A Night at the Troubadour: Discovering David Ackles (and Elton John)

David Ackles singing at the author's ordination, Sept. 17, 1970 (Photo by Marilyn Robertson)

David Ackles singing at the author’s ordination, Sept. 17, 1970 (Photo by Marilyn Robertson)

I have no explanation as to why the David Ackles albums spoke to me so intensely, but it was with those records that I probably spent the most time when I was about sixteen, listening in a darkened room, trying to imagine how everything had come to exist.” (Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink)

 They suffer least who suffer what they choose. (David Ackles, “American Gothic”)

The Troubadour, an intimate club in West Hollywood, has seen some pretty special nights over the years. Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Prince, Tom Petty, Pearl Jam and so many others have performed on its stage. Neil Young and James Taylor each made their solo debut there. The Byrds sang “Mr. Tambourine Man” for the first time in public. Tom Waits was discovered during amateur night. Springsteen, Dylan and Led Zeppelin dropped by after hours for legendary jams. Miles Davis and Van Morrison recorded there.[i]

When Elton John made his smashing American debut at the Troubadour on August 25, 1970, he was not yet widely known. He was originally booked as the opening act for David Ackles, a Los Angeles musical artist greatly admired by Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin. But John’s record company pulled some strings to get the bill reversed. In conjunction with the release of his first album, John would become the headline act.

He would admit later to some embarrassment at being promoted above Ackles on the billing, since Ackles was one of his heroes, “one of the best that America has to offer.” Elvis Costello was also a fan, “It’s a mystery to me why his wonderful songs are not better known,” he has said.[ii] When Costello interviewed John on his Sundance cable series, Spectacle, they both voiced generous tributes to Ackles’ genius and influence, and closed the show with a duet of his great song of loss and longing, “Down River.” [iii]

Ackles put out four memorable albums between 1968 and 1973. His masterpiece, American Gothic (1972), generated critical raves. “The Sergeant Pepper of Folk,” gushed a noted British critic, astonished at its thematic brilliance, structural complexity and musical originality. Rolling Stone called it “moving” and “eloquent.” A retrospective appraisal in 2005 acclaimed it “a largely unrecognized work of genius, one of the most unfashionable and uncompromising American albums ever. . . Crafted layer upon layer, it reveals itself more as a dramatic work than a conventional rock or pop release, drawing on modern American classical composers such as Charles Ives and Aaron Copland as well as gospel, rock, blues, and soul. Imagine an art-folk album that bridges Woody Guthrie’s passionate storytelling and Kurt Weill’s orchestrations.” [iv]

Rolling Stone said at the time that American Gothic “deserves a wide audience,” but when sales proved weak, his recording company, Elektra, lost interest. Ackles made one more album on the Columbia label, but his music seemed too hard to categorize in an industry driven by identifiable genres. Was it folk, pop, classical, musical theater, or what? His originality didn’t fit the system. A ten-minute elegy to a lost past (“Montana Song”) was not going to get much radio time. And you couldn’t dance to it. But however neglected, the heartbreaking beauty of Ackles’ imagery still blooms like wildflowers on a deserted prairie:

The fallen barn, the broken plow,
the hoofprint-hardened clay;
where is the farmer, now,
who built his dream this way ?
Who felled the tree and cut the bough
and made the land obey,
who taught his sons as he knew how,
but could not make them stay.[v]

Disappointed by the lack of tangible support for his work, Ackles abandoned his recording career, but not his joie de vivre. “I’m not bitter about a thing that’s happened to me,” he told an interviewer in 1998. “I would hate for people to think I’m over here getting all twisted up about what happened 20 years ago. All that feels like another life, lived by someone else.” [vi]

Although he could write an achingly beautiful love song like “Love’s Enough,” he was at heart a storyteller, weaving poetic and sometimes tragic narratives of American dreamers and strivers, who “joined the circus, worked the fields,” but “never saved a dime.” And even when they had to “learn to dance to someone else’s song,” they managed to endure:

