John Platania – One step up, two steps backing
It was through his extended association with Van Morrison — which began with 1970’s Moondance and has continued, off and on, through this year’s tour — that guitarist John Platania discovered his musical identity. “My role is to serve the song,” he says. “Listen to the song, and let it dictate what it wants. You have to subordinate your ego.”
Thus, Platania’s reputation has mainly spread among other musicians and close readers of liner notes, though anyone familiar with his work throughout Moondance and his irresistible opening riff to “Domino” knows just how crucial Platania’s role has been in framing some of Morrison’s greatest music. Yet even on his own liner notes to his richly rewarding new album Blues, Waltzes And Badland Borders, Platania insists, “I don’t feel the world needs another guitar slinger album. For all intents and purposes, I’m a back-up guitarist.”
It might seem like a paradox for a musician who professes such a lack of ego to release a solo album, so often a sideman’s exercise in ego. This project was the brainchild of Chip Taylor, with whom the guitarist has also enjoyed an off-and-on relationship that dates back to the early 1970s. Taylor (best-known for writing “Wild Thing” and “Angel Of The Morning”) recently turned record mogul with his own Train Wreck label. He needed artists he believed in, and Platania was a natural.
“When he said he wanted to record me, it went in one ear and out the other,” says Platania. “But when Chip gets something in his head, that’s it. He keeps pushing for it.”
The results fall somewhere between Ry Cooder and Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks, conjuring an aural vista of the Tex-Mex border. Though the arrangements spotlight Platania’s guitar, individual cuts offer narration (by Ruben Ramos, Alejandro Escovedo, and Taylor’s brother, actor Jon Voight), as well as group vocals and the occasional lead vocal — by Lucinda Williams on “In Memory Of Zapata” and Platania himself on “Texas Sexy Ways”.
For a guitarist who was raised and still lives near Woodstock, New York, the project might seem to represent a surprising geographical leap, but anyone who remembers the flamenco filigree of his guitar on “Into The Mystic” won’t consider it much of a stretch. “As a kid, my parents listened to Los Ponchos, who were a Mexican trio, and Bud and Travis, who were influenced by Los Ponchos and a lot of Mexican stuff,” he explains. “Those emotions and feelings and the modalities of that music informs a lot of my playing, with Van and with everybody.
“And Texas music has been such an important part of my life — the blues players like T-Bone Walker, so much of the country music that I’ve loved,” he continues. “Texas is like a breadbasket of music. So whatever style the songs dictated, that’s where I went.”
In addition to his support of Morrison and Taylor, Platania has recorded and/or toured with artists including Don McLean, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman (the Good Old Boys album), Judy Collins and Natalie Merchant. He prides himself on his adaptability, yet recognizes that artists might come to him for a signature sound.
“People have told me that I have my own voice [on the guitar], and I have come to see that I do,” he says. “I couldn’t verbalize what it is, but through osmosis I’ve developed a style. I try to learn from others, but it never comes out like them. I listened to Chet [Atkins], to a lot of jazz players, rock players, blues players, and it all goes through a filter and just comes out a certain way.”
The challenge of putting musical style into words can’t compare with the challenge of working with Van Morrison, a notoriously demanding perfectionist who knows what he doesn’t want but finds it even tougher than Platania to verbalize what he does. “Yeah, he’s difficult and always has been from day one,” says Platania. “He’s probably more demanding now, even more of a perfectionist. Music is his life, and he takes it seriously, and he’s a genius. He covers so many different areas, and he does it all so well, from such a unique perspective.
“But he’s not really clear as to what he wants, so you have to be intuitive about it,” he continues. “It’s frustrating for him if you’re not on the same wavelength, pun intended. He never dictated to me what to play on those albums — he just let me go. All he said was, ‘Don’t step on my vocals, and listen to the song.'”
This year promises to be Platania’s busiest of a career spanning four decades. He’ll juggle touring commitments with Morrison and those with Taylor, where he’ll get the chance to promote his own album. He also plans to produce another release by bluesman Guy Davis.
“The more I let go, and the more I go with the flow, the more life gives to me,” Platania says. “I have more projects than ever, and at this stage of the game I thought it would be the opposite. But I’m not complaining.”