Sex, Drugs, and Drying Out in the Desert: House of the Moon, Part II

martinez desert.
The Monument. | Photo: Rubén Martínez.

In last week's excerpt from Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West, we met Fred Drake and Ted Quinn, among the pioneers of what would become a major art colony in the village of Joshua Tree. Now we continue deeper into our desert journey, which describes the gradual gathering of personalities on a quest for spirit and art in the Mojave. It is a trip from the city to the country... from Hollywood to the High Desert... from one imaginary to another.

Fred Drake was thin and pale and had a bony face, the gauntness partly due to living with HIV for about twelve years by the time I met him. He was brilliant and explosive. Everyone who knew him told stories of Fred "going off " on long-winded and downright mean rants and then just as suddenly slipping back into his smart and charming self. He had a fetish for matadors and cowboys and collected thrift-store hats.


Fred and Ted came to the desert following the narrative trail blazed for them by Smokey's fantastical stories. They ventured out for the Harmonic Convergence in 1987 and then began making regular trips to Joshua Tree, sometimes with pals from the Ministry of Fools cohort.

The meeting that set in motion all kinds of changes for the friends and for Joshua Tree itself took place after a few years of these sojourns. In 1993, gay activists planned a march on Washington. AIDS Project Los Angeles promised to sponsor Fred, who by then was a veteran of the activist scene, with a plane ticket. At the last minute APLA bungled the logistics and the trip fell apart, throwing Fred into a dark mood. Now he was determined to get out of L.A. -- he couldn't stand the thought of watching the march on TV. His 1962 Ford Falcon wouldn't survive the haul to the desert, but luckily, Francesca Block offered Fred and Ted her Jeep Cherokee.

They drove to Twentynine Palms, a raggedy village on the edge of millions of harsh acres, and checked in to the Harmony Motel, retro with its red neon and casual desert-modern design. Fred was still fuming about missing the march. To distract him, Ted pulled out his acrylics -- he always traveled with an art kit -- and painted the word GAY in big, bright letters on Fred's T-shirt.

Suddenly Fred became obsessed with the idea of getting a Marine haircut; there was no dissuading him. This was Fred in provocative performance mode. Don't Ask, Don't Tell had just gone into effect, pleasing no one and least of all Fred. Tom Hanks would soon unbutton his shirt and show us Kaposi's sarcoma lesions in Philadelphia. In Los Angeles, the gay districts of Silver Lake and West Hollywood were losing a generation to AIDS. Fred wanted to make a stand with a glittery, glammy T-shirt and a crew cut, invoking a bit of Bowie and timeless gay camp. The mise-en-scène was perfect: a barbershop where a few hard young men were getting their hair cut by Vietnamese women in the middle of a desert in which the Marines simulated the terrible duty they had only recently fulfilled in Iraq. How would the Marines react to Fred? Was he willing them to fight him or join him out of the closet?

In the end, the performance was better in concept than in execution. Ted remembers feeling nervous, but there was no incident at the barbershop. When they walked back out to the car they realized they'd locked their keys inside. The duo stood glumly by the side of the road in full costume as they waited for the auto club.

The weekend was far from over. To make the most of their adventure, the guys ate mushrooms and drove into what was then called Joshua Tree National Monument (locals called it simply "the Monument," and many oldtimers do to this day, even though it was upgraded to national park status in 1994). They wound up at Keys View, a popular spot offering a vista of the Coachella Valley, the massive craggy face of Mount San Jacinto looming above Palm Springs, and, on a clear day (that is, when the smog from L.A. doesn't blow in), a glimpse of Mount Signal in Mexico, almost one hundred miles away. With Keys View at a relatively high five thousand feet, the valley many dozens of miles wide, and Mount San Jacinto rising up more than ten thousand feet, there is a Grand Canyon-esque sense of vastness. No doubt all the more so when flying high on mushrooms.

So there they were, sitting on a rock in the golden afternoon, Fred's anger finally dissipating, when they heard voices calling, Fred! Ted! It was Tony Mason and Debbie Hotchkiss, who happened to have driven up to the desert for the weekend, too. They'd seen a segment about Joshua Tree on California Gold, a regional PBS travel show hosted by Huell Howser, a golly-gee hawker selling wholesome Americana.

