KANSAS CITY - Brewer and Shipley lived in Los Angeles for three years,
roughly 1965 to 1968. They hated it. They hated it so much they
haven't mellowed the hate with distance and sweet nostalgia. Though
they now live in an enviable bucolic paradise, the countryside near Kansas
City, Missouri, they're not really happy - possibly because they know Los
Angeles - or something equally anathemic - still exists, and they still have
to wander close to it occasionally.
1965 must have been rough on them. It was the first flowering of
the Golden West Coast rock; Los Angeles was home for the Byrds, Buffalo
Springfield, Mamas and Papas, the Whiskey and the Trip. Two stray
folkies, Mike Brewer from Oklahoma and Tom Shipley from Ohio, found little
success but some solace in each other's company. Acoustic guitars just
weren't in demand.
Tom: "I didn't live in L.A., I existed there for three years."
Mike: "It's all Disneyland in L.A. I can't
separate the Disneyland in Orange County from Santa Monica or Mt.
Washington. All fake flowers, painted green grass, right down to the
personalities of the people who you deal with." They lived in the Mt.
Washington area of Los Angeles, a hilly clump north of L.A., but just south
of Pasadena that is and was populated with Spanish Americans and long-haired
freaks. Each L.A. remembrance prompts another bitter one: "I couldn't
drive to the grocery store without being stopped by the police. For no
But that was six years ago and they don't live there now. They live on
these forty beautiful acres; they got away from it all.
Their houses are makeshift - small, unfrilled. Not old enough or solid
enough to have character. Inside are warmth sparse decoration,
brightly painted walls. Friendly but permanent; no one has taken the
time to really make curtains, just casual tosses of fabric. Outside a
pastorally splendid harkening to the old days, isolated and peaceful.
It doesn't really make any difference.
"We feel estranged from this environment. We're seldom here. If
we had a recording studio...." But there is no studio in Kansas
City; they have to go to San Francisco, a city only slightly more palatable
to them than Los Angeles.
Mike: "First you have a home base. This used to be home base, but
you've got to have time to think about it. In a hotel in Philadelphia
with horns blaring outside, you just want out. Out is peace of mind.
When you're a kid you're happy; before you know anything you're happy.
I know too much. We've seen too much."
So their home isn't a home. It's a refuge where they find sanctuary
all too seldom, because they're On the Road All the Time, and they hate that
Mike: "I love making music and performing, but it's getting so hard being
able to do that anymore. Music used to be fun, a festive occasion.
Nine times out of ten there's horrible violence at the concert."
Tom: "At one concert we did with Black Sabbath the kids in the balcony
threw exploding firecrackers into the audience. But the only thing
that enrages reporters, and parents is dope smoking or girls dancing without
their blouses. Those two things represent something wrong."
gulps of frustration and anger as if cities, politics, pollution, violence
are all personal affronts, personal threats. They worry about so much.
Sandy, Mike's wife talks slowly but emphatically of a power plant
endangering Black Mesa, an area sacred to the Indians. Her voice,
still slightly Oklahoman: "I'm not even a registered voter. Irene
(Tom's wife) is a registered voter. She writes to her congressman.
He sends her nice letters." When they moved to their 40 acres, the
city tore up their road to lay sewer, dammed a stream that fed their lake;
tourists now drive around the land and suburban homes are encroaching where
there was once only farmland. All evidence of personal danger and
ecologically unsound progress.
"We're just trying to find alternative situations," Tom says.
"You could just come up with some fantasies about sailing away to the
islands, but that doesn't mean much. We've got to find some private
time to find alternatives."
"Our songs are reflections, says Shipley. We're just walking around
holding up a mirror to all this stuff. The mirror is feeling a lot of
strain right now, very bizarre images. I don't know if I can find
alternatives that would be good for someone else, but you can write about
how bad it is for only so long; you're just corroborating the scene."
Mike: "I'm heartbroken because I look around me and I see pain and agony and
Tom: "When I see happy people I don't understand. How can they see
something happen to people who are supposed to be their brothers and look at
it with the disinterest of a TV show?"
Sitting around a kitchen table, Tom is the entertainer, the fast talker,
gesticulating with a pair of the world's most beautiful hands, punctuating
speech with grins, frowns; he can make a hundred different facial
inflections without ever seeming "animated." Mike is serious and quiet
and withdrawn; even knowing that worries him.
Through they differ in manner, their conversation is virtually
interchangeable, two friends who've known each other so long their opinions,
if not their personalities, overlap. In 1965 Mike arrived in Los
Angeles as part of a group, Mastin and Brewer, but that didn't work out,
neither did the record they made for Columbia - never released. Mike
and his brother Keith became Brewer & Brewer, re-cut the same thing for
Columbia, still nothing.
