Al Kooper (1995)
“I was pretty much robbed all my life….”
The big bucks versions of “The Cutting Edge 1965-1966,” the latest entry in the Bob Dylan bootleg series (note: not actual bootlegs), includes a 20-track disc of a single song, “Like A Rolling Stone.” It brings to life one of the most famous recording sessions in history – famous not only because of the result, a ground-breaking, six-minute, chart-topping song that completed Dylan’s transformation from folkie to rock star, but because the song’s organ hook was played by someone who sneaked into the session: Al Kooper.
Despite the current buzz over this trove of “Like A Rolling Stone” takes, at least eight of them were previously released 20 years ago. Problem was they appeared on a long-forgotten flop, an interactive CD-ROM. Observing the success of computer games like Myst, the music industry sought to cash in with CD-ROM’s like “Highway 61 Interactive,” a not-quite-a-computer game that few people wanted to play.
Around the same time I was monkeying around with with the Dylan CD-ROM, I learned that one of its principals, Al Kooper, was coming to Boston to give a talk at Berklee College of Music. He also had a new double live-CD, “Soul of a Man,” which was recorded the year before at Kooper’s 50th birthday celebration, which included reunions of two of his seminal bands, the Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Kooper was living in Nashville at that time, but his Berklee talk planted a seed which would lead him to a gig teaching at Berklee (since ended), his relocation to Boston (Somerville, to be exact, where he still lives) and the creation of his current, on-and-off again band of Berklee teachers, the Funky Faculty.
By phone from his home in Nashville.
So have you had a chance to play around with this Dylan CD-ROM? What do you think of it?
I would have to upgrade my equipment to really play with it. It’s a little memory-consuming.
It’s pretty cool how you can hear you and [producer] Bob Johnston talking in the studio.
He is wacky [laughs]. That would be virtual Bob.
I spent a good deal of time playing around with it and I have to say your story about crashing the session is the best thing on it.
Thanks. But that’s too bad [laughs].
For Dylan fans, I think the big attraction of the CD-ROM is going to be getting to hear all these outtakes of “Like A Rolling Stone” along with some of the chatter that was going on.
Yeah, you hear [producer] Tom Wilson saying, “What are YOU doing out there?” And then I laugh. I had never heard that. They showed that to me. It’s very funny. I never heard that, not even the day of, really. The day of was so long ago, 30 years ago. I don’t have much remembrance of that day except how it changed my life. The peripherals are completely gone. But to hear that is, well, vindicating if nothing else. Anyone who’s ever thought it’s a trumped up story I made up or something like that, if nothing else, it’s vindicating. I love it when he says, “What are YOU doing out there?,” and I just start laughing.
Where did you get the balls to just walk into a Bob Dylan session and start playing?
Oh, I was only 21. That comes with the territory. I did many other things similar to that in those days. Otherwise, who knows? I could be selling shoes now. I could be Al Bundy instead of Al Kooper. I was very, very ambitious. In New York, you had to be if you were going to get anywhere. My best friend who I grew up with was twice the musician that I was. He was very talented, could play a number of instruments, built a tremolo system for his guitar. He was just brilliant. And he was just too scared to take the chance of going into the music business. So he never did it. My joke is that when I started I was 10 percent talent and 90 percent ambition. Now it’s completely reversed.
Was your ambition on that day to play with Bob Dylan specifically or just get in on any session that was going on?
I had actually played on a lot of sessions at that time, but as a guitar player, which is how I was actually able to sit down with my guitar without anyone saying, “Hey what’s going on?” The other musicians had actually played sessions with me before.
But you had no experience as an organ player?
Not much. I had played on some of my demos, but I didn’t know the instrument very well. I knew how to play keyboards, but not that well. That was why I joined the Blues Project [in the fall of 1965, about three months after the release of “Like A Rolling Stone.”] I was famous as a keyboard player at that point and yet I couldn’t play very well. I wanted to get my chops up.
So if not for that day when you showed up at the Dylan session you might have ended up as a guitar player?
Very much so. Because until I heard Mike Bloomfield playing on that session, I thought I was good. Once you hear the real thing, you can’t fool yourself. I never fooled myself, I must say that. When something was apparent like that, I wouldn’t say, “Oh, I can do that in a few months.”
