NED DOHENY: LIFE IN A MINOR 9TH
Ned Doheny was the sideman to the darkest heart of the AOR 70s, friend to and adventurer with Jackson Browne, the Eagles and anybody else you’d hear at a yacht rock brunch—but his own precisely produced pop records got banned in Boston and never quite found their audience in America, although they revved up a huge following in Japan. (Where Doheny is quite actually “big.”) Now, however, Numero Group has put together a sort of Greatest-Should’ve-Been-Hits from this favorite Angeleno son. He speaks here about reality, rhythm and lighting your face on fire. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
You were one of the musicians in residence at the notorious Paxton Lodge studio, where Elektra Records spent tons of money to make this rustic recording studio way out in the woods. There’s a story that after weeks of just hanging out and partying, the president of Elektra Jac Holzman comes out to see just what he’s been paying for, and all the Paxton Lodge people have this ‘Oh, shit—dad’s home early!’ moment where they had to clean up and make like they’d been working the whole time. So how’d that day play out?
I had the bedroom at the very top of this old lodge—at one point it was a whorehouse and at another point a rehab center for alcoholics—
That’s what I was thinking! Talk about conferring some extraordinary energy on a building! There was a bathroom upstairs, and there were two boards in my floor and if you took the boards out, you could look into the bathroom below.
That was an architectural feature left over from the whore house days?
I’d like to think so. We were there and we were whores, so why not? I had one of the only bathtubs in the place, and I’d lugged it up there. And so Jac came out and we served a lavish riposte. It was intense. I think he got pretty high at that point, and there were some women in attendance who were drawn to the novelty of the situation, shall we say, and they spirited jack away. Sort of dragged him into the bathroom where they all had a nice bath together. And there were about three of us upstairs at the hole in the floor with our hands over our noses and mouths so we wouldn’t make snorting sounds and give ourselves away. It was absolutely hysterical. One girl was kind of looking up, like, ‘Hey.’ And the next morning when we got up, we were all pretty rumpled from the night before. Our producer Barry Friedman had been a clown in the circus—Ducky the Clown. So everyone is hungover and kinda weedy and Barry comes out and he’s gonna reprise his Ducky the Clown routine and eat some fire for us. So he dips his baton in white gasoline, which of all the flammable substances apparently burns the coolest—at the lowest temperature. He puts it in his mouth and we’re like primitive people, like the monkeys in 2001. We can’t believe what we’re seeing! He takes a mouthful, blows a fireball and we’re all just agog. And we realize simultaneously that Barry had taken a little too much, and what this means is it’s gonna walk down the stream before he can get rid of it all.
Basic physics never sounded so menacing.
It was dark and deep and all at the same time we’re like … [terrified inhalation] One of those terrible accidents you can see but can’t stop. So it gets to his face, his face bursts into flame, and some people jump over the couch and put him out with great vigor. We had some axes to grind with him, so people really put him out. A lot. I didn’t move, I was in my chair looking, and first I see one of his hands come over the back of the couch and then the other and then the face. And I’d been to a thousand horror movies and I was like, ‘OK, it’s gonna be dripping pizza with eyeballs’ and instead his once majestic handlebar mustache had been trimmed to a little triangle and it just looked like he’d been in the sun for 20 minutes. And Jac Holzman is sitting there like, ‘OK. I just gave this guy a check for $70,000.’ Which in those days was serious money. And Jac went outside and there was a rocking chair on the porch, and he sat down in it with that 100 mile stare and was just rocking back and forth, squeaking and trying to process all this. Ah, God, it was so good.
And the perfect one-liner that saved the day was …?
In retrospect, a lot of things. ‘It’ll grow back.’ ‘Hot enough for ya?’ But no, we were just stunned.
So as a guy who lived through the very heart of the 70s—you were sauna pals with Jackson Browne, the Eagles and more—what of value has been lost to history? What does no one remember that was worth remembering?
The 70s, for people who know nothing about it, were just an exercise in hedonism. But a lot of serious inquiries were made into what made us tick, what made life tick, how we were a part of it. Even when we’d go out in the desert and take peyote, it was always to dig a little deeper, go a little further, understand a little bit more. It wasn’t all an exercise in escapism and futility. It had value. It probably sounds silly to someone who’s never been there or done that, but that’s the truth.
So if we wanted to philosophically rehabilitate the 70s—
It can’t be done! But basically we’re talking about a generation escaping the structure of post-war formality. People who went through WW2 were a club to which we’d never belong, and that was it. That was the alpha and omega. So when you begin to question that one thing, you begin to question everything, and of course the merry pranksters that opened up that door for a lot of people were the Beatles. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single artist that does not refer to their viewing of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show or in a movie theater or whatever that didn’t go, ‘Holy shit—I can do this.’ Of course they couldn’t do it quite as well, but they could definitely do it. And a lot people just marched into that hole and started asking questions and really doing dangerous things. I don’t mean physically dangerous, but when you break covenant with your culture … when you alter your relationship to your timeline or try and start a different zeitgeist, you’re gonna get punished on some level for it. I don’t mean necessarily literally, but figuratively. An area you felt you used to belong to won’t have you anymore. The I Ching says it really well. Knowledge partly gives, partly takes away. Consider this—Carlos Castaneda was a friend of mine, and we were taking martial arts from an incredible Chinese gentleman called Howard Lee—
Between your martial arts training and your classical guitar training, do you have the most crushing handshake ever?
