He started out as Prince Charming, roused her from thunder, I mean slumber.
Dick Barnes (California’s greatest poet)
They say you can’t believe a dream, and then they turn right around and tell you that life is but a dream. As in all good stories, even mocking truth, it depends on who in tarnation ‘they’ are. I woke the other day fresh from a dream wherein I was backing a big yellow school bus out of our driveway here on 5th street. I felt huge anxiety at first but then was amazed at how it just floated effortlessly. I somehow knew instinctively that I was waiting for a primered old Ford that would be coming westward like a flat grey nickel, and when I saw it I should go the opposite direction (to where no one knows). Sure enough there it was, so I floated out, but it was at an impossible angle and the only option was to follow the Ford in anti-obedience. I decided then to just circle around the block, hanging a turn north towards the San Gabriel Mountains, and then swing back, since I didn’t know where I was going in the first place. Circling around, then pointed east in my loop, I came to the front of my daughter’s elementary school, which is across the street from our house on the far side in real life. When I got there there was a dirt shoulder which is not there in reality, but was wide enough to park the bus, so I thought I would just leave it there so as to not block our driveway. Leaving it in front of a school seemed reasonable.
1913 is my dustbowlian stab at the Steinway. I was trying to conjure the spirit of Thelonious Monk without letting talent get in the way. Let’s call it Thelonious Monkey. The piano is the only instrument my mother wanted me to play as a child growing up on a desert egg ranch. So hence I never really played it until after she passed. But it got me to capture a mood I could get no other way, so more or less I am just pretending to play the piano. When we listen to music, although we probably don’t know it, we often think that we control it. I was taking all of that away from you in the sonic dialogue between the keyboard and the voice, forcing the listener to relinquish control of the song, as the bottom dropped out, until you have no choice but to be present in the tragedy. It all just sounds like a joke to speak of it but if you listened to the original recording by Woody Guthrie you will find by comparison that I had indeed moved some molecules around, as well as paying an ancestral tribute to my grandparents who were present there on that very day in history.
The future is, plain and simple, just eviction from the past. Making what it thinks is a keen arrival. Tomorrow is just a panther. With its frustration there being that it can’t eat us today. That established, it’s not the ‘speed of times’ fault. It’s moving as fast as a donkey cart, made of rotting timber, can carry it. Is the past any more than a patchwork of Nash/Ramblers, topped off at the filling station. Burgers at the Smokehouse snooker hall. A spark from a day-job of roil at the Artificial Limb and Brace Co.? “One foot in the grave, and one foot in the choir loft”. That’s what a lonely somebody once said before ducking around a corner, forever. Daydreaming in the blue-eyed grass. Which turns later to trace the iron black blades in night’s generous yet wind sewn failure of stars. Hands behind the head, a reel of mind-footage smeared across a sky. All making way for an affection for trailer-courts, and scrapyard dogs. A father taking his son to a truck stop café. There to dine alongside some real-live long-haul truckers. Benzedrine-made men in motion. Smokestack coffee, one eighteen-wheeler announcing the approach of another. As if Tennessee Williams, dragging a shackle, grew up under house arrest in Daggot.
Mythologize Your Bearings
Schoolyard Ghosted Pine
If you google map the address today, street view, you get a photo of a schoolyard. At the forefront is all that remains of an invisible legacy. A scraggly ‘prisoner of war’ pine tree looking grimly out of place. As if it were seemingly serving some sort of penance, or posing in profile for a statue at Wounded Knee. Small children in a rainbow of jackets made a ring around it in play. You could see secret recognition in their eyes to each other. In the presence of the schoolyard guards, they pretended not to see the ghosts of our stereo wiener-dogs. Them that went on to leave their sharpish barks upon the wind. But children see everything, and more. Perhaps that’s why we keep them around.
Power Trio:Azariel Blanchard Miller, The Mormons, and The Chokecherry
I liken looking back over one’s life as to the view down from an airplane window at a lattice-like valley below. You have to just accept the parts about it that don’t seem real. I will try to make this history of my childhood home as simple as regionally possible. Or as Flannery O’Connor would say, “as plain as a pig on a sofa”. But if in case the tales’ dyke does break, it couldn’t hurt to have a lifeboat nearby to use as a bookmark.
The home was built on property that was most likely a piece of an off-brand utopian dream, hatched, with the future of a deviled egg, by a man named Azariel Blanchard Miller. Miller’s Fontana Farms real estate holdings, 17,000 acres in 1905, were a patchwork of affordable ten-acre parcels. These awaited you like orphans. Potential fruit orchard here, egg rancheros there. A pungent pigsty fabricated to keep the lowly tumbleweed, greasewood, horned toads, desert chaparral, and chokecherry, constant company. As a child there I remember often running through an abandoned grape vineyard on an adjacent property. In my fantasy world, my football in a headlock, avoiding zigzaggedly the army of out-reaching concord vines. And then on one knee in a dusty endzone, inhaling the phantom cheers, me being my own celebrity in rose red headlines, prepared to accept the scope of my paradoxical misconduct. I would also sometimes imagine in an alternate fantasy, that the dead branches were elves buried headfirst. The vine being their feet in frozen motion. Imagination was paramount to growing up in a town that reinvented itself every few seconds. For what began for me with a baseball mitt, eventually became whatever lyric would topple out, scrawled ruthlessly on a bar napkin. With a pencil stub purloined from the nearby Sam Snead golf course, I conjured creations that I dared to hope someday, beyond a fat chance, might traffic with the world. As it seems in human nature, we just ride the wave of the insanely ambitious. And those that are really good at it will leave us to believe the ideas to be our own.
