Back when me and my mates were all younger, in the long gone early seventies when our biggest interest by far was listening to music, besides all the “underground” classics of the time like Yes, Zappa, Rundgren, Genesis, King Crimson, Caravan and the such, none of whom were household names at the time, there were a few really obscured acts that within our listening circle we all really took to our hearts. Obviously the genius Barefoot Jerry were an all time favourite, as was the mighty R. Stevie Moore. And then there was Pete McCabe’s sole album The Man Who Ate The Plant released in 1973 and first discovered by my brother Todd. It’s quite an eclectic collection, peppered with a few charming playful tunes that are mightily fine in themselves. But then there are the absolute killers that push this unique record into the realms of beloved masterpiece. Multifaceted, emotive and incredibly beautiful slabs of wistful baroque orchestrated psychedelic pop like, Magic Box, Lullaby, Late Letter, The Experiment, I Put The Smile Back On Their Faces and Music Box that just knock your socks off every time you play them. A classic then but The Man Who Ate The Plant was also very obscure, released on the tiny Tumbleweed Records, for quite a few years Todd had the only copy amongst us. It has never been re-issued which is a damn shame because it certainly deserved to be. After Todd moved stateside he track down Mr. McCabe and the result was not only Pete playing on Todd'’ recent Songcycle album but also as we mentioned in the post below the release of a much welcomed new album Homeward. A year or so back Todd interviewed Pete on his radio show and I have been busy transcribing stuff from that show to give you all the background on the long lost classic that is The Man Who Ate The Plant. So it’s over to the man himself.
Pete McCabe: I first got into music when I was in junior high, that was when the folk craze hit and Peter Paul and Mary, The Kingston Trio and those kind of groups were big on the radio and every kid was getting a guitar and learning to play. I had a couple of friends that played guitar and at that time I had gotten a ukulele and I played that for a little while but that wasn’t too cool obviously. So then I wanted a banjo and a family friend sold me a tenor banjo. It was a four string banjo that was really designed to play in jazz bands in the twenties and everyone else was playing a five string banjo but I didn’t really know any different. I was hanging out in this place in Denver called the Denver Folklore Center, they had a concert hall, they had guitar teachers and they sold instruments, that kind of thing. I learned to fingerpick just from hanging around in the front room and listening to the other players. So I was fingerpicking on an instrument that anyone else would have rightly played with a pick, so I never really did learn to play with a pick. So I was playing this strange instrument,the tenor banjo, and I just started writing songs in my bedroom. One of the earliest songs I wrote actually was "The Man Who Ate The Plant," I just kind of went into a trance when I was writing that song, that’s probably the most psychedelic tune on the record but that was way before I heard anything about drugs. Of course by the time I made the record that was a big part of my life for some time. I ended up in a folk group in junior high and then later somebody called me and said, “I heard you play at the Folklore Center and I really like your material, have you ever thought about recording?” And I said, “Yes I’d really like to record.” That was Robb Kunkel who coordinated things when Larry Ray who had worked for ABC records and Bill Szymczyk came out from LA to check out the music scene in the Mile High City and put together Tumbleweed Records in Denver. Robb was a promotion man for ABC records and he ultimately brought several acts to the label and was also an artist for Tumbleweed. I’m still in touch with him, he really had a great deal to do with me getting that record, I was just in the right place at the right time I guess.
They flew me out from Denver and I did two sessions at the Record Plant in L.A. All I’d ever done was play on some little coffeehouse stages so it was kinda scary and really exciting for me to play in this studio setting with these session players. Bill went on to become this superstar producer that recorded the Eagles' "Hotel California" and many other big records, but at the time he had just recorded with The Who and the Edgar Winter Group, that record with "Frankenstein" on it. Bill just had enough clout that he could hire these musicians he’d worked with before like Jim Keltner, Larry Knechtel, Louie Shelton, Chuck Rainey and Buddy Emmons. He hired them, I guess, in consultation with the arranger Jimmie Haskell. I sort of really wasn’t aware of the credentials of these guys. It was only really later I realised Jim Keltner played on a lot of records and things, like the Bangladesh concert with George Harrison, playing alongside Ringo. And Chuck Rainey played with Steely Dan and he was an amazing player and of course Larry Knechtel played on all those great Simon and Garfunkel records. After we had done the first session Bill said. “I really had funkier players in mind for you but I’m glad I got these guys instead," because they were really intelligent players that were playing some really pretty far out music. I feel very grateful that I got to play with those musicians and after it was all over Bill said, “You know those guys never heard any vocals they played it all from charts.” When you listen to the record it’s pretty amazing that that was the case. I just wish I had been a little more friendly with them, I was just so scared that I was going to screw up, I just sort of quietly sat there and played and hoped everything was going to work out. Joe Walsh, who Bill has just started recording with, came in while I was recording the vocal tracks and borrowed my guitar to play, which was pretty cool. So after the Record Plant sessions I actually did some vocals up at Caribou Ranch up in the rocky mountains, outside of Denver, where Elton John made a record and the place burnt down just after I was up there. I also did some vocals and, I believe mixing at the Hit Factory in New York so it was quite a cross-country venture. "Lullaby" and "The Experiment" are among my favourite songs on the record,I think Jimmie Haskell did a fabulous arrangement on "Lullaby." One thing about that song, that chord that opens the song, that big swelling note, when we were recording it, the strings came in and recorded their parts and Szymczyk said “Okay I want you to play just one chord, start from loud then decrescendo down to pianissimo.” And I didn’t know what that was about and he said I’d find out later. Eventually what he did was he reversed the tape and spliced that onto the front of the tune and it has that kinda big explosion sound which somehow I think really fits in. It was supposed to be a civil war lullaby, and the way it opens I think it feels like you’re going back in time.
