Adobe Liquor stands at an intersection at the end of the town of Twentynine Palms and the beginning of the desert. At night, it’s the last sign of anything other than stars and darkness, the last place to ask for directions to a bar called the Palms that is out there somewhere, in an unincorporated realm known as Wonder Valley.
The Korean fellow running the liquor store has no idea which direction the bar is in. The only other person around is a man out front sipping from a brown bag. When asked where the bar is, this is his exact reply:
“I make my living with my hands--uh, I’m kinda drunk, sorry--uh, my hands and a chain saw. Now, my buddy up the road has two chain saws I got my eye on for $800.” He points to an old bike leaning on a post next to an old black dog that is asleep and dusty. “That’s a $400 bike over there. I’ll sell it to ya for $15. Oh, the Palms is 14 miles that way,” he slurs, pointing off into the easterly night.
With sexy crowd-pleaser Joshua Tree National Park nearby, there aren’t a lot of reasons to go to Wonder Valley. A handful of people live there in a handful of desert dwellings that are as scattered (and sometimes as neglected) as the chain-saw master’s teeth. There is a fire station, and a thrift store that’s open one day a week, making the Palms the big draw. And tonight is extra special, for tonight is the Fourth Ever Wonder Valley Music Festival.
Bands from as far away as San Francisco and as close as the Palms’ kitchen are on the bill, as is one Ben Vaughn and his group the Desert Classic (as in the Ben Vaughn Desert Classic). Vaughn--musician, composer, producer, bon vivant--started the festival a year ago in this unlikely place, and it hasn’t caught on at all. Which is part of the grand design.
“Yeah, it’s set up right,” Vaughn offers. “There’s no cover charge. Nobody expects to make any money. If you’re playing there, you’re playing there because you love the idea of playing there. That’s the only reason you would even be there.”
Vaughn is quite familiar with performing for the love of it, having spent more than a few financially lean but creatively fat years on the road and in the studio, heard only by critics, Europeans, fellow musicians (Marshall Crenshaw covered his ballad “I’m Sorry [But So Is Brenda Lee]” in 1985) and small but discerning audiences. And now, after making lots of money writing music heard by millions in mainstream network hits such as “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “That ‘70s Show,” he’s returning to that life. It was the desert that decided him. It was the Hollywood gig that made it possible.
“I pay each band $200, which covers their gas and a motel room, just so it’s all good news,” he explains. “Then there’s nothing anyone can complain about.”
At least 10 miles of Amboy Road blacktop later, the Palms glows like a beacon, an alcohol oasis with a dirt parking lot and a big buffalo signifying nothing on the sign out front. Inside, no one is complaining, musicians or otherwise. A young fellow in a motorcycle jacket holds court grandly at the bar, his arm around a sweet young thing. He orders another drink, loudly, happily.
“You must be rich,” the bartender says.
“I am rich! Rich with poetry! Rich with ideas! Rich with a beautiful woman!”
The woman laughs, the bartender laughs, the fellow gets his drink. Of course, when cold cans of Old Milwaukee cost $1, the embrace of “rich” is a wide and welcoming thing. As is the joint itself: The Palms is part bar, part restaurant, part general store, part community center.
There are men, women, teens, children and dogs milling about. Younger locals play pool, older ones suck drinks at the bar, where a vodka tonic is delivered in a glass with pictures of pheasants on it and a bendy straw as Merle Haggard’s voice cracks through the room about some woeful situation.
Cowboy boots are for sale from a rack at the front door, and by the bathrooms a fine selection of cassettes is available at a buck a pop: Glenn Frey, Tiffany, Prince, Erasure, Mac Davis, Nick Lowe, Bronski Beat, Jean-Luc Ponty, Jack Wagner and David Lee Roth. Antlers, rhinestoned mariachi sombreros and sun-bleached cattle skulls hang from the walls looking down on the action as the door opens and in wanders Boom Boom. He is greeted warmly. He is a hefty golden retriever from down the road that drops by to score Slim Jims from his fans. Most nights, he lopes over wearing his reflective orange safety vest, though this evening he apparently braved Amboy Road without it.
Out back of the place there’s a fire pit surrounded by metal folding chairs and a stack of kindling that includes broken furniture. Beyond that is the open desert, and above everything are all those stars you just can’t see from a metal folding chair in Los Angeles. It’s all part of what drew Vaughn here in the first place.
He bought a house in Wonder Valley in 1998, a sprawling two-bedroom getaway down a two-mile dirt road. It is, of course, quite near to the Palms, and nothing else. Location, location, location.
