The other day, an old friend wrote a post on that social media place with the faces. It was about our hometown, listing all the bands that were around back when we were but youthful whipper-snappers. It was quite a long list. It seems astounding that there were close to two dozen bands that came and went in a few years time. I’m not sure it is all that rare, but considering the “safe” status and middling size of our southern California bedroom community, it’s pretty amazing that we had such a lively music scene. It got me thinking about how lucky I was to grow up in the midst of it all. Maybe all those tract homes and sidewalks that got rolled up at dusk were good for something. Those years and the people I met and played with inspired me and pushed me on toward my own musical future. I relish those days even if I didn’t take the time to appreciate it then. That list of old band names got me thinking…*
“No one from this town will ever make it as a musician!”
So said one of my neighbors when I was eleven and all I wanted to do was learn how to play the guitar. He was right, in a way, I certainly didn’t make it, but here I am all these years later and I still find work as a musician on occasion. As a matter of fact, my neighbor was wrong. There were more than a few who actually broke out of our little suburban-bowl of a city, that lurked anxiously in the long shadows of Los Angeles. Some of them actually got to play rock star for awhile. Some still do.
Yet, what did my neighbor know? He taught me how to skate, but when I first tried to push off with my left foot forward, he shamed me into changing my stance. It never quite took and it was years before I learned that I was goofy-footed. No wonder it always felt awkward.
The awkwardness I experienced on a skateboard was similar to the feelings I had as I tried to fit into a musical crowd that seemed to know so much more then me. Being the sort of dweeby, wannabe rocker that I was, and with no older siblings to guide me toward the good stuff, I was left adrift in a sea of music, unable to be selective. I was easily impressionable, (which, if you don’t already know, is a terrible character-trait to have as a would-be rock star!), and that sort of led me into temptation in the realm of glam metal, among other stupid choices that you make when you are young. I’m not proud of it now, but back then I was a sucker for a pop-hook and I would have given my soul to look as cool as Bret Michaels in leather pants. It was not to be. Thankfully.
I may not have had brothers or sisters, but I made my own in the like-minded souls who also found themselves bored and jonesing for rock awesomeness in our bland little corner of California. From these fellow travellers and long-haired Jedi guitar-masters I learned that music was in me and with a few new chords I was happily enrolled in the College of Rock. I was still in high school, but still… Slowly, I let go of the 80s power-ballads and discovered something new, and old, and deep, and majestic. Like Led Zeppelin and The Misfits. I discovered that there was more to music than Bon Jovi and Mötley Crüe and Guns N Roses, I just needed a gateway band to open my eyes to the musical feast. Thanks, Jane’s Addiction!
What’s more, rumor had it that there were actual musicians right in my very own town, in my very own neighborhood, sometimes in my very own class. There were guys, (and yes, back then in the late 80s and early 90s it was almost exclusively guys in my neck of the woods), playing shows, creating powerful music, and basically being the most amazing musicians I’d ever heard or seen. Many of them could still put real rock stars to shame with their musical prowess. And, I believe a few of them actually are doing that. Maybe even right now.
There was the guitar player** who worked at the local music store who was in a band called Axis and he could shred! They got awesome gigs like the city carnival and the roller rink and Gazzarri’s in Hollywood. Not only that, he was encouraging, even when I was a total dork and didn’t know a damn thing about the guitar. He showed me some stuff, sold me my first real, non-pawnshop, guitar and became my friend. He also introduced me to the guitar teacher who set me free from playing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and gave me the secret to the blues: the pentatonic scale!
That same teacher also told me a different secret when I was about to enter tenth grade. He casually let me know that athletes got noticed in high school, but musicians were always popular with the ladies. Perhaps it was ill-advised on his part, but I will admit I practiced more than ever that summer.
I remember sneaking out of the house when I was 15. The drummer** I was playing with knew about about this party a few streets over. (He had an older sister who knew about cool stuff.) There would be booze and cool musicians. These guys were all older than us by a few years, but in just a few more years we would get to play in the same venues as them and sometimes even with them. Right away, we found ourselves in a back room with this bushy-haired, skinny fellow. He was the older brother of a kid I’d played soccer with. Mack**, was a renowned drummer with impeccable timing, he was also a singer and played a number of other instruments, including guitar. My bandmates and I would discuss his band, The Juice Whistles, in between playing “Louie, Louie”. They were legendary. That night, Mack treated us to a kooky song about meatballs and then he was gone. Other guys were floating around, dudes that played in bands with crazy names like Carne al Carbon and Earth, but we weren’t familiar with them. Not yet.
