Lucha Libre, Surf Guitar, and a Little Sound Advice
LUCHA LIBRE, SURF GUITAR, AND A LITTLE SOUND ADVICE
Written By Vandal Drummond
One of the coolest things about the Internet Age is that you find other folks who are keenly interested in subjects that you previously thought had an obscure following. Surf guitar is my favorite of many musical genres; I can’t play guitar, I don’t even know what a chord is, but surf guitar is spiritual music to this Southern California guy.
It was 2009 when I discovered both the Surf Guitar 101 website, podcast, and annual Surf music convention in Los Alamitos, California. I attended the group’s second annual convention that year, and was awed by the vast array of Surf Guitar bands from around the globe. I saw awesome performances by The Tomorrowmen, The Ghastly Ones, and Secret Samurai, I knew this would be a yearly mecca for me. It was at the 2010 convention where I was floored by the performance of the reunited group The Space Cossacks; their performance has yet to be matched through my ears at The Starting Gate! I also had the pleasure of chatting with David Arnson of The Insect Surfers that year, who I was especially jazzed to meet, being as The Insect Surfers played on one of the Incredibly Strange Wrestling shows I wrestled on. Not only is Arnson a really nice guy, but he’s also friends with Johnny Legend… conventions don’t get more bitchin’ than that!
But it was the 2011 Surf Guitar 101 convention that I will always hold dear. I was drinking in the music, not to mention my third Blue Moon, when I saw a man about my age sitting at a table. Now, if this were just any everyday Joe, I would think he looked a little reserved -maybe even expressionless- during Daikaiju’s wicked-cool set. But I immediately recognized that friend I had not seen in thirteen years, still wearing his conservative casual wear and his trademark cap, and I knew that when he sat and gazed quietly at a performance, he was drinking it in, savoring every moment.
Steve Gerber! It was one helluva reunion. We met in 1986 at a pro wrestling video viewing party I threw at my apartment. From there we became fast friends; before lucha libre was cool to the smart-marks, Steve was one of the few who was a passionate fan of folks like Los Brazos, Negro Casas, and Yoshi Asai (the future Ultimo Dragon). In 1989, along with our Tijuana Lucha Mafia comrades Pat Hoed, Fisico Nuclear, and Dan Farren, we began making monthly treks to the Friday night lucha shows promoted by Benjamin Mora in Tijuana.
We were also great fans of Deep Purple. Steve was even more enthusiastic than I was; a part time music journalist, he managed to get interviews with every member of the band throughout the years, except for one. He was really bummed when keyboardist Jon Lord passed away in 2012, the one Deep Purple member he never got to quiz, and now that ship had sailed.
It was early 1989 when Steve helped get me a job as a teacher’s assistant at Rossier School, a private school for children who were troubled and/or from dysfunctional homes. Steve was the lead counselor there for some time, and it was a blast working at a place where you can talk to a fellow worker about educational subjects like the Villanos vs Los Brazos mask vs mask bout, how many gig marks does Villano III have on his chin, and who dons the coolest mask in lucha libre? I worked there for nearly two years, and really missed our lucha conversations after I moved on.
“The coolest mask” subject was one of Steve’s choicest topics! I would walk into his spotless clean-fiend of an apartment, which looked like it could receive the Better Homes & Gardens stamp of approval….. if he would take down his Deep Purple memorabilia and his collection of mannequin heads, each one donning the mask of a luchador. He took his mask purchases seriously, was not shy about bartering with mask vendors, and had a keen eye for both exorbitantly decorative and low-key traditional masks. He was especially fond of local Tijuana luchador Thunderbird’s mask, to the point that whenever a rudo tried to tear it off Thunderbird’s face, we would look at each other and shout in unison “NOT THE MASK! NOT THE MASK!”
After reuniting at the 2011 Surf Guitar 101 Convention, we vowed to stay in touch. We didn’t.
I went to the 2012 Surf Guitar 101 convention, wondering if Steve would be there. Sure enough, he sat at the same table, looked over at me and said “Saved you a seat!” It was another great reunion, catching up and reminiscing.
So many hep memories! The weekend where He, Pat Hoed, Fizzy and I rented two cheap hotel rooms in Chula Vista right upon the border, where there were lucha shows all three nights. Most memorable was the show promoted Johnny Bayoni. It was held in semi-constructed suburb with lots of small shops, half-constructed buildings, and barely paved roads. From the outside, the arena looked like a large gym, but soon as we bought our tickets and walked through the entrance, we saw it was no gym, but a large open-air patio, and that front entrance was the only wall! It looked like the grounds must have been kissed by an oncoming missile at some point, and said “Damn the torpedoes, I’ll stay a wrestling arena no matter how many of my walls crumble!” A kid was riding his bike around the ring, and a stray dog was sniffing his way around the weeds creeping through the cracks in the patio.
And the ring? The ropes were dangling low, no way could the wrestlers do high spots off them, and you couldn’t count the number of holes in the mat! The body of the ring was, in actuality, a stack of wood palettes crowned with the mat. Near the entrance was Johnny Bayoni – who was wrestling in the main event- selling beer at the snack stand. We marveled at this, thinking how cool it would be to go to a show at The Fabulous Forum to see Ric Flair vs Ronnie Garvin, and see The Nature Boy “Whoooo!’ing” while pouring us a cold one!
Despite the barely-standing ring, the local Tijuana boys put on their working boots, and while they couldn’t use the ropes for much, they worked with what they had, and worked well. We joked about the arena, joked about the ring, but there were no wisecracks were made about the luchadores!
