"‘Do you wanna be my friend?" The explosive weirdness of a San Diego music scene
The documentary "It's Gonna Blow: San Diego's Music Underground 1986-1996" screens Monday at the High Noon.
There’s a famous story about Miramax head honcho Harvey Weinstein watching Clerks for the first time at Sundance. Other Miramax folks who had seen the film during its extremely brief pre-festival theatrical run in New York had anticipated that their boss wouldn’t sit through the first chunk of the film, and instructed him that he could not walk out until he heard the number “37.” Weinstein wriggled irritably in his seat and wanted to leave almost immediately once the film began, but once that famous line regarding the number of men upon whom protagonist Dante Hicks’ girlfriend had performed certain acts dropped, Weinstein ended up more or less rolling in the aisles with gales of laughter for the rest of the film and shortly thereafter purchased it for distribution, thus foisting Kevin Smith into the career he has today, for better or worse.
I say all of that not in any expectation that the audience for Bill Perrine's documentary It's Gonna Blow: San Diego's Music Underground 1986-1996, which screens this Monday at the High Noon Saloon, will be on the cusp of walking out, but just to illustrate the film takes a little time to build up steam. So, what should you be waiting for? What’s the “37” moment that ends up being a huge payoff for the 10 or whatever minutes you sit through to get to it?
Once you hear someone mention Crash Worship, if you’re not sold on how insane things were getting just a couple hours south of LA during the late ’80s and early ’90s, then I’m not sure anything’s gonna get through to you.
There’s a lot of talk early in the film about the casual violence that occurred at San Diego shows, and you can see some of it on display in the above clip. The vibe of the violence in San Diego, though, struck me as much more constructive than purely destructive. It’s not the meatheads-looking-for-excuses-to-smash-each-other-in-the-face strain of violence that has marked some periods in punk and hardcore history. The violence seems to be just one aspect of a larger and very fertile period of post-punk chaos. Slow down the Crash Worship clip, and it becomes a Hawkwind show, and I mean that as a high compliment. Some of these bands, like Trumans Water, are practically the musical equivalent of a Chris Burden performance piece, more than willing to toss themselves down sets of stairs if it made just the right thudding sound they were looking for.
As a whole, It's Gonna Blow follows a somewhat familiar narrative: A bunch of kids started making abrasive, eccentric music in earnest, building an outcast community when no one else was really looking—as John Reis (of Drive Like Jehu, Hot Snakes, Rocket From The Crypt, Swami Records, etc.) says in an interview in the film, “Really what was actually happening was, like, ‘Do you wanna be my friend? We want to feel a connection here to someone. Does anyone like this shit?’”—but along came Nirvana, which led to major labels trying to snap up any clattery act they thought they had a shot of marketing to the be-flanneled masses, at which point success contorts some while eluding others.
In the end, Stone Temple Pilots (who no one even considers a proper San Diego band) ended up meatplowing their way into America’s hearts and managed to make the broadest pop-cultural impression, even if San Diego bands including The Locust, Three Mile Pilot, and Drive Like Jehu made more aesthetically daring contributions—and were perhaps more illustrative of the wonderful power of local music communities to completely defy, or just outright ignore, the limitations of trends and genres. One thing that makes Perrine's approach stand out, though, is that he plainly conveys the obvious notion that the bands who made it big, while not the best or most inventive in the scene, were the best at making the business end of everything happen—and Perrine gets this across without the notes of resentment or judgment that tend to accompany such conversations. Some of the bands fell through the cracks simply due to an unwillingness or inability to network with A&R people, which is a shame, but all those interviewed take it for granted in hindsight.
While [insert local scene here] style deep-dive documentaries including Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-90) and Color Of Noise (both of which also screened somewhat recently at the High Noon) are something of a cottage industry these days, It's Gonna Blow makes a solid contribution to that, giving the “gas station attendant rock” newbies a lot of info and context, while stuffing more than enough long-forgotten show-footage to transport the pit-weary old timers back to the epic days of their youth.