A Place Full of Punks

Mimi Nguyen
Photo from

Bay area punks hold a mock funeral for the recently expired US President, Ronald Reagan. Recalling Reagan's legacy -- El Salvadoran death squads, homelessness, union-busting, and silence in the face of the devastating AIDS epidemic -- Nguyen revists the place of her Reagan-inspired punk youth to see what has changed, and what remains the same.

I thanked punk rock for saving my life on the day Ronald Reagan died. In the midst of increasingly alarming revelations of prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and disappearing (or fictional) justifications for unilateral war, the Reagan memorial, as a national pastime, became a reprieve from the political and a substitute for debate. Over the next few weeks, I would be struck by the overwhelming acceptance of the paeans to his goodness, as both journalists and politicians submitted glowing portrayals of Ronald Reagan as both a giant of American superiority (the man who "ended" the Cold War) and a grandfatherly figure (a kindly eater of Jelly Bellies), a man guided mistakenly sometimes but never maliciously, by his good intentions. As editorials analyzed Reagan's appeal as a particular presidential quality that inspired trust and instilled a sense of safety, even Reagan's death became a postmortem public service. In a moment of tarnished democracy and illegal war, embattled Americans could be made to feel good about their country, again.

It seemed to me that the deification of Reagan was unstoppable, as even the weathermen presumed God would weep the day Reagan was buried. On the afternoon of his passing, I worried I wouldn't be able to turn on the television for the next month as feature stories about torture memos, the 9/11 Commission, and the unraveling occupation of Iraq would be replaced with full-color photographs of the smiling actor who ushered in a political, but also cultural, revolution, in which poverty became a character flaw, the ruthless ferocity of South American death squads was dismissed as a "bum rap", and citizens learned to desire rule not for themselves (no "power for the people" here), but for the so-called "leader of the free world". Against memory (an inadvertent correlation with his dying disease), it seemed as if Reagan's death provided a satisfying (for some) symbolic coherence for a citizenry that had since learned to love to surrender to the demands of an uncritical patriotism.

But anti-Reagan graffiti soon appeared all over Berkeley and San Francisco; a subterranean creeping of counter-sentiment commemorating Reagan's passing with a discernable sneer appeared scrawled across walls ("Reagan still sucks . . . ha ha ha!") and stenciled on sidewalks ("No Sympathy For the Devil" ). These anonymous messages, scrawled across concrete, brick, and wood, felt like welcome blasphemy in the midst of the pious funereal frenzy. And Maximumrocknroll, the San Francisco-based punk rock magazine with almost a quarter century under its studded belt, had been planning for the occasion of Reagan's death for years.

On the afternoon of Reagan's passing, Maximumrocknroll hastily assembled a radio show of nothing but anti-Reagan songs, including Reagan Youth's anthem, "We are Reagan Youth, seig heil!", The Crucifucks' blasphemous "Hinckley Had a Vision", and The Minutemen's lyrical genius, "If Reagan played disco he'd shoot it to shit / You can't disco in jack boots". And, of course, "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg", by the otherwise mostly-apolitical Ramones, immortalizing Reagan's wreath-laying trip to a German SS cemetery. Reverberating over the airwaves of a neighborhood pirate frequency and across the hillsides of San Francisco, it was a play list appropriate to the task of recording the effects and impressions of a notorious life in power.

It's a fitting coincidence that Reagan's death, as well as the second Gulf War, serves to bookend the years comprising my biography as a punk rocker (and as a punk rock expatriate), a period of my life spanning California's Bay Area in a circuitous route through BART tunnels, alleyways, and a life otherwise built underground. A high school junior in suburban San Diego when the first Gulf War erupted, I joined a small group of protesters in front of the administration building as a much larger crowd gathered calling for our blood, shaking their fists and shouting, "Love it or leave it!" Later, sprawled across the flower-printed comforter of my white four-poster bed, I stared at blurred photographs of punk rockers rioting against this war; they were the romantic pin-ups of my teenaged dreaming.

Pilfered from the stack of newspapers and flyers littering an alcove by the doorway of downtown's San Francisco's one "alternative" store, The Black Cat (featuring what would now be standard Hot Topic mall fare), these torn copies of Maximumrocknroll assured me that I was not alone and provided me with an education of the world. It was within these smeared pages that I first read about the Central American legacy of the Reagan administration, for instance, and the repeated refusal of the same White House to censure apartheid South Africa. Such articles were rammed in-between band interviews and local scene reports. And so with fingers blackened by newsprint, I searched for photos of kids with their arms swinging, their faces hidden behind bandanas and hooded jackets: rioting punks caught in mid-motion, protesting against these and other outrages. I wanted to be one of them, out in the streets, making a righteous noise.

