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‘An unjustly lost figure in rock history’: At age 72, Middletown’s Fagan finds fame, peace

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 3/7/18

Fifty years ago, a 22-year-old New York City kid who grew up impoverished in the Virgin Islands recorded an album for Atco Records called “South Atlantic Blues.”

The album was to be …

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‘An unjustly lost figure in rock history’: At age 72, Middletown’s Fagan finds fame, peace

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Fifty years ago, a 22-year-old New York City kid who grew up impoverished in the Virgin Islands recorded an album for Atco Records called “South Atlantic Blues.”

The album was to be Scott Fagan’s ticket to stardom.

Apple Records, which was founded by the Beatles, was deciding between Fagan and James Taylor to record the first non-Beatle album for the label.

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Scott Fagan to perform at Tattered Flag on March 16

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A manager in the Big Apple had told Fagan that in six months he would be bigger than Elvis Presley.

Things didn’t work out that way.

Instead, despite today being hailed a “folk-rock masterpiece,” the album landed in the cut-out bin, that record store graveyard where vinyl LPs go to be returned because they didn’t sell.

Meanwhile, that guy named James Taylor was chosen to record for Apple. Everyone knows where he ended up.

Scott Fagan ended up in Middletown, of all places. He became part of the local arts and music scene, devoting himself to the Middletown Area Arts Collective.

Despite its obscurity, “South Atlantic Blues” was never completely forgotten.

Jasper Johns, who The New York Times recently called the United States’ “foremost living artist,” stumbled onto “South Atlantic Blues” and was so inspired by the music that he created a series of lithographs devoted to the album in 1970.

Titled simply “Scott Fagan Record,” the lithographs can be found today in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But otherwise, for years and years the breaks just didn’t go Scott Fagan’s way.

A guy named Jerry Schoenbaum was in Fagan’s corner, and wanted to record Fagan at Atco. But Schoenbaum had a falling-out with Atco, leaving Fagan high and dry as far as Atco was concerned.

Some of the bad breaks were likely self-inflicted. When you’re trying to break into the music business, you don’t go out of your way to call attention to everything that is bad about the music business.

But that’s what Fagan did. In 1971, a rock opera he co-wrote with Joseph Kookolis called “Soon” — which vilified the ills of the music industry — debuted on the Broadway. It closed after three performances.

Among the cast members were Barry Bostwick (who in 1972 would originate the stage role of Danny Zuko in “Grease” and then go on to star in the movie “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in 1975), Nell Carter (later the star of TV’s “Gimme a Break!” and a Tony winner in 1978 for “Ain’t Misbehavin’”), and a then-unknown actor named Richard Gere.

“I was naive in those days,” Fagan, now 72, told the Press & Journal during a March 1 interview at Tattered Flag Brewery & Still Works in Middletown. “We thought if we brought it out in the open, things would change.”

Instead, after “Soon,” Fagan never got another recording or publishing deal. Back then artists didn’t have YouTube or the Internet to promote themselves to the world. You needed a publicist, but Fagan was kryptonite.

That’s basically how things went for Fagan for the next 44 years.

Fagan ended up in Middletown following his older sister, Gale Blake, who sometime around 1965 had played a gig at a club called the Beachcomber on Walnut Street just outside Harrisburg.

Blake was part of a traveling hula dancer troupe, with the stage name “Leilani.”

“She met some folks and looked around and found Middletown. It was so different from the kind of high drama we had lived in all our lives, that she said, ‘I want to settle here,’” Fagan said. “She stayed here. I would come from New York or from wherever, to visit her. Through the years I developed an affection for the quiet, the relative peacefulness.”

For more than 20 years, Blake was president of the Middletown Friends of the Library. As her health declined, Fagan began spending more time in Middletown to be with her.

By 2004 he was living in Middletown, although dividing his time between here and the Virgin Islands as he still does today.

When Blake died in April 2008 at age 64, her house was packed with books. Her estate donated them to the Middletown Public Library, and the library raised $7,000 from selling the collection, Fagan said.

By then, Fagan had immersed himself in the Middletown musical scene and formed a band, the MAAC Island Band. He became part of a tight-knit community of “rock-solid supporters of the arts in Middletown,” as Fagan puts it today.

Meanwhile in 2005, unbeknownst to Fagan at the time, there was another of those improbable discoveries of “South Atlantic Blues.”

Years later Fagan learned that the album had become the subject of lively discussion on an Internet forum out of Jakarta, Indonesia, led by “Jakartajive.”

“These comments would pop up — ‘That’s a work of genius’ and ‘Man, that’s a masterpiece.’ It was always wonderful to see, but I can’t send me children to school based on that,” Fagan said, affecting the Virgin Islands lingo that occasionally crops up in his speech.

“Jakartajive” was Hugh Dellar, who after finding the album in a cut-out bin had written a five-page article about “South Atlantic Blues” in a magazine called Shindig.

Not long after, Fagan was contacted by Chris Campion, who wanted to re-issue “South Atlantic Blues” on Campion’s own label, Saint Cecelia Knows Records.

