1. Topanga Rattlesnake


The man who would later become my dad didn’t like me bragging about my father’s gunshot murder at all—that category of emotional manipulation was really his bailiwick anyhow, and he was much better at it than I’ll ever be. 

Mom and I met William Brennan, or Billy (or Rattlesnake, as he was sometimes called) in 1974 in Los Angeles. After a long cross-country drive from Connecticut to Southern California in a 1964 Chevy Station Wagon, which Mom had bought for eighty dollars back in Connecticut, we found a small apartment in south Santa Monica, not far from the famed beach and pier. Billy and his girlfriend lived in the same building, down the hall. Mom quickly became friends with the couple—they were also in their mid-twenties, ready for fun, shared a love for the rock ’n’ roll music—and they took us into their social circle, helping with babysitting and getting Mom waitress work at a small Italian eatery. Like Mom, Billy was an East Coast transplant and had grown up in a Roman Catholic well-to-do lower middle-class household: his father was a Seagram’s whiskey salesman in Westchester County, New York, and his mother worked part-time as a high school librarian and had once been the subject for a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover. (Family lore also had it that Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Raven” at a large dairy farm owned by earlier Brennan generations, the location then known as the Brennan Farm, in what’s now the Upper Westside in New York City.) Following his older brother Tom Brennan, a recent Vietnam veteran who was getting in touch with his PTSD wild side, Billy had hitchhiked from his native Larchmont to Southern California about four years before, shortly after attending Woodstock, something Billy always described as a life-changing experience. (Mom missed her planned Woodstock pilgrimage after getting into a fight with her boyfriend in Connecticut, but she had gone with her wild cousin Mary Ann to see the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden on their Gimme Shelter tour in 1969, a major event in her late teenage life.) Billy also had an older sister, Tom’s fraternal twin, who for the most part remained in the Northeast.

My stepdad Billy “Rattlesnake” Brennan in California, 1977. Billy became Dad growing up.

My stepdad Billy “Rattlesnake” Brennan in California, 1977. Billy became Dad growing up.

Billy had that enthusiasm for West-ness characterized by those who are lured here by the resilient mythologies of adventure, freedom, and good times. He was a charismatic smart-ass, a rough teaser, loved a good joke (especially an offensive racist or sexist joke), and telling tall tales in the Wild West getting-drunk-by-fireside tradition. Consequently, he was known to, well, embellish now and then. Also, at 6’5”, he was a big, imposing man, and he had a capacity for fighting. In fact, between the free-for-all partying that was L.A. in the early ’70s, and his predilection for fistfights, Billy had lost most of his teeth: by his late twenties he’d have the remaining survivors yanked out and wore false teeth, which he would protrude or entirely remove for my confused amusement. My other main early memory of Billy is being terrified yet fascinated by his pet tarantula, Herbie, named after Disney’s Herbie the Love Bug, which succinctly captures his sense of humor, not to mention some key aspects of our emerging relationship.

In those first months after arriving in L.A., Mom and I spent our time mostly in Venice Beach, along the oceanside Boardwalk, where we bounced around among the hippies, free spirits, illegal drug aficionados, homeless or just poor (numerous young people would share small apartments, paying little, hanging out on the beach), musicians, painters, Muscle Beach weightlifters, arts & crafts folks, and, well, the full spectrum of weird, wacky, and wild that was the edge of Western civilization at the time. We also often went up into Topanga Canyon, a small but thriving enclave up in the Santa Monica Mountains, just north of the city’s busy beaches. (Not that the Santa Monicas are really mountains: they’re more like high hills, as the section of that range further east, know as the Hollywood Hills, attests, though they are densely wooded in many areas, with rugged and hard to traverse canyons throughout.) The Topanga scene was less urban than Venice and Santa Monica, but it had similar kindred spirits, only more bikers and Vietnam vets, not to mention a few paranoid, dangerous lost souls here and there: it had been five years since one of the early, pre-Tate-LaBianca Manson Family murders had taken place in Topanga, where Manson had unsuccessfully pursued his folk singer/songwriter aspirations, but the freewheeling drug culture scene was not without its psychological causalities, the consequences of which were playing out by the mid-1970s, especially in those parts of L.A.

