by Phil Milstein
Over an undulating, languorous beat, a young woman
sings, in a voice that slightly quavers:
make me drink
and then things start to get weird.
"Emily's Illness", a forgotten 45 from late 1967 recorded by a 17-year-old non-singer named Nora Guthrie, is an overpowering musical force. In the three-minute span from its opening harpsichord down-note to its double-reverse coda, "Emily's Illness" expands to occupy all attention, saturating its environment to the extent that music and listener are ineluctably fused into one unit.
at night, I lie in bed
Like the singer Nora, the
character Emily is a teenage girl. Her illness, the exact nature of
which is never disclosed, is slowly killing her. She is a musician and
a composer. Music is her sustenance, and the greater tragedy of her
dying will not be the loss of her life, but the loss of her music.
Or perhaps Emily is not dying at all, but merely
using a vision of her death to briefly escape the ravages of her disease, which
is quite real. In either case, her sense of doom unfurls like a winter blanket
across the landscape of her song. She arrives at a vision of brutal
self-annihilation, from which will mystically be woven the tapestry of her
masterpiece. Ultimately, however, that masterpiece will be desecrated by
pitiless and ironical agents of commerce.
window near the bed
"Emily's Illness" was written in the
Summer of Love by Eric Eisner, Nora Guthrie's 18-year-old boyfriend. Although a
semi-professional musician and a promising songwriter, Eisner was not a singer.
Nora, by training a dancer (her mother had been a member of Martha Graham's troupe),
didn't consider herself a singer either, yet fell naturally into the role of
Eisner's personal vocal interpreter. She was raised in a musical family, the
daughter of Woody Guthrie and the sister of Arlo. Her singing in "Emily's
Illness" is unadorned, and almost painfully sincere. "It was hardly a
performance, at 17", Nora says of "Emily's Illness". "I
don't think I knew from performance then. I think of it more like a
photograph". The purity of her approach glistens like a small but uncut
diamond, and is one of the record's most potent components.
In the months leading up
to "Emily's Illness", Nora and Eric had become fascinated
with the music of Brazilian composer and guitarist Joao Gilberto, the
creator of the bossa nova. "Joao's music was a really, really big
influence on me and Eric, on Eric particularly. We all wrote and sang
in the style of Joao and Astrud,  that cool jazz, understated samba". A
tinge of this sound insinuates itself into "Emily's Illness",
primarily in its tempo and guitar stylings, but the song draws at least
as much from the dusky tension of folk-rock, the baroque-derived instrumentation
of groups like The Left Banke and The Zombies, and on what Eisner refers
to as "that incantation of The Beatles". Arranger Artie Schroeck
had recently worked on The Lovin' Spoonful's hypnotic "Darling
Be Home Soon", where his symphonic instrumental break was a direct
response to the coda of "A Day In The Life". Schroeck's arrangement
of "Emily's Illness" too owes a large debt to Sgt. Pepper's
proposition that adult instruments may be used to color records primarily
intended for teenagers.
But a citation of its influences does little
justice to "Emily's Illness"'s unique construction of sound. The
song's creation was one of those rarest of instances, where peaks of
composition, arrangement, production and performance all arrive at once to mesh
seamlessly into a perfect pop concoction.
At the halfway point the song comes to a
near-halt. The guitar holds things aloft, supported by bittersweet violins.
nights are unbearable.
Ill vapor, from bad blood. Emily's sickness permeates her song, its presence manifest. Even if there were no vocal, no words to spell out her story, you'd still know that she was in some way diseased. Her candid expression of her condition creates an insidious effect, an intangible sense of disquiet or noxious foreboding. Perhaps it's the song's relentless, almost plodding progression that lends it its air of doom, as if Emily were marching herself into the ocean.
sure I'll get well
Eric Eisner and Nora Guthrie
met in their early teens, at a summer camp for "red diaper babies",
the children of New York's radical left activists. They bonded instantly.
"He was always my teacher", Nora says. Back home in New York,
they both attended Elisabeth Irwin High School, a progressive institution
in Greenwich Village linked with the famous Little Red School House.
Most of the teachers at E.I.  had been blacklisted in the McCarthy era,
and weren't employable anywhere else. Kathy Boudin, Mary Travers, Angela
Davis, and the sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg had all studied there.
Eric grew up surrounded by music. His family lived
around the corner from The Village Vanguard. In his younger days he had studied
classical guitar, and his three older brothers were all jazz saxophone players.
The four Eisner boys and Nora would sometimes harmonize together, mainly
singing the doo-wop of New York's earlier street corners. None of them paid any
attention to her father's music. "I had grown up with Leadbelly hanging
around the house, so when it came to folk music I was kind of like, 'OK'. But
this music that Eric and his brothers were singing just totally overwhelmed me.
