There's already a crowd at 7:30 when I arrive at the Saloon. The wind has reached 70 miles an hour and anything that isn't nailed down is subject to a flight across the desert. I'm not a drinking man but I work here, 'running' an open jam on Tuesday nights. I've been doing it here since election night, 2008, but before that I hosted open mic's at the tiny, shabby but charming Beatnik Cafe - and I still emcee another one at Pappy and Harriet's - in a town built as a western movie set, in a bygone-era. Pappy's, as it's known to the locals, has a certain cache, with it's odd combination of old bikers, faded rock stars and Silverlake hipsters, mingling with snowbirds from Canada, cowboys and Marines, fresh from Anytown USA, or working through the post traumatic shock of a deployment to Iraq. More about these places later...
Joshua Tree Saloon is more accessible from the highway, California State Route 62, and sits at the main intersection of the village of Joshua Tree.
This is not a bar I ever frequented much since moving here to the edge of the Mojave desert in the mid-90s. It had a bad reputation as a rough place, where jarheads from the nearby 29 Palms base got into nightly altercations with the local residents, tweakers mostly.
Throw in a few clueless rock climbers from Europe, who had wandered in, after a long day of scaling sheer faces of granite, their skin reddened and chapped by the punishing sun and wind - and it could be read about in the Police Blotter, in the local newspaper, boiled down to the basics; "Police answer 911 call after pool cue is used as a weapon..."
Joshua Tree, the National Park, attracts the kind of tourists who travel with backpacks and climbing ropes. They come from all over the world to enjoy the endless vistas of amusingly tossed-looking rocks and fragile, caught-in-the-act-of-dancing, suspended-in-time, Joshua Trees. Once misunderstood as a type of cactus, the Joshua Tree has been designated a member of the Lily family before being redefined as "Yucca Brevifolis."
Iconic as the namesake of a million-selling record by the Irish rock band, U2, Joshua Tree is a stark landscape that lends itself to the grainy lens of a black and white camera. The place looks something like NASA's Rover photographs of Mars, with homesteader shacks organically decaying alongside ranches with an improbable number of old cars, jacked up, hood lifted, gathering fine desert dust.
The small village outside the west entrance to the National Park sits between two larger Southern California towns, more typical for their variety of fast food restaurants, nail salons, dollar stores and auto repair shops. Joshua Tree, the village, was once the dumping ground for San Bernardino's recently paroled prisoners, as indicated by its disproportionate number of bail bonds offices.
On that historic Tuesday night in 2008, when the United States elected an African American as President, the Saloon was the setting for the whole town to gather and watch the returns, on multiple TV sets, with a stage set for local musicians to play a few songs for the largely uninterested clientele. The crowd was not the mix of Marines and speed freaks of old, but was comprised of the newer population of activists, artists, writers, healers and other drop-outs, from the City, or cities, Los Angeles, a hundred miles west, San Francisco to the north, and New York, a million miles to the east.
This is the bunch who sign online petitions, show up at emergency planning meetings to prevent Big Box stores, golf courses and Indian casinos from opening in town, who dine in the healthy cafes and attend opening night receptions in local galleries, which have come to outnumber the bail bonds offices.
This is a Blue Village, at the forgotten end of the nation's largest Red County, in terms of land mass, San Bernardino, best known as the butt of Frank Zappa's satire and the mystery of David Lynch's vast Inland Empire.
Back to the present. The Saloon, affectionately known as the Saloony Bin, has the look of an old mineshaft, serves up some grass-fed burgers from the grill and, on Tuesday night, is the place where musicians, whether just traveling through or making the desert their 'home', get together to trade songs, contribute licks and, generally, give each other some sense of comraderie, in this wondrous, magical, harsh environment, where only the tough survive hellishly hot summers and the Biblical winds of winter.
A young couple, expecting their first child, sing sweet harmonies and rise out of their daytime roles as Navy Medics for the Marine Corps. A marine, wearing a kilt, enters with a set of bagpipes and an Ipod with backing tracks of AC/DC, the Ramones and Lady Gaga. He charms the room with "I Wanna Be Sedated." A Latino man who has returned to the desert to live, after trying Orange County and L.A., to be where things are 'more real,' humbly asks if he can grab his medication from his guitar case, sitting on the stage, where a folksinger from Washington state is playing some Grateful Dead tunes. When he plays his guitar, he fills in for the singer, tastefully adding color to the spaces between verses, never stepping on the melody of the song. A dreadlocked African American woman from Berkeley sits at a long table with her white male Rastafarian counterpart, the local Innkeeper and purveyor of Chai Tea.
On any given Tuesday at the Saloon, boundaries are erased, between transgendered rockers and recently returned Marines, by the volume of electric guitars and drums.
A black man wearing a Ron Paul t-shirt introduces a pair of 99-percenters who are walking from San Diego to New York, hoping to arrive there by November, when this Open Jam, formally known as Super Ruby Tuesday, celebrates it's fourth anniversary - along with the potential re-election of the first African American President.
In this unpredictable outpost of self-expression, Obama is not guaranteed the black vote any more than the Republicans can count on the enlisted.
The earlier crowd, who had been seated at the bar, have largely left, braving the mighty gusts, and gone home. The remaining handful stay until last call at midnight, the courage to bare their souls, unknown to the outside world, then depart with warm hugs and the kind of breathless feeling that comes from playing music, finding some respite from the woes of daily life, in a bad economy, momentarily delivered from the pressure of the brutal, relentless winds outside the swinging doors.
Top Image: Joshua Tree Saloon.