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Shak Attack

[whitespace] Stanford's Band Shak
Christopher Gardner

And the Band Played On: For the second time in 25 years, Stanford's Band Shak will be torn down by the university, leaving no home for its collection of memorabilia.

The untidy lair of the notorious Stanford Marching Band will fall to the wrecking ball within the month--unless the band blows it down first

By Michael Learmonth

AS HE OPENS the door below the twisted horn of a battered tuba, George Slavich searches for the words that will put into context what I am about to see. "Nothing here is going to make sense," he warns as we begin our tour of 69 Galvez St. Slavich, 19, is leader of the so-called "ABF drumz," the percussion section of the Stanford University marching band. He has brought me here to take a long look--and perhaps a last look--inside one of Stanford's most cultish and strange institutions.

The "Band Shak," as it is known, is a red-roofed, cream-colored stucco structure not 200 yards from Stanford University's landmark Hoover Tower. It is clubhouse, dance hall, storage area and practice space for the most notorious marching band in the world.

Within these walls, the alcohol-soaked ferment has produced some of the worst smells that ever emanated from a carpet, and some of the wackiest half-time shows ever broadcast on television. Over the last 30 years, the band has earned a national reputation for unruliness that has won it a cult of fans and seen it banned from certain university campuses, airlines and hotels.

In 1991, Ted Koppel archly slammed the band on Nightline as "a tribute to the virtues of discipline and uniformity."

In 1990, the band was briefly banned from the state of Oregon for hacking up a stuffed spotted owl during a half-time performance at the U. of O. In 1994, 21 bandmembers made national news for performing "She's Not There" on the steps of the L.A. County Courthouse during the O.J. Simpson trial. And last year the university was forced to apologize to Notre Dame for a half-time performance in which a member conducted the band with a crucifix while dressed in a nun's habit and recited a script that said Irish culture consists mostly of "fighting and starving."

Through all of this, the Band Shak has been a refuge. But in June, a frightening message spread via email, bouncing from server to server, to bandmembers slumming for the summer and bandmembers at high-powered internships. The university had decided that while the students were away, it was going to tear the Shak down so construction could commence on an alumni center. Band manager Claire Bacher stepped in and negotiated a stay of execution until after Homecoming in October.

When the building collapses this fall, so, too, may some of the traditions and fervor that have brought the band both adulation and disgust for the past 30 years. But all that stuff has demonstrated resilience, having survived a previous attack on the band's home.

The structure at 69 Galvez is the second Band Shak in Stanford's history. The band was evicted from its first Shak in 1973 because that building was slated to be destroyed. Before the wrecking crews arrived, bandmembers took demolition into their own hands, leveling the structure with sledgehammers and chainsaws. The prank culminated in a fire that consumed the remains of the Shak--a fire Stanford officials determined was intentionally set.

That was 1973, when university campses were wild. Today's Stanford student is less concerned with fighting the system than surfing it to post-graduation financial security. The response of this year's band to the loss of the Shak will be a sharp test as to whether the band is still hell-bent on thumbing its nose at authority, or if it's all just an act.

Space Case

THE MAIN HALL of the Shak resembles the inside of a barn, complete with lofts, exposed rafters and sunlight filtering in through dirty windows. The main room, and just about every corner of the Shak, is covered with road signs, which, Slavich explains, have been "liberated" over the years. Many of the signs come from road visits to other Pac-10 schools. Most have a common theme: "Beaver Crossing 3 miles," "Moaning Cavern State Park," "The best hand job in Burlingame" (an ad for a carwash). Surely, chiropractor Dick Beaver must wonder by now why the sign advertising his practice seems to disappear every year.

The floors are covered with a patchwork of stained and sour carpet. Each of the 180 band members has a locker in the main room, grouped by section. The tenors built a bar next to their section. In the corner of the building sits the front half of a VW.

In another corner, a string of Christmas lights hangs from the ceiling over a reclining chair. As if explaining whey they're there, Slavich says they are best viewed under the influence of illegal substances. In a loft above the lights, the players have set up a lounge with couches littered with spent Whippit-brand nitrous oxide canisters.

