The Section: Knights of Soft Rock

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The musical adventures didn't always have such happy results. John Lennon hired Kortchmar to play on Harry Nilsson's infamous 1974 album Pussy Cats, which Lennon was producing. During one night of heavy partying at L.A.'s Rec­ord Plant, Lennon and his on-again, off-again friend Paul McCartney led everyone in a long jam on rock & roll classics. Eager to join in, Nilsson began screaming along to early-rock classics, according to Kortchmar – and, as Kortchmar watched, ruined his vocal cords forever.

In a Sunset Strip restaurant one day, Crosby was approached by a scrawny, bespectacled guitarist who wanted to pick his brain. Robert "Waddy" Wachtel was born in New York and, like Kortchmar, had the accent and street-savvy attitude to prove it. With his own band, Wachtel – dubbed "Waddy" by a childhood friend – relocated to the West Coast in the late Sixties and worked his way into the studio scene after his band fell apart. Wachtel met some of the Section at a session for Rocky Horror Picture Show star Tim Curry, and was soon assimilated into the scene despite his initial jealousy of Kortchmar. "I remember seeing Danny's name on all the records," says Wachtel. "'Who is this guy Kootch? I hate this guy!'" But the two hit it off, and Wachtel worked with most of the Section on King's 1976 album Thoroughbred.

Of all their bosses at the time, King had the most strongly held opinions about recording – and knew how to communicate them in the predominantly male-driven world of pop in the Seventies. "Carole knew exactly what she wanted," Kunkel recalls. "If she didn't like what you were doing, she would tell you what to play." But like Taylor – and Browne, whose wife, Phyllis, committed suicide during the making of The Pretender – King's personal life was complicated. On the road with King, the band had to spend time with her then-boyfriend, Rick Evers, a strapping hunk who'd served time in jail for forgery and was known for his very short fuse. Recalls Wachtel, still sounding perplexed decades later, "I thought, 'This is your boyfriend? Tall, rugged cowboy guy, dungaree shirt, pot-smoking – Carole King's boyfriend?' Didn't make sense."

"Evers was a dangerous psychopath," says Kortchmar, who says that Evers was jealous of the band and also nursing a serious drug habit. After an encore in the Midwest, Kortchmar was coming offstage and exclaimed, "That was fuckin' great!" – and was promptly punched out cold by Evers. "He clocked me when I wasn't looking," says Kortchmar. Wachtel and Kunkel jumped Evers, punishing him until they were pulled off by others in the crew. Onstage at her piano, waiting for the musicians to join her for another encore, King heard the commotion but was unaware of the brawl. "We were ready to kill this piece of shit," Sklar says, still wincing at the memory. "I love Carole dearly, but I've had issues with some of the men in her life." Once things settled down backstage, the band threatened to bail on the tour but ultimately stayed as a show of support for King (and to honor contracts).

Looking back, King said, "I learned that their character is as good as their musicianship." (Evers and King married the following year, but he died soon after from a drug overdose.) As for the Mellow Mafia, their bond was fully cemented that night. Once he'd woken up, Kortchmar looked fiercely at Wachtel and said, "Man, I just want you to know – from now on, you and me: brothers forever!"

As the decade wore on and the California-rock sound took over the country, the Mellow Mafia would do three or four sessions a day, bumping into one another at different studios and around Los Angeles. They were well paid, making double scale – $242 for three-hour blocks (thousands of dollars a day in today's money). For overdubbing a biting lead-guitar part onto Ronstadt's "Hurt So Bad," Kortchmar earned a cash bonus of $5,000, hand-delivered in a guitar case to his home. And as the Section, Kortchmar, Kunkel, Sklar and Doerge cut three instrumental, fusion-geared albums of their own for Warner Bros. and Capitol.

Like their bosses, the backup players reveled in the spoils of the time. During their tenure backing Crosby and Nash, the Section were briefly rechristened the Mighty Jitters, for not-too-subtle coke-related reasons. "That band was really, really, really high all the time," Kortchmar says with a laugh. "We were extremely jittery. Afterparties? They hadn't invented that expression. Before and during party!" During this period, the excesses rarely interfered with the work. In the studio, Wachtel laid down his solo for "Werewolves of London" in one take, before he'd even had a chance to partake of the bump of coke and drink he'd placed in front of him.

The high point, with or without pharmaceuticals, was 1977. Early that year, they reconvened with Taylor to cut one of his biggest-selling albums, JT. It was Kortchmar who came up with the idea of playing a sexy, slow-grind version of Jimmy Jones' bouncy 1960 hit "Handy Man," which became the album's first smash, despite Taylor's initial reluctance to cut another remake after "How Sweet It Is." The Section had rarely played tighter and even tougher, transforming "Your Smiling Face" into a playful R&B vamp. "James playing that song by himself didn't sound anything like the record," Kunkel says. "James' songs are melodic and rhythmic to a degree. But that's not rhythmic."

