Transcript 120–The career of Paul Pena

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.

Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.

My name is Claude Call, and I’m in the Southern Studio this week. Ignore the surf and seagull noises.

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[TRIVIA]

I’ve got some eeeeasy trivia for ye this week. Ready? Here it is.

What do the following names have in common: Nelson, Otis, Lefty, Charlie Junior and Lucky? Once again, that’s Nelson, Lefty, Charlie Junior, Lucky and Otis. You need an extra hint? What if I added in the names Spike, Clayton, Muddy and Boo? There ya go. What do all those names have in common?

I’ll have that answer, and a little bit more, at the end of the show.

I’d been kicking around the idea of talking about a Steve Miller song for a little while, when something came in over the transom. I got a note from listener Larry Glickman, who suggested that I talk specifically about “Jet Airliner,” from the Book of Dreams album. He then noted that the song has an interesting backstory, and I absolutely had to agree with him on this. So we’re talking about 1977’s “Jet Airliner,” but we’re going to go beyond that a bit this time around. And I’m going to throw an extra thanks to Larry for giving me a boost with the research.

[THRESHOLD]

So let’s start with “Jet Airliner,” because frankly there isn’t a ton of stuff I can say about it. The Book of Dreams album opens with this piece, called “Threshold”…

[long beat]

…and a lot of your classic rock stations will pair “Jet Airliner” with “Threshold,” I think because it was easier than separating the two when you played from the album, given that there’s almost no pause between them. And while “Threshold” is an entirely electronic piece, oddly enough I like it better than the electronic sound effects in the “Space Intro” that opens the Fly Like an Eagle album and song. On Fly Like an Eagle the sound effects sound terribly dated at this point, and it just mires the song in its 1976 release date. I think he’s got a little bit of a better handle on it here, and it overall works a little bit better.

Now, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. For both “Threshold” and “Space Intro,” the intention was always to have them be one complete piece, which is why it’s so tough to separate them for airplay. They only have their own titles on the record because Steve Miller is a shrewd businessman and he knows that the real money is in publishing royalties. Which means, publish “Fly Like an Eagle” as a six-minute song, and you’ve made money on a six-minute song. Publish “Space Intro” as a one-forty-something song, and “Fly Like an Eagle” as a four-forty-two song, and now you’re earning royalties on two songs. Likewise, put the “Threshold” intro on “Jet Airliner,” and he earns publishing money on that song, because he’s not making any publishing money on “Jet Airliner” all by itself.

Now, I want to call your attention to something that, if you never noticed it before, you’re never going to not hear it for the rest of your life. For some reason, Steve Miller makes his breathing very audible on this track in multiple spots. Don’t believe me? Have a listen, and remember: this time I’m NOT equalizing the track to make it easier to hear…

…sorry, now you’ve been cursed forever. Have a nice life.

You want to hear a weird secret? When I sing along with this song, I always sing the harmony part. And yes, it does get me some strange looks.

Anyway. While most people identify “Jet Airliner” as a Steve Miller song, it wasn’t written by Steve Miller, which is why he doesn’t make any publishing money on it. That honor went to Paul Pena, who is the real subject of today’s show.

[GALO BEDJO]

Paul was born in January of 1950, and while he was born in Hyannis, Massachusetts, his grandparents were from Cape Verde, off the western coast of Africa. So he grew up speaking Cape Verdean Creole with his family. Both dad and grandpa were musicians, and they taught Paul to play music, including this style you hear now, called Morna.

Pena was born with congenital glaucoma. He attended the Perkins School for the Blind from the age of 5 until he graduated in 1967, and by 1970, while he was attending Clark University, he was totally blind.

But by that time he was already a known quantity in the music industry, having already played as the opening act for Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead, and he was part of the Contemporary Composers’ Workshop at Monterey. He also played some bass and did some backup vocals on Bonnie Raitt’s debut album in 1971.

That same year Pena moved to San Francisco and he called up The Grateful Dead’s office looking for work. He got it, mostly opening for other bands in the area, but he also managed to cut an album for Capitol Records, with the clever title Paul Pena.

[WOKE UP THIS MORNING]

It didn’t have any major hits on it, which is probably why his second album wasn’t recorded for Capitol, but it is notable for having guitarist Jeff Baxter playing on it, who you may remember from the Doobie Brothers. And it’s definitely got some good material on it, especially for a debut album. This is the opening track of the album, called “Woke Up This Morning”…

…this album was out of print for something like 40 years but you can get it nowadays in MP3 format through Amazon and Apple music. It’s definitely worth a listen.

[PENA AIRLINER]

The following year Pena signed with Bearsville Records, which was run by someone named Albert Grossman. Grossman is perhaps better known for being Bob Dylan’s former manager. It was at Bearsville that he recorded his second album, called New Train, produced by Ben Sidran. And on New Train we find a song called “Jet Airliner”…

…Now, there was some kind of dispute between Grossman and either Pena or his manager, depending on the source of the story. But the bottom line is that Grossman refused to release New Train. And because Pena now had a contractual obligation, he was unable to record for another label. So now he’s stuck. He can play side gigs and do shows, but he can’t record or release anything else. As a recording artist, Pena was dead in the water.

However…you may remember that the producer on the album was Ben Sidran. Now, Ben was at one time the keyboard player for the Steve Miller Band. And it was Sidran who gave Steve Miller a copy of the unreleased New Train album. Miller liked the album and chose “Jet Airliner” to record for his Book of Dreams album.

