“The best [story] is when I got out. The worst is when I went in.”
That’s Larry Conklin—guitarist, singer, songwriter, journalist, world traveler, and former soldier—on the best and worst stories of his military career in Alaska, before arriving in Seattle to cut his album 1980 album, Jackdaw, recently reissued on Tompkins Square Records.
But before we discuss Jackdaw, let's talk about the strangest experience from Conklin's Army days in Alaska. He relates that the unit set a fire “in a remote area of forest and tundra. The fire started beneath the tundra from live tracer rounds and it burned a while before anyone noticed. By that time it was too late. A Second Lieutenant told me to dig a ditch, a fire break, one foot wide and one foot deep. Naturally the trees all came down around us and we were trapped and all had to jump in a lake. When the fire was over, all the guys from the North were horrified to find leeches on their bodies.”
A Long Island native, who’d headed all the way across the continent to Alaska, Conklin arrived in Seattle in 1974, leaving the leeches behind.
“I have to say, Bert Jansch excited me more than anybody else I had heard,” he relates, about his early music listening back East. “His music was sparse, clever, poetic and a real pleasure to listen to. I bought his first album, Lucky Thirteen, on Vanguard Records. I bought that album in the mid-'60s just on the basis of the cover. Also in my youth I loved the acoustic sounds of the Everly Brothers and the Kingston Trio, and I collected all of the hit instrumentals from that time: The Ventures, The Chantays...
“After years of playing guitar,” he continues, “you just find your way toward people with incredible abilities on the instrument. One is Django Reinhardt, whom I can listen to all day. Another is Jimi Hendrix. These two had inexhaustible ideas.”
Jackdaw originally appeared as a private press record (i.e., paid for by the participants, not a record label), and was issued in a limited run of a few hundred copies. Conklin recorded the whole album live in the studio, playing one six-string Gibson J-45, with Jochen Blum on violin and occasional 12-string guitar.
Conklin met Jochen in Italy on a jaunt from Seattle to Europe. “He was a medical student moonlighting as a blues violinist. One night we were sharing the bill, and at the end we played together backstage. It was exciting. The next day we got together and I played him all of my songs. He could play with all of them. I returned to Seattle and he soon followed. We toured a little bit around the Pacific Northwest and decided to make an album.
“The studio I found from the phone book was on Queen Anne. They did mostly religious albums. I gave them $300. Some of it was given by friends, plus the little I had. We were halfway through the album when we ran out of time and money, but at that point we played a song called ‘Traveler.’ They liked it so much that they gave the rest of the day for free.
Reminiscing about his activities from over three decades ago, Conklin recalls playing with Artis "The Spoonman," Baby Gramps, and Liza Dietrichson. "We all played at Bumbershoot, the Folklore Society, Fat Tuesday and KRAB radio. A few days before I left Seattle, I performed most of Jackdaw with Orville Johnson on violin at the Comet Tavern—a great watering hole at the time.”
The guitarist would move to Europe for 21 years, but at least one prominent Seattleite remembered the music of Jackdaw. Living in Berlin, in 1985, Conklin received a letter from Seattle mayor Charles Royer, whom he'd never met, asking to use Conklin's music ["The Diamond Cutter"] for his third mayoral campaign, which he won. “I didn't know him, but somebody sent me a calendar of watercolors of Seattle and on the inside Charles Royer wrote, ‘If Seattle were to be painted, it would be a watercolor.’ Seemed like a nice guy.
“When I came back to America, I moved to Boise and I visited Seattle on several occasions,” Conklin muses. “I still have friends there. When I saw Seattle again, it seemed to be sprawling, and everyone on the streets looked like they were born after I left.”
Summing up his current outlook, Conklin says, “I'm not as ambitious as I used to be. The business has changed, but I have a lot of new material that I plan to record here, because I might forget them in later life.”