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Eugene McDaniels, 1935-2011: an Interview

September 6, 2011


I don't know what shocked me more about hearing that Eugene McDaniels had died - that the writer and performer of some of the most indomitable music I've ever heard had passed away at a relatively early age, or that it was only weeks after the fact, and in a listing of a Times obituary on the Record of the Day newsletter, that I heard about it. Even if you think you don't know McDaniels' music, you'll have heard his songs sung by others. Feel Like Making Love was a huge hit for Roberta Flack, and the much-covered Compared to What received perhaps its best reading yet on last year's Roots/John Legend power-match, Wake Up!. But his music also found favour with hip hop producers, who have over the years lifted huge chunks of his astonishing 1972 album of jazz-funk protest songs, Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse, to create new pieces. If you've ever heard the Beastie Boys' Get It Together or puzzled over the interludes that run throughout A Tribe Called Quest's debut album, you've fallen under McDaniels' spell.

In the summer of 2001 I had the opportunity to interview McDaniels. It was for a piece that ran in Mojo, in a section called Buried Treasure, where a page is devoted to a lost classic. The piece was about Headless Heroes, and by the time I spoke to Eugene I'd already interviewed its producer, McDaniels' friend and collaborator Joel Dorn (who died in 2007), who had told me about how the record had caused a furore both inside and outside the Atlantic label who'd released it, with Richard Nixon's White House Chief of Staff, Spiro Agnew, reportedly calling the label to angrily demand "What's going on down there?" McDaniels' critiques of middle eastern politics might have been partly to blame, but it's also likely that the album's apocalyptic final track, The Parasite, was the main reason - in it, he called the Founding Fathers "ex-hoodlums and jailbirds" and laid the genocide of the Indian at the feet of European colonists. We went through the album track by track, talked about how it was made and its hip hop-insired afterlife, but to put it in its proper context McDaniels sketched in some of his extensive history, including the writing of Compared to What, how his best album was lost before it was finished, his friendships with some of the giants of 20th century music, his love of motorsport, and more. What comes across throughout is the man's spirit and his deep sense of humanity.

The interview took place on the phone, and I started off by remarking that the music I knew him for - the punchy, funk-jazz social commentary of Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse - wasn't what he had made his name doing. What followed was The Left Rev McD in full flow, requiring only an occasional interjection from me to keep the thoughts tumbling out. So, as my form of a tribute to one of the very best who ever did it, here's the late Eugene McDaniels, in his own words, from a little over ten years ago.

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Well, I think most people don't understand that I came up in the church, and that my passion was jazz when I was a kid. When I came to Los Angeles, which is where my career broke, I walked into a jam session and there were some great musicians playing, and I asked if I could sit in. They allowed me to sit in, and then they offered me a job. So I was in the jazz community first. This was Lorraine Geller, Herb Geller – a husband and wife team, she was a great pianist, he was a saxophone player. I can't remember the drummer's name, and Red Mitchell was I think the bass player's name. And I remember we used to have jam sessions on Sundays, and Ornette Coleman came in, and they wouldn't let him play because he had this really squawky plastic saxophone. But when I got up to sing I invited him up to play, and the band was really upset about it. But Ornette and I have been friends ever since that moment. He's an awesome guy, and just a wonderful man, a very, very special human being and he stands by his friends. Charlie Haden, the bass player, Billy Higgins the drummer and Don Cherry was the trumpet player at the time. Miles was coming through town, and Cannonball Adderley – and they would come and sit in on the after-hours sessions. LA was booming at the time – '58, '59, '60, '61, '62 – it was just amazing. The music was hot. People were there 'til sun-up, hanging, playing, listening.

