Every musician has a Behind the Music saga. Few have one as harrowing as Paul Pena’s.
The blind blues-folk singer-songwriter from Cape Cod began a promising career at 19, playing the 1969 Newport Folk Festival alongside James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. Drawing comparisons to Hendrix, he was soon jamming with Muddy Waters and B.B. King — and Bonnie Raitt opened for him. But when his critically hailed, eponymous ‘72 Capitol debut bombed, Pena signed with (Bob Dylan manager) Albert Grossman’s Bearsville Records. Producer Ben Sidran assembled the Persuasions and Jerry Garcia to back up Pena’s ‘73 New Train. ”We all thought this was really gonna break Paul,” says Sidran.
All except Grossman, who found the mix — from ’60s soul to rock-funk — too scattershot. ”He had all the cards, and he wouldn’t release it,” says Pena, 50, now living in San Francisco. ”I was devastated.”
After Train’s derailment, Pena and his ailing wife, Babe, also blind, ”sorta became vagabonds — and I got heavy into booze and stuff.” Often, their only income was royalties from Steve Miller’s ‘77 cover of New Train’s ”Jet Airliner.”
By the early ’80s Pena, ill himself, quit touring to care for Babe. Then in 1984, he happened upon Tuvan throat singing on his shortwave radio. Intrigued, he taught himself the complex, multi-tonal vocal technique. Eleven years later, partly to ease his grief over Babe’s 1991 death, Pena — and two filmmakers — traveled to Tuva (near Mongolia), where he won a singing contest. The journey was captured in a ‘99 Oscar-nominated documentary, Genghis Blues, which prompted the September release of New Train, 27 years behind schedule.
Pena, now battling a pancreatic illness (first thought to be terminal cancer), admits it’s a bittersweet end to years of ”feeling robbed. This album was next to my heart, so I’m glad it’s out there.” And despite dandy reviews, he has no illusions as to where Train will go. ”I don’t believe in the future. They just whomp it on you and you handle it as good as you can.”