This year, so far, has been a pretty good year for indie music. In the early part of 2012 we received a couple other bands’ albums also on the Polyvinyl Records roster: Owen’s whimsical, at times and always introspective Ghost Town as well as the newest from Athens, GA wonder kinder, of Montreal, the neo-disco-drenched Paralytic Stalks. There was also the blissful CD, Antibodies, by Nate Kinsella’s project, Birthmark (all of which I reviewed in past editions of Reviewer (www.reviewermag.com – formerly: www.reviewermag.com).
This review, however, is concentrating on the soon-to-be-released new album by Deerhoof, The Breakup Song. Deerhoof are an interesting band hailing from the coolest city in the world, San Francisco, CA. They’ve been around since around 1994 and have been putting out both iconoclastic and irreverent songs which deliver catchiness in one way or another. To be able to still be doing that almost 20 years later is quite a feat. The only other bands that can claim a glory like that – or beyond – are Sonic Youth, who, one never gets tired of and Stereolab, a band that seems to come from their own planet, that’s how different they are from just about anything else out there. Deerhoof, anyway, certainly does things their own way.
My last (and first) introduction to Deerhoof was their January, 2011-released album, Deerhoof vs. Evil, which I reviewed for Reviewer – posted up on their website, which used to be www.reviewermag.com, but which has changed URLs and is now to be found at: www.reviewermag.com. This review will be now be posted on the new Reviewer site (www.reviewermag.com).
Anyway, back to Deerhoof – their lead vocalist and bassist, Satomi Matsuzaki, has a very lovely voice, a smooth, laid back chanteuse-style voice that seems to hypnotize the listener. But the rest of the band, guitarists John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez as well as drummer Greg Saunier, seem to catapult the sedation into outer space. The Breakup Song is a whole new bag of tricks and has some more unique styles and there is no one label that you can pin on Deerhoof, except maybe that they are an “indie” band (on Chicago’s Polyvinyl Records) and iconoclastic.
Originally, when they were still milling around the Bay Area scene, getting a feel for what kind of niche they wanted to fit into, as well as going through different personnel lineups up to where they are now, they were described as being a “noise-band”, neo-punk, indie (which is what they are, at heart), etc. But after years of coalescing their sound into a coherent, yet unpredictable style, they’re still leaving fans and critics alike scratching their heads as to what the next album is about or means or if it’s got any meaning to it at all.
Their 2011 album, Deerhoof vs. Evil seemed to be a bit more “accessible”, that is, to the already jaded, cynical audiences that are into indie vs. corporate schlock-emo crap, compared to this current album, The Breakup Song. One of my favorite songs on that CD was “I Did Crimes for You”, a sort of twisted way to rationalize one’s loyalty to another, yet…There were also some other interesting bits and pieces to that album In fact, that is one thing that has redeemed them in my eyes – the unique and quirkiness of the album.
On The Breakup Song, Satomi’s vocalizing fits in quite well with the avant-garde and experimental sounds that the other three guys cook up. A couple songs worth mentioning (and which piqued my interest) are “Zero Seconds Pause”, “Mothball the Fleet” as well as “We Do Parties”, which has a heavy bass track to it, some synth-drum-machine in it and a clean, crisp guitar that noodles throughout. But it’s really hard to pick favorites here, since the whole CD is packed with ear candy that sticks to the brain and is hard to wash away.
If you get interested and do pick up The Breakup Song, remember that these guys have been around since 1994 and so have quite a history and just reading about the many guises they’ve been through and stuff they’ve done tells me that there could be a varied history to them. If you are into experimental music with a pop underbelly, but that is just as unpredictable at the same time then get yourself hooked into the world of Deerhoof. –KM
El Pathos Hate & Love
Saustex Media, 2012
Review by Kent Manthie
Austin, Texas’s El Pathos have broken through in 2012 to rave reviews and platitudes that run the gamut from the subtle to the sublime. The one blurb that caught my attention was one from Rank & Review, which gushed that El Pathos “…May have nailed their very own Exile on Main Street on the first try…” Their very own Exile on Main Street “on their first try”? Well, I must say that is certainly a heap of praise but I’d also say that the reviewer who wrote that may have been a little overawed by Hate & Love, El Pathos’s “first try”. Not to take away anything from El Pathos, but, I mean, c’mon, let’s get real here. No debut can be honestly compared to a seminal album that has been used as a yardstick of sorts in measuring how great a certain rock ‘n’ roll album is. In fact, using Exile… as a standard, especially 40 years after its release has become somewhat of a cliché.
While El Pathos is comprised of musicians who are in no way neophytes – their line-up consists of ex-members of such indie powerhouses as The Dicks, Catbutt, Offenders and a few others – Hate & Love marks their first release as a unit. They are on one of Austin’s premier indie labels: Saustex Media, run by the hip Jeff Saustex who himself is no failed or wannabe musician – Mr. Saustex is in his own band – The Hickoids, who, of course, are on his label (see my reviews of the first couple Hickoids CDs for a rundown of them). So, there’s a local connection here, which is Austin, TX – a very hip part of Texas. In fact, y’all can keep Dallas and Houston, etc, but give me Austin. But then what do I know about Texas? I’ve never been to the state. I’ve been all over the Southwest and the West, but never been to the South or the Pacific Northwest (i.e., OR, WA). But believe me, I have no desire to go to Idaho. I have been through Montana, though, once and I thought it was beautiful.
