by Casey Dolan
In the early ’90s, I made two trips to Zimbabwe. The first, organized by Nancy Covey, the wife of Richard Thompson and a force in Los Angeles music herself, enabled me to make field recordings of village music in South Matabeleland near Hwange National Park. The music was later used by John Hockenberry for a special edition of his program “Heat” on NPR devoted to the 10-year anniversary of Zimbabwe’s birth as a country free from white rule. This was the inevitable result of a 13-year dirty war, but has sadly devolved into corruption and economic ruin thanks to the brutal policies and mismanagement of Robert Mugabe’s government.
The African music adventure wasn’t that odd for me — I had been a fan of that continent’s music since “long before it became fashionable” — but I later discovered that the music I recorded from the southwest of Zimbabwe had been rarely documented by ethnomusicologists. Sad to say, I’m unsure of where the original DAT recordings may be: possibly in a box in the garage, sodden by leaks or ruined by mold.
On the first Zimbabwean trip, I met Tim Rostron, now working at Random House in New York but then a pop writer for London’s Daily Telegraph. Tim moved around a bit at the Telegraph, eventually transferred over to Toronto’s National Post as arts editor, then returned to the Telegraph as deputy editor at the magazine. We shared a certain bemused perspective in Zimbabwe, although his was sorely tested by the government because, fool Rostron, he put down “journalist” as his occupation on some sort of entrance document. An undesirable alien, they made him leave early.
After my second trip to Zimbabwe two years later, I wrote a little sketch (really just the opening paragraphs of what I thought might be a story) called “Life on the Veranda” about a white family in Harare who had sold their 20,000 acre farm to the government. They had been told that the land would be used for village relocation schemes, local farming and the building of schools. Nothing happened and the land went to ruin. They were understandably bitter in their small suburban home in the Mt. Pleasant suburb of Harare. I made notes about the framed drawings of settlers’ ox-carts on the walls, the editions of “Jock of the Bushveldt” on the mahogany shelves, the kitchen staff lined up greet me, “Hello, baas.”
Tim thought it was good stuff, passed it around the Telegraph and I began to pitch ideas to the weekend arts editor, but I quickly learned that American journalism and British journalism were different breeds and there was a great deal of misunderstanding — no fault of Tim’s who did his best to advocate me and who I put into the consistently awkward position of middle man. Such was the lack of communication that I can’t remember if I was ever paid or if anything was ever published (I certainly never received clips). Three stories were completed — a review of Lollapalooza II, a feature on oddball museums in Los Angeles and an interview with singer Maria McKee, who was trying to revive her solo career after making an enormous splash with Lone Justice.
With my amorphous relationship with the Daily Telegraph continuing like a ghost reality, with several album projects in which my production responsibilities were denied (and one project in which I was fired), I spent much time holding Italian video movie festivals in my living room and drinking Guinness. Clearly, I had no idea what the hell I was doing or should be doing.
In 1993, my neighbor in Silver Lake, Dave Bassett, suggested we put together a band. Dave had been the main singer-songwriter in the pop band Lost Luggage. The band had received some buzz over their live performances, had an album produced by soon-to-be producer stars, Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, and Dave negotiated a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell. After their return to their native Chicago, however, the band broke up and Dave, alone, elected to come back to L.A.
My initial response was “Why me?” I was thinking of our ten-year difference in age and how I hadn’t been playing my guitar regularly for a while, but I accepted his offer and helped to form the best band I was ever in — 3 Day Wheely. We released one EP, had many songs placed in film and TV soundtracks, did three tours (with Aimee Mann and Semisonic; Gin Blossoms, Odds and Figdish; Modern English), recorded a full CD, “Rubber Halo,” and would have had it released if Miles Copeland had not closed the I.R.S. label one month after recording in 1996.
During the search for a new deal, the band broke up in bitterness, pouts, sulks and sarcastic snipes. I remember meetings with our manager in which we talked about such time-wasting issues as whether someone should wear a white t-shirt on stage or not, or whether I should shut up and let Dave do the talking in interviews. But if you ignore the nasty conflicts between some personalities, there were few weaknesses. Musically, we had few equals in the Los Angeles pop/rock world of the mid-’90s. The live show had developed into a tight, loud killer and Bassett’s songwriting was at a very high level of craftsmanship. It is fair to say that I am still not quite over the breakup.
Adrift once again, I returned to the Los Angeles Times in 2000 as a desk assistant in the Chatsworth office. The Valley plant was an austere granite and marble neo-fascist structure. With a parking lot designed to serve four times the staff, it felt like a property lost in a north Valley industrial park, already a haunted sub-genre of the urban landscape. My morale was low and the job, which demanded so little from me that I literally had nothing to do from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. except sit at my desk for possible contingencies, didn’t help. I went into numerous trances watching sunsets outside of the picture windows.
My boss had expected a fixit-gogetter-do-it-yourselfer and got a depressed, slightly academic, wonky daydreaming musician. But I was willing to give the Times another shot. I didn’t have many choices. I now had a mortgage and I needed a job. What kind of a shot the Times would give me became clearer in the next few years.
to be continued…