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Music, Writing & LOST With Paul Levinson

05 Dec 2009

Music, Writing & LOST With Paul Levinson

Ahoy! Some well-respected, devilishly handsome blogger who uses the handle Swan Fungus posted an amazing interview with Paul Levinson today on WFMU’s Beware of The Blog. Rather than critique his performance (which would be impossible, as he is surely flawless in all aspects of his life), I will simply quote the entire article for you.

Tuarcover2 When I was back east for the WFMU Record Fair earlier this month, I had the extreme pleasure of sitting down for a friendly chat with Professor Paul Levinson of Fordham University. Of course, this was no academic discussion. We met to discuss Paul’s music career as well as his accomplishments as a science fiction novelist. We convened at City Diner on a mild autumn afternoon. After a brief introduction, our waiter arrived to take our orders. Paul requested two scrambled eggs with tomato and whole wheat toast on the side. He drank hot tea. I had two eggs over easy with Canadian bacon, french fries and whole wheat toast. I drank water.

I hesitate to call this an “interview,” because truthfully Paul was quick to assume his natural role of lecturer as he spoke at great length about his life as it led up to the recording of his “cult classic” LP Twice Upon A Rhyme. In recent years the album has gone from an unknown collectors’ gem to a much more widely known (and acclaimed) folk-rock recording. It was a great honor talking to Paul, learning about his life, and receiving advice about my own attempt to break into the publishing industry. The following transcript has been edited for content. Hopefully it will be as enjoyable for you to read as it was for me to take part in.

If you’d like to learn more about Paul, his music, and both his fiction and non-fiction books, you can visit any of his websites:

EL: Evan LeVine
PL: Paul Levinson

EL: So, White Plains?

PL: Yeah, White Plains. Formerly from the Bronx.

EL: Okay. Is that where you were born?

PL: Yeah, I was born there. My wife and I, our kids lived there until about 1992. And then we thought we had enough money to buy a nice house. But I still teach at Fordham University.

EL: What do you teach?

PL: Mass Communication. Media Studies.

EL: That’s what I figured from your blog entries about various forms of media, like television shows.

PL: Yeah, yeah. Well, you know…it’s like making music. Teaching is sort of related to that. To me it always feels like it beats working for a living. Me being in front of a class and talking is easy. The only boring thing is having to grade papers.

EL: It sounds like a fun and easy job.

PL: Yup.

EL: So, um…I didn’t really plan anything to talk about, but…

PL: Whatever you want to talk about.

EL: We can start at the very beginning. Were your parents musicians or artists?

PL: No. Not at all. My father couldn’t carry a tune to safe his life. And, actually [laughing] my mother liked opera — which has nothing to do with rock and roll. I guess growing up in the 1950s — I was born in 1947 — at least to me, rock and roll was such an important part of my life. It was more important than just about anything else. The two things that I discovered as a kid — the two things that I loved — were reading science fiction and listening to music. And I realized pretty early on that there’s something about me: when I really love something I not only want it to consume me, but I want to be producing it also. In fact, my book New New Media is about that whole fascination with producers and consumers. This is why I was so aware of it happening on the Internet with YouTube and Twitter and those things. That was really the story of my life. So, I went on to become a science fiction writer. I always enjoy listening to people talk, and talking, and that’s why I went on to become a professor. And the music part of it was… well I remember really, like in 1958 listening to Alan Fried on the radio when I was just a kid…in those days I was more interested in doo-wop than I was folk music. So I formed a group when I was in the sixth grade –

EL: The sixth grade? A doo-wop group?! Wow.

PL: It was called Little Levi — that was me — and The Emeralds. None of the guys in the group were Irish, we just called it the Emeralds because it was like…The Diamonds. I wasn’t writing any of my own songs then.

EL: You were just covering other doo-wop songs?

PL: Exactly. “Come Go With Me” was one of my all-time favorites. [He mimics his pre-pubescent singing] That was my first group, and then when I got to junior high school and high school I was in a variety of different groups. I guess one of the most important was a group that I created with some friends of mine. I must have been a junior turning into a senior in high school. I came up with the name of the group, it was called The Transits. Sort of like the New York City Transit Authority. And the music we did was no longer doo-wop, although we had a lot of harmony. By this point it was much more folk-rock kind of music. We did a combination of Peter, Paul and Mary, and Dylan. That group never recorded anything, but we performed at local dances and stuff like that. Meanwhile, with one of the guys in the group, Paul Gorman, I wrote my first few songs. The very first one was called “The Park At Night.” I can get you an MP3 of it. I still have it. It’s Gorman and me doing all the harmony. And that was — even though I was doing folk-rock with The Transits, “The Park At Night” was a bit of doo-wop jazz. We also wrote a song called “Alphabet Baby,” and I sang that on the demo as well. Then — we’re talking about 1963, a very profound time, John F. Kennedy was killed — the whole world changed. I can’t remember when exactly I got the thought. I was already serious about music but I got a lot more serious about it, partly because of The Beatles…you know, that whole thing moved closer to what I was already doing.