Songs: “Eyes” is a slow-burning gem – it starts out like kindling and builds up to a whirling flame of a wicked guitar solo , courtesy of guitarist Rob Buford. The next song in line is “Ghost”, which also has some balls-to-the-wall guitar wailing. “Ghost” starts off sounding a little like Social Distortion; that same kind of fire engine intensity; it has a fast candle-burning quality to it, the crux of it being an outsider’s view of the dead-end, nighttime happenings in town, but with a fist-in-the-air aura to it which shows a sense of pride in being that “outsider” – “I walk those dead end streets of the town/like some inhuman ghost…” and “Talk about the darkest place/You’re the darkest place in the world/Somewhere on the other side of midnight/Somewhere on the other side…” From beginning to end, there is nonstop energy just bursting at the seams. Next, things slow down a notch with the bluesy but introspective/personal song, “No Blood of Mine” – “Well there’s a man that I-I once knew/I even called him “father” too/He told me that he’d love me blind/But he ain’t no blood of mine…” Obviously a song about a father that did him (the songwriter) wrong – another poignant lyric: “I swear I could kill that man/And you know someday I just might”. This is certainly no paean to one’s nice daddy, but an angry polemic that, in no uncertain terms, screams “J’accuse” – in other words, that guy my mama married was a bastard! I can’t lie – not every cut is as good as “Eyes”, but the next one that pricked up my ears was “Sundown” a guitar-cum-chainsaw screw-in-the-head. Then, probably my favorite cut on Hate & Love: “Little Black Drops”. It was kind of hard, to tell the truth, to understand what they were exactly singing. But I must say I was blown away by the “wah-wah” infected guitar solo, which more than that, just really screamed like a banshee, pushing its heavy dose straight into your arms. Yeah, that’s what I figured it was about too – dope. What else could those “Little Black Drops” be referring to? Besides, one line I did understand was something akin to “That little sliver ain’t gonna hold me” and “I got lots of drugs!” Ironically, “Suffering Kind” sounds a little like the other side of the hell-bent for kicks mayhem of “Little Black Drops” – a song that seems to be reflecting on the not-so-great parts of addiction, i.e., getting dope sick, needing that fix to be well and feeling like punching you in the face as soon as talk to you (unless you’re the man). Of course, that’s just one interpretation of a couple songs; there wasn’t all that much flat-out un-metaphorical lyrical confession to figure it out. “Rockets Red Glare”, I found out, is actually not about the late, great and overweight character actor who played as many diverse characters in about 1000 small roles in many indie cult-status films, for instance, he pops in at the end of Talk Radio as the guy who kills actor Eric Bogosian’s “shock jock” radio host character. He’s been in just about every Jim Jarmusch film in some small part, had a little scene in David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me – the film version of his Twin Peaks TV show (Whoa –now THERE is a story I could do a whole book about – Redglare’s real name was Michael Morra and one of the more notorious parts of his life is the fact that he, being a huge dope fiend and heavy drinker, supplied Sid Vicious with a stockpile of Dilaudid that Sid used to overdose on after killing girlfriend, Nancy Spungen in the notorious Chelsea Hotel in NYC. In a book, author Phil Strongman implies that he thinks it was Redglare (Morra) who actually murdered Nancy. But that’s way beyond speculation.
But I digress. Anyway, this is a great album. Indeed it is one of the better debuts of a band – especially a debut that wasn’t an “arranged debut” – from a band that had been working for a while and suddenly gets found by some slick pimp from a major label and gets signed to a Time Warner-owned label, etc (e.g, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Queens of the Stone Age, etc). No, these guys, while they do have history in other bands so they’ve “been around”, got together not too long ago and decided “what the hell” and wrote up a bunch of songs, recorded them and got Jeff to put the output of their creativity – Hate & Love on his Saustex label. Now, I still can’t say this is like making a debut as influential and with the classicity of Exile on Main Street, El Pathos, who have been compared to quite a different crowd of people – and an eclectic list at that: everyone from The Zombies (no, not at all, I don’t know who could’ve connected one to the other), Nick Cave (yes, his spirit is felt in there somewhere), The Stooges, 13th Floor Elevators, AC/DC (maybe, when they still had Bon Scott and weren’t a bad joke) as well as Townes van Zandt. As I mentioned earlier, there is one other comparison that just can’t be overlooked and that is Social Distortion. The fiery jamming and no-holds-barred, beer-soaked riffs show that quite well. Check this one out! You may not find it at your local rip-off chain store (like Virgin Megastore, which is the most overpriced, crappiest place on earth to buy music or books). But Amazon has it and, of course, you can go to the source – saustexmedia.com to buy it straight from Jeff. I just hope that El Pathos stay true to this verve and keep the beers comin’. Cheers!
