Cass McCombs is riding high on a dark horse.
Death is an LA hippie with sandy Jesus hair and an Eagle Rock area code. Usually he makes you wait, but tonight, at the Gaylord Apartments in Koreatown, he is right on time. In a knock, shuffle and a handshake, his deal is done and Liza Thorn, a raggedy glam waif, sees him out. She sits alone in leopard silk and fishnets, fingering the paper scrap where she’s jotted his phone number under the all-caps header, GRIM REAPER. Years of bleach have turned her mop into more of a glamorous white-blonde broom with bangs, and for the moment she tops six feet on wobbly heels. In the reaper’s wake, she vacantly watches with faded blue eyes, as the sun puts the Hollywood hills to bed in pink and orange blankets out her kitchen window. The Velvet Underground’s “Beginning To See The Light” plays so loud that the bass rattles in her spaced out teeth. Vaguely amused with herself, she asks the other room, “Does Friday night even exist?” Nobody answers.
Beyond her kitchen door, beneath the banner of an eight-foot American flag lies Cass McCombs, conked out on the couch. He is three-some months off a world tour supporting Wit’s End, a devastating study of other people’s pain, and by the looks of him, he’s still recovering. The floor is strewn with witchcraft candles, topless Polaroids and lyrics like, I don’t believe in God/ Drugs make me feel nothing, sharpied and discarded in girly half-cursive on computer paper. At 34, McCombs has spent half his life on the road, keeping the occasional apartment, but mostly living out of his car, stashing Star Wars toys, Phish bootlegs and other odd collections in a storage locker. He is no stranger to scenes like the one in Thorn’s apartment, but he’s been in Los Angeles long enough to have exhausted most of his crash options. In five days, he’ll beat it up to Big Sur before dragging out to New York where he hasn’t asked any favors in a while. What likely started as a cheap trick to keep the responsible world at bay has become a long-term dodge, allegedly kept up for the sake of collecting song material. “I think the gods reward a free-spirited attitude,” he says. “If you make time for the spirits, they make time for you.”
McCombs moves about the country, from town to town, collecting stories and staying open. It can make for a sore back and a sorer backdrop, but he claims not to like “nice” places anyway, or even nice people. “I like to read and work and visit my friends,” he says, “And that’s enough.” He romanticizes border towns in song and seems to feel most comfortable among outsiders. At one point, he half seriously cites homeless drug addicts as “the only people I like in Seattle.” Having a taste for the nameless is perhaps how he has managed to get six-and-a-half records into a pretty big time 10-year career without settling on a genre or becoming especially famous. He’s been lo-fi, country, Brit pop, rock and even a soul man. John Peel, who famously knew what he was talking about, called McCombs “unobtrusively brilliant.” McCombs still lives in his car. This is an incredible achievement.