There should be a name for the genre of records made in the late 60s and early 70s by musical legends of a previous generation struggling, with varying degrees of success, to adapt to the sounds and themes of the nascent counterculture. For many of these fading icons, embracing this radical new paradigm of peace, love, and fuzz must have been a great challenge. That’s not to say many didn’t try.
For every conservative crooner or leery bluesman who refused to play ball—Marty Robbins reputedly loathed the fuzz guitar on “Don’t Worry,” and Howlin’ Wolf disliked his psych album so much that Chess cheekily exploited his disgust on the album cover (what Wolf actually said was that the record was “dog shit”)—there were a dozen who embraced the spirit and sounds of the burgeoning love generation with something resembling zeal. Indeed, the list of stars of the fifties and early sixties who made—or were coerced into making—such a transition is as long as it is improbable: Ricky Nelson, the Four Seasons, Bobby Darin, Chubby Checker, Johnny Rivers, Gene Vincent, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Del Shannon, Dale Hawkins, Link Wray, even Roy Orbison all could be said to have had their “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” moment, each varying, widely and wildly, in both conviction and quality.
One of my favorite albums from this period is My Griffin Is Gone by Hoyt Axton. The 1969 album is by no means the strangest or most conspicuous of stylistic left-turns; the album’s rootsy, orchestral instrumentation was fairly standard for the time. Axton is also distinguished by having begun his career a little later than most of the others on this list: he was still just shy of 31 years old, and still in the first decade of his career when he recorded My Griffin Is Gone; not exactly a has-been. But what the record lacks in the spunk and general what-the-fuckness of, say, David Allan Coe’s psychedelic rock opera or Chubby Checkers’ reinvention as a Hendrix clone, it makes up for in its heady, adventurous arrangements and stone-serious subject matter, namely Vietnam, death, and drugs, drugs, drugs.
By 1969, Axton was already a veteran of the coffee house folk scene, having previously released seven albums of fairly standard roadhouse-lite folk and blues, building a career on having penned the 1962 Kingston Trio hit “Greenback Dollar.” Songwriting was in Axton’s blood: his mother, Mae Boren Axton, was known as the “Queen Mother of Nashville,” and co-wrote Elvis Presley’s first hit, “Heartbreak Hotel.” The charming and avuncular Axton also had a sideline as an actor, appearing first as a roguish guitar-playing thief in a 1965 episode of Bonanza, introducing his easy-going baritone to millions of tv viewers.
Shortly after releasing 1963’s Thunder ‘N Lightnin,’ one of Axton’s close friends suffered a fatal drug overdose. In response, Axton wrote one of his most well-known songs, “The Pusher,” which would become a hit for Steppenwolf when that band’s version was later included on the soundtrack to the film Easy Rider. Somewhere along the way, Axton experienced some personal tragedies and began experimenting with LSD. Enter My Griffin Is Gone (which, sadly, features no song about the fabled Biblical monster mysteriously referenced in its title).
Produced by the Limeliters’ Alex Hassilev, the album features a murderer’s row of players including guitarist David Cohen (Country Joe & The Fish), James Burton (who plays dobro here instead of his customary guitar), keyboardist Larry Knechtel (Bread), and the Wrecking Crew rhythm section of Chuck Berghofer and Gary Coleman. Elsewhere, Jimmie Fadden of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Ben Benay of Delaney & Bonnie appear.
The album begins with “On the Natural,” a billet doux to the state of Colorado, a place, according to Axton, so idyllic you “don’t need your little blue pills.” The song seems to consist entirely of choruses, as if Axton couldn’t decide which one was best and just decided to use them all. I count at least five distinct sections occurring over the song’s four minutes. How the Centennial State has not yet adopted “On The Natural” as it’s official theme is beyond me:
Everybody talks about the place of their dreams
Where they can find peace of mind
I’m not sure but I think it seems
I’ve finally found mine
In the mountains
“Way Before The Time Of Towns” is a dazed-sounding meditation that introduces the thick, wending orchestration that would appear throughout the record. With its insistent tom-heavy percussion and droney atmosphere, it sounds a bit like a baroque Velvet Underground. “Beelzebub’s Laughter,” rendered in martial waltz time, is a count-the-key-changes paean to the “children of China” who follow the “lies of a false unicorn.”
