Spirit, 1981. "You don’t have to do someone else’s material; you can do your own songs,”
  • Spirit, 1981. "You don’t have to do someone else’s material; you can do your own songs,”
  • Image by Robert Burroughs
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

The patrons heading into the Spirit club shortly before nine on a recent Saturday night might have thought it peculiar that a large, paint-splattered wooden stepladder would be propped up against the roof just to the side of the front entrance, almost blocking the doorway.

Jerry Herrera: “I used to belong to this gang called Los Charos. We’d go out and hire a band and then we’d get a hall like the Women's Club in Point Loma and sell tickets."

Jerry Herrera: “I used to belong to this gang called Los Charos. We’d go out and hire a band and then we’d get a hall like the Women's Club in Point Loma and sell tickets."

The ladder had been there since the early afternoon, and even the waitresses, who had arrived for work only moments before but who were already starting to hustle drinks, shrugged their shoulders when asked by curious customers to explain its presence.

A former boyfriend of Patrick tried to run her over in the Palace parking lot and Herrera came to her rescue.

A former boyfriend of Patrick tried to run her over in the Palace parking lot and Herrera came to her rescue.

Minutes later, right before the music was to begin, an exultant Jerry Herrera, the Spirit’s owner, appeared at the edge of the roof, his greasy hands wiping the sweat off his forehead and leaving a thick black smudge in its place.

As he began his climb down the ladder, traces of a smile were beginning to appear on his chubby face, and by the time he had put the ladder back inside an adjacent storage shed and had entered the club, the smile had grown into an unaffected grin. Herrera was proud; he had single-handedly fixed the shorted-out blowers that circulate air inside the club and had thus saved a sixty-dollar electrician’s fee.

In front of the stage is the dance floor, whose murky gleam is the result of thousands of feet polishing it smooth.

In front of the stage is the dance floor, whose murky gleam is the result of thousands of feet polishing it smooth.

A short while after the first band went on, however, Herrera’s grin faded as quickly as it had appeared. The lights inside the club started flickering on and off, and within seconds everything that runs on electricity — the lights, musicians’ equipment, the refrigerator — had quit working.

“The only time Jerry ever gave us a cut off the bar was when he bought the band a six-pack.”

“The only time Jerry ever gave us a cut off the bar was when he bought the band a six-pack.”

Figuring that these problems might have come about as a result of his dabblings on the roof, Herrera hastily called an electrician before switching on his building’s emergency generator so the show could continue. As soon as he had repositioned the ladder against the roof, the electrician arrived to investigate. “Apparently what had happened was that I was fooling around up there, you know, trying to fix the blowers myself so I wouldn’t have to waste sixty bucks on an electrician, and dropped the starter capacitor into the blower fan,” Herrera recalled fretfully. “Anyway, the fan started going clunk-clunk-clunk, so I disconnected it and pulled the capacitor out. But when I was reconnecting the wires I guess I got the ends mixed up and shorted out the kitchen exhaust motor, which put the whole system on the blink. Boy, I tell you,” he added, shaking his head slowly, “I had to shell out $185 for a new motor and pay the electrician double because he came out at night. And then he had the nerve to tell me I created a fire hazard.”

As the owner of the Spirit, Jerry Herrera is the operator of one of San Diego’s most successful nightclubs — a fact belied by the club’s seedy, somewhat rundown appearance — and the man behind one of only a few clubs in town that book new-wave bands playing all-original material. But Herrera’s own involvement with the local music scene goes back further than the Spirit or new wave; he produced his first local concert in 1961 and since then has managed concurrently to endear himself to and estrange himself from every band, promoter, and manager in town. Depending upon whom you talk to, Herrera is either a bold, innovative promoter never afraid to take a risk on something he truly believes in, or a shrewd, niggardly entrepreneur who will take advantage of anyone and everyone he can. Today he’s seen by most as the unheralded savior of new-wave music in San Diego, although many are of the opinion that he unwittingly fell into that role while searching out just another opportunity to make money. His stinginess has become almost a joke among those who know him, those who work with him; a former partner, James Pagni, says that ‘‘Jerry’s the type of guy who even if he’s got $500 in his wallet, he likes to give the impression he’s only got a buck and a half.’’ And though he’s now taking in well over $15,000 a month from the Spirit’s bar alone. Herrera can still be found checking IDs outside his club on any night of the week, wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt and a pair of clashing polyester bellbottoms.

“I worked hard all my life; I had to struggle for anything I ever got,” Herrera said, sitting on the couch of the one-bedroom Spanish-style house midway between Burlingame and Golden Hills he owns and shares with his fiancee of eleven years, Madalene Patrick. “When you do that, you learn the value of a dollar. When you go into business for yourself — especially if you don’t have backers, which is the way you should go into business — the entire success, financial and otherwise, of the business rests on your shoulders. So consequently. I’m always looking to save money in case something I do doesn’t go over. Then, if it does go over, it makes up for the times I did lose.”

Instead of paying bands a set fee out of the bar proceeds — as is common in most local clubs — and charging a slight cover charge, Herrera gives each band a percentage of the door and charges customers more to get in — two to three dollars on weeknights and $3.50 to $4.50 on weekends. “When you hire bands that play only original music, it’s hard to pay them a set amount, because you don’t have a steady clientele; you never know how well the band will do,” Herrera said in his defense. “Some bands make a lot of money and some bands don’t, but the same goes for our operation. When a band doesn’t make any money, that’s because no one comes in to see them, and consequently we make less at the bar. But I still got to pay my help, I still got to pay my overhead expenses, lights, gas, everything goes on regardless of whether there are 200 people in the club or only twenty-five. I never pay any more than I can afford to lose, but if 1 promise a band I’m gonna pay them a certain amount, then they’ll get that; whereas I know a lot of clubs and promoters who promise bands a lot of money, but if they don't make it that night, the bands don’t get paid. Also, by giving the bands a percentage of the door, we know they’re gonna hustle and get people in here to see them. They go out and put up fliers, they tell all their friends to come down and see then), you know, they really promote their own show. It works out good that way, especially for the newer groups who want people to see them but can't get booked anywhere else ’cause they don't have a draw.”

