Desert Music: A Burnt Biography
by Max Flaum
I met Danny Franco a few years ago at a party. He was slunked down in the corner of the house wearing a blue and white Mexican poncho and strumming his guitar. He had just returned to school after a two year hiatus, and was looking to meet some musicians. I happened to be living in a house full of musicians and we struck up a conversation. He began sleeping on the couch.
Danny had been living in his 1966 VW van since September of that year. I have to say that the free wheeling life style he exuded struck me as both romantic and thrilling. He did not pay rent, he lived only with his guitar and a box full of books, and he was looking to make something for himself out of his music. Danny had a beautiful voice which, I later learned, was developed in a children’s choir back home. Back home was La Quinta California, a desert town just north of Palm Springs. I had known some desert kids in my life and they always struck me as having a specific inner toughness and self confidence, spawned of course from lives that often led them headlong into the devilishly hot, often maddening, desert dust storms on the margins of civilization. The boys I knew had seen some things as the expression goes and carried them on their sleeves, often in the form of tattoos.
Danny had a tattoo when I first met him. It was a tableau which showed a sleeping Mexican cradling his guitar under a palm tree. The picture represented Danny’s paradise. He longed one day to hop in his van and take off into the depths of Mexico with nothing but his guitar.
Danny is half Mexican, half white, and he has two more tattoos on the same arm today. Since our first meeting a few years ago, Danny and I have become close friends. We have traveled up and down California together and our relationship thrives around our mutual interests in music and literature. Danny, along with my old roommates, provided the music which helped spark the open mic night at Porter’s Pub on the UCSD campus. Every Thursday night some of the best musicians on campus get together and provide strong and pure sounds for a normally anaesthetized student population. They are rowdy, they are drunken, and they are musicians, and I like this very much about them.
Recently I traveled out to Indio, California to visit the recording studio Danny and his friends built from scratch. The studio represents Danny and his friends´ dream to produce records by themselves and provide an artistic space for the musical talent in their community. Danny and his friend Chris Baca are responsible for most of the work. They’ve grit their teeth against extreme hardship and in their words “built this studio as part of a healing process.” Today they are making twenty dollars an hour as a diverse group of musicians come from all around the Southern California area to record their music.
We pulled into to the dusty driveway barely noticeable from the two lane high- way. It was three thirty in the morning. We had left San Diego at one a.m. destined for those strange and circuitous ,one lane back country roads winding through the tweek infested shantytowns of Riverside County. As the driver, I battled through a major collision on the 52 east, and trucked for miles through the perilous and cop prowled I- 70 north taking us through Temecula. We met up with the 10 East in Hemet at the base of the San Jacintos, and got through Banning, a town described by Danny as “a real shit hole.” This particular “shit hole” was topped off with an enormous glowing cross on the nearby slag hills. The journey was completed after a long stretch of lit up, Indian Casino lined, highway, past the famous dinosaur truck stop which houses a life sized Tyrannosaurus Rex, and a Brontosaurus.
The house by the side of the road was reminiscent of a meth. house, a trailer park, a junk yard. Actually, it was the last stronghold of old Indio California, standing not so strongly against the inexorable tide of resort communities, golf courses, tennis stadiums, and rich white people. It was a compound really, with bars on every window. Nobody in their right mind would ever think twice about stopping there. I thought of the lone desert prowler, someone from a Jim Morrison tune, someone who’s brain was “squirming like a toad,” driving through those lonely highways looking for stranded travelers to bring back home, to this home, and kill. I had finally arrived at the Stems and Seeds recording studio.
Danny and Chris began work on the studio three years ago. The property once belonged to Chris’ grandparents who moved there from North Carolina where his grandfather was stationed after the Korean War. The 2.2 acres of land now belong to Chris. His grandparents entrusted them to his care after they moved to Rosarito, a coastal town in Baja California. Before Chris lived there, a Mexican family of twenty was renting the property. They were asked to leave when the plumbing could no longer facilitate the large numbers. Across the street from the property stands the gated community, Sun City. It is an example of the burgeoning development going on in Indio these days.
Sun City is a resort style living community which has sponsored the creation of a nearby hotel, gas station, and strip mall to cater to the residents. Indio is being gentrified after decades of slow rot. Despite Sun City’s desire to claim Chris’ deed to his family’s property, their attempts have not borne fruit. The 2.2 acres are providentially located on a recently established state nature preserve for the Fringe-toed Lizard. It seems that for the time being, no monolithic golf course will threaten the pristine desert landscape which surrounds the Stems and Seeds domain.
To the west of the house, there is nothing but sand and creosote for miles. The expanse is uninterrupted and the eye has full purchase to view the barren landscape. To the south, the Santa Rosa mountain range stands proud and jagged. To the north, the low lying hills, which remind one of a barren lumpy hell, provide a buffer between northern Indio and Sky Valley, a town wrought with addiction and methamphetamine labs. Chris keeps a .22 Ruger carbine rifle replete with scope and banana clip by the front door “just in case.” They have lots of hard earned money sunk into their studio and can’t afford some hungry tweeker coming by to rip them off.
The 2.2 acre property is covered in hot tan colored dust. There are a few trees. The studio house faces what was once the central living unit, which housed Chris’ Grandparents and Chris’ uncle after them. There is another smaller unit adjacent to the recording studio. In this unit can be viewed the fossils of an outdated recording studio Chris’ Uncle attempted in the early 90s. There are three trailer homes and two totaled cars scattered about the property like refuse blown in from a storm. Chris explained, “They are for future projects…it’s Chicano shit you know? Chicanos are always collecting everything for use at a later date.” Behind the studio is a water tank and behind the water tank is endless desert. Tied to a chain attached to a stake in front of the recording studio is Chopper Dog. He is half rotweiler and half chow. Chris and Danny rescued Chopper Dog from a workmate at the Beer Hunter, where Danny worked as a bartender after dropping out of college. Apparently the owner would come home after work and club Chopper Dog with beer bottles. To this day Chopper Dug runs at the sight of a beer bottle in hand. “He’s not much of a guard dog because he’s real timid…but nobody else knows that,” says Chris. In fact Chopper Dog’s physical appearance is extremely imposing. His head is roughly the size of a twenty pound pumpkin. The total sum of Chopper Dog is a devastating 90 pounds.
With chopper dog to stand guard, the house in which the new recording studio is located is an artistic haven. There are no mirrors and no clocks. Disturbance comes only in the passing hum of a car engine down the highway and the brilliant howling of coyote packs at night. For the most part there is silence. The silence is accentuated by the sound of the water pumps clicking as they reset every hour upon the hour. There is one bedroom in which Chris and his girlfriend sleep. A couch for guests faces the bed. Next to the couch is an old wooden coffee table which displays photographs of Chris’ grandparents, the vaunted benefactors of Danny and Chris’ dream. There is also a brightly colored picture of a strong Chicano man holding the flag of Mexico in one hand and the American flag in the other. On the wall, tagged over the doorway entrance to the studio is the phrase, “anything is possible.”
Indio California, or “I-town” as the locals call it, was a boom town in the 1930s. It was the perfect escape for Hollywood stars seeking the relaxed atmosphere of the desert, away from the bustle and intrusiveness of Los Angeles. There were hot springs to indulge in, and a relaxed nightlife in nearby Palm Springs. Danny took me downtown which today, is nothing more than a long strip of cheap motels, truck stops, Mexican restaurants, and liquor stores. The southern pacific railroad runs parallel to the highway which cuts through the center of town. The highway used to be part of historic route 99, which was once the busiest truck route in the nation and referred to as “the main street of California.” Its expanse covered three countries for a total of 1,754 miles. Today the heavy traffic has been redirected outside of town onto the new 111 freeway to the detriment of Indio.
Danny took me to an open-all-night diner/truck stop, Casa Martinez, that he and his friends frequent for very good homemade Mexican food. We ate menudo and had a thirty-two ounce Tecate beer bottle served to us on ice in a bucket. “We know what champagne is around these parts” said Danny. “That’s how Tecate in a big bottle deserves to be treated.” Town folklore has it that Humphrey Bogart was actually picked up by the Indio Police Department for soliciting prostitutes outside that very diner.
