on life, music etc beyond mainstream

2017 30 Okt

Things we didn’t lose in the fire

von: Brian Whistler Filed under: Blog | TB | 19 Comments

In the wee hours of Monday morning October 9, a firestorm came roaring down on Santa Rosa at the speed of a freight train. I didn’t get the evacuation call in Forestville because I wasn’t in town. I woke up to the news in LA, where I had just attended my niece’s joyous wedding in Malibu. I discovered my flight into Santa Rosa had been cancelled – in fact all flights into Santa Rosa had been cancelled.

After the hottest summer on record, in which temperatures had soared upwards to 110 degrees numerous times, we’d had an Indian summer that was only slightly less blistering. Welcome to the new normal: The night of the fires the humidity was down to 7%, typical in the desert, but not up here in Northern California. The freakish warm winds came up from the east, gusting up to 70mph, and when my friends in Santa Rosa heard there was a fire in Calistoga, they were concerned but not alarmed. Little did they know that fire was moving at the speed of 1 football field every 3 seconds. Only 2 hours later they had to flee their home, leaving everything behind,  even their photo albums, a lifetime of memories they had never gotten around to digitizing.

In fact, several friends lost their homes. None had time to think about what they would pack. Two were musicians who lost all their instruments. One couple sped up their driveway, flaming branches hitting their car. They barely escaped with their lives.

Finally getting a flight into San Francisco the following Wednesday, I was immediately struck by the toxic air – it had migrated all the way down to South San Francisco. The sky appeared dark and foreboding, almost apocalyptic. It was painful to breathe. But I was a man on a mission. The fires were burning out of control and I had decided to get back to my house if I could and pack up my studio.

The bus ride up north revealed the smoke was even worse as we neared Santa Rosa. Familiar landmarks were gone – the old Round Barn, a symbol of another, gentler rural time was obliterated, as were the Hyatt and the Fountain Grove, the two big hotels sitting on the hill right above it. Just to the east, the high-end neighborhoods had been hit hard, and as the wind pushed the wall of flames right across the 101 freeway, low income neighborhoods were completely leveled, leaving nothing but the chimneys jutting out from piles of pulverized ash, as if they had been firebombed. The Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, (only 10 minutes from my house,) a place I had seen Pat Metheny, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock among others, and had spent many an evening listening to the SR Symphony, looked severely damaged. My hospital next door was closed, the Journey’s End trailer park next door, wiped from the face of the earth.

By the time I got to my house I was exhausted, had a meal and went straight to bed. In the morning I decided to pack my girlfriend’s Ford Escape and head back down to LA where she had stayed in order to protect her asthmatic lungs.

There were still fires burning out of control just miles from the powder keg of a canyon I call home. But what to bring? I started with my studio- my monitors, computer, drive bays. That’s what I had come for. To save my work and my clients work. My instruments, piano, vibraphone etc were staying – too large. My percussion instruments were too many. So I took my handmade one-of-a-kind Array Mbira and my electronic marimba – at least I would have those. I figured you could always replace an electronic keyboard or module, even a vintage one. Thus I left my rack full, only taking my favorite tube channel strip. I also threw a box of precious photos into the car.

But what about my CD collection? What desert island discs should I take with me? While I don’t have a huge collection, I realized they still represented a significant cash outlay, but more importantly, and far more than material possessions, they are a kind of soul food that I simply can’t live without. I looked at those discs, many of which I had spent hours seeking out, Internet hunter gatherer that I am, and thought of all those hours spent perusing the bins at Rasputin’s in Berkeley, Amoebas in SF, or the Last Record Store in Santa Rosa. And most of all, I thought of all the liestening pleasure they had brought me over the years.

Somehow, no CDs or vinyl made it into the Escape, and I „escaped“ the horrific air and drove back down to LA with the knowledge that if I did have to start over, at least I’d have a studio and a computer full of tunes. And a giant Mbira! And yes: The irony of driving to Los Angeles to escape bad air is not lost on me.

