Eric Lowen (1951-2012)
by Mark Waldrep
Eric Lowen, half of the folk duo Lowen and Navarro, passed away on March 23, 2012 after a 9-year battle with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis also known as Lou Gehrig's disease) with his family and close friends gathered around. Eric's amazing talents, passion for music and his continuous positive outlook on life were an inspiration to all of us who were fortunate to know him. He will be missed.
I first met Eric in March of 2005 as we began planning for the production of our "Carry On Together" project. Capturing Eric and Dan singing and performing together was a great experience. There was a special bond between them as can only happen between people that complement one another so perfectly. However, it was the opportunity to develop the bonus materials (video interviews, house concerts recordings etc), wading through their archive of photos and VHS tapes and spending time with Eric and Dan that opened their world to me. And what a rich world it was.
AIX Records creates a few different types of projects with the most elaborate being our "Collectors Editions", which are comprehensive assemblages of HD music in stereo and surround, music videos, interviews, photos, live concert footage and extensive biographical information. Lowen & Navarro were certainly deserving of the deluxe treatment and I went all out to create something that a fan would appreciate for many years. The result was the "Carry On Together" double DVD set dedicated to the guys. With Eric's diagnosis a couple of years prior to our project, it was all the more important to produce a lasting tribute to this wonderful man. Eric asked for and I was happy to provide multiple copies of that project for the "memory boxes" that he was putting together for each of his 5 children. I hope they can experience some of the magic of their dad as they play the DVDs.
By that time I was hooked on these two guys. So they provided me all of their miniDV videotapes and some additional recordings so that we could put together another DVD full of concert footage for The Birchmere in 2004, The concert at the Cerritos Performing Arts Center, a couple music videos and much more. While it's not recorded in ultimate HD and mixed in 5.1, the "Pieces of Time Spent" DVD is more audio and video from the L&N duo.
Here's the bio that Eric sent me.
Music was everywhere throughout my life. I was born October 23rd,
1951 in Utica, NY, a smallish industrial city in upstate New York. I
was the third child in a Baptist minister’s family. My birth was a bit
of a surprise for my parents, my mother was nearly 42 years old. She
was probably convinced that she was past the point of having
babies… and then, there I was. Our big old foursquare house was
always a busy place and always full of music. When I grew up enough to spend time at other peoples’ homes I was interested to find out that not everyone’s father woke them up in the morning singing a hymn at the top of his lungs and pounding out accompaniment on the piano. It turns out that there are worse fates, but at the time it was a little hard to take. At least he was good at it. He and my mother sang duets throughout their lives both in church and for any other occasion. It’s kind of like the old saying, “they’d sing at the drop of a hat… and they’ even volunteer their own hat.”
Family gatherings were always full of singing and playing music. My family was quite Swedish in the customs we followed for holidays. We celebrated what was probably an old fashioned form of the Swedish traditions since they had immigrated around the turn of the last century. My mother was one of five sisters and before I knew them, they performed as a string quartet plus flute at society gatherings in their hometown of Saratoga Springs, New York. Saratoga was quite a place for “high society” in those days and the five pretty, blonde, blue-eyed sisters probably made quite an impression. Their mother, Josephine, had been a part of a woman’s guitar “orchestra” in Sweden in the late 19th century, and I remember her singing and playing her guitar for hours. That guitar was the first I ever touched and touching it changed everything for me.
We moved fairly often due to my Dad’s job. After Utica, we moved to Ridgewood, NJ, where I spent the "wonder years". In spite of its
reputation, northern New Jersey was a great place to grow up. It was beautiful, affluent, near NYC, and there were still lots of open areas. Ministers usually live in houses owned by the church, sometimes called parsonages. The good thing about that was that we lived in a very nice home even with my father’s very small salary. The other side of the story was that our home was almost a public place. There were meetings of some type in the house at least a couple of times a week and always many dinner guests, especially on Sundays… the longest day of the week. We’d be up early, my Dad finishing his sermon, pecking away on a typewriter, and my Mom would be in the kitchen doing the preparation for Sunday noon dinner, since we would spend most of the morning and early
afternoon at church.
