BY ELLIOT STEPHEN COHEN
“I gotta tell you this story, man,” exclaims Robert Gordon, with a huge laugh. “This one night, when I was onstage, my drummer Bobby Chouinard kept poking me in the back, and I was getting really pissed off. He started pointing with his stick, and right in front of the stage was Tom Jones with two burly guys checking us out. People like (Mick) Jagger and Cher used to come to The Ritz to see us. A lot of great people over the years; a lot of great memories.”
Born Robert Ira Gordon on March 29, 1947 in Bethesda, Maryland from a Russian Jewish background, at age nine he became smitten by the first wave of rock stars like Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins.
The passion for this music has never wavered. After gaining some notoriety in 1976 with the punk rock band Tuff Darts, which wasn’t where his musical heart lay, Gordon was signed the following year by the small indie label Private Stock. His very strongly rockabilly-influenced debut album, “Robert Gordon with Link Wray" was ironically released just a few months prior to Elvis Presley's passing.
His big break happened in 1979, when RCA signed him and put out his third album, “Rock Billy Boogie," which included his classic interpretation of Conway Twitty's "It's Only Make Believe." His fifth album, “Are You Gonna Be The One,” which featured the single, “Someday Someway,” written by the then-unknown Marshall Crenshaw, was his biggest success to date.
Despite this, Gordon and the label parted ways soon afterward. It would be another 13 years before he would release a new studio album, “All For The Love of Rock 'N' Roll.”
During most of the 1980s, there were no new albums, and there were rumors of alcoholism and drug abuse. The following decade, Gordon's brilliant former guitarist Danny Gatton committed suicide with a shotgun, his drummer and close friend, Bobby Chouinard had a fatal heart attack, and Gordon's youngest son Anthony died. Then in 1996, Gordon suffered a near fatal beating, when he was mugged on Manhattan’s Upper Westside and left bleeding on the sidewalk.
With all of these tragedies behind him, Gordon is back re-energized with his first new studio album in seven years, “I’m Coming Home.” It’s a fine return for Gordon, one of the greatest voices in rock history who, with his deepened baritone, is singing better than ever. The album, co-produced by Gordon and guitarist Quentin Jones, further explores Gordon’s passion for the kind of music he not only grew up with, but brought to a new audience when he arrived on the scene. Some of the album’s highlights include a pair of Johnny Horton numbers, the title song and “Honky Tonk Man,” Buck Owens’ “Under Your Spell Again,” and the Marshall Crenshaw co-written “Walk Hard.” It also includes a pair of new tunes, “Quit This Big Old Town” and “Low Down Weekend” by The Rockcats Dibbs Preston.
While Gordon has always projected a surly ,tough-guy image with his leather jacket, greased back pompadour and “don’t mess with me” look, in person, unless he’s a great actor, is a real pussycat.
He’ll be performing on Friday at Manhattan’s Bowery Electric, a chance to experience his legendary voice in person.
Examiner: How did the new album come about?
Gordon : Quentin and I did all of the production. I wanted to involve him not only as my co-producer, but also as a musician. As you know, I've always been involved with really fine players, and I think he really stepped up to the plate on this album. You know, I hadn’t been in a studio for eight years. I hope this will open some new doors for me.
Examiner: On the new album, you cover Ricky Nelson’s 1958 hit, “It’s Late,” written by the great Dorsey Burnette. Is it age-appropriate for a 67-year-old man to be singing about worrying that the father of his assumed teenage date is going to yell at him for bringing her home late?
Gordon: (Laughs) Well, you know what, people who have heard the new album can’t believe it’s a 67-year-old guy, singing. They say, “Good Lord, you sound just like you did when you first started recording," but regarding the song, the age thing doesn’t bother me at all. It’s a great song.. If I like a song, lyrically, I just get into it. Lyrics are obviously important to me. When I first started recording, they weren’t as much.
Examiner: The album has a very retro, almost completely mono sound, with very little stereo overdubbing.
Gordon: The way we mixed it, I didn’t want to spread things out too much, so it sounds like mono, but it’s definitely stereo. We recorded everything digitally, then went to tape, to get that warm, authentic sound that only tape can give you. So, we downloaded everything from digital to multi-track, and then mixed it from there.
