“After David Lindley passed away on March 3, newspapers and websites around the world published obituaries and appreciations, many clearly expressing why Lindley was one of the most-respected and beloved instrumentalists of the last half-century. Other writers, though, had likely never heard his music before they were tasked with writing about the “noted sideman.”
Along with all the reasons Lindley’s untimely death is to be regretted is that he – a man who relished life’s absurdities – probably would have loved seeing the headline of a syndicated obit that called him the “Godfather of soft rock.”
1970s soft rock was a fully formed gelatinous mass before Lindley ever assayed the medium, and the author of that headline might have been surprised to hear Lindley’s first foray, on Jackson Browne’s 1973 For Everyman album. From the ferocious, careening steel guitar driving “Redneck Friend” off the pavement, to the sky-piercing lament of his solo on “These Days,” there is nothing soft about the emotional jolt Lindley added to the proceedings.
That’s something he did for the next 50 years, pouring his astonishing musical skills and naked emotion into every project, whether with some of the biggest names in popular music or players barely known outside their villages in Madagascar, Kazakhstan, or rural Norway. And whether playing for packed arenas or 50-seat clubs, it was always pure, unadulterated Lindley, in the most outlandish polyester pants ever made.
David Perry Lindley was born March 21, 1944, into the family of homemaker Margaret (Wells) Lindley and lawyer John Lindley. Growing up in San Marino, California, next to the not-so-old money town of Pasadena, young Dave was interested in sports and academics, but mainly in his dad’s large record collection of music from around the world.
His dad also had a baritone ukulele, which Lindley adopted, then moved on to flamenco guitar. When he was in high school – a private college-prep in Pasadena – the ’50s folk boom steered him to bluegrass and the five-string banjo, upon which he’d practice for hours a day. He later said this caused his parents some regret because, with all the music in the world to choose from, their son had elected to play “hillbilly music.”
In 1961, a 17-year-old Lindley entered the First Annual Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest. Contrary to the often-told story (though still testament to his woodshedding), he won third place on banjo. It was the four years following that he won first place and was elevated to judge so that others might have a chance.
That summer he also formed his first bluegrass band, The Mad Mountain Ramblers. In 1963 and ’64, they performed dozens of times at Disneyland, sometimes in multi-act hootenannies in Tomorrowland, but usually dressed in western garb in Frontierland. Steve Martin and John McEuen were also working in the park at the time, and during breaks would take banjo lessons from Lindley.
Lindley, meanwhile, continued with his own education, frequenting L.A.’s Ash Grove alongside other roots music acolytes such as Ry Cooder and Michael “Hollywood Fats” Mann to hear the originators of the blues, country, R&B and other styles they were absorbing. Lindley and Cooder, of course, went on in future decades to do a number of soundtracks, concerts and sundry projects together.
Hearing the call of rock and roll, in ’66, Lindley formed the band Kaleidoscope, though it was scarcely anyone else’s idea of a rock band. With Lindley on harp guitar, a Gibson SG, amplified fiddle, and other instruments, the group plied its polyrhythmic mix of rock, Middle Eastern, and other styles at the Fillmores and other fabled hippie venues. When Jimmy Page was touring with the Yardbirds in ’68, he saw Kaleidoscope perform at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom, and eight years later was still raving about them, in one interview exclaiming, “They’re my favorite band of all time – my ideal band, absolutely brilliant.”
Evidently, few in Kaleidoscope saw things that way. The group endured infighting and numerous member changes, and bandleader Lindley himself quit in early 1970.
Along with leaving behind four albums on the Epic label, Lindley and members of the group also provided the atmospheric backing on Leonard Cohen’s debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen.
In ’69, Lindley played the doleful, keening violin that set the mood on the Youngbloods’ “Darkness, Darkness.”
Not long after leaving Kaleidoscope, he and his wife and young daughter moved to England for two years so Lindley could record and perform with singer Terry Reid. One notable gig they played was Mick and Bianca Jagger’s legendary 1971 St. Tropez wedding.
