Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Michael Hubbert

by Steve Sparks, January 20, 2011

I met with Michael in the workshop at his home on Estate Drive on the outskirts of Boonville. He has been a professional instrument maker since 1980 until the present day. It was a sunny day and so we sat in the garden and began to chat.

Michael was born in Los Angeles in 1948, the youngest of three children born to parents Leo G. Hubbert and Dorothy Ann Goode, with brother Tom having come along previously in 1942 and sister Virginia in 1944. Originally the Hubberts were French Huguenots who had settled in West Suffolk, England in the 1600’s before coming to the States in the 1750’s and living in the West Virginia and Tennessee region where they were basically Indian-fighting farmers. “Colonel James Hubbert was a fiery character and at one point disappeared for a time after he had killed an Indian during a period of cease-fire. His grandson, my great, great Grandfather, Matthew Hubbert, was born in 1810 in Tennessee but moved on from there, living in the South and Louisiana before settling in San Sabo in the central Texas hill country — the house they lived in is still there. He had two wives and fifteen kids, who were named after historical figures — Benjamin Franklin Hubbert, Andrew Jackson Hubbert, etc, and my great Grandfather, Davy Crocket Hubbert. Matthew was a cattleman and he drove a herd from Texas to San Diego on three separate occasions before settling there in the late 1870’s. Back in Texas, he had a son, William Bee Hubbert, my grandfather, who lived to be 98 years old, and who raised his family there. In 1907 along came my father, Leo, who was one of seven kids. His oldest brother was Marian King Hubbert, a famous geophysicist who had attended the University of Chicago and who encouraged my father to move there during the depression. It didn’t work out and so my Dad moved to Los Angeles and found a job as a bus driver.”

Of the Goode side of the family, Michael knows far less. “My Mom was born in 1915 and grew up in Plankinton, South Dakota. Her heritage was English/Scots/Irish. Her mother had told her that she was related to the woman who had baked the plum pudding that was served at Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837. My mother was one of five or so and when she was old enough (she graduated high school at fifteen) her father basically sold her into indentured service at the local hospital to pay off his hospital bills. As soon as this had been done, she was ‘set free’ and moved to Los Angeles to join her older sister there and she found a job as a secretary/receptionist at an alarm company. She worked late at night and would catch the last bus home at 1am — the driver was my Dad. She was often the only passenger and they would talk. The route was cancelled because of so little business so my Dad picked her up and dropped her off in his own car instead and they began to date after that, marrying in the early forties. My siblings were born during the war — Tom now lives in the high dessert country of New Mexico and we have always been close. My sister and her family are in the fundamentalist Christian, right-wing area of Arizona — Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck country.”

When Michael was young, his father became a police truck driver, then a fireman, something he’d always wanted to be. Before any of the kids were born, his mother was hit by a car and nearly died. In fact they told his father that she would be mentally disabled if she lived, then that she would never be able to walk, then that she would never have kids — none of that happened and she lived a long life. The family grew up in west central Los Angeles, near to Inglewood, at 62nd and Crenshaw. “My Dad was at a fantastic old fire station with the pole and about twelve trucks. It was in the heart of old Hollywood and I loved visiting him there. He was a very driven man, a tinkerer, a fixer, a very capable person, very self-reliant and dependable, if a little rough and ready. As most firemen did, with the kind of hours they worked, he had another business on the side — making radio and electrical equipment for boats out of his garage. He eventually got transferred to the fireboat and after buying a house in Torrance he was close to both his firefighter job and the harbor where he worked on customer’s boats. His workshop was full of ‘stuff’ and I learned a lot, making my first musical instrument under his tutelage — a whistle, and listening to his wild stories about country life in Texas.”