The Mormons came on Brigham Young’s orders in 1851, where they bought up a fair chunk of a Rancho and painstakingly carved out a San Bernardino township. Only six years later in 1857, they made what then seemed a lightning-quick exodus, by orders of the lords of the church, back to the mothership in Salt Lake City, Utah. This led to a land free-for-all, open to all speculation, good or evil. All that was left of the Mormons for present-day me was Lytle Creek, which was named for Mormon Captain, Andrew Lytle. But to us kids, Lytle Creek was just a good place for a teenager to get free of their parents. In your hundred dollar car, with no Nazi insurance laws or seatbelt mandates, you searched for a place to sneak a drink of pilfered beer, or smoke seeds and stems, To swim communal in the snowmelt ponds, and then sun yourself bronze on a boulder the size of a Pontiac. The pools were sporadically built with a makeshift damming of the creek. An oceanic carpet of wash-rocks, the only thing there was to walk on, spread out as far as the eye could bother to see. It was like an infinite granite-history of cannonballs. Bonita Falls, though a little bit of a walk through poison oak, was yet another fond and picturesque destination to almost kill yourself. Down below, Fontana is a cherry atop a cornucopia of ancient alluvial fan sediments. These were left behind by a sleepwalking Lytle Creek, trying as it might to make a b-line to the Santa Ana River. But thanks to the water and power companies it had its legs taken out from under it around Nealy’s Corner.
The Move From Coopertino to Chicken Coop
We moved to the 8986 Date Street house in Fontana from Cupertino, California in 1958 AD. The latter town was named by explorer Juan Bautista de Anza’s cartographer after the creek, Arroyo San Jose de Cupertino. Then only a mere one hundred and eighty-eight years later, we lived there in a small tract home, complements of the GI Bill. By day my father supported us by procuring advertisement for the home-run fence of the San Jose Seals, a minor league baseball organization. I was born in a San Jose Hospital on January 1, 1954, at one in the small hours. The newspaper the next day told of a new factory opening in the manufacture of children’s plastic gun holsters, and so, as if a sign, I was birthed into a rootin’ tootin’ scenario. At that time in Santa Clara Valley history, Cupertino was noted for its fruit agriculture, prune, plum, apricot, cherries. It also supplied the cement for the Shasta Dam, culled from a quarry founded by Fontana’s own Henry J. Kaiser. Presently Cupertino is home to the headquarters of Apple Computers (built in 1993), and thick amid every sort of Silicon Valley shenanigans imaginable. But I was only four when we moved, so I didn’t give a future hoot about any of that.
The catalyst for our southerly migration was my grandfather, John Brayer Sr. (1875-1969), who upon the passing of our grandmother and retiring his hog farm in Marshfield Wisconsin, set out on a search for a Slovene sympathetic community out west. Grandfather John came to this country at the turn of the century and took work at a Coppermine in Calumet Michigan. My grandparents were present at a famous mining tragedy there known historically as The 1913 Massacre. A toll of seventy-three people died on that day. My brother and I sang the protest ballad depicting the incidence, written by Woody Guthrie, long before we discovered the fact that our grandparents were in it. (Woody Guthrie version / Patrick Brayer version 2021) Ripe to leave Marchfild Wisconsin John Brayer discovered through a Slovene benevolent society about the town of Fontana, California. He moved there and was rooming with a fellow immigrant, a carpenter named John Skavich, at 8986 Date Street. As luck would have it, he wanted to sell the house, along with another little house and a working egg ranch. So we loaded up the Nash and the Hoffman TV and sunk down the California road map, my father Ralph William Brayer, our mom Eleanore Roseline, my older brother Michael Alan, my sister Monica Jill, and myself. My younger sister Mary Beth wasn’t to come until 1959, but maybe now that I think of it, she might have been on the drive-in utero, hanging onto my mom’s ribs for dear life.
Two Slovenian Johns and Bikers on the Wall
Kaiser Steel, an ethnic blue-collar melting pot, was still puffing strong at the time of our move. Almost seemingly proud that it had air you could punch. Still echoing with its “save the day’ fame of heroically aiding in the erection of Liberty Ships for “The Great War”. The Hells Angels motorcycle club had disintegrated its original Fontana chapter by then to San Berdoo. Then later up to Oakland to its ultimate final headline of violent buffoonery at Altamont. Finally fizzling out with Mick Jagger’s quivering lips and Hunter S. Thompson’s red shark (a fire engine red 1973 Chevy Caprice Classic convertible, just like the one my mom eventually bought from Rotolo Chevrolet up on Rt. 66, though hers was a butterscotch hardtop).
