Published August 29, 2015
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Hello, it’s Michael Phillips, and this is not a test. That song that opens and closes the show here is Vatican by Boom Shaka. Boom Shaka was a Southern California reggae band that started in Topanga Canyon in 1986. I joined up with them pretty early on as their sound engineer and eventually went on to play guitar in the band. After two or three years I left and the group continued on in various forms for many years. I know I’ve mentioned them before, but they’re on my mind now because I got the news that the singer/songwriter and primary force behind the group, Trevy Felix, died around August 16th or 17th in his home country of Dominica. I say around the 16th or 17th because it isn’t known exactly when he died. He and his companion Nelly Stharre were found in the burned remains of the house where they lived up in the hills. Trevy’s brother Jeff found them when he went to the house on the 19th because no one had heard from them or been able to contact them for a few days. Jeff is also convinced that they were murdered. But I’m not down there so I don’t know anything about that. I hope it’s not true, but either way the end result is the same, isn’t it.
I met Trevy one day in Topanga Canyon when I was working on my car out on the windy canyon street. He must have spotted my little baby dreadlocks and stopped his van to see what I was doing. I told him I was changing the brakes on the car and he said, “You’re fixing your own brakes? You’re mad, man!” Which I may have been, but it’s just a machine, right? Man made it, man can fix it. That’s what a boss I used to have would say to me when I would tell her that one of the printing presses was broken. “Man made it, man can fix it,” which was her way of saying, “You better fix it because I’m not calling in anyone to do it for you.” Anyway, Trevy said, “Are you a roots man?” and I said, “Yeah man.” He said, “I’m right over there,” and he pointed to a house just on the other side of the road, “you should come by when you finish up here.” So I did, and for the next couple of years I was with him pretty much every day.
It was a funny meeting because I’d come to California to play reggae music, and after living at Venice beach for a while and not finding what I was looking for I moved up to Topanga Canyon. I was there for a while, driving down into Los Angeles to see reggae bands and buy records and see what was going on, but I still hadn’t connected with any serious musicians. Then I went out to fix my car and found a band a few hundred feet from where I’d been living for months. So I guess it was meant to be. The first time I went into Trevy’s studio, which was in the basement of the house, he was playing some tracks he’d recorded and the guitar sound was bugging me so I reached over and tweaked the EQ on the board. He said, “What are you doing man?” Then he listened for a few seconds and said, “It sounds good. You’re an engineer, man!” I said I wasn’t really an engineer, but I did my own recording and I knew a thing or two. “Nah man,” he said, “you’re an engineer. You’re Boom Shaka’s engineer!” and that was that. He didn’t really ask me, he kind of told me. I was drafted into the position.
But I was happy to be drafted because the band was everything I’d been looking for. A real roots band, but modern. They were integrated – half the band was white half was black – and ambitious and hard working. Noel, the guitar player in the band, lived in the house right next to Trevy. Trevy was living with Noel’s sister, Vicky, and they had just had a daughter, Malika. Soon Noel and his wife Jenny had a son they named Gaia, and it was like a family and musical compound there between the two houses. When I say I was with Trevy every day, that’s probably because I was always around, I was “between jobs,” as they say, so I was available. And like I said, he was ambitious, so he always had somewhere to go, someone to see. It was a long drive from Topanga to civilization, so why go it alone? He’d come over and knock on my door and say, “Michael! Come on man, let’s make a move,” and I’d get into the van and not get back home for anywhere from 12 hours to three days. No exaggeration. We were halfway down the hill one day and I said, “Where are we going?” He said, “Oakland.” Oh, okay. If you’re not familiar with California, Oakland is about 400 miles away from Topanga Canyon. So it was like that.
If he didn’t have anywhere to go he’d often come over and listen to records. I’d be making some tea or looking for something to eat in the morning, and there he would be at the door. I said he’d knock on my door, but really, he didn’t usually have to. I could always hear him coming because as soon as he was within 50 feet of the house he’d start yelling my name. “My-kal! My-kal! Where you at, man?” So I’d go open the door. “What you doing, man? I want to hear some Bob Dylan music.” Well, come on in. That kind of unplanned, free-range day to day living isn’t something that most people really have the pleasure of engaging in. How many of your friend’s doors could you knock on, unannounced and say, “Hey, I came over to listen to music,” or, “Come on, let’s go to…wherever”? Probably not many. Most people would be like, “What are you talking about? Go where? Dude, I have to pick my girlfriend up from work at five…” But the way things worked out I was there, and my job was working with the band, so I just kind of adapted to Trevy’s lifestyle, which was – unstructured – you could say. So if he wanted to hear some Bob Dylan music at 8 a.m. or drive to the other end of the state, I would just go along for the ride.
