Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mountain Lion...?

This is the story of a song - a song without words.

Sometimes music just comes to a person, or it may be dragged out screaming in a protracted birth process, or it may emerge into human agency any number of ways.  Sometimes it happens in a night, in response to something, between two people.  This is such a story.

Thanksgiving time, 1994, California.  I'm travelling with my guitar partner, friend and composer Tim Andrew, his wife Beatriz, and 9yo daughter Anna Maria, on a musical odyssey taking in the US, Mexico, Spain and the UK.  We'd been staying with friends in LA, but what with Thanksgiving being such a fraught and frazzling time for most American families we took a week or two's road trip northwards.  It's amazing the places you find.  Just over the Golden Gate bridge from San Francisco is the happy hill-and-bayside enclave township of Sausalito, home of wealthy and artistic types and many touristy things.  We most decidedly did not travel as tourists, except in those moments necessary to amuse and placate our headstrong young fellow-travelling lass.  But Sausalito is also home to a stupendously excellent Youth Hostel place, in the buildings of a former US Army hospital from WWII. It's now called Marin Headlands Hostel.

We stayed in this building. You can imagine our little hire care parked right there, if you like.

There used to be many of these sorts of buildings placed around a U-shaped shallow wooded valley, floored with a great expanse of meadowy grass, but judging from recent photos all but the main buildings are now gone.  Must be a nightmare trying to keep those old wooden buildings in good repair in the damp environs.  As you can see, there is some sort of cypress in front of the building, and there is a belt of these running around in front of where the 'U' of buildings once stood, but the vegetation behind is what was really interesting to us.

The story goes (and I have no clue as to its veracity) that when the US Army commissioned the buildings originally, they wanted some decent camouflage from the air, and asked for fast-growing tree species to be planted.  California has a long history of using Australian eucalypts, seeing as they grow so well, and they chose to plant a small forest of varied eucalypts, including many Eucalyptus diversicolor, the majestic Karri of Australia's Southwest - our own local 'cathedral' forest trees from home.  The climates are certainly very similar, but I always wondered if the original planters really appreciated just how large Karris tend to become.  There was a belt of Karris and other large eucalypts (there are 700-odd species, and I'm only good at identifying a relative handful, sorry) right up to the ridgeline, so a probably a couple of hundred metres deep, and they were well matured, I'm guessing then 50 or 60 years old.

This is from the closed end of the 'U', looking back towards the main building.  You can't see the extent of the plantings beyond the cypresses or the slopes either side here, but that hill in the distance gives you an indication of the terrain.

We arrived to find we had the place pretty much to ourselves, what a blessed peace!  It is more hotel-y than hostel-y so I had a room of my own, and the Andrews shared a nice family one.  We headed out for supplies and a look around Sausalito (apologies for lack of actual photos - I just don't have any left these days).  On arriving back we discovered the entire huge kitchen had been taken over by a loud and happily boisterous mob - some kind of Chinese Christian group gathering, and every available horizontal surface was being used by someone making wontons, or chopping vegetables, or whatever.  I think that's what we ended up eating too.  Later on, things quietened down considerably.  As evening fell, Tim and I took a walk to get some nature-contact time (he's a tree hugging nature spiritualist type like me).

It should be noted that at this stage in our journey that we were not smoking.  You know, smoking.  We only really bothered to score once in LA because we were hanging with fairly 'unconnected' straight law-abiding types.  Making that score is definitely the subject of another hair-raising anecdote, however.  I'm pretty sure none of that stash remained for our Thanksgiving trip.  I was drinking a bit those days, but was definitely not drunk, and nor was Tim.

