Crosby Tyler has a love/hate relationship with his hometown Los Angeles, but it's mostly hate.
Sure, his Peter Case-produced 10 Songs of America Today may cause former Angelenos to miss the city of contradictions. The influence of his Highland Park neighborhood's Latino population is much in evidence on songs like "So Out of Place" and "Payasos Borrachos Y Locos" (which in English means "Clowns, Drunkards and Crazies").
Still, the love pretty much ends there.
"I don't want to down Los Angeles, but there is something wrong with it," says the singer-songwriter, whose poignant lyrics make Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles" sound optimistic by comparison. "I just played in England and people there are just enamored with the blues, Northern soul and a lot of other American music. And then you come back to L.A., and it's like baboons! There's a lot of good talent here, man, but some of the people that proliferate this place — it's just Bozoland."
Which may be where the clowns come in. One of the standout tracks on Lectric Prayer, Tyler's newly released follow-up to 10 Songs, is the darkly wistful "Good Ol Circus Days." A sample lyric: "Who knew in '82 / The only thing I'd own are giant shoes / That I wore for 19 years / To kick beach balls in the back of Sears."
Cheery stuff. The song also name-checks Frosty Little, a veteran clown who actually runs Frosty Little's Circus Museum in Burley, Idaho.
"Don't tell me Frosty's still alive," says Tyler, before reluctantly proceeding to explain the song's origins. "I was just doing research on old circuses and who the famous clowns were during a certain period of time in America, and Frosty Little came up. I've always been fascinated by clowns — I sort of feel like a lonely clown a lot of times — and some songs just sort of go to the bone in terms of imagery."
Another kind of blues
Among Tyler's most poignant songs is "Red," which he wrote about his father: "To the world you were just a no one / An army number unclassified / But to me you were always my father / Though we never had a chance to say goodbye."
"My real father, he was a beautiful guy," says Tyler of the song's subject. "He had this sort of boho spirit, but he also just had a lot of problems mentally."
Tyler says his dad wasn't the only troubled personality he spent time with through the years. Back in 1992, he produced an album by bluesman Ray Bailey that got picked up by a major label, won two awards from Living Blues magazine, and led Bailey to international tours and an eventual breakdown.
"He's this guy from Watts, an unbelievable guitar player — a combination of Hendrix and B.B. King — and we made an album that took like six or eight hours. So when you ask why I write songs like these, here was a guy who just destroyed his whole life on crack and coke and booze, when he could have probably been one of the top five blues guys."
While Bailey's website chronicles how the guitarist "sank into drug use and depression," the story has taken a positive turn with the 2008 completion of a rehab program at downtown L.A.'s Midnight Mission and the recording of a new album that will be his first in a decade.
Tyler also recalls his own rough period, back before he took songwriting classes with former Plimsouls leader Peter Case.
"It was something I really needed because, to be honest with you, I was dealing with a lot of fucked-up jokers and assholes, or that was the way I was perceiving it. I mean, whatever I was attracting or doing, that's how the dice were rolling. And Peter just kind of shot me through with lightning bolts. He praised my work and just put me on another level. He just orchestrated everything, filling out the songs and coming up with some very unique things."
Tyler considers his teacher-turned-producer a musical genius, one who excels at singing, guitar playing and songwriting.
As for himself, Tyler figures he's mastered one out of three: "As far as songwriting, I'll go up against anybody. I don't know if I'm gonna win, but I'm not afraid as a songwriter." The guitar playing, he says, takes continual work. "And the singing, I don't know if I give a damn anymore, I just do whatever I can do."
Self-criticisms aside, Tyler still considers himself fortunate.
"There's millions of singer-songwriters now, and millions of people in the American genre and everything else, but I'm very thankful that I have the opportunity to do this right now. And while I can do it, you know, I'll do it 'til the end. I mean, T-Model Ford's 89 years old, and he still does shows."