What Goes On

Photo by James BunoanBy Nadia Afghani, Gustavo Arellano, Michael Coyle, Theo Douglas, Ellen Griley, Rich Kane, Susan Morgan, Rex Reason, Rosheila Robles, Charlie Rose and Will Swaim

Edited by Steve Lowery and Chris Ziegler

Photos by James Bunoan (except where noted)

It wasn't last night, and it wasn't the night before; it's all the nights we could get put together in one slow-mo shutter-speed snapshot of Orange County—and driving destinations nearby—after dark. It's the romance of mostly a big fat lack of romance, of dark bars full of bodies and of too-bright neon, of late-night drive-through runs and ferociously poor decision making, of the collection of stories to exaggerate tomorrow, set to every soundtrack ever—music from the car stereo, the iPod, the jukebox, the blown-out stage PA, the turntables in the mixing booth, the FM waves and the lyrics the guy at karaoke cannot fucking get right, no matter how still he stands in front of the screen. So it's not an actual night and “typical” sucks the fun out of it, but it all happened as you'll read it, and it'll all happen again next weekend: bad bands and brilliant bands, slow dancers and sloppy dancers, happy songs and sad songs, a crowded roomful of people getting less and less crowded, and a needle bumping against the record label as someone goes around turning off the lights. It's what goes on when you go out.



Crammed inside a tiny one-person restroom, Fielding guitarist Kevin Poushhas one leg in a pair of black slacks and another in his favorite pair of beat-up jeans as he struggles to pull his tie from around his neck without choking himself. His boss won't realize he's sneaked away from his cubicle for another hour, but he's already pissed off fellow band mate/bass player Aaron Bradford by arriving late at Starbucks. They meet at the coffeehouse on days when they're due at Hollywood's Knitting Factory to convene with the rest of the band and set up their gear so the headliners can do a sound check.


Great Glass Elevator are in the parking lot, waiting for the other acts to finish. Barret Slagle, who plays rhythm guitar and keyboard, is sitting inside a pickup truck listening to Mozart's Requiem. It's a ritual he performs before every show. Drummer Josh Stephens lights up his cigarette—another ritual. The rest of the band—lead guitarist Matt Mason, bassist/backup vocalist Andrew Honore and lead singer David Braun—toss around some Del Taco, as they do before every show and practice.


Not much demand for an all-girl Muslim punk rock wedding band yet, but it doesn't stop them from practicing. On the rare occasion they can scrounge up $18, practice is at Sound Arena, but tonight, with a collective savings of $8.67, they'll meet for practice in the drummer's makeshift, mattress-walled studio, which is actually an unused second bedroom. They eat whatever the drummer has in her fridge—and by whatever, we mean crackers and tuna and individual slices of cheese and Fruit Rollups and specially ordered Canadian water because the drummer is Canadian. Satiated, they head for the bedroom/studio.


The George Fryer Combo, hung-over and sore from two consecutive late-night gigs, move like men hauling corpses, wearily drag their gear onto J. King Neptune's battered stage. If you didn't know better, you'd consider it an evil portent. In the dimly lit bar, a few locals shout their names as they walk in. The bartender greets them: “Summer brew?” They nod; he pours.


It's almost time for The Vooduo to go on when the two of them—Max and Heidi Eidson—appear onstage to briefly sound-check everything, and then, as always, Max sets down his guitar and disappears. It is his traditional preshow pee break(“shakin' it out, boss”) 'cause, well, that's what he does. It's his thing.


She could've been in any frat-boy stroke magazine: nipped and tucked and powdered and glossed and wearing clothing so tight they could've been painted on, waiting to get her tickets to see washed-up local rockers Lit, who were not so long ago platinum sellers. The rest of us learned, through one end of her cell-phone conversation, the guitarist had promised to put her on the guest list. Apparently, he forgot because she cursed her way through five minutes at the ticket window, ending her shrill demands with “No, I'm not going to buy a ticket to see them.”

