Eddie Wong interviewed Charlie Chin, a leading figure in the development of Asian American culture. The interview was conducted in San Mateo on Nov. 26, 2019 and it explores Charlie Chin’s career from the 1960s folk music scene in Greenwich Village through the rock era when his group opened for Jimi Hendrix on to his major contributions as an Asian American singer/songwriter/storyteller and author.
EW: Tell us about your childhood. I know your dad had a laundry; did you grow up hanging around the laundry?
CC: I like to tell the story, which is basically true, that my father and mother were dating around 1942 and she was, because of a complicated situation, a U.S. citizen. My maternal grandfather had fled from Shanghai, China. He was a wanted man. According to family legend, he had been involved in trying to help reform the character system to help public education, which was anti-Manchu Dynasty. He had a lot of European and British friends and they got him out by giving him membership the Scottish Freemasons which is how he got the last name Brown to get out of China. He went to his brother who had a small store in Costa Rica, but his brother said if you’re a wanted man, it’s still too dangerous here, you should go to Trinidad. There is an enclave of anti-Manchu Chinese there and he end up going there. He married a Caribbean/Indian woman and later had the opportunity of coming to New York City to work for the Hills Brothers Coffee Company. He entered the United States during the Chinese Exclusion era and he was able to do it because his last name was Brown and a citizen of the British Island Colony of Trinidad and Tobago. While he was here, he and his wife had a couple of children, my mother included. My mother was born in United States and automatically became an American citizen.
By the time World War II happened, my father, who is born in Toisan, China, was over here working as a laundryman. They were dating; she loved to dance and he loved to dance, They were part of a large group people who went out dancing every weekend and this is during the big band era. And they were thinking about getting married, but he was a national from China who can never ever become an American citizen because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and she was an American citizen who would lose her citizenship if she married my father who was an ineligible alien. It wasn’t until 1943 that the U.S. repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act because the U.S. had an exclusion act against one of its allies, Free China. So, the Exclusion Act was struck down and they got married. I was born in 1944 and had a very basic Chinese American upbringing during the late ‘40s in which Chinese Americans either worked on laundry or a restaurant. My father either had his own hand laundry or he worked in a shirt pressing factory where there were dozens of men pressing shirts and sheets. I actually did a little bit of that when I was ten years or 11 years old during the summers. During those days, we got three cents a shirt. Men worked 12 hours a day, I was a boy so I only worked 10 hours a day, but it was Illuminating to me because it made me understand why you don’t want to work in a laundry and I understood the lesson very, very quickly.
I grew up partially on the Upper West Side kind of like that background for the musical West Side Story. Later, we had an opportunity to move to Queens. My mother came to the realization that we weren’t going to go anywhere if we were depending on the income of one laundryman, so she put herself through night school and become a lab technician. That gave us enough money to move to Queens, a destination for people leaving the city but who are not well to do. They want to move to what were newly formed projects or co-ops and most of them were very heavily Jewish which was good because that meant that they were not going to be discriminatory especially against Asians. Most of the Jewish people had family who had actually been through the Holocaust, so they were very sensitive about any form of discrimination and they didn’t want to be guilty of it themselves. The result is that we moved to Jackson Heights, Queens which at that time was 1/4 African American middle class, for example Satchmo (musician Louis Armstrong) lived in Corona not that far from us; it was 1/4 Jewish; 1/4 Italian and 1/4 Irish so what you got was a very strong immigrant second generation influence, an emergent middle class influence and that’s where I grew up.
By the time I got the high school, I was becoming very dissatisfied with the kind of lifestyle we were leading in Queens. Don’t forget this is a very oppressive time, the ‘50s. I entered high school around 1957 and I became convinced that I didn’t want to become what the mainstream wanted me to do. In the interim, I ended up bouncing into a lot of progressive kids in high school which interested me immediately and I fell in love desperately in love with a Jewish American girl who used me like a welcome mat in front of the house. She walked all over me but amongst the other things since she was progressive, her mother was very Progressive, they introduced me to things like demonstrating against nuclear testing, civil rights, the works of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and half a dozen other artists who were darlings of the political left.
EW: Yeah, the Weavers.
