On December 2nd, 2016, my dearest friend of 25 years, Chelsea Faith Dolan, went missing during the Oakland Ghost Ship fire.
She was one of the musicians scheduled to perform at the warehouse that night. A few days later, we learned she was gone.
In addition to being my oldest friend, Chelsea was a lifelong, gifted multi-instrumentalist and composer, known to fans as techno and house producer, live PA performer and DJ Cherushii.
In her 33 years, she performed music all over the Bay Area, toured the country and even performed in her favorite city, Berlin. “Good Morning Desert” is also the title of one of her early live PA tracks.
Good Morning Desert
Chelsea, we will never agree where to live because I want my arms to be gnarled, reaching Joshua-tree trunks, want my fingers to grasp orange sun every set.
We will agree to spin through the night, agree to greet the blinding hues; to say “hello sun,” after we’ve watched the milky rotation shiver past, disco casting soft points on our faces.
And you, you’d insist we go to Berlin. The city’s monuments and the dark corners of clubs that are your monuments, where you pray to booming voices from goddesses and gods whose names I don’t know.
Blink away the last, few technicolor crumbs of dream. Fade into the sharp feeling of skin against wet cement. Into real and out there and really, really out there; the lush fur we wrapped around our shoulders through the milky, spinning night now heavy with fog. Blink into the day, doomed or blessed or both.
In this liminal space, the sun catches your platinum hair. Blink and the ouroboros flicks its forked, blue tongue; strums air and eyelashes; and we see your laughter, for the moment.
We will never agree, because I want the desert and you the city. But we both want to time-travel, night-step, and squint in the sunrise.
Good morning desert. Good morning Berlin. Good morning San Francisco—good night.
Chelsea Faith, I will always be jealous of your power.
There is no poetry, no prose, no phrase that moves like music. Your music courses through hammer, anvil, drum; draws your disco glitter map, your dark map, blooms into its own bloodstream; roots that burrow past the places we feel pain.
Chelsea, is it working yet? Am I making music?
Maybe we do share your music language, beyond knowledge of notes and instruments.
“Josey always had a good ear for music,” you told someone once, convincingly. Maybe a new boyfriend of mine you tried to help me impress. Your endorsement, techno goddess, dance floor queen. Who better?
I’m not sure our Marin talent-show circuit performances of “Memory” from the musical Cats—yes, the musical Cats—counts as me having any kind of ear. You picked the song and played it perfectly, like you played everything, while I tried to follow. I’m not sure the fact that we both sang solos in Manor’s spring production of Dames at Sea counts, because you were Joan on a Choo-Choo Honeymoon and I was Hennessy in drag and riddled with anxiety.
Or when we wore poodle skirts on the Civic Center stage, and you got to sing the fun song in the 60s medley, love like yours will surely come my way, and I was the bummer, blue moon, standing alone. We sang choir together in middle school, except that one of us was gifted, and she was you, and I was there.
I think what you meant by my “good ear” for music is that music is your language, your heart, your hands. Every cell of you and water drop. Every platinum glint over our shoulders as we blink technicolor dream crumbs from our lashes to try and see you better. And that I was always there, and that you understand what I mean when I say this, even now. Speaking in circles, in tandem.
I know music meant more to you than wanting your friends and fans to dance or cry; more than night clubs and day parties; more than tours, and strapping your gear into plastic suitcases checked through to Berlin.
Music was more to you than the melodies you composed on piano, the songs you wrote for accordion or guitar or bass, your harmonies. More than the sets you crafted with all those machines I can’t name. I know that I don’t know your tools and instruments. I know enough to know it’s more than that.
We found each other at age eight. You were number 24 and I was 23, somehow alphabetized by last name. You were always beaming; my bright, other voice.
We were too tight not to stretch, grow too-loose around our teenage wrists. Brittle plastic. Bread mold. Maybe we tried to break us, at some point, back then; maybe I did, more likely. But you kept playing piano for me, and I kept telling you stories, and it was impossible to break us.
Here you are, and here I am, and I hear you.
You still know all my secrets, and I don’t mean the ones that we tell bar-stool strangers by mistake when we’ve had too much bourbon; not the kind that come with champagne-ached temples, nauseous texts, the next morning.
You know my secrets that no one else will ever know, because they are still inside of you and they will always be.
The secrets we whisper over my left shoulder, beating-heart side. Platinum, in a flash, as we speak in our frequency. You will always know that my secrets are not made of music or of words, or of anything that can be translated by flesh.
In the quarter-century we were here together on the ground we built something.
A place to rest with sap and bees. Thousand-ring Redwood forests. Art films that were really just plastic toys melted in the microwave.
We moshed to terrible music at embarrassing concerts, which was mostly, okay all, my fault.
I wouldn’t say you grew up to be someone who could shift a room’s axis, because to me, you always did.
Do you remember Girl Scout camp? The girl in our tent who wasn’t really allergic to bees? Do you remember how much we hated camp? Is this the part where I try to lighten the mood?
In the quarter-century we were here together we built sandcastles in the foamy surf at Stinson, moats filling as waves rolled in.
More recently, we built in the Basement. While I cut lemons and limes into grooved sixths and you revised signs advertising “Taquitos!” for $1, we chatted about boys and friends and how your album was coming and how my book wasn’t; we talked about our part-time jobs and gigs. Our quiet corner from 6-7 p.m. on Mondays for a few, short months. Before the bar opened, before the music. My citrus hands and sweat and ice; your fans, which you were still getting used to. “You know Cherushii?” they’d say. My 25 years making up, I hoped, for my poorly-made Manhattans.
And I’d tell you, Chelsea, or text you later, and you’d blush through blue bubbles.
“Josey is my oldest friend,” you’d always introduce me, then add, “not oldest as in ‘old,’ oldest as in, the friend I’ve had the longest.”
Me alone in the front at your gig. Me, not knowing how to dance. Especially to my oldest friend’s most secret, secret messages. You, the goddess they called you on the dance floor. But I knew that all along.
Is this the part where I lighten the mood and talk about our olive loaf obsession? When Chelsea and me were little kids we played a game called “olive loaf doorbell ditch,” which is exactly what it sounds like. I have no idea why this was and is still funny, but I am sure that it is, and especially, to Chelsea.
Chelsea Faith: Is this the part where I say that no one else understood me the way you did? That we’ve both had many loves in our lives, different kinds of loves with different kinds of people for all different reasons, all real and raw and valid. But that no one else will ever understand the importance of olive loaf doorbell ditch?
No one else can build what we did, out of sand and salt, over decades.
Good morning desert. Am I saying it right? Good night San Francisco. Good night, sweet Fairfax. Good morning Berlin.
All our monuments are made of water now. Our secret creek is lined with glassy, dust-colored pebbles. We sit in the dirt, under the surface, and look down. At all the booming rooms where you made their hearts beat, made them breathe.
Chelsea, are you proud of me?
Can you hear the songs I wrote you?
Can you feel them?
Are my words music yet?
Tell me in our language.
Author: Josey Rose Duncan
Photo: Courtesy of Author
Editor: Travis May