Christopher Badges of Terrors
thought his band was going to the
Glass House in Pomona in suits.
Instead the drummer wore a
TOFU T-shirt and Badger ended up
the classiest guy of the night.

Flipping past the Cars' self-titled album and toward his Coil LPs, the DJ spots an Alex Chilton record and pauses, trying to remember the last time he'd played it. Then again, it seems he's lately been spending more time buying records than actually listening to them, and besides, he doesn't have time to think about any of this right now—his set starts in 15 minutes, and it takes 20 to get to the bar. Ditching Coil, he picks up Chilton and heads for the door.




A not-unattractive brunette in those horn-rimmed glasses that are now cool is chattering to a blocky sort of guy in a black dress T-shirt and pants, saying, “I really have to know somebody and find out what they're about and get to know them before I can have sex,” and he takes that news standing up. Then the PA shuts off, and the band—three nondescript guys called Left Street Local—launches into a set of Helmet-esque ditties, and we can't hear anything except them. That's okay because Triple Frown, which is on next, will make them redundant. The couple walks away—actually, they sprint.


The first woman was already apologizing for the screeching she might do during her songs. Middle-aged, wearing a jean skirt, sporting black bangs and smiling so nervously it seemed like she'd been near-fatally wounded in love, she sang “Me and Bobby McGee” the way everyone who ain't Janis Joplin sings it—with not a shred of the proper anguish. A song of her own about the bags being packed and how memories last forever was followed by a cover of that Jewel song about dreams lasting for so long. It was time to go when the people sitting on the couches filled in the words she forgot.


The all-girl Muslim punk rock wedding band run through the Ramones and Crass songs they always do to warm up—“The KKK Took My Baby Away”and “I Ain't Thick It's Just a Trick” seem wedding-appropriate. All goes well, which is to say they play okay and tell the singer she has too pretty a voice. “Sing throatier,” they tell her. “Not so pretty.” They've asked her to screammore, to cough more, to somehow, you know, destroy her voice a little more. It could be the difference in them getting that elusive fourth gig.


It's open-mic night, and things are getting interesting. It's one acoustic-singer/songwriter blurafter another, with one guy howling into the mic about “sucking corporate cock.” Then Corporate Cock Guy is replaced by a dude doing a painfully—oh, yes, painfully—earnest, irony-free take on Barry Manilow's “Can't Smile Without You,” pretty much defiling the spirit of his Beatles and Bob Marley guitar stickers.


Cymande and Greyboy songs bounce gently off the walls—and the bottles of imported beer—as the bar quickly fills up with midlevel-luxury-car owners. The two girlswho requested rap they could “dance to” quietly stare at each other, sipping on colorful drinks and wondering when DJ Cocoe will put on something that wasn't recorded on reel-to-reel.



Max and Heidilaunch into their traditional set opener, “World's Greatest Sinner. They are the Vooduo, a duo in the fine tradition of the Cramps' core, Flat Duo Jets or the White Stripes: front man Max—former Lords of Altamont drummer—singing and laying down licks on a vintage Jimmy Page-model Silvertone or a Danelectro reissue. Heidi pounds away on a snare-tom combo: animated enough that her bangs get plenty mussed on the lively ones—but still managing to look all bored and cool when her husband introduces each song. Tonight, it's BJ's Café Bistro in Long Beach, but it could be almost anywhere bands still play on the floor, in joints too small or old to have a stage. This place is ancient—the former Dick and Faye's Café Bistro—and the crowd is cool, like at any dive bar. The Vooduo smolders in all the right clothes: a motorcycle jacket/vest for Max, a café racer jacket for Heidi, and the requisite black Converse lowtops—now a psychobilly standard. The kids watching lean against the bar in the backroom—where you used to have to be 30 to get in—and let a guy who looks like William Randolph Hearst trundle around with pitchers of beer. They're all Bryan Gregory hair, pegged black jeans and black Cons; for the ladies, a Chanel knockoff jacket suffices—if it looks like someone has been buried in it. And it does.


