Phil Gross: "Alice Cooper or David Bowie...I personally don’t even listen to these people."
ED. Phil Gross is a long-time local musician who grew up in Lakeside, played at local clubs, and has come to know the people and institutions of San Diego’s folk music.
With Blue Ridge, in Encinitas, closed for concerts, there’s only one real possibility in San Diego proper for performers. Can you give us a history of the places?
Blue Ridge, one year, small guitar shop, most of the audience local. Mostly local performers: Jack Tempchin, Tom Waits, Wayne Stromberg, Rob Strandlund, Ray Bierl. Evidently, the reason for their closing was not lack of audience or problems with the management but that the performers were not showing up. Maybe one reason is that concerts were on Wednesday nights.
The Alley closed down in 1972. A case of an Escondido club, almost too far a drive for anyone. The problem of getting the audience there, and also the management problem. I think they were open for about four years, ‘68 - ‘72. That was the ideal folk club. They had big name talent. They hired almost exclusively local talent to play with their big name talent. It was a good place to get a start, have people listen to you. For the big name talent, it was like a dry run for the Troubadour in L.A., There were a lot of people down from L.A. picking up local talent.
The Heritage, I don’t know when it started, but it had been going for almost ten years. It kept changing hands. I was only involved with it the last year it was open. It was a small club in the beach area. The whole area was a resort. A lot of people who came to listen were from the beach itself. Then the drug culture took over MB...and it died out.
The La Paloma in Encinitas had weekend sets. You played right in the restaurant. That was an experiment that didn’t work. It’s still a restaurant plus a bookstore, no music anymore. They all closed (the Heritage, the Alley, and La Paloma) within a month of each other.
The Tandy Company was opened by Dick and Connie Russel around 1965 or ’66. It was a toy for Dick. He had a friend he used to motorcycle with, Cliff Nyman, who always wanted to manage a folk house. So Dick bought it and said, “here, run it”. Dick is a stock market analyst. He lives in La Jolla. Cliff ran it for... I don’t know when it closed down...‘70 or ‘69. The problem there was, it was a little far out of town and lack of audience. Dick grew tired of it. He wanted to break even, and when it started losing money, he sold it. Bi Frost Bridge, in La Mesa, a little before my time, was the first. Most of the problem seemed to be that the clubs would do well in the summer when everybody would come out and listen on weekends. They had time, no studying or anything. They had money. Once the winter season came, the audiences dropped drastically.
The only reason State's (the Back Door) kept going is that it’s subsidized by the student body. The only place now is Folk Arts. Lou and Virginia Curtiss. Their entire life is music. They organize the banjo and fiddle contest and the Folk Festival. As long as they’ve got some sort of room going, they’re going to have music. Folk Arts is a club on weekends, and they sell records during the week. And that’s not really a coffee house.
What do you feel your future is in folk singing?
Very pessimistic. San Diego... is really a hard place to be a musician because there’s almost in my mind, at least in my particular interest, there’s almost no place to play, there’s no place to make any money.
Have you considered moving to L.A.? I mean, you’ve thought about it obviously.
I’m still in San Diego...It’s not, I guess, it’s not that important enough yet to move. And so I wind up driving a truck or supporting myself some other way.
What are some of the important things? What is holding you here instead of letting you pursue your music career more?
Horrible question... May be it’s too comfortable here, I’d be hungry...
What other possibilities are there in San Diego?
Okay, as far as what I enjoy doing. You could go out and play the cocktail circuit which entails playing top 40 numbers to the drunk executives and being very glib and it’s just..I don’t enjoy that sort of thing, so I never would.
Do you have any heroes? Music heroes...you used to like Randy Newman.
I still like Randy Newman, !his latest album is a little disappointing. Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, all are exceptional writers.
Any local people?
Tom Waits, Jack Tempchin, both are excellent song writers. Tom’s album just came out – his second album – on Asylum this week. Hopefully, it will make him rich and famous. But I’ve heard rumors that Asylum might use it as a tax write off.
Have you heard it yet?
Do you like it?
Right now the folk music, the mellow music, just doesn’t seem nearly as popular as when I started playing in *68 or ‘69. Then the popular people were James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, those were the people who were getting a lot of the air time. Where as now it’s people like Alice Cooper or David Bowie...I personally don’t even listen to these people.
