Growing up I listened to tapes of pre-war blues on long drives through the back roads of Maine. I memorized dozens of names, some known only for a few songs released before their makers vanished from recorded history. Each musician was associated with a different town: Belzoni; Senatobia; Tutwiler. I stared at maps of Mississippi trying to understand how so many voices had come from an area half the size of my home state.
I did four years of college in St. Paul, Minnesota, and moved south the week after I got a diploma. McGuirk, a friend of a friend, not much older than me, had purchased a house in north Mississippi for a few thousand dollars. I paid him $100 a month in rent to live in one of three unused bedrooms.
Water Valley was on Highway 7 between Oxford and Coffeeville, south of the southern edge of the hill country and east of the eastern edge of the delta. A few thousand people lived there in quiet houses that spread out from an old brick main street. We lived on Panola Street. The yards were dense and overgrown in the summer and barren and brown in winter.
For fun we threw a nerf football beneath broken floodlights in the parking lot of a shuttered Winn Dixie. At night we ate fried catfish at a stand called Catdaddy’s or grilled steaks purchased from the Piggy Wiggly. In the overgrown lot next door to our house, we shot tops off two-liter soda bottles with a pellet gun that a previous owner had left in the garage.
No one in Water Valley walked except Rabbit, who lived a few houses up from us on Panola. He was the only black man with a house west of Main, the town’s unspoken color line. In contrast to the other houses in the neighborhood, which were as lively as cemeteries, Rabbit’s yard was always packed with people, mostly kids. Each day I saw him shuffling up and back down Panola, hurrying to unknown errands. I’d wave but he rarely saw me.
I went to Belzoni and Senatobia and Tutwiler, but once settled in Mississippi I seldom listened to the old records that brought me there. On drives back from Memphis I’d put on Junior Kimbrough, whose long, loud music hit the notes of the north Mississippi forest. After dark on the narrow road between Oxford and Water Valley, there were two songs I always played in tandem. A slow soul ballad by the Temprees, and then a track by Ol’ Dirty Bastard, whose hunchbacked riddims somehow suited the midnight panorama of Highway 7: cropped cotton fields, lost deer, and turn-off signs pocked with shotgun holes.
After dinner, McGuirk and I played chess at the kitchen table but more often we’d just sit and talk until late, pausing to flip the record or return the needle to the beginning of a side. There were a few LPs that got more play than any others. One was Waylon & Willie. Another was D’Angelo’s Voodoo. The music sounded rich echoing through an old wooden house in a town where nothing moved. Periodically there would be a knock at the door at night and it would be Rabbit pitching McGuirk a hasty offer on the Yazoo mower we used to tame the yard in summer.
The back route to Memphis took about 90 minutes. If I got there before 6pm, I’d eat a pulled pork sandwich from Payne’s. If later, I’d go out east, to La Guadalupana, the only place for decent Mexican food. I spent dusk driving through the streets of South Memphis playing mixtapes I’d made of Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, and Ann Peebles, all of whom recorded at Royal Studios in the 1970s. Al Green was the most famous voice to come out of that room, but producer Willie Mitchell gave amateur singers the same attention he afforded stars. Across songs, the sound was consistent: same backing band, production, and velveteen arrangements. Each release on Mitchell’s Hi label seemed like one segment of a perfect invisible circle. Only the singers changed. Decades after their release, the old sounds remained wholly in sync with South Memphis. On my drives along South Lauderdale Street, I always passed slowly by the small yellow brick building that housed Royal. The music made the place more vivid and the place made the music more vivid.
I had too much time on my hands. Every few months I’d make a trip to Los Angeles, the only other place I’d wanted to live since I was young. I was welcome to stay with Pete, an accomplished writer who lived in a tiny but comfortable backhouse in Eagle Rock. His street wasn’t near anything recognizable yet everything was familiar. Each day we walked to fill a pair of plastic water jugs from the machines in front of the Vons on Figueroa. In the evenings, I listened to a Filipino family chattering in the adjacent yard. The night air was deeply floral with a twist of exhaust.
