Alone Together: An Interview With Dave Mason
Conversing at sea with the English guitar legend who’s seen it all
In the 1983 mockumentary, Zelig, Woody Allen played a modest individual who somehow shows up at key moments in history while rubbing shoulders with the iconic individuals who had a hand in influencing the culture and climate of a particular era.
Dave Mason claims he never saw that film, but in a very real way his true life story mirrors that of the character called Zelig. From the mid ‘60s on, he’s mixed and mingled with any number of influential artists, gaining his own fame with the band Traffic and then going on to share studio time and stages with the likes of George Harrison (on the landmark All Things Must Pass), Jimi Hendrix (via Electric Ladyland and rhythm guitar on “All Along the Watchtower”), Paul McCartney (playing guitar on “Listen to What the Man Said”), Delaney and Bonnie with Eric Clapton (offering up his song “Only You Know and I Know”), an abbreviated tenure in the seminal stages of Derek and the Dominos, and even a brief stint as a member of Fleetwood Mac (as shared on the album Time).
That doesn’t even include a stunning solo career that found him simultaneously entering and exiting Traffic some three times and finally making his individual debut with his classic initial entry Alone Together, a duo album with Cass Elliot, the critically acclaimed It’s Like You Never Left and his smash hit single “We Just Disagree.”
Consequently, Rock & Roll Globe was honored and delighted to obtain an exclusive interview with Mr. Mason onboard the On the Blue Cruise, which found him headlining alongside such luminaries as Justin Hayward, the Alan Parsons Project, the Zombies, Starship featuring Mickey Thomas, Renaissance, Al Stewart, Little River Band and a host of other artists of a certain vintage stature.
We caught up with him in his cabin, hoping to uncover some essential history and trivia. Nevertheless, the conversation began with him grousing about the current state of the music biz.
You seem to have been everywhere, Dave. You’ve been present at all these incredible touchstones of modern rock. What does that feel like?
I don’t really think about it. unless somebody’s asking me. It’ll all be in the book anyway.
I was badgered into it.
How about a new album? The last thing you released was a re-recorded take on Alone Together nearly three years ago.
There’s no point. I mean, there’s been no point for for quite some time. There’s new stuff, but it’s a waste of time putting it out. And there’s no radio anymore, which everybody seems to forget is a very powerful media. But now there’s nobody home. There are no Deejays…nobody there anymore. Nobody says, “Hey, check out this record.” No one. Nothing. That’s the problem. There’s nothing and everybody’s just stealing everything. They politely like to call it a file share.
But you’re Dave Mason. You have a hallowed name. A brand, if you will…Don’t you think that there are people that would naturally want to buy a new Dave Mason album? Look at the folks of that generation who do buy records, the people on this cruise? I mean, you know, look, at least people of this generation, you know, that would go out and buy it?
Well, I suppose t the problem is that what you sell doesn’t really cover the cost of doing it. So it’s just a waste of time. To paraphrase Don McLean, the music died when those guys invented mp3.
There’s just no way to promote your stuff anymore.
From what you’re saying, it’s really a dire proposition.
The problem is, you can’t create a new audience. I mean, basically the reason I have such a large audience is because they heard my music in every college and because that’s where my music first got played. But now my audience is dying off. That’s why my current tour is called the “Endangered Species” tour. I can’t get the access to a younger crowd. And I can’t get it on the radio and it’s the same thing with the festivals. They don’t want to book older artists. They won’t put you on the bill. In the Traffic days, ,when we first played at the Fillmore East, we insisted that the Staple Singers open for us. We were paying homage to the people that we listened to. But now it’s a mercenary business.
You made an interesting return to the past with your revised take on Alone Together. What made you redo that seminal album?
It was mostly because the old masters got lost in the Universal fire.
So what was it like revisiting that first album and that early material?
Most of the stuff I play live anyway. So we just cut it with the band. Anything really different, like the new take on “World In Changes,” was just because I was screwing around with the songs. So that’s how it really came about.
Well of course that was one of the great debut albums of all time. It was a landmark album. There was a lot of anticipation about what you would do next. And you really, you really brought it home with that album, even though you had a lot of a lot to live up to at that point. And of course we all loved the marble color vinyl as well. So let’s talk a little more history. You were in a band called the Hellions early on, which also included Jim Capaldi prior to the two of you helping to form the first incarnation of Traffic. So at what point did you know this is what you were going to do with your life and it wasn’t just sort of temporary fling?
I mean, I just wasn’t going to work nine to five so it was either this or a life of crime. I knew working nine to five wasn’t gonna work for me. I was 16 and I discovered all these bands and thought, I could do that. And I just got lucky. It’s just a lot of persistence. You just do it at the expense of everything else in your life.
