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Tom Gaffey Needs Your Help

Posted by: on Sep 29, 2009 | Comments (21)

Okay, folks. It’s serious.

The Phoenix Theater in Petaluma is in such a severe financial crisis that Tom Gaffey has been laid off. You might not have noticed, because he’s still working there every day, but it’s true—he’s been taken off the payroll.

“I need to be back on in about a month,” Gaffey told me yesterday, “or I’m gonna be in trouble. “

On the phone last week, Tom tried to downplay the situation, saying that he’s been through thin times before, back when the Phoenix was a smaller operation. “If I could cover the rent, the PG&E and the insurance, then we were golden,” he says. “But now we’ve got some other things going, and the fact of the matter is that stuff is so cool. The music school, the clinic, the art programs, all the extra stuff we do is just so important and so valid. When you see the clinic on Thursdays, it’s absolutely full, a good long line of people waiting to get in. You can’t deny this is a great program.”

To that end, the only paid employee at the Phoenix right now is music program director Gio Benedetti, and even he’s been cut down to half-pay. Executive director Amber Faur, like Gaffey, has also been officially laid off. Bruce Hagen, board president, explains that both are still working at the Phoenix in a volunteer position, and “they’re working as hard as they ever did, God bless ‘em.”

It just doesn’t make sense. Say the name “Tom Gaffey” anywhere in Sonoma County and an air of beloved reverence is instantly conjured. This is a guy who’s given decades of encouragement to teens who didn’t get support from their schools, their families, their social circles. Who’s said yes to starting a band, painting a mural or realizing some other potential when every other adult has said no. Who’s given years of sincere advice in place of nagging, and provided wide-ranging opportunities to kids who’ve only known closed doors.

So how could something like this happen?

For years, the Phoenix used to be run by Gaffey alone, who in addition to booking shows also oversaw a bunch of kids who hung out after school, played guitar, made art, put on plays, edited films, skated and helped each other with homework. When the theater was saved from being turned into an office building in 1999 by a group of dot-com benefactors, it slowly eased into the Phoenix Theater of today—a nonprofit model where all those extracurricular activities are now official programs eligible for grant funding.

Hagen says the theater had banked on getting some significant foundation grants and major donor grants, “but the word we’re getting is ‘You guys look like a great program, you have a pretty solid organization, but we’re not taking anybody on right now.”

The shows haven’t been doing too well, either. Up to half of the theater’s income once came from door receipts, but the Phoenix was forced last year to be overly cautious about booking rap shows, “and as troublesome as those sometimes were,” says Hagen, “they were very profitable for the Phoenix.” (The long-running series of Super Hyphy shows usually brought in at least $2,000 per month.)

All told, the Phoenix needs about $20,000 a month to stay afloat. In addition to funding, the theater is in need of energetic board members, reliable volunteers and “people with skills in administering a nonprofit,” Hagen says. “Ten years ago, we had a situation where the Phoenix couldn’t exist on the model that it had. And now, we’re in a similar situation where in this economy, we can’t get by unless we have a greater level of support from the community.”

Those interested in volunteering time or skills can get in touch with Hagen directly by emailing him here. As for Gaffey? “I’m fine for a little while longer,” he told me, “but I may have to go out and find a job here real quick.”

For those who’ve been inspired or supported in any way by Tom Gaffey and the Phoenix Theater, helping out is as easy as clicking here and making either a one-time or monthly donation. They’re a 501(c)(3) now, so it’s tax-deductible. Now is the time to help out. Countless people have seen firsthand the benefits to having Tom Gaffey at the Phoenix Theater. If enough of us pitch in, we can rescue one of the worthiest causes in Sonoma County. Every bit helps.

Stevie Wonder Sits in With the Jazz Mafia!

Posted by: on Sep 28, 2009 | Comments (0)

I just got off the phone with Adam Theis, who’s still flying high. Christ, he’s got every right to be. On Saturday night, in the middle of his set with Supertaster at a very tiny and very new club called Coda in the Mission District, someone whispered into his ear that Stevie Wonder had just walked into the room. “The rest of the band soon found out,” he recounted, “and we were all looking at each other like, what the fuck?!”

