Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Take Off Your Swastika: Berkeley Punks Rule-- Gilman Street/Green Day Film Arrives Just In Time For Campus "Free Speech Year"


Green Day at Gilman, 1992-- photo by Murray Bowles

-by Denise Sullivan

In 1988, the peace punks who congregated at 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley, California, had a choice to make: To meet encroaching skinheads with violence or to fight back with the tactics of non-violence. Choices were made, the inevitable schisms from within ensued, and life went on, as the new documentary, Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk, tells. While the story and other tales of punk rock glory illustrate punk's inherent contradictions and what happens when utopian ideals like egalitarianism and rule-by-committee are put to the test, the film is also in perfect synch with the hate speech controversy happening in Berkeley here and now.

“The film played in Charlottesville a few weeks back,” explained its director, Corbett Redford. “Someone from the audience commented, 'This is how allies work. Allies stand up.”

The punks of Gilman, far more of them straight, white, and male than queer, people of color, or women, did indeed stand up to the Nazi strain in their midst. And yet, the politics of waging peace and the how music fits into those politics is often more nuanced and complicated than taking up of pitchforks, tiki torches, or baseball bats. The project at Gilman Street, while largely a success and a piece of the Bay Area's larger legacy of resistance, is also a reminder, to me anyway, that people on the same team are not immune to the cruelties and divisiveness that destroys alliances, especially here in our own left coast bubble.

Recounted against a backdrop of music, animation, and collected ephemera, the film provides plenty of context in the form of hundreds of testimonials by the fans, friends, DJs, zine makers, and bands, all who helped to shape and were shaped by the intentional community that was Gilman. Additional voiceover narration is supplied by Iggy Pop. All of the elements go a long way toward explaining how one place held close white punks, black speed-metal heads, self-identified queers, and baby feminists, as capitalism moved steadily toward its hypernormal end phase.

Take the story of Green Day, who are also the film's executive producers: Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt were just two kids with long hair-- mullets, in fact-- trying to find their way out of the suburbs and into rock 'n' roll. This was a logical career choice for people back then-- in the years before the Internet-- a time when music still meant something and musicians with actual talent had a real shot at making a living with their art. For kids from East Bay suburbs like Pinole, El Sobrante, and Rodeo (accent on the day-o) any options beyond their semi-rural, semi-industrial refinery towns would've been welcome in the economically dim R & B (Reagan and Bush) era, as was Gilman, a place where you could dream about life beyond the 'burbs (or get away from parents), accompanied by a hardcore punk soundtrack of your own making. You were also taught about others systems of governance and lifestyles, all of it an alternative to skateboarding in 7-11 parking lots, video games, and bottomless bowls of weed, the area's standard fare.

At Gilman, kids were people too; they had a voice and made decisions. But as players on the punk scene, musicians with songwriting talent the likes of Green Day were also subject to skepticism and derision. By the time Billie Joe came around asking to play, the band was perceived as “too pop” and was turned away by Tim Yohannan, Gilman's co-founder and booker. Yohannan (“A red-diaper baby who had been at People's Park,” according to filmmaker Redford) was also the founding publisher of the punk zine and radio show, Maximum Rock'n'Roll; he used what means he had to secure the 924 space, becoming its de facto elder. He then gave the youngsters its keys, as well as an education in all things collective, communal, and dogmatic: Enforcing the strictly straight-edge, anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-homophobic rules worked in theory, but was more complicated in practice. Yohannan does not get to tell his story (he died of cancer in 1998), but his friends and co-workers remember him in Turn It Around.

Howie recently compared Billie Joe to Shakespeare in a tweet. I mention this because both his and Yohannan's extreme positions on Green Day go some way toward explaining the divide within the small but mighty Bay Area punk scenes which supposedly had a code of no racism, no sexism, and no homophobia, but at times felt racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and threatening to anyone who wasn't a straight white male. Back when Yohannan held dominion over Gilman and the East Bay but before Green Day hit the scene, Howie was young and I was younger still. We both worked on the San Francisco side of the Bay, spinning records that were not heard anywhere but in clubs and on the left end of the dial, and our tastes were decidedly more “commercial,” and catholic. These simple differences led to real hostilities, you might even say warfare, between rival college radio stations KUSF and Berkeley's KALX (Redford tells me that version of his film was mostly left on the proverbial cutting room floor but will likely show up as extras on a DVD). By the time Green Day was on the rise, I was reporting on Bay Area music for the region's paper, the Contra Costa Times. Admittedly, much of what I knew about what went on inside Gilman was colored by my experience with punk rock at KUSF and SF's own punk clubhouse, the Mabuhay Gardens. I was among those who perceived hardcore and the suburban influence to have poisoned our scene, bringing with it slamdancing, mosh pits, skinhead violence and the smell of fear. The small-minded punk versus "not punk enough” dynamic came to bear further after Howie left San Francisco and was heading Green Day's chosen record label, Reprise, which helped make way for their superstardom (for those unfamiliar, Green Day are stadium-fillers with Grammy and Tony Awards to their credit; they are also among the handful of American recording artists who stood up in the era of Bush II and cried foul during the Iraq war with a concept album titled American Idiot). Green Day's success was not entirely celebrated by the punks at Gilman who had “collectively” banned major label recording artists from their space. I ultimately attended some girl-friendly shows there, but while the place wasn't for me, it was a godsend for the kids in the East Bay, a once largely conservative bastion whose districts by and large vote Democrat these days, though there is still one assembly district held down by a Republican in the wealthier, far east county. Filmmaker Redford contends that things could've easily gone the other way.

“When you have a blustery blowhard in the media everyday, it emboldens people to come out from under their rocks,” he says in the wake of Berkeley's recent defeat of Nazi terror and in anticipation of the University's planned Fall program of hate speech. “But I don't believe there are more of them than people who believe in treating people fairly and equally. I have to believe that. I don't want to lose hope."

Green Day is currently on a multi-city mega world tour. Gilman survives as an all-ages, non-profit collective and its alumni seem more comfortable celebrating each other's successes since its regulars have gone on to become popular zine makers and authors, scholars, professional musicians, and workers of all stripes-- everyday people who still believe in the dream of pluralism while the threat of fascism looms large in Berkeley and throughout the land. Our differences, for the most part, have been cast aside, we are all children of punk rock, and its spirit of self-reliance and resistance serve us well in these times: Punk made us pro-peace and against racism, sexism, and wage slavery. We still seek safe places-- a safe country for people of all identities-- and reject patriarchal, colonial mentalities. And while we recognize it is uneasy business to create these spaces, many of us remain involved in trying.

“People building things, making positive change, creating art for each other, anywhere you find that, there is punk rock,” says Redford, much like a true-believing, modern day Tom Joad. “Punk isn't dead, no matter what anyone tells you. If you can't find it, you might have to change your way of thinking. Wherever there is resistance culture, wherever there are people, there is punk rock.”

Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk opens in theaters nationwide this week.

Denise Sullivan reports on arts, culture, and gentrification issues for DWT!

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