EL: Sure. Your personal transformation from doo-wop to folk rock went right along with what was going on on a larger scale at the time.

PL: That’s right, that’s right. It was a little more socially relevant. So, after The Transits, were a variety of things. Our lead singer disappeared one summer off [unintelligible]. It was a tragic thing. We still don’t know what happened to him to this day. I’m still in touch with some of the guys from that group. We always liked to say he wound up in California and assumed a new identity. Everything else that was going on led to the transformation of tTe Transits. Basically, [unintelligible], who was one of the Transits, and I — along with the manager of The Transits, who was basically a kid like us — formed a group called the New Outlook. We started making music in the mid sixties, sixty-four, sixty-five, sixty-six. We started recording my own songs. I have a music page on my Infinite Regress blog, and you can hear I have about twenty songs up there. Some of them are original demos, and some of them are clips, if you like I’d be happy to send you MP3s.

EL: Absolutely.

PL: It was pretty serious stuff. You know, we were all students at City College, we quickly got into the habit of singing in what we called “The Alcove,” which was a nice echo-y chamber where we’d go instead of going to class. At some point I met my wife, who is still my wife today. So it was a significant time. Eventually we started going to recording studios, and we recorded a whole bunch of demos pretty professionally. We started selling songs. Believe it or not, they were still doing business out of the Brill Building, even though what we were doing sounded nothing like those songs. So what eventually happened was…probably the most significant thing was one fine day, I guess it was the spring of 1968, maybe the spring of 1967…one of the guys and I were singing our songs down in Central Park. It was a Sunday afternoon. It’s not as if we had our guitar cases open for money. We were just playing for the joy of it, hoping some nice women would come by and hear us and enjoy it. Two people came by, and it turned out one was Ellie Greenwich, and the other was Mike Rashkow. He wrote “Mary In The Morning.” But Ellie of course was huge. She’d just broken up with Jeff Barry. Much to our delight, they said, “Are you guys with a label?” And we said, “No.” They said, “We’re not a label, but we just started a production company and we have connections to labels who are looking to sign new artists.” So, we in fact signed with them. It was really extraordinary. And we went and we recorded three songs with them. Only one of them was written by any of us. Even though we were so excited, that shows what part of the problem was. They saw us more as sort of a poppy group, sort of a late sixties…like The Grass Roots. We saw ourselves more of a folk-rock serious group. A song I wrote is called “Hung Up On Love.” I wrote the words and a gal named Mikie Harris wrote the music. This is an important song because I guess about four or five years ago I don’t know if you know a guy named Andrew Sandoval –

EL: From Rhino?

PL: Yeah.

EL: I know him. He comes into the store where I work.

PL: Oh! Well, say hello to him the next time you see him. I’ve never met him. He sent me an e-mail about four or five years ago saying, “Hey, I’m putting together a compilation and he wanted to know if he could use “Hung Up On Love,” and I said absolutely yes you can. And so The New Outlook singing “Hung Up On Love” is on that album.

EL: He’s put together some really great compilations.

PL: By the way it’s sold really well, I’ve gotten some good royalties. Just so you know what you’re listening to. This is actually a sore point, this is one of the things that actually led me to leave the group. Mike was singing lead on it, Stu and I weren’t singing lead on it, and we didn’t think we sounded good on it. I’m not that upset because I co-wrote it, and you can hear me wailing in the background with my harmony. So eventually the group went its separate ways. We didn’t formally split, but we started doing more and more of our own things. Now, I’m going to deviate from the historical thing for a second. Recently, two years ago or so, Stu and I — who have been in and out of touch for years — have decided to reform again, so that is definitely in the works. We hope to do it soon but we’re both very busy. Sometime in the next…months for sure…the three of us are going to get together. Who knows if anything will happen, but I’m looking forward to it.

EL: That’s great. You’ll have to keep in touch about how that develops.

