banged out

Apoem

is qualia

gleaned suddenly

typed self-satisfact orily

givvem too much importanc e

in the grand scheme of things

For Dadu

Poem

You will find me breathing

Inside of small daily places.

When your morning routine

Sighs in banality, look for me

In a stone bathtub filled with water,

A crowing bird on the sill,

In a whiff of chocolate hazelnut spread

Thickly on a toasted bread,

Look for my remembered shape

In the songs on the radio

In the static on the television

In the cold of the refrigerator

You will hear me saying,

Another day has broken

Like the yellow yolk of morning.

hella old, hella corny, hella nostalgia

The Gaslighter

I. The Reckless Rebels

And then suddenly, a hooded black dancer is shoved into the middle and he starts to explode, flailing his arms around like he’s trying to fling them out of the sockets. He begins to bend his knees to the ground, all the while spinning like a windmill. Then another one appears from the crowd and starts doing the same violent gyration, facing the first guy like a mating ritual. He crouches and kicks his legs out like a Brazilian street fighter. One by one, black leather clad dancers start popping into the center of the crowd and freaking out. Soon everyone on the periphery has to stand there with their elbows sticking out for protection while trying not to slip on the sweat and beer drenched ground.

Hardcore dancing is no misnomer.

The Reckless Rebels are banging it out on the stage. Greg, a well-muscled but gentle looking skinhead is shirtless and approaching the end of his Dadvar Bogie drum solo. Transitioning from erratic crash hits into militaristic doubles-bass rolls into random semi-automatic snare ratatats, Greg stands on his bench and does a backflip, as is customary at every Rebels show. The crowd whoops and yells, especially Sasha Dadvar, the dorky looking Persian kid after whom the song is named. The song continues with lead singer Ben Shannon swaggering out indecipherable lyrics into the microphone—a fault of both alcohol and the Gaslighter’s shitty PA system. Ben is rarely not soaked in whiskey and will be later kicked out of the band for his asshole alcoholic behavior. He is gauntly good-looking and detached, un-ironically wearing Raybans and a stiff pompadour. Kevin sports a quiff, or a kind of Mohawk-pompadour hybrid, round grampa glasses and a beautifully finished Gretsch (the preferred Rockabilly guitar) with dice for knobs. Brian, also in a pompahawk, either looks like he is making love to his stand-up bass, spinning it around like a salsa partner, or just beating the hell out of it.

The show continues until 11, when the house lights turn back on and the Misfits blare out of the speakers. All the kiddies shuffle out from the Gaslighter and spill out onto the railroad tracks where they continue to smoke, drink, and sulk until someone realizes they still have to get up for school in the morning.

II. Illusions and Shifting Meanings

The Secretions (known for letting a giant inflated penis loose into the crowd during shows. Hit single: The Boner Song.)

Abandoned Gas Pipe

Shinobu

Starving Millionaires (comprised of a bunch of guys who started Thrusth magazine. I still have the twenty dollar bill from them as my first money made from writing.)

The Henchies

The Moltov Cocktails

D.P. (stands for Double Penetration; dated the lead singer for a while until I found out he was a Republican)

Shit Outta Luck

The Symphonic Sprites (indeed both sprightly and symphonic)

Kreugenpansen’s Tea Party

You’ve got to wonder, though. How do they come up with these names? (The last one’s my own band, named after a fictional 17th-century German poet who throws these elaborate tea parties on tops of impossibly tall mountains.)