But the army surplus rebel bike vibe kept on chiming. As when I went to the A&W root-beer stand on Sierra, wielding my Jefferson nickel, butch haircut counter high. And there still, like ancient rock art, a mural of poorly sketched motorcycle ruffians in pose, intimidating the walls. But I wasn’t much interested in that at the time either. Preferring rather to stop by the 76-Station on the way home, putting more hard miles on my Keds, and picking up my free painted portrait of Dodger shortstop Maury Wills. This was a figure who I felt at the time stole 104 more important things than Sonny Barger ever did. But what did I know? I’m now beginning to think that to write autobiographically is much like interviewing yourself. Miles Davis was once quoted in answer to a question about Winton Marsalis, concerning Winton’s disenchantment with Miles, that “He always talks as if someone asked him a question”. Someone once gave me some sound and simple advice, “quit caring and start writing”. We would have a lot more great writers if everyone would stop being so intimidated by their own imaginations.
Blue Hydrangeas Looking East out West
The Date Street house was built in 1930 affecting what was coined, Spanish Colonial Revivalist. The style was made famous by an architectural movement that flourished after mission-inspired examples were introduced at San Diego’s Panama California Exposition of 1915. This in celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal. It was perhaps a renaissance statement, or a cry out, from the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). This was a struggle that trotted out, in our comic book mythologizations, the likes of Zapata, and Pancho Villa. In other words, it was the perfect house for some Catholic kids to play Zorro in. The downtown city hall and library in Fontana were done up in this style, as well as The Al Capone safe house on Tamarind, The Woman’s Club, not to mention the knuckle swatting St. Joseph Catholic Church and Academy, us all begrudgingly attending the latter.
The north-south street sides of the ’50s and ’60s were bordered with grapefruit-sized wash boulders culled from the alluvial fan that came tumbling out of Lytle Creek, sneaking up on the valley at a glacier’s pace. The easterly front of the house sat comfortably behind a seven-foot hedge and a ponderosa pine. It offered up a covered porch arcade, from which you gained entrance to the home. This was held up with wishbone Moorish arches that gave a far-removed suggestion of a colonnade, shadowing a raised stage of ox-blood Spanish tiles. The cross-gabled roof sported a neatly rowed assemblage of mission-style, half-cylinder, fired terracotta tiles in the cross-cultural hue of Alabama dirt. The north-facing stucco walled structure of the house gave an austere eyeful of the San Gabriel Mountains The wall was half-hidden, like a surgeon’s mask with a five-foot-high wall of brainy blue hydrangeas. As a child, this was all off my radar. I never paid the least attention to them, the flowers, they being my mom’s pride and joy. To me, it was no more than an annoyingly fanciful place to ferret a foul ball out of.
The Slovene Hall and Someone Old
During the 1990’s I was filming some documentary film footage at The Slovene Hall in Fontana, gathering historical information of my past. I was using a camera that I obtained thanks to a generous grant from the John Parker Foundation, a charity memorializing the world-class artist and his tragic death on Mt. Baldy Road. I was in the middle of interviewing a lady out back behind the hall by the balina courts when she stopped in mid-stream and said, “you need to talk to someone old”. She whisked off and came back from the building, the door exhaling and then inhaling accordion music, her trotting out this slow stepping little old lady she introduced as Elvie Blasack. I was filming her for about a half-hour when I decided to ask her, in a shot in the dark, if she remembered a man named John Brayer. She said she could recollect no one by that name. Then I told her that he had lived with a man named John Skavich. Her eyes got as big as they could for someone that small and said, “That’s my father!” She went on to describe in a mind-tour our Date Street dwelling and did so in amazing detail. She spoke, staring off at an imaginary horizon point, about her being young there and making potica pastries in the basement. She even recalled the ornate stylings inside the house. The three bedrooms had a galaxy of hand-sized fan shapes stamped into the wall plaster. Three different colors embossed in dull peach, sage green, and robin’s egg. I remember the smell of the basement myself back when my grandfather was making brandy down there.
My last subterranean memories of the basement were in the early ’70s when our garage band rehearsed down there. Bill Bergan, Jeff Morning, and myself calling ourselves, The Shadders. Which was The Shadows if you weren’t eating grits. Unfortunately, I’m the last man standing in that 1971 ensemble, Bergan dying of cirrhosis of the liver in 2005, Morning committing suicide in the aforementioned Lytle Creek wash in 1974, Ernest Hemingway style. I last saw Jeff at Palmetto Park in Fontana just a few weeks before he passed. We talked at a picnic bench in the rustling shade of a big tree’s protective overhang. This was coincidentally in eye view of the Bergan family home on Merril. Morning looked disheveled and sunburnt and told me that he had been living in his car. It had come to this because his parents threw him out due to his exploratory admiration for recreational reefer. I said I was very sorry to hear that but that I was powerless to help because I was living on handouts myself. Even despite all of this he still offered a great dastardly smile. He brushed his strawberry blond hair away from his face to my witness in a sweep of goodbye. This Sears endorsing snapshot reminds me of how back in the early days we often sounded much better in pictures. In our Steeltown naivete, we simultaneously steam-rolled our way through the catalogs of both Black Sabbath and Buck Owens, both with equal fervor.
