By Phyllis Pollack
At the urging of legendary singer/songwriter Jackson Browne, Grammy winning musician, songwriter and producer Jorge Calderon has returned to the studio for the first time since 1976’s ‘City Music’ to record his own music. Browne asked Calderon to recorded for him, after seeing him play at a coffeehouse last year. Calderon’s first two new tracks, “Blue City” and “On Mardi Gras Day,” are now available through Jackson Browne’s independent label Inside Recordings, with distribution through Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA). Browne is the the executive producer.
Calderon’s lengthy list of credits includes having co-written Warren Zevon’s final album, 2002’s ‘The Wind,’ which received five Grammy nominations, including “Song of the Year” for its poignant track “Keep Me In Your Heart.” The disc won Grammy Awards for “Best Contemporary Folk Album” and “Best Vocal Performance, Duo or Group” for the Zevon/Bruce Springsteen rock and roll pair-up “Disorder In The House.” Battling mesothelioma and knowing it would be his final album, Zevon asked Calderon to produce and help write ‘The Wind.’ After his death, Calderon produced ‘Enjoy Every Sandwich,’ an album tribute to Zevon, featuring artists including Browne, Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder and David Lindley. CONTINUE READING THIS ARTICLE BELOW THIS ADVERTISEMENT.
Calderon produced, sang on and played bass and guitar on his two initial tracks that have recently been unveiled. They both feature Ry Cooder, with whom Calderon toured with for four years, beginning in 1984. “Blue City” defines going through hard times. “On Mardis Gras Day,” fueled by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, is a mid-tempo track, with a hopeful stance for the future of the tragedy-ridden city. John Thomas adds Hammond organ.
Browne initially became acquainted with Calderon through a kindred spirit, Zevon. It was while working with the late singer songwriter that Calderon was eagerly lured away from pursuing a solo career.
Within his list of collaborations, Calderon added vocals on Lindley’s 1981 debut album ‘El Rayo X,’ and co-wrote its title track, which would be covered on Browne’s ‘Love is Strange: En Vivo Con Tino.’
A co-founder of the group El Rayo-X, Calderon has toured with artists including Crosby, Stills and Nash, J.D. Souther and Leonard Cohen.
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, he had access to hearing a wide range of Latin music from his home and from Cuba, and was exposed to calypso from other islands. After being inspired by hearing rock and roll played on New York radio, which reached his shore, he moved to the Big Apple. He ultimately started a band and moved to California.
According to Calderon, “The way these two tracks came about was that Jackson Browne came to an acoustic show I was doing by myself, and he liked the stuff I was doing, especially the two songs we just released. He said he wanted to release some singles on his label first, like in the old days how they did it with 45’s. Since we’re now in the digital world, we put them out, and little cover. He said, ‘Lets do this for a while.’ So the two songs came out in September. He said, ‘Lets do them every four months, put out another two songs.’ We’ll either wait until there’s enough to do the CD, or we’ll hurry up and record some more, and put out a CD.’ So I don’t really know when an entire CD would come out. So this is the plan.
“I was playing on Fairfax in L.A. at Molly Malones. Out of the blue, a friend had said, ‘Hey, I’m doing a set there, and I need someone else there to fill in for an hour.’ I hadn’t played live for a while, but I went and did a set, and people reacted very well. So I decided I wanted to do it again. So when I did two months later, I sent an invitation to Jackson Browne’s studio, to the guys that work there, thinking that Jackson was out of town, not knowing where he was. But he showed up, which was great. What really surprised me was his reaction, that he really liked the songs, and that he wanted to record me.”
As far as the various musical influences that come out in the tracks “Blue City” and “On Mardis Gras Day,” he says, “My musical influences growing up in Puerto Rico were first the Latin music, then rock and roll and rhythm and blues that I fell in love with, when I was about nine years old, like Little Richard, Big Bill Broonzy and blues records like that, all the great songwriters like Leiber and Stoller, all the stuff you would hear on the radio. The rock and roll I liked, and the folk music that was going on at the time. But related to the music I do, you can feel the influence on “Blue City.” It’s kind of like a funky blues groove. And the other track, even though it’s a tribute to New Orleans, it’s kind of Latinish,” Calderon says with a laugh.
“When I got the guys in the studio, even though it’s a New Orleans thing, Luis Conte, who played congas on it, was saying, ‘Man, this is Latin.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know what it is. All I know is it’s a song for New Orleans.” Calderon laughs again. “So in a way, it’s good,” he says, “because the mix and influences in New Orleans is such that it blends really well.”
He adds, “My influences are all mixed up inside of me. They’re all kind of meshed up in there somewhere.”
