A great songwriter engages the mind, fires the imagination, frames the moment--and a place to remember it by.
A case in point is a Canadian singer and songwriter who died two decades ago and whose legacy grows stronger by the year.
His name is Bob Carpenter, and he died of brain cancer in 1995.
Born on a reservation in North Bay and finding his way to Canada’s west coast during the folk boom, Carpenter’s life was an open highway in 1974 when he was recording his debut album Silent Passage for Warner Brothers in LA. For whatever reason or reasons, his album was shelved and his voice was silenced until Holger Petersen negotiated the album’s release on Stony Plain Records a decade later, by which time Carpenter had given up on his career and was bound for moving on.
Since the original release on vinyl, Silent Passage has developed a voice and taken on a life of its own, reaping acknowledgments from a small but influential circle that includes The Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone magazine. In fact, Rolling Stone selected the CD release of Silent Passage as one of its Top 10 reissues of the year in 2014—alongside collections by Dylan, The Allman Brothers Band, Mike Bloomfield, and the Beatles.
Carpenter’s one album was produced by Nova Scotian Brian Ahern, and its list of contributors include then young vocalists’ Emmylou Harris and Anne Murray, as well as studio sidemen such as Lowell George and Bill Payne, Russ Kunkel, and pedal steel guitarist Buddy Cage.
What follows is an essay about the seductive effect Carpenter’s songs had on author/journalist Ed Ochs a half-century back. It is an extraordinarily personal account of how Carpenter’s songs connected with Ochs, and how Carpenter would change Ochs’ life.
A bit about Ochs, before we proceed to his essay which is reprinted with authorization. Ed is a blue-chip writer who wrote for Billboard magazine in the day when it employed exemplary writers who essayed about great music and not a knot of vacuous headlines as it reads today. He is also the author of several novels, two of which were inspired by the songs and life of Bob Carpenter. Below the essay we provide acknowledgements and background to Carpenter and Ochs.
I needed to understand why—why did I connect so electrically with Bob’s music? What about it touched me so deeply? I realized I’d found something I didn’t know l’d been searching for…
IT’S pushing 50 years since I first heard the unforgettably powerful, soul-piercing voice of Canadian singer-songwriter Bob Carpenter, as captured by producer Brian Ahern on early demo tapes of what was to become Silent Passage.
It was 1971. I was R&B editor and rock columnist with Billboard in New York at the time. I’d listened to a lot of music and watched a lot of shows, but there was absolutely no way I could have prepared for that moment. Someone flicked a switch, that voice filled the room and pushed back the walls. That was it. In boxing parlance, it was a KO in three seconds of the first round by sonic blow to forehead. The shutters covering my sleeping third eye flew open, and what I experienced was as ominous and frightening…
Down along the border
Where the towers touch the sky
And no one fears the passing years and nobody has to die
And nobody has to die
—“Down Along the Border”
Before the final curtain fell
Across my weary eyes
I’m sure I saw the Ghost of Truth
At least a thousand times
—“Now And Then”
My dearest friends are total strangers
I call them heroes, they call me lonely
I wish them wisdom and self-destruction
And hope someday they’ll come to know me
…as it was uplifting and beautiful.
Master John, my brother is a sailor
Upon this ship of light
We are the mast, the sails and the wind
So many claim to be the one
But like a shadow on the sun they fade and spin
And we are scattered on the ocean once again
I can’t imagine
That’s my problem
I’m always searching for better weather
The coast is rough and the tide is running
I’ll chase my shadow
Till I remember
And now I know the story
Before I turn the page
The games I played for glory
Have vanished with the age
And I can only love you know
And you can do the same
For I have learned that love somehow
Will brush away the pain
—“Before My Time”
Painted lantern circus with the wagon swinging slowly
On a cold October morning on a day that should be holy
Winding through the forest as the sun is just a breaking
And I am only seven and a gypsy in the making
Blindsided by something so unique, astonishing and unexpected, I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around it. It was a shock to my chakras, as close to an encounter with the supernatural as anything I’d ever experienced. No puppet strings, no wires, no hidden microphones. Just music. And it all invisibly takes place inside the mind. Bob’s voice—the perfect instrument—his breath-taking, visual poetry, genius for symbolism, connective wisdom and dynamic storytelling take you there via inner routes that appear on no map.
