Issue July 3, 2007

Beautiful dreamer

Sid Griffin
Sid Griffin

When The Smithereens released Meet the Smithereens! late last year, their front-to-back cover of Meet the Beatles! thrust the date of Feb. 9, 1964 back into the general consciousness. Unlike dates such as Dec. 7, 1941, or Nov. 22, 1963 or, of course, Sept. 11, 2001, this was a date of art, not politics and war. As such, it was and remains deeply personal for some folks. Others, frankly, give it little credence.

For Sid Griffin, it is deeply personal. On that Sunday night, he first saw The Beatles. On “The Ed Sullivan Show,” of course. And things were pretty much set. Yes, set — despite the best upbringing a white boy could get in Louisville’s East End.

Sure, there would be graduation from Ballard High and the University of South Carolina. Concurrently, there was the joint parental assumption of their son as a downtown Louisville buttoned-down white collar. But Griffin shunned that box. Baby shook it up, twisted and shouted, and grabbed a different train out. One bound for the larger world, a place and a way well beyond The Derby. For that matter, a place simply physically beyond the Snyder Freeway.

Many, many people across the world forsook the box. The importance of that long-ago Sunday night is difficult to overstate.

“I could list musicians all night and day who were blown away by it and were inspired to play music or change to rock ’n’ roll music,” Griffin tells me in April in my now-vacant boyhood home, a half-block from his boyhood home. He was in from London, with his daughter Esther Mae, to visit his mom.

“Chris Hillman, Joe Walsh and Ricky Skaggs are three very different guys who spring to mind who … thought the Fab Four on Ed Sullivan was a life-changing moment.”

He adds: “From loading docks at UPS to stockbrokers walking around downtown at lunch

Sid Griffin
Sid Griffin

, I could point out people who spent many happy hours as youngsters playing tennis racquets as guitars and pretending to be Beatles.”
But did the 8-year-old Sid Griffin really get a groove on that night?
Yep.

“The Fab Four looked so modern,” he says, “so sleek, so revolutionary, so new and most importantly looked like they were having so much fun.”

Griffin’s round peg choice would eventually lead to the formation of The Long Ryders, who would become part of the Paisley Underground, a name referencing the reclaiming of the paisley shirts from ’60s psychedelia. The band reached the pinnacle of alt rock in 1985, and would bring to Griffin a level of casual fame that continues today.

A birthday guitar — acoustic, from his maternal grandmother and long lost — emerged in September 1965, but by then Griffin and two other mop-top wannabes had scrounged up two acoustic guitars and a snare drum. They tried Beatles tunes but soon figured out that the songs of Peter, Paul and Mary had fewer chords. Once, after a bit of a laugh, Peter Yarrow asked, “Sid, I’ve just got to ask … which Peter, Paul and Mary songs did you young guys attempt?”

Sid Griffin
Sid Griffin

His interest in guitar remained sporadic for a few years. In 1970, at 15, Griffin picked up the instrument in earnest.

“The big thing was to be a hot-shot soloist like Clapton or Hendrix, and I tried for years,” he says.
Then Griffin realized two things — he was a good guitarist, but not that good. And the musicians he found most interesting were primarily songwriters, people such as Gram Parsons.

During this time, a gaggle that would become The Frosties would jam occasionally, formally coming together in 1973. Versions of The Frosties would continue long enough to be part of the New Wave scene in Louisville. (If you own any Frosties vinyl, it is sans Griffin.)

During a hospital stay in high school, Griffin’s uncle brought him The Byrds’ album Sweetheart of the Rodeo because “it had a cowgirl on the cover. There were no longhairs or hippies.” Parsons, whose life even Tennessee Williams might have found too incredible for fiction, was featured prominently on the album. He would influence much of Griffin’s music, and would often be a focus of Griffin’s writing.

In college Griffin banged around a bit. “I cannot imagine I was anything but indescribably ghastly and rather nervously obnoxious,” he allows. “But, hey … you have to learn this craft the hard way.”
He enjoyed his years at South Carolina, where James Dickey was Poet-in-Residence. But he knew his journalism degree would never hang on an office wall.

