A Minor Rock Star

A nostalgic look at The Blues Project's Danny Kalb

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When I was 13 or 14 I spent a certain amount of time in my local record store in suburban Connecticut contemplating the cover of Projections by the Blues Project: five proto-hippies hanging out on the corner looking slick with their polka dot shirts and sideburns. And that guy with the coolly arrogant stare with his finger hooked in his belt loop – who was that? Kooper, the most famous one, I recognized from his association with Bob Dylan, and Katz I knew from the covers of two Blood, Sweat and Tears albums, a band that had even then achieved far more success than the already defunct Blues Project. But the swaggering hipster who caught my eye – that was Danny.

I met Danny Kalb in 1996 at a party in Park Slope, where he had lived for some years after the breakup of the Blues Project and a spell in California that had not been good for his mental health. Danny had founded the band in 1965, making the progression from Greenwich Village folkie and resident guitar virtuoso to plugged-in rock and roller. For a while the Blues Project, with their progressive blending of blues, rock, pop, and jazz, looked like they might be the Next Big Thing, but it never panned out; as Danny once told me, he had been a minor rock star for a couple of years. Most people agree that neither Projections nor its under produced predecessor Live at the Café Au Go Go really did justice to the band. Like many a cult band, they never quite got down their vibe on wax. I prefer their third and last album, Reunion in Central Park (1972), which comes closest to capturing their almost-as-tight-as-a-jazz-band-but-not-obsessed-about-it essence. The boxed set The Blues Project Anthology (1997), in the grab-bag way of the band, contains a rich miscellany of rockers, pop ballads, jazzy instrumentals, blues standards, and throwaways, but I can’t improve on the superb liner notes by John Platt and anyway what I really want to talk about is Danny, the only rock star, minor or otherwise, I’ve ever known.

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Although I deeply admire Danny Kalb’s musicianship and the courage with which he has confronted the many difficulties of his life, I nevertheless belong to that sizeable secret fellowship of his ex-friends. If Danny has a genius for making friends he also has a genius for losing them, and although I initiated our final rupture, it could easily have been, and often is, the other way around. Either way, the consequence is apt to be a five-page handwritten screed in which the offender’s failings are laid out in the Jungian/Gestalt terminology that Danny has always favored: “foundational,” “evolved,” “defended,” “moral dialogue,” “creative struggle,” “creepy,” “crippled,” and “unacceptable.” The last three terms might not have been very Jungian, but that didn’t stop him from explaining precisely how they applied to me. This was his last “service” to me, as similar diatribes had been to various others. Relative to his usual ex-cathedra denunciations, a few of which he read to me before tossing off, I’d say I got off fairly lightly.

If I was ever inclined to judge Danny the way he judged me, the abrupt and thorough transformation of my life into the sort of tragic blues song he understood and interpreted so well would have more than chastened me. I sometimes wish we were still getting together once a week or so and that I could tell him about my, alas, deeper understanding of the pain behind blues music, but although this life lesson in existential ass kicking postdates our friendship, it does help to illuminate for me the nature of his struggles and his musicianship. At any rate, I now see why he used to get so impatient with my technical questions about his playing of this or that song by Ray Charles or the Reverend Gary Davis. Yes, it was a 13 rather than a 12 bar blues and how utterly, utterly beside the point.

Certainly Danny has had to deal with a lot more blues than I ever have: poverty, mental instability, hospitalization, artistic marginalization, and the world’s scariest trip on bad LSD (Owsley’s own). And yet, as he liked to say, if Gary Davis, a poor, blind, uneducated black man in the Jim Crow South could sing of his sorrows as, in some Biblical or “foundational” sense, existentially motivated, who was Danny to complain? And for the most part, he didn’t. His talent, confidence, intelligence, religious faith (not shared, to his bemusement, by me), and ever-shifting network of friends helped him to survive more than one crisis, but there were times late at night when the phone would ring and I would pick up the receiver to hear Danny calling to me from the private hell of his lovely, leafy block in Park Slope. There was nothing self-pitying or petulant in these expressions of fear, loneliness, frustration, and psychic exhaustion. Danny came by his grief as forthrightly as he did his joy, and he had, by any objective standards, a lot to grieve about. Nevertheless, I felt somewhat out of my depth when confronted with such a profoundly rooted suffering, and I can only hope – now that I’ve been tempted to make a few of those midnight phone calls myself – that I helped. Mostly I kept my mouth shut except to offer a few consoling bromides, and Danny would generally bounce back within a few days. I never really knew what to say then; I do now.

