[9 July 2014]
“Who’s tripping down the streets of the city / Smilin’ at everybody she sees / Who’s reachin’ out to capture a moment”…. well, everybody of a certain age will know it is “Windy”, but very few people know who wrote The Association’s biggest hit back in 1967. Her name is Ruthann Friedman, a self-professed hippie chick who hung out with notables like Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and Van Dyke Parks. She went on to get a major label record contract with Warner/Reprise, only to disappear from the music scene because of her album’s (Constant Companion) lack of commercial success.
But in 2006, San Francisco’s Water Records label re-released her debut album, which was discovered by a young audience and led to a compilation of unpublished home recordings from 1965-1971 called Hurried Life. Friedman came out of retirement and began performing live again. Chinatown is her first album of new material in 40 years. The almost 70-year-old singer-songwriter may have mellowed with age, but the truth is she was always mellow so time has not changed her as much as one might think.
Friedman captures her life story well on the autobiographical “That’s What I Remember” which begins the new record. As the song’s title suggests, what she sings may or may not be accurate—but it is true to her memory. She veers from childhood reminiscences to teen rebellion to California daze (pun intentional) to musical success and rejection to a desert retirement to a good job as a wife to raising kids to somehow stumbling to the present and trying to figure out what it all means. “Maybe life’s just a big balloon”, Friedman sings, “all I know for sure is that it ends too soon.” If anyone has a more profound statement on the mystery of existence, I have yet to hear it. The silliness is part of the absurd truth.
The songs on Chinatown range from straight folk (e.g., “Springhill Mining Disaster”) to jazz, such as the title song, all performed acoustically with a minimum of accompaniment. The pleasures are subtle and graceful. Friedman’s voice may betray her age, but she sounds joyful instead of cranky. She complains about the indulgences of contemporary life and calls an iPod and “electric teat”, yet Friedman knows the electronic age has its benefits as well as its costs. If this was the last day on Earth, Friedman would still go out and greet friends and celebrate the moment rather than cry in despair.
Friedman knows not everything is roses and good times. She may have been a hippie, and she still believes in possibilities, but she has also experienced the America that continually goes to war and does not solve its domestic problems. She understands that looking for the answers inside oneself does not negate societal losses, that superstition and prejudice often trump love and wisdom on individual and group levels. That just means we should treasure our memories, share our good feelings, and try to be better human beings. The Beatles’ popularly sang, “All you need is love”. Maybe that was too innocent a notion, but it contained more words of wisdom than Mother Mary’s “Let it Be”. Friedman hails from that era when both those songs were hits, and her new record suggests she sides with “love” over inertia—it is the least we can do and a good lesson to remember.