AMERICAN GOTHIC - THE ROAD TO
When WEA Records decided to reissue the David Ackles back-catalogue in February 1994 after a mere twenty years out of print, it signalled an immediate upturn in interest in this sadly neglected talent. Music biz gossip has it that the first two ‘phone calls WEA Big Cheese Rob Dickens received were from Elvis Costello and Phil Collins, each congratulating him on the renewed availability of Ackles’ albums. Collins, a long-time champion, included Ackles’ ‘Down River’ on a subsequent appearance on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Desert Island Discs’, and observed to Sue Lawley: “He taught me that writing songs didn’t have to be moon/spoon/June, that you could write intelligently about more serious subjects”. All this acclaim would have been rounded off nicely had the man himself been around to bask in the adulation. Which is where your sleuthing correspondent comes in.
When the first three albums, ‘David Ackles’, ‘Subway To The Country’ and ‘American Gothic’, came out on CD, I replaced my aging vinyl copies and set about tracking down the artist. Initial calls to WEA went unanswered, the vast monolith clearly under the impression they were dealing with a crank who would in time be found and returned to the bughouse. However, they at least established that Ackles was still alive, since they had received a letter from him expressing his delight at his work being freely available again (this was how the WEA press office put it. I suspect the tone of the call might have been more along the “Here’s-my-address-kids-I-look-forward-to-those-royalty-cheques-flooding-in” variety, but no matter). Next, I rang Elektra Records’ New York office, where they could unearth no-one who had even HEARD of David Ackles, displaying once again the record industry’s contempt for anyone not deemed to be an artist worth plugging at the precise moment. A friend in the business suggested that a call to MCPS, the music publishers, might bear fruit, since if Ackles was still getting royalties, someone somewhere would have to pass them on to him. The charming Sue Ellen in their Los Angeles branch did indeed have an address for him, but they were, understandably, unable to divulge such information. They did however promise to forward my ‘phone number to the address they had.
The next step was the logical one (which is why I left it till last). I took some interestingly individual-looking names from the sleeves of the Ackles records, dug out a Los Angeles telephone directory and started disturbing people down the transatlantic wire. After a few false starts and a “Gee, yes, I did play on ‘Subway To The Country’, but I haven’t seen David for years”, I tracked down Fred Myrow, who arranged the second album. He proved a fascinating fellow in his own right, probably worthy of a whole separate feature: his father, Joseph, wrote the standard ‘You Make Me Feel So Young’ and he (Fred) was in the process of writing a musical with Jim Morrison (based, he said, on the Lizard King’s response to Myrow’s classical collection) when Morrison thoughtlessly checked out in Paris. Fred also claimed to be arranging some work-in-progress involving Van Dyke Parks’ songs, as sung by Brain Wilson! As fascinating as all this was, it got me no nearer to Ackles, Myrow being another case of “Oh yes we had such fun making that record, but I haven’t seen or heard anything about David since, woah, it must be...”
Then, suddenly, everything clicked merrily into place. A bloke from WEA rang to say he’d just heard of my enquiries and had checked it out with Ackles, who’d given the OK to pass along his ‘phone number! Hallelujah! The following is an account of the conversation which followed after the preliminary niceties and grovelling had finished...
Ptolemaic Terrascope: It must be nice to realise that people are beating a path to record shop counters over here to replace their original copies of the albums.
David Ackles: Well, I’m not sure how beaten that path will be, to be frank! When I heard about the plans to re-issue these albums I really thought it was someone’s idea of a joke because they’ve been unavailable for so long. But I have to be honest and say listening to them again - they sent me some from London - was very interesting, even just from the point of view of hearing them in pristine clarity. I’d become so accustomed to the surface noise I thought it was part of the orchestration!
Of course, ‘American Gothic’ got all that praise at the time...
(Laughing) Oh yes, I remember! Could I forget! Derek Jewell in the Sunday Times said something about it being a milestone in popular music, all that kind of thing. Derek was trying to help, but it just rebounded. It got outrageous and undeserved praise, praise which put it in the category of being just impossible to follow up. Actually, it all seems kind of unreal now.
I suspect the part of your career up to ‘American Gothic’ is reasonably well-known, but what happened between it and ‘Five And Dime’? [perfectly-acceptable-lighter-toned-fourth-album on Columbia US, which sank without trace but is well worth tracking down]
Well, the thing was, I’d had three strikes at bat with Elektra and got nowhere. The records had all been well reviewed and hadn’t done much else, so Jac Holzman (head of Elektra) and I sat down and decided between us that it might be time to try somewhere new. It was thoroughly mutual. Jac was as frustrated at the lack of sales as I was, and we decided it was an opportune moment to move on. So off I went to Columbia and did ‘Five And Dime’.
After which, nothing.
Yes, nothing. They (Columbia) just didn’t know what to do with me and after nothing happened with ‘Five And Dime’ they released me. And I just found it was hard to get a deal. A part of it, I would have to say, was my own doing. I didn’t come away from Columbia thinking “well, by God I’m going to go elsewhere!”. There was so little support that I thought to myself, maybe this isn’t what you’re intended to do. Of course, I should have been more aggressive, but in retrospect I took it as more of a sign than I should have. It was kind of hard to get motivated but I kept at it. Finally I decided I had to make a living and started to look at other things.
All music related?
Oh yes. I did the music for a couple of movies, one called ‘Word of Honour’ starring Karl Malden [described as “an above-average TV movie” in my guide - Ed.], another called ‘Father Of The Year’, nothing particularly great. I did a children’s TV series, anything, really, rather than teaching... the dreaded T-word! But I have to confess that I did teach commercial songwriting for a while. The odd thing is that, although the records were never big successes, the royalty cheques come in once a year. From time to time they even creep into five figures.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, there are a couple of things I’d like to ask you about your early years. Most of them come from an early Elektra press-release, and they sound, frankly, a bit fanciful. Can I go through it?
