One of the drawbacks of dividing my time between Spy Rock and the city was the rigmarole I had to go through every time I left or returned.
It wasn’t a big deal in summer. I’d leave food for the dogs and cats, make sure the water tanks were full and the drip irrigation timers working, and I could take off, reasonably confident things would run smoothly for a week or so. I didn’t even bother locking the door, not that I could, anyway; the lock had broken a year or two ago and I’d never got around to fixing it.
In winter it was more complicated. The most important thing was to get every last drop of water drained from the pipes and water heater. If I slipped up — as I did a few times — I would come home to shattered pipes, a broken toilet, a no longer functioning shower or bathtub. Sometimes I could repair the damage — most of the pipes were easy enough to mend, and although the new toilet I installed wobbled like a ship at sea, at least it worked.
But the shower plumbing was embedded behind the artfully installed redwood paneling, and short of taking a crowbar to the walls, I couldn’t get at it. I was able to get the tub working again, but I had taken my last shower at Spy Rock.
Things would have been simpler if, like city people, I could leave the heat on while I was away, but you can’t really do that when you’re relying on a wood stove. Not just for the obvious reason that someone needs to be there to feed the fire, but also because it’s really not safe to leave a wood stove unattended for long.
An earthquake, for example, could tip it over or knock the stovepipe loose. The biggest quake we’d had so far hadn’t been that strong, but it had literally rolled me out of bed and left me momentarily wondering if the house was going to stay on its foundation or even in one piece. Another concern is the chimney fire: if you don’t keep your stovepipe sufficiently clean — something I’d been known to be guilty of — a residue called creosote builds up, and if it catches fire, it can get hot enough to melt the pipe and set your roof alight. If you’re there and catch it in time, you can close the vents and cut off the oxygen supply. If not, you can come home to a pile of ashes where your house used to be.
Another result of my not living there full time was that the house itself went into a slow but inexorable decline. Wooden awnings that shielded the windows from the sun, wind and rain collapsed under the weight of accumulated snow when I wasn’t around to clear it off. The siding on the east-facing wall began to buckle and come loose, a process that was greatly accelerated when I unthinkingly cut down a large oak that had been shading that end of the house.
I’d been looking for more light and a better view of the Eel River Valley; I hadn’t anticipated the havoc that would be wreaked on the house and deck by several additional hours of unfiltered sunshine in summer and unbroken winds in winter. The wood cracked and in some cases broke under nature’s relentless barrage; possessing next to zero skills as a carpenter, I was completely flummoxed about how to fix it.
The logical course would have been to hire someone to make the necessary repairs, but the marijuana trade had hopelessly skewed the local economy. You couldn’t pay skilled tradesmen enough to work up there. I did find one guy, but he disappeared after three days when a grower down the road offered him twice what I could afford to pay.
The deterioration doesn’t happen all at once, and mostly occurs in slow motion, so I didn’t notice it from day to day, especially with my mind on so many other things. Gilman Street, the Berkeley warehouse/club I’d been working on had opened its doors, and in early 1987 was doing shows every weekend. The Lookouts were getting invited to play more often, and I was finishing up work on our album, which we planned to have out by April.
Having acquired some rudimentary computer skills while doing the cover design, I bought my first computer, a powerhouse 512mb Apple. If I labored assiduously enough, it could produce a page of copy in no more than ten times as long as it would have taken me on the old-fashioned typewriter.
But the ability to manipulate fonts and type sizes made it possible to include more content in Lookout magazine, which continued to grow in both size and circulation. I’d found a copy shop in Berkeley that offered much cheaper prices than I’d been paying, and the deal was to get better yet, when the manager pulled me aside to say, “Yo, I been reading that stuff you’re printing; you got some funny-ass shit there.”
He offered me a super-discounted price — I’m not sure it covered his costs — and the Lookout’s print run shot up to a thousand copies and more. It felt like I was on a roll, leading me to redouble my efforts to cover everything of interest in the Bay Area as well as the Emerald Triangle. Best of all, it seemed I was finally gaining a grudging acceptance from some of my Mendocino County readers.
I still had my enemies, of course, and even those inclined to agree with me continued to question my tendency to resort to purplish invective at the slightest provocation. But at least they were engaging with me, and my letters pages proved it. If I’d wanted to, I could have filled an entire issue of the Lookout with nothing but readers’ letters and my long-winded responses.
