By Michael Corrigan
For the Journal
The first time I saw Steve Eaton, the turbulent decade of the sixties was dying and he was playing with a rock trio on a small stage at the infamous Pocatello dive, Juck’s Bar. He looked like a rock star: young, confident, Byronic, with long light-colored hair and a wide grin. Obviously, he loved making music for any audience, even at Juck’s.
The bar was notorious for its underworld traffic. One could get anything at Juck’s except Juck, who didn’t exist. The name was a combination of Chuck and Jock, the two current owners. “Censored” was painted on the front door, but there were no censors at Juck’s. The crowd at Juck’s included college professors playing chess, students out to drink, and druggies looking to score. A Day-Glo painting of rock stars decorated a black wall.
Eventually, it was not the Vice Squad, the IRS or any police raid that brought down Juck’s but pigeons roosting in the loft. It became too much for Pocatello’s Public Health Department. In the early seventies, Juck’s Bar was torn down and the Day-Glo images of rock stars, including a psychedelic Bob Dylan, gradually faded in the sun. Today, nothing survives of Juck’s. Steve Eaton survived and thrived, however, eventually reaching the forefront of Idaho musical artists, including veteran folk singer, Rosalie Sorrels.
In 1971, Steve Eaton played in Ketchum. In those days, he played a lot of Little Richard songs on the piano, using not only both hands but the heel of his right foot.
“As long as I stayed in the key of F sharp, I could hit any black key and it would sound all right.”
Audiences loved it. One night, Paul Revere of the Raiders came into the club and hired Eaton as a replacement musician. At the time, Paul Revere and the Raiders were Idaho’s most famous rock band. It’s hard to imagine now, but they actually played dressed as American revolutionary soldiers.
As a performer, Steve Eaton’s precise rhythm guitar has a jazz feel and his piano playing rocks with the boogie-woogie of Jerry Lee Lewis and Leon Russell. (He no longer adds the use of his right foot on the black keys.) His live performance of Bob Dylan’s “Watch the River Flow” thrills audiences each time, and his medley of rock songs including the Beatles can turn the most staid audience into a conga line.
Steve Eaton has also established himself in Idaho as a popular songwriter, and is nationally recognized as well. Steve Eaton’s the master of the romantic ballad of lost love (“Hello Misery,” “Rag Doll”) and the well-crafted pop song. In 1977, the late Karen Carpenter and the Carpenters recorded Eaton’s “All You Get from Love is a Love Song.” The lyrics with their romantic imagery but dark subtext fit her distinctive contralto voice:
Like sailin’ on a sailin’ ship to nowhere
Love took over my heart like an open breeze
As seagulls fly I knew that I was losin’
Love was washed away with the driftin’ tide
Oh it’s a dirty old shame
When all you get from love is a love song
That’s got you layin’ up nights
Just waitin’ for the music to start
It’s a dirty old shame
When you got to take the blame for a love song
Because the best love songs are written
With a broken heart
Royalties from the Carpenters’ cover were substantial. Steve Eaton likes to joke that his new house in Pocatello was “the house the Carpenters built.”
In 1985, Art Garfunkel covered “Rag Doll.” Here is the first stanza:
She walks in the field that’s just across the way
And picks all the flowers that brighten up her day
And the blue velvet cape that she wore around her neck
And the red in her cheeks gave a rag doll effect
The wind in the trees sings a sad, sad song
I lie in my bed listenin’ all night long
A wind in the trees sing a song just for me,
And bring back the Rag Doll to me
One line in particular captures the lover’s lament:
There ain’t nothin’ worse than losin’ when you’ve everything to gain
I’ve just got to get that woman back or nothing will be the same
The road to a recording contract wasn’t easy. In Pocatello, Steve Eaton formed a jazz-rock group called Fat Chance. In concert, they were powerful, not unlike The Band with their range of voices and instruments including horns, woodwinds, guitar and Bill LaBounty’s piano. In 1974, while playing a club in Twin Falls, they met daredevil Evel Knievel, planning his ill-fated motorcycle jump across the Snake River canyon. He loved their set and suggested the group visit LA and play at a club called Isador. Fat Chance was fired that night for not playing enough country songs so they took Knievel’s advice seriously and with their pay of $300, drove all night to Los Angeles.
