Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Steve Poltz: “When Mike Halloran was program director at KUPR, that was happening. But there is nothing like that anymore."
"Beware of Dog” warns a sign on the gate leading to Jason Hill’s apartment. As I walk warily up the stairs to the second-floor unit that Jason shares with his girlfriend Sharon in Pacific Beach, their dogs come bounding down at me. I am halfway up when they make contact. Pinning me flat against the stucco wall, the dogs do their routine, pawing at my chest and nipping affectionately at my fingers. I am in no danger here, and I reciprocate, scratching behind their ears and rubbing under their chins. From the top of the stairs, Jason and Sharon call off the hounds: “Tulsa! Georgia Ray! Come here, damn it.” And, that quickly, I have made four new friends.
Convoy (Jason Hill with guitar). Behind a band like Convoy is what is commonly called a “scene.”
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Jason, a singer and guitarist for a local band called Convoy, lives with Sharon in this modest one-bedroom with their two dogs. Eventually Sharon wants another dog — maybe another two or three — but for the moment, they each get one. The dogs’ names are telling. Jason has more than a little Oklahoma in him: his dog is Tulsa, a skinny shepherd. Sharon is from Georgia and is both striking and charming: her dog, Georgia Ray, is a three- or four-year-old mutt, with a puppy’s face, that she found on the side of the road.
Sports Arena concert crowd. The most obvious names of the San Diego scene are Tom Waits, Eddie Vedder, Jewel.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Guitars, amplifiers, a keyboard, and looped cables clutter the apartment’s interior. An album collection occupies nearly the entire kitchen. Visible are a few Creedence records and more than a few ragged Leon Russell albums. “I love country music,” Jason says.
Stax came to San Diego from England. “I was a fan of a San Diego band called the Crawdaddys. They were playing something that sounded a bit like the early Rolling Stones or the Yardbirds."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
"The real authentic, 1970s bad-ass stuff: Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Waylon and Willie, Merle Haggard, Jerry Jeff Walker. Those guys played from the heart, and still do; they give themselves to the music in an uncommon way. I like that you can trust the music. They sing about lives that many people have lived: broken hearts and hard living. But not so extreme or hard that we don’t believe it.” I agree. My dad listened to Waylon and Willie in the car when I was a kid, and I realize now how much I miss that music.
f.a.t.b.s. and manager Doug Jones (bottom left) . “People are so open down here; they just love our funk."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Jason telephones his bandmates, who live just down the street, while I stand outside at the top of the stairs watching Tulsa get ill, throwing up what looks like white chalk. Sharon is distressed; Tulsa has been sick all morning, and the vet is closed because it’s Sunday. After a brief conference, we decide that she has been eating the small pieces of a broken porcelain plate. Jason sweeps the debris, and now that Tulsa is playing grab-ass again with Georgia Ray, we figure she will be fine and head out to meet the rest of the band for brunch. (Tulsa does recover — none the wiser.)
I had seen Convoy play the previous night at ’Canes in Mission Beach. They opened for Lucy’s Fur Coat, a San Diego band that in 1994 was poised on the brink of stardom. Behind the antics of manic frontman Charlie Ware, Lucy’s rode the wave of a media-induced buzz: for a short time in the early and mid-’90s, San Diego was going to be the second Seattle. That never happened. Lucy’s Fur Coat released an album; then Ware quit the band to attend law school. A lawyer now with his own telephone extension, Ware rejoined the band, and on this night they headlined a show for a loyal local audience.
’Canes seemed more like a dance club than a live-act venue, with its tiered floors, disco balls, and DJ booth. The crowd of beautiful and fit college-age kids had dressed up — even wore cologne and perfume — to come hear music; I spotted several cigar smokers as well, flirting, lifting their chins to blow smoke. Everyone drank 16-ounce Budweisers, now with wide mouths for rapid quaffing. This crowd was here for Lucy’s Fur Coat, not Convoy.
