August 4, 1969
01. Where Am I To Go
02. Love Is Such A Simple Word
03. Who Remembers
04. Something to Me
05. Black Snow
06. She Is
07. Temporary Knife
09. Where It Belongs
10. But Not With My Heart
PRODUCED BY>> Capitol
- T. S. Bonniwell: Guitar, Primary Artist, Vocals
REVIEW>> by Richie Unterberger
T.S. Bonniwell is the billing that Sean Bonniwell used for his only solo album, Close, released on Capitol in 1969. This might be a bit confusing to Music Machine fans, who are familiar with the name Sean Bonniwell rather than the handle T.S. Bonniwell. For it was as Sean Bonniwell that he was the singer/songwriter and chief visionary of the Music Machine, one of the finest garage-psychedelic bands of the '60s. the Music Machine's achievements and records are described more fully in their own entry. In brief, though, it can be noted that Bonniwell was by far the most important member of that group, penning their torturous but catchy riff-driven songs of psychological ecstasy and confusion, even if just one of them ("Talk Talk") became a hit. Bonniwell was also their lead singer, usually using a gripping, throaty tone that could reach hair-raising intensity, though occasionally he could switch into a surprisingly smooth if moody croon.
The original Music Machine lineup broke up as they were getting their second album together, and much of the second album and some of their final singles are primarily the work of Bonniwell, with assistance from some other musicians. Bonniwell sold the rights to the name of the Music Machine to get out of his contract with Warner Bros. He soon recorded his solo album with Vic Briggs (who'd been guitarist in the late-'60s version of the Animals) producing. The record, while it has its good points, was quite a shock, given the grinding organ-and-fuzz-guitar-helmed rock Bonniwell had been churning out with the Music Machine. Close, by contrast, was tremulous singer/songwriter pop that verged on MOR territory at times. Bonniwell forsook his raunchy vocal persona almost totally in favor of his sensitive, clear croon, perhaps in a partial retreat to his pre-Music Machine folkie days, when he'd been in the Wayfarers. Influences from lounge pop, bossa nova, and flamenco were evident in a set decorated by subdued orchestration.
For open-minded listeners, Close does have some positive attributes, particularly in the introverted-to-the-point-of-reclusion lyrics, and its sad but sweet melodies. Often Bonniwell sounds like a man whose roaring fire has dwindled down to a candle in the wind, such is the fragile and burned-out nature of songs like "Black Snow" and "Sleep." In an interview with the magazine Ugly Things, Bonniwell described it as "kind of like, if Neil Diamond did an imitation of Johnny Mathis." There were only 5,000 copies printed and it was only issued in California, which meant the record was quite rare and difficult to hear. Bonniwell was not happy with the record, and left the music business after its release. Decades later he wrote his autobiography, Talk Talk, retitled Beyond the Garage when it was revised.
"First time recording can be easy when you're standing on clouds. The trick is to keep them under your feet and away from your head."
- Sean Bonniwell
INTERVIEW of Sean Bonniwell>> by Peter Sjoblom
TERMS & CONDITIONS | Site by:
Copyright © 2012 Uncle Helmet's Music, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Just a few words before we start. As you know, I will focus on the "Close" album. I will of course mention the Music Machine, but the main focus will be on "Close": the songs, my relation to the album, and your comments on the LP. I'll get a full page for the article in the Groove magazine, so if you feel you want to answer one or more questions at length, please feel free to do so.
"Close" is very different from what you had done with the Music Machine (MM) and a fully realized album at the same time. It appears to me like the result of a very clear vision. Was it something that you had planned to do for a very long time, maybe already while you were with the MM? Were the songs written during a short time, or over a longer period?
SEAN: In a sense the songs of Close were written for the age I am now: Close is meant to soothe the aching void, taken with environment priorities, these songs allow the paradox of self consciousness to stare at itself; the ego becomes more by becoming less. I find that even when I'm not sure the mood is deep, Close is dependable. My song writing is urged by themes, it surrenders to the strongest spirit until satisfied. Sometimes it takes an album of songs, when one song emerges with the sum total of mood intact it's called a hit. When a concept is captured by a series of songs, each discovering the next, the lost chord is found, fondled, and forgiven. It is a great compliment for an album to be called fully realized, I wish I could take credit for it.
As I said on the garage 66 list, "Close" has become something of a dear friend to me. I have listened to it so many times, and it has proved particularly helpful during periods of a more somber mood. It might be that I project things and feelings onto the music because of my relation to it, but was there anything in your life (on a personal level) that affected the music?
SEAN: The first song that blew me down and kept me raptured to hear it countless times lying on my back was "Only You," by the Platters. I heard it one night when I was fourteen, as ready for an epiphany as any so young is, this song searched and found everything I didn't know I was looking for. We humans have universal needs. The mystical enchantment of music can envelop the soul with a coma like malaise, overpowering the prevalent mood of the moment so completely as to give us the sum total of our lives. We experience the full force of integrated longings for love, security, and social significance. These needs are so compelling we remember them in a time and place that never was, and so they "sleep" in the words and melody of a song remembered only by blameless expectations. As "captured" emotions, these feelings are so enshrined in subtle disappointments of anticipated fulfillment they can virtually obliterate the immediate continuity of life. It is a spell, it is escape, it is renewal of stranded dreams, and sometimes it's a denial of a disintegrating future we the collective feel powerless to amend; tomorrow is now.
A personal list of songs I favor is not so much private sentiment as it is the gathered opinion they are rendered by voices who occupy this timeless spirit. The true genesis of the Capitol album was summoned by elusive pre dispositions. Even today, the hypnotic "Theme from Picnic" takes me as a willing prisoner to a place where the man I've become is captured by the boy I was. The same can be said for the songs of Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole. They were my clouds, and I can do nothing to stop myself from going with them to where they linger — held by such aching patience that I still love her, whoever... she is... But the song that brings to a crescendo all that is within that place begins and ends with "Old Cape Cod." For reasons hidden by the harbor of a poet's heart, this song's mysterious enchantment charts both the time and tide of my life; as under moon and stars where hope is put to sea and sleeps not, doing for the boy what the man must do, leaving room for dreams.
Did you know from the very beginning that you wanted to use string arrangements for the album? Did Vic Briggs and you work close, or did you hand him your songs for him to write the arrangements more or less without your involvement?
SEAN: Great question. When I signed with Capitol it was with the understanding that full orchestration would accompany the project. Most of the songs were written in a four week period, with a few coming from as early as the Wayfarer days.
Vic was a God-send; he insisted I sing and play the songs live for him, two or three at a time, in the late afternoon, near dusk, at his hillside cottage in the Canyon. Basically, he took it from there. As we progressed so did our collaboration. However, a number of compositions were prearranged; "Where Am I To Go" and "Something To Be" are two examples of songs where the rhythm section was rehearsed with players of my choosing, in fact, Vic left me alone to "school" the contract players in this way as well, in the studio, while he kept busy setting the sound and mix. When the basic tracks were satisfactory he added the orchestration: To say we were on the same page is an understatement. It was a wonderful experience. I dare say it transformed both of us.
I think the vocals on "Close" are simply wonderful! But was it a challenge for you to sing in this style after a couple of years in MM which must have demanded a rather different singing technique?
SEAN: Why did I abandon rock'n'roll to write and sing ballads? Perhaps a poet's heart is better heard and better served by singing songs rather than screaming them. This may help to explain why there's a song I cherish more than all others for its undaunted expression of tortured love made helpless by surrender. "Since I Fell," by Lenny Welch, has yet to be equaled (in my mind) for its capture of the soul with episodic lingering. A soaring tribute to the bewitchment of love that begs for an answer from the master spirit we seek to know; as did Adam fall, so do we all...
How was the album received when it was first released? How did Capitol Records handle it--were they expecting an album more in the MM vein? Do you feel it was/is a neglected album (in the shadows of MM)? I think you at one point mentioned on the garage 66 list that you're still a little surprised that garage fans seem to like it so much--who did you think back then would pick up on it?
SEAN: The Capitol album, "Close", was where my poet's heart found its voice; being so much of what I can't explain, it does. It's as close as I ever came to defining the poet's lie. And "Close" was aptly named too, like a bandage that doesn't quite cover the wound. At the time, I had to do something to stop the bleeding. I never gave the first thought to the album's reception, it was an obsession of conception that occupied my focus. I think the word most responsible for mankind's failure in the pursuit of excellence is committee. When you have a definitive vision, for God's sake don't call a meeting.
The track "Where It Belongs" is rather different from the rest of the album, in style as well as in mood. Did you have any particular idea behind its inclusion on the LP?
SEAN: I felt the album needed a little tongue-in-cheek. If you're familiar with a little-known track called "So Long Ago" (the back side of "Nothin's Too Good For My Car" by The Friendly Torpedoes, a Paul Buff collaboration), then you'll better understand the impulse of "Where It Belongs."
What is your opinion of the album today? If you would compare it to what you did with MM, what would you like to say?
SEAN: Close, but no cigar. However, as a singular vision -- that is to say if there had never been a Music Machine, I suspect "Close" would have been no different. The album says to me what I tried to say then..."...even if you promise me my poet will not die, I fear the poet's soul in me has told a poet's lie... "
Any idea of when the CD version of it will be released? Who will release it?
SEAN: They're available now through me by special order. It's been transferred to CD, but I won't burn a quantity unless the demand justifies it. I've had it in mind to make my body of work available as a companion to Beyond The Garage (the book), but it'll take an act of God for such a mammoth endeavor to be realized. Originally, I envisioned the near totality of my work to be the musical score of a stage presentation with selected readings from ‘Garage'... perhaps this will come to pass, and the presentation will find its way into video and/or audio: God will give us a new pair of shoes, but we've got to walk in them... let them take us somewhere... He can't change your direction if you're standing still.