David Wiffen “Coast to Coast Fever”

The name David Wiffen may or may not ring a bell, but to anyone with an interest in 1970s folk rock I can promise that at least one of his songs will. His material has seen quite a bit of mileage in other performers’ repertoires, and through them a small handful have even filtered up into popular consciousness. Tom Rush and The Byrds both threw their individual spins on “Driving Wheel,” Eric Andersen recorded “More Often Than Not” on his doomed-romantic classic Blue River, and calypso crooner Harry Belafonte rather unexpectedly included both “One Step” and the self-referential “Mister Wiffen” on his 1973 record Play Me. It was the age of the singer-songwriter and David Wiffen seemed to be the next big thing. So what happened?

Coast To Coast Fever, Wiffen’s follow-up to his critically-lauded debut, tells the tale. An informal concept album illustrating the life of the traveling musician and the rigors involved in trying to gain success as a songwriter, it plays as a sort of autobiographical meditation on where the man was at. “He played his tunes to empty rooms, right on down the line,” Wiffen sings on the melancholy title track, “but before he went the money got spent on good times, whiskey and wine.” As in the rest of the album, the singer’s guitar downright sparkles. The production, courtesy of legendary Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn, is as laid back and stripped down as one would hope on a record like this, built around a wide acoustic piano sound and smokey percussion. Indeed, Wiffen could hardly have found a more sympathetic ear to this collection of beat meditations and road songs, and Cockburn’s understated guitar playing is arguably one of the record’s musical highlights.

It is hard to break this record into specific highlights when every piece of the puzzle is so essential to the album’s overall character, but a few key cuts do stand out. The down-and-out blues of “Smoke Rings” rests uneasily between gruff, masculine charm and absolute desolation, cigarette smoke drifting quietly out into an empty landscape and paralleling the sad admissions already found in “Coast To Coast Fever.” The story wouldn’t be quite so affecting if one did not get the feeling that this is not a man who has lost it all, but rather one who never had it to begin with, only having glimpsed the possibilities of fame and seen them immediately dissolve into a hard and bitter reality. It’s a strange story for being so common, the successful songwriter that’s never able to make it on his own terms. Then again there must be some light to all this darkness considering that we are not only still listening to and talking about David Wiffen’s records, but that he’s still around and singing. The man even managed to record a belated follow-up to Coast To Coast Fever in 1999, featuring a handful of new songs that still stand strong alongside his most enduring material.

Whereas Wiffen’s debut seems to have disappeared into the aether, only having been reissued once by an independent Italian label before quickly falling back out of print (original copies of the album are obnoxiously hard to obtain, and have sold second-hand for several hundred dollars apiece), Coast To Coast Fever has remained somewhat easier to find. A North American release on compact disc remains available through most online retailers, and original vinyl copies seem to have seen far wider distribution than any of Wiffen’s other recordings, frequently appearing in record store cut-out bins and online auction sites.

mp3: Coast To Coast Fever
mp3: White Lines

:) Original | 1973 | United Artists | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2009 | Isotope | buy here ]

 


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10 Comments.

  • Sandy Crawley

    This is accurate as far as it goes but you have overlooked another fine Wiffen Album: “Mr.Wiffen” on Fantasy, recorded in the Fall of 1970 in Berkeley California, featuring a number of fimne musicians including Gerry Corbett (of the Youngbloods) and me.

  • Nik

    Sandy, thanks for chiming in! I did indeed reference that record (though now that I look back over the article I realize I did so incorrectly) as “his critically-lauded debut”. Coast To Coast Fever was actually Wiffen’s third record, provided one counts his 1965 live acoustic debut Live At the Bunkhouse.

  • Tom Gamble

    This is a wonderful album! So sad that David couldn’t keep his career on track. A excellent singer and great songwriter.

  • Ian McLeish

    Wiffen fans will be happy to know that David and I are working on a double cd of his material. It will contain many previously unreleased songs as well as demo and live versions of some of his better known tracks. Hopefully out in late 2013 or early 2014.

  • Duncan Walls

    I was a fan who picked up almost any singer-songwriter back in those days as I was on the same path (though waylaid time and time again I have kept at it marginally successful over the years with no recordings public as yet). I was luckier than most because I worked in a record store (new and used) as a clerk & buyer (starting in 1971-1998 on and off) and used this position to fill out my collection. I had his two Fantasy LPs and this one and I think one other ( though I may be mistaken) on UA. Initially drawn to him by his connection in Tom Rush’s credits, I enjoyed his LPs and he lands in the list of records I wish I had kept when I sold off a 150,000 piece collection in 1993. Glad to hear he’s active again (Re: Ian McLeish’s comment); bet there’s a good story there. I would love to hear wherehe’s been and what he’s been doing all these years.

  • Duncan: David is alive and well, just no longer performing. I would share more info but David is a man who values privacy and I don’t feel at liberty to do so. But I can assure you he is living a good life.

  • Inger Mayuree

    Hi
    Is there any way of sending Mr. Wiffen fan mail. My husband is a long time admirer and used to sing Mr. Wiffen’s songs in the Sydney pub scene many years ago. He has also written a song in honour of Mr. Wiffen. I would like to give him the address as a present for his 60th birthday as I know he has wanted to express his feelings to Mr. Wiffen for many years.
    Thanks

  • Sandy Crawley

    Inger,

    David is pretty gunshy but if you send me the letter I will get it to him and ask him to respond.

    Send to my attention to:
    215 Spadina Ave.,
    suite 130
    Toronto
    Ontario
    Canada
    M5T 2C7

  • Inger Mayuree

    Hello Ms Crawley

    Thank you SO MUCH !!! I really appreciate that. I understand about the being gunshy – this is actually the first time I have even considered doing something like fan mail – but my husband has talked about contacting Mr Wiffen for so long now and his work has always meant a lot for my husband.

    I will give my husband the address for his birthday in the end of February – and it will take him a little while to get up his courage to actually write – just so you know that your kindness has not been forgotten.

    Kind regards and in deep gratitude

  • Rob

    So the CD reissue of the David Wiffen album is out on Water Records with 2 bonus tracks and 2 alternate versions of album tracks. I bought it and like it a lot but am wondering whether this is it or is there still another Wiffen set coming out with more previously unreleased songs? Maybe a new Coast to Coast Fever CD with bonus cuts? Ian, I’ve e-mailed you twice at Mousehole and haven’t had any response.

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