By Paul Cullum
In the waning months of 2016, the improbably named Boring Desert, a Facebook and Instagram events calendar servicing the High and Low Desert, joined a growing wave of Morongo Basin boosterism online: High Desert Happenings (curated by C/Z Records founder Daniel House — or as he prefers it, “Dåniel Høüse”); the Joshua Tree Guide (filmmaker Casey Kiernan’s tourist-themed tie-in to his local music videos and time-lapse desert photography); artist Andrea Zittel’s sprawling Hi Desert Test Sites; the Hi Desert Art and Culture Bulletin Board; Radio Free Joshua Tree’s Radio Flyer (under the auspices of Ted Quinn and the Beatnik Lounge); the Z107.7 Community Calendar; Lauren Ell of the Hi Desert; and the Tortoise Telegraph and Hi-Desert Star in print, among others – several of them now defunct.
But Boring Desert is the only one that attempts an up-to-date catalogue of daily entertainment events — particularly music listings for the nearly 40 official or occasional music venues stretching between Morongo and Wonder Valleys. Which makes the fact that its founder is a Hollywood talent agent living in Culver City with a year-old baby all the more unlikely – and its origin myth all the more compelling.
Aur-Aelion Israel (pronounced “aurillion”) was born in Pioneertown in 1981 to a hippie mom in her mid-30s in the midst of a daylong celebration and feast where everyone was tripping on mushrooms. His mother, Naomi Simmons (born Rita Wasserman), had grown up a Palm Springs debutante and dead ringer for Natalie Wood – there’s a photo of her dancing with Tony Curtis at a charity event – and seemed destined for Hollywood. Instead, she worked after school at her stepfather’s car wash (Steve McQueen took his sports cars there) where, courtesy of her older, more worldly co-workers, she developed a taste for methamphetamine. After she slept through her own birthday party, her mother feared the worst and had her committed to a mental hospital. By the time she talked her way out, the ’60s were beckoning.
As Israel explains it, “She ended up working as an LSD dealer out here. I guess enough time has passed that I can talk about it. There was a community called the Children of Israel — the leader was a poet named John Foret [aka Uncle John, aka Aquarius John] who was connected to the Grateful Dead – and everyone changed their name to Israel. When my Mom lived here, they basically ran LSD around San Bernardino, Palm Springs and this area. They would take their trips up to San Francisco to re-up, and then the rest of their time was spent here.”
For a time, Naomi lived at the Thompson’s Ranch Commune off Sunfair, known colloquially as Hippie Hill. Many of the denizens of that scene were captured in a painting by Dean MacKenzie titled “Mrs. Camp’s Thanksgiving Day Party,” recreated from his 1970 photo. MacKenzie, an L.A. advertising and magazine illustrator frequently compared to Norman Rockwell (he designed the definitive Jolly Green Giant), discovered the 29 Palms Inn while on a personal walkabout, and routinely traded artwork for lodging with owners Jane and Paul Smith. MacKenzie made the painting in 1974, and a copy currently hangs in the restaurant just to right of the bar. Naomi is the woman in red at the very center with her face turned away from the camera.
Amba Hipp, Israel’s godmother, lived at Thompson’s Ranch for 15 years. She also assisted at his birth, after Naomi had decamped to a house in Pioneertown off Coyote Rd., when she was pressed into service by the man serving as midwife. “I was high on mushrooms, it was in her house, and he was cooking dinner for 10 people and helping her give birth,” Hipp says today. “And I said, this is a keeper. He moved into my house that morning — my future husband.” Hipp, who has two children of her own, eventually went back to school, earning a degree in psychology, and today works as a Therapeutic Behavioral Services counselor for emotionally troubled youth. But according to her, Naomi could never seem to get over that hurdle. “Naomi was the most beautiful girl ever,” she says. “Certainly the most beautiful girl in Palm Springs. She was a health nut, she wore all those flowing clothes, and she was my hero. She was talented at sewing, calligraphy, art — whatever she put her hand to. And also with health things — she was going to be a healer. But she could just never hold it together.”
Israel was the youngest of four children, each the product of a different union, two of whom were taken and raised by their respective fathers. (His brother was raised by Naomi’s mother.) His own father disappeared relatively quickly.
“My father was 18 and my mother was 36,” he says, “so he definitely couldn’t handle her. He had her come and stay with him in San Bernardino, and after one or two days, my mom ran off with his brother to San Francisco for a week, and he said that’s it.” Outside of a single encounter when he was 6, the next time Israel talked to his birth father was a phone call when he was 27, as his father lay dying of complications from hepatitis C. Israel was in foster care briefly before he was a year old, and they were briefly looked after by his mother’s boyfriend’s parents in Ashland, Oregon after the boyfriend was sent to jail for shoplifting, until Naomi’s own shoplifting arrest sent them running back to the High Desert. When she finally quit meth following her last arrest, the judge ordered her to have her teeth pulled and replaced with dentures as a condition of her probation.
