The Big Nowhere

Why does so much good music come from this place?

Dale's still thundering today, but did you know there was also a "Queen of the Surf Guitar"? That was Kathy Marshall, who from the age of 13 to 16 in the 1960s was a shy girl who was pushed into performing and often would throw up before going onstage. And then she'd get up there—at the Retail Clerks Union Hall in Buena Park, Huntington Beach's Pavalon Ballroom, Newport's Rendezvous and other halls—and just blaze on the guitar, shutting down most of her male counterparts. Sure, there were putdowns of the "good for a girl" sort, but there was also camaraderie and support from her fellow musicians, including a young Larry Carlton, who was then playing in Eddie and the Showmen.

Conservative, tradition-bound OC also spawned one of the first serious all-female rock bands, Birtha. And at a time when Bob Dylan was barred from appearing on CBS' Ed Sullivan Show because he insisted on singing his "Talking John Birch Society Blues," here in one of the John Birch Society's national strongholds, there was a surprising abundance of folk coffeehouses presenting the counterculture music. Even Disneyland hosted Monday-night hootenannies at which locals could play.

That's something else that made the music happen here: the curious mixture of struggle and support. OC was a weird, conservative, sometimes oppressive place. There were county congressmen who insisted rock & roll should be banned as a communist plot. Cities shut clubs or bulldozed them. In the 1980s, rednecks battled with punks. Cops battled with punks. There was nothing new in that: outside a 1970 rock show at the Anaheim Convention Center, 382 cops from 19 cities fought with kids, and rock was banned from the arena for years.

Whenever the music was stifled, people just found new ways of getting it heard. In the late 1950s, the Santa Ana R&B band the Rhythm Rockers couldn't find a venue that would book them, so they got a janitor acquaintance to unlock the Santa Ana Community Center's doors, and they held a dance on the sly there. Just by word of mouth, they drew enough kids to take in $336. Hop a couple of decades into the future, and you've got the Adolescents bummed out when their first-ever gig, at UC Irvine, was abruptly canceled by authorities. So instead they broke into a Boy Scout hall in Yorba Linda and did a secret show there. Then there was the new wave Nu-Beams, who dealt with the lack of venues by playing guerrilla gigs in county laundromats, with a lookout at the door in case any police drove by.

Musicians bitched about the "Orange Curtain" and chaffed at the repressive cultural climate. Jackson Browne, for example, couldn't wait to haul ass out of here, which he did as soon as he could at age 17. But while he was here, he had a cadre of classmates at Sunny Hills High School who shared his sentiments and musical interests, and at the county folk venues, he saw folk's legends perform and also had the chance to get onstage to hone his own craft. The clubs did the same for Tim Buckley, Steve Gillette, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others.

There was always something to pull the music along. James Harman's record parties educated a generation of blues players. Clubs like Safari Sam's and Linda's Doll Hut nurtured all types of original music. Punkers found a receptive ear in producer Chaz Ramirez at Fullerton's Casbah studio.

OC may be some sort of epicenter of hipdom today, but it was a long time coming, and it took a lot of creativity from an awful lot of people to make something where once there was a big nothing.

"The Orange Groove," a history of Orange County music, will appear at the Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton, (714) 738-6545; www.ci.fullerton.ca.us/museum. Opens Dec. 18. Through May 22.

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