I thought it was the coolest thing in the world". When he started writing
songs, doo wop and jazz became Eric's primary influences.
She blames it on
That slight pregnant pause
in the last line of the stanza, leading into " ... ill"
-- that's what does it for me. Nora's right on the beat through the
first part of the line, but then there is a moment's hesitation, and
her throat cringes just a bit, as if evoking her character's infirmity.
By just an eyelash, she crosses the beat. The listener's timing is thrown
off, imagining the unknown word before it's actually heard. And then
a second later, when it is, it's a bit ... off -- a blue
note. The knees buckle.
It wasn't a mistake. "That's
Eric's timing - that's the way he wrote it", Nora says. "That's
the way he sang it exactly, and I sang it exactly like he did".
And with the choice of that one single, quavering note, they summarized
the power of the entire song.
Eric spent the bulk of his
junior year drumming with The Strangers, a Motown and Stones-influenced
group on the Village scene who were friends and shared management
 with The Lovin' Spoonful. During the summer of '65
the Spoonful were the house band at the Night Owl, the locus of the
Village folk-rock scene, and Eric and Nora were there nearly every night.
Richie Havens and Stephen Stills  played for basket money between sets; Cass
Elliott worked the register. The Strangers would often open, and were
themselves on the verge of a big career break. Facing an opportunity
to tour in the fall, the two younger members -- Eric and bassist Larry
Hendel -- chose to finish high school instead, and the group broke up.
While with The Strangers, Eric started writing
songs in earnest, contributing a good share of their original material. He
continued the practice after they broke up, despite the fact that he no longer
had a musical outlet. "I didn't really care that much", Eisner
recalls. "It was just as much fun for me to write songs and have Nora sing
them. I was only interested in hearing how the songs sounded". There was
never any question that he might sing his own songs. "I can't sing worth a
According to Nora, it was
John Sebastian who suggested that she become Eisner's vocal interpreter.
Jack Lewis, a respected record producer
 and family friend, also coaxed Nora into singing, even
bringing her to audition for John Hammond at Columbia a year before
"Emily's Illness". "Honestly, I never thought of being
a singer", Nora says. "But Jack said, 'I think you should
be a singer'". It was the right move. "I was grateful for
her voice", says Eric. "I was like a blind man and she was
the cane". [8
I think I'll die soon, and
"Emily's Illness" arrived "from the dregs of Eric's soul", according to Nora. "I was scared of the song. I was scared of Eric -- watching him write that song scared me". And watching him play it, as well. "Those feelings of watching Eric as he played this thing for me were very overwhelming. He had a little nylon-string guitar, and we played everything in the dark bedroom light. When he played, he'd kind of curl over his guitar and sing in a very, very soft voice. He would make a circle with his body, with music coming up through his spine and then down to his head and back into his guitar. It was kind of 'from him, to him'". Eisner understands her reaction. "I think I might've been mildly psychotic at that age".
The song means many different things to its
principals, and their respective impressions of its underlying motives don't
even overlap all that much. Indeed, not only is the song vague enough to suggest
varying thoughts and impressions, but it's weighty enough to support them.
"I think it was about the torture of becoming self-aware", Eisner
says, "of suddenly going from that kind of bliss of ignorance that you
enjoy up to a certain point in your life, and then suddenly, when you have no
real intellectual capacity for handling it, you're cursed with this awareness
you wish you didn't have".
He offers an alternate possibility. "I think
it was about a kind of ennui, or something of that nature that I was going
through, which is pretty endemic to adolescence".
And another. "At some point in childhood
development you become aware of the concept of mortality, of the reality of
life. I think that's what was going on with me at the time".
My finale will have
When teenagers tackle themes as difficult as
self-perception and death, they tend to do so with a heavy hand. Hell, even
adults can't often pull it off. But the lyrics to "Emily's Illness"
are deft and sophisticated, and remarkably devoid of pretension.
Nora has her own impressions of the song's
meaning. "There's no illness, but it's still very personal. Eric used a
female character to express a part of him. I know that it was one of the
hardest songs for him to write. He would cry, singing it and writing it. He'd
get so moved that he'd say, 'Here Nora, you sing it', because he couldn't get
through it. It was a really big time in his life, just starting college and leaving
music. I think it was one of the last songs he wrote. Up until then, he had
written lighter songs and love songs. But 'Emily', with these images of blood
dripping and becoming the notes on the music, they're really very metaphorical,
and very personal to Eric. I was amazed -- it was really like poetry, that he
was able to write an image like that. And I'd say, 'I'm supposed to sing that
line? "They make me drink a lot of hot things"?' I'd say, 'Oh God,
Eric, this is really sick'".
