WORDS AND PHOTOS BY JOHN MICHAELS
Behind the scenes of reality TV, there is a person called a story producer. Their job is to stand over an editor’s shoulder and craft countless hours of quotidian bullshit into compelling drama, transforming lumpen schmos, curveballed into uniquely bizarre situations, into unwitting heroes and villains. What I’ve done here with these people is no different. They’re all, obviously, so much more than can be gleaned in a five-minute interaction or described in 200 words, and for all I know, they are nothing like these one-dimensional caricatures I’ve pasted on them. With my first subject, Shannon, our cover girl, I’ll try to offer the purest unfiltered recounting I can. I took few notes, but the exchange was so strange, awkward, and ultimately sad that I can scarcely forget it. I’m a shithead. I’m a fucking moron who should not have been trusted with a tongue. I’ll tell you why
I started on the north side, where Santa Monica casually deteriorates into Venice, and I had walked as far south as the paddle-tennis courts, interviewing and photographing the many musicians I encountered along the way, when I decided I’d gone far enough and headed back to my bike for the long ride home. I was fucking burnt and weary of the constant jostle of the two-mile-long mob scene. My mind was going pleasantly blank when, just beyond the basketball courts, the crowd to my left randomly thinned as I happened to turn my head in that direction, and I was stunned into immobility by a strange and arresting presence. Shannon, in full kingly regalia, was using a cast-concrete park bench as a keyboard stand. She was hitting the keyboard with one or two fingers of each hand in a simultaneous, arrhythmic staccato, a crazed, atonal “Chopsticks.” She was brilliant. A brazen, glorious “Fuck you!” to the swarming normals who surrounded her, gossiping like flies on the snaking turd that is Venice Beach. I grabbed my camera and took a few shots. She stared back at me, unflinching and defiant, and a maniacal, toothsome grin spread across her face.
There was a partly crushed shoe box at the foot of the bench, and it was hard to tell whether it was hers or just part of the trash that was strewn about. I walked up to her and picked up the box. “Is this for tips?” I asked. She seemed ambivalent for a sec, then nodded. “I’m going to put it up here so people know to put money in it.” I placed it on the bench, wadded up a dollar bill, and put it in the box. That’s when I uttered the stupidest, unkindest words. All in a rush, I said, “I’m doing an article for a magazine and I’d like to talk to you. It’s the Anti-Music Issue, and this is perfect, because this is so anti-music already.” It was then that I realized just how horribly I had misread the situation. Her voice was deeper and thicker than I expected and her face slackened. I noticed the pair of prescription glasses under her costume shades. “Why is it anti-music?” she asked, sounding dully petulant. She wasn’t the cleverly ironic misanthrope I had projected. She had been playing her heart out, and I had just totally hurt her feelings. Quickly attempting to diminish the insult, I added, “You know, it’s like performance art.” A flash of hot shame spread over me then, during which I have no memory of what actually transpired. The only note I scribbled down during this interlude was the phrase “just playing music.” I have no idea what it means or what it refers to. I got my head together and fell back onto the standard script.
After getting her name and age, I asked her how long she’d been playing music. She said, “Most of my life. No one ever encouraged it. People would say I’m crazy. They say it’s not realistic. They say you have a mental illness.”
“Do you have a favorite story about music or what music has done for you?”
“Not yet.” Then she said, “I’d like to be a Michael Jackson impersonator for real.”
“Is there a least favorite thing about music that you can think of?”
“I don’t like when people say I’m crazy, or that it’s not realistic, or they say you have a mental illness.”
I thanked her for her time and I wished her good luck. I might have shaken her hand. I stepped back, took a few more pictures (what an asshole!), and then continued on my way. I was shaken by our interaction and I felt a little queasy. Of course, it could be that the joke was on me and I had fallen victim to some Andy Kaufman-esque mind-fuck performance piece. Or possibly I had just witnessed a tragically unique human being teetering on the yawning precipice of societal indifference. Likely it’s some unconsidered third option. Whichever it is, satiric genius, gloomy naïf, result of irrepressible creative urges, or double-dog dare, this woman has earned a hug, a round of applause, and to be more than a mere flicker across the brainpan of some burned-out hipster.
