Daniel Lanois is on a roll. The world-class producer of the moody/crystalline soundscapes behind U2's The Joshua Tree and Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind has been riding his motorcycle (famously surviving a pretty nasty accident) and touring with rejuvenating band/project Black Dub. The Canadian-by-way-of-New-Orleans sound impressionist is getting ready to release both the Black Dub album and a memoir called Soul Mining: A Musical Life in early November. The following excerpt from the book is his love letter to the most artistically inspiring area of his latest adoptive city.
My friend Jennifer Tefft invited me to go to the Echo. Jennifer used to book bands in Silver Lake at a club called Spaceland, and also was associated with the Echo. The two clubs promote all kinds of mixtures of live music. On the right night, on Jennifer's cue, I roll down with my customized motorcycle, 21-inch counterweighted wheel and all, to catch a glimpse of what other people are doing. A lot of what I hear there is not industry-fed. It is driven by hungry hearts and the love of music. A recent Spaceland visit exposed me to the beautiful singing of Rocco DeLuca, a blues-based futurist accompanied by a traditional Brazilian cajón, which is a sit-down drum with a deep sound. A thousand yards from my bed in Silver Lake, I heard Rocco's commitment and it touched me — inspired me to keep pushing the envelope of my own music.
Farther down the boulevard is the Echo. Along the filthy sidewalk, under a concrete bridge, 500 people are lined up to get into the back door of the club for a night of transformation, young people looking to be lifted out of their skins. Tefft and I join the line to the Echo, with the aroma of sausages cooking under the bridge. The health department is not here to give a rating to the sausage-stand operation. The operators are not static enough to ever be tagged.
South-of-the-border folks, Guatemalan or Mexican perhaps, see the sidewalk vending as a livelihood, cooking sausages and onions on a cold Echo Park night. There is something Republican about them. They're hardworking family people, making cash to feed their kids and send them to school. Somewhere up on a hill, a fortunate established white perspective sees them as illegal border jumpers. But what kind of person drags equipment to the roadside under a concrete bridge in Echo Park to cook sausages and onions late into the night? Someone who wants a better life and is willing to work hard for it. Abiding by the Ten Commandments, if not the local bylaw, the sausage-stand people have everything in them that the early American spirit embraced. The sausages steamed; the Echo Park clubgoers, unstoppable with their appetite for music (and sausages), were beautiful.
This congregation under the concrete bridge did not exist two years ago, but somebody had rolled the dice on the Eastside. Let's use “Eastside” as a figure of speech for the bad neighborhood with affordable rents. The rise of the Eastside is driven by economy. The more established expensive neighborhoods don't attract newcomers without cash, therefore these newcomers must go to the affordable Eastside. And that's how it starts — the rise of a new scene.
People starting out, dreamers, really — dreaming of owning a club, a shop, or just having an apartment — all begin coming to the Eastside. Soon, what was regarded as a dangerous place that you wouldn't want to go to, becomes cool. The little shops are innovative, new designers, etc. Coffee shops pop up, the restaurants get good, and it all becomes more interesting than the tired, “seen it all before,” more rich but used-up tourist 'hood. Perhaps the term “Birth of the Cool” applies. This is not happening just because people are cool. It's happening because of economics.
Memories of the Riverboat come to mind. The Riverboat was a tiny club in Toronto, a crossroads for a lot of great touring music artists of the '60s and '70s. Joni Mitchell played there, Dylan and all kinds of folkies comin' up waltzed through the Riverboat. I used to play there myself as a young guitar player. The vibe was well established, silence was expected at show time. There was depth, humor and respect. A good night at the Riverboat promised a lasting experience that equaled the experience of having read an interesting book.
The Red Devils motorcycle club operated on the next block. Nimbus 9 recording studio — host to Alice Cooper and the Guess Who, and where Peter Gabriel made his first solo album — was on the other block. Head shops, leatherworkers and clothes makers were all part of the cultural revolution. It was the hippest place in Toronto.
How do you keep a cool village going without the franchise-driven mentality muscling in to bring it all down to the lowest common denominator? The Village in Toronto is still around, but records aren't being made there. The Riverboat is gone, as are the bikers. You have to be rich to keep an apartment, and if you can't afford $900 a night at the Four Seasons, or can't afford to clothe yourself in designer wear, then you're out. That's fine, but it will not be a welcome mat to the new wave of artistic and innovative minds. They are going to the Eastside.
There are those of us who do not appreciate Jamba Juice butted up against Target, butted up against Taco Bell, butted up against Burger King, with condos on top. The Eastside is made of hopes and dreams, and I like it. The Silver Lake Eastside has a motorcycle customization shop that just popped up, with two guys in it that are great; they're part of an aesthetic awareness that is catching on — some kind of synchronicity at play — where people are more aware of lines, lines of design. Referencing the '70s in search of a classic, related somehow to the sampling of music from another time. The contemporary motorcycle engines, brakes and general moving-part efficiency is better than ever, but the lines of the '70s are not to be forgotten. These young motorcycle customizers are futurists who also embrace the classics.
The Eastsiders are enjoying the luxury of postmodern times. They want to make improvements and not just have straight-out-of-the-box stock looks. The same way that [Brian] Eno will devote a year of his life to the building of his own sounds on a synthesizer. He also doesn't like things straight out of the box. He likes his own creations to be his sonics, and we love him for that. That's why he's Eno. There wouldn't be an Eno if he had surrendered to the commonplace. He is a customizer of sound, a transformer of rooms, a chaser of ideas, a fighter for beauty — he is a futurist. He is a living example of his own philosophy, a modifier like I try to be.
I can remember standing in a club in New York City circa 1985, listening to the Fat Boys, a rare and inventive trio. Acrobatic sounds came from their mouths into a stage microphone, providing their rhythms — a human beat box, essentially, with poetry and prose riding over top. It was the first chapter of rap. From the street, from the hearts of these young men, a sound and expression had risen up, a sound that had nothing to do with the usual artillery of rock 'n' roll. They were flesh and bone and three microphones. They had decided to customize.
I suppose the moral of the story is that of resourcefulness. God bless the hearts of the Fat Boys and anyone willing to roll the dice on the Eastside — including the sausage makers under the concrete bridge.
Excerpted from Soul Mining: A Musical Life, by Daniel Lanois, to be published in November by Faber and Faber, an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright (c) 2010 by Daniel Lanois. All rights reserved.