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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 Tierney.
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 quiet death.
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 ever since.”
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 album.”