Our California Years ~ 1992 to 1997
Bob and I went to San Diego in 1992. He got his Morrison visa in the post on the 30th of December 1990 and I got mine on January 2nd 1991. It was one of the best things that ever happened to us, as individuals, as a couple and as musicians. We worked and saved and eventually headed off, broken-hearted but excited too, hating to leave the family but knowing it would be a big adventure for us.
We got a gig as a duo almost straight away, in a pub called Ireland’s Own in Escondido. We ended up working at a bunch of Irish bars: Rosie O’Grady’s http://rosieogradyspub.com/, The Ould Sod, The Blarney Stone in Claremont Mesa (a chap from Bray was playing there, the late Brian Baynes http://bit.ly/MHgw2K, and got us up to do a few songs one night while he was on his break. That’s normally all it took for us to get the job).
It was hard work: five nights a week, four hours a night with a fifteen minute break every hour. But the punters were brilliant and we didn’t have to chase the bar owner around at the end of the night to get paid (an old Irish tradition…). Bob did all the ‘musicianship’ really, I just sang and operated the drum machine on the rare occasion we used it, but it was a great experience for us and we laughed a lot. Bob would say: ‘talk to them…’ while he took a finger rest (his fingers would get sore, obviously) so I’d rabbit away about seeing ‘stool softeners’ in the drug store and ask did any of the guys at the bar use them, you know, coz they were sitting at the bar all night? That kind of rubbish. They’d pat me on the head and say how cute I was (I’m 4’10” so there were leprauchaun references, I can tell you) and I’d swear at them. All good clean fun.
Our programme wasn’t very Irish insofar as we only did a few ballads, but did nice versions of Van Morrison’s ‘Crazy Love’ and Bob did a mean ‘Fiddler’s Green’ (he always forgot the words and his variations were absolutely hilarious. He worked out an abolutely beautiful version of ‘Crazy’ on guitar, we’d do some Elvis and a lot of harmony vocals like the Everleys – Bob’s a superb harmony singer and teacher.
One St Patrick’s Day we had three gigs – 11am at the Naval Base in Coronado (where they filmed ‘Top Gun’ and ‘Titanic’ [in which the aforementioned Brian Baynes appeared, incidentally]) and where they fed us bacon and cabbage at 1pm and saluted us as they left the Mess; 3pm at The Blarney Stone and 8pm at Ireland’s Own. To get into Ireland’s Own I had to stick the microphone stand into the crowd at the door and move it over and back to make room to get through – that’s how packed the place was. And we couldn’t even have a drink! We were knackered but fiscally replete that night.
Working conditions varied. The stage in Rosie O’Grady’s was two pallets covered in carpet, and we’d sit on stools – with no stool softener – for the whole night. One night my pallet started to slide, or someone kicked it by mistake, and the stool was heading into the gap. Luckily Bob reached over and caught me.
Ireland’s Own was a source of great stories: one night a cop chased a guy right through the bar, coming in the front door and running out the back. We kept playing. Another night, the barman had to lure a possum out the door with saltines – they’re big and can be mean (so can possums) – that was a first for us to see.
We also travelled to Phoenix to do a month at the San Carlos Hotel and later at The Dubliner pub. The first time we were in Phoenix our employer billeted us with friends of his instead of getting us a motel, and that was an experience we’ve never forgotten. He was the only one who ever renaged on the payment arrangement, reducing our fee after we gave up our San Diego gigs to go to Pheonix – and he was an Irishman. Make you proud, wouldn’t it!
Once we settled back into San Diego, we had two careers: the Irish bars and then we both worked for the District Attorney’s office in different departments. I started off in a typing pool and then the Welfare Fraud department, and Bob was in the admin end of the postal room where there were millions of documents sent out every day. We’d come home, bathe and head out to our gigs. As time went on Bob got more and more bass gigs with various bands. He worked with swing , jazz and blues bands, and then a country band comprised of a bunch of very excellent blokes – Les Allen (guitar and vocals), Brad Kirkbride (drums), and Jeff Brown on keyboards. We’ve got photos of them somewhere standing on a canyon road looking lean and they were very very good. Les is a fantastic singer and clever guitarist, Brad a spanking drummer, and Jeff a gentleman who knows his way around a keyboard.
Eventually the four lads began were working for a female vocalist called Suzie Salmon. This vivacious redhead with the marvellous voice and warm personality is now married to Jeff but at the time they were just colleagues. She happened to mention she’d like a backing vocalist, Bob told her that I sang, she said great, and that was that – we were ‘Ruff Cut’. Not only was Suzie a very generous lead vocalist (she had me sing lead vocal on several songs), she also became a good friend. She still is. (All the photos in this section have been scanned by Steve in LoganPrint, by the way: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Our first gig together as a band was something like five days away from my joining and while I couldn’t learn all the words of all the songs I was supposed to harmonise on, I could certainly learn the notes so managed to busk through the gig quite successfully on two rehearsals, managing to at least look like I knew the words…
Again, we were working five nights a week in places like The Big Stone Lodge, Leo’s Little Bit of Country and various rodeo weekends, some quite flash gigs too where Suzie would sparkle in her custom-made country gear but I’d never manage to pull that kind of look together somehow. Bob always looked great in his jeans and boots and we both got to love the very excellent quality country music we were playing – it’d be hard not to. Dwight Yoakam, Pattie Loveless, Ty Herndon, Martina McBride, Radney Foster and Trisha Yearwood – all really good stuff. And we all got on very well.
