Stanley Sheldon | Bassist | Live/Studio | Songwriter
‘Ronin’ On Empty
On December 8, 1980 we were in Los Angeles rehearsing with our new band, Ronin when we heard the news: John Lennon had been murdered outside his luxury Manhattan apartment building. Lennon’s death forever quelled rumors of a Beatles reunion and ended the career of one of this century’s most respected and profound artists.
Death in the rock world was nothing new, we had already lost so many great ones. I don’t in any way wish to compare myself with John Lennon, but in hindsight Lennon’s death did in some measure foreshadow a very gloomy period in my life. However horrible the decade of the eighties may have been for me, it remains a period of my life that I will always want to remember. I need this memory in order to remind me that failure and success are two sides of the same coin.
Looking back, through all the ups and downs, I still think I have been very lucky. I’ve worked with and enjoyed relationships with great people, and not only pop stars. I’ve never worked for any length of time with anyone I didn’t like; life is too short; and any complaints about bad business deals, missed opportunities, well, that is all terribly insignificant. At any rate, I had just quit one of the biggest rock acts of the seventies in order to pursue (what I thought) was a more artistic endeavor. Not only was I ambivalent about the choice I had made (mainly because I was not sure where it was leading me) - I was also apprehensive that I could lose everything that I had worked so hard for all of my life.
It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I was addicted to heroin, and under the influence of a particular type of self-indulgence that invariably leads to disaster. But it was all happening so fast. My gut instinct had always been to childishly isolate myself from anything unpleasant. So, as I recoiled, I naturally became more and more distant, everything in my life (family, friends, and career) became more and more remote as a consequence of this passive resistance. I could not perceive the shift (e.g. downward spiral) happening because of my drug-induced decisions. It’s the nature of addiction. Success in the entertainment industry often instills people with a false sense of security, and to me, an overblown, distorted sense of my own worth. Unfortunately, success had done nothing so much as to reinforce my addictive tendencies: I had made it to the top as an addict - as far as I was concerned that was a good reason as any to continue the activity. I had not made it playing by the rules, and I was not about to adopt societal norms now that things were turning a bit lackluster.
At first things seemed to be working out quite well. While we rehearsed the new band, Ronin, in LA, all of us (Rick, Waddy, Dan, and I) were spending quite a bit of time up at J.D. Souther’s new Laurel Canyon home. Don Henley of the Eagles was a close friend of J.D.’s. Rick Marotta and Waddy Wachtel were also at this time involved with Jackson Brown, Linda Ronstadt, and J.D.Souther, along with the rest of the LA “mafia.” Initially, I had a positive reaction to the fact that I had become a member within the upper ranks of the LA elite. But I was more like an honorary member, a mascot, rather than a full-fledged member. On one of my first visits over to J.D.’s house, Souther had joked that “since Danny Kortchmar (Kootch) could not make it that night, they had invited Stanley.” I was taking the ribbing good-naturedly, but I really felt like an outsider, not really “one” of them.
The scene at J.D.’s was really fairly innocent, nothing overly bizarre, just the usual high jinx, coke snorting - boozing. But many jealous outsiders imagined the scene at J.D.’s to be Los Angeles rock and roll decadence at its most glorious. You see, Henley had recently been in court over a statutory rape charge involving some underage girls. The case was widely publicized and merely added to the general public’s fascination with the rock world and its constant display of hedonistic overindulgence. These two guys were being compared with Roman Polanski and Jack Nicholson. OK, this was rock and roll - and these were my newest acquaintances. It is ironic that there were hardly ever any groupies or models (or anyone with an X chromosome for that matter) over at J.D.’s house. It was more like some posh British men’s club, the type that refuses to allow women as members. Lots of swaggering and boasting - but no real male-female interaction. It was becoming clear to me that the Eagles’ reputation for rock-star-womanizing was mostly Hollywood hype.
At first I was thrilled to be accepted and considered an equal among this talented group of songwriters and session players. But no sooner than I was accepted did the whole situation become a burden. Peter Asher was in the final stages of planning his most current Japanese tour for his stable of artists. It was to be called “California Live,” and James Taylor, along with Linda Ronstadt, J.D Souther, and our band Ronin, (Asher acts all), were on the bill. It was quite an impressive lineup if I do say so myself. James Taylor, Linda, and J.D. were busy rehearsing their respective bands; all 3 bandleaders employed Waddy, Rick, and/or Dan, in various configurations; everyone, but myself, was to be included as a hireling in the interchangeable bands. James Taylor used Russ Kunkle on drums and Waddy Wachtel on guitar, while Linda preferred her “Heart Like a Wheel” lineup, that included Waddy, Dan Dugmore, and Rick Marotta. J.D. used whoever was left over, Kenny Edwards and (the late/great pianist) Don Grolnick from Linda’s band, Danny Kortchmar “Kootch” from James’ band. But it was only Waddy who played in all four band incarnations, thus representing the “most hired” of the hirelings. The fourth configuration of course, was our band, Ronin. I still firmly believe that Asher had initially agreed to manage us only to appease Rick, Waddy, and Dan, and thus keep them on his string and thus available for more lucrative work with James and Linda. I was disheartened by this reality, and I was starting to feel more and more like a Hollywood “extra.”
There were some very memorable moments that at the time that seemed mundane, but still somehow, oddly droll. For example, our new band (session stalwarts Marotta, Wachtel, and Dugmore, and me) were keen to agree on a new band name. We had recently signed a record deal, of course we were under more than a little pressure to resolve the band-naming issue. This naming process, as anyone who has ever been in a band would agree, is more often than not puzzling, challenging, and mostly just exasperating. Choosing a band name is rather like choosing a name for a child; Just like proud parents, band members seek names that will impart something novel and unique - also well-worn but durable. It is a difficult combination to find. With children and bands, the best names have already been used, reused, altered in spelling, and in pronunciation. It is usually best just to settle on something simple.
On our numerous bicoastal (LA to NY - and vice versa) trips we would often be bored, and find ourselves endlessly debating the name issue. On one flight I remember, right before we were about to sign Ronin’s new record deal, James Taylor had some L.A. business, and thus accompanying Rick and I on the journey. James was providing much comic relief. After takeoff, he offered up what we thought were going to be some good suggestions for a new band name. “Why don’t you call it “Sky Chef,” James quipped. Rick and I looked at each other and grinned, both of us I am sure thinking, “hmmmm, I’ve heard worse.” We knew that the best discoveries usually happen serendipitously; so, we were listening to James with some attention. We laughed; he was reading phrases right out of the complimentary airline magazine. “Sky Chef.” no, I said…” I don’t think that’ll work James… too many mixed metaphors. It’s food for thought though… I think we need a name a little less majestic, more down to earth.” James just nodded and seemed to agree.
Its funny, I have a dear friend who insists on placing the definite article as a precursor to any rock band name. Invariably it ends up as “The Led Zeppelins” or “The Phish.” James seemed to be honoring this quaint geriatric manner of refering to bands. He thought for a few minutes as the plane passed over the Grand Canyon. Suddenly James sat upright and blurted out… “I’ve got it… The Thes” he said. At that point, ice cream was being served, and we all gave up, having decided we could postpone the final decision once again. But with this new record deal we were unavoidably under the gun, so at our next band meeting, we finally settled on our name, “Ronin.” Sometimes I think “Sky Chef” would really have been better.