Friday, October 29, 2010

Al Kooper and Stephen Stills -- "Season of the Witch" (1968)

When I look over my shoulder,
What do you think I see?
Some other cat looking over
His shoulder at me

Paranoia was very popular when I was in college.  Some people were sure that the FBI or the police or the army or someone was keeping track of them.  (Doubtful that most of them were really dangerous enough to attract such attention, I'm guessing.)  

Just about everyone recorded "Season of the Witch," which was written and originally recorded by Donovan in 1966.  Donovan had good reason to be paranoid -- just a few months before his Sunshine Superman album was released, he became the first big British rock star to be busted for marijuana possession.  

Julie Driscoll
Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger covered the song in 1967.  (I only recently became familiar with their version, which is very good -- perhaps the best of all of the covers.)  

Vanilla Fudge's version of the song was released as a single and made it to #65 on the Billboard chart.  (Vanilla Fudge re-released it in 2002, when they reunited.)  The legendary supergroup, the Masked Marauders (more about them later), included it on their one and only LP in 1969.  

Others to record the song included Sam Gopal, Pesky Gee!, Suck, Hole, Luna, Dr. John, Joan Jett, Richard Thompson (his version is on the "Crossing Jordan" soundtrack album), and Lou Rawls.  

Perhaps the lines quoted above inspired these lines from Massive Attack's "Safe from Harm":

I was lookin' back to see 
If you were lookin' back at me
To see me lookin' back at you

The version of "Season of the Witch" I remember best is this one, the Al Kooper-Stephen Stills version that was included on the Super Session album.

Super Session was Al Kooper's idea.  Kooper was sort of a rock music Renaissance man -- he did everything and did everything well.  When he was 14, he was playing guitar for the band that recorded "Short Shorts," and when he was 16, he co-wrote "This Diamond Ring" for Gary Lewis & the Playboys.  (I believe this puts Kooper within two degrees of Leon Russell, although I wouldn't be surprised if they had a one-degree connection somewhere down the road.)  And Kooper was the guy who played the organ on Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone."

Kooper formed Blood, Sweat & Tears, but left after their first album, Child Is Father to the Man (which is a brilliant piece of work -- more about it later as well).  He discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd, and produced their first three albums.  He produced the first Tubes album (which I've written about on this blog -- it's a work of genius as well).  He was the musical director for the mid-1980s Michael Mann television series, "Crime Story," which starred one of my favorite character actors, Dennis Farina.  And this barely scratches the surface of Kooper's musical accomplishments.  

Super Session was Kooper's idea.  It features Kooper and guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills, but Bloomfield and Stills never play together on the record.  (It's Bloomfield on side one, and Stills on side two.)   Here's the story behind that.

Al Kooper
When Kooper decided to do Super Session, he had recently left Blood, Sweat & Tears and was working as an A&R man for Columbia Records.  (A&R stands for "artists and repertoire" -- in essence, Kooper was a talent scout).  Bloomfield was about to leave Electric Flag (I'll get to them eventually as well), so Kooper called to see if he was free to come down to the studio and jam.

Kooper booked two days of studio time and recruited keyboardist Barry Goldberg and bassist Harvey Brooks (both were old pals of Bloomfield's from the Electric Flag), along with session drummer "Fast" Eddie Hoh, who by coincidence had played drums on Donovan's recording of "Season of the Witch."  The first day, they recorded mostly blues-based instrumental tracks.

Super Session (day 2)
On the second day, Bloomfield was nowhere to be found.  The desperate Kooper was able to reach Stephen Stills, who was in the process of leaving Buffalo Springfield and who agreed to drop by the studio.

That day, Kooper's merry little band recorded mostly vocal tracks, including Bob Dylan's "It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry" and a leisurely, eleven-minutes-and-seven-seconds long version of "Season of the Witch" by Donovan.

The album, which eventually went gold, cost just $13,000 to make.  It was The Blair Witch Project of rock albums, and helped inspire a whole series of "supergroup" collaborations — Blind Faith (coming soon to this blog), Crosby, Stills & Nash, and others.  

Kooper forgave Bloomfield, and the two of them made several concert appearances after the album was released.  A three-night gig at the Fillmore in the fall of 1968 was turned into a two-record album The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper.   The cover of that album was a painting of Kooper and Bloomfield by . . . are you sitting down? . . . Norman Rockwell.

Just in time for Halloween, here's the Kooper/Stills version of "Season of the Witch":

Here's a link to use if you'd like to buy the song from iTunes:

Season of the Witch - Super Session

Here's a link to use to buy the song from Amazon:

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