Songwriter Interviews

Terry Jacks ("Seasons in the Sun")

by Carl Wiser

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"Seasons in the Sun" is still the biggest-selling single by a Canadian artist. Calling it a "hit" does not do it justice - it was a global phenomenon that led Terry Jacks down an unorthodox path away from music and into the fray of determined environmental activism.

As part of the duo The Poppy Family with his wife at the time Susan, Terry found a hit sound that got the attention of The Beach Boys, who brought him in as a producer. Had the group not been a hot mess of infighting and power struggles, "Seasons in the Sun" could have become their hit, another Carl Wilson-sung classic along the lines of "God Only Knows." Instead, it became Terry's defining song - one that came with a label he spent 12 years redefining.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): I get the sense that the story of "Seasons in the Sun" tells the story of your life. Can you tell me the events leading up to that song and how it became this huge hit?

Terry Jacks: The first time I ever heard the song was in the '50s when the Kingston Trio recorded a song called "Seasons in the Sun." Now, this was not at all like my song. The original song was by Jacques Brel, who was a friend of mine. He was from Brussels.

It was about an old man who was dying of a broken heart because his best friend was screwing his wife. He wrote this in a whorehouse in Tangiers, and the words were quite different. Jacques has passed away now, but he was a great French writer and singer and actor.

The song originally he used to do on stage and it was in a march form, like, "Bom ba DUM, bom ba DUM." Quite a different thing. This old man was dying of a broken heart and he was saying goodbye to his priest and his best friend and his wife, who cheated on him. Her name was Francoise, and it went, "Adieu, Francoise, my trusted wife, without you I'd have had a lonely life. You cheated lots of times but then I forgave you in the end, though your lover was my friend." He was dying of this broken heart.

The Kingston Trio recorded that song with those words, those translations. It was translated by Rod McKuen or somebody Rod McKuen knew or something - I don't know what the story was. I did know Rod McKuen spoke French, but it was translated with Jacques Brel's words.

Now, a really good friend of mine died, he had acute leukemia. This was years and years later. I guess maybe 1971. We were playing golf and he told me he's got six months to live. I said, "Oh, come on." And he said, "No, there's no cure for what I've got." In those days there was no cure for that type of leukemia. Now they do bone marrow transplants.

He was gone in four months. He was a very good friend of mine, one of my best friends, and he said I was the first one that he told. I remembered this song of an old man dying of a broken heart, and I liked some of the melody and there was something there. I rewrote the song about him and how he said goodbye to his friend and then he said goodbye to his father instead of his priest, and then he said goodbye to his girlfriend.

A lot of my friends didn't like the song because they knew him and they thought, Oh, this is kind of crazy. So I didn't release the song right away.

Meanwhile, The Beach Boys had been really good friends of mine, and Brian was having trouble down there in the States. As you know, he was into quite a few things he shouldn't have been into, and one of his ears was going bad or something. I was a hot producer at the time up in Canada - I had a few hits that I produced for other people. The Beach Boys knew that I really liked their music and they asked me if I'd come down and produce them. I said, "Wow, that's quite an honor. The only one that's ever produced you is Brian."

They said, "Well, do you have something that we could use?" Because I'd been writing a lot and doing well with the songs that I'd written in the past. And I thought of this song, because one of the lines in the song was, "But the stars we could reach were just starfish on the beach." I thought, Wow, this would be a great song for The Beach Boys. Carl had that beautiful voice that he used in "God Only Knows" and "Good Vibrations." So I said, "This is the song."

I worked on the arrangement and they flew me down. We were cutting this at Brian's house. We hired all these different musicians, cut the track and put Carl's voice on it. We weren't finished, but I was having tremendous trouble producing this thing, because there was so much fighting going on amongst the group, and they wouldn't all come in at the same time. I remember Mike Love came in to do his lines in a guru outfit with some girl, and they were on a watermelon fast. His lines were like "We had joy, we had fun... Bom bom bombombom, bom bombombombaba." Typical Mike Love-type voice on that.

Then I had Brian come in and play organ on it. Brian wouldn't sing the high part, and he's got the best really high voice. Al Jardine and I, we worked on the background vocals for it.

The thing never got finished. Brian wanted to get hold of the tape and add some things, and the engineer would have to take the tape home at night so that Brian wouldn't get hold of it. This went on and on, and I was almost having a nervous breakdown because I would put so much energy into this thing and the stress was really getting me. So I said, "I'm not going to be able to finish this. I can't get you guys all in here together." So it never got completed.

So I went home and got myself together, and I recorded it myself.

I wasn't going to record it at all. I was going to London, England at the time, and there was a good friend of mine named Larry Evoy. He was lead singer with Edward Bear [a popular Canadian band in the '70s]. We'd been talking, and I said, "I've got this great song, it would have been a smash for The Beach Boys, but it never got finished properly and we put on a demo voice. I think it would be great for you, because you've got that type of voice that would be really good for it."

And Larry says, "Well, I was going to phone you, because I wanted you to produce this Edward Bear." I said, "I'll see you in Toronto. Bring your guitar and I'll play you this song." He says, "Well, I've got a song I wrote that I think you should hear that I'd like you to produce." I said, "OK, but I think this one's perfect for you."