When Lindley and brood returned to Southern California, he reconnected with Jackson Browne, having once sat in with him at the Troubadour. Browne had an album out that was getting attention, and he invited Lindley to accompany him on tour during which the two clicked so profoundly that Lindley was booked to play on Browne’s second album.
During his time in England, Lindley concentrated on mastering the steel guitar, with his main influence being the Bay Area blues-steel master Freddie Roulette.
On For Everyman, Lindley was clearly hitting his prime. The album did not want for famous names in the credits, which included Elton John, David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, and Bonnie Raitt, but many listeners checked the credits to see who on earth was playing the overdriven steel guitar blasting out of their car radios like nothing ever heard before in popular music.
Lindley remained Browne’s right-hand man through the ’70s, but he had enough spare hands to add his magic to many other artists’ works, including Linda Ronstadt, David Crosby and Graham Nash, James Taylor, Warren Zevon, and Bruce Springsteen.
Lindley made a major career shift in 1980. When recording “That Girl Could Sing” for Browne’s Hold Out album, Lindley became fixated on playing his solo through a combination of pedals that made his steel sound, as he described it, “like a sick seal,” The result was sufficiently bizarre (Browne used only a portion of the solo on the finished song) that Lindley and Browne both later said they realized it was high time for Lindley to start his own band.
In ’81, Lindley released his first album, El Rayo-X, produced by Browne. The antithesis of “soft rock,” it was a propulsive, soaring array of reggae, Middle Eastern modalities, New Orleans R&B, cajun music, and its R&B cousin, zydeco. And live, his band (also called El Rayo-X) was an unstoppable dance machine. Lindley referred to it as “a party band,” but it was a musician’s musicians party band. Along with reimagined oldies, they did several of the mysterious songwriter Bob “Frizz” Fuller’s surreal slices of California life. And, above it all, there were Lindley’s soaring, extended solos, unfettered by the constraints of performing on some other bandleader’s clock.
There are reasons why side musicians are side musicians, one being that many freeze in the spotlight. Lindley instead adopted his full Mr. Dave persona, garbing himself in eye-affronting polyester clothes and speaking between songs in a Jamaican patois or a variety of celebrity voice impersonations, ranging from Jimmy Stewart to Sean Connery.
Along with surrounding himself with intuitive, empathetic band members, he had his armada of instruments to flank him. It’s worth taking a detour here to discuss his pioneering ways with musical gear, since he pursued the tones of his music nearly as assiduously as he did his technique.
When playing in England with Reid, he gravitated to the sound of the then-out-of-favor Vox AC30. Once back in L.A., he found he didn’t like the way AC30s responded to 110 volts, but their Vox-branded Alnico Celestion speakers found another use.
Few people in the early ’70s were championing the tweed Fender Deluxe, either, but a Deluxe (recovered in vinyl snakeskin) with a blue Vox speaker became his studio amp for years.
For gigging, he settled on a pre-CBS Bassman head atop a cab with two Celestions. When he met the then unknown Alexander “Howard” Dumble, they began a long conversation that resulted in Dumble attuning the Bassman to the sounds Lindley described to him. They subsequently went through a similar process when Dumble was developing the Steel String Singer and Overdrive Special amps. It was Lindley who then introduced Stevie Ray Vaughan and other guitarists to the brand.
Lindley used a number of lap and console steel guitars, most famously playing a wide-magnet, Bakelite Rickenbacker on “Running on Empty.” In part because Freddie Roulette played a National, those Valco-made steels were his choice most often, particularly with El Rayo-X.
As for standard electric guitars, Lindley went though his share of vintage Telecasters and others craved by mere mortals. By El Rayo-X, he was into budget or unloved guitars, primarily Danelectro-made Silvertones, “resoglass” Nationals, and Japanese Teiscos.
On the acoustic side, Lindley’s use of Weissenborn lap steels single-handedly elevated the hollow-necked koa wonders from $35 flea market curiosities to coveted, multi-thousand-dollar collectibles.
