Perfect Sound Forever


Jay Crawford Today; Credit: Jay Crawford

Tales of San Fran punk underground
Jay Crawford interview by Clinton Orman
(December 2023)

Bomb was an underground "post-punk" rock group that Nirvana's Krist Novoselic called "San Francisco's version of grunge." A certain Kurt Cobain had turned Krist on to them. Bomb was active from '86 to '93. They were loud, heavy and infused with psychedelia, working in stylistic notes of metal, goth/industrial, new wave and who knows what else. Comparisons to Flipper, Black Sabbath, Bauhaus, Echo and the Bunnymen, Pink Floyd and Metallica are all perfectly apt.

I was in San Francisco for most of those years. I turned twenty in 1990 and was blessed to see Bomb a handful of times before moving away in '91. They will always be one of my favorite bands. To me they embody San Francisco's acid-soaked sense of promise and danger, as well as its strange melancholy and loneliness. Their music was passionate and wore some kind of twisted beating heart on its sleeve, taking a punk-rock piss on rock' n'roll seriousness without losing any of its own arcane power.

They had a Luciferian edge but couldn't do devil music with a straight face. They were sex-positive, I suppose drug-positive, life-positive and gay friendly. They were considered part of San Francisco's obscure "homocore" scene and played a lot of gay bars.

The band was a coherent body and each member was a standout talent. Singer Michael Dean was equally comfortable in mid-tenor, banshee wail or spine-tingling psychotic shriek. Guitarists Jay Crawford and Doug Hilsinger each had well-defined styles and somehow merged their pedal-stacked sounds into one sonic entity, not to my ears a lead/rhythm configuration (although Jay may have disagreed, see below). Drummer Tony Short (stage name Tony Fag), the least cuddly of the bunch, was powerful and relentless, with a signature style you might call tribal hardcore. Like Lars Ulrich he used his drum fills the way most bands use guitar riffs, as crucial building blocks for the song. In fact that was probably the key point. There was noise, there was power, their shows were ecstatic happenings in the San Francisco tradition, but there were also good songs. This outfit of heavy hitters never lost sight of the job.

Around '91, as Nirvana was conquering the world, Bomb attracted the attention of Warner Brothers, recording an album on their Reprise label with alternative music veteran Bill Laswell producing. Unfortunately the stars did not align. Laswell didn't get the band or care to try to, the record ended up sounding inferior to their previous indie releases, the label didn't promote it and they were soon dropped. Not long after that release, Hate Fed Love, they broke up. An all-too-familiar story: a band's seeming big break becoming instead their death knell. It's tempting to frame it as a major label catch-and-kill hit job, but the facts are never so neat and tidy. Perhaps it was more a matter of irreconcilable differences... or substances, heh.

Nonetheless, by any measure they had a good run- a popular local band in a great rock-and-roll city who toured America and the world, who lived and played for the moment, left their mark and are remembered by a small but passionate group of fans.

You can hear an exhaustive interview with Bomb singer Michael Dean (part 1, part 2) and download most of Bomb's music and look at the artwork for free here. Detailed discography with member side projects by Mike Martzke here.

I spoke with guitarist Jay Crawford at his Northern California home via FaceTime and got some interesting insight into the story of Bomb.

PSF: So tell me a little about your background.

Jay: I'm a musician brat. My stepfather is a musician. I lived with The Sons of Champlin as a kid. Bill Champlin, he became the singer for Chicago? That was in Marin. I first started playing the vibes. Their instruments. Then my Mom met this crazy free jazz bass player and we moved to France. I lived there until I was about thirteen... just toured around Europe in a VW bus while he went and played really weird free jazz music with no rhythm and no melody. Squeak, crash, bang, you know?

Then I came back to San Jose at thirteen and got into the Sex Pistols, went punk, or what I thought was punk. I thought Elvis Costello was punk. Devo, new wave. That was my era. That's when I started Airtight Garage. We moved to Newport Beach. Had the band there for about a year and a half, and then we took Airtight to San Francisco. Then the bass player got killed by a car. Also, Housecoat Project had lost Eric. So we kind of merged together and made a band called Psychic Orphans.

Then when Bruce [Loose, of Flipper] and Meri had their kid, they came back to town and Meri got Housecoat Project back together. The rest is history. Bunch of bands, couldn't even name ya all of them. The worst one was probably the Groove Mongers. [laughs] American English... I did all these bands in SF for many years at the same time as I played with Bomb and Housecoat, for my whole adult life. Bomb and Housecoat didn't like each other so I had to keep them separate.

PSF: I didn't realize that Housecoat was still going on all those years.

Jay: Yeah. We did two records. Toured a bunch. Not as much as Bomb. Across the country in a station wagon.

PSF: You met Michael Dean at a Rhythm Pigs show, he says?

