Above us, in the fading San Francisco evening light, dull neon lights flickered from the storefront signs on Broadway as we shuffled closer to our destination. The grimy sidewalks were covered in beer cans, sandwich wrappers and the detritus from what my mother told me later she had thought had been young homeless people but were instead actually throngs of punk rockers who were hanging around until the concert started. With reverence, I breathed in the dirty, oily smells of the city as we walked along, feeling oddly at home, a vague sense that I was finally among my dog-collared, leather-wearing, chain-smoking brethren. I was 13 and the year was 1978.
Punk rock had been ushered into San Francisco with the opening of a converted nightclub, the Mabuhay Gardens. Formerly a dinner and show restaurant, in 1977 it had been transformed into one of two California venues for a growing underground music scene. San Francisco had Mabuhay (or the Fab Mab), and L.A. had Whisky a Go Go. Each venue provided an outlet for frustrated youth, musicians and artists who were fed up with what they felt were the failed policies and practices of both the government and the hippy movement. Out were the days of striving to fit into corporate culture or peacefully dropping out, and in were the days of aggressive behavior, provocative clothing and screaming at a world that didn’t seem to want to listen to anything but money, trivialized sexuality or mind-altered drug realities.
And there we were in the middle of it — me feeling the excitement, and by the look on her face, my mother feeling a mixture of dread and a realization that this was more than she’d bargained for. Earlier that day, with very few questions, she’d agreed to drive me down to San Francisco to meet the rest of my band for our first major musical gig.
“Hey, Tim, over here,” Steve’s voice called out.
Steve, the lead singer of our band, was standing at the front entrance to the Mabuhay Gardens. A heavyset security guard stood next to him blocking the door. Around them a group of punks waited to get in, each covered in black leather and ripped denim and topped with spiked hair of various colors.
Steve waved his hand frantically from the entrance. “Come on,” he said. “You’ve got to get set up.”
I stepped forward, but my mother gripped my shoulder firmly. The crowd, seemingly sensing our hesitation, drew closer together and blocked our path.
“Let them through,” Steve said. “He’s our drummer.”
The punks looked at us in bewilderment.
“You mean that kid with his mom is in the band?” a young girl asked.
The girl had shortly cropped hair dyed to resemble a cheetah — yellow with black spots. To me she looked like a movie star. I was mesmerized. She gave me a smirk, shook her head and then twisted around, violently pushing the crowd back.
“Let the kid in,” she boomed.
As I passed her I smiled, but she sneered back at me and abruptly turned and disappeared into the crowd.
The guard’s rough voice brought me back to the task at hand.
“IDs,” he said.
Looking at me, my mom said, “I’m his mother.” It somehow sounded more like a question than a statement.
“Admission is waived for musicians, but 3 bucks for you,” the guard said to her as he drew two large X’s on the back of my hands. “No alcohol for him, but there’s a two-drink minimum.”
We passed into the club. Inside was dark, and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust. The air smelled of stale beer and cigarettes. Steve and the rest of the band had gathered at the back of the long room on a low stage, busily setting up their instruments, while Misty, a St. Helena girl who had become what we’d affectionately referred to as our “band mother,” was taping our set lists to the stage. As we approached, John and Paul’s mom stepped from the darkness.
“I had no idea,” both mothers said in unison, nervously.
A few months earlier our band had sneaked onto Francis Ford Coppola’s lawn and played for the famous movie director during his “Apocalypse Now” movie release gala. This fearless act was Steve’s brainchild. The rest of the band went along with what we thought was just one of his fantasies until we eventually found ourselves playing our less-than-perfected music to one of the greatest directors on the planet. Coppola sat in a lounge chair listening to us while he puffed away on a cigar, his large-brimmed hat nodding arrhythmically in keeping with the music.
“Well, we’d better finish getting set up. The moms can sit back there,” Steve said, pointing to a few tables in the distance. His expression became serious and he chewed his lip. He looked at our mothers with concern.
“Whatever you do, do not enter the dance floor after the music starts,” he told them.
Our mothers nodded slowly in understanding and headed back to relative safety as we finished setting up our gear.
From the tiny stage I looked out over the nightclub’s smoky interior. In the distance our mothers sat at a small table, each now with a drink in her hand. Around them young men and women talked and smoked. The mood was serious and intense.
Steve and Misty were on the side of the stage going over the set. John, our guitarist, was in a corner talking with a pretty girl with the biggest fin mohawk I’d ever seen. Our bassist, Paul, stood talking to a man who must have been in his late 20s. The man was asking questions, and Paul was uncharacteristically attentive to the conversation, often turning and pointing to one of us. The man nodded thoughtfully.
When they finished Paul came back.
“Who was that?” Steve asked.
“Jello Biafra,” Paul said.
Steve looked impressed. I shrugged.
“Jello’s the lead singer of the headline band tonight,” Steve said, sensing my lack of understanding.
I shrugged again.
“You know, the Dead Kennedys,” Steve said.
“Oh yeah, of course,” I said, having no idea what he was talking about.
They both looked at me, shaking their heads.
I finished setting up my drum kit, my hands now slick with sweat. What had been excitement had settled into a nervous queasiness. I longed to run outside and catch my breath.
Steve gestured for us to leave the stage as a short man with thick curly hair, dark-rimmed glasses and a black mop of a mustache grabbed the mic. A small group of punks from the crowd gathered in front of him, greeting him with a few boos.
“My name is Dirk Dirksen, and I am here to welcome you to tonight’s show,” he said in a tired, monotone voice.
The din of boos grew louder, now mixed with creative expletives and wadded up paper.
“Today almost anybody can pass as performers,” Dirksen said just as a beer can hit the stage near his feet. He didn’t seem to notice.
I felt like I was going to be sick.
Dirksen continued, “And to prove that fact let me introduce our first act.”
That was our cue, and we walked onstage to more boos and took our positions. Jello leaned against one of the walls watching us, his fingers massaging his chin. In the back our mothers sat unmoving, their faces now obscured in shadow.
The girl with the leopard hair stood at the back of the dance floor, a cigarette between her lips and a beer in her hand. She looked even younger in the light, maybe just a year or two older than I was. She glanced around quickly and then flashed me a quick thumbs-up and smiled.
John’s amp squealed with feedback.
“Here’s introducing another disaster,” Dirksen said and then left the stage shaking his head.
Steve took the mic from the stand. He looked around, giving me a look like, “You can do this.” I nodded, shakily.
The crowd surged forward to the edge of the stage, the young girl with the leopard hair now right up in front. She was watching me, her expression a blend of excitement and concern. I wiped my hands on my jeans and grabbed my drumsticks.
Steve turned back to the crowd.
“We’re the V-Ups from St. Helena, and we don’t care about you, either,” he said as we launched into our first song, but that’s another story.
Originally published in the St. Helena Star.