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Wed March 5, 2014
The Legend Of Linda Perhacs, 'A Most Unlikely Rock Star'
Originally published on Wed March 5, 2014 10:54 am
In the lives of musicians, the sophomore jinx — when artists struggle to follow up their first works — is an enduring hazard. Singer-songwriter Linda Perhacs may have found a way to beat it, though: Just wait 44 years to take that second try. She released her debut album, Parallelograms, in 1970; her second, The Soul of All Natural Things, is out this week. (It may not surprise you to learn she never quit her day job.)
In the late 1960s, Perhacs was commuting from a bohemian enclave in Topanga Canyon, Calif., to a dental office in Beverly Hills where she worked as a hygienist, sometimes to Hollywood royalty. One of her famous patients, Oscar-winning film composer Leonard Rosenman, pegged her for a songwriter, and upon hearing a demo tape, he insisted on bringing her into the studio. What followed was the making of a cult classic: The album went nowhere (due in part, Perhacs believes, to the label's decision to mix the recordings to be AM radio-friendly), and the artist went back to cleaning teeth. Three decades passed. Then one day, after recovering from a near-fatal pulmonary infection, Perhacs received a letter from the New York indie label Wild Places that essentially said, "We've reissued your record — and people absolutely love it."
Now 70, Linda Perhacs has returned to performing, aided by some musical friends — among them Julia Holter, Ramona Gonzalez of Nite Jewel, and DJ Mark "Frosty" McNeill of the internet radio beacon Dublab — who fell under Parallelograms' spell. Perhacs spoke with NPR's David Greene about her long journey to a follow-up album, how a nerve condition helped shape her songwriting, and why dentistry can be a great fit for an upstart musician. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
Before we talk about the new album, I wanted to ask you a little bit about the first one, the one that came out 44 years ago. Can you tell me a little bit about your life then — what you were doing, where you were living?
I had gone to USC on a scholarship, and had made a wise choice as a woman in those years: I chose dental hygiene because it gave you a lot of freedom. You could make your own work calendar and have a fairly decent income.
Why do you say it was a good decision for a woman?
In those days, we had about two choices: teaching and nursing. Even at a major university, there were girls around me trying to do different but the pressure was on. I knew I had to keep an A-minus average to keep the scholarship — so I chose something where I could comfortably and easily learn the things I needed to learn and stay at a high grade level. It's been a great career because you can work other things in: You can work one day a week or seven, you can work two hours a day or 12 hours a day. For a woman, that sounded good.
And what was that life like? Who were your friends? What were you talking and thinking about? What music were you listening to?
Well, I lived in two different worlds daily. My husband at the time had a large bird collection, falcons and hawks and things that were kind of wild, so we needed a sort of wild little home site to have all these birds. We found this beautiful place to live in an area called Topanga Canyon, which is close to Malibu but it's in the hills.
My professor from USC was a periodontist and asked me to work for him — gave me his card, said, "The first day you're licensed, come. I have a job waiting for you." So I drove to the address and it was almost on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Without realizing it, I was suddenly, overnight, in the midst of all of Hollywood. And I had to really learn to be on my toes to deal with consulate generals from other parts of the world and officials from Tokyo.
These are your patients we're talking about – you're touching and cleaning their teeth, and these are really important people.
Daily. Cary Grant, Paul Newman, Henry Fonda and his family. I mean, Dinah Shore.
This list is amazing!
Oh, yeah. That was daily. And I'm just working on trying to learn my skills and be polite and dress properly. But I had another life and that was in Topanga Canyon.
My husband at the time was a sculptor and a toy designer — very, very artistic and very much a naturalist — so the other world I lived in was surrounded by the hippie culture. And the first promise I made myself when I got out of USC was, I don't have to study a hundred percent of the time anymore. I began to pay attention to these Volkswagens driving by with little painted flowers on them and tried to figure out, what's going on out here? It's like an explosion of activity in new clothing, new food, new music, new spiritual ideas, new books coming in from all over the world. I mean, it was an explosive environment.
And you were sort of becoming part of that hippie culture, it sounds like.
