Last night, in the middle of a 90-minute set in West L.A., Alejandro Escovedo hunched over his black electric guitar and splayed his feet as if he was up against gale-force winds.
He leaned into his lead guitarist and a schoolboy grin spread across his face.
I think the song was Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane.” But I can’t remember any more.
All I remember was the pure exhilaration on his face, which I took to mean that he still sucks a ton of joy from the simple act of playing in a band and getting it to thunder like a herd of African wildlife.
I took my wife to see Escovedo at The Mint on Pico Boulevard (great place!).
He was backed by the Sensitive Boys. This was a real garage band – which is all any rock musician with any balls should aspire to. I mean, the drummer had only four drums. (Thanks, man!) The guitarist had two guitars. Same with Escovedo. The bassist – bless his heart — had only a four-string Fender.
The gear didn’t matter. What mattered was the spirit. The idea that all you needed was your own heart, and jagged point of view, and love of fun.
Escovedo knows how to choose a great cover (“All the Young Dudes”), but he’s not an oldies act. Just a survivor.
He made his life in a young man’s game and, more than 30 years later, continues to create within it. He’s got a bunch of albums of his own songwriting.
Escovedo is one of the few from the original wave of punk rock (1977-81) who’s still making music. He was in the SF punk band, the Nuns, then Rank n File. Moved to Austin. I think since the late 1980s he’s been crafting his own career as a singer-songwriter who plays acoustic guitar but whose big love is for a nasty old pawn-shop electric turned up loud.
But I don’t know his resume.
All I know is that mostly folks who started out with him are all dead or gone on to other things. Or they’re in the RocknRoll Hall of Fame, which amounts to the same thing.
Punk rock was a joyous moment, an essentially American thing. It told a bunch of kids who grew up on a rock music that was now fat and pompous: You know what? Screw Emerson Lake and Palmer.
You don’t need stacks of amps and $5000 guitars and walls of drums. Screw the elites. You can get up there and do it, too, if you have the spunk.
Hell, you don’t even need to know how to play.
And you damn sure don’t need one of those pretentious six-string bass guitars.
All you need is three chords and the hunch that you need to make life on your own terms. Record your own 45s, book your own gigs, print your own posters. Everything’s up to you. Just don’t ask permission.
That is healthy stuff for a kid to hear. It was for me. It changed my life, though I was never in a punk band. (I did promote my own punk shows, though. Even hired the Zeros, fronted by his brother, Javier, a time or two.)
Any pop music genre is born in times and circumstances and doesn’t easily survive their passing. Punk was no different. It died long ago. The blues died, too — years ago. People can still play it. They still play Dixieland in New Orleans. Doesn’t mean it’s vital any more.
But if it’s worth anything, that music will leave a residue of attitudes that helped create it.
Like gum stuck on a shoe, one piece of punk’s residue is Alejandro Escovedo. Now with “more miles than money,” to quote his lyric, the independence of his spirit doesn’t seem to have flagged much.
Last year’s “Man of the World” is the best straight-ahead, raspy garage rock song in years.
Last night, his “Rosalie” hit me as one of the purest love songs I’ve heard in a while. I’d heard it before, but not live, which helped, though I can’t say why. Maybe it was just more raw, like the feeling. It’s a true story of a boy from San Diego and a girl from El Paso who met one day, fell in love, and spent the next seven years writing letters to each other until they saw each other again.
He filled the spaces between songs with stories of his family – parents and their 12 kids – coming out to Huntington Beach from San Antonio for vacation, seeing the beach and literally never going back, and of years later waiting outside the Whiskey to see the New York Dolls.
Then he sang another love song: “Sweet Jane” – it was to Lou Reed. “Sing it for Lou” he yelled, as the four chords to the song churned on and on through the night.
I had no idea they existed. But they remain a fairly coherent group, still speaking Roma and wandering through the country — the ones I met did anyway.
This was several years ago — 2002 I believe. I was a freelancer in Mexico. The O.C. Register called and asked if I’d go to a village in Puebla where a boy was to be buried. He had been shot to death by Huntington Beach Police and the family was sending his body back. That was a whole other story.
But while I was in the village, waiting for his burial the next day, I heard a loudspeaker announcing something I couldn’t understand. A few minutes later, I saw a ramshackle truck, filled with chairs and tables and barely hanging together.
Then it stopped and ten or twelve people piled out. They were the Brandy family — three generations of Roma gypsies. I went over to talk to them, wondering who on earth they could be and what they were doing in town.
They spoke Spanish and Roma. Turned out, they spent their lives touring the most isolated villages, showing movies and charging 15 or 20 pesos. Many Roma people did that much of the year in Mexico, they said.
