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Lawrence Livermore & Piano Jimmy

It was a real kick-in-the-memory to read about Larry Livermore coming back to say hi and reminisce about Spy Rock and his Lookout band and creating unappreciated turbulence in Laytonville.

Before Larry and a few other troublemakers with poison pens came along, Laytonville was a live-and-let-live town. Despite being full of redneck loggers and mill workers who were not at all happy about the new marijuana culture, people in town mostly just wanted to be left alone: You mind your own business and I’ll mind mine. So town people did not care for Mr. Livermore or his Lookout. But the town absolutely despised another newcomer writer (who wrote for the Lookout or another local paper) who decided to shoot his mouth off over marijuana: a busybody and all around prick named Joe Knight. “Shit stirrer” the town people called him. Mr. Knight didn’t stay long in Laytonville but he sure left a pile of crap and angry people behind. “Shit stirrer.”

But it was fun to be reminded of Larry’s nemeses, Piano Jimmy, who gained a little bit of world fame from the many interviews Larry gave to music and entertainment publications about the beginnings of the Green Day band, stories slightly incorrect, but they read well.

Piano Jimmy was the keyboard player in the Red Hots, a popular Laytonville band fronted by a hot guitar player known as Indiana Slim. Slim loved off-the-wall people and off-the-wall music, and so he loved Larry Livermore’s Lookouts, who were young energetic teenagers who didn’t play their instruments very well and who, despite having a drummer who would later become famous in Green Day, couldn’t keep a beat.

The Lookouts, other than playing parties up on Spy Rock Road where they all lived, I don’t think ever had a local gig. But Slim would sometimes invite them to play a few songs during Red Hots gigs, and, well, Larry and Piano Jimmy were not the best of friends. It was at a Red Hots gig in Laytonville, not a Lookout gig, that Larry came up to the stage during a break and got in Jimmy’s face over something, and Larry reached up and banged on Jimmy’s piano keys. Jimmy punched him out. Nothing much came of it except for Larry’s reinventing and retelling the story year after year.

Piano Jimmy was a gruff but much liked man, and a big part of the Leggett community where he lived for many years. He helped found and run the annual Leggett Valley Folk Festival and always donated his time and music to fundraisers to support the tiny Leggett Volunteer Fire Department. Jimmy was married for forty years to a very sweet woman named Alice, who worked for the local judge as the clerk of the Leggett court, back when Mendocino County still had courthouses in most communities in the county. Jimmy passed away in 2020 at the age of 71. Jimmy’s obituary in the Redheaded Blackbelt fondly remembered “a larger than life character with a gravelly voice and a big heart.”

Those were good times, before marijuana destroyed the land and the community.

Please just sign me as a long-time member of the Laytonville community (48 years: almost local).

* * *

LAWRENCE LIVERMORE RESPONDS: 

I had heard from mutual friends that Piano Jimmy was seriously ill, but I did not know he had passed away. I'm sorry to hear that, and I send my condolences to his family and friends.

I had also heard over the intervening years that there was a lot more to Jimmy - most of it good - than picking fights with musicians whose style or approach he didn't approve of. And to be fair, I brought some of the trouble on myself by speaking too intemperately and acting too hastily. In any event, it's been several decades since I felt the need to harbor any resentment toward Jimmy or any of the other locals who didn't always welcome me with open arms. It was, as they say, character-building.

However, I would question the writer's assertion that Laytonville was a "live-and-let-live" oasis of rural harmony before those pesky newcomers started moving in. The town always had a mean streak to go along with its big heart. That being said, I probably was on the receiving end of more hostility from (some of) the hippies and pot growers than I was from the rednecks and townspeople. I might not have survived up there in the hills without the help and advice I received from many locals. Even the folks at Bailey's Logging Supplies were unfailingly courteous, despite the war of words I was constantly waging with Bill, their boss. And Bill himself dropped $20 (no small sum in the early 80s) in my tip basket when I was playing piano (let me be the first to admit I was no Piano Jimmy) at the Mad Creek Inn.

I'd like to address a couple small discrepancies in the writer's account, though. The Lookouts did in fact play some local gigs, and my first encounter with Piano Jimmy came at a gig I myself had set up at the old Czech Lodge (later Grapewine Station and Area 101). Although I'd seen Jimmy play with Slim's excellent band, the Red Hots, I'd never had any personal interaction with him until, in the middle of our set, he unplugged our power to show his disapproval of our music.

"That's not music, it's just a bunch of noise!" he shouted, which, I pointed out, was the same thing my father always said about any music created after the 1940s. But to be clear, this was our gig, and Jimmy was there voluntarily as a spectator. It was a free show, and nobody was forcing him to be there or to listen to us.

The unfortunate incident of the black eye happened at Harwood Hall in beautiful downtown Laytonville a couple of years later. Slim's band was playing a benefit show for the family of a young girl who'd tragically drowned, and he (Slim) invited the Lookouts to perform as well. By this time we actually had learned to play our instruments (a little, anyway), but even I had my doubts as to whether our style of music was appropriate to the occasion. But Slim encouraged me, saying that it would help create a feeling of the whole community uniting behind the bereaved family.

So we'd hauled all our instruments and equipment down from Spy Rock and were nervously waiting, not sure how we'd go over with the crowd, when Slim told me to get our gear up on stage and start playing. It was at that point that it became clear Jimmy was determined not to let us play, as he started removing our equipment from the stage as quickly as we could get it up there, then plugged in his piano and started noodling around with a fellow musician. Slim refused to take sides, essentially saying, "It's between you and Jimmy," and that's when I made the stupid move of banging on Jimmy's keyboard and received a hefty punch in return.

In retrospect, we probably shouldn't have been playing that show, but neither should Jimmy have been trying to use force to stop us from doing so. There are a lot of bands and musicians I can't stand listening to, but I'm pretty sure I've never physically tried to stop them from playing (maybe the fact that I'm only about half the size of Piano Jimmy had something to do with that). A lot of water under the bridge now (and hopefully there will be a lot more, if this accursed drought ever comes to an end). We found our audiences elsewhere, and all lived happily on.

I do agree to some extent that marijuana ruined things for the community, but one can't say that without acknowledging how, before it became Big Business, marijuana also enabled much of the community that we now remember so nostalgically. The same could be said of the logging and timber industry that preceded marijuana: Laytonville wouldn't have had much reason to be there without it, yet even though it created an economy that allowed families and businesses to (temporarily) thrive, it wound up destroying much of what made the area special. I guess you could say that about any industry that completely dominates and controls a city or region (I grew up in Detroit when the automobile was king, and look how that turned out).

I was surprised to hear Joe Knight mentioned with such vehemence. Joe was a columnist for the Laytonville Ledger, the town's weekly newspaper that preceded the Mendocino County Observer. He never wrote for the Lookout, nor would he have been allowed to, as I found his opinions too wishy-washy (though he himself, the couple of times I met him, seemed like a decent guy). I guess that was the thing, though: the radical firebrands didn't like his writing because it was too moderate, whereas the more reactionary locals thought of him as a contemptible liberal. I myself was banned from the pages of the Laytonville Ledger, which is how I wound up starting the Lookout, but that's another story.

Once again, thanks for the news and memories, and it sounds as though - bar a few not so significant details - we agree on more than we disagree. I've always told people that my time on Spy Rock and in and around Laytonville, was one of the most priceless and formative periods in my life, and I expect I'll continue saying so until they cart me away, so let me send my fond wishes and regards to all who once lived there or still do.

Lawrence Livermore

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