Sarai Austin, 1946-2016

You don’t forget. You go on but you don’t forget. Everyone’s grief is different, but that’s how mine is. Those of you who’ve been in my life lately know I’m walking around like a (mostly) functioning human being, with occasional descents into foolishness, but at odd times, or when the calendar rolls into a 16th of the month, or a Sunday afternoon, nothing makes more sense to me than this poem Sarai wrote 17 years before she died:

Grief empties you,
your flesh scarcely
noticeable.
As though you’ve
lost weight,
pound per pound
to whatever
the loss.

A frail aging
parent, you lose
half of yourself,
a lover
yourself plus half.

Sarai Austin
3/26/99

Gary Numan (center)

Last week I went to see Gary Numan at the Observatory in San Diego, the same stage where I saw Father John Misty earlier this summer. Both were a bit loud and theatrical and used spotlights a lot, but other than that they could not have been more different.

First of all let me say I’m not a rock historian, if such a thing is possible, not even a rock journalist, or even a journalist. I’m just an old white guy who knows what he likes and, sometimes, as in this case, worries why he likes it. (For the record, I was born the same year as Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jim Morrison, and Joni Mitchell, and a few months after Jimi Hendrix. On the other hand I was listening to the Cure when my daughter, living with me so she could get in trouble out of sight of her mother, was learning the Beatles before graduating and embarking on a Deadhead tour.)

However, here’s what I know, or think I know, or pretend to think I know: after the 60s ended (with Altamont and the Manson murders and the end of the Vietnam war) music changed. Music always changes anyway (I remember when Calypso was more popular than the new thing, rock and roll), and I don’t want to get sociological about it, but there was stadium rock (irrelevant), punk, and what I like to call robot music, overly synthesized, overly stylized, etc. Mind you I liked this stuff, still do–Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears, Devo, Talking Heads. I used to say to my friends, “robots are our children” (given recent spin by the Bladerunner films and Battlestar Galactica). I liked saying that, despite the fact that it’s clearly true, if we disregard speciesism. Devo was tongue in cheek (“are we not men?”), Talking Heads told stories, albeit a little off-kilter (“this is not my beautiful wife”), and who could resist “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” however uneasy one might feel about the lyrics.

Gary Numan, and Brian Eno to a certain extent (though his project was different) carried this whole thing a bit further. Gary Numan is the poster person for robot music. Listening to him is like looking at a Klimt painting or watching synchronized swimming: if there’s anything human left it’s only because it couldn’t all be removed.

Now, Numan’s show at the Observatory. For one thing his light show, compared to Father John Misty’s, was brutal, throbbing strobes, a lot less nuance. My health at the time, the middle of a sick week, might have colored my perception, but I think not. And his stage presence, writhing on stage like a sylph (I thought that at the time, and would have written it down if pencils were allowed in the venue), was also less nuanced. Misty’s songs tell stories; if Numan’s do it’s hard to tell in the shouting, and his singing style seems designed to emulate a pre-Alexa computer voice. Maybe that’s a good thing, to keep you from mistaking him for a human.

Despite all this I liked the show; I liked him in the 70s or 80s, whenever he was around the first time, and I liked the show at the Observatory enough to stay around through the encore. But I missed real music, like Father John Misty, or, frankly, anyone else I’ve heard in this my year of concert going.

The Sleepwalkers

I heard a lot of live music over the summer–a lot for me anyway–but the last time I posted about one was an outdoor festival/concert in Venice Beach headlined by the Strawberry Alarm Clock. Someone there may have preferred the headliner over Barry Melton’s band of 60s San Francisco musicians, but it wasn’t me. Similarly, last night, though I went to the Casbah to hear the Blasters, the Alvin brothers’ rockabilly band from Downey that I’d heard of for years but never heard or seen, it the opening act, the Sleepwalkers, made me stand still and stare.

Mind you, nothing wrong with the Blasters. I might have liked them better if I hadn’t heard the Sleepwalkers first. Dave Alvin’s guitar is as good as anyone’s, and Phil Alvin played some pretty good straight harp, and there was plenty of energy, but the Sleepwalkers had more. I’ve only been going to concerts with my current frequency for about a year, and I’m sometimes at a loss for genre names, but I’m told I can call the Sleepwalkers Chicano Rockabilly, closer to Los Lobos than anyone else I know, but to me they make Los Lobos sound like Steely Dan. Or maybe that’s just the enthusiasm of the night. Their configuration is like the Stones, except that the bass is a standup, but this is no skinny British band. I’m sorry I don’t know anyone’s names. The lead guitarist was tremendous. A big guy, he’d play a solo and then turn his back and do something like a fist pump, as though he’d just scored a touchdown.

