The Beat Farmers were hardy survivors

Everybody has a Country Dick story to tell

Crawdaddys: Steve Potterf, Ron Silva, Dan McLain (sitting). (McLain: "I’d been in the Penetrators two weeks when Ron asked me to be a Crawdaddy.")
  • Crawdaddys: Steve Potterf, Ron Silva, Dan McLain (sitting). (McLain: "I’d been in the Penetrators two weeks when Ron asked me to be a Crawdaddy.")

Yeah, it does seem like everybody has a Country Dick story to tell,” says Beat Farmers fan Chris Nilsen. “And they’re still telling them, will be for a long time. You’re right, it’d take a book to do ’em all justice; somebody should put one together.”

As an enthusiastic collector of live Beat Farmers audio and video tapes, Nilsen has long been doing his own kind of archiving. The North Park resident estimates he has over 100 Farmers shows on file, mostly unofficial fan recordings made anywhere from Spring Valley to Scandinavia over the years. His holdings also include tapes of BF-related side projects like the Incredible Hayseeds, the Pleasure Barons, the Off Brothers, the Rebel Songwriters’ Alliance, Country Dick’s Garage, and Country Dick’s Petting Zoo. “If anybody has more of this stuff than me, I want to meet them,” Nilsen says.

And what does Nilsen figure are some of the Inest moments in the lot? “Definitely the times vhen Country Dick would come out onto the dance floor during a show, sit down with everybody in a campfire circle, and tell stories. People just loved it.”

Exactly. The best Country Dick stories were the ones he told, especially the first-person narratives. The late drummer-vocalist’s rumbling basso profundo that worked so well on tracks like “Happy Boy” and “California Kid” was compelling enough in spoken word, without any musical accompaniment. The way he punctuated his speech with deadpan breaks and spontaneous roars of laughter could make a conversation with the man as entertaining as any song. Ultimately, his tales and takes were engaging because they were worth hearing — he’d seen a lot, formed opinions, and could tell you all about it in a direct, yet non-self-important, often humorously self-effacing manner.

One of the more enjoyable interviews I’ve ever conducted was with Dan McLain, focusing on the S.D. music scene of the late ’70s/early ’80s and, specifically, one of the local bands he drummed for, the Crawdaddys. The following transcriptions from that session in 1993 were never published. (The “better late than never” maxim applicable here is all the more apropos as it involves a character hardly remembered for his punctuality, even in death: there was some joking at McLain’s memorial service about his cremated remains not having yet arrived from British Columbia, making him indeed late for his own funeral.)

On becoming a drummer and being a Crawdaddy:

“I’d known those guys for a-while. Ron (Silva, frontman] was in a (new wave-ish] band before called the Hitmakers that I was managing — that was my big management attempt, back in late ’77, early ’78 — and Ron was like this prodigy, everybody thought he was just insanely talented. He could really sing and play great ’60s rave-up guitar, definitely had the look. When he split off from the Hitmakers and formed the Crawdads (pursuing a much rawer, ’60s ‘British Beat’-influenced sound a la earliest Stones, Kinks, Pretty Things, etc., he’d had a hard time locating a suitable drummer, and I just sort of fell into that role.

“At that time, I didn’t know anything about drummin’. I’d joined the Penetrators in much the same manner; there was a drum set somebody’d left and I just said I could do it as well as anybody. I’d been in the Penetrators two weeks when Ron asked me to be a Crawdaddy.

“Hardly anybody appreciated both bands, so there was always talk goin’ on of ‘You should do this, you should do that.’ Especially from the (other three) Crawdaddys — they always sneeringly referred to the Pens as my ‘heavy metal’ band. But you gotta understand, they hated about everything else happening in the business and were so hard-core about what they were doing. I guess there’re other bands like ’em now or have been since, but back then, there was no support group for the Crawdads. The only role models were long-dead bands from the ’60s who were imitating American sounds, so we were a bunch of Americans imitating Englishmen imitating Americans! The only thing close at the time was maybe [English group] Doctor Feelgood, and the Crawdaddys made them look like Bon fucking Jovi!

“Things could get pretty explosive onstage, a lot of tempers flaring up. I was looked on as a sort of father figure ’cause I was a few years older. We actually tried to relocate to the Bay Area at one point. We drove up and did one show, I think at the Mabuhay Gardens, a gig that only made back our gas money, but I had $300 from saving up for a couple months, something I assumed everyone else had done. So we went house-hunting in these completely dilapidated areas of Oakland, looking for a deal. After two days, I discovered that between the three of ’em, they had $65! That was the unreal world they lived in.... I said, ‘Fuck it, I can’t move anywhere with you guys!’

