Volume 42 Number 35
CULT FILM Nothing exerts quite the same simultaneous attraction-repulsion magnetism like a really world-class vanity project. You know, the kind in which the writer-director-star-editor-caterer-fluffer usually playing a thinly disguised version of moi in a world that does not at all fully appreciate them reveals more of their off-screen inner workings than one ever wanted to know.
Typically these things occur just once in a talent’s life, then are never allowed to happen again, like Babs’ 1996 The Mirror Has Two Faces or Los Angeles weirdo Tommy Wiseau’s so-bad-it’s-surreal cult microhit The Room (2003). Some inexplicably get to make several, like Vincent Gallo, Ed Burns, or such determined wrong-medium meddlers as Bob Dylan and Norman Mailer. It’s possible to strangle whole movies with manifest-destiny egotism even when one merely stars in them. It’s even possible to overexpose oneself without actually appearing onscreen: what are The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006) but coded maps of Mel Gibson’s soul?
For full effect, however, the more personal credits, the better. In 1969 Brit multitalent Anthony Newley conceived, cowrote, produced, directed, starred, and pretty much jacked off for the world to see in something called Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? This "erotic" autobiographical musical phantasmagoria cast Newley’s actual then-wife (none other than Joan Collins) and children as his endlessly cheated-on wife and neglected children not to mention Milton Berle as Satan.
Though it was a major-studio release made for the then not-inconsiderable sum of $1 million, Merkin has since become more rumor than reality, with bootleg TV dupes sought by a few while most simply forgot it existed. Could it really have been that bizarre? Yup. That bad? Well, anything this out-there pretty much transcends ordinary quality measures. An extremely rare chance to taste its unique flavors indeed, the only revival screening I’ve ever heard of occurs June 4 at the Roxie when the Film on Film Foundation pairs it with another legendary cliff-jumper, Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971).
Newley conquered the West End and Broadway with shows mixing Chaplinesque whimsical bathos and big-ballad bombast. They gave some critics hives but not audiences. Covered by every mid-1960s crooner, his songs (like "What Kind of Fool Am I?") topped charts. A ubiquitous variety-show guest, he looked set to become a movie star too. Result: carte blanche for Merkin, the type of freedom that ought to have set off alarm bells from Hollywood to Hampstead.
The film tells the tender tale of an angst-ridden famous writer-singer-actor who, like Newley, was born a "bastard" (at a time when that really mattered), a former child star now on his second marriage to Collins’ piquantly named Polyester Poontang while incessantly screwing the likes of Filigree Fondle and Trampolina Whambang. Liberally partaking of Fellini’s 8 1/2 model, this "sum total of my life to date" (as the auteur then stated) operates on many levels, from flashbacks of Merkin’s professional rise to fantasy sequences to onscreen ersatz producers and critics critiquing the movie-in-progress. There’s a zodiac dance, a bestiality number, a mime alter ego, and an acid trip (not to be confused with the black mass) plus the queasy running theme of Newley-Merkin’s jones for Lolita-esque girls, as personified by Playboy playmate Connie Kreski’s defiled innocent, Mercy. She’s his true love or as close as it gets for a character who finally admits, "Not only do I have no respect for women, I may well hate them."
In her memoirs, Collins notes, "I had a sick, horrible feeling when I first read the script. Tony seemed to have spelled out the end of our marriage." (Indeed, that event promptly occurred.) The commingled massive egotism and masochism in this "totally revealing picture of his life" (her words) had a similar effect on most real-life critics, a typical notice saying Newley "so overextends and overexposes himself that the movie comes to look like an act of professional suicide … [it] is as self-indulgent as a burp."
Roger Ebert, however, thought it "strange, wonderful, original, and not quite successful," applauding its sheer nerve if nothing else. Indeed, Merkin remains such an oddity and perfect warts-and-all memorial to Newley (who died in 1999, his long, post-Merkin career slide actually highlighted by 1987’s The Garbage Pail Kids Movie) that, like most spectacular follies, it commands a certain awed respect.
CAN HIERONYMUS MERKIN EVER FORGET MERCY HUMPPE AND FIND TRUE HAPPINESS?
June 4, 9:15 p.m., $7
with The Last Movie, 7 p.m.
Roxie Film Center
3117 16th St., SF
A new work by Robert Lepage is always a major event. In theater, the Quebecois director, actor, and filmmaker stands with the likes of Robert Wilson or Peter Sellars at the pinnacle of theatrical invention and global acclaim. Little wonder that, like Wilson and Sellars, Lepage has found opera a logical outlet for his extraordinary capacities and grand, all-encompassing visions. (His last Bay Area bow was in November 2007 at the San Francisco Opera, where he staged Stravinsky’s 1951 opera The Rake’s Progress.) But while he is a truly international force wielding the largest of canvases, there’s an intimate and personal side running through much of his work, perhaps nowhere more poignantly than in his stunningly staged solo plays The Far Side of the Moon (2003) and The Andersen Project (2005). The latter, which slyly folds layers of personal and cultural doubt (as well as biting cultural satire) into a glancing exploration of Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen’s troubled psyche, makes its local debut courtesy of Cal Performances.
As with Far Side, Andersen was developed with Lepage playing dual roles that together define a kind of split personality and serve as starting point for a series of thematic dyads. In this case, the main characters are a corrupt French opera director and a French Canadian musician-songwriter named Frédéric Lapointe, who arrives in Paris on a commission to write an opera based on an Andersen story. Also as with Far Side, Lepage eventually handed off the roles to Yves Jacques. An extremely gifted theater and film actor in his own right (probably best known to Americans through several Denys Arcand films), Jacques shares a history and affinity with Lepage (they’ve known each other since their twenties) that make him the best, and perhaps the only, person capable of stepping into these demanding, idiosyncratic solo shows, with their half-hidden strands of autobiography and fraught national identity. I recently spoke with Jacques by phone from Montreal.
SFBG Before Andersen, you took over another Lepage solo play.
YVES JACQUES It started with Far Side because it was a story very close to him. So he wanted someone with the same sensibility. I was able to understand his feelings about [the subject matter]. So afterward he said, ‘Why not continue with The Andersen Project?’
SFBG Was it at all intimidating to take over these plays from their originator?
YJ Oh, yes. I felt a big responsibility to be at least equivalent to Robert just to reach the level of the acting he puts into the show. But he liked [what I was doing] and was very happy because for once he could see his own work. When you play in a solo show you don’t always understand what you’re doing. Now he could see himself, or himself through me.
SFBG How did you approach the part?
YJ I never feel I’m doing a one-man show; I’m doing a play. I’m doing the yin and the yang of the same character, in a way. Far Side was the story of two brothers, and this is quite the same. You have the director of the Paris Opera and then you have Lapointe. They’re very different but they’re played by the same actor. In a way, it’s the yin and the yang of the same personality, which is Hans Christian Andersen. Lepage is using two different characters to describe [the complexity of] Andersen. It’s very clever. You see Andersen only twice in the show but he’s not talking; he’s just a silhouette. The only way to know him is to understand the other two.