One day we got up early and drove west on the Ventura Freeway towards Zuma Beach. Pete set a small stack of CDs in the armrest of the rental car and told me to pick one. There was Les McCann and Fatlip and maybe Lily Allen—Pete eyed the latest pop ingénues—and one by a band from the middle 1990s called Acetone. I vaguely remembered passing the spines of their CDs in the stacks of WBOR, the college station in Maine where I’d hidden for most of my adolescence. I got my first radio show at 13 and slowly worked my way through the entire CD library, alphabetized on ceiling-high shelves that ran the length of the room. Acetone sat on the top left, near Antietam and Air Miami. Like most of what I heard in those stacks, I remembered their music as forgettable—one in the legions of dull bands whose brief careers were made possible by college radio.
I unfolded the insert. Each panel had a picture of one member of the trio. Richie Lee, the longhaired bassist with a stilted stare and a cigarette. Steve Hadley, the drummer, a smirking blonde with a rumpled jean jacket. Mark Lightcap, the boyish, gentle-looking guitarist with buzzed black hair. Any one of them could be on the front depending on how you folded the booklet. The album was called “If You Only Knew.”
Pete said they were from Los Angeles. He used to go see them play the small clubs in Silver Lake in the ‘90s. They’d put out a few records and toured with a few famous bands. The singer killed himself in 2001. I asked which one was the singer and Pete tapped the guy with the cigarette. I asked what happened to the other two, and he said, “I think they live somewhere around here,” nodding to great bowl below the high point of the 134, where the green hills of Eagle Rock stretch to the downtown skyscrapers and then flatten into the great expanse of city that leads out to the ocean. Later we exited the freeway into the deep lonely canyons that separate the city from the sea. The music suddenly seemed to belong to that drive the way Al Green belonged to South Memphis.
Within a year, living in Mississippi got more difficult. McGuirk and I stopped tossing the ball. Catdaddy’s closed for lack of business. Rabbit was stabbed and killed in a dispute behind a bar at the bottom of Panola for reasons that were never clear. Rumors were the only thing that interested anybody. When I went to the Piggy Wiggly for groceries I fixated on the ashtrays at the end of each aisle. No one ever felt like going anywhere. A lethargy set in.
In notebooks I scribbled ideas for a book I wanted to write about Hi Records. I undertook the preliminary legwork and managed to get a tour of Royal from Willie Mitchell’s son, Boo. The live room was still draped in the same mustard-colored dampening cloth that I’d spied in old photos of Al Green sessions. When I left, Willie Mitchell was reclining at a desk in the front of the building, chatting with a local who had stopped in to say hello. His hands were neatly folded in his lap and he extended one long arm to greet me. He was dressed in black and had a perfect pencil moustache. I had never been closer to the origin of that music but still had no idea how it had been done.
Someone gave me the number of Teenie Hodges, the guitarist and arranger for so many of the records I listened to on the drives through South Memphis. Without his participation, I couldn’t begin to answer any of the questions I had. Weeks passed before I screwed up the courage to dial him. When I did, I stumbled over myself trying to explain my interests and felt his confusion and suspicion mounting through the phone. He finally interrupted me and asked if he could call me back, and I said yes, but he never did and I knew he never would. After the call I understood that the book would never happen and that my days in Mississippi were numbered.
Back at the house, I started listening to Acetone’s self-titled LP every day. It had sold so poorly that it was easy to buy sealed copies for cheap. It was two records, three songs to each side. The guitar wasn’t of its time. There was something in it that reminded me of Curtis Mayfield—the saddest, sweetest sound made with the smallest, lightest touch. Every time I put it on I was back on the road to Zuma, gliding through Los Angeles on the Glendale Freeway.
A few months before I moved to California, McGuirk and I took one last road trip, this time to the outer banks of North Carolina. We drove late through the night into Georgia and South Carolina, and finally east across North Carolina, through Fayetteville, Goldsboro, and Greenville. It was dark when we approached the outer banks. We couldn’t see the ocean yet but knew it was close. I put on the Acetone album and it synced with the surroundings, as though there was radar within the music that hummed more strongly the nearer it was to the ocean.
All I knew about them was that they were a trio. Their last album before the singer died was named for York Boulevard, the thoroughfare that runs through northeast Los Angeles. The people I played it for didn’t care much for it, which made me like it more. Its feeling for the water couldn’t be explained, only felt.
My girlfriend and I rented a one-bedroom triplex near the corner of Avenue 28 and Figueroa, next to Florence Nightingale Junior High School, in the flats of Cypress Park. From the window of the tiny laundry room that I used as an office, I could look down the Elysian Valley and in the far distance see the Griffith Observatory, a perfectly curved silhouette on the ridgeline of Griffith Park.
