It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon and John Cruz and I are at the Randy J. Braun Gallery on Makawao Avenue. Surrounded by Braun’s Paniolo images, we start discussing the politics of chicken fighting. “I just got this three disk [DVD] set from my friend,” Cruz says. “It’s this huge derby in the Philippines. It’s like the Superbowl.”
The ice has broken between us. Suddenly, finally, we’re no longer the pen holding reporter and the musician, but two Hawai‘i-raised people gossiping like schoolgirls about breeding and raising chickens, tying knives and pesky neighbors who knock on your door asking you to sign a petition telling another neighbor that they need to get rid of their birds or move.
“Yeah, they get pissed off,” Cruz says. “The problem is that they come here for paradise but they want their paradise, not ours. They want to change things to make it fit them. It’s fucked up.”
I ask Cruz if he ever delved into the rodeo scene like his well-known country singing father, Ernie Cruz Sr. He says no, that the boots and spur’s scene was not his thing, though he admitted to going to a couple brandings. But it was the chicken fights, and not the rodeo, that had held his interest in his younger years.
When we met on the porch of Casanova, my first impression of Cruz was not one of warmth or gushy Aloha spirit. He was direct and maybe even a little abrasive, but I liked him right away.
It helps that he’s tall, dark and handsome, though not in the classical sense. His movements are almost feline. Though personable and charming, every now and then something feral would pass through his eyes as he spoke.
Cruz is a poi dog –a quarter Hawaiian, Japanese, Chamorro and Caucasian. His dark curly hair, which I imagine can become rather unruly, is tied back into a ponytail. His complexion is rough and he has wide set half-moon shaped eyes. His nose is my favorite of his features because it’s so typically Hapa-Hawaiian: broad and proud with sharp Greco-Roman angles.
Despite the underlying darkness, he exudes a charisma about him that people can’t help but respond to–especially women. People tend to look at him a little too long, and the women smile just a little too bright.
Hawai‘i first fell in love with Cruz a decade ago when he recorded the modern Hawaiian anthems like “Shine On” and “Island Style” on his immensely popular album Acoustic Soul that has since sold more than 100,000 copies. Acoustic Soul was nominated for seven Na Hoku Hanohano awards and won two –one for Contemporary Album of the Year and another for Most Promising Artist.
Back in the day, I loved that album and I have many–albeit foggy–memories of riding shotgun in a big Chevy truck while “Island Style” seeped through the speakers. But, 10 years is a long time for fans to wait for a sophomore album. In fact, after listening to his new release One of These Days I didn’t put two and two together until I checked out his web site and was like, “Oh my God, it’s the ‘Shine On’ guy!”
Cruz is staying at a B&B up the road—“just relaxing” the week before his two-night Maui show at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. We decide to take our caffeine to go and wander around Makawao, which just happens to be my old stomping ground.
Oddly enough, the height of Cruz’s fame coincides almost perfectly with the time that I would spend my days and nights wandering the town. It was a dark time in my life, filled with stumbling blocks and mistakes. Over the past decade, so much has changed.
Walking down Baldwin Avenue toward the Makawao Courtyard, we pass an old friend of mine who never escaped the life of a street kid (even though he is now in his 30’s) and has been ravaged by drug use.
“Back in the day, when I hung out here things were so different,” I tell Cruz. I point out places where you could just sit back and smoke a joint or have a beer in the middle of the day with little to worry about. “Back then, the biggest thing was pot and everyone was young and healthy,” I say. “Now it’s ice. It’s destroyed so many people that I was close to.”
Cruz, who has battled the demons of addiction himself, nodded. “The war on drugs really fucked us,” he says. “You take a culture that’s used to smoking something and then you take it away. They’re going to smoke something else. I know people say it’s bullshit, but it’s true. Culturally, people here are used to smoking. If it’s not paka, it’s going to be something else.”
He reminisces about growing up on Oahu during a time when even “little old Japanese couples who grew antheriums had a few paka plants on the side for extra money.
“Paka might make you a little lazy, but it’s nothing compared to the paranoid feelings you’re going to get from coke or crack,” he says.
He stubs out his Marlboro Medium, sticks the butt in his pocket and we head into Viewpoints Gallery.
While looking at the art, he says, “You know, it’s not just the financial strain that Hawai‘i families have –local people can’t afford to buy homes anymore. We have the strain that these drugs put on our community, too.”
We agree that it’s a lot for a family to be up against.
