Bunky & Jake: Ex-Fug and Folkie Form Blues-Rock Combo

Allan Jacobs and Andrea Skinner form new band, merging folk, R&B, blues and rock Influences, and gaining Bob Dylan among their admirers

COWBOY BOOTS. Circa 1970. Credit: David Redfern/Redferns/Getty

I am just one more cowboy
Sometimes high, sometimes low
If I stay in this city
I will die, don't you know.

On one level, "One More Cowboy" is a lament by Allan Jacobs and Andrea Skinner—he an ex-Fug from Mount Vernon, where the Bronx suddenly ends 241st Street; she an erstwhile art director from the sidewalks and green grass of Brooklyn. Professionally, they're known by their real names, which are far more apt than their accidental ones. Bunky and Jake.

Jake describes "Cowboy" as "just the feeling you get when you're locked up in the city. It was completed over a long period of time. We've always dug cowboys and buckaroos. In fact, we started to write a real Western song about the prairies, but then we decided to put in more about how we felt. 'I dream of the prairies'? I don't know anything about prairies."

Thus, the transformation—"I don't wear no ten-gallon hat/It's so I may be cool/If they see me with my spurs on/They'd call me a fool"—and the persistent image of two big-city kids, now twenty-six, up from the borough candy stores via the Village coffeehouse scene and now looking out the windows of a fifth-floor walk-up on Bedford Street and a loft off Union Square; looking out the windows with a genuinely delightful seriocomic cowboy vision of life and death in Woodrow Wilson Guthrie's New York Town, where the only things you ride are your man, your woman, and the subways.

Until recently, no one in music had earned more right to a lament than Bunky and Jake. Although Bob Dylan has been a constant admirer, even that didn't help. They still look forward to doing their first college concert and have yet to make a dime from either of their albums.

Q.: How did you get to where you are today?

Jake: Where?

Q.: Sitting on that bed.

Jake: We've been sitting right here on this bed for the last six years, just waiting for something to happen.

Bunky breaks up laughing.

There's a place out in space called the candy store.

Bunky met Jake in 1962 at the School of Visual Arts on East 23rd Street. It was Christmas time, and there was a party and music. Jake, who had recently dropped out of Rider College, remembers hearing Bunky play with a band. "I was thoroughly impressed. When I saw what was going on in that school—people painting, people playing—I said to myself, Man, I've got to go there. I didn't last long there either."

Another visit, this time with an instrument case, led to banjo-and-guitar duets on the steps of the school. Then, Jake went away, and Bunky thought, "Well, I'll never see that guy again. What a drag. But next year, there he was."

Both were solid folk-music enthusiasts with a similar background: the city. "I practically avoided my entire high-school education strictly for singing," admits Jake. The same went for Bunky, who, like Jake, had learned her harmony at the neighborhood candy store. "Ain't nothing better than harmony," they both agree. "Harmony is a complete knockout. When you sing harmony, you sound like the old records."

The old records—in this case, classic pop and R&B performances of the Fifties by such groups as Nolan Strong and the Diablos, the Crows, Dion and the Belmonts, the Mystics, the Passions, et al.—are something that have left an eternal mark on Bunky and Jake; a mark which can be heard in their music and in their conversation today.

From Nolan Strong to the Kingston Trio and the Weavers to Reverend Gary Davis and Leadbelly wasn't really that much of a trip for anyone growing up in the heartland of the urban folk revival of the early Sixties. Down the street, there was Israel G. Young and the Folklore Center, a place where, Jake remembers, "you could see just about every folk singer in the world during any given month." Caravan, Sing Out!, Gardyloo, and The Little Sandy Review provided further inspiration.

Came an impromptu appearance at a Town Hall hootenanny which featured, among others, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Ian and Sylvia, and Sandy Bull. "We were scared shitless, man," says Jake. "Town Hall, you know. We'd been rehearsing 'This Train' for a week. The minute we got on stage, we forgot half the words—and we only knew one song! After we recovered, we moved our act into the small clubs and the Village basket houses."

"I'll never forget our first gig in a club," claims Bunky. "A place called the African Quarter in Brooklyn. We played there three times a week for ten dollars and all the Afro-burgers we could eat." Jake winces at the memory. "I don't think Bunky knew they didn't like white folks there. I couldn't understand why the owner didn't like me, but I soon found out. He was going to cut my head off."

