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Darryl Purpose Link
Music Matters Review of A Crooked Line
- Darryl Purpose
Interviewed by Roberta B. Schwartz
- Darryl Purpose is the most fascinating singer-songwriter I know. He has led a life that has taken him from the best-known gambling casinos in the world, to the Great Peace March, and finally to coffeehouses and concert halls all across the country. He is one of the great singers and writers of story songs. His striking appearance, with ever present hat, belies a very gentle and funny soul underneath. Can you tell hes one of my favorite performers? This is a conversation I had with him in the early days of December, 2001. Enjoy.
- Roberta: Of all of the singer-songwriters I know, your personal journey from world class blackjack player to musician has to be the most interesting. Can you tell me a little bit about the journey?
Darryl: There is an article in Dirty Linen (issue no. 93, April/May 01 excerpted at http://www.dirtynelson.com/linen/97/) that dealt with that in depth. It pretty much told the story. To summarize, I always took a guitar with me when I traveled around the world playing blackjack. Id play it in my hotel and sometimes in the airport. I was always known to carry a guitar around and I always wanted to play music. My first opportunity came in the Eighties when I stopped gambling for a couple of years and took up with a band of musicians who met on a thing called the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament.
R: Oh, great, were getting into another question of mine
. Tell me about that.
D: [Laughs]. I had heard about this corporate-sponsored, big event. There were thousands of people walking from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. for peace, with portable showers and portable laundry trucks along the way. Madonna was doing commercials for us; Sting was going to do our big going away concert at the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles. You know, Club Med for peace. I was into that, so I signed up. It didnt turn out to be what we signed up for. The original organization had overspent and didnt manage it very well. And basically, they told us we could all go home before we had reached Barstow, California. It was there that a few hundred of us decided that we were going to do it on our own. A series of miracles took us across the country and into Washington, D.C. eight months later, on schedule. One of the things that happened was that a band was formed. We called ourselves Collective Vision and we wrote songs about why we were walking and we played them as we traveled across the country. It turned into a very musical experience. Pete Seeger came out to help us on numerous occasions. Sometimes he did concerts for us, and sometimes he did benefit concerts in the cities we were passing through and then gave us the money so that we could keep on walking. At the end of the walk he invited the band to stay with him at the house that he built in upstate New York. We sat around the fireplace and traded songs that night, and slept in his barn. And
what a guy; what an inspiration. After the march was over the band stayed together and someone said we couldnt do it in Russia, so we ended up going to Russia the next year and did the same thing in Russia. We walked from Leningrad to Moscow. It was a little bit more of a parade than a walk. It was a remarkable time to be over there with glasnost, the new openness, and people were very excited about music. Rock and roll was still illegal but they sure knew about it. And at the end of the walk there was a concert with Santana and Bonnie Raitt, and they let the Peace March band play there, too. It was my biggest audience and probably will be for a number of yearsthirty thousand people.
R: What years were you involved with the March?
D: 1986 and 1987.
R: Those experiences must have altered your life in some way.
D: Actually I went back to gambling for some time and then it was 1996 when I finally decided to make the leap to singer-songwriter, and go out touring.
R: I think you wrote a song about your gambling life called "Dangerous Game."
D: Oh, yes. But music has always been where my heart is. Blackjack lost its luster a number of years earlier, its just that it was easy to fall back on. Just like a number of people get stuck in the rut of the job that theyre doing. Some people dont understand that you could be in a rut as a world traveling professional blackjack player [laughs], but I can attest that it is true.
R: They kind of knew who you were all over the world from what Ive heard you say.
D: Yeah. My picture was in every casino in the world by the time I was twenty-three.
R: Its a different kind of fame, isnt it?
D: Yes it is. And I came to feel that at best, blackjack is about nothing. And music is what moves me
and Im real happy that I have gotten the chance to play music.
R: How did you break into music? Was it through the Great Peace March?
