Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On the road with the Monk and Moby Grape

When the idea came up for me to come to California and tag along as a possible back-up singer in M.L. Liebler and Peter Lewis's poetry and music act, I thought it was just a passing fancy of the time when you all meet for the first time and everybody's high on the positivity of whatever event that brings you all together. (M.L. and Peter came for Wyoming Poetry Out Loud at the end of February of this year.) So I really never thought that it would happen. Then Peter called me and asked me if I was still coming. "Absolutely," I decided at that moment.

You might want to get your broom and dustpan out now so you can sweep up all the names I'll be dropping here. It's the world that these guys travel in. All very nice folks, working hard at their craft. And a note on the visuals--they aren't great.

This past long weekend was my trip to Hollywood. ML picked me up at the airport after having spent all Thursday afternoon practicing with Peter and the band out in Venice. They had three gigs scheduled, one each on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, and the performance in Venice at Beyond Baroque in the theatre would be the first.

Capitol Records Building
On Friday morning, M.L. and I went to Redondo Beach for a 2-mile fast walk. He warned me. I kept up, but he definitely won. He then took me on a mini Hollywood tour; first past the  Capitol Records building. Then past movie and television stars homes -- Ozzie and Harriet's, Lucille Ball's, Jack Benny's and Agnes Moorehead's. I took a photo of the Nelson's house, the front door of which was used in the opening shot of the TV show when the family would come out and stand during the opening credits.

Nelson's home

We drove past Book Soup, the famous independent book seller. M.L. was there for Chris Lemmon's (Jack Lemmon's son) book signing, where he sat next to Jack Klugman. There's where The Morrissey's have an apartment. There's the hotel (now an apartment house) where Janis Joplin died. Down this street is where Sal Mineo was stabbed to death. There's Whiskey a Go Go. The Roxy. Past Doheny Drive. Laurel Canyon. Stone Canyon Road, where Ricky Nelson lived and the band's name came from. Peter and Ricky were good friends. There's a song titled "Between Clark and Hillsdale." M.L. has this classic album. We drove by Pink's, the famous hot dog stand where many of the stars eat. There was a big line. M.L. had a dog there the day before. "Sometimes the line is all the was down the block," he said.

That afternoon, the boys wanted to have another short practice session and so I met Tony, at whose house they were practicing. Tony and Peter became friends when Tony was doing a documentary on Moby Grape, which is yet to be released. I also met Bill Bentley, drummer (VP of Vanguard Records; there isn't anybody in the music business who doesn't know Bill, and vice versa), who put on some nice brush work. M.L. and I took off to get ready for the gig.

Beyond Baroque is THE literary and arts center in L.A., and one of the leading poetry centers in the U.S. There are a few other centers around the country that also reach this realm -- Poetry Center in San Francisco; St. Mark's Poetry Project in New York City; Poetry Flash in Berkeley. The black box style theatre seats 70 and is, as you'd expect, intimate. M.L. and Peter were brought in under Baroque's new Beyond Music (scroll down to read more) series.
Poster in Beyond Baroques's

That evening I met Joyce Jenkins, editor and publisher of Poetry Flash. She came to California from Detroit in the 1970s to do the hippie and literary thing and ended up staying. I also met her daughter Claire, who is a visual artist. Claire and I had a terrific conversation about the weird kind of isolationism of L.A. and the famous Hollywood sign that LAers inevitably try to inventively climb up to (artistically and financially), but who are all living under it's seemingly significant cultural shadow.

The Friday gig went well. Joyce began the program with readings of poems that she'd written about Detroit, "in a California state of mind." A poem to her friend who passed away, "Robin's Song," was poignant and heartbreaking. The full band sounded great. Joining the band was Willie Aaron, guitarist and producer for Leonard Cohen, and Willie's longtime friend from childhood, Dave Sawyer on bass. M.L.'s and Peter's current repertoire usually includes works such as, "The Road," a tribute to Jack Kerouac; "Louisiana," "Jesus Gonna Be Here," "London," (poem by William Blake); "It's Late," a Ricky Nelson tribute; " and "Monkey Man," by The Rolling Stones.