“I knew, bang on, I didn’t want to work on a newspaper for 30 or 40 years,” he says.
He spent the summer of ’77 hanging out in Louisville, and long enough in New York to nix it as a destination. Nashville wasn’t far enough down I-65. Los Angeles was “warm, cheaper than New York City and most of my favorite acts were from there.” And not just acts of the day, or the earlier Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, but the post-WWII acts of Central Avenue, including Big Jay McNeely and Sam Cooke. Griffin left for L. A. in October 1977.

“To do what I wanted to do I knew I’d have to leave, end of story,” he says. “There was no way it could be done here. We didn’t have that regionalized, localized scene yet in America.” There was some sort of mumbling about going to law school, and Griffin even took the LSAT to stoke the smokescreen for the suits back home. But jurisprudence and Sid Griffin never crossed paths.

Native Sons: The cover of The Long Ryders’ 1984 album Native Sons.
Native Sons: The cover of The Long Ryders’ 1984 album Native Sons.

He spent his early Los Angeles years surviving and playing in a punk band that remained nameless throughout our interview. He was also a salesman for JEM Records, which led to the Long Ryders’ first contract.
The Long Ryders began coalescing in 1981. Griffin left the punk band along with Barry Shank; they quickly picked up drummer Greg Sowders from the ska band the Box Boys and the three began rehearsing. About a year later they added guitarist Stephen McCarthy, who brought a Byrds-style country and western element.
“Stephen brought the final piece of the puzzle to the band,” Griffin says. “Without it we might have never left town.”

With McCarthy in the mix, Griffin says, the band asked themselves: “What happens if you have a band like The Byrds or Buffalo Springfield, and had those guitars and harmonies, but a punk rhythm section with them? That, reduced to a formula, is what The Long Ryders did.”

Shank wasn’t so comfortable with the new direction and left, eventually replaced by Tom Stevens. Sowders, McCarthy, Griffin and Stevens would become The Long Ryders, a name taken from Walter Hill’s cult western “The Long Riders.” The “I” became a “Y” as a nod to The Byrds.

It was the right mix at the right time. In 1983 JEM put out an EP called 10-5-60, which sold well enough to get the label excited. The band signed next with L.A. indie label Frontier, which released Native Sons, the first LP, in 1984. Thirty-five thousand copies sold quickly — enviable numbers for an indie release. Meanwhile, Island Records talent man Dave Bragg had read about 10-5-60 in the British press. He alerted Nick Stewart, who had signed U2 to Island. And meanwhile still, Elvis Costello’s Demon label had bought the rights to Native Sons. It was released in the United Kingdom in March 1985 and saw even better sales than the U.S. numbers.
Stewart signed The Long Ryders to Island, releasing State of our Union in 1985, which presented the band with a problem.

“Unfortunately, the U.K. and Europe had an even worse music scene than the U.S. then,” Griffins says, “and once you were past the … DJs and writers who loved our kind of music, you were in trouble. The scene overseas then was all Haircut 100, Wham!, Duran Duran, OMD, Spandau Ballet and Tears for Fears. Those were rock’s hairspray years.”

The Long Ryders’ authentic sound received little airplay. But in many ways, that gatekeeper didn’t matter, because the quartet could rock it live, and did so almost constantly.
What is it like to be onstage, the focus of 10,000 people? Griffin’s take-it-or-leave-it approach offers a window to surviving 200 shows a year.

“You get to the point where … the show becomes seamless without being slick, and the act is absolutely fearless in its approach,” he says. “You don’t care if they are bored rich kids, bikers in a greasy bar … or tourists somehow standing in the wrong place … you don’t care and it doesn’t matter.”
With that sort of repetition, the band as an act “learned certain things that an act playing a saloon once a week will never know. Like how to grab a bunch of people not interested in you one jot and make them walk out thinking ‘WHAT ON EARTH WAS THAT?’”

The Long Ryders became the No. 2 indie band in all of Europe. In terms of both notch position on the indie charts and ticket sales, only The Smiths stood in their way. “We led the American Invasion,” Griffin notes, “and The Smiths led a resurgence of guitars in Europe. Guitars had been on the way out in Europe big-time due to dance music.”

