I had joined a band with Paul Downing and Don Adey called Spitfire before we left for Europe. It was basically a cover band that did oldies of the artist we most admired. The Beatles, Dylan, The Who, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, you know...great stuff that you don’t really hear anymore in clubs. I had purchased a student model pedal steel guitar a “Little Buddy” made by MSA with three floor pedals and one knee lever. I had no idea how to play it, but was determined to learn and would be wood shedding in the spare bedroom. Poor Donna, the first year of our marriage and she was going to be a pedal steel widow.
Also in the band was Bob Feldman on bass and Steve Somethingorother on drums. The reason I don’t remember Steve’s last name was because he was the most forgettable drummer I have ever had the displeasure of playing music with—well maybe not the most, since there were plenty of bashers and thrasher out there in the Silverspoon days, but close to it.
Bob Feldman had the fortunate or unfortunate distinction of being Corey Feldman’s father. Corey was having a lot of problems at the time with substance abuse and many other disturbing scenarios and I hope that he has come out of it unscathed. One can only hope. Corey stated that he began the "Emancipation Proclamation in Hollywood" at age fifteen, when he was granted emancipation from his parents. He stated that he was worth $1 million by age fifteen and by the time the judge court-ordered the bank records to come forward, only $40,000 remained. I never knew this at the time Bob was playing bass in Spitfire but I never thought much about it at the time since Corey never showed up at any of our gigs. I hear he has a memoir called Coreyography and I’m curious about its contents—might even pick up a copy.
Spitfire was named by Adey and Downing, the latter hailing from Hull, Yorkshire, fancied the British WWII airplane that performed so well against the Blitzkrieg. It also is the name of one of the less desirable sports cars made by Triumph. I much preferred the TR-6—I had six or seven of them over the years. The Holy Grail was the TR-250 and I was fortunate to have one of those babies with overdrive. I sold it when I moved to Nashville. I kick myself every day. We had a regular gig at The Boat House on the Santa Monica Pier on Saturday nights and one night I brought my Little Buddy steel guitar. I only had the thing about three or four weeks but I managed to squeak and squeal out a few licks by then. I thought it sounded good on the song, Baby it’s You, by the Shirelles and written by Burt Bacharach (music) and Mack David (lyrics) and was also recorded by The Beatles. Sha la la la la la la la la.
Bob was the only bass player I knew that could break strings on his Fender Precision. I guess his amp was such a piece of crap that he could never hear himself (we did play as loud as the establishment would allow) therefore he plucked and pulled at those strings like they were Robin Hood’s bow and I knew it wouldn’t be long before metallic strands went snapping like rubber bands. His girlfriend was a zaftig Vegas-like woman named Francesca who followed him around like a puppy. She was certainly nice enough to bring a few herbal refreshments which I was only too happy to partake in the friendly confines of her VW bug. Sometimes they would invite some of their questionable friends down to the gig, one of them being porn star, Ron Jeremy. At the time I had no idea who Ron Jeremy was, but when I found out later, I had to laugh.
Saturday nights at The Boathouse could be a dud or it could be so crowded that when you scratched an itch you were never quite sure it was your own body part you were scratching. One night there was a shootout on the beach right outside the beachside entrance, which was where the stage was situated. I heard a few loud pops and at first thought it was a car misfiring, but then Paul yelled, “hit the decks, it’s a gun,” and I dove underneath my keyboard. Fortunately the shooters never entered the club but we were questioned by the police for hours. They probably thought it was a drug deal gone awry, and we, being musicians would be suspects.
At the time, I used to have mixed feelings about that gig. I was never in a “cover band” before in my life. Somehow I always managed to perform my original material, but these songs were so great, and Paul was such an authority on fifties and sixties music (the more obscure stuff) that I thought it was a real education to learn these shinny little gems, even though I didn’t write them. The other trepidation was, of course, Steve. I don’t know how we pulled it off, between Steve’s banal thrashings and Bob’s muddy arrow pulls. Of course, retrospect always proves to reflect the silver lining in all of my musical endeavors, and I look back at those times as some of the best I ever had.
My main focus now was mastering, or at least getting a handle on the pedal steel guitar. I play guitar, keyboard, harmonica, mandolin, bass, really anything with strings, but the steel guitar was an enigma that I found to be extremely challenging. The sounds that emanated from that room could kill a deaf cat. Squeak, squawk, whine, snap, crackle and pop. I would lock myself in the spare bedroom and before I realized it, seven or eight hours would fly by while I was leaning over that beast of an instrument. Donna would knock on the door and I would resignedly get up from my cramped and unnatural position to let her in with my lunch, dinner or breakfast, whichever the case may be. She called herself a Pedal Steel Widow.
One day when I was in The Guitar Center in Hollywood, there were a couple of “real” pedal steels over in the far corner of the guitar section. I sat down at an Emmons or Showbud steel and when I looked up out of my trance I saw this curmudgeon of a guy with poindexter glasses and hair that looked like it never saw a comb in its life staring at me.
“You need a universal,” he said.
“A pedal steel in universal tuning. It has twelve strings instead of ten and that way you could go from E nine tuning to C sixth just by engaging the right knee pedal. It is the best of both worlds—you won’t need a double neck.”
I looked at him like he was speaking Mandarin Chinese or some strange language spoken on the planet Mars.
“Look,” he said, “I just happen to have an extra MSA steel at home and if you are really serious about learning the instrument I could lend it to you.”
“You don’t even know me and you want to lend me a steel, which I assume is an expensive instrument?”
“That’s right. Are you game?”
I didn’t know what to think. Maybe this guy was going to rob me, but I really didn’t have anything to steal. Maybe he was gay and wanted my body, but if he made a move I could kick his scrawny butt in the time it would take to sneeze. What the hell, I thought. If this guy wants to lend a steel guitar to a somewhat perfect stranger, more power to him.
“Where do you live,” I asked.
“Echo Park, it’s not that far from here. You can follow me over.”
He lived in an old house with a guest room downstairs which he used for his recording studio. He was in the middle of a project where he painstakingly overdubbed pedal steel parts onto two sixteen track Otari tape machines through a Soundcraft mixing board. It was The Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky. A very enterprising attempt. He sat me down and made me listen to a few tracks and, I must say, it wasn’t bad—weird but good. Over in the corner I saw the MSA universal. It was Formica white and had seven pedals and five knee levers. He saw me looking at the contraption and said, “that’s my spare steel. Here’s the deal. I will let you borrow it for six months but after that I will help you find one of your own. I must admit that my intentions are not as philanthropic as you might think. You see, I have a mission. I want the world to be aware of the universal tuning and the more people that play them, the better the chances of it becoming a mainstay in the industry.”
How could I argue with that? “Okay,” I said, “It’s amazing that you would do this, I mean, you don’t know me from Adam.”
“I could tell you were talented by the way you played, and after you said you were only a beginner, I thought, yes, this guy needs my MSA. I have insight about people, you see.”
An hour later the steel was packed up in its case and he was helping me carry it to my TR-6. It barely fit in the passenger seat. My poor wife was going to continue being a real pedal steel widow for a little while longer.