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Running Wild : O.C.'s Godfather of Punk Isn't Slinging Bull in His Tales of Daring Adventures at Pamplona Festival

August 04, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAGUNA BEACH — There might be some city councilmen, not to mention a few punk rockers and journalists, who would enjoy having a framed copy of the photo Jerry Roach was handing me. It shows Roach, the onetime Orange County Godfather of Punk, running while looking back over his shoulder with a harried look, as well anyone might with 1,100 pounds of charging bull a few yards behind him, its horns slinging another poor human out of its path.

In the '70s, Roach owned the Cuckoo's Nest in Costa Mesa where the local punk scene exploded, much to the consternation of local authorities. Between the slam-pit action of the club's impact-pocked dance floor and his contentious, ultimately futile, battles with City Hall, Roach led a pretty intense lifestyle. It didn't relent in the '80s, when he opened the metal-music Radio City in Anaheim, whose city fathers greeted him with equal warmth.

Though many bands appreciated Roach's efforts to give them a place to play, some also groused about his reluctance to pay them better. And pity the journalists who had the job of reporting on Roach's endeavors: If you called him for a simple quote, you'd likely get a tireless 20-minute spiel, causing some writers--and I make no admissions here--to just hold the receiver out at arm's length until he'd finished.

But you also couldn't help liking the guy. He had the sort of brazenness that made things happen, and this county's local youth culture would be dimmer but for those things.

So what had this bull got against him?

Nothing personal; it's just that Roach likes to get in their way. Every year that he's able, he heads to Pamplona, Spain, for the town's running of the bulls. This year Roach ran with the bulls six of eight possible times. "I used to tell people this is how I relaxed," he quipped.

Popularized by Ernest Hemingway in his 1926 "The Sun Also Rises," the event, which commences July 6 each year in the 2,000-year-old northeastern Spanish town, sees thousands of the brave and foolhardy running a course through its streets, followed by a herd of feisty bulls. The encierro , as it is called, has taken place since 1717, when the bones of a hometown saint, St. Fermin, were returned from France. Sure of the saint's protection, town youths ran along with the bulls being driven to the bullring.

Roach and I spoke last week on the ocean-view deck of his South Laguna home. Now 50, he's somewhat more reserved than in his godfather prime and he's just a tad stockier. He doesn't court anymore the high anxiety lifestyle that came with his club-owner days. In Pamplona, however, "Every year I tend to get closer and closer to the bulls. I don't know if it's because I'm getting slower or just dumber," he said, chuckling.

He first went to Pamplona in 1963 when he was 19, with a friend who was lured by Hemingway's book. What they found was a far cry from Roach's Tustin upbringing.

"It was just like wild anarchy, everybody celebrating, dancing, singing. It's like New Year's Eve, only it goes on for eight days. It's the most joyous place in the world. Each night it goes 'til dawn, and at dawn, they run the bulls. And it's pretty weird with bulls running down the street, too," he asserted.

That first year it took Roach several days to work up the courage to run. "When I finally did it, it didn't seem like that big of a deal, probably because I played it really safe. I think I beat the bulls to the ring each time," he said.

When he next went to Pamplona in 1966 he became friends with Matt Carney, a semi-legendary expatriate featured in James A. Michener's "Iberia." Roach believes Carney, who died in 1990, was the model for vagabond Harvey Holt in Michener's "The Drifters." (Roach also was interviewed at some length by Michener in 1966, and says he sees bits of himself in the book.)

Roach says Carney was a fearless runner and the "spiritual head" of the English-speaking people who sojourned to the event. He schooled Roach in the art of the run.

After that year, though, Roach got on with his life at home and Pamplona just became a part of his youth.

"Then I ran into Matt here on the West Coast in 1983. And he said, 'Are you going this year?' And I hadn't even thought of it. He said, 'You deserve it,' and it hit me. So I told my wife (they have since divorced), 'Don't throw a party for my 40th birthday; I'm going to Pamplona.' I went back, and I didn't expect much because it was 20 years later and I wasn't a kid. But I was floored that I had just as much fun as I did when I was 19," he said.

He has gone five times since then, including the last two years. Though these days he says he chiefly goes for the camaraderie of seeing old friends, he inevitably winds up in the street with the bulls.

Despite the spirit of revelry the night before, the mood can be far different in the crowds waiting for the run to begin at 7 a.m.

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