Shawn Phillips, at the Freightroom in Atlanta, January 1999 by Vince Cothran
Still dressed in his Austin firefighter's shirt decorated with badges Shawn Phillips sat down with me in the darkened atmosphere of the upstairs performance room of the Spitz and talked about his Isle of Wight performance, the music business, his music now and his role as a volunteer firefighter in Austin, Texas. Then he went on stage and blew two sets of indescribably beautiful music. A master and an original, no doubt about that.
Shawn Phillips, at the Freightroom in Atlanta, January 1999 by Vince Cothran
You're down in Austin, Texas then?Special thanks to Vince Cothran for his amazing pictures.
"Well that's where I'm living now. "
What are you doing now?
"I'm making music as much as possible, as much as the music industry will allow me but of course you and I both now music has nothing to do with the industry anymore. I divide my time between writing, touring and doing what I do at home. I'm a firefighter."
So this is your first time in England in twenty years?
"No actually I came last April to the Jazz Cafe but they didn't really advertise it or anything. Nobody knew I was here. That night they had the two major soccer games and the marathon. So usually outside the Jazz Cafe they say the street is jammed every night. Well there wasn't a soul on the street that night"
Well you know what the English are like for their football?
When you came in 1970 were you with Donovan, was that how you got to the Festival?
"I don't know if Don actually played the festival?"
Yeah he did, I have a picture here of him.
"OK then I probably came with him and then later I think we might have gone to another little festival."
You were songwriting with Donovan at the time weren't you?
"Yes, I was writing the music and he was writing the words. Unfortunately his middle name is Phillips . . ."
So you got some problems with royalties?
"Oh man when the publishing company cheques came out they wouldn't even recognise me. It just said 'Phillips Leith' and they said well it's his name."
How beneficial was it to play the Isle of Wight?
"I guess it was quite good."
Did you enjoy it?
"Yes I enjoyed"
I certainly enjoyed your set although I don't remember too much about it was a long, long time ago.
"You and me both . . ."
Nothing has ever come out, any tapes or anything?
"No, I've never heard anything. Arlo, my manager, is looking for the video."
Did you stay the whole time?
"Yes, no, I left just towards the end. My that was 1970 wasn't it? Do you know the moment that I remember the most about that festival? Free came on stage and they started playing (sings) 'Alright Nowwwww' and that hot air balloon went up behind the stage, man I hit my knees, that was an amazing, absolutely amazing sight."
So did you stay at the Festival the whole time then?
"I stayed there pretty much for the whole thing, I saw Jimi play and all of that. Then I think it was with Sly and the Family Stone we took a private plane to go to another festival, Glastonbury?"
Shawn breaks off to chat to the organiser about his need for a Mac system disc to run his sounds from the stage and to sign a CD and chat to a fan called Arthur. Arlo Hennings, Shawn's manager discusses the possibility of footage and audio of Shawn Phillips at Afton.
Arlo Hennings: "I called that producer (Murray Lerner)".
Did you have any luck with Murray Lerner?
"All he told me was they had an audio of Shawn's performance but they don't know where the footage is. They have hours and hours they have never looked through. It is just so expensive to process it all."
I heard that the old film is stored underground in Colorado to keep it cool and stop it deteriorating.
Arthur to Shawn Phillips: "There's an old, old story I heard that you got your long hair caught up in a propellor. Is that true?"
"The propellor shaft, not the propellor of my boat in 1976. Cost me a month and a half in intensive care. It was just me being stupid or something, that's what it was."
Arthur: "I heard a little bit of your soundtrack. You sounded exactly the same, exactly the same."
Resumes with a question about Donovan: He's over in Ireland isn't he?
"I think so. When he released that box set that he just did a couple of years ago his manager called me and asked if I would come play guitar with him for the release party of this thing. It was supposed to be at Robert De Niro's Tribecka Theatre in New York. And I said 'Absolutely, no problem' and about four days later he called me up and he said 'Umm you don't know anybody you could stay with in New York do you?' Wait a minute man, you guys can't pop for a hotel bill? I'm gonna fly from Los Angeles to New York and you want me to find someone to stay with, I don't think so . . ."