Churchwood Just the Two of Us
Saustex Media, 2012
Reviewed by Kent Manthie
Churchwood are back. After a much-heralded self-titled debut CD, they’re back with this special edition 7 inch vinyl record, Just the Two of Us. But, don’t worry if you don’t have a turntable: when you buy the 7 inch, it comes with a card that you can use to download all four cuts on the vinyl edition to your PC, thereby making it accessible to those who lack a turntable (funny how 30-40 years ago things would be the other way around – everyone would have a turntable and the bonus downloadings would’ve been seen as a real novelty.
On this release, entitled Just the Two of Us, Churchwood comes at you with their brand of full-tilt punk-rock/psychobilly. If you want a comparison, well, think of a cross between The Cramps and The Blasters.
Lone Star Music calls Just the Two of Us “Dangerous, foreboding, in-your-face…” and this Austin, TX-based band is expanding its reach, slowly but surely. The tracks on this EP are infectious, mutations of Southern white-boy blues; in fact, I’d say that it is even rawer and more savage than their eponymous, full-length debut CD, in that vein, another blurb is worth mentioning: the Santa Fe, New Mexican writes, in regard to this EP that “[Churchwood] take the essence of primitive blues and mutate[s] it into something new…” and also, Punk Globe calls Churchwood the “Crazy, thinking man’s blues band”.
Churchwood’s music is an olio of sounds, rich in influences and traits. You can hear some of their crawling out of the Mississippi Delta blues sounds and infusing it with psychobilly, sludgy rock ‘n’ roll (Melvins, Mudhoney, etc), even Captain Beefheart seems to be an influence as well.
Lead singer Joe Doerr is not just a crafty songwriter, but is also a published poet! In Churchwood, Doerr is accompanied by terrific musicians with talent: the trippy abandon with which twin guitarists Bill Anderson and Billysteve Korpi bend, crunch and make their guitars moan and cry do great justice to the wrought out lyrics of Joe Doerr, swirling around his edgy voice, both paralleling him and complementing his voice. Of course, Churchwood wouldn’t be Churchwood without the incredible rhythm section: drummer Julien Peterson and bassist Adam Kahan both lend a booming background that keeps the time alive and also, occasionally riff out on their own.
20 years ago Bill Anderson and Joe Doerr had played together in a couple legendary Texas bands, Ballad Shambles and Hand of Glory. So, what’s been going on in between for all these years? Well, as was mentioned, Doerr got his poetry thing finessed and is now published and takes delight in penning more and more when he can. As for Bill Anderson, he rambled back and forth, jamming in such diverse-sounding bands as The Horsies, The Meat Purveyors and Cat Scientist. And – he also sat in on some sessions with the legendary Daniel Johnston. So, these guys are no youngsters and no Johnny-come-latelies either.
As for Just the Two of Us, it’s got four tracks on it: four mean, lean raw, bones: “Message From Firmin Desloge”, “Metanoia”, “Weedeye” and “Rickshaw Rattletrap”.
From the get-go, Churchwood let loose and play like there’s no tomorrow, with reckless abandon and fueled-up fervor. But don’t let that belie the fact that these cats are intelligent. They are not just some dumb hicks from down South, no they’ve got a good handle on the bohemian, hip literary references and the like, e.g., “Rimbaud Didley” and “Ulysses”, both from their debut. So, let’s hear it for these Austin dudes who not only can bring the house down, but get pleasure from less destructive means as well. –KM
Chief Fuzzer Transcendental Road Blues
Saustex Media, 2012
Review by Kent Manthie
Besides my receiving a rarity – an EP of sorts on good old fashioned vinyl – from Austin, TX-based Churchwood I received at the same time, another 7-inch vinyl EP (four songs) from another Texas band, Chief Fuzzer. This one is entitled Transcendental Road Blues. It’s also being released from Austin’s great indie label: Saustex Media. Just as with the Churchwood 7-incher – Just the Two of Us – Chief Fuzzer’s 7-inch EP contains a card inside the package with the URL to go to and a code one puts in that allows one to download the entire 5-song EP onto one’s PC.
This one’s got more of a rock spine to it, as opposed to the bluesy, psychobilly, raw steely emotion. The first two tracks are the main ones that are listed on the back of the vinyl EP: “500 Lb. Badass” and “Bad She Gone Voodoo”. But there are also three other great tracks on here: “Fuzzer Theme”, the title track (“Transcendental Road Blues”) and one called “Whight”. After giving it a couple listens, I’d have to say that the title track is the most rockin’ track. It’s got a somewhat slowed-down tempo, but still a grinding, psychedelic-tinged edge to it. The guitars both chug-chug-chug along as well as, in certain points, climb to higher degrees of altitude, soaring, swinging and then veering off and changing course, finally coming back to its rhythmic duties. At 5:10, it’s the longest cut on the album, but, being so great a song, the time doesn’t really matter, as it just flies by and leaves the listener wanting more, more, MORE! The final cut, “Whight” is a good place to end on as well as the perfect follow-up for the just mentioned title track. It has a little bit of a Black Sabbath vibe to it – a slowed, heavy metal dirge. But they stay consistent throughout and don’t get caught up in a fever pitch, so don’t take the “heavy metal” thing too literally.
