Friday, September 30, 2016

# 60 Paul Butterfield's Darker Days Part 3

When Better Days returns from their successful tour they are tired, but energized. Their leader is an exception though, he is a noticeably changed man.  His mental health is faltering, he is complaining more, and even more cynical about the music industry than when he left Woodstock.  He is now questioning his career choices, and even his profile as an accomplished harmonica player. Butterfield just wants to sit, commiserate, get high, and write songs on the piano. He is also now practicing a daily regime of self-medication with tequila, cocaine, pot, beer and by some accounts, heroin.

There is an ongoing debate about what we as a society choose to blame for our addictions. One camp prefers to think of addiction as a genetically motivated disease. This seems to be the most popular explanation in 2016. Then there are those who believe that addictions are the result of external environmental triggers brought on by poor coping skills. Neither theory is supported with conclusive evidence, but to this writer, the later seem most probable. Consequently, it seems more likely that Butterfield's worsening addiction is a result of his inability to cope with career and lifestyle stress.

The social environment in Woodstock of the mid-seventies is changing too. While it isn't the primary cause of Butterfield's worsening addictions, it does seem to exasperate his condition. One contributing factor is the social dynamic of Grossman's stable of musicians which is becoming more openly dysfunctional with substance abuse as a growing issue. Another important contributor is the recent international media attention that the 1969 festival attracts. The success of the festival turns the little town, and its small colony of artists into a tourist destination, akin to a back to country Disneyland. People are no longer just pass through; they are now making picture taking pilgrimages to observe the hippies in their natural habitat. This new reality is so disruptive that it is quite possibly a cause for high profile artists like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison to pack up, and relocate to quieter surroundings.  

Paul Butterfield's Woodstock is now an incestuous community of pop artists with varying degrees of success who hang out in the local bars, consume copious quantities of drugs which are supplied by a growing tribe of hangers on, and drug peddlers. Chris Parker remembers, By that time it (Bearsville Records)had too many kinds of artists, and not enough budget. There was also a lot of peer pressure among the artists, like who got the Mercedes, and was treated based on record sales, or was it based on who could manipulate Albert to their advantage. It is in the midst of this environment that the now emotionally vulnerable Butterfield is expected to maintain his band, compose new material, and then prepare to go back out on the road.  

Then there is the boredom. In spite of the rock star fantasy promoted by the industry advertising machine, musicians adhere to a fairly standard business model. They are basically traveling salespeople who spend most of their time out on the road in search of marketing opportunities. There are exceptions to the rules of the game i.e. The Beatles, but they are a rare exception, most slog it out on the circuit to earn their pay cheques. (This dynamic is even more common in the modern world of free downloading)  So, for many of the musicians coming back to the quiet town of 2500 in Catskills it is a nice retreat from the road, but can become like a secluded mining town where there is lots of money available, but the only way to dull the boredom is to spend all your cash on gambling, women, drugs.

Like so many other people in the sixties, Butterfield  experiments with psychedelics, but he is
primarily a beer, pot, and tobacco user. Remember, the bandleaders who Butterfield looks to for guidance in the early sixties are tough Southside bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. These leaders barked orders, and would often fine musicians for appearing on stage under the influence. Butterfield isn't that strict, but definitely discourages his members, and particularly young musicians like Chris Parker from getting involved with drugs. However, that was then, this is now. After the first Better Days tour, Butterfield doesn't seem to care anymore. Back in Woodstock, he teams up with other heavy substance abusers like Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Bobby Charles and  continues his self destruction. In the early 90s, that writer Bill Flanagan dubbs Danko, Manuel and Butterfield as the Chemical Roulette Trio with hyperactive, fidgety Danko as the leader.

