Grappling the Beast

The Story of East Bay Punk Rock

/ by Noah Charney

The music we grow up with is the soundtrack of our memoirs. It is a mixture of what we stumbled upon, what played on the radio (or, if you’re my age, on MTV, back when MTV showed music videos), and a lot of what others told you was cool. I remember being driven to high school by my friend’s older sister, who was the epitome of cool, and I tried hard to like the music she played. Ween, Alice Donut, Black Flag. But what I really liked was the music I pulled off the shelves of my high school radio station, the broadcast breadth of which barely made it to the edges of campus. Rancid and the Pixies were the first bands I loved not because someone told me I should, but because I thought they were cool. Pixies’ “Bone Machine” and Rancid’s “Animosity” feature prominently on my old mix tapes, a lost art form these days, but one I remember fondly. Gifting mix tapes, the insert papers carefully decorated, the song list curated so there wouldn’t be too much silence before it was time to flip the tape, and with song titles choreographed to send a hidden message to the object of one’s affections, the tape’s recipient. Green Day, by that time (mid-90s) was already getting big, and I thought of myself as sufficiently edgy to think that getting big was uncool. The more esoteric and un-pop-y the band, the cooler it was. So for a kid at a Connecticut boarding school to like Rancid (before their pop hit, “Ruby Soho”) or, even better, to like Operation Ivy, the proto-Rancid band that lasted barely more than a year, but which was as influential in the history of rock music as could be, was a sign of being a hipster, before being a hipster was a thing.

 

So I was delighted to preview a new, feature-length documentary film, produced by Green Day and directed by the wonderfully-named Corbett Redford, called Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk. And it is an inspiring story. If anyone doubts that a handful of passionate kids can change the world, this is a case in point.

 

Before the East Bay punk movement, punk rock was a British import associated with a certain aesthetic (dyed hair, Mohawks, heavy black leather jackets pierced with spikes, ripped jeans, Doc Martens, torn clothing repaired with safety pins), with angry shouted vocals and not-particularly-talented musicianship, and with a measure of violence thrown in. Shouting along to music was a cathartic process for youth who feel that their voice, or the ubiquitous emotional turmoil they think is unique to them, is being insufficiently heard, expressed or represented. There’s a reason that primal scream therapy is a real type of therapy. When grappling the beast that is teen-ness, such harmless modes of expression are valued. This catharsis is no illusion. According to Albert and Leonida Mrgole, therapists who published a book called Connect with Your Teenager, “Music is a particularly important part of raising children. The choice of preferred music genre links to a teenager’s feelings, behavior, sense of belonging, choice of friends, even how communicative they are.” Great songs feel like they have been written expressly for you, and that’s how I felt with the music of Rancid, which managed to always put me in a good mood, perhaps ironically in contrast to the themes of the lyrics of songs like “Animosity” and “Nihilism.” The Mrgoles continue, “Teens see music as communicating ‘truths’ about being a teenager. Parents sometimes have trouble understanding that. But music is a way that parents can come closer to their teens, by asking to listen together and showing an interest in what the music means to the teen.” It is particularly unusual that punk rock grew through the passionate interest of a handful of adults, alongside a conclave of teens.

 

The East Bay punk scene sprung up around a specific club, Gilman Street, which became a magnet for kids in bands in the San Francisco Bay area, but with a more civilized manner than the British smash-it-up punk scene. The earliest concerts did include circle pits, where screaming along to the music could be accompanied by throwing yourself against fellow “dancers,” without intent to injure (necessarily) but with rough-housing as part of the “fun.” I never enjoyed that—I was always found at punk clubs (I attended most often when living in London) on the edges of pit, as a head-bopper rather than a slam-dancer. There was an edginess, the possibility of violence, inherent in the look and dance style that accompanied going to concerts, and that was perhaps part of the appeal. But Gilman Street began to host all-ages shows, some held at a local pizzeria before the club proper began. The club was quite democratic, with regular open meetings featuring the youth who attended shows and played in bands there. There were a few grownups in the mix, the folks behind the influential Maximum Rock-n-Roll and Larry Livermore, founder of Lookout Records, which was the first label to emerge from the scene. But most of the big decisions were collective, and there was a real sense that a few hundred people, most of them local teens, were a part of something big, something new.

 

And it was new. It is safe to say that this scene not only brought punk to the US, but also changed it. What I grew up calling “pop punk,” punk that was tuneful, not just aggressive (I never liked British punk, The Clash aside), turns out to have emerged, almost entirely, from a tiny club near San Francisco. The genius loci presiding over the musical scene was Tim Armstrong, founder of Operation Ivy and Rancid. He would not say as much, but he was the driving force musically behind the most influential band to come out of Gilman Street. Operation Ivy did something different with punk. The focus was not on speed and aggression (that was a branch of the genre called hardcore), but on The Clash-inspired dips into reggae, Jamaican dubstep, and only-strum-the-upbeat ska. Operation Ivy also has surprisingly profound lyrics to their songs, some of which sound like Foucault or Beckett. It is worth quoting “Room Without a Window” in full:

 

“The position being taken is not to be mistaken

For attempted education or righteous accusation

Only a description, just an observation of the pitiful

Condition of our degeneration

 

Walls made of opinions, through which we speak and never listen

Ceiling made of pride, vicious and self-satisfied

Door that’s made of rage, hard and slowly-aged

Always closing tighter with every war that’s waged

 

Room without a window, can’t see out

 

Floor is made of lives, we’d gladly end to stay inside

Corners made of borders, borders made of law and order

Painted with the words of politicians and religion

Plastered with the wreckage of our cultural division

 

We’ve got a room inside our minds

We can’t see out because we’re blind, but it goes to show

We’ve gotta make ourselves dream

From a room without a window to a different way to see.”

 

That is a Beckett play. Someone trapped in a room without a window, and willing to kill in order to remain inside. Not bad for some punk teenagers.

 

The other most influential band was Jawbreaker, which poured overt emotionality into their lyrics, effectively opening up the movement called emo, a more emotionally-charged, personal, and usually musically more-complicated version of punk.

 

But bopping around Gilman Street was the early teen Billie-Joe Armstrong, who would found Green Day, the biggest band to emerge from the scene. Rancid, their contemporary (featuring Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman, half of Operation Ivy), are likewise giants, but never sought, nor gained, the worldwide, universal acclaim of Green Day, which it is safe to say is one of the biggest rock bands on the planet.

 

Turn It Around tells the story of this scene through scores of interviews with people key to it, including people I had no idea were involved, like Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi, whose presence further strengthens the argument that East Bay punk birthed numerous genres, as Minor Threat’s version of hardcore punk rock remains the gold standard, and Fugazi are the poster boys of what might be called art punk.

 

The documentary makes clear that a democratic, kid-driven, positive-vibe music scene, even if it is just a few hundred-strong, can make an impact. The East Bay circa 1990 was a bed of musical talent and the explosion of artist styles that would be followed by others that may be drawn in parallel to Florence circa 1500, Paris circa 1880, and New York circa 1950 in the fine arts. There’s more to that pink-dyed Mohawk than you might’ve thought.

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Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at www.noahcharney.com or by joining him on Facebook.


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