Sharon Watts in Beacon, New York
The name Jennifer has ‘muse’ written all over it. Just ask Kurt Weill, Little Richard, Tommy Tutone, Donovan. Better still, listen to Bert Sommer. His Jennifer was conceived during the Flower Power era, christened by the young woman who inspired it, and baptised in a sea of nearly half a million at his first live gig – Woodstock.
His was not, and still isn’t, a household name, if registering at all. I had not heard of the singer or the song until three years ago, which is partly why it packed such a surprising wallop. Written in 1968, Jennifer is finally climbing the charts of public and pop music history appreciation. And I am channeling my inner teen.
On a better-late-than-never whim, I visited the museum at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, ahead of the approaching Woodstock 50th anniversary crowd. (The site of the original festival now houses one of the best little museums in the world.) A month later a huge coffee-table book shared my lap with an iPad and two cats as I decided to flashback to 1969 and see what I had missed. My plan: look up every performer in order of appearance and learn a bit more about ‘my generation’.
Bert was the third act (fourth, if you count the crowd’s blessing by Swami Satchidananda) on the first day. There he was, an adorable hippie right out of central casting, on a YouTube film clip that was racking up views. Hair billowing, the tall, skinny boy touches Artie Kornfeld’s shoulder for grounding as he ducks under the whirring of a helicopter that has just delivered him to the stage site. The camera zooms to eyes that are closed while he strums an acoustic guitar. A forest green headband lassoes that cloud of hair enveloping him – us – in tandem with the ethereal song that follows.
Jennifer’s heaven, for Jenny I’d stay
Skin shining white as a dove
Lying beside her I melted away
Into her river of love
I was transported back to a time when this androgynous angel would have demanded PG-rated primetime in my bedroom – pin-ups on my door, 45s on my record player. I wouldn’t have asked for more than this lilting opening to a song with a girl’s name (which I’d have instantly coveted). I certainly wasn’t expecting the erotically strong shift of vocal gears that came next.
Whoa, I’m lost in a maze
Counting the ways that she smiles
Time is slipping away
Lost in the arms of her love
So gentle and wild
That was the moment Jennifer – in the vernacular of the time that remains most apt – blew me away. Whoa indeed. What became of Bert Sommer? Who was Jennifer? The deeper back story was a puzzle often addressed on YouTube comment threads. Once the muse was identified, the obvious question followed: were they lovers?
Bert had joined the Los Angeles cast of Hair in 1968 as part of the ensemble. Jennifer Warnes was the female lead and already a regular on the popular Smothers Brothers’ TV show. Stepping into the larger role of Woof (his solo Sodomy delivered with plaintive angst), Bert gathered up the confidence to approach her, offering his song backstage to the rising star who inspired his gift.
Jennifer remembers her ‘sweet’ cast-mate. ‘He told me it was a song using my name as the title, but he apologised for embellishing it a bit with the kissing her here in the grass part. Eight shows a week and almost three hours on stage [per show] was an exhausting schedule that gave actors almost no time to forge lasting friendships. I had no indication that Bert had any [deep] feelings for me.’
She further clarified the opening line: ‘For Jenny I’d stay was referring to the end of the year, when many of the cast were leaving. I never saw Bert after Hair.’ He would exit the landmark show with a consolation prize, a calling card for the future: Jennifer. The song made its official debut on Bert’s first album, The Road To Travel. A Capitol recording contract was inked in 1968, validating all that was quickly happening to the 19-year-old singer-songwriter.
Only the year before he had joined The Left Banke (whose runaway hit Walk Away Renée came quite by surprise), replacing former lead singer Steve Martin Caro with his own astral-bodied vocal, a job requirement to meld with their baroque sound. Everyone in the Greenwich Village music scene knew Bert could write as well as sing, and he began to collaborate with founding member Michael Brown when others found the task too exasperating. Bert’s And Suddenly was the reconfigured Left Banke’s first single, backed with his vocal on the Tom Feher-penned Ivy Ivy, before the plug was pulled by the original bandmates and their lawyers.
Artie Kornfeld, seven years his senior and a wunderkind in the music business, had been introduced to his talent when the manager of Bert’s fledgling career dropped off a tape cassette. The Bert and Artie connection was a slice of alchemic destiny that would lead from the recording studio to an outdoor stage in the middle of a cow pasture, still in the midst of construction, if not utter confusion.
