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Leslie West Interviews Waddy Wachtel
Years before they achieved fame in the early '70s—one as the guitarist-frontman for Mountain, the other as a first-call session and touring ace—Leslie West and Waddy Wachtel were Leslie Weinstein and Bobby Wachtel.
As adolescents, the two lived in the same apartment building in Forest Hills, Queens, and bonded over their love of British rock and the guitar. In fact, Wachtel, despite being two years younger, served as West's primary guitar instructor, schooling him in the basics of riffs and chords and, perhaps more importantly, trusting his ear.
As part of his Music Aficionado interview series, West sat down with his old pal, whom he still calls "Bobby," to reminisce about their early days in Queens and to discuss how Wachtel's highly intuitive playing enabled him to crash the tight-knit L.A. session scene before winding up in a band with Keith Richards.
Leslie West: Back when we were in Queens, the Beatles just started happening. You heard 'em on the radio—Murray the K was playing them. I'm sitting in my apartment, busting my balls—and I figured out A Hard Day's Night. I get my guitar, go up to your apartment, and I say, "Bobby, look! I learned 'Hard Day's Night.' And you're like, "No, that's not right. It goes like this." And you had the shit figured out completely. I was like, "Goddammit!"
Waddy Wachtel: It just came easily to me. I always liked figuring out how people played, getting the chords really right.
West: We went to see The Beatles at the Paramount in New York City. Wasn't that something?
Wachtel: Yeah, yeah. Sitting on that balcony—we could barely hear a thing, but there they were, the Beatles, right in front of us, man. Unbelievable.
West: How'd you even get those tickets? I don't think I ever asked you.
Wachtel: I don't know how I got them either, come to think of it. I was always wondering how we got those seats. They had no Ticketmaster. Somebody must have sold them to me. I don't remember.
West: I'm still amazed at how you taught me how to play the songs. You figured everything out perfectly.
Wachtel: It was funny. I started taking lessons when I was nine years old from this guy Gene Dell. He came from the Bronx. I remember he came to my house and saw me holding the guitar the wrong way, because I'm left-handed. He grabbed the guitar and said, "No, it goes this way." I said, "But I'm left-handed." He goes, "Not anymore." I started taking lessons from him, studying the Mel Bay course. I went through all those books. After a few months he said to me, "You're not reading." I said, "Well, what do you mean, I'm not reading?" And he goes, "I can tell you're not reading what you're playing. You're playing it by ear." But see, I would play it through once and then I'd remember it.
West: Your ear was just incredible. I remember going to your apartment, and you knew all the Beach Boys stuff. You'd figure out every fucking harmony part. And I wasn't too impressed with the Beach Boys then, but you started showing me why they were so good.
Wachtel: I remember. There was a song called She Knows Me Too Well. I think it was the flip side of Fun Fun Fun or something like that. I kept saying to you, "But listen to this. Listen how great this is."
West: So I had my band, the Vagrants, and you had your band—
Wachtel: The Orphans.
West: What made you decide to pick up and move to L.A.?
Wachtel: At that point I didn't understand what it was to be a composer. I was so caught up in learning every song that I heard—I didn't get the weight of how important it was to write the songs. So I was in the city with my band and we went up to New England. Up in Newport, Rhode Island, I met the Cowsill family.
West: The Cowsills, right.
Wachtel: Their father, who turned out to be the actual worst person on the fucking planet, who was a drunkard—I used to throw him out of the club I played in every night. I didn't know who the hell he was. Then somebody said, "Well, that's Bud Cowsill. He's the father of the Cowsills." They made it really big, but when I first saw them it was just the four boys. They did the best Beatles ever. All those brother harmonies—they could do everything. Then he put Susan and the mom in the band, and they got big…
Anyway, he wanted to manage me all the time, and I kept saying, "Get the fuck away from me." Finally, one day when I was up in Vermont and I was running out of options, I got a call from this club owner: "Waddy, I'm working for Bud now, and he still wants to manage you." I had said to Bud one time, "Look, if you ever get a million dollars together, then come talk to me." So he drove up to Vermont in a blizzard and said, "OK, Waddy, I've got the million dollars now. You want to come with me now?" I went, "Yes, I do. Get me the fuck out of Vermont, please."
He was moving his operation to Los Angeles, so off I went. Within a very short period of time I met studio musicians, and I said, "You know what? I play as good as these people do. That's what I'm going to do. I want to be a studio musician." God smiled on me and I got a break. I got into a studio with somebody, and that led to another session led by a beautiful guy Nick Venet, who produced the Beach Boys' first album. He also produced Linda Ronstadt's first album with the Stone Poneys. I worked for Nick for months. It was all these folky sessions—I had to play acoustic guitar all the time. He said to me one day, "Waddy, come here. It's time for you to move on."
I thought he was firing me, but he meant that I should do more than what I was doing. He introduced me to David Foster, the new hotshot piano player in town. Nick said, "I've invited David to the session tonight because I want him to hear you play electric and slide guitar." Dave and I hit it off, and within a couple of days I got called by Lou Adler's office. That was one of the first big sessions I did with Lou. I had already met Lee Sklar and Russ Kunkel. That night I met Danny Kortchmar. He and I became brothers.
At first I didn't know about Danny. I used to look at these album covers and see Kootch's name, and it would drive me crazy. "Who is this fucking guy? Why does he get all this work? I hate this guy!" Of course, we loved each other the second we met. We did a Tim Curry session, and then Lou hired me to do a Peter Allen session. After that, I got the call to play for Carole King. From then on, things really started to go.
West: It sure did. I'm seeing you playing with James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Carole King… You were the guy!
Wachtel: It was all such good timing. When I moved to Los Angeles in 1968, it was this explosive musical period in Los Angeles. I got there right at the peak, or just before it. When I got out there, I wanted to meet two people—Brian Wilson and David Crosby. And I swear to God, the second day I'm there I see David Crosby sitting two tables from me in a restaurant. I'm thinking, "This is un-fucking-believable. This can't be." So I went over and introduced myself. I told him I had a really good band, and I asked him to come see us.
He came over, he heard the band, and two days later he called me and said, "Let me ask you something. What would you think if I was to put together a band with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash?" I went, "What do I think? I don't have to think about that, man. That would be the biggest band in the world forever." He goes, "That's what we're going to do. That's what we're doing."
But then he says, "Waddy, I've got to tell you something. You know you're the only person in that band of yours, right?" I went, "Oh, man, please don't tell me that." He goes, "I've got to tell you that. They're good, but you can really play. These guys don't have it. You have it." I went, "David, you're killing me, man." Sure enough…
West: Well, you know, from guitar player to a guitar player, not friend and brother, you always had that thing. Like I said, you could figure out the shit nobody else could.
Wachtel: It was just like all I could do. Whatever I heard, I had to learn. When I was a kid, there was another book—not the Mel Bay book, but Mickey Baker's book on jazz guitar. I was learning jazz. I wanted to learn how to improvise. There was this page in Baker's book that I will never forget. It said, "This section of the book deals with improvising, but nobody can teach you how to improvise." To which I said, "Great, well, what did I buy this fucking book for?" But he said, "What you need to do is listen to the records you like. Listen to all the horn players and learn every solo that you like. Learn every change that you like. Eventually you will develop your own musical soul, and you will start improvising by yourself."
I used to sit at home. My brother Jimmy had this huge jazz collection of records. I would cut school and put on these records—Lou Donaldson, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, all these different jazz records. I listened and learned the solos. Then along came rock 'n' roll and the Beatles, and that was that for me.
West: Talk to me about Warren Zevon. You worked with him quite a bit, and I'm sure you guys were pretty close.
Wachtel: Yeah, yeah, Warren. He died way too early. I met Warren when he was the bandleader for the Everly Brothers. That was my first gig out of Los Angeles. I got hired to play in the band—I knew every lick. It was funny… Warren was the bandleader, but he kind of resented my knowledge of the music. He and I always had this very tenuous relationship. We argued about music, but we always agreed about the Stones. We both adored the Stones.
West: You worked with Warren on Excitable Boy—Werewolves of London.
Wachtel: I wrote "Werewolf" with Warren. Three people wrote that song. I played on his second album that Jackson Browne produced. One day I got a call from Jackson saying, "I need you to co-produce the next record with me." I went, "You don't even know me." He says, "Yeah, I know you well enough. Listen, Warren won't listen to me anymore, but he will listen to you now. Take it from me, after this record he won't listen to you either." Which is exactly what happened. I produced 'Excitable Boy' with Jackson. 'Werewolves' was our hit. It was unbelievable to us.
But you know, Les, we're talking about me, but what about you? You blew me away. I was so proud and happy when you made it. When I heard you on the radio and I realized that was you, man, I was just screaming at people, "That's fucking Leslie, man! That's Leslie Weinstein."
West: All those years when we didn't talk, I thought, "He must hate me or something. He don't like me or he's better than me," which you were. And then when we did hook up, there was such a closeness. It was like, "Holy shit."
West: And then after you did all this other stuff, next thing I know you're playing with Keith Richards. I hated you more!
Wachtel: Are you kidding me? Fucking Leslie, you were playing with Jack Bruce. What the fuck? I was going crazy.
West: How did you wind up in the Winos with Keith?
