This story was based on an interview conducted with Tim, Matt and Lars in October, 2001, and originally appeared in Hit List magazine.
Reconcile to the belief
Consumed in sacred ground for me
There wasn’t always a place to go
But there always an urgent need to belong
All these friends and all these people
All these friends yea we were equals
But what you gonna do when everybody goes on without you?
Started in ’87 ended in ’89
You got a garage or an amp we’ll play anytime
It was just the four of yea man the core of us
Too much attention unavoidably destroyed us
Four kids on tour 3000 miles in a four door car
Not knowing what was going on
Do you think in a million years it would turn out like this?
Hell, no premonition could have seen this
– Journey To The End Of The East Bay, by Rancid
Of all the bands to have come out of the East Bay and the Gilman Street Project, none is more legendary than Operation Ivy. Others sold more records, graced more magazine covers, broke through to the mainstream on a bigger scale, but Operation Ivy was, more than any other, the Gilman Street band. Their existence spanned only two years, their recorded output was limited to an EP, an album, a couple of compilation tracks and a few bootlegs. But they left a legacy that continues to grow with the years; kids who weren’t even born when the band played its last show in 1989 wear Op Ivy shirts and patches and struggle to learn their guitar licks.
Most of Operation Ivy’s fame – and nearly all of their record sales – came years after the band broke up. They played their last show, after all, just as their first and only album was being released. What with that, and the fact that all its members went on to other projects and remained remarkably tight-lipped, the Operation Ivy story has become shrouded in mystery as well as legend. So I considered it an enormous privilege and honor when Tim Armstrong (the artist formerly known as Lint) and Matt Freeman, agreed to talk with me about the history of a musical partnership that dates back long before Op Ivy and continues to this day in the form of Rancid. Our conversation covered some twenty years, from when Tim and Matt first met right up to the present. When we started talking about Rancid, guitarist and singer Lars Frederiksen, who has been part of the band since 1993, joined in.
It’s a long way from Berkeley to Albany, California, where Matt Freeman and Tim Armstrong grew up. Not in terms of miles; in fact the two towns couldn’t be closer. Albany is snuggled up against Berkeley’s northern border, and punk rockers wanting to take a break from a show at Gilman Street can walk to Albany’s all-night donut shop in a matter of minutes.
But the clubs, the record shops, the cafes and hipster hangouts of Berkeley were a world apart from sleepy little Albany, a town that, as Matt puts it, “never really got out of the 50s until probably the 80s.” Albany was working class, a place “with small houses, two bedroom, three bedroom houses where like plumbers and cops and electricians lived.”
The railroad still ran through Albany in those days, and one of Matt’s early amusements was putting “any conceivable amount of anything on the train tracks” to watch things getting squashed. “Sometimes you almost got killed because, you know, the matchbox car ricocheted out and came at you.”
Tim’s earliest memories revolve around the racetrack, Golden Gate Fields, located right across the freeway from his house. Fans of noir films would recognize it as the setting for Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing,” but for young Tim Armstrong, it was where he hung out, watching the jockeys, soaking up the atmosphere. “Before punk, before guitar, before I was 13,” he says, the racetrack was a big part of his identity.
But another part of his identity soon emerged as he began following his big brothers on their record-shopping rounds on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue. “Tagalong,” they called him, but he didn’t mind, because a whole new world was opening up for him.
“Telegraph was, like, wild,” he remembers, but even more than that, he remembers the records his brothers bought, records that introduced him to bands like the Ramones, the Clash and the Specials, bands whose music you can hear echoing through much of Tim’s work through the years.
Matt saw Berkeley a bit differently. He was aware of its wildness, its edge, but in his case it was more personal, and sometimes, he admits, “scared the hell out of me.” His dad was a cop in Berkeley in the days when riots were still common, when police officers might be the targets of rocks and bottles, or even bullets and bombs.
“There was always this underlying fear,” he remembers, “especially before my mother left. I’d hear them arguing about being careful, about watching who was driving down our street.” This left Matt with a unique perspective later in life; while many punks are instinctively anti-cop, he sees both sides of the issue. Having grown up around cops, they seemed like “you know, working class guys, just regular people. Some of them were assholes and some weren’t.”
Matt and Tim had already known each other for most of their lives before it ever occurred to them to try playing music together. They met in 1972, at a father-and-son group called the Y-Indian Guides. Matt remembers being shy at the time, and scared of Tim’s big brother Greg, who was showing off by doing pull-ups.
But they remained not much more than acquaintances until 1983, when, faced with the challenge of coming up with an act for Albany High’s variety and talent show, the Cougar Follies, they tried playing the Elvis song, “Blue Suede Shoes.”
“We were in the same instrumental music class,” recalls Matt, “and we just started talking and decided to do it.”
“It was weird. Playing the Cougar Follies was bizarre,” says Tim. “You play in front of kids that you go to school with… Kids thought I was weird anyway. For some silly reason, I think we were nervous. I don’t know why, it was a stupid fucking thing.”
They didn’t win a prize at the Cougar Follies, but it was a historic moment, in that it was the first time they’d appeared on stage together. Tim had already been playing in a couple bands, first C.O.D., with his brother Greg, which he describes as, “…like…bad…like Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Discharge,” and then the Surf Rats, who were more Ramones-like.
From senior year, Matt and Tim started seriously working together to make a band happen. First it was the Noise, a band which would later mutate into Basic Radio. But progress was slow.
“We’d already been playing together a year,” Tim says, recalling a band practice that hadn’t gone so well, “and we gone upstairs, just Matt and I, with the rest of the band downstairs. And we were like, ‘This is bullshit, these kids are fucking knuckeheads, what are we gonna fucking do?’ And it was like our first band meeting, the first time we became a team.”
Matt agrees. He can remember to this day where he was sitting as they talked. “We made a connection, like both of us are really serious, this ain’t no fucking joke. We really want to play music, how are we gonna do that, how are we gonna keep things together? That was pretty much when we really knew, it was just us.”
Except for a brief interruption in the early 90s, they’ve been playing together ever since, and even on those rare occasions when they weren’t making music, they’ve remained the best of friends. You get the impression that even if their musical partnership hadn’t proved so successful, they’d still be inseparable. The need to belong, to be part of something, is a recurring theme with both of them.
“It wasn’t like, ‘We’re gonna make it big in the music industry,’” Tim says about the early days of their partnership. “It was more like we’re gonna make it in the sense that we’re gonna be a fucking band, be a crew. I never thought about being famous or putting out a record. I just didn’t think about it.”
And it’s a good thing they didn’t have their hearts set on fame and fortune, because for the next several years neither was anywhere in sight. Basic Radio pottered along for a couple years, playing “ten or eleven shows,” a mixture of parties and venues like the Berkeley Square and San Francisco’s Hotel Utah. It probably wasn’t the right time for a band that blended two-tone ska and punk, the mid-80s being dominated by various permutations of hair metal and thrash metal. “We didn’t play metal. I don’t like metal,” is how Tim sums up his feelings about that.
