At the time of its 1969 release, T.S. Bonniwell's Close album came as a shock to listeners who knew the artist as Music Machine singer-songwriter Sean Bonniwell. The Music Machine, after all, waxed some of the toughest garage psychedelic rock of the mid-to-late 1960s, paced by Bonniwell's larynx-shredding growl. In contrast, Close offered orchestrated folk-pop, largely sung in a sweet crooning style. A deeply personal work as satisfying to its creator as his more famous recordings in his previous rock band, Close here makes it CD debut, Bonniwell himself remixing the material for this edition.
When Close was recorded, the Music Machine had ground to a halt after releases on the Original Sound, Warner Brothers, and Bell labels. Bonniwell was by that time the only member of the lineup heard on their 1966 smash "Talk Talk," and made his solo debut on yet a different label. One of the Music Machine's managers, he explains, got him a deal with Capitol allowing him to "do anything I wanted. I had this concept for Close. I wanted big folk ballads and full orchestration. And I wanted to move as far away from rock'n'roll as I could. I just wanted to try something completely different." Sean also "wanted to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and not just a collection of songs. I mean, I always try and do that anyway. But especially with Close." The album was billed to T.S. Bonniwell in accordance with his given name, Thomas Sean Bonniwell.
Producing Close was another young veteran of psychedelic rock, Vic Briggs. Most famed as guitarist for the late-'60s version of Eric Burdon & the Animals, the Englishman had recently started a career as a Hollywood-based producer. "Vic Briggs did a great job producing me," enthuses Bonniwell. "I'd go over to his house in the canyon, and I'd sing the songs we were gonna record the next day. He'd sit right down and notate that thing, orchestrate it. I said, 'I want French horns here and so forth and so on, and maybe this little theme.' And that guy just, man, he zipped it down. He said, 'Oh yeah, this is gonna sound good, this is gonna sound good.' It was a wonderful experience, a wonderful collaboration.
"He understood what I was going after perfectly, and allowed me a free hand in the studio as well. If something wasn't quite working, I'd say, 'Let's try this. Let's try something completely different.' Sometimes he'd say, 'Well, this is gonna work,' and I'd say, 'Well, no, it's not going where it should go to get to the end.' So he'd say, 'Okay, where are you going, what do you want to do?' It was really fun. Neither of us had illusions about it being a commercial album, because it's not. It wasn't set out to be that way anyway."
Bonniwell had never been one to shy away from unconventional songs more akin to psychological probes than pop tunes, and Close continued that quest, if in a less aggressive manner than many of his previous compositions. Though subtly so, Close investigates romance, faith, family, and mortality itself, among other serious issues. As Sean notes, it does so from the perspectives of both reminiscing about the past to projecting himself into the future. The opening track, "Where Am I To Go," is "the beginning of the beginning," he elaborates. "I know I'm gonna do something, but I don't know what it is I'm gonna do. I know that my son or my children or something are going to ask me what they should do, and this starts a process of revelation."
Continues Bonniwell, "Then I fell back to simplifying the human heart. Because it's at the core of almost everything that we do, whether it's negative or positive. So 'Love Is Such a Simple Word,' it's not profound, but it covers all the bases, or as many as I could at the time." In "Who Remembers," "I'm jumping into the future, and taking things that were common to me as a child and conjuring them up. I guess the long and short of it is I'm moving in and out of time throughout Close. I'm projecting myself into a future that is yet to be."
Both "Who Remembers" and "Temporary Knife" benefit from stratospherically high female backup vocals from a friend of Paul Buff, the recording engineer who'd been crucial to much of the Music Machine's most innovative work. "She wanted to do it for free," Sean remembers, "and I said, 'Absolutely not.' I think she did a great job. It's so old-fashioned, and so corny, that there's a charm to it."
