Some people carry the stink of desperation on them. Rivers was one of those people.
Rivers was a Hollywood character first and a musician/artist second and third. He was a stocky, kinky haired Jewish day-laborer. A rare species of human who subsisted exclusively on pizza and junk food. He came from a well to do family, yet cultivated a boorish street persona. He sang the blues and played awful sax, passable flute, and pretty decent harmonica. His social assets were hyperactivity, bluster, and bullshit.
Rivers was gifted with a $90,000 dollar inheritance. This was back in the day when 90 large was an eye popping chunk of bread. He immediately bought an ill-advised Camarro and a beautiful silver plated flute. He started tearing through his largess at breakneck speed in pursuit of fame and fortune. He called his band, “The Howlers”.
I started hearing stories about the sessions that Rivers booked. River’s was hiring people I knew. People like Dominic Bakewell and Larry Dean Embry. I was shocked to find out that Garth Hudson (world class keyboardist for Dylan and the Band) was part of his studio band. I heard the record they just recorded; a version of “Freedom Jazz Dance”. The guy from 3 Dog Night played drums. I played it for a buddy who knew jazz. He said it was the worst record he ever heard in his life.
Rivers came to see my band, People In Motion at F.M. Station in North Hollywood. F.M. was our home base. We always drew good crowds and put on a good show at that venue. At this particular show, we had the pleasure of blowing the band Animotion off the stage. They had just started to take off with their brand new single, “Obsession”. Our crowd left the club en-mass to attend an after party at The Farm following our set. I heard later that Animotion was pissed off they had to play in a deserted club of disinterested bystanders. Tough Shit. Animotion was the archetypal snotty, lucky, industry whore band. Even then, they had “one-hit wonder” written all over them.
I pulled up to the farm in my AMC Green Hornet for the post gig revelry. I was early and there was only one other car parked on the street waiting for the party to commence. It was Rivers’ Camarro.
Rivers ventured over to my car and put his finger to his nose. He asked if I wanted a “taste”. I invited him into my car. Rivers started plying me with fine white powder and complimented me on the guitar sound I got at the gig. He suggested I might sound good on his new single and kept shoveling snow my way in an apparent attempt to seal the deal. He was kissing my ass like I was a rock star. He needn’t have tried so hard. I was thrilled to be asked. Rivers had a reputation for paying his musicians. All his checks cleared. My work would be committed to magic vinyl. I might even meet Garth Hudson.
My Rivers encounter receded into memory until one Saturday night when Rivers surprised me with a call. He wanted me to come down to Hollywood to play on a session the next day. He was recording two sides for a single. One song was the old Standells standard “Dirty Water”. The other was “Back Door Man”. He growled something about playing the blues. I wish I had more notice. In People In Motion, I was playing very tightly arranged music. It was not loose and improvisational. My blues chops needed some brushing up. However, I took out my guitar, fooled around a bit and pronounced myself fit for the sessions. Stevie Ray Vaughn had just come on the map as session guitarist for David Bowie. His work on “China Girl” went against the prevailing rock guitar orthodoxy. Stevie was going for big, thick, unprocessed sounds on that record. I figured I would give Rivers something along those lines.
Dominic was booked to play bass, so we drove together to Kitchen Sync Studios in Hollywood for the session. It was a modestly appointed, but cozy 16 track studio with large a control room. It was on Sunset near Normandie. There seemed to be tension and intrigue right from the get-go. No Garth Hudson to be seen. However, I was excited to find that the drummer was Burleigh Drummond from Ambrosia. Ambrosia hit the scene in the early seventies when Progressive Rock was all the rage. They were a credible American answer to groups like Yes and Genesis. Ambrosia managed to adapt their sound and score some hits along the way like, “Holding On To Yesterday”. Burleigh majored in percussion at UCLA and was grossly overqualified for this session. However, changing styles and a fickle American record buying public would soon relegate Ambrosia to the Disneyland/Magic Mountain circuit.
We jammed around a bit with ‘Dirty Water’ just to get warmed up. Burleigh’s demeanor spoke volumes. He was here for the bread and wanted to finish this session up as soon as possible. Apparently, any riches Ambrosia accumulated had not trickled down to the drum chair.
It was decided that Dominic and Burleigh would lay down the bass and drums to Dirty Water and I would overdub guitar on top. Rivers seemed gruff and uptight and was on the phone. He was yammering about bringing another guitar player in at the last minute. The guitarist was Larry Dean Embry. He had been River’s first call guitarist in the past but now he and Rivers were currently embroiled some sort of piss fight. Not surprising given Rivers’ loutish demeanor. I guess that that’s why I was called in. Rivers wanted to teach Larry a lesson and prove he didn’t need him. However, River’s seemed to be getting nervous about me. I was an unknown. He didn’t know what I was capable of and Larry was money in the bank. Finally, it was decided. Larry was on his way to the studio.
While Dom and Burleigh laid down the bed for Dirty Water, I made the most of my time by sitting at the back of the control room and honing a part on my unplugged Stratocaster. While I was practicing, Larry Dean Embry walked in. I was sitting on the couch and he looked down at me from above. He had a superior, confident air and seemed none too pleased to see another guitar player at the session.
