Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Party of One


Wild Oats                     ©Maureen Hurley

During the 1980s and '90s, I used to live next door, well, a few cabins up, from many blues musicians at Celli's Cabins in Forestville, on the Russian River. The rustic cabins were originally weekend summer rentals, later they were workers' cabins. Then, they became an artist enclave. I was fortunate to have lived there for 20 years among many noted musicians.


What great impromtu BBQs we had at the cabins in various configurations: we were all living in and out of each other's pockets, er, cabins—they were so tiny, you had to go out into the driveway to change your mind. In Cabin Number One, there was Alastair Ingram, saxophonist, and flyfisher, born in Dundee, Scotland, but raised in Wisconsin. His band, Blue Moon, still rises in the sky at night, blue notes and all.

And across from Alastair, in Cabin #10, there was Sonny Lowe, Chicago-style bluesman, one fab mouth harpist (and a right good a good kisser). We always loved to boogie when Sonny Lowe and the Blenders were jammin' at Jasper O'Farrell's. 


Once dubbed the "highest jumpin' white man in the US," before an injury put an end to his hopes of breaking the world high jump record and a shot at the Olympics, that long, tall cool drink of water, AKA Max "Sonny" Lowe, who could jump 7' 2" from a standstill, picked up a harmonica and he never looked back. That man had soul. And he walked with a springboard gizmo in his shoes.

Sonny was also a shade tree mechanic adept at fixing cars. He was the only man who could keep my '81 blue Mitsubishi truck, codenamed Lazarus, running. He had the magic hands. I'd sidle on up to Sonny and say, "Come look under mah hood," ala Sonny Terry and Brownie MacGhee whenever I needed a tune-up or my carburators rebuilt. He'd laugh and say, "Yes ma'am!" and always undercharged me for the work, as I babysat his son Nathan for free. 


We were all cash-strapped. (Some things never change.) Sonny preferred Peach Schnaps to money as a tip. Said it soothed his voice. To this day, the odor of peaches reminds me of him.

Sometimes Sonny's friend Charlie Musselwhite would pull up in his white van. Charlie lived in the town of Sonoma. For a while, I was Nathan's babysitter and odd mother-figure of sorts. I loved helping to raise that kid. He brought out the child in me. We were inseparable. It was love at first sight. 


Sometimes Nathan called me "Dad" even when his own dad was standing there next to him. We'd all laugh and Sonny would look down at his feet and get all uncomfortable. He knew what the kid wanted. Nathan's mother, Cindy, who was trying to straighten herself out after a half-life of heavy partying, and drugs, wanted it too—if only for Nathan's sake. But it was not to be. I regret that life not lived.

Sonny taught me the root meaning of the blues, it took me a long time to recover from that kind of class act. Living next to Sonny fostered a lot of writing on my part—some of it was decent. Most of it, not. 


Even writing about this blogpost makes me squirmy like I was doin' sumptin' wrong. But sometimes I can't help myself. The pieces just write themselves into a corner or wander where they will down a long open road—while I'm unsuccessfully holding onto some sort of a through-thread for dear life.


Ain't nobody that can croon and play that harp and tongue those bent notes like Sonny, except maybe, Charlie Musselwhite, or Norton Buffalo (rest his soul.) Norton lived in Sonoma too, then moved up to Paradise. Then he went to the other paradise. To this day, I can't listen to the lonesome wail of an harmonica without thinking of Norton or Sonny.

On an impulse, Charlie gave Sonny his big white gig van, packed full of stuff destined for Goodwill, and that gig van doubled an extra spare bedroom for various visiting folks. We had a great time unpacking that treasure trove of a van stuffed with antique furniture, musical instruments, clothes, and two dark tabby kittens. I used to wear one of Georgina's vintage black dresses at many of my poetry readings. It brought me luck.

 Celli's Cabins                           ©Maureen Hurley

Evan Morgan lived in Cabin #2. Evan's an acoustic guitarist, ukelele and mandolin picker of New Riders of the Purple Sage fame. Evan's NRPS bandmates and many other musicians rarely came to visit... mainly because Evan was usually on the road with them. He'd come back full of stories. When Evan played bluegrass and Celtic music—whether on his Martin, mandolin or on a fiddle, he was at his finest. I couldn't get enough of that music. 

At the time, Evan was touring with Lost Highway Band (not the movie), but Forestville was his base camp. I remember the buzz going round the cabins when Evan auditioned for NRPS. I'm sure we all celebrated that night. Not that I was a NRPS fan, but I proudly displayed a NRPS sticker on my rear truck window for Evan's sake. 