PL: Oh yeah, I definitely well. Back then, I started writing songs with a piano player named Ed Fox. So now we’re approaching Twice Upon A Rhyme territory as far as the history is concerned. If you look at the …on Twice Upon A Rhyme, there aren’t any songs that Stu and I wrote, because at that point I was trying to find creative distance. “A Piece Of The Rainbow” is a song that I co-wrote with Linda Kaplan, who went on to record a Toys ‘R’ Us commercial [sings] “I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us kid”, which became a hugely successful commercial. She also did an AFLAC commercial. So she did very well. Other people didn’t do that well. Peter Rosenthal. “You Are Everywhere,” one of my favorite songs, was written by me and Danny Kaley, who wound up in a mental institution. He was so drugged out. All the other songs were written by Ed and myself. Some were just by me. I sing lead on most of them, Ed sings lead on a few of them. And anyways, Ed has a better voice than I do. He has more a of a good traditional sounding voice. But we sang pretty well together. Ed had a tendency to sing flat harmonies. Twice Upon A Rhyme was not an easy album. It took two or three years of our lives on and off to record it, because we didn’t have any money. What we would do is work out deal with recording studios. We’d say, “Would you let us record here free of charge and if we get signed, well pay you. And we’ll put your name on the album.”

EL: So it was recorded in different studios, all over the city, over the course of a couple years.

PL: Right. The main studio was probably the A1 Recording Studio which was out of the Milford Hotel which is just over on 75th and Broadway. Not that far from here. It was a real dive. But, Herb Abramson — one of the founders of Atlantic Records — had a recording studio there. And we went in, and we talked it over, and we made a deal. While this was going on, there were some peripheral things that are worth noting. One day some people came into Herb’s studio and sang a song called “Ring Around My Rosie.” It was a bubblegum song. [sings a few bars] And Herb said, “Why don’t we record this,” and he had Ed and I produce it. He said he had some contacts in the record industry. We did that, and we sold it to Buddah Records. The single was produced by Protozoa, I came up with that name. It’s been bootlegged now on a half-dozen labels over the years as a bubblegum song. Not everything that Ed and I did was on Twice Upon A Rhyme. We did our own little bubblegum song called “Mary Goes Round.” We made a few thousand dollars from ASCAP on that, which in those days was a big amount of money. We had high hopes for Twice Upon A Rhyme.

EL: What happened?

PL: Anytime you do anything creative you always get into the situation where you need to make a decision: do you want to keep showing it around, or if there’s a way you can get it out there, do you want to do that? I always tell people, no. Especially authors. You should always wait for a professional publisher to publish a book. Back in the seventies I was trying that. Music is a little bit different. And you know, we had some labels that were close to giving us a contract but Ed and I got to a place where we said, “Fuck this. We’re going to put this out on our own label.” That’s why I came up with the title Happy Sad.

EL: It’s funny you say that, because I’m struggling with that same question right now. I have a manuscript that I started working on in 2005, and everyone at this point is telling me to just use one of the online self-publishing companies to get it out there into the world, and I think maybe I’m too proud to do something like that.

PL: You know, I just did a podcast episode which partially addresses that issue. A couple things. Until about actually five years ago, I would always tell people don’t self-publish under any circumstances because it can hurt you. That’s becoming increasingly less the case. There was just an article on the Huffington Post a few days ago — and I put a comment in — examining whether publishers are even needed anymore by authors. Now, it’s easy for me to say this because I have had fifteen books published. I’ve had experience with companies like Penguin. They’ve done a decent job in some respects, and in other respects they haven’t done a good job. That’s been frustrating to me. Publishers are — unless you’re Steven King — in the business of making money by publishing lists of books. Their promotional ideas go so far as helping that list. What you do to make any noise they’re going to be initially not happy about, and won’t do much to help it. The fact is, nowadays with Twitter, Facebook, and all the things on the web — and there’s also the option of just publishing the book in a digital form — there are multiple avenues to use that can help promote you. So, what’s your book about?

EL: It’s basically a US travel book where I spoke to modern musicians in different cities about life in those cities. Interspersed are stories from he road. I tried to pick artists outside of New York and LA, so it’s got people from Louisville, Chicago, Austin, San Francisco…

PL: It sounds like an interesting book. And you’ve tried to get it published?

EL: Yeah, I spent six weeks driving around the country in 2005 meeting with musicians and concert promoters and studio owners, and then I started the actual writing process in 2006, took the whole year, came out with maybe a 250-page manuscript, and then I started shopping to literary agents and editors at the same time. It was this weird circular pattern of, well, the literary agent won’t take on an author who isn’t already published and the editor won’t publish anything by an author without a literary agent.

