The Big Nowhere

Why does so much good music come from this place?

It's 1963, and all I know of Orange County is it's a place you drive through to get to El Cajon. That's where my Uncle Ty is, while we're living in a weed-blown tract in La Puente. It's not the best of times—dinner is ground round, powdered milk and the asparagus growing wild in the lot behind our house—but everyone assumes the future will be nothing but better.

Driving to Uncle Ty's is like a storybook adventure, taking the two-lane through the hills of Whittier, going south on surface streets that are mainly just lanes through the forests of orange trees. We stop at a diner for burgers, and there's one of those Buck Rogers-looking chrome jukebox remote units at every booth. It's a modern miracle: you feed a nickel in, punch in the number of the song you want, and the Righteous Brothers' "Little Latin Lupe Lu" erupts from the mothership jukebox next to the cigarette machine.

There's no sense to be made of it, this two-man riot shouting, "She's my mashed-potato baby!" and other glorious nonsense. My dad sure doesn't like it. Meanwhile, I'm eight years old and overcome by ennui. The jukebox has moved on to Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs' "Sugar Shack," a meringue-fluffy song of nostalgia for a wood-shack diner like the one we're in. I'm enjoying a big burger, the scent of orange blossoms is riding the breeze through the windows, but it's like the place is there but not there—like the Twilight Zone where the guy goes back to his little hometown only to discover he's an android with implanted memories—while this music's coming from that weird pre-Beatles space where everything feels kind of happy but kind of empty, too.

That was Orange County to me: so there but so on the way to being not there, as indeed the orange groves and wood-slat shacks soon gave way to beehive-consistent industrial parks and housing tracts.

So we moved here, of course. And out of the precious transistor radio or the jukebox at Buena Park's Big-T burger stand, we'd hear the Chantays—with no idea they were high-school kids two cities away—and more Righteous Brothers songs, not knowing it was locals on a Garden Grove label. Who knew? This wasn't LA, New York, Nashville or even Kansas City, with their histories and cultural infrastructures. OC was a vacuum, with nothing but us to fill it.

It's 41 years later, and I'm helping curate an exhibit at the Fullerton Museum Center on a half-century of OC's music history. There has been a lot of it, and much of it is better than many more populous and ostensibly hipper burgs can lay claim to.

It's all over the stylistic map. Surf bands, ska bands, folkies and punk bands, bands in blazers and bands in tights, blues bands, roots bands, hippie bands. There are the obvious names: Dick Dale, the Righteous Brothers, the Chantays, Jackson Browne, Tim Buckley, Social Distortion, the Offspring, No Doubt and the others. There are performers with fans all over the world, like James Harman and Big Sandy, who still play the clubs here. There are names that got lost in time, like the Rillera Brothers, OC's first rock band, or the Nocturnes, the best surf band you never heard. They all drank the same tap water, but all came up with something different.

What made this place so fertile? There are a few reasons, but I think one is the pioneer spirit people used to talk about, the winnowing effect of the once-arduous journey it took to arrive on this coast. The people who wound up here were uprooted dreamers who for hundreds of reasons had jettisoned their old lives to look for something better here. As Frank Lloyd Wright put it, "If you turned the country on its side, everything loose would fall into California."

The future wasn't locked down here. Some of the earliest immigrant communities in OC were utopian, such as the cooperative wine-growing community that settled Anaheim. Some 90 years later, in 1955, Walt Disney decided to create Disneyland out of a bunch of Anaheim dirt. Five years before that, in Fullerton, Leo Fender had thrown out a couple of hundred years of guitar-making tradition and came up with his Telecaster solid-body guitar. In 1954, he followed that up with the Stratocaster, an instrument of such visionary design that it was some 12 years before Seattle's Jimi Hendrix began to fully explore the instrument's expressive possibilities. On his Band of Gypsys album, Hendrix single-handedly reinvented modern music, and it couldn't have been any other guitar than a Strat that so facilitated his performances' connection of inner soul and outer space.

The Strat, like Disneyland, was without precedent. No one ever told Leo Fender a guitar could look or sound like that. He just went ahead and made it. It was the same deal with Dick Dale, one of the early advocates of the Strat, when he used the guitar to create a musical rendition of the sea that was startlingly more alive than Debussy's. It wasn't just music; it was sensation. Dale's rumbling, thundering, reverb-saturated sound put you right in the middle of the curl with him. This wasn't what Fender had in mind when he designed the instrument—he liked sweet country music—but he was only too glad to help Dale with new, louder amps with which to bludgeon his audience.

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