Last night, between dates at Thrillhouse Records and Gilman, Thorns of Life played a stellar show with Santiago and the Semi-Evolved Simians in the basement of Adam’s house in Santa Rosa. It’s more like an interrogation chamber than a basement down there, but in spite of our repeated warnings to the band in the last few weeks that the downstairs is a tiny, 10-foot-by-15-foot concrete cell, they kept shouting back their approval. It’s small? Sure! It’s cramped? We’re there! It’s going to be a total disaster? Great!
So the basement it was, as Thorns of Life—Blake Schwarzenbach, Aaron Cometbus, and Daniela Sea—came to Santa Rosa for another hush-hush house show last night on their West Coast tour. There were some hidden flyers around town, but unless you looked inside dumpsters, sewer tunnels and library book-return slots, you had to rely on the word-of-mouth secret show game, with all of its social awkwardness and selective dispensing. But in the end? A night, as they say, for the books.
Looming over the house at the onset was a freak nervousness, aided by the cops parked a couple houses down. Then: the slow dissipation. The opening bands, the opening beers, the opening hearts. Sweat doesn’t just break through the lining of the skin; it opens up invisible barriers. By the time Thorns of Life played, there was no option but the personal. I sat essentially on top of Blake’s shoes with a sea of people at my back; Blake fit squarely beneath a heating duct; Daniela played between the water heater and exposed fiberglass insulation; and Aaron crammed more people in the basement by directing them behind the drums, atop the workbench.
The show was a brilliant blur; smeared further, a bit, with disbelief and volume. For 11 songs, everything gelled inside the ridiculously populated basement on the corner of Spencer and King, and afterwards, it was beers in the backyard, “On The Way to Frisco” in the kitchen, Nancy Ling Perry obituaries in the hallway, and for me, catching up with Blake Schwarzenbach.
At some point during the party—between discussing the house’s cats, the possibility of playing Jets to Brazil songs at acoustic shows in the future, Creature Feature host Bob Wilkins, accidentally ripping off “Ingrid Bergman,” the challenge of playing harmonica, the memory of losing one’s virginity, and sending postcards to Verona—Blake and I managed to slow down and escape to the sidewalk outside, next to the station wagon they’ve been touring in, to conduct an official interview. I first interviewed him in 1991, 18 years ago. He’s just as open now as he was then.
Do you look at the past as a hindrance or an asset?
I used to look at it as a hindrance, but I think I broke through in the last couple years. I don’t really know when it happened. I did a lot of work on myself, getting me to enjoy my past. I found out I could actually use it a little bit to help me out.
What about regret? Is regret useless?
Yeah. If you can’t convert it into art, then it’s gonna destroy you.
What about nostalgia? Where does nostalgia lead?
I think it’s pretty good if you don’t live in it. It’s always nice when you think of somebody fondly, or go to a place and remember something or somebody. That’s part of travel, and being alive. I’m usually grateful for it, I don’t get it that often.
Really—you’re not a nostalgic person?
No, I’m sad. I’m sad. What I used to think of as nostalgia was my recognizing degraded human environments , and it was a response to poverty, I think—poverty of spirit, a lot of times, but also social poverty, aesthetic poverty in our country, the way living spaces look awful and our civilization is really ugly physically. So, yeah. There’s a big difference between sadness and nostalgia.
One of the things noticeable in this band is the apparently conscious decision to play house parties and DIY places. Can you talk a little about that?
Well, it’s how we started, when Aaron came to me. We’ve had this courtship for a decade, but really in the last few years when I started having songs, he coaxed me into going to a house show. And it was really fun. And then I felt like in order to justify going to house shows I needed to have a band; after a while, I felt like I was freeloading, like the old punk guy who goes to shows. Like, ‘I’d better have a band, to go here and hang out.’ So it was a pretty natural progression, and I think I have some indie damage from the Jets where I just never want to be in a rock club with someone from the local free weekly being disinterested and asking questions.
You know that I’m technically from the local free weekly, right?
Yeah, but you know what I’m talking about, that whole apparatus, like the person who goes to interview the Matador band that week, or whatever. So having survived that machine, I was kind of happy not to… it was really boring, honestly.
