Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation


Archive for October, 2008

Ry Cooder and My Copper Mine Blues

In the winter of 1973 I was commissioned to write a music score for “Bisbee, Arizona,” a film documenting the closing of the Phelps-Dodge copper mine in that town. Because of the unusual ancestries of the men who worked the mine-Mexican, Cornish and Yugoslavian-I wanted musicians comfortable with all three musical idioms. Enter Ry Cooder.

Ry already had awesome chops in several ethnic styles, and I knew him well enough to ask him to help me out not only with the recording, playing tipple and guitar, but in writing the material to be recorded. By writing I mean sitting down with me (I am also a guitarist) and working up themes and approaches to marrying the three different idioms.

The problem was he was leaving town for some gig the night I needed him, so there was no chance of getting him into a recording studio. Now enter Roy Noble, the genius guitar-maker and electronics whiz, and also my Revox portable studio-quality tape recorder. The play was to go over to Ry’s house in, I think, the San Fernando Valley and leave the recorder on while he and I wrote and he played.
That was the plan. The execution was a little different.

This was a period when Roy, who, incidentally and irrelevantly, was making guitars that Pete Seeger, Glen Campbell and Doc Watson eventually played, and I were heavily into psychedelic drugs. We decided to record Ry when we were high on Gorilla Milk, a chemical you sprayed on parsley, smoked and then went to a galaxy far, far away, etc. You know the drill. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

We got to Ry’s around eight o’clock at night, already high, and began trying to set up a portable studio in his living room. It would consist of my Revox recorder, microphones, a mixing board Roy had made, and all the other shit that goes along with recording: outboard effects boxes, headsets, boom stands, cables, baffles, the whole nine yards. And remember, this was all before the digital revolution; recording gear was heavy, bulky and difficult to use.
By the time we were ready to move the equipment from our cars into Ry’s living room, Roy and I were wasted.

I know I was suddenly seeing paisley dragons all over Ry’s walls; I can only imagine what was going on in Roy’s head, a place you didn’t want to go into without a flashlight and a shotgun. I don’t remember much after the wall show, except that I backed my car up into Ry’s front yard and ornamental flower bed there, hit on his wife, and insisted on plugging the Revox into itself rather than the wall.

I also recall, but barely, that Roy thought it would be a good idea to pound rocks with a hammer on Ry’s front porch while we were recording, in order to replicate the sounds of the miners’ picks. He also hit on Ry’s wife, about which he and I almost came to blows. I can only imagine what this looked like to Ry, at the time a quite serious, highly focused man not known for brooking much nonsense.

I think the end came when Ry’s wife stopped me from trying to wash and rinse a thousand dollar (in 1972 dollars!) microphone after Roy said the signal coming from it was dirty.

I remember Ry was patient and cordial as he helped Roy and me load our equipment back into my 1967 jalopy (about which please see “The Summer I Rebuilt the Valiant”). Actually, it was more like he was holding his breath. I guess he buckled my seat belt, because I never use to, and it was buckled when I woke up the next morning in the parking of a Safeway Supermarket.

I had to hire three musicians to do the playing Ry could have done if I’d had my shit together, which cost me three times as much money as Ry would have asked for. My father said that was the cost of doing business. He said that just after he took away my Union Oil credit card (people mostly had only gas station credit cards in those days) and said Roy and I would just have to carry our equipment on our backs the next time we wanted to do some field recording.
It seriously cramped our remote recording business. That was probably a good idea, since Roy and I had a lot more drug research ahead of us.

One-liner Notes:

“Now I’m gonna vomit for you folks.”  Johnny Cash, struggling with drugs, on stage at the Ash Grove.

