While it was happening, and for a long time afterward, there was no doubt in my mind that 1985 was the worst year of my life. I wandered through it like a wounded animal, in so much darkness and pain that it would be well into the next decade, if not the next century, before I realized that nearly everything that happened that year would play a part in altering my life forever, in ways I could not in my wildest imaginings have foreseen.
It didn’t start out as badly as you might have thought. I was sad about Anne leaving, of course, but for the most part, I dealt with it by turning my grief into anger. How dare she, I grumbled to myself, desert me when the going got rough, leave me to scrounge through another hard mountain winter while she lolled about on the beach in Rio?
It was a hard winter, too; not a lot of snow, but what there was turned to ice during a hard freeze in December and stayed that way for months, turning the roads into a treacherous nightmare. The clear skies meant colder nighttime temperatures, making it a constant struggle to keep the house warm. The pipes froze and broke half a dozen times, which meant losing some or all of my water supply, and spending way too much time crawling around under the house with a flashlight, a wrench, a hacksaw, and a tin of PVC glue.
I brooded and seethed, totting up the injustices of the world and paying special attention to those I was sure had been visited on me. This kept me busy for the first couple weeks, by which time I’d decided to channel my energies into finishing the next issue of the Iron Peak Lookout.
I spent the rest of January pounding away at the typewriter, filling six pages, two more than my first issue. With money still in short supply, the extra printing costs were a problem, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I was on a mission, and I was going to make sure the world knew about it.
As someone who’d loved newspapers all his life, I was still reeling from the idea that people would be less than thrilled by the emergence of a new one that focused on their own community. “When I first decided to publish the Lookout,” I wrote, “I expected that it would cause some controversy. I was not disappointed.”
But I was shocked, I went on, that what people were objecting to most was not what was being said in the Lookout, but that it was being said at all. It wasn’t necessarily that they thought I was wrong or mistaken in my views, it was that they didn’t want me having views at all. At least not publicly.
“The advantages of an informed community outweigh the dangers posed by an increased outside awareness of our existence,” I said defiantly, going on to claim that people were being naïve if they thought those who wished to do us harm were not “already very well informed about what goes on up here in the hills.”
These sentiments sounded perfectly reasonable to me, but to opponents of the Lookout, they were like waving the proverbial red rag. The new issue had barely been out a day when I started hearing that certain people were very, very angry with me and that I had better “watch my step.”
I might have been more frightened if I’d personally encountered the people who were threatening me, but I stayed home most of the time, only leaving my land when necessary. This wasn’t the so much because of fear; it was more a sense that as a single man, I was no longer as welcome among my friends and neighbors, all of whom had families, as I’d been when I was part of a couple.
Even before Anne left, I’d heard talk about what happened to mountain men who lost their wives or girlfriends. “They sit up there getting crazier and crazier,” someone had said, “year after year, at first drinking a little too much and then drinking way too much, until they can’t talk to anyone but themselves, and eventually they can’t even manage that.”
I’d met men who matched this description, who every time I’d run into them on the road would launch into some convoluted version of the same story they’d told me the last time I saw them. Determined not to end up that way, I cut back drastically on my own drinking and drug use. Under almost any circumstances that would have been a good idea, but it also left me more painfully aware of how dismal my life was becoming.
And yet, things weren’t really that bad, were they? True, I had to economize in ways that I hadn’t for years, at times having to calculate whether I could afford the couple gallons of gas necessary for a trip to town and back. And the dull, aching pain of having been left alone, wondering when or if that solitude would ever end, was a near-constant presence.
But I’d felt that way before, I’d been this poor before, and something or someone had always come along. And it wasn’t as though I had nothing to live for: not only was I determined to make the Lookout into a “real” newspaper, but I was going to push ahead with my long-deferred dream of having my very own punk rock band. Kain had been making good progress on the bass, so all I needed was a drummer. How hard could that be? The Beatles-style Ludwig kit sat gleaming in the middle of the practice room. Somewhere on this mountain there was bound to be someone willing and able to play it.