Winston wasn’t having a very good day. He’d somehow had the unfortunate luck of drawing the attention of Officer Carl, one of several community service officers roaming the Third Street Promenade, and certainly the most enthusiastic. He had been fingering through Winston’s business for a good 40 minutes. Sweet, gentle, and unassuming, Winston just sort of half-smiled through it all, emanating an aura of monkish patience. It had all started just a few songs into his set. Officer Carl marched on the scene, squatted in front of Winston’s speaker, and probed it with his decibel meter. He didn’t like what he saw. Not one bit. He stopped Winston midsong and showed him the readout on the meter. Officer Carl pulled him aside to quietly discuss what he’d found. They conversed genteelly for several minutes and then Officer Carl pulled out his ticket pad and politely issued Winston a summons.
You’d think that would have been that. A stiff “Thank you for fucking me,” a subtle nod of the head, and Officer Carl would be on his way. But that insufferably well-mannered transaction was just the beginning. As harshers of mellows go, Officer Carl exhibited an uncommon persistence. He was a stickler’s stickler. Winston returned to the mic and started a song. Something awesome, no doubt. That was another thing about Winston, he had the best song list I’d heard a busker bust out with in I don’t know how long. He could play XTC, follow it up with Rush, then maybe some Elvis Costello, or the Clash, or Lou Reed, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, the Ramones, Pink Floyd, the Smiths, Jethro Tull, Talking Heads, and on and on, all with just his voice and his 12-string guitar. He could basically play the entire soundtrack of my teenage years. But it didn’t really matter what he played, because half a verse in, Officer Carl once again bent over the speaker and gave it yet another dutiful probing and, sure enough, something just wasn’t quite right. He called a halt to the music. He had another talk with Winston, who started touching cables and fiddling with the knobs of his mixing board. This scene repeated itself, over and over.
At some point, Officer Carl was joined by a colleague, and they stood off to the side in conference as Winston tried to determine, yet again, which magic combination of knob positions would finally appease this man. I walked up to the officers and introduced myself. That’s when I first learned Officer Carl’s name. His colleague was Officer Titus. Officer Carl was clearly the point man, the one most deft at engaging with citizens. Officer Titus looked at me like I’d shit my diaper. We got into a little chitchat. Officer Carl told me that the book of rules and regulations for permissible conduct on the promenade was “this big,” as he shaped his hand so it looked like he was holding a Quarter Pounder With Cheese. He then proceeded to tell me the several rules that I was in violation of, with my cameras and my questions, but put me at ease with a magnanimous wave of his hand. They wouldn’t be pressing the issue. One bit of arcana they filled me in on was that on every even hour, every street performer on the promenade had to change locations, keeping in mind a certain minimum distance. Get that? Every two hours, these people have to pack up all their stuff, push it down the street, counting the paces, and set it all up again.
Winston, for just a guy singing and playing guitar, had an inordinate amount of crap to drag around. I did sound for a living for years, and I couldn’t, at a glance, figure out what the fuck he had all that shit for. And on top of all that, literally, he had a huge banner set up, advertising Kiva.org. That was the next remarkable thing about Winston. He wasn’t out here shucking and jiving to get his daily bread. Maybe he’d get a little gas money to help cover the cost of driving a van from the Cleveland National Forest deep in Orange County all the way up to Santa Monica. But the only reason he made the trip was because it was a ready-made venue to spread awareness for Kiva. With all these people shamelessly flaunting their disposable incomes, maybe some of them will pull their heads out of the trough long enough to throw a bone to some third-world seamstress trying to make it on her own. But of course Winston also loves the music. He loves it when someone recognizes some obscure song he’s playing, especially the younger people. It gives him hope. Officer Carl eventually wearied of the game and let Winston play his music. It was eight minutes to 4.
Dennis “Cowboy” Morgan said the worst blow music had dealt him was the breakup of his band, Content Life. When I got home that night, I googled “content life band,” and the first link that I followed named two players, neither one of them Cowboy, and then briefly described the rest of the band as “two guys that looked like they were homeless. One was wearing chains around his angles [sic] that jingled when he stomped, and the other had a tambourine.” The next link reduced the lineup to three and finally named Dennis, our Cowboy, as the tambourine player, and it identified him as someone who had lost his home during Katrina.
