Photo: Steve Cahill
I wrote the song Empty Cage Behind (SH-V60) to eulogize in my own fashion my long-time friend and mentor, Christopher Lloyd Darrow who passed on January 15, 2020. First off, I’ll talk a little about my songwriting process in the hopes that it will keep all apologies I might feel I need to spout nestled at bay, ghost grey, confined but peering out witchy between the lines. For a video of the performance at Chris’s memorial, see the bottom of the page.
The need to avoid early compromise is built right into the process, so as a creator it’s always an ongoing struggle to not let the nagging voice of insecurity, perched on the shoulder, sucker-punch the whole affair. Literary surgery may work later, but at the start it won’t help, due to the simple fact that you can’t go there if you don’t know what you’re doing as of yet. I started into motion, in this case, with just an overall image of Chris in my head, and then I begin to conjure the paint of language. As soon as I get going it is crucial that I just get out of the way, side-stepping, and letting the imagery flood in somewhat cinematically on its own accord. I won’t call it a trance, mainly for the well-deserved fear that Wavy Gravy might appear at my doorstop looking for his lost macramé commune sandals.
(This is a photo I took of Chris at The Wig Wam Motel in Rialto. I got to go with him on several of his Vanishing West shoots.)
It’s not that I don’t at times adjust some things afterwards. I just, and this is my songwriting insight, let everything come out just as it wants, uninterrupted, telling the brash pirate’s bird on my shoulder that I can mend it later if need be. Not that you expect it to listen, it merely gives one license to ignore it. That mind-shift takes all of the pressure off of me. For instance, in this case, the hook, “I’ll Leave My Empty Cage Behind Me,” at first glance upset me a bit. Second guessing myself, I felt it might put-off those that needed uplifting. But, as I usually do, I had to trust my original instincts, as I had long been self-taught to do. I think that the reason I’m interested in songwriting in the first place is because the result that comes out seems to have more wisdom than I possess. Simply spoken, it humbles me to the core. Otherwise I would just blush at fooling myself into thinking that I had some great wisdom over others. The only credit one really deserves is for jotting it down. To many of us, junkies to wit, ink is a drug. The lesson being that you need to be careful not to second guess yourself too much for fear you might just be removing what might ultimately prove to be your signature.
So, the character here, Chris Darrow, is symbolically ascending from the confines of an earthly plane and is off to a better and celebratory, cage-free world. The grape awakening as the wine. The song’s narration is not asking anyone to believe it, but simply to imagine it. And if that unmasks some of the fear or allows one a guide’s hand through this earth-spun wilderness of ours, then it has potential. If done properly it could be seen as if Michelangelo had painted the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of your head.
Lion at my doorstep: My dad had an ornamental cement business for several years on the Valley Boulevard truck route in Fontana, located on the retread-laden edges of funk-dust Bloomington. My father, a graduate of Loyola University, wore more hats at times than his head could fit. He once advised me not to wear too many hats myself, unless I found it fashionable to grow a bunch more heads, and that if I was too open minded my brains might just fall out. When my father passed away in 1999 our family was forced to sell his cul-de-sac home on Pinedale Avenue in said Fontana. It was in this house that I recorded my early Secret Hits collection, and toted my first speaker boxes to The Starvation Café (1982-1997) past its threshold. Chris would visit me and my dad on occasion, and Ben Harper would even come by for “Pinedale Tacos” (which were one of the vegetarian staple concoctions that I was forcing my father to enjoy at the time). When we were liquidating his estate, I noticed a large cement lion and I thought immediately of Chris Darrow, ‘The Leo.’ So, with the help of my brother in-law, we lugged the back-breaking ‘king of the jungle’ Chris-ward, and it resides just where we left it on his front step up to this day, as well as the last fateful day that they carried Chris out past its stone grimace for the last time. That cement lion is a huge symbol to me and has greeted many talented visitors over the years from every walk of life. What a story it could tell if it could talk, and we were cement.
photo: Jeff Brough / at an Italian restaurant in the final era where Chris’s hair got turned a havoc of chrome by nature
Bamboo Garden: The Darrow mid-century dwelling on ‘faculty-row’, as it was once called, is swaddled in a forest thicket of bamboo. Record producer Kim Fowley always made light of, in mock, and perhaps a tad of authentic jealousy, Chris’ penchant for photographing man’s desire in the shape of women, out in the dappled sun company of ‘The Bamboo Garden’. I had many great and inspiring discourses with Chris there, him sometimes brother-figure, oft-times fatherly, most times sage, with the light filtering through a bamboo panorama, conducting a Pomona Valley breeze. Arriving at his house you were very often greeted by the fragrant waft of a chicken browning in his toaster-oven (his version of Nag Champa), and a pot of ink dark coffee on the hotplate, served up in one of his ceramicist brother Eric’s Zen earth-toned cups. His chicken dinners were among the best I ever had, and I’ve been to Jolly Farms in Fontana, for the record, located right next door to Lazio Sport and Liquor (one stop shopping for whiskey, shotguns, and comic books), both with alley entrances. Chris existed so simply, often times living from hand to mouth, washing his dishes humbly in the bathroom sink in the buttery glow of the virgin-mother nightlight, like a monk at the well. But you could never even imagine feeling sorry for him, because he always had a great ‘devil may care’ attitude, one he liked to call ‘the fretless lifestyle’. He seemed to carry himself, holding court, like a self-realized king. One couldn’t help but want to be their own Chris Darrow.
