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The Banana rocks, but not around the clock

Monday, May 03, 1999

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The bass player flings his hair -- a long, wild black mane -- in front of his face like a troll doll. He hops around the stage. He shakes as the lead singer shrieks.

Night Live

Saturday Night Live - a snapshot of Saturday nightlife in famous and not-so-famous places - appears each Monday.


It's Saturday night at the Electric Banana in Oakland, and there's only one ingredient missing for a night of wild heavy metal. A crowd of metal-heads. Or any kind of crowd at all.

The band is called "Untamed," but the 13 people watching them at 11:15 p.m. are so well-behaved they could be watching a high school musical. Seated in the front is the lead guitarist's father, capturing the moment on a Sony mini-cam, as his mother emphatically bobs her head. That's someone's kid up there, after all.

It's a very slow night at the Banana, the rock club that for 20 years has let local and out-of-state bands, wonderful ones and dreadful ones, play their original if not always Billboard chart-busting music. Sometimes the club packs the fans in, like the week before. Not tonight, though.

"Untamed -- just like me. Untamed," quips owner Johnny Banana.

His real name is Johnny Zarra. But if you name your nightclub the Electric Banana and you have personality to spare, people can't help but end up calling you Johnny Banana.

Johnny's wife, Judy Banana, wears a sparkly red sweater as she serves up her delicious homemade raviolis -- something she will do a lot more in December when the couple will change their club's name to Zarra's and go more heavily into the restaurant business. After all, a new Residence Inn without a restaurant is going up across the street on Bigelow Boulevard. Zarra's will have live music. But it won't be a hard-core rock joint anymore.

For now, though, heavy metal is still alive at the Banana. Or at least gasping for breath.

The four members of "Untamed" are performing under a collage of posters of bands that once played at the Banana. Bands that went on to bigger things. Candlemass, Fate's Warning, Sacred Reich. What little wall space left is covered by neon Budweiser, Coors Light and Miller signs.

Johnny Banana is seated at the bar lit up with a lonely string of green lights. He is wearing all black like the band, but he is looking more like your uncle than a metal-head. He does a play-by-play of the band. "Unknown is not the word for it. I don't think they know each other."

Then he turns serious: "They are a good metal band. But Pittsburgh is not a metal town."

You won't get any argument from the band about Pittsburgh being a tough place to play heavy-metal music. "It's very hard to be an original band," says Untamed bass player Rob Perrone. Everyone is trying to do that Rusted Root thing. Plus, people are staying away, they say, because a big national act is playing at Metropol this night.

The $5 cover charges are not exactly pouring in. But always glad to pay is Guy Zappa, the 58-year-old father of Untamed guitarist Damon Zappa, a tall thin musician with a famous rocker last name he's trying to live up to. Guy is here with his video camera. He is wearing earplugs, but you won't hear this nice dad complain about the ruckus in his the basement of his Scott home during the band's practice sessions. "I am from the '60s. I like rock 'n' roll. I think it is better than rap."

Johnny Banana goes to the back room and shows off the music-inspired, edgy paintings that an artist painted while an industrial band played at his club a few years ago.

The paintings, he says, are good. But the industrial band, whose name will be withheld to protect fragile musicians' egos, was "horrifying," he says. "They should have a law. Like they have gun control. They should only sell instruments to people who know how to play them."

At 12:30 a.m., Johnny Banana tells the band it's time to call it a night. As Untamed tears down its gear and the customers drift out into the darkness, Johnny Banana says the music would have gone on until 2 a.m. if the place had been rocking and rolling like it has on some Saturdays past.

"They would have played until the cows come home or the cat called the cops."

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