From 15 feet away, Cowboy had the strange mix of charm and menace of a carny. But when you started talking with him, he had a certain Matthew McConaughey-ish-ness that, though nauseatingly saccharine in a rom-com, was disarming when actualized and up close. He gave knowing nods to passersby and called women “Sugar.” He explained that though he had been on the streets for the past five years, it was by choice, because he loves the music. This was a sentiment I’d heard before and would hear again, but before I’d heard Cowboy play a single note on the guitar that had initially drawn me to him, it had been reclaimed by Winston, its rightful owner. And now I know the life he had given it all up for was that of a tambourine player. I don’t want to diminish the role of the tambourine in music, or the transformative power of music in general, or the sense of purpose and belonging that being in a band can bring, but it seemed to me that more might be at play in this story than the tambourine.
I may be projecting here (in fact, I probably am), but I was also living in New Orleans when Katrina hit, and it radically altered the course I thought my life was meant to take and left me deeply mistrustful of permanence itself. I’ve been rootless ever since, and after meandering for a couple years, I also “chose” to attempt a career that promised a total lack of security and stability and would guarantee that rootlessness well into the future. I know others from that disaster who’ve made similar “choices,” and I’m sure there are many more. How many, like Cowboy, find themselves on the very edges of society, basically filling the same niche that Vietnam vets did in the 70s and 80s, bruised and skittish, adrift in a culture that derides meaning and looks down with suspicion on the weak and vulnerable. And what a crowded niche this is becoming. Then again, I might just be having a midlife crisis, and Cowboy might just really like the tambourine.
I wasn’t sure of the tone this piece would take, and I made some preemptive apologies for any sense of mockery the editors might impose on my article. In response he solemnly intoned, “I predict if they mock, they will fail.” A still hush surrounded us then, like in a loud nightclub scene in a movie where they cut to a tight shot, and two characters are speaking in urgent whispers somehow audible though they are standing a couple feet from each other and the crush of extras that surrounds them still throbs and gyrates to the now dampened, though presumably still deafening, incidental soundtrack. As the noise and confusion of the promenade seemed to drop away, he warned, “Touch not the anointed one.” When he saw me start to scribble that down, he laughed and grinned sheepishly, as if to acknowledge that it might sound more than a little crazy, a wry dollop of carny bullshit, transparent in the light of day. He said it again, this time with a smile, and I said, “That’s great. I love it,” and I smiled, too.
Darius Maxey, 11
Darius Maxey’s road-to-Damascus moment occurred at his grandmother’s knee. A singer in her local church choir, she would have Darius help her to practice her songs for Sunday. One day as they sang together, offering praises to Jesus and proclaiming their wretchedness before the eyes of God (I assume), his grandmother first lowered her voice and then dropped out completely. Her grandson kept going, taking the lead, and on that day, young Darius, six years old and presumed first grader, disappeared, and Darius Maxey, gospel-singing wunderkind and preteen street performer, was born.
“At the same time,” Darius told me recently, “I’ve got my acting career going on. I really didn’t expect music to be so important in my life.” He sounded world-weary, as if he were confiding to me in some smoky afterhours lounge over two fingers, neat, and not sitting on a curb of the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, chaperoned by his mother, Dedra.
The disenchanted tone may have been a result of the encounter I had just witnessed, which he said was the worst experience with music he’s had yet. “That lady is rude, rude, rude. I repeat: rude!” The lady in question, pictured right, is another street performer, and Darius had been engaged in a turf war with her for at least an hour. Set up within spitting distance of each other, they played over one another until Darius, perhaps outgunned, had had enough and, after conferring with his mother, made an announcement. “I’m sorry,” he said to the two or three people it could be construed were watching him (which is not to disparage Darius’ talent—he’s quite the singer). “I’m always a respectful performer, but we’re getting treated with a lot of disrespect here.” Then he shut it down.
I never got the presumed nemesis’s side of the story, and so I’ll follow Darius’s example and respectfully decline to make assumptions. She wasn’t a bad performer, and I’m sure her songs of love lost, wisdom gained, and shout-outs to the universal sense of wonder at the grandness of life’s deep mysteries will touch many a pubescent heart someday, but in the meantime, she was rolling her eyes in dismissal at an 11-year-old. And not just any 11-year-old, but one whose mother believes in him so much she bought him some kind of karaoke machine and a cool pair of shades, helped him make a sign, and drove him to Santa Monica on her day off. And there were no other Dariuses on the promenade that day. On the other hand, there were at least four blandly attractive, 20-something, long-brown-haired, singer-songwriter chicks visible over a three-block stretch. I found the same distribution of this type at the other locations that I checked out, except for Venice Beach. Apparently they avoid Venice. But give it time. If some future reporter makes another survey of the musical marginalia in 20 years or so, it’s likely to be all bedraggled brunettes, one after the other, competing with barkers (hawking low-cost, no-fuss heroin prescriptions) for the limited attentions of jaded tourists.