But I hold on to my dreams, anyway.
I never let them die.
They keep me going through the bad times,
while I dream
of the good times coming by.[vii]

Bernie Taupin, who produced American Gothic, summed up Ackles’ intensity and conviction in a 2008 remembrance: “Man! If you didn’t believe every word this guy was singing, you were dead inside.”[viii]

I first met David Ackles in early 1970, when I was working at Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, an Episcopal campus ministry and coffeehouse known as one of the premiere folk music venues in the country. I was just out of seminary, working with two priests as an intern during the year of my “transitional diaconate,” the prelude to priestly ordination. While I was in residence, Canterbury House featured Neil Young, Doc Watson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and David Ackles.

David was one of Canterbury’s most popular performers, loved not only for his music but also for his manifest warmth and wry humor. He was a lifelong Christian, deeply spiritual and theologically astute, an authentic and generous man. And though some of his songs revealed a profound empathy with the suffering of displaced souls, there was an essential core in him—a comedic faith in resurrection—which survived the harrowing descent of the artist into the nether regions of the human condition.

By summer of 1970, I was back home in Los Angeles, awaiting my ordination to the priesthood in September. When I saw that David was playing at the Troubadour, I knew I had to be there. Meanwhile, the radio was starting to preview a few unreleased songs by the other guy on the bill, and he sounded quite good as well. Word got around, excitement grew, and on August 25 the house was packed. We shared a table with Odetta, the “queen of American folk music.” [ix]

Before the show, I went backstage to ask David if he would consider singing at my ordination, and he graciously consented. While we were talking, Elton John entered the dressing room, wearing denim overalls with a cartoon duck patch on the front, to tell David how much he admired his work and how honored he was to share the stage with him.

And the concert? It’s been nearly fifty years now. Details grow hazy; I can’t recite the set lists anymore. But I can still feel the electricity of that Hollywood night, the passion of the performers, the visceral connection they made with their audience.

Stacy Sullivan, a jazz singer who once worked with David, is currently performing, in small New York clubs, “A Night at the Troubadour: Presenting Elton John and David Ackles.” While showing the brilliance of two stars aligning, her re-imagining of that night suggests the strangeness of fate: one singer became an international superstar, the other remained largely undiscovered.

The New York Times has called Sullivan’s tribute a “tour de force” which “interweaves more than a dozen Ackles songs with several of Mr. John’s hits, radically deconstructed, into a dual portrait in which their opposite sensibilities (Mr. John’s gregarious showmanship, and Mr. Ackles’ dignified introspection) eventually merge.” [x] Lucky Easterners can still see her at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Room on September 10 and October 8. I can only pray that she will do a West Coast reprise. I promise to come.

A few weeks after the Troubadour show, David sang two songs for my ordination at All Saints, Beverly Hills, where the opening hymn was “Let It Be” and large projected images filled the wall behind the altar. Those were the days! During communion, David sang “Be My Friend.” At the Dismissal, he led the congregation in “Family Band,” which he said was autobiographical, since he grew up in a musical family of church-going Presbyterians. I still play that song on my guitar every ordination anniversary:

I remember the songs we sang Sunday evening . . .
when my dad played the bass, mom played the drums,
I played the piano,
and Jesus sang the song.

David got lung cancer in the late nineties. When he went into remission, he and his wonderful wife Janice rented a Pasadena mansion, filled it with musicians, and threw a grand party for their friends, to celebrate the gifts of life and love. Then, in 1999, David departed this world, far too soon. He is dearly missed. But that gathering in Pasadena remains a joyous foretaste of the blessedness which awaits us all.

And I will cherish the faith in the songs we knew then,
till we all sing together, till we all sing together,
till we sing them together again.




