A legend in the making

Singer-songwriter Jackie Greene has it all, and one of these days, the entire world will know it

Portrait of the young artist with his Telecaster. Light fuse, get away.

Portrait of the young artist with his Telecaster. Light fuse, get away.

A cold November wind whipped the rain up 12th Street. Through the wetness, the sound of a rock band reverberated across the stone urban canyon. It made no sense. Why would a band be playing outdoors in this weather? A couple sprinted east on K Street, perhaps to investigate.

Nearing the point where the light-rail train hangs a hard left to head north, the sound shifted; now it was emanating from a corner bar called Marilyn’s. Inside, a small-framed, exotic-looking man with eyes shaped like green almonds stood at the far end of the stage, located just inside the door to the right. Dressed entirely in black, he wore a brakeman’s cap pulled low over his brow, and he hunkered over a blond acoustic guitar—a dreadnought, they call it, used mainly by players who want that big, boom-chicka sound. Around his neck was a metal rack to hold his mouth harp, into which he blew when he wasn’t singing. To his right, a taller, beatifically smiling man with his hair pulled back into a ponytail played an electric bass. Behind them, a remarkably non-flamboyant drummer kept time.

The music they played was timeless, but not of this time. It was a folk-tinged rock that sounded like something you might hear in a club in New York’s Greenwich Village around 1965, sometime after Bob Dylan plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival and made the world safe for folk-rock.

The song ended, and Greene kicked into “Gone Wanderin’,” the title track from his second album: “Another day / Has come and gone / And I can’t figure what went wrong / Mockingbird / Is a-mocking me / She locked me out and lost the key.” Greene’s voice didn’t have the brittle, lived-in character of someone like Townes Van Zandt or Willie Nelson; it was strong but sanded around the edges slightly, like a harder Neil Young without the wobbly quality.

Then, bassist Henderson “Hence” Phillips joined in with a keening background vocal for the run-on sentence of a chorus: “I’ve gone wanderin’ again I’m out the door I’m walkin’ by myself down the street like the night before and I should be home in bed but the notion in my head is tellin’ me to ramble on.”

The crowd, seated at tables around the dance floor and backed up at the bar, shouted its approval. The audience wasn’t young; it wasn’t the same group you might see a few blocks away at the Capitol Garage, even though Greene himself turns 22 at the end of this month, and as drummer Ben Lefever, Greene’s longtime buddy from their formative days in Placerville, is 21. Some of the people looked like they’d been haunting clubs since the 1970s, at least, and could reel off the song order of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album without thinking.

And some of them had Greene’s lyrics down cold, too. One woman, in a long black dress, danced with several consecutive partners while she mouthed the words to the songs. A pixie-like blonde danced and then plopped down next to her date, nursed her cocktail and said: “We follow him everywhere. We’ve kinda become psychotic about it.”

Greene played his “By the Side of the Road Dressed to Kill” and another original song, as he finessed the place into shindig heaven. Then, he smirked as he gingerly put the acoustic guitar down, picked up a sunburst Fender Telecaster, plugged in and launched into “The Sky Is Crying,” an incendiary blues number written by Elmore James and made famous, at least with rock audiences, by Stevie Ray Vaughan. Greene’s facility on the guitar might not get him booked on the blues guitar-heroes tour just yet, but it was quite energetic and original—the sound of someone just finding his voice and loving every minute of it.

Clearly, this was not your grandfather’s folkmobile.

There is an oft-quoted article by Jon Landau, titled “Growing Young with Rock and Roll.” Landau wrote the piece in May 1974 for the Real Paper, a publication in Boston.

Jackie Greene, tickling the ivories at Marilyn’s. Yep, just like Otis Spann.

It began innocently enough—a careening first-person account in which Landau recounted virtually every recording that changed his life, from 1964 forward. He fell asleep listening to the Byrds in his dorm room at Brandeis University and woke up to the Yardbirds’ Having a Rave Up. He confessed to pulling over his car and demanding silence from his passengers the first time “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” by the Four Tops came blaring through the radio. He described his mounting obsessions with soul music and blues and the British Invasion bands, first as a student, then as someone who fell into writing about music critically and then as a record producer.

