It’s 1979 in Glens Falls, New York, and 18-year-old Alan Dunham hurries down the stairs into the basement of his folks’ home — his laboratory. As per usual, he’s got a new song running through his head, one of many that would eventually make up his solo debut, Flying Alone. This isn’t your average basement, however. It’s more of a rec room situation, with carpeting on the floor and acoustical tile on the ceiling. Most importantly, the basement is where Alan’s Pioneer Reel-to-Reel Rt-707 resides.
Eager to get his latest work on tape, he starts setting up various boom mic stands, plugging his SM58 Dynamic microphones directly into the front of the reel-to-reel, testing out levels, trying to find the right balance, cursing softly to himself as his headphones cut out again.
All the while, that new song keeps coming back to him: “Castles In My Mind.” It’s one of his best yet, he thinks, as he finally settles down to set a proper take down. Offering a slightly psychedelic vision of the past (shades of “After the Gold Rush”), “Castles” unfolds over patient 12-string strums, building to a strange and stirring harmony-laden chorus. “It’s like a dream,” Alan sings, soaring slowly into the sound.
Self-released in a pressing of just 100 copies in 1980, Flying Alone doesn’t fit squarely into any particular category. The private press world may be littered with downer singer-songwriters, outsider folkies, and country-fried oddballs, but Alan Dunham brings something else to the table. As Flying Alone’s teen idol-style cover photo suggests, he’s a pop star from some alternate universe. Or maybe not an alternate universe, exactly. He’s originally from rural Maine.
“I was definitely a musical kid,” Alan recalls of his upbringing, which took place in an old farmhouse at the end of a dirt road. “My mother played just about everything pretty well — piano, accordion, ukulele. She used to sing songs and I’d drum along on a Kleenex box or whatever was nearby.”
His parents’ tastes generally skewed towards country music, but (like so many other kids from time immemorial) a mid-1970s close encounter with the Fab Four flipped his wig for good. “My brother was watching Yellow Submarine,” he remembers. “’Eleanor Rigby’ was playing. I was just walking by, and I thought: ‘What the hell is that?! That is really cool.’ Beatlemania hit me hard. Initially what got me was the ending of ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ It just ended so quickly, and it was so intense. I was pulled into it … and then it was gone. I kept listening to the ending, thinking: “That is the neatest freakin’ thing!” Brilliant.”
Though Alan had already experimented a bit with songwriting, The Beatles helped kicked off a love of perfect pop songwriting that continues to this day. Soon, he joined his older brothers’ group — the Christopher Mountain Livingroom Band, who did indeed rehearse and record in the family’s farmhouse’s living room, warming their hands beside a kitchen oven during the bleak east coast winters to keep their fingers from freezing. Primitive though those recordings may be, there’s a surprising level of sophistication and inventiveness present already. These kids had stumbled upon something special, something unique.
“We just wrote songs and played them at home,” Dunham says. “We loved the same kind of music. My brother’s friend Victor Hathaway wrote these incredible songs — one called ‘It’ is just amazing. I played accordion on that. I was just doing whatever I could, like bass, even though it was really just playing electric guitar’s low strings. Victor’s songs were incredible. I thought they were like The Beatles! They were that good.”
The Christopher Mountain Livingroom Band never quite made it out of the living room, however. Alan’s parents split up during his adolescence; his mother remarried and moved down to Glens Falls, a sleepy upstate hamlet not too far from the racetracks in Saratoga Springs. Soon, Alan joined them and enrolled in the Adirondack Community College broadcasting program. Higher education wasn’t all that awaited him in Glens Falls, though. His mother and stepfather had set up a home recording studio for Alan. It was time for a solo record.
“If I think about it now, it’s a totally insane way to make a record,” Alan laughs today, having spent the past four decades honing his studio skills. “I didn’t think about it then the way I would now. There was a lot of trial and error. You can’t fix it. It is what it is. I’ve been getting better equipment for years now, but [recently] I started thinking, “What am I doing?” I love the sound of tape still. Back then, it was always just, ‘I’ve got a new song, I want to record it, it’s gonna be cool!’ So, I went down to the basement and did it the only way I knew how.”
The new songs Alan was coming up with were definitely cool — a winning blend of pure imagination and bittersweet love songs, all tied together by a burgeoning, McCartney-esque melodic sensibility. Songs of innocence, for the most part, but with a streak of melancholy that takes it beyond the realm of mere juvenilia. Flying Alone, the album that eventually emerged from Alan’s hard work down in the basement, is a lo-fi folk-pop gem packed with irresistible hooks. And while Dunham’s recording set-up certainly had its limitations, he was finding ways to make those limitations work for him, rather than against him.
“‘Castles In My Mind’ is the one song I would have liked to have multitrack abilities for back then,” he says. “I’ve always liked songs that had a cool twist to them. Like the 10cc song ‘I’m Not In Love’ … In the middle of it, you hear the girl’s voice and it’s almost got a different texture than the rest of the song. So I can kinda hear that in my head on ‘Castles In My Mind” when it goes into that dream part. It’s a ‘Day In The Life”-type moment or something. It takes you somewhere else. The first line: ‘All the truth comes out.’ The rest of it was like, ‘The truth came out and freed you.’ I was taking history at the time and thinking about feudalism when the serfs were freed from landowners. We’re free now, we know the truth.’ And then you could dream, because you were free.”
