How Cowboy Junkies Brought Me Full Circle

Crossroads

I moved to Sacramento from Los Angeles when I was twenty, in 1989, leaving behind a girlfriend and great friends. My plan was to live rent-free with my dad and go to community college until I qualified for a four-year university. I was realistic enough to know those goals weren’t going to happen on my own in L.A. I needed a fresh start.

The first few months after the move were a lonely time. I eventually made some acquaintances at Sacramento City College, but when you don’t drink – like I didn’t at the time – the social stuff comes a bit harder. One weekend, several weeks into the semester, I was invited to a get-together by some classmates. I badly wanted to go, but my old friend Barry – who lived in Lake Tahoe at the time – had invited me up the mountain to hang out on the same weekend. Barry had some adventures planned for us, including attending a Tahoe A.A. meeting at which he was a regular. (I had been sober about three years at this time.) I hadn’t been to a meeting in several weeks, as I hadn’t yet found the courage to walk into one of the dozens of Sacramento meetings by myself.

Strange as it sounds, I was correct in sensing this could be a crossroads in my life: The get-together versus Tahoe. On one hand, the get-together could be a step toward more meaningful friendships, perhaps a date, and a real life in Northern California. On the other hand, Barry was a close friend, and I really needed an A.A. meeting – even one as far away as Lake Tahoe. It was a tough call.

I chose Tahoe.

A.A. meetings can be as cliquish as any other gathering of humans, so it was comforting to walk into a meeting with Barry and a mutual friend Nick, as they introduced me to other folks. I was called on to share at the meeting, and I spoke honestly about my ridiculous shyness in avoiding Sacramento meetings because I didn’t have any sober friends in town with whom to attend. After the meeting a guy introduced himself; I don’t remember his name, but he changed my life forever. He told me “Oh, man, Sacramento has great meetings! Here’s the phone number of my friend Stephanie, she’s plugged in down there.” I secured the scrap of paper, tucking it into my pocket like Jimmy Olson with a lead on a corrupt union boss.

Back in Sacramento the next week I screwed up my courage and called Stephanie, who was very kind, and recommended a meeting called Primary Purpose Group that met Thursdays at the Sierra 2 Center. It was at PPG that I met friends who became life-long. Stephanie was not necessarily one of those people, nor was the man in Tahoe, but they gave me the push I needed at that time in my life. I ended up having incredible adventures over the years, even decades, with some of these folks. PPG led me to the relationship that gave me my first child, and then in a roundabout way to my nineteen-years-and-counting marriage to Amy that of course led to my second and third children. My three kids literally owe their existence to my decision to go to Tahoe that weekend, and to the unknown man who gave me Stephanie’s phone number. (Barry, who invited me to Tahoe, tragically died of sudden cardiac arrest in his late twenties, a newlywed to a wonderful wife who wrote a memoir about the experience.)

The Crest

When you don’t drink, you have to be a bit more creative about what you’re going to do for fun. I heard about a movie theater downtown called The Crest, and they were scheduled to show Taxi Driver at a midnight show Friday night. This sounded amazing to me! I loved the movie Taxi Driver, although at that time I had only seen it once or twice. I got a group of my new friends to come along, and having never been to The Crest before, I walked inside and was floored.Crest

Built in 1912 as The Empress, later rehabbed and rechristened The Crest, the theater was like nothing I had ever seen. I had never been to L.A.’s old theaters, so this was a brand new experience for me. From the vintage ticket booth; to the foyer advertising upcoming concerts and classic films; to the ornate, carpeted lobby with its welcoming admonition: “WHEN YOU PASS THRU THIS PORTAL YOU LEAVE ALL CARES BEHIND;” to the sunken bar; and finally to the incredible 975-seat theater with its wide proscenium; gilded flourishes; huge, fringed curtain and massive sconces; the theater was truly awe-inspiring. To top it off I was about to see a classic Martin Scorcese/Robert DeNiro film, and I was surrounded by great new friends, guys and girls alike. I sat back and took it all in, feeling on top of the world, but in a humble, grateful way. I thought about my loneliness of the previous several months, and about all the good friends I left behind in L.A. Finally, I thought, Sacramento felt like home.

We saw several midnight movies at The Crest over the years, notably David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (this didn’t go over great; I was a bigger Bowiehead than any of my new friends, and it’s essentially just a concert film). I’ve seen several concerts at The Crest over the years as well: Concrete Blonde, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and They Might Be Giants among others. I’ve seen Ira Glass lecture there, as well as Terry Gross, Frank McCourt, and John Irving. In 1992 I got a part-time job working at The Crest for the Mellow Madness Animation Festival. Though not actually employed by The Crest, I worked there weekend nights for a couple of months. My job was to sell tickets in that vintage booth, hawk merchandise, occasionally announce shows from the stage to packed houses, and run the end-of-tour raffle. (John McCrae of CAKE won, and he claimed he knew he would win!) I learned not to stack merch boxes on top of the trap door in the storage closet, because for the guy who lived in Sacramento’s underground tunnels, this was his only access to the outside world, and I had inadvertently imprisoned him down there one night. I wish I could remember his name. Thick glasses, dark hair… anyone?

My best memory working at The Crest for the Animation Festival was after each show ended. I would put the merch away, organize things for the next show, and then I had some time to kill while a manager squared the cash with the tickets. I got friendly with the theater’s projectionist, and he agreed to play a CD of mine over the state-of-the-art sound system, while I hung out in Row N of the balcony, audience right, smoking cigarettes.