Cody Richardson, who both sings and plays guitar, does an excellent job on the axe. He may not have the most operatic voice in the world – but hey, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll, right? He really shines, though, on the guitar and the undertones he lays down as well as the solo piercings and crying sure do shine. Being a trio, Chief Fuzzer rely on just Cody to get the job done on guitar and he comes through with flying colors. But as far as the other two – the rhythm section, you certainly can’t complain – drummer Paul Adams plays a mean set of skins, keeping time with a bombastic, rock-oriented (as opposed to the all-over-the-place jazz styles), seemingly simple fashion but when you see that he’s got to be the anchor then you appreciate his edgy, not flashy way of keeping things glued together. Bassist Shane Herring is also a great leg of this three-legged stool – he complements Cody’s more simmering, hot & spicy solos, by keeping things grounded and when Cody’s just trying to keep a riff flowing, when he’s singing, for example, then Shane is there as a double-threat, a deeper, thundering bass to accompany the taxiing guitar.
You’re going to really want to check this out – whether or not you’re a fan of Texas-style “psychobilly”, psychedelic-tinged rockabilly, or fire & brimstone, liquor-fueled rants that can seem over the top, but have a hell of a fun time doing it, you’ll see that Chief Fuzzer transcends (no pun intended) all those stereotypes, while still managing to stay in the same realm somehow. Listening to Transcendental Road Blues, it’s easy to hear how these guys would be welcomed wherever a crowd that wants to rock is – whether it’s at the Continental Club in Austin, First Avenue in Minneapolis, Café Metro in Chicago or CBGB/OMFUG in NYC, Chief Fuzzer will fit in anywhere.
Tweet Birthmark Antibodies
Polyvinyl Records, 2012
Review by Kent Manthie
The third full-length CD by Birthmark, Nate Kinsella’s solo project, entitled Antibodies is out now, on Polyvinyl Records.
Antibodies is such a beautiful album, you can tell that Nate went through a lot work in the studio, making everything sound so perfect; it’s an album that will both mesmerize you and make you think at the same time. The ethereal, sedate music is juxtaposed by melancholy lyrics written by a man who “isn’t comfortable in his own skin”.
The opening track, “Stuck”, starts out with a mélange of sounds – vibraphone, baritone sax (or bassoon?), oboe, etc – that reminded me of the eclectic orchestrations of Frank Zappa – but then straightens out into a more harmonious and soft song that is quiet, laid back but at the same time there’s a perkiness to it, an upbeat tempo with catchy hooks and that is what makes it work so well – while the lyrics may be introspective, coming from a perspective and the person doesn’t like what he sees in the mirror, it, at least, has the catchy tune which backs it up; in other words, the songs are not all dirge-like. For example, “Stuck” is a song that I, for one, can relate to, being somewhat stuck myself – in different ways: stuck in geographical terms as well as metaphorically. To quote a line from the song that caught my ear, “…I’m stuck/to the ones I love/I’m stuck/with the occasional suicidal thought…” When I heard that, I thought “now THERE’s a song that is for me”. I too, sometimes, “Wish I didn’t have a name” and I “Wish I could get lost” – so that is definitely one cut that will stick in my head.
The things Nate expresses on Antibodies probably touch many people out there. Not everyone is a carefree, independently wealthy, constantly happy person. One thing I read that he said was that he tries to present himself as a “positive person in normal, everyday life” but underneath that façade there lurk thoughts of death, regret, guilt, remorse “and everything in between”.
I mentioned that the songs are (or mostly) played in an “uptempo” way. Well, yes, that is true, but what makes Antibodies so unique is the eclectic musical arrangements: for instance, it’s not your average rock ‘n’ roll album – meaning: guitar, bass, drums (and sometimes keyboards). This isn’t like that – Antibodies has a full range of instrumentation – vibraphones, violins, cellos and clarinets – all played by Kinsella. He had a little help from some session musicians – maybe to help out on bass, drums, guitar and keyboards (?) But, in the end, it’s basically Nate’s album – he is the songwriter and the one who arranged it all. If he played all the aforementioned instruments, then he must’ve had a hand in the more traditional things, like guitar, bass & drums, etc.
The title of the album: Antibodies, after one listens to the album, takes on a whole different meaning. As opposed to the real meaning of the word – what develops when the human body gets a virus or infection: the immune system fights it off and at the same time makes “copies” of the pathogen so as to be able to more easily fight it if it comes back in the future (that’s why we keep getting the flu or a cold every year or two: influenza and the various variants of cold viruses mutate every year or so, not much, but just enough for the body to not be completely resistant to it, although the similarities that are there makes the antibodies work to help kill it off – “Antibodies” comes across (at least to me) as a pun of sorts, in that Nate’s use of the word reflects the fact that he’s often not comfortable in his own skin, in other words, the title’s meaning changes in a way that’s meant to come off as trying to convey the message of Anti-body: a self-loathing that brings desperation to the fore and for a poet or songwriter, these feelings can be used effectively to fancifully write them down and use metaphors, etc , to express one’s pain and suffering. This doesn’t mean the artist is being insincere, au contraire, he is being very sincere and, as a songwriter in this case, using his talents in a therapeutic way, getting the message out that “this is how I feel” and hoping that there will be people out there who not only appreciate the music but can identify with the underlying feelings of hopelessness and melancholia.