Pat Oakley, secretary-treasurer of the local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians union, disagrees with Herrera’s payment policies. “I think the major difference between the union and Jerry Herrera is one thing, and that’s money,” he said. “We work toward establishing a wage for musicians that will keep them from being completely exploited by operators who charge the going rate for their drinks but pay their bands practically nothing, and Jerry falls into that category. He regularly appears on our ‘unfair’ list, which we publish every so often to let musicians know which club owners refuse to sign a paper that says they will maintain standards we need regarding health and safety, payroll, taxes, and scale wages.” Union-scale wages for the Spirit (which generally runs three bands a night playing a little more than an hour apiece), Oakley said, would be fifty-three dollars per person, a considerable difference from the $60 to $ 150 most five-piece bands average there a night (that’s $60 to $150 split five ways). “As long as the musicians who play there allow themselves to be used in that manner, Jerry will be smiling,” Oakley added. “He's the type of operator who constantly extols the virtues of exposure when, in truth, the only type of exposure a musician gets when he’s being used in that manner is when he's facing south and there’s a strong north wind and someone drops his pants.”

Herrera, however, claims he’s been placed on the union's “unfair" list for a different reason altogether. “They don’t like me because I’m not using union bands,” he said flatly. “But there are no union bands out there who can put on the same type of shows we’re putting on; most of them are older guys who are totally turned off by new-wave music. The bands I use don’t have enough money to get in the union, and they can’t really play at too many other places. We give them the chance to do original music and build up a following.”

But the Spirit's increasing reputation as a showcase club for international new-wave acts — many with record contracts — may effect some changes in Herrera’s payment policies regardless of his current practices. “I think he’s starting to learn that he’s gonna have to start subsidizing some of the bigger acts; in this town the door alone doesn’t always support the band,” said Ron Sobel, a leading new-wave promoter who has brought such acts as the Plimsouls, the Naughty Sweeties, Code Blue, the Tazmanian Devils, Lydia Lunch and 13.13, the Pop, and D.B. Cooper into the Spirit in recent months. “If he’d bring in a little stronger act and give up part of the bar, he’d benefit and everyone involved would benefit. He’s starting to learn that if he subsidizes the bigger bands out of the bar, it’s actually not money out of his pocket but an investment into his business. But he’s slowly coming around to that. He's a businessman and has to look out for his own welfare, but he’s also truly dedicated to the music.”

Paul Sansone, manager of the Penetrators — perhaps San Diego’s most popular band — agrees. “I see Jerry as having the right intentions, but he's not yet willing to commit himself more fully financially. He has an adequate club, but with a few more improvements, like a dressing room, a nicer interior, he’d be able to attract more national acts. And you can’t bring national acts into a place far from their home without giving them any kind of guarantee, which is what he’s been trying to do. He’s not realizing his potential as a club operator. Sure, he’s booking bands that play only original music, but so are clubs in Los Angeles and New York. Jerry Herrera’s problem is city-wide in San Diego: people just aren’t willing to commit themselves.”

It can be argued, however, that the proliferation of local bands playing original music is largely due to Herrera’s booking efforts at the Spirit. Musicians like Bill Thompson, formerly of Fingers (the band Herrera credits with steering the Spirit toward a new-wave format in early 1980), may joke and say, “The only time Jerry ever gave us a cut off the bar was when he bought the band a six-pack,” but in truth he acknowledges Herrera’s accomplishments. “The great thing about a guy like Jerry is that you don’t have to do someone else’s material; you can do your own songs,” Thompson said. “A city needs a place like the Spirit that defies the top-40 music scene. Creative people need to have a place to start and continue, a place to express themselves. We needed a place to play when we came back from Los Angeles. The group was coming together and we wanted to start a following in San Diego again. The Spirit gave us the chance.”

With the increase in crowds that has come about as a result of the Spirit’s popularity, problems have developed with the neighboring businesses. The club is located on the short stretch of Buenos Avenue between Morena and West Morena boulevards in Bay Park. Directly across the street from the building’s entrance is Kelly’s Pet Hotel, where the sounds and smells of canine boarders occasionally waft their way in the Spirit parking lot. Adjoining the club on its western end are a trophy shop, a jewelry store, and a stationery store; across the alley from the opposite end of the club is a row of little houses in various states of disrepair, one with half a dozen water heaters stored by its side. Behind the Spirit is a refrigeration service and, further north, several furniture stores and their warehouses. Many of the businesses have complained — both to Herrera and to the police — of broken bottles, petty vandalism, and other irritations. Twice in the past eight months, nearby buildings have been spray-painted with graffiti — “Kill Herrera,” “Spirit Rakes,” “Esmedina Sucks” — that can be traced back to patrons of the Spirit. Consequently, the elderly woman who owns most of the adjacent property and buildings, Mrs. John B. Howard, has posted a series of no-parking signs and, to enforce them, has placed a local towing company on twenty-four-hour alert to patrol the area and tow away violators without warning. Parking is thus confined to the eight spaces in front of the Spirit and the few contiguous streets that allow curb parking. “He never should have let his customers park on my property in the first place,” Howard said. “When they sprayed graffiti all over my buildings, that was the last straw. Jerry offered to paint over it, but I saw how he had painted his building, so I said, ‘Give me the paint. I'll do it myself.’ ”

“I’ve tried to work something out with her as far as cleaning up the mess, but she just doesn’t want anybody to park there,” Herrera said. “The problem at our place, and at any place where you draw several hundred people a night, is you’re always gonna have people who bring bottles and drink a little before they come in, and then throw the bottles around and maybe go up against a wall and take a piss. And maybe I was a little lax in the past. But for the past half year or so I’ve been making sure that either I or my bouncer walks around the area every hour and makes sure there are no problems. At the end of the night, we both go out there and pick up bottles and trash. And what can you do about the graffiti? Whoever wrote it said bad things about me and the club, so it’s got to be someone who doesn’t like the Spirit. I’m bending over backwards to take care of all the problems; I want to take care of my own facility and govern it so there’s no need for the police or anyone else to come around. But I can only do so much.”

