By Richie Unterberger

As the author of droll novels of counterculture Americana like Trout Fishing in America, The Abortion, Willard and His Bowling Trophies, and The Hawkline Monster, Richard Brautigan was one of the major writers of the 1960s and 1970s. It's not as well known that he was also a recording artist, reading excerpts from his novels, short stories, and poems on his sole album, 1970's Listening to Richard Brautigan. How that album came out is a story in itself, and directly traceable to the power of the biggest '60s icons of them all, the Beatles.

    In late 1968 Paul McCartney and his friend Barry Miles -- himself a major player in the London '60s underground, as co-founder of the Indica Bookshop and publisher of International Times -- discussed recording a series of spoken word albums. That helped instigate the formation of a short-lived experimental subsidiary of Apple Records, dubbed Zapple by John Lennon, which would give Miles the chance to record important literary figures in the United States. Miles became Zapple's label manager, and one of projects he worked on (as producer) was an LP of recordings by Brautigan.

    Discussions of the album had begun some months before the sessions. In a letter from Brautigan to Miles dated October 14, 1968, Richard mentioned he was airmailing Barry a tape of him reading poems from his book The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster. Miles, however, doesn't remember receiving it: "Maybe it didn't reach me. Apple was terrible for stealing and anything just left in your mailbox was likely to walk. I would have kept it and/or remembered it, I'm sure." Ultimately the album would be recorded in early 1969 in San Francisco, where Brautigan was living at the time.

    "Richard's ideas and mine were pretty similar about what kind of album to do," remembers Miles. "I did have specific selections that I wanted him to read, and I wanted to use sound effects on all the albums I did because the idea was for the poetry records to reach Beatles fans, and therefore they had to be very accessible and have a very public face. I do have a memory of a long discussion with him about what was possible and what was not. He had no knowledge of recording techniques, either the possibilities or the limitations -- why would he? --and I seem to remember that some of his ideas were impossible given the technology of the time."

    As a result the LP was not a mere plain spoken word recording, with some of the tracks incorporating sounds such as ringing phones (as well as Brautigan's explanation of why he won't answer); Brautigan discussing coffee preparation, brushing his teeth, shaving, and taking off his clothes (in "Here Are the Sounds of My Life in San Francisco" and "Here Are Some More Sounds of My Life," which according to Miles were "edited by Richard and the engineer after I left from the rough selection that Richard and I made"); and, in the background of the excerpt from Trout Fishing in America, the actual stream that Richard wrote about in the book. "He was very keen on the idea of wiring his kitchen for sound, and recording the stream, and so on," continues Miles. "These were the type of things that I wanted to do before I even got to San Francisco. I have a memory of discussing the idea of recording the actual stream that Trout Fishing in America was about -- or that sort of relevant sound effect -- with Paul McCartney, who thought it was a great idea. I was very pleased with the results.

    "The specifics of who thought of what, I don't remember. I'm sure it was Richard who came up with brushing his teeth and undressing. The stereo stream and the phone calls were, as far as I remember, my ideas. Or maybe all the ideas came from planning sessions in his kitchen. I don't recall." Though some of the album was indeed recorded in Brautigan's kitchen, all the actual tracks were done at Golden State Recorders studio in San Francisco (where Miles was recording albums by Brautigan, and beat literary giants Michael McClure and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, simultaneously). "We recorded hours of material in Richard's kitchen and only used a few minutes of it," notes Miles. "Only the special effects -- the telephone conversations, kitchen recording of him talking with friends, and remote sound effects -- were done at his house. At the stream, those were done on a Nagra [tape machine]. We did discuss the idea of recording a live reading, but rejected it."

    One of the most unusual pieces was "Love Poem," a one-line work read, in different intonations, 18 consecutive times by 18 different readers, including Michael McClure, avant-garde filmmaker Bruce Conner, photographer Imogen Cunningham, San Francisco Chronicle newspaper columnist Herb Caen, Brautigan's girlfriend Valerie Estes, and Brautigan's daughter Ianthe Brautigan. "The people were chosen by Richard, they were friends of his," explains Miles. "I think Valerie Estes had a hand in choosing some people. I'm pretty sure she came up with Don Allen [a renowned literary editor who edited Brautigan's first four books], for instance. The poem was so short that I originally asked him to read it twice. Where the idea of using different people came from, I don't remember."

