David Lindley: String Magician
|The following article originally appeared in the first issue of John Platt's fondly remembered magazine Comstock Lode. While the spelling has been Americanized, the original punctuation has been more or less retained.
I: "I was actually going to be a Christian Brother at one time, but decided not to."
Any of you who have heard the tape of Jackson Browne's benefit gig at the Main Point in Philadelphia (August 1975) will be familiar with a tragic tale of youthful self-destruction concerning our hero and a kiddy car. Lindley told the story whilst tuning for a solo spot, being prompted to do so by a suspicion that the audience were laughing at his face. At the age of 2 Lindley had the fastest kiddy car on the block; on this occasion he took the car to the top of a hill and then proceeded downwards at an ever-increasing speed - halfway down, the car started to leave his control and ended up crashing into a very sticky, prickly and solid palm tree. Unfortunately his face also connected at great speed with the tree, resulting in a broken nose and several other facial bones, which is very difficult for young children to achieve. I had always taken this story very lightly; Lindley has always looked OK on pictures, but he insisted that it's true. "It was an experience that I wouldn't forget. My brother put me on that little gray wagon and took me home. I was an absolute mess. My mother really did take me round to show people and said 'Oh God! None of my other children look like this!'"
Lindley first started to get involved with music as a performer in high school. "In my earliest days when I was getting into flamenco guitar, there were things I would play with a guy called Leonard Reid. We weren't called anything, we just used to play - we played assemblies, things like that. I just used to love flamenco."
The high school in question was La Salle in Pasadena, a Catholic institution run by the Christian Brothers organization. Lindley told me that "I was actually going to be a Christian Brother at one time, but decided not to. I was going to make wine and brandy and teach. However, I met a girl who introduced me to all kinds of other things… But that whole calling - you either get religion or you don't. I wanted to be in the Order; usually you're not ordained - it's mostly guys who were teachers for whom I had a lot of respect, and I kinda wanted to be one. I'd never seen classes conducted in that way, with such control. Like one guy called Brother Emery who was an athlete; I was into track and field at that time (so was Chris Darrow, as it happens). I was going to teach but I discovered the banjo instead."
At this time, like Chris Darrow, Lindley stumbled upon bluegrass. While still going to high school and living with his parents in San Marino, he would make the drive over the Kellogg Hills down to the Folk Music Center in Claremont and to the Cat's Pajamas in Arcadia and the Ash Grove in LA. It was at the Ash Grove that Lindley first heard real country music. "Ed Pearl, the owner, would put on a traditional act with the draw, to educate people as to what was really valid. He did a very good job, he educated most of my friends and myself. Also, El Monte was a kind of transplanted Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia area. There were a lot of people who came directly from rural areas back in the south east, bringing bluegrass with them. Amongst them were the Kentucky Colonels (who featured Clarence and Roland White). They played the first real bluegrass I ever heard."
What Lindley really wanted at this time was to start playing, and most evenings in 1960 would see him bashing his banjo in one of the many clubs springing up around LA. Playing solo was fine but limited, and in any case string bands were coming in, in a big way; after playing with different people the first incarnation of the Mad Mountain Ramblers was born. For this period of his life I can do no better than to refer you to Zigzag 58 with Mac Garry's Kaleidoscope saga. However, to recap: the original Ramblers were Steve Cahill on guitar, Phil Cleveland on bass, Dick Hargreaves on fiddle and David Lindley on banjo. As a result of what must rank as one of the great meetings of our time (of a drunken 12 year old Lennon breathing down the neck of a certain McCartney infant at a church fete in Liverpool) - Lindley meeting Darrow at the Cat's Pajamas - their respective bands merged, (Darrow's was the Dry City Reorganized Players) into the second Mad Mountain Ramblers. After about a year of dazzling the natives of southern California they broke up. Inevitably however, neither Lindley nor Darrow could remain inactive for long and they formed a new group, the Dry City Scat Band. Lindley thought that the dry city in question was a little place called San Dimas, which is east of Claremont, rather than Claremont itself. However Jonie Lindley (ne Darrow) claimed that Claremont had been dry 'til 1971 - which one the band had been named after no one seemed to know.
