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Jewcy Review: “Gimme Something Better: A History of San Francisco Bay Area Punk Rock”

I used to be so obsessed with Operation Ivy that I would search far and wide for bootleg audio and video recordings of their live shows.  I listened to those recordings so much, so closely until I not only knew every word to every song, but I knew every word of banter that took place between songs.  I listened close, hearing them make fun Green Day, and teasing a band called Isocracy, always keeping it light and fun, always joking.  I eventually became hell-bent on understanding what they were talking about and who the other bands that they mentioned were, bands like, Crimpshrine and Econochrist, bands that I would go on to love.

Eventually I became obsessed with the whole East Bay/Berkeley punk scene and all the bands involved.  I became pen pals with Larry Livermore, the man who started Lookout Records and I met Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day.  It was my freshman year of high school and I took my girlfriend to a huge Green Day concert for her birthday.   After the show, a huge crowd of people waited outside the venue trying to get Tre Cool and Mike Drint to sign autographs, this was post Dookie, after all.   I walked past the mob and snuck into the venue.  Once inside, a guy with a high voice shouted to me, "hey, nice backpatch."  I was wearing an Econochrist back patch, one of the bands I learned about from the Opeartion Ivy bootlegs.  Billie Joe called me over and shared his beer, as we chatted for a good while about the East Bay punk scene, Gilman St., all the places that I’d never been to but idealized so much.  I’d come to imagine the San Fransisco/Berkeley punk scene as a kind of utopia for punk kids who just wanted to be part of something real and I ate up every moment of listening to him talk about it.  Then, Billie Joe gave me a bit of a speech, telling me that any place could be an amazing scene like Berkeley and it was up to me to kick it off.  That night I went home and put on an Op Ivy bootleg video, imitating Jessie’s on-stage moves, singing "Sound System," quietly enough not to wake my parents.

Elvis Costello once said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."  There is something about Operation Ivy that is completely indescribable, absolutely beyond words.  Theirs was one of the first punk records I ever bought. Something about the spy logo on the cover of the album is sexy and alluring and the record from the very first note to the end of the twenty-seventh track is completely undeniable.

When I saw Gimme Something Better (Penguin), on the bookshelf, I was thrilled.  It was a dream come true, an oral history of the San Fransisco punk rock scene.  It was the closest I would ever have to being able to understand what it was like to actually be there. 

The Oral History style is one that worked splendidly for the book Please Kill Me.  For those who aren’t familiar, the style is chopped up interviews that are put in a certain order to tell a story. Gimme Something Better, contains pieces of interviews with people like: Jessie Michaels, Jello Biafra, Jeff Ott From Fifteen and Crimpshrine, Fat Mike of NOFX, Tim Armstrong of Rancid, Larry Livermore, Aaron Cometbus of Crimpshrine and "Cometbus," Miranda July, photographer Murray Bowles and a bunch of people whose names were unfamiliar to me, including a Sheriff. 

The book begins with a focus on a few major bands at the very beginning of Punk’s emergence, bands like Crime, The Avengers, the Dill’s, The Nuns and Negative Trend.  Similar to the early bands in Please Kill Me, these bands were mostly people coming out of the Roxy Music, David Bowie glam scene and getting a bit rougher and more straight forward with their music and style.  The kind of apathetic, "no future" outlook that permeates this part of the book is a bit irritating.  There is also a fair amount of bickering between interviewee’s about who sucks, and who doesn’t.

What makes the early chapters of Gimme Something Better interesting are the cultural and historical implications of 1970’s San Fransisco.  The book begins right around the time that Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk are murdered, and during the riots that came about as a result of the light sentence passed down to the man responsible, Dan White.  Reading the book, I get a sense that free thought is really an indispensable part of the San Fransisco cultural climate in a way that a non-San Fransiscan, couldn’t truly understand.

As the book moves on, the focus shifts to bands that that interest me more, bands like the Dead Kennedy’s and DRI, faster and harder bands.  There’s also a heavy focus on the different venues that came about, from clubs like On Broadway to makeshift party/living areas like The Vats, up to Gilman St., the utopian DIY punk space.  "Maximum Rock n Roll" becomes an important part of the story, first as a radio show and then as the zine that it is today, perhaps the most prominent of Punk Rock zines.  In the middle of the book, the irritating parts start to mount, people bickering about who was cool and who wasn’t and endless anecdotes of violence at punk shows.  There is a part of the punk ideal, the glue-sniffing, head-kicking, pants-shitting part, which never sat too well with me.  Sure, it helps to fuel the unadulterated rebellion and it attracts the kids, but who cares that people used to almost kill each other at Black Flag shows?  Some people in the book recount the violence of the scene affectionately and others simply acknowledge it, but it gets tired.  It’s similar to the drugs, an unavoidable, but ultimately expendable and boring part of the equation.

Finally I came to the final quarter of the book where the seeds of the late Berkeley punk scene are sewn.  Gilman is built, Isocracy forms, Crimpshrine forms and finally Operation Ivy comes up.  These chapters for me are heaven, everything I’d hoped for, people trying to describe the amazing force that came from Op Ivy’s music, the ineffable feeling of being part of something that felt so important.  It was thrilling to read.  I hoovered up every word of the last chunk of this book.

It inspired me to break out the old bootlegs.  "Lint Rides Again," is a recording of Operation Ivy’s last show.  At the end of which, the band plays the song, "Unity."  The entire crowd at Gilman St. sings along to every word of the song.  As it ends, the final chorus plays out but the crowd won’t let it end.  The band stops playing and the crowd continues to sing, "Unity, as one stand together.  Unity, evolution’s gonna come," rushing the stage, singing as one.  Someone picks up a stick and keeps a beat on the snare drum, as they sing on, unable to let go of this moment, so important and pure.  Watching, it feels like something, something that even in adulthood I am always looking for, something better.

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  • I haven’t checked in here for a while as I thought it was getting boring, but the last several posts are great quality so I guess I’ll add you back to my everyday bloglist. You deserve it friend

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