Memoirs of a Sideman: Unlucky Buckley

The strange thing about writing your memoirs is the confusion that amasses concerning dates, times and places.  Some characters appear in your life without your being able to recall their introduction to the events surrounding the circumstances. 

Jim Fielder
One such prominent individual to my musical history is the great bass player, James T. Fielder, the original bassist with the mega-groups “Buffalo Springfield” and “Blood, Sweat and Tears.”  Jimmy was a studied New Yorker through and through who had quit BS&T to move to the west coast and try his luck in another, sunnier climate.  Once again we have an example of the necessity for a “Sideman” to change direction, seek something new and search for further development away from the secure success of a steady gig.

I am not sure how Jimmy and I met but I think it was jamming in Silver Lake at a house owned by a gypsy family, not just hippie but real Rumanian gypsies who had a pop group for which I was playing viola—don’t ask,  I have no idea why, but there you have it.

At any rate Jim and I became fast friends and one day he called me with a chance at an audition for the great folk rocker and unique performer, singer-songwriter and guitarist, Tim Buckley. 

Jim was touring with Tim at the time and evidently the previous guitarist had left the gig under mysterious circumstances.  I said what the hell and two days later I arrived at a complex on the east end of Sunset Blvd., not far from the Gower Gulch, to give it a try.  At that time, Tim was managed by Herb Cohen who also handled Frank Zappa, and this undistinguished building in a quieter section of central Hollywood housed rehearsal spaces, offices, studios, the whole gambit. 

I arrived early, a bad habit of mine which still to this day plagues me, and wandered around until I ran into Mr. Cohen.  He was a gruff looking character with a beard and a cigar who pointed me to the room for Tim’s audition with little fanfare and only a slight recognition that he had another person in his presence.  As I approached the room I could hear a guitarist jamming by himself on a Fender twelve string electric guitar. Fuck, I thought to myself, this guy sounds great and I hope to God there aren’t a dozen more like him waiting in line.

I opened the door quietly and entered.  The guitarist looked at me, kept on playing for a while then stopped.  He smiled at me and said,

   “...You must be Art Johnson: I’m Tim Buckley, thanks for comin’ by.”

At that time I had no idea that Tim could play that well, I was truly impressed.  A few minutes later Jim and the rest of the group arrived and we started to rehearse.  Tim’s tunes were intelligently written with scathing lyrics and a powerhouse of energy to boot.  When I took my first lengthy solo, Tim began to strum harder and harder, coaxing every sound out of his guitar that he could.  I was hired on the spot and thus began a year of great touring and much fun.

Tim, for all his bodacious personality, was actually quite a shy and sensitive person.  He was well read, always with a book on hand for the endless travel by air and ground, and a very serious thinker, to the level of philosopher cum intellectual.

One of our first gigs was in an old theatre in downtown Detroit.  It was 1974 and Detroit, or as Lena Horne would later refer to it as “Destroy-it” was then a slum area full of crime. 

As a matter of fact, traveling around the US as a touring musician, even under the best of circumstances, has always offered some element of danger.  During the 1970’s, urban areas such as New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C., and many other large cities were breeding grounds and still are to this day, for street crime in many forms.  Nothing new here, except how this condition might apply to a touring sideman.  Muggings, drug related incidents, hotel theft and other such nefarious undertakings were prevalent all during my intense touring years on the road. Granted, it was not the same as it is today.  Most of the friction was left over from the racial predicament of the 1950’s and 60’s. 

Another element was the encroaching masses of “street people” who, for one reason or another, had no means of support and found their way onto the streets, some of which embarked upon a “forced” life of petty and other crime.

I was a lucky guy.  In my fifteen years of road work, only two incidents stood out as life threatening.  The first was my premier gig with Tim in Detroit.  During the winter of 1974, the downtown area of Detroit was dark and foreboding.  Most of the small businesses were closed having succumbed to the sprawling suburban housing developments outside of the center of the city, along with mega stores such as K Mart and others who were now supplying the needs of the inhabitants at bulk, discount rates in comparison to the “mom and pop” shops of the inner city.  But, at this time, in downtown Detroit, there was a great old movie theater that had been converted into a performance space. 

That night, we were opening for Chick Corea and his electric band.  We arrived for the gig down an alleyway behind the theater in two taxi cabs.  It was the beginning of winter and a light snow had begun to fall as we arrived at our hotel earlier in the day.  That’s right, fly in from LA to Detroit in the afternoon, unpack your suitcase and throw some water on your face and head for the gig. 

