Essra Mohawk is the most important female musician from Philadelphia you’ve probably never heard of. She’s been a Mother, an Uncle and a lead voice on Schoolhouse Rock!
This week, Collector’s Choice Music has released remastered editions of Mohawk’s first three albums. Sandy’s Album Is Here At Last! , Primordial Lovers and the self-titled Essra Mohawk are goldmines for new listeners who missed an entire chapter of weird, original American music when it happened and devoted fans who remember the musician’s smart lyrics, precocious prog-rock flourishes and storied twists toward almost-fame.
As the story goes, Mohawk was scheduled to play an early Friday slot at the Woodstock Festival. On the way there, her manager missed the turn-off for performers and instead got stuck in the gridlock alongside carloads of showgoers. By the time Mohawk arrived backstage, she had lost her slot and spot in Woodstock’s career-making history.
What would have happened if Mohawk had taken the stage that weekend in 1969?
“There’s two possibilities,” says Mohawk, on the phone from her longtime home in Nashville. “One, I’d be the biggest female music act there is, because I can play. I would have done well. At the same time, being young and having no restraint like the feral child that I was, I might be dead, and you might be speaking with Janis Joplin about the dead Essra Mohawk.”
But Mohawk is still alive, and it’s been quite the ride. In 1967, she was Philadelphia hippie chick Sandy Hurvitz, an angsty artsy teen hanging out in New York City’s Greenwich Village for the afternoon when a chance street encounter with Frank Zappa changed her life forever.
Mohawk and some girlfriends from L.A. spotted Zappa strutting down Bleecker Street, and shouted names of L.A. hangouts at him to catch his attention. They got invited backstage that night. After hearing her play a few notes on keyboard, Zappa extended Mohawk an irresistible offer.
“How would you like to be a Mother?” he asked.
Just like that, Mohawk went through the looking glass and joined the Mothers of Invention, her favorite band. But soon it became clear that life with Zappa—who Mohawk refers to as “the first yuppie” for his business acumen—wasn’t always a groovy joyride of unexpected delights.
An early sign of the sour creative chemistry that would spoil the production of Mohawk’s first solo record was Zappa’s insistence that he rename Mohawk.
He pointed at her and declared, “You’re Uncle Meat.” She hated the name and fought him on it, but lost. She played as Uncle Meat with the Mothers for a little while before beginning work on Sandy’s Album is Here At Last! for Zappa’s Bizarre label.
To say production was troubled is an understatement; updated liner notes read like a divorce settlement. Mohawk claims Zappa sabotaged the recordings on a power trip, deleting tracks and terrorizing her for spite. One day Mohawk left crying, came back, and Zappa and the Mothers vanished.
Mohawk got herself legally excised from Zappa and headed West. She picked up a deal to make Primordial Lovers for Reprise. That’s when she hit a roadblock. Literally.
Fate may have steered Mohawk to miss out on the lucrative Woodstock market, but it’s fate that is pulling the musician back to performing, perhaps when she needs it most. In 2008, she lost her partner of 16 years, Jim Hinchliffe. Then she put a beloved pet dog down on the anniversary of Hinchliffe’s death. Mohawk, a Buddhist, says she was feeling down when she got the call about reissuing her work.
“It was a total surprise,” says 62-year-old Mohawk. “I was just walking on air … I’ve been continually writing and recording and performing and releasing albums. I don’t have any children. All I can leave behind is my music and my ideas and I am compelled to do so.” n