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Feb022011

Mission Wrecks: A History of the Last All-Ages Punk Space in San Francisco

Publisher: Maximum Rock'n'Roll
Date: November 2004
Text only

Perhaps the most obvious sign of the failure of Mission Records in its final days was huddled amongst other texts in a cardboard box buried underneath empty 40oz bottles, a white book with crisp, bold red lettering on the cover that read Run Your Own Business: From Raising the money to counting the profits. Well, maybe failure is too strong of a word, but in a strictly financial sense that’s really what it was—a failed business that somehow inadvertently stumbled into its reputation as a space of some notoriety. And “counting the profits” is one thing for sure Mission Records never did. If anything the store must be eligible for some sort of meritorial certificate for Least Efficiently Run Business, Most Uncited Fire Code Violations and the Perserverence Award. The mere fact that the place existed for nearly six years in bumbling decay as a haunted house, a punk show space, a death trap, a resource center, a hideaway, a gloomy drug den, a beacon, is, at its end, worthy of some sort of record.

So this is to be the obituary, the end of Mission Records, the drug addled mayhem, the dark and spooky doings. If there were to be any kind of final closure to the place there would be some happier people in the world, not the least being the upstairs neighbors who, during the first show in this space, claimed Ringwurm and Reina Aveja were making their baby’s crib bounce across the room like a rat stuck in a glue trap. Owner Adam White would also be pleased to know that the ship has set anchor so he can actually start counting the debt he owes on the place—even though in his opinion, Mission Records hasn’t actually been THE Mission Records for a couple years. He says now it’s more like the scab Dukes of Hazzard, the fake Bo and Luke, or cousins of theirs or whatever. And to further this point Adam adds, “I mean, there isn’t even a bong in Mission Records anymore.”

But maybe as of this writing the space isn’t completely dead. Its new identity meanders around like one of those horribly poisoned commercial freighters so systemically contaminated that they are forced to sail the oceans on the earth forever because no half-wise port will take them in. Adam will thankfully be set free in October, after accruing massive debts from the space, owing bills to everyone from his parents, collection agencies and drug dealers. And drug dealers aren’t the kind of bill collectors you want knocking on your gate at 10pm. So Adam is off, free from any kind of physical ties to the place, anyway, free to live a real life. Everyone else, the old Mission Records members are gone, too: Buzz, Matty, Matt Powell, Chris Myers, Chris Pink, Melissa, countless bands and countless characters. “All these people were a big part of it and then they disappeared,” Adam told me. “The whole record is gone. And I was so fucking wasted for a lot of it I don’t remember a lot. I have big blank spots. It’s crazy. But that was the nature of the whole thing though—it was so crazy and so cool that you can’t even remember it.”

In fact the oldest member still here is Chicken, the tough, fat headed cat that I swear must be half bobcat, who’s been here since Mission Records moved from its original location at 2458 Mission. Chicken gets a lot of action, I can tell. I mean, have you ever seen the size of his balls?

A HISTORY LESSON

Mission Records moved to its current location between 18th and 19th on Mission Street in 1998, after their previous landlord began identifying with the dot com boom (and subsequent bust) and decided her place would be better suited to the yuppie scum that infested the city during that time. It was an important time back then, because as the yuppies moved in and gentrification spread like wildfire, most of the show spaces were on their way out of San Francisco’s Mission District. “This went from one of the most, fucking bitchin’ music neighborhoods and places in the world to just fucking nothing,” Adam says. “The Commotion, the Capp Street Warehouse, Star Cleaners, the Chameleon, the Tip Top, the fucking Kilowatt, the fucking Epicenter, all of them closed or stopped doing shows.”

So Mission Records moved into an old bar in the middle of the block, a place that for the last fifty years had been nothing but a bar. The previous incarnation of the space was El Siete De Oros, a Hispanic bar known best for insane crowds (the landlord said he couldn’t even reach the bar to get a beer through the crowd at night), tons of coke, a secret room, heavy La Eme involvement, lots of gang activity (some people said they wouldn’t walk by the bar at night) and a supposed multiple homicide allegedly carried out by members of the Cuban Mafia, depending on who you ask. It was also used in a scene in 48 Hours. Either way, the place already had a lengthy legacy that contributed a swarmy kind of atmosphere before it became Mission Records.

