It is an article of faith among musicians, especially those who fail to achieve the degree of success they and their fans think they are entitled to, that the business of getting your music out to the public and attaining fame and fortune is a bit of a lottery.
“It’s all a matter of who you know,” or “You just have to be in the right place at the right time, ” or “If only we would have had a better manager.” The explanations and excuses are endless, and who’s to say which if any are valid and which are simply the bellyaching and sour-grapeing of those who almost but didn’t quite have what it takes?
Before I got involved in putting out records myself, both as a musician and as head of a record label, I was much more prone to buy into the simple-twist-of-fate theory; until I personally had to go through the machinations of persuading critics to pay attention to a record, stores to stock it, and people to buy it, I assumed that any artist or band I really liked would almost certainly be the next chart-topper if only that evil, Machiavellian music business would give them a fair shake.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I no longer look at things that way. Some of my favorite bands – my own included – continue to make little or no impact upon the public consciousness, but if asked to explain why, in almost every case I can find something about the band itself that partially if not wholly explains it.
Perhaps the songwriting isn’t strong enough, or maybe the chemistry among band members isn’t right. Sometimes they’re too hungry for instant success, and sometimes they’re not hungry enough. From an outsider’s viewpoint, it may indeed look like a crooked agent or an incompetent manager or an ineffectual record label dealt a death blow to their dreams, but with few if any exceptions you can trace the misfortune back to the band itself, i.e., the ones who chose that particular agent, manager or label and/or stuck with them far past the point when it became obvious that they’d made a mistake.
I don’t mean to come across as being hard on bands. I love bands. I’ve been in two and I’ve worked with dozens. I would have liked to see all of them – all right, almost all of them – become fabulously successful, but for those who didn’t, I could go down a list and show you, band by band, at least one or two reasons why.
In fact, after 45 years of buying records, going to shows, hanging around with bands and producing records myself, there’s only one band who I still think deserved to be way bigger than they were, and whose failure to reach that level I still can’t totally explain. Needless to say, this happened long before I got even semi-officially involved in the music business, when I was still one of those guys you always see hanging around backstage, the ones that nobody knows exactly why they’re there, but at the same time nobody can think of a good enough reason to tell them to leave.
It would have been around 1979, maybe even late 1978, the first time I saw the Pushups. Originally they were called Aurora Pushups, and no, I’m pretty sure it didn’t mean anything other than, “Hey, we’re new wave and have a wacky, zany name that doesn’t make any sense!” And I believe we were supposed to call them “Pushups,” not “the Pushups,” hence the promo button with its seemingly ungrammatical slogan, “Pushups Is Pop.”
I hated the slogan – even then, before I’d discovered the more sensible British method of referring to collective nouns in the plural, as in “the band are…” – but I liked the Pushups enough to wear it anyway, and I began making a point of going to as many of their shows as possible. There were a lot of them, too; this was when San Francisco’s punk and new wave scene – it was still more or less lumped together as one – was in its heyday, and it was quite possible to see a decent show – or two or three – on almost any night of the week.
My original connection to the Pushups was by way of their drummer, Al Leis. He’d been one of my brother’s best friends in high school, but I first met him in 1969 when he was living in the basement of an Ann Arbor communal house known as the Congolian Maulers. A year later, he was living on Oakland Street – still in Ann Arbor- when he got his first set of drums, something I was made aware of from at least two blocks away the next time I came to visit. The noise was so deafening and discordant (all right, I know drums can’t technically be discordant, but you get the idea) that I was amazed the police hadn’t been called yet, yet somehow Al heard me coming up the front stairs, stuck his head out from the garret-like tower adorning the front of the house, and shouted cheerfully, “Hey Larry, guess what, I got some drums!”
Since I was living in California by then, I didn’t see much of him for the next few years, and mostly relied on my brother for updates. Sometime in the mid-70s, Al moved to Colorado and joined a band called the Ravers, who I guess were a reasonably big deal in Colorado, but who I never saw or heard, and whose sole distinguishing feature in my memory – apart from having Al as a drummer, of course – was their roadie, a Boulder native by the name of Eric Boucher.
Fast forward to 1978: Al has left the Ravers and is living in the Mission District with my brother as a semi-permanent crasher. There’s a knock at the door, and it’s Eric Boucher, now re-christened as Jello Biafra, come to seek his fortune as a punk rocker. Al’s not home, so it’s my brother who literally opens the door to that particular chapter of San Francisco musical history, giving him cause to wonder from time to time during the ensuing years, what might have happened if he hadn’t invited young Biafra in.
A couple years later Biafra would repay Al’s hospitality by inviting him to audition as drummer for the by then very successful Dead Kennedys (I drove Al and his drums to the practice space where I promptly fell asleep behind the bass amp while the DKs tore through “Holiday In Cambodia”) before choosing Darren Peligro instead, but apart from that, they went separate ways musically. The Pushups, if you had to pigeonhole them, become one of those “skinny-tie” bands, whose look, if not so much their musical style, owed much to the sharper-dressed days of the early 60s. Still having a few skinny ties of my own left over from high school (sadly, my mother had finally thrown out my iridescent sharkskin suit, which would have been worth a fortune in New Wave days, and probably again now), I felt right at home in this milieu, even though my first loyalty was to the burgeoning SF punk scene.
