The wild one returns

Former pro golfer Chip Taylor wrote "Wild Thing." On his first record in 15 years, Angelina Jolie's coolest uncle is in the midst of a genuine creative rebirth.

By Steve Kurutz

Published June 19, 2000 4:09PM (EDT)

Sitting in my apartment listening to Chip Taylor's voice, as deep and murky as an oil well, I imagine his face as creased and weathered; one of those gritty, lived-in mugs that reads like a crime novel. I imagine that the lusty inspiration for his most famous compositions, "Wild Thing," which sounds like the inner dialogue of a teenage boy's loins set to music, and the premarital sex anthem "Angel of the Morning," must be reflected in his darkened eyes. I imagine that each year he spent hustling and scraping -- first as a songwriter, during the Brill Building heyday, writing hits for the Hollies, Emmylou Harris and Waylon Jennings; and then as a cardsharp, hustling the casinos of Atlantic City, N.J., and Las Vegas -- must be by now clearly etched in his 60-year-old face.

I imagine all these things, but the truth is, sitting across from the singer-songwriter the morning after he's given two spirited, hometown performances at New York's Bottom Line, I'm staring into a face that's as smooth as glass. I can't find a single wrinkle. It's disheartening.

Thankfully, just like the records, his voice is still as rough as 20-grit sandpaper. As we talk about his new double album, "The London Sessions Bootleg," about getting banned from the casinos and about getting back to music after 15 years, I begin to understand why he looks so youthful.

Taylor is in the midst of a genuine creative rebirth. His new label, Trainwreck Records, is allowing him a freedom to follow his muse that he hasn't had in decades. Forty years into a career as a chart-topping country singer-songwriter, Taylor is still redefining who he is as an artist. Not bad for a guy who almost gave up music for a career as a pro golfer.

What, and let a teenager's loins go voiceless? Not a chance.

Both you and your brother (actor Jon Voight, father of Angelina Jolie) pursued careers in the arts. Were you raised in an artistic household?

My father had a flair for the arts, but he wasn't an artist. He was a pro golfer and he liked taking risks and thinking adventurously and encouraged his children to take risks. At night Jon would perform Sid Caesar routines for us in the living room; many people don't know this, but Jon has a wonderful comedic sense. And I was listening to the radio all the time. My father let me stay up late and listen to the country station out of Wheeling, W.Va. My mother was supportive of our interests, too.

When you switched from being a performer to a songwriter in the early '60s, did you feel you were making a concession and not keeping with your father's philosophy of risk-taking?

I guess I was nervous about performing, even though I did it, and I'm not sure I could've handled the touring then. I was very shy. And I didn't have any hits. So the question was, how am I going to survive? I was a good golfer and had won some junior tournaments, so I turned professional and started playing in a couple of tournaments. Then I hurt my wrist and couldn't play golf anymore. I still wanted to do music so I thought songwriting might be my best shot. Chet Atkins started to record some of my songs right off, and because of Chet's interest in my songs I was able to survive and stay in the business.

How did writing "Wild Thing" change your life?

When "Wild Thing" happened it proved I could write a hit, which was exciting, and more people wanted to hear my songs. But back in those days I never looked at it as such a big deal. Now I realize that it was a great time for songwriting and, along with Jeff Berry and Cynthia Weil and (Gerry) Goffin/(Carole) King, I was one of the guys involved, but then I was too busy trying to write another hit.

What is your favorite version of the song?

When I heard the Troggs record I felt they really got it. I didn't know if the song would be a hit, but it was exactly the way I wanted it to be done. And then Jimi Hendrix slowed it down a bit and I loved that record. I thought it was brilliant. So I had two of the greatest records of my song that I could ever have.

How financially lucrative is authoring a rock n' roll classic like "Wild Thing?"

It's lucrative. You never know, though -- for a long time "Wild Thing" didn't make that much money. The songs make you money in the catalog, but not a fortune. What makes money is radio airplay or using the song for a commercial or in a movie. That's why "Wild Thing" is such a big copyright because it's one of the most-used songs in commercials.

After several years of chart success as a songwriter, you dropped out of music altogether to become a professional gambler. Why?

During the '70s I was splitting my time between the racetracks and casinos and making records. I was the kind of artist I'd never sign to my label. I'd been having little run-ins with the Nashville divisions because they wanted to promote artists who played by their rules and I wanted to have my own band and do it my own way. Then, in 1980, I had a record that was breaking on Capitol Records. I had signed on the condition that they promise to promote this single and when the record was released it was hot right away. I knew I had a hit. Then I found out that my own record company called the radio stations and asked them to take my record off because they wanted to promote an artist that played by their rules. It killed me. I didn't want to play that game anymore and I decided I had my gambling and I could do that.

