Photo by Nick Sethi
July 4, 2015
There’s a song by a small Bay Area hardcore band named All Bets Off called “People Die Every Day.” I haven’t heard the song in as long as I haven’t had a working record player, and even if I did, that 7,” Roshambo Deathmatch is at my mom’s house, 3,000 miles away. I wrote a eulogy for my school newspaper when Nic, a childhood friend, died. I spoke at his funeral. I said a lot of shit, but all I thought about for weeks was the crashing howl at the end of that song:
What do you do when your best friend dies?
Sammy, the band’s singer, wrote it for his dear friend Nick Traina, who had passed far before his time. The simple finality of the question was horrifying because there’s no clear answer. He’d write more songs in that vein, and it was apparent that the loss had changed his life forever, because that’s what love and friendship do, and that’s loss does when that love and friendship is cut short. It was also very clear that this would not happen to anyone else in his life, if at all possible. Sammy was watching us all.
Early in the morning this past July 4, 2015, an electrical fire in Los Angeles, California took the life of Sammy Ewing. He rescued all four of his roommates from the burning building before he lost his life. He was 40 years old.
November 5, 2000
What I would do is take the cordless and walk as far outside as the range would allow, halfway down the front steps, and make my calls there, as if my parents had any interest in the banal comings and goings of a 12-year-old. It doesn’t get hot in between the San Francisco Bay and the Caldecott tunnel until August, at the earliest, but by mid-September, what is something like Northeastern May/June, the sun comes out for a few weeks, and that’s what we call summer in Berkeley. Just learning how to make pubescent friends, I rifled through the numbers I had. Live 105 announced that Green Day would be playing a free show outside of SF City Hall that afternoon to protest the rising rents in artists lofts (boy, did they not know what was about to happen).
As happy as I was, standing there waiting for my childhood favorite band to start, it felt like the end of the very beginning in my Charlie Brown sized head. That head then sported dyed pink hair, awkwardly spiked. That whole bit was almost over, too. The night before, I’d finally been to the local mecca 924 Gilman for the first time, after years of begging, cajoling, and angling my parents to take me. My family had lived a block and a half away when I was younger, and we would walk the long way for burritos on Friday nights, avoiding the punks, and what was, at the time, a rougher crowd. I wanted in. When I walked in, I knew I had been right: The space was there to claim me, as it had been waiting all along, just hanging out on the corner.
There had been a charismatic man fronting the third of the five bands playing. He looked very young and pretty old at the same time. His four-sided, graffiti-scrawled hoodie was equally rough-looking and meticulously clean. When he spotted my bright pink hair in the crowd and saw the tiny body it was affixed to, he called me Gwen Stefani’s little brother. I was thrilled to be noticed in what felt like a good way, for once. His name was Sammy.
I saw him the next day at that Green Day show in the park near Civic Center. He walked right up to me and my dad and handed me a flyer. It was a meticulous mix of graffiti and scrawl, a Xerox filled with all sorts of hectic shit. It was the best. The flyer was by “STM.” That was him. His name was Sammy the Mick, aka Sammy Winston, last name subbed in for Dallas, the dark horse from S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. His real last name was Ewing, but he didn’t use it until years later.
February 5, 2004
The night that my friend Nic died, I’d been acting out a teenage melodrama on my own home phone line with my high school sweetheart. (I will make 2004 sound timeless; I swear to God I will). I walked out into the North Berkeley night and put an All Bets Off CD into my Discman. Sammy’s voice howls in at 00:17, and the anthem is over in two minutes and 16 seconds. Nic died playing hockey. He was 6’2,” 215 lbs, and handsome as hell. When you see pictures of professional athletes in high school, you’re looking at the photo of a man amongst boys. When he was alive, I considered him grown, but he’ll always be 16 now, because he was never anything else after that. I stonewalled my parents for months and called Sammy as much as he would put up with.
Sammy sat on the phone patiently and told me about worse times than the one I was having, but not to make me feel better by contrast, or to shame my mourning. He didn’t talk about Nicky dying much, either. He talked about time some of his rough times, and how much he had worried on the other side of them. He told me about anxieties that had never occurred to me. He was, in that moment, as generous with precious personal information as I’d experienced up to that point. A grown-ass man sitting on a landline in the Fillmore apartment he shared with his wife at the time, talking with a 16-year-old boy pacing in the bedroom he shared with no one, on the second floor of his parents’ house. I was half a year younger than S.E. Hinton was when she wrote Sammy’s favorite book, The Outsiders.
