The Section: Knights of Soft Rock

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By then, punk and disco had arrived, and some of the scene's major players got a dose of pop's new world order one night in June 1978. Asher secured tickets for himself, Ronstadt, Kortchmar, Kunkel and others to see Elvis Costello and the Attractions at Hollywood High. Kortchmar had already become a fan of punk and New Wave thanks to his new, younger girlfriend, Louise Goffin – daughter of Carole King and Gerry Goffin. (King had "no problem at all" with the relationship, Kortchmar insists.) Kortchmar says he loved Costello's show, but others, he says, weren't as thrilled: "A lot of people saw it as a threat. Which it was."

Almost overnight, the technical expertise embodied by the Section – where any note that wasn't polished to perfection was banished from the studio – was passé, and the musicians were typecast. "We all had a passion for what you'd call hard rock," says Sklar, who had played in a rock band, Wolfgang, before meeting Taylor, "but then I'd get called for an album project, but only for the ballads. We got cubbyholed. You created your own monster with this stuff."

Before too long, everyone was struggling to adjust to the altered musical landscape. Kortchmar and Ronstadt chopped off their long locks in favor of shorter, semipunky hairdos. After cutting one Costello song in 1978, Ronstadt decided to make an entire New Wave-influenced album, 1980's Mad Love. Wachtel was the first to quit. "At that point, I decided, 'I'm not into this music,'" he says, still frowning. "I didn't dig it. And for Linda to do this stuff seemed weird to me."

Kortchmar, who'd been chafing at playing restrained guitar parts for years, couldn't have been happier at the arrival of punk. He was feeling increasingly estranged from Taylor, thanks to his boss's deepening drug use. After one last tour with Taylor, he quit Taylor's band, joined up with Ronstadt's group for her Mad Love tour, and even cut a pogo-beat solo album, Innuendo. "People said, 'What are you trying to do, jump on the bandwagon?'" Kortchmar says. "And I said, 'You're fucking right I am!' I was tired of wearing bell-bottoms. I liked skinny ties and hipster jackets. I didn't want to be a stodgy shithead. Fuck the Seventies."

The excesses of the era were starting to catch up with everyone, including the Section members. While cutting Taylor's 1979 album Flag, Kortchmar – who was already starting to play too fast, thanks to coke use – showed up at one session so wasted that Asher sent him home. After a Ronstadt show in L.A., Wachtel drove straight to a Bob Weir session. From his drinking, he was already seeing double on the drive to the Valley, and the pile of cocaine and cigarettes at the studio didn't help. On the way home, Wachtel crashed his Volvo on the Ventura Freeway; amazingly, he wasn't seriously injured.

To the musicians' continual amazement, Taylor never gave a bad performance or forgot a single lyric during this period, despite his heavy drinking. (Taylor, who is in the midst of recording a new album, declined comment for this story.) The same wasn't true for some of their other employers. Dating back to their period in the Everly Brothers band in the early Seventies, Wachtel knew Zevon was an alcoholic. But then came the night in March 1978 when Zevon played before a crowd full of industry bigwigs, not to mention Bruce Springsteen, at the New York club Trax. Zevon and Wachtel both hit the stage plastered – Wachtel says Stolichnaya was sponsoring the tour, which didn't help. As Zevon began ranting and raving uncontrollably between songs, Wachtel sat down onstage and looked at Springsteen, seated in the front row. "Nice pacing, ain't it?" he told Springsteen. The all-important New York Times review called Zevon "pretty sloppy." Says Wachtel, "It was horrible. We were gross."

Off the road, Doerge was dealing with the deteriorating David Crosby. Only a few years before, Crosby was an animated presence, eagerly grabbing his guitar and joining in with the band during rehearsals. But by 1979, Crosby was deep into freebase, which Doerge and Sklar witnessed firsthand when Crosby recorded a solo album with them. During the sessions, Crosby rarely emerged from his own private space. "David was on the other side of the glass in a smoke-filled room that smelled like a cat box that hadn't been emptied for eight months," says Sklar with a sigh. "He never came out." (The album was eventually shelved.) Despite his state at the time, Crosby still recalls the support he received from these players during that difficult period. "I was just completely psychotic on drugs, and they tried to keep me making good music," he says. "They tried to keep me from going down the tubes. They were compassionate."

The most alarming moment came when Crosby set his freebase pipe on a studio baffle during a jam session. When he accidentally bumped into the baffle, the pipe tipped over and fell. As the musicians watched, Crosby put down his guitar and dropped to the floor in search of his beloved paraphernalia. "It was like throwing cold water over everyone in the room," Doer­ge says. "There was nothing David liked to do more than play. So for him to stop during a good jam – we were chilled by it. We knew the party was over."

'Here's a tune of mine that Jackson Browne recorded," says Kortchmar before strumming "Shaky Town." It's a midwinter night a few months ago, and he and occasional touring mate Jeff Pevar, another longtime session guitarist, are gigging at a small club on New York's Lower East Side. At 66, Kortchmar is stockier but still has the strutting stage moves of his youth. ("Danny could get a little over the top sometimes," says keyboardist Clarence McDonald, who played with Taylor's band in the Seventies. "We had to remind him it was the James Taylor show. He had a tendency to forget.") After playing "Honey Don't Leave L.A.," a Kortchmar original that Taylor recorded on JT, Kortchmar says, "I was trying to be sensitive. We were all trying to be sensitive back then." To chuckles from the crowd, he relates a story of falling in love with a beautiful woman backstage during his time in Ronstadt's band – which was only a problem because, he says, "I was living with someone at the time."

