The dinosaur survived the fire. How’s that for irony? A large metal sculpture of an extinct species was still standing at Maurice “Big Mo” Huffman’s Swiss Link military surplus business, while every other item marking the time the local bluesman has lived in Butte County was wiped out by the Camp Fire.
Big Mo is probably the most recognizable musician in the county, and he is one of many in the local music scene who was burned out on Nov. 8.
Gone is the home Huffman shared with his wife, Robin, as well as his two businesses—Mo Sound and all of its live-music sound equipment, and Swiss Link and the contents (save the dinosaur mascot and old jet fuel tank) of its 40,000-square-foot warehouse filled with gear collected over 40 years. He also lost three rental properties, one of which his son, Miles, and daughter-in-law, Huan, had just moved into; a studio and all master recordings of his music since 1979; and a rehearsal studio and every piece of music equipment he owned.
“Who would have ever dreamt everything you ever did and ever owned, in one hour, is gone,” Huffman said during a recent interview, “everything I ever built in 30 years up there.”
Though he’s grateful for any efforts people have made to offer comfort, Huffman says he doesn’t want to gloss over the pain of losing everything, because the collection of things that his life revolved around was more than “just stuff.”
“Everybody says, ‘Oh, you got out with your life.’ And [that’s] really great,” Huffman said. “But people can’t forget that it was horrible, and it sucks, and it’s going to suck for a while. And it’s OK.”
Huffman already has gotten to work rebuilding (he bought a home in Corning and has put his employees to work stocking a temporary warehouse in Chico), but his grieving process is just beginning. Like a true bluesman, he doesn’t shy away from addressing life’s heartbreaks and tragedies, and his advice to fellow musicians and others dealing with the wildfire aftermath is to not stuff the feelings down.
“It’s OK to tell people that it sucks,” he said.
Huffman moved to America in 1989. Born and raised in Germany, he left behind careers as a diving instructor and a professional musician to start a new chapter in his life in the States with Robin. The plan was to tour the country in a motorhome until the money ran out, saving one $5,000 cashier’s check to use as start-up money for wherever the couple landed.
Thanks to a minor highway accident, Huffman spent the last of his travel funds in Chico repairing the vehicle’s busted septic tank. He dropped his wife at a local hotel, and as planned, went into a bank to cash the check, which he’d forgotten in the motorhome, where it was chewed up by a dog they’d picked up during their travels.
He pleaded his case with the bank manager, showing him the scrap of check that remained and asking for a line of credit to tide him over. But inexperience in speaking American English, and an unfortunate use of the word “transient” to describe himself, led to him being kicked out of the building and into a situation where the now-penniless couple were forced to bide time waiting in the motorhome, living off leftover canned goods.
As they waited for a replacement check from Germany, Huffman talked his way into a sales job at the newly built Wittmeier Auto Center on Forest Avenue. And after the couple got on their feet and moved to Paradise, he decided to use his new sales skills in combination with his ties to Europe to start the military-surplus business. The steady income from the business was needed to supplement his musical endeavors, as he quickly discovered that playing in a band in Paradise was not the viable career option it was back in Germany.
“I had to keep a 10-piece band going,” he said with a laugh.
With that, his Full Moon Band and Swiss Link grew simultaneously. The band racked up fans and awards (including several Chico Area Music Awards for Best Blues Act), and as the internet and online ordering grew, Swiss Link expanded its client list all over the world.
“I never lived anywhere this long,” the 59-year-old Huffman said of his three decades on the Ridge. “Paradise is my home. My business, my future, everything was built there.”
Huffman will be in Europe for the entire month of April, playing a few gigs with old friends, but mostly driving 5,000 miles to meet with and reassure military-surplus suppliers. Staying busy may help keep some of the feelings of grief at bay, but things definitely will be in the “it sucks” stage for a while for him and the rest of a music scene that has been decimated by the fire.
An assessment of musicians burned out by the Camp Fire reads like a who’s-who of the Butte County music scene, and each has a story. Singer/songwriter David Zink managed Paradise’s musical hub, the now-destroyed Norton Buffalo Hall, which he aims to rebuild with the help of that community. Saxophonist/vocalist Jonathan Arthur, who fronted blues outfits Sapphire Soul and Karma Kings, has relocated to Utah. The four members of heavy metal crew Aberrance lost their home/practice studio/performance space, aka the “Fortress of Duditude,” and are now spread out all over Nor Cal. Wayne Charvel, founder of Charvel guitar company, and his son, Michael, lost their custom-guitar shop and homes. Both have relocated out of the area.
And down in Butte Creek Canyon, Sally and Bruce MacMillan, owners of the Music Connection in Chico, lost their family’s home as well. Bruce is a longtime local guitarist and lifelong collector of vintage music gear, all of which is now gone. Despite the personal losses for the couple and their three children, they’ve kept the shop open. In the aftermath of the fire, the place has become a meeting place for musician refugees. “It’s just like this therapy group,” Sally said.
To aid the therapy, the Music Connection has helped get instruments back into the hands of those who’ve lost theirs, with more than 1,000 donated items passing through their doors and to players—from pros to kids in band classes.
Sally says that as horrible as the tragedy is, she finds hope in the fact that instruments are among the first things people seek to replace.
“I’m encouraged to see how important people’s musical instruments are to them,” she said. “That’s what they needed—their music.”
Huffman can relate. Though he has been able to purchase some replacement gear (thanks to the online fundraising efforts of a friend) and play a few shows, there’s at least one piece that is irreplaceable.
“I wrote every song I’ve ever written and ever recorded on this one particular guitar—this 1960 Martin acoustic,” Huffman said. “That Martin had something living in it, because I would just touch it and write another song.
“I haven’t written a song since [the fire]. I just can’t do it. I don’t know what’s going on. I never used to have to try.”