The expenses and wear and tear of being a bandleader eventually got to Lindley, as did record company accounting processes that never showed his recordings turning a profit, despite his hemi-powered version of K.C. Douglas’ “Mercury Blues” being a Top 40 hit. So he put El Rayo-X up on blocks and became a DIY pioneer, releasing his own albums and selling them at shows or by mail.
In ’93, he told the Los Angeles Times that being tethered to record companies made him feel like a performing chimpanzee, and that “the chimp’s got to get the banana!”
Toward that end, in ’94 he released David Lindley + Hani Naser Live in Tokyo, Playing Real Good, on his own Pleemhead label. The album set the template for his live shows and albums for years to come; Lindley with his Weissenborn Hawaiian-style slide guitars and an international array of other stringed instruments, accompanied by hand drummers Hani Naser or Wally Ingram.
And the chimp got the banana. Lindley told The Times, “I’ve made more off of this CD in the first two weeks than I did in five years on Elektra/Asylum. That tells you something.”
He continued to do studio work, backing artists ranging from Dolly Parton to Iggy pop, and embarked on musical adventures with old friend Ry Cooder and with avant-garde guitarist Henry Kaiser.
For a “Cooder-Lindley Family” European tour Lindley said was one of the most-satisfying musical experiences of his life, he enlisted his vocalist daughter, Roseanne, along with Cooder and his percussionist son, Joaquin.
He was similarly pleased with his sojourn to Madagascar with Kaiser to record with local musicians. They came back with three albums’ worth of material – A World Out of Time, volumes one through three. Like other Lindley projects, he made combining disparate cultures seem as natural as breathing. One example was he and Kaiser performing Merle Haggard’s “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” with locals. He described the result as “a Malagasy-reggae-Lindley kind of thing, with a solo in it that sounds like Paraguayan harp music. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever been on.”
For a decided change of climate, in 1994, Kaiser and Lindley traveled to Norway to record The Sweet Sunny North with an array of musicians and singers.
Though it wasn’t recorded, Lindley also went to a music festival in Kazakhstan, where he spent days playing with musicians from there and neighboring nations, while, he said, drinking entirely too much fermented mare’s milk.
As is the case with many musicians, Lindley began to experience hearing loss, to the point where even working with drummers was too much for his ears (for the same reason, he gave up competitive target shooting and took up archery instead). Noise-cancelling in-ear monitors eventually enabled him to do shows with Browne and others.
The last couple of decades of his life could be called his troubadour years, with him driving himself across the country and performing solo. He often traveled with as many as eight instruments – a Turkish saz, three Weissenborn-styled Hawaiians, two bouzoukis, an oud, and a Guild guitar.
His high-pitched, nasal-toned singing voice was unique, sounding a little like Ira Louvin, if Louvin had been a large Martian insect. But his solo shows revealed what an expressive tool it was, illuminating the sense of loss and disillusion in songs like Greg Copeland’s “Revenge Will Come,” Springsteen’s “Brothers Under the Bridge” and Warren Zevon’s “The Indifference of Heaven.”
His own songs were often comical slices of his life – literal slices in his song “Cat Food Sandwiches,” about the perils of backstage fare. Another song was about his affection for Excedrin, while the John Lee Hooker-styled (but on an oud) “When a Guy Gets Boobs” addressed male ageing.
Lindley caught Covid in the midst of the pandemic (he claimed he got it from the family cat), and it turned into long Covid that oppressed him for more than a year. After having gone without gigs for much of the pandemic lockdown, once the live music scene began to pick up, recurrences of Covid symptoms caused him to cancel most of the shows he’d scheduled.
There was little information, however, on just how ill Lindley was. When his death at the age of 78 was announced March 3, it came as a shock to the music world. With the dedication and inquisitiveness he brought to his art, and to life in general, it was easy to imagine him performing well into his 90s, like Segovia and Pablo Casals.
The week after he passed, his family issued a statement.
