Well, I seem to never run out of “nightmare” stories, especially when it comes to some recording dates, but luckily they are still in the minority compared to most of the others I’ve done! Still, it always seems that the stories we like to tell are the bad ones…sort of like the “News” on TV…it’s mostly the bad, or traumatic stuff we hear about, and also remember most of all!
In any event, most of my earliest recording date “traumas” always seemed to be as a direct result of not being able to read music. This certainly held me back in a lot of ways when it came to that particular “end” of the business, but simply being able to read all the time, and do a lot of what we players called “hack” work was not really what I felt I was cut out to be doing.
Anyway, on this one particular date, I thought I really had all my ducks in a row, and was truly prepared enough so as to avoid the “nightmare” that was still, unavoidably about to unfold! There was a time in NYC that I was known as one of the few, if not only Hawaiian steel guitar, as well as pedal steel guitar specialists. As a result of this dubious honor, I was getting a lot of steel guitar gigs thrown my way by top studio guitarists who couldn’t do any of that kind of stuff. In fact many times I had to “sub” for Eric Weissberg of “Dueling Banjos” fame, from Deliverance. In any event, I get called for this Hawaiian guitar part in an Alan Arkin film called “Simon.” Apparantly, there’s a scene in the film where he says something like, “and if I am elected President, I will ban Hawaiian Muzak in elevators! So I’m told by the music contractor that I will be playing Hawaiian music, which for me, evoked tropical breezes and nice slow and easy stuff to play. So, looking ahead, I actually able to procure the incredibly length sheet music the day before, and stayed up all night, actually translating it all into tablature. By checking out the melody, which was very typically Hawaiian, I felt so sure that this was a slow, easy-going trio type piece that I was literally overflowing with confidence!
So the next day rolls around, and I go to the studio carrying my little tweed Epiphone Hawaiian guitar case along with my little tweed amp, and I notice that there are about 25 other Philharmonic classically-trained musicians there waiting for me to plug in! I then said hello, put on my earphones, put my new “tablature” on the music stand, and noticed that there was an extremely fast “clicking” going on in my headphones. I asked if anybody else had this problem, and then I heard in the “talk-back” system someone saying “Those are quarter-notes!” Well, what that actually meant was they intended to have me play this Hawaiian piece even faster than the “Looney Tunes” theme. Needless to say, I was intent on muscling through this dilemma, and even though a lap steel guitar can literally not be played that fast, I was surely ready to give it a try! Surprisingly enough, I was able to always nail the initial theme, which occurred during the first 2 or 3 measures, and then it was off to the races with endless measures of other playing, which was all written out, and impossible to play at that breakneck speed!
So, after about the third “cut” tanks to my inability to play this part, the director/producer, or whatever he was, came out and said “what’s the problem?” I right away told him this was an impossible piece to play on this instrument at this speed. He then snapped back at me “Did you bring the WRONG instrument!!?” And I said, “when was the last time you wrote anything for steel guitar?” A little bit confrontational, but at this point I was like a lone gunman facing an entire cavalry of soldiers!
Just then, when I felt like it was all over, and my nerves couldn’t take any more, out of the blue came some other “producer” guy who said, “don’t worry Arlen…all that riffing you’re doing when it keeps falling apart is perfect. We just never thought we would ever find an actual steel guitar player who’d know what he was doing! As long as you state that original theme, we’ll be fine!” I swear, it was as if I’d been given my life back….the rest of the session was a breeze, the song worked out, and when I took my parents to see the movie with me and to hear my part, it was literally a 2-second “punch line” at the very end of the movie! That was all that was needed, and when I finally saw the film, it was so amazing to think of all the torment that went into that one little moment that made everyone laugh in the theatre! Now if I can only get back the 10 years of my life that I felt like I’d lost at that session!