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Rumble: Indians Who Rocked the World

I know so much about rock ‘n roll, but if you were to ask me what I knew about Indians in the music biz, I wouldn’t have been able to come up with much more than the fact that I heard Hendrix had some native blood, Jim Morrison wrote songs and poems about Indians, and there was a cat in the Village People that was Indian. Or at least he wore a headdress and acted like one. That’s why it was a treat to watch this documentary and learn so much about what Native Americans have contributed to popular music. And coming off the last five years of such interesting music documentaries (20 Feet From Stardom, Muscle Shoals, Beats Rhymes & Life, Anvil!, The Wrecking Crew, Searching for Sugarman, It Might Get Loud, etc.)…this is the latest interesting one to come along.

It certainly helps that some of the talking heads involved in this include Iggy Pop (his documentary was awful), Martin Scorsese, Quincy Jones, George Clinton, Slash, Buddy Guy, Tony Bennett, and many more.

The movie may be a bit scattershot, but it’s rather interesting.

Director Catherine Bainbridge talks about the American government recording Native American music in 1907, and we start to learn a lot about the influence their music had on blues and rock.

This is after we get a tasty segment featuring one of rock’s most underrated guitarists — Link Wray. You might know him from his instrumental hits Apache and Rumble. Younger folks will know that song from the restaurant scene with Travolta in Pulp Fiction. Scorsese said of that song,

“It is the sound of that guitar…the aggression.”

It’s the only song in the history of music to be banned from the radio — despite the fact that it had no lyrics! As Springsteen guitarist Steven Van Zandt says, “It’s the theme song of juvenile delinquency.”

Who knew it was called “Oddball” but when Phil Everly heard it he said it sounded like a street rumble.

Scorsese’s man from The Last Waltz — Robbie Robertson, tells a lot of great stories about his Indian heritage.

I loved hearing from the music legends I grew up with. Jackson Browne talks about the guitarist that did the solo in “Doctor My Eyes.” His name was Jesse Ed Davis, and he ended up playing on each Beatles solo album, as well as Taj Mahal, who breaks your heart with some of the stories he shares.

It was also fascinating hearing about people I knew nothing about. Delta blues musician Charley Patton, who was a big influence on Son House (Jack White’s all-time favorite) and Howlin’ Wolf.

I knew nothing about jazz singer Mildred Bailey, the first woman to have a radio show. Sinatra and Bennett were both big fans.

I knew literally nothing about the band Redbone, except their hit “Come and Get Your Love” (which was used in Guardians of the Galaxy). It was interesting to hear their tales.

The movie went in some interesting directions. What other documentary could teach you about the history of the banjo, as well as a drummer that played for Ozzy Osbourne?

Two pleasant surprises included hearing from Wayne Kramer (MC5), a guitarist I always felt was underrated, and Stevie Salas, a local talent who is also the executive producer. I tracked him down to talk about this movie, and that interview follows.

This is only playing at the Ken on Adams Avenue for a week, so catch it while you can.

3 stars out of 5.

THE INTERVIEW

I was lucky enough to catch Link Wray perform at the Casbah less than a year before he died. I’ve always been a big fan of his surf guitar stuff, and when I found out a documentary was coming out that featured him, I was thrilled.

When I worked at a rock station in the early ‘90s, one of the local guitarists we often talked about was Stevie Salas, who had just come back from touring with Rod Stewart. I never knew he was Native American. Well, I really didn’t know much about him. I contacted him to talk about this documentary.

JOSH BOARD: I love the premise of this movie. I only knew of a handful of Indians that were in the rock scene. What made you decide to get involved in this?

STEVIE SALAS: I didn’t choose to get involved. I spent years working on getting others to want to be involved. See, I first started thinking about this subject in 1988 when I joined Rod Stewart’s band. Originally I was just wondering…was I the only Native American rock musician playing Madison Square Garden? And as I started to look into it I realized that there were some amazing Native musicians that for some reason most music fans didn’t know were Native. But what was really crazy to me was that most of the most famous musicians in the world all seemed to know about these guys and not only knew but loved them…I mean real fans.

JOSH BOARD: I’m a huge Link Wray fan, and think this is a lovely tribute to him. And I was pleasantly surprised by all the other musicians I didn’t know anything about, other than a song or two on the radio. This makes me wonder if there were any musicians that you had to edit from the documentary because of length.  

STEVIE SALAS: I spent the 90s researching other Native musicians as a hobby but in 2003 I went to Canada to play a show with The Rolling Stones and AC/DC and while there I was interviewed for a history book about Native American Musicians being written by a musicologist named Brian Wright-McLeod and it was Brian that really blew my mind with knowledge about the subject educating me on a much deeper level about guys like Link Wray and Jesse Ed Davis [Jackson Browne, Taj Mahal, and many others]

JOSH BOARD: For a picture like this, is it hard to get the rights for the songs being used? I’m always curious about that in music intensive films.

