Wednesday, July 11, 2007

"100 Greats" #060: David Lindley & Hani Nasser: Playin' Real Good and Playin' Even Better

When I moved to Texas (the first time), I had few-to-no-resources—financial, material, mental, and emotional. After a beyond-fantastic and mind-expanding year in the Freshman Year Program at the New School in lower Manhattan (see future “100 Greats” post Fear of a Black Planet), I’d left the University of Chicago after a terribly-disappointing and mind-numbing half-year at the University of Chicago—the best/only benefits of which were meeting good friends and learning to play the blues. I’d spent most of my time that winter in Chi hanging at the Checkerboard Lounge or sleeping—I realize now that I was probably clinically depressed. I was back home for a little while, but every kind of door imaginable there—personal, emotional, financial, familial—closed, and I left again—first for a job working nightclub security in New Orleans, then for a job in the oil fields of West Texas. I’d never been to Texas, I’d never lived west of the Mississippi, and I was carrying everything I owned or cared about (any more) in a tiny, bashed-up Fiat 122 sedan that I’d bought off the street in Cambridge Mass where it had been abandoned with a dead alternator. It was matte drab green, dappled with gray primer, missing a fender, and got me pulled over by suspicious W TX cops on a regular basis. But it cost me only $300 (plus the cost and agony of teaching myself how to install an alternator while lying on my back on greasy pavement on Linneaen Street) and it took me across the country four times.

But that first time, I pulled into the outskirts of Midland, which during the ‘70s oil boom had been a showcase for the particularly unselfconscious materialism of West Texas (Texans aren’t self-conscious about anything: racism, materialism, small-mindedness, generosity, compassion—whatever it is, they’re not self-conscious about displaying it): oilfield cowboys in ten-gallon hats and soup-plate-sized belt buckles, wearing starched jeans and lizard-skin cowboy boots they could barely walk in, oil matrons wearing gold and diamond jewelry and polyester who, when lacking for some way to amuse themselves, would take the corporate jet to Dallas for the afternoon to go to Neiman’s.

Despite the fact that I was heading for a job as “blowout-preventer mechanic”—although I didn’t even know what blowout-preventer was, and my prior alternator experience had convinced me I was no mechanic—I wound up in Midland rather than Odessa, for no better reason than that I thought Cactus Drilling Company would be physically closer to its actual city-of-address (I wasn’t yet acquainted with the West Texas necessity of being willing to drive 50-150 miles to go to a liquor store or movie theater).

Odessa, the city just down the road, was the blue-collar town, where the down-on-their-luck Anglo bikers and the immigrant Mexican guys who actually worked the rigs lived (for a fantastic portrait of Midland-Odessa when I was there, see H.C. Bissinger’s fantastic detailed and accurate—yet sympathetic—book Friday Night Lights), but Midland was where management, office workers, and shareholders lived. By 1979, though, the oil boom was failing, with the visible indicators of a tanking local economy all around: shuttered businesses, half-built “economy” apartment blocks, and local people whose lives were falling apart.

I slept in my car that night. I was 19, and so poor, and so ill-prepared for this journey, that I didn’t even have enough ready cash, or a credit card. The banks were closed and there was no place to cash a check. Everything I owned was packed into that little green Fiat—and it seemed to me that night in the fall of 1979 that I had lost pretty much everything else in the world that wasn’t within a 5-foot radius. In addition to clothes, and a guitar, and a few records (Albert King, Springsteen, the Allman Brothers, Lou Reed, Stravinsky, Beethoven 6), and a portable record-player, I had a copy of the November ’79 issue of Guitar Player, the cover of which was a shot of Frank Zappa holding a rebuilt Strat that Hendrix had burned at Miami.

It’s funny how things work out. That night, in the parking lot behind a shipping yard in Midland Texas, in a place that I’d never been and looking at starting a job next day that I’d never done, I read and re-read that Zappa article, and in the same issue, a long interview and instrument-gallery with David Lindley, who I’d never heard of. It’s 28 years later, and those two musicians are still cornerstones of my own sense of what music should be and can do. I’ve spoken about Zappa before, in only the second "100 Greats" post, and will again (his genius was too broad and too all-encompassing to be contained within a single essay or a simgle text), but here I want to talk about Lindley.

In the article, Lindley described playing as a sideman to a whole community of LA-based ‘70s pop types I cared less than nothing about (Jackson Brown, Crosby/Nash, Linda Ronstadt…who?!?), but his take on music, his hilarious perspectives on polyester wardrobes, and, more than anything, the passionate enthusiasm with which he talked about obscure musics and dimestore guitars, made him sound like an alien visitor—from some musical planet much cooler, much more diverse, and just much bigger than any planet I knew. I had no idea what his music sounded like, but the article persuaded me that there was stuff there to know.