When I first heard the Ahern tapes I felt like a parched explorer who had stumbled across a vital stream of magical music, a singularly transformative musical experience that opened me up to see a previously unseen parallel universe teeming with life. Strange as it might seem, light sometimes comes at a price. Bob sang the songs that unlocked my mind and let loose volleys of visions and questions that exploded my imagination. Sleep was no escape. His regal songs, that voice, followed me into my dreams. In a vain attempt to write it out of my system, I went so far as to fictionalize elements of my experience with Bob in a paperback, This Rock Can Talk.
I needed to understand why—why did I connect so electrically with Bob’s music? What about it touched me so deeply? I realized I’d found something I didn’t know l’d been searching for. Like most of us, I had my questions, you know, the kind of questions that don’t pop up on TV on “Jeopardy,” like “What am I doing here?” and “What is the meaning of life?” I sought my own answers, talked to no one about it, and never thought I’d learn any more than I could find in a book. Bob, the universal mystic, however, offered answers in the form of vivid reflections, metaphors and imagery scattered throughout his songs that, however difficult, even painful to swallow, enriched me with a more profound understanding of life and a deep admiration for his extraordinary music.
All these words so new to me
Are they supposed to set us free?
I don’t believe in liberty, I just believe in light
How can something perfect change
Into something less and back again
And in between have all this pain
Because we’re asking why?
—“Now And Then”
In this light, in my view, Bob Carpenter is still here and still telling his truth-filled stories, entirely present and wrapped around us, working his inner revolution of the spirit with his still-growing audience. This isn’t just my wistful theory. Bob’s transcendent music has proved it—by disproving the notion that history is a concrete wall and that time has some sort of objective reality all its own. They aren’t completely unreal, of course; ordinary reality propels things along. For those who know what they heard and saw when he played, though, Bob demonstrated that time and space aren’t as solid or one-dimensional as they seem. By connecting the inner world to the outer world he achieved an awareness and consciousness that pervade his music like no other contemporary musical artist save Neil Young, with whom he shares an extremely rare ability to communicate at the highest level. Such connectivity always existed on a psychic level, but the mass of humanity was unable to see it clearly until recently. Now we’re at a point in history where we’re more concretely able to see our total connectedness, and the need to evolve and connect exponentially more at an even faster rate, if mankind is to survive.
And I was only half this bad
Before I knew the choice we had
So don’t be angry, don’t be sad
If nothing should survive
—“Now And Then”
Intimately entwined with his meditative music, Bob’s religion always played a big part in his everyday life. His commitment to Buddhism only deepened over the years, sometimes at the expense of family. Eventually, he entered a monastery in California to prepare to become a monk, which he achieved simultaneously as he passed through this life in 1995 of brain cancer at the age of 50, a lifelong spiritual pilgrim to his last dying breath—and first new breath of life to come. Besides being an incomparable musician, Bob had the amazing gift of being able to conjure and combine complex Christian, Tibetan Buddhist, Sufi and homegrown Canadian Indian visions, project them on the movie screen of the mind, and make them instantly accessible and relevant to us then, today and tomorrow. Through eloquent truth-telling and the universal language of poetry, he makes listeners believe he is speaking directly to them when he’s speaking to Everyone. I thought he was speaking to me; it was such a private conversation. That’s why Bob’s journey was my journey, our journey, and Silent Passage will endure as the ultimate seeker’s album, a star chart of the soul guiding new generations of gypsies, wanderers and wayfarers searching for the light.
No one better explains Bob’s music than Brent Titcomb, Canadian music legend, Bob’s closest friend and spiritual musical brother. In an insightful interview with Doug Cox for Doug’s superb album notes to Stony Plain’s 2014 reissue of Silent Passage, Brent thoughtfully describes the interior landscape of Bob’s songs:
“A lot of his songs are about a struggle with the ego. His lyrics are talking about the truth which is why they resonate with people at a very deep level. They are about what religion and spiritual ideas are leading us towards. To me it’s very deep what Bob was writing about—it’s got a lot to do with his spiritual quest.
“A lot of his songs have to do with self-realization and impermanence and the struggle of the soul with the material world. His songs are about truth in terms of what our spiritual identity truly is, a reflection of the creator. He was obsessed with the mystical union.
