“I wanted to be Roy when I grew up,” said Jello Biafra from the stage at last week’s tribute concert to Roy Loney, co-founder of the Flamin’ Groovies and mastermind behind the Phantom Movers, among other rock ’n’ roll identities. The San Francisco native died in December at 73 and musicians, friends and fans from coast to coast, including members of the A-Bombs, Longshots, Yo La Tengo and R.E.M. gathered here in his honor to pay final respects.
“He’s a unique product of this city,” said Tom Heyman, who sat in with the Phantom Movers and helped organize the event at The Chapel — a benefit for Loney’s alma mater, San Francisco State’s School of Theater and Dance — along with musician John Moremen and the Loney’s surviving bandmates.
San Francisco’s tight-knit music community has long drawn inspiration from Loney’s simultaneous status as an international cult rock figure and everyman about town. But he also leaves family and his girlfriend of 15 years, Vivian Altmann, feeling a void.
“The City was a connection point for us,” said Altmann, who was raised in the Sunset (Loney was from Visitacion Valley and went to Balboa High). Despite a 10-year age difference, Loney and Altmann shared a circle of friends assisted by a mutual association with San Francisco’s mecca for vinyl collectors, Jack’s Record Cellar, where Loney worked for years.
“When my band came to San Francisco, the first stop we made was Jack’s,” said Heyman, whose Philadelphia-based band backed up Loney on an East Coast run. When Heyman moved West, he knew he could find Loney at Jack’s.
“Roy was revered among the rock ’n’ roll obsessed,” said Heyman. “His own heroes were Eddie Cochran and Little Richard.”
“He had encyclopedic knowledge of a wide variety of musical styles from classical to jazz,” said Altmann. “He kept a vast collection of DVDs and was especially interested in black-and-white horror, science fiction, crime and noir from the 30s, 40s and 50s. It was mind-boggling how much he packed into his brain.”
The couple enjoyed walking at Land’s End, and at other unchanged scenic locations, and between their respective places until Loney moved into Altmann’s Castro District flat.
“As lifelong San Franciscans, we felt like we owned The City, not in an elitist or aggressive way, but in a way that this city is ours, we really felt connected to it,” said Altmann, who’s worked at the Exploratorium in children’s and family education for nearly 40 years and shared with Loney a performing arts background (she did a stint with the Magic Theatre).
“He had a great facility with language. There’s a tradition here, of the offbeat and noir, the columnists, people like Herb Caen and Armistead Maupin’s serialization of ‘Tales of the City,’” she said. “He somehow fits into that literary tradition. Roy was such a clever lyricist and could really turn a phrase. His songs were witty,” she said.
Loney’s stagecraft earned him entrance to the Royal Academy, but he already channeled his energy into music, the coin of the realm for his San Francisco generation. Forming the Groovies in 1965 with Cyril Jordan, they recorded “Supersnazz,” “Flamingo” and “Teenage Head,” to this day considered underground classics. Loney left the group in 1971, but would return to music with his own well-honed act, the Phantom Movers.
“He used different voices for his songs. Bruce Springsteen would’ve never dared to do that. Only now do I realize how much Roy crept into me and never left,” said Biafra at the benefit before turning in a theatrical performance of “Love is a Spider.”
“I’d see him walking from his place to work at Jack’s and would think, either that guy’s Roy Loney or some French movie star,” said musician Chuck Prophet. With Stephanie Finch, the couple delivered versions of Loney’s whimsical new wave songs “People People” and “Neat Petite” from 1979’s “Out After Dark.”
“Roy knew how to take command of a stage. He understood the visual element to performing better than most of us, said musician Peter Case (my husband, noted for full disclosure), who performed “Ruin Your Shoes.” “He played roles, made big gestures,” said Case, “but he wasn’t that way in life.”
Christian Bayer of Sunnyvale, Loney’s surviving nephew, said his uncle attended his teenage daughter’s violin performances. “He gave me classical records,” said Kira Bayer, who opened The Chapel proceedings with “Ave Maria.”
“It was kind of on my bucket list to get Cyril and Roy back together,” said Barry Simons, a longtime business associate of Jordan and the Groovies who reunited them with Loney in 2017. “There was a demand for them to play, especially in Europe, and we succeeded in booking tours,” said Simons. But after several seasons of gigs, Loney took ill and on the eve of a European tour in 2019, he declined. Receiving treatments for multiple ailments, Loney succumbed from massive organ failure, exacerbated by advanced cirrhosis, according to Altmann.
“I’m grateful for the support,” said Altmann, and yet the outpouring of goodwill since December, the concert (emceed by Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants) and all the floral arrangements are cold comfort to Altmann. The couple had planned to spend their retirement in The City they loved.
“We talked of moving to the country but we agreed, we could never do that. What would we do? This was our place. He was my person,” said Altmann. “I keep waiting for him to walk in the door so we can sit and discuss the strangeness of the last two and half months.” She laughed between the tears. “I want to tell him, hey, you really were as influential as you always told me you were.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.