After the 2012 Surf Guitar 101 Convention, Steve and I did stay in touch, and he even attended the 2012 Lucha Libre Leyendas De Los Angeles show, as well as the 2013 Millennium Pro Wrestling California Classic show in Simi Valley this past January. The Simi Valley get together was an old school reunion at its best; after the matches, we hit TGI-Fridays with Dan and Mary Lou Farren, Fisico Nuclear, Augie Loya, Danny Wolf, Gary Sparo, and Alfredo Esparza. Steve bought a round of drinks for us, and before leaving, he had the waiter take a group photo.
And then there was The 2013 Surf Guitar 101 Convention.
August 11, to be exact.
I went there excited to see the performers like Martin Cilia and Surfer Joe, but also with a sense of loneliness. Steve Gerber would not be there.
I received a call from Steve’s sister Susie a few weeks earlier. On February 9, a few weeks after our last visit in Simi Valley, Steve stopped at an ATM en route to see a concert with The Petra Haden Choir and The Portland Cello Project. After getting out of his car, Steve suffered a massive heart attack, and died instantly.
Susie apologized for the six month delayed notice, but she had not come across my phone number until clearing Steve’s voicemail messages that week. We talk for nearly an hour, sharing memories of my pal and her brother, and all that while I had such a hard time believing he was gone. I don’t know why, but I did not picture Steve leaving us so soon.
Perhaps the culprit that led to his demise was the junk food. Steve enjoyed unapologetically. Similar to the late Playboy Buddy Rose, Steve did not look athletic, enjoyed rich food regularly, but –like Buddy Rose- could excel in athletic events without getting winded. He could especially go gangbusters when he played tennis. I worked under the supervision of a teacher named Tammy, who was also a tennis player. She brought her racket to the school one day to see just how good a tennis player Steve was. She and Steve whacked the ball back and forth one lunch hour; not a formal game, just a volley for the hell of it, neither one getting tired.
I asked Tammy if he was any good. “I’m not playing him in a game until I learn how to hit his mean backhand return. He’s good!”
The night I learned of Steve’s death, I walked around the house in an odd state of shock, half devastated, half fondly remembering the fun times we had. Elena came home around 10:00 that night, and bless her, sat and talked with me about the unexpected news for nearly an hour. Looking at the clock, she said “It’s late.” I nodded, saying I should hit the hay, get ready for work tomorrow. She shook her head, and said “You’re wired, you’re in shock. You’re calling in sick tomorrow.” I obeyed; Elena understands and can read me like no one else. Seeing how shaken I was, she suggested we get out of the house and go grab a bite –Norm’s, it’s open 24 hours- and talk about Steve.
While I sipped coffee and she sipped tea, I brought up the most defining moment of our friendship; it had nothing to do with lucha libre or surf music.
Steve took his role as a counselor at Rossier School very seriously. He was strict, a disciplinarian, but also managed to balance it with a caring attitude. Most of the kids liked Steve a lot, even the unruly ones who clashed with him regularly. It wasn’t unusual when a former student would run into Steve at a grocery store, or sometimes return to Rossier School to visit him, just to say things like “Sorry I was such an asshole to you, you really helped me a lot when I was a kid.”
And so I tried to follow Steve’s lead. This was during a strange phase in my late twenties when I mistakenly thought I should remold myself to act more like a man instead of a suburban hippie-bastard, and I veered toward the button-up route. Yes, I became strict with the kids, knit my eyebrows harshly, wore appropriate button-up shirts, exuded a deeper voice, and actually (yikes) cut my hair on a regular basis! I worked hard to be “No Tolerance Man.”
I thought I had the drill down in about a month, when one day after playing handball with the kids at lunch, Steve took me aside, and said, with a smile “Kurt, stop acting like me.”
“The disciplinarian route you’re taking with the kids. Stop acting like me.”
I was stunned. “But I thought you said these kids need firm guidance, they need to know who’s in control. And Mike (another counselor) and most of the assistant teachers are strict too.”
He nodded thoughtfully and said “I think I miscommunicated. A lot of these kids do need firm, no nonsense guidance. That’s where I come in. But with some of these kids, my hardline style doesn’t work, it either breaks them or pushes them away from the guidance they need.
“Be yourself. Some of these kids need someone who guides them with a softer tone of voice, who listens instead of commands, and who comes off as empathic instead of stern. That’s where people like you come in.”
And what a release I felt! I unloaded my well-intentioned pretenses: my hair began to grow, pro wrestling and rock t-shirts replaced the starchy obnoxious button-up shirts, and I ditched the deep voice for my organic girlish pitch (“Are you the lady of the house?” the telemarketers would ask when I said “Hello?”) In turn, my interaction with the kids became real, and my work improved immensely.
And just as pertinent, he was one of several people in my life who, around that time, helped me see that putting on a fake pretense –even if for a noble intention- really sucks. He was an unlikely messenger, since before that time I viewed Steve as “Mr. Conformity.” Like the old saying goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” For that matter, don’t judge it by its chapters’ opening paragraphs; you have to stick around and read on to find its intricacies.
So here’s to you, Steve Gerber, old pal. I picture you joining our old friend Lucha Larry Doyle up in that TV studio in the sky, a place where you cats can watch the old KCOP-13 Championship Wrestling TV tapings (which were erased on earth, but are still intact up in the heavens— and you get to watch them for FREE, Mike LaBell can’t charge you any money for them). Thunderbird’s mask is intact, and you’ll finally nail that interview with Jon Lord. Peace, my friend!