“Things can resonate with your soul that you’re actually not aware of,” Brent says. “There’s an aspect of us that recognizes truth when we hear it on some level and that’s what the power of his lyrics are…”
I cite Brian Ahern’s production of Silent Passage up front because, for me, it immortalizes Bob and his music in a multi-dimensional way that’s difficult to find in most of Bob’s other recordings. Yet there’s something unfair about that conclusion. After all, it would have been practically impossible for Bob to reproduce Silent Passage live on stage or on the road; it would have taken a small army and big bucks. Silent Passage was a concept album from first song to last, not just a collection of songs, with many musicians, arrangements and moving parts, belying the relative simplicity and directness of Bob’s typical live performances, solo or with a basic band. Bob was a hard act for anyone to follow, which he found out first-hand when he couldn’t follow himself after the heights of Silent Passage.
Bob was something of a purist when it came to his music and wasn’t thrilled with the “bells and whistles”—horns, strings, backup singers—Ahern brought in to fully illustrate his songs. Bob felt they were a form of hype, parlor trickery that detracted from the core essence; he was more comfortable sticking to the basics of the genre. At the same time, Ahern was much more than a shaper of sounds; he was a painter with an infinite canvas, array of brushes, and a palate of many colors and contrasts, and he used them all to bring Bob’s dramatic, panoramic song-poems to brilliant, spell-binding life.
Ahern was always looking beyond the all-night studio sessions at the bigger picture of bringing Bob to the world, not just satisfying the folk-country-rock demographic. Taking nothing away from the integrity of Bob’s music, Ahern’s arrangements drew out the hidden lines of emotion and provided the kind of classical elegance, aura and luminescence that frame timeless art. Ahern has a gift for relentlessly mining the art in artistry and he brought out the best in Bob by forcing a discipline and harnessing his incredible power, driven by the aim of reaching the widest possible audience. Ahern had already proved his hand at hit-making with Anne Murray’s sparkling, globe-circling “Snowbird,” and he surrounded Bob with world-class studio musicians to elevate his game: Lee Sklar, Lowell George, Bill Payne, Russ Kunkel, Ben Keith, Buddy Cage, Anne Murray, Emmylou Harris, Dianne Brooks, among others.
Wrote Ahern for the reissue of Silent Passage: “I threw Bob into the deep end of the pool knowing his great voice and aggressive, hypnotic acoustic guitar style would infect them with equally powerful performances.”
Without Ahern’s production—Bob had little patience for the recording process and felt his input was largely ignored—it’s likely that few outside Canada would have ever heard Bob’s music. But Ahern understood Bob’s talent, what his songs were about and where they were coming from, and he knew the level of his musicianship and how important he was an as artist, and why it was so important to create a rich musical environment to nourish his mind-blowing songs. So that when they were heard, they could not, would not be soon forgotten.
Bob’s essential being was formed early on in a crucible of abandonment, disconnection and yearning. Part Ojibway Indian, he was born on March 12, 1945 on a reservation near North Bay, Ontario, about 240 miles north of Toronto.
“His grandfather was Bill Guppy who supposedly taught Grey Owl—the Englishman who pretended to be a Canadian aboriginal—how to live in the wild, and his father was half or full Ojibway. This all had an influence on Bob,” his former wife, Margaret Gormely, wrote me in an email. His father died soon after he was born. Around the age of two, when his ill mother couldn’t care for him, the family split up and Bob and older siblings were separated. He grew up in foster homes until sticking with the same English couple for about 14 years. For that, Bob said, “I was one of the lucky ones.”
When his foster father, who he liked, died and foster mother couldn’t care for a teenager, it was more foster homes until, at 17, he joined the Navy.
“He joined the Navy as a form of support,” Margaret wrote. “He said he enjoyed it. I think he appreciated the structure and companionship.” He was eventually discharged for mischievous conduct while drunk on leave in Edinburgh, but by then the Navy had introduced him to the sea and distant shores, opening his eyes to a wider world. (Although Bob didn’t complete high school, Margaret wrote me, “he was really intelligent and well-read.”) His wanderings eventually took him to Toronto where, inspired by the mid ’60s Toronto folk music scene featuring Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot., he began playing small venues and gatherings.