So I met him at the airport and he played me this song that he wanted me to produce for him. I said, "I don't know, Larry. I don't think that's a hit, man. I love your voice and I love the songs you've done, but I don't think that's a hit. I don't want to produce it, but I've got a perfect one for you."

I played him "Seasons in the Sun." He listened to it, and he says, "Oh, man, I don't know about that song. I don't know whether it's right for me."

So I took off. He got somebody else to produce his song, which was "Last Song" - the one that goes, "This is the last song I'll ever write for you." And as his song was going up Billboard - it kept on going, going, going - he kept on phoning me and leaving messages. "Last Song" turned out to be a #1 record [in Canada - in America it made #3].

Then I released "Seasons in the Sun" a while later and it went to #1, so I kept phoning him.

Songfacts: I want to make sure I heard that correctly. Did you say Jacques Brel originally wrote the song in a whorehouse?

Terry: Yeah. The song was originally called "Le Moribond." It means "The Dying Man," "The Dying." And it was a funny song. He wrote it in a whorehouse in Tangiers. Jacques told me.

Songfacts: That's what I was getting at. So Jacques Brel actually told you this?

Terry: He told me it in person. I had dinner with him. I've got a great picture of me and Jacques Brel eating dinner in Brussels. We had a whole roast of lamb and a couple of bottles of wine. He didn't speak much English and I don't speak much French, and it was quite funny.

Songfacts: Did this happen after you recorded the song?

Terry: Yes, it did.

Songfacts: Did you ever speak to Jacques before you recorded it?

Terry: No, I didn't.

Songfacts: That had to be an interesting conversation. You're having dinner with Jacques Brel, you've got this massive hit with his song and he's explaining to you the origins of it and that he wrote it in a whorehouse in Tangiers.

Terry: That's what he was telling me. He also said that I should have gotten credit for writing the song. I wrote the whole last verse. I changed the context of it, changed chord structure. But I was 28 years old, and I didn't know about that. I should have gone to a lawyer and gone to a publisher, but I didn't know that kind of stuff. The record was such a big hit, I was just, like, "Wow, look at all this money coming in!"

Songfacts: Yeah. I was kind of surprised that your name didn't show up on it, whereas the credited writers are Jacques Brel, of course, and then Rod McKuen. So Rod McKuen must have made a fortune on that song.

Distribution of songwriting credits is an inexact science, but getting your name on a hit can produce huge royalties. In many cases, a song's composer is coerced into sharing a credit in exchange for getting the song recorded by a popular artist. Translated songs and adaptations are a particularly grey area. In the case of "Seasons in the Sun," the credits went to Jacques Brel and Rod McKuen, even though Terry made some significant changes to the song when he recorded it.
Terry: Well, he did. He invited me down to his place, and he wanted me to produce an album for him. But I didn't really want to, and that was that. I didn't particularly want to do that.

Songfacts: I'm kind of surprised, considering your previous experience in the record business, that you didn't ensure that you got yourself the writing credit. Because you had done a heck of a lot of stuff by then.

Terry: Yeah. But the record's screaming up the charts. I'm flying around in Europe. The record company got me a Lear jet with a pilot and a copilot and I'm flying around Europe hitting all the big cities doing television shows. And I never thought of it. I thought of it a few years later. [Laughing] But it's too late, you know. You've got to make those kind of deals before they come out. When you write a song, you say, "Look, I changed this record, this song, and I would like something as far as the writing goes, or a piece of the publishing."

Songfacts: Did your wife at the time - Susan - contribute to the song?

Terry: Susan, my ex ex-wife, she had nothing to do with the song. She didn't work on the background vocals or anything. That was done by Al Jardine and me.

Songfacts: Did David Foster play on the song?

A native of British Columbia, David Foster's CV includes songwriting and production work for Chicago, Kenny Rogers, Chaka Khan, Earth, Wind & Fire, Madonna, Josh Groban and 'N Sync. But in 1973, he was best known as the keyboard whiz from the band Skylark.
Terry: Yes! David Foster did. David Foster played two notes. He doubled a bass. Oh, yes, and he also played a little arpeggio in the last verse, like, the way it goes, "Goodbye Michele, it's hard to die, and all the birds are singing in the sky. Now that spring is in the air..." It's goes, "doodledoodledoodledoodledoo." You can barely hear a little arpeggio going on the piano.

And he doubled a bass on "Goodbye papa, please pray for me," BOMBOM. He doubled a low piano note on the bass. He did just a little bit of stuff. He was just starting out then.

Songfacts: And he, of course, became this wildly successful producer, but this is one of his very early contributions.

Terry: Right. I brought him in because people were saying he was the hottest piano player around. I just wanted to add a couple of little things, so I brought him in and just had him play those things.

David Lanz, who became one of the top pianists in the New Age genre, claims that he, not Foster, played on this track, although Jacks insists it was Foster. Lanz replied:

"It is like being in the twilight zone for me... he describes exactly what I played on 'Seasons in the Sun,' but says David Foster played this part... very bizarre.

