Save Music in Chinatown 15 recap with Adolescents, Midget Oddjob, Unhushables, Hurry Up, Cringeworthy, and DJ Lisa Fancher from Frontier Records

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Our fifteenth Save Music in Chinatown show was going to be amazing. I felt like the lineup was carved in stone before the fourteenth show (Lois, Dub Narcotic Sound System, PHAG featuring Phranc and Alice Bag, and Mike Watt & The Missingmen!) even happened. But timing didn’t work out and the deck got shuffled leaving us with only a super-secret headliner that we couldn’t promote because we didn’t want stage divers and slam dancers to crush little elementary school kids at our all-ages matinee. And what sort of lunatic would pay 12 or 15 bucks to see a show if they don’t even know who is playing? We can’t have that sort of weirdo around our children!

But like Tang Sanzang in his journey to the west or Tampopo in her ramen shop, we received help from the coolest collection of legends and oddballs. Each band really deserves its own story.

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Cringeworthy is the humblest type of group–a tribute band. But they play the songs of Cringer and J Church, two punk bands that I not only loved but was actually close to. The singer and guitarist Lance Hahn was a dear friend and J Church would not only stay with me when they toured but Lance would come over just to hang out. He was a songwriting and DIY animal, who had his own record label and zine, and we shared a lot of overlapping interests outside of punk rock: Hong Kong movies, vegetarian Chinese food, Hawaii. It meant a lot to me that he dug the magazine I helped make, and it was brutal when he died at the young age of 40–not long after he was supposed to play my Chinese wedding banquet (a precursor to our Save Music in Chinatown shows and a story for another time).

But Cringeworthy was formed to play an anniversary show at Epicenter Zone, where Lance volunteered, and features Bay Area and Sacto veterans of the punk and hardcore scenes including Kamala from Cringer and Kamala & The Carnivores, Frank from Star Fucking Hipsters and The Love Songs, and Lory and Anthony from RAD and Sick Burn. Anthony is also my cousin! How cool was it that he would get his Lance tribute band to come down to Los Angeles to play our benefit and even ask our daughter Eloise to sing one of my favorite songs by him: “Confession.” There is so much to love about that particular moment–J Church, Lance, Anthony, Eloise, Chinatown– it almost hurt to watch.

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I knew it was a long shot when I asked my old friend Maggie (ex-Bangs) if Hurry Up might be interested in playing our humble benefit show. Who would come all the way from Portland to play for free? But judging from her radio show, I knew that she was not only a fixture in the PacNW’s underground music scene but also an aficionado of all cool music including early L.A. punk. It turns out Maggie had been talking to Kathy and Westin about embarking on a short tour the day I contacted her, and it might not have hurt that her partners’ other band The Thermals had just announced a breakup. All that plus cheap airline tickets made the unlikely trip possible .

It was very cool to see our little benefit show from an out-of-town visitors’ point of view, especially because they were so stoked! Seeing little kids from Chinatown mixed with legends of L.A. punk bonding over music and cookies must have been a surreal experience, and the power trio played like they were out of their minds. Conversely, friends in the crowd were blown away by the power-pop infused, garage punk ‘n’ roll band’s musicianship but also their pure joy. After seeing Hurry UP play three ripping sets in two days (one with Save Music in Chinatown friends and LA punk legends Alley Cats) and getting to hang out with them so much, I was very sad to see them drive off to San Diego.

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The Unhushables didn’t even exist when we started planning the show. But not more than an hour after their Facebook page launched, which was a big deal to me because I was a huge fan of Franks’s old band Big Drill Car as well as Dave and Art’s Supernova, I asked my friend who managed them if they might be interested in playing our show. Just like that, they said yes and I had to try hard not to fan out. I probably saw Big Drill Car two or three dozen times in the early ’90s, and have fond memories of Supernova pulling up to Jabberjaw in their space van.

More or less, I kept my cool and even asked them if they’d be interested in making and selling a small run of CD-Rs with hand-printed sleeves (since their LP was only available digitally) and  invited them to KXLU they could introduce themselves over the airwaves while promoting the show and cause on the Molotov Cocktail Hour (they stayed for the entire show). The nicest humans! The most fun set! The music is entirely new but us old fans could clearly detect the weirdness of Supernova and exuberance of Big Drill Car. I hope they play again and often.

