|San Francisco and
the early Units, 1979:
I couldn't have planned it any better than the way it happened. I found myself in my dream band playing with my best childhood friend Tim and the woman I had just fallen in love with, Rachel.
Tim and I played at a few big parties in our rehearsal studio in North Beach towards the end of '78 and the first weeks of Jan.'79 to get used to playing in front of people. Tim described the party scene very well in the "Interview with Tim Ennis '2000" on your website. We started off with Jay Darrah on drums. He grew up with Tim and I but went on to drum for Romeo Void before the end of the month and we replaced him with Richard Driscoll.
During that time I was also showing the Units Training Film at open screenings in places like the Intersection Theater and the Art Institute. The independent/experimental film scene in San Francisco seemed to go hand in hand with what was going on in music and performance art and I met a lot of filmmakers that were very supportive of the Units. Some of the filmmakers that were in the scene at the time included the artist/filmmaker Bruce Conners, George and Mike Kuchar, Mike Conners (the claymation guy), Patrick Miller of the band "Minimal Man" who had filmed Winston Tong's Obie winning "Bound Feet", Richard Gaikowski, and Rick Pralinger. Some helped us out at gigs projecting our films and slides and others like Bruce Conners were just fans. It was easy for anyone to show a film. You just showed up on "open screening" nights and they'd show it. If people liked it you would get offers for "real" advertised screenings. It was a crossover scene with film, video and music. Some clubs like the Intersection, Deaf Club, and Valencia Tool and Die would have film and video showings on some nights and live bands on others. Sometimes both. Other places that screened the Units film were regular movie houses like the Roxie. They would stick it in on bills with old Dada era films. A lot of people at the Art Institute, including Rachel, were making video tapes. Rachel was showing her tapes there and at various clubs.
I had just given up doing a Brecht-ian "Three Penny Opera" spin off street act on Fisherman's Wharf with a friend, Bob Dean, in which we wore big paper mache masks, played accordion and sang Kurt Weil songs. We also did some of our own angst ridden material with themes like "Trapped Inside of My Head" . I don't think the tourists knew quite what to make of it and we werenít exactly making bucket loads of money. Tim Ennis, Randy Dunagan and I were also working on performance pieces in our Normalcy Roulette School of Performance then.
Within the first two weeks of January that Rachel and I met each other we were living and working together. By the end of January, '79, Tim, Rachel and I were spending most of our time on the Units, although Rachel was also singing in the Mummers and the Poppers with Debora Iyall of Romeo Void.
I don't think any of the drummers we ever had quite understood the performance aspect of where we were coming from. They all had more musical backgrounds. I felt sorry for them sometimes when we would drag them out of their element but I think they enjoyed the spectacle of it all. We were trying to de-emphasize the musician as rock star and have the music, films, and slide shows create more of a performance piece. We were trying to break away from the standard notions of what bands had been and should be, up to that point, and the image of the "boy's club guitar bands". We wanted to do something that hadn't already been done to death.
The Mini-Moog synthesizer was the first performance-minded synthesizer to hit the stores in the early '70's and I got the first one to come into Don Wehr's Music City in S.F.. Believe it or not, the Mini-Moog didn't fly off the shelves when they first came out. Store owners, and people, didn't really know what to do with them. When I bought mine the store gave me the works... everything Moog had given them...promo stuff, manuals, etc.. I think they had decided to stick with guitars and drums. Things changed though after they had been around a while. As far as I know we were the first all synthesizer band in San Francisco and one of the first in the country. The synthesizers helped make our sound and appearance different and helped set the stage for the other things we wanted to get across. Synthesizers had limitless possibilities not just as musical instruments but also as sound/noise generators. As long as you are creative, you don't necessarily have to be a great musician to play one, because they can automate a lot of technical skills.
Our first "real" gig as the Units was in the J.C. Penney's windows on Jan.24,1979 . It was part of a performance piece that Rachel was doing.
Tim summed it up pretty well in his interview:
"Rachel and Kai Beriones 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 Rachel's. 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 suntanning, 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 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 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 Rachel's 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?""
We got tons of press complete with photos from the "Windows" performance in all the major local papers. It was also covered in Vale's "Search and Destroy" and "High Performance Magazine". I think it was even on the television news.
