“Come on, on up!” he shouted out, in a kind of ringmaster’s drawl.
I will call him Frazier from now on, as that is how I knew him. Yesterday, 2 June 2012, Frazier died of complications from illness related to his liver, at the age of 70, in a hospital near where he lived north of Toronto, Canada. Born in Los Angeles, Frazier had moved to Canada in the early 1970s to escape and recover from the second part of his remarkably interesting career, and to return to a path he had set out on in his first short career.
I will try to make sense of all of that in as few words as possible as I write and recall Frazier today. I had thought of writing an obituary-like post to mark the death, but this is my blog, and it would not be here if not for some of the influence Frazier had on my life. I already wrote a newspaper story in the International Herald Tribune about Frazier Mohawk 15 years ago, covering many aspects of his career, so it makes more sense to try to share some of my experiences and tell his story at the same time, and perhaps his many friends around the world will appreciate and compare with their own experiences.In a nutshell, before I return to that fateful day in the mid-seventies, Frazier had a colorful life from the beginning, practically, attending Aldous Huxley and Jiddu Krishnamurti’s experimental Happy Valley school, buying a circus animal menagerie as a teenager, producing a television show called Chucko the Clown, also as a teenager, and producing a music program on TV, traveling through Paris and the south of France where he lived briefly in Nice and tried his hand at press photography. Returned to the U.S., worked with the DJ Bob Eubanks, ended up handling PR for the Beatles’ Hollywood Bowl show in 1964; went on to become a music producer, from a couple of tracks on the first Paul Butterfield Blues Band album to full albums by Kaleidoscope, the Holy Modal Rounders (one song ended up on the Easy Rider soundtrack), Nico (Marble Index), “Spider” John Koerner on Running, Jumping, Standing Still, and many other albums and bands of the 1960s and early 1970s. And he was the soundman for the Byrds on tour and did their sound at the Monterrey Pop festival….
One of his biggest talents, however, was spotting talent. Sniffing it out, putting people together and helping the plant grow. (We’ll get back to this farmer talent in a moment.) The most famous of these things was Frazier’s role in putting together the Buffalo Springfield, one of the original and most influential folk rock bands. He was friends with Stephen Stills, and the story went that he was driving along with Stills in LA and telling him that he would help him put together his dream group, and asked who he wanted in it. One of the people Stills said was this crazy Canadian who drove a hearse, named Neil Young. And lo-and-behold, a hearse pulls up near them and Frazier said, “Is that your friend over there?” And it was.
Frazier put up the band at his home while they rehearsed, and he also had his hand in naming it when they saw a sign on a steamroller parked outside Frazier’s house, for the company that made the steamroller: Buffalo Springfield.
Frazier had also, by the way, found an ad in Variety newspaper in which a television production company announced it was looking for musicians to take part in a television series about a crazy young pop music band. So Frazier told his friends Stills and Mike Nesmith to go along for the audition. It was for The Monkees, and yes, Nesmith got the job. Stills, unfortunately, had bad teeth and did not.
Frazier had also spotted Jackson Browne when he was still a young teenager, and he helped out on his early career. Browne was part of the Paxton Lodge experiment in producing music – and taking lots of drugs – that Frazier persuaded Jac Holzman, the founder and president of Elektra Records, to fund while they put together albums in the seclusion of the woods of Northern California. A lot more madness than music came out of it, but one album, Running, Jumping, Standing Still would become a classic.
Frazier was also the consummate hippie. He had lived in Haight Asbury but more importantly and enduringly, he lived in Laurel Canyon at the height of the whole birth of the hippie and music movement. He also handled PR for Ike Turner, and I remember him telling stories about Tina Turner making eggs breakfast for him, or how he had rubbed shoulders with Jim Morrison – most of Frazier’s work had been produced for Elektra Records under Holzman. Frazier’s house in Laurel Canyon was in the same area, in fact, of the Sharon Tate murders by Charles Manson.
Frazier once told me that the two people he looked up to most in life, his mentors, he called them, were Holzman and Paul Rothchild, the famous producer at Elektra of The Doors and other bands. It was thanks to Frazier that I would eventually meet Holzman myself, first when I wrote a story about him, and as recently as last year when I interviewed him in his offices at Warner Music for my documentary film about open mics.
