Friday, October 4, 2013

Hippies vs. Punks: The Chocolate Watchband

My parents met and married at San Jose State. Skip Spence, who was the subject of last week's Hippies vs. Punks post, relocated as a child from Canada to San Jose. The Moby Grape founder spent the last decades of his life shuttling between San Jose and Santa Cruz, struggling with alcohol, drugs and mental illness. I might have passed him on the street. I grew up around San Jose and Santa Cruz. My sisters, nieces, nephews and an uncle live there still.

The South Bay Area -- the Silicon Valley, the birthplace of our present digital dystopia -- has a climate that is pretty close to perfect. San Jose is memorialized as a kind of paradise in both Jack London's great dog novels, Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906). In Call of the Wild, the canine hero, a St. Bernard-Collie mix named Buck, is stolen from his idyllic Santa Clara Valley home and spirited away to work the Klondike goldfields never to return. White Fang is Call of the Wild in reverse. A wolf-dog named White Fang is rescued from the brutal Yukon Territory and ends up enjoying a relaxed life of bounty back in San Jose.

San Jose State was the location of the Aquarian Family Festival, the three-day non-stop free musical festival that took place in late May of 1969 and that served as a template for Woodstock later that summer.

I have been periodically exploring bands that performed at the Aquarian Family Festival -- Joy of Cooking, Moby Grape, Steve Miller Band et al. -- as a way to divine the spirit of the Hippie age. Tonight we'll take a look at the Chocolate Watchband, a San Jose band that played the Aquarian Family Festival.

All week, constantly, I've been listening to the first two Chocolate Watchband albums, No Way Out (1967) and The Inner Mystique (1968). They are smooth, tremendous recordings that can be heard over and over again without ever growing stale. Everyone in the band was a teenager except for rhythm guitarist Sean Tolby, who was in his early 20s. My Psychedelic Garage Punk immersion happens to coincide with the Tea Party-led Republican shutdown of the federal government. We are at an interesting and possibly catastrophic juncture. A neo-Dixiecrat rump in the House of Representatives is staging a sit-in of sorts, one that will melt down the global capitalist order if it lasts through October 17. The lily-white Tea Party Republicans want to return the country to the racially and socially homogeneous 1960s that is brilliantly depicted in Hippiexploitation pictures like Riot on Sunset Strip (1967) and The Love-Ins (1967), both of which the Chocolate Watchband appear in.

The Chocolate Watchband is a clear example of how the Hippie, born on the polo field of Golden Gate Park at the January, 1967 Human Be-In, owes part of his origin to the suburban garage of middle-'60s America.

Garage Rock -- a.k.a., Punk music -- precedes the Hippie, as the Hippie precedes the Punk of the middle-to-late 1970s. (Then, in my generation, the process repeats itself with the SST Records bands like Black Flag and the Minutemen giving way to the commercial excess of Grunge.)

Sounding most often like a flawless Rolling Stones and Yardbirds cover band, the Chocolate Watchband put out the aforementioned two albums with David Aguilar as lead singer. If you do anything, listen to the first two albums (No Way Out is at the top of this post) and go to the band's web site and read Aguilar's delicious history of the Watchband in ten parts. My commute on the train home this week flew by in a flash because I had printed out Aguilar's narrative; it makes for great reading. The writing is honest, sometimes embarrassingly so, and it transports the reader to another planet.

That planet is the South Bay Area of the 1960s: Campbell High School, Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Saratoga, Los Gatos, the Coconut Grove in Santa Cruz, the Continental Roller Rink, a time when junior colleges were sprouting up all over California and it seemed as if there was band on every neighborhood block. This is the world of Scooby-Doo where Daphne, Fred, Shaggy and Velma ride around in their psychedelic flower-power "Mystery Machine" van with their dog Scooby-Doo and play music in a rock 'n' roll band and solve crimes for the Squares. It's an innocent, prosperous world, a world of plentiful manufacturing jobs and easy sex and daytime reruns of Perry Mason. It's a white man's world. But the garage is where the kids are alright. Here's how Aguilar describes the garage of Watchband founder and lead guitarist Mark Loomis:
He led me past the kitchen, through the family room and out into the garage. In those days, the garage was where all good and bad bands ended up. Sometimes we had to share the space with gas leaking oil spilling lawnmowers, beat to shit permanently paralyzed cars, smelly flea hotel dog beds, overflowing garbage cans, cardboard boxes stuffed with old National Geographics stacked six feet high and messy workbenches with broken TV sets precariously perched on top of them where Ann Calvello and Georgie "Run Run" Jones jammed on roller derby every Saturday afternoon. Before you could play, you had to move things around, set up your equipment and then tear it down again when you were done. If you left it behind, a neighbor kid might try to chop firewood with your Telecaster. And, you always seemed to attract every pre-pubescent female living within fifteen miles of the house. I'm convinced that just before practice sessions, 60's rock bands secreted pheromones detectable from outer space by the underage female species of Homo erectus. But basically, we didn't care. We were in our element. This was Gods' country! 
I remember once, with guitars chords ricocheting off bare stud walls in a garage filled with marijuana smoke thicker than a July fog coming through the Golden Gate, we saw a flash of light from a badge in the window of the back door. When the door suddenly flew open, there stood a blue uniformed police officer. Before we could say "Oh Shit!" he took a deep breath and holding it in, said in a whispered voice, "could you turn the bass down a little guys? Somebody two blocks over complained that they couldn't hear their TV set". Then he exhaled and took in another big deep breath, held it and said, "Good song. Try a drum solo in the middle." Then, he closed the door and disappeared. It was a scene right out of a Cowen brother's movie. 
Mark's garage was awesome. No cars, no crap, just a garage with soundproof walls, carpet remnants on the cement floor and two little neighbor girls ages 11 and 12 with pimples on their chins sitting in lawn chairs with wide grins on their faces. It was time to rock and roll!
What is not clear from Aguilar's biography of the band is how quickly it all came apart. The Chocolate Watchband, the version of the group responsible for No Way Out and The Inner Mystique and the appearances in the Hippiexploitation films, was kaput before the Summer of Love had even run its course. They disbanded in mid-1967 due to drugs, women and creative differences. Mark Loomis wanted to pursue a more esoteric sound.

The Watchband would reform a couple more times in the '60s, absent David Aguilar, before breaking up a final time in 1970. They regrouped in 1999, with Aguilar once again as frontman, but no Loomis and no Tolby. Check out a 2005 performance of "Expo 2000" from the No Way Out album:

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