Daniel Hecht :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Guitarist and novelist Daniel Hecht has the kind of storybook life that inspires the pages of his gripping neurological thrillers and supernatural mysteries. Born in an artists’ community founded by his parents in New York State, he found his way to another radically minded commune in Madison, Wisconsin at the height of protests against the Vietnam War. It was here that Hecht met and lived alongside the legendary Moondog. The blind viking of sixth avenue encouraged the burgeoning finger-style guitarist to record and release his debut album, simply titled Guitar, as a private press LP on his own Dragon’s Egg imprint in 1973. This led to connections with fellow instrumental travelers such as John Fahey, Michael Hedges, and pianist George Winston, who shepherded Hecht into the stable of his new age label, Windham Hill.

That would be the end of the bio for most musicians, but Hecht continued to break ground as the modified “dreadnought” guitar he commissioned from famed luthier Ervin Somogyi became a standard shape for acoustic players. Hecht’s own invention of the pedal capo device allowed him to, in his words, “augment the instrument’s tonal, rhythmic, and textural resources.” Until his retirement from live performances in the early ’90s, Hecht traveled the globe as a rising star in the galaxy of guitar soli, performing twice at Carnegie Hall and venturing to China for a six-week solo trek shortly after the earth-shaking events of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Morning Trip Records have now immortalized Hecht’s Guitar album with its first release on vinyl since the LP’s original run in 1973. Written in the wide-eyed years of his teens and early 20s, it captures the rambling pastoral beauty of formative performances to fellow commune members or cows on a dairy farm. Inspired by Fahey’s poetic observations on the everyday sights of rural America, the song suite includes tributes to volunteer firefighters and demolition derbies, with Hecht’s cycling mantras interrupted by spidery fretboard jumbles or his joyful laughter. Press play below and read on for the kinds of stories that seem more fantastic than fiction. | j locke   

Aquarium Drunkard: Can you start by telling me a bit about the commune where you were living when you recorded your first album?

Daniel Hecht: This was of course a long time ago in the early ’70s. I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, which was then a medium-sized city where the university was. It was a fun place to be, although we spent a lot of time getting gassed during anti-war protests. That was the peak of resistance to the Vietnam War. I moved there to be with my girlfriend, but then we broke up. I had made a friend who lived in an old farmhouse six miles outside of town in a corn field and forest area. I went out there and it was a beautiful, lovely yellow brick house. It had a good ghost in that place. 

There were eight or so of us who lived there. Everybody was into some form of yoga. I lived there for a couple of years until we were kicked out. It was actually owned by the governor of Wisconsin. To put things into perspective, I remember a big discussion we had when it was apparent the rent was going to go up for each of us from $25 to $30 a month. Aw man! [Laughs]

We did our meditation in the house and there was another room set aside for music. It had a beautiful blue carpet, white walls, and windows overlooking the cornfields. We would get stoned every night and everyone played drums or guitar. My friend Glenn Johnson played sarod and I made my own stringed instruments. We became known in the city, so many yogis would come and stay with us. One of my favorite times is when the Hare Krishnas came through to stay there. Eleven saffron robed guys chanting and cooking delicious food. I was ecstatic!

AD: That sounds like a wonderful experience. 

Daniel Hecht: We did whatever we had to for a living. People waited tables, did carpentry, and I taught guitar at a local music store. We also made candy bars called Beeple Bars right there in the kitchen. We had a pretty good delivery route and probably 20 stores that would take these funkily wrapped, handmade candy bars! [laughs] They were very dense predecessors to the modern health food bar, but we sort of invented them. We had a number of recipes. I also met my first wife there, Jean Cannon, who drew the picture on the back of my old album cover and did the lettering on the front. 

AD: How did Moondog come into your life?

Daniel Hecht: One day Glenn and I were walking in front of the student union through a big square where students cross. There was this old guy sitting there playing drums, dressed in a huge red cape with an orange helmet, a spear, and a beard. He was very tall and his eyes caved like pockets in his face. He was a very interesting guy and very open to us. It turned out he was hitchhiking through and needed a place to stay. We told him we were all musicians living in a big, lovely house. Little did we know he was the infamous Moondog who had just come out with his third album on Capitol Records, this big label that put out The Beatles. He played weird, quirky chamber music that I liked because my background is in classical. 

