“Women don’t count.”
The words lingered in the air like a foul odor that everyone was aware of but equally afraid to acknowledge. With that putrid sentiment, we all filed out, past the airbrushed paintings of jazz greats and the halved surfboards sticking out of the front lawn that were painted with images of golden beaches, deep blue waves, and tiny islets sprouting single palm trees, under the gaze of the man who had uttered those words so abhorrent to us and yet so matter-of-fact to him, his wife, and his 11 children. We walked back out into the sweltering Hawaiian sun toward the main street in Haleiwa, a string of galleries, shave ice, souvenir, and surf shops, and tried to piece the events of the last 30 bizarre minutes back together.
It was February and my girlfriend and I had flown to the island of Oahu to meet up with my parents. Our home for the week was an airy, laid-back condo on the famed North Shore of the island, home to some of the biggest waves and boldest professional surfers on the planet. The A-frame home with heated marble floors, wooden tiki sculptures and Primo Beer paraphernalia on the walls, a wall-mounted flat screen TV, and a second floor loft bedroom above the kitchen backed onto a golf course where roosters and hens roamed freely, pecking at the carefully groomed fairways and rough patches for insects and worms. Even the neighbor’s Russian blue cat had enough of the casual islander vibe in him to leave them alone.
The owner of the condo who rented it out to tourists was, according to the mailing address printed on the surfing magazines left on the coffee table, a California resident who presumably spent just a few weeks a year there. His place was part of a compound of identical structures that made up Turtle Bay Resorts, home to a few long term residents, some seasonal guests, and a host of sunburned and remarkably tanned vacationers looking to get away from the crowded beaches of Waikiki and Honolulu.
The days prior to our encounter with Ron Artis, a 60-year-old artist, composer, and U.S. military veteran who over the course of his music career has worked with artists such as Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and even Van Halen, had been wonderfully uneventful. Every morning after a leisurely breakfast we would pile into our rental car and drive along the winding coastline road for a few minutes, past BBQ shrimp trucks, knick knack shops, and surfing outfitters, until we found a new stretch of sand to spend the day at. With all beaches in Hawaii being public, this never took long. But a few days into the trip, we headed into the town of Haleiwa, home to the famed Matsumoto Shave Ice shop, where pictures of various celebrity patrons like Adam Sandler and Tom Hanks adorn the walls. After enjoying some towering cups of ice and varying concoctions of flavored syrup, a few of the thousand such treats the shop reportedly churns out daily during the busy summer season, my parents went off to look for souvenirs, while my girlfriend and I explored the main drag.
A short distance away from Matsumoto’s, we happened upon a music studio cum art gallery, known as Resurrection City, where the Ron Artis Family Band were neck deep in a family jam. From the street we could hear the plodding strains of some down-tempo 12-bar blues emanating from a charming little house with broken, painted surf boards that appeared to be growing out of the grass on the front lawn. The, loud, loping bass line snaked its way out the door towards the street and made its way past us to the craggy, volcanic rocks that jutted out of the beach on the other side of the road, and may have even found its way to the handful of surfers paddling their way out into the sun soaked bay. We walked up to the open front door, which was manned, in the loosest sense of the word, by a young boy of eleven years old; one of Ron’s many testaments to his uncommon virility.
“Is this your first time here?” He inquired, appearing genuinely interested, though we were obviously not the first tourists to come across their little slice of Hawaiian paradise. We told him that it was indeed. He lowered his head toward the ground in a measured nod, seeming more mature than the average child his age.
“Welcome,” he replied earnestly, lifting his head to reveal a wide, irresistible smile as he led us inside.
Once inside we saw Ron and the family band in action. Ron, in a stylish black pinstripe Calvin Klein suit with a Hawaiian shirt underneath the jacket, thick black rimmed glasses framing his face, and beads of sweat forming on his shaved head, was conducting his ten other kids, ranging in age from about five to around twenty, give or take, who each manned instruments from guitars, drums, an electric organ, and bass, to maracas and other percussion implements. One of the older boys, perhaps in his mid to late teens, crooned soulfully with the captivating vibrato of a world class rhythm and blues heart throb while playing liquid smooth Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn leads on a Fender Stratocaster. The youngest child, a little girl, augmented her rhythmic shaking of the maracas with a few adorable 360 degree spins on the balls of her feet, like a miniature James Brown backup dancer. Motioning dramatically for the rest to stop by throwing his hands out to either side, Ron would authoritatively point a finger toward each child in succession, indicating it was time for a short solo for a couple of bars, and they would oblige with musicianship ranging from rudimentary for the younger children to otherworldly for the older kids.
A few other spectators crowded around the counter that separated them from the performers in the open studio. On that counter was a collection of what must have been 50 CDs, all independent releases by the band in styles ranging from rock, to blues, to funk, to reggae, to ska, and all stops in between. Each CD was for sale for 20 dollars a piece. A newlywed couple in their late twenties consisting of an ex-military man in board shorts and a t-shirt and his wife in a floral print sun dress with a lei around her neck bobbed their heads casually to the beat. Meanwhile, a grey-haired man in a polo shirt and khakis who looked to be in his fifties did the same.