The absolute best thing about church was the music (actually for me, the “minister’s son”, the best thing was looking at girls… but that’s another story). I joined my first choir in 3rd grade and the first song we sang was “ Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)?” Why on earth do I remember that, except that it was beautiful music and I was already impressed with how wonderful it was to sing with other voices. It snagged me big time. Even when I got too old for the youth choir, or too distracted or whatever it was, I always harmonized with the choir and with the congregation during the hymns. 600 people holding down the melody, it really was the perfect way to learn how to harmonize. By the time I met Dan years later, I was all ready for him.
My Dad’s churches were always exceptional in the music department. Although, by the time I was aware, my Mom (who was a former music teacher schooled in multiple instruments and voice) had given up being the choir director, she was very involved and there was a core quartet in the choir of professional singers (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass), who were the foundation for the sound of the choir. And there was always a great pipe organ. I will always remember waiting (interminably) for my Dad at church. I would wander into the sanctuary, climb the stairs into the choir loft and sit on the organ bench. I’d flip a toggle switch and feel more than hear the huge bellows coming to life somewhere in the
basement. Then with the bass pedals, would start the familiar bass part to “Gimme Some Lovin’” followed by the classic descending organ part in the higher register,. It was huge and very gratifying. Usually by then the janitor, Mr. Van would be running into the sanctuary to see what on earth was disturbing the tranquility of the empty sanctuary. How frustrating it must have been that it was the pastor’s son committing the crime. I never fully understood what made people so hesitant to bust me if it meant speaking to my Dad…but in hindsight, it worked out really well for me.
I played the trumpet, but otherwise I was not terribly active musically through Jr. High. My face absolutely bloomed with the adolescent hues of severe acne. It was horrible for me, but it also played a part in my future. In the middle of 9th grade, we moved to Greece, NY just outside Rochester. It was a crushing blow for me because it seemed that I was almost on the verge of having friends and a sort of fun time at school, but I guess almost is the key word. In any case, having it pulled out from under me made it seem horrible. My Dad felt strongly that clergy needed to move on after about 10 years to keep from becoming complacent and our 10 years were up. Greece had the grey skies and flat terrain of many Great Lakes’ cities…and the snow. Moving in mid-year meant going from “king of the hill” 9th grader to lowly freshman in a heartbeat. The only thing that saved me was the gift my parents gave me for Christmas just before we moved…a guitar.
I wanted drums in the worst way, but my practical and very frugal
parents decided that the guitar was a better choice. I played until my fingers bled and then I put band-aids on them and played some more. Nothing had ever captured my imagination in quite the same way before. Here I was, a pimply-faced kid in a new town, and minister’s kid to boot. There was noting much to do BUT play the guitar. The story goes that young men either choose music or sports to impress girls. I definitely decided on music…but I’m afraid I didn’t impress much of anyone. There were attempts at starting bands once I got an electric guitar. Most only lasted a rehearsal or two, but eventually they became the most important element of what was my social life.
Finally I fell in with a group who had a cellar to rehearse in, which
was the element we needed to keep it together. Our first gig was at the bass player’s cousin’s party. I was 15. It was all arranged that we would stay over and that my father would pick me up for church next morning. We arrived all nervous and excited, thrilled to see a stage and even a Go-Go dancer sort of booth. Surely this was the big time. Our host seemed nice enough as he cautioned us not to be worried if most of “ the guys” showed up on “bikes” Okay, so long story short, it was a celebration for a local motorcycle club, the Hackers, becoming the Western NY chapter of the Hell’s Angels. So, the police came a few times, I had a beer, the Go-Go dancer had worse acne than me, our British exchange student/roadie jumped the host’s wife…a lot happened. My Dad asked no questions at all when he arrived at 8:30 the next morning to pick up his exhausted, but slightly more worldly son. I probably didn’t volunteer much information either.
There were other gigs in High School, but they were all much safer and less colorful than that first one. I did get to play “Winchester
Cathedral” in church once for my Dad’s sermon of the same title. It was horrible, but from were I sit now, I wish I could do it again next
Sunday. Somehow, I grew up, did well in school, grew a whole bunch taller, got my heart broken a couple of times and returned the favor a couple of times, in general lived life. I wouldn’t ever say I enjoyed High School, but I lived through it. For some reason that I still don’t understand, I decided to stay fairly local for college, going to Brockport State College about 30 miles from home. That 30 miles might as well have been the other side of the moon for all I visited home those first couple of years and I considered it a horrible affront if my parents even suggested they come for a visit.
