The only people who influenced my musical knowledge and appreciation more than my parents and my brother were my hippie neighbors. Until recently, the house the Elder J and I grew up in was the only house in the midst of a few thousand acres of old logging land that had largely grown back. Now, there are some encroaching neighbors along the road and elsewhere but until about 8 years ago, this was our domain. It was so private, that not only did my father routinely walk the dog in his underwear when we ere very young, I also used to shoot cans with my .22 from my bedroom window.
The first two neighbors were of the hippie variety, Steven and Salem, who moved in when I was in the eighth grade. They were from Florida and Ohio, depending on the conversation, and Salem was named after the cigarette. The friendship between them and our family started with our father chasing Salem in her red Bronco on foot with a rake for driving too fast. The next day, Steven approached my father to say sorry and to invite him up to his “shelter”.
Steven had bought about eighty acres of wilderness a mile up our dirt road, but he didn’t get a loan for a house, only for the land. He wanted to build his own house and at his own speed, not at the beck and call of some mortgage company. He wanted to live “off the grid” That first spring, he constructed a tent basically out of tarps and plywood. I vividly remember him walking us through thick woods and suddenly coming to a blue tarp-laden T frame that looked like a strong wind would take it down. This guy was serious.
He planned to live “off the grid” in every way from power to plumbing to phones. In fact, most of his philosophy was certifiably “off the grid”. He had developed an outlook from a life of broken homes in various states and odd detours that included hitchhiking cross country and a 60 day stint in a county lock-up for what he calls an “alleged assault on a police officer”. He truly felt that everyone was out to fuck him so he was going to build his house in the middle of the woods and depend solely on himself. This presents many obvious problems.
He did have a very rough upbringing, bouncing between Ohio and Florida with parents who only rarely gave a fuck about him. His father once told me that his mother had a cross dresser babysit him and actually once tried on Steven’ s mother’s underwear in front of him. His father once summed up his relationship with Steven in the sentence “Well you know, if it was bring out a new piece of tail or bring Steven to a baseball game, the little head beat out the big head.” Although an amusing man, Eric’s father is not a role model for aspiring fathers.
The first problem of living so far out is that you need machines to get there and to improve your property. Steven’s philosophy on equipment has always been summed up in the phrase “Run herrr” which translates to taking zero care of your tools and using them until they break. His stock phrase when dealing with a broken tool of any kind is “Run Her” which means run it until it breaks. He’s probably owned 15 different vehicles since I’ve known him, from a giant plow truck with no brakes to a Chevy Corsica without any working lights except low beams. The plow truck elicits a specific memory of warm Bud light and praying for life as the 49 Harvester slid down a hill sideways in a blizzard on about an inch of ice with Eric yelling, “it’s fineeee, RUN HERRR”
His tools have numbered ten-fold, with what seems like dozens of chain saws, weed whackers, and lawn mowers. Just last week, I saw him punch the top of a lawn mower, spurring it to suddenly come back alive. He attempts to fix all malfunctioning tools and more often than not, the result is the breaking of many tools he could have fixed. Living his chosen life style, he has dealt with much adversity from weather to overzealous town officials questioning his permits to one winter where he executed 18 porcupines who were chewing into his garage, one with a softball bat.
He vents steam by drinking seemingly endless cheap beer after his work day is done and then spewing his philosophy which includes a myriad of subjects such as world currency fluctuations to how I should have slept with his now ex Salem when I was 16 since they had an “open relationship. (I kind of wish I had too– she was very exotic to me at the time, a true flower child.)
It seems obvious now, with their long hair and hippie ways that my father was mostly looking to score some greenery. I didn’t realize it at the time of course since I was young and naive but this would into a long term friendship after their first real house burned down which resulted in them living in an RV on the side of our house for several months. Eventually, Salem left and Steven got married and had kids with another woman, as well as building a semi real house up the road from the “shelter”. Our relationship has continued and has had ups and downs (he is sort of my big, mentally ill brother). I actually work part time with him helping run a landscaping company which I have mentioned before.
I say big brother as my real brother was six hours south in NYC and Eric was a force in my high school years, especially in music and experimentation. He was a songwriter and played various open mics and was in a few bands; I used to be the resident critic when he practiced. His real gift to me was blowing my world open by introducing me to new kinds of music. He lived in a house with no power and ran the boom box off of a giant excavator battery that he charged via the Bronco and three small solar panels. After his first house burnt down, he built a quick garage that stands today as Fred’s little red house. Fred is hippie neighbor number two whom I have mentioned before and will again in a coming post.
A big thing I took from Steven was his passion for enjoying music, listening to it virtually all of the time. Living off the grid as he did forced him to be constantly working on different things and he had music for each task. After he got what he wanted done, he would drink more beer and educate me on music. He would play super deep cuts of Bob Marley from the huge Songs of Freedom compilation, as well as turning me on to Sublime at younger age than many of my peers. He actually gave me Sublime Acoustic when I turned 16 or so and I still think I was the only one around who had that cd for a while. He was very into 90’s bands like Cracker, Seven Mary Three, and Better than Ezra. Of all the 90’s era bands, Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven are still close to my favorite.
Steven and Salem were the first people I met who wenton Dead tours so of course that also was on the musical menu. I didn’t become a full-on fan until college but they definitely laid the groundwork with those long smoky nights of hearing Mars Hotel and Workingman’s Dead on a continuous loop. It’s funny because now Steven basically refuses to listen to the Dead even though he’s the first one to get me into it due to his stories of traveling with the band in the 80’s.
Now he just says its all pentatonic scale guitar masturbation.
He also started my education on different types of heavy rock like Black Sabbath and Motorhead, as well as trippier stuff like pre Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd, all of which I enjoy to this day. He would select the heavier stuff like this for particularly monotonous tasks like chopping wood or shoveling endless amounts of snow and just play it as loud as possible. I remember during my introduction to Motorhead that we were putting together a propane heater. Right smack in the middle of “Born to Raise Hell”, Steven’ s eyes bugged out and he yelled “Get the fuck out of the house” to which we both dramatically dived out the door. Nothing blew up but it sure made for an exciting evening.
Another time, we discovered a very sick bull moose calf on his back twenty acres. I got my father,who had done more hunting than any of us, and we approached it with a .357 magnum. It had ripped its own antlers out of it’s head but still thought it had just broken a leg. After deciding to call a game warden instead of shooting it ourselves,(which would have been very illegal) we waited it out and the warden showed up. He was psyched because he got to use his new 12 gauge to put the moose down as it ended up having brain worms. Eric wanted to move the carcass so it didn’t draw coyotes. So we got a tractor stuck in the mud after the warden and I pushed the carcass into the scoop of the front end loader. Steven looked at me as he drove off and said “Man, all I can think of is My Name is Mud”
Everything changed when Salem left and within a year or two, Steven met his future wife with whom, as of last fall, he just had his third kid. Of course, he had to build a “real” house and the old school nature of living off the grid was gone for Steven, as well as part of my adolescence. It sounds melodramatic….but it’s true. His relative bachelorhood was coinciding with my growing up and going off to college. We are still tight and I am currently working for him doing landscaping for the summer, but it won’t ever be like it was when I was 17 and started really focusing on what I liked for music. Luckily, hippie neighbor number two, Fred Dodge, was about to make the scene and pick up the musical mentor ship in a big way. This is where we’ll pick up next.