By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“This is my life,” he tells me as we pace the pavement. “If I’m going to talk to somebody about these things, I’d like you to understand it. But this is all grinding to a halt here.” Then he gets into his Volvo station wagon and drives off.
“Drum Machines Have No Soul” is nothing new. Wood’s concern with the purity of art echoes the sentiments of cultural critics such as Walter Benjamin, as well as pro-vinyl didacts Neil Young and Steve Albini. But there’s something brokenhearted about Wood that gives pathos to his tired nostalgia trip. So much so that when he calls me 30 minutes later, I scribble down the instructions to his apartment without hesitation.
An off-white 1929 Steinway piano dominates the single that Wood rents in a turn-of-the-century South Los Angeles house. A heavy blue punching bag sits nearby. Records are stacked on the floor next to an old two-track analog tape machine. Wood is divorced, and there’s a photograph of his two sons balanced on a speaker.
He’s much more relaxed here, though his message is no more flexible. He walks around the space, pausing to punch me on the shoulder as he holds forth on the value of old-school recording techniques. He says that modern pop music is to pre-’70s pop music as pro wrestling is to professional boxing. “LL Cool J is not Marvin Haggler,” he says. “LL Cool J is Hulk Hogan.”
It’s all just more nostalgia until he sits down at his piano and starts to play. “That’s what I do,” he says after improvising a tune. “I’m a musician.” He’s so earnest it makes me want to cry, despite his claim that OutKast doesn’t count as “important music.” He then shows me several of the albums he’s recorded over the last 30 years. My questions about what he is doing hawking bumper stickers get me more platitudes about “making people happy” and instigating social revolution. He soon lapses into what the world would be like if his manifesto were to come to fruition. Billboards honoring Art Blakey and Duke Ellington figure large in this fantasy.
You really miss those times, don’t you? I ask him.
“I think we all do,” he says. “Though a lot of people who are most excited about the bumper sticker are young guys with baseball hats going sideways and skateboards.”
What does the sticker mean to them?
“They just want to hear some real playing. It’s not complicated.”
Under the watch of security cameras and roaming prison guards, Roberta Spanne sat at a heavy white picnic table in the visiting area of the Central California Women’s Facility
near Fresno imparting some maternal wisdom to her two children over hot dogs and ice cream bars.
“See these women in here?” Spanne said, nodding her head at the others on the patio who, like her, wore blue-sleeved softball shirts and denim pants. “They are so gay. Eighty percent of the women in here got girlfriends. Everything you see on TV, it’s true.”
“Really?” said Spanne’s 15-year-old daughter, trying to see without staring.
It was the first time Spanne’s daughter and 12-year-old son had seen her since she began a three-year sentence almost two years ago for stealing a bottle of liquor. The kids live in La Verne with Spanne’s mother, whose car can’t handle the drive.
“See my friend over there, J.D.?” Spanne kept going. “She’s the first woman to get three strikes, so she’s here for life. She used to be gay, then she went to church. Now she grew her hair out and goes by Joyce.”
“That’s your friend?” asked Spanne’s daughter, whom I will call Lisa.
Lisa leaned forward and whispered stagily into her mother’s ear: “Mom . . .”
“No!” Spanne said spiritedly when Lisa was done. She shook her head.
“You promise, Mom? Dicks, not chicks, right?”
“Yup, dicks not chicks, that’s right,” Spanne nodded. “I’m getting another soda.”
“She’s freakin’ me out,” Lisa said.
Spanne’s daughter and son were visiting today thanks to the zealous organizing of a Los Angeles nun named Sister Suzanne Jabro. Five years ago Jabro learned that many women in prison never see their children during their incarceration. California’s two largest women’s prisons are near Chowchilla, four or five hours from Los Angeles County, where three-quarters of the women prisoners come from. Many of the grandparents, dads and foster parents who are often poor and overwhelmed by the demands of holding the family together can’t manage that long drive.
In 2000, Jabro and a group of Catholic and secular organizations arranged for a bus to take children from L.A. to see their mothers in prison on Mother’s Day. The families loved it, and the program grew. This year, almost 250 children took chartered buses from all over the state to converge on the two women’s prisons. I rode up on the bus from Watts. The visiting areas were crowded with families like the Spannes.