I don’t usually put up non-cheese content here, but today is the 10 year anniversary of Lance Hahn’s death. Since I literally found out about his death on my way to my 40th birthday party, his death is forever linked to my milestone birthdays. It’s not a burden. I kind of like that it helps me remember him when thinking of my own mortality. I still can believe that I won’t run into him walking down Valencia St. Not that I ever walk down Valencia St. anymore.
I feel like in the last ten years, I actually appreciate him even more as a songwriter and home-made intellectual. I still listen to his music often. Sometimes it makes me feel good and sometimes it makes me cry, sometimes I’m all, “that’s silly Lance…” but there is so much there to chew on.
So anyways, I was going to write something new, but what I wrote 10 years ago is better than anything I could come up with now. We still miss you, Lance.
I never really understood Lance’s songwriting until I listened to radio in Hawai’i. Island reggae, Hawai’ian pop, and other Hawai’ian songs have a sense of history. There are lots of elements that, out-of-context, I might find sappy or overly nostalgic. But they not only work with those songs, they are crucial elements to the genre.
Lance’s songs, especially the Cringer and early J Church ones, had that same element. I’m nostalgic and sappy by nature, mind you, so they always appealed to me. But there was no real punk genre for it. His bands mirrored his personality more than most songwriters I know. Both Cringer and J Church were intellectual but friendly, political but approachable, fun but taking themselves seriously. Unlike many of the bands Lance (and I) admired, his lyrics were never preachy. He always sang as one of us, not to us.
“Sometimes I wanna go back
Sometimes to the beginning
Sometimes I wouldn’t change a thing.
Sometimes the things I’ve done, It seems like martyrdom
Sometimes it doesn’t mean a thing
Won’t be sad
Like the sailors
Lance was a sweetheart. Everyone who’s written about his death so far has called him “one of the good ones”. He could get away with writing lyrics like those, which could easily be read as pretentious on paper, because his personality came through in his singing. He wasn’t comparing himself to the theory of the Great Revolutionary, he was connecting through history to the emotions of the people he admired and wanted to relate to. Ones who died anonymously in service to their beliefs but who were just ordinary working folks doing what they felt was right..
He’d also just probably read an Alexander Berkman book and wanted to write a song about it. He was always reading.
Lance was an auto-didact, a student of history, especially anarchist history. I mean geez, he even put Leon Czolgosz, unlabeled, on a J Church shirt. He was also sweet, kind, thoughtful, and quietly funny. He knew how to make people feel good but more than that, he cared about making people feel good. He carried a million details in his brain, surprising you with something you said offhand at some show or some party months before. He was a special, special man.
Lance lived above me on Valencia St, half a block from Epicenter Zone. Lance’s apartment was referred to as jokingly “The Crash Pad” after an SF Weekly reporter dubbed it that in an article.* Our apartment was already name “House of Failure” because our phone number was 552-FAIL. Oh, those early ’90s…
It seems symbolic that many of his songs remind me of our shared neighborhood. Early J Church is so time and place for me: all songs about the Mission in the early ’90s., While traveling out of the Bay Area for an extended period, and leaving from my apartment on Mission St , “November” made me cry while riding a train through Eastern Europe. I had made a Mission District bands cassette and as soon as he mentioned rain on Mission St, I started bawling.
“As the rain falls hard, it fills the cracks on Mission St…”
“No matter who you are, you feel the same when you’re wet, cold and alone…”
“We only dream to float downstream, reminded by the rain,
Tied to a tree, cannot break free, reminded by the rain”
It’s a sad song about rain making people feel alone, but it does the typical Lance thing. He empathizes with strangers and tries to find a human truth. This un-self-conscious sappiness is a unifying force in Lance’s songs. Even the punks have to admit their fuzzy feelings sometimes. It kept his lyrics, no matter how political, from being as dogmatic and alienating as a lot of the other anarcho-punks.
I think my favorite thing about Lance was just running into him in the street. I can think of hours spent on Market/14th, at 16th/Valencia, in front of Lost Weekend, just gossiping, talking about bands, demonstrations and friends. He made this city a better place by just being around, having time to hang out. He also rarely missed a demonstration. He had good priorities even if rather than being in front with a bullhorn he’s be bringing up the rear, poking fun at the sectarians and trying-too-hard anarchist kids. I think he’d appreciate that my favorite picture of him was from the San Francisco Rodney King riots. Hip-hoppers and punks were unified in their desire to liberate electronics to facilitate their communication with a hostile world. Somewhere, maybe his room, I saw a picture of Lance coming out of an electronics store with his hands full and his eyes blacked out, like any punk wouldn’t recognize his long hair, his slouch and his band t-shirt. Or maybe I just made up that picture in my head.
Lance still seems like a San Francisco icon 7 years after moving to Texas.
My oddest Lance moment was probably seeing him play guitar for Beck at Slim’s. It was near the height of Beck’s post-“Loser” glory. If I remember correctly, he knew Beck from playing at some German squat show together back in the day, but I could have jumbled up that memory. Anyways, he put me on the guest list, possibly because no one else we knew wanted to see Beck cuz he was like, all popular and stuff. It was so odd seeing Lance play and not be the central feature of the band. The first thing it made me realize that Lance could actually really play guitar. The second was that in another scene Lance’s non-traditional singing voice might have forced him into a lesser role if he wanted to be in a band. What a loss that would have been.
The third thing was seeing him walk across the club without kids coming up to talk to him. He was probably the most approachable band guy I’ve ever met, constantly talking to kids who came to SF hoping to see him working his shift at Epicenter or at some of the bars, taquerias, and cafes he mentioning in his songs, if not his shows. Occasionally he’d have to hide from a creepy one, but that was rare. Usually he’d hang out, talk about their hometown (which he probably had played), and generally treat them as a new friend. There were times he really represented all that the punk scene should have been.
I hadn’t seen Lance in awhile when I got the word he went into a coma.. My heart goes out to his partner and his friends there. To many of us in San Francisco, or maybe just to me, his bad health was a little hard to fathom. My memory of Lance is full of mellow energy, happy to see you, happy to chat, always looking for new bands and new fun. I imagine that the last couple of years, being on dialysis, not being able to go to every show, was incredibly hard for him. But I always thought I’d just run into him in the Mission or at a show one day. That he would have beaten his bad organs, that he’d be the same old Lance.
Old Epicenter workers crashing the Epicenter closing party 1999. I believe this was right after Lance’s first brush with hospitalization. (Thanks Jeff Heermann!)
In one of his best known songs, Lance wrote:
So where’s my sense of humor?
My life is a disaster,
No one has a future,
So let’s all get there faster
But it was a cautionary tale. He wasn’t a No Future Drunk Punk.. He was writing about going to the local bar and looking at what he might become if he let himself. He didn’t want to get ground down like other working class people around him there: unhappy, overworked, underpaid. The narrator in the song reacts to those thoughts by deciding to blow off work the next day and take time doing something important for himself.
Lance organized his life to be a writer and artist. He recorded what… 300 songs? His bands put out albums faster than the Minutemen in their prime. He wrote for MRR and was trying to document the obscure bands of the ’80s Peace Punk scene. Bands that meant a lot to people like us even if almost no one has ever heard of them. He was one of the people who make all these alternative scenes and obscure political movements possible. People in every city with a punk scene, or that once had a punk scene, are mourning him
He worked his whole life for it, never getting famous or rich, but doing it anyway. It’s something a lot of people promised when they were 18 but few actually did. He meant it, ya know? All of it.
Bye Lance. You are missed already.