Green Day at 924 Gilman in the early 1990s. Murray Bowles
Green Day at 924 Gilman in the early 1990s. (Murray Bowles)

Facing Gentrification, 924 Gilman's Stability Boosted by Green Day Tribute

Facing Gentrification, 924 Gilman's Stability Boosted by Green Day Tribute

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Billie Joe Armstrong still has the date memorized: Sept. 6, 1993.

That's the last time Green Day was allowed to play at 924 Gilman before signing to a major label -- and consequently seeing their faces plastered on Rolling Stone, their videos on MTV and their Warner Bros. debut Dookie eventually sell a staggering 20 million copies worldwide.

Here in the Bay Area, Dookie marked the point at which the band no longer belonged to us. Green Day swiftly belonged to the world, and the split was not wholly amicable: the punk scene around 924 Gilman, which already bred contempt for Green Day's melodic music and “normal” fan base, was particularly damning. Branded sellouts, Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool were famously banned from playing the stringently anti-major-label collective that they once called home.

Green Day returning to 924 Gilman, May 17, 2015.
Green Day returning to 924 Gilman, May 17, 2015. (Gabe Meline)

But the last few years have seen a slowly shifting reconciliation. First, Armstrong's other band Pinhead Gunpowder returned to play a pair of shows at Gilman. Then a new sound system showed up at the club, paid for by members of the band. Finally, last year, the unthinkable happened: Green Day was welcomed back to play a show at Gilman -- and in the wake of being inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, at that.

This week, the reunion continues when Dookie is paid tribute by 15 different Bay Area bands in an epic tribute produced by UnderCover Presents at the Fox Theater in Oakland. Along with diverse acts like the Jazz Mafia, La Plebe, MC Rai and Goodnight, Texas, some not-so-secret special guests have been teased as headliners on social media.

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The entire show is a benefit for -- you guessed it -- 924 Gilman, to help the collective buy their modest little building in a Berkeley neighborhood that's gentrifying faster than the rapid-fire drum fill that kicks off Dookie’s first track "Burnout."

Ghoul perform at 924 Gilman in 2015.
Ghoul perform at 924 Gilman in 2015. (Taylor Keahey/Flickr)

Some Call it Slums, Some Call it Nice

"At this point, 30 years on, Gilman is accepted as a revered Berkeley institution, a cultural landmark," says Jesse Townley, a longtime Gilman volunteer, as well as a musician, the general manager of record label Alternative Tentacles, and a member of Berkeley’s rent stabilization board. "Which is bizarre, considering at one point I watched a member of the [Berkeley] zoning board call us a festering sore."

Of all the challenges faced by the club in its 30 years in existence -- struggles to make rent, skepticism and worse from neighbors and police, the inevitable personnel turnover and inefficiencies that come with any all-volunteer, collectively-run enterprise --the biggest threat to 924 Gilman's continued existence has been the land it sits on. Or, rather, its potential value to developers.

The building's landlord Jim Widess, who runs the adjacent Caning Shop, has always been above-and-beyond welcoming to the club, says Kamala Lyn Parks -- a longtime volunteer who, alongside Townley, is steering much of Gilman's current fundraising efforts. (Both organizers are adamant that they do not represent the collective; they're merely longtime friends of the club working to help stabilize it financially.) Widess' hospitable attitude toward the club is the only thing that allowed Parks and her co-founders, Victor Hayden and Maximumrocknroll’s Tim Yohannan, to establish 924 Gilman there in the first place, in 1986.

Jesse Townley (at left), fronting the band Blatz at 924 Gilman in the early 1990s.
Jesse Townley (at left), fronting the band Blatz at 924 Gilman in the early 1990s. (Murray Bowles)

But the nicest landlord in the world can't stem the tide of what organizers see as an inevitable tide of gentrification in West Berkeley, one of the last traditionally industrial areas in the city.

First it was the Pyramid Alehouse that proved the street's viability as a commercial corridor. In 2013, a plan was drawn up to modify the zoning for all of Gilman from 6th Street to San Pablo Avenue as retail, according to Townley -- a move that would have sent the rent per square foot at 924 Gilman skyrocketing.

"So I took two then-current collective members with me to talk to the mayor, to talk to city council members, and we said 'If you do this, you're going to be pricing out this iconic cultural resource. Don't do this,'" says Townley, who's become heavily involved in local politics over the course of his years advocating for 924 Gilman. "[Local government officials] know me by now; they know me as someone who came out of Gilman Street. And the proposal that moved forward to City Council excluded Gilman's side of the street from 8th down to 6th Street. Just because we showed up to talk about it."

In the wake of the rezoning, characterized by Townley as "a wake-up call," a Philz Coffee and Whole Foods opened just blocks from the club.

The rules posted at the entry to 924 Gilman.
The rules posted at the entry to 924 Gilman. (Courtesy 924 Gilman)

Because of the neighborhood's rapid changes, together with the club's 30th anniversary this year and its newfound nonprofit status, 2016 seemed like a good year to launch efforts to buy the club. The ultimate goal, says Parks, is to raise $1 million, but if they manage $600,000 or $700,000, organizers will feel good about making Widess an offer.

