Pat Cloud: The Five String Trane
By Patrick Brayer
(photo: Patrick Brayer)
The moon glimmered like a belt buckle with a gut of baby’s breath clouds hanging over. It was below all that, to the tone of the December Santa Anas of 1986, that I found myself in a modest track home amidst the diamond street lit glower of Los Angeles, California. I was attending a party unencumbered by invitation. A party in which it wouldn’t hurt to believe that bluegrass music could, would, and should be the battering ram to birth a new year, or the repercussions of a moonshine lunch. I rode in conveniently on the tailcoats of a long time friend and local coffeehouse five-string banjo godhead, Craig Smith (Winston Salem by way of San Berdoo). As I was, as usual living straight for experience, I watched an indelibly pink Byron Berline (Bill Monroe, Rolling Stones) work the pathos out of a room, trance fiddling, with his eyes locked and closed. Claustrophobic as I may have felt, I was getting in good shape just shifting politely, chess like, across the lavender shag pile, trying not to block in any way the very flux of the pumping event. Bluegrass can be very industrial in that sense. The Appalachian circus virus leapt ghost-like from every corner, but corners not without a certain fuel of gayety. In trying to sum it all up, the rhythm was infectious, even though the interpretation was obviously more from the computer-learned side, and more than a century’s stones throw from its hayfield and pre-tractor origins.
(Pat Cloud / Fontana CA / photo: Patrick Brayer)
My own opinion does not, thank goodness, ever seem to affect the lasting or predominant evolution of music. But, my own boredom does at times equal an otherwise detraction of focus. I tried to conjure a smile as I made my way past the Xmas fondue, and there beyond the hollow of numb colored walls, seeking an exit, and there outside an empty flower bed to throw some eggnog into. Upon returning, and exploring, I twisted an old fake diamond doorknob and was already imagining some hopeful relief of escape, when I only entered but another tiny bedroom packed with yet more flailing souls. I never expected that I would step through a ballroom door, but then I neither could have imagined the rag tag unit I stumbled across playing what seemed, beyond description really, as some sorta’ secret cartoon jazz. The room was crammed almost to its shoebox crypt capacity with the six unkempt musicians, a bone light bulb, and no audience. I straggled in and closed the door behind me in ritual hesitance. Stumbling on the shear thickness of the music, unprepared, I was not even myself acknowledged, invisible beyond the state of the player’s repartee. In the wake of the intensity I could only stay in the room for about a minute. But that minute, I would later attest after some pondering, would alter the way in which I was to view all music in the future. These gentlemen were, I would say to the best of my ability, playing a hybrid haystack version of straight ahead Be-Bop jazz, led by a zither of the hills, the five string banjo. The music wafted out the yawn open window, painting hyper notation amongst the horizon splay of cityscape. But the state from which they performed was more that of an East Indian raga seriousness. One, which could sail down to you like Icarus, conveniently out of the reaching talons of any patronization. It frightened me to where I felt as if I had snuck into a church and stuck my head into a tabernacle for breath. The man’s name in the lead I was to find out was Pat Cloud. And with only that momentary music filed away, I began to question everyone about anything I could find out about this new mystical sound. I saw the sun rise on my slow motion drive home, the Hindu colors of a fleeing niece.
Cloud (center) flanked by Leroy Mack and Clarence White (1971)
After twelve years of listening and researching his life and works I’d found every year that Cloud had lived to be that which could support the life path of a different person. It scrolled out like all good stories, like one long personal account of psychological hill justice. Perhaps it was the early abandonment of a father, a dead beat detective, that caused the young science minded Cloud to simply lock himself in his room, explode inward and there devour and milk the branch of knowledge which is the secret hidden nature of jazz theory. The only weapon available, the five string banjo, a post gourd instrument of black slave origins, fallen from grace to now cower in the ever poor lit bravado of a pizza parlor, only arising periodically from the fallout of movies like Deliverance, and Oh Brother Where Art Thou. An instrument that before and after those momentary rises back to prominence licked the boots of even the piccolo. The reward of Cloud’s compulsive act was to emerge from his room golem-like, ten years later with the first original style of playing, on this instrument to date, not majorly influenced by it’s own sub-genre. That is to say not, as all others, from the rapid fire banjo roll engraved tablets of one Martha Whitian plunker, name of Earl Scruggs.
Cloud recorded his debut album for the independent label, Flying Fish Records in 1983, a label not noted for jazz, or what some might rather like to call, ‘black classical music’. As I specialize in the field of the important people of obscurity, Pat Cloud began to materialize for me as a case definition of what I found to be of the utmost contemporary importance. The last egg from extinction on a high and honey colored cliff.
(Pat’s first banjo on earth)
Patrick Cloud was raised into a more interesting scenario than most television sitcoms. Raised in a Los Angeles suburb by two combustive LAPD detectives, he just happened to then, barely out of his teens, to play a pivotal role in influencing the new systematic face of modern acoustic music, a plot still yet to be christened, or genre-ed. This occurred, as you can well imagine, not through the hermetically sealed ‘mass-media’, but rather through a like-minded network of fellow dreamers nation wide, rising above a near aborted birth, through campfire stories like this a’one here. His darker experiences wove methodically from a rocky marriage, teetering all the way to a flat tire lifestyle of destitute homelessness, and the near-death roll-call of drug addiction. Living at times as a hermit beneath the Venice Beach pier, to the amazement of everyone, he kept right on developing, even through the presence of the dankest hour. On more than one occasion his friends can attest, he would misplace his priceless Gibson Granada banjo in weed sown fields, parking lots, or on post party suburban lawns, seemingly like little post-it notes warning others that he shared not only the birthdays, but possibly the fates of, tragedies both, Chet Baker and Tim Hardin.