[i] For a more extensive historical list: http://www.troubadour.com/history

[ii] Reuters obituary in March, 1999, cited in Kenny MacDonald interview: http://www.terrascope.co.uk/MyBackPages/David%20Ackles.htm

[iii] YouTube has a version of their duet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXvlCjrlHCQ and their conversation about David is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qbt1Cee7Usw

[iv] George Durbalau, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005. Along with other review quotes, found at http://www.superseventies.com/spacklesdavid.html

[v] David Ackles, “Montana Song,” on American Gothic. Some of David’s songs can be heard on YouTube, and his albums can be found online as well.

[vi] Kenny MacDonald interview

[vii] “Another Friday Night,” American Gothic

[viii] Bernie Taupin’s blog, Dec. 3, 2008

[ix] Attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.: http://entertainment.time.com/2011/10/24/the-all-time-100-songs/slide/take-this-hammer-odetta/

[x] New York Times, July 16, 2016: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/16/arts/music/stacy-sullivan-david-ackles-review.html?_r=1


Merry it is while summer lasts

August Sunflower by Jim Friedrich

August Sunflower by Jim Friedrich

Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

— Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”

Mirie it is while somer y-last. “Merry it is while summer lasts.” So goes the 13th-century lyric, one of the earliest known secular English songs (the other being Summer is icumen in). But while such praise of summer lacks the explicit theological or liturgical character of its pious predecessors, is not the idealized notion of a happy summer a plausible echo of the joys of Paradise? History takes a vacation. Ambition is deposed. The temporal flow slows its onward rush, deepening into a placid pool of unhurried being. The poet’s longing for “world enough, and time” is fulfilled at last in a sabbath of playful ease. Children romp in the sea, lovers stroll bright gardens, readers open their books, friends converse at evening. Mirie it is.

It should always be so in August, that we might agree with Emerson: “this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life.” But of course Thoreau did a better job than his bookish friend at getting outside to see what summer was actually doing day by day. Summer in fact is not a general idea, but an aggregate of particulars.

On this date in 1856, Thoreau wandered the fields and woods of Concord, Massachusetts. His Journal tells us that “Ambrosia pollen now begins to yellow my clothes.” He was surprised to find the cassia “so obvious and abundant.” In an old garden gone wild from British days, he became “intoxicated with the fragrance” of spearmint, hounds-tongue, and bergamot. He named those plants he could, while each new discovery filled him with curiosity and wonder. He bathed in the river, registering how strong the current seemed for mid-August. And he lamented the recent dampness of the weather, causing his pressed plant specimens to mildew. “Give me the dry heat of July,” he wrote.

Reading Thoreau’s Journal entry prompted me to look up August 16 in my own yearly journals. It turns out that I honored the spirit of August by playing more than writing, but I did find one entry for this date in 1989, when I hiked at sunset to the top of Mt. Tallac, a 10,000’ peak above Lake Tahoe in California’s Sierra range, to watch the rise of a full moon in total eclipse. I carefully noted the changes as the reddish lunar disc slipped slowly out of the earth’s shadow to flood the mountain with intense milky light. Then I descended through a ghostly forest of moonlit junipers, grateful to have been present to see and to know. If I had not been there, that night would not have become part of me, nor I of it.

So now I must leave my desk to see what this summer day wants to offer the senses. I will linger in the shade of the peach tree with a book, keeping my eye on the finches, chickadees, juncos and hummingbirds who shelter and sing in its branches. I will praise the sunflowers, each a miniature daystar, towering above the flower garden, and hear the soft music of quivering aspens. I will taste blackberries ripening beyond the drying lawn, plus whatever strawberries the squirrels have spared. My skin will feel the reddish warmth of the late sun as it drops between the Douglas-firs. And when night comes, I will stroll among the lilies and dahlias, so white—and fragrant!—beneath the gibbous moon. Mirie it is.


