A new home bass

Seminal '60s rocker Harvey Brooks expounds upon playing with Bob Dylan and Miles Davis and making aliya.

Harvery Brooks old 88 248 (photo credit: )
Harvery Brooks old 88 248
(photo credit: )
People may know the songs and albums he's played on more than his name, but a bona fide musical icon from the 1960s will be arriving on an August 4th Nefesh B'Nefesh flight of new immigrants to Israel. Harvey Brooks, who will be making aliya with his wife Bonnie from Tuscon, Arizona, has played bass guitar on some of the most groundbreaking records of the post-Beatles era - including Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited (1965), Miles Davis's Bitches Brew (1969), The Doors' The Soft Parade (1969) and 1968's Super Session featuring Michael Bloomfield, Al Kooper and Stephen Stills. And that's only a fraction of the some 100 albums he's appeared on or produced over the past 40 years on his way to cementing his status as one of the most respected figures on the American music scene. "We've been going back and forth for a number of years, and every time we're here, we'd talk about moving," said Brooks, whose stepdaughter Lori lives in the Gush Etzion settlement Neveh Daniel. "Our two other kids are secure and established now, and we figured this is the time for us, for an adventure. It's a good time to come." For the 65-year-old Brooks, who was born and raised in Queens as Harvey Goldstein, music has been an integral part of his life since attending Alan Freed's rock and roll shows in Brooklyn as a teen in the 1950s, seeing musicians like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Ben E. King and The Drifters. His growing obsession with learning guitar and bass overtook his conventional education interests - both secular and religious. "I had a pretty ordinary Jewish upbringing in Queens. I went to Hebrew school, got bar mitzvahed. My parents were Conservative, but as they got older, they got less observant. But they instilled the basics in me," recalled Brooks, who added that a specific anti-Semitic incident led him to change his last name. "I was playing under my own name with a band in Michigan, and after the set, I went outside the club. Some people came up to me and attacked me while making anti-Semitic comments. It was my first real anti-Semitic incident. "A little later, the incident was weighing on my mind and I was reflecting that growing up in New York, all the musicians had stage names they used. I was working at Grossinger's in the Catskills and looked up and noticed a poster for the Nat Brooks Orchestra. And thought, 'aha, that makes sense, that could work.'" AFTER ATTENDING college for two years while playing in bands, Brooks dropped out to pursue music full time, and through one of his Jewish high school friends, fellow musician Al Kooper, got his big break by playing on Dylan's landmark Highway 61 Revisited sessions. He went on to play at some Dylan shows in 1965 along with Kooper, and the Band's Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm. From then on, whether as an in-demand session player, or as founding member of the short-lived but celebrated late 1960s supergroup The Electric Flag with Bloomfield, Barry Goldberg and Buddy Miles, Brooks never lacked for work. Living in New York's Greenwich Village in 1965-66, the bassist fell in with a like-minded group of musicians, many of whom - like Andy Kulberg of the Blues Project, Kooper, Bloomfield and Goldberg - were Jews. "I think it was more of a coincidence than anything else; there was an enormous amount of creative people around. Maybe because the population in general in New York had more Jews, there were more Jews in the music scene," said Brooks. "I guess Jews are just attracted to the music business for some reason, it's something we can relate to. It's soulful." While the musicians shared a common language of their New York Jewish upbringing, their heritage wasn't something that they vocally stressed. "The only time Dylan and I had a conversation about Judaism was in the late 1960s at a party at Peter Yarrow's house. He had just come back from Israel and was very reflective at the time," Brooks recalled. "All of the rockers from the Village all recognized the bond, but it was more of an unspoken thing. There were certain expressions we learned from our parents, whether in Yiddish or not, that was part of the vocabulary we used. But there was a Jewish spirit that went beyond words, and we felt we were in a certain comfort zone with each other," said Brooks. "But then again, I got comfortable with all kinds of people, not just Jews, because we had music in common. I guess I was more into being an assimilated American at that time." For Brooks, the pivotal moment in his development as a musician came when he was asked to play on Davis's legendary jazz album Bitches Brew in 1969. Brooks had started working in production at Columbia Records in New York and a connection with fellow producer Teo Macero led him to the Davis sessions. "It was really the pinnacle for me - it totally expanded my whole way of thinking about music. I had never been in that kind of musical scenario before. Miles would