Then came disillusionment; new records just weren’t sending Landau to heaven anymore—records now considered to be classics, too, such as After the Gold Rush by Neil Young, Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones and Innervisions by Stevie Wonder.

It took Landau some 1,400 words of his long windup to get to the punch line, and here it is: “I saw rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And, on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.” What followed was a glowing review of a Springsteen show in Boston.

Now, Jackie Greene most likely isn’t Northern California’s Bruce Springsteen. If you need to draw parallels to a heritage rock act, Neil Young seems like a much closer fit, with his wooly eclecticism and his penchant for cranking up and making noise. But Greene does share a couple of fundamental qualities with the bard of Asbury Park.

First, both artists are like a crucible that melts down old phonograph records instead of metal ore, burning away the dross to reveal something newly purified and original. But, where Springsteen’s source material always seemed like it was brimming with old Phil Spector and Brill Building pop records (along with liberal helpings of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Chuck Berry), Greene draws more exclusively on early-1960s Greenwich Village for inspiration. He is no garden-variety new Dylan, though; he mixes his wide-eyed folkie fixation with a surprising amount of hard-edged Texas-style electric blues, from Albert Collins to Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Second, both Springsteen and Greene can inspire near-messianic fervor among converts. You may be old enough to remember the guy who saw Bruce and the E Street Band for the first time and wouldn’t shut up for weeks. Greene can turn people like that, too. Outside Marilyn’s during the breaks between the band’s three sets, Greene was busy autographing copies of his two releases, Rusty Nails and Gone Wanderin’ (both on local indie label Dig! Music), for a steady trickle of fans who were buying them from Dig!’s Marty DeAnda inside. One 40-something guy admitted to buying six copies and giving them to friends. “It’s the least I can do,” he said.

Call it a moment of prescience: Jackie Greene probably won’t be the next Bruce Springsteen, but he may very well be the biggest thing out of this corner of California that we’ve seen in a while. In part, that’s because he can make you feel like you’re hearing music for the very first time.

After the break, Greene sat down at an electric piano and commenced to pounding out a wicked set of blues, including Muddy Waters’ “Gypsy Woman,” which he rocked with a triplet rhythm as he blew a harp solo over the top. Then, he segued into his own “Falling Back,” off Rusty Nails, the kind of tender ballad that Tom Waits used to write when he was hanging out at West Hollywood’s Barney’s Beanery in the 1970s.

Then, Greene picked up his acoustic guitar and finger-picked his “Travelin’ Song.” Then, he strummed his “Cry Yourself Dry.” After that, he switched to bass and passed his Telecaster to Phillips, who sang the Stones’ “Let It Bleed” and Willie Dixon’s “Shake for Me.” Then, they traded back before lurching into a snarling version of Bukka White’s “Parchman Farm Blues.” During the song’s long instrumental passage, Greene managed to quote the Barnum & Bailey Circus theme, the Meters’ “Cissy Strut” and the theme from The Andy Griffith Show, “The Ol’ Fishin’ Hole”—not bad. They finished the set with Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Koochie Man.”

When Greene stepped outside for a smoke, someone brought up the surprising maturity of his songwriting. He laughed. “Once you get to know me, I’m really immature,” he said.

Meanwhile, the official story continued to be assembled. “I saw him at an open mike,” said DeAnda. “I gave him my card and told him to call me. I couldn’t believe that he did, the next day.”

Bill Harper, a probation officer and songwriter who hosts the Monday-night open mike at the Fox & Goose, cut in, pointing at DeAnda. “I told him, if you don’t sign this guy right now and put a record out, I’ll know you’re completely insane,” Harper bellowed.

Toward the end of the night, Jackie Greene played a Dylan song, “She Belongs to Me.” A lone couple swing-danced. It was a beautiful thing, watching a legend in the making.