Wednesday, March 20, 2013

waddy wachtel

Waddy Wachtel has amassed an impressive resume of production and session work over the course of more than 40 years in the record business, but his career peaked in the mid 70s and early 80s, playing on so many of those troubadour cum cocaine cowboy records, music that captured the languid decadence of post-60s Los Angeles.  Linda Rondstadt.  Buckingham Nicks.  Jackson Browne. Joe Walsh.  Warren Zevon… Wachtel may be a Queens native, but his fingerprints are all over that distinctly Californian musical milieu.  And while he’s basically been a hired gun for most of his career, there are a handful of his riffs that have left an indelible mark on the brains of those of us who were glued to our radios in the 70s.

But Wachtel has a deeper (if also accidental) significance for me personally.  When I was about 11 years old or so, I flew down to Florida with my sister over spring break to visit my grandfather.  The movie shown on the flight was FM, which, best I can remember, is kind of a long  version of WKRP in Cincinnati, with some half-baked social commentary on the encroachment of the corporate profit motive in the radio business. But the plot, such as it is, is beside the point. The movie is actually little more than a vehicle to promote Linda Rondstadt, who’s given plenty of time on camera.  And since Rondstadt’s guitarist at the time was Waddy Wachtel, he is seen a fair bit in the movie as well.  …So I’m watching FM on this flight to Ft. Lauderdale, and I’m bored out of my mind because I didn’t have the appreciation for Linda Rondstadt that I’ve since gained, and my sister is sitting next to me, and we’re dreading the long weekend ahead of us because my grandfather is narrow minded and not much fun to be around, and his second wife is angry and unpleasant and has an irritatingly shrill/nasal voice that can cut through diamonds, and I’m practically falling asleep as the soporific tones of Blue Bayou wash over me, and I’m looking at Waddy Wachtel play guitar in an ugly tank top… And then it happens…   BAM!  It was as if we hit something in the air because the plane jolted upwards with a loud thud before dropping several thousand feet in freefall. Dinner trays went flying everywhere.  Bags and coats and all manner of things came flying out of the overhead bins.  All the while, Waddy is playing the opening bars to When Will I Be Loved? Passengers standing in the aisles were thrown off their feet, and horrifically loud screams filled the cabin.  I’ll never forget the sound of those screams, but somehow I also remember hearing the line, I’ve been cheated, been mistreated...  There was no question in my mind at the time but that we were gonna crash and die.  And the whole time this is happening, Waddy’s up there, projected on the screen, playing his guitar, with his long hair flying everywhere…  When the plane finally stabilized, the cracker pilot – they’re always crackers, aren’t they? – got on the intercom, and in those soothing ‘cool under fire’ tones, attempted to calm everybody down. Nothing to worry about, he said, it was just an unforeseen patch of turbulence. I’d never been afraid of flying up to that point, but I’ve been terrified ever since.  And my sister is even worse than I am.  She takes some kind of elephant tranquilizer before she gets on a plane now, stuff that’ll make you sleep through a nuclear war.

What’s funny is that anytime I hear a record that features Waddy Wachtel on guitar, I think of the time I was almost in a plane crash (at least it felt that way to me).  But someone with his track record deserves better than this, so I should also mention that he plays on Warren Zevon’s Desperadoes Under the Eaves, which is one of the greatest songs about LA ever written.  The last moments of the song still give me chills after having listened to it at least a thousand times.  As a cast featuring Jackson Browne, Carl Wilson and J.D. Souther sing the refrain, Look away, down Gower Avenue, Waddy’s guitar cries out so beautifully. And yet his perfectly exquisite tones are just barely audible as the song fades like the sun in its final glowing moments before disappearing into the Pacific...


1 comment:

  1. I'm glad to read that I didn't make it all up. Norm didn't even raise her head from her book!