There were other, more agreeable phone calls. Sometimes Danny would call, lay the receiver near the sound hole of his guitar, and serenade me (or, when I was less lucky, theatrically declaim one of his formless Beat “poems”). These improvisations tended to be moody, wispy, and open-ended, so that I could never quite tell when the moment had arrived to murmur my approval. Yet my appreciation was sincere. Danny played with impeccable technique and deep feeling, and it was awfully nice to pick up the phone to hear one of the best guitarists in America improvising something just for me. It was perhaps a measure of Danny’s arrogance that he never practiced. Although he rehearsed with his band and regularly tried out new arrangements, he picked up his guitar solely as the spirit moved him. Probably he was right: How the hell could practice make him any better than he already was?

Danny’s greatest frustration was his inability to get his music heard. I didn’t blame him for nursing that particular grudge; sometimes I felt like screaming about it myself. As a few hundred people lucky enough to have heard him play in churches, tiny clubs, and coffee houses could attest, he was making the best music of his career. His singing, always a bit gruff and ragged, had deepened and evened out with age, his guitar playing, now that he was providing both lead and rhythm, had become even more masterly, and his repertory of folk tunes, early rock and roll, straight blues, and spirituals had evolved into an encyclopedia of deep, weird, and wonderful American roots music. Furthermore, his electric trio, whom he played with more regularly than with his acoustic trio or as a solo act, featured a highly compatible bassist/vocalist and a very swinging drummer. They’re still the only rock and roll band I’ve ever heard that could play a John Coltrane composition without embarrassing themselves.

So where was Danny in the much vaunted Blues Revival? Why was “Danny Kalb” a name that you never seemed to hear anymore? With his paunch, scraggly gray hair, and ’70s anchorman-aviator glasses, he was never going to appear on MTV or fill Madison Square Garden, but with so many lesser musicians making a living from the blues, surely there was room for him somewhere on the circuit or at a midlevel record company. Was his style just too rough for those who liked their blues music a little sweetened and their blues musicians a little more telegenic? Maybe. But I had heard him talk about various owners, agents, managers, and promoters, and I strongly suspect that what he told me about them – that they were, for the most part, unevolved, hopelessly defended moral cripples – he told them. Danny tended to blackball the clubs before they could blackball him. I recall one night in 1999 sitting in a Greenwich Village club (off limits to Danny) listening to a parade of dazzling guitarists pay posthumous tribute to another friend of mine, the great harmonica player and teacher Bob Shatkin. Danny hadn’t been especially polite to Bob when I brought the two of them together one summer night to try out a few songs on my rooftop garden in Brooklyn, but Bob had responded with his accustomed graciousness and wit, and they certainly clicked musically. In fact, it sounded as if they had been jamming together all their lives, and it struck me that at that moment some of the best music in America was being played on my roof deck for my wife and a couple of friends. Hence the comment of another guitarist friend that night in the Village: “Why isn’t Danny here? He could kill every one of us.”

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Among the legions Danny found morally lacking were his ex-bandmates in the Blues Project, especially Al Kooper. In many ways he still admired, respected, and even loved them; in other ways he sounded like John Lennon on the subject of Paul McCartney. I do hope he tells the band’s story and all the other stories of his tumultuous and eventful life in the memoirs he has been sporadically working on for years. I won’t say what he said about Kooper, but even when listening to these harrowing tales of rock and roll skullduggery I couldn’t help thinking: Could Al Kooper really be that perfidious? I’m sure it was all very painful and convoluted, in the way that the premature dissolution of a near-great rock and roll band is bound to be, but Kooper, as it happens, wrote in the liner notes to his Soul of a Man CD some of the warmest and most appreciative words about Danny Kalb ever written. For reasons familiar enough to anyone who has ever been in a rock and roll band or merely seen This Is Spinal Tap, the Blues Project never reunited after 1972, though at the time I knew him Danny occasionally gigged upstate with Steve Katz, the band’s second guitarist, harmonica player, and sometime lead singer. Danny had some interesting things to say about Steve, too.