Indio began as a collection of date and citrus farms. The economy thrived on agriculture until the late sixties. There is a historic date museum downtown, giving the once prolific cash crop its well deserved due with video exhibits like The Romance and Sex Life of a Date. However, today, in the face of a booming service economy, the Mexican immigrants who once worked the date farms are now employees of the big resorts. Indio is beginning to get back on its feet economically after nearly thirty years of total financial breakdown. The white population began moving out in the 70s as more and more Mexican families moved in. Ever since, the property value has steadily plummeted. Today the area is ripe for the picking by large corporate golf clubs, now involved in blowing off the sides of nearby mountains to make room for miles and miles of green golf course. Danny explains, “everything you see in the desert now-a-days caters to the wealthy whites who come in from out of town. People come here to retire, get old, and spend money.”
Surprisingly, amid this lonely desert setting and rigid resort atmosphere, Danny and his friends have found solace in reggae music and are planning on devoting their lives to it. Danny chose reggae as his spiritual fortress after listening to the work of Bradley Nowel, the late singer for Sublime. He also finds quite a bit of comfort in the transcendental beliefs of Rastafarianism. The Rastas make up a sub-culture in Jamaica, which has suffered a history of oppression and aggression at the hand of the Jamaican government. Looked upon as social deviants, they live in the hills and function under what seem like two loosely constructed ideals of righteous and natural living. They have deep respect for the earth and worship a black god by inhaling marijuana smoke. Rastas are non-violent and a-political. This credo from the West Indies, coupled with Nowel’s musical ethic of “doing things yourself,” serve as the primary ideals by which Danny leads his life. He says, “being a musician is not about getting signed and making lots of money, it’s about putting your heart out and having people respond. The goal is to get people to dance.” Danny has a strong motivation for inspiring people to dance. There is a sadness which haunts him.
When he was sixteen, Danny was driving home from school with four friends. He rounded a corner off the main boulevard and ran straight into a cloud of dust. Inside that cloud was a slow, massive, street sweeper. Danny was only driving thirty mph but ramming into to the giant frame of the creeping sweeper amounted to running smack dab into a three ton iron wall. His 1987 Toyota Carolla was destroyed.
Typically, street sweepers in desert towns are supposed to run a sprinkler off the back to keep the dust down and maintain visibility on the road. The drivers of the vehicle neglected to turn their sprinkler on. This accident resulted in the severe crippling of his four friends. Danny however, escaped the accident with only, and this is meant in the strictest relative sense, a smashed face and broken jaw. His friend’s sister picked the glass out of his head as he looked on while Chris Baca’s father, of the Indio police department, worked to stabilize the other four. His two friends Todd and Will still suffer heavily from the wreck. Todd is paralyzed from the waist down and Will is a paraplegic. Sitting in back of the old car, they only had lap belts. Each lost a significant amount of their small intestines from the constriction of the seat belts against their midsections. Todd has virtually nothing inside his abdomen but a stomach. He suffers from chronic internal bleeding and has a colostomy bag inserted through a hole in his side. Despite their injuries Todd plays professional wheel chair tennis and Will plays wheel chair basketball at a small college in Minnesota.
It seems that there is a resiliency consistent throughout this group of desert folk. Eight months ago Chris Baca’s father, who was responsible for saving the lives of all four of Danny’s friends, died unexpectedly of a heart attack while on vacation with his wife. Chris has since decided to become an EMT and is currently training in the Coachella Valley County Emergency Room at night.
