Paradise lost across the causeway
Ten years ago, Davis was being touted as a music mecca, along the lines of Athens or Seattle. What happened?
Beads of sweat still kneading their way down from the rim of his back-turned baseball cap, Stu Blakey wrenched one hand from the pocket of his extra-large, patched, naturally bleached overalls for his beat-up guitar case, while the other got pulled away by a pubescent fan seeking a quick autograph on a napkin. It was another Saturday night in midsummer 1994 in Cheezers, a small steamy pizza joint on G Street in downtown Davis.
Blakey’s band, Chance the Gardener, had just finished a searing set, profiling most of the material on The Day the Dogs Took Over, its debut release for Warner Bros. The modest but avid crowd of about 40 was enough to fill the place.
It was high times for the college town, which in 1994 was caught, like much of American pop culture, in an organic revival of punk-inspired rock. And while the focus of the media was centered on Seattle, Davis in the early ’90s was garnering acclaim as a smaller college-music mecca.
From the late 1970s, when True West and the Suspects (the latter featuring Steve Wynn and Kendra Smith, who later moved to L.A. to form the paisley-underground band the Dream Syndicate) played around town, Davis has been home to a number of talented acts—Thin White Rope, Thornucopia, the Popealopes, Knapsack, Lawsuit, Chance the Gardener, Maxiwagon, Shove (and its label, Omnibus Records), 11:11, Akimbo!, Buick, the Brodys, and Natalie Cortez and the Ultraviolets, even rapper Paris and sound-sculptor DJ Shadow. Davis had a music scene that not only fostered rich talent from an ever-changing pool of college students, but it also provided a nurturing atmosphere cognizant of the importance of supporting youthful entertainment.
“I came to Davis in 1991 because a friend of mine told me what a great music scene they had there,” says singer-songwriter Grub Dog, né Greg Mitchell, a former Davis resident. “It fit me very well, because it wasn’t a city so to speak, but a town that seemed to have just the kind of vibe I wanted to experience both as a musician and as a fan.”
“There’s not a lot to do in Davis,” says Popealopes singer Pete Lohstroh. “And that’s the reason Davis had such a cool scene. You attract a lot of intelligent people from the university, and without much to do they start rock bands and support rock bands.”
Today, “college rock” is listed as a minor sub-genre on the Allmusic.com Web site. And in Davis, all-ages music venues like Cheezers have long since gone out of business. Campus billboards are awash with flyers for used cars, computers and fraternity rush announcements, but no band flyers. Few bands still play in Davis, and fewer still call it home. The music scene seems as blighted as the façade of the town’s new Gap.
“Times change, bands ebb and flow,” says a wistful Guy Kyser formerly of Thin White Rope.
Grub Dog is more acidic: “Things just went south.”
As is often the case, there’s one person who acts as a linchpin, holding things together. Davis had one a decade ago. He still lives there.
Pete Lohstroh fronts the Popealopes and Beatrice Nine; he’s also coordinator of the West Sacramento Musicians’ Co-op, originally set up as a co-op for Davis bands. Ten years ago, the Co-op was the place to practice—rent was cheap, you got a P.A. for the night and you could turn your amp up with no worries of cops or neighbors. The Co-op, started in Davis at a house on Olive Drive, moved due to neighbor complaints; it fostered a mutually supportive environment for fellow Davis musicians. That cooperative attitude was on display every winter for eight years in a fund-raising concert, usually at Davis’ Veterans Theater.
“It was cool for a while,” says Lohstroh. “We had a good thing going. We stopped doing it after a few years because the paperwork was too much. The city started giving us a hassle about insurance and stuff like that. It wasn’t worth it.”
The Co-op is still around. “There’s not as many Davis bands,” says Lohstroh. “A lot more Sacramento bands practice there.”
