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).
A couple of nights after that visit, Cindy and I saw Lucas for the last time. We were sitting at a table by a window in Juanita’s, a popular Mexican eatery on Coast Highway in Leucadia. Lucas walked by, spotted us, and made funny, joyful faces at us through the window. Later I learned that he’d been on an LSD trip with friends and that that was the night he disappeared.
The tireless phone calls Voiles and other members of the North County music community made (to every music scenester in town and even to some in Chicago) yielded no information. Nor did the flyers they handed out and posted all over town. On November 10, 1994, eight days after any of Lucas’s friends had last seen him, a body, decomposed beyond recognition, was found on Carlsbad State Beach. The next day the body, which was estimated to have been in the ocean for a week to ten days, was positively identified (by comparing fingerprints taken from the missing musician’s instruments and other belongings, and later via dental records) as Denver Lucas.
Music scenes are held together by common interests and tastes and aspirations, but when you look closely at them you find a web of friendships and what could be called business relationships based on the sort of accidental encounters and almost random circumstances that shape most social networks and life situations. Lucas was the type of person who wants (and expects) all his friends to like each other, so presumably he would have been pleased that my opportunity to grow closer to and get a better sense of the North County scene he’d been part of came as a result of friendships I made at his wake, a large gathering of his friends and one family member, his mother, in a Leucadia house a week after his body was identified. After that I found myself invited to a series of wonderful, mostly acoustic performances at local homes by members of Heavy Vegetable and Boilermaker and other North County bands as well as visiting musicians from related youth music scenes elsewhere in California and other parts of the country. Music for the sake of music. A language in the process of creation and discovery.
Most of all, I got a glimpse of the texture and character of this local scene by interviewing my new friends Gabriel Voiles and Lucas’s former roommate and coworker at Lou’s, Lia Friedman, about the history of Powerdresser. (The history of the Beatles or of the Dave Matthews Band might sell more books or magazines, but when you get inside these stories of musical outfits and the scenes and situations that nourished and directed them, there’s a universality that’s both surprising and reassuring, as though there really were a consistency in the forces that shape our lives, the ways we all, superstars and foot soldiers alike, get from there to here.)
“When I met Denver,” Voiles of Powerdresser told me, “I was still in junior high. I went to my bus stop in Normal Heights, on the corner of 35th and Adams Avenue, and there’s this little kid there; I’d been going to school with this kid since I was a little kid too. He had a trench coat on. He was really skinny and short. Like me. And we weren’t particularly good friends. We didn’t become good friends at first and then eventually figured out that we lived, obviously, in the same neighborhood. And somehow I fell in with him, and Matthew Connelly, and Keith Whitcomb, and Dan Reinharts. We all had bad punker haircuts. There were a couple of girls who hung out, Sarah J. and Suzie N. And we, uh, we listened to punk rock music, the Germs, things like that.
“Denver made me tapes. He’d play this crummy fifth-generation dub of New York thrash on one tape deck and press ‘record’ on another one sitting in front of it, and he’d give me these tapes. I’d get these tapes, and I had no idea what was on them. I listened to them constantly. To this day, I hear things and I go, ‘I know this song. I know every note in this song. I listened to it a million times when I was 15, and I put every ounce of angst I had into it.’ But I don’t know who it is; and I’ll ask, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s the Circle Jerks!’ And I go, ‘Oh, okay, the Circle Jerks. I never knew that.’
“He’d make these tapes, and we’d hang out at his place. He lived with his mother, and she was busy a lot, so we had a lot of…a little too much room to do what we wanted in. She’d give him money for food, and we’d buy as little food as possible and spend the rest on whatever was going to entertain us for the evening. We’d run around and terrorize Normal Heights, being the local punk-rock…basically, assholes is what we were. Denver had a band called the Seizures, in which he played drums. Matt and Keith were in the Seizures. John Watkins played bass.
“The Seizures had one gig, at Stacey Dow’s 16th birthday party, and they took the bus to it. They took the drums on the bus, out to Crown Point or something like that, and they played a song — they did ‘Louie Louie’ à la Germs, I think, a really horrible version of ‘Louie Louie.’ Keith was pretty nuts. Keith was the guy that you’d say, ‘Keith, go break that,’ and he would go break it. He was the singer, of course. Keith would sing these foul, horrendous, the most obscene lyrics he possibly could to ‘Louie Louie.’ Every time. They’d yell at him, ‘Keith, stop that!’ They’d get on the stage and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to do “Louie Louie,” Keith, but whatever you do, don’t sing that…don’t sing those foul, offensive words,’ and he’d say, ‘Okay, I won’t.’ And he would. He started singing about everybody’s mother, and they were playing on some stage out in the middle of the park by the bay. And Stacey’s older brother’s band was, um…an old San Diego band, might have been Mitch from No Knife’s old band Funeral March. They came up and started plugging in and playing along on ‘Louie Louie.’ Eventually they unplugged the Seizures and threw them off the stage.
“So that was their gig. They played once in Denver’s bedroom too. To three or four people from the school. There’s a tape of it somewhere, and you can hear people throwing things at the band; it’s all very punk rock. We did all this. We had the band, and we’d terrorize people, and we drank a lot of Boone’s Farm. Denver’s mother couldn’t deal with him and eventually sent him to his father’s in Maine. We were kind of at a loss. Denver was just kind of gone. And I fell out from hanging around with Matt and those people and went more towards this hippie drug culture than the punk-rock destructive culture.”