(Speaking of ‘king’, and as a footnote of incarnate synchronicity, once in a fit of spontaneous research I stumbled across a painting of King Phillip IV of Spain (1605-1665), whom I swore looked exactly like Darrow. Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_IV_of_Spain)
Coyotes are to whipping boys what neon is to sin’: This line refers to three different compositions written by Chris. The song ‘Coyote’ is said to have been written for local artist Annie Marquis, raven-haired and always dressed as if you interrupted her from gardening, whom Darrow deeply admired, and whose artwork graced a number of his projects. She was rather like the female Chris Darrow of pigment, and to me and many others, a living link to the late great Sue Hertel.
Whipping Boy first appeared on Chris’ 1973 self-titled LP for United Artist (the grey album) and was later then covered by Ben Harper in 1994. appearing on his debut CD for Virgin Records. Chris once told me that when he wrote this number that the original version was done in an Appalachian clawhammer banjo style. It was only fate that later ushered it over to the Fender electric table-slide-guitar, then becoming his signature song, if you were brave enough to nail it down only one. Harper gave a great quote upon the passing of Darrow I thought, “I didn’t go to college, I went to Chris Darrow’s.” Many of us were guilty of living out that quote. In a further note of synchronicity, Harper’s effort had just reached Gold Record status on the day Darrow passed.
Neon Sins was another song penned by Chris Darrow, which was inspired by a broken sign he stumbled upon in the desert, which read ‘Neon Signs’ with the ‘G’” burnt out. Chris said he just couldn’t pass that one up.
painting: Annie Marquis
The Salmon Colored Nomad, made reference to Chris’ 1955 Chevy Nomad station wagon which he christened with the name, “Charlena.” It was two-toned, like a one ton spat, Bahama Coral and Charcoal Grey. It was this very vehicle, which we called “the event car”, that took us many a time up the snaky road up to San Antonio Canyon. There we would hike on the wash boulders, got primitive, and ponder the snow melt stream. One time I recall being up there with him and he stopped me and made me listen. “To what” I replied. He said, “If you listen closely you can hear choirs in the wind strumming the trees”. And sure enough, I did. From then on, I began to learn that all musical inspiration could be found in nature if you listened. We don’t create anything, we can only pay homage to the splendors already among us, sonically or otherwise. The thought that that which is not here cannot be created became a liberating notion to a lot of us. The yellow pokes of roadside Scotch-Broom wouldn’t lie.
Robb Strandlund and Chris Darrow, Caprice Classic and Bamboo camp (photo: Patrick Brayer)
I’ll write every last word down for you in case you might be stoned. That line attests to all the fabled late night pow-wows at his house, and them festively spilling Busby Berkeley-like out into the cactus garden outside of and his Studio Nadine. I was always interested in his career and he was very generous in opening up to me. A lot of times I would go home at sunrise, my Caprice Classic awaiting with a skin of dew, my head rocking with more than I knew what to do with. In our earlier days, seeking at times to transcend everyday life, a lot of gauge smoking was part and parcel to the creative mix. Ours then was the thinking man’s reefer, not the ‘head on a post’ stuff that they peddle nowadays. I remember a pot dealer once coming in to share a sample of some new strain he’d obtained, whipping out a little pipe he carved out of a carrot. Louie Armstrong smoked pot every day of his adult life, and he was one of our American icons. So, Chris would lay down all this information surrounding his career, he had a great gift of recollection, and he could go on for hours with boundless energy. But at some point I stopped and told him that I wished I could thread all this, but that I doubted that I could, and told him he needed to write this all down, because it was deep, center of the earth deep, and it was an informational-bent on a valid and unique perspective of music history that belonged to him. So, I think that enough of us had made that same point, and at the time of his passing he had just in fact finished penning his memoir. We had the best seat in the house, and it was great to think that he was practicing his timely storytelling on us. All told, no one has championed Darrow’s work anymore praise worthy than rock journalist and author Harvey Kubernik, who has worked with all the greats, of who he put Chris’ contribution to music history on a pedestal of the highest altitude.