When Chris and his father arrived on the scene of Danny’s accident, neither of the girls in the car was breathing. “Mr. Baca opened their airwaves…he was the only one who knew what to do…He knew not to move Todd and Will…everybody around us was freaking out…I was freaking out…I thought my friends were dead…nobody was conscious…The street sweeper guys were freaking out too,” said Danny. “It’s shaped a lot of what you see in front of you here at Chris’ house. Chris and I weren’t close before the accident. But when something like that happens, it changes your trip completely. It was good because we all just love each other so much and no one died. It made us tighter because now we’re bound up in each other’s lives forever. We all just bro-d down. If anyone of those guys didn’t make it, I don’t think I would have made it. Music helped me get over it. So did my friends and their families. No one ever blamed me. After the accident I became a much more spiritual person. I mean that sounds cliché and all but really, before that I wanted to be a lawyer. I tried counseling but it has never worked for me. When my parents got divorced my mom sent me to shrinks but it was a bum out. Still, I couldn’t sleep at night and I was really depressed after the wreck. I had corrective surgery on my face and tried to get back into school as soon as possible. My friends just basically got me through those times…along with my guitar.”
The families brought a law suit against the city and lost. The city’s lawyer blamed Danny for the wreck and caused him to cry on the stand. Todd had been virtually dead upon arrival to the emergency room, due to the negligence of the city employees, but he was revived and placed in intensive care for weeks. Last year he had to go to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota because the internal bleeding was so bad. Danny told me all this on the floor of the performing area in the studio. He added, “When I went through my psychedelic trip phase I went through it with all of them. I dropped out of college and lived with Will and Chris and just did hard drugs and hallucinogens: acid, ecstasy, mushrooms. Some of those trips were intense…we just sat with each other and cried. I feel rooted man…I feel like I have true friends to love and trust. I would be there for any of them if they ever needed help. I deal with that shitty feeling I get sometimes by doing positive work. We built this studio…we’re still building the studio. I play live shows. I put out records. I know what bad days are. I just try to keep things positive all the time.”
The studio itself is as impressive as anything which is the product of extremely hard work. In 2001, when Chris moved in, the house was a wreck. But it was a perfect place for a studio. There were no neighbors and there was the space to build. Prior to this arrangement Danny and Chris had lived in another house in a residential area of Indio and recorded using a basic four track recording unit. Today they have full capabilities with a digital multi track system. Getting to this point however, wasn’t easy. Before they could even dream of starting in on the studio they had to get the house in order which meant first, digging out the septic tank to fix the plumbing. Next they began the arduous process of re-roofing because the original was caving in. Danny used a lot of his financial aid money from school to pay for the repairs. And Chris received discount prices on lumber from Home Depot where he works during the day making deliveries to local residences. Chris also added that he cleverly convinced his bosses to make a series of lumber displays knowing the wood would just be scrapped in the end: perfect pickings for a new studio. Chris’ dad and girlfriend along with Will’s father, all with backgrounds in construction, helped quite a bit with building and plans. When the house was finally in order, the studio project got under way. Three years and thousands of dollars later they are still making improvements. Chris told me that the summer heat is a major problem. “We need a central air conditioning unit. You just can’t do anything here during the day…the shit is blazing hot. There is one small a.c. unit near my bed. I built this air duct out of a card board box so I could channel the cool air directly to my pillow.”
The heat is so intense that Danny and Chris have named their band Burnt. Danny has the logo tattooed on his forearm and Chris has it across his back. Burnt is, from my understanding, vaguely analogous to Kerouac’s generation encompassing word Beat. For Kerouac, Beat was attempting to describe everybody who was walking through New York City the same way, “furtive and beat.” John Cleland Holmes, in the documentary film, Kerouac, elaborates, “Beats are people reduced to the essentials, people who live under continual tension and stress which is unnatural. The only way we could live like this was to no longer engage in attitudinizing and posturing. You were beat, so any energy you had left was reserved for the most important things-all the crap went out.” One might say that Burnt is Beat for the desert. “Burnt” Chris says, “is definitely the attitude around here. Just the physical side, I mean the oppressive heat, has a lot to do with it. But it also refers to the grind of our lives, the scar tissue and the scrapes…all that shit that leaves a change in your skin tone.” The band has just released their third album titled, 100%...which they are selling at gigs. As of now there is no record deal but Danny and Chris are prepared to struggle for their music. The interior decoration of their recording compound hints at their tenacity.
