Our Pal Joey
Some facts you need to know about Joe Racano: He sings, writes and plays guitar real purty. His dad was a prominent New York wise guy.He lives in a funky RV with two dogs and two crows. Just for shits 'n' giggles, Racano says, he once peed in a bottle of sun tea that was brewing outside Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher's Huntington Beach office.Racano, 42, has been a fixture on the Huntington Beach club and coffeehouse circuits for years, following a life largely spent on the bum in New York, Florida and northern California. He's lived in cars and campers, on the banks of Southern rivers, in hobo jungles by railroad tracks, and on the stoops and streets of Brooklyn. Despite his unconventional lifestyle, the man is neither hard nor mentally unstable.First impression: Racano has the weather-cured hide and outdoorsy bouquet often associated with down-and-out homeless people. But even a cursory look into his warm, brown eyes reveals kindness, sensitivity, intelligence and comfort with the self. His are the eyes of an abbot; his is the face of a gentle, empathetic soul. "I don't look hard because, although I've lived as hard as anyone, I've never been a scumbag," he says in a thick New York accent. "I made a decision to live this way, to live free. When I've tried to live any other way, I've felt like I was in prison." Racano mostly sings his own material, a curious blend of country blues, East Coast soul and rock guitar. He fancies his music a purer form of swamp blues, but the fact is that a childhood spent in New York growing up in an Italian mob family informs his singing more than Racano seems to understand. "My father OD'd me on Frank Sinatra and stuff," he says, wincing. "I could not handle that. I grew up hating it terribly. Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra-all that shit. But my sisters always listened to the music of the day. So I remember being allowed to go down to the basement and being allowed to listen to the Victrola for a few minutes before the party started. They put on whatever song I asked them to play. [sings] 'Oh, Denise, shoobie doo/I'm in love with you.' The parts I loved were the bluesy parts, but I didn't know that then. [sings] 'My Venus in blue jeans . . .' There were always certain things in the music that really moved me." He may not appreciate the music of his father's generation, but Racano sings the blues the way Sinatra or Bobby Darin might have approached them, with a rich tone, precise control of pitch, gorgeous vibrato, and heaps of Italian-sharp phrasing. If he chose to, Racano would make a superb big-band vocalist. His method follows the tradition of Italian-American pop singers from Sinatra, Darin and Dean Martin to Johnny Maestro, Dion, Frankie Valli and Felix Cavialere of the Rascals. There's a swaggering olive-oil charm to his voice that Racano can't deny or escape, even as he professes his loathing of Sinatra and names acts like Pat Travers, Johnny Winter, AC/DC and Jimi Hendrix as his real influences. While Racano distances himself from his roots, this Italo-simpatico trip is a great thing; it's among the elements that set him apart from other white guys playing good blues guitar.For that matter, Racano's true cultural experience was interesting enough that it requires no embellishment; it's a childhood straight out of a Martin Scorsese film. "My father was Rocky Racano, one of the Racano brothers who terrorized Brooklyn," he says. "There was Rocky, Vito and Louie. Only Louie is still alive. My father was a very resourceful man. He got used by the Colombians to skipper their boats into New York, and eventually, he got busted with 40 tons of pot and went to prison. I got the newspaper clippings and shit. What a trip. He had to make his $68,000 per week smuggling pot. That's what he did. I know you're not supposed to do that. The one thing in the world that's the hardest thing to do is to do what's right. The prisons are full of people who can't do it right. And I can do it right because I got something inside of me that's really powerful. I didn't have that weakness. I have more integrity than that."My father was murdered on July 3, 1983," Racano continues. "He got out of prison, and I guess someone owed him a lot of money, and it was cheaper to kill him than it was to pay him back."If Racano made an early decision not to follow in his father's footsteps, he still looked up to Pop as all small boys do and inherited the Italian soul so evident in his singing today."I remember watching my father shaving, and it was, like, 'My hero!'