Grooving with the Archetypes
Venice Arts Club - An experiment in music and healing
(2009 Backyard, Venice
Beach. Doug Lewis. Photo by Cara Tompkins)
The days become precious when not many of them are left. Doug Lewis wakes up in his book filled bedroom around 9 a.m., walks into the small recording studio on the other side of the room, sits down and jots a few lines before heading to the bathroom, or breakfast. He doesn't want to lose any of the music that came to him during the night, writing it down first thing helps. Later he'll walk his dogs Squishy and Monster in the dog park on Venice Beach, then perhaps swing by Abbott's Habit for a cup of tea and chat with friends. By early afternoon he's usually back in the studio laying down guitar tracks, recording harmonica pieces, singing or writing.
But the real action starts after sundown. The scene opens with people gathering around the fire pit, uncorking bottles, and talking.
In 2003, Doug's doctors told him he had cancer, over the course of six weeks the news went from bad to worse. A tumor had grown on the inferior vena cava of his heart, requiring surgery. To get to it, the doctors needed to reach the center of Doug's body, the surgery meant moving organs around, and cutting from his navel all the way up and around his chest cavity. In essence the doctors planned on cutting his body nearly in half. "Let me think about it," Doug requested after the details were explained. "You don't have time to think about it", his doctor replied. "This is as serious as it gets…you’ve got six months, max.”
After surgery the following week, Doug got an overdose of morphine during post-operative care, and fell into a coma. His arms turned blue from the elbows down, as did his other extremities.
Among many journeys he experienced while in this state, Doug remembers traveling on a boat across a wide turquoise sea. He stood on the bow, and watched dolphins playing in the bow-wake at his feet. Then he dove off the boat to swim along with them. He grabbed a dorsal fin, splashing along with one dolphin after another as they jumped in the waves. A remarkable feeling of well-being enveloped Doug. Then one of the dolphins beamed a message at him. "So, do you want to go back?" Wordlessly, Doug answered. "Then make it effortless", the dolphin said.
The next thing he remembers is grabbing a nurse's arm that was at his bedside. "Hello, can you hear me? I'm Doug Lewis, and I'm still here."
experience such as this echoes what Carl Jung wrote about archetypes.
"When an archetype appears in a dream, or in life, it brings
with it a certain power, by which it exercises a fascinating effect,
or impels to action." Once out of the hospital, Doug refused
chemotherapy and radiation. Months of grueling recovery followed. To
keep his mind off the pain, Doug played harmonica in bed, as he
was too weak to stand up. When he could pick up a guitar again, he
began to play.
(1977 Great Barrier Reef, Oz. Photo by Captain Peter Bristow)
No One Knows Everything
grew up in Hawaii, remembers listening to Sonny Chillingsworth, and
Sunday Mauana Jam, and all the jazz in his father's record collection
back in those days. He started playing the harmonica at age 6. After
graduating high school Doug worked for several years as a sport
and commercial fisherman. During that time he got an education from
Ocean, covering the seas from Hawaii, to Tahiti, and across to the
Great Barrier Reef many times,
for big spenders. Later he delivered private yachts from
Florida to Toronto, then freighters from NYC to Turkey, before
finally landing in LA.
At Sunset Club. L to R, Dan Millington, DL, Mark Baer, Mark Brooks,
Cavin Shorter. Photo by Jim Budman)
In the early 80's Doug ran an underground bar called At Sunset, located behind the Whisky A Go-Go on the Sunset Strip. He seems to have partied with just about everybody you've ever heard of in the film or music businesses, or art world.
Doug's knack for making friends in all the right places later landed him a job as stage hand, then as an art director for commercials and music videos, and finally as a producer/representative for a European film company. Knowing everybody in Hollywood became Doug's job, and he felt right at home. With so much going on, there wasn't much time for music.
