Performance group Contraband, in the Mission's Gartland Pit, 1986. (L-R) Jess Curtis, Keith Hennessy, Brenda Munnell, Sara Shelton Mann. (Jeanne Hansen)
A topless bride entering a nightclub, bouquet in one hand, cigarette in the other. Performance art presented in a literal pit on Valencia Street. A band meeting held in the sliver of space between two houses. All are moments from Alternative Voices—an exhibit featuring black-and-white photos by Jeanne Hansen, taken in and around San Francisco's underground 1980s punk scene.
Displayed on the lower level of the San Francisco Public Library and accompanied by interviews by Jonah Raskin with 16 scene regulars from the era, Alternative Voices offers snippets from Hansen and Raskin's new book of the same name, alongside zines, flyers and other ephemera. The exhibit works as a time machine back to a San Francisco long since vanished, and a window into the shows, protests, punk houses and venues of the period.
The venues, in particular, offer vivid context for where all the action used to be. Before The Stud became a beloved landmark, it was Club Nine, punk rock venue. Where Amado's now stands at 998 Valencia, there was The Offensive—a venue perfectly in line with its next-door neighbor, the (still standing) Artists' Television Access performance space. There was Club Foot in the Bayview, which spawned a house band called the Club Foot Orchestra that still performs today. What was once The Sound of Music at 162 Turk Street is now just another nondescript building in the Tenderloin. And one has to wonder which apartment block on 15th and Ramona once housed a club named Attitude.
Most fascinating of all was The Deaf Club, upstairs at 530 Valencia (now Los Amigos restaurant). By day, the venue was a community center for the deaf. By night, Daphne Hanrahan, then-manager of The Offs, would rent the club to put on punk shows. Deaf patrons quickly discovered that they loved the genre, and became regular attendees. Penelope Houston of The Avengers (not featured in Alternative Voices) once said of the club: “It was kind of amazing. I think they were dancing to the vibrations. The deaf people were amused that all these punks wanted to come in and rent their room and have these shows.” Alternative Voices features footage of a 1979 show at the club, borrowed from BAMPFA.
Where this exhibit gets stymied, however, is in its presentation of the interviews from the book. The photos lose some of their immediacy and impact because of the sheer length—and number—of interview texts also on the walls. Alternative Voices would have greatly benefited by using select quotes from these conversations under each of the photos to contextualize them. Instead, attendees are met with scores of paragraphs from people they've likely never heard of.
The issue is exacerbated by the narrow demographics of the interview pool. Eleven of the subjects are men, five are women (two of whom come from the same band, Frightwig), and all of them appear to be white, undercutting many of their mid-interview assertions about diversity within the scene.
"When the punk scene first started, it meant everything from three-chord hardcore bands to the most experimental performance art and everything in between," says Robin Balliger from The Appliances in her displayed interview. "There was a lot of crossover with Black music and hip-hop. That's missing from the history."
It's also missing from this exhibition.
In his interview, Matt Callahan from The Looters says, "We did our best to break the music industry's rules and undermine white supremacy, which Reagan helped to boost." It would have been significantly more meaningful to hear more about this—and about operating in a white-dominated scene—from one of Callahan's Black bandmates. Drummer Ahaguna Sun, for example, who currently resides in Sacramento.
If you're patient enough to wade through information about people's hometowns and schools—details best left in the book—some of the stories in Alternative Voices' interviews are very entertaining.
Tony Labat, a local artist, shares a tale about one of the most terrifying nights of his life. "When Club Nine was about to open, I decided to do a kind of stunt, and bring attention to the event," he says. "I climbed a flagpole about twelve feet high with the help of a ladder, and sat on a little platform for about six hours. I'm super afraid of heights and was shaking the whole time."
One of Hansen's photos captures Labat perched precariously on the top of the flagpole.
Damage writer and Deaf Club door guy Stannous Flouride offers some colorful notes about squatting. "I was part of the Suicide Club," Flouride explains, "an early expression of urban spelunkers, who went on outings at the abandoned National Guard Armory at 15th and Mission and at the Hamm's Brewery on 16th and Potrero. Someone got a hold of a jackhammer, which we used to take out the doors and open holes in the giant tanks, and make living spaces. Punks moved in and squatted. It became known as The Vats." [Editor's note: Punk rock memories are famously fallible. The Hamm's brewery, and The Vats squat, was not at 16th and Potrero; it was at 1550 Bryant. The Armory was not 15th and Mission, but was and still stands at 14th and Mission.]
Ultimately, Alternative Voices does do a very good job at encapsulating a very specific underground moment in San Francisco history—and it benefits from staying focused on the periphery. Though Dead Kennedys and Flipper get passing mentions, the better-known San Francisco punk artists of the era are decidedly not the focus here. Hansen's lens was, instead, trained on the scrappers and rabble-rousers at the back of the room. Because of that, the scene she presents here still feels fresh, even after 40 years.