on Hometowns and Returns

Added on by Taylor Smith.

My wonderful wife bought us two tickets to see Ben Harper (and The Innocent Criminals) as a birthday gift last month. The concert was last at the Fox Theater in Riverside, which we both thought was an odd location; certainly Ben Harper could play a “bigger, better” venue. The concert was pretty good, though I wish the “sound guys” had done a better job; like usual, there was too much bass and kick drum and not enough vocals.

Back when we lived in Pomona (while I was in graduate school), Ben Harper was something of a local celebrity. He grew up in Claremont, where his family owned a music store. Supposedly, it was fairly common to see him going about his business in the general Claremont-Pomona-Upland-Ontario area. I never did, but I knew at least one person who ran into him at a grocery store.

I grew up in Hemet, CA. It’s a crappy little town stuck at the edge of a valley with the San Jacinto Mountains rising up to the east. To the west is the rest of Southern California, with Los Angeles lying about 100 miles out. San Diego is about 100 miles to the south-southwest. Essentially, Hemet is the absolute eastern boundary of anything related to the Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego metro area; beyond it lies a steep mountain range and an unforgiving desert.

When I tell people that this is where I grew up, I usually add something like, “as awful as that sounds,” or “but I am glad I got out.” It kind of makes me sad that I feel obligated to say this.

My wife and I moved back to Hemet for about ten months in 2006/2007 when I was teaching at San Bernardino Valley College (and taking my last few classes at CGU). At that point, it had been a good six years since I had lived there “full time.” I was kind of excited to go back, as it was a familiar place and I felt like I might have a lot of “connections” there. But, being there was also kind of depressing. The town had changed a lot, mostly for the worse. It’s hard to tell, though, if things were worse or if they were always that bad and I just never noticed because it seemed normal. Moving back to Hemet was probably a mixture of both.

I have always been a little embarrassed to call Hemet home. It just seems pretty lame. There is nothing there, save huge 55+ mobile home communities, miles of orange and pomegranate orchards, some rocky, sagebrush-covered hills, and an off-white hospital and its parking lot standing a few floors above everything else in the center of town. (Other notable things are an abundance of someone else’s smog, a neighboring Indian reservation stricken with poverty, the Church of Scientology’s infamous Gold Base on the outskirts of the valley, and a larger-than-normal number of meth-lab explosions.) When I was a teenager, it was a running joke that people had little else to do but get pregnant or hide out in the orange groves doing less-than-legal stuff. (At one point, Hemet had one of highest teen pregnancy rates in California.) In brief, Hemet was/is known as a less-than-great place to live, much less grow up.

But, had I grown up somewhere else, I would have had different experiences, and would likely be a different person as a result. There are parts of me that I certainly wish were different, but I am generally pleased with where I am right now; a tenured professor at thirty-five (complete with a PhD in hand), a (mostly) happily-married father of two, living in one of the country’s more desirable locations, making payments on a decent townhouse eight miles from work (to which I am able to ride my bike when I feel so inclined). There is no way of knowing how things might be different had I spent these “growing up years” somewhere else, but, all things considered, things have turned out pretty well for me.

The Ben Harper concert was kind of like a homecoming concert for him. I am pretty sure he has played many shows in the Inland Empire since his career’s successes, but there was something different about this show, I think. He brought this up more than a few times. In fact, he got choked up at one point when he talked about how odd it felt to sing these songs in the region of the world where he wrote them. I got the impression that a large percentage of the audience was people Ben knew from his pre-rock-star phase, so this show was more than just “another show” on his tour. The audience was filled with people who had supported and nurtured him and his gratitude and love for this was pretty clear from his on-stage banter. His mother even joined him on stage for one of the songs, which was touching.

This got me thinking about hometowns, homecomings, and returns to one’s past. Toward the very beginning of the concert, Ben said something like, “Inland Empire for life!” which seemed really odd. I don’t know very many people who would proudly proclaim an association with the “I.E.” Almost everyone that I know is proud to proclaim that they got out of there, myself included. I was thinking, once, about how some artists and musicians are able to channel a place’s angst into interesting things; styles like Delta and Chicago Blues or Seattle Grunge seem like examples of this to me. Yet, here am I, dying to distance myself from my hometown’s baggage. What would all of the Inland Empire’s pollution, racial tension, and frustration sound like if someone like me didn’t run away, but let it foment into something interesting? Is that what Ben Harper is?*

I was reading an article in Rollingstone a few years ago (something I rarely do), an interview with Jack White, who was explaining why he still lived in, and loved, Detroit. Essentially, he made the case that Detroit is what brought him to the music he knows and the music he makes, so why should he want to leave? (He has since moved to Nashville, though … ) This concert and the last month of thinking about stuff has made that interview make more sense to me.





* I actually think Ben Harper doesn’t really accomplish this. Growing up in Claremont is pretty different from growing up in Rialto or Moreno Valley; Claremont is one of the most educated cities in California, and is a very affluent area, pretty insulated from the rest of the “I.E.” Still, I think his music does do a good job of approximating much of the area’s diversity and general attitude, at least in some of his more political songs on Welcome to the Cruel World and Fight for your Mind. I think Voodoo Glow Skills might come closer to the Inland Empire that I knew: