Music comes pounding out of the tunnel full of rage and wild energy, vibrating through the night like sound-studio rock, amplified by the ribbed metal walls of the passage under Rotella Avenue. Hard music, driving music, white-hot to the point of snapping.
Kids are drawn to the beat like the children of Hamelin. Punkers, new wavers, heavy metalists, some of them stoned on weed, a few flying on speed, the troubled waifs of an narcoticized generation, feeling the music.
Saturday night at Old Orchard Park.
The park is in Newhall, a square of emerald lawn and liquid amber trees. You walk through a small forest down a pathway to the tunnel and you find Dan Whitlock, sweating out the steamy night on his Yamaha guitar.
Maybe he’s alone and maybe he’s got his band with him, gathered like trolls under a bridge, making the music, shooting charged notes of tonal energy into the starry sky.
You think at first here it is again , hard rock talkin’ easy dope and easy sex, talkin’ nothing to do and no place to go, talkin’ tears on the edge of the abyss, talkin’ darkness.
But that ain’t the way it is, man.
Whitlock, you suddenly realize, is singing about hope and salvation and there’s a sticker on his guitar that says God Rules! and the kids are listening. I mean, hey, they’re damned well hypnotized!
What’s going on in Old Orchard Tunnel and who is Dan Whitlock?
Well, he’s a slim guy in his mid-20s with longish brown hair and a modified walrus mustache and one gold earring who calls his music hard gospel and who knows exactly where the kids are coming from because he’s been there.
For seven years of his life Whitlock was strung out on booze and speed, hating himself, hating the world, watching his life unravel like a ball of red yarn rolling downhill.
“I was miserable,” he says. “I was searching.”
We are sitting in his Canoga Park apartment, where he lives with his wife and a rabbit named Roger.
“I was in my car one day, driving, feeling rotten. A woman I’d lived with for six years had left me. My folks were talking about splitting up. I felt like crying. And then I started praying. . . .”
He says it like he’s remembering a miracle, piecing together the exact moments of the prayer, the sunlight streaming through his windshield, Led Zeppelin playing on a cassette.
“Everything changed then,” he says.
Whitlock became kind of a Christian troubadour, writing and playing music about kids searching and about kids finding. There was a day when I was so lonely/so lonely inside,/no place to run/no place to hide. . . .
He gave it a driving beat because that’s what the young are listening to and Whitlock sees no devils lurking in up-tempo music.
“I’m not your normal Christian,” he says with the same kind of intensity his music has. “I don’t sing hymns. You won’t find a lot of God or Bible in my lyrics. Just hope.”
Whitlock was doing all right playing at colleges and high schools but he wasn’t reaching the people he wanted to reach. That happened by accident a little over three years ago.
He and two members of the band he calls Strange Citizens were up at Old Orchard Park when they saw the tunnel. They wondered about its acoustics because they didn’t have enough money to rent a sound studio, so they began making music under Rotella Avenue.
It was a piece called “I Am Ready” and it came crashing out into the park like a call to glory, and the kids came. And the kids listened. And the kids heard.
Now Whitlock is out there almost every Friday and Saturday night, not just playing for the people but talking to them, too. Kids and grown-ups, both.
They bring food and cold drinks and poems to set to music. When they offer money, he turns it down, because that’s not why he’s there. He works at carpentry during the day, and that gets him what he needs. Sometimes he even lends money to those about to drop over the edge.
Whole families gather at times and the people in the condos across Rotella move lawn chairs to their decks to listen to the hard gospel music and the soft-sell words of new beginnings. Occasionally parents ask him to talk to their kids. Sheriff’s deputies invite him to play at the Wayside Honor Rancho.
“I’m not born again,” Whitlock says. “I don’t even like the television preachers I hear. Every time Christianity hits the networks, it gets screwed up.
“I just tell the kids I’ve tried everything they’re trying until all that was left was God. They’re like I was, hurting and not wanting to be what they were.”
So he stands in that tunnel in jeans and cowboy boots and beats on his guitar until the music comes driving out like a chariot of fire, pounding through the stars, echoing through the trees, lighting up the night.
Dan Whitlock, playing real life and playing it hot. He may have something there.