Ray Vaughn hates the term “SoMa.” To him, the area now populated by condos and cavernous modern restaurants will always be South of Market. It’s where he cut his teeth in the early 1980s, living in a massive warehouse dubbed The Crab Palace and playing in a punk band called Hostages.
“No one went [to] South of Market unless someone took you there. It wasn’t just gay, it was outlaw,” Vaughn says. “Polk Street and Castro were gay, but South of Market could be anything you wanted it to be. For a moment, it just felt like a secret.”
While Hostages and Vaughn’s other band, Die Bossa Nova, have long since disbanded, much of the raw energy from those years can still be felt in the straight-up rock ’n’ roll he plays today with his self-titled group, Ray Vaughn Band. He’ll be just down the street from his former digs at Hotel Utah this Saturday, performing for a much different audience than he once did at local spots like Mabuhay Gardens, The I Beam, Nightbreak, and a handful of warehouses off Harrison Street.
Regardless of the backdrop, Vaughn’s essence as a queer punk rocker from the 1970s and ’80s bleeds through his guitar, and the commanding vocals he deftly throws at the crowd are enough to make you feel you’ve been with him the whole time. His two recent albums, Way Down Low andWounded Bird, are reflective treatises on a life hard lived, but one that isn’t ready to walk off the stage.
Vaughn got his first taste of punk rock while living in London in the early ’70s, and returned home to the frenetic landscape of early S.F. punk bands such as The Offs, The Avengers, and Dead Kennedys. It was 1978, and he had just got a job at the original Hamburger Mary’s, right across the street from The Stud.
“There was this camaraderie at Hamburger Mary’s,” he says. “It was straight, it was gay, it was punk, it was hippie, it was drag queen. But nothing was cynical. There was a sense of liberty and respect at the same time. We wanted to shock them, but we still wanted them to come back and tip us.”
Hostages was in its heyday, and Vaughn lived with lead guitarist Eddie Rawlings and producer Michael Rosen in the warehouse on Fifth and Clara streets. Rosen went on to produce records for homegrown thrash metal heroes like Testament and Death Angel, and later for bands like Less Than Jake and Rancid. But back in the ’80s, he was the connective tissue for everything Vaughn and Rawlings had going on.
Rosen notes that while they were all friends and contemporaries of bands like Romeo Void and Flipper, Hostages were in between so many genres that they didn’t ever fully take off. True to form, they were as much about living punk as playing it.
“Eddie had this old Chevy Super Sport that he’d have parked out front of our place, and he let this homeless person sleep in it when he wasn’t using it,” Vaughn says. “Then, when he’d wake up in the morning, he’d roust him out of the car and he’d go to work. It was a symbiotic relationship, because he’d make sure the car wasn’t stolen. That was South of Market in those days.”
Vaughn also describes parties at The Crab Palace that started at midnight and would go on until the next day, and drug-fueled romps that put the hippie scene to shame.
“It was like Disneyland with heavy eyeliner,” he says.
All-night soirees were complete with elaborately built stages, fire-eaters, snake-charmers, and go-go boys in bondage. At one point, their place hosted a large flock of tropical birds that were given free rein over the premises. But all the carefree melee was underscored by the destructive power of the AIDS epidemic, and in 1987 — when the first blood tests for HIV became available in the U.S. — Vaughn received a positive diagnosis. While he sat and watched his community disappear around him, he survived, responding well to the medication.
“You handled it one of two ways: You became numb to it and moved on, or you came apart and moved away. A lot of people weren’t from here, and it was too hard,” Vaughn says. “You would see someone and they looked OK, then you’d see them two weeks later and they looked like they could die at any minute. Then you’d hear they died. It was apocalyptic.”
Running up credit cards thinking he’d be dead before he had to pay them, he played a monthly residency with Die Bossa Nova at Paradise Lounge. But he was growing bored of his own music, and weary from all the death around him. It was around this time that he met his current partner.
“He came to the U.S. from Central America, which was in the middle of a revolution at the time. The world suddenly became a bigger place for me. I realized it wasn’t about me or just playing music. Being a lead singer in some band just didn’t seem to be as important,” Vaughn says. “It was about growing up and seeing that you’re something larger than just being in the punk scene.”
With this in mind, Vaughn enrolled in City College and S.F. State, earning a B.A. in Spanish and a master’s and teaching credential in special education. He went to work as a paraprofessional at Galileo High School in 1998 and ultimately became the department chair of special education, retiring last year.
“To be honest with you, a stage is a stage,” Vaughn says. “You have to keep an audience engaged. Teaching is performance, if you think about it. But no one who knows me could have seen that turn of events in a million years.”
Despite this cavalier attitude, by many accounts Vaughn had a true gift when it came to working with and advocating for kids with disabilities, and was something of a celebrity rabble-rouser in the world of special ed in San Francisco. In fact, he was among a group of teachers in the district pushing for greater levels of mainstream classroom inclusion.
And on the way out of his second act, Vaughn started to write music again.
“I suddenly felt I had new stories to tell. I had to relive a whole new life in order to come back and have something relevant to say,” Vaughn says. “If you ever want to feel authentic again, go work in an inner-city high school. You’ll recognize very quickly who has choices and who doesn’t.”
He’s once again linked up with producer Michael Rosen to put out two full-length albums since 2012, featuring a cadre of musicians such as Michael Urbano (Sheryl Crow, Cracker, Third Eye Blind), Prairie Prince of The Tubes, and Kevin White and James Deprato of Chuck Prophet and The Mission Express. Eddie Rawlings, who Vaughn credits as the backbone of most of his musical endeavors, is once again on lead guitar.
