Las Vegas Sun

November 14, 2018

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Sandy Nelson — Boulder City’s cave man

Sandy Nelson has no explanation for the condition of his back yard. He just digs it, man.

Make that dug it. The two holes in the ground are open and ready for habitation. Ready, that is, if you're a bat.

Or if you're Sandy Nelson.

"I just like to make caves," he says resignedly.

They're there for a good reason, too. Ya see, Nelson says, if the power ever goes out in his Boulder City home, especially in the heat of summer, he can sit in one of two shallow swimming holes he's dug next to the caves, then descend into the dark ground like a human mole.

"It's a place to cool off," he says.

And once he installs a solar panel to trickle-charge a 12-volt battery system that feeds power to the cave from his house, he'll have all the comforts of home -- a small color television, a beloved synthesizer and a fan. "I can go down there with them."

As it is now, Nelson goes down there without them. Just likes to hang out.

"I go in without my leg," he says. "There's more room."

Being underground is nothing new to Nelson.

As a child, which by his own admission he remains at age 57, he would explore the storm drains in his hometown of Los Angeles.

As he matured, he would head underground whenever he could, wherever he was.

And now, as fully-grown home owner, Nelson needn't step off the property to get his fix of the underground.

"Wouldn't you want a cave in your back yard?" he asks.

You can call Nelson's a back yard if you want to. He prefers "Veeble Land." He copped the name from a cartoon in Mad magazine 25 years ago, but put his own spin on the name in 1994, when he recorded a demo track called "The Veeble."

"It's about a race of people from another planet," he says. "They're gonna take over the Earth and make us do nothing but dance, sing and tell dumb jokes."

If and when they arrive, they ought to think twice about using Nelson's yard as a drop zone, lest they crash into the mountain of rocks he's stacked atop one of the caves.

"My intention was to build a mountain as high as I could possibly build it without tipping over, and call it Mount Babble," he says.

His was a takeoff on the Old Testament story in which the Babylonians attempted to build a mountain to heaven.

"God got mad and made everybody babble, and that's where language came from," he says. "Some day I'll go up on the rocks and start babbling and end up in a mental institution."

In addition to the two caves and the rock pile, there also is a "little cabin thing" (a miniature wooden structure atop the second cave stocked with plastic plates and cups, instant coffee and a rubber chicken) and two ditches in the dirt that he fills with water. One of them holds 224 gallons; both are teeming with toy wildlife -- alligators, sharks, dinosaurs and a great big grasshopper.

He's placed a giant rubber tarantula at the entrance to one cave, affixed miniature windmills to the mountain and the cabin, built a stone fireplace and strewn rock and other crap all over the place.

"I always like to say it's finished, then the mess doesn't mean anything."

Nelson: The '50s

The decade was marked by his decision to quit high school in 1956 or 1957 (he isn't certain) and pursue a music career, and by an unexpected hit record in 1959.

"I wasn't doing well," says Nelson, explaining why he dropped out. "I was always looking out the window, wondering about music or astronomy. My teacher would would say, 'You look like you're a million miles away.' And I was."

So, he quit.

"I had been held back, so I walked out when I was 18."

Nelson, a drummer, began to get jobs backing name acts (the Penguins, the Platters) when they came through LA and to play on their recordings for $10-$20 a session.

And, as he was wont to do his whole life, get restless. He wanted to make his own record, and make one he did. He called it "Teen Beat." An instrumental, it reached No. 4 on the Billboard chart and No. 5 on the Cashbox.

Nelson got the idea for the tune at a topless nightclub in LA.

"My friends (Jan and Dean among them) would watch the strippers," he says, "but somehow I'd watch the drummer. He played the beat I'd use in 'Teen Beat.'"

He cut a demo and submitted it to a man named Art LaBoe, a record company owner who had used Nelson for the aforementioned concerts. He recorded it that summer.

"I didn't think it would be a hit," Nelson says. "I was just hoping Art would play it on his radio show."

And although LaBoe didn't sign him to an artist's contract, he did ink him to a songwriter's contract that ultimately proved more valuable. To this day he still collects royalties off the song.

"Do you wanna hear the Dick Clark story? Oh, dear, this is funny."

Nelson is sitting on his drum stool in his music room, a converted bedroom in the rear of his home. His brown hair is streaked with gray and looks as if he's just gotten out of bed. A cane is never far from his reach.

"Teen Beat" was taking off, Nelson says, "and there was an agent in Los Angeles no one liked. He looked like Scrooge. He wanted to be my agent, and so we met. I didn't like him."

The guy said something about getting him on tour, but Nelson left without signing a contract. Soon, stories began running in the music press about Nelson going on a national tour, which was news to Nelson. "I hadn't signed a contract, so I didn't go."

As a result, Nelson was a no-show on Clark's "Saturday Night Show" from New York City.

"Dick was mad and he sued me, but I won," he says, adding that his case set a standard that forbade booking an act without first negotiating a contract. "Dick has been mad at me all these years. Just a few years ago, Barbara Walters interviewed Dick Clark and she leaned over and said, 'Is it true you always hold a grudge?' And he sugarcoated an answer."

Nelson ultimately performed on Clark's "Saturday Night Show" a year later, after he'd signed a contract with Imperial Records.

Clark, Nelson says, went backstage to check on him just before he went on.

"He leaned in the dressing room and said, 'Just wanted to make sure you're here.'"

If he'd been a few minutes earlier, Clark would have found it empty. Nelson was exploring the steam tunnels beneath the theater.

Nelson: The '60s

As the decade dawned, the minor fame that Nelson knew had begun to wane. And though he toured with Jan and Dean and the Ventures, and recorded with Gene Vincent, he was uncertain about the future.