The next morning, I washed up in a gas-station bathroom and reported to the oil-company’s field offices, before locating a boarding situation with a woman whose white-collar husband had just abandoned her for a trophy wife, leaving her with a split-level house in Midland and absolutely zilch for marketable skills. I got moved into my room, set up my record player, and went out to find Lindley’s records. I never did, at that time—wasn’t willing to buy a whole Jackson Brown LP for 2 lap-steel and fiddle solos by some wild-haired, polyester-clad freak whose music I’d never actually heard—but some time after that, at the much-missed Disc Diggers (greatest used-vinyl store ever) in Davis Square, Somerville, Mass, I did find his El-Rayo-X and Win This Record, two discs released under his own name, which are some of the greatest band records I’d ever heard (and the subject of a future “100 Greats” post).

But it was almost 20 years before I ever heard Mr Dave in person, when Dharmonia and I were visiting my sister on the West Coast, and read that Lindley (having long since shed both his major-label shackles and his “pop” affiliations) would be playing solo at San Fran’s Great American Music Hall, surely one of the great music rooms in North America. We drove down to the Tenderloin to O’Farrell, and found Lindley’s peeps out in force. It was a typical guitar-geek crowd: mostly guys, mostly Anglo, mostly middle-aged, a good percentage of them already well into the throes of legacy recreational substances. They were obviously beyond-pumped to see him play live, and ready to sing along on the weird cover tunes (Bob Frizzell’s “She Took Off My Romeos” and “Tiki Torches at Twilight,” and Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Meatman” being exemplary) he was prone to.

Lindley had come out of the same 1960s Topanga Canyon folk revival scene that had birthed the careers of the great Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, and in the music of those three, and their fantastic and various collaborations over the decades, you’ve got the best and most productive results of that folk revival: flexible, visceral, sympathetic, monstrously heavy-grooving music; for some reason, the Topanga Canyon folkies were able to elide or avoid the pretense and preciosity of their East Coast cousins. He’d won the Topanga Canyon Banjo & Fiddle contest five times, doing weird things like combining Roscoe Holcomb and Tommy Jarrell with saz tunes on banjo and rock songs on slide guitar), and his brilliant, if mistimed band Kaleidoscope, with the great multi-instrumentalist Solomon Feldthouse, and explored the widest possible amalgam of “world” musics 25 years before marketers coined that term. He’d become a go-to hired gun for the LA rock royalty, playing solos which made even Jonathan Edwards and Loggins & Messina sound funky, usually playing on “mother -of - toilet - seat”-encrusted dimestore guitars (Nationals, Tescos, Italian Ekos), no-name mandolins, and (eventually) saz, cumbus, Weissenborn lap steel Hawaiians, oud, bouzouki, and so on and so forth. He played screaming lap-steel guitar out of Freddie Roulette on those LA records and with the El Rayo-X band, sawed away on the fiddle, and could still burn on the banjo. He was the multi-instrumental secret weapon, playing mostly banjo, saz, and fiddle, on Cooder’s spooky soundtrack for Walter Hill’s The Long Riders, an unjustly ignored masterpiece which used three sets of brothers—Keaches, Carradines, Quaids, and Guests—to create the only credible filmed story of the James/Younger gang. I found an awful lot of music through Lindley’s references, the songs and styles he chose to cover, and the repertoires associated with his vast and diverse arsenal of stringed instruments.

Dharmonia and I had good seats at one of the Hall’s miniature tables, not too far from the stage, and when he came out on stage, clad in a tasteful 4-color-coordinated houndstooth polyester combo (for a real “too much information” experience, visit his website and read his explanations about how to stretch additional days’ wear out of polyester clothes while on lengthy tours), complete with matching plastic shoes, I could see how free he was—how much the Dave off-stage and the “Mr Dave” onstage were, as a result of years of work, of hewing to playing only the kind of music he wanted to play and turning down gigs that prevented him from doing that, were the same person. And my GOD! was that an interesting—if eccentric—person.

One of the lessons it took me entirely too long to learn is that a really great musician, one who is serving the music and has learned to detach his ego from the music—to hear the music and to see himself as two separate entities—will never play “beyond what he can hear.” If the ceiling of the skill-set is at a particular place, a great musician will play at 80% of that level, because s/he has no investment in “proving” anything. She or he will just, in the words of the great blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, “wait ‘til I hear something to play, and then play that.”

Lindley could play anything he could hear, on any of the arsenal of instruments around him, and it seemed that he could hear everything. His freedom, chops, and confidence were so great, as he moved between instruments, that his personality and casually commanding musical vision came through as clear as a bell on all of them. That night at the GAMH, it was all brilliant, whether it was Sufi music on bouzouki, or his great version of “Mercury Blues” (which Nashville-hat artist Alan Jackson stole, sold to Ford, and made millions on) on Weissenborn, or his fantastic saz version of Warren Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long” (for whatever reasons—maybe comparably weird personalities—Lindly was the greatest, most simpatico interpreter of Zevon ever, and played the best solos that ever appeared on any Warren record, including the elegiac, deeply Buddhist last testamentary The Wind, recorded when Zevon was dying of cancer).