Be you King or Queen
It's a wonderful scene
Down in Uncle Henry's basement.

The corner of Bleecker and MacDougal Streets was the center point of the Village in the mid-Sixties. From there spread a dingy system of coffeehouses with strange names and stranger clientele. Tim Hardin, Steve Stills, John Sebastian, Peter Tork, Jose Feliciano, Jesse Colin Young, David Blue, Fred Neil, Richie Havens, and Bunky and Jake all sang, played, and passed the hat for "contributions" in such dives as the Four Winds, the Bizarre, and the Cafes Id, Basement, Wha?, Why Not?, and Rafio.

The life-style for a musician in those days shifted rapidly from ecstasy to embarrassment; from acute depression to severe good times. When playing the basket houses, one set up a route and ran from place to place in order to get in as many sets—and as many collections—a night as was mathematically possible.

Customers, usually tourists or troublemakers, somehow had to be forced into making a donation. This wasn't always easy, and the artist had to develop a persuasive pitch. "You put the basket under their nose," Jake recalls with some pain, "and either they says 'Fuck you' or 'I ain't got no money' or else they ignored you. I remember one cat who had been giving me trouble. I had just put him down from the stage. Later, when I walked over to him with an empty hat, he threw a ten-dollar bill into it and said, 'You can't sing for shit.' "

By mutual consent, Bunky used to go it alone in the coffeehouses. "Chicks—especially spade chicks—could make more money by themselves, and splitting those seven-dollar baskets just got to be too heartbreaking." Although she had never been south of New Jersey, she was billed as "Bunky, Queen of the Blues." Her collection sermon was a classic.

"I used to go through a very humble thing. My last tune was always a very heavy one—'Death Don't Have No Mercy,' something like that. Then I'd say: 'How about a little audience participation? B is for Bunky and b is for blues. How many of you folks ever been in jail, please raise your hand.' (The only jail I'd ever been in was the one my mother worked in, but I wasn't going to tell 'em that.) 'How many of you folks ever had the blues? I've given you all I can, and now I hope you'll give me all you can. Let's not hear no change jingling in my basket. Let's only hear the crinkle of green.'

"It worked. I used to do so good. Sometimes when I'd finish my act and go backstage, there'd be two joints in there, maybe a pill or something, and about four or five bucks. You know, clean up. I could make seven bucks on a week night. On a holiday weekend, with no time off between sets, I could make up to two hundred dollars."

Like wine and tall stories, it was the kind of life that improves with age. Somehow, the reminiscences tend to slide over the fights, the broken bottles, and certain cafe owners who kept shotguns under the counter to drive off the blacks. Still, times were more good than bad. After hours, the musicians would gather to play for themselves. Occasionally, there would be an exceptional payday.

"I remember one Indian cat who used to throw twenty or thirty dollars into every basket," says Jake. "Whenever he walked into a club, everybody wanted to play there. Bodies would be pulled up on stage. Word would go 'round: 'The cat's here!' "

While some cafe managers were vicious and psychopathic, others were just plain crazy. Bunky recalls an anecdote: "For some reason, Windex, when it's mixed with Coke, has a chemical reaction that gives it a rum flavor. A rum Coke used to be a squirt of Windex, a jigger of yesterday's Coca-Cola, and a quick stir with a dirty stick. Sometimes, they even used Ajax. If they really didn't like you, it was a bit of Three-in-One lubricant in your coffee."

Those days are gone forever, and not too many people mourn them. But for Bunky and Jake, it was easier to make a living then on the most amateur and hysterical of folk circuits than it is now in the cold and professional arenas of rock and roll. "You had all those places to play in," Jake stresses. "You could make forty or fifty dollars on a weekend, and still be as nasty as you wanted to."

Daphne made the run
Just to cop some bubble gum.

Suddenly, in 1966, things went bad, and money was hard to get. With the rent debt piling up, Jake, who had had short-term stints with Mike Settle, Jim Tyler, the Magicians and the Fugs as an intrumentalist ("The first time I ever heard myself sing on tape, I decided to give up singing"), felt that the simplest and fastest way to get rich was to start writing songs and to cash in on the advances. Needless to say, the scheme didn't work, but it did get the duo into the recording studio.