The two bands have little in common. Lucy’s plays a guitar-driven hard rock, and Ware’s intensity incites something just short of moshing. Convoy plays original country-rock, what Hill calls “American music.” They took the stage first, dressed in garb that seemed a fusion between ’70s retro (wide collars, polyester) and rodeo fashion (big belt buckles, flashy snap buttons). Initially the crowd was not sure what to do — do we pay attention? do we dance? should we like this music? Inspired by two couples — the only middle-aged folks in the place — who danced right in front of the stage, a good number of patrons unwound and gave Convoy something to play for. Contrary to my hunches, this was a flexible crowd. After a while, no one noticed that Convoy was out of place, least of all the band members, who were happy enough churning out country twangs and good-time beats.
Now, the next day, sitting with the band at an outside table at a Pacific Beach restaurant, we drink beer and our table is piled high with steak, eggs, soup, fries, slaw, and salad. Jason recalls a story a studio musician once told him about sitting in on a recording session with the Heartbreakers: “They were recording this real beautiful song, and when they finished, one guy said, ‘Okay, but let’s do it again, but slower and with less guitar.’ They did another take, and the same guy said, 'Okay, let’s do it again, but less.’ This happened a couple of more times, and then they all realized that the last take was the song they wanted. You gotta keep it basic, gotta keep it simple. It’s about paring down to the essentials.” The others mumble agreement. Convoy’s songs fall into several categories: country rock, resurgent country, and alternative country, for instance; it is a sound not common to San Diego. They sing about women, bars, the road, and down-and-out towns like Texarkana, things that bands like the Midwest’s Uncle Tupelo (now Wilco and Son Volt) or North Carolina’s Whiskeytown sing about. But Convoy does so without the mordant doom-and-gloom of these bands. How, I wondered, did Convoy form in a place like San Diego?
Except for Jeff Winfrey (the bassist) who comes from the “other side of the tracks,” all the band’s members grew up and went to high school in Poway, which Brian Karscig (another singer and guitarist in the band) calls “deserty." Jason remembers first passing Robbie Dodds (also a singer and guitarist, and at 21 the youngest member) in the hallway at high school. “He was younger, but he had a cool walk and all of this blond hair. He had headphones on, but you could hear the Clapton riffs and Cream just pouring out. He was bad-ass, and we were all, like, ‘Who is that guy?’ ” With Mark Maigaard on drums and Ryan Ramos singing, the six formed a band called Dishwater. Brian left to go to college, and the band started to tour in 1994. They played straight-edged rock that sounded a bit like the Black Crowes, and Dishwater became popular fast.
“It was hard at first,” Jason recalls. “I remember these pleading conversations with Robbie’s mother at her kitchen table. We had to beg her to let him come on tour with us. I mean, he was only 17 at the time, but he is such a talented musician. He is a great guitarist, and he also plays piano. He is teaming pedal steel too. He can pick up anything. We toured up and down the West Coast, and from here to Colorado and everything in between.” Mark tells me casually that Dishwater played at sold-out shows at the Fillmore and the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, which to me, a reformed Deadhead, are temples. Despite a mention in Rolling Stone as an up-and-coming band, the inclusion of their song “One Bed and Regret” on an MCA compilation album, and gigs at the Gram Parsons Memorial Concert in Joshua Tree in 1996 and 1997, the band decided it was time for something new; they wanted to tone down and explore a more countrified sound. Though Dishwater still plays, last summer Ramos left; the band reunited with Brian and started Convoy.
“I picked up guitar in college and got into different kinds of music,” Brian says. “Early this year, Jason, Robbie, and I worked out some songs.”
Jason explains: “Brian was writing these bitchin’ songs while Dishwater was touring these past two and a half years. We came home to San Diego — burned out and tired — and it made sense to work again with Brian. We knew we could write great songs together, and we will. Hell, we are shooting for the top; we want to get a record deal and make a really good album.” Convoy’s start was auspicious. “The first show we played we didn’t even have a name,” Robbie says, laughing. “But we got to open for Leon Russell.” “When I was a kid,” Jason remembers, “there was this movie called Convoy with Kris Kristofferson, and it would come on twice a year, maybe on a Sunday. And I loved it; I loved the thing. Sharon and I were watching television and there was this ad for the movie, and I was, like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what we’re about, trucks.’ ”
Mark adds, “Jason always had a fascination with semis. When we were touring as Dishwater, we would pass an 18-wheeler, and Jason would be looking at it, going,‘Yeah.’ ” Anticipating my question, Jason explains, “There is nothing stronger than a big semi, a tough guy on the road, speed. There is a line in the movie when Kristofferson says, ‘The purpose of the convoy is to keep it moving.’And that is what we are about — keeping it moving, reinforcing each other. You have got to go for it bold, like us — change the name and make it happen.”
