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Jesse Colin Young returns from the brink with a new band and a lot of heart

Jesse Colin Young returns from the brink with a new band and a lot of heartThe first time I interviewed Jesse Colin Young was way back in January 1979. Wearing a blue western cut shirt and jeans, he was sitting in his Point Reyes Station office with his feet up on his desk and his shoes off. I called him “the quintessential Marin County rock musician,” writing that images of Marin color his best-known songs — “mellow paeans to ridgetops and red tail hawks riding the wind and yards full of pine needles and dirt driveways and all the romanticism of life in rustic isolation.”

During his years here, beautiful tunes like “Sunlight,” “Ride the Wind,” “Morning Sun,” “California Child,” “Lovely Day” and “Song for Juli” poured out of him like fog rolling over the Inverness Ridge.

Young had moved from New York’s gritty Lower East Side to pastoral West Marin after the breakout success of 1967’s “Get Together,” the peace and love anthem by his band, the Youngbloods, that became part of the soundtrack of the Summer of Love.

A decade after that first interview, I caught up with him again. He’d split up with his first wife two years before and was embroiled in a bitter divorce. At the same time, he was starting over with his new wife, Connie, in the hilltop home in Inverness he’d made famous in his song, “Ridgetop.” He told me about a new song he’d written for one of his kids, “Street of Broken Dreams,” that was full of heartache.


Young’s bucolic life on the “windy and foggy and quiet” Marin coast came to a tragic end six years later when his Inverness house and more than 40 others were reduced to ash in 1995’s catastrophic Mount Vision Fire.

“My peace of mind burned up with it,” he says. “It took me 20 years to get over that.”

Too emotionally devastated to rebuild, he moved to Hawaii to begin a new life, starting a coffee plantation in Kona, on the Big Island. He and Connie had two young children by then, and when they found the school situation less than ideal, she led a campaign to build a new Waldorf school for them and other neighborhood kids. Life was good again.


In 2007, I got Jesse on the phone for an interview before he headlined the Marin County Fair that year. He and Connie and their two teenagers had just left the Big Island of Hawaii and had resettled in her hometown, Aiken, South Carolina, a horsey haven that became famous in the late 19th century as a winter colony for polo-playing, upper crust families from the Northeast with names like Astor and Vanderbilt.

Young was suffering from culture shock as he adjusted to life in the South, plus he was recovering from a case of Lyme disease. He wasn’t his old self. I could sense from his performance at the fair that his heart just wasn’t in it.

Sure enough, not long afterward, he quit touring and dropped out of the music business altogether.

“It wasn’t fun anymore,” he explained. “I was sick of it.”


When his youngest son, Tristan, a bassist, was studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Young went to his senior recital last spring. It turned out to be a life-changing experience. He was so inspired and invigorated by the young musicians who played that night that the desire to get back on stage and sing again shook his creative soul like a thunderclap.

“I sat in the front row, about 30 feet from the stage, and those kids just blew me away,” he recalls. “Six years before, I knew it was time for me to get off the road. But those kids woke me up. I started imagining what my music would sound like with these amazing youngsters playing it.”

He didn’t have to imagine for long. With his son on bass, he put together a band of young Berklee students — guitarist Aleif Hamdan, saxophonist Jack Sheehan, keyboardist Jenn Hwang Wong, drummer Donnie Hogue and backup singers Virginia Garcia Alves and Sally Stempler.

Before long, 75-year-old Jesse Colin Young was out there playing gigs with a band of kids 50 years younger than he is.

“I was having more fun than I knew what to do with,” he says with laugh. “At the end of one of our shows I came out on stage for an encore and said, ‘These kids are gonna kill me.’”

He was joking, of course, but things turned deadly serious in March when he and the band played the prestigious South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin. After the gig, he wasn’t just tired. He was beyond exhausted.

“I came home and found out that I had an aortic heart valve that was close to going critical,” he says, explaining that the valve was almost completely closed shut. “I was not going to play anymore until I got it replaced. But I had only six weeks before this June tour.”


Rather than undergo open heart surgery, he opted for a new, less invasive operation called transcatheter aortic valve replacement.

“My mother-in-law calls it drive-by surgery,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s incredible.”

It certainly is. He had the operation three weeks ago, spent just 24 hours in the hospital and was recently given the green light by his cardiologist to pick up his career where he left off.

“From the brink of death, I’m back on track,” he says with gratitude in his voice. Riding a wave of nostalgia on the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, he and the band play Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley on June 3. That show is sold out, as is a June 9 date at Yoshi’s in Oakland. Young and company return to Marin on Sept. 24 to headline the Whistlestop Festival on the Lagoon Stage at the county fairgrounds.

Having an eight-piece band on the road is an expensive way to tour, but at this point in Young’s life and career, it isn’t about money.

“It’s about joy,” he says. “Joy first. That’s what this part of my life is about. And that’s what playing with this band is about. I don’t know how long it will last or how far it will take us. But what a marvelous ride it is, and me with a new heart. This band is all about heart.”

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