One neighbor in particular, however, is not satisfied with Herrera doing his best. Lincoln W. Pickard, Junior, who owns a refrigeration business directly behind the Spirit, said he'll be content only when the club is shut down, and to accomplish this he is passing around a petition (already signed by thirty neighbors, he claims) that he'll present to “whoever has the authority to close his club for good. ... I’m pretty polarized against him,” Pickard said. “He’s a nuisance to the neighborhood; he's running it down. He’s already run it down somewhat. I know several good businesses here that are on the verge of moving because of him. I can't name any 'cause people around here, are afraid of him. Who knows what he tells the people inside his club? His customers are drunk and they're ready to be mad. If he gets mad at us, and tells his customers how mad he is, then they'll be mad at us. too, and there’s no telling what they’ll do. People get drunk and piss all over the place; once some guy even pissed against my fence.” Herrera dismissed Pickard's complaints with a wave of the hand. “The bands used to load in their equipment through our back door and at times they'd block his driveway, which was right next to it. So he'd always have them towed away, even though they’d never park there for more than five minutes at a time. Then one night he built a fence around his driveway and ran it right up to my building, so that if someone came out the back door, he'd be fenced in. The fire department came down right away and immediately ordered him to tear down the fence, since it was obstructing a fire exit. The matter is now in court; we’re suing him so we can use our back door without him harassing us. But for the time being we don't even use the door at all. The bands load equipment in through the front door.”

The Spirit has the interior decor of a drunken dream. Immediately to the right of the two steel-framed front entrance doors — one with a center panel of red glass, the other of scratched, dark-brown hardboard — is a shingled ticket booth, shielded by a rust-colored portiere. To the left is a scarred black magazine rack with a smorgasbord of free publications and several different fliers announcing upcoming shows at the Spirit and elsewhere. Directly above this rack is a large white metal board with black plastic letters spelling out the Spirit's schedule for the next week. Past this initial clutter is the actual club. At the far right end is the stage, so covered with makeshift patches that its surface looks like an aerial map of Berlin after the war. In front of the stage is the dance floor, whose murky gleam is more the result of thousands of feet polishing it smooth over the years than of constant waxing and buffing. Next comes a seating area with tables jammed together (to promote claustrophobia and thus dancing and thus thirst and thus a busy bar) on a threadbare gold rug that’s been there since Herrera bought the business six years ago.Toward the back is the elongated bar. the holes in its black leatherette trim covered with electrical tape so that the underlying yellow foam rubber can't be pulled out by mischievous patrons. At the end of the room opposite the stage is another seating area, this one consisting of tiny ceramic-tiled bars that sit six apiece, and two pool tables with two cue balls each. This part of the room is divided by a newly erected wall, unpainted gray, that runs from the end of the room to the bar; behind this wall is an assortment of junk — broken chairs, old fliers, damaged booths — that Herrera said he hasn't had the heart to throw out. The air is generally a mixture of cigarette smoke and perspiration; the “air conditioning” Herrera so prominently mentions in all his advertising (the blowers still haven't been fixed) consists of a four-inch-by-four-inch ceiling vent right above the front door that does nothing to make the air more breathable.

The patrons, mostly in their mid-twenties to early thirties, are an even mix of newcomers and regulars. There’s April, who dyes her hair a different color as often as most people change socks; Larrv, the owner of a new-wave record store in Pacific Beach and a self-styled authority on the local music scene; Sandi and Jim. the odd couple of San Diego radio (she’s the assistant program director of KPRI; he's the afternoon disc jockey on KGB-FM and host of his station's weekly local band spotlight), who, in Sandi’s words, are “going steady”; Sigrid. who seems to live on the Spirit’s dance floor no matter what band is playing; and an assortment of new-wave musicians who hang out at the Spirit even when they're not playing there in bands like the Puppies, the Penetrators, DFX2, the Rick Elias Band, Girl Talk, the Unknowns, Four Eyes, Claude Coma and the IVs, Solid State, the Magnets, the Dean Machine, and the Monroes.

Ouside, the drunken dream becomes a nightmare. Garish white stars on a dark-blue background frame the doors, and the rest of the building has recently-been painted an uninviting electric blue. The old Spirit logo on the front wall has not yet been painted over, though, and scattered patches of unpainted wall remain at the comers, up against the roof, and on the sides. "The guy who was painting the club was gonna charge me $500 for the whole job, but he started complaining about the money so I gave him half and fired him,” Herrera told me recently as we stood outside the club. “So now I'm looking for someone to finish it. How 'bout you?” I started to laugh, but when he added, “I'll give you some drinks in trade,” I realized he was serious.

Gerald Stephen Herrera, Jr., 38, is the older of two children — both boys — born to a Mexican-American truck driver and an Irish-American housewife and occasional deli worker. Born and raised in Old Town, he opened his first bank account there when he was six, and while most of his friends were spending their allowances and part-time job earnings as quickly as they brought them in, Herrera was dutifully putting away most of the money he made at such places as the Aztec Cafe and the Azteca restaurant. Like many teen-agers of his time, he discovered rock and roll in the mid-Fifties, and he spent many afternoons sprawled out on the living room rug, listening to a stack of singles by the likes of Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, and Little Richard on his family’s old television console. By the time he entered Point Loma High School in 1958, rock and roll was the major interest in his life.