A few hours and three-quarters of a pack of American Spirits after arriving in Hollywood, Fielding take the stage and launch into “The Giant,” a song off their new demo. Buzzed from whatever beer he could bum for free, Poush shoots a smile through the spotlight at his girlfriend, who sits with a handful of their other friends in the balcony, and hopes this show will gain them a few new friends—or, you know, a record deal. That would be nice.



The DJ is already on his second scotch-and-soda when his friends walk through the door. The Chilton LP sits untouched in the bag, but only because he can't find the right time to play it between all the requests for The Smiths, Franz Ferdinand, The Ramones and Michael Jackson. Does he need a recharge? his friends ask. Sure, fine, yeah, whatever, so long as it's strong enough to make the two girls sitting in front of the DJ booth disappear. You know, the ones who keep talking about their great sex lives?—yes, he can hear you, and thanks for the update 'cause he'd been really worried, given last week's detailed recap and all. And expensive boob jobs?—oh, dear, you got ripped off! Why, just a few weeks go, he overheard two girls looking just like you talking about their boob jobs, and it was way cheaper! And what's that? You want to hear some Jay-Z, and you're slipping him a fiver to play it just for you? Hey, pal, better make that scotch a double.


Quasi bangs drums onstage as the kids in the audience stand motionless. Outside, a homeless-looking girl peeks in through the window, tapping her foot, cupping her dirty hands between her eyes and the glass.


The guy who sold this writer the PJ Harvey B-sides CD just the other day gets up onstage to play guitar with the only guy who's ever worn an argyle sweater at Alex's, along with the rest of Greater California. Ikey Owens from the Mars Volta and Free Moral Agents explains how great he thinks the new Greater California album is, and they are quite good, though a bit on the quiet side—you could hardly hear their harmonizing over the chatty crowd. “They're putting everyone to sleep, and no one is drinking,” says the bartender.

Annie Hardy of Giant Drag
grew up in San Clemente, but
right now she's in Hollywood,
and she's about ten minutes
from being politely-for now
asked to leave.


The solo singer—C-Los, he calls himself—sits with an acoustic guitar on a stage covered in painted flames, perhaps a hell all his own. It's just his voice, some strings and his songs. He's squeezing his vocal chords to sound strained, but he's not really selling it right. The isolation so often underlined by live music is exemplified by the solo acoustic performance; it hangs in the air even after C-Los leaves the stage. Maybe it wasn't him—maybe it's still going to see music when all your office-rat friends are too tired or too busy with grown-up bullshit, so you go by yourself. Or maybe it's going with a mob of friends and not being able to communicate over the amp clatter or the uhn-tss of the club sound system. But music is as easily the divider as the uniter. And maybe it's the isolation the performer is hating or maybe reveling in, disconnected from the voices out in the dark, amusing themselves with chestnuts like “Play some Skynyrd!” But whatever—it's dripping off the walls as the next act takes forever to set up.


The saxophonist in the Evan Stone Quintetlooks like he's dressed for a luau, and you can't blame him. As he finishes a smooth, even inspired solo, the yuppie scum comprising a good half of the audience are yapping away, drowning out his band. Still, there are pockets of true believers. Like the circle of five old white-haired guys at the corner of the bar closest to the band—with greedy, hungry grins, they must have seen some shit in their days. One righteous fossil even plays air piano on the bar. The spryest of the lot is mouthing most of the words, just drinking in the singer's clear, smooth voice. Business dicks talking aerospace can't ruin this guy's night.


The George Fryer Combo warms up with a few surf instrumentals, then knocks off the Beatles, Tom Petty and The Band. By the second set, the crowd has swelled, the tiny area in front of the stage is packed, and the band is beyond warmed-up: they're smoking. Dave Felde (bass player from Swingin' Tikis) and Wolfie Scheffler (drummer from Tub) settle into a deep pocket. McCracken (wickedly nicknamed by the band's eponymous dictator, actual name: Phil Vandermost, from Greenwich Meantime) and Fryer open up guitar duels that ought to be legendary, this time tearing up and trading off on War's “Spill the Wine.” The band breaks out a couple of uptempo numbers from their CDs Decaf and Melodica; women dance, men stand like shepherds around a manger. The set climaxes during a blistering extended version of Van Morrrison's “Wild Night”; McCracken is like Eric Clapton on meth; men swoon. Fryer launches into his solo like Laird Hamilton cutting into a wave. They are living their slogan: “Four geezers playing for their lives.” Fryer shoots Dave a quick glance (it's almost telepathic; they've played endless gigs in this band and their duo). And then they hit the final chorus, kill the song and retreat to the bar.