On “Shake Hands” the “backwards” string section was perfected and composed by Kinsella and to make it even more glorious, he brought in a real string quartet to aid in the recording. The result is a blissful tune. “Pacifist Manifesto” is another one that features strings and is very brilliant and soothing. The next tune, “Please Go Away” changes tempo a little – it picks things up a little: there’s a heavier beat on it, more guitar and bass on it. The song is very good. It’s as if he is just fed up with whomever it is he is singing to – he just wants them to “please go away”. No apologies, no French fried explanation, just get out of here, leave me alone. But it’s back to the melancholia again with “You Lighten Me Up”: “I get so tired of hearing my own voice…”
Then, on “Your Imperfections”, Kinsella tries to put his wife up on a pedestal of sorts, when he compares her “imperfections” to his, more major faults, which may or may not be true, but is a true expression of love.
The final track is “Big Man”. This is one of the most brilliant tracks on Antibodies – it is expressive, a bit of anger seeps out. A good example of his fiery lyrics on here would be “There is no god/And the only thing real to me/is that you’re the man”. It sounds as if he’s trying to cut down to size someone who would otherwise be a self-important megalomaniac. But, the music stays quiet, it’s a quiet, low-key song with just a couple instruments, a guitar and his plaintive voice, with a chorus of “OOHS” toward the end.
In the final analysis, I must say that I am very impressed with Birthmark, Nate and his new album, Antibodies. It is only 34 minutes long, with 8 tracks on it, but it still, somehow, feels complete, as if this is all he needed to say on this CD at this time. If you’re a fan of his cousin Tim Kinsella’s band, Joan of Arc or other cousin Mike, who is a sometime member of JOA and has his own thing going with Owen, then you’ll be happy to know that Birthmark is not unlike the others in that Nate too, goes his own way and doesn’t follow any trend or path. He just follows his muse and writes down what comes into his mind. Bravo!
Living in “the Box”
A Brief History and Overview of El Cajon, CA
By Kent Manthie
Living in El Cajon is very different from living in San Diego, that’s for sure. Anyone who’s familiar with the various parts of San Diego County knows that out here, in the east part of the county, down in the valley, so to speak, it is always about 10-20 degrees hotter than it is downtown San Diego and maybe hotter than by the beaches. That is mainly due to its being in a valley and not as close to the sea. When you get further inland, away from the coastline areas of San Diego and its twin bays, you get into what is basically a desert, overrun with development. This is living at the most mediocre level. In the vicinity of El Cajon there are other comparable towns, but the one that stands out a little higher is La Mesa, which originally was founded as a film colony/art colony; one that was going to rival the one in Hollywood – this was in the early part of the 20th century. But, the American Film Company – the company was originally founded in Chicago in 1910 but relocated to the sleepy town of La Mesa, in California. The first, unofficial name was “Flying ‘A’ Studios”, but was later changed to the American Film Company, retaining its “Flying ‘A’ Logo”. There were myriad films made here at American. Its raison d’etre was to be an alternative to the burgeoning film colony, then known as “Hollywoodland” (the ‘land’ was dropped after an up & coming starlet committed suicide by jumping off the iconic “HOLLYWOOD(LAND)” sign, after which, L.A. authorities decided to chop off the “LAND” part of the sign, considering it to be bad luck or something, maybe bad luck due to the irrational fear of the number 13 being some sort of portent of bad luck and/or misfortune-actually, the reason that 13 is considered to be bad luck and, more to the point, it’s really ‘Friday, the 13th’ that is considered to be an omen of bad luck and misfortune for some – that irrationality stems from the 14th century, when the band of mercenaries, known as the Knights Templar, who, in their beginning stages, were formed to protect pilgrims who traveled to the so-called “holy land” – Jerusalem, et al, in the middle east. But after a century or so, the “knights” got into an early form of intense banking and what hard-core papists would label “usury”, since they charged interest on the money they lent, thereby making profits on money-lending (oh my, what a terrible thing!). Anyway, I digress: Before settling in Santa Barbara, Flying “A” Studios were located in La Mesa, CA from August 12, 1911 through July 6, 1912, using film locations in La Mesa, other East County areas such as Lakeside, in addition to sites around San Diego.
Flying “A” Studios, under the leadership of Allan Dwan made over 150 films in San Diego County. The films were usually western adventures or comedies with an occasional local documentary. The Flying A westerns were popular with the public and kept Dwan and his crew extremely busy. The Dwan westerns gave the Flying A the ability to mount large advertising campaigns, create additional films, and become a player in the motion picture industry. While mostly filming in the backcountry near La Mesa, some sets were built behind the Flying A Studios. Dwan would occasionally film a cowboy chase scene and then build a plot around that chase. Dwan’s troupe of actors became very popular with the public.
