RUTHANN FRIEDMAN: SEE THINGS AS NEW
In 1967, Ruthann Friedman became the third-ever female songwriter to write a song that reached number one on the American charts, when her pals the Association recorded her song “Windy.” While that little tune went on to become one of the most beloved songs of the 20th century, Friedman’s music career hit some personal roadblocks and abruptly came to a halt in the early 1970s. That’s not to say she didn’t live the rock ‘n’ roll life. This woman has had adventures: drugs, sex, love, wind, sun, sea, desert, heartache and the California dream. Then she settled down and raised a family. Almost forty years went by when suddenly the world called and Friedman shook the dust off her guitar and dove back into music. After the reissue of Constant Companion, she began writing songs again and immersed herself in the new folk music scene of Los Angeles, spreading joy and magic cookies amongst her new friends. This year sees the release of two collections of songs from her heyday: Windy: The Ruthann Friedman Songbook and The Complete Constant Companion Sessions, as well as an album of new material, Chinatown. Her record release show (and birthday!) is Thurs., July 10. We could fill a book with her stories, but here’s a glimpse into the personality and times of Ruthann Friedman. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
Have you had a time in your life when you didn’t want to be part of what we would call normal life?
At least once a week, still. I would like to be out in the woods somewhere. I lived in Big Sur for a year and that was quite amazing. Some people said, ‘There’s a cabin that no one is living in and they never come up.’ So we moved in and squatted. There was nothing much there. There was a bed. It was across from a stream and under the redwoods. It was amazing. That was as close to living off the grid as I’ve ever been, eating macrobiotic and all that. I ended up getting a job at Nepenthe, at the gift shop, because eventually you want to eat something other than brown rice. An egg once in a while is nice.
When was this?
Shit, I was about 21. Maybe 1964?
Are we right to glorify the 60s?
Well, yeah. I can appreciate that because I love the music from the 60s. Though I never liked the fashion. All of a sudden we had polyester and paisleys. That’s not what it was really about. The fashionista’s idea of what having a hallucination was like is NOT what having a hallucination was like. I can understand glorifying the time but everybody has to understand that we were just people and we were just as fucked up as people are now. After being in Big Sur a while, I realized it was just like being in any subdivision. People are screwing around on each other, husbands and wives—it was like hippie suburbia. People behave the same way. they are just in a different milieu.
Those are the real consistent parts of being human.
Most of my songs are about my relationship to the world in general. Some of them are about my perceptions of the world, which certainly I would never say is absolutely true—but it’s my perception. And most of my songs are based in reality, I’d say, although we have poetic license don’t we?
You’ve got two new releases of old songs and a release of new songs, both out now—do you see an arc from what you thought about things then to what you reflect on now?
What I thought about the world when I was 20 and what I think now that I’m older is a lot different in terms of what is important to me. A lot of my lyrics were naïve—they’re still nice, because naïve is nice—but they weren’t real. Twinkling sparkly silver things, lots of silver things.
Maybe everything was shiny and new then. Are you darker or lighter about the world now?
Darker, definitely. Things have gotten a lot darker. I’ve lived here in Venice 40 years. Where there were stop signs there are now mini malls on all four corners and lights with left and right turn arrows and where there were a few cars on the freeway at 2 in the morning, there are now lots of cars on the freeway at 2 in the morning. And billboards everywhere. I really hate them. Shit, we were all worried about nuclear war in the 1950s—we had the stop, drop, and cover your head under your desk, and a lot of good that would do as you got vaporized—but now it’s really more a threat. The nuclear weapons are in the hands of people who are unpredictable and rash. If North Korea or Iran get mad enough, or if terrorists get angry enough … they believe in their myths so stringently, they would do anything to get rid of the infidels.
I think a lot about having an apocalypse plan. What to do on the last day on Earth?
This song I wrote is about that: ‘Imagine this is the last day on Earth / would you sit at home and cry / or wander around with a smile on your face and hug your friends goodbye …’ I think I would probably get together with the people I love and give them a hug goodbye—maybe attend a party.
I wonder if there’d be much looting?
Yeah, cuz what are you going to do with it? But maybe someone waited all their life to steal a Corvette and wear a fur coat and go up in style.
What’s the song ‘Chinatown’ about?
