Skid Row is not just a hack 80s hair band, or a fabled place of destitution. It’s an actual neighborhood in Los Angeles where real people live. Not that most of LA would know.
Skid Row resident musicians Gary Brown and Marlon Polk join Cameron Stallones, Alex Gray, and Rob Magill for an improvised Sun Araw set with no “Careless Whisper” cover.
Skid Row is not just a hack 80s hair band, or a fabled place of destitution. It’s an actual neighborhood in Los Angeles where real people live. Not that most of LA would know. The Skid Row community is defined by places like Lamp Community Center, an organization that provides services for mentally ill homeless people, but the community is rarely embraced or acknowledged by the city at large except for the occasional human-interest piece in the local papers. It’s because of this lack of visibility that I arranged a meeting with Lamp’s art-project coordinator, Hayk Makhmuryan, in an attempt to help organize a free show on Skid Row featuring the experimental band Sun Araw. My goal was to cheer up some of LA’s forgotten residents, at least for a day.
When I walked up to Lamp on November 6, the day of the show, two men with blues guitars sat cross-legged on the cement, tuning by ear. More than 50 people were hanging around and chatting with friends, relaxing, or staring at the sky as they waited outside. The Lamp is next door to the sole laundromat on Skid Row—the only place for thousands of residents to get their clothes cleaned that doesn’t involve a bathroom sink and a tree branch—and many of those outside were waiting for their laundry to dry.
When I arrived, Hayk told me that it had already been an especially difficult day—fights broke out, cops had been on the scene, Mercury was in retrograde, and everyone had come to the startling realization that there are actually people in this world who voted for Mitt Romney. After I dropped my bag off in a secure location, Marlon, a Lamp Fine Arts participant who opened the show, led me to his electric-piano setup, kissing ladies’ hands as he worked his way through the crowd. His music stand was holding a printout of the lyrics to 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love.”
When the members of Sun Araw showed up, Marlon was circling the coffeemaker like a shark. He wanted to get things started; normally, when he performs at other events, he’ll just sit down and play until someone tells him to stop. And that’s just what he did. His band did a sound check, and within minutes Marlon was banging on the keys and we were in the middle of an afternoon jazz freak fest. Women holding bunches of ratty plastic grocery bags peered into the windows, while about ten residents wandered in to take a seat and a young woman picked up a tambourine. She had impeccable rhythm.
I tapped the shoulder of an older guy in front of me, who told me his name was Kenneth Severan. I asked him if this was his first time at Lamp. He said that he got here four days ago—he was transferred from a hospital, where he began to miss playing piano and guitar like he used to. He went on to say that he’d worked as a roadie for a short time, and when Hayk interrupted Marlon for a second to announce that Sun Araw would go on next, Kenneth’s eyes lit up as he reached for my arm: “Oh my God! They named their band after the guy I used to work for!” That’s right, Sun Ra’s roadie was in the audience to watch Sun Araw perform on Skid Row. I don’t think you can confidently say the situation was anything other than supremely weird.
Sun Araw soon took the stage alongside Lamp resident Gary, a painter and percussionist. Frontman Cameron Stallones waited for Gary to bang on a bongo before he turned some synthesizer knobs and the two saxophonists followed his lead. As they played, a woman in the front row with a collapsible shopping cart caught my eye. We both smiled, and she mouthed the words, “Soooo good.”
The positive vibes were infectious, and as the improvisational Sun Araw set wound down, every person in the room was grinning. Cameron gave me a hug and said, “Thank you for asking us to play. This is a dream of mine, to do something good with music.” This happened as police sirens wailed outside, serving as a reminder of where the show was taking place.
The concert was a success, but it was mostly just a distraction for a few of the 24,000 chronically homeless people in LA. Afterward, I walked back through the downtown parade of police cars and barefoot people wandering around San Pedro screaming at me, “Hey, lady, can I use your phone?” I hiked up the hill and headed to the warmth of my apartment.
Words and Photo by A. Wolfe
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