The Perpetually Curious Journey of Avi Vinocur: A Classic American Story, Part One
BY STEFFAN CHIRAZI
Where do the hound dogs eat when the people are frail
Where does the smoke from your lungs go once you exhale
What do the cockroaches do with no one around
They live like the moonshiners, half underground
“Moonshiners” by Goodnight, Texas
How many years have I seen Avi Vinocur in and around Metallica world?
I wrack my brains.
It’s been many, over a decade for sure, probably closer to a couple.
Friendly yet quiet, Avi has never been one of those guys who needs to impose himself on a room.
Which isn’t to say he couldn’t.
Oh, he could.
Avi could slowly spin proceedings around to his perspective without ever seeming like he’s pushing anything on anyone.
Congenial, dry, whip-smart, and all the while friendly, there isn’t a party to which Avi wouldn’t earn an invite. I’m just saying that Avi Vinocur occupies rare space in the social circles of life, managing at once to be involved, deferential, friendly, reserved, shy, engaging, and popular. Yeah, there are a lot of opposites in there. Avi is all of them.
Y’see, Avi is a guy who just “works” wherever he is, whatever the situation, whatever the context.
It isn’t that Avi is a purposeful social chameleon, no no no, nothing like that. It is that Avi Vinocur is a rare bird (a songbird too!), a unique person, the sort of guy you might’ve expected in the days of Steinbeck refracted through the Coen Brothers lens, the sort of guy that San Francisco Mission hipsters try to emulate on a daily basis with high degrees of failure.
Avi Vinocur is a classic American story with twists, turns, inlets, nooks, and crannies, a collection of conundrums, an exceedingly interesting fellow indeed…
A reminder as to how you will know Avi Vinocur. He is the guy who played with Metallica for the first Helping Hands Concert at the Masonic in November 2018. He is the guy who was onstage with Metallica at the Chase Center in September 2019 for S&M2. He is the guy who was onstage with James with his trusty mandolin (and larynx) for Sammy Hagar’s benefit gig back in 2016. He is the guy who was part of a the second Helping Hands Concert, live-streamed from HQ in November 2020, and thus he is the guy Howard Stern spoke to when the band did their early morning Stern set the day after the summer drive-in concert in August 2020. Something you might not know about Avi: he has worked behind the scenes with Metallica for years, largely under the wing and auspice of crew chief Zach Harmon. And he is also a musician, whose band, Goodnight, Texas, tours the country relentlessly (when that sort of thing is allowed of course). This is all but a thumbnail, because as we are about to find out, there’s nine other nails and fingers to discover…
Okay, okay, let’s start with some brief “bio” stuff.
Avi was born in 1984 in Connecticut. His dad had passed away when Avi was three. When he was six, he and his mom moved to LA – Westwood to be precise – where his mom’s sister was based. Avi has pondered how he came to be, as his mom had not been overly keen on the idea of kids, yet when his father received a terminal cancer diagnosis, the decision was made to have a child. A parting gift that would last generations.
Painful, complicated, but with enormous love and will.
“My mom went to Woodstock,” he tells me when I ask about early musical influences, “she was 17 at the time. She also liked classical music, but she played a lot of folk-type stuff as well as The Beatles,” (who I learn, by the way, were quite prominent).
What about your first non-heard-around-the-house ear and ball grabber?
“I was in elementary school I discovered Green Day, the Dookie album, and that was huge for me in wanting to play guitar for the first time and thinking I could do that. I would’ve been eight or nine years old. It was the biggest album in our age group by far at that time. Nirvana too, but Green Day was the transitional band for me where I could see myself trying to be a musician.”
Let me paint the picture here. When you guys were driving to school, was she playing music? Was it on in the background mostly?
“Kind of more so on in the background. I don’t think we had a lot of ‘you need to listen to this’ type of moments with music. It was just readily available. We would go to the CD store together, I think it was Wherehouse, Sam Goody, one of those. Tower Records too. She played piano a little bit, and let me run with it, but was not super musically forceful. One album she thought I’d really like, and I have the cassette sitting right here, was the soundtrack to Until the End of the World, which was T Bone Burnett with Nick Cave, Elvis Costello, the Talking Heads, Lou Reed, Tracy Chapman, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, it’s an assortment of stuff. I don’t remember specific examples of her playing it for me aside from having it around and letting me discover it.”