We’ve had the pleasure and privilege of playing with all of these and more ridiculously named bands during the final two years of the Gaslighter theater’s existence in downtown Campbell. Anyone can book a show there on a weeknight as long as they can get at least three other bands to fill the remaining time slots. On the weekends there are tawdry melodrama and vaudeville shows with heroic heroes and dastardly villains. Audience members are encouraged to show their disapproval by throwing powdery yellow popcorn at the stage. Being the major source of income for the theater, the main hall of the Gaslighter is accordingly set up to accommodate vaudeville. The ceilings and walls are corniced and painted in gaudy Rococo flourishes. A cloudy summer sky looms over the hall, all robin’s-egg-blues and moody greys, paneled in raised white wooden frames and gilded in cheesy gold paint. The walls are painted to emulate the trappings of a theater of yore. A trompe l’oeil mural of marble pillars and arching balcony windows encased in dark red velvet curtains with gold tassels wrap around the interior walls. It always gives me the creeps in the dark, somehow suggesting that John Wilkes Booth is lurking around, waiting to shoot you in the head. Strangely, the staircase leading to the real balcony is always barred by a metal gate and is the source of much speculation. Only the lighting-guy is allowed to climb it to bathe performers in red and blue filtered ambiance, a mist of light and sound that separates the stage from the floor.

III. Pals

“Oh shit,” said Smiley.

The Henchies were setting up to play while we were screwing around on the torn fold-down chairs.

“Are you kidding me right now?” laughed Bijon incredulously. “How could you forget to bring your guitar?”

“Oh shit,” Smiley said again and started laughing like a lunatic, his lanky blond hair swinging around his face.

“Ah, hello!” Bijon tapped the microphone. It screeched in feedback protest. “Hey does anyone have a fuckin’ guitar this guy can borrow? He forgot to bring his…fuckin’ idiot.”

I volunteered up my new cherry red Ibanez. We are all pals here.

IV. Trying to Look Cool

Apart from the main theater, the rest of the Gaslighterian architecture is all rock-n’-roll grunge. The experience really starts from the outside. You arrive at downtown Campbell and walk a couple blocks until you see the old-fashioned “Gaslighter Theater” sign lit up in lightbulbs over a triangular awning. The building itself is made of cream marble, with credible looking columns flanking each side of the entrance (built in 1920, it had been a bank and movie theater in its previous lives.) You know you’re at the right place because of the assemblage of punks and dolls milling around the entrance, waiting to enter fashionably late. The girls purse their lips and hug each other cautiously so as not to mess up their carefully coiffed pin-up do’s. They look like a bunch of Bettie Pages running around. The guys are always leaning up on something as if their skinny legs can’t support the weight of all the leather and studs. Their feet are comically huge in mile-high creepers and combat boots. You can also tell right away that there is no “scene” here. People are getting there fashions all mixed up. There are hardcore kids in quiffs and black bandannas and psychobilly kids in kutten vests and Doc Martens. There are horror punks in zombie makeup and crinoline. There is hardcore dancing during rockabilly shows and skanking during industrial metal. Everyone wears drainpipes. Here, the scene is fluid and negotiable and bound together by the basic punk conundrum of not caring and fitting in.

Unless you’re in a band or know how to negotiate the back entrance, you’re probably one of the kids trying to bum a cigarette or a couple bucks to see the show. You have a choice: either pay eight bucks at the door and get your hand stamped, or find an already stamped and willing friend, lick her hand, and press it to yours like a blood oath to never leave anyone behind; you peel your hand away to find that you are now one of the marked.

The foyer holds a bar, bathrooms, and the aforementioned elusive balcony staircase. The bar sells alcohol for the elderly and sody-pop for the rest of us. The prices are ridiculous. Four bucks for potato chips? Seriously? A decrepit piano lays off to the side like a wounded animal while bands set up their merch tables in front of it. The bathrooms are cramped, dirty, and written all over. There are two stalls but barely any room to fit even one generously sized lady punk. The locks don’t work. You have to piss real quick and pray that no one else has the same idea.

V. Big Country

Big Country sits impassively like a mountain Buddha. He is guarding the back door and smoking cigarettes. In a black t-shirt saying “SECURITY”, he is trustworthy and kind. But looking at his massive paws, you know he can subdue and unruly moshpit with a swipe and a scowl. Big Country is security.