Axton excels at ballads, and the slower the better. The threadbare “Sunshine Fields of Love,” like “Way Before The Time of Towns” is moody, bordering on bleak, though it features a sing-song-y melody that reminds me a bit of the Pentangle’s attempts at the blues. This is followed by the hard-charging waltz “It’s Alright Now,” a feature for Axton’s expressive and versatile vocals. As a singer, Axton possesses an enviable range, and the way he switches on a dime here from a raw and tremulous ache to a powerhouse rock and roll howl is proof. The side ends with “Gypsy Will,” on which Axton, sounding a bit like Fred Neil, bids farewell to the cryptic character of its title. This hardly prepares us for the tour-de-force of “Revelations,” which opens side 2. The arrangement here is colorful and adventurous—think latter-day Phil Ochs—and buoys Axton’s wizened-but-weary vocal, which is suspended gracefully above the lush instrumentation like a thick cloud of Winston smoke, Axton’s voice pleading convincingly, “Please, God, don’t let me live my life in vain.”
“Snowblind Friend,” is the album’s finest distillation of Axton’s singular warmth, and also the record’s highlight. A masterclass in dynamics and vibe, the sophisticated arrangement darts in unexpected directions, like a roller coaster in the dark where you can’t see far enough in advance to anticipate the various turns and loop-de-loops. The lyrics are dungeon-dark, a kind of preemptive eulogy for a slow-dying friend:
Stoned on some new potion
He found upon the wall
In some unholy bathroom
In some ungodly hall
“Snowblind Friend” would later become a hit for Steppenwolf, their second Axton-penned chart-topper after “The Pusher.”
“Childhood’s End” begins like a throwaway folk tune, complete with a corny lyric about froggies and puppies and swings, before a bluesy harmonica and fancy electric guitar licks introduce the (now expected?) unexpected drop-out and a spacy orchestral section that distinguishes the majority of songs on this record. Interesting to note James Burton here, in probably the least-flashy performance of his storied career. “Sunrise” is a caffeinated, Beau Brummels-sounding romp, and another tune that puts Axton tremendous vocal range on full display: listen from 1:25 on, and hear how the man who was cooing sweet la-la-las in the previous tune now sounds like he’s hopped up on goofballs and auditioning for the Dwarves.
The Lee Hazlewood-sounding “Kingswood Manor” is another deceptively dark slice of bittersweet realism, riding on an easy-going arrangement complete with soaring choral harmony vocals, about a narrator going insane “in the maddening, saddening gloom” of his “paisley rubber room,” despite the pills prescribed by his doctor (maybe dude just needs to visit Colorado?). “Chase Down the Sun” concludes the record with what sounds, initially, like a standard, Hank Williams-y country waltz, but even here Axton can’t resist the now-familiar curveball of a time signature shift in the middle of the tune, radically changing the feel of the song just when you’re getting comfortable.
Axton’s best days, at least professionally speaking, were still ahead of him. A year after the release of My Griffin Is Gone, Axton would pen “Joy To The World” for Three Dog Night, which was named the following year by Billboard as the #1 pop single of 1971; the single would go on to sell 5 million copies. Axton would continue to write for others and produce solid albums at a steady clip, but was never again as weird, adventurous, or existential as he was on My Griffin Is Gone. Axton’s acting gigs continued, too, in parallel with his music career, with notable roles in The Big Chill and Forrest Gump, among many other film and television credits. To me, though, he’ll probably always be Billy’s hapless inventor father in Gremlins, the man who warned us, gravely, to not feed mogwais after midnight.