Over the next several weeks I'll post installments from a chapter in my upcoming book Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West. "House of the Moon" is set in Joshua Tree and tells the origins of the thriving art colony there. Desert America is the result of over ten years of living and traveling through the Southwest and borderlands -- a period during which both great wealth and ruinous poverty transformed the most iconic of American landscapes.
Seven years before I moved to New Mexico and a little more than seventy years after D.H. Lawrence arrived in Taos, I helped write an American desert story of art and speculation. I was part of a new bohemian generation--decidedly more scruffy than the likes of Lawrence and company in Taos-- that moved into San Bernardino County's Morongo Basin, at the western edge of the Mojave Desert (also known as the "high desert," lying north of the lower, hotter Colorado Desert, which hosts Palm Springs). The basin includes three main towns along a 25 mile stretch of Highway 62, the only major route through the area, Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and Twentynine Palms. We weren't thinking of founding an art colony in the spirit of Taos, and certainly not of spawning a fierce real estate boom, but that is more or less what happened. And the cradle of this scene was in Joshua Tree, the smallest and most picturesque of the three towns.
The pilgrimage to the desert coincided with the tech swell of the late 1990s and continued through the aughts. People moved: in, out, up, down. The built environment was transformed by the baubles of the boom-- hillside chalets laden with such amenities as his-and-her sinks in the bathrooms-- and by the clusters of box houses that spread along the dusty yellow flats of the desert, the new Western home on the range for refugees from the gentrified cities. "Nature" changed here, too; that is to say, the way we gazed upon it changed. Land in the Morongo Basin became "landscape," which itself became an amenity to sell the houses staged on it. And wherever the boom struck, it altered history and sense of place. The narratives of the region were rewritten according to the imaginations and desires and prejudices and projections of the newcomers, the speculators-- the scruffy artists, the ones with a license to sell real estate, the ones without legal residency in the United States. We had all come to speculate, and not just in the narrow sense of weighing risk and value, but closer to the origins of the word, the Latin verb speculari, meaning "to look," which derives from the noun specula, "watchtower." We assessed the land with our disparate desires, united only by the mythic depth of the desert. And everywhere the boom arrived, it erased the stories and people that stood in the way of the representations that sold the new landscape.
This recolonization began in Joshua Tree with a ragged crew of musicians, painters, writers, spirit seekers, and twelve-steppers. We weren't aware of it at the time, but we were reproducing a model of urban gentrification, casting it in the American pastoral of the West, serving as the advance scouts for an invasionary force of investors.
What did we know? That we needed a cheaper place to live, because "urban renewal" was pushing up rents in Los Angeles. (In this sense we were gentrifiers fleeing gentrification.) And we knew Joshua Tree; L.A. considers the area an appendage of itself, a desert diorama two hours from downtown. There had been artists and visionaries in the Mojave before us. In 1914, Job Harriman, a former minister turned radical materialist (he was the vice presidential candidate on Eugene Debs's Social Demo cratic Party ticket in 1900, and came within a few hundred votes of becoming mayor of Los Angeles in 1913), founded a socialist community on the yucca plains north of the San Gabriel Mountains, which separate the coastal scrubland from the desert. Aldous Huxley arrived a few decades later to sneer at the "Ozymandian" ruins of Harriman's failed commune-- and to seek, just as earnestly as Harriman and his followers, another kind of utopia in a spirit quest for the "attributeless Godhead" out amid the "boundlessness and emptiness," of the desert, resorting to everything from "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" to mescaline and LSD.
When we arrived, the desert was already considered cool, a structure of feeling deposited by the several generations of outsiders that had preceded us. In the Mojave, "outsider" had a completely distinct meaning from the violently negative connotation in New Mexico that could get your house firebombed. We were here because we were outsiders; to be cool you had to be an outsider. You were outside the mainstream by choice or (just as good) because the gatekeepers hadn't recognized your genius. There was no more authentic a figure in desert cool than Gram Parsons, who had died of an overdose at the age of twenty-six in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn. (It didn't matter that he was the scion of a Southern citrus magnate.)
