Tool – Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, San Francisco


140311 –  The phrase “black magic cameras?” complete with question mark was the last thing I’d written in this notebook, so that’s where I’ll kick this off.  I boarded a bus headed to Oakland around 6 p.m., but realized after a block and a half that my Clipper pass had run dry. (Well done, Mr. Advance Planning.)  Also failing to stock up on cash, I was cursing my luck and preparing to debark at the next stop for an ATM when a large black man with dreads down to his ass, a plain green t-shirt and a wrist wrapped in brown wooden prayer beads stepped forward and plucked three crisp singles from an old leather wallet. “Hey, it’s cool.  I’ve been there,” he said with a smile.  (Thanks again, man.)

In the Spring of 1993, I walked into the Barrowlands in Glasgow, Scotland, with two friends, all of us just young and looking for a good time.  On the ticket was something called Tool, something else called Wool, followed by the band we’d been the most excited to hear at the time: Rage Against The Machine.  I was blown away by Tool.  Wool never really registered, and the only part I remember about the Rage show was an auditorium of angry Scottish teens howling, “FUCK YOU, I WON’T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME!” in their thick brogue, pogo-ing together in a wild sweating frenzy of Doc Martens.  RATM fell by the wayside, but something about Tool resonated deeply and continued to do so for years.

Maps are excellent.
Maps are excellent.

Twenty-two years and halfway around the world from the “Barrows” I’m standing in a long line that wraps all the way around San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza, a large green space surrounded on three sides by the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco City Hall, the Supreme Court Building of California, and the Bill Fucking Graham Civic Auditorium. It’s a cool spring evening. I find myself thinking about who I was when I first saw Tool, the people I saw the show with, and where those people are today.

Well, shit. Chad’s gone, but not forgotten. Every time I hear Alice in Chains, Suicidal Tendencies, Pantera (or Tool), he’s standing right there with his Ugly Kid Joe ball cap on backwards, an untucked blue plaid shirt and his battered high tops, moving his bangs out of his face with a puff of air, hands jammed deep into the pockets of his jeans.  Ian’s got his own business now and lives somewhere in North Carolina.  He married a pretty Scottish girl and became a dad.  I met up with him once when I was working in Disco Charlie.  He hadn’t changed.  If anything, he’d become even “more” of the Ian I remember (if that’s possible), just with greying hair.

The line for the show tonight, while massive, is moving quickly. Every few minutes, a measured chunk of the crowd are herded across the intersection of Grove and Polk at the northwest corner of the building, which acts as a kind of valve, making it relatively easy for the event staff at the front door to verify tickets, check bags and pat everyone down in a timely but unhurried manner.  Bag checks might have been the “new normal” fifteen years ago but that’s ancient history.  Now it just “is.”  Everyone knows the deal.  Shuffle up, shut up, open up.  Some of the staff look barely 20-years-old, giddy with power as they bull-horned orders at the line, staggering their words for emphasis.


Opening act Failure finishes their set while I’m in line waiting to buy a t-shirt.  Every dimpled, tattooed, pierced, and smoldering hot prog-punk chick in the Bay Area is probably here tonight… After about thirty minutes, the lights go down and the lusty wolf howls and appreciative screams begin. Lights begin to play across the ceiling and the walls.  It feels as though the anticipation has sucked the oxygen out of the room. The first wave of energy is massive.  Tim Leary’s electric blue face fills the jumbotron:

“Throughout human history, as our species has faced the frightening, terrorizing fact that we do not know who we are, or where we are going in this ocean of chaos, it has been the authorities, the political, the religious, the educational authorities who attempted to comfort us by giving us order, rules, regulations, informing, forming in our minds their view of reality.  To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable, open-mindedness; chaotic, confused, vulnerability to inform yourself.  Think for yourself.  Question authority.”

Wild flickering laser lights and computer-perfect renderings of conjoined, headless monkeys, a dazzling variety of infinite spirals and themes of eternity now open to interpretation, interspersed with the famous “eye within the eye” motif.  A dense, sweet smelling fog builds.  All the things we see that we cannot say or explain are shown here, presented in light as a code we cannot crack, a puzzle we cannot solve.


BOOM.  Afterward, my ears were ringing from the roar and I heard a capacity crowd cheer in the way I’ve never quite heard one cheer before.  Aside from, “Oh, hey.  That’s the sound of people cheering,” how else could this roaring, tearing sound be described?  A bushfire sparked from a million happy matches, a directionless blur of joy, a warehouse-sized helmet of deafening murmurs and explosive appreciation.  Shit was on.