(Dear reader, this is Paul, the author of this story, interrupting Voiles for a moment. Did you ever see a band on MTV, or hear them on your kids’ boom box or see them opening at a concert or club, and wonder, “Who are these people? How’d they get this way? And why?” Maybe these tales of Powerdresser can provide some answers. What becomes of those junior high schoolers waiting at the bus stop at 35th and Adams?)
So Voiles told me more of the path that led him and his school friend to start a band together and immerse themselves in the early ’90s San Diego music scene: “Denver went to Maine. He had this engagement by mail to a girl that he barely knew. She was a friend of Sarah’s whom I mentioned earlier, and they had never even kissed or anything, but they were engaged, by mail. For a while. Eventually he came out to visit and figured out it wasn’t real.
“We kept in touch. He was having a hard time. His father was a very bad alcoholic. He’d write me letters: ‘I hate everything. It’s all just a bunch of cows and trees out here.’ You know, he’d never lived more than three blocks from a 7-Eleven in his life, and he was in the middle of the woods, in Maine! And he eventually wound up living with his chemistry teacher — this family kind of adopted him and probably pretty much saved his life. That man helped Denver handmake an electric guitar. It was the most productive and constructive thing he’d done in his entire life, you know? And he started listening to Jimi Hendrix instead of the Germs. Or in addition to the Germs. When he would come out to visit, he would play me these tapes and he’d play this guitar, and it wasn’t punk rock.
“It was kind of confusing, but we were friends. I was too young to be too set in my ways, so it was okay. He would come out and visit. His mother was in Oakland at that time, going to school. He would go and visit her for a while, and he would stay with me, and he became friends with Eléa. She was a mutual friend. I’m pretty sure they had already known each other. But they became friends and started seeing each other on his visits here. Then they had this great love affair by mail, mailed a million letters back and forth. Denver this whole time was in Maine, playing guitar and taking LSD in the woods and, basically, changing. Which, now that I think about it, is exactly what I was doing here. But which was pretty unfathomable for either of us to be doing, in terms of where we’d been coming from a year or so before. But you’re a teenager, and your life changes completely very quickly.
“He would come out and visit and hang out with Eléa. They were in love, and Eléa and Tommy Baccom and Jason Brazil got in Jason’s little Honda car and drove to Maine and picked him up. Tommy had pneumonia and coughed nonstop the entire time except when he was smoking a cigarette. They went and got Denver; he drove all the way back with them to live with Eléa in her parents’ place. But her parents didn’t know it, so he would climb up the balcony every night. I mean, he completed his high school education by correspondence from Eléa’s house, where he didn’t live but he would climb up the balcony every night.
“And eventually it just kind of became known. Like, he was in the bathroom or the kitchen more and more until they kind of figured out he lived there, and it was okay. Nothing was ever vocalized, as far as I know. So he officially lived there, and he played his guitar, and I played guitar. We were pretty close. At this point in time I became really close friends with Matt Connelly, whom we’d hung out with before. I was in contact with Denver a lot. But mostly he hung out with Eléa and grew marijuana plants and mushrooms on the roof and played his guitar and listened to more Jimi Hendrix.
“We’d get together, and we’d always talked about playing some music, but we didn’t have bands, and then we had bands and they were insecure. We just never got it together.”
“You were in high school?” I asked. Voiles told me: “This was post–high school. We left high school very early. I was about 16 when I left high school. I was living with my folks in Lemon Grove. Denver and I talked about things but didn’t really spend that much time together, musically or on a friendship level, mostly because he was just hanging out with Eléa. They were very close and very much in love. And I moved away and went through my whole trauma of leaving home and wound up, somehow, in North County.
“I had some friends who’d moved to Encinitas from downtown San Diego, and I’d gone to a party at their new place and they had said, casually, ‘Come by anytime.’ And then I went and freaked out and left town and came back and wanted to be anywhere except my folks’. I remembered these friends who had so casually said, ‘Come by anytime,’ so I came by. And got drunk and passed out on the couch. The next night I got drunk and passed out on the couch. I kept doing this until they finally said, ‘Well, if you’re gonna sleep here every night, you may as well be a roommate and pay rent.’ Okay. So I did that, and that was Heather Owen and Chris Moore and Lia Friedman. And I wound up seeing Lia, and, uh…Denver and Eléa broke up.
“He called me up, and it was a little bit awkward. You know. A couple’s really tight, and they don’t see any other people, and then they break up. And you don’t have any friends all of a sudden. They’re all your friends, but you don’t really know them, because… But we went back so far that it wasn’t a problem. He came up and I wound up just moving into a room with Lia, and he took my room, which was the dining room, with blankets for walls. On La Mesa Avenue on the west side of 101 in Encinitas.
