End of an Era
Bidding goodbye to the Bennett Valley House
By Gabe Meline
A whirlwind of activity surrounds the Bennett Valley House this week, which for the past 10 years has been a beacon to the underground community in Santa Rosa and a sacred venue for independent music.
The name "Bennett Valley House" is a double misnomer; it's not actually in Bennett Valley and, even more importantly, its walls cannot be accurately described as supporting a mere house. For a decade, the BVH has served as an example of successful communal living, a center for political activism and a safety net for displaced youth. Over the years, this modest rental had become a community institution.
In the midst of all this activity, live music has been presented here since the mid-'90s, and in an era of increasing trepidation about house shows, the BVH has stood as a symbol of freedom for underground music.
As unpredictable as the shows at the BVH were, a typical visit would reveal some familiar scenes: all the good places to lock your bike were always already taken; you could be sure to meet someone changing guitar strings on the front porch; the living room would be scattered with people, drum parts and books, with someone cooking up rice and vegetables in the kitchen; you could find iced beer in the laundry basin; the smokers would congregate on the back porch, and a fire pit, always burning, would heat the backyard.
For every reason that bands play in commercial venues--to make money, to gain exposure, to stroke egos--there are equal and opposite reasons they play elsewhere. The BVH shows aimed to create a spirit of community, a feeling of togetherness and shared experience; even if the house was packed and the bands were great, the evening could still be deemed a failure.
Some of the most successful shows in this spirit were small, with songs and stories exchanged between performers who may very well never meet again. Earlier this year, a Vermont-based banjo and guitar duo called the Shiftless Rounders stopped by on a nationwide tour to perform with Devil Makes Three, an up-and-coming bluegrass trio from Santa Cruz. About 30 people showed up.
At larger shows, the house proved too small to contain its occupants. In 1995, Edaline and the Conspiracy crammed into the living room, and onlookers had to watch from the front yard. In 2002, a San Francisco band called the Mall played. It was so crowded, there was no use even trying to squeeze in the front door. At times, even the music itself has had to move outside; acoustic shows in the backyard garden were not unheard of.
With few exceptions, the house coexisted with its visitors and surroundings amazingly well. Cops showed up at the BVH only a scant handful of times but never issued tickets; sometimes they just told the band to turn it down a bit. Similarly, traveling bands nearly always treated the house with respect and chipped in on morning chores after staying the night.
You could never tell what you would see at the BVH, and that's what made the shows so special there. Puppets have acted out songs by Neutral Milk Hotel. Daryl Scariot, playing solo in the kitchen, once rattled off all 65 agonizing lines of Elvis Costello's "I Want You" with heart-stopping emotional precision. At one show, the singer for a hardcore band called Empire of Shit stripped naked and, after berating the crowd, convinced some audience members to strip naked too.
Being a communal house, there never was an assigned duty among residents to book shows. The make-it-up-as-you-go schedule filled up when someone knew a touring band passing through town or if someone at the house was moving out or having a birthday.
But it's all come to a sudden end. After 10 years of allowing a vibrant community existence, the owner of the Bennett Valley House is placing it on the red-hot real estate market. As the current residents pack up, there will be a few final shows happening at the BVH along with some special ceremonies. Everyone is uttering the same phrase: It's the end of an era.
Nevertheless, things have a way of coming full circle. On the night the BVH got its eviction notice, a party over in Rincon Valley that was packed with young people listening to three explosive new bands could be heard from seven houses away. Screaming high school students bounced off the walls, the abrasive crackle of the music rattled the windows and the band's friends sang along to all the indecipherable lyrics.
With the passing of the Bennett Valley House, someone had better rent a house to these kids soon. A fallen tradition is in need of revival.
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From the June 1-7, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.