The Plastic Party:
We got another lucky break soon after then "Windows" performance. Once again it was through Rachel's connections and because of our new "Windows" notoriety. Rachel and Eric Goode had gone to high school together. Eric Goode, who later went on to create clubs like Area in N.Y., was putting on a "theme" bash at a huge assembly hall called the Farm the last week in January. It was called the "Plastic Party" and there was all kinds of stuff going on there with plastic themes. One of the performances going on that night was a modern dance ensemble called the Oblong Rhondas. Barbie, the leader of the group had borrowed our plywood guitars (more about them later), to incorporate into her dance piece. She later went on to create the clothing company "Japanese Weekend". The Plastic Party was a real scene. We, the Units, wore big white plastic garbage bags that we cut head and arm holes in. Then we put some Japanese super-hero plastic kites on our backs like wings. We decorated our synthesizers with tons of plastic fruit. Tim hooked up a bunch of wires that went from his head to his synthesizer. We blasted out our set and the place was jammed and rockin' with hundreds of people, all dressed in plastic. It seemed like the entire S.F. music and art scene had been shrink wrapped and sent there on a mission. We played a great show and became instantly popular. That performance probably did even more for us than the "Windows" press. There was a vibrant alternative press scene at the time, and they were all there. If your band stood out the word traveled fast. Vale's "Search and Destroy", Ivey's "Calendar", Ginger's "Punk Globe", and Brad's "Damage" covered the scene, and writers/ reviewers like Michael Snyder and Howie Klien frequently got their reviews in the major papers. They all seemed to like us and it helped.
Do it yourself:
Like a lot of other bands at the time, we also advertised our shows by putting up artsy posters that we made. Poster art was a lot of fun and it was a scene in itself. Peter Belisto, who had also done some Units posters, later put out a good compilation of different bands posters called Streetart 1977-1981. It seemed mainly bands were doing posters but there were also artists and anarchists putting them up, like Mark Pauline, that were more political and had nothing to do with music. Along with the posters in '79 you had guerrilla art attacks on billboards all over the city.
The whole scene had a do-it-yourself mentality that made it possible to create a band, get and promote your own gigs and record and promote your own records. You could take your records to stores like Aquarius Records in S. F. or Systematic Dist. in the East Bay and they would sell them. And you could send your records to college stations like KUSF in the city or Berkeley's KALX and get radio airplay.
The Deaf Club:
In February of '79 we started playing pretty often at places like the Deaf Club, the Geary Theater, and the Mabuhay.
The Deaf Club was a scene out of a horror movie. There was no sign or light or anything out front. You just knew where it was. I remember going up a long narrow staircase to get to the actual club. The staircase was full of smoke and must have been two feet wide, four stories up, and jammed with people. Getting up there was half the fun. I remember stepping over a dead person on the sidewalk who had fallen out the window. Right in front of the stairs. The ambulance was on the way, and we had a sound check, so we stepped over him and made our ascent up Mt. Everest. If and when you made it to the summit you squirmed into the room like a sardine into a can. Once inside, the smoke from the stairs turned into a fog so thick the light from our projectors could barely find its way to the screens. You couldn't hear a fucking thing. It didnít matter because half the people in there were deaf anyway. They were either born that way or had developed tinnitus like me from having put their heads next to blaring loudspeakers for too many years.
I clearly remember our first show there. People were spitting on us. Well, not really on us, more like at the stage. From the ground level stage, trying to peer through the spit, lights and smoke, the audience looked like the Night of the Living Dead. Only with smiles. Spitting mummies weren't bad. That's what people did then. I remember seeing the Sex Pistols play around then in what must have been an old opera house with balconies around the stage. It looked like a scene out of Singing in the Rain with Johnny dancing around the stage like Gene Kelly in a blizzard of spit coming down off the balconies. It was like audience participation. The crowd loved us. I forget how many encores we did. But that didn't make me enjoy cleaning the Baby Ruth candybar spit off my synthesizer the next day.
Rachel's dad came to one of our shows at the Deaf Club. He's a very distinguished looking fellow in a suit and everybody thought he was a major record label CEO who had come to sign us. The audience, as usual, was full of people from other bands. He reported that everyone was unusually polite and conversational with him that night and he described the crowd as Mental Patient Chic. It seemed appropriate, because as I looked at him out in the audience, he looked more like a psychiatrist in a mental ward than a major label CEO. I canít say I missed it when the spitting thing became passe.
Car Hood and Plywood Guitars:
The first time we used the "car hood" was in May of '79 at the Mabuhay when we opened for the Dead Kennedys. I loved the car hood. It was a big white Cadillac car hood we found on the street by our studio. We would hang it up on stage on a wood 2x4 tripod we built and we would project slides representative of materialistic, consumer driven, corporate America on it. Images like corporate logos, suits, politicians, briefcases, beautiful models selling shit you didn't want or need, I put in a shot of my work boots. We would open our set with my sequencer playing a fast repetitive sequence of synthesizer notes and Tim's synth set on a deep bass drone. Both of our synths were playing by themselves, set on cruise control at maximum volume. Then we would run onstage with guitars we had cutout from sheets of plywood. We would beat the hell out of the images on the carhood with the plywood guitars, the carhood sounded like a gong, and the guitars would shatter and fly all over the place, including the into the audience. They would throw them back on the stage. We were lucky someone didn't get killed! If we broke one we'd pick up another one, we had a stack, and continue pounding for a few minutes. We gave it up after we pretty much destroyed the carhood on our first Southern California tour. It was a real pain in the ass to shlep around anyway.
Dirk Dirkson And The Mabuhay Gardens:
The room in the Mab reminded me of CBGB's in New York. Small and dark with a low ceiling and snotty waitresses. Like many famous places it was really nothing special to look at. But boy would they pack 'em in. Five or six hundred people in a room the size of a two car garage! It, like the Deaf Club, was a Fire Marshallís worst nightmare. And like most music clubs it was a nightmare to try and project films in. Every surface in the room had the texture of an old movie house floor...extremely sticky. Chairs, walls, floor, everything! It was like walking into a roll of fly paper! It smelled like stale beer, cigarettes and barf. I think they even tried to serve meals before the shows, that's probably where the barf smell came from...some kind of Philippine concoction that gave food poisoning a good name. Dirk would try any angle to make a buck. It was a lot of fun though.
Dirk Dirksen, the black sheep nephew of Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, never tired of his cynical, wise ass remarks when introducing a band. He was a real card. He was half the show. He would basically get up on stage and insult the audience and their taste in music. He took great pleasure in getting them all riled up. The way he looked and dressed was never influenced by the scene he helped create. He had a mustache and wore a cheap polyester suit and looked like a door to door vacuum cleaner salesman. I kept waiting over the years for a bottle or something to come flying at him from out of the frenetic mosh pit but it never happened. Somehow over the years he had garnered as much respect as Wyatt Earp did in Dodge City. When he was in the saloon nobody touched him. He was very supportive though and let us put up a huge 4'x8' advertisement of our Digital Stimulation album over the doors on the front of the Mab where it stayed for years.
I was also collaborating with performance artists like Tony Labat and Mike Osterhout at that time, doing the music for some of their performance pieces. Some of it was recorded and some live. I usually did the live stuff on an Optigan I picked up at a garage sale.
Performance art was booming at the S.F. Art Institute and somehow got all mixed up with the music and club scene that was only a few blocks away. Punk clubs, gay dance clubs, and old world strip joints were right across the street from each other and many times cultures would cross.
Punk bands, New Wave bands, and performance artists playing in gay clubs or strip joints. Strippers like Carol Doda would sometimes show up and even participate in performance pieces.
When Tim and I went to check out our future drummer Richard he was playing in the house band at a gay cowboy club. The people in the club looked like they were from the cast of of the T.V. show Rawhide! Only I imagine the cowboys were riding more than horses that night.
The Mabuhay, Art Institute, Intersection, City Lights Bookstore, strip joints, and our studio were all within walking distance of each other. There were kids doing "live love-acts" onstage on week nights in the strip joints on Broadway to help pay for their tuition at the Art Institute, and they would play in punk bands across the street at the Mabuhay on the weekends. The logistics were unbelievably convenient! There seemed to be no boundaries between school, life and art, good and bad, anything!
Rachel, Karen Finley, Tony Labat, Mike Osterhout, Bruce Pollack and Debora Iyall among many others, were all going to the S.F. Art Institute at the time. The infamous Chris Burden was teaching there. He was known as the " Evel Knieval of contemporary art". In the mid '70's he had been using his own body as an art object in some pretty outrageous acts that included allowing himself to be shot, crucified, almost drowned and electrocuted. I think he was a big influence on the scene.
It's important to mention all these people because the performance art scene went hand in hand with the music scene at the time...both giving the other inspiration and energy. Musicians and artists would all be seeing each other and hanging out in S.F.'s many clubs. We spurred each other on. It was a feeding frenzy. Out of control! The show never ended! It was pre-aids San Francisco and Rachel and I were living just off Castro Street at the time. We'd walk out of our door and see guys walking around in black leather chaps with exposed buttocks. That and every variation of sadomasochistic fashion imaginable right there on the sidewalk for your viewing pleasure!
