All-ages all over?
The under-21 crowd is the lifeblood of a vibrant music scene. So why is the city hellbent on killing youth clubs?
“I smell burning.”
Oh, it’s just the car engine on fire. I couldn’t care less: My brother, his best friend and I just saw the best concert of our young lives.
“The bands you love when you’re 15, 16 and 17 are the bands you love for the rest of your life,” says Jerry Perry, promoter of local rock music for the past 20 years. If a teenager likes a band and starts attending shows, kids become indelibly attached to Sacramento.
“And that’s where scenes come from,” says Perry.
We were huge Far and Will Haven fans, the two main acts at the Cattle Club that October night in 1996 when my car overheated. But that wasn’t the worst of it: We had to sit through the night’s opener, Canadian Parliament. They broke strings. Played out of key. They even covered Quiet Riot’s “Cum on Feel the Noize.” Feel the pain, maybe. Could it get worse?
It did. They had free VHS videos, which they tossed at the crowd. A video nailed my brother on the shoulder, ricocheted and hit a dude in the face. I grabbed it and heaved it back at the singer. It missed and tagged some guy square in the noggin. As it turned out, the guy was friends with Perry, who jumped to the stage.
“Hey, whoever the asshole was who just hit my friend in the head with that video, why don’t you go to a football game or something, take out your fucking testosterone elsewhere,” Perry yelled. The crowd cheered. I yelled back in defense, “They threw them at us!”
Perry paused, then hollered, “Well then fuck you, too, Canadian Parliament.” Wild applause.
At the end of the night, we were drenched in sweat and loaded into my soon-to-be-on-fire ride. It didn’t matter: We were changed. Live music would have a lasting influence.
Years later, the Cattle Club burned to the ground. Around that time, all-ages music in Sacramento also went go up in flames—and never recovered.
“For the last six or seven years, nobody has been connecting local bands to the all-ages scene,” explains Perry. He promoted shows at the Cattle Club from 1989-96, but walked away to publish his music periodical, Alive & Kicking. He feels the pulse of the local music scene, but lately it skips beats aplenty.
There isn’t an all-ages venue in the city, and it’s killing local music.
“For my money, the all-ages venue thing has been bad for 10 years,” says Tim Foster, vocalist/guitarist for Th’ Losin Streaks. He says that you have to start going to shows as a teenager, because that’s when you actually care about music. “If you don’t grow up going to live music, it doesn’t become part of your routine.”
Perry agrees. “What we’re experiencing now in Sacramento is the death of the twentysomething scene, because it was never properly nurtured as an all-ages scene.”
So how’d Sacramento’s all-ages rock-music scene die? Or, who killed it?
Stewart Katz was a small-time boxing promoter before he started booking local punk-rock shows. “There weren’t many shows I wanted to see in Sacramento, so I told myself—naively I suppose—'It can’t be much harder to put on a show than to go to one,’” he remembers.
In the spring of 1981, Katz began lining up punk-rock acts at local all-ages venues—Clunie Hall, Club Can’t Tell, Spanky’s, American Legion 61, 24th Street Theatre, Freeborn Coffeehouse, La Semilla Cultural Center, Club Oasis, Young Ladies Institute. Katz booked national acts, but put local bands on the bill, and his shows were always all-ages.
Eventually, Katz started booking his own club, Club Minimal, which bordered Curtis Park near Sutterville Road and the train tracks. Local music aficionados took to his cool shows and now-legendary promo posters. The city also took note.
“The police department had a total hard-on for me,” says Katz, still local, now a respected criminal-defense attorney. “They considered me somewhere below the devil. I had a friend who used to work for Parks and Recreation, who was a former cop himself. Apparently, they would liken me to a PLO terrorist. Who would come up with that?”
The Sacramento police force back then, according to Katz, “was a very white, very traditional, very old-school Irish-Catholic police department. I think the perceived values of punk rock were not appreciated by them.”
Katz likens his experience promoting all-ages punk rock to “a running war with the city.” He was arrested twice. Undercover officers were regulars at his shows. His gigs were always staked out. At one point, he claims, police tried to plant evidence at Club Minimal.
