Nick Belardes' Anhinga: Bakersfield Spoken Word at Bakotopia Unplugged

Local author Nick Belardes performed the first chapter of his novel Anhinga as poetry at Bakersfield’s best open mic Bakotopia Unplugged. The novel examines a dual-ethnic’s experience of the San Joaquin Valley and post-9/11 life with lyrical intensity and a power rooted in the images common to Bakersfield residents: the boxcars of South Pacific trains, neon graffiti, and the cool water of backyard swimming pools. Addressing a broad range of topics at the heart of Valley life, the chapter explores questions regarding families, race, mythmaking, and rebuilding.
Musician Landen Belardes accompanied his father on guitar, layering the poetry with added emotional resonance. Available on iTunes, Landen’s album Listen contains all original tracks that are both sophisticated and direct. The honesty of his lyrics can be heartbreaking at times, but the album has an overall uplifting quality—as if we might have learned something about ourselves after we’ve listened. Here's the video, filmed by Jesse Rivera and Nick Belardes.

Bakotopia Unplugged, hosted by Matt Munoz, takes place each Wednesday at Fishlips Bar & Grill (21+). Sign-ups start at 7:30 pm and the event continues until closing. No cover charge. For more information and to watch recent videos of performers, check out its Facebook page here.

On a personal note, the final few minutes of Nick's performance resonated with me as we enter Bakersfield summer. One of my first memories of my mother is of her teaching me how to float in the pool, her hands holding me from underneath--much like the father and son featured in the chapter. The father's advice should be remembered when we find ourselves simply needing to float.
"Just relax. You're buoyant. Let yourself feel lighter than the water. Look up at the heavens. Be with the air. Breathe deep, feel your heart, trust the water."

Contact Information
NICK BELARDES is the illustrator of "West of Here" (2010). He's also the author of "Random Obsessions" (2009), "Lords: Part One" (2005), and the first literary Twitter novel "Small Places" (2010). He has worked as a creative writer in animation for the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, has written for TV and film, as well as news for television news, various magazines, news sites and newspapers. He can be contacted through his Facebook page here.
LANDEN BELARDES is known for cranking out the jams with fellow indie rockers Dirty Spanglish and the alt country/Irish duo Black Dog. His solo venture is a mix of eclectic indie rock and passionate acoustic-driven ballads. Think the Shins meet Wilco with a poetic edge that only a Bakersfield singer/songwriter could offer. “I think there’s still room in the world for songs that are a little bit rocking and a little bit heart and soul,” Landen says. Please check out his album Listen on iTunes. Visit his Facebook page here.


Suplex That Sweater!: The Ease's EP Release Party at Sandrini's

Local indie surf rock duo The Ease welcomed Easter with a packed Sandrini's for the release party of their EP Not Now, But Soon. Each guest received a free EP with the cover charge and band members Jose (Jo) Berlanga and Sam Garcia (Sam G.) mingled around the bar before their performance. I love that these guys are so upbeat and approachable.  They genuinely like to meet their listeners.

Jose, frontman and guitarist, stopped by to greet a group of my friends and chat for a few minutes before the show. He told a story about one of The Ease's earlier shows where a man took off his sweater during their song "Sweaters" (listen here) and slammed it into the wall and on the stage.

The Ease EP Release at Sandrini's
Courtesy of The Ease
Photographer Joey Greer

"He was just going crazy with that thing--throwing it around everywhere, dancing with it," Jose said.

"Next time I come to a show, I'm going to bring a sweater to do that with," I joked.

"Suplex that sweater!"

The Ease took the stage soon thereafter (with fog machine!) and the usually somewhat stiff Sandrini's crowd danced even with the first song. Each time I watch The Ease, I'm amazed by how much raw sound comes out of the two man band. Their polished low-fi style strikes a balance between garage rock and sounding over-produced. Jo's upbeat, streamlined melodies keep the songs tight while Sam G.'s beats add a dynamic intensity to the music.

Sound to stage, The Ease is dynamic. From Jo's use of the entire stage as he performs to Sam G.'s intense drumming, the band gives the audience something not only to listen to but to watch.  They look so involved in their performance that you can't help but get into the music too.