PL: Right. Well I’ll tell you a partial way out of that. It is true that almost all literary agents won’t take something unless you already have been published. If you’re not, it’s not really worth their while. And truthfully, agents tend to hurt authors more then help them, unless again you’re a really famous author…I mean, there are no good solutions to this. I want to say there are some agents out there who do some very good things. At one point I had representation for my non-fiction books because I asked to be represented, but I took that away from and did things myself. So of the two places to break into, the publisher/editor is actually easier in some ways than the agent, even though that goes contrary to common sense. But it is easier. No matter what an editor says, no matter what a publisher’s policy is regarding submissions, it’s bullshit if you can get them in the right frame of mind to look at what you have. Now, usually — and almost always not the way to do it — is to send something in that is unsolicited or let something fall into their lap out of the clear blue sky. But in contrast, if you are at some kind of an event, conference, a party or whatever, where there happens to be a publisher…if you can strike up a conversation, and you are interesting enough in the conversation, you can get that done.

[Waiter comes to refill drinks, Paul requests another tea and fresh tea bag, I ask for a water refill]

One of the things that I also always tell people as far as my science fiction is concerned…I was trying for three or four years to get my science fiction stories published.

EL: As full-texts or as serials?

PL: In magazines, catalogs…back in the 1950s they were usually successful at publishing, but they’ve become less important (but are still significant). They can pay pretty good money. If you start publishing things over ten thousand words for them you can get over one-thousand dollars, so it’s not chump change. But I was trying for a few years, and I was getting a few things published here and there in small unknown journals, and then I heard about an organization: The Science Fiction Writers of America, which I was able to join as sort of a neophyte. Even though, by the way, I’d already had two or three non-fiction books published, and a ton of articles. It wasn’t until I met editors, and started talking to them, that I started getting stories published. In one case — I won’t say who it is — a story of mine was turned down. And then this editor started publishing my stories. He said, “Do you have anything new?” I sent him the story that had been turned down two years prior, and he published it. I don’t know anything about travel writing. By the way, in case it is of any help to you, my son — whose name is Simon Vozick-Levinson — is a writer for Entertainment Weely.

EL: Oh, wow. What does he write?

PL: He writes about music. And it’s sort of interesting because –

EL: I need to start looking for his bylines, I usually just look for Doc Jensen.

PL: Well, Doc Jensen is great! Simon picked up my love of music. He’s pretty happy there. But, getting back to your situation — that is what I’d advise you to do.

EL: Network, network, network…

PL: Network, network, network, and the other component of it, which wasn’t the case when I was trying to break into science fiction, is the web. Because you can now meet editors or whoever it is who makes those decisions. Whoever at various publishing companies who makes the decision, “Am I going to publish this or not?” You can meet those people or find out who they are. Obviously you don’t hit them over the head, “Oh, hey, nice to meet you can I send you this?” No. You get to know them, you make sure that they realize you’re an interesting person, and then at the perfect time you hit them over the head. Now, you have a record store out in California?

EL: Yeah, I mean…I don’t have one, but I work there.

PL: And it’s in Los Angeles? And Andrew Sandoval comes in there?

EL: Yeah.

PL: That’s amazing. Do you have other famous people coming in all the time, too?

EL: Uh, sometimes. Yeah. Yeah. A really cute girl who was on Heroes for a while came in a couple times a few months ago asking me about PJ Harvey records. And, uh, what’s his name — Agent Noh from Flash Forward. He’s come in twice with a little baby — his, I guess — strapped to his chest.

PL: Oh, very good! That’s…what’s the guy’s name? John Cho. Oh, very good, so you like science fiction too.

EL: Yeah, yeah I do.

PL: That’s right. [Flast Forward] is on tonight. You probably know from reading my blog that Rob Sawyer — and I really love this — people are always asking me, “Aren’t you jealous when people you know become incredibly famous?” But I love it because really it only helps you! Rob was always a more successful author than I. He sold more books, he probably had his first novel published in 1990. I had my first novel published in 1999. But, you talk about success stories…he was slaving for years out in Los Angeles having meetings with this and that. It’s a real heartbreaking industry. But finally everything clicked. The story and his novel doesn’t have all that much resemblance to what is on television, but who cares? His name is there. So, people can still make it in Hollywood. An unknown person writing music or science fiction or whatever can still make it.

EL: Speaking of which — and this was obviously well before my discovery of it — when did Twice Upon A Rhyme start to gain its notoriety? When did you go from an unknown to kind of a cult figure in the folk realm for music collectors?

