Tuesday, April 12, 2011

White Dope on Punk: Chapter 15. The Gilman Punk Trial

By Greg Kim
Before he agreed to join our band on tour, Sayer presented us with ten questions. He pulled out a lined piece of paper and read from top to bottom:

1) “Will we sleep in motels?” he asked, more hoping than asking. “No, we’ll either sleep in the van, on the side of the road, a park, at someone’s house, or, if you’re lucky, with somebody from the show,” I said matter-of-factly.

With guarantees ranging from $150 to zero, all the money from playing shows went to gas, food and beer—not necessarily in that order. Sleeping in hotels was a luxury that we didn't enjoy often, although higher paying gigs resulted in the occasional Motel 6 or the rare Super 8.

2) “Will we be able to shower?” he asked longingly. “No, but we will probably swim in the ocean.”

Swimming definitely counted as a shower. Being dirty was part of the look and showers were not encouraged. This question caused some concern.

The best question was saved for last:

10) “Will I be able to get a tan?”

This one was unsettling. We all knew Sayer, but I knew him best and had suggested him to the band, so I had to vouch for his coolness factor. Sayer was definitely cool, could handle his liquor (important) and was a way better musician than us (we were people in bands, not necessarily musicians).

Sayer was a Tom Waits guy. He usually wore a vintage lapel jacket, disheveled button-up shirt, some sort of wrinkled slacks and well worn work boots. He liked whiskey and was prone to carrying a paperback copy of Naked Lunch in his back pocket. It was a good look—just not our look. We wore skinny, torn jeans, flimsy T-shirts, unwashed hair and high-tops—and no one was tan.

Tom, Mel and I looked at each other, not knowing how to answer this question. Finally, Tom said, “Well, there’s a lot of down time, I guess you could lie on top of the van.” It seemed like an appropriate answer; it was definitely hot up there.

Right there, we knew he wouldn’t last in the band, but we desperately needed a drummer to play two shows at Gilman Street on Friday and Saturday—both really good gigs, which we did not want to cancel. We could deal with finding a permanent drummer later, or beg the old drummer to come back.

Gilman Street is a punk/hardcore, non-profit, collective, multi-use club thingy that was built on idealism, dogma and good intentions in 1986. It filled the need for an all-ages venue for touring and local bands. At the time of its inception, I was living in a quickly deteriorating anarchist collective. We knew the people involved with the club and were excited to help out. A bunch of us went to their initial meetings and signed up to help with construction.

On the day that I was scheduled to volunteer, I arrived not knowing what I was going to do. I had helped build-out our warehouse—hammering here, swiping putty there—but all the measuring and angles stuff was left to my working-class roommate Joseph. He had one of those leather belts that held tools, so he was in charge.

Even though I was a sensitive peace punk anarchist vegan, having once started a men’s anarchist group to talk about men’s issues in effort to breakdown patriarchal society, there was still enough man in me to feel a little insecure that I had no construction skills and pretty much no ability to fix anything. My dad was a salesman so our family joke was that we would use the phone (to call someone) to fix everything.

We arrived and there were bunches of older, punk-looking guys with leather belts and a chalky look from hanging drywall. It was a big empty warehouse with double-doors in the front and a concrete floor.

As with all volunteer opportunities, we walked into the fray with look that said, “We’re ready to help. Where are the stamps to lick?” A punk carpenter guy approached us and asked us if we had any skills. By his approach, he was obviously not a volunteer coordinator, who would have made us feel like our contribution to Gilman was equal to overthrowing the state. Joseph ran down his litany of skills and I just said no. Joseph and the guy bonded and I started thinking about feigning illness. Alcohol or a large dose of Paxil would have helped this situation.

With a pasted smile on my face, I tried to interject humor to their conversation. Finally, after throwing out words like “flush” and “plumb,” the punk carpenter mentioned some things that needed to be done. I chose using a jackhammer to destroy the bathroom floor. I was a big guy and figured it would be as easy. The jackhammer was phallic, manly, had an awesome name and was what I needed to show my value. I would make my men’s group proud.

The punk carpenter showed me how the jackhammer worked (squeeze for power, let go to stop), gave me gloves and said, “I assume you don’t have any safety goggles?” Before I could answer, he was walking off toward some construction guys that looked like they were getting paid to do this. They exchanged a few words, turned around and looked at me and then one of them fiddled around in a bag and pulled out some badly scratched safety goggles. He gave them to me and left me to my own devices.

The jackhammer was a lot heavier than expected. I assumed it was light, and cut through the concrete easily. I was wrong. At the first burst of power, the hammer danced crossed floor and crashed, making a spectacular noise. Not waiting around to see the reaction I quickly picked it up and fiddled around with the body, implying that there something wrong with the beast and I was working on fixing it.