“I think it’s a smart thing to do,” concurs Vaughn, who also rents an apartment in Santa Monica and a recording studio in Venice. “You go to the local bar, and if you like it there it’s probably a good place to live. This was kind of an extreme version of that, because it’s not really a neighborhood--it’s the outback. I’d looked at the house and loved it, and somebody told me there was a bar on the highway parallel to where my place was.”
Prior to down payment, Vaughn drove over to it.
“The first impression was, there are boots and jeans and hats and sunglasses and books and cassettes for sale. Then I heard a band coming from the other room, and I went in and I was stunned.”
As Sam Phillips found Elvis, as Brian Epstein found the Beatles, Vaughn found the Sibleys. Laura and James. She was 17, he was 21. Along with their mother, who also helps write lyrics, they were and are the owner-operators of the Palms, which allows them to play there whenever they’re not cooking or waiting tables.
“They were doing all covers back then,” Vaughn recalls. “It was James on bass and Laura on guitar and this speed-freak-looking older guy on drums, a skinny dude with a mustache, wearing a T-shirt with a black leather vest. He was chewing his tongue the entire time, and they did this 15-minute version of ‘Elvira’ by the Oak Ridge Boys. It was the strangest version of that song I’d ever heard, and I was in love. That was it. I bought the house the next day.”
So this is how a blue-collar Jersey-bred rock hound making big money in soulless Hollywood looked for an escape from that scene, and arrived in the Mojave Desert to stumble across a band that would become his raison d’etre, and created a music festival featuring said band at the bar they owned. Plus tax, as Elvis once said.
“I kept going back to that bar,” says Vaughn, who saw his first live show--the Four Tops at the Steel Pier in Jersey in ’65--at age 10. “When you see some guy with an oxygen tank chain-smoking and a few fights here and there, you go back. And as a part-time, self-proclaimed talent scout, I immediately looked around. ‘Is anybody else hearing this, because this is gold!’ ”
And what did he see when he looked around?
“Drunks. They were yelling for ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.’ ”
Which they didn’t get. What the Sibleys play is spare, moody music carved out of guitar, bass, drums and vocals. Sort of like the Velvet Underground minus the New York attitude, with a beautiful blond female singer who can, at times, turn a better lyric and can always carry more of a tune than Lou Reed and Nico combined. Laura’s guitar snakes in and out of her desert-Dietrich vocals about black Kawasakis and using a jumper cable at the carnival and not smiling unless she wants to, sung in a way that’s better heard than read about.
“We had long conversations about their music, and they were thrilled that I understood it, as much as an outsider can,” says Vaughn, who produced the forthcoming Sibleys album “Tuesday” for his new label, Many Moods Records. “What I liked about their music was what they liked about their music. The poetry of the lyrics. They sound like where they come from. When I would quote lines that I liked, they were the lines they were most proud of.”
Writing a Sibleys song takes “sometimes five minutes, sometimes a month,” Laura says, but it all pretty much begins with what’s going on around them. In Wonder Valley, there’s plenty of time to divine meaning in even the smallest things.
“Out here there’s all this space and there’s all this time,” she explains. “I really think time moves differently out here. You can really get into things. With music you can sit down and spend a lot of time on it.
“We had some passers-throughers come in and say, ‘Where are we going? Where are we? Where do we go next?’ And we were like, ‘You stay on the pavement, and you go one way or the other way. And whatever way you came from, you should probably go the other way.’ And we had a new song, ‘Follow the Big Black Road.’ You’re not lost out there,” she continues. “You stay on the pavement and you won’t be lost.”
Though Laura Sibley says working with Vaughn “has been a huge influence in giving us confidence to listen to what we hear and go toward it,” the band was slightly wary of the man from the Town of Tinsel.
“He told us he was doing some music for ‘That ‘70s Show’ and ‘3rd Rock From the Sun,’ and we were like, ‘Yeah, sure, some guy from L.A., whatever.’ But he didn’t seem dangerous.... We’ve been approached by people who have a lot to say, but they don’t have anything behind it. There’s a lot of people like that.”
Which Vaughn is well aware of.
“They’ve had a lot of L.A. [types] come through. If a film is on location in the desert, they say, ‘Let’s go out to this funky bar,’ and act like idiot Hollywood people. So they’re a little distrustful. They were distrustful of my Hollywood connections, actually. As I am.”
ten years ago, vaughn was 39 and had no hollywood connections. he was the single parent of a 19-year-old son. He lived in New Jersey. He’d released multiple albums (one recorded entirely in his ’65 Rambler) that were acclaimed by Rolling Stone and People but never sold more than 35,000 copies. He’d performed around the world, produced legends such as rockabilly heavyweight Charlie Feathers and R&B; great Arthur Alexander (the Beatles recorded a couple of his tunes, “Anna” and “Soldier of Love”) and worked with names such as John Hiatt, Rodney Crowell and Alex Chilton.
