”…when I die lord won’t you put me up on that train…won’t you send it southbound give it a cool bluesman name…”
~Ryan Bingham, Southside of Heaven, Mescalito
Dunga Brook Diary, 2/24
It’s a silent day in central NY, snowing again.
This abandoned train on the outskirts of Oneonta reminds me of Ryan Bingham. Ryan Bingham reminds me of LA. LA reminds me of The Cinema bar.
One summer night, circa 2001, I dragged my LA music producer boyfriend there, I was sure he was going to love it- I’d read in the LA Weekly that the Cinema Bar was a great place to hear live music, a place where singer-songwriters like Lucinda Williams might show up and join in with whatever local band was playing.
We finally found The Cinema bar on a dank street populated with no-tell motels and shuttered wholesale carpet outlets on the edge of Culver City. Twice, we’d missed the red and green sign above the door spelling out its name in buzzing neon.
Inside, it was a hole in the wall. A juke joint. A place with no cover, no doorman and only one bartender behind a bar far bigger than the rest of the room facing a thirsty, blue-collar looking crowd.
The decor was easily out of date by the 70’s, with its party-stained wood interior, haphazard stools and rickety tables and rotating-slogan beer signs, instead of hipster LA pin-lighting and banquette seating.
Above the head of the weary, chain-smoking bartender was a tv chained to the wall, endlessly broadcasting sports to the unsportiest of crowds. There was a grandma with a beehive hairdo who looked as if she’d been there since 1965, a toothless trucker falling asleep beside her, a cadaverous fellow chain smoking with his pinky in the air, numerous colorful rockabilly chicks in cowboy boots and a group of flannel over wife beater wearing he/she’s giggling next to a Howdy Doody looking character raising a can of Shiner Bocke to the band.
The band was loud.
Back when I was a teenager living in Illinois, in a nowhere town that sidled the Mississippi River, I thought that I hated bars like this.
Still, that was exactly where you’d find me on Saturday nights with my boyfriend, I’d be wearing a tube top and we’d be playing foosball underneath neon signs, he’d have a Busch in his hand flirting with me between scoring goals and I’d be under-age drinking a blue Hawaiian, we’d both be singing along to Lynard Skynard songs playing on a jukebox amped to deafening decibels. Aside from the drunken welders and rage filled Viet Nam vets who truly owned those riverfront bars, it was exactly where I wanted to be on those muggy midwestern nights.
The Cinema bar’s stage was nothing more than a spot for the band set up in at what used to be a front window (blacked-in now). The band and the fans stood just elbows apart, sweaty face to sweaty face.
Turns out the band that the LA Weekly had mentioned would be there had already played there the week before, this was some other band.
We stood at the packed bar, easily 3-deep, trying to breathe in the cigarette smoke-filled room, an impossibility, so we listened. The band strummed, the drummer set a rhythm, a key board player in horn rims played something I think I heard in high school at Scotty’s Skateland when it was time for “the couples skate”, then something happened, the lead guitar took over, he bent low over that guitar, he worked it, wrenching out the cords, the singer closed his eyes and sang louder, suddenly a swooping feeling inside as the room began to vibrate and shimmer…
The band was AWESOME.
My heart jumped. Stuff like this reminds you of who you really are and where you come from. Until that moment, I had no idea how deep the red in my neck ran. This rock n roll and this tiny dive bar just off the 405 was the closest thing to heaven I’d found in LA.
Wow, I mouthed to my boyfriend. Wow, he mouthed back and hugged me in.
The band was announced as the Randy Weeks Band. Turns out Randy was a stalwart of the Americana scene in LA, a scene that somehow began in the 80’s with punk bands like X, The Blasters and Randy’s previous band The Lonesome Strangers.
In the 80’s, I was a newly minted fashion designer hanging out in Manhattan Beach doing another version of X with the terminally cool south bay crowd and “dancing” to canned Depeche Mode.