The whole experience got me thinking: what things are important? Evidently not clothes or tchotchkes-of those I only took a few. But music being soul food – then why had I not taken at least 20 of my desert island discs? I think by the time I left, I was pretty sure I’d be coming back to my house. Or maybe, I just couldn’t make up my mind. It was just too painful to choose, a kind of audiophile’s Sophie’s Choice… Or perhaps I was simply too lazy.

I’m curious if anyone would care to post their 10 or 20 desert island discs below. I think it would be a good exercise. Maybe someone else can do what I was not able to do myself. What discs would you take?

The fires are finally out as of Friday 27th, but my whole area is still in shock and grief. We have lost 42 people (with 12 still missing,) around 8900 structures including some 4000 homes, and over 200,000 acres of parkland, vineyards and farmland were burned. The priority was in saving lives- property was 2nd – and at least 3 of our state parks were allowed to burn. My hospital has yet to open. Recovery will take many years. Santa Rosa is a very different place from what it once was. For those thousands of people like my friends who lost their homes, it will be a long, slow process. I kept thinking, “ this could happen to any of us.“ Yes it can. Everything we have can be taken away from us in an instant. And yet, here we are. What a mystery!

This entry was posted on Montag, 30. Oktober 2017 and is filed under "Blog". You can follow any responses to this entry with RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. Michael Engelbrecht:

    It‘s not such sweet irony that hours before your story appeared I posted a video from old days with Lucinda Williams‘ song SWEET OLD WORLD. If that is not a track on loss and farewell and letting-go, then I don‘t know. Now, decades later, after hard times, burn-outs, no too healthy „love stories“ (I assume) and other ways of burning a candle from both sides, she went into a studio to „re-visit“ that old album again. With uninhibited energy and love for life, in spite of everything. Amazing. Her album ESSENCE is a heart-breaker and would surely belong to my twenty escape albums.

  2. Brian Whistler:

    I need to check that one out. Thanks Michael.

  3. Michael Engelbrecht:

    The story of such a catastrophe is a bit too much to easily come up with a playlist – mine would offer no surprises anyway:) You read from fires and earthquakes once in a while, but our Western perspective of California is a bit accompanied by movies and music, and as a fantastic place to live (not to die). Sometimes I think, o what a fool I am, I‘ve never been there. Of course you know of the the dark sides of everywhere, but automatically you rather think of Joni Mitchell than of Charles Manson.

    Just stood up. Now writing this I remember my last dream. In contrast to the wide landscape of Northern California and the beauty I normally have in mind when being t h e r e with my imagination, I was in a house crammed full of people. In fact there was an exhibition taking place: modern English painters.

    I saw my comrades from school days, it was like we were all on a journey organized by our English teacher, Dr. Werlich. I went into a room where an enourmous amount of paintings were hanging side by side, no spaces in between. Just strange oil paintings of landscapes with lots of colour, and I remember a sense of humour in them, too, don‘t know why.

    And … it somehow seemed as if all these ‚windows‘ into other worlds would be places to love to inhabit. (Even if it was Northern Yorkshire.) Then I saw Dr. Werlich. Everybody in our class has a story with him. I went to him grateful to see him in good shape and told him, what a pleasure!

    And i spoke to him about the magic of all these paintings hanging side by side, colors all around us.

    In some strange way your description of tragic events set this very oblique ‚counter-culture‘ in motion, maybe as an ‚escape room‘ where life is blossoming full circle.

  4. Ingo J. Biermann:

    Thank you very much for this moving report. It is something we can hardly imagine here in Berlin. Though, of course, fearful people may argue that if ever an atom bomb would be dropped on Germany, central Berlin (we live right next to Potsdamer Platz) would be the enemy’s first choice.

    My friends in Berkeley (whom I last visited during the last week of September) mentioned they had experienced ash in the air earlier this month. When I arrived in Berkeley during the last week of August, everyone (also in other places in the southwest) mentioned to me that the bay area was experiencing its hottest summer ever.