Just talking about it gets the guys excited; now they have forgotten the feast on the table and are considering their roots. Brian says, “We listen to a lot of music. We look up to bands like Wilco and Son Volt.”
Jason quickly adds, “Yeah, but you have to go back. Even Creedence, well, they were from fucking Marin and sang about the bayou. Who were they listening to? We respect today’s alternative country bands, but there are many earlier influences: Willie, Leon, Jerry Jeff, even Ry Cooder. That was outlaw music and is better than what is coming out today.”
In trying to gauge where these guys see themselves fitting into San Diego’s music scene, I temporarily hit a wall. Jason reminds me “We are a California band, but we play American music.”
Jeff adds, “We are not playing a sound heard too often down here; I am not sure San Diego will go for us. Opening for Lucy’s Fur Coat — they didn’t know what to do after the songs. But we did get compliments, and from a crowd we never would have expected that from.”
After brunch, as we walk to Brian’s apartment to scan his vinyl collection and listen to Ron Wood’s original version of “Mystifies Me," I begin to get it: Convoy is a “San Diego band”.because they have chosen to play a music that will catch people off guard here. Appreciation is based more on surprise and diversity than on met expectations. Convoy’s sound is unexpected in this Southern California city, and — if last night is any indication — that is not a problem.
Behind a band like Convoy (behind any band really) is what is commonly called a “scene,” a conglomeration of local musical history, venues, media, personalities, and attitudes. Some of the most obvious names are Tom Waits, Eddie Vedder, Jewel. All three were at one time part of San Diego’s music scene. Though all have lost their provincialism, each has a history here. A band might define itself in part by allying with or resisting (through willful ignorance perhaps) these histories. Bands tend to have a myopic understanding of their region’s musical history: they might ask.
“Where do we fit into what has been happening here for the last five years?” But not necessarily, “What do we owe this city’s musical history?”
In San Diego, the focus of this short history has come to be known as the “Casbah sound”: the smart math-rock of bands like Rocket from the Crypt, Lucy’s Fur Coat, Inch, and rust — bands that played frequently at the Casbah when it was located farther up Kettner Boulevard, in what is now the Velvet. Because of these bands, the media and national record labels briefly marketed San Diego as a second Seattle. But a music scene existed here before this hype, and whether today’s local bands know it or not, they are part of a longer history characterized by an anything-goes temperament. San Diego has traditionally been tolerant of diverse trends, a good place to try things out, a place to play music and have fun doing it without too much resistance. And because of this accepting atmosphere, San Diego’s failure to become the second Seattle bred neither wariness nor bitterness.
Gary Rachac works in a used bookstore downtown on Broadway and has been involved with music here since the late ’60s. A native San Diegan, Rachac is a singer, songwriter, and guitarist who played the club circuit in San Diego until the late ’70s, when he retreated from the scene to the beach, to surf. Rachac is a cautious man. Though willing to share his experiences, he does not want to get in hot water. He feels an allegiance to San Diego music and is careful not to lead me to believe otherwise. Behind the register, a small black-and-white photograph shows his father and uncle sitting on a couch with guitar and banjo. “I come from a long line of musicians,” Rachac says. “I came from a household where you played music or you didn’t eat. My folks would have weekly hoe-downs, on Saturday nights. My friends and I would go out, and if things didn’t pick up, we would go to my folks’ house and have a little hootenanny. Both of my parents liked Elvis, traditional American music. This is in my blood. My dad is still into country, swing, rockabilly.
