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Chris A. Smith Headshot

Victory

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I have no idea how the guy managed to sleep through Acephalix, because it was really loud. The San Francisco death metal band emitted a growling, galloping roar, the stuff of bad dreams, and it enveloped the room. The pit, meanwhile, was going off, a hostile ballet of bodies pinging off one another in front of the stage.

But this dude? He was dead to the world, mouth hanging open, slumped against the back wall. Next to him sat an equally incongruous giant stuffed donkey.

It was a Sunday night in early summer, and we were at the Victory warehouse in the Oakland ghostlands, a few blocks from Uptown but worlds away from its hipster sheen. The warehouse, with murals on the walls and an impressively sloping concrete floor, was strictly a DIY affair. We bought burgers from Giant Burgers, our food swaddled in greasy paper bags and passed through the gap in the bulletproof glass. Then we bought beer from a corner store as crackheads argued loudly on the sidewalk.

The night featured five metal bands, two of them on tour from Scandinavia, and it brought out a microcosm of the Bay Area's heavy music community. Some guys, lifers with cut-off denim jackets, I recognized from shows in San Francisco. There was a contingent of crust-punk kids whose aura (and odor) suggested at least a passing acquaintance with the Telegraph Avenue scene. A young woman who loaned us a bottle opener had a bedroll strapped to her backpack. A few show-goers sported baroque dreadlocks and elaborate chain-and-stud combos, bringing a whiff of Mad Max to the proceedings. Mostly, though, it was the usual complement of people wearing black t-shirts with ornate, unreadable band logos scrawled across the chest -- in other words, my people.

Between bands, we huddled in small groups in the warehouse's chain-link courtyard -- drinking, smoking, talking -- a black-clad nation under the darkening sky.

There's something special about an underground show. I grew up outside Detroit in the late 1980s, as the city went into freefall. Paradoxically, Detroit's collapse was great for the scene: there was no shortage of empty places to play, and the police were too busy to care about permitting or zoning. At college in North Carolina a few years later, I went to the occasional backyard bluegrass show. At a house in the woods about 20 miles from town, Teva-ed types sipped moonshine as guys with banjos and mandolins played Ralph Stanley tunes. While working in South Africa a few years ago, I found myself at a hip hop show in a weedy lot in Soweto, the country's largest black township. While a succession of aspiring MCs jumped around on a makeshift stage, people drank beer and smoked weed, flirting with one another. Guys showed off their tricked-out cars, a parade of spinning rims and superfluous DVD screens mounted to the seats.

By the time I moved to the Bay Area during the dot-com boom, I had missed the glory days of the East Bay underground, when Neurosis and other NorCal heavyweights were playing places like 924 Gilman, the punk-owned Berkeley co-op where Green Day got its start. In San Francisco, gentrification was transforming the warehouses and squats into live-work lofts and startup offices. Oakland, much to the chagrin of the city fathers, still has plenty of old warehouses, and Gilman is still around. But sometimes it's hard to shake the feeling that I missed most of the fun.

Until a show like this comes around. Sure, it started two hours late, and the sound was so muddy that you couldn't hear the lead guitarist of the headliner, a Swedish death metal band named Miasmal. But that stuff hardly mattered. There was a sense of community here that an official event just can't match, no matter how great the lineup or the sound. We had paid $8 for the black "X" on our wrists, which allowed us to leave on beer runs, but it was clear that this thing wasn't about the money.

As Miasmal finished its set, people were already cleaning the courtyard, picking up empty cans and bottles. We walked out onto the street. It was past midnight, and quiet out on San Pablo save for the prowling cop cars. The band's final, down-tuned blast spilled out behind us. Right then, the scene felt plenty vital.