Jesse Colin Young: Legendary Performer Reveals Longtime Struggles with Lyme Disease
By Ray Shasho
Exclusive Interview with Jesse Colin Young:
The Youngbloods were a psychedelic-folk rock band that mellowed millions across the globe with their musical directive for peace and brotherhood entitled “Get Together.” The song was penned by singer-songwriter Chet Powers (Dino Valenti/Quicksilver Messenger Service) and monumentally performed by Jesse Colin Young (vocals, bass, guitar), Jerry Corbitt (vocals, lead guitar), Lowell Levinger known as “Banana” (electric piano, guitar), and Joe Bauer (drums).
The group’s first two releases ‘The Youngbloods’ and ‘Earth Music’ were produced by Felix Pappalardi (Cream/Mountain). After the success of “Get Together” (1967) the band moved to San Francisco during the ‘Summer of Love,’ an ambience conforming to their lifestyles. Their debut album also generated a minor hit with “Grizzly Bear” (1967) written by Jerry Corbitt.
The Youngbloods attained greater success after “Get Together” was reissued in (1969), peaking at #5 on the Billboard’s Hot 100. After co-founder Jerry Corbitt left the band, Jesse became the principal songwriter. The Youngbloods third studio release ‘Elephant Mountain’ spawned the Jesse Colin Young penned classics … “Darkness Darkness” and “Sunlight.”
Between 1970 and ’72, a trio version of The Youngbloods released four albums … ‘Good & Dusty,’ ‘High on a Ridgetop,’ and two live recordings ‘Rock Festival’ and ‘Ride the Wind.’ The Youngbloods parted ways in 1972 as Jesse Colin Young embarked on a successful solo journey. Jesse released ‘Together’ his first solo effort since ‘Young Blood’ (1965) and ‘The Soul of a City Boy’ (1964).
In 1973, Jesse Colin Young released his critically-acclaimed and commercially successful ‘Song for Juli’ album featuring the tracks “Mornin’ Sun,” “Song for Juli,” and “Miss Hesitation.” Country fusion … jazz fusion … blues rock … Young’s musical ingenuity endured with subsequent releases… ‘Light Shine’ (1974), ‘Songbird’ (1975), ‘On the Road’ (1975), and ‘Love on the Wing’ (1976)
In 1979, Jesse closed the ‘No Nukes’ concert and movie along with Jackson Browne, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash, while performing The Youngbloods classic hit “Get Together.”
In October of 1995, the Mount Vision fire destroyed Jesse Colin Young’s home in Inverness Park, California. Over 12,000 acres burned over 4 days destroying 48 hillside homes and incurring 20-million dollars in damage, including Jesse’s Point Reyes ridgetop home in the hills overlooking Tomales Bay. Everything was destroyed except for his recording studio.
Jesse Colin Young has performed with Led Zeppelin, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to name just a few.
In 2003, legendary Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant won the Grammy for ‘Best Rock Vocal’ for his cover version of “Darkness Darkness” penned by Young.
Jesse Colin Young currently lives in Aiken, South Carolina and is recording tracks for a brand new album that will feature Julliard pianist Donald Vega and Jesse’s son Tristan. Watch for a possible release in 2015. Jesse and his wife Connie also perpetuate a Certified Organic Farm entitled ‘Jesse’s Kona Coffee’ located in the Kona district of Hawaii.
I had the incredible pleasure of chatting with Jesse Colin Young recently about … His struggles with Lyme disease…. The Youngbloods … The inception of “Get Together” …The passing of his best friend Jerry Corbitt … Supporting our Vets … Jesse’s sons in the music business … Jesse’s new album … Walking off the ‘Tonight Show with Johnny Carson’ … My infamous ‘Field of Dreams’ wish question and much-much more!
Here’s my recent interview with legendary folk-rock/ singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/ and founding member & lead vocalist with ‘The Youngbloods’ and accomplished solo artist … JESSE COLIN YOUNG.
Ray Shasho: Hey Jesse, how’s it going man, you’re in the studio?
