JOHN GORKA .................................................................
The dark optimist Anil Prasad

Interview date: January 19, 1992
© Copyright 1992 by Anil Prasad.
All rights reserved.

Backstage at Ottawa's Great Canadian Theatre Company, singer-songwriter John Gorka is offering up deep thoughts on the state of America. He's deeply disappointed by the political quagmire in which the country currently sits. He's even more dismayed by the nation's lack of leadership. It's a strange state of mind for a performer who only minutes before entertained 350 people with his unique blend of wit, humor and melancholy—all rolled up into confessional lyrics anyone can relate to.

But a quick look into Gorka's background reveals something about his fascination with his country's state of affairs. In 1976, the 37-year-old New Jersey native studied American history and philosophy at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. Before completing his studies, he changed his life's focus from academia to music. It all started that same year at a local coffeehouse called Godfrey Daniels. It was there that he honed his craft as a singer-songwriter, exploring the middle ground between the political and the personal.

Gorka's deep baritone and poignant songs soon captured the attention of many of his contemporaries including Suzanne Vega, Christine Lavin, Bill Morrisey and Shawn Colvin. Various folk accolades followed and Gorka soon found himself courted by several record labels. To date, he's released five albums: I Know, Land of the Bottom Line, Jack's Crows, Temporary Road and Out of the Valley.

This interview was conducted in support of 1992's Jack's Crows—arguably his breakthrough album in terms of entering the mass public's consciousness. His energy may have been drained after his two-hour performance, but his words were alive with a wealth of intrigue and intensity.


You inject a great deal of humor into your performances. I can't believe I took some of your songs as seriously as I did when I first heard them on CD.
Well, some of them are serious, and on a record it's a different kind of thing. Songs in different positions on a playlist or in different combinations accentuate different things. Like the song "I Saw a Stranger With Your Hair" works as a transitional song, from going from a funny song to something more serious, because it has some laughs in it. Or, sometimes it gets a laugh at the beginning, with the line "I saw a stranger with your hair/tried to make her give it back," but by the end of the song there is no laughing. Some things it's very difficult to get humor across on to a record. That's why I a lot of times I do songs in a live performance that don't ever make it onto a record. It's just real hard to get it, there's just something in the recorded form.


Do you ever find that range of interpretation or misinterpretation limiting or frustrating?
Well in some ways it's limiting, in other ways it brings songs to life that don't go over too well. I remember Leo Kottke saying there was a song he liked but he stopped playing it in concert because it never got any response. But it was a great song on the record. It was a song I'd learned because I was talking to him about it. It was a song called "Sonora's Death Row"—one of my all-time favorite cowboy songs. It was on.. I forget the name of the album—Burnt Lips or something like that. I saw him at this festival outside of Denver last summer and we started talking about that song, and he asked me if I would do it because I told him I used to perform it. There was a guy who used to ask for it every night where I played, the owner used to ask for it every night. But he asked me to do it because he doesn't do it anymore and he'd like to hear me do it. So I quickly wrote the first line of every verse and put it on my notebook, and I was able to do it at the festival later that morning. That was a thrill, to do a song that I learned from a record, and to have the guy who recorded it ask me to do it.


What did Kottke think of your performance?
He liked it. He's a great guy, really very funny.


Jack's Crows is just starting to get off the ground in Canada. But I understand it's really taken off in the States.
The record company's happy, and it's gotten more attention than anything I've done before. Partly because of the production, I think, it's a good record, and partly because I did a video of the "Houses in the Field" song that ended up being played on Country Music Television. It was in heavy rotation. It's owned by The Nashville Network but it's geared towards a younger audience. Like I said before on stage, things have gone better than I ever expected them to, so it's like, "Well, I'll just keep doing it." I think Jack's Crows is the best record as a record.


Many reviewers seem preoccupied with your last album Land Of The Bottom Line. They often refer to it as a superior effort.
Yeah, that kind of thing is silly because it's one of those things that depends on where a person is emotionally or what they're thinking about. But Land of the Bottom Line, if you're in a low groove, that's perfect. But if you're not, it's not perfect. I think the songs are all real good, but I think it's moodier. Jack's Crows is a more listenable album if you're not depressed. I just try not to repeat myself, try not to make the same record. This next one is going to be different, sound different. There's an improvement on each of the records. On the second one I had better sound quality I think than on the first one.


Your voice has improved markedly since your first album.
Yeah, I think the singing's a lot better on the second one. I think the third one has a lot more life to it in the production, just better musicians and stuff. People like Michael Manring. It was fun making Jack's Crows. It was the most fun I've ever had recording because I could play and sing at the same time, which I hadn't done before. Technically you can get a better sound a lot of times if you do the vocal and guitar separately, so there's no leakage or anything like that from anything else, no phase cancellations and stuff like that. So this one, Jack's Crows I was able to play and sing at the same time. It was just going to be an experiment to see if it would work recording this way—playing live, playing with other people at the same time. Originally, we were going to try and record four songs, maybe five songs in the five day period. We ended up recording ten. Then we went back for another three days and recorded another three. The recording all in all took two weeks, I think, whereas the other ones before it had taken months. Months and months.