Johnny Witmer of The Stitches
makes it look easy when he's
holding a guitar – but getting
ready for his DJ night at
Fitzgerald's in Huntington
Beach is a little more difficult.


A 20-year-old fashion student from Downey pulls into the parking lot at Cero's, which he's seen before. At the door, he removes $5 from his Paul Frank wallet and heads for the nearest wall, where he stands eyeing a group of similar-looking 20-year-olds—Rainbow Blanket—setting up onstage. Five drums, two masks and a guitar is all they've got with them, but when they start—on a whim, it seems—the room feels as though it's gonna cave in. They're banshees on PCP, anger mixed with parents-gone-for-the-weekend elation, and the fashion student moves to the front of the stage, where a small group has gathered in front of the drummer. The drummer hands him a stick, and the poor guy looks terrified—until he glances at the girl next to him, returns her eager smile and pounds the shit out of the drum for six straight minutes before quitting, huffing, spent and—apparently—relieved.


Some Mad Max-looking goon is singing “Fight for Your Right to Party” like Marilyn Manson. “He lives for karaoke,” someone says; he has a little boom box onstage to record himself. No one seems to be having half as much fun as him—he's dancing alone like a street-corner lunatic in leather pants to the songs others pick, which is especially odd after the bartender (the lovely Miss Krista Dawn, on loan from Alex's) explains he's only drinking tomato juice. Later, sans mesh muscle shirt, he takes some liberties with a Clash song, singing, “Should I stay or should I fuck you? And come all over your face!”

Ikey Owens of The Mars Volta and
Free Moral Agents knocks back
some Bloody Marys at the Prospector
in Long Beach and lets the camera
do all the work. “This is the best
photo shoot I've ever had!” he says.


“We really want everyone to dance,” Braun says. “So we are going to take a quick break from song because now is the time, in the Great Glass Elevator show, where we dance.” A female photographer snaps two flashes in Braun's face as he begins to wiggle to a video-game symphony of blurps and beeps. It's a full minute of sexual herky-jerkyings and uninhibited shaking. Each band member is giving it all at the expense of their dignified masculinity; it looks like a German dance club, only more frightening. Mason is breathing heavily, droplets of sweat puffing around his mouth as he exhales. He slings his guitar around his neck and returns his fingers to the wet wood. Braun wipes his brow, stretches his back and arms, reaches for the microphone, and repairs a look of confidence. He checks to see if his hair is still in place.


The multicolored lights above the stage just faded to black, but Rilo Kiley's set isn't supposed to end yet. Even in this darkness, front woman Jenny Lewis' silken voice doesn't waver. Their song emerges from the shadows, with Lewis' dim silhouette calmly looking left to right, and after a few moments, the lights reveal themselves again. “Shit, that was a close one,” Lewis says. “It's hard to play guitar in the dark.” But it's just a tease, and the red and blue lights extinguish themselves once more. Off in a back corner, the fans come to the rescue, extending their arms into the air and flicking on lighters, hoping their puny flames will reach the stage. People waving lighters at concerts? These preteen emo kids probably don't even recall when lighters used to flash at concerts. They've been replaced by cell ph—yup, right on cue. The lighters in the back ignite a wave of other pinpoints: cell phones and digital cameras. “Maybe you could come onstage and point that light at my keyboard,” Lewis suggests to someone in the front.