Across the room, a target is painted above the rafters, 20 feet up on the 90-year-old brick wall. Band tradition passed from class to class dictates that upon the emptying of a glass beverage container, the container be pitched at the bullseye. Its exploding shards fall into a pile of unknowable depth above some built-out rooms.

One room beneath the bull's-eye contains a closet with a remarkably diverse collection of spirits. Across the hall, through a door next to a wall of hanging tubas, is the meeting room, wherein lies another bar with a keg tap that empties into a urinal.

One could spend several days in the Shak and not read every sign or notice the remnants of every bizarre construction project. The walls themselves could be peeled away like the skin of an onion, revealing more notes, writings, graffiti and signs underneath.

No one has started to salvage mementos from the Shak, but Slavich expects more of that to begin soon. Stanford University had told the band for several years that the Band Shak's unreinforced masonry is seismically unsafe, and scheduled it to be razed before the year 2000. Members of the band knew that the Shak's D-Day was on the calendar, but as long as the year began with 2, it seemed infinitely far away.

Instant History

SLAVICH AND I walk around the outside of the Shak. In back of the building is a water tank, and next to the tank is the back half of the VW. On the building's east side, half covered in leaves and dirt, I notice a plaque inlaid in concrete.

The plaque is inscripted with "YWCA 1915."

I rush back to my office and call Roger Kohler, chairman of the Palo Alto Architectural Review Commission, to tell him about the old YWCA that is about to come down. He hasn't heard of any YWCA on campus, but seems concerned. Palo Alto's strict preservation ordinance doesn't cover Stanford, but Santa Clara County's preservation law does, he says. A hearing on the building's historical merit could postpone demolition for at least a year. "It sounds like that building may be something to look into," he says. "If it is that old, I would think the county has some control over it."

So I call Beth Wyman at the Santa Clara County Planning Commission. She faxes me Stanford's historic resource inventory in its entirety. Twenty-one pages. No mention of a YWCA.

I call the Stanford University archives. Pat White, friendly Stanford archivist, makes some typing sounds on her computer. There is a collection in the archives on the YWCA, which was organized on campus in 1892.

I ask her to pull that collection, as well as files from several years of Stanford Band history.

I call Stanford architect David Newman, prepared to give him the Mike Wallace treatment. It's Friday afternoon, and his secretary says he's on vacation until Monday.

On Monday, I miss Newman's call, but he leaves a message on my voicemail explaining that the Band Shak is a former "physical plant" deemed "not to be historically significant." Demolition, he said, was "proceeding with the approval of the county."

Perhaps, I thought, the building had been converted into a physical plant after it had served to nurture the health and well-being of the women of Stanford years ago, maybe even before universal suffrage.

This relic of valley history wasn't coming down without a fight. Not if I had anything to do with it.

That night I go back to the Shak for band practice. School isn't in session yet, so attendance is light. One by one bandmembers arrive, grab their instruments and gather beneath the oak tree on the grounds next to the building.

When about 30 bandmembers are assembled, someone wheels a shopping cart laden with a case of Henry Weinhard's, bottles of vodka and peach schnapps, Safeway Select cola, Lipton iced tea and 7-Up.

I talk to a man who asks to be identified only by his first name, Jake. Jake is an "old fart," a Stanford alumnus who graduated in 1962. (The band considers membership a lifelong thing, and many active bandmembers actually graduated years ago.)

He tells me he remembers that before the band took over the Shak in 1973, it had been an indoor firing range for the ROTC. An angled metal shield on the far wall ricocheted the bullets into a sandpit below. When the band moved in, Jake remembers, the sand pit was still there.

As the booze cart gets wheeled out of the Shak, Jake explains its importance to the band's performance, showing me his trombone's plumbing.

"If you look at what comes out of that spit valve, you know that hydration is very important," he explains, "especially to the wind instruments."

As the musicians file out of the Shak, someone catcalls Jake a "media slut," and he runs off, barefoot, to practice.

I catch up with Claire Bacher, trombone in hand, to tell her the good news. Bacher, 23, is a senior double-majoring in music and chemistry. She takes her job as band manager quite seriously, and was initially apprehensive about talking about the Shak's future. She has a soft voice, long, rail-straight brown hair in a ponytail down her back, clear white skin and eyes that almost close when she smiles.

The Shak might not have to go right away after all, I tell her. She gives me one of those "crazy reporter" looks as I tell her about the YWCA plaque.

"That?" she asks. "Someone put that there. I think in the '80s."

She stands there, holding her trombone at a careless angle, smiling at me.

"Do you have any more questions?"

"No," I say, and she joins the band in a jaunty rendition of "Stray Cat Strut."

One Angry Preppie

THE STANFORD BAND takes its traditions very seriously. They are passed from class to class, and enough old farts hang around to fill in the missing pieces. As the deadline for the razing of the Band Shak approaches, debate among bandmembers over what to do has intensified. Saving the Shak is not the issue. Bandmembers have long known that it was in the footprint of the impending alumni center. The debate now centers on what will the band's response be.

Twenty-five years ago, the destruction of the first Shak was coordinated via fliers. Today, bandmembers communicate on an email distribution list called "Smutline."

Slavich says at least three factions have emerged among bandmembers.

"You always have people who want to do the extreme thing like boycott the entire football season," Slavich explains. On the other extreme, he says, are people who think it would be "futile" for the band to "piss anyone off" given the band's historically shaky relationship with the administration.

"Usually when there is a discussion like this, the middle of the road is taken," Slavich explains. "You could never get 180 people who want to boycott the football season."

The middle-of-the-road consensus developing on Smutline is, typically, steeped in tradition. That, Slavich says, "would mean tearing down the Shak before the university can get to it."

Slavich is an unlikely vandal. In fact, he embodies the kind of overachiever who sets admission at Stanford University in his sights. When I asked him if I could check out his résumé, I got an 18-page fax, including a seven-page, single-spaced résumé listing every achievement from the ninth through the 12th grade.

It details a 4.0 academic career, a listing in Who's Who Among American High School Students, and too many swimming, soccer and water polo achievements to list here. Blond-haired, blue-eyed Slavich was chosen as Homecoming Prince as a senior at Santa Clara High School. His only admitted deviancy is an occasional beer or two.

Until this point in our conversation, he had maintained a matter-of-fact attitude about the Shak. Even while I was raving that a smart, ambitious person like him could save what I thought was a historically significant building, Slavich kept steering the discussion toward ways to appease the university and secure an acceptable new Shak.

Now, as he explains the band's options, a rough emotion trickles into his temperament. I ask him what he thinks the odds are the band will take matters into its own hands.

"I would put some pretty large odds on it, maybe 75 percent," he says. "I think it's a very possible alternative.

"I'd be damned if someone else was going to tear down our Shak," he finally says. "I just can't imagine the band practicing in any new facility. Where's the smell of beer going to go? If it's going to be torn down, then why not do it ourselves?"

After practice, the shopping cart of empties is wheeled over to the middle of the room, and three members begin throwing them high into the rafters in the general direction of the target.

The band was successful in transferring its gestalt to this new Shak in 1973. This time, the site most often cited as a likely new Band Shak is Encina Gym, across Galvez Street. Bacher says she and athletic director Ted Leland have been working on a long-term plan for the band, and an alumni supporter has shown interest in financing part of the conversion of Encina into an appropriate band rehearsal space.

But if the band moves into a space that won't permit unauthorized construction, a rope swing or copious liquor storage, can the group retain its heritage?

"Some think the Shak defines the band," says Patrick Neschleba, 24, former leader of the trumpet section. "I think the band defines the Shak. Whenever we move into a new building, you will see this creativity."

He looks around, and noting we're standing in a particularly ripe area of the Shak, he adds, "I won't miss the smell."

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From the September 24-30, 1998 issue of Metro.

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