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What is the correct album for listening to by yourself in a 975-seat, hundred-year-old, painstakingly restored theater at two a.m. on a Saturday night? I really want you to think about this. What is that album? Which band’s disc, from start to finish, would be the ideal soundtrack for this exquisite scene? Are you done thinking? There is no right answer, of course. For as many people as there are in the world, there may be that many choices. My choice: The Trinity Session by Cowboy Junkies.

Cowboy Junkies

To me, The Trinity Session is the perfect album. It is slow, ethereal, and gently powerful. It whispers its beauty with Margo Timmins’ haunting vocals and the band’s restrained rock and roll take on blues and country. The nascent band learned to play quietly because every time they rehearsed a neighbor complained, so they learned to tone it down. Necessity was truly the mother of invention, because that sonic discipline became Cowboy Junkies’ signature. Margo originally didn’t want to be in the band. She was not a musician or performer, but a college student studying social work in Toronto when her brother Michael convinced her to sing for them, at least in the garage. Their first several shows she had such stage fright she sang with her back to the audience.

The Trinity Session was recorded in a Toronto church, and if I remember the liner notes correctly, the band recorded the album live, playing at the church’s apse, while a single microphone was placed in the back of the nave. This is not how albums are recorded, but it gives The Trinity Session its singular, spare sound. Along with Bowie’s Hunky Dory, Pixies’ Doolittle, Led Zeppelin II and others, it’s absolutely one of the ten records I would take to that proverbial desert island. To Zen out and listen to The Trinity Session in row N of The Crest’s balcony was pure heaven on earth.

Walking this earth and keeping my peace
I do what I want but the price is steep.
It don’t seem right, it don’t seem right.

My mama she told me, one step at a time
and sooner or later you’ll walk that line.
I don’t want to, I don’t want to.

Taking my time to live and die
I wanna find a way to do it right
and I ease on, and I ease on.

They say one thing always leads to another.
I open my mind, I don’t get it.

Breaking away to the other side
I wanna make sense of why we live and die.
I don’t get it, I don’t get it.
I don’t get it, I don’t get it.

Except back then, in 1992, I got it. I am not a spiritual person, but listening to Cowboy Junkies by myself in The Crest was perfect peace. I could breathe in, and feel all life flowing through me in stillness and beauty. I was in a new town, with new friends, a job, and for the first time since third grade I was enjoying school and doing well. If I had died one of those nights, it would have been a good life.

The following year, my stepfather, Richard E. Springer, got sick and died at the age of fifty-two. Herbal tea, cigarettes, candlelight, and Cowboy Junkies’ The Caution Horses, got me through that time. “You Will Be Loved Again,” Margo sang, and I tried to believe it. As complicated as my stepfather’s and my relationship was, he really, truly, loved me and cared about me. And by the end I knew it, and he knew I knew it. I wrote him a letter when he was dying. I sealed it, and after he died I intended to place it in his coffin with him as I said my final goodbye. At the last minute, standing at the casket, looking down at him, I kept it in my jacket pocket. He was gone, I realized, and I thought maybe someday I would want to reread that letter. (I still have it; it’s still sealed.) He had been my stepfather from when I was eight years old until he died when I was twenty-four. I lived with him and Mom full-time in Los Angeles (although I always visited Dad in Sacramento on holidays and in the summer). Richard’s loss was unthinkable; it left a gaping hole in my life. I’ll always think of him, and the pain I felt losing him, when I play The Caution Horses, and especially You Will Be Loved Again.

Twenty-eight years after falling in love with Cowboy Junkies, twenty-five years after listening to The Trinity Session by myself in Row N of The Crest’s balcony, and twenty-three years after my stepfather died, I still had never seen Cowboy Junkies live. I claimed they were my bucket list band. The musical group that I loved the most, who were still intact, still performed, but that I had never seen. Finally in February of 2017 I was in Las Vegas, fresh off of winning a cool one hundred-dollar bill. I was in my room in the MGM Grand checking emails on my phone, and I opened one from one of the many concert promoters who spam me. It said Cowboy Junkies were coming to Sacramento for the first time, in April, to…you know.

The Crest.

Two tickets were $140, but I had just won $100, so I called it a wash. I bought two in the third row and texted Amy. I couldn’t contain myself; it was finally going to happen, and at the best possible place! When the day came, Amy and I had drinks and a wonderful meal at the Empress Tavern (Empress being the original name of the theater, of course), which is literally underneath The Crest, so deep you can’t even get cell service for God’s sake! We didn’t have a reservation, but the manager decided that another couple who was twenty minutes late didn’t deserve a table, so he gave us theirs. We agreed with that line of thinking.

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Margo came out with her ubiquitous mug of tea. She was beautiful and charming, her hair let go to a luminous, natural white. They didn’t play Misguided Angel, or You Will Be Loved Again, or If You Were The Woman And I Was The Man. But they played ‘Cause Cheap Is How I Feel, and Murder Tonight In The Trailer Park, and they encored with a cover of Five Years by DAVID BOWIE!!! Margo talked to the crowd about how they’ve been doing this for thirty years. So have I, I thought.

Amy and I had an amazing time, although admittedly I’m a bigger fan of this particular band than she, with my strange, serendipitous history with both them and the venue. We ran into a few good friends at the show: Justin, Mike B and Nicole, and Renee, whom I hadn’t seen in fifteen years. Having given up my sobriety in 2016, I had a mild buzz going and I couldn’t help but think back twenty-five years to 1992, when The Crest represented everything good about where my life went, after risking moving from a city where I had friends to one where I had none.

“I’m Margo Timmins and we’re Cowboy Junkies,” were words I’d waited to hear for nearly thirty years, if not quite Thirty Summers. And although we had great seats in The Crest’s third row, I found myself more than once peeking over my right shoulder to Row N in the balcony.

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