PL: What happened was, Ed and I brought the records back from the place that pressed them in New Jersey one fine day in 1972. As often happens, by that point Ed and I were tired of each other. All relationships are like that. When it’s going well it’s not as if there aren’t things that are problems. Sometimes the problems reach a point when they’re more of a problem. They make you question yourself, “Why was I ever in this relationship to begin with?” It doesn’t matter if it is professional –

[Waiter returns with drinks and cuts Paul off to ask if either of us are having dessert. We are not. He delivers the check, and I snatch it from him. A very brief argument ensues. I win.]

PL: Thank you. So, you know, marriage is like this too. There’s no marriage in existence, there’s no relationship in existence that doesn’t have its problems. If the thing is working, you know, it’s basically good more than not. Business relationships especially sometimes get to the point where it’s not working as well as you thought, and then you begin to think about all the things that are aggravating you. Ed and I are actually now friends, and we’ve been in touch again. Pretty much right after the album was made Ed and I worked out a deal where I took over Happy Sad Records. It had not even been sent out anywhere at that point. Ed, as I was just saying, did not agree with anything that I wanted to do. I said that was fine, his name was still on the album, so he was going to get the credit, but it was going to be my company. Neither of us had much money. I think I borrowed some money from my father — whose name is listed on the album, Morris Levison — he was an attorney who helped me out. At that point, it sort of became my show. To give you an idea…I don’t even remember…we be probably printed up 500 albums. Back in 1972 or 1973, I probably sent out maybe fifty to seventy-five albums to radio stations who sort of knew me, to Record World, Cash Box, Billboard…and we got some press.

EL: Did you ever get written up in Cash Box? We’ve had a lot of those from the ’60s and early ’70s pass through the store. I could check…

PL: Yes. Check. We didn’t get in Billboard unfortunately, but we definitely got in Record World and I do think we got something in Cash Box. So check back in the years ’73 and ’74. I’m ninety-nine percent sure we did get some small press there. Now we’re getting into the mid seventies. A bunch of things happened. I got married in 1976. Tina, you know, loved the music, but what also began for me was I began to see that it was easier (at least for me) to get published and be famous. There are three things I think that people professionally want: money, fame, and power. You can tell a lot about a person by knowing what’s their most important thing. I like money. I mean power is okay, but there’s nothing like fame. Famous is like you’re hooked into the cosmos. It’s electrifying. You get money anyway when that happens. I began to realize this, and I started writing for The Village Voice. Back in 1971 I had sent in a rebuttal as a letter to a really nasty piece that Robert Christgau wrote about Paul McCartney. I remember he said basically that there was a mismatch to McCartney’s music, and I said in response that there was a mismatch in whatever the auditory connection was between his ears and his brain, because he wasn’t hearing what I was hearing. I barely expected to see it published as a letter, and then much to my delight — and here we go back to money — I go down to pick up my mail and there was an envelope from The Village Voice along with something that looked suspiciously like a check! It was for sixty-five dollars, which was amazing. It was published in a column called “My Turn,” or something. By the way, ever since then Christgau has hated me. [laughs] Mister Dyspeptic. So, by the mid 1970s I had a couple more things published in The Village Voice, including a piece about Murray the Kl, who had come back to New York, and I did a bit of work with him. And I was just getting more satisfaction out of doing my writing in the form of — in those days — reviews, and all that. So, I didn’t make a decision to leave music, but it just sort of happened more and more that way. By the end of the 1970s I had gotten my PhD from NYU — which, by the way…I have no particular love or admiration for scholarship per se. I got my PhD for two reasons: It gave me the structure to write a book about something I wanted to write about — the evolution of media — and I knew it was a ticket to get in and teach, which is a great profession. I taught a couple courses and I thought it was unbelievable. If you become a full professor you get like $50,000 a year for what? Showing up a couple times a week and talking to people? It was great! So now we’re into the late seventies, early eighties, and there’s almost nothing happening with Twice Upon A Rhyme except every once in a while I get a letter from someone — in those days it wasn’t even e-mail — saying, “By the way, I heard great things about your album, do you have any copies of it?” I would just send out a copy free of charge. By the mid 1980s, in retrospect a very important step, I was teaching at the New School for Social Research here in New York, and I was talking to a technical guy about my album. I said, “Hey, if I bring in my album can you convert this to a cassette tape.” He said, “Sure.” So I did that, and I had a whole bunch of cassettes made up. When people would ask me for the album I would sent out cassettes. It just continued like this. Under the surface, very, very little stuff. In maybe 1999 or 2000, probably the late nineties…sometime around then, Tina was online and she was searching around online and she said, “You know there’s a site out of California that’s selling a copy of Twice Upon A Rhyme as a cult classic!” I said, “You’re kidding me!” The web was very different back then of course, so there weren’t any pictures or anything, it was basically a listing: Twice Upon A Rhyme. Paul Levinson. Psychedelic cult classic. And that, in a way, to answer your question, that was the first time I didn’t seek that. It just popped up online.

