Last week saw the author quixotically trying to represent and preserve the desert he encountered when he first arrived in Joshua Tree--the one before the real estate boom, the community that did not conciously brand itself an "art colony." In the final installment, we come full circle, back to Fred Drake, the "gay cowboy rocker" who led us into the House of the Moon.
They come with hats full of feathers across the land. They come bearing rainmakers and soldier bands.
This is Fred Drake singing, over a simple two-chord riff, B-flat to A-flat, tonic to seventh, a progression that almost always evokes nostalgia. The song is called "House of the Moon."
They come in with clouds full of red dust from the earth. Dreaming of places of wonder, life, death and birth.
An electric guitar shimmers like the tail of a comet. Fred's vintage 1980s synthesizers evoke fantastic figures in cosmic dust and nebulae. The bass line is a low and slow reggae bounce that barely varies between verse and chorus. The percussion is minimal, slightly syncopated, echoing with reverb. Deep inside the track is a sample of an Armenian duduk horn played by Djivan Gasparian, the same harmonic-minor folk melody he played on Peter Gabriel's soundtrack for The Last Temptation of Christ. In all, it conjures kids on a journey to the mystical desert, children of the sun, free spirits, artists: us.
"House of the Moon" is the first track on Twice Shy, Fred's final album. The songs vary from (as Ted said) "Lennon-y" melodic to more ethereal passages. They are all simple but carefully constructed. (Hear one of my favorites here, accompanied by some vintage photos of Fred.) His vocal delivery is consistent: a breathy plaintiveness belying urgent desire. As his illnesses became more frequent and more serious, Fred walked a little wilder. He started hanging out at the J. T. Saloon. One night a drunk Marine walked up and greeted Fred with a military salute. It might be difficult to imagine Fred, the gay cowboy rocker, being mistaken for a Marine, but perhaps there was something familiar in the bony angularity of his face and the pale blue eyes.
In any event, the young, tight-bodied guy quickly introduced Fred to his cohort, which, we imagine, was made up of other young, tight-bodied guys. Thus began what Fred's friends called the "Marine phase," a period of a few months about a year before his death that Fred described as being in "gay heaven." He never once let on that this was a case of mistaken identity. Soon enough he'd invited some of the men over to Rancho de la Luna for drinks and strip poker. There was no sex involved-- at least none that he claimed, but Fred had never been particularly public about his intimate life. Nevertheless, consummated or not, the relationship crossed a rigid border in the high desert.
They come in bright-colored clothes that show their scars. While their bodies are drumming up ghosts in the mountain.
This is Fred pointing at the circus in the desert and at his own body, at what the bright clothes cannot hide.
And if we rise, and if we fall . . . Carry us swift, carry us all . . .
Fred died on June 20, 2002, at the Rancho, with a few close friends by his side. A week later there was a ceremony attended by several dozen mourners, including many who came from down below. There was an altar with incense and chimes that rang in the warm wind and a procession around the property that included visiting Kashmir, Fred's Arabian stallion, his perfect black coat gilded in the afternoon light. Nobody sang as we walked. All we could hear was the sound of our footsteps on the sandy, pebbly earth.
Near the end of my time in the Mojave, I was interviewed for a documentary about the desert music scene, Nowhere Now: The Ballad of Joshua Tree. Some of the acts who appeared in the film, like Graham Rabbit and The Sibleys, achieved critical and commercial success that brought even more attention to the area. John Pirozzi, who was my housemate in the desert, was the cinematographer. Fred Drake was brought to life through interviews with Ted Quinn and Tony Mason (who talked of the hallucinatory evening when he and his partner, Debbie, ran into Fred and Ted at Keys View). Fred Burke, who arrived in the desert via Francesca Block's relationship with Ted, also rendered eloquent tribute.
I squeezed into the frame, sweaty and drawn. Unbeknownst to my interlocutors, I was recovering from an all-nighter.
"There's a golden moment," I said.
I meant the moment when our community crystallized. After Fred's death, the moment passed. Ted and Elia broke up. And Rancho de la Luna recording studio went through a turbulent period that saw the disintegration of the cohort that had pledged to keep it running, just as the real estate boom rushed across the desert, a reverse Santa Ana wind blowing in from Los Angeles. (On more than one occasion during those years, people knocked on the door of my family's house in L.A., offering $800,000 or more--in cash--thinking that with the quick installation of granite countertops and saltillo floors, a flip would bring a mil.)
The Los Angeles Times arrived in the desert to anoint a boom that had already happened.
Headline: "DESERT COOL"
Subhead: "Staking Claim to a New Bohemia"
Deck: "Way beyond Palm Springs' Modernist metroplex, a new tribe of expatriates is pushing into the scrub, boulders and reimagined shacks of the high desert."
The story, written by then staffer Barbara King, was the lead in the Home section on February 10, 2005. The section was a huge moneymaker for the Times, brimming with ads from real estate agents. The features had one purpose: to help agents sell houses. There was little journalistic pretense.