By that time Adam and Chris Myers had already decided what was most important were the shows, and the store, while not exactly secondary, was somewhat less exciting for them. The first show at the old space happened more out of default through local kids Matt Shapiro and Matty Luv who set up a benefit show for youth outreach and the needle exchange. Iggy from the Onion Flavored Rings remembers this about the first show: “It was hugely packed and you could sit on the steps across the street on the bank and drink. There was just tons of vomiting. I just remember at the old store you always had to carry people out of there.” From that point on Adam says it was all about the shows, and with the scene shrinking with frequent closures and gentrification, Mission Records quickly became a kind of vital entity—something desperately needed in the neighborhood . Hundreds of bands played shows in the dank and sweaty showspace in the back, on the tiny stage propped up by old tires and piss bottles, a box fan that would shock you if you touched it, and a shitty PA. The space breathed a life back into what could’ve easily become an empty scene, but that wasn’t exactly intentional.

The store was losing money from the moment it moved into the new space. Adam carved out rooms and living spaces out of what was previously one big hall and a balcony, found roommates in Billy and Chris Myers and moved in to help shore up rent. It wasn’t enough and Adam went to his parents for help. “I was like, ‘This is the only space for all ages shows and all kinds of important shit goes on here and kids who have no place to go can come here and stay and get drunk and that needs to happen in the world and your money is paying for it,’” he says. “And they were like ‘Well, we understand,’ and I was kind of surprised. I basically took a bunch of money from them they’ll never get back.” The space itself was busy carving out its own identity as a kind of a free for all, a place where it didn’t seem to matter that they didn’t really know how to run a business, or care even. While 924 Gilman was an organized collective with set rules and boundaries, Mission Records was a whirlwind, a tornado of punk rock and sweaty bodies, feverish dreams of booze and drugs.

I remember one of the guys who booked Gilman came over here and I was hanging out with him the backyard and of course I was fucking wasted and he was sober. We were trying to talk about the contrast between the two places and how they had this sort of organized, cooperative and they had these rules and they were very concerned about the politics and about keeping a positive image and maintaining this community thing. And we were like ‘Fuck that, man.’ It was just like this whole different way of doing things. Partially it was about being political versus sort of… not political? And by not political I mean more like, I always thought, ‘This is what anarchy is like.’ Do whatever the fuck you want as long as you don’t fuck me over, I’m not going to trip out. And I’m certainly not going to worry about what the cops or other people think.   –Adam White

The fact that Mission Records sold drugs out of the space was never that far under the radar. Random hood rats and junkies occasionally come in to this day looking for speed or a rig. But the scale to which the store depended on drugs was enormous—estimates of the total amount of money spent buying drugs, selling drugs and doing drugs range into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. For two years the store ran almost solely on drug money, and while everyone had little problem justifying selling drugs to keep the space afloat, the operation, like most drug operations, became dangerously sketchy, filled with a steady flotsam of shady characters and an even darker aura settled on the place. “It kind of gave us the feeling that we were outlaws and we were really making the fucking business work, because we weren’t making it work,” Adam says. “But then on the other hand, we started bringing sketchy motherfuckers in here, we started smoking so much weed and eventually we started losing control of the whole thing.” The shows continued to be a massive, roiling ball of energy in a sweaty, tiny room, but Adam was beginning to burn out and began giving Buzz and Matt Powell more control over the store. Both Buzz and Matt Powell lived in the store around that time, Buzz in the upstairs on the former balcony and Matt in a loft in one of the small rooms on the bottom floor.

