Sunday, January 18, 2009

Demystifying The Jayhawks’ “Mystery Demos”

An archival detective story
EDITORS NOTE: A 60>0 staffer recently had the good fortune to spend some time with Gary Louris examining the contents of his personal archives in preparation for a number of future projects. This was prompted by Louris’ decision to tackle the larger task of finally putting “The Jayhawks Archive” in order, a monumental undertaking that represents a significant archival, historical and musicological challenge. The information in this article wouldn’t have been possible without Louris' cooperation, not to mention his interest in his own musical history. Stay tuned for further developments concerning this exciting project.

The advent of the Internet Age has certainly caused a seismic shift in the way information is exchanged amongst serious music fans as well as enhancing their ability to communicate and interact. The rise of music blogs, “fan websites,” dedicated message boards and downloading portals – all evolving out of the ashes of 90s-style technology like listservs, bulletin boards and FTP sites -- over the last decade has ushered in an age in which dedicated music fans now readily have the ability to get hip to obscure information and arcanum, if not the actual music itself, in a way that would have been unfathomable just a few years ago. What was once the province of an elitist cognoscenti (uberfans, tape hoarders and just plain wackos) is now just a few clicks away for even a fan of moderate interest and technical abilities. It’s far harder to keep the cat in the bag in this age of increasing connectivity; nothing, it seems, stays secret for too long these days.

Case in point: the curious case of a group of mysterious “demo” recordings made in the early 1990s by Mark Olson and Gary Louris, the principal songwriters of The Jayhawks until 1995. At some point near the end of 2002, word of these “mystery” recordings began to spread on places where Jayhawks fans hung out online, places like The Jayhawks Fanpage message board and the “Bunkhouse” Yahoo group. As the legend goes, somebody’s girlfriend (or a “friend of a friend,” or “a buddy of mine” – you get the drift) found the proverbial box in the back of the closet that had some old tapes in it that were supposedly linked to some long forgotten “Jayhawks insider.” Eventually, copies of these artifacts found their way to a tape trader in Spain. The tapes came with very little in the way of documentation. In other words, the provenance of these recordings was sketchy, if not dubious, at best. As anyone who’s spent any time in the back channels of rock fandom knows, these kind of stories are legion (“My brother’s old roommates’ sister’s ex-husband used to be a roadie for Led Zep and Jimmy Page once gave him this really cool tape…”). So, initially, fans who heard this story were understandably skeptical. But, after some more digging and investigating – and the eventual distribution of the mystery recordings themselves -- it soon became evident that these were indeed a major find for not just Jayhawks fans, but also fans of that particular strain of music from the 80s and 90s known variously as “alt-country,” “Americana,” etc.

In short order, copies of these recordings – originally 46 tracks spread across two 90 minute cassette tapes – started making the rounds and serious fans, dedicated archivists and amateur musicologists began the pleasurable task of examining these unearthed “songs from the book of life” (to quote an old Jayhawks lyric). Since they appeared to be demos (they featured mainly just simple acoustic guitar work and the voices of Louris and Olson), they eventually became dubbed “The Mystery Demos,” or, as Olson referred to them at one point at a concert in 2005, “The Mystery Tapes.”
At first, confusion abounded. Initially there was news of just one tape (by now converted to recordable CD); a second set of recordings popped up about 4 months later. A cursory examination of the recordings indicated that there were at least two sessions involved since the performances on the second recording didn’t feature any of the violin work that was present on the first. Furthermore, there was a significant edit after the second track of the second set (it turned out those first two tracks were in fact from the first session) and there were subtle differences in sound quality for the remainder of the tracks in the second batch. This theory seemed to be confirmed by 2 different dates that came with the two sets of recordings: “Feb 6, 1992” and “Oct 1992.” This immediately caused a great deal of discussion about the accuracy of the dates (now confirmed; see copies of the tape liners below). Some fans felt that since there were several MD songs that had been played live by The Jayhawks as early as 1988, that it stood to reason that the recordings took place earlier than 1992. On the other hand, none of the MD songs appeared on Hollywood Town Hall (released in September 1992), which wouldn't have made sense if the actual dates of the MD sessions predated the sessions for HTH by a significant period of time. Since the now confirmed date of the first MD session is very close to the time HTH was being recorded, it seems logical that the absence of any HTH songs indicates the MD sessions were focused on potential tracks for the next album (in this case, Tomorrow The Green Grass). There are Jayhawks demos in the archives from 1990 and 1991 that do contain HTH material, further circumstantial evidence that the MDs come from a time later than 1991, regardless of the dates on the cassette copies that first surfaced.