Wachtel: I met Keith when I went to London with Linda Ronstadt. Before that, we played a long stint at the amphitheater, and one night Mick and Woody came to the show. I remember going downstairs after our show, and Peter Asher is standing there next to fucking Keith Richards. I went, "Oh, my God." I walked up to him and said, "Wow, a Rolling Stone, and we're about the same height." This is my opening line to him.
He goes, "Hey, man, nice to meet you." We went back to my room and we just talked. He was so gracious to everybody. It was funny because everybody was asking questions, and I'm sitting there going, "I can't ask him any of these fucking bullshit questions." Finally, I said, "All right, I've got a question for you. When you did Street Fighting Man, what was that like to hear that back when you got it all assembled?" I thought it was a good question. So after he was so gracious to everybody else and their bullshit questions, he looks at me and goes, "I don't fucking know!" That was the answer he gave me. He just buried me.
We spent three days together in London, just listening to records, listening to music. I saw the five-string guitar and I said, "What's wrong with that guitar?" He goes, "What do you mean? There's nothing wrong with it." I went, "Well it's missing a string." He goes, "No, man, that's my sound. I put it in an open tuning." I didn't know what an open tuning was at the time.
West: When I met Mick Jagger, I said, "Mick, what was the story behind Keith playing the five-string guitar?" Keith talks about it in his book. Just like us, Bobby, just like any other group started out—they had nothing.
Wachtel: Getting in the band was no accident, like most things are. We spent that time together, and then I saw him one other time when he came to L.A. Then one day I get a call from some lawyer: "Keith is trying to get in touch with you." I said, "He's trying to get in touch with me? Well, you have my fucking phone number—why don't you give it to him?" So he told me to call Keith at Larrabee Studios. I called him and he goes, "Waddy, man, I'm glad you're calling. Listen, I'm putting a band together and you're in it." That was it.
I went over there and that was it. I knew Steve [Jordan] from having met him years before. There was Steve and me, and Steve brought in Charley Drayton, and we all said Ivan Neville has to be the keyboard player. That was it. I didn't audition for that gig. Keith said, "You're it. You're the one." Then Bobby Keys was in it, too, so it was the complete package. Keith and I are just like you and me, brothers beyond life.
West: OK, so here's a question… How is it that you haven't gained one fucking pound? [Laughs]
Wachtel: [Laughs] Well, I love to eat, but I have this thing about the stage. My concept of the stage is this: I have to fit into my normal stage clothes, because if I don't, I could turn into Elvis. I drive people nuts with it because I'm so manic about it. I'm an eating fool. I go crazy, but then I'll diet. If I gain 10 pounds, it's noticeable.
West: When I introduced my wife Jenny to you, you were playing with Stevie Nicks. You played on the 'Buckingham Nicks' album—did you get along with Lindsey Buckingham?
Wachtel: Lindsey and I got along well. Yeah, I met them before Fleetwood Mac. Lindsey was a beauty, and he can fucking play guitar. He can fingerpick better than anybody in the world. He is such an amazing fingerpicker, which you and I can't do at all.
West: I could never get that down. But Stevie must love what you do. You're still out there with her…
Wachtel: I'll tell you, I have a great time playing with Stevie. My version of her music is a rock 'n' roll version of what she does. Like my friend George Thorogood says, "You know, Waddy, my wife wants to come see you guys, but I'm not into that folk shit." But after they saw the show, he said, "Waddy, I've got to tell you. What you do with her is unbelievable. It's a fucking rock 'n' roll show when you guys play together."
Leslie, it's been such an amazing fucking ride for me. I don't even believe that any of this has even happened. You know what I mean? I look around at the house I live in and this beautiful woman who married me, and I'm going, "This is all from you and me sitting in Forest Hills learning tunes, playing songs."
West: That's where it all started. You could play anything, and that hasn't changed.
Wachtel: Hey, remember that story I told you about Keith? Here's a postscript to that: Cut to years later when I did that album with the Stones, Bridges to Babylon. I show up one night to the studio and Keith is holding court in one of the rooms—all these people are sitting around him. I walk in, plop down next to him and I light a cigarette. He's telling them stories, and all of a sudden he starts talking about how amazing it was the night they did "Street Fighting Man"—what it was like when he finally put the whole thing together, what it sounded like, the whole bit.
I'm sitting there and I spit on the floor. I'm flicking my ashes all over the place, shaking my head like, "No." Keith looks at me and goes, "What the fuck's wrong with you?" I said, "What the fuck's wrong with me? What the fuck is wrong with you, motherfucker? That's the same question I asked you 20 fucking years ago, and you shined my ass! Now you're telling these fucking assholes about it? I don't give a fuck about that night anymore. Fuck you!" But we were laughing about it. The whole thing was hysterical. I couldn't believe it was the same question I asked him 20 years before. Unreal.
Contributed by Joe Bosso
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