In August, 1912, Flying “A” Studios established its western branch in Santa Barbara, California. Prior to this, three shooting companies were created. Two would work at the studio or surrounding locales of Chicago while it was the third unit that was sent out to concentrate on westerns. This western unit would move through the southwest with stops in New Mexico, Arizona and finally California.
The third unit would eventually settle in the town of La Mesa before moving Northwest to Santa Barbara. The reasons for the move to California had a lot to do with weather and even more to do with avoiding the constraints of the “Edison Trust” (i.e., The Motion Picture Patents Company or MPPC) operating in Chicago and New York. The main reason for choosing Santa Barbara before La Mesa was that the American Film Company wanted to have urban backdrops in some of its movies.
During its operation between 1912 and 1917, Flying “A” Studios was one of the largest motion picture studios in the United States. At the time, this made Santa Barbara a film making center rivaled only by Hollywood.
Notable Actors or Actresses
Mary Miles Minter c.1917
The American Film Company had many great movie stars during their years located in Santa Barbara. One of the greatest, if not the greatest was Mary Miles Minter. Minter, born Juliet Reilly, April 1, 1902 – August 4, 1984, was one of the most successful in her genre as a silent film actress. She did her first featured film in 1915, as Viola Drayton in the The Fairy and the Waif. She did her last role as an actress in 1923 in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. She left the movie industry at only age 22 after a scandal involving her and director William Desmond Taylor. Even though she wasn’t in the movie industry for more than eight years, she made more than 50 movies and her contributions to the motion picture industry gave her a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1724 Vine Street.
The Conclusion of American Film Co.
The World War, the great influenza epidemic of 1918-19 and the depression of 1921 all played a part in bringing an end to the American Film Company and its Santa Barbara studio. Yet other film companies survived, primarily because they had chosen to invest in theaters, providing a built in consumer for their product. American lost its primary distributor when Mutual folded in 1918 and although the company’s product continued to be well regarded, the Flying A found itself on the outside looking in with no direct link to the public.
The American Film Manufacturing Company, also known as Flying “A” Studios, was founded in Chicago in fall 1910. In 1915, the formal name was changed to the American Film Company. The enterprise was originally financed by Samuel Hutchinson, John Freuler, Charles Hite and Harry Aitken, four mid-western businessmen who joined forces and capital to create the American Film Manufacturing company.
That was the basic history of the beginning of La Mesa. I figured it’d be worth mentioning because of the “star”-affiliation it had. El Cajon, on the other hand was a little different. Thanks, very much for the credit due to the smart guy(s) or gal(s) who typed in the history of the American Film Co and put it on Wikipedia.
Here, below, I found a little something that could explain the history well, especially since I’m a relative newcomer. I must here give credit to the El Cajon Historical Society, the late Mrs. Hazel Sperry who is the former secretary and curator of the ECHS, for much or the source material which I have gratefully borrowed from.
Now, regarding the major historical facts of El Cajon – so named because it’s kind of like living in “a box” (El Cajon is Spanish for The Box) – a box that’s in a valley, hence the higher heat and more humidity than down by the beaches in San Diego.
In the early part of the nineteenth century the explorations of the mission padres for pasture land led them to El Cajon Valley. The surrounding foothills were a barrier to straying cattle as well as a watershed to gather the sparse rainfall for verdant grasslands along the valley floor. For years the pasture lands supported the cattle herds of the mission and its native Indian converts.
With independence from Spain, the Spanish Dons began to cast envious eyes on the vast holdings of the Roman Catholic Missions. With secularization, California Governor Pio Pico in 1845 confiscated the lands of Mission San Diego de Alcala and granted the eleven square leagues of El Cajon
Valley to Dona Maria Antonio Estudillo, wife of Don Miguel de Pedrorena, to repay a $500 government obligation. The grant included generally the present communities of Lakeside, Santee, Bostonia, Glenview, Johnstown, El Cajon, and part of Grossmont.
Recorded history affords scant evidence to establish a beginning date for either a permanent Spanish or American community in the valley. The Pedrorenas continued their residence in San Diego and their absentee proprietorship did not foster any economic development. Scattered homes of adobe construction were erected in the area during the mid-19th century, but the permanency of their occupancy is open to question. The establishment of a school for six children in 1870 in a homestead at Park and Magnolia offered conclusive proof that a permanent American settlement had been established.
What were the key factors which shaped El Cajon’s destiny? First, there was a transfer of title from the permanent holdings of the mission to the changing hands of the Pedrorenas and their successors. This permitted the so-called highest and best use of the land in commercial terms. Then there were the natural corridors which made Main and Magnolia the crossroads from San Diego to points east and to the gold mining operations in Julian to the north. Third, there were the real estate developments following the Civil War, initiated by a San Francisco entrepreneur named Isaac Lankershim. The native instincts of a New England emigrant, Amaziah Lord Knox, for the economic value of the corner lot resulted in the erection of El Cajon’s first commercial building at Magnolia and Main in 1876. Finally, the phenomenon called direction of growth laid a path of post World War ll’s exploding urbanization along Mission Valley, through La Mesa and El Cajon.