The little-known artist opened his Woodstock set with Jennifer, then chatted with the multitudes as if they were gathered in his living room. A cover of Paul Simon’s America would earn the native New Yorker the festival’s first standing ovation. What Bert would learn, not long after assuming his comfortable lotus-seat position and gentle command of the audience, was that this stage would have a giant crack in the plywood floor.
First he was deleted from the 1970 Oscar-winning documentary Woodstock, directed by Michael Wadleigh (and the official soundtrack), then subsequent director's cuts, special editions and further Woodstock media commemorative updates and outtakes. His name (with inadvertent yet demoralising misspellings when mentioned at all) was left off the monument erected on the site in 1984. In short, Bert Sommer disappeared into the abyss of not only memory but recorded history.
If there was a Woodstock curse, which Bert would later attempt to joke about, Jennifer is the song that would travel full circle to break it. 1994 was the year of the Woodstock director’s cut (still no sign of Bert). Another documentary, Woodstock Diary, produced for television and culled from previously shot footage, presented a new perspective. DA Pennebaker was the seasoned filmmaker (Monterey Pop fresh under his belt), who had not been hired as the official recorder of the event. He was there, nevertheless, doing what he did best. Among many other never-before-seen performances captured was ‘Bert Sommers [sic] and some of his friends’, performing a perfect 10-song set on the first of ‘3 days of peace and music’.
The Jennifer film clip eventually made its way to YouTube, a bottomless rabbit hole for the new millennium’s worldwide web of music nerds – archaeologists and archivists who make discoveries and create new legacies that, in real time, sometimes just didn’t happen. His performance was a revelation for many. People from around the globe came together to leave comments and questions. Jennifer exerted a gravitational pull that spanned gaping black holes in the universe of time and logic.
How had this indelible performance slipped through the cracks? The puzzle pieces are still being put together. Poor lighting. Record company politics. Editing decisions. Bad timing. Even worse luck. Bert himself would say: ‘I was involved in the two most famous counterculture events of the Sixties: Hair and Woodstock. That and a token will get you on the New York subway.’
By the 20th anniversary of Woodstock he remained absent from any media coverage. As if he were never there, and the whole experience an acid dream. With no reason to think this trajectory would alter course, Bert made the best of things. Still upbeat, still singing, he died in 1990 after a long respiratory illness, at the age of 41, without sensing that Karma had begun to smile upon him.
Much has been discovered, or rediscovered, since Jennifer beamed its way out of that dark vault on the Warner Brothers lot. During his brief lifetime, Bert would write hundreds of songs, resulting in a repertoire with topics that extended far beyond love that was never, ever ‘puppy’.
Leonard Cohen once told Jennifer Warnes to beware: ‘Most writers go to extraordinary, ridiculous lengths to write a good song, including pretending to fall in love for a day or two.’ The Poet Laureate of Pessimism’s advice didn’t apply to Bert, who explored his own emotional terrain with a guileless pursuit of someone who might ‘make my lonely life worth living’ (from a 1967 single by the duo Bert & Bill).
Jennifer, Jeanette, Eleanor, Bonnie, Jane – the never-ending search inspired and nurtured him, propped him up, let him down, and occasionally saved him. Then pronouns began to replace the names. You and I. I’m Alone. She’s Gone. Only the song – and his voice – remained true.
To add a layer of irony to Bert’s life that he couldn’t have missed, both his Hair crush, Jennifer Warnes, and fellow Woodstock obscurity Joe Cocker (who was included in the 1970 film) had a huge hit in 1983 with their duet Up Where We Belong. Bert didn’t often look backwards. He found new friends to perform with – people in the know who respected who he was and where he had been. He had reached for that brass ring, touched it, held it for a few moments.
Near the end, Bert sat in a little diner in hometown Albany, New York, playing his Casio keyboard at the counter while singing his heart out for anyone privileged to be within earshot. I wonder if he ever sang Jennifer. And if he knows he was – is – loved.
Sharon Watts is an American illustrator, assemblage artist and memoir-essayist who is working on a book about Bert Sommer – his music, life and times. In 2019 she published an illustrated memoir: By The Time I Got To Woodstock
Spotlight On The Artist: Radio interviews with Sharon Watts plus bandmates, friends and fans of Bert Sommer
Bert Sommer illustration by Sharon Watts