“San Diego was a music place before the Beat Farmers,” a local band that achieved some fame in the mid- and late-’80s and that Rachac says he helped get together by introducing two of its better-known members, Jerry Raney and Country Dick Montana. “Earlier, before the Beat Farmers, it was different. I can remember a time when everyone thought we were in the right place at the right time; and we were breaking bounds. In the late ’60s and early 70s, I paid my dues: I got beat up because of my hair. It was not hard for us in San Diego to go from surf culture to the Beatle mop. We had long hair already, and it was just a matter of toning it down and redirecting it. I remember my folks watching the Beatles on Sullivan, and overnight, literally within 12 hours, I went from beach boy to Beatle, and so did all of my friends. But there was local music that influenced even the Beatles. In Lennon Remembers, when Lennon was asked what he thought about American music, he noted the song 'Angel Baby,’ by Rosie and the Originals, which was recorded in an airplane hangar out in Santee. And please, let us not forget the Cascades’ 'Rhythm of the Rain,’ which was a top-five hit in 1962 and 1963.”
Over the years, according to Rachac, the city has lost something musically. “There are so many people here now, and in terms of music we no longer have a communal feel; things are tribal now. I know it is important for each generation to have their own look and sound, I nurture that. But today’s young bands need to know that it is their turn — things do not seem to be going anywhere.”
Other veteran musicians have not retreated from the musical front in San Diego and have no intention of surrendering their ethos or sound to younger bands. I meet with Mike Stax in La Mesa, at the offices of the Union Jack, a local British-interest newspaper of which he is an editor. The offices are in a nondescript building, a place one would expect to meet a clean-cut journalist who indulges himself several evenings a week playing folk standards at a coffeehouse. Stax is thin, spindly, and friendly in a goofy way, and when I meet him, I swear I have been time-warped to 1965, to the time of the Pretty Things — the hard-living British band that Stax ritually honors in the music magazine he edits and publishes called Ugly Things. With his dark shaggy hair, black torn-at-the-knee jeans, and black booties, Stax looks like Johnny Ramone, but more benign, and I get the feeling that his craziest days are behind him.
Stax relates how he came to San Diego from England when he was 18. “I was a fan of a San Diego band called the Crawdaddys. They were playing something that sounded a bit like the early Rolling Stones or the Yardbirds; it was super authentic. I was into those ’60s bands and was trying to do a similar thing but not having much luck in England — this was during the early era of Joy Division, and it was difficult getting an R&B band together to play Chuck Berry and stuff from 1964. So I wrote them a letter in 1980, asking simply, 'What are you doing?’ They wrote back to say that their bass player had just quit and asked me to move out and take over, but they wanted me to send a photo first. They wrote back again saying, ‘Love the photo, don’t worry that you can’t play bass.’ So I just got on a plane and came over.”
After playing with the Crawdaddys for several years, Stax formed his own band, the Tell-Tale Hearts: “We cut a few records and had a cult following.” For the past two years, he has been the singer in a band called the Loons. “I was the bass player in the other bands, but my personality is more about control, so I had to learn how to sing. We have put out several singles, and another two are coming out We play around here, like at the Velvet, but don’t really want to tour—you know, I am 35. Although, I am excited that we are being flown out to Atlanta to play in the Fuzz Fest, a three-day festival of the ’60s garage-band sound — you know, fuzz boxes and all of that.”
When I ask if today’s San Diego clubgoers are uninterested in the Loons’ retro, mod-rock sound, Stax’s response touches on both exasperating and exhilarating aspects of playing music in this city. “When we had the Tell-Tale Hearts, we practiced in what is now the Gaslamp District, in a space that was set up like a club: it had a bar, and for a 'donation’ people would come in with their own booze. One time the police came in, grabbed our lead singer, and led him from the stage. He came back ten minutes later and told the audience he was wanted for overdue library books, and we played on. Those were great shows. Another exciting time for me was around 1984, there was an interest in what we were doing; people came out and partied, a variety of people — there would be punks, mods, garage people, and ordinary people. But it ran its course; it died out.
“For a while it was not easy here. Several years ago I had a band called the Hoods, and we would play R&B before these grunge acts, and people were, like, 'Shit — I didn’t come to hear this.’ Also, there are not enough under-21 clubs in San Diego. I miss that younger crowd; they are so loyal to bands. Those in their 20s, people my age, well, they have lives; they are not going to die for a band. Now maybe it’s coming back; people seem open to the Loons. We are appreciated for whatever retro qualities we might have. And the Velvet is a good club; shows go on and on there, things break down, there are fights — it has a good feel to it. I know I have a different perspective though: the young bands want to be stars; I just want to quit my day job.”