In my mind I had left the nest and at 17 years old thought it was about time. I was tall and I grew my hair and a mustache immediately. The drinking age was 18 and I could pass for at least that old with the mustache, so off I went. I was into playing very loud in those days, but to go off to college, I had gotten myself an acoustic 12-string guitar. Suddenly, I could perform alone or casually with anyone who happened to be around and it changed my whole outlook. I started meeting other people who played and it became something I identified myself with more than ever. Of course, I was completely clueless and if there was anything like a thread to my behavior, it was that I had little confidence in my abilities. I don’t remember meeting Christine Lavin, but somehow we became a very unlikely looking singing duo. I had become
a folk musician almost by default. We played together for about a year maybe, but she was a very profound force in my musical life. I learned lessons about being a performer from her that I never appreciated at the time. I love the fact that she is still such a force in the folk community.
There were other performing duos in my college years. For some reason I took to the idea of a duo, and obviously, I never quite got over it. I graduated with a degree in English Literature and a second major in Elementary Education. I actually student taught for 3 days, but when the pressure was on for me to play “Turn, Turn, Turn” in the back to school assembly, I dropped out and went back to taking esoteric English courses. I guess I never considered myself what one would term a “natural performer”. The thought of standing up and playing in that assembly made me scared enough to run away and change career direction entirely. My parents had always taught me that music was a good “avocation” but not a good “vocation”. Almost every member of my family was a teacher or a preacher. Preacher business was way off my radar, so teaching was always going to be it for me. When I put that aside, I ended up graduating and becoming a janitor at a Kmart. I was as lost as I could be.
The janitorial profession was not entirely new to me. I had worked at Eastman Kodak three summers during college. It was a terrible job, but I met folks I would have never met otherwise. For instance there was Mel, the guy who had taught me to clean toilets, fifty-five toilets a night with a brush, a bucket and a putty knife for never-mind-what. He was always quiet and kept to himself and then he came to work one night after we had all seen him on the 6 o’clock news. Seems he had shot someone at a party his wife and he were throwing. He was still quiet, but we all probably gave him a little more space after that. I never caught up on what finally happened since the summer was almost ever and I went back to college, but it always seemed like it was going to be tough for old Mel to say he “didn’t mean to” shoot someone in the face with a shotgun. Kmart was a piece of cake by comparison, but it was not as smooth as I envisioned at first. Around the third day or so, we had our regular inspirational meeting with the foreman, and I was shocked and saddened by his words…“take Lowen for instance. He can clean toilets alright [my specialty, I must admit], but he can’t dust mop to save his soul. PEOPLE, YOU MUST DUST MOP TO HAVE THIS JOB.” I had graduated college a few short weeks before… this was not a high point and it left me feeling even more adrift. I got a job as VW mechanic for a bit and then found my next big adventure working for Uhaul. My plan was to take a job and save enough to buy a van and equipment and start a band. It went wrong in so many ways. First and most disappointing was realizing that I had gotten a really bad job and that the Uhaul Company was run by a bunch of lunatics. I actually got a memo from the president urging me to not be “chicken shit” if my Uhaul dealers were late with the money they owed the company, but rather to go “beat the crap out of them”. It was years later on Unsolved Mysteries that I heard about that very president’s sons who were embroiled in a battle for control of the company. One of them had a dead wife and Unsolved Mysteries was making a case that the other committed the crime. Lunatics!
I never could make enough money either. Every time I would get ahead couple of steps, I would fall behind three. Life is so distracting, and doing trailer and truck maintenance outside in bitter winter weather meant that my hands cracked and bled to the point that playing guitar was difficult at best. I could feel myself losing my way and I hated it. It was a year and a half before I did something about it. I took my first vacation and went to my family’s summer home in Salem, NY, where I often say “my soul lives”. I took two weeks, healed my hands, practiced a bunch and answered some ads for guitar player auditions. I got in two bands, neither of which I was interested in, but it was energizing and validating for me.
