He’s the one they want. His name attracts talent and interest. He’ll show up with that guitar, hardly say two words, listen to the track, skim the chart. Then he’ll plug in, adjust levels and play the absolute correct thing. First time through: perfect. But then he’ll go back and find some way to make it even better. He’s incapable of playing the wrong note. Some liken him to an infallible appliance or mercenary. He and his instrument are one.
The most beloved diva of all time will come out of retirement and sing at The Oscars—but only with him. He is cherished by producers with four mansions. Projects will be postponed or canceled in his absence. His name is uttered with reverence in elite circles. He is often referred to as “one of the interplanetary dudes.”
As a boy, he studied with the local jazz legend, a player from the famous cowboy-swing band. He mastered every scale, chord theory, how to fill the holes. He already had the ear, he just needed the science. More than perfect pitch; he could feel the changes coming, no matter how complex. He was nineteen, had already been working the Texas-Oklahoma-Kansas-Missouri circuit for years. He had a reputation: professional, pleasant, quiet.
His discovery: the famous singing duo had a TV show. They booked a concert in Fort Worth and their guitar player showed up drunk at sound-check. They asked the musician’s local for a list of players and his name was at the top with a little asterisk.
They took him back to LA.
The Hollywood boom years: One booking led to another, to another. Other than guitar, he had no vices. While other hired guns bought big houses, fast cars and narcotics, he lived modestly. Ate when he was hungry, banked his pay. He lived to play. Being from Texas, he was used to the heat of the West Valley. He had a studio tan. Often, he was asked to join bands, famous ones. He’d decline.
He’d listen to the radio for an entire hour and recognize his signature on every single song. Then he began to lose track of all the hits. People would say nice job on such and such. He’d express doubt. “If you say so,” he’d say. But it was him.
He was summoned by the iconic rock band. Known for their sophisticated cruelty to journalists, they ate studio musicians alive. Guitar-gunslingers lined up to lay down a solo. Deadpan leader of the band, wearing shades, giving thumbs-down from behind plate glass. Of course, the players were paid whether the track was used or not—that was part of the deal. They were always paid for their time. That wasn’t the point.
He saw right away the band was simply serious about music. They weren’t typical rock trash—they were old-soul jazz-masters riding a trend. The charts were daunting, hieroglyphic, lyrics layered with abstruse literary references. They wanted to communicate instrumentally—no one else saw that. He withheld the one or two words he’d normally give up in a session and spoke exclusively through his guitar. His mouth was not welcome, only the notes. He closed his eyes, allowed himself only the slightest beatific smile. It was not about him, it was about the sanctity of song. They saw the halo.
He gave them something very special, something people would never forget.
The solo would forever be associated with him, make his name.
They didn’t ask him to join because they understood.
A starlet met him in the hallway of a studio, mistook taciturnity for mystique and they married. They had two children, a boy and a girl. There were scenes where she’d try to get a rise out of him. He’d just chuckle. Her passion was drama, his was the hourglass-shaped thing with strings. The divorce was clean: she took everything except the instruments. He required nothing else. She remarried several times, the children acted out. For a few years, estrangement. Then, as young adults, the son and daughter came back around, craving his cordiality and normalcy.
He accumulates guitars. Other instruments too. Many given as gifts from manufacturers and luthiers. But really, all he needs is the one. For years, a cartage company brought everything to every session. These days, it’s just the one electric.
And pedal-steel. Always looking for new sounds, he’s been exploring pedal steel because he knows he can mold the voice to fit his own idiom. Pedal steel lacks the certainty of solid frets. One slides up and down, a very intuitive instrument. The Diva loves his pedal steel, by the way—orchestral and lush, perfect for big ballads. In his hands, it never sounds like a weepy cliché.
To improve his chops on pedal-steel, he frequents a dive bar in Chatsworth. It’s that kind of scene—a lot of “special guests.” He is considered royalty. Sometimes they talk him into strapping on a guitar so they can listen for traces of the old masterpiece, the solo for which he’ll forever be remembered.
That’s when he first sees her. She plays fiddle. She is A-List, has a name. They’ve worked on many of the same records but never met. She’s almost his age, divorced with a boy in high school. She has dangerous dark eyes, curly black hair to the waist.
Everything about her, especially the fingers, is long and strong. He thinks of her as his little gypsy. Can’t take his eyes away.
He’s always maintained: Something about a girl with a fiddle.
She catches him doubling notes during her solo, complementing. She tries to trip him up but he’s too crafty. The crowd loves it. A moment.
They go to the 24-hour place. Amid crap coffee refills and sodium-saturated food, they explore the past, fill the holes. She wants to know what it’s like to have sculpted a classic.
He tells her, “It was just a lick. A lucky lick.”
“The best solo,” she avers. “Ever.”
He shrugs. Through the years, he’s punched in at least a hundred in-the-pocket-takes better than that one. He says, “It’s all subjective.”
He guides her in, building trust.
“Come home with me,” he murmurs, at last, his hand on hers. He puts down a twenty for a twelve dollar check. He stands up, eye contact all the way. She follows.
He wants something deeper this time. Not sure how to visualize or express it. This is a challenge, for his genius is the innate ability to frame every solo before it happens. He likes this novelty of not knowing, the danger of improvisation.
Guitars on walls, in stands. A stack of framed gold and platinum records in the corner. It’s a hired-gun condo—never had time or room to hang everything. They each set down their instruments.
“Could you play something for me?” he asks. Warily, she complies. He takes a seat on the couch. She tunes, then trots out a little Bartok. It’s frenetic, yet baroque.
“Play something slow,” he says. He wants it to come from her.
He lets her slip into the zone, her sweet spot. She closes her eyes. She finds the notes by feel, by experience—no cheating with frets, like a guitar. He’s almost that good on pedal steel, but nothing like this. He quietly dims the lights, activates the seldom-used gas fireplace with the push of a button. He closes the space between, like a ghost. “Keep playing,” he whispers.
Hands on her hips, moving up. She presses back, against him. He lifts her hair, nuzzles her neck. His finger mimics her vibrato.
She stops. “You’re ruining my concentration.”
“Keep going. Please.”
She smells of bar smoke and coffee. He savors the violin sound, the rosin. She plays a leisurely, lachrymose triplet, then pauses again. She slowly turns, eyes closed, and embraces him, fiddle in one hand, bow in the other. She places the fiddle in its case, puts it to bed.
She talks about her son, her struggles, the ex. Waiting for the next gig.
They gossip about players and producers they know.
Neither of them actually practices anymore—unless one counts sitting in at nightclubs. Maybe they’re burned out, she suggests.
“No,” he says, “we’re just there.” She knows what he means.
She has a session, brings him along. The producer’s a fan, asks if he’d like to take a pass at a track—“Since you’re here.” He politely declines, makes up some excuse. He doesn’t want to intrude, make her feel less special.
“That was nice of you,” she says, later. “Classy.”
“I love the way you know when to lay back,” he says, about what she contributed to the track. “You know how to build suspense.”
They both hate it when people don’t play the song, hurrying through scales.
At dinner, they have a bottle of Domaine Grivot and pasta with black truffles. He’s showing off. He can’t help it.
He takes her to one of his sessions the next day, quid pro quo.
After listening to the track, he tells the artist: “There’s nothing I can add to that.”
The producer, an old friend, smiles and nods, “I know. I just wanted to make sure.” He pays him for his time, sends him on his way.
“Does that happen often?” she asks.
He meets her son. She makes dinner at her place, a ranch home in a coastal canyon where they stable three horses. It’s been years since he’s been in the saddle, but he agrees to a ride. They top the ridge with a panoramic view of the Pacific, sanguineous sunset because of distant fires. Santa Ana on the way.
The boy possesses the placid confidence of an only child. He waits for the boy to express curiosity about him, but attempts at conversation devolve into polite monosyllables. The boy is not hostile, just comfortable with dead air. Son and mother are deeply attached, can almost read each other’s thoughts. The boy’s reticence reminds him of himself, not in a good way.
As the three riders lumber downhill to dinner, he watches her long black braid sway from side to side in sync with the mare’s tail. He’s about to remark on the mare’s tail, how it would make a fine bow for a fiddle, when several apple-sized turds fall out.
“What,” she says, “is so funny?”
After an afternoon in bed at his place, he holds her hand up to the light. He admires her bones.
“Something about a girl with a fiddle,” he says. It’s the first time he’s verbalized it.
“Is that how you see me?” she takes the hand away. “A girl?”
He can’t deny it. Though now he’s beginning to suspect he’s made a mistake. She’s needlessly picking a fight—not their first either:
I’d hardly call you an expert.
Can’t you drive any faster?
Spoken like a true redneck.
I changed my mind—okay?
It’s not funny.
Things have been strange, tense.
He fears the sad, bachelor ranchers of his Panhandle youth; the pathetic midlife crises of his male friends; eating alone. He thought he’d done this right, chosen wisely. He knows she’s a woman, of course, but so much of his pleasure comes from forgetting numbers. So many love songs built with the help of his two hands—hadn’t any of the wisdom rubbed off?
A week after she ends it, he’s called in. It’s a familiar producer, typical song, easy money.
He plugs in, dons a set of cans, fixes levels. Nods to indicate he’s ready to hear it.
He listens. Nothing.
He asks for another playback.
He examines the chart. He listens again.
By this time he’s usually got the entire sequence of what he’ll play already articulated in his head. He knows just how his fingers will attack the fingerboard, notation visualized. But he’s empty on this one. It’s not that the track doesn’t require him—there’s definitely a need. In fact, without him there is no song.
He wonders if maybe this was the great lesson, her gift: to go after the fear, to lose control. That was one thing she said was lacking, his ability to “play discovery.” This was the last thing he wanted to hear.
He signals readiness for a take. He’ll wing it.
But it falls far short of what’s needed.
“Try that again?” says the producer.
He’s playing too many notes, he knows this.
“Little busy,” says the producer. “Let’s punch you in from the same place.”
He nods. But this time it’s even worse. Producer shakes his head, says something to the engineer.
“I know, I know,” he calls out to them. “Same place.”
This time, he hits just one note, holds it. He’s thinking he’ll hit one more, make it a perfect pair, a sustained masterpiece of economy. But he spaces. The second one never materializes. Producer leans forward, hits the talk-button.
“You okay?” says the producer. “Look, I think we might need to try another approach.”
“You’re right. How about pedal steel?”
“No, I really don’t—”
“Wait—wait,” he says. “I can do this! I was playing with … you know, the silence between the first and second note.” He hasn’t spoken this many words during a session in twenty years. Usually by this time he’s out the door, checking messages. He stalls for time, pretends to tune. The vibration hangs in each ear. He doesn’t have to look at the electronic tuner—knows a perfect E when he hears it. The harmonic echoes within his mind until it decays.
The producer scratches his head. Engineer’s making a phone call.
Producer sighs, presses the talk-button.
“What second note?”
If he could just see her, perhaps standing on the other side of the glass. Hear her voice. Even to glance at a picture of her. But that would have required planning for this moment, ruining everything.