In which the author interviews the composer of “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning” about his new record Yonkers NY, his brother Jon Voight, his other brother who can predict when volcanoes will erupt, and the Troggs.
Washington City Paper: What’s the difference between Yonkers, NY and New York City?
To me, they’re very similar. They’ve got the same energy. Yonkers is more of a struggling town, but New York has that same energy.
I thought Yonkers was an idyllic dreamland, nestled far from Manhattan’s hustle and bustle. [The author is thinking of Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker, set in turn-of-the-century Yonkers. The author starred in a junior-high school production of this comedy, which does present Yonkers idyllically, in 1989.]
No, you got the wrong idea. Yonkers is more like Brooklyn when the Brooklyn Dodgers were the underdog. I was a closet Dodger fan. Most people were Yankee fans. It was an underdog town. Poor folks struggling to get someplace. A lot of energy. I lived down by the carpet factory…[it was an] underground, cool, passionate town. An “us against them” town.
Why revisit Yonkers in your music?
I don’t make decisions on what I revisit and what I don’t. I am a stream of consciousness writer…I was in the middle of recording another album. I picked up the guitar and “Charcoal Sky” came out. I revisited going to the station with my dad on a Monday. The song wrote itself in a few minutes. I loved it. The next day I picked up the guitar and a song about my brother Barry come out…before you know it, within a week I’d written…Within a week I’d written all these songs about Yonkers. It wasn’t a planned thing.
Was your childhood a more positive time?
There was no rock ‘n’ roll back when I was growing up, but I loved race records. There was no country music, but I stayed up late listening to it. That was the energy I felt. Us against them. That’s how it is now for me….That Yonkers spirit is with me now wherever I go.
You spent over a decade as a professional gambler. Is hustling in that world much different from hustling music?
If you’re a good gambler, you’re looking for opportunities—-good, realistic opportunites to make your score. If you’re a good gambler, you work very hard to know more than the next guy. If you’re a card counter, you never want to miss a count. [Mr. Taylor discusses some particulars of his post—”Wild Thing” gambling career with your awestruck correspondent, included being banned from Atlantic City casinos for card counting and an apprenticeship with a master horse handicapper. Memorable observation: “With horserace handicapping, I ‘m very good at knowing what I’m dumb at.”]
Now, I’m a passionate guy with music…[and] there is a similarity. When I was first in the music business and I wanted to play a song that gave me a chill when I wrote it, I was a a nobody from Yonkers.
The publisher wouldn’t see me. Finally I went to his office and just sat there. The secretary said, “What are you doing?” I waited all day…[but] I got a song placed…It was that passion, that energy, that discipline.
Do you still gamble?
I totally gave up gambling in 1996. When I was writing “Angel of the Morning” and “Wild Thing,” I was making one or two bets every day. I could write songs and bet horses and neither interfered with the other. I had plenty of time to do each well…[but] I was being drawn back to the racetracks of New York. That stopped me in the ’70s from doing a fair thing for the record company like John Prine, or Townes Van Sant. I was doing it halfway. I gave up horses and started doing it all the way.
Is your brother performing with you on this tour?
It’s a wonderful thing with Jon. He’s having a good time reliving that period of time with me. Jon always remembered the first song I ever wrote, and its impact on the family.
What song was it?
“Faded Blue”..he would always sing it to me. Two or three years ago, he was in the audience and sang as much as he remembered which was quite a lot of it. I love when he’s around to get him onstage…he’ll kibbitz with me.
There’s no tension?
Whenever you have different philosophies on stuff…he has his certain political bent. [Though he found fame playing a gay hustler in Midnight Cowboy, the only X-rated film to win an Oscar, Voight is a staunch conservative.] He’s passionate. We both grew up in a conservative environment.
What’s your favorite version of “Wild Thing?”
I’ve heard so many. The Troggs record is brilliant. If you like early rock ‘n’ roll, and the energy—-if you like the underground of rock ‘n’ roll, and Lou Reed and all those things—-when you hear the Troggs record, that was the beginning of all those things. The Troggs record captures the feeling of my demo.
Your demo was that minimal?
My demo is just like the Troggs record. The engineer whistled! I love the Troggs record. The spirit of it…it’s one of the greatest recording in rock ‘n’ roll history. They did it in the last 15 minutes of a session. They just set up their amps and banged it out…and [Jimi Hendrix] fell in love with the Troggs record and started playing it. When he recorded it in Monterey…I loved it. Basically he captured the exact same energy as the record, in except he slowed it down. The X version is also major-league.
Does it bother you to write songs but not perform them?
I never felt that way, but people always ask that. You want people to capture the feeling of your songs. You worried that something will be overproduced, especially in the 1960s when producers were coming from Broadway to rock ‘n’ roll. You were always afraid that someone would ruin it.
I was trying to be a spirit that would lead to wonderful things. I was writing songs—-R&B things that I didn’t think my voice was the one to sing it. “Angel of the Morning”.…I can feel that passion, but I’m not a girl. Janis Joplin and Dusty Springfield interpret my songs. That was exactly what I wanted.
Chip Taylor performs at the Birchmere on Dec. 13.