Whose idea was it to record that way?
Dawn Atkinson's. When she heard "Semper Fi," that was like her favorite song when I sent her the demos. She's the one that wrote the string arrangement—she thought of it immediately. I'm mainly a songwriter. Making records is still, like I said in the liner notes—I feel like a newcomer, even though it's my third record. I don't work in the studio all the time, I make my living traveling and playing. I feel most at home writing songs, that's what I think I do best. Everything else I'm learning.


You've got a particular view of the United States in all of your work.
Yeah, yeah, and I think it's going to get a little bit clearer, too. It seems like I started to become more political in my thinking when I saw Dan Quayle at the Republican Convention in 1988, and I said "Boy, this guy's a moron!" I just couldn't believe it, this guy was going to be running for vice-president. Something was wrong—something is definitely wrong here. What happened to the statesmen that used to have the ability to inspire people when they made speeches and had a command of the language - unlike me. [laughs] People who were really brilliant men and inspiring leaders—and now we have these empty-headed liars.


Are you sure empty-headed liars are a new breed in politics?
That's what I'm wondering, if it's a new thing or if it's finally dawning on me that it's always been this way. A friend of mine who used to be in a band called the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band with me in college and who is a philosophy professor said, "That's the way it's been since the time of Socrates." It's the same thing, so maybe I'm just waking up to that fact. Maybe our standards have slipped a whole lot. That's the way I feel about the last twelve years in the United States. I was expecting people to say something that moved me, you know, and there was just all these really lame comments. I think we once had people who were at least better speakers.


Better liars.
Yeah, maybe better liars. John Kennedy was an inspiring speaker, and we don't hear anything like that anymore. Charisma is a dangerous thing in America politics—you get shot for it. [laughs]

You've referred to yourself as a dark optimist. Can you expand on that?
Well, I guess I've always had faith in myself that things would work out. But whenever a new situation presents itself, I look at all the possible things that could go wrong first before I can enjoy any of the good things. So I think that's why I'm a dark optimist. Because like I'm going to be going on my first tour of Europe next month—Italy, Holland, and a little bit Germany. There is some interest there. I know there was quite a bit in Amsterdam and around that area in Holland. So I'm thinking of all the possible things, like some of the cities I'm going to I've just heard terrible things about—like Naples I hear is terrible. That's where my grandparents are from on one side of the family. So I'd like to go there and see, but I'm just trying to think, "Well, I won't bring a guitar I really care about," or that kind of thing. I've been ripped off enough that I don't want to lose anything I really care about. Like this one guitar got stolen: I got it in January of last year and it was stolen in May. It was in a trunk of a car with all my stuff in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I went to a diner—it wasn't my car, I was getting a ride—and we stopped at a diner because I was hungry. Twenty minutes later we came out and not only was my stuff gone but the whole car was gone. But it turned up in a pawn shop, pawned for sixty dollars. The promoter of the festival where I played called around to all the pawn shops and they found it. It's a miracle. I have another song from the "Crime and Punishment" series now about that. I've recorded it but I don't know if I'm going to use it.


Was that the same incident in which you lost your songbooks?
Yeah, that really hurt. There was so much like my telephone book that I'd had numbers in for over ten years or something like that. I had all those pieces of my life that I can't retrieve, are gone. Just the feeling of violation. A lot of that stuff, like money, is replaceable, but the songbooks and stuff like that I just felt really surprised at how much it affected me, even though it was just stuff like a driver's license. I had to get all that kind of stuff done, credit cards stopped. So I have a song about that called "Grand Larceny."


Some of your new tunes have great song titles. "Gravyland" was one of the more memorable ones.
That may be the title song on the new record. I was also thinking about calling the record "Rules of Behavior." That's because the political situation is really interesting to me. I think it depends on how bad the economy gets. Will people start waking up? There's a political satirist named Barry Crimmins who's great. He's got a line, "Empty pockets open ears." When people start feeling it economically, they tend to wake up politically. So hopefully that will happen. But it just seems so horrible. It just seems like a big lie that we're getting. It seems overwhelming, it seems like there's nothing that you can do. But there is. I think I have faith in people, that they will eventually wake up and change things. I think Lincoln was right—you can't fool all of the people all of the time, forever.


But as the saying goes, "the bigger the lie, the easier it is to believe."
That whole thing—it's gotta be a big lie, but it has to be repeated, it has to be repeated often enough and then it will be believed. I think that's the Republican way.