It's a tough old life on the road isn't it?
"Yeah it is but now what I do is I don't think about how far it is anymore. I just get in the van and drive it."
You are still creating new music all the time then?"
"Yes you're going to hear alot of new things tonight." That's great, I don't like to hear just old stuff, I like to hear what you are doing now.
"No, no, I'll sing some of the older stuff but alot of the stuff will be brand new for you."
At the Isle of Wight you did something called Old Covered Wagon?
"Manhole Covered Wagon."
And something called Miss Lonely Eyes?
"Hey Miss Lonely. I might do that tonight. And I remember I did Woman."
Are all your CDs available then from your website?
"They aren't out and in the stores just yet. They will be in the stores by the end of '98. I don't know if all of them will be there, Arlo's got the list of what's going to come out. Unfortunately A&M gave this guy such a hassle over knitpicking bullsit."
As you say there's music and there's business and it gets in the way
"I gotta tell you man they really piss me off because when you think about it I've sold what three million records, several million records. If you take 15 per cent away from the totality of that which was my artist royalty, you take 15 per cent of that away and A&M still made 20 to 35 million dollars and they won't even look at me."
That's crap isn't it?
"You've heard the radio haven't you? I got fed up with 37 years of 'Fuck You' from the music business and decided to do something where people said 'Thank You'. I gotta tell you it's really very fulfilling what I'm doing now as far as this is concerned. If you can watch the fear go out of a child's face that's had an airbag deployed into it at about 200 miles an hour, you can take the fear out of their eyes and make them calm again.
"That is the worst injury I've seen in children. That is the one thing that is very difficult for me to handle. Adults, I can totally detach, these poor little kids, it breaks their noses, breaks the skin on their face."
How long have you been doing that in Austin then?
"Five years. I moved to Austin, I had that heart by-pass and after that I just saw on the television the community bulletin board thing and it said 'We need volunteer firefighters' and that kind of thing. Since that was my gig in the Navy, I was damage control, I was a firefighter in the Navy so I went to Chief Don Lamb and said 'Look I'm recuperating from this . . .' He said 'Okay, you do dispatch'."
"So they put the firephone in my house and they'd call and say 'Hey we got a fire here and so forth. I did that for three and a half, four months and then I kinda took over maintenance of the trucks. At that point I was getting to where I was walking two or three miles a day and getting much stronger, a lot more energy. I started going to the different academy's and I've hit five academies now and I have eight hundred and ninety hours of training. So when I passed seven hundred and fifty I became fully certified firefighter in the State of Texas."
"That means I can go anyplace in the World and get a job as a firefighter and get paid for it. We live, go West of Austin out on Highway 71 towards Lake Travis, that's our whole jurisdiction out there. We have a hundred and ninety five square miles to cover."
So where's your trucks then?
The trucks are in Perdenales, in Willie country. Willie Nelson country."
Is that down Kerrville way?
"No were about two and half hours from Kerrville."
Wymberly way? South Texas?
"No Wymberly is where one of the fire academy's are. I just did Wymberly. This was not fun this time. No, because my partner, he's a guy that no-one really likes him much in the department because he's a bit pushy. They sent us into a room, the room flashes over. In other words they have furniture and hay and all kinds of stuff. Flashover is when everything in the room reaches his ignition point."
And it goes bang?
"Right, goes bang. They send you in there and my partner said his air regulator stopped but whenever your air regulator stops your bell rings. 'Brrrrrrrrrrnnnnngg' I didn't hear his bell ring and suddenly I've got this inch and three quarter fully charged hose and I'm on my own. The guy has said 'OK nozzle' and I opened it up but I'm cooling the room down but he's disappeared. I've got to pull this hoze forward so I can find the window, to open the window and do what they call 'Negative pressurisation', mechanical pressurisation and do a stream like this (demonstrates a flow of water) and it pulls all the smoke out of a room. He's nowhere to be found and I'm trying to drag this God damn hose by myself."