I was also in touch with Holzman for my 1997 story about Frazier, wherein Frazier spoke about life as being a spiral. He was then about the age I am now, and not only can I attest to his life being a spiral, but my own has ended up that way. Frazier soon got bummed out by the music business and especially all the drugs and wackiness that surrounded it, and that he wholehearted partook of. So he moved to Canada where he had some friends, and decided to come back down to earth.
In fact, he decided to return to his original roots and love of the circus. He first began the company called Rent-a-Fool, that hired out clowns, jugglers, ventriloquists and other circus acts to perform in shopping malls, corporate events and elsewhere. Then, a natural entrepreneur, he decided to create a circus called Puck’s Canadian Travelling Circus. He had see the small, family-run, one-ring circuses of Europe when he had traveled there in the early 1960s, and although he was brought up in the tradition of the massive American shows – his godmother was a publicist, and his godfather the ringmaster, for the Ringling circus – he had a dream to introduce the small, family-like, one-ring traveling show to Canada.
But his dream was even bigger than that, and it would actually be a precursor to what later became the most successful circus in the world, also Canadian, the Cirque du Soleil. He wanted a young, artistic, hippie cool circus representing the values, colors and images of the day. Puck’s was born in 1976. That brings us back around to my meeting. After the face appeared in the window, Tony and I went upstairs to find Frazier with a group of rock n roll looking guys sitting around a wooden table. He offered us a cappuccino on his Pavoni machine, and being a coffee addict already, I happily accepted.
“So tell me about yourself,” said Frazier to me. Tony had introduced me as another performer. “What do you do?”
“I juggle,” I said.
“And so does Tony!” he said. “Do you do anything else?”
“I ride a unicycle.”
“And so does Tony!” he said. “Do you do anything else?”
I thought he was poking fun at me. Frazier had an unusual, enthusiastic, smiling and kind of otherworldly way of talking, and sometimes it was difficult to tell exactly where he was coming from – until you did.
“I do ventriloquism,” I said.
“And so does Tony!!!!”
I nodded, looked at Tony. Then Frazier said:
“You’re an act! The Wonder Brothers are born!”
I looked back at Tony. We had known each other since we were about nine years old, and I had started him on ventriloquism, and we had performed together on and off for years, in fact, but never as a circus act, as such.
“How would you like to join the circus?” said Frazier.
I had run away from home and school the previous year before returning and barely scraping back through, and I was in my final year of high school, but with ambitions to make it in show business. I jumped on the opportunity. Mark Parr, Frazier’s co-founder of the circus, eventually wrote a letter to my high school asking for permission for me to get out early in order to take part in a life-enriching, career forming experience of working in a traveling circus. It worked, and I was deeply indebted.Not for long, however. Having my heart, imagination and eyes filled with the glamor and glitz of the adventure of working in a traveling circus at age 18 – I did love the performing – I was in for a huge shock about the reality of the job. It entailed cleaning up elephant dung, hammering in stakes in the pavement to put up the tent, relatively bad sleeping quarters, and maintaining a lifestyle and feeding schedule very far from that with which I had been raised.
In fact, the early months of the circus were a rough time for all, and both Tony and I were too weak to hack it. Tony dropped out first, and I then soon dropped out myself. I thought the circus itself was doomed, but that was to underestimate both Frazier and Mark. Frazier realized that his dream of using inexperienced young beginners was not going to work well, either, and he ended up hiring some more traditional, experienced acts. The circus went on to thrive for some five or more seasons, before I suppose the costs went up and the government grants went down, and the whole thing was apparently too wearing to be worth it. But he had created a major undertaking, and left his mark on the Canadian circus tradition, had Frazier – and Mark.
They would eventually move to a farm outside Toronto where Frazier would live out his hippie-like dream of living off the land, but also holding circus shows at the farm. Thus was born Puck’s Farm, which would end up in Schomberg, about an hour north of Toronto, and would become a mainstay attraction for school children to go and learn about farming, farm animals AND circus.