In the afternoons I hiked up the big hill behind Occidental College, where I could look over Eagle Rock and Highland Park and out further, to the Hollywood Hills and Santa Monica on the coast in the distance. The air was toasty and fragrant and a breeze pushed around clumps of wheatgrass on the dry hillside. From above, the undulating hills of Highland Park looked like ocean swells that had frozen and been slowly covered by dark green vegetation. Far below, cars moved silently along the boulevards and highways like droplets down branches. It seemed the whole city had been built on the bottom of a vanished sea.
When I got stuck I’d take long aimless drives into parts of town that no one talked or wrote about. The eternal Los Angeles is composed of infinite intersections full of nothing remarkable. These are the corners you move through while going elsewhere and stop at only when the signal says to. Each one offers a similar but always slightly different combination of peeling signage, concrete pathways, and buildings painted and repainted in so many layers of nameless color that it’s no longer possible to tell whether they’re new or very old. These places don’t ask to be discovered and are rarely remembered. Here the city is so devoid of historic significance and attraction that you wouldn’t know its tempo unless you deliberately attuned yourself to it.
It wasn’t unusual for me to end up on one of those nowhere corners at the end of an afternoon, when the sun stretches to its longest, lowest point, leaving a layer of low-tuned radiance on everything it touches. During that window, every surface holds the glow and for a passing moment it seems possible to see things as they are. Once a day, the light in Los Angeles can turn the most hideous and anonymous buildings into palaces; it can make the most forgotten worlds seem perfect.
Mount Washington was the most desirable neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles, a cluster of luscious canyons that rose above the lower communities of Cypress Park, Glassell Park, Highland Park, and Eagle Rock. Parts of Mount Washington resembled the Hollywood Hills, but Steve Hadley resided on the side that overlooked the dilapidated bungalows between Isabel Street and San Fernando Road. Our second-floor unit on Huron looked up onto the hillside where he lived.
I knew which house was his because he had started a blog where he posted music and pictures of surfing. There was a photo of his yard at 5am, a view through trees of the city spread out below. The streetlamp outside my house was one of the lights in the early morning darkness of Cypress Park. Under the photo was a short caption with faulty syntax:
I suppose if CA. did break off into the ocean, as supposed, this would be my ideal breaking point. Just leave me a swell window and work the split right on the 110 fwy and the L.A. rivermouth would be my home surf break visable from the balcony. Oh, and world peace to.
I emailed him about Acetone and he said, “To go back into an old project can be a drag sometimes as it feels like going backwards but we’ll see.” He attached a new recording of Lightcap playing and said, “It’s just Mark and AMAZING. Needs to be out!!!!” It was a simple, hushed instrumental called “Ode To Chet.” Its sparse notes said everything. I wondered what a musician had to go through to find that degree of depth in simplicity.
Each time I tried to meet Hadley in person he canceled at the last minute. He told me he would forward my information to Lightcap, and eventually I got a short email from an address named “thecountrysquire.” “I understand you’re interested in writing something about the ’Tone,” Mark wrote. “If you want to chat, give me a holler. Nick’s and La Abeja are two of my favorite health food eateries.”
He walked into Nick’s in a Little League t-shirt and camo pants. The short, buzzed black hair I remembered from the If You Only Knew booklet was starting to gray. Lightcap looked the same and also nothing like the guitarist I’d imagined. He was big in person, arms like a stevedore, with giant fingers. Nothing about him was small or frail or hesitant. He was as forthright as Hadley was evasive. There was a punch to his voice and he could bore holes with his black beady stare. He had thoughts on everything and told great stories punctuated by frequent eruptions of gale-force laughter. He laughed loudly, with a full mouth, like a lumberjack. While we talked he devoured a pan of eggs and machaca.
He grew up in Philadelphia and his first instrument was tuba. He was left-handed but learned to play on right-handed guitars, like Curtis Mayfield. “So my strumming’s always been a little retarded,” he said. “Whereas I’ve always been really keyed into the fretboard.” He came to California as a teenager to study in the music school at CalArts, where he met Richie Lee, who was in the painting program. With Hadley, they played comedic garage rock as Spinout before ditching the singer and becoming Acetone. Mark and Richie learned to sing together while trying to pull “surf music, Led Zeppelin, and Martin Denny together into some sort of power trio orchestral brew.”
