File under "Autobiography"

Sunday, May 14, 2006


1994 began neither with a bang nor a whimper, but with an almighty shaking.

When Vyan and I were married in 1991, it was right after the holidays. With wedding plans immediately after New Years, we were too busy to take down our artificial Christmas tree, so after the wedding reception we put all our presents under the tree, to be opened after we returned from our honeymoon like a "second Christmas". So it became tradition to leave the tree up until after our anniversary (the 5th of January) and get it down at some point thereafter. It was still upright when we went to bed the night of 16 January 1994,. When the sun rose, it was still upright but for the top angel being knocked slightly askew. It suffered the least damage of any area in our apartment.

Nathan was at a friend's house up in the Verdugo Hills, so Vyan and I were alone but for Kyra, the cat we had back then. I awoke to the sounds of her expelling a furball near the foot of our bed. No moon out, the digital clock read 4:30, and I pondered briefly whether to deal with the furball right then and there. Then all hell broke loose.

We had the typical Californian response when the bed began to shake. Had Kyra jumped up on the mattress? No, too strong for that. Well, if it doesn't get any worse, let's just lie here, go back to sleep and laugh about it over coffee when we get up...

Then it felt as if some giant had picked up our entire apartment building and shaken it like some huge rattle. Unlike the side-to-side or undulating movement of most quakes I'd been in - and I was a veteran of many - this was more up-and-down, more violent. Power went out immediately, and with no moon, we were absolutely in the pitch dark. I had only my violated equilibrium and sense of hearing to guide me - I could hear the walls creaking and groaning - and cracking in places, windows and other fragile items breaking and other, more hardy objects hitting the ground, neighbors screaming, and those two unmistakeable sounds of any major quake - the deep rumbling below, like some misplaced subway train roaring through at top speed, and the cacophony of dozens upon dozens of shaken car alarms going off at once.

I screamed and stumbled to the bedroom doorway with Vyan. The quake seemed to last forever - in fact, I think it was forty seconds or less. When the ground stopped moving, I quietly thanked Divine Providence that we'd gotten through this far - but my heart pounded, I felt dizzy and I was afraid I was having a heart attack, until I realized that I hadn't taken a breath since I had screamed. I was so terrified I had literally forgotten to breathe.

A couple of aftershocks later, we took quick stock of our surroundings. The ceiling was up where it belonged, though we would not see the damage to the walls and bathroom fixtures until the sun came up. My next thoughts were for Nathan, who fortunately thought to call me minutes after the quake. Being up in the nice, solid granite hills nearby, they hadn't felt the shaking quite as violently as we had, and I was relieved that he was okay. My mother also called soon afterward, likewise fine and in good spirits.

No electricity. No water. This was one of the times "they" warn you about.

Around sunrise, the phone rang - we had a real "old school" land line phone that wasn't dependent upon the house electricity to function. The caller was a friend in the Washington DC area.

"Are you watching CNN?" she asked.

"We haven't had power here since four-thirty," I replied. "I'm not watching anything but the sun coming up."

"Do you know where Ventura Boulevard is?"

"Yeah, yeah. Main drag of the Valley. Used to live a block off of it."

"Sherman Oaks?"

"Ten or twelve miles west of here. Why?"

"It's in flames."

I don't remember the rest of what she told me. The idea of an area I was so familiar with being in was too much. The floods in '91, the riots in '92, the fires a year ago, now this. Sounded like it was "The Big One".

An hour or so later, I phoned my supervisor, who also lived up in the Verdugos. I asked if she was going in to the office, which was about a mile from our apartment. She said she was, and to call her there in a couple hours to see if it was worth my while to go in - if so, my presence would be appreciated. Long story short, other than a few scattered claim files, the office was fine, and I went in, Vyan accompanying me as his own workplace, Northrop-Grumman, had decided against opening that day. Out of an office of about 60 employees, 12 of us made it in. I spent most of that day (a holiday for most people, not so in the insurance claims industry) answering phones, calming terrified insureds and pleading with them to see to their immediate safety and well-being; we would be there to take their claims when they were out of harm's way. And trying to locate our other employees. By day's end, only two were unaccounted for, one of whom turned out to have suffered a moderate knee injury. As I worked, Vyan and our branch manager, also a musician, talked up plans for a recording session. In the days to come, we all worked hard, those of us whose route to work wasn't interrupted by broken freeways. My supervisor passed squares of chocolate out to us, to bolster our stress-depleted blood sugar levels.

Life wouldn't be normal for a long time. In insurance claims, there is what they call a CAT, or catastrophe, team, and this qualified as a catastrophe. We already had a large contingent of CAT adjusters almost in-house, down at the Orange County branch, working the tail end of the Laguna Beach and Malibu fires. Most of them were shifted up to Glendale for the quake, and supplemented by fresh faces, most from Florida, Texas and Colorado. I'll never forget one day, when a particularly large aftershock hit, two of the CAT adjusters who had become almost part of our "family", a tall, stereotypical Texan complete with hat, boots and immense belt buckle, and a curly-haired, somewhat high strung little gal from Denver, suddenly grabbed one another and jumped straight up in the air. We jaded Calis laughed as the ground settled, and I quipped, "Welcome to L.A.!"