Record companies would come in – Capitol records offered me a trial recording but I told them I wasn't ready. The truth was that I was ready vocally but I wasn't prepared for it mentally. I had my standards set so high that I couldn't accept a recording situation. This gentleman named Don Kaufman would come in and sit and buy me a cup of tea – I was working with Les McCann at the time – and he said he wanted to be my manager. We started hanging out together and I liked him a lot, he seemed an honest bloke so we went about that. He'd drive me to my gigs out of town and stuff like that. So I was working with Les, and one day Don Kaufman walked in to a gig and said, 'I got you a try-out with Liberty records'. And I said OK. The gentleman who ran the company – I can't think of his name right now – he was a wonderful, wonderful man. He had me come in and I sang some ballads, and he was standing in the booth crying. This was at Liberty records' own studio, in 1960 I think. And he signed me up on the spot. We cut a record called In Times Like These, and then before we could get to the second record he had an aneurysm or a stroke or something of that type. And it changed everything. Al Bennett, the guy who was in charge of counting the beans, took over the company, and he had no idea about what was a wonderful record and what wasn't. He chose a guy out of the mail room to be my producer. This is true! And the guy turned out to be Snuff Garrett. Both he and Snuff Garrett were from Lubbock, Texas. And me being a black artist from the midwest and speaking reasonable English as opposed to a southern style English, he didn't like me particularly because I knew more words than he did. It's not that I'm cleverer, I was raised in a certain way, to have respect for other people and I always had an affinity for the dictionary. If I heard a new word I'd go look it up and figure out how to use it properly in context. I had a great life. My step-mum is not my step-mum, she's my real mum. I mean, that's how I feel about it, in my heart. My step-mum, I was blessed with her. She's the most terrific human being I've ever met.

I was born in Kansas City, my mom and dad broke up aged three so I went to live with my grandparents for two, two and a half years, in a place called Bonner Springs outside Kansas City. My dad was out trying to make money so he could make a life for me, and he did; he came and got me and off we went to Nebraska, which is where I was raised. I went to New York first with a group called the Echoes Of Joy. One of the guys in the group, his name was Wesley Devereaux, his father was Wynonie Harris, the blues singer. Wynonie had heard us and he loved what we did, so he brought us to New York. We did some backup recording for Helen Merrill and some other people that I don't remember because it's all kind of a blur – I was too young, I didn't know what was happening and I didn't understand the significance of the people. But the piano player on the gigs, he isolated me and he said, 'You've got real talent, you should be on your own, you could be a star'. This was an unassuming, quiet black guy who played the piano fairly well. And I heard him. So we went back to Nebraska and after six months, I got a phone call from a guy called TJ Pruitt, who had a touring a cappella group. I'm used to a cappella groups because I had a gospel group. Sam Cooke was a friend of ours – we used to open in the church for Sam Cooke's group, the Soul Stirrers. Sam Cooke was from Chicago. My mum told me after my dad's funeral. She said, 'Now I can tell you. The Soul Stirrers and Sam Cooke called your dad and asked if you could go on the road with them.' I was 15, but my Dad said 'No'. He did the right thing. Now that I'm a trying-to-mature adult, I can say he did the right thing. I laughed when she told me. Fifteen, me on the road, there's no telling what would've happened! I've had a wonderful, wonderful career, life; I've met some of the greatest people in the world. Sam and I were real tight. Sam eventually moved out to California and we used to go to the car races. I'm a real race junkie, I love Formula One. I was very happy when David Coulthard won in Brazil. I'm a Coulthard fan. Mika Hakkinen... and Montoya's there now. When he gets it together he's going to kick butt. If I had had the opportunity I probably would have been a race car driver or mechanic or something, because I love the stuff.

So anyway, he [Garrett] presented me with a couple of songs and I hated 'em. I'd been singing the great standards of the world, in a jazz context. When he picked 100 Pounds of Clay for me, and then told me to clip the lyrics, not to sing them... I did my version of clipping the lyrics, and he hated it. He went in to Al Bennett and he said 'He screwed it up!' And Al Bennett said, 'Well, we spent the money, we'll put it out and see what happens'. And it went to Number One. First off, I wouldn't have chosen the song, but as I got older I understood what the song meant. I was a young guy, and wasn't real experienced. I'd been very protected by my father and the church and all that stuff, so I... I just started smoking cigarettes at age 19. And just occasional smoking too. I'd had no sexual exploits, just one girlfriend, I mean... I was just a very square guy who loved music. But I learned fast, because LA teaches you real fast. I'm lucky, I never used any hard drugs in my life. I've smoked enough pot I guess to sink a boat but I got over that too, and I started meditating and continuing my spiritual learning.