SFBG The assertion of a Quebecois identity against the dominant Anglo culture of Canada is a theme in much of Lepage’s work.
YJ Lapointe comes to Paris because he wants to be approved of by Parisians [but] he says at the end, I came here for the wrong reasons. I came here for approval, and we shouldn’t do that. We should be proud of what we are. And Andersen had the same problem in his own country. People in Denmark loved his fairy tales but they didn’t take him seriously as a writer because he was writing for children. So he needed to come to Paris as well, and be approved of by Balzac or George Sand or Victor Hugo just as we need to be approved of by the old country. It’s like being in a colony sometimes [laughs]. That’s why I’m very proud of working with Lepage, because he [raises] Quebec to another standard. His work is totally amazing. *
THE ANDERSEN PROJECT
Wed/28Sat/31, 8 p.m.; Sun/1, 3 p.m., $62
Bancroft at Dana, UC Berkeley, Berk
SONIC REDUCER More power, I say, to sibling twosome Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger of Fiery Furnaces. FF’s forthcoming 51-track, double-CD/triple-LP retrospective, Remember (Thrill Jockey), has been burning up my ear holes for more than two hours now, charged with the power of fraught familial relations, rock-out thunderbolts, and mysterious blueberry boats. And I confess, part of my wonderment at their artistry stems from the fact I could never be in a band with my own bro. Judging from our childhood knock-out, tooth-and-claw smack downs, we’d be at each other throats within minutes of our first band practice and triumphantly playing bad vibes with the vanquished’s finger bones. Those are our kind of family values.
I get the impression the Friedbergers’ relationship is just as intense, if less bloodied, talking to a chatty, quirky, and disarmingly frank Matthew on the phone from New York City. "We weren’t friends growing up necessarily," he concedes. "We were friends after I left home, but we have to talk to each other so much now that we aren’t friends in the same way. We have to spend so much time together that it’s … ridiculous." Doubling back on himself, the ever-analytical 35-year-old guitarist-keyboardist-vocalist just as quickly shrugs it off. "But that’s the way it goes."
Still, we all know that family bands traditionally have sold the dream of togetherness: feather-light musical fun with none of the fighting-for-grub-at-the-dinner-table heaviness. Seventies ensembles like the Osmonds cozied up to those warm ‘n’ fuzzy associations in the genre’s TV-pop heyday at the very moment that the generation gap seemed its widest while more recent combos such as Danielson Famile somewhat self-consciously play off of them. Not so with Fiery Furnaces. An electrical, emotional current between the magnetic, sexily verbose vocalist Eleanor and musical mastermind Matthew runs like a live wire through their songs, many of which show up on Remember, which splices together reworkings from various shows in 2005 and onward. Overall the collection set for August release but available on tour is musically formidable, capturing the aggression of their live performances alongside drummer Robert D’Amico, percussionist Michael Goodman, and bassist Jason Loewenstein, and coming off as a little overwhelming.
"Yeah, it’s long. It’s long. It’s long," Matthew drawls somewhat wearily. "People sometimes resent the idea that they have to sit down and listen to the whole goddamn thing. So we wanted to make it clear: you needn’t do that. Please use it as you wish." Consider it, he says, chuckling, "straight background music. I mean, I could say that it’s meant to be an opera about the band, starring the band." Or Matthew adds, rearranging his thoughts like a tune look at the songs as objects that show the group "aging." Or try it this way: "It made sense to have the record be about the songs traveling, so to speak. What kind of journeys the songs went on, I say with a smirk," he says, a playful smirk clearly audible over his cell.
That searching sense of play and enthusiasm has kept the pair going as FF, which Matthew readily admits he never thought would last this long. Growing up in Oak Park, Ill., he performed in teenage rock combos before his younger sister summoned up the courage with encouragement from friends and her broheim to make music. The Brooklyn twosome decided to record their songs in 2002, he recalls, and "then we thought, well, we’d better try to be good."
"It’s no accident we have the same taste," he explains, though they aren’t the type of sibs who were "giving each other supportive hugs all the time." "That’s because our taste was formed by the same things, given to the extent she heard all the records that I listened to when I was a teenager. She’s younger than me, so she heard them at the same time, whether she wanted to or not, because I played them loudly. Even more than that, we understand each other the things we refer to when thinking of what’s meant to be good in rock."
For the FF, that means making songs with the scraps of ephemera found in audience members’ pockets, otherwise known as their "Democ-Rock" project, launched in honor of the 2008 election season, which the ever-prolific band will record in the near future, and a funk companion album to last year’s ’70s-rock-esque Widow City (Thrill Jockey). It’s all grist for the mill, agrees Matthew, although Remember will stand as the document he feels the most emotional about. "It’s the story of my life in the last few years," he says, laughing. "It sounds like me trying to work hard and do something nice." *
THE FIERY FURNACES
Thurs/29, 9 p.m., $15
Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell, SF
WINKING AT REM
REM’s Peter Buck was a proto-indie-rock guru of sorts back in the late ’80s day thanks to his impeccable taste and his way of shining a light on then-unsung predecessors like the Velvet Underground. So it wrecked my head to hear back in 2001 that he was charged in an air-rage incident with allegedly assaulting flight attendants and smashing up a first-class British Airways cabin, all of which he was later cleared of. Anger, however, has its uses, as his band has found on their new, energized CD, Accelerate (Warner Bros), a recording that tackles the tension between REM and its enraging world, rather than creating an otherworldly realm for the listener à la their early works. "I think it’s kind of hard to live where we live, at the time we live, and not be a little frustrated with the way the world is and the way our country is run," Buck says with a sigh, from his Seattle home. "I have to say, I don’t really trust people who aren’t angry about life in general or particular issues."
May 31, 6 p.m.; June 1, 5 p.m.
UC Berkeley, Berk.
PREVIEW The places we long to be often have the greatest hold on our imaginations. In Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, Olga, Masha, and Irina dream of returning to Moscow, believing it’s the only place they can be truly happy. Of course, in Chekhov’s version, they never do manage to reach the Promised Land. Their dreams unfulfilled, the sisters eventually must resign themselves to their respective quiet desperations. Mark Jackson’s Yes, Yes to Moscow, which makes its North American premiere at Dance Mission Theatre for the San Francisco International Arts Festival, imagines the long-awaited arrival of the sisters to Moscow and the pitfalls of getting what you wish for.