“Then Denver and I started playing. I played bass. (I’d been playing bass in my own punk rock band before that. I’d started playing my father’s Rickenbacker bass while Denver was in Maine.) And Denver played guitar. I mean, we didn’t know what we were doing. We weren’t punkers and we weren’t gonna…we weren’t playing Jimi Hendrix covers. But Lia said — we had been searching for a drummer before, when we were playing guitars and we were less serious, less committed. I was already 4 years into the so-far 12-year eternal search of mine for a drummer. ’Cause there are no drummers in San Diego, though I know all the good ones now, maybe. There’s hopefully some I don’t know, but pretty much there are none. We were lamenting this constantly, and Lia says, ‘I know a drummer.’ And we say, ‘Really? Why didn’t you say so before?’ And she says, ‘Well…he’s my ex-boyfriend.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t — Yeah, sure.’
“I didn’t expect much, and he came over, Lee Chapman, and set up his drums in our living room. For the first couple of practices, I was drunk. Passed out on the couch. Eventually I was awake for practice, and he was good. I mean, he was really, really, really good! We couldn’t believe it. We were completely shocked.”
(And so, ladies and gentlemen, a band is formed: bus stop acquaintances, roommate’s ex-boyfriend, and, depending on many circumstances, the members then are able to invent, teach each other, and learn a common musical language. And the scene? Other musicians? They may be creative influences, but most of all, they can be models and connections, may be able to point you toward opportunities to play and be heard. Or even teach you a few points of etiquette.)
“So we started playing, and we needed a singer. Randall Robeson had just moved to North County, and he was an old friend. And he sang, he did his best to sing, and we practiced in Del Mar, at Three Mile Pilot’s practice space. We had a vote as to what our name would be, and ‘Shaun Cassidy’ won the vote. We were going to be called Shaun Cassidy. At this point in time, we — Denver — discovered the Melvins. That was all he would listen to on his Walkman. I couldn’t understand at first, but eventually I came around. It was pretty much at this point that we figured out, Denver figured it out, and I just played along and eventually realized what was happening, and that was that we were not really attempting to… We were going, ‘We’re not a rock band. We’re not a punk band, and we’re not making anything that sounds like anything we’ve ever heard before.’ We were playing this crazy, ultra-nonrepetitive, fairly dissonant, very dissonant math rock. I had to count every single damn part, every part was one two one, one three five, four and a half, one one two, and Randy would sing, and we would — Denver was playing through a distorted guitar.
“We met Heavy Vegetable at Charles McStravick’s. We didn’t meet ’em, we saw Heavy Vegetable. They may have been Guy Smiley at the time, or they may have just become Heavy Vegetable. At Charles McStravick’s birthday party on Sunset Avenue in Encinitas. And, uh, I didn’t pay much attention. They didn’t seem to be math rock, so I just, I ignored them. And Denver said to me afterwards, ‘They were pretty good.’ I said, ‘Yeah, yes.’ They weren’t very good, but they were great, I mean, compared to what was going on at the time.
“A few days later, Denver and I were walking along the east side of 101 in downtown Encinitas and walking up the west side was Rob Crow [of Heavy Vegetable], looking at the 25-cent tapes in front of the old Lou’s Records. And Denver said, ‘That’s that guy! Rob, from that band.’ And I said, ‘Go talk to him! He can get us a show!’ And he’s, like, ‘No, no, you go talk to him.’ And I said, ‘How can I go talk to him? Look, c’mon, you talk and I’ll go with you, but you do the talking.’ Finally he just got annoyed with me and my wimpiness and walked away and did the Denver, put himself forth boldly and warmly. And Rob was, like, ‘I can’t get you a show! We can’t get shows. We can’t…’ You know, they were nobody. When to us they were a band. Oh my God, they have songs and they played at a party!
“But he did get us a show. At SOMA. Which is not my proudest thing, that our first couple of shows were at SOMA. As Shaun Cassidy. We played SOMA with the Nephews and, uh, Chicken Farm or the Uninvited or something horrible. And we didn’t even understand the Nephews. They were just beyond our grasp. Rob got us the show because he knew some guy who worked there, Jason or something.
“Rick Froberg [of Pitchfork and Drive Like Jehu] was there. The first lesson I learned from Rick Froberg musically, aside from watching Pitchfork play, was when we played and we were just — It was a complete disaster. We had a table set up on the stage for no reason. Randy brought a table and a chair to sit on, and a giant blowup of Bozo the Clown, which was pretty accurate in retrospect. I couldn’t hold on to a damn thing. It felt like I was riding a wild horse bareback. I couldn’t play songs, couldn’t hear what was going on! I was onstage. I was completely bewildered. I’d never dealt with what it sounded like on a stage before. It was horrible. I was completely humiliated, ready to give up on life. Why did I ever think we could do this? We loaded everything out immediately, to get it out of the building — ‘Okay, let’s go!’ And Rick says, ‘We’re not going anywhere.’ And I say, ‘Why? No! Don’t put us in hell, we’re tortured enough.’ None of us drove, of course. And he says, ‘We’re staying for the other bands.’ I didn’t understand it at the time. But in retrospect, that’s a very important thing to know. You should stay for the other bands. Eventually, when you’ve seen ’em all, you don’t have to. But I went and sat in the truck, of course. Rick stayed for the bands, until he took us home.
