In the 1990s, San Francisco became home to a variety of underground clubs that took over vacant buildings in industrial areas such as SOMA (South of Market). Underground club = unlicensed + unregulated + only one exit + zero fire extinguishers = deathtrap; in other words, one of my favorite places to listen to new music at the time.
(Optional reading: one of the earliest known uses of the word “deathtrap” in San Francisco referred to a short-lived building fad in the mid-19th Century–steel houses. They were advertised as unburnable, which was true. Unfortunately, when a fire did strike an entire city block, the steel houses melted, sealing the doors and windows shut, turning into ovens and roasting the trapped inhabitants.)
Sometime in early- or mid-1993, I passed on attending a show with a few friend at one such venues featuring a pair of Berkeley bands. The following day, I really got the abuse. Aside from the fact that the two bands tore the house down (figuratively), my friends overheard the lead singers talking to each other after the show. Both bands had just signed with major labels and had major-label debuts coming out in late 1993 and early 1994, and their major-label debuts were going to hit the tops of the charts and stay there throughout 1994. This talk did not impress me at all; after all, the music scene in San Francisco was huge, I mean huge, no, I mean huge at the time and lots of bands were signing contracts, and lots of bands knew, they just knew their major-label debuts would sell huge numbers of CDs.
I did not feel at all impressed.
The singers: Billie Joe Armstrong and Adam Duritz.
The bands: Green Day and Counting Crows.
The albums: Dookie and August and Everything After.
Yeah, I kinda missed a good show.
Forward to 2014.
Recently, one of the city’s local free weekly papers hosted a town hall meeting to debate the question, is the San Francisco music scene dying? The overwhelming opinion: no. The San Francisco music scene is dead. We have hit bottom. The number of musicians is down, the number of bands is down, the number of venues is down, the number of rehearsal spaces is down, et cetera et cetera et cetera. This represents a pretty sad decline for a city that for a few years became the center of the music world. Specifically, circa 1968-1972, when 2400 Fulton Street among others became the homes of bands like the Jefferson Airplane. It might surprise outsiders that a city this young could feel nostalgia, but ’tis true.
But San Francisco still goes crazy for music when it can. I had the opportunity to reflect upon this when Lana Del Rey (currently on top of the music scene, at least in the US) came to town last week for a 75-minute gig at the Bill Graham Civic Center. It’s not that we no longer care about music; look at the length of that line. The funny thing is that these folks missed out.
That’s Lana Del Rey minus her public ultra-cool ultra-hip persona, not acting like a superstar on top of the music world (picture taken with an iPhone 4, unedited). Instead, she looks more like the organizer of a night on the town for a bunch of friends attending their 10-year high school reunion. See the guy with his right arm raised, revealing a big wristwatch? That’s her head underneath. The folks waiting in line in front of the Civic Center missed out on a chance to meet her when she was just being herself, hanging out with people who were temporarily her friends.
So San Franciscans haven’t given up their love of music.
But have we given up on making music?
I don’t know about that.
I believe that partly because I am very much a contrarian. In January 2009, I made a big investment in the S&P 500 because everyone else was abandoning stocks. In January 1982, I moved to San Francisco despite the fact that the city had just lived through one of the worst decades of its existence–specifically, I moved to San Francisco 8 days before the 49ers won their first Super Bowl. I also believe in the music scene because like the city as a whole, our entire arts scene (not just music) has booms and busts; we are definitely busted now, so maybe the next boom is just around the corner.
And I believe that partly because I keep hearing music in the strangest places.
Like outside my window at 5:30 p.m. today.
I heard a saxophone and knew I would want my camera. I saw these four gentlemen walking in one direction, and a rather attractive redhead walking in the other direction. The saxophonist also decided that she was rather attractive and began performing to impress her. She kept walking. But still…
I can’t tell you which band will lead the San Francisco Renaissance, not can I tell you when it will begin. Humility is good for me; in 1993, I thought D’Cuckoo was going to rule the world, not some angst-ridden or punkish kids from the East Bay. But there is a reason the Phoenix is so significant to this city. We just keep rising from the ashes.
Vonn Scott Bair