The Grapes of Meth
In 2003, the federal government declared DC "does not have a serious problem" with meth amphetamine.
I'm no epidemiologist or addiction expert. But I'm gonna say: DC still doesn't have a serious meth problem.
At least, not like Bakersfield's meth problem. After years of hearing how evil the drug is, I've finally seen a place crushed by it.
I visited Bakersfield, a flat, dirty town about two hours north of Los Angeles, a couple weekends ago.
Not for its meth present, but for its musical past.
It's the birthplace of the Bakersfield Sound, a brand of hardcore country music, pioneered by Buck Owens and fellow Bakersfielder Merle Haggard, that inspired the Beatles (here they cover Buck at Shea Stadium) and Stones and Dwight Yoakam and pretty much all good country rock.
I went there with friends to go to Owens' old recording studio, located just outside city limits in Oildale, a sad dustbowlers' destination. He was for years the bandleader on "Hee Haw," and recorded the musical backing for that show in this West Coast studio, then he and other players in the cast would fake strum and lip-sync over during the videotaping sessions in Nashville.
Owens died two years ago, and his studio has gone pretty much to seed and is barely in operation. We were told that Owens' old equipment, all sorts of Fender Tweed amps and red-white-and-blue Telecasters, still sits on pallets behind some locked doors next to the main room. Much as we asked, we weren't allowed to see this goldmine. (We did, however, get a glimpse of a gold record for, ahem, Korn, which recorded its debut here, the last big album to come out of the studio.)
But, again, this town isn't just about music anymore. It's about meth amphetamine, too.
"Tweakers," as the meth heads are known, are as much a part of the landscape as dirt. And this, remember, is where Steinbeck set much of "Grapes of Wrath."
Young tweakers, old tweakers, tweener tweakers. They'd ride past the studio on teeny little bikes, which the sound engineer told us are part of the meth culture: The last possession a tweaker sells is his bike, because the car goes early, but he still needs some sort of wheels to get to where more meth is. It was a freak show. (Owens' old nightclub, which is still open and quite popular, is called the Crystal Palace, but that's gotta be a coincidence.)
On a trip to a 7/11 in early one evening, it occurred to me that every other customer in the crowded store was wasted on something other than booze. The zombies in the original "Night of the Living Dead" showed more life than this bunch. I can't get that scene out of my head since coming back.
And it's made me wonder: Why hasn't meth hit DC like this?