With each appearance of Mike Rowell’s byline in the pages of SF Weekly, readers could count on his suggestion of a niche, out-of-orbit artist they wouldn’t otherwise think about to hand them a stupefying experience.
“The bands he wrote about weren’t just there to do a set and leave — they were there to blow your mind,” says Jennifer Maerz, former SF Weekly music editor. “He really appreciated the weirder, artsier side of music and was just so stoked to spotlight the kind of people playing that music.”
Rowell primarily contributed to SF Weekly from 1991 to 2012, according to his LinkedIn, but also to the San Francisco Bay Guardian (RIP), Spin, Alternative Press, Guitar Player, Fortune, and other publications. He was known to share his encyclopedic knowledge of music not out of condescension but pure geeky excitement. From San Francisco’s otherworldly group Caroliner, experimental rock band Sun City Girls, and “brilliantly bonkers” Irish post-punk Virgin Prunes, Rowell had rich recommendations.
He died on Nov. 12, nine days short of his 57th birthday.
“[Rowell] was a music writer, critic, and more than anything, full fan,” says Kimberley Campisano, his friend of 35 years. “He had a penchant for the overlooked and under-valued. He followed his ear and heart, regardless of genre or niche. He was kind to all.”
Campisano, a Bay Area artist and educator, knew Rowell through the underground music scene as they attended the University of Arizona in Tempe, where he studied journalism. A couple of years after graduating, the animal lover took off to do public relations and volunteer for the San Francisco SPCA. “I seem to remember we discussed whether I should adopt an iguana or bearded dragon at some point. I went for the Beardie,” says Campisano, who saw him frequently after moving to San Francisco herself.
Rowell was also known outside of his music writing at Fayes, his Mission neighborhood coffee shop and video store of choice. Co-owner Michael McConnell remembers Rowell coming in to get coffee in his ceramic beer stein, often sticking around to talk movies and music while waiting for his laundry to finish next door.
“Mike was a super sweet and quirky guy,” says McConnell, who met him in 1999, in an email. “I knew that he had been sick, and fighting a disease, though did not ask specifics. Recently he looked better, I thought, and thought he was winning the battle.”
In 2012, they picked him as an interesting neighborhood regular to feature on a weekly trading card. McConnell himself illustrated Rowell’s goatee, thin, rectangular glasses, and welcoming smile. Facts on the back marked 15 years in the neighborhood, Forbidden Zone and The Apple as favorite movies, refilling his usual large coffee with a half-caf, and a quote recollecting that “Jewel once asked me if I liked to bake cookies.”
In the corner, a bench under the Fayes logo says in a speech bubble: “Since 1991, he’s been writing my story for the SF Weekly.”
“He definitely left his mark on San Francisco in the music scene during a special time,” Maerz says. “San Francisco was such a haven for art rock and punk bands that really pushed the creative side of playing music, whether it was what they wrote or sounds they created, and that’s why we had so much of that in the Weekly and in the Guardian. I felt like we were both supporting the scene and pushing it forward.”
Maerz, who worked for SF Weekly from 2006-2010, laments the smaller music sections and page view-obsessed industry changes that pushed out freelancers like Rowell and, therefore coverage of those niche artists. (In another hit to the local music scene, legendary punk scene photographer Murray Bowles passed away on Sunday at age 68.)
But Rowell never stopped dropping his musical musings, from small to big bands.
Campisano, who describes him as a “consummate music obsessive” notes one of his final social media posts in late September 2019: “Trying to dissect the Cure cuz I’m bored. People often say Disintegration is their best album, I’m puzzled. I’d bailed by then. I’m more of a Pornography guy, because that album was bizarre and harrowing. Great soundtrack for my bad trip, and yeah, that happened.”