But Miller had an issue with the song. In an interview with the Ultimate Classic Rock Nights radio show, (quote)

“‘Jet Airliner’ was about those people and his treatment on the East Coast when he went out. He really didn’t want to leave California and go to the East Coast and record this record, and this was a song about it.” (unquote) Miller went on to say, (quote), “it was very long, verse after verse after verse of anger, a lot of it. So I took the song and said, ‘Can I reshape it? Can I play with it?’ They said, ‘You can do anything you want to with it.’ I remember laying out all the lyrics, typing them up on big sheets of paper… I had them all out on my kitchen table, moving the verses around… then I got it all together and went, ‘Yeah, this’ll work – it’s great!’” (unquote)

So there are definite differences between Pena’s version of the song and Steve Miller’s, but the riffs and the heart of it are still pretty much the same.

 “Jet Airliner” was released as the lead single to Book of Dreams, which came out a month later. Book of Dreams went to Number Two on the Billboard Albums chart and ultimately went three times platinum in sales—that’s three million copies sold. “Jet Airliner” topped out at Number Eight on the Billboard Hot 100, And because of that, Paul Pena’s income was pretty much guaranteed for a long time.

So let’s jump ahead a little bit to 1984. Pena was looking for a Korean language lesson on a shortwave radio when he stumbled on a Radio Moscow broadcast that was discussing Tuvan Throat Singing. Now, the basic idea behind throat singing is that the singer produces a basic pitch and then, at the same time, produces a second pitch and sometimes more over that. Here’s a quick example of two people doing throat singing:

[THROAT SINGING]

Pena was fascinated by this and a few years later he found a recording of throat singing, which he played repeatedly and managed to teach himself some of the techniques. In addition, Pena taught himself to speak Tuvan. Now, there’s no such thing as a Tuvan-to-English dictionary—at least, there wasn’t one in the 1980s—so he converted Tuvan to Russian and then the Russian to English, using a scanning device that converted the printed words into tactile sensations he could read with his fingers. Did you forget he’s blind? Of course you did.

In 1993 Pena attended a performance of throat singing at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. While there he actually did an impromptu performance, which caught the attention of Kongar-ol Ondar, one of the more famous throat singers of that time. Ondar invited Pena to come to Tuva and sing at the 1995 International Khoomei Symposium, making Pena the first westerner to compete. He placed first in his category and won the “audience favorite” award. And, as it happens, there’s footage of Pena performing at the Symposium. The first time you hear his voice, he’s greeting the crowd in Tuvan:

[PENA THROAT SINGING]

Pena’s voice is already pretty low, and because Tuvan Throat Singing makes your voice lower, the Tuvans call him Cher Shimjer, which means “earthquake.” Pena once said, “My voice is lower than most Tuvans. They have a style that makes your voice lower, When I use that, there’s a slow song when I hit a note that’s four white keys from the left of the piano.” If you’d like to see Pena’s journey to Tuva, look for the 1999 film called Genghis Blues. It won a documentary award at the 1999 Sundance Festival and it was nominated for an Academy Award in the Documentary Feature category. Good Stuff!

But not everything was awesome for him during this time. In 1997 Pena was badly injured due to a fire in his house, and he was in a coma for several days because of smoke inhalation. And he also dealt with a long pancreatic illness. Originally he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and he was given six months to live. It wasn’t until some time later, in 2000, that he was correctly diagnosed with pancreatitis. But also in 2000, finally, came the release of the New Train album. I’m not sure exactly how that happened, but the record came out on a label called Hybrid Recordings, which was a subsidiary of a larger label, so presumably Bearsville was bought out by that label, and Pena being back in the news with the newfound popularity because of the documentary meant that there was suddenly something in the archives that people wanted again. That’s just a guess, but it’s a pretty solid one.

But all of this was a little on the late side for Pena. There are only two other albums credited to him after 1973: One is a Tuvan singing album and the other is the soundtrack to Genghis Blues. In 2005 Pena died of complications from the pancreatitis and diabetes in his San Francisco apartment at the age of 55.

I wish I had a better ending for this story, but unfortunately I don’t. This isn’t a story like Cher, who was huge in the early 70s and then made a big comeback in the 90s and early 2000s, or like Tina Turner, who broke out in the 60s and then again in the 80s. It’s not even a late-bloomer kind of act, like Sheryl Crow, who didn’t make it big until her mid-30s, or Fitz and the Tantrums, whose first album came when founder and lead singer Michael Fitzpatrick was 40. It’s essentially the story of a man whose popular music career was ruined by someone’s ego, and all we have left to consider are a few pieces of work, and a lot of speculation about what might have been. 

And now, it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you about what the names Nelson, Lefty, Charlie Junior, Lucky and Otis have in common, and then I threw in the names Spike, Clayton, Muddy and Boo to make it even easier. Did you get it? Well, they’re all pseudonyms. Nelson and Spike belong to George Harrison. Muddy and Charlie Junior are pseudonyms for Tom Petty. Lucky and Boo are more commonly known as Bob Dylan. Otis and Clayton are usually identified by the name Jeff Lynne, and Lefty would be Roy Orbison. And by now I’m sure you’ve guessed that if you put ‘em all together you get the Traveling Wilburys. They each have two names because between the first album and the third, they took on new names, and of course Roy Orbison died shortly after the first album was released, so he didn’t appear on the second one, which means he only has one Wilbury name. In fact, Orbison’s death was the reason they all took on second names, since the members felt that the group dynamics had shifted as a result of the loss. For what it’s worth, session drummer Jim Keltner, who played on all the tracks except “Handle With Care” is credited as “Buster Sidebury”, Gary Moore, who played lead guitar on one track for the second album was credited as “Ken Wilbury,” and George’s son Dhani Harrison played some overdubs on the 2007 bonus tracks, so he received credit as “Ayrton Wilbury.” And finally, I wanted to point out that Roy Orbison was, in fact, left-handed—hence his moniker—he did play musical instruments right-handedly, so I’m sure this name confused a bunch of people.

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