Interview: Bert Lee
Open mics are an important cultural institution that is a vital part of developing songwriting communities and encouraging new talent. It’s because of this that I was concerned last year when I found out that Caffe Vivaldi – along with its long running open mic – was closing. Luckily, the host of the open mic, the venerable Bert Lee, put a significant amount of effort into continuing the tradition, and was able to find a place for the open mic at the nearby Cowgirl. I had seen Bert perform a set at Song Club in the past year, and he mentioned that he was releasing a new record, so I thought this would be a good time to get him to do an interview.
Bert’s music can be found HERE.
Andy: Your discography spans it looks like 5 decades from what I see? I’m listening to a recording of Richard, Cam and Bert, and see a picture of you with long hair (that’s you on the right?) for the album Limited Edition. I see a New York Times article about the three of you performing at the Gaslight Café in 1970. Richard was married to Karen Dalton, and the producer Warren Schatz recorded string parts for a lot of disco tracks in the 1970s? It’s hard for me to even conceive of writing over that period of time. What’s it been like seeing music change in New York over that time?
Bert: I arrived on the New York music scene during a time of great change, and it was the notion of change that influenced me. All around me I saw there were two sorts of song writers, on the one hand dedicated to the traditions that had inspired them. Folk, Jazz, the American Songbook. On the other hand songwriters were influenced by the wave of experimentation that the Beatles were the perfect example of. Mixing genres, writing lyrics about things that weren’t just about the ordinary love and loss.
My first real band was a loosey goosey sort of Jazzabilly band, and the songs we put together came from three distinct voices. Richard Tucker was a country blues player, with a relaxed and melodic approach to the craft. Cam wrote something more akin to soul songs, with a hint of jazz in the changes. I was writing tunes that sometimes drew on classical structures with a tendency toward what I suppose would be known as prog-rock. But I was rather adamant about not being pinned down stylistically and so I would write, for example, a song based on some complex classical chord structure, and then go right ahead and write a simple folk song, like Evelyn. Our band was popular locally, and it was this variety that made it distinct.
Andy: There’s distinct environmental themes running throughout the record – from the cover, to “The Poor Boy Wanders”, “It’s About to Rain” and “Unintended Consequences”. Was there a particular reason you wanted to look at environmental themes on this record?
Bert: I have always been concerned about the environment. My Dad was a chemical engineer, and his college thesis was about creating loops in industrial manufacturing where one factory would sell its toxic byproducts to another to use as a reactant – the chain continuing until the final by-products were water and hydrogen. He proposed this in the 1930’s and was in fact blacklisted from industry for even bringing up the topic. He became an expat and sadly never returned to that endeavor.
The three tunes on unintended consequences that carry this in them are the title song, and Poor Boy Wanders and Trouble in the Zoo. Poor Boy and Trouble are a part of an environmentally themed ‘rock opera’ I wrote while living in key west. The subject matter was loss of habitat and specifically the underlying story (based on a true set of circumstances) is about a manatee that gets washed by flooding into a swimming pool, then ends up briefly in a zoo, then through needlessly expensive and elaborate process well intended but absurd, gets released back into the wilds. Unintended Consequences was sparked by the sight of a tree in my neighborhood festooned with plastic bags, and a subsequent walk on the nearby beach where I saw bags drifting out to sea. The overall arch of the song touches on this, and other ways that casual neglect leads to terrible outcomes.
About to Rain is not an environmental song. It’s a straightforward love song about people getting older together.
Andy: Do you feel “The Money Isn’t Real” is an extension of the environmental themes on the record? I hear that song, and I think that there’s an anti-capitalist or anti-industrialist bent to it.
Bert: I suppose it it an observation on the pointlessness of living only for wealth. I am not exactly anti-capitalist as much as I am for reining in the worst aspects of capitalism. Any society needs a system of exchange, but what we have now leads to oligarchy and a criminal upper class.
Interestingly enough, the song grew organically out of a bit of family history. My grandfather came to the US during the Civil War (and yes, I mean my grandfather, not my great grandfather). As a boy of twelve escaping hard times in Ireland. He landed in Brooklyn and became involved with some rather unpleasant men smuggling guns and whiskey. He became their cook and bottle boy, and they headed west, praying on the border conflicts of the war, pillaging and plundering and pissing everyone off. Once west of the Mississippi, they took to robbing trains and stage coaches, and eventually, near Denver, robbed a train coming from the Bank there. By this time he was done with hanging with the rogues, and a little ways out of the successful robbery, he grabbed a couple of saddlebags full of money and took off, heading back east, to land in Alabama just as the war was ending, with two bags full of uncirculated Confederate Money, Bank of Denver being mint for both sides in the conflict.
To clarify how this could have been, my grandfather, understand that he did not marry and start our family branch until he was in his sixties… funny how time and generations sometimes work out.
Andy: I know that you’re not a big fan of streaming music – does a lot of your feelings about money relate to your feelings about what’s wrong with streaming music?