Opium. And also it was sparked by my grandparents’ bakery sign. Red neon that would flash on and off. On rainy nights when I was a little kid I would see this … what my mother called Chinese writing, when the light would get all distorted in the puddles. The image came to me of that red neon being scattered in the water. Opium—‘Curls of smoke through a crimson door’—and maybe it’s also about taking to drugs to assuage the guilt, family guilt, which was laid upon me. Jewish guilt.
Why do they lay the guilt on?
As a way to control. It’s like Catholics—you tell them they’re going to go to hell and make them feel guilty about being sinners and then you can control them.
But you still sinned a bit, huh?
I was a bad girl. My dad died when I was 15 and my mother was useless and I just did whatever I wanted. Can we leave it at that? I was a loner in school, one of only two Jews, and I spent a lot of my time playing guitar. When I was 18 I just took off—threw my dog in the car and left the Valley. First I went to Denver with my boyfriend, ‘El Niño Dorado,’ Bruce Patterson, who was a flamenco guitarist. I still have a picture of him. We went to San Francisco next, then came back to Los Angeles and got an apartment, and then his mother came from Kansas and took him home. I was an older woman. I think he was 18 and I was 19. Ha! But I did what I wanted to do. I didn’t have any guidance particularly. I made a lot of mistakes.
But by mistakes, one lives. I don’t think people learn too much about life when they’re not making mistakes.
Maybe. That could be. But when people keep making the same mistakes over and over again then you have to wonder. Like when you keep going out with the same guy. You think he’s different but really you’ve picked up on something about him that is like your dad and he’s going to end up being the same guy—abusive, controlling, whatever it is you are drawn to.
Was there a point when you were like, ‘OK, I finally grew up’?
No. Somebody wrote on Facebook that the first 40 years of growing up are the hardest. And I added that the next 40 ain’t no picnic either. Life is hard. You have to force yourself, like a blade of grass poking through the sidewalk crack that has to force itself by law of nature—force itself to grow, force yourself to move forward, to work, to do the right thing sometimes. My sister, that was her line. She also said, ‘With the Bible, with all the rules, all you really need to know is row, row, row your boat gently down the stream.’ We make it complicated.
Do you ever lose thoughts or are you good at catching them?
I’ve been lazy lately. I took a poetry class and this poet said she thinks of ideas as ticker tape coming out of her ear and she has to keeping pulling it or else she’ll lose it. You always think, ‘Oh, I will remember that tomorrow.’ But you don’t. You lose the context, you lose what could’ve been. Do you have dreams that you will always remember? I have had some really weird dreams that stuck with me. If you try to analyze your dreams, it can be very helpful. I had this one dream about walking down a dirt road, through Owens Valley or something—desert on all sides and mountains. Across the road there is a big spider web with a spider sitting in the middle and I had this feeling that there was someone standing next to me but I couldn’t really see them, this shadow person. I just stopped. I said, ‘I can’t do this, this is just too scary.’ But then the shadow person said, ‘Come on, let’s do it. You can do it.’ We snapped the spider web and walked through. What it told me is that I have it within myself to conquer my fears, if I just do it. I can still picture it so clearly. It was scary.
What if dreams are when we are awake and this is us sleeping right now?
Well, you could think that way. I am my own dream, my real self is somewhere else dreaming me. Well, wake up! Or what if the whole universe is a grain of sand on someone else’s beach. Or, how about infinity? The sky has to end somewhere, doesn’t it? Where does it end? Is it endless? I think it has to not end. It has to go on forever but we can’t conceive of it. It’s not within our brains to really conceive of it going on forever. Does it fade off at the edges? It just goes on forever. You know how we were talking about molecule soup? Consider being a combination of specialized cells, because that is what we are. Right? The eye cells developed seeing, etc. One of the first colonies of specialized cells were jellyfish. That is not an organism—it is a colony of specialized cells. That got me thinking about us. These sensory things are cells, they got together cuz they functioned well together so they kept on getting together. Something happens and it works so it keeps on doing it, like finding a niche and living in it. Like a plant that grows in a certain place. Like the wolves, they got rid of the wolves in the forest so they have too many deer. You get rid of the lead predator and everything else goes crazy. You have to have a predator so things can stay in balance. Sharks keep the oceans clean. Sharks are the garbage disposal of the ocean.
If you had to choose between staying on a busted boat that may or may not sink or swimming towards an island that is supposed to be four miles away, which would you choose?
