[ MAUKA MAKAI ]
Band onWhen Go Jimmy Go finally pulled up in their rented van and trailer to the Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center on Berkeley's San Pablo Avenue, they were in a surprisingly upbeat mood. Based on the band's recent trials, I had expected longer faces. Here we all were, some 2,500 miles from home in a strange land with limited resources, they as a touring band and I as the writer determined to commit the story of their journey to paper.
Go Jimmy Go finds a
West Coast road trip is more
about survival than making music
Shawn 'Speedy' Lopes
As Hawaii's premier ska/rock steady/reggae/soul combo, Go Jimmy Go had made something of a name for themselves in the islands and had hoped to duplicate some of that success on their latest West Coast venture. It was the band's second consecutive summer tour, and although a year wiser, Go Jimmy Go knew they would not be any richer this time around. Without the support of a major label, the band would have to rely on paying gigs and merchandise sales to get them through the tour.
Saxophonist Eric White pulled me aside for a pre-show smoke break to run down the past week's shortcomings. "Things didn't pan out like we wished they would, and that's the honest truth," he said between cigarette drags.
For Go Jimmy Go's first date in San Pedro, he said, the band was informed by the proprietors of Sacred Ground that if the performance went on as scheduled, the LAPD would be making arrests for assorted permit violations.
"So here we are, coming all the way from Hawaii, totally ready for the first show, and negative ... canceled," he said ruefully.
Thankfully, a promoter from a nearby dive offered the band a gig at his smallish venue, and Go Jimmy Go, though disappointed by the last-minute change, accepted. Had this occurred back home, it might have been considered a minor inconvenience. But this was their tour, the start of the three-week pilgrimage they had worked toward for the past year.
"We saved up about $3,000 to use after paying for plane tickets," Eric said, adding that the group's performance earnings since last summer went into this year's tour. With each canceled gig came further loss.
"It's all about survival," he said. "You're not going to make money; your job is to break even."
Earlier that week, he, drummer Shon Gregory and trombonist Fernando Pacheco had trotted off to a California reservation casino to recoup some of their losses.
"I lost money, so it sucked altogether," he laughed, despite going 80 bucks in the hole. "We stayed up till 9 in the morning, and to tell you the truth, we've seen the sun come up every day."
Then came the band's two-day Las Vegas "vacation." Against their better judgment, Go Jimmy Go visited the MGM Grand Hotel, where Shon, who allowed himself just $50 in gambling money, raked in nearly $400 in a wild stroke of luck before losing it all the following day.
"The tables got me the second night, man," he said, shrugging off the loss.
Back inside the Ashkenaz on June 28, waiting to interview Go Jimmy Go backstage was Abram Jones, a tall, hulking "rude boy" who, in a porkpie hat and leather jacket, appeared no more a journalist than I in my football jersey, sling pack and knee-length denim shorts. As Webmaster of the Bay area-based ruderoots.com, he was there to interview the evening's scheduled acts: Go Jimmy Go, San Jose's Monkey and the one-man ska band Chris Murray. When asked how he likes Go Jimmy Go, he nodded emphatically.
"I only like traditional ska bands, and they're pretty trad," he said.
Illuminated by paper lanterns and Christmas lights, Go Jimmy Go powers into their set with "Bang the Skillet," one of their more propulsive numbers, as a hundred or so high school kids, college students and world-beat yuppie-types twisted, pogoed and skanked to Go Jimmy Go's feel-good melodies.
"This is what it's supposed to be about, you guys," Eric told the crowd. "Making friends and making music."
June 29 >> The Voodoo Lounge's mascot, a blazoned neon skull in top hat, keeps watch over San Francisco's grime-ridden Mission Street at night. As shady characters began occupying street corners here, the tattooed and erratically bleached clientele of the hip bar-and-sushi spot began filing in from all parts of the city.
