Punk royalty and other musings on the small-town scene
By Gabe Meline
The cloistered city of Lakeport is not widely thought of as punk-rock central, but at least it can boast the generally unknown distinction of hosting AFI's very first show.
It was the beginning of the kind of career that every kid who starts a band dreams of. By now, the East Bay band is a punk-rock institution, having traveled all over the world and sold quite literally millions of records, which is just plain incredible to fathom for someone who watched them amble onto a Lakeport stage and play their first show back in 1992.
It wasn't supposed to happen, actually. The show was booked at the Lake County Fairgrounds and was already full with six bands when a group of Ukiah kids showed up and asked if they could play. No one wanted to add another band at the last minute, but they were so earnest and funny that no one had the heart to tell them no.
"We're called AFI," said a perpetually smiling kid who introduced himself as Dave. "We don't have very many songs, so we won't play too long."
"What does AFI stand for?" I asked.
He got all excited. It was probably the first time anyone had asked him what his band's name meant. "A Bunch of Fuckin' Idiots!" he said.
I added up the acronym in my head. "But what about the B?" I asked. You'd think he'd been waiting forever for the chance to blurt out his response: "That's why we're a bunch of fuckin' idiots!"
Even though we hung out for the duration of the night after they performed--and played countless shows together in the next few years--I wasn't totally blown away by AFI. They were just another band playing a style of punk that had been done to death already, and I was over it. What set them apart, though, even at that first show, was their captivating, unbridled energy.
The kid who introduced himself as Dave turned out to be the lead singer. He, in particular, stole the show, running laps across the stage as if it were too small for him. He contorted his body and screamed his lines with all the vitality and desperation of someone dying to get out of Ukiah. It only lasted for 25 minutes or so, but AFI had made their mark; my band played next, and AFI were a tough act to follow.
AFI's subsequent worldwide popularity has gradually transformed that first gig into local lore, but what was truly exciting in Lakeport at the time was that a punk-rock show was even happening at all in such a remote town.
It didn't, however, exactly set off a movement. Shows around Lakeport since have been infrequent and unorganized, but that's been changing thanks to former Santa Rosa resident Cristi McElhenny, who moved up there last year, booked her first show and observed the demographic that showed up.
"They're all so young," she says, "and there's nothing for these kids to do."
On a recent night at Lakeside Lanes, the local bowling alley where McElhenny rents a side room behind the video arcade, the audience represents a cross-section of the town's small population. A kid coming through the door wearing a Dead Kennedys T-shirt and pink satin shorts is followed by two prepubescent girls in pastel team caps and low-rise designer jeans. Thuggish-looking guys in starter jackets lurk outside and smoke alongside people with piercings and face tattoos. Before the show starts, two drummers play together until the better of the two gets up and starts riding her skateboard around the room. There are six bands scheduled to play on this night but no PA system, when unexpectedly a seventh band shows up and offers the use of their PA in exchange for coveted Lake County real estate: a slot on the bill. They wind up playing last.
"If you are caught drinking in the parking lot, you will be eighty-sixed for good!" McElhenny announces from the stage. "Do not get caught drinking in the parking lot!"
Between bands, two girls approach the door and peek into the show curiously. They are straight-laced types who, in a large city, would either recoil in horror or at least ask what kind of music the bands play. But this is the only thing to do in Lakeport tonight, so they each pay $5 to get in.
Overstimulated or perhaps bored, people leave the show periodically to play Dance Dance Revolution in the arcade room or to not get caught drinking in the parking lot. During the sixth band's set, a forty-something man in a ponytail storms into the room.
"Who's in charge here?" he demands. "You've got to keep an eye on your musicians, man, because I just caught one of them pissing on the floor of my shop next door! We have bathrooms here, you know. It's just not cool!"
Fortunately McElhenny has had few problems with the law, and has been showered with widespread community support for her efforts. After all, most adults in this community also grew up here and realize the struggle that their own children face. "This is really a unique situation," McElhenny says. "I feel like it's almost destiny."
Truly, the obvious success of these shows is that local youthful energy, in danger of festering, is being redirected into creative action which revitalizes a disconnected existence. Whether or not the crowd here actually realizes this is debatable; most people at the show are simply looking for a good time. Some of the local kids hang out in the parking lot at night's end to offer a widespread opinion about their town. "Lakeport sucks," one of them says, "but we're not from here."
"Yeah," stresses his friend, "we're from Kelseyville.
Off Kilter, Archaeopteryx, Band A and Criminal Subculture perform at Lakeside Lanes on Saturday, May 28. 872 Lakeport Blvd., Lakeport. 7pm, $5. 707.263.4828.
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From the May 25-31, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.