As fate would have it, Basic Radio fell apart right about the time a new scene was emerging in the East Bay, one which would prove far more receptive. Tim filled in on bass for a while with another new band called Crimpshrine, until he was replaced by Pete Rypins, which he was “kind of disappointed about.” Basic Radio recorded one last demo tape, which, as Tim says, “had actual punk rock songs, more than the reggae and ska stuff.”
Actually, Basic Radio didn’t exactly fall apart. To be precise, Matt and Tim were more or less booted out of the band, which then continued for a few more months under another name before petering out. “The guys from Basic Radio wrote a letter to us and said, ‘We’re sick of playing lame gig contests.’ They were kind cracked that we wanted to play parties with Crimpshrine,” says Tim. “And Aaron used that for the title of the Crimpshrine album.”
While Basic Radio was ending, something else was beginning, something that would change Matt and Tim’s lives forever, something that would lead to what Tim still remembers as “two of the best years of my life.” Frustrated with there never being any consistent places for punk bands to play, a group of musicians, zinesters and scenesters had found a nondescript warehouse in West Berkeley that, against all odds, they managed to turn into a volunteer-run, all-ages club known variously as The Gilman Street Project, 924 Gilman, or Gilman Street. But to those who, like Matt and Tim were there from the beginning, it would live forever as just plain “Gilman.”
It wasn’t just for them that Gilman would become, as a Rancid song had it many years later, “sacred ground.” Nearly a decade after punk rock’s obituary had been pronounced by both the mainstream and the underground, a whole new generation of punk rockers and punk rock bands came of age in the unlikely setting of Berkeley’s back street, half-abandoned warehouse district.
Matt and Tim were there from the first show on December 31, 1986. Tim can barely contain his excitement talking about what it meant to him when he heard the news that a punk rock club was opening “literally blocks from where I grew up in Albany.” Basic Radio may have come to an untimely end just as a place where they could have played was opening up, but “I didn’t even think about playing, I just wanted to have some cool place to be…it was that fucking innocent. Does that make sense? I mean, like how hungry was the whole climate? It was like we were starving.”
“To be a part of something,” “a need to belong”: phrases like these are almost a mantra for both Matt and Tim. The two misfits who’d finally found each other in high school now hooked up with a whole tribe. It would be a rare night when one or both of them wasn’t in the audience or hanging out on the sidewalk in front of the club. Matt became the club’s de facto garbageman, turning up every Monday morning to haul away the weekend’s debris. For each run to the Berkeley Dump, he got one free admission to a Gilman gig (“two when Isocracy played,” he says, referring to an early Gilman band renowned for bringing bagsful of rubbish to their gigs and dumping it onto their fans).
Gilman had immediate effects on the East Bay punk scene, the most obvious one being an explosion of new bands. Now that there was a consistent and reliable place to play, it seemed like every kid who had ever dreamed of jumping up on stage and screaming his or her heart out was determined to do just that. The new club was especially well suited for pursuing just such a dream: while most commercial venues discouraged innovation and played it safe with formulaic thrashcore, Gilman re-invigorated the original punk ideal that anyone could – and should – play in a band.
“It was so open-minded, and a great climate to be creative and do some cool shit,” Tim says. “Gilman was a climate where you could play punk rock and ska and not get moshed on. That’s something you’ve gotta think about. The climate was right for Operation Ivy. I don’t think Operation Ivy would have happened at The Farm or Ruthie’s Inn.”
Operation Ivy: today it’s a name to conjure with, the stuff of punk rock legend, but in the early days of Gilman Street, it was just a name, and some kids desperate to play. The name itself was a castoff, originally used by Isocracy, who’d found their new name (isocracy = a government of equals) while browsing through the dictionary. Operation Ivy was the code name for one of the early atomic bomb tests conducted by the USA in the Pacific.
Matt and Tim were ready, but there were two missing links. “We needed a singer,” says Tim. “At the time I was too shy. Terrified and too shy. Straight up.” Enter Jesse Michaels, a North Berkeley kid who, back when he was 12 or 13, had been in a band called S.A.G. with Jeff Ott, who would go on to sing for Crimpshrine and Fifteen. Jesse had been living out east, in Pittsburgh, but returned to Berkeley the year Gilman got underway.
Tim remembers a conversation with Jesse at the downtown Berkeley BART station about being in a band together, where they traded ideas and possible influences: “We were like, start a band, play some punk rock, maybe a little ska, like the English Beat or the Specials, and I was like, yeah, ska and punk rock, too, like Stiff Little Fingers, the Ramones…”
All that was missing now was a drummer, and the new band found him in Dave Mello, another Albany kid, who’d played in a local band called Distorted Truth. He wasn’t all that experienced; asked if Dave was already a good drummer when he joined the band, Tim unhestitatingly replies, “Absolutely not.” Asked what sort of drummer Dave turned out to be, he replies just as quickly: “Brilliant.”
“When he first came along, he had double bass drums,” Matt remembers. “And that got taken care of real quick. ‘You can leave that one at home. You only need one.’”
Asked who was the enforcer of the no-double-bass rule, Matt concedes, “Probably me.” Matt also conducted separate practices for the rhythm section. “We taught him that beat – four on the floor – and he practiced and worked on it. And he’s also got a natural talent.”
Matt had the most technical experience, and one thing he’d learned in instrumental music class back at Albany High was invaluable in developing a rhythm section: “I wasn’t getting the bass and drums together, I didn’t really understand the concept. So my teacher made me sit with my back to the bass drum while this kid who had a heavy foot was pounding on it, and I had to play along with the bass drum while it’s gouging my back. I almost… I bet I have scars. You try this in school now, I’m sure there’d be a lawsuit, some yuppie parent would be like, ‘What are you doing to my kid?’ But my dad, even if I had complained, which I didn’t, he’d be like, ‘Well, you’ve gotta learn how to play, goddamit!’ So yeah, I knew about bass and drums being together from that.”
Jesse was turning out lyrics that somehow managed to be both poetic and populist, personal and anthemic, and after only a couple months’ practice – which, to be fair, was a couple months more than some Gilman bands bothered practicing – Operation Ivy played its first shows, at Dave’s garage in Albany, and, on the following night, at Gilman Street, opening for MDC.
It might be stretching the term “overnight success,” but within the tiny, self-contained world of Gilman, that’s what Operation Ivy were. They might have been completely unknown ten miles away in San Francisco, but within months they were far and away Gilman’s most popular band. Part of this may have been due to their always being ready to play on short – or no – notice.
“We did a lot of shit on the fly,” Matt recalls. “‘Hey, there’s a party, you guys wanna play?’ ‘Ok, great, get in the car, let’s go.’ Everything was real loose.” Often the band wouldn’t even know they were scheduled to play at Gilman until they wandered into the club and saw their name up on the board. It didn’t matter, says Matt. It would be like, “We’ll be here because we’ll be here anyway. We just have to bring our equipment this time.”
