The Secret of 77
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."
Aside from recording natural sounds, the missions apparently revolved around what a psychologist might call extreme risk-taking behavior: climbing tall bridges, jumping barbed-wire fences, finding dead bodies beside the train tracks, breaking into buildings, getting chased by cops, and outrunning Edison security guards on golf carts. "Some people jump out of airplanes," Roth says. "I wanted to jump out of planes, but I couldn't afford it, so we climbed the bridge at 4 a.m. and avoided the cops, and it was exciting and adrenalin-filled."
They also explored one particularly nightmarish place known by locals as "Third World." Here, says Roth, they'd interview crazy homeless people and crack fiends—or just hide in a corner and watch the action, drinking a beer or smoking a bowl.
All that fun has ended, though, with the death of his friends. Which means that Roth is also the last surviving individual who knows the secret location of the buried Terminal Island treasure.
Assuming there is one, of course.
I ponder that question as we reach the entrance to Third World at Terminal Island's Foote Street. "You know in the cheesy apocalyptic movies where bums are in the street with trash cans on fire?" Roth asks. "It's here. This is where they take stolen car parts and everything. Mostly, they just eat crack. They eat crack, sell car parts, and I don't know what else. I don't know how they exist, some of these people, because it's really bad. There are no restaurants down here. I don't know how they eat. I don't get it. Maybe they just don't eat."
Abandoned vehicles and stacked rubber tires abound behind barbed-wire fences on either side of the road. Brick walls and the soot-stained sides of warehouses are covered with obsessively repetitive graffiti: "Angel 2000," "Angel y Scrapy," "Fuck All Y'all 2000." As we drive by, a Sly Stallone look-alike wearing a military-style cap and mirrored sunglasses watches us. He's leaning against his 1970s-era sports car, munching—menacingly—on a sandwich. A gaggle of creepy crack dealers huddles across the street; their eyes are glazed and unfocused.
We head past the sulfur hills to the train tracks and make a left. Even with my four-wheel-drive vehicle, the going is rough, so I pull onto a dirt road and make a U-turn around a giant oak tree that sits in front of a courtyard covered by a tin roof and surrounded with walls strung together out of chain-link fences.
Inside the enclosure is an incredible sight: three giant ostriches, who leap into action, circling helplessly inside the pen. Not stopping, we cruise back toward Foote Street and pass a staggering homeless man who fruitlessly tries to stop us by waving his arms in the air. It's difficult to believe that anyone would intentionally explore Terminal Island at night, much less decide to bury $20,000 here, but Roth insists the treasure is real.
"Yeah, no bullshit about the 20 Gs," he insists. "It's all there. Somehow, I got a situation where I could get the money, and I'm the only surviving person who knows where it is. And I check up on it every couple of weeks." Of course, the longer the treasure remains undetected, the greater the chance it'll be discovered accidentally by a guy with backhoe: Terminal Island is constantly under construction. Explains Roth, "If it still hasn't been found by the time I die, they'll have to find a map of what Terminal Island used to look like, listen to the music, and go exploring."
Nowadays, Roth doesn't have much time for missions. He sleeps in an isolation booth inside his Costa Mesa studio with fellow band members DOZE and LEW and spends most of his time creating music. He has already written several new songs that show the band has progressed mightily—both in technical agility and songwriting skills. But Roth says none of those songs are necessarily going to be released any time soon. "Oh, those are just some songs I_put together," he said.
The band is about to release a self-produced EP, making use of a mountain of brand-new mixing equipment and computer-controlled sampling devices. Roth is evasive about how the band can afford such equipment. "We've got some supporters," is all he would say. According to Roth, Jesus Wore Dickies is working on a new project—the aforementioned full-length, choose-your-own-adventure CD —and has a number of side projects in the works. One of those is providing music for television commercials and sitcoms, including an ill-fated show, Red-Handed, which went dark after one or two episodes.
For someone who has survived the death of two close friends and whose last two jobs were cleaning beer lines at dive bars and manning the cash register at a Long Beach porn shop, things are finally starting to shape up. But Roth's crazy past lives on in music that remains obsessed with Terminal Island. That and the number 77. As anyone familiar with the CD knows, 77 is something of a central defining —or undefining—enigma for anyone struggling to understand Jesus Wore Dickies and the mystery of the buried treasure. It's everywhere—in the lyrics, in the number of tracks on the CD (there are 77) and in the names of the band's various members: Roth is SAVE77, for example, and the band's DJ is DOZE77. Even the disc's jewel case taunts listeners with the oxymoronic warning, "DON'T THINK ABOUT 77."
The meaning of 77 is one secret Roth won't divulge: "Seven-seven? I dunno. I can't talk about it," he says as we depart Terminal Island on the Vincent Thomas bridge. "You just can't think about it. If you think about it, it will go too far, and you'll end up like me. And then you'll be fucked."
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