It’s hard to imagine a working draft reaching completion. There’s no materiality to an idea, dream, or vision. Ever-becoming, a working draft often seems futile. A house can be built, a piece can be written, a song can be composed, but with these processes of creation comes all of the anxiety, thrill, and shame in trying to perceive an end, to yield definition.
Then, all of a sudden it’s taken away. A flash, and it’s gone. What’s left becomes a mortal reminder. Memories become its witness.
I’m glad there’s no one to witness the panic attack I just had after deleting a working draft of this piece: reviewing “One Sweet Day” by Wolf Jett. It shouldn’t have been this complicated.
Wolf Jett was started by Chris Jones, an old friend from San Francisco (by way of New York), and my ex-bandmate Jon Payne from Santa Cruz. It’s an acoustic second-coming of their San Francisco rock-trio, Scary Little Friends, that went on an indefinite hiatus in 2017. During their break, Chris quit his SF lifestyle for a silent retreat, before busking through Spain and Portugal on a bike. Jon and his wife Liz committed to a homestead in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
With prospects to settle, Jon and Liz bought a large property, built a chicken coop and a garden, and made a nest for themselves. While Jon kept busy, playing with several other bands around the Bay Area as a highly coveted drummer and bassist, his true aspiration was to transform his new home into an artist retreat, complete with a recording studio and performance venue. Chris returned in the midst of this vision, tanned and bearded, with new sounds from distant lands. He just needed one person to help them take shape; namely, Jon.
Since reconvening as Wolf Jett, they’ve become wiser, with a more sober outlook. Having already released their debut album, A Good Time, along with a few singles, this latest track, “One Sweet Day,” captures their new mood well. It’s catchy, rich in vocal flourish, with the shared metropolitan attitude of the Bay Area and NYC: Americana, funk, plural, enspirited. No gimmicks, just earnest songwriting and acoustic instrumentation.
The music video for “One Sweet Day” was filmed at Jon’s house in Boulder Creek, a peripheral township that’s nestled deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The opening scene begins with a burning candle before panning beside Jon on the kit. Chris sings in front of a stone hearth, the rocking chairs unoccupied behind him, as more candles flicker with curtains drawn. Behind the musicians are four draping barnacle ceramics, hardwood floors, banjos and guitars hanging on the walls, and indoor cacti.
Having spent much time on Jon’s land myself, memories flooded as I watched the clip, creating some inner prohibition. I’d just been there, days before I traded California for Europe, when they asked me to give a critic’s listen of the track. It was now my own musical endeavors that were on indefinite hiatus. I live vicariously through my reviews.
That was just over a month ago, when I first heard “One Sweet Day,” and the time was past due for my thoughts on the project. But my American exodus proved too demanding, so between that initial listen and now, much has changed.
It’s mid-August as I flip open my laptop to begin the review, when I find harrowing news from Northern California: wildfires, and hundreds of them, seemed to have materialized overnight.
It’s become relatively normal to see scars of scorched earth across California, especially in the late summer. Pastoral hills and ossified swaths of mountainside are commonly devastated by the perennial blaze. Northern California faces dry and hot summer gusts called “Diablo Winds,” and these winds — along with any combination of drought, overdevelopment, unextinguished campfires, arsonists, cigarette litterers, and/or PG&E incompetence — can result in the destruction of thousands of acres. This time, the culprit is dry lightning.
And while California’s commonly torched around this season, there’s never been one as widespread or cataclysmic as this freak event. It has now broken state records with more than three million acres of land destroyed, over 4,100 structures demolished, 60,000 people forced to evacuate their homes, and 24 lives lost. Since August 15th, there have been almost 900 unique fires burning across the state as a result of lightning strikes, brought on by an unprecedented heat wave with tropical humidity. They’ve each been categorized as different varieties of “Lightning Complex” fires. At the time of this writing, the LNU Fires in the Vaca Mountains have burned 363,220 acres. Then, there’s the SCU Fires over Mount Hamilton in the Diablo Range, where another 396,624 acres have been lost. This was a bad sign for what’s to come. And while the fires are more intense this year, there’s an established expectation that they’ll happen in those areas.