Jackson, whose focus on the physical has long been a hallmark of his work, collaborates with Berlin-based choreographer Sommer Ulrickson, American actor Beth Wilmurt, and German performance artist Tilla Kratochwil to create a multidisciplinary, multilingual, multifaceted production. A smash hit at the Deutsches Theater a continent away (leading to a commission for Jackson and Ulrickson to collaborate again in 2009), Moscow‘s San Francisco debut fits in well with SFIAF’s theme: the truth in knowing/now. Forced by an unsympathetic and foreign reality to reexamine their assumptions about home, Moscow, and familiarity, the sisters must confront the not-knowing within their now, and rediscover truth as best they can.
Art Street Theatre Fri/30, 9:30 p.m.; Sat/31, 4:30 p.m.; Sun/1, 7 p.m. Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th St., San Francisco. $20. 1-800-838-3006, www.sfiaf.org.
PREVIEW When the Long Blondes arrived in November 2006 in fits of preening twirls and smoldering pouts with the decadent disco/new wave revamps of Someone to Drive You Home (Rough Trade), we’d at last found worthy successors to Pulp’s lip-gloss-and-sweatsmeared velvet crown. Fronted by the risky, romantic Kate Jackson, the Sheffield, England, quintet proved to be just as adept at intertwining the tawdry with the chic as their hometown forerunners, delivering laser-precise details of the dating scene while making the blood rush with every dirty dalliance and morning-after sound. Amid the snappy glam guitars, ice-sparkling synths, and jitter-pop rhythms, Jackson peered into the dance floors and singles bars and narrated back with a furious mix of exhilaration, lasciviousness, and cool detachment. Love’s a dangerous game with the Long Blondes, but pity the poor fool who doesn’t join in the frantic romp. When they sang promises of "Giddy Stratospheres" on the disc’s unstoppable Blondie-esque highlight, who could deny themselves such steamy, limb-tingling rapture?
Having recently re-emerged with the darker, rougher-edged Couples (Rough Trade), the Long Blondes remain just as committed to the hot-‘n’-flustered/couldn’t-be-bothered dynamic as they were before, and the Pulp/Blondie parallels hold true as well. On this go-round, however, there’s more menace to their nightclub trawling. Tracks such as "Round The Hairpin" skulk and creep with post-punk hypnotics recalling the likes of the Au Pairs, while the skeletal throb of "Too Clever By Half" offers spooky minimalist-disco deserving of the Italians Do It Better label. But for all their newfound experimentalism, the group has kept its flair for penning liberating live-wire pop anthems firmly tucked in its front pockets. "Falling in love is hard," Jackson reveals on "The Couples." "Writing a love song is even harder." Perhaps, but the Long Blondes have the lust-song thing down.
THE LONG BLONDES With Social Studies. Mon/2, 8 p.m., $15. Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF. (415) 885-0750, www.gamh.com
PREVIEW With the success of their BMX ode "Black Mags" ghost-riding beyond the Internet echo chamber, the Cool Kids are on a roll. After one single for Nick Catchdubs and A-Trak’s Fool’s Gold imprint and a year spent performing live, including 30 dates with M.I.A., the 10-cut Bake Sale EP comes courtesy of C.A.K.E. Recordings/Chocolate Industries, home or former home to such acts as Prefuse 73 and Lady Sovereign. It’s slated to be followed by a proper album, When Fish Ride Bicycles, but right now the Cool Kids are back onstage, peddling or pedaling? their own blend of stripped-down hip-hop.
Though many latch onto the Chicago duo’s 1980s fixation and look no further, the carefully casual drawl of 19-year-old Antoine Reed (Mikey Rocks) and the spare, angular beats of 23-year-old Evan Ingersoll (Chuck Inglish) owe as much to Spank Rock or the Neptunes as the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC. With its brassy, clanging drums and tightly reverbed vocals, it’s no surprise that "88" has been snatched up by both HBO and NBA Live 08. If it’s possible to be aggressively nerdy, this pair, who first met on MySpace, are doing it. On "What Up Man," lanky Mikey Rocks raps, "I can build a sandcastle without bringing a pail / And go catfish fishing and come up with a whale," while the rhythm track, built from Inglish’s processed ticks, claps, and basses, chugs greasily along. From the uptempo, hi-trilling "Bassment Party" to the lethargic one-in-four boom of "Jingling" an off-the-cuff riff on the sound of keys in your pocket the Cool Kids make hip-hop akin to busting a wheelie. It looks pretty simple, but it’s damned hard to do.
THE COOL KIDS Tues/3, 9 p.m., $18. Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF. (415) 771-1422 www.theindependentsf.com
REVIEW Returning from a wedding reception in a glum mood apparently Kristen (Liv Tyler) did not respond to a marriage proposal from James (Scott Speedman) as hoped or expected the pair retreat to his family’s isolated vacation home, where they find their evening getting worse, fast. A most unexpected 4 a.m. knock at the door and a strange interaction with a seemingly lost girl is followed by more knocks, then vandalism, then disturbing signs that the house has already been or is being entered until it’s not a knock at the door but an ax crashing through it. The panicked couple discover they’re being terrorized for no apparent reason by three masked visitors who have disabled the phones and car. It’s downhill from there. Debuting writer-director Bryan Bertino’s effectively stripped-down home-invasion thriller is refreshingly short on the usual cheap shock cuts, sound surges, and false scares. Instead, The Strangers makes excellent use of eerie restraint and quiet in a long, tense buildup before most of the real mayhem happens. Too bad the last five minutes are as uninspired as the prior 80 are crafty.
THE STRANGERS opens Fri/30 in Bay Area theaters.
PREVIEW In Shel Silverstein’s 1964 classic book, The Giving Tree (HarperCollins), a self-sacrificing tree hands itself off to a boy surrendering its shade and its lumber until it ultimately ends up just a stump for the now-old man to sit on and die. You don’t have to be a tree hugger to know that everything from the air we breathe to the paper we print on wouldn’t exist without them.
For the fourth consecutive year, the San Francisco branch of Giant Robot presents "Tree Show," a fundraising exhibition with a portion of the sales benefiting Friends of the Urban Forest. It includes mostly two-dimensional pieces by more than 40 artists who work mainly in the street-art and comic-book graphic style GR is known for supporting. Check out Deth P Sun’s painting with his trademark Orphan Annieeyed warrior kitty in a grim, gray forest, and collage artist Alexis Mackenzie’s vintage-lady-as-lupine-shrub, embellished with butterfly blooms. François Vigneault contributes an ink-and-watercolor image of a huge tree getting a scooter ride in the rain, and Cupco makes three nasty forest lumberjack elves ("Cut! Kill! Burn!") out of stuffed felt.
GR founder Erik Nakamura writes in an e-mail that the gallery-store came up with the show concept years before eco-movement causes became so ubiquitous. "We like trees, and we felt, just for a second, it would be great to turn people onto trees," he explains. That second has obviously been extended, since Nakamura has noticed that many of the participating artists continue to paint tree images even after the exhibitions. And why not? "It’s a big part of their art supplies!" he adds. So pick out an affordable work of art for your home and help plant more trees in San Francisco a happier dynamic for artists and arbors alike.
