Storefront of Subway Guitars. Photo by Neville Gruhler.
By Neville Gruhler
The Dog is very approachable. He is tall, over 6 feet, casually dressed in tie-dye, jeans and sandals. He wears two, short French braids in his dark gray hair. His store, Subway Guitars, has been in business since 1968, making it the longest-running music store in the East Bay.
“There is a great myth and hallucination about Fat Dog,” he says in a low tone, as he leads me around the shop to where another man is working on a guitar after closing. The inside of the store is cluttered. Guitars, basses, ukuleles, banjos and mandolins cover the walls in layers. The middle of the floor is occupied by a pyramid of amplifiers, which also serves as a workspace for guitar repairs. There is a bookshelf below the front desk holding a smörgåsbord of objects and paraphernalia. Talking to Fat Dog is like talking to an actual dog; he has to sniff you out first. I interpreted his silence between questions and answers as attempts to tell whether I was full of it.
“Music is the weapon,” he says is his personal philosophy. “I’m not really interested in material things; I’m more interested in human rights, and compassion, and you know, we’re all the same people. We have this nincompoop in the white house that is just horrific; it’s a nightmare for me every morning, and you know, we have to change that, and one of the best ways to change it is through culture and music, and art and all the muses.”
This philosophy is important to understand if you want to understand Fat Dog. On the surface, Subway Guitars is just another guitar store, albeit with a nice cloudy paint job. Inside, however, is like a time portal to the days when Berkeley was much more than the sum of its parts, when the things that people said and did here changed the lives of hundreds of millions in this country.
“I always felt that music is my weapon for change. We do a great deal of politics here, and we’ve made about 1400 concerts around the world for different political and human rights causes, stuff against racism, fascism, and sexism. That’s the real substance of me being here.”
It would seem that Fat Dog’s main interests are political. Despite running a music business well-known by locals and musicians world-wide, he seemingly has little respect for artists who fail to use their art as an agent for social change, referring to them as “little dork brains.”
The walls of Subway Guitars are adorned with pro-environmental, anti-war and free speech sentiments, as well as anti-trump and anti-fascism slogans and bumper stickers. The Dog and his business have a liberal agenda, much like one would see come out of Berkeley in the middle of the 1960s counter-culture revolution.
“Making concerts or making guitars for little dork brains like Green Day, or Rancid, Nirvana, Mick Jagger, is one thing. But making concerts for Nelson Mandela, you know who that is? Cesar Chavez, Planned Parenthood, Native health care, has a hundred times more substance for me. We try to catalyze the musicians to speak out on all these political causes.”
Fat Dog holds respect and admiration for artist-activists, such as the cartoonist R. Crumb, whom Fat Dog admires for his work, which addresses racism, fascism and racial inequality, as well as musicians Bob Dylan and Bob Marley for their civil rights activism. Michael Franti, another musician-activist, used to build guitars at Subway.
“Franti actually worked here for years building guitars. Those people are very important, we have to keep getting more of them. This country isn’t the best for it, but countries like Holland, or Canada, or New Zealand, or Cuba, there really are a lot of political messages in the arts, and I just use the word ‘muses,’ meaning it can be literature, dance, theater, music, art, sculpture and photography. There’s tons of that in other countries, but here it is not in the forefront. We need to make it so.”
This seems to be the real mission of Subway Guitars. The mission is not to make a bunch of money from selling guitars to local musicians, but rather, to inspire musicians with some of the energy from the 1960’s, and hopefully, bring about meaningful social change through a cultural revolution.
“I used to teach a class at Berkeley City College for years; it was called Music 15B; it had Johnny Otis, who was a great musician, but also a great activist and civil rights guy, and for about 17 semesters, we talked about all these things. Berkeley City College, I think is excellent. University of California Berkeley has really become like a big corrupt business.”
Fat Dog cleverly uses his appearance as a segue to introduce his favorite environmental activist, similarly to how musicians might use their music to introduce their own political messages to an audience.
“See my new hairdo?” The grinning Dog holds out his French braids with both paws. “There’s this young woman who is sixteen years old named Greta Thunberg, who is a super environmental activist in Sweden, and she is so outrageous. I was so knocked out by her, I had to get her hairdo. So that’s why I have these French braids now. And she was just with the pope, who is also very active politically with human rights, and they were working together. I was very pleased to see that.”
Berkeley has changed a lot since the 1960’s. With a new populist right wing administration came regressive political change in Berkeley. It was once a mecca for civil rights activism; however, since Trump’s inauguration, Berkeley has become the political battleground for anti-fascist groups such as Antifa, white feminist social justice warriors, MAGA-bootlickers, and reactionary social figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos. According to Fat Dog, the political regression could be reversed if Berkeley’s music scene could be revived.
“Berkeley used to have a really vibrant music scene, and the university really put a kibosh on it, and they closed a lot of nightclubs. There used to be like 15 or 20 nightclubs in Berkeley that were just thriving, and cafés where people weren’t just sitting and staring into a computer screen all day. There was a lot happening there. If some rich privileged brat got arrested in public, it didn’t look good for the university. They didn’t really want that, and it caused them a lot of trouble just having people out there drinking.”
Fat Dog holds a harsh criticism of the university, beyond the closing of a few nightclubs, going back to the days of apartheid, up to now, where he says that students are taught Monsanto-approved curriculum in order to funnel them into a corporate machine that’s ultimate goal is to destroy the planet for profit.
“There’s another side of the university that you never see. For instance, they took all of their money and invested it in the white supremacist South African government and got a very high return for it. They basically supported apartheid for dozens of years. They were making so much profit, there was no morality or any ideology behind it. It was just the best return they could get for their investment, and now I’m sure they are involved with a bunch of other companies that are just as bad.”
If you believe the arts can be a weapon for social change, or if you are a musician looking to purchase an instrument, it may be worth paying Fat Dog a visit at Subway Guitars, located at 1800 Cedar St. in Berkeley.