His new track “Blue City” has had a long history. Calderon explains, “I had that song for a while. I think I wrote in ’97. I was having money problems. I don’t know if it’s my karma or what, but when I am actively looking for work, I hardly get any. But it always comes to me by surprise. When I’m not expecting it, somebody calls me. So at that point, out of having money problems, comes this song. What happened was that some songs, you write and write, and you have a lot of verses, and you pick the best verses. So that was one that I wasn’t really happy with the last verse. So a few years later, I finally went back, and got the verse the way I wanted it, and I called it finished. But as I was going to record the song, this other little section came to my mind, and I incorporated it at the end. Then when we went into the studio, as we were cutting it, this other instrumental thing came about. So it just happened on the track when I was playing guitar. So things like that are surprising to me, because I’m old school. I write the songs first, then I go and record it, as opposed to other people that like doing loops and getting tracks done and writing songs in the studio. I was always like you get your guitar, write your song, and then you record it. So that was surprising to me. Because even though it was ten years old or something, or more actually, it gradually developed into the finished product. I was happy about that.”
Describing the musical essence of “Blue City,” Calderon comments, “To me, it’s all rock and roll if you ask me. But it is a funky, rhythm and blues song, more towards the bluesy side.”
The two songs were recorded at Jackson Browne’s studio in Santa Monica. Says Calderon, “It’s a great studio called Groove Masters, located in Santa Monica.”
He eagerly says, “I hope Ry can do some more with me. I know he’s busy with other things. David Lyndley has played on some other songs I have recorded, which are not out yet. They might come out as singles. Maybe I will go back and remix them. For the past five years, on and off, I have been recording two or three songs, here or there.”
When it comes to whether or not Browne, himself, will play or sing on any of the singles, Calderon says, “I have sung with him before. Back in the ’90’s, he had a song called ‘Lives In The Balance,’ and we wrote the song “Lawless Avenues” that is on it together, and I sang on its choruses. So we’ve done things like that. But as far as today, we haven’t spoken about that. But I’m sure he would if I asked.”
Just after saying this, a memory makes him laugh. Calderon recalls, “Jackson sang on some of the songs on ‘The Wind,’ too, and you can hear him very clearly. Even though they forgot to put his name on the credits, which is hilarious.”
Calderon says of Browne, “He is executive producer on these things that I’m doing, of course, and he wanted to keep tabs on what I was doing, and he had things to say. Like I said, it is an older song. I didn’t want to write a song with a title someone else had used, and I felt weird about it. I didn’t want anyone to think I stole the title from Ross McDonald. So I was calling it “Blues City.” Jackson told me, “It has to be “Blue City.” He he saw the analogy of this personal song as also being about the national state of things here in the country. It’s about a person’s own troubles, but it actually has a broader meaning to it. He always gives me advice. He’s been around forever, so he knows the in and outs when it comes to about every aspect of this business. With these kind of guys, you really learn a lot by just being around, and watching how they operate. It’s not like he sits me down, and says, ‘Now, Jorge…’ But he’s been very involved. Not with the recording, but afterwards he wanted to see how it was going, and he definitely wanted these two songs recorded first. He said “Blue City” has to be the first one. He just loved it.”
When asked about Browne’s remake of El Rayo X’s signature track, heard on the album ‘Love Is Strange: En Vivo Con Tino,’ Calderon responded, “That’s right. That was a surprise, too. I think we did that back in 1980, I think, on David Lindley’s first album. One day I walked into the studio. I was doing something else. I had to get back an amplifier, or something that was in the storage room, and they were working on mixing the live album, and I heard it and went, ‘What?!’ And they said, ‘Yeah, we recorded this.’ I didn’t know it was going to happen. It was pleasant surprise.”
After receiving critical acclaim, and scoring Grammy Awards for writing and recording a prolific, masterpiece collaborative work, does it put pressure on Calderon, now that he is back now, working as a solo artist? Does he put pressure on himself? “Yes,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like that. Warren (Zevon) was the biggest cheerleader for me. He was always routing for me, and he liked what I did on my own. He loved the stuff I did with him, of course. But when I would show him a song, he was so very supportive of what I did. And to the end, I remember when he was home, and staying in bed most of the time, a few times he told me, I remember he held my hand, and he said, ‘You have to carry the banner. Keep the gag going.’ I would look at him, and say, ‘Dude, I’m not you.’ And he’d say, ‘Dude, you are like me.” Jorge laughs again in modesty. “I’d say, ‘No, I’m not.’ He would say, ‘Keep it going. Keep that banner going.’ So he was always supportive of me doing what I do. So I’m just doing what I do, and not really thinking of comparing me to anybody, especially Warren.
“But what we did at the end was even greater, I think. I’m really proud of ‘The Wind.'”
Calderon elaborates, “When he called me, he had done this record called ‘My Ride’s Here.’ Immediately when that album came out, he called me. He said, ‘Jorge, I just put this record out, I’m really not that happy with it. I collaborated with a whole lot of people on it, and it was a mess.’ I really liked that record, but anyway, aside from that, he tells me, ‘Let’s do one. I want to do this with you. I already told my manager I just want to work with you. Let’s write a whole bunch of songs. You know we’ve been doing it for years, let’s just do it for real this time. Do a bunch of songs and do an album.’ And I said ‘Great!”
However, it would turn out that Zevon was terminally ill. Calderon notes, “Then, that’s when we had the phone call about him being out of breath, and all that, and the doctor, and his telling me, ‘This (mesothelioma) is what I really have.’
