Brandon deWilde was a strummer. He always had a guitar or two in the house and during the time that we were friends he often played it. Beginning in the '60s, strumming a guitar and trying to write songs became increasingly like a fashion accessory; a lot of people tried it but not many got a good song down. Brandon came pretty close.
I first met Brandon in the fall of '65 after I had teamed-up with Gram Parsons to do some recording. The sessions were in New York and we floated down from Cambridge, Mass to cut some of Gram's tunes and see if we could screw a deal out of a big record company. After we put down a couple of tracks at the studio we went to Brandon's place in the West 90s to hang out. That was the beginning of an association with Brandon that lasted for me 'til his death.
After that first session with Gram, Brandon polished up a couple of the songs he had in the pipeline and booked a studio. We returned to the City a couple of weeks later to back-up Brandon. Gram had put together a band in Cambridge to work on his songs; Tom Snow-keyboards, John Nuese-guitar, Mickey Gauvin-drums and (me) Ian Dunlop-bass. On Brandon’s session we were joined by a New York session musician Buddy Lucas who blew harmonica.
Brandon's session went pretty well. We cut two, or maybe three of his songs. One of them, 'Begin With You', had a nice groove with some cool electric piano licks and bluesy harp fills. Brandon left the session with a couple of decent demos in the pocket. The lure of getting a record out was tugging hard at Brandon. It was 1965 and music was the happening thing. Broadway, musicals and theatre were being relegated to the shadows, eclipsed by the looming explosion of rock music. Brandon wanted to take a step forward into the blast.
What followed both of those sessions was the beginning of an interesting, fruitful collaboration between several of us as we began a journey of unregulated, whimsical home-recording. These home recording sessions went on sporadically for the next three years, in New York and Los Angeles. Brandon was usually the axle around which the tapes revolved.
Gram's back-up band became 'the International Submarine Band' when we moved to New York early in '66. Re-locating to the Bronx meant more frequent contact with Brandon. He joined us, singing back-up vocals at some of the '66 recording sessions, jamming in the rehearsal room or playing acoustic guitars -singing country music- at the Sub's house on University Ave. and did more of the off-the-cuff, late night home recordings. During that summer the Subs spent a week or so with Brandon and his wife Susan at their farm house in central Vermont where more jamming, songwriting and singing went on in the country hills.
Brandon headed west later that year and moved to LA. Shortly after, Gram and the ISB followed, all of us sought greener pastures and bigger deals. The ISB performed at LA venues, did short tours and courted record companies and producers, Brandon kept turning down TV spots and rejecting the movie scripts that he was sent. Brandon was seeking a role that he could believe in rather than the parts that he could bumble through just to pay the bills.
By mid-'67 Gram and the ISB had been turned down by numerous record labels that were all frightened-off by the country (and western) influence in their music; the psychedelic sound was king. Brandon was into the country sound and we again talked over the idea of him joining the Submarine Band. It never happened. He was dissuaded by management or agents from stepping over into music, they, unadventurously, assumed that it would jeopardize his career.
The refuge from mainstream rejection for several of us was to continue the on-going home-recordings. Brandon, Mickey Gauvin, myself and occasionally Gram would engage in spontaneous improvisation adopting various persona’s, spouting dialogue, banality and free-flow songs without edits or preconceptions. Brandon always had liked setting-up a tape recorder, getting a good ambient sound, letting that tape roll and just going with what ever happened. By the fall of '67 we had begun to compile a stack of tapes and Brandon suggested that it might be time to go through them and pull out some of the punchy bits to string together as a demo. He felt that we might find someone who could be interested in the material for an LP or an idea for an alternative comedy TV show.
Later in 1967 the ISB split up; Gram managed to get a deal for an LP and two of us formed the Flying Burrito Brothers along with friends, Barry Tashian and Bill Briggs. Brandon continued to sit-in, jam, hang-out and pick up musical influences from all of us but he didn't do any more recording sessions.
Brandon moved out to Topanga Canyon in '67 and it was a tortuous, winding route from Laurel Canyon on Mulholland Drive late at night but he always made it. In '68 Brandon and Susan had a son, Jesse, but the music and jamming 'round the kitchen kept on going.
Sometime in 1969 Brandon, Mickey Gauvin and Ralph Scala started jamming, got some songs together and called themselves 'Vege-lava' ( a term we had used to describe the state of being zonked-out, stoned and legless). They played a mix of old rock 'n' roll, some co-written originals and did a couple of rare appearances at the Topanga Corral. In a picture Brandon showed me he was playing a Gibson Les Paul, was wearing a wig and a lot of makeup.
The last time I saw Brandon was in the tail-end '69 when he had just finished shooting a Western in Spain (The Deserter). He visited me at my remote farm in the south west of England and we spent a lot of that time jamming and recording; same crazy stuff.
Brandon was encouraged by his friends to play music and write songs. He recorded some decent tracks in New York, they were good demos. Someone should have seen the potential and let him loose to follow it up but he kept hearing 'No, no, I don't think so...it's not the right move for your career'. They wanted him to be little blond Brandon forever.
Ian D. Feb. 2011
Copyright © 2011 by Ian Dunlop
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