Photo by Jeanne RiceThere's no sign of a show tonight at the Loose Moose Saloon, even though a standing-room-only crowd is gathered anxiously around the venerable club's small stage, which is stocked with guitars, drums, keyboards, turntables and a lone microphone that is drenched in a white spotlight and draped with a weirdly familiar paper streamer. But there is no sign, per se, that any band is supposed to play tonight; the marquee outside doesn't mention a thing.
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Download the RealPlayer FREE! "Why ask for problems?" shrugs Dave Koontz as he tries to out-shout the raucous throng that has squashed into his roadhouse. Koontz has owned the Loose Moose Saloon for the past 13 years of the half-century it has perched on the edge of Katella Avenue in an unincorporated sliver of Orange County surrounded by Anaheim, Garden Grove and Stanton. He has learned that customers who love liquor and music require a special kind of social etiquette. "This place only holds 275 people," he says. "Advertising this show would only amount to laughing in the faces of everybody who can't get in."
Even so, word-of-mouth promotion has left about 100 people lingering edgily around the front door. Some seem unwilling to accept they won't be getting inside, pointedly questioning everything from the fire codes to the bouncers' IQs to exactly which law-enforcement agency handles disturbances in unincorporated OC. But others are simply claiming places to stand along the side of the western-style building-every window pane is already spoken for-and pressing against the wooden exterior, willing to risk splinters in their ears to extract whatever sound might worm through the walls.
Koontz is keeping a concerned eye on those milling ominously outside, but he's reluctant to turn anybody away too forcefully. For one thing, he sympathizes with them. "I'll tell ya, I'm glad I'm guaranteed to get in for this show," he confides. For another, pissing off potential customers isn't good for business over the long run. "Hey, don't think for a moment that I'm letting a few nights like this fool me," says Koontz, shaking his head with a shudder as though he has scared himself with the thought. "This situation is fabulous, but I'm not kidding myself. When I book a band that draws this kind of crowd-hell, we don't even need to charge our normal $3 cover; we're making so much off the bar-I know that band is on its way to bigger and better things. It won't be long before the Loose Moose is too small for the Pocket Clowns."
Suddenly but indisputably, the Pocket Clowns-three guys and two girls from the 3 square miles of callused suburbia known as Stanton-have been anointed the Next Big Thing to emerge from the Orange County music scene.
"That tag gets thrown around all the time, of course, but the Pocket Clowns are for real," asserts Tazy Phyllipz, host of the Saturday noon Ska Parade on KUCI-FM (88.9) and the man who helped Sublime break into stardom while he was an intern at KROQ. "I get around to lots of clubs, and about a year ago, I heard kids start mentioning that they were really digging this band. So I went and saw them, and they absolutely floored me. I've seen them lots of times by now, and I get the same kind of feeling as when I first heard Sublime-but even more so."
Stanky Edwards and Ginger L. Gladness, the Pocket Clowns' lead singers, guitarists and songwriters, are already considered the county's No. 1 alterna-couple. Their musical collaboration is prompting comparisons to such man-woman teams as Exene and John, Ike and Tina, and the Captain and Tennille, even if the exact nature of their affection remains the subject of much speculation. Are they boyfriend-girlfriend? Brother-sister? Husband-wife? Some suspect they are having an extramarital affair. Stanky and Ginger L. (she is adamant that the letter is not an initial, but rather part of her first name) ignore the curiosity and provide no clues, fueling gossip by addressing each other only as "Shakebrotha" and "Shakesista."
Onstage and off, they exude a dynamic chemistry. Stanky is compact and muscled, terse and obtuse, with a head of hair like early-1960s hi-lo carpet, a treasured collection of late-1970s Izod shirts, and a lifelong hatred of all things Garden Grove that is so intense he was court-ordered into an anger-management class. "If it wasn't for my music," he offers, "I'd probably be a little squirrelly."
Ginger L. is your basic perky utopian existentialist-a "fizzionary," as she likes to describe herself-who says she became that way as a child when the widening of Chapman Avenue took away her family's back yard. "I truly believe that one day we'll all live in perfect harmony, everybody being exactly who they want to be," she gushes, her wide eyes blinking like a DON'T WALK sign. "But that's not going to save our souls from an eternity of tortured nothingness." Ginger L. gets defensive only when anybody mentions her classic California-girl beauty, the blue eyes and blond hair. "I prefer to think of myself as a brunette," she says, "but in a good way."