Yeah. And we’ll play clubs. I mean, I’d like to. But you have to have less stages, I think. We don’t have a P.A. in our rehearsal space that’s very good—it’s just a guitar amp, it’s very sketchy. It just ended up being the sound of the band, that there should be a little bit of struggle in it. The first show of this tour we played at a club in San Diego, and I have to say it was really disorienting to have a monitor. I spent years learning how to use a monitor, but I’ve completely unlearned it, and now I don’t want too much of me. I’d rather push, and hear it out in the room.
Some of your more ardent followers take issue with this whole approach, where you do shows that are word of mouth and therefore only for the in-the-know; it’s frustrating for them, and can seem kind of elitist. How would you respond to people’s concerns like that?
I can’t help them.
Well, you could play larger places.
That’s true, and I’d like to. But last time, for me, in my band, it was the other thing. The punks thought that that was elitist, and that we didn’t give a shit because we played big clubs: ‘I’m not paying eight bucks to see you, fuck that.’ So I kind of feel like it’s hard to win.
And if you’re gonna err, you might as well err on the side of…
Right. Free shows, or four-dollar pass-the-hat shows, where we have fun. I’d rather have fun first and then worry about other people’s fun. I’m pretty selfish that way.
One of your infamous positions has been leaving the punk scene behind—and now, between playing house parties and embracing a political stance, it seems like you’re rediscovering your inner punk.
Well, I became politically articulate in New York through graduate school and through the last three wars. I used to write about it, I mean, I felt it was intrinsically in me, because my parents were radicals and I grew up suspicious—I grew up in Berkeley in the late- late-’60s, I watched the Watergate hearings with my dad. It was in me, I didn’t know how to express it, and I always found it a little corny when people would do it on the nose. I had to find a voice where I felt I could be helpful. When I can put it in a song, I really like it. I just have to earn it in a way, to take on other people’s pain. I don’t want to write any kind of sloganeering song, or jingoistic song or anything. So if I can use my own subterfuge of poetic language, and do it, that’s actually where I feel like I should be writing. I’m a little tired of me. I haven’t had a relationship in a long time, so there’s no stories there. I’ve been living the Palestinian struggle for the past five years. That’s more interesting to me right now.
You have a song about Al-Qaeda in Washington.
Yeah, and it was a really quick song to write. It was just about surviving the primaries and seeing Hilary Clinton in the ascendant, which to me was a dark harbinger of more bad policy. It’s a cautionary song about not putting all your money in Obama curing the guilt of white people and saving the world. I don’t wanna say no to that, I wanna give him his shot, and I voted for him, and I would work with anyone to change anything.
Would you call yourself cautiously optimistic about his presidency?
Yeah, yeah. I think it’s only responsible to wait and give him 100 days, or four years, whatever it is. The title—the idea, to me, studying Iraq for the past few years, studying Afghanistan, studying the Western attitude toward the Arab world—“We Build Al-Qaeda in Washington,” that’s the title. The core of Al-Qaeda is in Washington. Sure, it grows in Yemen, and it grows in the Saudi oligarchy and everything, but I think we’ve done so much to foster militias around the world that the idea is you should go there and fight, you don’t need to go across the world. That’s the title, that’s the idea.
Has the punk scene changed, or have you changed?
I think I’ve changed. I mean, yeah. I went back.
Could you imagine yourself doing a tour of house shows in, say, ’96?
No, but I longed for it many a night. I was just like, ‘This is so boring!’ Like God, these fucking places. The shows could be great, and musically it was fun to have that huge apparatus. But it’s a limited thing: you get 40 minutes of feeling powerful, and a lot of drudgery. As I said, being politically articulate helped me miss punk. I realized that those are my people. At least they’re asking those questions. Indie rock isn’t asking those questions. It’s so inward-looking and ambitious, in New York especially. It helps to be in New York, because they’re just shameless about wanting to fuck you over to get ahead.
Brooklyn, in particular?
Now, yeah. I guess now Brooklyn is this kind of Seattle. I never thought of it that way, but it’s… I just found those people not very interested in the world. Interested in their own local phone code, their own space. I was heading out into the world at the time that it seemed like that music scene was heading into itself. So punk was the only place where people were going out and marching, doing actions. They just gave a shit about the world! It seemed to be about the most important thing anyone could do in the last eight years.
You took part in some of that. I think you gave a speech in New York at some point.