Mike, minus Keith, landed a contract as a songwriter for one of A&M's
publishing companies, and when Tom arrived in L.A. he got the same deal at
the same place. Their friendship served as a small protection against
the pressure of the L.A. music biz; they started writing songs together.
"A guy in the publishing company once said he'd rather we write ten mediocre
songs in one week instead of one good one," Mike recalls with no small
amount of anger. They wrote and wrote and a few of the songs were
recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Poor, Noel Harrison, Glen
Yarborough, H.P. Lovecraft. "A&M had a hard time finding people to
record our songs because they were so stylized, so we did it ourselves."
Their first album, appropriately titled Down In L.A., took a long
time to finish. Though Mike and Tom consider it their "Los Angeles"
album, the songs on it are more about women and love and the possible
Since they were writing and recording together, it made a small amount of
sense to perform together. Their first engagement as a duo was in
Kansas City at the Vanguard. Prophetic. It was a club operated
by friends Stan Plesser and Dan Moriarty. More prophecy.
They finally finished the album. And finished with L.A. at the same
time. And A&M. All this time no one from A&M ever saw them work,
even at the Troubadour. "Zero."
They sold all of their L.A. possessions except the precious few. Mike
went to Oklahoma to visit relatives while Tom loaded his wife Irene,
daughters Deborah and Lisa and one orange cat into the old green Volvo and
went off to spend a month on a Hopi Indian reservation. "It was the
happiest time of my life, knowing that I didn't have anything except what
was in that car."
The idyll was brief. They had only two or three bookings, after which
they faced nothing, nothing. No record company, no concerts, no home.
Even one of the bookings was cancelled.
Somewhere in Ohio they got a call from Mort and Stan, who were still in
Kansas City. They had an idea, about forming a company that would do
everything - manage, book, publicize, and do it for friends. "You have
to do everything possible, yourself to get anything done at all," explains
Tom. "Everybody was fed up with having to use all those other people
to get things done. Never got done". The company would be called
Good Karma, which in 1968 was an unhackneyed affirmation of good will and
intentions. Mike and Tom came to Kansas City, because that was to be
the headquarters - a red and white house / office on Main Street - and soon
the company was enlarged by Paul and Gary Pertersen on staff, Danny Cox and
Ted Anderson on the artist roster. Frank Polte, former Quicksilver
manager, moved from San Francisco this year to manage the Cowtown Hall, a
new K.C. concert hall.
In early 1969 Mike and Tom settled into Good Karma and their 40 acres,
equipped with three houses (one each plus one for a caretaker), a barn and
garage, a private lake with encircling road, two ancient pumps and
foundations of houses, that were there when Jesse James raided the
countryside. A railroad track runs behind one of the houses.
The move to Good Karma also got them a new career - college bookings - and a
new label, Buddah. They started recording Weeds, their
"transition" album, transition from L.A. to K.C. It was recorded in
Los Angeles and San Francisco and was produced by Nick
("Nicky Gravy" on their liner). Weeds had Michael Bloomfield,
Mark Naftalin, Red Rhodes, John Kahn, Richard Greene and Nicky Hopkins.
Despite them, the album didn't become the darling of the name-conscious
Tarkio was their "road" album, done at Wally Heider's in San
Francisco, again with Gravenites, but midway through the album Janis Joplin
dies and "Nick just fell apart." Tarkio was completed under
some stress, but it turned out to be their first taste of real fame and
fortune. Jerry Garcia was on Tarkio playing pedal steel, so
were Naftalin and Danny Cox and other friends. It was Mike and Tom's
most political, most restless, most country album, and from it came "One
Toke Over The Line," that magical measure of success, a hit single.
"We had a healthy curiosity about that when the record company decide to
release it," Tom recalls. "Will they stand for this? Will they
Radio did stand for it, of course. It reached the heady upper regions
of the top single charts and got Mike and Tom misquoted in stories about the
FCC anti-drug lyrics ruling, which affected " One Toke" airplay and sales
hardly at all.
Their fourth album, unfinished, is the first they've produced themselves.
"It's a little less country than the others," explaining the absence of
pedal steel. They're using John Kahn and Naftalin again, Spencer
Dryden on drums. Bloomfield did some guitar work on a song, the
possible title song, "Shake Off The Demons," but that version was redone and
Bloomfield didn't make it for the re-do. They've re-recorded almost
every song on this one. "We tried overdubbing, but that just won't
happen naturally." They get to take a lot of time with this one, no
schedules, no we-need-it-tomorrow pressure from Kama Sutra. Hit albums
buy time from future albums.
Hit singles also buy big concerts, like their recent sold-out week at the
Bitter End in New York. Tom: "We should have been .... we should have
been ecstatic, there were lines around the block, and all we could
think of was how terrible we felt to be in New York." He shrugs with
resignation and disbelief.
Tom: "I want to make a bumper sticker that says 'EVOLVE NOW.' Our
motto for sure. Evolve now. Or stay like them."