So was that day also the beginning of your relationship with Bloomfield?
Yes, it was. It was a life changing day. Tom Wilson was not only involved with that, but he put me in touch with the Blues Project, so he’s a very important person in my life.
I actually saw you with the Blues Project in 1966 or ’67 when I was a going to CCNY. It must have been pretty early on because [singer] Tommy Flanders was in the band. Did you play a lot of colleges when you were starting out?
The Cafe Au Go Go and The Scene were the two places we primarily played.
When you put together the shows that you recorded for “Soul of a Man,” was it hard to arrange a reunion of the Blues Project? Or had you kept in touch with everybody?
With the Blues Project, we’ve played together quite a bit in the ‘80s and the ‘90s. So that wasn’t as big a stretch as the Blood, Sweat & Tears one. We had only done that once before. And it was more difficult to do as well.
After agreeing to do the reunion, [Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears guitarist] Steve Katz didn’t want to be on the album. That had to be a surprise. Why didn’t he want you to use his playing?
I don’t really know. I can’t say. I don’t know what his motives were. I just don’t know. I invited him in the sense of history. I must say we never got along all that great, but I would always put those things aside in order that the original lineup be kept intact. The one thing he did do with this is burn that bridge between us. Now he’s made it impossible for me to play with him again. I think I’ve definitely paid my dues in that respect. I’ve always put my differences aside and got on the bandstand with him up until and including this record. But I would never do it again.
[Steve Katz (no relation to Larry Katz) offers his version of what went down in his 2015 memoir, “Blood, Sweat, and My Rock ‘N’ Roll Years.” In the book’s introduction, he namechecks his three nemeses: Lou Reed, David Clayton-Thomas and, yes, Al Kooper, of whom he says, “We spent half a lifetime trying to kill each other.” Katz’s book ends with him unhappily participating in Kooper’s “Soul of A Man” 50th birthday concert. Katz claims Kooper tried to bully him into signing over recording and video rights to the performance for no compensation. He refused.]
Was it hard to get Katz’s guitar parts off the record?
Yeah, it was. Technology helped us tremendously.
What do the others guys think?
There as perplexed as I am. They’re all still in the music business, except for Steve. He was very different from the rest of us. He sells pottery. Danny Kalb has a little trio and he plays around New York. The sad thing is he’ll never have a band that knows how to play behind him as well as we do. And that’s really why we enjoy getting back together again is to see him shine. It’s very enjoyable for all of us. I’m just very lucky to have caught that “Two Trains Running” (on “Soul of A Man”). I think it’s magnificent.
[Above: “Two Trains Running,” the version of which Kooper speaks.]
Since you like playing with Danny so much, do you think you might do a new Blues Project album?
We would like to. The way is clear.
So tell me, on “Soul of a Man,” Blood, Sweat & Tears is called Child Is Father to the Man.” Why the name change? Does someone else owns the rights to Blood, Sweat & Tears?
Yes, but not really. We could have used the name Blood, Sweat & Tears. The label wasn’t going to give us problem with that. But frankly, it was never Blood, Sweat & Tears. It was just that one album. I didn’t want to confuse people into thinking it was Blood, Sweat & Tears because I didn’t really stand behind what the name Blood, Sweat & Tears has come to mean. But I will stand behind Child Is Father to the Man.
It’s been said a lot that you invented jazz/rock fusion with that album [“Child Is Father to the Man”]. Do you agree?
Well, my attitude the whole time, once I realized I could do it, was to change music around to the way I like it so that when I turned on the radio there would be a big smile on my face. That was what I was always trying to do during that time period –to exert whatever power or influence I had into the kind of music I liked so that more people would feel that way. The arrangements were a lot more complex than the normal r&b charts. That was one of the things I was trying to do. Make it more than diddle-diddle-dit. More than a James Brown record.
[Above: The much-covered classic “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” performed by its composer.]
You were the leader of Blood, Sweat & Tears on “Child Is Father to the Man.” Were you the one who started the group? Was it your idea?
I had written a bunch of songs. They were crying for horns. I was in the Blues Project at the time and I said let’s put horns in. And they said no. I didn’t really want to do the songs without horns, so I decided to quit and start a horn band.
Don’t you think what you did was influential?
I hope so. But it spawned a lot that was not necessarily good also. So I don’t know if I want to take credit for all of it.