I did, yeah. I have a great friend who’s a historian, a professor, and she insisted that I speak at a student walk out. She goosed me into awareness; I met a lot of great people there. It was terrifying, but I was embraced, which was nice. I just tried to do my own thing; I didn’t want to be presumptuous, so I wrote a poetic essay, I guess, and I was surprised that it seemed to register with a few people there. I was speaking with bona fide refugees and people I felt really outclassed by. All I had was band experience. But I think the people, they see you out there, they appreciate it.
Are you worried that people may be forgetting how to live in the moment?
I worry that they are forgetting how to live in the world. I don’t mean even the big world, but just in terms of going outside, or not being online. That new technology, it’s just not… I don’t quite get it yet. I know you have to give youth a shot, and some kids have really happy, connected lives that way, but I don’t feel it. I miss the bricks-and-mortar stuff.
What about the hundreds of cameras at shows? It’s reasonable to expect people to appreciate what’s happening in front of them, to experience it, but instead there’s this need to record it.
Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, we thought about… I don’t want to tell people not to do that. I just don’t have enough time in my life, I’d much rather work on making our show sound good, and playing well, and seeing the people we like.
Are you happier when people don’t take pictures all the time, film you all the time?
Yeah, of course. But I have to admit, there is this strange little vain part, if the show’s really kickass, that I think it’d be fun if I could tell my dad he could watch it, or my sister, to tell them, ‘Hey, we just played in this big closet!’
Were you nervous about tonight when you saw that tiny basement?
We had questions about how we were going to fit in there, but once we set up, once we started, it was great.
What do you think is more important, to be smart or to be honest?
That’s a tough one. Oh, I would say to be honest. And I think to be really honest, you have to be pretty intelligent. If it means being honest with yourself, or being really clear with your friends and loved ones, to communicate, you have to be smart. You can be clever, and that’s bad. Clever is like being surreptitious, and figuring out how not to be truthful. I think smart and intelligent means an ability to be honest. I’ve done a lot of work getting past clever to what I think is a broader kind of intelligence, which involves honesty.
Are you going to record an album?
I couldn’t help but notice Fat Mike hop on stage the other night and talk to you guys. Was that about recording at all?
I think he’d like to do something. He’s been a really supportive guy. But I don’t… we don’t have a label. We don’t have a ‘dream label’ or anything, other than one we make. It seems we’re about at that point, with technology, that you can just have your own label.
You have a reference to a Smith-Corona, and you own a Smith-Corona. Do you use it to write lyrics?
No, I don’t. That’s about Mishima, that song. It’s about writers, the verse is about Mishima committing ritual suicide. So the line is: “Hari-kari with a Smith-Corona, what the fuck? The left arm of the right wing.”
You mentioned the other night at the Hemlock that all of your songs are about suicide and unrelenting misery. Is that actually true?
Kind of! It’s surprising, yeah. I mean, they’re pretty joyous tunes, but they’re pretty dark lyrically.
Do you feel a discussion on suicide is something that’s ignored in society?
Yeah. It’s either glamorized or it’s shunned, and it’s only the most important question that everybody asks themselves, especially in their young life. It’s something you reckon with as a youth. Our song is ‘O Deadly Death,’ it’s kind of a valentine to suicidal feelings, and how important that is in your development to go to the wall, and then step back. That’s just part of identity, is finding your way to the utmost point and then reveling in the beauty of being alive.
What song do you hope you’re listening to when you die?
“Girl From the North Country,” maybe, with Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, the duet version. That’s always a sweet, off-into-the-wilderness song.
More Photos Below.
In 2004, I walked into the Tradewinds in Cotati and felt my jaw immediately hit the floor in amazement over the two guys opening for the Rum Diary. A greasy-haired hippie-looking drummer who played just a little behind the beat and a sharp-throated, fingerpicking singer who blew the harmonica and sang songs about trying to care that the country’s at war in the midst of a ruined liver and other malaise. It felt like this band was created just for me, and after their captivating set, I found out that the band was called Two Gallants. Both Michael Houghton and I cornered the singer near the pool tables and bought everything he had.
I felt a similar sort of excitement tonight when I opened the antique door to Cast Away, a precious yarn shop in Railroad Square, to check in on that same singer, Adam Stephens, and his new solo project. Clusters of people lined the stairway up to the store’s loft, where the outstanding owner Justine usually offers knitting classes but tonight had transformed into a mini-concert space. About 30 or 40 people sat crowded on the floor, quietly passing around libations and listening intently to the music, while below, older customers reclined on couches for the evening’s ‘Knit & Sit’ session, knitting needles and unfinished scarves in hand. Santa Rosa never ceases to amaze me.
