A few weeks after moving into our El Cerrito flat, my college friend Liz Gray (no relation) asked if she could stay with me for a little while. She’d got herself a job on John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned, handling payroll, which she’d done in LA for years. Miss Gray worked previously for the company who handled Sha Na Na’s financial affairs and I had the unfortunate chance to taint the memory of my first concert by seeing them play around 1992. Very old, slow moving original members surrounded by young, energetic stand-ins to make them look even older and slower. It was good to see her plus her friend worked for Pixar, so we got to go visit her at work. Everyone’s cubicles were decked out with old toys for their first animated feature they were working on…..
Besides the usual neverending choices of great concerts to go to, San Francisco hosted the annual Gavin Convention, hosted by the Gavin Report, a radio trade magazine not unlike Hits, where I’d worked my last semester of school. It was smaller but not unsimilar to CMJ or SXSW with great shows all over town, all the time. I’d driven up the year before to see Jellyfish’s first Spilt Milk show and this year (1994), the Grays were playing a showcase at the Paradise Lounge, where I’d seen them less than three weeks before. Liz couldn’t deny her namesake band and came along.
It was actually a helluva lineup. I missed longtime SF lounge parody Bud E Luv and don’t remember seeing Translator, even though I put “Unalone” right up there with other American new wave classics like “China” and “A Million Miles Away”. The important part is that I saw Yah Yah LIttleman, a local folkcountryjazzpop trio import from Illinois that was stunningly good. Besides being hilarious and yodeling in harmony, they had great, catchy tunes. I might’ve seen them more than any other band when I lived up there and became friends with their singer, John Walter. He played one of our house parties but we lost touch after I moved away.
I googled him years later and found him in full-Devo duds fronting popular 80’s coverband Tainted Love. Getting up and crooning “Goody Two Shoes” in front of 500+ people with them was one of my first times singing with a band. Years later, he returned the favor in front of 15 people, singing “Radio Radio” with Rookie Card in North Beach SF. We’ve been in contact ever since and he dropped me a note one day to let me know that he loved what I’d written in the Jellyfish boxed set and that he’d ended up in one of the booklet photos. Small world,
John was too busy playing to catch the Grays’ set, despite being a huge Jellyfish fan. I don’t recall much myself, other than it was great to see them play so well in a room completely packed with seemingly unjaded radio industry folks, especially after seeing them play to no one in the same room just a few weeks before on a weeknight. If people didn’t know that Bay Area hometown favorites Jellyfish’s old guitarist had a new band last time, they sure did on this night. The album still wasn’t out for another four days but having seen them twice and taping one show, I was learning to love the songs. A photo from the set that night turned up on Getty Images.
It wasn’t terribly late after they’d finished but Liz wanted to leave and you can’t argue with a woman who is tired, even if you’re just friends. So we got out of there just as the last up-and-coming band was playing. They sounded like an explosion of energy and a Bay Area friend had been telling me about how great their live shows were for awhile but there was no way of staying. John from Yah Yah LIttleman said they were really good and the singer drank beer out of a girl’s shoe from the crowd. I believe him. Five months later, they were one of the biggest bands on earth and I got to see them at Lollapalooza.
The next night, I returned to the city to see the amazing Love Jones play another Gavin showcase around the corner from the Paradise Lounge. Anyone remember the name of the place across from Slim’s with a tiny balcony stage? Me neither. Wait, I think it was just the number of the address (the LJ guys think it might’ve just been called 11 after the street). I do know I saw the familiar face of 91X’s Mike Halloran, who later brought the band in to play his short-lived Discafe in La Jolla. This might’ve been my first time seeing Louisville’s finest, who are unquestionably one of my favorite live bands ever. They were the unsung heroes of the cocktail jazz revival while being super soulful, belting perfect three-part harmonies, had incredible original tunes and were funnier than any act I’ve ever seen. Ever. Period.
When they did their first LA show after their drummer Stuart toured with labelmate Matthew Sweet, they fought off requests for awhile until they finally went into “Sick Of Myself” with Jonathan improving “Sick Of This Song” lyrics. But they did the false ending so many times with huge grins on their face that I was laughing so hard that I was not only crying but my stomach hurt. I know you had to be there. Shut up. I could go on all night about them but I’m supposed to be talking about the Grays so let’s just say that Jon Brion snuck away from Ro Sham Bo sessions to play all the piano and organ parts on their brilliant debut Here’s To The Losers. They brought him in to overdub keys onto mostly finished songs except for this live performance that they filmed…..thank god.