As mercurial as fashion and taste may be in San Diego, at least they operate according to a merciful system of ebb and flow, rather than the cruel sink-or-swim formula typical of, let’s say. New York. Whatever Mike Stax’s ambitions are today, he knows he can’t complain. For 17 years, in this one city, he has written, performed, and recorded music he has been passionate about since he was a teenager. And despite a few lulls in fan enthusiasm, Stax has enjoyed a regular audience with an inclination to toss a few back and shake it out.
Another veteran San Diego musician is Steve Poltz. I am grateful that Poltz has agreed to meet with me, considering that he is something of a celebrity now — if that is what a major record deal, an appearance in an MTV video, and a blurb in People make someone. I have had to work with his schedule, which includes time in a Los Angeles recording studio and trips to the racetrack in Del Mar (for the moment, he has traded in drinking for gambling). We meet at his apartment, near the water in La Jolla, and Steve is excited (almost hyper), warm, and garrulous. Though he is 37, like a kid he shows off various mementos and trophies, things he has gathered from musician friends and from his years on the road with his band, the Rugburns. Buzzing around the room, he shows me a picture of his friend Jewel in the oval office with President Clinton; an irreverent picture of the Rugburns in front of a Bob Dole billboard in Russell, Kansas; and a signed LP of Rickie Lee Jones’s new album Ghostyhead. “Yeah, I met her in L.A.; I went up to her after a concert and said, ‘Rickie Lee, you’re my favorite, I love you, Rickie Lee,’ and she leaned forward for a kiss. I kissed Rickie Lee!” Kissing Rickie Lee Jones being something I have desired to do for most of my life, all I can muster is a nod and a raised eyebrow. “I know,” Steve laughs.
Steve has gone from playing local gigs to touring nationally to signing a major record deal with Mercury (for one solo album and one Rugburns album). Along the way, he has experienced most aspects of San Diego’s music industry and has developed respect for the city’s music history. I was told that he could write a song in minutes, that he was insanely driven and a manic genius, and during our conversation, I see what people meant. Steve talks humorously and almost without pause and answers most of my questions before I can ask them.
He started the Rugburns here in 1982 with his friend Rob Driscoll, who has since left the band to teach high school math. “We got together at first to play classical guitar duets, then we began doing Beatles medleys, and eventually original material. We started playing at a place in Old Town, and they would not let us amplify, so we blew our voices out and played as hard as we could. The very first gig was inauspicious; we broke a yard glass [a bar novelty, it holds about three feet of beer], and since we only got paid in tips, we ended up owing the place more money than we made. In fact, most of the places I have played have since gone bankrupt — never have me play at your wedding; every one that I have played at has ended in divorce.
“We started recording songs in Driscoll’s garage; he was a real technophile. We put out about five cassettes and never even thought about getting signed. Eventually, the local label Cargo Records was thinking about signing us, so I immediately called Buddy Blue, of the Beat Farmers, and asked him to produce our album. He said, ‘Forget Cargo, I will get you on Bizarre Planet,’ Frank Zappa’s early label. Buddy was nervous when the guy from Bizarre came to hear us play; he told me what songs to play and begged me to play for only 40 minutes and not to play ‘that damn Sesame Street cover.’ I played for hours, of course, and covered the Sesame Street song, which ended up on the album.”
The Beat Farmers were a San Diego institution. An irreverent bar band, they played a mixture of roots-rock and parody-rock, led by the antics of drummer Country Dick Montana. In early November 1995, Country Dick died onstage in Canada, and today fans trade legends of the hand’s extreme living. Poltz recalls working with members of the Beat Farmers on that first album: “Working with Buddy in that studio for seven days is one of my fondest memories; as far as I was concerned, I was working with Don Was,” the legendary rock producer. “Buddy gave me so much valuable advice, and he taught me how to deal with the press. He said, ‘If they call you an idiot, remember that you are an idiot. And if they call you a genius, remember that you are not a genius. Einstein was a genius; you are a good songwriter and are no better than a good plumber.’ And I still cannot believe that Country Dick sang on that CD. He would come into the studio at ten in the morning, with bare feet, lacking sleep, and ask, ‘Where’s the beer?’ I would look at him with complete reverence, but I knew he would not be around for a long time.”