It’s no small thing, Stevie Wonder walking into the room, especially when you’re a band who’s made a habit out of playing dozens of Stevie Wonder songs. It’s no small thing, either, when at the end of your set, Stevie Wonder starts making his way up to the stage with his bodyguard.

You know the rest: Stevie Wonder got up and sang two songs with the Jazz Mafia at a tiny little club in the Mission District. I mean, after Stevie Wonder sits in with your band, what else is there? Does Theis ever need to play another show in his life? “It kinda feels like that, actually,” he jokes.

Here’s an excerpt of Theis’ written recollection of events:

We chatted with him for 5 seconds and decided on the tune “All Day Sucker” which is a tune we used to play a lot in Supertaster and also with Realistic Orchestra for the annual Stevie Wonder Birthday Tribute that we put on. I have to say that when he started singing the song it was beyond goosebumps…the crowd was going completely insane yet being very respectful, the band was playing better than ever and we honestly had no idea that Stevie would even want to sing with us. He did what I felt like was my favorite version of that song ever. As the tune was nearing a stopping point, I leaned over to Bagale and suggested testing the water by playing the riff from “Can’t Help It,” the hit song he wrote for Michael Jackson. Joe gave me a huge smile and head nod.

It was a little weird when I merged into the bass line from “Can’t Help It,” Stevie was still singing “All Day,” and he kinda froze for a second to get his bearings – I was kinda freaked out because I felt like, “I just cut off Stevie Wonder!!” Crap!!” But it took him literally 2 seconds and BAM! one of my favorite songs EVER came to life on stage live.

After it was all over, Stevie hung around the club, taking pictures and chatting with the band, which was both exciting and nerve-wracking. “You’ve got five minutes to hang out with your idol,” Theis explains. “What do you talk about?” By all accounts, though, Stevie seemed genuinely interested in the band, in the San Francisco scene, and in Theis’ recent masterwork Brass, Bows and Beats. And right before he left, he called the whole group together.

“We got in this kind of a huddle, just the musicians, and is voice lowered a little bit,” Theis says. “It was really cool and intimate. He said he liked what we were doing, playing a lot of different styles and taking a lot of chances. He said keep doing it. Do not give up. He said this thing that we did tonight—we did, he said—is really, really important. That it’s what culture is all about.”

Here’s to the Jazz Mafia, to Supertaster and to Coda. And for Theis, a former Santa Rosan who’s done nothing but make a name for himself since he left town, I know he’s on Cloud Nine and probably will be for the next year. “Someone would have to come back from the dead, actually,” he says, “for it to be better than Stevie Wonder.”

Here’s the video:

The Bruce Barclay Memorial Concert

Posted by: on Sep 22, 2009 | Comments (0)

“He wasn’t one of those people who were the center of attention, but was always one of those people others were drawn to. You know, talented, athletic, funny, compassionate,” says Allen Sudduth. “Bruce was always one of the best and the brightest.”

Sudduth would know. He first met Bruce Barclay in the mid ’60s at Santa Rosa Junior High, and with Sudduth on drums and Barclay on bass, the two locked in step with each other both as lifelong friends and musical partners. Both had known each other in junior symphony and other school programs, but through a series of garage bands with names like the Third Foundation and the Worthy Cause, the two played nonstop at school dances and local venues—even opening for the Buffalo Springfield in Santa Rosa at the Fairgrounds in 1967.

Sadly, Barclay died last year, the result of complications from an auto accident 15 years ago. This Friday, Sept. 25, people from all over the country are flying in—either alumni of Santa Rosa High School or those with a personal connection to Barclay—to participate in a special memorial concert for Bruce reflecting his dual love of classical and rock music, “from the sacred to the profane,” as Sudduth calls it. The first set is classical-oriented with works by Vivaldi, Schumann, Bellini, Grieg, and others; while the second set features songs by Jelly Roll Morton, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Steely Dan, Jimi Hendrix, and yes, a few originals by Bruce Barclay.

