Mike Brewer on 50 Years of Tarkio Road
Fifty years ago last March, Michael Brewer and Tom Shipley celebrated the release of an album that got their music on the terminally square The Lawrence Welk Show while also earning them a spot on President Richard Nixon’s enemies list. This put them in the same company as singer Carol Channing, quarterback Joe Namath, actor Gregory Peck and journalist Daniel Schor.
Despite Nixon’s wrath, the song “One Toke Over the Line” made it up to #10 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the album that included the song, Tarkio Road, featured tight vocal harmonies (neither sang lead), guitar work from Grateful Dead mastermind Jerry Garcia, nods to Kansas City geography and pointed social commentary that still seems relevant.
Curiously, some listeners unfamiliar with cannabis culture thought “One Toke” was a hymn (more on that later). If they had heard the B-side of the single, “Oh Mommy,” they might have heard “marijuana” clearly uttered.
As if to advertise that some of what we were told about THC wasn’t true, both Brewer and Shipley are alive and still performing both together and apart. Brewer even has a 2018 album, After the Storm, that fans can order with a $23 from Michael Brewer, PO Box 150, Powersite, MO 65731.
The Pitch called Brewer at his home outside Branson to learn how leaving Los Angeles for Kansas City helped him and Shipley fly to new heights.
“One Toke” is a song about having one puff too many, but the playing from the session guys and your vocal parts are really tight. It sort of defies the stereotype of stoners.
Well, I have to give a tip of the hat to Nick Gravenites (Janis Joplin), the producer, and when we came in, we had our shit together. We’d been performing the songs. His job was putting together the band to back us up appropriately, to augment what we already had. Actually, it was pretty amazing considering it was made up of a whole bunch of bluesers from Chicago, former members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Michael Bloomfield (keyboardist Mark Naftalin and bassist John Kahn). It was a bunch of blues guys and a couple of folkies. We created kind of a hybrid sound, really.
Then you have Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead playing steel guitar on “Oh, Mommy.”
He’d just started to play pedal steel guitar, and we did five albums at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco. It was like going to the office for a lot of those people. In Studio A, it was always the Jefferson Airplane or some offshoot, Hot Tuna or Papa John Creach.
In another studio, it was the Grateful Dead or Jerry doing his side ventures or Crosby, Stills and Nash and in the studio.
We wanted pedal steel on “Oh Mommy.” We just went down to Jerry and said, “Do you want to play pedal steel?” He said sure, brought it in, and we banged it out.
You and I know what “One Toke” is about, but the folks at The Lawrence Welk Show didn’t.
Obviously. I’ve got to tell you something. I asked the kids of the Lennon sisters, who grew up on the set, and I asked them if anybody there had any idea what they were doing with “One Toke, and they said, “I guarantee you some of the guys in the band did.” (Laughs)
But, Gail and (Dick) Dale (not the surf guitarist), who sang it, didn’t, and Lawrence sure didn’t, either. He referred to it as “a modern day spiritual,” which was hilarious.
When did you first find out that “One Toke” was on the show?
Well, we were in London at the time, so we didn’t see it or or didn’t even believe it, you know. You just got to be kidding, surely not.
My family actually told me. My mother watched The Lawrence Welk Show, and my brother Keith said he was just walking through the room at the time when it came on, and he was just stopped, and our mother was going, “No, Lawrence! No!”
Anyway, 32 years later, my lovely lady Scarlett got her hands on a copy of it, and we put it on YouTube for the world to see. After 32 years, we finally got to see it.
The duo who were singing that were Gail and Dale. A couple of years ago, Tom and I were doing some shows on the east coast, someplace outside of Philadelphia, and Gail Farrell and her husband flew all the way from LA just to come to our show. We went out to dinner with them, and they were very sweet, very nice.
There is a song on Tarkio Road that would be sort of a modern spiritual. The Light is a really lovely tune.
Thank you. I really like that song, also. We’ve never performed that one. There a bunch of our songs that we wrote and recorded but never performed. I’m not really sure why we never performed that one.
You and Tom came from the Midwest, but you came from different areas.
I was born and raised in Oklahoma City. Tom was born and raised in Bedford, Ohio.
How did you decide on KC as your base during the early 70s?
We both started out on the folk circuit. There was a whole circuit of folk groups all across the country. We both toured and played a lot of the same clubs and saw each other’s pictures of dressing room walls or whatever.
Eventually, we already had already had mutual friends in Ohio, and we met at a coffee house called The Blind Owl in Kent, Ohio. And then both ended up in California. I’d already gotten a job as a staff songwriter for A&M Records, which was a brand new label at the time, and Tom came to town and ended up living around the corner from me. And we started hanging out and writing songs together, and he became a staff songwriter for A&M, also.
And, we would go to the studio to record demos of the songs for the record company to pitch to other artists. And we got a few cuts by other people, but anyway our demos didn’t sound like demos; they sounded like records, so A&M said why don’t you guys record your own songs? That’s how our first album (Weeds) came about. We called our second album Down in L.A., and we left L.A. because we just weren’t happy out there.
We just thought there had to be a better way to make music and hopefully earn a living doing it without just being in the Hollywood music scene. It just wasn’t our cup of tea, so we ended up getting a call.
To backtrack a little bit, on the folk club circuit, there was a club in Kansas City called Vanguard Coffeehouse. Everybody in the world played there, including Tom and I solo. People involved with that that club and friends we’d made there were wanting to start a company. We were of a like mind, and they felt the same way we did, but they needed somebody with a record, and we just happened to have Down in L.A.
So, we were playing this school in Wisconsin, and we got a phone call from them saying, hey you guys interested in coming to Kansas City and helping us form a company, and that’s what we did, and then we formed Good Karma Productions. We started playing the Vanguard and every school that existed in Kansas City and all over the heartland.
