A few weeks ago, while I was making breakfast, Judy came into the kitchen to tell me that she had a song running around in her head that would not stop. Interestingly, I had the very same song running around in mine: “Wheel of Fortune” by Lane Tietgen.
Not many people know who Lane Tietgen is. I first saw his name in 1971 when a friend turned me on to an album by the Jerry Hahn Brotherhood, an early jazz-rock fusion band. Seven of the album’s ten songs were written by Tietgen, yet he was not a member of the band, which was somewhat unusual in those days. Nearly everybody did their own songs. They were good songs, intelligent songs, and I was curious to know more about the composer. But there was nothing on him. A year later, my friend turned me onto Crazed Hipsters, an album by Finnigan and Wood. Crazed Hipsters had three more songs by this Lane Tietgen fellow, and, once again, he was not one of the band members. One of the songs, “Highway,” was extraordinary. It seemed to speak of hidden truths, secret wisdom, and it became very important to me. The Jerry Hahn Brotherhood and Finnigan and Wood had one musician in common: Mike Finnigan, a singer and keyboard player. He seemed the obvious source for the Tietgen material. The lack of any hard facts about Tietgen made him seem a bit of a mystery man to me.
Jump ahead 36 years:
Working on my book, I realized that “Highway” wanted to be part of the manuscript, which meant that I needed to try to track down Tietgen and seek his permission to quote the lyrics. Last Summer, through Google, I learned that he lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. Not only that, in just a few weeks he was going to play at a bar/restaurant in nearby Sonoma. The day of the gig, Judy and I drove up there. It was a scene I knew well: folksinger in the corner playing songs that hardly anybody was listening to. Instead of playing his own songs, he was playing songs by others—Dylan, Van Morrison, and others like that. My old favorites, actually. He sounded good, but in that situation it was impossible to make much of a judgment. Between sets, I spoke with him briefly, explained what I wanted, and gave him my contact information.
In February, I got an email from Lane. He’d just finished a self-produced CD and asked if I was interested in hearing it. I’m usually a little uncomfortable when people offer me artwork. Even if it doesn’t appeal to me, I feel obliged to say something nice, and I don’t really like doing that. But I accepted. A few days later, Wheel of Fortune arrived in the mail. I put it on and immediately felt pulled into the first track, the title track, “Wheel of Fortune.” This is not to say that I liked it. (I seldom like any song the first time I hear it—especially the ones that end up meaning the most to me. The best songs usually have a density that requires repeated listenings.) But it did grab my attention. The CD was completely different from what I’d been expecting. It wasn’t some folksinger’s simple demos of his songs; rather, it was a completed work, with acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums, several different types of keyboard instruments, saxophone, trombone, violin, mandolin, background vocals, and harmonica. Each song was throughly worked-out and richly textured. The lyrics were dense, smart, wise, amusing. His singing was fantastic. He tackled each song with real verve. There was nothing tentative about him. The first songs grew on me quickly, and I liked them so much that I started playing them for Judy. In no time, we were both fans and, as we discovered them, talked obsessively about the nuances of each number. I would say that there isn’t a bad song on the disk, and there are many great ones. As I got deeper in, my favorite song kept changing—that is, until I landed on the CD’s true center, a song called “Raindrops on the Page.” When I was in my teens, I was fanatical about good songs. I would force friends to sit down and listen to them. I don’t do that anymore, but if I did, I’d force everyone I know to listen to “Raindrops on the Page.” In Part II—coming in a few days—I’ll write more about this amazing song.