Perfect Sound Forever

There Is A River

The Uncertain Legacy of David Ackles (1937-1999)
By Kasper Nijsen
(October 2012)

In 2007 a box-set entitled There Is A River: The Elektra Recordings was set to be released, only to be withdrawn shortly afterwards, in a gesture that symbolized singer-songwriter David Ackles's life-long failure to break through to a larger audience. Yet this failure is hardly due to a lack of critical appreciation; indeed, to one unfamiliar with his work, some of the praise Ackles received from colleagues and critics might seem downright absurd.

He was called a genius, one of the best that America had on offer (Elton John, Reuters obituary, March 1999), and was said to have forged an utterly unique and unrivaled sound (Collin McElligatt, Stylus, 09-01-2003). His masterpiece album was hailed as the Sgt. Pepper of folk (Derek Jewell, Sunday Times, 1973) and called a work of pure poetry, theatrical, witty and sublime (Robert Cochrane, Culture Catch, 03-30-2008). It was also said that Ackles could have been another Randy Newman or Leonard Cohen (Reuters obituary, March 1999) and his music has been compared to Weill and Brecht and even Richard Wagner (Bernie Taupin, blog entry, 12-3-2008).

Notwithstanding such tributes, Ackles is barely remembered otherwise today. Born in Illinois in 1937, raised in a Presbyterian home in Los Angeles, he and his sister were singing folk songs long before the likes of Bob Dylan hitched onto the folk wagon. Like the great 'Zimmerman' of popular song, Ackles was primarily a songwriter, though he sang and played the piano. Studying English poetry in college to hone his craft, he later joined the songwriting staff of Jac Holzman's Elektra Records. Yet his mature compositions about released convicts, child-molesting war veterans, and bitter crimes of passion proved (understandably) difficult material to pitch to Elektra's roster of singers.

Therefore in 1968, Holzman asked Ackles to record his songs himself, a decision that resulted in the eponymous David Ackles (1968). The first in a string of four albums, it was followed by Subway to the Country (1969), American Gothic (1972) and Five & Dime (1973). Despite the critics’ lavish praise , Ackles's albums never reached a wide audience, and he was forced to leave the world of popular music in the mid-seventies. Although he continued working as a songwriter and theater director, this marked the end of his career as a recording artist. After twenty-five years in quiet (but also, it appears, happy) obscurity, David Ackles passed away at the age of 62 in 1999, a victim of lung cancer. So now, four decades after his final outing, the question still stands: who were right, the journalists and colleagues who idolized Ackles, or the general public who ignored his albums?

Anyone new to Ackles’ music first notices his lyrical gift: he succeeded in combining the measured wit and literary artistry of Tin Pan Alley with the inspiration, cachet and social awareness of the Sixties folk movement. To illustrate, the title song of American Gothic (1972) is an unflinching portrait of the loneliness of married life. Mrs. Molly Jenkins ‘claims to visit shows’ (while her husband ‘pretends that’s where she goes’), instead courting a stranger. Unable to see her bed-fellow in the dark, she thinks of her real passion instead: shoes. Horace Jenkins is hardly better off: sneaking off with dirty pictures ‘in a half-filled marriage bed,’ he is so ashamed of himself that he ‘gets blind drunk instead.’

Then the next day dawns, and Ackles mercilessly exposes their miserable existence:

Sunday breakfast with the Jenkins
They break the bread and cannot speak.
She reads the rustling of his paper
He reads the way her new shoes squeak
And pray God to survive one more week.
Other lyrics are memorable for their delivery. A statement like 'the world is full of lovers...' written shortly after the Summer of Love, merely lulls us asleep with another hippie dream. After a short and deliberate pause however, Ackles rudely shakes us from sleep: '...loving hate and only loving others of their kind.' Even when all seems calm and smooth on the surface, there is always a menacing undercurrent that threatens to pull Ackles’ characters – and his listeners– into deeper and darker waters. In this, he is not wholly unrelated to Randy Newman, with whom he also shares a biting sense of irony.

Yet where Newman was admittedly not gifted with one of the great voices in American music, Ackles delivers his lyrics in a voice that’s at different turns melancholy, desperate, austere, loving, defiant and even ironically humorous. It is said that he took particular care to keep the timbre of his voice in superlative shape, using all sorts of medications and home-made cures. On American Gothic in particular, the results show: the sheer sound of his singing on songs like “Love's Enough” and “One Night Stand” is enough to make an old man fall in love again. And if any vocal could bring strong men to tears, as the cliché goes, it is surely Ackles's “Waiting for the Moving Van.”

In all, Ackles was a versatile and accomplished composer, drawing inspiration from disparate sources including Broadway composers, vaudeville and music hall tradition, French chansonniers, Nashville country music, American jazz and spirituals, Los Angeles surf music, and classical music. Again, his skills at arranging reached their height on American Gothic, where he composed a variety of arrangements for everything from flutes, violins and saxophones to the London Symphony Orchestra and the Salvation Army choir. Written over a two-year period and produced and conducted by Bernie Taupin (Elton John’s long-time lyricist/collaborator) and Robert Kirby (whose credits also include Nick Drake), all are tasteful, dramatic, and suited to the emotional tone of the songs.

