John Benson's bus was a mobile all-ages venue. Only now it's immobile.
By Rachel Swan
September 22, 2010
John Benson is a congenital mensch. He turned his North Oakland house
into a loosely structured co-op for seven people. He holds the deed
to another house in Albion, Michigan, where friends go to do art
projects and record noise albums. He has a day job fixing wheelchairs
and driving disabled people home from medical appointments at Easy
Does It Emergency Services. His mother used a wheelchair and he grew
up helping her get around. Alms-giving is part of his natural constitution.
Three years ago, Benson bought the first of two AC Transit buses,
which he donated to the East Bay punk community. He converted them
into mobile all-age venues. He hosted no-cover art nights and movie
screenings and shuttled his friends on national tours. The first bus
broke down two years ago, in Albion, so he bought the house there to
store it. The second bus sputtered out last week in Fairfield. Bled
dry by these labors of love, Benson couldn't pony up the $2,000 to
repair it. His generosity had finally gotten the better of him.
His punk friends were distressed. "When I heard, like, I was just,
like, filled, like, with 'Arrrrgh!'" said 23-year-old Hurricane, a
scenester who lives around the corner from Benson. "Like, God, I was,
like, galvanized and, like, compelled. Like, 'Fuck!' I need to do
something. I need to help my neighbors."
Hurricane attended her first bus show in January and was immediately
enthralled. She didn't have to pay, the place was packed, and a band
called Slug Life was headlining. The ceiling was only about ten feet
above the floor, so when kids tried to crowd-surf, they got smooshed.
By then, of course, the bus was an institution. Benson bought the
first one with the idea of creating a temporary all-ages punk venue.
He'd been involved in the scene since 1990, when he moved here to
study music at UC Berkeley. He played bass for the band A Minor
Forest, which dissolved in 1998. Since then, he's thrown shows at his
North Oakland home, serving mostly as a benefactor and elder
statesman. The impetus for the bus was mostly practical. Benson saw
it parked on Martin Luther King Jr. Way with a large for-sale sign.
At that time, Benson's life was in turmoil. His father had been
killed in a bar fight back in Ohio, and his dad's house had been
repossessed. Benson wanted a large diesel vehicle to move some of his
dad's stuff to the Bay Area, so he haggled with the owner and
ultimately bought it for $5,000. A roving all-ages venue was never
part of the plan, he said.
It was at a friend's behest that Benson threw his first punk show in
the bus, on June 12, his birthday. The seats had already been gutted,
so Benson added a floor, built a stage, installed a PA, and converted
the engine to run on vegetable oil. The first show was a hit, and
several stowaways from the punk scene joined Benson for his trip back
to Ohio. He remembers conducting his first makeshift tour that summer
with a bus full of punks and his father's ashes resting on the dash.
"It wasn't intended to be an ongoing thing," Benson said. "But there
was a need for it."
Many local punk bands played the bus in its first year among them
Casey & Brian, Daniel Higgs, Songs for Moms, and Evil Wikkid Warrior,
a band fronted by Benson's fifteen-year-old daughter, Quinnolyn. In
2008, he took it on a national tour with several local bands. They
would stop in small towns and hold shows on the bus. The format
worked out until the engine died in Albion. "We coasted off the side
of the road," Benson said. "I ended up buying a house for $4,000, and
parking the bus there." He put the house on his credit card, and the
bus has been there ever since.
Unable to constrain his philanthropic impulses, Benson bought another
former AC Transit bus in 2009 for $2,000. This one had already
changed hands a couple times, and one of the owners had installed a
wall and bathroom in hopes of turning it into a camper. Benson
removed those amenities and started throwing bus shows again. He
christened the bus "Larry" in honor of its previous owner. Larry
broke down last week, when Benson took a group of disabled activists
up to Sacramento to protest recent cuts to the state budget for
in-home support services. "It was a great protest; it was very
successful," he recalled. "Almost everyone I was with got arrested,
except for the kids."
But on the way back, Benson's drive shaft failed. He pulled over to
the shoulder of the freeway in Fairfield and parked his bus against
the guardrail. The thirty passengers were stuck. Benson called a tow
truck, but the driver wouldn't help, citing a policy that forbids tow
truck drivers to move vehicles with passengers inside. Benson was in
a fix. He ultimately called the police to force the tow truck driver
to cooperate. He rolled all his wheelchair-bound riders off the bus
with a ten-foot ramp and cajoled the driver to tow his bus to the
nearest repair shop. And it sits there now, with a $3,000 price tag
that he can't afford to pay. Benson funded all of these bus ventures
out of his personal coffers, and he isn't really a deep-purse kind of
guy. "It's just a labor of love," he said. "It broke me."
When Hurricane heard about Benson's plight, she and a couple friends
hatched a plan to help him. They'll hold a benefit next Wednesday at
Revolution Café, a small West Oakland eatery owned by Republican
mayoral candidate Arnie Fields. Hurricane enlisted several friends to
help, including punk bands, singer-songwriters, and DJs from a San
Francisco party called Ships In the Night. She's confident that at $5
a head, they'll earn enough money to pay off Benson's repair bill.
"It doesn't seem lofty or grandiose by any means," she said, adding
that the bus is crucial to keeping Oakland's all-ages punk scene alive.
Besides, Hurricane assured, sometimes it pays to sustain your benefactor.
"For the majority of folks my age, like, yeah, we're broke," she
said. "We're not going to pay to see a show."