Burning sensations: Bob Brozman and Lacy J. Dalton are among the headliners coming to Don Quixote's Saturday for a Club Zayante benefit.
Things We Lost in the Fire
Santa Cruz music luminaries reunite for one last night at Club Zayante
By Paul Davis
Santa Cruz County lost an irreplaceable piece of its history on Oct. 26, when the building that once housed the uniquely freewheeling, ramshackle '70s venue Club Zayante burned to the ground. Though the days when the club played host to then up-and-coming talent such as Clifton Chenier and Albert Collins were far behind the venue, owner Tom Louagie still lived in the building, along with a number of tenants who lost countless possessions in the fire.
"I got up in the morning and went out and looked at the wood stove fire like I've been doing for 37 years and came back in my room and got on my computer and heard the noise and it was the smoke alarm," Louagie explains. "I ran out into the living room and tried to stomp out the flame but that's when I got burned, and that's when I realized I had about two seconds to get out of there alive! That's what I did--I first warned everybody, running down the hall telling people to get out. I'm more concerned for them than me right now for the benefit--one of them lost a car, three of them lost computers."
Though the residents got out safely, Louagie suffered burns on his hands and face, and also lost priceless art pieces and a manuscript he had been working on for a book about the heyday of Zayante, which may have been his greatest physical loss.
"Obviously I feel sadness," he says. "It wasn't just the physical place up there, it was all of the artwork. People have been telling me over the years, 'You ought to write a book, Tom, about all the things that happened at that place,' and I had been. I didn't tell anybody but I was pretty well along and it was in my computer, and it disappeared in the fire."
People who frequented Zayante don't need a book to remember the anything-goes spirit of a club where you could have an avocado burger or go skinny-dipping in the pool while the likes of John Lee Hooker and Ron Thompson tore up the stage. The fire signaled the final act for a place that represented much of what has been lost since Santa Cruz was transformed from a unique free-spirited outpost to a hot housing market.
And even though it has been 23 years since Zayante closed its doors to the public, the musicians and customers who once populated the little bar in the mountains have rallied around Louagie, coming from far and wide to perform at a benefit for him and the other victims of the fire.
The benefit, to be held at Don Quixote's on Jan. 13, will feature Zayante alumni such as slide guitar maestro Bob Brozman, Lacy J. Dalton, bluesman Ron Thompson, the Dirty Butter Jug Band and many more. For Brozman and the other players, organizing the benefit was a no-brainer.
"I have to say, in the course of my 52-year-old life and traveling all over the world," Brozman says, "Tom is really one of the greatest people I've known in my life. He's had various unfortunate circumstances happen to him over the years and it's really not fair."
History of Zayante
Both Brozman and country siren Dalton feel that they have Zayante to thank for jump-starting their careers. "Lacy J. Dalton would not exist if it were not for Club Zayante," enthuses Dalton, who performed as Jill Croston at the time. "If it hadn't been for Tom I wouldn't be an artist today."
Brozman, who has lived in the area for the past 30 years, moved to town on the strength of a weekly gig at "Club Z" offered to him by Louagie.
"I moved to Santa Cruz County on the promise of a music job at Club Zayante--it was my first job in California, and it started a long career," he says. "I came through Santa Cruz as a college student--every summer a couple of friends and I would buy a $100 car and travel around as street musicians--of course, in those days you could actually survive.
"In 1973 we happened on Club Zayante and played there, came back the following summer and the summer after that, and Tom promised me a job playing one night a week. And on the strength of that, I moved out here in 1976."
To Brozman, the Santa Cruz lifestyle of Club Zayante came as a culture shock to his East Coast sensibilities, a shock that profoundly changed his life. He remembers those early days of Zayante with reverence, saying, "You have to imagine growing up in New York and going to school at the University of Missouri, and coming out here and sort of happening on this magical place out in the redwoods with avocado sandwiches and nude swimming--it was like some sort of magical world."
For many who remember Zayante, the place has taken on this near-mythic stature, without falling victim to the typical nostalgic line that it was a relic of a simpler or more idealized time. For those whose world orbited around Zayante, it was the place itself that held this mythic quality. Brozman notes, "I know the summer of love went bad very quickly, but it didn't seem to around Club Zayante."
And while many institutions boast for decades about a single brush with fame, larger-than-life figures regularly took up extended residencies at the unassuming nightclub in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Dalton remembers when Shel Silverstein came to play the club and stayed in town far longer than expected.
