Growing Sugar Beets in Sonoma: Elegy for Bruce Brown Print E-mail


(Written January 2020)

Bruce died in April, 2019, and I’ve been mulling a piece to remember him by since then—not so much because of the feeling of loss, monumental to most of us who knew him over his 70+ years, but more because there is too much about him to remember. Bruce was so boisterous, so forceful, so opinionated, so funny, so adventuresome, so story-packed, so definitional or diversionary to phases of our lives, which, like a popular music era or a social movement, he became a centrality—or, at least, he epitomized some hegemony in the culture of the time. I can’t begin to think what it must have been like to have him as a partner (to Mary Dee), a father (to Street), or the eldest son, after his dad died (to his mother).

Bruce and I were lucky to know each other before the romantic heartaches and the maturation necessities of life took over. Exhibit A: my marriage and divorce. By this I also include the prerogative of our maleness. I knew Bruce through my older brother Steve, first in San Rafael, California, then Columbia, Missouri (my first city of freedom), eventually as deckhands on towboats out of Joliet, Illinois, and Morgan City, Louisiana. In those two roughnecking towns, we became fast friends on a road trip south in the winter of 1972, a pair of college dropouts, willing and able for any kind of work, dumb enough to do shit jobs no one else would. The year prior, I had undergone lifeboat-worthy changes—leaving an inchoate writing/academic career and breaking up with a woman I loved and who loved me, and still we couldn’t make it work. As a result, I turned happily to the emotional therapy of playing guitar.

On the way south, we stopped in Nashville and I bought a $99 Yamaha acoustic—and from that ax the music (folk/ragtime/jazz/songs) flowed out of me. Bruce was a banjo frailer and I strummed chords; together, we made a kind of string-band duo with an Ain’t-It-Hard emphasis on Woody Guthrie and Appalachian novelty. Bruce was a tune player; I was a perfection-oriented fingerpicker, wanting to make the instrument sound like a piano.

We ended up in New Orleans, broke, sleeping in the car, signing on with oil rigs on land and in the Gulf of Mexico, cash wages. Once we unloaded oil pipes for twenty-four straight hours (that about shit), then slept for twenty hours and agreed that college had to be the better option. Why had we quit? Here’s a comment I put in my journal then from an oilrig worker, name, Jim Reeves, to Bruce and me: “What y’all doin’ workin’ for Atchafalaya Oil and Gas? You’re both intelligent and you’re too young to be fucked up?”

We would trade our off times: one shipped out in the Gulf, the other explored New Orleans and the alligator-infested coastal swamps with a 1952 Pontiac we shared. Bruce kept his marijuana under the driver’s seat; it wasn’t long before I, on my own one week, was stopped for a malfunctioning taillight, and the constables found the stash, put me in jail for three days, and levied a usurious fine. My dad, and life savior, bailed me out to the tune of $750—which I paid back that year.

I still have journals and songbooks from that two-month trip. If they show me anything, it’s that at the time—and ever since—I was driven to record stuff (good preparation for becoming a journalist), all sorts of oddities and tragedies and occasional poetry: a list of the nights we got drunk, where and why; song lyrics, half of them off-color and obscene; impressions of the sea at dawn; ship-to-ship radio chatter; shark dreams; directions for tying knots; puns of all stripes, one, thanks to Bruce, “Back Bayou,” which I turned into a song; metaphors for Louisiana dark roast coffee (“shoe polish” and “coonass hashish”); roads signs and book lists and gumbo recipes and racist jokes and girls’ names and their phone numbers. Every day, I either taught myself guitar or I journaled. (I left music in 1982; writing won out.) One 1972 journal entry:

Bruce and I—drunk the other afternoon on JAX beer, driving to New Orleans for our semen’s papers—shouts and wits, nonstop, lambasting, loving everything verbal and twistable—talked of leaving our loved ones, women, I mean—boiled down to “I’ve had it with you”—and why did we leave them for “this,” reeling around the bayou corners, letting go, quietly, with a stoned dignity, our beer cans on the floor of the back seat, wanting everything in one male embrace, “this” was “us”—man to ship, moisture equals sweat, fast talk, autos, and the prize for best talker in the South—he whimpered aloud for his lost love [what was her name?]—and I whimpered for you (T) inside—in New Orleans a scraggly woman with a sign, “Don’t go to Hell—Live for Jesus,” and she sang hymns for her Lord and Savior near the French 25¢—after we passed, we talked about Christ—Bruce said, “If Jesus were alive today he’d be living in Sonoma, growing sugar beets”—we walked a while further—“You know,” I burst out, “growing sugar beets in Sonoma doesn’t sound too bad at all.”


