Preface

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The Bay Area has always been a creative vortex, I swear there is something in the air up there. People are drawn to the city for different reasons; my reasons were music and my sexual orientation. I had lived in the city for 8 years when 4 Non Blondes got together in the fall of 1989. San Francisco’s gay community had been through a lot in the previous decade: the murder of Harvey Milk, the White Night Riots, the AIDS epidemic and 9 years of a republican white house. I quickly realized that strong communities form under the weight of oppression, and feeling ostracized can be very inspiring.

For me, being gay meant from an early age that the rules didn’t apply; I was different. I would have to find my own way in the world. Being singled out as a rebellious sort leaves a lot of doors wide open and I took full advantage of the freedom. I never really considered someday being on MTV and/or being accepted by the straight music world. I lived in what was arguably the most gay friendly city in the U.S. and was a member of the strong diverse artist community that flourished there. But when I peeked outside the borders of my little utopia I didn’t see a place for myself in what appeared to be a very straight world.

baybrick-flyerFrom 1983 until it’s demise in 1985 I was a regular performer at The Baybrick Inn, a small haven for (mostly women) musicians located in the South of Market district. The club showcased solo performers and bands in a cabaret setting, and featured players like Bonnie Hayes (who eventually wrote the hit song Love Letter for Bonnie Raitt), Vickie Randle (a regular player in the Tonight Show with Jay Leno band), Lady Bianca, Linda Tillery, Debbie Saunders and many others. Comedians Marga Gomez and Jane Dornaker also performed there.

I began playing at the Baybrick with an acoustic singer/songwriter named Tuffy Eldridge, a friend of mine from Oklahoma. I met Tuffy in Oklahoma City when I was 17 and we played together in my first “real” band. A year or so after I moved to San Francisco I offered her a place to stay and she came out west.

Soon I was jamming around town and meeting other local musicians. In 1984 I formed a funk band with guitarist Pat Wilder and keyboardist Ginger Doss. My friend Elyse Angelo, a Tuffy bandmate, had also moved out from Oklahoma and she joined us on drums. We called our band The System.

In early 1985 Ginger, myself, and our girlfriends were hit by a drunk driver and my life fell into chaos. Ginger’s girlfriend, who was also my roommate, hit the windshield and sustained neurological injuries. A difficult physical and emotional rehabilitation ensued and took it’s toll on both her and Ginger. Within a year the band split and Ginger had moved back to her hometown of Austin, Texas.

ch_system_1984After the accident I should have gone into therapy. But I was young – only 23 – and didn’t understand the trauma I had just been through. I had always been a partier, but my drug use intensified. I was devastated by loss of the music and friendship, and I wondered if I would ever find that musical camaraderie again. Fortunately the Bay Area’s music scene was full of interesting projects to pursue and new styles to play. And more importantly, perhaps, playing music helped to distract me from myself.

During the mid-80’s my music career blossomed as I played in numerous funk and jazz bands in the bay area. I played in a few featuring jazz pianist Tammy Hall, and in 1987 I played in the alternative rock band 17 Reasons, led by master guitarist Jim Campilongo. The band was managed by Lucie Faulknor – who also happened to be a good friend of Shaunna Hall.

Shaunna Hall and Christa Hillhouse 1989

Shaunna Hall and Christa Hillhouse 1989

It was around that time that Shaunna and I became friends. We had met casually a few years before but now we became thick as thieves. We rented a large house and transformed the garage into a rehearsal studio. Shaunna wrote catchy pop rock tunes, and we jammed along to her drum machine in the absence of a drummer. Those were some great times, although we were broke. We used to shop at a place called the canned food warehouse and buy cases of corndogs to eat. We pooled our toy collections (Shaunna’s was bigger) and our music collections. I used to drive her to work on the back of my motorcycle in the morning and we went out clubbing every night.

I learned her material and we did some recording at Hyde Street Studios, usually in the middle of the night,  at the invitation of our friend and engineer Gary Creiman. We made a demo tape and got a few gigs at the Nightbreak, a club we frequented in the upper Haight. In the early days the Nightbreak had a little record store inside of it occupying an adjoining room. Most of our friends hung out there, and sushi sundays were always packed. Bunch of punk rockers hanging around listening to rock music and eating nigiri rolls. The record store eventually folded and was replaced by a hang out room with video games and bean bags chairs. And drugs. Lots of drugs.

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We named our duo “Cool and Unusual Punishment”. It was during that time we started playing a song Shaunna wrote entitled “Morphine & Chocolate”, a powerful anthem about choosing art over addiction. The tune would eventually find it’s way into 4 Non Blondes’ repertoire and become an audience favorite. Shaunna ran her drum machine live at our shows – old school. We only played a few gigs, but it was the beginning of what would become 4 Non Blondes. We needed a drummer, and pretty soon an inspiring one fell into our laps.

This review of the Lesbian Snake Charmers mentions Linda Perry at the end .. a premonition of things to come.

This review of the Lesbian Snake Charmers mentions Linda Perry at the end .. a premonition of things to come.

In the summer of 1989, Shaunna came home one afternoon and told me that she had started playing in a band with a woman named Jai Jai Noire, a politically inspired lesbian performer who played thrash punk ska ala the Clash type of stuff. Shaunna was especially excited to tell me about the drummer – a woman from southern California named Wanda Day. Shaunna went on and on about her and so I was intrigued. I (literally) crashed their next rehearsal and was quickly asked to join the band.

Wanda was the hardest hitting drummer I had ever heard, a small, wirey explosion of a woman sporting a bright red mowhawk and a fiery confidence. That particular band didn’t last long, the music didn’t click for me and the band’s hierarchy was stifling for the three of us. There was talk of the singer wanting to fire Wanda, and Wanda was the only real reason I was in the band in the first place. So the three of us quit and started our own band.

Wanda had some friends in a band called The Gargoyles who were looking to share a studio space in a building we called the Turkish Persian Rug Factory or “Turko-Persian”, I forget why. I think perhaps it had been a rug factory at one time. We moved in to our first studio and began jamming. We coined the name “4 Non Blondes” and we began looking for a singer.