ruised the Haight Street Fair today, thinking about how much it's changed since I moved here twenty years ago. It used to be a riot, much more akin to the Folsom Street Fair, back when street fairs were organized by each neighborhood and weren't the same identical city-managed setup all over town. Haight Street used to book the raunchiest bands, groups you actually had heard of, like Four Non Blondes, MCM & The Monster, and Stone Fox, and the street was packed tight with more fucked up people partying shoulder to shoulder than anything I've seen outside of Bourbon Street after a Mardi Gras parade. Walking from one end to the other was a contact sport and not for the faint of heart, and when it ended the street was a curb to curb carpet of beer bottles and plastic cups that appeared to have rained down from the sky. Ah, the good old days.
ack then the upper Haight had long recovered from its Seventies era heroin epidemic nosedive, but hadn't yet turned into a boutiquey upscale 60s nostalgia shopping trip. Even though yuppies had already bought up most of the housing, the neighborhood wasn't nearly as polarized. Rents were still relatively cheap, you could go to Roommate Referral and score a room in a flat for two or three hundred bucks a month, get by on a part-time job, and just hang out. The upper Haight was a funky scene more like the lower Haight today, every other guy looked like Zodiac Mindwarp, every third girl like Joan Jett, and bars like Nightbreak were a sea of black leather jackets. I miss the I-Beam, which started as a gay disco and became an underground club where you could see the Cure or Siouxsie or Jane's Addiction or the Butthole Surfers. I saw a Big Black show there once that was the most ear-splittingly loud concert I ever heard, louder even than the time I saw Motorhead blow out the I-Beam sound system twice in one night. Back then I worked at Rough Trade and was usually on the club's guest list.
n the 1980s Rough Trade was not only a UK record label but one of the biggest independent record distributors in Europe. Looking to open an operation stateside, they asked some underground music people they knew in San Francisco for advice on how to structure a record business in America. The SF lefties told them, well, let's see, you should set it up it as a collective, and major management decisions should made by a majority vote with each employee having an equal say, everyone should gets loads of vacation time every year, great health insurance, and free copies of all the records we distribute. Rough Trade UK bought it, and that's how the place worked when I arrived, a regular punk rock politburo, where coalitions and alliances formed and reformed, personalities clashed, loyalties shifted, infighting never stopped, and almost nothing ever got done. The Rough Trade warehouse was on Sixth Street near Folsom, between Market Street and the city jail, which back in those pre-gentification days was the most fucked up street in all of downtown. One unintelligible skid row dude, every time he got out of the pokey, would stop in on his way up to Market, grab a pen from the counter and scrawl his signature on whatever piece of paper was handy, smile and wave, and go on his way. In the back of the building was a large shipping area where salespeople sat on the phone all day, drinking beer, smoking pot and calling record stores all over the U.S. and Canada to sell them the latest underground, punk and reggae imports. The U.S. Rough Trade label, which put out records by people like Jonathan Richman and Lucinda Williams and Camper Van Beethoven, was run by a guy named Steve who had been wearing the same pair of Lennon specs for so many years that a permanent trench remained across the bridge of his nose even when he took off his glasses.
n the front, when you walked in from Sixth Street, was a small hole in the wall retail store where I worked with two other people. The empty album sleeves were out in the bins and the actual vinyl behind the counter, and we didn't have a turntable set up for customers, but they could ask to hear stuff and we would play anything in the store. Jonathan, an English coworker who was heavily into reggae and international music, got in all the latest Jamaican 12"s before anyone else in town, and on weekends rasta DJs would come by and pull out stacks of stuff for us to play, and Jonathan would tell them, well I don't know mate, that looks like a lot of work right there, we might need a little refreshment to keep us going if you know what I mean, and they'd fire up a fattie and by the end of the day we almost couldn't count the money. I also worked with a woman named Mattie who always dressed in black from head to toe and lived with a punk guitarist named Neo. Mattie and Neo were high all the time, sometimes I would call her at home and hear them howling and screaming like wild animals. I ran into Jonathan a couple of years ago and he told me Mattie was dead now, which didn't surprise me. Eventually the business was losing so much money Rough Trade UK sent a slimy business manager over to run the place, employees began bailing out left and right, myself included, and it folded not long after that. I later worked with Jello Biafra in the Alternative Tentacles warehouse, selling records to music stores all over the country for his label's distributor, Mordam Records, but that's another long dysfunctional punk rock story.