“My mother was a wonderful, very giving and generous person. Quite simplistic and not sophisticated but very helpful to anyone in need. My father worked a lot and was not around much. When he was, he was quite rough on us but as I was the third child he doted on me and encouraged my activities, whereas he was tough on my brother and sister. My brother Tom and I were close despite this and he was always a great pal to me, encouraging my interests in art, literature, and music — I had been playing the clarinet since I was eight. He was a major influence on me for many years. We had shared a bedroom and he would tune in to the radio late at night and I got to listen to all sorts of great musicians that way. When he was seventeen he was a beatnik with his goatee and hung out at the Insomniac coffee house and took me along there sometimes — I was just eleven. It was across the street from the Lighthouse Jazz Club and I would sometimes run errands for the waitresses who wanted to order some Chinese food from the Club. From the kitchen, where I waited, you could see the stage — I saw Thelonius Monk and others that way... My brother really liked folk and jazz and when I was about thirteen or so I would go with him to the Ash Grove and I got to see some of the legends of bluegrass and city blues there. It was a music venue but also had political gatherings that were getting very interesting in the early sixties.”

Michael was an average student, with music his main interest. “By 9th grade I was one confused kid. Then a substitute English teacher arrived who taught drama also. By 10th grade I was really into that and appeared in a number of school plays and even wrote one. In my final two years at school I was often in the lead role and even won a Best Actor award in a local festival. I had grown tired of the clarinet playing in a band at football games or behind horses in a parade and so I took up guitar and harmonica and a friend turned me on to the songs of Woody Guthrie. I sat around with friends playing folk and blues tunes and my Dad bought me a really good guitar. I began liking grittier stuff and had discovered Bob Dylan and older rock and roll stars such as Little Richard. I never liked the surf sound even though I was right there where it was happening and I was not into the Beatles at first. By 1963 I was into the Chicago Blues of Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield — electric blues, and then the second wave of the British invasion — John Mayall, Eric Clapton, the Yardbirds, and the early Fleetwood Mac, when they were a blues band.”

Michael graduated from high school in 1966. University was not that important so he attended a junior college to study theatre. “By 1967 I was a total hippy — but never a Deadhead. That summer I rented a car with some friends and we went to the Monterrey Pop Festival — the one where Jimi Hendrix burnt his guitar. It was an amazing experience and I went back to L.A. for a few days before setting off on a road trip in a Volkswagen Beetle with a buddy and some high grade marijuana. We went all over the country, covering about 13,000 miles.”

By early 1968, with the Vietnam War raging, Michael was failing a class badly and lost his student deferment so he filed for Conscientious Objector (C.O.) status — he was completely against the war in Vietnam. This was turned down and so when he arrived to be sworn in to the army, he refused. “My parents did not support me on this, in fact my mother eventually basically came apart. My father was very angry and his rage gradually broke my willpower and spirit and so when the next draft notice arrived six weeks later, in June 1968, I signed up for the army infantry. I went to boot camp and advanced infantry training at Ford Ord. There were lots of guys like me there — hippy musician types. It was very demoralizing — we knew where we would be going. After catching pneumonia in November 1968 I had a week’s leave before reporting to Oakland, California from where we flew to Vietnam and immediately went into the boonies north of the city of Hue. It was about 40 miles south of the DMZ and a place where I was shot at and watched friends die... We went on patrols, did some reconnaissance, had a few firefights, and I feared for my life many times — every day. It was not that bad compared to other’s experiences.”

“One day, I fell while climbing down a steep hill and severely gashed my leg. It became badly infected overnight — I could not walk so they took me out on a supply helicopter. I had five weeks in medical care. That was fine. I was bedridden under my own supervision at the company barracks. I remember reading letters from friends and a girlfriend and reading ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ by Nikos Kazantzakis. One day I found a guitar, a cheap French copy from their occupation of Vietnam many years earlier. The Chaplain, a very good guy, saw me playing and sat listening to my story and objections to the war. He was very sympathetic. Two days later I returned to duty, I was ordered to report to him. He wanted to help me, so I traveled with him for the next few months, playing guitar for the wounded soldiers he visited in hospitals!”