Mar Vista, CA. Arthur Barrow. Photo courtesy of Arthur Barrow)
Arthur Barrow, formerly a bass player with Frank Zappa, taught Doug the craft of making music. Their collaboration started in '94 and lasted over a decade. "He was incredibly patient with me" Doug says now. "I was impetuous, and wanted to do everything myself. There was so much I had to learn, about sound levels, about controlling my voice, and what making music was really about." As they could only meet once or twice a week, Arthur imposed structure, and the whole process was tightly controlled. "Then a third of my left ring finger got cut off while working on the set of a Michael Jackson video, and I gave up on playing music. My friend Jamie Cohen forced me to pick up the guitar again. He had introduced me to Arthur, and wouldn't let me walk away." Pushing his amputated finger across the metal strings of a guitar was excruciating. Arthur put up with Doug's amateur level of musicianship, and all the rest of it. "Throughout that period, I didn't really listen to anybody else's music but my own", Doug recalls. “But I only had a few hours a week to actually practice, and was often frustrated I couldn't progress faster.”
one knows everything, no one knows everything...Sarajevo." That's the
only line in a 25 second song, a mere coda amidst 8-9
albums of music made in the last few years. But it sticks in your
head and keeps bouncing around.
Backyard, Venice Beach. Doug Lewis. Photo by Cara Tompkins)
You Keep Me Waiting
a few glasses of wine around the fire, and a shared meal, Doug or
Grammy award winning producer Andy Kravitz will take a seat at the
control panel, and recording begins. Doug will invite someone
inside, either to record part of a track he has already prepared, or
to create something new from an idea sprouted in the back yard. Each
night's music takes a different route. Outside the conversation goes
on, and usually the sliding glass window to the studio is left open.
"We like a little background noise," Andy says.
(2009 VAC Studio, Venice Beach. DL and Andy Kravitz Photo by Cara Tompkins)
Some songs are finished in a matter of hours, and never tweaked again. Others take a month or two, passing through various versions and levels of polish before taking their final form. Each song is a story, but not told directly. Voices enter, they develop, and then fade, as do the instruments. Characters appear in English, German, French, Spanish, Vietnamese, and other languages. But there is also a lot of straight-up rock&roll, blues, and jazz in what is percolating at the Venice Arts Club. Call it California groove candy. Yum!
the fall of 2004, Doug, Andy Kravitz and Jamie Cohen started making
music together, chose the name The Cheeters for the group. Their
first album is called "Lies in High Fidelity". The bluesy
song “You Keep Me Waiting” is the final song of the group's
second album, “Bombshell Breakup”.
Bang, Bang, Bang
Jamie Cohen's baritone voice, and dry wit are woven deep into the heart of the Cheeters music. A recording industry veteran, Jamie signed dozens of artists to record contracts, developed album covers, and dealt with the myriad of problems that artistic personalities generate. His passion was finding new music.
Jamie traveled to Berlin and was working with Peter Baumann of Tangerine Dream when the wall came down in 1989. Two days of mayhem and catharsis ensued. Hammers pounded the wall all night. Berlin rose again like a phoenix from the rubble. The Cheeters song "Bang, Bang, Bang" was recorded almost twenty years later, and weaves Jamie's memories of that historic night into the fabric of what Berlin has become during the intervening years. Sung in a faux German accent, the song is a search for the meaning of Berlin, "All This new freedom is not what it seems...It's the new Crystalnacht. Bang, bang, bang to all the rest. But instead of the Juden, it's the Red in the hearse. No one around to stop the blockades. Let's go to Albertson's and buy a lampshade. Now there's a Starbucks in Berlin AlexanderPlatz...and the sexy little fräuleins in their sexy little hats. But once again it's Deutch-america and not French-america..."
By the mid nineties, Jamie had given up his career as a recording industry executive, and relocated to New Mexico, to live the artists' life. He settled in at Eaves Movie Ranch in Santa Fe, where he worked as the caretaker. Freed from the pressures of life in LA, Jamie drew & painted, wrote, and created whimsical philosophical animations.
came to LA once or twice a year to record at Doug's house or Arthur
Barrow's Lotek Studios. Andy and Doug made a couple trips to Santa
Fe, recorded in the old west movie sets with Jamie. "We had a
number of iconic moments, when
had raised the bar for ourselves both musically, and on a
personal level", Andy says. "Hanging
with Jamie and Doug showed me the real value of friendship."