A major earthquake not only shakes the ground, it rips it open in spots, deep fissures from which exude spores, molds and fungi. The added pollution makes for a spectacularly beautiful sunset - pale consolation for breathing air that is barely air anymore. My son has asthma, and was exhibiting severe symptoms, so we decided to take him to the HMO clinic we normally went to. This meant a short drive from Highway 134 to US 101, off on Coldwater Canyon, north to Vanowen. 101 had withstood the quake, but it was catching the overflow from highways that hadn't or were otherwise closed, so it was gridlock. We gave up and got off onto the surface early. That was an adventure in itself. The streets in Burbank looked like they'd been bombed. Storefronts were boarded up, and along some streets, the entire front walls had fallen off some buildings. Damage on Coldwater was capricious. You'd see no damage for blocks, then a couple of board-ups, more seemingly undamaged stretches, then a huge pile of rubble that had once been a three-story building. Once at the clinic, we quickly learned that the HMO's Canoga Park clinic had been closed due to damage, and the Granada Hills clinic had been destroyed, so the little North Hollywood location was carrying three clinics worth of doctors, staff, patients, and extra load from quake-related injuries, illnesses and syndromes. Post-traumatic stress was pandemic, according to our family doctor. Patients were triaged in the building's atrium. Nathan was given stronger medication for his asthma, and I myself was given Asmacort due to my own, already compromised upper respiratory system being overloaded and me simply being too busy and stressed out to realize it.

A couple weeks after the quake, we went to our old neighborhood in Tarzana, to see how our old building had fared. There were long rips in the external stucco, down to the chicken wire. Our old bedroom sliding glass door was boarded up. So were about half the windows in the complex. The building was green-tagged, but there were notices pinned up out front as to how long it would be before water and electric service would be restored. We drove around, saw the ruins of Northridge Mall and the parking structure at C-SUN, red-tagged buildings near the epicenter, decapitated buildings off Burbank Blvd.

At the end of the month, Suzie, my manucurist, hosted a combination Lunar New Year party and birthday party for my son and her youngest son, Vong. Suzie was a Vietnamese immigrant who was doing well with her family-run nail salon, and had three sons, all of whom were friends of Nathan's. It was a nice party. Vyan, Nathan and I were the only non-Asians present, but I rather enjoyed that aspect. I was well-used to being the only non-something at any given event. Some of the other guests spoke no English, including Suzie's parents. I remember her mom wanting the recipe for the snack mix I'd brought, and Suzie acting as interpreter. I remember her cousin Bu being anxious to get me good and liquored up, her sister Connie (Khanh) teasing me into taking a decent bite of one of their tiny but high-octane peppers, and the unusual array of Vietnamese, Mexican and American food. There was karaoke, though no songs I was familiar with. There was also a strong aftershock that ended the festivities a little early. Their house was not far from the epicenter.

For all the cracked walls in our apartment, broken lamps, bottles and decorative items, scattered box contents from the closet, the shower cel separated from the wall, my sister's house, quite near the epicenter, hadn't fared that much worse save for a few broken wine bottles - white, fortunately, so no permanent rug stains. The major issue was a broken pipe in one wall, which she and Carlos repaired by themselves.

The ground had not stopped moving from the January cataclysm when another "earthquake" shook the world of rock music - the death of Kurt Cobain. The death was ruled a suicide, and although various theories have come out later proposing that Kurt was helped along in his exit from this world, every explanation including the "official" one was tinged with "reasonable doubt". It affected me, like the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Frank Zappa and Freddie Mercury before him. Someone who was a musical force in my life, another flawed hero, another disenfranchised kid with a guitar. Only this wasn't an accidental overdose, an assassination (unless you believe certain of the conspiracy theories), prostate cancer or AIDS - this was suicide, a sensitive subject to someone who had stared into that abyss before and there-but-for-the-grace-of-God. It particularly riled me how some people - co-workers, embittered and out-of-work '80's metalheads - were able to make insensitive and callous remarks about Kurt's death. I don't care if you don't like his music. I don't care if you think suicide is cowardly. Death isn't a joke. Self-inflicted death is an even greater tragedy - the old maxim, a "permanent solution to a temporary problem". And the remarks said more about those who made them than they did about Kurt. I only hope his soul is finally at peace.

Two months after this tragedy, we would be taking off on the latest of our "rock and roll road trips". After the fiasco in the Midwest the previous summer, dodging tornados, wading through flooded carparks and gritting teeth through fellow travellers' youthful petulance and PMS to follow an unappreciative bunch in Extreme, I was looking forward to this tour - King's X again! The travellers this time would be myself, Vyan, Nathan (now 14 years old), and our pal Simon, who hadn't got enough of the Wild West of America after his visit the previous summer. We rented a reliable car and mapped out our path: The trip kicked off with the band's show at the Palace in Hollywood, would continue up to a venue in Fresno (the name of which I've forgotten), then on to the renowned Fillmore in San Francisco, and finally the Ogden Theatre in Denver. The Denver date was, thankfully, two days after the San Francisco show - the trip-tic we ran had the S.F. - Denver drive over U.S. 50 as 23 hours. As Si hadn't been able to visit the Grand Canyon on his previous visit, we decided it would be nice to stop there for a couple of days on our way back from Denver to L.A.

