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SFO3 Diary 

Wednesday, Jul 31 1996
Afternoon and evening, scruffy clusters of writers, musicians, and label reps filtered into the Press Club's Oak Bar, fishing through "goodie bags" stuffed with the music-biz equivalent of junk mail and dragging down the dress code at the Post Street fraternity by several notches. At one point, a white-haired, gin-blossomed fellow in a beige sport coat -- surely a Press Club regular -- quietly slipped in and ordered a drink, bemusedly surveying the incongruous freak scene from an armchair beneath an oversize speaker, which was blaring Girls Against Boys and Nine Inch Nails. (J.S.)

"Writers Soiree" Writers like myself often abuse alcohol privileges at gatherings clearly intended for self-introductions and handshakes. I was short on flesh-pressing, but I met one seasoned gent using the affair for its purpose. He stared at my name tag with an intensity both desperate and baleful. Networking commenced. After introducing himself he told me that late in life he had heard his calling: He wanted to write music reviews.

"What kind of music do you like?" I asked.
He thought about it, perhaps too long. "Good music," he said at last.
I was about to say, "Me, too," when he ruined a perfectly good ironic intro by adding, "Club music." I sicced him on an editor. (M.B.)

Slim's L.A.'s Eels, one of the first signings to the DreamWorks label, were one of a handful of bands whose summer touring schedules brought them to SFO3 by default. Bumped to an 8 p.m. start time, the group nonetheless managed to attract a pretty good showing, though most of these were industry folks loudly announcing their undying loyalty to David Geffen. During one of the many pregnant pauses in his group's offbeat, pop 'n' angst set, Eels lead singer "E" took offense with his audience's endless nattering: "Shut the fuck up!" he barked.

Later that night, another SFO showcase-by-default. New Orleansian John Sinclair and his pickup band, the Blues Scholars, honked and spluttered their way through a quaint little set of the bandleader's Monk/Trane/"Frogman" Henry-inspired verbiage set to pedestrian 12-bar shuffles. Sinclair is the former White Panther party leader, MC5 manager, and point man for John Lennon's legalize-pot campaign; despite that pedigree, his gassy, jive-ass "poetry" and his bespectacled, sweat pantsed, Confucius-bearded appearance make him a great potential replacement for Bleeding Gums, budding hipster Lisa's sax mentor on The Simpsons. (J.S.)

A day in the life of San Francisco's hardest-working musician: After morning aikido lessons and an afternoon corporate gig in South San Francisco with Super Diamond, Scrote finishes a gig at the Paradise Lounge with his band Baby Snufkin. He's then on his motorcycle, guitar strapped to his back, heading over to Bimbo's to perform with his latest addition, Herb. The next day he has to make it over to the Press Club where he'll appear on a panel or two, do a bit of schmoozing, play at the supersecret surprise Super Diamond gig at Mick's Lounge, squeeze in a little rock-star-style boozing, and collect payment for his respective groups -- he manages them all as well. Some people just don't want to get a day job. (S.T.)

Panel: "Take Me to the River -- and Maybe You Can Make Me Drink" Before a dappled backdrop of blue and gold tinsel, managers demonstrated various levels of bravado, hubris, and indifference. Moderator Elliot Cahn, who used to handle Green Day, asked members of the audience not to use the Q-and-A period to promote themselves, since this pissed him off.

Choice commentary came from Ron Laffitte, a vice president at Elektra and a former manager of Megadeth and Jane's Addiction. Laffitte made management sound like rearing a severely retarded child: "Let the manager take control of your career -- protect the client from himself." He quoted Aerosmith's manager: The manager's job is to make the talent "rich, famous, and happy. If they're not rich, you're fired. If they're not famous, you're fired. If they're not happy --." Laffitte's demeanor might have been related to being fired by Dave Mustaine of Megadeth -- rich and famous but apparently only sporadically happy -- every four months over several years.

Chris Coyle of Industrial Management brought unusual self-effacement into the proceedings. "Managers are frustrated musicians," he shrugged. The rest of the panel found things upon the table surface at which to stare. By the time Laffitte went into a laborious anecdote about moving Tracy Chapman units, I'd become saturated. (M.B.)

