AU COURANT Magazine Chats With Reinaldo García
On the eve of the release of his fifth CD, mercy, most High, AU COURANT visited Monterey's Renaissance man in his second story studio overlooking Monterey Bay in August 2004. After offering us freshly brewed French Roast, the trim, barrel-chested artist sat in his swivel chair, crossed his legs, and said, "Whaddya wanna know?"
AU COURANT: This CD took over a year to complete. What happened?
Reinaldo García: After I finished my last CD, The Bright Twist of My Soul, I suffered a mild breakdown. As you know, much of that CD dealt directly with the county's retaliation against me for having uncovered corruption and criminality at its highest levels, particularly in the Planning Department. Starting in 2000, when the county filed criminal charges against me for having erected a legal storage shed on my property, I was under severe duress. That legal situation wasn't resolved until June 2002, when a building inspector finally showed up and approved my structure--a structure which never needed a permit to start with. Anyway, I wrote some songs about the persecution, and outlined a screenplay called Keep My Heart Half Broken. My aim was to record the CD and write the screenplay nearly simultaneously, and get that trauma out of my system.
AC: That's quite a load.
RG: Much of my life has been spent testing my limits, and as I expanded my boundaries during my life, aging and circumstance conspired to narrow my capacities. The graph lines crossed each other in my early fifties. I'm fairly aware of my limitations now. To finish the Bright Twist CD, after leaving the Castroville studio where I'd normally worked since 1999, I ended up having to drive three hours round trip to the Santa Cruz mountains to mix and master it over a period of months, and when it came time to write the screenplay, I was running on fumes. I never wanted to record another CD. For two months, I could barely get out of bed.
AC: But you did record another CD: mercy, most High.
RG: I'd accrued several dozen songs which I hadn't yet recorded in my usual voice/guitar configuration, for my archives. I was forgetting how the melodies went, though the songs existed in lyric/chord formats. I decided to go into the Santa Cruz mountains studio and catch up with my output, for archival purposes. After I'd recorded about half a dozen songs, the owner (whom I'll call Tad) of the Castroville studio where I'd previously worked telephoned me to apologize for his unprofessional behavior during the Bright Twist sessions. A few months earlier, he'd sent me an apologetic e-mail, and then returned one of my checks, along with a nice note, wishing me good luck. Here is the full text of his e-mail:
"How is the album coming along? I hope it is working out fine for you. Reinaldo, I want to apologize to you and say I was in a weird place there for a couple of months. The divorce and the stress of the junk I was going through took it's [sic] tole [sic] on me emotionally. I should have been more professional in working with you and I realize it. If you feel like talking about it someday, I would be glad to discuss it with you. I also appreciate the input you gave to me about Colette [Tad's ex-wife, on whom I served the divorce papers, at Tad's request] and the things that she had said and done. The divorce went through on Sept. 30. You have wonderful insight. -Tad"
AC: What does he mean about "input" and "insight"?
RG: Tad, in his forties, lives on ancestral family property, in the guest house, about fifty feet from his mother and his stepfather. I told him that any woman who lives with him will have to contend with the proximity of his mother, and with Tad's (or anyone's) mechanical tendencies to continue with childish patterns, due to his surroundings, and the pressure one's old environment exerts on one's psyche. He can't fully individuate until he leaves the nest. Can't become a man.
AC: He was nice to send the apology.
RG: I appreciated it. I've since learned that his DUI arrest occurred about this time, and he may have been following the AA regimen of apologizing to those one has wronged. Anyway, Tad begged me to come back to work in his studio, which is 20 minutes from my home, and costs 60% less than the Santa Cruz studio. I said I'd do it if he vowed not to repeat his previous misbehavior, which he blamed on his then-ongoing marital woes.
AC: So you gave him another chance?
RG: Yeah. Previously, a shared acquaintance named Noel Gott had kept Tad in line. Noel, a Santa Cruz studio owner who mastered my CDs until Bright Twist, was Tad's mentor and moral guardian. When he mastered 1999's Dogs of the Moon, my first CD, Noel asked me if Tad had snuck in his musical prejudices during the recording and mixing of that CD. I said yes, I'd noticed that Tad's "suggestions" always found their way into my recordings, and asked Noel why he was asking. Noel told me that Tad's clients regularly complained to him about Tad's in-studio legerdemain. Seems that Tad, whose favorite recording artist is Ozzy Osborne, wanted recordings made in his studio to reflect his tastes, whether the paying clients liked it or not. Noel said he often had to call Tad up to rebuke him.
AC: How would Tad pull this off?
