San Diego's venerated place in the cultural lunchbox of indie rock has been well documented. The early '90s were a particularly cool time to be in with the in-crowd, when bands like Drive Like Jehu, Inch. Rocket from the Crypt, Tanner and Fishwife made San Diego seem pretty cool for a city that's more like a conservative naval dormitory.
But while those righteous bands were busy racking up the tally on our hip factor, two bemused, love-struck nerds in a band called C.L.A. (Carnivorous Lunar Activity) played shows atop the bar at an old rock venue named the Pink Panther.
They weren't cool, per se. They also weren't really an amazing band, as their limited recorded output proves. But they had chutzpah. They had moxie. And they drank an awful lot.
"We were friends of Tim Mays and Bob Bennett and Peter English," says C.L.A. co-frontman Dennis Borlek, dropping three influential names in San Diego rock in a single sentence. "Since we were so portable-two acoustic guitars-they would have us perform at the bar for Cindo de Mayo and Valentine's Day and any other day they figured they'd need cheap-uh, free-entertainment."
One of the reasons for C.L.A's success was an abundance of calcium in the funny bone, not unlike The Rugburns, who were about to get semi-famous with a radio hit called "Hitchhiker Joe." Steve Foth, Borlek's partner in C.L.A, co-wrote that song with Rugburn frontman Steve Poltz.
Amid buzz-sick indie-rock megashows, Borlek and Foth would take the stage at places like the Panther, Brody's and the Casbah with two acoustic guitars, a few pints of Guinness and lyrics like "Sperm bank, sperm bank, make a deposit/ sperm bank, sperm bank, don't wanna rob it" from their non-hit "Sperm Bank." Borlek remembers a lot of professional jealousy-hipper bands wondering why these two folkies with "sappy love songs and drunken tunes about Tijuana" were getting better gigs than anyone else.
"Because we were [the club owners'] friends-obviously not because we were qualified musicians," Borlek laughs. "I think the secret to that was that our fans drank so much.... The bar tab would triple what a normal show would do."
"I booked them because they owed me on a bar tab," quips Mays, who now owns the Casbah in Little Italy.
C.L.A. didn't have proto-NYC cool. They didn't have a dashing lead singer with a talent for writing fuck-me rock ballads. When an anonymous fan entered them into a "Battle of the Bands" contest through 91X, they needed to scramble to find a drummer to play the final competition at "Canes in Mission Beach. They recruited a scenester who also drank a lot named Sam Chammas. Chammas is now a father and a responsible businessman who owns two San Diego hot spots, the LiveWire and Whistle Stop Bar, but Borlek rats him out for past violations of decency.
"We used to do the Naked Fun Game," he explains. "If anyone in the audience could tell that one of us had made a mistake, we'd have to take off an item of clothing. I have fond memories of Sam Chammas running around in his underwear."
C.L.A.'s first release was a cassette tape ("CDs didn't exist back then," Borlek clarifies). After that, the self-admitted "Star Trek geeks" issued a 7-inch single "on Vulcan blood green vinyl" called "Spock's Brain." In 1996, more than 10 years after forming, they finally put out their first full-length CD, called Fuzzyland-with Steve Rodriguez of The Dragons assisting on bass and Apollo from Rocket from the Crypt on saxophone.
Three years later, they became famous in San Diego-in the worst way imaginable. The Union-Tribune reported that Steve Foth had been fatally stabbed 86 times in the head, neck and chest.
Before his death, Foth had moved to San Francisco and opened his own record store, Rockit Records. But neither that, nor his marriage, stopped him from coming to San Diego every two weeks to play with Borlek in C.L.A.
The final months of his life weren't great times. Powerhouse retailer Amoeba Records had opened a store down the street from Foth's, killing his business. He'd met a girl and briefly gotten into drugs for the first time in his life, according to Borlek.
When concerned Rockit Records employees called Borlek to say Foth was depressed and going down the wrong path, Borlek and friends drove up to San Francisco and basically forced Foth to move home and get his shit together. He did, crashing at a friend's place and contemplating a new direction-school, computers and art were all possibilities.
And then, as Borlek explains, Foth was in the "wrong place at the wrong time" late one night in San Diego.
"As far as we can piece together what happened in the trial, Steve was pretty much minding his own business in a parking lot at a Robertos, and a prostitute came up and asked him if he wanted to party. And he said no, believe it or not. But she saw he was in a brand new Audi A-4 and he was dressed nice and she was thinking he's got money. So she came back around again and, according to her [trial testimony], he said, "No, but do you know where I can get some crack?'
"And that was the end of that," Borlek says. "Steve [Poltz] and I and our friend Grace ID'd his body. Once you've seen your best friend stabbed 86 times in the head, neck and chest, you can pretty much look at anything."
The two murderers-Ronnie Jermaine Sherrors and Willard Hall-burned Foth's Audi and left it in a dirt field in Rancho Bernardo. One of them would be convicted because his DNA was found on a cigarette butt in the ashtray of the Audi-the only inch of the car unscorched. The other man had Foth's high school ring in his pocket at the time of arrest. Both are now serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Borlek, a good-natured 40-something who now works as a nurse, laughs when he speaks of Foth, whom he describes as a "cross between Steve Martin and Harrison Ford-he was a really, really funny guy, but quiet funny."
He turns serious, however, when the topic of drugs comes up. Yes, drugs were involved in the murder. But his friend was nowhere near a junkie, Borlek demands, and the sensationalism of the trial distorted the funny, quiet artist that he, Poltz, Chammas, Mays and a surprisingly big C.L.A. cadre of fans and friends remember.
Those friends and fans now publicly remember Foth one day a year-at a reunion show for C.L.A. to raise money for the Victims of Violent Crime Fund. This year, Borlek the nurse is on guitar and vocals. Sharon Simmons, who owns Tonic, a salon in Little Italy, is on bass. Chammas, who Borlek calls "the czar of South Park," is on drums. And Steve Poltz joins in as, well, Steve Poltz.
"These shows that we play, they're "The Songs of C.L.A. performed by...'" Borlek explains. "It's not really fair to call it C.L.A. because it would be like having the one surviving member of Badfinger go around saying he's Badfinger."
Though a dark history hangs over the event and the band's heart is missing one essential component, Borlek is lighthearted about it all. "It's just an excuse to throw a party we don't have to clean up after," he says. He sounds like a man who's stared down Death until both parties broke out in laughter.
"I kind of thought [Steve] and I would be really old together and checking out girls on the beach in our 90s," he says.
Then he chuckles, and says something that would be appreciated by a quiet, funny, Steve Martin-like guy:
"If I had it all over to do again, I probably would've killed Steve a lot sooner."C.L.A plays with the Buzzkill Romantics at the Casbah, 9 p.m. on Dec. 29. $8. 619-232-HELL. Proceeds to benefit the Victims of Violent Crime Fund.