Following the American Civil War, migrations of settlers sought homesteads on the public lands of the West. However, the poorly defined boundaries and legal confusion of Pio Pico’s Rancho Cajon land grant to the Pedrorenas were to be a source of considerable dispute. As a consequence, historical accounts frequently refer to these pioneering homesteaders by the less noble term of “squatters.”
Lankershim bought the bulk of the Pedrorena’s Rancho Cajon holdings in 1868, employing Major Levi Chase as his attorney. Seven years of litigation ensued before title was cleared and settlements negotiated with the squatters. Lankershim subdivided his land, selling large tracts for wheat ranching. However, it was soon discovered that the soil and climate would support almost any crop. Within a few years the Big Box Valley was a flourishing produce center for citrus, avocados, grapes, and raisins. In fact, the suitability of the clear sunny climate for drying raisins was a major real estate sales “pitch.”
The gold mining operations in Julian brought a steady trek of freight traffic hauling equipment and supplies and ore between San Diego and Julian. The natural line of drift led the teamsters down the old Mussey grade (now covered by San Vicente Reservoir), south to the present site of Magnolia and Main, then west through the Grossmont Pass into San Diego., Knox had moved into the Valley in 1869 to build Lankershim’s house and manage his wheat ranch. Noting the teamsters’ habit of camping overnight at the present site of Main and Magnolia, he erected a seven room building as a combination residence and hotel on its southwest corner in 1876. Small additions were followed by a large two story annex In 1882.
Knox’s Corner was to be the nucleus of El Cajon’s business district for the next seventy years. By the turn of the century the two blocks of Main Street, astride Magnolia, boasted two hotels, a general store, meat market, post office, pharmacy, harness shop, blacksmith shop, and sundry smaller shops and offices.
At the general election on November 12, 1912, 123 of 158 electors voted to incorporate a 1 1/4 square mile area centering on the historic corners of Main and Magnolia. The board of five trustees met the following week to elect one of their number as president and appoint a city attorney. Regular meetings were scheduled for the first Wednesday of each month. However, special meetings to get the administration organized and functioning were not infrequent. Committees were appointed for Streets, Alleys, Water and Lights, Finance and Licenses, and Health, Morals, and Sanitation. In addition to the elected positions of Treasurer and Clerk, appointments were made for a Marshal and Tax Collector, Engineer, Recorder, Superintendent of Streets, two Deputy Marshals, and a Fire Chief. Ordinances and resolutions were passed to fix salaries or other compensation, provide for the grading and sprinkling of streets, contract for bridge construction and mapping the City, banning cattle and hogs from the central city, and outlawing horseracing down Main Street.
For the next thirty years El Cajon followed the pattern of orderly development typical of rural/ small town America. By 1940 the population had slightly more then doubled to a figure of 1471. In the five years following World War II, the winds of change became apparent. While land area increased slightly to 1.67 square miles, in-migration increased the population to 5,600. In 1949 the City Council began to study the feasibility of the council-manager form of government to meet the day to day administrative and long range planning requirements of a growing metropolitan area.
The office of City Manager was instituted in 1950 in time to meet the most explosive decade of growth in El Cajon’s history, or for that matter, the history of any comparable community in the nation. By 1960 the incorporated area was to increase five-fold to 9.8 square miles and population six-fold to 37,618.
However, this remarkable growth was not accomplished without its trauma. Fiscal resources for capital investments necessary to keep municipal services abreast of geometrically increasing demand were sorely strained. Substantial capital outlays were needed in virtually every department: Police, Fire, Sewage Treatment, Public Works, Parks and Recreation and General Government. In 1959 the Council and Manager commissioned a research study to assess the present and probable future structure of the City. Given the unforeseen developments in double digit inflation and federal revenue sharing of the 70’s, the projections of this study were to prove remarkably prophetic.
Integrating these research findings and projections into its master plans, during the next decade El Cajon moved ahead on a number of significant projects. Acquisition of additional fire fighting equipment resulted in much improved insurance ratings. A dozen key street improvement projects solved the traffic congestion problems which were beginning to surface throughout the incorporated area. A cross service agreement with the San Diego Metropolitan Sewer District and construction of a major outfall line eliminated the need to rely on septic tanks which were saturating the subsoil to the danger point. The timely purchase of property on Vernon Way in the early 50’s facilitated the economic construction of Public Works maintenance and storage facilities.
As the City nears the end of the twentieth century its growth is considerably more measured and orderly than that of the frantic fifties. Guided by a prudent and fiscally responsible civic leadership. It has weathered its rapid growth period with a balanced economy and a governmental structure which offers full municipal services. In 1976, during our nation’s bicentennial, a new civic center was opened to serve the citizens of El Cajon, lending added luster to the historic corners of Main and Magnolia. Our most recent additions to this area are the new Headquarters Fire Station and the Neighborhood Center on Lexington and Douglas Avenues, respectively. One might pause to speculate on the thoughts of a sturdy New England emigrant when, a century earlier, he erected El Cajon’s first commercial structure diagonally across the street.
So, that’s the basic history of “The Box” and what happened in its start-up and growth – I do know that before it was actually named “El Cajon”, which was incorporated in 1912, it, starting in 1905, was known as “Knox’s Corners”, after one of the “founding city fathers”, Amaziah Lord Knox.
