(Photo: Robert Morrow) From the book City of Quartz
In honor of the passing of Fontana’s own Mike Davis (1946-2022), world-renowned prophetic writer of social unrest, environmental disaster and dystopian ideals. Here I will include a few email exchanges between us and flesh that out with some photos from The Brayer Archives. When people come to me for a lesson in what the Inland Empire is all about I have them first read Davis’ City of Quartz (with photos by Robert Morrow), advising them to read it backwards from chapter seven: Junkyard of Dreams, which in a way nails Fontana to the cross in diction. From there I recommend Joan Didion’s essay from the collection: Slouching Towards Bethlehem: an essay entitled, Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, and Jack Olsen’s true crime book, Salt of the Earth (the first hundred pages anyway). For dessert I have them finish up with the San Bernardino Valley poetry of Dick Barnes, A Word Like Fire.
Mike Davis /
Don’t know quite where to begin: Fellow Fonta boy / Moved to an egg ranch there in ’58 / A victim of St. Joes / Father ran Winchell’s Donut House at the Fontana Square / Fontana High (Fohi) graduate of ’72 / Studied music in the cow pastures of Norco / Met Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Jim and Jessie, etc.
One of my best friends coincidentally is Robert Morrow who helped you on the Quartz project of which the last chapter I consider biblical. When David Lynch was planning the movie, INLAND EMPIRE Ben Harper sweetly told him I was way more of an authority on Fontana than I really was. I thought in fear to beg them off but one day Ben Harper, Laura Dern, and Lynch were heading for our flat in Upland. They only got as far as Holt Blvd, a lightning storm hit them, and they all turned back (tender footed). And so goes the story of my life. But I did submit location photos, The Fontana Boxing Club, The Slovene Hall, The Iron Skillet, etc., and about a hundred dilapidated churches. After that I like to think that it was my grand contribution that influenced them-to instead shoot the whole movie in Poland.
The Fontana Boxing Club (Photo: Patrick Brayer)
Anyway, this is just me saying howdy. The other main reason I wrote was to see if you had any memory in reference to The Mr. Arky Barbeque on Foothill. I will include an aerial postcard of it that I found
Just for good measure here’s one of my favorite postcards of the Westward-Ho Motel
Mr. Arky indeed. If you’re ever in San Diego, please come by for dinner.
San Diego CA 92102
Thanks for the kind return
My sources tell me that the Mr. Arky’s Barbeque morphed into The Robin Hood Adult Bookstore Don’t you hate it when life runs so appropriate. Now it’s a flat patch of dust on the hunchback of a Bobby Troup lyric. But why am I telling you all of this, you probably did your doctoral thesis on the influence of Mr. Arky on the new stone age
Would treasure a get together with you. Let me know how your schedule falls in regards to convenience.
My wife an I just had a new baby girl on January 21st, Eleanore Frances Brayer. So you’re looking at this new centuries version of a stay at home diaper pail songwritten dad. We are presently living in upper pissed-off Ontario, California. My wife teaches English Literature at Chaffey High School.
Someone (Aim Records based in Tustin) put out a compilation of some of my work in 1998 called, Sinner/Songwriter. For the cover they used one of Rob Morrow’s outtakes from the Fonta shoot while you were chipping away at Quartz.
Let me know what you’re interested in musically and I might just have something stashed around the archive here. It’s not all screechy, but that does tend to sonically dominate.
When I’m not trying to bother people with 50 odd volumes of my songs I’m chipping away at a documentary film, Dustboy. I got some great footage of Joe Mlakar Sr. who ran Mlakar’s Elbow Room for 35 years and earned himself a place in the Cleveland Style Polka Hall of Fame
Our family got to Fontana on account of the Slovenian culture, following my grandfather, a retired Wisconsin farmer, there in 1958 from Cupertino. So that weird polka-sausage-button box thing was always dangling in the back somewhere.
(Slovene Hall, Fontana, CA Photo; Patrick Brayer)
When did you leave Fontana? I have the feeling that you might have spent your formative years in San Diego. But, if you have any memories that don’t leave a bad taste in your mind’s mouth please feel free to share your stiffest recollections.
Man, you wrote the history of the car bomb, what else could possibly be left for you to write about? Would love to hear.
My best for now, Patrick of Brayer Wrongtario, CA
How can I help but endorse a team that would have the nerve to call themselves the Cucamonga Earthquakes
Cucamonga Earthquakes (Photo: Holle Brayer)
On 5/5/09 10:44 PM, “firstname.lastname@example.org” <email@example.com> wrote:
First of all, mazeltov for Elenore; she’s a dote (forgive my language, but I speak a pidgeon mixture of Yiddish and Irish).
My older sister graduated Chaffey High, class of 1947. We lived on Montgomery St. (one block south of Arrow Highway near Citrus, I think) in Fontana until I was five. Then I was incarcerated in Bostonia,between El Cajon and Lakeside: basically, Fontana without slag or sausages. Until I was 18 and on a Greyhound Bus for New York, I had one fundamental idea: escape and survive.
Musically I am still stuck in Art Pepper and Eric Dolphy, but I have infinitely wise advisors: my 28 year old Irish daughter who lives in Barcelona and first introduced me to Sonic Youth, Nels Cline, etc.; and my 15 year old son in Dublin, who’s already sold his soul to rock and roll, with a mean little band – he plays piano and guitar – with torch-girl singer named Mo (whom my son has been in love with since he was 7).
He spends summers with me. Last July we visited the Fender Museum. This July, if you’re around the ranch, we’ll come up to aristo-upper-bourgeois Ontario (the Fontana view) and hear some music.
That’s a fantastic album cover. If you see or hear from Robert, please give him my warmest regards. If he’s not in Minnesota, maybe we could arrange a reunion.
At any event, keeping sinning and having such adorable babies.
San Diego CA 92102
Mike Davis /
Thanks for the kind return. It really appears you have shot out some global children. Would of course cherish a get together in the summer season. Let me know your schedule at UCR also and I could bring little Eleanore out and your students could compare her to a bowl of fruit. I do enjoy your world of fact and craft. It’s the same reaction that I feel to the great musicians that I’ve known. The work is worthy of a lifetime’s contemplation. Which of course frustrates your animal-self need for a quick fix. But it tells your smarty pants guy that he had better stop looking in the mirror at his hair and get to work
If Bill Moyers is looking for a tattoo for his chest I would suggest, “Mike Davis is the king of fact, craft, and grit”. I’m not certain if that should go above or below the battleship.