On the same album, Kortchmar's sinister, quivering guitar bolstered Taylor's tale of caddish behavior, "I Was Only Telling a Lie." Val Garay, a recording engineer who worked on Taylor's albums, says he dubbed Kortchmar "Switchblade": "James was never a rock singer, but it was the juxtaposition, like the way Lennon gave McCartney an edge."

They'd barely had time to rest from the JT tour when, a few weeks later, they packed their bags and instruments and boarded buses once more. For the first time, they would be touring with Browne, who decided to try something fairly new: Record each show for a live album of entirely new material. Browne knew he needed the best players to pull it off, and at Lindley's strong urging, he hired Kortchmar, Kunkel, Sklar and Doerge. They weren't cheap – "Up until then, I couldn't afford to tour with those guys," Browne says – and to seal the deal, he offered to have them open each show with a set of their own music. "I hired them as an opening act as a way of getting them on the tour," Browne says. "It was a good decision, but it began as a strategy."

Although it lasted only three weeks, what became known as the Running on Empty tour took full advantage of Browne's status, and the peak of the singer-songwriter moment. Browne recorded songs on buses and in hotel rooms (renting out the adjacent rooms so as not to irk the other guests). Doerge was able to bring his concert grand piano to every stop, in its own truck, rather than rent one for each gig. The contract rider called for plenty of Metaxa brandy, which led to Lindley and Doerge having a contest to see if they could play better drunk or straight. Lindley recalls Browne lining up wine bottles onstage and, in one possibly inebriated moment, taking off his pants onstage at an audience member's request. "Everyone thinks Jackson was Mr. Sedate," Lindley says. "He was always in control, except for a couple of times. Like once when he was walking a high wire but on the edge of the piano. It was nuts." (Admits Browne, "There was a little bit of a party vibe.") Late one night, Browne and Lindley cut a version of Rev. Gary Davis' "Cocaine," complete with the sound of Browne snorting up.

Lindley, who like Sklar avoided drugs, had his own quirks. To keep hotel maids away, he'd execute a flawless imitation of a barking Doberman, down to throwing himself up against the door for added mad-dog effect. "He'd start doing that on the other side of the door, really loud, and you'd see cleaning women running down the hallway for fear of being eaten," says Crosby. Sklar's beard and affable manner disguised a sarcastic, cynical sense of humor and an impatience with his peers' drug abuse, and also with what he calls a "level of hippie incompetence" on the Browne tour, like the time a replacement for a blown bass speaker didn't arrive for a show. "I was furious and yelling and throwing shit – I went berserk," says Sklar. "I probably should have taken an anger-management class." Says Asher, "If you see Lee lose his temper, it's a sight."

And just as on Taylor tours, plenty of female fans showed up to see Browne's shows. Doerge and Sklar, both married at the time (and still wed to the same women), had to stick with flirting, but other band and crew members availed themselves. "We did OK," Kortchmar says, but adds, "There were tons of groupies, but they weren't all that good-looking. Hard-rock bands did a lot better in terms of women throwing themselves at you. Our fans were a little more cerebral."

Despite the excesses, the Mellow Mafia always hit their marks onstage. "Danny would do some outrageous shit, like walking back and forth like a professional wrestler and pointing to himself, like, 'Check this out!'" Browne says with a laugh. After three encores at a show in Maryland, they'd run out of material, and Browne was about to go out one more time to play a song by himself. Instead, Kunkel suggested they play a song that Browne had just written: a paean to the road crew called "The Load-Out," which the musicians had discussed but hadn't worked out. They returned to their instruments and, before a packed house, gave it a shot – and played it (and a version of the Zodiacs' 1960 hit "Stay") so perfectly that both wound up on the finished album. (So did Kortchmar's moving "Shaky Town," a song he'd written about a touring musician.) With the Section's help, the experiment paid off: Running on Empty hit Number Three on the album charts, and became a landmark record of the era. "The Section playing with Jackson," says Kunkel proudly, "is by far the best Jackson's ever sounded live."

It had been a physically draining year – and decade – and Doer­ge's wife, singer-songwriter Judy Henske, witnessed the results firsthand when an emaciated Doerge returned home from the tour. "Judy started crying when she saw me," he recalls. "We were burning the candle at both ends."

Meanwhile, Wachtel had learned that Keith Richards, of all unlikely people, was a fan of Zevon's Excitable Boy, which Wachtel co-produced and on which he played lead guitar. The praise was confirmed when Wachtel flew to a Stones show in Arizona with Ronstadt, who had hired Wachtel as her lead guitarist. Backstage, Wachtel was complimented and hugged by Richards and Ron Wood. "It was quite a moment," he remembers. "I couldn't believe it." Says Kunkel, "We thought it would go on forever."

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