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Fan Note: Shawn Phillips Is The Man

My dad was ten sheets to the wind by the time my friend J.R. and I arrived at FitzGerald's. I rolled my eyes at the old man; the night was barely underway. My dad grabbed us in the direction of the bar to ensure that we too were properly groovied. Knowing how fun it is to be the only saucy among the sober, I sympathized with his immediacy. Soon enough, however, Shawn Phillips would be the only mood enhancement we needed.

We sat down in front of the bartender, who was already well-familiar with my dad and his running tab. But I guess, to my dad's credit, he was a sort of V.I.P. on this particular night. He did, after all, shelter Shawn on his trip to Chicago (as he has done many times before), fed him well for a couple of days, and personally delivered him to Fitzergald's the day of the concert, ready to rock. And again, then, knowing this much, I must also give credit to his pre-show drunkenness being the product of arriving at the bar hours ago, while I was still at work, counting the heavy Friday minutes.

* * *

My dad discovered Shawn Phillips in the '70s. Their history, as portrayed in my imagination, is a fantastical friendship filled with long hair, rebellious spirituality and lots and lots of bitchin', funky-ass jam sessions. Sure, my dad doesn't play any instruments, but dammit, he is a keyboard prodigy in my mind.

Never a year passed that my dad did not see Shawn in some form, until 1980. The story gets a little hazy here, but if I recall, it has something to do with the inevitable states that separated them, and those damn children.

In 1988, Shawn released a new album (Beyond Here Be Dragons; very '80s, very synthesizer, very shiny blazer and well-groomed shallow beard; but very good nonetheless). My dad took a trip cross-country in his Winnebago that same year to find peace and most importantly, Shawn Phillips. Small town to small town, reading papers and asking around, he traveled West to no avail. It wasn't until Los Angeles that he gave up looking entirely. He was defeated.

As he sat moping in a restaurant in L.A., my dad skimmed the front page of the newspaper. His eyes focused upon a small corner advertisement for an upcoming benefit concert, featuring Shawn Phillips. Not to get Aesopian, but I fear my father would be disappointed if I did not demonstrate that I have fully absorbed the wisdom of this tale: It is when you stop looking for something that you finally find it.

Anyway, you can imagine the excitement. My dad found Shawn and has never let him far from his sight again. Of course, today's media is slightly different and we can do the equivalent of a cross-country search in a matter of seconds. But then again, no city's newspaper today is going to blurb a Shawn concert on the front page, either.

* * *

On this June night at Fitzgerald's, it had been four years since we had last seen Shawn. He moved to South Africa that long ago, which is where he still resides today with his wife and toddler. In those four years, Shawn has continued to write new music, some of it with the inspiration of local South African musicians; all of it as amazing as the work of his youthful fervor.

shawn_phillips.jpgWhen Shawn and my dad arrived early that Friday afternoon to set up for the show, the two of them took advantage of the barren bar. The room in which Shawn performed, the sidebar of Fitzgerald's, was built for a capacity of 50. The stage was more like a platform, raised six inches; you could call it intimate. Shawn plugged everything in and proceeded into a sort of sound check: "I don't think you've heard any of this stuff," Shawn said to my dad, in his Texas twang. He began to play for my dad, all the music he had written in his last four years in South Africa. The two of them, Shawn's guitars and his three-octave vocal range, occupied the entire room.

Shawn played for an hour and when he was finished, my dad, through tears, could only muster the phrase, "I love you Shawn."

"Aww, I love you too, Greg." Texas twang and all.

* * *

My dad divulged this story to us at the bar when we arrived, and even fought back tears as he told it. Suddenly, I realized that what I had initially brushed off as alcohol intoxication was actually just the childlike giddiness of my father in this supreme state of consciousness. He had had a couple, yes, but I had seen him drunk before, and this blinding gleam in his eye was a different level of enlightenment. His spirit was drunk off its ass.

Here he was, having just spent days with his one hero in life - the man whose music he considers godliness - and the anticipation of Shawn's next performance was enough to send him into delirium. It all suddenly made sense, and J.R. and I couldn't avoid his blazing path of excitement. My dad buzzed around the room, lit up like I had never seen him before, his gapped-tooth smile on constant exposure to all in his foreground.

