when pictures fail me…
I am casting a net—hoping to pull in a catch of informed insights, quirky anecdotes, and pithy quotes from people I have never met. Telescoping back more than fifty years—and from current perspectives and self-awareness—our hindsights are tethered to the present. Here we are! If still standing, for how long? Who have we become and what is meaningful?
Apparently, Bert Sommer has become important to me. For over two years I’ve been connecting the dots into an impressionistic portrait of a prodigiously talented and possibly self-sabotaging individual whose friends and bandmates, when I first utter my intentions, almost all smile and say: “Everyone loved Bert!” And usually follow up with: “He would love this.” “This” meaning a project (I am aiming for a book) that accords him the recognition, the acknowledgment, and maybe, finally, the respect he deserves. Oh, and fame! (Not that I can supply that, but I might be a stepping stone.) Next they describe the flip side of loving Bert, the caveats that came part and parcel, learned from experience. He was both tender and cavalier, like most of us, but in Bert-size proportions.
There’s no elevator pitch that could convince anyone of my logic in pursuing this. All I can do is rewind to the very first time I heard him sing. A film clip from 1969’s Woodstock—the only one that anyone (except possibly the editors) knew about, unearthed in 1994, four years after his death—shows Bert singing “Jennifer.” Hair like a tumbleweed billows around closed eyes and an open voice that insists you pay attention. This is not just flower-power fluff. I wondered: Who is this guy? What became of him?
Poring over the liner notes of his 1977 self-titled album (which was supposed to relaunch his career, stalled nearly a decade, but instead sent him into another deep slide), I focus on the girl in the group. Gail Sherman Johnson is her name, and off to Google I go. Known professionally as Gail Warning, I discover a beautiful face, a throaty voice, and intelligent, haunting lyrics to her music. I reach out in a Facebook message, and many months later we connect. Yes, she has a story about Bert. A tender one.
In the meantime, I am learning about the defensive armor Bert assembled to keep at bay the deep hurt of being swept out of the collective historical and cultural memory of Woodstock. This involved both the buffer of drugs (which had worked far earlier for him, as a troubled teenager) and a sense of self-deprecating humor. “I was involved in the two most famous counterculture events of the ’60s. Hair and Woodstock. That and a token will get you on the New York subway!”
By 1974, he was sent to an upstate New York correctional facility as part of a new rehab program designed for the city’s youthful drug offenders and the domino effect of petty crimes that ensued. An equally young guy, Rob Landis, was a counselor running a musical therapy program. Surprised to learn that this gangly, overgrown “kid” (Bert was in his mid-20s, with a cherub smile that could charm the devil) could actually sing, he immediately put the spotlight on the new “star” of his in-house band. Oh—and the stories Bert told! He was once a part of the baroque-rock group The Left Banke, a lead in both coasts’ casts of Hair, a performer at Woodstock (who received the first standing ovation), and had three major-label albums under his belt. Tall tales, Landis assumed, until he learned otherwise. They were given permission to leave the barbed-wired walls and play in the church cafe of a nearby college town, Brockport, along the Erie Canal.
I pieced together some of this on a recent road trip, wanting to get a feel of the upstate purgatory that Bert, a street-savvy city-kid, inhabited after being released. I even drove to Medina, (a good half-hour, longer if hoofed/hitch-hiked, which Bert did once in a bust-out) where I thought the rehab/correctional institution to be. I passed two on the way out of the college town, in Albion and Orleans, a grim reminder of our country’s love affair with incarceration as the answer to our ills.
He stayed in Brockport with his new band-buddies, penning new songs and performing as part of a trio: Sommer, Landis, and Roberts. Until he got antsy. Then Bert boarded a Manhattan-bound bus, vowing (more to himself than his bandmates): “I’m not coming back until I get a record deal.” He hit the trifecta. Not only did he sign up with a major label (again, Capitol, just like in 1968), but he also got a lead part in a Saturday morning TV show, along with a summer slot for the trio at the hugely popular Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park. The brass ring was again within reach; Bert could almost touch it.
