If you stalk the band Cracker (not that I would ever do such a thing), you’re going to get to know the guys in the band.
(Well, most of them. Crumbs – Cracker fans – know what I mean.)
In the band’s quarter-century run, they have had some excellent bass players, including Sal Maida.
I got chatting with Sal one night in 2013 at a tiny downstairs bar in the small Colorado mountain town of Frisco. Based on something he had posted, I knew he might know a few of my friends from when I was hanging around Boston clubs in the late 1970’s. We knew lots of people and bands in common (well, he knew the bands, I had only seen them).*
Anyway, as anyone who knows him will attest, Sal is a great guy. (Turns out, so are all the guys in Cracker.)
Sal Maida played bass on three tours with Roxy Music in the 1970’s. He also toured with Sparks and performed and recorded with a bunch many, many bands. I’d love to see a complete list of all the recordings that include his bass guitar.
But wait, there’s more. Sal is also one of the biggest music fans you’ll ever encounter.
Now, he’s penned a book called Four Strings, Phony Proof, and 300 45’s.
It’s two-books-in-one. It’s a breezy, fun recap of his rock and roll career (which ain’t over yet) and he also picks his top 300 favorite 45’s.
What a book.
A full review follows.
First, Sal was also willing to answer a few questions by email. I could have asked a 1,000.
Here’s 11. Yes, eleven.
Question: In Four Strings, you skip right over how you learned bass guitar. How did you learn? Who did you learn the most from in terms of technique or style? Any idea why the bass and not guitar or something else? And – most difficult/challenging band you ever played with in terms of demands on the role of the bass? What’s the key to a truly great bass player?
Sal Maida: I am self-taught and learned from playing along to records by The Kinks, The Byrds and of course, The Beatles. Probably learned the most from John Entwistle, Jack Bruce and especially Chris Squire. I always gravitated to the bass, I’m not a frustrated guitar player that switched over to bass. One of the most demanding bands I’ve ever played in is the band I am currently involved in called The Brando’s.
The key to a truly great bass player is taste. By that I mean playing for the song, locking in with the kick drum but also emphasizing the melody and leaving spaces.
Question: You auditioned like crazy over in London. It seems so fearless. You weren’t afraid of rejection? Weren’t worried about being good enough? I guess I’m asking the wrong guy, if you felt OK knocking on Paul McCartney’s door just to say hi. Was the process intimidating at all?
Sal (right) with Roxy Music.
Sal Maida: I wasn’t thinking about rejection because I wanted it so badly. The rejection hurt but it gave me a reality check that I had to work harder and up my game. That took a good two or three years of auditioning and hustling around until I found the right situation.
Question: Writing Four Strings, did you keep some sort of notes way back? Or just have a good memory? I assume it was all fairly vivid. How hard was it to stitch it all together?
Sal Maida: I did not keep notes or a diary but I wish I had! My memory is really good because I wasn’t an abuser of drugs and alcohol. It wasn’t any moral decision, it just didn’t appeal to me. The book was hard, sometimes torturous to put together but also a hell of a lot of fun.
Question: You started as an Anglophile, it seems to me, but in the end you’ve got the most far-ranging taste in music. I mean, you played with one of the most famous glam bands (Roxy Music) of all time but also toured for years with Cracker, All-American and blue jeans and, you know, no glitter. You dug punk. And soul. And funk. Did you do hip-hop? Explore country at any point? Well, The Byrds … Do you have any music you don’t really care for? Seems pretty rare to be both a musician with all your credits AND be a pure music fan/collector. True?
Sal Maida: I have to say that I expanded my musical horizons deeply in the 80’s, when there wasn’t a lot of new music to enjoy. That’s when I delved into roots music, jazz, folk pre and post war blues, etc.
I love early hip-hop like Grandmaster Flash, Run D.M.C., Public Enemy, De La Soul, early L.L. Cool J. Nothing since has tickled my fancy but I am always checking stuff out like Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean and Chance the Rapper. I did explore country music heavily with a band called The Lovin’ Kind in New York in the early 90’s.
There are other musician/collectors out there, Lenny Kaye being the obvious example. But for the most part, the majority of musicians I know are not always obsessed with records and collecting.
Question: When you bought your very first record—LP or 45? Did you know you’d be a collector? Did you ever sell a record or trade in a record you wish you’d kept? Favorite possession on vinyl today? Did you always keep ticket stubs? Concert flyers? And, does ANYTHING beat that scratchy sound of a real record before the music kicks in?
Sal Maida: Don’t really remember my first record, probably a 45 that my mom brought home for me. The serious collecting didn’t start until around 1967. I’ve sold many records that I regret but it’s all part of the collector’s journey.
My favorite possession today is not one item but my collection of 45’s, especially the British singles. Didn’t save ticket stubs or collect posters. Nothing beats the sound of a rock n roll 45!
