If you've been reading this blog very long, you'll have noticed that I do this with almost predictable regularity: make a trip back to Gilman Street and then proceed to sing the praises of what what, if it isn't the longest-lived volunteer-owned and operated music and cultural center in the world, most certainly has to be one of the best.
Much of the joy has gone out of seeing live music in recent years, at least at all but the most grass-roots and DIY levels. Even the undeniable talents of today's or yesterday's megastars are seldom sufficient to compensate for the double whammy of insult and injury dished up to fans: music is most often presented in a sterile, soulless environment, completely deracinated from the passions and cultures that gave it birth, and is packaged and resold at prices obscenely inflated by monopolies like Tickemaster and its imitators, whose rapacious tentacles may well end up choking the last remaining life from the "entertainment" they purport to traffic in.
I swore off corporate rock shows after my last experience seeing one of my longtime favorites, MORRISSEY. While the substantial gouge effected by Ticketmaster on my wallet was bad enough, I don't absolve Morrissey himself of blame for his part in this dispiriting spectacle. As many of you will know, the Mozzer inspires a level of adulation among his fans that verges on religious dementia. As a result, his shows have historically been nearly as remarkable for the performances of his audiences as for what transpired on stage.
But by the time Morrissey put in an appearance at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom in October 2007, commercial considerations - a factor the Mournful Manc has never been oblivious to, as witnessed by various lawsuits and bitter band infighting - had drained much of the life from the experience. An incompetent and unpleasant opening act, chosen, it's hard not to suspect, for no other reason than that they would work cheap, ticket prices high enough to ensure banks of empty seats and the absence of some of his most devoted fans, all combined to cast a pall over the proceedings that Morrissey's assiduous prancing and posturing could never completely dispel. A more reasonable ticket price and an exciting opening act would not only have filled the hall with an impassioned audience rather than a stultified one; it also, ironically, would most likely have produced just as much income for performer and promoters alike.
Since that time, I've been to a couple of what might be called corporate shows, but only as a guest, when friends' bands were playing, and only in small to mid-size venues. I've stuck to my resolution to never again pay a Ticketmaster "service" charge or to see rock and roll (or soul, hiphop, or for that matter, hillbilly) music in a venue dominated by tables and chairs. I've missed seeing some artists who at one time I very much would have liked to see, but the way I figure it, the songs they're singing these days say, as Morrissey himself once put it, nothing to me about my life.
Contrast that with the many small shows in bars and basements and living rooms that I've been privileged to attend the past couple years, and I feel as though I haven't missed anything at all. Only a handful - if that - of the musicians I've seen are likely ever to the fame and fortune attained by friends from "back in the day" at Gilman, but I just may have reached that point in life - reached long ago, it must be acknowledged, by kids half my age - that in the overall scheme of things, it just doesn't matter.
It might not be evident to those who weren't there that Gilman in its early days was very much the granddaddy to the vast network of independent shows, bands, labels and promoters that spans the globe today, while simultaneously burrowing deep within the decaying skeleton of the Ticketmaster/Live Nation octopus. What's even more remarkable is that Gilman itself is still going strong, after more than 22 years. For newer bands that grew up in its far-reaching shadow, a chance to play Gilman is akin to making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
And you know, I still feel a little like that myself even when I'm there only as a fan. This past Saturday night was especially meaningful for me because I took my 13 year old nephew to his first Gilman show. When we were constructing its hallowed walls back in 1986, I don't think any of us in our wildest imaginings would have thought that Gilman would still be there by the time a kid who wouldn't even be born for another ten years was old enough to go there.
The occasion was PUNK ROCK JOEL's annual birthday extravaganza, a two-day affair that has been one of the highlights of the Gilman calendar for quite a few years now. In hindsight, I kind of wish I'd taken my nephew on Friday night rather than Saturday; there were more kids his own age there, and while it was a very good crowd, there was still room to dance around and do all the goofy things kids have been doing at Gilman for a couple generations now.
But for reasons I can't remember now, I wanted him to see Gilman on a very big night, with a very big crowd, and that was what was in evidence Saturday for none other than THE THORNS OF LIFE, playing the kind of openly advertised show that they have yet to play in their home town of New York. Sure enough, people were lined up down the block - WAY down the block - long before the doors opened, but somehow everybody squeezed in. I don't know how crowded it was at the back of the club, but up front the density compared favorably with that of a New York City subway car at rush hour, albeit in the days before air conditioning.
