#22 I Ride My Bike-Cracker. The Inland Empire: A Love Story.
Blatant Plug: Don’t forget to buy your Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven Campout Tickets. Only those that by advance tickets get the cool laminate. Sept 10th and 11th Pioneertown California in the fabulous Joshua Tree region of the Inland Empire. Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven, Gram Rabbit, The Bellrays, Miss Derringer, J Roddy Walston and the Business, McCabe and Mrs Miller, Ashley Raines, The Dangers, Jonathan Segel, Johnny Hickman, The Dangers and more.
In early 1992 shortly before we released the first Cracker record we went back to the Inland Empire to rehearse. Five of the key members of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker were from the Inland Empire. John Hickman, Victor Krummenacher, Chris Molla, Davey Faragher and myself. In a way it’s the spiritual home of both bands. It was where we first learned to play where we started our first bands and it was where most of our families still lived.
The Inland Empire? Sounds exotic. Not really. I briefly described it in an earlier post. But let me go into a little more detail.
First the Inland Empire of California consists of the far eastern exurbs of Los Angeles, much of the Mojave Desert, the San Bernardino Mountains and the Coachella Valley. But what you really need to know is that the Inland Empire is to Los Angeles what New Jersey is to Manhattan. And it is held in the same contempt. The Inland Empire is not “The Valley” as in valley girls. The Valley is relatively affluent and sophisticated compared to the Inland Empire. From here on out we refer to this area as the locals do, it’s “The IE.”
The IE starts as you enter the San Bernardino valley. After the long hill on I-10 past Covina. The San Bernardino valley finished a poor third when the giant postwar migration to California began. The suburbs of the San Fernaando valley and the San Gabriel valley were preferred choices of eastern immigrants. They were also more expensive. The San Bernardino Valley was dry semi-desert and hot as hades in the summertime. Bucolic ranches, vineyards and citrus groves yes, but alongside industrial decay, steel mills, chemical plants, and the general detritus that surrounds all military installations. There were at least 7 military bases there when I was growing up in the early 70’s. So we got the poorer immigrants, the less affluent, a lot of southerners, and folks fleeing the driest coldest parts of the great plains.
You continue east on I-10 and around Colton you begin to hit the barrios, and you feel that you are now in The Borderland. That area that is neither the US nor Mexico. It covers a large areas of the southwest. Mostly along the border but it is not contiguous. So here even 100 miles north of the border there are pockets of The Borderland. (Borderlands is a real term used in Geopolitical theory i didn’t make it up)
Continue further east on I-10 and just as you go up into the San Jacinto pass you realize you have definitely left Los Angeles and are in The West. You might as well be in West Texas. The buttes, the steeply cut dry creekbeds, the chaparral, the brushy hillsides with horses and cows scattered in the distance. Same if you head north towards Las Vegas through the Cajon Pass.
This was a wonderfully weird place to grow up. It was a place in constant transition. But more importantly balkanized. One moment you were driving through an abandoned industrial site the next minute you would be in a beautiful orange grove. Fragrant and like an Eden with running water in the stone lined irrigation ditches. The ditches themselves ancient. Dug hundreds of years ago by the Spanish missionaries and the Indians.
You would exit the gates of Norton Airforce base and immediatel pass the row of strip clubs and bawdy drinking establishments, then old postwar cinderblock houses long in decay, now barrio and part of The Borderland, then suddenly more farmland ranchland and orchards. Here and there gleaming pockets of McMansions. They seemed to pop up overnight like mushrooms. The new residents seemed to always be peering warily over their fences at those of us who lived in the older decaying serttlements amongst the dying vines and orange trees.
Every once in a while a dying orchard would be bulldozed. Every day as young teens we stood and watched. Eventually the area was flattened into the neat outlines of streets and houses. The day the surveyors came and planted their flags was the moment for which we were waiting. For that evening after dark we would creep out of our neighborhoods and pull up the surveyors stakes. We didn’t know why. Something told us those were OUR groves and the surveying stakes only brought those that peered warily over their fences at us.
Our older brothers were more devious and cunning. They would carefully move the surveying stakes a foot or so. Wrecking the squares and rectangles. Leaving behind subtle trapezoids.
We lived in places like Okieville, Mentone, Greenspot, Crafton and East Highlands. The newcomers lived in developments like Rio Vista or Hacienda Heights. They came from Los Angeles and Orange County. We came from dull and poor towns in the Midwest and South.
There were constant booms and busts. I remember at least four times my parents modest lower middle class neighborhood suddenly emptying out. The cul de sacs dotted with overgrown lawns and bank repossession signs. In the late 70’s a new development up the road failed and entire cul de sacs were empty. But it was nothing new. It’d been going on for centuries.
The Cahuilla and Serrano came and failed. The Spanish missionaries the Mexican ranchers came and failed. Then came the Mormons who settled this area, prospered for a time and then suddenly abandoned this godforsaken place. Railroads came and failed. The steel mills came and failed. the defense companies came and then failed. Even the military bases. But each wave left a few people behind. Generally the weakest and the misfits. And this created a strange patchwork, a balkanized country.