This is happy-making music, like X for another. Sometimes you want something softer, like Lana Del Rey, or more challenging lyrics, like Father John Misty, to name two I’ve heard this past year. But sometimes–not that they’re that much alike–you want the Stones, or the Sleepwalkers.

Sarai Austin

In the year since Sarai died I have more than once thought about things I would tell her if I could. I had two lists, “Things I would tell you/her if I could,” and “Things I’ve learned since you/she died.” The lists overlapped, or got confused about their missions–is “it’s not as much fun coming home” something I’ve learned or just a fact I’d tell her if I could? And of course there’s the “if I could”: I can’t. Anything I write, if it’s not just for me (and if you’re reading this you know which way I went), is bound to be opaque, my only real audience dead, her ashes deaf dumb and blind in a box downstairs.

She sometimes said she hated irrelevant trivia I’d bring up. I tried, but I guess I couldn’t be stopped. I can’t be stopped now. So here I am, another pass, in a kind of Ted Hughes-like Birthday Letter, though on the anniversary of the other end of her life (birth and death days, less than a month apart).

 

Things I would tell you if I could, other, of course, than wish you were here

laundry is never done
I’m no longer surprised when a friend goes down
I’ve learned to make kitchari
it’s not as much fun coming home
the little ways I’ve changed the house disturb me
I talk to myself when I’m alone
there’s still no place I’d rather be

the drought is over
the lake is full
the flag on the “island”
is the Bear Flag now
that Trump was elected
which you didn’t know

if nothing else keep the toilets clean
you feared I’d make a mess of things
that dust would settle everywhere
and cats would run free

Draper and Damon closed
the Radio Shack on the corner closed
the Yardage Town is on final sale
reducing inventory so the owners can retire
no more Passage to India
or Souplantation Sunday brunch
Simple TV went out of business
and with our lifetime subscription
went your Miranda videos
you exercised with
in the bedroom
as many days as you could manage
the bedroom you died in
a year ago today

I can’t disappoint you any more
or try to learn to make you happy
I can’t live our life alone
and freedom just feels shitty
time’s healing power is overrated
time makes nothing easier
time doesn’t heal
time

wish you were here


A bit earlier today I wrote: “52 weeks ago she had almost an hour left to live; a year ago, a day. It’s how the calendar works, and our trip around the sun,” a little fancy with the unimaginable. Much is still in place, her glasses on her bedside table, purses and belts on their hooks in the closet. I’ll try to make this not too sentimental. One of us goes on, the other doesn’t, nothing else has happened really. I still live in the house. After a while–too soon–I went back to work. Life, and death, continue.

Every relationship begins by accident, even if you meet in kindergarten. You get hired to tutor, you offer a ride home from a party and stick around to walk the dog, there’s a swinging door between your offices, or you meet in the parking lot of a grocery store, you make a date, specificity takes over, and twenty-seven years later, while you’re watching television, one of you dies. That’s how things go. Everything about this is unremarkable to one not living it. Most of the time we loved each other; the details were our life.

The year’s been long and, a cliché, not so long. I’ve moved things around a little, though it makes me feel funny to do so. There’s a bigger TV in the bedroom, one I can see. There’s still no meat in the house. Her studio is mostly as she left it. I have no religion, I know I’m not being watched whatever I do, I know I won’t see her again. I cry a bit. For a while I couldn’t do much of anything. I read her poems–there are a lot of them, unseen, mostly, by anyone but herself while she was alive. It’s conventional to say she lives on in her work. It’s not true, really, but reading I remember, and in some sad ways know more about her than I did before. (There are more poems now on saraiaustin.com, where I’m trying now to be less haphazard and more chronological.)

Grief empties you,
your flesh scarcely
noticeable.
As though you’ve
lost weight,
pound per pound
to whatever
the loss.
A frail aging
parent, you lose
half of yourself,
a lover
yourself plus half.

Sarai Austin
3/26/99

Time to get serious.