 Topanga Canyon, in fact, more than the beaches, was Billy’s main stomping ground. When he wasn’t staying with girlfriends, Billy, like many others, lived the nomadic ideal, squatting back up in the woods. He had pitched a large tent on one of the more inaccessible ridges in the area, his fallback home base. He’d do odd jobs, or sometimes bounce at the Old P.O., a bar up the boulevard from the Topanga Corral, its more famous counterpart, where well-known rockers of the day (Canned Heat, The Doors, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal) made that rowdy bar a happening scene. Billy also earned money, such as he needed to, routing out rattlesnake infestations for the newly rich who were moving into the canyon with horses, children, exotic animals. Billy had gotten a reputation for catching one of the region’s deadliest indigenous species after intercepting and beheading a large rattlesnake sunning itself near Topanga Creek, behind the Corral, where Bear’s kids were playing. (Bear was Bob Hite, the lead singer/harmonicist for Canned Heat, a big, energetic, bearded man whom I would meet a few years later.) As the story went, Billy brought in the snake’s head and showed it to Bear—with a flair for the dramatic, he opened the rattlesnake’s mouth and pushed out its lethal fangs. Bear was grateful. After that some started calling Billy “Rattlesnake,” and word spread that it wasn’t just a nickname: he was for hire. Even better, when hired it was work that paid multiple times: after showing his employer the dead snakes, he could sell the venom to UCLA for use in the creation of anti-venom serum, and there was always a market for rattlesnake skins and the fragile rattlers themselves.

It wasn’t in Los Angeles, however, that Rattlesnake became a major part of our lives. We didn’t live in the area long, about six months total, quickly moving from Santa Monica to Venice, not far from the beach, once Mom began dating a friend of Billy’s with his own Topanga nickname, Sunshine. While Mom enjoyed her new friends and freedoms in L.A., she didn’t care for big city life: the competition, the “head trips.” To each his own, she believed, but the city trip just wasn’t for her. She had fallen in love with California nature, camping, the outdoors—really, it had a spiritual element, replacing her jettisoned Catholicism—not the smog and noise and congestion of L.A. The smog, especially, even at the beach, was thick and soupy in those days, much worse than today, as though massive wildfires were constantly burning in a ring around the greater L.A. area. 

In early 1975, Mom and I, and Mom’s new boyfriend—Sunshine was an Army tank mechanic who’d gone AWOL from his base down in Long Beach, so he had extra motivation to leave the city—said good-bye to Rattlesnake and friends and left Venice. We headed for the inland mountains of California, the ranges of which more or less run a hundred miles from the coast. Those were fun, adventurous, highly mobile times. We roamed up and down the state, from the dry, sun-drenched mountains in the south to the majestic Sierras in the north. We often camped in the wilds. We spent our longest stable period in the Lake Tahoe area, where Mom worked as a waitress at the Seafood Cove restaurant in Harrah’s Casino at Stateline, and where she would, on an ill-advised impulse, marry Sunshine over in Carson City. The marriage wouldn’t last long.

Billy, too, would come to reach his limits with the L.A. scene. About three years after our departure, a combination of factors had come to poison Topanga for Rattlesnake. Billy’s health was deteriorating, and consuming all mind-, mood-, and consciousness-altering substances in superhuman quantities was not only expected, but difficult to avoid in the canyon, especially for someone like Billy, who’d first gotten hooked on heroin right out of high school—he’d been institutionalized in his late teens in New York because of it—and he would always have a problem with addiction. Topanga was also getting more and more crowded, with surveyors and land-sellers and land-buyers swarming the area, and thus it was getting difficult to live free in the woods without the authorities finding you and kicking you out. And Billy was sick of bouncing, having recently lost most of the hearing in one ear after getting cold-cocked with a Jack Daniels whiskey bottle. Finally, a good friend had been killed. His buddy Wicked Willie was a biker who lived down by LAX airport and owned a couple of Harleys, one of which he’d sometimes let Billy ride on road trips throughout the region (Billy never had enough money to buy his own). Wicked Willie had been shot and killed after robbing a high-stakes poker game over in Palm Springs. Billy surmised that if he stayed in Topanga Canyon much longer, he’d wind up dead as well. 