It isn't all bad news for the Woodstock music scene though. Keep in mind, during the late sixties, and into the early seventies the best of Americana music, lead by both the Band and Paul Butterfield's Better Days is being created in Woodstock. (Ironically the Band is actually four fifths Canadian.) While Woodstock is still a cauldron of creative energy, it isn't nirvana. There are bloated egos, lots of money, power struggles, and their by-product, petty cliquishness. Many insiders consider the worst culprit to be substance abuse, which is escalating. Geoff Muldaur remembers, There were so many personal melodramas going in Woodstock. Here was this idyllic country setting and then evil naughty drugs got hold of it. Everyone used to smoke pot, but here was this nice white powder that supposedly helped you stay up longer so you could rehearse longer and do longer session. And pretty soon these happy, healthy people, who've composting and growing organic produce in their back yards and all, are offsetting that with large mixtures of blow and tequila every night. Woodstock devolved from a place where everyone was happy in the country living with their wives and having dinner parties, to a bad boys club. All the guys would say, "I'm off to rehearsal," and there was all this blow and hanging out at Deanies's and the Joyous Lake. But "I'm sure it wasn't any different  than what was going on everywhere else in America, just a microcosm of America's drug use. It is interesting to consider that only a couple of years earlier, Butterfield probably would be capable of participating in this environment, but still be able to maintain his composure. However, now, he is so vulnerable, it will almost consume him.  

It takes an fortified sense of self to stand up in front of crowds of thousands of people and expose
your deepest emotions, even if when you hide behind your instrument. So, to lose this important attribute is to become hollow and weak. During the first Better Days tour it becomes apparent to his band that he is even questioning his identity as a musician. Amos Garrett tells Butterfield chronicler Tom Ellis,  We talked about this many times, especially in the studio. Paul was getting away from the harmonica then something that didn't necessarily please any of us. He told me that he had just sort of hit a dead end with the harmonica. At the live gigs you'd never know it - he would still do his solo on Too Many Drivers and could always work a crowd into a frenzy with 15 minutes of playing, first unamplified then at the vocal mic., then through the twin reverb. But Paul was trying to get into more songwriting and playing the piano, into composition more than anything else. He told me once, 'I've got nowhere to go on the harmonica now - this is just as much as you can play on it,' Like a lot of harmonica players, he had an ego the size of a truck, but you know, he deserved it. At the times he was the best, bar none. But the harmonica didn't seem to excite him much.
  He loved Better Days because it was getting him away from the 12 bar thing. He especially loved the New Orleans stuff. He was very influenced by everyone in the band, especially because it was such an odd combination of musicians and brought so many new influences to him. But he wasn't picky about playing a solo on any particular song, and sometimes we had to urge him to play. This may be the tipping point for him. It is an important development because among his many skills on and off the stage, the excitement he can generates with his diatonic harmonica pivotal to his success. It is also his belief in the music that propels his reputation as the greatest blues harmonica player alive. Removing this sense of belief is as disastrous as pulling a cotter pin from a wheel axle.   

Many followers of Jungian psychology believe that the root of neurosis is an attempt to conceal a lie deep within yourself: avoidance of the truth generates all the negative behaviors that are bubbling on the surface. It is possible that many of the fundamental questions Butterfield is asking himself are bubbling up to the surface which are manifesting themselves in his public behavior. There are plenty of stories about him becoming both verbally and physically aggressive with people who dare approach him when he is intoxicated, but by the mid-seventies, these episodes are becoming more frequent and random. Paul Butterfield is now developing a reputation as angry drunk

His drinkin' buddies tend to be Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Bobby Charles. The four live in a adolescent fantasy world where the roles of their movie heroes are taken as reality, and no one is more devoted than Butterfield. They see themselves as tough guys in the tradition of  former Woodstock resident, and Hollywood tough guy legend Lee Marvin. As singer songwriter Robbie Dupree tells author Barney Hoskyns....... we were in the Espresso one night, and my bass player Greg Jackson, was awestruck. He told Butterfield  he's seen him play in Central Park but said the sound man hadn't done a good job. And for that he got a smack .... right in the face.... They were drunk and liked to think of themselves as tough guys, so I said, 'Go to Kingston- there's a whole town to fight down there. It is a typical behavior that alcoholics demonstrate in public. They are calm, likable people when sober, but when drunk they unleash an inner visceral anger. As his alcoholism becomes more obvious, similar outbursts are more frequent, and no its no solace for his family to know that he is also storing guns in the attic of his Wittenberg home.

