Backstage Pass: CCR's Stu Cook reminisces about Jackdawg

by  Peter Lindblad

Leaving the rootsy country-rock of Southern Pacific behind in the late ’80s, Creedence Clearwater Revival bassist Stu Cook and two members of the Doobie Brothers heeded the call of Jackdawg.

A more rock-oriented animal propelled by the high-powered guitar wrangling of John McFee (Clover, Doobie Brothers), Jackdawg — also featuring the late Keith Knudsen from the Doobie Brothers — convened in 1990 to record what would become a lost album of solid, rip-roaring rockers with a Southern heart.

Jackdawg churned out 13 original tracks and a pair of ace covers, Van Morrison’s “Wild Night” and Roky Erickson’s underground classic “Cold Night For Alligators” — Cook produced tracks for Erickson that ended up on his albums TEO (U.K.) and The Evil One (U.S.). But major labels gave Jackdawg the cold shoulder, and because of that, the project died.

Locked away in the vaults for nearly 20 years, Jackdawg’s self-titled debut seemed destined to be mothballed forever. Then, after Knudsen died in 2005, hope arrived in the form of Joey Stec, founder and owner of the retro label Sonic Past Music and an ex-member of Blues Magoos.

Now the record is out, and Cook is more than eager to talk about the brief life of Jackdawg.

Tell us how Jackdawg got started.

Stu Cook: Well, my goodness. I gotta think back. This was quite some time ago. From 1985 to 1990, John McFee, Keith Knudson, Kurt Howell and I and a few other guys were in a country-rock band, Southern Pacific, on Warner Bros. And we, after experimenting around for five years — four albums in that genre — we decided that the three of us would prefer to try and do a rock ’n’ roll project — Keith, John and myself.

So in about ’89, we started writing together, recording together and just hanging out and having some fun; [we] tried to get the best out of each other. And we weren’t really quite sure what was going to go on, where it was going, but we knew that writing and recording every week it was getting better and better, coming easier for us, and we were still having a good time.

So that’s sort of how the project got rolling along. We ultimately recorded 16 songs — 14 originals — and one thing led to another and the music industry had changed by the time we were ready to present our demos, and we found ourselves unable to secure a major-label deal at the time. So we just put it on the shelves and went on to do other stuff. And so 19, 20 years later, I guess, now the tapes are mixed and [the record is] being released [in March] on Sonic Past Music.

Was it basically just not being able to secure a record deal that let these tapes almost disappear?

SC: That’s correct. It’s correct. From our end, we just … we were doing the work in the studio; we weren’t quite sure what was happening on the other side of the glass. But the situation was that, it didn’t look like it was going to go anywhere soon. And then we decided to move on from there. It was a great time, a lot of fun and a great experience. So now, jump ahead a decade, the music is finally going to see the light of day. And we’re excited about that.

At the time you were recording the album, what were your feelings about it?

SC: We were excited. The approach we took was that nothing was off limits. In other words, any ideas that anybody had we would give them a try and try to keep the best ones. So it was really about us writing and recording our own material, doing it without somebody standing over our shoulders, just to see how much we could get out of each other.

At the time you were recording the album, what were your feelings about it?

SC: We were excited. The approach we took was that nothing was off limits. In other words, any ideas that anybody had we would give them a try and try to keep the best ones. So it was really about us writing and recording our own material, doing it without somebody standing over our shoulders, just to see how much we could get out of each other.

The album that’s being released now, is this the album in its original form or do you have other songs that are in the vaults, too?

SC: No, this is it. We finally got everything on this one. The mixes are all new. The album was remixed just a couple of months ago. And otherwise, there has been no additional recording. It’s as we left it back in 1990.

With the writing process for this album, it sounds like it was a real collaborative effort.

SC: It was. It was. Most of the songs were written [by] the three of us together. There were some John and Keith wrote. There were some John and I wrote. But yeah, we would sit around and start with an idea, a title, and then we’d work that for a while.

Then we’d go out and start to work on musical ideas and put them together and see where we could … try and follow what felt best. And we’d do that every week, three or four days a week. Then go back home. We did this out of town up at McFee’s studio in Solvang, Calif. And then Keith and I were living in Los Angeles, so we would commute back and forth.

Did Jackdawg ever play live or was it just totally shelved after you couldn’t find a record deal?

SC: We never gave a live performance. It was not something that we thought, “Well, someday we can worry about that down the road.” Right now, we’re just trying to write the best songs and get the best performances out of each other.

Talking about some of the individual songs, definitely the one that sounds most like Creedence would be “Bayou Rebel.” Can you talk about that song and how it came about? It’s got a real swampy feel to it.