That's not who I was. I could have been more accurately described as a gospel country & western jazzer, 'cos that's the truth. That's the music that influenced me. I listened on the radio to Hank Snow and all those guys. That's what they played in Nebraska. To this day I love country music – people hear me say that and think I'm nuts, but I love all music if it's done well. I mean, if punk music is done in a way that moves me I like it. My sons are more into it now than I am. I don't listen to much these days except when I'm in the car with my 13-year-old daughter. When I'm on my own in the car I listen to the news, because I want to know if my president's going to blow up the country, or the world, or something.

I think I met Joel [Dorn] in New York. He was producing Roberta Flack, and she had called me to ask if she could record Compared to What - a song I actually wrote with Les McCann in mind. He [McCann] and I were on the outs, because we had had a band together and I had left to go have my own career. And he was really pissed at me. For years he wouldn't even speak to me. And I called him up, I said 'I've got a song for you'. He said, 'Fuck you'. I said, 'Well, I'm sorry, man, I just did what I had to do, and I'm sorry if I spoiled anybody's plans. It's my life and I'm just trying to live it, I dunno what I'm doing'. Finally, he said, 'OK, send me the song'. He used the MF-word a lot. 'Send me the song, muhrfuah'. And I sent him the song. I can't remember how I sent it. I may have gotten together with somebody and laid it down. I think it was a reel-to-reel tape. Who knows where that is now! Who thinks of these things becoming important? To me it's all kind of a joke anyhow. Life's such an enigma, and the things we make important really aren't all that important. I mean, what's important is people, and treating people well, and being a good person. I just think people are missing out on their own opportunity to feel good. We've become so cynical and out of touch with what it means to be human. We fictionalise our life, and we miss out on the life itself, you know? I mean, we're so busy with the future and the past that right now doesn't serve us as it should.

Well, actually, Les said 'Yeah, it's cool'. That was it. I asked if he was going to do it, and he said 'I dunno man, I dunno'. Les talks like this: he goes 'Ahhhdnno, man... whadthefuck'. That's Les. Then the next thing I know I read about this recording in Montreux, Switzerland, and everybody's saying 'It's a hit, man, it's happenin'!' And that was the beginning of my writing career. I'd written a hundred songs, but it was all practice.

The night I wrote [Compared to What], I was living with my second wife. And I remember the night I wrote it we were looking at the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. And I said, 'Listen to this', and played it to her. And she said, 'That's out there'. And I said, 'Yeah, can you imagine it being on the Johnny Carson show?' And we just cracked up laughing. And two years later Della Reese sang it on the Johnny Carson show. It was like seeing the future through some kind of prism. Life is really weird.

My favourite version of Compared to What? I think it's Les's. I like what I do with it now – I've taken it to another place, contemporary style. I recorded Compared to What with Herbie Hancock, Jack Dejohnette and Miroslav Vitous. Man – I'll tell you. It's the best record I ever made and somebody stole the tapes. Herbie Hancock, Jack Dejohnette, Miroslav Vitous and me? We did a full album, we did it in two days in New York. I was cutting it on my own in a studio just off 57th Street on the east side. I can't remember the name of the studio. I finished the album but I didn't mix it. I went to get the tapes a week later – gone. The best thing I'd ever done in my life as a project. Cherrystones was on there... there's just too much music since then, I can't remember.

What happened is we cut an album called Outlaw, then Headless Heroes was the second in the series. Too many names are running around in my head... Harry Whitaker was the keyboard player and he did the arrangements for me. He's a precious soul, a really cool guy. I knew everybody. I almost got Miles to come in and play with me but he was too busy. I had been opening for him at the Renaissance Club on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood early in the '60s, and we had become friends over the years. I used to go in to the Village Vanguard and sit in with him from time to time. Cannonball Adderley was the same, I'd walk in the room and Cannonball would say 'Here comes elephant ears, come on up man!' That was because of the way I heard music. Cannonball and I weren't buddies, but we loved each other, you know what I mean? Joe Williams was the same way. I'm a loner so I never really hung out with anybody, I just had mutual respect with a lot of wonderful people. Hugh McCracken – the guitar player. Bob James – all these people. Steve Gadd... It's just been a wonderful, wonderful life. I have so many great memories.