We brought him home and he stayed for six weeks! He was a wonderful guest to have and we set him up in a spare bedroom. He told us his real name was Louis Hardin and he had been blind since the age of 11 from a fireworks incident. I think he was playing with a dynamite cap if I recall correctly. We played music with him every night and he was just so sophisticated. His drumming was transcendental! [Laughs] If I can keep a beat I’m lucky, but he was playing in 5/7 with hand drums. He could beat on a drum or a box, it didn’t matter.

Then he learned Glenn and I were making our weird musical instruments. He said he had traveled everywhere and believed the Irish troubadour harp was ready to have a comeback. It’s portable and as easy to play as a guitar, so we made him one. We had never made a harp before, but we went to the university and they let us measure the strings of the one they had. I forget if the one we made had 24 or 26 strings, and I don’t know if it was a great harp, but we did our best. 

When people discovered he was living there, the two newspapers in Wisconsin came out and interviewed us. I have some photos posted on my blog site and a few articles I wrote about it as part of a series called “Meetings With Remarkable People.” I did many months’ work of blogging and decided I was only going to write about people who are dead! [laughs] I know many remarkable people but I don’t want to write about them while they’re still alive. I also wrote about the guitarist Michael Hedges, who was a friend that I toured with some.

AD: It was Moondog who encouraged you to record and release your own music, right?

Daniel Hecht: It was! I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder that I loved playing with, overdubbing things and changing speeds, but I didn’t know you could make albums. That’s going to be hard to believe nowadays, but you have to remember it was 1971 or 1972. Remember the only format that was available then was vinyl and it seemed really complicated. I was working on my weird repertoire and Moondog asked me if I knew how he got his start. He told me he used to hang out in Times Square and Greenwich Village, drumming in doorways and sleeping at different people’s houses. He decided he was going to cut a record, so he overdubbed himself many times over and would sell them from the doorway to make money. 

I asked him how he went about doing that and he told me he went to a recording studio. We had one in town so I knew about that. Then I found a record company who turned your recordings into a mother and then a master, then pressed it to vinyl. It was in Chicago a few hours away from Madison. Those days we didn’t have Google so there was no way to find out about it except for the phone directory. I went down and recorded the first takes of my primitive stuff. They also printed the cover, which we had hand drawn, and there you were! It was a pretty low-budget release. I’ve told people the vinyl was carved with an axe! [Laughs]

AD: How did you connect with John Fahey?

Daniel Hecht: When I was young I had an indirect connection to John. In the late ’60s there was a radical priest named Don Seaton, who was probably John’s best friend. He lived in Maryland and helped fund John’s first record, alongside the founding of Takoma Records. Don was an episcopal priest, and at some point my brother Nicholas started living at his church in Washington, DC. He was viewed as an up and coming progressive minister. I also lived at that church and met John there for the first time. When I got serious with music I wanted to cut a record for Takoma and sent him a tape. 

I was trained as a classical guitarist and got my start listening to Andrés Segovia. John Fahey’s influence was for me to play with steel strings. It was so wonderful to put them in different tunings and have a whole different tonal reservoir of surprising sound. It was John’s example that led me into a whole lot of that music. He was writing these rural and industrial themes songs. One of my favourites is “The Portland Cement Factory At Monolith, California.” John was the person who liberated my artistic eye so that I would find inspiration in things that aren’t necessarily romantic or poetic. I used to go out and play for the cows. When they crowded around me, I knew it was pretty good.

When I wrote the music for my Guitar album I had lived in a chicken coop at my sister’s house. I shoveled the shit out of it, brought in a piano, a bed, and a little electric heater and played guitar all day. I wrote songs like “The Seymour Volunteer Firefighter Department,” who were based in Seymour, Wisconsin. I was just thinking about the accelerating of those big red vehicles on country roads. Then I went to a demolition derby at the county fair and it blew me away! What are we watching? A bunch of people driving their cars into each other and smashing them up? [laughs] I wrote a song about that called “Demolition Derby.” I was also meditating so I wrote these songs that I thought of as mantras because they were spinning around and around.

