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Playlist: The Mill Valley Top 10

Mill Valley, California, has a fabulous music legacy—here are one man’s favorite songs from or about the singular city.

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Some towns produce an inordinate number of Civil War generals or writers. For Mill Valley, it’s musicians. Theories abound for why this is the case, but we can leave those unexamined and simply luxuriate in the results—in the glorious sound of it all.

My list here aims to contribute to the discussion of Mill Valley’s music or, even, to prompt further digging; it is not meant to be comprehensive. For the most part, I avoided Mill Valley–tinged acts that are already famous (the Grateful Dead [though founding member Bob Weir is pictured above], Journey, Sammy Hagar, Huey Lewis and the News, Metallica, Santana).

Also, I’ve snubbed artists whose musical sensibilities were clearly forged before they moved to Mill Valley: Janis Joplin, Clarence Clemons, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, David Byrne, et al. (Unless, of course, one of you wrote a Mill Valley–specific song that I can’t get out of my head. In which case: I “heart” you!)

Finally, it has to be emphasized that there are simply too many Mill Valley talents and songs to cram into a mere ten slots. Too many. The Sons of Champlin, Kate Wolf, Tommy Tutone, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Maria Muldaur, Mimi Farina, Dick Fregulia, Austin de Lone, David Grisman and all you wonderful others, I refer to thee!

I suggest you make your own list. I mean that sweetly. My own taste might upset you. For example, I don’t include Rita Abrams’s “Mill Valley” here.

Over and over, when I brought up the subject of Mill Valley and music during my visit to the town in April, Miss Rita’s “Mill Valley” was mentioned. But I already knew that epic—upside down and backwards. Came out in 1970. Rocketed up Billboard. Was deemed adorable because Miss Rita, a school teacher, got her adorable third-grade class to sing backup. Story made Life magazine. Annie Leibovitz shot the photos for the album. Francis Ford Coppola (who then lived in M.V.) shot the video.

I was in the second grade in Mill Valley when Miss Rita’s third-graders reached the big time. Their fame clocked in at 15 minutes on the dot, but for the rest of Mill Valley’s kids, time marched on. Day and night, we were hustled out to sing the new anthem at PTA meetings, after-school assemblies, political rallies, parent-teacher conferences, employee evaluations, public hangings, football games, hostage negotiations, necking parties, corporate board meetings and so on.

And you know what? Even as a slow, obedient child, there was something about that song I did not like. Unfortunately, I could not then articulate the concept of treacle. But the song sounded…off. Today I still think that—and more. Every word in the lyric sheet should be rounded up and misfiled into a time capsule so that only future people will have to deal with it.

Anyway, I assumed the punishment of singing “Mill Valley” so often in my childhood earned me the right to express, without controversy, my view. Nope. During my visit, all I had to do was say what I truly thought about “Mill Valley” for people around me to get riled: “Miss Rita is an angel!” “A saint!” “Everybody loves her!” “You hate love!”

Unfortunately, honorable Miss Rita’s goodness and sweetness could not alter my opinion, or memories, of the song. In the end, I concluded that the world is unjust. Sometimes bad people make good music. Sometimes good people make “Mill Valley.”

You can decide for yourself. Here is the video. I will add that if it is not the worst film shot by Coppola—he seems to be straining for a Partridge Family vibe—I don’t want to see what is:

But here now is merriment—and love—galore. Let the countdown begin:

10. “Somebody to Love” by Darby Slick

No musician suffered more for his art than Darby Slick. That’s because for one year in the 1980s, Mr. Slick (what a name, by the way) almost flew himself into the cuckoo’s nest by trying to teach guitar to the world’s most inept student (me). In the 1960s, Darby played and wrote songs, including the one here, for The Great Society, a San Francisco rock band. The singer of The Great Society, Grace Slick, who was also Darby’s sister-in-law, later got her next band to cover his creation. This is a cover of that cover.

9. “Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day” by the Sir Douglas Quintet

Sir Doug Sahm wandered from Texas to California and left us with this paean. I’ll admit there’s a bit of corniness in this song (and good luck trying to remember the title). But there’s also more inside it than that, so let’s call it corn-plus.

