Photo by Jack GouldSeventy years ago, songhunters John and Alan Lomax prowled Appalachia, recording folk songs no one else was paying attention to; now their work is an indispensable cultural document. Huntington Beach local Brian Dishon is after a similar snippet of the indigenous teenage-music culture of Orange County, whatever that might turn out to be: with a brand-new four-track and a determination to give everyone a chance to be heard, he's soliciting local garage bands who'd like to preserve a song or two—all subjective considerations like "genre," "experience" or "quality" aside—for the future.
"In the '20s and '30s, folk was the unheard music. Now it's garage," Dishon says. "In the South, the folk artists John Lomax recorded weren't necessarily musicians. They were farmers, sharecroppers, former slaves—these were actual jug bands, sometimes playing with jugs. And now there are teenage garage bands—they're just a bunch of kids who go to high school, maybe work at Kmart. Just any bunch of teenage kids thrashing around in their garage. It loses its edge when you have a bunch of 30-year-old guys jamming to Lynyrd Skynyrd."
So maybe they're a bunch of kids with aspirations no loftier than doing sloppy, half-tempo covers of Blink-182 until their parents make them go to bed. Dishon is prepared for that. "It's sad when you go to a garage and see 14-year-old kids with better amps than you have," he sighs. But that's the difference between the industry perspective and the anthropological perspective: Dishon's not looking for the next big thing; he's just looking for, well, anything. By capturing ultra-ephemeral teenage bands on four-track tape, he's documenting a slice of contemporary youth culture, alive with typically twisted suburban iconoclasm at best or authentic in its contrived inauthenticity at worst. If that means a bunch of Blink-182 covers, that's just as potentially valuable as anything else.
"It's the do-it-yourself ethic: anyone can make music; anyone can be in a band," Dishon says, explaining what he hopes to capture with his project. "That was what was so great about punk, and that's kind of how it was with folk. But if you really had the do-it-yourself thing, you wouldn't turn anyone away."
And he won't, he says. It's really that easy, people: just call him up and tell him where your band practices. He'll show up with his four-track and a sackful of vintage microphones ("Everything I record on is garage-sale quality," he says), put in a blank tape, and record whatever you like to describe as your band. "I never say no," he explains. "I'll record anything—even, like, a bunch of kids in a garage who turn on all their amplifiers and then just leave the room."
Sometimes people don't get it, he says—they think he's a "maniac" ready to make them famous for free, (and that's probably as telling a reflection on youth culture here as anything Dishon is taping). But people didn't get it when bookish young John Lomax was presenting folders full of hand-scribbled transcriptions of cowboy songs to stuffy college professors either—they told him to quit wasting his time on "tawdry, cheap and unworthy" culture. Sort of like the culture here in OC.
"It's music for the sake of music," says Brett, drummer of local band the Pomp and one of the first participants in Dishon's project. They might practice in a warehouse, not a garage, but Brett says his band—a blend of Rip-Off Records-style trash punk thankfully far removed from the cheesy slickness so prevalent here—felt right at home.
"We never have enough money to release anything," he says, "so we like that we get to be put on the permanent record. A lot of the best stuff I've heard came off the old Pebbles and Teenage Shutdown records, the '60s garage compilations, where it was one band that played five shows, put out one seven-inch, then broke up—that stuff seems like it had a lot of heart to it."
"I don't know if this [project] will have value later on," Dishon admits, conscious of the local teen-music scene's tendency toward the mundane. But he's hoping to reach musicians who have fallen through the cracks—the truly unheard, such as high school and even middle school bands. And although he's not too long out of those high school and middle school bands himself ("Troubled Youth," he grins, "13-year-old aggression at its best!"), under his rockabilly coiffure throbs the brain of a born scholar.
"Brian's a librarian, except he doesn't work in a library," says a friend.
"I don't drink; I don't do any of that foolishness," Dishon smiles, maybe a little sheepishly. "I don't smoke unfiltered cigarettes, or any cigarettes. I don't work on cars, don't go in for any of the rockabilly clichés."
He does play several instruments. He cruises the swap meet for vintage R&B 45s. One of the biggest regrets in his life, he says, is that he didn't empty out his grandfather's warehouse in Texas, packed to the sweltering rafters with jukebox fodder; instead, he went home with only about 500 records. "Unfortunately, I'm not schooled enough in R&B," he explains, "and I didn't want to overload my parents with a bunch of records."