David Lindley, the dexterous and elfin multi-instrumentalist who died yesterday at the age of 78, could delight in sharing a few tales about his days on the road with Jackson Browne, James Taylor, and the other leading troubadours and songwriters he backed during the Seventies and Eighties. There was the time, he told me in 2013, that he saw one of them talking up a backstage female visitor. Lindley grabbed a bottle of apple juice, went over to his boss and told him his urine sample was ready. Needles to say, the normally mellow front man was not so chill afterwards.
Lindley also didn’t like being disturbed early in the morning by hotel workers — and had a unique way of chasing them away. “The maids would knock on the door, real loud,” he said. “Not a good thing. [Drummer] Russell [Kunkel] had a sign on the door. I said, ‘OK, that’s not working. We’ll do this.’ So I waited for the maids and got down on my hands and knees on the other side of the door, and if you put your hands around your mouth, it sounds like the muzzle of a Doberman, and I’d throw myself against the door. Finally they got the message.”
As funny as those stories were, they also pinpointed what set Lindley apart in his milieu. Lindley was deeply ingrained in the L.A. rock world, and his contributions on guitar, fiddle, slide guitar, mandolin, and a variety of other stringed instruments became integral parts of those records. To cite one of many examples, Browne’s “Running on Empty” would have sounded just fine without Lindley’s slide guitar ripping through it. But the extra grease it brought to the song enhanced the road wariness of the words: You really felt like you were on a bus, speeding toward a gig, racing against time and mortality. Lindley helped bring out added textures and shadings in songs — as much a part of his legacy as his voluminous credits.
To some segment of the public, the California-raised Lindley first became best known for his tenure with the acid-folk psychedelists Kaleidoscope in the late Sixties. But even before he came a superstar sideman, he hinted at what was to come: That’s his drony, mystical fiddle on the Youngbloods’ “Darkness, Darkness” (1969) and, supposedly, here and there on Leonard Cohen’s 1967 debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen. The original LP didn’t list musicians’ credits, but it’s since been sussed out that Kaleidoscope played on several cuts, meaning the fiddle that roams throughout “So Long, Marianne” is likely Lindley’s. Even if you didn’t know who was doing the playing, you heard those records and wanted to know who it was — early examples of how Lindley could stand out in the world of studio musicians, who are often required to be as musically under the radar as possible, especially in the worlds of folk and troubadour rock.
Of course, the ablest sidemen know how to unobtrusively play their parts and not get in the way of the melody or the sentiment. Lindley knew that as well: Listen to his fiddle work on Warren Zevon’s “Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded,” Linda Ronstadt’s “Heart Like a Wheel” or the alternate version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing in the Street” (released much later, on The Promise) — his playing underscores the songs, but never overwhelms them.
That approach is especially felt on the records he made with Browne, in whose band he played for most of the Seventies. Apart from his own records, Lindley remains the most associated with Browne, and with good reason: his acoustic guitar on “I Thought I Was a Child,” his fiddle on “Before the Deluge,” or the deft, almost comforting electric guitar licks “Late for the Sky” are merely a few examples of the way he complemented Browne’s singing and songs.
As Browne told me in 2010, he sensed that from the start, when the two of them went on tour opening for Yes. “I don’t know what they thought of us,” he said of Yes fans. “And we couldn’t play ‘Doctor My Eyes’ because I thought we couldn’t play it without congas and a drum kit. At the end of the tour, we had to play it because people kept asking for it. We’re playing at this concert at a college and they were calling for this song. And we said, ‘What the hell, let’s just play it.’ And it was a revelation. The piano part is sturdy enough — it’s just playing fours — and it was enough to support Lindley doing this insane grooving, swinging playing. He wasn’t even the guitar player on the record. But he just ripped it up. And I realized then I didn’t need a band to play with David. It just comes out of him.”
Talking with me about his work with Browne in 2010, Lindley recalled the origins of his co-writing credit on “Call It a Loan,” from 1980’s Hold Out. “I had a Strat with a really glassy sound that I was experimenting on, playing with my fingernails,” he said. “I said, to Jackson, ‘You want to write some words to this and put in some sort of order so we can use this guitar thing?’ And he said, ‘That’d be great,’ so he put it together and it turned out really well. I love that song.”
But Lindley also had that special-sauce aspect to his legacy. He seemed to know when to step out just enough to enhance the core of a song. His fiddle contributions to Browne’s “For a Dancer” and Graham Nash’s “Simple Man” were heart-breakers that made the songs feel even sadder. He could bring a jolt of raw electricity to a genre that could sometimes use it. His slide guitar parts may have been rooted in country blues, but in his hands, the instrument was brash and wily — heard in his rip-snorting parts on Browne’s “Red Neck Friend,” the live version of Nash and David Crosby’s “Fieldworker” (where Lindley’s playing bolsters the angry, pro-migrant-worker lyric), and Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long.” Musically and lyrically, the latter is a creepy, backwoods swamp of a song to begin with, but Lindley’s bottleneck solos only make it swampier and more otherworldly. “Warren was really consistent in the studio,” Lindley told me. “He’d give you picture cues. I’d ask, ‘What kind of approach do you want on this?’ And he’d say [imitates Zevon’s deepened voice], ‘Jeff Beck.’ How much more exact can you get?”
Onstage, especially with Browne, Lindley also distinguished himself. With hair that was super-long even by the standards of the day, he’d sit behind his array of fretted instruments and play — a mysterious and impish presence that offset the somberness of everything else happening on the stage. That was apparent particularly in Browne’s version of “Stay,” where Lindley stepped out for a then-rare vocal falsetto as hilarious as it was unexpected.
In a world known for its share of backstage and off-stage road excess, Lindley also cut his own figure largely by staying out of it. “I’m kind of a social misfit when it comes to after-show parties, so I usually went back to the hotel,” he told me in 2013. “There’s danger at those after-show parties, you know what I mean? I couldn’t do that. And I had no real idea how to schmooze and do any of this stuff. You saw Paul Shaffer’s character in This Is Spinal Tap? There was a lot of that.” Browne confirmed this to me at the time: “Lindley’s always been somewhat reclusive. He never really hung with anybody at parties. He was always in his room with his instruments. He was very religious about playing his own music every day and exploring instruments. He’d always be carrying his mandolin or fiddle.”
Lindley left Browne’s band after 1980. Thirty years later, Browne told me he had encouraged his bandmate to move on so that he could be appreciated in his own right, although Browne still had regrets: “There are times when I thought it was the craziest and stupidest thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
True to his musical quirks and passions, Lindley didn’t turn into a laid-back singer-songwriter himself when he went his own way. With his band El Rayo-X, he made his music even funkier (his propulsive, can’t-drive-55 version of K.C. Douglas’ “Mercury Blues” remains definitive), and delved deeper into reggae and blues. He continued working with Zevon, Browne and others, but his passion for world music — heard on the records he made with guitarist Henry Kaiser and musicians from Madagascar — equally spoke to Lindley’s passions.
Even when he rejoined Browne for a few reunion tours in the mid-to-late 2000s, Lindley brought along instruments like an oud (from the Middle East) and bouzouki (from Greece) as well as his Hawaiian guitar and fiddle. Why not just replay the parts the way they were initially done? “There are all sorts of variations,” he told me. “Some fans don’t understand: ‘It’s so good — why don’t you guys keep playing like that?’ But you see that cheesecake in the glass case and think, ‘Do I want to try that or what? It looks really good.’ You have that picture in your head and you want to find out.” Lindley always wanted to make that discovery.