CC: The Weavers, exactly. I learned about all that by the time I was a junior in high school and the girl that I liked so much, she played guitar and she hung out with other kids who played guitar and that convinced me that I should learn to play something. I already played which was the quatro, a sort of little four-stringed ukulele which comes from the West Indies. But they were all playing guitars and I decided after watching for a while that if I played guitar I’d always be at the end because everyone else played already, but I noticed that nobody played the banjo. Even if I wasn’t that good it would give me immediate access to the inner circle because there are no other banjo players. I took some money from my after-school job and bought this little $45 banjo from a pawn shop. I learned to play it with a Pete Seeger record, and I got close enough to hang out with them and found out that she was a real jerk. She was paper thin and not very deep at all, but by this time I was turning 18 and hanging out a lot with the African American guys knew about drinking, smoking marijuana and going down to Greenwich Village on the weekend to look for rent parties you go hang out and meet girls who were alleged to be very casual when it came to virtue. So, I said that’s for me, and I joined them and hung out in Greenwich Village.
In Greenwich village I saw a whole bunch of guys who sing and seem to be living free. They call themselves beatniks, so I said I’m going to school and all this conventional stuff and it’s boring. These guys are just hanging out and relaxing, discussing intellectual stuff. As a matter, my real college education was in the Village. I left home with that banjo, survived by playing coffee houses and hung around with a lot of these guys who were basically academic dropouts who weren’t doing anything important, but they had the benefit of a very good education. So, I listen to these guys talk and they make references to Diogenes, Aristotle, Goethe and I say who the heck are these people. Luckily, we live the United States of America which has amongst other things a wealth of paperback books which could have been bought at that time for 75 cents or a dollar. So, every time I heard the name of someone I didn’t know, I would go out to a bookstore and buy a little Bantam or Penguin book of that person and slowly but surely, I gained more information about what was really going on in the world.
I was also lucky enough to have a mentor Maurice, Prince of the Bohemians, who was ageless. It was rumored that he had been around since the ‘20s and it was by this time the ‘60s. He had shoulder-length white hair and a full, long white beard and he loved to sit back and sort of be a mentor. You bought him a cup of coffee and he would say, “Ah yes, let us look at the Greeks, the body beautiful, yes, Athens wonderful, wonderful”…and he would start pontificating and explaining what happened to the Romans and how the Romans owe so much to the Etruscans. It was like a little lecture series right there for a cup of coffee or scrambled eggs. He mostly ate scrambled eggs because he didn’t have many teeth left. I learned a lot from him, especially about philosophy.
So, from 1962, I was working as a folkie in Greenwich Village. It was a great time. Things were inexpensive, it was post birth control and at that time anything that you could catch could be easily cured with penicillin, so nobody worried about anything. You just noticed that some people just didn’t drink for 10 days so you guess they’re probably taking some medication, but it was great. It was a lot of fun. But then bapa de bapa, bump da bum, the folk music thing began to die out and rock and roll came in.
EW: Let’s back up a little bit, when you left home, how did your parents react? Was there a cultural clash at home between your father who was born in China and your mother who grew up in New York?
CC: Yes, of course. Neither one of them really understood what I was doing. My mother cried every night according to my father who said to me, “She has no idea what you’re doing down there; what are you doing down there; why don’t you get a job?” I said that I like to play music so he said “Why can’t you do that on the weekend and get a regular job during the week?” Luckily for me, I started getting reviews in newspapers with my picture. Then at one point in 1966 or 1967, a TV station did a short little piece on me and my father immediately relaxed – you’re on TV… that means that you can make a living at this. My mother still didn’t understand what was going on, but she backed off too because they’re working class people; they had no idea what it meant. Getting a job meant you had something to fall back on – the laundry, the restaurant – whatever it might be.
EW: Did you have brothers or sisters?
CC: I have two brothers Danny and Ken. Ken’s still alive, Danny died when he was about 21 years old. Ken lives near Morristown, New Jersey with his wife Jodie. He has two kids, but we’re very,very different. There’s four years difference and I left home at 18 when he was 14 so we were never really that close, and I spent years living in Greenwich Village. My parents had no idea what was going, but then around 1970, we reconciled on one level or another.
Rock ‘n roll comes in 1967, to be more exact folk-rock begins. People said, “What do you mean rock and roll is coming back; it’s over.” But there’s this thing that’s been going on in England, these kids were playing American blues and rock and that’s what’s happening now; it’s folk-rock. One of the reasons why it was folk rock was a very large percentage of the American players had been in folk music for several years before they got back in rock and roll. It just meant that clubs that were folk music clubs became rock and roll palaces overnight.
EW: Dylan went electric at Newport Folk Festival in ’65.
