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From the LA TIMES MAGAZINE 4/17/2005
Ben Vaughn in the Valley of Wonder;
Making music in the middle of nowhere, for just about no
Peter Gilstrap. Los Angeles Times
(Copyright ©2005 Los
Adobe Liquor stands at an intersection at the end of
the town of Twentynine Palms and the beginning of the
desert. At night, it's the last sign of anything other
than stars and darkness, the last place to ask for
directions to a bar called the Palms that is out there
somewhere, in an unincorporated realm known as Wonder
The Korean fellow running the liquor store has no
idea which direction the bar is in. The only other
person around is a man out front sipping from a brown
bag. When asked where the bar is, this is his exact
"I make my living with my hands—uh, I'm kinda drunk,
sorry—uh, my hands and a chain saw. Now, my buddy up the
road has two chain saws I got my eye on for $800." He
points to an old bike leaning on a post next to an old
black dog that is asleep and dusty. "That's a $400 bike
over there. I'll sell it to ya for $15. Oh, the Palms is
14 miles that way," he slurs, pointing off into the
With sexy crowd-pleaser Joshua Tree National Park
nearby, there aren't a lot of reasons to go to Wonder
Valley. A handful of people live there in a handful of
desert dwellings that are as scattered (and sometimes as
neglected) as the chain-saw master's teeth. There is a
fire station, and a thrift store that's open one day a
week, making the Palms the big draw. And tonight is
extra special, for tonight is the Fourth Ever Wonder
Valley Music Festival.
Bands from as far away as San Francisco and as close
as the Palms' kitchen are on the bill, as is one Ben
Vaughn and his group the Desert Classic (as in the Ben
Vaughn Desert Classic). Vaughn— musician, composer,
producer, bon vivant—started the festival a year ago in
this unlikely place, and it hasn't caught on at all.
Which is part of the grand design.
"Yeah, it's set up right," Vaughn offers. "There's no
cover charge. Nobody expects to make any money. If
you're playing there, you're playing there because you
love the idea of playing there. That's the only reason
you would even be there."
Vaughn is quite familiar with performing for the love
of it, having spent more than a few financially lean but
creatively fat years on the road and in the studio,
heard only by critics, Europeans, fellow musicians
(Marshall Crenshaw covered his ballad "I'm Sorry [But So
Is Brenda Lee]" in 1985) and small but discerning
audiences. And now, after making lots of money writing
music heard by millions in mainstream network hits such
as "3rd Rock From the Sun" and "That '70s Show," he's
returning to that life. It was the desert that decided
him. It was the Hollywood gig that made it possible.
"I pay each band $200, which covers their gas and a
motel room, just so it's all good news," he explains.
"Then there's nothing anyone can complain about."
At least 10 miles of Amboy Road blacktop later, the
Palms glows like a beacon, an alcohol oasis with a dirt
parking lot and a big buffalo signifying nothing on the
sign out front. Inside, no one is complaining, musicians
or otherwise. A young fellow in a motorcycle jacket
holds court grandly at the bar, his arm around a sweet
young thing. He orders another drink, loudly, happily.
"You must be rich," the bartender says.
"I am rich! Rich with poetry! Rich with ideas! Rich
with a beautiful woman!"
The woman laughs, the bartender laughs, the fellow
gets his drink. Of course, when cold cans of Old
Milwaukee cost $1, the embrace of "rich" is a wide and
welcoming thing. As is the joint itself: The Palms is
part bar, part restaurant, part general store, part
There are men, women, teens, children and dogs
milling about. Younger locals play pool, older ones suck
drinks at the bar, where a vodka tonic is delivered in a
glass with pictures of pheasants on it and a bendy straw
as Merle Haggard's voice cracks through the room about
some woeful situation.
Cowboy boots are for sale from a rack at the front
door, and by the bathrooms a fine selection of cassettes
is available at a buck a pop: Glenn Frey, Tiffany,
Prince, Erasure, Mac Davis, Nick Lowe, Bronski Beat,
Jean-Luc Ponty, Jack Wagner and David Lee Roth. Antlers,
rhinestoned mariachi sombreros and sun-bleached cattle
skulls hang from the walls looking down on the action as
the door opens and in wanders Boom Boom. He is greeted
warmly. He is a hefty golden retriever from down the
road that drops by to score Slim Jims from his fans.
Most nights, he lopes over wearing his reflective orange
safety vest, though this evening he apparently braved
Amboy Road without it.
Out back of the place there's a fire pit surrounded
by metal folding chairs and a stack of kindling that
includes broken furniture. Beyond that is the open
desert, and above everything are all those stars you
just can't see from a metal folding chair in Los
Angeles. It's all part of what drew Vaughn here in the
He bought a house in Wonder Valley in 1998, a
sprawling two- bedroom getaway down a two-mile dirt
road. It is, of course, quite near to the Palms, and
nothing else. Location, location, location.