Things I’ve Learned since you Died

laundry is never done
I talk to myself when I’m alone
the little ways the house has changed distress me

it’s not as much fun coming home
it’s not the same, the house, my own
time makes nothing easy

and that’s about it

 

“What’s important in this life? Ask the man who’s lost his wife.”
–Chrissie Hynde

Fat chance. Or as the kids say these days, I call bullshit. Pretenders don’t know. Or know something different than what I know, whatever that is. I don’t know. I know what I’ve done since to get on, killing time to stay alive, work, visiting friends and family, music, concerts and dive bars and festivals. Things we didn’t do much together.  Good to have people around me. Some of the time.

Not complete bullshit of course. Depends on where you’re looking. When I look back I know what was important, but for living life today that doesn’t help. The worst has already happened. I know what I’ve lost, but that’s not that much help with now.

“So many things I know but they don’t help me.”
–Regina Spektor

Here’s the thing: soon after she died I started saying, to myself and to others, “the worst has already happened.” This was a helpful mantra: it mean we (her daughter and I) couldn’t fuck things up: where or whether we buried her didn’t matter for example; we should make the best choice we could for us (her ashes are in a box next to the chair she sat in every morning), but we couldn’t screw it up. The same for many, mostly less-important, decisions since. But the corollary is “the best has already happened,” the 27 years from when we met in the parking lot of the old Mayfair Market in La Jolla to five minutes before, without discernible warning, she died eleven months ago in our house in Escondido.

“I went to the store one day.”
–Father John Misty

“Grievers use a very simple calendar: Before & After.”
–Facebook post

My “after” begin eleven months ago to the hour from when I’m writing these sentences, when the best had already happened, and the worst was taking its place. Not to minimize the importance to me of my daughter, grandkids, brothers, nephews, niece, ex-wife, sister-in-law, various long-time friends, etc., but they were only occasionally, not my constant, daily life. “Before” is not the same as “after.” We carry the weight of what we don’t have with us.

all those moments will be lost in time like tears in the rain
–Rutger Hauer

John Mayall

Years ago I had the chance to hear Robert Lockwood Jr. a few times in a small club in Cleveland. My mother had just died, or was about to, and I was in the midst of a series of trips to be with her and then to deconstruct the house. Lockwood was the same generation as my mother, 91, a few months away from dying, and a link to the past as the only guitarist to have learned to play from Robert Johnson and, later, as a collaborator with Sonny Boy Williamson II. on the King Biscuit radio show. Why he preferred Cleveland to Chicago I don’t know. He’d show up at Fat Fish Blue, several nights a week I believe, across the street from the Terminal Tower (now called Tower Center, where the Republicans had the convention that nominated Donald Trump), sit down, and play. Doing what he did

I saw Big Mama Thornton once too, no longer big, sitting in a chair in the Pub at UCSD, brought there by a local musician friend, to do what she did. Most of the children (I mean college students) had no idea who she was, had no idea what it meant when she sang Hound Dog. I had no idea she’d be there when I walked in looking for a beer, serendipity I guess. And she wasn’t well, she died at 57 and this can’t have been much before that, she only looked old, older than Lockwood when I saw him.

Last week I saw John Mayall at The Belly Up in Solana Beach, the same place I saw X the week before. X had a good time, fortieth anniversary tour, perhaps planning to keep going until at least one of them dropped. Mayall just needs Mayall. These aren’t his glory years, if he ever had them, he doesn’t have Eric Clapton or Harvey Mandel in his band now, just a bass and drums behind him and an organ, guitar, and harmonica in front, sometimes two at once. He’s 83, and I guess you’d know it, or think he was at least 60, but maybe only for his attitude. Here’s what I thought: he has nothing to prove, he just does what he does. And for all I know that’s the way to stay alive.

The contrast with the X show was interesting. The members of X are all about a decade younger than me, Mayall a decade older. (For reference, I’m slightly older than Mick and Keith, and a few years younger–this surprised me–than Grace Slick. If you don’t know who I’m talking about you probably need to ask your parents.) Mayall’s audience skewed older than most I’ve seen at the Belly Up (though Billy Bob Thornton’s audience wasn’t terribly young either): I didn’t feel out of place, and they didn’t pat us down on the way in. X sold out two nights and the line to get in was horrid; Mayall played one night, and it was walk right in. Both X and Mayall are arguably important in the history of rock, but influence is not popularity, perhaps the reverse if the size of Pere Ubu’s audience last December at the Casbah is an indication.