There's been a lot of talk about the "folk renaissance" that's currently happening. Do you think there's been a genuine shift in what people are listening to right now?
Yeah, I think there's a lot of interest in acoustic music. That's always been close to folk music. I think what we have now is maybe a reappearance or reemergence or renaissance of the singer-songwriter. It's not so much so closely tied to the traditional music that the sixties folk boom was. A lot of that was traditional songs done in a trio or in a quartet by guys with short haircuts. So it's different now, we have longer hair and it's more of a songwriter thing. I think there will always be this kind of music. It will always be there, and then from time to time someone will emerge and then people will say it's a revival. But I think there's a lot of real quality—people out there who are getting a chance to make records. Because I think these people have always been around, but it's like the record companies say, "Oh, maybe we could sell some records by people like this."


You've been doing some work with Patty Larkin lately. How did you guys hook up?
We're booked by the same agency, but we met a long time ago in Boston at a record signing thing. That was before I had any records, but they invited me so I went. Nanci Griffith and Tracy Chapman were there—but I don't think Patty had even done anything for _Fast Folk at that point. But I liked her sneakers. I think we were admiring each other's footwear or something like that. But I always liked her, and that was even before I heard her music or anything. Patty's somebody whose grown amazingly. Her songwriting has just really blossomed. It's great and I'm inspired to see that happen. She's a great guitar player and a great performer. So it's really neat—these are the people I'm inspired by most. People I get to do shows with or friends...getting to know them as people as well as musicians or artists. It's really inspiring, people like Patty. I think Greg Brown's great too. I think he's a genius. An amazing songwriter. Let's see...there's so many and I can't think of any now. Greg Brown's more established in the States. There's a woman, a great singer—Patty Griffin. I don't know if she's going to have a record or she may have one in the not too distant future. There's a duo called The Story who are really good, really good singers. Real nice, intricate harmonies and interesting lyrics.


Thanks for the interview John. You've got an interesting perspective on the world around you.
I never know what I'm going to say. The interview process is interesting for me, because it makes me think about things I have vague feelings about, things I haven't put into words before. I just feel a certain way about something. Yeah, it makes me think and put into words what I have feelings about. It's interesting—the political thing—that's the thing I've been wondering: Is this the way it's always been and I'm just waking up? Or have things really gotten worse? It seems like the pendulum has swung too far to the right and it's bordering on fascism. I've got a song, it'll be on the new album, it's called "Brown Shirts" It's kind of about that. Especially when I heard George Bush, after the war, talk about the New World Order. When I heard that, I said, "That sounds vaguely fascist." So I read a biography of Hitler, and there was one passage there saying that Hitler read this pamphlet and got involved in this group. It was kind of a discussion group that was like a forerunner of the Nazi party, and they had this pamphlet they had printed up with their ideas. Two of the phrases that captured his attention, one was "National Socialism" and the other one was "New World Order." So there I was able to find a confirmation of that feeling I had before that it was a fascist kind of thing. I don't even know if they were aware of that. I think that's a danger in all people, where they think their way of ordering the world is the right way, and so whatever means, whatever it takes to get that order is the right way, and is justified. You can justify anything—the ends justify the means. And the United States being the policeman of the world scares me. Especially when I hear more about that One World government. If it's a One World government and it's a bad government, that's worse than having communism and totalitarianism and our form of democracy. It's scary. Especially the way CNN and the way the media has been manipulated and watered down, like USA Today, where there's no depth at all.


It seems like the world has gotten so complicated that people want to be told something to make them feel better because facing the truth is so overwhelming that they don't want to deal with it. So they'll accept something that's an oversimplification or a complete lie just because they can pay attention to their own lives. It's great to see all of the reaction to the JFK movie. I think it's great. I've read a lot of those books and it kind of fits in with some of the things that are going on now with Bush and the CIA Just that, what kind of people can these men be and call themselves patriots and then lie to the people they are supposed to be representing? I don't understand that. I would like to believe in the President—that if he has to lie he was doing it for national security or for a good reason that's too complicated to go into. But that's not what's happening, they're lying to protect themselves, and to protect their position, and to protect their power. Not for anyone else's good but their own. And that's really frightening. I'd like to have leaders we can believe in. But maybe that's naive.


Well, if history is any indication...
Yeah, I look around and travel around and meet the people who make up a small part of the world, and I'm amazed at how much talent there is out there. Not just music or art but just the kind of minds that are out there. But if you look to the government for leadership, there's nothing there. It's a total vacuum. They're weathervanes, not leaders, that blow whichever way the wind goes, whichever wind is strongest. Like Bush said, he'll do whatever it takes to get elected.


Before they drag you away, let's talk footwear.
My footwear. I think it's an important thing, footwear is very important. So I believe in shoes with arch supports—strong arches. Yeah, I believe in shoes with strong arches, good laces, and a healthy shine.


You used to be a red Converse high-top person.
That's right. The arch supports weren't good enough, these are much better. These are K-Mart work shoes. These have real good arch supports.


With custom red laces.
Yeah, the original laces I didn't like, but I got these the same day as the laces, same store, so they went together pretty well. Yeah, I figure if you take care of your feet, they'll take care of you.


Special Thanks To Roger Steiner for transcription assistance.
The Great Canadian Theatre Company.