Other Expressions

Sam Jones: The Baudelaire of Hilltop High

Tom Waits & Sam Jones in the late 1960s

Sam Jones in 1969. Photo by Tom Waits.

Tom Waits in 1969. Photo by Sam Jones.

Tom Waits, Hilltop High School in Chula Vista

Tom Waits & Sam Jones at Jones’ first (of three) wedding, 1974.

Sam Jones today. Photo by Dylan Sandelin.

Make sure that there’s a Dixie moon, New Orleans, I’ll be there. . .me and you, Sam Jones and all.
–Tom Waits, “I Wish I Was in New Orleans”

This past month, former San Diegan and rock-‘n’-roll hall-of-famer Tom Waits went out on the late-night talk show circuit, visiting David Letterman and Jimmy Fallon. Waits, his quirky wit in hand, (his floppy fedora stayed on his head) entertained America’s insomniacs with stories about 19th-century mouse traps and insights into his methods as a bandleader: “I told them to play it like a plumber in a leotard.”

One poignant remark he made was that the “only people qualified to run the country are cutting hair and driving cabs.” What makes this so poignant is not the fact that this is an election year. What makes it so poignant is the fact that at that very moment, Waits’ high school soul twin Sam Jones was driving a cab around Mission Beach, looking for fares in the dark shadows of that same late-night hour.

A typical evening finds Sam Jones cruising San Diego’s beach areas, picking up an honest cross-section of nocturnal society: drunk college kids, homeless vets, ladies of dubious vocation, musicians, druggies, gun-wielding freaks and pool playing midgets. (Ironically, a night in Sam Jones’ life sounds a lot like a song from Waits’ Swordfishtrombones.)

Yet, there was a time when Sam Jones was known as the poet of Chula Vista’s Hilltop High, where he and Waits both graduated in 1968. To their friends, Sam Jones and Tom Waits were an inseparable pair of intellectual and charismatic yet wild spirits. It was always assumed that the two would either ride or crash land the same supernova together.

Born in Oakland into a military family, Jones spent his childhood criss-crossing the country before first settling in Tampa, Florida, then Spring Valley. He entered Hilltop as a sophomore in 1965. With his southern accent, he struck his new friends as an exotic outsider. Already a superior athlete, he quickly proved that he could hold his own although music and the dawning experimentation of the mid-’60s quickly steered him away from high school sports.

Soon, he met Tom Waits and the two became known for their humor, natural intelligence, and vision, not to mention their boundless energy. While Tom built a homemade surf board, Sam preferred body surfing. And, the pair fit in easily with the Southern California lifestyle that was unfolding around them.

At the same time, the two began smoking cigarettes and pot and drinking Red Mountain wine while listening to the Doors, Vanilla Fudge, Hendrix, Cream, Buffalo Springfield, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. During their junior year, they discovered the Sans Souci bar in Tijuana and the late-night “dirt parties” held out in the scrub brush of South Bay’s Rice Canyon. Sam landed a job at Napoleone’s Pizza House, where Tom was already working. (Waits would later immortalize Napoleone’s in his song “The Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone’s Pizza House).”
Sam had been an early reader, studying military history since the age of eight. Consistent with his Southern roots, (he will still tell you that “my people” live in Florida), he gained an early affinity for the land and the sacrifices that go along with a rural lifestyle. As these ideas percolated, he wrote his first poems.

Fast forward to his senior year at Hilltop and Sam began reading the French poets along with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Li Po, and Edgar Allan Poe. Encouraged by an English teacher, who gave him an “A” on a book report about The Grapes of Wrath, Sam soon started writing a book that, though never finished, sought to capture the sardonic humor of J.D. Salinger.

Following their new-found literary heroes, Sam and Tom began venturing farther and farther away from their suburban base. If Tom Joad and Salinger’s Holden Caulfield headed West to find themselves, Sam and Tom headed East, often hitchhiking as far as Arizona. Of course, they continued heading South to the denizens of Avenida Revolución. In addition, they distanced themselves from the hippie posturings that most young people were embracing at the time. “We didn’t want to trade one form of hate for another,” Sam adds.

After high school, their whole group shifted over to Southwestern College. But, after a year, Sam left school to join the Army, serving in the 8th Special Forces Group in Panama from 1970 to 1972. Upon leaving the military, Sam enrolled at City College. During this time, Sam and Tom rented a house together. (Tom had already been playing at the Heritage in Mission Beach and had just landed a songwriting contract in L.A.)
At City College, Sam focused on comparative literature and began reading Jorge Luis Borges and Federico García Lorca. Soon afterward, he transferred to San Diego State to pursue his degree in creative writing. It was during the next decade, until 1982, that Sam’s writing flourished and he filled numerous notebooks with poems, prose, and memoiristic sketches. He also did several cross-country road trips and dated a girl who became his kindred writing spirit.

His writing slowed, however, when he settled down, got married, and began raising a family. Sam would marry a total of three times. (Tom Waits was best man at his first wedding and witness at his first divorce. His second wedding reception was held at Lou and Virginia Curtiss’ house.) Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Sam traded in his pen and typewriter and focused on coaching his two young sons’ sports teams.

Now, single with his kids grown, Sam finds himself “inching toward” writing again. He also wants to hit the road to fulfill his “love of driving.” And lastly, he’s been in phone contact with his old friend Tom Waits. Maybe some day they’ll actually meet up in New Orleans, just like the song says.

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