I’m glad to hear that Rob Morrow has finally got hold of you. I bet those early days were great, hell bending your way through the weeded herds, when perhaps angst was the only denomination. You guys were like the Lewis and Clark of our cement, dusty, without the cute Indian chick.
Rob told me once upon a time that he quit photography to become a songwriter, and that I was to blame. He is of course a splendidly cinematic writer, and most importantly, better than me on a lot of fronts, and frontiers. But it taught me that I have to be more careful. Not that you can control how wrongly you’re taken. Yet another area that you must know much more about than I.
Robert Morrow Fontana California / Photo: Patrick Brayer
So I still get a knock on my door late at night on occasion by apparent Rob Morrow photography fans. I answer the door and strangers just punch me in the stomach and run. So don’t be surprised if I’m wearing catcher’s equipment when I answer the door.
I hope, though I can’t imagine that you do, have time for such corresponding nonsense as this, but I welcome every thought and insight that your productive day affords.
Here I go quoting myself again. How sad is that? “I don’t like to jump on any bandwagon that I didn’t pull out of my ass personally”
The baby is crying. I call her the boss of the flowers. The border collie just ate an entire bag of onion bagels so I should probably go out and say a prayer over him (Henry).
Be King! / Patrick of Brayer
When people go to France I like to send them this photo I took, saying “here’s your Sistine Chapel”, which I know is probably not in France, but then neither am I.
by Mick Rhodes / Claremont Courier January 20th, 2022 photography: Andrew Alonzo
Ontario-based singer/songwriter Patrick Brayer, “The original brooding author of hardscrabble country-noir songsmanship,” is unhinged, in the best sense of the word. “If I was totally in control I think I would be bored,” Brayer said of his songwriting process. “This stuff happens, and one thing leads to another, and then all of the sudden I seem to have written something that’s more profound than I really am. I’m surprised by it myself.” Rich in vivid poetic imagery, much of it mined from territory familiar to Inland Empire residents, Brayer’s lyrics demand attention. Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits come to mind, but his writing has an extra dash of cinematic surrealism and a hypnotic magic even those esteemed lyricists can’t reach. His narrators pull you in like no other songwriter working today. He is his own thing.
Now “Cabbage and Kings,” — the latest in Brayer’s 40-plus year recording career in which he’s released more than 60 records — is out today, Friday, January 21, on local indie champion Shrimper Records. It’s a collection of highlights from his typically prolific previous decade of literate, powerful material. It’s subtitled, appropriately, “An Inland Shrimpire Anthology.” In conversation, the 68-year-old Brayer is thoughtful, affable, generous and self-deprecating (his website banner reads, “The Patrick Brayer Toleration Society”). He was raised in nearby Fontana, and the city is a character in scores of his songs, of which there are more than 500 in his estimation. Born in San Jose, California, he arrived in what would be a fortuitous locale — rural Fontana — in 1958, where his family had purchased an egg ranch.
“I was so shy growing up I couldn’t talk to people,” Brayer told the COURIER. “So I developed a way through poetry and music. I did it I guess to draw people toward me. And I began to make friends. And it introduced me to everybody I ever met.” Like countless roots musicians, the young Brayer was spellbound by Harry Smith’s incalculably influential 1952 Folkways Records collection, “Anthology of American Folk Music.” “That was a big deal,” Brayer said. “Growing up in Fontana there was not much music going on, but I found the Harry Smith collection at the library. It’s a treasure trove.” His early work was helped along by the raw naivete of his own limitations. “Yeah, I would have sounded like Jimi Hendrix if I could, but I couldn’t, so I had to figure out something else,” he said. “I’m lucky I wasn’t able to copy so good.”
Brayer’s first album, “Cold Feelings,” was released in 1979. It contained “Imitation of the Blues,” which would be recorded (as “Good Imitation of the Blues”) by mainstream country music superstar Alan Jackson on his 2006 “Like Red on a Rose” album, which has sold more than 800,000 copies since. Brayer’s “Secret Hits” collections began appearing on cassette in the 1980s. “My Sixtieth Shadow,” the 60th record in the series, came out last year.
By his own count, he’s now more than 500 tunes into his songwriting career, with 60-plus albums released over the past 43 years. To say he’s been prolific isn’t enough: he’s close to being in Willie Nelson (95 records over his career) and Bob Dylan (83) territory, and those guys each had a 17 year jump. Neil Young started putting out solo records in 1968, and he’s released a measly 56. “It’s a way for me to organize myself, I think,” Brayer said of his compulsion to write and record. Though not a household name, Brayer has collaborated with or had his work covered by artists such as Alison Krauss (who used “So Long So Wrong,” a song he co-wrote with Walden Dahl, as the title track for her Grammy-winning 1997 record with Union Station), Ben Harper, Stuart Duncan, Chris Darrow, Darol Anger, Atreyu, John York, Michael Hedges and the aforementioned Alan Jackson. Mainstream songwriting notoriety enabled him topurchase a multi-track recorder, which expanded the instrumental palette of his mostly self-recorded, self-released records, on which he plays most instruments himself. “I can’t move on until I’ve recorded them, because I don’t have a good memory,” Brayer said of his songwriting process. “I never play it the same way twice, not because I’m cool, but because I just can’t remember.” The songs begin with an idea or a title. He writes it down, then begins to address the concept. “As I do that, then I start getting in the zone and I have to get out of the way,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what I’m doing, but I’m letting it flow, built on what I wrote down. And then one thing after another kind of comes. It’s magical. It’s part of the process. It’s part of why we like to do it. That’s why I like to do it, because it becomes something else.” He’s always looking for new raw source material. He finds it in conversations, everyday things, movies, music and in books. “I just look at the sentences,” Brayer said. “Over the pandemic I re-read all of Nabokov and Faulkner.” People ask, “’What are you doing?’ And I go, ‘Man, have you seen their sentences?’ People complain about ‘Lolita.’ Have you seen the sentences in that? They’re just glorious.”
(Brayer performing at the Folk Music Center in Claremont CA back when he dared look like this)
He wants people to arrive at their own interpretations of his songs, which, he said, can evolve over time. “I think that allows people to think what they want to think, and see something in their own life, not about my life, but about their own life.” Brayer has seen modest financial reward over the years. But that’s never been the point. “If you sit around and wait for somebody to give you money, you wouldn’t be writing very much,” he said. “I wouldn’t. I never considered that.” He wrote “Imitation of the Blues” when he was 18. Over the years since he’s been asked why he doesn’t just write more like that one. “I just tell them that’s not the way I work,” he said. “My process is the thing takes over, something takes over, and I allow it to. I’ll dabble at a few takes, but I pretty much need it to come out the way it wants to come out. So I’m really not in control. I [tell them] I would write another one if I could, but my process doesn’t allow me to do that. Thus I’ve evolved, for better or worse. But I accept what I’ve got now. People can be critical or not, it doesn’t really much matter. “You’ve just got to allow it to happen. It’s not about money. It’s not about fame, or anything like that. Mixed in is your own self-therapy. It’s all in there too. You’re hoping to share. I’ve seen people moved and … you feel helpful. You feel at least some sense of accomplishment because you don’t have it all to yourself.”
“Pat Brayer has built—with his own handwriting—a wilderness of his own design to howl in. When I need some inspirational humor, I know whom to check in with. His epigram has adorned my every outgoing email for the last 25 years. Thanks, Pat! That and $50 will get you a Frappuccini Grotte.”
Darol Anger(David Grissman / Turtle Island String Quartet / Mr. Sun)
(The Brayerian epigram which Darol Anger speaks of is: “If the search for reason had an end, and it hired a band, it would be a small army of old-time fiddlers on horseback.” This quote appears on Anger’s CD “Heritage”, which was a star studded neo-harrysmithian compilation which included such as Willie Nelson.)
“Patrick Brayer is a country, a culture, almost a planet, an earth poet/messenger broadcasting his lyrical and deeply literary beauty recognizer soul to our universe that pretends to be unheeding and impartial, but never really is anything but our partner in this creative crime of life and death theatre/dance orchestration of it all.”
“Patrick Brayer is unique. In a world where every artist seems to have at least half an eye on their genre peers to make sure they don’t step too far out of line, Patrick Brayer doesn’t even know where that line is. He has his own lines, painted in a mixture of bourbon and dirt. No other artist is so resolutely their own person, both in songwriting, playing, image and just about everything. For me he is where the real American music is. When I listen to his songs I am carted off down a dusty highway to a world that may or may not exist, but has more vitality, texture and emotional high stakes than the real one.”
“Who the fuck is this Patrick Brayer bloke? Oh, that feller with the songs and the cabbages. To be fair he ain’t bad, and I’ll listen to some of his hits when I’m putting away a plate of sauasages, bacon, five eggs, beans, mushies and black pudding. And fried bread. And I’ll tell you summat – you can smell his songs over the bacon fat, I fucking swear. There’s summat that gets right up your hooter in a way you don’t get from other music, not even “Burning Heart” by Survivor. In a good way, mind you. I dunno if it’s whisky or sweat or petrol or what but I can’t get enough of that fucking smell. And don’t tell me the word’s “gas” by the fucking way – gas is what comes out of my arse.”
Royston Blake (Charlie Williams character from the Mangel Series)
We live in an era where the proliferation of mediocre online pomp is fed to dopamine addicted masses byunfeeling and invasive technology. In the Artificially Intelligent world of pretentious social media influencers, true creative genius is not obscured by superficial facades. Computers are useless – they only give you answers.
Patrick Brayer knows a better way. The creative root of his expression is the marriage of music and poetry, characterized by a prodigious imagination and an authentic poise-of-mind. His decades-long prolific output is a bright moment of triumph for the creative soul and his dauntless artistic courage is inspiring. It is my supreme fortune to have him as my friend and creative mentor.
Pat Cloud (Jazz banjo innovator, Flying Fish Records, Mel Bay author)
“Cabbage and Kings” comes at us like a horrifying flood. The language licks, batters, wounds – a poetic, troubled rush of debris . . . Patrick Brayer has little mercy to spare, for his characters or himself. His text is broken, beautiful and ugly in spots . . . His song, “How’d I Get This Toe Tag On My Heart” is like a good, long scream in the ear.
Derwood Brown (Arkansas State Penitentiary / Bank Robber)
When a clock stops tracking time does it then cease to be a clock? When a fish is caught and frozen does it forget to be a fish? One is still useful, the other not, unless in sleuthing you wanted only to know whenst time froze and cried out at the crime scene. Both exist, but then that very existence proves to itself that it is almost never enough? Answer these questions and you will see what I am on about. Writing about myself, it seems I sorely give myself the impression that I fear no subject.
The catalyst for this present collection, Cabbage and Kings, was a regional songwriter and author named Dennis Callaci. I had known of him for a smattering of years peripherally as the humble giant high atop Rhino Records, in Claremont, California. I knew of him likewise as the apostolic shepherd of Shrimper Records a locally based label founded in 1990. For about twenty years we were just nodding acquaintances, each wrestling the tiger away from the lamb in our own ways. Mutual respect I think they’re calling it. One day he approached me to tell me that just that prior day, during a rainstorm, he had made a strong cup of coffee and gave listen to my entire 1979 LP, Cold Feelings, and also that it was like a religious experience. I didn’t want to dowse his enthusiasm, so I didn’t bother to tell how much the record embarrassed me. It was my performance only that made me shiver, as I was flanked by a regalia of legendary players. Two songs from the album later went on their merry ways to have Grammy and Gold Record involvement, not to mention it was the session debut of fiddle great Stuart Duncan, who became one of my dearest friends. A few days later I slunk into Rhino Records, as if embroiled in a dastardly affair, and left a copy of an anthology of my work, one put out on the Aim label out of Tujunga (1998), entitled, Sinner-Songwriter. That I thought was a truer example of me attempting to evolve, all the way back from my origins, living on a lowly egg ranch, streets lined with brain-sized wash rocks, up until now, still viewing the world anew through that self-same chicken’s eye, or at the least the kaleidoscopic heart of a magpie drumming. But, as you might know, when you get to know Dennis, he is capable of envisioning the entire evolution of something as one entity. So, I was honored to be considered in that realm.
Note to Self (V54)
I wrote the song Note to Self (To Say Goodbye) on October 10, 1999, in the moonlit interior of a parked 1973 Caprice Classic. It wasn’t until late in my career that I began to put dates on the songs. Any excuse for a birthday party I’m guessing. The ‘aircraft carrier’, as I was like to call the vehicle, was stationed on a horseshoe driveway beside two towering palm trees just outside the ranch house that we were renting. The neighboring houses, whose windows were black-eyed, seem to brood in the pittance of the municipal streetlight. Through the tinted glass windshield, one could eye from here a spray of those pointed creatures we call stars, tipping from the sky like the amber ash of a bum’s cigarette, in mid-droop, just about to drop.
