Folk singer Ramblin' Jack Elliot didn't earn his mobile moniker, as one might assume, from traveling the globe as a troubadour. Rather, the "Ramblin'" handle refers to Elliot's propensity for verbal diarrhea: the man could talk circles around a group-therapy session for meth-heads without taking a breath. Quick with a story but longer'n Dong Silver to tell it, he's the type of guy who will trap you in a corner at a party and unleash a barrage of tales until your eyes glaze over and you start to hyperventilate. But while the Loquacious Gene is something to fear and loathe in most human beings, it works for Elliot simply because he has led such an interesting life. He's an original hipsta whose adventures have spanned the Beat Generation, the Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene and hippie culture. But he's probably best-known for being a running partner of folk-singing thunder god Woody Guthrie. Just try to stop Elliot from talking about it.
"He had a lighthearted personality," Elliot says of his hero. "He liked to joke a lot, had kind of a simple country humor and a marvelous sense of words, being the great poet that he was. There was sort of an operatic sadness that he portrayed in his songs, although he described it in a lighthearted approach—like newspaper reportage, reciting the facts unemotionally, leaving it up to the listener to feel the emotions. And his influence on me was very profound. I went around trying to sing and play the guitar just like him, and I did a pretty good imitation, so they tell me. Woody himself said, 'Jack sounds more like me than I do.'"
Elliot went on to become a significant performer in his own right and, from the mid-'50s, released albums and toured the world to great acclaim in folkie circles, himself becoming an influence on the likes of Pete Seeger and the young Bob Dylan. In 1961, he visited the dying Guthrie for the last time and met Dylan for the first in Guthrie's hospital room.
"He was impossible to describe," Elliot says of Dylan. "He was a close friend for a short time in 1962 and 1963, and then we drifted apart. [After he became famous] I saw less and less of him. We'd sometimes have a drink together, but he was drifting off into his own world and wasn't very sociable anymore. He's totally reclusive. I can't get to him; I don't even know his phone number."
Elliot didn't record for many years before launching a comeback in the mid-'90s on Hightone Records. His most celebrated song of recent vintage has been "Bleeker Street Blues," written in '97 when Dylan was hospitalized with heart trouble and his condition looked potentially life-threatening. The song was a moving, sentimental outpouring of emotion and concern for his old friend, but Elliot now says he regrets having written it.
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"I'm almost sorry I did," he sighs. "There's been no response. I never got any call or letter from him saying, 'Thanks, I liked what you said in that there song.' Nothing. I just feel a little bit silly having even bothered to go out of my way to write that song because he didn't even seem to care. Who knows? Could be he's just shy. He drank a lot of wine and other things, and it may have affected his mind, too."
All quotations above have been heavily truncated due to space limitations and yakkity-itis, but Elliot will spin more expansive yarns Thursday night at the Sun Theatre. Oh, yeah—he sings and strums guitar a little bit, too.
Elliot is the opening act for The Everly Brothers, a name I was quite surprised to see. I hadn't heard a word about the fractious fraternals in years and assumed they'd broken up for good following decades of rocky relations 'n' rivalry that make the Davies and Gallagher siblings look like Beaver 'n' Wally Cleaver by comparison. But their bluegrass/rockabilly, tight-and-lovely harmonies had an almost limitless influence on early rock & roll—the existence of the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, to name just a couple, is unthinkable without their innovations. If they have anything left in the gas tank in their senior citizenhood, them Ev boys'll tickle yer cochlea real purty come Thursday night.
The Everly Brothers and Ramblin' Jack Elliot play the Sun Theatre, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 712-2700. Thurs., March 15, 8 p.m. $35-$45.