8. “Hey, I’m Lost” by Butch Engle & The Styx

Garage rock in America was born in the mid-1960s when Beatles-inspired messiness ran rampant and wailing into suburbia. Many garage-rock bands got their scruffy-but-sincere music onto small-circulation 45s (which subsequently became highly collectible). But there was probably even more such music that never got recorded. (I salute you, lost music!) For the longest time, you couldn’t unearth anything garage-y with a Mill Valley connection. But, now, through the vision of the indelible reissue label Sundazed Music, Mill Valley garage rock has been officially reborn. Man, The Best of Butch Engle & The Styx (all recorded in the primo garage years of 1964 to 1967) is glorious stuff, thanks in large part, I’m sure, to Butch Engle’s producer and chief songwriter, Ron Elliott, who also played guitar and wrote most of the songs for the grievously underrated 1960s San Francisco rock band, The Beau Brummels. Engle is a true Mill Valleyian: grew up there, graduated from Tamalpais High School, etc. I can’t call him an excellent vocalist; he’s a little stiff. So why is his CD such a blast? The songwriting and the production—and because Engle, with uncanny instinct, ignores limitations and hurls himself, completely and utterly, into every song.

7. “Fourty Niner” by Clover

The country rock of Clover never made a national impact, but the two records the band released for Fantasy in 1970 and ’71 have just been re-issued on one CD by Real Gone Music. What you’ll hear is not greatness, but very goodness. I don’t know about you, but I can usually use some of that in my waking life.

6. “Tamalpais High (at About 3)” by David Crosby

The usually perceptive music journalist Robert Christgau called David Crosby’s 1971 solo album (If I Could Only Remember My Name) “disgraceful.” He also stuck it with a D- grade. (Not even a D!) Despite that shellacking, Crosby’s lulling, atmospheric album has since reached, and deserved, the status of bona-fide cult classic. It has been speculated that Crosby named the song for the time (at about 3 p.m.) when all the lasses left their classes (at Tamalpais High School). An even groovier, longer version of this tune can also be found on YouTube.

5. “Victim or the Crime” by Bob Weir and Rob Wasserman

Both Ws (Weir and Wasserman) are Mill Valleyians so this pick seems fated. Plus, I’m a sucker for bass-and-acoustic-guitar duets.

4. “Buddy’s Cafe” by Captain Wayne-0

The magnetism that is Captain Wayne-O was introduced to me when he played two songs (a Phil Ochs cover and an original) at an open mic last April at the Sweetwater Café (partly owned by Bob Weir). On stage, he has the wherewithal to cut through the mundane with warmth and humor and something else that I didn’t quite catch. Were it not for him, this tasty Commander Cody delight would’ve remained unknown to me. The Commander is also of Mill Valley stock so this counts as my second consecutive two-for-one bargain.

3. “Marin City” by George Duke

George Duke, who died in August, wasn’t the only African-American musician to grow up in Marin City and attend the high school in the town next door, Tamalpais High of Mill Valley. So did Tupac Shakur. George Duke’s song sweetly, majestically, uses music and singing to express his love for his often maligned or ignored hometown. Duke is on this list because anyone who went to Tam High has Mill Valley in him or her forever. R.I.P., Master Duke.

2. “Dirty Bop Party” by The Tazmanian Devils

During my last two years of high school, I listened to The Beatles—and nothing else. (When I was feeling avant-garde, I’d listen to a Ringo solo album.) That’s why I shunned the free lunch-time and after-school concerts played at my high school by a local band called The Tazmanian Devils—because they weren’t The Beatles. Fast-forward a handful of decades. I am now a blithering Tazmanian Devils devotee. And it’s not just me. I can name four female friends who consider the band’s reggae-touched dance music to be the best records in my vinyl collection. (Moral: Chicks dig The Taz.) So, yeah, it took me a while, but I now rave about this band and the two New Wave pop masterpieces they created: the eponymous The Tazmanian Devils (1980) and Broadway Hi-Life (1981). Strangely, neither gem has been reissued on CD.

1 (tie). “By Hook or by Crook” by Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks

I still haven’t figured out why Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks aren’t more famous. Aren’t, in fact, considered a national treasure. The music of Dan Hicks swings—and soars. And is witty! Plus, he’s got charisma. And red hair and white shoes. Though his newer music is as fresh as his earlier entertainments (which you can claim about very few artists), this clip, from Flip Wilson’s 1972 TV show, happens to be vintage Hicks.

1 (tie). “Far Wells, Mill Valley” by Charles Mingus

Mingus lived in Mill Valley briefly, but it worked on him. This indefinable masterpiece is what we earthlings got out of the Mill Valley/Mingus exchange. Far wells? Far out.


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