Essra Mohawk lived sex, drugs and rock 'n roll life

Friday, August 23, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 34

Essra Mohawk performs her brand of rock 'n roll. Her career included a stint with the Mothers of Invention.

-- Photo Provided

Uncle Meat leans back on the piano bench – arm-swept clear of the CDs and assorted implements of a musician’s life that fill it and the rest of the living room of the home in Bellevue – and sings a joyous, or at least joy-filled and powerful song titled “Rollin’ With The Punches.”

“If I made it back then, I’d be somebody who made it back then,” says the petite and nimble 71-year-old former Mothers of Invention trouper, as a way of looking forward rather than backward on a life in music.

If this charming hippie known as Essra Mohawk had really made it big back in the 1960s, when she began her decades’ pursuit of the “big time,” she probably would be relegated to the classic rock category, an oldies act. Instead, she proudly continues creating meaningful music, like the new CD: “The One and Only Essra Mohawk,” filling boxes stacked throughout the rustic room, ready for release. To describe her voice, think Carole King-meets-Joni Mitchell-meets-Janis-meets-Bonnie Bramlett, with a Philly accent. Or perhaps, I should describe it as incomparable.

The tie to the Mothers of Invention, the dramatic, soaring and sometimes discordant group led by unpredictable legend Frank Zappa is important in this story, because Essra’s career got a jump-start when the young woman, then known as Sandy Hurvitz, did the “fan thing” when she and two friends encountered the band-leader on Bleecker Street in New York City.

This kid from Philly, a musician who later shared private time with the likes of Tim Buckley, Peter Tork and Jackson Browne, was told by Zappa – riding high on the Mothers’ seminal 1966 “Freak Out!” double album – that he was bound for the Garrick Theater, where his band was in a six-month residency.

Zappa let Sandy – “I never liked that name. I’m Jewish, so my parents named me after my great-grandmother Sophie, but all Jewish people do is use the first letter” – and her two friends into the storied theater near Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.

And that entrée to the inner circle of the iconic band and its leader with the Fu Manchu mustache, love patch and wildly flowing dark hair paid off for the woman who soon would leave Sandy Hurvitz behind forever. Since she didn’t like her given name, her roommate called her “S” and “Essie.” “I figured if ‘Ess’ (i.e. ‘S’) stood for Sandy, then Essra (i.e. ‘S’ra’ ) stood for Sandra,” Essra recalls.

She became part of the scene at this legendary series of concerts, and Zappa eventually called the young hippie girl into action to play keyboard with The Mothers. Frank – whose anti-frat “Phi Zappa Krappa” poster with him sitting on a commode decorated my dorm walls (along with Dennis Hopper’s fatal “Easy Rider” salute, Nixon with peace signs and a ‘Fro and Sergeant Pepper’s Band) – was both smitten and hooked by this gentle woman who has described herself as a feral child.

One afternoon, she was with the head Mother when he was testing electric pianos. “He knew somehow that I played keyboards,” she says. “He asked me to test the electric piano for him. I started playing my own songs.”

She says he immediately invited her into his “office,” where “Zappa asked: ‘How would you like to be a Mother?’ Obviously, I said ‘Sure.’”

It wasn’t long before she got another name. At a Mothers rehearsal, regular lead vocalist, harmonica player and tambourine player Ray Collins said to Zappa: “How about ‘Uncle Meat’ as the name of a rock star?”

Obviously the idea intrigued the leader of the still-evolving outfit: “He spun around with his arm out, pointed at me and said ‘You’re Uncle Meat,’” says Essra as she sits in her home – cluttered with her memories, Buddhist paraphernalia, music awards and friendly, large-scale pets – tucked into an overgrown and uncommonly pastoral yard.

“I pretty much let it grow up since I came here,” adds the rock ‘n’ roll cult figure – who has quietly lived, mostly undisturbed, in Music City for 26 years – when giving me a tour of her back deck.

“I’ve got a little grass there,” she says, pointing to a sort of miniature hayfield. “I have gotten it cut sometimes.”

That yard, like the comfortable and lived-in home itself, is pretty much hidden by a calming forest she has nurtured for more than a quarter-century. “Everybody else cut all their trees down, mine is the one with all the trees,” was what she said when giving me successful directions to her home. (I don’t do the GPS thing as I’m old and so is my car.)

