“Let’s do another bad one, then,” Warren Zevon jokes at the outset of “Numb as a Statue,” from his yet-to-be-released The Wind. “‘Cause I like it when the blood drains from Dave’s fa-a-a-ace.”
Then a couple of tasty lap-steel notes bolt from the silence, clean as fire and as dirty as a dollar. Because Zevon is hardly name-dropping just any ol’ Dave here; he’s picking on Mr. Dave.
The Tiki Man.
The X in the El Rayo.
The fluidity and fiery tone Lindley brings to Zevon’s newest and probably final album (see the review on page 37) immediately recalls the guitar wizard’s career-igniting leads on Jackson Browne’s live 1978 smash hit Running on Empty.
Since Lindley typically swims so far beyond the mainstream, even today he remains best known as Browne’s hired six-stringed gun, the guy with that voice who sang that song: Lindley’s rarely used, nearly inhuman falsetto carries the refrain on Brown’s expanded cover of The Zodiacs’ “Stay,” which shuts down Running on Empty.
“I used to sing a lot like that when I was a little kid,” Lindley, 59, admitted in a recent phone interview. “I’d sing way up high — real high.”
“It disturbed my parents a lot,” he adds. “So I worked on it a lot.”
Playing real good
It’s hard to know when Lindley is being serious. He’s forthcoming but deadpan, and he doesn’t seem to laugh at his own jokes (that is, if he’s ever actually joking).
But he means it when he says that music wasn’t his first love.
He could as easily have pursued art, the Los Angeles native reveals, though his growing interest in the five-string banjo and fiddle finally stole his future.
By high school, Lindley was already playing in a succession of string bands. When he later landed in the L.A. group Kaleidoscope — which threw flamenco and Middle Eastern flavors into its electri-folk-adelic mix — the world got its first real hint of his catholic tastes, expanded to include ska and reggae after a stint living in England.
Back stateside in the early ’70s, Lindley launched his career as a session player, lending his chops not just to old buddies Zevon and Browne, but to the likes of Leonard Cohen, Little Feat, Rod Stewart and Maria Muldaur — even to Dolly Parton.
Mostly, he did his uncanny slide-on-steel-guitar thing, sounding something like a tuning fork pressed against a live wire, with individual notes somehow teased from the electric flow. But if a thing has strings, Lindley can probably play it. And if not, it’s a safe bet he’ll eventually take a whack at it (barring the zither, which he has officially forsaken).
On Twango Bango III, his newest album with percussionist Wally Ingram, Lindley tackles not just his standard slide but oud, bouzouki, saz, Hawaiian guitar, tenor banjo and chumbush (hell, most people can’t even pronounce most of those). And if anyone’s counting, Lindley handles regular guitar and bass duties, too.
Has he ever stopped to figure out how many different instruments he can play?
“Um,” he says. “No.
“I’ve never framed it like that,” he continues. “I have looked around and said, ‘God, I’ve got too many instruments.'”
Through the years, he’s guilted himself into giving away a few of the el cheapo pawnshop specials he avidly collects, he notes.
“It’s rectified the cosmic record for hoarding,” Lindley explains. “That gave me a few more years to feel OK.”
His zest for the instrument unknown has spawned many noteworthy collaborations — with old buddy Ry Cooder; with multi-instrumentalist Henry Kaiser; with Japanese flutist Kazu Matsui; with hotshot percussionist Ingram; and, earlier, with Hani Naser. And in the early ’80s, Lindley’s love of genre-mingling gave the world the glorious El Rayo-X, now recently reunited.
His own albums, meanwhile, are a mix of originals and choice covers, like the traditional gem “The Johnson Boys” on TBIII. Lindley’s version, complete with bouzouki, rings definitive.
Playing real loud
Lindley can coax impeccable tone from even a cheap Silvertone guitar, but he keeps the volume on his wardrobe turned way, way up. He’s the poster child for polyester, the star student in the sartorial-suicide school.
“A lot of that is art,” he posits. “Art that you wear.”
While viewing a video of a bygone show in Germany, Lindley discovered that he didn’t move around that much on stage. Things weren’t all that interesting, visually speaking.