2015, January: Just back from a week in Florida. My first day I made the pilgrimage to Warm Mineral Springs outside of North Port, and soaked a while in those healing waters. A sign at the doorway leading in to the springs tells just a bit of the story of Col. William Royal, who dove down in the springs and at nearly 100 feet found, among the fossils and pottery shards of the ancient Native cultures, a 13,000 year old human skull—at that time the oldest human remains found in Florida. A lot of this stuff was remarkably well-preserved, as the mineral-laden waters that far down are anaerobic, and don’t support animal or plant growth, which might degrade artifacts.
Bill had cemented many of his fossils in the stone walls of his house or in his chimney, and I had lunch at his place after his son Willy and I helped mix concrete and do some repairs to the driveway. Bill at the time was about 80 but in great shape. He’d been a diver in the Navy and then continued diving both for fun and for food—he had a large brood of kids. Willy, the baby, lingered and helped out with larger chores. I’d met Willy when he played a couple of gigs with me at the Crow’s Nest in Venice, and he later went on to win a Grammy in the World music category for his fiddling as half of “Willy and Lobo,” a gypsy jazz duo who’d hooked up in Mexico, where they continue to play and to surf when not in Florida or Nashville.
Willy is, of course, an excellent violinist. His dad Bill was notable not only as an amateur anthropologist, but there’s a book about him: The Man Who Rode Sharks, with stories and pictures of how Bill was contracted by a nearby cancer research center to catch live sharks. Col. Royal knew that sharks often slept under an overhanging reef (this was at a time when scientists denied that sharks slept). Bill tells in the book how he was able to come up behind the sharks and catch them by the gills and ride them up to the surface, where they could be (carefully) loaded onto a boat. He makes it sound easy when he states that sharks, while enormously strong, have little endurance, and so “just” holding on (Bill was a very large and heavy man) tired them quickly and made them loving and cuddly as kittens (I made that part up).
By the time he was 80 Bill was still huge and jolly, quite obviously doting on his youngest and wildly-talented son Willy, and happy to have company in his retreat out in the relatively remote—and still funky even in 2015—small community surrounding the springs. We toiled for a couple hours in the blazing sun, mixing cement in a wheelbarrow and helping Bill to spread it on cracks in his driveway and the fabled chimney, where he took pleasure in pointing out the various fossils. Then we broke for lunch, served by his wife Shirley, and cracked a couple beers. Bill told a story and asked me about my own “Hot Springs” song, which he’d heard me play when Willy jammed with me in Venice. I was happy to fill him in on the wonders of Sleeping Child and some of the other springs out West, but he showed no interest in visiting or going anywhere else while Willy was still in his area. Willy being footloose like me.
Bill did show interest when I described how, in the Sun Valley, Idaho area, I’d stayed with a couple who heated their house with the geothermic waters, running pipes under the floor to feed from the piping-hot aquifer, so that in the AM when you first rolled out of bed and it was maybe ten degrees outside, your bare tootsies first contacted a toasty floor, and the room itself was none too chilly, all free and compliments of Mother Earth.
Another time I drove up the Lolo pass between Montana and Idaho with my Spokane girlfriend Cheri in her car, and we hiked a ways in to a bubbling fissure in the middle of a creek, where I dammed up the water flow with some rocks and we stripped and took a plunge into a hot tub on the spot.
That was back in the Twentieth Century, and I was on a break from playing a tour with the Live Wire Choir in Canada, Spokane, Washington, and Boise and Sun Valley in Idaho. I’d called home in Wilmington afterward to find I'd won first place in two categories in the local music polls. Great. Here I was in Montana with my car repossessed, half-starved, winning music polls on the East coast!
Oh well. I was, after all, the dummy who moved to Montana in January! Who cheered the Eagles in their first Super Bowl loss that same year.
I didn’t last long in Montana. Frank Chiaverini, the band’s lead guitar, arranger, and driving force, had been a close compadre since we were a duo in Big Sur, California. I am still in awe of the musicianship in the band’s initial release, but for whatever reason we were unable to break big, and split up pretty “acrimoniously,” as they say. I got a small satchel of catchy tunes out of my collaboration with Frank, and “Hot Springs” has had some legs.
Spindly legs, maybe, but I still get some requests, most recently from Frank’s former wife Gracene, who was reminiscing the good old days. They were pretty damn good, off and on, and hot springs and “Hot Springs” were a big part. Back in 1981, when I got word I’d won those music awards, I flew back to Wilmington and played a few gigs as a sort of victory lap. I’d been sending postcards to Gary Mullinax, a writer for the paper who had mentioned some of my adventures in his column, so I had a decent turnout at the shows.
I actually wrote “Hot Springs” on that trip, on Cheryl Lawrence’s piano. Talking to Wilmington friends about the Wild West, I’d noticed how grossed out they were at the way people mated in the hot springs, in pretty septic conditions. Sleeping Child Hot Springs, where we went from our farmhouse on Old Darby Road, which runs between Hamilton and the even smaller town of Darby, Montana, had a logo of a sort of dead-looking little kid on its tee shirts. You could buy a piña colada there—all the better to enjoy a relaxing soak in the sulfurous vapors swirling around you as you lolled. The springs were low on luxury, high on funk fashion. They stank with homespun healing moxie, from the regulation lap-swimming pool warm enough to pee in, to the two tubs set above that which were regulation hot tub size but not sanitation.
Not nearly. You gotta figure, with so many hippy escapees coming for the outdoor lifestyle, what you got is a lot of dead skin. Calloused hands and feet, worn out hides from over exposure to the sun and the elements, creating a saran wrap-like coating over the hottest of the tubs—which is scalding—that, broken up by an eager toe and dispersed when the jets are turned up, becomes a stew of coconut flakes to cling to you when you get out, wrapping you head to foot and tugging you back in and under where you drown.
I made up the last part.
But seriously, the springs were nothing you’d want your mom to enter. Richard Reinholt remarked that they probably hosted “pollywogs of passion,” left by the coupling of the native Montanans, there to spawn like steelhead or frogs. When I suggested the hot springs as a destination to some East Coast folks they thought this icky. And so a song was born. A paean of my western consciousness, it played on Dr. Demento after I was able to record it (thanks to Johnny Neal) in 1983. I still get comments from Montanans and some folks in Spokane, interested in hearing it again. John Dunnigan, of Whitefish, Montana, recorded it on his CD "Censored," the song being a modest regional hit there.
Got down to the water and got ready to jump in,
But the surface of the water was just little bits of skin
Teeny tiny callouses off other people’s feets
Man, the whole damn place was rack of floatin’ meat
Hot Springs, Hot Sprangs, Hot Sprangs:
Fulla dead things!
©Crabmeat Thompson, FICE Recording
I wrote the song as a simple three-chord Blues, but when I played it for Frank, he re-arranged it, adding a minor vamp and tagging the end with a droning refrain copped from an old instrumental called, I believe “Baby Elephant Dance,” over which I sort of babbled on about the exotic pleasures of “Natural Orgasmic (sic) Hot Springs” – pronounced “Sprangs,” by the way.
Never got to record it with those guys. A shame. But there was worse trouble on the way.
Stay tuned for Crab’s X-rated memoir Tough Trip through Paradise II.