Article I wrote for Budget Rock 9 festival guide. October 21-24, 2010.
When the Oblivians play at Budget Rock 9 on Saturday night it will be almost thirteen years since they last played San Francisco. I remember that day well. It was November 2, 1997. It was the last live music show at the Kilowatt on 16th Street. The Oblivians only played San Francisco three times, all in 1997. Then they were gone. But now we've got them back for one night.
Initially my plan was to interview all three Oblivians and find out all the secrets of what made the band so great. I talked to Eric. Jack didn't want to do an interview due to some residual bad feelings from an interview he did in Germany back in the day. I never got around to asking Greg. I started thinking about it. I don't want to know the secrets. Who cares about all that personal shit? It should be just about the music. So that's what I'll stick with.
So what about the music? To say I am an Oblivians fan is somewhat insufficient. It's obvious. How I got there is more blurry. I know I first heard the Oblivians at Maximum Rock N Roll when their 7" "Call The Shots" arrived in 1993. I was blown away and needed to have it. At the time SF had a record store Epicenter Zone that happened to carry all the stuff that MRR reviewed. So I was able to buy it almost immediately.
When I moved to San Francisco the first band that really grabbed me was the Mummies. That was 1990 and although I saw the Mummies a bunch of times they would be broken up way too soon. I was raised in Boston. My mother listened to the Beatles and the Beach Boys. My father listened to the Rolling Stones and Paul Revere and the Raiders. I grew up listening to '70s Boston punk and got into hardcore in my teens. I wanted the melodies with energy. I finally found that with the Mummies who were able to mix all the shit I liked to listen to. When they were gone, I found the Oblivians.
1993 was the year when I was kicked out of my band, lost my friends and finally quit the worst job I have ever had. That was the backdrop against which I first heard the Oblivians. Something in the music spoke to me: unrequited love, alienation and annoyance. When I listen to the lyrics these days I have to admit that not all come across as truly memorable. But most really stand up. It's the songs, the playing styles, the arrogance and the pissed-off-ness that still gets me. I felt it. It spoke to me. So now 13 years later, I am older and somewhat more sensible (I think). But I can still put on an Oblivians song and feel that rush of adrenaline.
It may be simple nostalgia. The Oblivians are no longer a band. Eric Oblivian explains, "When you're doing it you want to just die out as fast as you can. Then once you got a little perspective you look at it and say uh, that's pretty cool. Hopefully you can at least hold a candle to what you used to be able to do. It's not the same as when you're actually in the middle of it, flying through it, but hopefully it's, you know, carries some of the weight that it used to."
How did it all start? Eric O tells me "I was a big fan of the Compulsive Gamblers. Then Greg went on tour and Jack started showing me stuff on guitar. The best story I have for that is we played something, he showed me some chords and I sat there and I looked at him and I said 'So what else is there to know?' He said, 'That's it. Don't tell anybody'. It's really that easy. As long as you do it right it's pretty easy." The Oblivians were born of some strange fluke as all the great bands seem to be. These three guys were in the right place at the right time. It was destiny, luck or whatever you believe.
My favorite Oblivians show was at the Purple Onion on Memorial Day, May 26, 1997. They weren't scheduled to play the show, but the Purple Onion with all its sorted history in the San Francisco garage scene was THE place they should have played. I arranged a show for The Steve McQueens. They were in town from Germany to play the Rip Off Rumble. We got talking and thought it was weird that they would come all the way from Germany to play only one show in the US. I called up Tom Guido and he agreed to open the Purple Onion on a Monday for the show. The Illnesses also in town for the Rumble and my band M. Alice Foster filled out the bill. When the Brides arrived a few days later they wanted to play so we added them too. M. Alice Foster bassist Derek made a flier half-jokingly calling it "The Ripped Off Rumble".
After the Oblivians played the last night of the Rumble I saw Greg outside the club and gave him a flier saying something lame like "you should come to our show". My drummer Steve jumped in adding "you can play too if you want" just as Jack walked up. They kind of nodded that they would. The next day they showed up guitars in hand and asked me if they could still play. Duh. My favorite band at my favorite club is a dream come true.
Does Eric O remember playing the Purple Onion? "Purple Onion was awesome. Tom Guido. I finally got to witness the genius of Tom Guido. We were big fans of The Mummies and Supercharger and all that stuff so we built that up in our minds. So it was really exciting to get out there and play the same places as those guys, The Phantom Surfers and all that stuff."
Is it still fun playing with the Oblivians? "Yeah, it's awesome! I mean that's the main thing. For me, playing with Greg and Jack is the best. I never how bad how bad a guitar player I was until I played with other people that weren't as good as those guys and I actually had to listen to my guitar playing and go oh yeah I have to stand on my own here rather than play off of somebody that's playing amazing stuff all the time. It's weird, you know? It's like I got spoiled. I just fell in the right perfect spot. And I think I helped those guys keep everything very simple. I think that is my job in the Oblivians. I keep it really grounded. Songs can't be too complicated. Two amps. Whatever. We're in and out. Get an idea for a song, write it, do it. It's over. You know? It worked."
What's Eric's favorite Oblivians song? "Ummmm, 'Mad Lover' I think. That's what's coming to mind right now. I really like 'Bad Man'. I think it's a great song. It's a song Greg wrote that almost immediately didn't belong to him anymore. It was kind of like an epic song. I like 'And Then I Fucked Her' just the concept of it. Just the kind of half-Pagans riff, the total, my total rip off thing and then just pissing on the Shangri-Las or whatever which I don't even agree with anymore. I appreciate fake romantic songs now, but at the time I was like why don't you just come out and say it what you're hinting around. All these blues or whatever. I still kind of like it. It's fun to play. I like 'Memphis Creep'. I like the way that that song moves. I like the way it, I always like playing that song. A lot of the Oblivians are so much fun to play 'cos they're so simple and it's just like so much fun moving through. 'Blew My Cool' is another really, it's almost like a jazz song in a way. It's like a bopping little 'doo-doo-doo'. It's just a, you could play it on horns. I always wanted to hear it on saxophone or something. It's so cool. It's so much fun to play. Wow. I guess those are my favorites. 'Vietnam War Blues' too. It's total Motorhead action, but it's awesome."
Since this historical flashback is mostly about me anyway, I'll add that my favorite Oblivians songs are "Jim Cole", "Do The Milkshake", "Never Change", "I'm Not A Sicko There's A Plate In My Head", "Blew My Cool" and "Bum A Ride". If you need to know why ask me at the show.