Dallas Winston was real
So real he scared me
—Ponyboy Curtis, The Outsiders
His love for The Outsiders was outspoken and voracious; it was broad in scope and incredibly specific all at once. He wanted every different edition of the book in every single language. Enough to fill a bookshelf. Friends would get copies from their schools excess, or maybe from a swap meet, and hand them off at shows, hoping he didn’t have that specific cover yet. He’d always smile and explain what edition it was, and you’d know he’d be adding it to a stack of five or 10 copies just like it. His hair was greased, his beaters were clean, his Dickies were crisp. This might have been for his love and involvement with lowrider culture, as well. His pen name, Sammy Winston, came from the character he always saw has himself. Dallas Winston died in a hail of gunfire, but Sammy Winston lived on.
He loved the same adage from The Outsiders that everyone else did, the riff on Robert Frost: “Stay Gold, Ponyboy.” In my life, most kids I knew loved that line, too, specifically because he gave it to us. Ponyboy died saving children in a fire in the book, and that’s what drives the Dallas Winston character crazy in the end. I always wondered if he saw all the kids in the scene as a different Ponyboy, and why he didn’t see that character in himself.
We reconnected years later when I moved back to the Bay Area to take care of my father. I found Sammy a (somewhat) changed man. He still had the hair, the clothes, the art—all of that. He made an active effort over the last few years to lose the rest of it of his persona, though. He dropped his primary surname. I’d grown up with Sammy the Mick, and I’d read a lot of zines by Sammy Winston, but I’d never spent much time with Sammy Ewing. It was some of my favorite time I ever had the pleasure of spending with the man.
June 14, 2012
We were walking from the car to the venue for a show that was not a hardcore show, and I’m not so sure we had ever done that before. He was in the middle of one of his rants about truth, making proclamations. The thing that made you love him.
“It turns out I don’t give a shit about lowrider cars! I can’t even drive! I was raised by women! Macho shit really isn’t for me!”
I told him the truth: that I’d never have known about the low rider aesthetic, Teen Angels zines—all of it—if not for him and the beautiful flyers he had made over the years. I told him about all the source materials for his flyers I’d uncovered recently. He beamed.
“If a rich kid from Berkeley loves Teen Angels because of me, then it wasn’t for nothing at all.”
Those flyers are still some of my favorite pieces of art. As a teenager, my blue room turned black and white as I posted more and more dirty folded flyers. They live in a drawer in that same room now, waiting to be put back on a wall one day. A lot of his early zines are stuffed in that drawer as well.
A word on his zines: They were fucking fantastic. Until the end, Sammy could do things with rubber cement, pens, and X-acto knives that others cannot. On top of this, his writing was a direct, aching thing. Each pocketbook-sized zine told ghost stories that were too scary to have anything supernatural happen in them. His love and empathy shined brightest when he wrote about those that could not be helped or did not want help. You couldn’t always understand why the people in his stories did what they did. Sometimes they broke your heart.
The writing was always present, emerging before he made his imprint, Spiderghost Pressgang, into a locals-only record label that gave a boost to bands like Trash Talk early in their careers. There’s a ton of people that can write about and eulogize his love of painting and graffiti. For such a huge part of his life, it was the least known to me personally. I know he loved TIE ONE as much as S.E. Hinton, and that he taught us all the importance of SF legends like TWIST.
There were so many more kids than me. Sammy’s reach was truly remarkable: You’re young, searching, angry as hell, depressed, funny, and smart? Welcome. If you love hardcore, and you love the scene, it will take care of you. On my second trip to the Gilman, I stood nervously around his circle of friends. While everyone was headed back inside, he made a reference to me being a hardcore kid. “But I’m punk.” (We cared about these details.) “Punk is dead, but you’ve got a future in hardcore,” was his reply. I believed him wholeheartedly, and let that guide the rest of my teenage life. He wasn’t all the way wrong.
