We Gotta Get Out of This Place
Photo by Jack Gould"This is about being real," says the Record Industry Man who won't give his name. In the murky depths of a warehouse, all soft light and hard angles, he stands surrounded by enough overstuffed, left-leaning couches and cascading, foil wall decorations to suggest that David Lynch is hosting a Tupperware party.
Bands do not play here. That would be wrong. This is a warehouse designed and intended for the express purpose of housing wares. To do otherwise would only invite scrutiny and perhaps a hefty fine from the local authorities. It'd be foolhardy to have bands rehearse here, let artists show their works here, have actors put on plays here, for the entire place to become a confluence of art. It would be positively ill-advised to have a band on the verge of great things invite friends and family to watch them play a showcase here for the record industry men.
"This place is very genuine," says the Record Industry Man.
It's got a name, this place, and an address, but like a lot of places, they're better not mentioned.
"That would not be good," says Chris Hanlin, who says he was saved by the place while also making clear that none of this is taking place, just as he wants to make it clear he is not living in this place, and neither are the five other people who don't live there with him.
Hanlin's band, the Dibs, is about to take the stage here for tonight's record industry showcase that is not happening. The Dibs are a great band, favorably compared by close friends and casual observers to Creedence Clearwater Revival, Counting Crows, Tom Petty and just about any great American rock band of the past 30 years. Their music is smart and soulful and so accessible that more than a few think the Dibs could sell a lot of records. Which is why the Dibs have been (un)fortunate enough to have the tag "best band you've never heard" epoxied to them. Are they the best band you've never heard? Well, I've never met you, but yes.
But the Dibs are also a band from Long Beach, a city with a population bigger than Atlanta yet with just a handful of music clubs . . . what? The Lava Lounge just bit the dust? Make that three fingers. There are a lot of theories that might explain why the city government makes it so hard on club owners, ranging from its disdain of anything local to the lingering effects of a city that was once a playground for thousands of drunken, horny sailors.
Whatever the reason, bands in this town—and there are a lot of very good bands in this town—don't just have to burn their own CDs, create and tack up their own fliers, and take and distribute their own pretentious 8-by-10s, but they have been forced to create their own scene as well. The entire city is a labyrinth of underground venues like the one we are not in tonight.
"You put down the lid on something that's already flowing over, and it's just going to come out somewhere else," says Hanlin.
It's going to come out in back yards and industrial parks, basements and warehouses, with only word-of-mouth, e-mail or a strategically placed, colored light bulb to guide the devotees.
It's not unusual to be listening to a band in someone's back yard, glance around to see the police coming in the front door and glance back to see the band tossing their instruments—and themselves—over the fence. And yet the bands keep coming.
"I've heard of a place and rushed over there at 8 p.m., and I'd have to wait to get onstage, which is, like, maybe a corner of the room," says Rae Enrico of the band Pretty Ugly. "I've waited in line till 1 a.m. to play, then got off and walked outside past musicians still carrying their equipment into the place to get in line to play."
Being in a Long Beach band can make you want to tear your own head off. Of course, that makes it a perfect training ground for dealing with the record industry.
"There is only one rule in the music business," says Ljiljana Mazich, former lead singer of the Yugoslavian band Magazine and wife of Dibs' keyboardist Pete Mazich. "And that is that there are no rules. If you can't accept that, then you will go crazy."
"You roll with it," says Hanlin, who's experienced at that. Adopted as a child, he left Indiana when he found his girlfriend was sleeping with his best friend. He arrived in Long Beach 10 years ago in his mother's Cutlass and slept in a friend's living room on a lawn chair. He's been kicked out of bands, had others implode and been the kind of person a lot of people didn't particularly like, least of all himself.
But he changed when he came to this place, when he realized how little he could actually control—whether it was Long Beach, the record industry or songwriting (which he does best while nearly unconscious). So he changed, and when he did, his balance of determination and acceptance made him something of a patriarch.
"Chris is Daddy," says Long Beach musician Wink Musselman. "If anyone in Long Beach deserves to make it, Chris deserves it."
Which is a very nice thing for Musselman to say—even if he is exceedingly drunk and attempting to cradle you like a baby at the time—but what a band deserves from the recording industry, or the city of Long Beach, means absolutely nothing.
You can't control it any more than you can control parents or girlfriends or best friends. You can only do what you do. You can only play the showcases and the shows and show up at the open mic nights and the songwriter nights and any other night when you can play in front of people, and you can call people and send off your self-produced CD to the music critics and write, write, write, write, write. But the rest is out of your control.
"I see lots of people trying to make all these grand plans," Hanlin says. "And they're like, 'Okay, first we're going to do this, and then we're going to go get this, and then we're going to get this guy, and then we'll use that to get this.' And all these things are completely out of their control. And I'm like, 'All right, man. Good luck.'"
When the Dibs take the stage, you have perhaps never seen such a happy bunch of trespassers in your life. They beam like proud parents at a Thanksgiving Day pageant. Most of the people in the audience are friends, and most of the friends are in other bands. Enrico from Pretty Ugly, Bret Bixby from 12 Hour Mary, solo artist Shayna, Johnny Jones of Johnny Jones and the Suffering Halos, Terry Prine from Greater California and Scott St. Louis of Boss Tweed, who has a similar, smaller place in a different part of town.
The Dibs itself is made up of guys from other bands. Hanlin from Bourbon Jones, bassist Matt Jacovides from Speaker, guitarist Mickey Way from Mickey's Big Mouth, Mazich from the Madonnabes on organ, and Mark Roman, who plays with Bixby in 12 Hour Mary. They play at one another's gigs and at the gigs of other friends—sitting in, giving feedback on songs, lending a hand or a voice.
Hanlin, who repairs guitars at landmark Long Beach music shop World of Strings (and who's been known to drive to Riverside on his day off to get a banjo part for a band that's got an upcoming show), has made this place available to other bands to rehearse or play or shoot videos. But as the Dibs take the stage and launch into "So Complicated," a song about dysfunctional love, it marks the first time they've actually used this place for a showcase of their own.
The Record Industry Men have asked that the set be acoustic, so it is. You try to accommodate the record industry as much as you can without hating yourself. That's the trick: knowing how much you can bend and still stay somewhat true to what you had in mind in the first place. The other trick with the record industry is not to go insane or die or go broke or all of the above, which may sound dramatic, but it happens. A lot.
"I've seen the music industry chew up a lot of bands here in town," Hanlin says. "Bands that got dropped. Bands that signed a bad deal and got screwed. Every day I see people who come in [to World of Strings] who are strung-out, hung-over. They've got no money, nothing. And I look at them and think to myself, 'You know what? I don't want to end up like you.'"
But he was headed in that direction when some of the folks he played with around town asked him if he would like to move into a warehouse that had been converted for the purpose of showcasing art.
"When they asked me to move in, it was like I was being saved," he says. "I went through my periods of self-indulgence and being an asshole and did a lot of dumb things. When I moved into this place, it was a conscious attempt to try not to do that anymore. I was being given a second chance, and I thought, 'I'm not going to be a fuck-up anymore. I'm not going to hurt people anymore. I don't want to be this Mr. Negative Bitter Guy anymore.'"
The Record Industry Men want an acoustic set so they can hear the words and the vocals. What they hear is Hanlin's voice, strong and mournful, his face contorted into a kind of pained ecstasy so that it appears he is either having sex or being stabbed.
"Chris' voice is incredible," Jacovides says. "This one time, he was singing at this showcase, just an acoustic guitar, and nobody knew who he was, and the mic wasn't working. So there he is, just singing with an acoustic guitar, off-mic, and it was like one of those westerns when the bad guy walks into the room. Everyone just shut up and started listening to him."
As a songwriter, Hanlin is generally considered the finest in Long Beach.
"The best," says Enrico.
"Gifted," says Jacovides.
"He's God," says St. Louis, fittingly.
"I appreciate it when people say things about my writing, but honestly, I don't feel like I'm in control of it," Hanlin says. "It just comes. It's not like I can sit back and say, 'Yeah, I'm such a kick-ass songwriter.' I can't control it. And usually, the things that I sit around and labor over come out the worst. The ones that come from a moment of inspiration come out fresh and clean."
"He paints a picture that's just so vivid, he takes you somewhere, and its real," says Enrico, who was asked to sing backup on Hanlin's "He Helped Himself," a song about family and indulgence and loss with references to haunted houses and a chorus of "What could have been/Might have been/Ain't never ever gonna be again."
"I just started to get such images from that song," says Enrico, who recently moved back home to take care of his mother after his father's death. "It was so strong that I had to turn my back on the audience. I was crying, and I couldn't stop."
A few songs into the set, Hanlin apologizes to the assembled for the guitar amp that keeps shorting out and spewing static about the room. He also announces he's just learned that local blues legend Top Jimmy Koncek, a notorious drinker, has died at the age of 46 of liver failure. The band then launches into "He Helped Himself."
Soon after, Mazich spills a glass full of something on his keyboards, bringing everything to a stop.
"That's okay; someone gave me that anyway. Drink up, folks," and then, under his breath, Hanlin says, "Don't spill it on your organ."
The show ends with Musselman jumping onstage and demanding an encore, which he gets. The Dibs go into "When a Man Loves the Moon," and the room fills with knowing nods. When that's over, Hanlin raises a glass to the room and says, "Here's to what's left of Top Jimmy's liver." Then he strides off.
The Record Industry Men are impressed.
"They're fucking great. They remind me of the Wallflowers and Creedence," says the Record Industry Man.
"He's an amazing talent. This is not the soup du jour," says another Recording Industry Man. "Guys like this put out huge albums because this kind of music never goes out of style."
"An amazing talent."
"He's the old soul in a beautiful package."
"He's due his time."
Hanlin nods and says his thank-yous. When they ask him, "So what's your plan? What do you want to do?" he answers, "Look, man, we're here. I want to get one step above that, that's all. 'Cause that's all the further you can see. Do I want to be touring stadiums? I just want to get to the next step and make sure that it's all square and level so I can get to the next step."
The next step, the Record Industry Men say, is for the Dibs to get out of this place. Get out on the road. Exactly how they are going to do that, no one is saying. That costs a lot of money.
"When do we leave?" Hanlin asks, laughing.
Really? Would he really leave the place that saved him?
"Hey, I love this place. It's been good to us. But it's not like I want to stay here forever. I mean, it's a fucking warehouse."
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