No one is from the IE. Your family came here usually to escape something. To erase the past and start anew. To quote Joan Didion:
“Here is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else. For all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways”
(Curiously that quote I just found is in a book of her essays titled “Slouching towards Bethlehem” also a quote from The Second Coming)
The weather here is brutal. It’s not uncommon to have temperatures in the summer of 110 or 115 degrees. In the fall and winter brutal and strangely warm Santa Ana winds whip down through the passes at 70 miles an hour. It is a startling experience the first time it blasts you in the face. From may through september the mountains lock in the smog and dust from Los Angeles. The sky and the land are often grey and a horizon can’t often be distinguished. And then there are the terrifying wildfires. They would often blacken the sky so it was like night in the middle of the day. A snowstorm of ash would cover the cars and sidewalks.
Pretty gim right? Not really it was a fun and diverse place to grow up. We rode bikes on the empty roads and abandoned places. Skateboarded in abandoned pools and reservoirs. We shot bb guns in the citrus groves or chased the wild peacocks through the chaparral. I kissed a Mexican girl under a backyard trellis’ of bougainvilleas climbing roses, another I met secretly at night along the eucalyptus windbreaks that demarcated the ancient settlements. Yes even the plants were immigrants, and balkanized.
And it seemed that a curiously high percentage of us played music. Sometimes at night from my bedroom I could hear two or three competing bands. There was the Tex-Mex/Norteña (or Conjunto) band a block to the north. A latin rock ensemble to the west and 2 doors down a Steely Dan knockoff.
In an earlier post I mentinoned the blog Rock Prosopography 101. One of the writers of that blog has a theory that there is an inverse relationship between the vitality of a music scene and property values. In other words cheaper towns and suburban areas produce more bands and musicians (as long as they don’t become outright ghetto).
In my experience this is very true. For when we were young teenagers and we wanted to start playing electric guitars and drum sets, we would just set up in the garage, or the family room of some sprawling rancher and play. If our family didn’t tolerate us, there was always some old barn, empty storefront or farmhouse that some kind adult would let us use. As we got older and more serious we often rented little spaces. They became our little clubhouses. One was the unused office at the front of an industrial park $50 a month in 1980. Another was the old waiting room at an unused train station. I think we payed $75 dollars a month for that one 1982. And then there was always the older brother or stoner friends that had the little farm cottages in one of the semi rural areas like Devore or San Timeteo Canyon. you could stage a full on PA and blast away like you were Led Zeppelin. Johnnys band actually rented and practiced in an old bar deep in the barrio in Riverside. They also put on their own underground shows their and a lot of the time the drummer lived there.
When I went away to college in Santa Cruz I realized what a great advantage this had been for me. I had many cool friends. I wanted to play music with some of them cause they had such advanced tastes. But they were always much less experienced than I. These folks had grown up in places like San Francisco, New York City or Boston. They just hadn’t had their hands on the equipment very often. So when the CVB guys came to Santa Cruz we were more experienced than our peers and this seemed to give us an advantage. (Jonathan segel grew up in Davis in the central valley and had the same advantage we did). I also get the sense that the IE produced a fair number of hollywood studio “cats”. I mean just check the discography of two guys that went to my high school John Jorgensen and Davey Faragher.
So looping all the way back to the beginning of the story. Davey Faragher, Johnny Hickman, Josef Peters and I decided that we would meet up before some Cracker tour and rehearse for a couple days in Redlands CA in the IE. And this is the way we did it in the IE: We didn’t rent a rehearsal space. There weren’t any. We just called around until Johnnys brothers found some friends who had a little house out in the old sheep pastures. They were just your usual Southern California Heschers*. Rockers of no real denomination. Pot-heads, harmless ne’re do wells. We could rehearse in their converted garage/ party room as long as their friends got to come over and party and listen. Mind you these rehearsals were in the middle of the day. We spent a day refreshing the songs from the album. The second day we got into this trippy jam. I mean it had a couple really good guitar riffs and chord progressions the kind that made a traditional punk song. But then we kept trying to get it to explode into this freak out middle sections. Punk rock riffage into a 1969 bad acid biker jam. It wasn’t the window pane acid jam. It was the shitty stuff that came later. the stuff cut with speed. Angrier. Post-Altamont. And at some point we nailed it. We walked outside into the bright December or January sunlight, the grass was impossibly green. ( In the IE our grass is green in the winter). A couple of the Hescher dudes followed us out “Dude that shit was trippy”. Yeah it was. It was the song I Ride My Bike.
And that’s the Inland Empire. And that’s the story of I Ride My Bike. Almost. I forgot the most important part of the story.
In the IE we also rode motorcycles. Small on off road bikes. Yamaha and Honda 250 four strokes. They were ubiquitous and everywhere. It was part of the fabric of everyday life. There was nothing like riding one of these bikes through the narrow orchard roads late at night. Especially in the summer when the only cool air in the entire IE was trapped in those groves. It was liberating. Especially half buzzed. That is what this song is about. A simple incantation to take me back to this time. “I ride my bike, I drive my car take me back to you” The rest of the song isn’t really intended to describe that place and time. But to just evokes the general feeling. A feeling and an energy I associate with that place.
*Heschers are sort of surburban white trash but also rockers. Despite what urban dictionaries say I believe it was a slang word originated by a small group of punkers in the IE. And i may be able to prove it. It believe it to be a mispronunciation of our word “Hessian”but this is for another post.
[INTRO & BREAK:]
REPEAT VERSES 1 & 2
[Em] Isis! [G] Isis! [A] (Isis) [C] (Isis)
[Em] Isis! [G] Isis! [A] Isis![C] Isis!
[Bm] I ride my [F#m] bike, [C] I drive my [G] car, [D] take me back to [Em] you X4