STEVIE SALAS: Yes it is expensive but we pre-sold the film to HBO and PBS before shooting it. Also when making documentary films there is a thing called the “fair use law” and that really saved the day. [http://cmsimpact.org/code/documentary-filmmakers-statement-of-best-practices-in-fair-use/]

JOSH BOARD: I always hear people complain about how their race, religion, or profession is portrayed on screen. What is your opinion of how Native Americans are portrayed in movies?

STEVIE SALAS: I picked the production company ‘Rezolution Pictures’ in Montreal because they had made a documentary called ‘Reel Injuns’ that dealt with the Hollywood stereotype of Native Americans in film.

This was important to have in our back pocket, but what we really wanted to do was not make a negative film about being victims. I wanted a film about Native American heroes.

JOSH BOARD: You mentioned the tour with Rod Stewart in the film, and almost alluding to getting a bit out of control with the partying and buying houses and things, before the trip to New Mexico (if I remember correctly). That made me wonder a few things. Did Stewart every pull you aside and warn you of the dangers of partying? Or…with Jesse. All these people gravitated towards him. He played on every Beatles members’ solo albums! Didn’t any of them, or anybody, ever try to help him get clean? I’m always curious as to how…we know about these deaths (Hendrix, Morrison, etc)…yet nobody ever warns rockers about the dangers of partying and getting out of control. Is that because people doing that would just be a buzz kill, or do they just think it won’t get that out of hand?

STEVIE SALAS: You know, we are all grown ups. Yes I’ve been way off the rails as have many of my friends. Good friends will let you know when you’re out of control but many never listen. Randy Castillo from Ozzy was a Native American drummer who took time with me when I was really young and understood my madness. He saved me from myself in many ways. I’ve worked with some of the greatest like Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Steven Tyler and others and all are human and have those flaws. In fact, it’s those flaws that often make the greatness shine.  Taj Majal said it in Rumble…’We walked the land and played the music and some of us are still here to talk about it.’ To tell you the truth, I didn’t care if I lived or died when I was younger but now that I’m a father I wanna live forever.

JOSH BOARD: You being a guitarist, I have to assume Hendrix was a big influence on you. How old were you when you realized he had some Native blood?

STEVIE SALAS: I didn’t realize it. I was always told about it. It also wasn’t a big deal or part of the way I marketed myself, it was just who I was  as a human being. Robbie Robertson (The Band) told me, ‘You didn’t walk into a room to play music with someone and say, ‘Hey I’m Jim Polansky. I’m Polish.’ He is right.I didn’t walk into Mick Jagger’s audition and say, ‘I’m Stevie Salas, Apache.’ Who does that? Ha! As for Hendrix, his sister Janie called me with Tim Johnson when I was creating the ‘Up Where We Belong’ music exhibit at the Smithsonian that dealt with this subject and said Jimi has to be in this exhibit. His Cherokee heritage was super important to him and our family. They wanted the story told.

JOSH BOARD: The movie reminded me of ‘Searching for Sugarman’?Did you see that, and…had you seen many music related documentaries?

STEVIE SALAS: Yes I saw it and it broke my heart to know that that guy was inspiring  so many people and he had no idea. When I decided to make a doc film on this subject I watched tons of documentary films. I wanted to learn about the balance of educating the mind and the heart.

JOSH BOARD: Of all the artists you’ve worked with, which one was totally different than you had imagined, and how?

STEVIE SALAS: I would say Justin Timberlake. He was way more musically intense then I would have thought. He sat at the piano while I had a guitar on and played things that I wouldn’t have thought of that were really deep. He isn’t some pop kid. He is indeed on another level.

JOSH BOARD: What was it like working with American Idol?

STEVIE SALAS: That was a gig I stayed away from at first. It represented everything I’m against as an artist. But as the years went by and the music biz dried up, it started to make more sense to me for many reasons. I was now the father of a young boy, the show was becoming the highest rated show on TV and the job I was offered put me close to the top of that food chain. Idol wasn’t really a music show, it was a dreams come true show and once I embraced that I was cool with it. One of my little things I did for myself with Idol was to make sure that someone from my hometown area in San Diego got a chance to be successful so I always put a hometown kid into an Idol gig and many now own homes and have families. I was lucky leaving San Diego and making it on a pretty high level and I wanted to give others that opportunity.

JOSH BOARD: If memory serves, you used to live in Encinitas. How often do you come back to this neck of the woods?

STEVIE SALAS: I was born in Oceanside and for many years always kept a home in Carlsbad. That is my home and always will be even though I’ve lived in New York, London, Canada, Holland and in Austin Texas, where I’m at now.