By Bill Kopp
In 1969 a husband-and-wife duo made a record that sounded little like anything either had done previously. Judy Henske was a critically-acclaimed folk singer with an impressive range; after performing and cutting records with folk groups, she released four solo albums between 1963 and 1966. Producer Jack Nitzsche called Henske “Queen of the Beatniks.”
Jerry Yester began his recording career in 1960 as a member of the New Christy Minstrels, went on to the Modern Folk Quartet, and earned notoriety as a producer for The Association, The Turtles, Tom Waits and Tim Buckley. He joined The Lovin’ Spoonful just in time to see that group break up.
With “Farewell Aldebaran,” Henske and Yester sought to follow their inspiration where it took them. That journey yielded one of the most unusual and compelling albums of its era. Originally released on Frank Zappa’s Bizarre/Straight label, “Farewell Aldebaran” was listlessly promoted (if at all), sold poorly, and sank quickly into obscurity. Despite its growing cult reputation, the album has been out of print since the very early 1970s.
Some needle-drop pirated reissues of the album have been making the rounds, but now in 2016 Omnivore Recordings is releasing an authorized version of “Farewell Aldebaran” on LP and CD. The new release was sourced from the original two-track master tapes, and the CD version features bonus outtake tracks from the studio sessions, five instrumental demos that illustrate the album’s rich and deeply textured arrangement and production.
Though they divorced around 1972, Henske and Yester are both enthusiastically involved in the reissue, and were happy to discuss “Farewell Aldebaran” and its history.
GOLDMINE: How exactly did you end up on Straight/Bizarre Records?
JUDY HENSKE: Frank Zappa’s manager was Herb Cohen. He was my manager and Jerry’s manager. I had been an Elektra artist before that.
JERRY YESTER: Herbie was the co-owner of Straight/Bizarre along with Frank.
GM: Was “Farewell Aldebaran” a one-record deal?
HENSKE: Nobody even thought of things like that, I don’t think. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I’ll go to this person’s office and see what he says.” Everybody was just going around together all the time.
YESTER: We didn’t really sign a long-term contract; it was just that Herbie was the source of release for our stuff. We didn’t have any other offers. But when Frank heard “Farewell Aldebaran,” he said that he liked it very much. And that wasn’t easy to get out of him! But we both had a good relationship with Frank. “Rosebud” (the self-titled 1971 album made by Henske and Yester’s next – and for many years their last – project together) came out on the label, too.
HENSKE: What was really neat about it was that nobody said, “Okay, go out there and make some money!”
GM: Speaking of money, original copies of the album – if you can even find one – are quite expensive. What’s your understanding as to why “Farewell Aldebaran” has been unavailable for so long?
HENSKE: (laughs) The reason it’s been unavailable is that nobody wanted it!
YESTER: (Straight/Bizarre’s distributor) Warner Brothers stopped pressing it. For a long time, you could find it for either 10¢ or $150. But it did well in Europe; a lot better than Herbie told us.
HENSKE: You know what I think really happened? Didn’t Alice Cooper’s first album (“Pretties for You”) come out right after it? [Ed.— Actually, four weeks prior. But close.] I think Herbie put everything behind Alice Cooper. I didn’t ever think that Alice Cooper was as interesting — musically or lyrically — as “Farewell Aldebaran.” But Herbie liked that “nyah-nyah-na-nyah-nyah” kind of stuff. So that one got all the attention, while ours died on the vine.
GM: So how did this reissue finally come about?
HENSKE: If it hadn’t been for Richie Unterberger’s piece in that book (1998’s “Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll”), I don’t know if anything would have ever happened. But (Omnivore Recordings co-founder) Cheryl Pawelski was a fan of the record. As the years went by, I got to know Cheryl. And she always wanted to do something with it. It’s wonderful how circumstances come together like that; it’s one of those things that is meant to be. Maybe it’s now that this record should be out, and not 1969.
YESTER: The first time I met Cheryl, she was with Rhino. She wanted to release “Farewell Aldebaran” there, but I don’t think she was getting a lot of cooperation. So when she started her own company, she did. And I’m very glad she did.
GM: There aren’t really many hints in your previous material that suggested you’d ever make an album like “Farewell Aldebaran.” Jerry, you did produce Tim Buckley’s out-there music; that’s about the only thing that comes to mind.
YESTER: If there’s a similarity between “Farewell Aldebaran” and (Buckley’s) “Goodbye and Hello,” it’s not in the material. Maybe it’s in the production techniques that I used when I produced Tim. There was kind of a similar feeling with both albums, that there just weren’t any rules. That was my whole approach to making albums: just go with your gut on everything. I always thought that was the best way to go, but the record companies often didn’t agree.
HENSKE: I thought that Tim’s “Goodbye and Hello” was a wonderful record. It had some strange stuff on it, but it (deepens voice) wasn’t nearly as strange as “Farewell Aldebaran”! I did what I wanted, and that’s why those lyrics are the way they are. And I stand behind those lyrics.
YESTER: We were really new into our writing partnership; there were no boundaries on that. Both of our imaginations just kind of ran wild, and it wasn’t like we had to stick to a certain format. We did what we felt like. Judy was an incredibly varied source of lyric material, and I didn’t stick to any patterns or formula on the music.
HENSKE: Jerry liked to have music that sounded different all the time. He liked old instruments, unknown instruments. Jerry was a lover of poetry, too; he really liked that. And I liked writing about all different things. You get tired of writing that boy-girl stuff because you’re looking for success. I give credit to Nashville; besides boy-girl songs, there was a lot of strange stuff coming out of Nashville in the old, old days: “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” “Call of the Wild Goose.”
GM: Did or do you view “Farewell Aldebaran” as the two of you pushing your musical boundaries, or was it simply a document of where you both were musically at the time?
HENSKE: That record was what we both really liked doing. And that’s the reason that it’s so varied.
YESTER: We had no objective. We started writing together. I can’t recall if “Three Ravens” was first, or a(n unreleased song called) “Ashes Have Turned.” We really liked the songs that we were writing. The summer after The Lovin’ Spoonful stopped, we spent three months writing at our farm in Remsenburg, Long Island. We talked to Herbie on the phone, and told him what we were doing. He said, “Get it together and we’ll make an album.” The only driving force was making an album of our new songs. There was no aim.
GM: Every track on “Farewell Aldebaran” is a Henske/Yester original, with one a co-write between you two and co-producer Zal Yanovsky. Judy, I understand that Frank Zappa really encouraged your songwriting efforts.
HENSKE: I was writing all the time. I had tons of things written on millions of pieces of paper. And Frank asked, “What are you doing with all that stuff?” I told him I was just putting ‘em away. He said, “If it was me, I’d make a record out of every one of those.” Because that’s what he did: whenever he started something, he made it into something! I don’t think there was any extra stuff. That’s a Zappa secret, manufacturing stuff out of everything you do. But I’m not like that.
GM: David Lindley — then of Kaleidoscope — played on the track “Raider.” That track is a kind of psychedelic Americana.
YESTER: And those aren’t fiddles in there: David was bowing the banjo, which gave it an amazing sound. David’s band mate in Kaleidoscope, Solomon Feldthouse played hammered dulcimer on “Raider,” too. And Jerry Scheff, Elvis’ bass player. It was just a great band.
GM: Jerry, you and Paul Beaver played Moog synthesizer on several tracks. That would have been an early modular model, right?
YESTER: Yes. The thing was about 4 by 5 feet. Paul got the sounds, and I played it. I’d tell him what sound I was looking for, or he’d say, “try this” and come up with some amazing sound.
GM: Richie Unterberger’s story on you mentions that Ry Cooder played on “Farewell Aldebaran.” But his name isn’t listed in the credits on the original album or the new reissue.
YESTER: No, I made a mistake. I think I told him that Ry played on it, and he didn’t. I was thinking of the album Zally and I produced at the same time, Pat Boone’s “Departure.” Ry played mandolin on that one.
GM: Judy, you take most of the lead vocals on “Farewell Aldebaran.” The only one that features Jerry in a really prominent vocal role is “One More Time.” Why didn’t he sing more?
HENSKE: Come on! He’s on all kinds of songs! “Farewell Aldebaran,” “Three Ravens,” “Raider.” Wait a minute … he isn’t on “Snowblind,” because he isn’t a rock ‘n’ roll singer.
GM: Barry Alfonso’s liner notes mention that the birth of your daughter made it difficult to tour, and that a planned Hollywood Bowl concert fell through. So did you ever perform any of the “Farewell Aldebaran” material live?
YESTER: We didn’t really think about it; we just wanted to make the album. And then no one seemed interested in booking us, and neither of us was a great business person. It wasn’t until “Rosebud” got together that we did any performing. We did do “Snowblind” in the Rosebud shows; we opened with it a lot. And during those shows, I would do “One More Time, or “Mrs. Connor” as we called it.
HENSKE: Jerry is coming here to L.A., and we’re performing this record. We’re doing it at the Grammy Museum on August 11, and at McCabe’s on the 12th. We’re gonna try to make it as true as we can. I’d love to do “St. Nicholas Hall” with real singers. (The album version features wordless vocals played on a Chamberlin, a sort of cousin to the grand-daddy of sample playback instruments, the Mellotron.) But I don’t know if we could; it would probably be a pain in the ass.
YESTER: We’ll do six or seven songs at the release party on the 11th. And at McCabe’s, I’ll do a set, Judy will do a set with Craig Doerge (keyboard player and Judy’s husband), and Judy and I will do a set together. For those — because there’s so much going on in those original recordings — along with guitar and vocal, we’ll be using tracks that I’m making in my studio at home. Our daughter and my daughters — four all together — will be singing background on one of the songs we’ll do. I’m really looking forward to that.
GM: After “Farewell Aldebaran” and then “Rosebud,” you both went on separately to make a lot more music and play a lot of live dates. In all those years — Judy as a solo artist and with Craig; Jerry with re-formed lineups of the Modern Folk Quartet and The Lovin’ Spoonful — has either of you ever heard an audience member shout out a request for “Horses on a Stick” or “Rapture”?
HENSKE: (laughs heartily) No! No! No! No! Nobody even knows about “Farewell Aldebaran”; it’s completely unknown!
YESTER: Certainly not at a Lovin’ Spoonful show; it’s a little … eclectic for that audience. Oh, wait … were you that guy? GM
Correction Note: In the September 2016 print edition of this feature, the author was incorrectly identified. The author is Bill Kopp, a veteran music journalist from Asheville, North Carolina.