Just as with the night before, Go Jimmy Go was joined by Monkey and Chris Murray, with the Phenomenauts (featuring Hawaii expatriates and former Red Session players) joining the bill. The bands put on an incredible show -- the prop-crazy Phenomenauts were particularly fun to watch in person -- and Go Jimmy Go cut into its deficit with more T-shirt and CD sales.
Two days later, en route to meeting the band again on First Street in San Jose, I was accosted by a 10-deep crew of South Bay homeboys who offered me entry into the Usual, a local nightspot, for a mere $5. It's a bargain, they said, considering Digital Underground was to be there that night. They also claimed to be the warm-up act. Before their sales pitch was over, I'd already figured out their game: They probably were the opening act and, as such, were afforded a guest list. By "selling" me entry into the club, they made a little side money -- enough for a six-pack, at least.
"You guys know where the nearest liquor store is?" I asked, making more small talk.
"Naw," said one. "We were just looking for one, actually."
They asked where I'm from, and when I said Hawaii, their eyes lit up.
"Yo, our deejay's from Hawaii," piped another.
They introduced me to the Hilo-raised DJ Quest, who, topped with a white beanie and draped in a sagging ensemble, had obviously been away for a while. As Quest told it, he had moved to the area years earlier and eventually found his way into the local hip-hop scene. He had sobering news for his crew, however: The club wouldn't let them play because he's underage. He gave me his business card, and the crew ambled off in search of the nearest convenience mart.
Just across the street, I spotted Go Jimmy Go's van and trailer in front of the Cactus Club, the fabled venue where bands like Smash Mouth and Papa Roach cut their teeth. Inside, it was dark, and the incessant sound of clinking bottles rattled off the walls. The Cactus Club was Monkey's home court, and this night it was the site of its CD release party. Monkey rocked the spot, successfully cloning the kind of wild, funky, pogo-happy grooves Fishbone achieved in its early days.
Go Jimmy Go members howled in support of their on-the-road comrades, and Monkey members did likewise when it was Go Jimmy Go's turn onstage.
Through it all, Bernie Garcia, whom Go Jimmy Go hired as their tour driver, looked miserable as he guarded the merchandise table. Having managed several Southern California ska bands, this night's show was just another gig in a long list of tour dates. He swore he smelled urine, but I thought it was just stale beer.
When it was all over, the band navigated its way to the Cupertino home of Micah Turney, who had offered his living-room floor to Go Jimmy Go and their immediate entourage, myself included, for the evening.
"When you're on the road, other bands are real hospitable," said Eric. "Everybody just opens up their house 'cause they understand; they go through the same damn thing."
It was my first overnighter with the band, and it seemed like only minutes after closing my eyes that the sun had risen again. Already accustomed to abbreviated sleeping hours, most of the band was up and about, toothbrushes and towels in hand. Soon, Eric had more disappointing news.
"I just got a message from our Santa Barbara contacts," he said, shutting off his cell phone. "Another show's been canceled."
He shook his head and pored over his tour schedule for possible solutions.
"This is retarded, brah," he said to no one in particular.
Again, the group was screwed out of a paying gig they'd been promised. Despite giving his word to Go Jimmy Go and the Upbeat, one particular club owner now was saying he couldn't justify paying two bands when he could simply hire a deejay for the evening. He said he thought the show, scheduled for the 4th of July, would pack a crowd regardless of the hired entertainment.
"We'd better at least have fun in Modesto," said lead singer Jason Friedmann ("Bison" to his friends), already looking ahead to the night's gig. "I should have brought a tutu or something."
"We're gonna kill," shouted bass player Cam Wright with a raised fist. Whether he meant that figuratively or literally was not clear.
Some sobering facts to consider when traveling on a self-financed tour: You eat when the band eats. You sleep when the band sleeps. You party when the band parties. You do your laundry whenever possible. And you resist the urge to stuff yourself when you don't know where the next toilet's going to be.
