On a chilly December evening in West Berkeley, a group of disaffected teenagers lean against the brick wall outside the all-ages punk club 924 Gilman. This month, the former bedding shop, which helped bands like Green Day, AFI, Operation Ivy, and Jawbreaker gain worldwide recognition, will celebrate its twentieth anniversary. And by the looks of it, not much has changed. It’s still a place where awkward teens mingle and those over 21 feel old, where the cover charge rarely exceeds $5, layers of graffiti coat the walls, and punk bands from near and far vie to play on the stage once occupied by their idols.
The fact that Gilman has managed to stay open while other punk venues like Burnt Ramen and Mission Records have closed speaks to the cooperative ethic laid down by its founder, Tim Yohannan, and which continues with the 25 or so people that run it today. From the beginning, Yohannan, the brain behind MaximumRocknroll (first a KPFA radio show and then the ‘zine), had longevity in mind. He canvassed neighbors, researched zoning laws, and gained city approval for the much-needed East Bay alternative to San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens and On Broadway.
The rules were simple but strict: No drugs, no alcohol, no fights. “Gilman was the only club that I knew of that had an effective and definite security strategy for dealing with the skinhead problem, which was really bad back then,” remembered Jesse Michaels of Operation Ivy. Michaels, who was thirteen when he first met Yohannan in 1982, was an active member in Gilman’s early days before his band performed there regularly and played its final show to six hundred fans in 1989.
Bay Area punk rockers of all ages, especially politically minded ones, were drawn to Gilman’s DIY ethos. “It was supposed to be by and for the punks,” said Marshall Stax, bassist for Blatz, who ran Gilman’s sound and still faxes the club’s listings.
“There was an aesthetic there that was the opposite of being tough or cool or being part of any elite,” Michaels added. “They threw open the doors and accepted the nerds and the geeks.”
But Yohannan’s strict politics weren’t without drawbacks. “There’s a part of punk rock that is … opposed to dogmatism,” Michaels said. “And there was something a little bit dogmatic about him.”
Just a year after Gilman opened, Yohannan closed its doors. When it reopened a few weeks later, a new group took over the co-op. “We’re like an Indian tribe, passing down from generation to generation,” said Ben de la Torre, Gilman’s executive director, who has worked there on and off for the last twelve years, and, at age 27, seems like the wise elder. He says the club has always struggled financially during its two-decade history, but has been hit particularly hard this past year as longtime members like Jesse Townley (aka Jesse Luscious) left. To cope with an annual 3 percent rent increase, as well as gas costs for touring bands, Gilman’s organizers started to raise the cover charge a couple dollars. Torre wants to start selling Gilman T-shirts at its store (they spell it “stoar”), and make a DVD of the club’s upcoming three-day twentieth-anniversary weekend for sale, though he said they have no intention of becoming a brand name like CBGB.
In many ways, Gilman’s history has mirrored punk rock’s. To many older punks, Gilman reached its heyday in the late ’80s and early ’90s when bands like Rancid, Neurosis, NOFX, Warlock Pinchers, and Tribe 8 played there. “The newness has certainly worn off,” Stax said. “As they went along, they were inventing the scene. … Once Green Day and punk rock became on MTV every five minutes, the undergroundness and coolness of it wasn’t really there anymore.”
But don’t tell that to the kids who continue to call Gilman home, like seventeen-year-old Tyler Costa from San Ramon, who came to see Danville’s Skull Stomp. “There are not many venues where I live,” said Costa, who hardly fit the “scary” punk stereotype dressed in jeans, a black blazer, a newsboy cap, and puffing on a cigar. “It gets people like this together that wouldn’t get together anywhere else.”
“It’s just a place where young people can go and create their own music scene,” said Michaels, who admitted he hasn’t been to Gilman in years. “For all its faults, it serves that function, year in and year out, and that’s a great thing on its own.”