924 Gilman Street: Berkeley’s punk rock haven

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Jordan Dertinger/Creative Commons

It’s Saturday night at 924 Gilman Street, and inside, the local punk-rock veterans of La Plebe are just finishing their set.

Wedged in the intersection of Gilman and 8th streets in West Berkeley, the outer walls of an old warehouse are lined with people clad with colored hair and black leather jackets, chatting over the scream of a guitar and the blare of horns.

Tonight, like most nights, the crowd is filled with a mix of adult, diehard punk fans, local high schoolers and mother-daughter pairs. Conduct at the show is dictated by the usual laws of the land — no alcohol, no drugs, no violence and no racism — which are painted on a wall just inside the club’s entrance. Inside, members of the crowd slam against one another under an eclectic assortment of objects that hang from the ceiling, including a black and white basketball hoop and a spiderweb of pink Christmas lights.

Tonight’s scene is one of many that will be added to the legend of 924 Gilman Street, whose history began in 1986 when the warehouse was converted into a volunteer-run, all-ages DIY punk music venue. Although the Gilman’s chronicle can be found in the countless show fliers and band names that coat its interior walls, most of the venue’s history is passed down orally as a sort of punk folklore between volunteers and Gilman regulars.

It’s a history that 17-year-old Luna Bowling, the Gilman’s secretary, knows well. Sitting in the warehouse’s small office before the show, she sports typical punk bulky combat boots and recounts her favorite nights at the venue with wide eyes. Despite her age, she can rattle off tour dates and album names like she’s been involved in the punk scene since the ’70s. Bowling, who partially credits her Green Day fandom as her gateway into Gilman, is reliving the band’s performance at the nearby Greek Theater that she attended last year.

The pace of her words quicken, and she beams through her braces as she describes stagediving to the front of the packed crowd and throwing a few crumpled-up Gilman stickers onto the stage. In a moment of glory for Bowling and her father, who designed the stickers, lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong slapped the decals on his guitar. The band used to play shows at the Gilman when it was just beginning to establish itself in the punk scene.

“Anyone and everyone at Gilman has their Green Day years,” Bowling laughs.

Despite the club’s connection to the punk rock superstars, Gilman has an atypical policy when it comes to big name bands: Groups signed to major record labels aren’t allowed to play at the space.

The rule was instituted as a way to keep the venue focused on community and to prevent local acts from being pushed out by bigger names, according to Jake Freytag, who’s been volunteering at the Gilman for the last five years.

Bowling is living proof of the interconnectedness of Gilman’s community, one that seems to form an expansive spiderweb of people connected by the space. Her father, Obadiah Bowling, is head of sound for the venue, and her 8-year-old sister can often be found at the front door before shows. Bowling even gets her half-blonde, half-black hair cut by a Gilman veteran who doubles as her bandmate.

Although the venue only gained official status as nonprofit last month, it has been operating with a not-for-profit, collective mission since first opening its doors. All decisions at the venue –– from changing the font used on fliers to the club’s rules –– are voted on at bimonthly membership meetings open to anyone who purchases a $2 membership card.

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Fans pack inside the venue. Jordan Dertinger/Creative Commons

“This is a space that operates in the capacity of ‘we,’ not in the capacity of ‘me,’ ” Obadiah Bowling says.

Shows at the Gilman are as diverse as the ages of its audience members. Two weekends ago, members of the crowd donned giant cartoon character masks and headbanged to comedy-punk group Green Jelly at the Punk Rock Puppet Show, but tonight’s show is a wedding celebration for one of the club’s first bookers.

“I’d like to point out that you’re moshing with a toddler on your shoulders to a band called Love Songs,” the lead singer calls out to one audience member who had just been twirling around with his daughter in the pit.
Variety in punk music has allowed for a range of styles in tonight’s set alone. The Love Songs’ coordinated guitar acrobatics are followed by a softer, satirical and partially acoustic set from the duo Bobby Joe Ebola. Still, Obadiah Bowling says there are required characteristics that define the genre.

“Punk music has a sense of urgency to it rather than aggression,” he explains. “Instead of getting in a fist fight on the sidewalk, (artists) break their guitar on stage.”

Back in the office before Saturday’s show, more volunteers pile into the small room and take seats around Bowling. As they recount their first shows at the Gilman, many of the club’s staff say the venue is a place of refuge from exclusion experienced in their hometowns.

“Most of these kids are like porcupines,” Bill Collins, who has played shows at the Gilman since the ’80s, says with a laugh. “They’re sensitive artists wearing ‘don’t mess with me’ camoflauge.”

Kalyn Evans, a sophomore at Berkeley Community College who helps operate the “Stoar” — the Gilman’s shop — says the Gilman has served as a sanctuary from the racism she encountered in high school.

“It was an anomaly for me not to be a stereotype,” she reveals as she sits on the floor of the office. “I came here and found a giant family. If this place asked me for blood, I would say take as much as you want.”

For Ilya Slabodkin, a 23-year-old UC Davis graduate with slick-blacked brown hair and black-framed glasses, the Gilman provides a sober space to stay on a path without substance use. Slabodkin spends his days in a biology lab and works as one of the club’s bookers at night.

As the subject of conversation between the small crowd of volunteers turns from their inaugural experiences at the Gilman to teasing one staffer over his fondness for Pop Punk, it’s impossible not to notice the age discrepancy amongst them. From pre-teens to almost-grandparents, there are at least three generations in the room.

“I don’t know where else you see such a big age range of people intermingling and working toward the same goal,” Freytag says. “There’s this unique dynamic that doesn’t have a real strict hierarchy system.”

But staff members note that this loosely organized system of operation does occasionally create problems in management.

“Anytime you have people who are working for free and are way too passionate about what they do, you’re going to argue,” Slabodkin admits. “But we want so badly to be here, and that’s how things work out.”

One of the collective’s recent discrepancies arose over a decision to raise admission prices, which are now about $10 a show. Jeff Armstrong, who’s been part of the Gilman since its opening, said that although there’s been some pushback from regulars who are frustrated with door charges, the price change was unavoidable.

The increase in number of local venues, access to music via the Internet and increased tour costs for bands are just some factors that have led to a recent decline in the club’s financial success, according to Armstrong. But he says the doors of the Gilman will stay open as long as they can.

After finishing his thought, Armstrong checks the time and claps his hands: “OK, we gotta open up, you guys!”

While most of the staff members disperse to fulfill their designated preshow responsibilities, Slabodkin lingers in the office and continues to reminisce. Although he left the venue for a few years to pursue his college degree, he’s returned to volunteer and play shows at the Gilman, even when he has to get up at 6:30 a.m. to be at the lab.

“That’s the thing about this place,” Slabodkin shakes his head with a smile. “Even when you think you’ve left, it’ll always find a way to suck you back in.”