Old Hat, New Tricks
For the next six months, I lived in a small studio in the basement of an Orthodox Jewish family in North Hollywood. They were nice folks, but rather drab conditions for what I was paying and what I’d been used to. I pretty much went to work, came home, and watched them build make-shift homes in the backyard for religious holidays. I read, listened to the countless kids above me run around, and slept.
It was during this time that I started getting back into the guitar. I had my dad’s old acoustic for years, a weathered Yamaha that I had borrowed permanently, but rarely played. Towards the days before the breakup with my girl, I had tried writing songs. Aside from a couple of jam sessions in New Orleans, and since the days I was playing in Super Chinchilla Rescue Mission, it was the first music I’d played in nearly five years. The songs were awful, though: sappy, depressing lyrics about lost love. I even bought a banjo, but everything I played sounded like the soundtrack for an old kung-fu movie.
I’ve always had a pretty diverse appreciation for all kinds of music, whether it be classical or jazz or punk, but, gradually, I found myself getting more and more into old acoustic blues musicians and lesser-known country folks artists: Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Blake, Doc Watson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Fahey, Mance Lipscomb, Mississippi John Hurt, Woody Guthrie, and The Carter Family. Then through these I somehow stumbled upon the folks that followed in their footsteps, artists like Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, and Guy Clark.
With the old blues players, often times, it’s as if two people are playing at once, providing the bass and the melodies simultaneously, and the words, sung rough and mumbled, hit straight to the bone. In a way, these folks helped me keep my sanity in a time when I found myself teetering on the edge.
Prine sings about his father’s hometown in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky: “…sometimes we’d travel right down the Green River, where the air smelled like snakes and we’d shoot with our pistols, but empty pop bottles is all we would kill.”
Guy Clark tells the story of a man who, since he’s been young, has always jumped off his garage thinking he was Superman, “…he’s one of those that knows that life is just a leap of faith, spread your wings, hold your breath, and always trust your cape.” It struck a chord with me.
Van Zandt sings songs so true to love and loneliness and despair—“days up and down they come, like rain on a Conga drum, forget most, remember some, but don’t turn none away… everything is not enough, and nothing is too much to bear, where you been is good and gone, all you keeps the getting there.” Listening to these words, one can’t help but wonder if he isn’t channeling the words of some long-lost angels and spirits from some other time.
All of these guitarists were fingerpickers, which is pretty foreign to the whole bar chord punk rock style of playing I or anyone else I’ve known has played. Despite what any die-hard punk musician says about Bob Mould or Greg Ginn or J. Mascis (musicians I admire in their own right), what the old fellas were playing was a heck of a lot harder and original. Emotionally, it was raw and true and it had more of an affect on me. So, in that little basement I started to put in the hours of learning on the guitar what they were playing.
I’d grown tired of Los Angeles, though. I just couldn’t let go of the wandering spirit. After living on the East Coast and down in New Orleans, Southern California, despite being where I grew up, just seemed so foreign to me. I looked around into trying to move and keep doing the electrician thing. Portland, Oregon was one of the few places that would take me into their union. Truth be said, I really wanted to let go of it all. I just wanted to hit the road, you know, let the chips fall, but I felt like I had to finish something for once. I always seemed to be leaving things before I ever finished them, whether it was school or music or relationships, and this was going to be the one time I could say, “I did the time. I graduated.” It took six months of paperwork and flights to and fro for five-minute interviews. Once again, I was sitting across from electrical big wigs and telling them what they wanted to hear. Before I knew it, I was renting a good-sized house with a big yard and huge trees and all of the neighborhood stray cats hanging out on my porch.
Talking Fishing Blues
In every way possible, Portland seems to be the complete and utter opposite of Los Angeles. No concrete jungle or graffiti or unending suburban sprawl. No yelling motorists sitting in rush hour traffic. No bright lights. No glam. A thirty-minute drive and I could be hiking in the mountains of the Columbia Gorge, standing underneath gorgeous waterfalls and cliffs that had been carved for thousands of years. I could be fishing with a roaring river from the runoff of Mt. Hood all to myself, the hawks circling above, deer and bear somewhere close by. I’d never really spent much time in nature and I certainly wasn’t any survivalist by any means, but I found it all new and exciting. Soon, I would have a cabin and a pond and do my own hunting and refuse to pay taxes and continue in the tradition of great nature writers.
My first job I got sent out to a “tank farm” where they store gasoline and ethanol. It was a highly dangerous environment in an industrial area on the outskirts of northwest Portland, where, at times, one small spark could cause the whole place to explode. Hours of paper work were necessary for even the most menial tasks. It definitely wasn’t a job for the nervous at hand. It was mostly outdoors, rugged and dirty, and dealt more with control wiring and valves and processing machines. It was a completely different world from the typical commercial work that I knew.
There was a lot of down time, sitting around, waiting for various jobs and okays by managers. After a month there, I felt like I had very little in common with the guys I worked with. These were folks whose vacations consisted of driving out to Idaho to hunt for elk. They all knew how to fix their cars and build their houses. They were accustomed to the harsher elements of nature, and, for the most part, it seemed like they married the girl from their high school, got a job with the union when they were young, had kids, and never left the town they were born in.
As we sat around on breaks in the maintenance room, the conversation more often than not centered on guns, which, unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, I know nothing about. Often I stayed quiet, occasionally feeling the brunt of derogatory comments about the “California Boy,” and maybe the fact that I was gay because I wasn’t married and didn’t have any kids yet.
“Did you get a gun yet?”
“When you going to get a gun? You know, there’s a gun show coming up next week. Hell, my son’s twelve. He’s even got a gun. He’s even killed his own elk. What are you, gay? Who the hell doesn’t have a gun?”
