Friday, March 26, 2010

My Vodka Breakfast with Jim Marshall

Late Wednesday night, I received word that iconic music photographer Jim Marshall had passed away at the age of 74 and I felt a pang of regret. For months now, his latest book, 'TRUST', has been sitting in my office, sent to me by the publisher - a reminder to schedule the follow-up interview that I never followed up on.

I first met Jim Marshall on the second day of 2004. A few weeks prior, I'd suddenly become obsessed with his famous 'flipping the bird' photograph of Johnny Cash at the San Quentin sound check in 1969. I must have a poster of it, I decided.

And so, I began trolling the interwebs and - what luck! - came upon the phone number of the photographer, Jim Marshall, who lived right in my very town: San Francisco. What are the odds? In a moment of ballsy idiocy (with occurs with some frequency in my life), I impulsively picked up the phone and dialed the number.

As the phone rang and rang (he had no answering machine), Jim's career bio popped up on my screen - his massive, beyond-impressive resume that included so many legendary subjects - Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, John Coltrane, The Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen - that my wee brain nearly popped. You know that shot of Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire? Yeah, Jim took that.

Jim Marshall has shot more than 500 album covers and his work resides in the Smithsonian. Dennis Hopper's character in Apocalypse Now was based on Jim Marshall (photo at right). When The Beatles held their final concert at Candlestick Park in 1966, Jim was the only photographer allowed backstage. Holy crap - this was the guy who friggin' invented the All-Access pass!

"Hello?", said the gravelly voice.

Dear God, was I really going to ask this legendary artist for a fucking poster? Was I that much of a flaming idiot? What in God's name have I done?!

"Hi. Is this Jim Marshall?" I managed to squeak out.

"Yeah!" he barked.

And then it dawned on me that I might just have an out. At the time I was doing film reviews and interviewing actors and directors for a local radio show, "Movie Magazine International" on KUSF-FM, 90.3.

"I'm calling to see if you'd be interested in doing a radio interview for a local station here in San Francisco...?" It was a made-up lie but at least it was better than my original question.

"Sure. When?"

And so, I managed to not make an ass of myself and arranged to meet Jim at his Castro apartment a few days later. I never did mention the poster.

I arrived just before 11:00 a.m. and knocked his door that was covered in "Jim Marshall for Mayor" stickers (he'd made a few unsuccessful attempts) and a scruffy man answered the door. Jim looked like he'd just gotten out of bed and I came to learn that he pretty much always looked like that. "Do you like vodka?" he asked.

"Um, I'm more of a whiskey girl but really, Jim, I've already had breakfast so ..."

"Debbie! Um, I mean, Lisa!"
Jim always had a young girl working for him who ran his life. An exasperated girl appeared in the room with a distinct 'What now?' look on her face. "Can you go to the store and get us some vodka?"

"You've already got three bottles in the kitchen," she said.

"Oh, good! Bring us some."
So she did - no ice, no mixer - nothing like straight vodka before noon.

Jim took a gulp and stated. "I'm actually not much of a drinker. I like cocaine. I just keep it around for company."

Clearly, I was in the presence of Greatness, and from another era, no less.

So, I began arranging my gear for our interview - laptop, microphone, small digital camera and my large film camera. "You got too many toys," he growled.

That day, Jim's living room was filled with black-and-white prints, all being sorted and organized for his book, 'Proof.' Marilyn Monroe, Steve McQueen, Mel Torme, Michael Douglas - each one a masterpiece.

We chatted and he let me snap a few shots although he was very shy and wouldn't look at me. As someone who is more comfortable behind the camera than in front, I totally understood.

The interview (which can be heard here) began in a classic fashion. I made a comment about being Annie Leibovitz calling him "THE rock-and-roll photographer" and his graveled response: "I don't shoot rocks! I shoot people! Ansel Adams shoots rocks!"