Writing With Johnny Cash

In hindsight, I can see where being able say you wrote a song with Johnny Cash, even if it was for STP motor oil and additives, would look cool on your resume, if not on your tombstone. But it is interesting that it did take hindsight plus the prodding of friends before I did see it, which is a good thing, because if I’d seen it that way when it went down, I might have panicked and maybe choked. Here was the situation, at least as I remember it.
The advertising agency I worked for as Music Director from 1977 to 1981, J. Walter Thompson, had pitched and won the STP account away from another agency, Dancer Fitzgerald Sample (I think, but I’m not sure), with a proposed campaign that would center on Johnny Cash as the company’s presenter, as it called in the ad business. The agreement between Johnny, STP and the agency was elaborate. It included a huge print and billboard campaign featuring Johnny’s likeness in every ad, a specified number of public/personal appearances, a package of TV and radio spots and more, all spaced out over a year.
It also was to include his performance of “I Walk the Line,” with parody lyrics for STP. For the four people who don’t know this song, “I Walk the Line” was a huge hit, an iconic chunk of musical Americana, Country and Crossover, recorded in 1956 and still raptly listened to today.
But something happened on the way to the recording studio: STP was called on the carpet, big time, by the Federal Trade Commission for flagrantly false advertising for several of their products, especially their additive, STP Engine Treatment, their flagship product. When I say “big time” I mean they had to take out full-page mea culpa ads in magazines like Time, Newsweek, Car & Driver, Fortune, Business Week and most widely read newspapers across the Country.
Now, dedicated car drivers, especially those who worked on their own cars, and super-especially guys who lived in the South and rural areas, were hugely important to Johnny and his business machine, and they were irate. Johnny wanted out, and he had a clause in his contract that would allow him to, but he said he’d have to think a spell about it. One thing he did know, though: he would no longer sing “I Walk the Line” with parody lyrics. You can understand that. It was sort of his love/cowboy/road song, his personal anthem and he didn’t need to pollute it with bogus engine additive.
He finally did agree to do the project (NB: he was having bad tax problems at the time), minus the song. Company and Agency breathed a huge sigh of relief and accepted losing the song as a bearable cost. Except for one person, the agency ACD (Associate Creative Director) whose baby the whole campaign had been from presentation to execution. His name was Tom Mabley, a tall, blond, bright, hard-drinking-and-working Indianan who’d grown up listening to Cash and wasn’t ready to let the song go entirely without a fight. He knew Johnny wouldn’t relent on “Walk the Line” per se, but he wanted to see how close we could get to knocking it off without Johnny balking.
Tom and I had gotten drunk and talked Country at the Meeting, the Agency barroom, often. We’d tentatively agreed the greatest names in Country Music were Jimmy Rogers, Mother Maybelle Carter and Johnny Cash, so I knew what it meant to him to have Johnny do a song, and “not some fucking New York Jew jingle,” as he put it (Tom knew I was Jewish, and I knew he was a goyisher kopf).
He also knew I’d been in the Graduate Folklore and Folk Music Program at UCLA, and that I’d co-produced a limited-issue album (vinyl, of course. It was 1964) of never-before-heard Carter Family broadcasts from the 1930’s out of XERB in El Paso, Texas. In other words, I might have something Mother Maybelle, inventor of the Carter Family stroke, the basic strum of all Country music, and very alive and kicking, might enjoy. That turned out to be an understatement.
The Johnny Cash-Carter Family tie-in was Johnny’s 1968 marriage to June Carter, Mother Maybelle’s oldest daughter. He was welcomed into the Family and became devoted to Mother Maybelle.
Tom was as frantic as I’d ever seen him. He ordered me to go back to an ex-girlfriend’s house where I’d left the album and retrieve it, in the middle of the monumental 1968 New York storm. She refused to let me have it. I parked down the street and waited, with the snow building up by the hour around the rented car. I’d get out every once in awhile and brush it away with my hands. Eventually, she left for work. I clambered my way onto the roof, crotch deep in snow, pried open a window I knew was pryable, grabbed the album, slipped off the roof (thank God for the heavy snow) and ran.