We listened to a few songs, and strolled around the house, looking at the various murals, paintings, and painted surfboards that hung on the walls and stood in the yard surrounding the small house. I noticed the signature on each, that of Ron, was the same signature I had seen on murals splashed across the sides of high schools, electrical boxes, and many other structures around Haleiwa and the North Shore in general. I would later learn that he had painted pieces all over Oahu, including on the sides of some of the ships in Pearl Harbor. The child who had welcomed us into the home followed us outside—apparently he was on guide duty that day. He told us that his dad was teaching him how to play not just one instrument, but “every instrument,” as he put it. Ron’s wife, Victoria, a wonderfully pleasant, full-figured woman, came to speak to us as well, and we told her how blown away we were by her family’s talent and the lovely home they had.
“Well, we have to give it up to God for all that,” she said, holding up her hand for a high five, which my girlfriend dutifully reciprocated.
We walked back into the house to catch the last song, which ended in a furious jazz piano solo from Ron himself, his fingers mashing the keys with forceful precision as his head reared back like a man in the grip of musical ecstasy.
When it was all over, he grabbed a towel and dabbed his sweat drenched brow and poured himself a glass of ice water before walking over to the sparse audience to begin the second half of his act.
“Have I inspired you today? Doesn’t it make you want to go home and have babies?” he said with the same boundless passion he had when he was striking the black and whites of the baby grand. His voice sounded like that of an over-caffeinated fire and brimstone preacher, and he pumped his fist and waved his arms enthusiastically for added emphasis. He then walked over to me, and placed an arm over my shoulders, looking into my eyes for just long enough to make me feel uncomfortable. What followed was a meandering monologue which could very well have been titled “Ron Artis’ Guide to Life.” Perhaps I had been blinded by the overwhelming talent and sheer size of Ron’s family, but things then began to come into focus. Extremely large family, “giving it up to God.” But before I could follow this line of thought further, Ron noticed the tattoo I had of my girlfriend’s name on my left ring finger.
“Ninety-five percent of men in this country are scared of commitment,” he told me. He seemed visibly pleased that I had chosen to show my devotion to her so overtly. Then he shifted his focus to the ex-military man and stepped purposefully toward him. He always spoke to the men in the room. He only addressed the women if they spoke to him first.
“You’re a first-born son?” he asked. Military man nodded silently.
“An ass kicker?” Again, he indicated that Ron was right on the money.
“A peacemaker.” This time Ron wasn’t asking, he was telling.
“God speaks to the first-born son,” he continued, as we all started to shift back and forth uneasily on our feet. Arms began to fold in front of our chests.
“He doesn’t talk to women. Men have the armor, women don’t.”
Now he walked back over to me, again putting the arm over my shoulder.
“The chest plate,” he said as he placed his free hand on my chest, his words possessing a certain power and purpose, if not outright volume, as if he were pushing each word out of his throat like a ten ton slab of granite mined from Satan’s personal quarry.
“The shins,” he said as he lowered his body to give me a tap on the shin bone.
“The mouth, the mind,” this time thankfully he merely pointed to my head.
“And now the best part, the loins,” I almost moved out of the way when he said that, but his hands luckily remained a comfortable distance from my nether regions. His slandering of half the world’s population continued unabated for the time being.
“The devil needs a host, and the devil lives in women,” he stated, now turning his attention toward his wife, who stood in the corner of the room, her hands clasped obediently below her hips in front of her.
“I must subdue her or she’ll get me in trouble. I won’t make the same mistake Adam did.” She nodded without saying a word, her head moving up and down in a slightly circular motion as if to say, “Yes, I am the devil. Thank you so much for keeping my nefarious ways in check, oh valiant husband.”
It was then, after we had all stood silently for many uncomfortably long minutes, that someone finally spoke up. The words must have been boiling in the back of military man’s wife’s throat for some time, but she managed to remain gracious in her disagreement. She was only saying what I assume we were all thinking, save for the grey haired man in his fifties, who Ron appeared to know personally.
“I’m a first born daughter. Does God talk to me? What about women?”
“Women don’t count.”
Now she could no longer hide her contempt, though again she remained cool in her retort.
“I think your family is very talented, but I don’t agree with anything you just said.”
Ron seemed to ignore her, and once again spoke to military man without so much as looking at his wife.
“Your marriage won’t last three years. Watch your back boy.”
Military man and his wife exchanged bewildered glances for a fraction of a second before unconsciously communicating to one another that it was definitely time to leave. They exited the house without a word, into the neighboring parking lot of a restaurant, where the woman could be seen putting her hands on either side of her head in abject exasperation.
“Now you know yourself,” Ron told me “You’ve got some homework to do.”
No Ron, now it’s time for me to leave as well. Good luck to you and your extremely talented family. But if the God you believe in doesn’t talk to my girlfriend, your own wife, military man’s carefully composed bride, my fabulous mother, or any of the billions of females on this planet, then I don’t want to know him, and given your opinions on women I’m assuming your particular omnipotent supreme being is of the male gender.
Your art has made the town of Haleiwa, the North Shore, and many locations on the island of Oahu into places of beauty, which is actually something nature, or God, depending on your point of view, accomplished long before you came along, if you really want to get technical, or biblical, about it. I guess you would “give it up to God” for that, and more power to you. If you’re happy, I’m happy. Live and let live has always been my approach to matters of religion. But the air of misogyny in your words has tainted my view of your art and your music, as accomplished as you and your amazing children might be in both pursuits.
I have great respect for your contribution to your country, the state of Hawaii, and the artistic community; for the guidance you give your kids, and your apparent devotion to your family.
But if I’m ever back Haleiwa way, I’ll stick to the shave ice, the surfing, and the scenery, and leave the theological battering to the next group of tourists that happen upon Ressurection City. Come for the song, stay for the sermon.