“I used to belong to this Mexican-American gang called Los Charos,” Herrera recalled. “It wasn’t a gang like they have gangs today; it was just a bunch of friends who got together after school. Well, I was what you’d call an honorary member, ’cause I used to work after school and I’d miss all the meetings. And we’d put on these dances as a club; every once in a while I'd be able to get off work and go to the dances. We’d go out and hire a band and then we’d get a hall like the Women's Club in Pacific Beach or Point Loma and sell a whole bunch of tickets. We'd take the money we made off the dances and put it back into the club. After awhile I thought to myself. Hey, why don't I do this as an individual, you know, and make a business of it?'

Herrera graduated from high school in 1961 and immediately got a job at Astronautics (now General Dynamics). Together with a co-worker, he produced a dance at the Portuguese SES Hall in Point Loma with two local bands, the Nomads and the Rhythmaires. “We made, oh, seventy-five, a hundred bucks between us and thought it was the greatest thing in the world,” Herrera said. “So we went on and did a whole bunch more dances all over the city.” At first the dances continued making money, but after a series of losses Herrera’s partner split and he carried on alone.

“All mv life, from the age of six on. I had saved, saved, saved,” Herrera explained. “I had a brand-new 1961 Thunderbird my last year in high school, and all these clothes, and a speedboat, and skis, and then all of a sudden I started putting these dances on and one by one I started losing everything. First thing to go was the money, then my boat, then the clothes got worn a lot. But I had my mind set on doing shows, so I borrowed some money from my mother and in 1962 brought in my first big group, the Kingsmen, who had just released their biggest hit, ‘Louie, Louie.’ I rented out this huge warehouse in downtown Lemon Grove called the Feyton Building, and the place was real big, but the cops only wanted so many people in there. We had 1200 people inside and another 2000 outside. And the people who were outside knew there was still room in there, so they got real uptight. The guy whose building it was came around front and told me we had to close the doors because the cops wouldn’t allow us to let any more people in, so I ran around back and told everyone to come in through the back door. We were charging a buck and a quarter to get in, but I wanted to get as many people as possible in there before the cops or the owner saw what I was doing, so I just told the people to hand me a buck and come on in. But things still didn’t calm down, there were just too many people out there, and the riot squad came and shut down the show and took away the owner’s entertainment license.”

Herrera continued putting on dances — usually making money on one show only to lose it on the next — at halls throughout the county until 1964. when he took out a one-year lease on a building in El Cajon and opened up his first nightspot (no liquor; minors admitted), the Powerhouse. “It was real disastrous because I was stupid.” Herrera said with a smirk. “I started in the summer, and I thought that since the competition — parties and other dances — took place on Fridays and Saturdays, the best thing to do would be to have shows on Wednesdays and Thursdays because nobody was putting on shows on those days. Boy, that didn’t last too long; I found out why nobody else was doing shows on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I always find out the hard way. My problem is I have an idea and I go ahead and do it instead of stopping to think why it hasn’t been done before. I ended up losing so much money that I got into debt and had to break the lease after four months.” Borrowing money from his parents, a number of different finance companies, and anyone else who would lend it to him, Herrera went back to producing occasional dances at different halls. His most successful shows were the “battle of the bands,” seven- or eight-hour extravaganzas pitting several top San Diego bands against each other. These shows became so popular that by early 1965 he had once again saved up enough money to open his own club, and he began scouting for a building.

He soon chanced upon what appeared to be the ideal spot: a 500-seat club called the Glass Cage, right across the street from the Sports Arena, where FedMart is now. The building had been converted from a warehouse into a club at a cost of $300,000 when the owners went bankrupt. In July of that year, Herrera secured a lease, re-named the club the Palace, and moved in. Initially, he booked a variety of local soul groups, but after awhile held auditions for a more mainstream house band. He settled on a six-piece band called the Geritones and renamed them the Palace Pages.

“At first we did really well, but then I did another stupid thing,” Herrera recalled. “The Community Concourse had just opened downtown six months before, and they had a dress code, and since I wanted a snazzy place where people got dressed up real nice. I figured, aha. I’m going to have a dress code, too. Well, as soon as I did that, I started turning away people left and right and pretty soon here I stood with an empty house. Nobody would come anymore. I wasn’t thinking that you have to deal with what you have, and I had primarily a casual beach crowd that wasn't going to dress up to go anywhere. We went down the tubes so fast. First we had three or four hundred people there, and then it started dropping to where it was fifty, seventy-five people a night. And in those days I guaranteed bands a certain amount. That's when I came to giving them a percentage. I’d say, ‘Look, guys. I’m losin’ money every night, I can’t go on, so I’ll give you half of what I take in.’ My whole family helped me out: my mother ran the snack bar. my dad worked the front door, and my brother was the bouncer. Actually, the reason my mother worked there was because I borrowed two, three thousand dollars from her and she couldn't see any of the money coming back to her, so I told her to come in, work the concessions, and all the money she brought in she could keep. So she came and made back all her money, too.”

In the ensuing months, Herrera lifted the dress code and struggled to build up attendance at his club. Early in 1966 he attended a multimedia show called a "Trips Festival" — actually a touring package of acid-rock bands and psychedelic light shows from San Francisco — at the Community Concourse, and was so impressed by what he saw that he immediately offered to hire one of the bands, Friendly Stranger, and its light man. Coincidentally, the band had been stiffed by the promoter of the Trips Festival and didn’t have enough money to return home to San Francisco, so they accepted Herrera’s offer and played every night with the Geritones in exchange for rooms and a small percentage of the door. The Palace was completely renovated to afford the newcomers: a light booth was built, a large screen was erected, and the interior walls were enlarged. The Palace proudly billed itself as the first club on the West Coast outside of San Francisco to feature psychedelic music and lighting.

