Center of the Universe (17)
A Thing that Plays a Central or Essential Role in an Activity, Event, or Situation
I once ran into Huey Lewis jogging in Ross. He’s the guy who wrote and sang “I Want a New Drug” and the theme song to Back to the Future, a history I feel I have to append here because a wonderful young co-worker just confessed she’d never heard the word “fulcrum.”
No telling what kids today don’t know.
Unless they live in Marin, I wouldn’t expect them to know Ross is two towns over from Fairfax, a 12-minute bike ride. Which is exactly what I was doing when I passed hair-dyed Huey, huffing and puffing the uphill in the opposite direction. Ross is one of the richest towns in the country — big oaks, towering hedges, tasteful mansions and not a single bar (unlike Fairfax, with five or six). Robert Cray was a resident for the three-album span he was sitting on top of the world. Sean Penn, too — though he’s not technically a rock star.
Meanwhile, Jerry Garcia lived up a hill in San Rafael, one town east, as do James Hetfield of Metallica and Carlos Santana. Janis Joplin’s last crib was on West Baltimore in Larkspur. Todd Rundgren called Sausalito home-planet before he split for Hawaii. Tupac Shakur lived in Marin City, before he died, only to live again as the posthumous, holographic Tupac, Inc.
But with the glorious exceptions of Van Morrison (noted earlier), Dave Getz of Big Brother and the Holding Company (more later) and now, from the “younger” generation, John Doe of X, the rock stars of Marin don’t live in Fairfax.
Fairfax is for roadies. And that seems about right.
There were at least two on our block when we moved in, and we met the first one the first day. The first few minutes. As I threw open the gate on the Penske 18-footer, and we commenced a weary load-in — not 30 minutes after we’d completed our weary load-out from the temporary apartment one-flight up in unincorporated Tiburon — an ultra-mellow baritone floated from the ether:
Where are you guys coming from?
I swiveled in six directions before finally looking up and discovering the FM-radio voice-of-god was emanating from, not free-form, album-oriented heaven, but top of the stairs across the street. A tall, slender, black man, twenty-something, probably handsome, with a beard and a wry, teasing smile that was at the same time warmly welcoming, that seemed to be assuring us (accurately, I’d say, but on the basis of what instantly recognizable semaphore I will never know): You’re in. Pre-approved.
Oh, hey, I said. And told him, with my own wry smile: New York by way of the Tiburon peninsula.
I’m Merl Saunders, he said. Junior.
Yeah, well, I thought, you’re in, too.
Merl Senior was a minor god around these parts — but a god nonetheless — mostly owing to his collaborations with the Grateful Dead and their lead guitarist, the Bay Area Zeus, Jerry. Saunders père, who died in 2008, played the amazingly evocative Hammond B3 organ, a humping, pumping, gurgling beast in its low registers, with that rotating Leslie speaker-cone, and a swooping, soaring banshee up top. Even an old bluegrass guy like Garcia couldn’t resist that funk. So he and Junior’s dad put together the Saunders/Garcia Band and then, adding sax, the Legion of Mary, even as Senior became, for a time, full-time keyboardist in the Dead, as well as go-to B3 guy for a dozen or more other music luminaries, from the Bay (Bonnie Raitt, Sheila E., Mike Bloomfield) and beyond (Miles Davis, BB King, Phish).
Merl Junior was a musician himself — guitar, for sure, probably more. And I’d guess, based on his long fingers and paternal DNA, really good. But I never heard him play, not in any serious way, and he never offered. Wasn’t interested. Saved his musical and guitar expertise for his nocturnal day job. As a roadie. And Merl Junior wasn’t working for punk bands, not in any sense of the word. Not long after we showed up across Dominga Avenue (about 60 yards, by the way, from the future Sorellas), he hit the road as guitar tech for Michael Jackson.
No schlepper he, Merl was the guy with the fold-up professional guitar shop, stage left, who made sure the band’s thirty or so precious axes — the options and backups, with different tones, tunings, looks and moods — were always freshly strung, properly tuned, tautly screwed, highly buffed and in impeccable working order, even after they’d been bent and battered through a “Beat It” solo and slung into Merl’s long digits in the dark by a sweaty shredder, switching the modded Strat for a down-tuned Flying V.
As a roadie, in other words, Merl Junior was a rock star. Was to me (still is). But as a neighbor, he was even more.
Now Fairfax is a friendly place, and Dominga Ave., with its (at the time) 62 children, hopelessly intermingled play groups and attached overseeing moms, its homespun block parties, joint garage sales, impromptu BBQs and wide, flat sidewalks, perfect for spirited Big-Wheels-riding, its fundamental peace-and-love orientation and economic modesty and, of course, its massive Halloweens (see post 12, starring the mythic Pee Ghost), is — along with Sorella Caffe — one of the friendliest places in Fairfax. But it was never friendlier than when our across-the-street neighbor returned from his big-time tour of Asia, like our rock ’n’ roll Odysseus, back from provinces more faraway and foreign than his friends on Dominga could begin to fathom, and called out from our open front door:
And, without ceremony or show biz, as if it was our due as across-the-street neighbors, said: I’ve got a few presents for Josey.
We summoned our thickly bespectacled, curly blond toddler, and big, tall Merl, not yet a father himself and, to us, not yet much more than an acquaintance, got down on his knees in the middle of our toy-choked living room and juice-stained carpet and handed the solemn, crosseyed girl — exceptionally patient for a two-year-old, but watching the long fingers like a well-trained retriever focused on the tennis ball — the impossibly exotic goods he had spirited away, on her behalf, from impossibly exotic lands.
But when I say the real gift was the milk of human kindness and Merl’s friendship, it’s in part because, 30 years later, none of us can remember what the real gift was.
Roni recalls a tiny tin of Cinderella candies from Disneyland Tokyo. I remember two gifts, one of which was a tiny handmade folk doll.
Actually, three gifts: the heartwarming story of how Michael took the tour bus by himself back to Tokyo from the suburban stadium and left Merl and the crew — in the middle of the night! — to fend for themselves. Fucker.
In any case, little four-eyes, now two-eyes, and all-grows-up, offers, via email, her own fond recollection. And I quote:
“Weirdly, when I was at Matt and Leah’s wedding with Jon, we were talking to their old Malibu neighbor, who is an actor, and he was like, Oh, Marin. I have a musician friend there — Merle [sic] Sanders [sic]. And I was like, I think I know that guy.”