EL: Do you mind if I go pop some quarters in the meter? It’s two blocks down the street.

PL: Go ahead. Don’t run.

[2 minutes later]

EL: So, in 2000 you saw it online.

PL: Right, and maybe a year or two after that someone — about two or three people asked me about it at the same time. They must have all seen it, because they sent me either letters or e-mails asking if I had any copies of this album. One guy in particular was some guy in I think — Sweden, or Switzerland — by the name of Patrick the Llama. And he was very excited because he somehow found out that I had a song called “The Llama Will Be Late This Year,” and the llama was his favorite animal. So, that was the beginning of…Tina set up Happy Sad Records on Yahoo dot com. Where, you know, people who were interested in the album would write and we would quote them a price. We sold the first couple copies for like twenty-five dollars, and then we sold them for about fifty dollars. Then, while all this was going on, we’re probably in about 2004 or so — you may know this better than I — a magazine called Record Collector. I don’t know if it’s Japanese or its worldwide, but there’s a Japanese edition. They published a piece called “Unknown Psychedelic Classics.” Sure enough, the guy who did it reviewed Twice Upon A Rhyme. I have no idea where he got the album. It was a very, very good review. Shortly after that a Japanese record store contacted me and I sold them twenty copies. It was a wild thing. I remember packing up twenty copies of the album, making sure it was packed safely, and taking it over to the post office. That in turn led to another guy, and I can’t remember his name, something like Molansky or Molensky? Some guy in the Midwest, he asked if he could buy fifteen or twenty copies of the album. We sold them to him for like eighty-five or ninety dollars a piece, and he said he was going to sell them off. All in all, as far as the vinyl is concerned, we sold 60 or 70 copies ourselves, which doesn’t begin to get into the stash we still have. But also around…just the last couple years…let’s see. I started my general office Facebook account back in 2005 at the advice of a student. When The Plot To Save Socrates, my latest novel, came out in February 2006 I started paying more attention to MySpace. Mainly as an author. But then I saw all the music stuff, so within maybe April or May of 2006 I set up the Paul Levinson music page. And Simon, who was not yet working for Entertainment Weekly — he was at that point still in poverty — he wrote up the whole description on the page in a cooler way than I could [laughs]. So that in addition to Happy Sad Records online, that really started attracting interest. The online presence of Twice Upon A Rhyme. Since then I’ve been interviewed several times, probably the most significant thing that happened after that was — last year, pretty much around this time, I get an email out of the clear blue sky from Big Pink Records out of Korea. They are a CD production company. They sent an e-mail saying they would like to put out a CD of Twice Upon A Rhyme.

EL: Oh, I think I’ve seen that, with the mock gatefold cover and obi and everything?

PL: Yeah, it’s a pretty cool little thing. It’s like a mini-album. They paid me $500 bucks and I negotiated a pretty good contract which I’m waiting on a royalty report… that’s another thing these publishers — it doesn’t matter if it’s music or books — they are all glacially slow in terms of pay. But uh, I have no idea how many copies have sold, but I do know a Japanese company called maybe Vivid Records made a deal with the Korean company and there was a Japanese version that came out.

EL: Right, right. That’s where I’ve seen it.

PL: Okay. Twice Upon A Rhyme. With that, there have been a lot of people like you who I have either come across on my own or have contacted me. There’s somebody called Grand Panda, some guy who has a mix tape thing and he’s already put two tracks from Twice Upon A Rhyme into his mix. There’s somebody in France who loves the album. I should also mention that a couple years ago there’s a guy by the name of Patrick…I forget his last name. He may still have a radio show out of Boston. He invited me up to do a show all about my music. I have a podcast of that which is posted online in different places. What’s significant about that is for whatever reason — I mean I don’t write that many songs — but about three or four years ago I went through a period where I started writing again. And one song in particular I wrote called “Lime Streets.” I did a pretty lame, but still nice rendition live on the guy’s radio show. He gave me a ridiculous little keyboard that I could barely play. So that’s my newest work.

[The topic changes to other book ideas]

PL: That’s one of the reasons I wrote “New New Media,” because I think none of this would had happened if it wasn’t for the great coincidence of the web. That’s because I saw what happened in the seventies and eighties, but the web has just made everything so much easier. So the people that want the album can do a search for Twice Upon A Rhyme and they can easily get to me.