I inherited the Chevy from my father, who died that very same year at our family home in Fontana. He had been dead for three days when the police were called because his two bronze dachshunds were yapping for their lives. The last time I saw my father alive was rather biblical. He couldn’t reach his feet so he asked me to clip his toenails. I got a tub of water, clipped his nails, and proceeded to wash his feet. That done, I was out and on my way. In leaving I nodded as if to show good sense. I’m more than sure I probably had a self-important poem harkening me, likely involving a feathered quill and a crushed velvet cape, avoiding in my process anything useful, such as hoeing or weeding. A while after his passing we had a yard sale that involved a lot of Hispanic neighbors marching off down the street with his threadbare furniture over their shoulders. Our father was not a racist, I’m just saying that when we moved to the house in 1972 there was not one Hispanic, and then in ’99 it was 80%. We laugh now, but that is a lot for a Wisconsin farm-boy and decorated WWII vet to digest. I stepped away from the yard-sale to talk to a neighbor who was a music teacher in town. He once told me a story, in the center of the cul-de-sac street between our houses, of back in the day when he played catch with Nat King Cole outside of the Shrine Auditorium. I asked about his daughter, whom I’d seen in days gone by puffing her tricycle down the sidewalk in doubloon gold hair. She later, all grown up, had married jazz organist Johnny Hammond Smith. I then questioned him about the police procedure surrounding my father’s passing. I told him that I had called several times, but that I wasn’t alarmed because he didn’t always pick up, which I myself am often guilty of. He said back, “He always picks up for me”, which I took as a jab.
One more thought about the Caprice Classic, which my mother had bought from Rotollo Chevrolet in Fontana in 1974. She passed away in 1975 of breast cancer when I was twenty-one years of age, she was fifty-one. Move ahead to 2004 and my wife and I are then living in Claremont, California. We were located directly across the street from a rest home called, Claremont Manor, where I had later befriended the historic rock DJ, Hunter Handcock in his final years. One late morning I heard a knock at the door. Upon answering it I beheld four senior citizens of a Norman Rockwell caliber, almost wearing sleigh bells. They had come to inform us that they had written a play about our Caprice Classic, which was always parked out front like you might find a cannon in a plaza. The name of the play was Butterscotch, which alluded to the pallor of the car, when you weren’t busy calling it baby-skat. They asked if we wouldn’t mind bringing it down for the premiere of the play and royaly park it at the entrance. I don’t know if that was the highest point of my career, but it was close. All the actors were so geriatric, with the accompanying body language of insects, deathbed studies all, that they had to read their lines, trembling, off of foxed loose leaf. They might just as well have been reading at a wedding supper.
(Back to Ontario 2010, penning Note to Self.) At the parked wheel of the car, I was drinking the jade elixir of a “melting margarita” and listening to the twangy gruff of Jamey Johnson emanating from a weathered boombox. Nobody uses boomboxes anymore, I fear. I think if a modern person saw one nowadays, they would rather figure it was a time bomb. The reason I’m out in the car in the dark in the first place, swatting nag-champa smoke away from my eyes, was because we had a one-year-old daughter in the house in slumber.
I think the song Note to Self speaks to the power of words. I have great admiration for the cinema, I just don’t have any money, and oh yah’,…I’m afraid of people. So, I opted to just set out to make movies with a pencil and a bar napkin, where if done right, in my opinion, can be equally as powerful, or weak for that matter because all movies can’t be as good as The Big Lebowski. Speaking from the point of view of an artist, I feel it stems from my own sense of powerlessness, a vehicle that tends to draw me inward. So, the song starts right off, “The moon is drawn and quartered”. The first thing the narrator does is to chop up the moon, which is right out of the gate challenging for the imagination, picturing perhaps a bloody planetary scenario. “Grandfather’s truck garden”, and the “child’s hair”, are just like gum wrappers in real life that just happen to be blowing by and end up being ushered into the song. My grandfather came from Slovenia in 1901 to work in the copper mines of Calumet Michigan, ending up an actual character in the Woody Guthrie ballad, The 1913 Massacre. By the time my dad came along in 1921, they were raising pigs on their own subsistence farm in Wisconsin. The golden curls belong to, as I said before, my daughter in the house sleeping with a powder blue Eeyore. When I’m in the zone I’m somewhat out of control, and the narrator has advice, which is perhaps more for myself than anyone else, there giving advice that I probably wouldn’t have the nerve to give. “You can’t change my ways before I do”. The thing I find most valuable to myself about the work is that I can stand back from it and learn, because it seems to me to be much wiser than I really am.
(Brayer Brother’s Bridge / Temecula / photo: Mike Brayer)
Note to Self (To Say Goodbye)
The moon was drawn and quartered / and there and on its back
And rightly symbolized / a world under attack
A grandfather’s truck garden / a child’s hair golden curled
A prison granting pardon / these are all new hopes of the world
The words“I love you” are not in essence / three words to scream
A note to myself / feathered fortune to redeem
I’m trying to organize my cry / note to self to say goodbye
I’m just behind the eight ball / that’s placed behind the plow
I’m just glad to say to you / that I have a daughter now
I had a rip roaring / imagination with you
But you can’t change my ways / before I do
Will my name be forgotten / or will it hold up in candlelight?
Will it be stuck in traffic / will it win yet lose its sight?
I don’t mean to trump the dawn / with this clown suit that I’ve got on
But who am I anyway / to swing on a star and walk away?
I don’t have what fate holds / and how near the sound of far
Drinking melting margaritas / in a brand-new used car
Mariachi trumpets are my conscience / my heart is on hold
When I’m only as young / as the day is old
I’m burning for freedom / as I’m looking up the word
For it feels to have a meaning / that I’ve never heard
Like a newborn child / that beholds my health
I’m at the wheel of that / which controls itself
My mother rose above / a holler and a ridge
On my way to San Diego / and the Brayer Brother’s Bridge
Every day I have a feeling / that feelings are just confession
With a daughter in your arms / you are receiving a mystery lesson
Where love blots out religion /and the perils of the world
And a sexual situation / around your finger curled
The truth and I we stand substantial / we sort of make a golden cross
A figure moans in the darkness / and I’m at a winner’s loss
Brick house, fortress gates / they don’t keep out a thing
That they don’t keep in in theory / that the future cannot cling
Peasant banjo take me home / I’ve come a long long way from then
Not that it’s ever clear / but the sexy side of sin
A velvet painting of a trailer / the far gone skipping of a rope
Trees weep in the car lights / as I run, I hope
Enough with realization / nothing cast in stone
Am I on my own / or am I just all alone?
