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Photo by Jack GouldLate-morning traffic over the Vincent Thomas Bridge from the Long Beach Freeway is light. Beneath the bridge sits a copper-colored Southern California Edison plant, a windowless display of Batman-style Gothic architecture that bellows three columns of acrid smoke into the crystal-clear sky. Farther on, the landscape spreads out into industrial wasteland, complete with a river of massive metal tubes and conveyor belts, punctuated by yellow hills of sulfur and black mountains of coal.
The only thing missing is a sign that reads, "Welcome to Terminal Island."
My guide is Andy Roth, a.k.a. SAVE77. He's a vocalist—half rapper, half singer—and the driving force behind Jesus Wore Dickies, the Long Beach-based industrial music phenomenon whose self-produced CD Terminal Island claims to provide lyrical clues to buried treasure somewhere in this blasted landscape.
"Yeah, there's a $20,000 treasure buried here on Terminal Island," Roth claims. We exit Vincent Thomas on a ramp that leads us over an endless sea of container yards. "If you can decipher the clues in the lyrics, you can find the buried treasure."
According to the band's CD, there are seven different secret locations on Terminal Island that contain further clues, which eventually lead to the treasure. Jesus Wore Dickies' next record, due out about a year from now, promises to provide more clues—both lyric and photographic—for any would-be explorers.
"It's going to be a choose-your-own-adventure with one picture per song," Roth says. "You'll be able to hear the pictures. If you want to make a left at sulfur hills, you can go to track three. If you want to make a right, you go to track seven. . . . It's going to be real insane, this next record. Real insane."
Jesus Wore Dickies' Andy Roth is no stranger to Terminal Island—or, for that matter, to insanity. Almost immediately upon our arrival, he steers me toward a dead-end road near a pier. We park the car at the Harbor Light Liquor Store—our lunch destination —and Roth points to a boat roped to the side of a dock. That's where he grew up, he tells me—on a boat that's no longer there. Inside the liquor store, we eat burgers side by side with longshoremen, oil-rig roughnecks and cell-phone-wearing engineers.
Orphaned at birth, Roth says he grew up on Terminal Island on a boat owned by his adoptive father, whom he calls Captain Doug. He attended Wilson High School in Long Beach, where he played drums in the school band as well as in a number of local punk rock acts. That's when Roth founded Jesus Wore Dickies with fellow classmate Anson "Wink" Musselman and two other pals, lyricist/producer Brian Smith and guitarist Mike Marangone.
Since then, there've been what might discreetly be called personnel changes. Early on, Musselman left the band on friendly terms, Smith died of a drug overdose, and Marangone jumped off a building after a long period of drug use and depression that Roth says was marked by frequent visits to various mental hospitals. Roth says he himself was a "raging alcoholic" by the time he reached high school and says drugs and alcohol have nearly killed him, too.
"I don't do drugs anymore," he says, before adding, "I smoke pot and drink beer, but I don't touch any other substance. To me, it feels like it almost ruined my life. My two best friends are fucking dead."
At about the same time that Smith passed away, Roth says, Captain Doug shot himself after fighting a losing battle with cancer. "This guy didn't have much of a happy existence, and cancer just ravaged his face, so the doctors cut more than half his face off," Roth says. "He had a prosthetic face, like a mask, and he never wanted to wear it. He had no lips, nothing. . . . It lasted until he just couldn't take it anymore; I guess there's just not that much acceptance in this world for a person with no face."
Long before that happened, Roth says, he had moved off the boat because he didn't get along well with his half brother. "He's just an evil, evil dude," Roth explains. By high school, he was living on his own, first sharing a house with friends and then sleeping in a rat-infested warehouse in Signal Hill, in which he recorded the vocal tracks to Jesus Wore Dickies' 1998 debut, Terminal Island, in a bathroom. But long before Jesus Wore Dickies hit the studio, its members were engaging in what most people would call acts of insanity. Roth calls them "missions." The missions would ultimately provide the inspiration for Jesus Wore Dickies' music.
Armed with Digital Audio Tape (DAT) machines, Roth, Marangone and Smith spent countless moonlit hours exploring Terminal Island. They recorded hundreds of hours of industrial sounds—everything from steam engines and train-crossing bells to foghorns and police sirens. The band sampled, tweaked, and then reassembled the clips into a collage of bizarre, challenging, unique and, at times, haunting music.
"Me and Brian basically became real tight over the course of the past 10 years," Roth recalls. "The missions started right after high school. Me and him went exploring. We just got sucked into it one day. My father had a boat down there, and we'd fish all night. . . . We were broke, and we wanted to have fun."