The man who played bass guitar on two of the most influential records of all time, in two quite separate genres, can be seen nowadays walking with his wife and two small dogs on the south Jerusalem promenade overlooking the Old City.
Harvey Brooks, bassist for Bob Dylan (on Highway 61 Revisited) and Miles Davis (on Bitches Brew), founding member of 60s super-group The Electric Flag, session-man for The Doors and Donald Fagen, producer of artists as diverse as Karen Dalton, QuickSilver Messenger Service, and former congressman John Hall (of the band Orleans), moved to Israel with Bonnie three years ago, and is living a mellow, low-key life while playing, he believes, better than ever.
They’d both battled bouts of cancer. He’d seen musical contemporaries — Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and more — pass away before their time. She had a daughter living in a settlement in the Etzion Bloc. They’d been living in Tucson, Arizona, running various music-related business, when Bonnie decided, “That’s it, I’m filling in the Nefesh b’Nefesh forms.”
And “where she goes, I go,” says Harvey.
Their home — the third they’ve rented since they came here — is warm and welcoming, high-ceilinged and filled with artworks. A big front room doubles as Harvey’s studio — and it’s comfortably chaotic, with guitars, keyboards, computers, and a drum kit on hand. He also teaches guitar and electric bass here, to students of all standards.
Brooks had been leading the stereotypical rootless musician’s life before he and Bonnie got together in the late 1980s — he’d never married; she was divorced — and he says she made him whole. “My beshert,” he calls her more than once during an interview — the yiddish term for his “soulmate,” his “meant to be.” She says Israel has liberated his soul.
Her quick-fire conversation focuses in good part on her three daughters — the one with nine kids who lives in Gush Etzion and the two others back in the US who disapprove of the settler enterprise. His gentle, easy-paced input reels from the first gigs with Dylan, to running from gun-wielding rhythm and blues stars whose drummers he and his band have lured away, to expanding musical horizons with Davis, to hooking up with local musicians here.
But mostly, this silver-gray-haired couple speak about each other, adoringly. They went to school together, reconnected half a lifetime later, and plainly see their late-life partnership as blessed, something akin to salvation.
What are you guys doing here? It’s a little improbable, isn’t it?
Bonnie: I started coming here as an exchange student. I have three daughters; we used to come here backpacking when the girls were young.
But where does Harvey come in?
Bonnie: Harvey and I were in junior high school together in New York. But it wasn’t to be, then. He was a musician, living a life out on the road… Years and years later, I was putting together an exhibition of rock’n’roll artifacts, put an ad in the papers for memorabilia from the 60s to the 80s, got a call which led to a list of musicians… To cut a long story short, we met for lunch in Manhattan. That was in 1988.
Harvey: At that time, I’d never been to Israel. I was interested in Israel because I was Jewish. (His parents were Conservative Jews.) I had an aunt and uncle who would go and visit. But it wasn’t in my life. I was on my bass — on the planes, playing music. It was beshert that we met. My life was music. I never thought about family. I was sort of like half a person.
Bonnie: We have this shared cancer experience. He had bladder cancer. That’s how I found my breast cancer. That saved my life. I told Harvey, ‘Don’t marry me. I’m a single mother. I have three children. I found a lump.’ Now he wants to get married. That was 23 years ago. We got married in 1989.
Are you clear now?
Bonnie: It’s cancer. It’s never completely over.
Harvey: But as long as you’re supposed to be here, you’ll be here. When your job is done, it’s time to move on.
Bonnie: Harvey’s first visit was when we came to see Julie (the youngest of her daughters), who was here on kibbutz. That was on Hanukkah 20 years ago. And we came back a few times after that.
Lori (the eldest) and her family made aliya. Her husband is Israeli. She told us they live in Jerusalem. Actually, they were in Alon Shvut. They came in September 2000, right at the start of the second intifada. She has nine children. The oldest, 21, is getting married soon. Lori works at Hadassah, she’s a researcher, in bone marrow.
In Tucson, we had a music business. Richie Havens would play. But the music business was in decline… I’ve always felt my Jewishness was important. We decided to take the risk and move here. Who knows how much longer we’ve got?
Harvey had changed his name from Goldstein to Brooks (after he was attacked in an anti-Semitic incident outside a club where he’d played in Michigan). He wanted to be “white bread.” My two girls in America intermarried. One husband converted; one didn’t. I see the grandchildren have limited Jewish identity.
Some people feel I’ve put Harvey in a precarious position by coming here. It took him out of where they would want him to be.
Harvey: I didn’t put down roots. Bonnie feels she dragged me here. But where she goes, I go. If I didn’t want to go, it would be a problem.
Bonnie: We came after my cousin, a philanthropist, passed away. He’s buried in a cemetery in Tucson. I said, ‘I’m going home. I’m filling out the forms for Nefesh b’Nefesh’ (the aliya organization). If we’d taken more time on the decision, maybe we wouldn’t have come.
People need to come here and see Israel, like Janis Ian did. She came and played in Tel Aviv. She sold out three shows and could have sold more.
Were you still playing music in the US before you came, Harvey?
Harvey: Sure. I was recording. I’m still connected from here. I have a studio on my computer. I’m teaching via Skype. Here, I’m playing with Ehud Banai. With Danny Sanderson. Ronnie Peterson. I’ve got some really good people I’m rehearsing with.
We share our music narrative on Facebook. We meet up with some of the musicians who come through here.
Harvey: Well, Billy Cobham, for instance. He’s married to a Muslim woman, from Uzbekistan. The organizers who brought him here to play (in Jerusalem last year) set them up in a kosher hotel, at the entrance to the city. They didn’t know where to go. We took them through the Old City, showed them around.
Did you get to Dylan last year? I thought he was terrible, and I had zero expectations. He murdered his songs.
Harvey: (Laughs) I thought it was the best in a long time! He was animated.
Bonnie: He’s played shows where he had his back to the audience the whole time.
Harvey: If you like it the way he used to play it, he’d say, go put on the CD. Vocally, he’s reinventing constantly. He’s more concerned with his own personal experiences of it. I think he’s going to keep on playing whether anybody likes it or not. Until he dies. He’s going to die onstage.
This was him doing the best he can do with it. He’s truly an artist. It’s a creative process. He can’t duplicate if he wanted to. The old versions (of songs), some of which I did with him? He’s done it that way. He can’t do it that way anymore. He had a good time (here), God bless him!
Dylan was an unbelievable songwriter. A vehicle songs have come through.
Who else have you loved playing with?
Harvey: Donald Fagen is one of the best.
I loved working with Miles Davis (including on the double album Bitches Brew, a classic improvisational jazz record, released in 1970). It was a total expanding experience. Things can be indexed: how to do it and how not to do it. And here’s a whole other area, where things happen. It’s not intellectual and not analytical. Those sessions had nothing to do with planning. You just follow the leader and find your place.
How did the Miles Davis hookup happen?
Harvey: I was a producer at Columbia Records. His producer (Teo Macero) said go down — do the demos. Miles liked the way I played. And so he hired me to play on Bitches Brew.
Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you start playing?
Harvey: I started playing lead guitar in junior high. We played a gig at a local church. Then we had a band — three guitars, drums and sax. In high school, a guy said I’ll manage you. He got me an electric bass. Took us down to Greenwich Village. I started playing the bass at Eighth Wonder in the Village. I played some gigs with Al Kooper. I got a gig at the World’s Fair (1964-5) and hired Al to play guitar.
And after that, Al Kooper got me a gig with Dylan. He gave me a call. I was playing in a trio on 36th and 3rd. He said, ‘I just got this deal with Dylan. I’m playing organ.’
I said, ‘You’re a guitar player.’
I didn’t know who Dylan was at the time. I came on. And that’s what gave me a career. (Brooks played bass on 1965’s landmark Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan’s sixth album and the one that completed his transition from folk to electric artist). I started getting calls from (folk artists) Eric Anderson and Richie Havens. I played on a lot of folk albums. I played with Dylan at Forest Hills (in New York in August 1965) and at the Hollywood Bowl (a month later).
Forest Hills was me, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Al Kooper. After that I was in Detroit. I couldn’t get back (for future gigs). I was unavailable. Robbie and Levon were pushing to get their guys in, and that was what became The Band (Dylan’s regular backing group).
I met (guitarist) Mike Bloomfield at the Dylan sessions, and that led to The Electric Flag. And that, in turn to Columbia Records.
Electric Flag was rhythm and blues, jazz, the first interracial band. Three of the members were junkies. They’d come into town, and the first thing would be, ‘Where do we score?’
I played with (drummer) Buddy Miles and (R&B legend) Wilson Pickett. Pickett was giving Buddy a hard time, threatening to fire him if he made a mistake. We went to tell Pickett, ‘Miles is leaving.’ Bloomfield was running out. Pickett was chasing him with a gun: ‘You white motherf***er!’
Bonnie: Seals and Crofts; the Doors — you’ll hear his bassline on those records and it has a soul. His neshama can flourish here because it can come out here.
He’s playing better than ever here.
Harvey: It’s true.
Bonnie: Dylan, he protects himself. When you’re in the front, and everyone wants a piece of you, you have to go somewhere.
Tell us a little more about your life here.
Bonnie: Here we live. We have our hummus and our coffee. We go for walks on the Tayelet (promenade). We have two little dogs. The other day we had 17 Arabic children walking with us. It’s a very positive experience in this neighborhood. It’s got great energy.
Harvey: I could write a book. I’m happy to write about the music. But I can’t do it about the drugs and sex, and that’s what the publishers want.
I’ve played at every level, with incredible people. I’ve made lots of great records; played at lots of great gigs. I’m at the point now where I’m finally getting the opportunity to be myself.