In between there were his amusingly bizarre stage presence and anecdotes, borrowing the Rastafarian musical dialect he learned from Ras Baboo in El Rayo-X or the old Cajuns and Scots from whom he learned his tunes, or telling stories of hair-raising Aeroflot flights to obscure Central Asian folk festivals, or the wild culture-clashing interactions he experienced when he brought back to the US the Malagasay musicians with whom he and Henry Kaiser had collaborated on the great World Out of Time collaborative CDs, or the meteorological adventure of recording with Sami musicians above the Arctic Circle for Sweet Sunny North, or relating a dream in which Jimmy Stewart came to him to explain what a disaster George HW Bush was (imagine Stewart’s “Harvey” voice saying “Ya people have just fucked things UP!”).

Lindley has always understood that music—all music, in its infinite, magnificent diversity, and particularly in performance—is about communicating. Communicating all kinds of things: one's own bent take on the world; a sense of music as a universal language across cultures; a sense of freedom; even just the miraculous reality that a shared sense of what constitutes beautiful sound can reach across all kinds of boundaries. It’s that One Big Note that has sounded in Lindley’s music ever since the Sixties; that sense that all music is sacred—that it can transform and enrich our lives.

That sense of the (comic, eccentric, magnificently human) sacred capacity of music moves throughout these records. No one--or two--disc s can really capture the breadth of Lindley’s musical mind, but these live performances, in duo with the Persian zarb player Hani Nasser, come close. Like Cooder’s duo with Hindi chitravina player Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, it’s a collaboration that came more or less serendipitously: a backstage jam at a folk fest, where Lindley realized Nasser’s percussion could drive and support his string grooves, without constraining him to specific chord changes or formal structures: freedom, within collaboration, in other words.

The wonderful roots tunes are here: the Cajun standard “Bon Ton Roulet”, played on the majestically deep-voiced Weissenborn (a lap-style slide guitar which can support baritone as well as tenor tunings, in turn obviating the necessity for any bass-player) and the reggae two-beat of “Ain’t No Way Baby”; so are the weirdo covers that the GAMH guitar-geeks had come for (the Weissenborn rockabilly of “Her Mind is Gone”; the rock-steady of “She Took Off My Romeos”; the faux-lounge groove, luau chord-changes, and Esquimel-esque falsetto of “More than Eva Braun” and “Tiki Torches at Twilight”—best line “All the girls with their boyfriends/Are throwing up in their cars”).

There’s a nakedly-beautiful tribute to the fallen Zevon in “Play It All Night Long,” which opens with a magnificent taksim (free improvisation) on Weissenborn, erecting cathedrals of open-tuned chords and overtone resonances, before Hani’s zarb comes in on the stark pulse of the backbeat. There are the lovely cross-cultural instrument-leapfrogging traditional tunes, notably another beautiful extended taksim (a term from Middle Eastern music) on saz that segues into the old Appalachian tune called “Cottonmill Blues”; and the beautiful banjo-esque modal groove, also played on saz, of “Way Out West in Kansas” (perhaps from Cooder, Lindley has inherited a great sensitivity old songs: his “Poor Old Dirt Farmer," like Cooder’s “Taxes on the Farmer Feeds Us All”, is one of the great folk-revival versions, and their duo take on Lead Belly’s Bourgeois Blues, though raggedy, was ferocious enough to have made George Bush wet his pants if Bubble Boy ever actually heard any real music), which culminates with a superlative extended jam and trading-fours on the chord changes.

Predictably, the show, and this disc, concludes with a fanboy’s yelled request for “Mercury Blues,” which Lindley and Nasser present in a storming version on slide and percussion. There are great extended solos here, to the fanboys’ delight, and it’s a fitting conclusion to the disc.

But my favorite moment might come earlier, on the swirling slide reverie that opens “Rag Bag”. It’s presented as another free-rhythm taksim, an improvisation without meter—though it would probably more appropriate to describe it as alap, the analogous mood- and mode-setting improvisation that opens a performance of Hindi classical music—over the organ-like drone of the Weissenborn’s baritone low C. It’s very open music—no specific rhythm, no particular sense of urgency or anticipated revival. We’re just listening to Lindley’s Big Music, to his reverie and recollection and receptivity to the very big world that his sense of musical freedom has opened to him. And to us.

That night in 1978, in my tiny, decrepit Italian car, with almost all my worldly possessions around me, not knowing what the next day would bring, reading David Lindley’s words before I ever heard his music, sleeping under what I now realize were the virtually infinite stars of the October West Texas sky, I could not have known the journey that would leave me writing this appreciation, almost thirty years, yet less than 100 miles, away.

But I’m awfully grateful I’ve had David Lindley’s Big Music along for that ride.

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