Rock-a-Bye-Bye : The last gig for Raging Arb and the Redheads, Ventura County’s preeminent garage band, will mark the end of a wild and unpredictable era.
In eight years of playing music in and around Ventura, Raging Arb and the Redheads have won attention for many things. Predictability is not one of them.
They do start every show with the old Muddy Waters tune “I’m a Man.” And they follow with the same smallish repertoire of three dozen other tunes, either original or adopted from the early years of American rock ‘n’ roll.
But they may start repeating songs as the night wears on. The audience may or may not behave itself. And the evening might end with an encore or a demand for quiet from the police, or arrests.
Redheads guitarist Billy McGraw summarizes the group’s philosophy this way: “Just get a lot of liquor and have a really good time.”
At a Christmas party a few years ago, Redhead Toby Emery expressed his dismay with the band’s payment by dumping a noodle salad on the manager of a local restaurant. Another gig ended early when the bartender was unresponsive to the band’s requests for beer. The Redheads stormed out and took their audience with them.
This kind of thing can be either amusing or just plain menacing, depending on where you sit, and it has made the Redheads the most-feared, longest-running bar band in Ventura.
The musicians wear this distinction like a badge, having held the band together through marriages, surfing safaris, the arrival of children, the resistance of damage-wary club owners and the demands of various day jobs.
“They can bring in 600, 700 people,” said Tom Welton, general manager of the Ventura Concert Theatre. “It’s their ‘I-don’t-give-a-damn’ attitude that people seem to like.”
But now drab probability hangs over the Redheads. Outside responsibilities and the tight economy have pushed the group into an uncomfortable, grown-up decision: They’re breaking up. Band members say their free holiday show at the Ventura Theatre on Saturday night will probably be their last in Ventura County.
An outsider might view the occasion as the end of a rare local tradition in rootless Southern California, or as a clue to the breadth and depth of the recession, or as a belated end to six spectacularly arrested adolescences. The Redheads aren’t sure yet what it means.
“It just kind of materialized, and, like, wow,” marveled Toby Emery recently. “We’re all just tripping out.”
John Drury insists that the breakup has nothing to do with his 30th birthday, which arrived Nov. 29. But Drury, the lean and freckled singer who is the band’s most prominent personality, will concede that there is something inevitable about the direction things are moving.
“It’s gravity,” he says.
By day, Drury is a salesman. He ran a surf shop for a while and more recently was selling used cars at Barber Ford. It’s not easy, but he can be equally convincing in his delivery of the lines: “If you ever need a Ford, let me know” and “Well, I don’t know what you’re thinking/ But I really don’t give a damn.”
“Even though he may not be too competent of a singer, he’s got the charisma,” explained Toby Emery. “He just has a presence.”
Drury’s greatest ambition, however, is neither to sell cars nor sing blues, but to market his own clothing line. For several years, Drury has had a logo, and more recently he has acquired a copyright lawyer and a few thousand dollars’ worth of hats, T-shirts and sweat shirts emblazoned with a defiant freckled face and the words “Red Head.” To raise the money to pay the manufacturer, Drury sold his car.
Naturally, the shirts and hats are popular among the Raging Arb faithful. But the operation has never brought in enough money to support Drury, his wife, Annie; their 3-year-old son, Jason, and their 17-month-old son, Ryan.
The used-car job wasn’t making up the difference. Nor, needless to say, were Drury’s twice-monthly gigs with the Redheads, whose peak financial performance was a Halloween party a few years ago that netted a collective $1,100.
Drury and his wife thought about these and other things, and in mid-November resolved they would move to Eugene, Ore., where Annie Drury has family.
The relocation would come in January. Drury would market the hats and shirts in both Ventura County and Oregon, but ultimately the move would mean farewell to the old neighborhood.
“It was just an idea,” said Drury, “and it just kind of started to become reality.”
The Redheads decided that it wouldn’t be the same to go on without him.
Ross Emery, the drummer and Toby’s brother, would tend to his auto-detailing business and his family.
John House, the bass player, would stick with his work in the produce department at Vons and maybe join another band.
Glen Ansberry would keep up with his job in the laundry room at Ventura County Medical Center.
Guitarist McGraw would keep on “looking for a career” and probably join the same band as House.
Toby Emery was also unemployed, but had plenty to occupy him. His girlfriend was due to deliver in the spring, and he was planning to push for the name Otis, “whether it’s a boy or girl.”
As nearly as they can recall, the Redheads’ first public performance came at a beach party on the Fourth of July, 1983.
Five of them had grown up on that beach, graduated from Ventura High School and spent the next couple of years surfing, skateboarding, going to concerts and hanging out. No one moved away to college, though Toby Emery, generally acknowledged as the band’s resident intellectual, was studying religion at UC Santa Barbara.
Their first music lessons came from a friend named Chris Byrd, who came to House’s garage one day, offered Ross Emery some drumming instructions, then introduced House and Toby Emery to the bass and guitar. Drury, it was assumed, would sing. Ansberry, a 1976 Buena High graduate, was added on the harmonica. McGraw, who was already playing with another band, was later recruited as the other guitarist.
Finding a name for the band was easy. House had long before acquired the nickname “Angry Red Bastard,” and that had been condensed into Arb.
