Never Going Back to Tucson 

Dan Stuart pens a complicated love letter to his hometown

Dan Stuart is a habitual expat as well as a musician and author. His latest record, The Unfortunate Demise of Marlowe Billings, will be released in late July, through Cadiz Music in London, along with a novel of the same name. A founder of the band Green on Red, he claims no particular allegiance to any country, cuisine or musical genre and largely depends on the kindness of strangers, as well as a few old friends. Listen to the song "Never Going Back to Tucson".

I woke up blind without a dime, never going back to Tucson...

click to enlarge Barrio Viejo - DAN STUART
  • Dan Stuart
  • Barrio Viejo

In Barrio Viejo, just down the street from the old public baths, sits two '68 Travco RVs beautifully restored and ready for the road, but for the time being, fenced in. They are owned by friends of mine, people I have known for 30 years. The yard features a sprawling mesquite tree and a bubbling fountain where a family of Harris hawks likes to drink and cool off. When visiting, it's my job to keep the fountain flowing with daily replenishment, a task I take quite seriously. I also weed and do various chores that someone of my limited skill set can handle, like cleaning up pigeon shit from a ceiling fan or watering where the drip irrigation is failing. I try to water my own life here as well, especially when my son visits from Back East. It sounds cliché, but it really is an oasis, one of my favorite places on earth. My relationship with the rest of Tucson is more complicated, but here, near the El Tiradito shrine where I used to wait for the man, all is calm and serene.

I grew up way cross town in Indian Ridge, which was pretty isolated out northeast in the late '60s and '70s, but still down in the valley. Rancho Del Rio was close by where you could rent trail horses and ride through mesquite bosques that were later cut down for the whorish development to come. Tucson Country Club was adjacent to the west, a Republican stronghold in a city still liberal for the time. I smoked a lot of weed, blew up mailboxes, rode dirt bikes around, got good grades. Sabino Canyon was near and hitchhiking easy. I was a freak, my brother a cowboy. Life was simple but there was an unwritten rule, get out of Tucson as soon as you could or suffer the consequences. Only transplants were allowed to settle and thrive; locals were cursed with the provincial tattoo. The next state over we got called cactusheads, but that was okay because we had escaped from hell, or so we thought.

Dan Stuart’s postcards to his youth
  • Dan Stuart’s postcards to his youth

Streets too wide no place to hide, never going back to Tucson...

My dad always loved Tucson. Originally from Australia, he arrived here from California in '67 to teach at the new medical school, with my East Coast mom and four kids in tow. His Tucson was not my Tucson. I, like so many of my friends, just wanted out, but he never wanted to leave. Soon, however, he will, as we all eventually must do, and that's why I have returned to face one last summer. Frankly, I'm terrified, but of what exactly I couldn't tell you. Death, that's the easy part, but life? A desert childhood teaches lessons that never really go away, even if you're in the middle of Paris eating crème brulée with the locals.

click to enlarge Dan Stuart’s postcards to his youth - DAN STUART
  • Dan Stuart
  • Dan Stuart’s postcards to his youth
click to enlarge Dan Stuart’s postcards to his youth - DAN STUART
  • Dan Stuart
  • Dan Stuart’s postcards to his youth

I've always used Tucson as a hideout, once for a few months in the late '80s after L.A. and a love turned sour, then again in the '90s when I stayed for nearly a decade, the missing years. Back from a junk-fueled spell in Spain, I painted houses and appraised real estate, unwittingly or not contributing to that bubble that popped in 2008. I played golf, made dinner, saw a son born, then moved with his mother to New York City, an awful decision that I knew would be the end of my marriage. At age 40, one simply doesn't move from Tucson to New York City. The opposite sure, but not west to east. That's just unnatural, like water flowing uphill. Now if I had been 20....

After the inevitable midlife crack-up, I wound up in magical Oaxaca but still came home as often as I could, usually meeting my now-teenage son here during his school holidays. He vaguely remembers living in a townhouse behind Mo Udall Park, just a few minutes from the house I grew up in. Riding a bike on the same residential streets I did as a kid, I'd be overcome with melancholy and distress, what the fuck was I doing back here? I rarely went out to socialize with old friends, especially the out-of-town musicians I knew who would play downtown once a year or so. My music days were over, or so I thought. I was living some sort of lie worse than any addiction, stone-cold sober and completely lost. Hometowns are cruel beasts; it's rarely a good idea to return, unless there's a final reckoning to be had, as if such a thing is possible.

It used to be fun under the sun, never going back to Tucson...

click to enlarge Dan Stuart’s postcards to his youth - DAN STUART
  • Dan Stuart
  • Dan Stuart’s postcards to his youth

