Features & Columns
Remembering the Punk Ingenuity that Made SoFA District Great
I recently revisited one of my favorite books, City of Djinns by William Dalrymple, a travel book about Delhi history. In Delhi, no matter how many new businesses seem to emerge, the old legends—just like spirits or djinns—often come out of nowhere, sometimes decades after they were aced out.
Dalrymple portrays a city "disjointed in time, a city whose different ages lay suspended side by side as in aspic, a city of djinns."
This is also my view of downtown San Jose, where, in the SoFA District, decades of creation and destruction reverberate to the current day. Businesses or buildings die right alongside others just beginning, seemingly merging the district's physical and temporal aspects. Djinns are a city's ghosts and when I see the brick building at 399 S. First St. gearing up to serve fish taco plates, I cannot help but recall when that building was Marsugi's, the best corner rock & roll dive San Jose ever had. At Marsugi's, one watched bands like Nirvana or Faith no More in front of 30 people, back when those bands were relatively unknown.
However, on one particular night at Marsugi's, things got a little fishy. At the time, we were a group of four SJSU music students gigging as an improvised noise-art fraternity of the absurd. In February of 1993, two weeks before Marsugi's was slotted to close, we played a show to maybe 12 people and I became the first one to play an amplified lawnmower in downtown San Jose. Since the club was closing in favor of mainstream upmarket riffraff, we wanted to leave our mark. The lawnmower came from my mom's house and after we loaded everything into the truck, we stopped for beer at the dumpy Lucky Supermarket downtown.
Once inside the store, I decided to buy a stack of whole fish from the seafood section. I don't remember why I did this. It was a snap decision. Nothing was premeditated.
During the show, none of my equipment was working, an occasional downside to shows with homemade electronics, so as the rest of the group proceeded to make sounds, I grew frustrated. Plus, we were angry that Marsugi's was closing, so the emotion came to a boil 10 minutes into the gig.
Enter a Briggs & Stratton lawnmower rigged with a homemade contact microphone assemblage to amplify its sounds, sitting on the beer-stained Marsugi's carpet, with gas in the tank, just waiting for me to turn it on. As the rest of the band continued to make excruciating noise for noise's sake on keyboards, bass, amplified trombone and electric guitar, I couldn't get any of my equipment to work, so I stepped onto the floor, placed my right foot on the lawnmower, and yanked the cord a few times until the machine came roaring to life. Fully amplified, the motor raged through the PA system. The sound man, already drunk and on LSD, started tweaking knobs in response. Then, I flipped the mower over so its blades violently spun in full view of the audience members and I started laughing. I just remember laughing.
Only the fish remained, so I rescued them from the Lucky's bag, theatrically taking each fish out of its plastic wrap, slow enough so the intimate crowd could realize what was about to happen. As the band played on, I threw dead fish, one by one, into the running lawnmower blades. As a result, fish guts sprayed every which direction, splattering throughout the entire club. The bar, the walls, the tables, and yours truly were covered with fish guts afterward. Some of the audience got splattered, while others tipped up tables to shield themselves from the flying fish guts. The manager immediately shut down our show, but the club smelled like fish throughout the last two weeks it remained open. The staff was never able to get rid of the smell and I had to shower several times before I stopped smelling like fish.
Skip to 2016 and the djinns of 399 S. First will resurface yet again, when a new restaurant opens next month, right where this juvenile temper tantrum went down. Space and time will merge and I can't wait for the fish tacos.