Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
That was now: Ed Sugitan is now owner of San Carlos Steet Antiques, but two decades ago he ran a landmark San Jose club, Marsugi's. Even then, he faced many of the same live-music issues that will be discussed at this week's South Bay Live.
Same As It Ever Was
As South Bay Live tries to foster San Jose's musical rebirth, former club owner Ed Sugitan reveals how long the same issues have plagued the scene
By Mike Connor
SAN JOSE'S complicated issues with live music don't seem that complicated to Ed Sugitan.
"What draws people? Music, you know?" he says.
It's a lesson he learned as the owner of Marsugi's, the storied live music club that he ran from '86 to '93 known for its early booking of bands like Nirvana, Sublime and Weezer. Located on South First Street at San Salvador, where the Agenda is now, the club essentially kick-started the live music scene in the SoFA district, preceding Cactus Club, Ajax and F/X.
"It was in a red light district with whores, drugs and all that," remembers Sugitan, who now owns San Carlos Street Antiques. Nothing about this low-key antique shop owner advertises the fact that he was, in some people's estimation, the pioneer of the modern San Jose club scene, blazing the trail for the entire SoFA district—if somewhat accidentally.
In '86, he took over the spot occupied at the time by the Four Star restaurant. After renovating the place, Sugitan ran it as a bar and grill. The music was an afterthought to bring in some extra money.
"You just added the music because that's where the money was, it was more than just a restaurant, profitwise," he says. "There was a lot of live music in the '70s, but I think they already closed down."
A struggle with the city over an awning for Marsugi's (one of the windows did nothing to conceal the naked rear end of Buck Naked and the Barebottom Boys while they performed within) motivated his associate Ray Rodriguez to co-found the Downtown Association to help small businesses navigate the red tape at City Hall.
Sugitan's experience with Marsugi's seems to illustrate that the more things change in San Jose's live music scene, the more they stay the same. Two decades later, a group of current club owners, musicians and other scenesters are getting set for the second meeting of "South Bay Live" on Wednesday, April 25, at City Hall. The group is dedicated to kick-starting the city's live music scene, and opening up some communication between various, and sometimes competing, creative, business and political interests.
The first South Bay Live was held at the California Theatre last month, and drew about 60 of the area's music-biz players. The first challenge was issued by San Jose Jazz Society executive director Geoff Roach, who offered the support of his organization, provided that an actionable plan can be cobbled together within the next couple of months. A tall order, given that the discussion hadn't yet even begun. By the end of the meeting, though, something was beginning to take shape. Among the ideas brainstormed, a few bubbled up as possible initiatives and projects, such as organizing multivenue events to raise the profiles and level cooperation among downtown venue owners, creating a South Bay Live website that includes a database for performers, promoters and audiences, and developing a comprehensive critique of city policies standing in the way of a vital live music scene.
Based on Sugitan's recollections, much the same type of summit could have been held in the in the '80s, when the scene faced many of the same challenges that still exist today.
"Back then you always had a hard time getting crowds," says Sugitan. "Half the time the light rail was being built, so it was tough in the first few years because the streets were all messed up, Redevelopment was changing things and there were more rules as time went by."
In order to draw out the crowds, Sugitan experimented with various kinds of music, starting off with jazz and blues, throwing in standup comedians on Monday nights and basically doing whatever he could to get the college kids in the door. Eventually, though, Sugitan landed on the genre that would make the club memorable: rock & roll.
"With blues and jazz, the bands, they cost more," says Sugitan, "and when we turned to rock & roll, they would promote themselves and do all the legwork ... it just took off that way."
Starting with local bands, Sugitan and his booking agents gradually began pulling bigger acts—often touring bands playing in San Francisco on a weekend that would hit up Marsugi's as a tune-up on a Tuesday or Thursday night before their big show in the city. Sugitan used a bunch of different booking agents who landed him acts like Nirvana and Everclear before they were stadium-worthy.
"The better bands you did, the more fun it was, but also the more hassle, with big crowds in a small space," says Sugitan. "I had pretty good control of the place—[the bands] didn't have any places much to play and I was real strict about no drugs, no this, no that, so they had to follow me because they wanted a place to hang out and play. I don't think we had that many problems."
As often happens with loud, rowdy rock venues, the rug was eventually pulled out from under Sugitan. His landlord sold the club to a buyer interested in starting his own club. As Sugitan says, "I got aced out."
Didn't he want to make a go of it in another location? "Yeah, I did!" he says. "I was supposed to get relocation assistance, but at the time they didn't like what I was doing, so they shut me down."
The details of who did what are fuzzy now, but the end result is clear.
"I don't know if it was Redevelopment, but every place I wanted to redo as a bar they said I couldn't do it there, my music was too loud for that area, you know, they had reasons. At that time, loud music, they had enough for some reason. They got more now—a lot of places became nightclubs anyway. But when I had to close this place down, it was too late for relocation, the money they were supposed to give me it was too late, they said, 'You're out of business,' so anyway I got aced out. And that was a good thing because I'm doing something else that I like."
Now an antique dealer, Sugitan has written off the end of his career as a venue owner, saying it was "all politics." He doesn't spend much time downtown anymore, and hasn't kept up with the travails of the live music scene, but some of the themes and problems he faced are almost comically similar to what exists today.
"I think back then," says Sugitan, "they didn't know—and downtown San Jose still doesn't know—what their identity is, you know? They wanted it to be a nightlife area, but they wouldn't let it happen at the same time."
"Music is like a culture," continues Sugitan, "and if you want a 'big city' you gotta let the culture do their thing, you gotta keep 'em controlled, but you gotta have a place they can do their thing. That way it's kept in control. At least if it's in a club, if everyone does their job I don't see why there's problems."
While some club owners criticize the police presence downtown, Sugitan says "90 percent" weren't a problem for him. The way Sugitan sees it, the city has to work with the police, the police have to work with management, management has to work with staff, everyone has to work with the fans and the fans have to learn to behave. In Sugitan's utopia, responsibility is slathered across the board so that everyone gets a little.
"Police, bartenders, bouncers, waitresses," says Sugitan, "let's say some guy's stupid drunk; cut him off, warn him, kick him out before it becomes a problem, but let everybody know how important it is to stop a problem before it starts. If you can keep that you can keep control. I never had any problems because I didn't go for it."
He didn't go for it then, but would he ever consider making another go of it now?
"It was a tough job," concludes Sugitan. "I wouldn't do it again."
South Bay Live will be held on Wednesday, April 25, 5-7:30pm in Room 120 of the New San Jose City Hall.
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