ALL PHOTOS BY ERIC RIFE
After twenty years, it's almost become a mark of any writer's street cred to write off San Diego's annual Street Scene. The warts are many. The line-up is almost always a hodgepodge of reggae, rap, world beat, aging punk bands, corporate punk bands, a smattering of local legends and legions of groups missing one or all of their original members trying to cash in on distant memories of a more glorious career.
Then there's the crowds - thousands of stinking drunk assholes swaying and swerving in your direction armed with two or three full beers aimed directly at your clean, dry clothes. Those who can't hold their liquor (and they are numerous) can be found on many a street corner, vomiting an ugly stew of chilidogs and fancy Blue Curacao cocktails.
Along the main avenue linking the half dozen main stages are the techno DJs and the attendant, googly-eyed club kids grubbing Mardi Gras beads from various dancers gyrating on trucks brought in for the occasion. For reasons that no one really knows, these fuckers are allowed to crank their turntables to levels which drown out the neighboring stages.
To be sure, Street Scene can be a nasty mess and anyone who avoids it like the plague probably has more than a few legitimate grievances.
Aside from all that however, Street Scene always has the potential to rise above its worst aspects. And if you didn't mind dealing with all the crap, this year's show had some genuinely standout moments.
On Friday, X took the stage earlier than usual (they've played at least a half dozen Street Scenes) leading bassist John Doe to remark "You know, I've got to tell ya, it's really nice to be playing to a crowd that hasn't gotten completely fucked up yet!"
"And throwing shoes at us!" Exene chimed in.
Their hour-long set didn't offer any surprises but really, who needs anything new from X? Billy Zoom's trademark grin which sometimes seems permanently affixed to his face whenever a camera is in the vicinity; Exene's slightly bored but occasionally enraged pose; DJ Bonebreak's steady beat and chummy smile and John Doe's hardest-working-man-in-punk stage presence combine to be one of the most dependable sights and sounds in a concert setting.
Like the Sex Pistols, X are wise enough to know when to stop recording and performing new songs. How many of your favorite bands have reduced themselves to deserved obscurity due to an ungodly decline in product? Instead, the band preferred to crank out the classics - "The Hungry Wolf," "Los Angeles," "Johny Hit and Run Pauline" with the occasional cover tune tossed in for good measure - in this case, "Soul Kitchen" which John dedicated to Ray Manzarek.
A muddy sound system marred an otherwise stellar show from Arthur Lee & Love, one of the most critically unsung bands of the 1960s. You think you're punk, punk? You think it all started with Iggy, the MC5, the Dolls and the Velvets? Lee's 1966 masterpiece "7 & 7 Is" was a two minute sonic blast (complete with the sound of the Bikini Atoll nuclear test as a finale) that blew L.A. eardrums and was like nothing being produced at the time. Unfortunately, this was the odd omission in a set that would have been stellar were it not for the bad sound system.
Lee's career was very promising in 1966 until he made the suggestion to Elektra producer Jac Holzman that he should check out the Doors. Lee and the band were put on the backburner and largely forgotten by everyone except a very devout following - including the Ramones and the Damned who both covered their songs.
Most people know something about the Doors and for those who never saw them, the Doors of the 21st Century, fronted by the Cult's Ian Astbury, was about the next best thing. Astbury has been aping Morrison since the 1980s and if anyone was going to fill in, well, there were certainly worse choices. Doors drummer John Densmore wanted nothing to do with the project and even sued the other members to keep them from using the original name.
But critics who slag off people who simply want to go out and play their songs (okay, okay AND make money playing their songs) aren't exactly playing fair. Watching Ray Manzarek laboriously working his keyboard or guitarist Robby Krieger flawlessly ripping through the flamenco passage of "Spanish Caravan" provided all the evidence anyone needed that the passion was still there.
But who knows what drew thousands of people to sit through an hour of the Goo Goo Dolls? I remember seeing these guys fourteen years ago, supporting the Gun Club. Back then they had a marginal sense of humor, blending in covers of Prince and Blue Oyster Cult. Then about ten years ago they decided (along with Soul Asylum) that what the world needed was more Bon Jovi power ballads. This month, Blender magazine named them one of the fifty worst bands of all time (a designation the magazine afforded the Doors as well) and on Friday, they cemented that honor.
Saturday night was the weakest of the three-day festival, featuring sets from the B52s, the Allman Brothers, Cypress Hill, Arrested Development and a plethora of world beat and reggae bands. Good performances to be sure, but nothing worth spilling your beer over.
It was Sunday night that held out the most promise with both the Sex Pistols and REM, the latter playing for two hours and the former, one. Michael Stipe is easily as interesting a figure to watch on stage as Johnny Rotten - especially if you've seen neither previously.
