Best Sunken Lair ?For Techno-Geeks
The small crew of Chinatown pirates rock more eyeglasses than eye patches, more bald spots than wild manes, and more ironic mustaches than black beards. The marauders present are skinny, not barrel chested, and probably more prone to collecting comics than skulls. They wield microphones as their weapons instead of cutlasses. The raiders in question fall under the flags of Superbunker and the Royal Academy of Nuts and Bolts — loose, collective think tanks where ideas and online discussions manifest themselves in subversive, artsy and wild events. Their monthly Swap Meet at subterranean Betalevel unites unabashed music geeks, sensitive fanboys and ordinary old rockers to run a Napster-like train on the recording industry, having a debauched good time in their digital version of Mexico’s El Chopo music market.
When it comes to misbehavior, these late-20s techno-geeks have the antics down cold. Following an intricate map down the dank back alleys of Chinatown’s West Plaza (one of the directions asks you to “Notice dumpster on your right”), “X” marks the spot, many paces below the Earth’s surface. Holding court in their underground cabin, the rogues undertake a massive looting of thousands of MP3 files, swapping Britney Spears’ greatest hits for rare, live Bright Eyes, Chopin’s mazurkas for the discography of the Ruts. Tightly run ransacks are celebrated by hoisting an untold number of Tecate cans. As the festivities heighten, so does a spectacle of drunken singing, with choruses from Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting” and Tupac’s “California Love.”
The sunken space is simple; a low-ceilinged, square hovel with barely enough chairs for the 20 or so plunderers who will roll through. A tiny TV waits in the corner to embrace Galaga obsessives. A miniature, makeshift bar lets you serve yourself, giving you the vibe not to touch the good beer, lest some spurned roommate goes ballistic on your ass. A boxed-off area hosts two PCs with enough cords to give us flashbacks of the film Pi. Here, a welcoming host walks you through your tuneful trades, encouraging casual flips through the myriad playlists and guiding you through the difficulties of moving files straight off of your iPod.
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A massive white wall is temporarily tattooed with the lyrics to a Police song; projected beside it, a movie so modernly Fellini-esque it would give Matthew Barney the creeps. Karaoke is set up for two singers, and the talent is often good. Their growing selection is epic — the Smiths and Radiohead are available alongside “House of the Rising Sun” and “Billie Jean”–style standards. If the energy dares flag, Matt, the ship’s captain, forces the mike around, restoking the crowd and staving off midnight mutinies.
The cache of knowing where to go and how to get there reaps its own rewards, as does instant access to untold numbers of music files. But the true magnet of Superbunker’s Swap Meet is the camaraderie of music. Strangers quickly become drinking and singing mates. Pockets are stacked with jacked beats, and a sense of bandit solidarity exists, expressed in generous hugs, call-’n’-response duets and impromptu dances shared on the floor. At the end of the night, faces are redder, playlists are stronger and Capitol Records is poorer. The spirit of true piracy has conquered. Art should be as free as the right to express it, goes the feeling here, and when taken from the listener, sometimes the listener has to steal it back.
BetaLevel in the alley behind Full House Restaurant, ?963 N. Hill St., Chinatown