Seeing bands you know in L.A. is problematic. Forget getting comped in - their guest list is flooded with "industry" names, mostly "suits" who couldn't care less about how innovative, influential and inspiring the band's music is; it's a meal ticket. We've since gotten used to things being a bit crazy when seeing signed bands who are friends of ours in Los Angeles. This gig was particularly crazy. The band was taking off, their new album "Dogman" was one of their best. Later in the year, they would be invited to play the "Woodstock '94" festival. Hence, most of my memories after the L.A. show were hazy, other than my trying to flag drummer Jerry Gaskill down unsuccessfully and remarking to my companions, "I never get to talk to Jerry!" As it turned out, they had Christian Nesmith (son of Michael) as a backstage guest, so it was more or less a case of having to accept their having a "bigger name on the other line". As Doug took the time to assure me later, things would be a little saner in Fresno.

Having lived very briefly in Fresno, I was somewhat familiar with it. With all due respect, it is the middle of nowhere. The biggest whistle stop along Highway 99 between L.A. and Sacramento. And this club was on the outskirts of the Middle of Nowhere. Before the show, as we hung out on the deck outside during sound check, we discussed the news story du jour, which was O.J. Simpson fleeing down I-405 in a white Bronco. As car chases are the #1 form of televised entertainment in L.A., it was thoroughly covered, and we mulled it over until sound check was over, and Jerry came out and made a bee line for us. We actually had a very nice, very engaging talk,. I wondered if he'd heard my remark to the guys about never being able to talk to him; it hasn't been a problem since.

The club was hot. Fresno is HOT in the summer. The Great Central Valley is an oven in the summer and an icebox in the winter. I remember us being fairly draped over the barricade in front of the stage, feeling like we were melting. But one sweet little memory came at the end of "Goldilox", when bassist/lead singer Doug Pinnick looked down at me and winked. Simon nudged me with an elbow and I got a good teasing later. I'll take it.

After the show, we were prepared to follow the tour bus up to San Francisco overnight and go park near the Golden Gate Bridge for a nap in the morning, but the band were staying in Fresno overnight. At that point, we debated whether to follow our original plan or to park somewhere locally and drive up later. Overhearing the discussion, Doug came over and informed us that they were actually going to be sleeping on the tour bus, so after he was done showering, we were welcome to crash out in his hotel room.

How's that for rock and roll hospitality?

We drove to the hotel, a modest but clean little chain affair, and sprawled out on top of the rental car in the still-hot night. Doug, freshly showered and wearing boxers and a t-shirt, came out after a few minutes and said, "Don't you look like a bunch of ragamuffins!" (Well, we did, truth be known...) Doug took time to have private talks with Simon and me before handing us his room key and heading toward the bus. A crew member passed by and made some remark, and Doug lifted one boxer leg at him, showing off one buttock quite thoroughly. Glancing back at us, he grinned and went on his way. Okay, it was only partial back-al nudity, but it was definitely Rock and Roll...

We had only about four hours before the tour bus was scheduled to leave, but we slept well and turned the key in at the desk when we left. We piled into the rental car, and as I got behind the wheel, the bus driver approached me with a map and showed me the route they'd be taking to San Francisco. He also advised me not to follow too closely, as there had been oil "spitting out" from the exhaust. He also asked if we were an opening act. I had to admit we were just friends and fans, but it was clear to us by then that we were also part of the entourage.

Too bad the management at Slim's didn't see it that way. That's right - Slim's. At the very last minute, the show had been switched from the Fillmore to Slim's, Boz Skaggs' nightclub over in the SoMa area. We followed the bus to the band's hotel and then went on to our own to wash up and change clothes. My friend Dana, who lived in the Bay Area, met us there. As the show had been billed as 18-and-up, Nathan was going to have to remain at the hotel with the TV remote and our OK for a room service pizza. Dana had tried to exchange the tickets at a nearby BASS outlet but was informed it would have to be done at the point of purchase...which was in San Jose. And here we were. In San Francisco, Union Square area. At rush hour. Sound check in just under two hours. Next thought was to simply purchase replacement tickets at Slim's, but the show was sold out. Standing outside the club after sound check, we explained our plight to the band. Their immediate reaction was to inform the club management that they were comping us in. No go - the guest list was full due to a host (dozens) of winners of a radio contest getting admission and aftershow priviledges. Ty Tabor, the guitarist, informed the guy in charge that we were friends of theirs. Didn't matter - "You're just the artist," the guy told him. A miffed Ty returned and handed the figurative baton to Doug, who had no more luck on our behalf than his bandmate had and was twice as pissed afterward. Finally, the band's tour manager went over to have a talk with Mr. Velvet Rope. I don't know what he said to him, but I sure wish I did; I'd like to keep it in reserve for future reference. Whatever it was not only got us comped in, it got us free beer and bottled water, and VIP treatment by club security. After the show there was a considerable wait to talk to the guys, but they had their contest winners to visit with, and even if our time with them was limited that night, being told by Doug that as friends, we were "off the clock" as opposed to "on the clock" with them meant a lot to us.