I think the only thing I've left out of this witches brew are the spices. The drugs. Let me put it this way...Tuxedo Moon, and some other bands in the scene, inspired fans to do more than take piano lessons. And there was indeed some terminal fun to be had upstairs at the "Fun Terminal" arcade where the Mutants had their big loft. There seemed to be two camps. The uppers and the downers. It seemed to me that it started with the uppers...speed and coke. Speed does weird things. In the beginning you were glad you had a mike onstage so your voice could be heard over the sound of the crowd's grinding teeth. The pogo developed in the punk clubs from all the twitching going on in the audience. I'm convinced the alcohol and tobacco companies shipped free speed and coke into S.F. as a way to increase sales, and it worked! How else can you get a roomful of people to chain smoke and guzzle booze for twenty four hours at a time... it was like and Olympic marathon! In the gay discos there was an amil nitrate fog hovering over the dance floors that was so thick you could get a heart attack just by walking across floor! I guess finally everyone got so burned out that they had to start taking heroin just to stop being paranoid and get a good nights sleep.
The Social Disease:
The pot was boiling over when Joe Montana's 49rs won the Superbowl around this time. The scene on Broadway that night was something to behold. Added to the usual clientele of strippers, punks, gays, artists, writers and tourists you had screaming, drunken sports fans parading up and down the street. Oh my God! Mayor Dianne Feinstein should have shut down the bridges and put the entire city in quarantine at this point. The City had become a big petri dish of social disease during the swinging sixties and now the few healthy blood cells left were gasping for air. No wonder aids would soon hit the scene!
Feinstein had been elected in '78 following the assassination of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. I think she had a bull by the horns at this point and believe it or not she was actually holding things together. I didn't realize how far away from the rest of the world we had all gone until we did a performance piece at Sacramento State University with the performance artist Karen Finley. She was either stuffing peaches up her vagina or canned yams up her ass for what seemed to be a college class full of agriculture students... Sacramento being in the heart of the farm belt and all. It wouldn't have raised an eyebrow in S.F., in fact it wouldn't surprise you to see people from the audience jump onstage and join in, but there in a classroom full of plaid shirts, hiking boots and dropped jaws, I started to realize what a bizarre and wonderful thing we had going in San Francisco! In the midst of all this Jello from the Dead Kennedys was making a serious run against Dianne for mayor of the city!
It was an exciting time in the Bay Area. Steve Jobs in Silicone Valley had just come out with the Apple 2, the first preassembled, mass produced personal computer in '77. Robert Moog had come out with the first portable production synthesizer, the Mini-moog, in the early 70's . Punk was changing popular music and fashion. Performance art was challenging preconceived notions of art. Corporate advertising was being challenged by guerrilla art attacks. Dan White had successfully used the "Twinkie Defense" after assassinating the mayor, and now Jello was in the running to be the new mayor. The whole world was changing. Anything was possible...and it was all happening in San Francisco!
At some point in the following months we played the national anthem at Kezar Stadium for a Tony Labat performance that once again got a lot of press. For that event we wore disco suits, platform shoes, fake macho-mustaches, and fake chest hair topped off with big gold chains. We started the National Anthem with an intro we lifted from the song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", and eased into the regular Anthem with our synthesizers also churning out helicopter noise, police whistles, and sirens. We topped it off by firing cap pistols in the air.
Where and With Whom:
We also played at tons of regular clubs in S.F. including the Mabuhay, Deaf Club, Geary Theater, Intersection, Bac Dor, Sound of Music, I-Beam, Berkeley Square, Wolfgangís, Truckadero, Stone, Waldorf, Kabuki, California Hall, Warfield Theater, Roosevelt, Temple Beautiful, Club Foot, Savoy Tivoli, Folsom Studio, American Indian Center and Valencia Tool and Die. Sometimes with the films and sometimes without. We even played at two private birthday parties for the best selling novelist Danielle Steel at Trader Vic's and Maxwell's Plum. Rachel and I also helped organize and played in some "synthesizer round-ups" which were gigs where the synthesizer players from different bands would get together and jam. Synth players from bands like Voice Farm, Pink Section, Red Asphalt, Crop, 84 Rooms and others would drop by and play.
We shared bills with a lot of bands playing then: Go Goís, Dead Kennedy's, Screamers, Tuxedo Moon, Mutants, Crime, Plugz, Our Daughter's Wedding, X, Mutants, Offs, Romeo Void, Pink Section, Voice Farm, Esmerelda, Noh Mercy, 84 Rooms, Group 87, Los Microwaves, Nervous Gender, Chrome Dinette, Aliens, Bee People, Rhythm & Noise, Indoor Life, Bags, Suburbs, Punts, Situations, No Sisters, Barry Beam, Blowdryers, Symptoms, VS.,VKTMS, Looters, Readymades, Sponges, Impatient Youth, Toiling Midgets, and others.