Gimme Something Better has it all: dead dogs, statutory rape, skinhead fights, the origins of the term "emo," promoters accidentally taking acid in jail, M-80s, soup lines, people falling through skylights, people getting torched with flamethrowers, teenagers on meth squatting in empty beer vats, exhumed bodies, laundromats, Ford Pintos, murderers and millionaires.
There are also some parts about bands.
Destined to go down as the definitive history of Bay Area punk rock, the 500-page tome is excellently presented in oral history form, with first-person tales from hundreds of people both world-famous and virtually unknown. Beginning at the seminal San Francisco venues of Mabuhay Gardens and the On Broadway with the Avengers, the Nuns and Crime, and moving chronologically through the Dead Kennedys, DRI, MDC and Fang before heading via Maximum RocknRoll to the East Bay and 924 Gilman, Operation Ivy, Green Day, Rancid and AFI, Gimme Something Better: The Profound, Progressive, and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk from Dead Kennedys to Green Day ($18; Penguin Books) digs beyond the well-known legends and into the small, everyday personal stories that together created a vibrant, instigative and fascinating scene. Those who weren't around will read it and wish they had been; those who were there will only wish that the book was longer. But why now? In a coast-to-coast conference call, authors Silke Tudor in New York City and Jack Boulware in San Francisco explain that they discovered the time was right for people to tell their story with both proper perspective and clarity. "It managed to hit at a really good time, when all the multiple generations of punks had begun to discuss these things among themselves again," Tudor says. "Organically, there was already this urge to look back and develop ideas around what happened, and it was happening in small, small pockets."
Not that there wasn't plenty of talk as the Bay Area's most legendary events were happening. Numerous books have covered the Sex Pistols' last show at Winterland. Everyone heard about the show where the Misfits smashed a guitar over a kid's head. Numerous zines covered the Frankenchrist trial, the beginnings of Lookout Records and Tim Yohannon's crusade against the unpunk music of the world, but Gimme Something Better is full of previously untapped context and color. Who knew, for example, that famed jazz saxophonist Stan Getz once showed up wasted to an Emetics show, played one drunken song with the band, and got a blowjob in the alley afterward?
Originally titling the book Journey to the End of the East Bay, Tudor and Boulware set out to write only about 924 Gilman and its bands, both famous and infamous (Isocracy, the Naked Lady Wrestlers and Crimpshrine all have their own chapters). But "as we started interviewing people from the Gilman era," Boulware says, "none of that started in a vacuum." Tudor agrees. "Gilman reacted so strongly to other things that had happened to the Bay Area and punk in general," she says. "There were strong ideas that wouldn't have made sense without context. The goofiness, the rules that had come about were really strongly reacting to things that were happening in San Francisco."By the book's end, there's a sense of a closed era in Bay Area punk. 924 Gilman is still going strong, and personal anecdotes from Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong and AFI's Davey Havok assert the club's importance. And yet the big event of the mid '90s—Green Day becoming huge—looms large over all the spray-paint stencils and safety pins, and the sensation of a rarified innocence lost, or sold, very nearly drips off the page.
Collecting the interviews in Gimme Something Better was not without is challenges. Key people like David Hayes, John Kiffmeyer, Blake Schwarzenbach and Jake Sayles opted out, and a few, like Victor Hayden, Captain Beefheart's cousin and owner of Alchemy Records, were impossible to find. Still others required a year or more of prodding; the backing by Penguin Books raised the issue of the mainstream publishing company infiltrating the underground, and, Tudor says, "We went to some Gilman meetings and pled our case."
"I can't stress enough the responsibility we felt as we started doing this," says Boulware, adding that four fact checkers read and reread hundreds of stories that are essentially products of people's sometimes chemically stained memories. A chapter about Sam McBride, the singer of Fang who went to prison for murdering his girlfriend, was especially delicate. In the most comprehensive telling of the incident to date, McBride and his friends—and enemies—are shockingly honest."We were asking people to bear their souls, and bear some darker secrets and experiences that they had," Tudor says, "and people were so forthcoming, and so trusting and willing." Hence, the format of the book—one long series of interconnected quotes—has the feel of an elders council, and eliminates what Jesse Michaels, in the introduction, calls the "intellectual ownership" of a scene that rock writers usually know nothing about.
Tudor, a former SF Weekly writer, is also a former skinhead, and she at times is hesitant to revisit her younger days in the Bay Area punk scene. "I wish that I had been inspired by Hillary Binder when I was a kid, or that I had gravitated to that more creative, resistance side of punk. But I was a furious, wasted, drunk, druggie kid," she admits. (She now works at an anarchist hospitality house in the Lower East Side serving food to the homeless.) However, her perspective guided a selection of important elements of the Bay Area scene that other histories would be quick to dismiss as what the book's subtitle calls "pointless." "Part of the 'pointless' adjective is something very quintessentially Bay Area, which is incredibly intelligent, intelligent kids or people building elaborate things for not a lot of payoff," she says. "A lot of effort, a lot of thinking, and it ends up being sort of a laugh. The Bay Area does that more than any other punk scene."
Boulware, who spent 10 years as a columnist for SF Weekly and cofounded San Francisco's Litquake festival, agrees that it's time for that idea of art for fuck's sake in the Bay Area punk scene—of Schlong covering the entire West Side Story album to a room of 30 people, for example—to get its due. "People are all excited about computers and food now, but this is still a thriving subculture," he says, "and it's in a very progressive, politicized part of the United States."
Boulware and Tudor celebrate the release of Gimme Something Better at a series of shows held at both the former On Broadway in San Francisco (Oct. 12) and 924 Gilman in Berkeley (Oct. 17). For details, see www.gimmesomethingbetter.com.