November 29, 2000
Mock The Casbah
Last night, I went, invited by the coolest young couple I know in San Diego, to one of the city's most notorious dive clubs, The Casbah, to hear Steve Poltz (a.k.a., The Rugburns, co-writer of the hit that launched Jewel's career, the undisputed king of the 40 second answering machine song, and, well, Steve Poltz) do his solo, heavy Cathoholic drinking routine. "Christian Bushmills is Protestant, in case you didn't know," he's at pains to inform the audience, scrunching over his guitar to sip from a beer-sized glass of soul and flu curing Jameson's Irish Whiskey. In any event, the evening, which started out so auspiciously for this old fart, with a full Thanksgiving-leftover meal, a two hour nap, and a bit of yoga to limber up the creaking joints for a night standing around and pretending to be young again, turned into a nightmarish experience of wave after wave of psycho-cultural trauma that could only be brought to a halt by walking out, emotionally and physically exhausted, hailing a cab, and fleeing to the relative safety of home, about five songs into Poltz's set. This, then, is my accounting to myself, to the couple that invited me, and more likely to this moment in our common cultural fate, for my failure simply to have a good time....
The Casbah, to all appearance, is one of those classic, perennially "underground" venues that have existed in America and probably throughout the world from time immemorial, dedicated to serving up liquor, song, and the prospect of drunken sex with random strangers to anyone and everyone sufficiently alienated by or alienated from the more polished, finished, well- or, these days, studiously under-lit establishments in which officially "popular" entertainment is made available for comparatively decorous, domesticated consumption. In San Diego, self-styled "America's Finest City," with all the originality of perhaps several thousand Chambers of Commerce nation-wide, The Casbah sits appropriately, dead under the treacherous approach path of Lindberg Field, an antiquated airport the city, in its shining, self-satisfied real-estate glory, cannot yet see the profit in replacing, though it's little more than a major air catastrophe waiting to happen.
The planes roar down directly over the open air alley-bar area, legal subterfuge for interior-exiled smokers, that's right inside The Casbah's street-side entrance. While drinking and waiting to be let in after the sound-check at the makeshift courtyard side-door to the club itself , you can look up at punctual intervals and try to count the rivets on the superstructures of descending flights. There's actually an apartment up there above the Casbah's converted storefront that's been written up locally as probably the noisiest place to live in the world. Almost certainly whoever lives there spends a good part of each day moving vibrating knickknacks back to positions from which they have strayed. Between planes, you can hear the whooshing roar of I5 freeway traffic, a half a block away.
Inside, The Casbah is painted, de rigor, with the exact same black, and dirty green and red-brown concrete-floor paint that I remember from the interiors of near-identical clubs from San Francisco to New York over twenty years ago, as if once upon a time they mixed up one great batch of this stuff and then set it aside as a permanent counter-cultural reserve, so that underground club owners for all of time might always have an available supply to slap haphazardly, one dripping, candied layer upon another, on walls, ceilings, floors, tables, chairs, bars, stools, liquor shelves, utility cabinets, exposed plumbing and electrical fixtures, everywhere, in short, except upon their rotating employees and shifting crowds of customers. Also de rigor, The Casbah's stage is raised a mere one or two feet off the ground and shoved into one corner of the ramshackle concert hall created by knocking out all but supposedly structural walls.
To one side, the puny stage abuts an expanse of corner-to-corner, floor-to-ceiling mirrors that serve the dual purpose of making the club look bigger and encouraging the patrons to indulge the at once vain and predatory behavior of watching themselves watch each other. An irregularly mounted, quilt-like patchwork of black vinyl, brass-buttoned 50's era diner-booth seat backs covers the wall behind the stage, providing some marginal acoustic baffling but, no doubt, lending the right air of padded-cell dementia to the musicians' space, trapped between the lit black vinyl wall a few feet behind and the crowd standing and swaying in darkness a few feet ahead and a few feet to the right, where the non-walled side of the stage, the "performers' entrance," drops off into the crowd again. Throw in a full length bar in what was once storefront backroom storage, behind which a vast array of liquor bottles glow, the only determinate light source other than the stage in the whole place, and The Casbah is complete: a museum-quality, movie-set perfection of The All-American Dive Club, right in the heart of no man's land San Diego.