As for Davis itself, the city—once mocked on Politically Incorrect for a noise ordinance that led a snoring person to a confrontation with the cops—is often characterized as a bastion of elitist liberal intellectuals, these days catering to a growing suburban mindset where calm, tranquil skies are valued more for the investment value than any kind of artistic freedom of expression. If someone working a leaf-blower outside at noon is going to get harassed by the cops, a new band trying to throw a party on a Friday night has a fat chance of playing more than two songs.
While Davis’ noise ordinance was conceived in 1971, local police didn’t use it to crack down on violators until the mid-'90s. Anything above 90 decibels was cause for a ticket—that’s a room full of people talking and laughing, never mind the band.
“The noise ordinance really affected a lot of bands,” says Tony Brusca, lead singer of the Brodys. “We used to do a lot of parties in Davis, but not now. Now the cops can give you a ticket the first time out. They can take your equipment. Bands don’t want to risk it. Most fraternities are having DJs now, instead.”
As Guy Kyser, now in the Mummydogs, puts it: “Davis has this path that it’s on, both geographically and socially, of erasing all empty space—all vacant spots, and anything organic, like places to skateboard or play music. Anything in the way gets stepped on.”
Brusca says his band, which started in Davis in the mid-'80s, was forced to start practicing in Sacramento years back due to noise restrictions. “There’s nothing to rent in Davis,” he says. “And even if you have a house with a garage, if you’re a rock band, you can’t play at volume. It’s been real tough.”
Faced with the city’s changing nature, some of Davis’ finest acts left town. In 1995, Grub Dog moved to Sacramento. “I left Davis because it was unsupportive of youth, its music and its lifestyle,” he says. “It was increasingly draconian in its policies and laws and the general atmosphere of the town was not one of tolerance for rock ‘n’ roll. Frankly, the town started to bore the hell out of me.”
The most recent exodus was Lazybones, a band that had its origin in the U.C. Davis dorms and became the top draw at the G Street Pub, but now calls Sacramento home.
“By the time we left, there were, like, two bands left,” says Lazybones’ Jeremy Detamore. “The overall support for music had just changed. And the attitude of the cops was pretty stifling.”
Detamore doesn’t place all the blame on the city.
“I think a lot of it has to do with lifestyle chances and the changes in popular music,” he opines. “There’s cycles in music. These days people are more interested in going dancing and maybe listening to a DJ.”
While the Davis music scene may be in one of its down-cycles, hope does remain. Next door to where Cheezers once served pizza and rock, the G Street Pub is slowly garnering respect as a venue for live music. Three nights a week, booker Rodney Williams is bringing some of the best local and regional bands around—the Mother Hips, San Francisco’s Broun Fellinis, Arizona’s Gluey Brothers. But even more promising is what’s going on across town at Café Roma, which recently started holding free all-ages shows on Fridays and Saturdays.
Getting Davis’ younger music fans back into the scene is a critical ingredient in its revival.
“I think in a college town of our size,” says the Brodys’ Brusca, “you should have the culture reflect the age,” he says. “If a kid comes here, and they want to venture off campus, and they’re under 21, there nothing for them to do, and so they go out of town. Yes, you need some kind of all-ages venue, but the arts for that age bracket are lacking.”
For Chance the Gardener, however, the opportunity to participate in a revived music scene has, sadly, passed. While The Day the Dogs Took Over was a critical success, it sold modestly, and the band got dropped by Warner Bros. before it could record a second album. Then, the band broke up, and Stu Blakey, suffering from depression compounded by a breakup, killed himself in Oakland in 1996, and bandmates Steve Bryant and Greg Hain formed a new group, the Toadmartons.
Kyser says the changing nature of the music industry itself may have played a role.
“Bands realized that just because they’re on a label, it doesn’t meant they have a career," says Kyser. "It’s almost calculated to break the spirit of the band. The labels have a real shotgun approach these days. They sign a lot of stuff and see what sticks to the wall. They build up a band’s ego, release their record, but won’t promote it, so it fails and the band gets dropped."