The late ’60s was obviously a turning point in the whole trajectory of rock ’n’ roll, what with the experimentation, the psychedelia, expanding of the boundaries, and that sort of thing. Did you know that you were part of a shift in the sensibilities so to speak?
Well, there was all that. I mean, that sort of started basically once we got things going with Traffic, We got together with Steve [Winwood], somebody that already had had hit records. So we were just got lucky at that stage, because we were all but guaranteed some sort of success. And then it just kept went on from there. At the time, songwriting was also part of the impetus. I got into this to make money, and also to meet girls. It’s just like everybody else, if they tell the truth. You had no idea how long it would last. But at 19 and 20 years old, you’re not gonna give a shit. I mean, anything’s possible. When you’re that age. It’s gonna go on forever. It’s just, it’s a different perspective.
But at point with Traffic, you must have realized that you guys were doing something special and unique.
Well, we didn’t know what we were going to do be honest with you. When we first started, we wanted to cover some Bobby “Blue” Bland stuff. We had no clue. That’s why we were all we took off for that cottage in the country, right as a place to just figure it all out. We were just jamming and doing all that shit back then.
You were sort of ahead of the curve as far as that jam band genre was concerned.
We were listening so much different stuff, from Coltrane to R&B. We just listened and listened. We had very diverse musical tastes. It was just a melting pot, seeing what would work. And then I just got started writing because I just wanted wanted to see what I could do. I had no idea what I could contribute, other than just being a sideman to Steve Winwood, which is what I could have been. And then Jim [Capaldi] turned out to be great with lyrics. We put all those songs together and it gained more of a pop sensibility.
Your songs were very distinctive. You could always tell the Dave Mason songs.
My tastes always leaned to more of a pop sensibility. I thought It was great to have those differences. I always thought Traffic would have been something that was a unit that would allow us to have done things together and then do our own solo stuff, right. It would be similar to Crosby, Stills and Nash. But it never worked out that way.
You were in the band, then you left and you came back several times, right?
Yeah, I was there and then I left after the first album and then I came back mostly because they only had five songs for the second album. And I had five songs that I’d written, one of them being “Feeling Alright.” So it was like, Hey, cool, come on back. And after that, I pretty much felt there really wasn’t anything there for me. And I tried actually tired to put something together with Ginger Baker after Cream, but it didn’t really work out and I didn’t really want to do it because it was like, you know what, I know what’s going to happen. This is a three piece and I’m gonna get rated up against Eric Clapton, so I’m not going to go through that. There was nothing there for me to be part of. So I opted to find my inspiration elsewhere, from where it all started, with was American music. Bonnie and Delaney was part of it because they were rootsy. So I got together an played guitar with them for a year or so.
Right. You were there along with Clapton and Harrison as well. Right?
That’s also how Clapton got involved. George never did tour with them. Maybe he was there afterwards. I think he did a couple of dates. Eric took that band and formed Derek and the Dominos, but that wasn’t destined to last long. I was in that band in the beginning and that’s when Eric got into heroin through [drummer] Jim Gordon. There was a lot of sitting around doing nothing, and so at some point, I was like, guys, you know what, I’m going to leave.
Who knew? So where you there with Duane Allman at that point?
But there were some tracks I did with them. I don’t know where they are though.
It would be fascinating for you to release an anthology of all those tracks that have never seen the light of day.
There’s stuff I did with Hendrix, but I don’t know where it is.
It could be a 53 CD boxset or something like that. There’s so much history there. And of course you were friends with Hendrix. You first heard Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” at his flat or and he decided cover it with you playing acoustic guitar on it.
Yes, that’s also me singing on “Crosstown Traffic.” And there were some tracks with me playing bass and sitar, but I don’t have any idea where that stuff is.
AUDIO: Jimi Hendrix “Crosstown Traffic”
It would be wonderful to collect all that stuff. There are obsessive collectors like myself, who would love to hear all that.
There’s a version of “Across the Universe” that I’m on.
Wow! Really? With John Lennon?
There was a whole group of people in the studio on that one.
So when you when you look back on all this, is it sometimes like, “Wow, I can’t believe I was there for all these landmark occasions?”
That was the world I was living in, right. So it just so happened that I was there. Most that stuff was done while I was in England. And the thing about that was that there were only so many studios in London, and everybody used the same studios, everybody used the same engineers, everybody went to the same clubs. There was only one place to record and that was London. In America, you had San Francisco, Nashville. Memphis, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, all of which were music centers. It was spread out. In England, everybody was in one place. So you’re gonna run into somebody or get to know somebody at a club like the Speakeasy or the Scotch or St. James. You went to the same Indian restaurant, the same Moroccan restaurant. Places like the clothing boutique, Granny Takes a Trip. It was a small circle. This was the ‘60s in in London, which was all about fashion and art and music. It was all going on.