Jay: I met him... might have been a Rhythm Pigs show. At the V.I.S. When it was still a small club, with low ceilings. Turned into the Kennel Club. He was promoting his Virginia band Baby Opaque, walking around handing everybody the record, and then coming back around, you know... "Wanna buy the record?" So I traded him a drink ticket for the record and told him "If this record is good, I want you in my band because you've got drive." Recruited Tony, and the rest is history. That was the three-piece, which was probably my favorite. I loved the minimalism of it. More weird, scary, dangerous, and all these awkward silences. Later it grew, it matured with Doug. He kind of made us grow up which was what we needed at that point.

With the three of us there was like... no couth whatsoever. We never would have gotten signed without Doug in the band. But my presence kind of went to the bottom, as far as what the band needed. The three-piece was a lot easier for me. More weird, crazy, dangerous, scary... and all these awkward silences. Once Doug was in, he's so melodic, he wanted to fly around on the top on all the songs so I ended up becoming kind of a rhythm guitar player. Because that's what it needed. We couldn't both fly on the top, so I took a back seat and kept up the rhythm. But we needed him. He made us more professional. I mean, we gained a lot but kinda lost something too. I love Doug, but once he was in the band... no more silence.

PSF: That's interesting to hear because from the outside it did sound like two guys flying and blending really well. I remember one time after a Paradise show, I was hanging out with another musician and he said that Bomb played LOUD but you sounded good, and that's not easy to do. Is there any secret sauce to achieve that, or was it just something you figured out little by little?

Jay: I don't know, it just kinda symbiotically went together. I ended up melting my parts under him. We did play together really well, especially when we started recording. We had to fine tune all the parts, so they would go together.

PSF: But there's no secret method, like turn the treble down on one amp and the bass up on the other...

Jay: No.

PSF: I know what you mean about the silences. My favorite Bomb record is To Elvis... In Hell (earlier lineup, first record, 1986) and I think it's because of the silence. And the warmth. The production on that record is so warm, it just kind of washes over you. Hits of Acid, while I like the songs on it, the production is more stabby.

Jay: Yeah. Hits of Acid was recorded on tour. We were on speed, lots of alcohol and we had just a few days to record.

PSF: Let me back up a bit. What was it that attracted you to San Francisco? You moved there with your band?

Jay: Yeah, Airtight Garage. My childhood rock band. I have two tattoos: one is Bomb and one says "A.T.G." I was twenty-three I think. Moved up there, into a house on Potrero, rehearsal studio downstairs, did a bunch of acid, never took out the garbage... There was a garbage corner in the kitchen. Drew all over the walls, totally rock-and-roll house. We played the Farm, opened for Flipper. We were an up-and-coming band in the scene, but then our bass player got killed. He was a big driving force behind it. Our singer turned into a junkie. I moved out, got married. Kind of matured a little bit. That's when Bomb came about.

PSF: So you were attracted to San Francisco because...

Jay: We just came up there and went to a protest and Jello Biafra came up and handed us a flyer. We were totally star-struck, so we decided to move up. Parked our van in the park, didn't even have a place to stay. Then we met some people and had a garage to stay in. Rock-and-roll story, for sure. Then I met Bruce from Flipper, working at Hamburger Mary's. I was star-struck again. He hated rock, though. Still does.

PSF: That's kind of a San Francisco thing. Anti-rock, anti-music, anti-everything. That's the stereotype of San Francisco, that it's more art-oriented, more conceptual, ironic, intellectual, performance art. Like the L.A. people would say "Oh you San Francisco people are all artsy fartsy, you're all full of shit." At least back then, I don't know how it is now. Was that something you had an affinity for, or just part of the backdrop?

Jay: Part of the backdrop. One of our first shows, we gave away hits of acid for seventeen cents at the door. It was just this psychedelic world of artistic mayhem, basically. We had a dancer. Eddy. He toured with us. Crazy lookin' little dude, painted hair, shaved half his head on tour. He added to our ambience for sure. Wild and crazy psychosexual punk rock. With a little bit of jazz.

Above: Eddy Sky, the male go-go dancer Bomb brought on tour. credit: Michael W. Dean

PSF: Was the seventeen cents thing a reference to the 17 Reasons Why! sign on Valencia? [San Francisco landmark, depression-era steel cut letters billboard on top of a building on 17th st. that stood for 67 years, promoting nothing, taken down in 2002]

Jay: Yeah, Michael lived in an apartment looking out on that sign. He stared at it the whole time he lived there. So we called our first little cassette 17 Reasons Why! (download it free here).

The 17 Reasons sign credit: Michael Dean

PSF: The beloved sign that is no more. Generations have passed through and wondered "17 reasons why what?" [it was actually meant to promote shopping on 17th St.]

But yeah, I discovered Bomb kinda late... It was 1990. So it was kind of the tail end. I saw Bomb and I was just so amazed. Also I was twenty. Things you discover when you're that age stay with you.

Jay: Sure.