Unfortunately, around this time Bob became quite ill and we couldn’t find out what was causing it. Finally we discovered he’d developed a viral ulcer which could be treated with a course of antibiotics. Until that was diagnosed, poor Bob suffered nausea all the time and lost quite a bit of weight. He’s a rangy guy to begin with so it was a relief when he began to feel better. As he wasn’t a big fan of American food in general, he only really regained weight when we got home and he could eat a batch loaf with butter (which he had no problem doing when the mood was on him).
The night before we were to perform in the finals of the Southern California Country Music People’s Choice Awards, our car wouldn’t start (a piece of Eurotrash Audi we’d bought from the famous Brian Baynes) and we had to sleep in the car in the car park of wherever we’d been playing. It gets cold at night in the desert. Jeff and Suzie (who at this stage were together and in love) had to rescue us the next morning, we grabbed a quick shower and got back for the afternoon session where we won 7 out of 12 of the SCCMPC Awards. Not bad considering we’d such a lousy night.
Bob was very at home in California. The standard of muscianship was high: even a small local bar would have a band who might cover diverse sounds such as Steely Dan, ELO, Lynrd Skynrd and anything in-between – and do it really well. Nights we weren’t playing would be spent in the Belly-Up seeing bands such as The Hellecasters, The Beat Farmers or Robyn Ford. Incredible music.
The Ruff Cut lineup changed after a year or so – drummer Brad Kirkbride and guitarist/vocalist Les Allen moved on to other things. Suzie took on Glen as drummer and Mike Thompson on guitar/vocals. Bob and I would marvel at how Les and Mike could sing so well and be such good guitarists. I swear to God, they both had voices that sent shivers up our spines. And they didn’t consider themselves singers particularly. Any time Les or Mike ever told me I’d had a good gig I’d be puffed up with pride for days afterwards.
They all loved Bob: Mike, when he was singing ‘Pride & Joy’ (Stevie Ray Vaughan) at the line ‘…you mess with her [he’d point at me] you’ll see that man [he’d point at Bob] get mean…’ and Suzie used to totally discombobulate him by flinging her arms around his waist. He’d pat her on the head, looking baffled. Brad, on the night we had our going away gig – sorry for telling this, Brad – said ‘I love you, man’ to Bob and hugged him. Bob hugged him back. He loved all of them and we never forgot their kindnesses and all the laughs we had together. They don’t know how much it meant to us that they gave so freely of their affections and thoughfulness.
However, all good things come to an end and this too was destined to become part of our past. Bob wanted to go to college – too expensive in the USA, and both of our mothers were getting on in years, Bob missed his children and we both missed our families. It was time to come home after five years. But we hated leaving too. These friends we’d made – not just the band but the people we’d met from our day jobs – were all really nice people.
Suzie and Jeff also wanted to go in a different direction so we had a last big session in the Irish bar The Blarney Stone. The punters had never heard anything like it. All these diverse singers and musicians performing and sounding great (after two/three years of working together we had loads of harmony songs down and tight). The place went mad. The entertainer for that night had a really good time – lots of long breaks and no sharing the tip jar.
I tease Bob that he ‘made’ me come home (in one way I’m not sure I was ready) but he really wanted to be here and of course I’m glad we came home. I go anywhere he goes and that’s all there is to that. If he’s there, it’s cool with me.
Apart from our musical lives, we had other adventures and friends: beginning with the girl who was dating Brian Baynes at the time: Stephanie Erskine. We had left a voicemail message for Brian when we arrived there, asking could we meet up or whatever, but as he was away his girlfriend Stephanie phoned us, we met with her and have been very good friends ever since, the three of us. Bob likes Stephanie as much as I do, and she likes him. She and Brian later broke up but the three of us stayed friends through all the time we were in California and still are today.
It was because of Stephanie that we ended up meeting our first landlord, Tom Whitman. She lived in Ocean Beach (or OB as the locals call it) – a lovely community – and we saw a studio apartment there that we really liked. Tom took a chance on us and trusted us to to pay our deposit over three months. We loved that first apartment – all sparkling clean and new – and ended up as his tenants for about three years. Tom was a great landlord who became a friend. He’d left San Diego before we did so we lost touch.
Bob’s daughter, Ayesha, came to stay with us while we lived in OB, so we moved downstairs to a two-bedroom apartment in preparation for her visit. OB had everything: a library, antique shops, post office – it was like a large village. There were lots of restaurants and bars, a supermarket and we were five minutes from the beach. Didn’t do any surfing (sharks in that water – are you mad?) but did walk there. We lived on the junction of Sunset and Narragansett and loved it.
We couldn’t bring Ayesha to gigs with us as she was 15 or 16: nobody under 21 in any bar in San Diego – no exceptions – but at that time we hadn’t started to work together. We had a good time, though – having her there was a good excuse to go out to restaurants or little trips. Ayesha did some studying from home and even got a part-time job as a nanny. She stayed with us for about ten months.