A Journey Through The Backbeat

by Gary Gordon
August 2000

     Thursday, August 10, had the makings of a long, crummy day. You know the kind: an 8am meeting which required being in the office by 7:30 which required waking up at 6, followed by a day of meetings and long phone calls, errands in downtown lunch-time traffic, a day of plotting graphs, preparing remarks, a no-time-to-eat day culminating with a meeting at 6:30pm where the organization was always lucky if it made it half-way through its agenda-- It would be at least a twelve-hour day.
     And if memory served, it was the anniversary of the day years ago when my wife moved out.
     It was a great day! A wonderful day! That kind of day where you feel on top of your game, invulnerable, even if there is no job security and people donít always say what they mean, even if debts breathe heavy, even if intrusive memories existóthey canít invade, because you are basking in some kind of something special.
     No, it wasnít love. It was music.
     Because Aug. 10 really began at 8:15pm on August 9, at the Santa Monica Civic, at a concert event titled "A Gathering Of The Clan; A Benefit for Friends of Fred Walecki."
     I donít know Fred. Never met him. Never heard of him. Never been to his music store, Westwood Music, and I wasnít part of the Southern California music scene of the mid-60s and early 70s.
     But Iíve been a musician, bandleader, songwriter and fan, the kind whoís played in bar bands and can say theyíve played "Peaceful Easy Feeliní" countless times.
     And Iím a fan of voices that can really sing from the heart, of songwriting built on truth-driven catch-you-in-the-gut lyrics, and of grab-you-by-the-balls guitar playing.
     And this Clan has more of that than can be fit into four hours. Gathered were David Crosby, Graham Nash, Chris Hillman, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Ry Cooder, Bernie Leadon, Linda Ronstadt, Randy Meisner, Emmylou Harris, Don Henley, Warren Zevon, Albert Lee and more.
     But Iím not a stargazer. And this is not a review. It is a journey down a path driven by the intersecting energies of songwriters and guitar-players and their lyrics, over time.
     "All alone at the end of the evening"...
     Meisner opened the show and sang that haunting lyric; the kind that put the Eagles so many cuts above others, the kind that has that double-edge, that can comfort you or make you restless at 3am.
     These folks just didnít write fleeting, dispensable lyrics.
     "You can spend all your time makiní money; you can spend all your love makiní time, but if it all goes to pieces tomorrow, would you still be mine?" Thatís not a glib comment. "In sixty-nine I was twenty-one and I called the road my own; I don't know when that road turned into the road I'm on".
     That timeless question is not just a casual observation.
     Henley closed the pre-jam portion of the show with Desperado. "You better let somebody love you."
     And if youíve lived any kind of life, you know thatís not just a hook.
     But there is more to it. Because as you watch and enjoy these folks, youíre in several places at once.
     196?, Iím a kid puzzling over the Byrds album cover where the photos of the band are blended, almost camouflaged into a field of flowers.
     196?, watching Bernie Leadon back up John Hartford on the opening of the Glen Campbell Summer TV Show, knowing Bernieís from my hometown, Gainesville, and among the first to achieve some notoriety.
     196?, buying guitar strings from the salesman/musician Tom Petty at Liphamís Music (Lipham was our Walecki).
     1967, playing the Byrdís "Feel A Whole Lot Better When Youíre Gone" in my band at the grand opening of the new Sears in the mall. (Stan Lynch played cowbell, his first gig.)
     1968, watching hometown bands GingerBread with Don Felder (later of the Eagles) battle City Steve with Jeff Jourard (later of the Motels) at an indoor concert featuring 16 strobe-lights, overhead projections of glop, film-strips, and blacklights.
     1970, graduating high school as CSN&Y play Neil Youngís devastating Ohio, a song which will always be an anthem.
     1972, making out past midnight with Beth as Nashís solo album plays on her turn-table in the dorm where male visitors are not allowed after 10pm.
     1976, seeing an "old" Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello movie on TV where one of the Hickman brothers puts the moves on Annette while Frankie is out of town, saying to her that he has a philosophy: "If you canít be with the one you love, love the one youíre with."
     1977, playing Eagles and CSN songs in small bars, interspersed with our originals, and getting yelled at by an angry, drunken fan for rearranging Steve Stillsí "Love The One Youíre With" to include an Allman Brothers guitar lick and the Boom-lacka-lacka vocal break from Sly Stoneís song.
     1979, seeing Browne bound up the steps of the Capitol Building in D.C. to survey the huge crowd gathered to protest nuclear power, sharing the bill with Nash to sing anti-nuke and pro-peace songs at the demonstration at Barnwell, S.C.; helping organize the MUSE/Catfish Alliance concert in Gainesville featuring Bonnie Raitt.
