Clip: The Legend of Red Hash
September 30, 2005
The Legend of Red Hash
Gary Higgins's first and only LP came out in 1973 -- and by then he was
already in prison.
Like everyone else he knew who'd heard it, Drag City publicist Zach Cowie
was obsessed with Gary Higgins's 1973 LP Red Hash -- an obscure psych-folk
masterpiece in a class with hippie-era rarities like Skip Spence's Oar,
Linda Perhacs's Parallelograms, and Vashti Bunyan's Just Another Diamond
Day. In 2003 his friend Ben Chasny, leader of the band Six Organs of
Admittance and guitarist for Comets on Fire, had given him a copy of the
album, and Cowie spent most of the next two years tracking Higgins down. In
late July, Drag City reissued Red Hash to glowing reviews in publications
ranging from Vice magazine to the New York Times, and the first pressing of
5,000 copies quickly sold out.
Red Hash is still Higgins's only release, and his career as a professional
musician was essentially over even before it came out -- he was serving
time in a maximum-security prison on drug charges. A native of rural
Sharon, Connecticut, he formed his first band, Random Concept, in 1963.
Three years later the group -- which included singer Simeon Coxe, who'd go
on to form the legendary Silver Apples -- moved to New York City and took
up residence at the Hotel Albert, alongside lodgers like Tiny Tim, the
Lovin' Spoonful, and the Blues Magoos. Random Concept got work, but their
schedule was grueling -- they often played six sets a night -- and they
were unused to the demands and excesses of the big city. "We were kinda
homesick," says Higgins. "So we decided to go back to our roots and
regroup. It probably wasn't the best business decision, but it's where all
our heads were at."
Coxe stayed behind, but Higgins went back to Sharon with pianist Terry
Fenton, guitarist Jake Bell, and bassist Dave Beaujon. Gary "Chico"
Cardillo, a young club owner and manager, made them the house band at the
Hukah, his new venue in nearby Torrington. "Gary and I really connected
personally," says Cardillo, who now owns a toy company. "I always felt he
was incredibly talented."
But by the early 70s Higgins had begun to tire of the heavy psych and
jam-oriented material he played in Random Concept. He'd been working on a
set of folk-flavored songs and formed an acoustic band called the Wooden
Wheel with Bell, cellist Maureen Wells, and multi-instrumentalist Paul
Higgins and his friends were "hippies living in the country," as he puts it
-- hardly dangerous radicals. But because they were in small-town America
during the Vietnam era, when Nixon had just declared his war on drugs, they
attracted a lot of unwanted attention from police. "If you didn't have a
butch haircut and weren't headed for the army, then there was something
wrong with you," says Cardillo. They regularly bought and smoked marijuana
("I even inhaled," jokes Higgins), and when a sting operation in October
1972 failed to catch the local dealers prosecutors were after, Higgins and
Cardillo -- who knew one of the targets -- were next in line. Both were
convicted of selling hashish. "It certainly shocked us," says Higgins. "But
it brought forth an urgency in getting my music down on tape, because I
didn't know if I'd ever get another chance."
In February 1973, out on bail and awaiting his sentence, Higgins went into
the studio with members of Random Concept and the Wooden Wheel for a series
of round-the-clock sessions, adding guitar and drums himself. Eleven songs
from those sessions would become Red Hash, a free-flowing, meditative blend
of bucolic folk, gentle psychedelia, and slowly unfolding melodies that
took its title from a nickname the other inmates had given the redheaded
Higgins before he made bail. Despite the warm pastoral feel of tracks like
"Cuckoo" and "Down on the Farm," his sometimes fragile singing is colored
with a deep sadness.
Higgins was sentenced to five to ten years and imprisoned before the album
could be mixed or mastered. Cardillo got the same sentence, but because he
had a little more time before his incarceration, he finished the record and
set up a label called Nufusmoon with funds raised by Higgins's family and
friends. He pressed around 2,500 copies of Red Hash, but despite positive
reviews and airplay as far away as Wisconsin and California, it died a
Higgins served 13 months, and after his release briefly lived on the west
coast. But in 1975 he returned to southern Connecticut, where he's remained
ever since. He occasionally performed with different lineups under the
Random Concept name until the early 80s, when he went back to school and
became a registered nurse. Married with a young son, he played in bar bands
and set up a home studio. But he never released anything else, and Red Hash
became a distant memory.
Unbeknownst to Higgins, however, a cult was sprouting up around the record.
Psych and folk collectors were passing copies around, and tracks aired
regularly on tastemaking New Jersey radio station WFMU. In the late 90s
Italy's Flash Records put out a CD bootleg, and before long original copies
of the LP were fetching hundreds of dollars on eBay. Adding to the allure
was the mystery surrounding Higgins -- almost nothing was known about him.
Some people thought the album had been recorded behind bars, and rumors
circulated that he'd gone insane or fled the country.
In 2003, when Ben Chasny introduced Zach Cowie to Red Hash, he'd been hung
up on it for three years. Cowie, a Naperville native and former Touch and
Go staffer, was working for Sub Pop in Seattle, but in spring 2004 he
returned to Chicago and started at Drag City. He ran nationwide online
people searches, trying to contact every Gary Higgins he could find. In
October of that year Chasny recorded a cover of "Thicker Than a Smokey," a
song from Red Hash, for Six Organs' School of the Flower, hoping Higgins
would learn about it and get in touch.
But before that album came out, Cowie was at a party and struck up a
fateful conversation with Rob Sevier, the researcher for local reissue
label the Numero Group. Sevier not only knew about Higgins but had his
phone number. Not wanting to be too forward, Cowie used the number to find
an address and wrote Higgins a letter; they began an e-mail correspondence
that led to an offer from Drag City to reissue Red Hash. "That totally blew
my mind," says Higgins, who's now 57. "And things have been going crazy
In March Higgins made a cameo at a Six Organs show, performing "Thicker
Than a Smokey" to a rapt audience of New York hipsters. In late July, when
the album was officially reissued, Higgins reconvened the original Red Hash
band -- augmented by his 24-year-old son, Graham, on guitar -- to play a
release party at Tonic and record a live radio session for WFMU. He's
booked two more shows so far, including a November 4 gig at the Empty
Bottle during the Two Million Tongues Festival.
"In light of how some of the things went down back then, what's happening
now literally seems magical," Higgins says. "Sometimes I just shake my
head. Sure, it took 32 years, but who cares? People are finally hearing the