Stephens explained that he’d forgotten his harmonica holder, but he had more than enough texture to make up for it; cello, piano, drums and bass filled out his sound while managing to be mostly quieter than anything Two Gallants has ever done. His songs, I noticed, were long, but as Henry Nagle whispered in my ear, they’re paced extremely well, akin to long Springsteen epics. How Stephens manages to come up with so many words to fill his songs is beyond me. I only heard one reference to someone else’s lyrics—a line about sweeping out the ashes—and for the most part, his songs were things to get happily lost in.
Two Gallants is officially “kind of on hiatus,” Stephens told me afterwards, so he’s planning on recording and touring with this new outfit—whatever it may come to be called. “I hate my own name,” he murmured on the sidewalk, “but I also hate coming up with band names. I’ve only named one band in my life, and I was sick of it after a month. So we’ll see.”
I’ve retold this story numerous times to friends and always found it funny. Today, I look at it with deeper meaning. Duke Ellington came to Santa Rosa and no one knew who he was. This, to me, is a sad part of our history, that we denied the most famous composer in a predominantly black art form even the dignity of recognition.
Think about this story, and then think about the exemplary man recognized, elevated and inaugurated as our President this morning.
From Duke Ellington’s 1973 autobiography, Music is My Mistress:
Half the time on our trips Harry Carney and I arrive at the city or town where we are going to play that night thinking the other knows the place where the gig is, or has an itinerary in his pocket. Every now and then it appears that neither of us knows nor has an itinerary with him. “No sweat, baby!” I say, and we drive into a gas station, where Harry says, “Fill it up.” After I’ve stretched my limbs, I ask the attendant, “Do you know where Duke Ellington is playing tonight?” Usually the man answers, “Oh, over at the auditorium, three blocks down this way to the red light, turn left, then first right, and straight ahead—you can’t miss it.” So we just go and follow the directions, and we’re cool, but feeling it was a good thing we picked that gas station for information. We had been doing this sort of thing with good results down though the years until one night, a couple of years ago, we arrived in, I think it was, Santa Rosa, California. We pulled into the gas station with the same routine up to, “Where’s Duke Ellington playing tonight?” The cat with the gas hose turned and said “Who? Who’s he?” When we explained, he said, “I don’t know anything about a dance or a concert here tonight.” And there we were, standing there, feathers peeling off one at a time.
“Oh, no,” Harry said, “you don’t suppose we goofed on the name of the town?”
“There’s only one way to find out,” I said. “Call Ruth or Cress Courtney.” So I went to the telephone to call my sister in New York.
All this time, cars were coming and going, and as they stopped for gas we’d ask them the same question: “Where’s Duke Ellington playing tonight?” Most of their responses were something like, “Duke Ellington? I didn’t know he was playing here tonight.” Then Ruth answered the telephone and we got the directions. So I turned to the cat at the gas station and said, “We’re playing at the Fairgrounds.” “Oh, that’s it, is it?” he said. “Right catty-corner across the street.” What a relief!
But the Fairgrounds were very dark—no lights in sight. After finally finding an entrance gate, we drove in, and around, and around, and around. Nobody, but nothing, until eventually we were about to pass another car going in the opposite direction. Both cars honked their horns, stopped, let their windows down.
“Do you know where. . . ?” Harry began.
“That’s what we want to know, Harry,” the other driver interrupted. It was Ralph Gleason, of the San Francisco Chronicle at that time. We laughed, turned around, and both cars continued their search until suddenly—there it was!
Duke Ellington? Who’s he? Duke who?
Will Oldham has a penchant for playing out-of-the-way places around these parts. In 2002, he played at Pegasus Hall in Monte Rio; in 2003, he dropped in at the Old Western Saloon in Point Reyes Station.
As previously reported, everyone’s lovable scruffy indie-folk hero Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, is adding Santa Rosa as one of his out-of-the-way-stops on his upcoming tour. I’ve been given the green light to spill the details about the show, and most importantly, about how to get tickets.
Will Oldham will play on Sunday, March 29 at the Orchard Spotlight, the best little church-turned-house in Santa Rosa. The venue is very beautiful and very small, holding just over 100 people. Tickets, at $28.50 each, go on sale this Wednesday, Jan. 21, at noon. 100 tickets will be available at www.folkyeah.com, while a scant 25 tickets will be available in-person at the Last Record Store in Santa Rosa.
