By Mark T. Gould
It is a safe bet to say that an almost 51 year old former rock star, with years of playing to sold out crowds in arenas and stadiums, might be bemused with the reaction of a roomful of older, devoted fans mixed with half-listening high rollers, but for Jim Messina, the sound of middle-aged music mixes well with the clanging of slots and the din of high rollers.
"Im just now feeling good about performing and singing again," a trim, introspective Messina said recently, following a mid-week performance at the Mohegan Sun Casinos Wolf Den. "My goal is to continue to work and write. The performance aspect of this keeps me healthy and feeling young. I have a young son, and I hope he can see my legacy and be proud of it."
Legacy indeed. At the age of 19, Messina, a staff engineer, found himself directing the studio energies of Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Richie Furay at the demise of the legendary Buffalo Springfield, becoming a member during the recording of their final album, "Last Time Around." Within a year of that debacle, he, along with Furay, formed Poco, arguably the first and best of the seminal country-rock bands emerging from Southern California in the late Sixties. Ironically, while both are cited as major influences for musicians since that time, neither made it big commercially, which may have made sense for Messinas growth at the time.
"In the Springfield, I wasnt even thinking about commercial music," he said. "I was worried about engineering and producing, getting Richie, Neil and Stephen on tape, which was a challenge at age 19. I had no ego then. It made things easier.
"When Poco started, Ive never said this before, but now Richies published a book (a history of the Springfield with co-author John Einarson), and you can read his words and feel his frustration," Messina said, "Richie wanted commercial success in both bands. With Poco, he wanted to be as big as Crosby, Stills& Nash."
"Im not saying thats right or wrong, but there were, and are, no guarantees in the music business. To think that way was a sabotage of every aspect of what we were trying to do. You should never expect that you will get what you want. Just keep doing it and you will get better, thats all."
To Messina, Furays disappointment led to his own frustrations, and his ultimate departure from what he later termed "my first love."
"I became frustrated because Richie was frustrated," Messina recalled. "This was the one guy in the band who I loved, and I still do love, who I looked up to, and admired, and I just could not understand his behavior. That behavior scared me, and I had to get out of the way."
So, only two albums into the group, Messina left, after a seven month indoctrination for new guitarist Paul Cotton. "I didnt want to leave the guys in the group in the lurch," he said. "I said I had to go, but I wanted it to be a smooth transition."
Following Poco, Messina again worked as a staff engineering and producer for Columbia Records, until he was introduced to a new act that Columbia thought Messina, with his experience and know-how in the studio and out, could nurture along.
The fellow was Kenny Loggins.
"To tell you the truth, I had mixed feelings when I first met Kenny," Messina recalled. "I thought he was too ragged and scattered, that he did not have enough experience. So, I put him through a rough test. I had him over to my house, handed him an old guitar out of my closet and said play me your best songs.
"He did it. It was clear he had the songs, the ability, the gift. I knew it would be a lot of work to get him up to the standards of the people I had been playing with, but I knew that he wanted to be successful. It was worth it, but I think it put a real spin on Kenny that hes never recovered from."
The new duo, Loggins & Messina, was all over the radio and concert halls in the mid Seventies, with such hits as "Your Mama Dont Dance," "My Music," "Dannys Song," and "House at Pooh Corner," many of which Messina still performs in his shows. By the latter part of that decade, an amicable split accorded between the two men, and Messina then left the public eye, but for a fairly good reason.
"It probably hurt me in the long run," he said," but I told Warner Bros and Columbia and everyone else that I did not want to work with anyone with a drug or alcohol problem. Thankfully, Kenny did not have one. I just didnt want to be in the studio for hours, waiting for someone to lay down a drum track.. Drugs were taking over at that time, and I really didnt want any part of that. Im sure that it lost me a lot of work.."
So, he was content to release a series of solo albums, none of which sold very much on the market, and, in the late 80s, participated in what amounted to a three year reunion with the original five members of Poco. After that, it was a hiatus from performing on a consistent basis, until he realized what audiences were looking for, in essence just what his legacy was.
"When I started performing again in the Nineties, I realized that the people who supported me and came to hear me really liked to hear the older songs. There was really no reason not to perform them."
That realization led to the "Watching the River Run" album, released last year on River North Records. Combining songs from each facet of his career, and mostly cut live in a Nashville studio, the record is a bouquet of sorts to Messinas fans.
"Who I am is so important," he said, "and many people who come out to the shows only see the past, so it makes sense to let them enjoy it. Ive got my own arrangements, style and keys for these songs, the originals arent totally me, so thats what we do."
In addition to his new-found interest in live performances, Messina has also begun a songwriters workshop near his home in Santa Barbara, California. There, he helps instruct writers in getting in touch with themselves emotionally, but with an interesting twist.
"Psychologists call what we are after the meta-state," he explained. "We try to get the writers to stand back and observe themselves participating in life experiences. I can assist writers with getting into their emotional body or being. It helps create a way to observe their own emotional states." He even has allowed the approach to affect his own songwriting, as a new tune, "Anglers & Wranglers," performed at this recent show, mixes Western allegory with personal experience.
Still, it remains the interaction between Messina as a stage performer and his audience that keeps him going now. At the Wolf Den, he was breezily confident on stage, mixing interesting stories about his songs, jokes about working a casino show and a lengthy history of songs that nearly the entire audience recognized at the sound of the first notes. Again, its back to his legacy, particularly for his young son.
"I became a father at 45, which is interesting," he said. "I want my son to be able to see what I did as a young man, and what I am doing now. I want him to be proud of it."