Were you aware that it was a magical time? Or was it just part of the routine?
It was just what was happening. I guess the whole point was it was, we were there to make something happen. We were kids. We were 19 and 20 years old. That’s what you do. The rest of it’s all in retrospect. Everything’s in hindsight,
So are you ever taken in by our nostalgia?
For most of these people on this cruise, what I’m doing is selling memories. It’s about the memory of a song that they got laid to, who they were hanging out with at what college they were attending at the time.
How do you reconcile that with your creative leanings and find some sort of compromise?
I don’t know. It took me two years to write those eight songs on my first album. I’m not very prolific. I don’t have any set way I do stuff. And I don’t have any set style of music, which I think was probably a problem for me, or for other people, or the critics or whatever the business people happened to be at the time.
Yet, you can always tell a Dave Mason song, whether it’s your voice, your guitar work or simply your distinctive songs.
I think for a lot of people, they have to be able to compartmentalize shit. That’s always been a problem. If it doesn’t fit into this thing, we can’t find a place for it. I wasn’t writing for anybody else but myself. “Feelin’ Alright” has been covered by 15 major artists. Every bar band still plays it. It became a really became a big cover song, but I have to thank Joe Cocker for that.
I got lucky with that one. I wrote it when I was in traffic. That was one of the five songs I contributed when I came beck because they didn’t have enough songs to finish an album. It was like, “Come on back in the band.” Okay.
What can we expect going forward now?
I do have a little blues record that I’m going to put out where I do two or three tracks with Joe Bonamassa. I do “Cocaine Blues” and maybe my version of “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.”
You do that song in concert. But it’s kind of curious because you didn’t write that one. You also do “Dear Mr. Fantasy” in your set as well.
I don’t do them the way Traffic did them. I was originally a writer on “Mr. Fantasy,” but then Steve took my name off. So I do that, but I do my own version of it. It’s a whole different version. The same melody, but a whole different chord structure. And with “Low Spark,” I just treat it as a blues song. I liked the words and stuff, but I never liked their version of it. A lot of the stuff I do is because it’s a cool vehicle for me to play guitar. I’m a guitar player. I’m a singer and songwriter, but that was all secondary. I never got into this for that. From my point of view, I’m just a guitar player. So a lot of the stuff I do live, people say, “We didn’t know you did that.” Well, you know what? I’d be bored if I had to do the same songs every night. So I do stuff that I like.
I guess there’s a fine line between having to please the audience and being able to please yourself at the same time.
Here’s the way I go about it. I’m here to please me. Because if I’m not pleasing me, then you may as well just go home and put a record on and listen. Otherwise, there’ll be no authenticity to it. There’ll be no energy. I don’t want to be I don’t want to be one of those acts going through the motions. Here are the hits and that’s it. I like to keep the music fresh. You either like it or you don’t. Getting wrapped up constantly in this nostalgic things is a little bit of a drag.
But that’s what it’s all about for the people on this boat.
It’s another show for me, that’s all. I can’t stand up on this Goddamn boat. I have to sit down.
But there are certain expectations as to what they expect.
I know what they want, but I don’t know what they expect. To me, it doesn’t matter what they expect. I can’t worry about that. I’m doing this for me.
Well, at least you’re honest about that.
If not, I’d be just going through the motions. It would be just be a paycheck. It’s the only paycheck we’ve got left. There are no royalties anymore, and the only way that happens is if somebody’s playing it heavily on a radio. Playing live is the only income we’ve got. With Spotify and Pandora, you can get five million fucking plays, and they send you a check for$ 250. That’s outrageous? These people don’t have a clue about that. They just want to hear the music, but they
Have no clue what’s going on with me. They’ll go and see some cover band. If they sound good enough to decide they don’t care. I can’t cater to what they want, or what they think they want.
So do you still get the same joy out of playing live and touring?
I love playing live. I’ve got a great band, but the touring is a pain in the ass. That’s what I get paid for. They pay me to leave the house.
But you know, the point is, you’re a part of the so-called soundtrack of people’s lives. You’re an indelible part of their musical memories. You can’t avoid that.
I’m not trying to avoid it. It’s odd to be in a very intimate relationship with people that I have no clue who they are.
Do you ever see a day when you’ll retire?
And sit around and wait to die? No, of course not.
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