For some villages, impromptu Roma theater was welcome entertainment, though the Brandys allowed that with cable TV, VCRs and DVDs the numbers of these villages was dwindling.
I watched as the Brandys cordoned off a lot with high sheets so no one could see in. Inside, they set up a projector, put out chairs and benches they had in their truck, and as night fell, they charged admission and put on the worst monster movie I’d ever seen.
I hate all monster movies, but this was the worst. It featured, I remember, building-sized snakes. I remember a desultory crowd of 15 or so enduring this flick.
I didn’t stick around long.
I wanted desperately to go off with them the next day, but the Register needed a story and so I remained. The Brandys didn’t have telephones or maybe they told me that so I wouldn’t tag along.
Pert explained why humans get addicted to opiates.
She discovered the receptor in the human body to which opiates attach, fitting like a hand in a glove and allowing both for the calming of pain and the addiction to the substance produced by the opium poppy.
Her research and discoveries have never been more timely than they are today, amid a nationwide opiate epidemic.
Great quote from the story: “God presumably did not put an opiate receptor in our brains so that we could ultimately discover how to get high with opium,” Pert told Smithsonian magazine.
Still it was others who discovered the reason for the receptors: substances produced naturally by the human body — endorphins — that reduce pain and produce euphoria when they attach to the receptors.
Utterly fascinating, I think, that one plant, alone in all that we know of nature, produces a molecule that fits so perfectly onto this receptor in humans.
For this reason, one unseen particle, the morphine molecule, produces both heaven and hell — the most merciful pain relief and most harrowing enslavement — in the planet’s dominant mammal.
We are seeing the effects of this all across the United States, from rural America to the wealthiest suburbs.
It appears from Maugh’s obituary that Pert was largely blunted in her research by male researchers above her, then had most of the recognition usurped by those same men.
Among them, Portsmouth was ground zero in the opiate epidemic that is now sweeping the country. I’ve been there four times for the book: twice to hear about the degradation that took place with economic decline and the rise of prescription pill use; twice to hear the stories of how Portsmouth is emerging from that hell and a recovery community is forming.
I hope to return a fifth time.
What I found electric about the RWR video was that it was not a celebration of thuggery. Instead it was journalism — a description of what these guys had grown up in, using Portsmouth as the video backdrop — and a call to rebirth for their hometown.
I suspect Bruce Springsteen and Merle Haggard would find a lot to value in the RWR and their song.
Plus it was DIY all the way, and, as a fan of early punk rock that pioneered DIY attitudes, I thought it looked great.
Anyway, five of the nine members of RWR took some time to talk to me about the group, the song, the reaction and more. Portsmouth born and raised, they are: Clint “Random” Askew, Nick “Big Mung” Mungle, Donricko “D’Gree” Greene, Barry “B.E.Z.” Munyon, Justin “JLew” Lewis. (Others in the group include Lexxy “Riide R Diie” Jackson, David Packard, Arrick “Lil Mont” Montgomery and Angelo “Anjo” Jackson)
You can listen to them at the link above or download it.
Check out their story. Tell me yours. Leave it in Comments.
Meanwhile, you can read the fantastic comments so many left on earlier posts I did last week.
So I sifted through the comments for some excerpts that tell the story of a small American town that is beaten down and rising up.
“…I’m 60 yes old….have lived here since I was 9. I cry when I see what had become of the town I grew up in. I remember a downtown that was filled with stores and restaurants. Christmas shopping was magical. Shoulder to shoulder, bells ringing… You could find anything you wanted! There were no Kmarts, Walmarts or malls. …”
“…We never locked doors and never had to worry. Now we live behind closed locked doors with alarms on them. The working class is worried about keeping what they have while the others steal to get what we work for. Kids being raised by grandparents because of the drugs here….”
“Drugs have been prominent as early as Dr.Lily and Dr.Proctor. With a steady and fast decline ever sense then. With businesses shutting down. No work around the area….”
“…Watched the girl next door go from straight A’s to prison in just two years from the first O/C. watched my son’s friend go from valedictorian to living in his own filth, without any utilities. … At one point the estimate was that of every 10 adults in Scioto county, 7 were addicted to oxycontin. think about this. you go to the store, the clerk is high. you take your dog to a vet, you see the pinprick pupils. you stop at the post office, you see the obvious proof of addiction, it is … as if someone crop dusted the county. with opiate.”
“… knew our town was on trouble when people young and old were lined up down Chillicothe (the main street in Portsmouth) to see the pain pill doctor. Or maybe it was when I bought pills from friends Grandmother. Or how about when I saw a former high school cheerleader walking the stro….’