At this point the Palace Pages disintegrated; Kerry Chater and Gary “Mutha” Withem found the new setup not to their liking and left the group (they later hooked up with another local, deep-voiced singer named Gary Puckett and formed the Union Gap), and the other three — Doug Ingle, Danny Weiss, and Jack Pinney — recruited Greg Willis to augment their line-up and changed their name to Iron Butterfly. Daryl De-Loach, a frequent patron of the Palace, sat in on vocals occasionally, and within a few months had joined the new band as its lead singer.

“One day they came to me and told me they were going to move to Los Angeles, and they asked if I would manage them,” Herrera recalled. ”I turned ’em down ’cause at the time I was sort of on an ego trip, you know. I was only twenty-three years old and owned my own club. Right before they moved. Jack Pinney and Greg Willis left, though, because they were still in school, and the remaining three members got Ron Bushy and Jack Penrod to take their place.”

Charles Tinker, a beefy man with a huge knotted beard, worked at the Palace from 1967 until 1974. He vividly remembers the young Jerry Herrera who gave up a chance to manage what would become one of this country's biggest bands. “Jerry was really cheap back then, I guess you’d say,” he said with a laugh. “Back then, if you wanted to get in free, you had to work for Jerry. He didn’t pay hardly anybody anything. but that’s how he got where he is today. He’s like the chipmunk who saved all his nuts for winter. He used to have free food at the Palace. The first time you went there, you bought a Palace card that entitled you to a fifty-cent discount on all future admissions, but the first night you took it up to the snack bar and you’d get a free sandwich, a Coke, and some potato chips. At the end of the night, Jerry would walk around and gather up all the loose potato chips and put ’em back in the bag. He was also very conservative. At the Palace he didn’t want no drugs in the place. He used to come up to me in the snack bar whenever he found some pills on the floor and ask me what they were, and I’d tell him."

"Now, there was this sink in the middle of the snack bar and a section of the drain that went into the floor was cut off, so you could run water through the drain and catch it in a cup. Jerry would throw maybe five or six pills a day down that drain, and all the employees would flush water through it and catch the pills.” He laughed again and continued. “I can remember one time this employee was dealing weed out of the light booth, and he kept about a pound of really good stuff inside the booth. One day I came to work around eight and the light booth — and the weed — was gone. What had happened was the carpenter had come to take the booth down for repairs and Jerry had found the weed and flushed it down the toilet. Or so he said. Knowing Jerry, he probably sold it.”

In June of 1968, Herrera’s lease expired and he moved the Palace over to a larger building at 4025 Pacific Highway (now the home of Cousin’s Warehouse). Almost immediately, a similar (nonalcoholic) club called the Hippodome opened in an old skating rink downtown and began hosting national acts. So Herrera, too, began bringing national acts in on the same nights as the Hippodome. As the opening act for the major bands, Herrera hired a new band called Glory that had been put together by Jack Pinney and Greg Willis when Iron Butterfly moved to Los Angeles; the other members were Jerry Raney, Jack Butler (now of Bratz), and Michael Milsap. When the Hippodome went under just a few months after it opened and Herrera dropped national acts (“They were way too expensive,” he recalled). Glory became the house band.

In the summer of 1969, Herrera met a willowy, pony-tailed teen-ager named Madalene Patrick, and although he was ten years (to the day) older than she was, a friendship — and later, a romance — developed after a former boyfriend of Patrick tried to run her over in the Palace parking lot and Herrera came to her rescue. He hired her to work the snack bar, and she’s been working — and living — with him ever since.

For the next two and a half years, Herrera recalled, Glory had a tremendous draw and the Palace became the popular hangout for young people. Herrera built in a bar and a restaurant and did some remodeling to enlarge the club’s capacity. In 1972. however. attendance suddenly dropped. Glory moved to Los Angeles to do some recording, and Herrera found himself without a popular band. So he worked out a deal with James Pagni, then San Diego's top concert promoter, whereby Pagni would use the hall once or twice a week to bring in national acts not well known enough to play the larger Sports Arena or Community Concourse and give Herrera a small percentage of the door in return. The name of the club was changed to J.J.’s (for Jerry and James), and for the next year and a half a dazzling array of future superstars played the club, including the Electric Light Orchestra, Steely Dan, King Crimson, the New York Dolls, Foghat, the Climax Blues Band, and the New Riders of the Purple Sage.

“The first show we had there featured an act that I had never heard of — ZZ Top,” Herrera said. “Jim called me one day and said he felt like taking a chance and bringing this new group in called ZZ Top, but because he thought no one had heard of them he was only gonna charge $3.50 to get in and not sell any advance tickets. The day of the show I left around six to go home and get cleaned up. I got back at eight — we were gonna start the show at eight-thirty — and it was incredible. There was a line completely around the block. Now, our policy was that we would provide the opening act, then the headliner would come on, and then our act would close the show, and I got in a big hassle over this with ZZ Top’s manager. He didn’t want to do it that way; he didn’t want any act to follow ZZ Top."

"So we argued and argued, and finally he said. ‘Look. I’ll make a deal. If after you see their show, you still think your band can follow ZZ Top, then go ahead and do it.’ I said okay, and then I heard these three little guys in their cowboy hats and they were great! They blew my mind! They were loud but they were just so good. I rushed up to the side of the stage — and I’m never up by that stage ’cause it’s so goddamn loud — and I saw a few members of my opening act. and by then we all knew they weren't gonna come on after ZZ Top.”

By early 1974, problems developed between Herrera and his landlord. Bill Missler, that were to put an end to both the Herrera/Pagni alliance and. eventually, to J.J.’s itself. According to Herrera, “My landlord saw how good we were doing and wanted to get rid of Jim. He told me. Okay, you've got the ability Jim has. you’ve watched him and you know all the acts, so now you can do it yourself and I’ll give you the backing.’ I tried telling him that Jim had much more booking power than I did; Jim would bring in all the big acts to the Arena and the Concourse and work out deals with the agents whereby he’d use one band they were pushing as an opening act if they gave him another band he wanted for J.J.’s I couldn't do that myself; bringing in the types of acts we were booking would have cost me a fortune had I done it without Jim."

