Vintage Video Underground

Long-lost footage from the Bay Area's legendary music scene pops up in windows.

If you were to barge into my unlit bedroom right this second then you’d swear I was some pud-whackin’ online porn addict. I’m a 31-year-old man flying solo on a Friday night sporting nothing but a pair of plaid boxers as the irradiating glow of an iBook sears my poor retinas into crispy little fritters.

It’s not cybersex that I’m strung out on, though — it’s perusing this goddamn YouTube.

For the uninitiated (whose numbers are rapidly dwindling), is a free and super-easy-to-operate video-sharing network, quite similar to MySpace. It was established in San Mateo back in February of 2005 by two hotshot e-dorks, Chad Hurley and Steven Chen, who apparently created their ever-growing monster in Hurley’s garage. YouTube’s senior director of marketing Julie Supan claims that people watch more than forty million videos a day on YouTube and upload more than 35,000 new video files to its servers. Most of them fall into a handful of categories: aspiring actors, directors, and musicians promoting their work; families’ home movies; ephemera nicked from television and DVDs; unclassifiable oddities; video bloggers; and lonely souls desperately in need of friends (and maybe even sex partners).

But since I’m a hardcore record dork living in Frisco, I go YouTubing solely for rare footage of obscure and/or pre-MTV bands from the Bay Area. You see, before Hurley and Chen’s invention, I wouldn’t have had a chance in hell of viewing the hundreds upon hundreds of videos I’m now digging. Or if I did, it would have required a meticulously bargained trade with another collector for some crappy nth-generation VHS cassette. Of course, most of these clips are fairly lo-fi relics; that’s the nature of underground music. But at least I now have easy access to an exhilarating clip from Crime’s infamous late-’70s gig at San Quentin State Prison, wherein this confrontational outfit (who penned the asskickin’ anthem “Hot Wire My Heart”) dressed up as police officers and unleashed its gnarled, deconstructed riff-laden punk noise upon an amped-up assemblage of inmates.

The dude who posted this jammer, GoGoisolation (real name Paul Shirley), also uploaded videos of the Mutants live in 1978 at San Fran’s legendary punk club Mabuhay Gardens and of Tuxedomoon, a band who released a smattering of new wave electronic freakery on the Residents’ Ralph Records.

“I am trying to promote a screenplay I wrote called Go Go Isolation,” replies Shirley, an Oakland writer, after I zap him a message via YouTube asking what the point is of posting all this boss footage. “It is about that time and those bands. It’s nice to be able to refer people to a place where they can see how cool and visual the bands were in SF back then.”

Shirley kept these groups notified of his intentions and received thanks from the Mutants and members of Tuxedomoon. However, “most of Crime may be dead,” he says.

Not every YouTuber contacts the groups or the copyright holders of the content that he or she is uploading. Veg05053, who declined to reveal her actual name, and whose account was recently suspended, has posted 118 videos and counting, including ’60s-era gems from such Bay Area one-hit wonders as the Vejtables and pioneering folk-rockers We Five, as well as unhinged psych-garage primitives the Chocolate Watch Band. These choice über-rare clips, which would not be readily available if it wasn’t for VegO5053’s handiwork, are either from long-forgotten television variety shows (American Bandstand, Hullabaloo, etc.) or hippie exploitation flicks, raising — as does all file- sharing technology — the issue of copyright.

“We haven’t seen it [copyright infringement] become a major problem,” YouTube’s Supan says. “When we are contacted by copyright holders we cooperate with them to remove their content from the site. The Internet is moving in this direction, and it’s up to the content owners to choose to harness the benefit of new media distribution channels or cling to traditional, shrinking business models.”

Now, I don’t run with Supan’s e-biz jargon, but I wholeheartedly believe in the pro-user, freewheelin’ spirit that it hints at, leading me to the original architects of free music file-sharing back in them analogue days: those tape-trading Deadheads.

As you could have guessed, Deadheads are going apeshit for YouTube. SaltLakeDude (full name withheld) from Salt Lake City believes it’s “totally in keeping with the Dead’s ethos about free music. And since these videos aren’t available anywhere else, I wanted to share them with everyone.”

To date, Dude has posted 38 Dead and Dead-related clips, and he isn’t merely regurgitating that goofy “Touch of Grey” video from the ’80s. Some of his stuff is downright astounding, especially a grainy color video from 1967 of the band kicking out a nine-minute “Viola Lee Blues” replete with a fantastical psychedelic soul freakout. It’s some far-out experimental freakery that totally blows my mind.

Unfortunately, the hardened cynic inside me says, “Don’t get too utopian about this whole YouTube phenomenon. At some point you will be filling out a credit card form for all these incredible cultural artifacts.”

Until then, I’ll consider myself lucky because I get to sit here almost stone cold nude watching Harryballs’ 1985 video of Flipper slaying a San Francisco audience into submission with a snarling version of its punk-as-fuck juggernaut “Nothing,” which is what it costs me to view it. Amazing.

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