(2007 Santa Fe, NM. L to R, Jamie Cohen, DL, Brent Arnold, Andy Kravitz. Photo by DL on Photo Booth)
Jamie scribbled down the lyrics for the song "No Clue" in a couple of minutes. "He had a lot of deep feelings about our country being at war, the plight of our soldiers really weighed upon him," Andy recalls. "You could see it in his face."
The song begins, "Can you bear the conformity? Can a world be run more brutally? Astrology, astronomy, we go ahead so violently. Can we shed our armor, stop wondering what's left to do? No amount of love or blood can ever keep the world from you..." A few months after recording "No Clue", Jamie Cohen's heart stopped, on September 11, 2008. He was 53 years old.
the chorus of the song takes on new meaning as Jamie's voice sings,
"One day you're here the next you're gone. No one knows what
happened, no clue left on the lawn." The
music and remembrance go on every night around the fire.
A Whole 'Nutha Trip
(2010 Backyard, Venice Beach. Doug Lewis, Michael Jost. Photo by Cara Tompkins)
Doug formed the Venice Arts Club, a community based music experiment, just after doctors had given him a prognosis of six months to live for the second time.
While on a trip to Europe, this time cancer appeared in lumps just under the surface of his skin. Doug again refused chemotherapy. Too sick to fly home, Doug stayed at a friend's house in Barcelona for the first few months of his recovery, and began listening to electronic music, and music from all over the world. Groups like Air and Fela Kuti uplifted him, as did many others. "Immersing myself in other people's music allowed me to liberate myself from myself", Doug says.
"When I got back home, the first things I wanted were a glass of wine and a cigarette," Doug laughs. He decided there was no reason to deny himself these simple pleasures. He also decided to fill his house with music. "There was no going back to how things were before. It was time to open it up."
Most of the people coming over to the house haven't heard of the Venice Arts Club. All they know is they've been invited over to play music, or hang out in the backyard. "Everyone has a song inside them", Andy Kravitz asserts. "People surprise themselves here."
As the night deepens, the conversation rolls on; great books, politics, Venice gossip, poetry, the big questions in life; all topics are fair game. Old friends stop by with their dogs, and a bottle of wine. People pass through the sliding glass doors to record something, or to sit on the couch in the studio to listen for awhile. The mic gets passed around. There is such a supportive atmosphere that even people exploring their voices for the first time feel at ease opening up.
This is reflected in the music coming out of the house, it's hard to tell who is the lead singer in many of the songs, which side of a song is the verse and which the chorus? Musically speaking, “It's a whole 'nutha trip”.
Dig Too Deep
Driveway, Venice Beach. Airstream trailer formerly owned by Philip K.
Dick and now by James Mathers. Photo by Cara Tompkins)
The New White Trash is the first splinter group to emerge out of the Venice Arts Club. It sprang from Doug's friendship with investigative journalist and former LA cop Michael C. Ruppert. “Mike and I met at the local dog park, our dogs got on very well and so did we. I gave Mike a copy of the Cheeters first CD and he loved it. He gave me a copy of Crossing The Rubicon, which I devoured.” Soon Mike was participating in the scene at Doug's house, including singing backup on a couple Venice Arts Club songs.
Can you judge a man by his enemies? Over the years Mike Ruppert has battled the CIA, the petroleum industry, the Justice Department, and Wall Street, among other monster institutions known for playing hardball. “My life was painful, exhausting, and subject to persecution, but I was obsessed with investigating and could not stop.” At the end of 2009 in the midst of his huge success with the documentary film “Collapse”, Mike faced his own personal river Rubicon. “I hadn't taken care of myself for 30 years, working 16 hours a day, never eating or sleeping well. I felt as if I had been split in two. I knew that if I kept going the same way I was going to destroy myself.”
in his college days at UCLA, and his first years as a cop, Mike used
to sing at Brennen's pub in
Marina del Ray,
and the old Boathouse restaurant on Santa Monica pier. But as he
delved deeper and deeper into the ugly world of the drug trade and
organized crime, he found he had to “lock away his musical muse
deep inside, in order to protect her.”