"But Bill insisted, and he sort of had me by the string ’cause I was always behind in my lease payments, so Jim and I had to split up. It was a mistake and I knew it was a mistake. I brought in a whole bunch of has-been groups. Blue Cheer, Stoneground, and we didn’t do well, so he refused to back me on any more shows. I said fine and went back to local shows, with occasional national acts brought in by an outside promoter. Tom Brannon. But my landlord still wanted a piece of the action, so when my lease expired in late 1974 he tripled my rent. We went to court and fought it. but because I had been behind in my lease payments all the time, he won and the court awarded him a lot of money, money I didn't have.”

(Even though Pagni confirmed Herrera’s story, Missler insists he neither wanted Pagni out of the place nor did he triple Herrera’s rent. “I’m the one who wanted Pagni in there,” he said. “He had the real know-how that Jerry didn't have. And I never raised his rent one cent, although that doesn’t make a difference. He never paid his rent anyway.”)

It took a while for the court to rule in Missler’s favor, however, and Herrera remained in the club until early March, 1975. The subsequent week sounds like something out of a Mack Sennett comedy. Herrera: “The first Friday in March my attorney came and told me that we had just lost in court and if I didn’t move out immediately — by midnight Sunday — my landlord was going to attach everything in the building until he got his money, which was around $15,000. That was the weekend Madalene and I were going to get married. We had rented out the Thursday Club in Point Loma and had gotten the invitations sent out. the entertainment lined up, the cake, the dress, and we had to postpone the whole thing at the last minute. So we rented this big truck and started tearing everything down, the walk-in box, the lights, even the toilets and the urinals — everything. I'd built all that stuff into the building and he had no right to it."

"Now, every Sunday we rented out the club to this black organization for a ‘Soul Night,’ and of course we had to have everything out by midnight Sunday but we didn’t want to cancel the show and arouse the landlord's suspicion. So we literally tore the place down that night with all the people inside wondering what the hell was going on.”

Madalene Patrick: “Jerry was up on the roof while I was cooking hamburgers on the grill. He came down for a second and told me. ‘Just keep on cooking, don’t worry about a thing,’ and I asked him, ‘Why, what’s gonna happen?’ but he just kept repeating, ‘Don't worry.’ So I’m standing here cooking, and all of a sudden there’s this big noise. I had like fifteen half-pounders going at one time and all these black people were standing there, watching me cook. Right after the noise hit, all this sheet rock from the ceiling fell down right on top of the hamburgers, and I hurriedly took the spatula and turned ’em over, real quick-like, and brushed them off before placing them on the buns. Jerry had removed the overhead grill while I was cooking.”

Herrera: “Oh, man, I tell you. It was crazy. I took the light bar down while the band was playing and grabbed one of those little clip-on orange lights and shined that on stage; we took the cocktail tables and chairs right out from under people when they’d go to the bathroom or get up to dance. So eight in the morning comes by; we had just gone all weekend with no sleep and as I was walking out with the copper piping from the bathroom, the landlord showed up. When he saw what we were doing he drove right down to the courthouse and got an injunction prohibiting us from taking anything more out of the club. But by then we had taken it all, everything that was worth something.”

Patrick: “All morning it was raining real hard, and Jerry slipped and cut his wrist real bad on a lift gate on the truck. There was all this blood coming out, so I went up to the landlord and asked him to let me have a towel from the kitchen. He said no and shut the doors and locked ’em. I got really mad, 'cause there was all this blood squirting everywhere. One of the kids who was helping us tore his shirt off and ripped it in half, and we wrapped Jerry’s wrist up. The kid, Gary, was driving the truck, and I was in back, telling him exactly how far he could back it up to the building. All this time I was thinking to myself, ‘This guy is a real jerk not to help me out,’ and I didn’t like him anyway, so when Gary asked me to let him know how much farther he could back up, I kept telling him, ‘Come on, come on,’ until these forty-foot light beams that were sticking out the back of the truck went right through the tempered-glass window in the front of the club. And the landlord was just standing there, his mouth open, and I turned, smiled, said, ‘Good-bye, Bill,' and we took off.”

Herrera: “My landlord got in his car and followed us, I guess because he wanted to see where all this equipment was going so he could put attachments on it. I drove over to my mother’s house in Loma Portal and stored some of the stuff in her garage. It was real funny, we were carrying all this stuff into the house and this cop drove up and asked me what I was doing. I told him we were storing some equipment in my mother’s house, but there was this guy following us all day long, and he was parked in the back and we didn't know what he was doing here. So the cop went over and started hassling him. and he left, but he came back and parked just far enough away that he could still see us. So we drove back to the club and noticed that he was following us again. What he didn’t know was at the time, we only lived six blocks from the club, so we parked the truck and drove home in our car. From our house you could see right into the lot of the club, and every hour we’d check to see if he was still there. Finally I went out there and he was gone, so Mad and me — both in our pajamas and in the rain — jumped into our car and drove down to the club.”

Patrick: “I was driving this crappy old Impala, and to get back to our house you had to drive up this steep street. Jerry had the big freezer in the back of the truck along with all this other heavy stuff, and the only thing holding it in place was this little strand of rope. We got halfway up the hill and the freezer started slipping out, so I started honking the horn. Jerry stopped the truck and told me to tailgate him up the hill very slowly and at last we made it up. When we were done I thought to myself, ‘Jeez, that freezer could have fallen right on the hood and through the windshield and smashed me to death.’ ”

Herrera: “So we finally got the stuff inside the house and then apparently someone called to complain that we were storing commercial equipment in our house. It was crazy — all the rooms in the house were full of freezers, lighting fixtures, and all that. Anyway, the city gave us forty-five days to move it. and we rented out all these garages and put the stuff in there.”

