Punk in San Francisco: Alive and Well and Get Dead

“When did punk rock become so safe?” That was the line branded into the conscience of the punk community by NOFX in 2003 when they released The War on Errorism, at long last the first NOFX album to be put out on Fat Wreck Chords, the perennial and unkillable punk label of NOFX frontman, Fat Mike. This lament of whitewashed, co-opted punk almost certainly came from an honest place, but it was immediately taken to task and thrashed by Propagandhi in 2005, who taunted “‘When did punk rock become so safe?’ You’ll excuse me if I laugh in your face as I itemize your receipts and PowerPoint your balance sheets” directly on to a record that was also released by Fat Wreck. It’s a natural human tendency to worry that whatever you love most has become worse, to believe in the steady decline of all things. It’s also nearly a fact that punk and organization, or punk and money, or punk and actionable political philosophy can never exist in a stable, homogeneous mixture. The two repel, like oil and water, and they function together only at brief moments, when the industrial mixer of a particularly undeniable show or some other momentous event forcibly creates a temporary emulsion of such unlike forces. These spectacles provide a false hope, and the mixture always separates out in the fridge, with both sides licking their wounds and no truth discovered.

Well that’s fine. Let the veterans of Fat Wreck duke it out and jab each other in the kidneys like journeymen boxers filling out the rounds, because I recently saw a show by a young Fat band that didn’t give one fuck about such fine points. On September 22nd, 2015, if you were lucky enough to be in the small upstairs room of the DNA Lounge in San Francisco, you got to see a rad local punk show and leave knowing that not all punk rock has become “so safe.”

Get Dead and friends, 9/22/15 at DNA Lounge
Get Dead and friends, 9/22/15 at DNA Lounge.

The show was headlined by the Fat-signed Get Dead, a San-Francisco-bred punk band that now hails from all across the bay area, San Jose to northeast of the Bay Bridge, and it had a supporting bill that punched way above its rightful weight. The openers were the Lucky Eejits, a three-piece band that has got to represent all that is unsafe about punk rock. Based in Oakland, they’ve been around about six years, and besides the generic share of terrible luck that is the birthright of all punk bands, they’ve had an extra truckload in the past year, more than living up to the sadistic irony that their name tempts. First, early in the year, they had all their stuff stolen after a road show in southern California, and they launched a gofundme that never quite reached half its goal. They regrouped from this only to lose their bassist, Emilio Nevarez, a few months later, killed in the street by a stray Oakland bullet as he was loading the van after a show. The purposelessness of this random violence is only bested by its sadness, having taken from the world an able-bodied 26-year-old, whose family and bandmates (and probably everybody else) loved him. As chance would have it, the tragic show itself was a birthday celebration for Get Dead’s guitarist Moki, adding gravity to the bands’ recent pairing at DNA Lounge for anybody who was aware of local history.

The Lucky Eejits
The Lucky Eejits playing their hearts out. RIP Emilio.

On this night, though, without forgetting Emilio, the Eejits ripped a professional and dedicated set, all hooks and talent above an energetic pop-punk base. The standout by far, however, was the closing song: they had written a memorial for Emilio, with a call-and-response chorus, and it was impossible not to eat it up. The new bassist was apparently a friend of Emilio’s, and if there is any sort of afterlife, that guy has to be smiling in it every time his band plays that song, because that thing crushes. Hats off to the Eejits for continuing to survive and for perpetuating and spreading the legacy of their friend; we should all be so lucky to have such a song written about us once in our lives, even if it’s posthumous. Rest in peace, Emilio. If you’re interested, and you should be, the next best spot to see the Lucky Eejits is in a few days over in Richmond.

Civil War Rust
Civil War Rust doing a badass job.

After the Lucky Eejits, another local favorite, Civil War Rust, took the stage. I’d been hearing about these guys for a few years but had never seen them, so I was stoked to check another thing off my local punk bucket list. Four seconds in, a distinct new mood had overtaken the room, a darker edge of punk punching and seeping its way into the crowd. I could be wrong, but I think they started with “Hymns of the Canary” off their LP, and it immediately dripped with an irrepressible red-wine-and-slit-your-wrists ambiance, like the best of an Alkaline Trio song. This tenor continued without pause, pairing often with high-energy screamed sections that reminded me of Finch or maybe Taking Back Sunday or maybe even Leftover Crack. These definitely-inaccurate comparisons then mixed and baked with an unmistakable spicing of barroom brawl and street punk singalong, busting out of the oven like a perfect bay area punk rock pie. You want to drink alone to Civil War Rust? Easy. You want to drink to it with friends and yell along in each other’s faces and get a noise citation? Also easy. I was impressed end to end with the set, and I fully plan to see these guys again, maybe even next Tuesday at Bottom of the Hill, when they play with New Orleans hardcore act PEARS. For $10. What. You can’t beat this scene.

Clowns going nuts
Clowns clownsing.

When Civil War Rust wrapped up, it was time for Clowns, Get Dead’s tour partner from down under. I think most Americans have an image of Australia as a Mad-Max-style alternate reality, full of lawlessness, dangerous animals, and substance abuse. And if that is not true, then they should stop sending bands like Clowns over here, because all they did for 30 minutes was embody and perpetuate exactly that image. Clowns plays a flavor of hardcore, rip-your-nails-out hair-punk that is mostly indecipherable in terms of melody and lyrics, but their stage show is as clear and direct as a speech therapist speaking to you slowly through noise-canceling headphones: “THIS. IS. A. PUNK. MUSIC. SHOW. YOU. SHOULD. STOP. STANDING. STILL. LIFE. IS. SHORT. AND. DEATH. IS. CLOSE.” All of them had long hair and dirty shoes. I think several of them had Flying V’s they were playing hard enough that I’m sure the things would have filed abuse reports after the set if they could have.

