Featured Music: Wednesday, June27, 2002
Return to Forever

Fort Worthian Johndavid Bartlett was one of the original flower children of the ’60s — and he’s back.


International Artist was a small record label that for a brief moment in the 1960s was the epicenter of the psychedelic rock movement in America. IA’s Red Krayola, based in Houston and fronted by legendary artist and musician Mayo Thompson, and Austin’s 13th Floor Elevators, led by the charismatic Roky Erickson, were both experimenting with electronic atmospherics and non-linear songcraft way before Jerry Garcia and his Grateful Dead (born The Warlocks) discovered Ken Kesey and electric Kool-Aid. The psych bands on both coasts and in England eventually garnered all the attention, but anyone who knew anything about psychedelia — including Garcia — credited most of the bands on IA’s short roster with, if not “creating” the genre, then at least perfecting it.

Johndavid Bartlett of Fort Worth was one of IA’s non-psych folk acts who, while not interested in inverting mainstream sonics, was as dedicated as Thompson and Erickson to subverting mainstream states of mind. In the late 1960s Bartlett was recording his IA debut when the label went belly-up. He would eventually win back his masters, but at the time he was only occupied with moving on and hitting Los Angeles, where he had a record deal with A&M waiting and, uncharacteristically, dreams of a pop conversion dancing in his head. The experience must have been dreadful, because Bartlett has spent the past 30 years trying to forget how he almost lost his edge and how he had to depend on somebody other than himself to handle his music. With the way things are going now, Johndavid Bartlett — the quintessential flower child — may finally be arriving.

Bartlett has a c.d. out, and its conception was truly a result of giving the people what they want. Velvet Monkey Wrench wasn’t even an idea until Bartlett realized through an online chat room that there was a huge, chiefly European, audience for anything remotely connected with IA or Texas psychedelia. In May, he posted a message in that chat room which basically said: “I got some tapes, I’ll put a c.d. together, and I’ll do a Dutch auction on [eBay.com].” Of 50 signed copies he put up for auction, 27 sold within weeks — at $30 a pop. Bartlett now plans on licensing his self-released material to a label (he has about three more full c.d.’s in the bag), getting his stuff into some independent record stores across the state, and ... gigging. It’ll be like the Summer of Love all over again.

The ’60s have never left Bartlett. The peace-love-and-understanding vibe that permeates his older material also colors his later work. Four of the songs on Velvet Monkey Wrench were written in the 1960s or 1970, and they dutifully wear the influence of that era: they’re earnest, spirited, and a little flighty. Even recent tracks reflect an idealism specific to yesteryear. “All Over the World,” from 1991, finds Bartlett marveling at the persistence, the tenacity, of nature, rolling on gloriously while “confusions and hatreds and bigotries” cloud our perceptions. Bartlett’s delivery, rough-voiced and a bit plaintive, accentuates the love-in essence of the song. It’s pure ’60s by way of a contemporary, pro-active, aware ’90s pathos.

“When I was 18, I was a go-fer for Lightnin’ Hopkins,” Bartlett said. “I remember watching him, and how powerful that was. Well, now, I’m that old black man!” He tilted his head back and laughed. “I’m an old psych guy, man. I’m in the same place he was when I met him.”

Bartlett, like most artsy-fartsy flower children, is a free-spirited character — and note that the word “character” here is used in the sense of denoting a flamboyant personality. You should see him talk. The 50-year-old articulates his words eloquently, even grandiloquently, speaking in a voice that dips and swoons as if he were on stage in front of an audience. He swirls his hands around in front of him, working up a small windstorm before your eyes. He is clearly passionate about music, and when he’s talking about it, you get the sense that he is feeling truly alive — even as alive as when he’s playing it.

Bartlett started professionally performing folk rock in 1965, at the height of the folk movement, under the name John Bartlett. He’s lived in Houston, L.A., San Francisco, and Austin (where he currently resides with his wife of 11 years, Scotty Bartlett), and all the while he’s been dabbling in assorted forms of popular music, from acoustic folk to punk-ish rock and roll. (A side note of Bartlett’s fame: His rollicking original “Too Young to Date” was banned on L.A. radio back in ’78.)

Longtime locals might also remember Bartlett as theater director of the now-defunct Caravan of Dreams. Most everybody behind that legendary locale was part of a theater troupe out of Houston to which Bartlett had also belonged. During his tenure at the Caravan in the 1980s, Bartlett also helped produce albums by Ornette Coleman and Ronald Shannon Jackson. In 1994 he left Fort Worth for Austin, where he works as a producer for the multi-media company Media Cottage. He hasn’t worked here since, though he still visits relatives here from time to time.

Bartlett, who is also a trained chef, is mostly about music now — but that wasn’t true until Sept. 11. Up until that point, Bartlett had only been tinkering with music, not writing and recording full-heartedly or full-time. “[Sept. 11] happened, and the cooking work ran out, so I went to [Ed Wood of Media Cottage], and I saw a window there to get back into my art,” Bartlett said. Later in the conversation, he added: “When the world stopped, I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ I can do music till I’m dead and never be finished. What am I waiting for?”

What Bartlett helped start in Texas was instrumental in shaping rock ’n’ roll during its awkward twentysomething phase. Any interest in him probably finds its inspiration in nostalgia, but Bartlett is once again proving that he can be as relevant as anything on Texas radio. Music was and will remain his lifelong pursuit. He was there on the ground floor when rock was becoming what it is — and he’d be more than happy to tell you all about it.

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