I know better, now, than to fall for the romance of revolution, and it's been a long time since punk rock failed so miserably to fulfill such hopes and instead revealed its dumb side, its dark side, its dangerously reactionary side. The end of the love affair came for me in fits and seizures throughout the mid-1990s. Still infused with a masculinist New Left sensibility, punk's realpolitick impulse was stumped by riot grrrl. Its manifesto transformed into a therapeutic discourse of confession and validation, riot grrrl failed to produce a coherent political theory. For example, my riot grrrl theory challenged a punker's orientalist fantasies and called his posing "ironic" humor, soon after, this Midwestern white boy recorded a song about raping me.

I still remember the sunny, spring afternoon when I sat in the Epicenter library with Miriam, who was looking dashing in her pinstriped, three-piece men's suit. We were surrounded by an archive of paper, glue and scissors. As we slouched on the ratty sofas, despairing of this thing, punk rock, that had once meant so much to us, she said, "It's all going to hell. It's all going to burn down in flames and I don't care." I agreed, because punk rock had failed me spectacularly, but sometimes there's still a heart-stirring, a promise (or a memory of this promise) that flirts with me the way I sometimes still like to be flirted with: with dirty, sprawling, mad-eyed intensity. And Epicenter, in particular, was the scene for so many of these flirtations and their fallouts.

The Epicenter Zone was a not-for-profit collective that was unequal parts punk record store, live venue, fanzine library, art gallery, dance party, riot HQ, and community center. Located at 475 Valencia on the fringes of the Mission District, one block away from the 16th Street BART station, Epicenter was established in 1990 with the aid of Tim Yohannon, the crew-cut and curmudgeonly founder of Maximumrocknroll. Behind an iron gate (unlocked during store hours) the glass door was unmarked and inconspicuous, though the narrow stairwell leading up to the store occasionally bore the signs of punk rockers armed with sharpies, stickers, and spray-paint. Political slogans (most of the anarchist variety), cheap paper stickers, and mysterious personal messages littered the hallway. They were pasted all over the closet-sized bathroom (the toilet was not excluded from graffiti attack), the red vinyl restaurant booths, and the scavenged office furniture. The graffiti underwent periodic, late night-inspired scrubbings from volunteers. Popular prose offerings that emerged after each scrubbing included: "Keep Warm, Burn the Rich!", "Fuck Officer Friendly", and the incongruous "Punk=Cuddle", a phrase which did double duty as a sometime-Epicenter slogan, along with "Open for Holidays, Closed for Riots". The latter was a sly reference to the role not a few workers (and the physical space itself as an organizing hub) played in the Gulf War protests.

With the Switchboard housed in the library (an 800 number providing information for local social services) and Blacklist Mailorder in the back room (shipping independently-produced records, zines, T-shirts, and videos to punk rockers around the world), for a while it felt as if 475 Valencia — and the Bay Area in general, with Maximumrocknroll close by and Gilman Street Club across the water — was the Punk Rock. Kids from all over converged on the second-story space to come face-to-face with subcultural potential, and in this place it was realized. I worked all day Saturdays at Epicenter, BARTing in early with my best friend Charles to sweep and putter around, straightening records and zines, reading the collective journal (a black book that bore the brunt of volunteers' inquiries, complaints, jokes and occasional venomous barbs), before unlocking the doors.

It was at Epicenter that I'd spend all my spare time, in between classes and work shifts, selling punk rock records and fanzines and watching the young women with the homemade haircuts spar with the ragged boys who pretended nonchalance. I now remember Epicenter like a home movie: full of clicks and whirs, awkwardly pieced together, not altogether coherent. The rented KISS flick on our 20-inch set. Blackouts and torch lights, handing the kids candles as they came through the door. Playing in-store Frisbee with bargain records. My hand on the bicycle seat as I tried to convince Karyn to put her feet on the pedals, so that I could push her around the store. Whatever tomboy prankster I nurtured got ample opportunity to express itself at Epicenter: scaling the metal fire-ladder at the back of the building, we armed ourselves with water balloons, aiming at the then-scarce yuppies walking rapidly down Valencia. Christopher and I once spent all night scrubbing the office refrigerator clean of punk rock stickers. We worked in silence as the hour grew later, and then earlier. (I lost several layers of skin in the process, but Christopher — because he was often an instigator, and thus a usual suspect — took the blame for the uncharacteristic cleanliness of our appliance.) I gave away show posters off the ceiling to sweet but surprised Japanese kids who were ready and willing to pay for a piece of punk rock history. They were amazed that it could be had for free. At shows organized by Epicenter's own Queers Together in Punkness, I danced to queercore bands — including Team Dresch, Tribe 8, CeBe Barnes Band, Kicking Giant and the Lucy Stoners — with the fabulous and fashionable Iraya. Me in my torn black leggings and faded black t-shirt and miniskirt, she in her terrycloth, daisy-print dress. Bewteen dances we gossiped about cute girl keyboardists banging out Casio chords and debated the vexed politics of race in subculture.