Luckily, there was considerable overlap between the two. The Pushups often played at the Mabuhay and similar venues; in fact, it was at the Mab where I first saw the Go-Gos – still in their “punk” phase, literally dressed in trash bags – opening for the Pushups sometime in 1979. But they played all over the city and the suburbs, even way out in what were then still rural precincts of Marin and Sonoma County, and I, with not much on my agenda at the time except to rock and roll all day and party every night, would follow them as assiduously as any Deadhead would attach himself to Jerry & Co.
Eventually I became an accepted part of their entourage, which apart from a few girlfriends and a couple other longtime buddies, didn’t amount to much. I mean, people liked and enjoyed the Pushups, but I don’t recall anyone besides me repeatedly predicting that they were going to be the Next Big Thing. I had a lengthy, perhaps at least partially drug-fueled rap ready to unleash on anyone within earshot, illustrating how the Pushups had the harmonies, the songwriting skills, and, most importantly, the perfect four members to become, as I rather embarrassingly put it, “the New Wave Beatles.”
According to my theory, it didn’t matter so much whether the individual members of a band were geniuses, as long as they were at least competent on their instruments; what was far more important was how they interacted as a unit. Ringo Starr, I argued, hadn’t been an especially gifted drummer (not even the best drummer in the Beatles, John Lennon once cruelly observed), but he had been the perfect drummer for the Beatles, and Al, a similarly reliable but somewhat pedestrian percussionist, seemed to be exactly what the Pushups needed.
Then there was Ricky Swan, frequently referred to by friends and the not-so-friendly alike as a space cadet, who could barely play keyboards, or, to put it more charitably, was busily learning. He was the “zany” one that every band needs, and despite being the Pushups’ least musically gifted member, was invariably one of the most popular with the fans. His wide-eyed mugging, his self-deprecating manner that seemed to say, “I don’t know what I’m doing up here either!” and his ethereally robotic backing vocals were essential to the band’s image and sound.
Tony Rainier was the flashy guitarist. I always had the impression that he’d come up from LA to join the band, but a little research reveals that he was originally from Oakland and Davis. With his roostertail rock star hairdo, his velvet jackets, his jaded/cool attitude that combined “I’ve seen it all” with “Where’s the money?” he’s the one MTV would have been interviewing if, in fact, there had been an MTV in those days.
Finally there was Ed Dorn: bassist, lead songer, chief songwriter, resident genius. Everybody knew (or should have known) that without him there would be no band, but because he was so laid back and cerebral, you could sometimes get the impression that the other three were running the show and just let Ed come along for the ride. Ed liked being in a band, liked having the opportunity to get his songs heard by the public, but it wasn’t always easy to tell just how much he cared about it. Quite a bit, I suspect, but he had other irons in the proverbial fire, though I can’t at the moment remember exactly what they were. I do recall that one of the longer and more impassioned conversations I had with him was about Weimar Germany and how it might compare to the artistic and intellectual climate of America at the end of the 70s.
The Pushups came out of the box with a bang: their first (and what would ultimately be their only) 7″ single was either nominated or (I think) won the Bay Area Music award (Bammie) for best debut, and right from the start they seldom had trouble getting gigs. Not all of them were brilliant, but most were at least decent, and some were really, really good. They had, as industry folk used to, and may still, say, a buzz. This was long before I got it into my head that I could somehow run a record label, but that didn’t stop me from entertaining fantasies about being their manager or agent or roadie or, well, something, anyway…
If the Pushups had come along ten years later, when I was starting to sign bands left and right for Lookout Records, I would have snapped them up in an instant, and I suspect we would have done pretty well with them. It’s sort of absurd speculating, of course, since a late 80s version of the Pushups might have been playing very different music than the late 70s originals, and also because their orientation to “the business” was very different from the DIY ethos that would evolve later on.
Not that the Pushups were against doing things for themselves – they did put out their 7″ on their own, after all – but they were still operating in that frame of reference where “success” meant getting “discovered” by a manager and a label, after which would come the fairy tale ending of rock stardom, worldwide acclaim, and all the usual perks and clichés that went along with it. So the part-punk, part-hippie, part-making-it-up-as-we-went-along methodology of Lookout might not have set well with them.
I like to think it could have worked out, however, but we’ll never know, because the Pushups imploded long before I or any more likely entrepreneur (Howie Klein’s 415 Records might have been a good bet) could begin spinning those dreams into reality. The songs were getting better and better, the crowds bigger and more enthusiastic, and to true believers like myself it was only a matter of when, not if the Pushups would achieve the stardom they obviously deserved, but things began going painfully awry within the band itself.