You can either take your chances with the rest of the Internet-connected world online, or if I were you, I’d start lining up outside the Last Record Store on Mendocino Avenue at 9am. There’s a two-ticket limit; cash only. Needless to say, it’ll basically sell out immediately.
There was a fascinating 10-page New Yorker profile on Will Oldham in last week’s issue, spotlighting in particular his penchant for playing small, weird, semi-secret out-of-the-way shows.
In related news, if I were you, I’d subscribe to Will Oldham’s mailing list. Like, right now. There’s a noticeable gap in his upcoming tour itinerary, and though I’m sworn to secrecy about the details at the moment, I can tell you that when tickets go on sale for his show in Santa Rosa, they won’t be available through normal sources, and they certainly won’t last long. The mailing list is your best bet.
It was a good sign when Whispertown 2000 soundchecked with “Look at Miss Ohio,” but it just got better from there: tight, country-soul harmonies from the two frontgals; full-on kazoo solos; a drummer that astonishingly played guitar, drums and harmonica simultaneously; a bassist that managed to quote “Dazed and Confused” without malice; and basically a shitkickin’ good time. The two gals kinda reminded me of Those Darlins, and hey, didja hear one of ‘em is a Nagler? And that she was on Punky Brewster? No shit.
Polaroids, stitching, paintings and collage art hung on the walls, all of it excellent; cassettes and horses. Out in the kitchen, vegan cupcakes for sale, and the most gigantic mushroom I’ve ever seen in my life. Slung from a side door, $3 cocktails mixed on the spot. Dancing in the halls. “Bring it on Home to Me” on the stereo. (Thanks for the Darondo tip, Nick.)
All in all, a sweet way for the residents of the house to go out with a bang, seeing as they hafta move at the end of the month. And a fine way for Paul Haile and Lauren Harkins from Not to Reason Why to celebrate their just-announced engagement—the diamond ring was busted out on Saturday at Crane Creek Park! Congratulations, you crazy kids.
I had been wondering how Zach Hill would pull off his solo album, Astrological Straits, in a live setting. With over a dozen guest musicians on his album, would he hire a pick-up band? Would he try to play more than just the drums? Would he call up Les Claypool and ask if he’d mind driving down to Santa Rosa to fill in?
The Casbar is the new joint in town, located inside the Days Inn way down on Santa Rosa Avenue, near Todd Road. It’s a funky location for a funky room—black lights up in each corner, an absinthe green light emitting from the bar, a hazy red near the stage. It’s dark, dank, and seemingly underused, but as Ian told me out in the parking lot— referencing the eternal need for another venue—”Everyone’s gonna pounce on this place.”
After Epiphany Music was shut down in 2007, the former owner, fresh out of jail, somehow convinced the Days Inn to let her put on a show here, calling it the “New Epiphany.” It went rather poorly, and the folks at the Days Inn (they used to run the Los Robles Lodge, putting on the Liquid Lounge nights there and a few in-over-their-heads rap shows at the Fairgrounds) apparently waited a year and a half to try again. I’m glad they did.
The best thing about the Casbar? Those not old enough to drink get a handstamp. Those old enough to drink get a wristband. Everyone wins. Why this hasn’t been done before in Santa Rosa is beyond me, and I sincerely hope that it doesn’t become an issue for the litigation-happy City Attorney’s office, because it makes perfect sense.
Hill and I talked a little bit about Cecil Taylor before the show (“he’s a big inspiration”), and it foreboded his set. Setting up two large speakers on either side of his small drum kit, Hill played the entire 33-minute-long piano-driven bonus track from Astrological Straits, “Necromancer.” Marnie Stern’s spoken word bookended the fierce, pounding piano attack by Marco Benevento, and it didn’t sound at all unlike Taylor’s famous 1979 set with Max Roach at Columbia University.
How the hell does Zach Hill play drums so quickly, so fiercely, so insanely?
Here’s the thing. Sure, Hill played the shit out of the drums nonstop for a half hour, never letting up at all, but it wasn’t unnecessarily violent. Every piece of the puzzle made some kind of sense, and every riptide fill had its place. Like a cross between Dave Lombardo and Philly Joe Jones, Hill exhibited stamina and taste, with a sense of actually communicating something in his playing. I was never bored through the entire volcanic set.
