Joe Goldmark Is a Cowboy with a World View

The famed pedal steel guitarist with ties to Escape From New York Pizza and Amoeba Records has a new record out.


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Photo by Lance Yamamoto

On the cover of his latest album, Blue Steel, Joe Goldmark looks like a country music veteran, with a lifetime of one-night stands behind him. Seated at a blue pedal steel guitar wearing a blue jacket, white cowboy hat, and dark glasses, he exudes western cool, but confounds expectations by taking his instrument in unexpected directions. He plays Mexican folk songs, reggae, and Nigerian highlife with the same finesse he brings to his arrangements of tunes from the catalogue of roots, rock, and Americana.

“I like to pick tunes that work well in a country/rock/steel guitar environment,” Goldmark said. “I choose tunes off the beaten path, so it doesn’t sound like a cover band is playing them. I’m a record collector and love roots music, but I listen to everything — world music, blues, country, rock, folk. I have a website at
VinylBeat.com dedicated to LP collectors. It’ll give you an idea of my taste.”

Goldmark was born in Tucson, Arizona, and grew up playing guitar in rock bands. “I thought country music was peculiar until I was in college at UC Berkeley. I saw Jerry Garcia playing steel with The New Riders of the Purple Sage and fell in love with the instrument. I dropped out of college to play steel guitar.”

Goldmark spent a year in his room, playing along to pedal steel records, four or five hours a day, seven days a week. He emerged and landed a gig at Bernie’s Club on Clayton Road in Concord. “I played five nights a week and made 150 dollars a week. I paid my rent and put money in the bank.”

He augmented his income by gambling in the card clubs on San Pablo Avenue and out in Pleasant Hill. When his luck ran out and the gigs dried up, he worked at Captain Video, a store that rented movies on VHS cassettes. “I was lucky to end up there,” Goldmark said. “One of the partners suggested opening a pizza place. I went in with him and started Escape From New York Pizza. A few years later, another group of ex-Captain Video employees started Amoeba Records. When they opened the store on Haight Street, they asked me to help out. I’ve been there ever since.”

The steady job at Amoeba allowed Goldmark to pursue his passion for pedal steel. He started his own label, Lo-Ball Records, and made albums like Steeling the Beatles (1997), the world music excursion All Hat No Cattle (1999), the R&B flavored Strong Like Bull But Sensitive Like Squirrel (2001), and Blue Steel. “I make my albums at Red Rooster Studio in Berkeley. Garth Webber is a great engineer; he played guitar with Miles Davis for about a year and has great ears. It’s a pleasure recording with him.”

Blue Steel isn’t a pure blues album, but has a feel halfway between the blues and R&B. It includes four smooth, jazzy instrumental pieces written by Goldmark and covers of classic tunes like Graham Parker’s “Howlin’ Wind” and Bob Marley’s “Natty Dread” are given radical makeovers. “Natty Dread” is delivered as an instrumental, with a rhumba backbeat straight out of New Orleans, while the Parker tune emphasizes the implied reggae accents of the original.

“Everything I do is a result of the music I’ve heard all my life,” Goldmark said. “I lived in Berkeley when I started out and went to a lot of live shows — Commander Cody, Asleep at the Wheel, and the whole country rock scene as well as Larry Blake’s basement, with Tim Kaihatsu’s band playing the blues with Otis Rush and Etta James. There was a rich musical mix in those days.”

Goldmark and his band, The Seducers, play in San Francisco at 7:30 on the second Sunday of every month at Bird & Beckett, 653 Chenery St., and the fourth Sunday of every month at The Riptide, 3639 Taraval St.

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