The Rugburns’ success was hard won, and, as Steve remembers it, it was due mostly to his tireless pestering of the record companies. After the release of the first CD, Morning Wood, he would call Bizarre and beg: “ ‘Can we get posters? Can we tour? I will play anywhere. Can we? Can we?’ Well, our first booking agency was called Lobotomy Booking, and once we hit the road, that’s when I started to miss San Diego and the support we had here.” Even today, after the record deal and touring with Jewel, Poltz has not outgrown San Diego. “Even if you outgrow an older brother,” he explains, “he can still kick your ass. It's mental. Back when the Beat Farmers were playing, those guys were stars to me. I mean, when I saw Country Dick Montana — God bless his soul — I would freak out. Those guys had record deals, they toured.
"I would act like a stupid little brother, fascinated by their stories. I never figured on being signed,” he says, and then he chuckles. “It’s a joke to me.” Poltz admits that some things are different now for the Rugburns. He describes the recent experience of opening for Jewel: “Opening for her was like going to health camp. Normally I come back from tour burned out. We would run out of money and sleep in the van in a Motel 6 parking lot, just so we could tell our friends we were staying in motels. With Jewel, it was something else: she had two buses, with juicers, catered meals, no smoking, and fans that listened to music and didn’t throw things.” Poltz claims that at each show the Rugburns play, he says, “Hey, you guys, we are the Rugburns and we are from San Diego.” And what does he ask in return? “Put this in print:” he directs, “let the Rugburns sing the national anthem at a Chargers or Padres game.”
As varied as the experiences of Rachac, Stax, and Poltz are, all suggest that San Diego is an easy place to play music, that its fans are adaptable, that its musicians help one another and refrain from acerbitv. and that, while enterprising, its bands are not about hype or excessive ambition. This, it seems, is true today, and it is a legacy that many people involved with music here are proud of. As Andrew Altschul, editor of local music magazine SLAMM, puts it, “If I were a working musician and got to play enough to pay some bills in a band that I enjoyed, got to write music that people could hear, and got to play at a place like Winston’s, or the Belly Up, or the Casbah, I don’t know that I could find much to complain about.” But, alas, there is one thing.
Musician and writer John Brizzolara has lived in San Diego since 1980. According to him, “There is no shortage of talented musicians in this town. You can throw a rock in this town and you are going to hit a competent musician, if not a brilliant one, and I’m not one of these guys who never heard a band I didn’t like. It is a healthy place creatively; commercially, it’s bad news.” A commonly heard refrain is that local commercial radio stations do not support local bands when they need it the most; that is, before a record deal and a subsidized tour. This complaint is rarely mercenary, instead, it is rooted in pride and principle. If there is so much talent and so little antagonism, then why, people wonder, is that not reflected in local radio playlists?
Altschul attributes the success of SLAMM magazine — first published early in 1994 — to, among other things, the absence of any preexisting media coverage of local music in San Diego. “Our reputation is strong because a supportive press was lacking in this town before us. Radio is definitely more supportive in other cities, and it is without a doubt the most important outlet for new local music no matter where. Without sounding too critical, in an ideal world the term ‘new music’ would not be defined by corporate record companies and big indie labels and then dictated to stations, but rather it would be obvious to stations that new music is right around the corner."
Others are less diplomatic and more vehement in their indictments of San Diego radio. “If there is any institution in this town that does not do its part for local artists, it’s the radio, and that is what keeps a lot of bands down,” says Mike Andrews, guitarist for the Greyboy Allstars, a band that started in San Diego and plays what he calls “rare groove, soul jazz." “They will place you in a ‘locals’ show, usually late at night, but they won’t put their balls on the block and put you in rotation — even when there are people in town who want to hear you.”
Steve Poltz echoes Altschul’s lament: “When Mike Halloran was program director at KUPR [in 1996), that was happening. But there is nothing like that anymore. It would be so good for San Diego if radio picked up more local bands. It would get local fans excited; they want to root for the home team. And then it would snowball. Club attendance would surge, bands would get signed, baby bands would bloom. You need role models, like the Beat Farmers were for me. It is so simple and it starts with radio. Halloran was a good thing here. If I really make it, I will take my revenge by coming back, buying a station, and showing these folks how it can work. What kind of a bone is a weekly show late at night? If they had balls, at five o’clock, during rush hour, they would play three local bands."
