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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

Earthquakes Without Marjoe

All the recent killer earthquake news from around the world got me to thinking. For a short while there when I was a kid, I wanted to be seismologist more than anything else in the world. I can blame Earthquake for that one. Sadly, living in Wisconsin doesn't afford a person much of an opportunity to study earthquakes first-hand.

I've never been in an earthquake (except for those real quiet East Coast quakes which are less noticeable than a subway passing underfoot), and always felt like I was missing out on something because of it. I've been in blizzards, tornadoes, hurricanes (well, the remnants of hurricanes anyway), but no quakes.

The closest I ever came still put me on the other side of the country from the actual event. Nevertheless, it was a strange time, colored by an even stranger web of coincidences.

I was living in Philadelphia, still doing occasional articles for a monthly music magazine. The editors always called on me when they came across an artist none of their other writers wanted to deal with. This time around it was X's Exene Cervenka, who was about to release her first (sigh) solo record. I didn't like Exene any more than the other writers did--maybe even less--but I took the job anyway because it was a job. Didn't make any difference to me.

The first stop on the tour to promote the record was in Philly, as it happened, so it was arranged that I'd go to the show, then interview her backstage afterwards. That was fine. She was playing in a pleasant enough club called the Chestnut Cabaret.

Making things more interesting was the fact than an old friend of mine from Chicago named Dwayne was going to be in town on business. Dwayne lived in San Francisco but was sent to the East Coast once or twice a year. You couldn't tell it by looking at him, but Dwayne was an almost obsessive X fanatic. So when I told him about the show and that he'd be able to come backstage with me and meet Exene afterwards, he was mighty tickled. I was glad he'd be there--I was never the X fan that I should've been (mostly because of Exene) and figured that I could let Dwayne do the talking while I transcribed.

The morning of the show, however--an hour after he was supposed to be airborne--he called to say that something had come up at work and that he had to stay in San Francisco. I don't think he realized how profoundly disappointed I was to hear that. This meant that I'd have to do the interview solo, which probably meant I'd also have to listen to the album.

That night--October 17th, 1989--I put on my coat and walked to the club (it wasn't that far away from my apartment). I got there early as I always did, got a beer, and took a seat at a small table off to the side of the main floor. I had an hour to wait before the opening band came on.

The interior of the Chestnut was ringed with video screens. Most of the time they were showing Koyaanisqatsi or off-kilter French animation. Tonight, though, they were showing the third game of the World Series, which struck me as out of character for a punk rock club. But the sound was off, the club was still mostly empty, and they were selling me beers, so I wasn't complaining.

I was watching the screens idly, letting my mind drift here and there, when I noticed something odd. One of the cameras covering the game shifted abruptly. Then the screen went dark for a moment. And when it came back on, it was a shot from outside the stadium. Then there were other shots--of police cars and fire trucks, of other buildings which weren't the stadium.

The few people who were sitting around me noticed this too, and since the sound was still off, they began speculating.

"Somebody must've been shot at the World Series," someone said, as the screen flashed more pictures of police cars outside the baseball stadium. "That must be it--there was a shooting at the World Series."

As this fellow and his friends excitedly discussed the implications of that, the televisions flashed another image--a map of California with a series of red concentric circles centered over San Francisco. It became immediately evident that an earthquake had occurred. I knew that from my childhood seismological studies. A big one from the looks of it. But the people sitting next to me didn't see the map with the circles. Or if they did, it didn't register. They were too happy with their "shooting" theory.

Next there was a shot of a burning building.

"No, it wasn't a shooting," someone else at another table said. "It's a fire! A big fire at the World Series!"

Then off they went with that. I sat there quietly, curious as to how long it would take them to figure it out based on the visual clues. Meanwhile, other people had started coming into the club, and they all started doing the same sort of speculating. Most of them decided it was a fire, despite the repeated image of that California map.

Oh, you numbskulls, I thought. They were starting to drive me a little nuts.

I was thinking it was about time to set them all straight when I suddenly remembered Dwayne. Dwayne was supposed to be there with me that night but was in San Francisco instead.

Without sound, it was hard to tell if there were any reports of casualties yet. But the image of a collapsed highway and smashed cars made it pretty clear there had been at least a few.

I didn't have Dwayne's number with me, so I couldn't call. It would've been useless anyway at that point, I figured. All the lines would be tied up for the next several hours at least. I kept watching the screen, hoping for some kind of reassurance.

Then all the screens went black, the lights went down, and the opening band came on. If I remember correctly it was an Irish rock outfit called The Oyster Band.

I sat through them, sat through Exene's set, then went backstage. There I sat down and interviewed guitarist Tony Gilkyson about Philadelphia's liquor laws, since Exene spent the whole time out front, arguing with the club owner over what she was supposed to be paid.

I got home at about 3:30 a.m. It would be best to call Dwayne in the morning to see if he was okay. And, assuming he was, only then would I chastise him for not coming out to Philly to sit through Exene's crummy set with me. Had he done that, there wouldn't have been any damned earthquake to deal with.

The next day I found out that Dwayne was healthy and safe--but just barely. He'd left the office about ten minutes before the quake hit and was driving down that same highway that collapsed, killing several motorists. Since it collapsed before he reached that point, though, he was re-routed. It was, nevertheless, a close call.

After getting off the phone, I wrote up the interview with Tony Gilkyson and turned it in as an interview with Exene Cervenka. Nobody seemed to notice that Exene only made the briefest appearance (on her way out the door to talk to the manager).

Two months later, the same magazine asked me to interview X's John Doe, who was about to release his first solo album. There were no major earthquakes involved, not the plate-shifting kind anyway, but that turned out to be the interview that got me fired. So you see how everything ties together?