Mark Anthony, 55
My friend told me she knew of a local department store that had a guy playing piano in the women’s underwear section, so I went there and soon met resident ivory tickler Mark Anthony. He came off as knowing and lightly jaded, like he’d discovered that life was as pleasantly pointless as a Sandra Bullock movie on a turbulent transoceanic flight. I told him what I was up to and he was almost conspiratorial in his openness to it. When I was concerned that store security might have a problem with me taking pictures, he said he’d say it was for him. He was like that kind-of-cool, kind-of-weird neighbor you had in your 20s who you’d only exchanged pleasantries with when you happened by him in the hall, until you ran into him at a bar on St. Patty’s Day and he told you how, back in the day, he had been the lead singer in some band with Yanni, back when Yanni was more new wave than New Age.
I photographed Mark a couple times, but they were both hit-and-run sessions and I hadn’t gotten a chance to interview him. He did give me his card, though, and the day before my deadline, I decided that I wanted to find out more about him. So I gave him a call. Guess who he used to be in a band with?
Chameleon was a hot-shit act out of Minneapolis in the late 70s and early 80s. Their sound was a restive mix of Tommy Tutone, Styx, and Vangelis. Besides Yanni (who was already showing signs of megalomania and whose gassy excursions, it seems to me, were the only things keeping them from Top 40 recognition), they also boasted drummer Charlie Adams in their lineup. He’s the guy who started the whole spinning-upside-down drum-kit thing that Tommy Lee would later steal. Mark’s vocals had a nervous, propulsive energy in keeping with the air of Icarusian cocaine-fueled comedown the wound-licking boomers were going through at the time. But the band had some bad luck with the labels and then Yanni wanted to take things in a different direction.
It’s been cruise ships and department stores since then, but Mark doesn’t come off as bitter in any way. Of the many people I talked to, Mark could perhaps make the biggest claim to past glory. He used to be roommates with Nicolette Larson, for Christ’s sake. That he’s only a tad sardonic today is a testament to his good nature.
Mark, who’s also an actor, got a call regarding his name from the Screen Actors Guild some years back. The representative said that there was this hot Latin kid coming up who was looking to break big across all media. He wanted to know whether Mark was willing to relinquish his name. I don’t know how superstar Marc Anthony spelled his name before he got into SAG, but I know how he doesn’t spell it now.
J.B. Willit, 54
“That’s ‘w-i-l-l-i-t,’ as in I ‘will it’ to be.” James Bartholomew “J.B.” Willit was just back from Warsaw. He’d spent five years in Eastern Europe, and now he was playing around the States, hoping to get up enough money to bring his wife over from Lithuania. Poker-faced, his default stance was defiance, and from behind his deep black sunglasses I could feel him eyeing me with suspicion. I got the feeling that a wide swath of humanity would fit under the heading of “The Man” to him. And maybe with good reason.
Like a Hallmark card to silver linings, in a gravelly mumble J.B. told me a story that contained both his lowest point and his fondest musical memory. J.B.’s anti-folk style, his barking, punk-inflected blues, belies his hippie past. He’d been familiar with the Rainbow Family, a lanky and loose group of eco-anarcho-gypsies, sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands, who live in state and national parks for up to a few weeks at a stretch, stupefying locals and vacationers and digging low-impact shitters. I had encountered this Family myself while hitchhiking and hopping trains as a teen and, for a few months, probably counted myself among their numbers. In fact, J.B. and I knew some of the same people from this way back when. But, as he had written off the Rainbows decades earlier as sellouts, I sensed that did nothing to dissuade him from being suspicious of me. One night, in 1989, J.B. had just left Irvine Meadows, down in Orange County, where he’d been attending some Dead shows. He was walking down the PCH, holding, when the cops pulled over to check him out. Taken in under the purview of the draconian drug laws of a different era, he was sent up the coast, to San Luis Obispo, to a place with such a weird, time-capsule name, it sounds like it was pulled from the pages of
The California Men’s Colony has an illustrious roster of alumni. Timothy Leary was there, and Suge Knight. Manson-family members Charles “Tex” Watson and Bobby Beausoleil each served long stretches. Also S&L scandal alum Charles Keating Jr., famed street baller Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell, and Christian Brando. But it was inmate #E4678, whose time at the Colony intersected J.B.’s own, that gave this otherwise pointless stint away meaning. Ike Turner had demons, to be sure. Let’s call him a complicated man. And before those demons eventually killed him, they bought him a stopover at the CMC. There’s no denying that he was a musician of genre-defining caliber, and three or four days a week, for five months, hard, J.B. Willit, stoner, tripper, Deadhead, jammed with Ike Turner on the steps of the library of the California Men’s Colony, and he’s unlikely been the same since. It almost seems worth it.
