On April 13 I was standing no more than a foot from the tiny stage at the Epic Lounge, smiling blissfully as I watched The Blasters tear through an almost two-hour set featuring some of their most beloved songs, like "American Music", "Border Radio", "Marie Marie", and my all-time favorite: "So Long Baby Goodbye". If I close my eyes, I can still feel Bill Bateman's drumming in my chest. I can still picture singer Phil Alvin's almost maniacal toothy grin and guitarist Keith Wyatt's pompadour bouncing around as he stomped around his small corner of the stage, proud as a peacock. At the heart of The Blasters' sound was John Bazz, the seemingly shy bassist with a quiet intensity. It was a sold out show and the band delivered beyond our wildest expectations. Despite being together for well over 30 years, The Blasters played with more energy, intensity, and heart than any up and comer could hope to muster. It wasn't too long ago that a show like this, with punk legends, would have seemed out of the realm of possibility in the city of Downey. It certainly wasn't anything I could have ever imagined when I was a teenager.
Growing up as a punk kid in Downey, I felt limited. My best friend and I would wander around the railroad tracks, buy records at Downey Music Center and Middle Earth Records, catch buck fifty double features at The Avenue, and swear we were going to die of boredom because there was nothing else to do. Our city's claims to fame were an old McDonalds and The Carpenters, neither of which really resonated with us at the time. The problem, of course, was that our sleepy suburb was so close to L.A., the stomping ground of my favorite punk band X. We believed all the good music and art and writing was just out of reach. When you're a kid, those thirteen miles to L.A. might as well be a hundred.
In my personal coming of age story, the year I turned 13 was a big year for me. I committed myself to punk rock by cutting off my waist-length hair, opting for a 'do that was no more than a few inches long. Of course I spiked my hair. Of course it gave my father a heart attack. Why wouldn't it?
In 1998 while attending what was then South Middle School, I also decided I was going to be a journalist. My biggest influence in this regard was Jim Gillespie, an English teacher who was also the yearbook instructor and the force behind our school newspaper The Pioneer Times, both of which he would name me editor of. Mr. Gillespie did what only the best teachers do: he encouraged me, supported me, and championed my writing and creativity, trusting me enough to give me the freedom to write about what I wanted and to present it however I saw fit. He even let me use the artwork from X's Wild Gift album to decorate the pages of our yearbook. (I must point out that Mr. Gillespie not only had Wild Gift on vinyl, but he kept it in our classroom closet.)
Besides guiding me into a field that would eventually become my passion in life, Mr. Gillespie will always inhabit a corner of my heart for another reason: he introduced me to The Blasters.
I can't even begin to verbalize how earth shattering it was to find out that a band like The Blasters was from Downey. They were key players in Los Angeles' early punk scene, routinely playing on the same bill as X, Los Lobos, and The Gun Club, doing shows at now iconic venues like the Starwood, Club Lingerie, and the Whiskey A Go-Go.
Before I even heard The Blasters' distinctive roots-rock, I was obsessed in a way that only a kid desperate for ownership over something could be. I wanted this band to be from my hometown so badly and when Mr. Gillespie gave me a cassette of their self-titled album, I wanted it more than anything. I wanted to know - no, needed to know - that my quaint little city could give birth to something as riveting and influential, as talented and undeniably cool as The Blasters.
And of course it was true: The Blasters were from Downey and it could be argued their sound was heavily influenced by this Southeast L.A enclave we call home. Downey is surrounded by mostly Black and Chicano neighborhoods and The Blasters sound like a melting pot of America's greatest music genres, combining rock 'n' roll, blues, rockabilly, punk, and R&B in a way that can only result when a bunch of guys from a small, distinctive city like Downey spend their formative years drinking, smoking, listening to records, and rambling around. Much like the "American Music" Phil Alvin sings about in the Blasters' song by the same name, the band is equal parts "sweet and lovely ... hard and mean," and that's exactly what makes them unbelievably good.
I'm 28 now and though the outsider attitude I cultivated as a kid still lingers, I've since fallen deeply and madly in love with my hometown, embracing the charming kitschiness of the world's oldest operating McDonalds and the sappy sentimentalism inherent in each Carpenters song. Clearly, Downey has its faults and shortcomings - many of which I write about often in these very pages, but it is my home and it is most definitely where my heart is.
The Blasters show at the Epic Lounge was more than just the best show I've ever been to - though it was most definitely that; it was a sign that the times they are a-changin' in this little city of ours - and it's for the better. With seemingly constant increases in student-teacher ratios and continued cuts to the arts, chances are many kids won't get their Mr. Gillespie.
But in a city that is actively fighting for culture, opening galleries, starting arts organizations, staging poetry readings, and honoring hometown heroes like The Blasters, at least kids will feel less confined. At least they will have wonderfully unconventional, artistic avenues to explore, perhaps enabling them to come across something that will tug at their heartstrings and elicit the same sense of hometown pride I felt in the The Blasters when I was a teenager desperately in search of something that would make Downey feel more like a place I wanted to live and less like a place I needed to escape.
At the end of The Blasters' set at the Epic Lounge, Phil Alvin waved to the crowd, saying, "See you again real soon, see you again in Downey." We should hold him to that.
********** Published: April 18, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 01