“The fact is, I would’ve liked to have stayed with the Crawdads (who, until their mid-’80s disbanding, went through numerous personnel shuffles after McLain left the original lineup to concentrate on drumming with the Penetrators). But they were so impractical, they needed some really heavy stagemothering, someone to spank them regularly. And I couldn’t picture them going on the road then — oh man, particularly now that I know what it’s really like out there.

“But the Crawdaddys made an impression, and every area we (the Beat Farmers] have ever played — Europe, everywhere — some people will know about them, know I was part of it, and ask about it. The gigs really were electric, very intense, and the music had a punk energy to it but with a different attitude. It had an honesty people connected with. When R.E.M. came to town years ago and played the Spirit in front of 50 people, (guitarist] Peter Buck said that the Crawdaddys were one of his faves. I think he told me again last spring while I was throwing up on his kitchen floor. Helluva guy. Yeah, he said R.E.M.’s cover of ‘There She Goes Again’ (by the Velvet Underground] was a cover of our cover [a McLain-era Crawdaddys single released in 1980], which I’ve explained to people who wanted to know if it was R.E.M. or the Beat Farmers who covered it first.” (A staple of their early sets, the Farmers offered their reading of the V.U. nugget on their ’85 debut LP Tales of the New West.)

On his influential local ’zines (New Hippie, Snare, etc.):

“Oh, those were fun things I put together, did ridiculous stuff like put a $10 food stamp on the cover with ‘clip here’ around it. And I know people who actually took the thing in to 7-Elevens and it worked! Which is not saying much for your average 7-Eleven clerk, but I could vouch for that as I was one. I think they make sure people are pretty dim who work there, like they don’t want anybody who’s got too much knowledge of the job. In fact, I got fired from three different stores and got hired at a fourth just by claiming I didn’t have any experience.”

“Yeah, I have that one, with the food stamp on it,” said Joel Nowak of the early ’80s ’zine McLain described. It was on a Friday night back in late November, and singer-guitarist Nowak was unwinding out on the Casbah’s patio. His band, local trio Drip Tank, had earlier played what he was announcing as their last show after five-plus years together. The discussion of Dan McLain animated Nowak.

“I’m still not even sure how I feel about some things, like about the way he died. In a way it’s fitting, maybe ideal, to go out onstage doing something you love. But then I think people will just see it as another Country Dick thing, contributing to that image most people have of him with the Beat Farmers—you know, the guy who could drink a beer with his feet.” (Nowak nodded and rolled his eyes upon learning that a barroom photo of Montana pulling said stunt was in Request magazine’s December issue — which reached newsstands just before McLain’s demise — with the caption “Stupid musician tricks: Country Dick Montana pours himself a cold one.”)

“I’m just remembering how cool he was to talk to, how much he knew about music, how he saw the whole picture and how much me and my friends picked up from him and his ’zines, about groups and records we’d never heard of or read good explanations of. We took the music stuff in the ’zines really seriously, it was a source. I even remember this time there was an ad in (a ’zine] for this new record store in the East County that seemed like the coolest ever — the latest imports, discount deals, everything — and we had to check it out. So, you’ve got three kids from La Jolla, right, all excited, we put on all our punk buttons and head to Santee one day, a big deal — and then we find the store address is a vacant lot, the ad’s a gag. But that shows how influential he was.”

Not only was McLain an influence as an informed/ informative writer and proprietor of an actual hip record store, but also as a radio presence. He was an occasional choice-record-bearing guest on key radio shows like KGB dee-jay Jim Mclnnes’s Homegrown Hour and Modem World (a new music program that gave many San Diegans their first exposure to emerging punk and new wave fare) and the later Adventures with Paradise (in even more eclectic show heard on 91X in the early to mid-’80s) but was usually just acknowledged for loaning the hosts volumes from his vast collection.

McLain’s stint as a deejay up at SDSU’s cable station KCR a few years ago showed what talent he had as a programmer, whipping together sets of anything from hard-core country to early bluegrass-thrash-phase Meat Puppets, the oddball war-blings of Mrs. Miller, his beloved Kinks, local acts, and anomalies like Leonard Nimoy belting out “Proud Mary.” His resonant announcing voice came naturally, as well as smooth in-persona patter when the mike was open, in evidence on this excerpt from a June ’92 radio show:

“You’re drinkin’ with Country Dick Montana here at KCR, it’s Friday afternoon, and there’s no excuse for you to be doin’ anything at all — so don’t, and do it along with me and Merle Haggard....”