David was also living in Vancouver at the time, and he was putting together Skylark and also working in Skylark with two members of my previous Mercury Records band, Brahman: Duris Maxwell, drummer, and keyboardist, Robbie King, who played organ on 'Seasons in the Sun.' David was also coming round my apartment at the time looking for songs for Skylark, so yeah, we were all in the same place at the same time, but it just sounds like Terry mixed the two of us up.

David and I were both up-and-coming pianists at the time, and during the session I played on 'Seasons in the Sun,' Terry also had me record piano on one of my songs, which he rewrote a bit, 'Fire on the Skyline,' for the Seasons in the Sun LP.

He had me use a pseudo writers name (Franklin Wesley) to avoid problems with Mercury Records. That track and another of my songs recorded for his wife Susan, were published on his Gone Fishing Music publishing company.

Later Susan recorded my song, 'Build a Tower,' on her solo record. A song previously recorded by the aforementioned group, Brahman. Terry from time to time would come by the studio when Brahman was rehearsing and always mentioned that he wanted to produce 'Build a Tower.' He got his wish later when Susan did it.

Looking back, I remember Terry coming in and listening to Brahman as we rehearsed. We were a very serious progressive rock band, comprised of some of Canada's top studio musicians. Terry was considered sort of a bubblegum music guy, so his offer to produce us, and my song in particular, was always sloughed off with a 'no thanks' and a wink.

Later, I was happy to work with Terry, as he payed his session players well... at least we got paid paid, which was not always the case!"
Songfacts: How did the song change your life once it came out and became this huge hit?

Terry: I became labeled, because I didn't want to tour, I didn't want to do television. The record company was just changing over - it was on Bell Records, which was a small record label, and it was being changed over to Arista. And I was told if I didn't go public, I wouldn't sell as many records. So finally they said, "Look, we'll give you a junket, we want you to go all over Europe. And if you do that, we will pay you all of it, it won't come off, it won't be recouped or anything."

And they wanted me to do some TV in the States, and at the time Sonny & Cher had the top show. They'd phoned me, because I didn't want to do it. The producer got quite pissed off. He says, "Well, how do you expect to sell any records if you don't do our show?" So, anyway, I didn't do it.

So then Dick Clark, he had the big music show, I guess it was called American Bandstand or something. His producer phoned me and they wanted me to do it. I said, "Golly, I just don't want to do anything like that." In fact, I took off and went scuba diving down in the South Pacific for two months. When I came back my phone was just jammed and the mail was all over the place. It was a mess.

But before all this happened, Dick Clark himself phoned me. I said, "Holy shit, this is Dick Clark?" Because I grew up listening to my idols - Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers and Jerry Lee Lewis and these people - on American Bandstand when he was out of Philadelphia. And this was Dick Clark on the phone with me?!? That was a big thing, even though I had the #1 record.

You don't say no to Dick Clark, because he was the big one.

Songfacts: Did you ever do Bandstand?

Terry: Yes, I did.

Songfacts: So Dick Clark convinced you to go do the show?

Terry: Well, of course. When Dick Clark phoned, I was like, Oh, wow. I was 12 years old listening to Dick Clark, and this was him phoning me to be on his show? How could you say no?

Songfacts: So you did Bandstand, but it sounds like you didn't put too much effort into making a big promotional push for this.

Terry: I was my own manager, my own booking agent. I wrote and published my stuff, I sang it, I had my own record company in Canada; it was out on my own record company in Canada, on Goldfish Records. I still retain all rights in Canada for the song.

Out of New York there were a couple of big booking agencies and they were telling me all this money I could make if I went out and played the fairs. In those days it was the fairs. And I said I wasn't really interested. That's when I took off. I just took off, you know. I got a huge advance from the States, because the record in Canada was screaming up the charts. And when the song had been released in Canada on my own label, I'd gone to Hawaii.

I had a #1 record in Canada just prior to that called "Concrete Sea." It was never released in the States. I didn't know what song to put out next, but my paperboy was over at my house collecting for the papers and he heard me playing "Seasons in the Sun." He says, "What's that?" And I played it and he really liked it. The next day he turned up with about six kids and they wanted to hear that song, and they all loved it. So I thought, well, maybe... I was just so close to the song I didn't see it.

So I put it out. I remember taking it down to the radio station as I was going to Hawaii. There was a disc jockey called Red Robinson. He's in the Hall of Fame, by the way. He was the top disc jockey in Canada. He was down in the States, too, for a while. I gave it to him and he made some joke about, "Oh, here's Terry's new record. He's trying to get me to play it." But he put it on, and became the first one ever to play it.

I was going out to the airport and was listening to it in the taxi. I didn't think the bottom end was right. I remember hearing it going, "Oh, I don't like the bottom end of the song."

So anyway, I went on to Hawaii, and within the week they were phoning me. The record distributors who were distributing my record company said, "You've got to get back here. The switchboards are just lighting up with this song. It's such a left field song." Is that what they say, "left field"? It was so different it didn't really fit with anything that was going out. "The switchboards are lighting up. This song is going to be a monster." They said, "You'd better get back and do something for the States."