Around this time, I heard a singer/songwriter named Bert Sommer at a bar one night. He performed a kind of corny song called “We’re All Playin’ In The Same Band”. I recognized the song and also the fact that he was a cut above the stuff one usually heard in local bars. I asked about the song and he was delighted to tell me that it was his own and that it had been a “big hit”. I was impressed and also cocky enough from my recent auditions to believe that I could do better than the guys he had backing him up. I had no clue how to convince him that I should be in his band, but we struck up a friendship and I lent him my guitar and generally ingratiated myself to him any way I could. Turns out he was in upstate NY for drug rehab, but he had quite a history. He had starred in Hair on
Broadway and in the LA company when it opened here, and even more impressive, he was one of the artists at Woodstock. True to his personality, he aced himself out of the movie, even though the
filmmakers were actually friends of his, by insisting on an earlier time slot that Joan Baez was supposed to have. The film of his performance was overexposed by the angle of the early morning sun and the only mention of him in the movie is when Joan Baez explains that her spot was taken by “some guy named Bert Sommer.”
Several years and several thousand dollars of heroin and rehab later,
here he was playing my guitar. He said he wanted me to join his band, but there was always something that came up to keep me from my goal. Six months later, I was ready to give up on him when I got an unexpected call from my old friend Christine Lavin. She was already becoming well known in the folk world and was in town to play at a local venue. She had heard that I was trying to get in Bert’s band and knew that he was coming to see her perform. She asked me to show up and play a couple of songs…I was in his band on the spot! I played my first professional gig with Bert at a place in NYC called Gerde’s Folk City. Four sets a night, five nights, riding to Brooklyn on the subways at 5 AM to stay at my cousin’s house, it was all too good to be true. I returned to work at Uhaul the next week, but I was already moving on.Bert and I recorded a demo of a few songs on a cassette recorder in my bedroom in Rochester, and around the same time I gave one month’s notice to my job. I lent him $20 for a bus ticket to the City. Next time I heard from him, he was in Los Angeles living at his new manager’s house and he had a part n a TV show called the Kroft Supershow. He was in a goofy made up band called Captain Kool and the Kongs on a stupid kids’
show, but it was something big from my perspective. He said I ought to move out to Los Angeles and that I would have a job playing with him and I jumped at the chance. After all I was unemployed, I had a pickup truck with a camper (the Dixie Queen), and I had almost $700 saved… certainly that amounted to financial security. I drove to Maine to visit my sister so that I could say I drove the whole breadth of the continent and set off for California with all that I owned in my little camper. One week and a lot of driving later, I was at a Sizzler Steakhouse on Cahuenga Boulevard in Los Angeles (right by Universal Studios… still) calling Bert from a pay phone.
Bert’s manager was a well known music business crook, er, personality named Artie Ripp. He was “well known” for almost causing Billy Joel to commit suicide to get out of a deal with him. He lived atop a hill in Hollywood down the street from Marvin Gaye and just across the street from Jackson Browne. The house was a gaudy nightmare of orange, purple and black with two-inch shag rugs and a beautiful view of Los Angeles. Bert was in the guest house… and I was in the driveway in the Dixie Queen. Somehow, this all felt like my date with destiny.Artie had a studio, so almost immediately we started recording demos in a real recording studio. I was ecstatic. I spent $150 in the first two
or three days, so I knew I had to budget or head for home with my tail between my legs immediately. I lived for several months on five dollars a day: $1.69 for breakfast (31cent tip), and $2.49 “steak special” for dinner at a place called Tiny Naylor’s on the fabulous Sunset Strip in Hollywood, California. It was a strange new life, but I was making music and living my dream. Kaptain Kool went the way of all frothy non-existent kid bands and the next thing I knew Bert had gotten a record deal with Capitol Records. It was exciting flying back and forth to NY to meet producers and then actually going to make the record for 3 months in the big city. The band included Paul Schaefer and Will Lee now from the Letterman band and also David Spinoza and Hugh McCracken from Wings. There I was, clueless, trying to keep up with these amazing players and going to Studio 54 every night, never once waiting in line.
If I knew then, what I know now…
The record came out to no acclaim, but I was on my $100 a week retainer, so I was fine. One night Bert took me to a restaurant where the waiters all sang. I hardly noticed the curly haired guy with the puppy dog eyes and the floppy hat. With Bert I did some fun gigs with the likes of The Little River Band and lots of really bad ones. At some point Bert rediscovered drugs and after about a year I auditioned for the very restaurant he had taken me to, Hi Pockets. I got the job and the guy I replaced was off on the road singing with Jackson Browne’s younger brother Severin. When he got back and found his job gone he was understandably out for blood and ready to hate the sonofabitch who took it. His name was Dan Navarro…