By the fall of 1987 Gilman had spawned so many bands that they were able to collaborate on a now-legendary double 7″ release called Turn It Around. Financed by Maximum Rocknroll and put together by Lookout Records co-founder David Hayes as a fund-raiser for Gilman, Turn It Around contained songs from bands like Crimpshrine, Isocracy, Rabid Lassie, No Use For A Name, Sweet Baby Jesus, Corrupted Morals, and, of course, Operation Ivy.
Kevin Army, a veteran of several Bay Area punk bands and now a fledgling engineer and producer, recorded Turn It Around in a marathon session at Dangerous Rhythm, his tiny 8-track studio in Oakland’s Fruitvale district. Money was tight in those days, and David Hayes shepherded the bands in and out of the studio “like an assembly line,” Tim remembers. Matt concurs: “It really was. You’d see the other band coming out while you were going in.”
Rush job or not, the record became a classic, much sought after today by collectors. Operation Ivy’s two contributions, “I Got No,” and “Officer,” marked the first time Matt and Tim had appeared on vinyl (CDs weren’t even an issue for most punk bands in those days). In doing so, they’d already exceeded their own wildest expectations (“It was the last thing I thought would happen,” Tim admits), but the real craziness was just beginning.
Shortly after the Turn It Around sessions, Operation Ivy and three other bands were back at Dangerous Rhythm studios to record EPs for a new record label that David Hayes and I were starting, primarily with the aim of documenting the Gilman and East Bay scene (“Documenting” sounds a bit grandiose; another way to look at it might be that we just wanted there to be records of our friends’ bands, and nobody else was prepared to do it.).
Recorded in a single day, the six-song EP Hectic came out in January 1988. We’d pressed a thousand copies, despite having no idea how or if we’d be able to sell them. Tim admits now, “You said you were gonna print a thousand copies, and we were like, ‘Our friend is crazy.’”
Privately, I suspected the same thing, but I put up a brave front, and somehow within a month the first pressing had sold out and a second pressing was on its way to doing the same. Now that it’s become commonplace for punk rock records to sell in the hundreds of thousands, sometimes even in the millions, it might seem strange for a band and a label to get excited about selling a couple thousand 7″s, but in 1988, for a new, unknown band, and an even newer, unknown label, it was a major – and totally unexpected – accomplishment.
But now it was time to see if the Gilman magic played outside the Bay Area and Northern California. Today there’s a well-traveled network of independent clubs and promoters that crisscrosses North America, but not in 1988. “We were the first Gilman Street band to go on tour,” Tim remembers. “So there wasn’t any blueprint. No one really knew what to fucking do.”
Maybe it’s lucky there was no blueprint, because the tour might never had happened if somebody had bothered to tell Operation Ivy that bands toured in vans, not a 1969 Chrysler Newport. “We’re taking a 20 year old car across, the country,” Matt says. “I’m not sure that’s something I’d try right now. But you gotta understand, we didn’t even fucking think about it. We didn’t have any credit cards. We didn’t even have any fucking money. For the first three days we ate cheese sandwiches off the hood of the car.”
Tim’s dad built a box for the top of the car to carry their equipment. Matt’s dad chipped in with new tires. The four members of Operation Ivy, along with David Hayes, spent the next six weeks in that car, heading first to Southern California, then all the way to the East Coast and back again. Some of the gigs were triumphant, packed with kids who already had the record and knew the lyrics by heart. Others were not so stellar. In El Paso, they played in someone’s living room for three people.
“The same thing in Lexington, Kentucky,” Matt remembers. “We’d driven God knows how long through a fucking rainstorm, and we played this weird place, and there was like, three or four people there, three of which I think had just walked in, and one guy who had our record. That was it.”
Except for one night when a storm forced them to stop at a motel, the band spent every night of the tour on the floors of punk rock houses or camping out. It was a real baptism of fire for four kids in a car, who, as the song suggests, never in a million years could have seen what was coming. At the time, “that was the pinnacle,” says Tim. “The highest thing we could imagine. The highest of the high. The unimaginable happened. We were on tour and we had a record.”
Their return to Berkeley in May of 1988 might have provided some premonition, though. Their homecoming show at Gilman was the biggest the club had ever seen. It seemed that somehow the band had doubled or tripled its popularity in the month and a half they’d been away. Kids who’d never seen Op Ivy before had come in from the suburbs to scream their heads off and dance like crazy.
Somewhere in there a backlash began: a few original Gilman scenesters started making snide remarks, heckling the band in between songs, calling them things like “ska boys.” Most of it was good-natured, but sometimes you weren’t so sure. As Tim remembers, “A lot of that was just fun. I didn’t know that any of it was really serious at the time. In retrospect, maybe it was, but I didn’t know.”
And really, why should he have known? Or cared? As Matt puts it, “We were more seasoned, because you have to be out there on the road. We’d played a lot of shows, we were out there in a car for six weeks, you know, it toughens you up a little. We were at the top of our game.”
The hecklers became a regular feature at Op Ivy’s Gilman shows, but there was never more than a handful of them, and they were rarely if ever seen anywhere else. Barely pausing to rest after their return from tour, the band continued its frenetic pace, playing just about anywhere, anytime they were asked. In June they traveled up Highway 101 to Arcata, a sleepy college town on California’s North Coast, where they played what amounted to a Gilman-in-exile showcase featuring Op Ivy, Crimpshrine, Isocracy and the Lookouts.
Afterwards, we sat around on the sidewalk in front of Hey Juan Burritos and discussed what was to come next. I tentatively suggested that maybe it was time to record another EP. One of them – I can’t remember for sure, but I think it was Jesse – piped up, “No, we don’t want to do an EP. We want to make an album.”
I argued with them that it was too soon for that (if nothing else, I thought, it was too soon for Lookout to be able to come up with that kind of money). I asked David Hayes for support in this argument, but the look on his face was noncommital; six weeks in the car with the band seemed to have persuaded him that, as Tim put it later, “You can tell Operation Ivy, but you can’t tell ‘em much.”
That was a lesson I was to learn many times: this was not a band that needed or wanted management of any kind. They decided everything for themselves. Sometimes it was instantaneous: you’d suggest something and the look on their faces would tell you whether or not it was going to happen; other times, it was agonizingly slow, with vague hemming and hawing covering up the fact that behind the scenes there were band meetings and arguments going on. They didn’t let outsiders in on the decision-making process, and you were never quite sure how decisions were arrived at. The one thing you did know was that once a decision was reached, that was it. The band spoke as one, and there was no point in questioning it.
So, to make a long story short, there was obviously going to be an album. But the making of the album became a story in itself, one that would stretch through the following winter and well into spring. To be precise, it was a story of two albums: one that was finally released in May of 1989, and one which was never released, except as a bootleg.
