The Gospel According to John
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THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN
If you lived in a progressive town or city in the late ’80s, the so-called New Folk Movement had a lot in common with the British Invasion.
The airwaves and stages were inundated with confident young acts that used folk music as a springboard into unexplored artistic realms.
The Paul McCartney of that movement in terms of talent and good looks was John Gorka.
He was a heartthrob to Reagan-era wearers of tie-dyed maxi skirts and patchouli oil.
With his baritone voice and woodsman’s beard, Gorka was folk music’s answer to Barry White.
Which is not to suggest that White required an answer from folk music.
That was 30 years and one digital revolution ago.
Gorka, well into his silver fox phase these days, never had much interest in his own sex appeal.
He is now, as ever, a compelling performer and earnest artist who is always trying to write a better song today than the one he wrote yesterday.
He will perform Friday (May 5) at the Ark in Ann Arbor.
One of Gorka’s earliest mentors was the late Greenwich Village folk singer Jack Hardy, who taught Gorka a blue-collar approach to songwriting that turns out to be fairly unusual.
Most famous musicians will tell you that they eschew a songwriting regimen in favor of awaiting the muse.
But Hardy advocated a greater amount of self-discipline.
“It was the first time I had met someone who wrote songs on a schedule,” Gorka said in a phone interview. “He was finishing a song a week. That was his schedule for many, many years.
“I had never heard of that before,” he said. “I knew that novelists would sit down and try to write a page or a chapter a day. But I didn’t know songwriters could do that.”
Hardy’s view was that waiting around for inspiration to strike is a cop-out, Gorka said.
“He believed that if you work at it, you’ll get better, faster,” he said. “Even if you throw out three quarters of the songs you write, you will get better.”
Gorka said he started slow at a song a month. He worked up to two songs a month, and then he and his wife started having kids. The pace inevitably slackened.
Having a family meant that Gorka no longer had “large, unencumbered blocks of time.”
“They were great for musing and letting song ideas bubble up,” he said. “I used to be able to wake up slowly. That’s not an option anymore.”
In the midst of writing a song is still Gorka’s favorite place to be.
“Seeing where it’s going to go,” he said. “Even though you can work at it, the process is still a mysterious thing. The quality can vary. Sometimes a song takes a lot of work and sometimes it comes easy. Both of them can be equally good. And just because it comes easy, doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good.”
Gorka said he will alter established songs in performance if he is dissatisfied with some aspect of them.
“I will change lines in a song that I don’t think were even right at the time or when they don’t seem to be right to sing anymore,” he said. “The world changes and the meaning of the song changes.”
Last year, Gorka was given an opportunity by his label, Red House Records, to release an unusual collection of personally primordial material.
“Before Beginning” features demo versions of songs that were eventually remade for Gorka’s debut album, “I Know.”
The demo versions were professionally recorded in Nashville with studio musicians, so the songs have more of a country flair than the versions that made it to vinyl and CD.
Gorka said the reel-to-reel tapes (which had been in the possession of the sessions’ original producer, Jim Rooney) had to be baked before they could be played.
Baking magnetic tape at a low temperature reverses deterioration, Gorka said.
“We didn’t use an oven,” he said. “We used a box with a hair dryer set on low.”
Gorka said it had been at least 30 years since he’d last listened to the tapes.
The John Gorka of 30 years ago was a relentless performer who would go out on tour for long periods of time.
When Gorka and his wife started having kids, he curtailed this custom considerably.
“If you are away enough, people will learn to get along without you,” he said. “You want to stay indispensible.”
Gorka said he has a friend whose father was a frequently absent, long-haul truck driver.
“Until one day, he said to his mother, ‘Mom, that man is here again,'” Gorka recalled. “That was the end of his father’s long-haul trucking career.”
Changes in the music business have meant that musicians who used to depend on recordings to pay the bills now have to depend on touring.
Full-time folk musicians, on the other hand, have always had to do a lot of touring.
That doesn’t mean that artists like Gorka have been immune.
“In terms of the royalties that you get from streaming,” he said. “You get these ridiculous checks. I got one for one cent. I managed to save that one. It took 49 times that to send that check to me.”
A musician can laugh at a check like that or be discouraged by it, Gorka said, and he or she should always try to choose the former.
Gorka has no grandiose goals for his career at this point.
“I want to try to get the kids through college without enormous debt,” he said. “And to stay healthy and do it as long as I can do it. People have been coming out and that’s been really encouraging. I’ve been pretty lucky.
“I always think it could end tomorrow,” Gorka said. “So I’m grateful when people show up.”