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|reprinted without permission from Rolling Stone 9.6.1990
Tales from the Dark Side
At song's end, Baerwald studies his thin hands resting on the keyboard, then laughs. "You know what I
think after singing something like that?" he asks. He strides over to the far side of the den, gesturing at
something that hangs on a wall around the corner. It is a hand-tinted picture of Baerwald himself, at about
age fifteen. His hair is browner and his face is fuller than now, with none of the lines, scars and
sunken pockets that currently make up his hawklike visage. It's a smiling and sweet face that looks out
from the picture, but there is something lop-sided and sly in the smile, not unlike the smile with which
Baerwald now regards the photo. "Look at that face," he says, gazing at his former self. "Whatever happened
One way, there's an easy answer to that question: What happened to David Baerwald was that he became an uncommonly literate and seasoned songwriter. That is, he took the experiences and perspectives of a life lived hard and fashioned them into a part hard-boiled, part empathetic lyrical sensibility that - in his songs with the much-acclaimed L.A. duo David and David as well as in his own recent solo work - rivals the best musings of such similar-minded Southern California pop artisans as Warren Zevon and Randy Newman. But whereas Zevon and Newman frequently write in fictional modes, there is something deeply personal about Baerwald's scenarios. It's as if the person singing about people who are living existences of ruin and longing has also known that existence himself.
The catch is, while Baerwald likes to joke about his own dissipated image, he isn't overly fond of disclosing the details of what shaped that sensibility. Indeed, the thirty-year-old Baerwald can prove a bit perplexing. He can speak endlessly and compellingly about a wide range of matters - from his favorite American authors (which include Raymond Chandler, Paul Bowles, Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus) to his political passions (which lean toward unsentimental leftism) - and he can tell hilarious off-the-record tales about some of his more famous acquaintances. But for all his obvious erudition, there is an unequivocal streetwise quality about Baerwald - an edginess that comes in flash-quick moments when a dark glare crosses his face as a warning against delving too deeply into certain private concerns. In other moments, Baerwald can turn resolutely vague. For example, a little later, as he sits on the veranda of his mother's home, he seems both nonplused and cagey when the question is put to him directly: What did become of the young, innocent-looking kid in that class photo? What is it about his past that turned him into such a keen profiler of bad-news souls?
Baerwald regards the question quietly for a long moment, staring at the sharp points of his faded brown boots. "Um ... I guess I gained perspective," he says, beginning softly, "and, uh, strength and, uh, knowledge. And I think I lost unquestioning good faith and innocence and, uh, you know, the youthful optimism that is untempered by facts. I'm not sure that those are terrible things to lose.
"But what I'm really upset about," he adds, pausing and fixing his visitor with an utterly sincere look, "is my complexion." Baerwald beams a quick, roguish smile, then lets out a loud laugh that echoes off the nearby hills.
Over the next hour or two, a slightly more detailed answer emerges. Baerwald was born in 1960 in Oxford, Ohio. His father was a respected political-science professor, and his mother taught English and music. When Baerwald was five, his father accepted a position as dean of students at an English university in Japan and moved the family to just outside Tokyo. Baerwald is sketchy about what the family life was like. There were two older sisters - one was a musical prodigy, and both went through long, unhappy periods - and his parents' marriage, he indicates, was strained and eventually came apart. "They were an odd pairing," Baerwald says. "My father's a very austere German intellectual, and my mother's a warm Midwestern woman from a family of farmers. I'm still pretty close to my mother [now a psychologist], and I have a very, uh, cordial relationship with my father. The two of us are definitely cut from the same cloth, which can be distressing to admit."
It was a tumultuous time to be living abroad. America was involved in Vietnam, and there were riots and military actions at the university where Baerwald's parents taught. As a young American, Baerwald sympathized with those who protested the war, but he was also drawn to some less peaceful ideals. "I got interested in the way the Japanese cultural aesthetic can combine serenity with sudden violence, he says. "It's a trait I have an affinity towards, that warrior-poet ideal." In time, Baerwald found he had even a stronger affinity with the rock & roll revolution that was taking place back in America and in Britain - especially the music of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and the Band. To his parents' distaste, Baerwald began playing his own rock & roll and shortly began writing some politically acerbic songs.
When he was eleven, the family moved to the Brentwood district around UCLA, but Baerwald found Los Angeles's air of cultural languor disorienting. "I mean, this neighborhood," he says, gesturing at the sprawling hills around him. It is a seductive landscape, brimming with beautiful homes tucked into rolling hills of affluence and privilege. "You see nice houses and nice people in nice cars with nice clothes, and you can't believe it's as idyllic as it looks."
