And what a life he is and has been living.
This is the story so far.
At the end of the 70s, you were playing CBGB’swith your band Elliot Schneider and the Pitts. What was it like?
I had just returned to rock and roll in 1978. Around 1969 I fell in love with the British acid folk music of The Incredible String Band and also Pentangle. Suddenly I was writing some very esoteric gentle songs that wandered into the wisp or meandered into the meadows of your pillow.
Then in 1978, I met a Swedish painter and ex-child star who heard me sing with my giant incognito rock and roll voice which I had been hiding from the world for a decade. She fell over.
Meanwhile, a writer in L.A. read a play of mine and asked me to move there and be her co-partner in some teleplays and screenplays. So Tobi, the Swedish painter, and I moved to L.A. But soon, to paraphrase J.D. Salinger, I was nauseated by the kind of prostitution this entailed.
And I began writing what began as almost accusatory rock against L.A. I recorded some very exciting rock and roll in L.A. with my first incarnation of Elliot Schneider and The Pitts.
Then I moved back to New York and formed the second incarnation. My band was just the third band in CBGB’s history to debut on a Saturday night. It was thrilling. CBGB’s was my favorite stage in all of New York City.
What were your musical dreams at that time?
Silly me—I wanted to make music on the level of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Anything less seemed to be settling. Why bother making music if you couldn’t reacquaint people with all their dreams and fears and lost loves? The Beatles were the Apollonian archetype; The Stones were the Dionysian model. I wanted to dabble in both.
You became a teacher. Your old students aren’t surprised when they find out you are recording, are they?
I had a way of blowing up all my potential successes. In 1979 the head of A & R at Capitol Records heard the first three songs I recorded in L.A. and absolutely loved them. He asked me to send him a couple of more songs and if he dug them too I would’ve been signed to the same American label as The Beatles. My dream come true! Well, I had two more studio songs from L.A.
But the lead guitarist—a genius really—did something a little different than we did in rehearsal. So I refused to give the head of Capitol Records the songs. Never compromise, I thought. Smart thinking, Elliot. Oddly enough those two songs were to appear in the Bonus Material on my 2012 album, “If Looks Could Kill, I’d Wear Mirror Sunglasses.” DJs loved them; hell, I love them. If I had given them to Capitol Records in 1979, they would’ve signed me. They wanted to—and I refused. Go figure. But even back in 1969, I was doing the same thing. In the summer of 1969 when men first set foot on the moon, I met Les Paul in Chicago.
I was visiting the daughter of his former drummer Tommy Rinaldo. Mr. Paul was both warm and sardonic. He invited me to travel back to New York with him, “Ten Years After” and Dusty Springfield. Strangely enough, I said, “thanks, but I can’t,” and so he gave me his card and invited me to his home in Mahwah, New Jersey. I played for him at his home in March of 1970 and he wanted to produce my song, “The First Day Of Summer.”
Alas, I took an LSD trip that lasted a month—my last acid trip—and wound up 3,000 miles away in La-La Land. Forty-seven years later I finally recorded that song. And it appears on my new CD, “Don’t Put All Your Eggs In One Basketcase.” And also in my folk period in 1973, the best A & R man at Elektra-Asylum Records loved my music and asked me to add bass and drums and come back. I said to my bandmates, “Fuck him. He doesn’t get it.”
And I refused to go back. I sure showed him. I did things like that more often than I have fingers and toes to count. So Finally in 1986 when I put out a rock and roll LP called, “Surreal Survivor” and I got very serious interest again, I gave up the holy grail of rock and roll and went to Graduate School in 1987. I studied history in great depth. And I became a History and Philosophy teacher.
From 1987 until I got breast cancer, the only time I performed was with a band of my students at high school rallies. If I hadn’t gotten cancer, none of my CDs would exist today.
What brought you back to making music?
My mother died of breast cancer when I was only two. And suddenly in 2005, I discovered I had the same disease. They removed my left breast—and also the sentinel lymph node to biopsy. Then they discovered the sentinel lymph node was cancerous too. They operated again and took out all the lymph nodes under my left armpit. Thank Zeus the cancer had yet to spread there.
If I discovered my cancer a little later, it would’ve spread through the lymph system of my body and I probably would have died. To be safe they gave me an unusually strong treatment of chemotherapy. And they kept it up for twice as long as they do in Europe.
About six months in I got Chemo-brain. I couldn’t follow two words in a row nevertheless complex thought. So I retired from teaching. But before I retired the mother of one of my students—Carmen Castro—came to my house to get the lesson plans to deliver to the school.
She and I had been close friends for 16 years. I taught all three of her kids and she was close with my kids too. I picked up my guitar and I began writing songs. My synapses snapped back into shape as songs sprang from my soul. And Carmen and I fell magically in love after 16 years of Platonic friendship. We actually fell in love the first time I got off stage in decades and fell into her eyes as I stepped down.
