Soulful West Coast guitarist, singer and songwriter Ned Doheny’s love affair with music began early. He played his first recording session while still in high school, and not long after he was playing on a major label album with his friend Jackson Browne. After a year of classical guitar study with Fred Noad, he traveled to England, but soon returned to Los Angeles, where Jackson Browne’s involvement with David Geffen would guide Doheny to a recording contract at Asylum Records and his first self-titled album, all at the age of 22.
Doheny would go on to make two more albums for Columbia Records, Hard Candy and Prone, effortlessly capturing a sense of sun-soaked soul and laid-back optimism with lashings of psychedelic folk. His songs have been recorded by Chaka Khan, George Benson, and Dave Mason, to name a few, while the advent of sampling made his music accessible to a generation of hip hop artists. Meanwhile in England, his disco slow-burner “To Prove My Love” became an underground hit and a seminal influence on house music.
Doheny’s sunny vibes and easy-going influence are readily apparent in this excerpt from his recent interview with RBMA Radio in which he talks about his Laurel Canyon days, why he’s so big in Japan, and the power of music.
When did you first fall in love with music?
I suppose you could say that it really all began on Christmas. Some fool gave me a stringed instrument, thinking that it might be an ice-breaker socially, something that you could play in your frat house like Stephen Bishop in Animal House. I was fascinated by the guitar. When I hit the tender age of seven or so, my parents were in their early 30s. People that are in their early 30s are quite conversant with the rhythms not only of life but of joy and celebration and all that; music is devoured eagerly by people of this age group.
They gave me a guitar and then I had to try and figure out how to play it. It had steel strings — those hurt my fingers so we went with a more a classical nylon string situation. All that was available to me in those days were folk songs. The first song I ever learned was called “Old Dan Tucker.” It had a stupid-ass rhythm part with not even an alternating thumb, just kind of a pattern that repeated itself ad nauseam. But I could play it and that changed everything.
At that point I thought, “Oh my God, this is real now! I’m connected to the entire universe.”
My father was particularly fond of jazz and my mother was particularly fond of show tunes, though I’ve said many times that my generation’s main source of music was a clock radio. You would go to sleep at night, lying with your head on your pillow – that would be like… the mid-’50s maybe? After the novelty songs and the Doris Day tunes and “How Much is That Doggy in the Window,” the really seditious sexual stuff began to creep onto the airwaves and you could lie there in bed at night and hear things that made you feel things that you had never felt before.
Because there were all these little isolated pockets of creativity, everybody’s record sounded completely different. There was no formula. People were just in there banging it out trying to find something that resonated with them personally, then putting it out and seeing what happened.
Anyway, that became my altar for musical connectivity. At one point, I was out at my family’s summer home at a ranch out in southern Ventura County. I was sitting in the kitchen and the radio was playing and an Elvis tune came on. I was sitting there with my guitar and it was actually in tune, and as it turns out I played some of the chords exactly the same as he did. It was like primitive man and fire. At that point I thought, “Oh my God, this is real now! I’m connected to the entire universe.”
How did you meet Jackson Browne?
I went off to college at the University of California at Santa Barbara. After my first year at UCSB, I decided my interests might be better served if I went to a music school and tried to be a little bit more formal about all this. I applied at California Institute of the Arts. It was in Downtown Los Angeles on El Dorado Street, not far from the park. They gave me a scholarship but I thought to myself, “God, this is an awful lot like regular school. I’m not really seeing the fun here.”
Around that time, there was an ad in one of the papers looking for a guitar player. I showed up at a hotel and I brought this little tinny amplifier. By that time, I could play Eric Clapton-type stuff without much effort. I played a bit and then the gentleman in question – a lunatic named Barry Friedman – said, “Well I want you to come up and play with this guy named Jackson Browne.” I assumed he was African-American. We went to this house on Reed Path and there was a rather Latin-looking kid with a straw hat and it was Jackson. We sat across from one another and he played what he knew and I followed him as best as I could, never having heard any of the stuff before. They went, “Oh, that’s great. You should stay here.”
