The Kids Aren't Alright 

Cal's Bear's Lair: The next great all-ages venue that won't be.

These days, Gary Simmons — perhaps the East Bay's most relentless and relentlessly enthusiastic booker of all-ages rock shows — has more free time than he needs and a greater need for levity than he wants. "Just got done watching Everybody Loves Raymond," the upbeat 38-year-old notes, ringing in from Oakland to spin his frustrating, protracted tale of woe. "It's always funny, man. Comedy's the only way to brighten a day sometimes."

Especially when you're fighting an uphill battle on behalf of the Bay Area's teenage pop/punk/rock crowd, a vibrant and prolific scene desperately searching for a venue to flaunt it. Good luck. Oakland's mighty iMusicast — a fabulous Chat-Rooms-and-Root-Beer emporium constantly packed with future prom kings and queens bouncing ebulliently to ska or mall-punk or angsty dude-metal or some hybrid thereof — shut down late last year, landlord's orders. Since then it's been spotty — one-off hoedowns at joints like Slim's and Ashkenaz, but no focal point, no home base, no clubhouse.

Simmons and his promotion company, Kid Glove Entertainment, sought to change that with a wildly ambitious scheme to book all-ages shows at UC Berkeley hotspot the Bear's Lair for the next two decades. But with several weeks already planned and advertised, the deal went down in flames, leaving him frustrated, irate, and sadly insisting that the kids — and their parents, for that matter — feel likewise. "I read on somebody's MySpace: 'Why do our shows keep getting canceled?'" he laments.

With the Bear's Lair, blame some combination of overenthusiasm, miscommunication, and the deadly bane of many an all-ages venture: fears about underage drinking.

Hatched in November, the plan was, well, not simple, but direct: Simmons would start out booking a few all-ages weekend shows, but eventually expand to five days a week. He's an old pro at this, packing 'em in at spots like Blake's in Berkeley or Concord's Bourbon Street. With Bear's Lair manager Steve Conti as his point man, he sent up the Batsignal and says he had weeks' worth of shows — and hundreds of fledgling East Bay rockers — lined up for a February launch. "Before he went to Boston for Christmas, Josh Rosenberg [Simmons' business partner] and I straight-out asked him, 'Is there any way in hell that this is gonna backfire? What can stop us now?'" Simmons recalls. "'Nothing,' says Steve Conti. 'Nothing. Continue. Book it up, book it up.' Okay, we're gonna book this till 2025 or more."

Yeah, that's right — 2025. "We like consistency," Simmons explains. Alas, he has less of an affinity for contracts, or at least that was the case prior to his Bear's Lair experience. "I don't sign contracts, 'cause we all know each other, we all trust each other in some way," he adds. "People trust us. And we trust them." But in this instance, he understood the need for a contract — particularly once Conti called with the bad news on the very day they were supposed to put it all in writing: The whole deal was off.

In the subsequent 2,810-word e-mail Simmons forwarded around, he stated that Conti hung the blame on a Bear's Lair co-owner — two were totally into it, but the third demurred at the last minute. Conti politely denies this — "There's definitely not three owners over here," he says — and instead cites a bigger problem, one that explains why many a fledgling all-ages venue or warehouse space has died on the vine. Unlike iMusicast, the Bear's Lair serves alcohol, and the contrivances venues such as Bottom of the Hill employ to occasionally mingle drinkers with nondrinkers (arm-hair-shearing wristbands, say) are often more trouble than they're worth, and no guarantee of success or safeguard against police/university-enraging failure.

Conti heard horror stories from similar experiences a few years back: "Kids would bring backpacks and put flasks in there and start drinking ... there were a couple of incidents where ambulances had to be brought because kids got so drunk they passed out or stuff like that." Negative press from the Daily Cal and pressure from Cal itself makes the prospect of the next iMusicast arising on university soil highly unlikely.

Simmons touts his ability to sidestep drinking issues, a combination of menacing signs threatening to boot drunk-looking louts and an earnest sermon delivered to all the bands. But lecturing teenagers is like herding cats, of course, and he is finding out some venues won't deal at all. In this instance, he just laments discovering that so damn late. He speaks politely of Conti, but adds "I can't talk to him. I don't want to talk to him. Unless, of course, he wants to call me up and say, 'I'm going to take a full-page ad in the East Bay Express apologizing to the bands.' That's what I'd like to see."

For his part, Conti says, "I'll apologize to him again, if that's what it's gonna take. ... I realize he's still really bitter over the fact that all of this happened. It is unfortunate. I felt horrible, personally."

So the iMusicast 2.0 search continues, but despite getting mauled at the Bear's Lair, Conti's approach to finding it hasn't drastically changed. "I can tell you this much: Kathy Day over at Ashkenaz is letting us do a show on April 16, and I'm not signing a contract with her," he says. "She's a very nice lady, and I trust her."


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