2. Forty Six & 2 

All your face all melts.
All your face all melts.

There was a long pause before those first fantastic bass notes plucked to life and suddenly the entire auditorium was screaming and pumping their fists.  It was as if some prodigal son had returned in the zero hour.  To my inner amusement, all I could think of was this cover version.  When the brightest volley of  blinding strobes began to explode in time with the final drum solo, I saw clearly for the first time the twin sets of speaker stacks hanging from the auditorium ceiling, like banana clips for a thundering, soul-seeking, million-watt fuck hammer of a machine gun firing loud rock music at my face, and yay verrily I did grineth.  Hell yeth.

3. Schism

I remember when this album came out.  Neah Bay, WA, 2002, waiting my turn to attend S.I.N.F.U.L.  At that time, walking into the room and hearing Maynard’s howling voice after all that time was like suddenly running into a close friend I hadn’t seen in years.  It felt like coming home.  It sounded even better tonight over the roar of my melting face.

I don’t have descriptions for each song from the show, but here’s the rest of the set list as best as I remember it.

4. Pushit
6. AEnema
7. Lateralus
(There was a long piece of slow filler here I didn’t recognize…)
8. Jambi
9. Opiate 

Maynard spent the entire show towards the rear of the stage and without a spotlight, facing the backdrop rather than the audience.  Having only seen them long ago on their first tour, I didn’t understand why until I read the following later:

Breckinridge Haggerty, the band’s live video director, says that the dark spaces on stage “are mostly for Maynard.”  He explains, “a lot of the songs are a personal journey for him and he has a hard time with the glare of the lights when he’s trying to reproduce these emotions for the audience. He needs a bit of personal space, and he feels more comfortable in the shadows.” So there’s that.

The feeling after the show was one of communal stun; the ringing ears, the murmuring groups walking this way and that.  I walked around the main floor in a happy daze just taking in the details: friends exchanging phone numbers (“Totally! Give me a call, we’ll hang out!”), millions of red squares of glitter stomped into the concrete floor (dropped from the ceiling during the end of Jambi), the heavy crunch of empty beer cups smashed underfoot like Autumn leaves (as interpreted by an alien who’d only ever heard a distant crackling recording of Autumn but had never actually seen Autumn, much less one complete with its own megawatt-laser show, face-melting music, smoke belching machines and a screaming, joyous crowd belting out songs about inner demons, self-introspection and personal evolution.  Good times.

Later, I ordered a cup of coffee and a lox bagel at a cafe two blocks south.  The two older Asian men in white, short-sleeved shirts, identically parted hair and gold-rimmed spectacles were working the counter as best they could, patiently putting up with the sweating, deafened hoards of hungry drunks.

Drunk guy: (yelling at the cook behind the counter) Hey!  Hey!  Over here!  Can I.. can I have a McBurger?
Drunk guy two: Dude, this isn’t McDonald’s…
Drunk guy: ‘S bullshit… (blinking, unfocused pause) Hey, welcome to America, man!

Staring out the window, chewing, sipping, thinking; I smelled him before I heard him, his mumbled voice like dry gravel scraping across the surface of a dead snow shovel. He towered above me, eyes flicking downward to meet my curious glance as I looked up to see who sounded (and smelled) like Death.

“…so the junk keeps shootin’ back outta my fuckin’ hand, man!  I stick the needle in and it squirts out another hole!  Thas’ bad business!”  He was my height at least, older, maybe younger? Wrapped in a long brown raincoat, grimy woolen trousers and an old pirate hat.  His hands were pure luggage, and his eyes were milky white with droplets of red.  I didn’t blink.  Neither did he.  Eventually he walked away.

I found the BART and headed home.  Good fucking show.

According to this Rolling Stone interview, there are no immediate plans for a new Tool album.


2 thoughts on “Tool – Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, San Francisco

  1. Still jealous. My friend, Mark and I are keeping an eye on the progression of this tour and will be jumping on tickets as soon as they announce East Coast dates.

  2. Love this, man. Last time I saw Tool, Bill Clinton was president: 1997. I remember it like it was yesterday. Oddly enough, I just ripped some Puscifer CDs to my iTunes.

    Great stuff. As always, keep it up.

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