Once the Chaplain left however, Michael briefly worked as a clerk in the motor pool before he had to return to his company that were now faced with the battle for Hamburger Hill — a stalemate that was witnessing terrible losses. “I refused to go and was told I’d either end up in Leavenworth Prison for a year and still have to go back and complete my service or perhaps just be shot — this was a combat zone and I was refusing to fight. I filed for C.O. status again but knew I would be going to jail or would have to fight and probably die. I sat on a helipad waiting for orders either way. I was in a daze. Suddenly a company clerk came running towards me, waving some papers. I had been given new orders, a reprieve — I was to work for three months in the PX — the store, a place rife with corruption and black marketing. It was unbelievable what went on there. I was able to send all kinds of things home to my family and friends — stereos, cameras, even a Rolex watch to my Dad, I learnt all the corrupt ways of doing things. It was amazing. Shocking, I guess. My mother asked me how I could afford all those things on my pay. It was weird. I realized later that I’d had my own Catch-22 situation — it was bizarre, funny, yet tragic.”

In November 1969 Michael was discharged from the army, a little early because he had been accepted into college, and he attended a J.C. for a semester. Then a friend, who was a film editor, offered him a job as a ‘gopher’ on the documentary of a tour by Joe Cocker — ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’, which was released in 1971. Over time Michael worked as assistant editor, assistant sound editor, and music editor on various other projects in and around Los Angeles, while also continuing his enjoyment of repertory theater and music. “I guess I was in the ‘fast lane’ there for about 4 years or so. There were some crazy times and I could have burnt out like so many did but in 1973 I decided to get away from it all. I had attended craft fairs doing music and theater, and made many contacts there. Back at high school I had tried to build a guitar and was interested in more of that. I was offered a job making instruments with some friends from the fairs who lived in Santa Cruz in northern California and jumped at the chance. Besides, there was a good music scene there, unlike the burnout scene in LA where it was hard to avoid all the temptations — that Peruvian marching powder could be very enjoyable but it was no longer for me.”

Over the next few years, Michael really enjoyed his new surroundings, honing his craft as instrument maker and playing lots of music, including learning to play the fiddle, in what was a vibrant scene. However, in the summer of 1977 he fell in love and he and his girlfriend moved to Aspen, Colorado where they opened a shop selling moccasins — shoes and boots. “I did that for a year but then the relationship ended and I got out of the business. I stayed in Aspen for another year but was missing California and the music scene there. I had kept in touch with three friends from my fair days who lived in Pt Arena in Mendocino County, north of San Francisco and they suggested I move there. I had some money saved up, I had my tools, and wanted a place removed from civilization somewhat, but close enough to a good music scene, so in 1979 I moved west.”

Michael set to work making instruments and after a year he had enough inventory to attend the craft fairs with his goods. He did not have a regular booth but knew lots of people and sold through them. Around that time he met up with Mickie Zekley, and they played Irish music together. One evening in 1980 they played at the Sea Gull Cellar Bar in Mendocino and in the audience was the Dean of U.C. Irvine University. He offered them a gig at his college and there they met the entertainment booker for the university. This person had many, many contacts and, as a result, over the next five years Michael and Mickie toured constantly all over the western States at various folk clubs, colleges, and schools, playing their huge collection of weird instruments — including guitars, harp guitars, flutes, fiddles, whistles, mandolins, and hurdy-gurdy’s (wheel fiddles).

Meanwhile, in 1980, Michael had opened a shop selling his wares in Point Arena and then had a second one on Navarro Ridge in 1981. He moved a few miles north of Pt. Arena, to Little River, in 1982, where he was to stay until 1988. In 1984, he met Rod Cameron, a Scottish flute and woodwind instrument maker and they became close friends. Michael began to learn Rod’s trade too, buying an electric lathe from England on Rod’s recommendation, in order to do so... By the mid-nineties, Michael had pretty much finished with the hurdy-gurdy making and was exclusively working on woodwind instruments and some restorations of his choosing — mid 18th-19th century flutes, mandolins, and bassoons — “revitalizing the work of masters from a previous age is a major education for me.”

In 1984, he was teaching a mandolin class at the ‘Lark in the Morning’ music festival in Mendocino when he got talking to one of the students — Leslie. One thing led to another, they played music together, and in 1986 they were married, moving a few miles inland to Comptche in 1988, where they bought a house in “one of the last great deals...Throughout the seventies and eighties the Coast had a great music scene, an incredible network, and of course every Sunday there would be a session at somebody’s house with a pot luck, booze, and music. It was a very rich time musically to say the least. For fifteen years from 1990, when I wasn’t making instruments or playing, I had my music show on KZYX & Z and in that time Leslie became a substitute teacher and so much more at the school. In 1990, our first daughter Cora was born, with Amalia in 1994.”