“Then we played at Chris Squire’s party, and Randy took the microphone and wandered off into the crowd and sang from the crowd. It didn’t really matter much, the PA systems were so poor, and we were so horrendously loud that I’m sure you couldn’t hear him anyway. But, basically, Randy was never really into it. Eventually, he quit. He moved back to San Diego. We had another show coming up at SOMA in two weeks, and Randy was gone. We were, like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on?’ We’re freaking out, and Denver says, ‘I’m gonna have to sing. I’m gonna try it.’ I’m, like, ‘God, better you than me, buddy. Good luck. I’m glad I don’t have to do it.’ He took some of Randy’s lyrics. We had two or three weeks to figure it out; mostly he rewrote, then wrote his own. And he did it! It was the breakthrough, you know, singing onstage in front of people. He never thought he could sing before.
“Shortly thereafter we eschewed distortion. Which was a giant, uncomprehended leap. ‘What do you mean, you’re not playing distortion? Okay, it’s your guitar.’ And he’s, like, ‘Aw, you just can’t hear what I’m playing. I’m working really hard on these finger-pickings and these other things that are just plain not… But I’m gonna do ’em, so I want people to hear ’em.’ So no distortion. And Randy left, so we changed our name to ‘Powerdresser.’ ‘Knee-High Socks,’ as I recall, was a close second. And ‘Powerdresser’ won. Denver’s name. It was the name of a song, a song that we never played. We said, ‘We can’t just, you know, have a song with the same name as the band.’
“But we played, and we played and we played, and we played. At that point our goal was to play as much as possible, which is a terrible idea for a band, but probably the best idea for us at the time, because we needed to get good at playing. We played at Cafe Chabalaba, right by City College on, like, 14th and C or something like that. The lady who booked it liked us — nobody liked us, but she liked us and she booked us. We played at Chabalaba, two or sometimes four times a month. We’d play for 20 minutes. Nobody came. We were bad, we were terrible, that’s why. Our friends would come, and then they would stop coming, because there was another show next weekend. It wasn’t an event; it was just another show. They wouldn’t drive down to San Diego just to see some gig; they went last weekend and they didn’t like it that much. We were constantly learning how to be a band, what equipment to buy, how to play in such a way that complemented the band, how to be heard, that kind of thing. A very long and painful process. We played with Heavy Vegetable. We played with Donald Wilson [the name of a band], and we played with Three Mile Pilot. And we played with Sort of Quartet when they were in town. We played with the Nephews occasionally. And that’s basically it. We played with these same few bands over and over in different configurations, pretty much at the same place all the time, which was Chabalaba, and eventually we kind of got good. We kind of got to the point where if someone would come to a show, they would say, ‘You know, I enjoyed that. Honestly, you guys were never really good, and you played that well.’ And that was a shock. But still there was no one there, 5 to 20 people max.
“We played the Ché [on the UCSD campus, run by students] when we could, which was wonderful, as always. And we played parties with Heavy Vegetable — between their friends and ours, we could figure things out and we’d play at a house here or somewhere else there. [Lia Friedman recalls: “Yeah, there was a lot of that. And it was usually at friends’ houses. I remember there was one at Tim’s house, from Boilermaker. It was his birthday, and Heavy Vegetable came and played acoustically. Sometimes Rob would just decide that they would play, at their house, and so they would have all these people come and hang on the roof at the Danforth Building, and they would play, which was always very nice.” The Danforth is in downtown Encinitas and was the home of Lou’s Records before it moved to its present (larger) location a few miles north. Rob Crow and Eléa Tenuta of Heavy Vegetable lived for a while in one of the apartments above the storefronts in the Danforth.]
“And through all of this — the struggling, trying to get practice space — it was almost like the bonding that occurs in high school. It must be similar to the bonding people feel going into the service together. Any experience you’re throwing yourselves fully into just brings you close — not even on a conscious level. You don’t necessarily — although Denver and I did — have to sit down and, like, talk about your inner secrets or anything, you just become close to someone through the process.
“I didn’t realize it, but Denver was basically becoming my best friend this whole time. We played a lot. We recorded an album. We recorded a single — Jason Soares asked to put out a single of us — and we were very excited, and we recorded with Jeff Forrest at Doubletime. Jeff did his best, but the recordings are not very good. We were… As I said, it took us a long time to figure out how to play live. This was the whole other realm of playing for a recording, and it was completely alien and frustrating and difficult. We recorded at MiraCosta College before that, with Travis Nelson of Heavy Vegetable [who also lived at the Danforth for a while]; he was taking recording classes, the same classes that Mark Trombino [Drive Like Jehu drummer and later producer of Heavy Vegetable] had just gone through. Travis did what he could with us, and one of those tracks wound up on Ask for Disorder, a CD compilation that Trumans Water put together for Homestead Records. Homestead loved them and supposedly offered them their own record label at the time: Justice My Eyes/Elevated Loin. They put out this comp that had Powerdresser and Heavy Vegetable and Fishwife and Custom Floor, the whole San Diego crew. The little sticker on the outside said, ‘featuring Powerdresser’ (and three of the other bands). It was our moment in the spotlight.