One thing you need to know at this juncture of the tale, is that Avi Vinocur might just be one of the greatest young American storytellers you might not yet know but should. I don’t mean he sits on a barstool and spins cheap yarns about catching six-foot fish, no. I mean telling tales of rough riders, gun-toters, tragic romance, and Native America: a storyteller. Like Bob Dylan, like Johnny Cash. Even like another love of his, Dolly Parton.
“Storytelling was something that made music complete to me,” he sighs. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been increasingly figuring out where things fell, where they still fall, I suppose, my father’s passing ended up affecting things without me realizing it as I got older. When I was about nine or 10 back in LA, I got a Jewish Big Brother who was about 30 years older than me, a character that you can get paired up with in your life who does things with you, like a father figure, like a guidance counselor. Steve Kluger. He was big on The Beatles and he showed me a lot of music also. He’s written some unbelievable books too, there’s one called Last Days of Summer, which has been adapted to a musical. He was a big influence as a writer.”
Kluger was certainly a father figure to Avi. His mom had waited until Avi was finishing primary school before returning to her practice as a doctor and deciding to do a second residency to be a psychiatrist, leaving Kluger as a vital figure in Avi’s life. With a writer as a guide and an imagination blossoming, Avi soon started weaving together answers to big life questions without any help whatsoever.
“I’ve always seen bits and pieces, things my dad owned, and invented stories of what they were, whether I knew what they were or not. I just pictured a story about it, so even something like a high school assignment with a note on the side of it must’ve been him flirting with a girl.” He sighs and smiles thinly as if not at all used to explaining this sort of thing. “I was just sort of inventing stories.”
And I’ve got to ask you, because I guess there’s not much time when your mom is a single parent to get into big conversations, but did you have many conversations about him? I get this impression of you as this Amélie-esque person, making it work for you because maybe there’s no definitions coming that are satisfying what you need.
“I think in some ways? My mom and dad were together for 10 years total and married for, I guess, only six or so. So she didn’t really know either, but she knew a good amount. And to this day she still day follows up on genealogy on his side. We study it and do things with it, because there’s not a lot to speak of about it after his family came from Russia in the ’20s.”
Growing up without my father weighed heavy on my brain
And I dread this makes my children dance that waltz
And I’m sure at times your trust was breached and your love for me did wane
But I ask you to forgive me for these faults
“Dearest Sarah” by Goodnight, Texas
It is virtually impossible not to visualize this next story as a piece of prime Wes Anderson if he were so lucky. The son of Russian émigrés who was born in 1931. A character by all the accounts Avi has been able to collect, a character in the sense you might be thinking too. And as I write, I realize that Avi never told me his father’s name, nor did he describe him, so I’ll indulge in a bit of Vinocurism, if I may, and paint the picture I see. Vinocur Senior. Long flowing silver hair, a neatly trimmed pointed beard with a waxed handlebar mustache, and the sort of blue/green/hazel eyes that dance with every chuckle. A warmth exuding from the pores and also a large splash of the raconteur about his person; someone whom the ladies found easy on the eyes and soul. Oh, and theatrical, very theatrical, quite possibly a ham who liked to leave a little this and that here and there, whether a tchotchke or joke. I’m sure he wore a jacket, and possibly carried a silver-tipped walking cane for the hell of it.
“He was a very, very funny, not super serious guy who was really creative,” Avi starts, “and much later I found out he wrote gag songs and Weird Al style show tunes and replaced the lyrics with current events sorts of things. I have reel-to-reel tapes that I’ve been meaning to listen to more. He also had cousins who were all musically talented. They’d sit around, playing music and making up all these sometimes-offensive songs, just a really boisterous, loud, Jewish family in Detroit.”
As Avi continues the family tale, well, it is clearer still why he likes to tell a story or few himself, given the vintage stock he sprang from.