“Someone I knew who was related to people in the police department told me that the cops were going to come in to Minimal and make a beeline for a particular thing,” Katz remembers. “They weren’t planting a gun. But they planted liquor bottles. I got in there first and said, ‘What the fuck is this doing here?’
“So, do I think they try to plant evidence? Yes, I do. Absolutely.” Was Katz discouraged? Did he finally get the message? Throw in the towel?
“Are you kidding? That just gave me more reason to do shows,” he laughs. “They’d send in so many cops to my shows, at one point I learned that the best thing to do was to point cameras at them. You didn’t take pictures or waste film. You just pointed.”[page]
Katz also recalls a certain Meat Puppets show. The high-art, noise-punk band from Arizona had come to Sacramento once before, and it was his worst-attended show ever. “The second time they came, literally a majority of the people who paid was undercover cops. It seemed a little odd, but at least they paid.”
Katz eventually ceased doing shows in the late ’80s. He didn’t back down; he was just over it. But the city’s harassment of Katz was only the beginning.
Alive & Kicking’s Perry started booking shows around this time, and had similar problems early on. He quickly learned how to do things the right way. “I’d rent the Young Ladies Institute or different halls in Sacramento. And I had two or three times where the shows got shut down before the headliner even played.”
Later, of course, Perry hooked up with the Cattle Club and never had a show shut down—though his overzealous postering eventually led to promo fliers being banned outright by the city.
“The city is always interested in spreading its tentacles,” Katz argues, noting that punk-rock shows were a “rallying point” in a larger effort to exert control over all facets of city music. Punk rock’s stigma ultimately crossed over to live music in general. The city continued to harass and go after music, adopting new, subtler techniques for exerting power over the scene, including the dreaded city permit.
“They make it impossible to be in compliance. I mean, the dance-permit stuff was ridiculous,” Katz says. He litigated aspects of the dance permit—and even beat part of it—but ultimately the city altered language and accomplished its objectives. “They’re always changing their frickin’ laws,” Katz grumbles. Now, local venues have to re-apply for dance and entertainment permits every two years, essentially submitting to a performance “review” by the city.
Perry is more choice: “The entertainment permit: a bullshit bunch of redundancies of laws and micromanagement. Why do you need an entertainment permit for all of this? Why can’t this just be noise ordinance? Why can’t this be capacity? Why can’t this be fire marshal or ABC or public nuisance or any of the other laws that already exist that already govern all of these things?”
Music venues invest in sound equipment, lights, production gear, but there’s no long-term security that they’ll even have a permit for entertainment, Perry explains. Lose your permit for one reason or another, and you’re out of luck—game over.
Perry, Katz and others agree that music is unfairly targeted. Perry books the summer Concerts in the Park series, which mixes music, alcohol and an all-ages audience. “We prove week after week that we can have free concerts with alcohol, and the problems we have are minimal,” Perry says of the annual summertime event. “Yet somehow there is this attitude that music is the problem. ‘Wait a sec, you’re having live music. We need to take a look at this.’”
Foster concurs: “The perception that people who go to rock ’n’ roll shows or punk shows or any other shows really are going to be your major police problem—no! They may be a parking problem, and certainly they might create a drunk-driving problem.”
You’d think a city would want to nurture music, create a successful and lively scene? Jackson Griffith, scribe of SN&R’s Trust Your Ears, has lived in the city since the early ’80s. “They’ve never had anyone at the city level go, ‘It would be really good if Sacramento had a thriving music scene. How can we help facilitate that?’” (See Griffith’s essay on all-ages, “Young, restless,” on page 26.)
Rick Ele, a KDVS deejay and local promoter of indie shows, agrees. “I don’t think the city has ever been involved in anything insofar as helping an all-ages venue happen. If anything, their only role is to enforce the rules concerning permits.” Like so many clubs over the years, Ele’s seen all-ages venues come and go because “they don’t really have the proper permits.”
Because of the city’s staunch opposition and hard-line stance toward live music, the all-ages scene went underground. It became too difficult—too expensive, too risky—to put on all-ages gigs, so shows took to the shadows.
During the past 10 years, all-ages music in Sacramento vanished.
Ira Skinner, drummer for the Evening Episode and promoter of the Press Club’s Club Pow!, was one of the last to put on gigs at the Cattle Club, which burnt down in ’01. “It sucks that you can’t just open an all-ages venue and exist,” he says. But there are rules.
