It was a Dickens of a year on the Orange County rock scene--almost the best of times, interrupted by a sobering slap of the worst.
In 1994-95, the Offspring had driven a bulldozer through the "Orange Curtain," the proverbial barrier of outsider perceptions and stereotypical assumptions that pegged O.C.'s music scene to the company-line conservative environs.
"Conservative" might as well be spelled "comatose" in the trend-happy music industry, and somehow O.C. politics and mall culture were held against O.C. music-making, nevermind that the music more often than not sprang from culturally rebellious punk-alternative roots.
But "cash" is just a different spelling for "cool" in the music business dictionary, and the 4.9 million U.S. sales of the Offspring's album, "Smash," created a significant hole in that curtain of assumptions.
One bulldozer does not a demolition make, however, and the question lingered: Would others be able to widen the breach in the curtain?
The answer, in '96, was a cheerful, resounding "No Doubt."
The upbeat Anaheim band's late-'95 release, "Tragic Kingdom," turned into one of the big rock hits of 1996, selling more than 4 million copies and becoming the first release by an Orange County-based act to reach No. 1 on Billboard's pop-albums chart.
Korn, the revulsion-rock band from Huntington Beach, had absolutely nothing in common with No Doubt (or, for that matter, with the Offspring), except that it, too, emerged as a hot modern-rock property. The band's 1994 debut release, "Korn," sold steadily through much of 1996, setting the stage for its follow-up, "Life Is Peachy," which debuted at No. 3 on the charts upon its October release. Combined, the two releases sold nearly 700,000 copies this year.
New albums by Sublime and Social Distortion also did well, reaching the Top 40, for an unprecedented degree of chart presence by local rock bands. Many other O.C. bands were under contract to substantial labels, putting them in the national derby as well, albeit at the long odds confronting any aspiring pop act.
As always, there also was plenty of quality hidden among the grass-roots; it's important to remember that luck, and not necessarily talent, is often a big part of the difference between platinum sales and playing the Doll Hut on a Wednesday night.
Some of O.C.'s finest pop talents don't even have recording contracts--among them Jann Browne, the Missiles of October, Lunar Rover's Jon Melkerson and Standard Fruit (which, hoping for a change of luck, changed its name to South).
It became clear, as No Doubt's Gwen Stefani and her trend-setting bellybutton made the cover of Spin magazine, as Rolling Stone ran blurbs quoting the sayings of O.C.'s punk chairman Mike (Social Distortion leader Mike Ness) and as "Sublime" was critically pegged as one of the year's best releases, that the outside world was starting to see Orange County more clearly.
"It's gone from a place where you'd whisper that you live there, to a place I'd consider living," said Cary Baker, a veteran music publicist from Los Angeles. Baker said that in his 12 years in L.A., he never would have considered conservative O.C. as an attractive address for somebody in the music business.
But, "with the cool music scene that's brewing, the victory of Sanchez"--referring to Democrat Loretta Sanchez's still hotly contested congressional victory over right-wing political brawler Bob Dornan--"it's been a great revelation to me.
"It seems like all sorts of good things are happening. [The image of the O.C. rock scene] has changed radically in the last year. I have friends from other parts of the country asking me what's happening down there," Baker said. "At some point, if my wife and I want to leave L.A., it's good to know that's a place [to consider]. I think I'll be coming down there [to hear bands] more than two nights a year."
For those of us already living here and trying to find rock 'n' roll bliss, the chronically anemic club scene for grass-roots music may not have turned into a model of thriving health, but with Linda's Doll Hut in Anaheim, Club 369 in Fullerton, the Rhino Room in Huntington Beach, the Lava Room in Costa Mesa and the Foothill and Blue Cafe in neighboring Signal Hill and Long Beach all providing steady forums for local bands and emerging touring acts, the possibilities in 1996 were bountiful by O.C. standards.
Who knows? With business sputtering at some of the county's strip shopping centers and secondary malls, with clone-like movie megaplexes the only big idea in local entertainment, some smart entrepreneur might get the notion of turning one of those underused commercial sites into a rockin' shopping center, where the kids could take in an all-ages punk show, the parents could hum along to John Hiatt or Justin Hayward, boutiques and shops with music-culture appeal could ring their registers, and some lucky, cooperative municipality could rake in a cut via sales tax revenues as the cops concentrate on safeguarding the local music business instead of following their historically ingrained impulse to suppress it.
The worst of times for the local rock scene struck on May 25, when Sublime's front man, Brad Nowell, was found dead of a heroin overdose. Two months later, the album the Long Beach-O.C. trio had finished before his death was released.
It revealed that the promising but erratic Nowell had blossomed into a consistent, first-class talent--singing soulfully, playing guitar adeptly and writing craftily wrought but emotionally unfiltered songs that grappled with contradictory impulses toward violence and self-control, hope and despair.
No year, no matter how otherwise upbeat, can be called the best of times when one of its biggest stories is about a creative flowering stamped out in a sordid and pointless way.