Jack Lewis landed a deal with Mercury, and in the fall of 1967 Eric and Nora took "Emily's Illness" into the studio. Lewis produced. Eisner played guitar. None of the principals can remember the names of the other musicians. Nora sang live.
There was dissent over the song's ending. Schroeck
chose a lilting fuzz-guitar figure to answer and illustrate the crucial line
about the clarinet. Eisner felt the part should be played on clarinet,
but Schroeck didn't want it to be quite so literal. "I said, 'No, no,
no'", Schroeck remembers. "'We're talking rock 'n' roll here'".
He'll play my piece
Schroeck's most inspired stroke was to finish the
song with a "Day In The Life"-styled coda in which Emily's haunting
theme is performed in double-reverse. He painstakingly transcribed the melody
so that the last note would be played first, followed by the second-to-last
note, etc. The part was overdubbed while the basic tracks were played
backwards. When finished, the recording was returned to its original direction;
thus, the backwards melody was now heard forwards, but with its textures
reversed; its decaying elements now attacking, and vice versa. Besides putting
an utterly unique and strikingly ethereal spin on the song's concluding
fade-out, the double-reverse also summarized what Schroeck believed was the
song's message. "The whole lyric involved the fact that corporate America
is trying to screw the character in the song. So after the record is made, they
do". Eisner again disagreed, contending that to include the backwards
section would in fact undermine Emily's plea: I hope they don't record it
backwards. But he and Nora were just kids, and the pros overruled. The
irony itself becomes double-reversed – Emily's songwriting success arises from
the means of her death, but it is debased, the last request of a dying girl
turned on its head. Still further is the real-life irony of the requests of
"Emily's"' songwriter being ignored by the studio authorities.
Mercury released "Emily's
Illness"  in late November (#72753), to little fanfare.
The label sprang for a full-page ad in Billboard, but having
no live act to send out on tour behind the record might have dampened
their enthusiasm for promoting it properly. There was one performance,
an in-studio appearance on Bob Fass's popular overnight show on WBAI,
New York's Pacifica station. "Eric was with me", Nora recalls.
"We'd talk to the host, then do a tune, then talk, then do a tune.
When it came time for me to do a station break, I was so nervous that
I announced the wrong station!" The record enjoyed significant
airplay in one city. "It was one of those underground hits in San
Francisco", says Nora. "They played it a lot".
Eric and Nora had no expectations for the record,
and thus were not terribly disappointed when it went nowhere. In fact, Nora was
almost hoping it would fail. "I was really embarrassed. When I heard it, I
thought there was such a lack of maturity". Jack Lewis had higher hopes,
but was experienced enough to chalk it up as a loss and move on. "Nobody
at the record company understood the record", he says. "And when a
company releases something without a good vibe, man, it stops before it even
gets out the door".
The Mercury contract called for a second single.
But Nora was about to enter NYU for dance studies, and had no desire for a
singing career. "It was something I was quite willing to drop, actually. I
was like, 'Couldn't we just forget about this?' Jack had to do some work to get
me out of the contract".
Eric's focus was also more
on school than on music at this point. He was an undergrad at Columbia
University, where he'd become active in the SDS. In late April, while
the embers of "Emily's Illness" were still smoldering, he
found himself in the midst of the now-legendary student takeover of
the Columbia campus. "I was in charge of the occupation of Mathematics
Hall. The heads of each building had to meet each day in steering committee.
So in the wee hours of the morning we would all climb down out of the
windows of our respective buildings. It was hysterical".
Eric stayed on at Columbia
to get a law degree, graduating in 1973 near the head of his class.
 He would place a few more of his songs -- with Kenny
Rankin, The Turtles, Deniece Williams and soft-rock trio Howdy Moon
 -- before switching from the music side of the music
business to the business side. After law school, the former student
radical immediately went corporate, moving to Los Angeles to work as
a high-powered entertainment attorney. He spent the 1980s as president
of the David Geffen Company, concentrating primarily on their motion
picture division. Among other films, Eisner helped oversee production
of the megahits Risky Business and Beetlejuice.  When in 1990 Geffen sold his company to MCA
for more than a half-billion dollars, Eisner cashed out his shares too
and retired young. He now tutors high-intelligence inner city kids,
and plays "as much golf as possible".
Although Eric and Nora's romance ended by default
when he moved to L.A., they have remained beloved friends over the years.
Retired from dancing after a successful career, Nora administers her father's
song catalogue, with an eye towards "dragging him out of the Dust Bowl and
putting him in the present". She was the executive producer of 1998's
acclaimed Mermaid Avenue, an album for which Billy Bragg and Wilco set
to music some of Woody's unrecorded lyrics. A second volume was released in
spring 2000; both received Grammy nominations. In 1992 Nora herself recorded
again for the first time since "Emily's Illness", joining her
brothers Arlo and Joady and a passel of their kids in adding their voices to
tapes of Woody singing some of his children's songs. The resulting Warner
Brothers album, Grow Big Songs, is delightful.
