Spy Rock Memories, Part 8

by Lawrence Livermore, September 8, 2011

I don’t know how much time passed before I woke up. It might have been half an hour; it could have been a few minutes. My mind had lapsed into a state that was as dreamless as it was dreamlike.

I was reminded of how the nuns had described limbo, the nether world where innocent but unbaptized infants were sent. Neither heaven nor hell, neither good nor bad, devoid of meaning or purpose. The place I had been — and it felt like a place more than a state of mind — was swathed in and completely suffused with gray.

Not a dark, brooding or foreboding gray, but quiet, peaceful, mysterious. What it most resembled was being caught in one of those clouds that periodically enveloped the mountain, minus the dampness and chilliness. Quite the opposite: this cloud embraced me with such warm and welcoming arms that I couldn’t imagine wanting to tear myself away.

Yet something was nagging at me, tugging at my memory, insisting I pay attention. My eyes opened; I closed them and tried to slip back into that happy cloud feeling, but they wouldn’t stay shut. Now I was angry; I could feel the cold again, feel the snowflakes batting at my face like so many icy insects.

I tossed my head from side to side, as I would have if they had been actual insects, and in doing so, caught sight of my truck, still sitting where I had last seen it, now covered with a bit more snow. I remembered that I had been trying to get to it, though I was no longer sure why.

Then in a moment of clarity it came back to me. I was on some sort of mission. If I didn’t make it to that red truck, something terrible was going to happen. What that was, or what I was supposed to do about it, remained a mystery. I knew I couldn’t stand up, let alone walk. That was when I hit upon the idea of swimming.

Anyone looking down on me from above would have assumed I had gone mad. It must have appeared as though I was lying on the side of a mountain, in the middle of a blizzard, trying to make snow angels. If you’d asked, however, I would have told you I was doing the breaststroke.

It got me nowhere, but when I switched to a sort of dog paddle, I found myself moving forward. I might be exaggerating if I told you I made it the rest of the way like that; the truth is that I don’t know or remember. My first clear memory is of opening the truck door — by which point, logically, I had to have made it onto my feet — and discovering I wasn’t strong enough to climb in.

But by leaning backward onto the seat and grabbing the armrest on the passenger side, I was able to pull myself into the cab. I sat up behind the wheel, all of me now safely inside except my legs. Try as I might, I couldn’t muster the strength to pull them up over the door jamb until I hit upon the idea of sliding my hands under first one thigh, then the other, and lifting my legs into the truck as if they were a couple pieces of cordwood.

The truck started easily enough, but then I encountered another difficulty: my legs were so numb that I couldn’t push down on the accelerator or the brake with enough force to drive. I sat pondering this dilemma until the warmth from the heater breathed a little life into my muscles. It wasn’t as though I needed to really step on the gas to get moving, I reasoned; on the contrary, accelerating even slightly too much could send me careening over a cliff. Hitting the brakes too suddenly or heavily would be just as disastrous.

My other challenge would be getting the truck headed in the right direction. I had left it facing uphill in a spot where the road was barely wide enough to turn around under clear and dry conditions. Now I could hardly see the road, let alone make an accurate judgment about how deep the snow was or where the road ended and the cliff began.

Never mind; I’d done this kind of thing before, and after dragging myself out of a blizzard, I wasn’t going to screw it up now. It turned out that I didn’t need the gas pedal at all; just putting the transmission in drive or reverse would get me moving as fast as I wanted to go. With both feet resting on the brake, I shifted back and forth 15 or 20 times until I was on my way downhill.

From there on it was easy. There was one rough patch, on the sharp bend above Spy Rock School, where a foot or two of snow had piled up, but my momentum carried me straight through it. After that it was as simple as slaloming down an unusually loopy toboggan course. The snow was still falling when I reached the highway, but at that altitude, not much was sticking to the pavement.

At 2 am I woke up the manager of the Cottage Motel in downtown Laytonville, rented one of the old cabins out back, and slept for the next day and a half. When I thought I was ready to continue my journey south, I discovered that every,muscle I owned ached so miserably that I gave up on the idea and went back to bed for another day.

By the time I reached the Bay Area, I was already dreading my next trip up the mountain, but the weather eased soon afterward, and for the rest of the winter, I was able to drive in and out. “I hope you appreciate me risking my life for you,” I told the dogs and cats when I next saw them, but if they did, they didn’t show it, except in their usual ways of climbing all over me when I arrived and looking sad and mournful when I left again.

