A Coney Island of the Mind
A Coney Island of the Mind
A Q&A with Neal Shulman
Of Aztec Two-Step
By Geoff Gehman
Aztec Two-Step shows are mini-holidays, one-night vacations from the grind and the gristle. Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman unwrap gifts they’ve been creating together for over 40 years. Fluid, flashy acoustic guitars. Branching, brotherly vocals. Topical, timeless songs about life’s serpentine highways. Sly, spry celebrations of the bond between veteran performers and well-seasoned listeners.
This holiday vibe will be spiked on Dec. 20 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House when Shulman and Fowler present a concert with three steps Joined by longtime bassist Fred Holman, they’ll play Two-Step favorites, favorites by the Everly Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel, and Christmas favorites. Part of the duo’s first holiday/homage program, the show will also include Fowler’s “Colorful Christmas,” a rainbow-coalition answer to “White Christmas” with a jaunty jug-band/reggae groove.
Shulman sounded jaunty and groovy during a recent chat from his home in his native Manhattan. Recovering quickly from an unusually poor sleep, he ruminated about everything from Phil Ochs to Allen Ginsberg, the wonders of “O Holy Night” to the secrets of not breaking up. He even took a stab at answering the burning-bush question: Is Christmas good for the Jews?
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that flayed and slayed you?
A: If I narrowed it down, it would be the theme song for the “Zorro” television show. Although the first record I fell in love with was probably made of red opaque plastic. I did graduate to black vinyl when I started listening to Del Shannon and other pre-Beatles acts.
The funny thing about that question is that we all grow up listening to our parents’ records. My parents listened to a lot of folk acts: the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel, Oscar Brand. Everybody can tell where people are from and when they were born if they have the soundtrack albums for “My Fair Lady,” “Brigadoon” and “Peter Pan.” I bought this book with the 100 most popular album covers and there was the cover for the Tchaikovsky [Piano Concerto No. 1] with Van Cliburn, the first American to win the [International] Tchaikovsky [Piano] Competition. And I’m thinking to myself everybody had this record—everybody.
Q: Many people who came of age in the late ‘60s to early ’70s have a vivid memory of the cover of the first Aztec Two-Step LP. Where were you and Rex standing on the steps of those side-by-side doorways?
A: I’m so glad you’re so interested to ask that. That’s Gay Street; it’s part of the Village, along with Gay Mews. It’s only one block long. It shows up in quite a few photos; you can see it in the opening shot of the television show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Rex and I just happened to live there. I think that Rex was living with his wife, fiancée, whatever in the building to the left, 14 Gay St. Our business was to be together and rehearse and play music. We did that in this little three-story apartment building. People talk a lot about pre-war buildings in Manhattan; well, that building was probably pre-20th century. I could stand on the floor and touch the ceiling. It was a perfect first Greenwich Village apartment. It was something out of time, like a studio on the Left Bank.
I want to say that I have so much vinyl and I get so little chance to listen to it. But I also want to add that I’m nostalgic for our first album and that era. It was a golden age for a different kind of music, and the album cover was part of the experience for sure. If kids today spill half an ounce of marijuana on their iPods and try to shake out the seeds, well, I think you’ll find they won’t be too happy about it.
Q: What was the first Christmas tune that wrapped you up in tinsel?
A: I don’t think I really had one until the last decade. Before that, I sort of took them all as they came. Lord knows, man, it’s hard to miss Christmas songs because we start hearing them so early and so much. They’re all over commercials for Black Friday and Cyber Monday. It’s really hard to get through all of that and feel anything other than: Gee, I can’t wait for this to be over.
But I do have a favorite holiday song and if you want to know it, I’ll tell you. It gets down to “O Holy Night.” It has this heartfelt piece of music inside. It stretches out in the way that some popular songs stretch out. It allows singers to really go for it; I’ve heard singers really smash it over the fence. It’s the one salvageable piece of the season.
Q: The holiday portion of your show features Rex’s “Colorful Christmas.” Is it true that it made its debut on a limited-edition holiday record you doled out to around 100 lucky listeners?
A: That actually makes sense, although I don’t have a precise memory. I do remember that one year in the ’80s we did a little special Christmas gift in the tradition of the Beatles’ Christmas greetings. I just remember showing up and opening the boxes and seeing lots of warped records. I do have to add that if this is undiscovered and remains undiscovered it’s probably a good thing.
