For Danny McCloskey, Editor - “The Alternative Root Magazine”
On the Road to Flesh and Bone with the “Pizza Man”.
By Ben Livingston
This is the improbable story of how the legendary Denny Bruce and I made a record together.
In case you have been living on anther planet and don’t know Denny Bruce, he has either signed and or worked with world class artists such as John Hiatt, T-Bone Burnett, John Fahey, Leo Kottke, Albert Lee, Albert Collins, Ike and Tina Turner, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and even Charles Bukowski just to name a few. He has also owned Takoma Records, which is now Benchmark Recordings.
Back in 1967, about the time that I was getting kicked out of our Catholic middle school, The story behind my song, “Flesh and Bone”, Denny and his best friend Jack Nitzsche, arranger and producer for Phil Spector, were headed over to Laurel Canyon, LA where Denny’s ex-roommate, Neil Young lived. Neil would make rock and roll history by playing "Expecting to Fly" for Jack..
This moment and is a big reason we know who Neil young is today.
It all happened in Neil’s tiny cabin where, to quote Denny, “his jumbo 12 string sounded like an orchestra.” I imagine that at that very moment as the great Mr. Nitzsche listened intently, he looked around the hovel and thought to himself: “This man needs a maid!”
I love that punchline!
This is just one small part of the amazing musical life of my friend, producer and "Spiritual guide", as he himself - designated as his credit on our CD called “Flesh and Bone”.
The reason I bring up Mr. Bruce's pedigree is not so much to qualify this gentle giant, but to note one man's incredible wealth of knowledge and experience garnered by all the years of actually being there and doing that, which still “delivers” in a digital world where user friendly technology extrudes a “producer” or “engineer” by simply owning a laptop and learning how to operate “GarageBand” from a “How to - For Dummys” handbook.
Like good wine, there is simply a refined elegance that comes from spending time breaking it down in the barrel.
A few years back, Denny Bruce and I were introduced by the director of The Performing Arts Center at the University of Texas – Austin. She prompted our meeting with a brief description of “Ben, the renowned artist and songwriter”, to which Denny replied (after seeing my neon sculpture work and hearing a song or two): “Well, two seconds into his "world I said: "here comes Terry Allen again. But what a fascinating background Ben has, and the neon work he does is incredible. I have always heard it is hard to do art with neon, and his things are delicate and quite beautiful.”
This was the beginning of a mutual admiration between two somewhat self-realized characters whom might share the mantra: “Everyone to their own profession.”
Eventually, Denny told me that he’d like to work with someone like me and asked what my vision was… That’s when he needlessly qualified himself by stating: “I am “The Pizza Man”… because I deliver.”
And deliver he did!
It’s always been a mystery how the “real deal - musical magi” producers hear music to be, where they go in their being in order to pull rabbits out of hats and choreograph the shape of sound to groove with the soul of a song… This is a special faculty that I have finally been somewhat privy to.
As a visual artist, It has always struck me as kind of funny how referential “music people” are about music. Here’s a typical conversational exchange…
Musician #1: “So, how was Mr Garhoo and the Twang Dang Doodles last night down at the Ritz? I’ve heard that they are really good.”
Musician #2: “Oh man!!! The lead singer went off on a Kirk Cobain scatting jag that was phenomenal and then the guitarist beat his Les Paul over the kazooist’s head just like Jimi Hendrix used to do to Tiny Tim back in 1971 during their “Twilight on my buns tour”, remember that? Then they hugged like Leo Buscaglia and sang “Walla Walla Bing Bang” A Capella just like “Crosby Stills Nash and Young.”
Musician #1: “Awesome!”
Kind of like that… You get my drift…
These guys are just hard wired this way, Denny is definitely one of them, except for the fact that this man walks around with an encyclopedic database of sound and song in his brain that he uses like a shopping catalog to match sound and new song until a crystal clear image of the sound’s new signature is created.. This is one of the maestro’s many paint brushes and when he is done, you know it, because he rarely changes his mind.
Bear with me as I am processing too much into "this" and need to focus on "whatever" made the light bulb go off over your head (like in a cartoon..)
Was it because Ben said :
(a) He is objective in hearing my songs. He evaluates the lyrics, the tempo of the song, and how my vocals step on an area in the music that should not have a vocal there, so it is more of a natural flow.
(b) There are key words to every song that need to be emphasized, not necessarily by the singer, but an instrument can convey the same emotion when played correctly at the right time.
(c) The key the song is in, the chord changes and the tempo (which can change at any time) are all a part of the canvas, your backdrop, to structure your song.
(d) We are talking about you and your song, naked. (With Ben, who has studio experience now, I have to go through every instrument, etc. it will take to make a record...this is my question to you, as I am just wanting to focus on the most important thing there is in the music business. It is built on having a good song to work with.)