AD: How did things take off from there after you signed to Windham Hill?

Daniel Hecht: I met John Fahey again over the years and once I recorded on Windham Hill he and I performed together a few times. Another mutual connection was established when I mailed him my second album, also self-produced, and John sent it along to a friend of his named George Winston. He was a piano player, mainly boogies and blues. George had recorded an album for Takoma, and he loved my music! He became a huge fan and I started getting these incredible letters from some kook in California. [laughs] He was later to become the famous George Winston, who among other accolades was the guy that made Windham Hill happen.

AD: I understand you toured communist China. Can you tell me about that experience?

Daniel Hecht: This is another long-ish story. They’re all long at my age. [Laughs] I had always been into Chinese history and culture. My parents were too, so I was raised in the household of Sinophiles, people who love China. For whatever reason I had become very interested in the Chinese revolution period of 1911 to 1949, when Mao Zedong and the communists finally beat Chiang Kai-shek. I was always sort of literate about that and had read books like Water Margin as a kid. I loved them.

One of my students named Caroline had lived in China. She liked my music and brought the record over there, creating a tiny fan club for me. [Laughs] This was in the mid ’80s, I guess. Then this guy named Liao Cheng asked if he set up a tour for me, would I come? I said of course I would love to. We corresponded at first by mail because I didn’t have a phone connection to China. The way it works in China is that everything is a Catch-22. No organization is willing to sign up unless someone else is on board with it. You can’t get to China unless you have support from the Ministry of Culture, and you can’t get that unless you can prove there’s support elsewhere. 

My official sponsor was the Asian Games, which is sort of like the Olympics of Asia. They were coming up and somehow he got the Asian Games Commission to invite me. I bought the tickets and then the citizen protests that we know as Tiananmen Square happened. I’m talking weeks before I was supposed to go over there. The world was outraged and everyone was cancelling their tours of China. The New York Metropolitan Opera goes over there, but many smaller performers do too. It was creepy to hear about people being machine gunned. All of a sudden it falls apart and this was after five years of setting up the tour!

AD: What happened from there?

Daniel Hecht: I said “fuck it!” I’m going to go anyway if I can possibly get it. The day was approaching and I didn’t have a visa so I called the Chinese Embassy in Washington. They got so used to me that they would say “Is this the fellow from Vermont?” [Laughs] I called on our senator Patrick Leahy. Here in Vermont we’re lucky to have access to such wonderful senators – Bernie and Patrick. By god he said “I’m going to get right on that.” He pulled some strings and the next day that fucking visa arrived. The day after that I was on a plane to China!

They were paying my way, so they worked me to death. I didn’t bring my good classical guitar with me and just borrowed one instead. At that point I had invented my guitar machine, the pedal capo, and written a suite for it. I did a short U.S. tour using it to get in shape for the tour of China. Every time I used it I got a standing ovation because I was using both hands on the fingerboard and machine hammering away. It was a lot of fun! [Laughs]

When I got to China I realized how it works is that you get up early in the morning as a guest performer. This was sort of heaven and hell for me. I was in this amazing place but I couldn’t speak the language. When you walk down the street there are signs everywhere but I couldn’t tell if they were advertising a pharmacy or a hardware store! The cultural context was completely gone. I was also the only caucasian. Everyone else had left to protest the slaughter of dissidents. I landed in Shanghai and stayed at the American university, then traveled throughout the country. I would play a masterclass at a local conservatory and then do another performance in the evening at big spaces that were like Carnegie Hall. They were absolutely empty, desolate, and dusty because they hadn’t been used since I got there. 

I had security guards, not to protect me but to keep people away from me. They didn’t want me contaminating people’s bourgeois liberalism. As it turned out my tour was the leading edge of a cultural reconciliation. I guess it was the first Bush and his Secretary of State, Baker, that facilitated the happening of my tour. I traveled by train and slept in these bunk beds with six people in the cabin. I would get to the ticket booth and they would tell me it’s all sold out, which was total bullshit. The ticket sellers were on the take and wanted you to go buy from scalpers outside of the station. It was just so corrupt.