“My grandfather had come over to America to escape Tsar Nicholas in the early ’20s, and the family had gotten split. Half went to South America and got shoved that way on a boat, and part ended up in America. And when you came to America, you then went to Detroit to get a job in the car industry, because it was huge. So they ended up in Detroit. My dad was born there, an only child who apparently spent his youth trying to deny that he was spoiled, but he got his first car when he was 14, and it was a nice car which 14-year-olds only in ’40s Michigan could apparently drive. He was in the military, a captain and doctor. He actually did a Peace Corps mission in Tehran after an earthquake in 1962...”
He pauses and grins.
“I have a giant plate on the wall that he got in Iran that says ‘Made in Morocco’ on it. But even the truth around that, it’s like, I think I know that, but is that true? Is that from Iran? I think it’s from Iran. I think that’s what I remember hearing as a kid, that he got that on his Peace Corps mission in Iran and brought it back? I don’t know.”
Does it really matter? The story lines up perfectly with the artifact and various other things he knows about his father, so whether he got it in Iran or Morocco or even a local knick-knack store, the story captures the spirit and it’s Avi’s.
“I suppose so, yeah,” he sighs. “It is interesting to see people who knew him. There aren’t many now besides my mother, brother, and sister [half-siblings on his father’s side – ED]. One of his friends is still alive at around 90 years old. He lives in Wisconsin and I saw him about 10 years ago. From what all of them say, some things are more genetic than you realize. Like when you’re born to someone and don’t grow up with them, but you hear people who knew them say, ‘My God, you guys walk the same!’ Or maybe it’s something stupid like the way I say phrases. Our band has a song where we say, ‘for crying out loud,’ you know, just a passing phrase that’s common. But those folks were like, ‘Do you know how much of a catchphrase of his that was throughout his life?!’ I had no idea. So just little stupid things like that. There’s always been very coincidental stories that have come up throughout my life pertaining to him and, I don’t know, lot of coincidences.”
As many of you will know in your families (that is, those of you who are lucky enough to have drunk in and absorbed their company and wisdom), grandfathers are great sentinels. Avi had his Grandpa Jim on his mom’s side, and Grandpa Jim was exactly what you believe a grandfather should be to Avi.
“He was definitely a music person, music of his generation, and he loved old movies from his generation too,” remembers Avi, “you know, Turner Classic Movies was on until the day he died. He just loved that he could turn on the TV and watch Duck Soup or something like that [Avi is unsurprisingly a Groucho Marx fan – ED]. And while a lot of the vaudevillian humor came from my dad’s side, my grandfather also really loved it, even though his family was from West Virginia and they were more, you know, American historical Appalachia…”
Could it be any greater an American story? Could it have any more potential pathways and avenues to explore in terms of folklore and legend? Could a background whet the appetite any further for “true” tales of America’s past? I doubt it.
As we touched on earlier, Avi was switched onto the possibilities of music by Green Day, however his first instrument was the piano, simply because his mom had one lying around the house.
“There was always a piano in the house because she liked to play,” he furthers. “She didn’t put as much time into it as I think she would’ve wanted, but there was always one around. So I’d tinker on it through primary school, grade school, right into high school. In elementary school we moved from Westwood to Manhattan Beach out by the water, and at the time it was a standard surf town. I met some people who played music and it was like, ‘Oooh, okay. Maybe I want to try to do that. I feel like if I put my mind to it, I could, like, play with them.’ There was a guy there named Matt Lourtie who was a phenomenal guitar player that really just understood it, and he was like, ‘Yeah, sure, you can play with us.’ My mom had gotten me a guitar for I-don’t-remember-what at some point, a Fender Strat and a little amp that I still have somewhere. There was a kid down the street who had an acoustic guitar, we’d play together, and he ended up playing drums, and we’d screw around with stuff like that. We’d also do these cassette tape-like radio shows where we would have fake guests and fake ads, we’d write jingles for those ads and we’d just record tapes. It was once we moved to Manhattan Beach that I really figured out how to record and do stuff like that, and music was sort of a natural part of it all.”
