Hard, fast, and loud. That was the way Mike Boehm wrote about every crack and crevice of the Orange County music scene for over a decade. From the oddball years of the late ‘80s through its storied sonic boom in the ‘90s, Boehm’s reporting reliably narrated the chronicles of OC’s mutation of punk, metal, country, folk, ska, and sun-bleached psychedelia in his search for the next big thing that left no amp unturned.
However, like most great songs he absorbed during his time as an OC rock critic, Boehm’s life ended far too early following a cardiac arrest for unknown reasons last Thursday, May 2. He was 63.
From 1988-1999, the Providence, Rhode Island native became an LA Times reporter and landed here to cover the many wonders and weirdos behind the Orange Curtain for the Times’ OC edition. His coverage provided a real, unvarnished portrait of a territory once written off as a suburban wasteland in the shadow of LA. It caught hold of him and never let go and for years up until the end he was a Huntington Beach resident. Though he eventually moved on to cover fine arts and major finance-based entertainment stories for the Times, he never lost connection to our music scene or the people he wrote about.
He once told his rabbi that the secret to being a rock critic was wearing earplugs. But his ears and curiosity were always open to new music, new life, and new experiences until his last breath.
After leaving the Times in 2015, he began his next chapter as the Director of Communications for MFour Mobile Research based in Irvine, where he continued doing what he did best: telling great stories–or at least making sense out of the ones being told by the company’s data-driven mobile phone surveys. In fact the day of his death, Boehm was being celebrated for writing the presentation which helped the MFour team earn an award for a recent data project. Not only did Boehm translate the study into English for the average person, his beautiful prose wowed the judges of the competition who saw fit to award the company first prize. Then tragedy struck. He suffered a seizure at work, his co-workers attempted to revive him, he was taken to the hospital where he suffered a heart attack and passed away.
Through the slice of his long career that focused on Orange County, Boehm answered his calling in smoky clubs and dank local haunts. From airport bars to Irvine Meadows, Boehm covered it all. His prolific paper trail leaves thousands of bylines in its wake. In the bones of each story he applied his skills from a former life as a dogged, East Coast crime reporter to the Wild West of the SoCal music scene where he reported on OC’s little bastion of cultural bastards. The bands getting their start in OC were in dire need of a scribe who could appreciate the rawest and rarest of talent.
“He brought as much enthusiasm, passion and knowledge to writing about the Swamp Zombies, The Cadillac Tramps and Michael Ubaldini as he did writing about Bob Dylan or Aretha,” says Randy Lewis, fellow reporter with the Times.
Together, Lewis and Boehm covered the Orange County club scene from North County punkers like Fullerton’s Social Distortion, The Adolescents and Agent Orange to the beach city bands like The Crowd and TSOL. It was an era when storied venues like Safari Sam’s, the Cuckoo’s Nest (later dubbed The Concert Factory) and Ichabod’s carved out a window to the underground and gave rise to indie labels like Doctor Dream. They captured the grinding changeover between the decline of OC’s foundational punk bands into the amorphous alt-rock of bands like the Cadillac Tramps that came to rule the scene. He gave a little baby band called The Offspring some of its first ink. As the rise of ska mounted into third wave, Boehm covered the ascension of bands like My Superhero, Sublime, and No Doubt.
As a genuine fan, Boehm dared to question his favorite acts, praising them and punishing them–sometimes in the same paragraph. Even as an unabashed music nerd and a bit of an outsider, Boehm earned his rep as an honest, intrepid reporter you could still have beers with even after receiving one of his freshly penned lashings.
“He covered us a lot so I had a professional relationship with him, we didn’t always love what he wrote about us, especially [our singer] Gabby [Gaborno],” says Cadillac Tramps guitarist Brian Coakley who later made sure to include Boehm in the band’s documentary Cadillac Tramps: Life on the Edge. “Sometimes he would praise our songwriting but then say something about Gabby’s singing not being quite there. I will say one thing about him he was a true journalist and a total professional. He would do his research, he would come into an interview and know what he was talking about.”
Approaching each of his articles with the same level of care and artful craftsmanship, he took his Yale and Columbia-bred academic mind and applied them to the puff-plagued world of rock writing in a way that set him apart. Whether he was writing about the lives of lounge acts like the late Greg Topper, grunge metal alchemists LSD, or hybrid punk prophets like the Pontiac Brothers, he always found a way to dig into their souls and extract the greatness that many of them didn’t even see in themselves.
