Who the hell am I
I was lucky enough to share a stage some time ago, in the previous millennium, with Bill Callahan as a member of Smog, on a short tour of Europe. Bill, Jeff Parker, and I all played guitar in this band, and with little rehearsal, I had to feel out my role. Bill, like Will Oldham, doesn’t say a lot about what he wants from you—he trusts you to complement what’ s going on. So, on this tour, I did just that—playing melody lines and coloring the gaps with a volume pedal. There was one show though where Bill turned to me on stage as an instrumental passage approached and said in his patented dead pan, “Be Rick Rizzo.”
I had perhaps less than a measure to process what that meant. Who the hell am I?
I didn’t learn to play guitar until I was what I considered way too old to begin—23 years old. It was 1980 and I was just out of college and living on my own in upstate New York. I had traded my friend my P-bass for his ’68 Telecaster because I wanted to learn to play so I could write songs. When you learn how to do something you tend to go to your reference points. Critics have tended to refer to a very narrow list when they describe my playing. So, let me unpack it for you, the best I can–here are my guitar influences. Although my playing has evolved over the years, I think Rick Rizzo, the guitar player, was formed before I even started a band.
Just to get it out of the way, I think The Beatles served as a primer for everything I know about music and how to perform and write, but the first time I was thrilled by a guitar I was ten years old lying in bed listening to WCFL on my Sears Silvertone radio. I would set a timer on it and fall asleep to the current charts. I Can See For Miles was energy from space. Pete Townshend was my first favorite guitar player. Critics always said he didn’t solo with the best of them (I beg to differ), but it was the rhythm playing and power chords that had me. The one note solo was brilliant too. Pete.
If I go through the timeline of what I listened to as a kid beyond the pop charts, Shindig, and the garage bands on my street, it starts with Chuck Berry. My music fandom as a serious consumer started with Fifties music, just ask my pal, Pat Daly. We recorded a version of Chubby Checker’s, Let’s Twist Again, at Adventureland in an amusement park recording booth for a buck. (I think Jack White has bought up all those old booths). I bought Chuck Berry Gold on cassette and listened every day for weeks. Those rock and roll licks are the dna for all rock that followed.
After Chuck, Albert King was my guy. Lots of the same licks, but slower and with emotion. Albert was West Coast electric blues. At the time I knew nothing about acoustic blues—I would discover Son House and Lightnin’ Hopkins years later after I started with eleventh dream day. Albert’s notes were filled with a force greater than time and space. If I had the internet back then I would have figured out that Buddy Guy had that too.
When I bought the Allman Brothers, Live at the Fillmore East, I became a man. Okay, I was 15 and wouldn’t grow facial hair for almost ten years, but this record was guitar brilliance. Duane Allman was the guy. I think my sense of jamming was born here.
In the early seventies all I wanted to hear was loud, sonic guitar playing. My friend Gary was a Hendrix freak and I too became a worshipper at the altar of Jimi Hendrix. I went to a local theater for a showing of the Woodstock movie. I was in awe. Jimi was gone, but he was alive in my world. His playing defied all boundaries. The Star Spangled Banner interpretation says it all. There are other great guitar players from this era who I liked alright, but since they didn’t satisfy my sonic guidelines I appreciated but didn’t love them. Keith, Jimmy, Eric were not in my pantheon.
My friend Pat had a couple of older brothers who shaped the next phase of my guitar lexicon. I would never have found John McLaughlin or Frank Zappa if Pat’s brothers weren’t dropping acid and getting stoned. I was pretty innocent in high school but I sought out Mahavishnu Orchestra and Mothers records with the money I was making as a grocery bagger. At this point I was years away from thinking I could ever play music—these guys didn’t help with those thoughts, but I did register how they explored beyond the typical rock boundaries I knew. My first concert was at the International Amphitheater in Chicago—row 40—Frank Zappa on the Apostrophe tour with Captain Beefheart. Mind blown.
I used to set my alarm to wake up at two in the morning to watch Rock Concert. One night Neil Young was on—a taped performance of Like a Hurricane from London off a record that didn’t yet exist. I owned After the Gold Rush and loved it, but this particular performance struck me deep down in my musical soul. A large fan onstage blew his hair and ruffled his flannel shirt in the simulated hurricane. The solo soared beyond Hendrix—it had all the astral power, but there was a melodicism that made the notes sing. I’m getting blown away indeed.