The moon was tiny / it almost let me down
Then I thought deep of how the gold / could crucify the crown
We were together / in all kind of weather
That blows high in the air the feather
And when and where it touches down
Only us it will astound
Written by: Patrick Brayer
A Painless Way to Cry (V51)
The tune Painless Way to Cry was written on June 11, 2009. Our daughter was six months old, so my wife was probably back at learning high schoolers English literature, all in my selfish hopes that they might someday be able to decipher my lyrics. So thought I. That leaves me split yin and yangiously like a sawmill pine, between being ‘stay at home diaper king’ and the original brooding author of hardscrabble country-noir songsmanship. The manner in which I have over the years attempted to paint my upbringing in the steelmill town of Fontana California stems from, I imagine, the rural settings of my parents’ early lives. My mother was reared amidst the glass factories of Parkersburg West Virginia and the B&O Railroad, and my father in the hog-pen farm-fields of Marshfield Wisconsin. Change is not only inevitable in overview, its bone marrow is made of the culture of dreams. We can only, at our best, take our lives only as seriously as we take our dreams. That is what my songs are I reckon, just me, trying to look busy while dreaming out loud. My life, like a lean-to held up by a sapling pole. In this song, as in many others, I harken back to a simpler time. Tetanus rusted mobile homes parked askew, candlelight wavering in wondering eyes, and the generous gift of being so poor that you can ill afford a cell phone. Sexuality stretches out between the lines like a tuning fork. The winds, always ushering in the grit, in character, become a lonesomely angelic soundtrack, along with the crown sparrows, the humph of the tractor-trailer, and the mousy wife in the backseat of the Buick crying into her Tijuana shawl, quadraphonic. I don’t like gangster movies, and I don’t cotton to war. I’m not talking politically, but just in my songs. Which I guess can’t help but be personal, because I live within my songs. I think you have to, to obtain something approaching the truth. I don’t like the specifics of the story to get so organized as to entertain mob rule. I point more, you might say, in the direction of the natural order of hill justice, a red neck blooming through the opening of a shirt. Paper-thin souls, off the grid, taking a jeweler’s saw to the crooked family tree, amongst the kidskin weeds, nailed posthumously to another time, one on one.
A Painless Way to Cry
The wind makes an anthem through the trees
The stars rain down as brightly as they please
Tomorrow passes today right on by
Your thoughts are stainless / you’re looking for a painless
Looking for a painless way to cry
Smoking three home rolled cigarettes at a time
Shooting out the lights so you have an excuse to feel blind
Here comes a baby on your knee
Without trying / it’s already crying
And it can’t even see
But you’re looking, and that you know you can
And you’re looking, at the hourglass sand
You no longer shoot for the moon, you don’t even try
In your mind / you’d just be happy to find
A painless way to cry
Cheaters come in late and exchange shaky alibis
The trailer door’s left wide open, a stray dog comes inside
A refrigerator full of Burgie harmonizes with a florescent light
On a night that just won’t die / as domestic as an apple pie
Won in a bare-knuckle fist fight
You’re hoping, if that’s even the right word
You’re singing, but no sound can be heard
You’re seeking, out a bird that doesn’t ever need to fly
You’re on the scene / while you’re practicing
A painless way to cry
They made love in the chocolate mountains, got married at the Salton Sea
But the preacher jumped parole, so they’ll see what they will see
Those aren’t even real tears, the world will yet conclude
Hotter than a sauna / cheap drugs from Tijuana
Have never felt so good
Written by: Patrick Brayer
Capture and Release (V53)
I’ve never been much on the neanderthal side of hunting and fishing, so as you could notice, but that hasn’t stopped me from writing away at songs like Capture and Release, and other time-honored classics like Field and Stream (of the Bottle and the Glass). My father once warned me: “You get too open-minded and your brains might fall out”. The nameless narrator, in a devil’s advocate fashion, whispers advice in your ear. To, “not pretend that others are our love’s hidden goal.” He speaks with confidence as if he knows you well. Trying to be fair, “burning bridges of our own making”, becomes the sound of human nature tearing, but our hopes’ gills are then put back into the stream of life for another try.
In between all the lines also, if anyone is sick enough to be a student of all of this, are the ghosts of all my influences, starting early with Hank Williams, John Steinbeck, Faulkner, Andrew Lytle, Bill Monroe, and Pablo Neruda, all the way up to the contemporaries of what they are now calling “Grit Lit”, such as, Bill Frank (Crime of Southern Indiana), Phillip Ray Pollock (The Heavenly Table), and Charlie Williams (Deadfolk). My writing and the process thereof is the best therapy I can afford. It doesn’t heal me, though it does at times help me from seeing myself as a heel.
Then there’s the image of a lamb saved from the slaughter, and heaven busy being “only a real place for the heart to know”. Suggesting perhaps that religion works on the inside very well, but when you bring it out into the light of day it turns human, becoming man’s fingerprint and not Gods, and a mirrored opposite of its spiritual origins. But we are continually reminded, “It’s not fair”, returning us back again to square one. As the camera pans around from children in burlap, to guys mowing lawns, to shade tree mechanics, and resting into a case of non-apologetic infidelity coyly playing eight ball.
Capture and Release
It’s not fair / when you’re not born to fly
To keep an angel / from the sky
We may loom selfish / call it control
Pretend that others are our love’s hidden goal
Burning a bridge / of your own making
Out of the coals / you are raking
You can hear it sound / you can feel it tear
And it’s trying to be / but it’s not fair
It’s the give and take of honesty
Human nature / capture and release
It might be your mother, your daughter too
A lamb saved from the slaughter by you
It might be your wife / it might be your foe
For heaven is only a real place for the heart to know
And only it can breathe there
And it’s trying to be / but it’s not fair
It’s the give and take of honesty
Old human nature / capture and release
Children in burlap / guys mowing lawns
Shade tree mechanics / all getting along
A wife and her lover / shooting pool
In the air-conditioned golden rule
Take my advice / don’t listen to me
The best earthly advice is never free
The homeless lie like dead soldiers / in the park
Try to ignore them / a million dogs bark
Hear the sound / you can feel the tear
It’s trying to be / but it’s not fair
It’s a give and take / of honesty
Old human nature / capture and release
Written by: Patrick Brayer
Lose It (V51)
In 2007 in what in my world comes off as a cultural exchange, I was asked to do some session work on an album by a popular scream-metal band called, Atreyu. I was to supply pedal steel, Turkish saz, and fiddle. Sounded like an interesting challenge, so off to Hollywood I went. I’m usually not brave enough to do stuff like this but my brother-inlaw, Porter McKnight, plays bass in the group, so I knew he wouldn’t let me get beat up to a complete pulp. The album was called Lead Sails, Paper Anchor, and was being produced by John Feldmann (The Used, Hillary Duff, Korn).