Tony and Debbie had just fallen in love, and were newly clean and sober and buzzing with caffeine, nicotine, and the Twelve Steps. Which made Fred and Ted feel rather guilty; the two agreed in whispers to keep their drug trip a secret. The foursome drove to Jeremy's, a modest coffeehouse in Joshua Tree, where they ran into even more friends from L.A. They didn't need the mushrooms to confirm a convergence of harmonic proportions.

On their way out of town, they noticed a sign advertising a house rental on Hallee Road, at the time the only intersection on Highway 62 with a traffic signal. Fred suggested they check it out. There were actually three small houses for rent, within a few dozen yards of each other. They looked at all of them, and Fred said he wanted to rent the middle house, which happened to be in the worst shape. Ted was shocked, worrying that there would be no decent medical care for Fred. For amenities, there was a Circle K where meth heads brooded by the payphones.

It was like the frontier, Ted said.


By winter 1997, Ted and Elia were living in a shack in the desert. So were Tony Mason and Debbie Hotchkiss. Others were trickling in, orbiting around Fred's house on Hallee Road, which he'd converted into a recording studio he baptized Rancho de la Luna.


At the time I was broke, broken, and on drugs. It was my second round with addiction. The first had been in my late teens and early twenties in Venice, California, where I thought I'd found my version of Jack Kerouac's "fellaheen," poor white and poor black and poor Mexican, sublime and scheming street angels. (There is hardly an echo of this cohort on the gentrified beach today.)

While I could claim an organic if complicated relationship to these subjects--I grew up middleclass, but only one generation removed from Latin American poverty--in many ways I recognized in myself D.H. Lawrence and his Taos patroness Mabel Dodge Luhan's fascination with the "authentic" figures they found in their "escape to reality" in Taos. In Venice there was also lots of drugs and sex. It all began innocently enough: an aspiring writer and horny kid looking for experience. Ultimately, I saved myself through politics. The war had broken out in El Salvador, and the twenty-something found a partisan passion that produced a rush not unlike the one from the stimulants he'd been abusing.

The second round began a decade later in Mexico City. There was a semblance of peace in Central America, and I suppose I was looking for a new high. As William Burroughs had discovered, Mexico City afforded the addict relative freedom in the form of hypodermic needles available over the counter and marvelously cheap drugs in the redlight and bohemian districts. Mexico City was another "authentic" place in which to get messed up; I was only dimly aware that I was following in gringo and European footsteps--some revolutionary, some decadent: Bréton, Artaud, Lowry, the Beats. I'd imagined more of a "roots" journey, a "Chicano" pilgrimage to the Aztec capital, communion with my indigenous forebears. It took me a long time to figure out that what I'd actually found were my American roots, and in them an unbridled desire for the other which, at the moment, I seemed able to consummate only through cocaine.

"God is Good" by Victoria Williams with Vic Chesnutt, featuring Fred Drake. | Directed by John Pirozzi.

Convinced by Elia that the desert was the only possible salvation for my affliction, I traded one long-standing imaginary for another. In the land that healed the consumptives, Elia put me in touch with Adriene Jenik, a multimedia artist, who had recently bought her old neighbor Smokey's property in Twentynine Palms. On the edge of three vast desert tracts, Twentynine Palms is the gateway to the largest Marine training facility in the country, Joshua Tree National Park, and the open desert beyond the "Next Services 100 Miles" sign down the street from Smokey's old place.

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"Adriene wants to turn it into a retreat for artists," Elia said. "You would be the first."

I arrived late one afternoon as the sun was falling behind the pinto-colored hills and a frigid, sand-stinging wind rose up. Adriene showed me around the property, which consisted of several small buildings and sheds. On each structure was a metal sign that warned of "high explosives." It was unclear whether this was a bluff. Smokey had apparently kept a lot of secrets.

