Island Living

Between the longhairs and the mods, it looked as if two different casts from two different musicals had descended on the Casbah.

If you’re looking for freaks, head to the islands. It’s been axiomatic ever since Darwin dropped his evolutionary science with On the Origin of Species back in 1859. That work–inspired by Darwin’s visits with some of the far-out creatures of the Galapagos–forms the root of a life science branch called island ecology.

Island ecology focuses on the factors that create and shape island ecosystems, but it also focuses on the products of those forces: the island creatures themselves. With migration and immigration restricted, island animals tend to be a little … unique. Garish plumage, oversized limbs, exaggerated vocalizations–it’s all a part of the topsy-turvy realm of island development. The colorful adaptations would probably make isle-dwellers into snack cakes in a less insular world. But that’s the beauty of islands: Oddballs tend to do much better there than on the mainland.

The same principle is at work in the world of music. If you look at the popular movements of the past half-century, most of them have some island component. The distance from the continent–whatever continent that might be–seems to encourage the sort of out-there thinking that leads to musical breakthroughs. There was that Beatles business out of England in the ’60s. Ska and reggae sprouted from Jamaican soil around the same time. And, more recently, there’s the low-profile Spanish island of Ibiza. That’s where club DJs in the late ’80s spun the Balearic beats that vacationing Londoners took home and repackaged as acid house.

And then there’s San Diego.

I know what you’re thinking. San Diego is not an island. And, after consulting a road atlas, I can say that, yes, you are right. San Diego is not technically an island. It is bound to the rest of California by a string of highways, hair salons, and Spanish-tiled townhouses.

But musically, the scene in San Diego is a sterling example of island ecology. At least from what I could tell on my visit there this weekend.

The San Diego Union Tribune describes the Casbah as “the beloved grub-club [where] cutting-edge San Diegans go to see today the bands that everyone else will be talking about tomorrow.” I had come there with Jenn, her sister, and some friends to see the Evaporators. But the Evaporators played first and finished by 10 p.m., leaving us with a lot of time on our hands. We were all sitting outside when the second band started loading its equipment into the club. Called Teacher’s Pet, the band looked like it had traveled to the Casbah in a time machine. Every member of the band was tall, rail-thin, and had long, feathered hair with bangs. They wore short jean jackets and tight denim bellbottoms. They looked like parodies of a ’70s rock band, the kind of people you’d expect to pile out of a shag-carpeted van with an airbrushed landscape on the side. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

Eventually, I nudged one of Jenn’s friends who lives in San Diego.

“Do they just dress like this for concerts?” I asked. He shook his head. “They always look like that.”

The thing is–it wasn’t just the band. When we went inside, I noticed identical feather-haired lurkers in jean jackets and big sunglasses sprinkled throughout the crowd. It was a little movement, this faithful reproduction of a bygone era. It’s something that you might see a little of in the Bay Area, but nothing on this level.

And many of the audience members not in ’70s costume were wearing ’60s costumes: tight black pants, vintage shirts, and scooter-helmet hair. Between the longhairs and the mods, it looked as if two different casts from two different musicals had descended on the Casbah for happy hour.

As I watched the ’60s and ’70s mingle uneasily, I imagined turf wars between the two groups: the rockers staking out the Del Taco parking lot on El Cajon Boulevard and the mods prowling the gelato joints of Hillcrest, and everyone taking their assumed roles and clothes and personas dead seriously.

Teacher’s Pet ended up being just okay. The lead singer looked like Roger Daltrey and had a bulge like Derek Smalls. But his voice was strangely prepubescent–high and a little grating. After the third song, I squeezed past a pod of rockers and went to find the Ms. Pac-Man game. But my heart went out to Teacher’s Pet and those museum mods. As it does to the beautiful, fragile products of isolated ecosystems everywhere.

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