Jesse Colin Young: “Yes I am. I like to have a studio either in the house or next to the house. I built my first one in California around 1972. The house burnt down in 1995 but the studio was down in a gulley that was really wet. The forest was just smoldering stumps and my four story house was gone but the studio survived. My godson works in there now with my son Cheyenne Young in a band called ‘Beso Negro,’ it’s like a gypsy jazz/rock band; they have a good following in the Bay area. They’ve got two really strong guitar players and singers. My godson Ethan Turner is the drummer and my son plays bass, Cheyenne plays upright electric and wash-tub bass; they both grew up together and are about two years apart. My youngest son who is just taking a break from Berklee College of Music is here working on a record with me. So yea, two bass players, I did play bass when I was in The Youngbloods but only because I had to. I really didn’t know how, we had two guitar players and we couldn’t get Felix Pappalardi to join the band. I don’t think the band was heavy enough though for Felix. So I turned into a bass player. It must be in the genes because I have two sons and a daughter that plays bass.”
Ray Shasho: Jesse, let’s talk about your personal plight with Lyme disease?
Jesse Colin Young: “The chronic Lyme sufferers of which I am one, and I would say most of the people in this country who have it are undiagnosed. The official international infectious disease doctors in the United States have taken the position that there is no chronic Lyme disease and that the treatment is three weeks of Doxycycline …and that’s it! There are those of us who have had it for years or even decades. Many of whom are really suffering and are confined to wheel chairs. Lyme disease sufferers are not getting the treatment they need. Like me, they may need a year of antibiotics and not three weeks. If they’ve had it like I did, probably for a couple of decades before it was diagnosed. It took a year of five antibiotics, some of them were antimalarial drugs, and that’s a lot different than three weeks. And that really helped to bring back my sanity and physical health.”
Ray Shasho: I believe you had told me earlier that you couldn’t completely rid yourself of the disease?
Jesse Colin Young: “That’s true … I mean that’s my truth. Dr. Richard Horowitz is leading the charge right now in New York State; but it’s so hard to find a doctor who specializes in Lyme disease. The blood tests are not very accurate and it also depends on the lab you send them to. A doctor actually has to listen to every symptom you have and that takes time … most doctors don’t have it, what do they put aside for a visit ten-fifteen minutes? We had a Lyme doctor here in South Carolina and they suspended his license, and this happens all over the country. They do that because he’s prescribing long-term aggressive and expensive treatment. One of my antibiotics cost six hundred bucks with insurance. That was an important one for a co-infection, when you’re bitten by the tick you just don’t get Lyme’s, you get other diseases with it, and you’ve kind of got to fight them all at the same time.”
“So right now… the New York legislator has passed a bill that kind of forbids whatever the oversight organization is in the state that is persecuting the Lyme doctors. It forbids them to do this. There’s a great push at the moment to get this bill on the floor of the senate. I’m not a New York state resident but I’m going to write a letter and let my voice be heard. My doctor … Dr. Richard Horowitz is in New York State and he brought this to the floor. His book that came out this past year is called ‘Why Can’t I Get Better?’ and is a definitive work on chronic Lyme, which the AMA says does not exist. I think Richard has had around Fifteen Thousand patients in upstate New York. He kind of wandered into a hotbed right out of medical school, so many of his patients had Lyme disease so he became a specialist. He’s been a great help for so many of us. Many lives and families have been destroyed by this disease. It not only makes you hurt, but it makes you crazy.”
Ray Shasho: What were some of your early symptoms that told you something was wrong?
Jesse Colin Young: “We had moved to Hawaii in 1995 after our house burnt down in California, and we had lost everything except the studio. So when I started to get kind of crazy and have anxiety and depression in that first year in Hawaii, my therapist said maybe you’d better take some medication for the anxiety and depression, so they put me on some antidepressants and nobody even thought about Lyme disease. So I took the medications until I moved here to South Carolina, and to my wife’s hometown. She went to a family funeral in Ohio and she came back with this pamphlet from one of her cousins who was an Internist working with ILADS (International Lyme And Associated Diseases Society). The pamphlet ended up in the kitchen and I opened it up one day and started reading all the symptoms and thought … Good God, this sounds like my biography … maybe I have Lyme disease? And here I had my wife’s cousin who was working at ILADS. I called her up and asked who should I see and she said Dr. Richard Horowitz. So I flew up to New York and was diagnosed with Lyme’s. Richard put me on heavy antibiotics and began to get my brain back, my thinking, and a lessening of all those anxiety and panic attacks. It was like getting my life back.”
“After I had been treated it did not show up in a Western blot which is a common blood test for Lyme disease. Mine did not show up positive until I had my first month of antibiotics. My first Western blot showed up negative. It was so small that one of my doctors said it was negative and not positive … and that’s one of the problems with diagnosing Lyme’s. Dr. Horowitz sat me down for a couple of hours and listened to my whole story. I really never talked about this in an interview before, but I think it’s really important because there are people out there who are suffering and have no idea why.”