We all retired to our respective hotels. The band were heading out to Denver early, and taking the more civilized I-80 east - a longer drive, but closer to cities. We elected to stay in the City for lunch and a tiny bit of sightseeing for Simon, then in the afternoon we started the long drive.

U.S. 50 splits off from I-80 in Sacramento. U.S. 50 is called "The Loneliest Highway in America" and there's a reason for that. After you pass the Lake Tahoe area, there's nothing there until you hit the Utah border. I swear we drove through part of Area 51. The long stretches of nothingness made my accelerator foot a little heavier. I passed one SUV...then another...then pulled up even with a third...before spotting the Nevada State Police logo on the side. I sheepishly pulled over as his mars light started rolling. Driver's license, rental agreement and contrite expression on the ready, I rolled down the window as the lawman, a stereotypical heavyset, white-haired old guy with Aviators and a thick drawl, approached me.

"Now, sweetheart, you did two things wrong back there," he informed me. Not only had I been a bit leadfooted, but there was a cattle crossing signal I'd apparently missed. After advising me of cows up ahead and the proper Nevada highway speed limit, he went on his way without ticketing me. Properly chastened and grateful, I continued on to Ely with no further result except the later moniker of "Mustang Sally", courtesy of Doug...

At the Utah border, we switched drivers. Vyan had done the first leg, San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe, and if my memory serves, Simon took the Ely-to-Colorado state line leg. I only remember the drive through Utah hazily, the sunrise sky gradually awakening me to the beautiful scenery. We stopped for a quick breakfast just a few miles into Colorado, then I took the last leg of the drive over the Rockies and into Denver.

My initial impressions of picturesque Denver would be shattered once we got to the area around the Ogden Theatre, where the show was to take place. Our hotel was a rathole. I would feel a little less grumpy about it later on, after we'd showered, napped and grabbed a snack.

We walked the roughly block-and-a-half to the venue and waited for the band. Doug was first to arrive, but the normally mellow, unflappable singer/bassist arrived taciturn and tightlipped, red-rimmed eyes hidden behind sunglasses. As it was a cloudy day, he was obviously camouflaging the eyes, and I worried - had something happened to his mother or another family member? Finally, the others arrived and ushered us in for soundcheck. After that ritual was behind, the band members felt more able to sit with us on an upraised section of floor and explain their lateness and Doug's dark mood.

Where we had taken remote US 50, the tour bus had opted for more "civilized" Interstate 80. A drive much closer to the cities and amenities, but a longer drive. Somewhere in Utah, the oil-spewing engine of the bus had simply given out, and the band were stranded for a significant time while a van shuttle was sent from Salt Lake City to retrieve them. Finally, and well behind schedule, they reached Denver, and while I complained of our hotel, the one the band was checked into made ours look like the Ritz Carlton by comparison. Bullet holes in the walls, cockroaches skittering about the lobby, wallpaper something out of a cautionary-tale movie. Doug ran to his room (once, after finding another occupant in the first, they found a vacant one for him) and decided to shower. There were no towels, so he called the lobby to have them send a couple up. When they finally arrived, Doug said they looked like someone had worked on their car with them - filthy and oily.

That did it. Sweet Doug Pinnick, who wouldn't harm a fly, went postal. He reportedly did the sort of number on the room that only '70's rock bands had been known for in the past. That sort of tantrum is simply not Doug's modus operandi, hence the tears before his arrival, but apparently things were sorted out, which I read to mean they would sleep on their new improved tour bus that night.

Fortunately, the show went well that night, other than occasional attempts at interruption by a strange young women who kept trying to push her book of poetry toward Doug. After the show, she was among the fans behind the theatre visiting with the band. She was insistant, and talking in vagueries, until Doug finally got it out of her that she intended to have sex with him. Now, Doug had not yet publicly "come out" at that point, but my San Francisco-bred gaydar had clued me in well before this point that she was not his type, that pesky lack of a penis or a Y chromosome putting her on the "do not score" list. She tried, she insisted, and his resistance was masterful - he never insulted her, he never scolded her, and he did not budge. When she finally toodled off later, a number of us noted how well he had handled the situation. He muttered something to the effect of "You guys could have jumped in any time," though not in those precise words, and huddled with me, toying with my necklaces. Eventually, the would-be groupie attached herself to one of the road crew and they wandered off for their evening activities. ("Hope he double-wraps," another crew member would comment.)

