And so it’s happened. The residents at the Boogie Room, home of some of the most exciting subcultural activity of the past two years in Santa Rosa, have received a 60-day notice to vacate. They’ll pack up and call it a day in mid-April.
Speculation that the property might go on the market had been brimming for a while, and to be fair, most everyone so far seems surprised that the Boogie Room lasted as long as it did. “I’m one of them,” Bryce Dow-Williamson, a heavily-involved volunteer, told me today. “I thought it was gonna be, like, two months.”
“But I’m grateful for what we were able to do,” he added, proposing that perhaps now that the Boogie Room has set the example, “people have seen how it can work. Maybe someone’ll come along and do it right.”
There’s a handful of house concerts left on the calendar, and then the Boogie Room’s two-year run culminates on April 10 in a farewell show with the Crux, Pete Bernhart from the Devil Makes Three and more. It’s also Bryce’s birthday the next day, so a slumber party is rumored, along with a “memorabilia sale.”
I suppose it goes without saying, but Santa Rosa isn’t going to be the same.
It’s the end of the summer
Come to the time when we have to say goodbye
After watching seven different bands at Daredevils & Queens tonight, and after spending three days watching countless bands at the Insect Carnival last weekend, I have to say: summertime’s elusive promise, that delicate combination of freedom and togetherness so impossible to contain, has come and delivered its sweet kiss just in the nick of time. Soon it will be October, and we’ll spend our nights at home, and read Neil Gaiman novels and watch Richard Widmark movies, and talk about them to computer screens. But these last few weekends, at least, have been a last gasp of what living in Santa Rosa is all about.
It’s hard to put into words, these shows at the Insect Carnival and Daredevils & Queens, aside from saying that they’re probably best not put into words. They breathe, but how do you describe a breath? You inhale air, you exhale air. Right? Is it that simple?
The oldest of friends, the newest of strangers, the coldest of beers and the truest of bands. All under a sky just enough unclouded by city lights to allow a few stars to poke through. Shooting stars, even—the kind that you catch in their split-second streak, and when you discover that the person you’re next to saw it too, for a moment you are bonded if not by the music or the laws of attraction than at least by the very fact that you’re both under the same big sky.
The end of the summer means that people play John Prine and Jesus Lizard songs in the middle of a field, next to a mud pit full of naked people. The end of the summer means Jolie Holland ballads and clanging chains and bullhorns and a floor bending under the weight of people jumping up and down in rhythm. The end of the summer means sharing amps and sideways smiles and a hundred hugs. The end of the summer means a downtown alley full of people drinking free beer and fuck it if it’s Coors.
And the end of the summer means that as the wig-wearing auctioneers of Wine Country Weekend raise money by clowning their own dead counterculture of the 1960s, there are walls both concrete and wooded, both inside city limits and out, where a new culture is constantly being reborn. Where fresh blood is funneled into art, and music, and community, and life, and where money does not rule all. I repeat: where money does not rule all.
So thanks to the bands, and the people like Travis and Bryce and Kyle, and the hordes of people in this town who know a good thing when they see it and who seize it while it lasts.
First of all, the prize of the night I think goes to the young kid in a wheelchair who, while his friends formed a wall around him to guard him against flailing bodies, tilted his head back and sang along to every line of “Born to Die.”
Never mind that MDC slowed the song down to half-speed, or that they changed the lyrics to “I Remember,” or that they said fuck it to the iconic bass intro to “John Wayne Was a Nazi,” or that they sang entirely different lyrics to “Chock Full of Shit,” or that they kinda mangled “Chicken Squawk” or that in fact they played their first five songs acoustically. MDC were still great, and despite revisiting just about all of side one of their first and best album, 1982’s Millions of Dead Cops, they didn’t have the pathetic reliving-the-past feel like so many other old punk bands still on the touring circuit today.
Personal data: Dave Dictor is almost as old as my dad.
“I spent most of the late ’90s in a methamphetamine haze,” Dictor announced to the crowd, about 4 or 5 songs into the set. “Walking around the streets of San Francisco, wearing this big yellow rubber poncho, pushing a shopping cart. Those were my peeps. But you know, I got into rehab“—spitting out the word like it was an obscenity—”and got myself straightened out.”
How could we have not guessed that Dave Dictor was gay? “America’s So Straight,” “My Family is a Little Weird,” his flamboyant costumes and incessant prancing around on stage in the ’80s? “There’ve been people coming up to me tonight,” he told the crowd, “reminding me about playing the Cotati Cabaret in 1988. And apparently I took all my clothes off, and traded underwear with a girl.” See?
Personal data: One of the first songs I learned on the guitar was the entire flamenco solo intro to “Chock Full of Shit” from Millions of Damn Christians.