I moved into that place and that really was where it all began. I became friends with David Crosby, The Incredible String Band… I was a huge fan of theirs. They had a song called “First Girl I Loved” that absolutely broke my heart; it was so poignant and so well-executed. I got to play with Lonnie Mack, who had a song called “Memphis.” It was an old Chokeberry tune. There was a best guitar solo in it that I had heard at that point. It was the greatest thing ever. I thought, “Oh my god! All you have to do is magnetize the things you love.”
Why did you leave Los Angeles for London?
A friend of mine gave me a book written by Joseph Campbell called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I read it cover to cover. I stayed up all night to do it and it was so familiar to me that I expected to be addressed directly on the final page. It was about the themes in mythology that occur all over the world, the whole idea of death and rebirth and the fact that the hero has to die to go to the underworld to bring back something that mankind can use.
I was living in Laurel Canyon and out of desperation I gave away everything. I had a British Land Rover tricked out so I could sleep in it. I thought I was going to drive around the world. I was 21. It was not a genius idea, but you have to admire the sheer balls of it. I knew that in order to go around the world I was going to have to first go to New York and put my car and myself on a steamship, which I did. I listened to Bob Dylan all the way from Los Angeles to New York before I wrote my first tune. I stayed in New York and had a coat that was made for me by a tailor at Nudie’s. The man was Manuel Cuevas and I still have the jacket. It was a chambray Indian blanket with lots of grays and reds and blues – really loud.
I had a chance to sit across from Jimi Hendrix and watch him play and there were all kinds of naked girls around the pool, which is a great thing, especially when you are 21.
I put the car in the ferry and we arrived in Southampton. I drove the car to a hotel not far off Kings Road and moved my stuff in. I had an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar, some clothes and an amplifier. I still have those guitars. This was 1969, the year before The Beatles broke up. I remember sitting in downtown in Piccadilly in a movie theater watching Let It Be with a girl I had met at Peter Tork’s house when we were in Laurel Canyon. Before we went up to the Paxton Lodge and did all that, Jackson and I had a chance to sit across a couch from Jimi Hendrix and watch him play acoustic guitar and there were all kinds of naked girls around the pool, which is a great thing, especially when you are 21.
One of the girls that I met there, Nicole Tacot, was friends with Dave Mason and we went out to his English country home. Between the time I left Los Angeles and the time I got to New York, I had written my first real tune, called “On and On.” The second one I wrote on the floor of Dave Mason’s living room and he asked me to join the band. It was Dave Mason, Cass Elliott – who was formerly with the Mamas and Papas – and myself. Cass is like a portal between dimensions in the people that flowed into number 30 Wellington Court. It was astonishing, I met all the great artists of that time: The Beatles, Eric Clapton. I returned to Los Angeles in a limousine and I left the Land Rover in London. This time when I returned to Los Angeles, I had a whole different relationship to the music business. Jackson recommended me to David Geffen and I became involved with Asylum Records.
Talk about the scene in those early Asylum days and around Laurel Canyon.
It was great. I grew up with an older sister and I really longed for brothers and that’s one of the great things that the music business provides. We were all in about the same place in terms of our relationship to Asylum. Nobody had become famous at that point. When the Average White Band came to town it was a major event. People were shocked that these guys could play that well and sing that well at the same time. I remember sitting with Glenn Frey on the stairs leading up to the upper balcony staring at them. I saw Donny Hathaway’s live album, which was a major thing. We saw Richard Pryor and Steve Martin a lot.
To say that we were all caught up in a similar zeitgeist would be pretty accurate. We were all really friendly with one another and competitive in a really great way. The greatest thing was to go to a club and see somebody that scared you. That was the best thing ever because at that point, you had something to work with. You could dig a little deeper, reach a little higher, try a little harder, practice a little more. We were all in the same race at the beginning, a bunch of brothers who were chasing the same vision.
