If there is ever going to be a legitimate, thriving music "scene" in Monterey County, it has to include all-ages shows. There has to be some place for young bands to get their first experiences, a place for young audiences to interact with local performers, and a place where there''s a buzz that attracts attention from promoters, labels and musicians from outside the area. With only occasional exceptions, that''s not happening right now, and the results are echoed in the age-old complaint of kids everywhere: "This town sucks. There''s nothing to do."
But maybe, just maybe, there are some veterans of the underground scene who are holding a light at the end of the tunnel.
Other than infrequent coffeehouse or special-event shows, the only place to find live music in Monterey is at drinking establishments. And even though bars like Blue Fin and Ocean Thunder tout their "all-ages" shows, drinking laws ensure that locals under 18 are discouraged from attending.
But the problem goes even deeper. There''s a growing trend among underground or indie bands (groups that are signed by small, independent and progressive labels, if they''re signed at all) to play only in all-ages venues. This is often because the musicians in these bands have their own memories of being barred from music venues when they were growing up.
The double whammy of drinking laws and the bands'' refusal to play in bars has severely hobbled the number of all-ages shows, precluding high schoolers from getting involved with the music scene and forcing local bands to develop alternative strategies for getting their music heard. Some local groups, like the bands District 17 and Pacific Grove (whose members are thinking of changing the band''s name to Mediocore), have resorted to recording music and booking regional tours without ever playing in Monterey.
It''s not like Monterey has never had an independent music scene. Jeff Hadley and Johnny Fletcher were two of the many people behind all-ages shows in Monterey during the mid-''90s. Each played in local bands whose members made key contributions to searching out and booking venues. Hadley played bass in Half Sister, a lumbering alt-rock outfit, and Fletcher played drums in Apartment 213, a poppy punk group.
"Basically, we were in bands and we wanted to play," says Fletcher. "There was nowhere to do it, so we went and found places. We went and talked to coffee shops, we went and hustled, you know?"
A series of successful all-ages shows in Carmel and Pacific Grove attracted the attention of some national bands, including the Mr. T Experience and Steel Pole Bathtub, as well as Riot Grrl legends Bikini Kill. Most of these bands played at the World Stage, a theater in New Monterey that rented out its stage. Its central location on Lighthouse made it an ideal place to stage indie rock shows. These shows were run entirely by locals, who rented the PA system, hired sound, did the security and often used their own bands to open for the nationals.
One fan at the World Stage shows was Sean Smith, who eventually played in the band Soylent Green.
"I used to go to shows there all the time," says Smith. "It was all of us kids, like eighth graders and freshmen in high school. There were people in their 30s going too. It was the true meaning of ''all-ages.''"
In the process of bringing bands into Monterey and booking locals to open for them, Fletcher and Hadley, almost unknowingly, began to create a scene, attracting people from Santa Cruz and even San Francisco to the shows.
"At the same time what we were doing without even knowing it was that we gave a lot of exposure to other bands that were just coming up," says Hadley. "It gave kids the idea, ''Oh, ho ho, maybe I''ll start a band.'' That''s the start.
"And in between the big shows, we''d do regular shows with local bands, and still pack the place. People were totally reliable. Everyone knew."
In 1995, though, the shows at the World Stage came to an abrupt halt after an unruly fan launched a bottle from a fire escape into the intersection of Lighthouse and Hoffman. All-ages shows again became a rarity. Apartment 213 broke up because the members left to attend college, and Half Sister fell apart as well, with several members re-forming as Dura-Delinquent, a band that eventually moved to San Francisco and signed with a label there.
In 1997, Fletcher started up another band, the emo punk District 17 (named for Monterey''s voting district) with former Apt. 213 bandmate Jared Nixon. The group played a number of all-ages shows, at house parties as well as the Pacific Grove and Carmel Youth Centers.
The shows started off well-attended, but tapered off over time. District 17 began to do shows in the Bay Area, then up and down the West Coast. A national tour followed.
"We pretty much did it all ourselves," says Fletcher. "Jared did all the legwork for booking our tour."
District 17 has recorded some final songs and is currently planing a farewell tour. It remains unclear whether Monterey will be included on the list of dates. Again, it all boils down to a lack of all-ages venues and the refusal of indie bands to play bars.
Just as the concerts at the World Stage were ending, there was a new scene being born in Sand City, courtesy of a blend of visual and musical artists. For a time, the Sand Jams at the three spirits gallery were the talk of the Central Coast indie scene.
Susan Collins, Susie Platts, Mary Levine and Brad Mallory were local artists looking for a forum for their work in the mid-''90s. After having initiated several projects involving a mixture of local art and music, they started bringing in regional bands to play at the three spirits gallery, located in a Sand City warehouse that had once been the soundstage for Michael Nesmith, a former Monkee and something of a visionary in the early days of music videos.
