Larry Dean Embry (1958-2013) Catrancher Studios (The Skid Row Years)

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Larry would say it many times in the years after 9/11.

“It was like someone flipped a light switch”.

I was holding my head in my hands the night our rightfully elected president Al Gore conceded the presidency to the man who stole it, George Bush. I possessed a terrible wisdom. I didn’t know what would happen to the country next, I just knew it would be bad. The galactic polemics of The Star Wars saga finally made sense. There was indeed a dark force after all.

Larry was not a political junkie like I was. He didn’t see what the big deal was. Does it really matter who is in charge? They’re all controlled by the same people anyway. America is idiot proof isn’t it? His attempts to talk me down did no good. I knew the world was in for a rough ride.

I couldn’t have predicted 9/11. But that was the catalyst for all the shit that came down after. Larry got up to speed pretty fast on his politics. Before, our marathon phone conversations revolved around our favorite bands, gossip about fellow musicians and guitars. Now we talked about the fate of the nation and it’s citizenry. And, Larry’s crumbling empire.

Specifically, the time marker Larry repeatedly cited was the Iraqi war. His phone stopped ringing at that point. For some reason, a trillion dollar credit card war in Afghanistan wasn’t enough. A second was initiated in Iraq to assure us that “we would get em’ over there, before they came over here”. However, even in personal crisis Larry maintained his famous sense of humor when he described the blind fever of war, stoked by the images of undernourished Arab men struggling – hand over hand- across a playground monkey bar every night on the network news.

Catrancher was a more appropriate name for Larry’s business than he ever anticipated. Because it seemed he really did have nine lives when it came to the plate spinning act he executed keeping his doors open and a roof over his head. The utility bills were number one priority at a post-production facility. If the lights go out, so do the computers that generated the income to pay for everything else. So the electricity was paid. Even if it meant an entire day of rationed frozen vegetables. Because, that’s what a single dollar could buy.

He negotiated extensions on his monthly lease payments with his landlord. Somehow a client would come through or the necessary guitars would get pawned to stave off eviction. Sometimes Larry would be holding as many as 15 tickets at a time.

Sometimes, I would delicately broach the subject of a scaled back lifestyle. Perhaps consolidating his massive guitar arsenal to the essentials or moving his base of operations to a more affordable house or apartment. Out of the question. Larry had created his own unique kingdom. He would rather sit on the throne of his castle and eat frozen vegetables rather than dine on lobster and caviar on a futon in a studio apartment in The Valley.

Finally the day came when the plates could be spun no longer and started crashing to the ground. Larry’s funds and his landlord’s patience evaporated at the same instant. Things were looking very bleak, but Larry’s guardian angel came through once again in the form of a lump sum inheritance. Not a fortune but enough to secure a lease for a new workspace. The only question remaining was where would Larry relocate to. I was hoping The Valley or maybe North Hollywood so we could get together more often.

Larry was always full of surprises. But, nobody was ready for his choice of landscape…Downtown Los Angeles. More specifically…, Skid Row.

What’s in a name? Certainly Skid Row was the last stop on the alcohol and drug fueled homeless express. But, in recent years it has increasingly become a preferred destination for urbanite renters looking for downtown cache and cheap, spacious housing. It’s probably coincidence that Larry’s move to Skid Row marked the beginning of the most difficult part of his life. And in some ways, his most rewarding. However, the bad luck started right away.

In point of fact, his new residence was a couple blocks away from the nocturnal tent city for the homeless and dispossessed. But definitely inside the loose boundaries that defined Skid Row. He found a very hip loft space on a secluded dead end street where meter-maids feared to tread. The space itself was a single gigantic room with a 20 foot ceiling and a skylight. The room had an alcove for bookshelves or a bed. All in all it was a satisfactory space for living and work: with enough square footage to warehouse Larry’s guitars, drums, keyboards, audio equipment, books, cd’s, vinyl records, sheet-music, computers, video monitors, guitar miniatures, antique kitchenware and various soulful ephemera too exotic and numerous to remember.

The landlord assured Larry that late night sound editing was no problem in this remote part of town. One problem…. Somebody forgot to ask the neighbors.

Dominic, myself and our Parisian friend Cyril gathered at Larry’s for our annual April reunion. Jamming at Larry’s was always part of the schedule of events for these visits. Just as we got started Larry suddenly got up and left. When he returned, he looked agitated and disappointed. His fellow loft dweller who occupied the same floor was trying to study and said the music was audible at concert volume in his residence. Apparently the walls were paper thin and without insulation. Landlord’s assurances be damned, Larry would have to sound-proof his space if he was to stay. In view of the fact it was a single room with a cathedral height ceiling, the cost would be astronomical. Larry would have to move… again. His next destination? Incredibly he chose to stay on Skid Row. Not just the district, but right smack dab in the middle of tent city across from the rescue mission.

