I step on gravel around several off-road cars and a homemade-looking camper thing to the white, sort of modern ranch house. I am here to talk to the son of two people who recently died, whom I loved and held in the highest esteem. The merciless sun makes everything in the desert look either dead or emaciated, yet orange esperanza flowers bloom in the front yard. Esperanza can translate to “hope” in Spanish.
I remember meeting Dillon Christian one night outside a Tucson bookstore in 1991, he was riding in a stroller pushed by Van, his dad, and he hadn’t yet turned two years old.
He opens the door and I am greeted with his mother’s eyes, those expansive beautiful things that inspired calm, and his old man’s countenance and guffaw, which could command a room. Dark hair, dark beard, he welcomes, he laughs. Soon it is like conversing with both parents at once, the same uniform intelligence too, emotional and otherwise. Four mixed-breed dogs of various sizes bark and a pool table dominates the front room. His dad’s 1986 Naked Prey album Under a Blue Marlon leans against the stereo there.
Dillon shares the roomy house with girlfriend Linda Acuña. The inside deflects the sun well, so cozy and cool as to feel like a giant sleep chamber. He sparks a bong and leans back on a sofa in the living room. A giant TV runs some Netflix lumberjack show on mute. The spare furnishings could be called utilitarian but the art is something else, collectable glass-blown figures and bongs, and beautiful, strident Shepard Fairey street art hangs on various walls.
Dillon’s eyes well up a number of times in hours of conversation and in those moments I wonder if anything helps, words, anger, reflection. But more often his voice cackles in self-deprecatory cheer, or on a peculiar joy he finds in stories and reminiscences of his parents, and their close friends and bandmates, good, bad, funny, indifferent. Dillon sides with humor, and self-deprecation. He is so his father’s son. He wears a black t-shirt emblazoned with a hair straightener and clamp illustration, a joke on hash production. There is open, deep kindness about him, and an innocence.
Dillon talks music and his preferences run wide. Dillon’s boyhood Backstreet Boys phase made his mother downright angry, but dad understood. He got into lots of EDM, hip hop, “way less rock ’n’ roll, my dad was into that so I wasn’t, of course. He’d hate on rap but gave it a chance and saw the good.” His dad turned him onto hillbilly and country and especially Townes Van Zandt. “I tried to listen to Townes the other day, and I had to turn it off, I was too overwhelmed with sadness.”
We talk Van’s music, how it earned a wide European fanbase, tours in buses, how it lasts because it was more than right-time-right-place. His dad’s songs seemed to originate, more or less, from some impulsive wager, usually about nailing a feeling. Often hastily rehearsed and recorded, a heart thumped hard beneath the surface, which kept the thundering train from veering off the rails. Beyond the touchstones, early Alice Cooper, Neil Young, Townes Van Zandt, the music existed because it had too, which made it authentic rock ’n’ roll. Like any songwriter worth his salt, you hear Van’s music, that voice, those words, that guitar chug, you hear the man, all the conflict and precociousness, all the restlessness and tender insecurities, sometimes wrapped in painfully witty or fictional narratives. He never compromised in life or in song, and you can hear it. Overall, the sonic sum is more than simple wit and smirks set to melody and power, and the passage of time does not diminish such sway.
In his way, Van, and particularly his ’80s and ’90s band Naked Prey, which featured all great musicians, represented a folklore of outlaw Tucson, a disorder and autonomy. Mainly on a trio of albums released by indie giants Enigma and Frontier, the pull of collective sentiments rose from the ground his future wife help set in place through a cowboy bar (Tumbleweeds) and a record store (Record Room) on Tucson’s Fourth Avenue when the street was mostly filled of failure and biker crank, die-hard hippies and rednecks.
