South Atlantic Blues: A Conversation with Scott Fagan

On December 31st 2015

ScottFagan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I knew a David Pemberton when I was younger,” he says, just as I’m starting to record. “He and his family were living in the Virgin Islands... maybe third generation Puerto Ricans. We had a great time together, many adventures running around, it was extraordinary.”

“I never would have guessed that,” I reply. “My name is very English and my skin is very white.”

“Well you’ve got relatives on the Bongo Isles kid, and they’re just waiting for you to come home.”

I called Fagan from my office in San Francisco to talk about South Atlantic Blues, a lost album from 1968 that will officially reissue on November 20. It’s an album that’s often praised as a “psychedelic folk masterpiece,” though there isn’t much that’s psychedelic and there isn’t much that’s folk. No, in the 30-plus times that I’ve listened to it so far, all I hear is masterpiece.

I was mailed a copy of the South Atlantic Blues reissue a few days before speaking with Fagan. It’s remastered from the original recording and includes a new cover, a lithograph printed by Jasper Johns, who was a huge fan of the album. It’s also packaged with an old-school plastic slip, something you don’t see much of these days. The recording is beautiful, the pressing is perfect, and it’s a hand-numbered limited edition. If you’re a vinyl snob, if you want to look cooler than your vinyl snob friends, then this record is a must have. It’s the right mix of old and new, classic and contemporary, rare and authentic.

“I was an idealistic young person out to change the world in a business that was fairly destructive to creativity,” says Fagan, as he begins to recount his history. “If a record's a hit, they want to keep making that same record, over and over. That’s why things all sound the same. Sameness is the safest bet.”

But compared to his contemporaries, Scott Fagan’s musical style is something that is absolutely unique. “There was just one radio station in St. Thomas when I was a boy, and they had to play music for everyone,” he says. “European Classical, Armed Forces brass band, Country, Western, Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, Charanga, Mambo, and from all over the West Indies, Calypso.” You can hear that radio station broadcasting through South Atlantic Blues, in keys and strings and brass and steel drums. It’s all there, it’s all present. “That’s what I thought was right,” Fagan says. “You were supposed to take the best and apply it. I didn’t know that you had to fit into a particular genre to fit in the right bin at the record store. I’m not this or that, I’m just Scott.”

It shows in the music. “The Carnival is Ended” might be the best example of South Atlantic Blues’ diversified influences: it’s this light hearted tune that wafts gently on a gust of horns and steel drums and sails on through the dark water of Fagan’s vocals. It’s not folk, but it’s not caribbean either.“I’m not a singer,” he explains. “I’m a writer who learned to sing.” When Fagan was writing “The Carnival is Ended,” he was young, homeless, and living on the streets of St. Thomas. “There’s the tourist’s reality,” says Fagan, “but there’s also the gritty waterfront: the street urchin’s reality. That’s where I lived, on the rooftops next to a club called Sebastian’s.”

Fagan slept under the stars, with sounds of music and dancing and drinking rumbling underneath. “I listened to Elvis a lot in those days,” he says. “I love Elvis, pre-army Elvis. Elvis was my salvation, my rock and roll liberation.”

“But you recorded South Atlantic Blues in New York,” I said. “How did you get there? How did you get out of Puerto Rico?”

“Kid, if you can believe it, I stowed away on an airplane...I thought I was going to Miami but instead the plane landed in Baltimore.” It wasn’t long before the authorities noticed a grungy and street-worn Fagan meandering around the airport in a Hawaiian shirt and sandals. He was in the states for less than twelve hours before they sent him back. “One can’t be too selective when stowed away on a plane.”

Fagan eventually made his way to New York after spending a few months working as a deckhand on a sailboat, playing around bars in Coconut Grove, forming a small fan club and raising $50 for a bus ticket North. “I think, somewhere in there, I answered your question.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I think you did.”

The young Fagan stepped off the bus with eleven cents and a telephone number. “The first thing I did —and I mean the first thing—was call Doc Pomus.” I never did figure out how he got the number.

Doc Pomus. Doc Pomus. Where do I know that name, Doc Pomus? Fagan picks up on my hesitation, and helps me out: “He was a fabulous songwriter and producer. He wrote ‘This Magic Moment,’ which is a beautiful song.” Pomus wrote songs with Phil Spector and Ray Charles and B.B. King. “He invited me up to his room at The Forest Hotel,” recalls Fagan. “I sat at the piano bench and sang three songs, songs that I’d written. When I was done he signed me under personal management.”

Doc Pomus and Fagan started working that afternoon, writing many of the songs that would make it onto South Atlantic Blues. “Doc taught me very early on how to write songs. He also educated me in the reality of the music business, which was not so nice.”

“What do you mean, not so nice?”

“I told Doc that I loved Elvis. You know, the early stuff. He said to me ‘Scotty, Elvis never wrote a note in his life.’ Elvis never wrote a song in his life. The cost for getting Elvis to record your material was half of the publishing rights. Listen man, the music industry is full of heartbreak for a young artist.”

“Is that why South Atlantic Blues is so dark? ...Or maybe ‘heartbroken’ is a better word.”

“Yes. Exactly.”