Of course, sometimes legit all-ages venues disappear for no good reason. For a while, musician Kevin Seconds had a good thing going at the Capitol Garage. He started doing open-mics in the early part of the decade. Later, promoter Charles Twilling booked hardcore, punk and rock acts at the Garage. It was a great little all-ages venue.
Now, the former Capitol Garage space is The Park Ultra Lounge, a swank nightclub. A new Capitol Garage was built nearby, but they no longer do the same kind of shows.
Years later, Seconds opened the first True Love Coffeehouse on J Street, showcasing open-mic events and smaller shows. “You could play the True Love, but obviously you’d have to temp down the volume,” Foster says of the cafe venue. The original True Love lost its lease and closed; two years ago a new True Love opened at its current 2315 K Street incarnation. They still do open-mic events and smaller all-ages events.
Other venues followed suit. The 24th Street Theatre, the El Dorado Saloon, The Beat on Florin Road, The Guild, The Grind, The Second Level, American Legion 61, Café Montreal, Café Paris, Sam’s Hof Brau—all gone, though sometimes places like The Guild host the occasional show.
Foster remembers playing a lot of random shows during this time. “We ended up playing a lot of art events, like Phantom Galleries, who would try to have shows. But insofar as a regular, all-ages venue, we hardly played any at all.”
Also in the late ’90s, Scott Soriano began doing punk, hardcore and indie shows in a space called the Loft above the old Time Tested Books in Midtown. “The Loft is probably how I got the bug, insofar as going to shows regularly,” Ele says, and gigs there ultimately inspired him to promote shows on his own. “It was the beginning of actually feeling like I could have some input in terms of how to talk to bands and how to attract bands to the area. I felt like it was the kind of place where I could talk to someone and say “'Hey, this band’s coming through.’”
But the Loft’s days were numbered.
“The Loft had been more publicized at one time,” Ele begins. “Then a show got completely ruined when a bunch of skinheads showed up—this is back when Sacramento actually had skinhead problems. They pretty much trashed the place, the cops came, and the cops of course were not pleased to find an unauthorized party happening with live music, even if it was in the middle of an alleyway.” Afterward, shows at the Loft were clandestine and promoted at the last minute, first by telephone call and later via e-mail. Fewer and fewer strangers happened by the Loft—no more all-ages newbies.
And as the Midtown neighborhood grew around the Loft, pressure from nearby businesses eventually did the venue in. One of the final straws was during the summer of 2000, when cops busted a show, asked everyone to exit and inspected their hands. There had been homophobic graffiti freshly tagged on the parking garage behind Faces. The cops had no idea the band playing had gay members and an extremely pro-gay agenda. “To the cops, these weird-looking people all looked like good suspects,” Ele says. “So we had to show them our hands and prove that nobody had any spray paint on them. We probably all felt that Soriano was too cynical up until this moment, but then we finally realized what the struggle was.[page]
“There were probably only one or two shows after that.”
Espresso Metro, a coffee cafe on 12th Street between J and K streets, was the next victim, err venue.
“The police presence was pretty friendly,” Ele says of cops who would come in to Metro and have a cup of joe. “There was finally a show where there was a problem. It was a hardcore punk show, and kids were getting bored and throwing wadded-up napkins at people eating at the Pyramid Alehouse.” Ele got an e-mail the next day: “No more shows, anymore.” Metro gave the all-ages scene nearly four years of live music.
Capitol Garage’s Twilling helped open an all-ages rock and hardcore venue on the 700 block of K Street in 2006, called Junta, but the venture lasted a few fleeting months. The city shut it down.
The most recent high-profile all-ages venue to hit the skids was Fools Foundation, which was located in a basement near the Old Spaghetti Factory between J and K streets. Katz dug the vibe: “I liked that place. It was very appealing. I admired what they were doing there.”
Fools was an art gallery ran by Liz Donner, but she started booking shows under the guise of being a “private club,” sidestepping the expensive, thousand-dollar entertainment-permit process by having “members” pay “fees.”