“The single came out, and people would start coming to shows. At some point during this time we played this show at SOMA — SOMA has the horrible system where you flyer for the shows, and when people come to the door they ask them, ‘Who are you here to see?’ and if you say ‘Powerdresser,’ they give us a dollar, or a quarter, or whatever the hell it is. And if you say ‘Chicken Farm,’ then Chicken Farm gets a dollar or whatever. We played a show, and nobody was there, as usual. And Len tried to pay us $5, or $4. If I remember correctly, the only reason we played was because we’d been put on the schedule and there was an ad in the paper — we didn’t want to play, but it was too late. So we do this, and Len is telling us, ‘Okay, okay,’ and I’m going, ‘No, keep your money; we’re leaving. We don’t want your $4, thank you. There’s three of us: that’s $1.33 apiece.’ And he comes out to the parking lot and tries to give us 20. And it gets to the point where we’re in our cars trying to leave and he’s blocking the driveway, begging us to stick around. It was just such a moment of transcendence for us. It was a realization, is what it came down to. ‘Get out of the way, we’re leaving.’ That was the last time we ever played SOMA. We felt the need to close that chapter, because it’s a terrible thing, in some ways. It still operates on that system, I’m sure.” Paul: “Yeah, most of the clubs in L.A. do.” Voiles: “That’s what it is, it’s a little branch of L.A. here in San Diego.
“So Trumans Water asked us, the same day, if I remember correctly, Trumans Water said, ‘We want to put out a Powerdresser album.’ The same day Cargo says, ‘We want to put out a Heavy Vegetable album.’ So it was a joyful day. We played that night at Chabalaba or something. And I remember talking about it. It was wonderful! We were going to have albums. It was beyond anything we thought we could do. And maybe it was beyond anything we could do, looking back on what happened. But Heavy Vegetable got asked by a real label, and their CD was out well before ours was done.
“My mother fronted us the money for our record. Six hundred dollars, check from Mom. We went and recorded it. Trumans Water’s label thing got dropped or something; they went to Europe forever and it never panned out. I think they said, ‘We want to do it, but we don’t know if we can afford it.’ And we talked to Jason and said, ‘Would you be interested in splitting it with them? Justice My Eyes/Elevated Loin/Negative Records?’ He said, ‘Sure.’ So we recorded, and they were gone, it wasn’t gonna happen, so we just kind of strong-armed Jason into putting it out. He wasn’t really excited about the financial aspect of it. But we said, ‘We’ve recorded it. We have to put it out, Jason.’ We were friends with him, but we weren’t as close as we are now. And he’s, like, ‘Oh, ah, I can’t really afford it,’ and we kind of made him do it. Lee had made this amazing pastel drawing for the back. I remember calling him up and going, ‘Jason, we have to have full-color artwork.’ He said, ‘No, you’re f*ing nuts! I can’t afford it. I’m not going to pay for it. I’m already into this twice as much as I want to be.’ So we went to the color-processing place where Lee worked, in Sorrento Valley and did the artwork there, ’cause it was cheap, it was free. Joshua Mintz and Jason Dirk helped us out quite a bit with that. Now it was cheaper, so Jason could afford it, but… We kind of screwed him over on that one. I’m sure he’s never made his money back. My mother never got paid back either, by the way. Lia Friedman loaned Denver the money for our first single, and he never paid her back either, so…”
Because it says something about music scenes — if you’re not a musician yourself, you’re probably just looking for a way to participate, to further the work of your community — let me note that Lia Friedman doesn’t remember this as a loan. Her version: “I gave them the money to record the seven-inch. Because I had it. And they didn’t have much. And it wasn’t that much money, just a couple of hundred bucks. It might have been ‘Split-Fingered Fastball’ on one side and ‘Jim’ on the other. One hundred or 200 singles; we sold them all.”
Back to Voiles’s tale: “The album came out, and somewhere in there Lee left for England. His girlfriend was pregnant. He was going to move to England and have a kid, raise a kid. His family had just moved back to England. They’d moved here when he was young.
“Denver and I floundered around. We played. We had ‘Pele Kicks My Troubles Down the Drain’ written, and we played it with Jason Crane, and played it with Johnny Sheer, and played with this freak drummer down the street. We were once again just in that boat: looking for a drummer. No drummers. You know, ‘We love Johnny’s drumming, he’s in a band. We love Jason’s drumming, he’s in a band, or two.’ We didn’t play for a long time because of this. Then Pall Jenkins [Three Mile Pilot singer] booked us at Gelato Vero for their acoustic night. We’d played there once or twice before, to no avail. It was fun, no big deal. And Denver and I went, without Lee because he was in England, and we played this period of songs of which there are no recordings, that I wrote a lot of; the writing was much more collaborative and didn’t make a lot of sense. It was extraordinarily vague. It was the kind of thing that could never have been. Maybe a drummer could have held it together. Lee wouldn’t have held it together — he would have exploded it, trampled it into the dirt. It was the kind of thing that we couldn’t communicate clearly enough for anyone to have played it with us. But we went, and we played, and we didn’t know what it was, or if it had any entertainment value.