D: Not at all. The band had been broken up for many years. It was nine years later. I decided that I wanted to have a CD of the songs that I had written over the course of my life. So over the period of a year in Los Angeles, at small studios all around L.A., we recorded this CD, Right Side of Zero. I had my cousin design a package, printed them up, and then I had a thousand CDs in my living room. And I got on the internet. Someone told me that if you send email to this address youll get a bunch of playlists from Folk DJs. I saw that some of the deejays posted their playlists So, I took their email addresses, cut them out and pasted them in, and sent them an email to see if they wanted my CD. And sure enough, some of them did, and some of them played it. And then I saw a guy send out a post that said he was a record label. So I sent him an email and said, "You have a record label, well, I have a record." And I ended up sending him Right Side of Zero, and he ended up licensing it and actually got it charted on the Americana charts.
R: What a lucky guy!
D: I am, huh!?! Luck is a residue of design. And, also at the same time, I saw a post from a woman who said she was a booking agent, and I saidyoure a booking agent? I want to tour. And I had not a clue what that meantwhat touring meant. I just knew that I wanted to play my music. So she listened to my CD and became my booking agent for the first two and a half years that I did this. She was also my manager and publicity person and Mom, and lots of stuff. Her name was Peggy Thompson. After that time she retired and moved to Florida with her husband.
R: Are you making a living at music?
D: I am, I am. Im making a good living.
R: Youre not home much.
D: But I like being on the road.
R: Tell me how you learned to play guitar and develop your finger picking style of playing.
D: I was a classical guitar major in college. Thats where I first learned how to finger pick. I spent just a quarter of a semester there. My left hand, all of a sudden, went bad and they put it in a splint. My finger picking really started with my left hand in a splint. I would just sit and tune the guitar to a chord, and finger pick for hours. Later my right hand went. Being a guitar major, with two hands in splints, it wasnt a good thing. So I dropped out and went to Las Vegas. I never knew what it was that happened to my hands as I never fell or injured them. Twenty years later, when I got back into music full-time, before a gig in a place called Twisp, Washington, a guy came up to me before the show and told me what happened twenty years ago, to my wrist. His exact words were, "Excuse me, Im a doctor. I study a rare condition, like the one you have. You should get it checked out. Its caused by a tumor at the base of the skull. So you should really look into it." and he was right. And it was a condition called Acromagly. The primary symptom is unexplained problems with joints.
R: Is there a cure for this?
D: There is. Normally its brain surgery. But I have a rare form of a rare disease, and I never did have to have the brain surgery. They think I did have a brain tumor and it went away. Im pretty much recovered now.
R: Someone or something is shining down on you.
D: Luck is a residue of design. Thats what I say.
R: Youre a wonderful storyteller, so I want to ask you about a couple of songs from the new CD, A Crooked Line. I love the song you open with, "California (Rutherford Hayes in the Morning)." Im wondering how these two concepts came togetherCalifornia and Rutherford Hayes.
D: Funny you would ask [laughs]. Paul Zollo, who is a remarkable songwriter, wrote the lyric to my music. It came up because he was the last president to be elected without the popular vote, but he won because of the electoral college.
shades of Bush.
thats why it came up. So at every show it allows me to make a political statement without making a political statement. I tell people this is a song about a turn-of-the-century American politician who became president without winning the popular vote. And everyone snickers. Then I play the song.
R: Well, he wasnt one of our better-known presidents.
D: No, he wasnt. But we have found out that there is a breadth of knowledge about this man that we had no idea of
. Since we wrote the song we have heard from the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio. They have everything from the Hayes White House. They have the bodies of Rutherford and Lucy. And its in a place where Rutherford grew up. Hayes was the first president to travel west. That was a time when it was a monumental task to get from Washington, D.C. to California. The funny thing is that Paul insists he read this on the internetthe story of Rutherford Hayes going into San Franciscobut he didnt. We found out that he ever sailed into San Francisco [laughs], but he was the first president to go to California.
R: Where does the song "A Crooked Line" take place and what inspired it?
D: That was also set in Los Angeles where Paul Zollo lives and where Im from. On a couple of occasions Paul has tried to write me a lyric, personally. He has a sense of who I am and now, of the back roads, the crooked lines that I have traveled, and knows Im from Los Angeles. So, that was his idea.
R: Do you usually write the music and have a collaborator for the lyrics?
D: No. I like to co-write. I feel like I write a great half a song. But usually I have a hand in the lyric.
R: What is the collaboration process like for you?
