THE LAST THING you’d expect to chat about with Joe Rathburn is gardening. Afterall, he’s a musician. A downtown fixture, he’s a nimble-fingered guitarist who’s played for 19 seasons of San Diego Padres games in the figurative shadow of Petco Park at nearby Tin Fish Gaslamp.
His story’s about musical longevity, right? Legacy. Connection between performer and audience. How times change but “Piano Man” never fades from our collective list of musical requests.
Those are key parts of the chorus.
The heart of his musical story is earthier. His opening lyrics focus on a garden. This song starts in a nondescript patch of mulch and flowers dedicated to a life felled too early by a cancer that unites its victims’ loved ones and spurs a random act of kindness.
A Simple Garden
The Michael Brown memorial garden at Tin Fish.
The former owner of Tin Fish Gaslamp died from pancreatic cancer in December 2021. Michael Brown was just 63.
“Mike was one of the best people you’d ever want to meet,” Rathburn says before a recent show. “He was just a very friendly, hardworking, smart guy. I wanted to dedicate this season to him, and do something in his honor.”
Brown used to maintain a garden just outside the restaurant’s fence in a small square that’s cut out from a downtown brick walkway.
Rathburn made a longshot call to the nearby Omni Hotel. He left a message that was relayed to the owners of the landscaping company employed by the hotel.
Brothers Brett and Craig Gerber run Landcare Logic. Their 15-year-old landscaping company has several big-name customers, including the Omni and Petco Park.
“Joe got in touch with us a couple weeks before the Padres’ Opening Day this year,” Brett Gerber says. “He told us a moving story about Michael Brown, and you could just hear the passion in his voice. We were onboard immediately.”
It just so happened that the Gerbers’ mother was taken years ago by pancreatic cancer.
The brothers pledged that Landcare Logic would donate plants, like rose trees and jasmine, and that once a week an employee would stop by to maintain the Tin Fish’s garden plot.
The little oasis was in place by Opening Day.
The spot is commemorated by a plaque that reads: “This tiny garden is dedicated to the memory of Michael Patrick Brown, who loved life and tried to make this space beautiful.”
Matriarch Arleen Gerber is mentioned on the plaque, too, which also bears a QR code that can be used to make donations to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
“Our dad was here from Minnesota on Opening Day and he really appreciated the plaque,” Brett Gerber says. “I didn’t really know about Tin Fish before this year. Now, before we go to any Padres games we stop in to hear Joe play.”
19 Years on the Patio
Joe Rathburn on the Tin Fish patio.
A lot of people do their Padres pre-gaming on Tin Fish’s al fresco patio. For 19 years, Rathburn has been booked during every one of the team’s 81 home games.
He’s missed a few dates, but estimates he’s done this gig more than 1,500 times.
His shows start two-and-a-half hours before game time and end half an hour after the first pitch.
Rathburn plugs in his Taylor 814 acoustic guitar and plays three hours straight without a break. The set usually includes 40-50 songs. No problem for a guy who’s memorized more than 450 popular tunes.
The 67-year-old hails from Flint, Michigan. Not the toughest hometown to recruit soon-to-be-local San Diegans.
He’s pleasantly matter-of-fact, with a dry, Dad humor that pops up in his onstage patter.
Quip in point: “I just got a request…but I’m going to keep playing, anyway.”
Rathburn starts a recent show by announcing, “Hey, we’ve got May Gray happening, so let’s do some songs about the sun.”
The he launches into the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” followed by Jimmy Cliff’s “I Can See Clearly Now,” and “California Sun,” popularized by the Ramones.
Rathburn stands out when he performs, especially when he strolls around to various sections of the Tin Fish patio. He favors a straw hat called a Trilby, perhaps best described as the younger brother of a fedora or a slightly more sophisticated cousin to the pork pie hat.
He gave up wearing all black clothing during gigs when he discovered bold, colorful shirts got a friendlier crowd reaction. Don’t get the idea Rathburn favors tropical wear, or Tommy Bahama Aloha shirts. He does plays Jimmy Buffett hits like “Margaritaville, but sternly states: “Don’t categorize me as a “Parrot Head.”
