With a sudden hard rush of wind in my face I’m riding shotgun with Billy Bliss in his now speeding convertible as we blast our way into San Francisco’s Broadway tunnel. His left hand is planted firmly on the horn as he aggressively tail gates the car in front of us almost hitting it. The car now desperately wants to get out of his way but the claustrophobic lanes of the yellow-tiled tunnel are old and small and all the other surrounding cars can do is jiggle in small jerks within these tight narrow tube-like confines.
As Billy wildly herds the car in front to speed even faster, he looks over at me with his preppy Animal House style, dirty blonde hair blown straight back and wide grin asking “Is this freaking you out?”
Billy’s most recent exploits around town included running up and down the halls of the ultra-swank Fairmont Hotel wearing nothing but bubble bath suds and tackling the singer of Third eye Blind at Bottom of the Hill on stage mid-song.
The surrounding cars begin to organize and slow down to open up the claustrophobia, but then that allows him to change lanes. Hand still planted on the horn, he takes off even faster, catching up to another car. They skittishly jerk into the other lane as we now fly out into the openness of the Broadway Strip and North Beach at night with all its neon in full urban carnival blaze.
Laughing, he looks over to me again to judge my composure. I have my game face on tight and seem to have passed his breaking of cool test. There’s no time for an award as we’re now being chased by one car from the tunnel. We speed through the large intersection of Broadway and Columbus Streets as the other car catches up next to us and attempts to cut us off. Instead of breaking, Billy merges into the opposite lane of traffic, then to the sound of oncoming car horns quickly cuts a hard-illegal left turn onto Montgomery Street and floors it up the steepest side of Telegraph hill. I look back down behind us and from this higher vantage point can see that it’s actually two cars following us up the hill. “There’s two of them,” I say, turning my head back around. Billy chuckles an “it’s on” chuckle and jams a hard left at the top of the second incline onto Green Street, then just as quickly takes the next turn into a one-way alley going in the wrong direction. We’re picking up speed down the narrow Castle Alley until Billy has to hit the brakes hard skidding into a right turn onto Union and then higher still up Telegraph Hill. Underneath the networks of telephone wire spider webs we jab another quick left back onto Montgomery, past the “NO OUTLET” sign and down the dark thick brush and treed divide that splits the lanes putting us on the low road. We bottom out into a spin-around at the “DEAD END” of Julius Castle and immediately blaze back up the other way on the opposite side of the tall median inclining into the higher road where I can see there is in the opposite lane coming the other way only one of the cars still after us. Now back at the top of the hill, we cut right, and he Bullitt-bounces the car all the way back down the hill to Washington Square Park. The other car is gone.
Billy looks at me with a huge smile and laughs. He’d loved it. My “game face” was now wind stretched diagonal and formica finished.
Now back on Columbus Avenue, we finally slow cruise down to The Purple Onion.
The Purple Onion was a subterranean Comedy Club staple back in the era of “The Beats”. Today in 1995 it still has all its original 1950s glitter and tinsel nightclub decor, but had recently been transformed into a 60s Garage Rock institution by Tom Guido. Tom is like a Crispin Glover and Andy Warhol hybrid on a hospital drip of obnoxiousness. This club was his scene, and it always freaked him out and at any random moment he might engage in whatever chaotic revelation just blew his mind a kiss.
One of his favorite eccentric things to do was jump on stage while a band was performing and just start making fun of them between songs. What could they do? He was running the place and controlled the door take and if you didn’t like it he’d just turn the sound off on you. To add less insult but more injury, he was never funny and his mic invasions were more akin to turrets syndrome outbursts.
Tonight was no exception and as I walked down the stairs into the club he was onstage exclaiming into the mic in his overtly whiney Cali accent “Heyyy maaan… Mo Tucker just called and she wants her baynd baaack!”
I look around the packed club while joining in the house eye rolling and that’s when I see my bandmates Anton, Dean, Matt, Brian and Jeff standing by to bring amps and drums up to the stage. The sweaty band on stage launches into its last number as I walk along the outside wall of people to the bar and get a drink.
I finish in time for all the big gear pieces to make it onstage and head over to where Jeff is distracted with tuning up his guitar. I come up alongside him on stage and slide an arm around his shoulders “Heyy”
“Hey babe, how’s it goin’? He smiles. “Isn’t this raad?” Jeff is somehow equal parts goth, hippie and rockabilly with lipstick stuck to his teeth braces.
“Righteous” I return along with a hip bump. There was always a high level of excitement to play the Purple Onion because it was a proper scene. It was our scene and a place where each different wave of 60s-heads from the last five years from all points of the Bay Area converged under one roof to out-cool and look down noses at each other. The late 80s first wave of 60s garage psych rockers would look down on the early 90s shoegaze britpoppers and the mods would look down on everybody. Bay Area mods were a strict regime and our melding of 60s fashions with flashes of modern Britpop to our attire rendered us not 60s enough and to be avoided socially. While a few of those old mods from back then have stayed true and towed the hemline into more mature artistic life forms, almost all of them are out there somewhere in hiding, disguised behind bank teller counters and in office cubicles committing fashion crimes of an unspeakable nature. BELLBOY!