Four 7” EPs, the first official releases of Lookout Records, came out on schedule in January of 1988, and were surprisingly well received. When I say “surprisingly,” I mean that I had expected to sell a couple hundred and then have the rest sitting around the house for a year or two, as had happened with the Lookouts’ record. While in the back of my mind I harbored hopes — I suppose anyone who puts out records does — that they would catch on and become wildly popular, my more realistic guess was that if we were lucky, we wouldn’t lose too much money.

But inside a month, we’d sold out our first pressings and ordered new ones. At that point we got picked up by a distributor, which greatly increased our sales, so much so that even those 800 unsold Lookouts albums disappeared from my kitchen at last. Around that time I got a letter from some college students in Arcata, asking if I could bring some of our bands up for a show.

I knew very little about Arcata. I vaguely remembered stopping there on a road trip, and hearing an old Led Zeppelin tune echoing through the deserted streets. Deciding that the place was haunted by the ghosts of undead hippies, I’d hopped back in the car and headed straight out of there.

I was slightly more familiar with Eureka, the forlorn and mostly forgotten industrial town that lurked and slouched along the waterfront on the other side of the bay. A 19th century boomtown that had grown rich from providing the redwood logs used to build San Francisco, it had long since fallen on hard times. When Anne and I had visited in the early 80s, its once-opulent Victorian Old Town, today something of a tourist destination and bohemian magnet, was little more than a dingy and disheveled skid row.

Although only half Eureka’s size, Arcata enjoyed a far better reputation. It was home to Humboldt State, the North Coast’s only four-year university, which meant that many of the area’s young people wound up there, if not to attend college, then simply in search of the semi-urban excitement that just wasn’t on offer in places like Willits or Garberville, let alone Spy Rock.

Even knowing that, I wasn’t prepared me for the crowd we found waiting for us outside the HSU student union. Kids had come from at least three counties, as far as 100 miles away, to see the Lookouts, Operation Ivy, Isocracy and Crimpshrine, as well as Arcata’s own Schmidtheads. Outside of our insular little scene, all five bands were virtually unknown, or so I would have thought.

It was one of the best shows we’d ever played, and I was still glowing as we started to drive away. Just then a young kid came running out in front of my truck. “Wait, wait a minute!” he shouted.

His name was Chris Appelgren, he was 15 years old, and he was the host of an every-other-weekly radio show on KMUD in Garberville. I’d heard of KMUD, but I hadn’t actually heard it. Eventually they would install transmitters up and down the coast, but at that time it produced little more than static on my side of the mountain.

Chris was hoping I’d supply him with copies of our records, and, intrigued by the idea of a station that would give a teenager his own program (as it turned out, there were a couple other hosts who hadn’t even reached their teens), I decided to deliver the records myself and see what was going on in Garberville, yet another Emerald Triangle town I was relatively unfamiliar with.

KMUD consisted of two ramshackle cabins at the south end of town, where I found Chris and several of his South Fork High School cronies who helped make up the revolving cast of “Wild In The Streets,” the name Chris had given his show even though, as I seldom tired of pointing out, the area offered a distinct shortage of streets to run wild in.

He invited me into the studio, played the records I’d brought, and interviewed me about Lookout Records, Gilman Street, and the recent gig in Arcata. While doing so, he gave me a crash course in how to work the microphones, cue up records, keep a FCC log, and in general, operate a radio station.

I’m not sure if he invited me back or I invited myself, but within a couple months I become a regular guest, and, eventually, co-host. In addition to playing the sort of punk rock that had seldom if ever been heard over the Southern Humboldt airwaves before, Chris and I developed an on-air rapport that had me pompously kvetching about anything and everything, and him responding with the non-linearity and spontaneous exuberance you’d expect from an abnormally bright and precocious kid.

We had occasional run-ins with the KMUD power structure, but for the most part they were amazingly tolerant, even when besieged by complaints from merchants who’d grown used to letting KMUD play as background music in their shops and didn’t appreciate the frequent F-bombs and similarly obnoxious material featured in the songs we played. Broadcasting from behind the Redwood Curtain, there was a general sense (extending to many KMUD personalities besides ourselves) that FCC regulations and other legal niceties didn’t apply to us.

This would change as the station grew in reach and influence, and eventually I became versed in and (for the most part) observant of the rules. Not because I necessarily agreed with them, but because I had grown passionately devoted to KMUD and didn’t want to do anything to endanger it. There was one exception: I was not aware of it at first, but even after it was pointed out that I shouldn’t be playing records released by my own label, I continued to do it anyway.

