There’s an old saying about traveling to the beat of your own drummer. Taking the road less walked upon. Following your own muse. Making up your own rules. Writing your own code. We sometimes describe these individuals as unique or different; sometimes eccentric or even just fruitbat crazy.
They come in all shapes and sizes and all walks of life: they are scientists and inventors; painters and writers; designers, builders, dreamers and, oh, yeah, musicians.
David Lindley belongs to that rare fraternity, a gifted instrumentalist who has always followed his own heart and not only heeded the beat of a different drum, but virtually built a new one to beat upon.
Born David Perry Lindley in the upscale community of San Marino, CA on March 21, 1944, he quickly gained a reputation as the cat who could play any stringed instrument. The weirder it was, the more likely Lindley would know how to get a sound out of it. He curried a reputation as the guy who could playing everything from an oud, bazouki or saz to some old steel guitar or vintage acoustic. If it had strings, David could make it sing. He was some kind of modern minstrel, an analog troubadour with fingers blessed by God and a brain filled with music and harmony that nobody else could hear.
I knew Lindley functioned on the outside edges of the music world so when I visited David in his Claremont home back in June 1994, I didn’t know what to expect. I was there because he’d just released a series of recordings—The Sweet Sunny North with Henry Kaiser which had been recorded in Norway, Wheels of the Sun by Kazu Matsui with Hani Naser, and Official Bootleg #1: Live in Tokyo Playing Real Good with Hani Naser—and he wanted to talk about them.
These weren’t exactly mainstream titles but the instrumentalist was always putting out bizarre little recordings and had a huge catalog filled with strange releases. He had recorded well over 20 albums by the time we met and if you took into consideration the number of guest appearances he’d made on other records—including work with Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Linda Ronstadt, Curtis Mayfield, David Crosby, James Taylor, Graham Nash Terry Reid, Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Joe Walsh and many, many others—then that number probably tripled.
Lindley’s house was typical for the area. Quiet street, nice front lawn and a gentle breeze blowing up out of the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Claremont had an easygoing and unassuming feel about it and that’s precisely why Lindley had moved there. Despite his low-key demeanor, he was regularly named on the Notables list of people living in that city along with Snoop Dogg, Frank Zappa, Buckethead and Ben Harper.
Following a gentle knock on his front door, David stood in the door way and waved me in. I was not prepared for what I saw. So many years later, it is still difficult to retain the memory in any clearheaded fashion and even more challenging to verbalize the interior of the home. Perhaps the simplest way to describe it is that it just seemed to have lost track of time. Or a better description might be is that the house and the person living there hadn’t so much lost the sense of time but just didn’t seem to care. There were old-fashioned appliances all over the kitchen—ancient toasters and a vintage refrigerator—and the furniture was a throwback to another time as well.
There were armchairs and sofas that surely dated back to the ‘60s. They weren’t in particularly good condition and certainly not what you’d call true antiques but they had charm and character and fitted the man living there perfectly.
More than anything, however, it was the tidal flood of instruments strewn all over the house. In every room. On the floor, balanced against the wall, lying atop cabinets and just literally occupying virtually every inch of available floors pace.
At first, I thought David had deliberately turned his house into a museum for stringed instruments because he thought that’s what I wanted to see when I interviewed him. Maybe he thought, “This writer is coming over to my house. I’m supposed to be the guy who can play any instrument. Maybe I should go to my storage locker and fill up the house.” But he didn’t do that. This is just how Lindley lived and while it was odd and eccentric—some people would even call it compulsive hoarding—it had its charm and mystique.
Even the man himself had no idea how many instruments he had since he’d been collecting starting back in the ‘60s.
Before we started our interview, I took some quick notes of the instruments I saw lying around. They included:
Lindley was like some strange little Munchkin, a character out of the Wizard of Oz. He had these overgrown mutton chop sideburns and an impish grin that would continually poke through when he was talking about what he loved best—playing music. When his friends—people like Jackson Browne and James Taylor—were taking more mainstream avenues in order to find success, Lindley did just about everything he could to find a back road somewhere that wouldn’t take him anywhere near the corporate machinery of the music business.
