First a note. Quite a few people have left excellent suggestions of topics for me to cover in this blog. If you would like to add to the list of recommended topics, sign in at billyward.com – and welcome to our group! Also, about my website – Thank you to all of you who generously shared on the questionnaire at the website. I’ve been embarrassingly slow to respond to the almost 100 responses. In truth I’ve been completely inactive in getting back to you! I hope to help everyone who requests help. I’m going to be hitting these questionnaires and answering many of you in the coming month(s) and if some of you wish to study privately with me we will proceed.
Neil, a very talented pro drummer who took a lesson with me asked that I share more about my track on Robbie Robertson’s album “Storyville.” I’m uncertain how many lessons lie within this story. I know there is one lesson for sure. Hopefully this is more than just a story to you.
This happened some time after I was in The Knack and before working with Chris Whitley as well as continuing numerous Gary Chang feature film sessions. Gary Chang had worked with Robbie on his first album that Daniel Lanois produced and Gary was instrumental in my meeting and then playing with Robbie. Apparently Gary called Robbie and apparently said, “You’re an A-hole if you don’t check out this drummer from New York, Billy Ward.” Robbie responded with send me some things you’ve done. I sent him a cassette (cassettes!) of me with Bill Evans Supergroup and a punk song from The Beeks, a band I was a part of 8 years earlier that played at CBGBs. The Beeks’ song was titled “Gotta Be A Man.” A few days later my phone rang: “Billy, this is Robbie Robertson. So, Gotta Be A Man, huh?”
We started jamming music (pre-production) that might or might not eventually end up on his second record, “Storyville” for about 6 weeks.
I had a terrible start to Robbie Robertson’s “Hold Back The Dawn” session. The morning of the session I was loading my cymbal bag into the back of my Toyota pickup and there on the street was Bass, my beloved kitty, obviously dead. We had just moved to LA and Bass went out that first night and must’ve been hit by a car. I was renting a room with Mark Craney, who had already become a cherished friend. Mark said,” “Go to your session, I’ll take care of the body.” Many tears were shed. I was hysterical! Upon arriving at the Village Recorder in Santa Monica I told the engineer what happened. No one else knew the painful churning of remorse and sadness in my belly. The session itself began with them playing a wonderful take of “Hold Back The Dawn” with Ginger Baker on drums. I had worked for months with Robbie in preproduction of this record but we never worked on HBTD. This was the first time I heard this song. They didn’t say anything after the song ended and I said, “That’s Ginger and he sounds f..’n great. He really did. It was moody, smoky and had his usual floppy kind of touch that I’m fond of. I didn’t know why they were playing this for me. They said, “We want your energy on it.” I was shocked. We began recording. The producer wanted specific notes. “Not like the demo” were the words between several takes. Additionally, between several takes, Robbie wanted me to “just go for it.” Finally, after battling these two different approaches within a single song I started finding the right place and they were right! It needed both emotional views. (It’s important to share that while tracking I was thinking, “This is for you, Bassy. If only you had not been out at dawn this morning!”) After probably 10 takes, the producer, Stephen Hague said “That’s it Billy, but it still feels just a bit too muscular. Try to imagine that your favorite cat or dog just died.” Nobody knew about Bass except the engineer. I walked out of the Village Recorder saying I needed air and walked around the block trying to straighten out my head. I was literally talking out loud to myself , possibly the only time I did that! It was then that I realized a truth that I will always now remember; Music only relates to other music, not to loved cats that just died. I wasted many takes trying to play for dead Bassy instead of playing for the song! Now that it is done, I always think of Bass when I hear any part of that song. Now my performance was for him. Thanks to the bassist, there was some degree of difficulty with timing, but really my challenge that day was emotional. That track and that experience is one I’m proud of. I could share what some of the people there said to me but it would be bragging but I keep those kind words in my heart and they have empowered me at less successful moments in my career. Stephen Hague was patient and correct in his approach to the song and Robbie wanted to feel it, after all, he was used to hearing great drum performances by Levon Helm! For me, the quality of this record speaks for how talented Robbie and Stephen were. RR gossip? I can say this, during pre-pro as well as during recording, Robbie played great. He is a monster player! It was like James Brown-land at times when we jammed. Other times it was moody, grooving or slinky stuff. I’ve had only a few gigs where I felt everything I had ever experienced was pouring into my playing. Working with Robbie was one of them. I loved the jamming we did in preproduction! He’d work up a sweat and start standing as we cooked the groove, grinning from ear to ear. We did another song also that day, just the two of us, and RR later said it was in some movie. I’ve never heard it since he gave me a cassette of our rough mix and that was lost. Shortly after my session, Robbie recommended me to play with Chris Whitley and though Chris never became mainstream, it was challenging music with an incredible artist. RIP Chris.
BTW, playing “like you mean it” does not always mean loud and proud.
And finally, have you been playing the game of“Find The Drummer” in your listening?
“To excel, strong you must be.” -Yoda.