Other songs had more down-to-earth, autobiographical inspirations. “‘Little Sparrow’ was about a girl I met,” Alan remembers. “She kept saying, ‘It’s not forever.’ And that phrase stuck with me. It’s weird, because [hearing the song again] made me remember things that are 40 years back now. I started thinking, ‘Well, why did we split up, what happened?’ And what had happened was that she had an apartment in Glens Falls, and I went there one day, and she had just moved! And I never saw her again. So, you write a song — what else can you do?”
Just as Alan’s basement was no ordinary basement, his mother and stepfather were no ordinary parents. Sensing that they had something of a musical prodigy on their hands, they not only worked to get him the tools he needed to get his ideas down on tape, but they also served as Alan’s de facto managers.
“My mother and my stepfather were very supportive and helped out with pretty much everything, because I didn’t know what I was doing,” Alan says. “My mother had played in clubs in Rumford, Maine, and was a columnist for a music paper in western Maine. She had a lot of contacts. She would even play synths live with me sometimes. My stepfather worked at a furniture factory. He loved music and was a very ‘up’ person. Kind of a renaissance man. He wasn’t afraid — he was always just like ‘Let’s do it.’”
That can-do attitude resulted in an array of activity in the late seventies and early eighties. A 45-RPM single was pressed up — “They’re Calling” b/w “Boogie Tonight” — and sent out to radio stations. Alan traveled from gig to gig in a blue Econoline van with the words “Alan Dunham and His Guitar” hand-painted on the side. His brilliantly white stage outfit had his name emblazoned on one leg. Some performances were a little less glamorous than others — like a bill at the Country Way club in Maine’s Oxford County. “My sister called me beforehand and said, ‘Who is this female impersonator booked with you?’” Alan recalls. “I got there, and it was basically like a Las Vegas drag revue! My audience was supposed to kind of wholesome. But it was fine, we all had a good time.”
There was even an Alan Dunham Fan Club. “In hindsight, it seems hilarious,” Alan says. “My folks may have had a ‘new Shaun Cassidy’ image in mind. But it was OK! A lot of my high school friends had gone to college, and they had friends who liked the music, and they’d say, ‘What the heck, I’ll join.’ There was no internet, obviously, so we had index cards with addresses, and I sent out some newsletters and other things.”
It all set the stage for Flying Alone. “It was a bit like ignorance is bliss,” he admits. “‘Let’s do an album — why not?!’ Basically, I had this pool of songs and I thought, ‘Well, what should go on there?’ I narrowed it down to what I thought were my best songs. I didn’t agree with some of the choices of my folks and my friends, but I thought, ‘OK, if they like ‘em!’”
Once the 16-song track listing was finalized and 100 Flying Alone LPs were pressed down in Nashville, it was up to Alan to put the package together by hand. “There was a printing press where my stepfather worked that he had access to,” Alan reveals. “So, we printed up the labels and xeroxed the front and back covers. Anyone who has an original will now know that it was actually me who pasted everything on, the cover, the labels, everything. I would peel and stick every one of those on there. So, if there are wrinkles or bubbles, that means, well, Alan did not do a great job!”
Imperfections be damned, Alan and his folks distributed Flying Alone locally, to mixed reviews. “I remember one radio station just flatly said, ‘We don’t play local music,’” Alan remembers. “‘Screw you,’ basically! But we took it to another station, and they said, ‘Yeah, this is great, we’ll play it and have you on for an interview.’ For a whole week, they’d do trivia questions and give away my album. A lot of the albums went out that way. Others were sent to stations mostly around the upstate area. Years later, I had a friend tell me, ‘I saw a copy of your album at the Salvation Army store.’ That might be where a lot of them ended up!”
Still based in Glens Falls and still making his own way in the music industry, Alan views Flying Alone with a healthy mixture of bemusement and pride 40 years later. “I always thought there was something there in the songs,” he says. “The production is what it is. It’s homemade. I’ve had a studio for 20 years, so I’ve moved way past that now. But there’s something fresh and immediate to the whole thing.”
That freshness, against most odds, hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed. Over the years, a handful of Flying Alone’s 100 copies made their way into the hands of collectors and crate-diggers, from Portland, Maine to Paris, France. “I’ve been living with this stuff for years and years — I had a few leftover albums sitting in a box in my closet until about 2013,” Alan says. “I got an email from a guy who said he found one of my albums at a garage sale and it was pretty beat up, so he wanted to know if I had any more in better condition. That was how it got going again. I started hearing from people all over looking for me. It’s just the weirdest freakin’ thing.”
The Alan Dunham Fan Club may have taken a few decades to get going, but it’s growing now — one listener at a time.
– Tyler Wilcox, 2021