One thing working in the club's favor that certainly wasn't the case 30 years ago: Rarely does anyone call it a "festering sore" anymore. After three decades of building relationships with neighbors, 924 Gilman has a widespread legacy of being, well, exactly what its founders proclaimed it to be: a safe, all-ages space that actively bans drugs, alcohol, and violence. A venue for young, outspoken bands who wouldn't be welcomed at more traditional rock clubs. And as a community center for kids who might not feel they belong elsewhere, it's more than proven its worth.

"There are generations that have passed through here," says Parks. That "alumni" base means parent-teen teams doing volunteer shifts together; it also means, since launching the fundraiser, that Parks is hearing from former Gilman-goers as far off as New Zealand. "People are donating money, writing in to say 'I moved away years ago, but...it's still such a special place to me.'"

A fan sings along with Billie Joe Armstrong at 924 Gilman in the early 1990s.
A fan sings along with Billie Joe Armstrong at 924 Gilman in the early 1990s. (Murray Bowles)

And then, of course, it's impossible to ignore the part of Gilman's legacy that comes from having been the breeding ground for Green Day, who parlayed their popularity in the underground scene into widespread commercial success on a major label -- a decision that the band made, Parks notes, while wholly understanding its consequences. Whether or not you find it ironic that Dookie, the record that launched a thousand accusations of "sellout!", would be the album around which the biggest 924 Gilman fundraiser ever would coalesce -- well, that probably depends on your age.

Parks is diplomatic in acknowledging the tension; she says organizers plan to touch on it during the live show. The record remains divisive after all these years, and she understands why some longtime Gilman people might be upset. And yet.

"Another real big thing that's different now is a number of current Gilman volunteers got into punk through Green Day," she says. "You're talking about a whole new generation."

Grasping to Control: Reinterpreting a Classic

Upon its release, 'Dookie,' and the multinational corporation which released it, were scorned by many Gilman regulars.
Upon its release, 'Dookie,' and the multinational corporation which released it, were scorned by many Gilman regulars. (Gabe Meline)

That very new generation speaks to a plain truth: Whatever the album originally meant to the scene around Gilman, out in the wild Dookie resonated with teenagers everywhere.

Brian Adam McCune was one of those teenagers, growing up on the East Coast in a household that played “either ultra-Christian music, or salsa-merengue-cumbia dance music.” After he came across the video for “Basket Case” on MTV, Dookie became the first CD that McCune ever went out and bought, lured by its themes of alienation, bisexuality, weed, boredom -- essentially a laundry list of a teenage boy's mind. “It was finally something that spoke to me at the verge of adolescence,” he says.

McCune is the guest musical director for this week's Dookie tribute, and at a time when note-for-note cover bands and in-its-entirety album tours are rampant with nostalgia for the '90s on full blast, he's done something very refreshing. Rather than validating fans' teenage years by recreating Dookie’s style, he's urged the bands involved to drastically reinterpret the album's songs.

Awesöme Orchestra Collective rehearsing F.O.D. with Tilt and Bill Collins. See it live on Friday, February 19th at The Fox! #Dookie2016

Posted by UnderCover on Sunday, February 14, 2016

“I'm not interested in re-recording it," McCune says. "They already did it right."

Hence, "She" becomes a barren minor-key desert ballad in the hands of Goodnight, Texas. "Longview" gets a completely dazzling, intricate choral arrangement by the Jazz Mafia's Choral Syndicate. "Chump" is a gospel-funk burner by Sal's Greenhouse and "Welcome to Paradise" is a prog-rock fantasy by Moetar.

“Part of why I picked this album," explains McCune, "is that the pop-punk idiom, by the nature of its deceptive simplicity, is a really strong springboard to jump off in any direction.” So while "F.O.D." by Tilt with the Awesöme Orchestra hews closer to Green Day's original version, there's also an "Arabic Urban Rai Fusion" version of "Sassafras Roots," as well as the Fuxedos' demented comedic reworking of "Basket Case."

"Longview" recording session at Fantasy Recording Studios with Jazz Mafia. Many thanks to Larceny Bourbon for keeping this choir loose. #Dookie2016

Posted by UnderCover on Thursday, October 8, 2015

It's reassuring, too, that La Plebe and Love Songs, bands who have been house favorites at Gilman for over 10 years, are part of the action. McCune says that until taking on this tribute, he was unaware that Dookie caused such fury at Gilman upon its release -- and is glad to see some long-ago burned bridges being rebuilt.

“It has been really heartwarming to see how much people are making amends with the past, and are forgiving, and coming together to do something good," McCune says. "That's what music should do, right?”


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UnderCover Presents 'A Tribute to Dookie' on Friday, Feb. 19, at the Fox Theater in Oakland; details here. Ongoing support for 924 Gilman can be accessed here.