Feature Me and My Shadow
Reprinted from:

After a long detour into Nashville songwriting, Catskill's Allen Kovler creates
an alter ego who represents a fusion of personal poetry and raw rock

Metroland By Peter Hanson

First we have the Jewish kid from the Bronx who studies English literature in college and then became a poet modeled after such Beat Generation greats as Allen Ginsberg.

Next we have the former a cappella singer who spent a decade banging his head against the wall of the Nashville establishment by trying to write hit country songs.

And last we have the rock & roller who just released a debut album filled with enough gritty lyricism and clanging guitar parts to make Lou Reed proud.

Will the real Allen Kovler please stand up?

Over the course of his 54 years, Kovler has followed a peculiar creative path that has taken him from the Bronx to the Capital Region to Nashville and then back to the Capital Region. But he's hardly a rootless wanderer. For more than two decades he has lived in Greene County and worked for Columbia-Greene Community College, at which he is now the director of publicity. Kovler revels in the contradictions of his life, because every step off the path he thought he was going to follow brought him one step closer to the path he's walking today.

Chatting his way through a leisurely lunch on a recent afternoon, Kovler shifts from excitement to contemplation to nostalgia to businesslike clarity. Watching him make these transitions, it's easy to understand how this unassuming-looking man comfortably inhabits the persona of Allen Shadow, the artist wearing a cowboy hat, sunglasses and a grim expression on the cover of the new disc King Kong Serenade. The first album that Kovler has released under any name, King Kong Serenade blends thumping rock grooves with such impressionist wordplay as these lines from the tune "Crossroads of America": "Minnie Mouse gets grabassed/by a white whiskered alchy/in the leftover '50's light/of the arcades of 42nd Street."
"I've really come full circle," says Kovler. "I've come back to my roots. As a young man, I spent 10 years developing my voice as a poet. Then I spent 10 years developing my voice as a songwriter. So it's been a long development to come to this place. I've come back into my own skin."

Kovler, who will celebrate the release of King Kong Serenade with a show in Catskill this weekend, lived in the New York City area until 1973, when he moved to Greene County to try life in the country. Throughout the '70's and '80's, he pursued his love of poetry, doing extensive readings and publishing a pair of chapbooks. In the late '80's, he started to bring a musical element into his readings, eventually doing a series of joint performances with an a cappella group called the Shadows. But once he got the hang of performance poetry, Kovler caught the songwriting bug.

Even more surprisingly, at least to Kovler, he began writing ballads--country ballads. "I wasn't brought up on country," he says. "I was raised on R&B--a city kid. I struggled with it."

In 1988, Kovler cut a four-song demo in Woodstock, then began making two or three trips a year to Nashville to see if he could land a deal as a recording artist. He quickly learned that his voice wasn't smooth enough to croon on country radio, and that his songwriting style struck many Music Row executives as too dark, too personal and too New York. "I struggled very much those first couple of years showing people my stuff," he says. "It was a hard lesson--learning the writing, learning how a country song gets played."

The would-be tunesmith's frustrations were ameliorated by friendships with such behind-the-scene players as Kent Blazy, who produced demo recordings of several of Kovler's songs. It was Blazy who recruited an unknown singer named Trisha Latham to record the demo of Kovler's "Is It Love Yet?," a boppy, radio-friendly ditty. "I remember sitting in my car and putting the tape in," Kovler says of the demo. "It's like, 'Oh, my God.' She got inside the song. Nobody ever sang one of my songs the way she did on that one." Just a few years after singing Kovler's song, Latham became a superstar under the name Trisha Yearwood.

After being turned down by a handful of publishers and labels, "Is It Love Yet?" found a champion in music executive Russ Zavitson, the guy who put Billy Ray Cyrus together with "Achy Breaky Heart." Even with Zavitson's support, however, the song failed to entice any name artists, so is has yet to be recorded for commercial release.

The near-miss "Is It Love Yet?" experience contributed to Kovler's growing frustration with Nashville, but he learned an important lesson in music-industry Zen from Blazy. During an early-'90's visit to Nashville, Kovler saw an early version of the video for "If Tommorow Never Comes," a tune cowritten by Blazy and a former demo singer. Kovler thought the video was a big deal, so he called Blazy to offer congratulations. Blazy was blase'--and a few months later, "If Tomorrow Never Comes" became the first No. 1 hit by the former demo singer, Garth Brooks.

"Everybody in this business learns to stop doing the manic up-and-down thing," Kovler says. "Everybody's got the horror stories about songs that almost got done, artists who were going to do them getting dropped--there's almost a list of things that happen."

After one disappointment too many, Kovler finally gave up trekking to Tennessee. "It was getting to be about 10 years that I was at it, and I was getting stale," he says. "I wanted to pull Nashville to me, and Nashville wanted to pull me to it. It got very seductive and exciting. It's like playing Lotto--it's almost that much of a long shot. But I thought: 'It's not happening fast enough. My fundamental talents are not being recognized.'"

Although he didn't sever any of his Nashville connections--even now, he's considering hiring a "song plugger" to sell his tunes for him--Kovler decided in 1998 that it was time for him to write, and record, music that was closer to his heart.

"I let myself take more risks with my writing and let my music and my poetry come together," he says. "And it really started happening. It was kind of a reaction to my Nashville experience. I went back to my roots with a fucking vengeance."

As Kovler began writing the songs that became King Kong Serenade, he realized he was writing an extended conceptual piece about New York City. "To me, there were certain things that sort of distilled the essence of New York--it was jazz artists and Beat poets. So I felt I needed to evoke their spirits in a few of the songs," he says. "This was so un-Nashville."

When the 12-song cycle began to take shape, Kovler realized something else: That the songs represented a part of his soul that was almost like a separate person. "Early on, I had the sense that I wanted there to be a persona," he says. "I was trying to write more as a fiction writer. I didn't want to write about personal experiences. I wanted to be a conduit the way novelists are."

Yet while King Kong Serenade is in many ways a fictional creation of Allen Shadow, it also has many personal touches that reflect Allen Kovler. In "Freedomland," a song about culture clashes in the Bronx, the singer mentions the Happy Land Disco fire, an early'90's catastrophe in which a man in a jealous rage killed several people by torching the dance club in which his ex-girlfriend was partying. He then adds that the disaster occurred on the site formerly occupied by Walter's Luncheonette, at which he had eaten countless meals during his childhood.

Now that he's got an album under his belt, it appears that there's no stopping Allen Shadow: Kovler recently received a New York State Council on the Arts grant to record a second Allen Shadow album, which will take on the subject of America the way King Kong Serenade takes on New York.

"When I was writing commercial songs, there was always, like, an editor sitting on my shoulder--it's a very controlled process," he says. "And I was missing the way I worked as a poet. It was very freeing. You get lost, you come unraveled. It's a much larger world."


Home | Music | Reviews | News | Bio | Road | Buy | Lyrics | Poetry | Photos | Newsletter | Links | Site Map | E-mail

Web Site Design: ElectricStage Studios: Webmaster