Various different cliques form in the smoking area. Easily moved chain-link fences section off a part of the back parking lot where Big Country keeps guard, making sure no one gets in and out without a stamp. He is like a lazy mama hen. His leathery skin and the humongous gauges in his ear give him a distinctly pachydermish countenance. While kids sneak off behind the building to smoke a couple bowls, Big Country drinks beers and tells stories. He will usually ignore the water bottles filled with vodka but once in a while he’ll sweep everyone inside and tell us that there are cops nosing around, questioning the noise level and sobriety of the all-ages establishment.

VI. On Being Indestructible

Backstage at the Gaslighter, the cracked mirrors bear the thoughts of a thousand teenage minds.

“I love this place!” reads a Sharpied in graffiti, followed by many hearts.

“This place sucks” reads another.

Along with a heavy impasto of band stickers, these dialogs of scribbles and doodles candidly record the feeling of freedom and futility that comes with being young in Campbell, California.

Campbell, a small town in a woodsy part of Silicon Valley, is surrounded on all sides by the cities of San Jose and Los Gatos. San Jose is a sprawling metropolis with a population close to a million. As a city, it is vastly underrated due to its lack of flashy nightclubs and expensive boutiques. The gems of San Jose are more subtle, and lie in the wrinkles of the old chess players in the park, the slimy tricklings of the Guadalupe river and the dusty railroad tracks that offer a Kerouac-ian kind of vision of young runaways blithely hopping boxcars. Los Gatos, on the other hand, is a relatively tiny, leafy town, populated entirely by unbearably fancy residents who own multi-million dollar homes and buy their fruits on Sundays at the local farmer’s market. The kids in Los Gatos are notorious for drinking too much and killing themselves off in annual drunk driving accidents. The community remains horrified for about five weeks and puts on commemorative shows were tears are shed and packets of ecstasy pills are exchanged for cash in the back woods. The Gaslighter’s main patrons are thus a mix of these two local personalities: the dark, moody, broken-home youths and the ones who resent their moneyed lives and wish to soak up some of Campbell’s wrong-side-of-the-tracks appeal.

Also vernal drug mongers. Lots of them.

Aced is one such fresh entrepreneur. Although a talented skateboarder, his legal record in Utah is a bit spotty so he decided to leave behind his beloved mother and run away to his father in California. Their relationship is tense, to say the least. I had met Aced through out bassist Coree. We picked him up on our way to a show.

“You’ll like this guy,” Coree had said. “He’s a character.”

(Coree himself is a character straight out of an Irvine Welsh novel. The chemical cocktail coursing through his bloodstream at any given moment is potent enough to sedate a small wolverine. He wears a white lab coat splattered in fake blood and a little boy haircut he cut himself. Sometimes it seems that he can’t control his eyes and mouth. They twitch and flicker like a dying lightbulb into half-smiles and grimaces. Always sniffling, he’s a strange mixture of lost preschooler and narcotic butcher.)

Aced jumps into the backseat with his skateboard and we peel out to a liquor store to buy some cherry flavored cigarettes and maybe some tall cans. He and Coree talk wildly about nothing, interrup-rup-rupturing their words with nervous laughter and facial tics. Supplies acquired, we drive to the Gaslighter and park in its back parking lot. Immediately Aced starts to call people on his cellphone and an endless current of friends and customers flow in and out of the station-wagon. A bear-like Korean guy, an ex-pro-skater, collapses inside the car and pulls out a delicate glass instrument: a meth pipe. It looks like a clear straw attached to a fragile bubble. People huddle around it and thick coils of smoke curl around them like spirits.