As the cabs pulled up in the evening darkness, everyone scampered for the stage door, about twenty feet from the cars.  Being handicapped, I was the last out of the cabs and after retrieving my guitar from the trunk, I began to shuffle my way carefully towards the entrance.  I suddenly realized that everyone else had gone in and the stage door was closed.  No big deal, when I arrived I would just knock.  But then out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a shadow moving amongst the trash bins.  My heart began to pound, my intuition kicked in and I knew there was potential danger lurking here.  I tried to pretend that everything was fine, but the figure from the shadows began to move quickly in my direction.  I tried to move a little faster but to no avail.  The man approached me and said,

     “...Gimme that fuckin’ guitar!”

An automatic response system activated immediately within my hysterical consciousness.  I waited until he was right in front of me and offered the point of my hard-shell guitar case right into his crotch with as much force as I could call on.  He screamed, doubling up and smacked his head into the middle of my guitar case and fell to the ground.  I hauled ass to the door, pounding furiously, and it was opened immediately by a stage hand.  I burst through, as he paused to view the body in the alley and then closed the door.  I was breathing hard and out of breath.  The stage hand regarded me without any expression, and said “...Welcome to Detroit” and then moved on about his business.  Another initiation passed successfully. 

That first night on stage with Tim Buckley is still impregnated in my memory. I don’t recall the tune, but it was one of Tim’s great modal high energy pieces.  The spotlight was on him as we dug in, supplying the energy he needed to give it his all.  Tim was a New Yorker at heart.  He had at one time lived in Edgar Allen Poe’s brownstone dwelling on the lower east side.  When he finished his first chorus of vocalizing he turned to me with that great “smart ass” smile of his and said over the roar of the music,

     “...Come on over here, Artie,” motioning me with a gesture from his head towards the spotlight.  I obeyed the call and the next thing I knew I was literally flying with notes and completely on fire as the spotlight beamed down on me.  Honest to God, I felt my feet levitating off the floor of the stage!   This is no drug induced bullshit; it was a heavy dose of emotional adrenaline sparking my performance.  The more I played the more he kept yelling at me to “Go, go, go...!”

Tim had totally turned over the moment to me and I let it rip for all I had.  What an experience.  Once again I had encountered a touch of class by an employer who appreciated what I had to offer and was more than willing to share the limelight with me.  These occasions with other stars were rare and that is perhaps the reason I never forgot the moment.  With Tim however, this experience, to one degree or another, was repeated many times over the year that I toured with him.

In the summer of 1975 the group was included in a Warner Brothers tour of Europe which included Tim and the band, the Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison and John McLaughlin’s ensemble.

Tim Buckley onstage Knebworth (photo from  by Vin Miles)

One of our performances was in Knebworth England on the castle grounds outside of London.  In these ancient days of pop touring, there were no fifty thousand watt sound systems and no giant flat screen TV’s for the audience in the back of the pack to view the show.  Instead, a stage was built about one hundred feet high so that all of the one hundred thousand people in attendance that day would be able to see the performers on stage.  We had to climb the tall stage by a thin ladder and once in place, the wind was blowing so hard you thought you were going over the edge of the stage.  I was playing through two Marshall “stacks” and could barely hear anything. 
Staring out over the castle grounds with so many people in this massive audience waving colorful banners mounted on long poles was like traveling back in time.  My sense of place was altered during that hour long performance.  I really did not know which century I was in.

Art rocks the pink trousers (L) with Tim Buckley at Knebworth in 1974

Tim and I had a deep mutual respect for each other that continued until the end.  He had been a heavy drug user, but at the time I was with him he was only drinking a few beers now and then.  Tim had a well deserved enormous ego but it was seldom out of hand.

We had ample opportunity to hangout together in London during this tour.  We would hit the streets of the West End and let it rip, visiting pubs and having a few toddies along the way. 

I remember Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, guitarist with the Doobie Brothers, passing us on the street, a girl on each arm, sporting his Air Force sunglasses.  Jeff was not only a great musician, but a bit of an electronic genius and the last thing I heard about Mr. Baxter was that he has been employed by the United States Air Force to program air to air missile sites.  Talk about your career transition:  Incredible!  

Often, when we would arrive at a concert hall or club dressing room, Tim would immediately scope out the quality of his opening act.  If they were good people he was nice, offering conversation and generally being just another cat in the band.

One night we were playing a club somewhere in the Midwest and the band who was opening for Tim were acting like stars in his presence.  He smiled ruefully at me and said,

     “...Hey Artie, lets jam a little Django to warm up.”

