See this flyer? It’s the only thing that remains from my time in a study in San Francisco rock and roll marginalia called HELEVATOR, way back in 1990 and 1991. I formed this band with my pals Steve Watson and Chas Glynn on something of a whim during the late summer of 1990, when we were all looking for something to do. Steve (guitar) and Chas (drums) had actually played in bands before, Steve dating back at least a decade in Detroit and LA, and Chas on guitar in other groups (he’d barely picked up drumsticks before, and like me on bass guitar, it showed). I’d just unceremoniously ended my college radio DJ career – which I recapped a bit in this post a few months ago – and, being a music fanatic, though I’d try my hand at being in a real band, as a real contributing member. I reckoned Steve could teach me the ropes on bass, so I bought a right-handed one at North Berkeley Music in Berkeley, CA, and then had them string it left-handed to accommodate the hand-preference handicap that has been oppressing me my entire life.
Now I’d been in bands before, the previous two years in college in Santa Barbara, but mostly as the comedic frontman/"singer". For evidence, I offer you THE UMBILICAL CHORDS MOVIE from 1988. There was also Sluggo, We Got Power and a guest role as drummer in a Devo cover band called Steve Garvey’s Hair. Forming a band in Santa Barbara around that time was as simple as 3 or 4 non-musicians deciding to form one – and only then figuring out how to play along the way. Helevator were a little bit like that. I came in with two covers I wanted us to do: “Confusion” by THEE MIGHTY CASEARS, and “Lookin’” by THE NIGHTS AND DAYS. Steve taught me how to play these exceptionally easy songs, and off we went. We rented a practice space in the bowels of Oakland, right by the Coliseum (where the A’s, Raiders and Warriors play, and where nobody in their crime-averse mind dares to walk otherwise). No one in the band had a functional car, so three times a week (!!) we hoofed it thirty minutes each way on BART – the local subway system - with our “gear” to practice. Far as I can remember, practice spaces in San Francisco were either way too expensive, had waiting lists, or both.
Beer was consumed, songs were gingerly learned, and soon enough through the racket we actually had something that could be discerned as “songs”. Here’s the thing, though – I can’t even remember if we had any originals. I know I certainly didn’t write any. I feel like maybe Steve wrote an original song in one of his old Detroit bands, and then “ported” it over to Helevator. Here’s a list of songs that we did cover during our six-month stay on the scene:
The Germs – “Forming”
Solger – “American Youth”
Richard Hell & The Voidoids – “Love Comes in Spurts”
Thee Mighty Caesars – “Confusion”
Ramones – “Swallow My Pride”
The Nights & Days – “Lookin’”
Could that have been our entire set list? (Answer - No. Chas Glynn himself answered this question on Facebook - we also had our intro song called "Hey Hey We're Helevator", our "riposte" to "Hey Hey We're The Gories"). Well, before we’d even practiced a half dozen times, our friends in the band CACTOPUS invited us to open for them at the 6th Street Rendezvous club in San Francisco one weeknight, probably about November 1990. A bunch of our friends showed up to hoot at us, and since all we played was a tuneless version of “Forming” (how appropriate) three times in a row, we certainly deserved a bunch of hooting. I remember lots of faux pandemonium after we played the song and mock-graciously said “thank you – good night” to our audience of about 30 – which culminated in our “encore” performance of “Forming” for the fourth and final time.
The next time we played was around New Year’s Eve 1990, at the house party you see advertised on this flyer. I was a bit nervous for our first “real” gig. People were going to share their Friday night with us. Girls would be there. We wanted to be solid. People even came out from my work to “watch Jay play in his rock band”. I donned a burgundy smoking jacket that was given to me by a Cactopus member named Brig Tratar. And then – clunk. We played our six or so songs, got some polite applause, the room cleared out and the party ended. We didn’t sound as loud as we wanted to; the drums were more tippy-tap than crash/boom/bang, and I could barely play the most simple of basslines. I think that’s when we started making fun of ourselves in earnest, and where the seeds of our decline were sown.
A third and final illustrious gig remained for Helevator. Early in 1991, we were invited to come visit my alma mater, UC-Santa Barbara, and play at “The Red Barn” in Isla Vista. The Barn was a spot that people could reserve or rent out for parties or shows, and we played with a couple of local “IV” (Isla Vista) bands that almost certainly were part of our circle of pals (PMS? Cactopus?). Again, it was one of those fake-crazy crowds that chanted our name before and after we went on, slamdanced, stage dove etc. I recall calming my nerves with pre-show beers so aggressively that I played the basslines to our entire set list to the audience as we were tuning up – then played then again for real in the same order. Of course it was a blast, and perhaps it really was the right way to go out.
We sloughed off our thrice-weekly practices when we got back, and the band quickly imploded through inertia. Both Steve and Chas went on to be in good bands that made real records throughout the next decade and a half. Me, I sold my bass guitar way before 1991 was over. My thinking was that I’d rather listen to real musicians make records, than to play-act at being one – so I started a fanzine called SUPERDOPE instead. Not once have I wished I played music again; because for all intents and purposes, we were barely playing music anyway. Even now on the rare occasions when I see Chas or Steve, if Helevator ever comes up it’s so we can give each other a high-five and a chortle, in the solidarity of knowing that we were as pathetic as they came. I’ll let you know if the long-rumored “lost practice tape” ever turns up in one of our shoeboxes.