"Anyway," Baerwald continues, "I got ejected from high school I had a terrible temper, and I felt that the educational system existed solely to kill thinking. Coming from my background, there was nothing of interest to me in school I'd already read and understood the religious symbolism of The Scarlet Letter at eight, and I wasn't going to get anything more from it at age fourteen. So I became a problem student. It started out with a war because I refused to wear shoes. And it deteriorated from that to, uh, violence." Baerwald pauses and smiles grimly. "It would be fair to say my teenage years were filled with violent explorations. Which I still draw on."
Somewhere along the line, Baerwald fell into trouble with the law and ended up on probation. When this subject comes up, the singer leans forward with a dour look and makes an admonishing gesture. "I will not go into the details of this," he says flatly. "Suffice it to say that I survived it. And let me make one thing clear: It was not drugs that endangered me. I never had a drug problem or anything on that level. It was people, you know? People were dangerous to me; drugs weren't."
Baerwald realizes he has tensed up and leans back in his chair, offering an appeasing chuckle. "I'm going to do everything I can not to talk about that stuff, because it would end up becoming a focus. It's just something I went through, and it's over." He pauses. His eyes flicker warily behind his sunglasses, and for a moment, his thoughts seem to scan distant memories. "The people I knew then," he says after a bit, "the experiences I was involved in, the things I did. . . ." He lets out a long sigh. "Those are things that I will probably continue using as details or colors for the characters in my songs for as long as I write." Baerwald fixes his visitor with a level gaze and crosses his arms over his chest. This subject, he signals, is closed.
In general, the late Seventies were a restive time for Baerwald. He recorded with one L.A. punk band, the Spastics, then spent three years playing bass, singing lead and writing for another, the Sensible Shoes. "There was a part of me that knew that world was not a place I belonged," he says. "That night-club life was too stupid and pathetic"
In 1984, Baerwald began collaborating with an old acquaintance, David Ricketts, a musician of serious training who had played in the Philadelphia club scene in the Seventies. The two Davids were markedly different people - Baerwald held bedrock musical values, Ricketts was more attuned to jazz and progressive musical forms; Baerwald was impulsive and moody, Ricketts was methodical and introspective - but somehow the combination worked. "We just plugged into each other at exactly the right time," says Baerwald. "I remember the first thing we wrote was an abrasive punkish piece, and the second song was this sweet piano-and-string ballad. We did both in the same day, and we looked at each other and said, 'There's no limit to what we can do.' It was really a freeing up. Basically, I backed off from the music part, and Ricketts had no lyrical input or sense of what the lyrics were. So it was extremely easy to work together."
Almost immediately, Baerwald began to focus on writing songs about desperate dreamers, wounded lovers and corrupt visionaries. "I could sense that I had a good well to draw from, he says, "that I had been living in a story-oriented environment Also, I was formulating my experiences, and I had a lot of things to say about it all. I remember driving down Sunset with David, saying, 'Let's write the archetypal record about L.A. as metaphor.' I actually said that to him. It seemed like a fertile starting point. So it was like a first novel, setting the ground-work for everything else to come. It provided a cast of characters that gave us a deep oeuvre to work in."In 1985, Baerwald and Ricketts signed a deal with A&M Records as David and David and teamed up with critic and producer Davitt Sigerson. Within a few sessions, they had fashioned Boomtown, a work that took a significant step toward realizing Baerwald's highfalutin literary ambitions. Indeed, like such LA authors as Raymond Chandler, John Fante, Diane Johnson and James Ellroy, Baerwald was writing stories about the hopeful and the hopeless interconnecting in a desperate and morally polluted cityscape. Some of these characters come to the city with excited, even virtuous dreams of love, luxury and salvation. Others - like the chronic and pathetic wife beater of "Ain't So Easy" or the drifters and grifters of "Swallowed by the Cracks" - have darker needs, like uncaring sex and obliterating drugs, and as their own mean dreams fall, they take the innocent and loving down with them. Says producer Sigerson: "Baerwald wrote about some typically romanticized rock & roll characters - the down-and-outers - in a way that was un-mawkish and that seemed to capture those people. And the musical settings that the two of them came up with did a great job of cinematizing those stories. We always had this picture of the music as a beautiful setting, with people losing their grip on life in the middle of it."