So I reluctantly came back and the song just was screaming up the charts there. I got home, and a guy from Bell Records, Dave Carrico, was sitting on my steps with this huge check. They'd followed what was happening in Canada, and they said, "We want that record." So I signed with Bell Records, which was a little record company.

In Canada, that song was the biggest selling record two years in a row: both '73 and '74. My ex-wife, Susan, said I was a really good producer and writer, but I couldn't sing. I won Male Vocalist of Canada two years in a row. [Laughs] And I beat out Gordon Lightfoot and Burton Cummings. Burton Cummings is probably the best rock singer ever out of Canada. That was an honor. I'm not waving my flag or anything. I'm just telling you, because I'm my manager, also.

So then they released it in the States.

Songfacts: Was that the same version that was released in Canada, or did you re-record it for the States?

Terry: Exactly the same version. We just re-released it. To this day it is the biggest-selling Canadian single internationally. It's the biggest-selling single by a Canadian artist internationally throughout the world. It's sold almost 14 million records.

Songfacts: And it probably will be forever, the way that economics are these days. That's remarkable.

Terry: Well, singles are no longer happening. It's albums. In those days, it was the day of the single, remember?

Songfacts: Yes, of course.

Terry: I don't know whether I got paid for everything, but that's a different story. That's why the record companies are all in trouble nowadays. They ripped off the artists so bad in those days, now they're getting ripped off.

Songfacts: There was obviously nothing wrong with the low end.

Terry: [Laughing] Yeah, you're right, man.

Songfacts: But I guess as a producer you're always thinking that. No matter how many times you hear a song, you're going to hear something wrong with it, even once it's out there.

Terry: I've actually done a couple of perfect productions and neither of them were hits. You can make something perfect. You can get all the hooker lines, you can get everything right, the arrangement right, everything, and the singing can be right and everything. But the one ingredient you can't put into it, it's that thing from the heart. That's spontaneity. The sound that it's never been sung before. And that bit of soul. That's the one ingredient that you can't manufacture.

I have done a couple of records that I thought were perfect, but they didn't have that. They weren't coming from my heart. They were coming because I had to. And after "Seasons" my songs had always been songs that came from my heart.

They were little pictures. Right from "Which Way You Goin' Billy?" That was #1 on Cashbox by The Poppy Family, and it was #2 on Billboard. Then we had other hits called "Where Evil Grows," "That's Where I Went Wrong," "Good Friends."

Songfacts: It's interesting you're talking about this, Terry. Because when you have a song like "Which Way You Goin' Billy?" and some of these other songs you mention, the subject matter is relatively morose. Can you talk about how you came up with "Which Way You Goin' Billy?"

Terry: "Which Way You Goin' Billy?" That's quite a thing. Buddy Holly was my idol, and it was written as, "Which way you goin', Buddy?" I had the melody of the chorus in my mind a few years before I'd written the song, and I was trying to figure something out and I couldn't figure it out. Nothing was working.

But I had "which way you going, Buddy?" And all that. And then later on when The Poppy Family started, Susan and I had a couple of records that were little hits in Canada, but they weren't much. And it was tough in those days. So I was writing this song, I had this great chorus. "You are my soul, babe, my heart and my soul." You know, "You are my whole, baby, my heart." It was a real infectious chorus, but I didn't know where to take the thing.

It was in 1969 and I had been reading about all these guys going to Vietnam and leaving their women behind in Seattle, and I knew somebody down there that was doing that. I thought, "Wow, that must be awful." These guys go and their wives or girlfriends wouldn't know whether they were coming back. That's quite a deal, going to war over there, and it was such a stupid war. So I said, "That's what I'm going to write about: this woman that's left behind. Which way you going, Billy? Can I go, too?"

I wrote it very simple. I believe in simplicity in writing - simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve. It's so easy to overwrite or overproduce.

So I started writing that, and I didn't know which name to use after "Which way you going." I had no clue. But one of my favorite groups in Canada was a group called The Beau Marks. They were out of Montreal, and had one big hit in the States called "Clap Your Hands." But my favorite song of theirs was called "Billy, Billy Went A Walkin'." It was a really neat song.

They were all disabled, the whole group was, but they had some neat records in Canada. But anyway, I remembered this song, "Billy" and I thought, "Which way you goin'... ah, Billy! that'd be a great name." Like "Billy, Billy Went A Walkin'" and sort of "Which Way You Goin', Billy?"

So I used the name Billy, because you've got to use a name that isn't going to stick out like a sore thumb. You can't do, "Which way you goin', Lawrence." Lots of people are called Billy, and it's a name that doesn't rub you wrong or anything. So I decided to use "Which Way You Goin', Billy?" and wrote this song.

It was not going to be the A-side. We went in the studio and recorded it. Susan sang it perfect, but it didn't have the feel I wanted. It's a very sad song, and it was done really well. I remember going home with her that night - we were married - and saying, "There's something wrong. I don't like it." And she was saying, "Oh, I think it's fine." I said, "No." Because as a producer, I didn't figure it caught that emotion that I wanted. It was too happy sounding. It was really well done, but it was too happy.