“He was a phenomenal, phenomenal bass player,” says Sudduth. “We listen to these tapes that we did in the ’70s and ’80s and we’re just stunned at how good he played. And we kinda took it for granted, I guess. But he was always the rock. He was the guy you could always count on. He played better than anybody.”

The Bruce Barclay Memorial Concert is this Friday, Sept. 25, at Santa Rosa High School. 8pm. $20; all proceeds go to SRHS music programs. For more information, click here.

Bands Start Up Each and Every Day

Posted by: on Sep 18, 2009 | Comments (0)

I look back in weird ways, I guess. I have a compulsive need to chronicle the past, and assemble tidbits, and remind myself that it happened. To remind myself that bands existed. I collect flyers, set lists, broken drum sticks, drawings, strange notes between band members, letters, practice tapes, broken strings. I sometimes present these items to their originators years later, like a mom bringing out the third grade report card again. “See?” I implore, “You ripped this Paxton Quiggly sticker off your bass in the middle of your set at the Highway 12 house in 1995, and you threw it on the floor, and you thought you’d never see it again, but look, here it is! And look, you got an ‘S’ in reading, and your teacher wrote ‘Is attracted to the books of Judy Blume’!”

It’s fine and dandy to be reminded of third grade, but it’d be downright ridiculous to actually go to your third grade classroom again, and cram into the tiny wooden desk seats with all the others you went to school with, and attempt to re-create the magic of watching “Riki Tiki Tavi” for the first time on the 16mm projector. This is how I feel about band reunions. Know your past, and build on it, but don’t rehash old moves.

So. Pavement is reuniting for a tour in 2010. Pavement is one of the greatest bands of the last 20 years, and we should by rights be shitting our pants about this, but how excited can even a diehard fan be with dead weight of Malkmus’ mediocre solo career and Spiral Stairs’ failures in the 10-year interim? Does context not bog down the grandeur of “Stop Breathing”? If the band smiles while playing “Major Leagues,” is it because they love the song, or because they’re getting paid? Is it unfair to read too much into an ex-band’s good time?

There is no concerted band-reunion backlash. This is the summer of nostalgia. Michael Jackson, Woodstock. Pastel-colored T-shirts with white blazers. Reissues, repackages, reunions, retracing. Bands performing classic albums in their entirety. Everyone clawing back ceaselessly into the past, avoiding whatever it is they’re scared of facing. I can understand needing a warm familiar place to reside say, during the Bush administration, but why now? Look around. Now is when we have a smart president and we have these weird artistic opportunities because of the depression and we have this gung-ho spirit of change and hope and possibility, and the best we can do is help the Pixies sell out three shows of a no-surprises song-for-song set of Doolittle, a very good and very old album they recorded over 20 years ago.

Next week’s Bohemian column is on a stellar book coming out on September 29, Gimme Something Better: The Profound, Progressive, and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk from Dead Kennedys to Green Day. It’s a collected oral history of a very special time in many people’s lives, my own included, told by over a hundred band members, scenesters, zine editors, promoters, volunteers and old friends who save things like set lists and practice tapes. A mammoth work at 500 pages, it will have an impact on the Bay Area in ways we can only prognosticate, except for one. “Are you ready for the bickering to begin?” I asked authors Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor yesterday. “Oh, it’s already started,” Tudor said. “It started when we began interviewing people.”

I’m a champion of history, which shouldn’t be confused with nostalgia; history is telling stories about an old flyer, while nostalgia is trying to book the same show with the same bands at the same venue all over again. History can also be unsettling, and having events close to one’s life wrapped up neatly into book form sometimes gives the eerie feeling of mummification. I mentioned this to Boulware, and asked, “Why write about all this stuff now? Isn’t it a little too early?” He laughed.

“When you’re too young, you don’t really have a perspective on it, as much as when you’re older,” he explained of most of the book’s interview subjects. “When you’re in your 30s, you’re embarrassed of the stuff you did in your 20s, and you don’t wanna talk about it. But when you’re in your 40s, and you’re talking about something that happened in your 20s, you have a little bit of distance on it.”