Question: How hard is it to make a living as a musician today versus, say, the 1960’s and 1970’s? How hard is it out there on the road? It seems like there are 5 million more bands than there were in 1971, when you had a feeling you could keep track of most of the music business if you made an effort. Thoughts? Better music scene today because so much to choose from? Or … ?
Sal (right) with Cracker at Mishawaka Inn outside Fort Collins
Sal Maida: I would say it’s harder today. Back then, things were more straightforward. The road is mostly really hard work but if things go as planned, it can be the most rewarding part of the whole experience. It’s so different now because the perception of music is what’s available which is pre-programmed pop.
If you dig in, there’s some incredible music out there. But it takes time and effort to find it and attention spans are extremely limited.
Question: What’s up with those bands that don’t pull off great live shows? Like The Byrds, you mention. Was it just the shows you saw? I’ve seen some rough shows by The Kinks but also some amazing ones, too. What gives? Have YOU ever been in the middle of an onstage disaster? I mean, it happens sometimes when the chemistry just ain’t happening, right?
Sal Maida: The Byrds were unfortunately a terrible live band. The records were absolutely brilliant but live, they were a train wreck. Now that does not include the band with Clarence White, who were a really good live band. The Kinks were spectacular the first time I saw them in 1965 but in their case, I think I caught a couple of bad shows in 1969 and 1971.
Question: I am a huge Rory Gallagher fan. I actually interviewed him twice and met him backstage another time. But I’ve never met anyone who saw the original Taste. Memories of him? Of that show? Did you ever see him after he went solo?
Sal Maida: Taste were fantastic at The Marquee the night I saw them! I love their second record “On the Boards.” I never did get to see Rory Gallagher solo.
Question: OK, Love. Why the heck weren’t they bigger? And The Move? From all the bands you’ve seen rise up, it must be frustrating to see some two-hit wonder make zillions of dollars and others struggle under the radar for years and years and years.
Sal Maida: I’ve always wondered about that. Why is a band that’s so undeniable not more popular? But now I realize that so many aspects have to align for that to happen.
Sal (right) with his Jerry Jones Longhorn playing recently with The Brandos.
Question: Fender or Rickenbacker? And what player had the best Rick-o-Sound ever?
Sal Maida: Wow, that’s a tough question. I’ve been enamored with the 4001 Rick but then became a staunch Fender man. Now I play Jerry Jones Longhorn and I am enthralled with that. Turns out that’s what Jack Bruce played on “Disraeli Gears.” Best Rick-O-Sound player ever is Chris Squire but in second place would have to be Martin Gordon, who played on “Kimono My House” by Sparks.
Question: Must have been brutal (I would think) to pick 300 songs. How many times did you pour over that list, thinking, ‘what did I miss, what did I miss?’
Sal Maida: A lot of people have asked me about that. It was difficult but so much fun to play the records, do the research and just get goosebumps all over again! After a while I just went with my choices and let the other 50 or so that were “bubbling under” go by the wayside.
Question: Finally – you’ve got so many obscure band names mentioned throughout Four Strings. Which makes me think you’ve got some great band names in your back pocket, ready to go when the need arises. Yes? Got one? Care to share?
Sal Maida: Yes, here’s a couple. The Ice Cream Gods and The Umbrella Attack!
WHERE TO BUY FOUR STRINGS by Sal Maida: at the Hozac Records website here.
Sal’s Spin Cycle hip-shakin’ online radio show is on Little Water Radio here.
Sal Maida turns up everywhere.
Born and raised In Little Italy on the Lower East Side, he wangles his way to England as a dedicated Anglophile and music junkie in 1969. He gets Paul McCartney’s address from a guy in a record shop, knocks on Paul’s door, gets rebuffed by the housekeeper, and hangs around outside for a half hour until Paul and Linda come strolling out.
And Sal freezes—too star struck to utter a word, though Paul is being affable.
Then to Apple Studios (three hours later) for another encounter with Paul (who recognizes Sal). But wait! It turns out to be some kind of magical perfect meant-to-be day because none other than The Rolling Stones have been inside the studio rehearsing for the first post-Brian Jones tour and the next thing Sal knows there’s his bass hero Bill Wyman and Mick Jagger, right there, and soon Mick is giving him an autograph.
On his third trip to London in 1971, Sal brings his bass along and does a session with The Great Paul Thompson on drums, as Roxy Music started to take shape.
In 1973, Sal joins Roxy Music, replacing John Porter, and does three world tours with Bryan Ferry and company.
Back in The States, he joins American bubblegum glam band Milk ‘n’ Cookies, a band with a strong Sparks influence. Sal later joins The Maels (the band named after the brothers who founded Sparks) and, later, the Sparks lineup too.