Am I with Leonardo DiCaprio? That’s freaky. I would find something in the boat that would float and take my chances. If I were still in my twenties or thirties I would swim. Although I wouldn’t have a choice if the boat sank. I’d have to swim the four miles anyway. I don’t like swimming in the ocean anymore. I used to body surf a lot as a kid. I loved churning around in the waves. We didn’t have boards at the time. Boards came around in the 1950s, right? When I was little, no boards. We didn’t have plastic when I was a kid. We had Bakelite. It looks like plastic but it isn’t, or it was an early form of plastic.
You’ve seen a lot of interesting history then.
My mother saw it all. She was born in 1911. She saw the first radios, which were crystal sets. You could get one and put it together. She saw the first airplanes. When she was born there were still horses drawing wagons down the streets of New York. And then computers! If you went back in time and showed a computer to someone from 1911 they would think it was sorcery and string you up as a witch.
Tell me more about what L.A. was like when you were a teenager?
I hung out at the Troubadour and Barney’s Beanery. I was a sad teenager. My music was where I retreated. When we moved here from New York I was 10, and I had no friends. I had lived in a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx and suddenly I was in a classroom where the only other Jew was my cousin Joel. The teacher was from Texas and I could barely understand what she was saying cuz her accent was so thick and I just felt very isolated. They took me out of my place, my school, my friends. I ended up spending a lot of time in my room, playing guitar. It really inspired me to do a lot of music. When my father died it was a good thing and a bad thing. But all in all my family was not fun. Music was a great escape. And books. A lot of reading. At first I would mostly play other people’s songs. I wrote one song when I was 12 which I still have. It’s so funny. ‘I’ll never, never, fall in love again…’—I was 12 years old! I played a lot of Bob Dylan. But it was Buffy St. Marie—when I heard her, I was like, ‘I could do that.’ That’s when I started writing songs. I could write and I could play music, so I put them together. I went to open mic, what we called a hootenanny—I was playing hootenannies at the Troubadour and a coffee gallery called Coffee Confusion and another one called Fifth and State and playing my songs and singing. And I got to know a lot of people in the music business. I got a contract with a guy called Steve Clark from Atlanta, and recorded a lot of stuff with him. A lot of the stuff is on the new Ruthann Friedman Songbook—it’s full of names you might recognize. So I left and went to Big Sur, came back from Big Sur … and I don’t know how I ended up living at David Crosby’s house but that’s when I wrote ‘Windy.’ I was 24, 25. Jim Yester’s wife, Jo-Ellen, asked me for a song for the Association, and I offered up ‘Windy.’ When ‘Windy’ came out, I also had a song on the radio at the same time, ‘Little Girl Lost and Found.’ When they were both playing on the radio, it was just amazing. I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe it.
How did ‘Windy’ come to you?
It just came! It was a twenty-minute song. I wrote it in twenty minutes. I had remembered my high school English teacher saying that if you wanted to catch people’s attention in your writing, ask a question right away, and then people want to stick around to see the answer. So: ‘Who’s peeking out from under the stairway? … Everyone knows it’s Windy!’
Chinatown has been a while in the coming. Are you happy?
For the most part I’m very happy. There are things I would change but that’s how it goes. Everyone that worked on that album did it cuz they wanted to. It was a labor of love. I couldn’t pay anybody. I kept going back and forth to San Jose to record with John Mueller to record it at his place. The final additions and mixing took place at Jackson Browne’s studio. It was so much fun. I’ll never get to do that again in my lifetime. People would listen to it and want to play on it and it was the greatest. Van Dyke Parks came and played on three songs. It was so nice.
Is this album something you needed to do?
Yes. There is one old song on there, ‘Southern Comfortable,’ cuz everyone demanded that be on there cuz they liked it. But all these songs are songs that I wanted out there. They are songs I am proud of. You know, I understand I made a contribution to folk music with Constant Companion, but for what it’s worth, these new songs are me, now, and I wanted them out there. Other people may or may not be into it, but screw them. It’s a picture of time. It took about three years to get it done, which is a long time.
I remember when you started playing these songs. They’re part of a soundtrack to a period of my own time. I can’t see the word ‘Chinatown’ without hearing you in my head, ‘Chinatowwwn, in the RAAAIN.’
I’m just glad that it’s out. And now I’m writing more songs. I’ve got six new songs. I worry over them. The songs that I write take me a long time. Every word has to be right. I have to wait a month sometimes just to be satisfied with adding another word. I’ve become much more critical. The words are important to me. I wrote a love song for the first time in a long time.