Out back of the Date Street house, I can still recollect the distinct sweet married smell of cinnamon, smoke, and blood that permeated the closet-sized smokehouse shack. It was situated out in the center of a chicken yard that was pecked to dust. Evie Blasick went on to describe her time-worn dismay upon leaving some paintings on the walls when they moved out in 58’. She told me that they had removed them but were stopped by her father, who told them to put them back, saying “they stay with the house”, and so they did. One of the pieces was an oil painting of a small circular tower, which I was to find out was on Mt. Triglav, Slovenia’s tallest mountain.
We had a friend over one day, Zala Volcic, a professor at Pomona College and a noted author, who was born and grew up in Slovenia (then Yugoslavia). When she eyed the tower, she began to weep, explaining its significance, and that to a Slovenian this image was likened to that of what the Liberty Bell holds to us. The tower had the words Aljazev Stolp hand-drawn above a door, Aljazev being the priest who built it and Stolp meaning tower. The metal structure was built in 1895 to shelter Slovenians that were trying to cross the mountain. The political climate was then one of ethnic animosity, and prior to the tower, no one would supply refuge to the Slovene travelers. In perspective, we have to remember that the Slovenes hadn’t ever had a country to call their own until 1991. The other piece of art was a four-foot-wide tapestry, of a group of country people, dressed in what we would consider Renaissance Faire garb, celebrating, dancing, and chucking Balina balls. Both pieces were lovingly framed by Skavich, him making the frames himself from mahogany. Alvie told me that they got them from the Chicago World’s Fair of 1934. I knew that the family probably wanted them back, but I had seen them every day of my life for over fifty years, they are right beside me looking down as I type. So it would be hard to give them up. I celebrate John Skovich every time I look at them. He also left us a couple of wooden chairs that Elvie told me in the interview were in a restaurant her family owned in Willow Springs Illinois, called The Red Gate Picnic Grove, a dance hall, restaurant, and bar. They moved to Fontana from there in 1945 when they were forced off their land by the government plying eminent domain to aid in the war effort. Evie passed away on January 15, 2020, the same exact day as my dear friend Chris Darrow, so I will always remember that date and its synchronicity.
Another thing that piqued my interest in my talk with Mrs. Blasick was when she tried to recollect the previous owners before her father. There was a mysterious circumstance of a child dying as to being the reason the former owners sold to Skavich. She further noted that the fellow was a school bus driver and that he used to bring it home and park it in the barn, the one the winds eventually toppled, us kids dancing upon it like we were on an African safari.
Harmonious House and Looking For a Muse on Death Alley
I had a childhood friend, Donnie Bennetts, who lived a few doors down on Date, and who now is a real estate agent in San Diego. Selling oceanfront properties, mammoth Titanic glacier glass houses burrowed Rushmore-Esque into the sea cliffs was to be his calling. I remember thinking that his family were millionaires back then because he had a stingray bike with a leopard-print banana seat and that they had an almost iconographic consul color T.V. Televisions were built like laminated tabernacles back then. They let me come in one time and I saw my first color T.V. show, My Mother the Car, which was years later, I read, voted the worst T.V. series of all time. Although to me it was like I was the peasant guy seeing the Our Lady of Guadalupe apparition. What are you gonna’ do? He and his parents lived with a Portuguese immigrant named Joe Carmelo, who built the house they were living in from the ground up. Joe was a carpenter, with a perpetual five o’clock shadow and endorsement-less ball cap. He had an ethnic accent as thick as quicksand and often snacked on sherry with foreign cheeses that smelled not that much different than sweat socks did at the gym. He once helped me refinish a bass guitar I got at The Harmony House on Valley Blvd. I later sold the zinc white guitar back to them as a Fender model, which it wasn’t. And that’s how a hardscrabble wanna’ be, bereft of funds, gets into the music business.
Donnie’s mom Pauline, was always in a moo-moo of the flowered variety, was perhaps Hungarian, and wore dyed red hair always up. Not the exaggerated starkness of Lucille Ball, but rather a shade of Grapes of Wrath polaroid red. She was always in a good mood and humored us our garage band. Proving her keen ear for detail, she christened us, The Sour Notes. I will include an image from that period of us with our instruments and her in the middle. I used to show the picture and brag that it was our band and that she was our one-legged blues singer, or so it appeared in the shot. The Valley Blvd. that sported Harmony House was a truck route pointed towards LA. It had acquired somewhere along the line, between flapping retreads, the nickname “Death Alley”. I can only assume it was for a good reason. You had to pass The Harmony House on your way to The Bloomington Bakery and Fountain, across from which a bald-headed old guy lived in a tar paper shack that had dirt floors and broadcasted a poster paint sign written on cardboard in an illiterate seeming script, that lazily read “melons”. I could study him from the bakery window when the customers were invisible and wished that I could have a dirt floor in my room. I couldn’t quite get that one by the powers that be. I obviously must have been channeling the future Woody Guthrie in me. I laugh thinking back over the years as to how much effort my brother Mike and I went to just so we could affect the look of a hardened hobo. I remember one time my parents taking us across the border to Tijuana to show us what real poverty looked like, but all I could take away from it was how cool it would be to live in a cardboard box. You can’t blame me, I was just a product of my own daily Wylie Coyote, Lone Ranger episodic fantasy, until your mind just goes, “Which way is up, Kemosahbee”?