Before the show, Kortchmar talks about the TV series Nashville, which co-stars his longtime friend JD Souther. "I don't think Nashville is that realistic," he scoffs. "Where's the blow? It's like that Cameron Crowe movie [Almost Famous]. How can you do a movie about that period and not show all the dope?"

For Kortchmar and crew, the years of blow are also long gone, as is the Section. By the early Eighties, they'd mostly splintered. Lindley left Browne's band, at Browne's urging, and began playing his own blend of reggae, rock, blues and world music. Wachtel returned to session work – that's his guitar on two 1981 hits, Kim Carnes' "Bette Davis Eyes" and Stevie Nicks' "Edge of Seventeen." Kortchmar hit rock-bottom; he was fired by a business manager and recalls passing on buying a piece of cheese in a market because it cost too much. Sklar and Kunkel continued playing with Taylor, who cleaned up during that time. An awkward period ensued when Kunkel began dating Simon, who'd split with Taylor in the early Eighties. "It was a bit uncomfortable," Kunkel admits. "A little bit difficult. But we got through it." When Simon dropped by to visit Kunkel at a Taylor show, Asher had to scramble to make sure Taylor and Simon didn't cross paths. The musicians still worked together in various combinations – Kortchmar, Doerge and Kunkel contributed to Browne's Hold Out and Lawyers in Love albums, and Kortchmar co-wrote "Somebody's Baby." But an era had clearly ended.

Kunkel remains philosophical about the collapse of this period. "Here's the thing," he says. "Someone like James can't reinvent himself from summer to summer. He's still going to go out there and play the same 10 songs he has to play every show, no matter what. So in order to keep it fresh, there are only a few things he can change – like the musicians – even when things are going well. Even Bruce Springsteen had to go out and play solo for a while."

During the Eighties and Nineties, the members of the Mellow Mafia gradually found second acts. Kortchmar hooked up with Don Henley and played a large role in Henley's post-Eagles solo albums, writing, co-writing and producing tracks like "Dirty Laundry" and "All She Wants to Do Is Dance." (He tells the story of a manager who'd passed on working with him before the Henley hit, cackling, "Bad mistake on that guy's part!") Sklar joined Phil Collins' band and started getting recognized on the street thanks to his appearances in the "Sussudio" video. (When Sklar returned from a Collins stint, expecting to rejoin Taylor's band, he learned to his shock and surprise that Taylor had replaced him.) Wachtel, always a rocker ready to break out, became an integral part of Keith Richards' X-Pensive Winos ("Keith said, 'You've been playing for the women too long'"); Doerge toured with Simon and Garfunkel and then with Garfunkel alone.

These days, the work continues, even if it isn't always as high-profile as it once was. With his own band, Kortchmar, now based in Connecticut, gigs around the Northeast and still gets royalties from his songs covered by Taylor, Henley and Browne. "The L.A. scene, at least the part I was involved with, is gone," he says. "Like in that Dave Grohl documentary [Sound City] – that's what we all miss." In the past dec­ade, Lindley has reunited with Browne for shows here and overseas, cutting a live album in the process. Doerge writes and records with Henske, a longtime singer-songwriter with a deep voice and a cult following. Wachtel – who continues to earn royalties for co-writing Zevon's "Werewolves of London," which was used in Kid Rock's massive "All Summer Long" – remains Nicks' musical director. He has also contributed guitar parts to Richards' in-progress solo album and scored movies like Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Joe Dirt. Kunkel is Lyle Lovett's drummer, and Sklar, whose trademark whiskers are now largely snow-white, keeps busy with sessions (Vince Gill next) and soundtracks, including the upcoming Muppets and Superman sequels. Says Browne admiringly, "They're musicians for life. They're not running for rock star."

For the people who remember, the Mellow Mafia stand as one of the most important backing crews in pop. "They collectively changed the face of music," says Asher. "They helped in the process of taking singer-songwriters seriously. James is considered an American treasure, and they were invaluable aides to him on that journey."

They may also be the last of the great session crews, before home studios, Pro Tools and GarageBand made studio ensembles superfluous. With them, a style of pop – and of making records – came to an end. "I'm running around with a baton in front of me and there's no one to hand it to," says Sklar. Asked to name their successors, producer Rick Rubin – who occasionally uses a small, hand-picked combo when recording with acts like Adele and the Dixie Chicks – pauses. "I'm not sure," he says. "You don't really need bands anymore."

Kortchmar, Kunkel, Wachtel and Sklar have been approached about participating in a rock & roll fantasy camp devoted to rhythm sections. "If one of your ambitions is to hang out with Sammy Hagar, you'll be disappointed with us," Kortchmar says. "But we want to demonstrate what it's like to play in an ensemble. That isn't taught much by anyone."

The Mellow Mafia players received vindication of sorts three years ago, when Kunkel, Kortchmar and Sklar toured once more with Taylor and King. With its wall-to-wall set list of singer-songwriter classics from the era, the arena tour grossed more than $63 million. For the musicians, the shows were more than a first-rate payday. "When we did that tour, so many people came up to us and said, 'Now, that's how that stuff is supposed to sound,'" says Kunkel. "I'm sure James' current band didn't like to hear that." He pauses – but only briefly. "But too fucking bad. I'll quote Danny Kortchmar: 'Some things are better than others.'"

This story is from the April 11th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

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