Clip: Windy Chien on Dieselhed
Dieselhed revved our motors
By Windy Chien
There was a period in the early to mid-'80s when Dieselhed absolutely
ruled the San Francisco music scene. Like the previous generation's
Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 or Primus, or maybe today's Joanna
Newsom or Deerhoof, fans enthusiastically lined up to catch the
popular quintet every time the group played. To see Dieselhed once was
to love them forever. You've got that chance, as they're re-forming
for one night at this year's Mission Creek Music Festival.
What made them so fucking great? For starters, the music: crashing
cow-punk guitars alternating with twangy tearjerkers and, over it all,
Virgil Shaw's and Zac Holtzman's sweet, incandescent harmonies.
Dieselhed was a band with a fully formed aesthetic whose keenly
observed stories (and all their songs told stories) wheeled out
quintessentially quotidian Northern Californian lives: dreaming of a
world beyond Humboldt County, summers spent working on fishing boats
in Alaska, weddings on the Hornblower, buying titty mags at the
7-Eleven, touring Sonoma Valley small towns and playing breweries, the
guy who makes the hash browns at the local greasy spoon.
It was easy to imagine they were singing about you, and sometimes they
were: Dieselhed's number one fan was always the taxi dispatcher and
perpetually tipsy Corinne, and, heck, they wrote a song about her:
"Corrine Corrine/ Look at you spin / You've got me in a half nelson."
The shit was funny — because it was so real — to everyone, including
the characters they sang about in their songs: the girl who whispers
into her poodle's ear, the waitress at the truck stop, the guy
studying for the forklift operator's exam.
The band was wonderfully inclusive: Sing-alongs quickly came to
include audience-participatory gestures, like the big O-shaped
upstretched arms we all flew to represent the diamond ring in "The
Wedding Song." Shaw's then-adolescent sisters, who were budding
songwriters in their own right, made guest appearances.
In another example of Dieselhed's absolute command of who they were
and what they meant, there were the improv numbers that charted their
growing popularity and the changes in their lives. In "Someday We
Won't Be a Band," each member took to the mic to weave an always
different story of what someone else in the group would be doing years
hence. What will that tune sound like this time around? It's
guaranteed to have us laughing and crying.
The main thing is this: Dieselhed will always be relevant, and they
never fucking lost it. Shaw's now an acclaimed solo act. Holtzman
formed the Cambodian pop group Dengue Fever and is licensed in Chinese
medicine. Drummer Danny Heifetz up and moved to Australia. And I can't
wait to hear what bassist Atom Ellis and guitarist Shon McAllin are up
to. "Someday we won't be a band," Dieselhed sang, "but for now, we
totally exist!" SFBG
With Fantasy, Sonny Smith, and Marc Capelle
May 21, 8 p.m.
2565 Mission, SF
$10 advance, $12 door