The Runaways’ “Waitin’ For the Night” album, featuring such stars as Joan Jett and Lita Ford? That was an uncredited Sal on bass except for one track. Then a band called Velveteen and various projects with well-known artists like Dave Schramm (bring back The Schramms!) and Annie Golden and many others.
Then, years later, Sal toured with Cracker, Echo & The Bunnymen, Ronnie Spector and more recently worked on the HBO show “Vinyl” with both Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth) and John Doe (X and, well, John Doe).
On and on. And that’s only the skimming-the-surface highlights.
But that’s the performance side. He’s also a giant music fan and, well, if you read Four Strings, Phony Proof, and 300 45’s, which you should, you’ll find yourself immersed in the life and times of a guy who grew up with a thirst of music and quenched that thirst every single freaking chance he got. Clubs, concerts, bars, joints, festivals, parties, you name it. He once crashed a prom to see The Hollies.
As if that’s not enough, these days you can catch Sal every week as DJ of “Spin Cycle,” a killer online radio show on Little Water Radio. He is a curator like no other and knows both meaningful history and full-on trivia about producers, obscure musicians, songwriters, studios, band formations, and band breakups.
He’s a vacuum cleaner of information and, at the same time, you get the sense throughout the book that he’s still hankering for that gut-punch single, that tasty melody, that perfect three minutes of rocking bliss. It’s hard to imagine Sal going a day without music. Maybe an hour.
Four Strings is a blast. It’s a rip-roaring (and lightning quick) read as you skip through the bands and the years and the moments and brushes with your childhood heroes, who are now your cohorts and buddies up there traipsing around in rock star land.
So there I am at the NME Xmas Party, Dec. 1973 at The Speakeasy. It’s a double date, myself and Pennie Smith (the photographer famous for The Clash’s London Calling album cover) and Nick Kent and Chrissie Hynde. All of a sudden, Chris Squire walks into the party, with not just the jacket that was supposedly ‘made specifically for me,’ but a whole suit made from the same material! Now, you have to understand that the reason I’m playing a Rickebacker 4001 is totally because of Mr. Chris Squires. So I say to Nick Kent, “Do you know Chris?”
He says, “Yes,” and I say,
“You have to introduce me to him!”
So the introduction is made and I am chatting to Mr. Squire about Rick basses and our respective bands, Yes and Roxy Music. He says his girlfriend is good mates with Eno’s girlfriend. Finally, I couldn’t help myself and I tell him that I’ve been wearing that exact jacket on the Roxy tour.
He says, “That explains it.”
I say, “Explains what?”
He says, “Well, the other night I was coming out of the Quadrophenia premiere when a young girl comes up to me and asks for my autograph, saying excitedly, ‘Aren’t you the bass player for Roxy Music?’
Yeah, just another kid from the corner of Mott & Broome who wound up chatting with the bass player for Yes at a Christmas party in London with Chrissie Hynde in tow and the woman who would later shoot the photo that became one of the most famous album covers of all time.
Four Strings is a love fest for music. No sex or drugs or kiss-and-tell. None of that. Sal’s blow-by-blow recap of his career ends in about 1978 in Four Strings. It’s meant to show how he got established in the business. There’s no trash talking, though a few mentions of bands that should have been better in concert but, in fact, sucked. Sal is simultaneously performer and fan. He’s the dealer and the junkie. He gigs with as many bands as he can and simultaneously takes in as many other bands as each night allows—all with the relentless appetite of a starving omnivore.
Beatles at Shea Stadium? Check. Rolling Stones? Yep. In fact, two Brian Jones shows, two Mick Taylors, one Ronnie Wood. Jimi, Zep, Kinks, Dave Clark 5, Ramones, T. Rex, The Doors (in 1967)—well, there isn’t enough room here to list them all. And Four Strings includes many of Sal’s photographs—including early Taste with Rory Gallagher (so jealous of that one) and Yes when it looked like some decent amps but not much more equipment than four high school kids meeting in the garage to jam for the first time.
The last big chunk of the book is Sal’s top 300 45’s of all time and Sal offers a paragraph of love to each of them. There are many familiar soul and rock and funk hits, often submitted with some nugget of fresh trivia, and many rarities like Honeybus, Brian Hyland, Doris Troy, Jody Reynolds, The Music Machine, William Bell, and The Critters. No band gets more than one 45 unless it’s a killer A/B side like “Paperback Writer” and “Rain.” Reading this section alone will make you want to call all your friends over and crank up the tunes.
In fact, the whole book will do that. So track down a copy and just try and imagine the soundtrack of Sal Maida’s incredible life.
Four Strings will put a smile on your face.
Clip of Sal with Roxy Music doing “Street Life” in 1974.
* One of the people Sal & I did know in common was Annie Golden, who used to come to Boston with The Shirts and stay with the band that I was living with at the time, a theatrical rock band called Orchestra Luna. Annie now has a role—as Norma Romano—in “Orange is the New Black.”