As Better Days begins recording the karmic titled, It All Comes Back, Butterfield's quest for self destruction with drugs is worsening. He is feeling lost, isolated and frustrated. His long time friend and protégé Maria Muldaur remembers visiting him on a cold winter nights to find him sitting in his Wittenberg Road home alone, banging away on an out of tune piano. And Graham Blackburn remembers that The only thing that kept him together was his wife Kathy,; I don't know why he was out of control, other than that he was a basic inner-city Chicago kid. In modern parlance we might interpret Butterfield's behavior as a nervous breakdown, or at very least, behavior which demands professional attention, but most people seem to just turn their heads.

The recording of It All Comes Back is fraught with problems too. There are the drug issues, personnel problems, but the biggest problem is the mental health of the leader. He doesn't want to tour, he is using coke more often, and is regularly intoxicated, but his most severe handicap is his unwillingness to learn new material. As Ronnie Barron remembers, Paul had been spending more and more time with Bobby Charles,.... Paul learned these songs early, and without a lot of distractions; he didn't learn new songs real quickly ...., Paul had a lot of personal conflicts, and he didn't seem to want to sit down and work hard on new things. It was like he wanted to play around, and only do that he wanted to do.
Considering, it is only three years since he composes and performs quite innovative jazz/rock instrumentals harmonica, these are significant changes in a very brief period of time.

By the time It All Comes Back is being placed on store shelves in December of '73, a second tour is underway, but it isn't as successful as previous
one. Butterfield now has a full blown substance abuse problem, and it is showing in the performance reviews. He is showing up on stage drunk, audiences are yelling their disapproval at him, but he doesn't seem to care. He is also developing a suspicious streak as he shows in this interview with Laurel Dann of Circular magazine, Just what kind of information did you want? he'll ask politely, displaying almost imperceptible discomfort. He'll explain, You've  got to be careful with people, there are people that I look at, and know that I don't want anything to do with them. I can almost always tell when someone wants to take something from me but won't give anything back. No," he answers a question he's asking himself, "I don't feel that everyone who talks to me is looking for something, Some of the love you, but I never look for or expect that.   

Another example of the band's loss of direction is shown as they tour Canada. In early January of 1974, they are playing in the opera of Canada's National Arts Centre with the band personnel still intact, but Rod Hicks substituting for Billy Rich. They open up with an extended version of Too Many Drivers, Hicks performs one of his manic bass solos with Butterfield interjecting good natured jeering, and harmonica fills. The band is in good form, but their leader seems out of sync. He drinks beer, smokes incessantly throughout the performance, while constantly removing, and putting on his leather jacket, as he wobbles around the stage. Highlights of the show are the unexpected Will the Circle Be Unbroken, and then the master standing at the edge of the stage singing If You Live with no accompaniment. But the critics are not impressed with the once great Paul Butterfield. The review the headline in the entertainment section is Butterfield has had Better Days.

As his mental state continues to deteriorate, the band dynamics are becoming strained as well. As Muldaur remembers that Butterfield could be a handful even before the concert, I finally had to stay away from him before a gig because he would complain about so many things that by the time I played, I'd be first of all half drunk and exhausted because of I was worrying about everything with him...... There was a musical; evolution, but also a character devolution, says Muldaur. That's the sadness of some of this era. The album had too much cocaine on it. There were people who seemed to be able to handle coke, but maybe they didn't do it the way we did it. Muldaur will be one of the first to leave the band while they are on tour, sighting band issues, but he is also preparing to leave Woodstock for Martha's Vineyard with Jim Rooney's wife in tow.

One of Butterfield's most powerful skills is his competitive cut throat spirit, but even that is taking on nasty overtones. Rather than attempting to outwit a stronger opponent he begins seeking out opportunities to dominate people who are less able to defend themselves. As Geoff Muldaur remembers, We went into a bar one time in Chicago when we were playing Chicago. I think when we were there to do this show B.B. King and, Paul and I went to this bar where uh, Sammy was playing with uh, Jimmy Rogers and uh. Cotton. So they asked Paul to sit in. So the first thing that Paul calls is a minor tune in a minor key. Well that means he plays third position on the harmonica to get all those great notes. And Cotton, can't do that very well. So right off the bat it's just like this.... Butterfield's mentor, Muddy Waters would probably not have been this uncharitable to a colleague. These are the events that sober people remember as, Well he was a great guy when he was sober, but with a few drinks into him,he becomes an asshole

