INTERVIEW: They’re Playing Our Song (Craig Chereek Recounts His Friend Eden Ahbez)

I first spoke to Craig Chereek after he posted this short blog about Eden Ahbez in 2010:

https://chereek.wordpress.com/2009/10/01/eden-ahbez-lives/

We’ve talked over the phone several times in the ensuing years and, this past winter, Craig agreed to let me interview him for the Ahbez biography I’m currently working on. (He calls him “ahbe” throughout.)

The interview was conducted in two parts: the first by phone; the second over the internet. I’ve spliced the two together for the results below. Note: a brief break has been made to acknowledge the stylistic shift in Chereek’s freestyling over the phone, as opposed to typing things out online. In both, he is never less than eloquent about his old friend.

Brian Chidester, 05/08/2015

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Craig Chereek during the 1970s.

Craig Chereek during the 1970s.

Brian Chidester: I guess we should start at the beginning. When did you first meet Eden Ahbez?

Craig Chereek: I met him in 1971 in Sunland, CA. I was sitting on my front porch, playing a bit of music, when this bearded little guy walks by and says, “I wrote that.” It was “Nature Boy.” He says, “That song you’re playing… I wrote that.” We talked a bit and then later got together and started playing music together.

BC: What kind of stuff did you play?

CC: We played some stuff off Eden’s Island. A bunch of new songs. At one point, ahbe wanted to make a new recording of “Nature Boy” with his own voice.

BC: Did that ever happen?

CC: It did. It was around 1975. I’d just met my first wife. We recorded at Quad-Tech Studios [ed. 4007 West Sixth Street in Los Angeles], a little place owned by Hank Waring, son of the old band leader Fred Waring [ed. Hank and Fred were actually second cousins].

BC: Do you remember who played on the session?

CC: Yeah, we had Paul Stallworth on bass, Jim Keltner on drums. I played guitar. Taj Majal was in the control room.

BC: Really? What did Eden play?

CC: He had an upright piano that we’d rehearse together around. I think he played a Marxophone on that session, though.

BC: What was he like to work with in the studio?

CC: Excited. He loved the studio. He was such an icon. I mean, ahbe knew everyone.

BC: Did you work on any other material that was new at the time?

CC: I don’t really remember exact titles. He did give me a lyric sheet that I still have. I’ll send you a copy when we get off.

BC: That’d be great.

“I Am a Pilgrim,” the lyric sheet Ahbez gave to Craig Chereek in the early ’70s.

CC: Yeah, most of the time we either played or we talked.

BC: What would you talk about?

CC: Primarily non-musical stuff. You got to remember that I was just a young hippie when I met ahbe. I’d just gotten back from Vietnam. We talked about life. He was the most spiritual person I ever met.

BC: Did he ever talk about the other Nature Boys, like Gypsy Boots?

CC: He talked about Gyspy. Thought he’d commercialized spirituality, but not in a dignified way. His biggest confidant was a guy named Buddy Rose.

BC: Another nature boy.

CC: Buddy came by a lot. He was another unworldly guy. I remember he focused on the fact that he was still a virgin. This was 1971-72 and Buddy must have been in his sixties or seventies by then.

BC: What did Ahbez think of the hippie movement of that time?

CC: He thought it was great. He was concerned with getting away from material concerns, towards consciousness, maybe because the material world failed him.

BC: Did he ever talk about that?

CC: He told me the story one time of how “Nature Boy” got into the hands of Nat Cole; said he was in a club in Hollywood and gave the sheet music to Nat’s guitarist in the men’s room. The “House That Cole Built”… the Capitol Records Tower… was built on ahbe’s royalties.

BC: How did he feel about that?

CC: He was disappointed. But as far as lifestyle or industry, he had no regrets. He was played a fool by the record business, but he played into it to keep his wife and son alive.

Lotus-seated Ahbez during the mid-1960s.

Lotus-seated Ahbez during the mid-1960s.

