As a high school student in Los Angeles in the 60’s I was volunteered to help with firefighting in the Hollywood Hills. We didn’t actually fight fires – we removed debris, shoveled mud, and cleared streets of fallen trees and other obstacles so firefighters and emergency workers could get through quickly. I remember that the destruction taught me the power of fire and water. But his week, I learned another lesson: fire and water have no respect for fame or talent. The two fires now ripping across Southern and Northern California have leveled the lives of the famous, the up and coming, and the heroic. With the Woolsey Fire only 47% contained as I write this and the Camp Fire gobbling up another 5000 acres last night and raising the death toll to 59, it is far too early to take account of the devastation. But one thing is certain, there will be an impact on music in California.
What I know so far about the Malibu area is that Richard Gibbs, the former keyboard player for Oingo Boingo, lost his Malibu home but apparently his famous Woodshed recording studio survived. Robin Thicke and April Love Geary, Miley Cyrus, and Neil Young lost their homes in the Woolsey Fire – the second time a home belonging to Young was destroyed by fire. Producer/engineer/musician Charley Pollard lost his house in Malibu but apparently his Dragonfly Creek Recording Studio, used by folks like Lady Gaga, and Neil Young, is OK. Not so fortunate was the studio of David Bowie collaborator, the pianist and keyboard master, Mike Garson. And, earlier this week, rising pop singer/songwriter Destiny Malibu posted an Instagram photo of the remains of her parents’ home, where she lived while she launched her burgeoning career.
As I write, we don’t know the fate of the Malibu home of Lady Gaga, but appears that the home of former One Direction singer Liam Payne is gone and Ingrooves music Executive Michael Plen lost his home as he and family had to flee with not much more than the clothes they were wearing and what they could carry. Lady Gaga has been on the scene handing out pizza, coffee, and gift cards and comforting those who have lost homes while she awaits the fate of her own house. Barbara Streisand’s Peach House, donated to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Foundation, was burned down — the loss of an important piece of music history. As of this writing, I don’t know the status of the Shangri-La recording studio built in Zuma Beach for Bob Dylan and The Band.
The Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village area apparently fared much better. Calls to studios and venues yielded some “not available” responses but those studio operators who did answer, like the hip-hop/rap recording center Kush House Studio, were unaffected. One studio, Perks Place Recording, told me that they had to deal with flames at their back door but the business escaped unscathed. The famed Boogie’s Jazz Club, scene of a major fundraiser for fire victims last year, was closed for a couple of smoky days but is open and playing music, much to the relief of the LA jazz community.
But the worst devastation was in Paradise, California, near the state capitol, Sacramento. Long a haven for retirees, artists, and musicians, it was a bucolic home for many in the folk and world music community. The town no longer exists: every building is gone including the town ’s handful of professional and home studios and music venues.
The stories are heartbreaking, reminding me of the incineration of Music Junkie Press in the Tubbs fire in Sonoma County last year. But, unlike the spotty destruction in Santa Rosa where Music Junkie was, there was nothing left standing in Paradise. Maurice, owner of the destroyed Himmel Street Records recording studio, told me “it is all gone, burned to the ground, my equipment, my musical instruments, everything.” He is hoping to rebuild but is now negotiating with his insurance company.
The most devastating and uplifting story I heard was about Justin Mora, musician and owner of what was Mora Sound, a full-service enterprise in Paradise offering recording, equipment rental, DJ’ing, recording, production – everything for live or recorded music. Like Maurice at Himmel Street Records, Mora was a musician and played locally. He told me he lost his home, the recording studio, all of his rental equipment, his musical instruments, and his music library. None of it was insured.
But regardless of the flames reducing his life to ashes, Justin’s cousins say he took time to help others, saving several lives while himself was fleeing the Paradise fire. He gave his vehicle to an elderly woman and her dog trapped in a car that ran out of gas, and then, with them safe, he drove back into the fire to help a young woman find and rescue her boyfriend who was left behind. Now he and his 4-year old daughter are homeless and without his musical instruments, he has no way of making a living. I donated to a gofundme site set up by his cousins to raise money for Justin and his daughter to rent someplace to live.
What the impact will be on the music scenes in the state is yet to be determined, but it is likely that we will lose some talented artists because they cannot continue without homes, instruments, gigs. The fires are a blow to the shrinking recording studio community, already pressured by home recording equipment and software, but whether it will increase waiting times at existing studios or increase the number of home recordings is hard to say. Right now, the important thing is to control the fires.