Like in Tunisia for example, we were there on a tour and we were walking along a beach one day and we came across a guy with some camels. He charged tourists to get up onto them and go up and down the beach. Not the kind of thing I would normally do. Seemed kind of cheesy you know, riding the tourist camel. But Trevy saw the camels and immediately started to talking to the guy, and I was saying, “Trevy, no man, I don’t want to ride a camel,” and he just laughed and said, “Michael, we HAVE TO ride the camels!” So there I was, bouncing up and down on the back of a camel with the Mediterranean on my right and a bunch of kids laughing at us to my left. On the same tour, we were out one night just catching some air in a little port town and we wound up in the police station somehow, locked up over some dispute with a boat rental that I didn’t know anything about, and never really did learn any details about. Some kind of business arrangement Trevy had inadvertently set up or blew off or something. And that was the way it went. You kind of had to be prepared at all times to do anything – you know, to wrestle a donkey or meet the president – because either one, or anything else, could happen at any time.
Okay, this is kind of random, but I remembered it the other day, and it kind of tells you something about Trevy. Or everything about Trevy. We were working on a sort of renovation of his basement studio, and I had gone over at like 2 or 3 in the morning to put a coat of verathane onto the woodwork. I wasn’t sleepy and I thought I could sneak in there quietly and get a coat on so we’d be ahead of the game the next day. Well apparently I wasn’t as quiet as I thought, because after about 20 minutes Trevy came down to see what was going on. I know I’d gotten him out of bed because he was wearing a sports coat, but nothing else. I don’t know where he’d grabbed the coat, it was clearly much too small for him. Maybe it was Vicky’s. And he was standing there trying to hold the coat closed over his chest, but just flapping in the breeze everywhere else, if you get my drift. So after I apologized for waking him and Vicky up I said, “The coat is nice, but you could have put on some pants.” He just smiled and said, “Michael! You rude, man! Go to bed.” and went back upstairs. But forgetting a minor detail like pants wasn’t all that unusual. He would leave things in different places – or in different states or countries – and then wonder where they were. Clothes, tapes, shoes, half-eaten plates of food, guitars…
Guitars, yeah. I was a Gibson player, but I’d always wanted a Fender Telecaster, so I went to West L.A. Music one day and sat around in there for most of the afternoon playing every Tele they had, and wound up buying the one that felt the best to me. It wasn’t even a Fender Fender, but a Fender Squier, which were made in Mexico at the time. But it was the one that had the best feel, so I grabbed it. Took it home and set it up, put new strings and a nice little Lion of Judah sticker on it, and as soon as Trevy saw it he picked it up and started playing it and said, “Man, let me play this tonight.” I said sure, and the next thing I knew it was his guitar. Kind of through the magic of Trevy-osmosis or something. Which was fine, really, I had other guitars, but it just goes to show how things were. Trevy didn’t really see much difference between my guitar and his guitar. They were the same to him. in all fairness that approach to “things” went both ways. If I’d wanted something that he had, he would have given it to me. And I got plenty from him and Vicky and Noel and Jenny without even having to ask.
But because he was not super attentive to things, he went through a lot of equipment. Misplaced, broken, left out in the rain, given away. He did draw the line at my 1960 Les Paul Junior though. Even though I knew how he was, I was always trying to get him to play it on recordings because those guitars have a distinctive sound and it’s a great reggae sound, but he would never touch it. “I’m afraid of that thing, man!” I’m pretty sure he wasn’t afraid the guitar, but he was probably afraid that he’d drop it down some stairs or leave it in a Thai restaurant or something. I was always overly possessive and fussy about my things, so he was a good influence on me that way. Made me less fussy. Somewhere between the two of us would probably be the perfect balance of caring and not caring about things. Of responsibility and freedom. But then wouldn’t we all be better if we could be a mix of ourselves and someone else?
