From Sideman to Center Stage
Veteran drummer Don Heffington steps up to play his own music at McCabe’s this Sunday
By Bliss Bowen
Chances are you’ve heard drummer Don Heffington, whether or not you realized it.
Dave Alvin, Sheryl Crow, Bob Dylan, Lowell George, Emmylou Harris, the Jayhawks, Rickie Lee Jones, k.d. lang, Lone Justice, Ron Sexsmith, Percy Sledge, Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Turner, the Wallflowers, Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam: Heffington has recorded and/or performed onstage with them all.
He’s one of “those LA guys” who hit the road with name acts like the Watkins Family Hour, with whom he recently played a string of West Coast dates, then come home to do sessions and squeeze into dim nightclub corners behind lesser-known bands across town. He’s a working musicians’ musician.
And songwriter, though that side of his creative persona rarely emerged in public before he quietly dropped “Gloryland” last year. The 10-track album is a grab bag of droll wit and deliriously musical, oddball songs, from the Fallujah-referencing “Flying Over Flagstaff” through “Crablice and Quaaludes” and the hilarious “Sorry About the Matter,” which sounds like deadpan Catskills standup performed at a junkyard carnival. The sweetest track is a honky-tonk setting of a note written by Allen Ginsberg to Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, “Put a Kiss and a Tear in Yr Letter.”
Heffington played most of the instruments, and recorded it in pieces with late engineer David Vaught. Its unconventional sonic template may have been sketched out when the lanky drummer was still a shorty.
“I’ve always played some guitar, and I used to have a one-man band when I was a kid; I’d play a banjo-uke and a bass drum, I had some harmonicas, that type of thing, made some racket,” he says, laughing. “I remember my dad used to come in and just shake his head. He thought all was lost.”
“Gloryland” isn’t the first album with Heffington’s name on the cover. He co-wrote and recorded 1995’s “In the Red” with fiddler Tammy Rogers; the mostly instrumental, Appalachian-flavored set includes his gruffly sung hymn “Psalms.” In comparison, “Gloryland” sounds like a happily bedraggled parade of tuba, guitars, mouth harp, piano and spacey sound effects behind Heffington’s surreal lyrics.
“Well Richie’s so souped
he can’t even see
Me I’m lit up like a Christmas tree
But it’s them against us and
it’s him against me
And that’s what’s bad for the ecology
So I just keep right on drinking ’til I drink that toast
To the Father, the Son and
the Holy Ghost
I keep right on digging ’til
I’m deep in my hole
And I’m gone, gone, gone
like a catfish on a pole”
“I wanted it to sound like some drunk falling down the stairs while he was practicing the trombone,” Heffington says of the album. “People compare it to Beefheart and some other things, but you know what they hear? They hear some of the influences.”
Those influences are deeply steeped in jazz — a surprise to fans only familiar with Heffington’s steady beats behind Americana and roots-leaning rock bands.
“It’s exactly where I started,” the Los Angeles native says of his not-so-secret passion for jazz. “I played with a guy named Butch Morris, one of my first bands. He was a brilliant musician … Go on YouTube and look up a thing called the Composition of Conduction with Butch Morris. He had a way to conduct bands in real time; in other words, they were still improvised. The music was formed spontaneously from these hand signals. Absolutely unbelievable.
“When we were kids we were playing Miles [Davis]. I got to see all the great cats — [Thelonious] Monk, John Coltrane. That’s probably where I’d still be if it hadn’t been for Bob Dylan. But, you know, Bob Dylan kinda turned everyone around, me included. That got me into songwriters and folk music. Folk music and jazz, they’re the two big things for me.”
Those twin influences and early immersion in improvisation may explain Heffington’s fluidity on the drums. Sticks in hand, he shifts naturally between rhythms and moods. That and a subtle touch make him popular in the studio with singer-songwriters who appreciate his sensitivity to vocal phrasing and lyrical cadence.
He has another eclectic album in the can that he hopes to release soon, though no specific plans have been put in motion yet.
“The new album I just made’s called ‘Contemporary Abstractions in Folk Song and Dance,’” he says. “That’s got some original things, some co-writes; I got a co-write with Tom Waits on there.”
Some of those still unreleased songs will surface during his set at McCabe’s Sunday night, where he’ll be accompanied by bassist Sebastian Steinberg, guitarist Tim Young and trumpeter Sarah Kramer. He’d like to play more local shows, but his schedule doesn’t allow much time for rehearsal — which, from his perspective, isn’t so bad.
“I’ve got a good band,” he says. “They can turn on a dime. I don’t like things to get too rehearsed, so maybe it’s good we don’t play as much. They’re good either way.”
Don Heffington headlines an 8 p.m. bill (with Jeff Turmes and Field each playing opening sets) on Sunday, Sept. 6, at McCabe’s, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. $10. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit donheffington.com.