Reclaiming Life With Song

The name on his new CD, his first album, was born in a recording studio about 8 years ago. He went into the studio with a modest reputation as photojournalist and musician "Charles Leonard" but the producer knew the larger story of his presence at these sessions and suggested a change.

"I've never been a man who likes to change" is a line from one of his songs. But, if he hadn't changed, the producer knew, he wouldn't now be poised before a microphone to deliver his musical sweep of irony, love, dark humor, and challenge. The producer saw courage and strength in the singer's achievements and ventured "Lionheart" as a possibility. Afterwards, musician Mindy Jostyn helped adjust it to the identity of the performer he was becoming; "Charles Lyonhart," a new name as a symbol for a life reclaimed from an oblivion of comfortable nonproduction upon his higher levels of aspiration.

The Bronx-born songwriter's entrance into music is not an uncommon story. Folk singalongs at a Connecticut summer camp, picking up a few guitar chords from a counselor, hearing Bob Dylan and The Beatles on the radio. But, at first, it was less the music than the accouterments of the folk scene that lured 12-year-old Charles in the 1960's.

"I think it was the whole persona of the boots, the leather jacket and guitar case; kicking around the cobblestone streets in the Village- that kind of image," Lyonhart recalls. "The guitar was just a prop."

But it was a prop to learn on and he began teaching himself to play, writing his own songs almost from the start because he'd had no formal lessons and couldn't read music. He found a refuge of sorts in music even as his home life dissolved and, hanging around the clubs, he also encountered, at an early age, the burgeoning drug culture of the era.

"My parents split up when I was about 12 and I was kicking around boarding schools," Lyonhart sighs, thinking back. "Basically, I was living in subways and rooftops when I was 14 because my parents, well, both of them didn't want me. So, it was parent's friend's houses, whatever. I was living all over and doing a lot of pot, acid, that type of stuff. Then I took my guitar and started to hitch. I went out to California to meet people and play and, somewhere along the line, I got into heroin. That kind of wiped me out for about 15 years."

Lyonhart explains his early attraction to drugs as a quest for inspiration rather than kicks. He thought they would provide a different perspective on the mundane routines of life. But heroin is indifferent to motivation.

"I never took drugs like some people do- to have a good time. I took drugs to create because I always felt that whatever I took would influence what I wrote," the songwriter insists. "I used to take acid and get little song ideas but, unbeknownst to me, heroin wasn't the same thing."

Ironically, during his first night on heroin, Lyonhart attended a concert by former Woodstock musician Tim Hardin, whose brilliant early career and creativity were also muted by the heroin addiction that would also claim his life in Los Angeles at 39.

Addiction soon closed the door on Lyonhart's musical career and, although he opted for a methadone hydrochloride maintenance program and the start of an 18-year marriage rather than risk the spectre of overdosing in the street or other attendant deadly hazards of heroin, it would be many years before he lifted his guitar with ambition. In the meantime, the nearest he came to serious music was covering the rock scene for Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, the Village Voice and other publications as Charles Leonard.

"To me, it was as close as I could get to the music business in the 70's and 80's because I wasn't together enough to write and play anymore," he says, adding that while covering other performers the spark to do it himself continued to smoulder quietly. He was in a methadone-edged half-nod one night when he noticed John Hiatt performing on tv and opened his eyes.

"He was singing 'Slow Turning' and it did something to me to see him with just an acoustic guitar on Saturday Night Live, working with only E-minor and C chords. I said to myself- I can do this! It inspired me to get off methadone. I detoxed myself."

Up to this point, Lyonhart's story is, sadly, not all that unusual. But breaking free of a methadone maintenance program after 15 years is so out of the ordinary that he became a prominent case in medical reports. He received offers from physicians who wanted to study him in a Washington medical facility. "I think I'm case #832," he reveals.

"Because I had (narcotic) clean (urine) tests, I was able to get into an experimental program at Beth-Israel (Hospital in New York City) where you can pick up your medicine once a month instead of going to drink it at a window every other day," Lyonhart explains. "Very, very slowly, I was detoxing myself at home. If they were giving me 60 milligrams, I might take myself down to 55...If I put myself down to 50 and a week later I felt sick, I'd go up again for a day or two. I just did it slowly."

Psychology and sleeplessness were two of the barriers Lyonhart recalls grappling with during the endless pacing nights as his guitar became his closest ally and his rekindled musical aspirations armored him against self-doubt. He countered sleep deprivation, one of the formidably nasty effects of withdrawal from a central nervous system depressant, with moderate applications of alcohol; a dangerous, potentially lethal strategy which nonetheless succeeded in his case.

"One of the problems people have with detox is that they set goals for themselves," he notes. "They say 'I'm going to be off at such and such a date.' That never works. I listened to my body. I was determined to get off (methadone). I played a lot of guitar. I wrote a lot of songs."

More than one of those songs refer to change. Lines like "There's a freedom in the changing/A new place to look inside" hinge into the exploration of other ideas. Two of the most powerful tunes from the period, "Arms of Sweet Helena" and "Ain't Waitin' Anymore", lyrically describe his battle with drugs; the seductive call to return to the "swallowing gulf" of narcotics and his fierce motivation to be free of them. When he began performing again and his name became familiar in the Woodstock area, the songs were included on a compilation album released by Continuum Records called New Music From Woodstock. But conquering opiates was not the end of adversity for Lyonhart and, before he could complete his own album for the fledgling label, distribution and financial problems sank them.

