The first time I heard House Of Leather, at first I was not very impressed by it. The vocals sounded too “pop”; like something the Association would have recorded, and the recurring themes and overtures sounded like space fillers. But I could not deny even then that the electric guitar playing was arresting, and the organ playing weaved its way expertly through the various arrangements, providing a distinctive connecting strand. The Blackwood Apology definitely had their own sound.
For greater atmosphere, they also throw in instruments like acoustic guitar and even pipe organ. The arrangements on the album are complex, and it is cleverly structured so that by the end of the record, the piece has returned to its starting point, meaning that you can put the album on shuffle play and listen to it as an endless loop on your MP3 player should you so choose.
I am not so dedicated as to want to do that, but I did find myself coming back to this album again and again over the 20 years that have elapsed since I bought it. In addition to the advanced musicianship, my main focus was the lyrics. Even with the full text provided on the inside cover (along with an elliptical explanatory note on the instrumental depiction that the album provides of the American Civil War), the words are perplexing.
As someone on the Internet wondered; is the House of Leather a cathouse? The images on the cover suggest it is a house of ill-repute of some sort. And why is it the house “Of Leather”? Was it some sort of kinky B&D joint where moustachioed gents went to get their jollies in unorthodox ways?
Finally, after 20 years of scratching my head, I sat down and listened to the lyrics, and not just once but several times, in an attempt to get to the bottom of what this perplexing album is about.
The story starts “down along the Swanee River”, where we are introduced to a young lady named Sarah Jane who has “got love to send you… straight to heaven where she comes from”. We move on to a reminiscence of the House of Leather, where “the pretty young things all got together” to dance, among other things.
We are then introduced to one Mrs Grim, who appears to be the matronly figure in charge of the House of Leather, and the narrator reminds her of Donny Brooks, a farmer who she used to know in one capacity or another, and obliquely makes mention of the town’s mayor, a man by the name of Ramsey.
A little bit further on, we find out that the House of Leather is a school of some sort, and Sarah Jane appears to be a teacher there (teaching what exactly? – again, we don’t know), who both Donny Brooks and Ramsey have fallen in love with. The outcome of this love triangle is that Sarah Jane ends up with Donny Brooks the farmer, and they settle down on his farm, where she ends up bearing him a child.
Then along comes the US Civil War, in which her husband and child (a boy) are both killed. After the war, Sarah Jane stays on at the farm, which Ramsey, the mayor, now owns. The album concludes with the words “Sarah’s on her knees… building dreams… begging for love”, and “if you’re ever…. way down along the Swanee River… you’re not far from the House of Leather… where I was born….”
Well, that’s all perfectly clear, isn’t it? So the narrator is the offspring of Sarah Jane and Ramsey… or is he? And if he was their child, why was he born in the House of Leather and not down on the farm? Was she kicked off the farm and ended up having to work for a living? But working in what capacity? And exactly what sort of education is offered by an institution that ventures to call itself the “House of Leather”?
The brainchild of 23 year-old writer / guitarist Dale Menten, The House Of Leather is a rock opera set in a bordello during the US Civil War. It was originally released in December 1968, shortly before it was staged as a sell-out rock opera in Minnesota. A fine mixture of acid-tinged pop-rock and ballads, it makes its long-overdue CD debut here – together with liner notes that tell the story of the production’s ill-fated move to New York in 1970.
1. Medley: Swanee River Overture / House Of Leather Theme - 2:06
2. Do You Recall The House Of Leather? - 2:47
3. Recess With Mrs. Grim - 1:03
4. Graduates Of Mrs. Grim’s Learning - 3:10
5. There Is Love In The Country (On The Donny Brooks Farm) - 2:03
6. Here I Am - 4:27
7. She Lives With Me - 1:07
8. There’s Love In The Country (On The Donny Brooks Farm) Reprise - 2:05
9. Time Marches On - 5:23
10. Dixie And The War - 3:21
11. Death And Reality - 2:52
12. Sarah’s On Her Knees - 2:46
13. Theme From House Of Leather (Epilogue In Suede) - 2:45
All compositions by Dale Menten
*Ron Beckman - Bass,
*Dennis Caswell - Drums, Vocals
*Tom Hustin - Guitar, Vocals
*Dennis Libby - Piano, Vocals
*Greg Maland - Keyboards, Pipe Organ
*Dale Menten - Guitar, Vocals
*Bruce Pedalty - Organ, Vocals