“…I got pregnant I was unable to stop so my son was taken from me n I went to treatment immediately after five weeks of treatment my father was shot and killed robbing theCarry out…”
“…You can’t leave the house alone without fear of coming up missing to never be heard from again….”
“…You got to survive the 740 is what the hell I know….”
“…My daughter is an addict in early recovery. She was in the top 10 of her graduating class, and on the dean’s list at SSU…until the dope got to her. She went from pain pills, to heroin, to meth. … She got busted and sent to jail. … Maybe I never paid enough attention, maybe I was just to busy trying to work to survive. Maybe I just didn’t want to believe that things were so bad in our town….”
“…I’ve only been free from prison since May 31st,2013 and I know I can’t go back to living in Portsmouth….”
“…I noticed an out-of-towner at a coffee shop and asked what brought her to town. She was on a boat trip down (and back) the entire length of the Ohio River. In all her trip preparations, no one had ever mentioned Portsmouth. She had pot lucks and stops scheduled in towns all along the river, but stopped in Portsmouth by accident, to pick up supplies. She added a couple of days to her itinerary to look around. “What happened here?” she asked. “This was a real city once,” she said. “All the buildings are taller than a lot of places I’ve stopped. But it seems like a ghost town.”
“…7-4-0 reminds me of my hometown, Elkhart, Indiana (574). Elkhart was built on the pharmaceutical, band instrument, and musical instrument manufacturing industries. Because of the mobile home industry, it tags along with the fortunes of Detroit. Don’t know about heroin, but backpack meth and home meth labs (one blew up across the street from the high school) are everywhere….”
“…WTH do I know about the 740? I was born and raised here I watched it go from a quiet little town, where you didn’t have to be afraid to go out at night, or lock your doors, to a poverty sticken, low job rate, drug capitol. Portsmouth is starting to fight back finally …”
“…went to prison cause I couldn’t stay clean my mom did a lot by raising my oldest most of her life,sometimes it’s like a never ending battle,but we do have recovery in our town,an once again back in treatment…”
“…am a mother who use to addict to pain pills been to prison twice and finally went to treatment in the 740 which changed my life for ever.Now I have been working full time for 5 years going back to school to finish my degree and have overcome a lot trying to stay clean and sober it is possible in the 740…”
“…I’m currently involved with a group of people who are looking to start a worker cooperative in the city as a means of providing work and education for the unemployed. …”
“…here are 2 options: be the change you want to see, or change your surroundings & the people you spend your time with!…”
“…I am finishing my Master’s in natural resources and environmental science so I can publish research on this post industrial town and its resulting drug addiction….”
“…we are recovering like crazy down here in little ole Portsmouth!!! I also know one of the men in the video, watched him grow into adulthood and become a GREAT man, a father, and a caretaker despite all of the hurdles that he faced, and he really did beat the odds…”
“…I personally have overcome my past, and will not let the downfalls of MY hometown get me down or pull me back! I did it and so can you Portsmouth!!!! All you need is a lil inspiration, and thats what these men are!!!…”
“…I really dont like rap i usually listen to country but i loved this song n so proud of them….”
“…What I know about the 740 is good people are doing something about it….”
“…The people here need to save our “740″. No one is going to do it for us….”
“…I’m still here and I recently just got out of rehab….”
“…No longer does this have to be a “junkies town”, or “drug infested” … she is inching herself back to be the home I grew up in. A place where doors are left unlocked at night. A place where its okay to send your children to the store. … It doesn’t come easy. It will get better though. (progress not perfection) I’m an addict. My story and the stories of many of my fellow addicts are similar to the story of our city. We can/do Recover. Today I am proud, honored, and happy to say that I am living in the solution and not in the problem….with that I pass….”
So that’s Portsmouth’s story, folks. Share it if you like it.
I said I’d never been there before I went to Portsmouth, Ohio.
Later, when I thought about it, and saw the video by RWR (Raw Word Revival), I realized I had been to the 7-4-0 many times.
Seems like the 7-4-0 is in the 6-2-0 (southwest Kansas), where the farming towns are empty, streets are vacant, and storefronts are boarded up. I was there several years ago.
One reader said this:
7-4-0 reminds me of my hometown, Elkhart, Indiana (574). Elkhart was built on the pharmaceutical, band instrument, and musical instrument manufacturing industries. Because of the mobile home industry, it tags along with the fortunes of Detroit. Don’t know about heroin, but backpack meth and home meth labs (one blew up across the street from the high school) are everywhere.
I was in Youngstown — which looked a lot like the 7-4-0, now that I think about it.