I asked him about the Cash photo ... big mistake. Jim launched into a full-scale rant: "Arggh! I HATE that photo! I wish I'd never taken it. More than any other, that shot has cost me so much money and grief. So many people have stolen that image and used it for all kinds of things. My lawyers can't chase them down fast enough. Do you know that you can even buy cheap posters of that shot?" he looked at me, incredulous.

Wisely, I repressed the urge to say, "Where?" and instead chose the words, "That's terrible!"

We had fun, for sure. At some point, he mentioned that another interviewer from the local NPR station, KQED, was coming over so I began to pack up my 'toys.' "Oh, well thanks so much for your time, I-"

"No! You don't have to leave. Hang out, it'll be fun!"
he said. Alrighty, then.

And so, I hung out on Jim's couch, going through his amazing prints, while the lovely Elizabeth Pepin showed up with her toys. The three of us had a lovely time together and I really never wanted to leave.

Turns out, I didn't have to. After Elizabeth left, I said, "Well, this has been great, Jim, but I should be going ..."

"Really? But 'Law & Order' is on!" he said, somewhat pleading.

And so, there I was, watching TV with Jim Marshall, the godfather of music photography and all I can think about is that he used to do drugs with Janis Joplin, sleep in Johnny Cash's house and went to Jimi Hendrix's funeral with Miles Davis. But now, evidently, he's into vodka and L&O. I should have pumped him for more stories but I got the sense he just wanted to relax and hang out.

Eventually, I left - some six hours later - but we hung out a couple more times after that. Jim, as many of his friends will attest, was somewhat unpredictable in mood. He could be cuddly like a bear, like the day I met him, or irascible like a dragon.

One time I showed up at his doorstep and rang the bell. He literally poked one eye past the door - his hair sticking wildly up. "Hey Jim, I was in the neighbor-" SLAM! A week later, he'd take me to lunch like it never happened. Jim was a bit of a Jekyll/Hyde character but overall, pretty lovable.

I recall mentioning to one pro photographer that I'd been to Jim's house. "Well, that's odd," he said, looking me over and holding up my arm, "You don't seem to have any permanent scars."

As the years went by, I'd taken up the habit of calling Jim on his birthday, February 2. I never did it to remind him of who I was (for it was not something to be counted on) but because he was always so delighted by it. He just loved it that someone remembered the date. One year, I caught hell for missing the year prior: "I waited but you never called!" he yelled, in that famous gravel voice.

Jim was one-of-a-kind photographic master and a powerful witness to so much cultural history, I can't hardly believe my luck in having spent time with someone of his experience and talent. The only silver lining in all this: I guess this means I can finally stop feeling guilty about having that big Cash poster in my office.

RIP Jim Marshall, you lucky bastard. Next time I get my hands on some vodka, you'll get a fine toast.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

And Now Back To Our Regularly Scheduled Fluff

After yesterday's epic blizzard that dumped a foot of snow in Denver, I went exploring today and came across these cheeky fellows. I spotted them from my stroll through Wash Park and crossed Downing traffic to reach them. SO FUN. Note the beer bottles for shoulder guards:

And the camera lenses for eyes, of course. Then there's the rake for a claw and a bike rim for a crown. As one guy explained, "We were inspired!"

"So, what's his name?" I asked.

"Oh, wow. That's right, we need a name,"
said one. "What do you think?"

"Maybe something manly and fierce, like Cyborg Bill?" said I.

"Yeah. Or maybe we could just call him Robert," said another.

They were especially proud of their latest idea, crafting another claw out of - get this - SNOW. They pointed it out and wanted to know what I thought. "Yessiree, that there snow claw is coming along nicely," said I, in my best friendly neighbor voice.

But I didn't tell them what I really thought, which is that I love how a big, fat snow dump brings the world to a halt and makes you sit still just long enough so you can launch yourself out into the next day like a caffeinated jack-in-the-box.

And I certainly didn't tell them that most of all, I love how snow brings out the insane trash artist in everyone.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Winds of Change

Today's signing of an historic health care bill has the country in pure tizzy mode. GOP lawyers are lining up to file suits, states are hurriedly enacting bans (all ineffectual) and members of congress are still wiping spit from their suits. Angry, angry, angry. Scared and confused, like a bunch of Ritalin kids playing musical chairs to Rage Against The Machine.