TREE SHOW IV Through June 18. Mon.Fri., 11:30 a.m.8 p.m.; Sat. 11 a.m.8 p.m.; Sun., noon7 p.m. Giant Robot SF, 618 Shrader, SF. Free. (415) 876-4773, www.gr-sf.com
This month’s Magazinester saves the best for first: in conjunction with an art show, Needles and Pens has fantastic zines by Edie Fake on display. Rico McTaco stars a four-legged dyke not averse to carrot strap-ons and dizzying black and white lines Bridget Riley might admire. Issue four of Gaylord Phoenix adds color and erotic examinations by a quartet of wizards with entwined beards to the many-sexed picture.
In Matt Furie’s boy’s club, Andy, Bret, Landwolf, and Pepe bro down with Nintendo, pizza breakfasts, and T-shirt jokes when they aren’t fending off dust mites. The hug department in boy’s club is always open. Dead Pets No. 1 relates tales of tarantula starvation, ferrets crushed by futons, black-eyed white mice slain by children’s tea-party merriment, and many ill-fated betta fish. The centerfold lists five dead pet movies. Published in deluxe gold-embossed color by Blue Q, Killer Queen: The Freddie Mercury Story‘s terrific illustrations portray Mercury’s overbite and stamp collection. Issue 116 of Belladonna presents Dodie Bellamy’s Mother Montage, a combination of writer and subject matter (one’s mother, not motherhood) that sparks a demonologist’s wit the kind that doesn’t pander. John McCain’s gizzard does not escape unscathed.
Best free mag honors go to Arthur for following Erick Morse’s superb Fantomas survey with an extensive critical hurrah for the music of Sparks. (Also, Arthur‘s comics page features Furie and mocks blogs.) Expensive-mag-to-browse honors go to Aperture for features on James Bidgood, Robert Frank, and Trevor Paglen, and a wild series of Iraq War vets portraits. A cheap raspberry to $29-and-up rags such as Paradis, Purple Fashion, UOVO, and Fantastic Man: most or all feature the saggy yet nonexistent ass of the overexposed, under-talented Terence Koh.
REVIEW San Francisco is larger than the stories written about it. This is out of necessity: if we all tried to write down everything that happened here, our arms would get tired. And while the city itself is physically and culturally in thrall to many disparate groups, its history is surprisingly open, belonging most often to those who have nothing more than the inclination to take out a pen and start writing.
Exhibit A: Erick Lyle, a punk kid from Florida who makes zines about pulling off petty scams at chain stores. Mix Lyle and San Francisco and something interesting happens he becomes a bard of the Tenderloin, distributing his missives (written under the name "Turd Caen") out of a stolen newspaper box. He quietly stocks the shelves of the San Francisco Public Library main branch with his work, leaving clippings and photographs in the library’s archives and inserting his zines in the periodicals section.
Lyle’s new book, On the Lower Frequencies: A Secret History of the City (Soft Skull Press, 272 pages, $14.95), is more likely to end up in the general collection of the library through official channels. After all, it’s reasonably book-size and reasonably book-shaped. It has an official-sounding title and one that, charmingly, betrays a Tales of the City-like solipsism.
On the Lower Frequencies reminds me of Armistead Maupin’s early work in other ways too. Both are emblematic of the times in which they were written. Maupin’s characters fret about sex and identity (mostly sex) while squeezing melons at the Marina Safeway, while Lyle and his friends steal from Safeway and worry where to live next. The threat of eviction hovers over Lyle and his friends like an anvil, and they cope with a campy lightheartedness that is almost Judy Garland-esque. All they really want to do is throw parades, play music, paint murals, drink cheap beer, interview the mayor, and look for ancient steam vents. To achieve those ends, they live on the cheap and squat in building after building, often in the half-second before its conversion into condos (in one case, a wrecking ball almost takes out a few of them.)
None of these are uncommon tropes in punk writing, except for the "interview the mayor" part. The stories around that encounter and the other interactions that the group has with city government made me realize how insular and formulaic much zine content can be: interviews with bands x and y, a few squatting and train-hopping stories, and maybe one about hooking up with a girl who has a pet rat. Lyle’s writing is unusual in its intense curiosity about various subcultures and its sheer enthusiasm for discovering how the city does (and doesn’t) work.
Long-time fans of Lyle’s writing should note that virtually everything here has already been self-published, and that more than a little is lost in the transition to placid, even typography. It’s too bad On the Lower Frequencies didn’t get the warts-and-all reprint treatment that Last Gasp gave its Cometbus anthology. This book is for lending. Your earlier copies of Scam, if you have them, are for hoarding. The original format just feels, in some indefinable way, more secret. It’s hard to describe. Let’s just say that it’s the difference between exploring a building you’ve always been interested in under legitimate circumstances, and walking by that same building one night and finding the door unlocked. And that there’s a party going on inside. *
Pixel Vision: an interview with Erick Lyle
Earlier this spring, a young colleague wrote to ask if I knew of seafood restaurants in the city that emphasize sustainability. While I could recall plenty of sightings of sustainable seafood items on various menus in recent years, I could only think of two seafood restaurants that answered to his description places, in other words, where sustainability is central to the restaurant’s consciousness and is a basic element of menu composition. One is the Hayes Street Grill, whose menu card gives detailed information about where and how particular fish have been taken. The other is a small sushi spot named Tataki that opened about three months ago in an old Subway space at the southern foot of Pacific Heights.
Tataki does and doesn’t look like a typical sushi spot. It does have a small bar in a far corner of the snug dining room where you can sit on ergonomically peculiar stools of black plastic and watch the chefs deftly go about their business, and the bamboo tables were handmade by owners Raymond Ho and Kin Lui. But the pumpkin-colored walls are unusual, and the slate floor, while handsome, does contribute to a noise level that can be surprisingly high for such tight quarters. Of course, nowhere is it written that sushi bars and other Japanese restaurants must be quiet and serene; here it is merely written that, so far as this writer is concerned, it’s nice when they are.
Still, as holes-in-the-wall go, Tataki isn’t bad looking. The real interest lies in the menu. To a glance, this document resembles many others around town: there are selections of nigiri, rolls, tataki, soups, salads, and starters from the grill. But, as at HSG, each menu entry includes information on how the fish were obtained. Many are farmed, and while aquaculture raises all kinds of uncomfortable issues about pollution, antibiotics, and food-chain inefficiency, it does offer one inarguable virtue: aquaculture helps protect wild fish populations from collapse.
Since salmon, whether farmed or wild, is problematic now, Tataki uses a close relation, farmed arctic char, instead. The fish, with its delicate rose-peach flesh, makes a handsome nigiri ($4.50); it also turns up in one of the rolls and as carpaccio. Other nigiri might feature hiramasa ($4.50), also known as kingfish (a yellowfin relative, farmed in Australasia), and California striped bass ($4.50), whose flesh is like a disk of translucent ivory someone spilled Grenache on.
