Old postcard from Camarillo State Hospital
“Relaxin’ at Camarillo” tells the story of Charlie “Bird” Parker’s temporary recovery from a brutal addiction to heroin and alcohol. Parker was the original and authentic Man with the Golden Arm
(in reference to the 1955 film starring Frank Sinatra about a heroin-addicted jazz musician). Forsaking everything except his music in the pursuit of his addiction, despite his saxophones sometimes being pawned, Parker’s addiction tells an intriguing story of Fear and Loathing
- complete with arrests, public nudity, and arson, and dying of pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer simultaneously whilst watching television at the age of 35 - and puts characters like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix to shame.
Heroin had been hard to come by since Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s arrival in Los Angeles in 1946, where they had flown for a series of gigs and recordings. Parker had moved on to the bottle (always a close friend) and began to drink excessively. A junkie just sleeps most of the time and is generally pathetic, but an alcoholic knows how to stir up a fuss, especially if he is using booze to stave off junk sickness as well as suppress those deeply-seated cravings. After exposing himself to fellow visitors at the hotel where he was staying, and setting his bed on fire whilst smoking, Parker found himself doing time for public indecency, resisting arrest, and suspected arson. He was committed to the Camarillo State Mental Hospital in Ventura County, California, not far from Los Angeles.
The building is now part of California State University Channel Islands
(thanks, Stephen Schafer)
The hospital at Camarillo (now converted to California State University, Channel Islands, since 2002) is eerily reminiscent of the hotel on the front cover of The Eagles’ Hotel California
(1976). This is due to its Mission Revival style of architecture; think of the bell tower in just about any “stand-off in the square” scene in just about any spaghetti western you can think of and you’ll instantly know what I mean. It is important to remember that, until his capture in 1848, Camarillo - and indeed all of California - was Mexican territory. The original grounds of the hospital, belonging to one Isabel Yorba, were given the name Rancho Guadalasca by the Mexican government, who issued Mrs. Yorba’s land grant. In light of this, the architectural choices for both the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Camarillo Hospital are well suited.
“Relaxin’ at Camarillo” was recorded in nearby Los Angeles in 1947 after his hospital stay, supposedly whilst Parker’s head was still clear as a bell, and was released as part of the Dial sessions album by Charlie Parker’s New Stars. The Dial sessions were a series of records performed by Parker’s various groups (which included other notables like Dizzy Gillespie, Erroll Garner, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane). They were produced by Dial Records between 1945 and 1947, and form a large and fundamental part of Parker’s recorded history.
Tending the hospital lettuce patch, playing in the hospital jazz band’s Saturday afternoon concerts; this may have been the only true holiday Parker ever had in all his short life of 14-hour-a-day practices and endless gigs, worries, and marriages in New York. Although most of Parker’s work is extremely positive and upbeat, something sincerely free and joyful is captured in this song. I suppose that it is safe to assume that Parker’s stay in Camarillo was clearly a happy one if he wrote a song while he was there entitled “Relaxin’ at Camarillo.” It doesn’t get more descriptive than that.
~ Douglas MacCutcheon
Relaxin' at Camarillo Songfacts
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