I can’t remember exactly when I worked it out, but it seems that when I first arrived in Los Angeles I lived within walking distance of both Steve Vai and Robert Cray, a couple of wildly different, but indisputably mighty guitarists, admittedly ones I respect rather than love, but I did write about both them in a not quite forgotten book titled Big Noises.
In any case, such is the nature of these things, I only realized they both lived in the area as they were moving out. Keeping an eye on the property market is a major preoccupation in LA, even for people like me who have no intention of buying or selling a house, and of course there’s always the added value of a celebrity connection. I only located the Vai and Cray houses because they were touted as desirable properties when they came up for sale.
Cray, it turned out, had been living in an “Enchanting one story European, private and custom home on huge lot w/almost 1 acre flat with pool. An island unto itself. 3 Bds. 21/2 Baths.L.R. has beamed ceilings. & Ariz. Flagstone F.P., Wood flrs.D.R. has adjct. patio bringing in the outdoors. Kitch. has Viking Range & Sub-Zero in pantry. Sep. office/gst.hse + office/studio. Master has secret garden w/spa. Rear patio has F.P. & B.B.Q. Huge driveway w/rm. for 8 cars. Wine cellar-Pool-Zinfandel Vines ready for harvest! Views of Griffith Observ.” Blimey. Who knew the blues was so profitable? Though to be fair he’d bought the house in 1997 for just $800,000. A nice return.
Vai’s digs were “modest” by comparison, on sale for “just” a couple of million, featuring “open floor plan, views of Beachwood Canyon, four and a half baths, a den, and a patio, according to listing information. The house’s size is up for debate; public records say it measures 3,316 square feet, while listing information proclaims that it has 4,716 square feet.” It also had a “top-of-the-line sound studio with a control room, a live room, and a mic room,” but then it would, wouldn't it?
Are Messrs. Vai and Cray great walkers? Well, I’m guessing no, not really. There’s an interview with Vai in which he says, “I am sort of a walking dichotomy.” But that hardly counts. And at the end of his song “For the Love of God” there’s a voice over by David Coverdale, in which he intones, "Walking the fine line... between Pagan... and Christian.” Vai allegedly recorded that piece on day 4 of a 10 day fast. "I do try to push myself into relatively altered states of consciousness. Because in those states you can come up with things that are unique even for yourself.” But why day 4 rather day 9 or 10, I have no idea.
Cray performs a couple of walking-related songs. “I’m Walking” and “Walk Around Time” the latter of which includes the lyric
“Love can be easy
But the trust is hard to find
And all I need is some walk around time.”
Did Steve ever sling his Ibanez over his shoulder and stroll across to Robert’s place for a jam, or vice versa? They surely could have, but I’m guessing they didn’t. So I decided to make the journey on their behalf, to drift from the former Vai to the former Cray property. However, since this is really a pathetically short distance I decided to do a long detour that took me up to in Bronson Canyon and the “Batcave” as seen in the 1960s TV series, an old haunt for me. I kept hoping that I’d find evidence that Vai or Cray were great Batman fans or had at least jammed together on the Batman theme. Apparently not.
That’s Vai place above as it is now, and it presents a fairly blank and private face to the world. On the other hand it is closely hemmed in on all side by other houses, and however good the studio’s soundproofing you have to imagine than when Stevie spanked his plank, the neighbors would have known all about it. Still, at least you could have knocked on his front door and asked him to turn it down.
When Robert Cray (that’s his gaff above) turned it up to eleven, or even eight, you’d have had to scale a couple of fences and an earthwork before you could confront the man and try to do any “strong persuading.”
And I realized as well, that I’d walked past both these houses before, and I’d certainly not imagined that any great guitar heroics were going on inside, but that I suppose is just what you’d want if you were a guitar hero.
And so to the Batcave. The weather report I’d read said the day was going to be comparatively cool but as I schlepped along the road into the canyon, and then along the dirt track that led to the “cave,” uphill all the way, it felt pretty darned hot. Whenever I’d been there before, there had always been a few people around, often it seemed shooting some kind of amateur video using the Batcave as setting, but today there was absolutely nobody. Maybe they’d all read a more accurate weather report.
But there was evidence of human presence. Somebody, perhaps several people, with an arty bent, and at least a nodding acquaintance with the works of Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy (that's their work above) but with less lofty ambitions, had created some site-specific interventions, using the natural materials at hand. First there was a stone circle:
And just as interesting, inside the cave, or tunnel, or whatever you want to call it, there were tiny constructions, involving piles of stones, miniature cairns, and in one place a self-supporting arch, no bigger than your hand. Anonymous art by unseen creators. Clearly none of it was ancient or primitive, but it did seem somehow magical, evidence of “relatively altered states of consciousness” and also just a little unsettling.
Anyway, in due course the spell was broken. Along came a hiker in a Batman tee shirt. “Ah, you too have come to Mecca,” he said, and I didn’t argue with him.