The highlight of my 80’s nights, whilst semi-dancing to music I didn’t like and couldn’t understand (beneath black lights in a pseudo-rave bar)? Picking neon lint off of hipsters dressed in black whose veneers were another kind of delight- all that horsey dental work flashing, like fluoridated strobes, all shades of neon blue.
Finding The Cinema bar, a good 16 years after moving to LA, tore me up.
When I realized that this Americana scene, full of skinny dudes with awesome songs manhandling old guitars, wearing the Levi’s and the cowboy boots of my youth, with the camaraderie and seediness of a good Midwestern dive bar, that all this had existed all along but I’d been too busy designing ugly ass hi-top sneakers and wearing tight polyester bike shorts with belted jackets and Muglier shoulder pads whilst listening to KROQ…well, I sat down and cried.
By the time I found Randy, he had been in residence at the Cinema Bar on Saturday nights for years. Lucky for me, he’d be there for a few more. In those few years we became friends. I’m even on the liner notes of his album Sugarfinger, an album that my boyfriend eventually produced (with my dogged prodding, he was busy by then with REM, Courtney Love, Ryan Adams et al).
And, I met Lucinda Williams at The Cinema bar. Briefly. She was dark. Kohl eyed. Mumbly. Awesome. Her boyfriend at the time was Mike Stinson, the drummer in Randy’s band. By then, Lucinda had recorded Randy’s song, Can’t Let Go, for her album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road.
I met Miss Pamela Des Barres there, too. A bit after Lucinda…Miss P was dating the same drummer after he and Lucinda split. Listen, the guy is an amazing drummer. Pamela was a vision with her twinkling eyes and ruby smile, watching her twirl on the dance floor made everyone wish they were in love, always.
I never caught Ryan Bingham at the Cinema Bar, although I heard he played there. I found Ryan through Shilah Morrow and her promotions group, SinCity, when they threw his Mescalito launch party in Hollywood.
I missed that party but googled Southside of Heaven. One listen and I was hooked. He has a voice that is at once raw and gorgeous, it is like no other. And, one look at him sent me cursing the gods that made age and whatever else come between us. It’s that smile, that cowboy smile.
The first time I saw Ryan play was at a hole in the wall venue in Topanga. It was bittersweet. That night, I so much wanted to share Ryan’s music with my boyfriend but we’d split. Instead, I went with a friend who could have cared less.
When I heard Southside of Heaven, it blew me away, you know that feeling- ecstatic and desperate, hungry and satiated, high and jonesing, you want more more more. Come on, you know what I am talking about! It’s more than that smile, its that voice…
If Randy Weeks was my homecoming, Ryan was my rocket back to the stars. That man is my Bob Dylan. My ___ (fill in your own blank, we all have our own thing going on).
I was in the audience of every LA area show Ryan played until I moved to CNY. Sometimes I’d go alone, most times I went went with my friend Bobbie who fell in love with Ryan just like me.
By coincidence, a year before I left LA, I was in the audience at the Oscar’s when Ryan won his Oscar for the soundtrack of Crazy Heart. Crazy. Heart.
Randy Weeks lives in Austin now and we’ve lost touch. Mike Stinson has his own Americana career via the Houston honkytonk circuit. Miss P became my writing mentor. Bobbie has visited me in CNY twice now and taken up portrait photography. I’ve moved to the east coast to an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere to write, take photos, dream, and just recently I’ve reconnected with my ex.
Ryan is in Topanga prepping for another newer and larger tour than the last. The last time I saw him live was in a tiny venue and it felt like the last time I needed to. He hit it big. I knew he would.
Out here, we have Ommegang. And that is a very, very good thing. A great brewery that holds a great concert series in the summer- I’ve seen Steve Earle, Bon Iver, Lyle Lovett, Darius Rucker, Wilco, Cake and many others, almost all of them in one summer.
Not bad, but my dream line-up would be be Randy Weeks and Lucinda Williams with Ryan Bingham.
Miss P would be there dancing like a dream, Bobbie would be the official photographer and I’d be in the audience, on the grass, under the stars with you know who by my side.
A girl can only dream on such a winter’ day.