Larry loved living downtown. I kind of understood. I always had a romantic fascination with the grimy anti-beauty that clung to the steamy underbelly of any major city. I appreciated the stark beauty of the L.A. River at night looking towards Union Station and the concrete canyons. I appreciated it in the abstract. However, living there was a whole different reality. How or why he thought potential clients would brave the journey remains a mystery to me.

My first visit to his new abode was a severe education. My naive visualization of Skid Row was of a dark, noir waste land. Deserted, except for a handful of homeless loiterers leaning against lampposts or propped up by cold brick buildings; swigging from a bottle concealed by a paper bag. The reality assaulted my senses and sensibilities to the core.

The sheer scale hits you first. Blocks and blocks thick with homeless, ill, and discarded humanity. The upper crust of this subculture have pup tents to sleep in for the night. The middle class have ingenious cardboard structures. The bottom rung simply sleep on the sidewalk in sleeping bags or filthy blankets. In the morning authorities clear out the area so commuters and business people can move about freely and conduct their 9 to 5 imperatives unmolested. Then at dusk, after the commuters have abandoned the city for the safety of the suburbs, the nomadic underclass recaptures the streets again. A human ebb and flow as relentless and unstoppable as the tides.

The smell is what hits you next. The unmistakable funk of feces and urine. Larry described it as smelling like a barnyard. Perhaps, but a barnyard that includes the stench of human desperation.

Larry had no parking facilities adjacent to his building. We would park in the lot of a local dive bar and walk three city blocks to his building entrance. The drill was simple, Dom, Cyril and myself would maintain a tight formation and walk fast, people would stop, turn, gawk. If they tried to engage you in conversation you pleasantly bade them good evening and walked faster. Sometimes epithets would be hurled at your back. Luckily for us, poverty meant undernourishment and its accompanying weakness. Three well nourished, sober males could probably fend off any spontaneous physical threat, providing no weapons were brandished.

Once safely inside Larry’s new sanctuary, one could not help but be impressed. It was a huge space with large rooms and alcoves. A skateboard half-pipe occupied the main room that would soon be mutilated to form a concert hall with an elevated stage. A separate area had enough room for a large studio and adjoining control booth that could accomadate the playback needs of an entire band. A walk up to the roof gave you a panoramic 360 view of the city including a breathtaking view of the skyline. Great place to create, jam or hang. But, only one floor below, a churning river of broken spirits.

It was at this point in our friendship that we drifted apart. It happens with age and circumstance. I got married to a wonderful woman and moved north to Thousand Oaks. The greenery, wildlife, slow growth and civility was the polar opposite to Larry’s choice of habitat. The economy hit us hard as well. It was a struggle to maintain a house, kids, and animals in an upscale California community. Various familial calamities and illnesses further monopolized my attentions and energies. Visits with Larry became annual events. Gaps between our marathon phone conversations stretched from days to weeks, to months. We talked about recording again wistfully; realizing it would probably never happen, which sadly it didn’t.

Larry was a fighter. Not in the physical sense. But in an existential sense. He loved his life and the world he was creating. But, he started to have bad luck and bad health. He would fight back courageously and (sometimes) miraculously. However as mentally tough as he was, his personality softened with age. In his youth he was a rock with sharp edges and a hard surfaces. The last few years of his life had weathered him smooth. He seemed full of love and acceptance and increasingly concerned about maintaining a strict karmic code of conduct. I no longer attended his parties, but through the miracle of social networking, I witnessed his new circle of friends and acolytes. He seemed to be building a community. An unlikely oasis of light, art and hope in the desert of negativity that was Skid Row. He asked me to write a profile on his studio. I did. I spent a lot of time and love on it. I hoped a lot of famous musicians would read about Catrancher Studios and make Larry rich. It didn’t happen but Larry was thrilled with the article anyway.

Even as our phone sessions became more infrequent, we kept up with each other on Facebook. He would post videos of happenings at a new club in his complex called The Tempered Plug. He would also post pictures of any new acquisition. After, acquiring all the main food groups in the guitar and stringed instrument world, he turned his attention to keyboards. He was surviving well apparently. Pianos, Pipe Organs, Hammonds, Synthesizers, Harmoniums, Pump Organs, Clavinets. Going to his place was like going to a museum. He had gone beyond the simple concept of creating a music studio. He was creating his own universe and an alternate reality to a world where the currency of music was devalued to nothing.

