The Geeks Grow Up

The forces behind Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits, Geekfest, and S.P.A.M. Records face the inevitable.

On July 4, Corbett Redford stood on the deck of a dilapidated Pine Street two-story house in West Oakland’s Village Bottoms. It had all the accoutrements of your average low-rent punk cooperative: spice racks, refrigerator magnets, neon-green walls, a PA system in the living room, and a kiosk with fliers for City Slickers community garden and Just Cause Oakland — one bore the slogan “Gentrification = Predatory Development.” A drunk guy in a giant strawberry costume tottered across a floor already sodden with mud and spilled dogbowl water.

Redford dismally munched a cheeseburger and gazed down at the crowd of disheveled art-school types — CCA students and Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll scribes, he assured — all gathered round the barbecue pit in the yard. The 31-year-old Richmond native confided that he’d spent the last four days on a bender, and was lately living out of his car. He felt like an interloper here, he said, even though the scene below was one he’d helped create. And now he wants out. Sort of.

Redford and his collaborators are conflicted, trapped in the punk-rock version of Neverland. Their biggest accomplishments to date involve a young, anarchistic scene. But the scenemakers are no longer kids, and are feeling the impulse to grow up and move on.

Corbett Redford came to punk rock for the same reasons most young geeks do — to meet girls and escape from the boondocks — and stuck with it long enough to become a key player. As cofounder of the truly underground Geekfest concert series, the prolific indie label S.P.A.M. Records, and the now-defunct satirical folk outfit Bobby Joe Ebola & the Children MacNuggits, he helped carve out niches for freakish outsiders like Gravy Train!!!! and Captured! by Robots — acts with, as Redford puts it, more talent than social skills.

He often describes himself in similar terms. Born into a working-class family with other five siblings, Redford spent his first six years in a commune, then shuttled between homes of various family members in Pinole, Vallejo, and El Sobrante. By age sixteen, fed up with the company his mother kept, he decided to move out.

Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits came about in 1995 when Redford partnered with some high-school friends he worked with at Round Table Pizza. Dan Abbott and John Mink had been performing as the Bob Weirdoes, a Spinal Tap-esque band known for public vomiting and onstage nudity, among other things. Redford asked Abbott to accompany him in playing the birthday party of a girl he had a crush on. They put together a folky, Weird Al Yankovic-style repertoire with such songs as “The Kool-Aid Man” and “All My Friends Are Drug Fiends.”

Abbott and Redford had their first bona fide show six months later at a Berkeley sandwich joint. Abbott strummed guitar, Redford sang, and the two won over the audience by offering free beer to hecklers. Backup singer Mink joined soon after, and later that year the trio formed S.P.A.M. — aka Smarmy Post-Angst Musicians. “We didn’t set out to start a record label,” Abbott said. “It was just that Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll wouldn’t print our ads, and Gilman wouldn’t let us play.”

Faced with a paucity of all-ages venues after the Berkeley Square shut its doors in 1994, Bay Area bands looked to Berkeley’s 924 Gilman for gigs. But the venue couldn’t just book whoever-the-fuck, explained former Blatz and Criminals singer Jesse Luscious, né Jesse Townley, who served as the club’s secretary from 1991 to 2005. “There’s only a certain amount of spots in a given month, and there’s literally thousands of bands in the Bay Area,” he said. “You can’t book five unknown bands a show and survive.”

Novelty acts like the MacNuggits got shafted, Abbott said, but Gilman’s snub motivated him and his pals: “We decided that if we were gonna be excluded, we’d be better off doing our own thing and not excluding anyone, no matter how bad they were.”

Ergo, Geekfest, a series of free, all-ages music festivals. The first, an all-night event featuring a dozen unknown bands and their friends, was held in June 1996 on a stretch of no-man’s land by Point Molate where no cop was likely to show. Mink, whose role in the fests earned him the nickname John Geek, borrowed a page from the rave promoters’ playbook. He distributed festival fliers with no location — only a phone number.