Which was getting him nowhere.
“The record business is like a deadbeat dad who went out for a pack of cigarettes 10 years ago and just never came back,” Vaughn says. “I saw what my friends were going through that were signed to majors and independents, and it just seemed like the business was becoming afraid of its own shadow. I didn’t feel like there was a place for me. I’d always liked film scores--Ennio Morricone, John Barry--I was a cinema fan, so I figured I’d go out to L.A. and score really cool independent films for no money.”
And so he packed up his Rambler, headed west and moved into a motel with a six-month lease. His connections in town were nil, but a one-off radio spot proved to be his virtual Schwab’s.
“I was on KCRW as a guest with a record I put out in ’95 called ‘Instrumental Stylings,’ ” he says. “The president of the production company that was doing the ‘3rd Rock’ pilot heard me on the air and called the station and had me come in.” That same day.
By his own admission, Vaughn hadn’t watched TV in 20 years, which the powers that be found appealing. “They really encouraged me to do whatever I wanted, and the show was a hit....They told everyone I was a genius and they were afraid to criticize me, so it was great. If you can ever stumble onto that scam, it’s a good one.”
Perhaps, but the unforgiving grind of weekly network television forced Vaughn to forgo his beloved club dates. “I wanted to be taken seriously, and I knew that I had to give up playing live for a while because of the hours that you keep. You have to get up early and do a 14-hour day on a soundstage. Also, I don’t think people take you seriously if they see you in a rock and roll band. ‘He’s got to be irresponsible, he’s in a rock band.’
“I guess the thing I’m most proud of is I didn’t get fired,” admits Vaughn. “It was everything I wanted. I wanted to be thrown into a situation where I had to think on my feet and have the fear that some kind of change is happening in my creative life.”
Vertical brainwork is a must in a field in which one day you’re asked to compose something that sounds like an Argentinian tango and the next day something that smacks of Don Henley, both of which Vaughn had to do in the capacity of creating all the original music for his shows.
“It taught me not to fear any instrument or style of music,” he says. It was also quite a leap for a guy whose best previous work was building pop songs around three or four chords. The fact that he could pull it off is a rare and mean feat, something that did not go unnoticed by his peers. “There are quite a few composers that are irritated at my success for that reason,” says Vaughn.
But now he’s ready to move on. “The experiment’s over,” he says. “Sitcoms are not as healthy as they used to be--there’s fewer that go on the air and stay on--and one-hour dramas I’m not interested in. I’m getting back into record production, being who I was before.”
This is a man who still has his original Rambler, and whose main ride is an ’85 Toyota pickup. With stuff rolling around in the bed.
“I was so disinterested in TV and so unaware of what was going on, it didn’t really hit me as a big opportunity, or an income-changing opportunity. It took a while for me to believe my fortunes had changed,” Vaughn says. “I was poor for so long I had convinced myself that I was happy being poor, and I really was.”
Yet Vaughn is not some kind of pop ascetic. A decade of faithfully depositing TV paychecks adds up, and he gets regular residual checks for his work (“That’s where the real money is”). It all makes for a nice parachute back into the not-so-lucrative world of producing and creating original music that, as gettable as it is, still falls somewhere between fringe and cult.
“I’m not really thinking about how I fit in with the record business, but how I fit in with the people who want to hear music, and how to get it to them the best way possible.” Which includes performing at out-of-the-way joints and dives throughout the Southland--the Buccaneer in Sierra Madre, Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown, the Cinema Bar in Culver City, the late, great Topper’s in beautiful downtown Eagle Rock--for audiences half his age who only recognize the name Von when it’s preceding Dutch.
Of course, it’s not like the multitudes really know who he is anyway, on this coast at least, but what Vaughn delivers is that classic, ephemeral thing of being onstage and being good. Al Jolson had it, so did Sid Vicious, and it’s not just about performing in blackface or bleeding on your bass; it’s about presence, about the grand tradition of communicating something to the nice people who paid to see you.
