Goth rock and other underground rumblings

No fun at all

"You’re lucky if you get part of the door at SOMA."
  • "You’re lucky if you get part of the door at SOMA."
  • Image by Dave Allen

One hot afternoon last summer, Susan Peters's rock band Fiction, whom DJ Chase of SDSU’s student-run radio station KCR refers to as “San Diego’s Premier Gothic Rock Band,” played a gig at theGrove shopping mall intended by its promoters. Hit Single Recording, the mail itself, and radio station 91X, to help local bands be heard by San Diego teenagers.

Flatten Manhattan at Bodies

Flatten Manhattan at Bodies

Fiction, who call themselves a "dark band.” which means they're influenced by gloomy English gothic-rock groups like Joy Division and the Cure, went on the palm-tree-decorated stage at six o'clock, when the sun was still high in the sky and the air a bit too balmy for Peters's long-sleeved black dress and black tights. She had to wear sunglasses so she could see the digital LED lights of her keyboards, and she remembers staring straight across the near-deserted mall patio at the Miller’s Outpost sign and feeling, as members of Fiction are wont to do at the gigs they get in San Diego area, a mite discouraged.



“Playing a Southern California shopping mall to ten shoppers on an August evening is just not what Fiction stands for,” she explains. “We aren’t a band who should ever have to play in broad daylight.

San Diego has one of the least active local band situations in the country. For years, the combined efforts of the fire marshals, the Alcoholic Beverage Council, and American Nazi Tom Metzger have made San Diego one of the few towns in America where forerunning populist heroes Fugazi couldn’t get a gig.

Miniature at Soma

Miniature at Soma

(Although last spring after years ot negotiations, they were able to put together an all-ages show at La Paloma in Encinitas). As any cutoff-clad, skateboard-toting, gutsy teenager will tell you, the situation, quite frankly, is untenable.

Despite the mild success of the Beat Farmers (an act whose entire schtick is dependent on playing 21-and-over nightclubs where patrons can get as drunk as the band, a setup that works out well for bar owners — no wonder the Beat Farmers get booked a lot), the Paladins, Mojo Nixon, and Borracho y Loco, for the most part, San Diego's local alternative music scene has no cohesion, no fan base, no legitimacy, no media attention, no support... and no all-ages nightclubs to service the vast body of youth — the military, the universities — that would love to have such a scene to call their own.

There actually is an underground music scene in San Diego. It’s just a pitifully small one for such a large metropolitan area. Such as it is, it begins along a tiny stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway in Encinitas that mimics, in a desultory way, Haight Street or the hipper end of Melrose or Second Avenue near the Bowery. On it there are several used-clothing stores; a shop where you can get leather studs. Doc Martens, and lace tights; and two independent record stores, Off the Record and Lou's. Go into one of them on a Saturday afternoon and you’d be surprised how packed they are with big-haired kids intent on Finding the new Bad Religion or Jack Officers tape, kids looking for the import version of Fields of the Nephilim’s new one, kids flipping through racks of Def Jam 12-inch singles or searching, out of historical interest, for a copy of “The Message.”

That’s where the underground begins; where it ends is at Iguanas, an under-age hard-rock palace just across the border, which occasionally fills to the brim with a thousand fans of heavy underground touring favorites like Bad Religion and Soul Asylum. Being a major metropolitan area, San Diego also gets rock concerts at large venues by popular bands; and the city has one of the best alternative commercial music stations — 91X — in the country.

Clearly, interest in new music thrives in San Diego, but its live manifestation is treated at best as dangerous, at worst boring, by most of the powers that be.

That’s the exact combination of circumstances that could make San Diego the perfect breeding ground for the next Fugazi. “A community can’t really be a success without flourishing arts,” explains 91X deejay Marco Collins. “It’s important to make a community whole. And what people here don’t understand is that rock music is art, and the development of it is as important as any other art — just like theater or the symphony. But they’re not going to be able to neglect the music scene here much longer. It’s just a fact of life. You look around San Diego, and there's so many new buildings going up, it’s growing so rapidly. And when people come to a place, they come with kids. Noisy, obnoxious kids. Ones,'' he adds, "with guitars."

But great rock bands can t grow up in an environment where there is no place to see them, and San Diego has a dearth of good-sized nightclubs that are willing to book original music. (Clubs and restaurants that are willing to book cover bands, on the other hand, abound.) There are some sensible reasons for this: it’s difficult enough to get people to go out to see bands they’ve already heard of; making a profit without the sale of liquor is almost impossible, and a lot of new music fans are under 21. But other cities have clubs that do manage to do it. San Diego's few original music clubs — Megalopolis, the Casbah, Bodies, the Spirit, and a few other dance clubs that show bands every now and again — suffer from size (they ’re teensy), location, and a forcible local prejudice against going out at all.

Some local scene-makers claim this is due to the inherent conservatism of San Diegans, conservatism that stems in part from contentment with the easygoing outdoors lifestyle of the region. This attitude is in direct contrast to the kind of ritual discontentment that nightclubs are supposed to cater to. “{Clubs here) have to compete with something far more entertaining,” says promoter Harlan Schiffman. “The beach.”

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