Q: What holiday songs would you never, ever perform for fear of spreading lethal schmaltz?
A: I don’t think we’d perform “O Holy Night.” Not for the schmaltz factor but because we couldn’t sing it. And if we did sing it, it could end up being schmaltzy, so it’s a lose-lose proposition.
This is the first time we’re combining the duos with holiday tunes. We’re spending a substantial amount of time rehearsing because if you sang these songs at all it was a year ago. We have a little bit of a theme mixed in there, although it’s not quite as simple as an underlying message of peace to all mankind.
Q: What were the first Everly Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel songs that really rang your bell?
A: Off the top of my head for the Everlys I think it was “Dream.” For Simon & Garfunkel it would be “Sound of Silence.” I tend to like their early tunes; every time I go to see them I’m waiting to hear them sing “Pretty Peggy-O.”
The Simon & Garfunkel songbook was a gigantic change for us because for years 99.9 percent of the songs we played were Aztec Two-Step songs. Along the way we began thinking of paying tribute to the songs that influenced us. A couple of years after we started performing Simon & Garfunkel songs, we intersected with Pete Fornatale [renowned FM disc jockey and early Two-Step champion], who was writing a book about [Simon & Garfunkel’s] “Bookends” album. Long story short–I don’t know if I’m actually capable of that—he asked us to come to an event: “Hey, I’m on the board of this thing. Why don’t you do a Simon & Garfunkel thing to coincide with my book?” We gleaned things from this biography and that biography for our comments, and Pete told anecdotes that had relevance to him and to us.
Q: Paul Simon is highly regarded for his poetic guitar parts. Do you have a favorite solo or lick that you like to play?
A: The first thing that comes to mind is the little intro to “The Boxer” that Paul doesn’t play on the record; somebody else recorded it. I can’t play it either; I never quite nailed it. I think “Sound of Silence” has a very compelling guitar part.
You know, Simon & Garfunkel made such an immediate impact as a folk duo even though they started off wanting to be rock and rollers. They were a big part of the Village scene in the ‘60s, along with Judy Collins, Peter, Paul & Mary, Phil Ochs and other people I was going to see.
Q: Rex has significant side projects celebrating John Lennon and Elvis. Would you consider creating and performing a program of songs by Phil Ochs, who inspired you as a teen with his stirring guitar, words and presence?
A: As a teen I connected to Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan and Richard and Mimi Farina, who are largely forgotten. But I had a particular connection to Phil Ochs. I saw him many, many times. I was so impressed by a guy who could captivate a crowd with his voice, his guitar and a song that could have 35 verses.
We’ve been part of the Phil Ochs Tribute. But I don’t think I would do my own tribute. I love his stuff, but that’s not what occupies my social world outside of Aztec Two-Step. What I’m doing in my living room is anchoring the acoustic guitar in really popular songs across many genres. I’m sitting and playing early rock and roll songs and American standards and even some Al Green tunes. I’m trying to learn a new chord; I’m trying to find some part of a song that really sings on acoustic guitar.
Q: Have you and Rex had any memorable encounters with poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose line “a couple of Papish cats/is doing an Aztec two-step” gave you the name for your group?
A: One time Rex picked up a book of Ferlinghetti poems at City Lights, Ferlinghetti’s bookstore in San Francisco. He left a note for Ferlinghetti to sign the copy and I believe he did sign it. My copy of [Allen Ginsberg’s] “Howl” was bought at City Lights. How good is that? We did hang out with Ginsberg on a couple of occasions. How interesting is that? What a genius; what a presence.
It’s nice to connect with the Beats. By the time we started making records Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel had entered into this world that was partially, deeply influenced by the Beats and poetry in general. There was this important intersection with music and the Beats that basically disappeared when, all of a sudden, there was a lot more money at stake. I mean, the lifetime earning potential for a Beat poet is never going to be like the lifetime earning potential of a rock star.
Q: Next year you and Rex are planning to celebrate in concert the 40th anniversary of the second Two-Step LP, “Second Step,” by playing all the tracks, including “It’s Going on Sunday” and “Lullaby on New York,” from bow to stern. Do you have any indelible memories of cutting the record? Any mountains you had to climb in the studio?