Well, I loved them instantly because they understood energies. I have a synesthesia-type capacity, since childhood, and I can see and feel and hear things that would not be the average. I have sensitivities that are more acute than the normal.
It has something to do with colors, too, right? You hear sounds and see certain colors?
Yes, yes. I finally figured out how to explain it to myself, as well as to others: If you have a normal radio and you're tuning from one part of the radio all the way up to the other end, you're changing frequencies. When people have that sensitivity, they are able naturally to go to a higher frequency. So that was a natural realm for me, to find friends who understood these things. It was a natural friendship without effort.
There was an important moment when you were working as a dental hygienist: One your famous patients was Leonard Rosenman, an Academy Award-winning film composer. Tell me about that.
All the patients were of interest to me, great interest — but my favorites were the ones behind the scenes that helped create the production, rather than the actors. And Leonard Rosenman and his beautiful wife, Kay, at the time, were my favorites of all of them. He was there one day for his appointment and I said, "How's everything going? What project are you working on today?" And he just looked up out of the blue and he said, "Linda, I cannot believe this is all you do." Very perceptive of him, and a very special moment in my life, when he said that.
I said, "No, my other life is ... " and I painted the picture out in Topanga. And he said, "You're in your mid-20's, you're living in Topanga Canyon, the hippie element is all over the place out there, and you say you're writing little songs? Can I hear these songs?" I said, "Why would a composer of your stature want to hear my little songs?" He said, "We're getting assignments where we have to have that flavor, and yet we're about 20 years too old to have the flavor in us naturally. Could you help us?"
This is a deep conversation.
So I said, "Well, I'll make you a little tape," still mystified. I made him a tape and he called immediately; woke me up on a Saturday morning at 8 o'clock and he's saying, "How soon can you get here?" I said, "You're kidding. You like those songs?" He said, "We love them, Linda. They're beautiful. We want to set aside eight hours, minimum. We want to begin to write with you."
So we set up our first appointment, and it was a wonderful day. I'm driving home on the freeway that connects you from Brentwood to Topanga Canyon, which is called the Ventura Freeway, and all of a sudden I got some synesthesia. It was about 11:30 at night, and in the sky I saw beautiful lights — hard to describe, but they were so magnificent. And I said, "Linda, you're seeing music — you're just not hearing it. Stop and draw what you're seeing before you forget." So I did. I drew these pictures on little pieces of paper in a dark, deserted gas station off the freeway and tried not to forget what I'd seen. I went home, took a melody that I'd been creating, put it on the front end of that idea I was getting, to create a three-dimensional sound sculpture from the beauty I had just seen in the sky.
And this would become the song "Parallelograms," right?
Yes. And I showed Leonard the idea about two weeks later when we got together again. I held my breath. I thought he'd laugh at me. Instead, he looked at me very seriously and said, "Linda, I'm a 12-tone composer. I do major film scores. I'm highly degreed. If I could have two ideas in my lifetime this good, I'd be happy with myself." I said, "You like it?" He said, "I love it. And on the basis of what I've just seen and the tape you gave us, I'm going to march into Universal Studios and demand a budget to do an album."
I said, "No fooling!" But he said, "Linda, when we record this piece — and this is the most important piece on the album, this piece has to be recorded — if the executives walk in, stop doing that song immediately and switch instead to something simpler. They will never understand this piece, but it will carry the album for all the years."
And did that moment that you feared ever come? Did any executives walk in during the session?
They walked in! When we were creating those layered harmonies, I saw five or six walk in with business suits and stand there like, "What are you doing?" I switched immediately to the song "Sandy Toes." Leonard had told me, "Beware, Linda, they're not going to understand this. They're looking for a hit."
And that gives a hint what happened to this album, because it was not an instant success.
It wasn't an AM radio type-album; it was always a piece of artwork rather than AM radio hit quality. What really made the album not sell, I feel, is that the pressing was very bad. They stripped the sounds from the top, they removed the sounds from the lows and put an AM-band, thin sound — which is more like a telephone, it's a more limited sound — and they took away all the beauty. The sound in that original pressing was wooden. They pressed it and they mixed it for AM radio, and took away the magnificent highs and lows that we had recorded.