-you know? And his shaving bag was laying there on its side, and all I remember is there were bullets in the shaving bag. He was on his way to Chicago to collect some money. Bullets in there. I don't even wanna think about it. And I remember him singing, 'Fly me to the moon, and let me play among the stars.' And he had this beautiful, rich voice. And I always said: 'You know what? I hope I sing like that when I get older.' Fortunately, I sound a lot like he did." The generation gap of the '60s was even more pronounced in New York than in more liberal California, and playing a guitar was equated with being a filthy hippie, a no-good bum in the eyes of Racano's parents. "When I was little, I thought I was a big fuck-up because my parents told me so," Racano says with a sigh. "If I wanted to play guitar, that was fucked-up. My parents would say, 'You can come in; that thing stays out there.' And the more they did that, the stronger my conviction became that I was gonna do this, that I was gonna be a musician." There are two driving forces in Racano's life: music and environmental/animal-rights activism. He plays numerous benefit concerts (including opening for Bonnie Raitt at a 1996 fund-raiser for the Bolsa Chica Landtrust) and actively campaigns for environmentally friendly political candidates (such as 2nd District supervisor-hopeful Dave Sullivan and Huntington Beach City Council contestant Connie Boardman). Racano has also been known to stage one-man protest marches, wage graffiti-sloganeering campaigns and donate hours of his time to animal preserves like the Bolsa Chica Wetlands and the Crow Care Rehabilitation of Wildlife Project in Florida. This guy loves his animals. As I sit with Racano in his camper, one of his cranky old dogs growls when I sit too close. A crow named Spike continually bows his head in my direction, wanting to have his neck scratched ("He likes that because he thinks you're picking his lice out," offers Racano, after which I am conscious not to put my fingers near my mouth until I can wash my hands). When Racano picks up his guitar to sing, Spike caws and screeches lustily at the same bar of each verse. It's an eerie display, as Racano belts out one of his freewheelin' songs: "Don't waste money on high-priced booze/My feet hurt in fancy shoes/I live life the way I choose/Little bit of rhythm and a lot of blues."Despite the childhood traumas, Racano stresses that he doesn't live the street life as a rejection of the values he grew up with nor as a rebellion against his family. He recalls an experience he had as a 6-year-old, an epiphany that forever altered the way he looks at life. "I remember sitting on my stoop in 1962 in Brooklyn on Warwick Street, and there was nothing there; it was a concrete jungle," he says. "It was like what we're doing to Huntington now. I see Brooklyn coming to Huntington. They think they're so cool with their beige buildings, but they're building a ghetto-to-be. "Anyway, I was sitting on my stoop with all this ugliness, and a monarch butterfly flew by. And when I saw that, my heart leaped out of my chest-like, whoa!-it hit me so profoundly. So from that point on, I've been an animal lover and environmentalist. I was way different from everyone else growing up and going to school." He's a pacific soul, but Racano inherited enough of Rocky's genes that you don't want to cross him. He tells me of an incident in which he had been picketing a Shell oil refinery in Martinez, California, that had been involved in an oil spill: "I wound up in a fight with the harbor master's son. He came up to me at an intersection and threatened my life. So I beat up his car right there in the middle of the intersection. I didn't let it go any further than that. It's like that old motto 'Don't Tread on Me.'"I was talking to Racano on the phone recently when a friend of his started tickling him in the middle of a soliloquy about animal rights. "The next time you do that, I'm gonna punch you right in your big fat mouth!" he stormed, sounding very convincing. Racano got a late start as a musician, not picking up his first guitar until he was 20 and never taking formal lessons. This accounts for the fact that Racano-an excellent musician equally at home with gut-bucket acoustic blues and shredding electric blues rock-approaches the instrument in a difficult, unconventional fashion. I watch as he peels off fleet-fingered riffs up and down the length of his guitar neck rather than using strings nearer his hand position, as he flat picks rhythm patterns that would be easier to play if he'd finger pick them (all done on a guitar custom-made by local luthier Terry Scheffer with a crow inlaid on the headpiece!). No