La Botz’s story seems entirely too cinematic to be true – a film with
shades of Merle Haggard and Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski and Mark
Twain and Sid Vicious and David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Jim Jarmusch and
Boxcar Bertha and Jack Kerouac all wrapped into one. And all of these
experiences play into his new album ‘Sunnyside,’ out May 12 on
Hi Style Records, a record that shows that his imagistic songwriting,
storytelling range, and recounting of his experiences are just as deep
as the aforementioned list of greats.
A juvenile delinquent in the early ‘80s discovering punk music and drifting.
A high school dropout who works odd jobs. A subways and street busker
taken under the wing of grizzled, wise bluesmen in Chicago. Avid reader
who charts a self-education in a public library while falling under the
spell of music, tattoos, sunshine, cheap motels, and drug addiction in
southern California. Film actor. Gospel musician in all-black church.
Buddhist. Meditation teacher. Then, through innumerable gigs with his
Chet Baker looks and his large-bodied guitar, he finds friends and
admirers in J.D. McPherson and a whole new crop of Americana musicians
in his new abode in Nashville. This is Jake La Botz’s true story.
A young La Botz sitting on the floor, listening to his grandfather Jinx
Putnam, who grew up in Wyoming to a father who was a homesteader and a
gambler. Jinx had been a bootlegger during prohibition, hobo’d during
the Great Depression, and had worked on boats, served in World War II,
and been to Cuba and Alaska and Australia. La Botz says, “He was strange
but well read, a country throwback, not at all connected to the modern
world.” La Botz was transfixed and enchanted. “Jinx was an incredible
storyteller. All my life, I just wanted to be around old guys with great stories.” he adds. The stage is set.
Roll title credits.
a 15-year old boy in Chicago makes friend with an older kid at a local
punk show. La Botz recounts, “Amongst the criminal types, there were
artistic people. My friend did criminal activities as a type of
performance art.” The two steal a car and drive to Detroit. Another
time, they drive cross-country in another stolen car, sleeping at hobo
camps, hanging at punk venues. La Botz recalls, “The punk rock community
was my refuge. If you had a weird haircut and a leather jacket, you fit
in there.” They make it as far as Denver.
La Botz back home, drops out of school, starts working odd jobs in
Chicago, roofing, writing obits, and driving medi-cars. A fan of reggae
and punk music, he checks out blues at Maxwell Street Market and
connects with elder bluesmen like Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis. “Until
then, the blues was the feeling I had but not yet the soundtrack,” he
says. As a teen, La Botz sneaks into a Chicago bar to see David
“Honeyboy” Edwards, the Delta bluesman who played with Robert Jr.
Lockwood and Robert Johnson and recorded a side for Alan Lomax before
settling in Chicago. “By 16 or 17, I knew that I wanted to play music,”
La Botz in his early 20s, in Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis’ projects
apartment, both drinking heavily. La Botz befriends Honeyboy and
Homesick James (a relative of Elmore James) as well, gleaning what he
can of their wisdom and guitar licks. Meanwhile, Honeyboy always carried
a gun. La Botz says, “I learned some of their guitar techniques and other gimmicks through
osmosis, on an unconscious level. I would watch their hands every time
they played. Davis learned guitar from John Lee Hooker and they played
in a gospel group together. He played on Maxwell Street regularly. He
used to be in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and danced on broken glass in a
grass skirt. I learned a lot from him about how to perform.”
was one of the greatest storytellers of all time,” he says, citing the
oral history book The World Don’t Owe Me Nothin’. He continues, “He
completely brings you in and makes you a part of the story. He’s a
really welcoming person. He would also request old Delta blues songs for
me to play on guitar for him. We became very close.” Shooting the shit
and working with these men offered another connection to his hometown of
Chicago as well. “The blues is an African-American art form and also an
American art form. It's part of our collective unconsciousness. Part of
the landscape here. And it can take us to another world,” he says.