 Easter Bunny rocks out to The Ease at Sandrini's
Courtesy of The Ease
Photographer Joey Greer
The band has captured a surf rock sound with a dark edge that's still danceable. Think the Violent Femmes with a little California sunshine (and perhaps slightly more sensitivity). I've never seen the crowd at Sandrini's dance so much--except for maybe at the New Years Eve concert with the fun and loveable 80s cover band Members Only. In particular, I remember an appearance from the Easter Bunny who jumped up on stage to dance with the band to celebrate around midnight.

Justin Foss, owner of Sacred Gypsy Tattoo and Art Studio (826 18th Street) and local artist, was among the dancers at the show. He's done live painting at recent Indie Music & Art Shows held monthly at Jerry's Pizza. The event brings Bakersfield artists and musicians together to showcase their work in one venue. The Sacred Gypsy has also hosted art shows and concerts together (and with any luck, we'll see some poets and writers added to the mix soon). 

It's refreshing to see the two communities come together and to promote each other's talents. Too often different types of artists find themselves separated from each other and I applaud the organizers and promoters of these cross-genre events for reaching out to each other. I appreciate the de-institutionalization of the arts. Not that I mind the more traditional ways of distributing culture, but it's time that our ever expanding DIY culture make the jump over to the arts. The next time you find yourself complaining that there's nothing to do in Bakersfield, then do it yourself. Or at least promote the people who are.

You can find more information about The Ease on their Facebook profile here. If you missed the show, you can pick up a copy of the EP at World Records (2815 F St.). The band has made two music videos (with a third slated to be released within the coming week). My favorite is "One Is A Lonely Place" which you can watch here. Hope to see you at the next show!


Standing On The Corner, Suitcase In My Hand

"You ever hear of a band called Decay?" Smokey asks me. Standing on the corner next to Jerry's Pizza, he loosely grips the handle of a rolling suitcase.

"No, I haven't."

"They just pick a bright, talented kid and bring him down. The lead singer and guitarist was this shrimp of a kid. Dark hair and eyes, skinny. Boy, could he scream," he chuckles softly. "Anyways, I don't know what happened, but he goes to his mother's house one day and..." Smokey makes a gun with his fingers and presses them against his chest.

"Smokey" poses at Wall St. Alley

"That's J--. We were childhood friends. Our grandparents were neighbors, but I hadn't seen him since middle school. His grandmother called me a couple of weeks after I moved back to Bakersfield to tell me about the funeral."

"Oh, Sissy. I'm sorry. This town just swallows people up. I feel like I'm always the next one on the list. Talk about running!" Somehow I found it incredibly comforting--this strange old man calling me "sissy" with the ease of a grandfather. I couldn't believe that he knew J--, or maybe just that he'd brought J-- up and I'd known who he was talking about.

"How did you know J--? Through the band?"

"Yeah. You know I play around, write some songs here and there, get to know the musicians. Did you know that I wrote the Alice in Chains song 'Man In the Box'?"

I ask Smokey if he could tell me what he remembered about J--. I'd never known him as a teenager or adult. In my mind he's still a lanky boy who liked to shoot rattlesnakes and save stray dogs. Smokey tells me the basics (most of which I alread knew): J had a wife and a baby and a job (and a truck that Smokey adds to the list as if it's something that's supposed to be real important).

As we talk, at least five people stop to greet him. He mentions how people generally treat him well (except for the other homeless), but that once a group of men showed up at a loading dock he was sleeping on and poured liquid latex all over him.

"What's it like living downtown?"

"You ever hear that song 'Living in L.A.'? It's a lot like that. Hold on. Let me go look for my beer." Smokey hobbles around for awhile, peeking into the large planters between the Wall St. Alley bars, but he doesn't manage to find his tallboy.

When he returns, I ask him where he grew up.

"Delano. I came to Bakersfield when I was thirty five, been here twenty years now."

"What was it like growing up where you lived? What did you like to do?"

"Well, Sissy, I always liked wandering around. When I was a kid, I used to go down to the Salvation Army for books. I'd read anything I could get my hands on, but I liked the ones about the occult and physics best." He launches into a monologue about how people are sharing thoughts through electrical transference and how he doesn't like it one bit.
Smokey raises his palms, puts them behind his head, and spreads his fingers.

"I call it 'Moosehead'." 

Without skipping a beat, he returns to the conversation about his childhood.

"Boy, I miss my mother. Her name was Dorothy," he trails. I wonder when the last time he talked about his mother was. Does he even know anyone that remembers his mother?

"I'd sure like to talk to you in the morning sometime--when I'm sober."

If I had a dollar for every time I've heard a man use that line...

We exchange goodbyes and Smokey graciously lets me take his picture.  As he leaves, Smokey hollers, "I hope to see you around sometime!" He walks down the street and out of sight, the wheels of his suitcase grinding against the alley's coarse cement.

On my way home, I turn a corner and see a man holding out a beat-up guitar in front of Downtown Deli & Market. He's yelling, "Busking for beer! Support the arts!"

"What would you do if I bought you a beer?" I ask him.

"You'd be my muse. I'd write you sonnets."

"Deal. What kind of beer do you want?" He looks suprised that I've given him a choice, perhaps that I've offered him a beer at all, and he hesitates at the question.

"I don't know. Whatever. Suprise me."

"I like my beer dark--like brunettes," he adds and runs a hand through his curly hair.

I buy him a porter and he pops the cap with the bottome of a lighter. He rolls a cigarette and we bullshit for a while about fucking up. After he's done with the cigarette, he wipes his hands on the side of his dirty cargo pants.

"Sorry. I have terrible manners. What's your name?" He holds out his hand.


"No shit. You know how many songs there are with your name in it? Hey--you ever hear of Lou Reed?"

(Full disclosure: I love Lou Reed so much that I did a presentation about The Velvet Underground for a college course. Maybe I don't hang out with the right crowd, but most people I know haven't even heard of The Velvet Underground let alone like the band's music. On High Fidelity, The Velvet Underground is #4 on John Cusack's character's list of Top 5 Side Ones, Track Ones... Anyway--let's just say I was excited.)

Bakersfield's "Lou Reed"

The busker picks up his guitar, walks out to the corner across from the Padre Hotel, and begins to play the intro to "Sweet Jane" by The Velvet Underground.

(You can hear the song here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkumhBVPGdg).

"Standin' on the corner, suitcase in my hand..." he sings breathily.

I recalled the suitcase Smokey had been carrying with him when we talked earlier in the afternoon and wondered about the power of coincidence in our lives.
I've been working on a short memoir about J--'s suicide and the coincidences that have occured since his death. It's difficult to pin down that feeling of an "accidental plan"--which seems to me to be a somewhat accurate description of the writing process. Sometimes I wonder if coincidence isn't really coincidence at all--if it's somehow God's way of staying anonymous or just an odd little cosmic joke.


The Exhibitionists

I like to write in public. Call me an exhibitionist. It's one of the few physical aspects of writing that makes me feel like a writer. Even if you're overwhelmed by rejections stuffed into the mailbox, you can simply write where there are others.

You are writing. Someone sees you. You are a writer. Voila!

Can you guess which window?

OK, maybe it's not that easy, but there's something about being surrounded by the people and places you're writing about--the movement, the interactions. There are a few coffee shops downtown that are great for writing, though I often prefer fast food restaurant lobbies or parks because of the overexposure at coffee shops. I may like to write in public, but I also like to get work done, which feels somewhat impossible at hipster hotspots. (Don't get me wrong: I love gathering places for artists, musicians, conversationalists, friends, but when we're together, we like to talk about our projects way too much.)

Sometimes you'll find me writing at the wicker tables in front of The Padre's Farmacy, enjoying the afternoon sunshine. The patio faces the somewhat dingy, weekly rate Porterfield Hotel, which happens to have one of the more interesting porches to people watch. If you ever need someone to smoke a cigarette with, you'll find a friend or two who'll share some stories with you on the stoop.

Every time I write outside The Padre, there's a naked man who stands in front of an upper window at the Porterfield. He's become my good luck charm, a part of my writing routine. I'm not sure if he's watching me, but the man is staring out the window at something. 

The first time I saw him, I was with a writer friend who has a great imagination and sense of humor. I (stupidly) asked him what he thought the naked man was doing.

He arched an eyebrow and smiled.


"I think I see an arm moving," he said.