I have observed all the madness at arm's length - a distance that I willfully created after Obama won the election. For so many years, (eight, to be exact) I existed in a state of suspended rage. By the time George W. Bush won his second term, I had some impressive ulcers going. When visiting my Republican family members, I could only sit, apoplectic, and keep the cocktails flowing.

About two years into Bush's second term, my white-hot rage began to cool. I certainly didn't feel better about things (the term 'WMD's' still sets me off), but I could no longer sustain my heightened fury. I'd exhausted myself right into defeated, gray apathy and I was not alone. I recall a phrase being thrown around at the time: "Anger fatigue."

About six months before the election, I began to care again. And so, I joined the Obama campaign and went door to door, made phone calls and gave hours of my time to a man and his vision of an improved America that I believed in. I still believe in this vision, more so today than any other.

Although I celebrated when Obama won, I cringed just thinking of how we would soon discover that he was simply a man and not a superhero; a father (a smoker even!) and a basketball fan who was highly intelligent and yet, not an action figure. If there's anything we love to do here in America, it's build up our idols and rip them down once the party soundtrack runs out.

Even the day after, I began dreading the honeymoon's close. (Note my shot of Susan Sarandon and Dana Delaney purchasing their very own Obama Action Figure dolls at the Democratic National Convention here in Denver.) I recall saying aloud to the televised image of OB being adored: "Enjoy all the love while you can, Mr. President, before they all grow teeth and a taste for blood. Yours, specifically."

It was the same dread I felt immediately after 9-11, back when the world showered us with sympathy and love, and I knew that all those good vibrations soon be loaded into machine guns. Sure enough, we immediately began a new war that was more about paranoia, emotion and manly ego than it was about finding Osama Bin Laden. Despite 11 of the 19 highjackers coming from Saudi Arabia (our allies), we invaded a country that posed no threat to chase down an old man in a hole who had a warmer relationship with Donald Rumsfeld than he did with that other evil mastermind hiding in an Afghanistan cave.

Ugh. See? All that frothy bile, it's all still in there, lying dormant. But here's the thing. I hired this man, this Obama guy ('cause that's I how view voting) to do a job. Not just any job, the biggest fucking job the world has created during one of the worst global economic shitstorms mankind has ever seen. I trust him, I believe in him and god knows, I just enjoy having a POTUS who is smarter than I am and remain giddy about that part.

And so I turned my back on Obama, I had to. I silently bid him, "Good luck, pal!" and returned to my life that so badly needed tending. I looked away because I couldn't stand the petty complaining and because I trust him. At some point, I had to, otherwise there would be no going forward for me or the country that I so desperately love.

To those who complain that OB has not cured racism, fed the world, fixed the Middle East, outed all the gay soldiers, improved our education, fixed the housing/banks/auto/airline industries, thinned up all the fat kids or cleaned up the swampy mess that is the American economic system in 15 months, I say this: GIVE THE MAN A FUCKING CHANCE. I mean, what have you done today? This week? Last month?

It's easy to forget that during Ronald Reagan's first term, unemployment reached 11% and 50% of Americans disapproved of how The Great Communicator was doing the job we'd hired him to do. Think about it. Eventually, we recovered enough to reward ourselves with shoulder pads, big hair and DuranDuran.

I just can't believe that anyone believes the current healthcare system is working. I have been very lucky in this regard but when I hear story after story of good people who get sick then lose their jobs, their houses, their savings, I think, "When did the American Dream become the American Nightmare?"

When a friend's daughter, a hardworking young nursing student who also works full time, was denied health coverage because she had once been on anti-depressants, I was aghast. How are we supposed to grow and thrive, or even get back on our feet when the system works against us?

Again, I dread all the wrangling and whining that is sure to come but at least the man has written a prescription for a very sick country in active denial. Americans have become fat, lazy, over-medicated, under-educated and way too much cheap, plastic crap (Made in China!) stacked in our McMansions. And, for the first time in history, kids today face a shorter life span than their parents. Is this the paradise everyone is so worried about losing?