The Harmony House was run by a nice grandmotherly old lady with a ‘do it yourself’ squared silver bouffant, decked out in rhinestoned cat woman glasses, and her name was Dorothy. Swinging around the back lived a one-armed man named Monty who gave drum lessons out of a travel trailer. This was all contained behind a chain-link fence dripping with ivy, keeping at bay a rag-tag herd of dogs of indiscriminate breed.
From Egg Ranchero to Wild-Eyed Baker’s Boy
After my father tired of running the egg ranch commercially, we just operated it in a subsistent fashion from then on. He took on an early morning route as a Carnation milkman for a period. Next down the line, taking advantage of his business degree from Loyola University he landed the job as manager of a Winchell’s Donut House at The Fontana Square. The Square, as we called it, was a mid-century state of the art shopping center for the time. In that era, about eighty percent of the population was tied to the apron strings of Henry J. Kaiser’s steel mill or hospital. Although our family wasn’t then, still like me, the fathers left in the morning, mysteriously arriving home triumphantly at supper time. Where most dads came home with the bell clang of hard-hats and an empty coffee thermos, mine arrived up the pea gravel drive with the scented memory of sifted flour and lard. On a typical day in Fontana, the Kaiser coke ovens wiped their muddy boots on the sky. Creating for our eyes only, a Shroud of Turin sunset. When Henry Kaiser named the main blast furnace “Big Bess” after his wife, most likely arrow-torn by an industrial age cupid, that should have been a major warning sign. Likened to a hallmark card signed in slag. After several years my father was caught red-handed using ‘mortal’ donut flour that he bought at Smart & Final. This was much frowned upon by Winchell’s management and he was thus given some walking papers. It seemed they didn’t think it was smart, yet on the other hand, they did think it was final. He was too logical for his own good, he never cottoned to being told what or why to do. So next, moving up the evolutionary ladder of diabetes, he opened up his own bakery in unincorporated Bloomington, California. It was called The Bloomington Bakery and Fountain, and he used any kind of flour he pleased.
Behind the Bakery and across a weed-choked field was the Sundowners honkytonk. It was a rough-neck joint that came to life after dark as if the whole idea of debachery were Bela Legosi’s idea. It was in such bunkers of joy and sorrow as this that I would later play the pedal steel guitar, a soundtrack for who seemed at the time, professional alcoholics. It was an environment as loud in brash twang as their pearl snap button shirts and taste in fighting music. It was in smokey box buildings like this that I thought I might live out my crucial country dreams, cashing in on my maternal Appalachian bloodline. This as well as the synchronicity of being born exactly one year from the day that Hank Williams died oh so quietly, without a whisper, in a powder blue 1952 Series 62 Cadillac convertible.
At one point in the late ’80s, I was attending to some concert producing details at The Fontana Performing Arts Center on Sierra Ave. You could catch a waft of the Jolly Farms rotisserie chickens from the front steps of what was formerly The Steelworkers Union Hall. Originally it was called The Brunton Auditorium, which was the home of a lot of past strike threat negotiating, screaming, and sweating. After which the mass of workers reconvened to wheel nightwards into any number of hometown beer slinging establishments, like The Four Question Marks, The Three Deuces, Murphy’s Cork and Tap, The Open Hearth, Lakes, Mlakar’s Elbow Room, and Vans Cocktails. Fontana shamelessly boasted as to having more bars than churches, and they were still today winning that race.
From 1982-1997 I ran a nomadic concert venue called The Starvation Café. I was doing so as an answer to the closing of one of my favorite 1960’s folk music coffee-houses called The Penny University (1963-1977) in nearby San Bernardino. I did all of this using mainly buildings graciously loaned to me by the City of Fontana. The series had about seven locations all told. As I was waiting for my meeting with the Performing Arts coordinator, Phil Solomenson, I took in the leariness of remodeled bunker decor. Solomonson was a man who then looked like a poster-handsome epitome of a politician waiting to happen. I only say that because he claims now, because of people like me, not too far from then, that he quit his job, leaving behind his wife and a Colton mortgage. He then naturally became a Zen Buddhist and grew his hair into a Rasta shag. He was then to meet a like-minded damsel and move back to his home turf of bluesy Chicago. Then following his transformation he went on to ply the hobbit-like trade of a world-class rock photographer. I will always give him credit for being the man who, before he left, brought Dizzy Gillespie to Fontana.
Shakespearean Tale Carved in Slag
Probably the darkest period in the plot arc of our house’s history, as dry and splintered as the rafters of the Icarus-felled barn, was when my parents split asunder in the late 1960s, breaking up Eden all night long. My dad’s bakery went bankrupt because of the failure of the shopping center to live up to their promise to complete the second half of their construction, sending my father into a tailspin, a product of dismay.
Also playing a part might have been the pent up anger that had been pounce ready since WWII. My mom took a secretarial job at Kaiser Permanente Hospital where she worked for eighteen years before she died of breast cancer in 1975 at the age of fifty-one, I was twenty-one. While there, she went on to help a Dr. Paul R. Lightfoot edit and publish a groundbreaking research paper, His Bundle Parasystole: A Form of A-V Junctional Parasystole, in which she had to spell words no Fontanan via West Virginia should ever have to type, like:
No retrogradely conducted Pwaves were ever observed following parasystolic beats. The coupling intervals between conducted and parasystolic beats varied markedly, with inter-polation occurring at short coupling intervals. During the first recording (Table l), the sinusnode intervals varied from 90 to 100°O with a mean. ”All intervals are eressed as hundredths of a second un-less otherwise specxed.
