Saturday, May 03, 2014

It All Comes Out-- I Was In A Mental Institution... With The Cramps And The Mutants


Next month it will have been 36 years since The Cramps and The Mutants played a show at what was then Napa State Mental Hospital northwest of San Francisco. I had some involvement in organizing that Saturday morning excursion and one of the few records of it-- aside from the video up top-- is an article I wrote about it immediately afterwards for the New York Rocker. (If you don't want to subscribe, you can read it here on The Mutants' website.)

Lately there is a lot of renewed interest and in the last few months I've been interviewed 4 or 5 times about the show. In some cases, I found out more than I knew-- like that in 2003, the concert was recreated by performance artists in England. One of those interviewers was Ralph Montaño from the Office of Communications of the California Department of State Hospitals. "Unfortunately," he wrote me, "the Department of State Hospitals does not have a record of how this historic concert came about. So I’m piecing together what I can." He informed me the concert has its own Facebook page. This week Ralph's story ran in the Department of State Hospitals' internal newsletter. He gave me permission to republish it here on DWT.

Iconic 1978 Napa State Hospital concert personified punk
By Ralph Montano, DSH-Sac

In March, patients at DSH-Napa were given a rare opportunity to see and hear a true rock and roll legend in action.

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, DSH-Napa hosted a concert by a Bay Area band called the Irish Newsboys, which features a guitar player by the name of Barry “The Fish” Melton. For those who don’t know it, 45 years ago, Melton played the third day of Woodstock as a member of the band Country Joe and The Fish.

Another member of the Irish Newsboys, Kevin Fagan, is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and he wrote a first-person account of the performance. Reading Fagan’s account brought to mind another Napa hospital concert, one that has become so famous it’s considered a defining moment in rock and roll history.

In June of 1978, what was then Napa State Hospital hosted a concert for its patients by two bands that were part of a new genre of music called punk rock. That show, by the San Francisco-based band The Mutants and New York’s The Cramps, might have disappeared into obscurity were it not for one thing-- a video camera.

Video footage of The Cramps performance from that show has become legendary. Copies of video are readily available on the internet and the video has its own Facebook page with 500 followers. The footage has been featured in the Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2003, the entire performance was recreated by performance artists in England to mark the 25th anniversary of the concert. Their duplication of the concert, titled File Under Sacred Music, features actors playing both the musicians and the audience at the show.

Thirty-six years after the concert, Mental Notes was not able to find a lot of information about how the concert came about. The executive director of the hospital at that time was Dr. Dennis Michael O’Connor, who served in that capacity from 1977 to 1983, before becoming the director of the Department of Mental Health from 1983 to 1990. Attempts to reach Dr. O’Connor in Monterey, the last known area where he was practicing years ago, were not successful.

However, Mental Notes was able to track down one witness to the show, a man named Howie Klein. At the time, Klein was a rock and roll journalist in San Francisco with a late-night radio show and connections to music fanzines in New York. Klein wrote a review of the concert for the July 1978 issue of a punk fanzine called New York Rocker. From those humble beginnings, Klein went on to become president of Reprise/Warner Bros. Records from 1989 to 2001. He developed the careers of dozens of bands including: Depeche Mode, The Ramones, The Pretenders, Alanis Morissette, Green Day and Ice-T.

But on that particular June day, Klein was just one of several people tagging along with a band. The Mutants had publicized their upcoming Napa gig in San Francisco. The city’s punk community grew up around a nightclub called Mabuhay Garden, in the North Beach neighborhood.

“Back in those days there wasn’t an infrastructure in the punk scene,” Klein said. “It was a small, tight community. Probably 200 people in San Francisco said they were going to show up (in Napa),” Klein said. “But 190 of them didn’t get up early enough to go. I went up with some of The Mutants. There were probably ten of us and the band.”

How did he and others get in to the concert? “Everyone who came just said they were with the band, and they carried an amplifier or something,” Klein said. He recalls the staff at the hospital being very friendly to the bands and thanking them for driving out to perform.

The Cramps were actually the first band to take the stage, which was nothing more than an outdoor concrete amphitheater. There was hardly any lighting set up for the show so The Cramps had the advantage of playing in the light of the setting Napa sun while The Mutants would end up playing mostly in the dark.

The fact that there was a portable video camera in the crowd was not something unusual, said Klein. “Yeah, sure, I noticed the video being made. They were part of the punk scene back then. They didn’t stand out because they were always there. They filmed every punk show in San Francisco at the time. They were always there.”

Behind the camera was a member of an artist collective in San Francisco called Target Video. The concert was recorded in black and white film by the first commercially available video camera, which required a separate battery pack to roll the film.

In 2008, the Los Angeles Times interviewed the videographer, Joe Rees, about the show. “It was incredible,” Rees told the Times. “The Cramps were at the height of their powers. You couldn’t tell the patients from the band … Many of the patients danced right next to the band, mimicking their movements perfectly.”

The blurred line between performers and audience still stands out in Klein’s mind as well.

“With other rock shows at the time, there was always a barrier between the audience and the band,” Klein said. “In punk, the barrier wasn’t as steep. That was kind of the rule, anyway, in 1978. It was part of the punk ethos; the band and the audience are on the same level. But it was even more so at this concert. The audience and band were together and everyone was participating. It was just the way it should be.”

In his New York Rocker review, Klein wrote that The Cramps and The Mutants concert at Napa was the “greatest new wave show I’ve ever seen-- and this boy’s been to England and seen the Clash.”

“Well, to be fair, I said that about pretty much every show I liked,” Klein said 36 years later. But he added that the influence this concert at Napa has had on punk rock is undeniable. It is a glimpse at a new rock genre in its infancy and at its most raw and natural state.

“Little kids were influenced by the ethos around this concert and other events,” Klein said. “It was those kids, with this early influence, that brought punk to where it is today.”
So what the article didn't cover-- I guess for obvious reasons-- is that the show got a lot of the patients overly excited and there was a breakout. Well, that's a little dramatic. There wasn't much security and the patients just went running down the road as the vans were driving back to the city. I recall a security guard saying that they'd get hungry and cold and come home on their own. One didn't. She was hitchhiking about half a mile up the road and we picked her up and drove her back to San Francisco. She fit right in with the punk community and a year or two later moved to New York, where she became the in-house booking agent for one of the top punk clubs. Tragically, she was hit by a car in front of the club one night. She had always been so kind to all the San Francisco bands looking for a place to play in New York.

The video below, "Insect Lounge," by The Mutants is part of a 3-song 7", one of the earliest records released on my indie label, 415 Records. I hope you enjoy it. It's totally out of print, of course, and only a few thousand copies were ever made in the first place. I have a few in totally mint condition. If you're a collector and would like one... well, make a nice contribution to the Blue America PAC and I'll send it to you as a gift.

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At 8:44 AM, Anonymous David said...

Thanks for this write-up! My wife's uncle worked there at the time, but didn't recall much when I asked him about it a few years ago.

These, by the way, are among my favorite posts on your blog. The music you helped expose to the public was, and still is, a big part of my life.

At 2:05 PM, Blogger Kevin said...

Wonderful recap; thanks for posting. I knew of the history when we Irish Newsboys went in for the gig, but it's nice to hear the details.


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