If it looks as if the spiral was coming together, well, the last link was soon to be made. Frazier had a longtime working hand on the farm named Anthony d’Atri, who had begun working there as a teenager. He played guitar and sang in his off time, and eventually decided he wanted to record himself with a little portable recorder. When Frazier caught sight of this, he said it was ridiculous and if Anthony wanted to record, they had better do it properly. So they built a recording studio in the barn.
This was in the early 1990s, and I want to point out here for a moment, that when I met Frazier, so sick of the music business had he become that he could not listen to music anymore, did not want to talk about music, did not want to hear any music. I recall in 1976 at one point I had stayed at the house on Madison as I made a visit from Ottawa to rehearse with Tony. I had brought my guitar and wanted to play a song for Frazier, who flatly refused to hear it.
He admitted that he had been burned out by the music business and never wanted to hear anything again. But by the early 90s, things were coming around again, he built the studio, and suddenly, Frazier was back in the music business with one of the best recording studios in the Toronto region, with analog equipment at the height of the digital revolution, but when people began turning back to analog.
Soon, he was starting up a record label called National Treasures, gaining government grants, and basically doing what he had done with the circus, but now it was with music, and what he had done in the 60s – but this time without the excess, and in his own home environment. He recorded many of the same old musicians – like the Holy Modal Rounders – and even had visits from people like Denny Doherty of the Mama’s & the Papas (I heard an amazing jamming session Doherty did in the studio testing a new mic), and many new young groups in Canada and the U.S.
I may have quit the circus, but after a brief period in which I felt anger and disillusion, Frazier and I became lifelong friends. In the early days, he would provide me with work as an actor, unicyclist, juggler and ventriloquist through his various connections in the industry in Toronto – I became a kind of resident unicyclist at the CBC thanks to him, which helped occasionally pay for my studies through the University of Toronto, which I had returned to do after my show business career ended.
I moved to France, but we remained in touch and I spoke to him regularly on the telephone, and visited a few times over the years on my return visits to Canada.
But our last chapter of influence began in the last three and a half years and brings the spiral back to the present day and even this blog. In my early twenties I had vowed to quit all show business related things in order to concentrate fully on writing and journalism. But I never stopped playing music in my living room on my guitar, and singing, between stints of writing.
Around four years ago, when my wife was terminally ill with cancer, and then died, I began writing songs again and playing much more often. I occasionally sent mp3 recordings done with a little recorder in my living room to Frazier for his opinion. The first response via email came in typical Frazier wording: “Yur voice is sounding real good.”
In short, encouragement began coming in from a man who never gave empty praise. His encouragement eventually led to me returning to perform in public for the first time in nearly 30 years, and discovering not only that I loved doing it, but others enjoyed listening. I have been performing and writing songs non-stop since then, and in January, I began to feel out the possibility of recording an album with Frazier as producer at Puck’s Farm, and he was keen on doing it. He had praised my recordings with a band from the previous year, and wanted to work with me and the band, and bring his own musicians and mixer and engineer. It fell through, in the end, and I now regret it enormously.
Frazier was a curious mix of insight, intelligence and emotion. He could have extraordinary outbursts when things did not go the way he had hoped or wanted. And he always seemed to be earning only just enough money to maintain his particular lifestyle, but in the annals of people following their own paths – Steve Jobs comes to mind – he was a real original. His wicked sense of humor was without equal. He has been called a prankster, and that he certainly was. He knew how to come up with the great media sound or image bite to attract attention. But not far from the surface it was clear he loved life, and spread that enthusiasm – which I think is what made him so appealing to the young, and his many close friends.
Oh, and to come right round full circle, I must point out that the meeting we had on that day on Madison in Toronto had, in fact, in some way been preordained by Frazier himself. As a boy I had been a huge fan of the Monkees, and my favorite Monkee was Mike Nesmith. My mother had created a Mike Nesmith hat and hairpiece for me, and I wore the same double-breasted shirts they wore. More importantly, I started playing guitar and writing songs because of them, and singing. And I bought a ventriloquist’s dummy and started performing with it, because they had a dummy in their house. I bought a unicycle eventually because they had a film clip in which they rode those too, although with training wheels. In short, my whole show business career was thanks to Mike Nesmith and the Monkees, and had Frazier never sent Nesmith to that audition, I would never have ended up on his front step and being hired for his circus a decade later. Life is, indeed, a spiral.