We saw a whole lot less of Evan when he hooked up with a French blonde welfare mom who was the daughter of a friend of mine. With a cheshire cat smile, she devoured him from the rooster up. It ran in the family. He no sooner looked, then he loved, and when he loved, it was an all-consuming once in a lifetime kind of love. Now, Evan was right fine to look at, but he just sort of wasted away when he found out she was lip-synching band members while he was on the road.

Evan and Sonny shared Charlie Musselwhite's two cats, brother tabbys, Hucky and Mucky. Hucky—short for Huckleberry—who was more dog, than cat, was a people cat. He was smarter than his brother, he could open doors, and deduce things, but Mucky, a recluse by nature, was more interested in sucking his own balls than cozying up to folks. Neutering put a stop to that vice. Couldn't suggest that option to Evan. But it might have saved him some grief. Some things just need to play themselves out. 

Hucky decided Evan wasn't around much and one day he went out to Mirabel Road to find him (he recognized all our cars when we pulled up the driveway) but he thumbed a ride with death instead. Maybe someone drove by in a car that sounded like Evan's. Maybe Hucky was terminally lonesome. Or maybe he just committed suicide. It wasn't like him to go out onto the highway. We all mourned that cat. Mucky was devastated without his brother. It was about that time that he became more people friendly.

Former NRPS band member, Grateful Dead drummer, Micky Hart, lived across the way from us, off Mirable Road, so there were infinite musical party permutations possible on any given night. I don't recall ever meeting the NRPS guy whose death spawned this particular piece of memoir, Marmaduke, aka John Dawson, but I was pretty oblivious to names, so anything was possible. 


 The road across the way         ©Maureen Hurley

I never officially went over to Micky Hart's place across the way, I was too shy, but I did stand outside in his driveway to listen when most of the remaining Grateful Dead showed up one night to play. But it was cold standing there in the dark alone, so I went home. Alone.

Come to think of it, the Grateful Dead and NRPS connection, is probably why one member of It's a Beautiful Day, David LaFlamme of White Bird fame, was living on the River, working at the Guerneville gas pump. There's not many who can clam to have David LaFlamme—a world class violin virtuoso—pump gas into their car. His infinitely sad eyes were as blue as my VW Bug, and his hair, white blond as sunlight on the river. 


I should have just given Evan my dad's indigo blue Jaguar coupe way back then when he asked for it, when it was still running, now the carbs are frozen up and the wirings shot—but I was too unresolved and conflicted over my dad's death. Now it sits abandoned in the driveway, reduced to rust by the elements, junkyard bound in the slow lane.


Across the creek from me, ceramicist-musician Joel Bennett played salsa chord progression riffs on a not-so-baby grand piano that dominated the living room like a shiny volcano. On weekends, with artists and art lovers dropping in for Open Studio, it was like Little Havana at Joel's joint.

Italian pine   ©Maureen Hurley

In Cabin #7 there was Paul Ellis, painter and a regular Jeckyl & Hyde fiddler-classical violinist. Paul could change from classical pieces to bluegrass at the drop of a hat. Sometimes even in the middle of the same tune. He had a running classical chamber duo gig with Ron Jones and/or Don Coffin at local restaurants on Sunday afternoons, but Paul could break out into some serious barnstorming fiddling come Friday night. AKA Redwood String Trio, The Hot Frittatas, etc. (Pix of Paul & Don at the Kate Wolf Festival).

Paul painted a lovely canvas of my cabin, with all its cow skulls and art accretions, the Shasta daisies out front were in full tilt. (A pdf that mentions Paul & Kate Wolf). His friend, Don Coffin (Kate Wolf's ex-husband), who drove a vintage green caddie convertible, often came to visit. That's how I met Don, he came cruising up in this drop-dead gorgeous car and I ran out to see what all the fuss was about. 

I later realized I'd met Don years earlier when he was living in Sebastopol, so it was a reunion of sorts. Kate and Don had long since split up. I remember all of us going over to his house after a poetry reading and playing music into the wee hours, the potbelly stove belching smoke. Paul was probably there too. It was a small world.

And in the other cabins, lived various itinerant cabinmates—Cabin #4 got a real workout. George rented it for a while, then an ex-boyfriend, Jim Byrd moved some of his furniture in, but stayed with me. It mostly stood empty for ages. The last tenant was Steve DuBois, a fine drummer, who was my good buddy. Weekends, Steve played for Tommy Castro, at The Saloon in North Beach. (See Steve with The Doorslammers Johnny Nitro Salute). Sometimes I'd drive into the city to hear them play, but I was partial to Sonny's blues style. And the city was more than a long ways from Forestville.