In retrospect, it now seems that these sessions were along the lines of what are known as “publisher demos,” a common practice in the music business in which artists compile “demonstration” recordings of unreleased compositions in one place for archival and copyright purposes. Often times there is no clear destination for the songs that comprise such recordings; it’s more like “here are all our new songs – let’s get ‘em down on tape.” One of the best examples of this during the rock era is Bob Dylan’s “Witmark Demos,” a stunning mother lode of Dylan compositions from his first prime era (62-64) that were mostly recorded right in the Manhattan offices of his music publisher. The fact that The Jayhawks took great care in recording these 1992 demos and generally performed the songs with a significant degree of passion and precision was not only a bonus for future listeners, but also a ringing testament to the seriousness of their craft at a time when they had yet to release a major label record and were largely unknown outside of the Upper Midwest. This commitment to excellence would characterize virtually all of their live and recorded work right up to the band’s eventual demise almost 15 years after these sessions.

Then there was the matter of who actually was playing at the sessions. It seemed obvious right away that the voices, guitars and harmonica came courtesy of Misseurs Olson and Louris. But what about the haunting violin that distinguishes so many of the tracks on the February sessions? At one point Olson can be heard saying “Ready Thad?,” an apparent reference to early Jayhawks drummer Thad Spencer. This sparked a theory that maybe it was Spencer who was playing the violin. Recent discussions with Louris, however, confirmed early speculation that longtime Jayhawks friend Razz Russell was the mystery violinist (he subsequently hooked up with Olson in The Creekdippers and a variety of other Olson-related projects). It turns out that that Spencer was involved, though; the February sessions took place in his recording studio in the warehouse district in downtown Minneapolis (primarily used for commercial work). The second MD session was recorded in a still undetermined LA studio with HTH and TTGG producer George Drakoulias in attendance. Some people hear an electric bass on some of the tracks, but evidence of that remains elusive. There also appears to be a mandolin on “Precious Time,” but virtually everything else on the MDs is the sound of just two acoustic guitars being played live. There are a number of quite delectable guitar solos that pop up throughout these tracks; it’s safe to assume that most of these come courtesy of Louris. Several of the songs feature a harmonica; since Olson and Louris both play, take your pick on who’s playing when. By all accounts, Jayhawks bassist Marc Perlman didn’t play on either of these sessions.

While the back story concerning these semi-lost gems is quite compelling, the most momentous thing about these recordings, though, is the songs themselves. It’s not really much of an overstatement to describe the “mystery demos” as the most significant collection of unreleased Jayhawks compositions extant. An amazing 32 of the 44 different songs on the MDs (two of the songs were recorded at both the February and October sessions) were never officially released by The Jayhawks during their existence. 11 of the songs were eventually released by Golden Smog, Mark Olson/Creekdippers or Olson/Louris, which leaves 21 MD songs still officially unreleased. Furthermore, there are no known live or circulating demo performances of 15 of those 21 unreleased songs, which made them essentially “new” songs for fans after their appearance in 2003 in trading circles. Even though many of the MD songs were recorded and/or performed in years before and after the 92 sessions by the full band (many of those recordings have not yet “leaked”), there remains an intangible, arcane quality to these specific 1992 recordings that make them more special than the usual mishmash of leftovers that all too often are found gathering dust in some closet or basement. The “mystery” designation for these tapes certainly turned out to be an apt one in more ways than one, something borne out by the excited online chatter amongst fans that took place after their initial appearance. Indeed, some of the musings inspired by the MDs since their excavation has been of the highest order, imbuing these folksy curios with an almost mystical power that their creators probably never contemplated – or intended – even at the height of their hubris. 