1975—University of Kentucky—half the dorm hasn’t arrived yet because they have to work the tobacco fields at home. I meet the only other person who had arrived –the friend who would change my musical life—Keith Holland. Keith was gay. I had no idea. Back then, who would have known? Those first weeks of school, I heard records that changed everything. Keith turned me on to the Velvet Underground. Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison probably have as much to do with how I play than anybody else. They weren’t necessarily good players, but there was magic in their interplay. The adage that only a few thousand heard those records, but all who did formed a band was true in my case. James Williamson was also a fave from the Stooges record Keith turned me on to.
Keith also had the record that changed everything—the Patti Smith Hey Joe/ Piss Factory 7”. This was something that only existed on the fringe of the world. It made FM radio irrelevant. It made 99.9 % of everything I knew irrelevant. Patti has said she didn’t ever consider herself to be a punk, she used the “n” word to describe who she was. Outside of society is where I want to be. The term punk was perverted by the fashion-fueled British version of rock that happened in the mid-seventies, but really, what could be more punk than taking on the Crown, so give fashion plate Johhny Rotten his props. To be a punk meant to be on the fringe. That’s why homosexuals, artists, and poets (of which I was none, but a fascinated guest at the party) tended to find each other. In Lexington, there couldn’t have been more than two dozen of us. Keith and I found the townie punks, but it took a couple of years. As for the dorms, I know that we were on the fringe. When it was discovered that Keith was gay,that would be all too apparent. And the music that we listened to was shunned by all but several of our small circle. Lenny Kaye, the champion of the garage music of my childhood, was another subliminal influence on my future guitar style. All over Horses there are guitar runs that are not made to be transcribed. Lenny channeled Patti’s lyrics and expressed all the emotions therein. Unpack Lenny’s playing and you’ll find all that garage band fuzzy Nuggets too.
I bought a bass and amp from the J.C. Penney catalogue in the summer after my junior year of college and taught myself to play. I played in a punk band with my roommate Chris. I traded many of my classic rock records for punk rock. Television Marquee Moon was one of them. Tom Verlaine possessed some of the string bending skills of Quicksilver’s John Cipollina coupled with Neil’s emotional range. Like his adopted name suggests, there is a poeticism to Verlaine’s playing. Richard is pretty great too.
My band The Pods played New Year’s Eve at Halle Lou’s in Lexington to welcome in 1980. We entered the stage to the song Foxhole. The local punks were there at the free show probably because our flyer used the same cut and paste collage style of Never Mind the Bollocks. We made some friends that night, played some shows together in the new year, but then I decided to ship out back to Chicago. I started a new job and moved back in with my parents. I was still playing bass in my bedroom, and loving post-punk bands like Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, P.I.L., and Gang of Four. To fill out the rest of my influence roster I have to include the guitarists I was loving just before I picked up the six string for the first time. Bernard Sumner had a way to interchange power chords with lead lines that I loved, Will Sargent played guitar like J.W.M. Turner painted, Keith Levene was creative and daring, and finally, Andy Gill slashed and chopped and burned his way through the mix. All of these Brits made an imprint on the songs I’d be writing the next year.
Since I began way back then trying to learn guitar I haven’t been immune to other guitarists. I discovered Richard Thompson and Fairport Convention in the early eighties. The sounds he makes are amazing. I’ve also been influenced by my friends. Tara Key and Ira Kaplan are kindred spirits and two players who always take me to other places. The Feelies’ Mercer and Million, Roger Miller, and Karl Precoda seeped into my subconscious as well.
So who am I? No doubt a little bit of all of the above. I wish I could be the sum of those parts I’m just a patchwork. I’ve never considered myself to be much of a guitarist. My hands are too small and I’ve never been able to use my pinkie much because it doesn’t stretch to the fourth fret of the major scale. I have to slide my ring finger up to the note that the pinkie would have covered. As a result I’ve never used scales—I sort of feel my way around. I also have a very poor short term memory. I am not the kind of player who can listen to a record and play what I hear. I cannot duplicate anything no matter how hard I work at it.
