His name surprised me and I figured it must be a pseudonym. I felt ready to launch a thousand questions about what I had just witnessed.
“This is probably the last place in the world I expected to hear a Sonics’ tune,” I said.
Jack smiled. He knew then I knew music and from that point on for the next three days we talked of little else. Even the Pandemic didn’t come up very often, although he was keenly aware of it and had written some songs about it. I did see him wear a mask when he walked to a nearby convenience store, but never around his rig, and of course never when singing.
He asked a few questions about my trip and background but gave no reaction when I told him I was a would-be writer looking for a Pandemic story.
“Are you on some sort of vacation,” I asked, knowing full well he was not. By now it was obvious that Jack had been living out of the RV for a long time. He seemed thoroughly road tested and didn’t exactly have the appearance of someone who held regular job back in an urban area, even pre covid.
“No, I’m traveling up and down the Northwest Coast making music and meeting people.”
“How long have you been on the road?”
“Almost four years now. I call it my first term. It’s slowed down a bit the last month since the virus hit and I’ve sort of hunkered down here and rented a nearby storage unit to store some of my stuff.”
‘Do you mind me asking how you afford to do this?”
“Shit, Jack shrugged. “Why are Americans so reluctant to ask others how much they make or what they paid for something? I’ve never understood this.”
“So you’ll tell me? ” I added.
Jack laughed. “I had a little money saved, I sell some music, occasionally play on street corners or in taverns, and do some seasonal work for some of the government agencies on the coast. Or at least I used to play in taverns, that’s all gone now.”
“What kind of seasonal work?” The reporter in me was starting to show but Jack never flinched at one of my questions.
“I do some salmon spawning counts for the Department of Fish and Wildlife and slug surveys for the Forest Service, stuff like that. It doesn’t take much to live like I do.
Jack handed me a can of beer and I offered to help him stow his musical gear. I coiled a few cords and we finished in a few minutes. A steady rain had started up so Jack invited me inside his rig, which he had christened “Pequod.”
Inside, Jack had groovy lights of white and blue twinkling and incense burning everywhere. Twenty-seven feet is a lot of space and Jack made the most of it. Shelves were crammed with musical gear, books, food, clothes, small statutes, outdoor gear, tools, and paper. On available wall space, Jack had taped old album covers. Beads covered the windows. Beanbag chairs were strewn around on a hideous yellow shag carpet that no company had manufactured in 25 years but appeared to be newly installed. “I got it from a bank,” Jack said.
We cracked open another beer and began a rambling conversation on virtually every aspect of American popular music. I had always prided myself on being an expert on the subject but it was clear that Jack knew more than I knew, and was rethinking the artistry and role of popular music in our culture. It was his contention that rock needed to reclaim its folk/blues roots, whether they be rural or urban, and separate itself from the financial machine that currently produced it. To Jack that meant telling stories about particular people, places, social conditions and political developments in America (in his case the Pacific Northwest Coast) through various narrative forms and voices. Jack strongly believed in a regional identity for popular music and that’s exactly the way Rock and Roll, rhythm and blues and hillbilly record labels once operated.
I got the feeling that Jack had never really explained to anyone what he was doing beyond telling he was “making music.” But for Jack, the essence of what he wanted to do on the road could be found in a story he told me about Hank Williams. Evidently, the hard living country and western singer once often sang his signature hit “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” nine times in a row at a live shows because it was the hit the fans wanted to hear and captured exactly how he felt (the fans, too). It was such an outrageous and pure artistic act that Jack wanted to do something just as cool.
As we talked about music and drank, Jack slowly revealed more details about his last four years in his RV driving along the coast from British Columbia to Northern California. It was clear from “Pequod’s” interior that the rig was outfitted as a crude recording studio. It was also clear that in my exhaustive reading of popular music history and extensive experience with the West Coast music scene, that Jack Blake’s current method of producing music was probably unprecedented.
After multiple beers I was thoroughly buzzed and suddenly very hungry. Jack asked me to join him for dinner. Thirty minutes later Jack and I were eating a delicious vegetarian stew sopped up with beer bread Jack made. Mr. Figgs joined us with a bone and crunched away like a savage.
We cleaned up the dishes together and then Jack broke out some blackberry brandy he had distilled himself. We drank and continued to talk about music. We started listing the best rock love songs of all time and I switched topics almost in mid-sentence and abruptly asked Jack if he had ever been in love and if he was involved with anyone at the time. He looked directly at me with total ease. “Yes to both questions,” he said. Jack seemed ready for my follow-ups. He was the least self-conscious person I have ever met in my life. I knew there must be salacious details from his vagabond RV life. Jack was an amazingly handsome man, intellectual, passionate, sensitive, a listener, and could perform any love song on an acoustic guitar, including You Wear it Well by Rod Stewart and Try a Little Tenderness by Otis Redding, which he claimed were the best seduction songs he had every played. Think of his life on the road!
Then I remembered a line Joan Didion wrote in her introduction to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a statement she offered as fact that stuck with me in my pursuit of the writing life: “Writers are always selling somebody out.”
I never asked Jack another deeply personal question again. The music would have to be enough and it was more than enough.