Punkers slinking between pool tables and video golf—OC in microcosm. Saturday night's all right for sneering, as Mike from the Stitches does his best Rotten mic clutch and Johnny sneers his best Vicious sneer. Johnny's guitar starts cutting out. “We'll give you the second verse sometime next year,” Mike says. Johnny starts it again anyway, with Mike quipping, “Take two,” just in time to hit his vocal cue.



The George Fryer Combo steps down from the stage, and it's like stepping into a whirlpool, the crowd swallowing the musicians. Hands reach out to slap them on the back; a woman buys Fryer a Red Bull-and-Aguas; others stuff fivers into their hands in exchange for CDs. Alcohol. Laughter. Good cheer and something resembling a warm glow of indeterminate genesis, like a scene from one of those happy-holiday bits in A Christmas Carol. The onlookers are like men and women hauled back from the cusp of death, as if music were a spiritual defibrillator, yet—miracle of miracles—this revivifying music is produced by guys who happen to be their neighbors. In this moment, they are rock stars yet still theirs.



They clapped, though quietly, for Vooduo, which is maybe what you do in front of a living history lesson, Max says later. “We're not really a psychobilly band, but they seem to like it,” he says, packing up his Silvertone, abandoned halfway through with a broken string. That's the other thing he does: break strings. “Even in the psychobilly scene, it's better that we stay more garage,” he says, and then it's outside for a smoke. The string can wait until tomorrow.


There was—surprise—something in the air of the parking lot, and one fortysomething was complaining about spam clogging up his server to his buddy between tokes. Times have indeed changed for the Deadheads. Without a leader, they have no ability to recruit, and as a result, the spirited dancing that was once a staple at Dead shows has suffered greatly. Cubensis do a good-enough imitation so it can't be all their fault. Folks flocked to the stage like cowpokes at the chow bell when the tribute band hit their first note. Problem is those people dance like the undead. Nothing was shaking on Shakedown Street, and if anyone ever needed a miracle, it was these people. “I was never much of a Grateful Dead fan,” says Greg the doorman, “but these guys are good musicians, and they draw a good crowd every week.”


Dios Malos singer Joel Morales is in rare drunken form. “One thing I learned about [bassist] J.P. on tour is he's hung. He may be five-foot-one standing up, but he's six-foot lying down.”


The Gypsy Den and Memphis closed hours ago. Now it's the bars' turn: Broadway Billiards, Festival Hall, the Inn Step, and other downtown Santa Ana dance halls and cantinas that cater to an almost-exclusively immigrant-Latino-male clientele. Most wear straw tejanas; most are drunk. Someone pops some quarters into the jukebox. Soon, the long accordion wails of Ramón Ayala's classic tale of angry, alcoholic, lonely nights, “Tragos Amargos” (“Bitter Gulps”), fills the brightly lit Tacos Guadalajara. There are no women there tonight, so those who don't sing along sway alone.



After setting his alarm for 6:30 a.m., Fielding's Poush lays out his black slacks and crawls under his sheets, still wearing his jeans. Nothing will have changed by then, he knows—coffee will still be his crutch, he'll still have to wear a tie to work—but he sleeps easily anyway.


Johnny's singing them Folsom Prison blues. You know it. Time to get maudlin. Fucking booze, man: stolen youth, sense and accountability. Is this what parents envision when they bring home those little bundles? The warm fuzzy Sunday cheek-kiss haze of a solid drunk passes like ocean waves—rushing, receding. Time for weed and Can records.


“Damn,” he says, looking at his watch, “I missed Conan.” It's been a long night for the DJ, even if it really only started at midnight—when his friends arrived—and even if he really only missed a rerun of Conan. Now, even though he's just flipped on the TV, he flips it off. He doesn't want to think it, and he'll never admit it out loud, but anyone who DJs long enough will tell you: sometimes, it's just damn boring. And sometimes, all you want to do at 10 p.m. is sit back, pour a scotch-and-soda, and play that Alex Chilton record. In your living room.


Fuck all-girl Muslim punk rock wedding-band practice. We're never going to get a gig. There's a special on TLC: 14 Kids and Pregnant Again. They sit down to watch and wonder about Arkansas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *