Being someone who has never read music, and being totally self-taught, I have run into some pretty sticky situations when it comes to recording sessions. Not that I wasn’t qualified mind you, but there were times when people heard me play, loved me, and then proceeded to book me on recording dates that I was not really “cut out” to do!
One of the most nightmarish ones I ever went through was a recording for a film called “Simon” starring Alan Arkin. They wanted me to play Hawaiian Lap Steel guitar on it (who in NY did that, except me?!), and there was about 2 arm’s lengths of music to be read and played for this piece of music! Well, I figured I’d be extra prepared by getting the endless music the day before, and spending a night with it, studying it and transferring it to tablature to help me out. When they handed me the music, they said, “you know, it’s gonna be some Hawaiian elevator Muzak, very simple!” So, taking that to heart, I confidently took the music home and worked on it. The initial melody was simple enough, (Lord knows I’ll never forget it!) and I figured on it being a slow, swaying kind of Hawaiian piece that drifted along at a nice, “tradewind” pace, played by like 3 or 4 musicians. Well, I get to the studios the next day, carrying my little Gibson lap steel and a tweed amp, to see a room full of Philharmonic musicians, completing a strange take that involved the eerie sound of at least three bass fiddles together…..very interesting to witness.
Next up was “my” session, and I sit down, ready to record, and the first thing I notice is that there are going to be like 14 musicians following me, with me being of course, the lead instrument! I put on the headphones, and I heard this really fast tapping and clicking…I said, “does anybody hear that sound in their headphones?” And a voice from the control room says, “yes, those are quarter notes!” Well, much to my shock, this meant I was to be playing this piece at a breakneck pace that would’ve made the “Looney Tunes” theme seem like a dirge! I never heard such a fast tempo in my life! There was no way a Hawaiian guitar could actually be played this fast, even by an extreme expert! But anyway, not wanting to make too many “waves”, I started in on recording…take after agonizing take, I’d get the theme right, of course at break neck speed, but then would completely fall apart when I started in to play the bulk of the piece, which must’ve had another 300 measures to go! In an effort to continue, I would always start at least jamming and improvising there, so I wouldn’t just stop! So, we’d always have to “cut”, and I had all these “Philharmonic” musicians staring at me with sad, sympathetic faces. Finally, the “Producer” came out, and we discussed what was going wrong…..when I told him it was impossible to play this piece at that kind of speed, he angrily replied “what, you brought the wrong INSTRUMENT!?” And I must admit, at that time I snapped back at him, “when was the last time you wrote a part for Hawaiian guitar!?” At this point I really didn’t care, because the pressure had already taken 10 years off my life! Well, at this moment, out came running another big shot saying to me, “no, no, Arlen, it’s fine…we LOVE what you’re doing when you are improvising, we just thought no one could really play Lap Steel, so we figured we’d have to write everything out. What you’re playing is perfect!!” Well, needless to say, the relief was unreal at that moment, and then the session only took one take to get through.
As a footnote, when the film finally came out, I went to see it with my mom and dad, and the moment that all this agony was about was actually the funny punch line to the film, and the Hawaiian “Muzak” part I played lasted literally 3 seconds! Never have I suffered so much for so little actual music! Session musicians, beware!