The pages turn
Join us now for a re-reading of the memorable eras in Chico’s colorful underground music history
Without exception, when a venue in Chico, new or old, starts letting anyone play shows, the bands start piling up. Time spent sweating out songs in woodsheds and basements results in feeding frenzies of multi-band bills and phone calls from hundreds of out-of-town bands looking for that off-night show between San Francisco and Portland.
To varying degrees this combination of circumstances has created music “scenes” on par with (and often better than) any found along the Western seaboard.
From the early-'80s on, these musicians were doing what underground music (college rock, alternative rock, indie rock) was doing all over the country. They latched on to the DIY blueprint of the punks and began creating their own opportunities, tweaking the punk aesthetic or ignoring it outright by exploring other musical possibilities in sub-cultures that strived to support artistic freedom.
The venues in question, starting with where we now find Sound Source Music, were a succession of Cabo’s, The Mystery Palms, The Palmz and The Blue Max, all in that same spot at 9th and Oroville; Duffy’s Whispering Clam Room in the Melody Records space; The Temple and Lava Lounge, both upstairs in Crazy Horse territory; Juanita’s in the Riff Raff Bar, and The Burro Room in Riff Raff Pizza; the dance academy on Wall Street; and of course the old “wood room” side of the infamous Blue Room.
This is a brief glimpse into underground music scenes that would form whenever a venue for such endeavors would last long enough to unify a community of artists previously removed from any public stage. Follow now, as some of the folks who were around for these active times point out the sights as they remember them and share the memories that changed their lives.
Pre-Burro Room years (early 1983-1987)
By Larry Crane, Owner of Jackpot! Recording Studio in Portland, Ore., founder/editor of Tape Op Magazine and former bass player/songwriter for Vomit Launch
I moved to Chico in 1981, 18 years old and ready for college. During my four years of school I discovered the campus radio station, KCSC. It was a hotbed for local activity. I became a DJ there, and that’s basically where I met Lindsey and Trish (who later became Vomit Launch with me and others).
There were many bands connected with the radio station in 1983-84 when I started, 28th Day, Brent Lewis, My Three Sons, Ska-T’s post Hats trio (what were they called?), and there were many local bands making a go of it, The Daily Planet, Spark ‘N Cinder and others who would write originals but learn enough cover songs to play the clubs and frat parties.
Clubs and venues we frequented included Cabo’s, which became the Palmz by the time VL started, where I would sneak in with 28th Day as a roadie because I was 20. I think the place was run by morons—they shut the power off on VL’s first club gig there!
Ping Pong Palace was a big place by the tracks where we opened for 28th Day and the Replacements in 1985! I also saw Los Lobos there, along with many touring bands and punk shows, etc. Many “shows” were really big parties; that’s how VL and 28th Day got their starts. You had to be able to withstand two-hour sets and drunken abusive audiences—a real trial by fire. Barbara Manning perfected the snappy comeback at these kinds of gigs!
The Burro Room years (Aug. 19, 1988-June 28, 1991)
By Conrad Nystrom, elementary-school teacher and former bassist for The Vertels, Disaster Scrapbook and Cowboy
The Burro Room was my friend before I had really made friends in Chico.
Its first show lacked a stage, and as I recall sawdust and lumber littered the floor. The Downsiders performed there that night, as they would to normally sold-out shows in the future. Because of the crowd, I remember having to look through vertically placed two-by-fours to see the band. Construction was not complete, but what the room would become began right then and there.
Our band [The Vertels] was lucky enough to have played The Burro Room and had opened for The Afghan Whigs, then on Sub-Pop, and eventually to a major label and critical coronation. Leader Greg Dulli asked our guitarist Sean Gowan if it was “cool” to smoke pot in The Burro Room, to which Sean immediately gave the green light.
The Flaming Lips obscured themselves from the crowd and the crowd from each other with an over-active fog machine. Steelpole Bathtub and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 enlightened me as to the dangerous nature of real volume. Mark Arm of Mudhoney stopped a song because, as he delicately put it, “…Had a food baby kicking to get out,” and delivery was imminent. L-7 closed an incendiary set with a brilliant rewiring of Guns ‘N’ Rose’s “I Used to Love Her.” American Music Club’s Mark Eitzel walked his emotionally treacherous tightrope he extended every night, which either endeared you to his cause forever or drove you away because he just shared too much.
The truth of the matter is that, on any given night, The Burro Room was where chances were taken, impossible things happened, and the rock-'n'-roll vernacular was thrillingly redefined. It was to Chico what CBGB’s is to New York City.