BC: Did he ever talk about Anna or Zoma, his wife and son?

CC: Every day. He talked about Anna every day. The best noir film not yet made is how he was denied 25 years of royalties while everyone else who touched the song made money. Anna died from a simple surgically-treatable cancer ahbe could not afford to obtain. He was still heartbroken about losing her, and over Zoma being raised in the dirt. He knew life was unfair. It made his positivity all the more remarkable.

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At this point, Craig and I ended the conversation on the phone. A few weeks later, Chereek saw me on Facebook and we continued over Instant Messager. Below is the conclusion to our interview.

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Craig Chereek: I read your interview with Youngbear. The ashram he was talking about was in Angeles Crest. It was called the Ananda Ashram, about a mile and a half above Foothill Blvd. in La Crescenta.

Brian Chidester: That’s where Ahbez sometimes went in the ’70s?

CC: Yes. The Mother Superior there was always called Madaji, which means about the same thing. He used to talk about Yogananda a lot too. Considered him a friend. Yogananda once offered ahbe leadership of SRF [ed. Self-Realization Fellowship], but he turned it down.

BC: When was the last time you saw Eden?

CC: I saw ahbe in Sunland, about 6 months before his passing. His autobiography was always kept in his white Econoline van, along with a stack of his recording masters on big reels, in red and black Ampex boxes. I saw them there that last time.

One of the reel-to-reel tape boxes that Ahbez lugged around.

One of the reel-to-reel tape boxes that Ahbez lugged around.

BC: What happened to it all?

CC: After his wreck, I could find nobody who could tell me a thing about the contents. Is there a record of which tow service hauled off his van? Was it salvaged or junked? Does the tow operator remember anything? I don’t know and have wondered.

BC: Presumably that stuff went to David Janowiak, Eden’s accountant friend.

CC: By the way, ahbe spoke of his accountant David frequently. I am surprised to hear him called a “friend,” though, as ahbe considered him difficult and “not very spiritually evolved.” I got the impression that David had bested him somehow and had tied up ahbe’s publishing.

BC: I’ve heard some pretty shady things about the Janowiak family.

CC: I don’t know. If ahbe went into detail about it with me, I don’t recall it, as we really were more on a musical odyssey, at least in my head.

BC: So, when we last spoke, you said you met Eden in 1971. Was Zoma already deceased by then?

CC: Yes. I met ahbe in the spring of ’71 and Zoma was already gone. I believe ahbe knew the kids who were partying with Zoma when he died. Dale Benoit, about my age in ’71, was one. I don’t remember the other. Story I got was they were doing barbiturates up in the canyon on a cold night. Zoma sat in the stream. Didn’t get up.

BC: Joe Romersa [Ahbez’s last collaborator] told me he thought Zoma was murdered. The death certificate says “overdose.” I have so little information about Zoma. I recently found a nice picture of him and Eden, though. Zoma is a teenager in it. They look a lot alike.

CC: I never heard any doubt. I knew Dale pretty well later on. Good heart, drugged out, but no bad boy. Zoma had nuthin’. Everybody liked him. Why kill him? Ahbe never shared any doubt about the OD.

Zoma and Eden Zoma, c. 1964.

Zoma and Eden Ahbez, c. 1964.

BC: Do you know where Dale is now?

CC: I haven’t even heard his name since ’76. My bet is Dale is dead or in prison. Liked angel dust, sold it. Jude Laszik, Dale, John Bogena, and Mary Coe were all close with Zoma and ahbe. In that circle, I was just a johnny-come-lately with a guitar.

BC: You guys all lived in Tujunga then?

CC: They did. I was a kid from Glendale who first landed in Tujunga after Vietnam. I knew none of them until then. I rented a couch from Jude and her daughter Mariposa in ’70 on Tujunga Canyon Blvd. I was playing guitar on the bottom step when ahbe first popped up.

BC: I have an article from 1949 that calls Tujunga a “hotbed of artistic activity.” Was it still like that in the early ’70s?