It was our last stop on the King's X tour itinerary so the goodbyes were long and emotional, and Ty would advise us that this area was not the "real" Denver, and he recommended a trip to the Red Rocks area, which we followed up on the next morning. After that visual treat, we drove down to the Four Corners area, down - we couldn't resist - the actual Highway 666, and past a bizarre landscape of volcano plugs and bent cacti that had an almost fantasy/Martian sort of look. We refuelled somewhere in the New Mexico "corner", and - after a brief scare and reminder to Simon that in the "colonies", we perversely drove on the right side of the road - we drove through Northern Arizona to the Grand Canyon area.

Now, I am by nature a cooler weather person. I used to tolerate extreme heat well in my youth, but now I use hot spells to curl up by the fan, going through my frozen cocktail recipes. But I have always loved Arizona, since my very first visit when I was 14. The desert is beautiful, and the transition to the evergreen-coated slopes south of the Grand Canyon is amazing to see. We had picked a moderately priced hotel that turned out to be our nicest digs of the entire road trip, with a huge indoor atrium and cafe overlooked by the guest rooms' balconies, and decorated in "desert pastels", that pleasant mix of light turquoise, peach, pink and sand colors that seemed so perfect here and so pretentious back in L.A. We made a side trip to an area general store where, oddly, Nathan ran into a teacher from his school back in Glendale. Well-stocked, we went back to the hotel for a good rest after the long drive.

The next morning, we went up to the Grand Canyon. It was Simon's first sight of it, and he was truly impressed. I've been with him for first sights of everything from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Las Vegas Strip, but I think this sight was worth his extended wait. It is, I agree, one of the wonders of America, like Lake Tahoe, a sight that almost moves one to tears for its sheer beauty and magnificence, and wonder at the geological upheavals that caused it and the ecosystems that maintain it. It is ringed, of course, by tourist-friendly shops piping Native American flute music that seemed, again, all too perfect here, and wafting the aroma of those odd "rose pods" that make for cheap but delightfully scented souveniers. I was more in the mood for ice tea and water than a heavy lunch, but we did find affordable eats (not, to my disappointment, good Navajo-style fry bread) which kept us going for further exploration of the canyon rim.

The June heat didn't make for my wanting to take much of a hike, so the young'uns did a little more than Vyan and I did in terms of climbing about, wondering how long a hike it was to the canyon floor. But by late afternoon, we had to get going, knowing we had a ten-hour drive to L.A. ahead of us. We'd arrived too late to catch the sunset the night before, and would have to leave too soon to see it this time. I'd seen the dazzling Canyon sunset and twilight on my first trip in 1970, but I wished we could have all seen it this time. The thought of hauling in to L.A. at sunrise was attractive to no one, however, so off we went, with a long, strange trip full of memories now on its last leg.

We would actually have either gone on to the St. Louis show or spent an extra day at the Canyon, but Simon had to return to England by a given date, so we sped back to Los Angeles, caught a sufficient night's sleep, and got Si safely on his plane back home.

That would have been a year for the books, but 1994 was to end with a concert that, unbeknownst to me, would lead to some major upheaval in our lives - most of it favorable - and for me, personally, began some new and wonderful friendships.

I was never a huge fan of '80's metal; I preferred the old school stuff like Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, and when Dokken were in their heyday, I was "rokken" with Level 42, U2 and Simple Minds. But Dokken stood above the crowd - they were top-flight songwriters, Vyan having wooed and won me with a rendition of "Alone Again" backed by his buddy Brandon on acoustic guitar. Their musicianship was indisputable. And a longtime friend, Kim, was a hardcore fan. The band had broken up in 1988 under vitriolic circumstances and alleged fisticuffs in the back of a limo, so imagine my surprise to see them listed for an acoustic show in Redondo Beach that December. I let Kim know. Was I sure? (There it was, in L.A. Times black and white.) Was it the original four? (Well, not original, as first-album bassist Juan Croucier had jumped ship to Ratt before the fledgling band first toured, but it was the "Big" Four, Don Dokken, George Lynch, Jeff Pilson and Mick Brown, who were the Dokken of their "gilded age".) So her flight plans were made.

The concert itself has been immortalized on the album and video "One Live Night" and I think musically it speaks for itself, but I was well and truly impressed. Well-written songs, tight vocal harmonies (I'm a sucker for great vocal harmonies), great arrangements, all-around superb musicianship. While I'd been skeptical and underexcited before the event, I was absolutely glad I went. Kim and Vyan, of course, enjoyed themselves thoroughly.

After the show, Kim's main subject of conversation had been George's short haircut, he having dispensed with his long, leonine locks from days of yore. I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing at her battering the subject . We were fortunate enough to meet all four band members. My initial impressions were that Jeff was in a hurry (Not much convo; ironically he would become the best friend to us of all the band members), George was shy but humble and gracious, Don was also gracious but in a more sort of I'm-in-charge way and made every fan feel important, and Mick, well, he came by his nickname honestly. He met me with a broad grin and a firm handshake and said, "Hi, I'm Wild Mick!" Being my non-plussed punk self, I politely replied, "Hi, I'm Wilder Robin." His eyes got huge. "I've got to party with you!!"