Afterwards, there were literal puddles of Hill’s sweat on the floor beneath his kit.
The insane circumstances surrounding Sly Stone’s bizarre appearance in Santa Rosa last Friday, Oct. 18, were told to me by several people involved with the show. Crazy doesn’t begin to describe it. Here’s how it went down.
The morning of the show, Sly Stone is in Los Angeles. He fires his business manager. Sly tells the promoter that he’s his own boss now, that he’s the one who’s going to get paid at the show, and that he needs $3,000 wired to the bank account of an Iranian BMW saleswoman before he’ll even get on the plane to San Francisco.
And about that plane: it was supposed to arrive from Los Angeles at 11:30am. No Sly. The limo waits at the airport. Sly’s next flight becomes 1:30pm, then 2:30pm, 3:30pm and 5:30pm. No one can get a hold of him at all. The promoter drives to the airport in the slim hope that Sly might walk through one of the gates.
Finally, at 7:30pm, with his young Japanese girlfriend in tow, the 65-year-old Sly shows up at the airport. He’s an hour and a half away from the show—which starts in a half hour—and he demands to go to the hotel. The young girlfriend finally talks him out of it, and he agrees to go to the show, but he’s still talking about getting paid.
He sleeps all the way to Santa Rosa.
Sly doesn’t hit the stage at the Wells Fargo Center until 10:30pm, during the fifth song of the set. He walks off the stage 25 minutes later, in the middle of “I Wanna Take You Higher,” telling the crowd, “I gotta go take a piss. I’ll be right back.”
But Sly never comes back. The band continues on without him, killing time for 30 minutes. During the last song, a man appears on the stage, whispering into band members’ ears.
Meanwhile, backstage, Sly is demanding to be paid. The show is still going on, and the promoters are telling his handlers to get him back out to perform more. But his handlers know the drill. It’s been this way for years. What can they do?
Before the show is over, Sly is out in the parking lot, still in his white suit, trying to get into the promoter’s car. All the doors are plainly locked, but he keeps trying. Finally, a woman drives by, picks him and his Japanese girlfriend up, and they whiz away. Word of his departure gets inside.
It’s not too hard to figure out what the man on the stage was whispering to the band. How about: Sly’s making a getaway? How about: Sly’s driving off right now? How about: You’d better chase after him if you want to get paid?
And after quickly finishing the song and exiting the stage, that’s exactly what they do.
The band members pile in their cars and find Sly precisely where they thought he’d be—at the Fountaingrove Hilton. Except he’s not in his room. All the rooms are reserved under the business manager’s name, who Sly fired that morning. So Sly’s there, fuming about not being able to get into his room, when the rest of his band suddenly pulls up.
“Get me out of here,” he’s heard telling his driver, and they peel out.
It is not an uncommon sight to see cars racing down Mendocino Avenue on a Friday night. But it’s a different story altogether when the lead car giving chase contains an absolute funk music legend, pursued by five more cars driven by band members, some of whom have played with him for 40 years and are actual, literal family members. Six cars race down the street, weaving in and out of lanes.
Finally, past midnight, Sly’s car is cornered at a gas station. A long stand-off ensues between him and the band while the young Japanese girl cries hysterically in the car. A gas station on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa. That’s where it all falls apart.
At press time, no one can get a hold of Sly Stone—not his management, not his band mates, not his family. The last anyone sees of him, he’s headed south on Highway 101. Everyone’s got a pretty good idea how he’s spending the money, but no one knows where he is.
And no one ever wants to play with him again.
To read a review of the Sly Stone show, click here.
Right from the start, I suppose I should admit, I hated Section M magazine. I didn’t want anything to do with it, I didn’t think it was helping the music scene, I wrote irritated letters to the editor, and I talked shit about it as much as I could.
Mainly, though, I was jealous, both of the writers—because I wasn’t writing about music at the time—and of the bands covered, because I wasn’t playing music at the time either. When Section M hit the stands in 1998, I was coming off a four-year spree of constant touring, and I was in a weird space. I was fueled by Tanqueray, mid-20s cynicism, and avant-garde jazz. I talked a lot, but I wasn’t doing much of anything, really.
Also, at the time I was convinced, and not entirely erroneously so, that there were no good bands in Sonoma County whatsoever. Section M came along and seemed convinced otherwise. It proclaimed: Bands are great! We like all these bands! Bands, bands, bands!