Both Kansas and Missouri claim you and Tom. You’re in the musicians hall of fame for both states.
Trump doesn’t know the difference. We played both states a lot. Living in Kansas City, you drive across the state line a lot to play a college that’s in Kansas instead of Missouri and both states. We were among the first inductees in both the Kansas and Missouri halls of fame.
I also like to brag on myself a little bit. And the at the end of last year, I was inducted into the Oklahoma music hall of fame. I’m really good company. Talk about Woody Guthrie, Leon Russell, Vince Gill. The list just goes on and on. I’m really proud of that.
The album is loaded with local references like the title song and with a nod to KC in “Don’t Want to Die in Georgia.”
I guess. It’s a little hard to remember what went through our demented brains at the time.
We were playing colleges in Georgia, and at the time the Vietnam War was raging, and the civil rights movements were well under way. There was a lot of rioting going on and social unrest and people protesting this and protesting that.
Tom and I looked like hippies. We were kind of living the Easy Rider thing. We had to pick and choose where we stopped for gas. We were turned away from motels. And that was in the heartland!
Going to the south was even spookier. Euphemistically, Tom was saying, “I don’t want to die in Georgia,” and I started singing “Don’t want to die in Georgia. A lot of the time that’s how our songs came about.
It was the same thing with “One Toke Over the Line.” One night at the Vanguard Coffeehouse, we were getting ready to go on for the last set of the evening, and he said, “Man, I’m one toke over the line.” I just started putting it to music. The next day we said, “What was that thing we were messing in the dressing room, and that’s how we came up with “One Toke.”
A lot of songs came about because of things one of us would say, and then we started putting it to music and collaborating, and then we’d turn it into a song.
The album refers to a lot of the injustices you just talked about, but for some reason when I hear “50 States of Freedom,” I still want to wave the flag.
We love our country, you know. We both absolutely hate what we see happening to it. We believe in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, always have. That’s what we stood up for. In “Oh, Mommy,” there’s a line, “It says right there in the Constitution/It’s really okay to have a revolution” if the leaders that you made really don’t make the grade. We consider ourselves patriots to a certain degree.
We’re not huge political people; we’re spiritual people. We believe in treating people the way they wish to be treated.
It’s hilariously ironic that Spiro Agnew singled you guys out while he’s taking bribes in the White House.
Yeah, isn’t that the truth? He named us personally on national TV as subversives to America’s youth.
And we made Nixon’s Enemies List because of “One Toke Over the Line” and also the other songs we were writing. We held it as a badge of honor. Still do.
It’s not unlike what’s going on today. Good grief, Trump admitted on worldwide TV to doing the things that he turns around and says, “It never happened. Fake news.”
Don’t even get me started on this guy.
One positive sign is that the stuff you used to sing about is now partially legal in Missouri. Did you ever think that would happen?
Well, actually, yeah. Tom and I both thought it would happen in the 70s. We thought it would have happened a long time ago. It’s just amazing to me that it’s taken this long. Who would have guessed.
I have set up four independent solo-released album CDs, and my latest one (After the Storm) has a song on it called “First Legal Joint.” It’s totally autobiographical. We were doing some shows in Colorado a few years ago. Somebody gave us something, and we stepped outside to fire it up back at the hotel after the show, and it dawned on us that we were smoking our very first legal joint, so I wrote a song about it.
Marijuana has been used for millennia by people all around the world for medicinal purposes, spiritual purposes. Personally I’ve always liked it.
I like it a lot.
Paul McCartney once said that when Bob Dylan turned him on to a joint, it just opened his mind, and he saw some things he never had before. It’s been that way for me, too. I don’t know how much of it is Pavlov’s Dog Syndrome, but I take a couple of tokes, and my mind automatically goes to music. I don’t know if I’ve ever written a song where I wasn’t under the influence to some degree.
Folk music has traditionally been about social commentary, and a lot of the songs that we wrote were about the times that we lived in, especially on Tarkio.
I’ve met people from the heartland in a little town in Iowa or Nebraska or whatever, and they just feel like strangers in a strange land. They just felt differently about things, and their brains worked differently, and they felt like they were all alone until they heard our Weeds or Tarkio albums, and they realized, “Wow, I’m not alone after all. You know, there are other people out there who feel the same way I do about stuff. We were performing songs that had been around a couple of hundred years that had social commentary.
Was your record label receptive to Tarkio Road because Motown was nervous about the commentary in Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On.
That was with Buddha’s Kama Sutra Records label. When we left LA, they thought we’d quit the business and gone home because in those days, if you know you didn’t live in Hollywood, San Francisco, Nashville or New York, they didn’t consider you still being in the business, but we had every intention of continuing to make music.
We got out of a contract with A&M and went to the east coast with the demo from Weeds, and Buddha Records was the bubble gum label at the time. Neil Bogart was the CEO, with hits like “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy.” He was known as the bubble gum kind, so he wanted to shatter that image because the times were changing, and FM radio was brand new. And it was also called “underground radio.” The last thing you’d hear would be somebody’s hit single. They wanted album artists. Tom and I are definitely both album artists. Every song on every album meant something to us, and even the placement of the songs and the flow of the music mattered.
So that’s why he signed us. When we wrote “One Toke,” we literally wrote it to make our friends laugh. We didn’t even take it seriously. The first time we played Carnegie Hall, we opened for Melanie (“One Tin Soldier”), and it went over really well. We did two encores and ran out of songs, so we thought, “Let’s do that song.” So we did, “One Toke,” and everybody just loved it. Neil came back stage and said, “You’ve got to add that to the album,” which kind of surprised us, and he chose to release it as a single. He obviously wasn’t worried about any controversy at all.