David spent his time staying out of the public’s eye by working with a litany of exotic European and African artists that nobody outside a small circle of diehard fans had ever heard of. With his close friend Ry Cooder—another renegade artist who eschewed mainstream success—he formed Kaleidoscope, a ‘60s psychedelic band that released three albums: Kaleidoscope, Side Trips and A Beacon From Mars.
On these early recordings, Lindley and Cooder would begin to explore the outer reaches of what music had to offer. “Those records are interesting,” Cooder says of his work with Kaleidoscope. “Some of the stuff I listen to now, it just sounds dated. It was the ‘60s and a lot of the stuff that we were doing, people would listen to and go, ‘What the f—k is that?’ We were playing in 9 and 7 and 5 and playing this Turkish and Balkan music and Cajun stuff. It was experimentation time and we did it publicly on stage and people enjoyed it. They liked it a lot and that’s basically what Kaleidoscope was.”
Not many people associate David with being a part of the psychedelic ‘60s but he was there performing at the Newport Folk Festival and touring up and down the West Coast all the way to Seattle. They also performed on the East Coast and appeared at the Fillmore, Avalon Ballroom and Family Dog in San Francisco. “We never played the original Fillmore as Kaleidoscope but we played the Carousel and Fillmore East in New York as the Electric Circus. We played the Whisky all the time. We played with the Doors and Spirit. I knew Randy California [guitarist with Spirit] real well. And we played with Canned Heat. I loved Canned Heat.”
As we’re talking, David is picking up these various instruments that surround him like loyal soldiers. He picks up an oud or bazouki or some classic Teisco Del Rey and spins out one dazzling riff after another. In fact, the Teisco is one of his signature instruments and something he has been playing for years. Grover Jackson takes up the story about his work with Lindley on these unique guitars.
“In the early 1980’s, David and Ry Cooder were playing a bunch of dates with each other,” says Jackson, one of the premier guitar luthiers dating back to the ‘70s when he took over Charvel Guitars. “At some point one of them purchased a Teisco Del Rey guitar and it quickly became a favorite. This was soon followed up with the purchase of several more. It was determined that these guitars had some unique mystical sound quality. The unfortunate side was that they were virtually unplayable. Ry brought one out and asked if I could put a neck on it. I fabricated the neck and installed it on the guitar and called Ry to say that it was complete and ready for pickup. I was at the time pretty close to the top of the heap in terms of U.S. high end guitar builders and although I was thrilled to be doing work for Ry and David, I was somewhat put out to be working on such modest instruments as these Teisco Del Reys. When Ry arrived with David in tow to pick the instrument up, we sat down n my office for him to have a look at the work. What transpired was a revelation. Ry and David proceeded to play some of the most amazing guitar I had ever heard on this modest instrument that I had put a neck on and set up. The revelation that I received in this simple meeting was that it is always about the player and only slightly about the instrument.”
That is precisely what blew me away as I sat there watching Lindley bringing a life and sound to these one-off instruments that very few people could even play, much less create something musical with them. He would play some Eastern-flavored lick or astonish you with some of the greatest slide playing you’d ever heard. Lindley never found the success of some his friends and counterparts—people like Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor—but it never seemed to bother him. Certainly when he talked about his career on that day over 20 years, you never had the sense that he wanted something different or something better. No, Lindley was just happy making music for anybody who wanted to listen.
“I like all different kinds of stuff. That’s one of my problems,” David explains, holding some Weissenborn or Martin acoustic. “I never settle down in one area. At one point, I had the chance to go the Kiss route but I decided to play what I liked. I’d rather mess around. It’s more fun.”
It’s hard to imagine David Lindley in face paint and lipstick. Spitting blood. Wearing 6” heels and black leather studs. That’s not who he is.
He’s managed to create a life doing what he does best and he’s never looked back. As I left his house that day, I did look back at him standing in the doorway of his home, holding some bizarre instrument with one string. He was noodling away, coaxing the most beautiful sounds out of this vintage piece. Before he closed the door, I took one last glance inside his house. I saw all the instruments scattered out, guitar cables coiled on the floor like rubber snakes and picks covering every surface like it was some kind of fallout.
I guess somebody had to be the keeper of all these strange and exotic instruments and who better than David Lindley?