The Keystone Berkeley Remembered
In 1979, in Berkeley California, just two blocks from the UC campus, there stood a cavernous, shabby, dark, and wonderful club called the Keystone Berkeley. It was a venue for rock and roll shows, and as McSoreley's Old Ale House once was for me in New York, it became the place where more important living was done and more memories were formed than any other place in the Bay Area. It stood at the intersection where University and Shattuck Avenues formed a "T". University ran due east from the bay and the Berkeley marina, about 2 miles away. Shattuck ran due north from Oakland, heading straight for the Keystone, which lay not along its side, but directly in its path at the top of the T. Here, the headlights of the oncoming traffic, before making a forced left turn onto University, would light the front of the club and the crowd milling outside waiting to get in, magically marking it as the place to be after dark; a down-to-earth Berkeley equivalent of klieg lights sweeping the sky to draw attention.
The Keystone served mostly as a home for local bands on the way up (or often going nowhere), but also sometimes featured bigger acts on the way down, or enjoying brief revivals after having already hit bottom once. The acoustics there could have been anything from perfect to horrible. My untrained ears didn't care. As long as a stack of amps could rock the room, my friends and I were happy. Someone from the club must have thought differently, because one night strange sound baffles (or maybe deflectors?) suddenly showed up on the walls to both sides of the stage, apparently in some effort to improve the sound. I never noticed any difference. It didn't matter, because the sound was not what the place was about. Heat and sweat, fun and energy were what it was about. If a good band was forcing a high ticket price, there were usually tables set in front of the stage. For the cheap shows that wouldn't draw very well, the tables were cleared to form a large dance floor. The long walls to the left and right of the stage had benches that were about 30 inches high and ran the length of the floor. They were made of plain boards, three high and one deep. They reminded me of the storage bins that circled the floor in the basement of the house where my two brothers and I were raised in Brooklyn. Those held blankets, toys, books, and whatever else would have been useless or in the way upstairs. They were just big enough so that a boy playing out of sight of his parents could climb in and pretend to be a vampire in his coffin. The ones at the Keystone were scaled to adult size. If they too opened for storage, I never saw it, but they were perfect perches for this new nocturnal life, where I could suck beers between feverish wild dances.
The local band that owned the hearts of everyone in Berkeley at that time was the Rubinoos. They were four young guys who all fell into the decent to good looking range, so they always had a crowd of swooning girls at the stage when they played. Their original songs were mostly bouncy pop numbers and some solid rockers written by John Rubin and Tommy Dunbar, the band's two guitar players. The fact that they were playing fluff like I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend didn't matter because they were having so much fun that the crowd just got swept along with them. They came across as sweet, safe, and somewhat old fashioned compared to the safety-pinned slam-dancing crowd just across the bridge at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco. They also did a fair number of covers, including Tommy James's I Think Were Alone Now - during which they always left a healthy pause in the vocals after singing the title line to allow the girls who were pressed up against the stage to scream with delight and lust for them. To quicken the blood of the guys in the crowd, they would play songs like Telstar, and my favorite Rock And Roll Is Dead (And We Don't Care), which usually ended their final set and concluded with a drum solo that included pouring lighter fluid onto one of the Zildjian cymbals and then tossing on a lighted match. The solo peaked with the flames at their height. A few sputtering wisps left a beautiful and eerie glow on the empty stage after the band had departed.
There was a tribute at the Keystone when Royce, the tall, solidly built surfer-blonde bass player performed his final show with the band. On that night a series of surprise guests from other local groups showed up to play or sing along for a few numbers, honoring the players who were the darlings of the youth of Berkeley in this peaceful post-protest phase. This room was their home, and on this night it was packed from wall to wall. But the most memorable of the many shows I ever saw them play was well before this historic barn burner.
After I had been living in California for six months, my brother Eddie came out for a one week visit. It turned out that the Rubinoos had a Tuesday night show scheduled that week, and even though I had to work the next day there was never any question about going. Eddie had to see them at the Keystone, and I had to be there with him. My girlfriend Christie, all of 5'3" and under a hundred pounds was quite a little rocker herself, and very fond of the band. With a clear and powerful singing voice for such a tiny thing, she had aspirations of leading her own group to similar success. She took every opportunity she could to check out bands and clubs, trying to become part of the local scene. So it was agreed that it would be a three way date.
