The last time I ever saw Filth, right before Shit Split came out in 1991, less than thirty people bothered to show up. Nearly two decades later, for the first of four much-heralded reunion shows, you’d think there was a gigantic magnet at 8th and Gilman in Berkeley. At 6:30pm, there were 300 people in front of me in line; when doors opened, the line stretched around the block.
The rumor about tonight’s show was that Blatz was supposed to play too, which on sheer holy-fuck levels would have probably caused a Guatemalan sinkhole. As it stood, Filth sold the place out and just about threatened to tear it down. In a word, MAYHEM. It’s 2:14am, I just got home, drenched in sweat, smelling horrendously, delirious from being crushed by bodies, eardrums essentially kaput, and full of love.
You can go anywhere in the Bay Area and find your run-of-the mill, dull show. Not the case with Filth. Wheelchairs in the pit. People making out in the front row. Dozens of people on stage. Horrible sound. Entire crowd screaming “The List.” Swarming crowds falling at a 45-degree angle. Being held up by willpower and adrenaline. Boys wearing nothing but nuthuggers. Setlists stolen. Songs falling apart. Everything falling apart. Glory, glory, glory, glory.
Hanging over Filth like an albatross in their heyday was this really ragged notion that they began as a joke, exaggerating punk’s nihilism to ridiculous extremes, and that over time the joke morphed serious as their fanbase expanded. I’ve heard this rumor used against Filth, e.g. “Walk through the filth / You will find me there / Needle hanging from my vein” isn’t a reflection of Jake Sayles’ reality, but a hollow posturing to initially mock punk and eventually—when no one got the joke—to capitalize on it.
But can you name one band, or at least one great band, that doesn’t posture even just a little bit? The portrayal of what music listeners want as reality is often just as important as that reality. Maybe more so, actually—if Jake had needles hanging from his arm all the time, Filth probably wouldn’t have lasted long enough to record the most scathing, incredible crustpunk anthems to ever come from the East Bay.
I never gave a shit if Filth truly lived the chaos or not. What mattered was how their songs affected me, which is to say: strongly. Not only did they lend empathetic understanding to self-destructive impulses, they crafted said self-destruction as a powerful, torrential force. “You Are Shit” is still the most empowering song about the ineffectual nature of humankind ever written; if one realizes that we are all truly shit, and we accept that lowly role, then we receive liberation from the expectations of the world. It also totally fucking kicks ass.
Tonight, Jake ominously paced the stage like a bald eagle, virtually unchanged in the last 20 years. That same icy gaze and cold detachment. While songs occasionally sputtered—Lenny, Jim, Mike and original drummer Dave E.C. were really struggling amongst the waves of fans on stage repeatedly beaten back by security—the sheer fray of energy superceded technical “quality.” When Sayles reached the apex of the set, hundreds of suffering souls screamed along with the lines that defined the night: “You are within me / WE ARE ONE.”
It can’t go without notice that tonight was the 20th Anniversary of The List, amazingly compiled and distributed for two decades by Steve Koepke. Congratulations, Steve! And the Gr’ups, presumably filling in for Blatz, tore through a rambunctious set that had Jesse Luscious and Anna Joy swapping trademark sarcastic barbs between urgent versions of ageless anthems “On the Way to Frisco” and “Lil’ Red Riding Hood.”
I drove home in a daze. I really, really need a shower.
[UPDATE: Gilman has posted the full audio from the show here.]