After last month's orgy of undignified pop inaugural balls, American critics were quick to proclaim rock dead. The sight of a bloated Fleetwood Mac dueting with a martianlike Michael J., the unctuous strainings of Kenny Loggins and Messina's horrid old chestnut "Your Mama Don't Dance," the incongruous presence of Lou Reed and Los Lobos; that these only slightly less-than-stuffy cultural events were greeted enthusiastically by our most distinguished leaders made, according to the world's press, a mockery of the ideals that real rock 'n' roll cherishes.
Three weeks ago, crammed fast between washing machine and wall in the safest corner of a packed Chula Vista garage, I thought of those portentious denunciation, and I just had to laugh. National City's own Ghetto Scheist were rollicking through the MC5's "Rambling Rose," and about seven jack-booted punk rockers were rolling all over the dusty garage floor. One young man hung from the exposed ceiling beams, legs kicking wildly, belly peeping through rips in his Agnostic Front t-shirt. Another bare-chested goof with a pierced nipple marched up and down, arms swinging merrily, before he got butt-kicked into the band's equipment. Somebody had just cheerfully thrown up, and lead singer T.J. Knifefight was happily rolling, doglike, in the vomit. Cholos on the ground pummeled one another gleefully in time to the music. Boots and arms were sticking out all over, like an animated fight scene in the cartoon Underdog. And as I tried to scrunch myself into an even smaller ball, I thought happily, "Rock's not dead, man. It's just hiding out, till the hoo-ha's over. It's saving its strength for later days to come."
Because rock is smart. It knows it's losing power. Corrupted by industry co-option, diluted by the lowest common denominator, misunderstood by millions, it is, as an art form, in danger of losing its credibility and thus its raison d'être. Right about now, post-Nirvana, post-skinny-Elvis stamp, post-MTV Inaugural Ball, it needs time to recuperate. It needs to go into temporary seclusion, like a movie star suffering from some kind of PR disaster. It needs to remove itself from the madding misunderstanding crowd, to rethink its agenda and recharge its fading batteries. And what better place to tuck yourself away from public notice than in a suburban garage on Larkhaven Drive, two exits short of the Mexican border?
Anyway, that's where I found it that night. In one of those little egg-colored adobe bungalows with red plastic tile roof and about 20 vehicles parked in front on a little patch of grass, and which, from the front, looks like nothing but a big garage door (California Anonymous, a post-Bauhaus school of design). That's where rock has been temporarily relocated, right alongside the WD-40 and the potty trainer and the recycling and the wash. Outside, there's America. And inside, the Moreno family is good-naturedly giving sanctuary to fucking hardcore punk. The neighbors have all nicely said it would be OK, just this once. So the only hint of illegality in evidence is a bootleg Fugazzi poster that decorates the living room.
Mar Moreno is the organizer of tonight's event: a house party-cum-rock show featuring Seattle's inimitable Fastbacks — a band that critic Greil Marcus has recently called one of the best in America — and three local bands, including Mar's own outfit, Nailgun, Moreno, a former member of Chula Vista's Dirtheads, relocated to Shreveport, Louisiana, when he joined the Air Force four years ago. While living there, he started a production company called Rancid Cat, which put on shows in local halls and warehouses. Since moving back to California, Rancid Cat plans on organizing shows on Main Street in Chula Vista. So his party, a benefit for a local homeless shelter (admission cost of a can food or whatever else you could afford), was a sort of inaugural ball of its own.
The Fastbacks took the floor around ten p.m. to a crowd of 30 or so who seemed unaware of the band's vast critical reputation (to say the least). Stunned by the crowd's unruly behavior during Ghetto Scheist, the Fastbacks had set up their equipment somewhat apprehensively. Earlier, while walking the aisles or a nearby Lucky looking for cheap beer and Kodak film, bassist Kim Warnick said she was suffering from preparty nerves. "What if they don't like us?"
"But, Kim," I said patiently, "those people are going to like anything that happens in that garage, and you guys are a great band. They'll be beside themselves!"
Which is exactly what happened. Confronted by a bi-gender, four-piece, pop-style, punk rock band (a Motown girl group gone to hell, a sticky-sweet Stooges, or the real Ramones), those in the garage stood stock-still, staring for, like, a couple of seconds, and then totally erupted. Guitarist Kurt Block, leaping up and down pogo-style in time to the double-fast tempo, was within the first two bars knocked sideways by a wall of human flesh. Kim quickly ducked under one of his arms and played behind him, their guitars parallel to one another, their bodies in line. Mike Musburger (borrowed, for this tour only, from the Posies) hit his drums just as if there were not actual persons periodically rolling over the top of the kick drum. Each time a body knocked a drum or cymbal over — approximately once every song — he'd just nonchalantly reach down to right them again.
Meanwhile, Lulu Gargiulo had sat back on one heel and was strumming furiously fast, pinning her mouth to the mike to sing "Run No More." Then she leaned bravely forward toward the crowd as it lurched back and forth, threatening her ground with each pulsating wave. Earlier, in the kitchen, a partygoer had said to Lulu, "Are you the guitarist?" "Well," said Lulu doubtfully, "I'm a guitarist...." Now, scrunched in the corner, mikeless, she looked over laughingly at Kim and Kurt and stood her ground, singing her harmony parts alone for most of the set.