My fondest memories are really when we were on the edge and just totally sketched out and scared. Just in a position of, ‘Ok, the power’s turned off. We need a thousand dollars today to turn it back on.’ Just going out and hustling up drug money, bartering with the community—like making money out of dirt, you know? Like for a six-month period it was like total madness. It was largely hustling in various ways; either it was drugs or bartering, shit that was kind of shady.
   —Matt Powell

The fact that they daily risked the whole operation just by keeping the store open guaranteed that Mission Records couldn’t continue to run this way. But there was also the sense of hustling and scamming to keep the place alive, a romantic sort of appeal. “The store was a total free-for-all at that point,” says Will, who was living upstairs at the time. “It was mainly drugs: drug dealing, drug doing… certain people who were living here like bringing prostitutes in here. It wasn’t the greatest situation to live in if you were trying to stay clean or keep away from that. It was like they were trying to burn out as quickly and brightly as possible.”

In March 2001 the rent money went missing, and there were few questions about where it went and who took it. The question of whether the money was stolen (probably) or borrowed (not likely) was irrelevant. What mattered was that the store was in deep shit. Buzz took over the store for Adam, who’d all but removed his name from the lease. So the ship was baled for the time being—it was always slowly sinking, but the missing money started a major shift in Mission Records. Drugs were out, it was obviously too sketchy to begin with but now the tolerance for them just wasn’t there. The junkies and the tweakers weren’t welcome anymore, but excavated from the cave of the record store and pushed somewhere else. “That was around when Buzz started to kick people out, like trying to get rid of the drug elements, which was me,” Matt Powell says. But it was others too, and removing the heavy drug influence at the store had two effects: one was that Mission Records was cleaner, in figurative, atmospheric sense, but it slowly shifted to something else, something not Mission Records anymore. It was evolving from that primal, chaotic soupy mixture of boiling seas of gigantic insects, the Land of the Lost, but drugs and chaos were always two factors that surrounded, enveloped and had epitomized the space until that point (along with long lasting and effervescent misery), and with them gone it wasn’t really Mission Records anymore. And when Matty Luv from Hickey overdosed and died in the fall of 2002, drugs were completely banned (I don’t believe alcohol was ever considered a drug). The second effect of removing the drug element was that the ghosts quieted down.

When we moved into the upstairs it triggered the ghosts; we invaded their space. The way I figured it, the ghosts were here, and whenever people inhabited a section of the store, they moved somewhere else. When we moved into the store they moved upstairs. When we moved upstairs, they moved up front. And when Buzz moved in the front they really started going crazy. And when I lived in my room I had a loft above the door and I can swear one night I was pushed out of the loft. Like I woke up in mid-air. That was like a nine-foot fall onto a concrete floor.  —Matt Powell

The ghosts lived here longer than anyone. Nobody really knows where they came from and what makes them appear, but I suspect from out of all the stories surrounding El Siete De Oros, that the ghosts came from there. Terrible things like murders and rapes in the bathroom supposedly went on there in the midst of a popular Hispanic bar that was literally overflowing with business. The evidence they left behind when the business closed in 1995 was bullet holes (and bullets) in the wall, drinks still half full on the counter, a fully stocked bar, a secret room with the bucket and the rope dangling from the window down to the alley, a meat grinder and a 50 gallon drum (they didn’t serve food there) and a rough patch of cement in the backyard—like something evil happened there and everyone had just run out of there one day. Billy was the first one to sleep in the empty space, and all he would say about the first night was, “I definitely wasn’t alone.”

But other people have seen them. There’s a blue man and a blue woman. A yellow ghost wearing a jacket who would come out of Matt Powell’s old room and walk into the show space. An evil black thing that would appear in the show room near the kitchen. A demon that would crawl up through the piping. A mosh pit that would break out upstairs. The heavier the drug element, the more active the ghosts became and it probably hit its peak when Matt Powell tried an amateur séance to get rid of them. “I remember coming out of my room just feeling like something was really wrong, just really fucked up,” Buzz says. “I looked downstairs and saw Matt chanting with all these candles and looked through the grate [into the upstairs] and just saw all these lights and eyes spinning around. I kept yelling at him, like ‘Stop it! They’re going fucking nuts!’”

