The Lost Powerdresser

Love of music creates communities — usually short-lived communities, called “scenes” — that can change lives and, if the circumstances are right, change the world and the course of history. When I moved to Encinitas (really, southern Leucadia) in February of 1994, it was a time in my life of reawakened interest in new music, especially innovative rock music created by and enthusiastically appreciated by young people (ages 17 to 26).

I grew up as a teenager in an extraordinary music scene, the folk music scene in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early 1960s, which gave me the chance to see artists like Skip James, Howlin’ Wolf, Richard & Mimi Fariña, and many others in a small club, along with a chance to observe and feel the vibrant social energy and dedication to shared aesthetic aspirations that characterize such a scene. I also was fortunate to visit the San Francisco rock ballroom scene at its height, December ’66 and May ’67, when I was an 18-year-old rock-magazine editor. So I can’t help but be intrigued and attracted by any hint that such a thing could be going on actively in the town I happen to find myself living in.

“Local music scenes have always given the young and footloose a sense of community,” wrote Michael Walker in his infamous October 1993 Los Angeles Times feature story about San Diego as possibly the next capital of alternative rock. “It was, after all, at the stage-fronts of the Fillmore and Winterland,” he continued, “at the feet of Big Brother and the Dead, that the Haight-Ashbury crowd first found each other. A generation later, in San Diego as in Seattle, music is still a potent unifying force. But the stakes are higher. Forty percent of Americans in their 20s, the age group that defines the San Diego scene, were raised in broken families. For a generation reared in uncertainty amid diminished expectations, even a music scene is freighted with psychological implications.

“ ‘On par, maybe half of them come from broken homes,’ observes Harlan Schiffman of the San Diego scenesters. ‘In a sense, they look to music and their fellow players as a surrogate family.’ ”

The early chapters of Philip Norman’s biography Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation provide a fascinating glimpse of the Liverpool music scene and the expatriate Hamburg club scene at the start of the 1960s. Such stories are inevitably colored by the fame and success and cultural significance of the bands and artists (Beatles, Grateful Dead, Dylan, Joan Baez) who found themselves and their musical and life paths in these scenes, so I have always wanted to try to write a portrait of such a milieu as revealed through the history of an obscure band, one that didn’t go on to have huge success or otherwise shape the world.

This story about the fairly quiet and almost invisible (and not, as it turned out, “the next Seattle”) yet quite marvelous youth music scene in San Diego and its North County region in 1994 and the sudden disappearance/death of a very likable young man who was at the center of it, naturally starts at Lou’s Records in Leucadia. I was in the used-CD building at Lou’s to see a live performance by two local bands called Heavy Vegetable and Three Mile Pilot. The music was great — two very different sounds and approaches and both quite intelligent and stimulating and fulfilling.

After the show, I was buying some CDs, and the clerk who was running my credit card asked me improbably if I was the guy who’d written a book of popular philosophy called Das Energi. I was, though my name is a very common one and I didn’t know how he guessed I was the same PW. It turned out he was a big fan of the book and had long dreamed of someday talking to me. The smiling, puppy-dog-enthusiastic young man was Denver Delmonte Lucas, a member (he told me) of a local band called Powerdresser.

Lucas greeted me warmly the next few times I visited Lou’s used record and CD section, gave me copies of Powerdresser’s records, and intrigued me once by telling me that that night his band and another group of Encinitas musicians were going to be playing for each other and friends at a party in San Diego. He mentioned the address, but I was too new to town to feel confident of finding it. Meanwhile, thanks to a few more “in store” performances at Lou’s, I was becoming quite a fan of prolific Encinitas songwriter Rob Crow of Heavy Vegetable and his singing partner Eléa Tenuta. And then I finally got a chance to see and hear Lucas’s band Powerdresser. He’d tipped me that they were going to be opening at the Casbah for Drive Like Jehu, a local band (side project of John Reis of Rocket From the Crypt) whose album had recently gotten a rave review in Rolling Stone.

It was a superb show. A few weeks later, early in November, I came back from a trip to Oregon and Seattle, where my musician wife Cindy Lee Berryhill had been performing, and my answering machine was full of messages from Powerdresser bass player (and Heavy Vegetable and Three Mile Pilot road manager) Gabriel Voiles asking if I’d seen Lucas. I had. Shortly before we left for the Northwest, Lucas had come over to talk (excitedly) about his plans for a long road trip to Chicago and points unknown to follow up on his recent meeting with members of his favorite band, Gastr del Sol, and to find himself (he was 22) and follow his intuition toward the next step on his personal/musical/creative path. Cindy told him of a similar expedition (by bus all over the country) she’d taken when she was 26. I gave him names and numbers of friends in Chicago and applauded his courage (he’d taken indefinite leaves of absence from Lou’s and from Powerdresser and his other band, Physics).

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