A recording of Van’s last song, “Middle of the Road,” features Van’s voice, now a more hushed talky croon and softer, deeper than ever, on a spare ballad upheld on a pair of acoustic guitars. It is a moving, fragile confessional, and in context with his death, Van sounds almost at ease telling us there is no painless way to say goodbye. The opening line: “It used to be that you could find me/Frantically chasing down my dreams/But my life seemed to confine me/And I would go to extremes.” The song is a beautiful tough listen and will be featured on Van’s posthumous final album, Downhill Racer, coming soon.
If you want to know Van Christian, listen to his music, all of it, from Naked Prey to his solo stuff to his songs with Friends of Dean Martinez.
That lawlessness. Van did time for a prodigious amount of weed. Things were different then.
Sure, some hard drugs. Van was no stranger. Things drifted free of time for many of us, and the desire to bail on podunk Tucson, where lives just seemed to exist in circles, was so easy. Self-destruction could be ingrained into such sensations, came on like a slumping fuck-you figure dressed as a saint.
I envied Van since we first met in the late 1970s, I was younger and it seemed to me he’d discovered in life what mattered to him, and he never capitulated. When life doesn’t agree that can be defenseless and tragic. He stepped away from an upper-class upbringing (his dad a prominent gynecologist), and never looked back, his sense of self steadfast. I was amazed he abandoned the Green on Red drumstool to reinvent himself as a singer-songwriter. Took guts. Later, when Dillon was born, his son was everything.
I explain to Dillon how Van’s easy generosity was almost biblical; he fed me personally when I was hungry, gave me drink when I was thirsty, in Tucson and Los Angeles, when he likely had but two nickels in his pocket. His humor so scathing, he could mock me down with six words and I’d have zero retort. Mostly because he was right. The many stories of Van, great, hilarious or tragic, or all three at once, can be so muted as to be spun from something to nothing, secrets on lips of others. It is easy when friends die to create rigid narratives from ambiguous, personal affairs.
Dillon remembers dad helping many. One example: he spent his last five bucks feeding a homeless person, saying, “it’s OK, Dillon, we have food at home to eat.” Or joke, “look, they’re sharing a spoon but they don’t have any cereal!”
Dillon didn’t know this one. Van literally saved a mutual friend, guitarist Robin from my old bands Pills/Gentlemen Afterdark. (Robin happens to share Van’s July 4th birthday.) On one Christmas Eve, Robin was visiting Tucson from Los Angeles and stayed at Van’s. He snuck drugs in and OD’d, out cold, in a backroom. Van heard noises, kicked down the door, dragged him out of there, inadvertently breaking Robin’s finger in the process, saved his life and called 911. Two years later on Christmas Eve, Robin receives a random text from Van, something to the effect of “Feeling sleepy, Robbie?” His humor knew few limits.
Dad was Dillon’s best buddy, taught him how to ride a bike, camp out, play basketball, tell stories, gave him guitar or drum lessons, never pushed him hard. A tender closeness cultivated from day one, bonds built on mutual trust. “My dad never let me know or see if he was having a bad time, I never knew when we were broke. When we hung out it was only about me. He instilled good values in me. And he was like smoke weed, don’t do the hard stuff. After I learned about his addictions, I knew he was right.”
Dillon would fall asleep on the couch in the recording studio when dad was making a record. On the ’95 Naked Prey album, And Then I Shot Everyone, the final song “Dillonious Skunk” is all six-year-old Dillon, bits and pieces of his playful tinkering looped and strung together.
I tell Dillon a few early memories of his mother, JoAnn Tamez, who died last year. The obvious, like how she was den mother to naïve misfits and chose to see the good in everyone. Before I was even in a band, I’d skip school and ride the bus down to the Record Room from Tucson’s far eastside to get Sex Pistols bootlegs and Generation X singles, stuff you couldn’t find anywhere else. She and partner Richard Ramone ran the place, a small, rectangle room with record bins lining the edges. She would emerge through a tapestry from the back room, where the two lived, and float around the store, dark eyes, dark hair, and perfect dark Mexican skin, some strange angel, this older, accidental cultivator of boyhood crushes, so droll and smart. I was terrified in her presence. There was random wisdom about her, a life lived far beyond my reach, mysterious tentacles touching far-off cities, and a crossing of dry, scorching emotional borders. Made her untouchable.