One area I should (but never want to) expect wildfires in is the Santa Cruz Mountains, where Jon lives, and where I spent a decade of my life. I witnessed fires almost every year, but there was always this naive belief they’d threaten but a few unlucky properties. It was always smoke on the horizon, never bearing the true face of danger.
Evacuation notices were mandated for the hills, where my friends, dozens of them, live. Felton, Ben Lomond, Bonny Doon, Soquel, and Boulder Creek… all of them. These mountain towns were an essential part of my experience living in Santa Cruz. Music thrives in the mystic of these hills. In fact, after ten years as a musician in that strange pocket of redwoods and banana slugs, my most memorable and formative performances (that I both played and attended) were in those hills: Don Quixote's Music Hall, Do-It-Ourselves Festival, Redwood Mountain Faire, Roaring Camp Railroad...
While music often composes a majority of my memories in these crestlines, a tender note of family and friendship tolls. The eminence centers at Jon’s house in Boulder Creek. As I scroll through pages reviewing the ongoing damage in a frantic manner, my fears are met by a Facebook post from Jon. He has to evacuate with his wife Liz and their two dogs, Oscar and Mazzie. From Jon’s report, the fire’s still on the other peak (the furthest it got in 2018), and they’re hopeful. They set up sprinklers, packed the necessities, and left.
I’m sleepless all night and anxious the next day, waiting for any update. Being almost half-a-day ahead from my cottage across the pond, I have to suppress the nerves. Pilsners ensue.
Jon finally posts a foreboding image of the house, discolored in that incandescent patina of smoke and flame. He writes that his neighbor stayed it out as long as possible to defend their multi-generational property, but was forced to flee. They take the photo of Jon’s home just moments before.
I rewatch “One Sweet Day.” All the camera angles face the same direction: as if you are walking into a living room where music never stops playing. I’ve walked in, just as the camera does, on so many occasions.
I always call it the “House of Payne” as a joke. Jon calls it the House on a Hill.
My fingers tremor, indecisive on the keys, as ash from California purls in through my window. I gather the ashes, there’s still warmth emanating from them. I rekindle the ember, choke up, and invoke those days not too far gone.
FROM THE START
“One Sweet Day” begins with a pulse. There’s a measure of Jon on the drums setting the mood and tempo, coordinating his place in time. There in his House on a Hill.
“Dude, there was an albino rattlesnake,” Jon informs me. I lay my burrito to rest after feeling it slither.
Jon has just returned from viewing a property in Boulder Creek and is eager to tell me about it over lunch at a taqueria on Ocean Street. In full disclosure, I’m more concerned about the quality of the food than about a friend’s new home. Jon knows his audience, so he baits me with a snake and a snack.
I inquire further. Jon tells me the realtor was late, so while he was poking around the porch, he discovered two reptilian eyes peering at him behind a small glass container by the back window. He shows me the picture: The make-shift terrarium, which looks like it couldn’t contain a hamster, suggests the reptile's domesticity and understandable fury. The thing was massive.
He speculates that the house was owned by a weed grower, or dealer, maybe even a king pin, before it was abandoned (or foreclosed). I’m imagining how fast I’d be driving away from there as he describes its humble origins: how the house was built in the 70s by a guy who happens to also be named Chris Jones. That bit of synchronistic trivia remains eclipsed by the albino rattlesnake. But to Jon, nothing was going to get in his way. The land and the opportunity are rarer than any pale serpent.
Apparently the realtor takes the snake with him at the end of their viewing. Either way, Jon’s more interested in explaining the space. It’s a few acres of inclined pastoral grasslands, dense bushes, and oak trees, the scale being unimaginable for most of our peers at the time — let alone a mortgage. Located on a mountainside just above Boulder Creek, the parcel borders a hill that leads into Big Basin State Park. He shows me pictures of the forested panorama under a dawnlit wax. The house: two stories with a basement floor, A-framed roof, redwood slatting, and a double-decked and spacious porch. From the angle of a photo, it looks like the bow of a sea-going schooner.
Jon intends to build something meaningful there. A community with trailers, yurts, a side house, a recording studio, and an in-house venue. There are already people prospecting rooms, most of them musicians as well.
In his and Liz’s vision is an ark. And so it soon was, a frontier-facing vessel of their dreams, aiming toward the fermement, which they deem House on a Hill, there by the coast of golden-shored California.
Chris’s choice and flawless execution of fingerpicking honors the cherished Americana characteristic: the union of voice and stringed instrumentation. Fingerpicking requires skill from the player and sensitivity from the accompanying band members. All the variables that go into managing and organizing the plethora of notes make it susceptible to issues in timing. But its boldness creates a texture that seems to hint at some intrinsic melody, while mapping the chords to carry the tune independent of other instruments.
At night, exiting at Bear Creek Road from Highway 17 is a nightmare, especially in my compact Ford pick-up that handles corners worse than a shopping cart. Though Bear Creek is technically a shortcut, I’d almost rather have taken the extra twenty minutes around the infamous 17 — a highway with so many pile-ups that it’s earned the nickname “Blood Alley.”
In my ascent, the road narrows and curves sharpen. Without service, the music stops and the map on my phone pixelates. Toward the peak, there’s a clearing and a large shoulder to pull off, compose, and take in the vista. The hillsides darken underneath a fog shelf, taxied by a littoral breeze.
Coming from the Bay Area, I reach Boulder Creek in time, the unincorporated, historical town with period-specific architecture and politics. The “downtown” stretch is just a few blocks along a sleepy two-lane road, lined with salvaged pick-ups, a single bar, the fire station, closed antique stores, lille æske arthouse, and a gas station seated in the groin of a mountainous forest. The rest is private and tucked away.
I hook a right past Camp Krem, where a few college friends fostered a music and arts festival called Do-It-Ourselves (DIO Fest) — then on its sixth annual iteration. Jon and I performed there together for numerous years, in numerous bands. It’s since become a staple of emergent singers and songwriters across the west coast. Originating as a musical collective called North Pacific String Company, DIO’s rapid evolution sold out most years and booked renowned artists of varying genres, including Bonnie Prince Billy, Y La Bamba, Fruit Bats and Vetiver, Mattson 2, Shannon Lay, and countless others.
Proceeds from the festival are gifted to Camp Krem — a nonprofit which provides summer camp and educational programming to children and adults with developmental disabilities, or as they say “differently-abled.” They’ve built an amphitheater, plentiful cabins, and an auditorium with a deck overlooking the valley from a summit. Hiking trails weave throughout the redwoods, with a gentle creek passing through the lower grounds. It’s an idyllic space for a festival, but more so for their campers — who, due to their varied disabilities, often weren’t afforded the opportunity to experience nature and community so intimately, and with so much supportive encouragement. Some of these proceeds have funded music enrichment programming at Camp Krem, and artists from DIO Fest regularly attend camping sessions to perform for the campers.
Over the years, as more and more of Santa Cruz’s arts community dispersed and moved to the cities, DIO Fest became a meeting point, a check-in, a reunion and wellspring, a celebration of our aging selves. Camp Krem also became a summertime employer for many of the organizers and attendees. I’m thankful for the union between the philanthropy and fraternity that occurs on these grounds.
Just past Camp Krem, through more winding, darkened roads, I take another right onto a gravel service road and follow it up a steep incline before arriving at the House on a Hill.
As I pull into the driveway, Jon’s dog Oscar charges the fence, claws honeycomb wiring, and barks in an ecstatic frenzy. I pet his tiny snout as he bearhugs my right calf. No one’s in the house. Grabbing a pilsner from the fridge, I descend down the wooden steps toward a crowd hunkered around a bonfire.
Sneezing from the pine and dust, I take a sip and raise my bottle to a few friends. Someone I don’t know is fingerpicking a blues lick in E major on a Little Martin, composing an indie-flick soundtrack for our swaying silhouettes. I relax into the night after my long drive through the forest, toward my old home in Santa Cruz, tracing the smoke to a clearing in the fog, basking in a profusion of starlight illuminating the sky, its incredible articulation.
Jon leans a shoulder into me, chuckles, and says he’s glad I made it. I am too. I pause to appreciate all the effort we put into friendships in these parts. The efforts we endure to be around people with whom we share history, a common interest, or some similar dream about the future. We jeopardize our bodies just to lean into someone and talk, or sing, or dance. We climb mountains for each other.
