Wednesday, February 21, 2007

12.) The Hitchhiking Years: Portland, Oregon Enters the Picture

There's something heavy about hitchhiking through a small city that turns out to be your future home. I was 18, the year was 1972, and Portland, Oregon was definitely a sleepy little place. It was a beautiful sunny day and I ended up under some freeways walking along by the railroad lines on the eastern side of the Willamette River. I had decided to take a break and get something to eat, and I approached this old-fashioned diner close by the tracks. In fact, just before I entered, a freight train went by really slowly, and at the end was a caboose with a man standing out on the back. I jokingly put out my thumb as if to hitchhike. The guy just laughed, but it was a new twist on a familiar theme.

After all, people had been jumping freight trains for decades in America. It is one of the classic images of the culture: The hobo riding the rails, and carrying his stuff in a cloth tied to the end of a stick. Of course, when he hopped in a box car, there'd be a few others and they'd break out a harmonica and sing traveling music, maybe even write a song like Woodie Guthrie. But how many had tried to get a hitchhiking ride from a passing freight train? And if it had worked, I definitely could have caught up with the train. It was going that slow.

I do remember Portland to be a pretty little town - very clean and fresh - and I know I was very impressed with the Pacific Northwest, but I never for a second thought I'd end up living here. I just didn't think about stuff like that back then. Planning the future? Maybe through that afternoon.

A few years later, I was in a band in Southern California and we moved to Oregon because the guy who played harmonica - also called the blues harp - had a brother up in Portland. I certainly had something to go on, when the suggestion to move north was made, so I can thank the Hitchhiking Years for that. But in those days, all decisions were based on whims, and if the harmonica player had a brother here that was good enough for me. The main focus was on playing music.

See, I was not one of those kids who wondered what they wanted to be growing up. I suppose I went through the usual dreams of being a professional athlete, or an astronaut, but music just had an immediate and overwhelming attraction. It still does. I mean, what's better than music? I'm a comedy writer now, and if Jerry Seinfeld walked in, I would be pleased to see him, and very respectful. But if Eric Clapton walked in? Wow. That would be incredible.

I once read about a rather famous Portland musician who decided to go into rock and roll after winning a David Bowie look-alike contest. That always irritated me. I mean, I knew music was the path from before I could talk. My Dad used to play records loudly as I drifted off to sleep in Arabia, and I can still remember how great that was.

They used to lay canvass down on the floor of the school gym in Dhahran and have school programs. When I was around 5 or so, I went to one. The school band had taken a break and set their instruments on their folding chairs and left. I remember seeing those instruments and knowing right away how I would spend my life. Seriously, have you ever seen anything more beautiful than a gold trumpet? I don't even know where to begin with this. For me, it is such an overwhelming no-contest, that I find it downright mystifying that anyone would want to try anything else. And when someone says they don't like music at all, that's just profoundly sad and perverted to me, like admitting you like to screw sheep or something.

I would go on to be in the Dhahran school band, playing drums and trumpet, and we would practice during lunch hour. Then a moment came along, on our break, when one of the Goellnor brothers - I think it was Ed - approached me with this little, portable reel-to-reel tape recorder and said, "Listen to this." He played "Louie, Louie" and during it he said, "Listen to the beat." I liked it. It was clear that the school band version of "My Grandfather's Clock" and "Pomp and Circumstance" would never be the same.

After all these years, it is still an honor to live in the town where that song was recorded. An honor? To a boy from Arabia, it makes Portland a mystical place of impossible greatness. Sitting out in the desert in a small oil town, we had a complete world. We were isolated and that was our universe and we were happy. But hearing music from the States and, later, England? Well, that was like something from heaven. The idea that someone like Chuck Berry was driving a Cadillac down an American street, made the place seem mythical and legendary. And that has never really gone away.

So the freight train went by on that day in Portland and I went into the diner to have lunch. In the screenplay I have this marvelous talk with the waitress about how the song "Louie, Louie" had impacted me in Arabia. I told her it was such a rush to be in the city where that song had actually been recorded. The conversation probably never happened. We did talk but I can't remember what it was about, and I don't think I knew "Louie, Louie" was recorded here at that point. Life doesn't always follow the script.

I do remember searching for that diner later, when I moved to town, but in a low-key way. It even became a little bit of a mystery, so I wrote it off. I once camped in some brush on these cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean near Laguna, California, and I was in college a year or two later, driving by the same area, so I looked for the spot where I had camped. I found these workers laying out a sub-division there. That kind of change is why I wrote off my old-fashioned diner in Portland. However, decades later, I got out of a car one time, and there it was. It had become a bar in the industrial Eastside. I looked at it, saw the tracks nearby, and said, "I really think this is the place."

By 1975, I would be living in Portland, where I still live to this day. In a perfect world, I would have felt a magical connection hitchhiking through all those years ago, but the truth is I just stopped for lunch and continued on south. Hey, if that guy on the freight train had signaled me over, I wouldn't even have had lunch here, and the entire rest of the story could have been different.

Looking back, it certainly would have been more dramatic if I had shouted, "I must live here in the place where 'Louie, Louie' was recorded!" But it didn't happen that way. I was in a band in southern California and we decided to move. The harmonica player had a brother here so that was it. And, by the way, my friend would move again maybe 6 or 7 years later. I followed on with that move to Spokane, as well, but bagged it a couple of years later when the FBI arrested the drummer. That's obviously another story.

So I returned to Portland, but this grand decision of where to spend my life really just originated with my harp player's brother. And you know what? I think that's perfect. The band never made it, but I love Portland, so I consider these events to be some of the best breaks I ever got.


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