People might consider it tacky and self-aggrandizing — well, let’s be honest, it kind of is — but apparently it’s also illegal. I rationalized that a) we were representing local culture; b) the music wouldn’t have been available to listeners otherwise; and c) our play list would have been pretty thin without it. And while someone might accuse me of using the show to promote my own financial interests, the number of records I was likely to sell to backwoods denizens who had neither record players nor, in some cases, electricity, was minimal.

Though at first “Wild In The Streets” was mainly listened to by kids, and not too many of them, we began gaining listeners, especially once we’d learned to dial back our attitude a bit. Even some of the reggae and Grateful Dead fans who made up the biggest part of KMUD’s audience were open-minded enough to give us a chance, despite our music being completely foreign to most of them.

Something I especially appreciated about KMUD — and one of the reasons I came to think of it as the heartbeat of the community — was the way it could almost instantly mobilize opinion or stir people into action. With newspapers and magazines — and at that time there were quite a few serving the Emerald Triangle — it can take days or weeks before a story reaches the public, let alone elicits a reaction, whereas when communication happened over the airwaves, the results could be almost instantaneous.

It wasn’t just KMUD’s regular CAMP reports — listener-provided updates about where helicopters and marijuana eradication teams were operating — that prompted growers and non-growers alike to keep their dials set at 91.1. We were also a constant clearinghouse for less dramatic but equally vital information about road or school closings, lost dogs, bear sightings, as well as demonstrations and public hearings.

When contentious issues arose, such as conflicts over the “appropriateness” of certain acts appearing at the Mateel Community Center — the Red Hot Chili Peppers, for example, who performed wearing only a strategically placed sock each, or the Oakland rapper Too Short — a brief discussion on KMUD could spark an old-fashioned town meeting packed with concerned (and ostentatiously unconcerned) citizens ready to speechify for, against, or to no apparent purpose at all.

The Mateel was another Southern Humboldt institution that mightily impressed me. It seldom hosted acts or events that appealed to me personally, but I thought of it as the hippie Gilman Street, built and financed entirely by volunteers and donations. Derided by some as the “Taj Mateel” for the fine (and expensive) craftsmanship that went into its construction, its existence and continued success would have represented an unlikely achievement in most mid-sized or even large American cities, let alone the tiny town of Redway, itself little more than an appendage or afterthought to Garberville, its slightly more metropolitan neighbor two miles to the south.

If you rubbed Garberville and Redway together, you might come up with 2,500 people, but the twin towns were a relative hotbed of cultural and political activity. The more time I spent there, the less need I felt to travel to the Bay Area, which was a good thing, since I no longer had a part-time home there.

Over the winter I’d briefly moved in to the Maximum Rocknroll house in Noe Valley, which had seemed like a good fit for me because of its state of the art computer and publishing facilities. But I’d quickly fallen out with head honcho — or, as he preferred, first among equals — Tim Yohannan.

When I stayed away for several days covering the Interior Department hearings in Fort Bragg, a veritable Woodstock of protest in which thousands turned out to oppose oil drilling off the North Coast, I came back to San Francisco thinking I’d have a great story for MRR as well as my own magazine, only to find Tim furious that I hadn’t been around to perform my normal duties of typing up scene reports and record reviews.

I tried pointing out that he himself always said MRR was meant to be as much about politics as music, but he sneered, “That stuff isn’t politics, it’s a bunch of yuppies that don’t want their oceanfront views spoiled.”

It was all downhill from there, and instead of looking for another place in the Bay Area, I went back to living fulltime on Spy Rock. As mad as I was at Tim, it turned out he had done me a favor; I was entering what would prove to be the happiest and most productive of my years on the mountain.

What had once been a constant struggle now became an almost carefree way of life. It couldn’t have been as unrelentingly easy and enjoyable as I remember it now, but a long stretch of good weather and the fact that I’d finally become comfortable with the ins and outs of country living meant that for a good while there were no crises to confront, no disasters to manage.

I’d spend days at a time working around the house or in the garden; twice a week I’d venture down to Laytonville to shop and to retrieve the contents of PO Box 1000, (the box that had been randomly assigned to me when the new post office was built; was there ever a surer sign that I was destined to be in the mail order business?).

I was receiving so many orders for records and magazines that the box was usually stuffed beyond capacity. I was afraid I’d get on the wrong side of the post office staff if I didn’t empty it more often, and also worried what they must think about some of the mail that arrived for me.