No sushi joint in San Francisco would be complete without a clutch of wittily named rolls to call its own, and Tataki is no exception. The best name probably belongs to the Divisaderoli ($6), chunks of avocado bundled with either tuna or kampachi (a Hawaiian member of the jack family) and scattered with glistening orange grains of tobiko. Tastier, if bearing a less-fun-to-pronounce name, is the Mix It Up roll ($11), a blend of spicy tuna and crab meat that achieves an almost sausage-like intensity of flavor and texture.
But the king of Tataki’s rolls is surely the Extinguisher ($13), which offers not only a serious spice kick but a moment of real visual spectacle. If you like saganaki (the flaming cheese of Greece), you’ll love this scene. But first, the roll itself: flaps of kampachi marinated with chiles, packed in rice, topped with chunks of avocado, squirts of what the menu calls "hot sauce" (chipotle mayonnaise?), and heavy sprinklings of habañero tobiko, fire-alarm red rather than the usual orange. The redness of the tobiko should be enough to caution anyone who’s remotely paying attention, but just to make sure, the chef sprinkles the side of the platter with rock salt, sloshes some rum over the crystals, and lights the whole thing on fire with a blowtorch. This might make an interesting DIY project for the patronage, assuming no licensure issues probably a large assumption.
The flame, which is mostly blue and not at all raging (its more like something you’d see under a chafing dish), burns down quickly, and you might not even notice it expire, since eating the actual roll is a memorable experience of fire and spice. I love spicy food and I responded to the clever combinations here, but at the same time it did seem to me that the subtleties of the fish were all but irrelevant. Nuance can get lost in firestorms.
A nice chaser to the Extinguisher would be the cold spinach ($4), with the greens "boiled … in soy broth," as the menu grimly explains. The dish sounded almost Dickensian in its bleakness, but it turned out to be four compressed-spinach cylinders cut on the bias and arrayed upright on a plate, like a little diorama of some ancient temple. (Minor complaint: the tightly packed leaves were tricky to hack through.) A more easygoing cold dish the Sancho Panza of such dishes in Japanese restaurants is the seaweed salad ($4), which Tataki, in a nice twist, presents in a large porcelain ladle.
Despite mounting evidence that fisheries are collapsing from human exploitation throughout the world the plight of the king salmon is a recent, local, and particularly disturbing example; see also the death of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland we seem to have a vestigial confidence that the oceans are too vast to suffer real harm at our hands. If we don’t see it happening, then it can’t be quite real. But it is happening and it is real, and if there is going to be any kind of future for sushi and other seafood restaurants, it will be because Tataki, in its eco-prescience, turned out to be the dawn of a new day. *
Dinner: Mon.Thurs., 5:3010:30 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 5:3011:30 p.m.
Lunch: Mon.Fri., 11:30 a.m.2 p.m.
2815 California, SF
Beer, wine, sake
"The angels in the summertime are ashes in the fall. As Eden fell so heaven shall. I will burn them all."
The sign, written in gothic letters on weatherworn plywood with faded red flames, is nailed to the side gate of a two-story duplex off Martin Luther King Jr. Way in north Oakland. Today, the old sign’s words carry a chilling new meaning, greeting visitors to a house whose insides were scorched by an unidentified arsonist.
The charred house has been a cauldron of contention for more than 10 years. It has been the product of two anticapitalist housing experiments, one started by an environmentalist landlord who sought to create an ecotopia, and the other by a group of anarchists who intended to make it their home. In the process, it became a hub for traveling activists and aspiring hobos, and a headquarters for antiestablishment endeavors such as Berkeley Liberation Radio.
"People would hear about it through the grapevine, hop off a freight train, and show up on our doorstep with a backpack, a banjo, and a Woody Guthrie song," says Steve DiCaprio, a tenant who moved into the house in 2001 with his wife after living in a van out front. "We had an open-door policy. Anyone could come in, no questions asked. They just had to abide by certain rules: no hard drugs, no racism, no homophobia, and no violence. We wanted to emphasize equality it was a reaction to the closed, materialistic, competitive, dog-eat-dog society we live in."
The house originally was part of the green property owner’s attempt to create a network of sustainable, affordable housing. When his project floundered, the residence was slowly taken over by his tenants, a group of people who one-upped his radicalism. Both sides claimed to be avowed anticapitalists, but their strategies were at odds; his was to produce an alternative to the local housing market by creating a nonprofit that would help tenants own their homes as a collective. Theirs was to make space for themselves in a rent-based housing market by seizing property from investors and absentee landlords.
The owner eventually went bankrupt drowned in the early stages of the current defutf8g housing market and the property fell into the hands of a small-time real estate investor, despite the tenants’ attempts to buy it themselves. The tenants refused to leave, transforming themselves into squatters, and fought it out with the buyer in court for three years. As the court case bogged down, housing values plummeted, making the landlord’s investment lose value by the day.
On Feb. 28, when one of many hearings was set to take place, the squatters showed up in court but the landlord hadn’t filed the paperwork needed to move the conflict closer to a resolution. The following night, in the early hours of March 1, someone lit three fires in the empty upper apartment, setting the house ablaze as people slept inside.
WELCOME TO HELLARITY
For years the house has been known as "Hellarity," although its original owner never called it that. In fact, he refuses to. To recognize that name would be to legitimize the people who adorned it with the title a group he sees as thieves, squatters who disrupted a legitimate project he thought would have a small but tangible impact on a profit-driven housing market.
Born on the Sunrise Free School in northeastern Washington State, Sennet Williams known by most as "Sand" spent his early years bouncing between Spokane and "environmental and pacifist intentional communities" in the area. A year after moving to Berkeley in 1990, he graduated from UC Berkeley’s Hass School of Business. With a degree in urban land economics, he wanted to do his part to turn the tide of environmental degradation by developing "nonprofit car-free housing" in Berkeley.
Williams didn’t see attending business school or investing in property as contradictions of his ideals. For Williams, they were strategic moves. He thought that anticapitalist projects lacked an important element money and wanted to be a benefactor for alternative forms of housing.
One week after graduating, his dreamy aspirations came to a crashing halt when an SUV plowed into his compact car while he was on a ski trip at Lake Tahoe, badly injuring him and causing brain damage. His goals would have been quickly destroyed, but Williams sued the driver and convinced the court that the accident interfered with his budding career, winning a settlement in 1993 that he says was "almost a million dollars."
While his money was tucked away in mutual funds and he was living briefly at a student co-op in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1994, Williams solidified his ideas into an ambitious project called the "Green Plan" with some of his housemates. The plan was an elaborate scheme to "end homelessness" by creating "an urban nonprofit dedicated to self-governing and radical environmentalism" that would fund "rural sustainable ecovillages in Hawaii and elsewhere."