Buzz took the helm but already it was doomed. Years of neglect, bad decisions, the bad luck of a haunted house and shitty records nobody really wanted to buy had left the store dead in the water—it was already too late. All the chaos and whirlwind that had once pointed to the store going out in a blaze of glory had now guided its end to a fizzle, though that was still some time off. And the problems that plagued the store since the beginning were systemic—getting rid of the drugs or quieting the ghosts weren’t the easy fix.

“The problem with this place is that it’s never been run as a business,” Buzz says. “It’s always been run as a punk clubhouse and that’s important. But what everyone fails to see is that you kind of have to play the game if you want the business to survive. And being the retarded punk rockers that we were, both Adam and I and every one else, it was like ‘Yeah, we’re not going to play that game. We’re going make this rad place that we always dreamed of when we were 17-year-old skateboarder kids listening to the Misfits.’”

The final months of Mission Records saw a lot of shows and a return to the drunken mayhem of earlier years. People started giving each other homemade Mission Records tattoos, which they soon may or may not, or maybe even already, regret. One tattoo makes the store look like the town jail in some old Western, the kind of building where you could tear down a wall and escape with just a horse and a rope. The influx of bands was largely international and there was almost a glimmer that the newer and more mature version of Mission Records might stick around. It was around this time that I started asking people if this place was worth saving, or if it should just be put out of its misery like a crippled racehorse and sent packing for the glue factory. “It’s just now that Mission Records is coming around,” Ivy (from Allergic to Bullshit) told me. “In the last three weeks there’s been bands from all over the world coming, there was the band from Brazil and the bands from Japan. I talked to some guy who found out about it just through word of mouth in Australia, and he was just coming to see the show. People from South America, bands coming from China—I mean it’s larger than life now. It’s a space for more than just San Francisco and that’s a big deal.”

“This place is like world famous as far as music goes,” says PRJ, who’s been around for 500 years and then forever. “Bands from all around the world have played here from like Sweden, Spain, Finland, Italy, Japan, Mexico and this weekend we have bands playing here from Beijing, China. It would be a sorely, sorely missed place. It would be considerable blow to the punk scene and the DIY underground scene in the City. This place is the only place in San Francisco where the kids can feel free.”

Punk Rock Jim, Ivy, I’m sorry I made you answer that question. And everyone else. But it points to the store’s significance in a city that, although it’s not as bad as it used to be, is still starving for a stable space where these things like shows and community and strategic planning can happen. One of the most weighty things someone said to me was when I asked Iggy about favorite times at the store. “The show that was supposed to be the fifth anniversary show, the day that Matty died, was such an intense day. And this place was the focus for everybody; like everybody knew to come here and this was the place for people to be together. And I think this was a sign that this place was really important to people in a way.”

Which is true, but at the same time it isn’t as if the store didn’t have its chances. The fact is a combination of what Buzz said, that the store was never run as a business—and in a way, it never was meant to. It was meant to be run as the punk rock clubhouse, the half-ass collective, “like youth industry,” as Iggy says. Nobody was supposed to know where the ship was heading, except that eventually it would sink and by the time people started realizing, with all this unequal and schizophrenic flux of energy being put into Mission Records, that it had actually achieved something of non-ignoble record, that the place started changing into something other than Mission Records. That isn’t to say Adam didn’t have high hopes for the place as he told me, “I felt really good about it, I was really proud about it. I felt like I was doing something right and I was doing something righteous.” But when the realization hit that Mission Records had come into its own as a valuable community space, different people had assumed different roles with different visions for the store and what it should be and no one really put in the effort to bring those ideas to fruition. It was still hard work keeping it afloat and whatever the original intentions, the process changed the store.

The other factor is, as PRJ told me, “There’s no money in punk rock, if it’s real punk rock.”

Melissa will probably hate me for using this quote, but I think it’s right on. Besides, the last time we got drunk I wrestled her to the ground and kicked her ass like woah. So I’m not too worried. “This place has been through fucking everything… rats, the plague, drugs, debt… a lot of fucking heartache and tragedy and a lot of good. It’s made drunkards of us all. The store’s been through so much. And that’s why I think it’s a good time for it to go to bed.” Good night.



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