The rest of the Pocket Clowns-Hewitt Wierwen, Y.N. Howe and the diminutive Tabitha Sanchez-are just as enigmatic. Musically, their role is to supply the foundation for the ever-shifting tangents pursued by Ginger L. and Stanky, and life seems to have prepared them perfectly for this destiny. They all grew up in Stanton, and their individual paths are just the latest testament to the variety and vitality that can be crammed into a community of 30,000 people that was named after a man from another city, Philip Stanton of Seal Beach, who in 1911 saved the place from Anaheim's plan to turn it into a sewage farm. Hewitt, the keyboardist whose technological wizardry is responsible for the band's elaborate soundscapes, was born in Germany. He ended up in Stanton as a teenager because his father, a U.S. Army captain stationed outside Saarbrcken, figured it was the perfect place to get lost after going AWOL. Something of a brooder, Hewitt says he misses Bavaria and tells himself he is just on extended holiday, consequently favoring the short shorts, white knee socks and hard black shoes of tourists from his native land-although the band has put a stop to him showing up at gigs that way. "To me, music is nothing less than the posing of our most profound philosophical questions," declares Hewitt, who considers himself an artistic soul descended from the Germanic sensibilities of romantic-classical composer Felix Mendelssohn ("A Midsummer Night's Dream") and new-wave chanteuse Nena ("99 Luftballoons"). "Yes, yes, yes," he whispers, half to himself. "Does not this life all amount to the courage to pose?"
Y.N. cracks up when Hewitt gets on one of his profound-musical-questions jags. "But it works, me and him," Y.N. allows, "because I spit nothin' but answers." Y.N. gives the Pocket Clowns their mad hip-hop flava, manipulating a pair of turntables and kicking the occasional rhyme. He remains astonished that he's actually the member of a band. "You look at the kind of doinks who go out for band in high school, and, I mean, why would ya?" reasons Y.N., who admits he spent most of his time at Rancho Santiago High School smoking bud behind the True Jesus Church across the street. Y.N. was a dedicated headbanger until a few summers ago, when he found hip-hop while working at Burger King with some black guys. "When they found out I could dribble basketballs with both hands at the same time, one of them started calling me 'The DJ,'" says Y.N. "Or was it Dr. J? Anyhow, that just kinda fired up my interest."
Tabitha, the drummer, listens to all this and just rolls her eyes. She is the most inscrutable of the Pocket Clowns, her world-view shaped by growing up as a latchkey kid in a poor household where the only TV was permanently stuck on channel 5. "You can ask me anything about Hal Fishman and his endless procession of blond co-anchors," Tabitha says with a chuckle. "Otherwise, all I know is how to keep a beat."
Since the Pocket Clowns first raised eyebrows with a half-dozen dates at the Loose Moose Saloon, the buzz surrounding the band has revved into a veritable air-raid siren. Lately, they've been playing clubs all over Orange County-and they're beginning to show up at some larger venues, too.
"I've never seen anything like this," says Randy Cash, who's been booking shows at Club 369 in Fullerton for almost five years. "The Pocket Clowns played two shows here, and I can't pick up the phone anymore. It's either people wanting to know when they'e going to be playing here again or record-company reps bugging me for more information. It's like I have to get a third line or something."
"The first time I saw the Pocket Clowns, they opened for the Brian Setzer Orchestra," says Bill Fold, promoter of the annual Fourth of July weekend Hootenanny festival at the Oak Canyon Ranch at Irvine Lake. "It was a real shocker because they weren't advertised. I don't know who they knew, but there they were, and the crowd loved them." Fold would love to have the Pocket Clowns play this year's Hootenanny on July 3. "At this point, it would seem like the perfect fit, the next natural step for them," he says. "But by July, who knows? They may already be beyond us."
They may be close now. Ginger L. was invited to do a number with George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars at the Galaxy Concert Theatre on March 24. Backstage after the show, one of the band's vocalists, P-Nut, couldn't stop raving about her and what he foresees for the Pocket Clowns. "They are light years ahead of their time," P-Nut said between tokes on a monster spliff, "and Ginger L.-awwwww, she has the most funk of all."
Meanwhile, the Pocket Clowns' signature song, "The Hardest Bone," continues to send the local music industry scouring through its vocabulary and frames of reference for the words and comparisons to pay proper homage.
"Not since Nirvana, with Nevermind and 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' have I come across a band that I believe will make the impact of the Pocket Clowns," says Shane Frederickson of the OC-based power-pop band Element 17 (formerly Chlorine). "I think Orange County music needs a kick in the butt like this. It's nice to see something with a little more depth than a four-chord song. People around here have been caught up in the ska-punk era too long."
Phyllipz, meanwhile, is drawn to the Pocket Clowns for reasons that very nearly contradict Frederickson. "They really have that ska-lypso feel, which is probably why I like them so much," he says. "Yeah, for me it's their ska-lypso with that touch of emo."
Cash, however, hears something different. "If Korn and Save Ferris had a baby," he says, "it would be the Pocket Clowns."