Israel was a member of an improv troupe in high school that performed at the Water Canyon Café (now Frontier), and was caught skipping school in his senior year when the Hi-Desert Star ran a front-page photo of him camped out to buy tickets for Star Wars, Vol. I: The Phantom Menace. He was also a regular at the Beatnik Lounge in one of its earliest incarnations, alongside the future members of Gram Rabbit and others. But as soon as he could, he left for the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, where he studied Hotel and Restaurant Management, returning for summer jobs at Crossroads, the Route 62 Diner and Pappy & Harriet’s. (Ironically, his mother had been a waitress at Pappy’s back when it was still known as the Cantina.) He also managed to produce a feature film, shot locally with a budget of $5,000. Befriending actress Kaye Ballard, a regular at the Thai restaurant where he worked in Rancho Mirage, he met acting teacher John (brother of actor Bruno) Kirby and quickly got an agent. Although his main feature credit was Cyxork-7, a sci-fi parody shot in Joshua Tree, he eventually became the agent’s assistant, and launched his own talent agency, Almond Talent, in 2007.
In 2009, Naomi was diagnosed with cancer, and Israel returned home to take care of her. “His mom kind of spiraled down, where she couldn’t hold it together,” says Hipp. “She always needed somebody to take care of her, and yet she made it very difficult to do that, and more and more as she got older. She seemed to have a drug problem, and then it was an alcohol problem, and then it was prescription drugs after that. She never really figured out how to stay alive on her own. At the end of her life, she said, in a moment of clarity, ‘I wasted my whole life.’”
“She did her best to take care of me and make sure I had the things I needed growing up,” Israel says. “Little League, brand-name fashion; I had a car when I was 16. She had a huge heart, and helped a lot of people after I left.”
All through his childhood, Israel had sought refuge with his next door neighbors, whose large family represented a less dysfunctional portrait of domestic life. “I was their babysitter,” he says. “When they went to Disneyland, I’d go with them. I was like their surrogate kid.” He also took an interest in shepherding their kids, who he calls his godsons, clear of the pitfalls he witnessed in his own home. A 2000 cover story in Los Angeles Magazine by Mathew Heller titled “Teenage Wasteland,” about the 1996 death of 15-year-old Lucas Bielat from GHB poisoning at a makeshift rave at Giant Rock, presents a snapshot of that pre-Instagram landscape: meth on the rise, with little focus or direction for errant youth, who are exposed to predatory opportunists drawn here by the mystic desert vibe. A decade later, this had only intensified.
“I was spending a lot of time hanging out with my godsons,” Israel says of his return. “I would take them down to the Water Canyon Café to see Gene Evaro play, things like that. I would invite my friends up from L.A. and have little parties, and I would invite my godsons over, and my friends would ask them, ‘What do you do out here?’ And they’d say, ‘Not much, it’s pretty boring.’ They’d always want to go to Riverside or someplace far away. Hearing that enough from them and their friends, how boring it is, I set out to prove them wrong.”
Having started a MySpace page in 2007 under the nondescript name 760 Promotions, he made the shift to Facebook in 2009, where he began to document some of the group activities he had uncovered to entertain his surrogate family. In 2011, he made this a primary focus of the page, rechristened it Boring Desert, and updated it whenever he could.
“I always had between 500 and 700 people who followed it,” he explains. “It kind of took off after people realized they could make Facebook event pages for their own events and I could link them. That really made the expansion to Instagram possible, and that brought in a younger crowd. I’m about at the 3,000 mark right now — that’s people in the Low Desert, High Desert and weekenders from the city. It’s more a community service; it doesn’t produce any income. I would like to reach a point where maybe it would generate enough that I could pay somebody else to do it and I wouldn’t have to put any time into it. But I’ve found out about so many places just by doing the research: Furstwurld, Landers Brew, Sweet Spot – The Station and Yucca Valley Coffee coming soon. There’s a lot of new stuff popping up right now.”
Despite the birth of his own first child in July 2016, Israel spends much of his free time in Joshua Tree helping to look after his nieces, after his sister fell prey to some of the same afflictions from his childhood. As she completes her recovery, four of his nieces are currently staying with the same neighbors who once took an interest in him. Meanwhile, his own godmother, Hipp, has introduced the oldest to horseback riding, at which she thrives. In the future, he envisions a 10-seater shuttle van – call it the Bored Bus (or maybe just All-A-Bored) – staffed by volunteer chaperones, that could drive local teens to area events, the way he has with his various charges, “so that people who maybe haven’t ventured further than the Jelly Donut could have their horizons expanded.”
“Here’s the thing about Aur-Aelion,” says Hipp. “He decided to be what he is really early on, and he followed that path and didn’t walk off it. He didn’t dabble in any of the stuff that came up, because Mom was there to show him that it just don’t work. He had no real mentors that I saw, except for the next-door neighbors. And he is mentoring those kids now. He did this on his own, and he followed his own path. And so he is the stability of his family. It’s just a miracle.”