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Anxiety Attack 

Part street theater, part punk-rock-a-thon, the Nervous Breakdowns' show is back. Sort of.

Wednesday, Oct 29 2003
Flashback to June 2002, San Francisco's Gay Pride festival, where Keala Ramos sits on the curb with his head in his hands, shaking all over. Potential audience members for his band's show pass him by. The drummer has not shown up. Guitarist Matt Kajiwara is trying to figure out the drum kit. Candice Felix, the bassist, seems to be having trouble standing upright. Today, the bearded, dark-haired Ramos, dressed in a slinky pink tank top and black terry-cloth wristbands, is an especially appropriate frontman for the Nervous Breakdowns.

The NBs have performed guerrilla street shows in the Castro since '97, so they're used to working through adversity. Have generator, will travel is the calling card of the band, which plays a mix of revivified covers and just-learned originals. Its show has developed into an elaborate public display of anxiety and elation that plays out like a halting but delicate musical whose cast includes the NBs, the crowd, and often the cops.

On this day at Pride 2002, the generator stalls during the first song -- which is especially problematic for a group that pulls four-hour sets when it can get away with it. Felix and Kajiwara look ready to pack it up. After his timeout on the curb, Ramos splits.

Cut to an hour later, when the singer/ guitarist returns, red-faced and breathless, with a new generator. The NBs stumble through a couple of numbers before launching into their signature cover, Liz Phair's "Fuck and Run." The opening chords, cribbed from an "Exile on Main St"-era Rolling Stones tune, immediately attract all the indie rockers within earshot, along with a few soon-to-be-confused Stones fans. Ramos is sweating and shifty-eyed, Kajiwara flailing at the kit. Then comes the coda, the Nervous Breakdowns' contribution to the song: Ramos chants, "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Run! Run! Run!" during the final chorus and the crowd goes nuts. So does a guy manning a nearby festival booth. He storms over, screaming his own coda -- "Please turn down that awful noise! I have a SPLITTING headache!" -- which he keeps up, complete with furious facial tics and hair-pulling, until the police, whom he has summoned, arrive. All the while, '80s Brit dance-pop group Dead or Alive booms, live, out of gigantic speakers on a nearby main stage.

By the time you read this, the Nervous Breakdowns may not exist. Again. The Bay Area band most likely to melt down onstage breaks up between gigs, shuffles through drummers, and crashes S.F. street festivals to bring drama and noise to the people. Since their Castro storefront debut on Halloween '97, the NBs have developed a scrappy covers act into an increasingly affecting punk passion play. Recently re-formed after a split in the wake of Pride 2002, they're ready to hit the streets again, and maybe even record that elusive first album. Or, they're gathering momentum for their next crash and burn. Either way, they're a spectacular wreck.

In performance, Ramos, in his drag version of Courtney Love dressed for a Sid and Nancy casting call, trips over rayon with stiletto heels while his eyes dart back and forth and the band rips its set to shreds. His getup is appropriate, since he taught himself guitar in 1996 by playing along to Hole's Live Through This, and by busking in the Castro, at Fisherman's Wharf, and at BART stations.

When his roommate, Kajiwara, told him he had a guitar at his grandfather's house in Hawaii, Ramos encouraged him to get it. "We were living in a studio, and we practiced in the bathroom," Ramos tells me by phone, speaking in measured phrases that break into an intimate, confiding tone. "We knew this girl named Patricia, whom we called Nervous-Breakdown Girl. On late-night walks through the city, we joked about starting a band [with that name]." Ramos and Kajiwara tagged "Nervous Breakdowns world tour '96" on sidewalks and walls around San Francisco, and Ramos says he began to secretly take the whole thing seriously.

Kajiwara knew Felix from USF, where they attended college, and though she didn't play bass, Ramos knew just the Hole album for her to practice to. The three worked on covers with the eventual goal of playing the Castro for Halloween. Ramos dressed as Courtney Love, and they played unplugged in the doorway of Cliff's Variety Shop, inaugurating what would become an NBs tradition. "It was our first taste" of attention, Ramos says, but it wasn't until '99 that they committed to starting a band.

