Green Day, The Gilman Street Project And The Wide Reach of East Bay Punk
Veronica Irwin went to see Green Day live at Hyde Park at the weekend. Here she reflects on how they represent East Bay punk on an international scale.
"No racism, no sexism, no homophobia - and no Donald Trump." proclaims Billie Joe Armstrong in a throaty yell during Green Day's British Summer Time set in Hyde Park. Armstrong makes multiple anti-Trump statements during the show, but this one is an echo of the venue rules of a little punk club in Berkeley, California called 924 Gilman Street Project.
To be clear, the spray-painted sign in the entryway at Gilman doesn't mention Trump, and it does include a couple more rules and recent additions - including no alcohol, no drugs, no transphobia, and a $2 membership fee. Gilman is deliberately different to most punk rock spaces, mainly because it prioritises being a sober safe space for teenagers, addicts and every other kind of punk who might not feel at home in other parts of the scene. This is the club where Green Day started out, the club they regularly attended when Armstrong dropped out of school to focus on the band, and the club they left to sign with a major label and release breakthrough album Dookie in 1994.
924 Gilman is a DIY nonprofit venue, a cultural landmark, an all-ages, volunteer-run, drug and alcohol-free safe space, and a multigenerational independent collective. It is a space for a group of young people colloquially referred to as the ‘Gilman Rats’, many of whom come from troubled homes, no homes at all, or who struggle with addiction and mental health issues. They rely on Gilman for a bit of drug-free sanity and community, and all of the volunteers aim to support them first and foremost. Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, Tré Cool, and original drummer John Kiffmeyer used to be those kids. If you need proof, look at the club’s ceiling to see a big black wooden beam tagged with the group’s original name, Sweet Children.
As an East Bay University student living in London for the summer, I was surprised to see Gilman bands Green Day, SWMRS and Rancid (if you count their roots as Gilman ska-night legends Operation Ivy) on the bill. All of them coming from a club that adamantly protests the performance of any major-label artists (and at one point actually banned Green Day from the space for their mainstream popularity), each of these bands still proudly waves their East Bay flag high.
Green Day perhaps champion the club most of all - they hosted a massive Dookie-themed fundraiser at Oakland’s Fox Theater last fall and participated in a new Gilman-centred documentary Turn it Around: The History of East Bay Punk. The documentary focuses on Gilman’s status as the centre of the Oakland-area punk scene, and has multiple American premieres to coincide with the band’s stadium-filling tour dates. But there is always that conflict between the club’s deliberate underground nature and Green Day’s international, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame-status popularity.
When you ask regulars at 924 Gilman what they think of Green Day, you get mixed reactions. Long-time volunteer Chrystal will excitedly show you her Green Day- themed sneakers and all the Green Day pins she has fastened to her purse. Others will groan about what a hassle Green Day’s surprise show was back in the fall of 2015, when the club officially lifted the ban they had placed on the trio so that a fundraiser could be held for AK Press and 1984 Printing. It’s not hard to find a few regulars who argue that the Green Day name is something the club needs to escape altogether, that the fixation on Green Day is not just annoying but actually damaging to the club's ethos.
Maybe 924 Gilman doesn’t require Green Day's participation but it certainly accepts plenty of their help, and for good reason. The band never donates much directly (a gesture that would be even more problematic, although it always seems to come up), but they attach their name to fundraisers, make group appearances and post about the club to Armstrong's 1.5 million subscribers on Instagram. That Dookie fundraiser alone raised over $31,000 for the club.
And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the unquantifiable worth of having Green Day’s name associated with the place. Gilman is undoubtedly important outside of the band - it’s a landmark for the East Bay punk scene and a crucial community space for the punks who need it. But I initially came to Gilman as a lifelong Green Day fan looking to see evidence of the band’s history, and I'm not the only one. In my short time volunteering at the club, I sold tickets to at least three people asking if they'd found the place where Green Day used to play, or asking where the Green Day graffiti was. I quickly learned about how much more the club has to offer and, though I don’t physically show my face much anymore, I can always be counted on to donate to and defend 924 Gilman as long as it stands.
“I want to be a celebrity martyr,” sings Armstrong, on song ‘Bang Bang’ from the band’s newest album Revolution Radio, with fireworks and swinging bright lights as Armstrong runs across the stage, pelvic-thrusting and eventually singing softly on the floor. Maybe the lyric also refers to the cynical idea of a band cheesily appeasing their guilt about ‘selling out’, a band who unashamedly seized the chance of worldwide success. I’d argue Green Day do what any successful band ought to do: support the struggling clubs they come from.
Though Green Day’s success is particularly relevant to the East Bay, the importance of artist collectives is international. By nature, these organisations oftentimes don’t have the resources to keep their heads above water. They are constantly threatened by landlords until forcibly evicted, as in the case of Los Angeles’ The Smell, or they lie nervously under the radar until some horrible catastrophe shuts them down, as in the case of the Oakland Ghost Ship warehouse fire last winter. Green Day shouldn’t be glorified for their promotion of Gilman - but we can be pleased that that they recognise it.
Green Day’s performance at British Summer Time was absurdly fun, with Billie Joe at a charismatic high, bass player Mike Dirnt even breaking out of his stoic shell, and the ever-silly, bunny-suited Tré Cool highkicking so high I thought he'd fall over. But 100-person circle pits aside, the real highlight for me was when the band covered Operation Ivy’s debauched hit ‘Knowledge’, paying tribute to the other most famous Gilman band and thus paying direct homage to their roots at the Berkeley collective.
Walking around Hyde Park that day, I saw more East Bay punk gear than merch for any other group - hand-sharpied SWMRS hats, Rancid back-patches and of course an endless sea of Green Day Revolution Radio T-shirts. I even physically ran into a girl in a moshpit with Gilman’s front-door mantras printed on her T-shirt in the exact font and order. She didn’t know where the message on her top came from (apparently just bought the shirt on Amazon - whoever is copying Gilman without credit I demand to know), but she’s proof that my college town’s reach in music goes far and wide. Thus, Green Day’s British Summertime show stood as a testament to the international power of East Bay punk and, more importantly, the powerful and significant space that is 924 Gilman.