My mom came surprisingly to my bedroom to awaken me late one gust torn night. I can remember the wind in the wooden window frames like teeth chattering in a tundra. Today I romantically imagine that she and my two sisters were lit by a brakeman’s lantern given them by William Faulkner, but in actuality, she probably just turned on the light. Bowing over the bed she informed me that, while my father was away working the graveyard shift at Ace Liquors, that they were moving out, escaping. So I had to decide, on the spot, whether I wanted to come with them or stay with my dad at Date Street. Me not being groomed for any such tactics, probably not even sure it wasn’t a dream, said that I would stay if no one else would. So it was that they moved a few blocks away to an apartment complex on the corner of Cypress and Randall. These new digs were located a few blocks away from the spot historically where in 1945 black activist O’Day Short and his families’ lives were burnt to the ground in vigilante flames, marking Fontana’s worst example of Klan-like violence and police corruption. That lot was visible from the Randall Pepper Elementary School I attended, where I didn’t learn anything about Martin Luther King. My mom did all the child-rearing in our family, so my dad was way beyond his skill set. Out of desperation, humiliatingly and overqualified, he zombied out his penance-for-pay stint at Ace Liquor on Sierra Avenue. Liquor is flammable already, so instead of figuratively putting a fire out with gasoline, you can just throw booze directly onto it, cutting out the middleman. And so it was my father arm-wrestled with alcoholism from that point on. I tried living there for a month or so, sleeping with a pipe wrench under my pillow in fear. After I became the sole weed puller on 2 ½ acres, and not having a degree in parent-psychology, I soon abandoned ship. I moved into exile with my mom, who had no weeds that one could notice. I came to visit my dad a few months after that and it was like a haunted house, complete with cast iron shadows. Dirty and dark, him in a dejected stupor, brocaded drapes all were drawn, with shadows that even would scare the other shadows. I never realized that the whole hospitable vibe that the house once radiated had been mostly lit with my mom’s touch. Then, perhaps in a fit of defiance, to put the clown icing on top of this black comedy, my dad up and painted the Date Street house a shade of cartoon lavender. This put a huge bruise on the original integrity of the architect, inviting every proud Spaniard throughout history to spin in their graves in unison.
Blindfolded Stabs at Hardboiled Wisdomsplain
I’ve been penning lyrics to music for about fifty years now, writing more than five hundred songs. It makes me proud now to hold the world record for the longest-running fluke. The settings for a large portion of my narratives have been such as Date Street, Fontana, and the scarf of communities making up what is more broadly known as The Inland Empire. I have been lucky in that half-century that I might be able to claim, on my way, mutual admiration with such greats as, Alison Krauss (the Norma Shearer of bluegrass music), Ben Harper (the guy who plays Carnegie Hall so you don’t have to), Stuart Duncan (the guy who has caused more aspiring fiddlers to burn their box), Pat Cloud (who has single-handedly drug John Coltrane like a missionary through Appalachia kicking and screaming), Chris Darrow (the best of the country-rock surf and jowl singers), Michael Hedges (the man who re-invented the Nag Champa lifestyle as well as the steel string guitar), and Bryan Bowers (the man with a heart as big as an autoharp). That said, I’ve been told in contrast that my music is not everybody’s cup of tea. But now that all the tea shops have all closed down I don’t know how I’m going to reckon with my adversaries. My advice to the up and coming songster is to just make music for the universe, not for mankind. That’s what allows me to get up in the morning. The cosmos loves my humor, and my blindfolded stabs at hard-boiled wisdom, so that the only demographic that I was having trouble with were homo-sapiens. But I think if you only have one problem in life you’re doing pretty well. I’m blessed with a beautiful and highly educated wife, a graduate of The University of the South at Sewanee, which is one of the oldest ivy league colleges in America. Tennesse Williams left his entire estate to Sewanee if that tells you anything. Our eleven-year-old daughter Eleanore (named for my mom), featuring coin-like hair, already writes better than I do. I have my own Dr. Frankensteinian caliber, lower than the lowest-fi, home studio, where I am still able to flesh out my humbler than dark compositions. There I wrangle with the void as my personal paint set. And that’s my tiny universe and it’s fine with me. I’ve never been all that interested in myself traversing the globe. It’s nothing personal, I just feel the whole world is none of my business. I’ve seen pictures, I get it. I’d just feel a little embarrassed abroad, that if it weren’t for my money, my presence there would just be a frivolous intrusion. On the other hand, when I go inward to write I go to a place to which none of those locations can compare. And I come back with something to share. And that is just more valuable to me and involves less jet fuel. When I look over my body of work thematically I can see what it is. It reveals a vantage point more interested in the inner struggles of the individual than any outside conspiracy, political unfairness, or who in some dusty bygone is bullying upon whom. And it’s all there in the songs regardless, waiting. They are there when you need them and in theory, they go away when you don’t. And the best part is, you don’t even have to open your eyes. That said, I don’t think I have to apologize as to our story lacking enough violence, infidelity, or sweaty life-sentence chain gang servitude at Folsom. Just accept it replete with a huge dose of old fashioned inner turmoil. In other words, our story has absolutely nothing for Joan Didion, or Truman Capote to sink their teeth into. And I will consider that my highest accomplishment.
