Published: July 3, 1992

WE AS a culture spend way too much time asking "what's new?" -- and not nearly enough time asking "what's best?"

Robert Pirsig, idol for a generation of quality-obsessed collegians, was most likely the first to point out that endurance is the truest elegance. More than a decade after "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," his lament is still valid.

Let us set aside our voracious appetite for flavor-of-the- week bands and nightclubs just long enough to bang the cultural dinner-gong for a local institution that has stood the test of time: the Catalyst.

The Santa Cruz nightclub is Northern California's best example of what a large facility should be. The stage, the sound and the player-friendly environment are so well thought of in the industry that many national acts make detours to play there. If there were a Michelin guide for rock 'n' roll, the Catalyst would rate three stars -- worth a special trip.

On a recent Saturday, a late show by Los Lobos -- the Golden State's best rock 'n' roll band -- gave us ample reason to make the trek over Highway 17.

The sprawling club, at the foot of the Pacific Garden Mall, opened on St. Patrick's Day, 1976. (The original club, in the St. George Hotel, was opened in '66 by the Consumer's Co-op of Santa Cruz.) Booker Gary Tighe, who started as a busboy during the club's first week in the "new" location, is the guy to credit for building a big-city operation in what's essentially still a small town. Tighe, a hard-boiled Runyon-esque character with an omnivore's taste in music, is something of an anomaly in the business. He books pricey acts that usually work outdoor venues such as the Greek Theater. Yet he remains devoted to his Dollar Night series and the young bands that rely on it for exposure.

With its skylights and its great airy expanses of white paint and blond wood, the club resembles a student union in need of a campus more than it does a typical rock 'n' roll joint. In front there's a 400-seat atrium large enough to fly kites in. And a deli. And a bar. And, up the stairs, a large game room. In the back, behind a heavy wrought-iron gate, is the hangar-size main hall, a 730-capacity barn-shaped room with a separate bar and balconies running along both sides.

The rear bar is a monument to owner Randall Kane's singularly strange taste in art. It's as if he went around to every Sunday garage sale in the county and snapped up anything and everything left sitting at sundown. (The garage-door-size mural of Rip van Winkle playing ten-pins is left over from the hall's earlier incarnation as a bowling alley.)

As usual, the Los Lobos crowd was a three-generation mix of working stiffs in T-shirts and baseball caps, dapper old gents in dark suits, women in prom dresses, bikers, surfers, mountain types with muddy boots and flannel jackets and a few old-line Rasta Cruzers with skin like bronzed leather and hair that hadn't seen a barber's shears since LBJ was president. At 11:40, a roar went up as the lights went down and the band weaved its way down the stairs to the stage.

There were many perfect moments during that performance. I'll share just one: As the band hammered out a raucous version of "Anselma," three couples up in the right balcony -- all in their 40s and 50s -- began to waltz. Space was very tight, but somehow room was found. At the stroke of midnight, one of the women glanced at her watch and said softly, "Hey, Papa -- it's Father's Day." I didn't hear his whispered reply as he kissed her on the cheek, but it was something that made them both very happy. They moved with the easy grace of people who had danced together for a long time. And they looked as if there was no place they would rather be that night.

The Catalyst
1011 Pacific Ave.
Santa Cruz
Admission: $1-$25
Details: Shows at 9 p.m. Thursdays, 9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturdays.
(408) 423-1336

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