Once upon a time, there was a little, independent record label called Lookout Records.
I discovered Lookout in the early 90s—it was around the time that Green Day was getting huge with the release of their first major-label album, titled Dookie. (You may remember it?) What many folks didn’t know at the time was that Dookie was not the band’s first album; they had already released two full-length albums on Lookout Records. (1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours and Kerplunk!)
I was around 13 years old, and I was a Green Day fan—maybe just slightly before everyone else in the mainstream became one too—but as much as I loved the poppy-punk love songs on 39/smooth and Kerplunk, my love-affair with Lookout Records bands extended far beyond just Green Day.
I had a friend, Tom, and he was into punk rock—and I remember we used to to talk about music during our junior high lunchtime, and he dubbed a couple cassette tapes for me, introducing to me to a couple bands like Operation Ivy and The Queers. (Keep in mind, this was as a time before punk music was really mainstream…in fact, it was just starting to surface more with the growing popularity of bands like Green Day and Rancid.) Tom introduced to me to some other fun punk bands, but it was those poppy-punk Lookout bands that really inspired my little 13-year-old heart.
So I dug a little deeper…back in the early 90s, the internet was barely becoming a thing. In fact, I remember when my family got our first desktop computer, along with an AOL start-up disc to install…but I digress.
Back in the day, we still had records stores. Big, chain ones like The Wherehouse and Tower Records, and cool little indie shops too, like Backside Records and Penny Lane. And so, I explored more of the Lookout Catalog. I fell hard for bands like Screeching Weasel, the Groovie Ghoulies and the Mr. T Experience. I lamented that Operation Ivy had already broken up, and I’d never get to see them.
More mix tapes were made and exchanged with friends—and occasionally, one (or a a few) of the Lookout bands would come through my town (Lookout was based in the Bay Area of Northern California)—and luckily, I had an awesome big sister who was kind enough to take me (and my friends!) to see these random, indie punk bands play when they had a show in Hollywood, or somewhere else nearby.
In a time of teen-angst, growing up and discovering oneself, punk music and punk culture (going to shows and the community of the scene) offered a safe-haven to just be who you are, without fear of judgment—or perhaps to explore and discover who you are, if you felt out of place or confused, like you didn’t fit into what mainstream society wanted you to be.
No matter what each of our individual struggles may have been at the time, the music was there for us. The music didn’t care if you were black, white, brown, girl or boy, gay or straight, a “nerd” or a “freak”—punk rock was about acceptance. About taking care of each other and accepting each individual’s uniqueness. And sure, there were boneheads sometimes, just like anywhere else, but true punk rock was built on a foundation of individuality and freedom—and of course, the music. The music was the glue that tied everybody together. The music was our common ground.
And as much as my musical tastes have expanded over the years, the nearest and dearest to my heart will forever be the pop-punk bands and music of Lookout Records.
So, you can imagine how my heart pounded when I first heard about…The Lookouting.
It was to be a 4-day event, celebrating the 30-year anniversary of (the now defunct) Lookout Records—and it would take place at 924 Gilman Street, which would also be celebrating it’s 30-year anniversary! Holy-sweet-baby-jeezus.
Gilman is legendary in its own right. Founded in 1986 to give kids a “safe environment” to see live music, it remains to this day a volunteer-run, all-ages, substance-free venue.
Josh Levine, 1986 Gilman volunteer, recalls:
“There was something in the air, you could say, back then. A good feeling, or a sense of pulling together, and unity among people who just wanted to see bands that was free of sexism, homophobia, racism, and especially violence. Shows were not as safe then — there were shows I went to before Gilman where I got beat up…. Shows where I went to jail, just for being a punk rock kid out after curfew. And worse, shows where I saw people getting beat up by skinheads, or jocks, and there was not a damn thing I could do about it if I wanted to stay healthy. Those were the kind of things that motivated us to get involved.”
