an East Village Day-Glo art gallery and it pulls up at MOMA (Museum of Modern Arts) which is extremely prestigious. We get out and go in and God Almighty they’re having a major Jasper Johns exhibition and Scott Fagan Record is the star of the exhibition! It’s on the wall with lights shining on it and here are the most patrician looking group of people standing around. It’s Jasper and John Cage and Merce Cunningham, God Almighty the whole pop art world! And I come in there and Jesus God they couldn’t be more happy to see me and my little honey was suitably impressed which is all that really mattered. And oh we had such a great time with them and we remain friends to this day.”
Releasing more music would become problematic for Scott Fagan mainly as a result of the farrago surrounding Soon.
“I was immediately fired by Screen Gems, was dropped by Epic, I could not get a deal. Finally Warren Schatz, who I knew from Associate Studios because he engineered some demos I did, wanted to do an album and the only place he could get funding was from Love Records in Helsinki, Finland, so Helsinki funded Many Sunny Places and we finally found a distributor via the same guy that had signed me to Columbia Records who was now some part of RCA. I had no management at the time so we weren’t really able to do much to work that record but it’s a nice record although it’s not the same level of intensity as my previous works were but I had been told “Scott, you gotta lighten up, give them some entertainment or something”. We stuck Roll Out The Morning and Please Be Well on there from Soon. I also got a couple of Virgin Island things on there too because, excuse me but I say this with all humility, I’ve been the premiere white calypso singer for over fifty years so we stuck a couple of things on there we hoped would be accessible to off island audiences.”
So following 1975 what happened…
“I couldn’t get a record deal anywhere so I continued to find ways to do recordings, I wrote a children’s Christmas opera called Sandy the Blue Nosed Reindeer which is a wonderful thing, and just continued writing songs and looking for places to record them. Also, I got sober. I come from generations of alcoholism and it was time to get sober. Thank goodness there’s a fellowship of people in place to help you do that, there was no recovery programme for the music business, I had no access to recovery so I went back to St Thomas and started a programme there and then we went to California and got to UCLA and got trained in design and management, chemical dependency counselling and designed a programme for artists, everyone in the business. Our thinking was that all of those folks deserve access to treatment and recovery…recovery is a fantastic thing. It really gives you a new beginning. So the programme I designed evolved into Music To Our Ears which is in place right now providing support for hundreds and thousands of people in the music business. So I was working in the field running a fifty bed co-ed drug and alcoholism sober living programme in Culver City in Los Angeles and that’s when we recorded the Christmas album, Circles, Valeria and a number of other things. Then it was back to the islands and travelling over with a new wife and just writing and writing then suddenly one day, an ex-wife, Annie, called and said “There’s a kid on the radio saying he’s your son, what’s going on here”. I didn’t know what was going on! So anyway we tracked it down and there’s Stephin Merritt (Magnetic Fields) on National Public Radio saying I’m his father and so we connected with Stephin. In the Islands, before I came up on the sail boat, when I was sixteen/seventeen, I had stowed away twice on airplanes and had gotten to the States to start my career but they had sent me back to the Islands and so at eighteen I was homeless again and singing with my little group The Urchins, we had a terrific group but we had gone as far as we could on the Islands and this very interesting bohemian woman, a little older than I was, took a shine to me and I caught her eye across the room and so we had a torrid, tropical romance and Stephin was planted on a listing house boat, well, a sinking houseboat if the truth be known and she went back to the States so was there a child, wasn’t there a child? I tried to prepare my other children for the possibility that there might be another sibling and not long ago I was in a film about Doc Pomus called AKA Doc Pomus which had a big premiere at the Lincoln Centre and I invited Stephin and his mother to the premiere and that’s when we first met. I’ve just heard from his mom today and as a matter of fact, tonight we are staying in the home of a woman who also had Stephin and Magnetic Fields staying there in the past.
Apparently, Stephin had seen the cover of South Atlantic Blues and was astounded because he looked just like that guy and his mother of course said “That bum is your father!” Nahhhhh! Anyway, he was astounded by the similarities so he has been aware of my work for a while. On the other hand I was in Oxford, Mississippi when the (Magnetic Fields) album 69 Love Songs came out and I guess he was on the radio promoting that when he identified me as the culprit.”
Is this your first tour of Europe or your first visit?
“It’s my first visit and I love it. I love the people, the stone walls, the air…I’d like to rub the dirt all over my face…I mean really…I am a person with heightened emotional responses and fantastic imaginings and I’m telling you I could not dig it more. I just dig it. We are all imperfect but this boy (points at himself) loves all of these places. The band is Scottish so I’m claiming for Glasgow but are we allowed to love Glasgow and Ireland? Are we allowed to love Glasgow, Ireland and Wales? And England…? We are going to London, Liverpool and Paris. My other great grandfather was a sailor from Marseilles who had landed in New Orleans and was working as a gardener in a convent where he caught the eye of a novice nun and by God they ran off together to Hell’s Kitchen in New York City where they had a candy store and eight children, and apparently the French respond very well to my music.”
Did he go to New Orleans because of the language link?
