Annie Southworth, a beloved local music promoter and tireless advocate for the Bay Area's artistic underground, died last week after a long, public bout with breast cancer. She was 48.
Before her disease made it impossible to work, she promoted shows in San Francisco for two decades, focusing her efforts on supporting up-and-coming bands. She spent years as a talent buyer for Noise Pop, and booked shows at venues such as the Rite Spot and 12 Galaxies. She also worked as an agent for several bands, and is credited with boosting the careers of groups like Thee Oh Sees, The Dodos and the Fresh and Onlys.
“[Annie] had a great ear and an even bigger heart,” local talent booker Tony Bedard said. “Her work positively impacted a lot of people’s lives and, most importantly, made San Francisco a fun and exciting place to live.”
Born in 1969 and adopted as an infant, Southworth came to the Bay Area from the midwest at a young age, first to San Jose and later to Santa Cruz. Childhood friend Kim Howard says Southworth’s love of show business came early. As children, the two friends performed with a local dance troupe called the Lee Dancers, “a small outfit run by an extraordinarily large woman who sat in a folding chair and stomped her cane to the music as she instructed us,” according to Howard. When the two friends weren’t at practice or dance recitals, they played at a neighbor’s house, where the budding performers had free reign.
“I have many memories of spending weekends making up plays and dressing in costume, singing and pretending to be various characters,” Howard wrote in an email.
Then Southworth moved to Santa Cruz when she was 11. Howard met up with Southworth again when they were both in high school, and Howard says Southworth had become "so effing cool" she was intimidating.
“Her braided hair was bleached from all the sun, she wore surfer clothes and Doc Martens, and she rode a skateboard better than the guys,” Howard wrote. “She took me to a party and knew everyone and wasn't afraid of anything — it was as if it was HER party. I would learn later that pretty much any party Annie attended WAS her party.”
The Acid Cabaret
By the early '90s, Southworth lived in San Francisco, and was a regular at local shows and hangouts like the Cassanova Lounge. Her first big entree in show promotion came near the end of the decade, when she started the Acid Cabaret with friend Stephen De Zordo. The event, which De Zrodo hosted as his alter ego "Partyball," was a "debacherous, chaotic" free-form variety show held at venues like the Rite Spot. Southworth co-hosted and handled much of the work behind the scenes. The cabaret went on for years in San Francisco, and in the 2000s it became a popular event at Burning Man.
"For Acid Cabaret at the 2002 Burning Man, we built a fully-functioning, large-tented theater with seats, lights, PA system, a stage, and an upright piano. We opened for business every night for a week, providing hours of impromptu performances of stellar, mind-blowing quality," Bedard said. "The camp had a reputation and drew in people from all over the festival."
That same year, Southworth, Bedard and others made a TV version of the Acid Cabaret called ACTV for public access television, which featured several of the cabaret's best acts.
Around the same time, Southworth expanded her promotional work beyond Acid Cabaret to booking shows at the Rite Spot and the 12 Galaxies. Justin Frahm of the acoustic metal cover band Crystal Methestopholes said he learned early why Southworth was a good promoter when she asked him to play her birthday at the newly-opened Hemlock and his band hesitated.
"Hesitation was futile, of course, as Annie had that way about her: that mixture of joviality, intimidation, exuberance, and sternness. Of course we would play it, and play it we did," Frahm said on Facebook.
A Friend to Bands
By the early '00s, Southworth was acting as an agent for local groups. Southworth had an incredible eye for talent, according to Noise Pop general manager Dawson Ludwig, who said she "had some of the best ears the festival has seen."
Many of the bands she represented saw success. Southworth worked with the Dodos, the Dirty Ghosts and Kelley Stoltz, all of whom received her help at critical career junctions.
"Annie Southworth, thanks for being the only person who came to my first show in Paris. For 1,000 other hangs at concerts, and laughs, political discussions and the many glasses of rosé in the wee small hours at the Rite Spot," Stoltz wrote on Facebook after Southworth's death.
But the band Southworth was most known for representing was Thee Oh Sees, the spastic, psycho-boogie-rock juggernaut helmed by former San Franciscan John Dwyer. Southworth became their agent early in the band's career, taking over the "thankless job" from Dwyer when he couldn't keep up with the workload.
That's when everything changed for the band, says Brigid Dawson, former singer of Thee Oh Sees and Southworth's longtime friend. While Dwyer did well booking their tours, Dawson said it was Southworth's work that allowed the members of Thee Oh Sees to quit their jobs and focus on the group exclusively.
"Once we had Annie fighting in our corner, we saw a big change right away," Dawson said. "I don't think John knew his worth as a player or our worth as a band, and I think it was really easy for Annie to take that over and fight for us."
In 2008, Southworth decided to part ways with Leafy Green booking and join forces with her old friend Michelle Cable, who had talent agency called Panache Booking that was just starting out. Looking back, Cable describes the moment as "monumental," as Southworth brought her bands and her years of experience to the upstart company.
"Annie wasn't some 21-year-old kid. She was an empowered woman," Cable said. "That really helped me get confident in what I was doing."
Loyal to Southworth, Thee Oh Sees moved to Panache and become one of the agency's flagship groups. Southworth helped Panache become the agency it is today, with groups like Ty Segall, Mac DeMarco and U.S. Girls on its roster.
Battle With Cancer
Dwyer says that Southworth revealed her breast cancer diagnosis to him while they were in customs at an airport in Iceland.
There's "never a good time, really" to learn that a friend has cancer, Dwyer wrote in an email. "But that was rough."
Southworth had learned of her cancer months before, but held off on chemotherapy until after her Iceland trip. She planned the vacation with her young niece McKenzie, later described as "like a daughter to her," so she didn't cancel.
"She never seemed to freak out about how things would turn out," said close friend Gina Privitere.
When she came back and underwent treatment, she realized she couldn't live on her own anymore. The treatment meant she had to move from her cherished San Francisco to Chico and live with her parents.
Southworth posted regularly on social media about her battle with cancer and all that it entailed -- losing her hair, having an appreciation for marijuana and the anxiety she felt when at the doctor's office. Though outgoing, Southworth was a private person who let few really know her, and yet she was like an open book with her treatment. She also advocated heavily for women to be vigilant about their mammograms.
"Annie's openness about her treatment was touching and helped me personally," artist and cancer survivor Janelle Hessig said. "We had planned to have a bald headed dinner at Farmhouse Thai when she was able."
But in November of last year, Southworth learned her cancer had spread to her lungs, liver and brain. She posted the news on social media, adding that she was still grateful for the life she had.
"I know it’s harsh news, but if you can believe it I’m beyond thankful for all the love, care and support my friends and family have afforded me. Every well wish helps, as does every good vibe," Southworth wrote.
Friends and family bought plane tickets to fulfill her wish for one last vacation in Palm Springs, but she became too sick to go. By the end of February, Southworth was in hospice in Chico. She died, surrounded by her family, on Feb. 27.
"My dear friend Annie left us last night, after an heroic battle with cancer. She was an absolute holy terror of a human being, simultaneously warm, generous, hilarious, mischievous, adventurous, and, at all times, full of a vigor that inspired me, and many others, to walk out into the world, and demand it be held to a higher standard," friend Alexander Johnson wrote on Facebook on the day of Southworth's death.
"I’ve never met a person with a life force as strong as Annie Southworth, and I’m certain I never will again."
Annie Southworth's family plans to hold a private memorial. The Rite Spot, where Southworth used to work, is hosting a memorial fundraiser -- the first of several planned -- on March 16, from 7pm to close. Details are here.
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