CC: Maybe. Everybody had a craft. It was the time, but I wasn’t in a circle of serious artists. I was new, no real point of reference. Psychedelics and then hard drugs had taken the wind out of many, you could see that. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t going on elsewhere. It was, and is, a hotbed of music, songwriting, production, summer concerts in the parks. Lots of studio musicians were in the area: Steppenwolf, Delaney and Bonnie, Chicago. Flo and Eddie had a house down the street; Zappa came around. It is still a hotbed of musicians, every other block has a home studio. Further back, the area was a summer retreat for Hollywood stars, going back to silent movies. Tolerant of eccentrics. I think ahbe came up here drawn by a bit of that.

BC: Did Ahbez ever do drugs?

CC: No drugs, and I never did it around him.

BC: Was there anyone else who knew him well from that time?

CC: Mary Coe. She was a nurse who lived on Jayfield Street. Her husband David Coe was an engineer at Wally Heider Studio in Hollywood. They knew ahbe well. I recently reconnected with one of my friends from that era, who knew ahbe well too, and as they were very kindred spirits, spiritually, probably in a different light than I did. His name is Herb Eggleston and lives a very ascetic life in Carmel-By-the Sea of all places. If you wish, I can put you together with him.

BC: Please.

CC: Finally, knowing ahbe during much the same period as Youngbear Roth, I was surprised to hear him quoted as saying he had “more money than he could ever use.” He usually had none. Perhaps he did, and just gave it away. I wouldn’t be surprised. But I know we had to put off our recording sessions several times over its lack. Other than that, money just never came up, and yes, ahbe could quote long passages of the Upanishads, talk at great length about the stories and characters of the Rig Veda, and any part of the Bible you wanted to discuss. The idea of his most prized possessions blowing off in the desert wind upon his death would surely have made ahbe chuckle. I miss the heck out of him.

(Courtesy of Shadow Box Studios)

(Courtesy of Shadow Box Studios)

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2 thoughts on “INTERVIEW: They’re Playing Our Song (Craig Chereek Recounts His Friend Eden Ahbez)

  1. Brian:

    If memory serves (and it does not serve all that well these days) I think Craig and I met briefly up at the ashram some years ago. I recall him introducing himself and telling me that he and ahbe had been friends and had worked together musically. Craig and I only met once, as I recall. I’m glad that you had a chance to interview him, and I concur with most of what Craig said. The issue some of the time with getting the “ahbe stories” straight are that he did change some details to suit his mood at the time of telling. I don’t think anyone has heard ahbe tell the same story exactly the same way twice. LIke Craig, I am a bit puzzled about the money issues. I know that ahbe went through at least two or three periods of time (after Nature Boy) when he had no money. However, I knew ahbe at approximately the same time period that Craig did (give or take a year) and at that time, he always had a wallet full of cash. I do think that cash ran out for a period of time, and I recall just reading on your site the other day that ahbe had no money when he found out by chance that Natalie Cole had a hit with Nature Boy and he had more money coming. Well, it’s hard to track, as most of ahbe’s life is! Anyway, if you run into Craig, say “Hello” for me.

  2. Hey YB… Always a pleasure hearing from you! Let me just say that you aren’t alone in having a hard time figuring out where Ahbez financially. Dale Ockerman, in one of the interviews I posted on this site, remembered him handing out hundred dollar bills in the studio. Joe Romersa told me many times that Ahbez booked hundreds of hours of studio time in the ’80s and ’90s and not once did his checks bounce. Ahbez told the media, however, that he was dirt poor in most of his interviews, and many of his friends saw him either crying poor too, or else being very generous with his money. It depended on the time. And I guess that’s the catch: he won lawsuits in 1972, 1983 and 1992 for back royalties owed from “Nature Boy,” which, without suing, I suppose he’d never have gotten. So he definitely had money at certain points in his life. Sometimes you’re up, sometimes down. Despite his otherworldliness, Ahbez was all too human in that regard.

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