As we know from Mac's piece, amongst the people in this band was Richard Greene, with whom Darrow had been at school. He had also been playing in various bands, including one that performed regularly at the Ash Grove, and it was there that Lindley met him. David could not remember the name of this outfit, only that they were excellent. One of the members of Greene's band was Ken Frankel, a mandolin player who later went north into Berkeley and hooked up with people like Jerry Garcia and Bob Hunter, who themselves became quite famous later. If you have The Dead Book by Hank Harrison, there is a photograph of one of their bands, the Hart Valley Drifters, with Frankel, Garcia, Hunter and Dave Nelson, and mention is made of them in the New Riders chart in Zigzag 45.
The Scat Band were noted for "nice harmonies and instrumental work." Lindley agreed: "We had really good harmony, 3-part harmony. The instrumental work was different from most bluegrass bands too. We took a lot of chances. We did double banjo stuff like Bill Keith and Marshall Brickman (who were in one of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys line-ups), except that we did it in an odd way. Pete Madlem was an excellent banjo player, I did the banjo thing with him. We also did fiddle things as well. We did very obscure songs, we also arranged a lot of traditional songs until they were different, until they became our songs. We dug the Country Gentlemen very much, Eddie Adcock, John Duffy, Charlie Walker and those people." Many bands, including Hearts and Flowers, have admitted their debt to the Country Gentlemen; their version of "Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies" was the most ripped-off song in California in the early 60s.
There are two known recordings of the Scat Band. Firstly, there are two tracks on the Elektra String Band Project album (EKS 292), plus the "four or five tracks recorded by local bluegrass authority John Delgatto." These turn out to be the tracks on the legendary Scat Band limited edition EP. It's so rare that Lindley hasn't seen one since the week it was issued! When asked about it, he grinned and chuckled - "Yes, the EP. I'd love to get hold of one of those. That was one of the best things I ever played on. There was a thing called "Fisher's Hornpipe", a piece called "Devil's Dream", a double banjo thing and a double fiddle tune. There were four on one side and three on the other. We put it out mostly for our friends and to document the band. I've tried to get hold of the masters, but I can't. I know where they, and I'm going to get my friends over, you know, 'my Chinese friends.' (Burst of manic laughter.) I'd like to do a few reprints of them."
The Scat Band stuff wasn't his first excursion into the recording studio. When he was seventeen he had been on a 5-string banjo "sampler" on Horizon. This album also featured the youthful McGuinn, of whom more was heard a little later. Lindley still likes the material performed on the album, most of his contributions were in the form of duets with Joe Maphis on tenor banjo. According to Lindley, Maphis is in the Grand Old Opry now, in the Hall of Fame with his wife Rosalie. He apparently plays "excellent plectrum-style banjo. Plays with his pipe out of the corner of his mouth. Plays continuous noting. Scares the shit out of you."
To return, briefly, to the Scat Band; one problem with tracing the history of these early 60s string bands, especially when the members were still going to school, was that those involved literally came and went virtually every week. It does seem however that there was a second incarnation of the Scat Band sometime in 1965. This band featured Lindley and Greene for the old group, plus old friends Mayne Smith ("an excellent songwriter") on Dobro, and Mark Levine on guitar with Pete Madlem on occasional banjo. Eventually it broke up, largely because, as Darrow said in Zigzag, Richard Greene really wanted to succeed, and the other members were still at school and they weren't making any money. Lindley agreed - "Our band could have been a stepping stone for him, but we were very limited and he wanted to go and play with other people, which included the Greenbriar Boys and Bill Monroe."
