Cliff Eberhardt and the human condition

Cliff Eberhardt

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 31, 2003) – Song titles like “Every Time You Break My Heart,” “Merry-Go-Sorry,” “Love Slips Away,” “Whenever I Sing the Blues,” “Will You Ever Love Again,” and “Never Fall in Love” on “School for Love,” Cliff Eberhardt’s latest album, suggest that things haven’t been going so well for the Northampton-based singer-songwriter lately.

Yet Eberhardt scoffs at the idea that anyone can read any direct autobiographical connection between the theme of his new songs and real life.

“I don’t look at things as happy or sad -- I write songs about people, human conditions,” said Eberhardt -- who performs on Saturday night at 8 at the Common Grounds Coffee House in Pittsfield -- in a phone interview earlier this week.

“There are very few songs on this album that don’t have hope in them for love to survive or conquer,” said Eberhardt. “Most are very philosophical about ups and downs.”

Still, Eberhardt admits that his songs tend toward the more sober side of the street. “There are people who write funny songs,” he said. “It’s not something I do.”

But as anyone who has ever seen Eberhardt perform knows, he leavens the sobriety of his material with a witty, almost comical stage presence.

“I find life to be hysterical,” said Eberhardt. “When you tell the truth about something, it’s usually hysterical. People ask me how I got so funny. I say I just tell the truth, that things are really stupid. All you have to do is drive around. It’s pretty funny out there. Just read the newspaper -- there’s so many funny things.

“When I write, the ironies come out sadder than when I speak them on stage. There’s usually a lot of tongue in cheek in a lot of the sad songs, where I’m having the last laugh.”

In fact, Eberhardt has much to be happy about. He was almost killed three years ago when his car was smashed into by “a drunk, off-duty cop” who fell asleep at the wheel and ran a red light. Eberhardt spent a night in the hospital, but didn’t miss a gig. Only recently did he finally have surgery to relieve the injuries that left him with severe back pain for the last three years.

“I toured just as much through the pain and just gritted my teeth,” said Eberhardt. “I played the day after the accident. It taught me a lot about things I was pissed off about in my life. It made other stuff disappear. Which is I think what ‘School for Love’ was about -- a retrospective, looking back.

“When you almost lose your life…. and at the same time my mom was dying… it was a pretty huge part of my life. So all those songs that seem to be about love are also about not giving up on living. That anything’s worth fighting for.”

Eberhardt, who lives in Northampton, grew up outside Philadelphia and began performing with his brother when he was 15. By 1978, he had moved to New York, where the folk-club scene was thriving and where he first shared stages with the likes of John Gorka, Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega, Lucy Kaplansky, Steve Forbert and the Roches.

Throughout the ‘80s, Eberhardt gigged steadily, playing his own shows and backing Richie Havens and Melanie on guitar when he wasn’t earning a living driving a taxi. If his voice is instantly familiar, it could well be because you heard it during those years when Eberhardt sang advertising jingles for Coke, Miller Beer and Chevrolet’s “Heartbeat of America” series.

Eberhardt, who has six albums to his credit -- including “The Long Road” (1990), “Now You Are My Home” (1993), “Mona Lisa Café” (1995), “12 Songs of Good and Evil” (1997), and “Borders” (1999) – sees a definite change in the way up-and-coming singer-songwriters approach their craft as compared with those of his generation.

“Most of the people I came up with had been writing for ten to fifteen years before they got a record deal,” said Eberhardt, whose melodic writing style is equally informed by the blues, rock-era songwriters like James Taylor and Randy Newman, and classic pop songwriters like Cole Porter and the Gershwins.

“You couldn’t afford to record an album back then, and nobody put out their own records. Now everyone can put out a record, and a lot of them are not good.

“You go to an open mike, and everyone has a record out. I teach forty people in a songwriting workshop, and everyone already has a CD. I worked hard to get my record deal -- that was like my graduation. I’m not encouraged by much of what I hear.

“Also I don’t get the sense that they listen to other people’s music. You go to John Gorka’s or Cheryl Wheeler’s house. it’s full of music: show tunes, opera, everything. The great writers are people who love music. I still go hear music every week. But I never see singer-songwriters in the audience. It’s amazing.”

Eberhardt’s post-surgical recuperation imposed upon him his first vacation in 20 years. “It was pretty interesting to be at my house and be like a homebody,” he said. “I loved it.”

But for the most part, the road is Eberhardt’s home. “Being on the road is very rewarding but very hard,” he said. “You end up having to worry about a lot of details that you don’t when you’re home. It’s said that people on the road live two weeks in a day. You hear all these stories about missing a flight, losing a bag, mixed up arrangements for the rental car. There’s always something.

“It’s life blown up, the best of the best and the worst of the worst. But as Cheryl Wheeler says, who else gets to go to work and have people applaud when you walk in?

“But it takes a certain kind of person to do it, and most of them are insecure, artistic types.”

The Common Grounds Coffee House is located at the First United Methodist Church, 55 Fenn St., Pittsfield. Call (413) 499-0866 for reservations.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 31, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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