Related Posts

Paying Attention

The Summer’s Final Mass

Summer Knowledge

The Spirituality of Running: A Meditation for the Olympiad

Jim Friedrich and Mike Riebs, Santa Monica Mountains, 1961

Jim Friedrich and Mike Riebs, Santa Monica Mountains, 1961

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith… who endured…so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3)

Even the youthful may faint and grow weary, 
even the fittest may stumble and fall,
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and never faint. (Isaiah 40:30-31)

The perpetual contest between weariness and perseverance is familiar to every athlete, and every saint. You’re going to get tired. You’re going to get discouraged. You may faint and fall. But keep your eyes on the prize, hold on. On both good days and bad, you’ve got to put in the work, “lay aside every weight,” surrender to a power beyond your solitary will, and stay in the flow.

Over the coming weeks, we will see Olympic athletes do extraordinary things with their bodies, minds and hearts. Some of us will be inspired by their example to get in shape and pursue a goal, to test the limits of our own embodied existence. Others will remain passive spectators, admiring the exceptional gifts of the Olympians with no illusions of doing likewise.

Is it not the same with the saints? Their exceptional feats of faith, hope and love seem so far beyond us that we dismiss our own capacities for discipleship and transformation. But the saints want to inspire, not intimidate us. They are a cloud of witnesses cheering us on to become our truest selves. When poet William Stafford says, “Ask me if what I have done is my life,”[i] we hope the answer will be yes.

In the Divine Comedy, Virgil invites Dante to make the immense and arduous journey into God. The younger poet demurs. “I am not Aeneas,” he says. “I am not Paul.” But he sets out anyway, and in the end discovers he needs to be no one but himself. “Per ch’io te sovra te corono e mitrio,” Virgil says when they part. I crown and mitre you lord over yourself.[ii]

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a great pole vaulter. I loved the sudden ascent from the runway, feet swinging into the sky, the joyful clearance over the bar, the happy fall back to earth. I aspired to emulate world record holder Bob Gutowski, and for two years in college competed under his coach, Payton Jordan. But I lacked the necessary speed and strength to master the event, and gave it up before my 20th birthday.

I had thought I was a pole vaulter, but would come to discover that I was actually a distance runner. I had run cross-country and the mile in high school, thinking it would be good conditioning for my “real” event. But it wasn’t until my thirties that I finally embraced running as my athletic vocation.

I love the details of training, measuring daily progress as I increase the load and intensity of my runs. I love the mental challenge of racing, the ceaseless negotiation between desire and pain. I love the sense of aliveness that can follow the most exhausting workouts. But most of all I love the poetry of bodily motion, the primal elation of loping unhindered through space, dancing with earth and sky.

Sometimes you get into “the zone” and feel you could run forever. But that feeling is the fruit of weeks and months of training. As the Bible says,

Endure trials for the sake of discipline. Sure, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet. (Heb. 12:7, 11-12)

St. Paul, clearly a track and field fan, knew the amount of work required to get into shape and win the race. “Every athlete concentrates completely on training,” he wrote. “I punish my body and bring it under control.” (I Cor. 9:25, 27). In other words, no pain, no gain.

That doesn’t mean not to back off and be gentle when your body needs to rest and recover. My first two marathon attempts ended with training injuries from increasing my mileage too quickly, before my body was ready. Don’t forget to keep your Sabbath days!

With a more gradual buildup (and better shoes) I stayed healthy for my next two attempts. Here are a couple of excerpts from my Los Angeles training log in 1985, when I was doing 50-60 mile weeks:

9 miles fartlek [alternating fast/slow in a continuous run] in Griffith Park. Tired, no strength, but hung in there with endurance. Instead of power on speed bursts, went for quick rhythm. On hard reps up “Merry-Go-Round hill,” faced oxygen debt pain and tried to “love” it, absorb it as my own. Is it better to go hard only when fresh and sharp, or to push through the flat periods without a full recovery? (3/22/85)

That was a tough day.