EL: It’s just like how you found me, and other people like me. Just by the power of the Internet, I’ve found many people like you, too. It’s amazing how you can seek out a guy who recorded a song forty years ago and is only credited by his first name, and lo-and-behold he’s got a Facebook account. It connects people.

PL: It’s also interesting because…and this has nothing really to do with my music, although there is a discussion of music in the new media. It’s something that’s more authentic in a way about music percolating and being discovered in this way. In contrast, back in sixties — and it’s still that way now if you want to go to the major record labels — you have to be discovered by the right people, and subject to what they want to do. The closest I came was with Mike and Ellie and Atlantic Records, but it wasn’t all that much of our music, we were just singing. We were singing, and they heard us. Twice Upon A Rhyme Ed and I didn’t have anyone telling us what to do. I don’t know if you’ve heard “The Llama…” there’s a thing at the beginning that’s just me talking. You know, just like stupid stuff. To give credit where credit is due, those were the days when The Beatles were at their best. The Rolling Stones…there were a lot of groups who were doing off-the-wall albums, breaking boundaries, redefining what an album should be. So it all seemed like a very easy thing to do. Even as far as endings were concerned, when the Beatles did “Hey Jude” and you know, that five minute ending. What that said was, you don’t have to end a song at any particular time, you can just go on and do whatever it is you want to do. That’s why “The Llama…” has a very long ending. “Looks Like A Night (I Won’t Catch Much Sleep In)” has a long ending. Something else you should know is that Ed and I, before we split, wrote songs for maybe three-quarters of another album. Who knows what might happen with that. I don’t have tapes of any of those, but I do have lead sheets. Some of them are really beautiful songs and they’re very much in the Twice Upon A Rhyme vein. Sort of like The Beach Boys’ Smile. Actually, some of the songs are like the Beach Boys. They were one of our real big influences. Back then…

EL: What else were you listening to back then?

PL: Well, the last of the doo-wop groups really were The Four Seasons, because they had the harmony. Once Bob Dylan hit, Bob Dylan and The Beatles, that’s pretty much all I listened to. Along with The Stones, The Lovin’ Spoonful. I think there’s a lot of The Lovin’ Spoonful in Twice Upon A Rhyme. “Today Is Just Like You” is that type of song. We tried to stretch a lot of boundaries back then. When I was with The New Outlook we loved Motown. Even though we were a folk group, we had our own renditions of “I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops. One day a buddy and I were singing at a club in Queens. We were doing traditional folk stuff like Peter, Paul and Mary and some Dylan…Then we just threw in [starts singing "I can't go on, I can't go on!"] while I’m still strumming my guitar, you know, and we got booed off stage. [laughing] So, you know… we tried to explain to people that it’s just music, give it a chance! …but they were there to hear folk.

[Regains composure]

One of the other things I’ve also thought about a lot and written about, I think that popular culture we don’t really understand its ebbs, and flows, and why certain things come together. I think that the sixties were an extraordinary time. I actually wrote a piece in the 1980s that was published in something called Electronic Chronicles, called “The Endless Sixties.” In my perspective, we’re still pretty much in the sixties. We may not look exactly the same, the music doesn’t sound the same, but if you look at the way the music changed from the forties to the fifties — Sinatra vs. Elvis — and the way the music changed from the fifties to the sixties — Elvis vs. The Beatles — who has been as different as the Beatles were, after the Beatles. There might be, you know, disco or rap, those are very different styles, but somehow they’re more in the realm of the sixties than anything else. I think that’s another reason why <em>Twice Upon A Rhyme has hung around and resonated. It was of that time. I think it’s good that you have a vision and a dream. And you should do that. Something else I’ll say is, you can do more than one thing. And don’t get so hung up on publishing the first book that you’re not going to do anything until that comes, because that could take years out of your life. Work on placing the first one, but try to start what you can for the second book. Are you originally from LA?

EL: No, I’m from New Jersey.

PL: What got you out to LA?

EL: [laughing] Manifest Destiny?

PL: That’s a good reason.

EL: I mean, I lived in New Jersey my whole life, I went to school in Allentown, Pennsylvania, which is still really close to home.

PL: I know Allentown very well. That song “Ring Around My Rosie” was a hit in maybe three places in the country. One of them was Allentown, one other was Scranton, and the third was Pittsburgh.

EL: Ah, right. The golden triangle.

PL: [laughing]. The golden triangle. That’s right.

EL: I had — it was kind of a confluence of events that just kind of led to it. I had a job telecommuting that was paying me well and I figured if I was going to be working from home I wanted to be in amazing weather all the time.

