(Photo Credit: Marianna Burdon)
Eric Burdon is best known for his work with The Animals and War, but he’s also thrived in his solo career, a streak that continues with his excellent new album ‘Til Your River Runs Dry. Still going strong in his 70’s, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer took some time out to talk about his memoirs (he’s on his third), the advice he got from George Harrison, inspiring Bruce Springsteen and more.
Your new album has nods to Bo Diddley. What did he mean to you as a musician?
Bo Diddley was one of my heroes, but we never actually met face to face. The Animals first recorded Bo Diddley songs in the very early days. In 2007 we performed on the same festival in Australia. We didn’t get to meet then either. We passed in the night, but my road manager at the time went backstage to see him and was given the message directly from Bo, “Tell that white boy to record more Bo Diddley songs.” When he passed away, my wife and I went to his memorial service in Clearwater, Florida. Seeing him for the first time, face to face, looking up at me from his coffin, I could feel his presence very strongly. He looked so good, so real and alive in the open coffin, that we thought he was just pretending and actually could hear everybody eulogizing him. I promised him, then and there, that I would record more of his songs, so I did.
You’re working on your third memoir. Have you ever regretted anything you put out there in public?
I don’t carry around any big regrets. The only records I wouldn’t have released were some of the ones that were never intended for release in the first place. In a long career, what makes sense at the time doesn’t always hold up in the long run. For example, the musical style that was the sound of the day in the Eighties doesn’t make sense today. The Eighties was sort of a lost period in music, when video became more important than the music itself. The songs, however, are good enough to consider re-recording.
How did you feel about Bruce Springsteen praising you at last year’s SXSW?
It was a pleasant surprise and one that really put the spotlight on me. It was a boost, coming from the Boss, whom I respect greatly. I appreciated his point that The Animals were a little rougher around the edges than some of the other groups of that era. He related to our working class roots. But to hear him say that every one of his songs, from “Born to Run” to “Born in the USA” and the whole new album, was inspired by one of my songs, that can’t help but make you feel pretty good. The biggest surprise was that he actually saw what I was going through, underneath the suit. It was so nice to see that this kid from New Jersey could identify with the “gorilla in a suit,” as he put it.
Have you heard the Regina Spektor song “Oh Marcello?” She quotes you in it.
No, I haven’t.
What do you like to listen to when you’re at home?
When I listen to music, it’s the same stuff I’ve always loved — Ray Charles, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Howling Wolf, Charlie Parker. Of the newer artists, I like Calexico, Alabama Shakes, the Black Keys…I loved Amy Winehouse.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Tim Hardin, Leonard Cohen, Eric Bibb, Mark Cohn, Neil Young… John Lennon, (especially the few songs recorded after the Beatles parted). But all of the bands that came out of England wouldn’t have found themselves if they hadn’t been listening to Chuck Berry, whom I consider the poet laureate of America.
What’s your typical approach to songwriting?
A pencil and a piece of paper. And a melody that stays in my mind and won’t go away.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
As a teenager, I always carried around a blank notebook. Years later, that became “songwriting.” I never once thought of songwriting as a serious career. I was fortunate that so many great people wrote songs for me to sing in the early days. The concept of the “singer-songwriter” wasn’t established yet. With The Animals we were just out there preaching the blues to the younger kids to turn them on to the music of pioneers like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, etc.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
I wrote many songs before this one, but I have to say that “When I was Young” stood the test of time. When I first wrote it I played it to George Harrison and his comment was “Great! You got to do more of this. You’ll know you’ll be able to sing this song when you are in your forties.” Now I am in my 70’s and I am still singing it.
What percentage of songs that you start do you finish?
I’m constantly writing down ideas. Sometimes they resurface years later and work with something new. It’s hard to say what percentage actually becomes a song. A small percentage, really, when one considers the number of ideas. I try to finish songs that I start but there’s always something new cropping up that wants to be completed first.
What’s a song on ‘Til Your River Runs Dry you’re particularly proud of and why?
The truth is I’m proud of all of them. It’s strange but with this record, I can say that I’m proud of each and every song. If you want me to pick one, I’d have to say “River is Rising”, “27 Forever,” which I wrote for all my friends who passed away at the age of 27 and “Wait,” which I wrote for my wife. All the songs are personal to me, “Bo Diddley Special,” and “Water.” All of them mean a lot to me.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
There are one or two lines that always have a deep meaning for me. One line particularly these days is “awakening from an endless sleep, hurting all over” or “True love comes to those who wait.” Other lines are: “the enemy doesn’t know who the enemy is,” and something that I hear often from people in public, “Old habits die hard.”
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
It’s neither easier nor harder. The first step is always the hardest and the last mile is always the longest.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a Vietnam Vet come up to me, to tell me that “Sky Pilot” meant a lot to them.
I can’t tell you how many times people come up to me to say “You saved my life, man” and they do mean it and it’s hard to take such a compliment. I feel that with my songs I am trying to raise peoples’ consciousness. That’s why even today I am writing songs about the environment and conflicts between Nations.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
I mentioned Tim Hardin earlier. He should always be remembered in the category of the great songwriters, with Leonard Cohen and the rest. But his tragically short life didn’t reap the recognition his work deserved.
What do you consider to be the perfect song (written by somebody else), and why?
“You Don’t Know Me”, a song written by Cindy Walker and Eddy Arnold. “No Regrets” a French song composed by Charles Dumont, with lyrics by Michel Vaucaire. “Imagine” also comes to mind, but it depends on what kind of song you are looking for. “I Believe to My Soul” is perfect. In the realm of blues, “The sun is shining but it’s raining in my heart” or a James Brown song, “It’s a mans world but it would be nothing without a woman or a girl…” or “When things go wrong with you, it hurts me too.”