Clowns the band
Lead singer of Clowns lying on the floor after jumping there. Don’t believe the distressed look; he’ll bite if you get close.

And the lead singer. Now there was the secret sauce for Clowns. This guy spent more time lying on the ground underfoot of the crowd than he did on stage, frothing and spitting and perpetually lashed down by a boa constrictor mic cable like a rabid dog that had gotten trapped in a recording studio. He was the embodiment of a loose id, simultaneously connected to the music both deeply and almost not at all, the word-made-flesh of an uncontrolled, phantasmagoric scream. It was a great musical thing, and anybody foolish enough to touch him during this transcendent seance, possibly to try to untangle him or help him up, well they got a both-sided death grip by the shoulders and a hostile open-mouth kiss until they could forcibly push him off. Clowns was not interested in converts or in taking prisoners. They came to stamp our tickets with an Aussie flag and to tell us that we had inferior hair. For what it’s worth, their recorded music sounds ace, and if anything in the prior description piqued your interest, you should check it out. It’s like a hard-boiled Misfits with more screaming and slightly better recording, the musical equivalent of an underground skate tape on VHS or a punk dive bar bathroom, where the stall has a curtain instead of walls and the surrounding crusted coating of profane stickers looks load-bearing.

Get Dead at DNA Lounge
Get Dead showing you what local punk can do. Punk’s not dead; you are.

When the dust had barely settled from this penal colony departure, Get Dead began to materialize, emerging steadily from back rooms, from the still-warm pit, from the shadowy walls where they had been finishing beers and taking in the spectacle of Clowns. Stepping on to the stage, they assembled with purposeful regularity, like a Voltron sponsored by whiskey and bad decisions, work clothes unchanged and hands stained with paint. In their element, game faces effortlessly on, fully in the moment, like the lion pacing its favorite stomping ground. In case anybody in the room didn’t yet believe that local punk rock was about passion and had nothing to do with playing life safe, Sam King and the rest of Get Dead were preparing for their singular mission to disabuse them of that false notion.

Sam of Get Dead singing
Characteristic shot of Sam singing for Get Dead, eyes closed and focusing.

“Bartender, please, don’t talk to me!” This line might as well have been Reveille on the morning of battle for the Get Dead faithful. The steady ranks of the crowd, before then milling shapelessly behind the pit, suddenly surged forward, as the true believers recognized their opening anthem and pushed into the near-stage lighting. Sam, the lead singer, seemingly fit to the role like Babe Ruth to a baseball field, eyed them and bent over, thrusting and sharing the mic out to a screaming trio with arms locked in a savage chorus line, neck veins visible from the strain of yelling. “It’s 6am. I’ve been waiting…for a shot and the jukebox, not to make a friend…”

I’ve seen Get Dead many times, and they’ve disappointed me zero times. Working-class poetry is hard enough to find in its own era, but that same poetry grafted onto undeniable music at a seamless, basic level, art in the raw coming from maybe unlikely lives—finding that is like tripping on the Hope diamond in the rough, just sticking straight out of the concrete of your block in front of your bus stop. I feel like I see this immediately and it’s only a matter of time before everybody else catches on, at which point I won’t ever have the euphoria of seeing them in a half-full medium-size venue ever again. For now, I’m thankful every time I hear those opening lines, and my neck veins fill from singing until I have to choose between taking a breath and passing out.

Sam keeping punk rock unsafe
Get Dead hanging from the rafters. When did punk rock become so safe? Maybe when you stopped going to the right shows.

So I get too wrapped up in these thoughts, and I barely notice as Sam pauses between songs and looks up. The small room at DNA Lounge is upstairs, and the exposed rafters are right above our heads, forming the final bracing before the outside roof just a few feet higher up. Seconds later, I’m dragged fully back to the moment, as Sam is upside down. He’s hooked his legs over a beam after an impromptu pull-up and is singing with the same investment and gesticulations that he has when planted on terra firma. I don’t think it was a death wish, but it wasn’t a life wish, either. Or maybe it was. It felt, really, like an embracing of the passion and spontaneity that Get Dead’s music clearly still arouses in its own members. They are all obviously so far from being tired of their own music, of shows, of the local scene or bar stages or a free drink tab. The adventure is still raw and new, shining out of an upended-voice through an SM58. You can feel it. None of them does this as a day job, so when you see them, you’re both at the party. For me, there’s nothing better than that or more punk than that. This is basement punk music in all the best ways, and if I could bottle it, I’d save one to open on my deathbed.

Show fallout
Participation awards from the Get Dead show. “Grit them teeth and get those scars, hold your head up in those bars. Love will come and go again, there’s always broken hearts.”

Of course, I plan on being at the Hemlock Tavern, one of my favorite punk dives (including the curtain-stall toilet and load-bearing stickers), on December 10th to see Get Dead’s next show, and you should definitely do the same. Or don’t, because the more you keep sleeping, the longer I get to enjoy them up front, upside down, unpretentious, and unsafe, a local punk rock nebula that will soon be one of its blazing stars, if there’s any justice or taste left in the world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *