20 November 2005

At Gilman Street


It's impossible for me to set foot in that place without some strong feelings washing over me, most of them overwhelmingly positive. So with that in mind, let's start with the negatives.

First complaint: Gilman Street itself, not the club, the street. When we opened the club back in 1986, part of the reason the City of Berkeley was willing to give us a permit was that it was in the middle of nowhere. Not much went on in West Berkeley in those days, especially at night, so you could pretty much hang out in the street and only occasionally risk being mown down by an aberrant driver.

No longer. Since the punks helped make West Berkeley ripe for gentrification, the City has had to put in a traffic light at 8th and Gilman, and despite that, it's still a tricky business getting across the street. Meaning I had to wait at least a minute and a half, which of course had me seething with indignation.

At the door I handed over my still-valid membership card and my $6 (another change; for most of its history Gilman subscribed religiously to the theory that charging more than $5 for a punk rock show was criminal blasphemy) and was on my way in when an older, bigger punk, who seemed to be acting as a sort of door supervisor, snatched my membership card away from the young girl who was taking the money and examined it carefully, as if he suspected me of forging it.

I've never found the "Do you know who I am?" card to produce anything but more trouble, usually seasoned with a soup├žon of ridicule, so I didn't bother complaining that in October 1986 I had paid $2 for what was supposed to be a LIFETIME membership card, but which is no longer honored. To be fair to the suspicious doorman, I don't look much like a typical Gilmanite these days, but I wouldn't like to think I look like a membership card forger, either.

One last gripe, and it's actually the only one I'm serious about: I can't believe (well, yes I can; I was involved with the club long enough to believe almost anything) that they still allow smoking inside. It must be the last public space in California that does. I know the issue has been raised on occasion over the years, but my impression is that most of the punks are afraid to come out in favor of enforcing a smoking ban (it's been California state law for 7 years already) because it would make them look too authoritarian or parental. There still seems to be this misapprehension that there's something rebellious or edgy about giving yourself cancer. No drugs, booze, racism, sexism or homophobia is allowed at Gilman, but supporting the right-wing tobacco industry and fattening the coffers of corporate medicine and pharmacology? Hey, that's PUNK!

But by now I was inside, and the old surroundings worked their perennial magic on me. No matter how loud the music, how frenetic the activity, a kind of peace descends on my soul, a sense of coming home after a long trip and settling into a floppy old easy chair in the family rec room. Many of the kids in the audience weren't even born when Gilman first opened its doors, but they carry on the old traditions with ease and grace, flopping around on the sofas, alternately trying to look silly or surly and often succeeding in doing both at once, and in general having a great old adolescent time. Speaking of sofas, there's a pale blue denim one, now marked up with graffiti, that I swear used to be in my office at Lookout Records. How it could have migrated down the hill to Gilman Street might make for an interesting story one day, but all I could think about was all the hours I spent sleeping or otherwise goofing off on it when I was supposed to be transacting Important Punk Rock Record Business.

I got there in time to see only the last few songs by a young Oakland band called The Mothballs, whose picture may or may not appear somewhere on this page. Full of spunk and energy and attitude, they would have fit right into a Gilman show circa 1987 except that they were better dressed, a bit more skilled on their instruments, and probably weren't alive yet. Apparently they don't even have a record out yet (these days bands often have records out before they even play a show), but I suspect they will one day, and that it will be a very good one.

I found the famous Kendra K crawling around the floor of the sound booth, wiring up a live broadcast for Berkeley's own KALX, and snapped a picture of her which I'd put up here except that I'd prefer to live a little longer. Then I watched the Riff Randells, one of whom I'd met in Vancouver (where they're from) at (I think) the Mint Records anniversary party quite a few years ago. She must have been about 12 then, because the Riff Randells still look like schoolgirls, and rock out in a way the early Donnas might have done if the Donnas were... better.

From the rave reviews East Coast friends had given me, I expected the King Khan & BBQ Show to be some sort of 9-piece orchestra-type setup, but it turned out to be just two incredibly gifted guys, one of whom played guitar and drums and sang lead vocals all at once (that would be BBQ) and the other jumped around, broke guitar strings, howled and occasionally sang, and changed into drag in mid-set (that would be Khan). Mr. BBQ, while Khan was faffing about with his broken strings, sang and played a brilliant cover of "Out Of Time," an old Rolling Stones song I haven't heard in years, and later on in the set sang what might or might not have been a Sam Cooke cover in a voice which sounded so much like Sam Cooke that I didn't really care who actually wrote the song. Too bad my pictures of Mr. Khan in his silver dress and purple wig didn't come out too well, or you'd see them here. Or go see him in person. Highly recommended.

I didn't stay for much of the headliner Harold Ray Live, partly because I had to be up early for my 9 year old nephew's soccer match, partly because I've seen them several times before and found their jollity and kitsch slightly too forced for my taste. But as I drove up the hill, I listened to the broadcast on KALX and darned if they didn't sound vastly better than they ever did before. Either the band has hit a new groove, or Kendra's technical wizardry had catapulted them into the next dimension of excellence. Either way, I was kind of sorry I didn't stay, especially when I heard them doing this great song about outer space that may or may not have been a Phenomenauts cover (I was having a bit of difficulty following the stage patter). And my nephew's team ended up losing their game 4-0 anyway, so maybe I should have stayed up late last night and stayed in bed this morning. Maybe the whole team should have! They played like it, anyway! (Sorry, I get over-excited about soccer.)

Anyway, that's it for my Gilman report; I'm pleased to say that the place looks as great as ever and smells better (except for those accursed teenage smokers!). December 31st will mark the 19th anniversary of its first show ever, and who would have thought that anything put together by a bunch of goofy kids with funny hair could ever last 19 weeks, let alone years? Whatever little bit I might have done back in antediluvian times to help the Gilman Street Project get underway, well, it's repaid a thousand times over every time I come to town and walk through the doors of the World's Greatest Club Ever.

1 comment:

Jenna Alive said...

Larry, the times they are a-changing. I can't believe that they didn't accept your membership card. That's one of the signs of the apocalypse, right? I'm stocking up on canned food.