Larry had battled back from a serious motorcycle accident when his timeline went silent again for a few days. News finally came in a message from his sister that he was in the hospital with a serious illness. When the illness was identified, it chilled me to my core. Pancreatitis. Again, I found myself in possession of a terrible knowledge I did not want.

In short, I suffered as a caregiver with a close family member who suffered from the same disease. Few people (or doctors) fully understand it and the fact that it’s NOT cancer disarms people. It’s an ugly, remorseless disease. A drinkers disease. And, ironically, the two people I knew who had it weren’t drinkers. Fortunately my family member had health care that gave her access to the finest specialists in the world at Cedars Sinai. Larry tragically didn’t. I shared what knowledge and advice I could with Larry and his sisters and tried to maintain hope.

Dominic, Cyril and I made our annual pilgramge to Larry’s place April of this year per our custom. Larry sat us down and with his formidable storytelling skill told us the chronology of his illness and hospitalization. It was a harrowing story and a scathing indictment of our public services system. Larry was dehumanized by paramedics and emergency personnel. However, once he was hospitalized he had only praise for the doctors and nurses who tried their best to take care of him and keep him alive. At one point in the story, he broke into tears. I had never seen Larry cry in my life. He was a lion of a man. Now he looked old and vulnerable. The more he told me, the sadder I became. I knew too much. A terrible knowledge. I went into denial like most people do. Maybe Larry would pull another rabbit out of his hat. Maybe the doctors at L.A. County got it all wrong.

We all smoked a bit. Larry abstained. He showed us his new keyboards like a proud papa. He told me he would just walk around at all hours of the night from room to room and play different instruments as a meditative therapy. Larry showed me a Mexican 12 string bass he had just acquired for a paltry 71 dollars. He said he would buy one for me. I didn’t know what to say. Then we jammed. Larry played Hammond organ and we all locked in for a few minutes of telepathic synchronicity. Larry called out to me…..”Dale, I feel better, the music is healing me…” My heart was breaking.

If there was any silver lining it was the fact that Larry was not concerned with money during this difficult time. An admiring (and affluent) filmmaker had him on a 3000 dollar a month retainer for services and to reserve his unique loft space for location shoots. His rental had also been reduced when it was discovered he was getting ripped off on his rent by a scoundrel who was subleasing the space to Larry at an exorbitant rate without the owners knowledge. At this particular time of crisis karma swooped in to take care of his basic human needs and put part of his mind to rest.

Eventually it was time to go. Hugs were exchanged. Love was expressed. Larry was smiling and chatting like his old self. We walked out the door. I was trailing behind the others. There was nobody standing between me and Larry as I looked back. It was tough walking away. There was a gravitational pull. Larry wasn’t in a hurry to close the door. He was standing at the portal leading to the amazing world he created. The world he loved. A world that was totally him. I was struggling to keep any thought of finality out of my mind. He said something as I was walking and looking back. I can’t remember what it was. But, he was smiling. It was the last time I saw him alive. A big smile. He was happy……

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3 thoughts on “Larry Dean Embry (1958-2013) Catrancher Studios (The Skid Row Years)

  1. My Deepest Sympathy-Larry’s a very old friend. Met in 1979 and rented a house together in Hollywood, Ca. Please contack me at 541-306-8846 . I have tapes of Larry playing Guitar and me singing. There is so much i want to say and just can’t believe how late i am. Please call

  2. Hi Dale,

    I was looking for Larry on the www yesterday and needless to say I was shocked when I read your post’s headline. It’s unbelievable, but sadly it’s true; he’s gone. It turns out that I too am late to catch up with Larry… It had been a long time since I hung with him, but somehow I didn’t expect to never connect with him again. Thanks for writing this; I imagine you’ll be hearing from more of his old acquaintances as time goes by.

    My partner, Linda, and I spent the day streaming his songs, reading more articles and simply thinking about Larry and life. I too had a real scare with a terminal illness these past couple months, and though I may not be over the hump yet, I’m pretty sure at this point that my life won’t be cut short by it. But, being aware that your existence is about to end is really life-altering; I appreciate how you describe your last visit with Larry, knowing what he knew of his own fate. Knowing the end is near offers a certain kind of clarity, and in Larry’s case, his clarity must have been quite vivid because he already was pretty clear about life and fate’s twists.

    Well, we don’t live in LA anymore – currently living on our sailboat in the Caribbean. I only have cassette tapes of Larry’s tunes and they’re not with us. Is there a spot where we can download his songs? I checked iTunes but he’s not up there. We don’t have internet very often so it’d be great to have them handy so we can play them at anchor, in peace, to the wind.

    Thanks again bro; really appreciate your posts.

    Ricardo and Linda

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