In my early twenties, I worked at the "L.A. Weekly," and among my elders there was Michael Ventura, a prolific columnist-poet-critic. He wore horn-rimmed glasses and a cowboy hat. Among his favorite musicians was the West Texas singer-songwriter Joe Ely, whose voice and lyrics evoked the dusty desert plains. Ventura, impeccably cool, was a generous mentor. I asked him once to recommend a place to hide away for some writing. He told me to go to Twentynine Palms; specifically, the 29 Palms Inn, a collection of rustic adobes set amid an oasis of palm trees, which had been drawing outsiders and consumptives and cowboys and Native Americans since forever.
There was some rock 'n' roll royalty in the neighborhood. Eric Burdon, the famed singer of the Animals, owned a house in the area. And who could be cooler than Dick Dale, the surf- guitar god, who had a second home up here, too. For decades, bikers and Marines had congregated at the bars of the high desert. Alongside the old-timers with tales of the homesteading days (real cowboys!), there were Native American pictographs on the rocks (real Indians!). And the military base surely hid secrets about alien crash landings.
The early seekers had left enough of an aura to draw succeeding generations and cliques. Thousands of New Agers made the trip to, or tripped in, Joshua Tree for the Harmonic Convergence, a planetary alignment that was to usher in a new era of cosmic peace, an iconic 1980s moment.
Historically, most of the human presence in the region had been transient. Across the twentieth century there had been gold prospecting in the area (but only a handful of modest strikes), and a sprinkling of hardy souls who signed up for the Homestead Act's offer of land in exchange for building at least a modest home (there are abandoned one-room shacks in various states of decomposition across the area). Tourism was relatively light in the decades after the designation of several hundred thousand acres as a national monument, in 1936, mostly because of the area's remoteness and scarce amenities. Yet the new arrivals who began trickling in during the 1990s had little interest in amenities. They were fleeing Los Angeles altogether. Many people were doing so at the time, escaping California-style disasters, both man-made and natural-- riots, earthquakes, nativism, floods, recession, wildfires.
A-list Hollywood headed for Montana; working-class African-Americans and Latinos, for Lancaster, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Denver. My parents were among the exodus, finding their retirement Shangri-la in Sedona, Arizona. (The neo-nativist tide there would eventually send them scurrying back to California.)
If you were a broke artist or musician and wanted the landscape to match your sense of cool, Joshua Tree beckoned.
Ted Quinn was as California a kid as they come. Which means that he was born not in California but in La Porte, Indiana, to good American mutt stock-- German, Norwegian, Irish. The family came west in 1963, when Ted was about four years old. Both he and his sister, Debbie, were "discovered" after she underwent successful open- heart surgery at the age of five. Talent agents signed the kids up, and Teddy became the "Bayer Aspirin boy." He worked alongside legends-- Welles, Hayworth, Mitchum--and retired from film and TV at the age of twelve. In high school he painted and fronted rock bands. Ted was, above all, a child of the 1960s. He'd even seen the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl; his father had taken him and his sister when they were still in elementary school.
In the final years of the 1970s, while most of America was suffering from a bad case of "Saturday Night Fever," the really cool kids had gone underground. New York had CBGB, and Los Angeles had its own powerful "new music" scene, centered on several clubs downtown and on the Sunset Strip: the Hong Kong Café, Madame Wong's, the Starwood, and the legendary Whiskey, where a few years earlier Jim Morrison had writhed profanely. For the edgiest scenesters, living in Hollywood meant being in a band or two or three. It meant shopping for clothes at thrift stores, sharing a one- bedroom apartment in a decaying bungalow court. If you had a day job it meant nothing to you. You got high in all manner of ways, with alcohol or drugs or both or by meditating. You went without meat and followed the Dalai Lama.