explain the tone and the sound to us and off we'd go. He'd start us, stop us, over and over again. Whenever he felt like there was a groove going, he'd bring something else in. It was an amazing process, he was editing as we played," said Brooks. Just like when he played on the Dylan tracks, Brooks was aware that he was making music that was going to last. He tried to ignore the pressure and concentrate on the music. "Whenever you're involved with breaking new ground - as I felt when I played with Dylan and with Miles - you know you're making history. You just don't think about it at the time, you're just trying to blend into the environment and to be in the moment." CHOOSING TO focus more on producing other artists in the early 1970s, while simultaneously keeping his own musical chops refined by playing with upstate New York rockers The Fabulous Rhinestones, Brooks compiled an impressive resume, including credits for overseeing albums by artists as diverse as John Martyn, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Karen Dalton, Seals & Crofts, John Sebastian, Loudon Wainwright III and the Electric Light Orchestra. According to Brooks, the key to producing other artists is attention to detail and empathy with the artist. "I think good music is created through a cooperative environment - doing a lot of pre-production work, and homework so that the music is given the proper respect. The whole idea is to find the best material, the best songs that the artist has at the time and get the right performance out of them. So the main task is to create the environment for the artist to give the best performance that he has to offer," he said. Sometimes that means conflicts emerge when the artist and the producer don't see eye to eye, but Brooks said there was one steadfast rule that he worked by - it's the artist's name on the album cover. "It's tricky, because ultimately it's the artist's career - but the producer has to deliver the final product. The artist needs to have the final say, but it's always a give and take, when it goes well." While Brooks has preferred to spend time in the studio in recent years, he has occasionally returned to touring, most notably as part of Steely Dan leader Donald Fagen's Rock 'n' Soul Revue in the late '90s, along with Fagen's partner Walter Becker, Phoebe Snow, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald. The music may be just as potent, but according to Brooks, that's the only thing similar to performing in the '60s. "Touring these days is a totally different world, first of all in the technology. In the '60s, you never knew what kind of sound system you would get, it was like a wing and a prayer. Those were the early days of PA systems. You needed huge amps to be heard. When I did the Donald Fagen tour, we didn't need big amps because the sound systems were so sophisticated," said Brooks. "Now touring is an art form - it may be less exciting, but you can hear clearly. In addition, as the business end of the music business developed, touring and routing a tour became much more scientific and orderly. In the old days, you would take a gig where you could get it, even if it meant crisscrossing the country. I think a lot of decisions back then were taken under the influence of various drugs," he added. CALLING TUSCON home since 1998, Brooks and Bonnie opened a guitar and music shop (17th Street Guitars and World Music) inside an international food market (the 17th St. Farmer's Market) and started a Web business together with Jerusalem-based Web developer Charlie Kalish called Treasure Hidden that sells items from both establishments, as well as other artifacts. To add to the symbiosis, Brooks formed a band with the market owner, called the 17th Street Band, playing a mix of rock, soul and blues. "We've just released an album called Positively 17th Street," said Brooks proudly, adding that while he's going to be spending most of his time in Jerusalem, he plans to keep his US endeavors going. But when asked if he's going to become musically active in Israel, Brooks said, "absolutely." "There are some great musicians in Israel. The last time we were here, we got to meet Ehud Banai; he's a wonderful man and a great artist. Hopefully, we'll spend some time with him," said Brooks. While the new immigrants will be renting an apartment in Jerusalem, they'll be spending lots of time with their daughter in Neveh Daniel. Brooks doesn't consider her decision to live in a settlement to be a political statement that should bother anyone. "My feelings are that they live their lives and do what they feel is best. Plus, their house was a good deal," he said. If his life weren't going to be filled up enough, Brooks is also planning two aliya projects once he settles in - working on his memoirs and writing an instruction book on playing bass. He's also been talking to a few of the folk artists that he produced in the old days, like Richie Havens and Eric Anderson, who have been intrigued about his move to Israel. "They want to come play here, so I'm going to work on that too. So I'll keep busy," he said. For Harvey Brooks, the second half of the show is just beginning.