Share this article

print logo

An American folkie; Documentary will follow long career of legendary singer-songwriter Eric Andersen, who got his start at a Williamsville hootenanny

The music of folk singer and former Amherst resident Eric Andersen has inspired a documentary that will open a window on the life of an artist somewhat overlooked.

"I've been listening to his music since I was 16," said Paul Lamont, an independent producer who launched the project in December after working 10 years at WNED-TV Buffalo Niagara. "It goes right to the core, but when you couple his songs with where he has been -- the highs, the lows, the people he has known -- you have a compelling story. Here's a guy who survived trying times, who was on the cusp of something great and who still is doing great stuff."

Filming of the as-yet-untitled documentary comes to the Ninth Ward at Babeville today. Friday's schedule included a stop at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and on Thursday the crew filmed Andersen performing at Hugh's Room in Toronto. Production will move on to New York, Pittsburgh and Europe, with an anticipated release date in 2014.

The independent project reunites Lamont (TowardCastle Films) and co-producer Scott Sackett (Skipping Stone Pictures), who recently worked on "Glorious Battle: The Siege of Fort Erie" and "Elbert Hubbard: An American Original" for the Public Broadcasting Service.

Andersen's complex personality has presented an appealing challenge.

"Eric is such a person of the present that it's difficult to get him to think of the past, especially Buffalo," said Sackett. "And the last thing he wants to talk about is himself. He talked about the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan [Museum of Modern Art], Lady Gaga as a great performance artist. He wasn't thinking 'Blue River.' "

Andersen was among the singer-songwriters who ignited the nation in the 1960s and '70s. For more than 40 years, he has toured North America, Europe and Japan, producing 25 albums of original songs. Andersen was one of the first American folk singers to tour Japan, and in 1970, he joined the Festival Express Tour and performed in Canada with the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and the Band.

His signature "Blue River" album, released in 1972, was hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as "the best example of the '70s singer-songwriter movement." It would place him in company with James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg and Joni Mitchell.

If it were not for a series of devastating events -- including the death of Brian Epstein (who had just agreed to manage Andersen) and the unexplained disappearance of master tapes for a highly anticipated album -- "his name might be as recognized as some of his contemporaries," said Lamont.

Andersen turned 69 on Valentine's Day, and he said he has forgotten the past. Still, the idea of a documentary scares him.

"It's thrilling on one hand because of the tribute to my work, but it's a risk because of the exposure," Andersen said. "It's a little scary, too. You don't know what the agenda is. A filmmaker is a filmmaker, so you're taking your chances."

>Stirring up memories

Monday was a day of rest for Andersen, who had arrived in New York City from Amsterdam hours before a scheduled telephone interview from his agent's office in Manhattan.

"Who knows what memories will come flying through the door?," he said when asked about his upcoming visit to Buffalo. "Memories are like dreams, if you can remember your dreams -- if you can remember anything."

Andersen moved from Pittsburgh to Amherst with his family in 1951. He was 8 years old and already his pursuit of art sent him to the Albright Art Gallery. "I've always been a little crazy about art," he explained. Many years later, he would meet an artist while touring in Norway and move there. "She was a painter," he said. "I'm a sucker for that stuff."

Andersen attended Amherst High School, and worked in a restaurant as a short-order cook and in a record store, where he discovered jazz. He taught himself to play the guitar, but he could not read music.

"I was writing stuff with three chords that I learned from Elvis Presley records, Buddy Holly and Little Richard," he recalled. Andersen described his pivotal moment here as a "hootenanny" he played at the Glen Park Casino in Williamsville, which was owned by Harry Altman. During the '60s, hootenanny clubs in Manhattan like Folk City and Gaslight featured informal performances by folk singers who were often joined by audience members.

"So Harry Altman was a smart businessman," recalled Andersen, who was 20 at the time. "He listened to me and smelled money. I made enough to hitch to California and see the scene and meet the beats -- [Allen] Ginsberg and all these people -- and it was all from a hootenanny in Williamsville."

Buffalo native and musician Willie Nile first met Andersen at a benefit concert they played in 1987 in Oslo, Norway. Nile said he had long admired Andersen's music.

"I was a big fan of poets and poetry," Nile said recently over the phone from a club in Manchester, England, where he was about to perform. "I come to rock and roll through poetry, and I was impressed early on by Eric's lyrics. They're very much like the French poet Arthur Rimbaud."

Nile, who graduated from the University at Buffalo in 1971, described Andersen as "more Bohemian beatnik than folk singer. I love Eric," Nile said. "There's a gentleness to his voice, a breathless quality and an intimacy to his vocals."

>One kind of luck

When Andersen opened for the premiere of the Beatles movie "Magical Mystery Tour" in 1967 at Kleinhans Music Hall, Nile had third-row seats. "I remember hearing that [Beatles manager] Brian Epstein was managing Andersen, and I was very happy about that," said Nile. "And here he was opening up for the Beatles film. It was a great spot. It was a packed house. I enjoyed the movie. Not long after, Brian dies, and I thought what a tough break for Eric."

Epstein, 32, died in August 1967 of an accidental overdose of sedatives in his London home. He is credited with the early success of the Beatles. After Epstein's death, Andersen was quoted as saying he cried for days, according to Lamont.

Another pass at superstardom was dashed in 1973 when Andersen was 30 and based in New York, said Lamont.

"He had just come off 'Blue River,' " Lamont said. "The follow-up was critical, and Eric finds out the master tapes to his next album, 'Stages,' were missing -- 40 reels were never shipped for final mastering in New York. They disappeared. That was a major turning point in his career.

"Eric has said it was like watching your child get thrown out a window or being hit by a freight train," Lamont said. "It was if his career was slipping through his fingers."

The masters turned up nearly two decades later mingled in a box of tapes on the floor in a Nashville studio, Lamont said.

>Teaching with Ani

Andersen's to-do list reads like a travelogue. He's planning a 10-day vacation in Morocco, where he'll take a midnight train to Marrakesh -- but only after he plays a series of gigs on the West Coast in late April. September brings "Blue River" 40th anniversary concerts in Cambridge, Mass., and Saratoga Springs.

And then the troubadour will turn teacher.

"They hired me -- of all people -- to do a workshop," Andersen said, nearing the end of an entertaining phone talk. "Ani DiFranco will be my assistant. It's called 'Soundtrack for Social Change.' They're also trying to get Michael Lang, the guy who did the Woodstock Festival, and Arlo Guthrie."

Andersen laughs at the thought of accepting the invitation from Omega Institute to lead the workshop in Rhinebeck for one week starting in late September. Next weekend, he'll play a Midnight Ramble that former Band drummer Levon Helm throws in his Woodstock studio. Andersen's wife, Inge Andersen, will perform, too.
"My wife has an album, 'Fallen Angel,' coming out in May," he said. "We have a house outside Amsterdam. We live on the edge of a national forest."

Andersen has six children ranging in age from 41 to 21. Oldest daughter Sari Andersen is a "great songwriter" who lives in Hawaii, the proud father pointed out.

"Joni Mitchell is the godmother of [Sari], but [Mitchell] is in hibernation. She's retired, but I'm going to try and track her down in LA next week," he said, listing the friends he would like to see in the documentary.

"Maybe I'll get Bob Dylan to say something. I saw him in Rotterdam and we had a nice evening together. I worked with Lou Reed on some stuff. Hopefully some of these people come through," he said. "Leonard Cohen is another old friend of mine."

The more he talked, the more Andersen appeared to like the idea of a documentary on his life. Could this be another new beginning in his evolving career?

"Oh yeah," he countered. "Then I might suggest we do it in 3-D."