Fortunately, our bearded Teddy Bear engineer liked what I was working on. I went in to lay my track on “Dirty Water”. I ended up just doing fills with a trebly, dry, chicken scratch sound. I played without a pick to give the fills more funk and fat. Larry took it upon himself to be liaison to the control room and told me to keep it simple. There were gaps where I would have loved to overdub some riffs but Rivers was a shitty producer whose prime directive was the clock on the wall. However, I managed to lay down a keeper in short order. Rivers seemed satisfied and relieved. This would be my Rivers track for posterity.
I wasn’t privy to the politics in the control room. However, word came via headphone that I should stay in the studio and lay down a rhythm part for Back Door Man. At this point Larry came into the studio to instruct me that I should only play “pads”. Evidently, Larry was staking claim to the spotlight solo. I grabbed a pick and started chugging some bar chords to the simple 12 bar progression. That mollified Larry and the engineer got a good full sound that would get packed down in the mix and fill up the track. At the end, I winged a simple tag ending. It was a descending pentatonic riff that climaxed with a nice 9th chord. The engineer loved it. I nailed it in the first take. I wanted to lay down some harmony riffs but my time was up. Larry’s cold stare thawed a bit has I returned to the control room. Rivers got his 50 bucks worth.
Larry went into the studio and laid down a very large, loud and hot lead guitar for Back Door Man. During a break our bearded Teddy Bear engineer interrupted his Big Mac to thoughtfully posit his theory that Back Door Man was a song about butt-fucking. Rivers blathered, snorted, and guffawed his agreement.
By this time Burleigh Drummond had pocketed his check and was long gone. A short goateed English get named Andy showed up with a drop dead gorgeous black girl. He would be laying down keyboards. Andy was a capable but soulless player who couldn’t come within a mile of Garth Hudson. However, his studio fee was a fraction of what Garth would demand and that’s all that Rivers cared about. Andy would go on to make a small fortune publishing music instruction books. Dom signaled it was time for us to go.
In a remarkably short period of time, Dom brought over a few copies of the new “Howlers” single that we had played on. It was 45’ rpm vinyl with a simple white paper dust jacket. It sounded OK. The bearded Teddy Bear took good care of my guitar in the mix and kept all my stuff. Mission accomplished; my first record. Too bad it was destined for the “ 25 cent bin” even as I held it in my hand. There would be no hit single. No radio play. No street buzz. Rivers succeeded only in burnishing the mythology that existed in his mind.
Rivers was starting to run out of money. He was starting to cut corners and depend on the kindness of strangers to fan the dying embers of his dream and keep it alive. It was at this sad and depressing juncture that he called out of the blue for a Howlers rehearsal at the home of Burleigh Drummond. The purpose was unclear. However, Rivers still had a reputation for paying good money and who knows what venue he might bullshit his way into. The Troubadour? The Palomino? The Coral?
Dominic and I showed up at Burleigh Drummond’s house at the appointed time. His house was in Sun Valley and was small and modest. The neighborhood was hardly exclusive. The unkempt kitchen and the primitive crayon art taped to the refrigerator door suggested a single father who needed to work to support his children. Moreover, the house was conspicuously missing its resident (Burleigh). However, the door was unlocked (or became unlocked) and we gained entry behind our leader, Rivers.
Rivers was yapping incessantly but seemed ill at ease and uncomfortable. He had brought together Me, Dominic, and Andy for this ragtag rehearsal session. When Burleigh finally arrived through the front door he seemed perturbed, surprised, and not at all happy to see any of us. I was just a bozo on the bus, so I was not unduly bothered. However, Rivers and Burleigh got into a very serious and intense discussion. Burleigh had neither the desire or need to rehearse and wanted the house vacated ASAP. Rivers façade cracked. He hastily offered Burleigh a check for the inconvenience of a living room rehearsal. No go. It was clear there were limits to how far a brilliant musician like Burleigh would stoop for a few bucks. He was nice enough to mumble an apology to me as I left.
That was the last time I ever saw Rivers. I ended up getting a copy of the 12″ LP album that Rivers put out. It contained all the tracks he cut with his so-called Howlers. It was on his own label, Liveside. The album credits listed the musicians in alphabetical order. Rivers was decent enough to spell my name right and designate the guitar on “Dirty Water” as mine. Garth Hudson was listed on the musician credits as well. So, Garth Hudson and I appeared on the same album together. Though we never met or played on the same song, I held in my hand the proudest achievement in my young life.
Rivers’ fortunes declined in direct proportion to his disappearing inheritance. Larry Dean Embry was a contractor by day and tried giving Rivers work and a place to live. Rivers was a loud mouth with a misplaced sense of entitlement. He never stayed employed long and burned every bridge he managed to construct. Rivers remained loud, obnoxious, boorish, and inconsiderate despite the generosity and concern of his band mates. He wore out his welcome wherever he landed. His current whereabouts and happenstance are unknown by all who knew him and are presumed tragic.