Revolutionary faces hang from every wall of the house. There is Ché Guevara in one corner; Bob Marley in another. Poncho Villa and Emiliano Zapata look down upon anyone who sits in the helmer seat at the computer. Both Danny and Chris feel strong ties to these men. Danny explains, “We filled this studio with great spirits…we have a lot to live up to through our music. They don’t let us forget our mission. We want to be responsible song writers. When people hear our music, there needs to be a positive message and our message is strengthened by these men. They created their own realties and their respective missions were selfless. Individual success is a myth and the myth is fucking us as a people. That’s what I mean when I say “fuck the oil man” in my song, “?,” because the oil man tries to fight against the global conscious mind.”
Chris elaborates, “we have a lot of people to thank really. We’ve been blessed with this opportunity by my grandparents. They are the corner stone…they encourage us to work hard. Their other-minded mentality has shaped me. My grandma knits quilts for people and my grandfather gives free haircuts when someone can’t afford it…I want to open a space for musicians. The tumbleweed and the dirt on this property may be worth more to the resort community than this house…if they could, they’d put a golf course or a strip mall here in a second. But to me this house is the chance my grandparents gave me and my friends to actually do something really good in our lives. A lot of people we know from this town are bum outs…drop outs…jail birds. This whole project is very meaningful to us. As far as Ché and Zapata go, they give me strength. They are icons of struggle and empowerment and they remind me that there are people who’ve had it a lot worse. They give me pride in humanity because they represent situations where people helped other people. I hope our music helps other people. That’s what we are doing here, especially with the studio. We want people to get their voices out.”
So far Danny and Chris have offered their services to a varied group of artists: Kingdom Sound, another desert Reggae band that recently recorded a three track demo. Larry Shaw, a hip hop artist from North Palm Springs, otherwise known as L. Shaw, or L. Shizel. And Brince Washington, better known as Karmic Basis, K.B., or Big Raz. Also, members of The B-Side Players, a Chicano band from Chula Vista (near the U.S.-Mexican border), and The Debonairs, a ska band from Riverside, have put in a good deal of studio time. These bands represent a geographical region of roughly 100 square miles.
Danny and Chris do not advertise Stems and Seeds to the general public as of yet. At this point bands record by invitation. Most of the bands have met via the local Southern California club circuit. Recently Danny and Chris met a stand up comedian who plans to record an album there in the future. Additionally, their friend “Ty Bud,” a graphic artist, has was employed to make the cover art for 100%... It is a down home, roots operation out there.
Before I left the desert for San Diego, Danny gave me a tour of the area where he grew up. On the road from Indio to La Quinta (named such as it was the fifth stop for Spanish missionaries along the notorious “El Camino Real” road), we passed by the location of a defunct nudist colony which is now the meeting spot of a group of local skater-taggers who use the swimming pool for their tricks and art. Danny’s neighborhood is middle-lower class and cradled in a cove at the base of the Santa Rosas. The area is booming due to the growth of resorts like La Quinta (not to be confused with the national chain of motels), PGA West, and Arnold Palmer’s new golf course, which is literally at the foot of the Santa Rosas, across the cove from Danny’s old home. His parents bought the double lot for 5,000 dollars in 1977, built the house for 20,000, and now it is worth around 250,000. When Danny was young La Quinta was free from development. Now there are plenty of walls protecting the citizens who lock themselves up inside their new million dollar homes. Danny’s old neighborhood is a diminutive outcast, surrounded by well guarded compounds of the gentry. At the entrance of the La Quinta resort one is greeted by an imposing and absurd 20 foot tall, supremely virile looking, shining steel conquistador on horse back which glows in the sun as if sanctioned by heaven. Danny’s old house is about a quarter of a mile past this terrifying monstrosity dedicated to the big money take over, desert style.
