Rock Remembrance: David Lindley, A Splendidly Cavalier Spirit
By Scott McLennan
Electric guitar, bouzouki, mandolin, saz, oud, Hawaiian guitar, lap steel, fiddle, cittern; if it could be plucked, strummed or bowed, odds are Mr. Dave played it and played it well.
David Lindley hated bootleg recordings.
He’d include messages printed in his CDs telling you that if you intend to make a copy of the CD, please mail him $5 to properly compensate him and the songwriters (or he’d haunt your dreams).
One time after wrapping up a performance with his band El Rayo-X at a festival in Connecticut, Lindley dispatched guitarist Ray Woodbury to where I was sitting with a buddy who happened to be taping the show. Woodbury wanted to know what the hell we were doing and what the hell we were going to do with these tapes. Luckily, we convinced him that we were just a couple of guys who really liked Lindley’s music and had no schemes to profit off of the tapes. Sensing there was no way he would wrestle away the tapes or gear, Woodbury settled for leaving us with a tongue lashing.
The last time I saw Lindley perform live, I had the good fortune to meet him and to talk with him for about 20 minutes. He brought the conversation around to unauthorized recordings of his performances, and how it was really a problem in Europe where sound guys were in cahoots with bootleg record labels.
Ironically enough, if not for a bootleg recording of David Lindley and El-Rayo X, I probably would never have become such a devoted fan of the freakishly talented multi-instrumentalist many of us simply called Mr. Dave, after his 1985 album of that name.
Like most, I knew Lindley was the guy playing and singing the cool parts on Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty album. But when a cassette copy of a WNEW broadcast of a 1981 concert Lindley and El Rayo-X performed at New York City’s Bottom Line (and which opens with Lindley announcing, “Ladies and gentlemen, start your tape recorders; we’re going to make a pirate album now.”) found its way into my collection, I was hooked for good. Incredible musicianship wrapped up in a cavalier spirit, and I found that package irresistible. It became something that I could count on from Lindley no matter when or where I saw him, in whatever kind of performance he was giving.
Lindley died March 3 at the age of 78, reportedly succumbing to an illness he had been battling.
His career spanned psychedelic folk music made with the band Kaleidoscope in the mid-’60s to session work throughout the ’70s for Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Ry Cooder, Linda Ronstadt, and countless other premier songwriters and performers based around California. He launched the rocking El Rayo-X in the early ’80s and enjoyed a semblance of cult-rock status before easing into more stripped-down duos with such partners as Henry Kaiser, Hani Nasser, Wally Ingram, and Cooder. He was most often found performing solo in his final years on the road.
But no matter in what manner you encountered Mr. Dave, there were a couple of things you could count on.
First, he would be the tackiest dresser in the place. His stage attire: loud polyester shirts worn with mismatched plaid pants and shoes that defied any sense of fashion or comfort.
Second, he could play the hell out of anything with strings on it. Electric guitar, bouzouki, mandolin, saz, oud, Hawaiian guitar, lap steel, fiddle, cittern; if it could be plucked, strummed or bowed, odds are Mr. Dave played it and played it well.
And, despite a twisted and impish sense of humor that permeated his songs and stage banter, Mr. Dave was probably the most tasteful musician I ever heard. Even when in full-on rock mode with El Rayo-X, Lindley wasn’t one to wield an instrument like a sword or wrestle it into submission. Instead, he’d summon a mystifying array of tones and sounds. The guy really was a wizard at conjuring unexpected and delightful textures from his instruments.
And he demonstrated an appreciation for music’s potential for bridging cultural divides. Reggae, African, and Middle Eastern influences filled Lindley’s repertoire, which was also full of rootsy and gritty songs that honed in on American quirkiness, many penned by iconoclast songwriter Frizz Fuller.
Lindley also loved to play songs written by and made famous by his pals, especially songs by Zevon. “The Indifference of Heaven” and “Play It All Night Long” were inevitably standouts whenever they were included in a set.
Bouncing from band member to sideman to front man to journeyman traveler over the course of his career earned him the admiration of other world-class musicians as well as fans. Through all of his transformations, Lindley remained untethered to convention; he embodied a sense of freedom too few artists are willing to embrace because it would risk declining record and concert ticket sales. Hell, Lindley walked away from the major-label racket to put out a raft of records on such imprints as Pleemhead and Ulftone, as well as plenty that he released on his own (his own bootlegs, if you will).
And his explorations never ended. The last time I saw Lindley perform live, he brought us on a journey by way of a version of the old English folk ballad “The Cuckoo,” plucking out very non-Anglo tones from a giant avocado-shaped instrument common to a folk tradition found nowhere near England. Poke around the Internet and you’ll find Lindley playing the same song with Kaleidoscope in the late ’60s, feeling his way through the song on a banjo, flinging “The Cuckoo” somewhere in the vicinity of Appalachia.
Thanks for all the trips, Mr. Dave. You are already missed.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.