Aug. 29--FORTY-ONE YEARS after it was formed by a group of young people in a Marin County living room, the Fairfax Street Choir has released a debut album that, it's fair to say, has been an awfully long time coming.
But "Train to Glory," showcasing the 30-voice choir and its band on 11 songs, many of them originals, is well worth the wait.
This joyous music was resurrected from old reel-to-reel tapes, most of them of live performances, and remastered through digital technology by Street Choir founder and director Marla Hunt Hanson and the choir's bassist, Clyde Niesen. It was released last week as a CD on Niesen's Choralis Records.
"We're all older now, in our 50s and 60s,
and to hear this music again has given people hope," Hanson told me one day this week from her home in Solano County. "We're getting emails saying, 'Wow, thank you. This is magical.' It's been a good thing for the people who were around then, especially since we're all getting up there."
That's exactly the warm, nostalgic feeling this long-buried music had on me, stirring golden memories of a special in time in Marin, the early to mid-1970s, when the county was brimming with idealistic young people, many of them talented singers and musicians who were part of the hippie diaspora that followed the fall of the Haight Ashbury. Many of these former flower children were trying to create music that was pure and new, free of commercial restraints, that might even be good for the soul.
"We were doing something that no one else was doing, unlike anything else going on," Niesen recalled. "We sparked a lot of excitement and a great deal of psychic and spiritual energy wherever we played."
That spiritual energy emanated from the original Sleeping Lady Cafe in Fairfax, a Bolinas Road employee-owned co-op that was Marin's first vegetarian restaurant and the first nightspot to outlaw smoking at a time when that was considered an audacious thing to do. More significantly, it launched the Street Choir in the fall of 1972 and who knows how many other musicians and bands.
Coincidentally, I moved to Fairfax with my young family in the winter of that year, landing my first job washing pots at the Sleeping Lady. As a member, albeit briefly, of the co-op, I earned the princely sum of $16 for my first, and last, week of work.
"One thing I learned from the Sleeping Lady is that communism doesn't work very well economically," Niesen, who was one of the cafe's breakfast cooks, said with a laugh. "It would have failed under normal circumstances, but we were doing it for a purpose, to have a venue for people to perform at night and everyone understood that. It was pretty extraordinary."
More than 100 people passed through the Street Choir or its backup band at one time or another between 1972 and its breakup in 1976.
"Word of mouth attracted the curious, the flamboyant, the searchers for truth and, yes, even some serious musicians," says an online history of the choir at www.thefairfaxstreetchoir.com. The more well-known members included the Monkees' Peter Tork and the angelic Laura Allan, whose exposure through the choir led to a major label deal with Elektra Records, which released her eponymous debut album in 1978. Three more albums followed in the '90s, but she never broke through with the kind of Taylor Swift-like success her talent deserved. Sadly, she was just 56 when she died of cancer in 2008.
"As sensitive as Laura was, the music business destroyed her," Hanson said. "It was like she was a flame, and there were five billion moths all wanting a piece of her. She was the most beautiful girl, and I want everybody to remember her as she was when she was with the choir, the beauty she brought into everybody's life. That's another reason this album is coming out, to vindicate her, to be healing."
As it happened, the music industry also brought about the demise of the choir. An executive with Capitol Records was interested in signing the group, but only wanted a handful of the principals to go on tour to promote the debut album, leaving the other members behind. The label would hire singers to fill out the sound and musicians to back them up in each city on the tour.
"It would have hurt a lot of peoples' feelings, and it would have professionalized the choir, taking away the spiritual element and turning it into something that was completely phony," Hanson said. "A lot of the choir's material was original, and he also wanted us to sign away our rights as writers."
Complicating matters further, Hanson and a few of the other members had been offered individual recording contracts and had solo careers they wanted to pursue. So, after five extraordinary years, they all went their separate ways.
"I'm pretty sure everybody went on to get real jobs and live real lives," Niesen said. "We learned more about the world later, but at that time it was all about the spiritual energy we created."
Regrettably, the choir never got to make a record, so its music existed only in the memories of those who made it or were lucky enough to hear it. Until now. Today's digital technology has brought those once young voices back to life, allowing everyone to experience this nearly forgotten piece of our musical history in all its long ago glory.
The CD's liner notes say it best: "Get ready to sing, dance, laugh and cry as you listen to these amazing songs that were put together from the magical, miracle years of the Fairfax Street Choir."
Contact Paul Liberatore via email at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LibLarge. Follow his blog at http://blogs.marinij.com/ad_lib.
(c)2013 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)
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