TENSION AND RELEASE
“One Sweet Day” showcases remarkable togetherness. The synchronicity between the steady bassline hitting the first and fifth of each chord in tandem with the kick, high-hat, and snare is almost faultless, wavering just enough to be humanizing.
Liz is at the dinner table linking together a series of ceramic corals with a thread. She lifts the completed braid to join the kelp forest of ceramic braids around her. Her eyes squint behind circular framed glasses as she studies its geometry. She’s preparing for her inaugural First Friday art exhibition at lille æske, an independent venue and arthouse in downtown Boulder Creek. The exhibition: Post Growth.
Jeff Wilson, my best friend and musical colleague, is outside taking his tenth smoke break of the morning. Jon’s off feeding the chickens. Liz and I wait patiently. I’ve arrived for a pre-gig rehearsal. We are hosting a performance at the House on a Hill in a handful of hours.
Later in the evening, the living room will be bustling with an attentive audience of Santa Cruzians, Mountain Folk, and Bay Area nostalgics. But for now, it’s quiet and slow, familial.
I’m setting up an unnecessary grid of guitar pedals as Jeff finally enters the house and sits on the couch. With drumsticks in hand and a drum pad on his lap, he works out some warm up drills with synchronized and syncopated rhythms.
Through the window an eagle soars between two sets of redwoods. I point to it. Jeff says it’s coming to get me.
I hear an ATV approaching, followed by the fury of Oscar barking and running out the door. Jon enters his house with sunglasses on and a no-bullshit look on his face. He simply nods, doesn’t say a word, and walks toward his bass rig in the living room. He plugs in the bass to a tuner and then into an amp. Jeff jumps on the kit, toys with the timbre of the kick drum and tinkers with a cloth over the snare. With the delay and reverse pedal, I generate an atmosphere of backward looping guitar chords as Jon repeats a bouncy, playful bass line. Out of nothing, an ethereal groove is born.
After an indeterminate amount of time, Jon, Jeff, and I all look up at the same moment to share a smile. The rarity of this feeling... There’s nothing like musical forms of communication through creation, unifying in this spontaneous, fledgling, but also fleeting language. It’s a conversation words cannot convey. Ineffable, the anatomy of art.
BUT NOW I CAN’T SHARE YOUR LAUGHTER, SHIP OF FOOLS
Wolf Jett celebrates the musical culture shared between New York and the Bay Area and weaved by the Grateful Dead in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Grateful Dead created a tradition that endeavored to explore the furthest reaches of existence while supporting and embracing personal struggle. The melding of country, blues, gospel, rock-n-roll, and folk all contribute to a narrative of Americana, one sweet day in our history.
I’m on the porch of the House on a Hill and Jon brings out his father-in-law’s guitar. It’s lighter than I expected. I tune the strings, play the harmonics. Tears collect in the corner of his eyes as the warmth and sustain of the angelic tones ring out. I strum the chords gently, almost too shy to handle such an heirloom. He looks off to the whispering oaks and I realize it’s been almost two months since I last saw him, after Liz’s father passed. I wonder if I’m going to see her too, if she’s in the house at all.
I trade Jon the guitar for a pilsner. He strums a few chords, but seems too overwhelmed to play, and sets the guitar inside before returning with a beer himself.
Jon has never been much of a drinker, especially compared to the amount I’m drinking these days. In fact, he’s tended to my post-concert drivel of intoxicated confessions on many occasions. Yet, here we are, midday on his porch overlooking the veranda, picking up another bottle before finishing the one in hand.
“We’ve been going at it pretty good lately,” Jon admits. Selfishly, I’m happy to partake with him in my favorite sport at that time — 12 ounce curls.
Music-wise, it isn’t a great time for us. Several of our bands are on the outs. Jon’s successful summer series of concerts at the House on a Hill — hosting the likes of popular California Americana artists such as The T Sisters, Tim Bluhm, Alex and Ben Morrison, and Willy Tea Taylor — are done. He’s just wrapped a run of shows with Elliot Peck, where he played with Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh at Terrapin Station. But, there aren’t any shows lined up for the winter season.
There seems to be a greater stasis in Santa Cruz. Concerts are less attended. Everyone is moving or planning to move away. There are still projects to continue, but they lack motivation.