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Danny’s remembrances of other friends were less fraught. Dave Van Ronk (his principle teacher), Bob Dylan (his housemate for a brief spell at the University of Wisconsin), Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins he recalled with palpable affection, and the stories he told about other musicians, writers, activists, junkies, and wheeler-dealers should make for a splendid book on the ’60s if he ever finishes writing it. In recent years, however, his political passions have come to a boil, and his newer friends are more likely to be cultural critics or historians than practicing musicians. (Some, actually, are both.) Certainly it’s hard to imagine any rock musician knowing as much about the Cold War – the names, the dates, the places, the revelations of the Venona Files – as Danny does. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine anyone knowing as much about the Cold War as Danny does, except perhaps for his good friend Ron Radosh, author of The Rosenberg Files and a pretty good banjo player. Like Radosh, Danny has taken the “journey,” as he would call it, from ’60s radicalism to an unashamed but not uncritical patriotism. “Ugh, how creepy,” a friend of mine once exclaimed after hearing me speak of Danny’s views, and I agree that it’s extremely annoying when people express political opinions different from one’s own. I’m a Clinton/Obama Democrat – further to the left than Danny but a lot further to the right than some of my old Park Slope friends, for whom the very notion of patriotism is – at least when expressed by Americans – anathema. (As that same friend once put it, in any given conflict between the United States and another country, she automatically supported the other country.) It was one of life’s little ironies that Danny, who admired Albert Camus and Ronald Reagan about equally, had ended up in this neighborhood of “angry lefties.” But the really angry one was Danny.

A Red Diaper baby and a former Freedom Rider, Danny had always been political, more so that I ever was or could be, but we agreed on many points: that the Cold War was not entirely the fault of the United States, that marriage was an institution worth preserving, that Raymond Aron could wipe the floor with Jean-Paul Sartre. The trouble with Danny’s politics wasn’t his opinions, which, for a neocon, ex-communist rock star, were actually pretty reasonable, but his tendency to demonize his opponents: “angry” lefties, militant feminists, radical academics, Soviet apologists, and, sometimes, me. I caught the brunt of his displeasure when I mildly demurred from his support of Rudolph Giuliani’s attack on the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 for its sponsorship of “Sensation,” an exhibit of contemporary British art featuring Chris Ofili’s elephant dung portrait of the Virgin Mary and similar outrages to public decorum. I had seen enough vapid and trendy conceptual art in New York to know that this show was not going to be my cup of tea, but I thought that Mayor Giuliani was grandstanding and that if public monies were being ill spent, this was one of those annoyances we occasionally had to endure as the price of a free and functioning democracy and (minimal) state-sponsored support of the arts. Apparently not. What was I afraid of? What was I hiding? Why was I with the “haters”? Agreeing to disagree was not Danny’s strong suit. Perhaps his distaste for opposing viewpoints derived from his heavily doctrinaire upbringing in a communist family amid other communist families in Westchester County. In any event, when one of his political bêtes noires came up, as happened with increasing frequency, I found it advisable to hold my tongue.

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“They’re trying to take away our freedom!” he exclaimed to me, without any preliminaries, on the day in 1998 when it became shockingly, sickeningly clear that the Republican House of Representatives had every intention of impeaching President Clinton for lying about a blowjob. I shared his outrage, but why take it out on the waitress in the coffee shop where we had met for breakfast? (For an avowed populist, he could be pretty rough on ordinary working people when the spirit was on him.) Sometimes his political obsessions spilled over into his performances. Danny’s between-song patter might include a mini-lecture on Ezra Pound’s anti-Semitism or the pathologies of revolutionary violence. Since he happened to be a skilled raconteur, he was unlikely to lose an audience completely, and his reflections on the African American “journey,” with which he identified so intensely (he had – as he liked to remind me – boarded a Freedom Bus bound for a segregated amusement park in Maryland), provided an illuminating context for his performances of landmark songs from that journey, Still, I preferred the simplicity of the comment he once made to a somewhat mystified audience after spending a bit too much time explaining his complex mix of right, left, and center perspectives: “Look, things have improved a little, haven’t they?”