And so we did Headless Heroes and Richard Nixon's people called and asked Ahmet Ertegun 'What the hell's going on over there?' And it really embarrassed him, and he fired me off the label.

AB: Joel Dorn told me that the label felt they'd found the black Bob Dylan.

Right on! I couldn't get with Dylan when he first came out, because it defied everything I knew and admired about music – he contradicted all of that. So I had to get past the music and get into his soul to find out what he's really about. And the guy's just a genius. He inspired me to write those songs. I can't remember the record that turned me on to Dylan. It was disparate pieces. People would play me things, but I never bought a Bob Dylan album. Never owned one. But I would hear him because all the peace, love and rock'n'roll people, everyone had Bob Dylan records. And I realised this guy had really gotten inside people, and I started listening, then I understood why. And I thought, 'I can't stand this, I've got to do this somehow'.

The Lord Is Back
I wasn't really paying any attention to what anyone else was writing. My base was standards: you have to understand. So I stepped outside my base to write and went more towards politics and my observations of... I hate to use the word 'injustice', I prefer to use the word 'ignorance'. I don't think it's about injustice. You treat yourself the way you believe you are. That's the way I live my life – I don't let other people define me. They can say what they want to say and that's all right, I don’t care, 'cos that's their opinion, and if they've got enough time to be concerned with what I think and do, then fine. I only have time to observe the world from my own eyes, and try to find the beauty in what I'm looking at. That song is kind of... it's not factual, it's like a fractured look at the society. We're a religious-based society, and great wars have been fought over religion, great injustices have been done to people and groups of people in the name of God. So I just... first off, everybody here in America, if it had kept going the way it was going Christ would have had blue eyes, blonde hair and skin so fair he couldn’t have gone out in the sun. That's the way it works – it evolves into what people need it to be. I was writing about that, about the unreality of our base reality. We live in a matrix of our own making; It's a scary, unrealistic way to live! People take a word and you can't use it because it insults somebody, so it cuts down your vocabulary and you have to find other words to replace that.

Jagger the Dagger
I'm a big fan of the Rolling Stones – always have been, always will be. There was this mystique drawn around the Rolling Stones, about devil worship or whatever. I thought it was brilliant, the way they laid out their career plan. It was brilliant and funny to me. When I saw him perform he was like the class clown – he was having fun, he was putting everybody on, and everyone was buying it. I thought it was cool. So, I'm a Mick Jagger fan. When I say he's 'playing a heavy game', that's what I mean. He's playing with the devil but he's not really of the devil – it's just a game. He was using that to put himself in the position he wanted to be in with his career, and I thought it was brilliant so I wrote about it. All I'm saying is, he was upsetting all these very white-bread, strait-laced American moms and dads – he scared them to death. And the dagger? The guy cut through the bullshit, he cut to the chase.

I think I did meet Jagger once, but it was just a hello thing. I remember I met Elvis Presley – at a television show, I had finished doing my stint and he was just going in to do his. He called me 'Mr McDaniels'! And I said, 'Hey, we were born in the same year and the same month, man'. That was 100 Pounds of Clay period. But I think Jagger did get to hear the song – I was told someone from his office called up and said the song was cool, but it's so long since that happened that I'm not sure whether I dreamed it or not.