While you could digest the town’s “official” newspaper, the Laytonville Ledger, in five or ten minutes, the Lookout kept people entertained and/or infuriated for hours. Even those who claimed they would never stoop to reading “that rag” had an opinion about it, and since they didn’t want their complaints (along with my snarky retorts) showing up in the Lookout, they began writing to the Ledger to complain about me.
The Ledger had pointedly ignored me for a couple years, but it was hard to do now that I was generating more discussion than they were. Things came to a head in March when the town was riven by a bitter controversy over Sheila Larson’s attempt to build an asphalt batch plant on her property at the center of what might generously be called “downtown” Laytonville.
Her property was also home to Boomer’s Bar, which for years had served as the town’s only saloon. Its clientele consisted mainly of good old boys (and girls) of the cowboy-booted variety; some hippie types ventured in, but others (probably, but not certainly without justification) feared they would be risking their lives to do so. Another bar, the Crossroads, had recently opened across the street to cater to “the new people;” if a sociologist had wanted to do a study of class and cultural conflicts in Northern Mendocino County circa 1987, the contrasting populations of these two watering holes would provide all the data he needed.
There were certain old-timers — the Geigers, who ran the general store, the Harwoods, who owned the lumber mill, Bill Bailey, whose logging supplies business was making him the richest man in town — who had grown used to having things done the way they wanted, usually without so much as a question or an eyebrow being raised. That’s not to say that they run roughshod over the town; on the contrary, they were left largely unchallenged not only because of their money and influence, but because they were generally perceived as having the community’s best interests at heart.
Sheila Larson had been around a while, but made the mistake of assuming she had achieved full-fledged old-timer status, and the greater mistake of assuming everyone — at least everyone who mattered — would agree with her view that what was good for Sheila’s business was good for Laytonville. She announced her batch plant as a fait accompli, touting the jobs and income it would allegedly produce.
The trouble was, as nitpickers like myself pointed out, that asphalt plants produced a great deal of noise and pollution, and she was proposing to locate this one right next door to Laytonville High School. It also meant that hundreds of heavy trucks would be converging on the two-lane highway that doubled as Laytonville’s “Main Street,” helping to transform the heart of Laytonville (there were wags less charitable than myself who questioned whether such an organ existed) into a smoky and smelly industrial facility.
Granted, Laytonville wasn’t much as it was, but it had, as an optimistic real estate agent might put it, potential. While Bruce Anderson had described it as “a rural slum without a single redeeming feature,” I tempered my own criticism. “Its dusty roads, gun-racked pickups, and wild-eyed dope growers make it an easy target for ridicule from the more sophisticated quarters of the county,” I wrote. “It’s not cute or quaint or glamorous or vital, but there are those who happily call it home, and even those who, inexplicable as it may seem, love the place.”
That was from a two-page special edition of the Lookout that I cranked out in response to the batch plant brouhaha. I described the public hearing where Laytonvillians descended en masse on the dreary county seat of Ukiah, likening it to something out of Frank Capra or Norman Rockwell, an outpouring of “country bumpkins, urban expatriates, leather-skinned pioneer women, brown rice and tofu hippies, sweet-faced grandmothers, and good old boys who self-consciously doffed their NRA caps as they entered the room.”
Journalistically I felt it was my finest hour, not just because I’d covered a breaking story and had it in the hands of the public before the Ledger had bothered to notice it was happening, but also because I had provided a focal point for the opposition, who, in a stunning reversal of the way things were usually done in Mendocino County, stopped the project dead in its tracks. Suddenly I was no longer persona non grata in town; as I made my way through my usual rounds of the post office, Geiger’s, the nursery, and the lumber yard, people were stopping me to shake my hand and thank for me what I’d said.
This view was not unanimous, however, as I was to learn when the Ledger belatedly bestirred itself to cover the controversy. For the first time anyone could remember, the town newspaper published an actual editorial. It was not, as I would have expected, about the asphalt plant, either for or against, it was about me, and the verdict was unmistakably, unmitigatedly against.
It wasn’t just the editorial; the bulk of that week’s Ledger was given over to correspondents writing in to denounce me. They weren’t necessarily on Sheila Larson’s side when it came to the asphalt plant; what they were up in arms about was my characterization of the town and its people.
And I had thought I was being flattering! Apparently I had much to learn about the art of flattery. I’d been inspired by this upwelling of protest from a town I’d previously thought of as a backwoods Podunk; I was genuinely surprised to find that the residents of Podunk didn’t necessarily see their town in that same light.