Unlike many other records that flopped upon release but have since been reclaimed, "Emily's Illness" has had no second life; it is even more obscure today than it was during its brief moment of availability over 30 years ago. This article aspires to two ends: to whet the appetite of today's audience of '60s music fans who, I am certain, would be instantly seduced by the magic of "Emily's Illness"; and, more importantly, to jump-start the motor of its rerelease. Because writing and reading about music, obviously, pale beside the real thing. And "Emily's Illness", if it is nothing else, is indeed the real thing. I hope you get to hear it someday.
Thanks for assistance with
this article to Tom Ardolino, Rob Coleman, Lisa Eisner, Sam Gaines,
Peter Gallway, Brian Gari, Seymour Glass, Michael Greenberg, Michael
Kleff, Reed Lappin, Erik Lindgren, Masaki Mitsuhisa, Yoshi Nagato, Mike
Stax, and especially to the principals of "Emily's Illness",
Jack Lewis, Artie Schroeck, Eric Eisner and Nora Guthrie.
1. "For certain engineering
purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible.
Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of special
material, a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University
... and heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them
to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous
system in operation and the low one my blood in circulation". -
John Cage, "Experimental Music", 1957.
2. Astrud Gilberto, Joao's then-wife and untrained
singer of "The Girl From Ipanema".
3. By coincidence, the initials of Eric and Nora's
high school as well as their song.
4. Bob Cavallo, who went on to manage Earth, Wind
& Fire, Prince, Seal, Weezer, The Goo Goo Dolls and Alanis Morissette, and
is now also a big-time movie producer.
5. Things sure did happen fast in the '60s. Within
a few months Stills would relocate to the West Coast, be turned down for The
Monkees, and hook up with Buffalo Springfield. The Springfield, possibly with
Stills as the go-between, fooled around with one of Eric's songs for a while,
but never recorded it.
6. The Strangers reformed some months later, minus Eric, and released a
45 on KR (#0115), "Land Of Music" b/w "I Need Your Love Inside Me". The
nucleus of this version then grew into The Fifth Avenue Band, which
released an album on Reprise in 1969. Strangers lead singer and rhythm
guitarist Peter Gallway is today a solo artist and producer. KR's name
was formed from the initials of its majordomos, Charles Koppelman and
Don Rubin. As two of the Ivy Three, K and R had had a novelty hit with
"Yogi" in 1960 (Shell #720). Koppelman, the K of KR, went on to become
one of the music industry's leading power brokers, most recently heard
from guiding what's left of Michael Jackson's music career.
7. In Jack Lewis, Eric and Nora were fortunate to work with yet another
heavy hitter. His jazz credentials include work with Duke Ellington,
Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims, Milt Jackson, Joao Gilberto, Nina Simone,
Jackie & Roy, Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams; in pop, The Lovin'
Spoonful and Kenny Rankin; and in comedy, Woody Allen, George Carlin,
The Committee, Burns & Schreiber and Flip Wilson. Like other principals
in this story, he has also produced movies, primarily jazz anthologies.
8. Another person whose approval helped spur
Nora's singing was their hero, Joao Gilberto. "Joao came to town to
play", Nora says, "Jack Lewis cooked this up, he said, 'Joao, you
gotta hear these songs, and you gotta hear Nora sing'. I had been listening to
Joao for years but never thought I'd be singing for him. So he came over to
Eric's house one day and we just all started playing together and singing, and
he gave me a lot of thumbs up, that it was OK for me to sing".
9. Backed with "Home Before Dark",
another charming Eisner original – "about fireflies", he says.
"Home Before Dark" embodies even more of the Gilberto influence.
10. Unlike most other campus uprisings of the day,
the Columbia revolt had nothing to do with Vietnam. It was sparked instead by a
racial issue, involving the construction of a university gym in an area where
it was unwelcomed by its Harlem neighbors.
11. Eric spent his entire educational career in
Manhattan. "I went to grade school, junior high school, high school,
college, and law school in the same borough", he said. "Not many
people can boast that".
12. "Nora Lee", Eisner's contribution to
1974's Howdy Moon album, is a wistful remembrance of his time with Nora
Lee Guthrie. The track was produced by Lowell George, with Eisner on acoustic
guitar. Another song on the album was produced by the 17-year-old Michael
13. Disney president Michael
Eisner has a son named Eric. The two Eric Eisners are occasionally confused
for one another.
(First published in Ugly Things #19)
Visit Nora's Woody Guthrie Foundation & Archives at http://www.woodyguthrie.org/
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