Gail Sherman Johnson, her husband Mike Johnson, and her brother Jack Sherman were in Bert’s Brockport orbit, which in 1976 shifted to Los Angeles. Bert was, in a sense, the catapult for their own lives to take on personal trajectories that spun off from his. When she and I finally got to talk at length, at the beginning of the Covid-19 quagmire that we’d soon find ourselves in, Gail shared her remembrances. “Bert empowered me. He helped me find my own power.” As she watched him sit at the piano or play a guitar, a door opened for her. “I began to think that I could do that. Write songs.”
Gail suggested I contact her brother Jack, living in Savannah. I found that after the initial shock of life during a pandemic, people are mostly open to peering backward, even with a stranger. My M.O. is to generally allow them freedom with their thoughts, and just stay in the saddle, scribbling away. We are all sheltering in place with our memories. Jack and I hit it off, albeit in a skewered conversational direction. He was younger than Bert, his sister, and me. Gail recalls Bert teasing Jack mercilessly, but Jack did not relate that. Instead, I learned that he played guitar on demos and in rehearsals for Bert’s album-release gig at the Troubadour on the Sunset Strip. His Bert-story was not what I expected, but a later one, during the Albany “twilight years.” Again, a tender one. Jack offered to “friend” me on Facebook, but only if I wasn’t going to be, as I loosely translated, a wing nut. In either direction. Jack wanted to make sure he hadn’t read me wrong.
As I write this, Gail is forced indoors due to the wildfire smoke conditions bearing down on Portland, Oregon, her home. She writes poetry and lyrics, does art and yoga—always working on her inner self. Anyone who makes it through the LA music scene of the latter part of the twentieth century has to have honed some self-care practices. When I called her a few weeks ago to see how she was faring, I learned that not only had her mother passed in August, but a few weeks later, so did her “baby brother.” Jack. I was in disbelief; my new Facebook friend—who daily, sometimes hourly, would meticulously and methodically post info about cultural icons, as archived through the warp and woof of a truly unique mind (that my own had played bumper cars with in our few phone calls)—had succumbed, not to Covid, but a heart attack. I had been on sabbatical from Facebook. Jack had thousands of friends, but had barely mentioned to me that he was once a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I had no clue how esteemed a guitar-player he had become. I had to Google “Jack Sherman” to learn that.
As I research a little-known singer-songwriter named Bert Sommer, I am discovering a world of talent—not necessarily household names, but creative minds and hearts who continue doing what they love to do, need to do—come hell or high water. We’ve all seen fire and we’ve all seen rain. We all strive to find joy, meaning, and order out of chaos. Yearning for serenity, we contemplate the vast unknown. Wanting to leave a mark—that we were here.
copyright Sharon Watts
Clever and Quick (copyright 2020) Gail Sherman Johnson
To the clever and the quick
ashes of the cigarette flick
the empty glass and the teary eyes
and the sigh of sighs…
every thing changes by and by
Keepin’ it simple a day at a time
I leave what’s yours and I know what’s mine
still got a melody and rhymin’ rhyme
to lose the ooze of the slippery slime
on the precipice of a treacherous climb
where the sigh transforms to a sovereign smile
everything changes by and by
No more heroes and no more foes
no more worry where the money goes
no more heartache and no more wiles
everything changes by and by
Here comes another unprecedented surprise
here comes another fast talkin’ wise guy
there goes another unsatisfied soul
there goes a fool down the rabbit hole
none of my business but I must mind
we’re all on the watch – the old fashioned kind
where love is the key that must be wound
and compassionate words need be sound
Reach home before sunset
May the light shine bright
To get you through the darkest night
Everything’s gonna be alright
Everything changes by and by
More of Gail: https://gailwarning.bandcamp.com/