The idea sounded good at first: instead of going into a normal recording studio, the band would record the basic tracks live (albeit without an audience) at Gilman with Radley Hirsch, who had been doing sound for Gilman shows since the beginning, as engineer. Radley loved Operation Ivy, and the feeling was mutual, but problems emerged. Radley had his own ideas about how to achieve the best sound, and it became increasingly evident that those ideas were different from Operation Ivy’s.
“He had me using this Marshall amp,” Tim recalls, “it really wasn’t my sound. I liked it really overdriven… I used like a distortion box, and he didn’t want me to use my distortion box.”
Matt agrees: “Yeah, I remember that. And I had this big SVT, massive amp, that I would never think about using because I couldnt fit it in the fucking car. And it didn’t sound like me, it sounded like Blue Cheer or something.”
The recording dragged on for what seemed like forever. The band that had knocked out a six-song EP in an afternoon was now spending weeks on a single song. “None of us seemed to be happy,” says Tim. “I know Jesse wasn’t happy.” The album that was supposed to be virtually live was becoming layered with overdubs. “Remember doing a snare drum overdub?” Tim asks, a look of mingled amazement and horror clouding his face.
“It was just all disjointed, and it wasn’t coming together,” says Matt. Work finally ground to a complete halt. “It was hard,” says Tim, “but at the time we thought we’d rather not make a record if it doesn’t feel right. And then I remember David Hayes came up and was like, ‘Are you guys gonna make a record or not?’ And we said, ‘Uh…’ So we had a band meeting and said, ‘Are we gonna make a record? Ok, we will.’ We almost didn’t make a fucking record.”
Radley had to be told he was out as engineer, and that wasn’t easy. Work then started from scratch on the album that would become known as Energy, would go on to sell well over half a million copies, and can be credited (or blamed, depending on your feelings) for inspiring a whole generation of American ska-punk bands.
After months of stopping and starting with Radley, the band went into San Francisco’s Sound and Vision studio with Kevin Army and knocked out a 19-song album in less than a week. “We did the basics in one day, says Tim, “bass drums and guitar. Wow. Nineteen songs.”
“It was a live recording,” according to Matt, “because we went in there and we just went down the list. We weren’t really taking breaks at all. At one point – I remember this very specifically – we were really hungry and wanted to eat, and it was like, ‘No, let’s just finish it.’ And we just did it. We didn’t want to slow down, we just wanted to get it done. Because we were on a roll.”
The album had taken so long that one of the lyrics, to the song “Freezeup,” had to be changed from, “It’s 1988, stand up and take a look around…” to “It’s 1989…” But it was finally done, and a record release party was scheduled for May 28 at Gilman.
Before May 28 rolled around, however, the celebration had become a wake. A few weeks earlier, Operation Ivy imploded, and shocked nearly everyone by announcing the show would be their last (technically, it wasn’t quite; there was to be one more unannounced show the following day in Robert Eggplant’s backyard in Pinole). Almost nobody had seen the split coming except, of course, the band members themselves.
Just exactly what went on behind the scenes remains shrouded in some mystery even to this day. Even in breaking up, the band showed a united front to the world. There was none of the usual backbiting or accusations you expect to hear when a band splits up, just a quiet, dignified announcement that Operation Ivy was to be no more. Rumors abounded, but facts were thin on the ground.
“It sort of wasn’t that fun anymore,” Matt says now. “It was a little more… too serious or something. I mean, we always took it seriously, we loved to play and everything, but it was almost like people started taking it a little more seriously than they should have.”
“We decided we didn’t want to do it anymore,” says Tim. “I remember me and Jesse, we were on Telegraph, I was buying him some beer, and we went to Cloyne Court. There was an old volleyball court, and we sat there. Me and him talked about how the band wasn’t really what it was when it started. It was like a mutual thing. That’s one thing that’s not usually told, it wasn’t like he quit, it was like, ‘Yeah, we’re not really into it anymore.’”
Nobody knows how many people were at that last Gilman show. Long before Operation Ivy took the stage, it had become impossible to keep track of the doors or to stop people from cramming their way in. Gilman’s legal capacity is 300; paid admissions were more than twice that, and a reasonable estimate might be that a thousand people somehow shoehorned themselves into the tiny warehouse. Other bands on the bill were the Lookouts, Crimpshrine (in what turned out to be their last show as well), Surrogate Brains, and, playing first, a young band who’d just put out their first 7″, Green Day.
Times were changing, both at Gilman and in the punk rock world in general. What was once rebellion, as an Op Ivy lyric had it, was turning on one hand into just another social sect, and on the other hand, into big business. Sweet Baby (formerly Sweet Baby Jesus), one of the bands from the Turn It Around compilation, became the first Gilman band to sign to a major label. There would be more.
It was as if someone had opened a door to the East Bay, shone a light on it, and, as someone once said about the California Gold Rush, “the world rushed in.” It was a trickle at first, but kids were starting to show up in Berkeley from all over the country, chasing some dream they’d heard about on records or read about in fanzines, and which all too often had little in common with the gritty reality of the East Bay streets.
“This is a Mecca,” says a character in “Journey To The End Of The East Bay.” “This ain’t no Mecca, man,” Tim growls back, “this place is fucked.”
It didn’t happen all at once. The shows continued to get bigger, the kids kept coming, kept buying the records, kept starting new bands, going through all the familiar motions, but something had changed. Tim points to the temporary closing of Gilman in late 1988 as the beginning of the end.
Maximum Rocknroll’s Tim Yohannan, who had backed the club from the start with money, work and unstinting devotion, had grown dissatisfied with where he saw Gilman heading, and decided to pull the plug. Everyone assumed that was the end, and it was a complete surprise when an ad hoc group managed to raise enough money to re-open the club, henceforth technically known as “924 Gilman.” It’s still there today, still completely non-profit, completely volunteer-run, one of the world’s longest-running (and few working) examples of anarchist principles in action.
On the surface, not all that much had changed. But as Tim remembers it, “In ’89 it stopped being fun for me. Personally. It kinda changed. It wasn’t like that family vibe anymore. I thought the energy kind of got darker.”
Tim’s own world was growing darker as well, as he began to sink into what would become a disastrous drinking problem. Alcohol had already played a large role in Tim’s life – “My dad was a drunk, my dad was drunk and crazy,” he acknowledges – and that role was about to get a lot larger.
It crept up on him almost unnoticed, because everyone around him was drinking in those days, but an early sign of trouble came when Tim’s drinking sometimes interfered with the recording sessions for Op Ivy’s album. “A lot of times with Radley, I remember, I’d get drunk. One time he came to pick me up and I was too fucking drunk to record. That’s something that should be told.”
Around that same time, Operation Ivy played a show at San Francisco’s Covered Wagon Saloon, a rare event in those days, when upstart East Bay bands were usually given short shrift by their supposedly more sophisticated Frisco cousins. Word had filtered across the Bay, however, and the place was packed with big city hipsters curious to see what the hype was all about.
