Terry Fain on Rebecca Rothenberg's Music

I met Becky Rothenberg in Nashville in the summer of 1971. She had just finished her undergraduate degree at Swarthmore, and was in town to visit a college pal named Paul Dimaggio. Paul was doing a summer internship in the sociology department at Vanderbilt University, where I was a graduate student. At the time Paul was writing these really hilarious, crazy country songs with titles like "Up Against the Floor" and "I Thought You Were a Country Dumpling, but You're Just a Pop-up Tart." (Paul is now chairman of sociology at Princeton, and still occasionally produces musical compositions that can only be described as incomparable.) I had already written a few songs that had been published, and Paul kept telling me about the great songs his friend Becky had written. So when she turned up in town, he introduced us as fellow songwriters.

A couple of days later, Becky nervously allowed herself to be persuaded to play a couple of songs at a friend's house-and I immediately fell in love with the songs, the piano parts, and her voice. I introduced Becky to the publishing company I was working with, and they were also very favorably impressed. Thus began a musical and personal relationship that would span seven years and two major U.S. music centers.

Nashville in 1971 was undergoing a musical identity crisis. Country music was still the backbone of the local scene, of course, but there was a widespread belief that the town was on the verge of busting wide open to all kinds of music. Bob Dylan and Neil Young had recorded hit albums in local studios. North Nashville had several killer R&B and blues clubs. There was a coffeehouse scene for folkies, where one Sunday night I heard Kris Kristofferson play the song he had just written, "Me and Bobby McGee," to an audience of about twelve. And there were several really good local rock bands-I had played in a couple of them. The Summer of Love had found its way to Nashville around 1968, but the feeling of creativity and experimentation and freedom still hung in the air like smoke from recently-exploded fireworks.

Meanwhile, Becky was trying to find her own direction. Her college friends had dispersed all over the country, and she was visiting each of them, sort of auditioning various cities, trying to figure out where she wanted to live and what kind of work she wanted to pursue. When her music was warmly received in Nashville, she decided to start there.

By 1973, Becky had written a batch of new songs and attracted enough interest that an independent producer wanted to record her. His name was Chuck something-or-other, and he turned out to be a typical music biz huckster. But he did book Becky into the Columbia Records studio on music row, where Scotty Moore (Elvis's original guitar player) engineered a 16-track session that yielded "Yesterday I Could Have Left You" and "Chantilly Farm." It was Becky's first studio experience, and she came away feeling a little overwhelmed, but quite pleased at the results.

We then moved to a smaller eight-track studio, where she recorded enough tracks to complete an album of about a dozen songs. I was still a starving student, and Becky was working part-time as a research assistant at Vanderbilt, so we had no money. I somehow cobbled together $100 to join the musician's union so I would be paid for playing on her sessions-I calculated that I was due more than $600, even at demo rates. But "Chuck" promptly skipped town without paying either the players or the studios-and took the master tapes with him! I appealed to the union, who essentially laughed and said, "Better luck next time." And Becky was left with nothing but a reel-to-reel tape of rough mixes.

Meanwhile, I had also recorded an album's worth of material with Chuck. He absconded with those master tapes, too. If you ever wonder about the definition of the phrase "sadder but wiser"....

By 1974, Nashville had resolved its identity crisis: it was a country music town. Everything else was a passing fad. Becky and I decided that our future in music must be elsewhere. We had visited New York several times-another of Becky's college friends was in med school at NYU-and even had a contact or two in music biz there, but I never liked New York. So Becky suggested we check out Los Angeles.

Becky had been to California before, but not to L.A. I had never been west of the Mississippi. We took a long, meandering tour through the Southwest in blistering weather in a non-air conditioned car, camping most of the way. We finally landed in the Highland Park section of Northeast L.A. for a summer during which we explored the possibilities of a wholly alien musical scene. Prospects seemed no more bleak than in Nashville, and music biz types no more phony-and the climate was much better. So we relocated to sunny southern California.

By this time, our musical association had progressed beyond my merely playing acoustic guitar on her sessions, and we began to collaborate in writing as well as performing. In 1976, we did our first recordings in L.A., in a little 4-track demo studio owned by Richard Haxton, with whom both Becky and I would maintain a friendship forever thereafter. We also started playing as a duo in L.A. clubs and lounges, usually to virtually empty venues. As in Nashville, Becky's music garnered interest, but invariably the interested parties turned out to be hustlers and losers who promised more than they could deliver. The Big Break remained as elusive as ever.

Over the next couple of years we managed to record several more sessions at Richard's studio. We hired drummers and bass players whenever we could afford to, otherwise we did the best we could with just the two of us. Ironically, it was during this period that Becky wrote some of her most memorable songs: "Aromas," "Time Like a River," "Mountain Time." And we collaborated on several others, including "Miracle Worker" and "Old Fool."

But by December 1978, we were running out of illusions about succeeding in music biz, and our personal relationship had also run its course. We went our separate ways, and for a short time Becky continued to perform solo in clubs, and to record. It was during this period that she wrote "On the Air," the hardest of her songs for me to listen to, and one of the most haunting for its unflinching truth-telling. She also wrote "Allon-zee," a wonderfully light-hearted send-up that perfectly illustrates Becky's humor and intelligence. And yet one last version of "Isadora," a song that she re-wrote at least a dozen times over the years.
By 1980, Becky had turned her attention away from music. She would subsequently publish the Claire Sharples mysteries to critical acclaim. And she would never write or record music again. She told me more than once that the brain tumor she was diagnosed with in 1986 rendered her unable to write or perform music.

Because I had produced all of Becky's California recording sessions, the master tapes sat in my garage for years, gathering dust. But my love for the music finally outweighed all other considerations, so I dragged out the tapes and made myself a cassette copy.

In April of 1998, Richard Haxton called to tell me that Becky had died.

For years after I learned of her diagnosis, I had a vision of playing and singing at Becky's memorial service. When that day finally rolled around, Richard played an old tape of "Aromas"-and there I was, guitar and bass and vocals, completely intertwined with Becky's music, yet again. Just like always.

In February of 1999, I finished converting the cassette tapes I'd been listening to for years into a CD and sent a copy to Becky's family and a few of her closest friends-no more than a dozen copies altogether. One found its way, though Becky's sister Martha, to Taffy Cannon, who was by then completing Becky's unfinished manuscript of The Tumbleweed Murders. Because I had co-written some of the lyrics quoted in the manuscript, Taffy needed my permission to quote them. We began talking about Becky, and the music, and one thing led to another....

And I ended up re-mastering the CD I had sent to Becky's friends and family, and creating a separate CD for the six songs quoted in The Tumbleweed Murders. A few lucky people have a copy of this six-song CD. Even fewer have a copy of the 22-song masterpiece (Time Like a River) that represents the best of Becky's remarkable musical creations. If you would like to become one of those lucky few, send $5 per CD to cover the cost of duplication and shipping to:

Terry Fain
PO Box 2138
Santa Monica CA 90407

A personal footnote: Thirty years after I first met Becky, I remain completely awed by the beauty of her music and by the musical performances she created. I have never stopped loving her. I will never stop missing her.

— Terry Fain
Santa Monica, California
July 2001

Copyright © 2001-2003 Martha Rothenberg. All rights reserved. Feedback:Martha Rothenberg