California Stars

“This is a song, which I haven’t sung for many, many years,”

said Scottish born folk singer and guitarist Bert Jansch before launching into the opening notes of one of his most celebrated songs, “Needle of Death”. We were somewhere in Northern CA, in the late spring of 2010.  That song, which acutely reflected the struggles of heroin addiction was released years before Neil Young’s “Needle and the Damage Done” swept the nation, and that night Young was also in the audience. He’s called Bert “the best acoustic guitarist”, saying, “he’s my favorite anyway. That first record of his [1965] is epic. It came from England, and I was especially taken by Needle of Death, such a beautiful and angry song…”

On this night, Bert was happy to be present to play it. He, along with his wife Loren, were both in remission after treatment for cancer. His & Hers chemo they liked to joke. And through some fate of the universe, I found myself accompanying them on their journey down the west coast of the United States.  Bert and Loren, long time loves who had been married for many years, were seeing life together, in the way only those who’ve come so close to the edge can.

Touring can often times be mundane between shows, just a paved purgatory of Starbucks, truckstops and road signs.  But this time we took the long way along the meandering coastal 101 / 1–even though it took us twice the time. We worshiped the majesty of the Redwoods and were humbled by the cliffs of Big Sur, overlooking the start of the infinite. Comedic sea lions sunned themselves alongside bullwhips of kelp on the sandy Pacific coast preserve. We ate chowder at the end of the Santa Barbara Pier, inhaling it’s briny notes of wet wood and salt air as the moon rose. We stopped for vanilla soft serve, rolled up our pant legs and splashed in the ocean even though it was messy. We stayed at the Madonna Inn in San Louis Obispo despite it being overpriced, ridiculous and dressed with far too much pink. We ate at In N Out, animal style. Everything felt more alive with this technicolor vision.

As we made our way south, Bert, with his immaculately kept white Converse sneakers would hold his audiences rapt each night with gorgeous, melancholic melodies, fingers flying over the fret board with skill only a musician with a lifetime of gigs under his belt can. It’s a style that elicited admiration from legends like Jimmy Page who once said,

“At one point, I was absolutely obsessed with Bert Jansch. When I first heard that LP [1965], I couldn’t believe it. It was so far ahead of what everyone else was doing. No one in America could touch that.”

After each set, a new crop of eager Jansch enthusiasts would encircle him with vinyl stacks, sharpies and questions ready. Bert would shuffle out and sign, chat, and bask in the glow of fans both longtime and newly minted. One of Loren’s own releases After the Long Night, from the mid eighties, would also often make an appearance- she’d blush and smile and sign modestly.

In the van, we’d unite over the World Cup games and I held them hostage with repeated Hounds of Love listenings. Loren and I would chat endlessly while Bert, contentedly quiet, let us carry on. More often than not  he let Loren be his mouthpiece, conserving his vocal energies for the evening’s performance. Most of the time they were so symbiotic that it was almost impossible to imagine one without the other.

It was the kind of trip that shifts your perspective, a kaleidoscopic intersection of the senses.

So when I dropped them off at LAX, I felt nothing but hopeful that I’d see them again.

I would, thankfully. Nearly a year later, Bert was playing with Neil Young in New York City, holding an entire Lincoln Center crowd hushed and rapt (which is no small feat considering the rabbid Neil fans). It was the most breathtaking and appropriate way to see him for the last time. For it was only a few months later that Bert would  succumb to his struggle with cancer. And in the most tragic, yet poignantly beautiful way, Loren followed him just weeks after.

I will be forever grateful to have been touched by their lives, and to share some of these moments with you. See them above.

Huge thanks to Sean Pecknold for shooting / editing.