Since he had already known managers Art Polhemus and Bob Wyld of Longhair Productions from his Magician days, Jake took a sheaf of tunes to them. To his surprise, they liked the songs and suggested an immediate LP. "Hey," exclaims Bunky, "we were baffled that they wanted to make it so quickly, but we rushed into it and signed all the contracts. It didn't dawn on us until later that maybe we should have gotten some money for it. We never did. Polhemus and Wyld had a deal with Mercury as producers, so that became our label."

Bunky and Jake's first album isn't exactly a milestone of rock. "The songs aren't personal because they weren't written for us," Jake explains. "We had no idea we would be singing them. We wanted variety and tried to use all of our sources—old records, Bobby Goldsboro, the Beach Boys, Keith, Django Reinhardt, and bossa nova—but things became too diversified, and the LP just didn't hold together."

Furthermore, they knew nothing about the studio. Jake can hardly believe how green they were. "Art and Bob would ask us, 'What do you want to have on this tune? Would you like some violins?' and we'd say, 'Hmm, great idea.' Man, we didn't know anything."

Although there is a serious identity problem on Bunky and Jake, the city songs generally stand up well. "Daphne Plum" is about a girl who makes the dope run, "The Candy Store" a tribute to group harmony and the old days, and "Taxicab" a curious protest song. Curious because, in a city where people casually piss on your feet in the subway or knife you in your own apartment, the resplendent Mantovaniisms in the background just won't do.

The first album, saddled with a cover that would shock a blind man, sold only three thousand copies. Record Number Two, L.A.M.F. (the title is a sample of New York gang graffiti and means "Like a mother-fucker"), with graphics by Bunky and Jake themselves, has already done better than that, but is no runaway bestseller. From a promotional viewpoint, Mercury is behind the LP—so far behind it that they hardly know it's there.

"It looks like it's going to die," says Jake with sisyphean resignation. "I don't think that many record companies believe in their artists. Somebody has to tell them who to believe in. They don't know one artist from another. When an audience stands up and yells for more, they can understand that, but these cats don't know anything about music. They say they like our album, but that the red ink in the books won't allow them to promote it. You work so hard on the goddamn thing, and then you find out they don't care about it at all."

L.A.M.F., to put it quite simply, is one of those fine records that everyone tends to overlook. The material—mostly by Jacobs-Skinner—is distinguished, personal, and confident. Gone are the stiffness, hesitancy, and vagueness that marred the first album. The supporting musicians—Doug Rauch and Felix Pappalardi, bass; Mike Rosa, drums; and Buzzy Linhart, vibes—are excellent, particularly clarinetist Perry Robinson with his eerie abstract-Dixeland contributions to Reverend Gary Davis's "I Am the Light" and Jake's " 'Oh' Pearl," two of the LP's best songs.

On "Girl from France," the background singing, all overdubbed by Bunky and Jake, comes directly from "The Wind" by the Diablos. "We cop a lot of our backgrounds from old singles," confesses Jake. "As long as our sources are obscure, I feel no pain about it.

"In a way, 'I Was a Champion' and 'One More Cowboy' are breakthroughs for us. They're a little heavier than the city tunes. At first, we didn't understand the lyrics for 'Champion,' but then we began to feel a gospel-spiritual quality in them. A thousand singing, marching angels, don't you know.

"We don't do too many tunes that are down, and we don't use a whole lot of symbolism or imagery. We have images, but not crystal images; our images are a little more about the street. If I'm really down, I won't write a down tune. Writing songs can bring you up; and finishing them brings you up even further.

"In the future, we want to continue to play with people we know are good. You can't go wrong, man, if you put your faith in musicians you respect. Maybe that's why Eric Clapton decided against all this virtuosity and the twenty-five minute solos. Maybe he just wants to play with people." Bunky smiles in agreement. "I guess that makes us optimists, after all."

Just as long as I'm in this world
I am the light.

"That's a very heavy statement."

Happily, things look a little brighter for Bunky and Jake. People are starting to buy the second record. Polhemus and Wyld have made a deal that provides for the free use of a studio in which to rehearse new material. Some bookings are beginning to come in.

Jake tugs at his black horn-rims and produces a scholarly Jack Elliott smile. "Hey, man, we're playing in Boston and Miami for good money."

"Your-ami, not My-ami," says Bunky with a wink.