We had our little band of four or five high schoolers. Someone was always getting grounded or quitting or bored, so the numbers would ebb and flow. Pretty soon, there were just three of us, we called ourselves Station Zero, which another acquaintance mocked by calling us Talent Zero. Eventually we changed it to Contradiction on the smart advice of our drummer. (And of course, that name was mocked incessantly as well.) We played the talent show. We played some parties. Our friends started a band called Psychedelic Juice. We had a rivalry! We heard about this band from across town, Atomic Cocktail, who could play like all the guys we idolized. They were already playing at the Whisky in Hollywood. So we followed them onto the Sunset Strip, which, in retrospect, was a lame idea, but at the time it felt magnificent!
In a few more years we had a different drummer. He was friendly with all those older guys we’d always heard about. In no time at all we were playing shows together at dingy clubs and backyard parties and up the coast near Santa Barbara. Every weekend, it seemed, there was an opportunity to see guys we knew playing fun, incredible music, jamming with them late at night or just doing dumb stuff at their shows. In the center of town, a creaky old restaurant was becoming our own epicenter of rock.
Cheers. Yes, Cheers. It was not the Cheers where everyone knows your name, but for us it was pretty close. The place had been a surf & turf yuppie hangout, but somewhere along the way, an enterprising entrepreneur named Rick** persuaded the manager to have alternative rock shows on Sunday nights. Sunday Skool was born and allowed us to freak out the staff. That bled into Fridays and Saturdays and soon it was our place to rock and act like imbeciles, not the place where prom couples went out to dinner before the big dance.
All the bands from our town played there. The Juice Whistles who became Hail Rumpus. The Underground who became April’s Motel Room. Carne al Carbon-who were called something else before that-who then became Tree of Love. Psycho Hesher who became Cold. Redfish. Ten Foot Pole (who were Scared Straight back before any of us played a note). Strung Out and Chump and so many others. Bands from surrounding towns, touring bands, bands from the South Bay, all came and played our little dive. And there was us, Contradiction. We got another few drummers. Added a guitar player. We broke up a time or two. A few of us joined some of the same bands listed above. We eventually morphed into other bands like Tempus Fugit and Flush and, well, Contradiction, again, before finally walking away from each other and the whole incestuous thing for good. Mostly.
Some of those guys still play a little, like I do. Some play all the time. Some don’t play at all. Some have little gigs here and there, but they don’t make a big deal about it, even though it is kind of a big deal because they can play like nobody’s business! It is something to have the gift of music. We shared an incredible period of time in our lives. I’m not sure my words do it justice. It was a profound experience. Lifelong friendships were forged. Petty arguments were had and forgotten. Mistakes were made. Youthful exuberance and hubris carried the day.
For awhile, we had our own remarkable private party with our closest two hundred friends. Then we all grew up and moved on. Some of us, unfortunately, have shuffled off this mortal coil.
Those days left their mark forever on my heart and soul. Lessons I learned are still with me, even as I walk through life as an unassuming, full-grown adult with children and responsibilities and a life that I never dreamed could be a reality. The fingerprints of each one those guys are all over what I do now because we fired each other up, urged each other on, competed for the spotlight, and shared something oddly beautiful. These days, every once in awhile, when there’s a crowd and the volume is cranked and the mood is just right, I can feel those old ghosts. I see those smiling faces and it’s just a little bit like those electric nights we shared once upon a time. And for a split second it’s as if those moments were just last weekend, not a lifetime ago.
That’s the power and magic of music.
*This is by no means a definitive account of the years 1987 to 1995 in my hometown. I chose to focus on my direct, formative experiences. This was not an effort to encapsulate my entire experience or that of my contemporaries. As with every life, there is so much to tell. There were so many players, and not just the musicians, but our friends and family who supported us, or the best record store down the street that we all frequented and where some of us worked, to the managers and club owners who put up with our crap. It was a great time to grow up and play some rock & roll. If, by chance, you are reading this and you feel slighted, please accept my apologies. It was unintentional.
**Names withheld to protect the righteous and the wicked.