The summer of '69, I headed to college to the University of California Santa Barbara seeking the longed-for land of blue skies, sunshine, bare feet and homework on the beach. I]d grown up in Seattle, pale of skin, with a closet full of raincoats and boots that never fit. Though I always loved music and played the oboe in the school orchestra, and the All City Band, I’d quit my piano lessons early on, when it came time to hale the scales of Czerny and leave Peer Gynt behind. Researching colleges was a given, my senior year, and I’d hoped for an Ivy League acceptance. Part of my research of schools included studies of the news. The truth is: I had very little real understanding of what was going on in politics and the outside world, especially that war in Vietnam. It was not something we discussed at home and I knew of no one who had joined the military. I did know that news at UCSB included pictures of oil seepage on the beach, but it was a far cry from the pictures of protesting students at Berkley. Those pictures frightened me. I wasn’t sure where I stood, or if I stood at all. The previous fall, I’d marched along downtown Seattle streets yelling chants to pass the school levy but I was nowhere near ready to step into decisions regarding war. Santa Barbara would be an escape into a peaceful enclave, disconnected from the responsibilities of adulthood, or so I thought.
Fortunately, on Thanksgiving of my freshman year, I met a man named Bobby Brown, who guided me through much of the confusion I would soon be confronted with that first year in Santa Barbara: protest marches down State Street, the burning of the bank, the shooting of a protester, the arrival of the National Guard, 6:30 curfews, tear gas in my courtyard, emergency classes on Cambodia, the smashing of the administration’s windows, and radical speakers like Jerry Rubin, Jane Fonda and Angela Davis at large outdoor, campus gatherings. It was a time of change for the nation, and...for me.
By the end of 1970, I’d dropped out of college, following the completion of my favorite class, Poetry and Song, instructed by poet Kenneth Rexroth. In that class, I would write my first two songs, on the guitar, and perform them, timidly, on a small indoor amphitheater, in front of Rexroth and about 50 students. Though I was one of the last to volunteer, every performance was well received that quarter, including mine. I loved the energy exchange being created, the dancing atmosphere and the new direction it seemed many of those around me were headed. I believed I no longer needed a college degree or a lot of money to be happy. I wore braids and flowers in my hair, and bright colored home-sewn mini-dresses, cut-off blue jeans, sun tops and well-worn flip-flops. Kinkos would soon open its first small store in Isla Vista, next to the falafel stand. The police quickly switched to riding bicycles on their local patrols, and the nearby weedy field was gradually transformed into a beautiful garden with a windmill and a small bridge, across a gently flowing stream of water. It would be a gathering spot for friends, and festivals filled with street musicians and jugglers. It was called Perfect Park to connect with Peoples Park in Berkley.
My life had taken that new direction. I was busy building home-made instruments, with Bobby Brown, for his soon to be "One Man Orchestra.’ Bobby would design and build the body of the instruments and I would wind the electric pick-ups for the drones or connect recycled computer relays to make pick-ups for the assorted guitar, sitar and dulcimer necks Bob made. We were helped by an eccentric genius of a man named Jon Lazell, who also built home-made instruments. At the time, Jon had an incredible set of home-made tunable drums, like giant congas, 24" in diameter. He was working on a long, 10-foot, multi-stringed drone made of heavy aluminum. His goal was to produce sounds so low they would be inaudible, but would make your hair stand on end. He lived in the hills of Montecito, in a geodesic dome he’d built himself from scrapped radio station antennas, fiberglass and odd-colored paint. It was a patchwork quilt of a home with a large star in the center of the dome left clear, so that you could look up to the heavens, listening to the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, and imagine yourself being transported into the outer reaches of the universe. Backyard discussions, led by Jon, were of the prophet Gurdjieff, whom I’d never heard of before. All the local hippies would gather there, the talks going on for hours, ending with the breaking of bread and home-made split pea soup for everyone.
Bob gave me my harp on my 21st birthday and the University’s instructor offered me free lessons, which I quickly turned down. I realized, soon enough, when I landed in Santa Barbara, that I knew nothing of improvisation and was stuck in my life-time mode of memorized passages. I decided I would teach myself, and I would only perform original songs, or not at all. And for the first six months, it was not at all. I was also teaching myself to be Bob’s "sound-man.’ He had over 50 instruments in his "One Man Orchestra,’ and I would be the juggler of those 50 lines into a 12-channel mixer. I would also be the tuner of his 300-plus strings and the repairer of broken lines and pick-ups. I grew to hate those hums that seemed so difficult to track down, especially right before the concert.
