David Ackles: American Gothic (Elektra)
"Absence lessens moderate passions and intensifies great ones, as the wind blows out the candle but fans up a fire." Le Rochefoucauld (1630-1680) expressed a subtle sentiment that uncannily enfolds the strange scale and scope of the third album David Ackles delivered to Elektra Records in 1972. That a dusty aphorism by a dissolute French nobleman should be evoked to suggest the essence of a record so essentially laced with Norman Rockwell interludes, but of a darkness that master of idealism never allowed to enter his sententious world, might seem needlessly perverse.
The songs the listener encounters were composed from September 1971 to July 1972, a period when Ackles was living in the idyllic Berkshire village of Wargrave. He was later to admit that the unique perspective of distance allowed him a greater sense of clarity. European sensibilities a la Brel and Brecht fly freely like foreign birds of unusual plumage released into American rural and pastoral landscapes. Panoramic in scale, Coplandesque in spirit, with Steinbeck's Dust Bowl settings, this is the monochrome meditations of Walker Evans tainted with flashes of lurid color.
David Thomas Ackles was born in Rock Island, Illinois on February 20, 1937, into a show business family. His U.K.-born mother came from a line of music hall performers, while his father was a gifted amateur musician. As a child Ackles performed in a vaudeville duo with his sister, and later appeared in a cache of Lassie-style movies for Columbia Pictures, circa 1948-49, a career curtailed with the arrival of facial hair and a broken voice.
He studied English literature at the University of Southern California, spending a year at Edinburgh University. He would later support himself via an eclectic series of odd jobs, a circus roustabout, private detective and as a security guard, also working occasionally in TV and theater.
On the strength of an early composition, he was signed to Elektra as a staff songwriter, during the label's strange period of transition from folk purism to housing the likes of Love and the Doors. It wasn't long before Ackles was added to the burgeoning roster as a recording artist in his own right.
His first album, initially self-titled but later reissued as The Road to Cairo, revealed an intense, brooding, and poetic talent. Released in 1968, it was an impressive statement of intent. The songs had a unique lyricism, but their quality didn't translate into immediate sales.
Its 1969 successor, Subway to the Country, was more lush, inventive, and sophisticated. The title song has a profoundly haunting eloquence:
"Central Park is not a place to watch the sun rise, or to look for redskin writings in a cave, or even find the kind of frogs you like to save... New York City is a town too big for children where there's so much dirt they think that snow is grey."
Wickedness always enters Ackles's idylls of Americana. In "Candy Man," a returning veteran buys a small-town sweet shop, but slips pornography into the children's bags of candy, his subtle revenge for his visible, physical wounds.
Ackles possessed that rare knack of infesting songs with characters in the way Randy Newman does, that Harry Chapin often could, and that Leonard Cohen used to.
It would be three more years before American Gothic would arrive, but the wait would prove worthwhile. On its back sleeve he mused, "living in England, a house in the country with apple trees and swans and a river running past the back porch, it seems like you get a sharper perspective of your own country when you're away from it."
The record is a strange masterstroke in which he harnesses the diversely eclectic elements of his nature. A sense of exile, of theater, of character, nostalgia, and the divine, combine. It is a collection rich in reflective melancholia, but one that despite its ambition, never overreaches itself, despite its eloquence and profound sense of scale.
Produced with immense sensitivity by Bernie Taupin, Elton John's wordsmith, it was, and remains, unique. That association was forged in Los Angeles when Ackles supported Elton John at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. (He had also undertaken support slots for Joni Mitchell.) The orchestra was conducted by Robert Kirby, who worked on Nick Drake's albums, but the intricate and eloquent arrangements were all scored by Ackles himself, and Taupin seems to have mislaid a second talent on the strength of this groundbreaking, virtually classical production.
Prior to the album's release, Ackles appeared on BBC TV's The Old Grey Whistle Test in January 1972. The album's title track is a virtual synopsis for a John Ford vehicle, with a soundtrack by Kurt Weill. Prostitution, infidelity, and familial deceits end with the fatalistic coda:
"Ah but are they happy? You'd be surprised. Between the bed and the booze and the shoes They suffer least who suffer what they choose."
"Waiting for the Removal Van" is full of poetic wistfulness, as the narrative stacks up the jobs never completed. It deserves to be covered by Tom Waits, and there is a Waitsian nature to many of the cuts, especially the deceptively vaudevillian "Blues for Billy Whitecloud," where a North American Indian's descent into alcohol and vengeful madness is deceptively encased in an uptempo tune at odds with the subject's sadness.
There is a strange array of references: elements of Gilbert and Sullivan and Benjamin Britten in "The Ballad of Ship and State," echoes of Rodgers and Hammerstein in "Another Friday Night," ghosts of Gershwin in "Oh Calafornia," and pages of the Methodist hymnal in "Family Band."
The record is an American quilt. Johnny Cash lurks in the Gothic shadows, and Kris Kristofferson in the sand and sunshine. All this effectively combines in the album's majestic closer, "Montana Song," which is a one-man opera, a family hand-me-down tale, the Great American West in the lives of the forgotten ordinary soul its soil now contains. Hardship and misery, passion and sadness are breathtakingly realized. It begins with Ackles in character as a returnee to Montana:
With a Bible on my arm
Looking for my fathers
On a long abandoned farm,
And I found what I came looking for.