La Botz tries his hand at the game he learns from the bluesmen, opening
shows for them and playing on the street and in the subway. “I felt
like a subterranean creature, some kind of rodent,” he says, recalling
two years of playing blues and gospel during both rush hours on Chicago
subway platforms as well as in San Francisco, New Orleans, and at the
King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, AR. “In the subway, there’s a new
audience every five minutes! I would sometimes find
one person and focus on them and then the rest of the crowd would
follow in behind that person’ energy,” he exclaims. He finds the
cultural plurality of busking rewarding, connecting to all walks of
people as well as a training ground on how to sing from your heart in a
public space. He recounts these experiences in the new song “For Nickel
and Dimes” with its chorus, “Pouring out your soul for nickels and
the late ‘80s, La Botz moves to LA, into the American Hotel downtown,
has a drink at iconic punk dive Al’s Bar. These experiences inspired one
of the highlights of the new album, the vivid “Hotel.” “They say write
what you know,” he laughs, continuing, “Well, that’s a place to start. I
shot dope with a guy at the hotel whose girlfriend was turning tricks
to support his habit. My neighbor was just out of prison. There may have
been one or two artists floating about.” He spent a year and a half
living there. He started a performing residency at the hotel bar,
playing every Friday from 5pm to 7pm during the “Unhappy Hour,” in exchange for a free room. “Trees In Cali” offers another perspective on addiction and “Hard To Love What You Kill” portrays a man seemingly on the verge of suicide.
Underground again, this time in a basement library in downtown LA. La
Botz pours over books about hoboing such as “You Can’t Win” and “Boxcar
Bertha.” Through over 100 degrees out, it is cool in the library on one
of the three underground floors.
La Botz performing his songs nationwide on an annual tour of tattoo
parlors, which he has done by now eight years. “It started out of
necessity,” La Botz explains. He began playing in Gil Monty’s shop in
the late ‘90s, then known as a hangout for hair metal bands. “I was
drawn to tattoo parlors because of an artistic camaraderie. Tattoo
artists, like musicians, are itinerant people... maybe because they can be,”
he says. The shows themselves are often unique. “I never know what I’m
getting into,” he laughs, describing everything from playing for
one-percenter bike clubs to art-school dropouts.
revels in tattoos as both initiation and ritual. Of La Botz’s many
tattoos, his first was done with a sewing needle as a young teen. “It’s a
part of the world of mysticism, a dark art, using images that relate
back to mythology. It’s ancient civilization stuff.”
Scene: a different kind of needle, back in a grungy hotel room.
to: La Botz talking with a fan after a show about his close to two
decades of sobriety. “You never know who you might help out,” he says of
La Botz on the red carpet of a film premiere. This year, La Botz made
his first title role in a film appropriately titled The Grace of Jake.
He says, “The Grace of Jake was written with me in mind. I was playing
guitar in an African-American Baptist church in south central Los
Angeles and I was the only white member. The director had
just moved to LA from the Arkansas Delta and he started writing a movie
script that was a link to home for him. The character is a mixture of
me and something back in Arkansas.”
is great work if you can get it,” he smiles. His friend Steve Buscemi
had previously written a part in the film Animal Factory specifically
for him and he appeared in Buscemi’s infamous “Blues Hammer” scene of
Ghost World. Beyond that he's had roles as divergent as playing a
hillbilly-satan character called "the Shape" in the Stephen King/John
Mellencamp/T-Bone Burnett stage musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland
County and a lead role as a mercenary in Stallone's last Rambo movie.
La Botz opening for McPherson. To him, blues and gospel are a jumping
off point for his music on ‘Sunnyside,’ as a foundation for the stories
he tells in his own music and for his own, individual brand of Americana
recalls his kinship with Jinx and also his admiration for a new
generation of kids who are willing to live life outside of the
expectations of others, to embrace the possibilities and prices of
freedom. He also uses the term metaphorically for the freedom that he’s
found through meditation practice.
With the refrain, “Can you cry like you want to?,” repeated, the song “Sunnyside” asks fundamental questions about the divergence of greed with peace of mind. “People striving for happiness through getting what they want is somewhat questionable. Who’s doing the wanting?” These themes also show up in the humorous “Inflatable Duck.”
for La Botz, all of his own seeking has led him to a position where
gratitude for his life and expressions allows him contentment. He talks
about the deep ties between meditation and creativity, “To be human is
to be creative, to explore who we are. Seeing stories all around us
unfolding, expressing that. I want to be open to the source.” ‘Sunnyside’ finds him drinking from the wellspring.