(Missler, again, denied that he was present the day Herrera moved out of the Palace. “My lawyers took care of all that,” he said. “I don’t follow anybody. But when somebody damages my building the way he did, you can assume I’m going to be mad. He just ripped all that stuff — even the urinals — right from the wall.”)

Herrera spent the next couple of months looking for a building he could convert into a club similar to J.J.’s, but after examining remodeling costs, he decided instead to move into an existing business. This he found in late summer in the form of a sleepy Mexican restaurant and bar called the Tankard Inn at 1130 Buenos Avenue in Bay Park, just west of Linda Vista. Through a series of ads in the paper and weekly garage sales, he sold off enough of the equipment he'd salvaged from J.J.’s to come up with the $21,000 down payment (the total purchase price of the business was $59,000, and that included a full liquor license), and in September, 1975, signed a ten-year lease with the owner of the property that set his monthly payments at $600 and gave him a ten-year option once that lease expired.

At first, he named the new club the Spirit of ’76. but he later shortened it simply to the Spirit. "Buying the new place wiped out our savings,” Herrera recalled. "We bought a thousand dollars worth of liquor and then had another thousand in the bank for back-up money, which we foolishly spent on more liquor five weeks down the line. About six weeks after we moved in, we had a real big weekend and made about $1500, but we were real tired and decided to leave the money in the safe in the club. Well, we came back early the next morning and discovered someone had broken in, blown up the safe, and taken all our money and all our liquor, except for three or four half-empty bottles. We had maybe forty dollars to our name. So we took the forty dollars. got ten bucks in change, and spent the remaining thirty dollars on a few bottles of liquor so we could open up again. We had to start all over.”

Herrera wanted to hire live entertainment to bolster bar business, but he was “burned out” on rock and roll and initially booked Latin entertainment. “The problem with that was that we’d get decent crowds on weekends but nobody showed up during the week,” Herrera recalled. “So I kept that up for a year and then booked country and top-40 but nothing seemed to work.”

Finally, he opted for rock and roll one more time but, he recalls, he soon found it was not as easy as it used to be for him. "We kept on auditioning all these bands but couldn’t find the one band that would really bring in the people like the Palace Pages and Glory did years ago,” Herrera said.

"Little did I know that the trend was no longer one band, but a whole new sound. I heard punk for the first time and thought, ‘Oh, man, is this the new sound?’ I didn’t want anything to do with it. I heard this violent, uptight thing and was really turned off. But like anything else, out of something bad comes something good. Punk soon developed into new wave, which is more pop-like, and then in early 1980 this band called Fingers came in and auditioned. I heard them and went, ‘Wow, these guys are great,’ and I brought them in and they became the house band, playing at least two or three times a week. Then Gene King and all these new-wave promoters came in and booked all these weird bands, some good, some bad, and we started a whole new trend in town. Nobody else was doing it. Within a few months, all these really good bands started showing up — the Rick Elias Band, DFX2, the Penetrators — and we began booking primarily new-wave bands that did their own songs. And that’s what we’re still doing today.”

Last Wednesday, Jerry Herrera got out of bed around 10:30 a.m. and started making phone calls to the managers of various local bands, confirming bookings for the upcoming weeks. Around two-thirty he drove to the Spirit in his rundown old green-and-white Volkswagen bus, the insides of which call to mind a swap meet gone haywire: tattered books and magazines, assorted knick-knacks and tools, and several disparate articles of clothing haphazardly strewn about the floor and the homemade plywood bunk. Pulling into the Spirit’s tiny parking lot, he was met at the door by Madalene Patrick, who had opened the club at noon.

“Before you do anything, Jerry, take a look at my car,” she said, pointing to her olive 1971 Toyota parked nearby. A pool of yellowish liquid was forming on the asphalt between the front tires. Opening the hood, Herrera did a quick scan and soon found the problem: the radiator hose had sprung a leak. He disappeared inside the club for a few moments and returned with a screwdriver and a wrench. He disconnected the damaged hose and placed it in the back of the bus before going back inside the club to wash his hands.

By this time, it was three, and the tables inside the Spirit were neatly laid out with salt and pepper shakers, white paper napkins, and stainless steel silverware — but, as usual, no diners. Although the Spirit during the day offers a sizable menu of Mexican and American dishes at affordable prices, Herrera explained, the club’s growing reputation as a new-wave nightspot has steadily eroded its credit as a restaurant, and rarely more than a couple or two per day comes in to eat lunch or dinner. When Herrera returned, we boarded his bus and set out to find a new radiator hose. Our conversation turned to his waitresses.

"I don’t like to hire pretty girls," he said. “Pretty girls are no good. They look nice, but they don’t work. They're more concerned with looking pretty than they are with hustling drinks, which is what the nightclub business is all about.” He moved over into the right lane a block from our destination and neatly cut off a blue sedan, whose driver began honking madly.

Ignoring the commotion, Herrera continued. "The only good thing about pretty girls is that they sometimes attract customers, you know, guys come in and figure if they can’t score on the girl customers they can score on my waitresses.”

We turned into the driveway of the auto parts store and pulled into the parking lot. Herrera ran into the store and a few minutes later ambled out, new hose in hand. “It’s not really the right one, but it’s close enough,” he said in a voice that sounded as though he was trying to convince himself.

When we got back to the Spirit, Herrera walked over to the crippled Toyota and began trying to connect the hose. He finally succeeded in twisting both ends into place, but before he could clamp down the end attached to the radiator, the other end became disconnected. When he tried to twist it back into place, the radiator end also became detached. He swore under his breath and said, “You know, this is what always happens when you don't know what you're doing. I always want to save a buck and spend hours doing it.” Patrick walked over and surveyed the operation. “I hope the car isn't going to blow up,” she said. “I’m always scared to drive it after you fix it.”

Bv the time Herrera finally had the hose connected and firmly fastened into place, it was four, and we hurriedly drove over to his bank on Sports Arena Boulevard next to FedMart, where the first Palace had stood. While we were waiting in line, Herrera pointed to the canvas money sack he held in one hand and said. "One time I couldn't find this sack, so I came in here with a big brown paper bag. Boy, did everyone look at me funny."