For that first gig, they played seven songs--all they knew--over and over. House, alternating between bass and guitar, played with his amplifier down low to disguise his frequent mistakes. Toby Emery turned his volume higher, but faced away from the audience in order to concentrate. Drury exuded confidence, but felt weird.
“They were very aggressive,” recalled Kenny Burrell, a Pierpont Beach neighbor who worked the door on some of those early gigs. “They weren’t afraid to do anything off-key.”
Gradually, the song list lengthened to include a few originals, and the intensity of the shows deepened. Part of the intensity could have been due to the band’s determination to provide participatory entertainment--lots of dancing and “no pretence, " as one early publicity sheet pledged.
But then as now, another part of the atmosphere had to do with alcohol.
“We’ve all gone pretty deep into drugs and alcohol,” said Toby Emery over a beer one recent evening.
“But we pulled out,” said McGraw.
“You can just say,” said Ross Emery, “that sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll were all there.”
Ross Emery, 29, is reminded of those days more often than his mates. Every day, he injects insulin to control a diabetic condition that arose three years ago, five years after he started playing with the band. His explanation:
“I fried my pancreas, more or less.”
On stage, Drury stands with easy authority, a baseball cap reversed on his head, his arms raised as if he might bestow a not-quite-papal blessing any moment. His range is limited, but his sense of conviction is not. He snarls well.
On guitars, McGraw and Toby Emery act as yin and yang. McGraw, tall and angular, dangles a cigarette from his lip and seems to be casually strangling his instrument’s neck with his bony fingers. He and Toby Emery, stout and baby-faced, trade solos. Ross Emery and House hold down the rhythm, and Ansberry’s harmonica leaps in and out of the mix. To keep them lubricated, bartenders send six-packs.
This is some of the damage they’ve done:
In 1985, a loud Fourth of July show brought a block full of squad cars to an Arb party by the beach. A small-scale drunken melee followed, in which the police prevailed. With a certain pride, some Redheads and Redheads fans claim it was that scene that led Ventura city officials to move their official Independence Day celebrations from the evening hours to 5 a.m.
In 1986, a second-place finish in a Santa Barbara “battle of the bands” prompted Arb fans to sling beer at competing musicians, break at least one window and get the group informally banned from the city’s nightspots.
In 1987, the Redheads recall, a Halloween party performance left an American Legion ballroom battle-scarred and stained with costume paint. When Toby Emery returned to collect a forgotten part of the sound system, the Legion management put him to work sanding and painting.
In 1988, a Redhead performance at the Ventura Theatre left a backstage window broken and relations with management severely strained. For more than a year the band was not invited back, and the only gigs possible seemed to be self-promoted “booze cruises” on chartered boats off the coast.
The Redheads say the scene has mellowed considerably since its wildest days, and the group has managed several high-profile performances more or less without incident. They opened for Los Lobos at the Ventura Theatre in February of this year, for instance, and for the Beat Farmers a few months later. But there’s still nothing sedate, or entirely safe, about an Arb performance.
Last month at Charlie’s, near the waterfront Holiday Inn, the band cut short its set when scattered fistfights were reported outside. Early this month, plans for a New Year’s Eve farewell performance at the same site were scrapped. “We sure don’t want to go out with a bang literally , you know,” explained Toby Emery. “It’s just a combination of the liquor and the people being close together, and it’s a bummer that it has to reflect back on the band.”
Hearing such tales, one wonders why the Ventura Theatre’s management has decided to risk another night with Arb.
“I do have concerns,” confessed Welton, the theater general manager. However, he said, “the last couple times we’ve worked with Raging Arb, they’ve been really good. And it seemed appropriate to say goodby at the theater, because they’ve played here numerous times and done really well.”
Ramone’s, like several of the bars where the Redheads started out, has been closed for years. In its place now stands a Carrow’s restaurant. And in that Carrow’s nine days ago, five of the six Redheads met to do some business and some reminiscing.
The business was easy enough: They would play the Chaparral Club on Dec. 15 and have the Mudheads, another local band, open the Ventura Theatre show for them. They would plan, tentatively, to go ahead with a previously arranged January performance in San Luis Obispo.
The reminiscing was more time-consuming and required a relocation to a bar with imported beer. Among the Redheads’ recollections: the time that ambulances were called to gigs on consecutive nights; the 25th anniversary party they played in Death Valley, when House left his guitar in the sun and it melted; the St. Patrick’s Day show they put on for hundreds of strangers along the boardwalk on San Diego’s Mission Beach. Most of the memories seemed to include drinking and nights without sleep.
Then talk turned to the future.
Ross Emery, who has a wife and three daughters to consider as he takes his daily insulin shots, offered that, frankly, he was looking forward to getting healthy.
“I think I’ll actually feel younger,” said McGraw, “because I won’t be going through so much torture.”
Perhaps, someone suggested, there’s no escape after all these years and it’s time to be grown-ups. Sour nods around the table.
“The scene has kind of dwindled, man,” said Toby Emery. “The steam’s gone. Everybody’s burning out, getting married and moving on to another phase in their lives.”
But McGraw wasn’t entirely ready to let it all go. He asked Drury if he’d ever come back to visit and perhaps let loose with the gang for old times’ sake.
Drury scarcely paused. He had a trade show in San Diego in early February, he noted, and he’d be heading south from Oregon for that.
“And it just happens,” said Drury, grinning unpredictably, “that Ventura’s in the way.”