Before long, the Geeks were throwing epic shows on a regular basis. Their booking policy was first-come first-served, “to remove the bias of musical taste,” as Abbott recently noted on Wikipedia. This resulted in the billing of numerous bands that never would have flown at a mainstream venue, such as middle-school thrash band Los Rabbis, or the nerdy Iron Ass, whose members dressed up as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The organizers later collaborated with a collective of like-minded San Franciscans calling themselves the Pyrate Punx. Together they staged campout fests lasting up to seven days, with as many as one hundred bands, and free Food Not Bombs-style meals of spaghetti and oatmeal — “you know, just enough to keep them alive,” Mink recalled.

But the MacNuggits’ dedication to the scene they’d helped create did little for their collective income. To hear them tell it, they were basically living off energy bars and malt liquor and sleeping on couches. Redford worked a string of dead-end jobs to survive and help bankroll the fledgling record label. He cleaned toilets at Gilman, worked graveyard shifts at Wal-Mart, played Barney the Dinosaur at children’s birthday parties, and pet-sat at a doggy daycare. Still, S.P.A.M. managed to release more than sixty albums from 1994 through 2004, including debut efforts by Gravy Train!!!! and Mink’s current band the Fleshies, which went on to local renown.

Unlikely as it seemed, the hipster scene began to embrace the resolutely unpopular MacNuggits. By 1999, they had risen to become geeks with cachet, and discovered that they liked the attention. Now they were headlining at 924 Gilman and schmoozing Lookout. Mink and Redford had a preternatural ability to mingle with the in-crowd, but soon found themselves in the party scene over their heads. They stopped writing songs, and the music foundered. Meanwhile, they were still broke, and had forgotten what their geekdom stood for.

In a last-ditch effort to save the band, the MacNuggits recruited two new members — career Berkeley activist Robert Eggplant and Steve Schultz, a death-metalhead with a Hello Kitty fetish. In 2000, the band mulled a national tour that never happened — fortunately, according to Abbott. “If we had actually found a tour vehicle, we would have had a carload full of the most neurotic people in the world,” he said.

The MacNuggits broke up that summer. S.P.A.M. soldiered on, but fell apart two years later due to disputes over money and workload. “At the time it was a collective,” Redford said, “but really it was once a month everybody getting together and telling me what they wanted me to do.”

Young bands still badger the former MacNuggits to resurrect Geekfest. No dice, the former band members say. And yet they can’t quite let go of that scene themselves. In many ways, the Geekfest legacy bears the curse of permanent adolescence. Redford keeps forming ill-fated bands, and when San Francisco label Thrillhouse offered to rerelease the MacNuggits’ 1999 album Carmelita Sings, he was roped into doing everything from mixing and mastering to sending mail and communicating with factories for a cabal of fledgling rock stars.

The MacNuggits essentially want credit for creating the most vibrant all-ages scene that ever existed in the East Bay, barring 924 Gilman. To that end, the band is finishing an autobiography even as its members move toward the grownup world. Redford, now a distribution manager for a natural-foods company, finally found an affordable studio, and admits he’s ready for the stuff other adults have — hardwood floors, juice glasses, his own fridge, a collage of Rod Stewart memorabilia. Abbot, now 29, is pursuing an anthropology degree at San Francisco State.

In June, the MacNuggits played yet another reunion show at 924 Gilman. The crowd — mostly ex-regulars in their twenties and thirties — stayed for five hours of nostalgia-based performances by a bunch of bands that never quite made it, plus an hour-long encore that moved out to the parking lot. It was, Abbott said, “like popping a zit or something — you know, it hurts, but it’s satisfying.”

He then tried a better analogy: “It’s like getting together with an ex-girlfriend and having sex in front of a really big crowd — everyone thinks you should get back together, but you know that it’s over.”

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