A: I don’t know if anyone else would find it interesting, but we were making this record over a summer and the producer we were working with was also recording with [Elektra label mate] Harry Chapin and at some point Chapin decided he wanted to make a double album. He already had some hits and he took precedence over us, so they kept pushing our studio start time further into the summer to the point that we had to go back on tour; we had to play some gigs to pay the rent. We’d be in the studio all day and then we’d have to go to a show in Newport, R.I., and then we’d have to go back into the studio. It was a tough haul.
This was only our second record and we were still not used to seeing bass, drums, guitar and keyboard. I didn’t know what to make of it, and I still don’t. We were, and still are, two guys with two guitars. What I can tell you is that if the songs on our first two albums hadn’t been as good as they are, and as well received as they were, I don’t think we would have had a prayer of still playing music.
I have to say we’ve been having a particularly good time this last decade. It’s gotten to be better, and more enjoyable, for the most part. If you’re going to play something for four decades you might as well play it a more musical way, or at least differently. Our job is getting to the gig and getting home from the gig. Thankfully, the show is still the fun part.
Q: Simon & Garfunkel and the Everlys are famous for their tumultuous relationships, their roller-coaster rides of breakups and makeups. So why have you and Rex lasted so harmoniously for over 40 years?
A: The funny thing about being a duo is that you only have to really get along with one other person. No two people will spend a great amount of time together without rubbing each other the wrong way. Get rid of this person and you will find someone else who will rub you the wrong way. That’s always been my very pragmatic take.
My more recent take is that breaking up is for bands that have made more money or less money than we’ve made. We’ve all heard of successful musicians who say “I’ll never tour with that guy again!” It’s like they’re in the second grade and they won’t go out and play on the playground with this guy. And then if they make a solo record, well, you could be successful like Paul Simon or you could be like Daryl Hall, who’s not nearly as successful on his own as he’s with John Oates—and they’re the best-selling duo of all time.
We’ve had success—limited though it may be. We go out and play to an audience willing to lay out money and have a great experience most of the time and validate us. We can connect with people one on one because we’re not playing these giant venues where you can’t see anybody. In some ways we’re living a dream. My feeling is: If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Q: So, Neal, would you be brave enough to include in your holiday show your song “I Don’t Believe in Jesus (But I Sure Do Like His Songs)”? The tune is, after all, a happy honky-tonker, an ecumenical basket of good cheer. And Jesus is, after all, the star of the Christmas pageant.
A: You know, it never occurred to me to play it as a part of the holiday portion. That song has so little to do with Christmas; it’s mostly about my love of gospel music. Fortunately, I don’t have to be brave enough because it’s not on our set list. I will tell you that one time I did pull it off the set list because I knew some people in the audience who had arranged that particular gig had real strong faith and I didn’t want to offend them. Although I have to admit that a day without offending people is a day without sunshine.
It’s a funny thing if you’re Jewish and you’re around a lot of Jewish people who have varying degrees of being observant. There are people in my family, particularly my wife’s family, who are observant whereas I’m just floating along. There’s a big question in these circles: Is it good for the Jews? If we give $10 million or $100 million to Saudi Arabia, is it good for the Jews?
So when it comes to “I Don’t Believe in Jesus (But I Sure Do Like His Songs)” you have to ask yourself. Is Christmas good for the Jews? And the answer is: Christmas has been very, very good to Jewish songwriters. It’s been very, very, very good for Irving Berlin and the people who wrote “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and all the guys who wrote 85 percent of hit holiday songs in an office in New York.
Neal Shulman: The Scoop
He decided he needed to perform in a duo after hearing Jerry Jeff Walker perform with David Bromberg.
He met Rex Fowler during a 1971 open mike in a Boston club.
He and Fowler shared more than 50 shows with the late Harry Chapin, their record-label mate.
He and Fowler star in the 1989 Aztec Two-Step documentary “No Hit Wonder.”
“Cause & Effect,” Aztec Two-Step’s 2012 CD of re-recorded topical songs, contains his compositions “Shantytown” and “Life in the ’80s.”
He and Fowler are booked to play the 40th reunion of the Skidmore College Class of 1975.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call. Aztec Two-Step’s recording of “Lullaby on New York” zips him back to dirtier, happier times in 1970s Manhattan. He can be reached at email@example.com.