By Lee Zimmerman
It’s hard to believe, but its been 50 years since the Youngbloods originally made their mark in the folk rock firmament. The band — Jesse Colin Young (bass, vocals), Jerry Corbitt (guitar), Joe Bauer (drums) and Lowell Levinger, better known as “Banana” (guitar, piano) — may not have made quite the same impression that their contemporaries did at the time, but with at least a couple of significant songs that generated permanent placement on oldies radio (“Get Together,” “Grizzly Bear” and “Darkness, Darkness,” chief among them) it’s appropriate that they’re still remembered fondly by a few. Thus, Levinger’s solo album “Get Together — Banana Recalls Youngbloods Classics” offers due homage to a band whose unassuming demeanor made them as much a forewarner of essential Americana as The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield or any California contemporary.
It’s apt then that in looking back, Levinger reshuffles these songs with a series of homespun arrangements, bringing in special guests like former bandmate Jesse Colin Young, Ry Cooder, David Grisman, Nina Gerber, Dan Hicks and Peter Rowan to give the recordings an authentic folk-like flair. Accordingly, “Stagger Lee,” “Sugar Babe,” “Euphoria” and, natch, the aforementioned signature songs sound appropriately vintage without distancing them from the originals. “Hippie From Olema,” a dated parody of “Okie from Muskogee,” and the elegiac “On Sir Francis Drake” offer a similar appeal, but it’s the communal spirit that serves the songs best. Consequently, credit Banana for still taking an approach that as, dare we say, ripe as ever.
GOLDMINE: First off, we have to ask — how did you get the name ‘Banana’?
Lowell “Banana” Levinger: In 1962, my friend Peter Golden and I were at the dress rehearsal of the Boston University production of “On The Town” by Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Leonard Bernstein. We were merely stage hands, since freshmen were not allowed to actually appear in major productions, which, of course, this was. There is a scene in “On The Town” in which one of the protagonists and his newly found girlfriend are taking an open cab ride through Central Park. The “cab” was actually a flat painted to look like a cab, and it has large dowels protruding from the back so that two stage hands crouching down on their knees can hold on to the dowels while they painfully shuffle along making the cab look like it is moving on its own across the stage with the two actors walking behind it. Hey, you asked. Guess who those two stagehands were? The cab pauses in the middle of the stage and while the stagehands endure their agony, the couple sings a romantic song. This song kept being interrupted during this dress rehearsal by costume people, and then make-up people, and then stage-blocking people, and all the while Peter and I were crouched down there. In our extreme agony and boredom we decided that it was absolutely imperative that we think of the funkiest folkiest name that might have been used in 1936. The best we could come up with was “Harmon N. Banana,” so we went with it. We formed the band right then and there. “Harmon N. Banana and The Bunch – Old Time Music With Appeal.” Within minutes we had created the secret hand shake and high sign which we both now have forgotten..
I can drag this story on about the clubs we played and how we realized the name was holding us back so we changed it to “Harmon N. Banana and The Down Home Redneck Jamboree.” When our draw failed to improve, we decided a more drastic name change was in order. “Harmon N. Banana and the Knights of Pytheas Wake The Dead Gospel Choir.”
Nope, still no stardom. Eventually we dropped the “Harmon N.” as it just confused people. What in the world, they wondered, was the “N” for? “Nothing” was our standard response. Enough already.
GM: You did an album of standards last year, but before that, how long had it been since you last recorded?
LBL: I’ve made five solo CDs since 2009, but the first three were under the name “Grandpa Banana”, and so Kari, my manager, had me ditch that moniker. It was probably a good idea. But I do have quite a few grandchildren, and there is a children’s CD in the works. It will include children’s classics like “Itsy-bitsy Spider.” Last year’s album was mostly blues-oriented.
GM: The Youngbloods had a great body of work, but it seems they’re vastly unappreciated, especially when it comes to the recognition received by their peers. Why do you think that is?