When you left Blood, Sweat & Tears, it was not a happy parting of the ways. What happened?
The reason I left was musical differences. But there was a lot of politics involved too. It was best that I left, because the powers within the band were usurping the control that I had over the music. Once that control was gone, it didn’t make any sense for me to be there because that was not what I wanted to do. The second album [the self-titled “Blood, Sweat & Tears,” which won the 1970 Grammy for Album of the Year] had many of the arrangements I wrote, but not played the way I would have recorded them myself. But it wasn’t until the third album until my influence was totally gone and they got to be who they were.
Did you have to mend any fences to get certain guys to participate in the reunion for your new album?
Not really. I think time was the mender of everything. It usually is. Who knows? Ten years from now I might be on stage with Steve Katz.
One of my favorite bass players was [Blood, Sweat & Tears’] Jim Fielder. I remember seeing him playing 12-string guitar with the Mothers of Invention way back when. Do you know whatever happened to him?
I think this is his 16th year with Neil Sedaka. He has a steady job, of which I am very envious.
Really? You want a steady job?
I’d love a steady job instead of wondering where money was coming from.
You would take a gig playing with Neil Sedaka?
Well, I don’t know if I could play with Neil Sedaka. But the right job.
Jeez, you’ve done so much in your career. Written so many great songs. And you started the Sounds of the South label which had those first Lynyrd Skynyrd albums. Didn’t that make you rich?
I was pretty much robbed all my life and so were many of my contemporaries. I talked to people who are in the situation I am in now. They wouldn’t use the terminology I use, but I consider myself semi-retired. I spend my time perpetrating my music and trying to correct all the wrongs that were done to me financially. I think that’s what my contemporaries do too. A good portion of my time is spent overseeing that. I had a manager who ran off with all the Lynyrd Skynyrd money. I still can’t get paid. All the money goes to him. It’s a moral injustice the way I look at it. I still get paid as a writer, that’s quite a nice thing. My writing is one of the cornerstones of my existence. It takes me back. I used to write with two other guys. We were like a trio. We wrote “This Diamond Ring” together. We wrote for this publisher. One night he was a little drunk. He took us in his office and he said, “Y’know, boys, your songs are your children. They come back to take care of you when you’re old.” We just laughed at him. But I never forgot that day. And it’s really true. Your songs do come back to take care of you. Let’s just say that BMI is a lot more honest than most record companies. You’ll have a lot of trouble with the major record companies. You always have to keep your eyes open with them. It’s difficult to find justice with them. They hire a flotilla of lawyers to withstand your inquiries. By the time you get through all their lawyers, you’ve run out of funds to investigate. And that’s pretty much how they stay afloat. Any major company, like RCA, CBS or Capitol, if a class action suit was brought against them, they would be toppled to the point of ruination.
[Above: “This Diamond Ring,” all funked up, from Kooper’s 1976 “Act Like Nothing’s Wrong.”]
So do you want to organize a class action suit?
I’m way too lazy to do something like that. I’m 90 percent talent and 10 percent ambition now. I’m not ambitious enough to go out and do something like that. But the plain fact is that if 50 artists were put together in a class action suit they could bring down RCA, Capitol or Columbia. They could crumble the company.
Does what you’re talking about have any relation to the George Michael case, where he contended his recording contract with Sony was unfair?
This has nothing to do with that. These are people who are not being paid at all. And the major record companies attitude is primarily “sue us” – because they know that’s how they beat you. They beat all of us that way.
So you need to get in and see the books?
Well, if you had 50 acts, it would be hard for them to hide all that. I think you’d find the same practices being committed on all 50 acts. They would have to change their policies and the entire budget of the company. What they do is make these elaborate boxed sets out of their catalog because they don’t have to pay anybody. And then they repackage them again as gold CDs. That’s really ballsy. They repackage them again and charge you 30 dollars. That’s incredible. Why don’t you make it sound that good in the first place, you sons of bitches?
Why were you so long without an album before you did the “Rekooperation” album? [12 years between 1982’s “Championship Wrestling” and 1994’s “Rekooperation.”]
