It’s around 6 PM on a foggy July afternoon in the Sunset District of San Francisco. I’ve just spent half an hour nervously trying to find legal parking, which has resulted in me walking fifteen minutes to the venue with my guitar uncomfortably strapped to my back. I already want to go home. When I finally find the Honey Hive Art Gallery, I almost walk past it—it’s small and easy to miss. A guy is sitting at the tiny receptionist desk, which today is decked out with earplugs and free water bottles. “Doors don’t open for another half hour,” he says without looking up.
“I’m a performer,” I murmur. It’s hard to tell him this with my chest.
Now he meets my eyes. “Oh. There’s a door through there. You’re the first in.” He points to what I now notice is an extremely poorly lit little room.
A few days before, my friend Nick—lead singer of the local band Unpopular Opinion, bookie at the legendary Gilman, and general expert on the Bay music scene—asked me to open for a punk show. As an avid fan of local music, I was thrilled, but I was also more than a little terrified. Not only had I never played anything more high-stakes than a coffee shop open-mic night, I was an acoustic singer-songwriter playing for punk fans.
Throughout high school, I’d spent many Friday nights watching teen bands play everywhere from children’s daycare centers to church basements. I loved every part of it—the moshing (which I observed, perplexed, from the sidelines), the music, the sense of belonging. Teens and twenty-somethings came from all over the Bay Area to these shows, and brought with them a culture of support and respect I have yet to find in any other community. In the time of COVID-19, I certainly cannot think of anything that comes close.
While the scene definitely has a strong sense of community, I always felt an intense sense of imposter syndrome in its spaces, even just as a fan. No one ever treated me like I didn’t fit in, but something about my preference for Counting Crows over Green Day, lack of musical expertise, and more-or-less straight-laced look made me feel like I was an outsider.
As I wait in the backroom for someone to show up, pointlessly tuning and retuning my guitar, it’s all I can think about. When the other acts arrive—all bands decked out with their own sound systems and pre-show routines—I have no idea how to play off my growing feeling that this is a terrible mistake. I’m barely a decent guitarist; I haven’t sang formally since my freshman year of high school. I’ve decidedly bitten off more than I can chew. But if the other bands know this, they do a hell of a good job making me feel like they don’t. Nick’s bandmates ask me about my setlist, my influences, and my writing.
I’m the opener, so not many people are there when I go onstage. People sit on the floor to listen to me; my originals and Bob Dylan covers aren’t really ideal for dancing. But they really listen to me, even though I’m even close to what they’ve come for.
When I’m finished, the other bands compliment my voice and lyrics. I talk to someone in the audience about singing lead for his band, though I’m soon to go to college across the country. Still, the thought that someone could think me good enough to want me in their band thrills me.
For the rest of the night, I listen to music, dance, and talk to people from all around the Bay whom I likely never would’ve met if not for a shared love of art and expression. I genuinely feel at home. I see myself on the inside of this world for once, instead of watching from beyond the glass.
My performance at Honey Hive is my first and last show before I move to Georgia for school. When I am back in the Bay for the summer, COVID-19 is in full swing, bringing with it an end to any hope for live music in my near future. While many musicians are finding creative ways to still produce art and build community online, this temporary hold on in-person shows is, to me, truly an undeniable loss. Punk shows offered me and my peers a safe and supportive space to express ourselves during some of our most formative years; to have gone without that would have been a real shame.
I hope that this summer brings with it a safe environment for high contact events again. But until then, I look back fondly on the time I had in the Bay’s music scene, and I thank it for allowing me to express myself, and seek inspiration from the self-expression of others.
By Sheena Holt
Illustration by Elise Miguel