Beating a path through the groves was a reference to Chris’ love for the orange grove culture that once surrounded and was the incense of his grove-nestled-home as a child. The fruit trees are all gone now, but you could swear you could yet still see the succulent fruit reflected in his eyes, robin’s egg blue, as he often talked or sang on their behalf.
One last drink to my vibration: This line stems from something Chris said to his niece Mahlia upon waking from a sleep in the hospital, “Why is everybody paying me so much attention in this vibration?”
(Slide On In, cover)
The six-string calling card with the nickel-plated top refers to Darrow’s prized 1939 silver plated Dobro with original embedded Gibson humbucking pickup. The instrument can be seen in a photo I was fortunate enough to take for the cover of his, Slide On In CD (Taxim Records). At that period, I had this fluorescent orange sock hat as my thrift store trademark. I think it was a hunting hat. I was oblivious to the fact then, but later I found out that it was bright so that hopefully other hunters wouldn’t shoot you, and deer, not being able to see color, wouldn’t spot it, and maybe end up on your dinner table. I’m nobody, but to my thinking the orange hat just makes you a better target. The reason I say all of this is that if you look closely at the photo you can see the hat reflected in the nickel guitar. I think that blush sort of accidentally makes the photo. Once again Darrow afforded me another good vantage and a university crash course in ‘seat of the pants.’
Today as I sit here, out the northerly window facing the San Gabriel Mountains, a bank of clouds is rolling in, elfin pale, as if in suspicion, like a history of rain, cavern cold, changing life’s stage setting, perhaps symbolically for a life without our friend. I hate to have to quote myself, but what I always try to advise others to think, speaking to myself equally, is that, “everything is perfect just the way it is, so that our job here on earth is to simply figure out how that can possibly be.”
(Chris Darrow and his mom Nadine umpteen years ago)
From our consciousness is born mystery, and hence our first and foremost mystery is death. To be special is to be unique, and unique is to be one in a million. So, in the end, it is Chris who is special and not death, for how could it be, as so many people do it. We wept, yes, we all cried like a sous-chef laboring over a cannonball-stack of Vidalia onions. It was not hard to cry for Chris at all, him being the very salt of present-day tears. But the point I’m making, although I don’t know how sharp the point is (as if it were a stick), is that my observations could easily deem me on the soft side of insane to the mortal mind. But these same thoughts reflect the exact kind of conversation you could and might have with only Chris Darrow, and he would know, not only exactly, but wholeheartedly, from where and which direction you were coming. You would always walk away with more confidence than you were supposed to, with potential in invincible bloom. Some might coin it as the last vestige.
So, does anything really end? You tell me. You have seemed to have read this far. See, hopefully I have started someone else, just like I did a song. Life is sometimes less about the handicap of being smart and more often about being tricky. The heck with my process, to bare all with the risk of pretentiousness, I was just trying to hold the mirror up and get the reader to consider and articulate one’s own system and celebrate together. Think what you think, for I think Chris is listening.
Patrick Brayer / March 2020
Below is a photo Chris took of my wife and I for our wedding in 1999. My wife, Holle Brayer is wearing the dress her mother was married in, and i am wearing the pin stripped suit i wore in Lost Highway, along with a Salvador Dali designed tie given to me by David Dickey II.
For further reading see Harvey Kubenik’s article: Chris Darrow: An Appreciation (Music Connection Magazine)
I also published two other blog pieces concerning Darrow on this site
Empty Cage Behind
Lion at my doorstep, but I am not afraid
Light as green as money in the bamboo shade
Foothills kneel in wonder at a door that need not close
And I’ll leave my empty cage behind me when I go
I feel lighter now / than any note that you might choose
Freedom is just a word that we’re forever free to use
Coyotes are to whipping boys what neon is to sin
And I’ll leave an empty cage behind me for every place I’ve been
And I’ll leave my empty cage behind me when I go
There’s a salmon colored nomad pulling up beside the curb
There’s spirit in the hillsides for every weed and herb
I’ll write every last word down for you in case you might be stoned
I’ll leave my empty cage behind me, a rusty hinge it moaned
And I’ll leave my empty cage behind me when I go
Hot plate in the casbah and I’ve been up all night
I’m a disciple to my coffee / I kiss and hold it tight
I once beat a path though the orchard, left a blossom scented clue
Now I’ll leave my empty cage behind me, the bars are painted blue
And I’ll leave my empty cage behind me when I go
Here’s one last drink to my vibration / I won’t spill a drop
I have a six-string calling card / with a Nickel-plated top
Let me have my freedom / to know what the bamboo knows
That I’ll leave my empty cage behind me when I go
I’m free / as the winds blow
To leave my empty cage behind me when I go
Written by: Patrick Brayer (02-02-20)
For Chris Darrow 1944-2020