I've kept mum for awhile now but today, I turn around and applaud the man I hired. Good job, OB, but get those steel-toed boots on and keep that secret stash of smokes handy. Our progress isn't going to happen without a fight.

(Top photo by Reid Kirkpatrick.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Life: A Success Story

Lawson, the charming fellow smiling above, moved on to the Next Big Thing one week ago today, just one month shy of his 97th birthday. He was the Paton family patriarch and a damn good one at that.

Although they were first cousins (their fathers were siblings) my mother considered Lawson the older brother she never had. When she was seven, she acted as ring bearer in his wedding. "I remember he carried me over a mud puddle, so I wouldn't get dirty," she said, smiling.

Thus, we booked ourselves immediate flights way, way up to the northeast corner of North Dakota, just a few miles shy of the Canadian border, to honor Lawson and say goodbye. Best of all was getting together with Paton family to tell stories about this adorable man who was such a life-loving character.

My favorite parts about Lawson were his famous smile, mischievous wink, emphatic hugs and fluffy, white hair - very Kramer-esque in its natural altitude. He was also a big fan of his own hair - present and past. Any and all visitors to Lawson's house would also be shown the contents of a small, white box which contained the thick, golden curls from the head of Boy Lawson. (Keeping curls was some strange Scottish custom - Mama Iva still has hers.) I seem to recall the curls were tied with a small, blue bow and I was never sure what to say but then again, what's to be said? The man knew his curls.

In fact, when we visited with Lawson's son, Roy, (one of Lawson's four kids) one of the first things he said was: "We've decided that the curls are going in the box with him," he said, "That way, we know exactly where they are."

Lawson was born on April 20, 1913 in rural Neche and lived in the area for the rest of his life. He married Jessie Sanders on November 10, 1940 and they were married for 66 years, until Jessie's death in 2006. Together they raised four kids - Luverne, Lyle and twins, Roy and Royce.

Though Lawson was a die-hard North Dakotan ("It's a pretty nice day," was his observation, no matter what the weather), he didn't exactly stay home all the time. In fact, He and Jessie visited us quite a few times in SoCal. During one Xmas gift unwrapping extravaganza, I recall that Lawson was only too happy to model my new wrap-around corduroy skirt. I thought he looked pretty cute in it.

Lawson and Jessie explored all 48 continental states in their trusty motor home but were always happy to get back to North Dakota. After all, Lawson had geraniums to look after...lots and lots of geraniums. He loved them so much and their blatant optimism reflected his personality to a 'T.'

(As I type this, I realize that I have a giant, happy geranium plant on my desk that I've coddled for about two years. I'll now think of Lawson every time I tend it or kiss its fuzzy leaves. Yes, I do this - not even kidding.)

Now, folks are made different in North Dakota. Not sure if it's the air or the dirt or what but they are just made better and therefore, last longer. Even though he was 96-years-old, Lawson was still able to pop down on one knee if need be. He daughter, Royce, told his about him wolfing down his dinner the night before his passing. Dude was sprightly. Even better, his brain not only contained the original set of marbles but a few more even; Lawson's memory was legendary.

Lawson was a huge help to my Grandpa Wilbur (his uncle) and helped run the Paton's Isle of Memories, the museum that Wilbur created honoring turn-of-the century rural life. When we donated much of the collection to the Icelandic State Park a few years ago, Lawson was again, right there the whole time.

The family all agreed that Lawson's demise does not qualify as a tragedy. His long, happy, fruitful life was something to be celebrated. And his quick, painless death after a joyous near-century here on Earth stands as the ultimate success. We should all be so lucky to score both.

Lawson Paton will be missed but I'm so, so glad our lives intersected. His life reminds me that our turn on this blue marble should be embraced and greeted with gusto, right up until our number is called. But more than anything, he taught me that I definitely ... DEFINITELY ... want my own golf cart. And more geraniums.

