For a music fan, sitting down for a cup of coffee in the East Village with Buddy Cage beats anything a trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or reading a Robert Greenfield book could possibly offer to them.
Not to take anything away from either of those experiences, but as a self-proclaimed “lifelong freelancer” who for years served as Jerry Garcia’s hand-picked fill-in on his original pedal steel side-project, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, and has long been known as a first-call steel player, performing on albums with a diverse range of artists such as Bob Dylan, Ryan Montbleau, and even Anne Murray, Buddy Cage has more stories in his years than a sequoia and loves nothing more than to share them with a curious listener. And by “share” them, that means you get the unadulterated, R-rated version complete with gory details.
On the New Riders and the new album, Where I Come From
The New Riders of the Purple Sage are quite an amazing story in longevity, a band that has spanned around 40 years and 24 different members. In fact, amazingly enough, the predecessor lineup from 1982 to 1997 actually shares no common members with the current reformation.
For Buddy Cage, after originally joining the New Riders in 1972, both he and keystone member David Nelson decided to hang it up in 1982. “We were shot: physically, mentally, shot. There was no new material coming in and we were becoming our own damn knock off band, playing smaller and smaller venues.”
READ ON for more of Ryan’s interview with Buddy Cage of the NRPS…
After a long hiatus and a period of sobering up, Cage joined the reunited group of New Riders back in 2005. The resurrected incarnation features original members Cage and David Nelson plus Michael Falzarano, Ronnie Penque and Johnny Markowski. “What drew this group together was the old axiom, ‘Out of work musicians; we seek work.’”
The idea to get the original psychedelic cowboy band back together actually came as a brainchild from former Stir Fried guitarist, Johnny Markowski. In the midst of a round of golf, Markowski pitched Cage on the idea, but Cage initially balked. “I was only mildly interested, but if I get a paycheck out of it, maybe.” So he gave him David Nelson’s phone number and said, “If you wanna call Nelson, here’s his number.”
Before long, David Nelson agreed and signed on, but it was really the addition of former Hot Tuna guitarist, Michael Falzarano that piqued Cage’s interest in the next go round of the band. “When I found out Michael was part of it; that was like, there ya go!”
On their recent release, “Where I Come From,” the New Riders – with the help of legendary Grateful Dead lyricist, Robert Hunter, who signed on to pen the lines on seven of the songs – find themselves back in true cowboy form on their first studio release in over 20 years.
“We didn’t have to spend four weeks in the studio. That’s part of the beauty of playing with these guys and I’m so damn proud of it!”
“You know how Hunter was writing songs for Jerry at the end when he was really sick and all doped up like Black Muddy River and He’s Gone? Those were messages. And Jerry caught onto this, but he never really acknowledged it. That’s Ghostland Blues on this album. Sick and tired of it. It’s been fifteen years since the guard has been gone. Get the f*ck over it.”
Nearly instantaneously, it becomes clear that Buddy holds no lost love for jambands. Quite the contrary in fact, the man can barely stand them. In a stint with Sirius Radio, where Buddy cut his teeth on the airwaves at the behest of the great Meg Griffin, Buddy began with the task of “Just do Buddy.” “I said I don’t know anything about radio, but she told me, ‘we just want to keep the music in the hands of the people who love it.’” The original show was called Folk Town and Buddy was asked to just play what he liked and to be himself, but shortly thereafter they shut the door on Folk Town, so they moved him to Jam_On, a seemingly good fit given the New Riders and the Grateful Dead affiliation. Not so.
“Getting that stupid playlist shoved up my ass. I just hated it; all these bands ripping off the Dead without even crediting it and calling it ‘jamband baby.’
“We considered jam the kinda magic coming out of 52nd Street, post World War II: Dizzy Gillespie, Miles, Charlie Parker, and all those cats. That was jam!
“Don’t get me wrong, you’re young enough to appreciate this new stuff and these are all great musicians, but they gotta get the fucking salesmen ‘outta there. Even with the jambands they gave me the same 25-40 song playlist of the usual stuff; play ‘till you puke. But make sure you take that ecstasy.”
On the Grateful Dead
We got talking about Cage’s time spent with the various members of the Dead, how he came to know Jerry, and subsequently how Jerry hand-picked him as his successor to his spot in the New Riders, the Dead’s original country side project.
“When I got tapped, the Dead were $2 million in debt and they owed two albums to Warner Brothers. There was just no way they could keep doing the New Riders. They went back to produce what went on to become Workingman’s Dead.”
[Old Publicity Photo]
Joking about how he remembers all of this stuff almost verbatim, Cage openly shares some fond memories of times spent with the members of the Grateful Dead around this period.
“You know on Festival Express when Weir, Garcia, Joplin, and Rick Danko are in the corner of the bar car, just twisted drunk? This is really unusual. Weir and Garcia don’t drink. See, they told the promoters, we’ll do this train thing, but you better have us some dope. But the promoters failed, which was really lousy. So Janis tells them; guys you just gotta have a drink. ‘Nah, we’re smokers’ they say. Before long, Jerry doesn’t even know the chords on Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos, old the Lead Belly song and that’s just four chords! He’s giggling and flirting with Janis and shit. The next day, Garcia and Weir had Billion dollar hangovers and million shirts. What happens next? Janis says, let’s try that Lead Belly tune again and see if we can do a better job. They start just doing five part harmonies and belting it. I mean really belting it. I can only imagine how sick Jerry was feeling, but it just kinda got him over the hump.”
On Buddy Cage
Buddy Cage looks the part of the weathered rock-and-roll vet. He sports a comfortable pair of sweatpants, a Pace University hoodie adorned with a Stealie pin, and a pair of sandals. As we walk to the coffee shop, we joke about an utterly hilarious interview he and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot give on a tribute album to former band mate and fellow Canadian, Ian Tyson, where four or five friends took a mentally enhanced horse expedition up in Canada where they managed to lose track of several of their horses and get themselves in the dog house with Tyson. I’m rolling with laughter before we even sit down. Then, he casually chats up the barista as he clearly has the neighborhood icon vibe.
While still a very active musician, Cage and the New Riders prefer a slower pace to the wilder days, “We go out for two to three weeks at a time. What we used to do; you hear about the legendary world tours, but you can’t do that forever. You’re a different person at the end of it. And you usually don’t like that person.”
For years, casual rumors have swirled surrounding a Buddy Cage solo album or a book of his memoirs. As such a vibrant individual, it is natural that would like to see more of Buddy “being Buddy. “People always say, man you gotta write a book before all this stuff goes away. [laughs] Yeah, before I croak.
Buddy also laughs hard at his business sense, pleasing “No, No, No” at the mere mention, but reinforces that if perhaps the time was right and the right people were involved, that he might be open to one of these ideas, to which we can only keep our fingers crossed.
After just a short visit, a look into this textured and storied life, one can only think that this is a guy who makes people laugh and speaks his mind. It is not everyday that such a strong-opinioned cowboy could be so endearing, but despite his blunt sense of humor, his demeanor is truly genuine and fun.
As we wrap up, a serendipitous Miles Davis tune fills the room and Buddy smiles and then a second later laughs and points to the ceiling. “Now that’s jam.”