“Hi chief, ” Dean says with a smile that harmonizes a silent “what’s up?” accompaniment. Dean is a “face”, meaning young, fashionable and good looking. An elfin version of a young Robert Redford in a black velvet blazer and brandishing a natural kind of “cool” that makes you stay in check with your own.
“Hey boss” I reply along with a happy to be standing here right now smile, word exchange being purposefully generic while the genuine salutation is in the emotion of the face. It isn’t planned, just a thing.
“Hey Joel, what’s up,” Brian says rather than asks while tightening a cymbal. His dirty blonde pushed back hair, plain white t-shirt and cuff-rolled blue jeans give him the James Dean effect, though he didn’t mean it to. He makes a second-long smile without looking up — all is good but he’s busy with getting the kit ready before we go on in fifteen minutes.
Matt finishes setting his bass down, looks at me and pushes his glasses back up before giving me a Jackie O motorcade pivot wave. His ever-present pout plus thick framed eye glasses push for an indie rocker stereotype, but this is ultimately averted by his overextended mop haircut.
Knowing I’m a little late, I simply say “Hey!” to Anton, then go into my genuine excuse, “Jeez, you would not believe my trip over here.”
Anton is our lead singer and songwriter whose music could be considered a sonic version of its author – driving, urgent and intense and with all the drama that comes from an unwillingness to give up for anything. He is the one piloting this musical ship and is dressed appropriately for the part head to toe in white cowboy denim over thick sailor’s knitting. He looks up from his distortion foot pedal “Hey, I bought you another tambourine in the Mission today, but if you break this one then your gonna have to ask the bar for a cocktail shaker and some ice cause I’m sick of buying maracas and tambourines and you breaking them.”
I slide off my dark bubble sunglasses and gaze down the length of my all-black knitted frame at him. “Heyy, thanks man, I won’t” I say honestly speaking for my semi sober self while having a suspicion there is a different prediction felt by the future intoxo-genie version still capped inside my hidden hootch bottle.
“We need them so don’t just break them, cause then what are you gonna do, Mr. Bo Jangles?” He cracks a slight side smile.
I pick up the tambourine and give it a three second sixteenth notes test just to get a feel of the thing. The wood make is light and the jingles sound bright. Having picked back up the lost tradition started at the very birth of rock and roll by Bo Diddley’s “Maraca Man” Jerome Green, I am the band’s front and center stage “Tambourine Man”.
Generally speaking, life in the real right now time is an inherently boring or common feeling in the virtual situations within the momentary existence of immediate consciousness and is as devoid of all romance as a newborn baby is of character. The strive is to find the types of situations where in spite of all of that, you can tangibly feel and your soul can hold all that comes with when you know you got it goin’ on. In ten years’ time from now the bands profiling in the Sundance Film Festival’s “Grand Jury Prize” winning documentary Dig! will cement my point.
Our set goes smoothly as we stand performing in the same spot as Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor did in the 60s and The Mummies and The Trashwomen did last night. There’s no band drama, no crowd obnoxiousness and even Tom is somehow temporarily tamed, only invading the stage once to light Anton’s cigarette. Then again, even an agent of C.H.A.O.S. like Tom knows better. There are a lot of pairs of jeans and stovepipe trousers up here.
For our last song, we go into the long epic version of what will one day become the theme song to HBO’s hit prohibition-era series Boardwalk Empire, “Straight Up And Down”. We blow it out and over extend it while “Sympathy For The Devil” style Whoo-whooing and “Hey Jude” Na nana na-na-na-naing all the way down to the horizon line of Pepperland. Before anyone can even get their guitar off, Tom is already onstage grabbing the mic “Heyyy! Are you guys why all the narcs are in here tonight?”
I walk offstage and B-Line for the door when suddenly there’s a loud BOOM of the mic hitting the ground. I dart my eyes towards the stage to catch the tail end of Billy tackling Tom by the legs. Billy’s already up and running away past me and towards the door as Tom yells into the mic “He’s worse than a narc! He’s a jock, maan!
Not being interested in catching up to Billy to hitch a ride back through the Broadway Tunnel, I walk the few blocks south and catch the last cable car which takes me up and over the high crest of California Street towards home.
Joel Gion has been playing tambourine in the San Francisco band The Brian Jonestown Massacre for the last twenty-five years. It’s also possible you may know him from the 2004 Sundance Film Festival’s “Grand Jury Prize” award winning documentary Dig!.