Examiner: Do you think you’ve been unfairly typecast as strictly a rockabilly singer, when you’ve excelled in so many other areas?
Gordon: Yes, that’s true, because if you listen to the new album, there’s maybe one rockabilly tune on it, “I’m Coming Home.” The fact is, when I started doing (rockabilly), it was like new music to most people, but it only reached a certain core audience. It was songs like “Someday Someway” and “Fire” that became successful, not the rockabilly stuff. I mean, I love it and always will but, frankly, I want to keep doing more. I have a lot of original material that I want people to hear.
Examiner: It’s great to see you reunited with Marshall Crenshaw, who plays on he album, and is one of the writers of “Walk Hard.”
Gordon: Marshall sent over a number of songs, and that happened to be one of them. I thought it was a new song because, at that point, I hadn’t seen the movie (of the same name). When I heard it, I just flipped out. My version is very different than the original. I did it with a Johnny Cash, Luther Perkins kind of feel.
Examiner: On the album, you’re also reunited with your old bandmate, “Rockin’” Rob Stoner, who plays bass on nearly all of the tracks.
Gordon: Yeah, it was great to have him back. We hadn’t worked together for many years. So, to get him to come out and play was really exciting for me, and I think he enjoyed it, too. He was one of my main compadres when we were partying back in the day. Now he’s totally clean and sober, and is teaching guitar, piano and bass in Nyack.
Examiner: When you say, “partying,” what exactly are you referring to?
Gordon: Well, you know, the whole drug period. People come up and tell me about a lot of debauchery that I don't even remember. Thankfully, I got through it. We’ve all lost friends. I’ve lost a number of my musician friends. It’s something that we all did. I’m just one of those fortunate ones that got through it because I had some major demons back then. A lot of us did. I do remember going to (John) Belushi’s after-hour club, so you can imagine. We were all nuts back then. (Laughs)
Examiner: As a nine-year old when Elvis Presley first appeared on national television, what did you think of this young good-looking guy with a big pompadour, long sideburns and a guitar, singing and shaking it up like no one before?
Gordon: When I first saw Elvis, it just totally blew me away…totally. The whole look was just great. I loved it. It was something new…real new. It was like “The Wild One” (Marlon Brando’s film, ed.). It was rebellious. It was threatening.
Examiner: You must have started listening to the radio when you were very young.
Gordon: Well, from an early age, I was listening to music. I couldn’t get enough of it. Of course, initially it was that middle-of-the-road stuff. Fortunately we had this wonderful live-in maid, and on Sundays I would listen to gospel music with her. It was amazing. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was the wonderful black stuff, with all of this screaming. (Washington) D.C. was sort-of a proving ground for everything. So, I would hear R&B stuff at an early age and, of course, later mainstream rock and roll.
Examiner: Did you get to meet Elvis or see him in concert?
Gordon: I didn’t. I could have seen him in his later period, but I wasn’t interested. I dug even the whole “Devil In Disguise” period, but after that, his operatic stuff didn’t appeal to me at all.
Examiner: Did you ever get to meet any of your early heroes?
Gordon: The first time I went out to the West Coast, I got to meet Jerry Lee (Lewis) at The Troubadour. His road manager, J. W. Whitten, took me backstage to meet him. Back then, I had the really high hair. (Jerry Lee) was really trashed. He had this broad on his lap and just looked up at me and said, “Man, that’s some crazy hair!” We got to hang out a number of times, after that.
Examiner: Did you ever meet Johnny Cash?
Gordon: I met him on a plane, probably in the late ’70s. He and June Carter were sitting in coach, about five seats behind me. I finally got up the courage to go over to him and say, “I just have to shake your hand.” I would have loved to have had the chance to speak with him, but I didn’t want to make an idiot of myself, so I just said, “It’s great to meet you,” and left. He was just the most polite and sweet guy.
Examiner: How did you meet Bruce Springsteen who, of course, wrote “Fire” for you?
Gordon: Now you’re really going back. I was with a group called Tuff Darts, which was one of the premier sort of...I hate the term “punk,” but that’s what we were really considered along with The Ramones, Blondie, Television, Talking Heads... We all rehearsed in the same places . Believe it or not, one day I was just walking down in the Bowery where I met Bruce, and we became fast friends. He thought “Fire” would be perfect for me but, unfortunately, The Pointer Sisters had the big hit with it. Bruce and I were very close for many years, but he’s so insulated these days, it’s very difficult to get a hold of him. Back in the day though, we hung out a lot.
Examiner: You also met Bob Dylan around the same time as Springsteen.
Gordon: It was probably around ’77. It was one of my first tours of the UK. He came backstage and we hung out. He was pitching songs to me and, back then, my musical tastes were pretty narrow. I mean, here’s Bob Dylan pitching songs to me, like nine new original tunes that no one had heard before, and I kept going, “Next!” When I think about it now, I must have been out of my mind. (Laughs)
Examiner: You’ve worked with some great guitarists over the years. In comparing Link Wray, Chris Spedding and Danny Gatton, with whom do you think you did your best work?
Gordon: They were all very unique. After Link and I parted ways, I wanted a more modern sound, and Chris came in for the “Rock Billy Boogie” album and stayed for 10 more years before we got back together (in 2007). He’s just an unbelievable player. Danny, of course, was amazing, as a picker, a country-ish rockabilly player, totally different than Chris and Link. I mean, if you listen to “If This Is Wrong,” a song Link wrote, it’s ferocious, but it makes you cry at the same time. Every one of those players was very special. I love every one of them dearly. It’s amazing how many of my players have gone of to do other things. Anton Fig is still with David Letterman, Tony Gardiner has been with Dylan a long time. I could go on and on.
Examiner: You were 20 in 1967 during the infamous “Summer Of Love." Did you identify at all with the prevailing counterculture, the whole hippie movement, people taking LSD, smoking marijuana … protesting the Vietnam War?
Gordon: No, but I was already in the army by then. I was (classified) 1-A. I didn’t want to go to Vietnam, so I figured I was better off joining the National Guard. I still had to go to boot camp and regular advance training, the same as regular soldiers. You have to be ready on call if there’s any kind of unrest, like when there were the riots in D.C.
Examiner: So you never felt any solidarity at all with the anti-war movement?
Gordon: Not really. I’m proud to be an American. I think if we’re threatened, then we’ve got to do something about it. That’s it. I don’t want to talk any more about this.
Examiner: On your recording, “Too Fast Too Live, Too Young To Die,” you say, “Don’t mess with me.... I'll drop you fast.” Do you think, with the look you had then in the late 70's and 80's, like someone in a motorcycle gang, that you projected a violent image?
Gordon: I was pretty violent then. I mean, I was going through a lot of changes, a lot of craziness. I mean, I wasn’t really violent. I wasn’t fighting, but I was always ready. That kind of thing.
Examiner: You’ve played a lot of bars. Because of your look, were you ever harassed or challenged by anyone to a fight?
Gordon: No, nobody ever did. So I guess the look worked. (Laughs)
Examiner: You’ve survived some rough times, but the mugging in 1996 had to be the worst thing you've ever experienced.
Gordon: It was a horrible, horrible thing. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I got jumped by five thugs, teenagers. I gave them the money, but they still slashed my face, and almost my throat. If I hadn’t put my chin towards my chest, they would have cut it. They tried to kill me. They left me for dead on the sidewalk. That could have been it for me.
Examiner: How did this experience change your overall outlook on life?
Gordon: I originally didn’t realize how bad I was beat. I got over 300 stitches. When I got up the next day and saw my face, I cried, man. I looked like Frankenstein. I really thought my career was over. The healing process was very difficult, but I wasn’t going to just stay at home. A lot of people are afraid to go out after something like this, but I immediately went out. I mean, I was looking over my shoulder for quite a while, but I worked through it. Now, every day is a good day, man.
Examiner: Someone must be looking after you, Robert. Do you believe in God?
Gordon: I sure do. Definitely.