Artist: The Association
Writer: Ruthann Friedman
Album: Insight Out
Chart Position: #1 US
Artist: The Association
Writer: Ruthann Friedman
Album: Insight Out
Chart Position: #1 US
You'd think when someone writes one of the most popular songs of the 20th Century, it would somehow change their life. But Ruthann Friedman didn't recall anything changing when the Association recorded "Windy" and it spent four weeks at #1 in the summer of 1967, other than that she could finally pay her own rent.
"You're asking someone who did so many psychotropic drugs during that time it's amazing she's still standing upright, to remember details of what happened 40 years ago," she said. She agreed it would seem like a momentous occasion. "Yeah, but it wasn't at the time," she said. "I just was bopping around playing music with my friends, going to San Francisco, staying with friends up there, staying down here in Los Angeles. It was kind of a gypsy life that a lot of us led. Honestly, I just felt this is what I expected to happen. It's what I anticipated would happen. So it wasn't like, Whoa! It was like, okay, this is the next step. This is where I'm supposed to be."
Where she was supposed to be is where she has remained for the last 40 years, this Bronx girl transplanted to Venice, California, where she hung out with the cream of L.A. pop royalty, a 16-year-old sneaking into the Troubadour in the early '60s, then an 18-year old starting to write and play her songs on the guitar, making friends like David Crosby, Van Dyke Parks, and Tandyn Almer, author of "Along Comes Mary," another big hit for the Association, who died a few years ago.
She was 25 when "Windy" happened and she said the biggest changes were internal. "My father died when I was 15, so he never knew anything. But my mother, after high school she made me take a secretarial course, because I was obviously the one of her children who was not going to go to the University of Chicago," she said. "My brother's a psychiatrist. My sister was a historian and screenwriter. And little sister was the hippie guitar player. Actually, I was more of a beatnik than a hippie. I was too old to be a hippie. I was the black sheep in my family, the one who was immediately influenced by Bob Dylan and Timothy Leary. So for me it was a moment to look at my family and say, 'Na na na na na na.'"
Having written "Windy" in 20 minutes while living in an apartment in David Crosby's house, one of the hundreds of songs she was writing in those days, Ruthann has come to realize a song is not yours once it's recorded. But to her this is less a philosophical than a financial realization. "Once it's out in the air it belongs to everybody," she agreed, "nowadays for sure, because my royalty checks are getting smaller all the time. I could have lived on what I was making three years ago, and then in the last two years the royalties disappeared. I swear to you, in two years I went from making a living, to thank God I've got Social Security. I'm getting a third or a quarter of what I was making before. It's just that people aren't having to buy the song anymore. My mechanical royalties are zilch."
She did have a philosophical realization as well, as to the true meaning of the song. "People said it was about my hippie boyfriend up in San Francisco. I never had a hippie boyfriend. These days, looking back at myself in my mid to late 20s, I finally realized I was talking about me in that song, and how I wanted to be."
It's just one of many full circles she's come since then, another being her new life as a recording artist and a performer. "In 2007 Water Records released my old Warner Brothers/Reprise album named Constant Companion. That did rather well, so they also released a bunch of my old, folkie stuff, which was called Hurried Life. Then there's Chinatown, which has Van Dyke Parks playing on three tracks. A friend had been bugging me for years to release this other stuff I did for A&M, including 'High Coin,' which was produced by Van Dyke Parks and 'I Think It's Going to Rain Today,' produced by Randy Newman. But I was mostly embarrassed by it. So I said, 'No, I don't think so.' He nagged me for 10 years till I finally said okay. So that's the Windy: The Ruthann Friedman Songbook."
