Finally got to see Gehenna.

Last week I attended what has become an annual event in the Baltimore hardcore scene: Dom of Pulling Teeth's birthday show. The highlight for me this year was an actual performance by the elusive and infamous West Coast hardcore band Gehenna. Two years ago, they were also scheduled to perform, so I drove up for that show too. Gehenna cancelled, as was their wont at the time, but Starkweather did play, and absolutely blew me away, so I was glad I attended. This year, I figured Gehenna would cancel again, but I was happy enough about seeing Integrity and Ringworm, so I didn't feel too bad about the fact that once again, I'd go to a show that one of my all-time favorite bands was scheduled to play, and not actually get to see them.

But then, surprise surprise, Gehenna did show up. Dom posted on the internet two days before the show that he had picked them up from the airport, that they would definitely play. I was excited, but also nervous. Gehenna have a reputation for onstage antics that goes beyond just "being brutal" or whatever. As my friend Brandon has pointed out, they're almost an urban legend of a band. Everyone in the hardcore scene who has heard of them at all has heard the stories about singer Mike Cheese attacking audience members and laying waste to venues, even supposedly stabbing someone midset, a story of which I've heard so many different versions that at this point I don't believe any of them. Mike Cheese has fueled the fire where this sort of talk is concerned for many years himself, giving interviews in which he said intense, provocative things about both his philosophy and his behavior, things like this:
Q: When you hear about people in bands like Nirvana, Pennywise, etc. dying from overdoses, what’s your reaction?
A: I hope our band ends up like that. I couldn’t give a flyin’ fuck. Suicide is the only answer anyways. Just do it. Kill everybody.

The above is the only available Gehenna live footage from their prime days as a popular hardcore band. Nothing truly terrifying happens here, but as you can see, they were an exciting and violent live act. It may just have been performances like these combined with inflated rumors that created their mystique, or it may be that some of the stories really are true--I can't comment with any authority at all. But I can tell you that the potential for live terror and violence seems to be the main reason a lot of people want to see a Gehenna show these days. There was a show in California a few years ago that attained a level of infamy, where Gehenna showed up to the venue with only two members after the rest of the band had quit on them the night before. The two members set up a bass amp onstage for their set, played a hip hop song through it, and sat eating a burrito and smoking a blunt while the song played. That was their set. [Description paraphrased from this message board thread, which also includes Nate Newton of Converge telling a few entertaining Mike Cheese stories. Worth a read.]

While we were driving up to Baltimore, my friend Brandon mentioned the burrito set, and I started talking about how disappointed I'd be if that sort of thing happened when they played Baltimore. I've loved their music for over a decade, and I really wanted to see them play some of my favorite songs. A few years ago, I tried to capture some of my feelings about Gehenna, their music and their mystique in a piece of writing that I scribbled into a notebook and forgot about for a while. When I found the notebook in fall of 2008, I transcribed the piece exactly as I'd written it and posted it to tumblr. It was one of the first things I ever posted on that site, long before I started using it regularly. Here's some of what I wrote at the time:

Gehenna embodied the dark, anti-social worldview that was the eternal starting point for CrimethInc’s quest for romance. Even when they had just started and were still more like a straight edge moshcore band than anything else, their songs didn’t focus on anything so mundane as straight edge or beefs between ex-friends, like most bands of that stripe. Instead, they took the deep-ecology principles of hardline as a jumping-off point for condemnation of the entire human race, condemning all civilizational development as shit and hurling contempt at all responsible (including, presumably, themselves). By their third EP, their music had sped up to a frenetic tempo that made youth-crew seem slow but was still just this side of the inhuman speeds of power violence—-which allowed them to retain an essential human quality to their sound, even as Mike Cheese’s lyrics were moving further all the time into paranoid, Lovecraftian flights of fancy. Cheese’s guttural vocals were closer to the sounds one would expect to emanate from the throat of a monster than from anything human, and this fit well with his outsider’s perspective which seemed to regard itself as separate, in some respects below, and yet eternally more intelligent than the human masses that surrounded it. In songs like “Birth of Vengeance”, “Covet Thy Crown” and “Crush Opposition”, this outsider gave every indication of being prepared for and on the verge of launching an assault on civilization as a whole—-an assualt civilization seemingly hadn’t a prayer of withstanding.