     1986, guitarist/songwriter Tommy Leadon (one of Bernieís younger brothers) introducing me to Roger McGuinn backstage at a Petty concert in Tampa while McGuinnís wife was recovering from being hit by a frisbee. Tommy introduced him as "Roger", and I didnít recognize him, so I asked if he was also from Gainesville.
     1988, M.C.-ing a Bonnie Raitt concert, Iím wearing the t-shirt I still have from her í79 concert. She notices and says, "Thatís an old t-shirt. Thanks." Also in í88, opening for McGuinn.
     "There is a season, turn, turn, turn"...
     Crosby, Nash and Hillman sing this and Leadon plays the classic McGuinn guitar solo and in one moment the author of that psalm and Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and the Byrds and CSNY and the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Eagles and the British Invasion and Dylan and Huxley and psychaedelia and Wooden Ships and the sea change that delivered the Coke and 12-step programs and the dead and walking wounded and neo-liberals who bought Reaganís bullshit and the rest of us who remembered Woodyís guitar killed fascists and all of us who have journeyed back and forth in the currents and backwaters to the rhythm of the backbeat are joined, knowing viscerally rather than just intuitively that there is a season for everything, but still adamant about questioning whether there really is a purpose for everything.
     It is a matter of life, which presents the possibility of acquiring wisdom. But sometimes you must marvel at the wisdom of the young. Emmylou gets onstage and says she moved to L.A. when she was 17 and everyone was raving about a songwriter who was the songwriter to meet, a guy named Jackson Browne, who was 16! Colin Hay says heís glad to be on a bill where heís the youngest guy. Bonnie Raitt reminds everyone sheís still younger than Crosby, then notes if it hadnít been for Crosby, there wouldíve been too many drugs left for the rest of them.
     And I wonder, not experiencing it til my mid-30s, how could the Eagles write such a wise line: "Every form of refuge has its price"?
     In 1986, a musician/songwriter friend of ours needed a throat operation, so we put together Throat Aid. My soon-to-be ex- was the M.C. and introduced me as someone she knew very well and was happy to introduce. I thought about this as I watched Henley, after two songs, walk over to Leadon and shake hands. Everybody knows thereís less than peaceful easy feelings there, as with some of the other relationships onstage.
     But theyíre there, histories and differences aside, for the cause. And if there is any underlying emotion, it can always be channeled through the vocals, through the guitar.
     It is really impossible to convey in writing the profundity or the brilliance of a great guitar solo. I once wrote that my guitarist friend Nancy Luca plays "fret-defying" guitar. I have no idea what that means, itís probably nonsense, but it sounds great.
     The point is that Leadon and Raitt, Cooder and Lee, and Jeff Pevar, they can play! And they did. And I just wish on the night I was there Raitt and Cooder had dueled as they apparently did the night before. And I wish Leadon had showcased himself a bit, instead of remaining the co-producer/accompanist and deferring to others.
     But Raitt! If this was a review, Iíd say she stole the show, from the moment she walked onstage in the first half to her improvisations in the two jam numbers ("Mercury Blues", and "Stand By Me") at the end, she wailed. But, always elegant, she did it as a player, not a star, for the song, not the spotlight.
     And there is no way, really, to convey the warmth of a fine singing voice. Hillman, Ronstadt, Browne, Nash, and Crosby, with their sweet voices; Harris, with her soulful voice, Raitt and Henley, with their gritty voicesóbut see, rightaway the problem: am I saying Henley isnít soulful? Am I saying Crosby canít sing with grit? The hell with it, theyíre all great.
     And even with "Turn, Turn, Turn" being one point of intersection, there is no way to track all the crosscurrents. Hillman and Herb Pedersen do a Monroe Brothers tune. And there are constant references to who sang back-up for whom on what album, and numerous introductions that begin "Jackson wrote this one"...
     There is a proud history of musicians raising money for causes. In part, I went to this concert to see Crosby, whom Iíd never seen, and Raitt, who is always thrilling, and Bernie Leadon, because heís the hometown, down-home guy who seems to be the intersection of a lot of these currents; and in part I went because if all these folks were raising money for Fred, then even though I donít know the man, it must be worth it.
     As I drove to work at 7am Thursday morning I realized itíd been less than seven hours since Iíd left the concert. And as the day progressed I kept wondering why I felt so energetic. Little sleep. Little food. And when I suddenly remembered it was indeed the anniversary of-- I still felt good.
     It was the music. And the love.