SC: Yeah, yeah. It definitely has that swampy feel, which was the intention, which was to try and cop that bayou groove. And it’s something I know a little bit about. And the song itself was inspired by one of Southern Pacific’s guitar technicians. He’s from Bay Minette, Ala. And the bayou is in his backyard, as well. So when we would sit and talk with him about it, we’d draw inspiration from conversations that we would have with him and his personality — more abstract cues and clues. But that’s our interpretation of what it would be [to be] a young guy coming out of that neck of the woods.

Some of the other songs are really interesting, too. One of the songs that’s called “The Girl From Oz,” which has a real unusual guitar sound to it. Can you tell us about that one?

SC: Well, the recordings all pretty much went the same. McFee was on top of his guitar game throughout this album, as you can tell. It’s really a guitar player’s album. A lot of stuff that John played on this album I’ve never heard anybody play — exceptional man with a stringed instrument that’s for sure. The song itself is loosely based around the Australian duo The Divinyls, who had that great, great tune “I Touch Myself.” And I believe it was Keith’s idea to write an ode to her. So she is “The Girl From Oz,” Christina Amphlett.

I’m wondering about your reactions to hearing this music now. I guess it had been a long time since you had heard these songs. What do you think about them after hearing them again after being so long away from them?

SC: Well, I’ve always listened to these songs — once a year, twice a year, I’ll find them on my iPod as I go through. Only rough mixes, the mixes that we had done … you know, we’d make some mixes at the end of the week, after writing and recording for three or four days that we used to take home with us and see what we needed to do to improve or what our impressions were of what we’d done. And that’s what I’ve been living with for all these years. So I would listen to them from time to time. I always liked them, and I really like these new mixes that John has done. I think that he’s really gotten every bit out of all the tracks — really good stuff.

Keith passed away in 2005. Did that spur the idea to put this album out?

SC: Well, what actually happened was, John McFee was originally in a band named Clover. And that band also included Huey Lewis and Sean Hopper from The News, and they had done some recording before they had moved to England and went to work for Elvis Costello.

And those tapes sat in the vault down in Southern California for many years, and then Joey Stec from Sonic Past Music acquired the rights to those tapes and negotiated arrangements with all the artists, including Clover, to release these lost studio tapes, which is the focus of his music company, Sonic Past. And McFee worked with Joey on that project, and Joey asked John if he had any other so-called closet, basement tapes (laughs) and John says, “As a matter of fact, Joey, we have this great album with John, Keith and Stu that we sort of put aside to pursue other interests, but now might be a good time to take another look at it.”

Joey heard it and thought it was terrific and asked if he could release it. And he thought about it for about six seconds and said, “Of course. You’re the guy.”

Along with 14 originals on the record, there are a couple of cover songs on there. One of those is “Cold Night For Alligators,” an original from Roky Erickson. Now, you had worked on that song with him.

SC: Back in the … let’s see, when was it? Had to be the early ’80s. I produced two albums for Roky Erickson. And “Cold Night For Alligators” was one of the original compositions that he brought to me for possible inclusion in one of these albums. I fell in love with it right away. And we recorded it and included it on one of the albums, I think, in 1980 or ’81, I’m not sure now (laughs). But it became sort of a cult classic, as did both of the albums. And when we were looking to do some covers, we thought, “Why don’t we take a listen to some of this stuff?” And all three of us immediately voted for “Cold Night …” as a track we thought we could put something of our own on. And yeah, I liked it. It’s one of my all-time favorite ones on the album.

Yeah, it’s got that swampy CCR sound.

SC: In a way it does, sure. For musicians, when you talk about different styles, it’s just a matter of clicking or throwing a different switch in your brain.

There are many styles of music that you can attribute to possibly the artist that popularized them, but they’ve always been available to musicians. New Orleans music has been around a long time. Southern rock has sort of made its mark, and I guess Creedence music incorporates a lot of that kind of flavor, just funky but not true rhythm and blues, sort of another branch of the family. And we thought that’d be a great approach for that song because it … again, alligators live in the swamp, you know? (laughs)

That’s true. What was it like working with Roky at that point?

SC: It was a very … I don’t wanna say difficult. Roky was going through a lot of changes in his life, but he was also … that brought on a great creative surge for him. And so, if you combine all that together, it made for some very interesting sessions. But in the end, I think we’re all real happy with the results. I know that that era and those records are some of Roky’s favorite work, and that makes me feel good.

TEO got a lot of critical acclaim.

SC: It did. You know, amazingly enough, Rolling Stone magazine gave it a great review, which I was surprised. They’ve never been really easy on anybody. I guess they’ve always given Bruce Springsteen great reviews, but I knew that we’d done some good work there. I know Roky had put his best into it, and I was really thrilled that there was some recognition for him. Speaking of Roky, last year he was voted the Austin musician of the year.

He seems to be making a comeback.

SC: I love it. I love it. Roky is one of the true rockers. He’s got a great voice. He’s still got a great voice. And Roky has influenced a lot of people, a lot of music people. They’re part of his legions of fans.

by  Peter Lindblad

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