Greg Douglass, Barry Melton, Peter Albin, David Aguilar, and Roy Blumenthal (on drums)

On Saturday I drove to Venice Beach in LA for the Venice Beach Music Festival. I didn’t know what to expect but, as I told a couple of friends recently, I feel as though if I can go from music to music I’ll be fine. I hadn’t been to Venice for about 40 years, the last a time I almost rented an apartment right on the Boardwalk (which doesn’t seem to have any boards, but that’s not important). The drive was bad, the parking worse, I walked a mile from my car to the beach. I didn’t start listening to the Festival music right away, walking the length of the Boardwalk to see if I could find the place I almost lived (no luck). There were musicians everywhere, craft artists, lots of signs that said things like “no free photos,” and a topless protest parade that passed within feet of me almost before I noticed. This group was followed closely by a less attractive group of religious zealots shouting what you might expect. One sign said something like “Ask me why you deserve hell.” Those guys were followed by a few police officers, to keep the peace I assume, and an incidental indication of legitimacy.

Greg Douglass, Denise Kaufman, Barry Melton

After the walk, a bathroom line, and a sandwich, I got back to the festival stage just in time to hear more old folks–my age group, my generation, this time–having fun, Barry Melton’s San Francisco All-Stars. Barry Melton is the “fish” of Country Joe and the Fish. In his band were Greg Douglass (Steve Miller), now a Del Dios resident where I used to live, Denise Kaufman (Ace of Cups), Peter Albin (Big Brother), Roy Blumenthal (Blues Project), and David Aguilar (broad resume). Seeing these guys made me happy. I love lead guitar and harmonica more than anything, and Greg Douglass and Denise Kaufman were terrific. No one played like they had anything to prove, and it was grand.

A little later the Festival headliners, The Strawberry Alarm Clock came on, suffering a little from their repertoire.

Strawberry Alarm Clock

And, just because I have it, and because if you’ve gotten this far you deserve it, here’s a photo of The Head and the Heart (a Seattle band my daughter and granddaughter like) singing California Dreaming with Michelle Phillips at Monterey Pop 50.

The Head and the Heart with Michelle Phillips
X

I don’t usually go in for hearing old bands live, touring with their old material for whatever reason (Steely Dan? and I’ve resisted both chances to hear the B-52s this summer). But X is different: hearing X makes me happy, makes me want to move to Los Angeles, and I’ve lived in Los Angeles. It could be argued that X is an important band, despite being unknown to a surprisingly large percentage of my friends, influential beyond their popularity, a band’s band maybe, like Pere Ubu.

I first heard X about 35 years ago, give or take, at a small club out Clairemont Mesa, gone now. don’t remember the name, maybe the Bacchanal but maybe not. There were a few rows of seats facing the stage and that was about it. Some drugs in the bathroom, or maybe that’s a misremembered TV show. Last week I attended the second of two sold out X shows at the Belly Up, a bigger venue than that first one but still what one might call “intimate.” Two nights before it was X Day at Dodger Stadium. They’re on their 40th Anniversary Tour.

X is back the same as it ever was, all four original members–Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom, and D. J. Bonebrake– forty years older. X is what we might have called in the late 60s a power trio with a chick singer, though I doubt I’d dare. They have power, straight-ahead punk sound, unrelenting even, coupled with the tight, unforgiving, shout singing vocal harmony between John Doe and Exene. (The only reason I hesitate to use the word “punk” is because they’re so good musically, unlike, say, the Dead Milkmen. And Billy Zoom, perhaps the straightest looking middle-aged musician I’ve seen in a long time, can flat play.) X is rarely subtle, musically, and the message of one of their best songs, Johnny Hit and Run Paulene, suffers from it, misconstrued into its opposite so that they stopped playing it for a while (but not anymore). Some of the songs are newer (Billy played a sax of some size on a couple of them) but the sound is pretty much the same, and these guys are still alive. Exene in particular–and I know the term is overused–a force of nature.

The audience was a bit punky, pogoing and jerking side-to-side, at least in my neighborhood, people probably younger than the band, but okay, better for me than the screamers at the Lana Del Rey show at the House of Blues. At one point, sometime after eleven, someone in the audience requested a song. John Doe answered, “It’s coming,” and “You were here last night motherfucker, you know what’s going on.” A little later they launched a medley, mostly from their first album, without breaks, Los Angeles, Your Phone’s Off the Hook but You’re Not, Nausea, Johnny Hit and Run Paulene, Motel Room in my Bed, and Soul Kitchen (a Doors song they do better), and an encore from a later album, The New World (my favorite) and Devil Dog. This is all according to Setlist, I was too busy listening to take notes.

The warm up band, LP3 and the Tragedy, was pretty good too, with a sound that at first made me wonder why X looked so different.