Video: Hammers of Misfortune – “17th Street”

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I love how metal grows everywhere. It is an unstoppable weed. Throw inhumane rent and shit weather at it, and it still thrives in New York. Throw Hurricane Katrina at it, and Big Easy metal is stronger than ever. Put it on a glacier, even take away electricity – Immortal made it work. After humanity blows itself to bits, survivors in some garage-cum-bunker will still hack through “Die by the Sword” with gear looted from Guitar Center. I’m a fan already.

San Francisco ain’t quite there yet, but “17th Street” says it’s en route. Its lyrics are about poverty, bankruptcy, how people step on each other – all hallmarks of its titular Mission District setting. (In interviews, however, Hammers of Misfortune mastermind John Cobbett insists that 17th Street could be anywhere.)

It’s instructive to look at “317″, the song preceding the title track of 17th Street. “317″ reads like a punk manifesto: “We are the soil becoming dust, we are the chrome becoming rust, we are the ones you’re standing on, we are the floor you dance upon”. This isn’t a rant; it’s reality. In 2007, according to Wikipedia (supported elsewhere across the web), “the top 20% of Americans owned 85% of the country’s wealth and the bottom 80% of the population owned 15%”.

That’s grim, and Cobbett – John’s brother Aaron, who directed the “17th Street” video – could have played it straight. He could have portrayed some gritty dystopia with people racing to the bottom. Instead, he made a dreamy mood piece, sort of a-day-in-the-life-of-a-San-Francisco-bike-messenger intercut with Hammers rehearsal footage. It’s low-budget, and the shakycam doesn’t help. But technique aside, it works. There’s something so-wrong-it’s-right about urban visuals set to ’70s prog organ and female ren faire vocals. Maybe I got the century wrong with “ren faire”, but the point is that the sound comes from another time. Urban screams “now”; metal screams “any time but”.

Sure, not always – plenty of grindcore and sludge pounds “now” into your face. But “now” can be pretty shitty, and metal can be a great way to escape “now”. It’s not about living in the past or pining for the future. It’s about experiencing time in a wider sense. That Metallica tape you had as a kid in the ’80s – it’s still valid. Trace back from it to Motörhead to Sabbath, then trace back to the blues, then trace back to Africa, then go back to the cradle of civilization, then look up at star light coming from millions of light years away. “Now” is an atom by comparison. That can be comforting.

On its face, “17th Street” isn’t comforting. It’s born of class struggle and fear: “Predator, I am game, citizen is my name”. But the video shows an alternative. Enter the rehearsal space, and you see hands, lots of them, pouring out music. Shots of faces are few. The emphasis is not on people, but their effort. They are hooded and obscured, but they make glorious sound. It is the weed pushing up through concrete.

— Alan Smith

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