In other words, if Boulware and Tudor hadn’t tracked these people down now, who knows what stories they’d have been unable to share? Lots of writers have tackled the Bay Area punk scene and failed; by handing the book’s voice over to the people involved, Gimme Something Better is like being homesick without leaving home, and an epic chronicle that people will be talking about for years to come. I can’t say as much for the average band’s sad-sack reunion tour, where the prevailing feeling is that of watching overgrown children dance for Grandma.

Konocti Harbor Resort to Close

Posted by: on Sep 10, 2009 | Comments (2)

After languishing on the market for two years, Konocti Harbor Resort is closing. I’m not going to make the expected jokes about washed up has-beens. This is a total blow.

Along with uninteresting bookings like Styx and Rick Springfield, Konocti, which is owned by Local 38 Union of Plumbers, Pipefitters and Journeymen, has consistently brought the biggest names in country music to the area. Look at the list of performers who’ve played there, and it reads as a who’s-who atop of the country music charts: Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, Toby Keith, Carrie Underwood, Brooks and Dunn, Faith Hill, Trace Adkins, Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley all come to mind.

Country music stars are often just as easy to make fun of as leftover arena-rock slop like Lynyrd Skynyrd and KISS, but with Konocti closing, where around here are people going to be able to see them? Toby Keith can’t play the Wells Fargo Center; it’s simply too small. Maybe someone could book him at the Petaluma Fairgrounds, but will he really want to play on a temporary rented sound system in a dirt rodeo grandstand? Konocti had a solid working relationship with these artists, and they kept coming back to the place, as run-down and decrepit as it may be.

Some people say it’s just as well that Toby Keith, a confirmed douchebag, can’t play around here anymore, to which I recall the last time I went to Konocti, to see Trace Adkins. He sang songs about soldiers and mama and workin’ hard and America. To see the fat shirtless guys cheering, the disabled veterans crying, the kids in wheelchairs smiling, the toothless MILFs dancing, and the plumbers, pipefitters and journeymen and their families all singing along was to witness a culture that we too often criticize without understanding.

The bottom line is that a slice of happiness for these people has been lost.

Thorns of Life officially broken up, Blake Schwarzenbach unveils new band: forgetters

Posted by: on Aug 23, 2009 | Comments (8)

It began all the way back in February, right after their West Coast tour and a recording session with J Robbins that apparently didn’t go smoothly. Friends of friends delivered the news that Thorns of Life broke up, and while I knew Aaron was out of the band, I thought Blake might at least find another drummer and keep the name.

Now, the long-running rumors about Thorns of Life breaking up can be made official.

Blake Schwarzenbach writes on his Facebook account: “the name of this band is forgetters. (no “the,” no capital “f.”) we played our first show on August 22nd in Crown Heights. members are: blake (guitar/vocal); caroline (bass/seaweed); kevin (drums).

“Kevin” looks to possibly be Kevin Mahon, the original drummer for Against Me, and “Caroline” fulfills Blake’s standing wish for a female bassist. Here’s hoping that some of the cherished Thorns of Life songs (the Gilman download is here) stay afloat under this new banner, and more importantly, that this band lasts. I’m glad Blake didn’t retreat back into musical hibernation for another six years. For now, though, there’s two burning questions.

1) What’s to become of the master tapes from the Thorns of Life studio recording?

2) Is forgetters a better or worse name than Thorns of Life?

More news as it arrives.

The Metal Shakespeare Co.: "To Bleed or Not to Bleed"

Posted by: on Jul 9, 2009 | Comments (0)

Just when I was thinking that over-the-top adventure metal had exhausted the last falsetto yowls from its already-limited substance–think Sonata Arctica, 3 Inches of Blood, Dragonforce—comes the Metal Shakespeare Co., a self-described “bardcore” band who turn to the ultimate source: William Shakespeare. Taking Hamlet’s famous speech from Act II, Scene I, and putting it to shredding hammer-on solos and pounding drums? Instant crush on all these dudes.

The video is below; look for the amazing hobby-horse. And don’t miss ‘em when they play at Gilman St. on July 25.

Beck vs. Tom Waits

Posted by: on Jul 8, 2009 | Comments (1)

Easily the best thing on the internet today is Beck’s conversation with Tom Waits in a new series on his website he’s calling “irrelevant topics.” It’s not exactly an interview; the two talk loosely but engagingly about homemade submarines, the longevity of songs, the lost works of van Gogh and Euripides, the strength found in poor amplification and of course, Los Angeles, where they both grew up.

Waits:
Not every town gets their song. Actually, Sinatra tried to do a song about Los Angeles. It was really lame. Really lame. It embarrassed the shit out of me.

For all the love Quincy Jones has been getting in the last week, it’s nice to hear someone point out a complete turkey that he produced: “L.A. Is My Lady.” I’m a huge Sinatra fan, and L.A. Is My Lady is absolute dreck.

Part Two is coming next week, but for the time being, Part One is essential reading and can be found here.

Sunny Murray Still Misses That Girl

Posted by: on Jul 1, 2009 | Comments (0)

Early last week at Yoshi’s Go Left Fest, drummer Sunny Murray—easily one of the most important stickmen in 1960s avant-garde jazz—came out on stage, sat down at his kit, and started calling out for a woman he once dated in San Francisco 40 years ago. No one answered.

“You’re just hiding because you got remarried,” he proposed, directing his next comments to the imaginary husband of the absent woman. “I was going to kill her first husband, you know. Sun Ra gave me a .38. I love guns, I’ll shoot your ass, boy.”

With this, he laughed. “I’m not gonna kill you,” Murray added. “I’ll just shoot your kneecaps off.”

Murray, who established his career by drumming on famous sessions alongside Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Alan Silva, Archie Shepp and a host of other breakneck pioneers, then picked up his sticks. He is 73, and his drumming has slowed but not entirely abandoned propulsion. His trio, Positive Knowledge, played one steady stream of music for over a half hour, combining reeds, gongs, poetry and noise. For an avant-garde festival, it felt strangely behaved.

At the end, Murray was still thinking about that beautiful woman from 40 years ago who got away. He approached the microphone. “She was half Filipino, from San Francisco,” he told the crowd. “My wife took one look at her and said ‘Why’d you leave her for me?!’”

“I told her, ‘Because I love you, motherfucker!’”

Then he walked off the stage.

Michael

Posted by: on Jun 26, 2009 | Comments (13)

There are certain deaths whose sting of importance have always stayed with me. I heard about Kurt Cobain on TV, inside a Tower Records in London. Jerry Garcia, on tour driving through Kentucky, on the van radio. Joe Strummer, on a computer.

I was born in 1975, and Michael Jackson was the first superstar I ever loved. His was also the first death I watched unfold slowly online, in a sterile, digital environment made suddenly alive by speculation. During the purgatory of truth, when TMZ had the story but no reputable news sources could confirm, I, like the rest of the world, went to about 10 different news sites which had nothing—and then to Facebook, which had even less. A Twitter search for “Michael Jackson” turned up countless entries, and after a mere 30 seconds went by, the mind-boggling message: “There have been 5,675 new entries since your last search. Click here to refresh.”

Upon finding the L.A. Times confirmation, I swallowed a hard lump in my throat. I’d been joking about it with my co-worker, suspending just enough disbelief to make light of the situation, but I’ll admit it: I was sunk.

I lament the demise of the superstar from time to time, but what I’m really pining for, personally, is to have another Michael Jackson. To have another icon so completely capture the world’s attention, without any haters or snark. That such a thing will never happen is as much a statement on Michael Jackson’s greatness as it is on the changed landscape. The entertainment industry was far more consolidated in 1983, and one’s choices were either Michael Jackson or Black Flag, with not much in between. Now there’s a million options, and a million opinions, and an internet to dilute it all and to serve as a platform for information and negativity instead of knowledge and hope.