"I think it's a smart thing to do," concurs Vaughn,
who also rents an apartment in Santa Monica and a
recording studio in Venice. "You go to the local bar,
and if you like it there it's probably a good place to
live. This was kind of an extreme version of that,
because it's not really a neighborhood—it's the outback.
I'd looked at the house and loved it, and somebody told
me there was a bar on the highway parallel to where my
Prior to down payment, Vaughn drove over to it.
"The first impression was, there are boots and jeans
and hats and sunglasses and books and cassettes for
sale. Then I heard a band coming from the other room,
and I went in and I was stunned."
As Sam Phillips found Elvis, as Brian Epstein found
the Beatles, Vaughn found the Sibleys. Laura and James.
She was 17, he was 21. Along with their mother, who also
helps write lyrics, they were and are the
owner-operators of the Palms, which allows them to play
there whenever they're not cooking or waiting tables.
"They were doing all covers back then," Vaughn
recalls. "It was James on bass and Laura on guitar and
this speed-freak-looking older guy on drums, a skinny
dude with a mustache, wearing a T-shirt with a black
leather vest. He was chewing his tongue the entire time,
and they did this 15-minute version of 'Elvira' by the
Oak Ridge Boys. It was the strangest version of that
song I'd ever heard, and I was in love. That was it. I
bought the house the next day."
So this is how a blue-collar Jersey-bred rock hound
making big money in soulless Hollywood looked for an
escape from that scene, and arrived in the Mojave Desert
to stumble across a band that would become his raison
d'etre, and created a music festival featuring said band
at the bar they owned. Plus tax, as Elvis once said.
"I kept going back to that bar," says Vaughn, who saw
his first live show—the Four Tops at the Steel Pier in
Jersey in '65—at age 10. "When you see some guy with an
oxygen tank chain-smoking and a few fights here and
there, you go back. And as a part-time, self- proclaimed
talent scout, I immediately looked around. 'Is anybody
else hearing this, because this is gold!' "
And what did he see when he looked around?
"Drunks. They were yelling for 'Knockin' on Heaven's
Which they didn't get. What the Sibleys play is
spare, moody music carved out of guitar, bass, drums and
vocals. Sort of like the Velvet Underground minus the
New York attitude, with a beautiful blond female singer
who can, at times, turn a better lyric and can always
carry more of a tune than Lou Reed and Nico combined.
Laura's guitar snakes in and out of her desert-Dietrich
vocals about black Kawasakis and using a jumper cable at
the carnival and not smiling unless she wants to, sung
in a way that's better heard than read about.
"We had long conversations about their music, and
they were thrilled that I understood it, as much as an
outsider can," says Vaughn, who produced the forthcoming
Sibleys album "Tuesday" for his new label, Many Moods
Records. "What I liked about their music was what they
liked about their music. The poetry of the lyrics. They
sound like where they come from. When I would quote
lines that I liked, they were the lines they were most
Writing a Sibleys song takes "sometimes five minutes,
sometimes a month," Laura says, but it all pretty much
begins with what's going on around them. In Wonder
Valley, there's plenty of time to divine meaning in even
the smallest things.
"Out here there's all this space and there's all this
time," she explains. "I really think time moves
differently out here. You can really get into things.
With music you can sit down and spend a lot of time on
"We had some passers-throughers come in and say,
'Where are we going? Where are we? Where do we go next?'
And we were like, 'You stay on the pavement, and you go
one way or the other way. And whatever way you came
from, you should probably go the other way.' And we had
a new song, 'Follow the Big Black Road.' You're not lost
out there," she continues. "You stay on the pavement and
you won't be lost."
Though Laura Sibley says working with Vaughn "has
been a huge influence in giving us confidence to listen
to what we hear and go toward it," the band was slightly
wary of the man from the Town of Tinsel.
"He told us he was doing some music for 'That '70s
Show' and '3rd Rock From the Sun,' and we were like,
'Yeah, sure, some guy from L.A., whatever.' But he
didn't seem dangerous.... We've been approached by
people who have a lot to say, but they don't have
anything behind it. There's a lot of people like that."
Which Vaughn is well aware of.
