The Ghost Ship fire was five nights ago. When I started to write this, helicopters were circling over the vigil at Lake Merritt. I know someone who perished there — not well, but we’d been in each other’s orbits for more than a decade. In that way, the tragedy feels very close. At the same time, it feels very far away, or at least universal: every third news story on NPR this week has been about the blaze, the dead, the missing, the scene, the relative legality of it all; every other post on Facebook, the same. This is a big story, a national story. It’s making waves all over the world, twisting the hearts of anyone who has ever set foot in a space like that one. Though I’ve never been to The Ghost Ship, though I’ll be 45 in February and electronic music hasn’t ever really been my thing, though I now live in the nicest neighborhood I’ve inhabited my whole adult life and I make more money than I ever have, the nerve net of the Bay Area arts scene — underground and above — is one I count on, one that picked me up upon my arrival here and never really let me go.
I have been to a handful of shows this year in less-than-legal spaces, warehouses and churches and mysterious rooms that bear no obvious original provenance. And every time I’ve felt old and a little awkward … at first. But then I’ve felt wonderful. I invariably switch into a maternal gear, or a nostalgic and proud one. Most of the time I hang back but, once in a while, I’ll step to the front. And I’ve never felt unwelcome, not in either scenario.
All weekend long I have been talking to people who were once or twice removed from the fire: some of us once lived in places like The Ghost Ship; almost all of us played music or made art or, at the very least, attended events in places similar. And though we’ve now mostly turned our creative drive to things like small businesses and families and nonprofits and dirty novels we hammer away at on the side, this whole thing just feels so fucking personal, even if we didn’t know anyone involved. So again: so close. But also weirdly far away. Because we all got to grow up and try to make the world better, standing on the leafy, freaky canopy of decades of Bay Area underground art, attending an underground show once in a while to keep a toe in, to rub up against that electric buzz of possibility and fearlessness again before heading back to our safer lives. The 30+ people we lost Friday night won’t get to do that — if that would have even been their choice — and we’re all the worse for it.
I’m really just trying to wrap my head around it, and the only way I think I can is to follow my own story back to when I was first embraced by Bay Area weirdness, and how I learned to hug it back.
I moved to Oakland in the summer of 2001, from Tampa, Florida. I’d gone to college in Tampa, taking my time getting my B.A.. After graduating I moved to San Diego for less than 11 ill-conceived months, then moved back to Florida. Over the 12 years I lived in Tampa, I built a very comfortable life for myself — by the time I was 29, I had a music column for the weekly newspaper, many good friends, and a cheap, one-bedroom, tall-ceilinged apartment that took up half the ground floor of a beautiful old house on the corner of Gentri and Fication. I thrift-shopped on weekends, marveled at hurricane sunsets, and drank free at bars. But I didn’t want to stay. Later I would come to realize that that’s just what some people — lots of people — do. You keep moving until you don’t want to move anymore. But at the time, I just felt too weird, too unsettled, too ambitious to stay where I was. When my mother died after many years of illness, I used her life insurance money to move to the Bay Area.
Like San Diego, this move was done sight unseen. Like San Diego, I didn’t have a huge network upon arrival. The first move was done to be with my high school best friend; the second move, to Oakland, was to be with the only three friends that she and I had made while we lived in SD. (That high school best friend went to LA, where she remains happily ensconced to this day.) Only one of those friends, Jeff, was already established in The Town, and really only just barely. The rest of us were making it up as we went along.
I didn’t want to go back to journalism. I’d always felt an odd fit there — I wasn’t a news reporter (though I would occasionally try) and, even at my most creative, I always feared my words were likely getting read on the toilet and then tossed. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, other than be a part of something more permanent. I was 29 and basically starting over. I slept on Jeff’s couch until I got an apartment, no easy feat with bad credit and no job. I ended up giving almost all of that life insurance money to a landlord, paying 12 months’ rent in advance. (I quickly applied for food stamps, and eventually got a job temping for Alameda County.) I spent all my time at Jeff’s house, anyway. We all did. Four or five or six people lived there at a time, and there was always someone sleeping on the couch. (A few years later I’d be a permanent resident of one of the bedrooms for a while. That’s when I met sweet, unique Donna Kellogg, who died at Ghost Ship; at the time she was still living in Chico but would come to town to visit one of the other housemates.) I’d lived in a house like this back in Florida, where bands practiced in the garage and we hosted backyard parties all year long. At Jeff’s house, the band practiced in his large bedroom; eventually, everyone who lived or hung out there joined the band, including me. For our first show, at the Stork Club, the dozen or so of us didn’t even all fit on the stage.
Though I’d been deeply embedded, both personally and professionally, in the Tampa music scene, I’d only very nominally played in a band before, a folky trio called Captains of Love in San Diego that was basically just my two friends and I playing in my bedroom; we played two whole shows in all those 10 1/2 ill-conceived months. And ultimately the thing that sent me scurrying back east from SD was that the music scene there never really let me in, not as a fan or a player. In Tampa the scenes were tiny, the larger music scene only a little bigger than that. Aside from some very notable exceptions, it was predictably male-dominated. But as a columnist and a fan, a friend and sometime girlfriend, I felt very much a part of it. And yet it never occurred to me to sneak my way in by picking up a shaker and singing harmonies into a mic.