Indeed, Boomtown was something of an anomaly in L.A.'s mid-Eighties rock scene. Like Dream Syndicate, Green on Red, Concrete Blonde, the Minutemen, X, the Blasters and other local bands, David and David were serving up abrasive truths, though in a musical manner that was more conventionally accessible, and that sensibility, with its Steely Dan-derived blend of pop melodies and jazz rhythms, was well suited to the main-stream aesthetic. This approach earned the pair a dismissal from the scene's more rigid postpunk ideologues, but it also won them a fast-rising Top Forty single ("Welcome to the Boomtown") and some fervent critical praise.
Within a season, though, David and David began to pull apart. "We got a lot of attention quickly," says Baerwald. "Too quickly. We began by pursuing this thing as a hobby, and six months later found ourselves doing an Italian TV show between two dog acts. When things happen that fast and when you're under that kind of pressure, you start drinking more. When you start drinking, you get more hostile and start picking at the things the other person says and does. It had always been something of a volatile relationship, though mainly in a pleasant way. Now it was volatile in an unpleasant way."
In addition, the follow-up to Boomtown had to be delayed. Ricketts had became involved with folk singer Toni Childs and started to produce her debut effort for A&M. Baerwald found Childs's post-hippie mysticism a bit cloying and humor-less, and when he couldn't resist poking fun at her manner, it led to tensions. Meantime, Baerwald was writing prolifically on his own, but A&M discouraged a solo venture so soon. It was quickly turning into one of those bitter scenarios from Baerwald's songs: A pair of dreamers link up in a town of high hopes only to crisscross each other and lose their dream in the process. In 1988, David and David entered the studio to record their long-overdue second LP, but the strain was too much. "On the first LP," says Sigerson, "it was the fact that they barely fit that made it all brilliant. By the second one, Ricketts had more of a sense of his career from having worked with Toni Childs, but Baerwald, the K Mart Charlie Bukowski, who is explosive to begin with, had had a cork jammed in him for a year and a half. It was clear that he was growing as a writer - he had developed a better eye for characters - but it was hard for the two of them to be in a room together. In the end, it was more than the process could bear.
"I mean," Sigerson continues, "Baerwald's kind of like a cocker pup. He's charming and delightful, but he's inclined to pee on your leg. If you treasure cocker pups, it's great. If you have a problem about getting your leg peed on, it can be an upsetting experience."
Baerwald concurs with Sigerson's assessment. "I never saw Ricketts as a sensitive guy," he says, "as somebody whom I could hurt. And so I said and did things that were hurtful, and in time I realized Ricketts was an open, bleeding wound. And the truth is, what a lot of people liked about David and David was not 'David Baerwald's streetwise, world-weary personification of the gritty realities of modern life' but rather the fact that the music sounded good, and Ricketts is the one who deserves credit for that."
Baerwald pauses to light a cigarette. He looks suddenly weary and a little doleful. "When people think of David and David," he says, "the word innocence doesn't come to mind. But we were very innocent: We were doing our music because it felt good. And then it got taken out of our hands. It was corrupted very quickly, and we didn't have the emotional wherewithal to resist it. The record business is geared for fame bullshit and iconization bullshit. "I guess it was over long before we realized it."
Baerwald made up for the disintegration of David and David with some hard living. He moved around a lot, moved through a few love affairs and started running with a faster, flashier crowd - including several pop stars and actors. Among them was Sean Penn, with whom Baerwald roomed for a time and wrote an as-yet-unproduced screenplay loosely based on Boomtown's themes and characters. In some ways it was a heady time, says Baerwald, though much of it amounted to frenzied behavior - not unlike the lives led by the characters of his songs. "That world of luxury and insulation," he says. "It can be a snobbish, vulgar, secret, sickened world." It is a few days after the first meeting, and Baerwald is seated on a worn sofa in his living room, in the bottom part of a duplex he occupies in Topanga Canyon. The place is a bit of a mess - strewn with clothes and bedding and filled with guitars, exotic stringed instruments and recording equipment. The dwelling has a makeshift feel about it, as if the person who lives here clearly lives on his own and hasn't yet found a place he can describe as home.
"A big part of me dug that whole scene,"' says Baerwald about his fast-and-hard Hollywood life. "I was like a guy who's addicted to gambling or something: He knows what he's doing is stupid and wrong, but he keeps on doing it. Then you wake up one morning and find that you lost perspective on what it is that you do. I could say, 'Hey, I'm just doing research for my writing' - that I was actually carving something horrible out of my heart or psyche - which on a certain level was true. But as a person, I wasn't okay at all. I was a schmuck. I was twenty-six, and I had a chip on my shoulder about a lot of things, and validation from some stratum of society meant a lot to me at that moment."