RG: Well, for starters, sometimes when I'd suggest an approach for a song, Tad would say his equipment wouldn't do it. If I persisted, and asked only for an "experiment," Tad would rig the experiment to fail. Over time, my taste for "failed experiments" lessened, and, my will eroded, Tad's tastes would prevail. Tad's taste was never "wrong," just never inspired. His touches always worked, and most of the time were congruent with my ideas. Also, I don't always know exactly what I want in any given circumstance. So I'm open to ideas. But as I gained more confidence, this abuse became less bearable. During the recording of Bright Twist, under Noel's direction, I retrieved my ADATs (my recorded data, contained in VHS-like cassettes) from Tad and began an odyssey through various studios. I ended up in the Santa Cruz mountains, 90 minutes away, and 40% more expensive per hour.
AC: We've heard some tales about what goes on in Tad's studio. Got any?
RG: Yeah, here's a nifty absurdist tale. One Friday night, a drunken old Latino staggers into the studio as we're doing a playback. Nobody really notices him but me; the others react as though he's supposed to be there. The guy stands in front of the console and the speakers, bopping his head in time to the song. After the song ends, this man, from whom fumes are wafting, says, "Hey, man, thash some weird-ash shit." Everyone but me laughs, and they start saying things like, "Hey, Al, your parole officer know you're here?" I pull Tad aside, and say, "Who is this guy?" He whispers, in a tone reserved for, say, the King of England, "It's Al Santana. He's a great drummer." I say, "I don't want him here." Tad says, "I can't ask him to leave. He's Carlos Santana's cousin." I say, "I don't care if he's Bob Dylan's drunken uncle, he's upsetting the work." Tad says, "Take it or leave it." But not in those words. So the session's put on hold for three quarters of an hour while everyone gets re-acquainted. It's that old "rock royalty" shit I thought died out in the 70s. But I forget: Tad never left the 70s. Anyway, after they all trade DUI tales, Carlos Santa's cousin is about to leave, and the bass player calls out, "Hey, Al, watch it. One more DUI and the DA'll recommend the electric chair!" Everyone but me breaks up, and Carlos Santana's cousin staggers out to his car, after robbing me of 45 minutes.
AC: But he shared his hard-earned esthetic insights with you.
RG: Ri-i-i-ght: "Hey, man, thash some weird-ash shit." Meanwhile, I'm wondering what kind of moral liability we've incurred by allowing a drunken man to drive his car late on a Friday night. But that's just me, the old stick-in-the-mud, agonizing over moral issues while the party's on.
AC: Why didn't Noel Gott master Bright Twist?RG: He got cancer, which eventually killed him in January 2004. And without Noel to keep Tad in line, Tad went back to his old ways during the recording of what came to be mercy, most High. What happened was this: After I'd recorded about a dozen voice/guitar demos, I wanted to see how they'd sound with the full treatment. So I called up my usual musicians (all originally friends of Tad) and started recording. Each song sounded so good, I decided to do another CD!
AC: How'd the sessions go?
RG: The usual bullshit. Musicians showing up late, unprepared, smoking dope, goofing off in the studio. This was mostly confined to the bass player and the main drummer. When I'd complain, I was told "this is how musicians are," and that I should just accept it. It's Tad's space, and he sets the tone, and the tone would turn antagonistic if I tried to impose standards of professional decorum. I was an outsider in many ways, and the final results weren't too displeasing (and often miraculous), so I endured the process. Firing Tad's friends, and finding new musicians in a backwater like Monterey, seemed to be an intolerable obstacle. When these guys functioned, they were excellent. And I want to stress that the other musicians, expecially guitarist Bill Vallaire, keyboardist Ramon Vallejo, and percussionist Hiram Fernandez always behaved and played in an exemplary way.
AC: How are you an "outsider"?
RG: I have no criminal record, nor any history of drug or alchohol addiction. Musicians generally love to swap stories of their drug and alcohol binges, their busts, their court sessions, their prison time, and so on, and all I had to "share" was what law enforcement had done to me in retaliation for my investigative reporting. In musical circles, this just isn't sexy. In fact, I suspect that my designation as an "investigative reporter" made them feel as though I was like a narc, spying on them. So the various forms of misbehavior were codified into the process.
AC: But you left Tad's studio again, right?