For all his diversity of tastes and everything else he did, McLain will mostly be remembered as Country Dick and for the Beat Farmers. Which is fine, considering some points that should be made here in a critical capacity.

One is how very good the Farmers were, for quite a while.

The Beat Farmers were “dinosaurs,” in that curious, revisionist sense of meaning that they did not become extinct.

Through their mid-’80s prime, they could regularly cut through a hometown crowd’s indifference and make them believers all over again. The Farmers smoked major roots-rockers like the Blasters in some head-to-head bills they shared and once played to a draw no less great a genre-transcending band than Los Lobos at Montezuma Hall.

Tellingly written in the immediate wake of McLain’s passing, one local review of the Beat Farmers’ new Manifold album (running in the biweekly SLAMM) assessed the band as “sublimely innovative.” Yet neither their latest LP nor the rest of their career makes much of a case for that claim. Neither does the article, which also proclaims the Farmers to not be “ 'dinosaurs’ ” (presumably framed in quotes to emphasize that this was a charge leveled at the band in recent years). But of course they were “dinosaurs,” in that curious, revisionist sense^ of meaning that they did not become extinct, that they hung on and on. Granted, the D-word is typically used derogatorily in the music world, indicting a band for staleness and obsolescence, but applying it to the Farmers actually brings out some positive connotations.

The Beat Farmers were hardy survivors, a band that weathered a key early personnel change and ugly, protracted wars with record companies, the likes of which would’ve broken up other groups years before. Importantly, they endured as a San Diego-based band, the first area act to achieve such a national/inter-national level of success and stay local, breaking a pattern stretching from before Iron Butterfly to after Ratt. Given S.D.’s insecurity about itself, it’s understandable how large and reliable their fan-base remained for so long here and how entrenched they stayed on the local musical landscape, even well after the group had started to repeat itself artistically.

And yes, they do deserve inadvertent credit for sparking a lot of later local groups into activity, motivating younger bands to do something different, a vigorous reaction to perceived complacency. As backhandedly complimentary as this reasoning might seem, the Beat Farmers thus can be seen to have played a part in the S.D. music scene’s blossoming through the ’90s and its unprecedented strength, depth, and overall viability of the past few years.

As much as stabs at summing up what the Beat Farmers, the Crawdaddys, or the Penetrators did, meant, or will be remembered for are doomed to inadequacy, so too are attempts at conclusively taking the measure of Dan McLain’s long shadow on San Diego’s pop music history. At least for now. It may come off as an overreaching statement, but he, his bands, and the milieus he was a significant force in changed people’s lives. They may be finite now, but there are a lot more Dan McLain stories to be heard.

“Oh yeah, my life was changed, absolutely,” says Mike Stax, leader of the Loons (the latest of his many local bands). “I’d probably still be in England if it weren’t for the Crawdaddys,” says the British expat. “I heard their records on the radio over there and couldn’t believe it — they were doing exactly what I wanted to do but couldn’t find anybody to do it with. And they were from San Diego! I wrote them and...eventually they asked me to move over and join the band, on bass. Which of course I did (15 years ago this past November], so there you go.

“By the time I got here, though, Dan had left to be in the Penetrators full-time and Ron was playing drums. The group was moving in a more R&B direction, not a sound I liked as much as when Dan was with them, but I was still totally excited. I remember meeting Dan and being pretty impressed when he showed me an autographed picture of him and Ray Davies.

“The Penetrators were always by far the bigger band in San Diego, but there’s no doubt the Crawdaddys have had more impact internationally and over time, achieving a cult status the Penetrators probably never will. When one of the 5,6,7,8’s [a female Japanese surf-rock combo that toured through town last year] found out I had been in the Crawdaddys [two separate stretches], she had to have our picture taken together.

“But yeah, Dan McLain, there’s a lot to tell and a lot people don’t seem to know. I saw barely a mention of the Crawdaddys in any of the coverage of his death. Hey, you know what I’d like to hear about that I never have? I understand Dan played piano in this band here called Queenie; this must’ve been around ’73-’74. I guess they got the name from the Chuck Berry tune, but I wonder what they were really all about, what they sounded like.... You know that somebody around here has gotta know....”

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