were the first performances of the Units like?
The first performances of the Units were like pandemonium in a jar.
Before we played in a nightclub for the general public, we wanted to have a kind of dress rehearsal and to show our friends what we were doing. We threw a party at our rehearsal studio that was in the basement of the Venetian Bakery in North Beach.
The die was cast when we bought a lot of cheap beer and wine to get our guests good and drunk so that they would like the show no matter what happened. We had invited lots of people and it seemed like they brought all of their friends. It was an unruly crowd of dadaists, gay performance artists, gypsy painters, flamenco guitarists, art institute kids, avant-garde synthesists, recording engineers, glam-rockers who refused to change their style, comedians, and punk rockers.
Everybody was drinking fast and furious, smoking pot, crammed into our tiny underground rehearsal studio and the adjoining tiny room with a sink and kitchen table where Scott and I were living. There were too many people, so they were spilling out into the hall, up the ramp and out into the street. People were starting to get rowdy and we knew we couldn't put off playing any longer.
We killed the lights.
Scott had three or four movies set up to project onto us and onto the walls of the studio. When Scott cranked up the amps and his MiniMoog started pumping out those insane sequences he had programmed, our guests surged forward into the studio until there was no space between the band and the audience, people were just all around and between us. I think we could all feel the adrenaline surging. Then Richard kicked out his drumbeat about twice as loud as I'd heard him play before and everyone started jumping around like crazy. People were spinning around to see the movies on the walls and thrashing in a primitive kind of way.
We played loud and fast for about 20 minutes; the movie projectors were falling down, people picking them up and shining them all around the room; amplifiers on 10, sputtering, bouncing around with the vibration; bass turned up so loud that the sound waves were pummeling all the air out of the basement; Richard pounding his drums so furiously he was knocking them over, people picking them up, then falling into them and knocking them down again.
When we stopped, people were drenched in sweat, yelling crazy stuff and trying to get us to play some more. We squeezed our way out into the hall where people were still either pressing in, or passed out on the floor, or making out in the corners. Three old-style North Beach Beat poet types blocked our way. They were raving. They had heard the music from outside and pushed their way down the ramp. "You guys are great," they were shouting, holding a couple of jugs of our cheap party wine, slapping us on the back. "Kerouac would have loved you, man!" We took it as a great omen and compliment.
Then one day two beautiful artist girls showed up at our studio. Scott had either met them at a film screening or they had heard about the band some other way, I donít recall, but suddenly I became very encouraged about the possibilities inherent in this punk rock stuff. The artists were Rachel Weber and Kai Beriones.
They were doing a series of performance-art pieces in the storefront windows of the vacant J.C. Penny building at the intersection of 5th & Market Streets in the heart of downtown SF. The opening piece was Rachelís. It dealt with the commodification of leisure time and she wanted to have some tantalizing leisure activities slowly revealed in the display windows. These activities included sunbathing, and a go-go punk rock party at the beach, and she needed a band. I think most of this performance has been pretty well documented. The day before, the windows were painted black on the inside, then slowly the paint was scraped away to reveal a performance piece.
The next day, we dressed in surfer shirts, shorts and sunglasses and played our set of songs in the display window. Performance artists acted as sunbathers and go-go dancers and danced up a storm in there. We had a microphone hanging inside the display window with us that ran into a portable guitar amplifier that I had hung on a wire above the store window outside.
I can only imagine how bad it sounded.
We drew a pretty good, mixed crowd of musician-type cognoscenti, confused shoppers and commuters, and ready-for-anything street people. The Normalcy Roulette School of Performance (Randy Dunagan, Scott and I) had weaseled our way onto Rachelís piece by reviving our motorized-moving-sign-on-a-wire technology and also hanging some agit-prop banners in the windows that asked "On Vacation From What?" and "Do You Like Your Job?" The street poster advertising the performance also lists "Bum Ritual" which I only remember vaguely. I think we wanted to do something site-specific (5th Street was replete with winos and junkies in those days), probably a "Waiting for Godot"-based improv. Act 1 - The Scratching of the Torso, Act 2 - The Twisting of the Screw-off Top, Act 3 - The Smelling of the Unwashed Sock, or some such nonsense...
With the publicity that the Windows performance got us, people started asking us to do some more shows. We played a huge party at a place near Army and Potrero called The Farm. It was a quasi-public space with a beautiful community garden and a big assembly hall. A great modern dance ensemble, I think possibly the Oblong Rhondas, also performed that night. I remember wearing a hat with wires that connected my brain directly into my ARP Odyssey synthesizer (honestly!), and a roiling crowd that danced quite vigorously. SF General Hospital is nearby, and from the stage I saw this older Latino guy in a wheelchair with his leg propped up in a cast being pushed around the dance floor in wild circles by his large girlfriend. She would periodically stop pushing the wheelchair and give him a big kiss. I talked to them after we played. Earlier that evening, he had been working on his car while partying on some serious substances, when it fell off the jack and broke his leg. They were going home from the Emergency Room when they heard the band from outside and they had to come in to check it out. "Youíre my favorite band," he insisted, "just after Santana."
Some of the other early performances were at the Mabuhay and the Deaf Club. When we would do a sound check, people would all stop what they were doing and come down to the stage to listen. We played some fun shows at the Mabuhay, and Scott would show his films. Other musicians were always asking us to join their bands. The Deaf Club was a great scene, but our first show there was kind of tough. I kept yelling at Scott to sing into his mic, which understandably made him mad at me. The crowd loved us, though; more than the headlining band, and I think that pissed them off!