Photo by James Roemer (Glochids)
We first arrived to the culture shock of the manic traffic in Los Angeles. Hats off to Joe for being such a goddamn champ and doing all the driving of the rental car, for if it had been me, we would have been dead within the first half hour. Our first destination was, for us as nearly 30-year old men who had never tried it before, the El Dorado of fast food: In-n-Out Burger, conveniently located a mere 6 minutes away. I was impressed by both taste and efficiency, since weather was rarely poor, and demand was rather high, there was a person taking orders from cars in the drive-thru on foot, so that the customer’s food would be ready the moment they reached the window. “Ingenious”, I thought.
Sometimes dubbed “City of Houses”, we marveled at the sprawl, and soon found ourselves heading into the Palisades, where there’s at least a Mercedes-Benz or a BMW in every driveway, and every driveway is behind a locked gate.
The initial impetus for this trip was to attend the wedding of our good friend, Shawn, one of the few we still spoke to from high school. He and his bride, Ginger, had rented an Airbnb in the area, complete with two tacky, storebought canvases of the Eiffel Tower, “Muscle Milk” in the cupboard, and a view of the pool, where weight-lifting lunkheads listened to loud music and lunged their medicine balls about. After catching up for some time, we again went out for food and ate on the nearby Sunset Beach, where a photoshoot of musicians next to a keyboard half-buried in the sand was being watched by sun-bleached bums with padlocks on their tents.
Before heading to our friend’s house where we planned to sleep for the night, we made two separate, small excursions into Topanga State Park, once with Shawn and his two Jack Russell terriers, up until the “no dogs allowed” sign, and again as just the two of us, climbing the furthest up the hill we could and still approximate getting back down before dark. This was the first of several times Joe lamented that he didn’t have a telescope with him, as the night sky was always so clear in any direction away from downtown. Even still, he was able to show me many things I hadn’t seen before, the flicker of Red Dwarfs, Venus and Jupiter’s dance as they rise…
Almost everyone I know from Brattleboro, Vermont has moved to either New York City or Los Angeles, and photographer Abby Banks was the first to make the latter home. Abby actually grew up in LA, but returned to take care of her father upon his deathbed and, after brutal winters and a deluge of relationship shake-ups, the rest of town soon followed. Abby lived in a beautiful half-address in Lincoln Heights, tucked behind a small alleyway and shaded by a large pomegranate tree, sharing the place with Ian McPherson (Tall Boys), Ezra Buchla (son of synthesizer pioneer, Don Buchla), and lovable cheapskate Samuel Craig Boyd, who actually accompanied me on my first tour ever. Since the front gate was locked, the windows stayed open, which allowed the cool breeze to waft in at night, and gave entry to armies of small, black ants who raided whatever food-like detritus was left in the kitchen sink. Apparently, a wily possum had also recently stayed a spell in a corner of the living room, but was most likely unnerved by resident housecat Boone who came and went to hunt as he pleased. Joe told me that pets actually bring in small, dead animals to feed their owners who, to them, seem unable to provide for themselves. Boone must have sensed my weakness, as I awoke the next morning to find a small pile of feathers by my knees, again, crawling with ants. I appreciated his efforts, but was glad/impressed that I had slept through the meal.
I fell deeply for this neighborhood, surrounded by hills that reverberated the cawing of the neighbor’s roosters, where wild succulents grew and coyotes could be found roaming the streets at night. We hiked up the ridge for a better view of the city, the rubber bottoms peeling from my worn-out sneakers acting as little shovels that tossed the sand in front of me, slowly helping to bury the empty, plastic film canisters that once held medical marijuana. For whatever reason, I felt a great calm here.
The wedding was small and chaste, with no dancing and an open bar that was barely touched. Joe and I were actually bounced by the owner of the Northridge home where it was held before the ceremony, seemingly for being too early, but when suggested that we “go check out the Starbucks around the corner”, we got the hint that we may have been underdressed. Still, I couldn’t have been more pleased for my friends and their future ahead, especially after hearing that they would soon be relocating to Athens, Georgia, a personal favorite.
