David Cheney — surfer and flamenco guitarist

San Diego's gypsy

David Cheney: "Oh, the coffee house days! I played at every one."
  • David Cheney: "Oh, the coffee house days! I played at every one."
  • Image by Michael Murphy

The hanging fans continue to rotate at their varied speeds, and lightly jar the ferns and ivy. The Thursday night regulars drift in, along with newcomers, and gather around small tables that face the stage, or lounge on the velvet-cushioned couch that forms the boundary between the bar and restaurant. You order a beer, a coffee, or a brandy, and settle into Art Deco surroundings. Restaurant sounds back there somewhere mingle with the tuning-up of a guitar. The spotlight flashes on, and it’s David Cheney night at the Swan Song.

Q. How did you first get the idea to.go to Spain and study Flamenco?

A. Oh, I was a surf bum, y’know? I'm a bum all the way - I mean, I finally figured that out. And so I was in the islands surfing and I ran into a Flamenco guitar player over there — I was at the time washing dishes in a coffee house (it was the Beatnik days) - and this guy was working up the street in a nightclub. So I talked to him a while and got interested in it, and came back here and really started playing a lot, and buying records and just doing the normal trip that everybody does, nothing serious. But then I got to where it was not a bad way to make a dollar, being a bum, y’know. Anyway I came up against .. you can teach yourself so much out of books and off of records, and then you need a teacher. So I went down to Mexico City - I couldn’t go to Spain, didn’t have any money — on the bus from Tijuana, because there’s a big Spanish quarter there, and I found a good teacher, a Spaniard. I really got into it then, and he said, “Yeah, you have to go to Spain.” I came back and went, money or no money. And, since I had no money, I had to get into a scene like go hang out with the gypsies, because they’re bums too. They were sort-of right down my alley, life-style-wise.

Q. Where did you find a teacher, or was he just around?

A. Yeah, he worked down the street in a cave, and he was one of the hot guitarists of the place and had a style I really dug.

Q. Did you see him every day?

A. Yeah, from about 10 a.m. ’til about 2 p.m. every day except Sunday. He’d come in the morning and we’d go have coffee and then we’d practice - he didn’t show me anything really. I only learned four or five falsetas (melodies) from him, but he would rap and tell me what to do. In the afternoons we’d walk around and listen to records and jukeboxes and stuff. Then at night I went up and worked there ’til about one or two. I’d come home and play for a few hours, go to sleep, wake up and practice again, then he’d come -every day. That was the deal. But, see, he wouldn’t teach anybody. He had one son he was going to teach and he was going to become the guitar player in Spain.

Q. How did he teach you if he didn't teach you?

A. He taught me what it’s all about, y’know? It’s a self-taught music; you can’t go learn it from some one else. It’s your own stuff you’re playing and that’s what he taught me, which is incredible; somehow he managed to impart that. I mean, he’s still my teacher although I can play circles around him. The second time I went back, I sort of blew him out, and the last time I went, I didn’t even play for him. But that doesn’t matter. He’s still whatever it was that gave me the whammy; that took about eight months to do. So it was a good experience. That was my good experience.

Q. When you came back here, where did you play?

A. Su Casa was probably the longest place.

I worked there about two years, and Mission Valley ... Then I used to play at the White Whale down in Bird Rock. I played there for about three years every Wednesday night. It was a long time; I saw about three or four owners ... it changed from motorcycle people to you-name-it.

Q. Are there any places in San Diego where you haven't played, but would like to?

A. No, in fact I don't know any places where I’d truly enjoy playing. I'd like to see ’em make one, though, another Espana, but made well. One of the best places I’ve played is in Arizona, Don Quixote’s, but that’s what the Flamencos call a tablau — it’s one of the best in this country.

Q. When there used to be places here where they just had music, that weren’t bars or restaurants...

A. Oh, the coffee house days! I played at every one.

Q. The Heritage?

A. Yeah. Yeah, well, see this is why Flamenco ... the coffee houses came out of the beatnik days, the bohemians, and Flamenco flourished in those days. You could always go down and get a job in coffee houses if you were a flamenco guitarist because that kind of music is very bohemian, being mostly gypsy, it suits the whole atmosphere. It’s right in there. Every place there’s ever been a coffee house, there’s always been a flamenco guitarist. But they don’t exist any more; there’s no more beatniks, no bums.

Q. Do you miss the coffee house days?

A. No. No, it’s a thing of the past. I don’t think there’s any room for them nowadays. I don’t think they’d be patronized if one opened up. People wouldn’t go to them; there’s no need for them.

Q. How do you like playing at the Swan Song?

A. It’s a nice place to play. It’s built nice; that’s the reason. The people are the same as any restaurant, but it’s because that restaurant is built so well for entertainment that it’s a nice place to play.

Q. What kind of audiences do you like?

A. I don’t care. Old people are really fine to play for. I like to play for kids...

Q. I notice when you’re playing, that you often look up from the guitar for a while...

A. Yeah, you don’t need to look at the guitar. I only look at the guitar to look someplace. I was thinking about just closing my eyes and playing. That would’ve been a trip, but then I saw another guy do that, and he was a pretty good guitar player.