I argued with her, and finally, I said, "Look, I'm going to cut it again. We've still got the track you got, I want to cut it again." So the next day we went in and she did it first take, because she was so tired and she was so worn out, she captured the feel. It fit the song. The other performance was too happy.

Songfacts: I'm seeing how your songwriting comes from different things that you're feeling. What about when you did the song "That's Where I Went Wrong"?

Terry: That was the fastest song I have ever written. My first group was called The Chessmen. We got a contract with Brenda Lee's manager, Dub Albritton, to go to Nashville and record. We went down by bus. Can you imagine that, from Vancouver to Nashville by bus? It was hell. And I was leaving this girlfriend behind. She dumped me. Most of my songs, my emotions, came from that girl, like "Good Friends," and "That's Where I Went Wrong" and all that.

The bus was cold, and I got that emotion. You've got to pick up an emotion for a song and then you can rewrite words. Your words can be fictitious. It can be artistic license. You can write whatever you want. But I got that feeling, like "this bus is awful cold, we've gone so many miles, God, please help me go to sleep and forget her for a while. I know it's not her fault, I've known it all along. I was the one that trusted her, that's where I went wrong." So I caught that emotion. Because she'd left me for somebody.

I was only 17, but that was a big, big thing for me. We'd planned what we were going to call our kids when we got married and all that. But her parents didn't like me, because I'd quit university. I was going to be an architect.

So I sat down with my guitar and I just played that song. It just flowed. The bloody song just flowed, right from the very beginning.

"Which Way You Goin', Billy?" I'd started off with a question, and a question is really a neat way to start a song, because you grab people's attention. So then I start out with another question: "What's your name?" See, I had to change the gender for all the Poppy Family things. I'd write from my heart, then I'd have to write it through a girl's point of view. That was bugging me after a while, so that's why I started recording myself, like "Concrete Sea" and "Seasons in the Sun," because I said, "Screw it. Maybe I'm not a good signer, but I want to write without having to change a song around."

And "That's Where I Went Wrong," like "What's your name? I'm so far from my home and I'm tired, I don't want to be alone. And I need someone to talk to me. Because the one that used to talk to me, well, you know, she don't want me." So it was changed to, "Well, he don't want me." So I started out, again, with another question.

Another big hit we had in Canada, it was #1 called, "Where Evil Grows." It made the charts down in the States and it was #1 in San Francisco. I sing lead on that one, by the way. I'd written this, but I didn't have a good chorus. I wrote the chorus six years later when I started doing environmental work. I fought the pulp mills up here in British Columbia for, oh, 12 years. I took the environment minister to court and I took one of the pulp mills to court for breaking their permits; the government wasn't fining them.

I'd written the chorus for "Evil Grows," which goes, "Evil grows in the dark where the sun, it never shines. Evil grows in cracks and holes, and lives in people's minds." Because these pulp mills were pumping all this shit way down on the bottom of the ocean so you couldn't see it, and they were getting away with it. They were doing terrible pollution along the British Columbia coast.

But anyway, I did that for quite a few years, my environmental work. I actually received the United Nations Award for what I did. But I lost a lot of friends, because a lot of my friends were in the forest industry up here in British Columbia, which was running amok. They were just cutting all the old growth trees down and the pulp mills were just pumping tons of pollutants into the air and water. It was a difficult time.

Songfacts: I'm seeing how being an environmentalist in Canada is not an easy thing to be.

These songs that you're talking about, you have very specific inspirations for them. But when you hear them, you can interpret them so many ways. Are there any interpretations of your songs that have really surprised you?

Terry: Yeah. I remember "Video Killed the Radio Star." In those days, you'd hear a song and you would get a different interpretation than me. In your mind you had your own video and it was really neat how it related to you. But once videos came out, it was sort of pushing down your throat this is what it's about, and I think that really destroyed singles. Albums are something different, when you listen to a total thing. But singles, you used to be able to interpret them yourself and get your own feeling out of it.

And how do people do that? "Seasons in the Sun," I had people that wanted to kill me because they thought that it was written about their son or someone who had committed suicide. I had people who were dying of cancer who thought it was about that. It's still a big song at graduations in the States. It's still a big funeral song. There were a lot of interpretations. A lot of people thought I was dying. In fact, in England, the front page of the Daily Mirror or one of these, they had a picture of me and they'd reversed the negative so I was all black and white. And they said that Terry Jacks has died. This guy did this article on me, and he'd never talked to me. There were things in there saying that Terry Jacks was a lumberjack who cuts trees down in British Columbia, which I'd never been. And there was this fictitious article in one of those scum magazines.

So an awful lot of things came out of that song. But I was labeled. No matter what I did after that. I did two or three songs after that and then I said, "I don't want to do this anymore, because I'm doing it under pressure. I'm not doing it because I want to." And so that's when I started doing my environmental work. I did that for 12 years, and I got to be known up here as an environmentalist. It was rough. People wrecked my boat and my mom got phoned once saying, "This is the RCMP, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Your son has been killed." And it was a hoax. She sat by the phone for three hours. She was 75 years old thinking that because I was out on the front line fighting these guys, going to these pulp mills, throwing bags of dog shit saying, "Hey, you're putting all these chemical pollutants, here's some nice organic pollutants for you guys." I was doing that and taking flotillas of boats out to these pulp mills. Fishermen and recreational people, we took a couple hundred boats out to one pulp mill and said, "You don't have the right to destroy our quality of life. You keep your pollution within your own fences. You don't put it into our lives."