I thought about everyone I knew, not bothering to consider whether they had musical experience or not. It was punk rock. We didn’t need anything fancy. Just someone who could bang along to the music with some sort of half-assed rhythm. But I couldn’t come up with a single person who might be willing to try it until I had one of those brainstorms that, when they first occur, you laugh off because they seem so ridiculous, but which, if you think about them long enough, start to make a certain inexorable sense.
It was a gloomy, bone-chilling day in early February. A vicious north wind spat bits of icy snow at my kitchen window as I nursed a cup of coffee and stared out at the bleak, barren hills. It was then that I came up with the idea: Frank and Linda, who lived about a mile down the road, had a 12-year-old son who supposedly had some musical talent.
He’d had lessons on several instruments, most recently the violin, and while he’d never stuck with any of them, had a knack for picking up the basics with startling ease. He also had a rambunctious, exuberant personality (his handle on the CB radios we communicated with in those pre-cell phone days was “Motormouth”). His full name was Frank Edwin Wright III, but everyone knew him as Tre, from the Italian for “three.”
My reasons for thinking Tre could fit the bill had nothing to do with drumming ability, and as it would turn out, he’d never touched a drum in his life. My limited experience with playing in bands had left me with no clue how crucial a drummer is to a band’s success. Like many laypeople, I assumed that the important people in a band were the singer and, to a slightly lesser extent, the guitarist. The bassist and the drummer, I thought, were mostly there to make up the numbers.
Any real musician knows, of course, that it’s almost the opposite: a great drummer, and even more so, a great rhythm section, where the drummer and bassist play seamlessly and effortlessly with each other, will have a transformative effect on even a mediocre band, whereas the best singer or guitarist in the world is still going to sound like crap without a solid beat underpinning him or her.
But that sort of knowledge was to come later, much later. Right now I was concerned with finding someone who was energetic, show-offy, and slightly crazy. Tre fit the bill.
Kain wasn’t so sure about the idea. In fact, he was dead set against it. He raised the same objection that had occurred to me initially, that nobody would take us seriously with a 12 year old drummer, and threatened to quit if I went ahead with this plan.
“Nobody takes us seriously, anyway,” I pointed out. “Besides, we already have a 14 year old; what’s the difference if we have a 12 year old, too?”
“Big difference,” Kain insisted. “A 12 year old is still a little kid.”
It had obviously been too long since I ‘d been 14, because I couldn’t understand why he’d be embarrassed to be seen associating with a kid only two years younger than himself, so I silently decided to ignore Kain’s protests. Luckily the argument didn’t go any further because he and his family left on a trip the following day. While he was gone, I figured I’d give Tre a tryout. If he seemed like a good fit, Kain would come around.
Meanwhile, I’d acquired a new housemate. Auntie Olivia had been staying at my sister’s house on the other side of the mountain, but late one night — it must have been after midnight; I was already in bed — I heard a telltale engine’s rumble followed by the sound of tires crunching on my frozen driveway. Headlights swept through the window and across the ceiling.
One thing about living in such quiet isolation was that people couldn’t easily sneak up on you. If a car were headed in my direction, I’d hear it from across the canyon a full 15 or 20 minutes before it reached my road. Everything would go quiet for a while when it disappeared below the ridgeline, but then I’d hear it again as it drew close.
There’d be a moment of suspense: would it turn in to my driveway, or keep on rolling down the hill? This one had definitely turned in, and I didn’t like the sound of it one bit. People didn’t make social calls this time of night. Either it was some sort of emergency, or trouble was on the way.
It turned out to be the former, more or less. As the mystery vehicle pulled up in front of the house, stopped and cut off its engine, I sat in the dark, not knowing whether to go for the flashlight or the shotgun. Then I heard Olivia’s stentorian cry: “Larry? Larry? Are you here, Larry?”