Ray Shasho: Talk about the inception of your company Ridgetop Music.
Jesse Colin Young: “I had not been paying attention when everything went to CD’s and had not made my catalogue available on CD in the early 90’s, so my wife Connie and I started Ridgetop Music to remedy that and to also bring out the new music. We have a little place in Hawaii that we bought on our honeymoon. We’d go there and I began being influenced by Hawaiian music. I eventually made a couple of albums, one called … ‘Swept Away’ (1994) and the other entitled ‘Living in Paradise’ (2004).”
Ray Shasho: Then you started Jesse's Kona Coffee?
Jesse Colin Young: “We fell in love with the big island; we’ve got a little farm there and it had a little house on it. We bought that in 1987. Then when the house burned up in California, Connie and I decided, we’ve got a house in Hawaii, at least we’ve got somewhere to go. Most of the people that lost their homes didn’t have a spare house, we were lucky. We found the Waldorf School ten minutes from our house in Hawaii and that was very important to Connie and turned out to be important to me. We became big supporters of Waldorf education and actually helped build a K through 8th grade school that survives in Kona to this day. Now it’s a Waldorf inspired school.”
Ray Shasho: Jesse you’ve written so many beautiful songs … your breathtaking composition “Sunlight” always comes to mind, which was covered by Three Dog Night, and of course “Darkness Darkness.”
Jesse Colin Young: “Actually I just got a check for that and I built my studio with the Three Dog Night money. (Laughing) “Sunlight” was the first song I wrote in California. I think I started it during the spring that we played The Avalon. Someone took me out to Muir Beach which is in Marin County just north of San Francisco. I fell in love with Marin and began that song. I wrote “Darkness Darkness” in New York. When I was in San Francisco, David Lindley was in a band and spent a lot of time as an accompanist with Jackson Browne and is a beautiful slide player and violinist. We played with him at the Avalon once upon a time. The band had Oud players and it was the time for people experimenting with all kinds of instruments and music. You could turn on KSAN Radio and listen for 24 hours and never hear the same song … it was wide open. National musicians like myself could listen to the radio and learn all kinds of things because there was a lot of great music going on back then. The beginnings of “Darkness Darkness” were there from listening to KSAN Radio while I was in San Francisco and was completed in New York. I spent one sleepless night thinking about my friends who were in Viet Nam and how terrifying it must be. So much of the fighting was done at night and “Darkness Darkness” came out of that sleepless night. I tried to put myself in their shoes.”
Ray Shasho: I chatted with Dave Mason who was absolutely overwhelmed when a Marine came up to him and said, “You know man, me and my buddy were stuck in a foxhole for three days and we would have gone absolutely nuts if it weren’t for a Jimi Hendrix tape and a Dave Mason tape. I’m assuming the same can be said with “Get Together” and “Darkness Darkness”?
Jesse Colin Young: “It was my privilege and pleasure to find that out after the war. My support for the Vets still goes on. Two weeks ago we initiated a program that started in Saratoga. It’s called the ‘Saratoga WarHorse Foundation’ and is an amazing program. It started in Saratoga because they’ve got a racetrack and racehorses that nobody wants anymore. I believe they’re done racing at around three or four years old. The founder Bob Nevins served in Viet Nam as a medevac pilot for the 101st Airborne and learned that soldiers and horses bonding together helped Veterans struggling with PTSD, sleeplessness or suicidal thoughts. Bonding with the horse works like forgiveness. It’s an incredible program and we help to fund the initiation of it here in Aiken, South Carolina.”
Ray Shasho: I grew up around the Washington D.C. area and Jesse Colin Young was very much a concert mainstay on the D.C. music scene … The Cellar Door, the Birchmere, Constitution Hall …etc.
Jesse Colin Young: “Oh my God, yea, The Cellar Door. I think the first gig that I played as a folk singer was at The Cellar Door with a band called The Country Gentlemen, they’re called The Seldom Scene today. We’d go down there and listen to them almost every night. Right down the street was the Little Tavern between the Cellar Door and the Shamrock Tavern. We’d go to the Little Tavern and listen to The Beatles on their jukebox. They were just happening so that must have been around 1963.”
Ray Shasho: What were the early Greenwich Village days like?
Jesse Colin Young: “The Youngbloods were at the Cafe au Go Go. The Magicians, Tim Hardin, and The Lovin’ Spoonful would play at Cafe Wha? … and then all kinds of other music… there was jazz next door, although it was kind of a high ticket price so we never went there, but it was really the same building as Cafe au Go Go. They’d have acts like George Shearing and people like that playing there.”