I decided to return this time after helping a friend move to Acapulco, someone who oddly enough suffers from the same type of rare cancer as my dad. Staring at the ocean from his condo high above old town, I pondered my father's health as well as my own, and figured this was a last chance to spend some meaningful time with a patriarch who wasn't always easy, but certainly not as difficult as his wayward son. Arriving after a three-day drive from Mexico City, back in my favorite Travco with the Indian blankets and leaky roof, I immediately started scheming how I was gonna survive the next few months while simultaneously planning my escape. Fortunately, everything I needed was within a few-minute walk or bike ride, not much different from what I was used to down south. Downtown has bloomed most beautifully, and miraculously there's a bus that comes by every 15 minutes that goes clear across town to my parent's house near Saguaro National Park East. Gathering provisions, the Spanish I heard in Food City on Saint Mary's was comforting, as were the prices of the fresh produce, meat, and cheese, about the same as the grocery chains of Mexico. Better for us than our neighbors, let me tell you. Johnny Gibson's downtown was a nice find but pricey, maybe in an emergency, but I'm happy that the memory of Tucson's Jack LaLanne is being preserved. The main thing is to avoid any traps: a beautiful woman, a drug habit, a steady job. Just be a good son and hang tough until the next tour, which surely will make more money than the last. Then return to Mexico, or maybe the next continent down, steak and wine in Montevideo perhaps, or back to Europe even. Greece is still relatively cheap and bouncing back, anywhere but the USA. Love it or leave it, right?

The summer rain don't smell the same, never going back to Tucson...

I left the first time fleeing a felony bust. A smash and grab of an iconic music store downtown, back in 1979. I figured if I could get a job in L.A., then the State of Arizona would grant my privileged white ass a second chance, and that's exactly what happened. The band I led soon signed to a hip but corrupt record company, and I would mail in my monthly reports to L.A. County's probation department from the road. Sociologists call that a "life chance" and we all know what would have happened if I was of a different hue. Still, the key was I skedaddled just in time, others I knew weren't so fortunate.

Linda's smile's been gone for a while, never going back to Tucson ...

Maybe no one ever leaves a place like Tucson, other more generic towns sure, Cincinnati comes to mind, or Fresno, but Tucson? It's like removing a chunk of cholla from your leg, spines are sure to break off only to emerge years later when you least expect it; maybe while laying on a faraway beach after swimming the morning away. Always carry tweezers, cactusheads, what can I tell you? And a hat, that sun will kill you....

Harris hawk - DAN STUART
  • Dan Stuart
  • Harris hawk

Listening to the fountain gurgle and thinking of my dad, it's easy to float through time. My best memories were of us attending the Loft Cinema when it was a tiny theater on Sixth down by the U. The only art movie house at the time, I'm sure the flicks we saw had been discussed by the grad students in his lab, and he wanted to stay current. Films like Don't Look Now, The Conformist, Walkabout, The Ruling Class, etc. opened the world up to me, and since we both appreciated cinema as an art form, we could talk about it with a mutual respect that didn't apply as much to music or literature, where my tastes ran more coarse and lowbrow than his own. He might have been from a small town in Queensland, but by the time he arrived in Tucson at age 36 he had seen a huge swath of the world. He was viewed with curiosity by the locals, I'm sure. To this day he defends Tucson with a passion and has never regretted moving here. He loves his backyard, which faces northeast with striking views of the Rincons and Catalinas, the same direction he traveled from down under all those years ago. Yes, Tucson has been good to him and my family, my sisters stayed and flourished, yet I cannot move back just as he could never have returned permanently to Australia. Oceans and deserts are not that different after all; one can die of thirst just as easily in one or the other.

Laugh or cry I'm soon to die, never going back to Tucson....

click to enlarge Dan Stuart - DAVID BARAJAS
  • David Barajas
  • Dan Stuart

One thing for certain, Tucson has changed more this century than it had in the previous few decades of the last, and mostly for the better. The street art is hit and miss, but it's there. The trolley is delightful, despite the eyesore advertising. Bicycling around town one feels encouraged not threatened. Lots of creative spaces to do whatever, from gutter punk to fine art. It's just a way more cool town than it used to be, at least west of Alvernon. On the negative side, the old-hippies-with-guns vibe has morphed into a deluded nationalism on display through offensive public comments and open-carry posturing. Much of the vertical development both built and proposed is uninspired, to say the least. The A-10 flyovers are a constant reminder of the Great Satan doing his thing. Casual fashion is out of control—grown men dressed as little boys, put some slacks on for God's sake. As for politics, let's just say Mo Udall would be appalled by some of these folks, and Tucson can no longer differentiate itself as much from Phoenix like it used to. Still, the kids seem fine, and look and act no different than their cohorts in Portland or Austin, which is OK by me. Many resent it, I know, but the Old Pueblo is becoming more cosmopolitan by the day, but fear not, the heat will keep the worst hipster culture at bay, leaving only the good stuff to roll up and puff. Hopefully, some better paying jobs will arrive along with this new urban vision, but let's face it, that bar could not be lower.

So yeah, if I wasn't from here I might sign up for a lifetime subscription, but I am, so I can't. I'll just have to remain a tourist to my own past, my inner geography meshing oddly with the current reality but always knowing where due north is. Cathedral Rock towers above our paltry lives, reminding us that this is all a temporary experience. We're just toads in a summer puddle evaporating fast. Best enjoy it while you can.

Never going back to Tucson, never going back to Tucson...

Yeah right dude, sure.


More by Dan Stuart

  • Why Tucson Salvage Matters

    Weekly columnist Brian Smith captures the stories folks didn’t even know they had and stitches them back into the communal quilt that makes us all stronger, safer, more human
    • Oct 18, 2018
  • Un Gringo Chilango

    Tucson-raised songwriter and author Dan Stuart on life in Mexico before and after the U.S. election
    • Feb 16, 2017
  • More »

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