VAC studio, Venice Beach. Mike Ruppert, Doug Lewis. Photo by Cara
One night at the Venice Arts Club a wave of emotion came pouring out of Mike while singing in the studio. On the other side of the house nine or ten people were drinking wine, finishing meals, or deep in conversation, and full stop everyone felt the walls of the house shaking. When Mike emerged awhile later, he had barely gotten control of himself, his face was pale, and his eyes still bloodshot with tears. Still in the throes of epiphany, he was unable to maintain conversation, so he went to find a quiet place to be alone. He began to see the new road his life must now take. Towards music!
Acceptance of this new direction in Mike's life was not immediate, not with his friends and co-workers in the investigative world, nor necessarily at the Venice Arts Club. “I made him work for it,” says Doug. “I pushed him pretty hard and he didn’t fold. In fact, he blossomed.”
Doug and Mike found a musical groove and the collaboration deepened. “The music we make is an attempt to understand a personal relationship, a spiritual underpinning or a social/political situation. For us posing the question is equally as important as finding the answer.” Mike puts it like this, “For years I had tried to reach people with logic and clarity, and the message only got so far. Now I'm reaching out on the emotional side, which is very satisfying.”
key ingredient for the New White Trash is singer/actress Kristen
Vigard, a woman whose story has had its own share of twists and
turns. As a young girl Kristen sang on Broadway in several musicals,
eventually landing the lead in Annie, the original musical first
staged in Connecticut, but grew out of the role before it reached
Broadway. Still she remained as the standby Annie for over a year in
NY, and got to play the role there on several occasions.
(2009 VAC Studio Venice Beach. Kristen Vigard, DL. Photo by Bud Theisen)
As a teenager, Kristen became a bona fide Soap star, with regular roles on “The Guiding Light” and then on “One Life to Live”. But by age 21 Kristen decided music was her true calling. She headed to Paris for a year, and sang on the streets to pick up extra money, and in jazz clubs whenever she could.
Upon her return home, Kristen became part of the underground music scene in LA. On the same week that Jamie Cohen first heard her sing and offered her a record contract, she also became a back-up singer for the Red Hot Chile Peppers, and began touring with them. She's since released three solo albums, recorded numerous film soundtracks, and been involved in dozens of other music projects. “Kristen can be a handful,” Doug says, “because she's bursting with energy and has so many stories to tell. But she's also such a pro, full of musical ideas, and a rich soulful voice.”
(2009 VAC Studio, Venice Beach. Kelli Haverick, James Mathers. Photo by Cara Tompkins)
Other regulars at the Venice Arts Club are guitar god Michael Jost (Sugarbitch), Venice artist/astral traveler James Mathers, and photographer Cara Tompkins, who documents the comings and goings of the VAC. Doug often adds the voices of his teenage daughters Malia and Bailey into the musical mix, creating a multi-generational air.
The latest fruit of all that collaboration is the New White Trash album, “Doublewide” a 37 song collection. The cautionary tale “Don’t Dig Too Deep” features Kristen's voice, with lyrics pulled from the lies of headline news. The album also features a duet with Kristen and Mike called “Cold Light of Day”; the song is brought to life by the voices of two people who couldn't be more different.
Out Your Hand For The Nightingale
(2010 Driveway, Venice Beach. Doug Lewis. Photo by Cara Tompkins)
The doctors still can't explain how Doug has outlived two death sentences. His cancer has been under control now for a couple years. Doctors ask him to come in for tests, trying to determine how he has survived so long. They invite him to speak with other cancer patients. “Some cancer survivors don't talk about it, but that's not me”, he says. “To me silence is death.”
