TERRY GROSS, HTE:
It’s FRESH AIR. Actress Karen Black has starred in several culturally influential films from the 1970s, such as “Five Easy Pieces”, “Easy Rider” and “Nashville” by Robert Altman. Less well known is that Black wrote and sang several of his own compositions, which have now been collected on the album titled “Dreaming Of You (1971-76)”. Black died in 2013 at the age of 74. Rock critic Ken Tucker said Black’s music was very much in tune with 70s singer-songwriters and offered a new perspective on Black’s artistic life.
(FROM THE SONG, “BABE OH BABE”)
KAREN BLACK: (Singing) Baby, oh, baby they’re telling me now you got another one. Baby, oh, baby, I couldn’t believe it if I tried. I don’t have to tell you what you mean to me. I don’t have to tell you what you mean to me. Oh baby. Oh baby …
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Karen Black’s film career in the ’70s was characterized by the constant surprise of audiences that such a bright and sexy woman could also be so subtle in expressing vulnerable emotions. In three of her best films – “Five Easy Pieces” in 1970, “Born To Win” in 1971 and “Cisco Pike” in 1972 – there are scenes in which she surprises the male protagonists – Jack Nicholson, George Segal and Kris Kristofferson, respectively – spontaneously singing, beautifully. So it’s no surprise that Black is also interested in expressing his thoughts and ideas in songs. She wrote and sang in a loud and sure voice.
(EXCERPT FROM THE SONG, “HEAD DISEASE”)
BLACK: (singing) I went to bed with a headache. I got up and took a pill. I woke up this morning with a headache and a great urge to kill. For your love, I would do anything. It’s not safe and lazy as it always has been. All those silly love songs that were so far away are now coming true note by note. I entered my bathroom.
TUCKER: At the height of his movie fame, it was easy for Black to gain the attention of the music industry. Producer Elliot Mazer, who worked extensively with Neil Young, recorded a few tracks with Black in 1971. And five years later, Bones Howe, who had produced bands ranging from Tom Waits to Turtles, oversaw enough material for one. album. which never saw the light of day. Now singer / songwriter Cass McCombs has compiled what he chose as Black’s strongest work on this “Dreaming Of You” album. Later in her life, she recorded a few songs with McCombs, like this one about a mentor who becomes an abuser called “I Wish I Knew The Man I Thought You Were”.
(FROM THE SONG, “I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW THE MAN I THOUGHT YOU ARE”)
BLACK: (Singing) We drank tea in your office against the rules. You were my best teacher in school. Your use of metaphor, deep perceptions. You have answered my uncertainties. I finally found my mentor, my anchor, the man I could turn to. But I need you now, and this is where I am running. I wish I had known the man I thought you were. I’ll tell her when you touched me. It surprised and betrayed me. I know you do a lot of me. It’s not my kind of distinction. I would like to know the man …
TUCKER: Because those recordings were mostly unfinished demos meant to explore what Black could do vocally and as a songwriter, there’s no consistent style or sound. The very minimal accompaniment and conversational tone serve him well on this song called “Well I Know You’re Lonely Now”.
(EXCERPT FROM THE SONG, “GOOD, I KNOW YOU’RE ALONE NOW”)
BLACK: (singing) Well I know you’re alone now. I stay where you left me as a bird returns in spring to find its empty nest, no more flight. You were wrong. But then again, I was not right. You can clearly hear my footsteps. In the dark, they approach you. But of course, there is no one nearby. You are hidden …
TUCKER: Black was chosen for “Nashville” in 1975 after performing some of her own songs for director Robert Altman. She played Connie White, a country superstar modeled on Tammy Wynette. And Black sang his own material in the movie. Altman’s condescension to country music has always curdled the film for me. But Black’s performance, steely and controlled, is a small triumph. You can hear some of Black’s folk music in this song which has a Bob Dylan side called “You’re Not In My Plans”.
(EXTRACT FROM THE SONG, “YOU ARE NOT ON MY PLANS”)
BLACK: (Singing) You’re not in my plans, baby. You are not here on my list. I’m leaving your house, baby, because we will miss you. I had my own house. I had my lover. I never thought I’d watch another one. Then you walked in with that face. Now there is something that I cannot erase. You are not…
TUCKER: As Black’s acting career predated her, she fell victim to Hollywood prejudice against older women, ignored for leading roles in quality projects. You can hear echoes of Black’s voice from artistic 70s singer-songwriters such as Judee Sill and Dory Previn. It’s tempting to speculate what would have happened to her if she had spent more than the 70s making music. Movies are a form of collaboration, but the lonely nature of songwriting has given it a different kind of artistic expression, control, and power.
RAW: Ken Tucker reviewed a collection of Karen Black music titled “Dreaming Of You (1971-76)”.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we’ll talk about what happens when animals become criminals, at least in the eyes of humans. Someone has to deal with bears threatening campsites, Indian elephants trampling crops and killing farmers and birds flocking to flight paths near airports. Our guest will be science writer Mary Roach. His new book is called “Fuzz: When Nature Breaks The Law”. I hope you will join us.
(CHICK COREA AND BELA FLECK “BRAZIL” EXTRACT)
The executive producer of GROSS: FRESH AIR is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock runs the show. I am Terry Gross.
(EXCERPT FROM CHICK COREA AND “BRAZIL” BY BELA FLECK “) Transcription provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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