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DO TELL : Utah Phillips Puts His Tales to Music and His Audience's Character to the Test

March 05, 1992|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who regularly writes for The Times Orange County Edition.

"You know, this is sort of a New Age epicenter up here," says U. Utah Phillips of the Sierra-nestled Nevada City where he lives. "God, either that can break your heart or be the funniest thing you ever ran into. I always liked Robert Bly's poetry, but when I read the title to 'Iron John,' I originally thought it meant that in order to have a real man's movement, you need an iron john.

"Me, I'm not in a drum circle yet--you know, where the men get in a circle, beat drums and howl. I've been working with a real early man's book by Charles Darwin called 'Nurturing the Monkey Within.' Instead of drumming we get a lot earlier than that: We howl and jump up and down and sit in trees and pick fleas off of each other that our grooming leader brings in a vacuum cleaner bag.

"Then did I tell you about the visiting Tibetan lama who came to town in his saffron robes and all? You know what I saw him ask the fellow at the hot dog stand? 'Make me one with everything.' "

Every word the 57-year-old says is true; at least words like the and of are. He can spin a yarn or tall tale with the best of them, and since the best of them mostly worked in the last century, he may be America's greatest traveling storyteller. Not that he cares.

A songwriter, one-time hobo, card-carrying Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World member), self-described "primitive newspaper," "one-man workers paradise" and commentator on "the absurdity of the general dilapidated appearance of reality," Phillips--who looks like an apt cross between Santa Claus and Karl Marx--isn't looking for accolades or success on any terms but his own. Those terms include turning down spots on the "Today" show and "The Tonight Show" to travel from town to town playing tiny folk venues such as Laguna Niguel's Shade Tree Stringed Instruments, where he will be on Monday.

"I do not need fame, I do not need money and I do not need power. What I need is friends , and that's what this trade affords me," Phillips said by phone last week from his hillside home.

He travels to some 120 cities and towns a year, and he says those travels are the source of his art. "I beat the streets a lot, and I listen to people talk. I'd be a fool to not take the chance to get out and talk to people. It's like being paid to go to school. That's where my songs come from, talking to people, from stories that I hear. Nothing happens inside your head but for something happening outside of it first."

He sings wildly inventive children's songs, train songs, baseball songs, love songs, hobo songs and union songs from the volatile history of the IWW. Some aren't so much songs as diving platforms for wild, convoluted digressions so rich you forget there was even a song involved until he comes back to it 15 minutes later.

The song that makes him happiest is "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," a tune he's loved since his hoboing days in the '50s. The saddest is one he wrote himself, after he was in a restaurant in Rochester, N.Y., in which the parents of a 5-year-old girl took her into a restroom to discipline her and hit her so hard against a wall that she later died.

"As I was traveling through the Northeast, I kept calling the hospital to see how she was doing and found out she had passed away. And so I wrote a song for her, and sang it when it seemed something needed to be said about that. But it's a hard song for me to get through. I feel very, very badly about the way kids are treated, at all levels. I really regard using television as a baby-sitter as a form of child abuse."

Among the song's lyrics: "I wish I could send you to some little island/Where Daddy always listens and Mama's always smiling/And no matter what they do/They can't take it out on you/Fly away little bird, there's no one left to scold you . "

Phillips has a warm, folksy, comedically timed voice that a listener immediately trusts--which makes him an exception among this year's presidential candidates. As he has in past elections, Phillips is running on the Sloth and Indolence ticket.

"I'm running as an anarchist candidate, and as a do-nothing. I guarantee that if I'm elected, I will take over the White House and not do anything , just hang out and scratch my butt and shoot pool; which is to say if people want things done, they've got to get together and figure out how to do it themselves."

Born Bruce Duncan Phillips--for King Duncan and Robert the Bruce, betraying his Scottish ancestry--he was the child of labor activists and free-thinkers. His parents were the first to integrate movie theaters in Salt Lake City. Phillips got the nickname Utah while serving with the 8th Army in Korea, an experience that also made him a pacifist. (The U. was added as a reflection of his affection for country singer T. Texas Tyler.)

In a world of conformists, Phillips does a fearless job of being himself. He says he never had to give it a second thought.

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