By now I was such a familiar fixture on the Pushups scene that nobody objected (or perhaps even noticed) that I frequently sat in on band meetings and strategy sessions, often expressing my views more loudly and assertively than some of the members. Since I hadn’t yet gained much insight into the process of how to get a band noticed, especially by the right people, and had no knowledge, apart from the vaguely theoretical, about how the music business worked, I mostly functioned as a cheerleader. I was the annoying guy who, no matter what happened, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, continually assured them, “You guys are gonna do great, everyone’s gonna love you, it’s only a matter of time till you’re the biggest band in America, if not the world.”
My cheerful protestations notwithstanding, trouble continued to brew, and no longer just on the back burner. Ricky wasn’t making much progress learning his keyboard parts and was having trouble showing up for practice. I seem to recall there being a girlfriend involved, but I might just be falling back on standard rock and roll formulations. Ed was growing withdrawn, interested, it seemed, only in writing new songs and not particularly bothered with the minutiae of how the band operated. “Tell me where and when we’re playing and I’ll be there,” was about as involved as he wanted to get much of the time, whereas Tony was getting increasingly agitated because the band, in his opinion, was “going nowhere.”
This was clearly not true. The band was obviously going somewhere, and that somewhere might even be in the general neighborhood of where Tony wanted it to go. It just wasn’t getting there fast enough to suit him. “If we were in LA…” he’d often start out, going on to describe either how much more money they’d be earning down South or what a laughingstock the Pushups would be for having such an amateur operation.
Anyone who knows anything about San Francisco and San Franciscans knows that “this is how they do it in LA” is probably the least effective selling point you can come up with, something that should have quickly become apparent to Tony but possibly didn’t, because he kept at it. Ricky would stare up at the ceiling or fidget with his fingernails, Ed would look thoughtful and give a carefully reasoned and well-organized three-point description of how the band was progressing on all fronts, and Al would cheerfully ask when the next gig was and if anybody was going to that party over at so-and-so’s house tomorrow night.
Although I was there for many of these discussions, I was out of town when things really busted up, so I can’t give an accurate accounting of how it happened. I seem to remember that it started with one member – possibly Ricky – being kicked out and replaced, and that it maybe degenerated to a point where only one or two original members remained, but I could be confusing one of many band breakup stories with another. It was a chaotic time, a lot of drugs, a lot of parties, then suddenly it was the 80s, and, just as in that Agent Orange song, things were so much different now, the scene had died away…
The last time I saw Tony was in front of the Savoy Tivoli on Grant Avenue in North Beach; I later heard that he’d gone to LA (don’t know if that’s true) and was in a new band (several, as it turns out, most notably an attempted reincarnation of Dickie Peterson’s Blue Cheer that never quite made it out of the studio). I remember seeing Ricky at a pretty wild birthday party for Ginger Coyote somewhere in Noe Valley, and I ran into Ed now and then around town for a couple years, until I didn’t anymore. I still saw Al regularly until I moved up north to Spy Rock, but he’d found new interests now, and not especially healthy ones. After his audition with the Dead Kennedys, I don’t remember him being seriously involved with a band again, and he died of a heart attack sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. My brother would know the exact date, and if he were here now, or it weren’t the middle of the night, I’d ask him.
So I know I started out this story by saying that I couldn’t explain why the Pushups didn’t “make it,” and I guess that turned out not to be true after all. In fact, there are several pretty obvious reasons why they didn’t, and they’re pretty much the same reasons that have been stopping bands – and collective enterprises in general, for that matter – in their tracks since time immemorial. I guess the real question should be: how does any group manage to hold it together long enough to achieve something, how do they arrive at the necessary admixture of ego and deference and cooperation and competition that allows them to create great art together without feeling the need to murder one another?
If it weren’t going on 4 o’clock in the morning, I might try tackling that question as well, but it is, and I won’t, and to save time in the future, I might as well just admit right now that I have no idea. Great music, great art of any kind is a miracle even when it originates from a single creator; when several human beings manage to collaborate on something that turns out to be far more than the sum of its parts, it’s almost as though nature itself has been simultaneously denied and transcended.
Well, enough high-toned musings for now; I’ll leave you with some samples of the Pushups’ music. I was fortunate enough to collect, as far as I know, everything they ever finished recording. I think there may have been a couple more rough demos that were still being played around with the band self-destructed, but the seven tunes I have are going to have to serve as their legacy. I think they all hold up pretty well. The last of them, “Beauty Changes Everything,” is itself a not-quite-finished demo, and when I heard it for the first time, the band had already ceased to exist. I thought then and continue to think today that it serves as a fitting epitaph.
(“Empty Faces” and “Global Corporation” were on the Pushups’ only record, a 7″ single released in 1979. The rest of the songs were demos of varying quality.)
So Let Down
Love That Girl
Sooner Or Later
The Illuminated Age
Beauty Changes Everything