Panel: "It's Only Rock & Roll, But Money Is What I Like" This panel offered a workman's pragmatism that few aspiring pop-gods want to hear. Peter Berliner of Innovative Entertainment, who pimps cover bands, jugglers, mimes, and actors to corporate galas, described the high-end earning power of bar piano players ($150 an hour) and Motown "copy" bands ($10,000 to $20,000 a night).

Keta Bill, a Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra veteran, said that corporate bands have to be ready to play anything. Berliner and Lisa Klein, of L.K. Management, emphatically agreed. "They want you to be a human jukebox," said Berliner. "Remember that the check is coming." Klein offered the most world-weary outburst of all: "Be prepared to sing 'Louie Louie' with the drunk company president, and do it well." (M.B.)

Miss Pearl's Jam House At the restaurant's annual cocktail party were an awful lot of Southern Californians shivering at the fog-dampened poolside and huddled under heat lamps, undoubtedly charging the steep $35 cover charge to the corporate AmEx. New Virgin Records signees Pluto, fresh faces from Vancouver's burgeoning scene, lit up the Tenderloin air with a high-voltage set of winsome rock-star posturing. As part of the staged bacchanalia, sideshow acts wandered. On the second-floor balcony, a guy dressed in black juggled a trio of foot-long steak knives, while below a harem of scantily clad, body-painted Egyptians and a guy on stilts weaved their way through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. All the sideshow acts looked about as enthusiastic as if they'd been hired to clean up the plastic cups and chicken bones that littered every available surface.

Post-party, this writer joined a tiny group of cash-challenged press types on the underutilized SFO shuttle service. As the only four slobs on the plush coach to 11th Street, subjected to the stoner shtick of Live 105's Web Fingers for the duration of the ride, we were assaulted with fairly hilarious memories of eighth-grade ski trips. "Everybody have your permission slips?" asked BAM's Bill Crandall. (J.S.)

Slim's Led by Bottom of the Hill assistant booker Anthony Bonet, alt-rockers Portashrine took the stage at Slim's with a dead-on cover of Guided by Voices' "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory." After running through a set of Bonet's original tunes, the band closed with a hopped-up, highly appropriate cover of "There's No Business Like Show Business," and the spirit of Ethel Merman slamdanced until a Slim's security guy ushered her out. (J.S.)

Transmission Theater Having secured a chair upon which to rest my fat, critical ass, I became fascinated by a common rock-show sight: the Public Display of Arousal. A rocker couple at a table between me and the stage were cast into perfect anatomical silhouettes by the lights. They seemed to have only one tongue between them, and swapped it back and forth through three sets of music. How the music could have set them off, I don't know: Giant Robot, the latest Buckethead outfit, in particular, stimulated my prostate not an ampere. The Yngwie Malmsteen shredder disease works better with dada silliness than it ever did with the earnest, tight-pantsed hair-farmer set. But shredding is still shredding and technical mastery is just that. However, I'm not going to say anything unkind about His Anonymousness after the proficiency he demonstrated with nunchucks.

M.I.R.V. came on abruptly and immediately launched into the opening refrain of Black Sabbath's eponymous first song. The rocker couple broke oral formation long enough for the guy to make the devil sign. M.I.R.V. I like: a comedy band with actual comic (and musical) ability. "Loving the Schmoozefest 5000?" asked a guitarist. "Love ya, babe -- don't you go changing." M.I.R.V. went through heavy genre confusions, from tearful Italian balladeering to robot voice-box manipulations, flanked by various slide images of the Unabomber suspect's high school and college yearbook photos.

The rocker couple pipelined spit at an industrious rate during the break. I started to wonder about proper etiquette: Kick the chairs out from under them? Tap a shoulder? Masturbate?

Walrus came out and competently played something I've heard several dozen times before in mildly different arrangements. The trio seemed to have about a percentage point of body fat among them, though only the bassist and drummer came out shirtless. The guitarist tried to remove his tee after the second song, revealing the lower quadrant of a washboard stomach -- prolific at sit-ups, these Walruses -- but his guitar strap foiled skins-team solidarity; he left the shirt half-on, half-off. On the bright side, the drummer did make wonderful anguished faces; you'd have thought he'd snared his toe on something back there.