Fagan stayed in New York, eventually ending up in Hell’s Kitchen and supporting himself by writing songs with Doc Pomus and hustling tunes at derelict cafes. “I wrote most of South Atlantic Blues on 49th Street and 10th Avenue,” says Fagan. “To be honest it didn’t feel much different from St. Thomas.”

“My favorite song is ‘Crying,’” I said. “So, I’ll selfishly ask... what do you think about that song?”

“You won’t believe this, kid, but I was just singing that song before the phone rang. It’s my favorite song, it was my mother’s favorite song.” He’s right: I barely believe it. But I do, because he’s so damn straightforward.

“Crying” is a slow meandering tune, melancholy and dark and singularly honest. Elements of folk and pop and jazz all mingle together to create a simple track, not far from a show tune, with hints of intensity in Fagan’s vocals. But, as is often the case with South Atlantic Blues, it’s the lyrics that demand the most attention.

“I remember writing it very very clearly,” says Fagan. He was broke, disenchanted by the music industry, without the money to afford anymore studio time. “I had to go out and find a bar with a piano in it. I was with my writing partner, he played a beautiful melody and I started singing.” The song perfectly reflects the sadness and desperation of a young artist struggling. It’s universal. It’s archetypical.

And, interestingly enough, the song ends with a short reprieve. The music stops, everything goes silent, and the electric keys come back for just a few more notes. It’s the break in-between sobs, the numbness between evening and dawn: it doesn’t follow any musical form and it punctuates “Crying” with an emotional clarity that most songs never really find.

“And it’s honest,” says Fagan. “Every word of it, true.”

I think that’s what draws me into South Atlantic Blues. It’s objectively a notable work but, when talking to Fagan, it’s easy to chart out a specific timeline to the music. The whole album, all of Fagan’s work, is built on authenticity and driven by experience.

“I wrote ‘In Your Hands’ on my 21st birthday,” he told me. “It was my 21st song, and it was in response to Lyndon Johnson’s day of prayer.” Fagan was young, and broke, and like many of his contemporaries, he was frustrated with the war in Vietnam and our President’s response to its escalation. “Here was a man who could end the war on Vietnam in four minutes, putting the responsibility in the hands of the American people, who were supposed to pray to some higher power that the war would end.”

“In Your Hands” reflects that frustration perfectly, but it isn’t an angry song. Again, this is one of the distinctions that sets Fagan apart. He sings “they are the gods, this is the heaven, nothing has been planned. Stop the superstition, truth is all you can demand.” No one is being called out, no one is being condemned. Instead Fagan is trying to show us a better way, a pursuit of truth... a life where we can create heaven on Earth. It is honest and free of pomp or circumstance, and I think that’s what makes it so affecting.

“I wanted to say something particular to my own experience and my own ability to express it,” says Fagan. “And that’s where all the songs on South Atlantic Blues come from.” It’s bittersweet, in a way, because we get this amazing record as a result of his experience, and his ability to communicate those experiences so eloquently by song. But in an industry that Fagan describes as volatile, even cruel to young and authentic talent, it should be no surprise that Fagan fell off the map.

South Atlantic Blues is a lost masterpiece, after all.

“My follow up was called Soon and, if you can believe it, it was a play.” Fagan and his writing partner premiered Soon on Broadway with considerable hype. The play, like South Atlantic Blues, conjured the themes of desperation and artistic integrity. From what Fagan told me, it’s a play about being young and in the recording industry, based very closely on Fagan’s experience in recording South Atlantic Blues. Sadly, tragically, Soon became something of a self fulfilling prophecy.

“The producers came to me and asked me to change everything,” says Fagan. “They wanted it to be more entertaining.” Fagan was blacklisted from the theater because of his refusal to make the changes, and the production was put on hold indefinitely. Fagan’s recording career never really recovered. The momentum he had built with South Atlantic Blues was gone and his reputation was forever tarnished.

“I never wanted to be an entertainer,” he says.”I wanted to be a part of changing the world.” But that wasn’t what the industry wanted. Fagan was recording at a time when the music industry was heavily regulated and heavily curated. There was no Internet, no grass roots, no indie labels. If your music wasn’t playing on the one radio station, then it wasn’t playing.

South Atlantic Blues is a tremendous album. The music is unique, the arrangement is diverse, and lyrics are, to put it simply, literary. For me, for anyone who is paying attention, the reissue of South Atlantic Blues is extremely important. Scott Fagan is the lost musician who deserves better, who made the music that deserves to be listened to, who wrote with honesty and integrity, and genuine, undeniable good will. He’s the real deal, and the 60’s left him behind.

We talked for awhile longer, about Donovan and David Bowie and Fagan’s great-grandmother’s short-lived career as a nun. We talked about long-lost children and long-lost loves and a particularly interesting affair on a houseboat in the bay. I’ve had the good fortune to interview a few musicians in the past, but none of them were nearly as generous and interesting as Scott Fagan. Eventually our hour is up, the time has come, and I’ve got to go back to work. “Let me know the next time you’re in New York, kid,” says Fagan. “I’ll be waiting to play you a song.”

South Atlantic Blues was released on November 20, 2015.

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