Saturday, July 12, 2013
East Bay Rats clubhouse, Oakland
Better than: Waterboarding.
With its misanthropic lyrics and thuggish attitude, Fang was one of the East Bay's most notorious 1980s punk bands. The infamy only intensified after vocalist Sam "Sammytown" McBride served six years in prison for voluntary manslaughter of his late girlfriend and reformed the band upon release in 1995. So a recent rumor that Fang would perform an unannounced show at the East Bay Rats clubhouse, headquarters of a local motorcycle club, was intriguing indeed. The secret show held a magnetic appeal: A house of motorcycle culture, long aligned with the illicit in both myth and reality, hosting one of the Bay Area's most controversial punk bands.
It was a total spectacle. More than 100 motorcycles lined San Pablo Avenue in Oakland outside the clubhouse. The East Bay Rats wore motorcycle jackets with arched lettering across the backs, but other clubs were represented as well. Bikes with intricate paint jobs and glistening chrome sat next to others boasting sidecars improvised from car seats and caked with mud. Riders mounted bikes, revved their engines, dismounted, adjusted helmets and repeated the showboating ritual before jetting off, sometimes with tallboy in hand, as onlookers marveled.
"To live outside the law, you must first be honest," announced a plaque inside the clubhouse. Photographs of dead hogs (the animals) and snapshots from various "fight nights" out back peppered the walls. Prior to Fang, punk groups Out of Tune and Urban Waste performed in the clubhouse's center room, between a beer vending machine and a punching bag. Most attendees busied themselves in front with the bikes, or out back, near a boxing ring where the club occasionally hosts fight nights. There, participants don gloves and enter the ring with a referee and opponent, then bash each other as a heckling crowd gazes and swills alcohol until late at night. During Fang's late afternoon performance, a barbecue next to the ring dished out chunks of meat. A group of men jeered that they were waiting for the vegetarian option. The very mention of "tofu" elicited uproarious laughter.
Bikers, punks, rockers of all persuasions, and plenty of people who didn't appear to be motorcycle enthusiasts milled about. To an outsider, the culture felt alien, but at first fairly tolerant. Paying $5 at the door, watching the opening bands, inspecting motorcycles, sitting ring-side, and catching conversation snippets was an interesting exercise in cultural immersion. After all, the motorcycle club is a fascinating realization of a distinctly American mythology, and few contemporary ones open such events to the public.
Fang's set drew evenly from newer material and its better-known tracks off of '80s albums Landshark and Where the Wild Things Are. The band played with conviction on both uptempo punk songs and earlier tracks built on tough riffs and Sammytown's monotonous shouts.
McBride is an engrossing front man -- but for all the wrong reasons. He introduced a cover of Jim Carroll's "People Who Died" with a dedication to, well, "all the people who've died." During another track, he made gun gestures with his fingers. When the crowd wasn't loud enough for his liking, the singer snarled, "I've got a mute crowd. That means when I fuck you later, you're not gonna tell the cops," and launched into the recent Fang track "Here Come the Cops," about killing cops. A cover of Wanda Jackson's "Riot in Cell Block Number Nine" went out to "all of the felons."
The day's ease evaporated. During Fang's set, and particularly Sammytown's banter, the event's features mutated into an uncomfortable bacchanal of implied violence. It wasn't cheeky shock-rock posturing. The performance was severe and completely serious. The photos on the wall depicted savagery, and an arena of actual violence loomed out back. A diverse crowd composed of men, women, punks, and a couple of baristas stood with bikers and reveled in a band casually and approvingly threatening rape and violence.
Considering Sammytown's history, it was a baffling decision to reform Fang in the first place and carry on the misogyny and misanthropy in its lyrics. Of course, the man is entitled to reactivate his band and perform live -- but antics on a stage before a paying audience are subject to scrutiny. Regardless of his actions since release in 1995, his stage persona relished the infamy of his incarceration. And the crowd at the East Bay Rats clubhouse on Saturday encouraged it.
Afterward: As I was leaving, a stranger followed me toward my car and rapidly asked why I was taking notes, who I was writing for, was I writing about Fang, and what my name was, as if worried that details of the event might be made public. I was reminded of the plaque inside: "...you must first be honest."
Note: Fang performs Friday, June 26, at the Oakland Metro.