I was in the 7-4-0 in Pecos, Texas, where there aren’t enough food stores of any kind but the fast food variety.
In Huntington, WV (3-0-4), I did a story about the spread of black-tar heroin that had reached the city from one very similar small town in Mexico. More pizza joints in Huntington than there are gyms in all of WV, I’m told.
And having lived in Mexico, I can say that a thousand villages down there are in the 7-4-0, which is why those folks have left en masse, just like so many have left Portsmouth.
I was in the 7-4-0 in Marion, Ohio, where a guy got so upset at the lack of attention to the heroin problem that he put up signs saying, “Heroin is Marion’s Economy.”
And it seems like I’m in the 7-4-0 when I walk the aisles of any Walmart. I always imagine them haunted by ghosts of the storeowners who once sustained small-town America: one aisle by the departed local grocer; down another the former hardware store owner, and next to that, the long-gone woman’s clothier or that pharmacist.
In answer to the question posed in the post below by the guys at RWR (Raw Word Revival) from Portsmouth, Ohio, I’ll say I’ve been many places as a reporter. Seen a lot. Talked to governors and gang members. I’ve been to a town where everyone’s a pimp and a town where everyone’s a popsicle-maker.
But until I went to Portsmouth…
I’d never been to an NA meeting.
I’d never seen a Medicaid card.
I’d never seen the Ohio River.
I’d never seen a shoelace factory or a white ghetto.
I’d never known you could buy a car with pain pills.
I’d never known you could buy a T-bone steak with pain pills.
I’d never known you could buy clean urine with pain pills.
I’d never known people kept Red Belly Piranhas as pets.
I’d never seen so many people try so hard to rid themselves of a plague.
I’d never seen but one other town with the same heart to try to come back from so far down.
And thus I’d never been so proud to be an American.
So, my hat’s off. Keep working the program, Portsmouth!
Anything else you’ve seen in Portsmouth? Tell me the story. Tell me your story. Put it in Comments.
Working on my book about America’s opiate epidemic, I’m just back from rural southern Ohio, along the Ohio River, and a town of 20,000, with a lot of abandoned buildings that once housed factories that employed people, called Portsmouth (area code 740).
This is rural heartland America, and it’s looking very rough. Lots of dope.
Heroin in the heartland. Who’d have thought? Depleted white culture. Tough to watch.
I’m not the biggest rap fan, but this video, put out by some Portsmouth kids known as RWR (Raw Word Revival), is pretty much journalism. The new town criers with a post-industrial, post-rural apocalyptic kind of groove.
(Turns out they filmed the whole thing on an iPhone. How punk rock/DIY of them….)
What they came up with is certainly truer than all those Nashville country songs about small towns, shit-kicking good old boys working hard and drinking beer on Saturday and in church on Sunday out there in God’s heartland — all of which sounds to me like propaganda.
Actually, I found Portsmouth to be an optimistic kind of place these days, with a lot of new energy and recovery.
But more on that later. For now, I’ll just leave you with the RWR video.
Share it if you like it….
While you’re doing that … TELL US: What do you know about the 7-4-0? Tell us a story of the strongest or weakest person you know. The day you knew things were getting bad or getting better?
Worthington, of course, was anathema to animal-rights folks, as he paraded seals, lions, tigers, hippos, etc, all named Spot before viewers of late-afternoon Westerns on Channel 11 or 9 or 5, urging them to “Go See Cal” with that Beverly Hillbilly banjo going loco behind him.
Cal Worthington was the last, or longest-lived (or both) of the Southern-accented used car dealers who came with the first waves of white migration from the South and Midwest to LA.
You might remember Ralph Williams: “Hi friends, Ralph Williams, Ralph Williams Ford.” He was another.
There were more. Just can’t remember them right now. One guy was not like them. Bob Spreen. Remember him, with the mellow tone? “Bob Spreen Cadillac. Where the freeways meet in Downey.” Like he was from, like, Indiana or some place, but definitely not from Oklahoma.
At first, these Southern car dealers never mentioned Spanish, then as years passed they couldn’t avoid it and began tagging each commercial with a roughhewn “Se Habla Espanol.” Then they just faded away.
Now the South Gate Boulevard of Cars is dotted with used car lots owned by Arabs and Cubans, and staffed by Mexicans selling to other Mexicans.
The world’s greatest trombonist appeared in a small music studio in the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles this week.
Faustino Diaz, from Oaxaca, won the prestigious Jeju international trombone competition in Korea earlier this month.
Three days later he was back in his village of San Lorenzo Cacaotepec (pop. 7300), playing danzones with the village band he grew up in, directed by his father.