This is "An American Trilogy" without the dreadful bombast, "In the Ghetto" without the quavering melodrama. Patriotism as a means of belonging, without self-righteousness or a sense of deafening superiority.
"The clouds arose
like phantom herds,
and by the dappled lighting
I read again
the last few words
in a woman's writing :
last night, Papa died.
Left one plow, a horse, his gun,
his bible, and his bride.'
The long grass moved beside me
in the gentle summer rain,
and made a path to guide me
to a sudden mound of grain.
A man and wife are buried there,
children to the land;
with young green tendrils in her hair,
and seedlings in his hand."
Panoramic and precise, pastoral and profound, it remains defiantly unique and impossible to categorize. The song stands as a magnificent and moving achievement, a concoction of sublime cohesion. American Gothic is imbued with an innate classicism rooted in American traditional music, but also a strange eclecticism, European in tone but American at the core. Such diverse references seldom prove commercially popular, and this was not to be the exception.
In Britain, respected critic Derek Jewell, in a review for the Sunday Times, called the record "the Sgt. Pepper of folk," but again rave reviews don't guarantee a rush on the racks. The record sold, briefly rising to 167 on the Billboard album chart, but this didn't recoup Elektra's expenses. Albums that fail to find a category, or that straddle them, seldom reach an audience beyond the discerning or the curious.
Ackles proved reflective in a Melody Maker interview with John Tobler (February 16, 1974): "I was thrilled that many people were that enthusiastic, and I appreciate their enthusiasm, and their faith...but at the same time it caused me no end of grief. I knew what the album was worth, and I still know -- it's a good album. I'm not putting it down, but it's only a group of songs. I figured there was no way I could surpass what I had done in terms of reviewers, because they had already committed themselves to it being better than peanut butter. I was literally stymied. Within the first few months after American Gothic came out I couldn't write a song."
It was also the end of his tenure at Elektra.
Speaking in 1998 to Mark Brend for his American Troubadours book, Ackles was realistic and honest.
"I remain enormously grateful to Jac Holzman for everything he did personally for me on my behalf. I don't believe anything more could have been done to make me a commercial success. It just wasn't on the cards."
Talent isn't always a viable selling point, no matter how good a work is; it may never reach a wider audience on account of it being outside the remit of public taste. Ackles was wise enough to realize that his artistry was the root of his commercial failure in the face of creative achievement and critical acclaim.
He was to make one final brooding record, and in many ways his most commercial album, for Columbia: Five and Dime. Signed by Clive Davis, a longtime admirer of his songs, it was another spark that failed to make a flame. Matters were worsened by Davis leaving the label. Ackles had lost his champion. The record was pressed up as a contractual obligation, a favorless favor.
It contains one true pop curio, a surf song spoof called "Surf's Down" featuring vocals from Dean Torrance of Jan and Dean fame. Ackles had once been a keen surfer, but many don't move on, and the song is a mild mockery of their stagnation. The original choice of vocalist to sing the high notes had been the Beach Boy's Bruce Johnston, an old friend, but on the morning of the session he had developed a cold. Torrance stood in because he got the joke and liked the song.
Disillusioned, Ackles became a staff songwriter for Warner Brothers, with whom he still had a publishing deal. He was supposed to write songs for Bette Midler and Three Dog Night, but although many songs were recorded, sometimes with Kim Carnes as the demo singer, the arrangement came to nothing.
Ackles returned to a career in theater and television, settling on a six-acre horse farm near Los Angeles, becoming a professor of theater for USC. In 1981 he was the victim of a drunk driver, sustaining injuries that meant it was years before he could play the piano properly. He mooted the idea of working with Bernie Taupin in 1994, but it came to nothing. He had the respect of his peers -- Elvis Costello, Phil Collins, and Elton John, to name but three -- but none of their commercial rewards.
But David Ackles was never a sad or sorry failure. He did what he did and moved on, changing course when the winds of commercial success ignored his sails. Journalists who bothered to find him met a man of considerable charm, a personality at odds with the brooding quality and darkness of his songs. He died of cancer on March 2, 1999.
American Gothic merits and deserves the lavish reappraisal afforded Brian Wilson's Smile and Love's Forever Changes. It will never sell by the truckload, but a culture should value its sublime elements as much as its notable ones. This album would rest easily in such elevated company. Should you stumble upon any Ackles record, it won't bring disappointment, but American Gothic is the moment when it all became something akin to genius. A work of pure poetry, it is theatrical, witty and sublime. That it came to written in the English landscape, and recorded in London, makes it all the more curious.
Although absence makes the heart more fond, in the case of David Thomas Ackles, his penetrated America's sad suburbs, remembering the deranged, the damaged, the inhabitants of Dust Bowl towns and backwaters in all their grave darkness. Perhaps it was his unerring precision and honesty, the celebration of life as a whole instead of pieces selected for their acceptability, which held him back. He was true to himself, in the same way in which he was honest to the subjects of his songs. Integrity doesn't come cheap, but whatever the reason for an obscure reputation, it wasn't his lack of talent.