For all of Danny’s engagement with historical realities, I regretted that his political passions seemed at times to overwhelm his musical ones. On any day of the week he might be seen shuffling around Park Slope with his gimpy walk and a folder under his arm containing articles by his favorite political writers: Paul Berman, Sam Tannehaus, Stanley Crouch, Mark Lila, Tony Judt, Sean Wilenz. (Berman, by the way, once played fiddle in Danny’s acoustic trio, and Wilentz wrote the liner notes for Danny’s Live in Brooklyn CD.) Though unwelcome in the more chichi establishments, Danny would make the rounds of cafés, coffee bars, pizzerias, and bookstores, eager to engage anyone on the great agora of Seventh Avenue. In this way he befriended many strangers and got into occasional shouting matches, either of which outcome seemed to please him about equally. I did wish, though, that instead of the folders, he might have been lugging around his guitar case and that the disputes might have concerned music rather than the depredations of the “hard left.” He certainly knew what he was talking about, but personally I thought his schoolboy giggle, which he reserved for his most intimate and unguarded moments, was worth all the fulminations in the world.

I often heard that giggle in Danny’s tiny apartment off Eighth Avenue, where I would go with a couple of pints of Haagen-Dazs ice cream to spend a companionable evening – if he wasn’t in one of his weirdly hostile moods, as sometimes happened – conversing and listening to records. He did most of the conversing, and I preferred it that way, but I enjoyed myself most when we just sat on his tattered sofa listening to what he called “sky music”: Tim Hardin’s “Black Sheep Boy,” maybe, or early Muddy Waters. Danny has contributed his share to the world’s sky music, and even on his frustratingly inconsistent small label and no-label solo albums, there are moments that make the throat catch. When he sings, “Everything I had, done and gone” on “Shake Sugaree,” it’s not just music anymore. So I say again that it’s a shame that Danny Kalb must battle so wearyingly, living precariously on a few guitar lessons, royalty checks, and minimal concert proceeds. With his sometimes bruising ego and tendency toward self-sabotage, he hasn’t made it easy for the world to come round to him, but it’s still the world’s loss.

Mine too. Sometimes my life feels like “Shake Sugaree:” Every friend I had, done and gone. The last time I saw him was just before September 11, 2001. I can’t remember what we talked about, but I know he would have kissed me goodbye, like the good ’60s hippie that in some ways he still was. Later I saw posters in the neighborhood for a benefit concert he was giving for the families of the Park Slope firefighters lost on that day. I didn’t attend.

As a postscript I might add that I have since seen Danny a couple of times on Seventh Avenue. Let’s just say he didn’t kiss me. There are a number of people whom I try to avoid in Park Slope, and the best we can do is glance discreetly away. Danny doesn’t glance discreetly away. Oh well, allowances must be made. I just wish he would confine his excoriations of my character to private communications on yellow lined paper. A few years ago Michael Greenberg wrote a reminiscence in the Times Literary Supplement in which he recalled Danny at 18, playing “Mean Old Southern” for a live radio broadcast from Riverside Church on the Upper West Side. Dylan, who was enthralled by Danny’s guitar playing, accompanied him on harmonica. Greenberg described Danny’s guitar style back then as “watery and fast, folk blues with an unpredictability that was related to jazz.” That was a long time ago, but he’s still out there, playing his music whenever he can and, as he might say, “honoring the struggle.” •

Images courtesy of Michael O’Brien via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Stephen Akey is the author of two memoirs, College and Library, and of essays in The New Republic, Open Letters Monthly, and The Millions.
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