"And here's where you'll be staying," Adriene said, pointing to what looked like a metal storage shed. Which it was. There was a sagging cot, a piece of carpet over bare, stony ground, and a small space heater. Adriene liked lights, and there were many strings of colored bulbs and kitschy fixtures purchased from local thrift stores, all hooked up to a tangle of extension cords that ran to the main house.

It was so cold in the shed that night that my bones ached. When I tried to hook up a second electric heater, the circuit breaker blew. Adriene, an artist prone to artistic mood swings, was not sympathetic. I lasted only a few days.

Walking around the "neighborhood"--dirt roads that had more street signs than houses--I noticed a place for rent a few blocks away. It was the right price. Not long after I moved in, I invited Ted and Elia and Tony and Debbie over for a house warming. Tony presented me with a bundle of sage ("to purify your new place, man"). Out came the guitars and harmonicas.

I had just started playing music again after many years, and now I turned to Americana, the style that a lot of people were conjuring in the desert. It seemed the right place to invoke the spirit of Johnny Cash. He might have been from the Deep South, but his music fit perfectly with the landscape.

Meanwhile, Fred Drake was gathering an ever-growing low-rent boho crowd around him at Rancho de la Luna. It was a place of old carpet and couches, coiled audio cables hanging neatly from nails on the walls alongside his cowboy and matador memorabilia. At one end of the living room was an old cast-iron wood-burning stove and at the other a vintage 1970s sixteen-track mixing board with a one-and-a-half-inch reel-to-reel, in open defiance of the digital turn in the recording industry.

Fred became known as the "mayor of Joshua Tree" (the village had no official governing body) as more and more friends from Los Angeles made the trip to record, and then friends of friends.

Fred was dying all the while, but he took his time. He refused AZT, calling it "rat poison." He consulted personally with Jonas Salk and participated in an unsuccessful clinical trial for a vaccine. There were bouts with lung cancer, brain tumors, and opportunistic infections, all of which meant frequent trips to the hospital "down below," as locals referred to journeys of necessity on Highway 62 to Palm Springs or other civilized points beyond.

Fred was dying for so long that we thought he was just going on living. Which, in many essential ways, he was. He smoked (first Marlboro reds, then American Spirit blues, and, of course, pot), enjoyed the occasional shot of fine tequila. He made music, held court, ranted, engineered for the increasing number of bands that booked sessions at the Rancho. Word had spread. Hanging there were the likes of Daniel Lanois, who produced U2's The Joshua Tree, the band's biggest critical and commercial success. (The album's only connection to the Mojave desert was a photo shoot that took place there after recording, which provided cover art and its title, transforming the lyrics and music into an iconic desert sound.) The Louisiana native Victoria Williams, a brilliant, idiosyncratic figure in American roots music, bought a place a few blocks down the road from Fred and recorded one of her finest albums with him.

The Rancho had become a kind of pop shrine, and Fred a bona fide "personality," a guru for musicians and assorted scruffy creative types. And how could we not bow down before him? The gay cowboy rocker who could sing "Blue Moon" in a sweet croon that was simultaneously ethereal, earthy, and erotic; who rode his regal Arabian stallion, Kashmir, bareback at sunrise or down to the saloon on Highway 62 (Victoria Williams immortalized horse and rider in a song); who led us along a moonlit trail in the Monument, showing us the graves of gunslingers, crouching low to point out rattlesnakes coiled under rocks.

Ted, Fred, Elia--they spent most of their time in the desert. Me, I was often hustling "down below." The rest of the world was at the lower elevations-- the cities, the drugs and wrecked relationships and bankruptcies. I commuted to teaching gigs in Claremont, Santa Barbara, giving one-off performance-lectures across the country. The others left the desert less and less often, spoke of life down below derisively; Joshua Tree was Canaan. They had claimed the desert; or, as they would have it, the desert had claimed them with its mystical power. There were meditation retreats at the Institute of Mentalphysics, founded by a British journalist who went native in Tibet; there was a Lakota woman who led the gringos down the Native path.

These were the salad days. We were discovering this new place together, showing each other what we'd found.


Read the first excerpt from "House of the Moon."


Visit Rubén Martínez' website for more information about the author.

"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.


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