In the summer of 1970, the legendary Festival Express train tour, starring The Grateful Dead. The Band, Janis Joplin, Delaney & Bonnie, Buddy Guy, Flying Burrito Brothers, Sha Na Na, Ian & Sylvia and Great Speckled Bird, rolled across Canada into Calgary on the last stop of its wild, five-day, rock ‘n’ rail adventure. A Rolling Stone reporter covering the festival described this jaw-dropping, spontaneous appearance at the all-star send-off:
“After the final Festival at Calgary a young guitarist mysteriously showed up at the York hotel where the farewell party was taking place, and with the deep and painful voice of some Ancient Mariner performed songs of unbelievable dignity. No one knew his name. He said: ‘It doesn’t matter the kind of music I play. Your mind sort of melts and becomes that one place of beautiful bliss which is the only place to be.’”
The young guitarist’s name was Bob Carpenter. His journey from Ancient Mariner to Silent Passage was well underway.
In 1969 Bob briefly journeyed to India and met influential teacher Kirpal Singh, who helped him fine-tune his “out of control” Zen mediations. “I spent two short weeks in India and was initiated into a yoga of light and sound,” he told Doug Cox and Nelson Whalen in a 1980 radio interview edited for the reissue album notes. I once asked Bob about the source of his inspiration and he gave me a book, The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan (Barrie and Jenkins, 1973 edition), Volume II, containing the master’s four books: The Mysticism of Sound; Music; The Power of the Word; and Cosmic Language. The book titles alone speak directly to Bob’s genius.
He began recording with Neil Young’s producer, David Briggs, who had just finished After the Gold Rush, in Toronto in 1970-71, spending time with Briggs in LA in the rustic oasis of Topanga Canyon. There he hung out with members of Spirit and Buffalo Springfield, whoever happened to be in town at the time, while catching hot live acts likes Taj Mahal, The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers. Questions about direction and Briggs’ eventual move back to California disarmed that attempt to bring Bob to record. Enter Brian Ahern, Canadian producer on the rise.
In 1972, after isolating himself for the winter in a remote cabin in British Columbia to write, Bob, then 26, emerged to perform his new songs to rapt audiences. Other artists began recording his songs. The word was out. He became a “familiar figure with the Canadian coffee-house circuit,” according to an early record company bio, and made an appearance with the Edmonton Symphony.
Brent was instrumental (no pun intended) in introducing Bob to the public. Wrote Jon Faulds in the Edmonton Journal about Bob’s 1973 appearance with Brent and the Edmonton Symphony: “He looks more like a lumberjack than a musician. Thickset with a heavy beard and an unfinished air about him, he shows a big gap between his front teeth when he smiles. The guitar sits a little awkwardly on his lap and he plucks the strings like a giant, a bit afraid of its strength, stroking something fragile. But the uncomfortable movements translate themselves into strong songs that catch your attention with a turn of phrase and hold it with a finished thought and an entrancing tune… Bob’s voice is rough and resonant and deep—its lack of polish is its strength.”
Bruce Kirkland of the Toronto Star wrote in a review of Bob’s performance in 1972: “His songs were mature, resonant powerfully woven about his acoustic guitar. Carpenter’s style had a strange nobility about it, a mystical feeling evoked only when a rough-hewn craftsman creates a fine polished product.”
He became known as “something of a mysterious underground figure around Toronto,” wrote Jack Batten in the Globe & Mail. “He’s got a deep, easy voice… and constantly suggests a power held in check.” Echoed the anonymous writer of the record company bio: “To hear him is to be captured by an elusive but very powerful magnetism.”
The fact that the first recordings of what was to become Silent Passage were etched nearly a half century ago—and I’m talking about here as if it was yesterday—sheds some light on how history makes legends and legends make history. No such category has ever existed in the music business but, looking back, Silent Passage, banished to legal oblivion, was certainly one of the top unreleased albums of 1974. It was tirelessly pursued by Holger Petersen and finally released by Stony Plain in 1984. A mere decade later, Bob passed from the physical plane way too early, having scratched the surface of his colossal talent. Forty years after its unrelease, a cut diamond unceremoniously returned to the earth, Silent Passage was named one of the top 10 reissues of 2014 by Rolling Stone. At this rate, Bob should be a global superstar by 2054!