EW: Did you see Dylan in the village? What did you think of him?
CC: There wasn’t much to say. He hit on my first wife a couple of times which annoyed me, but that worked out since they were both Jewish. They were okay with that, but I wasn’t okay with it. I never thought he’d make it very big because he couldn’t sing and couldn’t play well. What I missed at the time was that he wrote very well and that’s what people noticed. It was a very important lesson; they didn’t care about the technical aspect, they cared about the message. He ended up starting a whole host of singer-songwriters. There was a golden period for a couple of years before I got caught up in the rock scene.
EW: Is that when you first met Stephen Stills?
CC: Stephen Stills had come up from South America. His father was working in Venezuela. He used to play this big, blond Guild, a nice guitar, very nice guy. I crashed with him for a short period of time, sort of like roommates. Everyone knew everyone else. Greenwich Village in 1965-66 was an area not much bigger than two or three blocks. Over time, you got to meet everybody because everybody is working. This was especially true of what they used to call the basket houses. Those were coffee houses that were illegal in that they weren’t supposed to have entertainment, but you could go in there and play a set for 20 minutes and passed the hat. You could survive by playing in these cafes and that’s what most people did. You did about five shows tonight and if you were really eager, you could go to another house down the block and do a set there; that would be called doubling so you end up working for nine times a night doing 20-minute sets.
EW: Is that how you developed your style?
CC: It’s the best education you can have because you’re on stage more than you’re off stage. You learn to conquer the problem that all beginner performers have which is they get tense when they’re on stage. If you actually live on stage that gives you a center; you’re not intimidated by being on stage, Later, in what we refer to as Green Room wisdom, you pick up tips from other performers and put together your performance style.
I also started to play a lot more instruments because as time went on you realize that the basic folk combo was guitar, banjo mandolin, fiddle sometimes bass, The more you can cover, the more you can play and the greater the your chances for getting hired. If you got a guy that has a band and you have four people, and he wants to have a tune with a harmonica solo. Instead of hiring a guy whose only job is to play the harmonica, you look for a guy who can play the guitar and also play the harmonica. So very quickly, I learned how to double on things like autoharp, banjo, guitar, dulcimer. You learn to play them because if you’re living as a musician, you convince your girlfriend that you were home practicing all the time when she’s out at work whether it’s true or not is not the issue. Sometimes, it’s actually true and you’re practicing, not just watching TV. So, you can become adept very quickly and I was able double and of course be able to sing.
I had never really studied singing. I grew up singing with my family which was West Indian. Whenever there was a house party, everyone would sing, everybody dances. Most people can play something.
The Chinese of the West Indies were notable in that they first came as workers but within a generation or two became the middle class. After they worked the fields, they saved their money and opened a little store, At the end of seven years, one thing led to another and they became small shopkeepers. The Europeans are a thin, little strata on top. They run everything, but then there’s a thin middle class. The greater portion of people are workers usually African Americans, but the British and Spanish brought in outside workers like the Chinese and the Punjabi Indians, but they also did the same thing. They became farmers, many were workers originally, and saved their money and eventually became the shopkeepers.
In a plantation economy, if you’re a small shopkeeper, people have to go to you every week to buy butter, salt, sugar or flour, but there’s only money in the area when the crop comes in or when the crop is sold. So, people live on chits; they live on scrip so the guy who runs the plantations says well here’s a scrip for $20. You go to the Chinese guy and he says, “What do you want? Salt, flour or whatever? That’s $6. You give me the scrip and I’ll give you my scrip back worth $14.” But since you can only spend that scrip at the Chinese store slowly but surely capital starts to amass and the Chinese become the middle class.
EW: How did your father who was an immigrant from Toisan fit in with this West Indian community?
CC: He actually didn’t talk much about it. To him, it came with his wife and some of us know when you marry a woman, you just don’t marry her; you marry her family and a whole trainload of luggage that comes along with her. It’s quite common for them to accept the other culture, particularly if the woman is going to be responsible for raising the children. Don’t forget we’re living now in a different time and place. Only two generations ago when I was a kid, most tasks were gender-specific; women cooked and cleaned and took care of the kids, men worked. When they weren’t working, they came home and relaxed. They were served food, whatever was put in front of them was what they ate.