Q. What about sunglasses?

A. Well, those are good. They’re like bangles. They keep the bad vibes of the audience off you. Sunglasses are necessary. Jazz musicians use them for that reason. There’s a thing with audiences that when they’re listening to you, they’re tuning their consciousness to your consciousness, and if you’re playing to them, pretty soon you become like them. If they’re drunk ... I’ve walked out of some of these places and had a hangover the next morning without drinking a drop, an actual physical hangover, where my head ... Just because I used to drink, I know what a hangover is. And so you can do all kinds of things to get rid of that. That’s why a lot of musicians try and space out right away, so they don’t get that going. Throw up some kind of psychic barrier, if you could do that, or immediately disappear, like Shankar, and go into another world.

Q. Have you seen Shankar?

A. Oh yeah, he’s sort of my ideal. He’s, to me, the master musician of this age.

Q. So, if you consider yourself a bum, you don’t have any ambition to become famous, eh?

A. Well, see, my trip is sewed up in this conflict between two things. When you go to Spain, the guitar is something else.

You use it to amuse yourself, and it’s not something that gypsies use to make money with, normally. It was just something that hung on the wall, and in the evening, they’d take it down and play whatever they felt like. And then, I came back here, and it was very compatible. You just take your guitar and go get a job somewhere. But there’s always been this thing; to perfect yourself. I think it’s in everybody. Just a few years ago, all of a sudden I decided I really got my kicks out of making my fingers move the way they should. That’s what it’s all about. And the working part of it, I could care less. It just happens that people tend to always hire me for enough things to pay the rent.

Q. Do you play, practice, every day?

A. It depends. I just play when there’s time. The other night, I played for five hours without moving. I didn’t even realize it until I was telling one of my students who was telling me he practiced 45 minutes. Oh, it’s easy, you could play all day. But, it comes and goes. Sometimes I don’t feel like playing for days.

I'm lazy. I’m not a musician, because I don't know how to do it. I can just start to see now what a musician is. But it’s a little late for that. You have to start right off heavy when you’re about sixteen - the younger, the better. The more you put into it... I definitely believe there’s a cosmic law of return. It’s not a question of much else. Your environment helps, yeah, you can say that that’s the inspiration, because it stimulates you to get better. It’s pretty hard to stay inspired here in California; and in Spain, you stay really inspired all the time, but being with the gypsies who are so lazy and always out after a good time, you never get anything done. I am amazed that I've done what I’ve done. It blows my mind because it’s against my constitution, my being, to do something like this, and when I go back to Spain, the gypsies see this, and they’re still the same. The last time I went back, 1 had to tune their guitars for them, just like I’ve done every time I’ve gone back. And what’s new? Nothing’s new.

Q. When you say you’re lazy, do you mean you’re not disciplined?

A. Yeah. But, that’s why I play the guitar, I think, because I like that discipline trip. You really get something out of it.

It’s not like a job where you learn your job and just go do it every day. Flamenco guitar is a constantly evolving thing; it’s not like classical guitar, where in order to get good depends on if you’ve learned your technique well enough, and then your repertoire. Flamenco keeps getting more complicated, see, as human beings get more highly evolved.

Q. Do you write music? I mean, do you sit down and write a Soleares or something, but you follow a structure and improvise, like East Indian that’s where it comes from. That’s the musical philosophy it follows. The pieces are all improvised. Of course, they’re not improvised on the spot; you can never do that. Now and then when you’re playing and you’re really into it, something happens and you come out with all kinds of ways of doing this thing; these are the variations, the falsetas

Q. Is there a particular type of Flamenco you like best?

A. It depends on the time of year...

There usually is something that’s my most favorite. In the winter, you tend to get more minor, in the minor keys, and in the summer, it’s more outgoing, Bulerias, and stuff like that. I even plan it, like I know what I’m going to learn next winter. And when you play, you’re not going to sit in your yard on a bright sunny morning and play some weird, dirge-like Flamenco music; it just doesn’t go. It’s a natural music, that’s one thing about it. It’s able to express anything — any level of consciousness. It really can.

Many people have said that what Flamenco is all about is that it takes the chaotic and refines it. Every falseta is a bizarre thing that comes back to a tone that runs throughout it. You’ll take a crashing weird thing, and make a groovy falseta, and mellow it out. It’s supposed to bring the spiritual side and the material side of the universe together. That’s exactly what it does. Most music will be one or the other, like Indian music tends to take the listener into a spiritual thing, and rock and roll will really take you into a materialistic world trip. Flamenco does neither of those: it brings the two together and sort-of sticks them there for you to groove on. You can’t ever get anywhere playing it or listening to it, but it doesn’t hurt you.

And when I look into the future, I see it as a form of music that will always be here for those people that need it, and those people that want to listen to it.

It’ll never become popular, because you couldn’t have a whole world of gypsies running around, lazy ne’er-do-wells. But, wherever you find that, that’s where the Flamenco is the best.

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