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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

David Lindley, ‘musician’s musician’ to the rock elite, dies at 78


Davis Lindley, first made his mark in the late 1960s with the band Kaleidoscope.

By Alex Williams


David Lindley, the rare Los Angeles session guitarist to find fame in his own right, both as an eclectic solo artist and as a marquee collaborator on landmark recordings by Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart and many others, died Friday. He was 78.


His death was announced on his website. The announcement did not say where he died or cite a cause, although he was said to have been battling kidney trouble, pneumonia, influenza and other ailments.


With his head-turning mastery of seemingly any instrument with strings, Lindley became one of the most sought-after sidemen in Los Angeles in the 1970s. Mixing searing slide guitar work with global stylings on instruments from around the world, he brought depth and richness to recordings by luminaries like Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, Warren Zevon, Ry Cooder and Iggy Pop.


But he was far more than a supporting player. “One of the most talented musicians there has ever been,” Graham Nash wrote on Instagram after Lindley’s death. (Lindley toured with Nash and David Crosby in the 1970s.) “He was truly a musician’s musician.”


On Twitter, Peter Frampton wrote that Lindley’s “unique sound and style gave him away in one note.”


Lindley, who was known for his blizzard of curly brown hair and an ironic smirk, first made his mark in the late 1960s with the band Kaleidoscope, whose Middle East-inflected acid-pop albums, like “Side Trips” (1967) and “A Beacon From Mars” (1968), have become collectors’ items among the cognoscenti.


He embarked on a solo career in 1981 with “El Rayo-X,” a party album that mixed rock, blues, reggae, Zydeco and Middle Eastern music and included a memorably snarling cover of K.C. Douglas’ “Mercury Blues.”


By that point in his career, Lindley was already treasured among the rock elite for providing an earthiness and globe-trotting flair to the breezy California soft-rock wafting from the canyons of Los Angeles in the 1970s.


He is best known for his work with Browne, with whom he toured and served as a featured performer on every Browne album from “For Everyman” (1973) to “Hold Out” (1980). His inventive fretwork was a cornerstone of many of Browne’s biggest hits, including the smash single “Running on Empty,” on which Lindley’s plaintive yet soaring lap steel guitar work helped capture both the exhaustion and the exhilaration of life on the road, as expressed in Browne’s lyrics.


Lindley’s guitar and fiddle could also be heard on landmark pop albums like Ronstadt’s “Heart Like a Wheel” (1974), which included the No. 1 single “You’re No Good,” and Rod Stewart’s “A Night on the Town” (1976), highlighted by the chart-topping single “Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright).”


Ever on the hunt for new sounds and textures, Lindley had “no idea” how many instruments he could play, as he told Acoustic Guitar magazine in 2000. But throughout his career, he showed a knack for wringing emotion not only from the violin, mandolin, banjo, dulcimer and autoharp but also from the Indian tanpura, the Middle Eastern oud and the Turkish saz.


Despite his position at the center of the Los Angeles rock firmament, he kept a low-key presence both onstage and in life, steering clear of the epic hedonism of the era.


“I’m kind of a social misfit when it comes to after-show parties, so I usually went back to the hotel,” Lindley said in a 2013 interview. “There’s danger at those after-show parties, you know what I mean? I couldn’t do that. And I had no real idea how to schmooze and do any of this stuff.”


David Perry Lindley was born March 21, 1944, in Los Angeles, the only child of John Lindley, a lawyer, and Margaret (Wells) Lindley. He grew up in San Marino, California, an upscale city near Pasadena, where his father, a musical connoisseur, filled the house with sounds from around the world, including masters of the Indian sitar and the Greek bouzouki.


Drawing on those influences, by age 6 David had become obsessed with all manner of stringed instruments. “I even opened up the upright piano in the playhouse out in back of my parents’ house to get at the strings,” he recalled in a 2008 interview with musician Ben Harper for the magazine Fretboard Journal.


His parents were less than enthusiastic when he channeled his energies into bluegrass. “I played the five-string banjo in the closet,” he said in a recent video interview, “because it was very, very loud, and my mom and dad were a little disturbed by their son, the hillbilly musician.”


Regardless, he found success with the instrument in the Los Angeles area, winning the annual Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest five times. After graduating from La Salle High School in Pasadena, he played in a series of folk groups; in one of them, the Dry City Scat Band, he played alongside his fellow multi-instrumentalist Chris Darrow, later a member of Kaleidoscope.


Although Kaleidoscope failed to hit the commercial jackpot, it turned heads within the music industry. Tom Donahue, the influential San Francisco disc jockey, called it “one of the best groups in the country.” Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin once called Kaleidoscope “my favorite band of all time, my ideal band; absolutely brilliant.”


But Lindley and his bandmates had little interest in doing what seemed necessary to pursue fame. Once, he recalled in the Acoustic Guitar interview, “we were sitting in the dressing room of the Whiskey a Go Go, and a manager guy comes in and says, ‘We can make you guys stars — huge. But you’ll have to do this, this and this, and you’ll have to dress like this, too.’ And we said, ‘Get the hell out of here!’ and sent the guy packing.”


He is survived by his wife, Joan Darrow, the sister of his former bandmate Chris Darrow, and their daughter, Rosanne.


Lindley would eventually find a degree of stardom with a big boost from Browne, whom he met in the late 1960s at a Los Angeles rock club called Magic Mushroom. Once they started working together, though, it was the boost that Lindley gave Browne that became obvious.


In a Rolling Stone interview in 2010, Browne recalled an early tour when the audience was clamoring to hear his hit “Doctor My Eyes.” The band, however, lacked the full array of instruments to capture the sound of the recording.


“We’re playing at this concert at a college, and they were calling for this song,” he said. “And we said, ‘What the hell, let’s just play it.’ And it was a revelation. The piano part is sturdy enough — it’s just playing fours — and it was enough to support Lindley doing this insane grooving, swinging playing. He wasn’t even the guitar player on the record. But he just ripped it up.


“And I realized then I didn’t need a band to play with David. It just comes out of him.”

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