(e) Call me a "writer's workshop" or a person who reads screenplays for Steven Spielberg. How many "demo's" has Denny B listened to and rejected? If I say 20,000 songs since 1967 I would be way short. I have made a lot of albums. I had an office (with Bug Music) for six years who were a publishing company, so it was non-stop music all day, and then I went home and tried to relax by listening to music I like (as you found out..) But what a pleasure to hear Mickey Newbury with you at Royce and say "I met him, with Kris K., at the Newport Folk Festival because Johnny Cash brought them with him to meet people. I was with Buffy S. Marie, and Johnny brought them over to her and said "Fellas, she is always looking for a good song, so just do your best ones, and by that I mean no more than two or three apiece." I loved everything they played, and felt they would make it, although they sure were not good singers.)
(f) But you heard them, just with a guitar they barely could play, and heard the song.
(g) That's what it's like being a musician. It's a leap of faith, now more than ever. No one's interested in you. You can make an album, but it's purely for fans, of which you've got few. It's a calling. You need to do it, otherwise it's just too hard.
How can you be so good that people want to pay attention?
You can buy insurance, work with someone already famous, so your music sounds just like everybody else's, so you can advertise the connection.
Or you can realize you suck and it's going to take you years to get good and you've got to endure the abuse, if you're not completely ignored, until you get good enough. And then you'll only grow if you're different, and we live in a world where people want insurance. There's no safety net for a musician.
That's what being an artist's all about. There are no guarantees. It's like there's a fork in the road, and you go left when everybody else goes right and all you've got are the clothes on your back and twenty bucks in your pocket. If you go right, you're on "American Idol."
Are you ready for this level of truth, of honesty, of desperation?
Being an artist is the loneliest life you can ever lead. Even if you make it, only a small circle will know who you really are. But your energy will be so electric that people will be drawn to you, while you'll be pissed you're famous and can't live a normal life.
But you were never normal. Artists never are.
But the thrill of being an artist is you don't let others get your kicks for you. That's the audience, living through you. If you're not on an adventure, if you're not testing limits, no one cares.
So now you know why we've got so few artists. Because few are up to the challenge.
"When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose"
I am only using Bob Dylan here because, for me, he was the first songwriter of my generation who really broke the mold of songwriting. It went from "June-loon-spoon" to "The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face." I'd say that's quite a jump.
(h) (PW-I am now getting away from the essence of the song, but after being in so many seminars about "this"- today's world doesn't even know Dylan, per se, and what he meant to "us." The Internet lets everyone with a computer think we're music critics or guitar players and some kind of a "star." I don't think there'll be a Gary Cooper or Bob Dylan. The culture has serious ADHD, as demonstrated by the rise and fall of Glenn Beck, for instance.
My point being with Dylan, for example, you get the impression that something is speaking to you. I think that is the difference between art and entertainment. With art you leave and you think, I might want to change something about my life or how I view things philosophically. Being touched by a song and you now look at something the way you never looked at it before. You can feel sympathy for something, or someone who is different than you are. That's the power of song.
First rough draft.
Tomorrow I will probably change my tune.
Thank you for your time.
Guitarist Leo Kottke (left) with Denny Bruce (center) and Jack Nitzsche (right), circa 1975.
In 1966, Jack Nitzsche dropped into a Hollywood rehearsal hall. Thinking Western Union were an entirely different band that he had actually been invited to check out, he nonetheless liked what he heard and offered Denny’s band a record deal on the spot, contingent upon the ability of his new record label to be backed by a major. The band jumped at the offer, but unfortunately the label deal fell through, and Western Union ultimately disbanded with Ferguson and Mark Andes moving on to form Spirit.
Denny was also an A&R consultant for the Blue Thumb Records label and he worked at Vanguard Records, producing and managing artists like John Fahey (Fahey was signed to Takoma but was able to record solo albums for other labels; Denny produced two albums of Fahey’s for Reprise Records) and Leo Kottke (Denny produced all seven of Kottke’s albums that were released on Capitol Records).
He later partnered with Chrysalis Records to purchase and sign artists to Fahey’s Takoma Records label; he managed and produced numerous releases by the Fabulous Thunderbirds, T-Bone Burnett, ”Sir” Douglas Sahm for Takoma (he produced two Sir Douglas Quintet albums as well). Denny also signed and produced Mike Bloomfield, Swamp Dogg and Charles Bukowski for Takoma/Chrysalis.Denny and Jack became close friends and they were even roommates for many years. At one point, they were living atop Mulholland Drive in George Raft’s old mansion, where Denny says Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote “Sister Morphine” while lounging beside their skinny-dip pool. Denny, being a close friend and confidant, also wrote the liner notes to Jack Nitzsche’s 2001 Rhino Handmade CD collection Three Piece Suite: The Reprise Recordings.
John Fahey and wife with Denny Bruce center, at Chapman
Park Studio 1970, with the later Mary Yeomans.
Photo: John van Hamersveld
Manager Denny Bruce: during the release of Leo Kottke, Mudlark Cover photo taken in the Mt. Wilson Observatory parking lot, Jan 10, 1971. This is taken at the Chapman Park Studio.
Will be included in T.V.LIFE book.