Friday, April 18, 2003/lk
Musician Henry Schifter is finding out all kinds of interesting things about himself on the Internet. Or, more correctly, he’s finding interesting things by himself. Like a Barclay Records single he recorded in the early 1970s called “Another Time,” which he bought from a French collector last month. And a Russian ballad, “Dark Night,” which received wide play on Radio Free Europe in the ’70s and is his favorite record. And he’s found the first recording he ever made, a Folkways documentary record he was featured on in 1968 called “Music of Washington Square.”
“I’m completely blown away by the magic of the Internet,” says Schifter, who is admittedly enamored of the search engine Google. “It’s a time machine that you can use to go back over someone’s life.”
Schifter may be finding pieces of his past online, but no one needs an Internet connection to find him in the present.
Schifter is one of Hood River’s most ubiquitous musicians, appearing, quite possibly, in more local venues more often than anyone else.
“The last few years, I’ve played two or three times per week and never left Hood River,” Schifter says, chuckling. “I’ve played at just about every place you can play in this town.” He’s performed everywhere from the River City Saloon to Stonehedge Gardens, from the North Oak Brasserie to the Red Carpet Inn — and most places in between.
It’s a little harder to pin Schifter down when it comes to defining his music.
“I do interpretations of other people’s songs,” he says. I do ballads — I’m essentially a balladeer, a troubadour — and I do this mish-mash of Russian and French songs.“ He pauses for a moment. “And of course I’m not shy about trying my hand in Spanish.” Chuckle. “I’ve got a bag full of blues tunes. Blues and gospel songs are what drew me into playing guitar and singing.”
Schifter, who was born in Tajikistan, emigrated to the United States when he was 9 and grew up in New York City. His father wanted him to learn to play the accordion. But “one rainy day,” Schifter found an old guitar and a chord chart and started strumming.
“In six months, I learned almost everything I know today,” he says. “I couldn’t get enough.” In his early 20s, Schifter began hitchiking to California frequently, and finally moved there in the late 1960s, in the heady days of pop music’s heyday. He settled in West Hollywood’s Laurel Canyon and met recording artist Johnny Rivers, who signed him to do several singles on his independent label.
Schifter remained in Hollywood for a few years, gaining celebrity producing singles on various well-known labels, including Soul City Records and Barclay Records. But he grew weary of Hollywood’s sheen and drifted to Europe, where he “got to play more.”
While in London, Schifter fell from a third-floor window, an accident that put him in the hospital for weeks. Despite being badly hurt — undergoing two major surgeries — Schifter knew he was lucky to be alive. In the hospital, he shared a room with a patient who had been paralyzed in an accident.
“It changed my life,” Schifter says. “I had the feeling that I had gotten away with something, but there would be a karmic price to pay.” Part of that “price,” Schifter says, was that he stopped playing music for more than a decade. He got into the salvage business, traveled the world. In the late 1980s, he wound up in Hood River when he and his wife decided they wanted to raise their daughters in a small town.
One night during a Christmas party at the River City Saloon, Schifter picked up a guitar and played again for the first time in years. The crowd loved him, and soon he was back in the swing doing regular gigs — becoming renowned around the Gorge (along with musician John Francombe) as half of the duo John Henry.
After he and his wife divorced in 1995, Schifter quit music again — this time for five years.
“Then one day it hit me,” Schifter recalls. “Holy smokes — I like playing and how much longer can I play? Everyday I don’t play is one day off the batch of days I can play.” Schifter picked up his guitar again and hasn’t put it down since — at least not for more than a couple of days.
In between music gigs, Schifter works as a broker for Gorge Winds Properties and is a licensed private investigator. But, besides his two daughters — one of whom, Tara Schifter Kelley, is an aspiring musician who made her debut at Savino’s last month — playing music is where his heart is. And he has little desire to play anywhere else than Hood River.
“I can’t think of one place here I haven’t enjoyed playing,” he says. “I believe if I’m having fun playing then there’s a good chance someone else could be having fun listening to me. But if I’m not having fun, all bets are off.” As anyone who’s seen Schifter perform knows, the bets are rarely off when he takes the stage.
Schifter fondly remembers playing for larger crowds, but he says he gets a similar joy from playing for small audiences.
“It’s electrifying to play to a receptive, big crowd,” Schifter says. “There’s something going on there that doesn’t meet the eye.” But, he says, he can get a “similar charge” from even one person.
“When you’re playing for people who are really listening, there’s a give and take going on,” he says. “It’s a dynamic of some kind and it goes to the core of what we’re made of. It’s the magic of what is music.”
So Schifter will continue making his magic, playing as often as he can in venues all over town. And he’ll keep surfing the Internet for pieces of his past as a recording artist. (“It seems like every couple of months Google becomes Googlier,” Schifter says with a giggle.)
But what he’ll mostly do is continue to enjoy what he calls “a great life.”
“There’s this precious thing called every day,” Schifter says. “It’s great stuff.”
You can’t find that on Google.