RG: Yeah. During Bright Twist, the expensive Santa Cruz studio introduced me to ProTools, which is a process which enabled me to "see" my recorded tracks on a computer screen and do very precise editing, mixing and mastering. In Tad's studio, the mixing process meant "re-inventing the wheel" every time I wanted to re-mix a song. It was expensive and imprecise. This time around, Tad promised me he'd mix and master my project with a ProTools system he was in the process of purchasing. When the system arrived at his home, he brought me into his living room and showed me the units, implying they were ready to be installed and put to immediate use. But when it came time to do the final mixing, after weeks of rough mixes, Tad revealed that it would take many months to install and to learn how to use his new toys. It appeared he was stringing me along, taking my money for useless mixes, under false pretenses. This seemed to me to be fraud and theft. When I'd question him orally about what he was doing, Tad would turn condescending and irritated, and drench me in garbled technospeak. Before our final overdub session, I questioned Tad about all of this in some e-mails. Before the last session began, Tad threatened me, and warned me never to e-mail him again. I immediately replicated my previous behavior, and said, "Tad, I want my ADATs right now. I'm leaving your studio." Tad wouldn't turn my property over to me. Remember, Noel was dead from cancer by this time, and there was no one Tad respected as a moral authority. I asked for my ADATs again. Tad refused. That's when I started screaming at him, demanding the return of my property, while being sure to stay at least six feet away from him. Tad finally handed over my ADATs, after claiming I still owed him $15.00 for one of them. (Tad sold me blank ADATs, due to his refusal to allow "outside" ADATs, which he claimed would damage his equipment.) I doubted I owed the money--I pride myself on keeping up-to-date on my accounts--but if fifteen bucks is wha t it cost to gain my freedom, I'd pay it. After handing Tad a check for $15.00, I got my property and drove home. (When I got home, I checked my checkbook payments, and discovered I'd ended up paying for that particular ADAT twice.) Ninety minutes after I got home, a Sheriff's deputy telephoned me to say Tad had filed a complaint against me for getting "violent" in his studio, and that he, five inches and a hundred pounds larger than I, is "afraid" of me. After receiving permission from the deputy to tape our conversation, I refuted Tad's phony allegations and told the deputy to wish Tad good luck. Interestingly, just after I left Tad's studio, my computer was hacked. The repair guy told me that 792 files had been infected. He was able to retrieve everything except all data related to the current project, including lyrics and e-mails to Tad. Everything else was retrieved.
AC: Any suspects?
RG: After Noel Gott died, Tad started working with a new mastering guy, a man with advanced degrees in computer engineering from the University of California. That's my prime suspect.
AC: So how'd you finish the project?
RG: Through an ad in a local leftist weekly, I found a Carmel Valley studio which claimed to be "state of the art," with a "friendly, professional" staff. These claims ultimately proved false.
AC: Isn't it possible to verify a studio's claims before you start?
RG: One needs years of technical experience or training in order to walk into a studio and size it up. A patient has to trust his doctor; a customer has to trust his auto mechanic, and so on. Without an awful lot of technical knowledge, a customer simply has to enter into the experience and monitor it. I live in a part of the world that lacks many of civilization's amenities, including a recording studio on every corner. Also, if you leave a recording studio, and enter another one, there are all sorts of questions about why one left the previous place, and the new engineer has to "learn" the material. Another thing I've noticed, consistently, is that the current engineer always trashes the work and the methods and the equipment of the previous guy.
AC: How, exactly?
RG: He'll say, "Jeeze, this drum sound really sucks. Didn't that moron know how to place the microphones?" Or, "I can't believe the e.q. on this stuff. And the signal's so weak! How could you have let him get away with that?" Knowing this pattern, I'm thinking that the current guy's work will be equally savaged by the next person in the food chain. Leaving me, the consumer, quaking in my boots, wondering, "Is it even worth proceeding forward? Am I just throwing my money down a black hole? Am I setting myself up for a grand public humiliation?"
AC: There must be an up side to it all.
RG: The Doctor Frankenstein Moment.
AC: The Doctor Frankenstein Moment?
RG: That's when the song that one imagined in one's mental CD player leaps from the ether, out of the studio monitors, and I dance around, screaming, "It's alive! IT'S ALIVE!" Then later, to continue the analogy, the pitchfork-bearing, torch-carrying peasants--
AC: The critics?
RG: Everyone with a vested interest in judging one's work. They chase me down, screaming that I've offended the public sensibilities with my perversions.
AC: Why would anyone record one's songs, if it's like that?
RG: Because, aside from those mini-, in-studio miracles, a year later, after all the crap and the compromises have faded from memory, I'll pop the CD into my stereo, and think, "Wow, this is great stuff! Nobody writes stuff like mine!"
AC: How do you rank yourself as a writer?
RG: In the international arena, I believe I hold my own. I think I'm one of the best.[Pause.]
AC: So, back to the next studio.
