Call it Codestock 1.0 or Spinal Tap Part Deux: Revenge of the Nerds. For one trippy night in San Francisco, venture capitalists and info-babes, software programmers and Web-preneurs made their rock 'n' roll dreams come true. For one shining moment, ordinary businesspeople turned into top-of-the-charts rock stars.
At a mid-summer benefit for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the nonprofit crusader for online civil liberties, Silicon Valley power brokers played the Fillmore — late, great promoter Bill Graham's legendary ground zero of '60s hippiedom, where the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin played their boomer anthems. But on this night, the price of admission bought a chance to catch an FCC policy wonk shake it on the dance floor or see a VC belt out a cover of the Rolling Stones's "Paint It Black." It was the ultimate confirmation of cultural convergence: information technology meets entertainment.
It turns out that jamming — and not just jamming standards down competitors' throats — is a long-standing tradition among techie insiders. "Some industries play golf together. We have jam sessions," shrugs Allen Razdow, president and CEO of Torrent Systems, waiting backstage to go on with Look & Feel, a group made up of fellow Massachusetts software types.
The evening's emcee, Mitchell Kertzman, was founder and CEO of PowerSoft and is now president and CEO of Sybase. But in 1968 Kertzman got his business start spinning a different kind of disc: he was an underground-radio deejay in Boston. "This is the same suit that I was wearing in the Summer of Love," he tells the crowd. "This concert is going to be 128-bit encrypted! There is no key. We don't need no stinking key!"
During the solo acoustic performance of David Gans, former computer whiz, author, radio-show host, and "professional Deadhead," the aroma of a certain illegal herb wafts backstage, where the Raving Daves are preparing to make their entrance. The band is a loose amalgam of PeopleSoft staffers led by Baer "Naked" Tierkel, VP for "PeopleTools products and other cool technology." Its formation stems from a genuine work rite: the group started playing in the office between midnight and 3 a.m. When CEO Dave Duffield heard the racket, he kicked in $15,000 for equipment — and in true rock spirit, they named the band after him. When the Daves finally do rave on stage, singers Dalia Chatterjee and Janis Weiss launch into a rousing rendition of No Doubt's "I'm Just a Girl" — appropriate given the usual sorry male-to-female ratio in the computer industry, and in the room tonight.
The groups continue to rock out on stage, but in the audience the real power gravitates toward the back to talk shop. Netscape Global Public Policy Counsel Peter Harter grouses with EFF Executive Director Lori Fena about the latest encryption-policy machinations. The offstage celeb of the night is Pamela Samuelson, who comes to the party fresh from winning a MacArthur "genius" award for her work in computer law. Second place goes to digerati ubiquitoid John Perry Barlow, who lounges in the VIP zone and listens as groupies gush that they've admired his work "from afar."
"The last time I was at the Fillmore, VC meant Viet Cong," laughs one Web-preneur. Tonight the audience is thick with '90s-style VCs — no black pajamas here, just black-clad venture capitalists milling around a plush buffet piled high with brie and grilled green beans.
Forget the Flying Burrito Brothers! The Flying Other Brothers — named for band members Roger McNamee, venture capitalist at Integral, and Giles McNamee, an investment banker at First Albany in Boston — open with Tracy Chapman's "Talkin' Bout a Revolution." Fronting the band is Lisa Brennan-Jobs, Steve Jobs's teenage daughter, remembered by most of the crowd as the namesake of the ill-fated Lisa computer. Tonight the Apple she most resembles is Alanis Morisette clone Fiona Apple. Roger McNamee works the guitar, sporting tie-dye — though he can't quite shake the Valley-boy uniform: khakis. Merl Saunders, a genuine musical legend among Deadheads for the album he put out with Jerry Garcia, steps in to show the amateurs how a professional gets it done.
The night's brightest musical talent on the techie side is Look & Feel's Bryan Simmons, a PR guy for Lotus who croons R&B lyrics and spins R&D announcements with the same silky smoothness. Look & Feel's other members include bigwigs like Razdow and Frank Ingari, chairman and CEO of Shiva. The chance to play at the legendary Fillmore is enough to lure the band members cross-country from Boston.
As the Rockhoppers, a group of Boston-based stock traders, wind up the evening, a Raving Dave, now chilling in the audience, enthuses, "Did you see the electronic laser balls? They were the coolest thing all night!"
Whether the content involves notes or code, a true geek always puts the cool gadgetry first.
Katharine Mieszkowski (email@example.com) recently joined Fast Company as a senior writer.
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.