I once wrote a song called, Painting Pictures, that nobody ever dared, or has been smart enough to record. It was a song that suggested the idea that when someone dies, they don’t actually die, but live on, speaking through us in the form of what we falsely believe to be our own thoughts. Them on the other side painting pictures on our minds. The pictures arriving as our egos’ children. I don’t believe it, nor should you, but we should just as well consider it. That’s the best free will can do, if it is ‘the best’ we intend to do. When I was younger, I entertained miracles. Now I just think, either everything is a miracle, or nothing is. I used to read about these guys who could paranormally bend a spoon with their minds. I was amazed like a kid at the county fair, wielding a troll-hair-shaped cardboard cone of cotton candy. Now in addressing the spoon-bending guy I say: That’s great and all, but call me when you can make a sandwich appear in a hungry man’s hand. And even then, I don’t worry whether the illusion is real or if it is not, just as long as the sandwich is. In disclaimer fashion I’ll have to say, like all writing, it attempts to explain the mysteries of life, the unknown. Even the word “unknown” tells us right off that we once knew all things but somehow they got un-known. So we bat away trying to make a fresh mystery. That’s impossible I say, for all that would be is a bunch of stuff we already don’t know. Fontana and our subject Date Street have no memory, and that’s all that is left that I admire about them, as if their pasts may yet have a future.
Our story at Date Street drew to a close, coming out the other end finally in about 1970. My parents sold the house and we all got back together in a fresh locale like “where are they now?” one-hit-wonders. We bought a relatively new cul de sac home at 17586 Pinedale, with a white rock roof and cottage cheese ceiling,. This track home slice of desert located in central Fontana suburbia was just a stone’s throw from Alder Liquor, The Pixie Market, and a seat of the pants Bird Sanctuary that involved space alien communication with our feathered friends..
So order was restored and we had five good years in what I refer to as “The Pindale Period” before our mom passed in 1975. When you lose a mother one often feels a hyper-closeness, short of dysfunction, with the other members of the family. But oddly at the same time, love and desperation melt together like church wax. A hollow distance of permanence sets in with one’s attempt to reassemble the world without the lost one in it. Hey, if the world were fair it wouldn’t have once bothered to be flat.
Parting Words: Time Wounds All Heals
The panorama of our lives unspools as a molten flow of time on loan. We often over-think the thought that we might know what we can’t even comprehend. As most things we call dumb are actually sport, a pith helmet couldn’t hurt. So where again do we put the element of time? Not scientific time, but time more usable than that. It doesn’t seem to fit on any of our rhetorical Ikea shelves. But you know what I think, I think that there is only one place that we have ever successfully placed observable time, and that place is in a story. A platform where time and ourselves can safely observe each other. When you read printed matter, you can hear time breathing. When we consider the concept of time, we only think in terms of forward into the future or backward into the past. We conveniently forget that there is also an up and a down. In the high and the low, we set temporary place keepers, bookmarking what we might call heaven and hell. Hoping that this will keep our place until the actual knowledge catches us out in the open. Out in what the skyward poets might mistake as sunny repose.
In closing, I’ll just say that everyone has a home, in which every home has a story. It is the remaining hearth after the hearth is gone. Unless of course, you’re a hobo, in which case one might have an even greater story, there avoiding all the pitfalls and pratfalls that I’ve afore unwound, and most likely in a font of your own. I look forward to reading your story in return and accept your thanks in advance for my going, like a war-torn battleship of seagulls, to such great winded lengths here to prove to you that anybody could do it. I hope that this will usher everyone back in time. And when comfortable in that, they keep on going, tracing their heritage so far back in centuries until they realize that we are all blood-related. That we all pull back our chairs at the same dinner table. My friends will all attest that to know me is to receive homework. This has assured me my privacy over the years, because to the writer, self-delusional or not, without solitude there is no pen, nor paper.
Patrick Brayer / Ontario, CA / August 2020
Quotes from Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion on the matter:
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”
Raymond Chandler (The Red Wind)
Only an hour east of Los Angeles by way of the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mohave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the Eucalypts windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult, and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.
This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion; but hard to buy a book. This is the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdresser’s school. “We were just crazy kids,” they say without regret, and look to the future. The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past. Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every 38 lives in a trailer. Here is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspapers. The case of Lucille Marie Maxwell Miller is a tabloid monument to the new style.
Imagine Banyan Street first, because Banyan is where it happened. The way to Banyan is to drive west from San Bernardino out Foothill Boulevard, Route 66: past the Santa Fe switching yards, the Forty Winks Motel. Past the motel that is 19 stucco tepees: “SLEEP IN A WIGWAM—GET MORE FOR YOUR WAMPUM.” Past Fontana Drag City and Fontana Church of the Nazarene and the Pit Stop A Go-Go; past Kaiser Steel, through Cucamonga, out to the Kapu Kai Restaurant-Bar and Coffee Shop, at the corner of Route 66 and Carnelian Avenue. Up Carnelian Avenue from the Kapu Kai, which means “Forbidden Seas,” the subdivision flags whip in the harsh wind. “HALFACRE RANCHES! SNACK BARS! TRAVERTINE ENTRIES! $95 DOWN.” It is the trail of an intention gone haywire, the flotsam of the New California. But after a while the signs thin out on Carnelian Avenue, and the houses are no longer the bright pastels of the Springtime Home owners but the faded bungalows of the people who grow a few grapes and keep a few chickens out here, and then the hill gets steeper and the road climbs and even the bungalows are few, and here—desolate, roughly surfaced, lined with eucalyptus and lemon groves—is Banyan Street.
