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Eric Andersen is frightened. Aren't you?

Jan 15, 2020

Eric Andersen plays at Abilene Bar and Lounge at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
Credit Paolo Brillo

At age 76, Eric Andersen considers himself to be in "The Danger Zone."

"Half the people I knew are not around anymore," he says. "Townes is gone, Lou Reed is gone, Rick Danko is gone, Janis is gone. Joni, almost.

"You can't argue with gravity and health."

Townes Van Zandt. Lou Reed. Rick Danko of The Band. Janis Joplin. Joni Mitchell. The list of intriguing people Andersen has been around would take up paragraphs here. Bob Dylan, of course. Dylan recorded one of Andersen's songs, "Thirsty Boots," about civil rights and the Freedom Riders of the '60s. If Dylan does one of your songs, you must be doing something right.

"I must be a little intriguing," Andersen says, "if you're willing to do an interview."

He grew up in Snyder, near Buffalo, but as a songwriter emerged from the Greenwich Village scene. Now he's talking by phone from his home in the Netherlands. But he hasn't turned his back on the United States.

That revolution-loaded coil of '60s songwriters circling our social consciousness brings him to Rochester for a 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 16, show at Abilene Bar & Lounge. Rochester's Jeff Riales opens the night. It was originally announced that Scarlet Rivera would be with Andersen; she played violin on Dylan's "Desire" album and subsequent tours, but she's backed out of the tour for health reasons.

"She's fighting some demons," Andersen says.

He's released more than 25 albums. Johnny Cash, The Grateful Dead, Fairport Convention, Linda Ronstadt and Pete Seeger have recorded his songs.

"I'm very interested in creatives, and probably I feel much more akin to artists than anybody else," Andersen says. "They're like a kind of, how can I explain it? A virtual family. They're always around, they're always on hand, and fortunately, I've been lucky to work with those people.

"Sometimes you get some magic moments, creatively. Artists, they never ask you to explain anything. 'Why'd you do this, why'd you do that? What's this? What's that?' They get it."

He seems to read a lot. Andersen wrote a critical piece called "The Danger Zone," published in a collection called "Naked Lunch @ 50: Anniversary Essays," on the classic William S. Burroughs surrealistic novel.

"He patently had probably one of the greatest predictive minds in the 20th century," Andersen says. "I mean, he foresaw a lot of stuff, and he included these insights in his books. And I think people got titillated by these insights and they had a hunch: 'Yeah, he's on the right track. This could be true…' "

Indeed, "Naked Lunch" was published in 1959, but characters addicted to oxycodone seem all too familiar today. And the city of Interzone, where "Nothing is true, everything is permitted" has the now-familiar totalitarian truth of a government whose every statement seems a lie.

"And his humor," Andersen says of Burroughs. "I'm very interested in writers. A lot of people think that writers like, for example, Kafka or James Jones or, I'm trying to think of other writers -- Leonard Cohen, for example -- people think of them like they're almost so heavy and complex and hard to get into. But basically, they were our literary comedians, they were the ones who really had the humor. Hemingway, he had sarcastic drollness."

But there's nothing funny about his song, "Rain Falls Down in Amsterdam," which starts with the Nazis and warns: "The Fourth Reich's coming, baby."

"It's about the rise in fascism, which I predicted, like, 30 years ago," he says. "A lot of times you're like soothsayers."

Soothsayer. We should be listening a little more closely.

"I think everybody in the Village probably had slightly different experiences," Andersen says. "At first, you had eight people writing about 8 million things. War, civil rights, sexual equality. And you had the LP, they could make long songs and records, you could stretch out like a jazz musician and wail. Write long songs, take long solos. Coltrane, Miles, those kinds of people. Mingus. Now, 8 million songwriters have a hard time writing about anything. It's like an inverse proportional thing. That spirit, I think, it opened up a Pandora's box. Songwriters came crawling out from all over the place, to express themselves, and that's a good thing.

"It's tough now to put your finger on things because, you know, with the news cycle 24/7, by the time you want to write something, something else happens, it usurps the thing you're writing on."

So he thinks broadly. "Climate change, populist evil, if you will, where people just forget their humanity and just protect themselves out of fear."

Dwelling on climate change has led to a new song, "Crime Scenes," as we watch Australia reduced to cinders. "Negligence," Andersen says. "Purposeful destruction. Greed, the almighty buck coming over the humanity of the world."

He's lived in the Netherlands for 15 years. But "it doesn't matter anymore where you live, because the world is so the same. Everywhere you turn, people are reading the same books, seeing the same music, wearing the same Nikes."

What's it look like to Andersen, as he gazes across the Atlantic Ocean?

"What I see is pretty frightening for people because it's the Wild West, man," he says. "Anything's game. You're in the wrong place, take the wrong turn and you're gonna take a bullet. You don't have that in Europe. You don't have that feeling in Europe, or other places."

So, he's frightened. For us?

"Aren't you?"

Peeling Onions at the Memorial Art Gallery.
Credit Memorial Art Gallery

Pin-ups of the past

Celebrity watchers may claim that Mila Kunis and Ryan Gosling are the hottest creatures on two legs, but that's ignoring centuries of artists who have recorded smoldering good looks for posterity. The Memorial Art Gallery, 500 University Ave., addresses our society's bias in favor of contemporary grooming with its MAG HeARTthrobs tour, 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 16. The event promises "marble hunks, oil-painted Adonises, and other MAG men and women who make you wish you were born four centuries ago." A woman portrayed by Lilly Martin Spencer might appear to have just had her heart broken, but those tears are actually from peeling onions. You'll also see how fashionable ancient Greeks used a bronze skin scraper to collect their own sweat; queasier souls can skip that part of the show. These themed tours of artist gossip, called DeTOURS and led by MAG Engagement Manager Jessica Gasbarre, are usually the third Thursday of each month. The hourlong tour is $12, and includes admission to the museum. Upcoming DeTOURS:

  • Death, Decay, and Discovery in the Ancient World, 6 p.m. Feb. 20. Mummies, and how the trash of ancient people becomes our art.
  • Stare at Art with Ward, 6 p.m. March 5. Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra Music Director Ward Stare illustrates the relationship between art and music, showing off his favorite and least favorite pieces.
  • Badass Babes: Women of MAG, 6 p.m. March 19. Artists and images of feminism.
  • Medieval Mysteries and Mayhem, 6 p.m. April 23. Life was kinda scary back then.

In our Universe

Here's a partial list of musicians that Holly Near has recorded with, or played with, in concerts: Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and Harry Belafonte. Just to name a few. Notice what they all have in common? Activism. Near has been an anti-war activist, an ardent feminist, and a spokesperson for LGBTQ people. Near will be at Downstairs Cabaret Theatre, 3450 Winton Place, Brighton, for a 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 16, show. Tickets are $30. For reservations, call (585) 325-4370…

Black Sabbitch plays at Montage Music Hall at 7:30 p.m. Sunday.
Credit Black Sabbitch

Dreams do come true! Black Sabbitch, the all-female Black Sabbath tribute band, has a 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 19, show at Montage Music Hall, 55 Chestnut St. Tickets are $15. I just watched a video of "War Pigs," and lead singer Alice Austin nails Ozzy's wide-eyed, hair swinging thing. And, of course, you'll want to see the Feb. 7 show at Montage with … The Iron Maidens. Guess what that's all about?

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.