Sure. I might say before you begin I think I know the one you mean and it certainly does sound as though it was the product of some fevered PR man...
You were the star of a series of B movies about a dog called Rusty?
Oh yes, that’s true. They were second features. This was in the late forties. It was good fun, we did about nine of them. But by the age of about 13 or 14 I was getting too old.
Security guard in a toilet paper factory? Private detective?
Yes, both of those are true. They were just bit-jobs while I was writing music scores, anything to keep going.
It also claims ‘Blue Ribbons’ from the first album was written for Cher?
Yes, that’s right. You have to remember this was in the mid-sixties. Cher looked and sounded a lot, um, different to the way she does now.
It also says you studied at Edinburgh University?
Oh yes, that’s true as well. This was in 1957, ’58, my junior year in college.
What were you studying?
I was studying West Saxon, the origins of the English language. If you know of any gathering which requires to hear the Lord’s Prayer recited in West Saxon, I’m their man. I have fond memories of being in Scotland. My father’s family came from Aberdeen, and most of my mother’s family are from England. I still have some distant cousins around Tring in Hertfordshire.
Can we bring things a bit more up to date? Have you kept writing?
Absolutely. I’ve written stage pieces, musicals, things that play in community theatres. I’ve just finished a new musical and I’ve spoken with Rob (Dickens) about perhaps doing an album of that, which would be fun. Oh yes, I’ve kept on writing - very much so.
I tracked down some people who worked on the records and they all seemed to lose track of you around the early 80s.
Well, that would make sense, because I was out of commission for a long time. In 1981 I was in a near-fatal car crash when a drunk diver ploughed into my car. My wife was outside the theatre door shouting “Don’t cut off his arm! He plays the piano!” I was in a wheelchair for six months with a badly damaged hip, and it was 18 months before I could play again. Then last year I was diagnosed as having lung cancer and had part of my left lung removed. But I’m fine now.
Is your wife the girl on the back of ‘American Gothic’?
Yes, indeed. Janice. We’ve been married 21 years and we have a 16 year old son, George, who plays bass in a band called Tuesday’s Child. I’m 57 now and I look nowadays like a really bad drivers’ licence picture from that time.
I have to say, David, that given the things that have happened both professionally and privately, you remain a very up-sounding guy.
Well, you know, things happen because of timing. I’m not bitter about a thing that’s happened to me. I would hate for people to think I’m over here getting all twisted up about what happened 20 years ago. All that feels like another life, lived by someone else.
So what’s an average day for David Ackles?
Well, in the morning I usually go to a gym where I’m a member, just to get the blood moving. I write songs. I work at my computer. I play the piano every day. In the afternoons I’ll sometimes go for a hike in the hills around my home. I live at 2000 feet, just North of Los Angeles. In fact the wind blew the roof off my stable a month or two ago. I’m sitting here at my kitchen table talking to you and it’s a beautiful sunny morning. The hills have some snow on them, it’s lovely. I’m not despondent, not in any way. I have a wonderful life.
For the record, your correspondent was taken aback by Ackles, and I admit confusing the artist with his art. For a man whose work is usually described as ‘brooding’, ‘melancholy’ or ‘elegant’, Ackles’ speech is frequently punctuated by hearty chuckles. There’s nothing gloomy about him, despite the hand dealt to him by the record industry. And it would be nice to think the revitalisation of interest through the reissues will lead to ‘Five And Dime’ also reappearing (although, as the first three haven’t been released in America, this seems unlikely), and that his new musical will also be released. It’s a nice thought. Write to Rob Dickens and encourage him to make it happen.
(Written and directed by Kenny MacDonald, produced by Phil McMullen. Copyright: Ptolemaic Terrascope, August 1998)
Postscript: Sadly, David Ackles died less than a year after this interview took place, on March 2nd 1999. He was just 62.
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - He could have been another Leonard Cohen or Randy Newman, but when he died earlier this month in complete obscurity, American singer-songwriter David Ackles had to be content with the vague appellation "an artist's artist."'
As often happens in such cases, major pop stars have issued glowing tributes to Ackles. Between 1968 and 1974, he released four albums (on Elektra and Columbia) that bombed. Ignored in America, he enjoyed a cult following in Britain, where it seems the people who bought his albums turned out to be huge in their own right.
Elton John and his lyricist, Bernie Taupin, Phil Collins and Elvis Costello have hailed Ackles as nothing short of a genius.
"He is one of the best that America had to offer,'' says John, for whom Ackles was the opening act when he made his triumphant American debut at Los Angeles' Troubadour club in 1970.
"It is a mystery to me why his wonderful songs are not better known,'' Costello says.
Indeed, as the obituary in Britain's Independent newspaper noted, "Many of Ackles' songs related to the downtrodden or to those who had created difficult situations for themselves. His music ranged from simple melodies to complex arrangements that could have come from the pen of Bernstein or Gershwin.''
Not exactly the stuff of top 40 radio. But Ackles, who had tasted stardom as a child actor during the 1940s (Tuck Worden in four "Rusty'' features), turned his attention to other pursuits.
He became a Christian, wrote scripts and scores, and spent the last seven years of his life as executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Society of Fund-Raising Executives.
Ackles died of cancer on March 2. He was 66. A memorial service will be held Saturday at Pasadena's All Saints Church at 1p.m.