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Riff Raff 

Wednesday, Aug 11 1999
Tales of the City Richie Unterberger is a smart guy when it comes to music history -- he knows his stuff, revels in musical obscurities, and has toiled on two projects that have helped him present his obsessions. For a while he was editor of Option, the now-defunct journal that thoroughly peeked into rock, jazz, and experimental corners; editorially, it often kept busy overhyping stuff (like Spin, it fell for Goldie's jungle scam in the mid-'90s), but was generally smart (small wonder Rolling Stone treated it as a farm team for writers and editors). Last year, Unterberger put his name on the book Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll, which celebrated semiobscure geniuses like the broken Syd Barrett, chilly Kiwi-popsters Young Marble Giants, the late Skip Spence, and others.

Unterberger, who's been living in San Francisco for over a decade now, recently took the opposite approach in Music USA, a heavy tome he wrote for the Rough Guides travel book imprint. Instead of swimming in obscurity, he strove to give a general overview of music throughout America (including Hawaii; alas, the Alaska music scene is completely snubbed). Though a handful of contributors pitched in, Unterberger claims about 95 percent of the nearly 500-page book is his work. It's a daunting task -- to cover American music history based on the scenes in particular cities -- but as astute criticism goes, it's the smart move. What made Charlie Gillett's The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll such a fine history book was its awareness that music always cycles out of small locales and labels, cross-pollinating and influencing everywhere else. Still, the editing instinct had to kick in eventually, and Unterberger's main challenge was trying not to be overwhelming. "If I tried to cover more cities and every style of music, I'd have an 80,000-page book," he says.

San Francisco gets about 30 pages of treatment, a once-over that covers all the right bases: psychedelia, sure, but also both waves of Bay Area punk, with all-too-brief overviews of soul, R&B, hip hop, techno, and jazz. Blues coverage, he confesses, didn't make the cut, and the long lead times of book publishing -- he's been working on Music USA since the fall of 1997 -- means a few parts of the section are already out of date: Charlie Hunter is now a New Yorker and not "the most prominent musician of the current San Francisco youngblood scene," and you can no longer skim BAM for articles on "local underground icons like Barbara Manning," seeing as neither is around anymore.

Unterberger's currently working on a sequel to his Unknown Legends book, this time focusing exclusively on '60s artists like the Pretty Things, Tim Buckley, the Fugs, the Left Banke, and about 20 others.

There There Strictly in terms of venues, the East Bay has always been made to feel like it's the forlorn and disrespected cousin of San Francisco Bay Area music. Which hardly seems fair. After all, Oakland and Berkeley can lay claim to a handful of fine performance spots: the Starry Plough, Blake's, Yoshi's, Freight & Salvage, 924 Gilman, the art-deco wonder that is the Paramount, the upstart Sweets Ballroom, and even the New Arena in Oakland, which features big-time musicians like Yanni and comedy acts like the Golden State Warriors. But as far as small, steady rock venues go, the East Bay has been in flux for the last decade or so: The Berkeley Square, once a must-hit venue for touring indie acts, closed shop three years ago, and Formula came and went at around the same time.

There are others: Keystone Berkeley, Ruthie's, Omni, Heinz Club, and so forth. Emmett Cadigan is keeping track. Since October, he's been booking shows at Oakland's Port Lite, a 75-person-capacity club where he started pondering the idea of a festival to support East Bay rock bands. Cadigan's taken a cue from South by Southwest and Nadine's Wild Weekend and coordinated the first "East Bay Underground," three nights of shows designed "to shed light on the fact that Oakland has something going on." The lineup, drawn predominantly from East Bay rock and altcountry acts:

Friday, Aug. 13: Drunk Horse, Pillage People, Tonal Shrine, and Splotch at the Port Lite, 229 Brush, Oakland. Tickets are $3; call (510) 415-0600.

Saturday, Aug. 14: Giblet Dribblers, Smokejumpers, Betty Rage, Rat Bastards at the Port Lite. $3. And Agent 51, Lonely Kings, Towards an End, and Sick Shift at the recently moved Stork Club, 2330 Telegraph, Oakland. Tickets are $5; call (510) 444-6174.

Sunday, Aug. 15: Deducted Values, Splotch, and Frenulum at WestWorld (actually a warehouse renamed for the occasion), 2423 Magnolia, Oakland. Tickets are $3; call (510) 834-4300.

On a somewhat related note, East Bay punkers the Criminals deserve some sort of prize -- we're not sure what -- for coming up with the brilliant and lengthy title of the leadoff track from their new Burning Flesh and Broken Bones album: "The Angry Ouija Board Has Sent Us to Destroy the City of Berkeley California So Run for Your Fucking Life."

Last Chance Riff Raff is accepting entries for our name-the-next-Third-Eye-Blind-album contest until Friday the 13th (seems like an appropriate enough date). For those who missed the announcement, all you have to do is send your suggested title to the addresses below and you have a chance to win a 3EB demo tape from 1995 with a signed letter from Stephan Jenkins (first prize), or a bottle of Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo-brand tequila (second prize). We're still pondering the possibility of other contests in the future. There's a Stroke 9 demo tape around here somewhere ....

-- Mark Athitakis

Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to, or mail them to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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