When I was growing up the role models were these heavies like John Wayne, guys who represented an ideal, a man who was inflexible and hard-nosed but trustworthy. He took care of things but was no Mr. Nice Guy. He didn’t talk about intimate feelings. He didn’t talk about things that were touchy feely. His job was to take care of things and protect people. Part of the problem was that like a lot of overseas Chinese, my father went to another country, he married a woman from another group, and for whatever reasons he was never going to go back to China.
EW: So he never told you about the village?
CC: He didn’t talk about it, but I learned through the family that he had had an extremely violent argument with his father, my grandfather. My paternal grandfather was not a nice man categorically across-the-board. Everybody who ever knew or heard of him said he was a terrible man. What had happened was he had several children and he sent my father to America as insurance. The older brothers and sisters were doing other things; he sent my father to America with a strict instruction. You’re supposed to go to America and send money home.
There’s a family anecdote that my father’s working in a little hand laundry up in the Bronx and a distant cousin came to visit him and walked into the laundry and looks around, steps into the back room and sees a little cot, a little two-burner gas stove, a little table and says, “This is where you live? Everybody back home thinks you’re rich.” My father says, “What do you mean?” The cousin says, “Your brothers don’t work anymore, your sisters have a new dress every month. They think you’re rich.” My father wrote this letter to my grandfather and said, “What are you doing? I’m working like a horse here and you’re taking all the money and spending it.” My grandfather wrote a letter back: “It is not your place to question what I do.” That led to an argument. To this day, I don’t know the man’s name because my father refused to say his name. So, he just severed everything. That was it.
EW: After the folk period, how did you get into Cat Mother and the rock scene?
CC: There’s this guy named Roy Michaels, great guy, we used to call him Bones because he’s very skinny. He played the banjo and all the banjo players knew each other and hung out together. He had been in several groups and at that time there’s a push for folk music groups like the New Christy Minstrels, The Serendipity Singers and he was with a group called Up with America, totally clean scrub kids. I’m walking down the street and I say, “Hey here comes Roy Michaels.” I haven’t seen him a long time and I say, “Hey what’s going on?” Roy said, “Hi, this is Bob Smith, how are you doing, we just got back from California we went to something called Monterey Pop.” I said, “What was it?” Roy said, “It was absolutely great. We’re going to form a rock and roll band. You want to be in it?” I said, “Sure” and that was it.
At one point we were rehearsing at the old Polish Ukrainian National Hall and we had a job coming up and we needed a name and we couldn’t agree on a name. We used those old funky names like Rubber Band, Porcelain Convenience, all these strange names. One of the kids hanging out with us said, “Why don’t you call yourselves Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys?” We said that’s ridiculous, but we agreed we’ll use the name for this job, and we’ll choose a better name when we finish. We did the job and we were apparently a hit so all of a sudden, we were stuck with the name. The next thing we knew, we are playing on the Lower East Side with groups coming up like The Lovin’ Spoonful. In late ‘68 the band wanted to move up to Woodstock, New York. Why I don’t know, but everybody was moving up to the country. This is still part of the whole hippie thing, go back to nature.
EW: Yeah, like The Band.
CC: They were not far from where we ended, a place called Saugerties. You can walk from Woodstock to Saugerties if you had strong legs. Bubba found an old abandoned farmhouse and it had 19 rooms. It was on a side of a hill, the first part has been built in the 1700s, and it was available very, very cheap and the reason why it was so cheap was that it was supposedly haunted. We went in there and checked it out and there were some strange things that happened, but it was so cheap, and it came with a piece of land and a big backyard and the sloping hill that went up forming a natural amphitheater.
So, we moved in and divided up the work, I ended up in the kitchen, of course, because I could cook number one and I was not going to be chopping down foliage or fixing cars. It was relatively easy because back in those days macaroni and cheese went a long way. People weren’t super conscious of what they were eating, and it was relatively easy to feed everybody there. There were five band members and women and children.
Then we thought what we should do is invite some of our friends from the city and tell them we’re going to put together an outdoor concert. We had a sister organization Mother Pablo’s Dispensary of Joy. They later moved out to San Francisco, and they said, “Hey, we’ll set up the stage, sounds and lights and you get the acts.” We said, “Sure, come on up for a weekend all you got to do is play; I will feed you and we’ve got 19 rooms; you can have any room you want and crash.” This went on for two summers; it was getting to be quite a thing and we were drawing two or three thousand people a weekend for a couple of weekends every summer.