The moon was still not risen, and in any case there was scattered cloud but peeks through into that peculiarly northern hemispherical sky, as Tim and I made our way up into the darkening wood.  There was something surreal about it all - knowing with certainty where on the planet we were, yet feeling the particular snap of a eucalypt twig beneath your feet, the smell of trees of a homeland on the other side of the world, and of course the hyper-sense frisson you get in the dark of night if unfamiliar forest.  We'd made our way maybe halfway to thew top of the ridge, with a vague intention of getting to the top for the view beyond, when there was a sound in the woods.  An animal sound.

Now my instinctive reaction of course was 'kangaroo', but obviously
"That wouldn't have been a kangaroo, really, would it?" I say, or something very like that.  Tim had been thinking just the same thing.

Whatever this large Thing was, it was between us and the only known safety, the hostel now well over 100 metres below.  It's not hard to gauge direction of sound, especially sounds like that of a limb of some description being placed carefully, quietly, yet snapping a twig regardless as weight was applied.  But distance is a harder to estimate. The Thing was moving to the left, slowly.  We would go right, slowly.

Rather concentrates the mind, the certain knowledge that you are a guest in the home of large carnivorous mammalian predators but having no idea what exactly is out there.  Might just be a deer, but could it be a bear?  Do they have bears here?  Whatever, we're not talking about it, as foolishly our instinct is to try and out-animal this animal, with our inferior senses and knowledge of place.  There were large warm-blooded breathing sounds also, maddeningly unidentifable. So we're moving as quietly and deliberately as possible, also trying not to startle or provoke the Thing.  Did I mention it was just a little unsettling?  After a little while, it became apparent we were being circled.

It took ages.  We'd move a little, wait, listen, move a little more, wait, listen, and I'm sure that the Beast would time much of its movements for when we moved to, the better to muffle its sound.  This is the feeling of being hunted, whether that was taking place or not.

I am reminded as I write now of the joke doing the rounds roughly around that time when Bill and Hillary Clinton are hiking in the mountains somewhere and are confronted with a hungry bear.  Hillary sits down, opens her backpack and hastily puts on her running shoes. Bill says
"Hillary, surely you don't think we can outrun that thing." and Hillary calmly replies
"Maybe not Bill, but I figure I just have to outrun YOU."

I didn't have such thoughts at the time though.  Eventually, as we counter-circle the Thing, always heading downward and counter-clockwise, we got between It and the beneficent light of civilization.  Well, the car park anyway, and were able to make a straight and more hasty, if cautious retreat.  By the time we came out into the open space of the car park we were in a semi-run, I think.

A little later in the evening, we reconvened in the massive common lounge space and set up in guitar space.  It's a brilliant thing, guitar space.  You just need two chairs, two two people, two guitars (in our case the flamenco variety) and instantly the magic space is invoked.  Into this space we breathe our still-buzzing spirits, exultant from the close contact with a great scary unknown of nature, bathed with the majesty of a predator's attentions, yet well alive to tell the tale. Tim shows me a little thing, a riff he's been playing with. I am inspired to respond with another little thing that complements.  You can see where this is going, and we throw back and forth, mostly wordlessly, for an hour or more, until.....there it is.  Rarely has such an odd, underivative, whole piece of music come so easily and fully into being.  I don't think the piece ever really changed from that night on, keeping its little quirks and eccentricities.  It always stayed as a guitar duo too, never really felt like it wanted anything else going on. Maybe it's not the greatest track on the albums (how would I know anyway, I'm way too close to judge), or the most representative, but it is the most rooted in a Tim-and-I moment, and for that I thank it.

Of course, we did discuss what it may have been, this Beast.

The next morning we get our gear together to pack into the little Chrysler Neon hire car and within 10 metres you gt the first hit.  The most profoundly huge and eye-watering tom-cat piss smell I have ever experienced, as evidenced also by the huge (and quite high up) spray marks all over the front tyre.  The locals tell us they're there.

We called it Mountain Lion, and you can hear it here:
(You may need Quicktime to play, if your browser hasn't already sorted it for you, then you can get it fast and free HERE)


1 comment:

  1. You and I own a great memory together! Thanks amigo...