Punks persist underground
on November 7, 2009
The first floor of Mykee Ramen’s home is covered in graffiti, from X-rated permanent marker scrawlings to murals of alien life. Most of it wasn’t created by Ramen.
“I just don’t understand the compulsion to do that all the time,” said Ramen (who chose the name for himself as an adult).
Ramen lives in, owns and operates what he says is Richmond’s only underground punk rock club. But the 40-year-old doesn’t consider himself a punker, despite his bleached hair, tattoos and black wardrobe. For him, the club is a more of a sociological project, hobby and community center.
Punk fans don’t tend to gravitate to central Richmond, and Ramen has had to work to get them there. He started in a rented space in West Oakland in the early 90s, where he ran a recording studio for punk bands. The landlords ended his lease in 1998, and he hopped on his bike and went looking for a new spot somewhere in the East Bay. He came across an out-of-the-way former produce store with a 100-year history and a lot of structural problems, next to the train tracks in Richmond.
Ramen’s grandmother gave him some money to buy the place as thanks for helping take care of her at the end of her life. She died ten years ago, and so wasn’t able to see what’s become of her legacy.
“I’m not sure if she’d be pleased or horrified,” Ramen said.
Most of the club’s fans aren’t from Richmond. Ramen says it took awhile to convince people to make the trip. Some punkers were concerned about their safety, and the first shows drew only a few people. He tried to reassure people about the neighborhood, and eventually the numbers increased.
Some shows attracted audiences in the hundreds. A band called Municipal Waste from Virginia once played to a crowd of about 300. Ramen shares the punk attitude that rules are made to be broken and limit freedom of expression. He didn’t try to make his club official with the city, even as it grew.
In 2003, a club fire sparked by pyrotechnics killed 100 people at a club in Rhode Island. Shortly after that incident, Richmond police cracked down on Ramen, forcing him to shut down the shows he was having up to four times a week. Rather than trying to legitimize his club with permits, he decided to lie low.
“I generally feel that Richmond government doesn’t have any procedures to deal with something like this,” Ramen said.
Packing the place with hundreds of people made it pretty uncomfortable anyway, Ramen said. He makes all the money he needs from renting out rooms in the living space on the second floor of the venue. His ten other roommates are musicians and graphic artists. Some tenants pay as little as $140 a month, though they might live in a windowless loft without a lot of privacy, and there’s only one shower for everybody.
“I just like the idea of bands playing in my house cause I don’t have to go anywhere. And if I don’t like the band I can go sit in my room,” he said.
Ramen makes video recordings of every single show and posts a lot of the videos to YouTube. Bands have come from around the country, and the world, to play in Richmond.
About once a month, rowdy fans damage one of Ramen’s microphones so badly that it needs to be replaced. To save costs, he came up with the idea for hybrid microphones designed to last longer. He takes a mike costing about $15 and switches out the protective grill cover with a replacement cover from a higher quality mike that normally costs about $120. The result is a durable $23 microphone.
A punk club was never really Ramen’s plan. He grew up playing the piano and listening to classical and folk music. The first time he listened to a friend’s tape of the punk band Black Flag during college, he thought it was terrible. He later came around and joined a punk band, setting him on the track toward Richmond.
It’s not all about the music. Ramen studied sociology and psychology in college, and enjoys watching people behave in groups. The club is his petri dish.
“For a little while I was thinking of making up my own degree in Partyology,” he said.
He hopes to become a sort of community center for the neighborhood as well as a place for punks. He says neighborhood kids sometimes wander in and get involved in the scene, and he keeps the door open for them.
Though the venue’s website says it’s still closed for business, those in the know showed up for ”Sh***y Band Night” on a recent Saturday. Bands that might have a hard time getting on stage anywhere else are playing to a crowd of about 20 people. The audience is spread around the club’s two connected rooms, some yelling good-natured disparagement at the people on stage, and some practicing their skateboard moves on mini ramps in the corners. At one point, a bassist with spiked hair takes an unplanned nap in the middle of the stage.
When the clock nears midnight, most of the show-goers run to the BART station to catch the last train home – many are in high school, and without cars. As band members get distracted and wander off, onlookers pick up the discarded instruments and start a new group.
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