“Screw All Those Perfect People:” An Interview with Chip Taylor
Even if you don’t know Chip Taylor’s name, you almost certainly know his songs, which include “Angel of the Morning,” “Wild Thing,” and “Son of a Rotten Gambler.” Earlier this year, he and his band The New Ukranians released the provocatively-named F**k All the Perfect People, a project recorded in Norway and largely inspired by the prison concerts Taylor plays in Europe. Recently, Chip took a few minutes out of his vacation to talk with Engine 145 about his new record and the classics he’s penned over the years.
Juli Thanki: How did the album title, F**k All the Perfect People, come about?
Chip Taylor: I was in Norway recording with a bunch of musicians from the Scandinavia area: three Swedish guys, a Norwegian, and John Platania from Woodstock. It was just a bunch of friends having a good time and a bunch of songs were inspired by prisoners, because I had done a lot of prison tours over there and had just finished playing a couple of prison shows. When I do those shows, I have a really nice spirit with the prisoners, an “us against them” kind of thing: those who have compassion and those who don’t. As we were going on with all of that, I was kidding around and saying “Screw all those perfect people.” Then I wrote the song on the last day, thinking about the prisoners. So we used that as the title.
JT: How long have you been doing prison shows?
CT: The last four years. Something like that. When I went over to Scandinavia, one of the people who booked shows for me worked at a prison. I was talking to him one day and said “I wouldn’t mind stopping over.” He said “You would really do it?” And I said. “Sure.” So that started it, and they got word I was willing and liked doing it, and other prisons in the Scandinavia area joined in. It’s always very rewarding for me. I just don’t play the show and go home; I have a certain amount of time to hang out with the prisoners and find out their stories. I like that. It brings me up. I can’t explain it exactly: I go in there being a little bit scared and nervous and I walk out of there feeling like a better part of the human race or something. You see good in all these people. It’s a fine line that has them behind the bars and me on the other side. We’re all in it together, and I like that.
With this album, there are several songs inspired by direct contact with prisoners, like “Me and Rohillio” is about a man in a halfway house who works for the DOE Fund and helps guys get back on their feet. “Norrtalje Prison” is a direct look at the prisoners in that maximum security place.
JT: The bonus track on the record, “Darkest Day,” was inspired by last year’s mass murder in Norway. What was the reaction like when you played it over there for the first time?
CT: It’s so powerful, it’s hard to explain. When the tragedy occurred, we were playing a festival, and the festival was canceled. Around noon I asked all the musicians and all the bands if they’d be willing to do a free concert if we could hook it up, and by seven o’clock we had this free concert for the friends and families of the victims were coming to that event. I wrote the song on the afternoon of that event and we closed the show with it. Singing with me was one of the most famous Norwegian folksingers, Paal Flaata, and it was so powerful. There were tears all around. I’m glad I was there at the time, and I feel so glad to have shared it. It feels like I needed to be there. Right after that, I played in several churches across the country and played that song for the victims. You may not be a family member, but you feel the tears and you cry with them. It was a very powerful thing.
JT: What’s the songwriting process like for you?
CT: I have a guitar close by all the time, and I have something to access quick thoughts, which is part of the big key for why I’m so prolific these days. I’m a stream-of-consciousness writer; I don’t think about what I’m going to say until it comes out of me. So if I pick up the guitar and all of a sudden some stuff comes out, it gives me a chill—I want to capture it fast.
The whole thing with me is getting a physical sensation from words hitting a melody. Sometimes it can make no sense at all, but if the chill is there, I know it’s important, at least for me. I have a little mini tape recorder I can click on really fast and just try to repeat that magic so I don’t lose it. I can go back to it at the end of the day or the next week and see all the snippets that I have. If I didn’t originally have time to continue it, I can go back and say “Oh, that was nice,” or “The heck with that.” I don’t try to make a whole lot of sense about things. I try to let the magic carry itself as long as it will.
