Doctorates, Duende, and Drive-ins: An Interview with Eric Andersen

Tonight, I’ll be at City Winery New York City enjoying a live performance by The Songpoet himself, Eric Andersen, with special guests Steve Addabbo and Inge Andersen. Andersen is an American writer and singer-songwriter whose peers include Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell, to name a few. Below is an interview that I conducted with him last Thursday, which he took from his home in The Netherlands.

Note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Ben: You’ve been producing art in multiple mediums, across several eras, and with many notable artists. Also, a documentary was made about your life, and I’m sure it’d take dozens more to contain all of the noteworthy aspects of who you are and what you’ve accomplished. But you and I only have a short time for this interview, since you’ve got a flight to catch, which means I’m faced with the painful task of choosing only a couple of things to dig into with you.

Let’s start with something recent. In May of this year, you received an honorary doctorate from Hobart College, where you’d been studying for a bit, so congratulations on that. I read that you were very skeptical when you first heard the news. Why was that hard to believe?

Eric Andersen: Well, because I had been thrown out of the college for riding a motorcycle over the president’s lawn with a bunch of drunk motorcycle guys. So I didn’t think the doctorate was for real. They said that they were giving it to me because I was the most accomplished dropout they’ve ever had in their 200-year history. It was amusing!

Ben: Are any of your songs about Hobart, or things related to Hobart, either overtly or symbolically?

Eric Andersen: No, I had forgotten all about Hobart after I’d left school and embarked on my destiny, which got converted into a career when I started recording music.

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Ben: In 2009, you contributed an essay called “The Danger Zone” to a book volume devoted to William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. As you know, Burroughs has inspired many artists, including David Bowie, who famously used Burroughs’ cut-up technique as part of his lyric-writing process. What’s your relationship with the work of William S. Burroughs?

Eric Andersen: Well, I just love his writing. I find it very stimulating and it kind of opens up the portals of the mind, allowing you to see things in different ways. I find him very inspiring, and he was a lot of fun to write about. He’s a teacher of realities as much as he is a writer.

Ben: Speaking of writing that helps you see things in different ways, do you recall any particular poems or lines from which you gleaned a meaning that shifted your perspective?

Eric Andersen: I can’t think of a line off-hand. I go through the stuff and, well, poetry’s like a dream world. It’s like trying to remember your dreams. I get the feeling, and the vibe. It’s like when you look out the window of a train you’re on, and you see some things going by while others come. But sometimes you get on the wrong train, like with me and Emily Dickinson. So it depends on who the poet is, too. There’s a lot of stuff I never got until recently. A lot of the British poets, for example, like Byron, and Keats. It’s been a meandering journey for me with poetry. Starting with Rimbaud and Beaudelaire, those people, they talk to me. People like Emily Dickinson, they didn’t. To each their own, when it comes to poetry. I just read, get a sense of what I like, and take it from there. I think it’s very specific to the reader. Fortunately, I was never forced to read stuff I didn’t like, so that was good.

Ben: Your father took an interest in poetry, too. Was it you who got him into poetry, or vice versa?

Eric Andersen: He was interested since he was a kid. When he retired early he studied in Buffalo under Robert Creeley for a number of years, and they became quite good friends, and through Creeley he started corresponding with Ginsberg. So he was kind of the forerunner for me, in a way, in terms of liking poetry. But his tastes went back to Whitman, Tennyson, and the poets of that era, from when he’d started reading poetry in the 30s.

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Ben: Sticking with the topic of literature for a bit, you created songs for an exhibition about Camus, called “Paintings out of Revolt”, by the painter Oliver Jordan. How’d you get involved with that project? 

Eric Anderson: The painter invited me, and he was friends with Camus’ daughter, Catherine. So it was through her, and then he asked me if I wanted to do some writing of music for the show, and I was kind of flummoxed, like…what am I gonna do with Albert Camus? But it turned out I could do a lot, and his daughter was very encouraging, and Oliver loved Camus. So I started reading a lot of it, and at the end of the day, you gotta say, man, he’s one of the best writers that ever lived. And I’m reading translations! His stuff’s phenomenal. You can talk about Burroughs, James Joyce, and Camus, you know, Camus is right up there in a very special way. He’s got the third eye, the fourth eye, the fifth eye…he’s got ‘em all.

Ben: How did that songwriting process differ from your usual ones?

Eric Anderson: Oh man, this is a long talk. There’s a lot of stuff going on here. I did a thing also with Byron, and we debuted the album at his house in England, at his estate. Yeah, it’s an interesting thing writing about writers. It’s hard to do. But Camus especially. The one beautiful thing is it gets you reading their stuff, so there’s a lot of personal pleasure in that. But I did another thing about a writer, Heinrich Böll, who was a Nobel prize winner, a German writer from Cologne who wrote about the war. I worked with his son. So that was an interesting journey. And now I’m working with a flamenco guitar player and we’re doing something on Lorca. I got to play his piano in Grenada at his summer house. It was a little out of tune but it was a beautiful thing. He was a great pianist. He played with flamenco singers. He was an expert on flamenco. He was an expert on gypsies. He was an expert on Duende, the deep song. It’s like the Spanish blues. Gypsy, Jewish, Arabic…it was a mélange of influences from which flamenco sprang. There’s a lot of interesting shit going on there. You have to pay attention to see it though. I could talk about this until the cows come home.

