By Lee Zimmerman
By any definition, Jesse Colin Young is an iconic individual. One of the founders of the early essential Americana band The Youngbloods who has also enjoyed a successful solo career, the songs he’s been responsible for over the course of the past 50 years — “Darkness, Darkness,” “Sugar Babe,” “Quicksand,” and in particular, “Get Together” (a song he didn’t write) — have become an indelible part of the lexicon of popular music.
Young’s new album, Highway Troubadour — only his second effort in the past 14 years due to his bout with Lyme disease — revisits several songs from his classic catalog, beginning with “Four in the Morning,” which came from his first solo album, The Soul of a City Boy, continuing through “Quicksand,” culled from the Youngbloods album Elephant Mountain and the track written for his daughter called “Song for Juli.” The trajectory continues through the album’s leadoff tune, “Tripping on My Roots,” the theme song written for his recent series of podcasts.
“These were 11 of the 21 or 22 songs we cut, although I probably tried 30 or 35,” Young recalls. “I just went in and played two or three in a series of four-hour sessions. These were the only A-plus-plus takes. So I chose them like that. They were the very best. There are a couple of songs from (2019's) Dreamers album, and I thought it was appropriate that they came out before the election. They’re there because they’re part of my repertoire, so they’re the A-plus-plus ones. There may be more songs, but they need to be tweaked, but I’ve set a nice high bar with these, and I’m clearly capable of doing this, so there should be further volumes that are just as good.”
The joy Young finds in the new album is clearly filtered through the lens of the illness he dealt with for nearly two decades. “I didn’t have the energy to record,” Young says of the lull in activity caused by his malady. “I did some solo videos, and that was the beginning, because that’s all I could do.”
Young paints his struggles with Lyme disease in honest and expressive terms. “Yes, it’s disabling,” he says. “I had no energy, no memory, just joint pain, muscle pain, nerve pain. Crazy sh*t. Anxiety. Tense anxiety. Panic attacks. My wife got this pamphlet and I read it, and that’s when I realized I had Lyme disease, because I had all the physical and psychological symptoms. I felt flat-out sick and crazy.”
Young also says his struggles with the illness lingered over the course of 20 years, half when he was undiagnosed. “It wasn’t until the ’80s that they isolated it,” he explains. “Nowadays, if you get bitten, you should keep that tick and send it in, and then you’ll know within three days if you have Lyme disease and the other nasty stuff that comes along with it. If you get on it immediately, you’ll probably be clear of it immediately. If you have it for years like I did, you have chronic Lyme. My doctor, Dr. Horowitz, was looking for a cure using a combination of five or six antibiotics. So five or six years ago, I went on this regimen that he invented for his wife who had it. So for the past year and half, I’ve had no symptoms and no active Lyme. It’s still there, but I’m a different guy. Some damage may have been done to my memory, but that might be age. It’s a miracle. You’re taking these antibiotics and your symptoms disappear. It’s amazing, even though you have to keep taking them, trying different antibiotics. It’s a long, long road.”
Not surprisingly, Young looks back at the time spent with The Youngbloods with great affection. The band was spawned from the early friendship with Jerry Corbitt when both men were regular denizens of New York’s Greenwich Village back in the folk heyday of the 1960s.
“We started playing together on his porch in Cambridge (Massachusetts),” Young remembers. “He sent me a cryptic letter when I was playing at Club 47, and it said, ‘Don’t go home, come to my place.’ I barely knew him at the time. The fella I was staying with had sold a joint to an undercover guy and got arrested, so I went to Corbitt’s place and I never stayed anywhere else after that while I was there. And we became fast friends, just playing on that porch.”
Indeed, that relationship led to a success that started in the late ’60s and extended into the early ’70s. “We had some beautiful times, the times where the people were so into the music, they were part of the band,” Young recalls. “We were all brothers and sisters in our own discovery of this beauty and all these things we wanted to have. We wanted to have some peace and to stay out of the war. It was a very special time for human beings. When we played San Francisco for the very first time in 1967, when ‘Get Together’ came out, we checked into this little cheap hotel down the street from the Avalon Ballroom, and I remember throwing my bag down on the bed, turning on the radio, and there was ‘Get Together.’ Nobody had told us we had a local hit record. And then we walked down the street to the Avalon Ballroom and there were 400 people in there instead of 40 like when we were playing in New York at all these little discotheques. The Youngbloods were never a dance band. So we went home and packed up and moved out there.”
Ironically, the song “Get Together” landed in their lap almost by pure happenstance. The song, which was written by Chet Powers (famously known by his nom de plume Dino Valenti), was already a standard, having been performed by the Kingston Trio, a pre-Byrds David Crosby and the Jefferson Airplane by the time Young heard it sung by the late Buzzy Linhart in the basement of the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village.
“I had never heard any of the earlier versions,” Young says. “The Youngbloods were playing at the Cafe Au Go Go for nine months, opening for whoever was there. I was walking up Bleecker Street one Sunday, so I thought that if maybe the Au Go Go was dark, I could call the boys and maybe we could rehearse. We needed to rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. We had to invent a band out of a bunch of folk players and a jazz drummer and a bass player who had all of three weeks under his belt. So I went down the stairs and I heard some music, and I thought ‘Damn, it must be an open mic or something like that.’ And for some reason, instead of turning around and going home, I went down the second flight of stairs and there was Buzzy Linhart and he was singing ‘Get Together,’ and just like in those movies about the Bible, the heavens opened and my life changed. I knew that song was my path forward, not only as a musician, but as a human being. So I rushed backstage and got the lyrics from Buzzy after introducing myself, and he was glad to give them to me. I took them into rehearsal the next day with The Youngbloods and my manager said, ‘What are you doing singing a song like that? You have this angry young man thing going on.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. This is it! This was the future.’”
It was shortly after their move out west that the band began recording Elephant Mountain, their third album and the effort that would bring them national attention. “We had moved to San Francisco, so we were recording in L.A. instead of New York, where we had recorded the first two records,” Young explains. “Charlie Daniels was our producer for that record. He had worked with Bob Johnston as a production assistant. We had tried to get Johnston because we loved Simon & Garfunkel, who he had produced, but he sent us Charlie instead. That was the beginning of Charlie’s career. He had always been a picker, but here he was producing us because he had always worked on that end of the music business.”
Although Young had released The Soul of a City Boy prior to his stint in The Youngbloods (his sophomore effort, 1965’s Young Blood, gave the band its name), his solo career began in earnest with his album Together in 1972, released just prior to the release of the band’s final album, High on a Ridge Top later that year.
“At one point, I took a summer off to play with my new band, and when I came back, I said, ‘I’m sorry, fellas but I can’t go back to The Youngbloods,’” Young recalls. “We had been recording a lot of songs, but we were kind of running out of steam, and I started to feel like I wanted something new. I had played bass in that band and that kept me away from the guitar. It kind of slowed me down. At the end, we got Mike Kane to play bass and I went back to guitar, but we had clearly peaked.”
Asked if he thinks about the past, Young demurs. “It’s mostly when I’m doing interviews or recording songs from those days,” he replies. “And now I have this recording that’s a history of my life.”