    I just gave your question about 20 Desert Island Disks a thought, and even though I personally wonder if I would actually take any records from my huge collection if I had to leave behind our apartment in a hurry (I guess I would try to take some hard drives with the films I made over the years), I have come up with a — spontaneous — list.

    It’s a bit tricky, because I would probably not take exactly 20 „Desert Island“ albums, but throw a good bunch of albums I might not be able to find again easily into a box. Thinking David Bowie for example, I have three boxes that contain all his album releases from 1969 to 1980 in definitive versions, so I’d sure take them with me. And similar boxes with albums by Joni Mitchell, Joy Division and Herbie Hancock. I would also take a box with all Shostakovich and Mahler symphonies as well as the collected Shostakovich string quartets.

    However, since you raised the question, my selection of 20 albums I were asked to trim down my collection to 20 only (and you can see that I am more of a pop/rock person by nature than a jazz person, but that’s also due to the fact that I simply can’t decide for one album only by many of them), here’s my list. I am thinking about it now as if anyone would ask me how to start a record collection — which 20 albums would I suggest to buy first.
    Radiohead „OK Computer“
    Notwist „Shrink“
    Fiona Apple „Tidal“
    Pan Sonic „Kesto“
    New Order „Get ready“
    David Bowie „Nothing has changed“
    Arcade Fire „The Suburbs“
    Burial „Untrue“
    R.E.M. „New Adventures in Hi-Fi“
    U2 „Achtung Baby“
    Lambchop „Is a Woman“
    Björk „Homogenic“
    Wilco „A Ghost is born“
    The Beatles „Revolver“
    Bob Dylan „Blood on the Tracks“
    Stefano Battaglia „Re: Pasolini“
    François Couturier „Nostalghia – Song for Tarkovsky“
    Maria Pia de Vito, François Couturier, Anja Lechner, Michele Rabbia „Il Pergolese“
    Tomasz Stanko „From the Green Hill“
    Talk Talk „Laughing Stock“

  5. Brian Whistler:

    Wow Ingo, thanks for taking my question seriously. I understand that these aren’t necessarily your desert island discs, but it does give me a flavor for where your musical heart is. And there are at least 4 albums on your list that could’ve been on mine. But then, my tastes are all over the map these days.

    And yes, while it’s hard to imagine something of this magnitude happening in Berlin, it’s what we can’t imagine that sometimes happens. Actually, I’m told there was a similar devastating fire up here in the early 60s, and it appears very few even remember it. I wasn’t up here yet, but only one person who grew up here mentioned it to me. If you live in the woods, or near it, you’ve got to know this is always a possibility, especially given the seven years of drought we’ve had here in northern Cali.

    As for choosing albums, I still feel paralyzed when I think about it!

  6. Martina Weber:

    As a regular viewer of „Weltspiegel“ (weekly reports from all over the world) I knew about the fires, but to read your post, Brian, seemed even more authentic. Here in Francfort a few weeks ago a WWII bomb was found and while it was deactivated people had to leave their homes for a whole day. In a panic situation at first I´d take my notebook with me and as far as music is concerned I´d rather prefer my collection of audio tapes (which aren´t replacable) then records.

    Here´s a list of some of my favorite ones just to give you some impression of my long term musical taste, just in wild disorder:
    Pan American: Quiet City / The River Made No Sound / Renzo
    Labradford: A Stable Reference (and all their other albums: E luxo so, Labradford, Mi media naranja, Prazision LP)
    Jan Garbarek Group: It´s Okay To Listen To The Gray Voice
    Steve Tibbets: Northern Song
    Kammerflimmer Kollektief: Absencen
    Underworld: Second Toughest In The Infants
    The Necks: Drive By
    Bard Psychosis: Codename Dustsucker / Hex/ Independency
    Eivind Aarset: Électronique Noire
    Nils Petter Molvaer / Moritz von Oswald: 1/1
    Sun Kil Moon: Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood
    White Noise: An Electric Storm
    The Go Betweens: Spring Hill Fair
    Blur: The Magic Whip
    Frank Ocean: Channel Orange
    Miles Davis: Get Up With It
    Brian Eno, Peter Schwalm: Drawn From Life
    The Other People Place: Lifestyle In The Laptop Café
    Jon Hassell: Vernal Equinox

  7. Rosato:

    very touching

    report, story, narration?
    can’t find the appropriate word
    it’s totally different than news in the radio or TV
    it’s some short insight in your life, moving, though I’m just a reader, a listener …

    Usually I don’t think about desert island discs, because I usually don’t expect to be thrown on a lonely island. But face to face with such a catastrophe, maybe.

