A tribute to the weird and brilliant Ralph Carney

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The Bojack Horseman composer worked with Tom Waits, St. Vincent and The B-52s.

Multi-instrumentalist Ralph Carney is no household name. But his work looms large on just about every recording he’s ever been a part of.

Popularly, Carney has been known for a few different things. For a long time, he was ‘the guy who played on those great Tom Waits records’.

More recently, he’s been known as ‘the guy from The Black Keys’ uncle’.

His most recent, and sadly final, claim to fame was as ‘the guy who wrote the Bojack Horseman theme song’.

 

It’s a typical story in the music industry. You toil away for decades, honing your craft and finding new ways to stay passionate about your work. You might get a few flashes of fame along the way, if you’re lucky.

Ralph Carney passed away yesterday at just 61-years of age after a fall at his home in Portland. Even though he’s not famous, per se, I wanted to mark Carney’s passing for two distinct reasons.

Firstly, I believe his music to be astoundingly good. A kind of confluence of weird, avant-garde, free jazz, more typically cool West Coast jazz and a little bit of arty punk rock experimentality that ensured he never sounded as if he was merely mimicking his heroes.

But there’s a more personal reason too. I had the pleasure of speaking with Ralph for a story about Tom Waits’ 1985 masterpiece Rain Dogs a couple of years ago and found him to be a fascinating and genuinely charming, completely oddball, character.

 

At first, I got his answering machine. Hearing his outgoing message was a unique experience in itself. I can’t remember what it said, bit frankly, it sounded a bit unhinged and made me a little frightened to speak with him.

When he finally answered the phone, he did so with a fake Scottish accent. Throughout our conversation would dip in and out of different characters, using funny voices and embellishing his words in a kind of self-deprecating but hilarious manner.

But it never felt as if he wasn’t taking our conversation seriously – it just seemed like his natural way of communicating. Wry, a little bit silly, but always enormously passionate.

For the half hour that we spoke, he spun tales of working with Tom Waits. About how he broke his saxophone just half an hour before their first session, about the time Waits visited his apartment with a pump organ, about the falling out they had over Carney’s comments to a biographer.

But mainly, it was just him gushing about how important that period of his career was and how happy he was that Tom Waits – with whom he had completely lost contact – gave him a chance.

“That’s maybe one of the happiest musical times of my life,” he said of touring with Waits in the 80s. “I cried a lot when he was playing the solo stuff. Not crying, but I choked up a lot.”

 

He spoke at a rapid clip, barely stopping to catch his breath. Every five minutes or so he’d make apologies for the fervour with which he communicated, probably only half-sure that I was grinning stupidly on the other end of the line.

“Sorry man, do I talk too much?”

“Am I talking too fast?”

But I didn’t want him to stop talking. His enthusiasm was infectious and his raw passion for music was palpable.

What made it better, was that he was also impossibly humble.

It takes no musical knowledge to understand what a colossal talent Carney was. While saxophone was his main instrument, he was adept at countless others – from the musical saw to the piccolo and so much more.

 

Among Carney’s hundreds of credits are appearances on albums from St Vincent, Elvis Costello, Galaxie 500, Custard, The B-52’s, Jonathan Richman, Black Francis, Jim White and Grant Lee Buffalo.

He toured as a guest member of bands like Yo La Tengo and They Might Be Giants. And his own band Tin Huey are legendary among fans of underground new wave.

But, when we spoke, he had no interest in talking about himself. He didn’t want any glory for his monumental contributions to songs like ‘Jockey Full Of Bourbon’ and ‘Union Square’ from Rain Dogs.

“That’s fiiiiiiiiiine!” he exclaimed about being replaced by John Lurie on the track ‘Walking Spanish’.

All he wanted to do was talk about how privileged he felt to share space with a band as good as the one Waits had assembled in the mid-80s.

“When I think about that period 30 years ago, I feel nostalgic and sad, because I don’t think it’ll ever happen again,” he said.

“But it was a great band. I’m not saying that because I was a part of it. It was more me observing it and being blessed – not that I believe in Jesus – to be in the presence of these great players.”

Perhaps that’s what makes a truly great sideperson or session musician. Someone who can deliver the goods and step out of the way. Or, even more admirably, deflect praise to someone else.

“These people are in another world,” he said of working with artists like Tom Waits. “You’re just trying your best to do what they ask you to do.”

 

There will be little public fanfare surrounding Ralph Carney’s passing, and that’s fine. After speaking with him for half an hour, I’m not convinced he’d want it to be such a big deal.

Reading the outpouring on his Facebook page is encouraging though. The hundreds of posts there make me realise that he really was as kind, generous, weird, humble and hilarious as he’d proven on the phone that morning a couple of years back.

Here’s hoping his contributions to music are given the credit they so richly deserve. A true original, an artist content to make strange, otherworldly work, and to make our favourite artists sound better.

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