LBL: When we moved to California, instead of settling in L.A. or the city of San Francisco, we moved to the countryside, about an hour north of San Francisco. When it was time for a gig we would go into the city to arrive about an hour-and-a-half before our set and then play our set and then go home to our families. I have never set foot in any of the famous houses of the famous bands of San Francisco. We never went to any of the wild parties, and we never messed around with guns or drugs or infidelity. All we ever did was play good music. No shouting “f*ck” in front of 100,000 people. Nor did we drop our pants or set fire to our instruments. It was kind of boring compared to the scene that was going on at the time.
GM: Did you resent the fact that you didn’t have that same degree of notoriety as your contemporaries at the time?
LBL: It certainly never created any resentment, but it also didn’t do much to make us famous or a part of the scene. But looking back on it, I think it was probably a good decision for longevity and health and raising families.
GM: The Youngbloods seemed to have had a few personnel transitions. What do you consider to be the band’s best lineup and what was your favorite Youngbloods album?
LBL: Our opus magnum is “Elephant Mountain” in my not so humble opinion, and the best lineup was the trio — Jesse, Joe and me.
GM: Why did the band break up? Did you continue to stay in touch with the other members? It’s nice to see Jesse on your new album.
LBL: Jesse wanted to launch his own career and spend more time on the road. Sadly, Joe died in 1982 and Jerry died (in 2014). But yes, Jesse and I are still in touch and he gave his blessing to the current album.
LBL: I have been performing solo for a little over 10 years now. As my repertoire has developed more and more, old Youngbloods tunes have worked their way into it. When I realized that I had more than enough for a CD, and that the 50th anniversary was coming up, I decided to do it. It didn’t take any persuasion to get Jesse on board. All I had to do was ask.
GM: The song “Get Together” has become a popular song staple. How did the band come to pick that song originally? Did you guys know it would resonate so much early on?
LBL: We shared house band duties at the Cafe Au Go Go in New York in 1965 and ‘66 along with the Blues Project and Buzzy Linhart. Buzzy’s band was doing “Get Together” in a raga rock style at the time. We fell in love with the song and adapted it to our own style. We had no idea that it would become such an anthem.
GM: Johnny Carson reportedly refused to allow the Youngbloods to perform on “The Tonight Show” because he claimed that the band was overly demanding during the pre-show soundcheck? What’s the real story behind that?
LBL: Well, the short story is that we were over demanding the pre-show sound check. They wanted us to wear make up. We refused. They wanted us to stand on stupid pedestals. We refused. They wanted us to play “Grizzly Bear.” We insisted on playing “Darkness, Darkness.” At that point they kicked us out of there. They considered us a buncha wise-ass kids.
GM: Are there any other unusual or funny anecdotes that come to mind?
LBL: We weren’t part of that amazing San Francisco scene other than participating in the actual gigs and the music. We had wives and kids and lived in beautiful West Marin County. So I apologize for the seemingly boring life with no celebrity names to drop. I do remember once at one of those big TV shows in the Midwest somewhere, when Charlie Daniels was along for a few gigs, they had us and him standing on pedestals, and as soon as we started to play the whole thing gave way and he fell through it. He wasn’t hurt, and it was hilarious. They let us stand on the floor. Another time, at Winterland, we were in the dressing room tuning up right before the set and because we were maybe two or three minutes late, Bill Graham came bursting into the dressing room screaming, “What is this, amateur night?”
GM: What instruments do you play primarily these days?
LBL: I play a unique instrument. It is a five-string tenor guitar with a 20-inch scale length tuned from the bottom, up F C G D A in fifths. I kind of invented it and I’m the only guy I know who plays one. It can be guitaristic, banjoistic or mandolinistic — if those are actual words. I’m able to get voicings on it that cannot be accomplished on a six-string guitar tuned in fourths. So it has a unique sound. I love to practice both playing and singing, and it seems to be working. I’m actually getting better at both.
GM: So what are your plans now? Will you tour? Are you going to continue recording?
LBL: Yes, I definitely want to tour and play my songs for people as soon as I can find a booking agent. This is my big goal. I want to play listening rooms and house concerts here in the U.S. and in Europe. I’ve actually been doing this for over 10 years, but I would like to do it a lot more than I currently do. And yes, I will certainly continue recording. GM