Scott Fagan on Songwriting: "I'll Do It 'Til I Drop. I Don't Know What ‘No’ Means"

Scott Fagan in 1969EXPAND
Scott Fagan in 1969
Photo by Richie Matthews

In short, the facts are these: In 1968, Scott Fagan released his debut album, South Atlantic Blues, which is highly regarded as a psych folk masterpiece and is reissued via UK indie Saint Cecilia Knows and Fagan’s Lil’fish records this month. Originally released on Atlantic imprint ATCO, South Atlantic Blues was a flop when it first hit the stores. In 1969, artist Jasper Johns found the record in a record store bargain bin and created his lithograph, Scott Fagan Record, which has been displayed in both the MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet, the record remained underground.

This week, Fagan has a performance and Q+A at Rough Trade NYC and will undoubtedly have many tales to tell about his many twists of fate. Oh, and as he’ll proudly tell you: “It turns out I’m Stephin Merritt’s father,” Fagan says fondly of the Magnetic Fields leader, whom he didn’t meet until a few years ago.

Born on 52nd Street to jazz scenester parents, but raised in an artist community in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Fagan returned to New York when he was 19 years old. He had “one telephone number and 11 cents" in his pocket. "The number was Doc Pomus’s, do you know who that is?” he asks, recalling his tale from his home in Middletown, Pennsylvania, near Three Mile Island. For the record, Doc Pomus was a blues singer and songwriter of such memorable hits as Elvis Presley’s "Viva Las Vegas."

"Doc told me to come to the Forrest Hotel on 49th Street, right across from the Brill Building. Do you know what that is?” (The famous hit factory where writers like Carole King earned a coin or two.

“So I go to his room and he’s sitting in the middle of the bed – Doc had polio and couldn’t walk — and he was wrapped in a sheet with his wild hair and wild beard, and intense black eyes. I played for him and he signed me right then to a management deal. It happened like that: Boom!”

Fagan’s personal story is also very much the story of the music business, too. He recalls making his demos with Pomus: “The studio was a stressful place back then. The clock was the master of all things. You can go into a studio with a great song and great players, but it doesn’t always mean [you'll] come out with a great record,” he philosophizes. Fagan released a single on Columbia (it flopped) and met other then-unknowns such as Aretha Franklin. “Columbia didn’t know what to do with Aretha and they didn’t know what to do with me.” And then there was Native American singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie – “She was the most beautiful thing on God’s earth.”

Fagan ended up as a house singer at a club called Cafe au Go-Go in Greenwich Village. “This was 1965, or ’66,” he says. “There were three acts playing there: Ritchie Havens, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, and me. You know who Jimmy James is?” Jimmy James was the future Jimi Hendrix. “We were paid $5 a night and all the macrobiotic rice we could stomach.”

Next, Verve Forecast president Jerry Schoenbaum took Fagan under his wing, and South Atlantic Blues was readied for release. But Schoenbaum skipped on to Atlantic Records offshoot ATCO, taking Fagan’s record with him and signing him to a deal there. “But Jerry didn’t stay at ATCO and a new president came in with his own pet projects. He didn’t want some other guy’s pet projects.” The record wasn't promoted and floundered.

Though Johns's bargain bin discovery of South Atlantic Blues is the accepted legend, Johns certainly saw Fagan perform at Rutgers University. “I was booked to do a gig there, but they had confused the date and the hall was being used for study. They said, 'OK, you’re here, so we’ll give you some time to play.' So I went into a study hall and played to a bunch of confused math students, and four or five adults walked in and stood at the back, listening. It was Jasper and some of his friends. I didn’t know Jasper Johns from Walt Disney,” he admits. Shortly after, Johns’s people called inviting him to see Scott Fagan Record premiere at the MoMA.

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“These were some of the cleanest looking people I’d ever seen and they treated me like I was the second coming. My word, they were so kind. It’s fantastic,” he says of the lithograph. “The album itself didn’t get much attention, but this artwork sustained me spiritually through a number of reversals.”

At 70, Fagan still hopes for a wider audience for his music. One of many albums he has stockpiled is called 10 Great Songs in Search of an Audience. “A song isn’t complete until it reaches the listener,” he says. Back in that music-making maelstrom in his twenties, he recalls working as a songwriter with a close friend. “We were both fired and he never wrote another song. But I continued. This is what I do; I’ll do it 'til I drop. I don’t know what no means.”

Scott Fagan plays November 17 at Rough Trade New York. For ticket information, click here.

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