Many of the MD titles will be familiar to even moderate Jayhawks fans (see chart below). In fact, some of Louris and Olson’s finest, best known work (“Blue,” “Pray For Me,” “Over My Shoulder,” “Red’s Song,” “Nothing Left to Borrow”) is represented here in all its stark, pure glory. Ultimately, 7 of the MD songs were destined for the Jayhawks’ landmark TTGG album, released almost exactly 3 years after the February 1992 MD session. It’s also fascinating to hear other Jayhawks faves in versions that differ significantly from later full band studio and live renditions, not to mention songs that would eventually feature in the repertoires of Golden Smog and post-Jayhawks Olson projects. Then there are little bits and pieces of MD songs that were incorporated into later works: the chorus structure/melody of “Ranch House in Phoenix” was used for Golden Smog’s “Radio King;” “Beggar’s Lie” is a very close cousin to the Jayhawks b-side “Get the Load Out.” The majority of the performances here feature Olson on lead vocals (especially the February session), reflecting his position as primary vocalist and composer throughout the first several years of the Jayhawks existence. Still, Louris’ contributions to the MDs are quite noteworthy (“You and I” and the stunning “5 Cornered Blues” are true lost classics; “Won’t Be Coming Home,” which dates back to at least 1990, is already honed to perfection, years before it blossomed as a Golden Smog chestnut), marking the start of the Jayhawks’ “Golden Age,” a 4 year period in which Louris’ role in the band as a singer, songwriter and guitarist would increase dramatically and the band’s reputation and career would explode, taking them right to the precipice of major stardom.

In the opinion of many fans, some of Olson’s finest work is contained in the shadowy corners of the MDs. Confident and focused, Olson peels off one great song after another. The aggregate quality of the Olson songs on the MDs that weren’t released by the Jayhawks or Olson himself after he left the band is impressive to say the least; many songwriters from the era the MDs were recorded would’ve been hard pressed to equal these “rejects” with their own officially released material. Songs like “Ranch House in Phoenix (performed maybe once by the Jayhawks in the late 80s), “Poor Michael’s Boat” (similarly rare but lovingly resuscitated for a couple of Olson/Louris tours 15 years after the MDs), and unearthed nuggets like “Tobacco’s Growin’ Tall,” “Follow Me Now” and “Pictures of the Family” are top shelf songs that typify the MDs -- full of Olson’s unique style and imagery, many tinged with palpable shades of empathy and heartbreak that recall his best released work from the era. There’s no doubt that his talents were in full bloom during this time. One of the reasons that Olson has cited for his departure from The Jayhawks was a dissatisfaction with the slow timetable that major label bands like The Jayhawks were locked into. The size of Olson’s song backlog by 1995 – vividly illustrated by the MDs and other collections of Jayhawks demos from this period – borders on staggering. Releasing a half dozen compositions every other year surely must have been a recipe for frustration for somebody as prolific as Olson, something seemingly confirmed by the flurry of Olson-related releases in the period immediately after he quit the band in late 1995.

Once copies of the “Mystery Demos” began circulating amongst fans a few years ago, it didn’t take long for word of them to reach Louris and Olson; indeed, fan-made copies soon ended up in their possession. Even though, as noted below, archival copies of these recordings existed – and the Jayhawks continued to demo and record some of the MD songs in the years after the 92 sessions – Olson and Louris evidently had only limited recollections of most of the MD material, not all that surprising considering the amount of time that had elapsed and the size of the band’s archives (Olson did release MD songs on albums in 1997, 2002 and 2007). It seems evident that the reemergence of these faded memories 5 years ago clearly triggered something for Louris and Olson, and they soon began reacquainting themselves with material that they had recorded well over a decade earlier. Not long afterwards, several of these “lost” songs (see chart) made an appearance in the setlists of the 2005 “Together Again” Olson/Louris tour, their first tour together in 10 years. One of the highlights of those shows was a breathtakingly gorgeous reading of “Precious Time” in the encore featuring just Mark and Gary and their acoustic guitars, a MD-style performance that undoubtedly was inspired by their recent re-exposure to the recordings. MD material continued to be featured in subsequent O/L tours as the “legend” of the MDs continued to worm its way through the fan universe and occasionally into the outside world.

The ultimate culmination of this story seems to have been achieved with the recording of no less than 6 of the MD orphans for Olson/Louris’ Ready For the Flood album (released in late 2008; recorded in early 2007). A decade and a half after they were recorded – and possibly almost 20 years after some of them were written – many of these wonderful songs finally found a home and a much-deserved wider audience. Given the quality of some of the remaining unreleased MD material, there very well may be chapters of this story left to be written.