Less artistic, in your mind.
It was wooden. It had no depth. When I heard my first vinyl, I threw it in the trash. It bothered me. I said, "I can't listen to this." So for years, all I listened to was my own personal tapes — they had the full dimension of sound. But what they pressed, the only pressing that has ever come out from Universal, is that thin band of sound, without the whole original that Leonard and I had worked so hard to get.
So the album doesn't do so well and you go back to your life as a dental hygienist. Are you still making music on the side?
Sometimes people ask me that, and quite honestly, the deepest answer would be that I took a solitary journey to learn how to love more deeply, from a higher level, and to not get kicked around by life so much. And so 44 years were spent with interior study, some music writing, but not a lot of recording.
At what point did you find out that this album that was actually getting some attention, a real following?
The year 2000, I almost died of pneumonia. I was in the hospital on life support for a month. The pulmonary experts walked away, said, "She's not gonna live. We're not coming back; this girl's not gonna make it." I guess God had other ideas, and I did survive. And my first day home, a little full of medicine and quite bleary, in my mailbox was a CD from Michael Piper, who ran small CD company in Brooklyn. The little handwritten note said, "If this is the right Linda, I've been searching for you. Do you know people want this album? And if so, would you please call me?"
Long story short, Michael flew in and we had a whole day to spend together and talk. He said, "Linda, do you have anything that didn't get put out?" I said, "Well, in my bedroom I have a master of the full album." I said, "You're copying the wrong master. You're copying that old vinyl that's lost half its sound."
This was a reel-to-reel that had been sitting in your house all that time?
It was a big, thick tape — you know, an inch and a half or something. But I usually listened to it on little cassette tapes made off my master. I said, "Would you like to like to hear them?" So he listened and he said, "You're right — that's much more than what's on the vinyl." He said, "Would you let me take the big master that you have and see if I can melt it down? You have to carefully handle these things — if it's stuck together, we could break it."
Michael took it to New York and worked on it carefully, under controlled conditions, trying to be sure it wouldn't tear and rip. He said there were places where it was really melted due to heat in my bedroom, I guess. And it took about two months, but he was able to copy off of that tape once he got it unstuck, and make a CD based on my master. Now, when you combine the full sound, that I had preserved all those years on that little tape hidden in my bedroom, and the internet, then the album finally took off.
This is a good 20-plus years after you made the album. Were you surprised to find out that people had been emailing and interested in it?
Very. Michael showed me some emails that broke my heart, where people said, "This has healed me. I need to hear more of your music." I said, "Well, if people need more, I better do some more!"
And you did – you started doing some live performances and getting back into music.
Yes. Michael Piper added some songs that were also hidden in my bedroom, totally unreleased, to make what we called the "expanded version" of the album. And Daft Punk surprised me by picking up one of those songs, which is called "If You Were My Man."
What really turned the tide was meeting this beautiful bohemian group of people and artists in Echo Park and Silverlake, in downtown L.A. I didn't know such a group of them existed – I'd been mostly in Topanga Canyon and at my dental jobs. But Frosty of Dublab introduced me to a mass of them by putting on my '70s album, either performed by me or by the local young artists in that area, including Julia Holter and Ramona Gonzalez and a marvelous rock group that Lady Gaga loved called We Are The World. We put on a big show at the REDCAT Theater, and that's what really brought me back home. This was all independent — no studio, just loving people who help one another many, many times for free. It's just done for the joy of sharing and loving.
I could see feeling a little bit of resentment at your old team at that point --feeling like, "If they had just made the album in the way that I wanted them to make it, I could have been a music star for all of these years."
No, David, I'll have to give you a strong no on that one. It was never my ambition to be a rock star. It was never my ambition to be center stage; that was a little frightening for me, just the thought of it. But it was my ambition to compose music that would pour through me, that I knew was coming from a higher level; to take walks and cement a relationship with the universe and with God; to listen interiorly and to learn more about love and peace, about harmony, about centeredness in your being that you can call on when you're hurting or when you're in danger. That was my first priority.