“I first heard “Get Together” at the Cafe au Go Go. The Youngbloods played there about a year and we opened for anyone that Howard Solomon wanted us to open for; I think he paid us twenty bucks a piece. We opened for Muddy Waters, Ian & Sylvia and… whoever, but we got to rehearse and really put the band together there. Jerry Corbitt and I were folk singers and we hadn’t been in a band since high school, and there I was the bass player. We picked Joe Bauer a jazz drummer from Memphis … Jerry was from Tifton, Georgia … Joe Bauer from Memphis … and ‘Banana’ (Lowell Levinger) and I both born in New York.”
“It was a Sunday afternoon and I had stopped in to the Cafe au Go Go to see if anyone was rehearsing because The Blues Project had also rehearsed there. I walked in and there was an open mike and a fellow named Buzzy Linhart who had a quartet called the Seventh Suns, and he was singing a song called “Get Together” and I was struck by it. This was a song written by Dino Valenti (Chet Powers). I ran backstage and said Buzzy write the lyrics out for me because I’ve got to sing it. I must have memorized the melody but he wrote down the lyrics on a piece of paper and I had watched him play it on guitar. But yea, that was a momentous day for me. I took it into rehearsal for The Youngbloods the next day. Most of the songs I had written myself, but I knew “Get Together” was a game changer … a life changer for me.”
Ray Shasho: “Ev’rybody get together, try and love one another right now” … Awe-inspiring lyrics that should be observed on a daily basis in today’s coldhearted and destructive world.
Jesse Colin Young: “I don’t think the generations who have come up in the last thirty years are as optimistic as we were. And many of us may have been disillusioned by it and what happened. I grew up in school first in Ohio and I felt like there was one guy who understood where I came from politically and emotionally in a school of 25,000 people (laughing) … there was people from all over the country who felt like outsiders. Then we went to play the Avalon Ballroom in May of 1967. In New York we were kind of outsiders, discotheques were the thing. I remember the first time we played with the Buffalo Springfield was in a discotheque. Bands like The Rascals were more successful, they wanted dance music. In May 1967, we walk into The Avalon Ballroom and there were people with hair like ‘bananas’ … he just had a huge head of hair, we didn’t see that a lot in New York, everyone in the audience, even the females had hair like that(All laughing).”
“We checked into this cheap hotel down the street from the Avalon, I put my bag down, turned on this radio that was built into the bed and it was “Get Together” on the radio. We had no idea they were playing it. We walked into the beginning of the ‘Summer of Love’ back in the spring and all of a sudden half the people on the street were looking you in the eye and realized we were a movement, not just a bunch of outsiders. It was incredible, and then of course that spread.”
Ray Shasho: Jesse, here’s a question that I ask everyone that I interview. If you had a ‘Field of Dreams’ wish like the movie, to play, sing or collaborate with anyone from the past or present, who would that be?
Jesse Colin Young: “Well, I just lost my best friend Jerry Corbitt; we buried him down in Tifton, Georgia two months ago, right next to his mom and dad, and that’s where he wanted to be. So I think it would have to be Jerry, I’d love to sing with him again. Our voices did something wonderful together. I remember years ago, Neil Young turned out to be a neighbor on the big island and Neil tried to encourage me to get The Youngbloods back together and said I want to hear you and Corbitt sing together again …but it never happened.”
“We had plan for Jerry to come to Aiken, he’s a horse guy and this town in South Carolina we live in is just full of horse people. So he had planned to come here, and he was going to sit on the porch and pick, just like it was in the folk days …that’s how we met. I was playing the Club 47 and staying with somebody my manager new. Coming back from the gig I got this message saying don’t go back to that house he’s been arrested. So I ended up with Corbitt and that’s how we met. We’d sit on his back porch at the Cambridge apartment and just played and played. Corbitt was a great Ragtime picker and kind of introduced me to Ragtime. I guess in the great beyond there’s a porch and Corbitt is up there right now and that’s who I’d collaborate with.”
Ray Shasho: You’re working on recording a brand new album?
Jesse Colin Young: “It’s an album I started with a Julliard pianist named Donald Vega. There’s a project called Julliard in Aiken (Aiken, S.C. the town we live in). About ten years ago our neighbors down the street called up Julliard and said that we’d like to give you our mansion when we pass. They are Pulitzer Prize authors Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh. They made this connection with Julliard, that when they die, their house and foundation to support it will become a part of Julliard. So the Julliard students started to come here about six years ago. They would come down on spring break and we created this ten day long festival in Aiken, South Carolina.”