Ted is a few years older than I am; I was a youngster on the margins of the scene that he helped to pioneer. What I remember is the astonishing energy--how young people conjured an entire universe of affect, willfully and creatively sculpting every aspect of their lives. We watched punk tear down the pop order and summon up several new ones from the rubble. Ted and his cohort mixed and matched styles-- rock, folk, new wave, ambient. They were sixties doves and lovers of melodic pop, but a dose of punk anger leavened their music, and they experimented with the electronica of the early digital age.
It was in this Hollywood that Ted lived, and it was here that he met Fred Drake, the man who would take all of us to the desert.
Fred grew up in Texas and was gay, and early on he understood that he would never be able to reconcile that. He was a rock 'n' roller as well, which further contradicted his gayness--the genre in its mainstream incarnation never having accepted its fundamental homoeroticism (which Todd Haynes beautifully renders with Christian Bale and Ewan McGregor making love on the roof of a London apartment building in Velvet Goldmine). Fred was a novice drummer and heard about a class being offered by a member of the Mothers of Invention, the conceptual rocker Frank Zappa's band. The class was in Los Angeles; Fred drove all night. Within forty- eight hours of his arrival, he'd taken the class, auditioned for Ted's band (which sounded, Ted said, like "kids playing on a bunch of broken toys"), and fallen in love with a cute blond- haired, blue-eyed Cuban boy named Tico. Fred would live in California for the rest of his life.
The 1980s dawned with the assassination of John Lennon and the ascension of Ronald Reagan. As the United States supported death squads in Central America disguised as freedom fighters, Fred and Ted and their cohort became fierce poets for peace. The names of their bands--Dream Army, Ministry of Fools--said it all. By the mid-1980s they had established a strong presence in the clubs. There were positive reviews in the L.A. Weekly. I was a staff writer then, but I had abandoned rock 'n' roll for Latin American folk (all the better to fight gringo imperialism), and I was completely unaware of their bands even as their biggest critic- fan typed up raves in a cubicle just across from mine in our smoke-filled office. Suits from the industry took note--big labels like Geffen, Atlantic. There were showcases and meetings in posh offices, but no contract was ever offered.
Fred lived in one of Hollywood's many modest Spanish-style buildings of chalk-white plaster and red tile, arches and hardwood floors; they were, above all, affordable. Among his neighbors was Adriene Jenik, a young multimedia artist, and Smokey, the elder of the building, who happened to own a property on the edge of the Big Empty in the Mojave east of Twentynine Palms. Smokey would drive out there in his 1963 Corvette Sting Ray and stay for days or weeks at a time. He was always talking about the desert.
In 1985 the first public HIV-testing program arrived in Southern California. I did not know Fred then, but we could easily have crossed paths-- in the music scene, in the gay bars, or on line at the clinic in Long Beach. I tested negative; although because of my risk factors--intravenous drug use, unprotected sex with multiple partners and with men-- I was convinced for years afterward that there had been some mistake. Fred tested positive and soon became symptomatic, with a swollen lymph node that required surgical removal. The subsequent loss of movement in his shoulder meant his days as a drummer were over, so he turned to singing, songwriting, and the art of sound engineering. Ted remembers Fred's sound as "dreamy, psychedelic, Beatles-y, Lennon-y."
Serendipity was at work gathering a constellation of personalities. Through Fred, Ted met Adriene, whom years later would introduce him to the performance artist Elia Arce, who I'd met through the Central American solidarity network. Another fixture on the scene was Joe "City" García, who had grown up in Española, New Mexico, come west, and played in several bands with Fred and Ted. Fred was also friends with Debbie Hotchkiss, who married the guitarist and song-writer Tony Mason, who in turn became a collaborator of Ted's. When Ted was lovers with Francesca Lia Block, who would later write the young adult "Weetzie Bat" novels, which conjure a vibrant, multicultural, and omnisexual Los Angeles, one of her best friends was a northern California bookstore manager named Fred Burke, who ended up becoming a dear friend of Fred Drake's.
We all came together in the desert.
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"House of the Moon" from 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.