That year, the NBs worked on an original song for Halloween. But weeks before they were to play, Kajiwara and Felix got in a fight because, according to Ramos, "Candace couldn't understand tab or talk about music." Kajiwara subsequently flaked on the show. Determined, Ramos recruited Charlyn Villegas, whom he had met in film school. Villegas programmed her keyboard for drums and learned seven Hole songs, and the two played them repeatedly from 9:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., as people cheered them on in their storefront alcove.

For the next couple of years, the NBs were essentially a Halloween outfit, a ghost haunting its Castro doorway. Lift the sheet, and you might find that the bassist had dematerialized, or the drummer had changed shape. However, you could always count on a lusty "Boo!" from Ramos.

By 2002, the NBs had several original songs, and they branched out to play Gay Shame, crashing the awards blockade unannounced. "The cops showed up after one set, and there was a huge argument," Ramos remembers. The crowd called for the band to keep playing and, somehow, Ramos "negotiated one more song." To anyone paying attention, the Nervous Breakdowns' act was coming into focus. The band was learning to use obstacles as props in a show that was part comedy and part calamity. "We're never sure what's gonna happen ... that's the surprise element," Ramos says. The scene was set for Pride.

A few songs into the NBs' Pride 2002 set, the man with the splitting-headache mantra is joined by an angry bear of a leather daddy, who adds his own socioeconomic music criticism, along with threats to pull the plug himself. It has become apparent that the issue is not so much the Nervous Breakdowns' volume as it is their trespass among booths renting space on the sidewalk. As police officers attempt to mediate, the crowd cheers, "Let them play!" Ramos hangs back by the microphone, waiting for the heat to blow off. His passivity gets the assembled audience worked up on the band's behalf, and the cops stand around for a while, unsure whether to protect the NBs from the rabid booth-renters, attempt to disperse the crowd, or ask the band to wend its way through the festival with its gear. After a 10-minute standoff, Ramos quietly convinces S.F.'s finest to let the NBs play another song. Again, onlookers -- and the fellows from the booths -- go wild.

Though the Pride performance was a success by the NBs' standards, according to Ramos, "the risk factor is stressful, hauling equipment is exhausting, and dealing with cops is a hassle." Shortly thereafter the NBs broke up for several months, only to make up again and decide to give it another go.

Their first show this year was in June, at an actual venue, the Balazo Gallery in the Mission, where the band rocked a sweaty, packed house, displaying a ferocity and focus it had previously been unable to sustain for an entire performance. Uninterrupted by cops, the NBs generated their own heat without relying on the found drama of the street. The fawning crowd seemed to embarrass the group, but that was all part of the flirtation ritual. Ramos deftly switched from charming host, chatting genially at the mike and coquettishly batting his eyelashes, to twitching, nervous wreck hacking away at his guitar. At one point, Kajiwara emerged from his shy corner for a catwalking Peaches cover. Someone handed him a tallboy, and he paused, hand on hip, to take a swig. Suddenly, the Nervous Breakdowns were in full effect, exuding and exulting in queenly glory. Just as the NBs are capable of making a Liz Phair tune their own, they transformed the show into their coming-out party.

"It's way different from the street," Ramos says of the band's dalliance with a legit music career, while on break from his job at Amoeba in San Francisco. "You have to fill the place, rather than filling 10 feet of sidewalk. ... I want to work up to major venues, but keep a foot on the sidewalk."

The Nervous Breakdowns may show up the next time Castro Street is blocked off for a party, or they may implode and never be heard from again. But judging by their Balazo set, they're ready to give S.F. the nasty, fuck-and-run rock show it so desperately needs. "I don't know where, but we'll play on Halloween," Ramos says. "It's been a ritual for years -- I just have to, even if we only last one song." Look out for the NBs "in the Mission, at a random party, or in front of Safeway [in the Castro]. We never seem to know where we'll be until the day before we play." This year, however, Ramos has a new concern: Reports point to a crackdown on booze this Halloween. "Alcohol is an important factor, because we have bad nerves," he says. "That's why we're the Nervous Breakdowns."

About The Author

Jeff Johnson


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