Considering that a radio station’s listeners are, of course, local, then why in the world would a local station not play local bands? It is surprising how those people who are involved with San Diego radio, and those who want to get on it, articulate their respective arguments. On the surface, there seems not to be a problem.
I meet with Coe Lewis and Jim Mclnnes, DJs for KGB-FM, and Al Guerra and Chuck P, DJs for Rock 105, at a broadcasting studio in Kearny Mesa.
Disc Jockeys can be either a blessing or a nightmare for an interviewer, they are, of course, trained and proficient talkers, and they know a couple of things about marketing as well. According to this group of respected radio professionals, local music is in fact one of their primary concerns. It is the record labels, this group believes, that betray local artists. Guerra, who with Chuck P hosts a local show called Subject to Change, says, “We have seen a lot of good bands get dropped, but the labels do not surrender, they hog the rights and all of that.” Mclnnes calls MCA— a label that has signed and then dropped several San Diego bands — the “Music Cemetery of America.” Radio’s loyalty, they claim, is with the artists.
Everyone in the room agrees that it was Jim Mclnnes who first used commercial radio as a platform for local music in San Diego. Gracious and bright, Jim carries himself with a modesty and resignation conditioned by his belief that he is an old-timer, that the time has come for him to cede his trade to a youngpr generation. He remains on the periphery of our conversation, contributing only occasionally. “I was doing this when there was no San Diego music scene, maybe a hundred people. When I first got here there was nothing; now it is light-years ahead of what it was—the artists here are as good as anywhere in the world. I started to get involved with local music in the mid-1970s, working on albums of local music; I even started a label in 1979, called World Records, and we put out a few singles by the Penetrators. I started Homegrown in 1983 and ran it until 1989, when Coe picked it up.”
Homegrown was a weekly radio program on KGB that showcased local talent, and according to Jim, it was never meant to he a bone: “I was looking for production values; I wanted the stuff to be as polished as what we always played. I was more critical than Coe was.”
Coe Lewis has been involved with local music shows in San Diego for the past ten years, giving it up last summer, in part because her station has gone to a classic rock format. “My show [at KCLX and KUPR) was called Locals Only, and I had a column in SLAMM by the same name, which I just gave up as well. I like to inform bands, let them know what they are up against. I was the first person to play Rocket from the Crypt — that was on Homegrown —and I got in trouble for it too. My boss just so happened to be listening, and he could not understand what I was playing; to him, they were just an aggressive attitude band. I also gave airtime to the Beat Farmers, the Rugburns, and Jewel.”
She misses the obvious irony that these artists have signed major record deals. Some might argue that San Diego’s locals shows only play bands that are on the verge of success, thus giving the station the right to advertise both its loyalties and its prophecies. Others, like Steve Poltz, maintain that radio play leads to record deals; once label scouts see an artist’s name in frequent rotation on a commercial station, they will inquire.
According to Chuck P, “We [commercial radio) are trying to make up for the lack of college radio in San Diego. In other cities, college radio does a tremendous amount for local music, but both the UCSD and San Diego State stations are cable access. Not enough people listen.” He admits though, “It would be great to see more local bands in rotations. What is more community based than radio? Increased rotations would breed increased attendance at shows, which would increase the frequency of signings.”
Why then are local artists not played more frequently? We all know the answer, and it is a little depressing. Corporate radio in this country has made singers into national products — the San Diego musician Jewel, for instance, is more familiar to a Dallas teenager than the singer who lives next door—and many commercial radio listeners believe that national recognition means superior quality. Combined with the conviction held by many teenagers that anything from far away is cooler than what is down the street, we have a system that feeds itself, and any sense of region is devoured in the process. But this is old news, and in the end the affairs of commercial radio do not interfere with the quality or enthusiasm of San Diego hands. There are other things to lean on, and in San Diego, attitude is cardinal among them.
I go to see f.a.t.b.s. play in Encinitas, at 25 East E. It seems an odd place for a concert. To begin with, the store sells hip beach-wear — a kind of mutated Banana Republic — and also sells lattes, lavish iced beverages, and specialty buns. The structure appears to be a garage wit h corrugated siding, but authenticity is a tricky business these days: it is either old and was spruced up to appear new, or is new and was distressed, as they say, to appear old. The store has no space you could imagine becoming a stage, and in addition, with the railroad tracks just feet away, every 15 minutes or so the Coaster shakes the building on its foundations. But tropical plants and a gurgling fountain make it comfortable, and beautiful teenagers and a couple of Labradors laze about a back patio. I am not sure what a seven-member, classical-funk band is going to make of this.
f.a.t.b.s. stands for either “final analysis through beat session” or “fuck all the bullshit,” because, as lead singer and guitarist Davis Williams explains, “That is what we are about; just fuck the bullshit.” The band shows up in a plain van (a custom one, deep green with lettering, is in the works), and we talk and share some beers in the parking lot while they get ready, which means decking out in vivid polyester, Shaft-style shades, and Afro wigs. Drummer Matt Smith brags to Williams about how frugal he was on a recent trip to a music store; he had seen some nice zube tubes and vibraslaps but, thinking of the band’s budget, refrained from buying anything Williams shakes his head: “Damn, man, you make them sound so fat, I think you’re a fool for not buying them." It seems hard to do wrong in this group.
The band members’ ages range from 23 to 26, and they have been together for over two years; they even have a manager, Doug Jones, who also manages the auto repair shop where they rehearse several times a week, fa.t.b-s. loves playing in the San Diego area, and they will perform at private house parties, major venues, and anything in between. The percussion player Jason Dahon explains that “People are so open down here; they just love our funk. The look on their face when we have finished playing? They are so jazzed. That’s the one point I want to get across, the look on everyone’s face: the joy, just rocking out. It’s a look of shock. Well, more shock-happy really.” He folds his arms and smiles.
Chris Nolf, who plays tenor and baritone saxophone, recalls one of the band’s most successful performances. “We were playing the Belly Up, opening for Goldfish, a local band that we really like. There were only a handful of people inside; most people were just kicking it out front, waiting around. We started to play, and the folks outside liked our sound and came rushing in, packing the place. The lead singer of Goldfish got super pissed off. He threw his cellular phone down in the alley and was screaming at his manager, ‘Why did you book us with a band like this?’ We had three cover songs on our set list that night, and they asked Doug to tell us not to play those songs, because they wanted to. We didn’t play them, just out of respect, just to keep things good, you know.”
When I ask the guys what their ambitions are, what they want f.a.t.b.s. to become, they are confused, silent, incredulous that I even asked the question. Dalton again: “What is any band's ambition? To be like Aerosmith or Bob Marley. We want to quit our jobs, go on the road, and play in front of thousands of people. The way I look at it, there are any number of people who can do the jobs we are doing right now, but only one set of guys can make our sound.” The band affirms this with a collective “right on” and prepares to hit the stage they cleared in a corner of the store. When I raise an eyebrow at Jeff Dresser’s wig, he laughs. “Yeah, I know. There is a little bit of bullshit floating around in the band, but we are trying to root it out, trying to stay above it.” The place has filled up while we talked, and for the next two hours the band plays hard. At the end of the night, about a dozen sweaty girls dance and holler right in front of the stage, and the band seems ashamed to quit.
The members of Convoy do not think of their band as coming from this milieu; they know more about the Band and Ron Wood — they know everything about Ron Wood: who played what on his solo albums, when and under what circumstances he left the Faces for the Stones — than they do about the Beat Farmers. Their music identifies more with rural regions than it does with Southern California. But the prevailing attitudes of San Diego’s music scene have conditioned Convoy more than they might think. Their songs have none of the dirgeful, hang-your-head-in-your-drink qualities typical of young alternative country bands: where else can a country-rock band get away with wearing flip-flops?
One night, I go to hear Convoy play at Winston’s East — which almost passes as a honky-tonk—out in Santee. The band is cranked tonight because Doug Myer, a local pedal-steel guitarist, is sitting in with them and hitting everything just right, lending a little more twang to their sound. They play past midnight to a decent crowd, and everyone is having a hell of a time. At one point a desperate woman (she must have been jin her early 40s spots me doing my back-against-the-wall routine. Usually timid, I can be a bit of a rube, but when she asks me to dance,
I say, “Sounds good.”