“If he doesn’t like it here, why doesn’t he leave?” and “Who appointed this Livermore guy to speak for me?” were typical sentiments. One vexed resident said she wouldn’t vote for me as septic tank inspector, “even though the job does suit him.” Another called me a “pompous, presumptuous, pretentious pedant” and a “jabbering jackal,” and titled his contribution, “Every Town Needs A Village Idiot.”
One reader fired back, “It is hard to believe that someone who wanted to locate a Hot Rocks plant in the middle of Laytonville, went around cussing like a trooper when opposed, and reputedly carried a .357 Magnum, is now portrayed as a good guy, while someone who wrote an unkind but largely factual account of the hearing is now the villain. Laytonville doesn’t need a village idiot, it is one.” For some reason, the Ledger didn’t print that one.
Just when I thought things had finally settled down, I showed up at the Mad Creek Inn to play the piano, something I’d been doing on a semi-regular basis for a couple years. It was a magical place, an old roadhouse dating back to the 1920s — Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were said to have stopped there on a weekend getaway — that its owner and hostess had transformed into a relaxed candlelit refuge from the workaday realities of mountain life.
Mad Mary, as she was affectionately known, made everyone welcome, loggers, hippies, tourists, anybody who happened to stroll into her little island of serenity 14 miles north of Laytonville on Highway 101. She’d befriended Anne and me from the start, and when times grew tough, invited me to play for my supper and any tips that might come my way.
My repertoire consisted of show tunes, 60s and 70s hits by the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Dylan, etc., and even some slowed down and prettied-up versions of the angry punk rock songs I’d been writing for the Lookouts. I also improvised, playing simple repetitive melodies in the style that had come to be known as “New Age.” I didn’t think I was especially good at it, but the customers didn’t seem to mind, and were soon dropping dollar bills (occasionally fives and tens) in my basket. I taped the first dollar to the wall above my piano at home in honor of it being the first money I’d ever earned playing music.
Few if any customers realized I was the notorious rabble-rousing Lawrence Livermore until I made a flippant reference in the Lookout to the time my arch-nemesis Bill Bailey left me a $20 bill. It was the single largest donation I’d ever received, and I wrote about it as much to let people know how touched I was by his generosity as to gloat about putting one over on the logging supplies baron.
Whatever my intentions, the normally blissful Mad Mary, wearing a face like a thundercloud, banished me forthwith. “How could you?” she asked repeatedly.
Angry and hurt as I was, I came to see her point. For the sake of her business and the tranquil atmosphere in which it flourished, she couldn’t be seen giving aid and comfort to someone who routinely had half the town up in arms against him. My lack of discretion meant the end of my first — and to this date, only — piano-playing gig, and also to the wonderful home-cooked meals Mary had served me after the last of the customers had gone home.
Still smarting from that rejection, I was offered what looked like a new opportunity to connect musically with the community. A young girl had tragically drowned while crossing the creek during a spring flood, and Indiana Slim’s band helped organize a benefit concert on her behalf. Slim invited the Lookouts to play, suggesting it would be an opportunity to mend some fences, to show that everyone, regardless of ideology or culture, was coming together to support the bereaved family.
I was thrilled at the prospect, but remembered my past experience with Piano Jimmy, who played a prominent role in Slim’s band. “Are you sure Jimmy will be all right with this?” I asked. Slim told me not to worry, just to bring my band and our equipment, and that he’d take care of Jimmy.
I don’t know how Slim was expecting to do this, but as it turned out, Jimmy was most definitely not all right with it. After Slim’s band played their set, Kain, Tre and I dragged our equipment up to the stage, thinking it was our turn to play. But instead of clearing their things out of the way, Jimmy and a couple other musicians re-took the stage and began idly riffing in the blues-based style they specialized in.
“We’re supposed to play now,” I said. “Slim invited us to.” Jimmy gave me a wordless smirk and kept plinking away at his piano. At that point I lost it. Bitterly disappointed, furious that Jimmy, who I perceived as a thug and a bully, was going to get away with denying us our opportunity to play, I ran my hands across his keyboard and busted up whatever melody he’d been putting out.
It was, stupid, I’ll admit. You don’t do that to a musician, even a genial, good-tempered one, and Jimmy was not one of those. He pounded one of his hamhock-sized fists straight into my eye. If you wanted to dignify the encounter as a “fight,” it was over before it began; Jimmy was roughly twice my size, at least by volume, and the only victory I could claim was managing to stay on my feet when I should have been flat on my back.