Even when MDC ditched their acoustic guitars and started playing loud, it still wasn’t, uh, “loud.” But listen to their records—they’re not loud either. MDC: the sheep in wolf’s clothing. They always were kind of a hippie band. The message of health food and sustainability in the liner notes to the Millions of Dead Children 7″? Ahead of its time.
Some guy brought a zucchini the size of a bazooka from the gardens and stood in front of the stage, beaming. It wasn’t long before it wound up smashed and battered on the floor under the shoes of the pit. “My mom always told me not to play with food,” quipped Dictor. The pit wasn’t too out of control.
Personal data: One of the first shows I ever went to, at the River Theater in Guerneville, was MDC playing with All, Nuisance, and a very young and very stoned opening band called Green Day. It was September 23, 1989. I was 13.
I wandered outside near the set’s end. MDC has a reputation for playing long-ass sets, and I figured I’d try to stave off potential boredom. Plus there was some crazy acoustic music emanating from the campfire, like there usually is, so I walked over and there it was: a bongo player, a trombone player, a saxophone player, and a beatboxer. A small kitten meowed along. The Boogie Room is amazing. Amazing, I say!
Quotes of the Night:
Young punk girl, with a cigarette, to a mellow-looking guy in blonde dreadlocks: “Hey! Are you the hippie who told me not to smoke?”
40-year-old guy to MDC’s drummer, before the show: “I graduated in ’86, and I listened to you every day! You guys are the best, man!”
Guy to another guy, outside after the show: “Consider that you might not be allowed to come back here, okay?! Do you realize what you’re doing?”
Girl, leaning out of her car: “Hey, do you want to punch me in the face for $8?”
And it’s not a quote, but I’m always heartened—I don’t know why, I’m too young to legitimately care—to see a Jak’s jacket in the throng:
I bought a Millions of Dead Cops cassette for $5 and walked back to my car. Came home and listened to Horace Silver. The next morning, I smelled like shligs and had weeds in my hair. Right on.
There were some baby goats in one of the barns at the Boogie Room last night that were born just three days ago, cuddled up together in a pile of hay. It was amazing. I don’t get to see that sort of thing very often, and especially not at a show, where sweetness and innocence aren’t exactly in fashion these days.
Maybe it’s just me, but it sure seems like there’s a lot of bands lately who hold purity in low regard. Following secret motives and adhering to a growing nouveau underground which dictates a bitterly knotted anti-aesthetic, the only use they’d have for baby goats would be to ironically put them on their CD-R cover with, like, some rainbows and duct tape and bloodstains.
You know the kind. They all play a chaotic amalgam of fast, schizophrenic drum beats, noodling, atonal hardcore riffs, sparse, unnecessary non-vocals, and quirky or nonexistent tempos. They usually have a surefire gimmick, like dressing up in toilet paper or manhandling some artifact of malfunctioning vintage electronic equipment. Invariably, they have unconventional instrumentation, causing fans to say things like “it’s just a guitarist and a drummer!”—as if that’s, like, a totally original thing because that’s not how Nickelback or Sugar Ray or any other dumb band in their secret pile of CDs now collecting dust on their bedroom shelf does things. And they rarely, if ever, talk to the crowd.
Nickelback and Sugar Ray suck hard, don’t get me wrong. But what’s lame about this current voguish, anarchistic approach is that is it defined not by what it creates but by what it blatantly disregards. Right now, there’s way too many bands that tear down conventional form, melody, structure and rhythm, yet add nothing in its place—other than technical wankery and a juvenile nose-thumbing to what they perceive as the musical establishment. They’re like the sect of iconoclasts who have decided that interpersonal love is too mainstream and who avow to combat the fascist regime of loving one another by going out and displaying their autonomy by masturbating in public.
If this is the revolution, then sorry, man, but I’m bored with it before it even begins. How did Sara put it the other week? “If I leave a show, and my ears are ringing,” she proposed, “I want to at least have heard some songs.”
At the Boogie Room the other night was a fresh sign of hope. Pwrfl Power—the stage name of solo Japanese-American artist Kazutaka Nomura—not only played actual songs (and good songs, too), but he engaged the crowd with stories, jokes, observations, and genuine purity. “How are you?” he asked the crowd, and after we all muttered “good,” he smiled, adding to the exchange a trademark tangent.
“When I said that right there, ‘how are you,’” he said, “I was thinking of the book that I learned English, and it had an example of a conversation between, like, Tom and Kathryn. Some generic names like that. And the conversation was: ‘How are you?’ ‘I am good.’ ‘Is this a chair?’ ‘No, it is a table.’” He laughed. “What kind of stupid person is that?”