I was doing other things. Also, Al Kooper’s solo records were not selling that great. You don’t want to go in the face of that. I think that’s a big mistake. Why put out a record every year like Dylan or Neil Young? I think that was a mistake in their career, so I didn’t do it. I don’t think it’s good. It takes a great deal of self-control. Because making your own solo album is the ultimate masturbatory experience, it just doesn’t get any better than that. So it’s very tempting. But I used self-control and went and did other things. I scored a TV series [“Crime Story,” which starred Dennis Farina and ran from 1986-1988], et cetera.
So what got you motivated to go do an album?
The record company [Musicmasters] just came and asked me if I wanted to do it. That was something no one had ever done.
Did you agree because it wasn’t a major label?
I would have done it with a major label. In fact, before doing it, I had a prejudice against small labels. Because I felt that was a commitment you make and you could never go back after that. Once you made your small label statement you can’t go back to a major label. They don’t want you after you’ve done the small label thing. You have to look at yourself and say, “Am I ready to do this?” It’s kind of like playing Vegas, except playing Vegas is more lucrative. A small label has its ups and downs. The ups are pretty creative. You can make the record you want to make, the package looks the way you want it to look. You don’t get a video and you don’t get a lot of push or advertising. If you know that in front and that’s okay for you, then I guess it’s fine. I don’t have a problem with it. I just hope that all the people who would be interested in buying an Al Kooper album know that it’s out and that it’s possible for them to get it.
The “Rekooperation” album was a special project of sorts [an instrumental tribute to some of Kooper’s musical heroes]. This new one is special too with the two reunions. So what do you have in mind for your next album?
To me, it’s a trilogy. I have one more in mind, an album of new material. I might be satiated after I did that. I might not make records again. I think the most important thing is that when you have a career in the music business is to get out with dignity. I was always aware of that. I’ve always been trying to do that. And I remain trying to do that.
[Above: from “Rekooperation”: Al’s version of Richard Thompson’s “When the Spell Is Broken.”]
You’re coming to Boston and you’re going to be talking to Berklee music students. Is this a one-shot sort of thing or would you like to do more of this sort of thing?
This is the first time I’ve done it. I’m gonna be telling them the truth no matter what they want to know. I’d love to help people. That’s a great way to go out. I’d also love to help people who weren’t as fortunate as me who were in my situation. The David Crosbys and Sly Stones of the world. Just people who have problems, substance abuse or whatever it is. It’s quite a thing to go from playing in your neighborhood bar to playing in front of 40,000 people. And then there’s that sudden stop again. It’s a lot to endure, getting thrown off the merry-go-round. I consider myself very lucky. Just the fact that I’m alive is a miracle.
You’ve been touring with a bunch of amateur rock musicians in the Rock Bottom Remainders [a band of authors including Stephen King, Amy Tan, Matt Groening and Dave Barry]. Some folks might not call that going out with dignity.
I didn’t make any money for it. I did it for the hang and the charities we helped. It was an incredible amount of fun. Plus I made some new wonderful friends. It was done for fun. It was rock camp and I was the head counselor.
How long have you been living in Nashville?
I’ve lived here almost five years. I plan on staying. I’m not part of the country scene. I like the quality of life here. I just live here. Two or three people have called me to play on records, isolated incidents. That’s about it. I say yes to just about everybody. But I don’t hang out on Music Row. I don’t really know my way around Music Row.
Do you think that now that you have a new record out you might do a tour?
I don’t know how to afford doing it – one of the perils of not having a manager. I don’t know how to put a band on the road and not lose money. It’s ironic, because there’s nothing I would rather do than play. I’d love to play. If someone could teach me how to do the economics, I’d be out there making it my career.
Don’t you think you know someone in the music business who could enable you to do what you want to do?
No [laughs]. I don’t think people are paying enough money to see me in terms of the promoters for me to take out a band that could play this album, an eight-piece band. I could put a band together, certainly. But how would I pay them, feed them, transport them on the money they would pay Al Kooper to play? That’s it basically. I’m doing the best I can. I’m going out and talking to people, do interviews, play on the air, doing what I can.
So is there no market for you anymore?
That’s inevitable. People who were famous after me, Springsteen and Prince, are starting to see that. It’s inevitable. It happens. You either bang your head against the wall or you go on with your life. I don’t have many bumps on my head.
So you haven’t been injured?
I have been injured, but not by being so stupid as to go up against inevitability.