What was your game?

Blackjack. I was a card counter and I figured a way to mathematically beat the casinos.

Were you living well during that period?

Before they realized what I was doing they used to comp me. My girlfriend and I would go and stay in a suite for two weeks and drink champagne and live it up. I would try not to beat them too badly, break even. But then I'd go down the block and try to beat the brains out of the other casinos. I didn't make millions of dollars but I was a profitable blackjack player.

Why did you stop?

I ended up getting banned by every casino in Atlantic City. After a couple of years one of the casinos banned me. And then the next day I went to Bally's and, bam! I was banned. And the next day I went to another and was banned. Somehow word must have got out because within a period of a couple of weeks I was banned from every casino but the one that I hadn't gone to yet. I knew I'd get banned from that one, too, so I went there with a bunch of people and had a banning party. The New York Mafia knew I could count cards and they were good basic players so we'd bet $25 and $50, but when I signaled and put the stack up it was $500 and $1,000 a pop. Within minutes we were all banned.

Your new album contains 25 songs, seven of which were recorded in one afternoon; why do you think the album came to you so quickly?

When I gave up gambling and started touring, I didn't have a racing form in my hands every day, I had a guitar in my hands, and I just couldn't stop writing. I was on tour promoting an album and accumulating all these songs, and I decided to go into the studio and do some demos to make sure I had them together. I listened to it the next day and it reminded me of the "Last Chance" record I had out in the '70s. The band was really into it. It was a magical little session, so I decided to make it the basis of the next album.

After you recorded the electric album in London, why did you add an entire album of acoustic material recorded in New York and Nashville?

I was just going to add three or four songs and have an 11- or 12-song album and that was it. But when I came home I'd written so many more songs that I started to go into my little studio in Mamaroneck, N.Y. Often times I'd just go there with my guitar and play and sing and record all these songs I'd written. By the time I was finished I had 20-some songs and I was trying to think of what I could eliminate. But I said, "Ah, it's my own label. I don't have to answer to anybody. I can sell it cheap enough so that the fans don't get hurt and we'll give them all of it."

Is the writing/recording process usually that casual?

Well, this was just a spirit that took me and I wanted to keep with the spirit. That's the way it was for this record. In the early days, in the '70s, when I made my solo albums there was more time taken and it was more produced. With "The London Sessions," I was just trying to get an in-the-room/in-your-face kind of feeling with it.

How did you meet Lucinda Williams, who guests on your new album?

When I came back with my first record of new songs there was a record release party for me in Nashville and Lucinda was invited. I didn't know her at the time, but after the show I got off the stage and there she was. I spent a wonderful evening there talking with her. She had just got some mixes back for "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" and she asked me if I would listen to them. So the next day we went up to a studio in Nashville, got some pillows out, and lay down and listened to the record. Since then we've been real buddies and I asked her to sing on a couple of tracks on this record. There's a really easy vibe with her and I working together.

Several of London's electric songs seem to have developed a harder edge when played live. Do you have plans to re-record any of the songs for release on a future album?

Well, we've gotten very loose with those songs now. When you write songs, the more you play them the more you can find the magic in the songs. For example, I wish I'd have recorded "Same Damn Car" now because there's a different vibe going on. I recorded some demos in Scotland and we got a very good live recording of one of my shows there and I was thinking the next step would be to get some good live versions. I would like to have a live album at some point because what I love about making music now is that I'm doing it from the performer's side rather than the writer's side. You can have good shows or bad shows but I like the idea of throwing myself to the wolves, putting myself on the line and seeing what happens. I love that.

Now that you've returned to music, what do you hope to accomplish?

I'd like to be the kind of writer I think I am when I'm at my best. The kind of songwriter, like Kristofferson or Townes Van Zandt, that writes when a spirit takes them someplace and who lets things evolve. It's not from the brain. It's not too heady a process. You may say something that doesn't sound clever, but it's right and it's passionate.

Whether through songwriting or gambling, you've chosen to live by your wits alone. What kind of disposition does it take to live that lifestyle?

You have to be really smart about what you do, but you have to take risks too. You can't be afraid to go to the plate and take a swing. If you make a decision and it's wrong, OK. Next. For me, you've got to let the spirit take you. You have to let your emotion guide you and get lost in it. I have to get lost in handicapping when I'm betting on horses. I have to get lost in it to find all the little things that can happen. It's the same with a song. If you let yourself get lost and you don't know what's coming next, some magic might appear.

Steve Kurutz

Steve Kurutz is a writer in New York.

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