But whether he knows it or not, Nomura’s songs carry the same simplicity as those rudimentary textbook conversations. They’re basic statements that mean so much more exactly because they’re presented in such simple terms. “It’s okay to be yourself, it’s okay to be yourself,” he sings, “Because you’re you.”
Underneath innocent pronouncements about dogs, tomatoes, bananas—that sort of thing—lies a complex philosophical strain. Is it okay to fake some tears when you break up with a girl? Can one contribute to society without having a job? Is there a heaven where all the dead birds, dead cats, and dead drummers go?
Nomura plays the guitar with an advanced fingerpicking style, sometimes peeling into a dazzling interlude that sounds like Joe Pass at high speed (see “Coffee Girl Song”). With this sort of jazzy accompaniment and a restrained singing style, his set at the Boogie Room was like an ungrizzled form of beat poetry, and the mostly sitting-down crowd listened in rapt attention. Once again, like the first time I went to the Boogie Room, it reminded me of Studio E in Sebastopol.
I’d be super-curious to find out if Nomura, like other Japanese performers, plays up his language barrier while onstage to win over American audiences. I’d also probably be pretty jealous if I were on tour with him, watching him steal the hearts of the crowd every night with his painfully twee songs about chopsticks. But from an audience point of view, and especially in the context of the heinously garbled bullshit that passes for music in the underground these days, Pwrfl Power sure is a breath of fresh air.
I intentionally parked about a half-mile away from the Boogie Room last night so I could walk the long narrow road in rural Santa Rosa under the moonlight, surrounded by farmland, alone. It’s something I used to do plenty often, before I had a driver’s license—and before most of Santa Rosa’s empty fields were turned into tract homes. It was serene, and I think, since the Boogie Room is located pretty much in the blissful middle of nowhere, that I’ll make a tradition of it.
I don’t want to say too much about the Boogie Room, because in the guerilla tradition of the last couple years, it’s an under-the-radar venue and probably prefers to stay that way. Think of it as a Studio E for the younger set; a homey place to see friends, play fetch with the house dog, sit by the campfire, and watch terrific bands in a cozy barn in the middle of a field. House concerts, as it were, with an edge.
I was given a tour of the sprawling grounds by Bryce, who’s something of a navigator for this amazing, multi-tiered ship. He enthusiastically showed me around the large greenhouse and huge garden; the collection of barns full of old cars and owls; and the many, many improvements that he and other residents have made since they moved in about a year ago. Sliding open the door to one leaning barn, he blankly explained that it was where the previous tenant, who had been running a chop-shop for stolen cars and a methamphetamine lab, had hung himself.
In the music room, the junkyard classicism of the Highlands—a cellist, a violinist, a possessed guitarist and two drummers—was filling the place up. After a truncated set by Battlehooch, who manhandled a Theremin, a Sony Watchman and multiple vocal effects before submitting to technical difficulties, it was time for the Iditarod, who were as epic and majestic as their name implies. Medieval synthesizer solos, heralding trumpets, three-part-harmony battle cries, absolutely strange guitar playing and hyperactive drum beats. Shit, as they say, was goin’ off.
I’d never seen Xbxrx before, but I could tell that the guys standing by the side of the stage had to be the band members. They looked bored and annoyed, like they couldn’t wait to play and get the whole thing over with, and sure enough, as soon as the Iditarod were finished, it took exactly 40 seconds for them to start hurriedly setting up their equipment on the stage. So I wasn’t expecting much; after all, they’ve been a band for ten years, they’ve toured with Sonic Youth and Deerhoof, their last few shows were in Berlin, London, and Amsterdam—why would they possibly care about Santa Rosa?
But a total transformation occurred when they plugged in and started playing; it was like they’d become lightning rods for all the Earth’s energy for miles around. They leapt, flailed, ran, fell down, writhed, spun, and shook wildly. . . and that’s just in the first two minutes. I’ve seen a lot of goddamn hardcore mayhem, but this was up there. Way up there.
In matching baby-blue outfits, the guys in Xbxrx didn’t perform so much as they blurred their way around the entire barn, as far as their guitar cables would allow, unpredictably crashing around while playing blast after blast of insane noise. They climbed the walls, they banged their heads on the ground, they shoved their bodies behind the couch and they did haphazard flips into the crowd. Antagonizing, sure, but even though I stood just a couple feet from the guitarist’s amplifier and mic stand the whole time, I amazingly never once got hit.
At the end of the set, one of the guitarists crawled underneath the stage with his guitar and just laid there in a fetal position. He didn’t move. It made sense, in a way. So I left before Batman vs. Predator with my ears ringing, and walked the half-mile back to my car in the quiet foggy midnight air.