RG: Okay. The "friendly, professional" engineer, whom we'll call Stan, turned out to be an alcoholic with a recent DUI conviction. During our introductory in-studio meeting, he asked me if I would mind if he drank "a wee glass of wine" during sessions, and he dragged out a book of old newspaper clippings full of articles about, and publicity photos of, a local rock group he'd led a decade ago. A group that was "this close" to a major label deal before it imploded. I sat there and listened to the whole "VH1 Behind The Music" monologue. I told him I didn't care what he did during sessions as long as his work didn't suffer. Before long, Stan was drinking heavily during sessions, and when I finally asked him to stop, he wouldn't. Meanwhile, he fraudulently told me he was "co-owner" of the studio, and told me to make out 90% of the checks to his live-in girlfriend, mother of their then-four-month-old son, due to the fact he has no bank account. After I left the studio, I got a threatening call from the studio owner, accusing me of having participated in some kind of scheme by "cheating" him out of his share of my fees, and saying he was "going to get ugly" with me. He told me to tape his threat, so I did. Now, when Stan and I originally starting working together, the studio owner presented Stan as "an artist equal to Mozart and Picasso." The initial work, before the alcohol truly started flowing, was wonderful, and I was very happy. I accepted Stan's quirks. Artists, especially musicians, can be very quirky, and I happily accept others' eccentricities, as long as they don't interfere with the work.
AC: What kind of quirks?
RG: One Saturday night, early on in the mixing process, Stan called me up, and during the conversation, he asked me if I could tell how "sexual" he is, based on the "sexual" way he moved the dials around on the mixing console.
AC: How'd you deal with that?
RG: I seriously considered his question, and replied that I appreciated how deeply he immersed his whole being in his working process. Which was true. Stan then promised to master one of my songs for free, as a demo to induce me to master the project with him.
AC: Did he ever do it?
RG: No, and when I'd ask him about it, he'd have some story about how "busy" he was. When mastering time approached, Stan said he'd master all 15 songs for $250.00.
AC: That sounds amazingly inexpensive.
RG: Yes. So when on April 1st we loaded half a dozen final mixes into his computer, and Stan asked me for an advance on the mastering fee so that he could pay that month's rent on his house, some twenty feet away from the studio, I thought of the baby, and the quality of the work so far, and advanced Stan $140.00 on the mastering. Shortly after that, various truths started to emerge. For starters, it turned out that Stan "accidentally" telephoned Tad and, according to Stan, Tad launched into an unsolicited rant about me, my "violent history," and so on. (Tad himself has a history of violent behavior during his twenties.) According to Stan, Tad said I would "ruin" Stan's studio in the same way I'd "ruined" other studios around Monterey County. According to Stan (later confirmed by the studio owner, whom I'll call Dan, who said he was present during the phone call), Tad claimed I'd been "thrown out" of every studio in which I'd ever worked.
AC: Is any of that accurate?
RG: None of it. But now I was working under a shadow, at a disadvantage, in the only "state of the art" studio, to my knowledge, in the county. Moreover, it turned out that their equipment was nowhere near "state of the art," and the engineer was only a "contract employee," not "co-owner." Stan started missing sessions with me. At one point, when I wanted to re-mix a song called "The Singing River God," because I'd blown a lyric, I was told it couldn't be done because the Lexicon reverb unit had been removed from the studio and given back to its owner. The studio keyboard was missing its foot pedal. The computer started crashing regularly. Around this time, I learned about Stan's DUI conviction, his fine of over $2,000, and his community service obligations. Stan then told me that Dan the studio owner has a lengthy criminal record. (I later went to the county offices and purchased the criminal files of Stan and Dan. Dan spent over a year in state prison for forgery, assault and burglary convictions. According to the clerk, Stan missed his second work service date, at a church, and a warrant for his arrest was issued.)
AC: Don't Stan, Dan and Tad claim to be Christians?
RG: Yeah. In my opinion they, like many "Christians," spout the gospel in order to mask their true characters and intentions, in order to gain trust. It's all a front, a mask, and a way of appearing morally superior to you, the pagan client. During the period Dan was threatening me, he was telling me and e-mailing me that he was praying for my soul's "salvation." Stan told me he was essentially raised by elderly female babysitters in upstate Ohio, due to his parents' neglect.
AC: So what we have here is another primally wounded manchild?
RG: Yeah. And making the world pay for it. I wrote a song about him, but I'm afraid that if I go into a studio to record it, I'll end up committing to another full CD! Help! Someday stop me before I record again! Here are the lyrics, without the chords:
Raised By Women
He walks with a hipster slouch. Drags his clippings in a pouch.
Mirrors are his favorite friends, leaving him where friendship ends.
Try to get him on the phone. His woman says he's never home.
On the road to fame he was waylaid, screaming out he's been betrayed.
Raised by women as a boy. They made him their wind-up toy.
Now he's grown up cute and coy. Raised by women as a boy.
He invites you out to play again. When you ask, he won't say when.
Spends his life in the women's tent, wondering where his manhood went.
Raised by women as a boy. They made him their wind-up toy.
Now he's grown up cute and coy. Raised by women as a boy.
