The Perils of Penelope, The Dangers of Dirk

February 20th, 2006

I was born into a folksinging family, but I was weaned on punk. The Ramones, X, The Pixies, Television -- groups like these formed the soundtrack of my mostly-bleak 20s, and continue to be dear to my middle-aged, rockin' heart.

Dirk DirksenUnfortunately, I arrived in the Bay Area several years too late to catch the thriving punk scene here in the late '70s and early '80s. But oh, do I hear stories! And all Bay Area punk roads seem to lead to the iconoclastic figure of Dirk Dirksen, who took a failing Filipino restaurant in North Beach called the Mabuhay Gardens and began booking acts there (and at the On Broadway theater). To hear Dirksen tell it -- on the show that airs tonight at 7:30 (and will be repeated on Friday night at 10:30) -- his emceeing style in those days was deliberately abrasive: he incurred the wrath (and beer bottles) of the rowdy crowd so they wouldn't attack the musicians. Talk about a gracious host!

One of the most popular acts booked by Dirksen back in the day was the seminal San Francisco punk group The Avengers. Their lead singer and songwriter, a young Art Institute student named Penelope Houston (my other guest tonight), would head down from school in the evenings to rock out at the "Fab Mab." In later years, Houston would explore a more nuanced, mellow style -- and as it happens, I did get a chance to catch her near the start of this new musical stage, in San Francisco in the late '80s. Since then, in a series of beautiful albums, she's interwoven introspective lyrics and sinuous tunes with lovely arrangements of both acoustic and electric instruments. ... So you could say that, in her career (so far), Houston has recapitulated my own evolution in musical taste -- though in reverse, from punk to folk.

Penelope HoustonAt the end of the show, Houston and her frequent collaborator Pat Johnson treat us to a world-premiere performance of a new song, "If You're Willing." (Not to brag, but with Michael Franti's performance on last week's program, that makes two musical premieres in two weeks!) With guests like Houston and Dirksen, hosting a show is easy -- especially as no one threw any beer bottles at me!

Entry Filed under: tv episodes


  • 1. Gil  |  February 20th, 2006 at 6:53 pm

    Hi Josh,

    I talked to Penelope last month about the taping. Looking forward to tonight’s show!

  • 2. Julie Bernstein  |  February 20th, 2006 at 8:41 pm

    Josh, I was so excited to see that Dirk Dirksen was on your show tonight, because Ziggy and I hired Dirksen-Molloy to film our wedding! (Ziggy knew them since they filmed the Mime Troupe shows.) And they did such a good job, I got them to film two of my concerts as well.

    Another score for you getting a premiere song performed on your show – keep up the great work!

    P.S. I know you’re touring in SoCal, but you wouldn’t be coming back for Daniel Handler’s premiere of Four Adverbs tomorrrow night by any chance? I bought tickets to it as a direct consequence of seeing him on your show. :-)

  • 3. Gil  |  February 20th, 2006 at 10:51 pm

    I really enjoyed that, Josh. It was great to see Dirk, and the two documentaries he mentioned sound very interesting. I’ve been wondering what became of Ness Aquino, who owned The Mab. As an Avengers fan, Penelope’s interview was the highlight. I was kind of expecting a brief mention that the Avengers opened for the Sex Pistols at Winterland. Was the I-Beam the club on Haight St. where you first saw Penelope playing folk music in the late ’80s?

  • 4. Pat  |  February 22nd, 2006 at 10:35 am

    Hey Josh-

    Thanks for having us on the show! Penelope is on tour with Avengers in Italy as of this entry, so she’ll need a tape for her archives, but I really enjoyed watching it with my friends out here in televisionland. Keep up the good work.

  • 5. Pat  |  February 22nd, 2006 at 10:36 am

    …btw, I think the show on Haight street you refer to must’ve been at the Nightbreak?…

  • 6. Matt Pamatmat  |  February 25th, 2006 at 11:03 am

    It was great to see good ol’ Dirk Dirksen, and interesting to learn more about The Avengers, The Mutants, Fried Abortions, etc. I found it funny when Penelope and Pat played, and you could see Josh in the background nervously sipping coffee. It reminded me of the great Mtv show that was almost too weird to survive (it didn’t) called Oddville (I think?). On Oddville, if that’s the name, the host nervously watched as strange acts and musicians did their thing, from Ween to carnivalesque sideshow stuff.

  • 7. Josh Kornbluth  |  March 5th, 2006 at 1:43 am

    Hey, Matt: It’s interesting that I looked nervous while I was sipping coffee; I was actually feeling incredibly relieved that the interviews were over and now Penelope and Pat were doing their thing. Just goes to show that for a guy like me, relaxation needs to be graded on a curve! …

    Pat: So great to hear from you! You and Penelope did a beautiful job, as always. And I think you’re right about the Nightbreak: I don’t remember the name, but it was a storefront and “Nightbreak” sounds right. …

    Gil: It sounds like you’ve been at a lot of amazing gigs! As for the I-Beam: no, that wasn’t where I first saw Penelope (see above), but it is where I first saw They Might Be Giants live — another life-changing experience.

    And Julie: I’m beginning to believe that everything meaningful in the world is not-too-distantly connected to you and Ziggy!

  • 8. keith rendel  |  April 13th, 2006 at 12:15 am

    Stumvbled across this… I opened and ran Nightbreak from 1983-1985. I was long gone by ’92 but it probably was where Penelope played a show in 92. It wasn’t exactly a storefront. It had been various bars since at least ’75…It is currently an internet coffee cafe…Nightbreak was probably best known for many Chris Isaak shows early in his career-they of course featured former Avenger Jimmy Wilsey…


  • 9. Josh Kornbluth  |  April 16th, 2006 at 6:08 pm

    Wow — an expert witness! Thanks for writing in, Keith!

  • 10. Jim Brennan  |  February 2nd, 2007 at 12:02 pm

    Dirksen was the luckiest man alive in show business! He happened on to the punk scene at exactly the right time and place. This is doubly true of Penelope Houston. Both these people were the antithesis of the Punk aesthetic. I used to go to the Mab to see the only true S.F. Punk band that ever played there, namely, “Crime.” That whole Mab scene was like going back to high school, with its circle of “acceptable” bands and in-crowd dynamics. The only significant people to perform there were those such as Devo, Johnny Thunders, Nikko, The Ramones, and others just passing through and looking for a SMALL payday and some exposure to the middle class, affected clientele (read “money”). Dirksen was the poor man’s Bill Graham, but had none of Graham’s pinache, style, or acumen. If I had to come up with one word to describe the hat-trick of the Mabuhay, Dirksen, and Penelope Houston, that word would be, JOKE! Believe me, nobody’s ever going to remember any of them! Good riddance!

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