Eventually I moved from my place across the street into a loft above the rehearsal studio, which was in a converted garage in Noel’s house. The band rehearsed in there and the 8 track recorder was set up in there, so I was basically living above a constant stream of music. When the band wasn’t rehearsing Trevy would be recording, and he’d sometimes bring other people or bands in to record. So I was knee-deep in his creative process every day, I couldn’t really ignore it, even when I was up in the loft and he was downstairs. The only thing separating me from the studio was a piece of fabric that I hung up so I could sleep without being on display to everyone downstairs. He’d come in and start out with a little riff on the guitar or a rhythm on the drum machine and work it over and over with scat vocals that were just sounds and grunts, looking for the vocal melody. That could – and usually did – go on for hours, and I would tune it out after a while. But then he’d hit on the parts of the songs and I’d hear it all come together, and if you’ve ever been around someone who’s writing songs, you know that moment when they hit on the creative spark is pretty cool. I wrote plenty of bad songs myself, but doing it is not the same as watching or hearing someone do it.
When we would record some of those songs later it was a strange experience. Anyone who does a lot of recording will tell you that it’s hard to listen to the finished songs objectively because you think about what you were doing in the studio while you were recording the songs, or what you had for dinner or what someone’s girlfriend said that started a fight in the control room. But for a lot of the songs that I heard come together five feet below me in the rehearsal studio, I’d be remembering when Trevy finally hit on the parts or laid down the tracks that solidified the songs while we were in a real studio recording the band versions of the songs. Which made it doubly difficult to ever hear them objectively. I’d hear the songs and remember the night they were first recorded, that the back door was open and I could smell jasmine and Noel’s dogs kept wandering in and out, or that someone called for Trevy from the deck next door and he had to stop to go see what they needed. The little details of life that I would otherwise forget because outside of the context of the creation of the song they weren’t important or memorable.
Which I could say kind of sums up my entire relationship with Trevy and Boom Shaka. A lot of little experiences that I remember fondly because of the music around them and the people involved in them. I suppose that’s how and why we remember anything. because of what’s happening at the time or who we’re with. So why does any of it seem special to us? I know for me the Boom Shaka memories are special because I knew I was in the middle of something special while it was happening. It was something I’d searched for and finally found, and I was aware enough to know that it was a very rare and lucky thing, and I should enjoy it while I had it. I didn’t always succeed in enjoying it while it was happening, because you can’t enjoy everything, and we are imperfect beings and life is life. But even when I was unhappy or wanted to murder someone, I’d still eventually find my way back to feeling good and lucky and glad to be alive in that specific place at that specific time. And I was lucky. I am lucky.
Trevy always talked about getting some land in Dominica and setting up some kind of recording studio or farm or whatever he was thinking about at the time he mentioned it. And he did end up living there, though not completely by choice, but because he had a lot of visa or passport problems here in the U.S. and this country essentially told him to go screw and stay away. That was really kind of tragic, but not unusual. because as a country, what do we need with creative people from elsewhere, right? I mean unless they have the proper pieces of fucking paper. It was doubly fucked up because Trevy had lived here much of his life, with his family who moved to Florida when he was still pretty young. So I always thought he had some kind of citizenship, but then when we started traveling outside of the country I found that he and his brother Ray still had passports from Dominica. Passports that caused us no end of trouble when we were traveling. Customs agents from every country would look at them as if they’d never seen such a thing before, and inevitably we’d be held up while they checked the validity of the funny green passports with the parrot on the front.
So while I’m sure he was happy to be in Dominica, it had to be bittersweet being sort of trapped there and unable to come to the U.S. when he wanted to. For the past few years I’ve looked at him as kind of an exile, and that was really too bad. I missed him the last time he was in Los Angeles and of course now that he’s never coming back I regret not checking for him. But in his usual unplanned, free-range fashion, he called me about 12 hours before he was going to leave and I just couldn’t make it. The last time I was with him we were talking in an alley behind the place I was working and he was telling me stories about touring with the Wailers and how they could never get any money from Familyman. He was laughing about it though, “Fams keep all the money!” because he didn’t really care about money. But soon after that conversation Boom Shaka ceased to be, and Trevy went on doing solo records and other projects. He never stopped making music because I don’t think he could have done anything else. Music was his purpose, for sure, all you have to do is look at the outpouring of love on Facebook since the news of his death broke. You can see right there how many people he affected in a positive way. You and I won’t get that. It’s really quite a thing to see.