Lourtie tipped Avi off to a guitar teacher on Sepulveda Boulevard called Jonas Petterson, who schooled Avi in guitar in a matter of lessons. Simple chord progressions and melodies started to flow easily.
“Describing a song from start to finish, how the parts are gonna go, that was what I really wanted to do from beginning; lyrics were sort of secondary and storytelling was secondary. But there was a point in time where I felt I could combine that with meaningful lyrics, and it really clicked. I realized I could put stories into songs and make the lyrics better. And a lot of that had to do with Steve Kluger, my Jewish Big Brother, being very critical of my initial ‘I love you, baby’ lyrics. He really made me feel good about myself as a creative person, and he was impressed with what I was doing. My mother was certainly there too, not to downplay her role in my lyric writing and everything.”
Avi’s playing wound its way through various fields, from Hendrix to the blues, and it was the latter pathway that spoke louder and deeper to him.
“I guess I was always going to end up here because there’s something about, you know, mandolin and Appalachian music that just resonates with me. I can’t really explain why it feels right in my hands…”
Well, it’s in your blood, right? If it’s come through your grandfather. I mean it’s in your blood, you can’t deny it.
“I guess it is. Yeah.”
That’s an undeniable force right there.
“Yeah. I didn’t live there myself, but I have a great respect for it, and yeah. It’s in my background.”
For Avi, music was never just a hobby, or something that might stick if it all went well. It was all he thought of.
“I was really hell bent on making music. In high school, I was the guy with the guitar walking around the hall. I was that dorky dude. I was lucky in that my high school was very supportive of me, and I think that’s the time when it really was… I couldn’t… I couldn’t do anything else. This is it. There’s something about music, it just feels right. Nothing else has clicked with me, nothing I have attempted has felt so natural to me as trying to make music and trying to play guitar, or just make songs, or make things up out of thin air.”
Avi lets out a deep sigh of seeming relief and smiles.
The long and winding road for Avi continued after high school, when he went to school for classical composition for a stretch before packing up and moving everything to San Francisco.
“I transferred up here [we are speaking in the Bay Area – ED] and ended up doing audio engineering. That was much more [resonant with me]. And then I met some guys in my college who I was roommates with, and we started a band called The Stone Foxes. Well, really they started it and I was their roommate, but I joined it at the very beginning. When I started working with Metallica, I was in that band… I think a bunch of crew guys came to one of our shows at The Independent. At that time I knew Patrick Wolf [a friend and fellow musician], we had sort of played, but I always loved playing acoustic or playing alone. Being in a rock band was very cool, but I really felt like being up there alone with an acoustic guitar, getting to sing or try to make a crowd quiet was something that I really loved to do. Patrick did too, and he was a phenomenal songwriter.”
Patrick Wolf and Avi Vinocur found creative synergy and worked on some things together before learning that Wolf’s now-wife/then-girlfriend was heading back to medical school in North Carolina.
“So we decided to do an album together before he moved, just the two of us,” explains Avi. “We figured that singing harmonies and doing stuff together worked, and we figured out how to do it. We started playing shows together, singing together on each other’s songs – and before that I never knew how to sing harmonies with anyone, ever. I had never been able to successfully do that with someone, and here it just like clicked.”
Both men shared a deep kinship when it came to the tone of the music they each liked to write, and once Avi was no longer in The Stone Foxes, the two formed a band. They would strive to make it work logistically, and they took influence as to how to frame their work from an unlikely inspiration.
“One thing that’s very bizarre is Patrick also has a strange life of coincidences and unbelievable things,” muses Avi. “One thing was that he went to winter formal with Lady Gaga. They were friends in high school. Of all people! He grew up in New Jersey and went to high school in Manhattan. So she went to winter formal [with him] one year, and then the next year, I think she asked him again, but he already had a date. They haven’t talked in a long time, obviously, she’s been busy. But back then, one thing we both agreed on was we really liked how she invented a character, a persona, and a vibe – it was a work of art, her character. [We understood] it wasn’t her because he knew her. But it’s a part of her and she’s getting into a role.”
