The Story of Lucifer’s Hammer: Part 3
In this three-part series, Avinash Mittur tracks the resurgence of the Bay Area metal scene through the reflections of the people who saved it. In Part 1, he spoke with Slough Feg’s Mike Scalzi over the phone, chatted with Ross Sewage at a fest, and met John Cobbett (Hammers of Misfortune, Slough Feg, Ludicra, Vhöl), Aesop Dekker (Ludicra, Agalloch, Vhöl, Worm Ouroboros), and Matt Shapiro at a coffee shop for beers. Part 2 detailed Lucifer Hammer's rise and added Leon del Muerte (Impaled, Exhumed, Phobia, Intronaut, Nausea) to the conversation.
By April 1999, the metal club had become a full-blown music scene. “I remember my proudest moment was when we had new band night,” Cobbett says. “We had four bands play at Lucifer's Hammer on Tuesday and it was four bands who were playing their first show ever all on the same bill. To me, that was an important moment because it was clear that this thing was spawning on its own. This was Ludicra's first show, The Gault, BlackQueen, and The Rake, Billy Anderson's band. All these bands were Lucifer's Hammer bands, all people that met at the club and you could say they formed because there was a fuckin' place to play now. They formed because there was a place to go, a place to take it. If you formed a band, there was a place for you to take it.”
Though the community had been created successfully, filling out a heavy metal bill week after week would still prove to be tricky. “[Booking noise/crust/punk bands] kind of never ended because people would come to the shows where we had Orange Goblin or a Mayhem or a Slough Feg or even Exhumed or Impaled, but they weren't there every Tuesday,” Cobbett explains.
Aesop Dekker would eventually step down from helping Cobbett run Lucifer’s Hammer, as the newfound duties of fatherhood called his attention. Cobbett was soon overwhelmed, especially now that he was an active member of several bands. “What happened was I started going on tour with Slough Feg a lot and Hammers of Misfortune started going and recording a lot and Ludicra was up and running by then, so I was playing a lot of local shows with Ludicra and going out of town a lot,” says Cobbett. “So it was just hard and I needed help.”
Finally, after being at the coffeehouse long enough to have reached the second round of drinks, Matt Shapiro’s role in Lucifer’s Hammer is revealed.
“John brought on me and Jo Ann Arnold at one point. Me and her were doing it for a little while,” Shapiro recounts. “Jo Ann and I were already doing a metal night called Black Church so yeah, he brought us in to take over for a while.” Cobbett quickly cuts in to clarify the timeline: “Basically when Aesop stepped down, you stepped up." Shapiro replies, “Then you stuck around and had less of a role for a little while, then Jo Ann started fading out of the picture then you came back in. Then it became you and me. I would handle the booking and you would handle all the other stuff. It was the two of us and it became easier in a lot of ways.”
It effectively ushered in a new era for the club with Shapiro and Cobbett at the helm. “When the Covered Wagon closed, it was going to become a seven nights a week lesbian bar called the Cherry Bar. It was going to close for a couple months then [they were going to] redo it,” remembers Shapiro.
In a twist of irony, Cobbett would actually be paid to bring an end to the Covered Wagon. “I tore out the stage myself. I got a job working on the demolition crew. I tore out that stage myself after doing all those shows. Matt and I continued doing Lucifer's Hammer shows, and some very significant ones at that, at different locations,” he says. “We did Wolves in the Throne Room's first shows in the Bay Area. We did Sunn O)))'s first shows in the Bay Area.” Shapiro adds, “Agalloch as well."
Throughout the metal club’s run, there were maybe only 40 regular Tuesday night patrons. However they would prove to be the right 40 patrons. “There was a really diehard core of regulars. It's like that story about the Sex Pistols show that eight people went to and every one of them formed an awesome band,” Dekker says. “It was like that, people were meeting at the shows, bands would then be popping and then they'd be like, ‘We want to play.’ A lot of bands formed from people meeting at Lucifer's Hammer and then they'd play their first show at Lucifer's Hammer. It was sort of like sowing seeds in a sense.”
Cobbett acknowledges the birth of this community would spawn a new scene for heavy metal in the Bay. “The important thing to me was this: it's one thing to have a band that plays this kind of music, but it's a whole other thing to have a scene where a bunch of people gather around this music and there's a community,” he explains. “It made a huge difference. That's where we had the Bay Area metal scene that was famous in the '80s with Exodus and Metallica. That died out, but all of a sudden here you had another Bay Area metal scene rising from the ashes and it happened because there was a community. There was a place for it to thrive, like a metal community center.”
Along with the Bay, heavy music would slowly make a return to prominence all across America, meaning new touring acts could be hosted at San Francisco’s local metal club. “Once we got to the Cat Club. . . Up to that point we had gotten these crazy shows at the Curve Bar. We did Abigail there, Nunslaughter, Pungent Stench. We were the game in town, this was when the agents were hitting us up,” Shapiro remembers. “We were the metal guys in SF, and slowly metal started becoming not such a bad word anymore. By the time we moved to the Cat Club, metal was welcome at the clubs.”
As far the local climate for booking metal was concerned, Cobbett knew that Lucifer’s Hammer had changed the game. “Everyone was doing metal and that was because of us. We were the first, we were the canary at the coal mine,” he says. “As soon as people saw us doing well with metal, all of a sudden everybody wanted to book metal bands.”
