Bacchanal to Basics: Low Ceilings & Loud Music in ’80s San Diego

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Back before the earth cooled and life crawled from the primordial ooze, nightclubs dotted San Diego’s map. The Spirit (off of Morena Boulevard) always had great bands running through and if they knew my I.D. was fake, they never made a big deal out of it. Bodies was great in both locations it occupied. Soma, The Texas Teahouse, Kings Road, Pink Panther, Smokey’s, The Hype, Pal Joey’s and plenty of other venues have come and gone (although I think Pal Joey’s in Allied Gardens is still open) since then. Plenty of the venues showcased amazing acts while they were open. The loudest was The Spirit. The smallest of them was probably Megalopolis, just across from Pearson Ford. The best? Well, that is a matter of opinion. Here is mine:

There was a strip mall in Kearney Mesa, and for a while it was my favorite place on earth. The architecture was utilitarian at best, but it stood at the corner of the mall, proudly unobtrusive. It housed the Bacchanal (8022 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard), the place rocked until the walls sweated. If you were over 21 in the ’80s, or if you had a halfway decent fake I.D., you could see heavyweights like Ray Charles, the Cramps, The Ramones or B.B. King on any given night. For my money though, the best nights were when the locals came to play.

Mojo Nixon made the place his own. Nixon and Skid Roper were high-octane psychobilly at its finest. Many nights, the crowd swayed back and forth. We all held up our “pirate grog mugs” (99 Cent Store plungers, actually) and swigged away while Mojo had us all sing along, “land of the free and home of the brave/FCC fall in your grave.” The Beat Farmers turned up the volume and let their version of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” rattle the walls. There were too many nights to recall and too much great music to list. There is the enduring image of Country Dick Montana, standing outside the entrance, wearing a sandwich board, selling Beat Farmers merchandise before a show. Someone in line shouted, “what are you doin’, Dick?”

“Just trying to earn an honest living, dammit. Now get your disgusting self over here and buy something,” he said back. National acts came through almost every night of the week too.

Dave Edmunds took a seat with my friends and I after he finished a set and drank a beer with us. During their soundcheck, Angie Carlson from Let’s Active poked her head out of the entrance of the Bacchanal and invited the five or six of us who were outside to come in and help the band by standing in various parts of the club to tell us how the music sounded.

I waited outside the place back in 1990 for Nick Lowe to show up for that night’s gig. Around 4 o’clock, he pulls up and I say “Mr. Lowe, can I get your autograph, please?” and hand him my copy of Rockpile’s “Seconds of Pleasure.” He smiled at me and said, “Mr. Lowe is my dad, but I’ll sign. I thought there’d be more of you autograph hounds chasing down a world-renowned rock star such as myself.” He looked at the record, which was already signed by album mates Dave Edmunds and Billy Bremner, and said “I have Terry Williams address if you want him to sign this — and you’ll have bagged the lot of us.” I laughed and thanked him. That night’s show was amazing. I’m still not sure if he was joking about Terry Williams, though.

“And So It Goes” is not only one of my favorite singles of all-time, it was also the title of my column for the La Jolla Light.

The Pixies and Graham Parker were some of my other favorites to come through the Bacchanal, but it was just as amazing to see Tracy Chapman play, too. Four or five people came up to put bouquets of flowers at her feet as she opened the show. At the end of her first song, a particularly boisterous fan walked up and handed her a dozen roses. The folk musician with the hottest album in the country thanked him, blushed noticeably and looked out on the sold-out house.

“What is it? Did y’all have to buy flowers to get in here tonight?” The crowd erupted in laughs and cheers. She didn’t talk much that night, but she played beautifully and her voice is still one that is capable of giving me chills all by itself.

One evening, Marshall Crenshaw came through and played a great set. At the end, the crowd stomped and shouted for more. Crenshaw did two encores and left the stage. The crowd went even more wild. He came back out and did another song, and the crowd may have been the loudest I have ever heard in a club. Crenshaw huddled with his drummer to talk about what song to do next. He turned to the bass player who smiled and nodded, saying “I know the song.” Crenshaw walked up to the microphone and said, “That’s every song we know. Except for this one, which we’ve never played together before. So…” and his voice trailed off as if he was about to apologize. Instead, the band played a flawless version of the Beatles “In my Life” to a crowd that was almost stunned into silence.