PL: That’s great. That’s good reasoning.

EL: Then of course I lost that job within weeks of moving, but then I found the record store.

PL: It’s worked out very well. That’s a good trajectory. I’m glad we had a chance to talk.

EL: I am so happy, too. I really am glad I could meet with you while I’m here. But before we go, I want to know one thing.

PL: What’s that?

EL: What do you think is going to happen during the final season of LOST.

PL: AH!

EL: I know, I had to ask. It’s the eternal question.

PL: Well, um. First of all let me just couch the answer by saying I have a piece called “Keys to What’s Really Going On.”

EL: It’s on your blog?

PL: Yeah. It’s on Infinite Regress. I probably have 150 posts on LOST, but just scroll down and you’ll see this essay. So far everything I have written about in the essay has come true to some extent. The point I made is, I wrote this at the beginning of the second season, is that the inexplicable coincidences that we saw in the past –

EL: You mean like people bumping into each other in flashbacks and not knowing it, or coming in contact with people related to people, and so forth?

PL: Right, and they can’t be coincidence. I mean, why was Desmond on the steps while Jack was running up the steps? I still think that those hold the key to what is happening. I think what we haven’t yet seen is how these people are interconnected. They started really for the first time last season –

EL: In the finale, where they showed Jacob touching everybody.

PL: That’s right. And, you know, we’re getting little glimpses here and there. Clearly everything that we’ve seen so far is just the surface of a deeper explanation. I don’t know that we’re going to see much more time travel. The producers have already made that point. In fact I’m sorry about that. But how specifically will it end? The real question is, will the island continue to exist. Yes. It will. Will our main people stay on the island? The logical conclusion is that some of them will, and some of them won’t. Then the question is, who will, and who won’t? Um, it’s clearly moving towards…Kate — even though she says she’s given up Aaron — she has a connection to Aaron. Jack obviously has a connection to his family. Um…you know…I didn’t like that Locke has now been transformed into that other guy. I’m not sure what’s going to happen with that.

EL: One of my friends claims…he thinks it would be like Jesus not knowing he was the son of God until he was resurrected. In the same way maybe Locke was born as this guy, always ways this guy, and didn’t know it until his death.

PL: Yes. Yeah. That could be. But I mean, this mystical aspect of LOST has never been my thing.

EL: You’re there for the science fiction.

PL: That’s right. So, I mean, the real question is –there’s no doubt in my mind that the last scene we’re going to see — I would say — most of our significant people continuing on the island, and that’s where they’re going to stay. I don’t think that’s going to be everyone. There will be some people who will leave the island. Yeah, I think we will see some other people die. There’s no doubt about that. As far as what’s really happening, who is ultimately behind all that, I think that we’ve started a little bit to unpack that, but there’s going to be a lot more of that as well. When we start to understand that, we will understand why all those coincidences have happened. Contrary to what a lot of people think, it may have been that the writers did know what they were going to do when they started writing. I think that they knew what they did when they continued it, and they’ve already worked in some of those ideas, and will continue to work in more in the future. I think Rose and Bernard will stay in the cave and their bones will be Adam and Eve. Um…and, uh, I don’t think we’ve seen the end of Walt.

EL: I hope not. He’s one of my favorite characters. How could you move so far away from what was for almost an entire season the central character of the show?

PL: I know. Well, because it’s a different kind of television. First of all, traditional television didn’t have continuing stories in any case. Then there were…I love 24 also, but that basically tells the story with a vengeance and makes sure every single episode picks up right where the other left off. Once in a while they put something in that isn’t explained until the end. But LOST really, in addition to everything else, invented a new kind of narrative, where they do these very provocative things and then forget about them until two seasons later they come back with the connection. What they do with Locke is obviously the most extraordinary thing. Apropos of LOST, a publisher asked me to write a book about LOST.

EL: Oh, really? Have you read the Living Lost book? It’s by…what’s his name? He runs a blog also, it’s very literary.

PL: Oh I know who you’re talking about. Yes. I’ve heard of it, but haven’t read it. I should read it. But apropos of what I said before, it looks like I’m not going to do the book. We haven’t reached acceptable terms.

EL: Maybe after the show ends.

PL: Well, you know, I…things of course move so slowly. There’s still time for them to give me a contract, and I could have a book for them to be published expediently, but at this point I doubt that’s going to happen. So, we’ll see what happens.

EL: It’s been so good to meet with you Paul, I really hope the next time I’m back east we can meet again and talk more.


2 Comments on Music, Writing & LOST With Paul Levinson

  1. MikeM

    That was actually an interesting interview Ev. Thanks


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