So what we have here is my bold adaptation of one of the songs, Lose It, from their CD, . Sometimes I am known to gut the melody of a song, to reimagine it, as I did with, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn, later done by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. This time I didn’t completely gut it, but I did wound it pretty well. What I was attempting to do here was not recreate the song, but more to show you emotionally what I liked about it, as seen through the lens of every song I’ve ever written. I’m pleased with it and hopefully, this will get out there where people can aptly complain about it. Their album reached #8 on the Billboard Charts and garnered them and myself a Gold Record. I’m happy to say that they are out touring right now and seem to be on the top of their head-banging game.
Standing on the ledge / bottle in my hand
I’m trying to know / what I’m dying to know If I take this leap / fail to succeed I’m dying / I’m dying to know
This is it, I’m shaking / my body’s aching
If I lose my hold / I will let go This is it, I’m falling / my wings need to grow
Calling me to lose my hold / and I may let go
There’s so many roads / pitfalls filled with doubt explode
I’m dying / I’m dying to know Grabbing what I need / grip until it bleeds
I’m dying / dying to know
This is it, I’m shaking / my body’s aching,
If I lose my hold / I will let go This is it, I’m falling / my wings need to grow
Calling me to lose my hold / I may let go
And if I take this this leap / will I be broken for keeps This I’m dying / dying to know
This is it, I’m shaking / my body’s aching,
If I lose my hold / I will let go This is it I’m falling / my wings need to grow
Calling me to lose my hold / I will let go
(Written by Atreyu)
Toe Tag (On My Heart) V59
I wrote this little dank dark ditty on April 25, 2017 in a ranch house we had rented in Ontario California. The owner’s name was Lance Shinkle, a guitar student of our friend John York ( The Byrds ‘68-’69). The house was a sprawling maelstrom of surplus paint on brick, with a beautiful Meyer’s lemon tree shyly obscuring the front windows. The living room had a high open beam ceiling with Tirolian carved edges. Shinkle’s father built the rather excentric house by hand in the 40s back when its nearest neighbors were orange groves and smudge pots. Stored away in the garage was a 1947 carousel for which Shinkle hand carved the horses. By the time I wrote Toe Tag the carousel had been moved back to Falmouth Massachusetts. Lance was an amazing individual. He was a noted Plein-air painter, as well as in his younger days a performance skater in The Ice Capades. When he visited to move the carousel east, he thought, since he was here, he’d take tango dance lessons from someone nearby whom he found on the internet. Not too long afterward he left his wife and fell in love with a tango instructor in Cape Cod. You can now see that I don’t have to look very far for plot lines for my songs.
(Lance Shinkle / The Shinkle Ranch House)
I wrote Toe Tag on an old black face, teardrop, Gibson Mandocello that my friend Bryan Bowers had left at our house, along with a large proportion of his musical arsenal, while he went off on a two week autoharp sea cruise. Bowers usually visited us in the spring, sometimes staying for weeks, when his tours were anchored by a harp convention in Central California. He is famous for many things, only one being that he is the only living member of The Autoharp Hall of Fame, a list of which include Mother Maybelle Carter, Sara Carter, and Kilby Snow. He is a major talent and a salty bearded bear of a man, discovered by the Dillards, songs done by John Denver (Berkeley Woman), played on Emmylou Harris’ Roses in the Snow record, and a constant favorite at The Strawberry Music Festival. So I tuned the Gibson Mandocello open to CGCG, to achieve a sort of corn liquor model-minor soundscape. It is one of a number of my tunes that lyrically exercise dark humor. This, I hope, allows the listener to feel comfortable enough to laugh if they so choose. But upon further inspection, one can clearly see that there is nothing in the least bit funny about this character’s situation or vision. I was probably studying Igmar Berman’s Seventh Seal at the time. With, “I don’t remember death being all that dark ”, the character faces, in question, his own death at the morgue, as if in a ghost’s retrospect. We’ve got war and wealth, poverty promising one less thing to do to prolong his health. The perspective changes from first-person in the chorus to third-person in the verses to invite an extra subjective/objective dimension. “Your hair like barnyard feathers askew, I wake up with the living and I go to sleep with you”. As for the overall sound, I usually don’t use a lot of effects on my recordings. But in addressing this one I opted for the hard chorus on the instrument to give it that “sound from the other side”, or the imagined echo inside the crypt. So our hero’s last words were whispered in the form of a question, while a motley crew of suspicious saints looked at their sandaled feet. How’d I Get This Toe Tag on My Heart?
Toe Tag (On My Heart)
How’d I get this toe tag on my heart
I don’t remember the end being all that dark
Life speaks of itself as a hidden art
Each note a toe tag on my heart
Life coined every side / of beauty right
How’s I get this toe tag on my heart
Battle flag of cloud / bullet ridden by light
It’s never easy for a poor man to count his wealth
One less thing to do to prolong his health
Your first breath bookends your last in rhyme
How’d I get this toe tag on my heart
Everything else in the middle like moon dust so fine
Your hair like barnyard feathers askew
I wake up with the living and I go to sleep with you
Huge fake diamond bracelet reaching for the rest
Like someone punched an old ice chest
I got one last question before I pull apart
How’d I get this toe tag on my heart
Written by: Patrick Brayer
Standing There (V52)
There is a Taoist concept that when you say you’re enlightened there is no way you can be. Go back to the drawing board and practice until you don’t know it to be so. When you’re mining the depths for a fresh idea for a song you’d always prefer to come up with one that sets you apart from others. In this one, I give the exact opposite of what you want. In studying the old murder ballads, which were passed on orally, pre-newspaper, radio etc., we get back to basics In days of old, it was a good way of passing along horrendous news stories, with a good dose of a poor man’s version of the King’s theatre, not to mention a handy way to dramatically usher in a cautionary moral aside. So I flipped that concept where the woman poisons her lover’s wine only to find that he was happy that she did it. “Rather felt it was a favor, the very first time she’d been kind”. Just before dying, he confesses his confusion, “It wasn’t my life that spooled before me, but someone I never knew”. This speaks of the mysteries of life being able to go in any direction at any given time. He confessed to being happy, but then still seemed to forget that he didn’t, in hindsight, imagine where he was going to after death. Showing up as a ghost at his own burial, he speaks frankly of her character, “I hope that they don’t catch you, though you’ve never been that smart”. He leaves us in a Shakespearian moon-dankened fog, “A face like milk upon the shadows, my ghost be standing there”. So does she get caught? Let’s just say, she doesn’t if you want her to, and she doesn’t if you do.