PSF: It was probably like you with Flipper. Speaking of Flipper, I was reading somewhere that "they may have been the first life-affirming hardcore band." That was kind of how I felt about Bomb. You didn't have this negative pose, this hostility. It was more of an embrace. Sex-positive, drug-positive, just an embrace of experience.

Jay: That's true.

PSF: Was that a conscious thing?

Jay: Well we just weren't punkers in that sense. We weren't surly, leather jackets, spikes... just wasn't us. I'm from a hippie family. I've basically been a pot-smoking hippie my whole life. My Mom, everyone around me was like that. Love came into the picture pretty quickly with us... love of life, of everything good...

PSF: And you weren't embarrassed about...

Jay: Well there were embarrassing things about being in Bomb. Especially when we went to Europe, and Tony and Michael were just your classic American idiots...

PSF: [laughs] Let's get into this. I've heard Michael's hyper coffee-fueled rants. I want to hear about him...

Jay: They were just classic American idiots and in Germany I'd have to walk on the other side of the street because they would yell "I want a cheeseburger!" and I was just so embarrassed. People didn't know how to deal with them. Especially in Germany, everyone still had PTSD from the Nazis and all that. Then Tony would yell "Where's Hitler?" Or painting his nails all the way up to his knuckles. It was just shock value. I wasn't into that but it did us some kind of service because people remembered us. Wearing dresses, being gay positive... You know, we had a song called "Be a fag" and in Texas they heard "beat a fag."

PSF: You can't win.

Jay: Can't win.

PSF: Hearing you talk about it I realize there was this kind of double-sided thing with Bomb because there was the love and peace side of it but there was also this kind of dark imagery... heroin needles... this kind of dangerous front you would put out. It was kind of, "I dare you to come to our show."

Jay: Like screaming "Mommy" over and over, and "Motherfucker, motherfucker!"

Bomb artwork by Doug Hillsinger. Credit: Michael Dean

PSF: Even in terms of the branding, your logo looked kinda evil, like an Aleister Crowley witchcraft evil. And there was that stencil. I think that's the first thing I ever saw Bomb-related. Spray-painted on the street in the Haight, it said "Bomb" and then there was a picture of a needle in perspective like it was a train coming at you and it said "...You're Next." I remember thinking "That's some heavy branding. Next for what?"

Jay: I wasn't really any part of those things. I was kind of a hippie. If I had made the logos it would have been hearts and flowers and sexiness and colors. But I wasn't in charge of that. And Richard (Carse)'s art was so cool, I couldn't disagree with it. It had a fluidity to it that you had to respect. All our flyers had this kind of continuity. But I never used a needle in my life. I was never into it at all.

That's kind of what ultimately broke us up. Michael walked in one day and said "I'm either gonna be sick or I'm gonna be high. Which one do you want?" and we said "Neither," and walked out. It was pot heads, me and Doug, against heroin heads, Michael and Tony. And the two did not get along.

On tour it would be all right because they would straighten out for the tour, but then we'd get back home and they would be on heroin again. I regret it. Other bands that have kept going, they're doing well. Doug and I ended it because we couldn't handle being around junkies.

PSF: Yeah it's interesting... When I was listening to all those records I didn't even think about Tony but I guess I kinda thought Michael had cleaned up, and this was in the rear-view mirror, because he seemed so functional. Whenever I'd see him he was a ball of energy. So I thought he was writing about something he'd been through. I never thought it was just ongoing. I guess there are a lot of functional addicts.

Jay: Yeah they say, if you can't hold a job you can't really be a drug addict. I couldn't have been such a drug addict if I didn't have a full-time job. Michael worked too.

PSF: Yeah, I meant more emotionally. You grow up thinking of addicts as shady characters and for me, at twenty, you guys just seemed really normal and together and happy. I guess the music kinda held it together. But on tour it was all right?

Jay: Yeah, we would hit the road with a little bit of drugs, you know, a little speed, a sheet of acid. The first couple days they would be knocked out, sleeping off their habit. Then they'd wake up and I'd run out of speed and I'd sleep for a couple of days while they drove. Then within a week we'd all be sober and then from there it was just a lot of alcohol. And pot.

PSF: Maybe that's where some of the grim stuff in Bomb comes from. These long stretches of awful, awful full-body hangover and withdrawals that make you want to blow your brains out. I can kind of hear that in the music. Sometimes it sounds like a ravaged smoking hellscape and then you're silly and laughing a moment later. But that's life. You kinda have to embrace the highs and lows. It kind of makes me think of San Francisco too, like it seems people think if they can somehow make it out there they'll just be "happy all the time" [Bomb song reference], har har, life will just be one long beautiful day in the park. But San Francisco is still reality, and it's still America.

Jay: Yup. Yeah. The real San Francisco is not like the fantasy one.

See Part 2 of the Jay Crawford interview

Also see Michael W. Dean's article on Bomb's best albums & their crack-up with a major label

And an interview with Michael W. Dean of Bomb

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER