19 December 2007

Birth Of The Gilman Geek

One of my favorite memories of the early Gilman years was the battle of the bands between Isocracy and the Naked Lady Wrestlers. The photo above isn't of the best quality, but you can see Isocracy on stage (singer Jason appears to be hiding behind Walter Glaser, who's doing the pro-wrestling style announcing, and I don't know who the hell the guy on the far left is) in their moment of triumph.

Off to the right, skulking under a cowboy hat, is one of the members of NLW, who've just been handed a resounding and humiliating defeat by Gilman's favorite house band (to be fair, this was before Operation Ivy rose to prominence). I don't think that's Max Volume, the appropriately named loudmouth lead singer who got this whole battle started by repeatedly heckling and ridiculing Isocracy for being untalented and "amateur" musicians, in contrast to his own band, who were ridiculously talented but never seemed to succeed at anything besides boring the Gilman audience stiff.

As John "Al Sobrante" Kiffmeyer memorably put it after the unanimous verdict had been announced in favor of Isocracy, "When we were playing people were bouncing up and down, rolling around on the floor and peeling themselves off the walls. Then you guys come on and it's like a goddam golf tournament." (I paraphrase, but that was the gist of it.)

The clash between Isocracy and the Naked Lady Wrestlers was emblematic of a cultural divide that opened up rather early in the Gilman era. NLW were older guys who'd been around since the very early 80s; Isocracy were barely out of high school, and had formed their band in 1986 when they still were in high school. Although the people who were the main driving force behind opening and operating Gilman (mainly Maximum Rocknroll people, spearheaded by Maximum Leader Tim Yohannan) were in their 20s and 30s, the place quickly attracted an audience of young teenagers who previously hadn't hadn't been allowed into most clubs that offered live music.

The first time I saw Isocracy, when they shared a stage with us at the old Club Foot in San Francisco, singer Jason Beebout was so scared that he hid behind our bass amp for much of his 10 or 15 minute performance, but by the time they'd been playing Gilman for a couple months, Isocracy was setting the standard for extroverted, exuberant, uninhibited spectacles. Music may not have been their strong suit, as the outraged Naked Lady Wrestlers continually pointed out (the NLW guitarist, by contrast, never passed up an opportunity to drop a note-perfect rendition of the William Tell Overture into the middle of one his solos), but they more than made up for it in showmanship.

It's hard to describe just what was so amazing or hilarious about an Isocracy show; in essence, we're not talking about much more than a lot of smart-ass remarks and random insults coupled with the band's trademark gimmick of bringing in great bags and boxes of rubbish (er, "found art) and throwing it at the audience (who of course threw it right back). But it was a refreshing change from what had by then become the very formulaic sort of punk rock shows we'd been seeing since the late 70s. It was no longer one-way traffic from the stage to the audience; an Isocracy crowd was every bit as involved as the band. By the end of an Isocracy set, there would typically be more audience members than band members on stage, and the audience might well have commandeered the microphones and be outsinging the band as well.

Some of the older punks tut-tutted about how "these kids" were making a mockery of long-standing punk traditions, but they were soon outnumbered by the influx of yet more kids, every other one of whom seemed to want to start a band and play at Gilman, too. Teenagers across the Bay Area seemed to have had a blinding revelation along the lines of, "Hey, if little Johnny Doofus from sixth period English can have a band and play on stage at that new punk rock club, why can't I?"

I'm not sure when the term "Gilman geek" started getting tossed around, but I'd guess it was within the first few months of the club's opening. I'd also imagine that it was originally applied to some aspect of the Isocracy phenomenon, but it might also have come out of the Slapshot incident. For those of you not familiar with Slapshot, they were a straightedge hardcore band from Boston who wore matching varsity jackets and whose singer, a charming and refined gentleman known as Choke, used to menace the crowd with a broken-off hockey stick as he bellowed and hectored them about whatever straightedge hardcore bands used to bellow and hector.

The night they played Gilman, a small knot of X-handed hardcore kids stood up near (but not too near) the stage where they stood, awestruck, watching Mr. Choke, um, once again, bellow and hector. But meanwhile, a larger group of Gilman kids (and not quite kids, like, for example, myself) had reacted to the all the abrasive shouting by playing leapfrog in what would normally have been the pit. This infuriated Choke, but when he yelled at them to "stop screwing around," they responded by pulling faces and jumping up and down like so many armpit-scratching monkeys.

By the end of his set, Choke was beside himself. "I've played all over this country, and in some other countries, too," he said. "I'm ready to play for anybody, anytime, anywhere that wants to see us and gets into our music. But I didn't come here to play for a bunch of fucking goofballs." This elicited a rousing round of ironic cheers, at which point Choke shouted, "This place is punk rock Romper Room!" before stomping off.