They were kind of kidding and kind of not. Aside from an extremely intelligent journeymen my age who I actually quite enjoyed working with, these were folks who thought Obama was going to steal their weapons from them. These were tough, small town men who had stored up their ammunition in the days leading up to Y2K and it really bothered them that I didn’t have something to defend myself with.
“It’s your God-given American right, for Christ’s sake. Haven’t you ever read the Constitution? You lived in L.A. and New Orleans and didn’t have a gun? Are you fuckin’ crazy?”
When I told them all the places I’d lived in the past ten years and all of the various jobs I’d worked, I was granted with mystified looks and shaking of heads, as if I was some foreign creature. And how the hell could I be away from my family? What the hell kind of son was I?
One day, I brought up fishing, although I really don’t know much about that either. I would just go up to the Clackamas River, out to some desolate area off the road, and throw my line in. I’d drink a six pack, strum my guitar, and never get a bite. I was quite complacent sitting on my beach chair with the quiet and solitude. I’d come to the realization that if you went to the river and sat on a rock, you were deemed crazy, but if you had a pole in your hand, well, then you were all right.
“What did you fish for?” asked Frank, a very good electrician who was always high-strung and most likely bipolar. One minute, he’d be smiling and laughing with you, the next he’d be screaming bloody murder how you were an idiot:
“You ain’t in no damn California no more and how long you been an apprentice? You don’t know how to do that? Boy, you and me goona’ be buttin’ heads. What the hell are they teaching you at that school?”
“Trout,” I lied. It was pathetic. I didn’t even know what I was fishing for.
“Yeah, well, what did you use?”
“Well, what color?”
Frank was all smiles. There were a few nods from the other electricians. I was then considered okay, if nothing, for a brief few minutes, and given privy to the good fishing holes outside of Portland. I’d hate to have seen what the ramifications would have been had I said yellow.
Freight Train! Freight Train!
Portland is a relatively quiet place, despite what anyone there would tell you. It’s a small city, not necessarily in size, but culturally and geographically. There’s an active music scene, but, for whatever reason, I felt myself disconnected from it. I tried to go to punk shows but I never could get into any of the bands. Maybe I just didn’t know the right ones, but it seemed like a lot of the bands I came across covered up their lack of originality with loud music. Over time, my visions of living the life of Thoreau dissipated and my restless spirit seemed to resurface. I suppose you can only hide the true self for so long. The place just seemed too damn safe for my blood. And here I had the nicest house I’d ever lived in, a decent paycheck coming in, and I still wasn’t happy. I may have been an entry-level working bum before, but at least I was around good people. I was playing music. I was writing. I was creating and was surrounded by people doing the same.
Portland lacked the danger and action and creativeness and spontaneity that I was used to in big urban cities like D.C. and Baltimore and New Orleans. The personalities were different. Whereas in those other places, I felt like I got a good idea of what someone felt instantly, whether it was good or bad. In Portland I always felt like folks weren’t really being honest with me. I think it’s just the way people were. They have a more reserved nature about them. Maybe it was just my own sense of social awkwardness, but I found myself becoming more and more of a recluse. Sometimes I was hit by long waves of depression, spending more time alone with the walls.
I still didn’t think I was any good at playing compared to what I was listening to, but I saw minor improvements. I was able to pick out songs a little easier and, gradually, I began to learn a handful of old traditional folk and blues tunes. I was also writing my own songs—using past stories as the basis for most of them—trying to work together a theme of sorts with various characters. I wrote a song about Carson McCullers The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, then another about a street musician from New Orleans. I wrote one about a bum wearing a toga roaming around New York during the spring who’s convinced he was once a Wall St. millionaire. One from the point of view of Travis, the character played by Harry Dean Stanton in the movie Paris, Texas. Another about a married woman who leaves Alaska dressed as a pinup girl, driving a Mercury Comet. She meets an eighteen-year-old Indian in Sioux Falls: an affair ensues across the landscape. I even wrote some instrumentals. It was nice to feel like I was creating something, nothing new per se, but a little piece of life. I found myself with a productive fever, trying to catch up for the previous years I felt like I had wasted.
Eventually, I put together a demo CD and started playing shows. My first one was at a metal/punk bar in a desolate part of 82nd St. in NE Portland. There was nothing much out there at night aside from some cheap motels and a few roaming hookers and meth addicts. I went on after a really bad cover band. There were maybe ten people there and as I sat on the stage, I couldn’t help but miss the days of being in a punk band. Even as the lead singer, I wasn’t the complete center of attention. I had other friends along with me to throw in the funny jokes or liven up the crowd who, more often than not, were also good friends. Blast the guitars and bang out the fast beat. Who cares if the PA works? Next thing you know, everyone’s jumping around and beer is spilling and we’re having a good’ ol’ time. This was a whole new world of performing for me. As I finished each song, I was greeted with blank stares and a few kind souls who clapped. It felt a little strange.
A month later, I got a gig playing Fridays at a Polish café. The owner had the right intentions: Polish food, music, cheap foreign beers, but hardly anyone ever came to the place. The first time I played there, my crowd consisted of a good friend of mine and two little kids and their parents. With chocolate ice cream covering their faces, I played Elizabeth Cotton’s song “Freight Train” for them. When I was done, the kids were yelling, “Freight Train! Freight Train!” I concluded that maybe next time I would wear a conductor’s hat and bring little toy trains for them to play with. I came away from that show with a mere five bucks and a few pierogies, but it was then that I had the feeling I was on to something here. I liked playing for kids. They seemed to innately feel the emotion of the music, more so than adults, and though what I was playing was entirely different, it reminded me of that same feeling of old basement punk shows I’d been at and played in years before.