matter: it all sounds great in Racano's nimble hands. Let him play the guitar strung backward behind his head if it comes out sounding as fine as this. Racano's stage presence is more like John Lee Hooker than Stevie Ray Vaughan. He sits cool and detached, hat slung low over narrowing eyes as he introduces songs with personal and political analogies. He looks stern, in control, although it's well-apparent he's enjoying the hell out of himself. But Racano says he feels a sense of lost time from devotion to his craft. "It's been a sacrifice," he says wistfully. "I didn't take my nose out of a guitar for 20 years. And now, I'll see some girl and come on to her, and she's like, 'Dude, you're too old for me.' And I realize a lot of time has passed; there are a lot of lost years there. There's a price for everything. I never thought I'd get old, and then one day I turned around, and it just happened."A lot of years also passed Racano by as he bummed around Fort Meyers, Florida; Nashville, Tennessee; the Bay Area; and finally, Huntington Beach. "I came to OC because I wanted to be close enough to LA to attack it musically but be far enough away to not go back to the same type of life I was living, which was in the gutter," admits Racano. "West Oakland, Berkeley, Florida -I was living in the gutter in a lot of different places. Me and my dog Misty lived on the bank of the Cumberland River in Nashville, watching the General Jackson roll by. I did some real hard living. "You know, they used to have this thing called the Orange Curtain where you couldn't make it from Orange County-only from LA," he continues. "But now there's been a reversal, and this is the Orange Portal. I really feel like I'm about to crack the nut in the music business." As gently as possible, I remind Racano that powerful figures in music rarely smile on fortysomething musicians who live in campers with crows and play deeply personal acoustic blues-based songs, no matter how great their music is. He quickly points to Jewel as an example of an exception to the rule, and I don't have the heart to tell him he resembles Yogi Bear more than a beauty-contest winner and would look ridiculous exposing his nipples in a see-through dress at the Grammys. Maybe Racano is reading my mind; he points out that his music is more respectable than the kiddie rock that dominates the airwaves. "You can't get the kind of experience I have in some young, suburban kid," he explains. "They're doing this trendy stuff, and they're gonna be here and gone. I hate to sound like some old man, but what these people are into now isn't really what they're into. It's what they're pretending to be into so they might have the approval of others. Everybody's gonna look at you like you're really cool if you have tattoos on your head and a pierced groin and you jump up and down. You know what they sound like to me? You take the lead singer going, 'YAYAYAYAYAYA,' and picture the singer as a little boy sitting on a chair with his father in front of him, wagging his finger in his face and yelling at him, going, 'YAYAYAYAYAYA!' All they're doing is vomiting out what has been forced into them as children. It's not about the beauty of music. I'm not forcing anything out. What I'm doing comes from a source of real inspiration, and you can't say that about everybody." Whatever happens for Racano, he'll continue to play the clubs and coffeehouse circuit as well as offer his time as a volunteer at environmental preserves and benefit concerts. This is a man far, far from his roots who still has a genuine love for his adopted home of Orange County, and if you wanna mess up OC, you're gonna have to walk through Racano to do it. "If you look at Orange County, there's so little left, and they just gotta go ruin the rest of it," he says. "It's avarice. And unfortunately, avarice and Republicans seem to run side by side. It's our responsibility to walk lightly on the Earth. For me, we are God; it's us, the animals. You look into the eyes of an animal, and you look into the eyes of God. There is no doubt in my mind. And when and if there is a judgment, you can never lie because the animals have seen what we've done. We've trampled them, and it's disgusting. And anyone who doesn't stand up against it is less than a man. That's how I feel, and I've got no problem with saying it. And I don't care who likes me and who doesn't." Somewhere, Dana Rohrbacher has a bitter taste in his mouth.Joe Racano plays at the Huntington Beach Brewery, 201 Main St., Huntington Beach, (714) 960-5343. Thurs., Sept. 17, 8 p.m. Free. 21+.
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