"No way. OK. Maybe, but it's so obvious! He's right up against the window and everyone can see him."

"If there were kids around, I'd definitely call the cops."

My friend went back to his work, but I couldn't stop staring at the window. The man would leave for a few minutes at a time, then return. The room was too dark to tell if there was anything obscene going on, but he had piqued my curiosity.

"Creeper. You're obssessed with him. You like it," my friend accused me.

Maybe I do. As a writer, I'm both an exhibitionist and an observer. I can't help but see. That's what a writer's supposed to do--watch things, record them, find something new and interesting about the commonplace lives we live. Writing requires staring. Lots of it. So I happen to stare at an old naked man...

Thank God the bottom of the window hits mid-waist.


The Death Couch

In the 1970s, my grandparents bought a 1905 mansion that originally belonged to the family that owned the Payne Mortuary. Now the Ira L. Stoker law office, the mortuary sits on the southeast corner of the intersection of 20th and B St.

When the mortuary went out of business, my grandmother asked if she could buy some of the unwanted furniture. She brought home a pea-green velvet couch circa 1930s that's now located in the house's entryway. It used to be the receiving couch for the mortuary and when I use it, I imagine the grief-stricken people who had just lost a relative huddled together speaking in low voices or maybe not saying anything at all.

"The Death Couch"

I wonder what happened on that couch. Who sat there? What was said? What memories were made? Who was being remembered?

In college my friends and I used to play a game where we'd try to see how far back we could trace the furniture we had inherited. (Great party game, right?) My ex-boyfriend had a dirty navy blue couch covered in a terrible green, yellow, and red plaid pattern that had been donated to him by a Communist who said he had gotten it from someone who had gone to jail whose mother had given it to him when she wanted to update the furniture (or something like that). We drank beer and played this game until I'm sure that we started making up stories about the origins of our furniture. (Believe me--you'd be this bored during a Wyoming winter too).

My family, especially my grandparents who were both history students, has given me a deep sense of the individual's connection to places and people long gone. My grandmother always said that our families' stories were our stories. That it was our duty to carry their memories with us. Those memories leak into my perception of life as I experience it. The same ex-boyfriend I mentioned earlier in the post used to talk about "the democracy of the dead," referring to valuing the experiences of the dead in addition to the living.

That's something I adore about Hispanic culture: respect for and remembrance of passed relatives. Every year I make altars for my mother and grandmother to celebrate The Day of the Dead and I often find peace in the ritual (though my family still thinks it's a little bit strange...). Do you have any special traditions regarding the deaceased?

That connection to the dead, to imagining what their lives were like, inspires me to write: to remember and re-imagine. To sit on a couch and guess at who'd sat in that spot last, how we might have understood each other had we met, what we would have talked about. If I can't get my answers from history, at least I can make it up.

The Downtown Beat

Alley between Front Porch and The Padre
We make history as we live it.

Downtown Beat aims to record a living micro-history of Bakersfield's historic Downtown District as it is experienced its residents: a portrait of a neighborhood. I hope to spotlight the people, places, and events that make up the diverse, fascinating, and sometimes downright strange place that's at the cultural center of the Southern San Joaquin Valley.

It's been said by many who live here and who have left Bakersfield that there's a serious lack of culture and a disparate, unconnected community. I agree that perhaps the cultural scene hasn't developed like our counterparts' and that there's more work to do. However, I wholeheartedly disagree that Bakersfield's a "cultureless city" and that's what I hope Downtown Beat will help demonstrate.

It's a matter of recognition. You'll find culture all around you--in the architecture of houses and apartment complexes, alleyway graffitti and art galleries, churches and bars, and in the songs of buskers and conversations at the GET bus hub. I didn't understand the richness of Bakersfield until I left, until I became a transplant somewhere else, a foreigner. That said, these are the stories of one woman, an individual, and I speak only for myself and my experiences. But I begin this blog with the desire that I create a conversation between community members about what's important to you and what you want your Bakersfield experience to be.

My hope is that this blog will become a place to organize, to connect individuals within our community, and to share stories. If anything interests you on a personal level or you'd like to share something, please comment on the site. Please feel free to send me suggestions about what you'd like me to cover at janefriday@hotmail.com with the subject line "Downtown Beat."