Back when I was writing my hit songs, there was a period of time where I’d come into New York City, where I had a little room with the publishing company, and I’d sit down and let my mind wander in a similar fashion. Back in those days, in the Brill Building era, many of the writers wrote specifically for artists who were coming up for recording sessions, and I asked my publisher to not even tell me who was coming up, because I didn’t want to be trying to pitch the song. I just wanted it to move me, and if they could find a place for it, that would be great. So “Angel of the Morning” and “Wild Thing” came from that spirit, from not trying to write for anybody else. That being said, I was still floating around the business part of the music community, so you were still caught up in that spirit of anarchy and rock ‘n’ roll rearing its head. Maybe the spirit is a little different these days. I’m not thinking at all in that type of energy. If that energy comes, it’s fine. But a lot of the songs I write now seem to be more folk-oriented, but you never know: sometimes the rock ‘n’ roll thing appears.
JT: Along with your music career, you’ve also been a professional gambler. How did the time spent doing that influence your music?
CT: Well, they’re both dangerous careers. I think the horses and blackjack used the more scientific side of my brain. You can’t be a good card counter unless you memorize things and know how to be disciplined at the blackjack table. With horse race handicapping, it’s the same thing: to be successful—and there’s only a couple successful people in the United States that can consistently beat the horses, and for a period, I was one of them; I used to share information with the biggest moneymaker of all time in the horse race handicapping area, Ernest Dahlman—it’s more scientific in nature: wind velocity and track biases and shoeing of horses. There would be a little artistic thing that I would use too; I could visualize how a race could be run. With visualizing, you could see things that might happen, and that probably would happen. Visualization became very important in my handicapping, and that was more of the artistic side.
Some people write songs like that, using that side of the brain. And there’s some good writers, like Guy Clark, as wonderful and organic as he is, often starts writing songs with lists of things. Guys like Townes Van Zandt or John Prine or me and, I think, Kris Kristofferson, for the most part, let the flavor of a song develop before grabbing hold of it.
JT: Over the years, your songs have been recorded by a number of talented artists. Is there a recording that just blew you away the first time you heard it?
CT: There have been several that I love, and many of the ones you know, I love. I certainly love The Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” because it was very similar to my demo. That’s what I wanted as a writer. I was a writer that wrote mostly from feeling, so the feeling and tempo and passion was important to me, not just somebody singing words to music. The Troggs record was very much in the same fashion of which I wrote it, and the Jimi Hendrix version was in that same fashion. You can’t get better than those versions of “Wild Thing.”
“Angel of the Morning,” I had originally produced for Evie Sands with my friend Al Gorgoni. Evie was a fifteen-year old girl from Brooklyn who ended up being Dusty Springfield’s favorite singer; she’s one of the greatest untold stories in music. Evie had the first version of “Angel of the Morning,” but as the record shipped, the company went bankrupt. Evie’s record is close to my heart.
One of my favorite recordings, “Son of a Rotten Gambler” was a huge, huge country record for Anne Murray. But it was the fifth single from her album release, and they quickly buried it because they wanted to release another album for Christmas. Even though they tried to bury it, it became a huge hit. I wrote it for my son. Emmylou Harris has recorded it as well, but Anne’s version gave me chills when I first heard it. It starts out with an organ that you hear in the distance, and it gets louder and louder and louder, and then she comes in and starts to sing. I think it’s one of the best recordings of any of my songs.
JT: What’s next for you? Is there anything you still want to achieve as an artist, or dream projects?
CT: It’s always the next day, or the next song, or the next little magic thing that leads me on. It’s the unknown. Right now I’m in Nevada, looking at the mountains in the distance and they’re so beautiful and it’s a new day. I’ve got a new bunch of songs that I’ve just started to write and I’m so excited about the spirit of these songs, and where that takes me. Just the spirit of the magic that envelops the human condition: that’s what I want to be touching. Working with my grandkids or telling the stories of the people behind bars; it’s the most rewarding thing possible. There’s no barriers to that for me. I can’t wait for the next day to find that spirit again and again.
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