J.R. and I arrived later than planned, so although my dad, step-mom, sister and brother-in-law occupied the front row, we sat two rows back . . . which only translated to about a foot-and-a-half in the tiny room. I scored the aisle, which would prove handy for the upcoming moments where it was simply impossible to stay seated and still.

After many anticipatory minutes, Shawn finally entered the room. At age 63, he strolled in as enthusiastically as I ever remembered him. And I had practically known him as far back as my recollections of knowing anyone outside my family stretched. I was but six years old when Shawn, then still in his 40's, played "My Favorite Things" for my sister and me, as my dad drove him to the airport, his empty guitar case under our butts in the back seat of the trusty Hyundai. I had seen him many times since then and each show got better the older I got, and the more I understood about life. Shawn is about as wise as they come.

It is difficult to describe Shawn's music in the categorically rigid definitions of how music is prejudged. There isn't really a genre that comfortably pops up when you pop Shawn into the ol' iTunes. When asked, Shawn will tell you his music is "fulfilling." Although I think iTunes prefers the more limiting "folk/acoustic" assignment.

Shawn began the concert with (I will try not to describe every song this way) one of my favorites, "Coming Down Soft and Easy," off his 1971 concept album, Collaboration. Just as Collaboration - as well as his 1975 album Do You Wonder - digs some of the deepest, funkiest grooves you've ever heard, Shawn's lyrics hint of the flowing, interwoven styles later to be found in rap. Deliberately as melodically playful as the flutter of a butterfly's wings, "Coming Down Soft and Easy" is a lyrical delight:

Jellyfish are dangerous
Politics are perilous
And I'm really glad that I'm not Richard's friend
'Cause I say sexual repression can make a lot of trouble
It can only lead to
Is in the head
The heart is short of being dead

Have you got a reason for survival in the fall?
Oh look at blood-soaked Charlie
On a silk-stained bedsheet
Tell me do you really want to die in all your false belief?
I tell you now that there is no relief
Oh, you really gotta grow again

This particular June night at Fitzgerald's occurred in 2006, so Shawn instead sang that he was glad not to be Bush's friend, on which we could all agree. The concert progressed, each and every song struck a different emotional chord, and almost always inspired my front-row family to turn around and give me nods of approval. And sometimes they would just turn to show the tears coming from their eyes.

Such was the case during "The Ballad of Casey Deiss," a family favorite. (By the way, a live '80s performance of "Casey" can be found on YouTube here. However, the first song in the nearly 12-minute video is actually "Power of a Woman." "Casey" begins right after the first song ends. It's the more, errr, ballad-y one of the two. Please watch and enjoy!)

Shawn's playlist was incredible. He spanned all the classic albums and then offered us a few of his new songs, written in South Africa. It was inexplicably amazing to hear how Shawn's inimitable style of songwriting fused with and translated into the style of another land's. One of the coolest parts of the show, however, came when he pulled out the beast that is his double-necked guitar - a 1964 Les Paul merged on top of a 1968 Fender Strat. He plugged that puppy in, cranked the amp, and kicked the distortion pedal into action as he took off into a swirling interlocking version of the Hendrix classics, "Purple Haze" and "Hey Joe."

In moments like these, when 63 year-old Shawn Phillips is lost alongside us in the wonder of his own creations, rocking the room with more intensity than any artist I've ever beheld, an electricity courses through his music and forces you to wonder how this, one of the greatest musicians of the last 40 years, has flown so quietly under the popular music radar.

Shawn Phillips doesn't mind popular music's rejection of his work. If he does, it's probably only because I think he agrees that he has a message that more people should definitely be hearing. As opposed to say, Lindsay Lohan, who has an audience of millions and uses it to publicly be an asshole.

But Shawn ain't naive about the way things go, and he readily jokes about radio not playing him. The way he sees it, record companies and producers never want an artist to evolve. They want the tried-and-true formula for songwriting (ergo, instant money-making), without experimentation or expansion. They way I see it, Shawn is too evolved for popular music and media anyway: He is real, writing and creating exactly as he chooses, continuously morphing his songwriting depending on his inspiration. How many radio artists can actually say that?