I have always been a facile player with nimble fingers and Tim knew that I was heavily influenced by the great Django Rheindhart, the gypsy guitarist who set the standard for acoustic jazz in the 1930’s in Europe.  We always had a spare acoustic guitar or two backstage to warm up on before a show.  The band of wanna-be “stars” paid no attention to Tim and I as we sat down with two acoustic steel string guitars and let rip a rapid version of “Sweet Georgia Brown”. 

The other band had no use for either of us.  They were busy putting on makeup and costumes.  This was the mid-seventies ladies and gentlemen and never before had Tim or I encountered such theatrics before a gig.  We were fascinated with their attitude and eagerly anticipated their performance.  They stomped onto the stage with boots which had ten inch heels and began their show.  Basically they were just another rock band.  Tim turned to the promoter while taking in the theatrics and asked,

 “...Who in the hell are these guys?” 

The promoter said with little enthusiasm,

     “...They call themselves ‘Kiss’ ...”. 

I was truly experiencing the dawning of a new era of showbiz musical extravaganza.

I also played electric viola with Tim as well as guitar.  Never a great fiddler, I had developed a few tricks on the instrument which offered a nice color of sound on certain tunes that broke up the constant guitar mania.

I remember the only time that Tim and I had a little personality conflict.  We were in Vancouver, Canada doing a nice gig in a theater and the opening act was a local singer songwriter who was passably talented but nothing to jump up and down over.  I was with the band and Tim in our dressing room while the young man took the stage.  Many dressing rooms, like this one, have speaker systems in the area so that the other artists can hear their competition.  As the kid began to pick and sing, Tim paused to listen to the speakers in the dressing room.  One minute into the first tune and Tim became the obnoxious instant critic.  He began to rant and rave,

      “...Boy does this guy suck, what in the hell is this fucking song about and don’t you think he could find another chord to break the monotony just a little?”  

       For some reason that night Tim’s reaction didn’t sit well with me.  Without saying a word, I picked up my viola and bow and said,

     “...Oh he’s not too bad, I think I’ll go and jam with him.” 

Tim gave me an incredulous look as I exited the green room and silently walked on stage standing in the dark and began to accompany the kid.  The performer didn’t know what to think but in true show business style, he just started to play and sing with more energy and I kept egging him on.  I didn’t play the whole set, just two or three tunes then I left and returned to the dressing room. Tim was way pissed but said nothing to me.  He didn’t have to; the look on his face told me everything.  I just stomped on his ego and he knew why I did it.  I think he knew that as far as I was concerned, he was just a little out of line.  After this incident, as a matter of fact, our show that night was truly memorable.  Tim sang and played his ass off and so did the band.  Maybe Tim remembered the days when he was just a little punk kid with a guitar in the folk houses in Greenwich Village in New York.  Anyway, that’s the way I’d like to think that it went.

Tim often had his family on the road, his wife “Moo” and his young son, Jeff.

I thought at the time that this seven year old kid was the spitting image of his dad.  Often, I would take his hand on a walk with the family, offering Tim and his wife a chance to talk privately on the street.  I often wondered if Jeff Buckley ever remembered the limping guitarist who taught him how to look at crossing signals on major thoroughfares.

Unfortunately the son and the father would suffer the same fate: early demise.

I won’t recount the death of Tim and its impact on my life; refer to the beginning preface for that info.  When I began this book I made a pact with myself to not tell the same tale over and over.

Once again, as with Clarence White, the world changed on a dime as another talented individual was in the wrong place at the wrong time. We will never know what would have happened if Tim had lived and we had recorded a new album. I was fortunate to have been close to him, worked with and for him and to have been able to hang out with him all over the planet, from LA to London.

He was truly a larger than life individual with a scathing wit, a cutting sense of humor and the capacity to predict and change musical trends in his culture.

The Titanic Violin

As the Titanic sank, the band famously played 'Nearer my God to thee' as it sunk.

And more than 100 years after the tragedy, the violin owned by the band leader has been confirmed as a survivor.

The instrument, which is cracked, water stained and only has two strings, is said to have belonged to Wallace Hartley, whose band continued to play – most famously, the hymn “Nearer, My God, To Thee” – as the ship filled with water.

It was thought the violin had been lost to the sea when Hartley and the rest of his band drowned along with 1,500 others on April 15, 1912.

But in 2006 an unnamed man found the instrument in a leather suitcase in the attic of his mother’s home.

Some experts doubted its authenticity, saying it could not have survived after being submerged in sea water. H
istorians, scientists and forensic experts, along with specialist Titanic auctioneers, Henry Aldridge and Son, and Hartley’s biographer, spent seven years examining it and researching the story behind it before declaring they were able to prove its authenticity “beyond reasonable doubt”.

