Looking back, Eric Andersen savors the hits, shrugs off the misses
In a long career, “Blue River” was Eric Andersen’s biggest album. Released in 1972, the record featured several of Nashville’s most prolific session musicians and guest vocals from fellow songwriter Joni Mitchell and the Jordanaires, best known as Elvis’s backup singers.
Andersen was prepared to capitalize on the success of the record with a follow-up called “Stages.” For that one, he had Joan Baez and members of the Band on hand.
Then the record company somehow lost the master tapes.
Andersen, who returns to Boston to play City Winery on Thursday, touring behind a new two-disc career retrospective, says he did his best to take the crushing loss in stride.
“I had a weird Zen attitude about it,” he says on the phone from the Netherlands, where he lives with his current wife. “It was like, ‘Listen, don’t get too attached to anything. Worse things can happen.’”
Andersen has spent most of his life on the move, never bogging down. Born in Pittsburgh and raised near Buffalo, he came to Boston at the height of the folk revival in the early 1960s. Later, he lived in Greenwich Village, Venice Beach, the San Francisco Bay area, and Woodstock, before decamping to Europe in the early 1980s.
He’s traveled through scenes, friendships, and artistic collaborations, along the way befriending Phil Ochs, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, and Townes Van Zandt. He was about to become Brian Epstein’s newest client when the Beatles’ manager died of an overdose in 1967. Bob Dylan recorded a version of “Thirsty Boots,” one of Andersen’s best-known songs, in 1970.
In recent years Andersen, who turned 75 in February, has devoted much of his energy to commissioned songwriting for the estates of timeless thinkers such as Albert Camus and Lord Byron. It’s been a culmination of sorts of his longtime belief that he’s more a writer than a “folk” musician, as he’s usually characterized.
“I got into this whole thing to write — to make the invisible visible,” he says. “I think that’s the role of an artist. Anybody who plays acoustic guitar gets stuck with the name ‘folk singer.’”
Though his time in Boston was short, it helped shape the career to come. He made his way to Lowell (“I didn’t have a car”) to explore Jack Kerouac’s haunts. While waiting for his debut album, “Today Is the Highway,” to be released, he attended night school at Harvard, where he studied “James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners,’ Eastern religions, and French Symbolist poetry.” He played at Club 47 and started a stream-of-consciousness column for the folk paper Broadside of Boston. It was called, he says, “If I Make Any Sense, I Didn’t Mean To.”
Boston also gave him Debbie Green, the early Club 47 mainstay who was beaten to the punch in the recording industry by Baez.
“She was really good, better than Joan,” says Andersen. But a combination of bad luck, inertia, and respiratory issues curtailed Green’s career. She died last year. Her daughter with Andersen, Sari, is herself a songwriter and performer.
“It was sad for me — I didn’t really get to hear her repertoire,” says Andersen. “She was kind of reluctant to play,” though Green did sing and play guitar and piano on several of Andersen’s albums while they were married.
Andersen first went to Nashville after his friend David Blue traveled there to record an album. He worked with many of the city’s finest session musicians, including Kenny Buttrey, Norbert Putnam, and David Briggs. They were pro’s pros, he recalls.
“Man, they were so quick and cheap. They’d take a matchbook cover and write the numbers of the chord progressions — never the chords.”
During one of his visits to Nashville, Andersen says, he curled up in the backseat of the eggshell blue Cadillac in which Hank Williams spent his last night, and he fell asleep. It was just one of the many times he’s mingled with ghosts, hoping, as he says, to make the invisible visible.
Paul Lamont, a documentary filmmaker in the Buffalo area, is nearing completion on a film about Andersen’s life called “Songpoet.”
“He gave us unencumbered access to his personal archives — tens of thousands of pages of journal entries, letters going back to the ’60s, thousands of photographs, rare recordings,” Lamont says. “He had nearly 100 reels of Super 8mm film,” with private, unseen footage of David Crosby, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, and others.
“Songpoet,” says Lamont, will be “a spotlight into an era,” and also “a more intimate portrait of the man himself – what drives him, his hunger for art, his thirst for words. It’s not just a music story. It’s a deeply human story.”
Around 1990, a former Columbia Records executive sent out an industry-wide call to find the master tapes for Andersen’s “Stages” album.
“She couldn’t believe a record could be lost at Columbia, so she put a dragnet out,” Andersen explains. It must have been an inside job, he believes: One day the tapes suddenly turned up on the floor of the Columbia archive, “in boxes that were just thrown into the aisle.” It’s not easy to gain access to those vaults, he notes.
Subtitled “The Lost Album,” “Stages” was released in 1991. For Andersen, hearing that music again after nearly 20 years — much of which appears on the new collection “The Essential Eric Andersen” — was like an out-of-body experience.
“Some of the material sounded fantastic,” he says. He remembers one of the label’s sales guys hearing one gentle eight-minute track, “Time Run Like a Freight Train,” before the tapes went missing.
“If that doesn’t get across,” he recalls the man saying, “then the music business is [screwed].”
Andersen still has that Zen attitude about it.
“I guess it was always in me,” he says, “not being too attached to things. It wasn’t me that got lost.”
At City Winery, Boston, Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $18, www.citywinery.com/boston