If you’ve followed the last couple of issues, you’ve read of the birth of Jay Stellar and the series of improbable events that led to my purchase of a house in the Mt. Pinos forest. If not, head on back to issue 46 to catch up so you’ll know exactly why in this installment, I find myself sipping a beer and looking out over the impossibly beautiful and pristine Los Padres National Forest from my new deck. The air was crisp and clean, with a wisp of wind that added a shimmer of surreal movement to the trees. I’d been told by my realtor of the proliferation of bird life in the area, with species ranging from the endangered: the Yellow-billed Cuckoo and the California Condor; to the common: the Acorn Woodpecker and the Blue Jay, so I’d come prepared with peanuts and binoculars. I lined up the peanuts along the deck railing and settled into my new teak chaise lounge chair that I couldn’t afford but bought anyway, and within minutes the Jays started buzzing the deck. They quickly became bolder, landing on the rail and hopping along, snatching peanuts and flying off to a nearby tree to crack them open. There were two kinds: a smooth, round-headed one with a grey and white underbelly and vibrant blue head and wings, and a larger, solid-blue one sporting a black crest. The latter type seemed more bold and noisy, cocking their heads and looking askance before grabbing a peanut, as if to say, “What’s the deal here, friend? Is this really for me? I can just take it?” I liked those guys, as brash and cocky as they were; there was something appealing about their combination of boldness and curiosity.
I sat on that deck and watched those birds for over an hour as the sun sank into the trees and flared my vision. The voices inside my head were quiet. I wasn’t thinking about work, or wondering what was happening back home at my Perfectly Good House in Santa Monica with its backyard office and probable absent employee. I was content, communing with nature and just slightly buzzed from a couple of beers. For that perfectly-distilled moment, I was purely and thoroughly enjoying my life.
For the next few months, I fell into a pattern. I’d work Monday through Thursday, and if I didn’t have a photo shoot, wake up Friday morning, load the truck, and head north. I couldn’t wait to see the Frazier Mountain exit sign and start my winding drive up the ridge. I always sought the perfect music for that drive – maybe some Gram Parsons or The Louvin Brothers to get me in a country frame of mind – and roll down the window to take it all in. When I reached the S-Curves I’d tune in to the strange radio station that only transmitted to the Pine Mountain valley, a mystery I’d solved the first week I took possession of the house. Turns out Barry, the proprietor of the local gas station/video rental/auto parts store was an amateur radio enthusiast, and he’d erected an antenna above his store, hijacking the 88.5 FM frequency for his own use. Being a resourceful fellow, he’d simply hooked it up to his 200 CD changer/jukebox and put his music collection on shuffle. Voilà – Pine Mountain Radio! And an eclectic collection it was. There were George Carlin comedy records, Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger,” some really bad Garth Brooks live stuff, a Motown compilation, the complete works of Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, The Xanadu soundtrack, Hank Williams, the Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield, Michael Jackson, Bette Midler and Bob Dylan. He even threw my friend Val’s corn-fried country trio Jackshit into the mix, so it was conceivable that a family sitting down to dinner in their double wide could be treated to their sped-up revamp of the Maddox Brothers’ “Ugly and Slouchy”. (It’s a classic, folks; look it up.)
Yes, Pine Mountain Radio was pedestrian, but in a way, it was beautiful. No one was telling Barry what to play. If a Travis Tritt cd accidentally fell out of someone’s car while they got a fill up or oil change, Barry would throw that sucker into rotation. He was an equal opportunity program director who was not going to be kept down by the man! Hell, he was a full-blown outlaw with a pirate radio station who could also rotate your tires and remind you rewind your videos. (He also once lied to a fairly clueless Highway Patrol officer on my behalf when the officer questioned the legality of my clearly not-street-legal motorcycle whilst I filled up its plastic tank. “Yep, officer, those bikes are legal around here.” But that’s another story).
I loved the homespun, unpredictable nature of the whole thing. I loved that Barry had a captive audience (he was literally the only “station” on the entire FM dial that came in on Pine Mountain), and he just let those records spin. Over and over again. He had created the soundtrack for Pine Mountain, and no one disputed it.
I decided to try an experiment. I’ve made a few records in my time, and had boxes of cds gathering dust in my garage. The next time I packed my truck, I threw a cd of my band Ninety Nine in the cab. When I pulled into town later that day, I stopped into Barry’s for a fill up and movie rental. I casually left the cd on the counter when I paid for my rental and walked out. Sure enough, driving into town two weeks later, I heard one of my songs through the speakers. Barry had taken the bait!
Later that afternoon as I was sitting on my deck enjoying cocktail hour with my avian buddies, an idea began to form. I watched a particularly aggressive Crested Jay fend off efforts from a smooth-headed counterpart (I had learned by this point that the crested ones were called Stellar’s Jays, and the smooth-headed ones were called Western Scrub Jays). It dawned on me: 88.5 FM needed a DJ, and my crazed behavior of the past few months (i.e., becoming a spendthrift, bird-watching mountain man who deserted his Perfectly Good House and Career in Santa Monica three days a week) proved I was the man for the job. I was even growing a pretty sizable Garth Hudson-ish beard – in 2000, hipsters! Things were going off the rails at a pretty good clip, and no one was there to pull the brake. Somewhere in those first few mountain months, I had crossed a line. I was no longer willing to sit at my computer in my tiny office obsessing over my next job, or worrying about how I was going to grow my career. Once you’ve stepped of a cliff, you’d be surprised how open you become to what might happen next. The Voice of Responsibility was getting harder to hear over the yee haws! of the kid that just wanted to ride dirt bikes, grill steaks, play guitar, and paint birds.
I was going to need a pseudonym.
… to be continued