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
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.”
Dan Yablonka with Mark Turnbull, Steve Wood, Beth Fitchet Wood and others
at the Marine Room, 210 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-3027. Tues., 8
p.m. Free—and there are cookies! 21+. Those interested in performing at
the showcase should contact Fitchet Wood through her website,
www.bethfitchetwood.com. Yablonka’s CDs are available through
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