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Triumph of the Exile
Story by Gary Alexander
Photos by Ray G. Ring IV

A Dazzling New Clayton Denwood CD Delivers on a Long-Anticipated Promise

  Related Links:     Clayton Denwood's website  
  Order "Sunset on the Highway"  

Before a trapdoor opened and Clayton Denwood vanished from town as suddenly as he had first appeared, he had been identified, during the prior seven years, as a "Woodstock Musician."

Long familiar on the local scene and in a number of Manhattan musical venues as an extraordinary writer and singer of songs, his appearances in clubs and at concerts, solo or in company, marked him in our minds as a regional artist of considerable ability. Everyone, of course, knew that on a mandatory New World Order National ID card, his nationality would be listed as "Canadian" but we thought as little of that small detail as, apparently, did he. If you're in Woodstock long enough, what does it matter if you're from Brooklyn, Kansas or Canada? Woodstock Nation has its own imaginary national ID cards, doesn't it?

Nowadays, an ID card or a bank card can also serve as a disguise. It once was that a supermarket clerk could take a measure of someone by how they folded their money. Are the big bills on the inside or outside? If they come out of pocket jumbled into origami puzzles, the bearer is a poet, musician, artist, drunk or from some other existentially-inflicted state.

In Clayton's case, the artist's existential dilemma was nurtured and conditioned by Woodstock's matter-of-factly, day-to-day, note-by-note creative preoccupations. Always a new song coming; always a shift in schedule to make room to play an emergency community benefit or join a jam that was forming as swiftly as a weather front. Details like "origins" were continually flooded away by details of "now."

"Probably, for me, Woodstock is a place where every day has its own quality to it," Denwood said recently in a phone call from Toronto. "Being a small town, when you walk out the door, you're going to see someone you know...which can change the course of the day. So, your script is pretty much unwritten."

Denwood allows that similar diversions can happen in cities as well, particularly along well-beaten cultural and occupational paths. But, for all of its bustling population and professional comrades, he finds the city lonelier and more isolating than the Woodstock he remembers. He finds himself reflecting upon the beauty of the town, its mountains and streams- "...a haven, in its own way, from the world," he sighs.

Although his ancestral roots are somewhat tangled in American soil, the Denwood line had returned to England before his father's generation and Clayton himself was Canadian born. He can recall Beatles, Beachboys and other standard musical fare of the '70's in his earliest memories of home life and a small piano he began playing at eight when his family moved to Chicago and inherited it as a piece of left-behind furniture from a former tenant. The adopted piano remained in the household and under Clayton's fingers when the family returned to Canada.

Around the time the compact disk debuted, Denwood recalls finding a horizon-widening treasury of vinyl LPS in milk crates discarded by a neighbor. In roughly the same period, he followed a 12-year-old's urge to drums and a high school era band. By 15, he had picked up a guitar and, within a year, started writing "little piano songs." From there, it was just a matter of time before he outgrew his role in the band and decided to form his own group in Toronto.

A decision to study in Montreal led to distraction, as he remembers: "This was the first time I had an apartment. I had a big, old Underwood typewriter there and I just spent most of my time writing. I didn't concentrate too much on school and, by the time winter exams came around, I remember sitting for a world politics test...about ten minutes into it I just folded it up, walked out and never went back. Spring of the next year, I left Montreal and came to Woodstock."

This was early 1992 and, actually, Denwood's sites were drawn on Greenwich Village but the magnetic lure of this little town had rubbed into him through books, magazines and legend just as it had the unknown driver who had picked him up hitchhiking south in Vermont.

"You know, I've always wanted to see Big Pink, myself," this fellow admitted in the middle of a conversation about Woodstock's musical legacy. He was referring, of course, to the world-renowned little house tucked away off of a minor road in Saugerties, pictured on the back of the first album by The Band and recording site for most of the legendary "Basement Tapes" they rolled off with Bob Dylan. That called for an impulse exit from the Thruway and a fruitless search around Saugerties before Denwood's driver gave up and deposited the musician at the bridge near Tinker Street Cafe.

It would take him, Denwood recalls, "about a year" to find Big Pink but he immediately found a scene in Woodstock which intrigued him. Talent abounded in local artists such as Judy Whitfield, Paul McMahon and numerous other performers and, at the time, as he recalls, "Hothouse Flowers were in town making a record. So was Natalie Merchant and other folks. It just seemed like a good place to be for a little bit."

Within days, Denwood had electrified the crowd at the Cafe's "open mike night" and word circulated swiftly that there was a "New Dylan" in town. He continued creating a sensation in subsequent appearances. For one thing, he was just too young to be that good.

Many of you know the story from there. Clayton stayed, working hard at his craft, producing gem after newly-written gem for the performances he polished zestfully as he strove to live up to that "New Dylan" image. It was an unfair label which invariably disappointed but, in Denwood's case, unavoidable.

Even as his musical acumen grew, his presence and poise- his songs and delivery- his natural style and manner remained distinctly Dylansque. His onstage intensity was an adhesion to seize audiences and his voice, even at its most raw moments markedly better than Dylan's own - with perhaps a hint of Jimmy LaFave tonality- was progressively untethering its melodic binds and expanding its grasp of subtleties. The flashes of power in his songs forecast enough promise to anticipate some true masterpieces down the line and he even had the opportunity to play with members of The Band who left that fork in his road.

Denwood settled in, picking up odd jobs between gigs to keep just enough of those crumpled bills in his pocket to make due as he focused on the next tune. Along the way he married a lass from Columbia County and fathered a son he wanted to bring to Toronto to meet his grandparents. There wasn't a second thought that a simple trip north could lead to the complications which have made him an exile from his adopted hometown.

"Originally, I was quite insulted and indignant," Denwood said of that frozen moment border guards blocked his return to the United States. "Why would you do something like that to me? I can't remember the official charge exactly- that I lived there and worked without letting anyone official know or something like that- I'm not too involved with the government or anything- I've got the papers on file. It wasn't a tax thing. I think what they were most pissed off at, basically, was that I didn't pay attention to the rules. I just did my own thing."

Barred from entry for five years, Clayton will not be eligible to return until August 19, 2004- two days before his 34th birthday. In the meanwhile, he gathered a band of crackerjack Canadian players, recorded his first album live at Toronto's Old York club and issued it as "The Exile Sessions." A soaring blast of rock-away-your-blues originals served with self-possessed authenticity.

Sunset on the Highway
More recently, Denwood's first studio album, "Sunset on the Highway," produced by popular Canadian guitarist Joe Dunphy, emerged as even more of a stunner. Melodically matured and absent the occasional arm wrestle between lyric and melody which slowed a few of Denwood's earlier works, here, an internal consistency is at ease with the mating as lyrics provide opaque tricks and truths with the unpretentious code of a righteous seeker. Master Dylan could well have written Denwood's opening track, "Only You," during one of his endless phases of self- reinvention. But he didn't and, for all of its Dylansque quality, Clayton claims it as pure Denwood.

On "Make Me Whole," Denwood finds some of his own doors to the secret garden and seems to reflect, between the lines, the puzzlement of someone overshadowed by the might of American culture but still considered an outsider: "Be my comfort in confusion; be my refuge from laws of men/& I will be the ashes where your faith can rise again/Be my guardian of innocence; be the forgiveness of my guilt/& I'll be the foundation where your dreams can be rebuilt/For careless are the raging seas & so blinding is the light/we must cleave to one another if we hope to make this flight/I'm not asking you to surrender to any flag upon a pole/It's just that I am almost free and your love will make me whole."

Throughout the album the musicianship turns up top of the line. The delicious, engaging drum work of Josh Hicks positively shines on tracks like "King of His Own Hometown" and Larry Johnson's pedal steel on "Real Thing"shows us that Nashville North has more bite than the one in Tennessee. The title tune is not as "country" as "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" and the shuffling rocker "Sorry (if I love you)" owes more to Chuck Berry than Bobby D. But, not to be bypassed, we find some of the poetic suspensions Dylan discovered at the Gates of Eden in "Sanctified."

In "Downstream," which might have been a bid for a 'single' in an overtly commercial scenario, Denwood blends in some chords which are more obviously pop-oriented than other frames he fleshes out here and turns them to task a broader vision. It's a song I don't think Dylan, for all of his genius, could have written - even in the days he was competing with the Beatles- and may have represented a profitable retrogression of sorts for Clayton. Otherwise, his efforts provide guidance for roots instinct in a contemporary American music which is currently a bit at sea and at danger, depending upon where the New World Order corporate music capital decides to locate, of becoming part of Canada. (This, of course, will be installed- as the globe warms- along with palm trees in Winnepeg.) Altogether, for card-carrying Woodstockers as well as New Worlders without lines across their musical roots, the album is sparkling reward to Denwood fans who have missed his presence locally and can be found in a few regional shops like Rhythms in Woodstock or on the web at online CD stores like cdbaby.com or cdstreet.com.

Meanwhile, Clayton bides his time playing occasional "above upstate" gigs, helping friends build things (such as the studio his album was recorded in) and playing hockey with a team called the Hawks. (The team's name provokes daydreams of the legendary Ronnie Hawkins- whose old band was called The Hawks before they became The Band). He sends his love to us all back here as he waits it out and his thoughts stray daily southward. His former wife, a country girl uncomfortable in Toronto, left for Florida with his son and remarried. Although they remain on friendly terms, he bemoans the difficulty of a telephone relationship with a four-year-old...and he keeps seeing the slopes of Overlook when he closes his eyes.

"I would be back in a heartbeat, if I could," the expatriate said but betrayed a touch of ambivalence about the prospects of being allowed through the checkpoint when the time comes. "I haven't really challenged it. I could, if I knew who to contact. Chances are I could make a pretty good case but it's hard to know where to send that kind of appeal...and undoubtedly expensive. At least they can't stop my thoughts from crossing the border."

-Gary Alexander

Gary Alexander is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names, he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event; science and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of presumption which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have, Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort to humor.

Posted on February 22, 2002

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