There were sidekicks, and then there was him – Rolling Stone

David Lindley, the deft and elfin multi-instrumentalist who died yesterday aged 78, was happy to share a few stories about his days on the road with Jackson Browne, James Taylor and the other leading troubadours and songwriters he supported during the seventies and eighties. There was the time, he told me in 2013, that he saw one of them talking to a female guest backstage. Grabbing a bottle of apple juice, Lindley walked over to his boss and told him his urine sample was ready. It has to be said that the normally mellow front man was not so cool afterwards.

Lindley also disliked being disturbed early in the morning by hotel workers – and had a unique way of shooing them away. “The girls would knock on the door, really loudly,” he said. “Not a good thing. (Drummer) Russell (Kunkel) had a sign on the door. I said, ‘OK, it’s not working. We’re this.’ So I waited for the maids and fell on my hands and knees on the other side of the door, and if you put your hands over your mouth, it sounds like the muzzle of a doberman and I would throw myself at the door. Finally they got the message.”

As funny as these stories were, they also pointed to what set Lindley apart in his environment. Lindley was deeply rooted in the LA rock world, and his contributions on guitar, fiddle, slide guitar, mandolin and a variety of other stringed instruments became an integral part of these records. To name 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 fat it added to the song enhanced the caution of the road to the words: You really felt like you were on a bus, speeding towards a concert, and driving against time and mortality. Lindley helped bring extra textures and nuances to songs – as much a part of his legacy as his extensive credits, which also include work with Ry Cooder, John Prine and David Crosby & Graham Nash.

To some of the public, the Californian-raised Lindley first became best known for his tenure with acid-folk psychedelists Kaleidoscope in the late sixties. But even before he got to a superstar sideman, he hinted at what was to come: It’s his drone, mysterious violin on the Youngbloods’ “Darkness, Darkness” (1969) and supposedly here and there on Leonard Cohen’s 1967 debut, Songs by Leonard Cohen. The original LP did not list the musicians’ credits, but it has since been established that Kaleidoscope played on several cuts, meaning that the violin roaming through “So Long, Marianne” is likely Lindley’s. Even if you didn’t know who was playing, you heard these 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 best sidemen know how to discreetly play their parts and not get in the way of the melody or the mood. Lindley knew it, too: listen to his fiddling 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, the The vow) — his playing underlines the songs but never overwhelms them.

That approach is particularly noticeable 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 one most associated with Browne, and for good reason: his acoustic guitar on “I Thought I Was a Child”, his violin on “Before the Deluge” or the deft, almost comforting electric guitar licks of “Late for the Sky” are just a few examples of how he complemented Browne’s singing and songs.

As Browne told me in 2010, he sensed it from the start when the two went on tour and opened 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 are playing this concert at a college and they requested this song. And we said, ‘What the hell, let’s just play it.’ And it was a revelation. The piano part is robust enough – it just plays fours – and that was enough to support Lindley in this crazy grooving, swinging playing. He wasn’t even the guitarist on the record. But he just ripped it up. And I realized I didn’t need a band to play with David. It just comes out of him.”

Speaking to me about his work with Browne in 2010, Lindley recalled the origins of his co-writing credit on “Call It a Loan,” from the 1980s Hang on. “I had a Strat with a really glassy sound that I was experimenting with and playing with my nails,” he said. “I said to Jackson, ‘Do 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 would be great,’ so he put it together and it turned out really well. I love that song.”

But Lindley also had the special sauce aspect of his heritage. He seemed to know when to step out just enough to enhance the core of a song. His fiddler contributions to Browne’s “For a Dancer” and Graham Nash’s “Simple Man” were heartbreakers 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 sly – heard in his rip-snoring parts on Browne’s “Red Neck Friend”, the live version of Crosby & Nash’s “Fieldworker” (where Lindley’s playing bolsters the angry, pro-migrant worker lyricism), and Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long”. Musically and lyrically, the latter is an eerie, backwards 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 would give you visual cues. I would ask, ‘What kind of approach do you want to take to this?’ And he would say (imitating Zevon’s deeper voice), ‘Jeff Beck.’ How much more accurate can you get?”

On stage, especially with Browne, Lindley also excelled. With hair that was super long even by the standards of the day, he sat behind his assortment of fretted instruments and played – a mysterious and forlorn presence that offset the gloom of everything else happening on stage. That was especially evident in Browne’s version of “Stay,” where Lindley stepped out for a then-rare vocal falsetto that was as amusing as it was unexpected.

In a world known for its share of backstage and off-stage road excesses, Lindley also cut his own figure by largely staying out of it. “I’m kind of a social misfit when it comes to after-show parties, so I used to go 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 screw up and make 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 has always been somewhat reclusive. He never really hung out with anyone 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 would always carry 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 he could be appreciated in his own right, although Browne still had regrets: “There are times when I think it was the craziest, stupidest thing I’ve ever done,” he said.


True to his musical quirks and passions, Lindley didn’t become a laid-back singer-songwriter himself when he went his own way. With his band El Rayo-X, he made his music even more funky (his driving, can’t-drive-55 version of KC Douglas’ “Mercury Blues” remains at last), and delved deeper into reggae and blues. He continued to work 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 – spoke just as much to Lindley’s passions.

Even when he joined Browne for a few reunion tours in the mid-to-late 2000s, Lindley brought instruments such as an oud (from the Middle East) and bouzouki (from Greece), as well as his Hawaiian guitar and fiddle. Why not just play the parts as they were originally made? “There are all sorts of variations,” he told me. “Some fans don’t understand: ‘It’s so good – why don’t you keep playing like that?’ But you see that cheesecake in the glass case and think, ‘Do I want to try it or what? It looks really good.’ You have that image in your head and you want to figure it out.” Lindley always wanted to make that discovery.

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