With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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It’s 1994, and I’ve been sentenced on drug charges to seven months in a minimum-security prison in California’s Mojave Desert. And yet I feel godlike: I have a single cell, one of the highest-paying jobs in the joint, and a poetry group called the Mad Poets. Also I’m writing a novel, making up my own little world, and this too makes me feel like a god. At the same time, something really is wrong with me. I have horrid bouts of depression — bad, dark juju brought on by thoughts of Mom and Dad and my kids. Late at night, after my eyes will no longer let me read, I am wracked by guilt and a sense of the futility of ever coping with the real world.
In the mornings I go to the kitchen, where I keep the books, tracking all the food coming in and going out: three meals a day for six hundred people, as if I were the accountant for a successful restaurant. Maybe these skills will come in handy when I’m released, because, even before I landed in prison, it was looking grim for my self-indulgent music career with my gothic blues band, the St. James Catastrophe. My boss in the kitchen is a humorless ex-military man who tells disgusting, misogynist jokes. While the other workers nearly fall down with ingratiating laughter, I do my best not to snarl. Still, he’s a small affliction here in the best prison in the state. (The “best prison”! How can I say such a thing?)
I work in the kitchen five hours a day, then it’s on to the classroom, where the writing teacher seems to have become attached to me. She deals mostly with illiterates and men who take pride in their ignorance, so she’s pleased that I accept her guidance.
With help from the writing teacher I get access to the music room and decide to start a band. Then the various shot callers — gang leaders — from all four racial groups take over and make us have auditions. Three-quarters of the candidates aren’t good enough even to be considered amateurs. There is pouting and brooding and halfhearted threats from people who want in just because. Meanwhile I discover a way to make recordings using a karaoke machine I’ve found in a rec-room closet. Some of the black guys are impressed. Their shot caller and his entire entourage fancy themselves incipient rap stars, soon to bloom and amaze the world, and they need to record themselves in order to glory in their hip-hop greatness. So I broker a deal that allows me to have a band with anybody I want in return for my revealing to them the secret method of recording. Still, nearly a half dozen biker types want to be in the band doing something, anything. I agree to let them in, provided they understand that I am the leader.
I call our band the High Desert Howling Commandos. I play guitar and sing. Javier, a Mexican guy from San Diego, plays guitar. The instruments and equipment I found hidden away look to have come from a 1950s pawnshop at the edge of an Afghan desert, including a guitar inexplicably covered with purple naugahyde. The other eight band members can’t really play any instruments, but they bang away on tambourines, cowbells, bongos, congas, maracas, and whatever else can be smacked or shaken. Everyone sings whenever he feels like it, and I have to beg them not to, so that the songs can have some structure. The rehearsals are alternately hilarious and frustrating. For starters we learn a dirt-simple two-chord song I wrote called “Vista County Jail.” It’s a blues stomp with the shouted chorus “Vista County Jail, I don’t wanna go (3x) / Lord, I know I don’t wanna go / to Vista County Jail,” which is roared by my ten-man band of convict rookie rockers. It sounds pretty cool.
The eight guys with no real musical ability are amazed. They’re in a rock band! It’s an irresponsible man’s dream come true. And they go crazy. They will take only minimal direction from me or Javier, and several become convinced that they are artists of some caliber and want to make decisions, not understanding that I consider myself a god who also happens to be the dictator of the band. They don’t care — just like real musicians, but worse. The High Desert Howling Commandos have two punk rockers, a country fan, a Deadhead, Javier (who mainly likes Van Halen and Judas Priest), two guys who listen only to reggae, one who wants to sing disco, and the last guy, who doesn’t like anything that anyone else in the band likes — just on principle, apparently. The next two rehearsals are hour-long arguments about which songs to learn. We end each time by singing our original tune for ten minutes, because it’s the only thing we do well. Finally I get fed up and quit, which goes over great, because three fellows now think they are the lead singer. After one rehearsal without me the group has a cataclysmic argument and breaks up.
I re-form the Howling Commandos the next day, gathering up every old member (except the disco dude, who says he is “going solo,” even though there’s nowhere for any of us to go) with the caveat that I am the ultimate decider. The deal breaks down within the first ten minutes, but we are still able to put together a five-song set that includes our patented savage unison backup singing on a couple of my originals, along with “I Heard It through the Grapevine” and “Take Me to the River.” I release my frustrations by singing at the top of my lungs for an hour. Javier plays his guitar as loud as his Japanese amp will allow, and the rest of the fellows bang on percussion and yell along with the choruses. Attracted by the noise, the guards and other convicts seem mildly astonished that we’re actually able to play something resembling music.