However, on August 17, 2004, the weekly metal club would come to an end. Brocas Helm, a local titan of NWOBHM-esque classic heavy metal, would play the last Tuesday night for Lucifer’s Hammer at the Cat Club. However the end of the metal club wasn’t a defeat, it was a clear-cut victory. “The thing is by that time, we had made our point,” Cobbett states. “Now, everybody wanted to have metal on Friday nights, so why would anybody want to do a Tuesday? We had succeeded. We weren't really needed anymore.”
Though the Tuesday nights were finished, the Lucifer’s Hammer name would live on. “We decided to walk away with the name still being important, and we could still use it when we needed and wanted to,” Shapiro remembers. “We don't have to be here on a fuckin' Tuesday. When we get inspired by something, we can call it Lucifer's Hammer.”
Shapiro pulls out a small handbill with the phrase “Lucifer’s Hammer Presents Godflesh” placed at the very top. In addition to promoting the occasional Lucifer’s Hammer Presents event, Shapiro now owns Elbo Room, a bar located on 17th and Valencia in the Mission district of San Francisco. He has put on countless quality metal shows at his establishment and continues to be a powerful force behind the scene.
“We all helped,” Mike Scalzi tells me over the phone. “I helped a lot, Aesop helped a lot, but John did it. He successfully turned this loyal, very strict, sort of crusty hardcore scene in the Mission and transformed it into a metal scene. He did it. But he knew he had to do it through the powers that be, through the scene that existed already, which was the hardcore scene. John pulled off a pretty good feat there I would say,” Scalzi admits. “It was really exciting for us because there was no heavy metal and as much as John and Aesop were into the hardcore scene, we were fighting really hard to play heavy metal; technical, sort of old-school metal.”
Though Scalzi has long since accepted the modern metal musician’s lot in life, working a 9 to 5 by day and becoming a guitar hero by night, during Lucifer's Hammer's era the future seemed especially bright. “It was really exciting to bring that metal back, because people hated metal in the ‘90s. It was really hard to be in a metal band up until the late ‘90s, so it was really exciting for John and I and the others involved. It was like, ‘Holy shit, we can do this. We have the strength to do this.’”
Cobbett, Dekker, and Shapiro themselves are reluctant to claim too much credit for the scene that exists today but they know they had an impact. “We just wanted to do some metal,” Cobbett says. “I could say that I wanted to create a metal scene, sure I did! That would have been great. Initially though, it was just like, ‘Let’s try to put on a killer metal show every Tuesday night, and throw in as much interesting stuff as possible and see if we can make it to the next Tuesday without getting cancelled.’ Eventually it became clear that a scene was springing up around it. Of course, it crossed my mind that it might happen but initially the goal was just to not get cancelled.” Cobbett also acknowledges what many may be thinking in the back of their heads. “People can smell that you’re just trying to be manipulative. . . ‘I’m trying to manipulate this scene so I can take credit for it later,’” he jokes. “No, we just wanted to do some shows and rock out, man. We weren’t ready to quit music yet, and we wanted to do some cool shit.”
It's something Dekker remembers fondly. “Sometimes I listen to some albums and I get that sensory feeling, I remember when I first heard this and it was such an exciting time and the world was filled with a lot of promise and possibility. It just seemed endless, every day we were finding out about a new band.”
Even Leon del Muerte, though he now lives in the other end of California, keeps the values that he picked up from Lucifer’s Hammer with him today. “At Lucifer’s Hammer I met a lot of people that I just liked hanging out with,” he reminisces. “I never thought of myself as having to be in some kind of elite band or whatever, I’d just do whatever at any time as long as it sounds fun. Anyone who was fun to hang out with, I’d be down to play with them. So yeah, I networked a lot up there and met a lot of those people there, and I took a lot of that with me when I came to LA, I guess.”
Cobbett remembers those days too, and the nearly romantic element that his little metal club carried. “It had that little quality of us against the world, because we were the only people that knew about this stuff, us and our friends. There was just a small group of us and for a while there, we had like a pretty tight scene, man. It was pretty fun.”
John Cobbett is modest because it was ultimately more than just fun. Lucifer’s Hammer is what links the formerly thrashed wasteland to the weird beast that exists in the Bay today. Many newer Bay Area bands like Vastum, Necrot, Cormorant, Wild Hunt, and Hazzard’s Cure, among many others, have Lucifer’s Hammer DNA. Cobbett, Dekker, and Shapiro’s triumph is far greater than the mere presence of metal shows on any given night. They built a united Bay Area metal scene, where bands boasting a variety of sounds can come together to play shows wherever they can set up their gear.
These days the Covered Wagon is history and yet the Hammer continues to strike. It strikes when Ovvl rock a suburban house show in Concord. It strikes when doom-revivalists Orchid and thrash-geeks Hell Fire pair up to pack Slim’s on a Friday night in San Francisco. It strikes when Impaled scorch a mixed crowd of punks and headbangers at the Oakland Metro. The Hammer will strike whenever the scene assembles to celebrate underground heavy metal music, no matter the venue, lineup, or crowd. That's the legacy. Long live Lucifer’s Hammer.