And that's where my psycho-cultural problems began last night, with the movie-museum-deja vu perfection of The Casbah, compounded by the management's choice of a mixture of tracks from The Stones' late 70s Some Girls and from various more recent Clash-clone bands. It was more than enough to set loose upon poor, poor me all the ghosts of dive clubs past: Keystone, Mabuhay Gardens, CBGB's, Toad's, many more I can't remember, and makeshift sites like a pier in New Your between armed-to-the-teeth warships and The Bond ex-disco, both commandeered by the Clash going and coming on their last, Sandinista U.S. tour. The ghosts descended in waves, seeped up through cracks in the concrete floor, materialized from an innocuous glance or two at random leaflet band posters plastered about the place, assaulting me with intimations of no future, harping upon my obvious failure to die before I got old; above all, making clear that it was more than twenty years ago today that I stood in the exact same place, virtually speaking. "When they kick at your front door, how you gonna come? With your hands on your head or on the trigger of your gun?" I turned tail and fled. After all, it's not even the nineties anymore.
The real problem, as I realized the next morning, was not simply the movie-museum-deja vu quality of The Casbah's physical layout and ambient music, but the youngish Y2K crowd in attendance. They populated the place like extras on a movie set, babies that just come with the scenery. It's not that they were dead in any simple way, not that they lacked a sense of quite genuine camaraderie with each other and with the performers on stage, a feeling of being comfortably at home with themselves and the place, not that they didn't enjoy the evening. It's not that they seemed out of place. On the contrary, the casting was perfect. But, for my ghosts and myself at least, the oh so pretty crowd had nothing to say, nothing to contribute to the event, to what wasn't...but might have happened. For their generation, this culturally deaf, dumb and mute crowd had nothing to say except by default, "no future." No Future: not with a bang, not even with a whimper, because this generation, apparently, feels no sense of deprivation, no sense of missing a future -- their own -- never having had a sense that there should ever have even been one.
Theirs are, no doubt, the more reasonable expectations of an evening at a dive club in, by now, early twenty-first century America: get drunk, meet old friends, maybe make some new ones, and perhaps, depending on what the merely commercial future holds, establish "insider" status in relation to some potential star's career. Mine are the delusional expectations: the need to feel, to believe, partially in the music but more fully in the gathering itself, that there is a promise of a possible future, of things to come, a sign of change -- in consciousness if nothing else, for the few if for no one else -- a potential that from tomorrow onward the world will be or might be made somehow different. I need a sense that, beyond fun, something real happened.
To that deluded end, there is nothing lacking in Poltz's lyrics and music. After all, he is forty and can feel damn well the difference the passage of time has made. I've heard a rough demo from his ever-delayed "next album," a song that, perfect as it is in its raspy singing, playing and engineering, is unlikely ever to be released by a major record company and may yet prove the contract breaker with his current label. The song, perhaps entitled after its refrain "You've got monkeys coming out of your ass," is as good as -- better than -- anything I remember from the immediate, inspired aftermath of the Sex Pistols' implosion, oh so many years ago. It fits in my memory, not today, but alongside numbers from the likes of Psychotic Pineapple, performed on street corners and down in the basements of late-seventies Berserkley.
The tragedy is that Poltz's current audience cannot hear that, cannot hear that passage of time in him, and, therefore, can neither fully know him, feel the full range of the play of loss, anger, disgust and survival in his music, nor sense that something's lacking in their own experience: an intimation of their place in our common cultural history that has gone none too well in recent decades. They are blessed with no sense of tragedy. And as painful and ghost-ridden as that is, they don't know what they're missing....
The upshot of all this, of my night of psycho-cultural trauma at The Casbah, is that this holiday season I feel compelled to appease all those ugly ghosts from Punk Rock, New Wave dive clubs past by showing a bit of whybother.org's true colors, flying the flag, fessin' up, dragging the old Blank Generation skeletons out of the closet and giving them a good bone-rattling shake.
So here, below, for all to see, though very, very few ever will, is a bit of genuine, water-damaged, apocryphal rock and roll history that's been buried for over twenty years, except for its entirely deserved listing in the full and uncensored version of "The Canonical List of Weird Band Names" and its entirely unauthorized republication in the full, coffeetable-sized, hardcover version of the The Art of Rock: Posters from Presley to Punk.
May the usual suspects, now gainfully and fearfully employed, forgive me.... At least I haven't posted any of our lyrics.