I had no idea in less than a year my first band The Suspects would play a gig inside that store. We just set up and ran through a bunch of shitty punk rock. JoAnn believed. She cheered us on.
It was the little stuff, making sure my out-of-control teen self would get home safely after shows she booked at Tumbleweeds with my later band The Pills. She worked tirelessly for everyone, so many of the shows standing-room-only, established a Tucson foothold for bands like Van’s early Serfers (Green on Red), Giant Sandworms, Z-9, Phantom Limbs, and Cali bands like X, The Weirdos, Alley Cats, and Rank and File, and many others. It wasn’t just booking, she helped get some on the radio, KWFM, which was unheard of. There was nowhere else these bands could play or be heard. She believed in the music, in the against-all-odds success of it. The challenge was part of who she was.
JoAnn brought warmth and balance to the otherwise imbalanced and a true scene emerged under her wing.
(A constant former thought: how did Richard Ramone get her? In 1986, when she married Van: That makes sense.)
Dillon chuckles a lot, nods his head at the familiars he’d picked up from others with similar stories. Picks up the mom memories. “She was always a den mother, taking in a runaway or caring for Afghan refugee families, feeding homeless at Armory Park with sandwiches, just doing her thing, the giver of the ninth chance.
“She had an extremely hard childhood, there was abuse and abandonment, which is probably why she was so empathetic with other kids.” Tells of a trip to a local mosque after 9-11, because “people were hating on Muslims,” and her work at a Methodist church, though she was raised Catholic. It was to bring that warmth and balance to the needy. “Even my dad was there at the church a few times,” he laughs. “A paid gig playing drums.”
Dillon had great parents, says so often and apologizes for the cliché, though they split-up, when he was around 9 years old, and never officially divorced. He remembers some tension, a little sadness and anger there, and his dad joking, “yeah, she finally locked the door when I came home.”
The irony is Van’s son works in weed. After high school he was so into “computers, nerd stuff and video games” and studied graphic design in college. Classic stoner stuff, he’ll say, and bailed on studies because it got in the way of his selling hash, which he did to a select few, and he made some headway as a glass-blower.
Linda steps into the living room. She has long corkscrew hair, she is half-Korean (mom), and half Mexican (dad), a first-generation American and very alert, intelligent, in her work, her description of work, and in her life. She is the outwardly confident kind of person who can map out her current and future existence, keep it organized and have plenty of leftover time. She amazes Dillon. She made all the funeral arrangements for JoAnn, whom she loved.
Dillon and Linda had the same group of friends in high school, Linda a year younger. After graduation, Linda bailed on nursing school to work on a weed farm in California, but returned to Tucson, her siblings and dad are here. She hooked up with Dillion as pals, would get-together at his place, share food, weed, watch movies, listen to music. Seven years ago, one thing led to another. Now they share this house and talk about having a kid, a conversation Dillon’s dad was privy too, was excited by. Dillon adds, “the hard part is my parents would’ve made great grandparents.”
With weed, Dillon turned an obsession and dealing into an above-board franchise. “Dad got arrested for weed, it was hard for him to say ‘stop selling weed.’ It’s bullshit people are still in jail for selling weed and people out here are making millions on the stuff.”
The pair co-founded a successful weed concentration and extraction company called IoExtracts and just sold all but a seven-percent share. They have enough money they don’t worry about much at the moment. Linda works another gig, the director of compliance for Nature Med dispensaries, but they’re launching their own cannabis wholesaler, Hashbelly. They explain the ins and outs of the new enterprise, the intricacies and fluidness of the marijuana laws, the hoops the city and state make one jump through, lawyers they keep to stay atop it all, down to the design, which Dillon creates. They’ve built key alliances in cannabis, and it is no stretch to see the couple become wildly successful.
