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Garage For All

No place for the band to practice? Jack Dunstan says come on down, and bring your own couch

By Michael Learmonth

Jack Dunstan gives a light knock on the practice room door as he unlocks it with a skeleton key. "This is where the band Salmon practices," he whispers proudly. "They were signed by the Red Ant record label." He flicks the light switch. A feeble blue light fills the room. A drum set dominates the far corner with an array of amps, monitors and recording equipment. Four scantily clad "Bud Girls" pose on a poster on the left wall; another robustly proportioned pinup graces the far wall. "Must be someone's mother," jokes Dunstan. To complete the college dorm ambiance, a '70s-vintage love seat sits against a wall atop the earth-tone carpet. "Couches are big," says Dunstan. "We don't let anyone live here, but if someone is practicing late and sleeps here, that's OK."

Gilroy-born, metal/hip-hop act Salmon's practice pad is our first stop on a tour of the Practice Place on N. Fourth Street near Highway 101. A warehouse cut up into practice rooms, the Place is a second home to 65 serious, semi-serious and not-serious-at-all musicians and bands that need a place to stow their guitars, drums, amps and soft-focus shots of Pamela Anderson. Dunstan, a former art teacher who says he's "over 50," acts as landlord, manager, adviser, friend and father to the mostly young, mostly male musicians.

I looked around Salmon's hallowed practice room, careful not to disturb a thing. Then, in the corner, I saw the fridge. I'd seen what rock stars keep on their walls for inspiration. But for refreshment? Two open beers, two bottles of chocolate milk and three tubs of Kraft veggie dip. Beavis and Butt-head would approve.

The Practice Place fills a niche created by the growing professionalization of a once-fringe indie-rock scene. The tenants represent the dreams of young musicians hoping to be snapped up by a major record company and made famous by MTV and a binge-prone record-buying public. But no matter how spontaneous and otherworldly a band may seem on stage, if it's successful, chances are that somewhere behind the scenes is time and money spent in a practice place. Dunstan informs me that the 12-foot-square studio we peeked in earlier fetches $260 a month.

In contrast to the nightclub atmosphere, the Practice Place is all business. The walls are antiseptic white, except for an intentional paint-splatter motif. A blank canvas, one might think, for a would-be Jean Michele Basquiat. But in four years, Dunstan tells me he's had one "fuck you" and one "'something' rules." This he attributes to a drunken visit by some underage groupies. Dunstan won't rent to anyone under 21. "That way I don't have to deal with the first-time-away-from-home- let's-do-drugs- kick-holes-in-the-wall- rape-and-pillage-types," he says. In four years, only three bands have been thrown out for misbehaving.

Dunstan and I move on to a practice room shared by Roadside Attraction and Pike. Much more cramped and less comfortable than Salmon's pad, this room is all business. There is no couch, no mood lighting and no fridge. Just posters of Kiss, Will Calhoun, Steve Ray Vaughn and, yes, two chicks.

As our tour continues, noise intensifies. The walls shake with percussion and amplified bass. Air pounds against the tiny confines of the halls, shaking the doors and crashing into eardrums. We open a door to meet two jamming members of the Black Sabbath cover band, Rat's Salad. Guitarist Al Silviera stands in front of a swanky wall-size mirror but explains away the conspicuous lack of wall-muffins: "Well, I'm married."

Next, Dunstan takes me to see the biggest drum set he has ever seen. It's in the practice room of Six Guns. The drum set indeed consumes nearly half the space. But Six Guns breaks another record on my informal tally: six chicks on the wall, complemented by four pairs of bare buns.

Appearances aside, 30 of the 65 tenants donated a bag of groceries to Dunstan's holiday food drive. Dunstan tries to help band members cope with talent agents and encourages older musicians to mentor others. "Sometimes," Dunstan says, "I just stop by and talk, man, talk. They ask me questions like, 'Should I go on to college?'"

Our tour ends in the enshrined practice room of Drivin' Like Buddha. Dunstan shows me a picture on the wall of the band members. There's Great Scott, Nice Hair Ken, Santa Cruz Mike and, front and center, San Francisco Liz. "I know this sounds schmaltzy," he says, "but they've become an extended family to one another. And I've been adopted into their family."

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From the January 16-22, 1997 issue of Metro

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