So I did that for quite a while until I burnt out finally. That was a rough period. But life goes on.

Songfacts: Was your move into activism a result of being labeled from "Seasons in the Sun"?

Terry: After "Seasons in the Sun," I bought a boat. That was the first thing I bought. And I called it "Seasons in the Sun," because it paid for it. It was a big boat. I had it made in the States. I traveled up and down the coast, 1,000 miles of coast between Vancouver and Alaska for 30 years, two to three months every summer. I loved the coast, but I saw the destruction that was being done from the pulp and paper industry and the forest industry. Cutting all these old trees, 500-year-old trees down and putting all this shit into the air and water. The government was in bed with them because they get duties and taxes from all this.

I always had a love for nature, and that's how I had my first introduction to Christianity. I'm a Christian now. I'm a solid believer. In fact, I'm doing my first album in years and years and years. It's a Christian album, and it's called Fishers of Men. Most of my friends are atheists, and I'm hoping my music will grab them. Like Jesus said, "My disciples, you're no longer going to be fishermen," which they were. "You're going to be fishers of men." And I hope my songs will gather people like that.

In fact, here's an interesting story. James Burton, have you heard of him?

Songfacts: Yes.

Terry: Well, he played with Ricky Nelson for 20 years, Elvis for 25 years or something. He's a friend of mine. He was up here in Vancouver for Elvis Days, and he asked what I was doing. I played him some of these songs, and he says, "I'd like to play on those." And I said, "You're kiddin'." Because he's just my favorite guitar player. He's just amazing.

He said, "When you get them done, you just leave lots of spaces and come on down to Shreveport and we're going to do it." He's always been my favorite studio guitarist. He's played on every record you could name.

So that's my project that I'm doing right now. Plus, Regenerator Records, they are putting out an album this year called Starfish on the Beach, because this is the 40th year since "Seasons in the Sun." And because it's 40 years, they're putting out 40 of the best things that I've done on a collection album. I gathered up all the tapes and put them all on, re-EQ'd them. They're all the same mixes, but I've just got them really beefed up. They sound really good and we're putting it out that this year. So those two albums are going to be out this year.

Songfacts: That's fantastic. Terry, when you had this reaction when you're going up and down your boat and you're realizing all the environmental ills that are going on, it sounds like instead of taking this energy and doing what most songwriters would do, which is write a bunch of songs and sing about all these atrocities, you took a much more pragmatic approach and went the activist route. You sued people and filled out forms, that kind of stuff.

Can you tell me about how you decided to approach it that way instead of through music?

Terry: Well, this destruction bothered me. The beauty of this coast is unbelievable. I mean, you've got 1,000 miles of all these little coves and islands. That's why I started to realize that this wasn't made by a blob. This was made by God. I started getting deep in through nature, and I wanted to protect it.

And through songs, I didn't think I could do it as well. I started making videos. One of my videos won a couple of gold awards, New York International Film Festival, called "The Faceless Ones." Talking about corruption between government and industry. They were all in bed together - when I took the government to court or the industry to court, the other lawyers from the other side would be together. I used to call the minister of environment the "ministry of industry," because they weren't protecting the environment, they were protecting industry.

So I found the only way to get action is through the media, drawing embarrassment to the government, because the government needs the people to vote. I said things like, "Okay. You say we've got some of the toughest laws in North America for pulp and paper industries." Yes, we do. "And you say we've got high, high fines. Well, they aren't being fined." So I got to them and they said, "Well, they're doing their best. It's got to do with jobs." I said, "It's got nothing to do with jobs. It's got to do with the shareholders and CEOs putting out more money. The pollution abatement is available and they aren't using it."

I said, "When I get stopped by a cop, we've got laws and we've got fines. I can't tell them I'm doing my best. Why do we have double standards?" And that really hit the Achilles Heel. That was the first time it hit the front page of the papers here in Vancouver.

So then Greenpeace started finding the dioxins and the furans in the birds' eggs and the salmon outside of pulp mills. There's one dioxin which pulp mills produce by using chlorine compounds. It's called dioxin 2378TCDD. It is the most cancerous compound known to man, and it's produced by pulp mills. One trillionth in an animal's body will cause a cancer.

So it was quite a deal. And then you go and you find out the big boys at the top in the pulp mills, the managers and the CEOs at the top, they work it down to the workers. "Hey, this guy Jacks, he wants to get to you. You're going to lose your job. He wants us to close down." Which was bullshit. I didn't want them to close down. I wanted the big boys to put more money in and stop using these chlorine compounds, because they don't have to do that to make paper.