In 2001, they bought property in Anderson Valley on Estate Drive in the Boonville ‘suburbs’, moving there in 2002. “By the late nineties, I had launched myself into the making of Irish bagpipes and now do that almost exclusively — I have orders backed up, with a few restorations on occasion . I used to do eighty-hour weeks but I have cut back and do about forty over six days, unless I really get in a groove and will do more. Leslie is now full-time at the Elementary School as a multi-use teacher, doing music, shows, math, the after school chorus and guitar lessons. We continue to play together sometimes, and I am in the Latin band ‘Mambo This’ amongst others, plus we have played many bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings on the Coast in recent years, performing as ‘The Klesmerterians’... Music is like breathing to me — it is what I have to do. Yes, at times I have made some money but mostly that’s just a bonus.”

I asked Michael for his thoughts on a few of the issues that concern Valley folks.

The wineries and their impact? “Well, I like wine and also many of the people involved in the wine business in this Valley. However, there is little doubt that the riparian impact has been extreme. There are lots of good sides to the wineries being here and some potentially bad too. It is not the biggest problem we face in the world.”..

The AVA? “I have never been a subscriber but from time to time I do read it at lunch in the Boont Berry Store if there is a copy lying around. There are some very good articles although I have referred to it as the AV Assassin in the past.”

KZYX radio? “I support it. It is a great idea and has always been a fabulous service for the community. In the past few years though some of the program choices have not been good and personally some of the shows, while hugely popular with some people, are not for me.”

The AV schools? “They try very hard to give a decent level of education but are faced with lots of problems, not the least of which are some of the kids going to schools elsewhere. The demographic shift in recent times is pretty intense and I see issues in the future that will need good leadership if they are to be dealt with effectively.”

Changes in the Valley? “The economy has been stressful for many and there is still racism here — on both sides, but the Valley has done wonderfully well in dealing with the overall integration of the different communities.”

I posed a few questions to Michael.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Good music; great traditional craftsmanship.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “US politics. Consumerism.”

Sound or noise do you love? “The ‘toc, toc’ sound made by ravens or crows.”

Sound or noise you hate? “The whining of my loose fan belt.”

Favorite food or meal? “The green enchiladas at Lauren’s Restaurant here in Boonville.”

6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one, who would that person be? “The French actress Audrey Tautou — well, you did say off the top of my head and she just came to mind — wow!”

If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “A saw, a knife, and a guitar.”

Favorite film/song/book, or one that has influenced you? “Well a song would probably be Dylan’s ‘Girl from the North Country.’ I’ve been playing and singing it since I was 15. As for a book, how about one from recent times. ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a 2000 novel by American author Michael Chabon that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction... And films — that’s really tough. So many have been powerful for me, I’ve been a film buff for ever. Even if I had to give a top ten it would be hard.”

Favorite hobby? “Reading and photography.”

Profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? “Acting in the theater.”

What profession would you not like to do? “A fireman, like my father. My mother suggested that I should be one.”

Something you wish you could do over again? “I wish I had started making Irish bagpipes earlier. Other than that, and Vietnam, I wouldn’t change anything.”

A memorable moment in your life; a time you will never forget. “That time when I was on the helipad in Vietnam, waiting to be court-martialed or sent into battle, then my new orders arrived. I remember that moment so vividly.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “The births of my two daughters.”

Saddest? “When I was inducted into the army.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself — physically, mentally, spiritually? “My ability to make myself happy by playing music.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? — “Well, that will remain a great mystery for all of us, for ever. I guess, for these purposes, if he said ‘Welcome to Heaven, here’s your accordion’ that would be good.” ¥¥

(To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week’s guest interviewee from the Valley will be Muriel Ellis of General Knowledge Trivia Quiz fame.)

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