By that night I was in Johnny Cash’s Nashville mansion, mouth dry, Gibson J-45 in its open case staring at me from the floor. His was on his knee.
“You know, Art─that’s not right,” he said. “What’d you say your name was? Oh yeah, Al─you know, Al, I’m still not delighted with the turn of events.”
“I don’t blame you, Mister Cash,” I said.
“I don’t want to sound pretentious, Al, but there’s a lot of boys out there feel pretty foolish about puttin’ STP in their cars thinkin’ it was doin’ something good and finding out it wasn’t.”
“Yessir, Mister Cash.” I know my Adams Apple throbbed, because I could feel it.
He pursed his lips, his eyes went up, and I was sure he was thinking about bailing after all, so as not to piss those boys off any more than they were. Contractually, he certainly had the right.
“You do know I’m not doing the song, don’t you? he said, looking directly into my eyes.
“Yessir, I do. I think that’s why they sent me down, Mister Cash,” I said.
“That’s what I thought. Listen, Al, it’s not gonna happen. No how, no way.”
“Yessir,” I said, trying to meet his driving, piercing gaze, “but if you don’t mind, Mister Cash, I have a hunch that Tom─you know, my boss?─agrees with and thinks maybe you might, too.”
“Well,” he said, propping his guitar against an ottoman, “I’d be surprised, but go ahead on.”
I took my guitar out of its case, put it on my knee, and that’s when it hit me what was going on here: I was about to try to play guitar in front of the reigning King of Country Music, and it was his music I was going to try to play. I felt like an idiot. Now I wanted to bail, too. But I remembered a phrase I’d learned years before from Doc Watson: The fat’s in the fire, now.
“Well, Mister Cash,” I said, making a C-chord, “I’m thinking that it may be your basic sound that most reminds the client of you. Like this,” I said. I damped the bottom two or three strings with the heel of my right hand, breathed in, and started to play the two lowest strings, alternating between the C and G with a flatpick and trying hard to get that thwacking, bouncing sound he and his band had just about patented.
“Bump buh-buh, bump buh-buh, bump buh-buh, bump buh-buh,” thwacking back and forth between the A and E strings trying really hard to get as close to his sound as I could.
“Bump bubba, bump bubba, bump bubba, bump bubba,” I played, staring intensely at my left, then my right hand, anything to avoid meeting his eyes until I’d finished trying to make my point.
But when I did finish, I looked up and found him smiling broadly and warmly at me, and starting to reach for his own guitar.
“Al, you’re from New York, aren’t you?” He said, pulling his pick from where it was wedged between three strings.
“Not really, Mister Cash, I’m actually─”
“Call me Johnny, Al,” he said, in that barrel-chested, open, nasally bass of his, the first time I’d heard it that way that night.
“Yes sir.”
“Johnny,” he said, smiling hugely again.
“Johnny,” I said.
“You must have listened to some my songs, then.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes, um, Johnny,” I said, “ever since “‘I Walk the Line.'”
“Uh huh,” he said, his face suddenly becoming grave.
“And I’ve been thinking about that, too…a little…also… Johnny.”
“Uh huh.”
“Okay. So what I’m wondering is that the chord progression at the start of “I Walk the Line, from G to C,” I said, playing the first few bars of the song, “may be a big part of what you want to avoid if we were trying to get that sound…without getting that sound, if you know I mean.” I had thought this through long before our meeting, at least the presenting of it, and now I knew I’d have to just wait for him to go one way or the other.
“Show me what you mean, son,” he said starting to put his guitar down again. I didn’t want that.
“Well, why don’t we play in C for awhile and maybe we can find a way to get close to your song without getting too close.”
So we started picking. I refused to reflect on that right then. I didn’t need to throw up. Johnny himself never played the thwacking bump bubba, bump bubba, his electric rhythm guitarist always did that, but he chorded with his thumb pick, and while he did I led us from the C to an a-minor, then back to the C again, back and forth between the C and a-minor, until we had a groove.
He smiled, and seemed to relax a little. “You may just have something going there, Brother Al. I like the way you’re leadin’ from one chord to the other. What were those STP lyrics, again?”
“Uh, ‘There’s a kind of man that’s mighty proud,'” I said, trying to put a voice to Tom’s prose.
“Right,” he said, “now we just need to find a melody.”
“I can’t believe we won’t,” I said.
“Me neither,” he said.