Love is very important to me. Privacy is important. Peace is important. You don't necessarily always get that in the life of a star. I knew those people from my dental work. I knew about problems in their home life. I knew about illnesses that had occurred. They're under a lot of pressure. I never had that desire. And even now — with all of this attention coming to the new album, with tweets going bananas and emails coming in from all over the world — I like the tweets that say something like, "She is a most unlikely rock star," or, "This album is a most unlikely masterpiece." I mean, I agree: This is all most unlikely. But it has happened.
There is something about your story, because you haven't made an album in four decades — in a way it's like you've stepped out of this time machine, and you're bringing the power of your music to people in a different era who weren't with you back then.
I am, but let's go a little deeper here: Timelessness also matches transcendence. I happen to be passionately in love with the universe and who I feel created it. And when you love the universe like I do, you are lining up with eternal things or things that certainly are eons old; you are not lining up with fads. I had to be told what "techno" means. I had to be told there's an argument between non-techno and techno, a little bit like Bob Dylan went through when he wanted to use an electric guitar. I mean, of course he wanted to experiment; of course he wanted to use everything he could. Creators want to branch out.
Our human fads are so temporary and they come and go so quickly. The things that last have a greater balance with these things that are more eternal. I always want to go to the universe and use things that have a timeless quality, that match the eons, that match the flow of nature. My music comes to me, usually, like rain: It's a fast flood. It pours from above my head, through my head, and I have to race to get pencil and paper to catch it.
You're in our California studio, and I know you're on your way to work. What are you doing these days?
I work five, six days a week as a dental hygienist. Every spare moment I have, I run to do the music. All the recordings for the new album were made on a Sunday morning, about eight or nine o'clock. I'm in love with it. I mean, I love being with these young artists; they are so wonderful. I'm just in love with the whole thing. And you know, I think I'm healing people more now with my music than with my dentistry.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
You know the sophomore curse, when someone has trouble following up on his or her first work? Well, singer-songwriter Linda Perhacs might have found a way to beat it - just wait years to take that second try. She released her first album, "Parallelograms," in 1970. Her second, "The Soul of All Natural Things," is just out this week.
Perhacs is now 70 years old. It might not surprise you to hear that she never quit her day job.
LINDA PERHACS: I worked five and six days a week as a dental hygienist. And I do my music - all recordings were made on a Sunday morning about 8 or 9 o'clock, for the new album. Every spare moment I have, I run to do the music.
GREENE: So dental hygienist six days a week or so, and Sunday mornings making music.
PERHACS: Well, I get half a Saturday off, too, and alternate Saturdays. (Laughter)
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
PERHACS: (Singing) And no one ever said that this life would be easy...
GREENE: When she came in to chat with us, I asked Linda about her life back in 1970. She was commuting from her home in a bohemian enclave in California's Topanga Canyon, to a dentist's office in Beverly Hills.
PERHACS: I lived in two different worlds. My professor from USC asked me to work for him, and he was a periodontist. So I drove to the address, and it was almost on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. I was suddenly, overnight, in the midst of all of Hollywood: Cary Grant...
PERHACS: ...Paul Newman, Henry Fonda and his family...
GREENE: This list is amazing.
PERHACS: Dinah Shore. Oh, yeah.
GREENE: All those people whose teeth you became very familiar with.
PERHACS: Daily. Yeah, daily. But I had another life, and that was in Topanga Canyon, surrounded by the hippie culture - in that environment. I began to pay attention to these little Volkswagens driving by with little painted flowers on them, and tried to figure out: What's going on out here? It's like an explosion of activity; new clothing, new food, new music, new spiritual ideas.
GREENE: There was an important moment when you are working as a dental hygienist. One of your famous patients is Leonard Rosenman.
GREENE: He was an Academy Award-winning film composer. I'm sort of imagining him lying down in the chair, and you worked on his teeth - or what was going on?