The tenderness between the two is wholly apparent and the moment Dillon talks of his mother and begins to falter, Linda caresses his hand, and he’s OK. He talks of his dad and falters, she caresses his hand and he’s OK.
Blood cancer, MDS, killed JoAnn. She blamed a famous guitar store in Tucson, where she had worked for years, inhaling the chemicals and lacquers of new guitar finishes, though nothing ever came of it.
JoAnn’s partner after Van, Peter Holpert, who Dillon adores, cared for JoAnn. She suffered through chemo, went in for an ulcer, and a stroke got her.
Dillon was visiting San Diego. He rushed home and she’d waited for him on life-support. They felt one another in a lifetime-lasting way, “it was the last time I’d feel my mom’s hand,” he says. Dillon, her only child, made the decision to let her go off life-support.
“After seeing what my dad went through,” he says, “I felt blessed my mom went in an instant, relatively.”
Dillon’s father’s health deteriorated slowly. His income background was classic musician: music, landscaping and cooking jobs. There is no social security, he wasn’t 65, so no Medicare. A decade ago he’d had a heart attack. In the weeks leading up to Van’s death on July 5th, a day after his 62nd birthday, painful hours of incongruity sled into realms of chaos, hospitals, hospice and some misdiagnoses. The pain unimaginable for Dillon, and Van’s partner of nearly a decade, artist Sarah Hamilton, as well as Van’s friends and two siblings. One can only imagine what roams Sarah’s mind now, as both she and Van loved each other hard, each said as much, often. Sarah dedicated her life to Van. Now Van needs her still, to orchestrate and promote his music and final album, posthumously.
Dillon tells of Sarah suffering insane bureaucratic negotiations of health care on behalf of her partner.
“Sarah kept Van alive. She would fight and fight and fight for him. Do everything seven times just to get denied, to be told ‘he doesn’t qualify.’ She would do things like sit down at AHCCCS offices and not leave until she got some help. She nursed him and it was “the most brutal nurse work, I’ve ever saw. I couldn’t have done what she did.”
Van was horribly mistreated at a care facility. “Onetime they lost him and we found him crying in the lobby, just lost,” Dillon says. “I never saw him cry before except when my mother died.”
Van asked permission to die, gave a little speech, said he wanted Dillon and Sarah to live their lives. “He said to me, ‘Ok, if I give up?’”
Ammonia polluted his blood, toxins invaded his brain, already suffocating from lack of oxygen. He stopped recognizing Dillon.
“It was so brutal. At one point he couldn’t walk. At another he had no idea where he was. That wasn’t living for him. At the end they chalked it up to congestive heart failure, but they later discovered his liver wasn’t working.
“From my perspective, he had every will to live. Van always said he was he was the man he wanted to be. He did love himself.” He adds, “everybody’s parents die, and so many people have much harder situations. I had my parents. With my dad there is the music, so there is a legacy.”
Dillon takes me into his closed garage and the room is filled of boxes and things that belonged to JoAnn; Christmas tree decorations from his childhood, including some, he says, from Van’s youth, flowers from mom’s funeral. He has reached a point where memories are not so pregnant with sadness and yearning; whatever sensation of grief or powerlessness is giving way to what is contained in the remnants of lives lived. He calls them happy.
Yes, Van and JoAnn showed Dillon how to live a life of empathy, and to be true to self. In their lives and in their deaths. That is the greatest parental teaching one can absorb. He knows this. He is grateful.
The afternoon descends and the three of us step outside the house to the yard with the cars and trucks and that camper, all beat things, off-road things, in which the couple, Dillon particularly, loves storming around.
Pleasure rises in us with the surprise of a dark sky and thunderstorm. It has been a brutally hot day in Tucson. Dillon whispers thanks, and I swear it is not directed to me or Linda, but to whatever power that cast such lovely rainy light.
Celebrate Van Christian’s life in a tribute on Friday, Aug. 5, at 6 p.m. Hotel Congress Tap Room and patio, 311 E. Congress; 520-622- 8848.