Are we sure he was even human?
I’ve hung out with David Lindley half a dozen times, I’ve heard all the music, I’ve driven him around Seattle in my car, I’ve seen his home in Claremont, California, and I’ve talked endlessly to the musicians who knew him (and worshiped him). I still don’t know the exact answer to this question.
It is inexplicable how one man can be a virtuoso in so many things. how did he do that? How could he make the lap steel—generally not exactly the most tonally diverse instrument—stand out so that you can spot a ’70s Lindley solo in a matter of seconds? The 1966 Kaleidoscope album? El Rayo X? His creepy Jimmy Stewart impersonation? “Tiki Torches at Dusk?” The Unique Fashion Sensitivity? Was there anything he couldn’t do? It’s otherworldly.
This much we know: He was born in San Marino, California. There was a large record collection, a piano and a ukulele in the house. Lindley picked up the fiddle, then played the baritone ukulele, and then, sometime around high school, a five-string banjo. In one of his best interviews, he told Steve Dawson on the Music Makers and Soul Shakers Podcast the full chronology of how he got the Pete Seeger book, how his uncle, The Finally, Ricardo Montalbán (!!!) gave him his first guitar.
The logging details we may never know (in the comic version of our hero’s life, this would be a convenient place for the radioactive asteroid to land, giving it infuriating instrument superpowers). Next thing we hear he’s winning the annual Topanga Canyon banjo contest so many times (five) that they just threw their hands in the air and made him the judge. It’s all stunning: Lindley was just a teenager and already had his 10,000 hours on more than one instrument under his belt. How did The happen?
“I won at three-finger bluegrass picking and then traditional – separate divisions. And then they finally said to me, “Lindley, don’t come in anymore!” So they made me the judge. And I said, “You mean I’m supposed to judge people’s musical worth?” And they said, “Yes, you can do that.” – Lindley to Ben Harper, Fretboard Journal 11
If we accept that he was from this planet, we can also agree that he was a by-product of Southern California’s unique melting pot of the 1960’s. There were venues like Ash Grove, Troubadour and Cat’s Pajama’s, music stores like Claremont’s Folk Music Center and Pasadena’s Barry and Grasmick’s to visit, there were luthiers working on all sorts of instruments in East LA (not to mention from the bigger CA-based movers like Fender and Standel) and musicians Clarence and Roland White alongside all the touring blues and folk acts and talented young colleagues… Lindley got it soaked all In.
There was also Disneyland.
The one time I was interviewing Steve Martin for our 30th issue, I broke the ice by talking about Lindley. Both worked at Disneyland. Despite being just a year older than Martin, Lindley was already a virtuoso, playing banjo and fiddle for the Mad Mountain Ramblers at the theme park’s Frontierland. “I used to work at Fantasyland and the girl who worked there liked to visit a friend,” Martin told me. “So we made a deal where I could take a 15 minute break and watch the Mad Mountain Ramblers and then she could visit her boyfriend. It was fantastic. David Lindley staggered on the five-string banjo.
“He used to stand on tiptoe while playing,” he added. “I copied that for several years. There’s this old record I found the other day where he plays ‘Clinch Mountain Backstep’. And he still has a little bit of the avant-garde thing going on, even then.”
Avant-garde. That’s a pretty great summary of Mr. Dave in general. From those early banjo moments (at least two of his pure bluegrass banjo tracks seem to have made their way onto compilations on Spotify) to Kaleidoscope to those legendary Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon sides, El Rayo-X and his solo (and duo) albums, Lindley was always, always experimenting… avant-garde. More precisely, always Lindley. The Lindley sound wasn’t a bakelite Rickenbaker through a Dumble Overdrive special, it was all of those things – lap steels, fiddle, oud, banjos, Hawaiian guitar, the laughter, a deep love of reggae – every time he played.
One of my favorite Lindley tunes wasn’t a Lindley tune at all; it was written by Greg Copeland. Every time I heard Lindley perform “Revenge Will Come” live – and of course Lindley never played it the same way or even on the same instrument twice – I was touched. Lindley’s opening notes would become a prelude to all of the song’s themes; his voice would tell the story just right without overdoing it. I’ve always wondered why no one else has covered this seemingly great song.
But I think it was all Lindley. It surpassed the original Copeland version. He pronounced it as only he could, he played it on a comically large hollowbody lap steel and could make a grown man (me) cry. He was able to transform many songs. “Bye Bye Love” reinvented with a reggae beat? Secure; it’s on the blue album El Rayo-X. “Minnie the Moocher” performed by a youth band? Naturally.
As with music, Lindley tended toward the exotic when it came to gear. He threw Gibson pickups into fenders decades before modding became a thing; a decade before Robbie Robertson, he was dusting off old harp guitars for rock stages; His experiments with using a reel-to-reel’s preamp in front of his Fender amp led him to discover aspiring amp tech Howard Dumble. He often toured with his Paddy Burgin-built Weissenborns and an oud. He had a solid body oud. Who but Lindley would even own one of these?
In recent decades it has been rare to ever catch him playing a standard six-string (“Spanish”) guitar. During one of his visits to our headquarters, I sheepishly asked him to play my Henderson 000-28. He made it 95% of the way through Zevon’s “Indifference of Heaven” before stopping in spectacular Lindley fashion. It couldn’t get any better.
Beyond the music, Lindley’s sense of style was alien. The polyester clothes, the mutton chops, that smile… he was that rare guitar hero who wasn’t afraid to fool around. He was a guest on one of our first podcast experiments and for a while I thought he would do the whole interview as Jimmy Stewart. Now I kind of wish he had.
The music business has changed a lot over the decades, but Lindley hasn’t. He continued to make beautiful and exotic music; He was always looking for new sounds. His website was ancient and he never bothered with social media. By his mid-70s, just before COVID, he was stuffing his car with self-released albums and touring and putting on his fancy shoes again. He’s been a perennial favorite at venues and festivals from Vancouver Island to Southern California and around the world. He remained incredibly funny, brilliant and uniquely David Lindley. And I’m glad that whoever he really was shared this planet for a little while.
Lindley interviews his oud hero John Bilezikjian for Fretboard Journal #19. Photo: Gary Newkirk