This one very frail looking boy sits next to me. He looks exhausted with the cigarette in his hand and, I guess, life in general. I had seen him at the show where he was standing right next to the massive vibrating speakers. Scene kids tend to be such masochists, exposing themselves to obscene decibels of sound and absurd amounts of chemicals. It hurts it hurts it hurts they all say in the end anyway. It’s funny you know, the powers-that-be in these small cities support the local music scene, saying that it keeps kids away from drugs and alcohol. Offer them a safe alternative, right? They may have forgotten that drugs have been carved into the skin of music like some crazy tattoo that refuses to lose its brilliance after decades, maybe even centuries. From peyote spirit dances to Ray Charles to the rock-star-wannabe burnouts lining the bathroom stalls of clubs across the country, drugs and music have lived hand in hand like lovers. Now in modern times and the advent of the cult of personality, every little boy and girl imagines that they to can one day be glorified for living in a chemical stupor and become larger than life heroes with incredible livers. Throw in the frightening isolation and disillusionment of “growing up” and you have us: a furious generation.

VII. Shit Luck

I’ve been hearing rumors. I never believed them, because, where would we go? Certainly they must have thought of that, if nothing else…

As the meth pipe gets passed around, Aced reaches over and turns up the song to full blast on the car stereo.

This plane is definitely crashing

This boat is obviously sinking

This building’s totally burning down

And my, and my, and my, and my

And my heart is slowly drying up.

-Modest Mouse

A year after the front entrance was boarded up, my boyfriend Charles and I strolled past the Gaslighter. A dusty sign informed us that we couldn’t enter due to our lack of hard hats. I was wearing a soft one and felt it sufficiently protective for a bit of, err, research. In truth, we were curious and wanted to take home a piece of the blue-sky ceiling.

The entire place was gutted like a trout. Plastic sheeting hung half-heartedly—the dirty scales of a lifeless fish. There were no walls, only the dust on the ground and yellow hardhats strewn about. No illusory murals, only exposed brick. All that remained of the tiny bathrooms was a squatting, upturned toilet. The stage, now lit in dim daylight, looked terrible and so lonely. I found it suddenly depressing that I had ever stood on it. I squeezed Charles’s hand.

“Hey! You guys can’t be in here.” It was an enormous construction worker eating a ham sandwich. Where did he come from? Can someone this large really do construction?

“Sorry,” we mumbled and got the hell out of there, but not before I caught a quick glimpse of the ceiling—a cloudy summer sky still shone down.

The Gaslighter Theater closed on May 31, 2006 due to financial trouble and city politics. This event was foreshadowed in 2001 when owner Robin Swartz realized that she needed about $30,000 in order to keep the theater running. The economy was not doing well and the eight-dollar attendance was dwindling from a hundred to a mere thirty people per night. She was forced to put the theater on the market in November of that year. However, by January of 2002, Swartz managed to raise $15,000 by herself and started the “Save the Gaslighter Theater” campaign. Donations poured in from around the country, adding up to a total of $28,000. The theater stayed in business until 2006 when two staggeringly drunk fans at the Vex show started a fight that wound its way outside and turned into a street riot. The Gaslighter lost its alcohol permit and things went downhill from there. Attendance plummeted and the city of Campbell looked upon the Gaslighter as fly-paper for young troublemakers. With some crafty politics and money exchanges, the building was sold to become an ultra-lounge that promises Las Vegas type entertainment. The city of Campbell lost the only privately owned and operated music venue and theater in the area, leaving its regulars to hang out in thrift stores and half-built construction sites. The entire interior is being remodeled with the exception of the sky ceiling panels.

For old time’s sake.

IIX. Hello My Name Is

It is very easy to feel self important at the Gaslighter. You sometimes mistake the glazed look in people’s eyes for adoration when it’s mostly just disaffection. You confuse polite applause with adulation even though you know it’s a sociologically conditioned habit that follows performance. You forget that you’re slinging only five bucks worth of meth or two pills of ecstasy in used orange prescription bottles to bored highschool kids. You overlook the fact that your band will probably never get a record deal.

At the Gaslighter, you can always wear a blank name tag—to be filled in whenever and however you want.