This defiant stance of disdainful outsider fit perfectly with CrimethInc’s constant romanticization of struggle for food, shelter and, seemingly most importantly, freedom from mainstream society’s arbitrary restrictions. Truthfully, I couldn’t relate to Inside Front’s endless references to poverty and homelessness any more than I could relate to Gehenna’s hazy images of mythological zombie armies. And to be really truthful, it’s always seemed to me that a fair amount of gilding the lily must have gone into those stories in Inside Front—-after all, the thick newsprint magazine in which I read them came out on a regular basis for years. But there were emotions underlying all of this fiction, emotions that I understood and related to, that seemed true even if their circumstances did not: alienation and depression.

Before Gehenna played, I prepared myself. I took off my jacket and tied it around my waist. I took the lens cap off my camera and put it in my pocket. I didn't want to give myself anything that I could potentially lose once the band started playing. Of course, there was always the risk that my camera would get broken, but I was willing to take that chance in order to get pictures. There were hanging PA speakers on either side of the stage, about six feet off the floor, and I chose to stand underneath the ones on the left side of the stage. I didn't want to be out in the middle of the floor, because I figured that the violent dancing that was bound to occur would be happening out there. I didn't want any part of that. I also didn't want Mike Cheese to attack me. I figured I was minimizing my chances of that happening by standing off to the side. Yeah, I know, I'm a wimp. Fuck it, I've never pretended otherwise.

Most of the pictures I got didn't turn out too great. My camera is new to me--my dad gave it to me a few months ago--and I'd never used it to take pictures at a show before that night. Obviously I still have a lot to learn about its proper use. The picture above, the one that actually looks good, was taken from this brooklynvegan.com post. The rest of the pics on this page are my own efforts, for better or for worse.

When Gehenna hit the stage, Mike Cheese immediately started yelling about how he wasn't going to play until someone brought him some dope. He kept yelling about this between songs (and sometimes during songs) throughout the set. The band did go ahead and play, so it's tough to know how serious he was about this demand. I'll get more into that aspect later. Anyway, they opened with "83%," the first song on their first record, which is very heavy and moshy. Considering how far their sound has gotten from that style in the past decade or so, I was surprised to see them play this song, but it's one of my favorites by them, so it was a pleasant surprise. Mike Cheese jumped off stage and ran around in the front to get the crowd moving, but aside from a bunch of the sort of dudes who live to mosh at shows and don't care if they get hurt, most people just got out of the way. I think everyone was a little afraid of Mike Cheese. Within 30 seconds of the set's beginning, he'd shoved a well-known Baltimore area show videographer off the stage, and halfway through the first song, he did a really brutal stagedive onto about a dozen people standing immediately to my right. In fact, I saw him coming and took a step to the left, which is probably the only thing that kept me from being taken out as well.

Cheese was not the blur of constant motion that some stories about him had led me to expect, but that may speak more to his having gotten older and become a less frequent stage performer as it does to potential hyperbole in those stories. He'd have sudden outbursts, but most of the time, he stood still onstage and sang. That doesn't mean he was any less intense as a performer, though. The look in his eyes was terrifying. Despite the fact that he might have been standing still at any given moment, he always looked like he might be one second away from attacking you. As I write this it seems kind of ridiculous to say, but at the time, I was afraid to meet his eye. Whenever he'd look in my direction from the stage, I'd slide underneath the PA speakers so as to keep myself out of his line of sight. It felt like looking him in the eye might be interpreted as a challenge, and I didn't want to see how I'd fare in the event of such a thing.

A few songs into the set, during one of his rants about the fact that no one had brought him any dope, he charged off the stage into a backstage area that was on the other side of a curtain from where I was standing. I could hear commotion going on back there, but by the time I peeked around the curtain to see what was going on, it was impossible to see anything besides a scatter of equipment cases and a bunch of security people. Cheese ended up back onstage after a couple of minutes and the show continued--which makes it sound as if the band had stopped while he was offstage, which they didn't. They played an excellent set that lasted about 20 to 25 minutes and included quite a few songs that I knew--"Swarm/Deadshell," "Win By Attrition," "To Lay To Waste"--as well as some new material that I remember being faster than anything I'd heard them play before. Some mention has been made on Mike Cheese's blog recently of an upcoming 10 inch entitled "This World Is A Shithole," so perhaps these songs are material that will eventually materialize on that record. Or maybe it won't show up until years from now and will contain completely different songs; it's tough to tell with these guys.