Jack sitting in Dylan Thomas’ seat at The White Horse Tavern (photo:Patrick Brayer)
Below this nine-year sequel offering will be found the original eulogy piece I wrote for songwriter Jack Hardy in 2011, and below that, a collection of letters that I had written to him over the years, marking our friendship. I think they speak as a memoir of a point in time, and of his influence upon me. And I’m only one person. You can take this and multiply it by five hundred and get a more accurate view of his impact. I will add in a few facts that I had left out of the 2011 piece to flesh it out a little better. I’ve yet to see a definitive biography on this extraordinary gentleman. Perhaps this will inspire that dialogue.
There is no present moment in time. Case closed. The present is much quicker and stealthier than that. The actual present is just a sword swish. Try to be too present in that and you might well lose an arm. Venus de Milo is a classic example. The past, which is usually the sole barking subject of memoir, is just a string quartet of smoke, knee-deep in the ghosts of iron and ice. Things die from day one, and then we find, using rationale, that we haven’t a sturdy enough shelf for the resulting mystery. That in a nutshell is the human condition. I conclude that all great works are based more on mystery than on fact, despite contrary belief. Upon reflection I guess you could see this piece as a 23-year late sequel to my Starseed Eulogy (1997).
(Martin prototype Bass / Speech and Hearing Clinic, Mendocino CA 1997 Photo: Patrick Brayer)
Our mystery here starts on August 10, 1996, the day I got a call from my pal Michael Hedges on my ruby red rotary-dial telephone. He was inviting me to meet up with him at The Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, and asking if I might escort him later that day to the Greek Amphitheatre. He was scheduled to open up for Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and suggested that I might pick up some jalapeno chilis at the store on the way, for us to juice with some carrots that he had brought. I gassed up my crumpled eggshell pale Ford Courier, pushed back some of the springs ‘jack-in-the-boxing’ through the red vinyl upholstery, and climbed us, the jalopy and I, onto the west bound I-10. It was as a vehicle, Tom Joad worthy, but it had plenty of room for a couple of siamese-twin shaped harp-guitars. My bumper sticker read loud and clear, “Give Me Ralph Stanley or Give Me Death”. My friend, photographer Robert Morrow (City of Quartz) once said that he would like to get one of those stickers himself, but that he was afraid, it being Fontana, that someone might take him up on the deal. Both were wise men.
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.
It is with a bound and aching heart that I announce the passing of my dear friend Christopher Lloyd Darrow on January 15, 2020. He stood for me, as he did with many, as a treasured friend, mentor, brother-figure, father-figure, and professorial inspiration as to the inner workings of the artistic lifestyle. He had one of the most original voice stylings I’ve ever witnessed, tone somehow filtered through the jowls. “King of the jowl singers” I like to say. That originality spread over into everything he touched, be it slide guitar, fiddle, photography, or a self-realized philosophy. It was all one thing to him. Continue reading →
I’m saddened to report the passing of local Lucerne Valley musician and patron of the folk music arts, Carolyn Russell on July 21, 2019 at the age of 85. She was born July 17, 1934 in Crosby, North Dakota.
Carolyn Russell was well known for her contra dances in Garden Grove California, and for her many notorious house concerts featuring such as Alasdair Fraizer, Mary McCaslin, Bryan Bowers and many more. She later played a pivotal role in quietly championing the resurgence of such legendary Cajun musicians as Wilford LeTour, Edgar LeDay, and most recently Joe Fontenot.
She had a brilliant and a sly wit, and will remain the epitome of the term “grass roots community”, and to speak of her as a “true renaissance woman” is and always will be an understatement.
Below is a collection of our correspondence over the years that I unearthed from memory lane, or my garage, whatever came first. I hope others will add to this and join me in admitting that life seems a little dumb without Carolyn, though her memory will give us ample inspiration to persevere.
The Inland Empire is the only part of the country I’ve ever seen that is virtually built on a swell of heat and wonder. I was raised on an egg ranch in Fontana California, my father was a carnation milkman, and my grandfather made his own brandy in the basement of our Spanish revivalist Date Street dwelling. He was actually one of the fabled copper miners in Woody Guthrie’s acclaimed ballad, The1913 Massacre. I remember crawling and climbing through the black walnut orchard in a 1960’s sunshine that struggled with the steelmill emissions like Cain and Abel chosing a reality. My friends and I grew up on the music of Grand Funk Railroad, Blue Cheer, and Buck Owens like a good swatch of our individually stamped pubescent America, but I still brought my steel guitar to high school and kept it in my book locker, taking the pick-ups apart at recess. We all had the slight varnished inkling of a 4H vibration; smoking pot turned the clouds to sheep.