Bert: It’s always been hard making money as a creative musician, but there was once a more complex industry, based on publishing that at least created a niche for songwriters. But the digitization of the world has led to this being narrowed down to a few lucky and well connected people. Add to this the greedy nature of real estate making difficult the existence of small music venues, one has to be quite dedicated to want to continue the tradition. I have no real solution to the problem. I publish my music online at bertlee.net, and people can access it there, paying a small fee to get a link to my entire recorded archive. I would rather do this than feed the greed mongers of spotify and such. At least I make 100 percent of each transaction rather than some tiny fraction, impossible to verify the accuracy of. We each have to find our own preferred solution to the problem because there is not motivation from what’s left of the ‘music industry’ to make things fairer…
Andy: The song “Unintended Consequences” was interesting because I wasn’t sure whether to interpret it as an activist song or not, as the protagonist sort of sits back on top of a hill to just watch what happens. Do you think the protagonist is pointing out a deep truth about helplessness in the world? Or are you being ironic about the protagonist’s point of view – maybe he’s giving up too easily?
Bert: That’s a fair question Andrew. Philosophically speaking, I am a Buddhist, and I am also a rather hardened anti establishmentarian. It’s not that problems like the constant stream of plastic waste polluting waste cannot be solved in an ideal world. But once again because the criteria is ever multiplying profit, that solution seems elusive. Likewise homelessness and global climate change (which are addressed in the song) might have solutions hampered by the same underlying problem.
So as an individual the best I can do is be honest about the problems, and be unafraid of pointing them out, though so many people remain stubbornly asleep to it. The song is more a revelation about the way little things get ignored and by the time they unfold into a giant mess, we all seem to claim no guilt in our tiny quotidian involvement in them. What we can do might seem insignificant, but really it would help… for good example, always carrying a cloth bag for our shopping needs so there is not the personal contribution to the stream of plastic bags.
Andy: The cover art is a little comically surreal, but you also went to the lengths of creating art for each of the songs on the record. I think it works really well. Do you take the art to be an important part of the songs?
Bert: I spent a good deal of my life making my rent money as a graphic artist, and for the last thirty years have been a Adobe Ace and 3-D graphic hobbyist. When I am not writing (prose or songs) I find playing with graphic art to be a sweet meditation.
I really do enjoy creating a visual avatar for each song, and in the packaging of them to make the experience of listening to them more enjoyable. I suppose had I a real budget I would make videos for some of the more storyline tunes.
Andy: In general, the record has a surreal quality to it. From the “earth and her passengers” reference, and I caught some of it on “New Again” and I feel like “Amnesia” has an existential quality to it. I know you’re suggesting that money isn’t real – but is there a sense in which you think maybe nothing is really real?
Bert: I’m inclined to irony I suppose, but I am a firm believer in reality. Not that I think our perception of it is more than an impression limited by our narrow sensory range and the nature of our temporal experience. To frame this answer against your question concerning the song The Money Isn’t Real, I’d say that money is perfectly real, but our relationship to it, given our mortality, can be seriously warped and damaging to our happiness as human beings.
In regard to New Again, that was no more than a tenderly meant and sincere love song to my wife Josephine. And as far as Amnesia, I think what we are dealing with is the story of a guy who goes into a bar to forget his troubles, expecting some familiar music on the jukebox but getting a jazz band instead, then discovering the jazz puts him in another space altogether, where the memories he was originally inclined to drink away become in an obverse way, a treasure to him.
Andy: You’ve been running the open-mic at Café Vivaldi, and now at Cowgirl for a number of years. How has that experience been? What have you liked about the transition to Cowgirl?
Bert: Thanks for the question. This has become an important part of my life. As an official music geezer I have arrived at a point where the most important thing to me is to encourage younger musicians to stick to their craft, and to be brave and inventive, and bold enough to go in front of people with was they are making. There are so few opportunities as clubs close under the onslaught of the Unreal Estate wars.
I inherited the open mic at Vivaldi from my old chum Erik Frandsen, and that was three years of joy. The venue was splendid with a clientele that came, usually, to listen. I was just looking over the records of my time there and I count over a thousand players and writers that I met there and so many have become friends. When it shut down six months ago, many hearts were broken.
But thanks to another friend, Chris Lowe, the opportunity to build something in the Cowgirl music space presented itself, and while the transition was a bit slow, and initially we lost a lot of the regulars, in the last couple of months there it has trended upward. Our most recent evening, a year end showcase of the best who were available in the post-christmas week, was a standing room only success. I am very optimistic about that venue, and I know the management is on our side and more and more creative people are taking notice and dropping in.
In the coming year I intend to build some other spaces, not for open mics, but for actual concerts and showcases where we (gasp) even pay the performers. I have my eyes on Greenwich House in the Village and the Society for Ethical Culture for benefit shows. I’d like to say that I have two role models in this, who inspire me to create opportunities for my performing friends: Niall Connolly and Lara Ewen, who both are tireless in their promotion of independent music.