Genghis Blues

Mountainfilm kicked off yesterday, and with it the symbolic beginning of summer in Telluride. Music has always played a major role in the festival. Whether it is the scores of the movies themselves; think of the banging tunes that accompany the movies at the Adrenaline screenings Saturday night at the theater in Town Park, or as the subject of the films themselves. One of my favorite movies I’ve ever seen at the festival was a film called Alive Inside about the ways in which music combats memory loss. Subjects in the film hear some of their favorite songs from their youth and they suddenly come alive and can recall memories long since lost. It is incredibly moving and can be seen on You Tube in its entirety. I highly recommend it.

Another film that stands out is Genghis Blues which is being screened as part of the 40th year archival history of the festival series.  It is about the blind singer Paul Pena (pronounced Peen-yaw) and his transformation from a rock and soul singer from the Bay Area into a master of Tuvan throat singing, a vocal technique practiced in the mountains of Siberia.  

In 1993, Pena discovered Tuvan throat singing on a transistor radio and was transfixed by its chant like rhythms. He attended a performance in San Francisco by Kongar-ool Ondar, a Tuvan master.  Pena performed a song for Ondar, a throat song about friendship in the Tuvan language. Ondar was so impressed he invited Pena to come to Tuva and perform in a symposium on Tuvan throat singing.  In 1995, Pena went to Tuva and became the first westerner to perform in the symposium.  Pena's trip to Tuva is the subject of Genghis Blues, which in addition to playing at Mountainfilm won the audience award at Sundance and was nominated for an Academy Award in 2000 for Best Documentary.

While the journey to Tuva is fascinating, it is Pena’s back story that I found so riveting and tragic at the same time.

Pena was born in Massachusetts in 1950 with congenital glaucoma.  His parents were descendants of the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa, and Pena grew up speaking a kind of Creole with his family.

By the time Pena was 20, he was completely blind, and an accomplished musician.  He played bass on Bonnie Raitt’s debut album and his own band was opening for acts like Frank Zappa and The Grateful Dead.  Jerry Garcia and Pena struck up a friendship and in 1971 Pena moved to San Francisco. Garcia helped Pena by having him open shows that he and Merl Saunders were playing at the Keystone at Berkeley.

Pena recorded his debut album Paul Pena in 1972.  What happened next is one of the most fascinating (and musically tragic) stories in rock music.

In 1973, Pena recorded New Train in San Francisco.  Ben Sidran, who was Steve Miller’s piano player at the time, produced the record.   Garcia, Saunders and The Persuasions sat in on the record. It was recorded for Bearsville Records, which was owned by Albert Grossman, best known as Bob Dylan's manager, (he is seen often in Dylan's 1964 film Don't Look Back).

To me, Albert Grossman is one of the great villains in rock n' roll.  It was Albert Grossman, who according to Levon Helm, was behind Robbie Robertson hijacking the publishing rights to The Band's music.  According to Levon, who I interviewed in person in 1998 when he was preparing to open a restaurant in the French Quarter, The Band were all hanging out in Woodstock with Bob Dylan, when Grossman approached Robertson and explained that the real money in the music business was in publishing.  He asked Robertson who owned the publishing to the Band's music and Robbie explained that they hadn't formed a publishing company yet.  According to Levon, Grossman convinced Robertson to take the publishing for himself rather than share it with the rest of the members of the Band.  Levon told me that for the song “The Weight” Robbie did write, "Pulled into Nazareth, I was feeling 'bout half past dead,” it was Richard Manuel who wrote one of the most famous hooks in rock n' roll, "take a load off Annie, take a load for free, take a load off Annie, and you put the load right on me."  But in the end it was Robbie who got the credit and the money, thanks to Albert Grossman.

Albert Grossman

Albert Grossman

So back to Paul Pena...

After recording New Train, Pena got into a dispute with Grossman, who refused to release the record.  And since Pena was contractually obligated to Grossman, Pena was unable to record for another label. Indeed, Pena never recorded another album (who does that to a blind musician? That would be Albert Grossman).

Ben Sidran gave an unreleased copy of New Train to Steve Miller and Miller decided to record Pena's song “Jet Airliner,” which was released on The Steve Miller Band's 1977 record Book of Dreams and went to #8 on the charts.  Pena's primary source of income for the rest of his life was off the royalties to that song.

New Train remained unreleased until 2000, when 27 years after being recorded, it finally saw the light of day.  And I am confident that New Train is the greatest record you may have never heard.  The opening track “Gonna Move” is an epic song. Susan Tedeschi recorded it on her record Wait for Me and by The Derek Trucks Band on Live at the Georgia Theater. It is a staple in the vast repertoire of the Tedeschi Trucks Band.

I interviewed Derek Trucks when I was a deejay on 106.7 The Penguin in Wilmington, NC and asked him about Paul Pena and Derek lit up like a schoolgirl talking about Justin Bieber. He told me that Pena was one of his biggest heroes.

New Train never lets up after “Gonna Move.” The Garcia track “Venetian Lady” sounds a lot like Bertha, “Cosmic Mirror” has a Hendrix vibe, and “Wait on What you Want” and “A Bit of Alright” are simply fantastic rock n’ roll songs.

When New Train came out in 2000, Pena did garner some attention.  He appeared on Conan O’Brien and performed “Jet Airliner.” 

Pena died in 2005.  New Train is an absolute revelation and so is Genghis Blues, the film that tells the story about one of the least known and most compelling musicians in rock n’ roll, who reminded us that “you got to go hell before you get to heaven.”


Genghis Blues is showing at the Wilkinson Public Library at 9:45 a.m. on May 26th.

-Geoff Hanson