A few of us started EWOK — Epicenter Women's Outreach Koalition — for punk rock feminist purposes. Through EWOK we held benefits to raise money for women's self-defense scholarships and battered women's shelters, and co-sponsored shows for AIM and Food Not Bombs and other political organizations. Kristin and I would curl up on a couch after an EWOK meeting, and make jokes about "smashing patriarchy" and draw up the agenda for the following week's meeting. We even organized a Women's Outreach Weekend at the store, which made some of the other volunteers a bit grumpy ("how are we supposed to run a business?") but also (we hoped) inspired the hundred or so girls who showed up for the workshops, films, discussions, and of course, the Safer Sex Sluts getting hot 'n' heavy on the floor. We also committed small acts of vandalism at four a.m., crouched on our getaway bikes as we stenciled and wheatpasted our messages of revolution and revelry across the surfaces of the city.

But at Epicenter there were also the "straightwhiteboys" and their straight-edged posturing. They'd pump their militant, vegan fists and wave baseball bats while muttering something about beating up junkies in doorways. This cadre of workers once shaved a convert's head to the strident sounds of Earth Crisis, an extremist pro-animal rights and anti-abortion hardcore band, otherwise understood as jocks in disguise. New volunteers came and went after a few weeks of being ignored, or ridiculed, by staffers who affected a smug and superior condescension. Heroin junkies overdosed in the squalid bathroom, and each summer traveling squatters infested the threadbare couches with lice and scabies. During this period, a co-worker came to me after a Saturday shift and in the isolated quiet of the zine library, she pulled up her green dress to show me the bruises up and down her back. Shortly after that revelation, she left the store, but her boyfriend worked there for years afterward. These clashes between punks and the seeming contradictions between philosophy and application became, for me, endemic to punk rock's failures to deliver upon its promises. After three years at Epicenter, my disappointment, and my disgust, pushed me out the door.

Epicenter is now long gone due to financial difficulties, and the spacious second-floor space it once occupied is empty in the aftermath of the dot com bust. Gentrification has exacted its toll upon the once-familiar landscape of my hungry youth. Though the resale clothing store beneath Epicenter continues to sell drapes by the pound, and the Latino drag bar around the corner draws a familiar crowd, Valencia Street has gone further upscale. Its lingering seediness serves as a spice, luring hipsters (and now-fired dot commers) to its newly-established bars and boutiques. Many of my best friends still hail from this period of my life, and late one summer night, walking with Christopher along the beach to see the "Punk's Not Dead, But Reagan Is" graffiti splashed across the ruins of a concrete pier, I discover as we reminisce that he was one of the pin-ups of my teenaged punk rock daydreams. He was one of the smudged, masked figures from the Maximumrocknroll coverage of the first Gulf War riots. And it seemed as if all those things that brought me to San Francisco — including my romance with riots and revolution — were suddenly being amended with surprise revelations and footnote denouements.

In the mid-1990s, Tim Yohannon, who launched Maximumrocknroll as a radio show in 1978 and then as a magazine four years later, moved the operation (known sarcastically as "the punk rock bible") to its current location in a nondescript, beige duplex off Divisidero. First-time visitors to the magazine headquarters are often surprised by the cleanliness. Flowing into the spacious kitchen, the front office is a neat arrangement of couches and counters; in the back are the two record reviewer rooms, equipped with turntables, headphones, and computers. A small courtyard is crowded with the untamed abundance of the prior tenant's gardens, a picnic bench, and a folding ping-pong table. Back inside, all along the walls, photocopies of all the published covers of the monthly magazine are taped to the white plaster, some peeling away like burnt skin, or scabs. Reminiscent of the magazine's initial incarnation as a radio show, a six-foot high row of records stretches along the narrow corridor like a highway lined in vinyl and green tape. The hand-painted Epicenter sign that once hung beneath the office windows is now suspended along this wall of records at the Maximumrocknroll compound.