The band didn’t give a good account of itself, though, owing almost entirely to Tim’s being so drunk he had trouble standing up, let alone playing. Tim admits as much: “I’d been drinking up on Telegraph all day, I drank on the roof of Barrington Hall with some of the kids. I was so annihilated I could barely put the chords together. It was a mess, all right. It was bad.”
After the gig, Tim and I had a conversation on the sidewalk in front of the Covered Wagon. I was furious, and told him so. Drunk or not, it made an impression on Tim: “You told me that my drinking wasn’t cute anymore. I remember you were referencing a lot of the people you’d known who were dead from drugs and alcohol. That was an amazing thing, to have someone be that honest with me. I could go to the Covered Wagon right now and tell you where we were standing.”
If I’m going to be perfectly honest about it myself, I’d have to admit that at least part of my anger was about feeling humiliated: after bragging to all my friends about great Operation Ivy was, they’d embarrassed themselves and, I thought, me. But I was angry about something else, too, and that’s what seemed to connect with Tim.
“How dare you,” I asked again and again, “take the talent and the opportunities you’ve got now and piss them away just for the sake of getting drunk. “Millions of kids would give anything to have your talent, and you’re just throwing it away like it was some kind of bad joke.”
“Yeah,” Tim remembers now, “but I didn’t think I had potential or talent, know what I mean? It was the first time I’d heard somebody say that to me.”
That talk had an impact on Tim, but it wasn’t enough. Things would get a lot worse before they got better. It was becoming obvious that drinking might be the one fatal obstacle to Tim’s lifelong dream of playing music.
“Between ’89, when Op Ivy broke up, and through the Downfall and the Generator years, I was hospitalized three times for alcohol and drug abuse. One time I almost died. My brother Jeff ran into me on Telegraph Avenue, and I had a 3.9 alcohol level (Ed. note: nearly five times the level required to convict someone of drunk driving, and sometimes enough to be fatal.) I was passed out in his car, and they took me to the doctor, and the doctor was like, ‘Your brother is trying to kill himself.’”
In and out of detox, disappearing for days or weeks at a time, malnourished and broke, Tim looked to be headed for a premature and tragic demise. But a few people stuck by him, most notably Matt, who had to bear the brunt of Tim’s descent into madness, driving him to detox centers, rescuing him from one predicament after another, even giving him money for food, until he discovered that any money would almost surely be spent on more of the booze that was slowly but surely killing his best friend.
“It got to the point of, ‘What are you going to use it for? Are you going to buy booze with it?’ And he’d be like, ‘No, I’m hungry,’ and I’d be like, ‘Ok, fine, let’s go get something to eat.’” Ultimately, Matt had to take the most drastic step of all: he stopped playing music with Tim, broke up the partnership that had meant everything to him, that had brought him most of the success and happiness he had known.
Before things reached that point, though, Matt and Tim had managed to collaborate on a few other projects. The most well-known of them was Downfall, which many Gilman scenesters insisted on seeing as Operation Ivy Part 2, probably because the band played ska-punk and contained three out of Op Ivy’s four members. But the similarities were mostly superficial, and there was one major difference: Tim was now singing as well as playing guitar. His style was radically different from Jesse’s, more urban and soul-inflected, a foreshadowing of what was to come in Rancid.
But although Downfall played some rapturously received shows and recorded some songs, two of which appeared on compilations and the rest making up a legendary lost album which has been much bootlegged but never released, the band never looked like lasting long. “Just how Op Ivy didn’t feel right at the end,” Tim says, Downfall didn’t feel right either. Not even at the beginning.”
The fans may have wanted Downfall to be the new Op Ivy, but it was never about that for Matt and Tim. “It was never supposed to replace Op Ivy, it was just to keep playing music,” Tim says. “As soon as we had the first chance to break it up or stop it, we took that opportunity.”
That opportunity came when Matt was invited to join MDC, long one of his favorite bands. It would be the first time in years that Matt and Tim were no longer playing music together, but the partnership wasn’t completely dissolved: when MDC set out on tour, Matt took Tim along as his roadie. There were other, even more short-lived attempts at playing together, a purely ska band called Shaken 69, and an almost metal-tinged punk group named Generator, but when Matt followed up his tenure in MDC by joining the Gr’ups, a new band being put together by Jesse Blatz and Kamala Karnavore, it looked as though the Matt and Tim story – the musical part of it, anyway – might have reached an end.
Matt, after all, was getting on with his life, playing shows, going on tour, while Tim semed to have hit rock bottom. Even his mother wouldn’t let him stay at her house anymore, and he wound up in a Salvation Army shelter, working for them in exchange for a bed. “A humiliating place,” he says, “but I really had nowhere else to go.” Nowhere, that was, but up: for some reason, somehow, it was at that point that Tim found the strength not to drink anymore.
Matt was happy, but still wary. “As weeks and months went by, Tim was not drinking and not drinking, but I was still waiting for that phone call, you know…” It wasn’t that he didn’t want to have faith in his friend – “There was nothing I wanted more than for that fucking thing to work out,” he says – but after all he’d been through, he wasn’t about to rush into anything.
The guys had started jamming together with an idea of putting together the band that would become Rancid, but as Tim tells it, “It took me a year after the Salvation Army before Matt would commit to Rancid. See, the Gr’ups was like his real band, and Rancid was like this new side thing with his old friend.”
Matt agrees; no matter how much he wanted this new band and this old partnership, Tim had to prove himself first. But “after that year was up, I cut the Gr’ups off faster than… I never looked back. ‘Ok, that’s the end. Sorry. Bye bye.’”
Something else totally unexpected had happened during the year that Rancid was taking shape: money started coming in from the Operation Ivy CD that had finally been released in 1991, almost two years after the band had broken up. Why did it take two years? Well, even though Op Ivy was long gone, the members still insisted on working everything out the way they always had, through band meetings and consensus, both of which are even harder to achieve when a band no longer exists.
Tim was living in a punk rock house that cost him only $100 a month, so even though the Op Ivy money was not much at first, it felt like Christmas had arrived early. “Out of the blue… I was blessed. I was sober. For the first time in my life I had enough money to take care of myself and write music. Matt was in the Gr’ups, it didn’t matter, it was like all I wanted to do was be sober and hang out with my best friend again.”
They recruited Brett Reed to play drums for Rancid. Brett was “a skater punk rock kid,” according to Tim, “a sarcastic skater kid. Could barely play drums at first, just like Dave Mello, but he got good. Liked fast music and he was a match made in… a perfect match.”
Some people might have mistaken – or wanted to mistake – Downfall for another version of Operation Ivy, but Matt and Tim were determined not to let that happen with Rancid. “Look, Rancid ain’t no Operation Ivy, don’t get your hopes up,” Tim would tell anyone who asked. “And we don’t play ska,” Matt would add for good measure.