By the time of the second year we were saying I’m getting tired of this. Larry, the fiddle player and the guitar player, wanted to quit, but then it was the last night of the show and we always finish the show because we didn’t have to go anyplace. Most of the other acts had to start driving back to New York. So, we are finishing this last set and when you’re on stage and facing a couple of thousand people on the side of a hill, the lights on the stage allow you to see about 20 feet out but the rest of it is kind of dark. I can see way in the distance at the top of the hill a guy running towards the stage. It’s a white guy, he’s got long hair and he stripped to the waist and he’s running toward the stage and I said “Oh,no I hope this guy’s not on acid.” He starts running towards the stage and getting closer and closer until finally he jumps on the stage. I drew back, he grabbed the microphone and says out loud, “Hey everybody, let’s dance” and as one person, the entire group of people stood up and started dancing. It was blowing my mind.
We closed the show, but someone says come back to the house, there’s a guy who wants to talk to you. We go back to the house and there’s an English guy there, Michael Jeffrey. He said he was very interested in signing us up and we said who are you and he said, “Oh I’m with Jeffrey Chandlers, we handle Jimi Hendrix.” So, we said whoa. We had to have a little conference in a side room. We were planning to break up, but we’ve already logged in a couple years and this could mean a record contract. That being the case, why don’t we stay together for another year or two. If you want to leave, everybody takes their cut and leave. My thought immediately was I’ll log in a year or two, take my portion and open up a little restaurant. This shows you how young and stupid I was. I didn’t realize that nine out of ten restaurants fail. I didn’t find that out till later, but I said all right.
We sign on to the Michael Jeffrey office where Jimi Hendrix was the headliner and he wanted to produce our group’s first album. We did about 36 shows opening up for Jimi Hendrix which was really an experience. It taught me a lot about what happens when you go with big money. That’s a whole book onto itself, the horror stories of what happens and what people will do to themselves and what they’ll do to other people. At one point, I just can’t deal with it. So I said “I’m quitting.” I go to the office to get my money and I find out there’s no money. “What happened,” I said. The managers said, “Well, you have to go see so and so blah blah blah so I said, “Just give me what you got and let me get out of here.” I figure I’m getting out of here with my life so I’m happy.
I got out and I started doing folk gigs again. There was a bar in Greenwich Village called Nobody’s run by the Chin family, distant relatives, and there was a bartender, Harry Lowe, old-timer. He worked all the clubs in Vegas; he worked in the Bahamas; he was a real old pro bartender. We’re talking one night, and I had gotten back from a road trip of two weeks. After expenses I had about $100 in my pocket and I said that’s good, that means I can hang out for about two weeks before I have to go out again. So, I’m talking to Harry and he’s kind of distraught looking and he said it’s so slow tonight and I said, “What’s wrong?” He said, “I don’t think I’ll make $100 tonight” and he glances at the tip cup. And I said to myself he can make $100 in one night. I said, “Harry, could you teach me how to bartend?” and he said, “Yeah sure.” I spent many years being a bartender while I was performing with Nobuko and Chris. I started taking classes at night, wine classes, food and beverage management, because my assumption was that I’d end up probably working for a hotel or some other chain where you get good perks like healthcare.
EW: During that rock period you ended up playing on “Bluebird,” the Buffalo Springfield song. How did that come about?
CC: Steve Stills used to be one of the guys who hung out in the Village. He was friends with my first wife Carlin and used to come over. Because he didn’t have a place at the time, he’d come over to use our phone to make calls to the West Coast. There was another guy, Peter Torkelson. He’s another banjo player and he had gone out to the West Coast already because people are saying by ‘67 going to ‘68 that’s where the action is. It’s in LA. Steve decided to follow and the next thing I hear is some guys are putting together a band and one of them looks like Peter.
This is what happened: Peter and Steve go out to LA start hitting all the traps, making all the calls, reading Variety every day, making all the auditions. Steve Stills makes an audition and they want four well-scrubbed guys to be on a band that’s going to be on TV. He auditions and they like him, but they say, “Do you have an older brother who’s a little taller? We already have a short guy.” Steve thinks for a second and says I’ll be right back, jumps in the car, goes across town to the Golden Bear Cafe and picks up Peter Torkelson who’s washing dishes in the café. Steve says, “Do you have your banjo at home?” He picks it up and goes to the audition. They like him and sign him up for $350 a week, which was big money. He figures like the other guys in the group that this is good because how many pilots actually survive and meanwhile for half a year he’ll be making $350 a week. The whole thing had been produced even before they stepped through the door. There are lunch boxes, t-shirts, comic books. They weren’t going to write their own songs; they’re weren’t going to play their own music. (note: the show and group was called The Monkees and they eventually sold 75 million records worldwide.)
