Folk legend Harry Taussig takes the stage for the first time at South by Southwest
Although 72-year-old Harry Taussig is an icon for many guitar aficionados, he's never performed live. That's about to change. Alex Cohen reports.
Today the annual music extravaganza known as South by South West kicks off in Austin Texas, where about 2,000 bands will perform at various venues throughout the city. Many of them are young musicians, and most of them have had plenty of experience performing in public.
And then there's guitarist Harry Taussig, the 72-year-old folk guitar legend. Although he's an icon for many guitar aficionados, he's never performed live. Alex Cohen reports.
Harry Taussig never really meant to be a musician. A native of Eagle Rock, he majored in physics as a young college student at UC Berkeley. But, like many Berkeley students in the '60s, he was into folk music like the Kingston Trio and was known to occasionally noodle around on the guitar.
Then one day in a music appreciation class, his teacher analyzed the opening bars of Mozart's Requiem. Later that day, Taussig came home and heard North Carolina blues guitar legend Elizabeth Cotten playing on the radio.
"It struck me that what she was doing, in principle was very similar to the complexity that Mozart was doing," said Taussig. "I said the Kingston Trio sort of treats their guitars like ukuleles and washboards, just sort of strumming chords. There is so much more to it than that."
Taussig started exploring the musical complexity he observed on his own guitar, experimenting with the idea of playing both melody and bass at the same time. He fused classical compositions with roots music from the South.
He began developing his own, mostly self-taught, style of guitar, influenced by everyone from experimental German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen to American jazz legend John Cage.
"I didn't want to reproduce folk music, because hey, I'm a city boy, you know I'm not from North Carolina, I should not be playing that stuff but again I felt like I could extend it I could push it further than it had been and find something new that was as authentic for the 21st century as that was for the early 20th century," said Taussig.
After college, Taussig moved to Orange County where he'd occasionally play this odd brand of music for close acquaintances. Then in 1965, a friend asked him if he'd be interested in recording an album.
"It was a forty five minute album and he rented one hour of studio time. Which means no retakes, just straight on," said Taussig. "The album to me is still pretty embarrassing because of flubs and disasters, and mistakes, but there was no re-do, so it was very scary."
The album, named "Fate Is Only Once," was a mix of traditional songs and some of his own, mostly improvised, compositions. But the album didn't go far, it was a limited run and few copies sold. At the time, pursuing a career in music much further didn't seem feasible to Taussig.
"The problem is I don't play well with other people. I played in a band once but it wasn't for me," said Taussig. "I tend for instance to switch time signatures without warning, and people sort of throw things at me then, if they're trying to play. So, a solo guitarist playing an obscure strange music? Ah, no I don't ever think that was ever a living."
Taussig decided to pursue other vocations instead, and after a brief stint in the defense industry, he took up photography, art and film studies. At one point, he even changed his name to Arthur Taussig. As Arthur, he taught classes at Orange Coast College and found a niche for himself taking pictures of odd museums, like the salt and pepper shaker museum in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
He also designed colorful illustrations of U.S. Supreme Court decisions and wrote a film analysis book intended to help parents decide which movies to watch with their kids. But the more he worked on these other projects, the less he played music, eventually giving his last guitar away decades ago to one of his students.
Then, in 2006, a record producer in San Francisco nearly half Taussig's age got a hold of "Fate Is Only Once" and was entranced by his music. Josh Rosenthal, founder of Tompkins Square Records, says he heard something different in Taussig's recordings.
"He was a pioneer because there just was not that many people making music that sounded like that in 1965," said Rosenthal. "You know around that time you had very folky music with a capital "F." Peter, Paul and Mary, and the jangly sort of folk that dominated that period and a lot of it was really kind of pop in a way."
Rosenthal reached out to Taussig and convinced him to re-issue the album forty-one years after its initial recording. Rosenthal says his favorite track, a song called Dorian's Sonata, is a great example of Taussig's unique sound.
"He's not just melancholy like a lot of solo guitarists. There is something ancient in his playing and something sort of baroque in it," said Rosenthal. "And he's most interesting because he was not a guitarist that folks would point two and say, 'wow listen to his chops.' Some might even argue that he is not that very good of a guitar player."
But the re-issue of "Fate Is Only Once" earned Taussig many new fans and sold quite well. So well that Taussig decided to make another album, after a 47-year hiatus from music. Taussig chose to name his sophomore effort "Fate Is Only Twice."
This time around, he recorded his original compositions on a cherry red love seat in his Costa Mesa living room with a lone microphone and a Dell laptop. Taussig says modern technology has made it much easier for him to rework each song until he finds just the right sound.
The technology may have changed since 1965, but Taussig's songwriting process hasn't -- he still relies heavily on improvisation.
"With the music, I want to tell a story, but I don't want that story understood. I want someone to feel there is a story there but they cant quite connect with it. So it sort of hangs in the air and I like that, its kind of fun." said Taussig.
Taussig says he often forgets the songs he writes soon after recording them, one reason why he's shied away from performing live. He worries audiences might be disappointed by what he calls his musical ramblings. But that fear hasn't stopped him from heading to Austin to perform at South By Southwest. Though it has made him somewhat apprehensive about playing his very first show at 71 years of age.
"My great fear is that I'll be eating tomato salads for the next three weeks from what people throw at me, so I'll bring my own basil and mozzarella to make a nice ensalata caprese." said Taussig.
At his upcoming gig, he plans to perform some new material. These days he's been writing songs all the time on his National German Silver Guitar, including his latest, "The Diamond of Lost Alphabets."
Taussig seems bemused and pleased, at his septuagenarian renaissance as a musician. He explains his recent success with an old saying — hookers are like guitar players — when they last long enough, they became respectable.