Back to history, you were at the Candy Company...
I showed up at the hoots. It was a place to hang out and listen to music and get ideas. .
Were there people at that time that were around town that have moved more into the limelight now?
Jack Tempchin... that used to be his, he used to play there an awful lot on weekends. I can remember Hedge and Donna were from San Diego also and they’d come back and play at the Candy Company. They were sort of favorite children of San Diego. They used to get fairly receptive audiences. That was probably around 1969, ‘67, somewhere around there. Kenny Wartz, he’s now in the Rhythm Rangers, I’m not sure. I never saw him there. I’m sure he played there. He was in a group at one time called Avery Pitts. He was a really fine banjo player.
Chris Hillman used to be in a lot of different groups. He was with Stephen Stills. He’s from San Diego, used to hang out at the Blue Guitar. He was with the Byrds. He was an original Byrd. No one that made national prominence. Hedge and Donna did pretty well for a while but faded out. The closest now to national prominence is Tom Waits. Two or three years ago, he’d play at the Heritage, a Mission Beach club, now closed. Tom’s got two albums out. I first met him at the Back Door when it first opened in about 1968. He was Bob Dylan. He had the corduroy hat, the speech inflection of Dylan, a harmonica, all the mannerisms. After that I didn’t see him for a long time. Then, he was the doorman at the Heritage. He used to play there almost every week, but I never heard him.
And then he went off to L.A. and disappeared. He came back, got an album out, and, finally, last year, I went to see him and really enjoyed him...think he’s a fine writer. He’s one of my favorite people in general. Hopefully, if he gets the right breaks and a little advertising, he’ll become a big seller from San Diego...be sort of nice.
Of all the different performers you’ve worked with, are there any you’d like to work with again?
I did a guest set at Folk Arts with Tom Waits and really enjoyed playing with him. Rick Cuhna (out of L.A.) is really enjoyable to work with. He used to play San Diego fairly often, come down every couple of weeks. Played in the Alley and at the Heritage. Also Shep Cook, the floating house band, the little man from McCabes (in L.A.) was living in San Diego for a while. He’s now in Tucson. A really fine musician and songwriter and because it’s so hard to make money he was playing in bars and cocktail lounges. He moved to Tucson a couple of months ago, couldn't make it here. He lived in San Diego for about the last year. 1 played with him at a cocktail lounge. I didn’t even realize that he was here and found out that he was going to be playing at the Copper Penny in College Grove. It was the last night.
Are most of the family restaurants like Copper Penny going towards entertainment?
No, that was one of the funny parts about it. The CP owner figured music would draw some people, sell more alcohol; so, he contacted KSON (they work as a referral for finding talent). Shep had won the country KSON music contest that year (1974). So they referred Shep to the Copper Penny and all the time he was playing there. They never once advertised that he was there, and the only name they put on the street was the name of the bartender. That’s one reason music isn’t selling too well. I would have gone up there. There’s just no advertising. Here’s one of the best guitarists in this area. A really fine performer and there’s just nothing going. Now he’s playing at a bar in Tucson.
How was your show at the Cowboy Bar? Did you finally get out there?
Oh, crazy place. The only entertainment for 80 square miles is this place in Live Oak Springs, about 40-50 miles cast of El Cajon on highway 8. Everybody comes in from El Centro, Brawley, and even up from El Cajon. And all it is, is just a bar with a dance hall. With a 1950s style guitarist and bassist and drummer and all they do are these old country standards. Everybody dances and gets fairly drunk. It’s a nice feeling to be there.
You were the second act along with this 1950s group?
What happened was that there was a fellow we’d known about 12 years ago playing bass in this bar. I invited myself up and just did a couple of songs with the group and played guitar behind them and sang harmony.
What are other performers doing to solve the existence problem?
Mar, janitor; Wayne Stromberg, teacher of blues at Blue Guitar; Ray Bierl left for San Francisco to run a house for wayward girls; Lenny (of Montezuma’s Revenge), warehouseman. Most of the Folk Arts performers have a regular 40 hour week job. David, bookstore manager; Bill, at Solar.
What possibilities do you see in San Diego?
None. The main problem is no support for folk music. You can’t survive playing a Folk Arts for the little money you get. Now. you either have to get a writing contract with a major label or drive a truck.