Due Respect for David Ackles
Sometime ago Rhino records was preparing to release a retrospective box set comprising of the entire Elektra catalogue of my dear deceased friend David Ackles. David was an extraordinary songwriter and human being and this long overdue collection of his remastered work was an exciting prospect.
It was also something that prior to release scored outstanding reviews in some of the most prestigious music press and was called the re-issue of the year. However for some reason beyond my comprehension the project was withdrawn and to the best of my knowledge has no future release date. There is talk of licensing problems and some resistance to certain aspects by David’s widow Janice. If this is the case I’m inclined to feel that if pressure is applied to Rhino by enough people they might be more inclined to address the problems and let this marvelous collection see the light of day
Anyone out there who would care to help might consider assisting by lobbying Rhino at firstname.lastname@example.org
For those of you unfamiliar with David’s work I have attached below the liner notes I composed for this collection. I’m doing this so you might understand my history with David and my feelings about what he created and how he affected my music and my life. There are many influential musicians to whom David is a hero and inspiration including my friend Elvis Costello who also contributed liner notes of his own. Read on and if you feel like-minded discover David and bang on those doors. David Ackles
Familiarizing myself with the music David created and recalling the several happy years we spent together elicits an emotional pull back to a much simpler time. I was twenty years old in the fall of 1970, young and carefree in a land I had dreamed about all my life. I was well versed in David Ackles, having discovered his first two Elektra releases with a small group of like-minded individuals who were in the habit of discovering gems off the beaten path.
I’d come to California with Elton John to play the Troubadour in Los Angles as part of our initial promotional campaign, that toe-testing the waters sort of thing that all artists must endure at the outset of their careers. Elton, I should add, was also a fully paid up member of said group of Ackles admirers and had with yours truly written a song plagiarizing David’s style for inclusion on our recently released Tumbleweed Connection album. Whether or not the song “Talking Old Soldiers” has any merit as a reasonable homage or was simply a failed attempt at David’s unique approach to songwriting is inconsequential. I mention it only to accentuate how deeply his music affected us.
To our amazement, David was Elton’s opening act, a fact that equally thrilled and embarrassed us. However, David’s charm and complete disregard for anything approaching professional jealousy soon defused any discomfort, and from that moment on a firm and beautiful friendship was forged.
In the golden age of the singer-songwriter, David was a hybrid disconnected from the troubadour characterizations pinned on others. It’s not just that his music was different: he was different. David had a robust, midwestern outdoors, open-range campfire character. When everyone else was West Coast cool or East Coast arty, David seemed almost Paul Bunyan by comparison. While his contempories were marketed as moody romantic poets wistfully strumming guitars in marijuana infused nightspots, David’s persona seemed to present someone ruddy of cheek striding through a thick forest, axe firmly in hand, a woman of good pioneer stock by his side.
This is not to say that David wasn’t romantic or a poet, it just seemed that his influences and emotions came from a much bigger place. David was in fact a deeply spiritual man whose environmental concerns and desire to find the very best in the hearts of men made him a throwback to a time when tradition and family weren’t ridiculed by a superficial generation.
David wouldn’t very much like what the world has become, but were he still with us I know his faith would keep him strong. For that’s what he had in spades, faith and the God-given ability to put it to good use.
As luck would have it, the great Jac Holzman, founder and architect of Elektra Records, a man I also respected tremendously, saw the possibilities in the merging of this mutual admiration society and offered me the production position on David’s forthcoming album. Like Yoda, terrified I was.
Inexperienced as I may have been, there was no way I was going to give up on this opportunity. Phrases like “standing on the shoulders of giants” rush through my mind in retrospect. To my way of thinking at the time I’m sure I felt that what I couldn’t provide in technical know-how I might be able to provide in simple human support. I knew full well that David had a vision and the wherewithal to execute it, but you must also understand that at the time Elton’s star and mine was on the rise, which gave us a certain influence in the recording industry. In a nutshell, if I had the muscle then I was more than happy to use it in helping David get the necessary funding for this project. Besides, selfishly, I knew in my heart that he was on the verge of his magnum opus, and I for one couldn’t resist being in for the ride.
In David’s words, “You get a sharper perspective of your own country when you’re away from it.” In the fall of ’71, with his wife, Janice, he moved to England and we began recording “American Gothic.”
It’s not my intention to go into great detail regarding the making of this startling collection of songs. Suffice to say that it stands as the pinnacle of his career. A body of work so steeped in imagery, everything David is here - from stark noir pieces to sarcastic music hall parodies. Even his songs of love and loss are branded with originality: the image of the moving van, the itinerant musician or the simple romantic breathe and move with sadness and timeless wonderment.
It’s been said many times that his theatrical background was the catalyst for his song styling, the thing that set him apart from everyone else. It’s true his work was riddled with homages to Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, and Orson Welles--and in his masterwork, the epic “Montana Song,” never has Stephen Vincent Benet met Aaron Copland with such breathtaking results. Yes, “Appalachian Spring,” “The Three Penny Opera” and “Touch of Evil” may pervade his work, but I truly believe without him being the man he was they may have come across with a lesser level of intensity. If you need proof of this, just soak up the emotion he pours into his vocals on lines like “Two sons born in Montana, Praise the Lord” or “In a white church, in a green time when faith was strong” from “Family Band.” Man! If you didn’t believe every word this guy was singing you were dead inside.
After all this time I miss David. He’s someone we could use right now. In a country rapidly either forgetting or rewriting its history, in a world affected by man’s inhumanity to man, and in a culture deprived of literacy and fueled by a cult of mediocrity, he would be a good companion.
David always reminded me of the title character in Benet’s classic “The Ballad of William Sycamore.” All of it is applicable, but the last verse says it all: Go play with the towns you have built of blocks,
The towns where you would have bound me!
I sleep in my earth like a tired fox,
And my buffalo have found me.