That would change later, but at first Rancid was just straight ahead, hardcore punk rock. “That’s what I was feeling,” says Tim, “I was sober. All this anger and frustration, I put it into my music.”
If it sounds a bit like getting back to basics, it was, right down to the kind of gigs the new band played. Once again it was parties and Gilman Street, starting all over at the beginning. On Sunday nights the band practiced at Gilman, in exchange, they had to clean the toilets. “Those toilets were the most disgusting thing ever,” Matt says with a grimace, “I thought garbage man was hard.”
At the end of 1992 they recorded ten songs, five of which wound up on their debut EP on Lookout. They switched to Epitaph for their first album, and stayed there until Tim started his own label, Hellcat Records, which he operates in partnership with Epitaph. While they were getting ready to record their second album, they decided to expand to a four-piece by adding another guitarist.
The first guy to try out for the job, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, played a Gilman show with Rancid, and although it worked well (“It was rad, it was great,” says Matt), Billie, as Tim puts it, “had other things going on. Another band he was doing pretty well with.”
But then Lars Frederiksen came along. A feisty 19 year old from the South Bay who’d already put in a stint with Charlie Harper’s UK Subs (Lars remembers it as being like going “on tour with my dad”), he was already a fan of Matt and Tim’s work. “See, in the South Bay,” he says, the only band from the Gilman scene to have any sort of cred was Operation Ivy,” and the minute he heard Rancid, he was hooked.
“I remember getting the record, getting the tape… I put the record on first, and I went, oh God, this is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life. Everybody wanted to be fucking Fugazi, all those fucking emo kids. There was no punk rockers anymore, it seemed like to me. And I’m like, this is a fucking reaction to that, this is saying fuck you to all that, this is fucking real.”
Lars and Tim met at – where else? – Gilman Street on a night when both their bands were playing. Tim remembers dropping a broad hint for Lars, telling him, “If your band breaks up…” As fate would have it, Lars’ band was in the middle of doing just that. Lars locked himself in his brother’s bedroom with a Rancid tape and a boombox and learned the songs backward and forward. When he showed up for his first Rancid practice, Tim says, “I think he knew the songs better than we did.”
There was just one hitch. When Tim first talked to Lars about possibly joining the band, he’d asked him if he drank. Lars told him, “I just drink beer now and then, a little bit of beer.” And Tim thought, “Well, our bass player has a few beers now and then too, that’s perfect.”
But “a few beers” can mean many different things, depending on who’s doing the counting. Lars had been part of a South Bay crew called Skunks, which stood for Skins, Punks and Drunks, and their style of drinking didn’t involve sitting around with the guys having a beer or two after work.
“The kind of friends I would drink with,” Lars says, “we would just hit each other out of the blue. If I ever got emotional, they would gang up on me. So what I had to do, I had to find the biggest guy at the party and try to fight him. I was just the crazy guy who tried to pick a fight with the big guy. Just to impress them…”
“I thought that was peculiar,” says Tim.
“That was the weird red flag,” Matt agrees.
None of this was evident at first, but it became painfully obvious after the first Rancid practice with Lars. “Comes the end of the night,” Matt remembers, “I said, ‘Wanna go get a couple beers?’ I was gonna hang out with him, just some Matt and Lars time.”
They headed to a Mexican restaurant, then to Jesse Blatz’s house, just down the street from Gilman. At both places Lars got through two or three times as much beer as anybody else. “And Lars got very…”
Matt searches for a tactful phrase. “Let’s just say he’s a very outspoken person. And I saw some interesting things. Which not only embarrassed me in front of my friends, but I was getting angrier and angrier. In retrospect, I just turned into Hannibal Lector, and I’m thinking, ‘You are not going to be in my band.’ I’m just having visions of, you know, ripping his tongue out.”
Worse was to come. Matt and Lars set off for the Berkeley Square, where they were meant to meet up with Tim and Brett. By the time they’d gotten there, Matt was trying to figure out how to drop Lars off without being seen and make a getaway back to his friends’ house. “Who were less than impressed,” Matt adds.
Now it was Tim’s turn. “He shows up at the Berkeley Square, and I’d never seen him drunk, but he was fucking annihilated. The first thing that caught me off guard was him putting his arm around this guy Joe, from San Jose, and Joe looking terrrified, like he was about to cry. And I was like, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’”
After the gig – featuring, incidentally, Green Day and Tilt – some 600 kids spilled out into University Avenue, and Lars was the center of attention. “All heads were turned,” says Tim, “watching him like it was ‘The Lars Show.’ And he pulls out his dick and starts pissing in front of everybody, just shooting piss out… Kids are like, ‘What’s this? What’s going on here?’ Then he asked this young lady to put his dick back in his pants for him.”
Tim led Lars away, and the next morning gave him the money to get back to San Jose. That should have been the end of the story except for one thing: during the gig, hanging out backstage, the two had a heart-to-heart talk in which Lars had admitted, “Man everything’s fucked up. I gotta quit drinking.”
“It was kind of touching,” Tim says. “Then I was like, ‘Well, Lars, you know, I don’t drink. You could not drink like me, but it’s a lot of work. But you’ve got a problem…”
Matt wasn’t quite as understanding. “Fuck that guy, no fucking way,” was the way he put it. “He ain’t in my fucking band.”
Tim insisted that they give him a chance. “If he gets drunk one time, he’s out of the band. But if he nails it, if he gets sober… You know, he reached out to me. We can’t kick him out now.”
Matt still wasn’t convinced. “I was like, fuck him, let him get sober somewhere else. I’m very sorry about it, but no, I’m not going through it again.” But Tim carried the day, arguing that the chances of Lars staying sober might be slim, but it was worth a try. “So maybe it was a leap of faith,” Matt says now, “but I’ve always trusted Tim. But it was also a deal, it wasn’t like Tim was signing on this guy that we’d stick with him no matter what. If he drinks, he’s out.”
He never drank again, though there were some rough moments. “Lars is having a hard time,” Tim remembers, “and he was like, ‘Why can’t I just have a fuckin’ beer? Why can’t I just fuckin’ drink?’ And I said, ‘Well, grab your amp and guitar. If you’re drinking, that’s cool. And we’ll drop your equipment off at Togo’s for you.’ That’s where he used to work, making sandwiches, before he joined Rancid.”
“That gave me a lot of clarity,” says Lars, “because then I knew there was a boundary. See, I didn’t know what the fuck to do. I really wanted to be in a band, and I really wanted to drink. But I gotta go back to this: see, these were the greatest songs I had ever heard, the best band I’d ever heard.” And, as Lars’ brother had put it the first time he heard him playing along with the Rancid tape, “If you don’t join this band, you’re a fuckin’ asshole.”