One of the professional-looking guys approached me, gently took the jackhammer and gave me some pointers: “Don’t force it; let it guide you; go with the flow. Let it do the work.” He was like the Yoda of construction and lot nicer than the punk carpenter.

Taking his advice, I gently clutched the throttle. As it tapped the ground, I ran with it across the room instead of letting it fall. After a while I got the hang of it. My technique may have been unorthodox and my look awkward (I stuck my ass out and the position of my hands looked like I was getting a manicure), but I started to get it and even enjoyed myself briefly. Jackhammering was quite painful and mind numbing and pretty much the worst physical day of my life, but my stubborn Scottish background persevered and I finished the job, which took hours. I would assume there are some OSHA laws preventing you from using these things for prolonged periods.

That night my body relived every burst of the jackhammer. It felt as if my organs had dislodged from my tendons and muscles and were attempting to leave my body; my hands were balled in fists from desperately gripping the throttle of the jackhammer. I fell asleep and relived that horrible experience in dreams.

After listening to Sayer’s tour questions, we decided to go to the Chatterbox bar in the Mission to talk about him joining the band and his need for tanning. We walked in and were greeted with Johnny Thunders’ autograph in house paint, stretched across a crossbeam. Alfie, the owner of the club, was a big New York Dolls fan. This attracted a lot of Thunders devotees. I think that was the idea.

We were rational people and knew it was completely snobby to judge Sayer on his look, but look was 90 percent of the music and having a Tom Waits/Bukowski looking guy with dirty work boots and a wrinkled wool suit jacket was not gonna work in the long run. Given disheveled versus dirty, we preferred dirty. Like all relationships, we decided to compromise and go into it with a “we’ll see.”

On the day of the show, we picked up Sayer at his dad’s house. While moving his drums in the van, we noticed that on his drum heads the word “Dad” was written in permanent marker. Even for us, this was kind of freaky. The heads were littered with deep indentations from hard hitting. It was assumed that Sayer had issues with his dad.

The show was good and well attended. Sayer knew the songs and played them impeccably—maybe a little too well. As a band, we relied on a little white noise to get us from verse to chorus. We were brought up on a healthy dose of the Replacements’ looseness, so tightness and hearing musical transitions made us uncomfortable. We longed for the sloppiness of our old drummer.

After dropping off Sayer at his flat in the city, we decided to cancel the next evening’s show. No matter how good he was, it just didn’t feel right.

Since we were filling in for a band that had originally left Gilman in a lurch, they were not too happy about us cancelling the day of the show. Tom explained our predicament, but it didn’t hold any weight since we had played there the night before. The club responded with dramatic threats of banishment.

I called Sayer at the same time and, like all breakups, didn’t tell him the whole truth. I said he was too good (first, inflate the ego) and that we were a bunch of scumbags (the equivalent of saying, “I’m not good enough for you.”) He took it well. He probably knew it wasn’t going to work.

That day we decided to drink off our drummer woes at the Oakland Coliseum with Motley Crue, Whitesnake and Poison. We met our friends Lord Jim, Steve Bitch and Insane Jane, a motley crew in their own right, and scalped tickets on 66th Avenue. None of us owned a record of the any of the bands or even particularly liked them; to us it was kitsch—anthropologists studying the hairspray locals. At least that’s what we told ourselves. All of us, except Jane, were making the awkward transition from anarchist punk to civilian life. Some of us found college rock and others got their pop culture fix with hair metal.

Baking in the hot Oakland sun, I laid on my back watching the jumbotron flash: “Take It Off, Take It Off.” Bret Michaels from Poison was leading the chant and the jumbotron followed suit. I surveyed the crowd and, yes, a few girls on the shoulders of tanned boys had taken their shirts off. All was right in the world of arena rock.

Launching into “Talk Dirty to Me,” I jumped to my feet and screamed, “I know this song!” It seemed like an appropriate response for somebody who had only heard the hits from the band. But to the real fans, who surrounded me like a storm, I could visualize the word “Poseur” spilling from their disapproving looks. The effect of pre-show alcohol and marijuana had reared its ugly face and was holding my self-control hostage.

The Crue pranced in from the side of stage, perfectly coiffed, giving the crowd the international metal sign and pointing to the third deck. I had read in Rolling Stone that they did push-ups right before going on stage, to make their biceps a little more attractive and wondered if they were out of breath from just doing a round of reps. They were tanned, their hair flowing and looked like they were about to have the time of their lives.

“Oakland, how you fuckin’ doing?” Vince Neal, lead singer, squealed in that metal voice. It was just the first of many “fuckins” to come. He knew how to work the crowd.