As for Flower S.F.: I grew afraid that the rocker couple would get some of what they were Getting Some of on me, so I left. Before I navigated the near-capacity crowd, I heard generic groove-metal to my left. Glam costumes sparkled in my periphery. A middle-aged man wielding a glass of white wine slowed my retreat. JoJo remains a mystery. (M.B.)

CoCo Club/Paradise Lounge Recent East Bay transplant Dai Phx (pronounced "day phoenix"), a stone-free guitarist and Tracy Chapman look-alike, led her honky rhythm section through a throwback set of Hendrixian blooze and hard rock. Back at the Paradise, "cowboy" experimentalist Jim Campilongo and his 10 Gallon Cats toyed with their chosen milieu the way the Mermen's Jim Thomas shreds surf music conventions, using Campilongo's western swing orientation as a launching pad for some of the city's more adventurous musicianship. Following the Cats' packed performance, the Supernaturals played their usual hit-and-miss set, combining inventive R&B with the odd buzz-killing bossa nova. Next door at the Transmission Theater, the power trio called Walrus came down heavy with a pretty good Helmet impersonation. "I don't do shirts off," someone leaving was heard to say; had he stayed, he might've been duly impressed by these testosterone-steeped newcomers. "Are there any industry people in the house?" Los Angelitos frontman Piero Ornelas queried midway through his band's bubbly midnight showcase at the Paradise. "Security -- get 'em out of here!" (J.S.)

While producers talked very seriously about producing and writers talked very seriously about writing, the musicians gathered at the Press Club communicated in their own way -- over cocktails and under the guise of humor. Overheard: "How many lead singers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Just one, they stand there and let the world revolve around them." "What did the drummer get on his SATs? Drool." "What do you call a trombone player with a pager? Optimistic." (S.T.)

Panel: "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" Most issues discussed by this writers' panel were of interest -- surprise -- only to writers. Chaos and heckling were sadly lacking; an irksome freak in a black overcoat who'd monopolized questions at other panels merely snickered in the background. Proceedings turned juicy and sensationalist when one audience member asked whether any of the panelists had ever received threats. Jackson Griffith, a senior editor at Pulse, described having a heavy-metal tunesmith he'd lambasted promise him an ass-kicking -- through his publicist. Claudia Perry of the San Jose Mercury News -- no-bullshit tolerant and a quick wit -- described occasions whereby metal and country fans would call her to query: "What does a nigger know about this kind of music?" Billy Jam recalled solicitations from white supremacists calling him a "nigger lover" and from incensed hip-hop fans threatening beatings. Too often we underestimate the endearing loyalty of an artist's adoring public. (M.B.)

The Saturday afternoon writers' forum, livened by the irreverent wit Perry, ended with several panelists expressing contempt for the industry practice of wining and dining the press. Afterward, several writers and editors headed to a SOMA Thai restaurant with Virgin records publicist Wendy Weisberg, who picked up the tab. (J.S.)

Panel: "It's All in the Downbeat (Or Is It the Backbeat?): The Producers Panel" S.F.'s Norm Kerner, owner of Brilliant Studios, began introducing the panelists by saying, "Let's not talk about credits, since they mean nothing," though of course they came regardless. Surprisingly, only two panelists wore sunglasses indoors. The only hint of studio despotism came when Kerner described co-producing albums with bands. "Musicians have to have the ability to believe me when I say a guitar part has to go. If they argue, it's not co-producing." Tinnitus war stories ensued before we broke for lunch. (M.B.)

Transmission Theater A packed house turned out to see the hotly discussed buzz band Train, an earthy outfit whose music was summed up in three words by one onlooker as "little reggae hats." At press time, there was no word on whether the fat cat with the contracts ever materialized.

Next door, on the second stage at the Paradise, one of the area's most truly promising young acts won over plenty of converts, overcoming some vexing technical difficulties. Led by singer/keyboardist Joshua Rifkin, the four-piece known as Mumblin' Jim came across like a buoyant composite of Tim Buckley, the Raspberries, and the Beastie Boys. With their unabashed appreciation of Mike Post-era faux-funk and their cadre of glitter-dusted female fans, Mumblin' Jim put on the best, most infectious set this correspondent saw during the conference. Rifkin's beaming appreciation for his audience's enthusiastic response is exactly what SFO was established for; may his band return next year with a growing success story under its belt. (J.S.)