Actually it’s fairly light, but a bolt of energy proceeds down my arm like water going through a hose. No, I’m kidding. But wear a first baseman’s mitt! So Carlos would say the point at which you assemble reality, which he referred to as a geographic location on your body, which is novel and miraculous … if you begin to move that point at which reality is assembled, different realities will be assembled. We only see as much as our agreement to the reality we grew up in is still in effect. If you were to really change your perception, who knows what you’d be looking at? We all have this vision of ourselves in rare moments of inhabiting a sphere whistling through a space that’s continually expanding—that’s a pretty good definition of the miraculous! Not even Xenu and all his scribes could come up with something that farfetched! So we live in the midst of a miracle but are completely unaware and prefer to beat each other senseless over revenue and race and perception of equality, and that tells me we are clinging desperately to a paradigm slipping from under our feet. It’s really difficult to predict where the next incursion will come from. Like: I’ve been healthy all my life. Never had an operation, nothing. Until I got valley fever. So I’m convinced that whatever will destroy or save mankind, it’ll be both simultaneously, and it’ll come from a corner none of us can imagine. Who in their right mind could ever imagine the digital revolution annihilating the music business? And taking people’s jobs away? And completely confounding their creative process? The French didn’t finish the Maginot Line, and all the Germans did is go down to the end—they went there they’d stopped building. All the time, labor, thinking, planning, plotting and nobody went, ‘Hey, guys … what if THIS happens?’ So whatever it is that’s gonna wipe us out or save us, it’ll be something that leaves us all speechless—something we’d never imagine in a million years. It’s the idea that as we accost each other in a burning house, are we really looking at what is really true out here? According to Carlos, sorcerers are simply people who altered their perception by shifting their assemblage point. And even they can’t see everything. They’re just no longer married to a specific reality.
I always thought music was good for this. It’ll transmit the new reality right to you—like when you were talking about everyone hearing the Beatles and then wanting to do it themselves.
Anything that engages your mind of body simultaneously, I’m down with. Even if you’re not enlightened, if there’s a piece of music that can put you there, you’ll be enlightened for 3 and a half minutes. To me the thing that’s so great about the sophistication of music is the emotional … the intervals between notes. Depending on how you arrange them, they have an emotional value. Some chords are happier, some scary. Why not use that? You may have to actually work at it before you know it well enough to call forth those feelings. I mean, you practice on yourself. We all did. I’m not a really quick writer, but to me I always wrote something cuz it was something I’d enjoy listening to if someone else did it. I’m also part audience, and I think, ‘Oh, boy, wait til they get a load of this!’ A huge portion of my life is essentially in a minor 9th. It’s very beautiful, but it’s very melancholy. I lived in that incarnation for twenty years? Thirty?
How did you figure that out? I’ve never ask someone what chord defined their life because no one would ever have that answer.
On one level, I’m musically illiterate, but on another I understand it intuitively. And escaping the great minor 9th … I still work at that. There’s something so poignant and temporary about life, and that chord really captures it. It’s a very difficult chord to walk away from. In a way, it’s kind of cheating. ‘OK, chord, take over cuz I can’t think what I want to say but at least I can make everyone all moody and melancholy.’ I’d like to go a little further. I’m at a point now where I’d like to study a little bit more. This famous bass player Carol Kaye, she played guitar before she played bass and one of the things she was saying was, ‘Well, in most rock ‘n’ roll, the tonic is king.’ That’s certainly arguable. You move the bass note around and you’re talking about a different chord. Get a bunch of musicians in a room and an argument breaks out whether it’s an 11th or a 13th. Her point was that in those area—exploring those chords without being as devoted to the tonic—you can really find the potency of those intervals. I find that intriguing. You can only beat people up for so long! Look, my wife likes to cook, I like to cook, everyone loves a great meal—but musically there’s very few great meals to have right now. I like In N Out same as everyone else … but what else is there? I got to a point in my age where I’ve been writing ‘I want it, I have it, I lost it’ my whole life. So … now what?
I think Nick Tosches said that was the bedrock story of rock ‘n’ roll—he got what he wanted, but he lost what he had. So what starts where that ends?
To me one of the most interesting marriages of all is the musicality of R&B and the storytelling capacity of country music. That’s the intersection. If you can build something evocative and provocative and just kinda get at it in a way you can’t readily explain … you’re good to go! What’s interesting now is Numero is pumping a lot of energy into me—in the sense that there’s apparently a number of people that are interested in what I’ve done. When that energy enters your life, when what you put out eventually returns to you, it changes you. Probably any future work coming will reflect that. I never really had what Jackson Browne and the Eagles and my other friends had, which was a certain level of public acclaim that gave them the fuel to be maybe a little less self-conscious. A little more relaxed.
Relaxation is an underrated part of the creative process.