Not to be outdone by Poison and their “Take it off” shtick, Vince, still court-mandated sober for killing Hanoi Rocks’ drummer in an alcohol-related car accident, broke it down in the middle of the set:

“Do you motherfuckers like to party?” The word motherfucker is always a crowd pleaser and gets a positive reaction from even the most lackluster crowd. “I can’t drink, Johnny Law says so, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like to party and have a good time [screams from crowd].” The pace of his phrasing sped as he climaxed at “good time.” “Well, my friend Tommy [drummer] likes to drink, oh yeah!” Tommy stood, pointed his drum sticks at the crowd and cupped his left hand behind his ear, while his right hand urged the crowd to make some noise. Giving that open-mouthed look of excitement that only drummers can do, he came out from behind the drums, displaying an outfit consisting entirely of short shorts. He confidently grabbed a bottle of whiskey from Vince’s hand. Vince squealed, “Fuckin' down it, Tommy.” I look at the jumbotron and sure enough, it was flashing “Down It, Tommy.” The crowd chanted “Down it, Tommy,” while he took several large gulps of what was probably tea. He spit the last gulp in the air and returned to his drums.

Vince high kicked over to Nikki (there’s something about tight spandex pants that makes hair metal guys run in an affected manner) and put his arm around him, his clenched fist resting on his torso—a very guy way of showing affection. “Now this motherfucker is crazy.” He handed Nikki the bottle. “Fuckin down it, Nikki!” The crowd went crazy and the jumbotron followed suit.

Vince grabbed the bottle from Nikki and thrust to it to the sky, his extended arm the sole focus of 50k fans. He looked at the half empty bottle and then back at the band: “Fuckin pussies!” Vince gets a laugh from the crowd. Ba-boom!

He walked over to Mick Mars. “Now, you might not know it, but this motherfucker is the craziest of us all.” Mick, looking one-third Elvira, one-third Emily Strange and the rest Uncle Fester with a black wig, grabbed the bottle and took a quick swig, quickly returning the bottle back to Vince. Vince looked a little annoyed and confused, not knowing what to do. While the jumbotron flashed, “Down it, Mick,” Vince ran offstage and gave the bottle to a roadie. Eventually the jumbotron stopped flashing. Mick had blown the end of the Jack Daniels bit. Pure performance art! Back to the rock.

I returned to lying down—drunk, high, dehydrated and sunburned—and watched my friends painfully move closer and closer to each other for a drunken hookup.

The next morning, my roommate Ramin knocks on my door: “Brotha, I went to Gilman Street last night and there was a sign on the door that said Short Dogs cancelled because they went to Motley Crue at the Coliseum.” My heart sank. In the world of Gilman Street, this was unconscionable. I'm pretty sure it was even listed in their rule book: "Thou shall not go to the Crue!” I called the other members of the band and alerted them about the sign on the door. The general consensus was “Fuck ’em!”

Word trickled down that we were banned from Gilman, but we would be given a trial to explain our version of why we cancelled the show. It was very PC and very Gilman.

The band decided that only one of us should attend the trial. Since I was versed in the vernacular of revolution, was still vegan and had straight edge credentials for once having lunch with Ian MacKaye, it was obvious that I should attend.

On the day of the trial, I gave careful consideration to my appearance. I dressed for the part in my cloth shoes and anarchist Haymarket Gathering T-shirt. On the way out, I paused and considered putting two large Xs on the tops of my hands, but I figured it would be obvious that I was pandering to the crowd. I grabbed my Powell Peralta skateboard and caught the bus down San Pablo. A skateboard was a necessary accoutrement for this occasion and a nice seat instead of the cold floor of Gilman.

Much to my dismay, it wasn’t a trial but a general meeting with an agenda. I was last on the agenda. We sat in a large circle—most of us on our skateboards—in front of the stage. There were friendly, familiar faces in the crowd: Fat Mike, my friend Jerry, and lots of the Maximum Rock-n-Roll crowd. Some were avoiding me and others were oblivious as to why I was there.

When my turn came around, I did my best to downplay the Motley Crue part of the story and accentuate the new drummer not working out part. At first, they tried to be civil, but they just couldn’t get over us seeing Motley Crue and Poison instead of playing the show. No matter how many times I said, “We went to the Coliseum after we cancelled. We could’ve very well gone to get burritos and it would’ve been the same thing.” Despite my attempt at logic, I knew it had nothing to do with us cancelling and all about us going to an unapproved rock concert. It wasn’t punk rock. They had me.

They voted to ban the band, which I also took as a personal ban. I grabbed my skateboard, never to return to Gilman Street again.

2 comments:

  1. I can fix anything either, Greg, if it makes you feel better. (I'm not banned from Gilman. But they never asked me to play in the first place, so I guess it all evens out.) Nice story! "Dirty over disheveled..."

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  2. I'm still honoring the ban...22 years later. Mel broke it last year (she played with POG) and I think Tom is with me.

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