Within 18 months of Continuum's demise, another recording contract, with the Acuestick label, surfaced and soured in disputes between the company's executives and the producer of Lyonhart's half-finished album. The artist's resolve was further tested as a long-term romantic relationship dissolved, health and employment problems beset him, threatening a precipitous drop into a critical depression. Perseverance became a life raft inflated by the breath of friends.

One of those friends is fellow singer-songwriter John Herald, who taught him the open-c tuning he uses on his song "Slip Away" and became a source of inspiration for the album's title track. Winning the admiration of another "artist's artist" among his musical supporters contributed to the vital foundations required for the extensions of a creative talent's struggle. Lyonhart credits Herald's reassurances in dark periods as supplying fiber for the span he had to weave across his personal abyss.

The street-wise perspective which cuts to the quick in many of Lyonhart's songs is a double-edged blade which slices its view inward as well. His world view never glosses over the unpleasant aspects of today's culture. This doesn't make for optimism but one of Lyonhart's more telling traits is an undaunted hope that he can eventually overcome his own pessimism. What would you call a hope like that?

"There's a lot of beautiful things in the world but I tend to see the not-so-beautiful things," he reflects. "If I go to New York, I'll focus more on the homeless people, the beggars, the hookers and the drug dealers. That's what really catches my eye.. I tend to look at imperfection..."

Lyonhart speaks of mounting world problems; the growing extinction of species, degradation of the oceans, computerization of human spirit, the treadmill merry-go-round of balancing relationships with survival in the "practical" realm which he sees as increasingly multiplying human misery and he can't conceive of this society as we know it still existing 50 years from now. He dreams of life in distant charm of a simpler age.

"Now it's E-mail and Internet; I think we've lost the warmth of a hand-written letter," he laments. "Life is so complicated now with car insurance, health insurance, politics; I think the whole world is just going crazy and there's just very little place for love, tenderness, human kindness; the things that really should matter. I think we're too far gone."

Lyonhart feels that so many realize the extent of our corporate culture's alienation from human values that escapism has become our most bearable option in life. It's that instinct to turn away to which he attributes the probability that much of the subject matter in his tunes may not have mass appeal.

"I think I touch places people don't want to go," he concedes. "They'd rather listen to up tempo, poppy stuff like `Macarena' and other such stupid shit that's made millions than something that's going to tear them apart."

When a realistically uncompromising outlook meets setbacks on personal levels, trouble looms. That's what the singer faced as the music which had pulled him up submerged his recordings in the quagmire of contracts and coupled with an onslaught of health and relationship difficulties. His labors in recent years had resulted in dozens of studio tracks which threatened to disappear along with his record deals.

Again, it was also the music which saved him. If there weren't something out of the ordinary about Charles Lyonhart's talents as a singer-songwriter, he wouldn't have attracted the quality of musicians which adorns the 16 tracks of the CD that has now finally, after 5 years, seen the light of day. The list of today's most sought after sessions players who helped shape the album includes Larry Campbell, Joel Diamond, Lincoln Schleifer, Steve Raleigh, Maura McCabe, Denny McDermott and others.

With cuts from several studios and periods, Lyonhart sees the release, called Leap of Faith, as a resolution to the years of work. Filled with haunting melodies and incisive lyrics, it blends musical formats from folk, rock, blues and even "New York Nashville." Predictability is an item avoided in production values on the way to capturing the artist's unique perspective and sound, particularly on tracks like the gritty "No Heroes" produced by Joel Diamond, a friend from Lyonhart's youth with whom he fell out of touch when he disappeared into heroin but restored contact with on the other end of the tunnel.

Diamond's unorthodox approach in production adds a timeless texture to the tracks he arranged. Lyonhart's confidence in his rediscovered friend overcame any doubts he may have had about Diamond's experimentation with tunings and direct raw mikings of instruments. "If he told me to sing Chinese backwards and yodel, I'd have tried it," Lyonhart laughs. "I trust Joel."

Peopled with lovers, losers, attitudes, ironic situations in life, and hope, sweet hope; the record also speaks of the price always paid for missteps and, in a ballad to the oldest of his three children, the value to be had by learning from father's mistakes. Even today, Lyonhart finds sleep an elusive mistress and, with a constancy we can only imagine, there is also the ever-present lure of letting it all "Slip Away" when troubles climb to the top of the mind. At such times, he acknowledges the temptation.

"When I've considered it, I would say 'I have a gig Friday and if I use something Tuesday, I won't be feeling that way Friday.' So, gigs have acted as a prevention to going back," Lyonhart reflects on his last 7 opiate-free years. "I can't imagine gigging on any narcotics because when I play I have to feel. It's not even a matter of being sober or unsober; I have to feel the songs and, when you do junk and stuff like that, you become a zombie."

With his own storm at rest, Lyonhart doesn't count on taking the Hudson Valley by storm. He merely wants to play enough to get by on his music, he says. And the music is central. The more people that hear it, the more there are pulling for him to keep his music coming. It's already stopped for too long a time.

Leap of Faith can be found in most local record shops or from LWR Productions, Box 112, Florida, N.Y. 10921. (For more information: or E-mail Charles Lyonhart will be performing at the Tinker Street Cafe on ____________.

-- Gary Alexander