They practiced in Highland Park, on Range View Avenue between Avenue 51 and 52, a few blocks up from York Boulevard. “Steve had this little two-room house in someone’s backyard next to a tiny swimming pool,” said Lightcap. “We’d sit around all day, drink Tecate, and play music.”
Counting their time in Spinout, Hadley, Lee, and Lightcap played together for 14 years. “The whole thing ended so badly,” said Lightcap. “You do all this work, you put out these records, and it goes out with a whimper. Your brother kills himself. The money’s gone. It just fizzles out. You go back to civilian life, but all the work is still floating around out there.”
We talked a while longer. Mark raved about an original 8-track player he’d salvaged during one of his frequent trips to the Pick-A-Part in Sun Valley. Outside the diner, he rummaged on the floor of a weather-beaten white Volvo wagon with a small Acetone sticker in the corner of the rear windshield. “I had this argument with my wife again last night,” he said, “about how my cars have to be fucked up. She wants a nice car that’s clean. I need that car where you have to know how to touch it a certain way just to make it run.” He tossed aside tapes by Herbie Hancock and Alice Coltrane and Roy Harper while gabbing about how unbelievable Mountain sounded on eight-track: “The format benefits godlike guitar rock. It’s all fat mid-range. It just cranks like nobody’s business.”
He fed the machine with Introducing the Whatnauts, a 1970 masterwork by the short-lived Baltimore sweet soul quartet of the same name. “I’ll Erase Your Pain” came over the speakers. He never knew if a tape would work before he played it. If one got stuck, he would listen to it loop for weeks. “If there’s the one song you really like you can’t skip to the place that you may want to go,” he said. “Even when you want it more than anything you may not be able to listen. You might have to stick a shim in there to get your high end. The tape might just say ‘Fuck you. Try again tomorrow.’ You’re forced to earn it. You don’t take your music for granted. I guess in the digital age I find the cranky, arcane quality of it to be…meaningful in its inconvenience. These days you can get your hands on anything. You can get 20 compilations of funk rock from Zaire. Piles of it. Well, I have one 8-track tape of The Whatnauts. And it works.”
I learned a lot from Lightcap in a short span and the rest slowly over a period of years. We met every few months, usually for late-night dinners at Conrad’s in Pasadena, the only diner where Mark could order a martini.
By that time, he and Hadley had known each other for 20 years. They saw each other only intermittently. It was harder for Steve, said Mark. “He’s living in the same house. He’s got a fuckin’ shed full of Richie’s crap on his property. I’ve moved four times since that happened. I’ve had a kid, toured with other people. So it feels a lot more distant for me. But it was a lot deeper for him because they went down a road together, and that was a road I didn’t take. So it’s a lot easier for me to leave it behind.”
They were closer than close friends but the things that made them close made it impossible to play. Lightcap said he’d been meaning to call Hadley. He had him in mind for a Hawaiian record he wanted to make. I asked what it was about Hadley’s drumming and Mark told me his theory of drummers and body types.
“With a tall, lanky guy, there’s all this air that has to be moved,” he said. “There’s this looseness that’s just really singular. You can see it in pictures of him surfing.”
On good days, Hadley woke at the stillest point of the night, after the bars ousted the stragglers but before workers on the earliest early shift started moving. He’d be in the truck by 4am with a thermos of coffee and Migo, the blonde lab who was his only constant companion. He drove a few narrow winding streets down from his hilltop and onto Figueroa, then the freeway west. The highways were sparse, the city noiseless. He made the coast in quick time, skimming over pavement soon to be clogged by morning traffic.
He’d be in the water by 5am, the water still seamless and black. While younger surfers wanted only to carve the lip of the choicest waves, Hadley crouched down and enfolded himself inside every breaker, no matter how insignificant. You had to have an intuition for the water to catch waves in the dark but it helped that Malibu is the most metronomic point break in California. When Tom Blake first rode it in 1929 he called it “the original perfect wave.” Back then a crowd at Malibu meant five people. 80 years later, an average morning brought hundreds of cars to the water, but at 5am it was still 1929.
He surfed as night gave way to morning, picking up runs that carried him through the cove like a disc down a line. At 6am the sun crested over Los Angeles. By 6:30 the Santa Monica Mountains were illuminated in purple and orange and traffic trickled on Coast Highway. By 7am, he’d be out of the water, pulling away just as the day’s crowd began to gather.