Her retreat is in a comfortable subdivision surrounded by newer “It City” developments and requisite traffic. Yet Essra’s house somehow seems subdued and remote once I park and find my way through the tree-line and to the door. I’m greeted by the kind woman who long ago advised her pal John Mellencamp that if he did as management suggested and changed his moniker to “John Cougar,” he’d regret it, and he’d change it back.

“Mellencamp is such a strong name,” she points out. And she was right, as after his little ditty about “Jack & Diane,” Mellencamp killed the Cougar, retreated from big-city faux glitter and returned to his “Small Town” home in Indiana, where he became a dean of blue-collar rock, along with Detroit’s Bob Seger and the Jersey Shore’s Bruce Springsteen.

Back to Zappa and his reaction to this powerfully voiced young woman: “He was blown out of his head by my talent and I was blown away by his,” Essra says, soft voice and hippie/Philly dialect in contrast with her heart-searing and soaring vocals.

“I didn’t mind being Uncle Meat, because what The Mothers were doing really weren’t concerts, they were stage shows, like plays, but I told him I didn’t want to be Uncle Meat when I was recording my own stuff,” she says, smiling mischievously.

“I lived in New York, in the Village, with Zappa when I was in the Mothers of Invention,” says the former Uncle Meat, leaning back in the couch that, like all the furniture in the living room, is covered by a blanket or blankets.

The overstuffed armchair across from my perch on the couch has a Halloween-style skeleton suit spread out on it, as if “he’s” listening to the conversation.

“Over there are all the CDs people have sent me to listen to,” Essra says, nodding toward a mountain crowning the coffee table nearest the CD player, television, the monster speakers and recording equipment.

Atop one of the JBL speakers is a glass case containing a dainty but large Japanese figurine. She inherited it after the death of a friend in her longtime Japanese Buddhist community. “She had no family, I had no family, so we became each other’s family,” says Essra of her late friend in the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) Buddhist network.

Her time with Zappa expanded beyond the stage where the musician conducted his troupe (and the audience) through evenings of musical adventure and phases of wonderment.

“We, Zappa and I, were an item,” says this woman who wed three times – most of those ending in divorce quickly, the longest 3½ years – but never to the bearded Mother of all Mothers.

“I was in the Mothers and living with him (Zappa) in New York until he found out his girlfriend in California was pregnant.

“He asked me what he should do. I asked him if he could be happy with her for the rest of his life, (then) he should marry her. I was thinking of the child.”

Perhaps it wasn’t the advice desired by the revolutionary artist – remember later in life Zappa became the respected musicians’ spokesman who testified before the Senate about Freedom of Speech and that “horrible woman” Tipper Gore (head censor of Parents Music Resource Center and then-wife of a future major presidential loser) – but he did as Uncle Meat suggested.

“I didn’t mean to break his heart,” Essra recalls. “I guess I was doing the right thing…. He treated me well until that happened.”

Her future as a Mother of Invention wasn’t yet as dead as Uncle Meat, but she began to look at other opportunities and adventures. Mostly, she admits with glee, she took a sort of sabbatical to enjoy being a hippie who wandered from Mendocino to Mexico and wherever the pursuit of peace and fun and the accoutrements beckoned.

Essra, as her body of work proves, was far from parking her musical career. She doesn’t precisely remember the timeline of her hippie travels, but she eventually returned to New York and began working toward her career as a solo act, a singer-songwriter who has put out a dozen studio albums in styles from New Wave to blues to her mainstay as a powerful, hippie-folkie female voice.

Her 1970 classic “Primordial Lovers” received five stars from Downbeat and once was listed by Rolling Stone among the top 25 albums of all time. After repeated recent listening, I agree with the critics about the quality of this engaging classic.

Even though Uncle Meat was long-gone, Essra’s feelings for Zappa never disappeared completely, though not all of them were good feelings.

“He was difficult and could be cruel,” she remembers, describing how Zappa would publicly humiliate or otherwise put down his musicians and how the personal styles of the couple led to some friction. “He called me ‘love and beads,’ I called him ‘hate and bitterness.’”

Her attempt at making peace with Zappa was not received in kind: “He said ‘You’re stupid.’ … He was a genius, but not when it came to people.”

Her days as a part of Zappa’s rambling, rocking theatrical troupe drew toward an end.

Essra was tremendously attracted to Zappa, “but he wasn’t a hippie. He didn’t smoke pot, and every day he’d wake up and say, ‘Another day, another dollar.’ That was not the thought of a hippie.