Amazingly, nearly every listener seems to recognize the essence of their own favorite music in the Pocket Clowns' songs. The band's repertoire is immense and affecting. There is "The Hardest Bone," of course, an unapologetically strapping synthpunk-and-jazzrap confession/manifesto that defines the insularity of modern love. But the band also reaches from a playfully ethnopolitical take on Orange County's image, "White Hot Whole," to a choked-up tribute to-believe it or not-Billy Ray Cyrus called "Achingly, Breakingly, Again," which discovers tender artistry in the music of a man previously dismissed as a pumped-up country goofball. And then there's "Morningwood," an ode to the simple pleasure a man feels when he awakens next to a woman.
Rather than igniting derision, the Pocket Clowns' derivative style is evoking inspiration everywhere. In an era when popular music has become an archipelago of genres, everybody seems to appreciate the land bridges the Pocket Clowns are suggesting-no, providing-with their endless molten flow. Now the question is how long even Orange County can contain the Pocket Clowns' broadly arcing and intensely sparking mlange of sonics and phonics.
"Who could ever blend trash with class so perfectly?" marvels J-Flexx, a solo rapper, producer and lyricist who authored such multiplatinum hits as "Natural Born Killaz," "Keep Their Heads Ringin'" and "California Love" for Dr. Dre when he was with the Death Row Records camp. "People's minds are expanding as the new millennium approaches, and the Pocket Clowns are one of the first groups making expanded-mind music."
But for now, even as they teeter on the cusp of a fame and significance that could have internationally historic impact, the Pocket Clowns remain perfectly satisfied to play for the faithful.
Their most recent show at the Loose Moose is typical of those performances, establishing a triangular relationship among the songs, the artists and the audience that envelops them all in the perfectly ecstatic mathematical equation of sound's ultimately peaceable kingdom.
Except for the thin spotlight on the lone microphone-and a couple of jerks playing with their laser pointers -the five Pocket Clowns arrive onstage in darkness. They form a rough circle, facing one another as if to conjure forth the force that will propel their music. And then the band begins to play, sounding almost like a sound check, feedback, a broken record, a busboy dropping a tray of glasses, some sarcastic applause, the digestive rumble from the deepest part of the keyboards and the frivolous jangle of the tightest guitar strings, a drum pedal, a snippet of a melody, an absent thrash, everybody's heads bobbing to their own frantic beat like petting-zoo chickens running from a mean little boy.
Magically, the cacophony congeals into the recognizable intro to "The Hardest Bone." With a reflexive roar that melts into a helpless groan, the crowd surrenders itself to the sound. If anyone hears the guys with the laser pointers getting kicked out, it is somewhere in their subconscious.
Finally, Stanky and Ginger L. step toward the awaiting microphone, which they always share. It is still wrapped in that funny white paper streamer, which turns out to be one of those "Sanitized for Your Protection" bands-the kind maids put on motel toilet seats. With a dramatic flourish, Ginger L. snaps away the flimsy barricade, and the Pocket Clowns rip into "The Hardest Bone" with a holy ferocity that is equal parts pagan caterwaul and Catholic choir.
You shoulda stayed down there where my sex is,
Instead of coming up 'round my solar plexus.
Then you wouldn't be complaining
That you have been wronged.
You went looking inside me for something softer,
Some kind of happily ever after.
But the lesson, my love, is
The heart is the hardest bone.
It must be close to 3 a.m., and the hottest band in Orange County and a roadie they call Spooky Mike are packing themselves and their equipment into a rusty 1965 International Travel All, a creaky grandfather of today's SUVs. "These sanitized-toilet strips we wrap around our mic are sort of a joke," Ginger L. explains as she tosses a box of them into the glove compartment. "But, actually, it might be nice. Once I got a cold sore from Stanky during a show."
Moments later, with the best performance they've ever given still ringing in their ears, the Pocket Clowns are idling quietly at the back of a full left-turn lane at Katella and Beach Boulevard. "All in all, this is an okay place to be," Stanky serenely confides to the reporter who has been tagging along all day. "The left-turn lights in Stanton stay green longer than just about anywhere." Sure enough, the Travel All is easily included in the automotive herd that swoops onto southbound Beach Boulevard. Everybody inside responds by releasing a celebratory "Yesssss!"
But the afterglow of that achievement -to say nothing of the glorious gig at the Loose Moose and the music-industry reps who swarmed them after the show-is wiped away in one dramatic mood swing. The Travel All has begun wobbling as Stanky shifts his attention into the cloudy rear-view mirror, determined to make eye contact with the reporter who has touched a nerve with an unfortunately phrased question about the Pocket Clowns' humble hometown. "You want to call Stanton nondescript, man, that's on you," Stanky says loudly, as the Orco Block Company, the Venus Bar and a succession of modern fast-food franchises and old auto-court style motels with names like Tahiti and Villa and Starlight pass by the Travel All's windows. Stanky's voice is starting to wobble, too, as though on the verge of a cough or a chuckle . . . or . . . could it be . . . tears? He's scratching the back of his head rapidly, the way he always does when he's struggling to control his emotions. "Maybe what that really means is you're just not very good at describing shit."