M.L. picked me up on Saturday morning. We made a trip to Amoeba, that bills itself as the "World's Largest Independent Record Store," and carries vinyl, CDs, DVDs, and all kinds of rock memorabilia. What a store! We could have spent hours there. M.L. has on other occasions, but that morning, he was scheduled for an interview with Rattle Magazine. I met Editor-In-Chief Alan C. Fox, who greeted us at the front door and escorted us to his offices; editor Tim Green, and Daveen, Alan's wife and board member. The interview, which Alan thought turned out as one of their best, will be in the December issue.

We reached Peter's and we all dressed up for the gig in San Luis Obispo. Peter put on his tuxedo shirt painted with bunches of purple grapes down the placket and on the back tail. It was given to him by a movie star, whose name escapes me at the moment, but you'd know her if I dropped it here.

The drive wasn't far. San Luis is a quaint little town with a European-feel downtown area; it is one of California's oldest communities. There are many historical buildings there. The coffee shop where we'd be playing wasn't busy at all, maybe three people in the back room wheree the stage area was; the person who was supposed to greet us wasn't there. After a couple of songs, for which we received absolutely no notice, it was decided that we'd go to Pismo Beach and have some dinner. We sat out on the heated patio and had wine, big bowls of clam chowder, crab cakes and calamari. It was relaxing, something that it seemed like we hadn't had time for since I'd arrived. When we returned to Peter's he put in the so far unreleased CD recording of Moby Grape members Jerry Miller, Don Stevenson and Peter, Skip Spence's son, Omar, and John Mellencamp's rhythm section, of Grape classics and newer songs. Omar is a terrific rock vocalist. The music moves from rock to Peter's more gentle folk rock songs, and  songs in between.

Peter also let me listen to a couple of new songs that he's composed for a new solo CD. They were surprising in that he moved away from his beautifully gentle melodies and rocked out on these, but they sounded terrific -- relevant and contemporary, but with that history of having authored "brilliant masterpiece songs," brought forward to this point in time. Peter is really such a talented musician and song writer, in that league of people who have been creating in their discipline and have not only the technical discipline and background but the quick discernment about their work and others' work they encounter -- what it might need to make it better or more complete. And as many accomplished artists can, he works very quickly. He does all of his recording work on a Roland Boss digital device, and puts on all the tracks himself -- lead guitar, rhythm, lead vocals, harmony, bass and drums. His studio is minimalist, effecient and effective: a desk on which sits the recording machine, a pair of headphones, a pair of small speakers, a single mic on a stand, and a stool. Peter has been an inspiration to me, as he is to many.

On Sunday, we had to get up to Berkeley for the performance which would be a fund raiser for Poetry Flash at the Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Theatre (scroll down on home page under June events, and read about this event at Sunday 06/26/11). M.L. and Peter were up second. I joined them for a couple of songs, playing my ukelele, strumming on one song, playing "uke drum" on the next, because I didn't know all the chords to that one yet. Poets read -- Susan Browne, Raymond Nat Turner, and David Meltzer, an icon of the Beat generation poets and the San Francisco Renaissance. He and his wife Julie Rogers read together and then David closed the show by reading "When I Was a Poet" (City Lights, 2011), also the title of his most recent publication of  collected works. We stood when he was done with that one. Whew! We had a great time.

M.L. and I had to leave early on Monday, and so didn't get to say goodbye to Peter, he was still sleeping. We were very late getting home, and had to leave by 9 a.m. to get back in time return the rental car and miss any delays at the airport security checkpoints. But, we did get back to LA in time to go to Pink's and have a dog. We pulled at a most opportune moment. There were only a few people in line; we were served quickly.

ML in front of Pink's
M.L. was on a different airline than I, and his plane was leaving before mine, so we said our goodbye's on the rental car shuttle. He really took terrifically great care of me.

M.L. is off to Israel in a couple of weeks to teach a class sponsored by the State Department. He's been doing an American Studies program since about 2006. As all things do, the classes have evolved from teaching creative writing to teaching classes in American Studies -- The Beach Boys, African-American experience, Native Americans.

Watch for a further article focused more on M.L.'s and Peter's collaborative relationship. They will soon be releasing a CD of ten songs based on M.L.'s poetry that Peter has put to music. If my instincts are on, it will be worth adding this to your music library.
--Linda Coatney

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