“Even though people who did drugs enjoyed his music, he did not enjoy doing drugs,” she says of the leader of the band that put out classic albums like “We’re Only In It For The Money” (with its cover a sharp poke at “Sergeant Pepper,” “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” and “Burnt Weeny Sandwich.”

“I ran into him (Zappa) before he died,” she says, just before her big dog, Romeo, a Treeing Walker Coonhound, climbs up on the couch and pushes his mammoth face against my own, separating me from the gentle hippie whose company I’m enjoying. But I like the dog as well.

“We were at some sort of Halloween event in Philadelphia,” Essra remembers. “We had a nice big hug. We renewed our love for each other. I don’t mean romantically, but the love was still there. … Any leftover negative karma was wiped clean by that hug.”

The hug proved timely and important to them both. Zappa died in 1993 of prostate cancer which had gone undetected until it was too late. The death and burial were kept from the fans – and he had many of us – until two days after his Dec. 4, 1993, death, when the family announced that “Composer Frank Zappa left for his final tour just before 6:00 pm on Saturday.”

Essra apologizes for the affection displayed by her dog, but she needn’t. I only wonder what my own dog, Roxy, will think when I get back to Crieve Hall.

Essra explains that after her late dog “Hoss, a black-and-tan coonhound passed (at age 10½), I thought I’d get a short-haired dog, another coonhound, and name him Romeo.”

When she learned there was a male, short-haired hound, already named Romeo, pacing death row at an animal shelter, she figured it was instant canine karma, or whatever, and adopted him “in the nick of time.”

“He’s a very willful dog,” she says, as Romeo begins barking, forcing her to get up and pass through the room dedicated to her Buddhist altar to get to the kitchen. “He won’t stop barking until he gets fed.”

Romeo, who weighed 47 pounds when rescued from “dead dog walking” status at 1½ years of age has become an 83-pound 11-year-old.

“Both of my animals aren’t letting me cut their nails anymore, so that’s why most of my old wood floors are covered with rugs” so her animals can get some traction as they navigate the home that is clearly theirs. (Update: Days after this first afternoon spent together, Essra reports that both animals have begun, perhaps begrudgingly, allowing their “mother” to cut some of their nails.)

“I’ve always had dogs,” adds Essra, listing a few, including Sheba, “a golden mix” she shared with her late housemate and business manager, Jim Hinchliffe, who “died August 2, 2008. Died of emphysema.”

“I miss him. He was my partner for 16 years. He did so much around the house, so much for me. He was my right-hand man. He helped me out with all my gigs,” she says of the man who moved here with her from Buck’s County, Pennsylvania, 26 years ago. Reliant on each other, they were never “a couple. I think he wished we were, though. But he had girlfriends, and I had boyfriends.” (She isn’t alone in the house. In addition to her pets, her brother, Gary, lives there and he wanders wordlessly and repeatedly in and out of the kitchen that adjoins the music room and the private Buddhist shrine during my visit.)

“What a gorgeous dog Sheba was. And she had this incredible aroma from her third eye (the middle of her forehead, focus of spiritual wisdom, not an actual eye). It smelled like incense, patchouli. Everyone couldn’t believe that aroma when they smelled her.”

I can sense no such sweet, burnt aroma from Romeo nor from the large orange cat Toda, 17, strolling through the music/living room and – after figuring the stranger is no threat – jumping into a chair. The cat rolls on its back, prime for an afternoon doze.

The cat is named for a deceased president of Essra’s Japanese flavor of Buddhism, she says, adding Toda’s “a sweetheart. I just lost my Rover, my other yellow cat, who was 14.”

Toda is primarily a housecat, but is free to go into the back yard, although “the moles and mice don’t like it,” Essra says. “He sits on the deck out back, looking for a victim. He’s the neighborhood serial killer, but his kills have slowed down.”

This superb singer and artist is at heart a songwriter, which is what drew her to Nashville and woodsy isolation decades ago.

She’s been writing ever since her young Philly days and continued in New York and L.A. And Nashville, of course.

Cyndi Lauper, with Essra Mohawk, recorded one of Mohawk's songs, 'Change of Heart.'

“I wrote the song ‘Change of Heart,’” she says, nodding toward a platinum record presiding above her wall of electronic equipment, CDs, cassettes and etc.

That was back in the mid-1980s. “I prayed that a big artist would take my song to the charts. Then Cyndi did,” she says of the 1986 dance-pop hit from Lauper’s “True Colors” album. The song remains a Lauper standard.

“It was a big hit,” says Essra, smiling.