There are better singers, better guitar players, better songwriters, but there is no better Ben Vaughn. He’s an original, distilling the simple elements of early pop, rock and R&B; into his own sound. His song titles say a lot: “She’s Your Problem Now,” “Ava Gardner Blues,” “She Fell Out the Window,” “Lookin’ for a 7-11.” Yes, his lyrics are funny, but they’ve also got that big fat layer of melancholy that some of the best pop songwriters--from Cole Porter to Chuck Berry to Nick Lowe to Jonathan Richman--give their work. He might ask you to pull his finger, but you never know, his heart might break. And it would still be funny.
“When I was young I’d always go see older guys because there was something to learn, and enough time has gone by to where I’m a veteran, and instead of being embarrassed about it or trying to act young, I just be myself and try to play for audiences that’ll see that as an asset,” Vaughn says. “The only reason I’m playing live is ‘cause I like it. I’m not showcasing, I’m not looking for a record deal. It’s just something I love doing--it feels like a blood transfusion. It’s one purpose of my existence.”
Another reason for Vaughn to go on living takes place in the recording studio. His first U.S release since 1997, out this August on the Soundstage 15 label, is the exquisite, multi-mood instrumental opus “Ben Vaughn Presents: Designs in Music,” orchestrated with keyboard wunderkind and Desert Classicist Ryan “Shmedly” Maynes. Neither straight soundtrack nor fake lounge shtick, the fully orchestrated album represents his passion for the Henry Mancini/Neal Hefti/Billy Strange school of mod arrangements and boss hooks. As the title implies, Vaughn is willing to take full responsibility for it.
“I like the idea that someone presents something, like Jackie Gleason did, or even Creed Taylor,” he says of those artists’ strategically endorsed concept albums. “There’s a screening process. It’s like, ‘If he presents it, he must really be proud of it, and approve of it. It must be good.’ ”
Back at the Palms, at the height of this Fourth Ever Wonder Valley Music Festival, things are undeniably good. There is a friendly table of chocolate cake, beets, black bean salad and other American delights provided gratis by the Palms. Those $1 Old Milwaukees continue to provide excellent good-time lubrication. The beloved Sibleys have wowed the crowd and shut down a liquored-up Southern rock enthusiast. (“Play some Skynyrd, darlin’!” Laura: “I’m sorry, but this is an original music showcase!”) The Duane Jarvis band has lit up the room, emo-country chanteuse Victoria Williams has come and gone, and now, finally, the Ben Vaughn Desert Classic takes the stage.
All the way from Jersey, Hollywood and two miles down a dirt road behind the bar, here is Ben Vaughn. Onstage, when the light hits him in a certain way, he looks like a dashing, young, beardless Abe Lincoln. But the revered Rail Splitter never strapped on a faded cream-colored Fernandez Telecaster and opened a set with “Worried Man Blues"--"It takes a worried man to sing a worried song"--and that’s all it takes to get the crowd of 60 or so going. Vaughn moves into his own tunes: “I Dig Your Wig,” “Heavy Machinery.” Shots of tequila make their way to the stage and are consumed by the Classic. U.S. Marines from the local base run onto the dance floor, do goofy little moves like hyped-up kids crashing the adults’ Christmas dinner, then dash outside to the patio to drink and giggle and high-five.
Vaughn leads Rich Dembowski (bass), Kevin Jarvis (drums) and Shmedly (on keyboards) through song after song, some fast, some slow, steering the momentum and tossing out the Steve Cropper guitar lines like the vet he is. Trumpet player Sarah Kramer sits in, singing Vaughn’s “Love Leave Me Alone” beautifully. “Not bad for a girl, eh?” queries the boss, who barrels through the last four songs of the set with five strings. It takes more than a broken E to slow the Classic down.
Out on the patio, a group of guys in their 20s who had never heard of Vaughn before tonight guzzle beers and respectfully murmur their frank assessments. “He’s pro, oh yeah. He’s totally rock and roll.”
They’re right. He is. It’s been a great night. The fire outside has burned itself to embers, the stars above have shifted, Boom Boom has sauntered home. Though Vaughn says he doesn’t meditate (“Probably ‘cause I’m from Jersey. ‘Meditate on this, pal!’ ”), he seems to have all he needs to lead a simple, almost Zen-like creative existence that has nothing to do with Hollywood, and quite a lot to do with Wonder Valley.
“I own my house in the desert,” he says. “If it all came down to the only thing I had left, I’m good. I’m going to need some sandbags and some hand grenades, but I’d be ready for anything. And I’ve got the Sibleys on my side.”
The Fifth Ever Wonder Valley Music Festival is scheduled for April 23 at the Palms. Call (760) 361-2810 for information and updates or go to benvaughn.net.