“David Lindley passed away on Friday… in Pomona, California, where he was in hospice care for a short time. He is survived by his wife Joanie and daughter Rosanne. He had been hospitalized several times over a period of three months, first with double pneumonia, then with acute vasculitis.
“We are devastated by the loss of our beloved David. He was a brilliant man – a true genius. He was reclusive and preferred playing his instruments to most social interaction. Nonetheless, he was kind and generous to those who approached him, whether by e-mail, or on the street, or even at a show. He was kind to everybody. We are heartened by the outpouring of love and condolences we have received from people near and far.
“From the flowers left on our porch by people we don’t know, to the e-mails and texts from those he played with all over the world, David touched so many people.”
Tales of the Master Weaver
Friends pay homage to David Lindley
David, the Archangel Of Strings. I wish I could recall the first recording I heard him playing on decades ago – probably “Running On Empty,” but whatever it was set off a bomb in my heart and completely changed the landscape of both acoustic and electric slide guitar for me.
He created such brilliant melodies and the “in-betweens” – those little musical phrases and rhythms, and it all defined the songs. I could hear the same song a hundred times, but his playing would still make me stop and listen because I’d wait for his solo, or some soaring-over-the-cliff ending, no matter which instrument he played. I know I’m not the only person who went into fierce search mode for a Weissenborn after hearing his ethereal slide solo on “To Know Him Is To Love Him,” from Trio, with Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris.
I got to see him play live in 2008, when I was living in Austin. He’d often come through on a solo tour and I’d miss him every time until I cancelled a gig so I could catch him at the Cactus Cafe, a great little club on the UT campus. It was a dream finally fulfilled, topped off by meeting him afterward and having some laughs and gear-geek talk. He was inspirational and educational, a one of a kind gift to us that will keep on giving. – Cindy Cashdollar
If you like roller coasters – and I bet you do – then you already know something of what it was like to play music with David Lindley. The attendant slams the restraining bar down, shouting, “Hang on! No standing!” and off you go. “Wooly Bully,” “Mercury Blues,” or whatever; David locked instantly and never even budged. You had to hang on! Was it something to do with his early years playing bluegrass banjo? But let me emphasize – I will remember him not only as a roller-coaster man, but as a very sweet man, and kindly. He once gave me a Teisco gold-foil guitar pickup and said it might solve my problem with electric guitar. And the extra-wide Fender Strat C neck, which might improve my clumsy fingering. It was all very casual – indispensable, as it turned out.
We did some recording. American folk music for movies by Walter Hill and Louis Malle, featuring exotic instruments that pushed cowboys and Indians into undesignated territory; the Okinawan-tinged “Battle Cry Of Freedom,” for Walter’s The Long Riders, my personal favorite.
We traveled, we played some shows. David usually had a character going – a laconic Jimmy Stewart, a hunched-over Japanese rice farmer. Airplane hostesses got happy, I actually had a good time. Looking back now, I see that we might have started a bluegrass band, a bold concept in the ’80s, and prospered in a modest but satisfying way. I wish to Christ we had. – Ry Cooder
David practiced a minimum of six hours a day every day. He was a film buff, a superior marksman, and one of only a few true mystics I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing well. He spoke in a language from another time both ancient and futuristic, aristocratic and folkloric. In casual conversation he would reference Malagasy music, Doc Boggs, Jimmy Stewart, Bruce Lee, Alnico pickups, the Roland Jazz Chorus, and Howard Dumble in the same sentence, seamlessly.
As a 10-year-old in his living room, a 20-year-old in my family’s music shop, or watching him in concert, every time I saw David play, I sat spellbound in disbelief. What Jimi Hendrix is to electric guitar, David Lindley is to lap-steel guitar. – Ben Harper
Lindley was an amazing human treasure of creative musical mastery in many dimensions, and on many instruments. Back in the early ’90s, we traveled together to Madagascar and Norway to record a half-dozen albums with the musical-roots giants of those countries. One of my favorite things about our adventures there was sharing Lindley with the master musicians of those countries. One note and a smile from David and they instantly recognized his genius, as well as his big, fun sense of musical wisdom. He was the best musician I have ever played with. – Henry Kaiser
I first heard David when I saw the Kaleidoscope album in a local store, then on the radio hits with Jackson Browne. I moved to Colorado in the ’70s, and was snowed in one winter; I listened to a lot of albums, and For Everyman and especially Late for the Sky really struck me. I was already a big Ry Cooder fan, and Lindley with his lap steel was just a whole different thing. It opened a pathway for me; I had my techniques and concepts, but I didn’t have a clue about developing my own sound. When I heard “Farther On,” I thought, “Oh, man…” Jackson’s melodic vocal lines drew me in and Lindley, the master weaver going in and out between lyrics, was mesmerizing. His tone and phrasing were just amazing, especially on a lap steel.
In the ’80s, I got the gig with John Hiatt, and we were on our first tour in the U.S. – cross-country in a van. We had a night off in Boston, and I heard that David and El Rayo-X were playing at a bar in town. I told the guys, “I’ve got to get there,” so me, (bassist) Dave Ranson, and (drummer) Kenneth Blevins went to the show, and it just blew me away – Lindley with his Dumble and that stellar rhythm section. I had no idea what a great singer he was, but after that I thought, “I’ve got to figure this out.”
In the summer of ’88, we recorded Slow Turning, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that John originally recorded demo tracks for the album with Lindley, John Doe on bass, and David Mattacks on drums because producer John Chelew had done John’s Bring the Family album with Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner, and Nick Lowe, and was trying to make lightning strike twice. But for whatever reason, John wasn’t happy with the demos – he didn’t like his voice on them. So he told the label, “I have a band, and I want to go back to Nashville and record the album with them.” They got Glyn Johns and Bernie Leadon involved; Glyn wanted the antithesis of Bring the Family, and what David and the guys had done was more-rocking. Management sent us cassettes of the songs to learn, so there I was, listening to Lindley’s playing – he was getting a complex distortion where you could hear the notes kind of sink, then bounce. He was using his amp’s power tubes in a way that created phrasing like a horn player. I was thinking, “Well, what the hell am I going to do to top this?” (laughs). But we went in that May and June and got it done, and the sessions helped me focus more on my tone.
Right after that, I was at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and so was Lindley. He called and invited me to breakfast, where we met for the first time. I told him, “I’ve got something to ask you…” He said, “What’s that?” and I said, “I kind of stole your lick on ‘Slow Turning.’” He goes, “Great,” so I asked him for his blessing and he said, “Absolutely, man. Have at it!” I also told him about seeing the El Rayo-X show in Boston and asked, “How did you get that tone?” He said, “Oh, I just turned up to 10.” (laughs) He had a 50-watt Dumble, so I was all about getting one. But he discouraged me. He said, “No, man, they’re too complicated, too expensive.” His other guitar player at the time, Ray Woodbury, had a Demeter, and David said, “You want this amp.” So I called Jim Demeter and we became fast friends; I got one of his amps and I’ve used one or more of three I have on at least 80 percent of everything I’ve done in the studio since.
The beautiful thing about David was how he shared his gift and sense of humor both onstage and in workshops. I did a whole lot of marveling at his skill set, his sound, his interpretation of music, and the songs he wrote. But we also just laughed a lot. You were in for both with him. – Sonny Landreth
I was truly saddened by the news of the passing of David. He was a true original and I treasure the memory of the times we played together. We met up many times over the years, but working on the Trio album certainly stands out. The last time we saw each other was at a video interview regarding the aforementioned sessions. He’d recorded his portion of the interview and purposely hung around to say hello to me. I shall always remember that. – Albert Lee
David Lindley – who to his friends was called “Skrang” – was absolutely a musician’s musician. He could play anything with strings on it, and did so repeatedly. He will be sorely missed as a friend and I will always remember his expert playing on so many records with [David] Crosby and me over the years. – Graham Nash
In 1974, I went to see Linda Ronstadt in New Haven, Connecticut. She was great, but there was this guy playing guitar in her band who I couldn’t stop watching from the first moment he came onstage. David Lindley. Everything he played was perfect. His command of the instrument and the music, while still wholly supporting Linda and her singing, had a deep effect on me. I went home that night and put my guitars away. It was the only time in my life I ever considered giving up playing. It took about 10 days before I could get back to it. Years later, he cracked up when I told him about that. “Yeah,” he said. “I know what you mean.”
David’s legendary mastery of anything with strings on it is well-known. I once called him and asked what he was up to. He told me he was warming up on the oud… for three hours! After that he would be ready to practice for another four or five. That’s why he was so good. He worked for it.
The Lindley sense of humor was also legendary. The clothes, of course. I think he could have easily been a stand-up comedian. He found nearly everything funny. He would sign his e-mails “Lintfree.”
David Lindley was profoundly influential on modern guitar playing, either directly or in the sense that the players who inspire you were inspired by him. He reinvented lap steel. Like the song says, “Everybody got to go,” but I’m really going to miss Professor Lintfree. – G.E. Smith
I toured the U.S. with David as his “oud wrangler” – pronounced “roadie” – in 2006, 2011, and 2012. It was always a learning experience, and I particularly enjoyed his insights on road food and polyester care.
Some venues have organic fare and fabulous chefs; some only have days-old, room-temperature chicken wings. By Lindley’s reasoning, unless he knew and trusted the venue, he didn’t show up hungry, lest he ate and, as he warned in “Cat Food Sandwiches,” “I commence to squirt…”
Lindley’s favorite road stop was Cracker Barrel because it was predictable and the coffee was good. But when there were hundreds of miles of road ahead with no guarantee of seeing another, he’d consume truck-stop swill, explaining, “We’re in survival mode. You don’t hope something better shows up; you kill the first thing you see, and eat it.”
Most loudly-colored polyester clothing didn’t outlast the disco era that spawned it. Blame washing machines. Lindley would wash his garish slacks in motel sinks with a bar of soap, and that apparently worked.
On his 2012 tour, a fan showed up at a gig in Indianapolis, showing off an old 8″ x 10″ of Lindley and John Hammond standing in a muddy field at some festival 35 years earlier, where Lindley had been wearing a particularly horrid pair of orange polyester slacks. Everyone in the dressing room did a double take, looking from the photo to Lindley, because he was wearing the exact same pair of pants. – Jim Washburn
David Lindley was one of a kind. I was so excited the first time I met and had a chance to play with him at a NAMM show in the early ’80s. We always stayed in touch, and I was so honored he played on my Slide Guitar Summit album. He was so eloquent, and also, funny. It took all of two minutes for he and I to run through the song we were going to do that night in front of a packed house at the Iridium in New York City; we played “Her Mind is Gone,” by Professor Longhair, which was Dave’s choice, and he hit the nail on the head. And so giving, he was; every time I took a solo, he’d say into the mic, “Do it again, do it again.” Then, after the song was done, he insisted we do the whole song again! His Weissenborn just filled the room with power and eloquence.
David was the consummate professional, and did it all in a relaxed and incredibly humorous way. He was always a joy to be with and play with – he could master anything that had strings, but did it all in a humble and giving way. We loved to talk about all the pawn-shop instruments we acquired.
His tone, attack, and phrasing was without peer, and he’d elevate anyone he played with. It was such a joy to record and perform with him, and he was truly one of the all-time greats. He will be sorely missed by me and anyone who’s ever been touched by his music. – Arlen Roth
When I first heard David Lindley’s solo on Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty,” it blew me away. Each note was as big as an elephant! The tone was so huge I had to find out what he was playing through – a Dumble amp – and he was so melodic and took you on a journey. As a musician always in search of the “big note,” David had it in spades! – Jim Weider
This article originally appeared in VG’s May 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.