On Wednesday morning, news reports confirmed rumors that had been floating around Twitter for the past several days: Chet “JR” White, bassist and producer for the seminal San Francisco band Girls, has passed away at the age of 40. This is a tragedy in so many respects.
White was always the silent partner in Girls, ceding the spotlight to Christopher Owens, the long-haired, charismatic lead singer and lyricist for the band. White looked about 10 years older than the rest of the members in the group (he was the same age), and his low-key bass playing never attracted a lot of eyeballs during the band’s live performances. In many ways, he felt like the reluctantly responsible uncle of the group, reining in the rascals as they did their thing.
But identifying him as the quiet, affable sidekick to Owens would be a great misrepresentation. As a producer for both Girls full-length albums and their EP (2009’s Album, 2010’s Broken Dreams Club EP and 2012’s Father, Son, Holy Ghost) White helped master a sound that felt deliberately lived-in and lo-fi, creating an ephemeral aura that perfectly befitted the band. Girls were timeless and placeless, a band equally inspired by ’60s doo-wop groups as they were by spacerock and shoegaze collectives.
White somehow corralled those sounds in a way that felt measured and thoughtful — even though Girls was better known for individual singles, their albums had an undeniable cohesiveness. It was White’s role to clean up those LPs while still leaving them a little messy, because a pristine Girls recording would just be disingenuous. Owens and White lived on the periphery and their music represented their outsider identity.
The cause of White’s death has not been revealed, but both he and Owens have been public about their long struggles with drugs. When Girls broke up in 2012, the general understanding here was that drugs were a factor in the dissolution.
Following the end of Girls, Owens went on to record a series of solo albums and form Curls, a band that has since broken up. White produced a series of albums, including Tobias Jesso Jr.’s critically acclaimed 2015 release, Goon. But in the past several years, he hasn’t been super active and lived mostly under the radar, even in his adoptive hometown of San Francisco (he was born in Santa Cruz.)
That both he and Owens fell out of public consciousness here in San Francisco is a huge indictment of the local music scene. In 2010, when San Francisco was the absolute toast of the indie rock world, Girls were the city’s biggest and most successful band. Their albums routinely rank among the most beloved releases of the early-aughts and 2010s, and I shit you not, they have not one bad song among their roughly 30 recorded tracks. What’s more, no band embraced being a San Francisco group quite like them. Their videos, lyrics and general imagery all evinced a lovable attachment to this place.
Yet, somehow after their heyday, they began to slip from the forefront of our minds, struggling to survive in an unforgiving city. That unfortunate apathy directed toward Owens and White could be related to the ever-dwindling coterie of artists here or just the overall transient nature of San Francisco. Either way, they deserved much more of our appreciation.
I’m not sure if White cared or was even aware of Girls’ place among the pantheon of great San Francisco bands. But I hoped he knew how much this band meant to me, and to so many other music fans here in this city.
I never had the opportunity to interview or speak with White before, but I would frequently see him during my visits to Vacation, the boutique thrift store located a few blocks from my old apartment in the Tenderloin (Kristin Klein, the shop’s owner, was a former tour manager for the Black Lips and Deerhunter, and she is friends with a ton of local bands.) White would usually be lounging behind the checkout counter, quietly reading a magazine or chatting softly with the customers. He had slightly sunken eyes that gave a sense of melancholy. He always looked just a little sad and just a little restless.
On Tuesday, Owens Tweeted a remembrance of White, seemingly addressing that restlessness:
If White was in search of peace, hopefully he has found that now. He deserved that in his life. He deserved much more than that.