San Diego, the rock and roll desert

At the Aspen Pub or Wallbanger’s or the Voyager you get the San Diego sound, four guys plodding through “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog"

Illustration of a rock and roll desert

Illustration of a rock and roll desert

Richard Massa

You live in San Diego, right? And you want to spend a Saturday night listening to some rock and roll. You're looking for good musicianship, interesting repertoires, you might even want to kick up your heels and dance a little. I mean, it's been a tough week. So where do you go?

If you take my advice you’ll jump in your car and head 500 miles east to Tucson, because you’re sure not going to find any music around here.

San Diego is a rock and roll desert. I’m sure that statement won’t come as a surprise to anyone, but just to get started let me list a few low points.

  1. Both of this city's major concert halls, the Sports Arena and the Community Concourse, are notoriously terrible places for music. They are anacoustic and uncomfortable. As a result, the performances offered there are usually way below par, no matter who is playing.
  2. There is currently one nightclub in San Diego in which name rock and roll bands perform. I have not been to JJ's yet. It may be a very nice place indeed. But one club for California’s second largest city seems to me a municipal disgrace.
  3. Bob Dylan and the Band have cancelled the San Diego stop on their upcoming landmark tour. The reasons for this are a perfect resume of what’s wrong with the San Diego rock scene: We've been overshadowed by Los Angeles, which can provide better audiences and more money, our concert halls are horrible, and our audiences have a bad reputation among bands and their business managers. Part of the problem of rock in San Diego is us. We haven’t demanded good music and as a result we haven't gotten any.

But the interesting thing about rock and roll for me is not the big time, the million dollar conglomerate bands plugging their latest album to audiences of thousands. For me, the best thing about rock and roll is Saturday night wherever I happen to be living. The best thing about rock and roll is the bar bands, the unknowns, the musicians that, when they're good, you can feel as if you've discovered.

And it is in this aspect that I've been most disappointed in San Diego. Because San Diego has no local musicians. I think the proof is to be found in KGB radio’s much-hyped “Home Grown’’ album which is for the most part simply awful.

San Diego contains none of the municipal elements that can lead to the creation of a viable and creative music scene. There is no municipal flavor here, no sense of the place or pride that helped to create the San Francisco sound (Jefferson Airplane, Boz Skaggs, Grateful Dead, Big Brother, Quicksilver) that we've all been listening to since the mid-sixties.

There’s also no pervasive cultural undercurrent here to influence our local musicians in the way that, say, the meld of Cajun culture, Negro culture and European influences from the waterfront helped to create jazz in New Orleans.

And of course we’re overshadowed by Los Angeles, which does have a tremendously talented pool of musicians (Leon Russell, Jackson Browne, Roger McGuinn, Frank Zappa, Brian Wilson), which does have big-name clubs galore (Troubador, Roxy, Fox Theater, Palomino), and perhaps most importantly has the record companies, promo men and contracts. I suspect that San Diego bands streak for Los Angeles as soon as they're good enough.

One of the major problems with rock music in San Diego is that the bars here seem deliberately constructed to be anti-musical. Here’s what happened to me last Saturday night. I heard about this new place in La Jolla called The Aspen Public House that supposedly had a dynamite country-rock band called the OD Corral playing (OD, get it? overdose, OD Corral-OK Corral, get it? get it?) and since I love country-rock I immediately got Connie the wife and my friends Richard and Donna and we beat it to the Aspen Pub post-haste. A rent-a-cop in full uniform checked our ID and then handed us a ticket.

He informed us that until our number was called we weren’t allowed to go into the dancing room. We were supposed to stand around in this little anteroom with a bunch of La Jolla slick guys in sleeveless sweaters and pinky rings staring at Donna's and Connie's legs until some guy called our number over a loudspeaker as if we were waiting for a Jamoca Almond Fudge at 31 Flavors, and then we would be allowed to dance.