 Intense speed work on the track. Fast times. Finally have reached new strength and speed level. Recovery jogs were at higher speed. I kept wanting more work! (4/02/85)

 That was an exhilarating day.

On the tough days, the questions multiply. Why am I putting myself through this? Am I delusional about my potential for improvement? Can my body take it? What’s the point?

When the questions pounce, you need the will to embrace and accept the pain. Hello, brother pain, how nice to see you again. Shall we take a run together? You also need a capacity for self-denial. Lay aside every weight. Great runners learn to let go, to trust that the pain is bearable, to hold nothing back, to surrender to that elusive, transcendent thing that takes over when we reach our limit.

Roger Bannister, who collapsed after he broke the 4-minute mile barrier in 1954, said that “the man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win.”

Another great miler, 1960 Olympic 1500 meter champion Herb Elliott, received the same lesson from his coach, Percy Cerutty, who thought that running uphill on sand dunes until you couldn’t take another step was an ideal form of training. Cerutty told Elliott, who never lost a race, that “great runners must learn to die.”

Seen in this way, athletics is not just a metaphor for spirituality, but a plunge into the deepest sources of the self. “Learning to die” is the operation of a mysticism where subjectivity is transcended and absorbed into a greater whole. This kind of ecstasy has always been hard to describe since, as Maurice Blanchot suggests, “its decisive trait is that the one who experiences is no longer there when he experiences it.”[iii] The athletes who “disappear” into the Zone or the Flow for a few fleeting moments may struggle to put language to it, but they know something extraordinary has happened that was not of their own making.

What we do with our bodies manifests and expresses inner states, the sacred ground of our being. But bodily practices can also induce inner states. How we move, how we sit, how we breathe, can all make a difference in our spiritual life. Inner and outer are intertwined and interactive. We pray in, with, through our bodies.

“Each bodily act, when purposefully carried out under the control of the Spirit, is prayer. Such bodily acts include eating, sleeping, working, recreating, and posture.”[iv]

Running is a purposive prayer practice for me. I was never an elite runner (nor will I ever be a saint!). But the body I run with is my body, inscribed with the history of my own heart, and “when I run, I can feel God’s pleasure.”[v]

While training for the Boston Marathon at age forty, I took a run down the grassy median of San Vicente Boulevard in Santa Monica, a popular running spot. I saw Johnny Gray, American record holder for 800 meters and four-time-Olympian, stepping onto the path just ahead of me, and for the next two miles I tried to keep pace with him, just to see what it felt like. He appeared to be jogging, with an effortless, graceful stride. I, on the other hand, was working hard to keep up. But for that little while, following in Gray’s footsteps, I felt my own best runner wanting to emerge.

Finishing the California Marathon, December 1984

Finishing the California Marathon, December 1984

An old Anglican prayer asks God to “give us grace…to follow daily in the blessed steps of [Jesus’] most holy life.” What more can we ask of our stories, but to follow daily the blessed steps as best we can, bringing the flawed and glorious dispositions of our embodied selves into the living of our days?

Rainer Maria Rilke puts this perfectly in his poem, “I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.”[vi] It could be the runner’s prayer.

I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear
without my contriving.
If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back …









[i] William Stafford, “Ask Me,” The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1998), 56

[ii] Inferno ii, 32; Purgatorio xxvii, 142

[iii] q. in Kevin Hart, “The Experience of Nonexperience,” in Mystics: Presence and Aporia, ed. Michael Kessler & Christian Sheppard (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 197

[iv] Herbert Slade, Exploration into Contemplative Prayer (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1975), 21. Slade’s groundbreaking book had a great influence on both my praying and my running.

[v] 1924 Olympic 400 meter champion Eric Liddell narrates this line during his race in the film Chariots of Fire (1981)

[vi] trans. Anita Barrows & Joanna Macy: http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/blog/2011/01/14/rainer-maria-rilke-i-believe-in-all-that-has-never-yet-been-spoken/