Lefty Phillips is reminded of the choice he made every morning, as he wakes up in the bed of his 1996 Ford Tacoma. The day creeps in and warms the worn, gray camper shell over his head. He's gotten good at finding inconspicuous overnight parking in Long Beach's residential areas.
"To my surprise, there are lots of places to park where people don't seem to mind," Phillips says with a note of optimism.
Still, sometimes it's awkward exiting his vehicle in the morning, shaking off last night's gig as people are jumping into their cars to go to work. Inside his cozy abode, Phillips has the bare necessities: a feathered comforter, a camping stove, an amp and a couple of electric guitars.
It's been more than a year since Phillips started living out of his truck in February 2013, busking on the streets by day, playing clubs by night. After the economic crash of the late '00s and losing his last job as a janitor at a local community college, the 45-year-old guitarist had enough of working for the Man.
"It dawned on me that I'd be better off being poor and playing music all the time than I would be living comfortably, spending eight to 10 hours, five days a week, doing something that meant nothing to me purely to make money to pay bills," he says.
He thrives on a diet of regular gigs, including a slot on Tuesdays at the Pike Bar in Los Alamitos with his rotating band, the Lefty Phillips Trio.
"There's this thing that goes on between a band onstage and a crowd, and the feeling I get from it–it's just electric," Phillips says. His sandpapery voice escapes the twisted forest of a gray-and-rust-colored beard. "I'm an addict, man."
In a live setting, the grip music has on him is palpable. Writhing, dexterous fret work and the squeal of notes bent into submission are the basis of his playing. Growing up, he says his main influences were the growl of Muddy Waters' voice and the guitar voodoo of Jimi Hendrix.
The only thing that trumps his obsession with playing guitar is his obsession with creating the perfect lyrics. Over the past 30 years, he's written dozens of original tunes, some of which stem back to his very first songs. For instance, "Love Is Like Roses" sat unfinished for 15 years because of a minor quibble with a verse. "It sat there because I couldn't make up my mind over one word!" he says.
The song was inspired by a childhood encounter with a rosebush next to Linda Ronstadt's house. Abandoned by teenage parents in California in the early '70s, he was taken in by a young groupie who toured and carried on with a milieu of famous bands of the era. At one point, she and Lefty lived in a house next to Ronstadt on Beachwood Canyon in the Hollywood Hills. Phillips vividly remembers running down the stairs one day and catching a glimpse of the rose bush at sunset out the window. The dying light made the bush glow with a mixture of reds and golds. "I was just a kid, but that image made such an impression on me that it became the genesis of that song," he says. "Years later, I can still close my eyes and see that rose bush, with the golden light coming through it."
Whether it's deciding on lyrics or his path as a dedicated musician, Phillips says he's learned to not regret his choices. "I'm gonna die doing this," Phillips says. "Whether I succeed or fail, this is what I'm gonna do for the rest of my life. Maybe I'll be living in my truck for the next 30 years; maybe I'll get an RV."
The Lefty Phillips Trio performs on Friday Bull Bar in Long Beach (every fourth Friday), and the Pike in Los Alamitos (every first Tuesday). For more info, click here.