Christie and I left the confines of the office building where we both worked at Market and Van Ness a little early, picked up Eddie, and entered the cool clear winter evening. Driving from San Francisco to Berkeley, we were in heaven. Our first stop was to get burritos at Ay Caramba, a hole in the wall that still survives. Just three blocks from the Keystone on University, it was a favorite place to fuel up for nights of dancing and sweating in the packed club. I even took the time to point out the pay phone outside the tiny restaurant where I had called him on several occasions before going into shows, just to convey a proper sense of place and history to him for this special night. By 8:30 we were inside. The Keystone was deserted. Empty. We could hear each others' voices bouncing off the walls while speaking at normal volume. The dance floor was cleared for the night, and it held a crowd of about 25 when the band went up onto the stage. But like true professionals, they unleashed a full tilt show for their tiny audience. With the place so empty, the three of us careened around, dancing like three planets all caught in each other's gravity. We swayed, bounced, and spun wild circles around each other all at once. After practically every song I gave Eddie a knowing look, as if to say Didn't I tell you? Aren't they the best? Each time he returned a pleased look to confirm everything that mine asked, and also, I thought, to congratulate me for finding this new city, band, and girlfriend: all the things that were producing one perfect night of fun and friendship for the three of us.
After about an hour, the band took a break and we sat on one of the bins along the east wall sipping beers and joking about the private show we were getting. Eddie asked me, "Do they ever play I Fought The Law?"
"No, I don't think so," I answered. "At least I've never heard them do it."
"Well then I'm gonna request it.", he resolved. When they came back for the second set, it didn't take him long to make good on his threat. As soon as the applause died down after the first song, he looked straight at Tommy Dunbar and shouted out in the quiet room "Play I Fought The Law!".
Not expecting a request, Tommy didn't catch his words anyway, and yelled back at my brother, "What was that?".
"I Fought The Law!", Eddie tried again. "Can you play it?"
Understanding him this time, Tommy replied "No, we've never done it," but then immediately turned to John Rubin and whispered to him. They exchanged a few sentences, and then we could see their hands working up and down the necks of their guitars as they tried to figure out the chords right there on stage. After 20 seconds, Tommy came back to his microphone and announced, "When one-thirtieth of our audience requests a song, we've gotta play it!" With that he launched the band's first ever performance of the classic rocker that was written by Sonny Curtis of the Crickets and recorded by them (on my second birthday) a short time after Buddy Holly died. The famous version was recorded six years later by the Bobby Fuller Four. The Rubinoos played it passably for a first effort, but they were brave to do it without any rehearsal, and they gave it all their heart. Like the beat-up club, their rendition could have been terrible and we would have loved it anyway. As it concluded, our dancing, whooping and cheering reached a new frenzied level.
In the only show he was to see on his trip, Eddie had actually gotten my favorite local band to play a song for him. I was impressed and proud of him. Later we would often joke about how we had each been one-thirtieth of the audience on that night. Every time I heard I Fought The Law played I couldn't help but remember it all fondly. I would think of my brother far away in New York and then turn my mind to the page he helped to write in our book of rock and roll memories. The Rubinoos would end up adding the song to their repertoire and would play it often for the rest of the few years that they remained together. It's a slighty sad but predictable and common occurrence in cities all over America: a hot young band enjoys a bit of local success but never gets too far from a home club like the Keystone. They never make it big, and eventually everybody moves on to something else. Not everybody gets that lucky break. That's life. But we never would have imagined that Eddie's remaining years were also to be quite few. Five years later, on a spring night with a heavy rain falling, a truck in Newark crushed his tin car and his skull. No one could know if he saw it coming or if he felt anything, because he never regained conciousness. He spent eight years in a coma, during which time his hair and beard still grew, but no words escaped his lips, and no look from his eyes ever again told me all I needed to know.
Today in Berkeley, University Avenue still forms a T with Shattuck. The traffic still flows there, the same building still stands, and each night it is again thrust into the spotlight - except now it's a drug store and I shop in it to buy my razor blades and shaving cream. They're over on the east wall where we sat and drank our beers. Waiting at the register while the bar codes are scanned on my purchases leaves me standing exactly where the stage was. I can close my eyes for one second and a guitar is being played right above me, the girls are screaming just behind me, and the flaming cymbals are there on my left. The ghost ship of the Keystone refuses to go down. Strains of Rock and Roll is Dead (And We Don't Care) still echo in my head. I open my eyes, and then my wallet to pay for my stuff, with the knowledge that in spite of all I now see around me, rock and roll is not dead in here because I still care. As I'm saying "Have a good one," and accepting my change, I finally, but silently make my request in this place: "Let the music and the feelings of the Keystone live, and let Eddie's spirit live, as long as I can remember us here on that night."
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