To prepare for the inevitability of Reagan's passing Maximumrocknroll held a shitworker meeting at the start of George W. Bush's presidency, making lists of issues to address, planning covers to counter the likelihood of fawning tributes at the magazine rack. I started working at the magazine in 1999, long after I thought I had abandoned punk. This initial shitworker meeting involved a motley group, including a cooperative cheese buyer, an antitrust lawyer, and myself, a feminist graduate student in a miniskirt and inexpensive-yet-stylish boots. Bush was on our minds, but Reagan's presence lingered long after that initial meeting. A cardboard box labeled "Reagan" sat gathering dust above the retired waxing machine in the office corner until his death in June.

I arrived the following Monday to help Mike Thorn, the perpetually black-clad magazine coordinator, plan the counter-commemorative issue. As we discussed features and deadlines (possible covers included the slogan, "Punks: 1, Reagan: 0"), I found a three-page outline for a survey of Reagan's presidency among the Reagan Ranch calendars (all featuring a still-robust Reagan in his cowboy gear), old anti-Reagan flyers, and yellowing newspaper clippings. Hours later I realized with a shock, and some sadness, that Charles had thrown together the outline at my request years prior. Hailing from a small town in Mississippi, Charles was the son of a college economics professor surrounded by Confederate nostalgists and Southern Baptists, so of course he tore up Bibles, wore black eyeliner, and destroyed a public memorial to a Southern general. Although he had since denounced punk rock, for different reasons than mine, we had maintained an argumentative friendship since working together at Epicenter. But the events of 9/11 changed all this; I hadn't spoken to Charles since the attacks on the Twin Towers, and since he became, in its aftermath, a patriot.

Gazing at that old outline for an essay, I wondered if Charles' punk past flashed before his eyes when he learned of Reagan's death. He'd had certain revisionist tendencies, rewriting his personal history to expunge punk and, it seemed to me, what it had made of us. On the day Ronald Reagan died, did Charles remember fondly the education of his supposedly misspent youth? Or did his revisionism match the hagiography in the weeks following, stretching to encompass and deny El Salvadoran death squads, the Contras, homelessness, union-busting and AIDS silence?

In my punk days I growled, scratched, ducked my head when I spoke, my balled fist was almost always in the air. But somewhere along the way I've developed some skills I didn't have before, such as patience and a loud clear voice that carries to the back of lecture halls. My beloved ass-patched black jeans, shiny with dirt, grease, and sweat, are carefully folded and lay at the back of a dresser drawer. They've been replaced with a closet full of vintage suits and dresses, with which I entertain the notion of dressing the part of the eccentric-yet-stylish, formerly punk, women's studies professor. But punk rock lingers in my life. I still find myself driving across the Bay Bridge, blasting the Blatz/Filth split cassette in my car on a continuous loop, 20-something mid-term papers on the seat beside me. The "check engine" light blinks at me from behind the wheel, I shout loud and off-key, my words lost out the window, in the wind, "Berkeley is my baby and I want to kill it!"

Berkeley, the East Bay, is the location for the one Bay Area punk institution I never volunteered at, though I had spent countless nights standing, or dancing, in its cavernous space during some of its more notorious episodes of punk rock abandon. Like Epicenter, the all-ages club called simply "Gilman" (for its street address) was established with the aid of Maximumrocknroll's Tim Yohannon in 1987, though it too developed a personality apart from the magazine and its founder. Located near a cluster of outlet stores and industrial warehouses, 924 Gilman is indistinguishable from the caning shop that shares the squat, one-story building. Its brick façade bears no obvious sign of the punk rock club's existence. Flyers for shows are sometimes stapled to the corkboard outside the poorly-painted black entrance. In recent months, another flyer has hung in one of the tall, narrow windows, reading, "WHY WAR? Where do you stand? Where do you fall?"

Gilman once fought the city to establish the club as a valuable community space rather than a source of neighborhood woe. Inherited from the social hysteria of the Reagan era, worries about teenaged rebels running wild in the streets (which was true in fact, but exaggerated in effect) once gripped the nervous imagination of Berkeley's law-and-order liberals. But in this post-Green Day moment, parents drop their children on the corner a block away from the club (to spare them the embarrassment of being seen with authority figures) and turn their minivans and SUVs into the Pyramid Ale brewery pub parking lot (brightly lit and garishly built) across from the club. It would seem as if punk rock has been made safe and surburban.