They said Hartley had strapped it to his chest in a leather bag and it had been returned to his fiance, Maria
Wallace Hartley with his violin

Robinson, before being passed on to The Salvation Army.

From there it was given to a violin teacher, who in turn gave it to the seller’s mother, herself an amateur musician.

It was bought by an British collector of Titanic memorabilia at the sale in Devizes, Wiltshire on Saturday. When the buyer’s premium is added, the total paid was £1.1 million.

The previous record for a single piece of memorabilia from the Titanic was £220,000, which was paid in 2011 for a 32ft plan of the Titanic used in the inquiry into the sinking of the ship.

However the story of Hartley’s band is one of the most enduring of the disaster. Within minutes of the ship striking an iceberg, Hartley was instructed to assemble his musicians to play to maintain calm.

They performed on the boat deck while the passengers lined up for the lifeboats.

When Hartley’s body was recovered, the violin was not listed among the official inventory of items found in his possession. However a newspaper later reported that Hartley was found with it strapped to his body in his leather bag.

The research appears to suggest that it then either simply floated off in the Atlantic or was stolen by somebody involved with handling the bodies.

Whatever its initial fate, a transcript of a telegram dated July 19, 1912 in the diary of Miss Robinson, to the

Provincial Secretary of Nova Scotia, reveals it was eventually returned to her.

She states: “I would be most grateful if you could convey my heartfelt thanks to all who have made possible the return of my late fiance’s violin.”

She had given the instrument to Hartley in 1910 to mark their engagement and had it engraved accordingly.

Miss Robinson, who never married, kept the violin in the leather case as a shrine to her late fiancé until she died in 1939.

Her sister, Margaret then passed it on to Bridlington Salvation Army and told its leader, Major Renwick, about the instrument's association with Titanic.

The research shows Major Renwick in turn gave the valise to one of his members, a local music and violin teacher.

In the early 1940s, the seller’s mother was a member of the Womens’ Auxiliary Air Force stationed at Bridlington. She met the music teacher who later dispatched the valise and violin to her.

A covering letter which has been found stated: “Major Renwick thought I would be best placed to make use of the violin but I found it virtually unplayable, doubtless due to its eventful life.”

It remained there until its discovery seven years ago. It was then taken to the Government’s Forensic Science Service in Chepstow which concluded the corrosion deposits on it were "considered compatible with immersion in sea water".

An silver expert on the council for the Gemological Association of Great Britain studied the plate on the base of the violin and confirmed the plate was an original fixture on the violin and the engraving was contemporary with the hallmarks on the panel that were made in 1910. 

Reposted from the Telegraph 

Rockin’ for Jesus

Another aspect of the sideman is the need for change and the quality or curiousness that causes this change. Pat Boone was an established pop star dating back to his hits in the 1950’s such as “Love Letters in the Sand.” In the early 70’s he was crossing over into country and western pop/rock with a Christian. Was his music my cup of tea?  Not really, but in his back up band was my favorite drummer and good friend, mentioned earlier in this work, Bob Morin. Also, the conductor was one of the nation’s most highly regarded jazz pianists, Paul Smith.  Paul Smith was a musician’s musician.  He had incredible knowledge and a sumptuous technique in multiple styles as a perfect player.  He was also a good friend of my Mentor, Barney Kessel, how bad could it be?  And besides, it was 1971 and I felt like going on the road in style.

Pat was at the forefront of the new wave of Christian music stars and he was also a gentleman who had much respect for his sidemen.  Actually, I don’t think that Pat and the family had experienced someone as sedately outrageous as I was at the time.  Even in those days I was, and still am regarded as a quiet and reserved person.  I knew at the time that Pat was also caught up in the new-wave of new-born Christians and that his fan base was derived mostly from this sector of American society, particularly in the Mid-West, known to one and all as the “Bible belt”.   

By this time, after hanging around the spiritual-alchemist-jazzbo’ Lynn Blessing, I had begun to collect a library on similar subjects.  The field of “speculative philosophy” or more commonly called, the “Occult” had drawn my interest because it was historically documented as a portion of the sum total that shaped ancient and modern civilizations for centuries.  While touring, I often carried several rare volumes with me on the road. 

Pat and the family, including the musicians, often traveled by tour bus after arriving at a major airport of destination.  During these excursions I constantly felt a silent curiosity about my literary preferences.  In those days I wore a long English Bobbies’ cape in black and would quietly read Eliphas Levi’s books as we were cruising through Iowa.  Always a classy guy, Pat never once confronted me about my philosophical/religious persuasion.  Pat was also extremely tolerant concerning the off-hours habits of his musicians.