Ironically, he eventually would. And I would map out and commit to memory, after three wilder-than-Mick years, the boundaries of my partying. His innards might still have been those of a twenty-year-old; mine weren't, despite our closeness in age.

The next day, Kim and I went to Glendale Galleria for some Christmas shopping. Parking there was a nightmare, with one of the structures still, if I remember, partially closed from quake damage and the rest at max capacity, so we took the cheap local shuttle bus, the Bee Line. We'd just finished our "retail therapy" where she'd worked out her angst over George's haircut and debated the merits of having romance novel cover boy Fabio accompany us (I was all for it - she could buff down his muscles, and for my part, he could carry all the crap I'd bought.) when we exited the mall and found huge numbers of shoppers pouring out the front entrance. I asked one why everyone seemed to be leaving en masse at once.

In short, the mall was being evacuated due to a bomb threat. (The "bomb" would later, as I found out, be a duct tape-wrapped sack of flour, one of three. They were marked "#1", "#2", and "#4". It almost worries me that I saw the humor in the labelling.)

I rolled my eyes. I worked about a mile away, for an insurance claims branch right off Highway 134, and bomb and other threats in our building, to our company and others, had gotten to be old hat. We trudged through the crowd, waving sarcastic "Hi Mom's" at the news helicopters overhead and trying to find a Bee Line stop where the bus would, in fact, stop, as they were not being permitted to do so directly in front of the mall. Once we found an approved stop, I think six overloaded shuttles went by before we were able to get on one and get back to the lower slopes of the Verdugo Hills, where our huge, squat block of flats had survived disaster after dysfunction and saw repair money spent on repeated and taste-battering redecorations.

What was to say after that? Kim insisted she could cook, and I remember her scorching the custard for the trifle I was to bring to the family Christmas party. (You have not cooked, my good woman, until you have cooked for men.) Christmas was the usual huge to-do at my oldest nephew's house. I guess after a year like that, forgetting a few days at the end can be forgiven.

Anyway, a year later we would be deep in Dokken doings and discords, two Decembers hence I would suffer my second miscarriage while Vyan commuted frantically between Burbank and Sacramento after leaving Northrop-Grumman, and three Christmases later our tree would decorate the huge picture window of our townhouse behind the California Capitol Building...

That all for other chapters.

Monday, May 08, 2006

In the beginning...

(my nod to chronological sequence - this may be the only time!)

Credo: I believe in something far greater than us. Some call him/her/it God(dess), or one of the various names by which the originator of life is called. Some refer to it as their "Higher Power", or "intelligent design"...whatever. Far from the aged, deteriorated Old White Guy In The Clouds of much "Biblical" art, I believe in this Creator as an ageless, timeless Being, forever young and yet with the wisdom of ages. He (I use that pronoun without deference to gender) craves our respect, our appreciation, our attention and our love - well-deserved, certainly, and at its heart, what is worship but that in its highest form? I believe in this Entity as a beautiful, creative genius, one who crafted such wonders as Lake Tahoe, the Grand Canyon, the Northern Lights, the Leonid meteors. I believe that Music is one of the first gifts this Creator bestowed on humanity, whether you see us as perfected Adam and Eve, or some descended-from-apes "Version 5.0" of sentient life. It is in the rhythm of our hearts and our footsteps, the tones of our voices, the melodies of our laughter. I believe people originally sang, played percussion, invented more instruments, out of necessity. For all of the intricacies of human languages, there are some things that words alone fail to express. And for a musician, not to sing or play is not to live.

One could say it was in my DNA. My maternal grandfather, Forrest Cornish, was a stage actor. In fact, he and my grandmother Amalya (Mollie) were in Seattle during a performance tour of his when my mother, Evelyn, was born. Her first crib was a hotel dresser drawer. My paternal grandmother, Lois Torbert, was a musician. She played the organ in cinema houses where silent movies were shown.

My mother had a phenomenal voice for musicals, standards and opera. She was a "dramatic soprano" in every sense of the word, with a muscular, clear voice. I often wish she had gone beyond community theatre and local performance companies with her considerable talent; her not doing so led her to sort of seek fulfillment vicariously through others. She should have enjoyed the fruits of her talent herself. Instead, she became an accomplished secretary - efficient, hard-working, and underpaid. I got my work ethic from her, for better and for worse.

My father, on the other hand, was less of a workoholic. Hugh Torbert was an actor and radio announcer. I'll never forget that wonderful baritone voice of his, booming over the radio or across the living room. When we moved to Los Angeles, to accomodate his acting ambitions, he was, like most start-outs, unemployed more often than not, and if not for my mother's job in the script department at CBS, we would have starved. They divorced when I was about seven years old. Even on custodial visits, though, he instilled in me an interest in creative endeavors (I'll never forget the chalk-and-motor oil finger paints) and, fortunately, an interest in healthy eating and physical fitness. Although it didn't "take" for a while after the divorce, I would draw on it later.