In such an environment it is my contention that good music cannot happen. Good music is the product of spontaneity, of freedom, of improvisation. In an environment like the Aspen Pub or Wallbanger’s or the Voyager you get the San Diego sound, four guys in maroon jackets and pompadours plodding through another chorus of “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog."

Which brings me to Tucson again and this qualification. When I recommend that you travel to Tucson to listen to some music for a change I am not making a Swiftian “Modest Proposal." I am serious, goddammit, because until you go someplace that does have good music readily available at people’s prices you won’t know what to insist we have here.

Now, you’re probably a little skeptical. Why should a dusty, jerkwater town like Tucson be such fertile ground for musicians in comparison to a sophisticated, major metropolitan center like San Diego? I think first of all it is because Tucson is isolated in the midst of the inhospitable Sonora desert. There is, simply, no convenient place for the Tucson musicians to go, so they stay and make good music and influence one another. I think also it is because of the pervasiveness of the western culture in the town. Most of us considered ourselves too sophisticated in the sixties to listen to country-western music, but now that kind of music is reaching a wider audience. I’ve come to realize that country-western (and its bastard, country-rock) is fascinating music indeed with its characteristic instruments, its emphasis on lyrics and its sociological perspective.

Finally, Tucson has an audience, mainly provided by the University of Arizona. When I went to the U of A from 1963-67 we were all avid music consumers, and things don't seem to have changed much in that respect. Each of the bands that compromise what I call the “Tucson sound" has an avid following, and the clubs are usually crowded with critical, appreciative listeners and dancers. Here are my suggestions, in the order of preference.

1.Dusty Chaps (Poco Loco, 3840 E. Speedway) I wish every rock and roll fan in America could hear Dusty Chaps play. They're also at a place called El Sahuaro on Sunday nights, but try to catch them at the Poco Loco, which caters to an interesting cowboy hippie crowd, the men with long ponytails dangling below their Stetson hats and pearl-snapped western shirts. Dancing at the Poco Loco is frenetic, the jitterbug is back, and everyone has one hell of a good time.

Dusty Chaps is heavily into western music, their sound the product of a pedal steel guitar (Jesus, I love the pedal steel guitar. Played right, its quavering rising-and-falling cadence is perfect for country, which tends heavily toward lamentation), a strong bass line, and an electric fiddle.

Dusty Chaps' repetoire ranges from esoteric country — “Six Days on the Road", “I like to Watch Rona Barrett," “It's 110 in Gila Bend" — to historical — “Wabash Cannonball," “Battle of New Orleans," “Louisiana Man" to early rock — “Johnny B. Goode" and an Elvis medley you shouldn't miss. After each number the “Poke’s" walls are rattled by a tremendous ovation.

In my opinion, Dusty Chaps is the Tucson band most likely to hit the big time. They’re really much better than either Poco or the New Riders of the Purple Sage. In fact, I think they're as good as the Byrds at the height of their western (“Sweetheart of the Rodeo") phase.

2.Fast Eddie and the Rodeo Kings (Hooligan’s, 1745 W. Prince Rd. My sister Cathy turned me on to Fast Eddie. Some nights you can get into Hooligan's for one dollar, which not only includes Fast Eddie's music, but all the draught beer you can drink. The band is countrified again, but here the emphasis is on old-fashioned western string band numbers and bluegrass carried by a plunkety-plunk banjo and a mandolin played by a little curly-haired guy so fast his fingers are a blur. Everyone dances with everyone here.

3.Dog Shit (Juju's Cafe. 416 E. 9th St.) Dog Shit (for radio advertisements, I'm told the name of the band is changed to Fido's feces) is a blues band, with nice tenor sax arrangements and a little black-haired female vocalist who stretches up to the microphone and belts out the blues, man, Janis-like, clear out the front door of the bar and up against the buildings across the street. Dog Shit also does some fine Allman-style numbers with a heavy slide guitar lead, but I'm partial to their old BB King tunes featuring the kind of ringing, bluesy guitar breaks that always set me off.

You say you're a San Diegan looking for some good music for a change? Go East, young person, to Tucson. You won’t regret it; I promise.

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