But also, sure. I was 8. At Mark West Elementary School, where I loyally wore a white sequined glove most days, Michael Jackson was king. No one questioned his superiority. It seems incredible to have once been in an environment where I agreed with everyone’s musical tastes, and perhaps this is part of the idyll of Michael Jackson. Nowadays, we pay $50 to share an experience with like-minded people; in 1983, we just had to go to the playground and there’d be a group of kids surrounding a flat piece of cardboard practicing the moonwalk.

But after a while, I woke up one day and Mark West Elementary had decided that Michael Jackson was a fag. The worst insult stopped being “You shop at Kmart” and instead became “You like Michael Jackson.” This was a sad and confusing day for me. I tried to tell everyone they were wrong, that Michael Jackson was the best. Thinking about it now, my campaign was worse than unsuccessful—it actually completely decimated what little  social standing I’d managed to acquire.

“If you love Michael Jackson so much,” one particularly knuckleheaded bully demanded, “then why don’t you go out on a date with him?”

“I would go on a date with Michael Jackson,” I replied, and, further twisting the knife on my own suicide, added, for reasons unfathomable to me now, “In fact, if I had a piece of his poo I would keep it in a jar by my bed.”

I got beat up a lot in the next five years.

Why would I say such a thing? I’d like to think I was keenly reacting to unfair treatment of a genuine talent with theatre of the absurd, or that I was presaging the vicious cycle of celebrity at work and wanted to monkeywrench its purveyors.  But basically I said it because it was the truth. I loved Michael Jackson’s music, but I loved even more what Michael Jackson gave me: a sense that I was really a lot cooler than I really was.

If I could just master the moonwalk, I‘d think to myself, incessantly rewinding the Motown 25 special we’d taped on the family VCR and scrutinizing Jackson’s every step in slow-motion. If I could just wear my pants high, or memorize all his songs, or play them on the piano, or get that red jacket, I could have a piece of what he has. Such innocence is as tragic on the outside as it is triumphant from the inside, but it wouldn’t have been right for someone to tell me that Michael Jackson couldn’t solve all my problems. Foolish innocence has to run its course naturally and brutally.

In the next year or so, I got into Herbie Hancock, the Force M.D.s and Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam. Then Run DMC came along, and everything changed. Michael was still great, but he wasn’t the only great. In the shadow of rap music, his tough-guy act in the corny video for “Bad”—all eyes glued for the world television premiere—was unconvincing.  The album was good, but it was 1987, I was 11, and I’d discovered other good music. How can a kid actually worship Michael Jackson after discovering the Smiths?

Dangerous was an afterthought; the party was over. Michael Jackson’s music entered that weird area occupied by the Beatles and Huey Lewis—music that I loved and memorized by heart and that I never needed to hear again. I discovered punk rock and criticized the corporate music industry and its sinister star system, and I turned my back on its most successful product. Plus, when Jackson started getting weirder and weirder, I was ashamed that all those years ago, Mark West Elementary was sort of right.

My story isn’t far different from anyone else’s. We all watched him slide, and we all groaned at the late night TV jokes, and we all shrugged our shoulders. What good would worrying about his well-being do? He lived on another planet, one where talent was processed by his lungs and where shame was used as currency. One where real money was used to recreate Graceland’s gaudiness and to buy the Beatles’ catalog from under McCartney’s nose, and where laughably unrealistic confidence in Invincible caused him to lose everything.

Watching the events unfold online yesterday, the quip I saw repeated most was that “the real Michael Jackson died a long time ago.” But the real us died a long time ago too. We all got so callous and sure and filled with judgment that the part of us once able to be spellbound by an intoxicating pop song and an unbeatable performer died, and we failed to realize the Dorian Gray effect of his deteriorating face reflecting the grotesque nature of the world.

And still, from inner-city nightclubs to suburban wedding receptions, his music never failed to fill the dance floor.

I don’t have my sequined glove anymore, or my sheet music to “Say Say Say,” or my demographic-assured allegiance to Pepsi. I have not listened to one note of his music since he died yesterday. Gravity tore us apart. But I cannot deny what he once meant to me, and how he once gave me hopes and dreams far beyond reality in a distant world completely different than the way we know it now.