The very first time I saw you / you were standing in the rain
The very last time I saw you / it was like you invented pain
And I’m sitting and I’m holding / everything I thought was mine
I’m low down here and sorry / as I spill a glass of wine
That you fill up with poison / I feel better as I fall
I’m glad I brought you flowers / when I done came to call
You look pretty standing or’me / lipstick hanging in the air
You fortify your stockings / with one leg up on the chair
Standing there / standing there
You fortify your stockings / just standing there
I must be patient with the shadows / I thought it rather crude
That it wasn’t my life that spooled before me / but someone I never knew
I’d been cheated it appears / but I didn’t seem to mind
I rather felt it was a favor / the first time that you’d been kind
Standing there / standing there
I rather felt it was a favor / the way you were standing there
So I’ll meet you at the gravesite / pallbearers be my legs
Black shawl, pale skin, and green grass / and you get all the dregs
I’m free, I’m free I thank you / and now let the freedom start
I hope that they don’t catch you / though you’ve never been that smart
It’s really hard to tell / who used who and why
Now as you learn to live / with what I learned to die
Moon be gold tonight / and do beget her hair
With a face like milk upon the shadow / my ghost be standing there
Standing there / standing there
A face like milk upon the shadow / just standing there
Written by: Patrick Brayer
Empty Cage Behind
(Dedicated to Chris Darrow (1944-2020) (V60)
This is a song I wrote to be sung as a sonic eulogy at the memorial concert for my dear friend Chris Darrow (1944-2020). The concert was staged at The Garner House in Claremont, California on March 7, 2020. As I have written several pieces on him over the years on this blog I will just include the lyrics here and then links to the articles below. Also, find below a Youtube link to footage from the memorial concert.
Richard Gordon Barnes, was born November 5, in the autumn of 1932 in San Bernardino, California. He was reared in a Mohave Desert dust-devil that seemed to continue to revolve in his eyes, even after a barnacle of a year at Harvard, then coming back to earn his PHD from Claremont Graduate School. He then went on to serve 40 years as a professor at the revered Pomona College in Claremont California, specializing there in bringing Medieval and Renaissance literature to life. He accomplished all of this while raising a family, while at night constructing poems with a tinker’s fervor, and on top of all that playing the washboard with thimbles in a cosmic New Orleans jazz ensemble. To read his poetry for yourself was to understand that he had all the angels of literature cantankerously looking over his shoulder. So strong a presence that even if you didn’t believe in such balderdash, they were still there. When following my own artistic process where and when I follow an opportunity to archive a work of just importance, I do so exactly as I scribe a song, or as I concoct a dinner driven by the memory haze of forthcoming aromas. I have inherent in me a deep seeded need to correct what appear to me as faulty patterns, albeit in words or in a poet’s career, those that arrive before me as self-educated apparitions. Non-ego selfishness if you will.
I arrived for the first time at 434 W. 7th St. in Claremont CA, to the Barnes 1920’s era craftsman domicile, feeling as if I were on a soldiery mission. Me wide eyed with a PT 109-gray digital recording device under my wing, pushed from the back by those aforementioned angels perchance, to document the poetics of this salty long-time lyric sage of the San Gabriels. My wife and I had, just a few weeks prior, gone out into the Pomona night’s attempt at starlight to attend a gathering and to hear Barnes read at a fringe neo-beat holdout called The Da Gallery. I had just recently heard of his terminal illness and was surprised as to how he looked as regal and handsome as I had ever seen him. Death’s little joke I now suppose. The wooden floored space had no sound system and even though we sat in the front row I was ill to hear a good percentage of the important words I supposed he spoke, and as is important to me, the all-telling tone in his voice was robbed, refreshing my memory as to why I seldom go out anymore. It’s the robbery. We chatted afterwards, him and I, over tilted plastic beakers of somber tinted wine and I bought a copy of his book Few and Far Between from his grasp for my collection.
It was of course like the strike of a ball-peen realization, when he informed me that he had never really been recorded, in response to my missing, in the blind acoustics of the room, the musical timber of his inspired back-lot poetics. And so it was, for the next year that I compiled below the creaking rafters of that craftsman, it sounding as I imagined the mayflower arriving, the most precious lessons of my life, his life in vocal formula. Thin tortoise spectacles, hair slicked back, tough hombre in a casket soft recliner, and notes and poems pulled from every which direction like a magic act. With a devilish bottle of Glenlevit single malt on the tabletop before us I turned the recorder until its two little red eyes lit, and in the seminal fluid of the headphones I watched as fate took over for me and handed me, outside of my control, a most cherished mentor program. A grail to be shared by many, yet spoken directly to me, and like a good tamale there engulfed in the masa-harina of tales from San Bernardino, all the way to the motor courts and lava beds of Barstow. You tend to just want to blow on by such occasions as this, with their transmissions of information deep enough to test what you ponder as the capacity of your fuse box.
For him as a thought and as a human being, the tears could restore the Owens Valley, or rekindle spirituality just so that you could call him up for some firsthand knowlage about the paved-over aspects of our dusty inland empire. Like Borges at a cockfight his eyes still light up in my mind, reminding us that death is perhaps a much slower fade than we think, as we might live on in the remaining minds, perhaps for a good time after, profound or no profound. The last time I talked to him I had just come from Hollywood where I was visiting with long time friend Stuart Duncan and his momentary boss Lyle Lovett, and it impressed upon me then of the diametrical sameness between these personages of fame and their humble counter part in the death bed before me. I showed Dick the artwork that I had just completed for an eight volume CD set of his recorded work, which he had wanted to leave for all of his friends. The CD cover images were culled from some hand sketched sparse portraits he did of his favorite plant, the desert creosote, the dominant flora of the Mohave. In the room with us were his wife Pat, artists Carl Hertel, his daughter Katy Hertel (her step mother was the famed painter Sue Hertel), and Dick’s daughter Sarah. Things were spinning around in the air of that room as molecules were confusing each other in a “not in Kansas anymore” fashion. It was all big and it was all deep, with much space in between the lines to think, basically it was another one of Dick Barnes’ poems come to life. So, the elephant in the room is, “Why is it that Dick Barnes is not a more famous poet on the world stage?” Him being so far beyond the acres of celebrated mere-mortals spewing wooden stanzas. The simple answer is that “Dick Barnes writes far better than most people can read”. The age-old problem being, bullet-starring your children in the eyes, that they, the banks, don’t understand the currency of “being ahead of your time”.
