Stockton shines: Artists from a "miserable city" hit the East Bay
When Stockton makes the news, the headlines aren’t often hopeful. Over the past few years, this Central Valley city just south of Sacramento has gained a reputation for high foreclosure rates, violent crime and high unemployment.
This year, Forbes.com rated Stockton the country’s second most miserable city. It was only a slight improvement over 2009, when Stockton was the number one contender for that title, beating even Cleveland, Ohio and Flint, Mich.
But one could easily ignore Stockton’s detractors if they scan entertainment calendars in the East Bay, where lately the city has been shining like a prizefighter’s golden belt.
The glimmers began when Pavement, one of the most famous musical acts to claim Stockton as its birthplace, played a reunion show the Greek Theater at UC Berkeley last Friday. It was one of their few appearances since 1999.
Pavement was never exactly a Stockton band. It was more of a transcontinental project, with members living and recording as far away as New York. But lead singer Stephen Malkmus and guitarist Scott Kanberg both grew up there, and formed an early lineup with recording engineer and drummer Gary Young, also a Stockton resident.
During Friday’s show, Malkmus made a couple of references to his hometown, even joking between songs that he has always thought of Berkeley as “an extension of Stockton.”
But perhaps the greatest glory for Stockton was the surprise appearance of Gary Young at Friday’s event. Originally, Pavement had promised only that Young would play a show at Stockton’s Bob Hope Theater.
Young left the band in the early nineties after a wild tour and has since become a source of mystery to Pavement fans. He’s a symbol of the band’s early tendency to flirt with artful incompetence, both onstage and in the studio. As a drummer, he was famed just as much for his drunkenness, headstands and loss of rhythm as for his chops.
With his characteristic ponytail now turned gray, Young did Stockton proud by showing up suddenly in the latter half of the Berkeley show. Like an impatient sleepwalker, he wandered onstage long before his formal welcome, whispering in the ear of replacement drummer Steve West and hitting cymbals as if to reclaim his seat.
He later played for a six-song stretch that included early Pavement classics “Summer Babe” and “Lions (Linden),” quite possibly a reference to a small town near Stockton.
As if a Pavement show wasn’t enough glory for Stockton, an author who immortalized the town in a novel about boxing will appear Tuesday night at Moe's Books in Berkeley.
Leonard Gardner, who published Fat City in 1969, will be one of several authors to read at an event billed as “The Fighter Still Remains: A Celebration of Boxing in Poetry and Song.” Other prominent artists scheduled to appear include Taj Mahal and Ishmael Reed.
Fat City, which later became a movie starting Jeff Bridges, chronicles the struggles of protagonist Billy Tully, a man trying to revive his boxing career amid troubles with romance and money. Much of the action takes place outside the ring in Stockton’s bars, single room occupancy hotels and in the farmland of the San Joaquin River Delta, where Tully tries to eke out a living.
Gardner said by phone that he doesn't plan to read from Fat City on Tuesday . But that doesn’t necessarily take away from Stockton’s glory. The place may be moving slowly these days, but it’s still producing enough brilliance to knock out Bay Area audiences.