Traces of Blue
The Wind Cries Yablonka! Laguna songsmith Dan Yablonka gets it right By JIM WASHBURN One of the downsides of being a rock critic-a critic unassuaged by all the schwag and gratuitous sex-is that sometimes someone you know hands you their CD. This is hard because you know that the little disc means a lot to them and they so want it to mean a lot to you, but from experience, you also know it probably sounds like something lovingly crafted out of dog shit and graham crackers, and you're all out of milk. Dan Yablonka's a nice guy I've known in passing for eons. Little did I know that he'd made CDs, but he gave me two of 'em when I recently ran into him at Steve Soest's shop. Weeks later, I put a bunch of CDs in the player, and eventually it landed on one I didn't recognize-but I wanted to because it had hauntingly lyrical songs, evocative playing and it seemed to be coming from some moody little hamlet of the soul. It sounded a bit like early Mike Nesmith, Moby Grape and Pure Prairie League, filtered through some hard experience. I opened the player and was so struck by who it was that his name could have been onomatopoeic: Yablonka! I'd known him as a rare guitar dealer/collector, which often has nothing to do with being able to play a note anyone would want to hear. Yet I've been enjoying his Traces of Blue almost daily. The production (by Steve Wood of Honk and IMAX soundtrack fame) and the playing (from Yablonka, Wood, ace session steel player Greg Leisz and other friends) is thoroughly in service to the songs. And the songs are so good I put off listening to Yablonka's other CD, Stand Up, for fear it would suck and break the spell, but damn if it's not a little gem as well. It turns out Yablonka's been plying his craft in Laguna all along, and he's now a recurring fixture in the recently inaugurated Tuesday Night Songwriter's Showcase series that Beth Fitchet Wood (yes, also of Honk fame) hosts at the Marine Room. It tends to be a loose-yet-vital night of music, ranging from that sly old master Richard Stekol (Go on, guess if he was in Honk) to the latest iterations of the next Bruce Springsteen to Fitchet Wood's own distinctive songs. Yablonka will be one of the singers there this Tuesday. Now 50, he grew up in Orange and Tustin. He started playing guitar because his older brother did, and he got hooked on it when his parents took him to such local folk-music clubs as the Mecca in Buena Park. After the Beatles hit, his interest stayed with more folk-influenced acts such as the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. Not long out of Foothill High, Yablonka met Steve Gillette, an early light on the OC folk scene and a hell of a nice guy. By then, the fame bus had pretty much driven by Gillette, and he was working the lounge of the Orange Cask & Cleaver restaurant. "He was still great, though, and a real inspiration to me," Yablonka said. "He was very encouraging and got me my first gig when I was 19." He started writing with Sherwood Ball (now a top jingle singer and voice-over announcer), and one night, Ball took him to see Stekol and Co. In one of the post-Honk lineups. "When I heard how musical they were, I started saving money to move to Laguna, hoping to learn from those guys. When I moved there in 1976, my studio apartment was $103 per month, so you could actually pay your rent by playing music. And Laguna was a musical oasis. Most other places in the county, you'd lose your gig if you weren't Top 40 enough. In Laguna, you'd lose the gig if you were too commercial." He made a living by gigging, dealing rare guitars and songwriting for various publishing companies, including Criterion/Atlantic Music, which also had such heavyweights as Jackson Browne and Lyle Lovett. Now here comes the bad part: Yablonka's songs never quite made it onto artists' albums, he suited up for the '80s substance-abuse marathon, and he got cancer in his face. "I'd always had really low self-esteem, and what started off as partying slipped into addition. I was a walking contradiction: a 350-pound cocaine addict. I'd binge and then crave taco-burrito omelets the next day," he recalled. Being diagnosed with cancer scared him straight for five years while he went through surgery, radiation treatment and waiting to see if the cancer recurred. Given the binary logic that comes with coke, though, "As soon as they gave me the all-clear on the cancer, that's all my brain needed to wonder, 'Cool, I wonder what blow would feel like again?'" So there was another period of addiction, not to mention he still lacked a chunk of his face, for which he ultimately endured 13 reconstructive surgeries. Here's the good part again: he went through therapy and cleaned up. Credit either his surgeries or his attitude, but he looks like someone you want to know. He wouldn't trade his life for anything, and he writes great songs that, while not directly addressing his experiences, echo with the yearning and hard-earned wisdom of time lost and balls dropped. "You hear a lot of sad love songs on my albums," he said, "but it's not because I had 15 failed relationships. It's more about not finding anything that rhymed with metastatic melanoma."