Harry Perry, 59
This is Harry Perry. He’s been playing guitar on roller skates in Venice since 1974. He’s from Detroit, where he had his first band at 13. He lived with the MC5, hung out with the likes of Ted Nugent, and was managed for a time by Punch Andrews, Bob Seger’s longtime manager. His first record was a cover of Seger’s “Heavy Music,” released on the legendary record label Hideout. Harry himself is a legend, and you can find out all sorts of tidbits about him online, or just look for him at the beach. But even legends have to pay the bills.
When I came upon Harry, he was hawking t-shirts to a couple of tourists. When I told him what I was up to, he gave me a CD. But as we talked, he seemed clearly distracted. Suddenly he looked past me, his eyes searching, and he barked out a name. A nondescript white guy materialized from out of the crowd, pulling a duffel bag on a collapsible luggage cart. Harry said, “Give me ten shirts and a bunch of CDs.” The guy bent to the bag, handed Harry the shit he’d asked for, and then just as quickly dissolved back into the crowd. He was like a Mossad agent. After watching him dematerialize, having left no retrievable impression in my mind, I turned back to Harry, who had somehow already squirreled away the fresh batch of merch somewhere on his person. This was precision machinery. Harry Perry is an industry.
He turned to me as if saying yes had never been wrong, and he mugged for a bit, strumming out a series of chords with a flourish. He was kind of antsy, like maybe he’d just burned one with the crusties over there with the cat on a leash. He’d take a few steps back, then a few toward me in a loose, easy swagger, the constant movement radiating from deep within his pelvis. You got the feeling he’s been fucking divorcees since he was 17. He was like a stoned Camaro. He worried the neck of the guitar with impatient caresses, the occasional nervous strum.
Roger Hinz, 40
After taking his picture, I asked him how long he’s been playing.
“All my life,” he replied.
‘‘Forty,” he intoned.
‘What’s your favorite memory?”
“Just last night” (which even my friend’s 12-year-old kid, who was with me, thought was hilarious), “I was up in Beverly Hills, and Stefanie Powers came up to me.” I was too slow in summoning a look of recognition. “The lady from
Hart to Hart.
I nodded my head. “How’d she look?”
“She still looked great.”
“Who was the guy…?”
“Yeah. What’s your worst memory?”
“Aw, none, man. My music’s too positive.”
This guy was more Lyle Waggoner than Robert Wagner. Later, I found lots of exciting surprises at summerlandcd.com. Apparently someone plays the “flamingo” guitar.
This is the same vaguely disappointed expression that Al had on his face for the entire four minutes and 27 seconds during which we spoke. I even said, at one point, “That’s some expression you’ve got there, Al.” And he said, “Yup.” It’s not like he was unfriendly at all. One time he almost did this kind-of-laugh thing that played ever so subtly across his face. And when we were talking, the expression took on a quality that was less peeved and more like maybe someone had quietly let out a stinker, but we didn’t know each other well enough to acknowledge it.
Al’s been a musician since he was a child. Growing up, there was a piano in his house that nobody touched until one day he started messing with it, and music got hold of him. He also plays the trumpet, though on the day I met him, he’d been playing guitar in a four-piece funk outfit. He has an easy way about him when he plays. Music is second nature to him, and he said it kept him out of trouble when he was a younger man. It almost seemed as if he looked up to music itself as some kind of benevolent guiding force, like an older sibling who’d already made all the mistakes so he didn’t have to. This is why he has no patience for fools who can’t get their shit together to play.
“They go to jail, get stuck in the motel. Anything but the music. But I’ll do anything for the music.” Still, I can sort of see how he might have trouble keeping his people in line. I mean, what’s he going to do if you fuck up, give you this face? You’re totally over it already.
David Waller, 62
David Waller has a pedigree. At least he thinks it’s a possibility that he’s a distant relative of Fats Waller. His grandmother and his aunts had pictures of Fats all over the place, and it was their love and admiration of the man that prompted David to pursue music in the first place. He started with the baritone horn. His best friend growing up in the ghettos of Detroit was Marvin Marshall, whose mother had a beauty shop that happened to be halfway between the two Motown houses, and it was where their stable of stars would go to get their hair done. David and Marvin would hang out there in the afternoon, soaking in the cool. By then, David had moved on to the bass guitar, and he said all the young players had to learn that session style, the Motown Sound, note for note. “I hate to say it, but note for fucking note.” Eventually, he hooked up with the right people and was granted entrée into that world of propitious splendor, Hitsville, USA, where he mixed with the likes of Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, and the Jackson 5. In 14 years, he played with everyone on the Motown roster except for Stevie Wonder and the Supremes.
Yet despite his great success, David has a certain ambivalence regarding the capricious finger of good fortune. “If you’re not sharp, intellectual, not in the right clique, you don’t make it. I lucked out. I know ten or 15 guys who never got out of the garage, or some nightclub in Detroit. I went through ten passports.” The pinnacle of his success came when he was playing with the Temptations and they were invited to perform for the Queen of England at Royal Albert Hall. “And I was watching her in that far box,” he said and pointed his finger up toward the rooftops across the promenade, pausing to acknowledge that imaginary monarch. He dropped his hand and looked at me. “We fucked them up,” he said. And even in recognizing that that is all now long in the past, he spread his hands as if to encompass the small plot of beachfront he and his friends had claimed for the day to jam and maybe make a little cash, and he said, “I feel truly blessed.”
I should maybe mention that when I looked some of this stuff up, I couldn’t find anything to confirm what David had told me. Maybe it’s a deficiency of my search heuristics, or my own time constraints, or laziness on the part of some Motown chroniclers. Motown was notorious for relegating session players to faceless obscurity, as did most hit factories of the day. But the way the memories played across his face as he relived them, I can’t help but believe every word this sweet man told me. And as Fats Waller himself would say, “One never knows, do one?”
Marla Garvin, 55
Marla Garvin was born in Davenport, Iowa. She took up the violin in school in the second grade, but being one of eight children, her family couldn’t afford to get her one of her own, and so she switched to voice. In her early 20s, she was the lead singer of a heavy-metal cover band called Lillian Storm, but she longed to break out of the cultural isolation of the Midwest, and she wanted to do her own songs. She headed to New York in ’84 to pursue her dream of being a solo singer, but she couldn’t get any traction, and she didn’t stay long. When she got back to Davenport, she was semifamous and they interviewed her on a local radio station simply because she had survived New York City.
She gave the dream another shot a couple years later, this time in Atlanta. She reinvented herself as a performance artist, performing what she called “heavy-metal a-cappella slash rock-’n’-roll poetry.” She lived in the dressing room of a club called the Metroplex, where she says she met lots of “alterna-stars.” But that didn’t work out the way she had hoped, either, and she split after a year.
Whatever she was doing in the 90s, by the fall of 2001 it had left her restless, and she headed out to California. On her very first night in Venice, she met Sonny, a homeless, larger-than-life musician. The first thing Marla told me about herself is that she is “the illegitimate widow by proxy of King Sonny Zorro, 1942 to 2003.” To some, Sonny was like a later-era, West Coast version of Moondog, the blind, giant jazz musician who stalked New York City in a Viking outfit for 30 years in the middle of the past century, jamming with the likes of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. In a mirrored, Left Coast incarnation, Sonny, it’s said, wrote “Purple Haze” in a cafe as a dedication to Jimi Hendrix, transcribed it on to a napkin at Janis Joplin’s urging, and then passed it on to her to give to Jimi. It seems like Sonny was an interesting guy, and I might have enjoyed talking to him. But I didn’t, because he’s dead.