In November 2015, “South Atlantic Blues” was re-issued by Saint Cecelia Knows and by Fagan’s own Middletown-based label, Lil’ Fish Records.

Campion praised the album as “a genuine lost classic” … a mystical, mythical, deeply soulful folk-rock masterpiece.”

Campion also hired a big-time New York City publicist, Shorefire.com, to promote the re-issue.

All of a sudden, Scott Fagan — who was barely known in Middletown — became the subject of articles in The New York Times (Nov. 25, 2015), London’s The Guardian (Nov. 19, 2015), and more.

“All these things were receptive because the information was coming from a reputable publicist, rather than from a disgruntled artist in Middletown, Pennsylvania, wherever that is,” Fagan told the Press & Journal. “And that is what made the difference. A good publicist. I’m 53 years in the music business and doing all I can to write all the best stuff I can write and committed to singing me heart out and blah, blah blah. None of that has changed in 53 years. What’s changed is the publicist. That’s what made the difference. I’m telling you the truth.”

The accolades kept coming. In anticipation of the re-issue, WXPN-FM in Philadelphia made “In My Head” from “South Atlantic Blues” the radio station’s “Gotta Hear Song of the Week.”

Quoting an account posted by the website Dangerous Minds, the station hailed Fagan as “one of those amazing, unjustly lost figures in rock history — a man who made brilliant work that unaccountably disappeared, though it had every chance at widespread attention.”

Dangerous Minds praised “South Atlantic Blues” as “an eccentric, genre jumping pop/psych/folk masterpiece that, much like Skip Spence’s now-revered Oar, sank like a cinderblock.”

Fagan’s distinctive vocals on the record inspired comparisons to Scott Walker, Donovan and David Bowie.

Fagan over his long career crossed paths and even performed with some of the biggest names in rock ’n’ roll — even if at the time they weren’t yet big.

In 1966 he was part of a house band at the Cafe au Go Go in Greenwich Village that also included Richie Havens, David Clayton Thomas — later to become lead singer of Blood, Sweat and Tears — and a guy named Jimmy James who was fronting his own band, the Blue Flames. James would go on to achieve global superstardom as Jimi Hendrix.

Fagan said he never met James Taylor, but he doesn’t hold a grudge against Taylor for him getting the Apple deal and not Fagan.

“In their defense, James was spending time in England working hard to be the artist chosen,” Fagan said.

Noting that many American musical artists first became famous in England, Fagan even today wonders how things might have been for him had he left the Virgin Islands for Europe in the 1960s, instead of returning to his native New York City.

Now almost three years on, it looks like the rediscovery of Fagan and “South Atlantic Blues” is here to stay.

Fagan did a concert tour of Europe in 2016, doing most of the dates in the United Kingdom, where he performed the entire “South Atlantic Blues” album and other songs.

“Really that is where I have been rediscovered and that’s where the largest fan base is,” Fagan said of the European gigs. “Everyone of these places treat me like the prodigal son. It’s a beautiful thing.”

One show from Cafe OTO in London is becoming a new album for Fagan to be released as “Live in London.” Fagan recently finished mixing the album at Melody Place, a recording studio on Jonestown Road in Harrisburg.

A second new album will include the first recordings ever made of songs from the rock opera “Soon.” Fagan will promote that album with another tour of the UK and Europe kicking off this fall.

Another new album is to be recorded here or in Austin, Texas. Fagan said he hopes to record the album here with the musicians he has been working with at Melody Place. Fagan is also to be the subject of a biographical film.

After 50 years, Fagan today is grateful that the breaks are finally going his way.

“My success is better late than never,” he said, although “I wish I was younger and had more energy.”

He admitted to being bitter in the early years, especially after what happened with “Soon.” His partner in writing the opera never wrote another song and “died young,” Fagan said.

But experience taught Fagan that bitterness gets you nowhere.

“When one is bitter and is angry, it just poisons everything in one’s life,” he said. “I’ve not been bitter and resentful for the past 39 years. Before that I had some struggle with it. Thirty-nine years I’ve been living in gratitude with a fairly good attitude, and raring to go. So when these wonderful developments occurred I wasn’t astounded because I think if you put out good vibes, you sort of live in that.”

The money hasn’t come yet, “but the possibility is getting closer all the time. I can tell you that I am not in it for the money, thank God.”

Fagan said people needn’t worry that with all this sudden fame and fortune, he will pack up and leave Middletown behind.

“I’ve been all over the place and the people here are as good as anywhere,” he said. “I’m certainly not naive, but good people are a wonder in the world, and when you find them, you better hold onto them. I go back and forth to the Virgin Islands, which is my home, but I’m a Middletowner by choice.”

Nevertheless, when you have a life story like Fagan’s, you learn to never completely shut the door on anything. As Fagan puts it, “I no longer think I thoroughly understand how things work.”

“If I fell in with some wonderful wench and she swept me off to live in Switzerland or something, I’d send you a bunch of post cards from Switzerland,” he said of what the future holds. “The likelihood of me moving to Switzerland is zip, zero. So I don’t think anyone needs to worry about Scott abandoning” Middletown.