The Coal Porters: Griffin (center) now performs with The Coal Porters, a full-on bluegrass band that made a big impression at the 2004 bluegrass convention in Louisville.  Photo courtesy of Prima Records Ltd
The Coal Porters: Griffin (center) now performs with The Coal Porters, a full-on bluegrass band that made a big impression at the 2004 bluegrass convention in Louisville. Photo courtesy of Prima Records Ltd

Musician and critic Don Harrison, writing on Amazon.com, explains the band’s appeal back then.
“It’s easy to write the Long Ryders off as just another in a series of early- to mid-’80s West Coast groups going through a momentary ‘Paisley Revival.’ But the group’s first two releases … show that this was a band that could take borrowed influences to new and exciting places, fusing punk energy and southern-rock populism …”

Former Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau, in his fabled Consumer Guide, gave Native Sons a B+ and said: “The down-to-earth poor-boy stance is an improvement on the boho excesses of the new L.A., though sometimes it’s hard to pin down why these impressively particular songs go with this impressively seamless country-rock synthesis. Put it this way — they don’t soft-pedal life’s big fat downside, but they’re good-humored about it. If you don’t pay attention, you think Mel Tillis’s ‘(Sweet) Mental Revenge’ is one of theirs.”
Then, in 1987, after three albums, two EPs, several singles and countless performances, it was over — trainwreck style. Griffin glossed over this event.

“We like to tell people today we broke up ‘Beatles style,’” he says, “with arguments over material, direction, whose songs we would record and why your girlfriend — but not mine, of course — was such a loser geek.”
That sort of tension is unavoidable in any creative group, so in many ways the demise comes more from removing the insulation between personalities. And The Long Ryders had some stripping moments, mostly about business.
“Had what happened to us occurred over a year,” Griffin did reveal, “we could have weathered the storms one by one.” But that didn’t happen.


In 1988, The Coal Porters emerged as an electric college and bar band after The Long Ryders folded, in a way becoming The Long Ryders II.

Much later, Western Electric was a one-album band that emerged from that directionless Coal Porter period. An excellent studio piece released in 2000, the music never translated to live performing.
And then Coal Porter drummer Dave Morgan (formerly of Primal Scream) was in a near-fatal car accident. The band promised they would wait for him, and while they did, they practiced acoustically, which soon took the band in a new, permanent direction.

In 1992, Griffin followed Kate St. John, a musician who worked with Dream Academy and Van Morrison, to London. She would become his wife. The Coal Porters’ bassist, Ian Thomson, went too, but left after one year. The Coal Porters now enjoy a stellar reputation in the world of bluegrass music.

Griffin and daughter Esther Mae: Photo by H. Nield  Griffin and daughter Esther Mae, now 7, in a photo that graces the inside jacket of Griffin’s 2005 CD As Certain As Sunrise.
Griffin and daughter Esther Mae: Photo by H. Nield Griffin and daughter Esther Mae, now 7, in a photo that graces the inside jacket of Griffin’s 2005 CD As Certain As Sunrise.

Along the way, Griffin wrote a critically acclaimed book about Gram Parsons, “Gram Parsons — A Music Biography,” published in 1985 by Sierra Books. And he produced a BBC television documentary about Parsons, “Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel,” broadcast in 2004 and available as a Warner Bros./Rhino DVD.  He has also been a frequent contributor to publications such as Mojo, Dead Beat, Country Music International and many other music mags. His latest book, “Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, The Band and the Basement Tapes,” will be published by Jawbone Press in September.

There is calmness, sureness and a sense of purpose about Griffin — all of which was apparent during the full run of our interview. It is clear the intensity, if not the certainty, of 2-9-64 has carried Sid Griffin forth to this day.

My God, those boys were having fun on Ed Sullivan’s stage! Think about it — every act lip-synching on “American Bandstand,” every group that was just another guest on a Johnny Carson, was working. Steve Allen made Elvis work.
But not The Beatles.

“All My Loving” was the first song most American’s saw them perform. From the moment Paul began playing his descending bass scale, the stage was no longer Mr. Sullivan’s. It belonged to these incredibly “revolutionary and new” young men.

In the songs of The Long Ryders are harmonies and riffs, mostly in refrains, that come straight from The Fabs or The Byrds or Gram Parsons, along with an often-present lap steel guitar. While all of it is homage, none of it is derivative. The Long Ryders made these seeds of their music their own. A chunk of your rock lexicon is missing if you haven’t heard “I Had a Dream” from Native Sons. More than anything, the music is fun.
Griffin’s musical spectrum suggests Elvis Costello’s. In many ways, it is the diametric opposite of Kansas playing “Dust in the Wind” at a Derby event, or of sagging rockers doing a latter day Big Chill thing to fund public TV.