D: Its different every time. It depends on who Im writing with and it depends on the situation. For example, with "I Lost a Day to the Rain," I had the chorus for many months. I was living with Ellis Paul at the time and he said, hey man, you have the chorus, get a verse. So I asked, what would you do with this song? Basically he suggested that we write a lyric about people who have made good use out of the rain. Then he suggested the three people who the verses are about.
R: Ellis Paul is one of my favorite musicians. I hear his voice in the music of "Bryant Street." What was his part in writing that song?
D: Hes one of my songwriting heroes. With "Bryant Street," its my story. But I heard him play the first two lines, "A paper-thin time machine/an old Polaroid"singing exactly what I sing on there that melody. So we were living together at the time and he was singing those words and that melody. So I told him that those lines reminded me of a day I spent out in California revisiting the life of the half-sister I never knew, and who drowned in a pool as an infant. And we wrote it from there.
R: Its a beautiful song.
D: Thank you so much. Its a downer of a song. People tend to cry when I play that song for them. Its a beautiful thingI enjoy making people cry. The happy ending of the song, by the way, is that on June 24th at the Freight and Salvage, on a split bill with Tracy Grammer and Dave Carter, my three new half-brothers and their wives showed up, and I sang that song for them. Well
they loved it. Thats the song that brought us together. Were the four brothers of the girl who drowned in the pool. We had never met. And the youngest of them never knew that I existedmy older sister, too. I found out where they were, and after putting it off for a lot of months, somebody said you should send them the songyou have their address. Thats the kind of drama that really appeals to me. So I wrote them a letter and sent them the song. The happy ending is that weve hooked up. Brother Chris has joined me onstage. The three of them are musicians. And its been a remarkable year if only for that. I have ten new nieces and nephews.
R: Your life is one remarkable story after another after another.
D: Im a bit of an intensity magnet.
R. Why do you think thats true? You strike me as a very gentle soul.
D: I think thats true, but intensity and gentleness can coexist. I find life so interesting, and the more interesting, the better. I just gravitate toward those situations that will make good stories, or will make me feel something.
R: Speaking of good stories, one of my favorite songs of yours is about Mr. Schwinn. Can you tell me how that song came about?
D: That song also cam out of the Methow Valley in the eastern part of the state of Washington. Its kind of a magical place. It has been a magical place for me. Friends of mine up there have lots of hobbies. They are archaeologists. They started their very own radio station back when there were no radio stations in the Valley. And Debra restores old bikes. She pointed to one bike and said that this bike was given to me by Mr. So-and-So. He was saving it all his life for the woman he would marry, but he never met her, and he gave it to me. And that was it. Robert [Morgan Fisher] and I wrote the song from that one sentence. But that sentence said so much. It turned out that everybody had a Mr. Schwinn.
R: Where do ideas for songs come from? Do they come from experiences like that?
D: Most of the songs I write come from things that happen to me or stories that people tell me. "Late for Dinner" came from a story that a woman in St. Augustine, Florida told me. Its about a Vietnam veteran that she met, fell in love with and married. And she told me this whole story over breakfast about how he loved her so much for many years. One day he dropped her off at work, kissed her on the cheek and disappeared. And this was years later. She said to me, handing me the song on a silver platter, you know, if he showed up in my life again, I dont know if Id shoot him or tell him hes late for dinner. I said to her, you know Im going to write that song. It took two years.
R: Who are some of your musical influences:
D: Bruce Cockburn is a big influence. Richard Thompson. A lot further back, Paul Simon for the songwriting. I was weaned on Seventies singer-songwriters. The people I listen to now are Ellis Paul, Dave Carter. I enjoy hearing music from people who dont have unlimited resources to make it.
R: Is there anything else that youd like our readers to know about you.
D: Well, theres the Second String Project, but its been covered a lot. A friend of mine (whom I met on the Great Peace March) and I had this idea about a year and a half ago. We asked singer-songwriters to send in their used sets of strings so we could get them into the hands of third world musicians who could use them. It was a modest idea, and a year and a half later weve delivered over 10,000 sets of strings. Taylor Guitars has helped out a lot by giving us all of the strings from their repair department. And DAddario is paying for the trips down there, helping out quite a bit.
R: Whats next for you?
D: More of the same. I feel that when one starts out with an idea that turns into a song, it is completed when people hear that song. So, Im interested in people hearing the songs. I hope I can connect with more and more people through music.