In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, a quiet revolution took place in popular music. Instead of tuning in, turning on and dropping out, a set of artists brought intimacy and sensitivity to the fore. The result was the singer-songwriter genre, and ground zero was Doug Weston’s Troubadour, the West Hollywood club that helped launch the careers of musical luminaries like James Taylor, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Jackson Browne and The Eagles.
The connection between The Troubadour and the singer-songwriter movement is the subject of the new documentary film Troubadours, which is directed by Morgan Neville and screened at the 2011 Santa Barbara International Film Festival. On Sunday night, the film was declared the winner of the festival’s Audience Award.
Troubadours most closely follows King and Taylor, whose careers intersected back in the day, and who rejoined forces in 2007 for a concert at The Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., which celebrated the club’s 50th anniversary. They subsequently went on tour, which included a stop at the Santa Barbara Bowl.
The film does a great job of exploring pre-Troubadour history of King and Taylor. King particularly fascinates. She was a songwriter at New York City’s Brill Building back in the early 1960s, writing hits with her then-husband, Gerry Goffin, such as “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” for The Shirelles (later included by King on her “Zeitgeist classic” 1971 album Tapestry), “Take Good Care of My Baby” for Bobby Vee, and “The Loco-Motion” for Little Eva. During all this, she also juggled being a young mother and homemaker: the film recalls her changing a diaper with one hand while playing a bass line on the piano with the other.
King debuted as a solo performer in 1970 at The Troubadour, a performance interrupted by, of all things, a bomb threat. Her story encapsulates a broader shift in the way that popular music was made, from professional songwriters writing for other artists, to artists writing and singing their own songs. (Of course, there is still an industry for songwriters supplying material to others — I have read that Rihanna had 27 songwriters and 32 producers working for several weeks to come up with the material for her latest album.)
King did tour a bit back then — her daughter tells of crying when “So Far Away” came on the radio while her mom was gone — but she avoided interviews and didn’t even show up to the Grammys. In the film, she is happy that “what got through to people was the music, and I got to live my life” in Laurel Canyon, and later, basically off-grid.
Taylor, on the other hand, started out in the pysch-lite band The Flying Machine, then went to England and cut an “overblown” solo album for The Beatles’ Apple Records before evolving into Mr. Singer-Songwriter. He played his first solo show at The Troubadour in July 1969, and shortly thereafter played at the Newport Folk Festival. The film shows amazing footage of him singing “Fire and Rain” to the crowd hearing it for its first time. Taylor recalls this as an era in which “you could make it work with a guitar and a suitcase.”
Other artists make appearances in the film, including David Crosby (who it seems mostly talks about sex or drugs), Browne (who does a cool Bob Dylan impersonation), Roger McGuinn (who reminds us that The Byrds formed in an earlier time at The Troubadour), Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, J.D. Souther and others. The film also pays nice tribute to the less well-known supporting musicians who “served the songs” rather than showing off.
There were also amusing appearances by Steve Martin and Cheech & Chong, who launched their careers at The Troubadour’s Hoot Nights in which anyone could get up and perform. Martin tells of a Troubadour encounter with Glenn Frey in which Frey asked Martin what he thought of the new band name “Eagles.” Martin said, “Yeah, The Eagles, cool,” to which Frey said, “No, Eagles.” Eventually Martin figured out that “The” was not part of the name. Martin quips that he prefers “The Eagles.”
I must say that it is somewhat amazing how many of the people in the film have performed in Santa Barbara in recent years: Taylor and King, Browne (coming again this month), Crosby (with Stills and Nash at The Bowl, and soon again with just Nash), Kristofferson, Martin, Cheech & Chong, Raitt (with Taj Mahal), Souther. Several of them live or have lived in our area.
Of course, not everybody was a fan of the singer-songwriter genre. Former Village Voice critic Robert Christgau, who makes a brief appearance in the film, stills seems to hold it in contempt. The film also mentions Lester Bangs’ article “James Taylor Marked For Death,” a speed-fueled tribute to The Troggs that happens to include a short fantasy about killing Taylor. I am struck with how much easier it seems to be a fan of multiple musical genres these days — it wouldn’t seem that strange to most of us for “Fire and Rain” to be followed by “Wild Thing” on your iPod shuffle.
Eventually things changed — Taylor’s phrase “too good to last” might be applied here as well. Drugs became harder and the artists were unhappy about Troubadour owner Doug Weston’s contracts that you still had to play there after you made it big. Eventually the movement was, in Browne’s words, “running on empty.” The Troubadour struggled, and the eccentric Weston died at age 72 in 1999.
However, The Troubadour is again a lively venue that puts on great shows — in the last few years I’ve seen Japanese freakers Acid Mothers Temple, and Steve Earle paying tribute to Townes Van Zandt. But, for better or worse, the singer-songwriter era is over, at least in the form that the film so lovingly documents.
— Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.