You released 4 albums so far. All received lots of praise. Excited? Surprised maybe?
Before I recorded the new songs, Carmen and I selected songs from my past and we put out an 18-song compilation from the previous millennium. I called it, “Surreal Survivor” although the 1986 LP only had 9 songs.
And one version of the record was left off for a wilder live version from the time. Then I recorded lots of new songs including, “If Looks Could Kill, I’d Wear Mirror Sunglasses” which became the title track.
That led to a tour of the UK where I also performed live on The BBC Radio Merseyside in Liverpool. Sort of like British Invasion in reverse. My third CD was “Better A Fool Than Aloof” which actually hit NUMBER ONE at WLFR 91.7 FM near Atlantic City. My latest album, “Don’t Put All Your Eggs In One Basketcase” reached NUMBER ONE at WLFR 91.7 FM and also at WMUH 91.7 FM in Allentown, Pennsylvania. And it hit #59 on the National Charts of Muzooka Radio Charts (Unweighted side.)
Then on February 16, 2018, I wrote, “I Second That Amendment Blues.”
This satirical yet passionate song sprang out of me two days after the terrifying murders of the children and teachers in Parkland, Florida. We launched it into the turbulent seas of human emotion as a life raft or a call to (loving) arms; this is for the children and their battle for the soul of America. With young people like this, I have hope for our planet. We must never despair, and we must never give up. Let me share the lyrics with you.
I want my own A-Bomb
I’ve got rights like you
I want my own A-Bomb
I want an ICBM too
So you pray but they still shoot
Let me pry away their guns
God helps those who help themselves
Your prayers are falling on dead ears
You say guns don’t kill but
A mad man with a butter knife
Won’t cause that much strife
A submachine gun in his hand
And it is a savage land
I second that amendment blues
I second that amendment blues
How many children will we kill?
The NRA is paying the bill
Swagger, like Ray Davies en Peter Wolf. Does that make sense?
I just can’t quit. I do like what you said about Ray Davies and Peter Wolf.
And swagger… the legendary DJ and author Spencer Leigh (who knew The Beatles and wrote many books about them) said on his BBC Radio Merseyside program after playing me the first time: “Excellent stuff—that guys got swagger.”
Cary Tennis (Salon.com’s renowned columnist for a 14-year span) wrote in SF Weekly: “It’s impossible to classify him, categorize him, deny, defy or crucify him. Everything about him invites skepticism; you know right off he’s either a total flake or a total genius.”
“Bay area rocker Elliot Schneider’s career reads like the lyrics of a rock ‘n’ roll song.” –Randy McMullen, San Jose Mercury News
“I love singing,” says the self-professed former hippie. “It’s like making love to the universe.” –Jim Harrington quoting Elliot Schneider, Oakland Tribune and San Jose Mercury News
What’s left, Elliot? Still ambitious? Still got something to prove? Or is it ‘just’ for the sake of the song? And the need to express yourself?
My mother died of breast cancer when I was two. She was only twenty-seven. She got cancer when I was one. My earliest memories are of life and death. In response, I lived passionately every moment. Instead of waiting until my sixties, I retired in my twenties and thirties when I was young enough to really enjoy it. I had more adventures than could fit in twenty volumes and I lived without fear. I drank with hoboes; I drank with a member of the Kennedy administration whose daughter was the Queen of Jordan. Linda McCartney and I spoke of the death of her mother and my own father. I lived for love and traveled the planet, Peter Pan masquerading as Captain Hook but always being Elliot. I’ve been blessed with love affairs that read like fantasy–I love my life. I’ve played guitar with Les Paul and danced around knives in New York. Surfing on the present moment I’ve known a lot of ecstasy and even heartbreak. Because I’ve always done what I want, I have no regrets. Every day has been magical.
One day I gave up the Holy Grail of Rock ’n’ Roll and went through the Looking Glass. I became a history and philosophy teacher and became the father of two dazzling suns. Who needs reincarnation? We all live many lives in a single lifetime.
Since I always loved women (perhaps searching for the mother I never had), it seems only fitting that I, too, got breast cancer. More than half a century ago, there was little they could do for my mother. We live in a different world now. I beat cancer, and I retired from my retirement from Rock ’n’ Roll. I fell in love with Carmen Castro, the love of my life—and my keyboard player. I met her because I taught all three of her kids. We were friends for sixteen years before I fell into her eyes. And I am still falling.
Every day I try to feel ecstatic. The moment is immortal even if we are not. I can live with the fact that I’m going to die. I’ve never waited for the Afterlife—I live now. I’m still going to die and yet the world is still thrilling me. If we spend our life fearing death, we never live at all. My purpose in life has always been to really live before I die. There are stories I still want to tell. When death finds me, I’ll be kicking, gouging and scratching all the way. If I could live forever, I would. How could you be bored with the universe all around you?
So I ask you: Is there life after birth?