Writing for the Museum of Canadian Music—and for a new generation that only recently has discovered Bob Carpenter through the release and reissue—reviewer Kezzie Baker calls Silent Passage a “solitary masterpiece… a lonely warrior’s painful battle with his own personal dark night of the soul.
“What makes the album work,” Baker writes, “is (Carpenter’s) excellent songwriting combined with his very striking ‘world weary’ voice that demands empathy, the perfect conduit to get his message of simultaneous despair and hope across to his listeners–despair from a realization that somehow he has lost his way in life, painfully cognizant of the fact that ‘something’ is missing; hope in the resolve to seek and find that ‘something.’ He is sure of its existence (‘before the final curtain fell across my weary eyes /I’m sure I saw the Ghost of Truth at least a thousand times’), if only he could find his way to it.”
If only? If only!
Many years later now I still get overwhelmed when I hear Bob singing a simple line or two that hits me a certain way in a certain place. Maybe you do too.
I don’t know the full story to explain why Silent Passage wasn’t released n 1974, and I don’t psychoanalyze Bob for the part he played, or others may have played in that disaster of a lost opportunity. Part of that collapse is documented in Doug Cox’s excellent album notes for the reissue. They offer valuable, honest insight as a balm for those who mourn that cruel skip-of-the-needle in time and wish they could turn back the clock and undo it so that there would have been more albums by Bob Carpenter, not just one. (I signed on to manage Bob in 1974, and when the Warner Bros. deal fell through we were all “scattered on the ocean once again.” The experience was so brief a cup of coffee for all involved that it barely merits this parenthetical mention.) For me, whatever happened then could be summed up in three words: “the music business.” Where you learn the hard way: Not everyone makes it. Talent isn’t enough. Some of the best music in the world is never heard.
For me, it no longer matters what happened back then that robbed us of all that could have, should have been. Ego, immaturity, naiveté, whatever—we can’t change any of that without a time machine, and probably not even then, since Bob seemed to be born with a very serious case of man-against-the-universe blues. Thanks to Holger Petersen of Stony Plain and Mike Quinn of No Quarter, however, we do have the rescued record safely secured. Coming full circle now, back to the beginning, I choose to focus on the music, the singer and his songs because that’s what people will remember long after these lava-lamp thought-bubbles disappear from your screen.
One final bubble. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that had Silent Passage been released on Warner Bros. in 1974 there would have been more albums after that and Bob Carpenter would be in the discussion as one of the great contemporary singer-songwriters of the 20th century. But that’s just me wondering out loud, right? When I first heard the early demos in 1971 it was ridiculously obvious to me that nothing could keep Bob—and Brent, as well, for he was part of that ill-fated deal—from global success. Almost nothing. Except the trap doors in the music business. We’ll never know what might have been and that’s part of the tragedy. There was only one album. That’s all we have to go by.
But oh what an album it is! Well worth waiting a couple thousand years for.
Up on the river, along with the miracle man that I am
With true-found lovers and true-found brothers of man in the plan
I don´t know what I did but I did and I am I am
I don´t know where you go when you´re sad
But I ride, ride, ride
Everything lies inside
Leave all your cares and troubles behind
I don´t care what you got to hide
Sources and Resources:
Bob Carpenter Silent Passage Album Notes by Doug Cox, No Quarter/Stony Plain Recording Co., 2014
Special thanks to Holger Petersen, Brent Titcomb, King Anderson, Doug Cox, Nelson Whalen, Bob Hunka, Shep Gordon and Margaret Gormely
To purchase Silent Passage on iTunes or from Stony Plain Records: http://www.stonyplainrecords.com/Web/artist.asp?id=579 or https://www.amazon.com/Silent-Passage-Reissue-Bob-Carpenter/dp/B00LBFV6V0/ref=ntt_mus_dp_dpt_1
To read more of Ed Ochs' essays, link to : EdOchs.com
To fine more about Ed and his novels: https://www.amazon.com/Ed-Ochs/e/B004E5FFQ6
And to learn more about Bob Carpenter: http://citizenfreak.com/artists/92601-carpenter-bob
And his songs:
PS: Several small collections of Carpenters' songs have subsequently been released. Included among these are "Satan's Golden Chain" and "Mister Blue" that can be found on disc 3 on the recently released Stony Plains' 40 Years anniversary collection.