“Any band that started out in Orange County I’m sure knew him or had relationships with him,” says David Valdez, owner of Santa Ana record store Beatnik Bandito. “Me being in the Pontiac Brothers in the ‘80s, he seemed to be a fan and it’s funny because everyone who I talked to that knew him said the same thing and him with their band…That might’ve been one of his qualities that was outstanding, that he did really care about the music.”
That care often manifested itself in the loudest of ways. One thing anyone who worked with Boehm can attest to is that his voice carried weight–literally. If he was in the newsroom, he delivered interviews like he had a bullhorn in his hand, unmistakably loud and sometimes even entertaining for his colleagues.
“There was some altercation at one of the remaining punk venues in Orange County at the time and the police were called,” says former Times colleague and OC Weekly music editor Jim Washburn. “Mike, previous to being a music guy, had been a crime reporter back in Providence and he still had a lot of that tenacity in him for getting the story. You’d only hear one side of the conversation and he’d say ‘Just to be clear, because I’m not really getting this, did he spit on your shoes before you hit him with the mic stand or after?!'”
When he wasn’t on the clock, Boehm’s dedication to the music never wavered. Times editor Tony Lioce, a fellow Rhode Islander who hired Boehm away from the Providence Journal to work for LAT’s OC bureau, remembers going with him to see Arthur Lee of the band Love (which both Boehm and Lioce were both obsessed with) at the Coach House in the bowels of San Juan Capistrano. The two men caught up with Lee after the show.
“We didn’t say we were from the Times we were just guys that he could talk to in his drug crazed stupor,” Lioce remembers. “So [Lee] goes ‘You guys wanna hear some new music? I wrote a new song!” Of course they agreed. The rock legend took the two reporters out to his ride, an old beat-up Cadillac, the backseat piled with dirty laundry. “We’re sitting there and Mike’s sitting in the front, Arthur’s in the driver seat and I’m sitting in the back and he’s playing us this new song which I don’t even remember thinking was that great,” Lioce says. “But at one point I remember saying I’m in the car with Arthur Lee and Mike Boehm, this is why I came to California!”
At Boehm’s funeral service on Monday in Costa Mesa, these kinds of stories flooded from the mouths of friends, family and colleagues who gathered to remember Boehm’s life and to help each other through the difficult loss.
“Mike was the light in my life,” said Francine Hanberg, Boehms longtime girlfriend of 14 years. “With his leaving the world seems darker, more silent and dangerous. He was my ‘You’ve Got a Friend.’ A treasure.”
Years after his pen moved away from OC music, his presence and his talent never fully faded away. Friends could often find him in the crowd at shows like the recent memorial concert for Chris Gaffney in Long Beach. Boehm had been a big supporter of Gaffney, who passed away in 2008, memorializing him as a “roots-music omnivore whose earthly aplomb and offhand mastery of many styles made him a quintessential Southern California bar musician.”
The bittersweet show was a reunion of sorts for OC music expats who hadn’t seen each other in years. Everyone still remembered Mike.
“Mike was very much a supporter of the foundational aspect of a grassroots music scene and he’d find those bands and give it all an airing and write about those he thought were worth while,” Lewis says. That quality was always met with gratitude. At the show, Lewis met up with Boehm and Washburn and relived Gaffney’s glory days with members of his band The Cold Hard Facts and many others who covered Gaffney’s material. Gaffney’s widow Julie threw her arms around Boehm and gave him a huge hug.
Though his taste in music could’ve remained stuck in his heyday, Boehm never stopped checking out new bands and his thirst for live music stayed with him till the end.
His parting words to Lewis at the Gaffney show, five weeks before his death were “Lemme know if you got an extra ticket to something and I’ll go hangout with you at a show.”
Boehm once wrote that “Great rock music lives in that grit and bustle, and it thrives on the specific. Rock greatness is Van Morrison singing about a day at a swimming hole (“And It Stoned Me”) and from the details of his story weaving a vision of the broader qualities of fellowship and generosity of spirit.
“It’s the Rolling Stones introducing you to a gin-soaked barroom queen in Memphis (“Honky Tonk Women”) or Neil Young walking you through a violent rite of passage in “Powderfinger,” molding setting, plot and character into a whole that takes on tragic, mythic proportions.”
This kind of ability to make poetry out of ordinary things (even ordinary bands) was the quality he shared with his rock n’ roll heroes. Though Boehm’s story ended far too early, his legacy as a writer, friend, colleague and searcher of truth leaves behind more than a trail of words. His passion and immortal wisdom reminds us to approach our own lives the way he approached every article–hard, fast, and loud.