“So we decided to make it an entertaining evening, and we went there in dresses and played acoustic. I played turned down very low, and Denver played and sang PJ Harvey’s ‘Rid of Me.’ We wore dresses and we played this music, which most of it had zero entertainment value. In the middle of it, we’d put down our guitars and Denver did handstands; he safety-pinned his dress between his legs and he did handstands to entertain the people. But the point of the show in my mind is that there were a whole lot of people there! And what we realized was, (a) having the album out kind of matters, whether people like it or not. All of a sudden you have status. And (b) we hadn’t played in four months or something. So people came. It was an event. It wasn’t yet another Powerdresser show — ‘Who are they playing with? Oh, Donald Wilson.’ It was an event. And it was all-ages. It was packed. It was the first show ever where there were lots of people. Other than our first show at the Casbah, it was the first Powerdresser show many people had ever been to. It was kind of a big turning point for us. Our first show at the Casbah came when Overwhelming Colorfast was supposed to play with somebody — I’d probably know who they are now, but I didn’t know then — and the other band’s van had broken down and Tim really needed a band to fill in. So we came and played and that was our break, to break into the Casbah booking schedule. A lot of people came. All our friends from North County came — we’d got a show, a gig, at the big venue, and they all came, and it was really fun. Of course, not that many people ever came again, because that was the event. So we got on the bill, and we got on the Casbah’s semiregular rotation. That was at the old Casbah, of course. We were playing on the same stage we had seen the Melvins play on, and it was a big deal.
“But by the time this Gelato Vero thing happened (Chabalaba had closed), we had figured out that all-ages shows were where it was at. But there were no venues — there was the Ché, but it was always closing down and reopening. We would try. We would play as seldom as possible, but by this time we knew everyone in town, all the musicians who were always asked to play shows. And now we were being asked to play shows ourselves, instead of asking other people, which is a giant step forward. We were playing as seldom as possible, which was still too frequent. We tried to play an ‘all-ages’ for every bar show, which did not succeed, but we tried. Our practice spaces fell through continually, and we wound up renting a space at the dreaded Little Hollywood practice studios out in Miramar.
“Denver lived in Encinitas and didn’t drive. I lived downtown. I worked up there, so essentially I would drive from downtown to Encinitas to work and then come back home to downtown, and then I’d go up to Encinitas and pick him up and drive out to Miramar to practice and drive him back up to Encinitas and come back home, like three or four nights a week! This was after Denver and Lia had moved out of the house where they had a garage, which was our high point of practice space and therefore of creativity.
“We were practicing out in Miramar; I was driving three hours a day, and we were practicing as much as possible. Lee had come back from England, and we had a whole new set, and the difference from our old stuff was drastic. I had kind of learned how to play bass; in addition, Denver’s songwriting was taking huge leaps forward. And Drive Like Jehu asked us to play. We’d played with them at the Ché once, where we were the first of seven bands or something, so it wasn’t that big a deal, but we played and there was a f*load of people there. The room was full. We were at the Casbah, the new Casbah. Of course, it was half-empty by the time we were done, but still, half the room full at the Casbah was very, very exciting for us. It was a leap into recognition. We gave out Powerdresser albums and played our whole new set. Around then we were playing Mesopotamia a lot, which was an all-ages place out in Lemon Grove — run by a wonderful lady named Tara — and tiny as hell, the size of a large closet. We were set, and we were going to record another album. And then Denver disappeared.”
At this point in the hours of conversation, I finally asked Voiles a silly question that had been nagging at me and that did turn out to have a lot to do with comprehending the 1994 North County music scene — “What is math rock?” He told me: “ ‘Math rock’ is a phrase that, I don’t know where it came from, if my friends invented it or somebody heard it somewhere, but this music that has complex time structures. Essentially you can’t dance to it. Although, you probably could. You could write math rock you could dance to. Boilermaker makes…I wouldn’t always call it ‘math rock,’ but there’s more to it than you would immediately perceive. You can hum along, and tap along, and know when the big part is. When Boilermaker plays, when the big part comes, it’s where it belongs, and you know it’s there and it feels good, because it belongs there. But underneath it you know it’s all in sixes instead of eights — it used to be, last time I counted. Now this, I’m sure, is due to coming from, coming out of, North County, where there was math rock, you know?
“You repeat everything three times instead of four times — the part has six and a half beats this time you play it, and five and a half next time. It wasn’t always that technical; it wasn’t always as technical as we thought it was. You know, we’d be playing something that we had to count every time just to make it as tweaked as we possibly could. I talked to a drummer a few years later, and he’s, like, ‘Yeah, that’s in 8/8 time.’ ‘Oh? I thought it was in…’ First it’d be intuitive. None of us were learned musicians. I was probably the closest — no, no, Travis Nelson from Heavy Vegetable was a jazz guitar player; he was definitely a learned musician. But none of us were scholarly; none of us had scholarly approaches. I took some music theory in college but never got far enough to be able to apply it to anything.”
Paul: “Why do you say it had something to do with North County?” Voiles: “Just ’cause the musicians around there were essentially Heavy Vegetable and Powerdresser, and we were playing numerically complex music. Boilermaker does too — they’re from North County. Boilermaker’s the Leucadia band. They were playing around a lot then. They were always at Chabalaba. There’s a connection there. Denver and I would go into the pizza joint on 101 at the south end of Encinitas, right before the Self-Realization Fellowship, and get garlic pizza. Denver would always sit by the door. He’d go down on his lunch break from Lou’s, and he’d sit by the door, where you could watch people outside. People would walk behind you to walk in. You’re sitting at the bar, and you’d talk to the people making pizzas in front of you, and you can hear the music playing, and you’d watch the TV at the same time. It’s the stimulus-overload corner, and he’d sit there for entertainment, and the person who was often enough standing in front of him making pizzas was Terrin Durfey [Boilermaker singer]. So we’d go in there, and we’d see Terrin a lot. And he’s just this nice kid. And he’s not really that much younger than us, but at the time, you know, he was this kid. And then he had a band, and then his band was good, and now his band’s still around, and they’re phenomenal!”