At a recent show including the last performances of two very different bands featuring former and current Maximumrocknroll coordinators, I felt a pang of nostalgia for the Gilman of my dumb youth. Lurking in the shadow of the sound booth at the back of the club, I could see the ghostly fragments of old, familiar graffiti floating beneath chipped layers of paint. I saw the old friends standing by the stage, by the booth, heckling bands and harboring crushes under the wooden rafters. In this noisy, crowded place I could see, too, the revolutions I once thought I knew — punk rock and riot grrrl bands whipping audiences into fist-pumping frenzies — their exuberant energies dissipating into thin air before me.

But as I stood there in a vintage pinstriped dress looking like a trashy schoolmarm, my feet aching in black pumps, I also recognized there is a lot still here to wonder at in places such as this. There's the beautiful, pixie-haired girl working the soundboard; the fresh-faced teenagers whose apparently artless outfits are in fact perfect recreations of a 1979 East Village aesthetic; and there are the smattering of friends I've known for years that still come to shows here, even though they're the oldest in the club, now.

The headlining band that night was No Hope For The Kids, a teenaged band from Denmark that plays 1982-style political hardcore. In front of me, one of these old friends wearing a "Punks for Peace" T-shirt, featuring an image of two mohawked teens sharing a kiss and the caption "No Blood for Oil . . . Again" was bobbing her head to the music. Seralta, who worked at now-defunct Mission Records (the one-time inheritor of Epicenter's mantle as the city's punk record store), winked at me as the band took to the stage. My friends and I are now the "Punks Over 30", a phenomenon once thought to be so bizarre that it merited a special feature in Maximumrocknroll. Older and wizer, we smiled as the bassist leaned into the microphone and announced, "This next song is called 'Red Russia.'"

I leaned over to whisper-shout in Seralta's ear, "I don't think these kids were alive when Russia was red."
She grinned. "I know, but it's sweet in a way."

For many of us (even those of us who are ambivalent about it now), punk rock addressed the intimate levels of consciousness at which identification with, or against, authority was lived and felt: as meaningful embodiment or violent regulation. It also allowed some of us to interrogate the intimate levels of consciousness at which nationalism and democracy are lived and felt. Like riots, or punk songs, the theatricalization of political feeling had been a critical component of my subcultural romance with punk rock but also with this city. This is the city which saw Rock Against Reagan, War Chest Tours, the Gulf War riots, not to mention the countless bands that shouted and bled their politics on stage, on cue, much as No Hope For The Kids did at my last Gilman show.

So when we the punks, or the ex-punks, remember Ronald Reagan, it is with these elements — the passionate and blasphemous theater of punk rock — in mind. On the day of Reagan's final funeral procession, we came in twos and threes to meet in Dolores Park. We were dressed in our blue suits and red ties, uniforms hastily assembled from thrift store racks to emulate the favored attire of the deceased. We were a punk rock caucus of ragged Reagans.

It was a beautiful Friday afternoon in the Mission District, the same day of the final funeral procession that would straddle both coasts. Bearing makeshift icons of his presidency, we admired Gordon's red silk tie with the small hammer and sickle embroidered in gold thread, Anna's black umbrella with the words "STAR WARS" burned into its shade, and Michael's hand-made sign reading, "Newsflash! Reagan dead! Polluting trees suspected!" Someone had made small flyers for passersby who might inquire about our punk processional. Listing Reagan's abuses in Office, the flyer also read, with equal parts sincerity and sarcasm, "You touched us in ways we didn't want to be touched." We marched solemnly, and silently along the sidewalks of the Mission District (where so many Central American refugees from US-sponsored conflicts live) and through the Castro area (past an AIDS memorial remembering the thousands dead for Reagan's silence and inaction) with our signs about death squads and PATCO, Star Wars and homelessness. One cowboy-hatted Reagan passed out ketchup packets to confused, and amused, spectators.

Many who saw us during this mock funeral procession for Reagan supported us. The, too, seemed to feel that the Bay Area's punk movement was important. A young woman walked up to me to say she had just moved to San Francisco, and that our performance protesting this country's counter-institutional memory embodied the best of her arguments for moving to this city. Older gay men watched as we walked past, tears in their eyes and fists raised in salute. A middle-aged black woman took a flyer and declared out loud, to no one in particular, "I wondered when something was going to happen! And it's about time! I almost thought I wasn't in San Francisco, anymore!"

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