Amanda Jo Williams told us about Paul McMahon from Woodstock, the guy who taught her to play guitar. She said he was a wizard. Turns out he writes folk songs on a higher level, invented the Mock Mouse, interviewed Wayne Newton, and played the 25th anniversary Woodstock Festival. His songs deliver wisdom with humor and great rhymes. Turns out he was also a moving force in the ’70s conceptual art scene—rolled with John Baldessari, saw Chris Burden light his wife on fire, and had his own art displayed at the Metropolitan Museum. He visits Los Angeles this week to speak at art schools about the history he helped build and play a few shows with Williams. Daiana Feuer caught up with McMahon after 5 hours of studio visits at CalArts.
Paul McMahon: I first came to CalArts 38 years ago. It was wild then. It’s still pretty wild.
Is that when your art career began?
Paul McMahon: I started in 1970 when I was in college. What got me making art was that black power stopped me being a blues musician. I thought I was black. But when black power came in I realized there was something wrong with the way I was thinking about things. I stopped cold turkey. So then I started making these funny little surreal things. I was interested in conceptual art. Anything that would blow my father’s mind, basically.
How did your artwork wind up in the Met’s ‘The Pictures Generation’ exhibit?
Paul McMahon: They knew about me because I knew all the people that got really famous because I was involved with them. I had a gallery in Boston called Project, Inc. I gave Laurie Anderson her first show in Boston. I gave David Salle his first solo show. Dan Graham. Lawrence Weiner. I did it all because I was bored with what was going on and no one else was interested in that stuff. I figured out how to do it on no money. I worked at a gas station, paying artists $30 a show. Then because I did that—once our generation actually got something it was through Artist Space, where Helene Weiner was the director. She brought me in as assistant director. So I was part of this group of people. They started getting money and big success. That’s when I veered off into punk rock and making songs and psychotherapy. I was so paranoid I was having trouble leaving the house so I needed therapy. I went through about 8 years of body work and through that healing process I got wrapped by spirituality, which I wasn’t interested in or looking for. That became my focus in the ’90s, along with music. The music came later for me. I had completely abandoned music until I heard Jonathan Richman and said, ‘I can do that too’ Songwriting became part of my healing process. I don’t think I matured as a songwriter until my 40s. I don’t think my voice really matured until my 50s.
When did you move to Woodstock?
Paul McMahon: I moved to Woodstock in 1990 because I was studying with Native American shamans and rainmakers. It was part of my spiritual journey. I lived at the Wippenberg Center off and on for six years, where I was ordained as an interfaith minister.
What lesson from that time still sticks with you?
Paul McMahon: ‘Technically we don’t exist. Only you are here.’ It’s from Beautiful Painted Arrow. His teachings are all about healing ourselves and purifying the heart and faith and knowing the connection to the earth. The inside and outside are mysteriously the same thing.
How does the pursuit of wisdom enter your songwriting?
Paul McMahon: In songs like ‘Get Back In Your Cage,’ I am working through my ideas and I’m seeing ways the ideas connect to each other. And in the mysterious flow of the songwriting process, insights can become clear. There are times when you have something and it’s like a vision. It comes to you somehow. I do think it’s a process. It’s an aspiration or an intention to really understand the real reality.
Some of your songs are more like epic narratives. Do these take longer to write?
Paul McMahon: Some of them just all come out almost in one piece. ‘Get Back In Your Cage’ I wrote in a few hours. It came out one verse after another. Some of them come from dreams and they often come very fast. Other ones take a while. The ‘Beat The Bushes’ song took me a long time to write and I sort of didn’t do anything else. I laid down in a bed and just kind of thought it out line by line. The simple answer is they often come very fast, sometimes not so much. There’s one—’Arapaho Maiden’—that one I had the tune. The tune was driving me nuts. I could play it all out. At the time I was reading how John Lennon liked to rhyme every syllable in the first line and second line. I started trying to do that and got one verse and couldn’t think of another. I started over and got two. Then I couldn’t get three. I started over 5 times and finally got a 7 verse song. Then when I sang the whole thing it somehow made sense.
What’s kept you in the Woodstock community?
Paul McMahon: It’s unique. I guess probably the general idea that you could fix some things that seem to be wrong with the world. Woodstock is a small place so everyone can know everyone. It’s had a hundred years of tea partiers, artists, rock stars, creative weirdos and country people living side by side. That’s amazing history, in Woodstock. The wild ones were there in the ‘teens—as in 1910-20. Look up the Maverick. I was plopped down in Woodstock on my spiritual trip and it’s a fun town because it can laugh at itself. You have these hippies that have been there for 40 years and never had a job. Some are homeless. And the straight people in Woodstock have a very important presence. Some of them are very well accepted. Woodstock represents that which the world needs now. Woodstock is the cultural chill pill. It’s sort of the message of the Eastern religions. The lost message of the ‘60s. Which is also the message of Jesus. Know yourself. Enjoy life. It’s a gift worth giving with joy. A lot of what we call magic is that—magic—and we all can have magic. How can you have magic? Listen to yourself.
What would be your part in the apocalypse?
Paul McMahon: What I came up with eventually is that the best way to prepare for disastrous circumstances—I’m not gong to be the one that learns to survive in the wilderness. That doesn’t turn me on. But I will be able to make friends between people that would consider themselves enemies. I can help people communicate and have a general feeling of love of all things. I’m interested in the idea that there is one mind that has created this world. There is a oneness at the core of everything. If you can get to that oneness all the parts will arrange themselves around it. The esoteric meaning of the golden rule—you treat your brother as you wanna be treated not because it’s the right thing to do, but because your brother is you.
What brought you and Amanda Jo Williams together as musicians?
Paul McMahon: Amanda Jo Williams is magic. I think there’s only one rule. No Muggles. Muggles are the people in Harry Potter that don’t believe in magic. The youngest people are more likely to believe in magic. Wise people that get older end up believing in magic. There’s no explanation that doesn’t fit the description of magic. God? The ability to intervene in anything, change anything to anything. That’s not magic?! OK—if that’s not magic, let’s see what magic is. If you believe in miracles then you believe in magic. If you believe in magic you believe in God. P.S. It’s magic. —And so, Amanda’s great. Can I tell the story of teaching her three chords? She was pregnant and we were in Georgia. She had this guitar a friend gave her. She asked me to show her three chords and 5 weeks later we recorded her first 14 songs in one take at a studio. And we did it in one take because I let her think she could only get one shot. She didn’t know they could do it over again. I think I made Amanda up in a song. This world is my fantasy because it’s just wonderful. I have bluebirds sitting ten feet away from me.
…stay tuned for interview part 2 with Paul McMahon, coming soon.
PAUL MCMAHON ON SAT., APRIL 3, AT THE ECHO COUNTRY OUTPOST, 1930 ECHO PARK AVE., ECHO PARK. 1 PM / FREE / ALL AGES. AND WITH AMANDA JO WILLIAMS ON SAT., APRIL 3, AT THE MANDRAKE BAR, 2692 S. LA CIENEGA BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 9 PM / FREE / 21+.