A half-decade after his band's demise, Steve DePace is trying to write and close the book on Flipper
By Mark Athitakis - sfweekly.com - February 10th 1999
As documents of old punk rock bands go, Flipper's "Live: 1983" is more interesting than most. Part of the reason is because, well, as old punk rock bands go, Flipper was better than most.
Released last November on local label Dog Patch Records, the video chronicles the San Francisco foursome in its prime, tearing apart tradition in the studio of a public access cable station. In a time when most punk bands played fast, guitarist Ted Falconi had mastered the slow, noisy, and confrontational anti-groove that grunge bands would make a million bucks from 10 years later. And while the punk rock bassist was often an afterthought, Flipper had two: Bruce Lose (ne Calderwood, later Loose) and the late Will Shatter both pounded out a heavy, droning murk over which they shouted manifestoes that were once angry and self-aware.
The crucial Flipper lyric - which showed up in nearly every one of Shatter's obituaries after he died of a heroin overdose in 1987 - came from "Life": "Life! Life! Life is the only thing worth living for!" But the crucial Flipper song was "Sex Bomb," where in 10 toiling minutes and seven words (complete lyrics: "She's a sex bomb/ My baby, yeah") the band unlocked the simplicity and power of punk rock while finding the epic reach of great music in general; it's punk's "Stairway to Heaven."
None of which made Flipper the most famous band to rise from San Francisco's vibrant punk scene of the late '70s and early '80s, but the group was easily the most influential.
All the Dead Kennedys inspired was a mess of punk bands who today play political joke-punk that's twice as fast with lyrics half as funny. Flipper, however, got around: Among others, Concrete Blonde, the Melvins, and Sebadoh have covered Flipper songs, and that's a homemade Flipper T-shirt Kurt Cobain's wearing on the liner sleeve of Nirvana's "In Utero" album. R.E.M. covered "Sex Bomb" for its Christmas fan-only single in 1994, while Mudhoney's Mark Arm wrote the liner notes to the 1995 reissue of the band's odds-and-sods collection "Sex Bomb Baby." But that album, like everything Flipper's done, is currently out of print.
Well, sort of. If you want to get a copy of the band's debut masterpiece "Album - Generic Flipper," the looser and more ambitious "Gone Fishin'," or the double live album "Public Flipper Ltd.," you'll need to get a turntable and send a check to Steve Tupper at Subterranean Records. Those recordings are lying around Subterranean's offices in the Mission District, collecting dust.
Tupper's right to sell the vinyl versions of Flipper material was the fallout of a 1992 lawsuit (later dismissed) in which the band sued Tupper for the right to put its material on CD. Tupper says his business is more focused on distribution these days, and admits that he hasn't done much to let people know that the band's work is still available. But he also doesn't see the point.
"There's nobody left who gives a shit about them, frankly," he says.
Steve DePace gives a shit, but of course he would: He played drums with the band, after all, helped manage the group's tours and finances, and tried to keep his nose clean as Flipper descended into massive and tragic drug abuse. "It was kind of like Spinal Tap, except the bass player keeps dying," as Bruce Lose put it.
The Flipper heroin death toll stopped at three: Shatter in December of 1987. John Dougherty, who took Shatter's place for an ill-advised reunion tour and embarrassingly mediocre comeback album, "American Grafishy" - heroin too, on Halloween 1997. And Ricky Williams in 1991, who was in an early version of the band and actually named the group. (Williams had a menagerie of pets in his apartment and, strung out as he was, named them all Flipper so he could remember what to call them.)
DePace is trying to get the entire story down on paper - the riot of music, drugs, and San Francisco punk scene-making - for the Flipper memoir he's currently writing. Now living in Los Angeles, he began writing the book (working title: "Generic Flipper") three years ago but set it aside. Recently, though, he's picked it up again and has started shopping around what he calls "the whole adventure of Flipper"; Henry Rollins' 2.13.61 imprint has expressed some interest. In the meantime, DePace is also working to get Flipper onto CD: The band's debut and "Sex Bomb Baby" are scheduled for re-release by American Records this year. ROIR Records will reissue the cassette-only 1983 live album "Blow'n Chunks," and a re-release of "We Don't Play, We Riot," a 1979 EP by Negative Trend featuring a pre-Flipper DePace and Shatter, is also planned. And the "Live: 1983" video is a re-issue as well; an earlier version had a brief print run after the show's recording and broadcast.