Downtown as Stage
Rathburn’s downtown stage can be unpredictable.
To his right: The Hard Rock Hotel. It’s not uncommon for young people just across the street–high on life, liquid courage and/or herb-based boosts–to be loudly expressing their joie de vivre.
Stage left: Railroad tracks. The Gaslamp Quarter Trolley Station empties out right next to Tin Fish. The upside is potential patrons on their way to a Padres game can’t help but cross paths with his music.
“Everything in this location is just so rocking,” he says. “It’s a hub of activity. I love this gig.”
The worst aspect, however, is the freight trains that use the nearby tracks.
“When the diesel engines are idling right outside it makes playing here hell,” Rathburn says. “It’s loud and it’s smelly.”
The weirdest moment he’s experienced during a show came when a tweaked-up woman accosted him.
“I was playing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,” he recalls. “I sang the line, ‘When you’re down and out, when you’re on the street…’ Right then, this tiny woman walked up and gave me a hammer-blow with her fist right on my nose.”
That incident is outshined by the time a cheerleading/dance competition was being held at the downtown convention center. About 50 barely-teenaged girls were milling about outside Tin Fish in their uniforms.
“Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’ had just come out,” Rathburn says. “I’d just learned it. I walked out and started playing ‘Happy.” They all immediately lined up and went into their routine.”
As of June 7, Tin Fish is under new ownership.
To borrow from a Steve Miller Band classic, is Rathburn’s Tin Fish time slipping into the future?
The question arises because restaurant ownership recently changed hands.
It was reported earlier this year that Tin Fish Gaslamp had been purchased by Pacific Beach-based pizza-and-wings eatery The Sandbox.
When that deal apparently fell apart, local ownership of Rockin’ Baja Lobster Coastal Cantina stepped in.
During an employee meeting on June 7, 2022, a spokesperson for new management confirmed that the changeover had occurred.
New owner Rick DiRienzo could not be reached for comment.
For now, according to the spokesperson, the Rockin’ Baja Lobster location on Fifth Avenue in the Gaslamp will continue under its current banner. And, Tin Fish will remain as is, at least through the end of the current baseball season.
Various news reports have indicated Tin Fish will be converted to a new concept in late 2022.
The Fan Legacy
Joe Rathburn pets Lola at a Tin Fish table filled by Pomela Flanigan, Chris Flanigan and Carolyn Forte.
Whether or not Rathburn will be in the Tin Fish lineup next year, he longs to stay connected to his fanbase.
Pomela Flanigan of Tierrasanta is a diehard. At a recent show, she sipped a Lemon Drop Martini and enjoyed the ambiance with her husband, Chris Flanigan, friend Carolyn Forte, and a 12-year-old English Springer Spaniel named Lola.
“We come to hear Joe,” Pomela Flanigan says. “He plays such a wide range of songs. We bring friends all the time. It would be sad if this ended.”
General manager Jim Gorzelanski, who’s been at Tin Fish for 10 years, says Rathburn definitely has a following.
“He’s an institution,” Gorzelanski says. “He’s a part of us. People come here on game days for fish and chips, big beers at a decent price and to hear Joe sing songs and tell jokes. It’s a very family-friendly feeling.”
Whether or not this season is a farewell tour, Rathburn will always treasure the experience of urban, al fresco music-making.
“I get an affirmation every time I play,” he says. “And the spontaneity of people singing along, cheering and egging me on is…”
He trails off. When he begins again he compares this music gig to being a baseball pitcher.
“Sometimes I throw strikes all day long and sometimes I throw dirt balls,” he says. “I’m fairly consistent with shows, but it can be up and down. But then somebody will come in and say, ‘This is my daughter. She grew up listening to you. We come back every year because you’re here.’ For me, that’s the main thing.”
Borrowing inspiration from a nearby plaque, which keep watch over the most unlikely downtown garden, you could also say that Rathburn has, in his way, “tried to make this space beautiful.” SDSun