One interesting episode in Lindley's life ought to be slotted in here, although it actually took place a couple of years earlier. He was in the New Christy Minstrels for a brief and depressing time. "I was in them for about three days. I was going to play banjo behind the scenes, behind Larry Ramos (later in The Association) and we were going to pretend that he was actually playing it. And I didn't show up, and I told Ramos, "Look, motherfucker, you're going to have to play that solo yourself." He didn't like that at all. It was a very strange part of my life." The Minstrels became an LA institution, and almost everybody who could play banjo and sing went through them. (For an account of their origins see the interview with John T. Forsha in Omaha Rainbow 10.)
Other than athletics and music, Lindley's chief interest at school had been art, and after he left school he went to work in an art gallery as a painter of astrological signs on rocks. This establishment was known as the Add Gallery and was in Pasadena. It was run by a guy called Morris Smith who was a big fan of the bluegrass movement, which accounts for the endless streams of shiftless bums he employed. Smith was apparently always coming up with ideas; he was one of the first people to produce and market biodegradable shampoo! The rocks were also his idea. Lindley remembers it vividly: "That's what I did, signs on white rocks. We got the rocks from Japan." Lindley also did "real" painting, which he was able to sell through the gallery. He worked there for about a year, during which time the Scat Band finally disbanded. Also working at the gallery was a guy called John Welsh, who, when he wasn't putting fish and lions onto bits or rock, painstakingly made guitars, mandolins, dulcimers and other similar instruments. Late in 1965 and for part of 1966 he played on an ad hoc basis with Lindley and occasionally Mark Fiedman, who later wrote the lyrics for "Please" on Side Trips. Apparently they were getting really good, although they played mainly for their own amusement. It was never a professional thing, although Lindley has tapes of them which are apparently excellent.
Lindley was also at this time teaching at the Berry and Grass Milk Music Store in Pasadena, where amongst other teachers was Jim Keltner. His memories of Keltner include regularly standing his coke can on Keltner's snare drum so that when he played it the coke spilled into the drum. (Which does rather beg the question why Keltner never moved it.) Also at the store was a guy called Marty Nelson with whom Lindley occasionally played. They were both very interested in an old American musical family called the Beers who, in my ignorance, I knew nothing about. However Peter O'Brien does; apparently they were/are an Appalachian-type group who play traditional instruments like psalteries and dulcimers as well as the usual fiddles and banjos. They were led by Robert "Fiddler" Beers who we (i.e. Lindley and Peter) think is now dead, but his family keep up the tradition including their annual music festival. Lindley still does some of their fiddle tunes and agrees that "Robert Beers was incredible, that album he did with "Rain Forest Suite" on it, using the psaltery, was amazing. I have a small one that I play occasionally, but my technique is nothing when compared with his."
To return to the Add Gallery; one of its inmates for a time was a swarthy looking gent who could pluck a tune or two and could sing as well. His name was Solomon Feldthouse. Was this I wondered where David had met this legendary fellow? "No. The first time I saw him was on the campus of the Pasadena City College. I was doing a class up in the building when I heard his saz. Later the Scat Band did a concert at the College and Solomon did the opening act, he did this flamenco stuff on a saz and it was really scary - it was the first time I had heard him properly, he was a demon and I said 'Oh God that guy's really good.' And his singing, I couldn't remember anything like it." What, I ventured to ask, about his background? "Well, I would say that there are two theories. The Ismit, Turkey theory is that his father came from there and Solomon was born there too, but his father was in the Navy and ended up in Florida where Solomon was brought up. Solomon also joined the Navy as a photographer where he was known for being able to sing and play the blues. The other theory is that he was born in a wagon in Idaho, where his grandmother now lives. I've seen a photograph of an old shepherd's wagon and they do have a lot of Basques up there in Idaho, so that could be it too. I kind of leave it up to him, where he comes from. It really doesn't matter that much, just what came out of it. He's such a natural musician. He can play harmonies on songs he'd never heard before.