Where the band was concerned, I'm pretty sure that the guitarist was the same guy who played guitar for them in the video I posted above of them playing "Swarm/Deadshell" back in the day. I can't be sure, though. I was expecting Mike Rhodes, longtime bassist, to still be in the band, but the bass player and drummer were both young longhaired guys who didn't seem like they'd been in the band very long, so hey, maybe not. I was particularly impressed with the drummer, who had a fast and ferocious style that stood out as being far better than the drumming on the most recent Gehenna records, Upon The Gravehill and the Lands Of Sodom EP. I hope they are able to keep this drummer around for a while, as he is definitely an upgrade.

The set ended with "First Blood," the opening track from their second LP, and my personal favorite of their releases, Negotium Perambulans In Tenebris. I had been headbanging and dancing around a little bit at some points during the set, but I freaked out a little bit during this song and sang along to most of the words at the top of my lungs. I was surprised I even remembered as many of them as I did. It's obviously been a long time since I was singing regularly in a hardcore band, because my throat was blown out completely after singing along to one two-minute song, and it's been sore off and on ever since. In fact, I may have given myself a cold. Pathetic, I know.

After the set, Brandon and I talked about our different perspectives on it. He'd stood in the back and watched from a safe distance. He made a comment that I thought had some truth to it, that Mike Cheese has built up such a reputation as an insane live performer that some of the stuff he does now is intended more to scare and impress people than to actually hurt them. From where Brandon was standing, he'd had a good vantage point to watch Cheese throw a chair and a mic stand into the crowd at different points (neither of which I'd been able to see from where I was standing). He said he was pretty sure Cheese wasn't actually aiming for anyone. Of course, we also talked about the fact that, for a bunch of guys from California, it'd probably be massively inconvenient to get arrested in Baltimore, and therefore maybe he'd toned things down a little bit. I couldn't help but bring up how intense and scary the guy had seemed onstage, though, and the intimidating look in his eye. In the end, it's at least my opinion that it's a little of both--Cheese is probably kidding or playing things up at times, as with the constant between-song screams of "Where's the fucking dope?" which seemed at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek. For the most part, though, I really do think the dude is crazy and just doesn't give a fuck what happens. I love the music that he and his band produce, and it's a direct result of that mentality. To some extent, I even enjoyed being frightened and intimidated by his live performance. I don't think I could ever live the way he does, though.

["83%," 1/10/10, filmed by an audience member]

One thing I forgot to mention: I did actually meet Mike Cheese earlier that night. He was selling Gehenna's merchandise himself, and he had a big display of their "Die High" series of t-shirts (click the image for a much bigger version of the pic):

I bought the Ol' Dirty Bastard shirt, which features a GG Allin quote on the back: "Live fast. Die." I'm not a fan of GG's music, but I did think that was the best of the three quote possibilities, and ODB is definitely my favorite of the three guys pictured on the front (though I also like Belushi a lot). Mike Cheese was very calm and friendly when I talked to him, and struck me as a nice guy. I figure he's less like GG Allin than people sometimes imply, and more like that dude you know from around who is really cool and into a lot of the same awesome things you like, but parties way harder than you and will get you in trouble if you try to keep up with him. After I bought the shirt from him, he told me to "stay high," and I figured it'd be better to just not bring up the fact that I'm straight edge. He reminds me a lot of a guy I used to know, who moved out to the West Coast several years ago. He sang in a band called PCP Roadblock (you can get an idea of what they were about by watching this video). He was a really nice guy, and we got along really well, but when he was partying, I stayed the hell out of the way.

For more information about Gehenna, read these interviews, which are reprinted on their Myspace:

Vomitose interview
Noise Mag interview (in English and French)

Some Gehenna interviews out there are pretty worthless but these are both interesting and informative.

And of course, you can check out studio versions of their music at their Myspace page.



Blogger Kevin said...

Almost picked up a Gehenna LP a couple of years ago for a few bucks, haven't heard much since.

Pretty cool you quoted me on your tumblr post, hah.

Stay good,

10:01 PM  
Blogger PeterSchmidt said...

Gehenna were scarier when Mike was sober. They were scary even when he wasn't attacking anyone - the fear (at least for me, as a teenager in the 90's) was the intensely negative feelings that their music and performance brought forth. Mike is older now, parties & doesn't perform often, which is evident in the videos from the Baltimore performance. There is a lot of hyperbole in the stories people tell about Gehenna, but it is the truth that in their most classic lineup(s) they were one of the most intense live bands to ever play.

7:32 PM  

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