Brian Setzer came through town supporting his post-Stray Cats solo album, The Knife Feels Like Justice. It was fairly obvious that the crowd was full of rock-a-billy fans wanting to hear some of the hits mixed into the new music. Setzer opened with “Bobby’s Back” from his solo album. My friend Chris asked me, shouting over the song, “Do you think he’s gonna do any Stray Cats stuff?” Before I could answer, the song ended, Setzer shouted “One, two, three, four” and the Radiation Ranch band launched into the Cats classic “Rumble In Brighton.” The crowd swayed in unison and bounced with pure elation. After the show, my buddies and I waited for the band to exit the club. Setzer was gracious and engaging. Also, he looked exhausted. “Great club,” he said to us as he signed my copy of his solo album. “How’d we sound?” The four of us must have come across like drooling fan-boys; “Awesome. Amazing. Fucking brilliant.” He thanked us for coming out and moved on to the next set of autograph seekers.

The Call played one evening and lead singer/guitarist Michael Bean (not a small or thin man) bounded across stage looking euphoric. He told the crowd how beautiful the beaches looked that day, and how glad he was to be playing in a strip mall. I’m fairly sure he was trying to be funny. Their encore “Let the Day Begin” still rings in my ears nearly 30 years later.

The Bacchanal’s ceiling was low, pictures of artists who had played the venue hung in the entryway, the lights were always dim and the door was always covered by the most gorgeous creature the world has ever seen, Terry: a short man with a buzzcut, a walrus mustache and a smile on his face that welcomed you inside. During an ill-advised three week period when I tried to grow a goatee, Terry told me I looked like a werewolf.

Every time I saw him after that, he would laugh and say, “the werewolf! Fetch the garlic. The garlic!” I have no doubt he greeted many of the frequent visitors in a similar manner. He was always a welcoming bouncer. As long as you behaved.

That face could turn all business when it had to, like the night my pal Steve and I witnessed Terry break up a fight on the dance floor during a Jason and the Scorchers show. Four guys started throwing punches near the stage, guitarist Warren Hodges looked down in panic and the crowd began to converge. Enter Terry. He dove in, then disappeared into the melee for a minute, Steve and I thought he was done for, and then the crowd parted like Moses parting the Red Sea.

The jovial face of Terry was gone. In its place was a mouth, shouting “move!” to everyone in his way. They did. Under each arm, he had two guys in headlocks as he marched for the door. Tables moved by the force of his will. Out on their asses all four went, flying like rag-dolls. Order was restored and the band launched into “White Lies” as if nothing happened. After the show, Steve and I walked outside and headed to the backstage door to meet the band. We got more than we bargained for.

The area behind the Bacchanal was nearly pitch-black at night. Almost black enough to not see Jason Ringenberg urinating onto the gravel. Thoughts of shaking hands with the band and getting their autographs disappeared and an awkward “nice set, dude” was uttered as we turned and Steve and I walked away.

The lineup of bands at the Bacchanal gradually featured fewer and fewer bands I wanted to see, my buddies began to graduate college and clubbing multiple times a week became difficult to pull off. Not to mention expensive. And potentially brain-damaging. One weekend in late 1990, I was looking through the Reader and realized there was not one band coming through the Bacchanal that I had even heard of. I wasn’t sure if I should feel sad, or just acknowledge the fact that I was getting older and nothing lasts forever. The place closed in 1991.

 

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Author: Barry Benintende

Barry has spent his entire adult life watching movies, listening to music and finding people gullible enough to pay him to do so. As the former Executive Editor of the La Jolla Light, Editor of the South County Mail, Managing Editor of D-Town, Founder and Editor of sQ Magazine, Managing Editor of Kulture Deluxe, and Music Critic for San Diego Newsline, you would figure his writing would not be so epically dull. He has also written for the San Diego Reader, the Daily Californian, the Marshfield Mail, Cinemanian and too many other papers and magazines that have been consigned to the dustbin of history. A happily-married father of two sons and a daughter, Barry has an unhealthy addiction to his hometown San Diego Padres and the devotion of his feisty Westie, Adie. Buy him a cup of coffee and he can spend an evening regaling you with worthless music or baseball trivia. Buy him two and you’ll never get rid of him.

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