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"The reaction was, 'Y'all niggas are crazy.' That was the true reaction," says Anthony Starks, bassist for Stone Vengeance, explaining the neighborhood's response when his group began playing high school talent shows and street festivals in and around the Bayview-Hunters Point area in the early and mid-'80s. Together with guitarist Michael Coffey and drummer Darren Tompkins, Starks is seated in the group's practice space at Yosemite Studios at the corner of Yosemite Avenue and Third Street; it's a white fortresslike warehouse nestled amidst dilapidated architecture and unkempt sidewalks, just down the street from the power trio's lifelong stomping grounds.
"At the time we started, disco was popular," shouts Coffey, who is a lightning bolt of nervous energy, gesticulating wildly and rocking back and forth in an old kitchen chair just to the left of Tompkins' humongous, multitiered double kick-drum kit. On the walls hang concert bills, 20-year-old band pics, posters of the Beatles and Raven (Coffey's personal faves), as well as two photographs of the guitarist lewdly hugging a naked Minka, this Asian porn queen who surely has the biggest set of fake titties ever created. "And you also had what you would call R&B bands, but let's talk about them, Anth."
Taking his cue, Starks, a short, stout truck driver by day who sports a black motorcycle jacket and black leather boots, sets down his bag of chips and pretends to play a guitar as his voice mockingly imitates your stereotypical funky dance riff. Tompkins, a reserved man dressed in an all-blue track suit, doubles over in a fit of laughter.
"So I'm hearing that," Coffey yelps, referring to Starks' mimed funk. Tompkins, meanwhile, has switched out DVDs, replacing Black Belt Jones with Phatty Asses, which Coffey tells him to turn off. "Then I heard 'Stairway to Heaven,'" he continues, "and the guitar is doing all that stuff, man. And then I heard some Beatles, some Hendrix, some Van Halen, some fucking Discharge. And knowing the guitar could be so much more than what I was hearing in those R&B bands, metal became my rap."
As the guys recall the origins of their relentless metallic attack, I scan all those great old band photos pinned to the walls, shots taken when Coffey, Starks, and Tompkins were three young men, wherein each is striking a tough-guy metal pose and donning identical thrash-era uniforms: black T-shirts with "STONE VENGEANCE" in large white lettering emblazoned across their chests; tight black leather pants; puffy stark-white high-tops; bullet belts; and white foreign-legion hats.
It's these wicked-sweet outfits that drive the realization straight home: I'm sitting with some serious mavericks. You see, Coffey, Tompkins, and Starks (who spent his early childhood in the Fillmore and the Western Addition) were raised, as the bassist says, in San Francisco's "worst neighborhoods. Darren even grew up watching people getting murdered when he was 5 and 6 years old." As African-Americans from the wrong side of the tracks, they're already outsiders to mainstream American culture regardless of the music they make. At the same time, these three never felt totally comfortable with the culture they grew up in. And so, for 27 years, Stone Vengeance has been flying its own unique freak flag high, letting both the 'hood and the rest of the world know that there exist brothers who are doing wild things with that mechanical beast known as heavy metal. And I'm not talking about catchy, million-selling pop metal à la Living Colour; Stone Vengeance's raw fusion of speed metal, thrash, hardcore, and crunchy blues-rock is listener unfriendly to the majority of blacks and whites out there; as Coffey jokingly puts it, "We are under the underground."
"The first show I played with them was the Juneteenth Festival [in the Fillmore] in 1984," Tompkins, who joined an already established Stone Vengeance that same year, tells me. "I actually heard, 'Who are these niggas in these foreign-legion hats coming up?' I heard this. But then, we were the best of the whole show. People were standing around and digging it. This was the Juneteenth Festival" -- a national celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States -- "ain't nothing but bands who were like Rick James, Cameo, Michael Jackson, and Con Funk Shun. We were black guys doing rock. We were the only rock band in the whole festival."
"We were young," Coffey adds. "We didn't give a fuck."
Among fervent collectors of underground metal, Stone Vengeance is something of a legend. In fact, the group is currently organizing a trip to Europe, where copies of its long-out-of-print self-titled cassette (originally released on Lilac Records in 1990) fetch muchos euros. That's because Coffey, Tompkins, and Starks are not just the neighborhood band that everybody thought was crazy. SV is one of the original players in San Francisco's genre-defining, mid-'80s underground metal and thrash scene ("THRASH TIL YOU FUCKING DIE!" proclaimed their old fliers), a band that regularly played the Mabuhay Gardens, the seminal North Beach dive where all the punk, hardcore, and metal outfits gigged for years. What's more, Stone Vengeance shared bills with such pioneering heavies as Exodus, Anvil, Death Angel, Testament, the Possessed, Suicidal Tendencies, and, yes, even the mighty Slayer. Now, the boys didn't play with Metallica, but Coffey, to the amusement of his bandmates, loves to retell the time when "Lars [Ulrich] was drunk. And we were watching fucking Dave Lombardo [drummer for Slayer] play. He's a bad man. He was kicking so much ass. I said to Lars, 'You got some competition, man.' And Lars, drunk, was looking at him like, 'Damn man.' And I said, 'You got some competition if you think you is-a hallucinatin'.'"
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