Back to Smog.
I stepped to the edge of the stage in mock stardom. Bill had emboldened me. Across the field, Iron Maiden was playing, their roar faintly drifting across the fields that separated us at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark. I stepped on my Tube Driver, closed my eyes, felt the breeze in my hair, and fired back.
- Am. Rick. Rizzo. Whoever that is.
Thanks for this, I often wonder about the path musicians take from being being fans to forging their own identities.
If you’ll indulge me in some guitar geekery, what is the pickup in the bridge of your LP Deluxe? It looks like some kind of DiMarzio. That’d be interesting since those were designed for ’80s hair metal, but in your hands it produces a highly unique skronk that echoes Young and Verlaine.
And good point about Townshend. PT’s one of my favorite guitarists, and his style is completely unique. Ted Nugent can dump on him all he wants, but any half competent journeyman guitarist can do a convincing “Stranglehold,” while I’ve never heard anyone really sound like Pete.
I’m a little younger than you are (born 1964). Listened to a lot of those classic rock and punk rock in my highschool days, realising that they were good, but at the same time understanding that they made music that was not the sound of my generation. For some times it seemed that that sound was defined by dull synthesizers played by guys with crazy haircuts. My faith returned when a lot of young bands started popping up, influenced by all the big names, but adding a new freshness and urgency to that sound. And for all, it was the sound of my generation. Thanks for all the great reords, Eleventh Dream Day and Dream Syndicate, R.E.M. and Yo la Tengo, Husker du and Replacements, Green on Red and Sonic Youth, Lyres and Gun Club, and all the others, you made music important again!
Thanks Marcel–great bands all! I think the synths came back somewhat; the haircuts were thankfully left behind. Maybe we’ll look at beards like that in 30 years!
Not being much of a guitar geek I can’t tell you. I had a second Deluxe in the early nineties and I actually swapped pickups so each had one of each (a double coil and a single coil) I almost always used the bridge pickup–double humbucker.
Thanks for reading/listening!
Rick, a real pleasure to find these posts!
I’m not a social media type, so I appreciate your posting here.
Hell, I’m just happy you have a website after all these years!
I was born in ’55, and am a fanboy of everyone you’ve touched upon.
For me, the biggest touchstone to your sound is ‘Old Black’. Nuff said.
Why I’m really writing tho is to tell you that I bore witness to a great “Being Rick Rizzo” moment that will be with me on my deathbed of fine memories, I’m sure.
TT the Bear’s on the ‘Lived To Tell’ tour, the solo you took on ‘Awake I Lie’ was the best lost-in-the-moment solo and pure rock & roll moment I’ve experienced when you went thru the ceiling tile trying to hit that magic note that doesn’t exist.
In my mind, it didn’t even touch upon the ’Lie’ solo, and I connote it to the ‘April’ solo done years later. Playing ‘April’, when you hit that last “C’mon April!” and break into the solo, always brings a tear of joy to my eyes.
I just want you to know how impactful that was to me as well as most of the other 200 people there that night. Hell, the Boston Globe’s Jim Sullivan referenced that moment in a few reviews over the next few yrs. when describing a pure rock moment. Kudos Rick Rizzo!
“Being Rick Rizzo” has just become a catch-phrase in my mind.
Funny how much you give to Patti Smith here. The one other time I’ve witnessed a gtr. neck going into a ceiling was John Cale doing so playing on “My Generation” as an encore touring ‘Horses’ at the Jazz Workshop in Boston. It was a very deliberate move; yours was not.
I remember that second of surprise on your face as your eyes opened after making contact with that ceiling. A great, pure moment.
In closing I have to mention I bought ‘Prairie School Freakout’ because more than one review likened it to the Dream Syndicate, another band that made a huge impact for me on their 1st Boston show at the Rat.
Please keep on being Rick Rizzo for the world, Rick.
Hey Matt–I appreciate the feedback–the TTs shows were definitely in the top ten for us. Baird had told us the week before he was leaving the band, and we had already had a fight and meltdown out of our system. The Boston shows were pure joy, relief, and celebration. The energy was incredible from the crowd. Boston was always my favorite place to play–lots of love there. Note to self–Boston entry