Than A Smokey 2) It Didn't Take Too Long 3) Windy Child 4) Telegraph Towers 5) I
Can't Sleep At Night 6) Cuckoo 7) I Pick Notes From The Sky 8) Stable
the Spuds 9) Down On The Farm 10) Unable To Fly 11) Looking
BONUS TRACKS: 12)
Don't Ya Know 13) Last Great Sperm Whale
In the mid 1960s, Gary Higgins
was a drug using, guitar strumming, longhaired folkie songwriter, playing throughout the Connecticut area. His full red beard and interesting tunes awarded him a super small following on the East Coast with his
first band Random Concept, which also starred future Silver Apples leader Simeon. When
Random Concept failed to make it, Higgins formed the psychedelic folk group, Wooden Wheel in 1971. The band was just about hitting its groove behind Higgins’s haunting voice and poignant songs when
he was arrested for drug trafficking in 1972. He was sentenced to three years
in prison and the band was forced to call it quits.
Just days prior to his sentencing
though, members of Wooden Wheel and Random Concept joined Higgins to make an album’s worth of his songs using a four-track
recorder. With time and money being short, they recorded eleven original Higgins
tunes in a little less than forty hours. The album, eventually called “Red
Hash,” was released on a local Connecticut label in 1973, with a pressing of less than 4000 albums.
given its title, “Red Hash” emits a very relaxed mood, remaining stylish, but giving off a sophisticated
hippie vibe. There are touches of Eastern music in the mix, and Higgins not only
provides the guitar and singing, but also plays drums on each of the tracks, with a mandolin, flute, bass, piano, organ, and
a cello filling out the sound. All of the songs offer melodic touches and have
great vocal hooks, but the record’s tranquil sound is consistent throughout, meaning you have to be in the right kind
of laid back, hungover mood to fully appreciate the entire album in one sitting.
The opening “Thicker
Than A Smokey” rhythmically strolls along, with a beautiful ache that just melts you in. The lyrics could be read as Higgins’s turmoil over his impending prison term, with the refrain: “What
do you intend to do young man? Where do you intend to go?” Higgins answers differently in each stanza, suggesting he flee to Mexico in a cadillac, implying that he’ll
just wear a disguise to hide, and then finally hinting that he might hang himself. The
music is so inviting that you tend to miss the actual hopelessness in his message the first few times you listen, but when
it finally does sink in, the song becomes that much more engaging.
Didn’t Take Too Long” is another leisurely paced guitar track, but features a fine bass groove and Latin
drumming that helps to lighten the mood slightly; but only slightly as this is still a very ominous song, with a drawn out,
not quite creepy organ solo. The hooks and melody are still strong, but the tune
is a little too long at four minutes. The next two tracks are very similar sounding. “Windy Child” is a dreary lament, featuring a dreary flute and
gloomy cello. Although it is a little boring, it is still melodic and sounds
almost adult contemporary-ish towards the end. “Telegraph Towers”
is just as pretty, but it sounds like the exact tune as “Windy Child,” with a violin replacing the flute. Separately, the songs are each gorgeous, but sequenced back-to-back is really too
much to take.
laden, “I Can’t Sleep At Night” is much more sinister sounding, sharing a little with the sluggish,
pulsating rhythm of Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore.” Overall
it is has a very paranoid marching beat, with the chorus of “I’m singing No-o, I’m feeling woe” being
particularly heartfelt, and Higgins’s voice really making you feel cagey. “Cuckoo,”
by contrast, is strangely beautiful, with an eerie edge. By far, the shortest
track on the album, it is a two part song, with the first verse menacingly being sung through the point of view of an insane
person, and the second, more hopeful verse asking “Mr. Cuckoo” to not die, and to come out and play—an interesting
approach, and a charming little song.
Some great guitar
fills help to strengthen the piano track “I Pick Notes From the Sky.”
As the song progresses, more and more instruments build up and the overall effect is far jazzier than the rest of the
album, with Higgins’s voice throbbing, enhanced by gorgeous female harmony in the coda.
The ridiculously long “Stable the Spuds” sounds exactly like “Windy Child”
or “Telegraph Flowers,” only this tune goes on for over five minutes.
It features a strange organ that sounds like a cell phone ring tone, and one of the most bizarre lines in any song
ever: “If I hand you the baked potaters for laters, would you stable those spuds beside you, inside you?” The coda is great, but the song is just too long.
On The Farm” is a bluesy, rock and roll tune with a spooky, Tom Waits vocal that sounds completely out of place
on this album, but I like it. It is supposed to be a comedy, throw away piece,
and adds a little fun. I can understand how some people would feel that it breaks
the mood of the album, but it is harmless. The atmosphere needed to be lifted
anyway, before things got back to normal with “Unable To Fly.”
This is the most boring song on the album, not offensive, and of course melodic and pretty…just a little too
sappy and dull here, sounding too much like other parts of the record. The closing,
“Looking For June” picks up the tempo big time, and sounds like a long lost Procol Harum tune. It is bouncy, hook-filled and has so much attitude that it is an easy highlight.
After Higgins was released
from prison he worked as a waiter and eventually became a registered nurse. He
rarely gigged and seemed content to live out his days with his wife and child, playing only for himself. He was unaware of the cult following of his “Red Hash” album and was shocked
when the Drag City label contacted him over thirty years after he originally recorded it to see if he would be willing to
have it re-released. In the summer of 2005, the label did just that, and Higgins
added two Bonus Tracks. “Don’t You Know” was recorded
in the early 1980s and has a more upbeat flow, more playful and more fun than virtually all of “Red Hash.” The innocence and sophistication is gone with the added polish of more advanced recording
equipment, but it sounds a little like JJ Cale, which is always a good thing. “Last
Great Sperm Whale” was recoded right after Higgins was released from prison in the 1970s. It has a Zeppelin’s “Poor Tom” feel, with strange story lyrics, interesting
vocals, and a great beat courtesy of some fine slide guitar playing. Again, this
is more lively than “Red Hash,” but just demonstrates how of the times and cohesively stylish
his lone recording actually was.
“Red Hash” won’t
floor you with its innovativeness or make you call your friends to tell them about its lyrical twists. It won’t get you dancing or knock you out with its bravado.
What it will do is give you great psych-folk music to relax to and some excellent, forgotten songs. Thirty years after it was recorded, it doesn’t sound dated at all, proving the record’s beauty
and innocence to be absolutely timeless.