My first meeting with David Rotter was a strange one, and I’m probably not the first person to say that. It was 1987, and Black Patti, the band for which he played guitar and synthesizer, had just finished a set at the Music Machine in Santa Monica, California. I was sitting on the back step of the club, facing the alley, waiting for David’s twin brother Danny to disassemble his drum kit and come outside to discuss the prospect of me doing artwork for the band. David walked out the back door, smoking a cigarette, and asked me suspiciously “whatchyou doin’?” My first impression was that he came off somehow like a criminal. I told him that I was waiting for Danny. He sat down on the step and we started talking. I mentioned that I had recorded the show, and David asked to see the tape. When I handed it to him, he looked at it curiously for a few seconds and spun it down in his hand toward the asphalt, asking matter of factly, as if he genuinely expected me to answer, “so, what if this tape fell down from the universe just now and landed somewhere near a pyramid in Egypt, and the pyramid had an eye on it and the wind started blowing the sand around and a tornado came and took the tape away and you never saw it again?”
Despite the strange conversation, David and I became fast friends, and a few days later, he invited me to hang out at his apartment and play guitar. I went, and spent most of the time listening to him rip through loud guitar solo after loud guitar solo. While it was impressive to hear him blast out a blistering five minute Hendrixian guitar lead that he had just made up off the top of his head, and then play it again – yes – backwards to explore how the notes and bends might sound that way, I started getting annoyed, because I had gone to his place with the expectation that he and I were going to jam. I had met other guitarists who used the pretext of jamming to simply show off their musicianship, and I felt like I was in one of those situations, like I was just wasting my afternoon sitting there being a one-person audience for this guy’s ego.
After awhile he suggested that we go get something to eat, but before we left, he asked if I would listen to him play something on the piano. My immediate thought was “so he’s trying to learn how to play piano and he’s going to play some cheesy Mötley Crüe ballad or something. Well, whatever, I’ll humor him for a couple minutes.” I sat down on the pillows on the living room floor, and David sat at a beaten old upright piano and started playing a piano version of the “Cosmic Jam” that he had composed for Black Patti. But instead of being a “straightforward” version of the song, it meandered off into a flood of notes, in styles ranging from classical to ragtime to blues to rock to jazz to marching music to who knows what else, all played with deep feeling, without one off note, all improvised at the moment they were being played and all flowing together seamlessly. I was stunned. I had never been exposed to something like that before. David played the piece for over 40 minutes, and at the end I stammered out “What was that?” He looked at the floor and said, barely audibly and almost as if he were embarrassed, “mmm, just an embryo.” A 40 minute embryo. I felt extremely humbled, and from that day on I wanted to hear more of what he was doing on the piano.
Hanging out with David was kind of like spending an afternoon with a really wacked-out, messed-up cartoon character. He was constantly talking, bouncing off the walls, and his brain seemed to be going faster than he could get the thoughts verbalized or translated into music. The closest description of David’s personality that I can come up with is the character “Beetlejuice” from the movie by the same name – complete lack of appropriateness or predictability, no social boundaries, very twisted humor, and a mile-a-minute stream-of-consciousness conversation style. When I first met him, half the time I couldn’t even figure out what he was talking about.
He was like a kid in a lot of ways. There were toy robots, Nerf basketballs, Hot Wheels cars and other kids’ toys all over his apartment, and for several months he had a huge glow-in-the-dark slot car track occupying most of his livingroom floor and running a third of the way up the walls in various places. Someone once described David as having the personality of a child, but with a soul that had been around since the beginning of time, and somehow that description seemed very accurate.
David was a very charismatic guy, and there was always something interesting and exciting happening around him. Whatever he was doing, there seemed to be people eager to go along for the ride. Various local musicians would come by to hang out with him and hear what he was playing, agendas for accomplishing important tasks were usually postponed or avoided altogether for something more fun, and one rarely knew from one minute to the next what was going to happen.
He had a quick and unpredictable temper, but a huge heart. The first Christmas that I knew David, I had not even considered that I might get a gift from him, nor had I thought of getting anything for him – I had only known him a few months. He told me that he was giving me his car. (David was Jewish, but Christmas was always a huge celebration for him – it was by far his favorite holiday). He said that I needed to be driving something a little more hip than my brown Nissan Sentra wagon, and that his not having a car anymore wouldn’t be an issue for him because “the universe always gives back.” I of course refused the car – I wasn’t as certain as he was that the universe would set things straight for him.
I think the car might have wished that I had taken him up on the offer, though: among other misadventures, a year or so later David got a flat tire late one night on the way home from the studio, and he drove over 10 miles of freeway to his apartment on the rim, with a shower of sparks and an entourage of concerned motorists trailing behind. Another time, I had the misfortune of being with him as he became frustrated trying to get out of the parking ramp at the LA courthouse: he drove over a metal trash can that had been serving as a barricade, and it became lodged in the underside of his car, tearing into the engine. By the time David made it to a gas station a block away, oil was pouring out as fast as it could be poured in, and smoke was billowing up from the engine, enveloping the entire service area of the gas station.
Incidents like this were more the rule than the exception for a guy whose behavior seemed thoroughly out of control yet somehow absolutely deliberate, a guy who told me a week after I met him that his motto in life was “never face the facts.” It was rarely a question of “if” something outrageous would take place on any given day in David’s life, but rather “what time?” An otherwise routine trip to the supermarket with him to “grab some food” on a night when he was behind on his rent, for example, could mean 20 minutes of hoping that security wouldn’t notice as he snacked on everything he passed by, including taking a big munch out of a shrink-wrapped whole roasted chicken (through the plastic) and then setting it back on the shelf.