I stuck my head out the upstairs window and assured her that I was. She was standing outside my door with a suitcase in her hand. The car she’d come in looked as though it were being driven by my brother-in-common-law, Jeff, but before I could tell for sure, it turned and drove off.
Olivia came in, huffing, puffing, and cursing in that grande dame-cum-working girl accent of hers. “Oh, he is a bastard, that Jeff,” she told the world and me as well, “a right proper bastard.”
She’d never been one to skimp on the epithets, but tonight Olivia swore with a fervor that couldn’t quite cover up how upset she was. I made her a cup of tea and in bits and pieces she told me what had happened.
Jeff, as I may have mentioned, was a drug dealer, and he would frequently take off on unexplained “errands” that might keep him away for days or weeks. Understandable; many men have to travel for their work. The problem was that he typically left my sister and the kids to fend for themselves in his absence. I’d drop by for a visit and find the house cold and dark, the fridge and pantry bare, and nobody having the faintest idea where Jeff was and when — or if — he’d be back.
To his credit, when he did return, he was usually toting a suitcase full of cash, and life would instantly turn from famine to feast. If questioned about why he’d left them a week or two earlier without money or food, he’d let a look of deep hurt play across his basset hound face, as if to say, “But look at all these presents I brought you!”
Olivia, having endured several days of near-starvation during Jeff’s most recent absence, was none too impressed with this routine, and Jeff, who preferred to rule his roost as absolute monarch, was even less pleased to find it occupied by this curious, outspoken English lady who seldom hesitated to give him a piece of her mind when she felt he deserved it. Which was often.
He’d been looking for a pretext to get rid of her, and found one when she innocently — so she claimed, anyway — set out to make herself an English fry-up, which meant meat, and lots of it. Jeff was a vegetarian, and not one of the live-and-let-live variety. He loudly let Olivia know that she had ruined — ruined, beyond any possible repair — one of his best pans. She told him to lighten up, things escalated and/or deteriorated, and here she was at my door in the middle of the night, unable to spend another minute under the roof of “that bloody awful man.”
So she moved in with me, and that was how she happened to be there, cowering in the upstairs bedroom, when Tre came over the next afternoon for his first lesson. I had a theory, albeit a hastily developed one: in hopes of avoiding the conflicts I’d had with Anne about her drumming style, we were going to keep it simple. Very simple. I took away all the cymbals and all the drums except the kick and the snare, and told Tre to try and play the most basic of beats to my fuzzy, punked up versions of Danny and the Juniors’ 50s classics “At The Hop: and “Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay.”
It was a little ramshackle and shambolic, as you’d expect, but I thought it sounded good. Well, good enough, anyway. Not so Olivia, who didn’t hesitate to tell me once Tre had gone home that it had been “The most godawful racket I ever heard.”
I could see her point, but what was important to me was that Tre had been a) eager to learn; and b) able to keep a beat, something I myself struggled with at times. Olivia’s and Kain’s disapproval notwithstanding, I decided on the spot to invite him to join the band, and announced that henceforth his punk name, playing on the resemblance of “Tre” to “très” — “very” in French — would be Tre Cool.
We started practicing several times a week. Fortunately for Olivia, the weather warmed up enough that she could take long walks outside. Not out of earshot, true — the acoustics of the mountainside were such that the sound carried all the way down to Tre’s house a mile below us — but far enough that our noise was reduced to a dull thudding crash and bang.
Despite her age — she was 67 at the time — Olivia loved rock and roll music, especially the 50s-style rock and roll we were focusing on, but she couldn’t understand or abide what we were doing to it. Many years later, when Tre had gone on to fame and fortune as one of the world’s best-known drummers, I was sitting with Olivia in her London flat watching Green Day, his new band, perform on TV.
“Remember when he used to come over to the house to practice?” I asked her. She harrumphed to let me know that she was still not impressed. The following afternoon Green Day came by for a visit, and the minute Tre spotted Olivia, he said, “Hey, remember me? I finally got a job playing drums! They even pay me!”