I’ve dreamed to myself with no one around
Of burning her plantation down to the ground
And watching her scream from her third story room
And light up my shovel, wheelbarrow, and broom
All burned to the point that you could never exhume
The filthiest past one could ever entomb
And her ashes would smolder the finest perfume
If I had the strength to get out of the gloom
I know no other living whatsoever
And I’m going to work on Maggie’s Farm forever
“I’m Going To Work On Maggie’s Farm Forever” by Goodnight, Texas
When I tell you that Avi and Patrick had a friend called Joe Lyle Flick (I mean, come on! Joe Lyle Flick?! That’s Coen Brothers/McCarthy territory right there) who would casually suggest exactly the right direction the pair should take their vehicle, well, it just makes sense right?
“He lived in Montana, and when Patrick and I played up in Montana, he said, ‘Hey, I really like the dark stuff. You guys should put all the dark stuff together and make an album.’ We agreed! So we trimmed some songs and ended up with 11 songs that were darker, sadder, and more historical sounding. That’s when it clicked that we could have a whole band around this. It can be our band’s concept, to tell stories from American history, true or not. And the truth is, one of the crazier things we find out is that a lot of times, we write these stories whether they’re true or not, and find out later that they actually are true.”
Their new band – Goodnight, Texas – was up and running like a western steam train with a silencer, the roar coming in the journey, not from any ear-splitting volume, and the choice of name exemplifies the band’s air and ethos.
“Goodnight, Texas, is a real town in the Panhandle of Texas that we had never been to,” Avi starts, “this band is fronted by a guy who grew up in New York, a guy who grew up in LA, one who lived in North Carolina and one who lived in San Francisco, but who are all interested in the rest of the country and want to know about the different corners and small areas and want to find middle ground. So Goodnight, Texas, is literally middle ground between our homes, and I think we want to try to learn about as many places as we can. Because I really think that’s how you have empathy for other people, by actually sitting, talking with them, and hearing their stories. I think it’s important to actually go there and engage with people. That’s something we’ve always tried to do, we’ve always tried to write songs about different places that we’ve been, and places that we’ve wanted to go.”
Critically, it wasn’t just some of his father’s items that were saved and kept for posterity. Many family heirlooms and artifacts have survived generations on Avi’s mother’s side to become center points in the Goodnight, Texas creative wheel (any generational items the Vinocurs had remained in Russia).
“My mother’s side has kept everything, and it’s all gotten passed along. We have a grandfather clock from 1774. Although it may actually be slightly older, but someone etched that in it. And I mean, it’s stunning. With all of our family’s paperwork, letters from the War of 1812, the land we bought before the Revolution, I mean everything. All the stuff exists in files and stuff at my mom’s house now. So looking through that stuff, these historical documents and pictures and just wondering what life would’ve been like. Or seeing a doctor’s receipt from 1831 and then seeing someone’s obituary in 1831 in the local newspaper and realizing that those two things could be related was just mind blowing to me.
“I think that was the foundation of the storytelling. Everything is a collage of American history. There are all these unbelievable stories that never get told, that may or may not have ever happened. Storytelling can be fiction or nonfiction and a lot of times you can see your own nonfiction in the fiction.”
Let’s be very clear about one thing. Goodnight, Texas is not looking to change or reframe history. When they write of coal miners, bank robbers, and Civil War soldiers, they are framing great American stories as they went down.
“In fact, we’re probably looking, if we can, to draw attention to the misgivings in American history, the problems and the atrocities, where we can. I mean American history is not as glorious as it’s been made out to be and I think we’re all witnessing that now. There’s no easy solution to a complex problem.”
And sometimes you write these wonderful, small but mighty meditations on the human condition. But there are also those dark and twisted tales framed via an almost cheerful musical prism, which has to be your macabre sense of humor, right?
“Oh sure, I think it’s kind of fun to combine – in a sick way, to combine tragedy with a very happy sounding song. It became a challenge of our albums to write a song that is just so sad, but have it sound very happy. There’s something dark and fucked up in there somewhere, but I think there needs to be a little bit of camp to remind you that it can be fun.”
Look out for part two coming soon, where we will travel into the hows, whys, and wherefores of Avi’s connection and subsequent work with Metallica.