Nearly 50 Years Later, the Sunset Strip's "Lady Barber" Reveals Her Songwriting Talents
Courtesy of Hunter Lea
The mid-'60s Sunset Strip was the most fabulous playground in the Western world, a glittering wonderland where Jayne Mansfield did the frug high on acid, Arthur Lee wandered barefoot between Clark and Hilldale as Elvis rolled by in his Cadillac, and The Standells and Barney Kessel's trio alternated sets down at P.J.'s. It was an eruptive, unstable, fast-moving microcosm of cool, where music and fashion ruled the scene.
Among the Strip's colorful cast of characters at the time was Lynn Castle, a lanky wild child who gained a jolt of 1966 notoriety as the Strip's hippest "Lady Barber," coiffing the locks of such luminaries as bubble-gum visionaries Boyce and Hart, The Monkees, Sonny and Cher, Stephen Stills and Neil Young.
Castle did grace the glimmering moment with a 1968 single, the Lee Hazlewood–produced "Rose Colored Corner," a rich slice of pensive, introverted psych-folk self-examination, appealingly put over with her rich, smoky vocals. But apart from the 45's self-plugging flipside, "The Lady Barber," that was it. Lynn Castle never released another note of music.
Until now. Through a weird sequence of events, a never-before-heard trove of Castle's intimate, intense originals bubbled up from obscurity and is being released this week by offbeat indie Light in the Attic. A just-her-and-her-guitar 1968 demo session recorded by the fabled pop genius Jack Nitzsche, the collection, called Rose Colored Corner, is exceptional.
Lynn Castle at her other job
Courtesy Lynn Castle
Six or seven years earlier, Castle had escaped an emotionally sterile childhood and slipped into the music world via her first teenage crush, one Phillip Harvey Spector, himself a pimply nobody at the time.
"You never know, any day, what will happen in life," says Castle, now 78. "Too much has happened in my life. I was so young and unexplored. Phil was my first boyfriend. We were just kids; he wasn't in the music business but he'd sing to me. And I always wrote songs, but it was a secret. Almost no one ever heard them."
Castle's songs are strikingly crafted, full of open space and loaded with emotion and psychic information. Her lyrics are spare, evocative yet deeply expressive, exploring the perspective of an often forlorn seeker with a "head so full of emptiness" and such primal anxiety that Castle feared "I'd choke on the air," as she sings on "What in the World Would I Do."
Her friendship with Hazlewood was key to drawing out her deliberately clandestine artistry. She wrote music only late at night, when she would withdraw into a closet for privacy. "I'd go into the closet with my paper and pencil and just write my heart out, to the best of my ability."
Born May 29, 1939, in Brooklyn, Castle came to Los Angeles as a child with her father and his second wife, who generally regarded the children of her husband's first marriage as an afterthought, packing Castle and her brother off to boarding school every chance she got. When Castle was a teen, her uncle somehow heard one of her songs, "Love's Prayer" and took it to publisher Billy Sherman. The Spinners ended up cutting the song, credited to "Len Castle," as a gooey doo-wop tune in 1958. Sherman's offices were next to Hazlewood's, who struck up a friendship with Castle.
Even though Castle's saga involves some of the most epochal pop music producers in the business, her central storyline is one of almost desperately fleeing from her own gifts. The album includes telling studio chatter, with Castle lamenting her lack of talent and Nitzsche gently insisting she push on. The only way Hazlewood got "Rose Colored Corner" on tape was by a canny mix of hustle and fast-talking, whipping up a last-minute proposal that allowed him to lure Castle and the band Last Friday's Fire into an Arizona studio for a quick rundown.
"Lee got me my first guitar," Castle says. "I was young and unemployed, so I'd go over to Phoenix with him. It was really fun. We'd go to JD's and hear Waylon Jennings sing; he and Lee were friends. I had kids so I wasn't out romping for days. I'd just go out there really quickly; I was taking care of my babies. However it migrated to Lee's finding out that I wrote, I do not know. And he got me to sing — which I never did in front of anybody. Ever.
"Yes, I did have self-esteem issues, with [my] family background," she continues. "But I loved fun and I loved my fantasy world of fun and sunshine — but there was an enormous disparity between the two."
Lynn Castle PR photos from her brief foray into music in the late 1960s
Courtesy of Jack Nitzsche Jr./Kristian St. Clair
Rose Colored Corner opens with "The Forest," which exquisitely depicts that fantasy world, "where everglading mist falls gently on the leaves of emerald shadow." Castle renders the stunningly sorrowful "She Thinks She Feels" with an audacious minimalism worthy of Mickey Newbury or Billy Joe Shaver ("Has life done so badly it's left you madly insane?/Put your head on my shoulder and baby, come out of the rain"). When it's suggested that the song would have made a perfect Waylon Jennings record circa '73, Castle comes completely unglued, still unable to fully acknowledge the indisputable quality of her lyrics.
"Jack told me, 'What you do is a treasure.' But nothing happened," Castle says. "I had no confidence. I was quiet, shy, not outgoing at all. I could keep up, pay the rent, but some things just take a while. Other people managed to jump the hurdle but I just couldn't get over it. I did, finally, years later — I told myself it was OK to make music."
The profound melancholy of Castle's music and the near 50-year delay that preceded this resurrection seem to envelop the singer like a cloak, one that warms her even as it inhibits free movement. This bittersweet sense of ambivalence colored other aspects of her life; although her "Lady Barber" celebrity brought her to national prominence — The Washington Post ran a story about her headlined "Shapely Blonde in Blue Jeans, Popular Barber in Hollywood" — she never built on or exploited her notoriety.
"Emotionally, I lived in a fantasy. I didn't do reality," Castle says. "But I had to make money and barbering was just another thing I could do. I knew a lot of music people already. I did all of the bands. Neil Young and Stephen Stills had no money but if they needed it, I'd do it."
She finally reinvented herself as a working musician in 1980, contributing to B-movie soundtracks using an entirely new persona, Madelynn Von Ritz, a swaggering, hard-rock badass who debuted with the frenzied "When I Close My Eyes I See Blood," in William Friedkin's queer slasher cult fave Cruising (the score for which was composed by her old friend, Jack Nitzsche). She loves being Von Ritz but still hesitates as Castle.
"I am just an accident that happened," she says. "And I never thought, in my life, this would happen with these songs. I'm hoping, in my heart, that the situation comes up where I can perform. I have in the past. It was pretty good. But it wasn't easy."
Lynn Castle's Rose Colored Corner is out Friday, June 9 on Light in the Attic Records.
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