.San Jose on the Music Frontier

The Frontier Wives and venues where they rocked to get San Jose on the map.

This week, yet another epic matrix of ghosts will haunt the downtown San Jose rock ‘n’ roll landscape, thanks to the 20th anniversary of Cactus Club’s closing as well as Saturday’s memorial for Scott Long of the Frontier Wives.

No event is planned to commemorate Cactus per se, but since Long recently passed away, and since the Wives were the most heroic sweaty alt-rock cowpunk carnival band in San Jose history, a celebration of Long’s epic spirit will erupt this Saturday, July 2nd, at the Old Wagon Saloon, from noon-5pm. Plus, the Wives were inseparable from Cactus history. The Cactus documentary, “Rock the Block,” features the Wives playing during the opening credits. However, Scott Long goes back much further, and this is where Laundry Works deserves a mention.

Whenever anyone talks about Cactus, someone else complains that Laundry Works is not being discussed instead. Located at 87 N. San Pedro, in the building now housing the San Pedro Square Market offices, Laundry Works was the joint really responsible for San Jose’s alt-rock advancement back in the ’80s. Scott Long and the Frontier Wives were among the prime motivational forces of nature highlighting the local scene in those days, that is, before there was any legitimate club for alternative or college-radio bands to call their own. SJSU had the Spartan Pub, where one could see Mojo Nixon on a regular basis, but Laundry Works was really the place where it all went down. 

At the same time, the Wives and several other bands formed the First Strike Musicians Collective, with the noble ambition to put San Jose on the music map. In retrospect, the collective was probably the first ever attempt, in the modern era, to establish any kind of alt-rock identity in San Jose, a city that was basically viewed as the doormat of the Bay Area. 

At the risk of sounding preachy, in those days there were no cell phones and no internet, just hard-drinking musicians making their own flyers and gigging relentlessly. If an indie band wanted to go out on tour, they had to organize it themselves, often beginning at the San Jose Public Library, where people would rifle through tattered out-of-state phone books just to find college radio stations across the country and then sending tapes everywhere. Yeah, this was a thing. Bands actually did that.

Especially nowadays, with Instagram marketing hotshots promoting every weekend fundraiser and hotdog social, the First Strike Collective, in my view, were pioneers. They actually believed in San Jose. For a minute.

The Frontier Wives, as a band, were a gloriously unclassifiable, genre-fluid mess. Even if Scott Long’s tunes were about Louis Pasteur or KISS guitarist Ace Frehley, they were incredibly well written numbers, with lots of hooks, harmonies and hoopla. During their heyday in the late ’80s and early ’90s, tThe Wives could have and should have evolved into our equivalent of something like Husker Du, or maybe even the Pixies. They were wacky, rocking, drenched and loud, in all the right ways. 

Even better, the memorial for Long will feature almost all of the remaining Frontier Wives performing whatever they can throw together, along with other musicians and raconteurs from those very days. Apropos of history, the Old Wagon Saloon just happens to be right next door to where Laundry Works was all those years ago. I don’t know if it’s a full-circle moment or the infinity symbol crossing over itself. There is no end and no beginning to any of this, really, if you think about it. The persistence of memory carries on, especially for those of us that never left the neighborhood. 

Which, of course, brings me back to the ghosts. The Cactus legacy includes more than several long-gone folks. Many people that played at Cactus, locals and worldwide superstars, are no longer with us. I don’t need to name them all, but Scott Long has now joined that list. His spirit, large as it was, will definitely stalk the landscape this weekend along with the rest of ‘em.

There should be a plaque on South First Street commemorating the Cactus Club and another one on San Pedro commemorating Laundry Works. It’s the least we can do.

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