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I have been trying to get Midget Handjob to play our show for around a year now. Their name is PG-13 (possibly R) but the music is mind-expanding to all ages with an all-star cast of noise-making punkers who can also play hard jazz and noise and Keith Morris reading fever-dream stories on top of them. Yes, the original singer of Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and OFF! It isn’t easy to wrangle seven schedules when every contributors plays in multiple bands but somehow the stars lined up for our show. And I didn’t find out until two weeks before the show, when Keith sent a message saying, “Weren’t we going to perform?” Okay!

We simply opened doors a little earlier and Keith was cool with us tweaking the combo’s name into Midget Oddjob, since flyers were going to be hung at our daughter’s elementary school. But nothing about the set was dumbed down, watered down, or made kid friendly. The band is a real jewel of L.A. punk that doesn’t play very often and they burned a searing impression into every single ear and brain cell with their supremely and equally trippy and psychotic jams. Freak out at the all-ages matinee!

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The Adolescents were our secret headliner–again. At our fifth show, founding member Steve Soto was announced to play a solo set and then the entire band played. I don’t think that either Mike Watt & The Secondmen or The Gears knew who was going to play after them! For Sunday’s matinee, our fifteenth, we did a better job of spreading the word to friends, family, and anyone who follows our updates and had a comfortably packed room full of curious kids, punk lifers, and supporters of the cause. Maybe having Lisa Fancher, who released their first and best-known Blue Album, be our deejay was a clue, too?

Before the set, singer and longime champion of our cause Tony Reflex talked about how the band has played Chinatown many times since 1979 and described his landmark moments in the historic neighborhood, including getting arrested for the first time and proposing to his wife. I would add their shows for us at the Human Resources gallery and now the Grand Star. For a band with that sort of legacy and imprint in L.A. punk to give our cause their seal of approval  not once but twice (and Steve did come through with a solo set on top of that) means the world to me. Their set was a full-on rager starting with “Brats in Battalions” and ending with “Amoeba,” peppered with more classics and brand-new faves in between (“Flat Earth Stomp,” “5150,” and the title track off their excellent upcoming Cropduster LP will blow you away). They don’t hate children and none were crushed.

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Of course, Save Music in Chinatown shows are more than concerts and not just because there was a kickass bake sale and little kids in dancing around in front. We raise money for music education in the inner city, where many students are immigrants, English learners, and underserved kids who don’t necessarily get opportunities for a thorough music education outside of school. We build on the punk rock tradition of the neighborhood’s old Hong Kong Cafe (where first-wave bands like X, Black Flag, Germs, Weirdos, Go-Go’s, Bags, and Dils played) by inviting artists who played there back in the day as well as newer members of the underground music tradition, both local and from as far away as China. We mix up immigrants and underground music, my favorite subcultures, that have crossed paths in the very same plaza as our shows at the Grand Star and unite them for the sake of kids, art, and the future.

After helping to start and edit an independent magazine for 16 years, where I met my graphic designer wife, I figured Wendy and I would never do anything that cool again. Who knew we would be able to embark on something like this with old and new friends, building a scene, supporting public education, and exposing kids who can handle it to underground and DIY culture? Who knew we would be able to do it and make a difference in the neighborhood where my immigrant grandparents and in-laws found community?

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My observations and gushing are mind-numbingly similar after each of our shows, and they must be a blur to anyone who actually checks in on my posts. But as our fifth school year draws to a close, I am more shocked than ever by the events we have shared, allies we have made, and how much our daughter has grown alongside the project. She has become our in-house artist, top spokesperson, and guest performer as well as lead inspiration. I didn’t get exposed to zines, DIY, or indie culture until I was a teenager and it blew me away. What can stop someone who is empowered by those sorts of things as a child?

With Eloise entering her final school year at Castelar, it’s hard not to anticipate the end of our project looming. That means we will have to make those three matinees especially great. (What bands want in? Do you dare miss a show?) It also means finding ways to make its impression go beyond 18 shows with 150 -200 people attending each afternoon. (An article for someone? A full-on book? The words may be dull, but we sure have some great photos.) Instead of taking a break this summer, I plan on doing a lot of digging into how these shows have reflected and affected the community, thinking about making the transition from school booster to activist, and considering where to go from here. Hopefully the posts won’t be too dull and we’ll still see you when school resumes in the fall. Have a great summer!

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If you don’t follow my feeds or blog, join the Save Music in Chinatown community on Facebook for updates on the next show.

 

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Save Music in Chinatown 15 preview: Cringeworthy, a tribute to Cringer and J Church

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Cringeworthy at Awesome Fest 11 (Bar Pink, April 17, 2018) – Photo: Greg Wong

I never expected our Save Music in Chinatown benefits to support Castelar Elementary’s music program to last this long. For five school years now, our all-ages matinees inspired by the neighborhood’s punk rock past at the old Hong Kong CafĂ© (but with cookies and little kids dancing around in front like the Peanuts Gang in a Target Video) have raised about $10,000 annually to help provide an extensive music education to largely immigrant, English-learning, and underserved students. We also have a lot of fun exposing kids that can handle it to DIY culture. All the while, we’ve made a lot of friends in LA’s storied punk community. Adolescents, Channel Three, Alice Bag, Mike Watt, Chuck Dukowski, Rikk Agnew, Phranc, Alley Cats, The Crowd, The Gears—our list is way too long to list and includes rad newer bands as well as some from China!

Our fifteenth show is the most shamelessly selfish lineup yet. Most of it is newer bands with members of older groups that never got very big or popular back in their days. But I loved them and want people to check out the current music, too. These are punk rock lifers who don’t play for fame but love and the scene.

Cringeworthy is a tribute to Cringer and J Church, bands that Lance Hahn used to play in. It was a big deal to me when I found out that he dug GR, the magazine that I helped make, and it wasn’t long before we became friends and he would stay at my house with J Church when they toured through Los Angeles or even just to visit.

Lance was a DIY dynamo who would write a song every day, release singles and records nonstop, contribute to a bunch of compilations, and tour with bands that ranged from Subhumans to Seam. Our overlapping interests stemmed well beyond punk rock, and conversations spilled over into Asian cinema, vegetarian Chinese food, lefty politics, and baseball. He was supposed to play my wedding but came a week too late—perfect for a guy who not only had Charlie Brown on his record covers but who embodied that sort of relentless persistence in the face of doom, surrounded by oddballs. The miscommunication actually worked out for the best because we were able to hang out for a much longer time, and that turned out to be the last chance I’ve have to see him before he died from a variety of health-related issues.

Cringeworthy includes Cringer drummer Kamala (also of Kamala & The Karnivores), her husband Frank (Star Fucking Hipsters, The Love Songs, Degenerics), my cousin Anthony (RAD, Sick Burn), and Lory (also RAD and Sick Burn). They have played only a handful of shows and it means a lot to me that they are traveling all the way down from the Bay Area to play our humble benefit. I will try not to cry during their set, especially if my 10-year-old daughter Eloise happens to grab the mic during one of my favorite Cringer songs.

I asked Anthony and Kamala some questions on the cusp of this great occasion.

MW: Can you remind me why and how Cringeworthy started?
AL: George Chen contacted me about doing a one-off band to pay tribute to Lance for the Epicenter Zone Reunion weekend in July 2015– a series of shows celebrating the 25th anniversary of Epicenter Zone.

[Lance’s partner] Liberty was one of the event organizers, I recall.  Lance, of course, was such a central figure to Epicenter, being the record buyer and store manager at various points. You couldn’t really do this anniversary and not acknowledge Lance’s importance to Epicenter.

The original plan was that George would play guitar, I would play bass, and Adam Pfahler would play drums. The songs we were considering were all J Church songs, since Adam used to drum for J Church.  I remember that Adam really wanted to play “Sound of Mariachi Bands,” in particular.  The vocalist position was never quite pinned down, because almost immediately Adam decided he couldn’t manage the time commitment.

We then got in touch with Kamala and found out she was interested in doing this project. At that point, it really became a Cringer tribute band, because Kamala played drums on so many classic Cringer songs, but of course not in J Church.  Since Cringer was a 4-piece, we needed another guitarist, and Kamala’s husband Frank was the perfect choice because he is an amazing guitar player and all-around great person.

Later, George moved to L.A. from the Bay Area, so it became necessary to replace him in order to play a few more shows. Lory from RAD stepped in and learned all the songs–some on bass, some which she plays guitar on.

The short answer to this is: to pay tribute to Lance Hahn, and have a lot of fun playing these songs that mean a lot to us over the years.

MW: Lance once told me that he tried to write one song a day. Wth so many Cringer and J Church songs to choose from, how did the band come up with a set list?
AL: We started from the set of songs that Cringer commonly incorporated into their live sets back when Kamala was their drummer, and just picked the ones we liked the best. Besides having Kamala’s lived experience and fantastic memory, I had a couple of old Cringer set lists I had hoarded away, plus the Live in Europe VHS tape, to provide guidance.

To humor me, everyone learned “Yellow Blue & Green,” which is one of my favorite J Church songs because of the bass line.  All the rest of our set is Cringer songs.

MW: Kamala, did the songs come back pretty fast? Has it been a weird trip back in time in any way?
KP: Yes, songs came back pretty quickly. I guess it was muscle memory!

I wouldn’t say it’s been weird–more like conflicted. On one hand, it’s great to have had enough distance from playing the music to realize they are special and it’s been great revisiting it. On the other hand, an endeavor like this can feel like ego-stroking nostalgia. And there was some reticence about doing J Church songs for me. There was never a conversation about Cringer breaking up. J Church just formed in its place while I was recovering from a broken finger gotten on the Cringer/Citizen Fish tour. However, J Church’s songs, in reflection, are very special and I’m happy to incorporate a song into the set. It turns out that “Yellow, Blue, and Green” is one of my favorite songs that we play.

MW: Can you talk about that first Cringeworthy show?
KP: As indicated above, it was the Epicenter Reunion show at San Francisco’s Verdi Club in July 2015 since Lance was a well-loved volunteer at Epicenter. The show was mayhem, in many ways, because they had so many acts (spoken word, bands) in such a short period of time and no equipment backline. So, I think we had 20 minutes to set up, play, and then get our equipment off-stage. It was strangely silent after we played our set of five songs. We thought that people didn’t really like what we did, but it turns out that most people were crying because they were moved by hearing Lance’s music again.

MW: Wait, I thought everyone got sick and it was a big disaster!
AL: That was the second show!  We were gonna play the Lookouting Fest in January 2017, but 3 out of 4 of us got the flu and were really sick the day of the show, and then had to cancel at the last minute. We got to play Gilman again in January 2018– sort of our triumphant makeup show.

MW: Did you expect other shows to happen?
AL: No.

KP: This will probably be the last show for the foreseeable future. We all have busy lives and other bands.

MW: What possessed you to come down and play our benefit?
KP: We have the great honor of being asked but also have an inside track since Anthony is your cousin. It’s a small but fantastic cause in this dystopian world and the billing is eclectic. As a life-long sober person, playing in the middle of the day at an event attended by people of all ages at a venue not focused on alcohol or meat markets is pretty much heaven.

MW: As punks from the Bay Area, do you feel connection to the Hong Kong Cafe or that thread of underground music and culture? Is it exciting at all to play in Chinatown?
AL: Not being from L.A., I mean I can’t claim to have any direct connection with the old Hong Kong Cafe. For me, that connection would be with old venues where I did see bands I loved back in the day, like J Church at Jabberjaw, Jawbreaker at Macondo, or any number of bands at the Smell.

Of course, I feel a connection with the DIY spirit and passion that makes Save Music in Chinatown so special– bringing bands, music fans, and non-music fans together for a righteous cause really appeals to me and makes me want to be a part of it. Having it hosted at a venue in Chinatown is just a bonus, moreso because as a Chinese person whose dad was born in L.A. Chinatown, I treasure the neighborhood and what it means to the longtime Chinese community–and less so because of the punk connection!

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Follow Cringeworthy on Facebook and get tickets to Save Music in Chinatown 15 at eventbrite.com!

 

The Year Jawbreaker Broke a.k.a. Why my family braved the elements, port-a-potties, and bros at the Riot Fest

Going to huge festivals can be a bummer: huge stages and barriers so the bands you want to see are mere dots on the horizon, disgusting port-a-potties, bros everywhere, and it’s you against the elements all day long. Still, my wife, daughter, and I flew out to Chicago to see Jawbreaker’s first proper show after more than 20 years.

I was at the right place and right time, and always made a point to see the punk band from L.A. play dives like The Anti-Club, Raji’s, Al’s Bar, Club 88, Jabberjaw, the pizza joint at UCLA, as well as my friend Eric’s backyard, not to mention the occasional pilgrimage to Gilman St. Over time, I became become friends with Adam and when it was announced that he, Blake, and Chris were finally getting back together–rising from the ashes of burning out decades after a much too brief and painful but beloved existence to headline a gigantic festival thanks to generations of music lovers who discovered them too late–how could we miss it, even if it was all the way out in Chicago?

Of course, it wasn’t just Jawbreaker. Tucked into Riot Fest’s massive lineup on Sunday were killer sets by Engine 88 (featuring Dave who worked Lost Weekend Video with Adam), Upset (who has played with Adam’s other band California a few times, including once at a Save Music in Chinatown show), That Dog. (friends who played with them at Jabberjaw a few times), and Versus (friends of Jawbreaker including James who worked at Lost Weekend as well). Too bad J Church couldn’t have been there but I wore a T-shirt in Lance’s honor.

We missed Adam’s sister’s band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black because we couldn’t pull ourselves away from seeing our friend Rachel Haden with That Dog., but it was pretty much the Jawbreaker drummer’s All Tomorrow’s Parties and Fantasy Island smushed together, and it was no problem for us to walk right up to the barricade to see most of Jawbreaker’s support from as close as possible. (Sorry, Best Coast, Beach Slang, Kitten Forever, TVOTR, Built To Spill, MIA, GWAR… We’ll catch you later!)

We saw plenty of friends on our side of the barricades, too. My pal Scott, who I met way back when he was in J Church but kept in touch with through our love of comic books, happened to be Blake’s guitar tech and brought us many cold waters from backstage. Jon and Ron played much bigger parts in Jawbreaker’s West L.A. days than me, said hi, and hooked us up with bottles of water, too, and I regret not taking a picture with them. Wendy, Eloise, and I also introduced ourselves to Adam’s kids, gave copies of our new Save Music in Chinatown zine to Lauren from Upset, and met up with our friend’s sister Veena who flew in solo from the Bay Area to finally see Jawbreaker. Hardcore!

After all that plus some mediocre food, I was pretty stoked and relieved that 9-year-old Eloise could handle the growing, thickening crowd during Dinosaur Jr. and Prophets of Rage and even make it to Jawbreaker going onstage–and then ride my back during the entire brilliant, cathartic, and tight-as-shit set from “Boxcar” to “Bivouac” in the middle of the sweaty and swaying masses. With so much on the line after so much time off, the band totally could have flamed out but what a payoff and how beautiful was it to see them playing their guts out with Adam grinning like Billy Zoom the entire time until demolishing his drum kit?

While the Windy City was already of our favorite places to visit, it was pretty awesome to catch up with Adam and say hi to Blake in front of their hotel after having lunch with Scott the day before. And for James to approach us at the Art Institute and then lead us over to where the rest of Versus was meeting up. To spend time with our dear friend Tim, a fellow Jawbreaker fanatic who has hosted my family at his cool film festival and have him take us to donuts and drive us to Chinatown.

So many of us gathered to see one of our favorite bands and some of our favorite people finally get their due. How rare is that these days and how often does it happen someone or something you literally know and love? And how cool was it for my family to be present at that crucial moment of release and redemption? I loved all the songs before but now they are a soundtrack to something completely different.

We got more than stupid T-shirts out of the concert. In this messed-up world, the good guys won for once and we saw it happen from the trenches.

p.s. Don’t miss the L.A. debut screenings of Don’t Break Down: A Film About Jawbreaker at The Vista in Los Feliz on Wednesday, October 4. See you there!