What’s important to you now?
I want to make another record. I want to keep playing. I write alone so that’s the lonely part. I very seldom write with others. I want to get them out there cuz I write them to share them. If I don’t get to share them, it stops me. It’s like, why bother. I’m not driven. I don’t have graphitis where I have to constantly be writing. I need to have a reason. Playing and singing are a reason.
How do keep your creativity in shape?
I think my brain is constantly thinking creatively, bouncing from one thing to another, thinking about things in a different way. When something clicks, then I sit down and write it. I also do a lot of automatic writing because that keeps it flowing. A lot of time you do automatic writing, then look at it in a month and you see these thoughts in their development. Best time to do it is first thing in the morning. And then a lot of it comes from playing the guitar. Lyrics come second for me. That song ‘Sideshow’ took me three years to write. I have a new one called ‘Monster Love’ that also took me three years. I’ve been playing the same riff for three years! And I tried a bunch of different lyrics until finally it came together. And it’s a weird song.
Right here on this couch?
Right here on this couch is where the magic happens. See that pile of legal pads? Those are all my notes that I’m working on. I love the music. When I get into it. When I get high and I’m playing, it’s just … oh my, great. I can’t play high in front of people because I get lost. I did it at Taix when it was just my friends left in the audience, and the song just turns into something else and they don’t care. In middle of the song I will forget what I’m playing and just start playing something else.
Are the songs on the Ruthann Friedman Songbook the ones you recorded for A&M in 67-68?
Not just for A&M—there are things I recorded for Steve Clark in my early twenties. It’s from all over. Things I recorded for A&M, things I recorded for Warner Reprise, things I recorded on my own. It’s a whole time capsule of different recordings.
What was happening in the late 60s for you? You were caught up in your romance with Peter Kaukonen? Why did that distract your from your music?
Funny thing is we were together for a year, that’s all—but I lost A&M because of Peter. Instead of concentrating on my recording, I was sitting in the booth calling him and not getting an answer, thinking he was fooling around on me, which was true. But what are you going to do? Live and learn.
But you bounced back cuz right after that you jumped into Constant Companion?
Yes, I was living in the desert with my next man, Alan Wayne, who I lived with for five years. He was an artist. I still have many of his paintings in my house. That’s where I did Constant Companion and some other things for Warner. With Van Dyke Parks we did ‘Glittering Dancer,’ which is a bonus track on one of my albums … I really don’t know, maybe on Hurried Life? I honestly can’t keep all the facts straight at this point in my life.
Did you go out to the desert on a spiritual quest to find answers or just cuz you wanted to get out of town?
I wasn’t out there meditating or anything. I just went down there one weekend and I was playing my guitar at Jilly’s, who was a friend of Sinatra’s [ahem, as in Frank…]. And this young man came up to me and started talking and I ended up staying with him, Alan, for five years. We stayed in the desert for a little more than a year. We had a great house near Palm Springs. There were no other houses around us. It was different 40 years ago. There were still hotels, but not as many. It was the Rat Pack hangout. They’re all mostly dead now. The reason Alan was there was because his mentor, Victor Thall, was there. Victor was an amazing character and brilliant abstract expressionist who had been in Paris in the 20s at the height of the arts movement. I was typing his endless memoirs for him. He was a crusty New Yorker about whom I have many tales to tell … another story for another time.
Do you have regrets about how your music career went?
My music career never went. When I was on the road pushing Constant Companion, I called Warner to find out where my next show was, and they told me to call my mother’s house and my stepfather picked up the phone and told me my sister killed herself. So I packed up and went home and everything went downhill from there. And I was like … enough. That was the end of that and then I just didn’t want to do it anymore so I raised a family instead. I found my husband, Jeffrey, and we raised a family. The years went by and then suddenly people wanted to hear my songs again. So I picked up the guitar and started doing it again, and I realized that I just loved doing it. I love writing songs. And I think my songs are better now than they were then. I went to college. I got an education. I stopped recording music entirely in 72, 73.
What got you through that tough period in your life?
Well, it wasn’t drugs. I had given that up. I don’t know. Probably just the belief that it would turn out okay. That it would end. No matter how bad it gets, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. There’s more good times, more productive times.
Since you felt let down by your parents, were you worried about being a good mother when you decided to make a family?