A lot of people ask me about or associate me with that time period. I don’t associate myself with it at all. To me, music is so much larger than that. Music is between myself and my sense of discipline and what I’m willing to do, how bad I want to stay good. It’s an old friend from my childhood. It’s a house you love to visit and live in; it’s like a window that you open that has the most beautiful garden on the other side. It doesn’t always give you what you want, but it’s as much a part of it as your flesh certainly. Music is a continuous source of nourishment and also a great vehicle for self-analysis because if you come up with something great, everybody benefits.
Why do you gravitate towards writing ballads?
My family was very intense. My great grandfather was a poor Irish man who took a tremendous risk and could have perished at so many turnings. The universe just let him live for whatever reason, and he prospered and he did really well but the bill came later. His only son was killed. We will never know how – there are a lot of theories. I have mine, but he was my namesake.
Invariably it’s when you love something that everything about you that is unresolved wants to be handled.
I think every family brings with them a certain complement of unfinished business in addition to all the things that are wonderful and reassuring and all the rest of that. There is also a little duffel bag full of beasts and unconscious issues. One of the great things about music is that music can help you find your consciousness. A lot of people look at the ’60s and go, “You people were all taking drugs and you were hedonists.” But for me and my immediate group of people, we were so damn curious about who we were. It was like finding another wing of a building that you had lived in your whole life and never knew was there, a basement filled with artifacts. Music can help you dig some of that stuff up. Love can help you dig some of that stuff up too, because invariably it’s when you love something that everything about you that is unresolved wants to be handled.
There is no more robust crucible than loving someone. Aside from the obvious wonders, it’s also a beast fest and it really requires a lot of consciousness and patience to get through it. I think love is the purest and the most essential part, not only of this world but of every other. I think it is at the essence of quantum physics, at the heart of it; maybe not love but an indissoluble affinity that draws people together. What else is there to write about?
Can you talk about some of your famous songs off your self-titled debut and your second record, Hard Candy?
“On and On” was actually a piece of music that I wrote in Los Angeles in 1968. Jackson wrote a set of lyrics to it before I wrote a set of lyrics to it – in fact, the people at the Numero Group who put out Separate Oceans found that demo of him singing his lyrics to that tune! That was the first one, and the second one I wrote on the floor of Dave Mason’s bungalow out in the countryside was called “Trust Me.” At that point I was seeing a Persian girl who lived in London. She was a model. It was the first song about a turbulent relationship that I had ever written.
There are a lot of songs on the first album that have substantial stories. “Take Me Faraway” was the verbatim desert trip that I took with two friends of mine and I came back to the house and sat down and I just wrote it out. There was a tune called “Lashambeaux” on that same album. There was an Eagle Scout that lived down the street from me in Laurel Canyon named Lee Lashambeaux, and I thought his name was so great so I used it for that tune. I would play it in the kitchen of my room at the Chateau Marmont after I got back from England.
“Fineline” was about my relationship to Asylum Records and David Geffen and all the rest of that. I had the chords first and then the lyrics I sort of figured out as I was trying to drive with skill and deep sense of personal responsibility. That song bothered Geffen a lot. I played it at the Troubadour one night, and when I got to the chorus his head just exploded. He couldn’t believe that I had the balls to actually say such a thing. I should have dedicated it to him.
With “Get It Up for Love,” that was a pretty classic situation. I wasn’t trying to be controversial. I was trying to find a phrase fit the music line so I used that. At the time I thought it was hilarious. There was a song that Doctor John did called “I Was in the Right Place”; the guitar part was incredible. I saw him play that live at the club, and I looked at the guitar player and went, “Okay, I’ll have that!” Glenn Frey loves that tune; he really wanted to write that with me. If I had written that with him I would probably be in Hawaii floating in a pool right now.