Paul: “So North County really has the advantage of, it’s easy for it to keep a separate identity, in a way. It’s out of the stream.” Voiles: “Yeah, there is no stream.” Paul: “The single that you talked about, that Jason put out, was that the split single with Heavy Vegetable?” Voiles: “No, that was later on. Mark from Goldenrod wanted to put out a Heavy Vegetable seven-inch, and as I remember it, correctly or not, we had been talking about putting out a split with Heavy Vegetable, and Mark said, ‘Well, I want to put out a Heavy Vegetable seven-inch,’ and they said, ‘Can it be a split with Powerdresser?’ And he said okay. So as usual, Heavy Vegetable was dragging us along with them as they gained popularity. We weren’t gaining any popularity from it, but we were gaining singles and shows. And fun, you know. That’s what mattered.”
So you start out as young friends drawn together by similar musical tastes and by a common identification with the attitude toward the world expressed by the music you like (in this case, punk rock). And as you pursue musical interests and enthusiasms (including the urge to play and perform) and ever-changing ideas of who you are and what you stand for and care about and want to be identified with, you meanwhile find yourself living and working within and helping to create and attracting others into a community. As Voiles recounted the story of Powerdresser and of Denver Lucas’s adventures in the early-’90s San Diego music scene, I kept finding myself getting revealing glimpses, cameo portraits, more meaningful to me, more accurate about the nature of the beast, than any generalizations about the times and the scene could ever be.
Rob Crow, as I think I’ve indicated, was one of the most admired and influential creative forces — songwriter, guitar player, bandleader — on that scene, in San Diego as a whole as well as in North County, the one who most participants expected would be the Lennon or McCartney or Brian Wilson or Johnny Rotten of their crowd, whose fame and eventual achievements would likely reflect glory on and bring attention to the scene and its coparticipants. Contemplate, then, this bit of detail from the story of how, when Denver Lucas and his great love Eléa Tenuta broke up, he moved to North County and she would come up to visit him, and thus she and Rob Crow met and became romantic and singing partners (in Heavy Vegetable and later in Thingy, one of Crow’s several active bands and musical projects in 2002–2003, the foremost of which is Pinback):
“Rob then lived in these apartments towards the bottom of the hill near Moonlight Beach in Encinitas,” Voiles told me, “with Travis’s sister, who was an airline stewardess, so she would be gone three weeks out of the month, flying to exotic destinations, and she would come back for a week, and the deal was, they split the rent. He had the whole place to himself, but he had to move out when she was back. So once a month he would get everything he owned, which was a remarkable amount of crap, he’d put it on a skateboard or something, and drag it all the way up the hill to our house and sleep on our couch, and then she would go off traveling again and he would drag it all back home and live there. So he was around, sleeping on our couch (thus the song ‘Couch’ by Heavy Vegetable), and Eléa was around to see Denver, but Denver would take off, he couldn’t hang with it, and they got together, they started singing, they became a couple. He wrote ‘Termites’ for her to sing on and recorded it in our bathroom. This was when he was writing all the material for the first Heavy Vegetable album.”
Another glimpse came when Voiles, at my request, described Lucas’s other early-’90s band, Physics: “Denver started Physics, Denver and John Goff started Physics. The name had an element of humor, but they were serious about what they were doing. None of them knew anything about physics, but Denver was always interested in these grand schemes and concepts, and physics is sort of how we try to understand the universe. It was a conceptual group, a conceptual leap. Denver played drums. He started it ’cause he wanted to play drums. Although, I just recently found the first recordings he did with John, or for John, on which Denver was playing guitar. The song was called ‘Physics,’ so I imagine that could have been the genesis of the whole thing.”
Paul: “This was at the same time that Powerdresser was going on?” Voiles: “Yes. It was a side project. Denver played drums, and half of Heavy Vegetable was in it. Rob and Travis played guitars, and John Goff played guitars, Jason Soares played guitars. It was this guitar-army kind of thing going on for a while.” I asked, “What had John been doing before that?” Voiles: “John had been playing drums in Johnny Superbad, which was another concept band, side project of all those people and more, and they were just bombastic, huge noise. They played this disastrous festival at La Paloma called Nuns Don’t Jam. Which was put on by the guy who got us our first show at SOMA, Jason. He put on this huge thing. Three Mile Pilot and Heavy Vegetable and Johnny Superbad and Fishwife and literally everybody, every band in San Diego, played. It lost a lot of money.
“Johnny Superbad kind of extended into Physics. Physics at its beginning was a wall-of-sound thing, less so than Johnny Superbad but still like droning. John never did real bands; he did concept stuff. He was in Crash Worship [a San Diego, mostly-drums band, legendary for performing in actual rings of fire that sometimes got out of control], which was more of a concept than a band, anyway. So he’s always been the conceptual guy. Physics’ big number was ‘The Chord’ and getting new guest members to join on ‘The Chord.’ ” Paul: “It was a jam?” Voiles: “It was a chord, it was one chord. It’s orchestrated ’cause you’re all playing different parts, but it’s one chord, that’s the concept. It was along the lines of the Mark Rothko type of art.”