You’ll find that what we do is the actual opposite of what our parents did. I didn’t set boundaries for my kids like I should have. That song ‘What a Joy It Is to See You’: ‘We didn’t know how to make you strong, but you found out on your own / we’re so proud of how you’ve grown …’ That’s the story right there. I was worried about being a good parent. I loved my kids. I loved them, I love them! It all works out though.
What brought you back to music?
About seven years ago, I got a call from Pat Thomas of Water Records and they wanted to reissue Constant Companion. And I got a call from Devendra Banhart, who wanted me to play at a festival he was doing. So I dug out my guitar. And then I found a guy who could listen to my old recordings and start me off on how I used to play them. I didn’t remember! Then I realized I could still do it.
One lesson to take from this is that things are never really over.
No, it continues. Unless you decide ‘I’m never gonna …’ If it’s in you, it’s never over.
Are you happy music is back in your life?
Absolutely. Oh yeah! And I’ve made so many great friends in the last few years, so many people when I walk into a room and see them, I really feel happy and they feel the same. I love singing. I love performing. I love sharing my songs. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it. Meeting people and having these great friendships keeps me going absolutely. I’m going to be 70, you know.
You’re looking good for 70!
Well, thanks, dear. I spent a lot of time waiting. I wasted a lot of time. Thinking. You know that Eagles song, ‘I would’ve done so many things if I could only stop my mind …’ I think too much. I procrastinate. I have to get the whole thing worked out in my head before I actually go and do it.
Why is it so hard to do the things we want to do the most?
Maybe we’re afraid to fail. Or we’re afraid we can’t do it. Also the way I was raised; I was not raised by nice people. They were crazy. My father especially made me feel very bad about myself. That seemed to be his goal in life from when I was 5 years old. It’s hard to keep positive and it’s hard to believe in yourself. In my songs, you can see, they’re not exactly all joyous.
That also makes me think of your spider dream. You just had to go for it.
That’s true. Not being afraid and just plunging forward. Sometimes it’s like that Alice in Wonderland song: ‘I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it. That explains the trouble that I’m always in.’ I love music. I’ve always loved music. Music makes the world go round.
It does. It brings people together, it sets them apart. People find themselves, either by making or listening.
I’m thinking about what you said about being spiritual. I think that I thought that people ‘knew’ when I was young and that I didn’t get it and they all knew something that I didn’t know. And now I know they didn’t know anything. They would make you believe they knew something to make themselves feel really cool. It’s all bullshit—I mean, basically. Anyone who tells you they know, especially about spiritual things, doesn’t know. I don’t go for the mythology that tears the world apart. Religion is tearing the world apart.
What should spirituality be?
You try to love yourself. Love your friends. Make nice. Do what you know is the right thing to do. Try to always do that. It doesn’t necessarily mean you should be majorly successful and make a lot of money. Live off the grid if you think that’s what’s important. Be true to yourself.
Which is harder than it seems.
It is. That’s why life is a trial. For some maybe it isn’t. But I don’t know anyone who doesn’t suffer and struggle. People with money aren’t necessarily happy. They can afford expensive psychiatry. Here is an answer for you that is true: When I need some sort of spiritual assistance I remember that all I have is this moment in time. Past and future, all else is illusion and at the most quarky, subatomic level we are all connected to everything. I don’t consider myself necessarily a wise person but I like to inspect things and think about what makes things go and why they are the way they are. That’s usually what my songs are about. My songs are it. If you want to glean what’s going on in my head or what I’ve learned, that’s where it is. In my songs. That’s where I’ve worked it out. But otherwise, the second 40 years of being a kid is just as hard as the first 40.
As long as I get to keep being a kid.
It’s good, I think. Being able to see the world and have fun and see things as new. And not wear polyester pants.
RUTHANN FRIEDMAN WITH FORT KING ON THURS., JULY 10, AT THE RECORD RELEASE SHOW FOR CHINATOWN AT 525 VENEZIA AVE., VENICE. 8 PM / FREE / ALL AGES / MORE INFO HERE! RUTHANN FRIEDMAN’S CHINATOWN IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM WOLFGANG RECORDS. WINDY: THE RUTHANN FRIEDMAN SONGBOOK AND THE COMPLETE CONSTANT COMPANION SESSIONS ARE AVAILABLE NOW FROM CHERRY RED/NOW SOUNDS. VISIT RUTHANN FRIEDMAN AT RUTHANNFRIEDMAN.COM.