Other family members are creatively gifted to one degree or another. My sister, Carole, is a talented painter, and my brother, Bill, dabbled in poetry for a while. Caroles kids are all talented - Steve is a drummer with whom I've had the good fortune to play in several bands. Well, he was a drummer - he gave it up to become a more gainfully employed sound engineer. I doubt the drumming urge has completely left him, though. Steve's younger brother, Bill, is a very gifted artist - a lot of his work reminded me of artists like H.R. Giger and Salvador Dali, although his more traditional, sort of impressionist-style work is beautiful as well. Her daughter, Kirsten, is a talented writer. My brother's kids are all, last I heard, involved in something, acting, dance, something. And my own son has developed a marked talent as an actor.

When I was a toddler, my dad took me into a recording studio to sing "Happy Birthday" to my mother. The result was actually pressed into a vinyl record - I think the 78 rpm mode common back in the late 50's. My first "studio gig", age...what, 3? But between that, and the times I sat on a stool in the booth at KHJ, quiet as a mouse while my father read the news, it gave me an appreciation for the studio environment. There was a sterility about it I hated, and a purity about it I loved, all at once.

Most of the music I heard was of others' choice when I was little - my mother's opera music, the standards on the radio stations my father worked at, the folk music my sister favored, the "surf music" more to my brother's liking. And then came February 1964, and the appearance of four shaggy-haired British musicians on the Ed Sullivan Show. That reset the clock, changed my life, defined my path. I was going to rock.

I got my first guitar at age 6, if I remember, and started out picking out melodies I heard in songs simply by imitating what I heard. It would be years before I could read music. I found where the notes were on the guitar, but didn't start playing seriously until I was 11. In fact, I remember when I was 12, taking a bus to Los Angeles from my sister's home then in Fresno, entertaining my fellow passengers by playing and singing various songs by the likes of Credence Clearwater Revival and Bob Dylan - stuff that was easy on acoustic guitar. That was summer of 1968. I quickly learned to enjoy the combination of music and travel.

In junior high, at 12, I paired up with a classmate, Deanna, for my first attempt at a garage band. Actually, she was the guitarist, I played a little electronic keyboard my parents had bought. It was cheap and, by today's keyboard standards, almost unlistenable. We were big fans of the Doors and played a number of their songs, as well as other songs on the charts. It only lasted until Deanna moved out of the area. Still, I'd had my forst taste, and wanted more.

My mother had me in church youth choirs directed by our mutual vocal coach, Jack Coleman, a proud WWII veteran with an almost jock-like, encouraging way of getting the best out of his students (another one of whom was Bill Medley of the Righteous Bros.). One of those choirs/performance groups was based out of a Baptist church in Fullerton, California. I did my first performing tour with them when I was about 13. San Diego, and various points in Arizona. I enjoyed it for the most part, at least the performing part. The extreme heat, on-the-go diet (mostly McDonald's fries and Cokes for me) and the hormonal drama of the older performers could be a drag, but I got used to it. I did subsequent tours with them to Hawaii and Northern California. During those, I found ways to stay sane, whether practical jokes or exploring local culture.

By high school, I was having difficulty finding other musicians nearby who were interested in the same music I was. I lived in conservative Orange County, for starters, at the time. I went in rocking out to Three Dog Night, and by graduation it was all about Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Grand Funk Railroad. Most of the musicians I hung out with by that point went to other schools, and were in bands already, leaving me more or less in the position of jamming on acoustic guitar with the Crosby Stills Nash & Young/America/Seals & Crofts-oriented crowd...but it was something. I was also in choir, with a delightful conductor named Dennis Houser, who got pro results out of his teenaged groups with a combination of excellent communication skills, humor and gentle discipline. My creative endeavors were more active through Modern Dance Club, in which a little group of us particularly fun-loving and non-conformist gals ruled the roost. My best friend then, Patti Rische, and I traded off being president and vice-president of MDC. It was complete physical expression of the emotions I felt through music, and I loved it from the first modern dance assembly I'd watched. By the time I graduated in 1973, most of my female friends were married and/or mothers at too tender an age, and I felt as if I were the last free spirit standing.

College was a whole 'nother world. I had been accepted at UCLA because of my SAT scores; my grades kept me from the scholarship money I needed, so I settled for community college. It actually turned out to be a good thing - the Music department at Santa Ana College was two years of absolute, "Animal House" hilarity as well as good basic education in Music Theory, History and Composition. Weekend toilet-paperings of various members (or directors') houses abounded; "regular" performances by our madrigal choir were followed up in the parking lots of our various venues by our "second performance", usually a mix of P.D.Q. Bach, nicely harmonized contemorary soft rock, and more than a little Tom Lehrer. We "toured" the Bay Area in 1974, the summer of the SLA and the Zebra Killer, and ran rampant all over San Francisco - especially me, having so many relatives in the area. In '75, we toured Hawaii. Now, this was altogether different from my 1971 Hawaiiam stint with the Fullerton-based "New Sounds" - that had been two shows a day most days, (three one day), a radio show on the way to the hotel from the airport, and a TV taping on the way to the airport from the hotel. '75 was a whole 'nother bag of chips. I was 18, and took definite advantage of the lower drinking age in Hawaii back then. We practiced in the hotel bar, and the fish-bowl-sized tropical drink called a "chi chi" had intrigued me. After one morning rehearsal, I was treated by the bartender. I remember walking around Waikiki with my little band of particularly demented choirmates all day, feeling quite happy. We played pranks, jammed, and got familiar with the Honolulu P.D. We only had three gigs in a week - what else were college-aged music kids to do in Paradise but have a bit of fun?