Now, looking back with more clarity, I have a lot of respect for what the many volunteers at Section M pulled off. I marvel at how Section M ever could have been produced in the first place, let alone lasted as long as it did—from 1998 to 2003.
After all, this was the magazine that would hire basically anybody. When you’ve got an open-door policy, you open yourself up to flakes, crazies, egomaniacs, and just plain unqualified hopefuls. Put all those people in an room together, and they’ll either start screaming obscenities at each other or having sex in the bathroom—both of which happened, in fact, at Section M’s offices.
The inside workings of Section M often found their way into the pages, and staffers hooking up together wasn’t rare. What was rare was them staying together. After torrential, reckless flings came to a crashing halt, work at the magazine could be painfully uncomfortable until one or the other quit. (To add to the tension, hookers prowled outside the office at all hours of the night.)
Phone calls to the magazine were either weird or very weird, culminating in the members of Derge leaving repeated, insane messages on the machine revealing their obsession with gay sex and racial epithets. On a similarly bizarre note, the band Bungworm once sent Section M a bag full of actual shit, which totally confused everyone at the magazine until an astute reader wrote in to point out that they’d been running an ad for months which read “Send Us Your Band’s Shit.”
Accompanied by this rare gift was a letter that demanded the magazine never write about the band ever again; in what amounts to the best example of Section M’s attitude that I can conjure, the next issue was filled with as many references to Bungworm as possible. Yes, for all of its faults, this was Section M’s greatness: it blatantly did not give a fuck about bands that took themselves too seriously, and instead devoted lots of column space to absolutely unserious bands like the H.B.’s or Rhino Rape.
Section M petered away in 2003 without fanfare—no official final issue, no grand goodbye. One could argue that it didn’t really go away, living instead in the human form of Michael Houghton, the magazine’s founder, who continued in social situations to casually remind people years afterwards of the many thousands of dollars of credit card debt he was still saddled with from running the magazine. It was hard to tell if these repeated references to the magazine’s legacy of debt were subtle pleas for financial help, or if they pointed to something deeper—indicators, perhaps, of how hard it is to say goodbye to something that never got the chance to truly die.
Last weekend, Michael got that chance, as did about 400 other people who crammed through the doors of Daredevils & Queens for a night that was a reunion, a nostalgia fest and a damn good time rolled up into one. Over a dozen bands from the late 1990s got back together to perform. Michael, ever the dapper stylist, even got gussied up for the occasion—in a pair of jeans with a hole in the crotch, and a “F*ck Section M” T-shirt.
I showed up a little bit late, but immediately the “reunion” aspect was made clear. I ran into people, now married and pregnant, who I once stayed up drinking gallons of gin with until 3am. I ran into people who asked, “So, how’s it going?” who didn’t bother to explain if they were asking how it’s been going for the last 10 years or the last 10 minutes. And I ran into people who referenced incredibly esoteric jokes I’d made back in 1999 with pinpoint precision—and this was all before I could make it out back to watch some bands.
Thus, the night was a blur, but in the best possible way. I played bass with the Blockheads, who hadn’t played in a decade and whose bassist Mark Aver has since moved to the East Coast. It was the most satisfying 35 minutes of fun I’ve had in a while. To Dave Fichera, Paul Fichera, and Steve Choi, the Blockheads, the only local band I truly loved besides Cropduster in the late 1990s—thanks, bros.
I caught 20 Minute Loop, Cropduster, Brian Moss, and the Paranoids, but I think the greatest slice of reunion nostalgia for the night was the Reliables, who were all, like, 13 years old when they formed and maybe 17 when they broke up. It was just like an old Reliables show—equipment failures, not knowing how to use a tuner, confusion over which song was being played, the microphone stand falling over—except that instead of standing around dumbfounded, as most people did in 2001, the large crowd showered them with love.
The Reliables’ set list canvassed the trajectory of adolescence, from early songs about suburban angst like “Sad Man” (“My mom just won’t let me be / I know that I’m kind of a loser / Masturbation is only for Godzilla”) to the totally awesome and bittersweet “Another Shitty Day” to the very last song the band ever wrote, “Houses Without Windows,” a depressing, existential rumination on life at midnight as seen from an airplane window which asks the question: “Don’t you wish sometimes you’re dead?”