“With Hostages, Ray and I would just sort of develop a communication while we were playing where we had this sort of telepathy, and we’ve rediscovered that and that’s been fun,” Rawlings says.
This Saturday, the band includes Rawlings, bassist Ricky Fishman from San Francisco post-punk band The Valkays, and local drummer Jeff Herrera, who got his start playing at The Mab when he was just 15.
Vaughn once played music with nothing but time in front of him. These days, it’s the other way around. But that isn’t a bad thing. It’s likely he’d be unable to write the songs he does today without the two lifetimes in his rearview.
Rosen describes Vaughn’s return to the stage and the studio as an epilogue to everything they were doing back in the ’80s.
“I think that Ray was in a perfect place to do this, having finished his other career and coming back to this was satisfying to both of us,” Rosen says. “We all came back with a little more perspective and a little more knowledge. We weren’t trying to ‘make it,’ we were just trying to make a really good record.”
Ray Vaughn Band, Saturday, Nov. 18, 9 p.m., at Hotel Utah, 500 Fourth St. $10; rayosomusic.com
“This is the second album for the rocker Ray VAUGHN, who is a guitarist, and at the end of the seventies, played with THE HOSTAGES until around 1992. It is not until 2013 that we see him on stage to defend his first solo effort WAY DOWN LOW with punk rock trend. This second album is rather rock. Ray has surrounded himself with a band of rockers who asks only to beat: Michael ROSEN guitarist as Ed RAWLING also producer. We owe them TESLA, RANCID, PAPA ROACH ex THE HOSTAGES. New people try to break through Ray’s reputation as James DE PRATO of CHUCK PROPHETS on bass, Prairie PRINCE, drummer of TUBES and RUNDGREN.
An album based on guitars, with a song present and rather passionate. He started off well with Human Calculator, animated by the Hammond organ by Phil BENNET of STARSHIP, guitar maids and a rhythmic as excited as overflowing. Ray hardened the subject with Wounded Bird: no dead time, one runs like a machine heated to block with profusion of guitars, Ray to sing particularly virulent for a title more persuasive. It is with a certain culte that intervenes a resumption of True Faith extracted from the repertoire of NEW ORDER, the famous group of Manchester and not that of ex STOOGES. We combine power and inventiveness with bass forward, more violent than the original but what matters is excellent.
Change In Latitude changes completely, we appreciate the slide of James DE PRATO, rather blues title in the form of pure very USA. One puts the nail with the superb Song For You in emotion, not very far from an epic of U2. This song of Ray’s is divinely accompanied by the battery while rolling, a true hug. Rain, ballade mid tempo highlights a voice that swallows words while evolving with instruments. New emotional charge with Willow Street played in acoustic with voice at the SPRINGSTEEN, John COUGAR MELLENCAMP. We adhere in passing a very good time while Ray has half-mast the punk side. Very positive result.”
Purchase “Wounded Bird” Wounded Bird purchase link
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Vaughn, Ray: Wounded Bird
A musical child of the late 70s, singer and guitarist Ray Vaughn was a founding member of punk art rockers Hostages before going on to bring avant-garde outfit Die Bosa Nova to bare on an unsuspecting audience. However by 1992 Vaughn was off the scene, another in the many who seemed destined to make a long lasting mark, retreating into obscurity. A surprise solo return, Way Down Low, appeared in 2013, a singer-songwriter approach finding Vaughn still sharp in attack and tough in outlook. Wounded Bird is the follow up, Vaughn still shining a light on the modern world and the issues hitting it, while offering up equally shuddering musical backing. Aided by a band made up of James DePrato (Chuck Prophet) on guitar and mandolin, Ed Rawlings (Hostage) on electric guitar, Kevin T White (Chuck Prophet) on bass and Prairie Prince (The Tubes, Todd Rundgren) on drums, it should come as little surprise that the spiky, urgent rock music Vaughn serves up, is tight and focused, while still holding a real vibrancy.
Vocally Vaughn may be an acquired taste, his unconventional Jello Biafra meets Tom Petty attack never the most precise missile, although in terms of attitude it hits the bull’s eye every time. And that’s key here, if you’re looking for the honest, but sometimes easy ride that many guys like Bruce Springsteen or Jackson Browne provide, you need to take Vaughn’s punk background into account when you approach Wounded Bird.A cover of New Order’s “True Faith” is barely recognisable and yet it hits hard and gets it point across, while the uneasy country vibes of “Change In Latitude” soothe and unsettle in equal measure. However it’s through the controlled anarchy of “Human Calculator” and hustle bustle of “Wounded Bird” where Vaughn and his chums really take their strongest swipes, the former sharp and jagged with a no compromise stare, the latter injecting a real sense of urgency. That said, with “Been Away Too Long” infusing an off kilter R.E.M. judder and “Rain” a controlled call for help, there really aren’t many moments in this relatively short CD that don’t, given time, pull you into Ray Vaughn’s way of thinking.He may be a Wounded Bird, but with his latest album, Ray Vaughn is still flying high.
1. Human Calculator
2. Wounded Bird
3. True Faith
4. Change in Latitude
5. Song for You
6. Been Away Too Long
8. It Happened on Willow Street
Nice Playlist featuring Independent Distribution Collective artist Ray Vaughn on KALX! Very cool local love!