I didn’t often drink but one night in New Orleans while we were performing at the Fairmont Hotel, I arrived very late in the morning after making the rounds of several clubs in the French Quarter, sitting in with local players and hoisting a few toddies.  I was so shitfaced when I arrived back at the Fairmont, that I pushed the wrong button on the elevator, exited on the wrong floor and passed out.  As it so happens, Pat and the family returned late themselves from a long dinner engagement just outside New Orleans and when they got out of the elevator yours truly greeted them passed out cold, face down on the luxurious carpet.  Somehow, someone gathered me up and got me to my room.  Pat never said a word—real class again!    

The gig also gave me the chance to play some fiddle and mandolin which normally I didn’t perform live, just on recording sessions.  One afternoon at rehearsal, Pat heard me fooling around with the mandolin playing some real fast bluegrass style piece and he asked me if I wouldn’t mind doing that number in the middle of his show for a few minutes.  I complied but asked him why?  He replied, “…well, it will wake up my audience!”  Pat always knew who he was.

The fact is that Paul Horn and Pat Boone had the same problem. Both stars suffered on the road for their beliefs: Paul for his dedication to Transcendental Meditation, and Pat for his Christian enthusiasm.  When you are the center of attention, it is very difficult to not succumb to the idea of gathering your flock around you and passing on the word.  Often, during shows with both artists, they would preach to the audience and try to convert them to their thinking.

I believe to this day that both individuals were trying to do “good”, but when you combine show business and philosophical/religious sermonizing it can work against you. 

In Pat’s case I remember one night after a show in the Mid-West that he was greeted by an entourage of wheel chair victims backstage, all of whom were seeking his “healing” powers.  Pat was freaked out by this event and escaped rapidly to his dressing room, slamming the door. 

Paul Horn had a similar occurrence when he stopped in the middle of a concert at Queen Victoria hall in Vancouver Canada and began to tell people how TM had changed his life.  The audience was patient for about two minutes and then someone yelled out

     “...Ya, ya, how about some music, that’s what we’ve paid for!”

The rest of the audience applauded loudly to this comment. 

This demonstrates another advantage to being a “Sideman”. You get to experience the thrill of performance and the applause that goes with it, but when the show is over, generally, no one backstage wants to see you or even knows who the hell you are: the bliss of anonymity.

I toured for six months or so with Pat Boone and the family.  His wife Shirley, daughter of Grand Ole Opry star and song writer, Red Foley, along with their three daughters, shared the spotlight and their vocal talents each show along with Pat. 

As I write these concluding remarks to this chapter, I’m starting to chuckle. My vow at the beginning of this book was to “play down” the obvious encounters with sex and drugs for any touring or recording musician.  This promise, is somewhat inhibiting the flow of the text at this moment.

If the truth be told, and I made that promise also, then it is necessary to disclose to the reader the fact that my time on the road with one of the most “squeaky clean” Christian country stars, was for me, one of the most, if not the most outrageous experiences of my musical career. 

The rhythm section at one time included, on my recommendation, Marc McClure and Bill Plummer, fellow members of the band, “Gas Food and Lodging.” With Bobby Morin on drums we offered Pat Boone and company a pumpin’ and bumpin’ dyed-in-the-wool country band, and Pat was always appreciative of our nightly efforts on his behalf. I think to this day, that Pat was aware of our outrageous collective life-styles, both before and after concerts but he never reprimanded, or for that matter, even indicated any knowledge of our depraved activities.

It would have been impossible for him to be unaware of our shenanigans. As previously mentioned, there was the time he nearly tripped over my passed out body, as he exited the elevator of the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans with the family. Then there was the concert in Florida for over two thousand senior citizens. For some unknown reason, I felt compelled to ingest a small portion of “Sunshine” acid (LSD) before the performance. I am sure that Pat must have suspected something was amiss when my three minute, extremely fast Blue-Grass mandolin solo feature in the middle of the show, lasted nearly twenty minutes, with me laughing hysterically the entire time.

Other events could be mentioned, but for the sake of the children in the audience, as well as my initial insistence to keep the content of this book flowing in a certain direction, I feel that it is fitting to close this chapter with these final words.

Appearances can truly be deceiving, and beneath the most innocent of exteriors one may encounter a fertile seed-ground of mischief.  What may be interpreted as disgusting for some is just plain fun for others. Have a nice day and God bless!