I moved to Berkeley in the summer of 2006 to attend university. I had never been to the Bay Area before, but I somehow knew that I was meant to go there—whether I liked it or not. You see, Berkeley had been the stomping ground of a lot of my childhood heroes, and I desperately wanted to inject myself into that paradigm: Aaron Cometbus, Billie Joe Armstrong, Allen Ginsberg, Jeff Ott, and Gary Snyder all came out of the B-Town existence, and that’s where I wanted to be, man.
To me, Berkeley was where poets and punks came from or, if they weren’t from there, went to do some damage. And I aimed to do a lot of damage.
As a teenager, I collected records compulsively, especially ones by East Bay Punk bands like Crimpshrine, Operation Ivy, and a slew of lesser known Gilman Street regulars. I had hundreds of them, and I would even hunt down different pressings of the same release for completion’s sake. I would spend hours and hours listening to them and reading the inserts, fantasizing about how radical it would be to actually be a part of the whole scene and see all these bands play 924 Gilman Street, which was pretty much fucking Mecca as far as I was concerned. Later on, when I discovered Ginsberg and all those other beat cats, I felt the same wistful longing to be involved with that scene, despite the fact that it too was decades removed from me.
In short, all roads led to Berkeley, and I had a very concrete conception of what it was all about even though I really didn’t have any ties to the place outside of those punk rock records and beat poetry books. That didn’t matter at all to me, however: I knew exactly why I was moving to Berkeley and, moreover, exactly what it would be like.
Except it wasn’t like that at all. Of course it wasn’t, because nothing ever turns out the way I make it out to be, really. Part of my own pretty little brand of delusional thinking is that I can take an abstract notion, dress it up in my head down to the very last detail until it’s as real as anything, and then get to act all incensed and disappointed when I figure out that the real life counterpart doesn’t measure up.
Which is, as you may have guessed, what happened with Berkeley. Somehow I had expected all of the punk rock bands from the ‘80s to still be playing Gilman and all the beat poets from the ‘60s to still be hanging out at cafes off Telegraph, and when I figured out that they weren’t, I was pretty fucking pissed about it.
But why was I pissed? I mean why was I really pissed? I was pretty fucking delusional, but there’s no way I could have realistically expected Berkeley to be exactly the way it was circa 1967 or 1986. So what really let me down about the whole deal? In hindsight, it was fear.**
Yes, I was afraid. You see, I could no longer use my geographical location as an excuse for playing the burnout. It was exceedingly simple to blame Orange County for not pursuing writing or music or any of those other things I always wanted to have a go at. Hell, it was pretty simple to blame it and believe it. What good music or writing ever came out of that place anyways? None as far as I was concerned, which was, naturally, the fault of the philistine denizens who wouldn’t know good art if it hit them square in the nosejob. Consequently, I could get away with selling myself short and not really doing anything past the bare minimum, dig?
But Berkeley might actually expect something out of me, and we couldn’t have that now, could we? So I had to modify my views a little bit: It wasn’t that I was scared to death of putting myself or my work on the chopping block for others to see, it was that the chopping block was no longer worthy of my work. Berkeley simply wasn’t what it used to be, man, and I for one would not participate in this farcical hipster holdout.
And thus, I continued my career of halfhearted slacking and snobbish navel-gazing with a new scapegoat for all my kneejerk poetic complaints: Berkeley.
The fucked up part about it all is that I really, really miss Berkeley. No nostalgia though.
*Title aped from the Fifteen song. Respect/apologies to Jeff Ott.
**The emotion, not the punk band.
P.S. I would like to take this opportunity to offer a public apology to Aaron Cometbus for verbally and drunkenly accosting him in Caffe Med when he was just trying to get some writing done. The only thing worse than a fawning fanboy is a stumbling drunk fawning fanboy. So, sorry about that, Aaron.
This is not Ginsberg’s Berkeley:
I stumble into the supermarket,
but I don’t see Walt Whitman’s sexy ass
in the produce aisle.
Rather, I amble straight to the liquor aisle.
Classes aren’t hard, but the kids are.
And they won’t let me into the
I hear they have a Bible
bound in human flesh.
This isn’t Gary Snyder’s Berkeley.
Well–it might be.
This pacifistic punk ponders:
maybe I should join the merchant marines?
And then when I prove my worth
as a poet,
I can get an honorary degree
(there’s no honor in that, though).
And this certainly isn’t
I suppose I could still get 86’d from Gilman
for being too successful
or too free.
I don’t know, though:
Gilman sucks, anyways.
Or so I hear.
Nothing’s ever as good as you want it to be.
Blame idealism, blame realism, blame punk.
Fuck, Berkeley’s the worst lover I ever had.
And Jeff Ott don’t live here no more.
you jerked me around like a five dollar floozy,
flunked on junk,
(green, blue, red, fuck).
East Bay Easy Boy.