So these were the guys that were wrecking my boats and phoning my mom and phoning my answering service saying they're going to blow my head off and this kind of stuff, because they didn't know what they were doing. I wasn't trying to get their jobs. So I had to go to the top and embarrass the CEOs, saying, "Look, you've got control of this." I met with one of the CEOs of one of the big pulp mills and I had a big picture of one of his mills. I had a picture of my little girl in the smoke that was coming out of the mill, and I showed it to him. I said, "I don't want this for my little girl, and you're breaking the permits." "Well, I don't think we are. I'll look into it for you."

Well, what kind of bullshit is that? He knows what they're doing. He's the CEO. So you start embarrassing these people. They don't like their names tarnished, because these are multi-multi-millionaires. So you start using their name in the paper, and they don't like that - it doesn't look good amongst their friends. And the government doesn't like being tarnished, because they'll lose elections.

That was my approach: Embarrass these buzzards. Government and industry. Rather than to write songs about it.

Songfacts: And you did it by using your celebrity, which can get you the ear of a reporter, which can then leverage the power of your voice; is that correct?

Terry: You hit that right on. They did their best to discredit me. They said, "What's this ex-pop star doing? He's just doing this to promote his music." That's when I said, "No, I'm not. I'm not doing my music anymore. I've changed jobs. I'm an environmentalist."

And I got to be known as an environmentalist, which was the only thing that ever got rid of my label. I was "Seasons in the Sun" before that.

But I'm 70 years old now, man. Now my body's breaking down. [Laughing]

Songfacts: You really didn't take the easy road. You could have easily just ducked and covered and lived the good life somewhere. But instead, you decided to try to change the world and take on an issue that is incredibly difficult, with so much adversity that comes along with it.

Terry: Well, I was brought up with discipline. I learned self-discipline, which was a big thing that my father taught me. The good life and all that stuff were overboard, because he taught me to be frugal and he taught me self-discipline. And to focus. He didn't like the idea of me going into music. He wanted me to be an architect, because I got an art scholarship in high school.

But I didn't want to be an architect. I wanted to write music. But what did it for me was discipline. I did a few videos on what was going on. There was an old lady, she was 97 and from the First Nations. She was a Native lady from Northern British Columbia. I did a film on her called The Warmth of Love: The 4 Seasons of Sophie Thomas. I wanted to get all this down before she died. She lived in the forest and had compassion for our planet and for our people. She was married for 62 years and she had 11 children. At one time there was I think 10 or 11 living in a one-room cabin up north.

In this video her son shot a moose and she cleaned the whole thing. And she went out fishing and caught a lot of fish. She was 97 years old when she died. She'd go out and she'd gather her herbs and she'd make these different medicines. She said, "These big companies are destroying all the places I get my food and my medicines. They're mowing down all the old trees and then they spray poisons so that the deciduous trees don't grow up, so that the coniferous ones will so they can cut them in the second growth."

She was really concerned about what was being done to the land, and that's what this movie is about. All the money was given to future Natives who would continue on her practice of making these herbs from the forest and realizing how we just keep destroying our land.

Songfacts: I'm getting to the whole crux of why you took a different approach to your sudden fame, and it has to do with your upbringing and your values, essentially. It's really quite a story, because nobody that I know of has done anything like that in the face of sudden stardom.

Terry: Well, I don't hang around with musicians and I don't do a lot of gigs. In Europe I do one or two things every year. I may go out and play three songs with acts like Manfred Mann, and Gary Moore before he died. He was great, man, what a guitarist he was. And I just did a TV show in Paris with Procol Harum and Earth, Wind & Fire and Gispy Kings. I sing "Seasons in the Sun," and when I do a live thing I usually do two or three songs.

But I don't do anything in North America. I keep going further and further north. I lived in Vancouver and now I'm living in Madeira Park, sort of up the coast three or four hours. I've built a small place up in Haida Gwaii, right up by Alaska. It's an island 100 miles offshore.

Haida Gwaii means Land of the Haida Indians. I'm right on the beach there in a park. I bought the land before the park was formed, and I love it there. I want to spend two, three months a year up there. It's so peaceful and the air is so good. It's still a natural place. There's so many fish all over the place and shellfish and deer have run amok. There's deer all over the place - you're allowed to shoot 22 deer a year. I don't shoot anymore, just because I don't like killing animals, but I like eating them, you know. I've got friends up there, I give them 50 bucks and they'll bring me a deer so I can just clean it and eat it.

And I'm not crazy - I don't believe in some of these environmentalists. You can't save the wolves. The wolves are starving up north. They shouldn't poison them, but they're starving because they're killing so many of the deer and caribou. You've got to have a balance in nature. All the salmon go up to spawn in the rivers and the seals are just lunching out on them, so there's too many seals. These environmentalist groups, "Oh, don't shoot these poor little seals, don't shoot these wolves." If you kill all the deer and the caribou and everything, the wolves starve. And what's happening to our fishing, the seals are just breeding like crazy and they're eating all these fish that are going up to spawn. The government says, "Oh, well, we'll make fish farms." So you get fish farms, and there's another pollutant. These fish farms are in the water and they feed these salmon in these big nets, and they feed them antibiotics. These antibiotics go through the nets and the wild strains eat them, and it breaks down their immune systems. They feed them dye. You've tasted this bullshit salmon.

Songfacts: They call it "farmed-raised" over here.