Calderon remembers, “And at that point, I said, ‘Warren, forget the record. You have to be in treatment, you need to be with your family.’ He said, ‘No, I don’t want to. I want to do what we said we were going to do.’ So that changed the game as far as writing songs. So we started writing songs about, you know, what was in front of us.”
Calderon adds, “And at a fast pace, because we were diving into that reality, and having been such close friends with each other, we were able to do that, where it was really heartfelt. But what happened was yes, the album is great, with songs like “Keep Me In Your Heart.” Zevon and Calderon had served as muses for each other, as well as friends.
“What I’m saying is that it was so intense, at a fast pace, that I just kept going, and then he passed away,” he stated. Calderon sighs before saying, “I started coming down from all this stuff, because he asked me to do this record, and I really wanted to do that for him. But then, I started feeling all this stuff, and my emotional side started showing up. Then afterwards, the record company wanted to do a tribute album. Then I had to get through the tribute album.”
That album, ‘Enjoy Every Sandwich: A Tribute To Warren Zevon,’ was released in 2004. Featuring Zevon covers performed by artists including Calderon, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley, Bob Dylan, David Lindley and Ry Cooder, Calderon also did much of its production.
Still deeply affect by the death of Zevon, Calderon notes, “So I hardly could get through the tribute album, to be honest. I was feeling so much inside, it was all trying to bust out. And that was over, then for another year, I was really difficult, and I had to come down from this whole emotional thing, having lost my friend. I had to put that aside to work these projects, you know. So when you tell me about it (“Keep Me In Your Heart,”) as a painfully emotional song, I had to live the grieving part for another year. I still…feel that now and then. But for a year, I couldn’t do anything after. I remember being here, and my wife taking my picture one say, and she showed it to me, I looked at it, and I could see…She said, ‘One day, it will get better.’ So I got out of it, and started going into the studio again, and started recording my songs.”
In his own way, he takes Zevon on stage with him when he plays live. Calderon points out, “When I do my shows, I do my own songs, and I still do some of my songs that were collaborations with Warren, which is a cool thing to do, because we wrote some really cool stuff besides ‘The Wind.’ So I incorporate that now, and people like it, so it’s a good thing.” As far as his live gigs, he concludes, “With my own stuff, and the work I did with Warren, there’s enough material to do a night’s gig.”
When pointing to the diversity of Zevon’s lyrics, which range from the hauntingly prolific to sarcastic and humorous, Calderon shed’s light on his wide spectrum, in part by offering laughter. “There was a thing in the old days where he used to call songs “gags,” and he used to call me in to do songs that would turn out to be one of the gags, and we would go for it. Songs like “Detox Mansion” and “Mr. Bad Example.” But when we got to ‘The Wind,’ I am proud that we were able to write some love songs, and deep songs, and some gaggy ones. Yes, he was a great songwriter. There is nobody better on the West side here.”
Not everyone can write a memorable song, which is why some artists are known as being “singer/songwriters,” despite the fact there are others who also write, but who are given different labels. Calderon comments on great songwriters, saying, “We were both big Bob Dylan fans. There’s one. Paul Simon, Randy Newman, and of course. Bruce Springsteen can write a great song. Steve Earl is fantastic. Actually, I am going to go see him tomorrow at the House of Blues here. And there’s others, but Warren has a special place. He walked a different road than everybody else. He was very unique. His themes, his ways of spelling out a theme on a record was different, be it a love song, or be it a fun rock and roll thing.”
Upon hearing the word “Werewolves,” Calderon is quick to respond, initially with a long laugh. “That song (“Werewolves of London”) is very special. The idea came from Phil Everly. He played with the Everly Brothers for a while, and he said that Phil had given him this idea to write a song called “Werewolves of London.” He thought about for a while, and then finally getting together with the other two guys, Leroy Marinell and Waddy Wachtel, having fun out there in Venice, where Leroy lived, they started fooling around with this, and they wrote “Werewolves of London.” That song went through a lot of time before it was really was recorded. It was originally recorded as a demo, then it grew, and it finally got recorded for that album (‘Excitable Boy’), but that’s such a great record. It’s one of my favorite records.”
Calderon acknowledges that as a tribute, Wachtel still features the song “Lawyers, Guns and Money” as a tribute to Zevon when playing with his own band at the The Joint in L.A. A lot of people do. Jackson does it all the time. When he does solo concerts, or even with his band, he gets to the point where he says, ‘I have to do some Warren Zevon,’ and he sings two or three songs. Always.”
He recollects, “Yeah, I was there for that entire album, ‘Excitable Boy,’ I sang background. Aside from writing “Veracruz” and “Nighttime In The Switching Yard” with him, I got to be one of the ‘Gentlemen Boys’ that they called, which were the background singers throughout the album.” Others on the platinum-status album include the likes of Mick Fleetwood, Jackson Browne, Leland Sklar and J.D. Souther and the late Kenny Edwards, who Calderon describes as “one of the sweetest guys I ever met.”
Adds Calderon, “Waddy also sang, so we did all the backgrounds on the record. Even if I wasn’t singing, I was hanging out there all the time. That ‘Excitable Boy’ album is a big memory, a great memory I have of those days.”