Back in the mid-80's Doug had been living a nighttime life, running the At Sunset club. He was making a lot of cash, dating starlets, and partying hard and often until six in the morning. A perfect rock & roll lifestyle, right? Over the course of four years, his health got worse and worse, he began to lose a lot of weight, was so exhausted he couldn't pick himself back up. Eventually a friend forced Doug to see a doctor, who diagnosed him with a digestive disease. Doug was told his best option was to start a program of antibiotics and other pills, if that didn't work surgery would probably be necessary to cut out part of his digestive tract.
Doug closed the club, and after a few weeks of research on health and healing, decided to go to the Kushi Institute, near Boston. Within the course of a few weeks, Doug returned to good health, gained weight back, and went through a deep personal transformation. He stayed on and took classes with Michio Kushi, and later began shiatsu massage training.
During his time at the Kushi institute Doug continued reading all he could on alternative medicine practices. He got involved with a book project attempting to compile all information on the subject, and ultimately became the associate editor of the first edition of “Alternative Medicine, the Definitive Guide” considered a classic resource, now in its seventh edition. As Doug's understanding grew, he found the could identify sick people on sight, and he was never afraid to lay on his healing hands.
He gave shiatsu massages to AIDS sufferers at Shattuck Hospital in Boston. With their open sores and lesions, many were not willing to touch these dying patients, especially in those early years when fear and uncertainty about AIDS were running high. Doug dared to get closer. “Those conversations were gifts of love,” he says now. “Many of those people were suffering from loneliness and lack of human contact, in addition to everything else. Sure, death is serious, but it can still be approached in a positive way.”
After four years dedicated to healing, Doug realized he didn't want to turn it into a career, and so he returned to LA and settled in. Yet when faced with cancer, he drew on what he had learned during those years at Kushi. “I felt like I knew exactly what I had to do to bring myself back to life. The details don't matter, most important was the knowledge that it was possible to recover. I live with cancer every day, a lump here, a rash there. When you try to heal yourself, you soon realize what you are going through is very much like the mythical journey of the hero. Well then tell us, what have you got to share from where you've been?”
is interesting to watch what the psyche does when threatened with the
end,” Carl Jung wrote. "It disregards it. Life behaves as if
it were going on." And, he added, "The healthiest thing you
can do when facing death is to live as if you were going to spend
centuries here. Look forward to great adventure."
(2009 Backyard, Venice Beach. Photo by Cara Tompkins)
Well after midnight, the recording session begins to wind down, the hot coals begin to fade, and people who drifted in head back home again. Sometimes a straggler or two will stay too late and have to be gently prodded to find the door, sometimes that's not possible, and they end up crashing on the couch. After the house quiets down, Doug sits again at the counsel, reviews the night's music, organizes the files, and begins to think about tomorrow. He's usually in bed by about three.
The nightingale has long been a poetic symbol for the magical state experienced during a waking dream. In the New White Trash song “Hold out your Hand for the Nightingale” Doug brings us into the mouth of a great cave, shows us the fire and the shadows on the walls, and as we float along with the acoustic guitar, slyly confronts us with the image of an endless line of people, holding out their hands to receive a message. Will it be salvation, or more sorrow?
“The scene at Doug's house reminds me of how California used to be,” says another regular visitor, Toronto artist and filmmaker Karen Silver. “It's laid back, with fantastic people, and a warm loving vibe.”
“With the Venice Arts Club I wanted to create something that had always been missing around me,” Doug says. “A place where people are accepted, and feel free to reveal themselves.” The network has grown organically by word of mouth. Doug says he's never had an issue or problem, no one has ever called the cops, even when the music gets loud. “We call it a neighborhood project with artists from around the globe.”
Tune in to the Venice Arts Club, the Cheeters, and New White Trash, the music is available online at all the usual sites. Wrangle an invitation if you can. Maybe you'll surprise yourself, opening up a path to the heart. And somebody, please get these guys a regular radio show and podcast. A treasure trove of music and LA stories still await to be uncovered.
what may, Doug Lewis is a man with a secret smile, and no one can
take that away.
(2009 Dog Park, Venice Beach. Photo by Cara Tompkins)