How The Patti Smith Group Inspired James Calvin Wilsey
Wicked Game, Part II
-by Michael Goldberg
Every ten years or so, rock & roll reinvents itself. In the mid-’60s, the British Invasion with the Who, the Kinks, the early Beatles and early Stones brought the music back to ground zero, back to the raw energy of the original ’50s sounds. “My Generation,” “All Day and All of the Night,” “She Loves You” and “Route 66” were simple, exciting and incredibly powerful.
A decade later in New York, inspired by the Velvet Underground, the Stooges and the New York Dolls, as well as by some of the early British Invasion records, Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Patti Smith Group and the Ramones were at the center of another reinvention: punk. And in Florissant, Missouri, a teenager named James Calvin Wilsey saw the Patti Smith Group on Saturday Night Live and flipped out. "I thought, 'Wow, they’re really great and that looks easy,'" Jimmy told me in May of 1991. "'I could play that.'"
“I thought if they could do it, I could do it,” Jimmy said. “I remember going to see Jeff Beck when his Blow by Blow album came out. I thought he was great but I thought I could never play that kind of stuff. And John McLaughlin was on the same show. And even the rock groups then, the Doobie Brothers come to mind, the Bee Gees come to mind, these big slick-sounding groups. I thought there’s no way to do that. When Patti Smith came out I got excited about that, and got excited about music.”
My new book, “Wicked Game: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey” (HoZac Books), tells Jimmy’s story, but it also details the San Francisco punk scene that began in December 1976, three months after 19-year-old Jimmy moved to San Francisco. During the summer of 1977 Jimmy became bass player for one of San Francisco’s greatest punk bands, the Avengers, and quickly became one of the stars of the small SF scene.
Punk was initially not a particular sound, it was a concept, and the concept was this: anyone who wanted to could be in a band and play rock & roll, you didn’t have to know how to play your instrument, you only had to have something to say, and many times not even that was necessary.
When the established record companies decided punk wasn’t commercial, punk fans like Howie Klein formed their own record companies. The first singles by The Mutants, The Nuns and The Offs were released as singles by Howie’s 415 label, and in the early ’80s, when Jimmy was in Silvertone, Howie told me, he wanted to release Silvertone’s “Blue Hotel” but that didn’t work out.
Though the media focus in mid-to-late ’70s was mostly on the punk scenes in New York and then London, the SF scene, centered at first at the Mabuhay Gardens, a punk club on Broadway in North Beach booked by Dirk Dirksen with a lot help from Howie, produced many great bands. Some of the country’s best punk combos were based in SF and played the Mabuhay often: Crime, the Mutants, the Nuns, the Sleepers, Negative Trend, the Dils, Flipper, the Dead Kennedys, and of course the Avengers.
For me, reporting on and writing about the punk milieu was a lot of fun. For Jimmy Wilsey, the late ’70s was an incredibly creative time. The Avengers were a democratic quartet and everyone in the band contributed to the songwriting; all royalties, including writing and publishing monies, were equally split among the four members. Jimmy wrote most of the music for the group’s best-known song, “We Are the One,” first released on an EP by LA’s Dangerhouse label in 1977. Singer/lyricist Penelope Houston wrote most of the lyrics for that song (Jimmy said he came up with the concept) and others, but the rest of the band contributed to the lyrics as well on occasion.
The Mabuhay Gardens, which could hold as many as 400 people, was located a couple of blocks from poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books and across the street and down the block from the Condor Club, where Carol Doda performed topless in from the ’60s until the mid-’80s.
Jimmy loved the scene at the Mabuhay, and most nights during 1977, 1978 and 1979 one could find him there. He was very encouraging of other musicians and other bands; drummer Steve DePace, who has drummed in Flipper for the past 40-plus years, wrote on Facebook following Jimmy’s death, “When I first started going to the MAB, one of the first bands I saw were the Avengers! One of the best bands in the SF scene! Jimmy was so approachable and friendly. He is the one who told me, upon my asking, how to go about getting into a band. He said go to Aquarius Records and put up a notice saying you are a drummer looking to get into a punk band. I did and it worked. Will Shatter called me about auditioning for Negative Trend. I did and got the job.”
Jimmy credited the SF punk scene with creating an environment that allowed Silvertone (which eventually became Chris Isaak backed by Silvertone) to get establish. “I think a lot of people get the wrong idea about ‘punk,’ especially [about] those of us that were in the early part of the movement,” Jimmy wrote in response to a fan’s comment on Facebook. “When I was in the Avengers, we loved all kinds of music... and sometimes we played cover songs by Eddie Cochran, the Ventures, and many others including ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight.’
“The early punk scene gave musicians a place to meet and a place to play,” he continued. “There were no venues for original bands in SF before punk rock started, and soon there were several with bands playing every night of the week. I was in a punk rock band before Silvertone. So was John [Silvers], the drummer. I was invited to work with Silvertone by their manager, Mark Plummer, who I knew as a manager for punk bands. The places we played when we started out were all of the same places that I played with the Avengers. Those wouldn’t have existed if it weren’t for the punk rock bands, and fans. The Avengers had a much larger following than Silvertone did—until many years later after the first or second [Chris Isaak/Silvertone] albums. We [the Avengers] played to much bigger crowds. I’m not sure that many people in the world would have ever known about Chris if it weren’t for the early punk rock bands.”
Sadly, none of the SF punk bands got major album deals in ’77, ’78 and ’79, when they were in their prime. As the ’80s began most of the bands lost their momentum, broke up, or splintered. Even those that survived, like Flipper and the Dead Kennedys, recording on small indie labels, never found a mass punk audience. And so it goes.
Michael Goldberg was a Senior Writer at Rolling Stone for a decade and founded the first Internet rock magazine/site, Addicted To Noise. He also wrote for Esquire, the New Musical Express, Creem, Downbeat and numerous other publications. He has published three novels. “Wicked Game: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey,” can be ordered from HoZac Records and Books. Michael will also have a collection of his music journalism, “Addicted To Noise: The Music Writings of Michael Goldberg” published by Backbeat Books in November. It can be pre-ordered here. Part I in this series is here.