The homes in Danny’s neighborhood are single story, simple, rectangular framed houses. There are no street lamps and each corner is adorned with a strange three foot high concrete obelisk street marker, which have been around since the development of the neighborhood. We drove past a few men on their front lawn drinking beers as they watched a child play with a large German Shepard. “This is what people do here” Danny said, “drink beers.” He lamented that “kids used to be able to get to those hills…That was the one escape from parents or cops. Now it is all gated off. They're blowing the fucking shit out of these hills man…for golf courses.” The sides of a few of the hills looked as if they had been slashed with a knife the size only the Good Lord could handle. They were slowly dripping their slag blood down to the base of the range.
We made it to a place called “the wash.” The wash is a huge storm drain where Danny and his friends used to meet when they needed to get away from life in the neighborhood. The area surrounding the wash was beautiful. Smoke trees and creosote, which smell like musk when it rains, covered the entire expanse, and looming above us were the jagged peaks of the rocky Santa Rosas. They were covered by long dusky purple evening shadows. “You need to imagine this place without the fences, without the stupid gazebos and park benches for the tired old folks, there didn’t used to be a walking path slicing up the earth.” But, this was the extent of Danny’s emotion regarding the new development in La Quinta. He seemed to take it in stride like he takes everything in stride, as just part of the natural order. He continued, “I guess no one can really stop it. I just think it is too bad for the future kids who aren’t going to be able to enjoy the mountains the way I did. I never had to worry about trespassing on private property in my own backyard. For these new kids, their freedom begins and ends now in the space between their houses and wherever La Quinta decides to put up a new fence.”
He took me to a spot where the rocks made a natural staircase, the top of which overlooked a great deep pit in the earth about a mile in diameter. It turned out to be the place where Charlton Heston was filmed giving the Jews the Ten Commandments. The juxtaposition of the beautiful desert landscape at dusk, the humble suburban neighborhood, the monumental golf courses carved out of the sides of mountains, the million dollar homes, and the Hollywood landmark all gave me the disquieting sensation of looking at surrealist art. The union of so many disparate parts amid an expansive Dali-an desert landscape was both dreadful and mesmerizing.
On the way back to Indio Danny pointed out the fortress sized Catholic Church where they held Chris’ father’s funeral. We passed by the Indian Wells Tennis Stadium where the professional tour makes a stop each year for one of the major tournaments. I got to see the Beer Hunter, the bar where Chris and Danny worked, surrounded by some natural columnar rock heaps which looked like bizarre totemic chimneys in a mock frontier town at Disneyland. And we stopped by the Home Depot to say good-by to Chris.
Chris told me a hilarious story about a delivery he had made. “Me and Anthony delivered a propane tank to this huge mansion in La Quinta. This old lady answered the door and invited us inside. In the front entrance way there was this giant five foot Buddha in the lotus position. The woman introduced me and Anthony to the statue. She was crazy man. She called it Mr. Buddha and she would ask it questions like “Do you like Chris and Anthony Mr. Buddha?” She would push the back of the statue’s head and it would nod yes like one of those bobble head dolls! There was a photograph of Barbara Bush on the wall and the lady said that the Bush’s visit pretty often. Then she tried to get us to do gardening work for her. I thought to myself “what the hell lady, is my skin my sin?” She just figured all Mexican dudes are gardeners.”
When we got back to the studio, Rob LaPorte, a percussionist for the Debonairs and drummer for Burnt was there with a friend to record some tracks they had been working on. Before I left, I asked Danny where he planned to go with his music. He said, in his typically humble way, “I grew up singing songs by the camp fire, I’m not about getting signed to a major label and making lots of money. We’ve got a lot of work to do here. Right now I am just trying to save money so that I can build an army of like minded musicians. I’m living in my car to save money; every aspect of my life is geared toward this studio. Even school is a pain in the ass because it interferes with my real work too much. We’re looking to put lots of music out there on the internet. We can get the c.d.s pressed for cheap and sell them at shows and gigs for ten dollars. We have a website and Chris and I spend hours daily scouting potential listeners out on myspace. For now this is good. This is what we want. People even pay us to use our studio. I feel like I’m at my best when I’m playing live music though. I want to travel through the States and spread the Burnt message, it’s like what Marley said “forget your troubles and dance, forget your weakness and dance, forget your sorrows and dance, forget your sickness and dance, dance, dance, dance that shit away!”