Unaware of these tenets, my experience in Modesto was bound to suck. When we arrived at the Dirty Duck sometime before sundown in the ghostly Central Valley city, the air hung heavily, and nightfall provided only a modicum of relief from the heat. I took this as an omen. While the band patronized one of the few open eateries in the area, I decided to stroll about the block. Was this deserted city the same one Go Jimmy Go had raved about the year before when the whole neighborhood, it seemed, showed up to their word-of-mouth gig?
"I hate this place," Dirty Duck proprietor Brian Howe would later tell me. "But it's where I'm from, you know?"
As owner of one of the few clubs in the area, Howe is something of an institution, despite his relatively young age (he turned 32 the day we arrived). Thrilled with the phenomenal show Go Jimmy Go put on last summer, he had invited them back this year to play his birthday party.
Shrouded in virtual darkness, Go Jimmy Go began its set.
"Live from Hawaii, Go Jimmy Go!" came the voice over the PA system.
"We're here, Modesto! Where are you?"
Sadly, the seven musicians onstage were matched in number by their audience, myself included.
Undaunted and perhaps vitalized by the endless flow of free alcohol dispensed to the band, Go Jimmy Go plowed through their set with a ferocity I had never seen them play with before. Song by song, the sparse crowd multiplied until halfway into the show, the Dirty Duck was awash in rowdy revelers who decorated the venue in discarded beer bottles. In a moment of boozy inspiration, Fern walked the entire length of the club and out the door in midsolo, beckoning stragglers outside to join the party inside as if he were some sort of Pied Piper of ska.
Bernie, well aware of the long drive to Santa Barbara the next morning, wisely decided to catch a few Z's in the van. The heat forced him to awaken every half-hour or so to start up the van and get its air conditioner blowing.
Even after the gig ended at 2 a.m. and patrons were ushered out of the Dirty Duck, the party continued in private with more free drinks and a free-form jam session. As the band broke into a drunken rendition of Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," it dawned on me that I was stuck in Modesto, tired, hungry, sober and without a place to sleep.
When Bernie finally rustled the band together for the morning drive southward, the boys were dumbfounded by the sight of sunlight creeping over the horizon. The boisterous, smashed bunch yelled and screamed unintelligibly until Ian, who was only moderately soused, finally had enough.
"Will you guys shut up already?" he barked from the passenger seat.
"You're just mad 'cause you're on cloud seven," spit back Cam, waving a half-empty bottle of Corona in the air, "and I'm on cloud nine!"
Although cheated out of a paying gig in Santa Barbara, Go Jimmy Go was determined to find a replacement show when they reached the seaside city. The band was granted accommodations by Bison's father, who owns a three-house plot in the area. They set up camp and scrambled for another show. Bison believed it wouldn't be easy, considering the city's history of discouraging live music.
"It's always been a middle- to upper-class community of retired folks and rich people," he said of his hometown. "The police in Santa Barbara are really bad. They'll get you for anything and everything they can."
One lead resulted in a possible gig at Old King's Road on State Street. When that fell through the following day, Go Jimmy Go moved their show to a competing venue across the street, an Irish pub called the James Joyce.
"They're taking a chance with us," proclaimed Eric, "so we have to rock."
When show time began, the band, squeezed into a tiny corner, broke into a joyful racket. Fern, trombone in hand, leaned into a wide stance and bobbed to the beat, blowing with unusual verve. Eric and Ian rallied the bottom-heavy rhythm section with soaring solos as Bison laid down a silky-smooth scat.
"So good to be in Santa Barbara again, everybody ..." he improvised in his suave tenor. A chorus of squeals erupted from the ladies in the house. A bevy of beauties surrounded the stage, swaying to the rhythm. Soon, the empty pub was transformed into the liveliest venue on State Street. Drinks in hand, audience members sang along with the band: "Good times and bad times and all of those in-between times / Good times / Bad times / All those in-between times ..."
Eyes closed and in the throes of soulful ecstasy, a smile flashed across Bison's face. He was finally home, and, in a funny way, his band mates were, too.
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