“That’s all well and good,” she said, “and I’m very pleased for you. But I still say that what I heard you and Larry playing up on the mountain was absolutely the most godawful racket I have ever heard in my life.”
But we finally had a band, I kept telling myself, or would as soon as Kain got back from vacation. In the meantime, I pounded out issue #3 of the Iron Peak Lookout, the biggest yet, and the last, it would turn out, to be published under that name. On a bright and mild early spring day, I saw half a dozen unhappy-looking mountain men come striding up my driveway.
“We need to talk to you about this newspaper of yours,” said the tallest of them, the one they called Teepee Doug because, well, he lived — year round — in a teepee down near the bottom of the Loop. I was on a semi-friendly basis with him, which was more than I could say about any other member of this deputation.
“There’s nothing to talk about. It’s gotta stop right now!” shouted a troll-like, bearded little hippie who tended to get red in the face and start shaking uncontrollably when he was angry, which was often. A couple weeks earlier he’d given me the finger and shouted an indecipherable obscenity as we’d passed each other on the road; word had it that he was especially furious with me because I’d been making fun of the Grateful Dead.
I’d heard the expression “hopping mad” before, but never fully grasped its origins. Danny, commonly known as “Tree Danny” because he was believed to have cut down one of the two old growth firs on my property for no reason other than sheer vindictiveness — he didn’t even bother hauling the wood away, just left it on the ground to rot — was impatient with Teepee Doug’s attempts to be reasonable. When I made some reference to the First Amendment and freedom of the press, he literally began jumping up and down and sputtering.
“It’s a long way to town,” he said. “A guy’s house could catch fire and burn to the ground before the fire trucks could get up here.”
Much as I hated to admit it, he had a point. Living alone, I was especially vulnerable; sooner or later I’d have to leave my house unguarded, and even a quick trip to Laytonville for groceries and supplies would take three hours or so. A lot could happen in that time, and Danny looked capable of making it happen.
Teepee Doug kept trying to cool things down, but insisted that if there wasn’t a little give on my part, he couldn’t be responsible for what might happen. I said that I wasn’t going to stop publishing, but that I would “consider” some of the complaints, especially the one about the name. I was fond of the “Iron Peak Lookout,” but a lot of good the name was going to do me if they were going to make it impossible for me to live here anymore.
We finally came up with a compromise: I’d stop writing about the local pot growing scene and would remove the Iron Peak name and logo. Beginning with issue #4, in April of 1985, the Iron Peak Lookout became the Mendocino Mountain Lookout, which in turn lasted only two issues before giving way to just plain Lookout, or, as the masthead often had it, Lookout!
The June issue, #6, was also the first to start looking less like a newspaper and more like a magazine or zine (some people mischaracterized it as a “fanzine,” which is where the term “zine” was derived from, but I was quick to point out that I wasn’t much of a fan of anything, thank you very much). It also marked my first attempt at “art,” in the form of a crude collage of newspaper headlines that adorned the front cover, and the beginning of a sort of cultural schizophrenia that would characterize the Lookout for the rest of its days, with coverage focusing in more or less equal parts on punk rock emanating from the Bay Area, and local news, politics and environmental issues centered around Mendocino and Humboldt Counties.
The Lookout kept growing in both size and reach; by summer I could brag that at 14 pages it had outstripped the Laytonville Ledger. I had actual subscribers, not just from Greater Laytonville, but from around the country, thanks to a favorable mention in Alexander Cockburn’s influential column in The Nation. I’d also elicited a letter of praise from another of my heroes, the San Francisco Chronicle’s legendary Herb Caen.
As angry as I was with my neighbors for having threatened me, it looked like they’d done me a favor by forcing me to turn my journalistic attentions farther afield than the mountain. The money coming in from subscriptions made it possible to keep giving the Lookout away for free around Spy Rock and Laytonville, and with each issue I expanded both the print run and the circulation. Eventually I established a network of distribution points reaching from Eureka and Arcata on the North Coast to Berkeley and San Francisco in the Bay Area.