Lovin' Man/Freedom Death Dance
It's not a technique I really learned. If I did learn it, I'd learned it in church watching my dad preach. He would call it a parable. It was a technique that came naturally to me, and when I started writing... My love songs aren't literal. Nobody really pays attention to this stuff anyhow! It amazes me that people are interested in Headless Heroes. It's just me testing life. For me it's like painting: if I can get the pieces so that they work subconsciously rather than consciously... Being literal is almost a sin to me! The easiest thing in the world is to parrot literal behaviour. It's more than finding an interesting way: it's about how can you get through to the unconscious mind. We have all these barriers. When you talk to someone it's almost like a contest – who's going to be the coolest? And it's all literal, which for me is why it doesn't mean anything. That's why I don't go to parties, it's just bullshit, people are talking about nothing and competing and comparing and jousting. But it doesn't mean anything, it's just a dance, and the things that are important are the things that get through to the subconscious mind and affect you. I really have no criticisms of the human experience other than wasting precious moments with bullshit. That's the only sin as far as I'm concerned - worrying about stuff that doesn't concern one. We humans miss the fact that a lot of the stuff we're interested in is none of our fucking business. We're not taking care of our stuff, yet we're so busy getting off ourselves and on to other people, because we can't stand ourselves really. The idea of getting to know oneself, getting to know the value of oneself – that's not easy, that's hard work, and it's involved. But it's so flipping gratifying, that it's like finding gold right inside your own being. And you hang on for dear life. It's a precious thing.

Headless Heroes
Life is a myriad of things, and some things are more apparent than others. For me, the Arabs and the Jews are cousins, and it's like a family feud. I think it's the most hideous nonsense. Humans acting badly – it goes on and on. And it's applicable to so many different situations. And it never seems to stop. I don't know why that is: I guess everyone just wants to be right. The point is that we're all wrong, because if we were right then it would include everybody and everybody would be fed and the water and the air would be clean because we have the technology and we have the minds to do these kinds of things. There would be peace between people of different colours and races and opinions, because it should be a celebration, not a war. That's what's wrong, and that's why I write about this stuff, and sometimes you have to be literal to get through to the literal mind. "Nobody knows who the enemy is because he never goes in hiding". That's the truth, that's what's going on. The leaders of the free world, the leaders of the captured world – everyone's a modified version. For instance, a guy gets a blowjob in the White House and they use that to bring him down. Instead of saying 'That's personal business – is he good for the country or not?' Instead of making him bad for the country by exploiting all that and making it a dirty, nasty thing. We didn't have to do that to him, his family, his daughter, you know? We didn't have to do that to our own country. That's tantamount to treason, what they did to that man, because it made our country look like a bunch of idiots. I'm a patriot – I love this country; I love this world – I'm a patriot of the world. But I want us to stop this shit. Where is the sense in it? It's like the idiots are running the asylum. It's crazy.

There was a president named Eisenhower, and in his last State of the Union address he said 'Beware of the military-industrial complex'. He said that to the American people – nobody listened. If you talked about that in the '50s and '60s you were branded a communist. And they have their sacrificial goats who step out front and destroy people's lives just because they need to belong – that's the secret word – to the right wing. Why do they have to subjugate somebody else just to feel good? That is a sickness. They're making other people's lives worse and then in comparison they feel better. We should bask in the glow of others' happiness. And it should remind us of how beautiful and happy we can be.

It's not literal. But when you speak with people form a literal place, they can't hear you, because they're conditioned to reject certain things. Peace and love? Yeah, right. You know what I mean? We're conditioned.

Susan Jane
What inspired Susan Jane was, at that time in my marriage, she was my best friend. We had a great eight years, then it just blew up. Too bad. I went to work as a producer and she basically wanted to be back in the '60s, dancing in the fields with flowers in her hair and all that. The song's about our being in Hawaii, in the cane fields. I've been to Hawaii 30 times. We used to hang out down the muddy cane field roads when it was raining.

Supermarket Blues
That's one of my favourite songs. My dad heard that and laughed so hard. He's a minister. I was using the GD-word, and he said, 'You take out the GD-word and this is my favourite song in the world'. And that pleased me so much, that I could satisfy my dad with my work. It's one of the highlights of my life. But I always loved the song, it just makes me laugh. That's a crazy song. It's like, did I write that? What the hell was that all about!?

AB: When I hear it, I always think of the song Bob Dylan's 115th Dream, from Bringing It All Back Home; but if you weren't a Dylan fan at that point, maybe that's not what you were thinking of...

That's what I mean about unconscious connections. Obviously he got through to me and it reconfigured itself somehow, and I write this song that I think is crazy original, but I was probably influenced by Dylan. I know consciously that I was influenced by him at some level, in the sound, but I knew that he was affecting me on a subconscious level too, I just didn't know how. I didn't know what it meant to be affected. But he's one of the greats – he and Miles Davis are, as they say, the shit.

