Last spring one of my students at Evergreen State invited me to come to see the campus production of “American Idiot,” the rock musical based on Green Day’s album of the same name. I had never seen it performed before, and it was totally upsetting and weird for me to watch that play in the Media Studies building at TESC. For some reason, thoughts of Green Day are painful for me, as is anything to do with Berkeley in the 1980s, 924 Gilman, and East Bay Punk. Painful isn’t the right word, though, unless poignancy is a form of pain. When I think of that time, I get a knot in my stomach.
If I felt that way throughout a twenty-times-removed version of “American Idiot,” you can only imagine how I felt about “Turn It Around: the Story of East Bay Punk,” the Green Day-initiated documentary of the scene that came out a few months ago. Torn – that’s how I felt. Of course I wanted to see it but it was practically like “Schindler’s List” in the sense that I knew that I had to experience it but could hardly bring myself to do so. It had a week long run at the New Parkside Theater in Oakland this week, however, so one fine night I got in my car, blasted Team Dresch, and made it out there. It was the same night that Jawbreaker were headlining Riot Fest in Chicago and I felt like that was sort of significant.
|Jawbreaker have broken|
I was also pretty concerned about committing myself to a 3 hour movie, but it turned out all three of them flew by. I was riveted, not only by the story itself and the deep history it mined of a time and a place, but by the mental space it occupied in my life, and the imagined community it actually made real. The film did that rare thing, it actually captured the era – although sadly I think it may have only tightened the knot in my stomach rather than loosening it. That knot is made up of a ton of minutae to do with the East Bay Punk scene that the film unwittingly brought back -- the cutthroat punk-rock doctrinaire ethos of MRR (Maximum Rock N Roll); the wacked out emotional history of Lookout Records, the conflicted role of women in the punk rock scene: obviously, without women like Kamala Parks, who booked the bands tours, and Ruth Schwartz, who ran a distributorship, the entire thing wouldn’t have existed. But could they BE any more unsung?
|Operation Ivy make me cry.|
Did you have to be there? Maybe. But the film succeeds in part because there are some photos and videos in this movie – many – that will enchant anyone on earth. Some of them, like early, early performances by Green Day (then called Sweet Children), Operation Ivy’s last show, and a Gilman Street show by Fugazi where I can remember literally exactly where I was standing in the room, just slayed me. I was truly slain. Some of the people in the film cry a little bit while they’re being interviewed, and I am not surprised: I cried a little bit watching. In retrospect, it was a golden time.
It’s a beautiful movie in many ways, but it makes me feel a bit bad about the past. I was at 924 on a number of occasions, yet I somehow missed out on Gilman’s salad years. The club was just getting started when I graduated from Berkeley and moved to San Francisco, and I threw in with that SF scene more – as Penelope Houston says in the documentary, going to the East Bay was like going on tour. Also, I was slightly older than the kids at Gilman. And later, after I became relatively established as a local writer, I was scared shitless of Tim Yohannon – I mean, seriously scared. I don’t know why, it wasn’t like he would have hit me, but I certainly thought he was going to berate me in public, as Bill Graham did on occasion. Tim was very intimidating.
Oh, I wasn’t very brave in those days. Nowadays I walk down Oakland alleys at midnight and throw myself off very high diving boards, but in those days, I used to hide at night clubs, I made myself invisible. I actually used to go there in disguise, because everyone at Gilman Street so obviously hated me. I think they thought I was too mainstream, that I only cared about ‘major’ acts and that I didn’t give a shit about the local scene. And in some ways that was true. I had a defense for it at the time, but looking back, I see their bigger project, the aims they had, and their value overall, not just to Berkeley, but to society as a whole. There is no question that Gilman Street was one of America’s great institutions of the 20th century.
“Turn It Around” doesn’t detail the real acrimony and hatred that roiled that scene at the time, how totally mean some people could be, and how closed it seemed to outsiders. I mean, I don’t know, maybe it was just me who experienced it that way. I did go to Gilman, though, with a fake name on my membership card, and I saw Fugazi and Jawbreaker and Pansy Division and Bikini Kill. I never saw Green Day there though: the first time I saw them was at the Warfield and Operation Ivy came on stage and sang “Knowledge,” and they covered “Eye of the Tiger.” Green Day was just about to break: their a & r guy Rob Cavallo was running around telling me they were the New Beatles and there were actually people outside that gig protesting them, with signs up and everything, merely because they’d signed to a major.
All that would happen later, though. The film really focuses on an earlier era, and it focuses on the good of the scene, the place it gave kids to go, the way that it fostered and put into practice the concept of Do It Yourself, and many of its more magical moments, which were frequent.
“Turn It Around” is 2 hours and 45 minutes long and it ends in 1994, the same year that Rancid started recording “…And Out Come the Wolves,” a record which barely gets mentioned in it but which IdBM now calls “the best-selling punk rock album of all time.” It has to be as long as it is, though, because there were so many bands. Some, like Op Ivy, Sweet Baby Jesus, Jawbreaker, were amazing. And some, like Isocracy and Blatz, were just nutty. But the point isn’t what they were like, it’s that there were so many, because the Gilman Street scene really drove at the heart of what it meant or means to do art. To live art. To be arty, artistic, and artless, as well: to be pure of heart, which I think is the main thing that Gilman always was and is. It's a T.A.Z - temporary autonomous zone - of the heart.
I think a lot about this now, about what it meant to participate emotionally in that world, and how we need to participate more emotionally, more fully, in the world now, because we live in such impure times. It’s why I started writing this blog, because my life without music and writing was just too sad. But it’s really hard sometimes. For example, in order to go to see “Turn It Around,” I had to ditch doing homework with my daughter. She’d been assigned to write a bibliography of five colleges that she is interested in applying to, and she didn’t want to, and you can see why: can you imagine anything more boring to do with the minutes of your life?
So I bailed on helping her, and therein lies the rub. On the one hand, I know I am supposed to be a good mom and encourage her to do her homework, but there’s a part of me that just objects to it all on some spiritual, animal, visceral level. It’s not just that it’s not punk, but that it’s not fucking useful. Is it terrible of me to wish that she could be throwing herself head first into hedges like the kids of Berkeley in 1988?
|You can buy this to donate money to 924 Gilman Street|
Yeah, it is terrible. That was then, and this is now. Today, there are many more urgent things to protest than whether a band signs to a major label, or if an independently owned brewery springs up next door to a night club: indeed, to have the leisure to protest those things seems positively quaint. That is why, at the end of the film, the narrator (Iggy Pop!) points out that there’s never been a time more suited to a scene like Gilman. And it’s so true. Coincidentally, as I drove away from the Parkside, I heard the film’s theme song, “If There Was Ever A Time” by the Armstrongs, on the radio on Live 105. “If there was ever a time to stand together,” they sing, “then the time is right.” Yep. My name is Gina Arnold, and I endorse this message.