"They've had a lot of L.A. [types] come through. If a
film is on location in the desert, they say, 'Let's go
out to this funky bar,' and act like idiot Hollywood
people. So they're a little distrustful. They were
distrustful of my Hollywood connections, actually. As I
Ten years ago, vaughn was 39 and had no hollywood
connections. he was the single parent of a 19-year-old
son. He lived in New Jersey. He'd released multiple
albums (one recorded entirely in his '65 Rambler) that
were acclaimed by Rolling Stone and People but never
sold more than 35,000 copies. He'd performed around the
world, produced legends such as rockabilly heavyweight
Charlie Feathers and R&B great Arthur Alexander (the
Beatles recorded a couple of his tunes, "Anna" and
"Soldier of Love") and worked with names such as John
Hiatt, Rodney Crowell and Alex Chilton.
Which was getting him nowhere.
"The record business is like a deadbeat dad who went
out for a pack of cigarettes 10 years ago and just never
came back," Vaughn says. "I saw what my friends were
going through that were signed to majors and
independents, and it just seemed like the business was
becoming afraid of its own shadow. I didn't feel like
there was a place for me. I'd always liked film scores—Ennio
Morricone, John Barry—I was a cinema fan, so I figured
I'd go out to L.A. and score really cool independent
films for no money."
And so he packed up his Rambler, headed west and
moved into a motel with a six-month lease. His
connections in town were nil, but a one-off radio spot
proved to be his virtual Schwab's.
"I was on KCRW as a guest with a record I put out in
'95 called 'Instrumental Stylings,' " he says. "The
president of the production company that was doing the
'3rd Rock' pilot heard me on the air and called the
station and had me come in." That same day.
By his own admission, Vaughn hadn't watched TV in 20
years, which the powers that be found appealing. "They
really encouraged me to do whatever I wanted, and the
show was a hit....They told everyone I was a genius and
they were afraid to criticize me, so it was great. If
you can ever stumble onto that scam, it's a good one."
Perhaps, but the unforgiving grind of weekly network
television forced Vaughn to forgo his beloved club
dates. "I wanted to be taken seriously, and I knew that
I had to give up playing live for a while because of the
hours that you keep. You have to get up early and do a
14-hour day on a soundstage. Also, I don't think people
take you seriously if they see you in a rock and roll
band. 'He's got to be irresponsible, he's in a rock
"I guess the thing I'm most proud of is I didn't get
fired," admits Vaughn. "It was everything I wanted. I
wanted to be thrown into a situation where I had to
think on my feet and have the fear that some kind of
change is happening in my creative life."
Vertical brainwork is a must in a field in which one
day you're asked to compose something that sounds like
an Argentinean tango and the next day something that
smacks of Don Henley, both of which Vaughn had to do in
the capacity of creating all the original music for his
"It taught me not to fear any instrument or style of
music," he says. It was also quite a leap for a guy
whose best previous work was building pop songs around
three or four chords. The fact that he could pull it off
is a rare and mean feat, something that did not go
unnoticed by his peers. "There are quite a few composers
that are irritated at my success for that reason," says
But now he's ready to move on. "The experiment's
over," he says. "Sitcoms are not as healthy as they used
to be—there's fewer that go on the air and stay on—and
one-hour dramas I'm not interested in. I'm getting back
into record production, being who I was before."
This is a man who still has his original Rambler, and
whose main ride is an '85 Toyota pickup. With stuff
rolling around in the bed.
"I was so disinterested in TV and so unaware of what
was going on, it didn't really hit me as a big
opportunity, or an income-changing opportunity. It took
a while for me to believe my fortunes had changed,"
Vaughn says. "I was poor for so long I had convinced
myself that I was happy being poor, and I really was."
Yet Vaughn is not some kind of pop ascetic. A decade
of faithfully depositing TV paychecks adds up, and he
gets regular residual checks for his work ("That's where
the real money is"). It all makes for a nice parachute
back into the not-so-lucrative world of producing and
creating original music that, as gettable as it is,
still falls somewhere between fringe and cult.
"I'm not really thinking about how I fit in with the
record business, but how I fit in with the people who
want to hear music, and how to get it to them the best
way possible." Which includes performing at
out-of-the-way joints and dives throughout the
Southland—the Buccaneer in Sierra Madre, Pappy &
Harriet's in Pioneertown, the Cinema Bar in Culver City,
the late, great Topper's in beautiful downtown Eagle
Rock—for audiences half his age who only recognize the
name Von when it's preceding Dutch.
Of course, it's not like the multitudes really know
who he is anyway, on this coast at least, but what
Vaughn delivers is that classic, ephemeral thing of
being onstage and being good. Al Jolson had it, so did
Sid Vicious, and it's not just about performing in
blackface or bleeding on your bass; it's about presence,
about the grand tradition of communicating something to
the nice people who paid to see you.
There are better singers, better guitar players,
better songwriters, but there is no better Ben Vaughn.
