It was a misty day in December when I ducked into the Swallow's Inn in San Juan Capistrano to talk with general manager Cheryl Krupp about one of the entertainers she frequently booked there, the late Chris Gaffney.
"I knew him very well," Krupp said while glancing in the direction of the empty stage that had been regularly darkened by the country/folk/R&B/soul/rock singer-songwriter-guitarist-accordion player and his various bands. "He had his own type of music, he had a great following, and he had great fans. He was laid back, easygoing. It was a shame when he got sick."
Gaffney, a military brat who bounced around Europe before eventually landing in Tuscon, Arizona, southeast Los Angeles County and Orange County, succumbed to liver cancer at 57 in April 2008. His pal Dave Alvin has put together a Gaffney tribute album that the Blasters co-founder and Grammy winner promotes down the street from Swallow's at the Coach House Saturday night.
Asked if she could recall any Gaffney antics during her 17 years at Swallow's, Krupp got a twinkle in her eye. "You never knew what he was going to do," she said. "He was one of the bands you always had to remind had a show to do. You had to go find him during breaks to tell him he's still got to keep playing."
She never quite knew what he would end up playing either. She recalled booking Gaffney to play country music one Saturday night. "He was on a break and he said, 'Oh, I don't know what I'm going to play. I'll do something different. I'll just play country.' That was what he was supposed to play!"
It was worth the trouble, according to Krupp: "He would bring in a crowd that was unbelievable."
Gaffney's lackadaisical attitude toward music was something I also went over with Alvin, although there was no room to incorporate that into the Music story that appears in today's Weekly.
"Someone asked me to describe where Chris is now," Alvin said over the phone. "If there is an afterlife, he's in a motel room with a king-sized bed--a smoking room with a refrigerator in it--with a six-pack, a remote control and all the ESPN channels. And, maybe there's a guitar in there, maybe not."
Having met so many musicians over the years on the way up, on the way down, at the pinnacle of success or nowhere near it, Alvin said Gaffney's attitude toward his craft was not that unusual.
"When I first met him at Raji's [a Hollywood dive bar since torn down], he was as ambitious as he ever got," Alvin said of Gaffney. "He was a really talented guy, but was he the most disciplined musician I ever met? No. I know Chris and I know a lot of really ambitious people, and I was in between. One guy in particular I was friends with before he got famous, and before he even had a record deal he was talking about what songs would be on his third album. Give or take one or two, and he was right. It was all plotted out, and he is very successful and very wealthy. And I'm not like that and I'm not like Chris. I'm in the middle. Chris was the polar opposite of the other guy."
To give an example, Alvin recalls a story that is "funny to me."
"He was staying in Nashville with a friend, and a great singer Rosie Flores came over to visit. She said, 'Chris, do you want to go play at the Java Hut? We can work up a couple of nights with some people.' That's how it works there. And Chris was like, 'No. Why the hell would I want to do that?' That was Chris," Alvin says with a big laugh before switching to a Gaffney impression to punctuate the thought. "'I'm staying in a house, and I've got ESPN.'"
For someone more partial toSportscenter
than a recording studio, Gaffney sure produced some damn fine songs. This is evident on the Alvin-producedMan of Somebody's Dreams: A Tribute to Chris Gaffney
on the Yep Roc label. I talked with Alvin about some of the cuts that most perked my ears.
Joe Ely, returning the favor of Gaffney recording Ely's "Are You Listening Lucky," blazes through Gaffney's "Lift Your Leg" with the help of Texas accordion king Ponty Bone. When I tell Alvin the accordion break is "Gaffneyesque," he corrects that it is the other way around, that Gaffney was influenced by Bone--in more ways than one.
"They were really close friends and herbal buddies," Alvin said. "Ponty has a really distinctive way of playing accordion. Chris was not a virtuoso, but he had a way of playing that was a mix of norteña style with a little bit of cajun and a little bit of Frank Sinatra. When I hear him playing accordion, I know it's Gaffney. Ponty knew he had to be true to the record so, yeah, he is playing like Chris."
On "Artesia," Alvin's own Man of Somebody's Dreams cut that begins with a spoken-word introduction, he gets to share something he and Gaffney have in common: wistfulness over a Southern California that no longer exists.
"We both had similar experiences growing up when we grew up in Southern California," Alvin explained. "Everything changes so quickly, especially in the age we grew up. It's in a lot of my songs. It's something Chris and I shared. It's almost the feeling of alienation. I grew up in Downey, and when I was a little kid there were orange groves and avocado fields. We were both, for lack of a better word--no, nostalgic is not really the word--alienated, because where we came from doesn't exist anymore. It's almost like it changed that quickly. We always shared that.
"When we talked about growing up, all those images were there, of the lost landscapes. Now they are just dreamscapes in our heads. It's kind of like the speech I make before the song. That's what the song's actually about. Because most people, who are not us, would have no idea when the wind blows out of Artesia."
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The track that most blew me away was Calexico's take on "Frank's Tavern." That turned out to be one of Alvin's favorites also. "They hit it out of the ballpark," he said.
He did not know Calexico, a rock band that hails from Tuscon-via-LA, knew of Gaffney until they all ran into one another during a radio show three years ago in Boulder, Colo. "Chris and I did some numbers, and then at the end we all did a couple songs together. A couple of the guys were from Tuscon, and when they saw Chris had a tattoo that said 'Tuscon' and one that showed the Arizona flag, forget it. They fell in love with Chris."
The manager of Gaffney's last band, the excellent, up-and-coming Hacienda Brothers with the Paladin's Dave Gonzalez (who also turns up on Man of Somebody's Dreams playing "Tired of Being Me"), was the one who informed Alvin Calexico wanted to contribute to the tribute album.
"What they did was pretty astounding to me," he said. "Chris had this side to him, a poetic side, the side that wrote the songs. This was a guy with an inner poetry to him--as much as he'd be beating the living shit out of me for saying this. Calexico added a norteña polka and made it into a huge, sprawling ballad waltz. When I first heard it, I started balling. That was a side of Chris I never heard Chris let anyone see. I felt he was in the room. That's the Gaffney I know, the secret Chris, and they captured it."