Meanwhile Steve Stills can’t get arrested. He runs into a bunch of guys used to know from the East Coast and formed a group called Buffalo Springfield. They’re starting to get some action, and late one night I get this phone call: “Hey what’s going on? Who is this? This is Steve Stills. Listen, are you free?” “ Yeah sure, what’s up?” “I’m in town for like a day or two. I want to catch up but I’m working, mixing an album up at Columbia in midtown. Why don’t you come up and we can talk in between the time I’m doing the engineering. I got an hour free, let’s talk. I don’t have time to come downtown. By the way, do you still play the banjo?” I said, “yeah.” Steve said, “Bring the banjo.”
I go to Columbia Records and as I get off the elevator, it’s like 11 at night, and Steve’s standing the hall and playing the guitar. He says, “Can you play this?” and I say let me see and he goes and bling, bling, bling and I said, “Sure, no problem.” He said, “Come on into Studio A.” We lay one track down, then two just to play it safe. I play the second track ding, a ding, a ding, ding, ding, dang. We sit down talk in the studio – blah blah blah, what happened to so and so, oh yeah yakety, yak, yak, and then about an hour and a half later he says, “Well I have to get back to work but thanks. Good to see you. Next time you’re in town, give me a call, we’ll have lunch.”
He goes back to the West Coast and a couple of months later I hear the album (Buffalo Springfield Again) was released and the selection from the album that they used for the single was a piece called “Bluebird” and there’s a banjo solo at the end of it. Now this is a surprise to me because it was just done separate from the rest of the song and added on. If you listen, you’ll hear a nice piece and there’s a board fade and when it comes back it’s the first or second take we did and that’s the end of the piece. It was a little strange at the time, but people thought it was genius. The next thing I know, I get a musician’s union check for $90 and ever since then people say, “That’s Charlie Chin, he played banjo on “Bluebird.” Less than three minutes of work and it has haunted me for the whole of my life (laughs). I’ve worked on other projects for years and nobody cares, nobody knows. Take one, take two, how’s your wife doing blah blah – that was it.
EW: You made the part up?
CC: He played the tune. I copied the tune. It was his genius to use a banjo solo at the end because it comes in from left field. It has nothing to do with whatever goes on before. That was his genius. I had nothing to do with it the way it sounded. When he was talking to me, he said that it had just occurred to him while he was moving the pots up and down. As it is, the piece is considered too long. The standard was three or three and a half minutes and at that time they were very strict about it. The only thing they would play that was longer than three and one-half minutes was a song like “MacArthur Park,” which is five minutes long. When you heard that on AM radio those days, it meant the DJ was going to the bathroom because he’d run down the hall, go to the bathroom and come back.
EW: Were you happy with that piece?
CC: I didn’t care. It was just a little piece, nothing special. Then later, I was teaching banjo on and off and that actually worked out because people said he’s the guy that played on “Bluebird” and people said, “Oh, I’ll study with him so that I can say I learned to play the banjo from this Chinese guy from New York City.”
EW: You also wrote songs as part of Cat Mother. I found “Charlie’s Waltz” on YouTube. What’s the origins of that song?
CC: In the folk days, everyone wrote songs, that was the paradigm: one guy, one guitar, singer-songwriters. I still write songs now. It’s not terribly complicated. After a decade of listening and learning songs, you begin to pick up the rhythm and styles. It’s not terribly difficult. You learn how to manipulate the words and you take a song for its purpose, which is to do a little painting, a little sumi-e painting, a little brush painting. You don’t have a lot of colors, you don’t have a lot of choices, but you can make a picture with a few little strokes, and that’s part of the genius of the great songs. They offer an image, a feeling, a suggestion but in just a few simple strokes. The height of that is haiku where you have 17 syllables to produce the image, the flavor, the atmosphere.
“Charlie’s Waltz” was based on walking down the street in this case St. Marks Place and seeing a very attractive woman wearing a big wrap around Indian print skirt, floppy hat, sandals. Lovely, gorgeous youth – I’m drifting now – (laughing) – the beauty of youth. At that time, we didn’t realize people give off pheromones, and you find yourself captivated by someone and you’re not sure really why and then you realize later that the pheromones coming off that person must have been so intense; it’s like wow.