I first saw Jack Blake last spring on the Southern Oregon Coast right after the covid quarantine hit. I was teaching high school English in Portland and then the Governor shut down all classroom instruction and I had to teach via Zoom and I lasted all of one week and quit, borrowed my parents’ pickup camper and lit out for the territory to write about the Pandemic. I’d always wanted to be a writer but hadn’t written a word for publication so naturally I became a teacher who taught writing but didn’t write himself. I had no voice, no subject. Just the passion to try.
Highway 101 and the beach beckoned and I figured I would crash along roadsides since all the county, state and federal campgrounds were closed. But as soon as I started rolling, I found private RV parks with campsites were all open and that’s where I started staying and that’s where I met Jack Blake.
There he was in the Rainbow Rock RV Park, a young man, sitting outside his weathered 80s RV named The Diplomat, playing his guitar around a fire, singing a song into a microphone, with his mutt singing a sort of backup.
I parked my camper next to his rig, and waved hello as I walked past him to the park office to pay my fee. I didn’t recognize the song he was singing but caught a few lyrics about the ravages of clearcutting. He was really snarling them out and playing a small guitar that was amplified and distorted with fuzz.
A few minutes later I walked up from behind the rear of the driver’s side of his rig. As I came closer it appeared that black lettering, about 30 point in size, had been arranged in some sort of poetic pattern on the RV. It was spray painted black, using a crude stencil, on the fading, flecked white paint job.
I moved closer, still listening to the clearcut song emanating from on the other side of the vehicle. He was rocking the holy hell out of it and the dog was wailing. I read the words on the RV:
Always took candy from strangers/didn’t wanna get me no trade
Never wanna be like poppa/workin’ for the boss every night and day
They were the lyrics of a 1972 Rolling Stones’ song Happy, sung by Keith Richards, off their 1972 landmark double album Exile on Main Street.
Being a Stones fanatic, I knew the words by heart and was dumbfounded to find myself reading them on the side of a RV in a campground on the Oregon Coast in the midst of the corona virus.
My awe was immediately shattered when the clearcut song faded into “The Bottle Let Me Down,” an old country and western tune. The fuzz was gone and so was the snarl in his voice. I stood out of sight for a few minutes and let him finish the song.
I had to meet this guy, so I went up to him, but not before he launched into a new tune, revved up with super distortion and reverb. I recognized it instantly—”Strychnine” by the Sonics, a legendary mid 60s garage band out of Seattle that practically invented American punk rock.
Some folks like water / some folks like wine
but I like the taste / of sweet strychnine
Wearing a short sleeve, brown and orange Pendleton wool shirt, tan oversized cords and sitting in a rusted lawn chair that verged on collapse, a clean shaven man with shoulder length brown hair played the song on what appeared to be a child’s cheap acoustic guitar. A 16 oz. can of Hamm’s rested on the grass near his bare feet. The guitar had a portable pick-up which ran to an ancient Fender tube amp. A line from the amp ran to a small four track recorder, which also connected to a lead microphone that he had rigged up to a boom. The whole apparatus was patched into a power strip that plugged into an extension cord that ran into his rig.
All the while the fire spit and crackled and must have been picked up by the mic.
Jack continued rocking. Rain seemed imminent as if he was calling it down from the gray skies.
Wine is red / poison is blue
Strychnine is good / for what’s ailin you
I looked around. It was the three of us in the camping area. Three squirrels darted in front of the amps. A drizzle started. Gulls flew overhead. Jack knocked the Hamm’s can over and it spilled under his feet. The dog came over behind him and stood up on his hind legs and positioned his muzzle near the mic. He started barking and howling. Jack yelled, “Do it Mr Figgs! Do it you devil dog!”
Jack started winding the song down by strumming faster and running around to the length of his 50 foot cord. Finally he jumped on the lawn chair and started windmilling the guitar like Pete Townsend. I feared for his safety but didn’t say anything. He leaped off the chair and landed in the splits. Mr. Figgs kept crooning into the mic.
I had never seen anything like it and I’d seen a thousand rock shows. I applauded. I heard a few other distant claps from inside RVs around the park.
Jack leaned over and stopped the recorder. Mr. Figgs retired to the RV looking rather bored like a session vocalist after singing for a union wage.
He came up to me with the guitar slung over his shoulder. He reached out a sweaty hand and said, “Hi…my name’s Jack Blake.”
We shook hands. I introduced myself.