Tag Archives: Jayhawks

Louris Canyon

SONY DSCFor a period of about six months, from mid-summer to Christmas, I spent time in LA. Quite a lot of it, more than my usual quickie trek to see a show and then head home. It was lovely, much of it, in some massively appealing and magnetic ways. And then it wasn’t. Which is all well and fine and good.

This post concerns nothing personal. Regarding the pepper-and-salt mix of great and feh we face head-on when knowing someone, beloved or not, I’m saying nothing here. We have all seen fuschia fade to rose.

While in L.A. I saw a ton of music. A profound gift I won’t soon forget. Plus I explored a city I knew mainly from novels: Bruce Wagner, Robert Stone’s Children of Light, Nathanael West of course. I am glad that I was there. The music factor was unique, and that is what I want to write about now.

I’m not a music writer. Neither a journalist nor a critic be; that’s me. My Angeleno was just that: a seasoned pro whose Maria McKee liner notes I admired ten years ago, a country specialist, whose torrential output of concert and album reviews amazed me with its ease and speed. Oh, what fun it was. Unimaginable events. Graham Parker and the Rumour? There they were. And so was I: stage side at the Roxy, pogoing and sweaty, 30-year-old album lyrics pouring from my mouth so fluent and easy, like my Angeleno’s prolific copy streaming toward a deadline.

Traversing L.A. involves Bargello-like maneuvers. I have no sense of direction and could never handle the mathematical, patterned execution of freeway and surface street practiced so adroitly there. (Then again, I never thought I’d drive on a freeway, either, and look at me now.) No matter the stress and density of traffic, the time constraints and need to arrive on time, or very-late-night tiredness, or desire to eat my takeout falafel from the place near the Cinefamily, I always loved one route: Laurel Canyon.

This usually packed and undulant thoroughfare through California rock ‘n roll history made me smile. How could it be, that a musical pantheon’s headquarters comprised such a schlep? The small complex of commercial buildings, the hippie-haven Country Store and haute organic Italian eatery, the weathered homes near street level reminded me of the similarly ramshackle Knott’s Berry Farm. Except in Laurel Canyon, Neil Young acts the Snoopy-style mascot, Jim Morrison wields WD40 as ride engineer, and so many center-parted ladies of the canyon sell tickets.

So that is what I thought, in traffic, in Laurel Canyon. And I loved being there. And when I’m there next, which will be at some point, I will remember all those times en route to and from music. A road which, being Laurel Canyon, meant driving through music as well.

Now I’m in my living room, in a falafel mood, listening to an album recorded in Laurel Canyon. Vagabonds (Rykodisc, 2008) is a very California solo album by my favorite Midwest singer-songwriter, Gary Louris, of my favorite Midwest band, the Jayhawks, whose third and fourth albums can get me through virtually anything. Gary Louris, the Shaun Cassidy of my alt-country dreams.

Vagabonds pays homage in a way I rather like, with nubbins of Tim Hardin and Supertramp scattered in the satiny pedal steel. Gary’s voice is beautiful. That Gary’s voice is beautiful is a fact as incontrovertible as the existence of pores on skin. Jenny Lewis does choir duty, unfurling harmonic lessons learned two years prior in her own solo-debut gem, Rabbit Fur Coat. Chris Robinson produces, we have Susannah Hoffs and Farmer Dave and wonderful musicianship suffusing words and sound that are pure Gary Louris. The whole thing balances, so gracefully, a sense of soaring grandness with warm-mug-in-your-hand, simple comfort. Like wearing slippers at the Cloisters. Like Laurel Canyon itself.

California Seventies sound makes me think of Seventies California, and that makes me think of Joan Didion.

If Joan Didion bought a silk macrame vest for her Play It as It Lays book tour in ’70, and wore that vest to a Laurel Canyon dinner party, and then stored it in tissue, to be revived and refreshed years later, and worn in new light, its hippie-haberdasher’s knots intact, it would look much like Vagabonds. An expert yet natural structure of acoustic and electric, earthiness and grace, it’s a living thing, new and old and versatile as ever. In its own place and time, it is absolutely perfect.

Happy Birthday, Greg Van Loon

Who knew Truckee, California, would be my second favorite town on the planet?

One of the unexpected gifts of my life in California is my passion for landscape and history. Truckee has both, and that is quite the understatement.

First can I say: Donner Party. Don’t get me started. I wrote about it, and I’m still writing about it (my forever-in-progress Living in Cheese). I can never get enough Tamsen Donner. (The sole reason why one of my kids dodged the name is the fact that “Tamsen” would become “Tams,” and I once knew quite a nasty Tams.)

But this is not a post about the Donners, as devoted as I am to the people and starkness of that extreme and awful time. Nor does it concern other Truckee history, often not discussed, terrible things involving Chinese workers who built the Pacific Railroad (1863-1869) running through the town. I could write all about that railroad, the track echoing I-80, the steep freeway climbing from Nevada to Truckee. That drive deserves a post of its own. States change curve by curve, you accelerate through Nevada California Nevada California as immortalized by the Jayhawks’ song of that name:

First you twist
Then you turn
You’re on life’s icy mountain, dear passenger

Can you help me to find, Nevada California.

Or the cold Truckee River. Nature dazzles. Pines dark green as bottle glass, rocks russet, the snowiest shiny snow you ever saw. And perhaps it’s what the locals call a Bluebird Day: Fresh snow from the night before injects light into a sky too clear to call cerulean.