Perhaps it was simply his mood, but Baerwald began to see his own dissoluteness reflected in the world around him. In 1988, he was living close to the Chinese Theater, in Hollywood. By day, it is a tourist district. By night, it is a tense, restless community of runaways, young prostitutes, bikers, skinheads, drug dealers and occasional gang members, all those castoffs bred - and then discarded and condemned - by a society that is unwilling to examine the causes of its own ruin. Baerwald already knew what life on the fringe was like - he had lived it at times and had chronicled it in Boomtown. Now he wanted to see how the deterioration looked from a different vantage. With the assistance of Sean Penn - who had been acting in Dennis Hopper's film Colors, about L.A.'s gang life - Baerwald began hanging out with cops and interviewing them about the death and the futility they faced every day.
"It was a really disturbing experience, Baerwald says. "I would look at these acts of degradation that these cops saw all the time, and I'd ask myself: 'How different am I from that?' You start realizing your own wicked soul, you know?"
Baerwald gets up, moves around restlessly for a few moments, then grabs a beer from the refrigerator and settles back into the sofa. "I started seeing all these connections," he says, unscrewing the cap on the beer bottle and taking a sip. "The danger of the kind of environment we live in is that our own failures can breed a desire for violence - or at least we start using that as an excuse for our violence. But if you start thinking in social terms, you can get very bitter and very mad. That's why I began writing so many love songs. I'd rather deal with the specifics of what's going on in my life."
From this mix of personal disappointment and social disenchantment came a new body of songs. In June 1989, Baerwald did some initial solo sessions with producer Steve Berlin (of Los Lobos). A few months later, he hooked up with bassist and producer Larry Klein. In many ways, the resulting album, Bedtime Stories, is superior to Boomtown: It is a musically affecting work, rife with finely observed vignettes about a city and a nation disintegrating from denial, and it is a record brimming with haunting portrayals of people trying to make love work despite the pain of their pasts and the hopelessness of their futures.
In the album's first single, "All for You," a hopeful man brings his young, beautiful wife to L.A. He works hard to support her - so hard that she feels abandoned by him and takes to bed with another man who seems more understanding. Along the way, the husband gets involved in illegal activities; he loses his wife and his hope; she loses her lover; and the lover - who had been a friend of the husband's - loses some of his honor. There are no heroes in the tale, and no villains. Just real people trying to find love and connection and meaning. "I'm in 'All for You,' and I won't say where, Baerwald says.
"I'm trying to be more honest and intimate and specific about individuals this time," he continues, "in the hopes that those individuals will illuminate a larger whole. The idea was that I wanted these characters to emerge with something intact. Just surviving, in and of itself, isn't necessarily a heroic act. It's easy to survive if you're a killer - especially if what you've killed is something inside yourself. But surviving with your humanity intact, I think, is always heroic"
Across the room, the phone rings. Baerwald's machine picks up the call, and the caller - whoever it is - plays a wild Hendrixlike guitar solo, then hangs up. Baerwald shakes his head, bemused. "Sounds like Ricketts to me;' he says.
The two Davids are still good friends, they still get drunk together, but there is clearly a distance between them now. "There's something about that relationship that just won't quit," says Baerwald. "Ricketts was like a great big brother, but I had to find out what I could do on my own." Baerwald takes another sip of beer and begins to explain that one of the harder-hitting songs on Bedtime Stories, "Dance," was written coming off the experience he had shared with Ricketts in the music industry. "I adapted `Dance,' " he says, "from a Paul Bowles short story about a naive language student who goes to Morocco to find a tribe that speaks this dialogue he's studying. He goes to the chieftain and says, `I am a seeker of knowledge.' And the chieftain says, 'Oh, are you?' And the tribe grabs the student, and they tear his clothes off, and they castrate him and blind him and cut his tongue out. They feed him hallucinogenic drugs, and they pierce his flesh with needles and dangle bells from him. And they make hum dance for their entertainment."
Baerwald finishes his beer and laughs uproariously at the story he has just told. "That story," he says, "reminded me of my experience with the record business. I came into this scene, and I said, `I just want to learn to make music.' And these guys said, 'All right, fine. But you've got to dance, you know.' "'But I don't know how to dance,' I said. And they said, 'Well, you will.'"
Greg sent me this clipping from the 10.18.1990 RS issue.
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