I want to digress from the narrative a bit here to record my observations of Jack’s music. After watching him work and listening to about a dozen albums I downloaded back in my rig, I got the feel for his creative and technical process. He records all his material with an ancient four track recorder either inside “Pequod” or playing live in a tavern. With an acoustic or electric guitar and vocals (sometimes harmonica) recorded together on one track, Jack then layers in various sounds to the three other tracks and works his Phil Spector magic.
Occasionally he lets the live first track stand alone. But if there is a trademark Jack Blake sound it can be characterized by strange instrumental solos produced by a host of cheap instruments he finds at thrift stores and garage sales. Jack has also made friends with many musical eccentrics up and down the coast and often stops by their homes and plays their organs, amps, and other instruments. Jack even knows of an old Russian man who has a Theremin in his shop near the Canadian border who taught him how to manipulate this freakish machine. Jack records with it every time he’s in the area.
As for vocals, Jack mixes in several background vocals per song. Usually it’s him and Mr. Figgs with various distortions but often the recordings contain voices of friends or complete strangers he meets on the road. He told me he records all sorts of sounds and conversations: logging equipment, beef slaughtering, gas station attendants, drunks, strippers, people in laundromats, prison work crews, Sunday sermons and city council meetings. Jack always asks permission and rarely do people refuse.
He generally has an arrangement for a song worked out in his head and then it’s simply a matter of coordinating the instruments and recording apparatus. From witnessing the process, I would estimate that Jack can complete an album, which vary in length from 25 to 45 minutes, (never lasting longer unless it’s a “double album,” (a phrase Jack loves to say) in about three hours. Most albums are built around a single theme like the narrative of a social or historical event, a description of a natural place, work, ecology, personal loss, injustice, but others are recordings of live shows with a random song selection. Jack said he has never used a set list in his life and never plans an album. Obviously Jack pays no royalties to previously recorded songs but many of his covers are in the public domain. Every cassette has extensive handwritten session information and original artwork (drawings or collage) for the cover. The very last step of the packaging is the recording’s title or “name” as Jack prefers to call it, and he takes this naming very seriously and occasionally riffs a title with lewd or brazen phrasings or a sly nod to the excess of alcohol in literature. For example:
Ivanka Trump Can Eat My Shit
Make Me a Man of God Mr. Devil Rock Fucker
Eyes Like Wet Currants (Quote from Chekhov)
Castrate Mitch McConnell
From the Morbid Compost (Quote from some French poet, possibly Rimbaud)
I Drink a Liquor Never Brewed (Quote from Emily Dickinson)
Escape the Sexual Gulag
To Live like Thoreau, Except for the Women (Quote from Jack Kerouac)
Urge and Urge and Urge (Quote from Walt Whitman)
Rock N’ Roll Pagans with Old Crow Nightmares
Vodka, Love and Glory
A Peasant Back to the Dung Pile ((I think a quote from Russian literature or H.L. Mencken )
Jesus Loves Scotch
Ocean Air and Gin (Quote from Malcom Lowery)
“Got Tight on Absinthe Last Night and Did Knife Tricks” (Quote from Hemingway)
A Drunken Gnat In a Pub Urinal (Quote from a French poet)
As I previously wrote, I sense what Jack has done and is still doing is without precedent in the annals of American rock and roll. Yes, there is the story of a mechanic back East who has recorded hundreds of songs, only a handful that have been commercially released on several incredible albums that rock critics rave about. Then there is Prince, who is said to have 50 albums worth of material stashed in the vaults and will be released by his family over the next 50 years. And of course there are hundreds of young and old musicians with inexpensive multi-track recorders (many turning to digital) who fancy themselves as potential rock stars and record miles of tape or shitloads of gigabytes in total anonymity.
Still, though, Jack seems unique. He is living in a piece of shit RV for chrissakes, parking it in the woods, drawing power from public restrooms and campgrounds and writing and playing songs that nobody writes or plays anymore. I mean the guy writes protest, labor, train and drinking songs and performs electric covers of famous Christian hymns like the “Old Rugged Cross” and “Trust and Obey.” He uses utterly primitive equipment, his dog “sings” background vocals and he includes audio snippets from transients, cops and strippers!
Jack Blake is documenting Americana like no one has with music before or since. Bob Dylan did something similar early in his career but then hit it big and became a rock star, icon, millionaire troubadour, celebrity mystic and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
But none that would happened had Dylan not been discovered and recorded hit singles and albums.
What does the future hold for Jack?