Several vans sit parked outside 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley — a common sight on any weekend night at this legendary all-ages punk venue. But among the beat-up and bumper-stickered vans is a truck covered with Vans shoe company logos. Inside, the band OFF!, led by former Black Flag member Keith Morris, sells a 7-inch record with cover artwork featuring just a Vans shoe.
This scene is over a year old, but it and others like it remain seared into the memories of many who see the presence of corporate advertising as yet another sign that this once-holy church of punk has lost its moral compass. The recent abandonment of longstanding rules and principles has alienated many among Gilman's core group of artists and fans, and even spawned boycotts of the club. "[Gilman] will not be seeing my bands or my money until they make some fundamental changes to how they treat bands, show-goers, staff," says Boo Boo, singer of Hunting Party, one San Francisco hardcore band that is boycotting the club. He would not give permission to use his real name. Indeed, numerous boycotters — exhibiting a typically punk wariness of commercial media — refused to discuss their concerns on the record for this story, even as they strongly oppose the changes at Gilman.
Run by committee, and founded in 1986 on an explicit stance of opposition to major labels, big corporations, racism, sexism, and homophobia, 924 Gilman has long been viewed as a kind of a radical safe haven as well as a music venue. Countless punk bands got their start inside these spray-painted walls, including major artists like Green Day, Rancid, Operation Ivy, AFI, plus many others who didn't make the leap to popular success.
But lately, with Gilman struggling to pay its $4,500-a-month rent, and with new volunteers cycling in and out of decision-making positions, the venue's leaders sometimes make decisions that deeply offend longtime patrons. Often, they're in direct contradiction of the club's stated ideals. The rule at Gilman used to be that if a band was on a major label, or sold a certain percentage of its records through a major label, it was not allowed to play. Before any band could perform at the club, it had to submit lyrics to all its songs so Gilman staff could ensure they didn't feature any sexist, racist, or homophobic content. That doesn't happen anymore — and bands with what would have been considered sexist, racist, or homophobic lyrics now regularly shout them onstage.
The pay system was rigidly egalitarian as well: Every show cost $5. At the end of the night, one member of each band went into the back room with the booker. The money was split between the house and the bands after security, the only paid staff at Gilman, got its cut. Bands were paid based on their perceived draw and crowd interaction, but there were no monetary guarantees.
Today, the payout rule has become relaxed or nonexistent. Show tickets range from $7 to $15. Opening acts are not told how much the headliner was paid, or what their guarantee was. The change makes Gilman more like a standard music venue, where headliners can be paid 30 times more than the opening act.
If there is one man who represents the changes at 924 Gilman, it's Mike Avilez. The 43-year-old singer of several local punk bands, including Oppressed Logic, has gone from being blacklisted from Gilman for his lyrics (Sample from 1994: "Little girls, little girls in my fucking bed/ Little fucking hooker gave me some head/ Found a little slut, shoved it up her butt/ Next thing you know my life is in a rut") to becoming the club's head booker. And although all of Gilman's major decisions are put to a vote at the membership meetings, which anyone can attend, his influence is strongly felt.
Avilez seems more concerned about the survival of the venue than upholding its once-sacred rules. "Even if Bad Religion wanted to do a show, I would book them in a heartbeat," he says, referring to the veteran L.A. punk band, which signed a major-label deal in the '90s. "We need shows like that. People are going to bitch about how 'that band is on this label' or something — well, it's like, 'Why don't you pay the fucking rent, then!'"
Green Day, the most famous Bay Area punk band in the world, got its start at Gilman when its members were just teenagers. The band was famously outlawed from the venue once it signed with Warner Bros. in 1993. Would Avilez allow Green Day back? "We'd have to have a meeting on it and vote — but I'd be for it," he says.
Mariam Bastani, one of the head coordinators at Maximum Rocknroll — San Francisco's oldest and largest underground punk magazine, whose founders started Gilman in 1986 — says she "still believes" in the club, despite recent decisions she calls "embarrassing." But Bastani notes that many in the community don't think Gilman is what it used be. "At this point I feel that many punks regard Gilman as sort of 'just another venue,'" she says. "It's sad."
Does she think that Gilman currently holds to its stated values? "Not really," she says. But Bastani urges those who care to become more involved in the club."Punk is about action. Don't let Gilman die and don't let it become an embarrassment."
Morris, the singer of OFF!, explains his band's relationship to Vans by calling the company "part of the community," and says he respectfully disagrees with the old Gilman rules. "Gilman's ideals are no corporate sponsorship, and there is some beauty and great thought that lies behind that. But I have to shoot all of that down. For a band to survive nowadays, you have to have someone sponsoring you."
Scotty Heath, owner of the local metal and punk record label Tankcrimes Records, still books some of his label's bands at Gilman. He thinks the club is a safe place for teenagers to meet new friends and have fun — and isn't bothered by the relaxed rules. "I've been going to Gilman for over 10 years, and I've seen so many different volunteers and so many different little points of controversy, and I've been there when bands have been protested," Heath says. "And not to take away what anyone's beliefs are, but I think holding an entire establishment accountable for something you disagree with is immature and short-sighted and detrimental to the punk scene."
Many, though, find the abandonment of Gilman's ideals unacceptable. One volunteer, disheartened over the recent decisions by Gilman leadership, recently quit the club. Afterward the person wrote on Facebook: "Paint over the 'No Racism/Sexism/Homophobia' sign by the front door, cause that's goddamn lie and everyone knows it. Welcome to the new age."