This brings me to another reason that Shawn is one of the most astounding people I have ever met. Despite his superior musicianship and 40 years of living and creating music, he is the most humble and grounded person in the world. Shawn is compassionate and has the most genuine love for people that I have ever seen. He creates not for money, nor for fame, but to share the brilliance of what he knows, what he experiences and holds true - his passions, and the splendor of life itself.

He lives for wonder, like a great philosopher, and seems to know the weight of life in a world full of people who assume immortality as they go about their uninspired daily interactions with the world. Which may be why he has never slowed down on inspiration - even in the most mundane moments of life, something extraordinary can be discovered if you are paying attention.

Now at age 64, an age at which most men are retiring comfortably into their couches, Shawn has embarked on a new life in yet a new foreign country. From learning the sitar in his teens, to volunteer firefighting still into his 60's, Shawn has always defied the expectations of a person at his age. This past summer in South Africa, Shawn received his National Sea Rescue Institute crew member's badge after three years of difficult training. So basically, in his mid-60's, Shawn is doing the dangerous work of the Coast Guard, as a volunteer nonetheless.

* * *

After the spiritual enlightenment that was Shawn's performance, audience members lingered, knowing that the man of the hour would soon be available to chat. J.R. and I joined the rest of my family at the front of the room, where we immediately recounted our favorite moments of the show.

Eventually the conversation led to the songs we all were bummed not to hear, a conversation triggered by Shawn's very evil teasing of the first few guitar dew drops of "Early Morning Hours," which is, you guessed it, a favorite. When I said that I wanted to hear "Song for Mr. C," from his 1970 album Second Contribution, my dad agreed, and somehow, the two of us began singing it. All, or at least most of the 500 words in the fast-paced tune spewed from our mouths at full volume, for everyone to hear. Sure, it wasn't an immaculate performance, but I'm sure we pleased some onlookers; we were long and lanky folk with matching gapped-teeth, unabashedly crooning a tune that is meant for a sober, lyrical giant.

shawn_2.jpgMinutes later we found Shawn outside the sidebar, selling albums, signing autographs and receiving praise. We waited our turn, while my dad volunteered my step-mom to help Shawn handle the cashbox to more speedily get the crowd cleared. After about 10 impatient minutes, my dad made his presence known by hovering awkwardly over the people at the table, bouncing around them like a gnat, staring them down as though they had nothing interesting to offer Shawn, why were they even bothering? We all laughed from a distance as the crowd slowly scattered. It was finally our turn to chat.

Shawn was delighted to see us, and I don't mean that in the sense that all artists act delighted to see their fans. I introduced J.R. to Shawn, and informed him that J.R. was one of Chicago's best guitarists. Shawn offered J.R. some encouragement and they talked about the double-necked deity that just rocked the Hendrix covers. Then J.R. asked him about his unique use of disagreeing chords to end songs, to which Shawn casually explained, "Harmony will show you the wind through the trees and the waves on the beach, but dissonance will show you the world."

I walked away thinking about what he said and completely understanding what he meant. I suddenly realized that my many acquired musical tastes - including my love for Radiohead and all their dissonant madness - all had some element of Shawn in them. He has influenced so much, from giving George Harrison sitar lessons to showing a Saskatchewan waitress named Joni Mitchell how to handle a guitar to inspiring Alanis Morrissette ("You Oughta Know," just so you know, is a very noticeably Shawn-influenced song). And he's done it without selling out, monetarily, moralistically or spiritually speaking.

* * *

If I wanted to talk for pages more about Shawn, I absolutely could. I slap my hands so as not to type out more lyrical examples of his wisdoms. As I said before, Shawn becomes better with age and experience. I have always loved him, but not always fully understood him. I was a small child when my dad was teaching us how to sing along to the lyric,

And the effluvium of excess
It is hidden at the behest of mentality
Of a low degree.

Naturally I was too young to decode the meaning of those words, but the music and the voice registered at even my most primal times in this world. I knew even then, and my knowledge of it is embedded even more deeply today, that Shawn Phillips is unmistakably, unquestionably, indubitably, irrefutably The Man.


See also Leigh Novak's "Fan Note: My Life As A Radiohead-Head."


Wanna write a Fan Note? Please do! Contact Steve with your idea.


Posted on September 25, 2007

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BOOKS - Being Sure About George Ryan.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Recall! Sriracha Chicken Ravioli.

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