So, we stow away the prestige of the location and become two forlorn travelers, sharing libations and laughs, aboard our temporary ship of fools.
The song evokes that sobering feeling one has when realizing the extent of pain behind presentation. Much like meeting an old friend on the street, who smiles and greets you with warmth, only to find out days later of their grieving. Though you can detect the hurt, the lyricism elicits acceptance. “One Sweet Day” is a reminder to listen to others, to remember there might be much more going on than it seems, that change is ever-constant.
It’s nightfall in England and everyone back home is just waking. I’m looking at the cloud of static doom over the Santa Cruz Mountains. Lick Observatory is streaming a timelapse of the fire. A blood red sun descends behind the plumes of smoke as the parched earth ignites in metropolitan beads of light. Sudden bands of flame bloom, then withdraw.
This tomorrow waiting for them, if their dreaming could last a bit longer.
Jon shares a photo: The house is gone.
In the charred remains of the House on a Hill, a three story chimney and a statue of Devi Sita are all that remain. Living an unjust life, Sita, the goddess of fertility, asks Bhumi to accept her, so the earth opens and takes her away. Yet, here she stays.
More misery compounds as I learn Camp Krem also fell to the fire. I can’t see it: all the cabins, the auditorium, and the amphitheater in flame. I lament for the children and adults of Camp Krem and for the patrons of DIO. The memories burst in, as if to fan this inferno of sorrow. Pictures and videos are posted all over social media to accompany an aching nostalgia. I see my friends playing and listening to all the acts that have echoed through these hills. The notes and voices, unified with nature.
I then imagine Jon's house engulfed in the funerary pyre. I hear the instruments left in the house play out in a dirge from the last gasp and thrust of air. The firefighters camped on the highway hear the symphony through the drum and tambourine of the fire. The spirit flames on the hill of Camp Krem, in a ritualistic dance.
I can’t imagine what Jon’s going through. I can’t imagine how our community feels, what they’re losing, what they’ve lost, what it means for the future. These hills have always had the courage to establish something unique and to maintain community, but with courage comes vulnerability. The House on a Hill, Camp Krem, and so many other institutions in those mountains are powerless to the destructive force; they won’t receive the protection they deserve. But the meaning they have for the people they support will ensure their rebirth. The goodwill they’ve invested in the community will no doubt be returned.
Grief is not a linear, nor a uniform experience. It is personal, utterly entangled with someone’s dreams, experience, and memory. The scale of grief is an unfathomable reality we are all going to have to face. It doesn’t end with these fires.
It hurts to know I can never recreate these cherished memories. I always thought I could return there to relive them, to be present in those hills, to recognize a tree, to stand where I did years ago and compare then to now, to be transported from the future to the past and everywhere in between — just in being there again.
How simple it is to assume I could return and it would be just as I’d left it. How simple it is to assume that a place, like a person, will always be there for you. But there’s no replacement. Memories aren’t the same. Everything that matters can’t ever be again. There’s no future in memories. What can you do with ash, but wait for new growth?
I feel guilty for not being there. There’s something about the solidarity of experiencing this disaster with my friends and family, in-person, that I can’t amend. I’m more or less an ogler, unable to contribute my condolences or support in a tangible, material way.
So I consume the memories, videos, songs, and photographs. The House on a Hill is still there in the music, in the art. And everyone’s there… dancing, singing, and smiling together. A continuity somehow, that cycles the song by and by.
As the song “One Sweet Day” ends, Chris is heard sighing, “Yes...” The camera pans in a soft focus onto Jon before an L-cut to a burning candle.
If not the swan song, this is one of the last pieces of music released from Jon's House on a Hill. What he considered as a work-in-progress, his home was quickly becoming an important musical institution in the Bay Area before it was claimed by the Santa Cruz Mountain Fire.
But Jon’s story isn’t finished. Instead of cutting his losses, he’s determined to start over, to build from the ground up. Friends, family, and musicians created a Gofundme and spread the news about donations via Venmo, to help Jon and Liz.
Their contributions have materialized into a benefit called the “Payne Relief,” a fundraiser hosted by Sweetwater Music Hall, which took place on Sunday, September 6, 2020. California musicians, including members of The Mother Hips, The Brothers Comatose, Midnight North, T Sisters, Goodnight Texas, San Geronimo, Big Light, and Casual Coalition, all gathered together to support.