Costello has given no quarter to nostalgia, taking cues from all music, even if he’s needed time for revelation. His collaboration with Burt Bacharach last decade may be a surprise to us, but it is mere evolution to him.
Griffin is much the same. He doesn’t pine for the good ol’ days of crowds 10,000, 20,000 or, once, even 100,000 strong. These days he is a former rocker. Yet not an ex-rocker, since there have been Long Ryders reunions, with another possible.

The success of The Coal Porters has allowed Griffin an evolution unavailable not only to Kansas, but to the Stones as well. It is much easier to carry a bag of clothes in one hand and a mandolin in the other — no guitars, no amps — and Griffin’s acoustic show fits his vision of his life now.

After The Coal Porters’ 2004 appearance at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass Festival here in Louisville — a sort of coming out party — Griffin decided this was the permanent new gig.
“I played this electric rock ’n’ roll — balls-out get out of my way or I’ll kill you 4/4 time rock and roll. And I just thought it’s sort of undignified as you get older. If you have hits, it’s different. … But still hanging around, carrying a Fender Twin amp and two guitars into bars, it’s ridiculous.”

And once again, the music is fun. He no longer needs the stance of a rocker.
An encounter on the Eurostar, the train that runs under the English Channel, brought this home. Griffin was traveling back to England with his infant daughter when the two got bumped into first class. As he struggled to move his luggage, he noticed Keith Richards backing into his daughter (or, more precisely, the pram). Richards was, Griffin assumed, being very kind and apologetic. But whatever was coming out of his mouth, Griffin could understand not a word of the Rolling Stone’s gravelly sounds. Forty years (or better) of whiskey, cigarettes and intense performing will do that.

Richards, of course, is in the same category as Joe Cocker, Little Richard and Iggy Pop — people so over-the-top as to be beyond parody. That is not how Griffin saw himself living his later years.
His present situation makes sense in retrospect. Although Griffin waited until after college to strike his course, he knew at 12 or 13 that he would migrate from the morès of Louisville.

“I put my hand in the air,” he says, “and said I’d rather do something artistic and slightly Bohemian and make less money in life and be happy. I put my hand in the air and volunteered for that army.”
But didn’t a lot of us?

There is a saying: Wisdom is knowing what to do next. Virtue is doing it. What set ex-Louisvillian Sid Griffin apart from many of us non-ex-Louisvillians who also raised our hands was, well, gumption. A funny word these days, but it cuts to the crux. It means the understanding of a goal as a series of steps, and knowing that few of those steps will be as they were imagined. To know the final goal might look nothing like the dreamed-of goal. And it means a true and active appreciation of today, which automatically retires yesterday and clears the way for tomorrow.

In fact, Griffin’s life shows succinctly that the life of a true dreamer is not one of whimsy and vagueness that invites random, vacant twists of fate, but  rather is one of direction and of energizing that direction. A true dreamer seeks the horizon, prepared to make luck rather than hope for it.

Griffin’s life has been in London for 15 years now. His daughter, now 7, has begun in the state school system and will grow up English. He will be there at least another decade, anyway, after which he’ll be an even longer way in space and time from the whiteburbia Cape Cod with the American-made TV set that received that Feb. 9, 1964 broadcast.

Still, might he ever come back to Louisville? After all, every other Long Ryder has returned to his native state.
“Just the other night I was in a situation where I saw a lot of the gang I grew up with,” Griffin recalls. “The men were dressed in khaki pants, navy blue blazers and regimental striped ties with white cotton shirts. They made their cultural choice, and so did I. I don’t look down on anybody, and I hope nobody looks down on me.”
And then:

“I see no turning back. I don’t see ever living in Louisville again. Which doesn’t mean the city is a bad place or that it is not up to my standards. Quite the opposite, Louisville is a much-improved town compared to the way it was 30 years ago. But still … I feel my curiosity about the world is not satisfied yet.”

Contact the writer at
fairbrooks@att.net