He's an original, distilling the simple elements of
early pop, rock and R&B into his own sound. His song
titles say a lot: "She's Your Problem Now," "Ava Gardner
Blues," "She Fell Out the Window," "Lookin' for a 7-11."
Yes, his lyrics are funny, but they've also got that big
fat layer of melancholy that some of the best pop
songwriters—from Cole Porter to Chuck Berry to Nick Lowe
to Jonathan Richman—give their work. He might ask you to
pull his finger, but you never know, his heart might
break. And it would still be funny.
"When I was young I'd always go see older guys
because there was something to learn, and enough time
has gone by to where I'm a veteran, and instead of being
embarrassed about it or trying to act young, I just be
myself and try to play for audiences that'll see that as
an asset," Vaughn says. "The only reason I'm playing
live is 'cause I like it. I'm not showcasing, I'm not
looking for a record deal. It's just something I love
doing—it feels like a blood transfusion. It's one
purpose of my existence."
reason for Vaughn to go on living takes place in the
recording studio. His first U.S release since 1997, out
this August on the Soundstage 15 label, is the
exquisite, multi-mood instrumental opus "Ben Vaughn
Presents: Designs in Music," orchestrated with keyboard
wunderkind and Desert Classicist Ryan "Shmedly" Maynes.
Neither straight soundtrack nor fake lounge shtick, the
fully orchestrated album represents his passion for the
Henry Mancini/Neal Hefti/Billy Strange school of mod
arrangements and boss hooks. As the title implies,
Vaughn is willing to take full responsibility for it.
"I like the idea that someone presents something,
like Jackie Gleason did, or even Creed Taylor," he says
of those artists' strategically endorsed concept albums.
"There's a screening process. It's like, 'If he presents
it, he must really be proud of it, and approve of it. It
must be good.' "
Back at the Palms, at the height of this Fourth Ever
Wonder Valley Music Festival, things are undeniably
good. There is a friendly table of chocolate cake,
beets, black bean salad and other American delights
provided gratis by the Palms. Those $1 Old Milwaukees
continue to provide excellent good-time lubrication.
beloved Sibleys have wowed the crowd and shut down a
liquored-up Southern rock enthusiast. ("Play some
Skynyrd, darlin'!" Laura: "I'm sorry, but this is an
original music showcase!") The Duane Jarvis band has lit
up the room, emo-country chanteuse Victoria Williams has
come and gone, and now, finally, the Ben Vaughn Desert
Classic takes the stage.
All the way from Jersey, Hollywood and two miles down
a dirt road behind the bar, here is Ben Vaughn. Onstage,
when the light hits him in a certain way, he looks like
a dashing, young, beardless Abe Lincoln. But the revered
Rail Splitter never strapped on a faded cream-colored
Fernandez Telecaster and opened a set with "Worried Man
Blues"—"It takes a worried man to sing a worried
song"—and that's all it takes to get the crowd of 60 or
so going. Vaughn moves into his own tunes: "I Dig Your
Wig," "Heavy Machinery." Shots of tequila make their way
to the stage and are consumed by the Classic. U.S.
Marines from the local base run onto the dance floor, do
goofy little moves like hyped-up kids crashing the
adults' Christmas dinner, then dash outside to the patio
to drink and giggle and high- five.
Vaughn leads Rich Dembowski (bass), Kevin Jarvis
(drums) and Shmedly (on keyboards) through song after
song, some fast, some slow, steering the momentum and
tossing out the Steve Cropper guitar lines like the vet
he is. Trumpet player Sarah Kramer sits in, singing
Vaughn's "Love Leave Me Alone" beautifully. "Not bad for
a girl, eh?" queries the boss, who barrels through the
last four songs of the set with five strings. It takes
more than a broken E to slow the Classic down.
Out on the patio, a group of guys in their 20s who
had never heard of Vaughn before tonight guzzle beers
and respectfully murmur their frank assessments. "He's
pro, oh yeah. He's totally rock and roll."
They're right. He is. It's been a great night. The
fire outside has burned itself to embers, the stars
above have shifted, Boom Boom has sauntered home. Though
Vaughn says he doesn't meditate ("Probably 'cause I'm
from Jersey. 'Meditate on this, pal!' "), he seems to
have all he needs to lead a simple, almost Zen-like
creative existence that has nothing to do with
Hollywood, and quite a lot to do with Wonder Valley.
"I own my house in the desert," he says. "If it all
came down to the only thing I had left, I'm good. I'm
going to need some sandbags and some hand grenades, but
I'd be ready for anything. And I've got the Sibleys on
* The Fifth Ever Wonder Valley Music Festival is
scheduled for April 23 at the Palms. Call (760) 361-2810
for information and updates or go to benvaughn.net.
Peter Gilstrap is a freelance writer based in L.A.