Tom Pacheco in the Press:

Tom Pacheco's Mountain of Songs

Gary Alexander

Maybe the planet's largest kaleidoscope isn't the one at Catskill Corners in Shandaken. Maybe it's the one through which Woodstock songwriter Tom Pacheco views the world.

On his last three albums alone, two of them double CDs, Pacheco has given us more angles on everyday life than a jeweler could cut into a diamond. His box of visions is even more bulging than the swollen campaign chest of George "dub-ya." Pacheco, who makes a rare local appearance tonight at Rosendale Cafe, brings perspectives of the world beyond the grasp of many of the most imaginative of today's songsters into the reach of a guitar-driven tempo.

Rampaging through the works of today's most revered and prolific songwriters, nowhere do we find quite the range of subject matter and concept than we see in Pacheco's cascading output. Taking a look at just a few of the 77 songs presented on those three albums, we meet John Wilkes Booth fleeing from the scene of the crime; the would-be rescuer of a woe-be-gone racehorse, condemned like an old house; Beat icon Neal Cassady, who just happened to be there, wherever it was; mystery-wrapped bluesman Robert Johnson; the cast-off and ageing "main squeezes" of rock stars; a soul-sucking reverend; an edgy adulterer from Youngstown; Van Gogh's landlord; George Armstrong Custer; the busboy who cradled the head of a dying Robert Kennedy and numerous other everyday heroes, losers, lovers and cads.

Pacheco, like many other artists, can charm with romance, tug with poignancy and amuse with wit but who else could or would write a fascinating song about sand or the characteristics of a single tear from the eye of a woman? Who else would stage a jailbreak from heaven or know the deepest secrets of a Vietnam vet killed in a holdup? Pacheco makes us feel the numbness of a disaster victim with a CNN microphone in her face, the annual silent awe inspired by the season's first blanket of snow, the liberating force in having "crazy eyes," the smothering emotions of a touring successful author's encounter with her married high school sweetheart. These are intricate and delicate themes, common to this remarkable songster's outlook, handled adroitly with distinctive and assertive grace.

A once-and-future Woodstocker who returned from a decade's stay in Dublin several years ago, Pacheco is perhaps better known in Europe, where he still plays more frequently than he does here. His albums are consistently raved about in the foreign press and one of them, The Lost American Songwriter, draws its title from a reviewer's puzzled reference to him as one of America's unrecognized masters--(what's the matter with those yanks?) Pacheco's reaction, in the album's title song, features a nondescript songwriter perusing a new town for places to play, not with bitterness but with a sense of privilege which is both humble and touchingly genuine.


Although one of Tom's Australian reviewers recently observed that his music is "ignored by the feeble fuehrers who program the hits and memories mausoleums of the unlucky radio country," Pacheco does receive airplay from livelier stations and well-deserved respect from his fellow musicians. Numerous artists in both Europe and America have recorded his work, including The Band on their last album, Jubliation, and even Bob Dylan was reportedly covering his "Midnight Waters of the Rio Grande" last year on a European tour. The record-holder for Pacheco-covers, however, is Norwegian star Steinar (pronounced stainer') Albrigtsen, a household name in Oslo whose recordings consistently "go platinum" and who has included no less than 34 of his songs on albums, including one they recorded together in 1993. As this is written three record companies are bidding for a proposed follow-up to be recorded in Woodstock this Fall.

"Steinar wanted us to put down the basic tracks in a studio on a little Greek island you have to get to by boat from Samos Island," Pacheco laughs, recalling the exercises of logic he employed to persuade Albrigtsen otherwise. "He had vacationed there this summer and told everyone it was a terrible place so it wouldn't be discovered' and spoiled by tourists."

With Albrigtsen due to arrive next week to begin work on the project, The Rosendale Cafe's Mark Morganstern, who is earning a reputation for attracting some of the finest contemporary talent from all over the country, sagely opened a local window wherein we can catch this extraordinary artist warming up for the climb. Some new songs are always a certainty at a gig by someone sitting on a mountain of notebooks full of unrecorded gems and still haunted daily by his ever-active muse. Singer Tao Rodriguez was anxious to capture some for his own repetoire when he first heard Tom perform just before Tao's grandfather, Pete Seeger, went on at the Clearwater Corn Festival in Beacon last week. Rodriguez knew a place near where he lived in Nicaragua called "Bluefields," which is also the title of a dazzling Pacheco song about the quest for true values in life. And who wouldn't want to string jewels on their necklace that gleam with the sheer exhilaration of living like Pacheco's "Fly With the Lightning" or tone with the chilling caution of "a place cursed by Pawnees" like the glance of a woman in his tune "Jessica Brown."

Pacheco commands the passions of revenge, pangs of remorse and yearning, knots of twisted irony and an imagination that allows Adolf Hitler to meet Billy the Kid or an alien abduction to rescue the grandfather of Muddy Waters from the Klan. When other artists unload a bright and mindless escape to the countryside, Pacheco looks closer and sees a "soggy, foggy field of listless cows." ANYTHING can happen in a song by Tom Pacheco. Come and see.

-Gary Alexander

Gary Alexander is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names, he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event; science and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of presumption which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have, Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort to humor.

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