Terry Callier – From Programmer To Prophet
The Hardline According To... Terry Callier It's the kind of thing that you never think will happen. You just hope and pray that if you were ever to have to have your wish granted that the powers that be will make this a day to remember. It was with these feelings that I waited and watched Terry Callier live for the first time last year in Brighton. So when I found out this songwriting genius and spiritual guru was playing at Glastonbury, it was a priority to try to talk to this personal hero of mine.
Callier's career has been a rocky road: from cult status on the Chicago folk scene of the 1960s and two unfortunate record deals to his rediscovery by Gilles Peterson in the early 1990s. Constantly writing songs for nearly forty years has seen Terry producing some of his best work of late - notably 1998's 'Timepeace'. It demonstrated his powerful spiritual grasp on life and his ability to stop people in their tracks with his transcendental, humanitarian philosophy. Times are still changing for this restless troubadour of the soul and it was with some anxiety that I learned he has parted with his record company. However, as ever, Terry's outlook is realistic and pragmatic: "Well I don't have any problems with them any more because we've come to a parting of the ways." (Laughs) "The problems are all in the very past tense and it remains to be seen whether or not they were right about their view of it or I was right about mine. But we parted as friends." It would seem almost appropriate for him to sign with a British or European label, after all, this was the place which recognised his huge talent. Terry concedes: "Well, at this point in my career I'm probably going to have sign with a European label. We're talking to people now, well at least my manager is, I'm not talking to anyone - I'm hiding out", Terry chuckles. I add that he's just responsible for the music, to which, still laughing, he adds: "Yes, so my manager's talking to a couple of different companies now and we are going to see in, I imagine, two or three months, something develop. Because I'm actually a little anxious to get back in to the studio." So are we.
With 'Timepeace' being such an emphatic return to form, I couldn't help but wonder how he was able to make such and assured and refreshing album after such an absence from even performing his music. Terry recalls his initial thoughts about embarking on such a project: "When I first started talking to the people at Verve about a new recording, the question was whether I was going to do all of the old stuff, or whether I was going to do a mixture of new stuff and old stuff, or whether I should just do new stuff. At that time it was 1996 and I figured I should be doing 1996 stuff, so I had to convince them first off that I had enough material for a CD and that it was decent material. We finally got that squared away. Then a lot of these discussions about what would be best for me to do were going on. There was also a question of I had been out of the studio for so long and would I be able to deal with the new technology? And what I discovered when I got in the studio, and I'll admit it made me a little apprehensive, but then I got in to the studio and what I found was that computers were doing more things, like an engineer doesn't need a touch anymore to know where the end of a track is. The computer finds it for him, it finds the beginning. There are also more ways to synthesise sounds now and some, which can be quite pleasant, some cannot be so, it depends on the purpose to which you want to put them. But the basic things, being able to handle yourself in a recording situation, having an idea of what musicians you want to use and how they'll feel about the material and which combination of musicians will play best on which types of tunes and especially on performance - nothing much has changed except the microphones are more sensitive."
His work and study at the National Print and Research Centre at the university of Chicago while supporting his children as a single parent had given him an understanding of computers, but despite all the new technological advances in the studio, Terry states it still comes down to having the ability to perform the songs well. "The only thing that's new is there are these machines and you use them or not as you so choose, but when you get ready to approach the microphone you have to have it inside you, or with you, or it doesn't happen in any case." This is where our meeting began to slip into something deeper and more meaningful. You see, once you've heard Callier sing his heart out and share his observations on life - usually accompanied by the hair on the back of your neck standing up - you realise this man has a gift that few possess today. As I was to discover, though, Callier's creative process focuses more on the minutiae and the mundane in life, inspiration, it seems, is at every corner. "It differs, almost from song to song. Sometimes I start with just the title, sometimes it's just a phrase on the guitar, a couple of chords. It's gotten to the point now where I'm carrying one of those around (points at my Dictaphone) so in case I have a musical idea I can put it down and not have it slip away from me. So then sometimes I just start with a verse or a chorus or just a phrase, yeah? And in terms of the source of the inspiration, I'm in process of tracking that down now. I never thought about it, or never talked about it much until I heard an interview with John Fogarty. He said something along the same lines as I'm saying now, that these songs already exist somewhere, on some level, in some form, and I just happen to be part of the physical manifestation of these things. But there are so many other levels, not just in terms if existence but in terms of 'beyond' that you can't really say 'OK, I wrote this', and you say well you know - you were 'there' when it was written". (Laughs) I add that you 'arrive' at the same point as that song. Terry agrees. "It 'happened' to you, you intersected with that song. Yeah, that's right, that's excellent." Terry's importance as an older and wiser spiritual figure in these increasingly cynical times is, in my opinion, without question.
However, for someone like myself who has always felt ill at ease with religious dogma to have felt truly moved at Terry's gig last year forces one to ask about its source. Is it something the audience brings? Where do Callier's beliefs come from and where does this 'other thing' come from? Thinking hard, Terry recalls his wake up call. "Primarily in terms of outward influences there was a time when I was listening to John Coltrane for twelve to fifteen hours a day. Looking back now, I would have been better off spending some of that time practicing, but you do what you feel you have to do. The first time I saw him live was with the quartet - McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. When they first started playing it frightened me because from the very first tune they were all over the music. And I wasn't sure what was going to happen to them if this was the intensity with which they began the first number of a five-night stand and I wasn't really sure what was going to happen to me if I stayed there and listened. I might even have left the club but there were so many people outside trying to get in that there was no way to get out, so I just had to make myself comfortable with it. Then gradually it dawned on me that they were playing everything - they were playing heaven and hell, the earth, wind, fire, the spiritual, the not so spiritual, the completely unbelievable…and once that dawned on me I was able to get in to it. The minute I started reading more about him and started listening to his music and he didn't 'proslytize' - you know he didn't say ok I'm this and I'm that and this is the best way and you should this - it was all in the music. And what you said earlier was interesting - people do bring something, you see the audience does bring something - the audience does bring something in terms of their expectations. Now you can call that spiritual or you can say vibration of what have you - terminology is… the artist brings something and that completes the circle, you see? In terms of religious practices I'm trying to be a Sufi, I'm trying to follow the Sufi path."
Similar in terms to the existential path guitarist John McLaughlin follows. Callier continues "Right, and it's difficult because you have to approach everyone and everyone's view point as worthy, especially in terms of spiritual things, so you can't cling so hard to your beliefs that you exclude everyone else's because that's the problem now, you know. I could tell you, but we don't have time, and then I would have to mention religion as such. I don't think people are tired of religion I think what they are tired of is what they perceive or what is perceived as a lack of faith, a lack of the reality of the religion, and this goes for any denomination you might choose, because there are people in every denomination and every world religion who are dissatisfied and who are looking for something. And mainly what they are looking for is the spirit of that thing because in the spirit of it, in the kernel of it, in the inside of it is what makes it actually 'be'. All these paths are no different than a line you might draw in the sand, right? So part of my assignment is to keep reminding people of this." Never taking himself too seriously, Terry laughs uproariously and shakes me by the hand. "That's deep man", he quips with a glint in his eye. With this philosophy lesson over with, we part company grinning - I'm reassured that to many, this mentor has a soul as strong and as hardy as a great old oak capable of offering shelter as and when we need it - and we need it now more than ever.
Text © Mike Flynn