Playing earlier in the day was the increasingly watered down version of Bad Religion, who actually thanked the San Diego Police Department for escorting them to the show after their plane was delayed. THIS from a band who had one of their Fairmount Halls shows shut down by the SDPD twenty-some years ago. Maybe it's just my age, but I don't think these guys have been relevant for the last ten years. After Against the Grain (or maybe even Suffer), Bad Religion just seemed to be trying too hard. For the first ten years these guys represented everything that could be great about punk rock - ultra-intelligent lyrics matched only by a heart-pounding intensity realized by five guys who really had a special chemistry together. Then people started dropping out and being replaced by god only knows whom. No disrespect to these fine musicians, including Brian Baker of Minor Threat, but it just never seemed the same.
The Reverend Horton Heat, another Street Scene veteran, played a sharp, but shortened set early in the day. At 3:00 p.m. only about 300 people turned up for a guy who would normally attract twice that amount. Whatever sound problems had plagued the stage from two days earlier had been remedied and along with his dependable bassist Jimbo, the good reverend proceeded to lay down the punkabilly Word according to Gretch. Awesome as always.
The day dragged on with mildly interesting sets from Eek-A-Mouse (who continued to grill the audience with questions like "How are you doing?" and "Are you feeling irie?" ad nauseum) and soulstress Macy Gray whose high pitched whine was not as much in evidence as in past performances. Still, her incitements to "take off your clothes" garnered little more than drunken "yeahs!" from the audience.
REM opened with "Finest Worksong," with Stipe in top form. I don't give a fuck what any self-styled, johnny-come-twenty-years-lately punk kid thinks about these guys, the fact remains they are still one of the most sincere, professional bands out there. The three song limit forced all the photogs out of the pit area but not before being treated to "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" and "Drive," two songs which saw the band performing with an energy level equal to that of their earliest shows (including their supporting role for Gang of Four's 1982 tour). Alas, droves of people had to leave half way through to catch the Sex Pistols - missing a stellar set of both new and classic tracks as well as a brief cameo from Eddie Vedder.
It could be argued (and has been) that the Sex Pistols weren't any more suited to reunite than, say, the Allman Brothers. But for a lot of people who didn't catch them seven years ago on the first reunion tour, the chance to the see the band held out a lot of promise. How the band fared among fans was, of course, dependent on expectations. Their first reunion, then as now, was written off early on as a sell out; a shameless attempt to cash in on hordes of fourth and fifth generation punks willing to shell out fifty dollars to see a band who were once considered a threat to the social fabric of the United Kingdom.
But again, who are the fans or critics to dictate what a performer should or shouldn't do? Yeah, it kinda sucks that the Clash, the Buzzcocks, the Smiths and the Who are all shilling for various car companies, but we don't have to pay their mortgages or finance their kids' education. Bottom line is they wrote the songs and like it or not, they're free to do what they want with them. They don't owe us a thing, least of all the sanctity of myths we created around their work.
Of course with the Sex Pistols, one only need to look into the craggily, wart encrusted face of Johnny Rotten to know that there's still a lot of righteous fury in his heart. Yeah, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock might look like they're going through the motions, but so what? How do the songs sound? Are they hitting the right notes? Do they have a semblance of professionalism - again, an UN-punk notion to be sure, but one which can be appreciated after witnessing umpteen enthusiastic, but utterly lame noise bands who excuse themselves by adopting the punk moniker.
For those hoping to see a band possessed of the youthful rage they possessed twenty-five years ago, well, how could they not be disappointed? For those people, faithful renditions of "No Feelings," "God Save the Queen" and "Holidays in the Sun" weren't and couldn't be enough. Too bad for them. Those of us who remember the urban legends surrounding the band, who remember their all-too-brief existence, who embraced them as exponents of a guttural angst that not even the best New York bands could muster, were happy to sing along, even as the members' faces were broadcast on giant monitors surrounding the stage.
It must be especially rewarding, in this time of RIAA lawsuits, for a band whose stated mission was to destroy the record industry to actually see the fruit of their labor. Was there ever a more punk notion than ripping off the record companies? Johnny Rotten's menacing grin and charged denunciations were warmly received by the thousands who had gathered.
Granted, there were missteps. The drawn out version of "Anarchy in the U.K." could have done without the audience participation bit and few people probably got the joke when the lyrics to "Belsen Was a Gas" were switched to "Baghdad Was a Gas," but no matter. These were minor glitches in a set that was otherwise brilliant. A social threat they may no longer be (if they ever really were) but few could argue that more than two decades after they hawked a big loogie into an utterly complacent music scene, that they were needed more than ever.