University was far different. JuCo was 13th grade. Cal State Fullerton's music department was far from what I'd expected, headed by a faculty that seemed to resent "gigging" (how does a real musician resent the chance to perform?!) and anything associated with contemporary music. I didn't learn anything there that would benefit me as a working musician. I changed majors. I'd been involved in sports as well as dance, and decided to switch to Phys Ed, where I fell in love instantly with Sports Medicine and therein earned my degree. I was courted by Pepperdine as an athlete and athletic training major, in those early Title IX days. (Truthfully, I wanted to step back and try my hand at Music again at Pierce College, but circumstances never permitted.) I was one of the first female athletic training students at Fullerton. There were parties, certainly, and nightclubs where, in the 70's, it was easier to lie your way past security while underage for an evening of dancing, and chances to get up on stage if a friend's band invited you to sing a song or two. And, as I worked part time for the local Musicians Union, I knew a lot of bands. But between school, homework, my job and what social life I could eke out, unfortunately, there was no change for a band of my own in my two years at CSUF. Besides, it was the disco era, and most rock or top 40 bands I knew were in the unemployment line, replaced by vinyl. I also supplemented my softball, fencing, hoops, and failed attempts to get a women's soccer team going at the school (on the suggestion of a few male players who I guess I'd impressed during some impromptu practice sessions) with belly-dancing lessons, an activity I fell in love with on many levels - the physical, the mental, the sensual, the spiritual, and of course the musical - learning to play odd-meter patterns with finger cymbals!

Things changed immensely after I graduated in 1977...

...but that's another chapter.

Friday, May 05, 2006


Yesterday was my 50th birthday. I started the day fairly depressed, feeling a bit isolated and disappointed in where I was as opposed to where I'd hoped to be at half a century. The day improved. My son called, which always brightens my day. My husband coaxed me out of the house and out to sushi and sake at a nearby restaurant, where I rediscovered what a fun date he still is. As we chowed down on our "Dragon Roll", Vyan encouraged me, as I ran through reminiscences of my life - most related to music - to start writing that book my family have been urging me for years (decades, at this point) to write. I considered it, and after going home for wine, tiramisu, "CSI" and the Suns beating the Lakers, I decided now was the time.

Memory is a funny thing for me. I can remember things very vividly from many years ago, and yet walk into a room and forget immediately why I went there. These "chapters" are NOT going to fall into chronological order. I'll pound them out as the memory hits me hard enough that I can do it justice. I'll try to put in at least approximate dates of these events. I'll be honest. That poses the remote but real chance that some people are going to get their feelings hurt. I can live with that now. Names will, in most cases, be named.

I don't pretend to be heroic. I'm all too human. But maybe somebody can get something out of this that inspires or encourages them, or at least hopefully amuses or entertains them. I'm just a rock and roll chick from California, trying to draw you a road map for her "long strange trip".

Why "File under 'Autobiography'"? Because if I did put this out in book form, you bet your hiney they'd file it under "Fiction" - nobody would believe this s***.

Acknowledgements and thanks are numerous, and I should begin with those...

- F. Vyan Walton, my husband, soulmate and the one person on earth who has come closest to truly understanding me.

- Nathan Light, my son and my pride and joy, and his lady, Lesli Keith.

- My mother, Evelyn Torbert, and my sister, Carole Frega, for getting on me to write this to begin with.

- My numerous past bandmates, in particular but certainly not limited to: Steve Litten, Merri Shaffer, Ruth Less, Art Reno, Lyla May, Laura Lissenden, Vanessa Martin, Deanna Bloomquist, Mike Cipolla, and those who drifted through, especially, Chemistry, Leading Edge, Model, Urban Still Life, and the Crystal Ships, whose names I have forgotten...

- Caroline Gonzalez, fellow writer and sister by choice, who always gives me encouragement.

- Archie Kao, a brilliant talent and angel of a man, for lifting my heart when I've needed it.

- George Manitzas, wherever you are, for lighting the creative fire within a fiery but adrift nine-year-old.

- The late, great Jack Coleman, best vocal coach ever.

- Dave Rose, Lou O'Neill, and everyone else who believed in me as a writer.

- Deana Robinson and Deborah Falls, my "partners in crime" in Dallas.

There will be more, and I'll mention or add them later...but today, those are the ones who spring first to mind.

So get in, sit down, hold on and shut up...and enjoy the ride. Just kidding about the "shut up" part. This is a blog...feel free to comment. But it's my life. This ain't no John Waters script.


--Robin Walton
Los Angeles, CA
5 May 2006