Mark Bittner: vocal, acoustic rhythm guitar
Bruce Kaphan: pedal steel, lap steel
Bruce Gordon: keyboards
Paul Olguin: bass
John Hanes: drums
I was a mess when I met Diane, and things took a bad turn. When I lived in Seattle I had a poet friend who worked in a record store and was up on all the more obscure releases. If he heard something he thought I might like, he’d bring it to my attention. One of those albums was “Crazed Hipsters” by a band called Finnigan and Wood. I was particularly enthusiastic about the song “Highway.” Through Dylan’s wandering troubadour songs I’d latched onto the idea that illumination or enlightenment was to be found on the road or in the street. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks contributed to that belief. “Highway” said the same thing: once you’ve become totally disillusioned, you must abandon everything, hit the road, and seek wisdom. So, I took the song’s advice. I quit playing music, left town with a bed roll and $20, and started hitchhiking. That was in August 1973. I expected to be done with my quest by October at the latest.
I wanted to quote the lyrics to “Highway” in my book, so I tracked down the songwriter, Lane Tietgen, to ask his permission. I found him in Sonoma, not far from San Francisco, and he said I could use it. Later, when I decided I wanted to record “Highway” for Street Songs, I again asked his permission, and he agreed. It was another song I’d never played before, and Lane volunteered to teach me his version, which was slightly different from Finnigan and Wood’s. I ended up using a combination of his version, Finnigan and Wood’s, and a few touches of my own. The song has two sections: a long slow intro followed by a fast and hard rocking part. For the slow intro, I played acoustic rhythm guitar (which had a pickup placed in the sound hole, so that sometimes you’re hearing the acoustic played through an amp with heavy tremolo), Bruce Kaphan played pedal steel, Paul Olguin played bass, John Hanes drums, and Bruce Gordon played organ. I’d heard Bruce Kaphan play lap steel on stage a couple of times, and he blew my mind each time. On pedal steel, he’s elegant, even symphonic, but on the lap steel he is utterly wicked. I wanted to use that on at least one song.
So he switched to lap steel for the fast part of “Highway.” His solo is an incredible rock and roll moment, the only genuine rock and roll moment on the entire album. Bruce’s interaction with John Hanes, the drummer, fascinates me. Bruce laid down his lap steel part after the drums, so he’s doing it with deliberation. There’s a particular fill that John plays several times in the fast section that Bruce sometimes echoes. It’s incredibly effective. For the fast section there was one other change: Bruce Gordon switched to electric piano, which nearly has the tone of an electric rhythm guitar, but one played with greater rhythmic and harmonic complexity.
Some months before I finished “Highway” I got the news that Lane Tietgen was dying of cancer. I was an admirer of all his work—not just “Highway”— and I pushed to finish the song before he passed. I wanted him to know what the song meant to me. It changed my life. That’s what every artist hopes to accomplish, and Lane accomplished it with me. There are some small touches still to be added, but we did get a nearly complete version to him before he died.