Diaz has a beautiful story, which reminded me of so many Oaxacan immigrants in LA.
In his village, music possibilities were limited. So he left for Mexico City. There he improved, but as time passed he found he was still not the musician he thought he could be, even as he played in the philharmonic of the National Autonomous University (UNAM).
So a few years ago, he left the plum job with the UNAM philharmonic, gambled everything and moved to Rotterdam, Holland to study with Jorgen van Rijen, who remade his sound, tenderized his musical sensibilities that had been stunted by limited exposure to the world’s music and best musicians off in Mexico.
Showing the kind of gumption that has characterized so many immigrants, including his Oaxacan paisanos here in LA, he became a world-class musician himself.
He came in second in the trombone competition a year ago in Italy. But this year, seasoned and ready for his moment, Diaz beat a French and a Japanese competitor, and 46 others.
With hallucinogenic jet lag, he returned to a hero’s welcome back in Oaxaca, with a parade through his village, hordes of journalists to ask him how he did it, and the banda in which he first learned to play — trumpet initially, then trombone — ready to receive him.
Famed Oaxacan painter Francisco Toledo came to town to congratulate him.
Next day, he flew to Mexico City and was mobbed in a press conference there as well.
This is such sad news. Linda Ronstadt is one of America’s greatest pop singers and has been since the 1970s.
Heart Like a Wheel was a profound album, with enormous impact, I always thought. (Dark End of the Street just kills)
It was huge in the guitar twangin’ country rock scene of my hometown of Claremont, California in the 1970s and we played the hell out of it at my house when I was growing up. It contained one of my favorite songs from that genre, Willin’, by the master, Lowell George.
The album was the first inkling, too, of a talent Linda Ronstadt displayed throughout her career of finding good songs and songwriters.
She was an early adopter of Warren Zevon, for one. Zevon’s Carmelita is one of the most evocative songs ever of Los Angeles; in this case, the 1970s street junkie scene in Echo Park. Simple, succinct, image-based songwriting, and thus great storytelling.
The other fine thing about Linda Ronstadt the singer is how she started out in California country rock, but early on refused to be pigeon-holed. That can’t have been easy for a woman in the music industry.
Instead, she recorded big band music, oldies, Mexican rancheros and just a lot of solid straight pop music.
Through Canciones de mi Padre I discovered Cuco Sanchez, with Gritenme Piedras del Campo – a Mexican blues if ever there was one. (Cuco Sanchez is, btw, a singer not to be missed.)
Her work with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton is some of the best stuff any of those ladies have done. Check out For a Dancer, the song by Jackson Browne, that she recorded with Emmylou.
We’ll not be hearing her likes around here for a while, I believe.
On a personal note, Linda Ronstadt has always been so supportive of my writing and reporting. I can’t say how wonderful it is to have spoken to one of the icons of my musical generation and have her tell me how much she loved my books.
I appreciated it enormously and lived on it like food for a few days.
My Claremont High School pal, Janet Stark, her assistant, put us in touch. Thanks Janet and thanks very much to you, Linda. Here’s wishing you the best.
For me, the overriding point, not touched on nearly enough in our education debate and media coverage, is how parenting and parental influence are simply determinant.
Compare this young man’s story to that of his roommate from Inglewood, whose mother bought him books and attended to his education at home, sent him to school prepared.
We have a school system, even when funded well, that is not set up to be, can never be, a kid’s lone teacher.
Apparently in this young man’s case, it was just that. So despite great work ethic and intentions, he arrives at college unarmed.
Parents must be teaching their kids from pre-school on. Otherwise the results are disastrous. But in our rush to blame institutions for every problem, this goes overlooked, I think.
This is at least one of LAUSD’s biggest challenges, if not the biggest. Thousands of kids show up every year with almost no parental help or preparation. Their exits in ninth or tenth grade are thus predictable.
So the principal contacted parents of the half of that year’s kindergarten class that was clearly already falling behind. They invite them to Saturday morning seminars to learn simple, cheap ways of teaching their kids at home.
One suggestion was t0 draw numbers in salt poured on cooking sheets and have the children do the same. Another was to ask a child in a supermarket the name of a certain letter or number.
This was so basic, the barest minimum. It was painful and frightening to see that so many parents were not even doing that. Some of them didn’t know what to do with their kids. As this was a school of children of Mexican immigrants, a good number of parents brought with them the feeling, imbued by the Mexican government, that education was the government’s job and that parents, particularly uneducated parents, had no role in their children’s learning.
But half of those the principal invited didn’t even show up.
Still, I thought of her when I read Kurt’s story. She had some answers, I think.