Ian McCulloch and Will
Sergeant of Echo and the Bunnymen re-pledge their allegiance to the Doors at
the Warfield in San Francisco
on May 19.
By Jud Cost
The ten-minute walk from the Fifth and Mission parking
garage to the Warfield Theatre, two blocks west on Market St., slices through
the southern border of San Francisco’s Tenderloin, a hardscrabble district notorious for hookers, muggings and
drug dealers. During the warm months, the walk is made more palatable by a
large group of men playing chess close to the Powell St. BART station.
No chess players on this brisk, damp evening, however. About
75 yards from the Warfield’s front door, a garish ad shouts out from the window
of a cut-rate shoe store: “Now Is The Time For Ruffles,” illustrated
by a photo of three men’s shoes, each with a broad, colorful ruffled-up ribbon
attached where the shoelaces ought to be. On the sidewalk in front of the shoe
store, a young black man is sitting in the middle of every piece of
garbage-orange peels, hamburger wrappers, beer cans, fragments of stale
doughnuts, banana peels, plastic bags of dog excrement-he’s meticulously
removed from a concrete trash container.
The abrupt transition to the glowing interior of the art
deco-era Warfield, already perfumed with incense for tonight’s return of Echo
and the Bunnymen, is jolting to the nervous system. It might require an
adjustment period in a hyperbaric chamber used by deep-sea divers to keep from
getting the bends.
There’s no denying that for a brief period in the ’80s, Echo
and the Bunnymen were the best band in the world. Great neo-psychedelic songs
performed by a dynamic vocalist and superb guitarist, swathed in moody,
dusty-parlor arrangements. Even the stage lighting, low beams of light stabbing
upwards through a confusing network of what looked like hemp fishing nets was
spectacular. Each of their first four album covers found the group, bathed in
surrealistic light, in a different natural predicament: stumbling around a
forest on bad acid; outlined against a cloudy beach skyline as seagulls swarm;
peering over an icy abyss; and stranded in a boat on a frozen purple grotto.
Frontman Ian McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant, founding
members of the Bunnymen in 1978 along with bassist Les Pattinson (who is not
here tonight), are slated to play Crocodiles and Heaven Up Here, the band’s first
two albums, from 1980-81. A murky roomful of dry-ice fog and a stage lit only
by gloomy yellow streetlight-like structures make visual identification
impossible. It’s not until 50 minutes later that the house lights briefly
reveal there are six people onstage. Oddly enough, high above the crowd is a
series of high-voltage strobe lights rigged up to the drum kit to flash like an
interstellar cruiser whenever the percussionist plays a fill. Maybe somebody
figured it might give the light-sensitive (as well as those prone to epileptic
seizures) fair warning if they have a decent sense of rhythm.
The boys waste no time digging into Crocodiles, a milestone of the post-punk landscape, every bit as
important at the time as the sullen, beautifully depressed ruminations of Joy
Division. Some songs have been expanded enough tonight so that the debut album
takes up almost the entire hour of the first set. Each number is punctuated by
McCulloch uttering “thank you” just as the final chord is decaying
about him. Cue the applause.
The obvious connections the Bunnymen have always had with
the Doors (morose lyrics sung by a supercharged baritone accompanied by a
guitarist who does not play the obvious “rawk” licks) is made
perfectly clear tonight when McCulloch segues into a delightful fragment from
Jim Morrison & Company’s “Roadhouse Blues” (“Well, I got up
this morning and got myself a beer”). He’s changed “Ashen lady, give
up your vows” to “San
Francisco lady” just for tonight. It answers once
and for all the question: What would it sound like if the Bunnymen cut a Doors
cover album? The answer: pretty effin’ good.
Mac begins to lose the thread a bit when taunted by some
ex-pat football hooligans up front who apparently are railing at him about his
allegiance to the Liverpool soccer club. He
exchanges brief, indecipherable banter with the lads before congenially
admitting, “Manchester U has been the best team for years, so good luck to
A connection even more curious than their link to the Doors
appears when the Bunnymen play their 1985 single “Bring On The Dancing
Horses” which displayed moments of pre-Beatles British instrumental stars
the Tornadoes, famous worldwide for their Joe Meek-produced 1962 Space Age hit
Mac punctuates the end of the first set by declaring,
“You go and smoke whatever you’ve gotta smoke, and I’ll go have a drink.
See you back here in ten minutes.” But the incense has done its work on
this allergy sufferer. Reckoning it couldn’t get much better than the first
hour, I split for home and hearth. Also I’m having second thoughts about
whether it really is “time for ruffles.” I wonder if that shoe store
is still open.