He did know that he was tired of touring and long bus rides.

"Just as I was thinking what to do, I recorded a drum track." Richie Podlor, who had played guitar on "Teen Beat," overdubbed his track the next day "and that was the beginning of the metal sound," Nelson says of the 1961 tune, an instrumental called "Let There Be Drums."

"That was a smash," he says. "It reached No. 7 in Detroit and Chicago."

Nelson had another smash in 1963, but that one -- a head-on collision with a school bus in Los Angeles -- nearly killed him. As it was, it cost him his right leg.

"Bonnie Raitt was on that school bus," says Nelson, who was on a motorcycle when the bus struck him coming around a sharp hairpin curve. "She was 17."

By the middle of the decade, Nelson was doing more drinking than playing.

Hanging out in bars didn't do much for his music career, but, as a music figure of some repute, it did wonders for his love life.

"I was sitting in a bar in Santa Monica once," Nelson recalls, "and a band came through with a girl drummer -- a good looking blonde. We dated."

It was Jenny Jones, the TV talk show host.

"I think she broke up with me when she cooked me dinner and I threw up on her living room floor."

Nelson: The '70s

"I didn't know what year it was half the time," says Nelson, who spent the first part of the decade in hospitals and dry-out farms for alcoholism and addiction to pills.

He had a band for a short time in 1969, "but I quit because it interfered with my drinking and passing out on my boat."

That being the 24-foot cabin cruiser on which he had intended to romance Jones the previous decade but instead nearly got them killed.

"I was usually half drunk in those days," Nelson says, "and we went out for a boat ride."

It was foggy -- too foggy to return to his slip -- so he tied the boat to a mooring in the middle of the channel at Marina del Rey. And it was there that he made his move: He put clam chowder on the stove (he thought it would go with the atmosphere) and Arthur Lyman, the exotic music meister, on the cassette.

"I was gonna try to make whoopee with Jenny Jones," he says.

What he didn't know until the harbor master boarded his boat was that he'd entered a quarantine zone in which the bilges of several boats were full of gasoline fumes.

"They could have exploded."

At least that's what the harbor master told Nelson.

"In reality, he probably had nothing to do. He was probably just throwing his weight around at 5 in the morning."

Finally, in October 1976, "some kind of breakthrough came in my head. I stopped drinking and drugs. I went to Alcoholics Anonymous, but they don't like their name to be in the paper. I always say I went to the group of people that hang around with Styrofoam cups."

With drinking and passing out on his boat no longer options, Nelson became that high school kid staring out the window again.

"I was very bored."

So, he put his idle hands to work, digging up the large lot abutting his modest house in Culver City, Calif. He put in a pond with koi fish and catfish, planted palm trees, built a small dock and dug his first cave.

"Ruth Buzzi was in that cave once," he says. "She was a friend of my then- girlfriend."

It took three months to dig the hole and three dump trucks to haul the dirt.

In the meantime, Nelson was playing drums with a piano player called Dick Leslie in a restaurant in Santa Monica, a musical experience he considers more gratifying than gigs with Glen Campbell and jazz players Barney Kessell and Conte Candoli.

"I played there 12 years -- the first six drunk, the last six sober," he says.

Nelson: '80s and '90s

As the 1980s wore on, Nelson says, "I was getting restless. I wanted to get out and run, and I always liked the desert."

So, in 1987, he packed up and headed for Boulder City.

If he had one regret, it was leaving behind his roommate, a drummer named Harry who had played with Dr. John and was teaching Nelson New Orleans-style rock and R&B.

"Just when I think I've lost any contact with New Orleans, guess who moves to town a few months later?"

James Quill Smith.

The guitarist-songwriter, best known for his stint with Three Dog Night, had also played with Dr. John. Nelson, Smith recalls, didn't warm up to him until he found out.

"Our backgrounds just kind of interweave through the '50s and '60s. We both knew a lot of the same musicians, but he was in a group of players that we referred to as the surfers," Smith says. "We didn't take that music very seriously."

The two met when a mutual friend took Smith over to Nelson's RV, his home until he purchased the house 1 1/2 years ago.

"Sandy is notorious for hating guitar players," Smith says, "and when this guy said to him, 'I've got someone I'd like you to meet,' he said, 'I'm in the middle of cooking dinner.' And he didn't invite us in."

Smith left after leaving Nelson a tape of some music he had made.

"I ran into him a few days later and he said, 'I didn't know you worked with so and so.' We've been friends ever since."

And, on occasion, musical collaborators in Smith's band.

"Mostly I played keyboard, and I'm indebted to him for letting me be bad," Nelson says.

"He's actually gotten real good," Smith says of his keyboard playing, a passion Nelson has developed only recently. "Every once in a while I have to yell at him to hold it down when he starts experimenting on stage."

And Smith also lets Nelson play an obligatory drum solo.

"There are people who go, 'That's Sandy Nelson? You gotta be kidding.' They think he's the biggest thing since sliced bread. Several friends have his albums and they say, 'Do you think he'd sign them?'"

Nelson, Smith says, is "one of the most intensely eccentric people I've ever met."

He sleeps in the living room -- a carry-over trait from his RV-living days, when everything was in one space -- and a table next to his bed contains everything anyone could possibly need or want in this world: a box of Vegetable Thins, a package of Pecan Sandies, a thermos, a spray bottle, an empty coffee pot on a portable electric stove, a globe, a candle, a phone, a typewriter and two ashtrays (one with a filter-tipped cigarette crushed out in it, the other with three varieties of cigar resting on the rim).

The only thing seemingly not on it is his synthesizer; that he has strategically placed near the front window.

"I enjoy sitting here playing the piano and watching the girls walk by in my pajamas," Nelson says.

What, they don't have their own?

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