  8. Brian Whistler:

    Michael, what a fascinating dream. I’m sure it’s open to a number of interpretations, but I am curious about these „portals“ to other worlds the paintings seem to represent, and how this dream seemed connected to my post. My girlfriend loves to do dream interpretation. She’s a sort of Jungian disciple and an intuitive as well. If you don’t mind, I would like to share it with her when she returns.

  9. Michael Engelbrecht:

    This is an open field, please do so.

    Keep in mind I‘m a psychologist myself, and the interpreting of dreams is one of my favourite subjects. I‘m active in the field of lucid dreaming, this was not a lucid dream. So I can‘t go so much in the details concerning the paintings as it might have been the case in a lucid state. (The pioneer in this fieldin the Western henisphere is Stephen LaBerge who had been teaching lucid dreaming quite a while in California, in Berkeley, to be exact).

    Here are the elements that connect your true story and my dream:

    The vast landscape involved vs. the narrow, small space
    The burning landscape (danger) vs the bright colours (beauty)

    When i write that that the dream is setting up a kind of counter-culture, it‘s just the turning of a life threatening into a life affirming situation (corresponding to the final moments of your story where you describe the mystery of still being there, well and alive.)

    My dream created the equivalent to being alive WITH ALL SENSES within a totally beautiful immersive surrounding. Pure joie de vivre. I sensed some humorous qualities in the paintings, of course the humour was in me, too, so a good session of laughter therapy could have started from there on:)

    Then, the day before the dream, we made plans for the other day, f. e. go to another city and see a nice exhibition. Most of the time I feel detached in such exhibition places, like a human who should be in a state of wonder but is n o t most of the time.

    This dramatically changes in the dream situation where the paintings seem to live and breathe and surrounded me from all sides.

    And there was the teacher, and one aspect of him has been to be a free spirit in modern literature. Now the dream found a way to transfom my love for certain areas of art to another one. No limits.

    The small, slightly overcrowded space like an an entrance to infinite spaces without here attaching a religious signifier from my side ….

    Good morning, Forestville!



    2) my review for the ‚November list’ on Jon Hassell‘s Dream Theory in Malaya

    3) i quite often spoke of ‚surroundings‘. The paintings here did what certain 5:1 surround mixes do when I‘m listening. Van Morrison‘s MOON DANCE is a case in point.

  10. Martina Weber:

    Ingo, ich habe „OK Computer“, was ich zurzeit fast jeden Tag höre, nur deshalb nicht in meine Liste aufgenommen, weil das Album in deiner Liste ist und ich etwas anderes zusammentragen wollte. „New Adventures in Hi-Fi“ ist auch eine meiner Lieblingsplatten von R.E.M., allerdings höre ich R.E.M. eher unterwegs. Die Aufenthaltsorte wirken auf die Musikauswahl ein.

  11. ijb:

    Martina, deine Liste hat auch mich gleich inspiriert. Eine sehr eigenwillige Auflistung. Die meisten der Alben habe (und schätze) ich ebenfalls. Von Labradford besitze ich allerdings nur eine („Mi Media Naranja“), habe aber andere auch mal gehört, vor langen Jahren, und Pan American ist mir immer irgendwie durchgerutscht , wahrscheinlich weil ich einige Alben von ähnlichen Projekten habe und schätze. Ich hab mich nach deiner Liste gefragt, ob du jemals „Consumed“ von Plastikman gehört hast, ein Album, das ich schändlicherweise komplett vergessen habe zu erwähnen (wahrscheinlich, weil ich von Plastikman eine 16-CD-Box mit dem Gesamtwerk bis dato habe, und das außerhalb meines Blickwinkels stand.)
    „Consumed“ muss unbedingt zu meinen Top 20, eines der besten Alben der 1990er, könnte sich irgendwie ganz gut zwischen deine Vorlieben einnisten.