However, not everything is a failure out on the road. Maria Muldaur is an a original member of the band, and does background vocals on the first album, but she leaves, partly to because her marriage to Geoff ends. As she contemplates a solo career, it is Butterfield who encourages her to develop her own blues voice, and seek the center stage. She will never forget his kind words of encouragement, and still displays a photo of him in her office. Her gamble on solo career proves to be a wise decision as by 1974, she is reaping the benefits of her success with the hit Midnight at Oasis.  (Amos Garrett composes and performs the now famous guitar solo.)  She will hire Butterfield to add his magic harmonica on two tracks for her 1974 release Waitress in a Donut Shop (If You Haven't Any Hay and the top ten hit I'm A Woman #12), and then while out on the California leg of his second tour, he and Garrett appear with her at the Hollywood Bowl on July 21st 1974. (This recording is available)

There are other accolades for the dying band too. The industry standard Rolling Stone endorses
Better Days as crack rock band. Then on January 18th '74 they play the Midnight Special again performing Take Your Pleasure Where Find It (hosted by Smokey Robinson); later in the year they appear again performing Meet Me Down at the Bottom with host is B.B. King watching them from side of the stage. There are California gigs like the KSAN, San Francisco simulcast, but when you listen to many of these performances, you can sense there is a flagging enthusiasm within the band. As Amos Garrett remembers, Near the tail end of the Better Days band Paul was beginning to develop a bad drug habit. It wasn't obvious the first year or so that we were together; he was real happy then, in good financial and physical shape....  Years later Graham Blackburn will remember, ... Butterfield himself was in the grips of a cocaine habit, and the rest of the band were hardly immune.... Things were getting pretty difficult for Paul. says Graham Blackburn. But as long as you could still stand up and play, everything was justified.

In the end, Paul Butterfield's Better Days unofficially breaks up during the making of It All Comes Back, but the band actually staggers well into 1974. Muldaur is leaving while on tour, then Billy Rich departs for a gig with Taj Mahal, and the final collapse comes when Chris Parker leaves. Recognizing the end, Ronnie Barron returns to his solo career in California, and finally Garrett embarks a critically acclaimed career as both a session player, and solo artist. 

It should be noted that the main reason for the end of Better Days isn't just because of Butterfield's substance addictions, but rather his unwillingness to tour.  As Geoff Muldaur points out, there is a reality for all musicians, Every time we went into the studio, Paul made money, especially  for the delivering a record. But the band members would only get session fees.... When we were on the road everyone got a reasonable portion of the take. - a per diem , salary and such, and we made good money. So I was always ready to hit the road. But I think Paul wanted to stay in Woodstock and basically make records and drink. And so, after only a couple of tumultuous years, and only two critically acclaimed albums, one of the most underrated roots bands of the 1970s ends. 

Years later Muldaur, a master musician in his own right, will reflect on those days, actually my appreciation for Paul grew over the years after Better Days. You know? Uh, the mastery of his hooks,
he just, he put hooks on everything man. 

(A sad footnote to this piece is that while I found plenty of comments about Butterfield's addictions, there is little on attempted interventions by friends.)

Over the past several decades many critics, biographers, and fans alike try to make sense of Paul Butterfield's decline. The tone of their discussion seems to resonate a disbelief about the trajectory of his career. It's almost as if they are shaking their heads and saying, Sad, very sad!, and then blurting out the question, Why did an artist with so much time left, so many supporters, and so much more music to give, choose to jump from the precipice rather than at least attempting drag out the plateau of his career? Many still hopelessly point to his relationship with Albert Grossman, the social environment of Woodstock or his victimization by drugs because of his disease, but all these answers seem almost too simple. 

Shortly after Butterfield's his death 1987, the co-owner of the Lone Star Cafe in New York where Butterfield so often played in the early 1980s, Mort Cooperman said,  Butterfield was a man with a hole in his soulSomehow despite all the recognition, I think he went to bed every night thinking he wasn't good enough. And so a possible simple answer to the complex question, Paul Butterfield let it all slip away because he simply didn't feel he didn't deserved success he earned.


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