The Parasite (For Buffy)
I haven't the slightest idea who Buffy was. In those days, I was smoking an awful lot of marijuana. I didn't even drink – maybe a little cognac once in a while. I think it would have been a much better record if I had less marijuana. I think that's the song that garnered the call from the Whitehouse. They killed the Indians and enslaved black people. It's just... human beings acting badly. That's the history of our earth. We've got this beautiful, gorgeous jewel out in space and we're fucking with it. That just blows my mind. We're like... well, we're like a parasite. Human beings are not what we think we are - we're something else.

The ending has to do with my association/affiliation with Ornette Coleman. Because that's what Ornette sounded like in the early days, kinda like that. So my exposure to him affected me subconsciously. And you put that with the John Coltrane sound barrier that he broke when he played, those two things... I've always been influenced by instrumentalists. I haven't been able to use as much of it as I know about and know how to use – I haven't had the opportunity. Even now I can almost make the sound of a trumpet with my voice. And I can still sing – I can't sing as strongly as I used to be able to, but I still can sing. I came out of the nightclubs in the early '70s because I hated the booze and the cigarettes and the attitudes of the promoters. They had no respect – music was just a hired piece of shit that they had to put up with. And I just couldn't deal with it, because I'm a human being, and all human beings are precious. Anyone who doesn't treat me that way and I'm gone. I believe in me, and I believe we can all be wonderful if we choose to be, and we can experience that and share it with other people if we choose to. But people are so busy trying to belong to something that is an idea as opposed to a reality – 'I wanna be cool'. What the fuck does that mean? Cool is compassion. Do you care about people starving? Do you care about treating someone with respect? Because that's cool. That's real cool. And this other stuff they call cool is just maybe an excuse to behave badly and not treat people well? I dunno. We give fancy names to things that aren't fancy, things that are nasty and anti-human. We give it beautiful titles and make it special. Humans are so strange... we're a weird bunch, boy!

I'm surprised that the album has resurfaced. Sid Seidenberg was my manager at the time, and his partner, Floyd Lieberman, has taken over and is now my manager. Sid told me, 'Gene, you're ahead of your time'. I knew that I had said what I wanted to say. However well or not I said it was not an issue for me. If I did the record again there are things I would change, but it's all musical stuff. It's not that I was unhappy, it's just that I was experimenting and now there are sounds and rhythms that are a part of my pulse of life. I know more now who I am than I did then. So I would be able to put the pulse of the music closer to the pulse of the meanings now.

[Recognition in the form of sampling] surprised me... a few DJs have told me I'm one of their favourites. I laugh at all this stuff – what do I know? I'm just an old rock'n'roller from the '60s. I've heard the Beastie Boys and Tribe Called Quest. I like it – I like music, as long as people do it well. I'm not a critic. I look for what's wrong when I'm producing. I'm searching: am I getting the fullest, richest quality? I give the musicians a hand in the opening sessions so things can boil down to their natural elements, then I start picking things apart. That's how I produce.

They [Atlantic] effectively cut me off at the knees. They shortened my stride. How I feel about that is, everything in its own time. I'm good with that. I have no hard feelings, I don't hate anybody. I don't have any time for hate. I see all these people as my brothers and sisters, they just don't know it; some do, and I'm one of the ones that know it. Some people can't help themselves – they just drive off a bridge. And some people just bring joy to everybody they touch, and we need more of them.

I think, for then, I did a good job. I'd like another shot at it. I'd love to cut a combination of the two albums together – Outlaw and Headless Heroes – that would be fun. I would have Marcus Miller. I'd probably have Lenny White as a drummer, or the Chambers that plays with Mahavishnu. I would have either Mahavishnu or my son London playing guitar. I always liked your capital city, and I liked the name of your capital city, so I named my son London McDaniels. I've never met anybody else called London, so you say his name and everybody knows who he is! If I had horns I would ask Wayne Shorter to play with me and I would ask Wallace Roney to play with me. And that would be my band. But if anyone wants to do a last album on an old fart, tell them to give me a call. I really need to record.





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