now playing: gordon lightfoot, “if you need me”
if you saw him on the street, you probably wouldn’t give him a second look.
and it’s even less likely that you’d see him and think, “that guy looks like a musician.”
and it’d certainly never occur to you that he was in a band for seven years that sold over eight million copies of their first six albums on atlantic records and wrote several charting songs while he was along for the ride, playing to stadiums full of fans.
he got on board the train in 1975, based simply on a phone call from a fellow musician.
it’s a story you hear over and over in the rock and roll business, and it certainly makes me wonder how many amazing talents were on the receiving end of that particular phone call that we’ll never hear because they made the decision to stay put…rusty youngs’ story is identical – he was teaching steel guitar and playing clubs in colorado with his buddy george grantham when a phone call lured him to hollywood to play steel guitar on buffalo springfields’ kind woman, and the rest is history. but what if he’d said no, thanks, i’m fine where i am these days…??? this is the kind of thing i think about when i’m lying in bed, staring at the ceiling.
anyway, the same could have been said for this guy – if he’d said, “no, thanks, ya know…i’m not really ready for that right now,” it would’ve changed the whole complexion of the band he helped to make famous.
but he got on a plane to colorado to join the band.
almost a year later, to the day, the band signed a recording contract with atlantic.
their first album contained two huge singles, and they were on the map instantly…and the ride continued for six albums.
think about that, newbie bands….six albums.
can you name a band from the last ten years who’ve even been given the opportunity to do six albums by a major label?
pencils down…thanks for trying.
there were more after his departure, but none came close to equalling the success of the records made with their core lineup.
i had – hell, still have – that first single. it was a sweet little pop song that just about anyone over a certain age would recognize if i sang them a couple of bars of it. i still play it every now and then at solo acoustic gigs.
but on the flip side, there was this other song. this great song that i’d never heard on the radio, and played once out of curiosity, and i was hooked. in fact, i used to do the little thing with the turntable….you know what i’m talking about, the little thing where, if you pull up the arm and swing it all the way back, it’ll repeat the record until the needle gives out or the record becomes transparent or the power goes out, whichever comes first. that little thing.
don’t look at me like that, you’ve done it too.
when i was in the throes of despair over my unrequited crush on alicia holcomb (who was clearly out of my weight class, to paraphrase rob gordon in high fidelity), that record was the soundtrack. i’d lie in bed in my room and listen to that song over and over again and wonder why the gods would play such an evil game with the heart of a kid who just wanted to be with this girl and didn’t understand why that was such a ridiculous notion…
“…it’s been a long time, baby, let’s make it worthwhile….
say something cute and show us your new style….
…you come back to me and i’m lettin’ you in….
…you talked me into lettin’ you go…
so many times before…
..i never really learned to say no to you, baby – never wanted you just to go….”
it wasn’t the same voice as the voice that sang the songs i’d been familiar with. it was less lilting, more throaty, more…
…honest. that’s the word, really. honest.
while his counterpart sang the songs that you might hear at a wedding, he sang the songs that you played on repeat when you were at a romantic or emotional crossroads and needed a voice to identify with. he was the guy who felt the same way you did, who you identified with – who, you somehow just knew understood where you were at that point in time.
time passed, and new albums came out, and he never failed to disappoint…not every song on every album is a gem, and not everything that any of us write is always on par with our best work, and he was no different – but his songs were consistently the most honest songs on the albums…he was willing to go that extra step or two to fill in some of the colors that you might’ve missed otherwise.
it’s not as though his songs weren’t on the radio, too…his biggest hit was a song that dealt with an unwed father reacting to the news of his new status – not exactly the fodder of your typical AM love song, by any stretch…and it was, in fact, ignored (so to speak) by some of the more conservative top 40 stations (a term which has become an oxymoron as time has passed…where musical content is concerned, anyway). not ignored enough to keep it from becoming a huge hit, though.
time and albums passed, and i consistently found myself drawn to his songs…on the album that i personally consider their high point, he contributed two songs that are probably two of his best – business is business and only time will tell (which was released as a single, but didn’t set the world on fire). there are two things from my adolescence that i remember about those songs…one was playing business is business for my friend jeff, who was a great guitar player, to see if he could figure it out. “that sounds like two guys”, he said to me. later in life, when i figured it out on my own, i remembered that moment with a smile on my face. only time will tell was played on the radio a lot when it came out, and i just loved that song. i remember keeping pen and paper lying around so that i could scribble a few lines of it as it passed until i got all the words down on paper…it’d come on and i’d lurch for my pen and wait for the spot where i left off last time and scribble wildly trying to get as much down as i could before i lost my place. it took at least half a dozen passes to get it all.