That summer, Williams bought five houses on credit in what he calls Berkeley’s "’80s drug-war zones" and brought his Ann Arbor friends to California to turn his rundown properties into co-op material. Over the summer, the Green Plan became an official organization and Williams let its members live in his houses without paying rent. Instead, they were expected to pay monthly dues to their organization roughly the equivalent of fair market rent to put toward buying rural land or repurchasing the houses from Williams at cost. Those who couldn’t afford to contribute were allowed to stay free in exchange for working on the houses, doing extra work for the Green Plan, or volunteering in its Little Planet café.
"Sennet (Williams) tried to be clear that he wasn’t a landlord," says former Green Plan member Dianna Tibbs, but relations between Williams and the members quickly disintegrated. Three years after its formation, the Green Plan remained unincorporated as a nonprofit. A former member also said it was still too centered on Williams’ ideas. Williams’ relationship with the tenants soured. "Ultimately there was a rebellion among the people against Sennet," Tibbs says. In 1997 the project disbanded, transferring all of the money they had raised about $50,000 to the Little Planet café.
The Green Plan fell apart, but Williams was caught up in the fervor of the mid-90s real estate market. In 1997, he bought the house that would later be named Hellarity for $114,000, with the goal of "making it into a demonstration of an eco-house that would be an educational resource for the city." He says he chose that property in part so it "could be a tribute to the Black Panthers’ goals of providing food in the inner-city," as it was on the same block as the home of Black Panthers founder Bobby Seale.
But shortly after Williams bought Hellarity, he says he became "overextended in real estate." By the time he made his first mortgage payments, he says there were "over 60 people" living in his houses. He owned eight in Berkeley, two in Oakland, and was planning to buy farmland in Hawaii. With Williams tied up in too many projects to fix up Hellarity, he moved in some people to "house sit" in exchange for free rent.
Shortly after people moved in, Williams stopped coming around the house. The housesitters gradually brought in their friends, the walls were slowly painted to suit the eccentric tastes of the occupants, and more people started calling the house theirs. Williams said he didn’t invite them, but admits that he never asked them to leave. He had little contact with the occupants as years passed. "He was just a theoretical person that owned the house," DiCaprio says.
Hellarity took on a distinctly anarchist flavor in Williams’ absence. "People with alternative lifestyles and alternative family arrangements could live without having to dedicate their lives to making money, giving them more time to invest in their homes and their communities," says long-term resident Robert "Eggplant" Burnett, Bay Area punk rock legend, publisher of the zine Absolutely Zippo, and editor of Slingshot newspaper. Hellarity hosted the pirate radio station Berkeley Liberation Radio, a do-it-yourself bike shop, and cooked meals for Food Not Bombs.
It seemed like an anarchist paradise, but it wouldn’t last.
By 2004, mortgage payments were driving Williams deep into debt, and Hellarity became a burden. The house was being pulled away from him from two sides: by anarchists who increasingly challenged the legitimacy of his ownership, and by creditors who placed liens against his properties.
When Hellarity was eventually sold by the court in a bankruptcy sale, the tenants say the man who would buy the house, Pradeep Pal, had never set foot in it. Pal, who refused to be interviewed for this article, lived in an upper-middle class neighborhood in Hercules and owned two businesses, Charlie’s Garage in Berkeley and European Motor Works in Albany. He wasn’t exactly a freewheeling real estate flipper he was a South Asian immigrant who, according to Guardian research of property records, never owned real estate in the area other than his own home.
But to the tenants, Pal was a capitalist trying to buy them out of their home. In a recorded meeting with tenants, Pal admitted he hadn’t been inside the house before he bought it, and Williams tells us the real estate agent who arranged the sale also never toured the house before Pal bought it. "He obviously had no interest in moving into the place or contributing to the community if he didn’t even look at it," future occupant Jake Sternberg says. "This was someone who just wanted to make a profit."
The tenants made it clear to Pal that they didn’t want him to buy the house and would make life difficult for him. As soon as it became apparent that Williams would lose the house, Crystal Haviland and a few other occupants started searching for someone to help them buy the house. In the summer of 2004, the house was slated to go up on foreclosure auction, but the tenants hadn’t found a sympathetic donor.
The auction was set to occur on the steps of the René C. Davidson Alameda County Courthouse, and the occupants showed up banging drums and bellowing chants to warn off prospective buyers. "We wanted anyone interested in buying the house to know that the people who had been living at the house for 10 years wanted to buy it," says Haviland, who is now raising a child, studying psychology at San Francisco State University, and volunteering as a peer counselor at the Berkeley Free Clinic. "We didn’t want people to buy it and turn it into an expensive gentrified thing." While people gathered, Williams showed up and announced bankruptcy, a legal move that cancelled the auction.
With more time to search for financial support, Haviland started talking with Cooperative Roots, an organization that bought a couple of Williams’ other houses now known as "Fort Awesome" and "Fort Radical" in foreclosure auctions. Cooperative Roots is a Berkeley-based nonprofit organized in 2003 by members of the University Students Cooperative Association. They received money from progressive donors mainly the Parker Street Foundation to buy houses that they turned into "cooperative, affordable housing," says Cooperative Roots member Zach Norwood. Anyone who lives in their houses is an automatic member of the cooperative and makes monthly mortgage payments to the foundation.
For Hellarity, Cooperative Roots was a godsend. "Other people would walk into that house and say, "This place is disgusting," DiCaprio says. "But they said, ‘Wow, this is a work of art.’<0x2009>" The Parker Street Foundation was willing to put down whatever was needed to buy the house, Norwood says, but the occupants were limited by the monthly payments they could afford. On Nov. 4, 2004, the house went up for bankruptcy sale, and Cooperative Roots was prepared to bid up to $420,000. "It was exciting to be there with a bunch of crazy Hellarity people, putting out bids for hundreds of thousands of dollars," Haviland says.
No one expected them to show up at the sale. Williams says they had previously offered to buy the house from him but he "didn’t think they were serious." By the time they had the money, Williams no longer had control of the sale. At the courthouse, the anarchists were playing by the rules, bidding with money up front. The only other party interested in the house was Pal and his brother-in-law Charanjit Rihal, who were placing bids against the occupants. The two sides bid against each other, driving up the price until the occupants reached their limit. Pal and Rihal took the property for $432,000.
OWNERSHIP VS. CONTROL
"This sale was symptomatic of a housing market gone haywire," says DiCaprio. "People like Pal and Rihal thought they could just throw a bunch of money into real estate and it would always be a good investment. I’m glad the market finally crashed, because that kind of behavior hurts a lot of people. It ended up driving the price of housing to the point that normal people can’t buy anymore and that’s absurd."