I used to think a lot about Bruce’s character, even then, trying to understand his Zenish detachment, as if he’d lived before (a recent incarnation), and he knew more than most of us, me included, feelings I still hold and his death crystallizes. His inventiveness was legendary, as a humorist, punster, car mechanic, risk-taker, house-fixer-upper, gardener, tool-collector, pool-player, canoer, an Edison-like bundle of mechanical energy, flinty and canny.

And yet there was a competitiveness to his invention, which most of the time was goodhearted, though it could be tough to tell. If I’m comparing, I was better at music, reflection, and analysis, self-mythologized around an early and persisting love of literature and its solitude, shall we say, a more eremitical bent. But, like Daniel Boone, Bruce was a master of nearly all the “hand” trades: I remember him rebuilding a car engine on the kitchen table of our home in Hallsville, at the Rat’s Nest; dismantling, moving and reassembling a log-cabin home from one part of Missouri to another; doing the plumbing at the Rat’s Nest (it needed to get done if ever we were to have women stay with us longer than one night: the plumbing worked) by running the hot-water line, post-heater, into the toilet so the john wouldn’t freeze in winter. He was so good at those things, I often just got out of his way and let him excel.

One night, he and I had an argument. He thought I wasn’t doing my part to keep the house refurbishing of the Rat’s Nest going (with John Brady, another master, as our other roommate). I, in my cocky self-assurance as an artist (then as now) devoted my days to studiously playing the guitar and studying music, on record and in books. Fairly useless with a wrench, I’d grown weary of chores—chafing my hands and cracking my nails. By that night I had refused blown off chopping winter wood or cleaning the gutters, and he accused me of having “lily-white typewriter hands.” I remember laughing. It was supposed to have been a putdown but I thought it a compliment.

He was right; I was slacking off. On some level, he was telling me that I was not keeping abreast of the friendship he and I had created, the brotherhood of youthful doing, the exteriorization of our personalities, the hard work of making a go at collective labor and responsibility, the little communist farm-life we had, rent-free, as homesteaders. This was, after all, the era of back-to-the-land hippies, to live off the grid as much as possible with that frontier obsession to be self-sufficient.

That night signaled a soft end to our teamwork. Hand-wise, I was “lily white,” and I would stay that way—for good. I wanted to study music, make records, write songs, teach guitar, and most of all move to town whose benefits, libraries, lectures, bookstores, museums, nightclubs, I loved. It was a send-off of sorts. Within a year, a woman and I moved out of the Rat’s Nest to Rocheport, eventually to Santa Fe, seven years later to San Diego (where I still reside), and Bruce stayed in Missouri, eventually buying and owning three wildly different house-projects to grow his expertise, his love of doing. This was, we now know, during the last days of the Twentieth-Century Age of Mechanical Know-How, after farmers gave up recognizing firsthand the patterns of wind, rain, and seasons by stepping outside to see and to feel, and, instead, just turned on the Weather Channel.


Once out West, I lost touch with Missouri and Missourians until the mid-1990s when, my twin sons were out of high school and my college teaching career secure, I reconnected with Bruce and others and went back. (People seldom come to San Diego, which must say something about me or my choice.) Once there, I marveled at his life: marriage to one of the most naturally gifted musicians I’ve ever known, Mary Dee; their son, Street; and his outward-bound career, missionary-like: an ironworker who built bridges, ran a union, and eventually became a high-paid project manager, expense-account-travel all over, which, oh yes, made America and American ironworking great again.

Bruce had a tool for every dream. The last time I saw him, June of 2018, between chemo treatments he actually looked well—skinny, tired, talkative. He took Jay Hasheider and me on a tour of the basement floor of that three-story apple-cider storehouse he bought in Louisiana, Missouri. I can only throw out whimsical names for what I think we saw. The machines looked like medieval torture devices: block and tackles of all sorts, hand and electric saws, tool and dye hardware, drill presses and apple-coring contraptions and engine lifters and mad-loud sanders and varnish cans and spray guns—who knows what all. Each thing had a wood or metal shaping brain to it, which Bruce enlisted for one of the thousand and one projects he was ever in the middle of.

When I was there, I noted that my tool collection fit in one kitchen drawer. He didn’t laugh probably because it wasn’t funny or, worse, unremarkable. In my home, everything my partner and I have works and, if it needs fixing, we hire someone to fix it or buy a new one—dishwasher, microwave, computer. I can’t imagine life without these things and yet I once lived free of them for years. File that under the ridiculous irony of American privilege.

I’m sure there’s a dishwasher motor or a lawnmower engine down in that first-floor basement, half-disassembled, screws on the floor, an oily rag nearby, the ghost of Bruce leaning over the scattered parts and cussing at the goddamned thing.