    Still, much of the album was devoted to relatively straightforward author readings (insomuch as any piece containing the line "I cannot look at the Fireman's Fund Insurance Company building without thinking of her breasts" can be said to be straightforward). As for what material from Brautigan's writings would be featured, says Miles, "it was decided at a planning meeting with him. I think I had a list of things I wanted to record and in the end we used about half. It was pretty loose. All along I wanted it to be Richard's album, and I usually went along with any suggestion that he made."

    In May 1969, the Zapple label was inaugurated by two avant-garde solo Beatles releases, the first of those being John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions, the second George Harrison's Electronic Sound. Brautigan's album was next in line. Miles: "It was given the Zapple 3 catalog number, simply because it was the most advanced in the production schedule. We had designed a sleeve for it, and I had a finished mix and edit, so it was ready to go. I had edited the Ferlinghetti but we didn't have a sleeve yet, that would probably have been number 4."

    But then the Blue Meanies struck, and the album never would come out on Zapple, as "the Zapple label was folded by Allen Klein before the record could be released. The first two Zapple records did come out. We just didn't have it ready in time before Klein closed it down. None of the Beatles ever heard it. Peter Asher did (head of A&R) and Ron Kass (head of Apple Records). I think we only made two test acetates, one for me and one for Peter." Making matters worse, relations between Brautigan and Miles became strained, owing to Miles and Valerie Estes having conducted an affair while Barry was in California. Miles, however, did want the material he had recorded with Richard and other authors to come out somehow, even if Zapple was now defunct. Listening to Richard Brautigan would eventually be issued in 1970 on Harvest, though only in the United States.

    "EMI Harvest was the US arm of the Beatles' record label," summarizes Miles when asked how the record found its way to release. "Apple was distributed by EMI and the Beatles were actually signed to EMI, even though their records were released on Apple. The people at EMI had been following the Zapple project closely. I actually had been assigned an office and two secretaries in the Capitol Tower in L.A., and that's where all the studio bills, Nagra hire, and so on were paid from. I don't have specific memory of advising Richard to simply switch his contract from Zapple to EMI, but that is what happened. Maybe his lawyer did it, or someone at the Capitol Tower. I wanted the records to come out. Most of the other records were also released on other labels. The Ferlinghetti tapes came out on several Fantasy records, the Charles Olson appeared on Folkways, the [Charles] Bukowski eventually on Blast First as a double CD, the re-recorded Allen Ginsberg album for MGM.

    "There was only ever one pressing of the [Brautigan] album, and in the bottom right-hand corner of the back cover it says, 'Produced by Miles Associates and Richard Brautigan.' The 'and Richard Brautigan' was added after I left San Francisco when we had a bit of a problem over me getting together with his girlfriend. It was Richard's album, and he read beautifully on it, but he didn't produce it." And unfortunately, much less people heard the record than read Brautigan's books, as according to Miles, "I imagine it sold very badly. There were very few reviews" -- albeit one of them being a fairly substantial four-paragraph critique in Rolling Stone.

    Brautigan would go on to publish quite a bit more material before his death in 1984. But Listening to Richard Brautigan would be his only album, although he did read his poem "Love's Not the Way to Treat a Friend" on the 1969 album by San Francisco Bay Area rock band Mad River, Paradise Bar and Grill. Miles has since written numerous books, including biographies of Paul McCartney, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and most recently Frank Zappa, as well as the autobiographical memoir In the Sixties, part of which recounts his Zapple adventures in some detail. In spite of the complications surrounding its release, he remains fond of Listening to Richard Brautigan. "I am very glad that I made the album because, as far as I know, it is the only professional studio recording of his work in existence," he concludes. "I like his work and I'm proud to have been able to make the record for him." -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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