Slim's There are those who will wear their convention laminate out of duty -- usually business types who realize the importance of knowing who's who. There are those couldn't be paid enough to wear one -- usually cool musician types who think wearing your name on your chest is geeky. And there are those who have always dreamed of wearing a laminate but never got a really good opportunity. A gentleman standing outside Slim's seemed to be just such a man. "Hi, uh, Silky," he said struggling to read my name phonetically. The purple sticker attached to his brown flannel supplied the correct response. "Hi, Bob!" I said. "Now, that's what I like to hear," he smiled, pulling a packet of "Hi, my name is ..." labels out of his back pocket and offering them to passers-by. "No reason the bigwigs should get all the perks," he said in a conspiratorial tone. (S.T.)

Heartbreak I hadn't intended to spend a substantial portion of the evening here, but upon walking in I noticed an epitaph over the bar: "R.I.P. Heartbreak bye bye," with a sketch of a valentine ripped in half. Even more funereal: a sign saying "This is all we have," indicating two or three brands of beer and cider. No one checked my badge at the door or asked for money. Onstage, 45 minutes after their scheduled start, Pink Noise Test fiddled with cables and picked lint off their shirts.

My intentions in staying weren't charitable at first. I wanted to see just how bleak it could get. The sole barmaid scurried about, picking up empties, answering the phone every two minutes, and patiently pointing to the sign above the bar whenever someone ordered something unavailable (as I'd done). Pink Noise Test started playing to the best of their limited ability. I ordered another drink and asked her if they were shutting down soon; she said either "Totally" or "Tonight" -- silly Stockton noise pop interfered -- and went back to work without time to answer my stupid questions. To my surprise, I started having a good time -- not listening to the dumb band, but watching this woman do more labor every 10 minutes than I'd done in the past five years. She was stomping butt in the face of fiscal death, or bankruptcy, or unemployment, or lost profits, or sheer annoyance. Adversity of any scale would do; she was my heroine.

A skinny woman in a Kiss T-shirt arrived at 9:30 to help tend bar. Someone finally manned the door. Even with more staff, the pace of work remained the same. A Polvo clone started distracting me in the background. Ordering another drink, I asked the new bartender when they were shutting down. She said either "After the second" or "Any second" and resumed her backbreaking efforts. The nuisance combo in the background, waving guitars about and singing off-key, rendered hearing impossible. (M.B.)

Bottom of the Hill Sunday afternoon, nursing a triple hangover, overbudget for booze, and shoveling down platefuls of cheap chow, I expected nothing of note. I was surprised. Slim Cessna's Auto Club played spooky neo-country music that I'm not well-versed in enough to judge but loved regardless. Clumsy Dwight Yoakam knee-swiveling, lyrics rhyming "looker" with "$10 hooker," ersatz rebel-yell crowd responses, and a spiritual that made the resurrection of Christ sound like something out of Tales From the Crypt all did right by me.

Soul Divine came out for a while, offering a sorority-band soul sound with some ability. "Able" isn't good enough. Vocals full of Linda Perry affect will always crawl upon my skin, no matter how passable the vocalist is. They looked awkward and uncomfortable in their budget glam outfits -- so awkward, in fact, that I started rooting for them despite myself. The guitarist played some leads somehow both Greg Ginn sloppy and cold-fish stiff, attributable to either genius or nerves. A balding, Calistoga-sipping 50-year-old in geek-strapped wraparound shades grooved nonstop on his bar stool during the performance. Gee, I wonder if he was an A&R guy.

I was ready to write off SFO3 as further demonstration of San Francisco's enduring rock 'n' roll mediocrity -- the Auto Club hails from Denver -- when the Gun & Doll Show began doing whatever it is they do. I strained to listen over the chatter of the audience after the first few slow arpeggios. Suspicion of artsy-fartsiness melted away when humor became apparent. I spent 10 minutes trying to think of another band to compare them to, and failed. Jokes were made on the guitar at Guitar Center's expense. The female vocalist stood statue-still picking out a minimal riff while the homely fellows behind her tumbled all over each other. I was so desperate to leave the festival on an up note that I exited before Swingin' Doors started playing. For all I know, they could be way groovy, but I wasn't pressing my luck. (


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