For "Something to Be," "I'm seeing my childhood as an adult, and asking the question, 'Where does the future lie?' All of this potential and all of these questions. The imagery, I thought, was rather good. Because I'm talking about a father I never had. What I projected was my grandfather, 'cause I was very close to him. 'Something to be, something to be'...I'm imagining my father saying that to me in enthusiasm. But it's really my grandfather that's doing it. Him ruffling my hair as I go out to play, I mean, that never happened, it didn't come close to it. But that's how I wanted it to be." The ticking on "Something to Be" was, he believes, played by session drummer Jim Gordon, soon to join Derek & the Dominos. "Well, it's a clock," Sean says. "It's time moving forward. It was a rather adventurous concept, but I wanted it there. I said, 'Don't worry if you can't do that, just go ahead and give it a try.' He's right in perfect clock meter, which is impossible to play."
"Black Snow" will be familiar to major Bonniwell fans from its appearance on Music Machine compilations, though the band's version wasn't released when it was first recorded. The Close arrangement has, as Sean acknowledges, "a completely different approach. I knew I was gonna do it both ways when I wrote it. I met Jose Feliciano in New York, and he got me thinking about what it would be like to be blind in such a way that you don't know what you're missing. So snow would be not necessarily white; it could be black. It's how you identify with being blind to a blind person, and how you would speak to someone like that. I wanted to show the contrast between full empathy and full, I suppose, righteous anger," which comes to the fore in the Music Machine's vastly dissimilar hard rock-oriented rendition.
While the Music Machine tried "She Is" once in rehearsal, "we never did it. It's not Music Machine, let's face it. It's way too maudlin and sweet." Though "Temporary Knife" is on its surface Close's most buoyantly soaring romantic ode, "there's a darkness to those lyrics too, that is hidden by the fact that it's an uptempo delivery, which is really on purpose." It's titled "Temporary Knife," he adds, "because we don't want the knife in our heart forever. It's stuck in there and we're gonna get it out. Try to not to face the knife again. But it's impossible, if you really are gonna open yourself up to life."
In Bonniwell's estimation, "Continue" "is so corny I like it. I wanted this tropical feel of this isolated man who is perfectly content to be isolated, and at peace with himself and the world." "Where It Belongs," by far the jauntiest of Close's tracks, is followed by mournful romanticism more typical of the album on "But Not with My Heart," whose message Sean boils down to this: "You cannot have unforgiveness. It's so important that you're continually ready to forgive people."
In keeping with a man who's never been reluctant to address the big subjects, the finale, "Sleep," is "a look at this man who has worked all of his life to support his family, to be a farmer, to grow things, and to know the Lord and walk with him through not an easy life, but certainly not a hard one; one that all men are faced with. And it's the Lord calling him home. It shows how foolish 'Where It Belongs' is, and I did that on purpose. Because it completely turns it around into a life that should be centered not in doubt and unforgiveness, but in faith. That's really the whole context of Close."
When Close was released, unfortunately, "Capitol Records didn't really do anything with it. I think they printed 5000 copies and released it in California." But as Bonniwell emphasizes, "It was fine with me, because it's a work I wanted to do. I've sat and listened to this album from beginning to end in the dark, and I'll be darned if it doesn't completely refresh me. I realized that I had created something that I set out to do, and that's very, very satisfying."
Sadly, Sean passed away in December 2011, just a few weeks after graciously consenting to be interviewed for these notes, although he was already seriously ill. It's sad that he was not able to see this reissue, but a source of comfort to him to know that the record would be issued with the mix he had completed shortly before his hospitalization. "There's another lesson too," he urged. "If you have a project, be it creative or building a work venture, and you find yourself with time on your hands, and you can do it...don't hesitate!"
by Richie Unterberger
1. Where Am I to Go - 2:55
2. Love Is Such a Simple Word - 3:17
3. Who Remembers - 2:43
4. Something to Me - 3:10
5. Black Snow - 4:06
6. She Is - 3:09
7. Temporary Knife - 2:56
8. Continue - 3:03
9. Where It Belongs - 2:13
10. But Not with My Heart - 2:59
11. Sleep - 4:18
Music and Lyrics by Sean Bonniwell
*Sean Bonniwell - Vocals, Guitar
*Steve Lester - Guitar
*Fleetfoot - 12-String Guitar
*Virgil Evans - Trumpet
*Bill Hinshaw - French Horn
*Jack Libeu - Vibraphone
*Jim Gordon - Drums
*K - Congas
*Lyle Ritz - Bass
*Sharon Hicks - Bass
*Vic Briggs - Guitar