“We just couldn’t drive back to Pocatello,” Eaton said.
The Isador club had closed and they found themselves stranded in a strange city, but while making a copy of a demo tape no one wanted to hear, Steve Eaton met a producer named Jay Senter who listened to their demo and booked them at the Troubadour. It was hard to secure booking at this famous club where the Doors got their start, and groups often camped on the street to appear on open mic night.
“We were told to play only fifteen minutes,” Eaton said. “People were there to hear someone else, and they were going to cut our power if we went over, but we decided this was our shot and we took it. One of our songs was 15 minutes long.”
That night, Fat Chance got more than fifteen minutes and rocked the crowd. They had one particularly powerful song called “We Are the People.” Many recording agents approached them and Fat Chance finally signed with RCA Victor. Jay Senter produced their debut recording but the resulting album, Fat Chance, was something of a disappointment. According to Eaton, “They replaced some of our musicians with studio musicians to make sure it was smooth and professional. I did get to sing and Bill got on the record.”
The album was perhaps too smooth, as in “tame.” What should’ve been a beginning became the band’s end, and their name became all too appropriate. Listening to the album today and remembering vibrant live performances of Fat Chance, it’s evident that the RCA producer diluted the very energy that made the company sign Fat Chance in the first place. Imagine if producers in London replaced Keith Richards to give the Rolling Stones a more “smooth” commercial sound?
Later that year, Steve Eaton recorded a solo album with Capitol records, which included the eponymous “Hey Mr. Dreamer.” Though it’s an effective song about every “dreamer,” it also warns against “dreamin’ your life away with a dreamer’s song.” The album had limited commercial success and Steve Eaton left Los Angeles.
Though the music business is brutal by any standards and can destroy dreams, Steve Eaton has done well. Gone are the days playing at Juck’s, where a concert could be interrupted by gunfire from a drug deal gone bad. Eaton makes a decent living writing commercial jingles and, decades later, Steve Eaton remains a popular performing Idaho artist. Eaton was the opening act for Carole King when they played a benefit for Jim Hansen’s 2006 Idaho campaign for the US Senate. Occasionally, Eaton performs with Pocatello voice over artist and singer, Mike Sanders. Artistic talent runs in the family. One of Steve Eaton’s sons, Marcus Eaton, has established himself as a brilliant guitarist. He opened for Bob Dylan in Sun Valley and is currently working with David Crosby. His brother, A.J. Eaton, now a filmmaker, remembers as a child watching his father score films and “fell in love with the artistic process.”
Steve Eaton now produces his own albums and has collaborated with other writers, including the late former Idaho State University English instructor, Bob Perky, on a jazz-blues song called “Beer Talkin’ Woman.” Eaton’s “Portneuf River blues” is a hard driving piece, starkly different from “Rag Doll.” Eaton’s honky-tonk piano and wailing vocal about the ubiquitous “evil woman” are closer to Ray Charles than top forty pop standards. For those who may find Steve Eaton’s original music too commercial, i.e., sweet, “Portneuf River Blues” has a rough edge, but unfortunately was never released. Recently, Eaton suggested his music is heading more in the direction of political songs, even protest, though protest songs can date quickly unless there’s a universal theme about the human condition.
Eaton makes no apology for being “commercial,” and one could argue all art that stands the test of time is commercial, including Mozart’s and Shakespeare’s.
“If my music becomes elevator music, I get paid well and it’s good for my retirement.”
Asked if he had only one last song he would play before facing a firing squad and bidding farewell to the world, he immediately said, “Moon River,” the popular song by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer. While recording Fat Chance, Eaton had a chance to watch Mancini conducting in another studio. Then Eaton added a song of his own called “The Bridge.” Here is the first stanza and the chorus:
Every flower that blooms in the desert
Nature will help survive
Any soul born into this world
Needs somebody’s love inside
Whenever a heart gets broken
And the hurt and pain won’t end
Let’s build them a bridge of kindness
To cross with the help of a friend
When the words of the wise are spoken
Do we really take them to heart?
