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.

Dale's still thundering today, but did you know there was also a "Queen of the Surf Guitar"? That was Kathy Marshall, who from the age of 13 to 16 in the 1960s was a shy girl who was pushed into performing and often would throw up before going onstage. And then she'd get up there—at the Retail Clerks Union Hall in Buena Park, Huntington Beach's Pavalon Ballroom, Newport's Rendezvous and other halls—and just blaze on the guitar, shutting down most of her male counterparts. Sure, there were putdowns of the "good for a girl" sort, but there was also camaraderie and support from her fellow musicians, including a young Larry Carlton, who was then playing in Eddie and the Showmen.

Conservative, tradition-bound OC also spawned one of the first serious all-female rock bands, Birtha. And at a time when Bob Dylan was barred from appearing on CBS' Ed Sullivan Show because he insisted on singing his "Talking John Birch Society Blues," here in one of the John Birch Society's national strongholds, there was a surprising abundance of folk coffeehouses presenting the counterculture music. Even Disneyland hosted Monday-night hootenannies at which locals could play.

That's something else that made the music happen here: the curious mixture of struggle and support. OC was a weird, conservative, sometimes oppressive place. There were county congressmen who insisted rock & roll should be banned as a communist plot. Cities shut clubs or bulldozed them. In the 1980s, rednecks battled with punks. Cops battled with punks. There was nothing new in that: outside a 1970 rock show at the Anaheim Convention Center, 382 cops from 19 cities fought with kids, and rock was banned from the arena for years.

Whenever the music was stifled, people just found new ways of getting it heard. In the late 1950s, the Santa Ana R&B band the Rhythm Rockers couldn't find a venue that would book them, so they got a janitor acquaintance to unlock the Santa Ana Community Center's doors, and they held a dance on the sly there. Just by word of mouth, they drew enough kids to take in $336. Hop a couple of decades into the future, and you've got the Adolescents bummed out when their first-ever gig, at UC Irvine, was abruptly canceled by authorities. So instead they broke into a Boy Scout hall in Yorba Linda and did a secret show there. Then there was the new wave Nu-Beams, who dealt with the lack of venues by playing guerrilla gigs in county laundromats, with a lookout at the door in case any police drove by.

Musicians bitched about the "Orange Curtain" and chaffed at the repressive cultural climate. Jackson Browne, for example, couldn't wait to haul ass out of here, which he did as soon as he could at age 17. But while he was here, he had a cadre of classmates at Sunny Hills High School who shared his sentiments and musical interests, and at the county folk venues, he saw folk's legends perform and also had the chance to get onstage to hone his own craft. The clubs did the same for Tim Buckley, Steve Gillette, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others.

There was always something to pull the music along. James Harman's record parties educated a generation of blues players. Clubs like Safari Sam's and Linda's Doll Hut nurtured all types of original music. Punkers found a receptive ear in producer Chaz Ramirez at Fullerton's Casbah studio.

OC may be some sort of epicenter of hipdom today, but it was a long time coming, and it took a lot of creativity from an awful lot of people to make something where once there was a big nothing.

"The Orange Groove," a history of Orange County music, will appear at the Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton, (714) 738-6545; www.ci.fullerton.ca.us/museum. Opens Dec. 18. Through May 22.

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