Musical Chairs

Posted on July 18, 2009 – 9:24 PM | by OldManFoster
  • Share

When we decided to make July the ‘Music Issue’ there was one person at the top of our wish list to sit in the Musical Chair this month- Jackson Griffith.  Jackson has been covering music in Sacramento for over two decades, cutting his teeth on the much beloved  Pulse! Magazine, writing about acts like the Replacements, Thin White Rope and Pavement while Rolling Stone was blathering on about shit like Lisa Bonet and Winger.  Unlike most of the yahoos who wrote for RS, Jackson actually ventured out on the other side, fronting bands and playing solo alt-rock at coffee houses and the like.  Here he writes about some of the best gleanings from those days.  Enjoy.


These days, personal weirdness is a defining characteristic of individuation. And while I enjoy the music of, oh, Dead Western and other outsiders, there’s something a little too calculated, a little too sorority girl with a scrunched nose exclaiming, “Oooh, isn’t he soooo weird” to really hit that sweet spot of the truly strange for me.

RonFor weirdness to work, at least for this listener, there has to be an utter lack of conscious intent on the part of the artist, who must possess a firm conviction of his own normality. Consider 1970s mobile-home salesman turned country singer and TV host Ron Schmeck, whose paeans to double-wide living, RV vacationing, fishing and spousal abuse, as chronicled on the subgenius thrift-store classic LP Easy Living–the American Way, only make sense coming from a place of sincerity; a so-called hipster would not be able to make its songs work.

You can find studied weirdness anywhere these days, but in its raw, untutored form, you’ll need to locate a venue free of concerned club owners, bookers and other gatekeepers who might blanch at letting a performer clear the room. Open-mic nights with an anything-goes policy are the best place for this. You’ll also need patience, because for every art-brut gem, you’ll have to slog through countless folk- and blues-influenced performers, some of them mind-numbingly boring.

Recent circumstances have kept me away from open mics, although I’ve been to enough of them to note that, if you haven’t seen aging hippie bard John Malcolm in action, especially on nights where he’s reasonably squared away, you should.  But back when I was obsessed with open mics in the late 1980s through the ’90s, you could count on the Fox & Goose, then as now a bastion of conventional narrative, Nashville-style songwriters, or you could try the old Capitol Garage (now Ma Jong’s/The Park), home to more alt-rock-oriented acts. But my consistent favorite was located at 2326 K Street, which now houses a bar called The Golden Bear. Back then it was known as Drago’s, then Café Montreal, then Café Paris, and you could find much weirdness there.  

Back in the day, you couldn’t hold an open mic without window-washing legend Ray Rill, Sacramento’s very own Dylanesque troubadour in a station wagon, showing up with his battered guitar. Given his turn, Ray would step up to the mic, squint a few times and then launch into his performance, often a hodgepodge of Dylan song fragments tied together with Ray’s personal observations on Jesus and salvation. If you were lucky, you would get to hear Ray’s fractured version of Dylan’s magnum opus “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” which in its optimal expression would far exceed the allotted 15-minute open-mic slot; if the evening’s host was at the bar or in the loo or otherwise not paying attention, you’d get to witness the mounting fury of a room full of frustrated singer-songwriters muttering and whining won’t somebody please stop this guy from chewing up the clock, as Ray blithely wobbled from verse to verse, blissfully unaware of the rising vitriol in the room. Good times.

One regular act at open mics in the 1990s was Grotto. There were two versions of the duo, both featuring Emile Dalkey on guitar and his girlfriend on vocals. The second iteration was the more long-lasting, featuring Tara. But it was the much shorter-lived Grotto edition one, featuring a thin brunette named Molly, that was astonishing. Remember that Woody Allen movie, maybe Annie Hall, where his character sidles up to a young woman in MoMA and asks, “What are you doing later?” and she answers, “committing suicide,” in a flat monotone? Molly’s onstage persona was like that. Most of her lyrics were about dark subjects like hideous death and molested children, as I recall. One song, presumably about a coke whore, went something like “snow-oh-oh-oh quee-ee-een,” to which Emile would respond with Sabbath-y barre chords on guitar; I remember laughing in the back of Café Paris with Kevin Seconds – we were both stone-cold sober and Kevin said something like, “I dunno about you, but I feel like I’m extremely wasted on bad pot right now.” Which was precisely how Grotto’s music made me feel, too.

But the weirdest open-mic performance I ever witnessed was from this guy named Duco, who looked kinda like a Dumpster-diving Sammy Hagar. Usually, he’d roll up to Café Montreal on a skateboard with his ghetto blaster, and when his slot came up, he’d crank the tunes – typically, pointy-headstock guitar shred – over which he would emote such original compositions as “Mixed Vegetables.”

One open-mic night, he didn’t show up. Then, midway through the evening, café owner Dusty Hamilton yanked whatever singer-songwriter was whimpering onstage with an emergency announcement: Duco was on the phone, from the county jail, where he’d been taken after RT cops arrested him for sneaking onto light rail without a ticket; he couldn’t bear to miss even one open-mic performance. So Dusty held the phone aloft with the microphone against the earpiece.

What came out was static and gibberish, but the crowd went nuts, laughing at the sheer unbelievable nature of the event. Then his yabba-dabba-doo-esque yowling must have triggered a noise filter in the jail phone system, because the line went dead. He called back to finish the song, though.

Now that’s perseverance, and that’s an entertainer.

Post a Comment