The story begins with the desert itself: A cold wind blows. Rabbits and kangaroo rats "scuttle through the scrub brush," and the terrain is "uncompromising." King drives up a "remote twist of uneven, cleft-ridden dirt roads" where "vehicles bump and wobble as if they're muledrawn wagons." The pioneers are middle-class professionals, the readers of the Times-- architects, graphics designers, and TV scriptwriters. They have abandoned big-city life for another country, set amid the "serenity, anonymity and the nitty- gritty of the wild." The lengthy roll call includes Eric Burdon, Ann Magnuson, Ed Ruscha, Andrea Zittel. Furniture designers, filmmakers, ceramists. And more are coming. "Rumors circulate that Joni Mitchell, Lucinda Williams and Bob Dylan are house-hunting." Even the Rancho de la Luna gets a mention, cited as a "high-tech local studio," in contradiction to its fame among musicians for its old-school analog equipment. The story proclaims Joshua Tree an artistic mecca, a place to "clear out the psychic cobwebs," where you can buy property cheap (compared to Los Angeles) and make art out of it. Nobody seems to have a job--at least, not a full-time one. Special note is taken that the village is unincorporated. "There are no rules here," King writes. "No historical societies restricting what you can and can't do." The decorating can go anywhere. "They go Mexican, they go Moroccan."
A case in point are James Berg and Frederick Fulmer, a couple from Los Angeles, the former a writer for Hollywood and the latter a painter. They bought an old halfway house, thirty-four hundred "trashed square feet" with thirty bunk beds. A "bottom-to-top renovation," along with furniture collected at local yard sales, made it a "cleverly appointed, comfortable home." Fulmer will create a piece from the springs of the old bunk beds.
The only cautionary note in the Times' story comes from Ethan Feltges, the single interview source born and raised in the high desert and the owner of Coyote Corner, an outfitter popular with rock climbers and campers. Feltges laments how fast and far the run-up in real estate has gone--tenfold increases in some cases. He is worried because Joshua Tree's unincorporated status means that its residents do not have much of a say in terms of future development. Technically, there is nothing to stop big box stores from setting up shop, like they've done in Yucca Valley, or major hotel chains, like the ones that have come to Twentynine Palms. What is left unsaid is what happens to the rest of the people who live in the desert. The Marines, people like Tammy and Al, the Mexicans helping clear-cut Joshua trees to make room for a massive Chevrolet dealership and a Home Depot that will both go up in Yucca Valley.
The story in the Times makes no mention of the desert working class. Joshua Tree is again referred to as being "in the middle of nowhere," which is another way of saying that no one lives here.
Al's Swinger closed less than a year after Al's death and Tammy retreated to her home in Joshua Tree, with promises from her bar family to stay in touch, to visit. But few of them ever did. A For Sale sign stayed posted on the inside of the bar's front window for years. The boom centered on Joshua Tree, largely avoiding Twentynine Palms and Al's. The old bar was a "teardown," after all. The signage remained, Al's Swinger in chipped red on the façade, "Al's Catfish Dinners" on the side wall facing the highway. Long after I left Joshua Tree, I stopped by the Virginian, another Marine bar in town, run by Alice, a Southeast Asian matron with a big voice and body who resembled Tammy in many ways. She told me that Al's had finally sold and that the building would become an art gallery.
"We don't need another art gallery!" one of her patrons drunkenly boomed. "We need another bar!"
The new owners whitewashed Al's old signs, and I fully expected to see a gallery rise up--slanted roof, floor-to-ceiling windows for the façade, varnished concrete floors, stainless steel in the bathrooms, a big blond desk along a wall, lots of light and space. The speculators were betting that the boom in Joshua Tree would eventually migrate to Twentynine Palms. There had even been talk of Wonder Valley turning--the last community heading east on Highway 62 before the Big Empty. When I first came to the desert it was the butt of dark humor. There were only meth labs and mass murderers out there, people said. The rumors turned out to be not so idle. The gentry indeed arrived in Wonder Valley, and the Los Angeles Times was there to mark the occasion.
Then, of course, the boom went bust. Whoever bought Al's did so just as mortgage karma was beginning to topple the house of cards the boom had been all along. The last time I visited the Mojave, Ted was still living in Joshua Tree, and bands still recorded at the Rancho de la Luna, which was being run by one of Fred's old music buddies. Tammy was ill with emphysema and living down the road from Ted. The teacakes place and the several new art galleries had somehow survived the bust. The old shack that belonged to my German neighbor looked like it hadn't been occupied for years. The tourists still flocked to the Monument, and you could hear and see the live fire exercises on the Marine base. The only overt evidence of hard times was the fact that several realty agencies had closed and there was a profusion of For Sale signs. Home prices, while not down to pre-boom levels, appeared to be less than half of the peak.
The conflict the boom had brought had ended in a kind of stalemate. The Mojave was richer and whiter at the same time as having become poorer and populated with more people of color. I had tried to represent the people I thought had been erased, but I'd come to think that Tammy didn't need me to represent her. What we needed to do was expand the frame around the land and the people who lived on it.
When I drove by Al's, the original building was still standing. There was a Notice of Foreclosure in the window. I noticed that the would-be gallery owners hadn't done a very good job of painting over the old signs. You could still read Al's Swinger very clearly on the façade, the old red paint emerging through the whitewash.
Visit Rubén Martínez' website for more information about the author.
Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West. Available August 7, 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Rubén Martínez. Published by Metropolitan Books, a division of Henry Holt & Company, LLC. By permission of Susan Berghoz Literary Services, New York City and Lamy, NM. All rights reserved: no further duplication, distribution, display or sale without permission.