Costa Rica field report…finding John DiVita and the Lost Hound
Prologue Los Angeles 1980: Somewhere around the middle of Eddie Zip’s second set on any Friday night at an Italian restaurant just south of Third on La Brea an older, well dressed black man would walk through the door, take a seat at the end of the bar and slowly nurse a shot glass of whiskey. While the band took their second break of the evening, Ironjaw, as he was known, would take off his suit coat, roll up his sleeves, gather eight to ten of the old wooden chairs that weren’t being used and get ready for his performance. When the band took to the stage and broke into song, Ironjaw would slowly stack the chairs into some sort of pyramidal shape, slowly bite down on the bottom chair, raise up his neck and lift the whole lot of them into the air. He’d swing them around to applause and cheers for several moments before putting them back down, letting the band play on with their set of New Orleans funk music and take his seat back at the bar, where many of us would come over, shake his hand and refill the shot glass.
Across town on Wilshire, close to where LA ended and Santa Monica began, the folks who owned that Italian restaurant had opened a small pizza joint managed by their son, John. It was on a block with a couple of long gone record stores…Licorice Pizza and Odyssey…and I recall that they weren’t quite thick crust or deep dish, but nor were they of the New York variety. Like the restaurant it was also called DiVita’s, and both establishments were places I frequented during my first year in California.
John grew up in the Valley, and played in his own band for several years. They were The Degenerates, and they managed to get one song played on KROQ while they kicked around all the bars and clubs of the time like Al’s, Hong Kong Cafe, Madame Wong’s…playing and opening for all the great groups of those times. As things go with bands, drummer Dave Parkinson went on to Christian Death…guitar player Johnny Perkins became Slim Perkins and did his own Americana thing and the bass player Gary Evans went on to tv /film editing. And John DiVita went to corporate America…where for ten years (before he decided he needed to exit stage left) he was an inventory analyst for Best Buy.
Christmas Week 2010: In what I suspect may be our last family trip together of any consequence and length, we arrived in Costa Rica with our two teenage boys. The oldest one was dragged away kicking and screaming from his latest friend of the opposite sex, but we kept him as cool as we could by chipping in a third of the cost for his new video camera in exchange for him to put together some memento of our week. Of which you have seen, or can choose to watch, at the top of this post. Not exactly the Kodak moment my wife was hoping for as he excluded any images of us, but it was through his eyes and it kept him off the ceiling.
The first few days were spent in the sleepy beach town of Tamarindo, which is mostly a surfer’s haven but since they did a Girls Gone Wild video shoot there, it’s become home to legions of young American and European kids who come with their backpacks, stay in hostels, sleep most of the day and head out to the bars at night. As one young girl from White Plains told me, the party doesn’t much start until after midnight, and usually not until two. We were fast asleep by than, so the only action we saw were the crocodiles on the banks of the estuary and the monkeys high up in the trees. The economy down there is like here…shot. So on the beach is a constant hustle of locals selling made in Korean bracelets and gourds, and offering smoke, massages and surf lessons. Two days of decompression were enough before we took the Land Rover east to Volcán Arenal, which at 7,000 years old is still considered a young volcano. In 1968 it erupted and buried the town of Tabacon (now home to an “enter at your own risk” deluxe resort) killing seventy eight people. It’s one the ten active volcanos in the world, and it huffs and puffs and rumbles.
Our bungalow was at the base of the volcano, just north of the town La Fortuna(above) and up until two days before Christmas, we were able to sit in the mineral pools and stare at it before one morning it disappeared into the clouds. Seems to do that quite often and tourists often travel far, plan their trips and leave with broken hearts because they get to see nothing at all. This is not Disneyland you know…it’s nature.
So on that last cloud-less morning, before the rains came, we went hiking through the rainforest. You walk both on the floor of the valley and high up between the treetops, using hanging bridges that allow you to be at one with the monkeys and the birds. And after three or so hours we were done, and hungry. Thumbing through the now well-worn Lonely Planet guide book, I noticed that beyond the small village of El Castillo (where we later met Hannah from Seattle at the butterfly conservatory), down a pot-holed dirt road perhaps 12 or so kilometers…there was a small hidden garden pizza restaurant owned by a guy from LA named John DiVita. Really…
An hour later we pulled over to the side of the road and walked past a typical home with lots of kids, no glass on the windows, a horse or two, dogs, a broken down car, long weeds and a beautiful view of the lake that rich Americans would pay a lot of money for, and actually did, before the bottom dropped out. We walked down a path toward a two floor open-air structure covered in graffiti and sitting next to a small pizza oven was a long haired dude hunched over a laptop and watching the Rolling Stones on You Tube. “Howdy”.
“Are you the John DiVita whose family owned an Italian restaurant in Hollywood and a pizza joint in West LA” I asked as we walked into the room and in minutes he and I were playing the connection game…who he knew, who I knew, the clubs we went to, the bands we saw…and of course Ironjaw and Eddie Zip with Sweet Magnolia. For over two hours we talked and swapped life stories, and he shared that he had quit Best Buy and the corporate life four years ago, traded everything in and moved down to Costa Rica…sight unseen. Using his former pizza making skills, he bought and shipped in a small pizza oven and also dabbled in making home made ice cream. If I recall, I believe there are about 60 people in his small village, although he’s not that far from La Fortuna when he needs to pick up supplies. Across the lane is a nice sized lodge, lots of European guests it seems, and he has a steady clientele although it was just us this afternoon. Many of the shots in my son’s video were from John’s place.
We talked music….old punk, Americana, folk…what Furr Dixon was up to, Stan Ridgeway, Dave Alvin and Exene. He told us about the people who come to visit, the strangers that cross his threshold. The week before we visited, John shared that a drummer and his lady from Holland happened to stop by and he’s in the band called Lost Hound. Ever hear of them? I hadn’t. So John grabbed his laptop and we all stood around and checked out this video.
We watched more…had some of his home made ice cream and than took off as the clouds started gathering. The Lost Hound…now damn….that was a find.
Postscript January 2011: Before we left, John handed us some magic markers and asked that we write some stuff on the walls of his restaurant. I wrote, upside down on an exterior wall on the second floor: “Easy Ed, NoDepression.Com..The Roots Music Authority”. Three weeks later he contacted Kyla and asked to get in touch with me. He’s got an idea to run by me. What did I think about starting a music scene down in Central America…a place where bands could come and play, jam, hang out and just enjoy the mellow scene. He’s thinking maybe Nicaragua after taking a quick trip and seeing some two hundred year old buildings he could get on the cheap. We’ve kicked it around now for a few weeks…and John wants to recreate LA 1979. Maybe…we’ll see.
People have asked me how I liked Costa Rica…and I say that I loved it for it’s simplicity. While a few years ago it was racing to become the latest tourist destination, the development has slowed down. There is petty crime for sure, and two months ago Nicaragua invaded a small strip of land in the northeast corner. Costa Rica has no standing army to protect itself. And the Mexican drug cartels are moving down to protect the transit of dope from South America up north, which could mess with the tranquility.
Enough words….here’s a little more Lost Hound.