Last Friday night, two punk bands took over a BART train and staged an impromptu show for a crowd of unsuspecting commuters and dedicated fans.
This isn’t the first time Bay Area musicians have performed unscheduled shows in unexpected venues. Nor is a BART takeover unprecedented—the guerrilla art show known as BART Basel returned to the Embarcadero platform just last month.
It’s technically illegal to perform in public in San Francisco without an entertainment permit, but for many, the best art is the kind that breaks rules.
In turning the San Francisco-bound blue line into a sweaty mosh pit, False Flag and Surprise Privilege—the two bands behind Friday’s show—were carrying on a DIY legacy that stretches back to at least the mid-1960s and the dawn of America’s counterculture movement.
From the Grateful Dead’s free concerts in Golden Gate Park to the very first Burning Man on Baker Beach—and beyond—local artists have been transforming public space and abandoned buildings into performance venues for decades. Here are a few of the most significant moments in DIY performances from years past.
Oct. 6, 1966 | The Panhandle
The day LSD became illegal in California, the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company (featuring Janis Joplin) played an impromptu free show at The Panhandle. They called it “The Love Pageant Rally.” More than 1,000 hippies swarmed the park in a precursor to the Human Be-In a few months later, and the Summer of Love after that. A countercultural newspaper known as the San Francisco Oracle invited people to the rally, writing that it would be a “celebration of innocence.”
Oct. 31, 1966 | Haight-Ashbury
On Halloween 1966, a group of experimental thespians and food activists called the Diggers occupied the intersection of Haight and Ashbury for a puppet show and musical performance to reclaim public space for the people. Even as one of the puppeteers was taken into custody, he didn’t break character, stating, “I declare myself public. I am a public. The streets are public. The streets are free.”
Jan. 14, 1967 | Golden Gate Park
Before the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock, artists and activists came together in Golden Gate Park to protest California’s banning of LSD, and it became a symbolic coming-out party for San Francisco’s counterculture. Psychedelic preachers Ram Dass and Timothy Leary shared the stage with literary luminaries like Allen Ginsberg and bands like Jefferson Airplane (and, of course, The Dead). The Hells Angels were on security detail, and acid king Owsley Stanley supplied the LSD. How did they pull it off? Well, the organizers called some friends in high places to acquire a permit from City Hall. Of course, the city had no idea that a throng of hippies was about to descend on Golden Gate Park for a mind-bending happening.
c. 1985-1987 | 3623 Adeline St., Emeryville
In the 1980s, East Bay punks and avant-garde artists reclaimed a constellation of abandoned warehouses, converting them into illicit performance venues. New Method was an old laundry warehouse that became a squat and DIY venue. Bands like The Melvins and Soul Asylum stopped by to play secret shows there in 1985.
Nov. 11, 1987 | Justin Herman Plaza
While touring the West Coast in support of their 1987 album, The Joshua Tree, U2 played an impromptu show for 20,000 or so fans at Embarcadero. According to documentarian and attendee Jay Blakesberg, Bono abruptly stepped off the stage during the show and spray-painted a polarizing work of public art, the Vailancourt Fountain, with the words “Rock ’n’ Roll Stops the Traffic."—to some people’s delight and others’ horror.
c. 1990 | 576 Haight St., SF
In case you haven’t seen the rockumentary DiG!, The Brian Jonestown Massacre is an SF-born and bred psychedelic band with a cult following and a front man notorious for his talent and temper. When Anton Newcombe first formed the BJM in 1990, he instigated an unscheduled gig at a Haight-Ashbury brunch spot called Spaghetti Western, attracting onlookers and stopping traffic—until the show was promptly shut down. When he was interviewed for Rock and Roll Explorer Guide to San Francisco and the Bay Area, The BJM’s beloved tambourine player, Joel Gion—who used to work at Amoeba Records in the Haight—remembered this gig and the countless others that followed.
c. 2007-2011 | Various locations
North Oakland resident and punk elder statesman John Benson bought a decommissioned AC Transit bus for $5,000 in 2007, gutted it, built a stage, installed a PA, converted it to run on vegetable oil and donated it to the East Bay DIY community as an all-ages mobile venue. After the original bus was grounded in Michigan on a trip across the U.S., Benson bought a AC Transit second bus on auction for $2,000 in 2009, which he named Larry Bus in honor of the previous owner, and also retooled it as a mobile DIY venue.
Jul. 11, 2009 | The Big Art Studios at American Steel
In the thick of The Great Recession, a West Oakland art collective opened up the American Steel warehouse for a larger-than-life beach party, complete with gigantic sand sculptures, a wading pool and a bounty of illicit substances. By all accounts, it was Oakland’s answer to Burning Man.
Aug. 6, 2016 | Golden Gate Park
Sure, it was sponsored by major beer company and took place with the knowledge of festival organizers, but when Bay Area hip-hop hero and Long Beach regulator Warren G performed at a totally mobbed pop-up show near the Heineken tent during the 2016 Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival, it still had that DIY spark.
June 19, 2021 | 1999 Monterey Highway, San Jose
After months of canceled shows, an audience of 2,000 Covid-weary hardcore fans coalesced in a raucous mosh pit in San Jose. Joined by fellow locals Maya Over Eyes, Santa Cruz’s Scowl and Xibalba from Los Angeles, hometown hardcore heroes Gulch and Drain built a stage themselves, charged $5 a head and helped to usher in a triumphant return of live music to the South Bay.
July 16, 2021 | Sutro Baths
DIY musicians tend to stay underground for a reason. In the summer of 2021, SF garage rock outfit Pork Belly descended into the cave at Sutro Baths to play a secret show, running on just a portable generator and Covid cabin fever. They played for about a hundred friends and strangers. Unfortunately, SFGate published a recap shortly after, alerting the National Park Service to the unscheduled programming.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story included a write-up of the tragic events at the Ghost Ship warehouse in 2016. We regret including that in our list.
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