Berkeley venue getting punked
Another iconic Bay Area locale is in danger of closing, largely due to the Great Recession. You may not be familiar with 924 Gilman Street, unless you're intimate with the Bay Area punk scene–like Jack Boulware. He knows first-hand that Gilman isn't an ordinary venue. Boulware offers up this story as proof:
JACK BOULWARE: There was a group of punks that broke into a cemetery and stole some mummified remains and brought it home to their punk house. Their roommates were freaking out so one of them thought, ‘Well I gotta hide this.’
And, of course, the guy decided to hide it at Gilman.
BOULWARE: And that made national news. That was big. One guy got locked up for a while. So many people remembered it. I think somebody called it the O.J. Simpson of punk.
But a crisis has recently struck Gilman. The all-ages punk club, which was established in Berkeley in 1987, has seen its rent increase $2,600 a month. The club’s landlord, Jim Widess, owns a furniture caning and gourd craft shop right next door that has suffered in the recession. So Widess is raising rent on his property to keep his own business alive.
KALW’s Chris Hoff dives into the history of the Bay Area punk scene and investigates the integral role 924 Gilman St. has played in keeping punk vibrant.
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CHRIS HOFF: Jack Boulware is smoking a little cigar outside Pirate Cat Radio in San Francisco’s Mission District. He’s wearing a long black coat, even though it’s a sunny day. Boulware knows punk–he wrote the book on it. And he’s telling me about the glory days.
BOULWARE: In the mid 70’s, the most popular band here was a band called the Tubes.
Boulware is the co-author of the 2009 book Gimme Something Better: The Profound, Progressive, and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk from Dead Kennedys to Green Day.
BOULWARE: They’d have porn movies playing over the set of the drum kit. They gave a discount if anybody showed up nude. But a lot of younger people just thought that was stupid. Out here in the Bay Area we were still potheads putting on funny costumes and playing like 11-minute jams. That’s more indigenous to the Bay Area sensibility. But when the Ramones came out here music got a lot faster, a harder edge. It was the turning of the page. This is a different wave coming in, who are these kids? They don’t care about anything. They just want, just a physical release for them to go to a show. And if you walked out bloody, that was ok. That was kind of strange to the late 70’s crowd. Why would you purposely just want to get beat up?
Violent, fast, and hard. Mosh pits, skin heads. Some people talked about the music scene in the Bay Area as being like Lord of the Flies.
BOULWARE: A group of people got tired of that. They wanted to put together a space where you wouldn’t feel threatened; you wouldn’t get your ass kicked. They wanted a place that was all ages where there was no hassle with police and permits, and they wanted to kind of improve the idea of a punk club. Some people just laughed at it. How can you have a punk club with rules? That’s just ridiculous. But when Gilman opened, that’s what happened.
924 Gilman St. was something new. Unlike other punk venues at the time, the Berkeley music club didn’t tolerate any alcohol, drugs, or violence, and was open to people of all ages. That policy still holds true today. Gilman also distinguished itself by only booking bands that weren’t on major record labels: it’s where groups like NoFX, AFI, Green Day, and Rancid got their start.
But after 23 years of punk, the volunteer-run, not-for-profit Gilman is in danger of folding. Its lease is about to go up by $2,600 a month; so it’s having to find some creative ways to make more money.
KAREN O’BRIEN: There’s no doubt in my mind that we can stay open.
Karen O’Brien is the Executive Director of the club.
OBRIEN: People have been really supportive. We’ve raised quite a bit from our NPR-style campaign of giving a tote bag or a shirt to people for $25.
Although O’Brien feels good about the club’s chances, she recognizes that it may have to change some of its business practices.
O’BRIEN: We have to have show prices that are comparable to other similar sized venues and not do $5 shows as often anymore. It’s kind of forced to come to 2010. Here we are. We have to pay an increased amount of money. We have to think about things more with a sense of financial responsibility.
Last Sunday, Gilman hosted a benefit concert for a summer program called “Girls Rock Camp.” The crowd was made up almost entirely of women aged 15-25 - including Mikayla Creden.
MIKAYLA CREDEN: It’s amazing to be in a venue that has so much history. So many people have played on that stage and if that goes away there will be so many people who will never get to have that. It’s really sad.
Autumn Belknap was also at the show. She thinks it’s literally critical for the health of the community.
AUTUMN BELKNAP: I think if Gilman closes then it will be a major blow to the youth here. I grew up in Reno where there was nothing else to do but go to shows or go do drugs, get drunk and do drugs. So having a place like this that is all ages that does not allow for alcohol or substances inside – it’s a pretty big deal for youth.
And also for the independent music scene. Some huge bands have come through here — Bad Religion, The Offspring, Fugazi. If Gilman closes, who knows which new band might have been next.
For Crosscurrents, I’m Chris Hoff.
For more Gilman lore, check out KALW's web exclusive. We warn you - this one isn't for the faint of heart.