Cheng knew a few tricks and he told me the first thing you do was go buy a few bottles of Johnnie Walker Black. Then you buy a carton of Marlboros. He said “trust me, you can get anywhere in China with those.” We would bribe our way onto the train, even those I was this highfalutin guest from the Ministry of Culture! [Laughs] 

AD: I’ve never heard of a tour like that.

Daniel Hecht: It was overwhelming and so incredible. God, what an experience. I’ll never forget it. The young people were so starved for this connection to enlightened society, so my performances would be packed. The government who had total control of my existence wanted to exploit my appearances to show that they were good guys. In Tianjin, a huge city of 12 million people south of Beijing, I played in a theatre with four or five thousand audience members. I was on stage finishing up and the back doors of the theatre opened up. Here came a bunch of guys with submachine guns. They were Chinese Red Guards with huge hats, stars, and red epaulets on their shoulders. They fanned out across the stage and faced these students with their guns. 

The kids were going wild booing these 20 guards, and out of the woodwork came TV cameras that I hadn’t seen. This cadre of horrible old men wanted to shake my hand on TV. I was caught between a rock and a hard place because I sympathised with the students but these guys had the guns and the control over my entire existence. I was taken aback because they totally sprung it on me. I shook hands with the first guy but then refused the second. The students cheered when I was hustled offstage by these guards. I was taller than all of them so I raised one hand in a clenched fist and the place went wild with cheers! [Laughs] 

That was very tense because all I knew was that someone would act out and I would be caught in a massacre. Or I could just get in trouble with the government. That level of intensity was very hard to maintain, but it was great. What an adventure. There was nothing better than the time when we snuck out of our hotel to ride bicycles in the middle of the night and drank at a little beer pub. On my last day the secret service guard who was always out there not letting me contaminate people turned to me and said “Mr. Hecht! Mr. Hecht!” I said “yes, what?” He said “the government is sometimes very stupid, but people can still be friends, yes?” It was all very touching and such a warm feeling. 

AD: I can see how you transitioned into a novelist with adventures like that! Can you tell me a bit about your upcoming book? It’s your eighth novel coming out next year, right?

Daniel Hecht: Well, I’m not sure if it is because I’m running really late with it. My books started as thrillers but they’ve gotten more and more subtle. Of course they always were subtle, even Skull Session that was a big best seller. I thought of it as literary because I had never actually written a thriller before that. I just had a true story, and a lot of the things that happened in that book happened to me!

I went to University of Iowa and got an MFA in writing. I know a lot of great writers and what they do for money is sell insurance. Yeesh. But every time I told that story at dinner parties people told me it was so scary and cool. Sure enough, I wrote Skull Session and it sold for a million dollars. I was very briefly a millionaire and very much loved it. [laughs] Later books were less thrilling and more interesting. I had a wonderful time writing Land of Echoes when I got to know Navajo people living on a reservation. My last book On Brassard’s Farm came out last year and it’s a love story set on a Vermont dairy farm. 

This next book is called My Father’s Novel or The Westchester Bohemians. It’s kind of about my weird family now and the artist’s community where I grew up in New York. My parents were part of a strange rebellious generation and they had very interesting friends. I have 400 pages written and it’s nowhere near done. I could learn how to write shorter but it’s very complicated because it goes back and forth between the present day and the 1940s. I have to say I’m very bogged down by it, so when it comes out will be a mystery. I don’t know if it’s me but I just get overwhelmed when I think about it. My publisher has been very patient.

AD: How does it feel to drift back into thinking about music with Guitar being reissued?

Daniel Hecht: I’m amazed that anyone wants to re-release this album because it was very primitive playing, but I was heading off into new musical directions. Eventually I would feel pretty good about playing a part in creating the American steel string guitar style. In fact, my guitar that I commissioned from Ervin Somogyi – he and I created it together after I told him what I needed and wanted – has become the sort of standard reference guitar for American fingerstyle. There are interviews with Ervin on the web about it. I moved on from Fahey and some of my pieces are pretty athletic because I had that classical training. I had the little role I played back in the day in the creation of an idiom. 

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