One-liner Notes:

“Too bad ‘Blind Al’ is already taken.” Guitarist Bobby Arlen of The Leaves to Evergreen Blueshoes’ and Byrds’ bassist Ship Battin when Skip’s partner, Al Rosenberg,  walked into a plate glass slider at a gig. At the time, “Blind Al” was the nickname for Al Wilson, the late singer/player with Canned Heat.

Jerry Garcia & The Missing Finger

My earliest recollections of playing with Jerry Garcia are the informal Bluegrass pickin’ sessions in John and Deirdre Lundburg’s guitar shop on Dwight Way, just off campus, in Berkeley. This would have been around 1962 or 1963. He and I’d been introduced by a mutual friend, Lonnie Feiner, a singer-guitarist from Los Angeles, who seemed to know everyone and was a walking clearing house for people from many different sub-groups in the folk music cosmos of the ‘Sixties.

I remember especially, at one of the informal jams we had, a moment when time stood still, at lease for me. It came during an early, but, significantly, not the very earliest, pickin’ session I had with Jerry, either a duo or with any of the score of pickers that hung out at Lundburg’s. I don’t remember much detail, but I do recall that the two of us, him playing 5-string banjo and me playing guitar, sat across from each other on low stools in front of Lundberg’s counter, where a tangled nest of strings and harmonicas were razor-wire to customers trying to get behind it. Everybody knew the bluegrass repertoire in those days, and Jerry and I were casually sifting through it, breaking from time to time to kibbitz and exchange gig information.

“You guys are playing in North Beach, right?” he’d asked.

“Yeah,” I said, “we go back and forth between Coffee & Confusion and the Coffee Gallery every other week.” The “we” was my band, the Ridgerunners, a trio I had with a mandolinist from Berkeley and a banjo player from New York. “Sometimes there’s even someone in the audient.”
He laughed. “I know what you mean, ‘Thank you for the applau,'” he said. We all knew the same jokes about not getting many people to turn out for our “engagements.”
At some point we talked a little about the possibility of playing together as a duo, not to preempt what I was doing with my band, just to have something other than classes to be involved in.

When we started playing again I suddenly realized I’d been staring at something I thought could only be an optical illusion. In a way, it’s good that I was so honestly, dumbly curious, with my eyes just riveted on Jerry’s right hand, because it meant I didn’t have to pretend I hadn’t seen what I thought I was seeing, then go thru an elaborate charade pretending I hadn’t seen it.
Anyway, in a moment I realized I did, in fact, see what I thought I’d seen, i.e., that Jerry’s right hand middle finger was missing, but that he was still playing his 5-string Gibson Mastertone banjo like a centipede on speed. I looked up and saw

him beaming at me like Alice’s Cheshire cat. I’m sure I was slackjawed, but just as sure he’d gone thru this scenario many times with many people, and was comfortable with it. We did a big suction ending on the song a few choruses later.

“What are you looking at?” he said, laughing, training mischievous eyes on my face, rather than his hand.
I started to say something, “Ahh, I…,” and then gave up because: 1) I knew I had nothing to say, and; 2) I think Jerry knew that if I just thought about it for a minute, I could answer any questions I had about someone with a missing middle finger making Bluegrass banjo his instrument of choice. And he was right.

Earl Scruggs’ bluegrass banjo technique, possibly the most viscerally exciting instrumental style in American genre music, isn’t called “three-finger pickin'” for nothing. The notes in almost all Scruggs patterns fall into a very finite number of plucking combinations using the thumb and two fingers, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s thumb-index-middle or thumb-index ring that make up the combine. It’s all the same to the 5-string banjo, and, obviously, all the same to the listener, witness my not seeing (or hearing) it for Jerry’s and my first several sessions playing together, usually sitting straight across from him and seldom more than ten feet away. Der.

And there really was nothing more to say about it. It was what it was. Maybe it even helped him play a little better, see a few combinations other people didn’t, because of his novel approach to an overused technique. That’s what some people say about Blind Doc Watson’s playing, tho’ Jerry Garcia was no Doc Watson.
“Whaddya wanna play?” I said.
“How ‘bout ‘Rawhide?'” he said, kicking off one of the fastest tunes in Bluegrass.