Letters and fanzines could be rather scabrously illustrated with colors, pictures, and slogans that, well, let’s just say they were likely to make a vivid impression on a quiet country post office. But apart from a quizzical but friendly raised eyebrow now and then, the counter clerks seemed completely unfazed. If I didn’t come in for a while, my mail would be decanted into one or more large boxes that would be cheerily handed across the counter with a “Got your work cut out for you this week!” or “Looks like business must be booming!”

It was. Mail order only accounted for only a tenth of Lookout Records’ overall sales, but it was by far the most labor-intensive aspect of running the label. I’d never done this kind of work before, but there was enough variety to the letters and orders to keep it from getting tedious. I worked out systems, figured out how to create a computerized mailing list, and bragged in our ads and press releases that the entire operation was solar-powered.

I’d once been able to say the same thing about our band, until we had to move our practices down to Willits, where Tre and Kain were now living and attending high school. Tre’s dad built a soundproof room at the back of his new house, but it was never quite the same as the old days on the mountain, when we could play as loudly and as long into the night as we wanted.

True, one of those marathon sessions had nearly ended in disaster. It had been midwinter, before I could afford to upgrade the solar panels and batteries, and we had to run the generator if we wanted to practice for more than an hour or two. That night we were working on “Trees,” a dirge-like piece about environmental apocalypse that lent itself to endless jamming and riffing. Which is what we were doing when I noticed an orange light that appeared to be dancing on the walls in time to the music.

I took it as a sign of how well and intensely we were playing, but as the light grew brighter and eerier, I had to consider that it might be something other than a magical aura or spirit invoked by our powerful musicianship. Turning around, I discovered that the shed was engulfed in flames.

Tearing out the door, grabbing the hose as I went, I frantically sprayed water on the fire, aware that leaning against the shed’s back wall were plastic containers holding 20 gallons of gas. I could move the gas out of harm’s way, or I could fight the fire, but I couldn’t do both; meanwhile Tre and Kain were still inside noodling away on their instruments, oblivious to the danger.

The generator had rolled up against the wooden shed and the heat from its exhaust pipe had set fire to it. A few more minutes and the gas cans would have started blowing. At that point we might have been able to save ourselves, but the house and its contents would have been a lost cause.

Winter perils like that seemed far away now that summer had arrived with its plentiful sunshine and the light and electricity it provided. Water was abundant that year, too, and my garden grew spectacularly. I’d filled it with things I liked but had never tried growing before: watermelons, eggplants, tomatillos, and three kinds of chili peppers.

The apple tree I’d planted in 1982 was bearing buckets of fruit. The cherries were thriving as well, and a once spindly, half-dead plum tree came roaring back to life. The grape vines had produced a crop for the first time, and a nectarine tree, as prolific as it was improbable, had sprung up unbidden from an old compost heap.

There were the marijuana plants, too, tucked away beneath the manzanitas and madrones. On warm evenings I’d sit examining their flowers, plucking away the occasional dead leaf and basking in the rich perfume that hung lazily over the hillside. Sometimes I’d bring my radio and listen to KMUD, now that the station had upped its power and its signal reached right around the mountain.

Monday was my favorite listening day, when I liked every single program from morning until night. Best of all was Hot Potatoes, a Celtic music show hosted by Estelle Fennell and Sue Moon; the sound of lilting fiddles and loping drumbeats echoing up and down the canyon remain among the most cherished of all my Spy Rock memories.

I still had to travel to the Bay Area from time to time to meet with bands or take care of other Lookout Records business, and when I did, I’d usually park the truck under some trees in an obscure corner of San Francisco and sleep in my camper shell. Most of my big city business, though, could be handled by driving ten miles down to the nearest pay phone, in the parking lot of Grapewine Station on Highway 101.

Friends at the Shred of Dignity warehouse in San Francisco had let me install a phone line, which I connected to an answering machine stored in a heavy wooden box to muffle the loud clicks and beeps it gave off. Every few days, equipped with a bag of quarters, I’d spend an afternoon in my phone booth “office,” retrieving messages and returning calls.

This system had its drawbacks, a major one being the semi trucks that frequently roared past and drowned out any possibility of conversation. Another was the difficulty of getting city people, especially those in Los Angeles, to understand that there could be a corner of the world — in their own state of California, no less — where people somehow existed without telephones.

