Echos of a Bunnyfan
Delfin Vigil published this concert preview in the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this week. This is the kind of article I like because it is from a fan's perspective. Sure, reviews are good, but those are often just an opinion of something and are not always positive [This, coming from a person who used to review a lot of music, slaying many a talented artist with the written word].
In seventh grade, I wrote an essay titled "Why Echo & the Bunnymen are the Greatest Band in the F -- World."
I expected either an A for coherently writing about what I passionately believed in or an F for failing to follow directions. I'd have been happy with either grade. But the teacher simply drew a big question mark above the crossed-out swear word. Like so many others, she didn't know what to make of Echo & the Bunnymen.
As the Liverpool band's singer Ian McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant set sail into the turquoise lights of San Francisco's Fillmore on Monday in support of "Siberia" -- their 20th album together (and sometimes apart) since the band formed in 1978 -- that question mark seems to stick around like a prickly porcupine. How is the world supposed to honor a group whose songs would be an inspiration for Coldplay, the Flaming Lips and films like "Donnie Darko"?
Heaven up here
Kevin Keiper, the cool kid down the street, got me hooked. It was 1987. I was 12 years old, sifting through Kevin's "modern rock" record collection, which included the Cure, the Smiths, Joy Division and Echo & the Bunnymen. The Cure was cool, but I couldn't wear the requisite lipstick and fluorescent makeup without getting smacked across the face by my father. The Smiths had something to say with "Meat Is Murder," but life seemed incomplete without carne asada. And Joy Division's Ian Curtis clocked out too early to light up my life.
That left Echo & the Bunnymen. On their record sleeves, they looked more like longshoremen or merchant marines than mere rock stars. McCulloch, the tipsy captain, led his men with guts and passion, making city after city and stereo after stereo just a little more magical and romantic year after year.
Between 1980 and 1984, Echo & the Bunnymen recorded four albums, each more critically successful and hit-filled than the last. Their greatest moment, I'd say, was "The Killing Moon," a song so perfect and timeless it sounds as if it could have been written a hundred years earlier, maybe on a ship lost at sea.
But soon after I jumped onboard, the ship sank. Drummer Pete de Freitas died in a motorcycle accident, and McCulloch sailed off on a solo career. After the mutiny, the Bunnymen Bounty voyaged on with a fill-in singer. As a stowaway fan, I felt I had to do something to save all of our souls.
King of kings
We were waiting with our best suit coats on. My best friend, K.C., and I cut class at Benicia High School to catch a glimpse of McCulloch heading into a sound check for his 1991 solo gig at Slim's in San Francisco. After we'd been waiting several hours, a taxi pulled up and out stepped our hero into the fog-filled South of Market afternoon to shake our hands and sign our records like a slugger heading to batting practice.
The conversation was short, and so were we.
"Lovely weather we're having, eh," said Mac, towering over us. I pumped my fist and whispered to K.C.: "Yes! He loves cold weather."
The conversation quickly ended, but the night of our lives had only just begun.
McCulloch performed a semi-acoustic but completely romantic set that included a Leonard Cohen cover and three Bunnymen classics. I stole his guitar pick and set list and drank his glass of "water," which turned out to be vodka.
But something was missing.
"Where's Will? He misses you!" I shouted, knowing full well that the two no longer spoke.
"Will? I haven't seen him in years."
His long pause and the fact that he'd answered my question made me believe that Mac still cared about his fellow Bunnyman, and maybe my good vibes could help them reconnect. At least I hoped so.
Don't let it get you down
When Echo & the Bunnymen came to California in 1992 without McCulloch, I had mixed emotions. But more important, I had a mission: I believed I could help get the real Bunnymen back together.
The problem was that they were playing a cheesy club called the Rage, in a Sacramento strip mall. It was 21-and-older only, and I was 16. I called the club in the middle of the afternoon and said I was a friend of the band.
Before long, original Bunnymen bass player Les Pattinson was on the phone, laughing at my scheme. Impressed with my passion, Les said he'd put me on the guest list -- as long as I promised not to drink.
The first thing I noticed when I showed up was that no one in the crowd was wearing any cool Bunnymen coats. One guy actually danced around in a white rabbit costume, waving around a carrot as if it were a cigar. Blasphemy!
Toward the end of the set, during a rendition of "Silver" -- a sacred song from 1984's "Ocean Rain" album that McCulloch rarely sang live -- the club's electricity went out. Noel Burke, the replacement singer, joked that it was "an act of God."
"You're damn right it is!" I shouted, apparently the only person sober enough that night to know something wasn't right.
Show of strength
At the encore, I raced out of the club to grab my rare Bunnymen records out of my friend's car, hoping to have Les and Will autograph them. On my way to the tour bus, I felt a fist hit the side of my head. Then another in my stomach. Two thugs had left a gin-and-juice parking lot party to mug me.
"Grab his bag," shouted one.
In a fight-or-flight moment, I pressed the fight button. I was ready to die for my Bunnymen records that night, kicking and punching with all of my colors.
Either they figured I wasn't worth it, or maybe they already had a limited-edition picture disc vinyl bootleg of Echo & the Bunnymen live in Milan 1984. They let me go, and I slowly approached the Bunnymen bus with a big black eye, bruises on my body, blood on my face -- and records in my hand. Pattinson opened the door.
"What the hell happened to you, kid?" He let me in, and for the next three hours told me tales of touring the world with the original Bunnymen.
Sergeant was there, and at one point I played a copy of my band's demo for them. They listened to the whole thing and smiled. It was great, even though the music wasn't.
Just before I left, I told Les what I really believed: "You've got to get the Bunnymen back together with Mac. It might not last forever, but I bet there's still some magic left." My eye had puffed out further and blood was still dripping down the side of my mouth.
Pattinson laughed and wiped the blood from my face with a cold rag. "Thanks, kid," was all he said.
Years went by with little music coming from either the Mac or Will-and-Les camps. Eager to find out what was going on, I called McCulloch's record company in London. WEA Records executive Phil Knox Roberts, a friendly fellow, picked up, and I explained my reason for calling.
"This must be your destiny because I never answer this phone," he said. "Looks like you'll be the first to know that Mac and Will are back making music together again. Nobody really knows about this but, believe me, the Bunnymen will be back."
It was my first scoop.
In 1997, the three original members of Echo & the Bunnymen released their comeback album, "Evergreen," complete with a United Kingdom Top 10 hit, "Nothing Lasts Forever." My mission was complete.
The group toured several times after I graduated from high school and spent the next 10 or so years in community college. Each time I'd finagle a way backstage or to the after-party and buy my heroes an Anchor Steam (Will) or a Tequila Sunrise (Mac). The last time I saw them offstage was in November, in back of an Indian restaurant in New York after a phenomenal gig on the current "Siberia" tour. I was invited to do a 29-minute interview. But we sat all night around the table, with them listening to a montage of my memories growing up as a Bunnyfan. Vaguely remembering me, Mac and Will seemed both fascinated and freaked out by my fanaticism.
Having traveled across the country mostly to thank them, I had only one real question to ask in the "interview," one I'd first thought of back when I was 12. "Are you guys happy?"
"Am I happy?" asked Mac. "I'm happy today. Are you happy, Will? I'm happy if you're happy."
Sergeant, staring at the table like a stoic Inca warrior lost in space, nodded his head. Then they both headed out into the stormy weather of New York.
These stars are stars 'cause they shine so hard.
ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN 8 p.m. Mon. at the Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd., San Francisco. $25. (415) 346-6000, http://www.thefillmore.com/.
E-mail Delfin Vigil at email@example.com.