Our first show was at the fledgeling record store, Gnar Burger, over on N. Figueroa, a new branch of the eponymous LA stalwart, Burger Records, operated by the party animals of Gnar Tapes & Sh*t (who had also recently relocated from Portland, Oregon). Two separate buildings made up the Gnarnia compound, record store in front and, in the back, a much longer building divided up into an office, a recording studio/hang zone, and finally, a large area partitioned off from the rest by black drapery where the 4+ of them all slept together, as well as a small, white dog they had taken in and named ‘Girlfriend’. I imagine the circumstances exhausting, seeming to live off of only fast food, booze, and rock & roll, but the environment was surprisingly clean and organized, and I admired the boys’ drive and professional business acumen. They kept detailed calendars and budgets, and even Girlfriend was pampered with stuffed animals from coin-operated claw machines. Unfortunately, due to a rigorous schedule, their weekend had been occupied by sharing a bill with comedians Tim Heidecker and Neil Hamburger at San Diego Comic-con, and they were not able to promote our in-store appearance, but it felt like a good dry run to prepare us for the next few days. I must also commend their hospitality, allowing us to trade our merch for Jackie Chan VHS, and offering us endless bowls of pot and Taco Bell. Ringleader Rikky Gage mentioned to us several times his excitement that they now delivered, as my stoned mind was busy trying to wrap itself around the alien conspiracy documentary we were watching before the show.
We left early the next morning to make the drive North, opting for scenic Route 1 that passes through Big Sur; miles and miles of winding road past ocean cliffsides and towering redwoods as sea lions barked at tourists from the rocky coast. A quick rest stop at the Henry Miller Memorial Library provided placid tranquility, and I admired the graffiti Michael Hurley had left on the back of the visitors center, commemorating his seminal performance there in January 2013. It was the last moment of true serenity we’d have for a while.
The show in San Francisco fell through. We had arrived two hours late and, again lacking promotion, we arrived to the bar venue to find them already setting up for karaoke. Luckily, we were met by my old friend, Steve D’agostino (ZEBU!), who had recently returned from one of the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary shows, regaling us with details about his 600 microdose LSD trip, and how one could always balance things out with Molly (MDMA), should things get too heavy. “Can you tell that I’m really into drugs now?” he said, gleefully.
Steve drove a cab for a living and, after sharing a joint with us right there on the sidewalk, he stuffed us in his car (passing by the old Grateful Dead house), and barreled up the Twin Peaks to see the whole city as the sun set. Words simply cannot describe, as we tried to commit it all to memory, the wind blew hard, blurring our vision of the mass of lights in the distance, and the fog ominously rolling back in, obscuring the Sutro antenna tower on the other side of the summit. We felt ready now: tour had finally begun.
Steve lived with two other people (that I saw) in an area of the city notoriously known as “the Tenderloin”, the last part of the “old” city, riddled with crime, drugs, prostitution, and homelessness. After directing us where to park, and sneaking us in the back door to his building (he listened into the hallway each time before we entered or exited, with no explanation), we went out and had the most incredible Thai food that I’ve ever eaten, followed by delicious, late-night, diner-style donuts. The walk, however, was terrifying, with people shooting up and defecating in the street, old acid casualty hippies talking to plants and plastic cups, and the image that I still can’t get out of my mind, the transgender hooker who just could not stop laughing. “You almost made me fall!”, she chortled, leaning in on me as my stoned auto-pilot kicked into third gear. Steve had been talking about us possibly taking a small amount of LSD that night but, upon returning, I think the crimson carpets in the labyrinthine hallways reminded us too much of the hotel in “The Shining”. It was also at this point that I noticed my right, ring finger had become infected and swollen after biting my hangnails and not washing my hands often enough, inducing an extreme state of homesickness.