It’s time to build bridges together
And now is the time to start
Always modest about his talent, Steve Eaton remarked: “I could go to work for Hallmark.” The sentiment expressed by the lyrics, however, is quite real. A song must be heard, and Steve Eaton’s version of “The Bridge” is reminiscent of James Taylor’s cover of Carole King’s classic, “You Got a Friend.”
Steve Eaton is an engaging generous man, and has played many benefits for the Idaho State University Alumni Association, the Idaho Food Bank, The Pocatello Animal Shelter, and the now defunct Blackstone Playhouse in Lava Hot Springs. Steve Eaton opened his Blackstone Playhouse benefit on a busy July fourth with the following comment:
“I said I would play this benefit only for expenses. I didn’t mention my expenses come to 5,000 dollars.”
Steve Eaton also promotes new artists. Three and a half years ago, he decided to nurture Idaho songwriters with a series of jam sessions featuring original songwriters. They began playing at the Blue Moose Café in Boise, and the Idaho Songwriters Association was born. Currently, the songwriters play the first Tuesday of every month at an open mic workshop and the last Tuesday of each month features a songwriters’ forum. The new venue is the Sapphire Room in Boise’s Riverside Hotel.
The association’s mission is to “encourage and promote Idaho songwriters” and “develop an audience that appreciates live, original music.” Members of the association have been busy, according to their description: “In the middle of everything, we produce two free Songwriters Showcase concerts each month and two ticketed Songwriters Headliner concerts.”
Conversation is discouraged, and listening is encouraged. John Hansen, one of the best bluegrass flatpicking guitarists in Idaho, will headline with his sister, the songwriter, Cori Connors. Hansen is the author of a haunting song, “Enchanté.” Steve Eaton played one night to a sold out crowd eager to hear his original songs rather than covers.
Most rock, blues and folk groups in Pocatello cover popular songs because that is what bar and steak house audiences expect so they can drink beer and dance. There are some fine songwriters in Pocatello, however, including Fred Anderson, Bob Picard, Bob Merle, Jessica McAleese and Angier Wills. Along with Greg Mladenka, Wills’ group, Elvis Has Left the Building, does nothing but original songs, and still manages to secure bookings at the few venues around Pocatello.
Perhaps these talented songwriters should sign up for the open mic workshop sponsored by the Idaho Songwriters Association. As their mission statement says:
“We are based in Boise, but we encourage and enthusiastically welcome songwriters from all over Idaho to participate in our events.” The songwriters’ sign-up e mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org. For general information, contact IdahoSongwriters@cableone.net. Steve also has a website: www.steveeaton.net. Selections from his studio albums, and Eaton’s self-produced recordings including New Fallen Snow, a Christmas album, are available through the site.
Now in his mid-sixties, Steve Eaton, songwriter, performer, and Social Security recipient, remains a working musician. Currently, he is scheduled to play a jazz program at the Colonial Theater in Idaho Falls, and he often appears at Idaho State University. Occasionally, he performs with Marcus Eaton. Steve Eaton’s popularity also extends abroad as he is booked for a concert in Taiwan. Eaton’s early albums are still popular in Asia, particularly in Japan where Hey Mr. Dreamer was recently reissued. Steve Eaton is also working on a new album of original songs he hopes a major studio picks up. “With a quality recording,” Eaton said, “some major popular artist may cover one of my songs.”
Steve Eaton still has a lot to say as a singer and composer, so let’s hope new and veteran recording stars will be listening. Perhaps when that club owner in Twin Falls fired Steve Eaton and Fat Chance so long ago, he set an Idaho treasure on a greater path.
Michael Corrigan is a San Francisco native, and recently retired from Idaho State University where he taught speech communication and English. He was active in various theatres on the west coast and in Idaho, studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute, and has published seven books, many about the Irish American experience. Idaho State University press published his grief journal, “A year and a Day.” Mulligan is a romantic adventure set during the period from the Irish famine through the American Civil War. He is also an avid blues fan.