“Postcards from Hollywood” came from… I was living in Benedict Canyon in this house I was renting. All kinds of stuff went on at that house, god! The entire first album was written at that house. The keyboard player was living there for a time with his wife and two kids, and made pizza every night at 11 o’clock. In those days you could stay thin, even though you ate pizza at 11 o’clock. I wrote “Postcards from Hollywood” and “When Love Hangs in the Balance” and “Standfast” there. “Standfast” was about the music business – don’t you let them pull you down, because they don’t have the vision but they want the benefits.
Every single song takes me back to a place that I remember so well: time of day, temperature, location, everything. Music helps you remember who you are.
How did you first end up going to Japan?
In 1978, I was dropped by CBS Records. My best friend lost his left leg in an automobile accident and convalesced at my house, it rained for three months. My girlfriend moved out. I didn’t have a record company. I’m emptying bedpans, chain-smoking Camels everyday. It’s raining so hard that cars are coming down Laurel Canyon sideways without drivers in them. It was just unreal. And then I get a call that says, “Hey, you want to come and play in Japan? Sure, let’s do that.” That love affair has been rock solid ever since I married a Japanese girl. Music will take you far, absolutely.
The Japanese were the first to connect with what I was doing. I can't even begin to tell you why. I think they are R&B hounds, they love rhythm tunes. I think a lot of it had to do with rhythm – they can't understand anything I’m saying, so it has nothing to do with the lyrics. In the end you say, of course that’s perfect, because what difference does it make? You wrote a song about an orchid and they have you in a machine shop, but the music is enough to bridge that gap. That’s what's so great about it.
How did you first hear from the Numero Group guys?
My wife is very practical human being, to the point of madness. She always used to say to me, “You don’t have to look for it, it will find you.” I get a call from a friend of mine’s nephew, a guy named Morgan who sings with The Phenomenal Handclap Band. Anyway, they are talking about me at one of their rehearsals or something and Morgan goes, “Oh, I know him. He is a friend of my aunt’s,” and Daniel Collás, the producer, goes, “Really, can I meet him?” As it turns out, I have some kind of fan base back East.
Then I get a call from a guy named Scotty Coats. My phone rings and he says, “A bunch of my friends have this party every year in Palm Springs, would you consider coming out and playing?” Just before that, although I did not know it at the time, I had been diagnosed with Valley fever. Do you know what Valley fever is? It’s a spore that lives in the soil in Southern California and in the Central Valley in New Mexico and Arizona. You can inhale it. Sometimes you just think you have a bad cold and your immune system handles it, but it can migrate in your body. It can kill you, and there are a lot of people in the Central Valley that are struggling with this.
It was one of those things where we staggered out of the studio in the morning and the sun was coming up and you really felt like you had done something fabulous.
Anyway, I was so sick and we didn’t know what it was. I lost all this weight. I was going to have to play this thing in Palm Springs, I remember standing in my laundry room planning, and it’s like my guitar was here and my voice was all the way over there. It made me weep. I was so far from being together. Anyway, I went and I sing for these people and I got hugs in mid-concert. People ran up and gave me big hugs, like this really famous DJ Harvey. Then I got an email from this guy at the Numero Group saying, “Do you have any demos?” I was thinking, “Nobody wants to hear an album full of demos.” Then, he put it in a form I could understand and told me a little bit about Numero Group and I met Ken. They all came out the ranch and we figured, “Okay, what the hell!”
Were you surprised by the reaction to “To Prove My Love”?
My relationship to the DJ community started with “To Prove My Love,” which was on the Prone record. It was a groove that I had been fiddling with at home that I had no melody for and only background vocals, no actual lyrics. [Steve] Cropper, the producer of the album, heard this and went, “Oh my god, that’s so great, let's do that.”
We jump on this thing, he calls a bunch of players, and we stay up all night making this thing and it was one of those things where we staggered out of the studio in the morning and the sun was coming up and you really felt like you had done something fabulous. CBS never released the Prone album, they wouldn’t do it. I don’t know how, but it found its way to England – they sent over what is called a “TV mix,” which is everything but the lead vocals. It got to London and they went completely nuts; apparently it influenced the acid house people. If you go out in clubs you can still hear it now, and that was a long time ago.