Like so many others, Robert Barngrover and Stephen Light came to Southern California figuring it was an immediate point of entry into the music business.
"I thought I'd work at a job for a few months, then we'd be making all our money from playing in clubs and touring, and I wouldn't have to labor," the reserved but amiable Barngrover recalled in a recent interview at his Huntington Beach apartment, which doubles as a recording studio for the Barngrover/Light band.
"We were naive back then," deadpanned Light, a blue-eyed man with a Dylanesque short-billed cap and sharp features that recall the Byrds' Roger McGuinn.
"Back then" was 1984, when Barngrover and Light arrived in Huntington Beach after developing a musical partnership as students at Judson College in Illinois. Seven years later, the music industry still hasn't heard of Barngrover/Light. But the duo, which plays Saturday night at Bogart's Bohemian Cafe, is still together. While waiting to gain some currency with the music business at large, Barngrover, 32, and Light, 29, have turned their music making into a cottage industry.
Since 1988, Barngrover/Light has released two albums and an EP on its custom label, CRS Records (the initials don't stand for anything, Barngrover said: "It's just something that sounds businesslike and professional"). The partners also have issued cassettes by several friends, and by Light's wife, Dorothy, and have marketed all of them at sporadic local shows and via mail order.
While this isn't exactly the way to make one's daily bread in music (both partners have earned their livings primarily as salesmen), Barngrover/Light has put some interesting rock into circulation.
The duo's most recent release, "Dangerously Live!" features simple three-chord songs based in blues, folk-rock and psychedelic music, recalling such '60s influences as Cream and the Jefferson Airplane.
Barngrover is a clean, fluent lead guitarist who patterns much of his playing after Eric Clapton. Light plays acoustic rhythm guitar and blows some Neil Young-style harmonica. The partners divide most of the lead vocals, but the performances gain far more dimension when Dorothy Light, a strikingly pure-voiced singer with a jazz background, turns up to sing duets or lend smooth harmonies that balance and broaden the two males' limited, grainy voices.
If Barngrover/Light has not come far in the music business, the music itself has developed a great deal. When they arrived in Huntington Beach, the partners were under the influence of '70s progressive-rock bands, including Styx, Kansas, Gentle Giant and Supertramp.
"It was complicated. Everything about it was complex," Light recalled. He and Barngrover got some of the progressive stuff out of their systems in Beyond, a five-member band that played the local clubs before fizzling out in 1986. After that, Barngrover and Light spent 2 1/2 years writing and recording "The Cry of the Child," a concept album with music that was obviously patterned after the rock-operatic opuses of Pink Floyd's Roger Waters and Pete Townshend of the Who. The album focused on a youngster who leaves a home devoid of warmth, suffers an even colder existence on the streets, then finds consolation in spirituality.
"We were living a block from the beach. We'd hang out and we met several runaway kids. We'd let them sleep over for the night. That sparked it," Barngrover said.
Since then, Barngrover/Light has gone back to such simpler musical sources as Bob Dylan and the blues.
"We ended up refining our sound over the years. Now we go with the essentials," Light said. "I think that really helps our songwriting."
Barngrover/Light's repertoire includes several wistful or pastoral love songs, and an affirmative rocker in "Days Like These," which nicks the Kinks' old "You Really Got Me" riff. But a current of deep dissatisfaction with contemporary life also runs through the duo's material. "Surf City Revisited" laments how downtown redevelopment in Huntington Beach has taken away the area's old-fashioned beach-town flavor. "The New Barbarians" offers a bleak vision of a world without a moral compass.
"There are no absolutes anymore," Barngrover said. "People deal with life as it comes; we deal with situations and make up rules as we go, like barbarians of old."
Set against that unsettling vision are songs that point to Christian faith as a source of meaning and moral conviction. The Christian current is pronounced enough in Barngrover/Light's music to make the duo a candidate for the Christian rock market.
Light said that they did try unsuccessfully several years ago to interest Frontline Records, an Orange County-based contemporary Christian label, in "The Cry of the Child." Now, Barngrover said, "we don't want to be in the religious market per se. We want to be in the world market. You get put in a little box."
For now, the world market seems far away, as Barngrover and Light wait and hope for an independent rock label to give them a break that will make their work more than a cottage industry.
"As a money-making thing, it's going to take some time. We just have to keep plugging away," Barngrover said. "When we first came out here, we'd do anything to succeed. Now our philosophy is to be true to ourselves. We're helping people on the way"--by releasing other performers' music on CRS--"and maybe somebody will help us. What goes around comes around. The important thing is playing music and having a good time, and not stressing out over all the business."
* Barngrover/Light plays Saturday at 9 p.m. at the Bohemian Cafe at Bogart's, in the Marina Pacifica Mall, 6288 E. Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach. Also appearing are Soupline, Swingset and Nowhere Close. Tickets: $5. Information: (213) 594-8975. Barngrover/Light's recordings are available from CRS Records, 2619A England St., Huntington Beach, Calif. 92648.
THE NAME GAME: Exude, a longtime Orange County rock contender, has gone through a make-over following several frustrating years in search of a record contract.
The Anaheim band's core members--singer Frank Rogala, saxophonist Vince Rogala and keyboards player Robin Canada--remain the same, but its name has changed to NC-17. In place of Exude's jaunty dance-rock style, Frank Rogala says, NC-17 is following a heavier, more politicized slant, with an art-rock sound that relies on saxophones treated with guitar-like effects.
Rogala said the trio began experimenting with different styles after Exude's self-produced 1989 release, "Testosterone Tapdance," failed to muster a record company deal. One label that showed interest in Exude suggested a more "on the edge" approach, Rogala said, and the result is a concept album, "The Happiest Place on Earth," which is being shopped to record companies.
"We are treating this as a whole new band. I'm reassessing my whole stage presence," Rogala said. "From the ground up, everything is different. It opens us up and it lets us be more creative. It's kind of liberating."