In the early 90s, Lookout became quite affiliated with the Gilman scene and the Lookout bands would play there all the time. I remember being so envious of folks who lived up north in the Bay Area, who were able to attend all these killer shows at Gilman and be a part of that community.
So when I heard that The Lookouting would take place at 924 Gilman, it was like my adolescent punk rock fantasies had come full circle. I knew I had to go.
My (now) 36-year-old heart was all a-flutter as I scoured the inter-webs for more details…
The following is from a KQED Arts article, published in early October:
“With over 22 bands from Lookout Records’ catalog—most of which disbanded years ago and are reuniting for the event—the four-day festival at Gilman is an apt one: for a roughly five-year period between 1988-1993, Gilman was closely linked with the label, which later enjoyed mainstream fame with bands like Green Day and Screeching Weasel…Those aren’t the bands Botkin [one of the organizers] is interested in…’It would take the focus away from the celebration of the label, the celebration of Gilman, and it becomes, ‘Oh! Green Day’s playing,’ says the 19-year-old booker. ‘It was really driven by the fact that I never got to see a lot of these bands back in the day…I thought: What if I could see Monsula play? What if I could see the Smugglers play? Let me try to do it. So I just started sending out emails.’…To that end, The Lookouting…features a four-day lineup of bands that, though important to the early years of both Gilman and Lookout, have no massive, widespread demand to reunite…’Even though a lot of this stuff is relatively obscure, I think if you follow the punk scene, or are interested in the ongoing story of Gilman and the community around the club, you’re eventually going to find this heritage of bands and interesting personalities,’ says Chris Appelgren, who ran Lookout from 1997 to its official closure in 2012.”
Okay, so no Green Day—makes sense, they are so incredibly huge now, it’s true that the focus would become about folks coming to see them. The Lookouting was to be a celebration of Lookout Records and the various bands who never quite made it into the limelight.
I learned that a couple of my other faves would not be performing—Screeching Weasel and The Queers—I believe they were invited, but declined. Not shocking…Ben Weasel and Joe Queer are pretty much known for being cranky mother-f*ckers. However, I did see some names on the bill that got me really excited—especially for the “Night 3” Saturday night line-up!
Kepi Ghoulie (from the now disbanded Groovie Ghoulies) would be playing an all Groovie Ghoulies set for the first time in over three years. The Mr. T Experience was gonna play…and Pansy Division! Also on the Saturday night bill were the Smugglers, Squirtgun, Brent’s TV and the Potatomen—I was less familiar with these guys, as I’d never owned their full albums, but I could still recall a handful of songs I knew and enjoyed from some Lookout compilations I had. (Ahem, Heidi Sez.)
There were a few other bands I would have liked to see, but they were playing on different nights, like Tilt and The Avengers, but I wasn’t going to be able to attend all four shows, it would just be too much—especially since the first night with Tilt was going to be on January 1st, a full week before the next three shows, taking place the following weekend.
It would all be about Saturday night for me—and for my husband, Matty, and some of his best friends from high school. (They were all big Lookout fans back in the day too.) In the end, five of us made the trip from Southern California (Los Angeles and Orange County), up north to the Bay area—Berkeley, specifically. And hot damn, were we excited.
It was nostalgia. It was the carefree fun and good times of our youth revisited. It was a mother-f*cking celebration of Lookout Records happening at freakin’ Gilman Street. If that’s not a story of punk-rock perfection…well, I just don’t know what is!
There were other cool events happening all week, including the Lookout Bookout, which consisted of events on three different days. As it turns out, there are a handful of Lookout alumni who’ve gone on to write books—some about their experiences in the punk music scene, and some on other topics.
I got to attend The Bookout! event on Saturday afternoon at the North Berkeley Public Library. From the event page:
“Larry Livermore (co-founder of Lookout Records), Grant Lawrence (The Smugglers), Jon Ginoli (Pansy Division), Nick Wolfinger (Jüke), and Dr. Frank (Mr. T Experience) will read from their books and swap stories from their punk rock pasts!”