RIP Lawson.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Quick trip to NoDak

Anyone who knows me also knows full well my deep feelings for the state of North Dakota. For one thing, it gave me (and the world) Mama Iva (and many cousins that I love) but also because it is stark and beautiful remains a mystery for the majority of Americans.

Then there's the space. NoDak has one of the lowest population densities in the nation with just 9.3 people per square mile. There is so much parking, a San Franciscan's head might just explode with possibilities.

In comparison, Colorado has 46.9 people per square mile and California has 234.4. Let's put it this way, when you use your turn signal in NoDak, you end up feeling like an idiot - the chances of anyone actually being behind you are quite slim.

To honor the Paton family patriarch (Lawson Paton will get his own post), Mama Iva and I made a run for the Canadian border, to Pembina County, where all the family gathered. Though it was just 3 days/nights, it was enough to remind me to go back in September.

It wasn't freezing, maybe mid-30s, and no wind but there was still plenty of snow on the ground. During our stay a persistent dense fog hung in the air which created this unearthly, heavenly feel - ideal for a funeral, really.

In places where the snow did melt, it revealed coal black earth so fertile, it made me want to stuff some in my suitcase to replace our dry, sandy soil in Colorado. JEALOUS.

Amidst all our visiting, Mom and I swung into Neche, the tiny town (Pop. 437) where she was born. Picture it: February, 1933. My Grandma Myrtle, fully in labor, loaded herself into a horse-drawn sleigh and traveled to Aunt Edna's house, several miles away, to give birth. NoDak people do not flinch at such stories, as they are common. These people are true grit, quietly defined.

After some cousin-confirmations, we finally located the right house. I made her get out and stand in front, even though she no longer recognized the house. Even though my mother describes her childhood as lonely (she was an only child), I'm still quite envious that she rode her Shetland pony, Betsy, to school every day until she started attending school in Long Beach, about age 15. Can you imagine?

Every town worth its salt in NoDak has massive grain elevators, the skyscrapers of the prairie. (Water towers too.) The elevators also serve as meeting spots, like giant water coolers for farmers. In fact, Brent (the man who farms our land) first heard about Lawson's passing while waiting to unload some wheat at the elevator and texted me right away with the news, thus making me the new "source" for information - a new position!

I'm so glad we made the effort and endured the travel. North Dakota is like going to the moon - you always get the sense that you are somewhere the modern world and heaven. I can't wait to go back.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

I Used To Live Here

Yup. Hermosa Beach, California (Pop. 18,500). Known as the blue-collar version of its fancy-schmancy neighbor, Manhattan Beach. Hermosa ("beautiful" in English) is mostly populated with the behind-the-scenes folks who really run LA's entertainment industry - set designers, stunt men, make-up artists, key grips, best boys and cameramen. They are famously unimpressed with the very famous, as they all have their own eyebrow-raising anecdotes about "actors" - usually spoken with some derision.

To the residents of Hermosa Beach, the only true celebrities worth true adulation are the very-impressive local volleyball players. On our recent trip to L.A., we stopped off in this adorable little seaside town, conveniently located half-way between LAX and Mama Iva's house in Long Beach. I wanted to show Reid the wee apartment that I once called home. Behold:

Even though it was Linda's apartment (my flight attendant friend), she was never there and let me share. I was unbelievably happy in this place. I remember coming home one day from one of my four jobs at the time (art model, car valet, music journalist, taxi dancer) and feeling like a dip in the ocean. I lived close enough to put on my suit and jog right down to the sea ... Paradise.

When I think about it now, I realize Hermosa Beach was the last place I ever lived in Southern California (before moving to San Francisco in Feb. 1997) and I'm so very glad my 31-year run ended on a high note.

So, Reid & I are strolling the Strand along with bicyclists and joggers, checking out all pretty beachfront houses and I'm explaining the local importance of volleyball. In fact, it is often referred to as the "Beach Volleyball Capital of the World." (Last year, Hermosa Beach was also named the "best place to live for the rich and single" by CNN Money.) Looking into one living room, I notice tangible evidence - a cluster of volleyballs sitting under the glass coffee table, just waiting to be fetched:

I just love it when clear evidence presents itself....