But at the beginning of the summer of 1985 the Lookout was still a fledgling enterprise, albeit one with prospects, and our band, while making progress that was audible and visible to us, if no one else, was in a similar state. Kain had come home to find Tre already installed in the band, but despite some perfunctory griping, the two of them were soon getting along well, both musically and socially.
When there was dissension, in fact, it usually involved the two of them lining up against me, and never more so than on the delicate matter of naming the band. I kept coming up with suggestions and they kept shooting them down. I don’t remember them coming up with many of their own, but there seemed little doubt in their minds that all of mine ranged from dumb to downright embarrassing.
Eventually I hit upon the idea of sticking with the fire tower/magazine theme and naming the band the Lookouts. It seemed so obvious that I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t thought of it before. Kain and Tre were against it, naturally, but I put my foot down and said that unless they could come up with a better name, Lookouts it was going to be. They couldn’t, and so it was.
We took photos of ourselves on the back porch, assuming that magazines and newspapers would soon be clamoring for publicity stills, and began preparing for our public debut, on my front porch at the annual Fourth of July party. We were nowhere near ready, but with our audience consisting of neighbors, friends, and relatives, and the beer flowing freely, nobody said anything too uncomplimentary.
That convinced us it was time to move to the next stage: making a demo tape and playing our first show for the public. Hal Wagenet, who’d played guitar for the 60s hippie band It’s A Beautiful Day and had a gold record on his wall to prove it, ran a small recording studio down in Willits. Though his prices were surprisingly high for such a backwoods operation, we didn’t know anywhere else to go.
Wagenet seemed pleasant enough, but never bothered trying to hide the fact that he didn’t think much of our band. I don’t blame him for that — we were pretty raw, and not entirely in a good way — but he really let us down by not bothering to tell us when the guitar and/or the bass went out of tune while we were recording the second half of the tape.
Granted, you’d think that if we were supposed to be musicians, we’d have noticed ourselves (it’s painfully obvious when you play the tape), but we were new at this business, and when you’ve been playing for several hours at a time, your ears tend to glaze over. By the time we realized what had happened, the tape was done, our money was spent, and it was too late to do anything about it.
“I assumed that’s the way you guys wanted it,” said Wagenet in a classic bit of post-hippie passive-aggressiveness that would serve him well in later years when he went into politics and got himself elected to the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors. Having learned an expensive lesson, we limped back to our mountain lair with a badly flawed tape that had nonetheless managed to capture something of what we were about. I sent a copy of it to Maximum Rocknroll, the punk rock bible, and editor/publisher Tim Yohannan shocked us by giving it a rave review.
I would later learn that Tim practiced a form of affirmative action, giving especially favorable reviews to bands from remote or unusual places; we, being the first band ever to send in a demo from the backwoods of Northern California, had been beneficiaries. Convinced we were on the verge of taking the world by storm, we scheduled our first official show, which would take place in the parking lot of Grapewine Station, a sort of general store and hippie supply depot located a mile north of where Spy Rock Road joined Highway 101.
This time, the audience was a bit more diverse and the reaction a bit more critical. Really critical in the case of one fellow, a boozy, bearded musician of sorts who went by the name of Piano Jimmy. He took such umbrage at our punk rock stylings that he walked up to the stage and pulled the plug in the middle of our medley of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” and the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” When asked why, he responded with the time-honored old person’s lament: “That’s not music, it’s just a bunch of noise!”
The abundance of swear words in our songs also attracted harsh criticism, especially because of there being “children” in the band. Tre was still just 12 years old, and, if anything, looked younger. His baby face and an almost angelic soprano voice made for a jarring juxtaposition with the anger and vitriol spewing forth in our lyrics.
