Phil Lean, in his studio
“It’s very odd, being here playing alone in your house, with no audience, even though we know they’re out there,” says Ron Wheeler. Until the coronavirus, he led one of the best-loved cover bands in San Diego, “Ron’s Garage,” named after the “studio” they practiced in — his actual garage.
Now, every Monday night, Wheeler plays alone into an iPhone, giving a concert for his fans, everything from Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” to the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR.”
He may make $100 a night, via an electronic “tip jar.” Not bad for a performance piped into your iPhone 11 from your house in La Mesa. But nothing compared to the crowded Sunday afternoon patio shows Ron’s Garage was famous for at McP’s Irish Pub in Coronado. That patio always looked like a scene from the Tivoli Gardens, with girls and boys and old Navy guys and their wives or girlfriends draped over the walls, sipping suds, or dancing right in front of Ron’s four-piece rock group.
“I’ve played McP’s since they began in 1983,” Wheeler says. “And the thing about that place has always been the vibe the kids — and their parents — give off, dancing and joshing and drinking away. They made us put the energy into our music.”
Wheeler has been playing since he was a 14-year-old in Kansas City, Missouri. He came out of the Navy as a Chief Petty Officer. “I was an aviation guy at sea on carriers, fixing jet engines,” he says, “but I’ve always kept up the music.” So have his buddies, guitarist Claudio Martin, drummer Gary Taylor, and Phil Lean, bassist and singer. Lean’s famous at McP’s for his version of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” usually the finale on a Sunday afternoon. But he’s also a music teacher at Francis Parker with a Ph.D. from UCSD in theoretical studies in voice, and has written music for movies such as Indiscreet and The Beneficiary. He was once part of a trio called The Self-Righteous Brothers.
The Fifth Beatle? Phil Lean is a Beatle fanatic
Lean sets up his own iPhone studio in his guest room on the 12th floor of the Coronado Shores complex. He hangs the iPhone by a strip of Gorrilla tape. “We coordinate on broadcast days. Ron does his on Mondays 6-8; our buddy (singer/guitarist) Gonzo, Fridays, 5-7; and me Saturdays, 6-9. You have to play a lot of popular rock numbers. Between us, we’ve probably got 1000 songs down. But especially Gonzo and me, we’d get into more esoteric music. Nothing fancy. More like ‘Reelin’ In the Years’ from Steely Dan.”
Financially, Lean has his teaching job to fall back on. Wheeler has his Navy pension and his job teaching special ed. But a lot of their musician friends are not so lucky. They’re facing desperate times. “That’s why we give our tip money to fellow musicians,” says Wheeler.
A work in progress
Technology makes this studio concert format possible. But even though listeners can “chat,” request songs, and throw tips in the “jar,” Lean says it’s a lonely way of making music.
And yet one of their biggest fans — writer Joe Ditler, who tunes in to all three weekly performances — says they have saved him from the emptiness and depression this coronavirus situation threatens to inflict on so many of us. “They’re a living connection to what I’m already calling the good old days,” says Ditler.