"At one point Shel Silverstein came out to play with Fred Koller and I at Club Zayante, and he and Fred stayed at my house for about two weeks," she explains. "The whole time they were there--I don't know what they were on--they were writing songs. I watched their process over and over again and that's how I learned to write songs. Shel spent the whole time there wrapped in an Indian bedspread, like a toga, and was chasing my roommates around the whole time."
While an appearance by the legendary author and songwriter Silverstein might provide another club with enough juice to fuel its entire nostalgic half-life, in the case of Zayante, such events were common and came and went without much note.
"Those are the kind of people that were at Club Zayante," Dalton says, "and a lot of people might not know they were at Club Zayante--Tom may not even know they were there!"
For all her fond memories, the always-spunky Dalton has a warts-and-all appreciation for the club. "The fact that it has burned down and will be no more is very sad to me, but it probably really needed to happen 'cause the building was just a wreck," she chuckles. "It was a wreck when we first started going there 30 years ago, I can't imagine what it was like 30 years later. You had to be there--we were probably suffering from mold problems and didn't know it!"
Indeed, Zayante wasn't the most upscale joint, but that only added to its appeal.
"You have to understand that this was the funkiest place on Earth," she says. "For a long time Tom had a pair of rubber boots by the women's bathroom, the place flooded so often. I remember playing a show with the creek running in the back door, filling the place up with about a foot of water, and everybody came anyway and we did the show. That's the kind of place it was! They had a swimming pool, and Tom always cooked, and you knew if you played there you would only get ten bucks, but you would get a turkey dinner and whatever you wanted to drink."
Louagie Looks to the Future
In the two decades since Zayante closed as a public venue, it has become a symbol of a Santa Cruz long lost, representing an idyllic time of freedom and optimism. And while the folks interviewed for this piece have long accepted the passing of what Zayante once represented, it's hard to miss a sense of resignation and regret from the individuals as the fire completely and irrevocably puts the that era far behind them.
Musing that Zayante represents a "sense of freedom" that has been lost from not only the Santa Cruz community but also the music world as a whole, Brozman notes that "live music in Santa Cruz has become much more difficult" since Zayante closed its doors. "Santa Cruz used to be known as somewhat of a live-music place, and is somewhat less known as that now--however I can't fully blame Santa Cruz for that because the whole atmosphere of the USA has been working against live music for a long time."
Dalton echoes Brozman's sentiments. "Places like that really don't exist anymore," she says. "It's so hard to find a club where people care so much about the music that they just do not worry about the money. Tom never worried about the money--he couldn't pay much, but he sure did make you feel welcome."
Louagie has little time to dwell on what has been lost. With the burns he suffered in the fire almost entirely healed, he spends his days "up there throwing burnt wood around and all that shit," he says. Meanwhile, he's decided to fold the stories he has been able to recollect into a collaborative website or blog on which the people who frequented Club Zayante can post their stories and memories of the venue.
"I ran it as hostel for four or five years and I had all these young folks coming in from all over the world and people would come by and tell them, 'Oh, this is what happened,' and get into these bullshit sessions. And I thought, 'Well, I'm writing this book and now I know how to use the Internet, so maybe I should put up a blog or a website and I could put chapters I was writing and have people that were there tell me the stories they told me in person over the years,'" he explains.
"There are so many crazy stories that came out of there that I'm thinking if I open a website that even if folks weren't around at the time, they can still be a part of Club Zayante. Before this there was no one who could really experience the place other than me and the people who lived there--it was sort of lost to the public--so in a way this is a way that I can bring them back in, the people who were there and the people who wished they were there."
While Louagie plans this project, he is also mulling over his options to rebuild on the lot, all while preserving the freewheeling spirit of Zayante. Those plans remain much more vague. "I don't know what to do next [with the land]," he says, "but I know whatever it is, it's going to be a green project, and it's not going to turn into a rich person's mansion with a big wall around it. Somebody will come along with an idea, like 'Why don't we have a free school,' and that'll be it."
As Louagie picks up the pieces of his life and the charred remains of what was once Zayante, his future is uncertain. But there's one thing he's steadfast about--he will be keeping the land Zayante was on, not selling out to the highest bidder who will build one of those "rich mansions." "We all think we live at the center of the universe, but Jill [Dalton] says there's something special about that physical place," he says. "It's holding me there--I don't want to leave it, I'm not going to sell it. People ask me, 'Why don't you sell it, you could make half a million on the bare land that's there,' but I don't want to. I want to stay there."
'A Night at Club Zayante' will take place Saturday, Jan. 13, at 8pm at Don Quixote's, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. Tickets are $18 advance/$20 at the door. For more information and to reserve tickets, call 831.603.2294.
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