Real art is that which splays your life out before you, contains the uncontainable, and gives you something to chew on for the rest of your days, numbered as they are pocked by mystery. I piled my recording equipment back into the boot of my sawdust-colored Caprice Classic, it faithfully waiting at the Barnes curb, for the last time in March of the year 2000, pulling our way slowly past parading elms and Rasta-headed palms on route back to my home, below a crown of emaciated clouds, two towns over, in Upland. I’ll have to admit that it is here in the sincerity of solitude, that I don’t as much wait for the return of Dick Barnes as I do every day live in the shear idea of it. It remains that un-stealable and heart-warming element which I give thanks that we all privately own.
Patrick Brayer (Upland, California)This article was originally written in summer 2002 but was re-edited in 2021
Granite Intrusive by Dick Barnes
Where the clean wind scours the rock— sun like a hammer, ice the other season— there’s the life, said the lichen, that’s the life for me.
I’m so glad we found this place murmured the moss before the tourists came.
Root of a palo blanco in thin bark like white paper crept down over bare rock: I like a place that’s been spoiled just enough, said the root, snuggling in.
The rock didn’t say anything at all. Why would it?
Alluvium: A Reply by Dick Barnes
Somewhere two rivers rush together at the foot of a scarp, meander over a coastal plateau, then down a barranca
the rio caudal plunges into its deep estuary and huge canyons under the sea. But here
on this nearly level delta wide as the eye can see streams mingle and separate, some sweet, some brack
some sink under their own silt, are lost in the arrowweed where a curve of current earlier carved the bank
some dwindle down sloughs under poplar or willow, the heron’s home, some into quicksand, and
nothing is turning out the way you thought it would be, nothing.
Doomsday by Jorge Luis Borges
It will be when the trumpet sounds, as in St. John the Divine. It was already in 1757, according to the witness of Swedenborg. It was in Israel when the she-wolf nailed the flesh of Christ to the cross, but not only then. It happens in every throb of your blood. There is no moment that may not be the crater of Hell. There is no moment that may not be the water of Heaven. There is no moment not loaded like a gun. In every moment you may be Cain or Siddartha, the mask or the face. In every moment Helen of Troy may reveal her passion for you. In every moment the cock may have crowed the third time. In every moment the waterclock lets its last drop fall.
Tim Weed, his hair a paintbrush of sterling silver, his eyes as if turquoise could fade, and his life a car full of rain sticks, Vietnamese mouth organs, and weathered pre-war Martins beaten to a shroud of toran shade. His life is an endless possibility, and the mobius strip of raw and unadulterated idea is all and present here.
I’m no longer intimidated by the fact that nothing is what it seems. That stands as the first polyphonic revelation of a life in song. There is always some pin pointable form of music that becomes your anchor of what. For Tim Weed, that enormous weight, invisible in deep water, was bluegrass musing, or the miniature sawmill of hill music. To some it is a narrow and limiting field, but that, as an entity for our salvation does not concern us, for those are only the narrow at heart, sadly blind to the hands of genius. Bluegrass is a mobile swinging, hanging around the corner from itself. The fiddle ushers Celtic influence in on horseback, the banjo brings African plunk and savanna tone, then the guitar from Spain rings like a tambourine, while the dobro ushers in the relief of grass-skirted tropic islands. Bill Monroe’s mandolin playing itself is no more than the pounding down-stroke of a pine top juke house piano. On top of this you add vocals that tap a gospel field-holler like forest turpentine, and an angelic choir forced through a nasal dimension, or the third eye, until it simulates a high lonesome wind through a trademark coulter pine.
These realities are nothing new to Weed, raised on the art of surfing as a youth in California. It then became easy for him to mix with the influences of Zen Buddhism, and through the meditation of the nautical arts, the dance of the razor’s edge between land and sea, until it became not much work at all for him to project himself cosmically to a tar paper shack, sunshine and mud, in fragrant Appalachia. He’s lived in a house made of hay-bale technology, he has learned to make lemon-leaf tea broth from the natives of Fuji, he’s worked beside James Cagney in a movie, scored symphonies for the five-string banjo, and he has on occasion sung back-up for Bill Medley of The Righteous Brothers and Phil Spector fame. If you have heard of him then you are a lifelong fan. If you have not heard of him, it is because he is a musician’s musician, a breed that plays music that is mined from down in the marrow, notes and phrases as a bodily function, until like a mother hen, one is a bit afraid of what the corporate side of the music business might cost the open channel that has forever been the original blessing
A lot of musicians have over the years muscled “the real thing” aside while going straight through the wall. Tim Weed, forever a gentle soul, continues to work in a Rembrandtian fashion, a cosmic craftsman, until the door, that of course like all doors is built to open, swings free out onto a stand of brass band roses. I’m please to be here to catch the influence, for influence is like starlight, and every new project of his which you might be so lucky to hold, illusively, not being what it seems, is the doorknob.
This is Tim Weed’s latest offering for 2021. It’s titled Light and Dark and it contains his original classical compositions for the banjo recorded in the Czech Republic’s with the 82-piece Prague Metropolitan Orchestra.
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.
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.
“I believe there is scarcely a corner of myself that is safe from me”
(something Henrik Ibsen almost said)
If you know me, you probably then know just about how not interested in the feat of contest I can be. “Contests, a little nosegay of common flowers!” (to further misquote Ibsen).
So on a note of hill-torn paradox, I’ve entered of late the NPR Tiny Desk Concert’s battle to honor the terminally unsigned. You will see, as evidenced by the video included below, that i’m not trying all that hard to emerge the victor. I’m doing what I alway defer to, and that is in the act of statement. One of the rules of the contest was that the filming contain a desk, thus I raided my daughter’s doll house one last time. ‘Doll House’ will be the last Ibsen reference, i promise.
Let it be know that I’m not making fun of the music series on NPR, quite to the contrary, i think it stands as one of the best bare bones music shows going. It gives you some great examples of how an artist can be set astray by the vaudvillian layers called production. I’ve seen some acts on there that I then ran out to investigate in exuberance, only to find out that they were really thier most powerful and honest sardined around just one weisel-shaped microphone.
My wife thought that I could have done a much better performance of my song. I said yeah maybe, but then i might win. As you know, musicians are nothing if not notorious for being non-present parents, evidenced so much so that the contest lures one on with carrot-dangling promise of airfare, whisking one in to do one career bursting concert on their inter-nut show, dragging you around on tour, and then never once in the ant-like fine print do they ever talk about maybe paying up front for the babysitter while you are out doing all of this. Proving perhaps, once and for all, that being a musician is perhaps not the best job for a person with a life.