But that’s what happened within months of landing on the shores of Oakland: I was singing backup in the Flimsy Vessels. And after a few months of that, two of the other women sitting on the edge of the bed singing harmonies with me asked me to secede. So I did. We tapped another girlfriend (the late, lamented, and immensely talented Roberta de Camargo Blake) to play bass, asked one of the guys in the larger band to play drums, and there we were: The Heart Pattern. I borrowed Jeff’s Korg synthesizer to disguise the fact that I could only play basic chords and, before long, we were playing a house party in West Oakland with Experimental Dental School and The Graves Family. (I could write a whole other blog entry about the folks who lived at that house and the one next door. I thought I was too weird for Tampa; but these people, some of whom I’d eventually become dear friends with, seemed too weird for words.)
Despite the fact that we weren’t really that good, The Graves Family took a shine to us, inviting us to play with them at the 40th Street Warehouse (closed now, like all the spaces I’ll call by name in this entry, although this one gets a special shout-out for currently sitting unused in what’s now one of the coolest urban retail corridors in town). I remember trying to figure out what to wear — I’d been to 40th Street and, at 29, I felt older than everyone else that hung out there. I was definitely the oldest in my band. So I chose my thrift-store skirt, black tank, and boots with care, wanting to look cool, sexy, a little strange, and definitely rock ‘n’ roll. We finished our short set with “Hope Is Wet,” a lengthy song I sang lead on, about watching the world change around you while you remain too much the same; when we were done, two guys came up and asked me what I did for work. By then I’d quit my temp job and gone crawling back to weekly journalism, as an editorial assistant for the East Bay Express, so I told the guys I worked at a newspaper.
“Why do you ask?”
“We were placing bets on what you did,” one of them answered. “He said librarian. I said schoolteacher.”
In retrospect, this was probably not an insult. (My husband has assured me of this in the years since.) But I was feeling self-conscious and therefore took it as such. This would bode accurately for my relationship with making art going forward: I would go on to play in other bands periodically over the decade that followed, but I was never comfortable post-performance. I liked to be in the art, making it; and then I liked to go back to being an observer, a part of the crowd. That’s probably why I eventually settled down to writing, which a therapist once compared to a high school boyfriend I couldn’t break up with. But at least I can hang out with him all by myself.
I would go back to 40th Street many times after that. I gradually became more comfortable there, more comfortable in my own skin thanks to warm weirdness of the community (and saw some killer shows to boot). I have no illusions about how odd I really was — I am a straight, white, cis female with a BMI that mainstream medicine deems ideal. In these spaces, it didn’t matter: I could be as weird as I wanted to be, or try for extreme normcore. The strange electric buzz of the underground arts scene took all comers, and nowhere was it more palpable than in these illegal spaces. As my identity progressed, as I played in a samba troupe and a country-folk band and produced a play and narrated shadow puppet shows, I knew I could always count on these spaces, and the special souls who inhabited them, for a jolt of the new, the lovely, the oddly fabulous.
A few years later I hooked up with the Kitchen Sink magazine crew that threw parties at Liminal Gallery, LoBot, the French Fry Factory, and others. Liminal (and its neighbor space, Gramma’s House) inspired one of my only cover stories for the Express. That article attempted to grapple with underground art spaces, gentrification, and Oakland’s creative legacy, three things we’re all struggling with again in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire.
The underground space I’ve visited the most in in recent years — only recently closed — was Ghost Town (née The W.C. née The Creamery, all incarnations I experienced) where I used to joke that I was more afraid of dying from something I caught in the bathroom than from a fire.
That joke isn’t funny anymore.
But it was then, because we weren’t afraid. Or rather, we were, but the fear was a small price to pay for the other kinds of sparks that flew in those situations. I love Oakland. I don’t know if this city was waiting for me to find it 15 1/2 years ago, or if it really was just a case of my keeping moving until I was ready to stop. But one of the reasons I love it is because it teems with creativity, seems to have so much of it that it can’t help but burst out of unexpected places: giant giraffes on a freeway underpass; a multicolored light sculpture starring Obama on the back of a street sign; hand-painted gnomes at the bases of telephone poles all around the lake. I have no idea if attending a warehouse show is still a key part of the experience of moving to Oakland, but I do know that the artistic soul of this place cannot be denied if you only take a moment to look around. And the sometimes scary, often thrilling electric pulse it’s built on is an important part of that creativity, that nerve net. We’ve lost 36 parts of that net, 36 parts of what makes this city what it is. They are now far away, but if the creative community of Oakland remains close to what it is and has long been — fearless, strange, open-armed — then they will remain forever close.
A little belated crediting: “Hope Is Wet” was performed by The Heart Pattern, which was Roberta “O’Blake” de Camargo Blake, Erika Hauskens Simpson, Erin Raines, David Sloves, and myself; the recoding was done by Colin Frangos. The KS warehouse photo was (probably) taken by Laurenn McCubbin. Thank you to Elizabeth Costello for her helpful edits on this piece.