    Auch von Steve Tibbets besitze ich bislang nur ein Album, kenne sein Werk fats gar nicht – die alten Alben sind nur extrem teuer zu bekommen; aus dem selben Grund fehlen mir noch Jon Hassells „Vernal Equinox“ und die „Spring Hill Fair“ der Go Betweens.

    Aber den Rest habe ich auch.

    „Get Up With It“ wäre sicher nicht meine erste Wahl bei Miles Davis gewesen, aber nach deiner Liste hab ich die CD wieder mal rausgeholt, ebenso wie Garbareks „Gray Voice“, das ich erstaunlicherweise noch nicht so lange besitze. Von Aarset bevorzuge ich andere Alben als „Électronique Noire“. Kennst du das letzte, das er herausgebracht hat – „I.E.“?

  12. Michael Engelbrecht:


    No. 21 would be illegally stored in the back of my Toyata, the beloved sensurround version of all three nights in NYC: The Allman Brothers Band: LIVE AT FILLMORE EAST, a reggae classic, probably EXODUS, a jazz classic, probably WAY OUT WEST by Sonny Rollins, or something by King Crimson, Jon Hassell, Steve Tibbetts … (21 would be the damn hard choice:)) – me, oh my, where is MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS …… and how to get on well without MARQUEE MOON? And EVENING STAR, side one?

    P.S. : And, Brother Brian, don‘t forget my dream report for the woman at your side!

  13. Brian Whistler:

    Wow what a list, Michael – a true Manafonista, in terms of sweeping eclecticism! Some of those would be on my list too. Been listening to Joni Mitchell a lot lately. The other joni album I would place on my list would be Hissing of Summer Lawns.

    Are you referring to a 5.1 mix of Moondance? If so, this is the first I’ve heard of it.

    As far as the dream goes, I really appreciate your ruminations. Seems like you have quite a handle on it already. And yes, I am well aware you are a psychologist and your special interest in lucid dreaming. Didn’t mean to sound presumptuous about handing it over to my partner. She just loves getting into dreams. (She’s a writer by trade, but actually seriously considering becoming a psychologist herself.)

    Thanks so much for taking the time to make such a list. A couple things I’m gonna have to check out – you guys are obviously more tuned into pop music that I am. Speaking of pop, there are a couple of albums I might put on my list: I have grown quite fond of Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes, Carrie and Lowell – Sufjan Stevens, and Lost in the Trees-A Church that Fits our amends.

  14. Michael Engelbrecht:

    You‘re welcome. This is, for me, never about taking the time to do something, it all comes with a flow.

    Yes, The MOONDANCE 5:1, part of a big Moondance box, with this excellent blu ray… You don‘t always need Mr. Wilson…

    „… While the outtakes are fascinating, if only for the artist’s biggest fans, just about everyone who owns a good five-channel Blu-ray-connected sound system should do cartwheels over the disc with the 5.1 channel DTS-HD Master Audio. There’s no video, aside from some period snapshots, but the surround-sound audio ranges only from fantastic to astonishing …“ (Jeff Burger,, and right so!)

    By the way, and following my nostalgic instincts, they will release a big HOTEL CALIFORNIA box with a blu ray that seems to be of the same origin as the DVD Audio from 2001. Any good, that mix, if you‘ve heard it??

    But what I‘ll really wait for, is THE WHITE ALBUM SURROUND, probably autumn 2018 ….

  15. Brian whistler:

    Really, the white album? Now that is something to look forward to!

    I’ll look for the moondance box.

  16. Martina Weber:

    What a communication pattern, by the way.

    Ingo, ich höre gerade seit ein paar Minuten „Consumed“ by Plastikman und es begeistert mich völlig!