He let go a nervous chuckle and slowly shook his head. "Oh, man, I tell you. Even the teller acted all scared, stammering and blinking her eyes. When I finished my transaction — I was just withdraw ing some money — and walked away, I looked back and she was wiping her forehead with a tissue." When a window opened, we walked up and Herrera got enough change to stock both the cash register in the ticket booth and the one behind the bar for the evening. We then drove the short distance to the FedMart parking lot.

After a dash through the sundries department to pick up some cleanser and other assorted household items — every Wednesday Herrera does the weekly shopping for himself and Patrick — we came to the grocery section. When we got to the produce aisle, Herrera eyed a huge wire-mesh container filled with watermelons and, next to it, a sign that proclaimed in bold, hand-lettered words, "Special! A Pound.” "Hey, hey," he said approvingly, "a deal.” He began picking through the melons, grabbing the smallest one he saw and placing it in his cart. The price tag read $1.03.

He stepped back fora moment and looked through the mesh at the other melons in the bin. “I think I see a smaller one down near the bottom.” he said, pointing. He walked back to the container and began digging, pushing up melons the wav a gopher shoves up dirt. When he was halfway down, the watermelons that had been stacking up on the far side of the bin started tumbling down and filling in the hole he’d created. “Aw, shit,” he mumbled, and began digging again, this time putting the displaced melons into an adjacent canister. Ten minutes later he reached the prized melon and lifted it out of the bin. The price tag read $1.02.

I first met Jerry Herrera in March of last year, when I was in the eighth month of my association with Kicks magazine. As is often the case with infant publications, a consolidation of duties had me selling advertising as well as publishing and editing this music periodical.

March was the month I was approaching rock-oriented nightclubs all over town. The Spirit had just adopted a new-wave format, and since the emphasis of Kicks was heading in that same direction, I called the club and was put in touch with the owner’s “secretary” (who I later learned was Madalene Patrick), and through her set up an appointment with a Mr. Herrera.

The day of our meeting I walked into the club and asked the tough-looking girl behind the bar, whose name tag read ”Madalene,” where Jerry Herrera was. She pointed in the direction of a stocky, balding man seated at one of the tables near the stage. It was late in the afternoon and the rest of the tables were empty; I looked over and could see his bright catlike emerald eyes staring straight at me like a distant beacon.

As I walked to where he was sitting and took the chair opposite him, he didn’t take his eyes off me once. He immediately spat out, “Whatcha got for me?” and before I could answer had snatched the advertising rate card and sample issues from my hands and began studying them intently. I began to introduce myself but he cut me off, firing question after question: “What's your circulation?” “Where do you distribute?” “Are you making money?” “How long have you been doing this?" “Do you give discounts?” “How about trade-outs?”

My answers seemed to satisfy him, and he pored over the rate card and the issues some more, audibly biting the nails of his left hand. Finally, he put the literature down and looked directly at me. “Okay, how 'bout this,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’ll sign up for a year of — What's your smallest size? Eighth page? — okay, eighth-page ads, but only if you give me an additional fifteen percent discount and take half payment in drink trade-outs. And when we get this taken care of, I want to talk to you about sponsoring shows here, you know, like a monthly ‘Kicks Presents' night with a different band every time, okavwhaddyathink?”

I couldn't agree to those terms, but suggested we could discuss the matter further. Herrera nodded, and our subsequent parley lasted the better part of an hour. We finally reached a compromise that was acceptable to both of us, although Herrera — even as he was signing the advertising contract — kept repeating over and over again, “Man, oh, man,” “I just don’t know,” and “That's too much.”

He then laid out his ideas for a Kicks night. “Why don't we try this,” he said. “These guys I used to know who played in Glory and Iron Butterfly have just put a new band together called Jerry Raney and the Shames, and since your magazine just ran a series on the history of San Diego rock and roll, why don’t we put together a special show for their debut? We could call it a Kicks Press Party — that way all the people would really think it was something special — and serve chips and sandwiches, just like we did at the old Palace. I’d mention the magazine’s name in all my advertising and it wouldn’t cost you anything; all you got to do is let me use the magazine’s name.”

Though still not sure what this fast-talking huckster with the spotlight eyes was up to, I hesitantly acquiesced.

The show was held on the first Friday in April — the fourth day of the month — and was an unqualified success. Both Jerry Raney and the Shames and opening act Fingers — then the Spirit’s house band and soon to become a San Diego favorite — played impressive sets and drew a crowd employees that night said was bigger than ever. Herrera was glowing. It was at subsequent Kicks “Press Parties," as Herrera insisted on calling them for publicity’s sake, and my visits to the Spirit on other nights that I got to know Jerry Herrera, and like everyone who admits to this distinction, I have my share of anecdotes to relate. Here’s one of them:

On a Saturday night last fall, Beachie and the Beachnuts, a visiting Los Angeles group, were trying to get Herrera to join them up on stage. “C’mon, Jerry,” Beachie, the lead singer, barked over the microphone. “Where are you? Come on up.” Everyone started looking around, but Herrera was nowhere in sight. After about a minute, Beachie yelled out, “Come on out, Jerry, we know you’re here,” and sent a member of his band to look for him. At the same time, he asked the light man to “beam the spotlight on the audience and find Jerry. He’s got to be in here somewhere.”

But the band member returned a few minutes later, shaking his head, and Beachie reluctantly told the light man — whose beam was still crisscrossing the audience — to redirect his spotlight back toward stage. “I can’t believe this,” Beachie exclaimed. “He just disappeared.” Halfway through the next song, a thought occurred to me and I peeked into the darkened light booth.

Inside, hands on the controls, Jerry Herrera was smiling.

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Comments

Sign in to comment

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader

Close