Having previously only seen the band in a living room and with a rudimentary sound system, it was a revelation to hear the music and the vocals clearly. Also, since TTOL had been playing somewhere nearly every night that week, they'd approached a level of tightness that was, well, almost frightening in a band so young. Given the excitement level and expectations of the crowd, it would have been difficult for the band to be anything but great. And surprise, surprise; that's exactly what they were: great.
Gilman emptied out considerably after TTOL, which was a shame, because it left HUNX AND HIS PUNX playing to a half-empty house, not that that bothered the dance-crazed Hunx loyalists who quickly turned the old punk rock club into a cracked-out (referring to the magazine and the mental condition, NOT the drug) disco. Earlier in the evening we saw some inspired hardcore from a youngish band called COMADRE, who insisted on playing on the floor in front of the stage instead of on the stage, not that there's anything wrong with THAT (says the guy whose own band used to pull similar stunts), and for only their second time at Gilman, the rollicking Midwestern sea shanties of OFF WITH THEIR HEADS.
I'm liking this band more and more, and even though friends who know them better keep telling me that OWTH are all about gloom and despair and doom, something I'd understand if I'd only read their lyrics, I can't help thinking what a rollickingly happy band they seem like. And I still don't know the lyrics, but they're one of those bands you can always sing along to even if you don't know a single one of their words. Confession: even though I'd put out their records, I was doing this for YEARS with GREEN DAY. I was actually kind of surprised when I finally did get around to reading their lyrics. There was all sorts of stuff going on there that I had no idea about!
There was one other band called the RE-VOLTS. Quite a few people enjoyed them. I was not one of them. Which was all right, because it gave me time to run around the club and be mind-boggled by some of the people who'd crawled out from whatever they'd been hiding under to put in appearances at the club. There were people who I only see at Gilman every couple years, like the fabulous JANELLE and the equally fabulous KAMALA, people I haven't seen there in five or ten years, like PEPITO PEA, and people that I quite literally haven't seen in 20 years, like WALTER GLASER (co-creator, along with yours truly, of the legendary SPIKE ANARKIE) and SOUTH BAY WAYNE, who I think originally showed up with the STIKKY crew circa 1987.
This no doubt had something to do with The Thorns Of Life, all three of whom have Gilman pedigrees dating back to near or (in Aaron's case, anyway) before the beginning. But I think it was also just one of those nights when the stars aligned and people just somehow knew it was time for what in essence was a family reunion. I don't know if my nephew got the full impact of it - for all I know, it might have seemed like a lot of old people slapping each other on the back and talking about incomprehensible things - but wow, what a feeling it was for me to be able to say, "Here's this thing that my friends and I helped build, and now it's yours, too."
Don't want to give short shrift to the Friday night show, which, as I said, was in some ways even more fun. Perennial favorites PANSY DIVISION and KEPI put in their more or less annual (in PD's case) or semi-annual (Kepi) appearances and the crowd went wild. Kepi, who's been sans Ghoulies for a couple years now, has put together a new band with himself on (standup) drums as well as lead vocals. The guy is a pro, there's no denying that. He just loves the music, just loves working the crowd, and they love him right back. He'll still be doing this when he's 80, and be better than ever at, if I don't miss my bet.
And Pansy Division just might be sharing a bill with him, because they're getting pretty timeless themselves. 15 years and God only knows how many records later, and they're not only still getting better, they've also managed, despite the four members living in four totally different corners of the country, to put together a new album that will be coming out in a couple months, with tour to follow. AND a DVD documentary, AND a book, also with tour to follow, by lead singer JON GINOLI, documenting his life in Pansy Division.
San Francisco's legendary AVENGERS, who share two members with Pansy Division, finished off the night with a smaller but no less enthusiastic crowd, made up in no small part by a bunch of hyper-enthusiastic 10 to 14 year olds who were tearing around the pit as though this were the Mabuhay circa 1978. That's the part I think my nephew would have liked best. Friday night also featured THE SECRETIONS, who I enjoyed, and THE BOATS, who apparently were great but who finished playing about two minutes before I arrived. I think they're both from Sacramento, and I know I'll be quickly corrected if I'm wrong.
Ah well, Gilman. What more can I say. Except that as great as the weekend was, I'm sorry I missed the social event of the winter thus far, CHADD DERKINS' birthday party on the 29th floor of New Jersey. Everyone was still buzzing about it when I got back. I really need to figure out a way I can be more places at once.