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Locals to gather in celebration of Chris Darrow

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

Family, friends and admirers still aching over the loss of Chris Darrow are coming together next weekend to celebrate his life.

On Saturday, March 7 from 5 to 9 p.m., locals are invited to the Garner House, 840 N. Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont, to honor the life and legacy of the trailblazing musical pioneer, photographer, artist and mentor.

The evening is communal, and guests are encouraged to bring memories—photographic, paper, digital, oral or otherwise—to be compiled in a journal for the Darrow family, and, fittingly, some food to share at the potluck reception.

The evening, which is hosted by Claremont Heritage, will also include an exhibit of the Claremont icon’s art, ephemera from his life, and musical performances featuring some of his former bandmates.

Mr. Darrow, who died January 15 at age 75 of complications from a stroke, was a photographer well versed in all forms of visual art, but was best known as a musician and songwriter.

His influence and influences ran far afield. He was a pioneer in what would come to be known as Americana music, but his omnivorous tastes incorporated country, Cajun, world music, bluegrass, folk, rockabilly, blues, Hawaiian, surf, and of course, rock ‘n’ roll.

He was an adventurer, a true artist, and his raw authenticity was his calling card throughout his nearly six decade career.

He was born July 30, 1944 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. His family moved to Claremont when he was a youngster. He attended Webb School and then Claremont High School, where he met fellow student Charles Zetterberg, forging a friendship that would last more than 50 years.

“We were buds,” said Mr. Zetterberg, an early musical collaborator (on the banjo), and a longtime local attorney. “I never had any doubts about Chris’s evolution—the variety of instruments he played, his style, original all the time, a great songwriter—it just was fun. I don’t want to overplay it or anything, because Chris was just Chris, with a lot of musical stuff going on in his mind and all his creativity, he was just doing his thing. But it was a lot of fun for me to see a piece of that and to watch him grow as a musician.”

Mr. Darrow, with fellow Claremonter and his future brother-in-law David Lindley, co-founded the highly influential group The Kaleidoscope in 1966. He also played on the late Leonard Cohen’s debut album, as well as with John Stewart, Hoyt Axton, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, among many others. 

The list of musicians he has influenced includes so many iconic names it’s somewhat puzzling Mr. Darrow remains a kind of cult figure in latter 20th century American popular music.

“People say ‘Why wasn’t he a household name like some of the people he worked with?’ And that was part of the reason: because he just wanted to do things his way, or the way he was comfortable with, and that wasn’t always the way that was popular,” said Mr. Darrow’s son, musician and graphic artist Steven Darrow. “It just never really turned into big disco dollars.”

Part of Mr. Darrow’s reticence for the spotlight was a quirk of the man himself; he preferred small gatherings over elaborate affairs, intimacy over glitz.

“He had this open door policy where you could stop by any time,” his niece, Mahlea Jones Bergmann said. “I don’t think he really ever locked his door. He just sort of trusted nature, trusted the universe, and trusted the community. He truly lived his life that way.”

And, part of it was by design.

“A lot of people don’t know he had serious stage fright, kind of for his whole career,” his son said. “That’s why in the later days you didn’t see him playing as much as some of his contemporaries.”

When Mr. Darrow was touring regularly the in 1960s and 1970s, “He just dealt with it,” his son said. When he began making solo records, starting with 1972’s brilliant “Artist Proof,” he could pick and choose his live appearances. “And that’s why they didn’t happen on a regular basis,” Steven Darrow said. “He just preferred to do things that were more comfortable.”

He lived in the Blaisdell Drive home his parents built in Claremont in 1958 when it was surrounded by orange groves, both as a youngster and again from the mid-1980s until his death. It came to be known as “the bamboo house,” for its shady grove of mature bamboo trees.

His many friends gravitated there at all hours, aware of the open door policy and the unpretentious warmth that lay within. They ran the gamut from colleagues to young artists and creatives.

“He knew something about everything,” said Claremont Heritage executive director David Shearer. “He was incredibly knowledgeable, a true historian, but also about life and etiquette and common sense and understanding his fellow man and how we’re all equal. He never put himself above anybody. He was probably as humble a guy as I’ve ever met.”

Young musicians also made the pilgrimage—often at the behest of record producers looking to add gravitas to a project—hoping to glean some of his authenticity.

“That was pretty much his specialty,” his son Steven said. “It was never slick musically, artwork-wise, or with photography. It was never polished. It was never technically perfect at all. It was always a big gritty, always a big blurry, always a bit darker.

“But at the same time it had its own feel. He was just more straightforward and organic. He never got into super-polished pop [music]. It would have been nice if he was able to do that for a little bit, go that direction and cash in on a few things, but that was his sort of style, and that was what he imposed on people when they came out to get mentored and pick up on his vibe, from all over the world, really.”

Ms. Jones Bergmann, busy this week helping to organize the March 7 event, said she was grateful her two children, five years old and 19 months, had been able to spend time with her uncle before his death. Her recollections were less musical and more visceral.

“One of my earliest memories, I think I was about eight or nine, is of him taking me and my sister on drives in his old salmon pink Nomad wagon up to Shinn Road up Mt. Baldy,” she said. “It was how I started to understand older vehicles, the weight of them, and the sounds and smells. He would pull down the glove box, and there were little recesses where you could set a coffee mug. And he’d bring his coffee in my uncle Eric’s mug and balance it perfectly on the flat surface. And I just remember sitting in front and enjoying the drive and learning simple things about life and nature.

“You felt safe coming to him with something, and there was always some sort of outlet afterward; you always learned something and took something with you. It was always like there was a continuation. He had a different approach. Our conversations would always take interesting turns.”

Mahlea’s mother Elizabeth Darrow-Jones added that her big brother was also a gifted athlete as a young man.

“He played all sports from an early age, and it carried out to his high school years,” she said. “He lettered in football, baseball, basketball and was a great tennis player. We all spent many nights watching sports with him. He also was a surfer and spent many years in San Clemente with some of the greats, including [pioneering professional surfer] Corky Carroll.”

Also part of the March 7 exhibit will be albums Mr. Darrow produced and played on, as well as the graphics, photography and cover design. That feat may be more commonplace in today’s digital environment, but in the purely analog ‘60s and ‘70s, it was like building a house from the ground up, all the furniture inside, and then assembling the car in the driveway.

“It’ll be something that will probably never happen anywhere else,” Steven Darrow said. “It’ll be like if he did have something in the [Rock ‘n’ Roll] Hall of Fame or a Hard Rock Café display or something like that. It’ll be the closest we’ll probably get to something like that.”

The outpouring of tributes and affection since his father’s death have been a nice bonus in an otherwise difficult time, Mr. Darrow said.

“I knew he had a lot of people from decades ago that have been following him who are on his side, but it’s nice to all the sudden have these people in the Claremont community—many of them I’ve never met—be so active, asking ‘What can we do?’

“They all seem to want to get out there and help, and the fact that it’s sort of a tribute/exhibit/musical gig, is much better, we all think, than a straightforward memorial service in a church.”

Performers taking part in the event include Steven Darrow, Pat Brayer, Steve Cahill, Eddie Cunningham, Roy Durnal, Cindy Edwards, Shawn Jones, Lauren Jones, Dave Millard, Steve Lewis, Jerry O’Sullivan, Jim Shirey, Robb Strandlund, Jerry Waller, John York, and perhaps more.

Some of Mr. Darrow’s photographs will be for sale, with the proceeds benefitting the Darrow family.

Visit www.claremontheritage.org for more information. You can also call (909) 621-0848 or email info@claremontheritage.org

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