In 1989, Tina Turner cut Essra’s “Stronger Than the Wind,” but the “Proud Mary” singer turned it into something of a disappointment.

“I had chanted for Tina to record my song,” Essra says. “She told me (the song) sent chills up and down her spine.”

Turner told Essra it was going to be the statement song of her album, “Foreign Affairs.” Instead it was cut from the album and “they put out an album of fluff.”

She points out other writing awards on the walls. “I’m one of these ridiculously prolific writers. I’ve never had writer’s block.

“I write the truth. I’ve already written the songs for my next album that will come out in the spring of 2020. I’m always looking forward.”

Her eyes light on the boxes filled with her powerful and even a bit political new release, “The One and Only Essra Mohawk,” and she smiles. “That’s done. Now I’ll have to promote it.”

Her songwriting repertoire is deep. In addition to having songs cut by Vanilla Fudge – the band that changed my life when I went backstage in the 1960s – big cuts have come from The Shangri-las, Peabo Bryson and more. She collaborated with The Grateful Dead’s Bobby Weir and inspired songs by Procol Harum, Joni Mitchell and David Crosby.

That latter will lead to a sort of animated story from her, but all I’m going to say is that, according to her, one of Crosby’s songs is, well, as Yogi Berra would say, “déjà vu all over again” for Essra.

“And I’ve got cuts, had songs on ‘All My Children’ and ‘Joan of Arcadia.’”

Among her wanderings, Essra was a member of the famous musicians’ community in the Hollywood Hills of the Santa Monica Mountains.

“We all were close in Laurel Canyon,” she says of the community she shared with folks like Neil Young, Mitchell, Crosby and others who created the folksy California sound.

Linda Ronstadt was among her friends and allies and “Laura Nyro told me I was the only chick she could relate to.” “We were all together, hanging out at (Stephen) Stills’ house. The Rolling Stones later bought that house.

“I lived there (in Laurel Canyon) with Peter Tork (ostensible bassist)
for made-for-TV rock band The Monkees).

“I loved Peter. What a sweet, sweet man.”

Among the artists whose music and charms won her over (and vice versa) was “Running on Empty’’ and “Doctor My Eyes” pop hit-maker Jackson Browne.

“We both had the same producer, Frazier Mohawk.” Before he changed his name from Barry Friedman, Frazier – whose occupations included circus owning, photography and farming – had been an instrumental player in the careers of Buffalo Springfield, Nico, The Holy Modal Rounders and Hoyt Axton. As a relative upstart, he handled publicity for The Beatles’ press conferences leading up to their 1964 Hollywood Bowl concert.

After he changed his name he continued in that creative musical vein. He also for a time was living with then-Essra Hurvitz, who explains they “weren’t an exclusive item: We were just getting to know each other.”

Essra and Jackson Browne also were getting to know each other, which apparently unsettled their producer: “Mr. Mohawk drugged me and took me to Las Vegas and married me, so I wouldn’t keep up the relationship with Jackson Browne.”

That marriage, like her other two, failed quickly, though she remained close to all ex-husbands: “We were all friends.”

This soft-spoken woman with the heart-throttling voice was big as an opening act back in the 1960s and 1970s.

“I opened for the Grateful Dead (and for the offshoot Jerry Garcia Band). I opened for Procol Harum the first time in America, and I was the opening act for Cream during their first tour of America.” Years later, she was personally and professionally involved with Harum writer Keith Reid, whose contributions to the band included their first and most-important hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

Cream – Jack Bruce (bass, vocals), Ginger Baker (drums) and Eric Clapton (guitar, of course) – was rock’s first landmark (and short-lived) supergroup, and their own storied excesses could easily have put them on the growing rock “short list.”

“After Jim (Morrison) and Janis (Joplin) died, they were dropping like flies,” Essra says of that generation of drug-soaked rockers, adding, “I was doing the kind of things that could have gotten me killed.

“I have more friends who are dead now than are living. That’s what happens, unless you die first.”

Essra Mowhawk lost her spot in the Woodstock lineup. She arrived too late to perform.

-- Photograph Provided

Some of those dead friends spent August 15-18 a half-century ago on Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York. “I was scheduled to play Woodstock,” Essra recalls.

“But my manager missed a turn” and got separated from the car occupied by Woodstock co-creator Michael Lang. So, instead of getting to the heliport with Lang and his party and catching her scheduled flight to the storied garden, they got stuck in traffic.

By the time she got to Woodstock for the opening day dedicated to solo artists, her slot was gone.