“…you know, a player’s got a few things to count on
his fortune, it comes and it goes
here’s a sensitive heart you can pound on
and a gallant way of takin’ the blows
oh, i wrote you letters, and i knew what to tell you
but they never got off the ground
i thought i had something to sell you
but it wasn’t the best buy in town…
…i’d love to be the youth in your eyes
the truth in the lies that you tell….”
and of course, by the time i’d finished writing them all down, i had pretty much memorized them…but, hey – i was fifteen, ya know.
in a few years, it’d all be over, for the most part – he left the band in a similar fashion to neil youngs’ famous “bowing out” of the 1976 stills-young band tour. the band got on one plane, he got on another, headed back to his hometown, where he checked himself into a clinic – convinced that he was going to die if he didn’t get off the roller coaster that his life had become. as with many well-intentioned people, his first trip to rehab didn’t “take”, and i wonder sometimes if it wasn’t just a convienent place to hide from the consequences of his departure from the band as much as it might’ve been an attempt to clean up his act.
no matter what, he left and didn’t look back, and simply vanished into oblivion.
i think that, in later years, that mystique only added to his enigma. they had become successful in an era where information about rock stars was limited to what you read in rolling stone or creem or hit parader or what you might have heard mentioned in passing on the radio. there was no MTV, no internet, no band website bleeding personal details about every little move that a band makes, no journals or blogs where musicians spilled their guts on a regular basis….
there was the music and not much else…and some of us think that this was just fine, thank you very much.
so he left the band, and in the time between then and not long ago, i always wondered what the hell ever happened to him – i didn’t really know if he was alive or dead, although i was pretty sure that it would’ve surfaced at some point if he’d shuffled off this mortal coil.
in 1995, when i first started working on what would eventually become our mutual angels, i recorded a cover of business is business with a longer acoustic intro than the original, but it got lost in the shuffle when the decision was made to move over to longview and start the record fresh over there. i still have a rough mix of it in my archives (the ADAT tapes that contained the master are probably lost forever, as i had turned them over to the label…and the last time i googled the guy who’d have them, all i was able to find were references to liner notes on other projects he’d worked on…now that guy knows how to disappear.)
that song, though…his songs – made the transition from the 15 year old kid scribbling lyrics in his bedroom to the full-grown budding songwriter and performer who was starting to make his own mark, and there are certainly rings near the center of the tree where his influence is clearly visible.
fast forward to last month, when i was playing with blake at the sellersville theatre, opening for dave mason…i struck up a quick friendship with dave’s guitar player, johnny sambatora. nice guy, very outgoing, willing to talk and share information…and, as it turned out, he’d been in the same band, and had joined not long after he’d gotten on the plane back to DC that day back in the early 80’s. we had a great time talking about the band and various aspects of it, and it got me curious yet again….
…what the hell ever happened to this guy?
well, a google search answered my question right away. he had his own website, and had in fact returned to recording…he had put out an EP of solo acoustic songs a couple of years ago, and was (according to his site) working on an album of new material.
well, of course i had to email him. and – who woulda thunk it – he emailed me back!
so we started a dialogue of sorts – i asked him about the new record, told him about the studio that we’re building, and offered to help out any way i could, and he emailed me back and said that work on the record had stalled, and that if i was serious about my offer, he’d love to talk about it…so we did, and then we talked some more…
phone numbers were exchanged. conversations occured.
then on sunday, i went down to actually meet with him – to talk about the record, to have some lunch and to play some songs together, too. he lives a modest life these days – he has a day job and lives a quiet, normal life, for the most part. he and i have matching 14 year old sons and deal with a lot of similar issues where raising them from the distance of a separate residence are concerned…and frankly, from the time we began this dialogue, it’s been hard to think of him as the same guy who wrote those magical songs that i heard decades ago. i’ve certainly communicated to him a lot of the things i’ve talked about here, and he’s been very humble about it, acknowledging at the same time that he has some of the same difficulties hearing those kinds of things that i do…which went a long way in a short time towards making him a lot more human to me than the mythical figure i’d made him out to be for years now.
we sat in his living room and played for about an hour or so – i can’t really say how it felt, because it was mostly new material and i was intent (as i usually am in situations where i’m learning songs) on listening for chord changes and repetitive patterns and leaning on my instinct for guidance…”using the force”, as it were. david lindley is a great believer in relying on instinct more so than whatever technical knowledge you posess, and it’s been working for me this long…
so in the time we were playing, it never really got to the “jamming with my hero” level…it came close when i ended up singing only time will tell to him…that certainly bordered a bit on the surreal, but it was fine. really. he’s a great player, inspired by some of the same folks i’ve been inspired by, and we both have a deep-seated love for the drop-D tuning (he uses it almost exclusively, with the occasional open-G song thrown in for good measure).
later that afternoon, after we’d come back from lunch and had finished playing, he went into the back room and emerged with a half dozen ADAT tapes, all labeled up and showing obvious signs of previous use.
“i don’t have any other copies of the mixes or the data files, so you’ll just have to take these,” he says. “obviously, i’m gonna want them back….”
it was a gesture of trust that surprised me a little, frankly…but it established an unspoken shift in my own perception of where we stood from fan to collaborator – which is a pretty serious leap. it adds a dimension of respect and responsibility and faith that usually takes a little more time to establish – but it all feels good. it doesn’t feel over my head, i don’t feel intimidated, the interaction feels rather natural – even this early.
that’ll be the two of us, on the tarmac, watching the plane leaving for lisbon….
“…the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
i can’t wait to play this record for the world and say to them – see? this is what you’ve been missing out on for the last twenty years.
but knowing him, you’ll still be able to run into him on the street and never give it a second thought.