Lars lived up to his end of the bargain and Rancid lived up to theirs. It was outside of Klub Komotion, Lars remembers, after a show with Citizen Fish. “Matt came up to me and said, ‘Congratulation, you’re in the band.’ I tried to give him a hug, and he’s like, ‘Agggh, get out of here, you’re in the band, ok?!?!?’”
Lars would bring more to the band than his songwriting and performing abilities. “It was a cool thing with us,” says Tim, “Like when we started, we were below the radar. But then Lars was in the band, and the record came out on Epitaph, and we started getting more attention. And Lars was so good, he’s so tough and thick-skinned, he was the best guy to have around when there was a problem or a drama.”
Drama aplenty was on its way. By the end of 1994, punk rock had exploded onto the commercial scene. Both Green Day and the Offspring had multiplatinum records, and many people were tipping Rancid to be the Next Big Thing. Their video for the song “Salvation” started getting played on MTV, and suddenly everybody was waving record contracts at them. Even Madonna got in on the act, turning up at Rancid’s New York City show, and asking them if they’d be interested in signing to her new label.
Rumors were flying about where the new Rancid album would come out, and the main betting was on Sony. What almost no one anticipated – except for those who knew the band best – was that it would be on Epitaph, the same independent label they’d been with since their first album. Tim explains: “Ultimately, we decided it would dumb not to stay with [Epitaph owner and president] Brett Gurewitz, a real record guy, a punk rock record guy. Madonna’s cool, but she’s an international superstar. She’s not a punk rock record guy. That’s what we need.”
The band are not saying just how much money they turned down from the major labels in order to stay with Epitaph, but given the amounts being tossed around in the heady days of ’94 and ’95 at anything vaguely resembling a punk rock band, you can bet it was a lot. In the long run, of course, sticking with Epitaph was not just good ethics, it was good business: indie labels, the well run ones, anyway, pay their artists a higher royalty rate and give them far more control over their music and art. Rancid have no regrets at all about their choice.
…And Out Come The Wolves, Rancid’s third – and, many say, greatest – album came out in 1995. An intoxicating mix of ska and punk, full of singalong anthems, and with Lars doing lead vocals on several of his own songs, it was the second punk rock record – the Offspring’s being the first – to sell over a million copies on an independent label. By now the band was locked into an almost nonstop round of touring and recording that had started back in 1993 and was to last nearly to the end of 1996.
“We were gone so much, we’d come home for maybe ten days at the most,” Matt remembers. “There was always something to do, and then all of a sudden it’s like Martin Sheen at the beginning of Apocalypse Now, looking out my blinds, smoking a cigarette, going, ‘Berkeley… Every time I was out there, I wished I was home, every time I was home I wished I was out there.’ I mean, I was doing the fuckin’ drunk dance, punching the fuckin’ mirror.”
Rancid had become a smoothly oiled touring and recording machine. They knew how to keep it going, to keep up the energy night after night; what they maybe didn’t know was how to switch it off, how to cool down and relax. It was in 1996, when the band finally took an extended break, that Tim had his first and only relapse into drinking.
The first time around, it took him years to hit rock bottom; this time he managed it in five days. “We stopped touring,” he says, “We were always touring. Then we stopped, and I drank. You guys weren’t around, and I was in limbo. I still lived at the punk rock house, I just didn’t feel like… It was like, ‘What do I do now?’”
He acknowledges that it was “hell of stupid.” Matt rushed down to Los Angeles as soon as he heard the news, and Mike Ness, of Social Distortion fame, came to help look after Tim as well. “He picked me up out of the dirt, put me to bed. It was humiliating, to have Mike Ness put you in bed. Plus I was eating dirt. I fell in the dirt, I was so drunk. I mean, that’s humiliating to go down that quick again. It’s not romantic at all.”
Ness, who’d had his own misadventures with alcohol before getting sober, gave Tim some advice which he’s continued to heed ever since: “You drink like this and you’re gonna die, or do something stupid where you’ll end up in jail and probably die.”
It shouldn’t have been surprising that the band had to make adjustments in both their personal and professional lives; if anything, it’s surprising that the transition was as smooth as it was. When Rancid started on its nearly nonstop campaign of touring and recording, all four members were eking out a marginal, punk rock existence. When they finally took a break in 1996, everything had changed, not least their personal situations.
With a platinum album under their belts, earning a living was no longer the issue it had once been. Lars remembers the heady feeling back when they were getting ready to record their second album, when Matt and Tim pooled their limited resources to provide him with enough money so that he could quit his job at Tower Records and concentrate on music.
“Rancid came and picked me up. I thought I was in trouble, I thought I’d fucked up again.” “I think Lars was sometimes terrified when he saw me and Tim,” Matt laughs. “He thought it would be like, ‘Get in the van. We’re going for a ride. Togo’s.’ He’s looking over his shoulder like it was a mob hit.”
Lars was thinking, “Oh God, what did I do? And they go, ‘Look, we think you’re gonna have to quit that job, because we don’t know if you’re gonna be able to make the record if you’re working at night. We’ve got some money here, we’re gonna give you some money so you don’t have to work while we make the record.’ And I thought it was the end of the world. It finally hit me that these guys would go to any length for me.”
Matt and Tim followed that up by cutting Lars in for an equal share of the royalties from the first record, even though he hadn’t played on it. “You’re part of the band, you’re here, you’re doing this,” he was told. “So we cut things four ways down the middle,” Tim adds.
That’s not something you find in most bands, where one or two guys always seem to end up first among equals in terms of both prestige and how they get paid. But Rancid are not like most bands, and in no way is this more obvious than the way they hang together. A typical band, by the time it’s been together a few years and has had some success, tends to become a bit like a job for its members. They show up when it’s time to work, i.e., go on tour or make a record, and head back home to friends and families when the work’s done.
With Rancid, it’s just the opposite: even when the band is supposedly “on a break,” they’re constantly hanging out together, not out of some sense of obligation or band loyalty, but because they genuinely enjoy each other’s company. To tell the truth, there’s probably no such thing anymore as Rancid being “on a break,” because whether they’re just shooting the shit, or listening to music, or jamming with each other, new songs and new ideas are always taking shape. Being in Rancid is obviously about more than just being in a band, it’s a way of life, and it goes 24-7.
That’s not to say that the work never stops; it’s more like the line between work and play has become so blurred that it no longer exists. More than ever before, Rancid don’t have to do anything they don’t want to or that doesn’t feel right. In ways that would have seemed unimaginable to them ten or twenty years ago, it really is just about playing music now for Matt, Tim and Lars.
Life Won’t Wait, Rancid’s fourth album, marked a significant departure, not only in the greater diversity of the music on it, but in the way it was made. “It’s an aggregate of about five different sessions,” Tim explains. “It wasn’t like we spent six months on a song, it was like go in and knock out a bunch of songs, a few months later knock out some more songs, and before we knew it, we had a lot of songs. Still do, some that have never been heard.”