The more timid townspeople, especially those with children, got up to leave. After a few more minutes of kerfuffle while Indiana Slim tried to smooth things over, the band went on to play another hour or so. We finally got to do a few songs, after almost everyone had gone home. When I next found myself in front of a mirror, I discovered that Jimmy had given me the most spectacular black eye of my life (given my penchant for shooting my mouth off, there had, as you can imagine, been others).
No big deal under normal circumstances, but the following night was our record release show at Gilman Street. I knew I’d be in for both questions and ridicule when I turned up sporting that shiner, but before we took the stage, something quite remarkable happened: Kain and Tre used magic markers to draw their own black eyes in solidarity, many members of the audience followed suit, and any self-consciousness I might have had vanished.
I’d begun doing a column in Maximum Rocknroll magazine, the logo of which featured a picture of me that had originally run in Beth Bosk’s New Settler Interview. Before that month’s issue went to print, someone at MRR doctored the photo with another drawn-on black eye, creating what for a while would become my de facto public image.
The show was well received — perhaps our best outing yet — but the record, not so much. As I’ve noted, it wasn’t very good; our friends and fans dutifully bought up the first couple hundred copies, but 800 more would sit around my kitchen for the next year. I was disappointed, having genuinely believed (or at least dared to dream) that we were going to set the world on fire with our long-awaited (by ourselves and possibly half a dozen other people) first release. But too many other things were happening with the band and the magazine for me to sit around licking my wounds.
In Laytonville, another uproar was already unfolding. Smarting over the attacks the Ledger had unleashed against me, I used my newly learned computer skills to combine its logo with the Lookout’s, publishing my next issue as “The Laytonville Lookout and Ledger.” On the front page I claimed to have successfully sued the Ledger for libel, and as result, taken over ownership and merged it with the Lookout.
Far-fetched? You bet, but there were people who took it seriously. Others were outraged by my printing a picture of Jesus on the cross and titling it “Easter 1987: [Ledger editor] John Weed, Sheila Larson, and Piano Jimmy party at Lawrence Livermore’s crucifixion on Cahto Mountain.” Laytonville was not a deeply religious community, but it was religious enough to take offense at that.
Or, I should say, parts of Laytonville were; when I next ventured into town, the dirty looks were outnumbered by thumbs-ups and knowing smiles. After years of feeling like Public Enemy Number One, I was shocked to find that a fair sprinkling of locals had come to like, appreciate, or at least tolerate me. If I’d accepted every offer to buy me a drink in the Crossroads that afternoon, I’d have been far too drunk to drive home.
Black eye or not, I was starting to feel almost popular. Or if that’s overstating the case, at least I felt as though I finally belonged here. Not just in my private fiefdom atop Iron Peak, but in the community as a whole. It was a new experience. Not only had I never before lived somewhere where it was possible to know most of my neighbors, but I was also starting to let go of the sense of alienation that had always been my default setting. For the first time, I was able to genuinely commit to a place and its people, to unabashedly admit that, warts and all, this was my home, and I loved it.
My new sense of belongingness notwithstanding, I still felt very alone much of the time. More than two years after Anne had left, I hadn’t been involved in anything that would qualify as a date, let alone a relationship, unless you counted the time I wound up in a woman’s house on the outskirts of Laytonville, who, by way of making me welcome, laid out a line of cocaine.
I was out of there like a shot, having decided in the wake of Anne’s departure and other ensuing misfortunes that my problems had originated in what the hippies used to call cocaine karma. I’d resolved never again to look at, let alone touch the stuff. I’d stuck to this resolution, too, giving me a perhaps undeserved reputation as a goody-goody in certain circles.
That spring, though, I became obsessed with a girl I’d met in the Bay Area I first noticed her in a photo taken when the Lookouts had played at the band shell in Golden Gate Park (we’d played so loudly and/or badly that we were shut down, by the police, despite having been issued a permit by the city; they claimed they’d received complaints from three miles away in the Marina District). Soon afterward I discovered she was a fellow contributor to Maximum Rocknroll and a volunteer at Gilman Street.
She was about as uninterested in me as a girl could be without taking out a restraining order. I exaggerate; we spent some time together and had many long, involved conversations, only some of which involved her explaining in great detail just how clueless I was. When it came to romance, however, her interest in me remained completely nonexistent.
Undeterred, I invited her up to the mountain; for reasons I never understood, she accepted. She loved it, despite not being by inclination a country girl. Our weekend passed in complete chastity, but it was pleasant having someone around for a change, especially someone who seemed to appreciate the wonder of a Spy Rock spring as much as I did.