UPDATE: 18 of the Mystery Demo tracks were finally released officially on the 2nd disc of the Tomorrow The Green Grass Legacy Edition reissue in 2011 on Sony Legacy. Liner notes and extensive analysis provided by Jayhawks archivist PD Larson.


5 Cornered Blues X X X
Beggars Lie X X 92
Berlin X X 92 X
Bloody Hands X X X 89,90 X X
Blue From Now On X X TTGG X 92-04 live X X X
Cotton Dress X X X X X 88,90 X X X *
Everywhere That
I Turned
Fingernail Moon X X BE ** 90
First Wednesday X
Five a.m. X
Follow Me Now X X
Hold Me Close X X 92,93
How Can I
Believe You
I Can't See You X
Keith and Quentin X X single 90
My Gospel
Song For You
Nightshade X X BE ** 90
No Place X X X X 88
Nothing Left to
X TTGG X 93-05 X X
One-Eyed Black
Dog Moses
X DC &
Over My Shoulder X X TTGG X 94-95,
live X X
Pictures of
the Family
Poor Michael's Boat X X 89 SB &
Pray For Me X X X TTGG X 89-95,
live X X X
Precious Time X X X X 90-91,
X X X *
Rain Fall a
Little Harder
Ranch House
in Phoenix
X X 88
Red's Song X TTGG X 94-95,
Saw Him on the
Street Today
X TTGG 94-95,
2004 #
Scarlet Light X
She Picks
the Violets
X X X 93 TOHRCD & live
Strong For You X
The Trap's Been Set X X
Tobacco's Growin' Tall X
Tomorrow the
Green Grass
X single @ 91,94-5
Turn Your Pretty
Name Around
Two Hearts X X TTGG 94-04 X X X
Up Above the River X X X
Where's Jane? X
Whisperin' You'll
Do Right
X 91
White Shell Road X X WT &
Won't Be
Coming Home
X X X X 90-91 DBTOM
& live
You and I

All songs written by Olson/Louris

Recording info 
1. First session
    February 6, 1992
    Thad Spencer’s studio @ The Ford Building in Minneapolis, MN
    Personnel: Mark Olson & Gary Louris - vocals, acoustic guitars, harmonica, mandolin
                      Mike “Razz” Russel – violin
2. Second session
    October ??, 1992
    Unknown studio in Los Angeles, CA with George Drakoulias
    Personnel: Mark Olson & Gary Louris – vocals, acoustic guitars, harmonica

Chart legend Should be mostly self-explanatory. The columns indicate appearances of MD songs on various official releases by The Jayhawks, Golden Smog, Mark Olson-related projects, Olson/Louris’ Ready For the Flood; demo sessions; and various live performances from 1988 to the present. The years in the Jayhawks Live column refer to the years with known live performances by The Jayhawks of the various MD songs.
*   =  bonus track on US version
** =  CD reissue
#  =  2004 Gary Louris solo performance
@ =  also on European TTGG bonus disc

NOTE: “Precious Time” was also recorded by Maria McKee for You Gotta Sin to Be Saved (1993) with members of The Jayhawks backing.
BE = Blue Earth (1989)
HTH = Hollywood Town Hall (1992)
TTGG = Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995)  WT = Weird Tales (1996)
DBTOM = Down By the Old Mainstream (1998)  TOHRCD = The Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers (1997)
DC = December’s Child (2002)
SB = Salvation Blues (2007) 
RFTF = Ready For the Flood (2009)

Historical note  Exact recording information (studio location, engineer, etc) is still unknown at this time for the October 1992 MD session(s) in LA. Also unknown is exactly how the sessions were recorded. It’s possible that multitrack recording was used (2 inch, ADAT) and it’s also possible they were recorded directly to DAT. Professionally duplicated cassette copies of the two sessions were initially found in Louris’ personal archive, along with other non-professional cassette copies (see liners above). The generational provenance of the cassette copies is unknown, although it would be safe to assume that the professionally reproduced copies were taken from a source close to the master. Eventually, DAT copies for both sessions were located in the archives, although they appear to be digital copies (i.e. “clones”), not DAT masters.