Lastly, some of the adults, especially the women, were offended by our song “My Mom Smokes Pot” (“My mom smokes pot, she smokes it a lot, she’s really quite mellow, but her brains are like jello”). Neither Kain’s nor Tre’s mothers were big on pot smoking, but plenty of local mothers were; the fact that they were up in arms about our song let me know I’d hit paydirt. From then on, whether writing articles for Lookout magazine or songs for the band, I seldom let pass an opportunity to get a dig in at what I saw as the smugness and self-indulgence of hippie culture, even though you wouldn’t be stretching a point to argue that I was still part of it myself in some ways.
If nothing else, I’d become — or at least was trying to become — something I’d sworn I’d never be: a pot farmer. With what little money that did come in going to underwrite the magazine and the band, it looked like I’d be dead broke about the time winter rolled around. I knew next to nothing about growing pot, and wished now that I’d paid more attention to how Anne had gone about it, but how hard could it be? You just threw some seeds in the ground, I figured, and watched them grow.
Everything that could go wrong did. I got started a couple months too late, planted the wrong seeds in the wrong kind of soil, didn’t know how to distinguish the males from the females. Water pipes split, pumps failed, grasshoppers ate everything in sight (though not, for some reason, my stunted seedlings).
About the only positive was that when the CAMP planes and helicopters came around that year, my plants were still too tiny for anybody to notice. Most of Spy Rock was counting the days until harvest time while I was hoping against hope that any of my crop might reach maturity before the snow started to fly.
Late October was blessedly warm and dry, which helped, but then the temperature dropped and an early blizzard blew in. I dragged myself out of bed and crawled into the woods to cut down my plants by flashlight before the snow destroyed them. I managed to salvage three or four ounces of substandard product. I’d been hoping for three or four pounds.
All the fussing over magazines and bands and money and abortive pot harvests never managed to obscure the deepening pall that my solitude and Anne’s absence had cast over the year. I’d seen her only once, when she’d shown up in mid-spring to collect her stuff, saying before I could ask, “You know I’m not coming back, right?”
It had taken her two days to pack it all up; when she left, her truck was so weighed down it could barely clear some of the more prominent ruts in the road. The house, conversely, was half empty, and I took to pacing from room to room, up the stairs and down again, before plopping myself in front of the piano and peering by candlelight — although the solar panels still worked, the batteries were failing, and I needed to conserve electricity for band practice — at the sheet music I was using to teach myself every sad and lovelorn torch song ever written.
Things were going wrong physically, too; I was developing strange rashes, something that looked like it might be shingles, and horrible cold sores that festered into giant gaping wounds that looked almost cancerous. I was 37, almost 38, and Kain said what I’d been thinking: “At your age, you’ll probably never find another girlfriend.” Convinced I’d been afflicted with some deadly illness, I figured I’d be lucky to make it to 40. And if it hadn’t been for the band, the magazine, and my recurring if unfounded fantasies that something great still lay ahead, I would have considered the prospect of reaching 40 more a curse than a blessing.
My youngest brother drove up from the Bay Area and surprised me on my birthday, the first visitor I’d had from the outside world in longer than I could remember. We sat in silence, picking at a pound cake he’d bought at a gas station convenience shop. A single candle lit the room, not just to save electricity, but because I was hoping he wouldn’t notice yet another cold sore that had flared up.
Shadows played on the walls; the early winter wind rattled the loose windowpanes and caused the house itself to creak and sigh. The last of the autumn leaves along with various twigs and pinecones attacked the roof with sufficient force that it sounded like fitful busts of rain. My brother knew I was hurting, knew I was desperate, but couldn’t get his head around the full extent of what I was feeling. I’d always been his big, know-it-all brother, the guy with an answer for everything.
Most of that had been bluff, of course. The difference was that in the past, even when I’d felt terrified and desolate inside, I’d managed to put on a brave front that fooled at least some of the people around me into thinking I knew what I was doing. Now I was no longer able to fool myself or anyone else; I was out of answers, out of hope, out of time.