Long Form No. 2

Posts about Shawn Phillips have rolled through this blog at all three of its locations often enough that his name is among those on the right-side indices both here and at the EITW Archives site, but I noticed the other week that I’ve never shared – either as an mp3 in the early days or as a video – the suite that opens Phillips’ 1970 album Second Contribution.

The suite starts with the first hushed a capella notes of the song colloquially known as “Woman” – a tune that actually has the unwieldy title of “She Was Waiting For Her Mother At The Station In Torino And You Know I Love You Baby But It’s Getting Too Heavy To Laugh” – and goes on for more than thirteen minutes, taking us through the titles “Keep On,” “Sleepwalker” and “Song for Mr. C.”

There’s something – I’ve never been quite sure what – about that four-song sequence, and in fact the entire Second Contribution album, that says to me “Early Seventies” in a way that not much, if any, other music can. My early Seventies – from 1970 to 1974 – bridged the years between high school and the first few years of college, and the ideas and images that flit through my mind when I hear that four-song suite range from used record shops hiding treasures in ramshackle buildings; sunlit bicycle rides with girls I knew in both high school and college; my first beer, my first beard, my first kiss and a few other firsts; and the general sense of (sometimes amiable) confusion among me and my friends about what we would do with our lives in a world that was changing faster than we (and our parents) could truly comprehend.

I’m pretty sure that I first heard Second Contribution on Rick’s turntable not long after the record came out. I certainly knew the album well from hearing it at his place by the spring of 1972, when Phillips performed at St. Cloud State the week I was grounded (a tale I told not long ago). And whenever I heard Second Contribution or the later albums Collaboration and Faces (both of which I also heard at Rick’s, I think, as well as at parties around campus), I told myself I needed to find those albums, especially Second Contribution.

That took years, though. There was so much other music I wanted to explore, and even with used records at the various shops in St. Cloud being priced cheaply, there was only so much cash at hand. And life moved along, taking me from St. Cloud to Denmark and back and then on to the Twin Cities and back and then eventually to Monticello and a job as a reporter. And one Saturday in 1981, as I browsed a bin of used records at a flea market, I came across a copy of Second Contribution. When I got it home and onto the turntable, however, there was a fair amount of noise covering the quiet introduction of “She Was Waiting . . .” The rest of the record was okay, though, and I reveled in the remembered sounds and the images and ideas they brought back. Sadly, the Other Half was not impressed, and I played the record rarely for the rest of our time together.

I tried to upgrade the quality of my Second Contribution vinyl a couple of times during my years in Minneapolis as the 1990s turned to the 2000s, but no matter how good the records looked, Phillips’ quiet starting vocal was buried in hiss. Then, one day in late 2005, as I wandered through our local music emporium looking to spend some Christmas money, I found the album on CD, and later that day, I heard the album’s quiet and haunting opening moments the way they were recorded, just like I’d first heard them on Rick’s turntable so many years earlier.

And the entire album, especially the four-song opening suite offered below, still sounds to me like the early 1970s felt.

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