“In our guest house we would host the jazz guys and a lot of piano players would come down. Donald Vega would warm up on our piano and get ready to go to a gig and I fell in love with his playing. A couple of years ago, when I was still on the road, he played with me on the road until his first jazz album came out, and it went to #1 on the jazz charts. We had about twelve songs that we had recorded together, and he just came down a few months ago to play a gig here, and I recorded another five new songs with him. So we’ve got about 12 songs with Donald on them and me playing electric guitar, and hopefully by the time we head over to do our work on the Coffee farm, our son Tristan (Everybody calls him ‘T’), who is in his last year at Berklee will be part of the new record.”
“It’s not a jazz album but will be kind of jazzy. It’s a mixture of new material and a few of my older songs that I’ve wanted to record with a beautiful pianist … like a song called “Great Day,” and some of my music is jazz inspired. The only station that I could get when I moved to Point Reyes on my radio was a jazz station. So back in 1967, I started listening to a lot of jazz. Up on top of the mountain, the only FM station that would come in was KJAZZ. We’re not sure yet when it will be released, hopefully by next year. I’m also not sure what we’re going to call it yet, but it might be entitled ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ because that’s one of the songs I fell in love with as a kid. It’s a jazz standard but a big hit for The Flamingos in the 50’s, and that’s when I fell in love with the song.”
Ray Shasho: Jesse will you be going on the road anytime soon?
Jesse Colin Young: “I don’t think so. Maybe when I finish this album I’ll be so excited that I’ll want to. I quit about two years ago because I wasn’t having any fun. I’ll have to somehow deprogram myself from this perfectionism that has always plagued me and been responsible for a lot of the music that I made. When I couldn’t get an engineer out in the country I learned to do it myself. Many of my records in the 70’s were self produced and self engineered. It’s got to be fun for me now. I was pretty driven for those 50 years that I spent on the road; I’ve been working on changing my attitude and learning to relax, so that has to change.”
Ray Shasho: You’re a huge fan of Lightnin’ Hopkins?
Jesse Colin Young: “Absolutely! And I knew Lightnin’. I’ve got four guys over my desk … Lightnin’ Hopkins (holding a flask in his hand), John Hurt (who I was also privileged to know and play with when I was very young), Pete Seeger (who I think was the grandfather of the folk generation) Jerry Corbitt, and over in the corner is my hero Yo-Yo Ma.”
Ray Shasho: I wasn’t going to ask you about the Johnny Carson incident because you’ve repeated the story so many times …
Jesse Colin Young: “Well, it was very simple, they wanted us on the show (The Youngbloods) and called us, we had just released ‘Elephant Mountain’ and we said sure we’ll play “Get Together” but we also wanted to play a song from our new record. So that was the deal and had their word that this would happen. We flew out from California to New York. When we got there, their set was sort of a corny psychedelic setup, and they didn’t have floor monitors. We fooled around and did our soundcheck, and then the producer of the show came over to talk with our manager who was there with us and said … “We really don’t have time for two songs.” Our manager said that was the deal you made with us and what brought us all the way here to do this. I think he thought that he was so powerful that no one would walk off the show. So Stuart our manager walked over to us and said what do you want to do guys? We thought about it and said no, they have to keep their word. I’m sure they were use to getting musicians in there with promises and then saying ...play your hit and get out of here, and be grateful that we even considered you. We were just not those kinds of people and expected them to keep their word. So when they wouldn’t we just walked. The whole idea was to make the record business and the TV business treat musicians with respect. So it’s important for people to know that The Youngbloods took a stand to be treated with respect, because musicians traditionally have not been. When we were allowed to choose our own producer on RCA Records … that was a huge step!”
Ray Shasho: Jesse, thank you for being on the call today but more importantly for all the incredible music with The Youngbloods and as a solo artist that you’ve given us and continue to bring.
Jesse Colin Young: “My pleasure Ray, thank you!”
www.ilads.org (International Lyme And Associated Diseases Society) website
Purchase ‘Why Can’t I Get Better?’ by Dr. Richard Horowitz at amazon.com
Visit the Saratoga WarHorse Foundation at http://saratogawarhorse.com/
Very Special Thanks to Eddie Camolli of ‘The Hungry Ear Agency’
Contact classic rock music journalist Ray Shasho at email@example.com
Visit Ray Shasho’s classic rock music blogs at www.classicrockhereandnow.com
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