Sammy’s influence worked its way past his immediate squires in all the ways that sort of thing happens. I cared how he dressed, and Nic cared how I dressed, so I got the black shell-toes with the white stripes, because Sammy always work the black shell-toes with the white stripes, and in time, Nic adopted them too. Sammy just cared what Sammy wore. He loved American Nightmare, but so did everyone else. So when their shirts started eBaying for close to a hundred bucks, he got a nice short-sleeve button up, and made a perfectly imperfect stencil of their angel logo. He spoke about it in between songs during a set. “And now I have a one-of-a-kind American Nightmare shirt. It cost me five bucks.”
People who he met took that mentality with them, that was his gift. My early attempts at channeling that energy were straight up copies. I’ve only made two zines in my life, and they have nothing in common with one another except that Sammy is interviewed in both of them. How could I leave him out? When I started laying the groundwork for this shitty site this past winter, he was one of the first people I contacted for submissions. This is all to say that those interviews were amazing. Now that I have interviewed, and been interviewed, in a professional way, I can definitively say nothing will ever top the directness of a fanzine. To be able to speak so plainly without fear of distortion through social media or the writers lens is a luxury rarely afforded to anyone. Sammy gave people that bullhorn and used it himself, both with lovely proficiency.
February 10, 2006
All Bets Off @ 924 Gilman, Berkeley, CA- 2/10/06 from Jon Wong on Vimeo.
The last All Bets Off show packed 924 Gilman, sending it into that murky space where a DIY venue has to decide when a show is truly sold out. The crowd response was what had become a typical response for the band: The show was both radiant and ballistic. They never had much cause or reason to play outside of the Bay Area, and so they never really did. They were a native creature. Sammy treated the band and the people that liked it like they were the most precious things on earth, while tearing down his band with acerbic humor next-to-constantly. In turn, he also needled those around him constantly.
All Bets Off, was, in a lot of respects, an extension of Sammy himself. Their sets provided context for the outlet he offered everyone he met and took into the scene. He railed against racism, abuse, misogyny, and homophobia with dedication and admirable fervor. He had the respect and ears of his peers and the kids, and he used that as often as he could to speak out for the undermined and unappreciated. To me, this was Sammy’s love in its purest form.
Sammy became inextricably intertwined with The Gilman over time. This was despite himself. He was a San Francisco Guy and brought up as much East Bay slander as possible whenever he had occasion to leave his beloved city. At times, he’d come head to head with Gilman’s stringent policies against scrapping. He’d get banned for a month or two at a time, never the world ending event it felt like in that myopic world, but it was odd when he wasn’t at a show, his absence made that universe felt off. Where’s Sammy? To be let back in, and to continue playing at the popular venue with his band, he’d attend the bi-monthly venue meetings and plead his case before everyone took a vote. Thing is, if you go to two meetings then you’re a voting member for life. Sammy became influential at meetings, and a place that barely booked hardcore shows became the tentpole for the entire Bay Area scene. I didn’t even know there had been an issue booking hardcore shows there until years later when the issue had been non-existent for half a decade.
August 3rd, 2015
Photo by Nick Sethi
It’s been nearly a month since Sammy died. I found hardcore because of Sammy, and I’m not sure what my life would look like without him. Even in my New York apartment, I’m adjusting my Dickies, and I know they aren’t crisp enough. My tank tops aren’t folded right either. Shell toes don’t really fit me anymore, but I tried them on a lot these past few weeks.
I can barely fathom how many things Sammy was to so many people. I’ve heard from friends old and new from every corner of the country. The number of lives touched by a man of San Francisco, who rarely left California, is stupefying. There’s a shirt that memorializes the man and his projects. All the money goes to 924 Gilman. There’s a book coming out soon that will include all of his art and writing and more, and all those proceeds will go to benefit The Gilman as well. This is just a head nod towards what we should always do, which is what he always did. Make your own shirt, build your own family, book your friends shows, and make whatever you need to.
Of course I’ve been thinking about that song, People Die Every Day, again. “What do you do when your best friend dies?” Still burns in my head. Despite all of Sammy’s help and time, I let Nics death burn me from the inside out. I let me Dads do the same. I can’t do the same for Sammy. Nobody can, it’s just antithetical to what it was to know and love him. Looking back on all the shows, and the parking lot conversations, and old scraps of paper, and short stories, and throw ups, and tags, is overwhelming. There were so many different aspects to Sammy, but they all pointed to one simple impulse: Make something worth loving and share it and grow it, and know you can do it yourself, then let everyone in and defend it with your life.