Few music fans, whether they were alive at the time or not, would dispute that the late 60s were a magical time for LA music. Between The Byrds, Love, Beach Boys, Doors, and countless others, not to mention classic venues and recording studios, there was a staggering amount of great music made here.
And yet, despite all the acknowledged classics, there is also a surprising number of great records made here that for one reason or another were overlooked, underrated, and generally lost in the shuffle. Some still enjoy a considerable reputation with those ‘in the know.’ Farewell Aldebaran, by the then husband-and-wife duo of Judy Henske and Jerry Yester, might be the best example of a record whose greatness has never been properly appreciated. Omnivore Records, with their long-awaited (and well overdue) remaster, is doing their part to make things right, almost 50 years after its initial creation.
It’s not as if they were unknowns. Henske (dubbed ‘Queen of the Beatniks’ by producer Jack Nitzsche) enjoyed a solid reputation on the folk scene, as a performer on the 1963 movie Hootenanny Hoot, and with several albums that feature her hilarious between-song monologues, great full band arrangements (in the case of 1966’s ‘The Death-Defying Judy Henske,” by Nitzsche) and her powerful voice and wide range. Yester was a member of the Modern Folk Quartet and was briefly in both the Lovin’ Spoonful (with whom he still plays approximately 30 shows a year) and The Association (his brother Jim was a long-time member who is also in the current band), and was a successful producer, including on Tim Buckley’s two most popular albums, “Goodbye and Hello,” and “Happy Sad.” But their one album as a duo, out on Frank Zappa’s Straight label (Zappa was apparently an early supporter and generally encouraging presence) didn’t trouble the charts even slightly, though it generally received favorable reviews.
According to Yester, interviewed at his Arkansas home where he is still very busy recording and performing music, when he and Henske first started working on the ten songs that make up the record together, they knew they were on to something. It started “either with me bringing Judy a melody, or her presenting me with a lyric, sometimes nearly simultaneously, going back and forth from one room to another. We always felt from the beginning they were good. We had faith in them. We always hoped for critical success, but it was secondary.”
While the songs are at times dense musically, they are also rich, catchy, and wildly eclectic. It’s about as ‘all over the map’ as anything that came out during the period, which might contribute some to its greatness not translating to commercial success.
Yester may not be as acclaimed for his production and arranging as contemporaries like Brian Wilson or Curt Boettcher, but he shares their great ear, emotional directness expressed via musical complexity, and experimental nature. Yester remembers having, as a youngster “a guitar teacher who taught me theory instead of guitar. I’d always been interested in vocal arranging, and I studied orchestration on the buses and planes traveling with the MFQ, playing in colleges, and raiding the bookstores.” And on “Farewell Aldebaran,” the exotic arrangements find instrumentation and inspiration in unlikely places, from the marxophone that graces “Lullaby” to the heavy licks that co-producer Yanovksy brings to the album-opener, “Snowblind,” to electronic music pioneer Bernie Krause’s contribution to the title-track.
The album started a group of songs “with no overall theme, but with the end of recording them as an original song collection,” according to Yester. “Most of the time we would have a notion of how we wanted them to end up, but sometimes the studio would bring about surprises.”
Music fans of the day might have been a bit bewildered by a record with something close to a new sound on every track. The upside of that is it’s unencumbered by ingrained memories or period trappings – the image is the music. Here’s a track-by-track rundown:
Snowblind – The key track, the one released as a single, and yet probably the least representative of the album as a whole. For one thing, it’s a hard rocker – Yanovsky slashes and burns like he’s trying out for Black Sabbath – and Henske’s scorching vocals are edgy as well – the closest she ever got to Janis Joplin territory. It’s a great wild rocker, but it could give a first-time listener a mistaken impression of what’s to come.
Horses on a Stick – Originally written on pump organ. If “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” taught us anything, it’s that carousels are psychedelic, and that’s certainly played up here, but this also features one of the record’s prettiest melodies, with the horses of the title as a metaphor for the ‘ups and downs’ of life, as it were. Charming and fun, if a bit more lighthearted than most of the other tracks.
Lullaby – Here’s where it starts to get weird. Apparently written as a literal lullaby for their young daughter, but never actually sung to her because Henske found the finished product a bit too spooky – it’s an uncanny composition that winds its way up, and then down, the 12-tone scale while Henske shows off every last note of her range, from low rumble to high falsetto, with almost no strain. It’s a remarkable performance for both, and probably my favorite song on the record.
St. Nicholas Hall – A bit of a mock-hymn, featuring Catholic school nuns hitting up the alumni for building funds, and, ending with the sign-off “sincerely yours in Christ, your dean.” Handled with mock-seriousness, it’s the closest thing on the album to a comedy number.
Three Ravens – A partial re-write of the Child Ballad of the same name, with a slightly altered perspective. Like much else here, it’s a dark little number (the ravens, as in the traditional song, are waiting on a fresh corpse to be completely dead). The first song the two worked on together. Also featured as an instrumental demo titled “Moods for Cellos.”
Raider – It wasn’t the single, but it’s probably the most accessible song on the record, with a great warped bluegrass sound courtesy of some of the folks from Kaleidoscope. It’s also the only one that’s been covered on another major label release that I know of – on Plainsong’s “In Search of Amelia Earhart.” Sung by Yester, and fading out to rounds of its catchy chorus, it still sounds like the hit that never was. Any survey of ‘cosmic country’ should include it.
One More Time – This is another song with a Yester lead vocal, featuring eccentric jazz chords, electric piano, and touching lyrics about an aging former beauty adding death to the list of male figures enthralled by her beauty.
Rapture – I can think of at least five people who independently heard this and thought it sounded like Siouxsie and the Banshees. And it DOES sound like them. But the most impressive thing about the song is the lyrics, which are not about Christian rapture, but rather a series of surreal images that take place in a partial dream state.
Charity – Possibly the most easily overlooked song on the record, it’s nonetheless lovely, with a breezy melody and beautiful vocal harmonies.
Farewell Aldebaran – The synth effects, so daring at the time, might sound dated now, but the new remaster brings out some gorgeous acoustic textures underneath, and it’s still as loaded with melody and invention as the other tracks.
There are also five instrumental demos included as bonus tracks, all of which bring to light a sense of the song’s development. And the sound quality is much improved (other record labels, including a certain English one that won’t be mentioned, have put out ‘unofficial’ copies).
A few years later Henske and Yester formed the band Rosebud, who put out one album, which features a gentler, less experimental batch of songs that, according to Yester, “does and did” feel like a continuation of “Farewell Aldebaran.” “We just wanted to try a group instead of a duo.” That record did briefly see a re-release on Collector’s Choice, and can still be found if one looks hard enough. Henske and Yester, who divorced in the 1970s, both have fond memories of the making of “Farewell Aldebaran.”
“I think all my memories of it are good,” confirms Yester. “It was work, but a lot of fun. There’s always things I look back on and wish I’d done differently, but when [I heard] the mastered album, any old anything of that nature went away. I love it!”
The entire album will be played live for the first time ever at McCabe’s on Friday August 12th, the evening after “an intimate discussion, moderated by music Journalist Steve Hochman” at the Grammy Museum on Thursday August 11th. And of course the remastered Farewell Aldebaran is available on CD and LP, at all fine record retailers. I have spent 30 years recommending it to all willing to give it a listen. Here’s your best chance yet to do so.