Marla Garvin is vibrant and engaging, though she seems gripped by sadness and self-doubt, and seven years on still relegates herself to the safety of the negative space defined by another’s absence. Maybe she’s just working it out. After years of homelessness, in her mind a fair exchange for the music, she’s finally in a $20-a-night room of her own. A few years ago, perched on a concrete retaining wall, she was singing Doors songs with Guitar Eddy when some drunk pushed her and she fell headfirst to the pavement seven feet below. She says it made her a stutterer and so now she can’t sing. (She never stuttered once when we were talking.) So now she’s playing guitar, and she’s hoping to have an album out by Christmas. Entitled
, it will contain some of the music she’s written over the past decade. Let’s hope it sounds like half-smoked cigarettes and warm, beer-y melancholy and doesn’t feature that hippie drum circle that’s always setting up down there.
Los! is a veteran of the Sunset Strip hair-band scene. He came to Hollywood in ’86 and moved in with a little-known group of guys who went by the name Guns N’ Roses.
Soon, he was watching as his friends broke big all around him. He was proud to be in the brotherhood of music, and he still is. “I can approach anyone. I can approach stars. The best and the worst. David Lee Roth. Nikki Sixx. Slash was my best friend.” The stench of success was heavy in the air, and he was itchy for a taste, but it wasn’t meant to be. Not yet, at least.
He’s been playing guitar since he was 11. “My mom said as soon as I heard Kiss I was fucked.” But it just might have been in his genes. When he was 20, the woman who raised him tearfully informed him that he was adopted. He found his birth mother in the Bay Area. She had been a guitar player in the café scene of San Francisco in the 50s. Her peak was when “she achieved total silence.” Apparently, for the finger-snapping beatnik set, total silence was the hepcat equivalent of leaping to your feet and shouting, “Bravo, bravo!” She awed them into giving her four and a half minutes of this awkward, disconcerting praise.
And apparently John Denver tuned her guitars. The nose for near greatness was in his blood.
For 14 years, Los! and his girlfriend had a band called Mama Fights Back. Though he was the main songwriter and diligent with his copyrighting, they were songs that the two of them brought to life together and, in a bit of morosely romantic logic, his girlfriend felt that they should get married to ensure that she could keep using the songs in case he died. Her father disagreed. Burned by marriage himself, he felt that was the quickest way to end their relationship. So they got married. Two months later, her father died and left her several properties worth millions. Two weeks after that, she wanted a divorce. She took the money and she took the songs. But the worst was what she did to his dog. “He was my best friend for 12 and a half years.” She took the dog with her when she left, only to inform him a short while later that she had him put down. When he asked why, she said his breed only had a life expectancy of 12 to 15 years, so it was time, as if he was in the dog version of
But Los! still has hope. Jesus Christ, he’s got a fucking ton of it. He said his new band, Vampire Toothfairies, looks like it’s going to break. “But it took this long. I’m the only one that lightning didn’t hit. This time it’s my turn.” It makes me wonder, though, what that even means. What constitutes making it in the music business to a 48-year-old hard rocker? At a time when success is measured less in chicks banged than in downloads and page hits, by what metric will he gauge his? When will he know he’s arrived?
They say you won’t know you’re trapped in a black hole until it’s too late. Cruising through uncharted space, you’d slip by the event horizon, completely uneventfully as it turns out, and there’d be nothing left to do but to drift inexorably toward the only possible destination left to you: oblivion. And yet you’d be none the wiser until gravity started pulling you into spaghetti. Dreams are like that. Not your nightly REM sleep dreams, but your I’m-one-in-a-million dreams. Those grand, American dreams. Maybe it starts with Gene Simmons spitting up red dye No. 4 and corn syrup, and then it’s nurtured by a charismatic homeless guy telling you that you’re somebody. But despite the fact that you’re rationalizing against ever-diminishing returns, like a desperate actor shitting in the bushes ’cause he’s hoping to get the lead in Shakespeare in the Park, you never realize you’ve made an all-in bet until that unquenchable, outsize longing for greatness has been finally whittled down to an essential nugget of need, that someone, someday, will tell you that it wasn’t all just a waste of time.
I met Marla and Los! one after the other. They were both so warm and welcoming, and desperate for a sympathetic ear, and though they probably have nothing in common other than circumstance, they’ve become linked in my mind. If the universe is infinite and so an infinite number of Earths are scattered across the cosmos, each an expression of some small facet of discrete possibility, then on one of these Earths, Los! and Marla have found each other and they spend their nights together in a $20-a-night room making beautiful music without care or silly dreams. And they breathe marshmallows, talk in a language that’s like squeaky door hinges, and have long, spindly arms like spider monkeys.