All-ages volunteer-run club turns twenty


By eggplant

As the night’s most anticipated draw was taking the stage, I went from hanging in a nearby creek clandestinely drinking with the club’s star staffer and a stranger who was holding the devil’s weed (Berkeley’s “lowest priority bust”), to hiding from the flashlights of a pig hungry to fill the city’s coffers with another citation fee. The club was in the heat of celebrating twenty years of being in one place. Its long survival had been predicated on keeping alcohol off its premises — so much so that one of its spawns, the band Isocracy, rattled on their debut vinyl, “Go Four Blocks Away,” mimicking the procedure staff ran on defiant punks (and advice we were currently following). The punks had let that procedure color their perception of the club; they ignored and scorned the place not only for its remote location, limited engagements, and narrow minded bookings, but for this absurd complicity to the man.

I first went to Gilman St. in March of 1987, three months after its opening and not long after I had transitioned to punk from metal and rap. Over the years I would find this to be a common hopping of subcultures among America’s wanton youth. While I was ducking the Police flashlights, my 15-year old nephew (who previously had shown little interest in music) was in the club enjoying the show, or rather the dance space the punks call the Pit.

It’s not common that volunteer-run alternative spaces can be functional, much less functionally operate for twenty years. What definitely wasn’t common was Gilman’s first year and what preceded it. Individuals scouted the industrial area of West Berkeley for a space that would become a new venue. The owner of one building seemed laid back and nonplussed as to what was being visualized. In fact, he’s been OK with it ever since — part of the club’s secret of survival. Considering the fact that folks identifying under the punk banner can often barely maintain and operate a house, getting a club started seemed an endless and futile process. The building sat empty half a year before having its first show. Building the bathrooms and the stage and making repairs necessary to put the building up to code — often by people without any prior building experience — took plenty of time.

Unfortunately, working with the city wasn’t so easy. Often notorious for being bureaucratic, Berkeley government made the Gilman people get prepared. So they offered the city a whole slew of self imposed rules to ensure that this space would stand out from other nightclubs, such as being a members-only space, having a no-advertising policy, and booking shows only on Friday and Saturday. These agreements would prove to be short-lived — yet what was essential was that the club would not allow violence, graffiti, or use of illicit substances/alcohol.

The early punk culture was hostile to its bigger brothers and sisters in the hippie movement. This played itself out in the mid 80’s when the music got as fast and hard as it could. The mainstream first viewed punks as nihilist, negative, criminal and self-destructive — then simply ignored them. By the time Gilman came onto the scene a shift was happening. For the outsider culture drawn to the music scene there was less thrill in being easily defined. But there was its shadow, namely that the American terrain was being transformed by the creation of a population mainly passive and consumer driven.

The club today exists as a sort of paradox: living off the prestige of being a cultural icon, yet having trouble making rent. The neighborhood around the club has increasingly been invaded by strip mall America. But that neglects another problem, that is, getting the people who enter the building to participate. Often the shows seem catered to drawing audiences from the suburbs — which means no one to work the door that night. Indeed an enormous plus of the space is the potential of when worlds collide. There’s the chance that consumer mainstream types will mix it up with people who exist in the counter culture.

Currently there is a steady flow of core members leaving the club. In my theory this is due in no small part to too much responsibility on the shoulders of too few people, and that’s all they do without variation. Once people burn out they’re off to greener pastures. I often notice that the longer a shitworker works the club the more they seem to hate the music. This may be because the club has stopped seeking innovative acts and because they give carte blanche to that which conforms to conventional definitions of “PUNK”. What best illustrates this is the many nights of sounds imitating the work of the early to late 1980’s.

Some old members stick around, but usually remain on the periphery. Observe one of the original staffers Brian Edge, at the anniversary as he wails, “The article said our security would bounce trouble makers out with our bellies,” referring to an excerpt of the former Gilman band Green Day’s biography in the S.F.. Chronicle. It was a gross exaggeration. “The only people they talk to about the history of the club is people in bands. Jesse (who stands on the corpse of Operation Ivy) said we were just a bunch of socialists.” This illustrates an old tension between the shitworker and the bands. One idea from back in the day was getting the bands to work the shows they play, or one of those pesky friends eager to get on the guest list.

Another paradox is the age restriction: There isn’t any . But local people over 21 often stop going to the club, favoring secure drinking holes. They bemoan feeling so old around the youngsters. On the night of the big anniversary show a young woman who was a teenager in 96/97 told this same thing to me. But I must have experienced a different side of the show — mostly I saw people in their early 40’s there to partake in the reunion band (a common trend these days, replacing innovation).

People tell me they felt bad about missing the anniversary but in some ways I feel it was just another show. Of course it was much more than that. Mainly it was the spectacle of all the faces that came out and crowded together, the proverbial 1,000 punks in the street. What interested me was the anniversary events that were not shows and which ended up being sparsely attended, yet quite fulfilling. One night there was a punk panel about the club’s history and operation. It was a little less interesting than this article. I’m into public discourse and lectures, but I don’t disagree with the people I knew who walked out on it saying it was boring. Some of them work the club on occasion and care about punk, but either they can’t sit still or the panel didn’t work.

One local stormed out, “You’re all a bunch of Nazis”, later saying she had lots to add during the panel’s discussion but that Gilman has a bad reputation with the homeless kids known as Crusties. “I had comments on just about everything they said but they never want to hear it from us.” I agree — the panel didn’t make an effort to get input from strangers. I was more impressed that they had us sitting in a circle instead of us gawking at them on the stage. But this begs the question: does the club value those who can pay over those who can’t? A lot of the (mostly former) Gilman staff on the panel have moved on to careers and spend little time thinking about living outside the system.

Other non-show anniversary events were a play on X-mas Eve and an open house on New Year’s Eve with various tiny events going on; there was a record swap, film screenings, basketball, coffee and snacks. There I saw a rare potential. At one point it seemed that in every corner there was some activity; video shooting, goofy karoke, a mob playing basketball. There wasn’t one point of focus like you get with the stage, and people could plug in where they saw fit. My nephew was there again, grabbing for the ball amidst the confusion — not playing on any team.

Though I still like the mu
sic at Gilman, I desire more out of a space that is meant to be an alternative. And I’m curious what my nephew’s generation will create out of the space that can hold sounds, styles, thought, friendship and dance. The first time in the pit is essential in rattling the foundation of reality that is keeping everybody in their place. But it should be a part of the series of experiences that set us outside our roles of bread earners. Concert-going is fine but it should not be disconnected from other aspects of our radical milieu. That is, it should lead to the first protest, the first meeting. It is in such experiences that we find the root of community — by putting yourself in the hands of the people around you.