Multi-faceted doesn’t even begin to cover it. When you finally corner the ironically rather shy Robert Amstrong to discuss his musical background, it’s not just the number of instruments he plays, but the type.
Guitar, steel guitar, banjo, ukulele, accordion, mandolin — sure, not so unusual. But add to that commodion, kazoo, jug and musical saw. Pretty unusual, particularly the musical saw.
So rare, in fact, that Armstrong was sought out by Jack Nitzsche, producer of the Academy Award-winning “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1975 to lay down tracks for the opening and closing themes.
And, in contrast to the other musicians contributing to the instrumental score, Armstrong doesn’t even read sheet music. Nitzsche, who also composed the music, taught the tunes to him, then cued him to play them right there in the recording studio — all in the span of one day.
His truly unique experience in becoming part of this soundtrack, which plays through arguably the most poignant scene at the end of the movie, will be the topic of Armstrong’s presentation and mini-performance at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Winters Community Library, 708 Railroad Ave.
The film will be screened after his talk, part of an ongoing classic movie series sponsored by the Winters Friends of the Library. Admission is free.
Armstrong says Nitzsche tracked him down because he was the only known musical saw player in the Bay Area. Someone had seen him playing in the Bay Area with The Cheap Suits, which included artist Robert Crumb, and passed the information along.
Armstrong, who lived in Dixon at the time, quips that at the time, “there weren’t any saw players under the age of 65.”
Truly an esoteric interest, Armstrong discovered the saw in 1968 while “bumming around Europe” by himself. He met two Danish girls — sisters, in fact — who invited him to their house, where he hit it off with their father, who showed him how to play.
Armstrong had tinkered around with the saw before in his youth, trying to figure out how to create the sounds on his own, but says he couldn’t figure out what the trick was: “It sounded terrible.”
The trick, it turned out, was to use a bow. When the old man pulled out the saw and bow and started playing, Armstrong says, “I just had to learn.” That was made even more challenging by the fact that the man didn’t speak English and Armstrong didn’t speak Danish.
“I just watched him. He tried to show me, and I just picked it up.”
A native of Pasadena, Armstrong’s musical experiences began at age 7 with accordion lessons. He was playing in bands by age 14, and then some “jug bands” in 1964-65 in Pasadena, focusing on old-time country music and bluegrass.
Since then, besides The Cheap Suits, Armstrong has played with numerous local bands, including the Joy Buzzards, the Barking Spiders, El Rado Scufflers, Charly Baty’s Caravan and the Sawney Bean Band, and often tours with Sourdough Slim, with whom he has performed at various cowboy festivals and even The Palms on several occasions.
He has even stepped in to play with the Trailer Park Troubadours and Joe Craven, two more Palms favorites. All together, he’s spent more than 40 years playing all kinds of music with all kinds of bands.
“You gotta be flexible,” he says.
Armstrong doesn’t just play guitars; he paints them. A highly respected guitar artist, he has custom-painted several Martin guitars. His cartoon work is prized; his “Mickey Rat” comics are collector’s items, and it is from his ‘70s-era cartooning days that he coined the term “couch potato.” For real.
Armstrong had an international trademark on the term for a time, and dealings with toy companies and printed goods, but says the complications and stresses of maintaining the trademark and being a businessman were unappealing to him.
After a few years, he let the trademark lapse, opting instead to move to Dixon to fix up an old home to live in.
That was in the mid-1970s, when Nitzsche came calling. In addition to playing the musical saw, Armstrong played banjo and ukulele on the soundtrack, for which Nitzsche received an Academy Award nomination.
Not reading music was a slight challenge, Armstrong recalls, but Nitzsche was patient throughout, and they recorded the melodies alone. Nitzsche sang, hummed and whistled the melodies, and played them on the piano, and Armstrong copied them on the spot.
It’s even more difficult than it sounds, he said, because particular notes had to be hit precisely to harmonize with other similarly rare instruments, like a glass harmonica, which makes a sound similar to a musical saw. There was no room for error, he says.
“I had to be right on the notes. It was nerve-wracking.”
— Reach Debra DeAngelo at firstname.lastname@example.org