Through the empty streets of sorrow to the sounds of yesterday.
On Grey Life, singer-songwriter Val Stöecklein invites us along on a journey through the past. It’s a nostalgic trip, to be sure, but one that offers rich rewards. Though little remembered today, Stöecklein’s album is a collection of elegant and achingly sensitive compositions.
Some may remember the singer for his part in Kansas-based folk-rock group the Blue Things, whose claim to fame is the psychedelic romp “The Orange Rooftop of Your Mind.” Stöecklein left the group in 1967 when he was hospitalized at a mental health clinic. Subsequently, he taped some demos with his twelve-string guitar, was signed by Dot Records, and started recording the album. Orchestral arrangements were added and Grey Life was released in 1968.
Even without this biographical background, many of Stöecklein’s songs seem to skirt the edge of some kind of breakdown. In profoundly personal compositions, Stöecklein lays bare his deepest yearnings and despair. At the same time, he shows himself an excellent craftsman: with a strong feeling for melody and form — no doubt influenced by the Beatles — he steers clear of sentimentality.
Most of the songs are ballads in which Stöecklein’s voice is accompanied by melodic string parts. Perhaps the album is overproduced, as some have argued, but to my ears the arrangements do not detract from the songs. It might be because I’ve got a soft spot for syrupy strings, but I think the arrangements are tastefully done and add a richness that makes the songs more accessible.
Grey Life bears comparison to Gene Clark’s early solo recordings cut around the time of “Echoes.” Both Clark and Stöecklein picked up their trade in folk-rock groups before emerging as solo artists. Their albums combine a pop sensibility with the intimacy of folk music. There is even a resemblance in their singing, though Stöecklein’s voice also calls Sal Valentino of the Beau Brummels to mind.
Yet where Gene Clark had country blood in his veins, Val Stöecklein’s songs are the epitome of urban loneliness. The album cover is fitting: a stark picture of Stöecklein with his twelve-string in a bare room, accompanied only by the enigmatic picture of a girl on the wall. His songs evoke the image of a young man lost in the big city, living in his small room with only sorrow and desire for company.
Despite its understated power, Grey Life wasn’t a success, partly because Stöecklein failed to play the dates necessary to support it. The album faded away and the singer turned his back on the music industry. Little is known about his later life but he struggled with his mental health and recorded a scattering of demos. Val Stöecklein died in 1993 in Kansas at age 52. A suicide, some have suggested.
Yet his songs are still among us. Grey Life deserves an honorable place in the hall of half-forgotten songwriter albums of the late Sixties, amongst Gene Clark’s With the Gosdin Brothers (1967), David Ackles (1969), Scott Walker’s Scott 4 (1969), and Skip Spence’s Oar (1969). It portrays a scarred landscape of the soul that contains much beauty as well as poignant sadness.
Perhaps Grey Light is the sole masterpiece of a cracked soul. As Leonard Cohen said so wisely: “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Listening to this fragile album, and reading the scattered fragments of Val Stöecklein’s story, I’m tempted to add: But how the darkness comes in too.
For more on Stöecklein, go here. ‘Grey Life’ was re-issued with bonus tracks in 2007, and Stöecklein’s son is currently working on a project to issue unreleased material, which is in need of funding.
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