Another thing that set Life Won’t Wait apart from its predecessors was that it didn’t sell nearly as well. “It was probably our least popular record,” says Tim. Did that bother them? “Nah, it didn’t. It was kind of a relief, took the pressure off us. Everybody’s noticed that, too. ‘You guys seem so relaxed.’”
For Lars, Life Won’t Wait was, “Personally, the most gratifying. It was like everything that we’d ever listened to. We played music, and all we ever wanted to do was play music, we made this musical record…” Was this, then, a record Rancid made for themselves rather than for the fans?
“I would think,” Lars responds, “that we went into every record making the record we wanted to hear.”
“That’s a better way to put it,” agrees Tim. “We didn’t make the first one for our fans, we didn’t have any fans when we made our first record. It was the record we wanted to hear at the time.”
“I think that’s us with every record,” Lars continues. “We make the record we want to hear. And whether people like it or not, we never really gave a shit. Because we never gave a shit to begin with. Nobody ever though… I remember when the whole punk rock thing started getting big, Tim looked at me one day and said, ‘Man, if somebody told me ten years ago that punk rock was gonna be this big, I would have said you’re out of your fuckin’ mind.’”
If any further evidence were needed that Rancid make the record they want to hear at a given time rather than the one they think will sell, you need look no further than their most recent, self-titled album. Not a ska song in sight, it’s straight-ahead, back-to-basics hardcore punk, stripped down to the barest essentials and sounding a bit like Rancid did when it all began.
“We just knocked it out,” says Tim. “Really punk rock style. It was really fun for us, and exciting to play. I love playing that shit. It’s one of my favorite records we ever made.”
What happens next? It’s too soon to be thinking – at least out loud – about a sixth record, but you get the feeling there will almost certainly be one. In the meantime, Tim keeps busy with songwriting, musical side projects, and running his Hellcat record label, which has become almost a whole new career in itself. Along with Lars and Matt, he’s also taken on the responsibility for Operation Ivy and Rancid merchandise, which could be yet another career.
But somehow none of it seems like a job at all, more like a bunch of guys who are the best of friends and would be hanging out together anyway, and somehow while they’re hanging out, all this stuff gets done. The togetherness, the close-knittedness, the fierce mutual loyalty – “You fuck with one of us, you fuck with us all,” as Lars puts it – has, however, led to rumors and accusations about Rancid having a gang-like mentality.
Adding fuel to the flames were stories about the US Thugs, who, depending on who you listened to were either a genuine gang or a harmless crew. There were tales to the effect that if you talked shit about Rancid, you were liable to have an unpleasant encounter with the US Thugs, but all three band members vehemently deny any such thing ever happened.
According to Lars, the US Thugs were, “a crew… Like five people, just friends, and along the way it got blown out of proportion. I remember hearing, ‘You guys are doing drive-bys,’ and I’m like, ‘What??’ You know, we’re just a fucking crew!”
Part of the problem might have been that other people started getting the US Thugs tattoo, and then in turn had their actions and attitudes represented as being part of some monolithic entity. “There’s a lot of people who get the tattoo, but it’s nothing really official,” says Tim. “The only gang I’m in is Rancid. That’s my gang, my family.”
Lars thinks that many of the rumors stem from jealousy, pure and simple. “It’s kinda like this… I know from my own experience when you’re not part of something, you make up shit, you throw rocks at it. It’s like the girl you liked in grade school. You threw rocks at her, but you really liked her.”
“It’s fabrications,” Tim agrees. “People talk a lot, people say whatever they want about us. We don’t have to be friends with people that make up stories about us, but no one’s gonna get beat up.”
I’ll admit it’s hard for me personally to imagine the guys from Rancid going on beat-down missions. Maybe that’s because I’ve known them personally for so long and they’ve never – even when we’ve had disagreements about specific issues – been anything but sweet and respectful with me. But even more so, it just wouldn’t make sense: why, when you’ve got virtually everything going for you, when you get to devote your whole life to making music and hanging out with your friends, would you even care what other people said or thought about you?
Or, as Tim puts it, “By the time Rancid got going, we were over worrying about people talking shit. We just said fuck it. We didn’t give a fuck what people said about us. That’s the irony of the situation. We could give a fuck.”
Maybe the real irony of the situation, though, is that they’ve gotten where they have by caring so much. Not about what other people thought, but, as the song goes, about that “urgent need to belong,” a need which brought them together and turned into a passionate commitment to the music that would become the focal point of their lives for ever after.
It’s funny how these things turn out. Chance encounters and twists of fate can loom just as large as musical talent or a fierce determination to shine, to count for something in a world that most of the time just doesn’t want to know. You can wonder about what Operation Ivy would have become, or if it would have even existed, if Gilman wasn’t there, or you can wonder if Gilman would have become so famous and gone on for all these years if it weren’t for Operation Ivy.
What if Matt hadn’t been so loyal to Tim, if he’d given up on him when Tim was a down-and-out drunk? What if Lars had slipped up just once during that first year and drank again, and Rancid had followed through on their threat to send him back to Togo’s? Following through on your dreams, working like crazy to make those dreams become a reality, is always a fragile business, one that involves more stumbles and pratfalls than triumphs and epiphanies.
While some may find fault with the way Rancid – and Operation Ivy before them – sometimes appeared to have an “us against the world” attitude, it was an attitude that was a) understandable; and b) probably their saving grace. As Lars suggested, there’s probably a degree of envy from outsiders. I know that as nice, as friendly and welcoming as the guys are to me, I could never be completely a part of the inner circle. I just haven’t been through what these guys have been through together. Not to mention the fact that I can’t play an instrument half as well as any of them, but that’s another story…
The real essence of this story, though – and it’s one I’m always a sucker for – is some guys from not especially distinguished backgrounds, without all that much going for them, getting together, working hard, sticking with it, maybe getting a few breaks, but never missing the chance to make the most of those breaks, and, most of all, never losing sight of what really matters, what’s really going to get them where they want to be.
It’s not an especially glamorous story, even when you’ve got people like Madonna coming round to chat you up, and it’s far from the nonstop round of parties and celebrities that aspiring teenage rock stars practicing air guitar in their bedrooms might fantasize about. In fact, it’s mostly hard work and determination, long rides in the back of a car or a van, scraping by for years on not much more than cheese sandwiches and hope.
I’d like to tell you that I knew all along it would work out for these guys, but I’d be lying if I did. I knew from the start that they had a phenomenal talent, but I’d already lived long enough to know that phenomenal talent in itself is no guarantee of anything. Whatever it was that kept Matt and Tim together through all those years, all those bands, all those times both bad and good, is something I can only speculate on.
But I’m not even going to bother speculating. In fact I’m not going to try and say anything more about it, because I’m just a witness, just somebody who happened to be there, was lucky enough to be there when it all started happening. The music tells the story far better than I could anyway, and the thing about music – the thing that makes people see it as verging on the realms of the sacred – is that while stories all have to end eventually, the music goes on forever.