Now, usually when one visits the old haunts, one is pained by the inevitable changes. Sure, some things were different but nothing that hurt. I did note this fancy new Tsunami Hazard Zone sign that was most definitely NOT there during my residence. In fact, I doubt I even knew the word back then, let alone pronounce it properly. The 2004 Indonesian tsunami that killed over 230,000 people changed that for everyone.

As we reached the epicenter of the Strand, I turned the corner and my jaw dropped. The last block of Pier Avenue, just before the pier begins, had been filled in and turned into Pier Plaza - pedestrians and cafe tables only! What a fantastic new development. All those tanned bodies frolicking about on bikes and roller blades in mid-February made me thirsty for we got on that right away.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Pioneer Bowl

As I have stated oft-before, my favorite region on Earth is Joshua Tree and its environs, which includes one very special place. Just off Highway 62 heading into the hi-desert towns (Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms) one would take a left, about four miles down a dusty, windy road until you land at Pioneertown.

Pioneertown is a real town, with real residents (Pop. 350), although it was once a film set for Western movies and television shows in the 40s and 50s. ("Cisco Kid" and "Judge Roy Bean" were filmed there.) I love this place more than I can express as it encompasses so many of my favorite things - the California desert, show business and Wild West iconography.

On our recent trip to LA, Reid, my mom and I headed to our place in Twentynine Palms, where I insisted on taking Reid to see the little town for hisself. I also wanted to introduce him to Pappy & Harriet's, my favorite honkey tonk in the entire world.

On this visit along Mane Street, I discovered Pioneer Bowl and JOYJOYJOYJOY! OMG, how could I have not known about this wonderful, magical place? I entered through a creeky wooden door and I swear, I heard country music angels singing in my ear, and then I realized it was Patsy Cline on the jukebox. HEAVEN.

Built in 1947 by A.E. Thompson, Pioneer Bowl is a six lane-site to behold. And talk about Western cred! Roy Rogers rolled out the first ball in 1949 and Gene Autry frequently taped his show at the Pioneer Bowl. The walls are covered in comical murals depicting behind-the-scene antics during tapings of Western pictures.

Before the installation of automatic pinsetting in the '50s, kids were hired as pinsetters, and according to the Morongo Basin Historical Society, Pioneer Bowl is one of the oldest bowling alleys in continuous use in California.

On your way to the bathroom, you pass through a room packed full of vintage pinball machines. I couldn't tell if they were playable or not but they were real beauties, remnants of time long gone.

It just kept getting better and better. Though our time was limited, we sat the bar to take it all in. The bartendress was a lovely, chatty woman who could not have been more excited about her place of employment. She happily shared all kinds of anecdotes and info about the place and pointed proudly to a large framed black-and-white photograph of Roy Roger's famous inaugural bowl.

"And you know he bowled a very decent 198 ... while wearing cowboy boots!" she laughed. "He was just one of those people who did well at everything, I guess."

Then, we noticed a big boxy television set circa 1970 that was playing an old Western movie. "You keep watching," she advised, "and you'll see Pioneer Bowl in many of the scenes." I thought our luck was golden but the TV is set up to play (on DVD) only films and TV shows that were filmed in Pioneertown. SO FUN.

Just down Mane Street, there was a group of fancy photographers roaming about. Because it was so chilly outside, they kept wandering in to get tea, coffee or hot chocolate. Each one had the same thing to say: "This place is a-friggin'-mazing."

I cannot express here in this space how much I want to have a party at Pioneer Bowl. Seriously. I don't know who would come but it would be worth it. Do you know how they keep score at Pioneer Bowl? With pencil and paper! The 'lounge' area is filled with vintage vinyl furniture, the kind you dream of finding in some backwoods vintage store. The entire place reeks of authenticity.

So, if I had a party at Pioneer Bowl, who would come? Maybe you?