(signature model Goldtone Banjola)
A re-emergent recovery to sobriety in 1980 had found the same man directing the same man’s compulsiveness, then therapeutically, full circle towards the forgiveness of a damaged body. Rituals such as a seventy-day fast, an organically grown food regime, and a self-defined comparative metaphysical education, that brought a sudden new calm strength and a ‘home to roost’ verve to his banjo approach.
In 1988 Tony Trischka honored Cloud in his long awaited book Masters of the 5 String Banjo (Oak Publication) in the form of an entire chapter dedicated to his contribution to the history of this long misunderstood instrument. A tome, I might add, that equally tapped the sources of the likes of Earl Scruggs, and Ralph Stanley. And then shortly before the legendary Don Reno passed away in 1984 he praised Cloud in print, as no less than a prime innovator of his time. Many believe this to be nothing short of the baring heat of a torch being passed to strengthen a lineage.
(more relaxed than he really is / photo: Patrick Brayer)
So now let me now flash back to how my friendship with Patrick Cloud began originally. I was working at Calico Ghost Town in the Barstow desert. I was dressed in a Goodwillian Guatemalan jacket and was hired, beyond good sense, to judge a banjo-fiddle contest. A gig idea that I detested, answering the phone request from the promoter, a sweet Don Tucker, with “I don’t really believe in musical competition”. To which he responded, “we’ll give you $250”. I guess I turned my pockets inside out and agreed to ‘judge, yet judge not’, which resulted in sleeping in the penance of the alkaline dirt, and shuffling in the triple digit sunshine for three decade feeling days. I always tried to make the best of it, meeting up with old friends, sharing my own psychedelic country songs with strangers, and such. Then came the judging, which only required a bowl of pot, a shot of whiskey, some sunglasses, and a ball cap. There they’d parade out these little kids in mock western attire who could without a doubt be easily described at screechy-assed, unless you were better educated, then you could, in a deep ponder, see it all as an authentic Mayan field recording. The easy part was when Chris Thille would come out, a master even at an embryonic 12 year old, so you knew that he would just win everything outright and that you could just kick back, and then only be remotely hated by just the most delusional parents left standing. Anyway, after that sawed-off battleground I’d be on my own free time as the sun began to shank behind the ore hills.
(Earl Scruggs con barbells es muy fantástico)
That one fateful day of first meeting Cloud there I remember as being well over-fraught with triumph and tragedy. My friend Stuart Duncan was out with his group, The Nashville Bluegrass Band. We were all gathered around long neck refreshments between sets in their tour bus, out of the apocalypse dust, when he got a sudden phone call that Stuart’s mother had come down with a strange virus and was in critical condition in Santa Paula. He was whisked away and then several days later his sweet mother passed away, shocking everyone. It was in that state of complete confusion that I headed out, up a steep hill, for the Calico graveyard at sunset. My preconceived aim, to ritually nail a copy of The Wall Street Journal to a full sized cross. I was gathering up others to come along if they so wished when I happened upon Pat Cloud in passing, in front of a house made out of colored bottles, and invited him. We got up there, about twenty of us, and I set up my boom-box at the base of the cross, which I managed to get to play two cassettes at once. So up nailed the wind flapping Wall Street Journal and on went a soundtrack backdrop of Robert Johnson superimposed over the choral works of Palestrina, floating out into a panoramic bat woven sunset. Cloud tells me that he had a transcending experience that day, to the wind swept metronome of the oat grass. Of course he was, mind you, on a seventy-day fast, and working full time at a warehouse that produced Barley Green, sort of a powder version of wheatgrass. Let’s just say there was some white sage smudged, and crystals being brandished. But, that meeting was very powerful for both of us, and we became brotherly friends ever since, which gave me an even deeper look inside the complexities and an understanding of the man.
(Pat Cloud with signature model Goldtone banjola / Claremont CA / photo: Patrick Brayer)
So in closing I will say that the most important point, that of which I devote this effort before you, I pose in the form of a question. A question that I feel every Pat Cloud fan, at one time or another has, or has wanted to ask the world by the lapels. And that is how can a man of this stature, a mathematician of stoic southern vision, still tread in the four bare walls of obscurity, with not one record offer, or one tour package in ten years? How can a man whom the triumvirate, Gibson, Deerring, and Goldtone banjo companies all plead to endorse their instruments, Mel Bay publishing a instructional book of his theory, and yet him not be embraced by a hungry and educated audience, those in search of a transcending quality? I present these questions as an introductory awakening to an artist to be commended, a music to be bathed in, and in my humble opinion, the purest form and factor of solely non-gyrating Americana that the soul has yet to handle. So we find that when the candy coating to life is worn transparent, that only then do we find revealed to us the realization that perhaps the only evil ever present is just the passage of time. Ravi Shankar was once known to say that all he was trying to do in the lengths of his virtuosity was to distract one from the outside world, and that it was in fact the drone instruments that he wanted us to hear, the buzz of the insects as it were. And so with that might I leave you to yours in the shrewdness of conclusion.
Pat Cloud and Patrick Brayer / The Mission Inn in Riverside, CA 01-09-2000 / photo: William Purcell
Grandma Cloud / Bishop CA
for more on Pat Cloud see: patcloud.com