R.I.P. Rodney Lanier (Sea of Cortez, Jolene)
The Carolinas’ music community lost a great friend when Rodney Lanier, the Sea of Cortez bandleader, passed away suddenly on December 9, 2011. We encourage anyone who’d like to remember Rodney in words to add their thoughts on the comments board beneath Editor John Schacht’s remembrance.
In 2006, after I’d come off a career-hemorrhaging 9-month bender, I felt like I was walking on eggshells through even the simplest aspects of my life; going out again to see music in the places where I’d begun my descent was flat-out frightening. But I couldn’t throw out the music baby with the drugs bathwater. So I warily emerged from my cocoon, hoping to avoid the pitfalls I’d previously embraced. On one of those nights, I was at the Evening Muse talking to Rodney outside while some folkie strummed away inside. I was friendly with Rodney, but we weren’t what anyone would call good friends at the time. I told him I was dying to go see Califone, though, at Local 506 in Chapel Hill that weekend. And because we’d discovered in previous chats that we liked a lot of the same bands, and more probably because he was at heart a kind and friendly person, I asked him if he wanted to drive up with me that weekend and check them out. Without skipping a beat, he said ‘yeah, let’s do it.’
We drove up that Friday listening and talking about music. I remember asking him some geeky questions about his band – the instrumental rock outfit Sea of Cortez – and their approach to songwriting, trying not to sound like a journalist. He never took it that way, and we loosened up enough to share a couple of hearty laughs about some of the quirky absurdities of the Charlotte music scene.
Later, over carnitas burritos in Chapel Hill, I learned that he’d been to Puerto Nuevo in Baja California, where I’d traveled frequently from my home in nearby San Diego in search of surf, lobster, beer, and mariachi music during my teens and early 20s. The town – New Port, in Spanish — was little more than a dozen shoddily built brick lobster restaurants overlooking the Pacific Ocean off the main (i.e., only) North-South highway, the owners’ dwellings listing crazily above the Formica-tables-and-plastic-chairs joints below. The lobsters were enormous, though, the beer ridiculously cheap, the atmosphere reliably festive. Some of my East coast friends had mocked me whenever I waxed nostalgic about the food, landscape and ambience; Rodney was somebody who had not only actually visited this speck on a map, but got why the whole experience was so memorable. The West is big, its vast empty spaces and endless vistas awe-inspiring and, ultimately, humbling; Baja, devoid of much development, is even more so. Sea of Cortez was inspired by that Baja trip, Rodney told me, and even if you’ve never been there you can intuit his awe in the open spaces between the notes – that’s what made me love his music.
I’m pretty sure he wasn’t that into the Califone show at Local 506 that night (“the drummer was really good,” was all I remember him saying about it), but it didn’t matter – the day had been fun, cruising around Franklin Street’s used bookstores and record shops and eating Mexican, which both of us ate to excess. I felt like I’d made a friend, too. A couple of years later we drove up to Cat’s Cradle to see Calexico, the outfit of border-hopping desert-noir musicians we’d initially bonded over. But the band had entered a different phase by then and we both sensed our interest waning with it. I sat in the backseat that night on the ride home, while he and his girlfriend at the time, Sara, chatted quietly, indecipherably, and occasionally held hands across the bucket seats. It’s an image that sticks in my mind right now for its simple humanity.
In the years afterward, whenever I did get out to the Evening Muse when Rodney worked the door, one of the highlights – sometimes the only highlight – was shooting the shit with him. About the bands we were respectively geeking out on, about Sea of Cortez’s latest goings-on, about the insane asylum known as the music business, about books and movies, about women past and present. And those bull sessions would always be punctuated by his infectious laugh, a blend of a big man’s guffaw and a smoker’s cackle, always accompanied by his mischievous cockeyed grin. He liked to good-naturedly stir shit up, too, and I heard plenty about the practical jokes he got up to. More than once I found myself in tears on the street in front of the Muse because I was laughing so hard.
I find myself again in tears now, but for all the wrong reasons. I can’t pretend Rodney and I were close, close friends – we didn’t hang out all that often, and I don’t play music well enough that anybody’d call it that, so I lacked that additional language with which he and his closest friends – his band-mates — could express their feelings. But I feel proud to have called him a friend at all. I last talked to Rodney for the Creative Loafing article I wrote about the first Oso Grande benefit in October. For 90 minutes, we sat and shot the shit on the patio of the Smelly Cat coffee shop, just feet from where, a few weeks later, he would fall and quickly, mercifully, pass from this life. We spent most of those 90 minutes ignoring the enormous ugly-ass cancer elephant at the table with us, circling it warily, trying to find a conversational place where its presence could be forgotten, however briefly, before we had to deal with it for the story.
And we succeeded, too, for a good long while. I learned, for one, that he was a fan of Ry Cooder’s early 70s records – Chicken Skin Music, in particular. He’d never heard Boomer’s Story, though, which predates it, and I promised to burn him a disc; I sensed that he’d fall for Cooder’s version of the old Mexican standard “Maria Elena,” one of the prettiest things I’ve ever heard with its melancholic guitar lines, 3/4 beat – he liked him some waltzes, didn’t he? – and accordion accents. I never did, though, and ironically on the day he died I meant to send him a YouTube of it from a 1978 live gig to whet his appetite. But I didn’t. And now I never will.
Back on that unseasonably warm October afternoon, when we finally addressed the issue we’d been avoiding, he spoke with seriousness that I hadn’t heard from him before. What he said rang louder, and truer, because of the circumstances. The gist of it was that he’d wished he had not worried so much and been more grateful for what he had. It’s something we all say and think at times, but we are not all staring into the abyss. He was. And I can think of no better legacy to try and take away from his otherwise pointless, pointless death: Do what you what love and don’t look back. I never told him this, but I like to think it was in the air unspoken between us — through his good-natured kindness back in 2006, he helped me ease back into what I love doing. I’ll always be thankful for that, and whenever I hear a pretty accordion waltz, or a pedal steel’s lament, or a mysterious desert-flavored soundscape, I’ll remember that kindness. It’s that loss that makes my heart really go out to those who were his close, close friends; mine is broken enough as it is. – John Schacht