A moment of dead silence follows until Y.N. breaks the tension. "If you need to describe shit, man, get the Offspring," he scats. "They're the dudes from Garden Grove." There is an explosion of laughter -from everybody but Stanky.
"Yah, hello, Meesta Dexta!" says Hewitt, exaggerating his own German accent and grabbing his crotch. "I got yoah 'Preety Fly' right heeah!"
Stanky can't help but relinquish a half-smile now, pleased that his long-burning contempt for Garden Grove has become a core value of his band. Not that the Pocket Clowns hold any specific disdain for the Offspring, whom they seem destined to surpass as Orange County music superstars. In fact, Stanky and Ginger L. and the gang could probably learn something about the music business from Dexter and Noodles and the boys. While the Offspring's fifth album is soaring on major-label wings, the Pocket Clowns haven't sold so much as one CD. They haven't even recorded an album because they haven't signed with a record company. They haven't committed to an agent, hired a manager or retained a publicist. They did pick out a fan-club president, but now they're having second thoughts about keeping her. Ditto with the songs they put on their demo, although it's too late to cancel that decision.
Meanwhile, the array of can't-miss options for the Pocket Clowns just keeps stacking up on their answering machine, all encouraging the band to make the move-a move, any move-that will truly set their career in motion.
"I got their demo from Tiger Woods and realized right away that this group is totally amazing-fantastically innovative yet appealing to the masses," says Wron G, the savvy, muscled former Marine who has overseen the rise of Warren G from a street-corner rapper in Long Beach to a multiplatinum superstar with a sprawling home in Laguna Niguel and his own record company, G-Funk: The New Millennium. "Warren really likes this group because it fits what he's been looking for: a gritty ghetto band that wasn't just ghetto, that was a little more Beverly Hills-meets-Compton Swap Meet.
"The only thing I'm afraid of is getting into a bidding war," he continues. "I don't want to shout out any numbers, but the Pocket Clowns can probably ask for a signing bonus in the seven-figure range, and I don't think we really want to put out that kind of money right now."
Not when major record companies-even richer as a result of their recent spate of mergers-come a-calling with their checkbooks open. "Tim Devine, the vice president of A&R at Columbia-the guy who signed Zebrahead-has been calling me persistently about the Pocket Clowns," says Cash. "I help as much as I can, but basically that boils down to a phone number. This isn't your typical band starved for fame and riches. They can write their own ticket, but they don't seem to be in any hurry to do so."
The Pocket Clowns get together every night to listen to the industry pitches on the answering machine. Hewitt says he's saving the tapes, hoping to sample them into song on the Pocket Clowns' debut album.
But the band has yet to return any phone calls. "It's just hype and pressure, which are exactly the things that kill what we're doing," says Stanky. "It's everything except what we're about, which is making music."
That's what the Pocket Clowns are on their way to do right now, and as the creative process begins, Stanky gets stoic again. "It kills him that we have to leave Stanton to do this," Ginger L. confides quietly as the Travel All passes the Lucky John's cocktail lounge, Southern Hills miniature golf course and a couple of mobile-home dealerships-everything closed now, of course, as it's the middle of the night. "Especially since we have to go into Garden Grove," Ginger L. continues. "But really, that's where this all started. All kids from Stanton have to go there because we don't have a high school in our city. That's where the shitty high-and-mighties at Pacifica and Rancho Santiago used to call us that name-pocket clowns-because they think we're from such a crazy little place."
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"Hell, the powers-that-be didn't even give us this," mutters Stanky as he shoots past the Stanton city limits and toward the onramp of the Garden Grove Freeway. "A couple of hundred yards more, and we woulda had a freeway, too. Maybe then everything woulda been different."
The Travel All swirls around the cloverleaf, and everyone rolls down their windows, inhaling the blend of still cool air and high-speed traffic. Stanky merges by threading the needle between two obstinate trucks, and the Pocket Clowns become giddy. "We don't need to go too far," says Tabitha, who hasn't spoken since before the show. "This place is as good as any."
Wordlessly, Stanky begins to pull over to the side of the freeway, coming to a stop equidistant between the Magnolia onramp and the Brookhurst exit. He turns off the engine, and everyone flings open their doors and soaks in the magic and danger that screams past 10 feet away, a mechani-human nightmare that gradually manifests as a semierotic sort of artistic internal combustion. Stanky pulls out a guitar, Ginger L. picks up a notebook, Tabitha slaps the back of the seat, Y.N. turns loose a little wordplay, and Hewitt emits some guttural noises that sound as though he's channeling an oompah band.
"This is how they do it, and sometimes they do it all night," says Spooky Mike as he gets out of the car and heads for a call box. "I'm getting a ride home. You're on your own."