One Last Long Night
There's a kind of conversation that's safe and tasteful to begin only when the most concerned party is otherwise indisposed, like indisposed with 6 feet of dirt and flowers crunching down the halo on their head: that's the messy sentimental honesty of the eulogy, the last refuge of the critic and the attention-desperate drunk; as one of both, let me propose a sloppy toast to the Starvations, who finish 11 lucky-number years of rock & roll this next weekend. The suits around here like to ask me every so often about things like history and place (when they are not asking about hot-ness, new-ness and band-ness in most loathsome conjunction), and now that the Starvations will soon be securely departed into a discography of pharaonic proportions—100-some original songs, seeded over variously out-of-print vinyl and three full-length albums—the truth (as this glass of red wine sees it) can spill into the light: if they didn't define a place and time, they re-discovered one with rare sincerity, and now when I hear that X song about sitting in a car—the sum total of my California experience, honestly—I think instead of the Starvations, who wrote their own necessary next chapter of songs about life in a place where life is a mess. But now all things are untied—so they feel set free, says drummer Ian Harrower: "Once this is done, all that shit—it's like a light switch goes off. We used to do this, do that, that fight, the van blowing up—it's all gone. And it's 100 percent now—there's our whole body of work. And the slate's just clean."
Yeah, but how young we was, right? Bands in this supposed place of no place (as opposed to New York, suffocating under its own folds of fat) have to find some kind of geography that makes sense for them, else you get the time-honored California drift, that pointless/aimless/heartlessness that makes for fine session musicians but offers not much to get you through the night. Every song with a postmark to point it home: bands come with a skyline behind them, and if they don't, well, how would you tell where you were? You gotta come from somewhere to go somewhere—this was important to James Brown—and so the Beach Boys had the surface streets in the suburbs, X had the alleyways of Hollywood at night, the Eagles had a hot tub and someone's expensive sack of drugs. And the Starvations? They fell out of Laguna Beach in the early 1990s after the fires burned everything but a few well-armored meth labs down to the stubs: what a great place to start a band, in someone else's ashes—especially in Southern California, where breathing smoke is as easy as just breathing. "I grew up in this band," says Ian, who at 16 started drumming alongside bassist Jean-Paul Garnier (later bassist Dave Clifford), singer/guitarist Gabriel Hart and guitarist Ryan Hertz (later guitarist Leon Catfish) in a 1995 that could have been 1975: no Internet, no band management, no hard chords on the car radio, no fun. Axe-murderer rockabilly was the phrase used at the time, if I remember right. A little silly, says Gabe now—but how young, etc. They ran their band once on that weird insane poltergeist adolescent energy, he says, the same feeling you catch in your joints when the sun starts to go down. "We're older now," he says, "and that might be a harder thing to tap into."
Which is respectable and honest and true—after the Starvations, they move on to another band (like Dils to Cowboy Nation), and they seal up 11 years that roar loudest now in retrospect, offering a band in potent total instead of by increment. And what that kind of concentration does for perception: I can see through a thicket of new-wave haircuts and remember what a real band was like. The Starvations found a sound either five years after or 20 before the '77 punk rock that lit everyone else's engines; their coyote instincts—one of our few persisting native species, huh—kept them alive on self-contained stubbornness, outliving even whole little worlds (Al's, Club Mesa, Juvee) because they could subsist on almost nothing. That's probably the source of their spare blues streak, another anachronism that had them pecking out records by themselves or by their friends for the longest first part of their career—five years that Gabe describes as dismal ("We really felt like we were on an island," he says) and then a slow break in their favor and their first and second and third albums.
By then, they were aging out of the rough guitar rock & roll they grew up with into a band that could tangle the art effects of Pere Ubu and the atomic power of the Louvin Bros. into twin Kinman guitars and a wild-eyed set of stories about their lives—I met a few people who later became Starvations songs, and while they weren't necessarily how Gabe sang about them, they were characters all. They had an incandescence that must have returned a kind of light to the band at the same time it probably burned all parties involved. So often the Starvations were reviewed as "dark"—in rock-dork that means they used minor chords, which they did to excellent effect—but I always found them white-light bright, with a second-wind sort of fury that suited both their own run-ragged lives and their moment in time. If California never sleeps, it's just because it never really gets dark here, only settling into a smoky orange that looks the same after dusk as it does before dawn, and if the Starvations had their place and time, it was in what Alex Cox called the edge city—the rim around LA between Hollywood cheese and OC plastic; I remember driving to see them many places where the streetlights didn't turn on anymore—and it was at that surreal suspended twilight moment that runs all night, a sort of shadow counterpart to the day already lived. And if they had a song, it was "One Long Night." (I even asked.)
It was obviously (though probably not deliberately) their "Los Angeles" when it made a meek debut on a CDEP, but it grew past just that one night to hold a whole summer, and now that they're finished, to hold almost everything the band ever did—musically, they could be sharper ("American Funeral") or a lot more fun ("Grief"), but I don't think there was ever another three minutes that included everything they needed to do: the structure of "The Passenger" and a lot of its mood too, and doesn't Gabe sound like Iggy for a second at the beginning? And then the story of one of those nights where slates do get wiped clean (for the drama queens and all the dead James Deans), with saloon piano (which Vanessa Gonzales would later permanently add to the lineup) in ribbons between a curtain of chords and a punishing push/pull dynamic, an almost tidal rhythm, like waves on a beach or blood past your ears, and then Gabe at the back of his throat on the verses ("Tell the boss something tragic happened to you late last night!") and then falling in loud for every chorus: "This life is one long night!" It's the kind of song that just falls back into itself as easy as breathing—"This is a swan song, this is a requiem," over and on, repetition and cycle but each verse a special nod to an insomniac and drama queen and poltergeist and dead James Dean. There are bands that can do the party-all-nite excitement and bands that can do the morning-after melancholy, but they meet only with the crudest substitute for grace. Here and almost always the Starvations did both and more: "This life is one long night," finishes Gabe, "so eat shit, babe!" I couldn't think of a better ending—when the sun finally comes up, they're done.
STARVATIONS WITH THE STITCHES, GEISHA GIRLS, BROKEN BOTTLES AND SCHEMERS AT THE GALAXY CONCERT THEATRE, 3503 S. HARBOR BLVD., SANTA ANA, (714) 957-0600. THURS., DEC. 15, 8 P.M. $12.50. ALL AGES.
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