The list of music artists who spent their formative, early creative years, or peak times of productivity in San Diego is long and impressive: Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, Gary Puckett, Sammy Nestico, Jewel, Gary Wilson, James Moody, Eddie Vedder, John Reis, and Diamanda Galas, are just a small sampling of big names closely associated with America's Finest City. It is also worth noting that none of those names appears on any of the (locally) iconic "Home Grown" LPs, released by long-standing rock station KGB back in the 70s and 80s.
My apologies for the possibly deceptive lead-in, though I think it's crucial to mention that while these records are of interest (and I will explain why shortly), they really aren't much of a serious documentation of any sort of San Diego music scene (mainstream or otherwise) from yesteryear. Oh, and honestly -- the music they contain isn't really that good, either (despite the claim on the first offering's liner notes that "it's all good music"). But that's why these records are so brilliant, albeit unwittingly. Conversely, a new San Diego music compilation was recently released, with a radically different approach and different results. I'll get to that, but let's start at the beginning with Home Grown.
Please do allow me to explain what is at stake with this recorded series, and why I find it important, despite its lack of marquee names or substantial music content. It is, in fact, this very lack of substance and import which, ironically, makes it such an effective document of San Diego music history, as well as of the city's ambivalent relationship to the arts in general. The most important and interesting part of this document is, of course, the liner notes written by none other than a teen aged Cameron Crowe, who would later embark on a remarkable Hollywood career with Fast Times at Ridgemont High (based on Clairemont High School), Almost Famous (stemming directly from his youthful forays into music journalism, starting in San Diego), and Hollywood blockbusters like Vanilla Sky and Jerry Maguire. It's inspring that rather than erasing this humble bit of San Diego history from his past (I shall henceforth dub this familiar maneuver, nearly perfected by Waits and Zappa, "the San Diego Sweep"), the illustrious Mr. Crowe actually includes them on his official website.
Though the young Crowe makes allusions to a "budding Randy Newman" awaiting discovery, and optimistically muses over the possibility of national success by the local artists represented on the collection, it clearly wasn't meant to be. Alas, the recording quality, overtly self-referential lyrics, bare-boned production, and general mundane nature of the collected songs relegated these compilations to a strict "locals only" audience before they were even released. I'm including "Mission Beach Boogie", the lead track to the first album, and series as a whole. Its production, arrangement (which Crowe describes as "crisp"), and lyrical attributes (though underwhelming) all make this an ideal representation of what the albums contain.
But wait! Ironically - and oh so fittingly for my thesis here - the Home Grown series does in fact have a relationship with a bona fide hit: Stephen Bishop submitted "On and On" to Home Grown in 1976, though it was apparently rejected because it was the wrong format (cassette instead of reel-to-reel). The song found receptive and and more flexible souls elsewhere, however, and firmly planted itself on the Billboard Charts for 26 weeks, peaking at #11.
Am I reading too deeply into the intention of this series, and heartlessly knocking something that didn't purport to be more than it was? Perhaps, though that's certainly not my intention. The series' lack of any real impact is slightly heartbreaking to me, though, and strikes me as another example of a so-close-but-so-far endeavor by the eighth largest city in the U.S. My fellow Uni High alum Cameron Crowe (taught by dad for one year there, incidentally), is one of our all-time success stories, so it comes as no surprise that he was aiming for the stars with his ambitious line notes. Apparently, he and Bishop were alone in that effort.
My musings here are meant neither to constitute a record review, nor glibly bash San Diego music history, but rather serve as a point of departure while we look forward. I see the series as a fascinating misstep -- a botched opportunity of grand proportions. Imagine what a gem this would have been if we had a document of youthful musical talents from our city who went on to greatness, and Crowe's notes accompanying the brilliance! I am also aware that the all-star San Diego artists mentioned at the top of this write up were almost all ineligible for inclusion in the project, since their windows of youthful work didn't coincide with it. I stand by the list, however, as an important reminder that for some reason, this city appears to find itself incapable of highlighting, supporting, and retaining our "home grown" talent.
Or does it? In a startling instance of synchronicity, I find myself engaged in a the process of a new, dynamic compilation from Swami Records, titled "Hardcore Matinee". In fact, I received the booking confirmation for this show (as one of Gary Wilson's Blind Dates) while writing this-- hence the feeling of an appendix, rather than side-by-side examination of the two comps. I'd call it a coincidence, though I'm starting to believe in that phenomena less and less. I can't shake the feeling, however, that Swami John Reis's compilation is a sort of "Home Grown" done right -- rather than having the ambition to discover future stars who celebrate our border town by dropping every cultural cliche available to them, Reis has gone for the jugular, selecting his preferred, diverse group of artists who are - and have been - out there celebrating our cultural identity simply by being who they are. The bands, which include the Heathaches, the Schizophonics, the Widows, Gary Wilson and the Blind Dates, the Sultans, Mrs. Magician, the Lumps, Rob Crow's Gloomy Place, Teenage Burritos, and several others, represent the vibrant creative energy of San Diego at its best. Going one step further, Reis (known the world over for his involvement with Drive Like Jehu and Rocket from the Crypt) is bringing the compilation to life by staging a (now sold-out) theatrical, live show at Bar Pink (which he co-owns) on Sunday May 15.
Maybe Home Grown was a necessary baby step, as our sleepy Navy town flirted with the idea that we might collect and share something of value. In any case, I'm glad it exists, and will return to it periodically. I'm sure its founders never anticipated that anyone would be listening to -let alone writing about - the music over four decades after its release, so who am I to say the endeavor is unsuccessful? Mostly though, I can't wait for Sunday's Hardcore Matinee.
Thanks, as always, for tuning in!