At the end of 1965, Gavin was born in that shack. At least he was brought home to it when he was a few hours old. The Scragg Family named him BLACK DIAMOND. (In those days, if you went into an ordinary music store and asked for guitar strings, Black Diamond was likely the only brand they carried.) He crawled around among the fallen avocados and ate them and listened to Peter and Gene and me playing music.
For a short time, we moved to a nearby house that seemed to be up for grabs. Then Gene had an idea, that we could turn the avocado shack into a bar. La Cantina. This bit of anecdote isn’t music related, just cool. But I mean really cool; imagine yourself driving up into the hills—fewer and fewer houses—steep, winding roads you could easily get lost on—yeah, guess you’re supposed to park beside this row of old junkers and, what, walk down over this cliff?—down a dirt path covered with squished avocados—and suddenly there’s mariachi music playing, there are lights (from kerosene lanterns) and laughter, there’s a funny little shack, and you can walk right in there and slap down your dollar on the bar and get a generous shot of Bushmills or Cuervo, or pretty much whatever you fancy. There’s an Irish bartender smoking a cigar, his name’s Mike Lannigan and he works for shots. In one corner there’s a poker game in progress—you recognize the Santa Barbara D.A., but who are those guys with bulges under the armpits of their suits?
By 1967 this level of domesticity—i.e., state of not playing music—started to wear on me. Then I had an idea. And right now I have to say that I’ve just seen the new CD of the old Scragg Family record—yes, it’s now out and available—and I see by the liner notes there’s some dispute about whose idea this actually was. Normally it wouldn’t matter, and memory plays tricks, and all that, but in this case I would claim that this was my idea because no one else is that harebrained. And because I remember lying awake nights, thinking about it off and on through pretty much my lifetime.
“I have an idea,” I said to Gene. “Wouldn’t it be great if the Scragg Family had an old truck or something, and we’d just get in and travel all over the country, and whenever we’d get to a town we’d set up our gear and play, and people would take up collections for us, so we’d always have enough money to go on to the next town….”
As it happened, Peter was all for it—assuming, of course, that it wasn’t already his idea. He’d been going to college, but right now he wasn’t really into botany. Gene was for it, too, but the only truck he had left was a lowboy for his bulldozer, and there was no way the three of us and the baby could fit in that little cab. By next day, he’d had an idea, so he went downtown to lean on an old friend and was back a few hours later with a 42-passenger school bus.
It was a good bus, a ’53 Chevy, but it had belonged to a group with lots of kids who had painted it outside and in with rainbows and butterflies. And it had barely made it up the hill before it died. That was all right, Gene already knew he’d have to put a new engine in it. He did that over the next week, in a field, while Peter and I painted the bus—blue with a white roof, THE SCRAGG FAMILY on the side in red and gold circus letters. We took out the seats and put a stove, ice box and sink in it, what more could we want? Oh, beds, and closets. Easy.
Oh, and Peter should really find a girlfriend who would want to join us in our adventure, because it’s easier with 2 couples than a threesome, and of course we’d need someone to look after Gavin while we were playing. So a day later Peter showed up with a girlfriend. I was impressed with the speed of his courtship. Her name was Cindy. She was reasonably enthusiastic but far from passive—we were to understand that we’d have to stop every two hours because that’s how often she would have to get out and meditate, and she lived on yoghurt, and what’s more, the rust on the ice box shelves was not to be tolerated. Did she like children? Well, that depended.
Oh, and we’d need a sound system. No problem, we had a friend who would take the one Peter bought at considerable expense from a big-name L.A. outfit and make it twice as good if he could live with us while he worked on it it, and if we’d drive him downtown every day to a certain fast food place where they had the right kind of burgers and then another one across town because they poured the right size of Coke. It was the sort of rebuild where the pre-amp had to be sprayed with Zolotone or something, and the special capacitors had to be special-ordered from Libya. I flipped my lid at the guy one day, and this was the first time someone actually said to me, ‘You’re beautiful when you’re angry.’ DO NOT EVER TRY THIS LLINE. But finally the bus was done, and the sound system was done, and the only thing remaining was to give a farewell concert on the steps of the old Mission up on APS (Alameda Padre Scragg) where our new custom amp blew up in smoke and flames.
It was amazing how we didn’t get any jobs at all. We drove and drove, we stopped in every town and canvassed the bars, we felt like idiots. In Reno we even got in costume and took the elevator to the top floor of a major casino where the manager was sitting at a big desk, and he took one look at us and died laughing.
Okay, we wouldn’t be working there.
Late that afternoon we got to Virginia City and parked the bus in front of the RED DOG SALOON because it looked promising. We didn’t get out right away. It took us half an hour to put on our costumes and pretty up. (Gene had refined his outfit so he looked like a traveling preacher; trust me, this took some effort.) By the time we entered the saloon, people had pretty well talked themselves out over WTF we could possibly be. We said we wanted a job. They wanted to know if we could start tomorrow and play for all summer, and we said if the pay was okay, we would. I guess it was. Once we were hired, the owner—STEVE HENRY—asked us with great respect if it would be all right if they could hear a song right now, if we weren’t too tired. Now, see, that’s the way I like to get gigs.
We did play all summer and on through October. That’s a good run. (The previous summer, the GRATEFUL DEAD had been the house band. They’d left their light-show behind, a light-show that pulsated to the rhythm of each song, so we played our mountain music to psychedelic pulsations.) There was an available room, which Peter and Cindy took; Gene and I lived in the bus with Black Diamond. The crowd was an afternoon one, mainly tourists, a lot of them from Appalachia. They’d line up to get our autographed poster for a dollar. I always told them we were from Horn Rim, Ky., which I thought was a joke because so many scholarly types were into mountain music, but lots of folks would say, ‘Oh, I know Horn Rim, it’s just a coupla hollers over from Strangle Crick.’
1967. I was here often in 1956 with my mother and her boyfriend. He (JIM GAHAN, house pianist at THE PLACE in San Francisco) had bought a weekend house at the end of the street, and he’d play ragtime piano in the BUCKET OF BLOOD saloon. Every place in Virginia City, Nevada, is a saloon. I mean, this is mostly true, except where it isn’t. The sidewalk is plank, the building fronts are false, and behind them the hills rise in folds, dry, sagey and rattlesnake-covered. I loved to climb them while the piano-playing routine was going on—heard one rendition of ‘Bill Bailey,’ heard ’em all. Up on the hillside, the air was brittle cold, the stars close. I felt like a stranger and liked it. I sure never thought I’d end up part of the town’s ambience.
With our nights free, sometimes we’d go down to Carson City and spend some tip money on the slots. Those nights we’d camp on the Carson River. Once, another family was camping on the river, not too far down the mud flat from us. After a while the dad wandered over from their campfire to ours. He had a banged-up Harmony guitar across his back and wanted to do some picking. Turned out he was pretty good. We invited him to come to the Red Dog next day and do a couple songs. He did, with the whole family—Indian wife and several kids. Eventually one of the boys came over to say his dad wanted to ask us if we could give them five dollars, because they didn’t have enough gas to drive back to the river. JACK GREEN. The un-famous one.
Finally the season was over. We divided up, Peter taking the sound system and us taking the bus. Gene’s divorce was finalized. He sold his family house he had designed and built in Santa Barbara, and with his share of the money we drove up to Montana and bought a hunk of wilderness land. It was an idea.
What?! Was this the end of the Scragg Family then?