So the praise was far from absurd. In many ways, Ackles surpassed even the tributes of those who most admired him most. His career stands as a firm reminder that artistic genius and commercial success may be as ships passing in the night – as unrelated as the married couple in Ackles's own American Gothic. Yet even if the 2007 box-set remains unreleased, there is still a river: anyone who cares to discover this neglected musician will find a stream of brilliant songwriting that runs through four memorable albums, and carries listeners through a landscape at once melancholic and visionary, full of tender hope and bitter irony, and finally out to the sea that spells the end of all our songs.

Ackles album by album:

David Ackles (1968)- rating: 4/5
A surprisingly mature debut, David Ackles is an intelligent and powerful album in the best folk-rock tradition. With backing by future members of Elektra's 'super group' Rhinoceros, the musicianship is excellent throughout – but it's the songs themselves, and Ackles' delivery, that speak of great things to come. The opening track, “Road to Cairo,” is perhaps his best-known composition, and was covered by luminaries like Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity, as well as by Elton John and Elvis Costello. Ackles casts himself in the role of a tramp returning to his impoverished wife and children in Cairo, Illinois. Deeply ashamed of his long absence and fearing the 'welcome' that awaits him, he forsakes his plans and returns to the road instead. The frenzied instrumental finale that closes the song sounds like a derailed car, fueled by a frantic mix of electric guitar, organ and bass, and heading for the edge of a cliff at 150 miles an hour. As the first song on Ackles's debut album, it is a disturbing and fitting prelude to his oeuvre.

Subway to the Country (1969)– rating: 3/5
Of Ackles's four albums, Subway to the Country seems his most uneven collection of songs. Maybe he lacked the time to work out new material as powerful as his first songs, perhaps Fred Myrow's arrangements were too ambitious: whatever the reason, Subway to the Country is the least accessible introduction to David Ackles. Having said that, there are brilliant showcases of his storytelling craft (“Candy Man” and “Cabin on the Mountain”), rural nostalgia (the title track) and wistful love balladry (“That's No Reason to Cry”). Add the outrageous rhythmic changes and obscure lyrics of “Inmates of the Institution,” and the powerful vocal performance on “Out on the Road,” and then we have an album that, even though it is far from perfect as a whole, nevertheless contains sufficient material to merit respect from listeners and fellow songwriters alike.

American Gothic (1972)– rating: 5/5
American Gothic is without a doubt the masterpiece of Ackles's career. After two greatly moving and promising records, he was finally able to produce the song cycle he had always dreamed of creating. It hardly needs further praise as an unflinching portrait of American life past and present, yet it also contains some of the greatest love lyrics ever written. Was the sweet intoxication of falling in love ever expressed more perfectly, more tenderly than in “Love's Enough” and “One Night Stand”? In stark contrast, the bleak, biting satire of “Ballad of the Ship of State” leads the ranks of Ackles's great war songs; the desperate soldiers are refused their deserved homecoming and smug sailors sing, 'You were such doughty fellows while fighting the yellows, that they might even ask you to stay,' and 'You're not welcome at home anymore, 'cause we're all so bored with the war.' With different voices weaving in and out of the tapestry, there is a definite cinematic quality to many of the songs, which climaxes with the elaborate, poignant, and highly ambitious rural epic that closes the album (“Montana Song”). On American Gothic, Ackles raised his aim higher than ever before, and triumphantly hit the mark.

Five & Dime (1973)– rating: 4/5
What should have been the fourth album in a long and illustrious career, in retrospect turned out to be Ackles's swansong. Five & Dime may not be as tightly-knit as American Gothic, but as a many-colored patchwork of varied songs, the album has few rivals. In toned-down, simplified arrangements –sometimes just voice and piano– Ackles revisits many of the themes that made up his previous albums. Again, there is bittersweet melancholy in “One Good Woman's Man” and “Photograph of You,” magnificent love balladry in “Such a Woman” and the waltzy “I’ve Been Loved,” and political comment in “Run Pony Run” and “Aberfan.” Yet the album also showcases Ackles's humorous side, as in his campy ‘tribute’ to surf music, “Surf's Down” (surely a reference to Brian Wilson's “Surf's Up”?) to a backing of Beach Boys-styled harmonies, the aged narrator returns to the beach only to find that his 'services' are no longer in demand: 'Now when I pick up a girl, I say as nice as I can/Wanna tandem, and she says, You dirty old man.' Yet as the last note of Five & Dime dies away, it leaves above all a feeling of great sadness, of great injustice that such a talented artist was forced to leave the musical arena after so few rounds.

Also see our earlier Ackles article

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