This is Sierra Nevada, yes, and jagged terrain hangs as backdrop over the downtown district. Everything is old. I go for the storefronts, the aging brick and mortar, not the merchandise. This is no touristy mock cowboy spot. There are beautifully restored homes such as Richardson House, which is managed by my friend Chelsea Walterscheid. Chelsea cherishes and protects the history of her lifelong hometown in a most inspiring way, and she can set you up with a stay at Richardson House, or a personal tour of any aspect of Truckee history, including the jail. She’ll tell you about Hooligan Rock. She knows the true Truckee. She understands Jibboom Street.

A five-minute walk  from the stores of Donner Pass Road and you’re on Jibboom Street.

I love Jibboom Street. Such great examples of structures, former brothels and saloons and flophouses, in a state of suspended decay untouched (mostly) by developers. I walk there often, to Coffeebar, and, if I’m lucky and she’s in town, to Urban Angels, where Kori Walker understands big wavy Jewish hair like no one else. The hair salon’s name says something about that small street, its past, and the decades of women who lived there. To put it country (or New York) simple, they were there. They’re gone now. But they’re not.

You may not understand this, or agree, or think that I’ve been in Cali way too long and it is time for me to make like Dylan’s “Tom Thumb’s Blues” and go back to New York City because you “do believe I’ve had enough.”

I sense stuff and that is all I want to say about it.

Jibboom Street brims with it, this ineffable quantity, a change in the air. The people on the sidewalk before.

Many of the ladies of Jibboom Street are buried at Truckee Cemetery.

I love old cemeteries. I could write about all the impromptu old cemeteries I’ve reveled in over the years, starting with Sagamore Hill’s pet cemetery and then the tiny grove of 19th century headstones found while hiking at that bucolic Catskill hellhole for Great Neck sixth graders known as Ashokan, but this is not the post.

Perhaps it’s odd that I spend time in old cemeteries. Since childhood I’ve been more petrified of death than Babette Gladney in White Noise.

Lately I’ve been thinking about death more than usual.

There are actually two cemeteries in Truckee: the Catholic cemetery, a small and verdant plot down a slope, and the main cemetery on East Jibboom Street. Both have been in use for 150 years.

The “urban angels” of yesteryear’s Jibboom Street share a resting place. It, like the rest of the cemetery, is cared for by a lovely man named Greg Van Loon.

Greg understands the power of this place. Being at this cemetery, in the company of the many graves, is to recognize that Greg does not so much maintain this ground as care for it. Here, “care” is a verb of doting and devotion. It is no mere job.

Greg’s awareness and honor of those resting there, and their stories, many unknown, moves me every time I think about it.

In his office is a wooden cabinet with a decal on it: “Life is Good.”

I know that one day I’m going to go out or move on or croak or leave this place or cross the Rainbow Bridge to find my dead cat Spenser or plop down into the same oblivious state I was in prior to birth. Do I miss 1964? I wasn’t there. To paraphrase Mickey Sacks’ father in Hannah and Her Sisters, I was unconscious.

Still, I’m terrified. I know this fear is as old as the hills.

If I knew that a Greg Van Loon would exist, in perpetuity, wherever I was, to watch over me, I wouldn’t be so scared.

I would know he’d be sitting in his office with the space heater and tools and ledgers, and, when needed, he’d gently adjust whatever marked my spot, and I could handle it. The being there.

Today’s his birthday. Happy Birthday, Greg Van Loon.

Ticket to Exuberance: The Jayhawks at the Belly Up, January 31, 2012

The morning of this show, I remembered I bought a ticket months ago. So I went.

Jayhawks, original lineup, irresistible.

Gary Louris and his Gibson are, I believe, the same age.

I have been thinking about death far too often the past two weeks.

I suck at math, but have been making calculations. Thirty years ago, what was happening? I was in Mr. Mack’s English class, pointedly reading Pound’s Cantos and saying screw you to almost everyone. Thirty years from now, I will be 75 freaking years old. God and the Prime Mover willing, that is.

Though I am not into Mindfulness Meditation with a copyright and trademark, I’ve always been mindful of small, good things. Plus I absorb minutiae. The term for this trait is “eidetic.” I do it with words, meals, moments, visuals. Remembered paragraphs from magazines 25 years ago. And not profound paragraphs.

I freak people out with my recall of their past.

A guy from college said, “You’re not supposed to remember that. That is my memory, not yours.”

I was there in the quad, smelling popcorn and mildew, I heard him, I saw the precise shucking of his parka. This was 2010 when I spoke with him, 25 years since he announced his recent shtupping of a certain someone on the 50-yard-line. Ours was not a rah-rah school, so this collegiate moment and image charmed me back then. It promptly lodged in my brain.

Along with so many private dirty details, my own and others, restaurant tables mid meal, sounds of chairs in 1987.

The precise moment of a New Years Eve spent on a phone long distance with my best friend, both of us wondering what the eff have we done, why are we 23 and sad, her brother — a bit older and sad too — intoning awful Edie Brickell lyrics in the background.

It’s like it happened yesterday. And I store all of this crap.

And when something hideous happens, I make computations. Bad in math as I am, this is not a good thing.

As the mother of the brother and sister mentioned above once told me, “Youth is wasted on the young.” As a friend who calculates things for a living told me today, “Don’t spend your middle age forecasting your old age.”

Jayhawks Setlist, Belly Up Tavern, 1/31/12

I think rocking out to Gary Louris and Mark Olson (especially Gary Louris) is a fine outlet.

The one thing I’d change: better sound for Karen Grotberg. Her piano makes “Blue,” as far as I’m concerned. I wanted more of it. Karen Grotberg, from one bespectacled black-clad mom to another: You look awesome and I love to watch you play.

The person directly behind me made this recording. I’m the head of big bouncing hair. The beefy forearms at the end are not mine, however.

Chanting “walkin’ on down the road” with a crowd of people who genuinely loved this band, as I do, felt really good, since, I realized, everyone in that room is getting old.