Image courtesy of The Eric Andersen Archives

Ben: I found the damndest thing. In 1964 you were described by The New York Times as an “antidote” to The Beatles. Would you agree with that assessment?

Eric Andersen: Of course not, it’s absurd. But the guy who wrote it, Robert Shelton, who was a very revered music critic at The Times, his dream was to see singer-songwriters become the new rock ‘n’ rollers. Like the new Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, you know, the original wave of rock ‘n’ roll. Buddy Holly. He wanted the next wave to be singer-songwriters out of The Village. But it was an impossible dream, because you couldn’t even be a participant in this scene if you wrote songs less than three minutes long. And that was kind of the rule in the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll: very short songs. Because they didn’t have LPs. So the advent of the LP allowed you to fit John Coltrane solos or really long singer-songwriter songs. You could even go for ten minutes! So that’s why he went for that “antidote to The Beatles” thing. The irony was that the manager of The Beatles managed me!

Ben: Let’s switch gears a little to the show and your most recent album, Tribute to a Songpoet, which is being released tomorrow. Steve Addabbo produced that album, and he’ll be on guitar, accompanying you during your show. You two have been collaborators for quite some time now, no? What’s your favorite part about working with Steve?

Eric Andersen: Well, he’s got great ears, you know. He’s a great sounding board–a great person to work with. And he plays great guitar, and you just never know what he’s gonna do. That’s how you know you’re having fun. If someone can play a whole show and you don’t know what they’re gonna play, you can enjoy listening to it just as anyone in the audience would be listening to it. So it’s very spontaneous, and it’s very nice. He’s a producer, so he’s done a lot of things. He’s had some hits with Mary Chapin Carpenter and  Suzanne Vega. He’s done a lot of mixing for the Bob Dylan bootleg series. Beautiful stuff, he makes really beautiful mixes. He’s worked with Richard Shindell on a couple of albums. He’s worked with some really good people. He’s doing Leonard Cohen tapes, Jeff Buckley…it’s quite nice to work with him, and he’s got a great studio.

Ben: Your wife Inge will also be performing with you at the show, providing harmony vocals. You’ve done so many shows with Inge. How has that enhanced the dynamic of your relationship?

Eric Andersen: I think it’s beautiful if you’re in a family where someone can sing, someone who really loves the music you’re making, and feels it, and it’s a really deep expression for them. It’s a beautiful thing. I recommend it to everybody.

Image courtesy of Paolo Brillo

Ben: You were very involved with the folk scene in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. Your upcoming show is of course in New York City. Have you played in the city recently?

Eric Andersen: Well, the pandemic messed things up for a couple of years for me. We did play some shows in the spring, in May. We did about five, six shows.

Ben: Did you ever find yourself comparing the experience to how it was back in the early 1960s, even if subconsciously?

Eric Andersen: No. You just take it as it comes, whatever is before your eyes. It’s like going to a drive-in all the time. You can drive the same car, and get a hot dog or a popcorn or something like how you always do, but when you look out the window, it’s a completely different movie each time.

Ben: There are some artists who seem to be making music just for the sake of having music out there. Clearly, that’s not the case for you. Given that you’ve put out dozens of albums along with so much else, it seems you’ve had a lot of things to say. Do you think of yourself as someone who’s got a lot to say?

Eric Andersen: No. I never think that way.

Ben: Is there an album you’ve heard recently that just made you say, wow, everyone needs to know about this?

Eric Andersen: Yeah, one I wrote, called Dangerland, that I recorded with David Amram. It’s about school shootings and gun violence in the United States. It’s gonna be on YouTube in about two weeks. And Amram, he’s an improvisational musician and composer. He’s 92 years old. He’s in the studio right now as we speak, doing a mix of it with Steve Addabbo. He’s been around a long time. He used to back up Jack Keruoac. He was the first musician to be backing up beat poet writers. David Amram, check him out. He was also a protege of Leonard Bernstein and he wrote the film score to The Manchurian Candidate, and to Splendor in the Grass. Huge movies, back in the day. He got an honorary doctorate from…maybe Brooklyn Music School [note: the degree was from the New England Conservatory]. So that was funny. Everyone’s becoming a doctor. I won’t operate, but I’d love to write prescriptions! Thank you so much, I appreciate the call. I hate to jump off–there’s a zillion ideas popping out of my head. It’s become like a popcorn cooker.

Ben: No worries, that was actually the last question I had planned! Thank you so much for taking the time for this.

Eric Andersen: Oh good, I’m happy! I hope the answers were satisfactory. Please take some time to come introduce yourself at the show. Thank you so much for the beautiful questions. They were all original. I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me any of these questions before, so you get the prize for that! In fact, good angles. This interview could go on to Mars and back! Thanks for having me on your blog.


That’s all for the interview. Make sure to check out Tribute to a Songpoet, and catch Eric at City Winery this evening!