A couple of months ago I started working with the San Diego Songwriter Book Club on a plan where various local songwriters would read Desert City Diva, write a song inspired by it and then perform the songs at a local coffeehouse/performance venue along with me doing some readings from the book.
For various reasons, we couldn’t quite make it happen but one of the songwriters, Omar Musisko wrote, performed and sang this DCD-inspired song, A Self-Saboteur’s Illusion. He also put together the video. Check it out and give him thumb’s up on You Tube if you enjoy it.
Recent news reports have indicated that access to Friendship Park will soon be blocked when the primary and secondary border fences along the park are replaced with 30-foot walls. This is an unfortunate choice by the Biden Administration, who I had hoped would ease local border access instead of resorting to draconian, and unnecessary, measures of security.
The park is of significant interest to me as my first visit there many years ago became the inspiration for my second Rolly Waters novel, Border Field Blues. Much of the action in the book takes place in and around Border Field State Park, which includes Friendship Park within its boundaries. The climactic chapter in the book takes place in the public area in the park itself and the road leading up to it.
The park was established after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in February 1848, officially ended the Mexican-American war. The US-Mexico Boundary Commission met at this location in 1849 to dedicate the stone monument that serves as the original boundary marker, half in Mexico, half in the United States.
When I first visited the park, there was a simple chain-link fence demarcating the border. It was a Sunday and families with members in both countries gathered at the fence to picnic, socialize and exchange money or gifts through the gaps in the fence. The closing of the park represents not only a recreational loss for Californians but a humanitarian one as well.
It bears noting in these relentlessly paranoid times that in 1971, First Lady Pat Nixon visited the monument to celebrate the establishment of the surrounding area as California’s Border Field State Park. Mrs. Nixon declared “I hope there won’t be a fence too long here,” and asked her security detail to cut the barbed wire on the border so she could step into Mexico and greet the crowd gathered there. She announced that the U.S. and Mexico would soon create an “International Friendship Park,” modeled after similar parks on the US-Canada border.
In 2006, with post-9/11 fears in full bloom, the federal government used eminent domain to seize part of the park from California. Dozens of laws intended to protect public spaces were waived and an imposing set of walls was constructed across through Friendship Park. Times had certainly changed.
My mother passed away five years ago. She was an avid art collector most of her life. Among the items we found stashed away in storage was the painting above. As you’ll see from the Bill of Sale below it is “A Painting (Gouache) by Picasso” entitled “Mother Figure.”
I hadn’t seen the painting for a while, but it brought back memories. First off, I’m 99.9% sure it isn’t a Picasso. How do I know?
- My mother told me it was probably fake fairly soon after she purchased it (in 1974). An art expert she knew came by the house to have a look and identified it as a forgery;
- Two other members of my family have confirmed the above;
- It wasn’t purchased from a gallery, just a guy named Frank Chew (if that was real name);
- There’s no signature on it, no big “P” Picasso. By this time in his life, Picasso could make a couple marks on a napkin, add his signature and pay for his dinner. It’s unlikely this would be unsigned;
- It’s god awful. Picasso may have done paintings meant to look ugly, but they would still demonstrate aesthetic and compositional skill. This thing’s just straight up ugly and poorly done.
As a crime fiction writer, I’m fascinated by frauds and scams. We’re all susceptible to them in one way or another (if you think you aren’t, think again). My mother was a pretty sensible person overall, but she fell for this guy’s scam. I have a vague memory of seeing her, Mr. Chew, and one other person looking over several paintings in the living room of our house. I don’t remember any specifics of the conversation, but I have my thoughts on how the con went down.
- The other person in the room was someone my mother knew. That person brought Mr. Chew over to the house. Was this person in on the con? Possibly, but I think it more likely they’d fallen for the con themselves, that Chew used them to contact local art collectors, helping him look legitimate. Perhaps he offered them a cut of the sales if they introduced him to buyers.
- The story. There had to be a story to explain how Mr. Chew came by the paintings, how they were created and why they were left unsigned. A good story is crucial to any good grift. It has to be believable enough to overcome the mark’s initial skepticism. I don’t know what the story was, but I expect it was well written and rehearsed.
- The deal. I’m sure this painting was offered at a substantial discount to whatever a Picasso of this type might have been going for at the time. It’s hard for any of us to resist a good deal. There’s usually a story attached to the discount as well, an explanation as to why the seller is making them available cheap (perhaps because there was no signature?). A good con anticipates questions and objections. It’s interesting that no price is listed on the bill of sale.
