Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sleepers -- "No Time" (1978)

Though I know that the world is dying
I bet you'd run away from me
Just like a chick with a problem

The epigraph of Jennifer Egan's 2010 novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, quotes Marcel Proust on how certain places have the power to elicit memories:

Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth.  

For Egan -- and for me -- music is one way to bring back to life "the self that we were long ago."  Is there anything that can call up old memories more vividly than an old song?

Author Jennifer Egan
One critic has called A Visit From the Goon Squad -- which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction -- a "rock and roll novel," noting that popular music is both "subject matter and key inspiration" for Egan.  The novel's main characters include fictional musicians and record producers and music fans, and the book drops the names of dozens of bands and records.  It depicts not only scenes from rock music's past, but imagines its future.

Egan was born in Chicago in 1962, but was raised in San Francisco.  She regrets being born too late to have really experienced the sixties:

I grew up in the 1970s, and my friends and I felt very keenly that we had missed the sixties. We were bummed out about it. I grew up feeling like I wanted to grow up ten years earlier . . .

While Egan was too young for the "Summer of Love," Monterey Pop, Altamont, and the glory days of the Fillmore, she was the perfect age to experience the glory days of the San Francisco punk scene circa 1979, which is the setting for chapter 3 of A Visit From the Goon Squad.

The narrator of that chapter  is Rhea, one of a group of high-school girls in "dog collars and safety pins and shredded T-shirts" who hang out with the Flaming Dildos, a punk band whose members (all male, of course) are students at the same school. 

Rhea is "waiting for" Bennie, the band's bass player.  (I take it that "waiting for" means something between having a basic crush and full-fledged love.) 

But Bennie is waiting for Alice (a rich girl who used to go to a fancy private school).

Alice is waiting for Scotty (the band's charismatic singer and guitarist).

Scotty is waiting for Jocelyn (a beautiful half-Chinese girl).

Jocelyn is waiting for Lou (a famous forty-something record producer from Los Angeles who is married and has several kids and who picked her up when she was hitchhiking).  

Unfortunately, no one is waiting for Rhea, who blames that on her freckles.

I don't know how much of herself Egan put in Rhea, but it appears from the picture of Egan as a teenager that she did have some freckles:

Jennifer Egan as a teenager
The group dreams of the day when the Flaming Dildos will be invited to perform at the Mabuhay Gardens, where the crème de la crème of San Francisco's punk bands play.  Until their big break comes along, the group goes to "the Mab" every Saturday night.

We've heard Crime, the Avengers, the Germs, and a trillion other bands. . . . During the shows we slam-dance in front of the stage.  We tussle and push and get knocked down and pulled back up until our sweat is mixed up with real punks' sweat and our skin has touched their skin.
Despite her dog collar and green hair rinse, Rhea doesn't consider herself a real punk.  When I asked Jennifer Egan about her experiences in San Francisco in those days -- like Rhea, she was in high school there in 1979 -- she admitted that she was just a wannabe punk as well.  "The closest I came to being a punk was putting on raccoon eye makeup a few times," she said.

She came closer than I did.  I lived in San Francisco from 1980 until 1982, and I never made it to the Mabuhay Gardens or any other venue where punk bands performed live.

Poster for a Sleepers appearance
at the Mabuhay Gardens
The closest I got was listening to a weekly punk radio show on the local Pacifica station.  The show, which was called "MaximumRockNRoll," was hosted by Tim Yohannon and Jeff Bale, who later started the punk fanzine of the same name, which continues to be published today.  Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys was a regular on the show.  I have about 50 hours of cassette tapes of that show, which I plan to get around to cataloging any day now.  (I've been kinda busy the last 30 years.)

Egan mentions a number of punk bands in chapter 3 of A Visit From the Goon Squad: the Avengers, the Cramps, Crime, the Dead Kennedys, Eye Protection, Flipper, the Germs, the Mutants, and the Sleepers.  Most were from the San Francisco area.

The Sleepers 1978 EP, Seventh World
Egan told me that her favorite San Francisco punk group was the Sleepers, which was one of the more distinctive bands of that era. 

