spotlight with solo album
ONE OF THE most notable of the unsung musicians in the rich history
of Marin rock 'n' roll lives quietly in a rustic brown shingle house
in Inverness, the little village on the shore of Tomales Bay that
Jesse Colin Young celebrated in "Ridgetop," his paean to windy and
foggy and quiet West Marin living.
Lowell Levinger, a talented multi-instrumentalist known to neighbors
and fans alike as Banana, has been a familiar figure in West Marin
since he moved there from Boston in 1967, the Summer of Love, with
Young and the Youngbloods.
They were flying high on the wings of "Get Together," the top 40 hit
that became the peace and love anthem of their generation. Soon after
arriving, they put their new home on the national map with the 1969
album "Elephant Mountain," the title taken from the nickname for
Black Mountain, which looms over Inverness and Point Reyes Station
like a sleeping pachyderm.
"That was our magnum opus," Banana said, sitting at a butcher block
table in his kitchen, sipping strong coffee. "It was our 'Sergeant Pepper.'"
At 65, Banana's distinctive bushy head of curly hair is still bushy
and curly, but has long since turned from
black to snowy white. He lives in the same English country-style home
he has lived in since 1975 - the living room stuffed with antique
furniture, a grand piano and the vintage stringed instruments he
collects and sells on the Internet.
In 1973, after 13 years and numerous major label albums, the
Youngbloods went their separate ways. For Banana, that meant raising
seven children with his wife, Monica, and working as the consummate
sideman, performing with folksinger Mimi Farina for two decades,
sometimes fronting his own band, Banana and the Bunch ("old time
music with appeal"), and singing and playing keyboards with the Marin
jazz-rock band Zero until that group broke up in 1993.
He has recently formed an occasional duo with David Nelson of the New
Riders of the Purple Sage and plays guitar and keys in the Michael
Barclay Blues Band.
"I've been good at blending my voice with other peoples' unique
voices, whether it's Jesse or Mimi or David Nelson," he said. "The
same thing with playing. I've been good at making the other players
Now that he has five grandchildren and his beard is as white as his
hair, he's christened himself Grandpa Banana in the tradition of
country music's Grandpa Jones.
"I am a grandpa, I'm older and that's cool," he said with smile.
"Really, it just keeps getting better."
And after decades in the background, he's stepping into the
spotlight, singing lead on his first solo album, "I'll Do Anything
for You," a tasteful collection of Americana songs played on vintage
"I've finally found my own voice," he said. "I've discovered I can go
out and sing songs that I connect with. And if I'm being moved by
them, they're probably going to move the audience as well."
"Across the Great Divide," by the late Kate Wolf, is one of the songs
on the CD that speaks to him most clearly, recalling the passing of
time and the heartbreak of his life.
In the first verse, he sings plaintively, "I've been walking in my
sleep/Counting troubles instead of counting sheep/Where the years
went I can't say/I just turned around and they've gone away/I've been
sifting through the layers of dusty books and faded papers/They tell
a story I used to know/One that happened so long ago."
Those lines stir up the grief that will always be with him from the
death, of a brain tumor in 1982, of his close friend, Joe Bauer, the
Youngbloods drummer; the heart-crushing death of his son, Seth, in a
1998 skiing accident; Mimi Farina's death from cancer in 2001,
followed by the passing of his wife five years ago, also from cancer.
When he speaks of the loved ones he's lost, he brushes away a tear
with the back of his hand.
"I can hardly sing 'Across the Great Divide' without crying because
so much has happened to me," he said softly. "It's like that song is
talking about me. That's my life. I know what that feels like, to
look back on the joy and the loss that you have in your life if
you've had any kind of full life at all."
Banana decided to embark on a solo career after playing in England
recently with Barry Melton, once of Country Joe and the Fish, and
discovering the British hinterlands were full of rabid Youngblood fans.
"I had no idea they existed," he said. "And they actually followed
me. Not Jesse, me. So I figured if there are pockets of those people
there, there may be pockets elsewhere."
He is once again playing the folk, bluegrass and country music that
first enthralled him when he was just starting out more than 40 years
ago, a young musician who found himself in Cambridge, Mass., in the
maelstrom of the folk revival of the early 1960s.
"Here I am in the beginning of the last phase of my life, and the
challenge now is trying to start a solo career," he said. "I've had
twinges of remorse about living here. We could have hung out in San
Francisco or L.A. and been part of that scene. But when I think about
it, I really wouldn't have had it any other way."
- "Grandpa Banana: I'll Do Anything for You," Grandpa Raccoon
Records, $13, www.grandpabanana.com.
Contact Paul Liberatore via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org