    Im Grundsatz ist meine Liste ein best-of der Klanghorizonte aus all den Jahren, seit ich sie höre. Michael hat z.B. einmal eine 55-Minuten-Sendung nur über Labradford zusammengestellt, die mich umgehauen hat. Bei Labradford ist gerade die Entwicklung hin zur Auflösung von Klangstrukturen interessant – die letztlich zur Auflösung der Band führte, führen musste.

    Von Aarset habe ich auch „Connected“ und „Dream Logic“, aber Èlectronic noire mochte ich am liebsten. Von „I.E.“ habe ich gerade ein längeres Stück gehört, das mich nicht so begeistert wie die anderen Arbeiten von Aarset.

    Von Steve Tibbets habe ich auch „A Man About a Horse“. „Northern Song“ gefällt mir aber besser und allein schon das Cover ist eine Geschichte wert, über die ich hier geschrieben habe:

    Still listening to „Consumed“, still enthusiastic about it.

  17. Michael Engelbrecht:

    Another desert island collection, interesting, all my Fave Joni Mitchell five star albums come from rhe 70s. Why. They are the best.

    „Love came to my door/With a sleeping roll/And a madman’s soul/He thought for sure I’d seen him/Dancing up a river in the dark/Looking for a woman/To court and spark“.

    (The River)

    * Blue (1971) *****
    * Court and Spark (1974) *****
    * The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975) *****
    * Hejira (1976) *****
    * Mingus (1979) ***** (m.e.)

    “Joni Mitchell’s „Blue“ probably has the same characteristic that I like about Revolver. It has this in-your-face production value. She had written songs like ‘Clouds’ where she had harpsichord on it and all these strings and all that but this album was devoid of all instruments bar the dulcimer, the acoustic guitar and the piano. I don’t even recall a lot of bass on the album but Stephen Stills might have played a bass line on an acoustic guitar.

    So what you have is ten or twelve knockout songs that she must have spent months crafting. Poetically, these songs are perfect. They speak to women, I know, but they also speak to men as well, about universal and personal challenges we all face in life. Joni Mitchell articulated them so well but as a record producer, how she did it was so important. Again, it’s that dry sound; in-your-face and a kind of minimal recording but every note and every instrument stated something very clearly and very powerfully.

    There are times when I hear this and I don’t even realise that I’m hearing a piano or a vocal; to me, it sounds orchestral. A good arrangement can make two or three instruments sound huge and a bad arrangement can make a whole orchestra sound puny.”

    (Tony Visconti, producer)

  18. Brian Whistler:

    Agreed abou Joni. For some reason, she’s been on my mind and on my player quite a bit lately. While Blue is the One in many ways, her first album, which had equally if not even a more minimalistic production (good on David Crosby) the songs are delicate mobiles that move with the slightest breath of air. Gossamer sad stories, yes an immature artist, but already with new things to say, lyrically and harmonically- she was already experimenting with those weird tunings.

    Incidentally that was Judy Collins version of Clouds you were thinking of, with the harpsichords and all the strings. While it was the hit version, eventually Joni recorded it on her 2nd album by the same name. But that album has a low profile production, and that track is very pared down. It would be good to revisit. I also have a soft spot for ladies of the Canyon- can’t get enough of that hippie innocence mixed in with raw confessionals. I also like a lot of the songs on For the Roses.

    I also think Hissing of Summer Lawns may be her most underrated album. A kind of dark masterpiece that was way ahead of her time. It has continued to intrigue and inspire me over the decades. While I think her last truly great album was probably Hejira, there are certainly several great tunes on Don Juans Reckless Daughter, (title track, Jericho,) and Turbulent Indigo has a return to form that intrigues me after all those cold epic synth dominated records of the 80s.

    Still sometimes Hejira towers above them all for me, the perfect road album, expressing her restless spirit torn between the urge to settle down and the need for the Refuge of the Road.

  19. Michael Engelbrecht:

    From fire storms to the refuge of the road ….

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