At 16, music was already my main interest. That and girls.This was the point where I became more interested in music than surfing. When I got a licence to drive, at 16, I was allowed to take my car and just disappear with my friends for days. So I was hanging around at the beach with people older than me. Everybody was full of adventures, full of experimenting. I remember the first joint I ever smoked – I wound up watching the sun go down, listening to Ray Charles for an enormously long time! It changed everything. Time was changed, the music was changed, and I was changed. I was already into playing and writing songs, so that just intensified everything.
When I look back, I like my younger self – he had a lot to learn, but was on the right tracks. Getting a driving licence gave me freedom to go where I wanted to go and in some ways I’m still that person. I’m always looking for something new and wanting to uncover the world. I look back at my writing and think I was trying to describe the world as it was – but actually I was describing the world as I wanted it to be.
When I was growing up, listening to music was a very creative act. Before videos, the imagery in the songs was up to you. I remember my sister saying, “Don’t interpret Bob Dylan to me, I’ve got my own interpretation.” Dylan singing “He who is not busy being born, is busy dying” is a very powerful statement about how to live your life. It describes the most important part of life – what you discover and what you commit yourself to. It says so much in so few words. I grew up on songs like that or The Beatles singing Strawberry Fields Forever. They meant so much, and because they were so open to interpretation, you almost became the co-author of these songs.
My political education began when I was eight. I was mentored by a former LA Times Boys’ Club counsellor who had been expelled during the McCarthy era for having liberal leftist views, especially on Cuba. He dug Fidel Castro. He took us to the library and literally put the books in our hands about the true history of the United States, the wars of subjugation and the annihilation of American Indians. And my parents acquainted me with the concept of prejudice. When we were in the civil rights movement or marching against the Vietnam War, my understanding was from the books I read as a kid – about America’s broken treaties and relentless expansion. It is built into our country’s DNA that our promises will be broken.
My first thought that I could do music as a career happened in a high school biology class.I was not interested in what we were studying so I looked at these lyrics I was working on, thinking, if I open my book it will look like I’m reading along with the class. I wanted to be a songwriter so I wouldn’t have to be anywhere in particular, wouldn’t have to show up anywhere, I could go where I want to go. I wanted to be a writer who travels.
You want to know what I would have told myself as a 16-year-old who wanted to sing better? Take a fucking lesson. I didn’t have a thought to singing the songs myself until I heard my friends start to sing them and thought: ‘It’s gonna have to be better than that!’ So I began singing in clubs.