The two friends who formed the Sleepers in 1978 wanted former Crime drummer Ricky Williams (he was known as "Ricky Tractor" until he was kicked out of Crime) to do vocals for their new band "because he was so awesome looking."  Here he is:

Ricky Williams (later of Flipper)
Williams couldn't be bothered to write out song lyrics, preferring to improvise the words on the fly.  Add a lot of speed and acid to the psychedelic influence of a Bay Area upbringing and you end up with music that "broke free from the punk template," according to one critic.
When the Sleepers broke up the next year, Williams help found Flipper, which was the most influential of all the San Francisco punk bands of the era.  (Williams came up with that name after going to a beach while he was high and finding the remains of a dolphin that had been mangled by a shark.)  But he was reportedly too weird for his bandmates to tolerate, and was kicked out of Flipper before they released any records.  (He died of a heroin overdose in 1992 when he was 36 years old.)

Henry Rollins of Black Flag described Flipper in these words: "They were just heavy.  Heavier than you.  Heavier than anything."  I couldn't have said it better myself.  (Actually, I probably could have said it better.  So could have you.)

Flipper's first album was titled Generic Flipper.  Here's the cover, which is certainly generic:

Classic California punk is usually pretty disaffected stuff, and the lyrics to "Shed No Tears" are about as disaffected as you can get.  Here's a sample:

Shed no tears for the suicide
He has made his choice
The pain of life is great
And some will find it sweet 
To rot beneath the earth

Not disaffected enough for you?  Then how about this verse?

Shed no tears for the nun beaten
By the children she once called her flock
How they hate their teachers
Who force the darkness upon us

Here's "Shed No Tears":

In Goon Squad, the Flaming Dildos eventually get their Mabuhay Gardens gig, opening for the Cramps and the Mutants.  Lou, the famous record producer who had picked up Jocelyn, drives up from L.A. and goes to the gig with Rhea and her -- he says he'll give the band a record contract if he likes them.  The group closes its set with its best song, "What the F*ck?"

You said you were a fairy princess
You said you were a shooting star
You said we'd go to Bora Bora
Now look at where the f*ck we are
What the f*ck?
What the f*ck?
What the f*ck?

Afterwards, the band members and the girls go to Lou's San Francisco apartment, which has walls covered with electric guitars and gold albums.  Lou shows Bennie (the band's bass player) his recording studio, explaining the function of each piece of equipment.  Bennie eventually becomes a successful record producer himself.  

Bennie and Scotty -- the band's frontman -- have a brief encounter in New York City many years later, when both men are in their thirties.  "I want to know what happened between A and B," Scotty says, and then elaborates: "A is when we were both in the band . . . . B is now." 

Scotty has abandoned music and is eking out a living as a sanitation worker.  Bennie is the very successful owner of Sow's Ear Records.  It's hard to imagine two lives that contrast more sharply, but Scotty understands something that most people haven't grasped:

[T]here was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park.  In fact, there may have been no difference at all.

Here's "No Time" by the Sleepers, which appeared on their 1978 EP, Seventh World:

1 comment:

  1. Although I never had a Germs album, I did have one of their T-shirts, with the "mystic circle" on one side and "What We Do Is Secret" on the other. I was tempted to wear it to work, and point to the text when someone asked me what I was working on in a telecomm closet. One night I was wearing it while shopping in a Tower Records store, and this guy spotted it and said "Germs, Man!" Regarding the Cramps: My favorite Cramps song is the Jimmie Rodgers classic, "Muleskinner Blues" ("Where's that water boy, man?") I also have the original by the Singing Brakeman, a cover by Dolly Parton ("I'm a lady muleskinner...") and probably a few more. There's actually a muleskinner in my family heritage: My dad's Uncle Steve was running mule teams on construction jobs into the 1920's (but that's another story). "Sow's Ear Records" brings to mind Linda Ronstadt's "Silk Purse" album, with the cover showing her hanging out with some porkers. Back in the 20th Century, Ms. Ronstadt was my favorite lady of song; I saw a number of her live performances and even met her at a CD autograph session. But this was before I met Evie Sands and a new world of musical adventure.