Collectors note  90% of the 1990-92 demos (essentially HTH demos) and nearly all of the live recordings referenced in the above chart are in general circulation in collectors circles. The pre-1990 demos, the 1993-94 demos (essentially more TTGG demos, spread across several sessions) and the 1998-99 demos are not currently circulating. The 46 tracks of the Mystery Demos themselves have been in fairly wide circulation since 2003. 60>0 won’t respond to any inquiries about obtaining any of these unofficial recordings, although we’d be happy to hear from anyone with comments, insights, corrections or new information. 

Song Title Mysteries  The titles in the chart are the ones used on the tape case liners (pictured above). In some cases these are in conflict with some or all of the following: titles announced in the studio during the sessions, live setlists, other documents, or titles used on eventual official releases. Aside from songs that were eventually officially released, I’m going to assume for academic reasons that the official titles of these songs are the ones printed on the liners, especially since it’s not unknown for musicians to use “shorthand” when announcing titles before a take in the studio, not to mention song titles often have a strange way of being transitory. Whenever possible, I’ve compared these titles with other tracklistings on various recordings in the Jayhawks Archive. The official titles of many of these songs weren’t known when they first started circulating in fan circles and provisional titles were often used (often a line from the chorus or, the old archivist’s trick, the first line of the lyrics). The first “bootleg” recordings of these sessions that popped up in 2002/3 had tracklistings that were either absent (February sessions) or “unofficial” (October sessions). One other observation: since many of the unofficial titles were clearly guesses, it likely means that the source for the MDs that first circulated amongst fans was at least a few layers removed from an official “inside” source since copies of the recordings in the band’s personal archives include full tracklistings. Because of this confusion – the unofficial titles have spread far and wide throughout cyberspace and fan communities -- I’ve compiled a “conversion chart” to help with figuring out just what’s what.

* = song title announced during recording session
# = title used on official release

Mystery Demo Song Title also known as
5 Cornered Blues They Took You For a Ride *, 5 Corners
Beggars Lie * Beggars Liar, Take Me, Beggars Life
Berlin Ruins of East Berlin, East Berlin, You Let Me See Inside
Blue From Now On * Blue #
Cotton Dress # Worn Out Cotton Dress
Everywhere That I Turned World’s Falling Down on its Knees
First Wednesday * When Will You Send For Me
Green Grass * Tomorrow the Green Grass #
How Can I Believe In You Only You Know If I Could Really Love You, If I Could Really Love You
I Can’t See You They Only Came By When They Wanted Something,
Would My Debt Be Paid
My Gospel Song For You Song For You *, A Song For You
Nightshade # Little Nightshade
No Place Where is the Lady, She Turned For Me Alone
Pictures of the Family The Family *, I Loved You
Poor Michael’s Boat Michael’s Boat
Rain Fall a Little Harder Fall a Little Hard
Saw Him on the Street Today See Him on the Street #
Strong For You Words Held Silent For Too Long
The Trap’s Been Set I’m an Angry Old Man
Tobacco’s Growin’ Tall If You Could Love No Other, Doesn’t Look Like She’s Coming Back
Turn Your Pretty Name Around Gone and Let Someone *, A Path For My Feet
Whisperin’ You’ll Do Right Bring Your Eyes Down Low, All My Dreams Seem Old
You and I (Ba-Ba-Ba) I Just Can’t Find You

Special thanks to CZ for his invaluable assistance in this project.


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Anonymous said...

a little more back story --

i was a fervent tape trader back in the day. i was (am) a huge fan of vic williams and the creekdippers, which led me to the jayhawks -- i started collecting some of their unauthorized recordings. i was the one who first got these recordings from a trader in spain, and brought them to the bunkhouse list.

not being a huge jayhawks fan, when i first received the "mystery demos," i had no idea what they were. i couldn't find equivalent song titles on jayhawks albums, and i couldn't find anything like it on any trader's list.

i actually joined bunkhouse just to ask what the hell these were. as it turned out, no one there had any idea. i started circulating what i had, and only then realized how special these recordings were.

i was robbed awhile back, and have been rebuilding my CD collection. so it was only yesterday that i picked up the legacy edition of TTGG, and found these mystery demos in official form.

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