- Appeal to authority. In this case the seller had a notary confirm he really was who he said he was (see document below). I’m not sure what the requirements were for a notary to confirm someone’s identity back then, but an experienced con artist would have fake identity documents at the ready. If the police started looking for Mr. Chew, they’d find he didn’t exist (or that the real Chew’s identity was stolen).
There’s also the careful wrapping and packaging of the piece that makes it seem more legitimate and precious. Here’s the portfolio case with the title on a tag in front.
This all happened in 1974 and, as far as I know, Mr. Chew was never apprehended. I don’t know if there were other San Diego art collectors who fell for his scam. I’ve asked some folks who were around at the time but, other than two of my siblings, no one remembers anything about it. It’s possible my mother never even reported this to the police.
At any rate, I plan to keep this painting around for a while. I may use some version of this story in one of my novels or short stories. One question I’m still interested in is who painted this? Was it Mr. Chew or a silent partner with some artistic skill?
I’ve started spending more time on my musical pursuits lately—brushing up on my keyboard skills, learning modern recording technology and writing songs. The above is the first song I’ve written and produced in quite a long time. It’s a somber and reflective piece I started years ago. Feels good to have it finished and out in the world. Have a listen (and/or download for later by clicking the down arrow in upper right).
Beginning with the first Rolly Waters novel, Black’s Beach Shuffle, one of the things I tried to do was to give my characters distinctive names. Since my protagonist was a musician, I came up with a system for naming all the characters after musicians or music-related entities. I didn’t want to make the names too obvious (no Miles Davis or Elvis Presley) because that would distract the reader from the story. So I decided to mash up the names—one from column A and one from column B. Here’s how it works:
Rolly Waters. Rolly is short for Roland, a company that makes any number of musical instruments, but are best known for their early drum machines, like the TR-808. Waters is for the seminal Chicago blues man, Muddy Waters.
Bonnie Hammond. Bonnie Raitt and Hammond Organs (or legendary A&R man and record producer, John Hammond)
Max Gemeinhardt. Named for the drummer for Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, Max Weinberg. During my thankfully short-lived jazz-flute playing days, I used a Gemeinhardt flute.
Marley Scratch – for two titans of Reggae music, Bob Marley and dub inventor Lee “Scratch” Perry.
Moogus is a bit of a cheat, it’s a play on Moog, for Robert Moog, inventor of Moog synthesizers. In a later book we find out Moogus’ last name is Ludwig, which is a well-known drum manufacturer. But he’s really just Moogus.
I also applied this method to one-time characters.
Black’s Beach Shuffle:
Alesis Amati. Probably the most ornate name I’ve come up with, this one combines two musical instrument makers. Alesis made the first affordable digital reverb rack (I treasured mine). Amati is a violin manufacturer.
King Gibson. Easy one here. B.B. King and Gibson guitars.
Ricky Rogers is for 50s heartthrob Ricky Nelson. And Rogers drums.
Border Field Blues:
Dr. Zildjian Ramoñes – another slight cheat, but rather clever (I think). The name uses the seminal punk band, the Ramones, with a tilde (ñ) added over the n to give it a Spanish flair. The doctor’s first name, Zildjian, is known to all drummers as manufacturer of the world’s finest cymbals.
Alicia, Rolly’s step-mother, is named for Alicia Keys
Tangerine is named for a song on Led Zeppelin III or the jazz standard by Johnny Mercer and Victor Schertzinger. Take your pick.
Burdon for Eric Burdon, lead singer of The Animals (House of the Rising Sun) and the early version of War (Spill that Wine).
Desert City Diva:
Macy Starr comes from a combination of Macy Gray and Ringo, who doesn’t need a last name.
Cool Bob because Bob Dylan is as cool as they come. And he speaks in riddles, just like Cool Bob.
Buddy Meeks is a slight cheat. It combines blues string-bender nonpareil Buddy Guy with innovative English record producer, musician, sound engineer Joe Meek.
Ballast Point Breakdown
Butch Fleetwood combines alt-rock producer Butch Vig (Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth) with drummer Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac.
Janet Withers is a Janet Jackson and Bill Withers mashup.
Anytime a pair of FBI agents show up, they’re named after a famous songwriting team. In Black’s Beach Shuffle, agents Porter and Hayes are named for the great Stax Records songwriting team of David Porter and Isaac Hayes who composed soul classics such as Hold on, I’m Comin’, Soul Man, and When Something is Wrong with My Baby.
For Ballast Point Breakdown, I used a new FBI team named Goffin and King, for the Brill Building husband and wife team Gerry Goffin and Carole King who wrote Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, Some Kind of Wonderful, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, and Up on the Roof among others. King, of course, went on to write and perform the gazillion-selling album Tapestry.