Bob’s act was filled with the unusual and the unheard of. He incorporated taped loops into his act (working like the Echo-Plex that was designed a few years later) and a home-made electronic synthesizer made by a friend (also prior to the manufacture of synthesizers). This small electronic box would soon grow to be the voice of "Axonda,’ used in his concept album, The Enlightening Beam of Axonda, released in 1974. His story reminded me of my love of Peer Gynt. His performances became "mind blowing’ experiments, with sounds and lights, instruments and voices, hands and feet going non-stop. Again, this was way beyond my prior concepts of reality. Bob’s "One Man Orchestra," which resembled a large-scale erector set covered with instruments, included a six-foot loosely-wound spring, draped from one supportive pipe to another. When he plucked it, it boomed like thunder. That thunder would soon become the introduction to his show, and with it, he drew his audience in and held them on the edge of their seats until the house lights came up at the end of his set. I learned a lot from Bob. He was a natural, gifted performer, with a six-octave voice I’d never imagined possible.
Six months after receiving my harp, a student, who’d heard from Bob that I played, asked if I might play just one song at a Somersault Summer Solstice festival to be held on the back lawns of the UCen the next day. I, of course, had not yet written one song on the harp, but Bob, seemed to think I could fake it, for just one song. After all, they were offering five dollars, and I should be able to improvise and just make a song up on the spot, with all the little riffs I’d been working on. Needless to say, I’d not yet mastered improvisation and knew I needed to return to that memorized mode I’d grown up with. The morning of that festival, I arose early and began to write my first song on the harp. I completed it by noon, ran my drills and by 1:00 p.m. played it on the UCen lawns. It was an instrumental I called "A Child’s Flower" in honor of the children somersaulting down the hill. To my surprise, the audience called for an encore. I told them I only had one song...and so, I repeated it...and my start as a street musician began.
I went on to write more and more songs, sending in my laboriously hand-written musical notations and words to the Copyright office along the way. I would play at small coffee houses here and there, and soon became a regular performer at the Southern Renaissance Faire in Agoura each spring and the Northern Renaissance Faire in Novato each fall. I moved to Laguna every summer to play at the Sawdust Festival. In between I’d play at Venice Beach, Westwood Village, the Affair in the Park in Beverly Hills, the Calabasas Pumpkin Festival, the Rose Bowl Swap Meet and the KPFK Christmas Faire in Santa Monica. It was a sort of gypsy lifestyle and Bob and I, unknowingly, joined that group of wandering musicians that toured the small-stage showcases, faires and street corners of Southern California, always hoping for a record deal along the way.
Though I never secured that record deal (until now that is: thank you Drag City) I did meet some amazing people: Roger Miller, who gave me recommendations to Columbia Records, Graham Nash, who gave me his card but I never had the nerve to call, Phil Spector, whose doctor arranged for an audition in Phil’s barb-wired mansion of a house in Hollywood, Irving Azoff, whose same doctor arranged for an audition in Irving’s office, which was also, by chance, the day the Eagles burst into that room, with the first copy of Hotel California...just before I began to play...and I was sent to the Record Plant to make a demo...and their album went on to be a multi-million dollar success. Then there was Alice Cooper, whom I didn’t recognize, sans make-up, in the "green room" of yet another mansion in Hollywood, where I played on the grounds for an American Cancer Society Benefit, and he would play the stage. And Groucho Marx, at yet another American Cancer Society Benefit, where I would again play on the grounds, this time on the closed avenue of Rodeo Drive, with a large stage constructed in the center of the street, for the later performances of Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli...whom I would also be introduced to, by that very same doctor that so loved my music and wanted to make me a star. And so it was...or seemed to be...that elusive stardust...so close, and yet, so far away.
While living in Laguna Beach, I made friends with a group of people communing in the Rainbow House, in the canyon. People with names like Luna, Star, Silver Bird, and Nebula lived there. They made and sold dreamy air-brushed t-shirts and feathered, beaded, silver jewelry. Bob and I performed at their summer-solstice backyard celebration one summer’s evening, which led to a friendship with a man named Toby Roberts. He was from Tennessee and I’d been told had once been the first manager of The Allman Brothers. At the time, he ran a company, in Malibu, called Toby Roberts Tours. He arranged the limos, the hotels, and the private jets for touring bands like the Moody Blues and Led Zeppelin.