So the set wore on, faster than light, and the crowd toppled excitedly all over itself, to Fastbacks faves like "Impatience," "K Street," "Read My Letters," and "Set Me Free." At one point someone went down way too hard and came up with a bloody nose. There was a tremendous crash, as the collective audience hit the drum kit and mikes, and Nailgun's Domingo Duron deputized himself to hold the mike (the stand itself now flailing like a limb through the crowd) in front of Kim's and Kurt's mouths, which they obligingly pressed together, Jagger-Richards style, sharing. ("I was really afraid we'd lose our teeth," Kim said later.)
Periodically Duron would shout into it himself: "Be mellow!" One of the three Chanel brothers grabbed it himself midway through the set: "Hey, you guys are wasting innocent beer here!" and was tackled about the knees for his trouble. Then I got tackled about the knees, as a guy carrying a Sears Roebuck video camera was felled like a tree right on top of me. Everybody was laughing fit to bust. I saw Moreno blowing his trumpet — a la Shannon Selberg of the Cows — to the beat of "Impatience." And sometime during "Going to the Moon" (off the Fastbacks' brand-new record Zucker, on Sub Pop), a huge wave of bodies hit the garage door so hard that it opened slowly onto the night. Curtain up! All Larkhaven Drive — had Larkhaven Drive been looking — was suddenly treated to a bright, Nativity scene-like glimpse of utter mayhem .But the door was quickly slammed shut, out of consideration for everyone's eardrums.
Exhilerating as it was, the Fastbacks' set ended, like the world according to T.S. Eliot, not with a bang but with a whimper. One minute they were playing furiously and everyone was insane with glee, and the next — after a brief eight-bar drum solo — they were done and dismantling their equipment. When there's no stage, there's no such thing as an encore. People stood around and, in lieu of clapping, said, simply, thanks. "Dude! You rule!" a guy told Musburger. "Dude!" someone else injected. "You're from Seattle? Do you know Eddie Vedder?" "Dude!" another guy exclaimed. "I never saw a band with girls in it I liked so much before!" The Fastbacks just smiled and thanked the all back.
Meanwhile, Moreno was attempting to usher some people out of the garage. Despite the externally mellow atmosphere, tempers were beginning to boil over. Some people — neighborhood friends and the other band members — stayed for Nailgun's post-party set. But the mood was palpably different now. Nailgun's sludgier tempos and the level of adrenaline the Fastbacks had induced combined to form a bad vibe. Boys, keyed up from the clearly homoerotic physical contact that shows like these thrive on (moshing is like football for outcasts, a safe way for men to touch one another without being labeled fags), were coasting on the edge of temper tantrums, that moment when play turns violent.
At one point in Nailgun's set (during, I think, a grungy cover of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates' "Shakin' All Over"), I found myself staring disbelievingly at two pairs of naked, hairy male legs that stuck out of a gap in the bushes. The legs were entwined in a most suggestive manner. When I cautiously investigated, it turned out the burly legs' owners were simply beating each other up, in the course of which their pants had been pulled down, but I sensed right then things were about to end in tears. "I don't know if you know much about being a boy," Kurt commented dryly, "but my brother and I used to do that, roll around pushing and shoving until someone got poked in the eye and we began pounding on each other in earnest..."
Sure enough, as Nailgun bent into a song by Dark Globe, the shouting began. Bodies flew out the garage door till they formed a large lump on the lawn, like a rugby scrum, only with a lot more shouting and several long metal implements involved. Moreno's neighbors, up till now so admirably forgiving of the nearby noise, came out and started screaming.
Of course the cops came, cruising up portentously, full of sighs and admonishments. And then the gig broke up. Moreno paid the Fastbacks $84 and some change, just a few dollars short of their $100 guarantee. He ended up losing $65 on the gig but did manage to collect a bunch of canned food for the homeless shelter. Ladies and gentlemen, rock 'n' roll has left the building....
So Chula Vista went back to sleep, and I drove homeward up the hillside back to 805 north. Coming up the boulevard, I caught a glimpse of the lights of Tijuana winking on and off, the very edge of the United States looming in the distance.
Then the car slewed 'round a curve and I saw San Diego instead, its gold-rimmed high-rises lighting up the night. It seems like, in recent years, every city in American has grown so large, from 35,000 to 70,000 to 100,000 and beyond, and the result is that everywhere looks exactly the same. Main streets are all made up of mini malls with similar stores in them, Lucky and Thrifty and Burger King and Toys R Us. Life is one long vista of stucco anonymity, an endless, sterile tract of silence, germ free and corporate, yellow and grey. In an environment this pallid, even violence becomes amusing, and noise is an absolute necessity.
Meanwhile, I read in the paper that the era of Bill Clinton will be so different from the oppression that has crushed the aesthetic and intellectual life of a generation; that this is a new age of progress, the heyday of youth. But back in garageland, it's the same as it ever was. Teenage wasteland lives on.