"This is a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just below
the mountains…devastated by the hot dry
Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at
100 miles an hour and whines through the Eucalyptus
windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is a bad
month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult
and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since
April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide,
divorce and prickly dread, whenever the wind blows."
Thus begins Joan Didion's brilliant and plague drenched evocation of the San Bernardino Valley, in her essay "Some Dreamer's of the Golden Dream," from the collection "Slouching towards Bethlehem." Something is working on somebody's nerves; somebody's gonna die. In this case it's a husband torched to death in a Volkswagen by his wife, who's been sleeping with the local car dealer. It's Didion's masterpiece and owes much to the "In Cold Blood" style of non-blinking, neo-impressionistic reportage on murder; the style that came into vogue with Truman Capote in the 1960's. Didion's essay takes place in California in 1964, the country of: "teased hair and Capris and the girls to whom all of life's promise comes down to a waltz length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberley or Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdresser's school." In sentence after sentence she nails these people to a common cross of flaunted religious ignorance, and the sweltering boredom of life in the great white middle class L.A. suburb. Too much is never enough. And then there's that wind.
It was Didion's opening focus on the Santa Ana wind which got me to thinking of Los Angeles and the sort of cursed Raymond Chandler country I grew up in. That wind was always coming from the Gila Monster hills; beyond Death Valley…and it would bring revenge upon those Catholic padres who built the mission system on the bones of the Mission Indians. Landscape tones: Forest fires, earthquakes, tidal waves, Jehovah's Witnesses, billion dollar glass churches, Amy Semple McPherson weirdness, and my Iowa-bred, horse-trader father playing five card stud in his Texaco gas station. Fast forward to Gram Parson's singing: "This old earthquake's gonna leave me in the poorhouse…" And here comes of "the "Lord's burning rain." And then Warren Zevon, Tom Waits and Randy Newman with their catalogues of Armageddon-inspired song poetry, which twisted Bukowski and Chandler with Stephen Foster, Harry Partch and Scriabin. Armageddon music for sure. California style. How about: "Smoking in bed can sure burn your house down….Especially if you're there with somebody's wife…"
("Building Fires by Dan Penn and Jim Dickenson) Seems appropriate.
These are the tones set for the song: "Santa Ana Wind." Number two song on the coming record. Joey and John of Calexico established the 6/8 time and the amphetamine flamenco groove with Tijuana trumpets by Jacob Valenzuela. Welcome to L.A. ! Gretchen Peters sings the Emmy Lou and Gram thing chillingly. We have our little taste of that ill wind which Joan Didion was speaking of…that wind which has been working on my nerves for a half century. This is San Bernardino drive-in movie music, and the hills above that big ole screen are burning with fake golden crosses; shining back towards the Banyan trees of Angel town.
(Song #2 in a series of sketches on the 12 songs on the coming record "Blood and Candle Smoke.)