Cabin 6                                      ©Maureen Hurley

Another shortlived cabin-mate (Cabin #6) was an official Marboro Man, Bill Dutra, who was a friend of Leonard Matlovich's, of Time Magazine fame. Ironically, Bill didn't smoke at all, but KS ravaged his beautiful sculpted face. Ironic also, that the iconic face of the manly man of the American West was a gay roving blade. 

A decorated Vietnam war veteran who served three tours of duty and awarded a Purple Heart, Leonard Matlovich made the cover of Time Magazine in 1975 when he broke cover and "came out" while serving in the Air Force. 

Come to think of it, Bill Dutra was probably plastered on the back cover of that same Time Magazine, riding a horse into the Marlboro country sunset, a filtered ciggie dangling from his lips.


Bill told me Leonard who was buried in the same row as J. Edgar Hoover—was poetic justice. His tombstone reads: “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.” Bill told me a funny story about "Jedgar's" penchant for cross-dressing like a girl and how the FBI had to scramble to cover it up from the press.

Steve the banjo player m
oved into Cabin #2 when Evan left. I can't remember his last name. Maybe Wharton? Starts with a hwa-hwa sound. But I can remember the names of all his cats. Rounder used to bring us fresh kill. Nothing quite like finding crunchy little gopher feet on your doorstep in the morning—with your bare feet, Steve playing "Cripple Creek" in the distance.

Then there's New Englander, Rob Harrison who moved into Bill's cabin (#6) after he died. Rob worked with Sonny as a counselor at halfway homes. He carried on ordinary conversation at 80 decibels. No need for a phone, you could hear Rob clear in the next county. Rob was from Woodstock. Must have been from listening to all that good music up close and personal.

The orchard                              ©Maureen Hurley

In Cabin #9 was Persian rug restorer and emphysemic storyteller George Howell, George was one of the original dharma bums who really lived a legendary life of Dharma Bums fame, having 'balled' Janis Joplin in the back seat of Jack Kerouac's car as it made that famous cross-country run in the late 1950s—I can't remember his Beat name in the book. Gary Snyder's name in the book was Japhy Ryder. 

Violet-eyed George, with the beard of a wild Armenian, who also happened to be half-Armenian, stood well over six feet, was overfond of Robitussen and speed in his youth, and so, was near toothless. He wheezed like a Wurlitzer when we washed hand woven antique Persian rugs—worth more than all our collective incomes—in the orchard. Wildness ran in the family. In Hana, stories still circulate about George's Welsh haole uncle, Dr. Howell who had a thirst as prodigious as that of Dylan Thomas. When I was in Hana, Dr. Howell was fondly remembered. 

I dragged a few musicians home from time to time. After a private party at The Top of the Mark in SF—I was a flower girl in medieval costume heralding the way for Scottish bagpiper, Peter Kapp—we held a moonlit ceili right in the driveway, with Peter piping and skirling and everyone dancing up and down the driveway until we were breathless and covered in dust.

Then there was the Love Choir's unstrung guitar hero Trygve Tryggestad, an old high school flame who could play the guitar like he was at the crossroads with the devil himself. But he had a regular woman stashed somewhere in the woodwork, I wasn't into playing second fiddle—and that was that. Another life I regret not having lived.

 River Road, flood                     ©Maureen Hurley

On hot summer nights, the crickets seethed, a chorus of mosquitoes hummed in unison, liquor freely flowed, two kinds of smoke rose, and George made a wicked raita & a baba ghanoosh to die for. Ah, yes, those were the days...in Celli's Cabins, in Forestville, by the river, the wild moon rising over the orchard. 

There was not much need to go into town to hear live music. We had it all at Celli's Cabins. Except for when Sonny and the boys were blending tasty treats up at Jasper O'Farrell's Pub. Besides, the dance floor at Jasper's was better than groovin' alone in the gravel driveway as the boys were all playing music. 


Party of one? 


I had to leave Forestville in order to get a life. But I miss those good old days, never realizing how good we really had it. We all moved on, got married, shacked up, settled down. End of an era.

Sometimes, I still dream of Sonny crooning the classic, Yes Miss Bessie, You Sure Got a Good BBQ! in a smoky voice that planted the blues deep down into my soul. And I wonder about Nathan, of course, that almost-child of mine by mutual adoption. Did he grow up to be a musician following his daddy's footprints? Or did he become an artist like me? This child I never had.

Forestville                                ©Maureen Hurley
When I began this piece, there was nothing on the internet about Bill Dutra as the Marlboro Man, but a cousin forwarded this link for The Marlboro Cowboy, March 2009.

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