Truly. And if you haven’t straightened out your internal working, parts of it will never let you write anything. It’s absurd, in a way, that you can create something out of nothing and people will find it interesting.
Nick Waterhouse was telling me about producing a band and trying to get them to understand that it needed to be simpler—that everyone was stepping all over themselves trying to be ‘good.’
The ‘dig me’ phenomenon. That’s why I’ve never been particulary interested in soloists. The rhythm guys always interested me. Rhythm guitar players. I love that—to me, that’s the whole shooting match. Most of my favorite guitarists are really really competent rhythm players. Steve Cropper was especially good at that. For example, I don’t think Chuck Berry is particularly well-educated—I could be wrong, maybe he’s been to college? But he probably just got in the game and stayed in from the jump. And here’s a guy to whom the rhythm of the sung word just comes naturally. If you look at his lyrics, they just fall so easily and they’re these wonderful narratives, great stories, and they’re not particularly overwrought or convoluted. I’m probably one of the only guys you know who’d use ‘collusion’ and ‘subterfuge’ in a rhythm and blues tune.
Or ‘flee in terror.’ I never heard that phrase in a song before.
Excellent! When Hamish and I were writing ‘What Cha Gonna Do For Me,’ there’s a line in the first verse that says, ‘The ground you lose exploiting the blues won’t get the job done.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ People exploit the blues all the time. They’re the gateway to self-pity, and as well know, self-pity gives you permission to do anything. And Hamish said, ‘I don’t know, man, I don’t know …’ He was going out with a model at the time, Tara Shannon, who was like most women a seeker of sorts, and she said, ‘Oh, no—that’s the greatest thing ever.’ And we left it in! But if you look at a pop song, it’s like … exploit? EXPLOIT!?
It’s funny how rigid the pop vocabulary can be. It’s like 500 words, or else you sound weird and stiff.
And then the poets come along and shame us all. Certainly if anyone wants to know who let dogs out, it was probably Bob Dylan.
You told Wax Poetics that music for you is a dialogue with your internal life—that’s interesting cuz it suggests that the more you go into yourself, the more other people can relate to what you come back with.
Absolutely. If you try to do something authentic—of course, what’s authentic? And if you’re on a personal level, what is it about me that’s authentic? Cuz this is gonna have to be something you stand up and sing to people. So in the search for authenticity, you’re trying to find out what aspects of you are perhaps timeless. That’s really at the core of what happened in the 70s. There were a lot of Tin Pan Alley people who wrote great songs that I’m sure didn’t feel that way. I’m sort of best categorized … when I went to have drums put on these tunes, this guy Michael White who’s played with among others Steely Dan. He can play. And I’m playing him these songs and the first thing he says is, ‘ … who ARE you?’ And the second thing he says is, ‘Where have you BEEN? I just love this stuff. You’re such a smartass.’ And I thought, ‘Yup—correcto.’ That’s always been my relationship to it.
Was there a breakthrough when you found your inner smartass? And does that have anything to do with ‘Give It Up For Love’ being banned in Boston? If that’s true?
That’s absolutely true! They tried to release it in Boston and Boston wasn’t having it. When I was a kid, ‘Banned In Boston’ was legendary! A cliché! It was so great. I was honored. But on the other hand, they didn’t play my tune.
How do you feel now that Numero is reissuing you? This isn’t the usual ‘lost genius rediscovered’ story cuz you were never lost. But do you feel … rediscovered?
There’s been stuff happening spontaneously in different area. I’m seeing symptoms in more than one place simultaneously, and that’s led me to believe something organic is happening. And I’m really quite amused by it.
Are we on the verge of global Nedpocalypse?
I’d just like an opportunity to play! Cuz I could put together a unit that could c ook eggs! What’s interesting to me is that in the era I grew up, you had to show up yourself and be able to do this by yourself. You couldn’t demo your way in. When I played ‘Get It Up For Love’ for Warner, they had a guitar in the office—a piece of shit. But I could play a piece of shit. And when I went to Japan by myself, they were completely shocked that I could sing and play this stuff at the same time. To me, if you couldn’t do this when I grew up, then well … what’s for lunch? You were done! It’s still amazing to me. Groove is like a train that’s constantly running, and if you got the perception to see it, you can get on board any fucking time.
Where’s that train go?
Doesn’t matter if gets you to stop thinking.
You’re full of universal truth today!
Kind of! Usually I’m a little funnier.
CINESPIA AND NUMERO GROUP PRESENT NED DOHENY ON THUR., MAY 8, AT A SCREENING OF SKI BUM AT CINEFAMILY, 641 FAIRFAX AVE., LOS ANGELES. 7:30 PM / $12 / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS AT CINEFAMILY.ORG. AND NED DOHENY PLAYS LIVE ON FRI., MAY 9, AT THE RECORD RELEASE PARTY FOR NUMERO GROUP’S SEPARATE OCEANS AT THE VIRGIL, 4519 SANTA MONICA BLVD., SILVER LAKE. 7 PM / $7 OR FREE WITH ALBUM PRE-ORDER / 21+. MORE INFO AT NUMEROGROUP.COM.