When Constant Companion was reissued, El Cid, a local restaurant, wanted her to play at a festival. "So I said, 'Well, I've got to learn to play again.' So I went to this great guitarist over at McCabe's and he listened to the songs on my album and taught me how to play them again. Then I started practicing. It took about two years for me to get my chops back. It turns out, there were a bunch of people to whom I was a legend of sorts, a kind of '60s folk goddess. Not to very many people. Most people still say, 'Who?' These people weren't 'Windy'ites. They were people who loved my album. It was just a heartwarming welcome back. And then I started playing around. I met people through my music who really like my stuff. I don't know what's going to happen from here. At first I was out all the time, every night, either listening to or playing music. Now I'm tired. I just can't do it. They wanted me last night. I said, 'Look, I'm going to be 70 years old. I don't really need to go out every night. I need to stay home. I need to keep my husband warm and cook turkey burgers.' I should have gone last night, but I just could not face the drive from Venice to Echo Park, which is generally the drive I have to make when I play.
"But I do love to play my songs and sing them for people. I have never stopped loving that. That's what keeps me writing. I'd rather not write songs if I can't play them for people. What else is music about? I play it, I enjoy it. For me, it's a better way of communicating."
I think I was 25 when I wrote "Windy." I had placed a few songs before that, but mostly I just had them. I started recording with Steve Clark in Gary Paxton's studio on Hudson Street in Hollywood. You recorded downstairs and you had to go upstairs to hear it back, because that's where the booth was. I think there were four tracks at the time. I was probably 22 then, because I remember on my 21st birthday I was living with the Association and it was after that, because I had my own place by then.
Van Dyke Parks introduced me to the guys in the Association. We were friends for a long time before I ever showed them a song. They had just had the hit "Along Comes Mary," with my good friend Tandyn Almer and they thought to ask me if I had something for them. I had just written "Windy," and I said, "I think this might be right up your alley." So I played it for them and they said, "That's the song." Most of my other songs in those days had nothing to do with "Windy." They were either very folky or very jazzy, psychedelic '60s stuff. Very few were popish. In fact, (the album's original producer) Jerry Yester said, "We couldn't believe you wrote 'Windy' because all your other songs are so unlike that." Within a few weeks, they called me from the studio and they said, "We have a hit here. Come on and sing on the backups." So I went in and I'm the voice singing the blues licks.
At the time I also had recorded a song of Tandyn Almer's called "Little Girl Lost and Found" that was a big local hit. So the two songs were on the radio at the same time. A lot of people liked that song. It's a crazy song. It's me singing about 18 different harmonies.
A&M signed me as a songwriter right around this time. Unfortunately, I went to the head of Rondor Music - or was it Almo? - and I said, "Will you publish this for me? The Association want to record it." And the head of the company said, "Why, sure, little lady." I could have kept the publishing or at least 75% of the publishing, but I've only gotten 50% all these years. They got the other 50% - for doing nothing. I tried to write for A&M and it came out very badly. Like, there was one song I wrote when I had finally had it. I was living up in Half Moon Bay. I had a rock 'n' roll band up there and I was shipping stuff down to A&M in L.A. So I sent them this one song called "Cotton Candy." It was just the stickiest, sweetest cotton candy song that you could ever think of. And they went out and made a demo of it with three guys singing. I could not believe they didn't understand it was a joke.
My album for Warner/Reprise is a happy and a sad story. The happy part of the story is that Van Dyke met Joe Wissert and Joe Wissert needed a way to get into Warner Brothers and needed somebody to record. Van Dyke introduced him to me, so it was a package deal. Van Dyke executive produced it and Joe Wissert produced it and he wouldn't let me do anything on it. It was just me and my guitar. "Windy" wasn't on the album. I was trying to back away from the image of the woman who wrote "Windy" only because there were a lot of other tricks in my bag and I didn't want to be known for that one trick. It's like a person getting typecast. Not a good thing. But ultimately it gets me in the door. If I want to get in a door it gets me in the door.
When I played with my rock band in the '60s we played it as a blues. The original is sort of a folk baroque piece. If you listen to my demo of it, you will hear that. These days I play it with my band because my band members insist. But I will not let them do the "Ba, ba, da, ba" part, because I hate that. It was not in the original song. Sometimes, people come to hear me play who only want to hear "Windy" and walk away disappointed, if they don't hear "Windy." Although other people go, "Oh, my God, you're really good." So what are you going to do? It's a very important song. People love it. It's everywhere I go, and people love me because I wrote that song.
April 15, 2014