The early Juanita’s years (1991-1995)
By Elizabeth Kieszkowski, former CN&R arts editor now living in Hawaii
Can’t I just write about Pavement at the Whispering Clam, how I took Something with other News & Reviewers and the night turned into an epic thing of beauty that only lasted about 15 minutes, and afterward the band talked to us grinning on the sidewalk outside the club, especially the drummer, Gary, the one they dumped later for being too regular, but you could tell he loved having fans and having fans love the band.
At the time I would have argued that it was all about the music, but after 10 years it seems all about the people and the places. Juanita’s and Duffy’s were the two ends of town for me in those days, and I ping-ponged back and forth between them pretty much every weekend for all those years. And the music was the soundtrack, tailor-made for a batch of unfulfilled, sexually frustrated, underpaid boys and girls who didn’t know what they wanted anyway. So, the loud, hard stuff and the B-minor-chord stuff seemed just right for backing up lots of lives (or maybe it was just mine) that included plenty of self-doubt, longing and loathing.
Bands like Buzzwurm and Trench wanted to blast you into a clean new world. They were going to outgrunge the grunge in our lives until we were deloused and true. I liked that.
Vomit Launch was one of the most intriguing bands because of its disparate elements. Trish brought transcendent melancholic beauty, Steve brought the rock, Lindsay Thrasher was a force of reason and Larry remembered the math.
Seems to me bands like Pine Cone and Glycerine were for the better-adjusted of those in the scene. All hail honest, clean-cut indie rock for the uncorrupted and true! As for me, I started getting into the screwed-up music of bands like The Cows and Bone Gruel. That probably proves I was drinking too much and thinking too much for my own good. But guess what, years later I would do it all again. Steve Albini and Shellac just came to Honolulu for two shows, two nights in a row in a Chinatown dive with fluorescent lights on overhead all through the show, and that’s where I was, I’m still deaf now, so Chico, don’t stop.
The early Blue Room (or late Juanita’s) years (1995-1997)
By Jason Cassidy, CN&R arts/calendar editor and former songwriter/guitarist for Pep Rally, Kick ’em and Cowboy
This is where it all came to a head. In the summer of ‘95, my best friend Conrad, my wife and I capitalized on Chico’s blossoming music scene and put on The Superwinner Summer Rock Academy. Twenty local bands (there were 20 legitimately good local original rock bands in town back then!) combined with another 40 bands from all over the world played for four days straight. Versus, S.F. Seals, Baboon, Track Star, Pee, Raisler and Refrigerator joined Trench, Death Star, Uncle Rosco and The Becky Sagers for the best party I’ve ever been too. Of course I lost my shirt—I lost all my shirts—but as crushing as complete fiduciary collapse was, my spirit at least had a foundation to build on.
It was probably the year that followed that expedited the healing process. Chico had more incredible rock experiences in that time than it knew what to do with. Between the Blue Room and Juanita’s, and the work of Ed Guillespe, Mark Meuter, Syb Blythe, DNA and, yes, even those pesky Superwinners, every week had at least two or three great shows going. Thinking Fellers, Unwound, Imperial Teen, Karp, Jawbox and a hundred others played alongside Chico’s worthy counterparts, Mid Fi, Pitchfork Tuning, Land of the Wee Beasties, Derailer and too many more.
Despite her determined efforts, Syb’s Juanita’s quietly closed in the summer of ‘97 (the time of year businesses die in Chico), and many of the local bands either petered out or fled to Portland. I put a hundred fliers in cardboard box, signed another check to the loan company and moved on to new projects, waiting for the next wave to rise.
The late Blue Room years (1997-2001)
By Chris Baldwin, former CN&R arts coordinator
Sometimes the best spot for a live show is someplace that feels like home. For those not into the stereotypical MTV crapola, the Blue Room was the place to catch alternative music during the mid-to-late-'90s. It was cold and musty in the winter and hellaciously hot in the summer, but the garage-like room upstairs (with nearby tool shed) maintained a close-knit, DIY-feel year-round because it was run for and by the youth and usually for art’s sake rather than profit.
I remember many fun shows there, two-dollar Oly in hand, standing around doing the indie head-nod boogie, but a few stand out: the Make-Up show when lead singer Ian Svenonious brought the gospel punk and riffed on being birthed from an egg and transported through the field highways surrounding Chico; the great Gasoline/Immortal Lee County Killers/Bob Log III show that ended with the one-man blues maestro bouncing seated Chico girls on both knees during a blistering encore; Philly metal-jazz trio Stinking Lizaveta rocked a tiny crowd once, spontaneously making me play crappy guitar during one song (to my horror, later releasing the show as a live album); and when the ringmistress from Brooklyn’s Bindlestiff Family Circus spun a dish plate from a pole in her cooch. Good times.