Not many people cared about the Reliables when they were around, but at the Section M reunion, bolstered by guest drummer Caitlin Love, they were basically superstars. “I think this is the most people we’ve ever played to,” noted Jeremy, and he was right.
Piles upon piles of old Section M magazines were being given away at the front door (Worst cover ever? Issue #10: Halou, Cohesion, Kabala, and Skitzo) and I even saw a very dazed but very validated Michael Houghton for a second. “Can you believe this?” he asked, motioning to the incredibly packed Daredevils & Queens. “Look at all these people!” It’s true. It was pretty amazing.
One final note: in honor of the 10-Year Anniversary of the magazine, Michael has allowed me to finally spill the beans about the “Scene & Heard” column in Section M, the gossipy, newsy column written by the elusive “Jane Sez.” No one ever knew who Jane Sez was, and since “Scene & Heard” was easily the most popular column in every issue, there were many, many guesses over the years.
Now it can be told: Jane Sez was Michael Houghton. Well, for some issues, at least. The first few were written by Christine Alexander from Little Tin Frog, after which it turned over to Michael and then became a communal effort by Michael and the rest of the upper staff of the magazine, including Sara Bir. Keeping the Jane Sez identity a secret was almost as fun as writing the column itself, Michael says. “The best part about it is that so many dudes came up to me at shows, when I was doing most of the ‘Scene and Heard’ writing,” he recalled the other night, “and they’d say to me, ‘I’m so in love with Jane Sez. I totally wanna fuck her.’”
There’s an excellent photoset from the night, taken by Caitlin Childs, over here.
A few members of the staff from the magazine share their thoughts and opinions here.
Section M’s official website, still up and running, is here.
Heath and Harmony… Damien Marley… – w4m – 28 (santa rosa)
Reply to: [email protected]
Date: 2008-06-10, 8:04PM PDT
I am looking for the cutie that my friend and I ran into while we were obnoxiously weaving throught the crowd at the damien marley concert. You were in a blue collared shirt with small stripes. Your hair was longer but it was under a hat. My friend flirted with you, said you had a great smile, and you turned away and smiled as if you were embarrassed a little. I made a comment about how you had some Jordan’s on from the ealry 90’s, you laughed because you knew I was right.
I doubt you are from Santa rosa, but I hope you find this somehow and contact me….
harmony festival -me.. berkeley woman…you -santa rosa guy.. – w4m – 32 (santa rosa)
Reply to: [email protected]
Date: 2008-06-10, 7:09PM PDT
i never found you again….
we danced at arrested development… you had the nice hat …
then we danced on stage with kidjo… i left to go to the bathroom.. then you were nowhere to be found…
i though you were sweet and cute…. will you read this???? i dont know…
In Serch Of A Girl Named Harmony – m4w – 21 (Harmony Festival)
Reply to: [email protected]
Date: 2008-06-11, 12:52AM PDT
I am the guy you hung out with Sunday night. My friend and I gave you a ride home to Petaluma. I lost your number and have no idea how to find you. I hope somehow you or one of your friends finds this. You were such an awesome girl, I would like to see you again.
Harmony Festival – m4w – 32 (santa rosa)
Reply to: [email protected]
Date: 2008-06-09, 2:56PM PDT
You sat across from me at that back support booth. Your smile is too cute! I was drinking Iced coffee.
Health and Harmony backstage – m4w (santa rosa)
Reply to: [email protected]
Date: 2008-06-11, 8:28PM PDT
We met saturday after the show on the mainstage. I felt like we really clicked, had a lot in common, and enjoyed talking. I am afraid that I might have communicated something wrong in a text message to you later that night and now I am afraid of messing things up. I really liked you a lot and dont want to come on too strong and risk looking a new friend.
Hoping you might see this understand.
TO ALL THE WOMAN AT TECHNO- TRIBAL – m4w (santa rosa)
Reply to: [email protected]
Date: 2008-06-08, 10:04AM PDT
Really enjoyed the show. Just wish more of you lovely ladies would actually wear lesssssssss!!! I can literally have an orgasm just watching each and every one of you shake you things dancing and moving and a grooving to the scene. The costumes are one of the main reasons I go, to see the fish net stockings and the little skirts, short shorts and I just want to lick your toes… A HUGE THANK YOU GOES TO YOU ALL AND PLEASE REMEMBER LESS IS MORE!!!!!