A mystery unveiled : original Soft Machine guitarist Larry Nowlin (1)

While I was never able to trace Phil Howard’s current whereabouts, I still had minimal documentation of his brief career before and after Soft Machine which I was then able to expand upon. Information about Soft Machine’s original guitarist was much scarcer. As it turned out, I didn’t even have his name right. Often spelled “Nolan”, most notably in Pete Frame’s Soft Machinery family tree, he is actually Larry Nowlin, and not much was said of him outside of being from California and having quickly left the band because, as Daevid Allen later explained, there could only be one lead guitarist in Soft Machine and Allen wanted the position !

kaleidoscope
David Lindley (far right) with Kaleidoscope in 1968

I had few clues to trace Larry Nowlin to his current location, although a contributor to What’s Rattlin’?, Fred Hodshon, had mentioned having had dinner with him when he worked for a company named Lightwave Systems – so at least there seemed hope that I could eventually find him. In the meantime, I took advantage of the expansion of the Internet to google Larry’s name and see what came up. I had discovered Nowlin had had some musical association at one point with David Lindley, the leader of psych band Kaleidoscope and later a ubiquitous session musician and solo artist on the California scene. I had made contact with Lindley in 2000, and he was kind enough to reply but couldn’t be of much help regarding Larry’s present-day whereabouts –

He really disappeared about 35 years ago, and I have no idea where he is or what he’s doing. I know lots of people, and to keep track of all of them would take ten lifetimes, and I only have one !

Fast forward a few years, and thanks to a Google search I came across a page mentioning both Lindley and Larry Nowlin – it was written by one Mike McClellan, who was reminiscing about an unnamed ‘jug band’ he had been in which had been active in the Pasadena, CA, area in the early 60’s, playing at the Cat’s Pajamas club in Arcadia, CA, with a line-up of Marty Cantor (jug, 12-string guitar), Sandy Moseley (banjo, mandolin), Larry Nowlin (guitar) and McClellan himself (clarinet, fiddle, harmonica, 12-string guitar).

I managed to get in touch with McClellan, who had a lot to say on Larry Nowlin, so I’ll just quote at length from our correspondence.

Larry was a student at Pasadena City College when I met and played with him. That was back in 1961. I was a ‘star’ at the Cat’s Pajamas, a no-count coffee house that tended toward the more traditional folk music and jazz instead of the commercial stuff. There was a bunch of us that hung out there. I met David Lindley there, Roger Bush (who went on to record bluegrass with the Kentucky Colonels with Clarence White), and others now famous in their fields. Larry was learning to play acoustic guitar: blues, jug-band, bluegrass, whatever. I was about his age, just slightly ahead of him on the curve of music. Nevertheless, he had a dobro guitar before I did ! We were jamming all the time – music was our life then. I was trying to earn a living with it just out of high school.

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Smog City Trestle Hangers, September 1961, with David Lindley (left) and Mike McClellan (right)

David Lindley was a grade behind us, but very quick musically. David was a sideman with me at the Topanga Canyon Banjo & Fiddle Contest in the summer of 1961. I came in first or second on banjo, but didn’t place on fiddle. I don’t remember if or where David placed then, but he came in first for the next several years. When I played the Ash Grove around November ’61, David played with me and a guy named Phil Cleveland on the Friday and Saturday, and I was solo the rest of the week. In the Spring of ’62, I got a concussion and was out of music for a few years, but David went on with it with a fury. Larry did play with David – many of the Cat’s Pajamas crew did. Larry and Sandy Mosely (also in our jug band, and a fine 5-string banjo player who later was actually on some commercial folk albums) came up to see me right after my concussion.

I don’t yet remember the name of our jug band, but I do remember that when I finally got my drivers’ license, Larry, Phil Cleveland and I drove up Big Santa Anita Canyon in the Angeles National Forest. I had a big one-ton Chevy panel truck, we had our instruments (banjo, guitars, fiddle), we got out at the end of the road and walked down by a stream, where we all picked and grinned. Folks were walking by and they enjoyed it, as we did ! That was the Chevy in which a I went to sleep in and got my concussion after coming back from a gig in Santa Barbara.

It was Mike McClellan who eventually got me a contact with Larry Nowlin, and I was finally able to begin an e-mail correspondence with him, followed by a lengthy phone interview. Unfortunately, a plan to meet up when I visited California in 2006 failed to materialise, but our exchanges were in-depth enough to cover the main facts.

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The Kingston Trio

I was born on February 14th, Valentine’s Day, ’44. I was a little young in my school group, by a year I think. A lot of us went to high school together. Al Marian and I grew up on the same block, and also another guy named Jim Terrell, who’s a fairly famous visual artist here in the States, doing light sculptures and stuff, he’s been in Time Magazine a few times – before they had Boyz n the Hood we were the boys on the ‘hood ! The Kingston Trio started it for most of us suburban kids. We were all hanging round the Pasadena area, just a bunch of young guys with different skills – or lack of skills ! – and enthusiasms, playing around the same music scene. It was strictly local – the greater Pasadena area. Mike McClellan, Sandy Moseley, Al Merian and I – none of us ever became professional, although Alan played classical guitar for a while. Southern California had a tradition of guitar ‘pyrotechnicians’ like Ry Cooder in those days. I’d say that musically, Soft Machine were about as accomplished as anyone I had played with at that time, although that may not be saying much !

madmountainramblers
Another band featuring a young David Lindley (left), the Mad Mountain Ramblers, performing at Cat’s Pajamas, Arcadia, CA, sometime in 1961

As Mike said, we played at a place called Cat’s Pajamas in Arcadia, then the Ice House in Pasadena and the bigger one, the Ash Grove, somewhere in Hollywood, a lot of good players there, that was a step up – a real night club ! They had a lot of touring folk musicians of various kinds. I remember Reverend Gary Davis, I always liked him, he did street gospel stuff, with a big J-200 guitar, all by himself. Pete Seeger and all those kinds of people would play there in and out. There was a kid named Clarence White [later with the Byrds, etc.] there, and he was killed [in 1973], in a car accident outside a club – he was loading up instruments, and some car ran in the back of his car and squashed him.

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El Rayo-X, 1982, with David Lindley (far right) and drummer Ian Wallace (second from left)

And after I came back to the States years later – having lived in Europe from ’65 to ’75 -, I went down and saw Lindley play somewhere down in Santa Monica – McCabe’s, a club there. This was after he’d been playing with Jackson Browne and made some money for years, he was playing a little solo gig, and it was really funny – he was basically playing the same stuff that he was before, a lot better but basically the same stuff, so it was kind of interesting. He got this little band called El Rayo-X, a nice kind of skiffle, dance band – good little band. But when I saw Dave, he didn’t look too good, he looked like a junkie, I don’t know that he was or not, he just looked like it. But I don’t know, I never had anything to do with Jackson Browne or any of that pop stuff, over here, ‘cause I was away, and when I came back, my life kind of took a different route.

The next instalment of our story will look at Larry’s departure from California and eventual arrival in the UK via Majorca.

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