[30 March 2004]
Just mention her name, and everyone’s pretty sure they’ve heard of Essra Mohawk. Though she’s gained a much higher profile throughout the ‘90s, when jarring loose the sticky drawer of the olde dusty memory archives, I have to tell you that once upon a time Ms. Mohawk was the first female member in Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. Then she went on to join one of Jerry Garcia’s side-trip bands. So countless thousands of concertgoers who followed Zappa or the Dead offshoot bands have seen and heard her. Well, here she is taking a major turn at the microphone with 13 songs she’s put her pen to and all performed in what has since become known as the classic rock style. Which is good for this listener, because I surely have missed hearing good rock and roll lately. And this is really good. If you, like me, miss the sound and the spirit and the feeling of rock as it once was, back when it could so easily find its way deep into our beating hearts and become the soundtrack of our lives because it was so very good, well, this record might be for you, too. Mohawk’s bluesy, soulful soaring voice alone is a sound that should not be missed. Because the sparse modern rock surrounds in no way overwhelm the singer’s efforts, her jazzy slipping and sliding is every bit as comprehensible as her rock punch.
Essra first came to flower at a time when freaks were freaking, and the powers that be were freaking in response. This is back in an era when the freaks had just totally freaked, I mean to tell you they had freaked out, man, in response to the prolonged imposition of buttoned-down authoritarian conformity. They dressed so weird, looked so weird, and probably talked so weird they wouldn’t let Zappa’s entourage board the airplanes they held tickets for.
You’re Not Alone will make a lot of those Zappa/Grateful Dead freaks happy, and there are still a lot of those people. Mohawk came on the scene when women songwriters were regarded as the rarest sort of bird, but during the intervening years she’s built herself a sterling reputation in the industry as a songwriter. Her earliest success was having a song recorded by the Shangri-Las, and her biggest success as a songwriter was when Cyndi Lauper scored a Billboard number three hit with Essra’s “Change of Heart” and then the penultimate compliment arrived when Tina Turner recorded “Stronger than the Wind”, another Mohawk composition. Essra herself inspires others to song, and she in rock ‘n’ roll legend served as the inspirational muse for David Crosby’s “Déjà vu”, Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, and Procol Harum’s “Quite Rightly So”. Think you remember now hearing her or about her?
She deals with broken hearts, floundering relationships, and failing love on this outing, which are common rough topics, but every song has a pearl within it that exists by virtue of the pressures that human nature supplies. The first six songs set the mood for trying to find love or understanding in world gone cold and heartless. Mohawk provides encouragement and advice for the dissatisfied to help keep them from casually straying and ending up forsaken and lonely (“You’re Not Alone”). Simple straight from the heart, good advice, that likely will work if the human heart is still working as it should be: “That’s why I would like to say / To everyone who has someone / Please try to take the time today / To give thanks you’re not alone”. And like an older, wiser friend, she advises the saddest words are the “what might have been"s, and recommends against sifting through the cold dead ashes of imagining how better things might have been, only toting the only ifs, and most of all “Don’t Cry When It Rains”. These motifs and words might sound corny or hackneyed stripped as they are here of the mood made by her melodies and the surrounding music. As songs, they work very well.
Centered as the beating heart of this is “World of Peace”. This is dead-ahead passionate rock ‘n’ roll that can hearken back to the ballrooms of yesteryear, where all those emerald-specs-wearing freaks fled and assembled, after having stepped out into the world with all that youthful optimism and after meeting straight up with a policeman’s wood baton soon realizing they weren’t in Kansas anymore. But having gone through and survived all that ‘60s stuff, there’s still compassion and empathy aplenty in some. And the recognition that it’s not easy to build a world of peace: “They’re burning bridges that you keep tryin’ to mend / You want to love them, you want to be their friend / They hear you knockin’, but they won’t let you in”. Hard rock drums, the visceral howl of harmonica, and the wail of an electric slide guitar are the surrounding sounds in this song’s lyrics, the likes of which I haven’t heard for ages:
“We’re livin’ in a dark age and no one knows or cares / It’s hard to give your trust when people don’t show you theirs / Our hearts are sinking in spite of all our prayers”.
Where can any possibly turn now, but to Essra Mohawk our velvety Earth Mom who always understands, and also specializes in “Dream Repair”. How many people today have written a song like “Dream Repair”? Almost no one. That alone is why I recommend a listen to Essra Mohawk. She still writes and sings about kinder, gentler things in trying to make the world a kinder, gentler place. You’re Not Alone will go a long way to prove why Essra Mohawk has maintained a loyal cult following and a fan club ardency even among the cynical pack of hyperbole-bound critics.