AC: So what was the straw that broke this camel's back?
RG: Stan's behavior and his work were deteriorating so much, just as we were nearing the end of the project, that I told Stan he should enter therapy for his alcohol abuse. He challenged me to detail my problems with him. Dates and incidents. So I did, via e-mail.
AC: Big mistake, right?RG: Let me put it this way: Addicts can get very defensive--no, destructive--toward anyone who points out their addiction and its effect on those around them. Stan suddenly withdrew from the project, claiming I'd "insulted" and "slandered" him so egregiously that he could never work with me again. He went so far as to claim that my recorded data, sitting in the studio's computer, would never be turned over to me. After the studio owner intervened, telling me on tape that Stan is "a heavy drinker' with "a pretty bad personality disorder."
AC: Wait. Is this the "friendly, professional" staff as advertised in the paper?
RG: A combination of Mozart and Picasso, remember? Studio owner Dan even told me that Stan is known all over California and "in the industry" as "one of the greatest mixing engineers alive." But that was before the problems started, during the period Dan was wooing me into his studio. Anyway, Dan prevailed on Stan to transfer my data to a computer hard drive, and Dan made several oral and written promises to reimburse me financially. After telling me that the computer hard drive Dan was handing to me "for free" had cost him $160.00, Dan later demanded that I pay him for the hard drive. A hard drive I later discovered can be purchased at Fry's Electronics for about $40.00. Anyway, when I started working in a new Santa Cruz studio with a stand-up guy, a technically-trained engineer named Casey Schultheis (his real name, and here's his e-mail address: email@example.com), we discovered that Stan's data transfer was messy to extreme, and that many of my tracks had disappeared. He even took the time to transfer a guitar solo backwards. I paid Casey, a skilled musician, to re-record some of the tracks, and I re-recorded some disappeared lead vocals.
AC: Did you notify Dan?
RG: Yes. He said he'd "make it up" to me, and that he'd also supply me with the karaoke versions of my songs (which I'd requested when I first started working in his studio, as I've done with all of my CD projects). This is all in writing. And now he's stalling, and incommunicado, due, he claims, to hip replacement surgery, and the stress of moving his residence and the studio from Carmel Valley to the coastal area near Monterey. Today as I sit here, I spent over $2,000.00 extra, finishing the project in Santa Cruz. I've hand delivered a letter of demand to Stan and, not surprisingly, he's not responded. Regarding the "lost" (read: "vandalized") recorded tracks, I may go to the District Attorney and file a criminal complant. But I doubt they'll do anything.
AC: Why not?
RG: They'll say I may have vandalized the hard drive myself, or that it's purely a civil matter. My experience with various branches of law enforcement is that they prefer to do nothing. To excuse criminal behavior by saying they "lack the funds and the staffing to prosecute." Don't get me started.
AC: How are things otherwise?
RG: During this time, my wife developed debilitating health problems, just as she won a huge promotion and pay raise. She entered an international publishing corporation in 1993, and in just over ten years she worked her way up the corporate ziggurat to where she is now, holder of an MBA earned in her spare time, with 40 employees under her supervision. Do you remember how Michael Jordan wept when the Bulls finally won the NBA championship?
AC: Uncontrollably. Cradling the trophy as though it were a baby.
RG: When my wife got the promotion, several years overdue, we were ecstatic, and her workload significantly decreased. She no longer had to "prove" that she, a Mexican immigrant, was as good as Americans. Into that psychic void flooded tons of horrible childhood memories from Mexico--stuff she'd unconsciously used as rocket fuel for stellar achievement in the brutal corporate universe.
AC: Like many wounded people, she was proving her worth to the world through high achievement?
RG: Exactly. And now it came time to pay the piper. It's a common phenomenon endured by successful people in their thirties. Anyway, this hit us like a ton of bricks while I was dealing with the recording studio crap. But she's working on her healing, and making progress. I wish Tad and Stan devoted half as much energy and consciousness toward getting well.
AC: What else is going on?
RG: I'm in my second year of playing co-ed softball, in two separate city leagues. Last year, after not having played organized ball since 1965--
AC: That's a 38 year break!RG: Exactamundo. I had no idea if my hand/eye coordination still functioned. Throwing, catching and hitting a softball turned out to be easy and joyous. I ended up going 24 for 24 at the plate to open the 2003 season. This year, I formed my own team from a list of "free agents" given to me by the city. We made the slo-pitch playoffs in our first year together--I played shortstop and hit over .700--and so far in our socko league--
RG: You pitch to your own team. Men get two pitches, women get three. Anyway, we have two games left, and I'm batting over .800. My fielding continues to improve because I've focused on improving my range. I've always been fairly surehanded.
AC: Do you have a physical fitness regimen?