The stories they shared were great—hilarious tour stories and the like from the Lookout hay-days. Larry Livermore read a portion from the end of his second book, How to Ru(i)n a Record Label: The Story of Lookout Records, and I don’t think I was the only one in the room who had a tear in my eye as he read.
Grant from the Smugglers read from his upcoming third book, which he compiled from Smugglers tour diaries, and he was so animated and engaging, we got really psyched to see the Smugglers set later that evening. (And he did not disappoint—he’s a great show-man!)
Jon Ginoli read from his book, Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division, and he was funny, sarcastic and adorable.
I had to pick up a copy of both Livermore and Ginoli’s book before leaving the event that afternoon.
I already own a copy of King Dork and Kind Dork Approximately, by Dr. Frank, so I didn’t need to pick those up, but it was really cool to hear him read a passage from King Dork.
He opened the book at random, after sharing with us that he drank too much whiskey the night before and slept late, therefore not preparing for the book-reading event that morning as he’d originally planned. He read to us about…the thing. (And if you were there….you know.)
But the best part is that he had his guitar in tow as well, and he performed an acoustic version of the MTX song “King Dork,” which he’d named his first book after.
I was in poppy-punk-book-nerd heaven, and was so happy that we’d made it to the Bookouting event—just hearing the stories they all shared made the thing worthwhile.
That night, we made sure to get Gilman before 6 p.m. so we wouldn’t miss Kepi Ghoulie.
Kepi played “The Beast with 5 Hands,” “Ghoulies R Go,” “Island of Pogo Pogo”—so many good tunes! Kepi kicked off his set by releasing a bunch of balloons onto the crowd, and the party was officially underway.
It was a sold-out show, and the crowd was diverse. I saw a couple of young kids, including one boy who looked to be 10 or 11, who got pulled on stage later and revealed that he was there with his grandparents! It was a mish-mash of people of all ages, with hair-colors ranging from naturally-gray to bottle-blue.
Everyone was so stoked to just be there. You could feel it in the air—it was a happy celebration. So many bands, some who hadn’t played together in over 20 years, reunited for this special show. So many fans went out of there way to travel from various states—Texas, New York, Florida—just to be there for this once-in-a-lifetime event.
The Smugglers were freakin’ rad (I need to pick up one of their records for my collection now), and when they did their song “Larry, where are you?” it was super cute, as Larry (Livermore) was there, chillin’ by the merch tables.
Squirtgun was fun—though admittedly, the highlights of their set (for me) were the Common Rider and Screeching Weasel covers they did. Well, those…and of course, “Social” the Mallrats song, heh.
Pansy Division were awesome and energetic, releasing a giant, pink inflatable penis onto the crowd when they launched into their song “Dick of Death.” (If you don’t already know, Pansy Division was the first-ever openly-gay, queer-rock band, with plenty of songs about cute boys and cocks.) They also played some of my faves like “Luv Luv Luv” and “Bad Boyfriend.”
The Mr. T Experience closed the evening, playing a mix of new songs from their new “balbum” (the King Dork Approximately paperback book, plus its own downloadable soundtrack), as well as several of their classics, like “Gilman Street” (the perfect way to kick-off their set), “BaBaBaBaBa,” “She’s Coming over Tonight,” “Even Hitler had a Girlfriend,” and “More than Toast.”
By the time the show was over, I was exhausted…but I was happy.
The folks at Lookout, all the bands and the punks at Gilman, they may not have realized it at the time, but what they created—the music, the community, the camaraderie—it would have an impact on people, for years and years to come.
Those of use who grew up at that time, cherish the memories fondly—and new generations continue to discover the music, enjoy it and keep the scene alive.
I was so happy that I got to be there, for this historic event, and that I got to witness and be a part of the celebration. It was a whirlwind of a trip, as we arrived Friday and had to leave early Sunday morning to catch our flight home, but I will never forget…the rain, the readings, the music…The Lookouting.
~ yoli’zina, January 2017
Author: Yoli Ramazzina