"Magic Box" was actually the first tune we recorded and the chart for the song had about five pages because it has so many different endings. I was really nervous because I had never really played with anyone before and here I was sitting there with this quartet of top session players and I was going to have to play these songs without singing them and I kept forgetting which ending we were supposed to be coming to and going into the wrong ending. I distinctly remember going into the men’s room and looking into the mirror and saying “Pete you’ve got to get it together, this is your big shot, you got to play this tune!” I had been reading a book of short science fiction stories, most of the entries in this thing were two or three pages long, and there was one story about a travelling magician that came through a little town. He had a big crowd of people out in a field and he levitated a person who went up into the air and disappeared from sight and that was basically the whole story, so that kind of gave me the idea thinking about a magic man who makes people disappear.
"I'll Be Your Sweetheart" was the second song we recorded because both it and "Magic Box" had Buddy Emmons playing pedal steel on them. He was one of the first to arrive and he was just warming up and he was playing these amazing chords I didn’t think you could play on a pedal steel, I was just amazed at that. On the charts for Magic Box, from my discussions with Jimmie Haskell, it said for pedal steel “SCI Fi not C&W”, and Buddy said, What is that? Well, science fiction not country and western and even though it sounds like a synthesiser on there that’s the pedal steel.
With "The Experiment," I was in the fifth year of art college trying to get a degree, which actually never happened because I dropped out as soon as I got the record contract. One of the things I had to do was I had to take a psychology class and I think some of that terminology, the notion of proving a hypothesis, being an unbiased experimenter, I really wasn’t that great in the class, but I came away with some of those ideas. I had a girlfriend at that time and eventually broke up with her and was starting in with another one and it seemed like we really were not all that compatible, it seemed like both of us felt life was mostly winter. "The Experiment" was about that, looking at a romance in terms of it being an experiment.
Before the record Bill Szymczyk and his assistant Alan Blazek had got me to come over and play them all the good tunes I had so they could go through them and pick out the ones to do. and they came to "I Put The Smiles Back On Their Faces" they said, "That’s kinda interesting but what the heck is that song about?" I said it was about a paranoid mortician and as soon as I said that, they got the whole song. I put the smiles back on their faces is what he does for a living. As a child I used to stay over at my grandmother’s in this house I had a nostalgic feeling for but it was also kind of a scary house. And I just remember brushing my teeth late at night there and there was a big banister down the hall and it was all dark. What’s out there waiting for me? So a little of the paranoia came from that, I guess.
For the song "The Man Who Ate The Plant" I felt like I was almost channelling something strange there because that was a very early banjo tune and I was just playing these C minor chords over and over again until something struck me as the kind of words that should go to it, and this mysterious song emerged. It took place in this alternate universe where no one had ever eaten a plant before and how the neighbourhood might react to someone who did something so strange.
"Music Box" is certainly about being frustrated with trying to link with the opposite sex. I did notice that sometimes women seemed to be very interested in me as a musician but that was about it. At that time I was starting to write piano tunes and "Music Box" and "Suicide" were the only two I had at the time and I didn’t realise that Szymczyk had in mind that "Music Box" was going to be the giant production number that it was. I was trying to keep up with the rhythm section because they really took off at the end. When we overdubbed the strings and horns it was pretty boffo. That tune had so many instruments on it, I believe it had thirty pieces and it was really fun to sit there and listen to this orchestra on these giant speakers. Though from time to time, not knowing that much about studio recording I was secretly afraid I was going to get covered up by all these instruments, but Bill just wanted to hear them nice and loud when he was putting down the basic tracks.
The album came out in 1973 and that was just about the time the money ran out at Tumbleweed; the company was going out of business. It did get national distribution but even at the time I think I was pretty esoteric and it was unlikely I would become a household name or anything like that but its too bad that I didn’t have any promotion as the album was coming out. I felt I had my foothold in the music business and I’ll just go onto my next record and basically nothing much happened. Jim Ransom, a photographer and folk singer, started up this little local label Biscuit City Records and opened this small studio Biscuit City Sound Recording. They put out this sampler in ’74, Colorado Folk II, on which I had three tunes; "Sweet Jesus Goodbye," "Still In Love" and "I Fancied Myself An Artist" and I also played on one of Jim Ransom’s records as I recall.
Pete Circa 1976
I worked in some restaurant jobs for a while and then in ‘76 a friend of mine from my original folk group in junior high ended up working in this studio as an engineer and he suggested I recorded there. I had a group that played very infrequently call Pete McCabe and His Cake Walkin' Albinos and I got the guitarist Scott Bennett to play on the sessions, along with this bass player Geoff Ibbott and keyboard player Pete Wasner, who went onto a very successful career in Nashville. I did a whole album’s worth of tunes at Applewood Studios outside of Denver, and that was never released. At that time I felt I was much more studio savvy and my singing had improved quite a bit but I guess it just wasn’t commercial enough. We tried to shop it around but nothing much happened. So after that I decided to move to LA, and I got here but really couldn’t get into anybody’s offices so that was about it at the time.
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