RG: I run over a mile with my dog, seven mornings a week, and one day a week I submit to a rigorous Nautilus program, hitting all my muscle groups. Plus, I do 40 sit-ups a night.
AC: Is that the same dog shown in the CD tray?
RG: He's a young English Springer Spaniel whom I've named Alaric. After the visigoth who sacked Rome around 400 A.D., as I recall. We got him from a rescue program after we put our 16 year old Dalmation, Cosquilla, to sleep, and buried her at the top of our property.
AC: Let's talk about the songs. The CD starts with COMING INTO CUERNAVACA.
RG: Sure. I wrote that around Christmas 2002 in a rented villa in Cuernavaca. My wife and all her relatives were there to celebrate her sister's wedding. I sat down with our then-five year old daughter Victoria and said, "Hey, Vic, let's write a song together." I verbalized the song's composition to Victoria as I wrote it.
AC: For example?
RG: "Okay, Vic, I need a rhyme for 'Cuernavaca.' There are no regular rhymes for 'Cuernavaca.' What're we gonna do? Oh, how about this? 'Osaka.' What's 'Osaka'? A city in Japan. What, I've never been to Japan? Doesn't matter. It's just a song, and you can pretend anything in a song, as long as you can make it seem real. You just say, 'This is a character singing, not me.'" I wanted an upbeat song like "Back in the USSR" to open the CD.
AC: DOWN IN THE COTTONWOOD?
RG: That song's a confluence of various streams. First, I remembered a time when I was 13, and fishing with a friend on the Kern River. When I looked around, he was gone. I later found him in a grove of trees, squatting down and shitting. He was mortified, and begged me to leave. I stood there and gloated awhile, then teased him about it for months. So the idea of humiliation and a young person viewing some kind of physical taboo near a river was already there. Decades later, a homosexual acting teacher explained homophobia to me in terms not normally used by the PC police. So last summer I wrote this song about homophobia--or toxic envy: I kept it ambiguous in the lyric--and its aftermath. I also wanted to write from the point-of-view of a character with very little self-knowledge. My characters in my narratives are usually hyper self-aware, and I wanted to try something new. I'm also proud of the A-B-B-A rhyme scheme.
AC: THE SINGING RIVER GOD?RG: We live in a fairly rural area, on the edge of a forest owned by Clint Eastwood. Rivers and forests frequented many of my songs for awhile. I wanted to write a Celtic pagan waltz, and to exploit aspects of mythology dealing with self-empowerment through theft from the gods. Like Prometheus, the guy who stole fire. Sometimes I'm amazed by all the myths which involve humans lying to or stealing from the gods. As though rational discourse with deities is a waste of time.
AC: THE ROOM ACROSS THE LAKE?
RG: That song was used as "evidence" against me by the National Writers Union in early 1996 when they put me on trial for having investigated and written about a major leftist Latino writer, after being requested to do so by the FBI. This guy had recently, in a hiring process riddled with crime, been appointed a tenured professor of drama by a new local university, and several union officials were kissing his ass so that they could get jobs at the university. I uncovered the whole scam, and when the university's Affirmative Action officer was found dead in his office, I was blamed for having "pushed him to it" by the union. The song itself was written in 1994, after I had a run-in with a woman who screwed me out of a correspondent's job with National Public Radio by claiming I'm insane. She ended up getting the job. Someone faxed the lyrics to her NPR radio station, thereby framing me for purely political reasons: I was no longer a leftist. It was time to discreit me. To make sure that my investigative reporting would be rejected as the crazy ravings of a disgruntled wacko. The inference was that I was stalking her, with the idea of murdering her. The obvious irony of the National Writers Union throwing out a member because of his writing was lost to them. But Marxists are notoriously lacking in any kind of a sense of humor, much less irony.
AC: GOLD IN EL NORTE?
RG: A man named David MacKechnie worked for my family's plumbing company in the early 1960s. He became our Little League team's coach, while moonlighting as a songwriter. My screenplay Mister MacDougal & I is about him. In the 1970s, he was a staff songwriter for the Kenny Rogers organization. Anyway, last September he called me up and asked if I'd set a lyric to music. I was flattered, said yes, and finished it in a few days. David has always been focused on helping younger people.
AC: GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT?
RG: That's the title of a novel by Jean Rhys, whose name I first encountered when I reviewed a good film called QUARTET in the early 1980s. It was based on her novel. The woman apparently had a melancholic life, to which I could relate, and when I saw that title, I thought it was brilliant. So I later wrote a lyric to the title. I wanted it to be slow and jazzy. I appropriated the basic musical idea from Charles Mingus's Good-bye, Porkpie Hat. But it was way beyond my compositional ability to pull off. Last year Pacific Grove author/composer Bill Minor (who had invited me to join the National Writers Union when I was a student of his at a local college, studying one-on-one with him in a special literature program) set it to music, and played it in the Castroville studio. I'd always heard cello with it, so I brought in a Carmel Valley cellist, the wife of the guy who played violin on my song "Whoever Brought Me Here Must Take Me Home" on my last CD. The title of which I stole, by the way, from Rumi.