That fall, I moved to Santa Monica. Toby called one night and asked if I’d like to go see George Harrison and Ravi Shankar at the Forum with him. The unexpected Mercedes limo that picked me up would include Gregg Allman seated inside. We drove into the Forum via a back entrance lined with screaming young women, who couldn’t wait to see whomever they could get a glimpse of, in the parade of entering star studded limos. Inside, Toby disappeared and I’d hang close with Gregg, as he’d stop to talk with people like Joni Mitchell, Billy Preston and Sly. Inside that cavernous forum, I felt much like those screaming young women outside. It was a whole new world for me and my head was definitely spinning. To my great disappointment, we left early, and went back to a house in Malibu, where Toby asked if I’d like to play my harp for Gregg. Before I knew it, I’d done just that and I left the next morning to join Gregg’s second solo tour across the United States. It would include awkward conversations with a young Cameron Crowe in the back of Gregg’s private plane. On stage, I played a short three song set alone, on what should have been an intermission. Gregg introduced me, after his first set, and I, with far more trepidation and much less intoxication, would brave the stage. Shows ranged from 2,000 to 11,000 people and included my home town of Seattle, where the local reviews read: "Ms. Kleyn’s voice immediately reminds one of Judy Collins, and combined with her skillful harp work, provided a professional sound not at all out of place with the rest of the show.’’ And I...breathed a big sigh of relief. By my last city, I received that unexpected, energetic call for an encore...it was the best way I could ever imagine ending that tour.
When the tour was over, for me, I returned to the much less opulent, unfinished garage I lived in, in Santa Monica, wondering what would come next. Bob had completed his Enlightening Beam of Axonda album, on his own Destiny Records label, at Clover Studios in Hollywood. This was done with the back-up of a wonderful man, studio owner, Chuck Plotkin. Chuck would go on, shortly thereafter, to produce exceptional albums for super stars like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.
After a few months, with no offers from Gregg’s label, Capricorn Records, coming my way, I decided that I, too, should put out my own album. I recorded it, as a demo, on a limited budget, with backing from my father, at a Seattle studio called Captain Audio’s Music Farm. I titled it Love Has Made Me Stronger, after a song I’d written for Bob, when we’d temporarily gone our separate ways. The spring of 1976, I sold it, with great reception, at the Renaissance Faire in Agoura, and a new path in my music began. I realized that I loved the spontaneity of the streets and faires, and the people that frequented them. Many would return to see me at the next faire, and I preferred those settings to the more formal stages that so unnerved me. Though I still hoped for a record deal, with a larger company, and would continue to find myself in unexpected situations, like my private performance at a house in Malibu for the likes of Led Zeppelin (sans Jimmy Page) (no tour followed...), there was a deep satisfaction that came with producing my own records and being in charge of my own destiny.
In 1980, I produced, with Bob, a second album, Takin’ the Time, which was just what I was doing then. This included a back-up band on one side and a recording of my very first song with lyrics, written on the harp, words co-written with Bob, called "Prayer." It was a song I sang on tour with Gregg, written about the Vietnam War, of all things. When I performed it, I sang in the back of the harp, producing an echoing, haunting effect, at the beginning and again at the end of the song. This singing in the back of the harp would become my trade mark, and "Prayer" would be the song people would come back to hear again and again. Unfortunately, it’s the last song on the album, and my allotted space available had run out. Foolishly, I cut the second verse. Someday, I hope to remedy that decision. The words were worth keeping.
In 1983, I produced my third album with a beautiful mermaid cover taken by Laguna photographer, Pat Dallas. Return of the Silkie would be a concept album, again relating back to my childhood fantasies of Peer Gynt and Peter and the Wolf, and it would grow to be my "pure and simple’ favorite. The inspiration for this album came from the big red barn in Laguna Canyon, where I volunteered and nursed the injured baby sea lions and elephant seals, found along Laguna’s shores, back to health, so they could once again return to their home at sea. I recorded their voices, and sang and played my harp for them, feeling not so unlike the pied piper of Hamlin. They were a joy and became a memory stored in this small package.
And now, years of experience and three beautiful children later, it seems the circle of my life has remained 'unbroken,' as Gregg would sing in his encore each night. May you enjoy the reissue of my first three albums, with Drag City, and with any luck, newer albums to come. And, if you should see me 'touring' on some unexpected street corner, be sure to stop and say hello, so I can tell you thank you, for a life very well spent.
—Carol Kleyn, May 2011
User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License and may also be available under the GNU FDL....
The summer of '69, I headed to college to the University of California Santa Barbara seeking the longed-for land of blue skies, sunshine, bare feet and homework on the beach. I]d grown up in Seattle, pale of skin, with a closet full of raincoats and boots that never fit. Though I always loved music and played the oboe in the school orchestra, and the All City Band, I’d quit my piano lessons early on, when it came time to hale the scales of Czerny and leave Peer Gynt behind. Researching colleges was a given, my senior year, and I’d hoped for an Ivy League acceptance. Part of my research of schools included studies of the news. The truth is: I had very little real understanding of what was going on in politics and the outside world, especially that war in Vietnam. It was not something we discussed at home and I knew of no one who had jo...