It’s not until I was researching his life later that night that I realized Cruz was speaking about the hardships facing local families from first-hand experience. In Made of Music, the 2006 documentary on his life, Cruz discusses the painful topic of losing custody of his children after years of drug abuse (Cruz won a Hawaiian Grammy in 2005 for the compilation album Slack Key Guitar Volume 2, which featured his song “Jo Bo’s Night,” which he named for his son). According to Cruz’s publicist, the custody matter remains “sticky” and unresolved.
The conversation lightens up when I ask about his involvement with the Ka‘au Crater Boys–Troy Fernandez and Ernie Cruz Jr.
“It’s kind of funny,” he says. “It was me and Troy that used to hang out as kids–hang down Alamoana. Ernie was older than us. It [Ka‘au Crater Boys] just kept snowballing and all of a sudden it was huge. I would play bass for them when I came home because I knew all the songs from when we were younger.”
I was surprised when I discovered that Cruz wrote “You Don’t Write” for the Ka‘au Crater Boys. It’s been one of my favorite songs and is on my iPod along with several other Ka‘au Crater Boy songs like “Opihi Man” and “Surf.”
Cruz left Hawai‘i in 1983 for the East Coast when he was granted a “backdoor scholarship for kids that other wise just wouldn’t go to college.” He attended school in Massachusetts as a journalism major before taking off for New York City in 1986. There he spent the next 12 years playing music in subways, coffeehouses and bars.
“I just wanted to get as far away from this [Hawai‘i] as possible,” he says. “I didn’t see it happening for me musically here. I wasn’t into the Jawaiian thing and couldn’t picture myself doing the whole Aloha shirt, smiling all the time fucking bullshit at the hotels for 30 years.” Cruz grins and pretends to strum a ukulele “Not that it’s a bad thing,” he says. “I just didn’t want to do it.”
We head back up the road, browsing through numerous galleries. We stop in Upcountry Fine Art.
“I did art at one point,” he says. “I painted. I even got a scholarship for it, but I just kind of stopped. I’m not sure why. Maybe that would be good to get into it again–a creative outlet without the pressure. Nobody’s watching you when doing art.”
According to Cruz, recording an album is a tedious and often boring task. “You’re in there and it’s really technical, but at the same time you’re trying to recreate all this emotion,” he says.
It’s clear after listening to One of These Days, recorded at close friend Jackson Browne’s studio in Los Angeles, that Cruz is a natural at conveying emotion.
While in the mainland, Cruz spent six years in theater and dance companies. He took roles ranging from a Hispanic hustler to an embittered Native American with an alcohol addiction. His performances gained him national recognition as a member of the New World Theater. When I ask if theater is something that he would like to get back into in the future, his response is an enthusiastic “Oh, yeah.”
As we pass by Rodeo General Store, Cruz stops to look at the many concert photos lining the store’s doors. “I know him,” he says, pointing to his own poster, then quickly taps the poster next to his.
“Badi Assad,” he says. “I heard she’s unbelievable. Oh, she’s here a day after me.” He nods as he examines each and every poster on the door. “I’m related to him,” he says when he gets to the Barefoot Natives.
Cruz shakes his head. “No, Eric Gilliom,” he says. “We’re cousins.”
Later, as we head to Supernatural, which stands where the old Miracles Bookery used to be, Cruz tells me that, “Maui gets all the good concerts. You have the MACC. In Oahu we don’t have any good venues. It sucks. A lot of groups will just bypass Oahu all together.”
In Hot Island Glass, I finally ask about One of These Days. My apprehension stems from the very first question I asked Cruz before leaving Casanova’s parking lot: “Do you ever get sick of talking about your music?”
“Not if it’s an intelligent conversation,” he said.
The response had terrified me because I didn’t honestly feel I could contribute anything interesting, let alone intelligent, on a subject that is still rather foreign to me. But by the time we got to Hot Island Glass, I’d felt so comfortable with him that I took the risk.
Cruz says the response he’s gotten so far has been very positive by people who know the industry. The CD debuted at number six on the Billboard World Chart and hit number two on the Billboard Heatseekers Chart. One of These Days also landed at number one on the Borders Hawaiian Top Ten and is already a bestseller in local stores. And Cruz is on the Grammy ballot in two categories that will determine the final nominations in December.
The album, despite great variety, is meticulously arranged. There’s the funky “If That’s the Way She wants it” and the gorgeous poetic sound of the Hawaiian language in “Hi‘ilawe.”
I start to ask why it’s taken one of Hawai‘i’s most talented and promising musicians 10 years to put out a second album, but then reconsider. How could a person—Cruz or anyone else, for that matter—explain an entire decade of life? The long-awaited return of John Cruz, that was promised to happen “one of these days,” has finally happened.
It was worth the wait. MTW