AC: THE DEVIL'S REALM?
RG: I had never been a fan of Warren Zevon, but I got caught up in last year's death watch, and the day his last album came out, I bought it. The opening song sparked me, and I wrote "The Devil's Realm," a kind of twisted sea shanty, taking off from Christ's crucifixion, as a reaction.
AC: WE ONLY WANTED TO BE WANTED (WE NEVER WANTED TO BE HAD)?
RG: It's a country-western song about failures to connect. The first verse is about my first marriage; the second, about my adolescence; the bridge is just a real cool couplet; and the final verse is about our errant fathers.
AC: FALLING INTO GOD?
RG: I wrote the lyric in a garden in Cuernavaca, by a swimming pool, in 1989. My first Mexican wife (a Marxist sociologist) and I were renting a home on the estate of a homosexual psychotherapist name Fausto Tinajero. Fausto resembled the old Argentine Grand Prix race driver Juan Manuel Fangio. Every morning, I watched the sun rise over the volcano, Popocateptetl, from my writing desk. That whole Mexican sojourn was miraculous! I hope I'm never so desperate that I need to throw my life away and move to a foreign country again, but my 28 months down there radically altered my life. I set it to music five years later. This is one of the few songs of mine that came out as I imagined it. I was seeking a Neil Young and Crazy Horse/early David Bowie thing, circa The Man Who Sold The World, and got it. Interestingly, when Dan of the faux state-of-the-art studio heard it, the first day I was there, he said, "What this song needs is strings." I'd had enough of studio owners imposing their tastes on my work, so I asked Stan the alcoholic engineer if we could have a closed studio after that. Dan relented, and later claimed I'd "banned" him from the studio so that I could engineer a crooked financial deal with Stan, in which I'd pay Stan's girlfriend 90% of the studio fees--50% of which were supposed to go to Dan. This is an outrageous fantasy, given that I didn't profit in any way, and was myself defrauded by the engineer.
AC: RADICAL LOVE?
RG: In the winter of 1990, after returning from Boston and an ill-fated recording expedition, my wife and I, then homeless, were caretaking a pack station at 8,000 feet above sea level, on the edge of the Kern River Wilderness Area. One of the musicians on the Boston project was Mark Alexander, a graduate of the Berklee School of Music. We'd entered into a collaborative agreement, so when I wrote the lyric that winter, I mailed it to him. A few weeks later, a cassette arrived, with his wonderful version of the song. I essentially copied his demo.
AC: THIS OLD HOUSE?
RG: After the pack station, my wife and I worked in a nearby mountain resort's restaurant called The Ponderosa. When we got enough money together, we rented an old house down in Springville, a small town on the Tule River at the bottom of the highway which leads to The Ponderosa. That was really the beginning of our time in America; the start of our climb from utter poverty. I wrote the song about the house, and I wanted, perversely, to write a lyric extolling mankind's civilizing effect on Nature, rather than his corrupting influence, which is how most politically correct songwriters approach the relationship of Man to the Universe.
AC: NOT TONIGHT, VICTORIA?
RG: It's just a straighforward celebration of my daughter's hyperactivity.
AC: THE CHURCH OF THE SECOND CHANCE?
RG: After we left Springville for Clovis (near Fresno), where my wife Sandra was the principal dancer in the Cal State, Fresno dance troupe, she got accepted into the University of California, Santa Cruz's Master's Degree program in Theater Arts. (She'd won several acting awards in Mexico, and when I met her in Cuernavaca, she had her own dance troupe called Catarsis.) After we moved to Santa Cruz, we were told that the university had screwed up, and that she'd have to wait a year to enroll. So while she cleaned motel rooms, I got a job at Loch Lomond, a recreational area in the Santa Cruz mountains. During that time I re-introduced myself to the work of novelist Ann Tyler, and read SAINT MAYBE. In it, if I recall correctly, Tyler describes a religious group called the Church of the Second Chance. I was taken by the concept, and the phrase, and decided to write a song about it. I was not then, nor since, a churchgoer. It was pure imagination, one of the"what if?" scenarios I use when writing a narrative.
AC: You have a lot of story songs on this CD.RG: I've always liked that format. I like reading adventure stories, and I like songs that take me somewhere. A good short story usually has a twist at the end, some kind of epiphany, and I try to do that in my story songs. To have a point, or a tiny detonation or reversal at the end. And I always try to stand conventional thinking on its head. To take a tried-and-true concept and twist it.
AC: What about the next song, A MAN WHO LIVED?
RG: I originally called it "The Man Who Lived," but that seemed too grandiose. I wanted to write a simple declaration of fact about an older person's life, and see if I could make it interesting. The key couplet is this: "My children are glad I'm livin'. They swear all is forgiven." I like the word "swear," because it implies the possibility that they don't completely believe it, and are trying to convince themselves. It's the reverse of the phrase "The lady doth protest too much." I could have written "they say all is forgiven." The word "swear" introduces some tension.
AC: The last song is ANOTHER SIGN OF MY CONTEMPT.
RG: I hadn't written any songs for awhile, and was in a churlish mood, contemplating how my feelings of admiration and love for others are seemingly always tainted by some tincture of their opposite, within the same expression. It got to the point where I didn't trust myself at all when trying to hide this contempt I feel so much of the time for people and the world. I wondered if every gesture I made to others, no matter how benign, was really a sign of contempt for them, leaking through. So I started with a purposely grotesque image, then moved to my father's recent marriage to a woman younger than any of his four sons. I lightened up after jettisoning these emotions, and in the last verse got Borgesian with "the book with pages made of stone."
RG: Jorge Luis Borges was an Argentine writer with a flair for the fabulous, and books appeared all through his stories. I believe that he was Argentina's National Librarian for awhile, before or after he was exiled by Juan Peron. He also wrote a lot about dreams, and the song ends with "I dreamt a future still undreamt." I thought that was a good way to end the album.
AC: What's next?
RG: I want to dive into anew screenplay, after I complete a commissioned piece of work that came my way. Remember the young kid squatting in the grove of trees by the Kern River during our discussion of "Down in the Cottonwood"? He went on to become a mega resort developer in Cabo San Lucas. Here's a recent, redacted press release:
"The [name of resort]'s founder, G--- W------, has a sequel: The [resort] II. But it's only the opening act for his ritzy residential and leisure development called Bahia de los Sueños (Bay of Dreams), located 33 miles southeast of La Paz on the pristine sandy beaches of the Sea of Cortez. The 4,000-acre beachfront nirvana already boasts luxurious homes, with plans to include a lively village center and two Lee Trevino-designed golf courses. Waterfront sites are starting at $600,000."
Here's another recent, redacted citation:
We made it through and down the mountain and skirted Los Planes, and onto the road to Bahia de Los Muertos, which the developer, G--- W----- of [resort name] (Cabo) fame has mostly privatized and has opened a [resort name] Beach Club restaurant at the panga-launch, public end of the beach. The rest of the bay, which he is trying to rename Bahia de los Suenos (Bay of Dreams), is gated and guarded by a real estate sales office. Just to prove money talks down there, a new road is ready to be paved for some ten miles into the bay.
I'm starting with the premise that he invites, out of the blue, a struggling singer/songwriter to perform at his resort for $75,000.00. They were best friends when they were 12 and 13, and then drifted apart. Forty years later, they meet again. I have no fixed idea of what happens in Cabo. Whether the developer's reasons are generous or sinister or sentimental, I won't know until I get there. But certain motifs and images are floating around my brain, and I've already written the opening scene. The working title is BAHIA DE SANGRE, or "Bay of Blood," named for the red plankton that periodically appears in the fictitious ocean below my character's imaginary hotel complex.
AC: Sounds intriguing. I hear it's bad luck to describe a work in progress.
RG: So I'll shut up. Wouldn't want to invite hard times into my life! Speaking of which, when I sent a message to a fan in Israel, asking him if there were any special restrictions on mailing my new CD to him, he sent me this:
"Most mail gets through as normally as elsewhere (Erewhesle). Naturally enough, weapons, drugs and other 'contraband,' including perhaps holocaust denial propaganda is, shall we say, frowned upon. I'm looking very forward tohearingin order to be feeling, tasting and perhaps even smelling your latest offering!
"Really I think it's not really much more wild here than it is there, or, really, anywhere. Maybe just more concentrated. Maybe you should consider a visit. I'd be glad to set you up some gigs/house concerts/folk club appearances if you'd like to do a holyland tour! Salaam aleicum!"
AC: You gonna go?
RG: I'm making further inquiries. Put it that way.
AC: Any last words?
RG: Despite all the crap, I realize I am one lucky man. I get to write, record and release CDs, and indulge my talent in any arena that attracts me, whenever I want. Plus, my health is good, I own a great house in a beautiful location, with a smart, adoring wife, and a fabulous daughter. Most creative people would kill for a situation like mine. I try to keep that in mind while I'm grinding my teeth and popping antacids.