A recent phone call to West London finds David Cousins, the leader of the Strawbs, in a good mood. A new album, Blue Angel, has just been released and Cousins, Dave Lambert, and Brian Willoughby are set to depart the next day to begin their second US tour this year. Since they were here this past April they have toured in Canada and the UK every month except August. This has been the rhythm and content of Cousins' life for upwards of 35 years.
"We've got quite used to this," he says.
It was the mid-1960s when Cousins got hold of a recording of the Newport Folk Festival and heard Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs for the first time. Slowing the LP down to 16 rpm, he listened to Scruggs' frailing at half-speed and taught himself the bluegrass banjo. At a time when many of his peers were addicted to the blues, Cousins and a few friends were instead spinning and playing the Foggy Bottom Boys and the Rocky Mountain Boys.
When they decided to put together a band, they adopted one more bluegrass idea and became the Strawberry Hill Boys, naming themselves for a West London knoll. The bluegrass incarnation lasted for about a year; The band's name was shortened to the Strawbs in even less time. The band members began writing their own songs and their English folk roots began to reassert themselves.
But this was London in the late 1960s, where all manner of music could be heard. The Strawbs' first album in 1969 might almost be considered world music now; It is laden with influences from North African to Appalachian. Cousins began transferring the modal tunings associated with the banjo to the guitar, and thus forged the Strawbs' distinctive sound.
By the early '70s, their live shows had become spectacles that featured --- in addition to the music --- ballet dancers, films projected on a screen behind the stage, and mimes. They were part of an underground scene that included Pink Floyd, the Incredible String Band, and T. Rex. This experimental period produced From the Witchwood (1971), Grave New World (1972), and Bursting At the Seams (1973).
Cousins believes quite firmly that pop music should be slightly larger than normal life. "People don't want to hear about their everyday lives," he says. He wrote "Face Down In the Well," a song from a forthcoming album, while in a somewhat altered state of consciousness from medication for a nasty insect bite. The song is about finding a dead body at the bottom of a well and wondering where it came from. The medication had apparently plugged him into the afterlife: One of his neighbors later told him that he had discovered a body in a nearby well a few years before Cousins moved in.
Cousins composes intuitively. "I hear tunes and noises," he says. "The overall texture of the music is important." I ask him if "Blue Angel," the epic track that opens up the new album, is deliberately anti-commercial. With a sharp laugh he says, "I wish someone would play it on the radio."
The song came to him in a country pub, where he was lapsing into a funk. He watched a man with an artificial leg dance with a woman; Someone nearby began talking about a mounted tarantula collection destined for the British Museum. From a melancholy sight, an esoteric conversation, and a lousy mood Cousins produced an 11-minute meditation on mortality. Most of us would have simply had a bad dream and a hangover.
The Strawbs have lately incorporated and negotiated a distribution deal with A&M Records, and have consequently been able to digitally re-master their back catalog. Their complex, multi-layered arrangements benefit from the increased dynamic range and clarity of the new technology. The resulting CDs, with extra never-before-heard tracks, are winning gold records all over again. This exploration of their own past has also produced acoustic arrangements of originally electric songs. Some of these are presented on last year's Baroque & Roll, and even more of them will be heard from the stage on the current tour.
The Strawbs will play on Thursday, November 13, at Milestones, 170 East Avenue, at 8 p.m. Tix: $18 advance; $20 door. 271-3354