Voiles also told me: “Denver started working at Lou’s after we worked together at the Lily Vietnamese Cuisine in downtown Encinitas. He was a cook and I was a dishwasher. I was supposed to be a cook too, but it didn’t come with a raise and I couldn’t bring myself to memorize the hundred-plus-item menu when I got home, so I got put back to dishwasher, and he continued cooking and then scored a job at Lou’s. He was very excited about it and was a dedicated Lou’s employee for years and years and years.”
Lou Russell of Lou’s told me how Lucas came to work for him: “Suzanne Lee [another employee and North County music scenester] said, ‘Hire Denver, he’s cool,’ and of course he looked like the ragamuffin that he looked like. And then, a month or two before he was hired, he and Gabe and Lee drove into our parking lot on a Saturday or a Friday and jumped out, set up, played for 20 minutes, then jumped back in the car and left. It was like a kamikaze in-store. It was hilarious, it was awesome. That kind of was a cool thing, so I thought, this guy, there’s something going on here. So I hired him.
“I’d gotten to know him a little as a customer. I think he threatened to do that or something, ’cause they wanted to play an in-store show, and I said, ‘No, you guys can’t play here. You have to have a record out.’ So he said, ‘We’re gonna play here anyway.’ Of course, I wouldn’t stop them. It was funny. It was a good little event.
“He was a great worker. Denver always worked in the used store. Pricing CDs. He did a good job of it. He had such a good attitude. It was really fun to work with him, because he was great to talk to. We’d have these crazy conversations about just crazy stuff most of the time. And he would talk to me about the band, about how hard it was sometimes trying to keep the three of them together, how the drummer was always flaking out. They practiced in the store a lot, in the back room of the used store.
“I saw one Powerdresser gig at a coffeehouse. I enjoyed it a lot. Their minimalistic kind of music I really liked, the way it was free-form. They were doing something really different, not screaming, thrashing rock and roll kinda stuff. Denver had definite stage presence. Something about him onstage, on top of the music, kept you sort of riveted to the situation.”
And since a music scene really is nothing more than the sum of the people in it and the ways they affect and inspire each other, a little more about Denver Lucas (whose death resulted, the police and his friends agree, either from falling off a Leucadia bluff while climbing down to the ocean on his acid trip and breaking his neck and being carried out to sea, or from going swimming and bodysurfing at night, as he and some of his friends had loved to do, and getting caught in a riptide or some other ocean circumstance difficult to handle under the influence — if the latter, the broken neck would have occurred during the week his drowned body was tossed about by the surf):
Lia Friedman: “Denver was extremely dedicated to his music. He really loved it. It would blow my mind, all the time. We would go to the beach to have a fire, and he would bring his acoustic guitar, and he would play as we walked, sort of strumming, and then at the beach we’d be sitting around and he would lie on his back, he’d look up at the stars and play. And I remember being amazed at how good he was.”
Gabriel Voiles: “One thing that was so affecting to me personally about Denver was the fact that he came from some really, really hard times in his life. He had some problems. Denver was not some naturally gifted orator who felt continually at ease with people and had this wonderful social life and was always this outgoing, wonderful positive person that everyone saw. Denver got there through sheer will to not f*ing lose. He went through a lot of crap and was perpetually tortured by communication with people, which was so important to him, he was so driven towards that. He didn’t come from a normal place and was pushing it to this great level. He came from a negative space, from a very negative mind-set. I joke and take lightly the things that we did as teenagers, but it was extremely self-destructive and it was horrible. We hated everything, we hated ourselves, we couldn’t talk to anybody. It sucked. And to go from that to a point where he was putting so much into communicating with people and to finding new levels and ways of communicating with them.”
Another glimpse of what keeps people in these scenes, something much bigger than the desire to be the next Pearl Jam: “Denver disappeared and that was the end of the music,” Voiles told me. “But there was a live set recorded of the music, that I’ll be putting out on CD soon. It was recorded at Mesopotamia, at a show with Clikatat Ikatowi and Boilermaker and Wackass Bitch, which was one of the best shows I’ve ever played in my entire life, full of people I completely love, making music that was absolutely wonderful. It was an amazing, amazing evening, and it was 110 f*ing degrees in there, if not hotter. It was completely packed, that little place.” I asked if Clikatat Ikatowi was Mario Rubalcaba’s band (Rubalcaba has recently been the drummer for one of San Diego’s best current bands, the internationally loved and admired evolution of Three Mile Pilot, Black Heart Procession; Rubalcaba has also recently played with Rocket From the Crypt, good drummers being so in demand in the S.D. rock scene). Voiles confirmed that Rubalcaba had been central to Clikatat Ikatowi and said, “They were an absolutely amazing math rock act. Now, kind of the point of my label ‘math rock’ is to avoid being put into real categories. Kind of a joke. ‘We’re not a punk band, we’re not a post-punk band, we’re math rock.’ That element of humor saving you once again.”
[Dear readers: one of Denver Lucas’s keen ambitions was for Powerdresser records to be free records, thus eliminating the music “business” element. To get a free copy of the new Powerdresser retrospective CD, write to [email protected]]