But you know…I’m reminiscing here and saying good things, but I don’t want to give you the idea that I thought Trevy was some kind of saint or angel. No one is all good, and he and I would argue about things and piss each other off. Never intentionally, and I suspect that most of it was just the result of spending too much time together. I don’t know if we’re meant to be around one person every day. You know, unless we’re married to them or something. And even being married to someone, or having that kind of intimate relationship doesn’t mean that person can’t drive you up a wall. So yes, of course he had a less than wonderful side, as we all do. Once we were driving through Santa Monica, of all places, and at a corner he suddenly put the van into park and ran across the intersection and grabbed some guy by the throat and slammed him up against a wall. I couldn’t really run out and see what was happening, since I had to climb over and drive the van out of traffic. But when he came back I said, “What the fuck was that?” He said, “Oh, that guy owed me money for some t-shirts. I was just collecting it.”
And like a lot of male musicians, he fathered children without giving much thought to how he would take care of them or raise them. You might notice it’s always the women who are left solving those problems. And cultural proclivities aside, what working musician can be a parent to a young child anyway? That’s an old story that will probably continue to play out as long as there are entertainers and babies. And I said a minute ago that he didn’t care about money, and I know they say that about people – or people say it about themselves – and often it isn’t really true, but in Trevy’s case, I think it was absolutely true. When he needed something it would usually show up, or he had a connection to get it somehow. And that’s not an uncommon state for a creative person to find themselves in. There’s a long history of great creative minds being supported by a world that recognizes and respects creativity for its own sake. Even governments, if you can imagine such a thing, sitting here in America as most of you are. Yes, even governments supported art. Some still do. I know, it seems absurd and impossible, but it’s true.
But really, I don’t think I’ve ever known a truly creative person who could also work 9 to 5 at the savings and loan or the chicken processing plant. I’m pretty sure you can’t do both. You can’t be wholly creative and chasing that spark around and at the same time dealing with the day to day trivialities of a normal job. Look at Bukowski. He tried to do both and it nearly killed him. He had to quit the post office to really write. Trevy worked hard, but working hard as a musician doesn’t usually equal a lot of money. So the reality is, a lot of the time he made it the way a lot of musicians make it: on the kindness of others. But if you think about it, in order to benefit from that kindness you have to be the kind of person that people want to befriend and help and Trevy was one of those people. So while it wasn’t exactly as if anyone was being exploited, it still can’t be easy for the people around the person who doesn’t care about money. because they usually do have to care about it. That’s what allows the other person not to. There’s the rub, as they say.
So it’s easy for me, as a friend, to have a kind of one-sided view of him. But I know that in reality when someone is obsessed with a goal or a mission or anything that takes up most of their lives, there are always people around them who are hurt. And when someone who has hurt you – but who you still feel some kind of stubborn remnant of love for – when they die like this, it has to be hard to come to grips with your feelings. I imagine it’s much easier for the rest of us. Which is why here and now I’m choosing to remember the good things. Because there were a lot of them. I could tell stories here for another hour, but I’ve probably been talking long enough. And this is probably a disjointed and piss poor memorial for a really extraordinary person, but it’s all I’ve got right now. It’s been a rough week and I can’t really sit down a write a proper send off right now. I’m not sure I want to do a send off anyway. It’s so final.
I don’t tend to think about death as being generally a tragic thing. We all live, we all die, right? It’s the end of your story and my story and the story of everyone who ever came into the world crying and naked and covered with womb-goo. But the problem is when people you know die you start to think about how you’ll never see them again and it makes you sad in a completely selfish kind of way. And when someone you were really close to dies it’s even worse. If they happen to die unexpectedly or horribly, it’s worse still.
So it makes sense that thinking about Trevy and the way that he died really hurts, and it probably also makes sense that this is how I might try to counteract that pain. By trying to tell you about fun and funny things and about what a fine and creative person he was. That makes me feel better than I would otherwise, so it’s something. He had a lot of friends, a lot of bretheren and sistren, but on that selfish level, he was my friend and my brother and it’s a really shitty thing that I’ll never see him again. That none of us will ever see him again. But when I want to remember him I have the records and a lot of good memories. And I have all of his friends and family too, because he brought people together like that. If you knew him he expanded your world, and he usually expanded it in a good way with good people. So it could be worse. It could always be worse, remember that.