My April 2009 film column for Maximum Rock N Roll. Originally appeared in issue 311.
GLAM SLAM ROCK'N'ROLL
I only went to one show at the Chatterbox. I moved to San Francisco at the end of September 1990 and the club was gone in November of the same year. I spent a lot of time at the club that replaced it The Chameleon. I saw everyone there from The Mummies to Beck and have many fun memories from those years. Like many people I know I attach a lot of nostalgia to certain clubs of my era(s). When I was growing up in Boston, MA it was The Rat, The Channel, The Middle East and Bunratty's. From my Frisco years it was The Purple Onion, The Chameleon and now The Hemlock, The Eagle Tavern and The Knockout. I am sure lots of people in different cities have their own.
I know it is not easy to run a successful, never mind legendary club. You need a seemingly unattainable combination of good bands, cool staff and people involved who actually want to own a club and enjoy it plus a crowd that is loyal and supports the scene. I say this is a rare thing because those elements barely ever come together and if they do, not everyone can pull it off. Even if you are successful, you might not get the whole attitude right. I know of one current club in San Francisco that seems to hate having shows. They don't even attempt to hide it. The staff is rude and the bartenders are seemingly always pissed off and put out that they have to serve you a drink. They fuck over the bands and act as if you don't like it you can screw. I always have a hard time going there and end up regretting it when I do. It is a shitty feeling. As a result it is always reassuring when it all comes together even if I wasnÕt part of it. The Chatterbox seems to have had it right during its short existence.
The Chatterbox was a club located at 853 Valencia Street in San Francisco's Mission District. It was open by Alfie Kulzick a transplant from Wisconsin in 1986. Chatterbox Biography of a Bar: San Francisco 1986-1990 recalls the fun of the club's short history as related by those who worked and played there. Before the Chatterbox officially opened Johnny Thunders came by after playing a show in SF and christened the bar by painting his name around the place, most prominently leaving a giant autograph right over the stage and jamming with some of Alfie's friends on stage. The club would go on to become the home of San Francisco's hard rock bands, occasionally hosting an out of town band.
The Dwarves are the most well known of the bands interviewed. In a funny though somewhat disgusting start to the film you can chose either the "Grown Up Version" or the "Non-Grown Up Version" which mostly means that you get to see the full frontal nudity of Hewhocannotbenamed or not. Alfie does the interviewing from behind the camera which is helpful to the memories of some people. Unfortunately, Alfie never gets in front of the camera for a how and why the club started and her impressions and recollections of the goings on. There is an interview with her as one of the DVD extras, but it doesnÕt get deep enough into it. The story instead is told through the bands and employees. Though everyone seems to remember mostly the good times, Blag is there to call out the SF scene on their LA wanna-be style.
The live footage is the best part of Chatterbox Biography of a Bar: San Francisco 1986-1990. There is a lot of it and all decently shot from what appears to be a camera perched above the bar. The shot is mostly static, but there is a good view of the band with the occasional glimpse of the crowd. There is even a bit of the doorman in action and Valencia Street which was much rougher then than it is today. Even though I don't know most of the bands and they are all a bit too metal for my taste, I still appreciate the whole scene. The DVD extras are cool too. There is a jukebox section where you can select from live performances by the Chatterbox bands including The Dwarves, Jackson Saints, Short Dogs Grow, Papa Wheelie and more.
I wish I had caught the San Francisco premiere of Chatterbox Biography of a Bar: San Francisco 1986-1990 at the Eagle Tavern. I heard from Nettie of the Meat Sluts that it was absolutely fantastic seeing someone on the screen and then turning to your left and seeing the same person standing right next to you. It's a shame there isn't any footage of Johnny Thunders, The Bay City Rollers or Green River (the biggest names mentioned in the film) at the Chatterbox. Although, it is more interesting that the film stayed with a more local focus. That was the idea behind the club after all and that seems to be why everyone has such fond memories of the place. chatterboxbar.com
Ever since I was a kid I have been a radio junkie. I was lucky to grow up in Boston at a time when the radio was exceptional. I listened constantly. There were a lot of stations to choose from and the ones I listened to, both commercial and college played a great variety of interesting new music. From a young age I wanted to be a radio DJ which I have been for the last twenty-two years. Needless to say I like the medium which is why I am particularly interested and equally frustrated in the topic of the documentary Pirate Radio USA.
Pirate Radio USA looks at rise and demise of pirate radio stations of the '90s and '00s in the midst of deregulation of the airwaves and crack downs by the FCC. There is a lot of information to take in regarding the history of radio in the US, the rules for broadcasting and attempts to consolidate and limit access to the airwaves. It is all shown in the context of freedom of speech. Radio is a relatively inexpensive medium and as you see in the documentary it is easy to make your own radio transmitter. It is encouraging that people continue to do it and pass on their knowledge to others to keep it going.
While the topic of Pirate Radio USA is a bit heavy, the narrator DJ Him and his co-host DJ Her attempt to keep the film lighthearted and entertaining. Which it mostly is, except that he gets a bit too smarmy and her jokes sometimes fall flat. But they were right in the middle of the movement, doing pirate radio, talking to broadcasters, protesting at the FCC building, broadcasting from the streets of Seattle during the WTO protests and bringing the case for low power radio to Congress. They really know what they are talking about and it is fascinating. bside.com
I never had the kind of record store experience where a record store clerk introduced me to some great music. I always relied on radio for that. Most of the record store clerks I remember from my youth were pompous jerks who were always trying too hard to show off their musical knowledge for a couple of fourteen year olds. We in turn would laugh in his face. It was an odd relationship since I always wanted to buy records, but enduring the nonsense was always a hassle.
Vinyl Scrapyard wants to be a documentary about the decline of the independent record store. I'd like to see that documentary. Yet, the director Billups Allen chooses to focus on the methods of those record store clerks of my youth. Shots of hands going through records in bins, stories of unpleasant customers and bragging about that incredible record score aren't really endearing me to this story. I love record stores as much as anybody, but some of these clerks make it understandable why people would rather shop on-line. billupsallen.com
I am always looking for films to review. If you made one, send a copy to Carolyn Keddy, PO Box 460402, San Francisco, CA 94146-0402. If your film is playing in the San Francisco Bay Area, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will go see it.