"Lower Topanga Redux -- ca. 1970"

by Dennis J. Carlile

"Tool's Snake Pit"
by Tool, Art by Toylit
Brass Tacks Press, 2007
71 pp., chapbook
Price: $5

The days of the Wild Wild West did not end with the passing of the cowboy, nor the demise of the TV series of that name. In Topanga Canyon some 30 years ago, the "Wild West" was thriving in ways Wyatt Earp would never have imagined. In "Tool's Snake Pit," the reader is taken on a wild ride through a particular time and place that is now part of California history.

Tool is the nom-de-plume of "a mysterious guy" who lived near the beach in a Lower Topanga neighborhood called the "Snake Pit." He did a lot of drugs and was an expert craftsman of drug-smuggling equipment in the heyday of pot, LSD, and cocaine trafficking. In an eloquent, casually conversational tone, Tool spins out the story of his life as a "free spirit" and builder of secret hiding places.

"Ever since I was a kid, I'd been making secret hiding places, but my first professional job was working for Martian, the manager of a famous rock band…. [He] really pushed the limits of my abilities. He also recommended me, and I actually went into business with him making fake aerosol cans…. I also did carry-on stuff. Like we made a wheelchair with a fake giant battery that ran the motor. It could hold about three pounds, and it really worked for a few minutes. All my secret panels have to work."

In the late '70s, Tool found himself at a now-gone PCH nightclub called The Sunspot, where a friend told him, "Hey, I got a room for rent." And so he came to the Snake Pit, a collection of bungalows, shacks, cabins, and cabaƱas in Lower Topanga. It is at this point, a mere seven pages into this incredibly jam-packed book, that the cast of odd characters begins to expand at a dizzying rate. Surf punks, wayward high school girls, motel deadbeats, eccentric artists, drug dealers, beach trollers, the Mafia, and the Topanga Sniper are but a few of the many memorable types encountered here – as well as being the titles of several of the chapters. The word "chapter" is perhaps misleading though, for each section is like a tightly compressed short story with a plotline only marginally connected to the preceding and following sections.

Each vignette portrays a weird, or dangerous, or bleakly hilarious aspect of life in the Snake Pit.

"These guys were doing so much angel dust that it was really scary," Tool says at one point of the people with whom he was living. "And there was this PCP guy who was living naked on the roof below me. He didn't live in a room. The guy would eat only fruits and vegetables and be naked. And he wouldn't remove any of the peels, so it was like this bizarre debris of dried orange peels, and watermelon skins, and him naked doing PCP on the roof…. This was when I had a girlfriend and her kid living with me, and Horseman [a recent arrival] would be down there firing shotguns off and shooting heroin, right below us, in the middle of the night."

The book is also outrageously illustrated by Lower Topanga artist Toylit. His vigorously effective, black-and-white drawings perfectly capture the psychedelic shimmer of those days.

Between romantic moonlit horseback rides on the beach and sabotaging movie crews shooting nearby, Tool has run-ins with police and building inspectors.

"The cops were in full camouflage SWAT gear, and they brought the building inspector in like he needed armed protection," Tool laughs.

And there was also the Halloween when Tool, dressed as the Cheshire Cat from "Alice in Wonderland" (complete with tree), outran the cops… only to watch from a safe distance as his less-fortunate friend, got-up as the White Rabbit, is handcuffed.

"They arrest him, but he can't take off the rabbit costume. He has no clothes underneath, only underwear. So he spent the night in the Malibu jail like that. And the whole time they were busting him, I'm in my Cheshire Cat costume on the hill, going, 'Meow! Meow!'"

The final portion of this little volume tells of how Tool entered a one-man float for the Topanga Days Parade. He made a whale out of latex, wire, and canvas – which he constructed around his bicycle – and rode it dressed as Neptune. He arrives late, but when the crowd sees him, they stop leaving and sit to watch him pedal past.

"I guess they've tried to stop this, but the big thing in the Topanga Days Parade is that they throw water at you. Either they're throwing water balloons or shooting you with water. Well, you're in this heavy [expletive] whale, and the tires are slipping and sliding on oil-covered asphalt. I mean, the worst thing they could do was to throw water at me.

"And it's so funny because it seems like every time I do a parade, I'm usually at the end with the fire department, which is good because they all think I'm going to die of a heart attack…. But the Topanga Days Parade was the first parade where I myself really thought that I might have a heart attack. Honest to God! It's all uphill for all those miles…. I was just panting."

But he keeps pedaling, and at the end, the parade committee gives him a special trophy.

"I tried to tie the trophy to the hood of the whale, but I didn't do a good job, and it fell off, and a car ran over it, and smashed it into three or four pieces. But I still kept the pieces for years after that."

Of all the crazy tales, perhaps the most wacky story is how he built a secret room inside a 53-foot moving-van for the express purpose of transporting pounds of marijuana. This is an epic episode in his career, comparable in his mind to the building of the Trojan Horse.

"This is a [expletive] great challenge…. Half the fun of secret panels is the challenge. You're challenging the best. Your challenging cops and customs people that have all the [expletive] money in the world, and all the time in the world, and all the machines in the world to [expletive] check you out…. And I am so proud of the fact that I have been able to beat the best again and again."

In just 71 pages, a whole panorama of the subculture of the '70s is rolled out before the attentive reader. Bar fights, acid trips, hot tub sex, Quaalude orgies, and scrapes with gangsters, bikers, and the Law tumble one after another in a free-for-all picaresque monologue. It will make you laugh. It will make your hair stand on end. It is a rich feast of man's follies and jollies, and the lawlessness of living on the edge.

This is an authentic peek into a past Topanga that will never come again: a funhouse ride of a book full of dark humor and surreality. And we have to accept the truth of it all because, frankly, it is far too strange to be fiction.

"Tool's Snake Pit" is a companion volume to a previously published book called "The Snake Pit" by Baretta, which shares the same setting. Tool appears as a minor character there, but it is an entirely different tale of wild women, surfers, artists… and, yes, sex, drugs, and rock and roll in Lower Topanga. Both books are $5 and for sale at Topanga Eco Mail, and on the Brass Tacks Press website:

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