“Can I speak to ____?” I’d say, putting in a call to the record pressing plant or the mastering lab. “Give me your number and I’ll have him call you back,” a secretary would tell me. “Sorry, he can’t call me back; there aren’t any phones where I live,” I’d have to explain. At that point I’d sometimes get hung up on, the assumption being that I was a crank caller. Although I was eventually able to convince some people that they needed to speak to me right away if they wanted to speak to me at all, others never got the hang of it. Somehow, one way or the other, business got done all the same.

It was during one of those rounds of calls that I heard from John Kiffmeyer, aka Al Sobrante (a tribute to his East Bay hometown of El Sobrante), who’d been a driving force behind Isocracy, one of the original four Lookout bands. Isocracy having broken up, Al wanted to tell me about the new band he’d formed with two teenagers from Rodeo, California. “They don’t know much about punk,” he said, “but they’re really good. Know any shows we can play?”

As it happened, I did know of one, though as I told Al, it wasn’t much. Tre had informed Kain and me that he’d volunteered our band to play at a party hosted by one of his 10th grade classmates. We’d played for high school kids before, and it was usually a hit or miss situation. Most kids wouldn’t know or care about our music, but every so often we’d get an audience that appreciated us.

But a show was a show, even if it meant an 80-mile round trip into the wilds above Willits, with, if the weather could be believed, the possibility of an early snowstorm. “We’re playing Friday night at some cabin up in the mountains,” I told Al. “There’s no money, it’ll take you at least three hours to get there, and if it snows the whole thing might get called off at the last minute.”

“We’ll be there,” he said.

The weather turned out almost as bad as predicted. There wasn’t much snow, but large swatches of ice left the upper reaches of Sherwood Road more treacherous than usual. It’s often said in Mendocino County that you don’t go driving up Spy Rock Road if you don’t know where you’re going or have legitimate business there, and Sherwood, especially the remote stretch we were attempting to navigate, is kind of the same deal.

When we arrived we found three kids shivering outside the cabin where we were supposed to play. The guy whose party it was — and who had the keys to the cabin — had decided to stay in town because it was “too cold.” So, apparently, had almost everyone else. Two more kids showed up, bringing our potential audience to five, but that was it. It seemed like a shame to have come all this distance and not play, but what were we supposed to do if we couldn’t even get inside?

Tre suggested driving back down to town to get the keys, but that would take hours, assuming we could even find the kid who had them. As we kicked that idea around, a van drove up and Al Sobrante’s voice boomed out, “What’s going on? Let’s get this show on the road!”

He introduced me to his new band. They were called Sweet Children; and at 16, the two new guys really did seem like not much more than children. Both were quiet, in a bashful but not completely standoffish way. The tall, lanky bass player was Mike; the singer/guitarist, shorter and even quieter, had long curly hair and introduced himself as Billie Joe.

I don’t want to say whose idea it was — partly because I don’t know if the statute of limitations has expired, and partly because I honestly don’t remember — but somebody suggested that we break into the cabin and start a fire before we all froze to death. And somebody — again, I’m not sure who — did just that.

Once we were inside and beginning to thaw out, it seemed only logical to go ahead with the show. The cabin had no lights, but there were plenty of candles, and while there was also no electricity, we found a generator out back to power the bands. Sweet Children took the “stage” — a cleared-out space between the kitchen and front door — and played for the five high school kids sitting politely on the floor in front of them.

I watched from the back, only half paying attention as I changed my guitar strings, until suddenly I couldn’t not pay attention. I had seen this level of performance before, but usually only in giant arenas, delivered by bands at the peak of their careers and playing for tens of thousands. 16 year old Billie Joe exuded a casual self-confidence, only partially offset and belied by his shy, self-effacing humility. He stopped several times to thank his minuscule audience for being there, but mostly he sang and played as if he’d been doing this all his life. Which, I would learn later, was not so far from the truth.

Walking up to me afterward, he offhandedly asked, “What did you think?”

“I want to make a record with you guys,” was all I said.

They’d been together a couple of months — this might have been their third or fourth show ever — but I’d seen and heard all I needed to. To be honest — and I’ve been saying the same thing to interviewers ever since — they were like a modern, updated, punk rock version of the Beatles. They could seriously be that big, too, I caught myself thinking. This was crazy talk, of course, and yet at that moment it made perfect, undeniable sense.

The Lookouts never played that night; by the time Sweet Children finished, it was midnight and our “audience” said they’d be in trouble with their parents if they didn’t get home right away. I drove back to Spy Rock, twisting the radio dial in search of an audible signal, grateful for my aging truck’s slightly more than adequate heater, little supposing that the night’s events were about to change my life forever.

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