The windows of the apartment were left open and the night air had grown cold, so I wrapped myself up like a mummy and put earplugs in to block out the insanity of the street; people crying, laughing, screaming all hours…poor Joe didn’t bring any bedding and was left with a lone yoga mat so, while I slept soundly, he lay awake on the kitchen floor (where it was slightly warmer), balled up, listening to the roommate who owned the pit bull with the deformed leg vomiting at five in the morning, while he tried to distract himself with cell phone games. Sam Boyd later told me that he much enjoyed the Tenderloin, saying that he felt safe enough there with so many eyes on the street all hours of the day. Although I understand this sentiment, and we left without incident, I am willing to admit I was scared shitless.
We awoke to Steve’s roommate giving directions to someone in Atlanta to “take his stuff, get his guitar, get his laptop, I don’t care, just grab anything you can find that belongs to that little fucker”. Steve was checking his phone app for fares and deliveries he could take that day, exclaiming, “man, everyone just wants Taco Bell!”. Joe and I looked at each other, knowing this to be a universal truth. Another girl who was crashing there from Detroit was calling home to tell her roommates that the crackhead they had invited to sleep in their squat had better be gone by the time she returned, saying, “You need to handle this, I’m not coming back to a flophouse!” She had just turned 21 and, although somewhat reserved, Steve described her as someone who could kill you if you gave her a reason, later telling us of when she dropped acid and rode around on her bicycle, kicking cars to try and get them to chase her. Joe aptly responded, “That sounds pretty antagonistic!” and she again fell quiet. When we went out to another beautiful observation area near Fort Point that afternoon, she spent a long time looking out at the ocean.
After a lengthy stop at Amoeba Records, we finally crossed over the Bay Bridge into Oakland where we met up with Justin Clifford Rhody, another of my absolute favorite photographers, and owner/operator of the prestigious, but now defunct, Friends & Relatives Records. I’ve always felt a special kinship with Justin, having previously done a split 7” record before even meeting one another, I think we just sort of knew our brains were mutated in similar ways. He and his girlfriend, Abby (different Abby), lived together in a cozy apartment in a primarily Chinese area of town, but had just returned from an extensive road trip of showing slides of his photos from Guatemala in promotion of his new book, “Zona Urbana”, and helping friends in the New Mexico desert build a house out of adobe and refurbished materials like tires and bottles.
After playing an excellent show at Life Changing Ministry, an ex-church hosting noise & experimental acts (extra thanks to Raub Roy (Horaflora), who solved all my audio problems and traded me some crucial adapters for tapes), Justin also shared with us his extensive jazz collection that he acquired while working at the Amoeba branch in Berkeley, including his favorite, Connie Crothers, and her mentor, Lennie Tristano, who he credited as recording the first ever free jazz album, which he had purchased for under five dollars. The music was so refreshing, and I think he would have played sides for us all night if he could have, but we were exhausted, and the last act of the show that night had played until the audience left. We also had to be in Pomona the next day, firmly deciding we would not be late again.
Before making the long drive South, we stopped at a gas station for disinfectant and band-aids, as my pustular protrusion had just popped like a bug. I held the bottle of hydrogen peroxide in my lap as I dunked my entire digit repeatedly, watching the scorched hills of Route 5 fly by, the drought hitting so hard that trees had blown over and the entire landscape turned yellow ochre. Our second “fast-food first” came on this leg, choking down Jack in the Box’s disgusting buttered garlic buns. Joe couldn’t even finish his saying, “it’s not that it even tastes that bad, but with every bite, I can feel my body saying ‘no’.”
Downtown Pomona was pretty desolate for a Wednesday, but a solid crew came out to the dA Center for the Arts that night. After some light record shopping around the corner at Zoinks (and a few massive bowls in the alley), Joe played my favorite set of his that week. Utilizing a wooden horse for figure drawing, he straddled and slid around with his synth, at one point twiddling the knobs of the delay pedal nestled in his crotch, it appeared as if he were altering the sound by playing with himself. If anyone were to ask me why I like Joe’s music over most other modern synth wizards, it’s because he’s not just turning on and manipulating his machine, it’s more of a romance, always honest, always raw…from where I was standing, he had a psycho-sexual experience with his modular synthesizer that night.
Our host was Nick Dolezal, who had just released my album “The NOLA Tape” on cassette on his label, Kerchow! Records. He and his girlfriend, Damaris, lived in a studio apartment on the top floor of Nick’s father’s house in nearby Chino Hills where, far from the city, we were once again able to look out at the night sky in awe. A small group of friends from the show came over to hang out and smoke weed after the show, but I think our exhaustion became apparent through our incoherence, and I’m sure my increasing alarm over my infected finger didn’t help the mood either, preparing myself to find urgent care the next day. A few awkward goodbyes later, we drifted off again, the swelling went down and, in the morning, moods brightened and doctors’ aid deemed unnecessary. After a pleasant and enormous American breakfast with our hosts, we returned to downtown Pomona for more crate digging at Glasshouse Records, and then Joe got the chance to talk shop at Noisebug, a specialized synthesizer store before making the short but stressful return to LA for one last show at Ham & Eggs Tavern, set up by another Vermont expat, Alex Edgeworth (Bed Bits, Lust-Cats of the Gutters). It was such a treat to see so many people I know in one room, in a place so far from home, and it felt good to at least give a modest performance in retribution for the love and care we received in California.
Our last day we spent hanging out with Abby Banks, visiting The Museum of Jurassic Technology, which focuses on eccentric curiosities in art, science, and natural history, and eating our third and final “fast-food first”, Del Taco, which oozed with charm in every beefy bite. Abby departed from us here, and we decided to do the quintessential California thing and walk along nearby Venice Beach, stopping to watch skateboarders do tricks and narrowly miss colliding into one another. We talked for a long time about life, relationships, aging, fear, all the stuff you’d expect, finally brushing the sand off our feet and making a mad dash to return the rental car on time, perfectly set to Sunburned Hand of the Man’s “Paranormal Road” playing over the stereo, leaning into every looping curve of the LA freeway.
I watched the sun come up as we hurtled through the air towards home, the sky’s gradient dipping from a blood orange to a stunning cobalt at the horizon. Then, with the sun up, soaring above storm clouds pulsating with light, to finally dip down into them over Boston. Returning to a rainy and humid Massachusetts at 6 AM after so little sleep was disorienting and, without a key, Joe attempted to open the back door to his building with a hard shoulder nudge, having worked before but, after several attempts, proving only to be effective in seriously damaging the door itself. Joe was renting from his dad at the time, and despair quickly set in about having to come clean about a stupid mistake. Luckily, Mr. Bastardo was vacationing alone in New Hampshire at the time, and most likely in a particularly good mood when Joe called, seemingly more concerned that the door didn’t stand up to the force, but finally cutting the conversation short stating, “Listen, Joe, don’t touch it, we’ll take care of it when I get back, but my cell doesn’t work in the bathroom here, and I really gotta take a shit!”
Records acquired on this trip:
- Bob Dylan – “Another Side of…”
- Hot Tuna – “Burgers”
- Nilsson – “Son of Schmilsson”
- John Coltrane – “A Love Supreme”
- Carole King – “Rhymes & Reasons”
- Grateful Dead – “Workingman’s Dead”
- The Holy Modal Rounders – “Good Taste is Timeless”
- Jeffrey Frederick & the Clamtones – “Spiders in the Moonlight”
- The Pentangle – “Basket of Light”
- Levon Katerjian – (title is in Armenian)
- Don Cherry – “Organic Music”
- Georgia Kelly – “Tarashanti”
- The Roches – “Keep On Doing”
- Yellow Magic Orchestra – “BGM”