We Asked the Unicorn: An Interview with Ed Askew
If you're the type who gets all doe eyed over every young snot who wears a kaftan and sings of freewheeling mysticism like it's some newfangled thing, you better wise up and pay attention to the man who has been the master of all such things in this city for over 40 years, Ed Askew.
The LP he released on the early Manhattan based indie label ESP-Disk in 1968 entitled Ask the Unicorn went by without a whimper at the time of its release. Later on, it was grasped by a later generation of thread pulling record collectors looking to catch the sparks and connect the dots on all things gloriously arcane that shot out of New York City in the '60s.
The Ed Askew Band plays Cha-Cha's tomorrow night.
Sometime in the early oughts, Ed was tracked down by the Minneapolis based label DeStijl. Not only was the gent sitting on a good chunk of unreleased material from over the years, he was raring to get back out there and play. Since then, he has performed both solo and with his Ed Askew band all around the area with the hunger and fervor of a man half his age.
We tracked Ed down to chat about his classic recordings and his time in the city both past and present. Here's what the good man had to say.
What made you first want to perform music? Aside from my father having aspired to be a professional singer as a young man, one of my aunts took pleasure in playing the piano and singing songs from the 1930s maybe. And my seeing Hoagy Carmichael on TV when I was a kid and being very impressed; I always remember singing. I always belonged to a choir as a child. You were living in New Haven originally when you were playing music. Were you from there? If not, how'd you end up there? I went to Yale Art School to study painting in 1963, and occasionally sang for my friends there. But I started making songs after I left New Haven. I soon moved back, around 1968, and met a whole new bunch of people, and joined a band, and after I quit the band I began putting on shows of my music there. I grew up in Stamford, a very nice town before the corporations and the mall moved in.
When did you initially come to NYC to perform music? I think it was 1967 that I moved to New York for a few months. I was playing in coffee houses. Carrying my Martin Tiple around. I would just show up, and they would ask me to play. I also met Bernard Stolman (President of ESP Disk) at that time. I soon left, however. Which is when I moved back to New Haven, where I stayed put--except a part of a year in San Francisco, and a year spent hitchhiking--until around 1986, when I moved to New York for good. I put on shows in New Haven for about 10 years. Mostly for my friends, occasionally playing at local colleges and at a bar in Mystic where my friend Dean ran the music and cooked. In the '80s I was more involved in painting. I was trying to show in NY while still writing songs. Where were you playing in NYC? Back then; these were just little places where a bunch of kids passed the hat when you played. I don't remember any names. They were mostly in the East Village around Tompkins Square. I also was on the Bob Fass show twice. When I moved here again, I wasn't doing much music. I played out only once. I had lost the Tiple and I was having some issues with pain in my hands. I was also painting, and working with kids as an art teacher.
When you released Ask the Unicorn on ESP in '68, was there any reaction what so ever to the record? Ask the Unicorn was a stillbirth as far as I knew. Many of my friends didn't know I had made a record. But over the years I found out that there had been people here and in England waiting for my next release. At the time there were no reviews. Because of the record I did get to do some radio shows around 1970. Was it a blow to your ego at all for Ask the Unicorn to go nowhere? It was a great disappointment that the second record I recorded for ESP, Little Eyes, was not released at that time. I was happy I got to make the first and it got released. But I expected to be able to continue to make records and the whole thing just stopped.
Talk a little about Little Eyes I recorded my second LP, Little Eyes in '71 and it was not released. But they sent me a test pressing. My boyfriend, or someone he knew, made a tape which sat in a box until 2000 when Stollman called me up to ask if I had a copy. So I made some cassettes copies. Stolman got one and a friend in England got another. He made some copies and one found its way to Clint Simonson of DeStijl Records. He released it in 2002 on vinyl.
How does NYC differ from when you first started playing here? Not sure. I was only here for a few months at that time. It's not something I ever think about. I always loved New York. You can walk for miles and still be in the city. In my memory the past seems more claustrophobic and dangerous. I was staying with different people not having a place or job. Now I rent a room in Washington Heights and I have a enough money to pay the bills. I have a band. I'm part of the fucking Brooklyn music scene---which is amazing. People will write about it. Like people write about the DaDa movement in Zurich.
We have a saying; Big Time No Money. If you have ever looked at a map of all the venues and bars in Brooklyn you may understand why Brooklyn is such a great place for music. For free or at most $5 or $10 you can go out to great and interesting music every day if you like. And if you're a band you can usually find a place to play. But no one is making any money. Whether that is a good thing or not, a lot of people are playing music, and running shows because it's what they love to do. And all the 20 and 30 somethings running around Williamsburg, going from bar to bar, may not know how lucky they are at this moment.
Please give me the full line-up of the Ed Askew band and tell me why you chose them Ed Askew, Tyler Evans, and Jay Pluck are Ed Askew Band. After the release of Little Eyes and the re-release of Ask the Unicorn, I began being asked to do shows. I could not play an instrument myself by then, so I asked people who were recommended to me to back me up. One of these shows was at The Stone. I had been invited to play there by David Garland. Steve Gunn played for me. Jay Pluck came to the show and later came to visit me in Washington Heights. He asked if it would be OK if he learned one of my songs. No one was playing for me by then, and I thought it was a good idea also. After that, he learned more of my songs and we played a few shows. By the time Imperfection was released we could do a whole set together. And just at that time I was asked to do two tours. One was opening five shows for Bill Callahan, the other was with the Black Swans.
I always found the combination of your voice and playing to be one of the most unique meshings in music. I hate to ask such a predictable question, but, what are your influences? Did it just come out of nowhere? Not sure. If I could say anything had an influence, I might admit to some combination of Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill. Or Bob Dylan mixed with Hogay Carmichael. Joni Mitchell impressed me, the way her lyrics rambled on like talking; almost not matching the phrasing of the chords. But perfect. Mostly I never think about it though. I can sometimes "hear" other people doing one of my songs sometimes. Like I would love to hear Willie Nelson do my song "Roadio Rose." I think my sound, then, came, to some extent, from a kid with a lot of social inhibitions allowing himself to sort of shout at the world and enjoy it.
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