Since then, El Cajon has been slowly developing. I’ve only been living around this area for the past 10 years and I actually moved to El Cajon in 2007. What I’ve found, living in this town, is that it certainly has lost any past glory that it may have once had. Nowadays it’s just another suburb of San Diego, not unlike Lemon Grove, La Mesa, Lakeside, etc. Unlike Los Angeles County, where there are dozens and dozens of little towns, one after the other that stretch out after you get out of Los Angeles, proper, they’re all considered “bedroom communities” – a sprawling suburban multitude of plots for people who work in the city of L.A. and drive into work each day – in fact, as the population has grown and industries have spiraled upwards, commuters have been moving further and further away from the city itself and out to what they consider “safer” suburbs, what is generally termed “white flight”, which has gone on for most of the 80s and 90s and has left a big hole in the city of angels, a vacuum that’s been filled by what bigots would call ghettos and such, even though the city is beautiful as ever and could attract a great amount of so-called yuppies – in fact, in certain parts of downtown LA, they’ve been rehabbing old buildings and have turned them into nice, expensive lofts – I guess it was something they saw that worked so well and was popular with the silicon valley richies in San Francisco; the SOMA (South Of Market) area, in the 90s was totally redone and turned into a completely new and gorgeous neighborhood – complete with the SFMOMA, a beautiful museum – the MOMA of the West Coast and generously endowed, in part, by a city fixture, Charles Schwab & his wife; so much so that they have a wing of the museum named after them.
Anyway, as far as the county south of LA and Orange County goes (San Diego), it is just not at all that, compared to Los Angeles. In fact, when I first moved to San Diego, the first impression I had was that of a “giant” small town. I know that sounds oxymoronic, but that is the vibe I picked up, especially after coming from the megalopolis of Los Angeles. Then, when I met someone and moved in with her in her place which happened to be in El Cajon, I soon became a little bit disheartened. Especially since San Diego County has the absolute WORST transit system I’ve ever encountered – at least the worst one in any major metropolis. The buses are few and far between and there is just not an easy way to get around to points of the city. But when I got to El Cajon, the transit system that is based there – it’s run by a different company than the public transit system that is in San Diego – the one in El Cajon is terrible! For one thing, on the weekdays all the buses – every single line – runs only once every half hour! And then on the weekends the buses only run ONCE AN HOUR! That sounds like the sort of service you might expect in some little two horse town in the middle of Montana or Wyoming. Basically, if you live here and have no car, life is miserable. For one thing, the nightlife here is nonexistent. If you like to see live music and go to the occasional concert at a mid-size club (maybe 1000 person capacity) you aren’t going to find one anywhere around this part of the county; in fact, you’ll have to come back to the city of San Diego – where there is a House of Blues, there is 4th & B, the Casbah and out by the beach, Canes. Here, there are a lot of bars and whatnot, but they’re all basically dives.
One interesting fact about today’s El Cajon, though, is that currently, EC boasts the highest concentration of Iraqi/Arabic Chaldean Christians in the country. That is why, when you go up and down Main Street you see, market after market of Middle Eastern-based stores that cater to the Arab community. There is even a cable station that has recently gotten off the ground and is connected to the web so that folks back in the old country can watch too and interact with their friends and relatives here in America.
The average “white guy” probably wouldn’t fit in well at a lot of these stores and/or even know or understand what it is they sell there, but one thing is for sure: there are some very delicious eats around here. The shawerma sandwich is a big hit – it’s kind of like an Arab burrito – there’s a bunch of cut-up grilled beef or steak and it’s mixed together with diced tomatoes, onions, lettuce and other little surprises, then it’s all wrapped up in a big piece of flatbread – sort of a thicker version of a tortilla. And, like everything else, it depends on who makes it and what establishment you buy it from, but get it at the right place and it is a mouth-watering sensation. Very filling too! A single shawerma sandwich is at least as filling as a carne asada burrito but with a thicker wrap and bigger pieces inside. Also good are the various styles of kebabs that are made at the various groceries, delis and restaurants all up and down Main St. and beyond. So, if you want to take your taste buds for a ride, come out here. But if you want to see an indie rock band playing live, I’d suggest staying within the city limits of San Diego!
There is not a whole lot going on after dark in El Cajon. I wouldn’t say it’s a “dangerous” place to be walking around in after dark, but it could be if you are the jumpy type who shows their fear too easily – thugs, like dogs, can sense fear; and the hookers come out of the woodwork when the sun sets as well. They can be down right annoying and aggressive. Other than that, just be aware of what’s going on around you if you are carless and be careful that you don’t look at some cholo the wrong way, if you dig.
I thought I’d include some photos too, of how the city looks today. Enjoy.
And come through sometime. You may drive in and out in a few minutes or you might like it enough to stick around for a little bit. –KM
*Special Thanks again to the El Cajon Historical Society for the use of their historical materials on the web and also a big thanks to the unsung hero-writers that give Wikipedia the ever-expanding wealth of information that exists on it for a wide variety of subjects. Many thanks to both of you. This article wouldn’t be as accurate and chock full of great nuggets without your precious contributions.