Since the fire, Wolf Jett has already held their first rehearsals and plan to release their sophomore album later this year. In the aftermath and with all that lies ahead, “One Sweet Day” has become more than a song. It’s an anthemic live performance, it has a completeness all its own. It’s both a reminder and a remembrance. Let there be songs to fill the air...
ONE SWEET DAY
Wolf Jett reminds us that sometimes life doesn’t work out as planned. It’s easy to get caught up in regret, guilt, fatigue, and shame. On the other side of grief is acceptance, growth. But that doesn’t deny us our pain, our process. Still we get to experience, to be a part of something special. Whatever hardship, comes closure. We take our experiences and build from them. What we can’t bring back, we have in our memory.
“One sweet day in my life is finally over. I’m going to meet you over there on the other shore.”
I’m leaving for Europe in two weeks and need to say my farewells. Naturally, I make my way to Jon and Liz’s. I take one last meandering pass through Felton and Ben Lomond, on my way to Boulder Creek and the House on a Hill.
Through the strobing of afternoon light and shadow — cast by redwood and pine — the road gets windier, cars in front of me slower, and cars behind faster.
Then, out of a dense forest appears Boulder Creek. I get a text from Jon seeing if I can get 4 carriage bolts, washers, and wingnuts before coming up. I park and enter Scarborough Lumber. One of the employees with a lame foot helps me, walking up and down an aisle of cabinets, where he selects and hands me the hardware with a perceivable grin behind his mask. The clerk knows he plays a valuable role in this budding project.
Across the street, two old men are sitting in front of Joe’s Bar. A crew of us used to shoot pool there often. An old honky tonk band plays on equal ground to a group of square dancing couples, shuffling about on the linoleum floor. There were pull-on boots, cowboy hats, tucked in flannels, belt buckles, square-framed glasses, back-problems, and missing teeth. At first, we were outsiders, but we were welcomed, invited in, and became one of them.
I pull into the dirt driveway and sit there, idling for a while. Near the house, Jon and Chris are standing in the shade of an oak tree beside the basement they had just gutted for a recording studio. The day will be focused on soundproofing the room.
“Just in time,” Jon says. I sigh.
For the next couple hours, Jon climbs up and down ladders to glue and staple carpeting onto the ceiling — kept in place with the help of brooms Chris and I are holding. Some of the efforts take one or two do-overs. It’s never going to be perfect, but it’s nice to keep the hands busy. It’s nourishing to work on something tangible, to share in a task together, rather than mull through the same boilerplate rundown that comes with the proverbial fare thee well.
Chris and Jon are standing beside a table saw debating about the length of wood for trimming. As Jon leans over and directs Chris, I see them decades later, standing over a mixing board and fussing over the volume of a guitar riff, trying to decide if it even belongs in the track at all. Alone in a corner, the drum kit is inviting with sticks resting on the snare. There’ll be the bass on a stand, already plugged into the amp opposing another stack of guitar amps in the other corner. I hear the songs of tomorrow playing out in this room.
“It’s really getting close,” I submit.
Jon walks over to me to share this vision of completion. While he explains his plans for the studio, there’s a loud burst as Chris pops a hole in the seal of a bottle and a squirt of adhesive blasts just behind Jon and onto a pile of trash outside. With a look of utter shock, Chris places his hand on his heart and laughs before placing the bottle in a dispenser.
“A work in progress,” Jon responds.
Upstairs, I take one last look into the living room and there’s Liz creating a lace out of thread. Surprised, she greets me. She asks if I was going to stay for the evening. I inform her of my move and that I am just passing through. We hug and, leaving out the entrance, I wave back to her as she stands among the braids of ceramic barnacles, undulating in ghostly motion along the walls.
The rhythmic crunch of gravel, sibilance of wind through pines, sparse melodies of human voices conversing and chickens clucking, staccato hits and legato growls of Oscar, percussion of quail scuttling in the brush, bass swell of a distant motor, and ostinato of song birds: a memory’s composition.
If my words could even capture a measure of its music. And this, just a note among a symphony in these hills.