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And Then There Was One--Fire Decimates County Rock Scene

Perhaps Costa Mesa should call itself the ‘City of the Safe and Comfortable Arts.’

It’s time to explore the possibility that a 5th-Century ancestor of Elvis Presley inadvertently trespassed on a sacred elephant’s burial ground, somewhere in what is now central Orange County.

What else could explain the apparent curse that continues to haunt this county’s rock music scene--the latest manifestation being the fire that destroyed Big John’s in Anaheim last Sunday?

Most local musicians, agents, managers and other scene followers used to gripe that a county of 2 million people was able to support just two clubs that regularly book up-and-coming, original rock bands.

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Until this week, that is.

The destruction of Big John’s validated that variation of Murphy’s Law that says “Just when you think things can’t get worse, they will.” It’s enough to depress Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

Now, the only forum for Orange County bands is Night Moves in Huntington Beach and, like Big John’s used to, Night Moves has original, live music just two nights a week. With its oppressively dark interior, low ceiling and pre-Columbian sound system, Night Moves is the kind of place even Charles Bukowski would avoid.

Given that there are hundreds (some even estimate thousands) of young bands here, having just one club of any ambiance offers ridiculously little encouragement for an original music scene to even exist, much less grow or thrive.

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Sure, there were hints of encouragement earlier this week after the Big John’s fire, when other club and restaurant owners said they’d like to give local music a chance in their establishments.

But the harsh reality is that those who have tried to use live original bands in the last few years have had no luck convincing planning commissions, police departments and city councils that rock clubs are not de facto dens of iniquity.

From the official reception it usually gets around here, you’d never know that rock ‘n’ roll has been institutionalized elsewhere in American society to the extent that the Beatles’ once-radical call for “Revolution” is now used by Madison Avenue to sell running shoes. Or that such counterculture anti-heroes as Jerry Garcia and Lou Reed now work as spokesmen for such establishment corporations as Levi Strauss and Honda.

And remember a few years ago when NASA, in order to give extraterrestrial civilizations a sample of earthly culture, included a Chuck Berry record aboard a rocket launched into deep space? It seems that most city councils in Orange County would like to do the same with people who play or support local music.

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Consider: At a meeting of Santa Ana’s Planning Commission a couple of years ago, several respectable downtown business owners--not a scar-faced, pink-haired punk among them--publicly offered support for a teen nightclub that would feature live music. Such a club, those businessmen hoped, would attract more traffic to the once-blighted area where economic revitalization has been attempted in recent years.

But despite that support, when the Planning Commission heard a police finding that a teen-oriented club “ might cause enforcement problems,” the commissioners voted unflinchingly to squelch the project.

Safari Sam’s in Huntington Beach--one of the most adventurous, well-run and respected original music clubs in the country --was denied an entertainment permit by city officials in 1986, essentially as a result of complaints from one neighbor.

Costa Mesa, home to South Coast Repertory Theatre and the Orange County Performing Arts Center, dubbed itself the “City of the Arts,” but nowhere in that city can local rock bands play anything other than copy versions of Top 40 hits.

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Maybe they ought to call it “City of the Safe and Comfortable Arts.”

A veteran county concert promoter once commented that the county’s club scene is “like a cockroach--you can’t get rid of it. People are always trying to stamp it out, but it always springs up somewhere else.”

That rather unflattering analogy remains exquisitely accurate in the way that most city and county government officials still treat rock music: as a pest to be endured, avoided or Raid-ed.

Now, in reaction to the fire, local bands will be back to scrounging for dates in Los Angeles clubs or, if they want to perform locally, turning to laundromats or other makeshift performance venues.

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Dan Koenig, guitarist and lead singer of an excellent Fullerton band called Blue Trapeze, suggested that such adversity may serve as a trial by fire and weed out groups that aren’t passionately and thoroughly committed to their music. “Anyone who can survive this can survive anything,” Koenig said.

Jerry Roach, whose Radio City nightclub in Anaheim was destroyed by fire in 1985 and never reopened, also suggested that we are in for a period of musical Darwinism: “It’s like in (nature), when there’s not enough food, the population goes down. If there aren’t any places to play, the number of bands dwindles. If we had 2,000 bands, maybe five or six might break through and become successful. But if there are only 500 bands around, maybe only one will make it.”

Or maybe none.

At its peak--like when there were perhaps three clubs open at the same time--the county’s music scene showed a vitality and range that would measure up favorably to any healthy rock breeding ground in the nation.

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But with just one club to play, and no commercial radio stations that will air their records, groups now stand little chance of being heard beyond the walls of their living rooms, garages or practice studios. Which means there is precious little prospect that Orange County will ever produce its own rock ‘n’ roll superstars. It also means that most people will never get to hear the invigorating, provocative music that is being created right here in our midst. And that’s the biggest curse of all.

UNFINISHED BUSINESS: Because of incorrect information provided The Times, it was erroneously reported here last week that Luciano Pavarotti’s Jan. 4 concert at the Orange County Performing Arts Center was recorded for possible future commercial release. In fact, a spokeswoman for Pavarotti said that the performance was not recorded.

Meanwhile, hats off to Opera Pacific for correcting its confusing ads for its production of Verdi’s “Aida,” which opened Saturday at the Center. Earlier ads implied that the entire cast consisted of Metropolitan Opera singers. The revised ads more accurately indicate that only Leona Mitchell and Carol Neblett, who will sing the title role on different dates, and Andrew Smith, as Amonasro, are affiliated with the Met.


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