“If this record doesn’t sell a million copies I quit the business.”
T-Bone Burnett was addressing the visitors to the control room of studio B at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, on a distorted radio shack bullhorn.
It was early Spring 1986, and we were listening to a playback of my first, self-titled solo album, a collection of songs and music that was considered a big departure. The material had begun the journey to vinyl two years before and run into a gauntlet of trouble and interference. Though I’d spent the previous ten years playing in some “perfectly good rock n roll bands,” I was hearing music in a whole new way. It was a personal, musical, and spiritual upheaval.
“Unraveling the mysteries of music.” That’s how I expressed it— “the quest for musical fire,“ after a popular caveman movie that was exhibiting around then. I’d travelled back and forth across the country a lot by this point touring in the bands. More recently I’d been delivering some cars for an agency in LA, making the fast and vast transcontinental drives, and the songs were coming during those jaunts. And I was praying on my knees a couple times a day.
One day, a wag asked in my direction, “What’s the one word that describes your life?”
And I said, “Nevertheless.”
The stories started to happen: On Sunset Boulevard one long afternoon, at the counter in Ben Frank’s, I was killing time, drinking black coffee, chain-smoking Camels, and doing a newspaper crossword puzzle when the lines came in on the ether: “Out past the cemetery down by the willow bend…” I wrote them in the margins of the page.
The lyrics began pouring out faster than I could write. It took shape before I even had time to figure out what it was. I paid my check, left a tip at the counter, picked up the newspaper, still scribbling as the words hit, and made my way across the parking lot to my car, then across the town to my pad.
The tune was nearly complete as I pulled in front of my place. I double-stepped to my front door, opened the lock and got in, grabbed the Hummingbird guitar laying on the couch, spread the scribbled-on Times out in front of me, and sang. “Walk In The Woods” was done in five more minutes. I’d never played anything like it before. It didn’t necessarily sound like a chart hit, but as a song it was undeniable. I felt like I’d broken a code. The arrangement was all there even if I played it solo, and it became the basis for everything I was going to do for a long time.
I kept writing in all sorts of situations, and finally the record was coming together. We went into the studio in early 1985.
Jerry Marotta, was crazy-eyed intense, big, bushy-headed and wired to go, able to turn a four-four beat inside out at the drop of the one, and fascinated with torturing his Linn Drum machine beyond any reasonable limits: He’d open it up with a screwdriver, get into its inner workings and scramble, putting the snare drum chip where the cymbal was supposed to be, the triangle into the kick drum, getting it ringing on all the off-beats, until the groove would be so contorted it was hard to even tell where the “one “ was. Very refreshing.
I demonstrated to Marotta my lick for “Three Days Straight” and he came up with an insane driving groove on the Linn, then the two of us went into the main room at Sunset Sound and recorded the song, with Jerry playing the full drum kit along to the Linn, really rocking it, while I played and sang. The playback blew us away. His brother Rick Marotta, popped in to visit, listened to a minute of the tortured Linn drum part, the manic groove all tied in knots, and said, “I’m telling Mom!” That’s Victoria Williams on harmony with me, and Warren “Tornado” Klein on tamboura. That instrument always makes a profound effect wherever its placed. After this session we snuck into the tape locker, and for laughs, overdubbed tamboura on all of the tracks on Marshall Crenshaw’s soon to be mixed new album. It sounded great but I don’t think he used any of it.
“Small Town Spree” was an intimate solo recording that Van Dyke Parks came in and transformed, writing and conducting the string arrangement. I got to hear my harmonica solo in front of a string quartet. Thanks, Van Dyke!
Mike Campbell came in brandishing a giant swordscape of twang over another song finalized on caffeine at the Ben Frank’s counter, back before coffee was delivered by a Brinks truck. “Satellite Beach” was composed on one of those cross-country drive-away trips that ended at a vacant motel over-looking Cape Kennedy. Challenger was on the launching pad.
Jim Keltner I’d met a party, and invited to the studio the next day. “Pair Of Brown Eyes” is the result. Elvis Costello had sung the song for me during a party one night in T-Bone’s room at the Le Mondrian Hotel, and then asked permission from the Pogues for me to record it, as their version wasn’t out yet. Besides Keltner, the band on this track is Van Dyke Parks on organ, T-Bone on acoustic guitar, David Miner on bass, and Roger McGuinn on the Rickenbacker 12-string.
Keltner also played the huge sounding drum kit on “Old Blue Car,” at Capitol Studios, with Fred Tackett on guitar, and Jerry Scheff on bass. Someone produced a case of beer, put it out into the middle of the studio floor, and the producer kind of danced around it, conducting while the rest of us played. That’s a live take. Steve Berlin commented with a laugh, “Guess you don’t care if you get any harmonica sessions.”
T-Bone himself may possibly be the Sergeant Bilko of rock ‘n’ roll. Who else would convert the control room into a gamblers paradise where we watched the horse tracks at Hollywood Park & Santa Ana on retractable screens with the bookie on the phone line too? Who else but a Bilko would covert the faders on a Neve soundboard so it become a roulette wheel, with all of us laying bets, until the instant the Geffen A & R staff showed up at the door and all this madness disappeared with a wave and a blink. “Yes sir, no sir, of course, of course” was the code in the moment, but the second they departed the screens appeared, and it was back to the races.
It was the last night of recording and all through the studio no one was stirring their drinks; they were pouring ‘em down like they were trying to put out a fire. Or maybe it was just me. I’m not sure. I do know Mr. Burnett’s pal Sam Waterston was out in the studio, positioned on a microphone, orating in a very sonorous voice, over the track of “Satellite Beach.” God knows what kind of a text, it was T’s idea. It seemed absurd and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Pray For Rain
In Los Angeles every day’s brilliant & blue
The sun shining brighter than a worn out shoe
Hands on an old piano—pen to a sheet
Awaiting the lyric that sails down the street
Tea when you’re thirsty—booze in the fridge
Power in numbers but I ain’t got the didge
Where’d everyone go? the bands disappeared
Premature start on that old age they feared
Curly, Larry & the Edge had the top down today
Nobody’s walking on Malibu Bay
Who am I kidding—as I nervously jink?
Throw down the empties & scour the sink
I hadn’t yet realized what’s known to be true:
The best way to get’ em’s when they comin’ at you
I was stirring the pot tossing cards in a hat
Air unpredictable—had it down pat
& some that show up aren’t the ones you expect
But you take down the message long distance collect
SO—the record company sat on it for nine months, and it seemed at one point it would never be released. We said “well some artists just hang their paintings in their own yards” which was comforting and depressing both. And it seemed like that would be it, but…
Nevertheless! It came out. T-Bone never quit the business but the record found its audience, and I still sing these songs whenever I perform on the road. People are always telling me about the impact the record had on them, and thirty years later I’m still proud of every cut.
Always remember, your giants have thick, tough skin.
Now let’s see you do it![ BTW this CD is available from Omnivore Recordings, remastered with many groovy bonus tracks from the sessions, and new photos by Greg Allen]