Now, too late, I realize I'd completely missed the point. Chaz was most important to the Orange County rock scene precisely because he delighted in working with the raw, the unschooled, the unknown. He helped scores of bands take their baby steps into the world of public music-making. Chaz helped them find and develop whatever promise they might have. A story focusing on that aspect of his work would have been the real story.
Chaz grew up in Whittier, where he did very well in school, according to his mother, Sally Ramirez. She and Chaz's father, Charles, bought him his first guitar when he was about 13. "We wanted so much for him to go to (college)," Mrs. Ramirez said. "He never wanted to stay in school that way. He got out and did his own thing."
His own thing, from his teens on, was playing in bands, and fixing amplifiers at Whittier Music. On slow days, recalls St. James, who worked at the same music shop, "he'd get all the instruments and do a one-man show. He'd have a foot-pedal drum and tambourine, harmonica, and a banjo or guitar. Chaz could pick up anything and at least play a tune on it. And he could fix almost anything."
Throughout his life, Chaz would seek out things that needed fixing. Friends say that he would scour the swap meets and yard sales, looking for busted electronic gear that he could repair or cannibalize for parts he could use to make musical gadgets of his own. In fact, Chaz's fatal fall from the attic of a Santa Ana warehouse occurred while he was foraging for a supply of otherwise unwanted audio wire that he could rig for use at Casbah.
"The last thing I remember him saying was, 'This wire is great,' " said David Bay, a friend who accompanied Chaz to the warehouse.
Casbah was apt to be clogged with stuff to fix, exotic electronic objects that Chaz liked to gather, and antique toys, gadgets and housewares that he loved to collect--including a dozen or more old Kirby vacuum cleaners, complete with a daunting assortment of attachments.
"His studio was a cross between 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Sanford and Son,' " said James (Falling James) Moreland, leader of the Leaving Trains, the long-running Los Angeles alternative-rock band that Chaz produced and had recently joined for a series of live gigs.
Chaz's early musical love was British progressive rock--Genesis, Pink Floyd, Yes, King Crimson. Dan van Patten, a veteran local drummer and record producer, remembers seeing Chaz playing keyboards in the mid-'70s band, French Lick, ensconced, like the classically influenced keyboardists Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson, in a cockpit of organs and synthesizers. It's a long way from prog-rock to punk rock, but Chaz's tastes were broad enough to encompass the raw, and he was able to bring to bear on simple, rough-hewn music the knowledge he'd gained playing complex, refined music.
One longtime friend, Debbie Stone, says she could hardly believe it when Chaz began first to produce punk bands, and then play in one (he was the bassist in the early-'80s band, Eddie and the Subtitles). "I was shocked. It was like, 'Charles, what's going on here? What about the old stuff?' He'd say, 'I still love it,' but he wanted to be innovative and keep up with the times. They needed him, and he was there."
The Orange County punks needed Ramirez for his technical expertise, for his encouragement, and for his generosity.
"He really made it possible for Orange County bands to get into a studio and record. He gave us good rates," said Steve Soto, the former Adolescents bassist who now plays in Joyride. "When a record company was paying for it, it was $35 an hour. When we were paying for it, it was whatever you could afford."
"He always gave everyone too good of a deal," recalled Chris Colbert, who was Ramirez's partner at Casbah from 1989 to 1991. "His asking price was always $35 an hour, but he'd settle for a beer on good days."
Colbert says he learned about recording from Ramirez, and these were Chaz's cardinal rules: "To get a good performance out of a band by being encouraging, and to not mess with a band--let them be themselves."
Tony Montana was in deep need of encouragement when he came to Casbah in the mid-'80s. On the Adolescents' 1981 debut album (Ramirez engineered early demos for the band but didn't work on the album), Montana had tapped a deep well of adolescent spleen and fire, and mustered memorable performances, both funny and fearsome. But a few years later, resuming work with the bands Abandoned and Flower Leppards, he felt rusty and uncertain, having been out of rock for a few years.
"My self-esteem was pretty low," Montana recalled. "It was the first time I had been in the studio in five years, and I was afraid. Chaz keyed in on the fact I felt unsure of myself. He would just bombard me with compliments and support. 'You have style, a lot of pizazz and charisma; it really comes through.' He did a lot in helping me to gain confidence."