David Lindley, who died on March 3, 2023 at the age of 78, pursued a peculiar—some would say nutty—path through more than five decades of music making. His encyclopedic knowledge of traditional forms, the arsenal of odd-shaped and stringed foreign instruments and his deft touch in every style was legendary. On top of his virtuoso facility, he was amusing—“the Prince of Polyester” was invariably garbed in something loud and tacky from his vast collection of ’70s leisure wear.
Lindley was best known for his work with Jackson Browne through the ’70s and ’80s—his impressive slide solo on “Running on Empty,” his marvelous falsetto vocals on the live version of “Stay.” His diverse musical talent put him at the top of everyone’s list of most sought-after sidemen.
“That was all good work, but it’s been an albatross,” the multi-instrumentalist wizard said when his tour brought him and his reggae-rock band El Rayo-X to Boulder in 1988. “Unfortunately people approached my own music with a preconception—‘Gee, he’s well off, is he doing this for a lark?’ They were primed to come to my shows and see the teacup as full, no room for anything else. But it’s empty—there’s more room for stuff that’s interrelated.”
Poly-ethnic interests informed Lindley’s music since his days with the ’60s-era semi-legendary California rock group Kaleidoscope. Along the way, he collaborated on albums and film scores with Ry Cooder. Like his friend and peer, Lindley got labeled as an archivist, a term he dismissed as lazy, unimaginative and inaccurate.
“If I was a scholar or historian, it would apply. But it’s different as a musician. I get ahold of something like Zaire drummers as a fan, and it fascinates me—I listen and march around the house like anyone else. But my tastes are weird, I assimilate everything I can, so my records are called ‘ethnic.’ I want to play acoustic, Middle Eastern instruments. If I could do that, I’d go to the Himalayas and eat berries for the rest of my life.”
Lindley reserved the more weird and wonderful twists for his own somewhat more experimental solo work, first with El Rayo-X. In 1992, he camped out in Colorado for a week doing acoustic shows with Hani Naser, a Jordan-born percussionist influenced by Arab and Western music. He had recently roved to an island off the southeast coast of Africa to record with Henry Kaiser, who knew Lindley had been intrigued by Madagascar since the ’60s.
“That’s when I went to the San Francisco Zoo,” Lindley explained. “I walked by a cage of ring-tailed lemurs (a species nearly exclusive to Madagascar), and they all came over and reached out with their little dark gray hands. It was creepy, a lot more than cute, furry little animals looking at me. An intelligence was there, all but inviting me to Madagascar someday.
“It’s a poor country—we paid the musicians the same good session fees they’d get in America, and they went out and bought houses and cattle. I felt like Elvis—‘Here, go get a Cadillac.’ Some of the established recording people were mad at us for setting that precedent. But I still wanna go to some other places. I’ll probably have to get shots for years to do it.”
Long before “world music” had a name, Lindley fused African, Celtic, Middle Eastern and Asian influences on pretty much anything with strings on it—delta blues on the Turkish saz, or Kurdish melodies on the five-string banjo.
“Now I look around and say, ‘Mission accomplished,’” Lindley said during his Colorado dates in 2003. “That’s the realistic way to look at it. Maybe even split world music up into two categories—traditional world music, and then kind-of world music 2%, like milk. I’m glad that people know who King Sunny Ade is. Peter Gabriel, Mickey Hart and Paul Simon did a lot for making things a little less ‘us-and-them—that’s their music, those people’. When you look at it, it’s notes and spaces, sound and no sound. People react to music all over the world in the same way. So maybe we’ll see that we’re all really similar and things will change—but probably not! At least we’re giving it a good try!”
At that point, Lindley was in partnership with locomotive hand drummer Wally Ingram, another long-haired, Hawaiian-shirted freak with the kit—plus chimes, blocks and a World War I German army helmet. Their recordings brimmed with Lindley’s playful, pan-cultural approach and tasteful arrangements, as well as wry satire—the self-effacing “When a Guy Gets Boobs” was a crackbrained number.
“I actually had that happen—I looked in the mirror one morning and went, ‘Ah, boy, that’s real good.’ I thought I should write about it…”
By his own estimate, Lindley played about nine different instruments at his live performances—the Turkish saz, bouzouki, 12-string guitar and an assortment of Hawaiian guitars.
“The one thing that’s suffering right now is the fiddle—I haven’t played that in a long time, because I’m playing the oud, and it takes a lot of practice,” he said. “At one point I had to choose what to work on. I only got so much time left, so there’s certain things I want to do before it’s all over.”