“Maybe he was thrown overboard in New Orleans! Why would he be working as a gardener? Maybe he peeked over the convent wall and saw the giiirrrrls!”
Finally, do you have one lyric you are particularly proud of?
“That’s unanswerable too because every song is the only one when we are doing it and there some that I have semi forgotten but I put heart and soul into everyone and I am delighted that you raised Circles which is a helluva tune but nobody’s heard it. Surrender to the Sun is helluva tune but nobody’s heard it. Vaeleria is a helluva tune but the thing is nobody’s heard these tunes. I am very proud of Surrender to the Sun. Very simply written but I think it is very effective and it’s a very romantic tune. On the other hand I’m very proud of In Your Hands, I’m very proud of Please Be Well, In My Head, Nickels and Dimes , Crystal Ball. I’m very proud of Carnival Is Ended, anyway I could go on. There’s no one tune that is head and shoulders above the others. Please Be Well is a great tune. Soon the theme is a great tune.”
Scott had given us an hour of his time and it was an illuminating, entertaining and educational sixty minutes as you’d expect from someone who has managed seventy one years on our planet and from the experiences he has crammed into that lifetime. We became aware that it wasn’t too long until show time so said our goodbyes with him saying that “I have to rest mi pipes!”, and the show he put on made it wonderfully clear that his pipes were indeed suitably rested.
SCOTT FAGAN – SOUTH ATLANTIC BLUES LIVE – THE DEAF INSTITUTE
14th October 2016
The Deaf Institute had gone all seated for the arrival of Scott Fagan, here to deliver his lost masterpiece, South Atlantic Blues in its entirety. There was an appreciative audience filling the seats as the band ambled on to the stage, bass, guitar, drums and keyboards (filling in for brass, strings and piano) followed by Scott moseying up on to his seat front of stage. Beginning with the wonderfully louche In My Head, musically think Je T’Aime by Serge Gainsbourg, but lyrically it is wrought with spacey emotion. It is a tune firmly placed in the sixties and is a marvellous opening this evening. The psychedelic sounding Nickels and Dimes follows at a brisk pace. A critique of poverty and the alcoholism that was a feature of Scott’s early life, the sprightly tune belies the lyrical darkness therein. Crying is simply stunning tonight. Despite the passing years, Fagan’s delivery imbues the song with all the passion and sadness he exhaustedly emptied into the original recording. “Lover, look at me, I’m crying…” he wails over a lovely and lonely laidback bassline. The Carnival Is Ended, all steelpan drums and brass on record, is faithfully recreated tonight via keyboards and it is a sprightly response to the emotional overload that was Crying. The album’s title track, South Atlantic Blues is a lovely but sad story of a girl ravaged by poverty whilst the joyous pomp of Nothing But Love suggests that Fagan’s poverty shouldn’t be a bar to him giving his lover exactly what the title suggests. Tonight the two titles make perfect sense following on from each other making space for the album’s centrepiece to be delivered. Hoodwinkingly beginning like Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill with added honky tonk piano accompaniment, Tenement Hall descends into a psychedelic wig out as Fagan hollers over the top “This is insane, no life at all, the road in the shadows of a tenement hall” to the sound of Day In The Life stringed cacophony and then interminable seconds of silence before the song returns to its Blueberry Hill. The final fading out crescendo of “insane, insane, insane!” brings the song to poignant full stop.
Inbetween songs, Fagan engagingly regales the audience with some of the history of the songs and makes a faux pas that may have been our fault when interviewing him, in that he mentions one of the city’s football teams but not the other as well as trying to make sense of the difference between Yorkshire and Lancashire.
The beautiful laid back strum and plaintive vocal of In My Hands once more places us back in his neighbourhood’s poverty stricken, faith seeking surrounds. It is a sister song to Crying simply in the pure emotion of the delivery this evening. Crystal Ball meanwhile sounds like a Grease out-take and is something of a relief after the powerful In My Hands and yet still it details a hard luck story. That such a young man could have written these mournful observations on the hardships of life, and that such a mature man can deliver them with such force today is remarkable.
The final track on South Atlantic Blues, Madam-Moiselle sounds like a cross between Donovan and Arthur Lee in its arrangement. Fagan breathes new life into it here, and it is a wonderful album closer, in that you feel like you have been on a journey, but it is not tonight’s show closer. We are treated to the theme from Soon and the perfect bid you farewell song that is Please Be Well which doesn’t sound too far removed from Dylan’s Forever Young tonight.
It still seems strange that this album has been struggling to breathe in obscurity whilst lesser lights have flourished in both popularity and at the hand of the critics’ pens. It is also makes one wonder what other great art is out there still to be undiscovered. South Atlantic Blues is a remarkable snapshot of poverty set to song with vocals that sound blistered by emotion. Fagan might not be able to absolutely recreate the original performance here in Manchester, which is no real surprise 48 years on, but he does enough to ensure that the audience leaves rewarded with a reminder of its humble genius. It is heartening that the album and its creator have begun to earn the plaudits it deserves.
Buy it here:
Thanks to:- Chris Campion, Paul Carlin, Jamie Sharrock, Amy McCarron and of course Scott Fagan.