Saturday, March 6, 2021


I recently wrote about how...
Most of my musician friends were scary. I didn't hang out much with the shiny, composed front men. My crowd was the pot-smoking unshaven sidemen; the hardworking, unheralded wise-asses at the back of the stage who made the shiny front man sound good.
I just noticed that Rolling Stone has built an ambitious trove of interviews with some of the most prominent mega-act sidemen, and it's well worth a look. They're calling the series "Unknown Legends", a stupidly condescending title. Just because you're not Paul Macartney-famous doesn't mean you're obscure. All these guys are well-known by any reasonable measure. But whatever.

The best interviews are with drummer Chester Thompson (recounting, among other things, his time with Zappa, and his culture shock as a kid from the projects of Baltimore hanging out with the swanky British gentlemen of Genesis), and with backup singer Dolette McDonald.

Since I was of that tribe (not at the stadium rock level, though a number of my friends and colleagues did pass through that carnival), there were few major revelations. But I did get a big kick out of this quote from Drummer Steve Ferrone describing the time he briefly jammed with George Harrison and Ringo Starr:
Question: As a Beatles fan, playing on songs “Taxman” and “Something” must have been real fun.

Ferrone: Even better! When we were at rehearsals, Ringo showed up and [percussionist] Ray Cooper had a second drum kit. While we’re sitting up there, I said to Ringo, “Do you want to come up and play?” Ringo came and jammed. Basically, I was sitting onstage with two of the Beatles. Whenever I play with another member of the Heartbreakers, you get some kind of idea about what it’s like to play in the Heartbreakers. And so when you’re playing with Ringo and George, there’s this connection that happens between them. It was like, “Oh! I see this now.”
That's the essence of my tribe right there. That's some brute-serious sideman stuff. No romance, image, or "legend" crap, just really digging in and seeing what it's like to actually work with them, musically. I was transported right there by those last two sentences. Picture fully painted. Sorry if you can't fully relate; I suppose this is like plumbers trading war stories of turds that just wouldn't flush.

Dolette McDonald's story of David Byrne insisting that she sing a certain way that she didn't want to made Byrne look pushy and difficult (obviously revenge for the nasty business that had gone down between them years earlier, as she also explained). But from a sideman viewpoint, it's a whole other thing. I completely understand why she eventually bailed from the business and went into hotel management. Sidemen don't say "no". We don't say we can't do it. We make it happen, period. If, as a sideman, you ever feel you've been engaged as an artist to provide your special specific something, you ain't a sideman anymore. Time to go into another line of work (I'm not excoriating McDonald; she seems smart and cool and sings her ass off, and concedes that she was pretty scrambled by all those years on the road).

Extremely unsurprising to me was that virtually all these players started as jazz musicians, and still consider themselves that. The general public figures that's just quirky Charlie Watts. No.

While the world's captivated by the preening rock ‘n’ roll rebels up at the microphone projecting their images and flipping their hair, music is music for the musicians. A player can't possibly get good enough to join these tours and make this money if their motivation is to embody some cinematic bad boy. These guys are pros, and their true love is the music the general public scorns, and which sounds nerdy and corny. They play the stuff you love in order to make a buck, but that's just their meal ticket.

Nearly all the interviews offer the polite, carefully generalized observation that none of these sidemen were fans of any of these groups before they got the gig. It's hilarious if you watch for it (I didn't even have to). The general public doesn't understand that people like me don't feel ecstatic at the prospect of playing a record date with, say, Fleetwood Mac. We step down to that, not up. Though it's nice to actually pay rent for a while.

Indeed, I spent the 80s hanging and playing with young black musicians in Jamaica Queens at night. They were all spending their afternoons in studios creating what later came to be known as hip-hop. But after work, they never spoke about any of that. Nary a word. That's not what played on their Walkmen. They were as devoted as I was to playing bebop with old guys in mildewed lounges.

So if you spent your youth enthralled by, say, Phil Collins while rolling your eyes at the likes of me, joke's on you. The cats bringing your music to life were all from my side of the tracks.

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