For the past three years - ever since the last Flipper tour ended and the band went bust - DePace has worked as production coordinator at Warner Bros. Animation. His projects include the Saturday morning cartoon staples Animaniacs and Pinky & the Brain.
In Flipper's heyday, its snaggletoothed fish logo showed up a lot on San Francisco building walls, along with the unofficial band slogan: "Flipper Rules, OK?" And while DePace can't say for sure whether there was actually Flipper graffiti on the Great Wall of China - two people have told him as much - it's certainly true that Ted Falconi tried to claim an entire Mission District street for the band. In 1981, he printed a mass of stickers with the letter F on them and proceeded to go up and down Clipper Street, covering up the C's on the signs, making the road Flipper Street. It took the city about six months to get around to scraping all the stickers off.
The band's live shows - nationally and at now-defunct local spaces like the Stone, I-Beam, and Deaf Club - featured room-clearing 45-minute versions of "Sex Bomb," confrontations with the audience, and a highly vocal hatred of late promoter Bill Graham. During one interview at KUSF, Shatter announced that Flipper had a gig at Wolfgang's, a Graham-owned Embarcadero club. He claimed that the group planned to burn the venue down after the show. The concert was canceled.
"Flipper shows were really a phenomenon around the whole country," says DePace. "There were a lot of people who didn't particularly like our music, or would at least say that, but you know what? They were at every show. And if we played somewhere two nights in a row, they were at both shows. And then they were bitching about how they hated us. But they were there."
Bruce Lose gets all the good lines during the interview portion of "Live: 1983." The person asking questions is Ruth Schwartz, then a local punk scenester and KUSF DJ. Later that year she founded Mordam Records, the large punk music distributor and label she still runs today. Schwartz hates the video interview, and it's easy to see why; forced to talk to a band with a confrontational rep, she stumbles through her questions and gets cut off more often than not. In fact, she didn't want the video to be released. ("I told her she looks cute in it," says Dog Patch owner Gary X Indiana. "And she does.")
Throughout the interview, Lose seizes on every available opportunity to crack a good joke:
Schwartz: Do you guys consider yourself to be a part of what spawned you into what you would call the punk scene?
Lose: We're into spawning, but I don't know what about punk.
Currently, Lose is living in Oakland, recovering from a drug addiction and from a car accident in 1993 that seriously injured his spine, limited his ability to perform live, and essentially ended the band. (A brief attempt by the remaining members to continue playing in Los Angeles failed.) Lose is on medications, in therapy for depression, and trying to get his life in order. "I'm clean, but I never feel like I'm clean," he says.
Nevertheless, Lose criticizes America's drug policy. "Drugs are not a bad thing," he says. "It's a bad thing when they're illegal." He expresses his appreciation of Cobain's Flipper T-shirt, cherishes the letter he received once from a fan who said "Life" stopped him from committing suicide, ponders putting together a new band, and still dreams about his old one.
And he hates Steve DePace.
Lose hadn't heard about DePace's book in progress; he'd been planning one of his own, which would cover both the band's history and the legacy it left. He says that during the Grafishy tour, DePace told Flipper's label, Def American, not to give any money to Lose or Dougherty because they were junkies.
"I'm pissed about that," he says. "I'm real pissed about that. And I hope his book sucks."
DePace vehemently denies telling the label not to give money to Lose and Dougherty, and American Records - as Def American's now named - recalls nothing of the sort.
"He is a very paranoid individual," says DePace. "I gave them a very hard time for being fucked up. I rode them. Do I give them credit for all their talents? Absolutely. Bruce was a great singer. Ted was a brilliant guitar player. But did they make life miserable? Yes, they did."
Nobody's quite sure where Ted Falconi is. Lose's ex-wife, Meri St. Mary, saw him at a show her band, the Housecoat Project, played a year ago at the Paradise Lounge, and Steve Tupper says he ran into Falconi recently at the Aquatic Park in Berkeley.
"There were a lot of people who were close to Flipper, and a lot of them didn't make it," says Mary. "It was a very destructive time - these guys could ruin a wet dream. They fought all the time, they were all on different drugs, and they were all so brilliant.
"After Will died, I think they should've just hung it up."