The Waymore’s Blues Session (RCA): a solitary account
by Patrick Brayer 2003
As I’m writing, as well I’m thinking, that what is most likely an everyday eventuality for Ben Harper, like this session for the 2003 Waylon Jennings tribute CD (I’ve Always Been Crazy RCA), is for me rather akin to getting the part as Toto in The Wizard of Oz.
I packed in my low strung chestnut violin, and my mandolin, closed the enormous trunk of my caprice classic, and pulled out of the shade of the elm trees and into the awaiting heat. Summer in the Inland Empire is a patient thing, it knows you can’t hide its belt of peripherality, and the analogy of Ben Harper as an artist is much like this same sun, and, or, the phoenix of his very own youth. To look directly at it is not the wisest decision. You become far more learned by observing what it shines upon, than to be blinded by actually staring at it for source.
(Ben Harper, Greg Leisz, Hop Wilson montage) photo Patrick Brayer
Windows down, listening to Jeanie Shepard’s Honky Tonk Heroine, i nosed down the I-10 towards Van Nuys, and the Sound City Recording Studio nestled somewhere there. I did not hear the song that we were recording that day until i put the headphones on to actually record it, so any preparation was out the window. Instinct and reflex were the bases of the Ben Harper sound, i knew that, so i did not twirl in surprise. The basic tracks with Juan Nelson (bass) Oliver Charles (drums), and Michael Boito (keyboards), were already down, so in the next twelve hours, we were there to finish the song off. Any professional musician will tell you up front that it wouldn’t be music without the waiting, and so there i was on a couch with my musical pal, and pedal steel guitar legend, Greg Leisz, awaiting our turns in the microphone light. He told me a great story about his great grandfather coming across the creosote prairie in a covered wagon, and settling near land’s end in the San Joaquin Valley. I thought, wow, here’s an actual native son, who in more ways than one, deserves to be heir to the Bakersfield sound, of which his style is in fact well steeped. That is to say that his family was here before the Buck Owens’ or Merle Haggards’, before the oil derricks pecked away at the landscape and coughed fire in the form of sky. Of course i always think that things are way more relevant than most others do, always looking for more of an angle, or hook, to use a songwriter’s weary vernacular. When i look at a Picasso i can’t help but always wonder if there is another painting underneath it hiding, an even better one, one that he painted over, and i want to see it, know it, and then tell others. Unfortunately, left long enough to my own devises i will find some sort of a U.F.O., Barcalounger, Inland Empire, gonzo connection to shield or protect the truth, and that right there might be the secret to the vibration that seems to run through all of our music out here in the San Bernardino and Pomona valleys. Across from our couch was a broad white wall covered with gold and platinum record awards, Tom Petty, Cheap Trick, Warren Zevon, they all recorded here. I didn’t have enough imagination to even be intimidated, but turned to Leisz anyway and said, “It just makes me wish that i might have practiced a little more, instead of just watching all those Rockford Files reruns”.
Ben’s arms of steel (photo: Patrick Brayer)
I walked through the control rooms, gazed out through the assorted glass at the other spaces, more hippie chic than mother-ship architecturally, about thirty votive candles casually interspersed on funky amps and organs, flickered. I met up with Ben, we hugged, made each other laugh, and then i tried on a pair of two hundred and fifty dollar sun glasses which made Ben look like a star and then only seemed to make me look like the guy who deserved getting beat up in high school. So far everything was normal. Laura Dern wizzed by at one point, child in hand, and gave me a book that her and Ben picked up in France, a collection of the paintings of Ives Brayer (1907-1990). I immediately knew, that since he had the same sir name as i, that i had every right in the world to use the painting that was on the cover of the book, one of a black flamenco guitar on a colorful couch, for my next CD cover. Was this the napster age or what? The last time i had seen Ben and Laura we had worked a benefit at Bimbo’s 365 club in San Francisco, parting the next morning after a stack of organic corn pancakes in Haight Ashbury.
It was really a great experience to view every bit of that day’s twelve hour recording odyssey. You had to see it all to see the task that Ben had before him. He could have gone in any number of directions. The part that Greg Leisz put down alone was a masterpiece by itself. But listening now i can see that all of Harper’s decisions were sound ones, opting for a heavier fender vibe as a channeling mechanism straight into the hovering soul of Waylon Jennings. To combine that in additional tribute in the ghostish electric lap slide tone of one of our mutual favorite Texas table-sliders, the late and tragic great Hop Wilson. Ben has a keen knack of upping the ante on any genre that he touches, his voice always staying miraculously in the present. He arrives triumphant in the same space that others are hopelessly deemed corny and cliche ridden in. These are all the day to day decisions that an artist either has or hasn’t answers for.
Waylon Jennings and Buddy Holly
The instruments that I brought to the project are as follows:
A dark stained no name (low strung) violin which was a gift to me from stuart duncan. He had taken the top off and re-graduated (thinned) it himself. It is strung with viola strings and tuned as such, CGDA. I had it autographed by Mickey Spillane to keep it hard boiled.
The mandolin is an F-style Kentucky KM1500. Basically a reproduction of a Gibson Lloyd Loar . I have the top covered with a set of golden fruit decals that i got at a yard sale in Fontana. I did not get to use the bridge pic up, so it was just miked live and acoustic, as was the violin. It is strung with medium nickel wrapped strings and autographed by Fay Wray (whose son runs Mc Cabe’s guitar store in Santa Monica)
I enjoyed watching Nicky P. do his parts. He was basically an explosion of improvisational energetic ideas and it was fun to watch because every single take that he would lay down, and subsequently record over top of, had some feat of shear genius that just couldn’t be recaptured. He played a Stratocaster I believe, through one of Ben’s vintage half-stacks, but don’t hold me to that.
To watch percussionist Leon Mobley play the bells on the track was the more humorous side of the evening. You could not imagine an individual more manly than him, and to see him playing this set of dainty metal chimes, the sort that you might only see in high school marching bands, was a humorous relief to the arduous task at hand, one of completing a recording within such a short time frame. But it did all make sense in the scope of the whole song, countering Marshalls, with gospel background singing, with Hop Wilsonology slide, and the under-strum texture of a mandolin. In other words it gave a kind nod of recognition in a way to the Motown house band. Leon Mobley, after several decades in the music business had finally accrued a nick name: Big Substantial Bells Mobley.
Not until later in the day, hearing Ben recording his lap slide solo, laden with salty Texas dirt, did i get the breadth of the overall scheme. It was sonically wide screen, panoramically textural, and it was kind of hinting at Phil Spector without the vomiting ego. And this, mind you, was all before he even added his lead vocal. Waymore’s Blues was a song Ben had heard in a heavy rotational fashion around his house as a young skateboarding terror in Claremont California. The way it spells out the words, like a “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor meets Sesame Street”, you can just see the child’s face light up, and you can see Harper going back there, his Afro a time machine, as he leaps around the control room joyously in playback.
His cousin Pamela Franklin was then adding her background vocals, contributing the most sincere gospel elements to the piece, in a manner as if genuine bread and wine had passed her lips, but unlike the rest of us, hers was coming from before a pulpit, and not from Vince’s Spaghetti House in Cucamonga. Despite this being her studio recording debut she did her part in about half the time it took any of the others. As she overdubbed her take, i had a chance to talk to some fellows, over bean sprout and cheese sandwiches, who were in the next studio doing a sound track for a movie about the porn star, John Holmes. So needless to say this event was quite cross-cultural, and it’s hard to imagine Ben doing this everyday of his life. As you can see his existence is thick with information, i could easily go on writing about these few hours for the rest of my life, packed in there like the sardines of Joyce’s Ulysses.
It was of course an honor to be included in such an illustrious project as this, and let’s face it, historic, but I’ve always seen myself as more of a journalist. Even when I’m playing the banjo, i feel I’m looking outwards. That’s why i don’t try to have too perfect of intonation on my violin, if you don’t watch out you might just become “that guy”. I’m always more interested in contemplating the things that can’t be recorded, and maybe describing images that can’t be photographed.
At days end, as everyone filed away into the Los Angeles jungle light, i was amazed that Harper still had energy. I was a complete zombie in an orange cowboy shirt and Henry Miller spectacles. Any energy that i appeared to have was of an academy award quality, so i sadly had to decline Ben’s offer to come over to the house to view recorded re-runs of King of the Hill and sleep on his couch. I now wish that i would have, for he was soon to be swept away in the details of his current “Diamonds” CD, and endless meetings and preparation for an upcoming world wide tour.
Harper meets the Brayers in Benwood CA
Ben Harper is by now, it’s safe to say, a lot of things to a lot of people. To me he is simply a great gentleman self-defining a sacred path through somewhat of a wilderness, and remains a personage with whom i hold an unspeakable higher connection. In and about the semi-swelter of the summer of 2003, and in my own simplicity i say, “ happy for that am I”
Patrick Brayer / Upland, CA