Jerry Burgan & Alan Rifkin,
Wounds to Bind: a Memoir of the Folk-Rock Revolution
(Rowman & Littlefield, 2014)

In 1965, Jerry Burgan happened to be in the right place at the right time, armed with the right equipment. The time was the beginning of folk-rock, the place was Southern California and the equipment was his acoustic guitar. Burgan, a folk music fanatic, teamed with his banjo- and guitar-playing childhood friend, Mike Stewart (younger brother of singer-songwriter John Stewart, then a member of the Kingston Trio) to play folk music, a move that evolved into the formation of a band that they called the Mike Stewart Quintet. When John Stewart hooked them up with the Trio's manager, Frank Werber, the band got signed to the brand new A&M Records and discovered that Werber had changed their name to We Five. They showed up for a gig and saw that someone called We Five was last on the marquis. "Who's We Five?" Burgan asked. "You are," Werber replied.

In retrospect, they should have taken a note of warning from that moment. They didn't realize their destiny was beyond their control. For a year or so, they were big: their first single, a rock version of Silvia Tyson's "You Were on My Mind," went to No. 1 on the charts, and the album it was on was also a major hit. The single was brilliantly arranged; Mike Stewart did a masterful job with both the instrumental and the vocal arrangements, so that today, almost 50 years later, the song still holds up.

It changed their lives. While still in their teens, We Five was touring on Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars with acts like the Byrds, the Turtles, the Rolling Stones and Bo Diddley. The also played the newly forming college circuit and had some great times there. The song also trapped them, though. They wanted to grow as a band, to make increasingly sophisticated music that reflected their vision, but everyone from the Coca-Cola Co. -- which hired them to do a commercial but refused to accept anything they came up with because they wanted "When I woke up this morning, Coke was on my mind," which the band refused to give them -- to their record company to their audience wanted music in the vein of their big hit.

Then the second hit didn't come. The follow-up album stalled and, when it finally arrived, didn't sell as well as the first; by 1967, We Five was in decline, and by the end of that year they broke up. Burgan tried to keep it going but, without Bev Bivens, the fabulous woman singer with the five-octave voice who anchored the vocals, it just wasn't the same.

In Wounds to Bind, Burgan tells the story, and it's a fine one. It's the story of the way success doesn't last and how difficult it is to adapt when it's gone -- Burgan confesses to still occasionally longing for the fame that got away -- and it is the story of two fascinating individuals: Mike Stewart and Frank Werber.

Stewart was a musical genius, capable of hearing an entire arrangement, all parts of a song, instrumental and vocal, in his head at once and, far more importantly, able to create what he heard in the studio. He was the tormented fire in We Five, and when it went, he found his true calling as a producer; among others he produced Billy Joel's first two albums, leading Joel to say Stewart was the first person able to recognize what Joel wanted to do musically. He also produced a couple of his brother's albums before finally getting behind the scenes entirely and dedicating himself to inventing new recording equipment.

Werber was a San Francisco giant, a 1950s hipster who discovered the Kingston Trio and managed them to a long run as the most popular folk-pop group in the country. His goal was to create a sort of musical monopoly in the Bay area, to discover and manage bands that would create what he thought of as the San Francisco sound. His problem was that he belonged to the '50s: he insisted that We Five wear matching velour pullovers as band uniforms in an age when the Byrds and other groups were wearing street clothes on stage. He demanded short hair when the hippie movement was growing their hair down to their shoulders. When the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead began creating the very San Francisco sound he was after, he didn't recognize it for what it was, could not see the value in it. He was a man thoroughly out of touch with the times; that is, until the late '60s when the Kingston Trio broke up and We Five broke up and he decided he'd had enough of the music business: he retired and became a pot-growing nudist.

Wounds to Bind is the story of these people and these times and that music, all of which Jerry Burgan acknowledges he was lucky to be able to be able to be associated with. As readers, we are lucky he was there also because he has given us a fine book about it.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

7 June 2014

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