Anyway, in addition to playing both piano and guitar brilliantly, David seemed to have some really unusual records in his collection. Invariably at his place, a rare Hendrix album or some other interesting record would be blasted at top volume, regardless of whether it was 4:00 in the afternoon or 4:00 in the morning. His neighbors had long since given up complaining or banging on the walls, and only rarely called the police. David would often fixate on a certain part of a song, something unique that one of the musicians had done or some particular sound, and play that part over and over and over as loud as possible with his ear to the speaker as if he were trying to absorb every bit of its essence. You could hear him sometimes from the other end of the apartment complex yelling over the music “Listen to that tone!”
I learned a lot about music knowing David – what things are difficult for even a talented musician to do, what kinds of things you can hear in music when it’s turned up full blast that you don’t hear otherwise, how to play an instrument from the heart. I also came to realize firsthand, based on witnessing David’s behavior, that some of the acknowledged great composers of classical music – a music form that I had previously regarded as “stuffy” – might have been just as out of their minds as Hendrix was.
One thing that’s stuck with me is what David said that his mom told him when he was growing up – that he should forget about playing music “note for note” and instead learn to play “feel for feel,” that is, to let the general piece of music be a vehicle for expressing emotions and feelings, rather than worrying whether the notes were being played precisely from rote memory. To encourage this when he was young, she sometimes had him put on a blindfold while he was playing the piano or guitar. David, who never had any formal musical training, apparently took the advice to heart: even when he played something by someone other than himself – Gershwin, Beethoven, Paganini or others – he’d always do a lot of improvising within the music and take it in whatever direction he happened to want it to go that particular moment. I don’t recall him ever playing anything the same way twice: he seemed intent on always exploring what he had never tried before and pushing it as far as he could, rather than wasting time on what he had already done once. It was not uncommon for him to compose an entire elaborate piece of music on the spot and then never play it again.
David’s mindset toward playing music (and toward everything, for that matter) varied greatly from minute to minute. Sometimes he would play something deeply emotional and poignant for someone important to him that was no longer alive. Other times he’d play something intricate and wildly imaginative, and when I’d ask what he was thinking about while he played it, he’d say something mundane like “laundry” or “beef jerky.” Still other times, he’d play sort of a sonic cartoon – composing a piece in the moment and describing it as a musical interpretation of an eight-legged yak on skates, or a mother fly’s joy over the birth of a maggot. There were times when he would pound the piano so hard that his whole apartment seemed to shake, and he was constantly having to get the piano worked on because he had banged it out of tune (for him, getting it re-tuned was often a higher financial priority than food or rent). Other times he’d play so lightly that you could barely hear the notes.
Music was a very spiritual thing for David, and I’m grateful to have had that passed on to me. He said that his music was about “healing.” He’d often quietly thank God for letting him play the notes, and hoped that God was “grooving” on them. David saw it as an infinitely reciprocal relationship: God would let him play the music, David would play it for God’s enjoyment, and God would let him play more music. There were definitely times when David seemed to be pulling the notes from a place and a time far outside himself, like the music was playing through him rather than being played by him.
While the spontaneous, free-form nature of David’s piano playing made a powerful impression on me the first time I heard it, I came to hear something else in his music that struck me even more. Occasionally, when he and I were the only ones in his apartment, he would go off on different types of musical tangents that I can’t really describe. The music seemed to change into something else, as if it were becoming a living, breathing entity on its own, no longer dependent on a human being to give it form. It was completely different each time, but it was always very unusual. The first time I heard David play like that, I realized that I was in the presence of a genius. I believe that to this day of David, and I hope for him that one day while he is still alive he gets the recognition for it that he deserves.
I encouraged David to play piano in public, and especially to play the kind of stuff that he played in private in his apartment. He said that he didn’t really want to, because people had “weird reactions” when he played that way. He did a few live performances publicly, in bars and restaurants mostly, but always held back. Even then, people would compare his talents and abilities to those of Mozart or Chopin.
I’d bring friends over to his place to hear him play sometimes, but likewise, he’d always hold back from going into that musical realm that he went to when it was just me there. It was almost comical, like that singing frog in the Warner Brothers cartoon that only sings for the one guy and then clams up whenever anyone else is around.
I urged him to record his piano music, in part so that others might hear it and in part because he lived with such a reckless intensity that those around him tended to be somewhat concerned about his mortality: I wanted to ensure that at least his music survived regardless. But just getting him to agree to me pressing the “record” button on my boom box was like pulling teeth. He’d say that he didn’t want to feel inhibited knowing that he was being recorded, or he wanted to wait until he had better recording equipment for it, or he’d say that God would hear it and that was where it was being recorded, or he’d suggest that we wait until later to turn on the tape deck and later would never come, or he’d wait until the tape ran out before he started really getting into what he was playing. This reluctance always seemed odd to me, because he had no hesitation about recording any of his guitar or synthesizer music.
Anyway, I actually did manage to capture one of those musical “tangents” on tape once, by accident, and that track is called “The Fiend.” (I came up with the name because he didn’t generally like to take the time to name music that he had already played). Over the years, I’ve often thought that if some catastrophe were to happen where I had to grab one thing quickly and get out of my home, knowing that everything else I owned in the world would be destroyed, that one tape of David’s piano music is what I would grab, no question. I still feel that way.
For me, the music is a reminder of one of the coolest, most unique, alive, inspired, contradictory, vibrant, unpredictable, intelligent, demented, spiritual, depraved, genuine, emotional, driven, purposeful creatures I’ve ever had the pleasure of calling friend. The music’s boundless spontaneity and fluidity is also repeatedly a reminder to me to open up to and appreciate the majestic infiniteness of life, which is there waiting to reveal itself in every moment the instant you acknowledge it. While I know that I am a considerably warped human being to have been so profoundly touched by David’s music, I hope that you at least somewhat enjoy what you hear.