Terry: Yeah, right. And it's got no flavor. It's a beautiful color, beautiful fat content, but it's junk compared to the real thing. They aren't protecting the real thing. They aren't protecting the habitat of the fish. They're logging too close to these rivers, and they're letting the seals run amok. You've got to balance it properly, and it's not being balanced properly up here in Canada, anyway, by the Department of Fisheries and by the government.

Okay. I thought I got out of this a few years ago. [Laughing]

Songfacts: You clearly have a passion for this.

Terry: I try to simplify my life. I don't use the hell machines [computers]. You see, I'm not good at promotion. I never did any promotion. I book myself when people phone and I managed myself and all that, but I wasn't out there on the field.

I never regret it. Because so many of these guys, they get into too many evil things. Too many wives, too much wine, too much alcohol, too much drugs. You get wrapped up and you've got so many people; they've got agents and managers and everything. I never had to answer to anybody. I answered to myself. I did what I wanted to do and sure, I could have probably made millions of dollars, but I didn't really care. I got everything I wanted. The nice boat, the nice car. I had the same car for 44 years. I just got a new car, finally. I had a Mercedes 280SL, a nice little sports car. When I got the money I bought that car, and I just kept it. And then my boat, Seasons in the Sun, I just sold it last year. I'm getting too old for the wild. And I had a beautiful ranch, I had to give that up in the marriage. I'm happy. I think the less you've got, the happier you are.

One of my sayings is on my fridge. It says, "Simplicity." And then it says, "I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of, so they can see that it's not the answer."

March 6, 2014.
Terry's compilations and re-issues are available at Regenerator Records.

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 10

  • Matthew from Michigan I grew up spending a great amount of time outdoors,camping hunting fishing hiking trapping ect.l learned at a young age to enjoy the beautiful fascinating awe inspiring World that God must have created.God,Man the Universe,the World “Aka” Nature are not separate.Terry Jacks is a man that see’s & surely understands this.
  • Mark Hanson from Cascade Mt.I love this interview !
  • Richard Skelly from Vancouver, Bc CanadaYou're a good interviewer. You also caught Terry Jacks on a day when he was especially reflective. Hands down, this is the best exchange I've ever read in print or online with Terry. He has subsequently had a couple of strokes, the second one quite serious. He's also been the victim of Internet and in-the-flesh scammers pretending to be him. According to ReGenerator Records Terry is recovering from his latest stroke. The Fishers Of Men religious-inspired album has not yet been released. In the interview, Terry recalls taking a bus trip to Nashville with then-band The Chessmen. It was in the winter of 1965. They recorded two songs with Jerry Kennedy at Fred Foster Sound Studios. Released on Mercury Records, Love Didn't Die was a regional Western Canadian hit. For the followup, What's Causing This Sensation, Mercury flew them down from Vancouver. The Chessmen were the first rock band I ever saw live. It was shortly before their mid-1966 split. They headlined a fundraising event for the private school my best friend 's sister attended. ReGenerator has re-released Chessmen material, including all four of their singles and B-sides. Again, great interview Carl.
  • Roger Rotilio from Richmond Hill, OntarioHi Terry, I heard your song many years ago (I was young, now 61) and it is still one of my two most favorite songs. I listen to it on a regular basis. It is stil wonderful. I really enjoyed Carl Wiser's interview and it was by accident that I got to read his interview (a radio was playing your song and I googled your name because I was always curious about the artist behind it). Wow! What a great person you are! I also live in Canada (Richmond Hill, Ontario) and your story really fascinates me.
  • Dian Dupic from San Jose, CaAlways loved that song! So sad yes, but Terry your voice is so beautiful!
  • Fred T from Erie,paMy wife and I got married in 1973 and after all these years we still enjoy Terry's music. Thank you for the memories.
  • Kay from Yorkshire England Great BritainIn 1975 I was a new student nurse in Scarborough England. I nursed a patient on my first ward whose name I cannot reveal because of confidentiality. Seasons in the sun would play and cause me to cry because my first cancer patient was only 21 and it was spring when I nursed him - it still reminds me of him and all the patients I have nursed since who have died too early. Now I am nearing the end of my career and the song evokes strong emotions and memories of wonderful people who left this earth before their time should have come. A lovely song - sad yes but lovely. Thank you Terry.
  • Terry Mcmanus London OntarioTerry downplays his business acumen, but in the days when writers and artists were getting fleeced left right and center, he took control of his career and he did a great job.

    As well, he is / was a fine writer. It is too bad that Seasons in the Sun define him for so many people because he is a very fine writer and his song Feelings that We Lost is a brilliant song that would make Gordon Lightfoot proud. Other songs like "You Don't Fight The Sea" are part of a body of work that would be impressive for any artist. So, creator and business man and now environmental activist.... that's a pretty good life.
  • Joe from CaliforniaAlways hated that song! Just maudlin and depressing. Like Which Way You Going Billy, though...didn't know he wrote that. But great interview. Seems like a great guy, and I respect anyone who works for the environment. Best of luck to terry jacks.
  • Jimbo from Dear Green PlaceTo this day, a song still not played on hospital radio in the UK!
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