The first shows featured a wide variety of bands and musical styles to accompany the gallery''s paintings, photos, sculptures and hanging mobiles, and eventually the shows began to pick up the remnants of the World Stage''s old indie and punk scene.
The Sand Jams started out as a monthly event, eventually increasing in frequency to four or even five a month during the summer, with slower months still hosting two or three shows.
"The underground scene was really thriving," says Mallory. "We started getting bands from all over. Eventually we were doing showcases, with labels sending their bands for virtually free."
The Makeup and Fury 66 played at Sand Jams, as did the Peechees (which featured drummer Molly Neuman from Riot Grrl standouts Bratmobile). Like the World Stage shows, Monterey bands were featured regularly. One of those groups was Soylent Green, an indie pop band featuring one Sean Smith, a fan during the World Stage''s glory days and a current member of the pop group Pacific Grove. Smith says he remembers having played the Sand City venue about once a month during its heyday and sharing the stage with the Peechees and Emily''s Sassy Line (and Mallory remembers trying to stop Smith from stage diving at one Sand Jam.)
All in all, there were about 65 Sand Jams during the mid- to late-''90s. "They were a true collaboration of the local art and music scenes," says Mallory. "It was by artists for artists. Everyone pitched in." Remarkably, the number of incidents at the shows was very small, especially for a venue regularly showcasing punk bands.
"We only had two shows where there were fights," says Mallory. "They were the historic cliques, between the straight-edge [punks that abstain from all drugs and alcohol] and regular punk crowds. But the amount of incidents compared to the number of shows is minimal. I think a large part of that was that we actually talked to the kids and knew the scene."
Eventually, despite the Jams'' success, the creative and artistic growth of those involved with the project sapped its vitality. Mallory was beginning to get more into ideas involving production, and Collins was starting to play drums regularly for the Monterey/San Fran-based Amazon Mollies. The two started to grow apart. As they did, their personal problems began to affect the Sand Jams.
"We weren''t there for the scene we''d nurtured and embraced," says Mallory. "We were working out our problems and not doing shows." The fate of the Sand Jams was sealed in ''98, when Coast Weekly ran an article detailing the ailing three spirits gallery.
"There was an uprising of issues about the Sand City warehouses," remembers Mallory. "A big issue was about people in the artist community living there. Stories on the warehouses became a hot topic for a while."
After the Weekly story, which described the gallery as a "crash pad," it wasn''t long before things came to a halt.
"Shortly after that article, we received visits from numerous inspectors," says Mallory. "They decided that what we were doing was unsafe. It was actually a blessing in disguise. It forced us to move in new directions, to explore new venues which were desperately needed."
But while the Sand Jams died, Mallory still continued to promote the annual Rock and Art Festival, as well as the Erotic Art Show, both of which continue to blend underground music with art. And, although Collins moved north to the greener pastures of San Francisco to pursue her involvement with the Amazon Mollies and her art career, she remains involved with the projects that grew from the Sand Jams.
While the Rock and Art Festival is far from enough to sustain a local underground, all-ages scene, it is enough to nourish the hopes and dreams for something more consistent.
This year''s Rock and Art Festival is scheduled for July 14 at the Monterey Fairgrounds and will feature 35 bands, in what might be the largest one-day gathering of indie/underground bands north of Los Angeles. After a rocky, financially risky first year, Mallory and company seem to have found a formula for presenting a laid-back, mellow concert that delivers a wide variety of sounds seldom heard in Monterey.
"This is the fifth year for the festival," Mallory says. "It''s a cornerstone year. We''ll be doing preview shows in the weeks leading up to the main festival."
These previews will take place at various venues around Monterey. While Mallory is showing initiative in finding some new venues, such as the Monterey Lanes bowling alley on Fremont and the Edge club on the Presidio, he''s still faced with same old problem: All of the preview shows booked so far are 21-and-over, with the exception of a couple 18-and-over events.
But, if the Rock and Art previews can''t quite deliver the music for younger audiences, there still may be a light on the horizon: Some of the old players from the World Stage days seem to be getting involved again.
"I think it''d be good to start [setting up shows] again," says Jeff Hadley. "I''ve got a little more motivation at this point. I''ve got some ideas." Although Hadley and Johnny Fletcher both work day jobs, they seem to have a renewed enthusiasm regarding the possibility of all ages shows in Monterey, and have started searching for a venue where they can stage an all-ages show.
"The way I see it," says Hadley, "there''s potential for getting momentum going, as far as getting an all-age venue going, at least a night or two a month."
While the search goes on to find an all-ages venue in Monterey, festivals like the Rock and Art Festival, along with the occasional all-ages show, such as last month''s Darktown Rounders show at Morgan''s, seem to keep bands from completely abandoning Monterey. And as long as there is live music, the scene cannot completely die. The underground will rise again.