What's it like doing it for live then, must be bloody terrifying isn't it?
"Nope, truth of the matter is you stop and you think before you make a move. You don't go into any building before you do what's called 'positive pressurisation'. Put a fan in front there, make a ventilation exit for everything in back of the building, the door is open okay, but you put a fan, a really powerful fan and it creates a pressure inside the house. Then you create a ventilation exit at the back of the house. You break a window so that everything goes out the back of the house then you can go in."
That's thinking smart, really is.
"It's just as long as you stop, breathe, think about what you're going to do and never go away from your partner."
What's the biggest problem in Austin, the Summer, the heat?
"Just he shear heat. Man we had a structure fire, this is kinda funny. We were called out to a brush fire at a place called Hamilton Fall Road. One of our chiefs got back to dispatch and said 'No, No, that's a Hudson Benn call but we'll stand by for mutual assist if they need us. Then about two minutes later one of our guys, whose also a park ranger calls up and he says: "I got real black smoke showing, it looks like it's coming from Briar Cliff and this is definitely not a brush fire. And that point, I live in Briar Cliff, and I look out the window, a quarter of a mile away, maybe less there's a full blown structure fire going. This house is on fire."
"So I rush down to Station One. Fella named Bruce and I are the only responders at Station One. We get on Engine One, I let him drive because I want to fight the fire. He who drives the pumper operates the pump. To be quite truthful, I don't want the responsibility. Because you have to supply a hundred and fity pounds per square inch to everybody on the end of those hoses. You have to keep them in water because they are in the fire."
"So anyway we get there. One of our guys, Mark Warren, he's waiting for us because he only lives two houses down. Okay he's already in his turn out gear, his hood, he's got his airpack on, the whole trip. I jump outta Engine One, grab an airpack, stick it on and that at point Chief Two, one of our guys says 'We're not going to go in because all the neighbours have broken all the windows to see if there's anybody in the house. That means the fire is getting fed. Not contained."
So we jerked an inch and three quarter hose and went up the side of the driveway. We had to wait for the tankers to get there because we thought, originally, there was going to be hydrant up there. But there was but it only had 30 pounds of pressure. Not going to work. So we had to wait for the tankers to get there."
Finally we get the hose charged. I'm standing there in the driveway. The left rear corner of the house is involved. Comes over our radio that the hoses is charged. I don't have anything, it's still flat there and Mark is right behind me. And he looks down and sees the hose has a kink at the bottom of the driveway. He runs down there, undoes the kink, I get charged, it jumps at me, and just as it charges the two rooms in front of me decide to go into flashover and the fire comes out from the eaves of the house about a foot and a half over my head and about fifteen feet behind me, it curls down behind me."
Jesus . . .
"That's not really dangerous because what happens is that I saw it happen, I saw it going to happen, so I just made a, there's a saying when you're on the nozzle 'Right for fight, left for life'. Full left and I just made a big arsed water umbrella. Here's the problem. For the first time my wife is standing on the balcony watching this with binoculars and she saw this fire come out and over me and down on me and shit, she went fucking ballistic man."
She started calling Dispatch, and the fire department, the Sherrif. She didn't see me make that big umbrella, she just dropped the binoculars and ran in and took to the phone man, she didn't see it go back towards the house. If she'd stayed there two more seconds she would have known I was alright."
But boy that freaked her out. When I got home that evening she said: 'You're not going to do this shit again . . ."
It must be rewarding when you pull a small child out of a fire.
"It is but it's rare that would happen in our jurisdiction but where we do have that kind of a situation is out of collision. Because that highway out there, if the road curves this way, the bank should be that way but all of that Highway 71 is reverse camber. You know these people going out there to Lake Travis, they go out in the morning, they get totally drunk and then they come home at seventy miles an hour and they touch the brakes on one of those off camber roads. Roll over."
Mike Plumbley interviewed Shawn Phillips and his manager Arlo Hennings at The Spitz, Old Spitafield Market, London E1 on Wednesday, July 8th, 1998