Then, in late 1977, as it happened, Billy learned that Natalie (my mother) was newly single—Sunshine had taken off without warning—and living up in the San Bernardino Mountains, near Big Bear Lake, about a 2.5-hour drive due east from Topanga. This presented a whole new world of possibilities to Billy: he could get out of the city, or that singular version of “city” that was Venice/Santa Monica/Topanga at the time, and settle down. He had always found Natalie attractive, and he loved the mountains and high desert over in the Inland Empire and beyond. He stuffed all his possessions into a large Army surplus store–bought bag and hitchhiked up to the mountains. Mom was in a staunch anti-men phase when Billy arrived (she was furious over Sunshine’s departure), but her new visitor was patient and rewarded for his patience. In time, Billy, no longer the Topanga Rattlesnake, would become my Big Bear Dad. 


Billy telling stories, late 1970s.

Billy Interview, 1

I don’t know, L.A. was special for me in the beginning [said Dad in the late 1990s, when I interviewed him about his early L.A. days]. It was weird. I felt like I had come home, but to a real home, a place I really belonged. Not like in New York, where finding reasons to hate people is a fucking sport and pastime. When I came out here I was crazy. I figured I wasn’t long for this world. But I wanted to have a good time before I checked out. You know, I didn’t expect to find a home or anything like that. It was the last thing on my mind. L.A. was like the place where outcasts from all over the country went and sort of created their own kind of family. Everyone was real good to each other. For a little while, at least. One day, after Tom [Billy’s brother] got sick of me crashing at his pad, I was hitchhiking and walking around up in the hills, aimless-like, and I came across some Old West buildings way the fuck up there. A long barn, general store, couple of small cabins and this bar with old-style saloon doors and a hitching post. But instead of horses there were motorcycles. I fucking loved that shit, man. The choppers were nice too. A lot of Harleys, well taken care of. I couldn’t resist going on in. The place—the Topanga Corral—was full of gnarly-ass bikers. I mean huge guys that made me look like a chick. I immediately saw some Angels’ jackets. I was still new, so I had no idea what they were really like. I half-expected them to tear me a new asshole just for the hell of it. But everyone was really, I don’t know, gracious, I guess. And there were all kinds of people who went there. A lot of good, down-to-earth people. I felt like I had finally found a home. Up at the Old P.O. was where I first heard people talking about how you could live up in the woods pretty easily. Lots of people were doing it. It was national forest area and the cops didn’t really go too far in to look for squatters and campers. I struck up this conversation with some burly biker one day—I think his name was Muskrat—and he said, “If you ain’t afraid of getting a little dirty, you can live and shit up there rent-free. And the pigs, we’ll they don’t want to get dirty, man. We party up there all the time. I live up in Frisco, but whenever I’m down here, man, I just bring a sleeping bag and fuck Paula here until even the stars begin to blush.” Paula was passed out over his fucking arm, so she didn’t have much to say on the subject, but later I went to check it out and sure as shit he was right. There were people living in tents all over the place—some just laying their sleeping bags under a tree. So I got one of those big army tents at a surplus store over in Hollywood and found a remote spot way up in the mountains and pitched it there. There was this sharp cliff on one side, so no one was gonna get to me from the boulevard side, and there were several small valleys and peaks on the other side before the next road, which wasn’t very big anyway. It was great up there—I had basically told civilization to kiss my ass. My only neighbor was a horse stable and trotting area about two hundred yards away. The pipe that fed the horse water was above ground and went pretty close to me, so I was even able to tap into the pipe. I had my own running water, and no one was the wiser. I loved it up there in the beginning. I always had my bag packed, ready to go if the shit hit the fan. I could do whatever I wanted and not have to worry about the law. I could go for walks, hunting for snakes, or just dig the scenery. I was always coming across parties, and back then people always told you to join them. “Hey man,” they would say, “I’m so-and-so, grab yourself a Bud—they’re cold.” And the chicks were always into me because I was so tall. I was beginning to think of myself as something of an outlaw. And during those hikes and walks I ran into more than one sad lost soul that had taken too much of some drug and had no idea where they fucking were—or who they were for that matter—and they just didn’t care. I’ll tell ya, they didn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground. But we all lived to get high back then. That was all that mattered. We just didn’t care about anything else.


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