No one can say Barry Greenfield hasn't been around. Name another Vancouver musician whose career has been embraced by artists as varied as John Lennon, Buffy St. Marie, and Joey "Shithead" Keithley. Go ahead, we'll wait.
Okay, now that you're back, we can tell you that Greenfield has had some fairly long breaks from the biz, although he never really stopped writing songs. So once he started recording again, in 1998, after a hiatus of more than two decades, he had no trouble finding material for what now amounts to five CDs. The newest, Heavy Horses , has been released in time to find him playing in public again, recently in places as big as London, England, and as humble as Duncan, B.C.
A burly, open-faced fellow who turned 56 a few months back, the white-mustached Greenfield is a rough-hewn singer and guitar player, and his writing style is more intuitive and heartfelt than overly polished. But he's no dilettante. He has cowritten tunes with Randy Bachman and his originals have been recorded by the likes of Annette Ducharme and the Hudson Brothers. The Buffy St. Marie link came via a demo he gave to Joni Mitchell-a chain of events he didn't learn about until roughly 10 years after the fact, when the Quebec singer named her Sweet America album after his tune.
During that time away, he took the opportunity to make a living, mostly as a freelance financial planner. And now that his daughter is at that leaving-the-nest age, he is actively pursuing the music career that got under way in the late 1960s. The veteran singer-songwriter, as he laid out in a noisy Granville Street eatery, got the music bug while still living with his parents. Shortly after moving to Vancouver in 1967 from a childhood spent in what was then called Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the U.K.–born teenager attended his first rock concert: Herman's Hermits, The Who, and Buffalo Springfield. It's easy to see why he would run out and get a guitar.
A year later he caught his idols, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, on the Tonight Show promoting the first Beatles album on Apple Records by announcing that their new label was looking for fresh talent. He hopped on a plane for London the next day, showing up at their Saville Row offices, impetuously demanding an audition.
Today, Greenfield fondly recalls his brief meeting with Lennon-then in full crazed-rabbi phase and followed by a rapt entourage-but he actually spent more time with Harry Nilsson and Graham Gouldman. The latter writer-producer, who had penned the Hollies' "Bus Stop" and "Heart Full of Soul" for the Yardbirds and would go on to found avant-poppers 10cc, championed the young colonial. A contract was soon in the offing with industry giant EMI, but instead the unseasoned youngster returned to B.C. to finish high school and begin studying law. He kept up his interest in songwriting, however, and recorded his own version of "New York is Closed Tonight", which was widely played across Canada in 1972. He came up with two more songs, "Sweet America" and "Blue Sky", that charted that year. He subsequently went to Los Angeles to record an RCA album, also called Blue Sky , with top session players. By 1975, he was touring with acts as varied as Supertramp and John Lee Hooker. Then, after a festival show in the Okanagan, he walked away from show business.
"I just wasn't enjoying it anymore, and I saw that it would only get more difficult," Greenfield says.
This decade, however, has found him summing up his life experiences on-stage. "Growing up in Rhodesia had a huge impact on my life," he says, the wisp of a soft East African accent only occasionally colouring his speech. (His singing has the throaty rasp of a young Cat Stevens.) "It taught me a lot about racism and made me quite political. Also, having no television for all my childhood was a very positive thing."
Often, his messages are direct, as on much of his previous record, King of the Wolves , which he describes as his "political album"-something that impressed Keithley and prompted the D.O.A. legend to push Greenfield to begin performing again. Some of his new songs, such as "Landmines" and "Pink Ghetto", are self-explanatory. And "The Road Home", which he's currently shopping in Nashville, deals with the plight of soldiers returning from the debacle in Iraq.
"This is the record I've been wanting to make for the last 25 years," he explains. "There's always a temptation to fit too much into an album, with too many styles and sounds. This one, which is just voice and guitar on every cut, sounds the same all the way through."
The new album is essentially a ruminative collaboration between Greenfield and David Sinclair, who has played guitar with Sarah McLachlan and k.d. lang and who produced Heavy Horses with a light touch. (Like the singer's other releases, it is available on Cdbaby.com.) Greenfield hasn't quit his day job, but on the long way around, he has incorporated the discoveries of that eager teenager who dropped everything to meet the Beatles-and found himself in the process.