“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'.'”
So yeah, Stone Vengeance has been around the block, as evidenced by an upcoming gig on April 21, when the group will appear at Rampage Radio's 24th anniversary show. Rampage Radio, a KUSF institution, championed most of those acts I just mentioned when they were still hawking underground cassette demos to their fans. SV's highly coveted four-song rehearsal tape from 1985 is one such cassette, a reissue of which I recently ordered. Here Lies Stone Vengeance 1987, a gorgeous limited-edition, emerald green 12-inch containing the music on said cassette as well as four additional tracks from 1987, was put together by Doomed Planet Records (based in Fremont), a label specializing in classic if absurdly abstruse Bay Area metal from the '80s.
Anyway, despite the fact that Stone Vengeance's live act continues to kick some serious ass (and is a fixture on the metal festival circuit), it's this LP as well as the aforementioned self-titled cassette from 1990 that comprise the group's zenith as a recording unit (whereas 2004's The Angel CD misses the mark). The trio's rapid-fire jackhammer aesthetic is wholly unlike any heavy metal that I've ever heard before, lending credence to Coffey's admission that he, regardless of whom the group has played with or what scene dug its jams, “didn't hang with rockers. We didn't even know about that scene when we first started.” I find this intriguing because the white-hot skull-fucking speed metal captured on Here Lies Stone Vengeance 1987 does feel like it was created in relative isolation, by individuals who were forging their own path through the great cultural forest. Loose, elastic, and explorative like the fiercest jazz, as well as gut-level visceral like hardcore punk and sweaty old-school funk, these jammers are a novel fusion of certain styles, sounds, and ideas that wouldn't have been married if Coffey, Starks, and Tompkins hadn't been self-taught musicians living outside the narrowly circumscribed definitions of what's hip and unhip endemic to any and all music scenes, black or white, metal or funk or whatever.
On such epics as “Stone Vengeance,” “The Persecution,” “Malice,” and “To Kill Evil,” Coffey transforms his axe into a screaming, helter-skelter power drill; his licks are vicious, atonal spikes that — believe it or not — explode with that old-school Wild Style swing. No metal guitarist was attempting anything like this then or now, just as no shrieking, leather-clad frontman has ever matched Coffey's vocal versatility. Echo-laden doom-speak explodes into operatic soprano wails that then die down, making way for clipped, jive-talking monologues narrating the never-ending battle between heaven and hell, good and evil, etc. In fact, according to Coffey, “We believe in God, but we are not a religious band. We are not goody-two-shoes. If I'm in the mood, I may sing about something I read in the Bible, but the next minute, I might be singing about Minka.” Indeed, Coffey and Starks have both written several tunes chronicling the dark times each one has had to experience. Coffey's “Pain,” for example, is about what he felt when, “My woman got all fucked-up on crack, and I was home dealing with my children.”
As for Starks and Tompkins, they not only maintain tense, breakneck tempos, but they are also both Coffey's equals as forceful, dynamic soloists. Starks' fingers dance across those four thick strings as intricately as his hero's, Steve Harris of Iron Maiden. Interestingly, funk does inform his frantic fretwork, but he never employs that god-awful slap-pop technique. Fuck that Fishbone stuff. It's about Starks smoothly incorporating syncopation and some fierce string-bending into these propulsive bass lines that flow like a raging stream.
A similar mixture can also be discerned in Tompkins' beats, which are often long, precariously constructed sequences of these stuttering, chaotic fills. Tompkins even served time in an R&B cover band before falling in with Coffey and Starks, the three of them having attended the now-defunct Woodrow Wilson High School over on Mansell Street. That's where they initially met while shootin' hoops, where the upperclassman Coffey would come down on anybody picking on “my brother” Starks, and where an early incarnation of Stone Vengeance even performed at the school talent show.
Now, that was a long time ago. And yet, even though Stone Vengeance only put out one real classic record, and even though its days of opening for Slayer are long gone, the band continues to kick asses and blow minds — such as my wife's! Hell, she's the one who turned me on to the Vengeance in the first place, after catching the band at the 2003 Tidal Wave Festival at the John McLaren Park Amphitheater. There, before an amped-up audience consisting of both white and black metalheads, Tompkins and Starks were, as the bassist likes to say, “going off,” while Coffey, sporting skintight black and metallic-gold pants, a black leather vest, and no shirt, danced about the stage, firing off an endless succession of solos and suggestively flicking his tongue at several females in the audience, my wife included. On top of their being “awesome musicians,” she dug these dudes because they seemed like true individuals who didn't give a rat's ass about what anybody thought of them. And I need to agree. Coffey, Starks, and Tompkins are total anomalies on so many levels: cultural, musical, racial, and on and on. And they don't give a fuck. These freaks are never running with the herd. God bless 'em.