16 January 2008

At Gilman Street

I have a new iPod clock radio on which the alarm can be set to wake me with music from my iPod instead of the sonorous tones of WNYC, the local public radio station, which I've found from experience are more than likely to put me right back to sleep.

Being opposed in principle to alarm clocks, owing no doubt to many miserable experiences with them during my school and working years, I rarely use them, preferring to operate under the theory that if something is worth waking up for, I'll wake up for it. This theory usually works pretty well, though it does sometimes require making adjustments to my thinking along the lines of, "Well, I didn't really want to go anyway."

But Saturday morning I had promised to attend an early meeting in the nether reaches of Brooklyn (not too far south of Prospect Park, actually, but because of the vagaries of the subway system, at least an hour away), so I reluctantly gave my iPod alarm clock its first trial.

And what do you know? It worked. At 8 o'clock on the dot, the room was filled with the sounds of the Mr. T Experience singing, "Seems like it was only yesterday, nothing to do, nowhere to play..." Although it came out long before MTX achieved what prominence they did, it's always been one of my favorite songs by them. Hell, probably my very favorite, and not because it shows them at their musical best or Dr. Frank in full Porter-Gershwinesque lyric flow, but because it so perfectly captures and encapsulates that fleeting moment in time when for at least a couple hundred of us, the Gilman Street Project was the center of the punk rock universe.

In fact, thinking back to what I just wrote about hippies and Deadheads and their delusions about how their little drug and music scene was going to change the world, I have to acknowledge that I and a few of my friends probably sounded just as nutty on the subject of Gilman Street. All I can say in my/our defense is that our visions were largely drug-free and that 21 years later, Gilman Street is still operating along more or less the same principles - non-profit, volunteer-run, no booze or drugs, no racism, sexism or homophobia - that it was founded on.

Okay, through the years many patrons have undoubtedly strolled, marched or stumbled through those doors already under the influence of drugs or alcohol. And a few of them might have even harbored traces of sexism, racism or homophobia in their hearts, but if they knew what was good for them and wanted to see the show, they kept quiet about it.

Rules were bent many times, but not that often broken. And despite periodic financial crises, pressures from a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood (a process which, ironically, the opening of Gilman probably helped kick-start), it remains one of the very few examples I've ever seen of an organization run along anarchistic principles that actually works, and has continued to work for what, in punk years, is a couple eons.

The MTX song pokes gentle fun at the Gilman purists, of whom I was undeniably one. "And if you've got nothing better to do, there's a meeting every Sunday afternoon, you can talk about skinheads at the show, you can vote on whether you're gonna vote, and you can make a speech, you can rant, you can rave, you can preach..." Anyone who ever sat through one of those seemingly interminable meetings - sometimes they'd have to postpone the show for an hour because we were still voting on whether we were gonna vote" - will recognize that picture.

"It's democracy, it's one big family," Franks sings, and for some of the Gilman kids, it probably was their first experience with the former and a very different experience of the latter. Granted, it was a warts-and-all experience, especially with regard to democracy, since Tim Yohannan, the (mostly) benign dictator of Maximum Rocknroll magazine whose money had made the original experiment possible, thought it would be in the best interests of the club if the members voted unanimously or nearly so in favor of how he thought things should be run, and was willing to keep us there voting until we came up with the correct (his) result.

This caused a bit of dissension in the ranks, but between the fact that he was right more often than wrong and his willingness to stay there until everyone else had either given in or gone home, things pottered along fairly smoothly for almost two years until Tim decided the club was no longer living up to his vision for it and took what was left (not much) of his money, shut the doors and went home. That a new, far less organized group was able to reopen the place within a few weeks and keep it going until the present shocked everybody, including, most likely, the popele who managed to to do it.

There are some who argue, and I might be among them, that Gilman was never the same after that. In some ways it was a lot more fun without Tim hovering over everything insisting it be done "properly," and the biggest and most legendary shows, like the time we somehow crammed a thousand people into a space licensed for less than 300 for Operation Ivy's last appearance, were yet to come.

But as stressful and intense as that first year and three quarters could be - one kid just back from Israel likened it to working on a kibbutz run by Stalinists - there was also the sense, and maybe this is what Dr. Frank had in mind when he referred to it as "family," that once you'd walked past that front door, you were home. It always seemed like someone's basement rec room to me, someone whose parents were always out for the night, where all your friends could hang out and do pretty much anything they could imagine.

There's a show coming up there next month that I might like to attend, and Erika was teasing me about how if I still lived in Berkeley, I could walk there, but now, because I live in stupid old New York, I'd have to jump on airplane for. And I retorted that no matter how great a show it was, and no matter how vital a part Gilman had played in my life, living in Berkeley was just too high a price to pay.

And I know, too, that if I did live in Berkeley, I wouldn't go to Gilman that often. It belongs to a different generation now; they've got their own bands, most of whom I'm not interested in, and frankly, a lot of the time I'd rather be somewhere where it's quiet enough to carry on a conversation with my friends. Not that I've given up on shows altogether; a lot of the action, especially when it comes to the kind of music I like, has now shifted to the East Coast.

I probably write about Gilman Street and "the old days" too much here, but there you go. Don't blame me, blame my new iPod clock radio.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

I recently read (all the way thru!) the book on Gilman. Did you contribute? It gets pretty repetitive -- but it's often fascinating. It made me want to hang out there.

I never have, though I moved to Berkeley almost twenty years ago. And I like a lot of the bands that made Gilman -- Mr T X, among them.

The stories about Gilman democracy reminded me of the gay activism I got involved with when I first came out in Sonoma County. We were trying to create community institutions from scratch and I remember interminable meetings where consensus was the goal (the only goal?) ... more democracy than most people see their whole lives! But valuable, ultimately, for what it teaches you about people (one's self included).

papa herman said...

Speaking of the Mr T Experiment, have you read Dr. Frank's book 'King Dork?' If so, any thots???


Larry Livermore said...

I didn't specifically contribute to the Gilman Street book - I was asked to and meant to, but didn't get around to submitting something in time - but I believe they reprinted one or two things I'd published elsewhere.

As for King Dork, I've written about it a number of times. This particular post contains a review I did that was originally published in Punk Planet.

LacquDown said...

Out of curiosity, was the Lookouts' "Kick Me in the Head" written in a similar vein (at least, lyrically)? The lyrics (as far as I can decipher) seem to chronicle your regular pilgrimages from Iron Peak to Gilman.

Larry Livermore said...

Actually, I didn't write "Kick Me In The Head." That was the work of Kain Kong, and I always thought he had basically ripped it off straight from Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll."