Photograph by Elizabeth Seward
By Gabe Meline
The closure of Epiphany Music in downtown Santa Rosa last month and the arrest of its owner are naturally emotional issues for the local music scene. For many of the city's teenagers, Epiphany provided a crucial outlet for creativity, a welcoming place for face-to-face socialization and a steam valve for the pressures of adolescence. It was, as the saying goes, all they had. When that outlet was taken away, over a hundred people converged in Courthouse Square to protest police action against the venue.
I can be counted as someone who enjoyed many nights at Epiphany, both as performer and participant. The building's intimate space--by day a music store specializing in instruments from around the world--encouraged dynamic self-expression, fostering an exciting environment both onstage and off. While the rest of the street hosted standard bar bands, Epiphany and the kids who called it home ruled the downtown block as a cultural Tesla coil of innovation, engaged in creating new forms of communication amid a city of spiritless ritual.
News of Epiphany's closure and the arrest of its owner, Lisa Reed, came as no surprise. Even before Epiphany's illegal rewiring to siphon free power from PG&E (whose bills Reed allegedly has not paid for over a year) was revealed, Epiphany's utterly haphazard management was well known. The store had already been closed once before by the State Franchise Tax Board for neglecting to pay over $5,000 in back sales tax. Moreover, I can attest that underage drinking outside the venue went largely unchecked, and I personally witnessed both marijuana and glass pipes sitting in plain view behind the store's counter on two separate occasions.
I find little fault, morally, with all of this. If you're going to steal from anyone, you could do far worse than the tax board or PG&E, and teenage drinking and drug use essentially made me the person I am today. But I also know that flagrantly and obliviously ignoring certain strictures of societal order results in swift and unsympathetic punishment.
Still, I was distraught at news of the store's initial closure by police, who, according to early postings made from Epiphany's MySpace account, allegedly arrived seven cars strong and arrested Reed, 44, for "having an illegal assembly" while she was playing the piano inside Epiphany after hours with two friends. The postings hinged on a claim that the definition of an assembly is a gathering of 50 or more people.
But this claim was refuted after I spent a full day interviewing representatives from the fire, police, and community development departments. Reed was actually arrested for refusal to comply with a stop use order posted on the building the day before for seven separate fire code violations, ordering to cease "any and all uses involving the assembly of patrons for the purpose of entertainment." No one I spoke with could verify the number of people in the store at the time of the arrest, but according to Senior Building Inspector Mike Reynolds, a stop use order applies to any assembly, regardless of size. Presumably, the piano playing could constitute entertainment.
In other words, the police utilized a broad interpretation of the stop use order to seize on a small yet legitimate misdemeanor in order to pre-emptively thwart impending catastrophe in a hazardous building. Reed was bailed out, but upon discovery of the building's illegal rewiring, she was arrested again the next day for felony charges of theft.
During the recent Saturday afternoon protest in Courthouse Square, I interviewed Reed in order to allow her to tell her side of the story, which was vastly underrepresented in the daily newspaper. But she had little detail in her defense. After speaking with her, I am left with the unwavering opinion that she is possibly the worst representative for all-ages shows in the city and that she is making fools of the wonderful kids rallying earnestly to support what actually is her gross negligence and incapacity to handle responsibility.
I first asked Reed what reason she had been given for her arrest--the arrest that, at that very moment all around her, over 100 kids were protesting. She couldn't say. "Playing the piano in my store?" she guessed. "I'm not sure what it was." She neglected to mention her second arrest for felony theft from PG&E.
I asked her about the fire code violations posted on the building prior to her arrest; she responded that she's always been legal. "I've always complied. There were no exits blocked, nobody's ever been locked in." I have almost always seen a wood pallet blocking the rear entrance, and have personally been accidentally locked in the back room.
I then asked Reed about the siphoning of PG&E's power. "I don't know what that is," she said, seeming confused. "I can't really comment. I don't know at this point. It's all a bunch of lies, though!" Asked if she was going to fight the city, she nodded. "The city, they'll be in so many lawsuits that they're gonna probably, you know, end up buying the building from me."
(At press time, Reed had not found a lawyer willing to take her case. She also does not own the building.)
One of the rallying cries we always hear is that the city of Santa Rosa hates its teenagers, and, judging by the track record, that's an easy point of view to subscribe to. I've seen so many all-ages shows shut down by police that I get nervous anytime I see a new venue violating the law, no matter how minor.
But go to any hyphy show at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds and you'll find over a thousand teenagers getting down to music perceived by adults as far more threatening than punk rock. You wouldn't believe some of the crazy shit I've seen at those shows, but the cops haven't shut them down because they are put on by promoters who cooperate with the city to ensure that issues like security, curfew, permits and fire codes are adhered to properly.
Thus the sight of over a hundred kids protesting in Courthouse Square--and later that night, excitedly playing in front of the condemned store on a rented generator--is both incredible and totally sad. Incredible because these kids refuse to take the loss of their only outlet for live music laying down, and are sticking up for the right for their voice to be heard. Sad, because so much of their energy in defending Reed and trying to reopen Epiphany is plainly misspent. Not only has Reed failed to offer refunds for $60 booking deposits paid to secure upcoming shows that are now cancelled, but worse, she has essentially guaranteed that any future all-ages venue in Santa Rosa will face a dire uphill battle.
Thanks to Reed's belligerence with the city, there's now a wedge driven between two opposing factions who must work together truthfully and honestly to find common ground in order for an all-ages venue to survive.
The youth of Santa Rosa need a representative who possesses the rare ability to invest all of their time and energy into a project that will reap them no financial reward whatsoever. This someone will also need to be smart, responsible and quick-witted when being in charge of hundreds of other people's kids. Someone with a clear vision of how the shows will operate, with the ingenuity to make it happen and the bureaucratic skill to keep it afloat.
I still believe that such a person will eventually come along, but when they do, they will have Epiphany to blame for the rigid hoops that they'll surely need to jump through for the city, the police, and now, a community far less likely to take teenagers' concerns seriously. In this, Reed's actions are contemptible. The only remaining question is how long will it take for the scars of Epiphany's horrible mismanagement and stubborn refusal to admit its mistakes to heal.