In the vein of Los Angeles-based all-ages venues like The Smell and Il Corral, Fools eventually grew into a music cooperative. “There was a council of people booking shows, not just me and John [Pritchard] or Liz doing it ourselves,” Ele says. “And there were others, like the two guys doing the sound there. That was their baby. That was even their own equipment that they brought down there to better the place. It was starting to feel like it was going in the direction of The Smell.”
Under-attended shows of 10 and 20 were less and less. Bands of marginal interest would have large turnouts, and a customary roll call began showing up on a weekly basis. There was a gravitational pull from throughout the area—Placerville, Davis, Nevada City, the suburbs. Even people from across the United States had heard of Fools Foundation.
In the fall of last year, Sasha Frere-Jones penned a bit in the New Yorker about L.A. DIY venues. “Punk rock … has been reborn in an appealingly communal form, thanks in large part to a local club called The Smell,” he wrote. Fools Foundation was doing the same thing for indie music in Sacramento.
“When you’re at an all-ages show, and especially when there are truly are people of all ages there, that’s something great for performers,” Ele says. “They really enjoy that because they’re not playing to a bunch of people hugging a bar.
“And that’s what I’m looking for whenever I book a show. That’s the goal.” Fools Foundation was a means to an end.
Unfortunately, Fools Foundation also was an end to a means: The city shut it down last year.
“In the meantime, while we’re searching for the next venue to develop, it’s just house shows,” Ele sighs.
There isn’t a dedicated, legit all-ages music venue in the city.
And these days, kids never hear about Sacramento’s best all-ages shows. Gigs are underground—in living rooms, basements, backyards, attics. Kids like my brother and his best friend would be left in the lurch. You won’t even find out about underground shows in this paper—we’re not going to clue in the fuzz.
But don’t underestimate the cops. As Katz might attest, if they wanted to bust house shows, they would. Hell, they could establish another task force, perhaps the Coalition of Underground Basement Shows, or CUBS? Chicago baseball’s perennial losers deal with the curse of the Billy Goat. Is music in our fair river city jinxed? Are we dealing with the curse of all-ages?
Apparently. So for now, it’s house shows, which “are great and fun and special, but you never can rely on them,” says Ele, who just so happened to be at one of those fun, special, unreliable house shows a few weeks back.
I was there, too, but arrived late—not fashionably so—missing a couple bands. A crowd of almost 50 had amassed at the “venue.” Outside, revelers smoked and chatted. Inside, they decorated a tiny staircase leading to a square-shaped, single-level, no-frills basement the size of Luna’s Café. If you stood on your tiptoes, you could press an open palm against the ceiling. The next band set up and a contingent of teenagers waited.
The band plugged in. The crunch and boom of instruments cued the masses: It was time. The drummer took a seat at the kit. A horseshoe formed around the “stage.” The music hit like a sudden gust of ocean air. The crowd followed, coming at me like high tide, knocking me into a corner. Thick, decayed guitar, prodding bass, hammering drums and strident vocals upended the room, quickening the blood. It was awesome.
My instinct was to grab a few photos, so I hoisted up the Nikon and braced it against a ceiling rafter. Snap. Snap. Snap. An open can of Pabst Blue Ribbon flew out of nowhere and hit the camera dead on, beer splattering everywhere—on the crowd, in my face—but the gear came away dry. No damage done. After the show, a passerby yelled, “I hope you got some fucking shots for your fucking blog.” They evidently don’t take kindly to shutterbugs in these parts. No matter: It was a classic show.
“House shows are really so illegal that any day you run the risk of the cops showing up. Then it’s over for that house,” Ele explains. Set up shop at a new house, start up all over again.
“It’s all Balkanized,” as Foster puts it. “Forty years ago there was a music revival in this country, and shows took place at large venues,” he notes. Now Sacramento just has small shows, bitty scenes, provisional venues and a cadre of city officials cracking down on the whole mess. What’s a music lover to do?
“I’m in the middle of trying to talk to Deerhoof right now, but there’s nowhere to have them play,” Ele reveals, discouraged. Getting local bands on a bill with a high-profile act like Deerhoof would bring out numbers. But it’s not going to happen. Not now. Perhaps never. It’s a far cry from 14-year-old suburbanites driving in from suburbia for shows.
“Our music scene is very imbalanced right now,” Perry concludes. “The pivotal missing piece is the ability to put on all-ages shows with local bands.”