“I remember when we got there, I was running to get to the stage after we parked the car. Joan Baez was singing the last song of the night. The lights went out on Joan Baez.”

Since that was the day set aside for solo singers – before the fest was turned over to the bands like The Who, CSN&Y, Country Joe and Sly – hope was dashed for her big breakthrough in front of a half-million mud-covered music and drugs fans.

While she has been victim of bad luck or at least unfortunate circumstances and a missed helicopter, she also has had happy surprises.

Probably the one that had the greatest impact on her life came in 1991, when she was told “you have a cut on a Lorrie Morgan album.” The folks at BMI went on to say how surprised they were that she didn’t know about the cut. Her immediate response: “Let me tell you how much I don’t know ... who in the heck is Lorrie Morgan?”

It turned out to be a pretty big commercial break, as Morgan was on top of the world back then and having a track –”Hand Over Your Heart” (which Essra co-wrote with Larson Paine and Bobby Paine) – on Morgan’s ”Something in Red” album was a big score in the hippie songwriter’s life, even if she didn’t think so. Still doesn’t really: “I’m not proud of the song. I was the third writer. I just came in and finished it up.”

Even though she was on a hit Nashville album, Essra remained an L.A. and East Coast girl, never having considered Music City as home … or as anything at all, really.

That changed on a cross-country trip. “I’m heading to L.A. for my usual writing … and the plane lays over in Nashville for 53 minutes. It was an American flight, since American had a hub in Nashville back then. “I never wanted to be in Nashville. But then I felt this magnetic pull coming through my window. It was something about Nashville.”

She took quick advantage of the layover and followed that magnetic pull to an airport gift shop. She remembers holding her souvenirs and “crying as if I was leaving my best friend” when the plane took off.

Essra continued on to her familiar L.A. stomping grounds. But on her first day back, she was “physically attacked five times (subject of her rap song “A Day in L.A.”) …. I thought ‘this place is getting ready to explode.’”

With L.A. burnout and fueled by that magnetic draw, she began visiting Nashville, learning more about the songwriting scene here and discovering old friends and new opportunities.

One fellow who recommended Music City was her friend Al Kooper – keyboardist known for helping Dylan go electric at Newport and for the classic “Super Sessions” double-album pairing with Mike Bloomfield that is a part of any right-thinking hippie’s vinyl collection.

Kooper had settled down here for a few years and he heartily recommended the city. “Al doesn’t get excited about a lot of things, but he was positive and gushing about Nashville,” Essra continues. He invited her to stay at his home, which she did when she finally got here, at least until she moved into a Music Row hotel.

Before she left for Nashville, Essra also contacted her friend Rosie Flores “to ask her ‘what’s a good place to play?’ She said ‘The Bluebird.’”

Essra called the club as soon as she hit town and, due to a cancellation or scheduling problem, there was an opening that night before Mike Henderson and the Bluebloods took over for their regular 9 p.m. Monday spot.

Essra was booked immediately and went to the club in Green Hills, where in addition to performing her Nashville debut, it turned out Kooper was filling in for the Bluebloods’ keyboard player.

She was inspired to keep visiting Nashville until she found her new home in Bellevue. “So much magic happened to me in Nashville,” she says. “So much positive influence to move here. It was wonderful and exciting.”

Twenty-six years later, she’s not sure how long she’ll continue to call this much-changed city home. She’d been considering a move to the Garden State, with its famous Jersey Shore, “but the taxes are too high.” Sure it’s affordable for Springsteen, Tony Soprano and former Governor Krispy Kreme… I mean Chris Christie … but not for Essra.

She’s thinking about the Fort Myers, Florida, area, where she has musical friends and recorded a part of her new album.

She knows she’d have to get her home decluttered and fixed up if she was going to sell it.

“Maybe I should get one of those companies that buys homes ‘As Is,’” she says, melancholy eyes traveling the music room filled with music, memorabilia and a piano.

“I love my house. I love being surrounded by all the trees. The hills are beautiful.

“But I’m a bit of a recluse, and I just don’t go out and schmooze,” a semi-requirement if you are hoping to stay in demand in the “It City.”

Her days as Uncle Meat more than a half-century passed, Essra looks across the living room of the house that I would bet she never leaves.

“True happiness comes from within,” she says, in a nimble Buddhist sort of way.

“When obstacles arise the wise rejoice and the foolish retreat.

“I may not always have rejoiced, but I never retreated.”

She smiles. “Maybe it’s time for this old elephant to go back to the elephant graveyard.”