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Monday, April 15, 2024

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Arts + CultureMusicChristopher Owens quietly leaves SF—and a hole in our...

Christopher Owens quietly leaves SF—and a hole in our hearts

A central figure of the last golden age of local indie music heads out on the road, trailing nostalgia for the city's scene

At this point, I’ve grown desensitized to when our beloved San Francisco musicians move away from the city. It feels like a foregone conclusion by now, and considering they’re typically heading out to greener music industry pastures in LA or Brooklyn, I’m generally happy for where their careers might be headed. I’ve stopped being so damn precious about it all. 

The last time it really stung, was when John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees headed to LA in 2014, essentially closing the chapter on San Francisco’s last garage rock heyday. By the time Geographer’s Michael Deni announced he was heading to SoCal as well in 2019, the early electropop staple’s farewell show at The Fillmore felt more like a celebration of what could come next than a goodbye. There’s some fucked up analogy about the stages of grief in there somewhere. But I digress, because today, things are hitting different. 

To little fanfare and in a humble adieu, Christopher Owens of Girls announced in a tweet that he was riding out into the sunset and leaving town. And with no destination in particular, as Owens’ location in his Twitter bio now simply reads “Nomad.” His recent tweets have been a meek documentation of a road trip without an end date through the country and hints of nostalgia for his past two decades of life in San Francisco. 

“My last pictures in San Francisco. Vaya con dios, el jefe,” Owens tweeted on April 8, alongside two pictures of him standing outside of Philz Coffee in the Mission in the SF rainfall. His comfortability in a puffy coat, shiny sweats, and all-white sneakers is as well-earned as the haggardness of what living in San Francisco since the mid-aughts will do to you. Given the news, the 130 or so likes the tweet received hardly matched the sentiment. 

You see, Owens was in the middle of a lot of personal ups and downs while in San Francisco, but he was also the central figure of one last beautiful golden age. As the leader of Girls, he helmed one of the most critically-acclaimed bands of the modern indie rock era. Formed in San Francisco, the convocation of Owens, JR White, and company were the toast of the town. The local alt-weeklies (remember those?) embraced them, the national tastemakers fawned over them, saying that their 2009 debut, Album, and Owens’ songwriting offered, “something elusive and fascinating—maybe even heartbreaking.” 

Damnit if that statement doesn’t describe Christopher Owens himself to a tee. 

Girls’ video for “Lust For Life” is quite possibly the most perfect time capsule of what life in San Francisco for young people looked like 15 years ago. It’s forever a memory of a bygone era that we’ll never see again in San Francisco, for the sheer fact that nobody can afford to live that carefreely anymore in this town. That was the year I moved to San Francisco, and their music imbued me with a feeling that I was now living in a city bursting with youthful energy, creativity, art, blooming soundtracks to day-to-day life, and passion for all of it. 

But Girls’ output was short-lived. 2010 produced the criminally unheralded Broken Dreams Club EP, but that’s only because the band’s brilliant and widely revered second and final album, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, came out right after it in 2011. A gorgeous, fractured, and honest expression of the vulnerability of existence, it’s one of the best albums to come out of San Francisco this millennium—ditto for the debut. Then at seemingly the height of their game in 2012, Owens decided to leave the band when they were on top and go solo. The run was effectively over. 

For as impactful as Girls were in a short span of life in San Francisco, Owens’ fall from grace was a much slower burn. His newfound solo career lacked the luster of the Girls material, and his later side project Curls, never caught on in the same way. In the Girls heyday, it was well-documented that Owens and White (who died in 2020) were entrenched in rock and roll drug culture. So when Owens often retreated out of the limelight in the post-Girls era, questions around past and current drug abuse surfaced.

Things got a bit more concerning following a 2017 SF Weekly story, where Owens spoke about living “the worst year of my life,” where he was homeless and got, “kicked out of Cole Hardware for eating part of a spinach plant in the gardening section.” But he also bookended the interview saying that “I’m having the time of my life,” as he prepared to play a run of shows with Curls.

If this all seemed a bit odd, that’s because Owens is odd. The guy grew up in the Children of God cult, only to eventually become a scene-defining rock star. And what truly made him different in the long run, is that he never left. Where artists of his stature followed the next logical step in the rock and roll rough and tumble and moved away, Owens stayed in San Francisco through all of our maligned and unique city’s ebbs and flows, through his own wavelengths, for better or for worse. 

If you cared enough to follow along, he’s been tweeting often through the years. Owens’ words have ranged from bleak to beautiful, documenting his peculiar escapades, unfiltered thoughts, newest endeavors in art, photographs he’s taken, or just what he sees around him in the city. Yet everything was always brimming with the purity of someone who’s had a rare ride through the Bay. 

Pardon if I’m speaking in the past tense here; it’s because Girls is gone. But Owens, a unique SF soul, is on the road, and his dispatches lately are both strange, beautiful poetry and heartachingly nostalgic for leaving The City behind. 

The rawness of his words are a reminder of the spirit of San Francisco that once was. The spirit that soars in that “Lust For Life” video; making you both happy for what it was and cry for what it can’t ever be again. 

I interviewed Owens in 2016 at a studio in Oakland as he was tracking songs for the Curls’ Vante EP. (It was for one of those bygone alt-weeklies, so there is no link to share, but the photo at the top of this article is from that day.) What stuck with me the most, was how sweet and gentle he was and how much he said he loved riding his motorcycle down Great Highway. Fast. He said he felt so free on those blissful rides along the ocean. Here’s hoping he’s finding that on the open road, even though he’s getting farther and farther away from San Francisco with every mile. 

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Adrian Spinelli
Adrian Spinelli
Adrian is a Brazilian-born, SF-based writer covering music, booze, festivals, and culture. Follow him on Twitter @AGSpinelli.

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