PERHACS: He was. He was. He was there one day for his appointment, and I said, how's everything going? What project are you working on today? And he just looked up out of the blue and he said, Linda, I cannot believe this is all you do. And I said, no. And I painted the picture out in Topanga and said, my other life is - and he said, you're in your mid-20s. You're living in Topanga Canyon. The hippie element is all over the place out there. And you say you're writing little songs? Can I hear these songs? He said, we're getting assignments where we have to have that flavor, and yet we're about 20 years too old to have the flavor naturally in us. Could you help us? I said sure.
GREENE: And so they started working together. Driving home one night, Perhacs had a powerful experience. She says she has a condition called synesthesia, where the brain mixes sensory perceptions. People with it might have the sensation of seeing music or hearing colors.
PERHACS: All of a sudden, in the sky, I saw beautiful lights - hard to describe, but they were so magnificent. And I said, Linda, you're seeing music. You're just not hearing it. Go stop and draw what you're seeing before you forget what you're seeing.
GREENE: And this would become the song "Parallelograms," right...
GREENE: ...which is the title track of this album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARALLELOGRAMS")
PERHACS: (Singing) Parallelograms...
And I showed Leonard the idea about two weeks later, when we got together again. I held my breath. I thought he'd laugh at me. He said, I love it. I'm going to march into Universal Studios and demand a budget to do an album.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PERHACS: But he said, Linda, when we record this piece, if the executives walk in, stop doing that song immediately, and switch instead to something simpler. The executive-level mind, which is looking for a Top 40 hit, will never understand this magnificent idea.
GREENE: Did that moment ever come? Did any executives walk in?
PERHACS: They walked in. I saw five or six walk in with business suits and stand there, like, what are you doing? I switched immediately to the little song called "Sandy Toes."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SANDY TOES")
PERHACS: (Singing) As the sand is to my toes...
GREENE: Now, here is where her story takes a surprising turn. This album, in 1970, was a total flop.
PERHACS: When I heard my first vinyl, I threw it in the trash. It bothered me. It was wooden. It had no depth. They pressed it and they mixed it, you know, for AM radio, and took away the magnificent highs and lows that we had recorded.
GREENE: So Linda Perhacs went on with her life for three decades; working in dentists' offices, quietly continuing to write songs in her kitchen, until one day in 2000, when she learned that some people had discovered that old album. She had something of a cult following. She found out by opening her mailbox.
PERHACS: The little, handwritten note said: If this is the right Linda, I've been searching for you. Do you know people want this album? And if so, would you please call me?
GREENE: Were you surprised to find out that people had been emailing and...
PERHACS: Very. People said this has healed me. I need to hear more of your music. I said, well, if people need more, I'd better do some more.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: And so she did, with help with some prominent younger musicians in the indie music scene. Linda re-released her old album the way she wanted it. And now, in 2014, she's put out a new one, and she's performing.
PERHACS: What really turned the tide was meeting the beautiful, bohemian group of people and artists in Echo Park and Silverlake of downtown LA; just loving people who help one another, many, many times for free. It's just done for the joy of sharing.
PERHACS: (Singing) Take some time for me. Can you take some time today?
GREENE: What was your emotion? I mean, I could see even a little bit of resentment, feeling like if they had just made the album in the way that I wanted them to make it, I could have been a music star for all these years.
PERHACS: No, David, I'll have to give you a strong no on that one.
PERHACS: It was never my ambition to be a rock star. It was never my ambition to be center stage. That was a little frightening for me, just the thought of it. But it was my ambition to compose the music that would pour through me, that I knew was coming from a higher level; to listen interiorly and learn more about love, about peace. And even now, with all this attention coming to our new album, "The Soul of All Natural Things," I most like the tweets that say something like: She is a most unlikely rock star or - I mean, I agree; this is all most unlikely. (Laughter) But it has happened.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
PERHACS: (Singing) High as a bird that flies...
GREENE: Well, Linda Perhacs, this has been a real pleasure talking to you. We thank you for coming in.
PERHACS: Thank you so much.
GREENE: That's Linda Perhacs. You can stream her new album at our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.