After a few weeks we book our first gig, as one of a handful of inmate acts opening for a professional country band from the real world. The reggae dudes get it in their heads that there should be some choreography. I don’t really care by this time and let them do what they want.
There are usually at least two stills operating in any jail or joint, producing pruno — alcoholic beverages of hideous taste but sometimes unusual potency. Unknown to me, more than half the band members conspire to get shitfaced right before we go on. The Desert Rose Band, the country group from the free world, are nice enough to let us use their expensive equipment. I have Javier play electric bass and shanghai the drummer and a keyboardist from a band the black inmates started. My songs are so simple that an actual musician can pick them up with no rehearsal.
Four hundred inmates and dozens of guards and prison employees are in the audience. The first act, an inmate rap group, argues and implodes on stage after one and a half songs. Then two Mexican guys get roundly booed off after three songs. Javier has his own heavy-metal group, which has turned instrumental because his lead singer was too drunk and too shy to perform. We are up next, the only mixed-race band ever to play at one of these concerts.
The crowd is restless by the time the High Desert Howling Commandos troop onto the stage with our strange collection of percussion instruments and jump right into “Vista County Jail,” which has mutated during our chaotic rehearsals into a kind of gutbucket anthem drawing on every kind of blues. The real Ludwig drums and Fender bass make it sound impressive. Our backup blues shouters lament and moan right on the money as they stomp, clank, and shake their tambourines and maracas, looking notably antisocial in sunglasses, bandannas, and death-rock goatees. I realize they are wasted on pruno and fear disaster, but my song is so simple it’s foolproof (an apt word).
The whole crowd — inmates and guards — though at first taken aback, begins to clap in time as I smash down on that workhorse E chord, the drums and bass in perfect sync, like a rhythmic late-night Alabama train crash, a beautiful roar of drunken blues-funk so damn infectious that even our famously cranky yard captain is witnessed doing a ragged pimp stroll, bringing a friendly, mocking “Ahhhhh” from the crowd and inspiring me to attempt a Lightnin’ Hopkins riff, which breaks the high E string — yet even that produces a perfect twangy wail, impossibly sweet and sad. And, anyway, I still have five other strings. I fall to my knees and sing, “Tell me Sheriff Johnny Duffy wants my tail / The judge says, ‘Boy, can you make this bail? / A hundred thousand dollars, I’ll set you free’ / Thank you, judge, for the opportunity!” Guards and convicts all cheer. A contingent of drunk bikers stagger up to the edge of the stage to yell at their two-stepping homeboys. A lot of the blacks are mocking us because it’s such blatant hillbilly blues, but the drummer is a well-respected gangster, and he’s laughing and beating out a perfect New Orleans stutter on the snare, and they can’t help but applaud him.
I get ready to take everything up a notch with my harmonica solo, the mike plugged into an old Fender amp with echo and reverb. I hit that first long, distorted note and hear the entire crowd’s intake of breath, which I expect, but it’s still intensely gratifying to surprise everybody with how powerful a blues harp sounds blasting through a Fender while the band is hitting that righteous, demented E chord invented in a Tennessee swamp a hundred years ago. The audience members rise to their feet, shoving each other and pointing — at me, I think. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see that the Howling Commandos are doing a loopy, drunken blues-reggae hootchy-koo, and it’s wonderful, and the audience is laughing and copying the dance, which is square-dance-ish, hands in the air and a weird spin and a few chanted grunts of “Vista County! Huh!” and the flock of happy men have quite literally lost themselves in the glorious and majestic mess. As I keep on with the harp solo, I notice the Desert Rose Band’s members standing at the side of the stage, flabbergasted by our mad prison poetry.
Finally I bring the song to a pounding, messy stop, and people are at the edge of the stage, laughing and yelling encouragement. We play “Grapevine,” a couple of blues songs, and then end the show with an exuberant singalong on “Take Me to the River,” and it’s over.
The Desert Rose Band looks genuinely flummoxed by the spectacle, because no one had anticipated that the High Desert Howling Commandos would be so entertaining and comical. A joyous event is always appreciated, but when joy creeps up on you from out of nowhere, the force of it is multiplied tenfold. After our set the crowd calms down and disengages and sneaks off to smoke pot and drink their pruno, leaving the Desert Rose Band to play their middle-of-the-desert-road music to the hundred or so convicts who love country.
I feel like a blues god who’s had a pretty good day. It’s been one of the best gigs of my life. This odd prison is damn near fun half the time. Still, I miss my kids, especially when I’m back in my cell, alone with my thoughts. That really is the blues.
Saint James Harris Wood