And he was right, the only difference being that he thought that was a bad thing and most of us thought it was a very good one. It was a big part of what made Gilman so special and so different from most punk rock clubs: the fact that you could act as silly or as carefree as you wanted and not have to worry about conforming to some rigid ideal of what "punk" was supposed to look or sound like. I think a lot of this was due to our members being so young and relatively free from preconceptions, but it was probably also because our club was completely non-commercial and (at least inside and in the immediate environs) alcohol and drug free.

Ironically, and, I thought, a bit sadly, the era of the Gilman geek lasted only a couple years before a counterreaction began to emerge. Once bands like Green Day started gaining recognition in the larger world and the whole "shiny happy smartpunk sound" (as one of our detractors had it) showed signs of crowding out most other forms of punk rock, there was a tendency on the part of many Gilman old schoolers (those same kids who'd been 16 or 17 when the club opened but were now entering their angst-ridden 20s) to revive the dark and nihilistic styles of early 80s hardcore, complete with dyed black hair, grim faces, and serious drug habits.

It may have started as a joke - certainly Absolutely Zippo fanzine, with its championing of "da punx" and its legendary Jesse Michaels cover drawing of a desperate scenester pouring drugs into his arm through a funnel, was mainly satirical - but as with most such jokes, people soon start forgetting to laugh. There was much debate about whether the band Filth, who looked and sounded like the Exploited or GBH from ten years earlier, were serious about their Ur-punk lyrics (their "big hit" bemoaned "thousands long" list of former punk rockers who'd sold out and abandoned the cause) were merely having a Zippo-style laugh.

Singer Jake Filth insisted he was dead serious, but then he'd cut his punk rock teeth viciously heckling the almost universally loved Operation Ivy even while maintaining a close friendship with at least part of the band. When Lenny, from the now broken-up Isocracy, joined Filth, it seemed to signify a real sea change in the prevailing Gilman aesthetic, not least because suddenly Lenny wasn't smiling anymore.

There would be periodic infusions of new kids, and new bursts of wacky, zany geekdom throughout the 90s, often seen most in evidence at the annual Punk Rock Prom or at Joel Qpunk's birthday bash, but in recent years, such events seem fewer and farther between. Granted, I'm only able to get to Gilman a couple times a year at most these days, but as of late, I often haven't even bothered going when I am in the Bay Area because the great majority of shows seem to be of the generic hardcore/grindcore/deathmetal sort of stuff that I thought had been mercifully put out of its misery back in the late 80s/early 90s.

Hey, it's not really my club anymore, and it's been at least 10 or 15 years since I actually volunteered to work at a show there, so I don't have any business complaining. So please don't read this as such. Think of it more as an elegy for a time, heartbreakingly brief as it turned out, when we, regardless of our ages in the real world, were a bunch of crazy kids who thought - fully expected, even - that we could live that way forever.


Jim said...

It's amazing how much of this sounds exactly like what was going on at ABC No Rio 3,000 or so miles away.

Wesley said...

Hey Larry. The Isocracy photo is not coming through, pity.

I wish there was a better name for "punk rock that doesn't take itself so seriously" than simply pop punk. I fell in love with Green Day not only for their music and showmanship but for the fact they let us heckle them with renditions of "Hey Jude" during the bridge on "Road to Acceptance" -- I would even say, encouraged it. Where are the Captain Underpants of today, one wonders?

Larry Livermore said...

Wesley - that would be "King Underpants," at least if you're referring to Tre Cool's alter ego as introduced during our 1988 trip to Eureka/Arcata with Op Ivy, Crimpshrine and Isocracy.

Although, to give credit where it's due, King Underpants was originally created by me sometime in the 1950s for the edification of my younger brother and sister. Tre heard me telling the story and ran with it.

Ben said...

Somebody told me Jake Filth moved to a mountain in new Mexico and started dressing like a chick. It's probably not true but I like to believe it is.

Erika said...

Last time I went to Gilman, a few weeks ago, it sucked.

Larry Livermore said...

In what way(s)?

-ch Ben said...

hey Larry,

It's @head, just came home from the Zippo 20 year shindig... and feeling nostalgic and a little lonely I googled "Jake Filth" and this is what came up... kinda depressing... i won't deny or defend or infantile cartoonishness, either when we were pillow fighting or smoking crank... but i think there a pieces of what was happening there/then that you are missing.

Larry Livermore said...

No doubt I'm missing lots of things. I was just one small part of what was going on at Gilman, and my viewpoint is necessarily limited to what I saw and felt. Please feel free to post any additions/corrections of your own!