Pal soon discovered he owned the property on paper only. The occupants didn’t recognize the sale or his authority to tell them to leave. Three months after the sale, the occupants were still there, refusing to go. Pal took the case to court in an "action to quiet title," demanding that they be ejected from the property and that the title be freed from any future claims against it. He claimed the people in the house were squatters, living on his property without permission. But before the police could drag out the occupants, they countersued, holding themselves up in court without a lawyer for three years and living in the house the whole time.
One of the first cross-complaints came from Robert Burnett who with his contempt for the computerized, cell phone-saturated consumer culture wrote his cross-complaint on the back of a flyer on an ancient typewriter. When the document appeared in court, one side advertised a benefit for a pirate radio station at the anarchist info shop at the Long Haul with an image of tiny people being thrown out of an upside-down Statue of Liberty. On the other side, Burnett claims that he is a co-owner of the house, which he acquired through "adverse possession." Two other defendants made the same claim.
"Adverse possession transfers the ownership of a piece of real estate to people occupying the house without payment," says Oakland attorney Ellis Brown, an expert in property law. "In the state of California, you have to be openly living in a place for five years without the titleholder trying to make you leave to win an adverse possession case."
"Adverse possession originated to prevent Native Americans from taking back land from homesteaders, but squatters turned it around, using it to protect people who take possession of unused property," says Iain Boal, a historian of the commons who teaches in the community studies department at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the author of the forthcoming book, The Long Theft: Episodes in the History of Enclosure. Boal emphasizes the large numbers of squatters in the world, a figure Robert Neuwirth, author of Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World (Routledge, 2004), pegs at 1 billion. "It is only here that squatters are seen as bizarre leftovers from the ’60s," Boal says. "We are in a crisis of shelter, and people need to fill their housing needs."
DiCaprio concurs. Along with Burnett, DiCaprio was the main backer of the occupants’ legal case. As we talk in a dark, live-in warehouse, he sips coffee out of a Mason jar and looks over the court case on his laptop. He says he wants to be a lawyer, but he has never been interested in making lots of money he says he wants to "fight for housing rights." DiCaprio learned squatter law while cycling through family law court, criminal court, and federal court over a Berkeley house he was squatting and trying to win through adverse possession. The city threw him in jail, and he was released just after Pal sued the occupants of Hellarity.
He says Hellarity was different from other situations he’s dealt with as a squatter. "We never thought of ourselves as squatters [at Hellarity] per se until Pal sued us and start using that language in court," he says. "Before he bought the house, no one was challenging our presence on the property. Sennet [Williams] was either actively or passively letting us stay there. By filing a claim to quiet title, Pal made it apparent the title was in question. By calling us squatters instead of tenants, they lost some claim to the property. So we took the ball and ran with it."
Their use of adverse possession was strategic, DiCaprio says, but they didn’t intend to win the house that way. "We were never under any illusion that we would win ownership of the house in court," he says. "We wanted to use the court as a forum to enable us to buy the house. We were just treading water until Pal got tired and agreed to sell." The occupants say they offered him $360,000 for the house, the price it was originally listed for, but he refused to take a loss on his investment.
DiCaprio says the courts generally aren’t sympathetic to squatters’ cases. "Pro pers tend to be poor, so there is a class bias against them," he says, referring to people who represent themselves without a lawyer. DiCaprio says judges have rejected documents for having dirt on them and refused to give fee waivers to people with no income. "The courts do not like squatters. If you mix pro per and adverse possession, you could not have a more hostile environment against us."
For more than two years, Pal and the occupants played a cat-and-mouse game, dragging out the case and trying to complicate it in hopes the other side would just give up. Pal’s lawyer, Richard Harms (who did not return Guardian calls seeking comment), objected to the terms "documents," "property," and "identify" when asked to produce evidence related to his claim. "Instead of trying to prove their case, they were just waiting for us to trip up and not file something before a deadline," says DiCaprio.
The occupants didn’t slip, but as the case wore on, he and Burnett grew tired of upholding their side in court. By fall 2007, the two cut side deals with Pal. Burnett settled for $2,000 and DiCaprio for an undisclosed amount. "I realized I couldn’t save it alone," DiCaprio says. "I told them to sink or swim."
When Burnett and DiCaprio settled with Pal, the subprime housing crisis was splashing the headlines. Pal’s investment was starting to seem more like a loss, but for the first time since he bought the property, it looked like it would finally be his. By November 2007, the remaining squatters dropped the battle for ownership and began bargaining with him for concessions.
By mid-February, Pal was ready to start renovations, and all but two of the squatters had moved out. They made their final plea and Pal gave his last compromise: two more weeks, then they had to go. "He was sure he was going to get the house, so he agreed to let us stay," says a squatter called Frank, who asked not to be named because of his immigration status.
What Pal may not have understood was that he was not the only party still interested in the house. The house was becoming a point of contention among the larger community of squatters and anarchists in the East Bay. Fissures broke around a central question: was it up to those living there to decide the fate of the notorious squat, or did the larger community of radical activists have a say in the property?
As Pal was getting rid of the last people occupying the house, the squatters’ conflict came to Hellarity’s doorstep. A new group of people came to the North Oakland house, among them a few who had previously stayed at Hellarity, ready to renew the struggle against Pal. Frank, who had been living in the house for seven months, was unhappy about the new arrivals.
"I told them that this kind of action would make problems for me," he says. "I already made an agreement with this guy [Pal] to leave by the end of the month." The new group saw things differently. "We own this place," says Jake Sternberg, the new de facto caretaker of Hellarity, who has since been pushing for the squatters to renew their court case. The discord between the squatters split up the duplex: the two old squatters stayed upstairs while the recent arrivals occupied the lower half.
Two weeks after the new crew moved in, a fire was lit in the upper apartment that burned through the ceiling and the floor. But who did it? Was it a disgruntled squatter who would rather destroy the house than hand it back to Pal? Or was Pal connected to the arson, losing his nerve as a newly energized group of squatters took over and the value of his investment crashed?
If not for the squatters, Pal might have been less affected by the subprime crisis than most property owners. He had no mortgage on the house he bought it outright so he wasn’t under threat of foreclosure, unlike tens of thousands of other California homeowners. But Pal faced a different threat. It seems likely he bought the house as an investment, and as the market crashed, he was stuck with a house he could neither renovate nor sell, and was left to watch its value tank as he slogged through court proceedings.
For an investor like Pal, the numbers weren’t looking good. In March, median housing prices had fallen 16.1 percent compared with those of March 2007, according to DataQuick Information Systems, and home sales declined 36.7 percent from the previous year. In April for the seventh consecutive month Bay Area home sales were at their lowest level in two decades, DataQuick reported. And according to Business Week, national home prices will plummet an additional 25 percent over the next two to three years.
On Feb. 17, the day after the new group of squatters moved in, Pal made an appearance at the house. In early March, Sternberg showed me a video he recorded during Pal’s visit. On the screen, Pal is sitting on a couch in the downstairs living room of Hellarity. At the door, a well-built man who looks to be in his 30s and calls himself Tony leans against the wall with two younger men who call themselves Salvador and Ryan. Sternberg tells me that Pal came to the house demanding they leave his property. Sternberg called the police, accusing Pal of trespassing. As they waited for the OPD to arrive, which took more than 25 minutes, they discuss their conflict over the house.
At the beginning of the video, Sternberg tells Pal why he and his friends refuse to give up the property: "People came over here from Europe and they said, ‘Hey, we’re going to take this place.’ Now they sell land to each other. And how did they get it? They took it…. And just because somebody pays for something doesn’t mean that they get it. And just because somebody sells something doesn’t mean they have a right to sell that."
A few minutes into Sternberg’s video, Pal told the squatters he was ready to take matters into his own hands. "You just have to deal with me now because what I’m saying is, it’s person to person…. And you know what? If it’s gonna get dirty, it’s gonna get dirty. I don’t care. Because you know what? That’s the way it’s gonna be, because this is what I need. I need to have it. I don’t have any lawyer. I can’t afford a damn lawyer. So it’s gonna be me and you. One to one. Man to man."
Pal eventually left the property after the police arrived, but the two younger men, Salvador and Ryan, spent the night upstairs. "[Pal] had them stay there because they thought the people downstairs would squat the upstairs," Frank says. "He wanted to protect the house." Frank, who says he was concerned that Pal would try to evict him with everyone else, initially didn’t protest the presence of the two young men.
The next day, at Frank’s request, Pal told Salvador and Ryan to leave, and for the two weeks that followed, Pal didn’t return to the house. The new group of squatters expected to see him Feb. 28, the date set for a case hearing called by Pal’s lawyer prior to the re-occupation of the house. If the defendants didn’t show up, a default judgment could have been entered, granting Pal his request to have the squatters removed and ordered to pay $2,000 per month in back rent. The squatters showed up for court, but Pal’s side hadn’t filed the necessary paperwork to hold the hearing.
Once again the house hung in legal limbo and the day after the hearing, the remaining people upstairs moved out as agreed. Frank says Pal called him while he was at work that afternoon to make sure they were gone. For the first time in 11 years, the upper apartment was empty, waiting for either Pal or the other squatters to seize it.
But someone was committed to preventing that from happening. The night after the people upstairs moved out, at around 3:15 a.m., the squatters downstairs awoke to fire creeping through the floorboards above them.
"Both of the doors upstairs were locked," Sternberg says. "We broke through one of the doors and threw buckets of water on the flames."
After the fire department extinguished the blaze, the squatters called the police to have an investigator search the scene. "It appears that unknown suspects entered the house through unknown means, and then set three fires in an attempt to burn the house," the police report states. According to the report, all three fires were set in the upstairs apartment; two burned out before the fire department arrived. Officer Vincent Chen found two used matches in the bathroom, where the wood around the sink had been burned, and a gas can hidden in the bushes on the east side of the house.
When I first met Sternberg, he told me the Oakland Police Department’s arson investigator, Barry Donelan, was helpful. Two and a half months after the fire, however, Sternberg says: "I regret having talked to the police."
Initially, Donelan didn’t know they were squatters Sternberg had told him they owned the house. "Once he found flyers for a fundraiser to defend the squat, he became angry," says Sternberg. "He said he submitted the case to the district attorney, and didn’t expect anyone would be arrested."
Sternberg says Donelan also threatened to have him arrested for a traffic-related warrant and that he would turn Sternberg’s name over to the Federal Communications Commission, which had an open investigation on the house for hosting Berkeley Liberation Radio. In March, Donelan told us he wouldn’t comment on the case and at press time, he hadn’t return Guardian calls about the status of the investigation.
Although the arson may never be solved, the squatters have strong suspicions about who was behind the fire. But they have a hard time deciding who, ultimately, is most culpable for the blaze. "No one involved in Hellarity is innocent, and no one is completely guilty," says DiCaprio. The one point of view everyone seems to share is that Hellarity has long been a tinderbox of contention, in which property owners struggling in a beleaguered housing market faced off against a group of people who reject the market outright for its inaccessibility to low-income people. Eventually, it all literally burst into flames.
When I visit after the fire, people are sitting outside playing guitar, smoking rolled cigarettes, and singing the timeless hobo ballad, "Big Rock Candy Mountain." The sounds drift over the budding vegetable gardens and into the downstairs living room, where a message written on a big green chalkboard suggests that if the fire was intended to drive people out, it was unsuccessful: "WELCOME BACK TO HELL(ARITY). Because bosses, landlords, and capitalists suck, the house has lots of repairs that need to be done before it becomes fully livable."
Upstairs, Sternberg looks up at a charred, gaping hole in the ceiling. "We have to make lemonade out of lemons," he tells me, explaining that they just got a skylight to fill the cavity. "We’re going to continue fighting just like we’ve been fighting. This guy [Pal] has been in court with us for three years. He’s got no case." *
"This is what happens when Bay Area gas goes to 4 bucks!! We cant even afford to rap about cars..lol [sic]."
So reads one YouTube viewer comment for "Scraper Bike," a music video by local rap group the Trunk Boiz. Rather uncharacteristically for hip-hop, the clip includes a crew of hoodie-wearing, dreadlock-shaking young guys pedaling through the Oakland streets on their tricked-out bicycles. With zero support from radio, "Scraper Bike" became an underground hit last year, making alternative transporation cool for Escalade-obsessed East Bay youth.
"My scraper bike go hard, I don’t need no car," intones Trunk Boi B-Janky in the chorus of a song that’s so catchy it’s viral. Through Web word-of-mouth alone, "Scraper Bike" became one of the 20 most-watched YouTube videos of 2007. In March of 2008, the video was nominated for a YouTube Award, putting the Trunk Boiz in such illustrious company as Obama Girl.
With 2.5 million views and counting, "Scraper Bike" spurred a local trend now gone global, with folks from as far away as Turkey and Bavaria petitioning the Trunk Boiz to come pimp their rides. Yet scraper bikes are pure East Oakland, an homage to their four-wheel counterparts: long a fixture of East Bay car culture, "scrapers" are hoopty rides usually ’80s-era Buicks or Oldsmobiles made ghetto-fabulous with candy paint, huge rims, tinted windows, and booming speakers in the trunk.
Trunk Boi Baby Champ, inventor of the scraper bike, recalls his initital inspiration. "At that time I was real young and didn’t have no license or nothing," he says. "So I just wanted to take the pieces of the car and put it on a bike and mold it and shape it like that. I just took it and ran with it." In transutf8g the scraper aesthetic, not only does Champ outfit the bikes with neon colors and decorative spokes, he even wires up stereos to the handlebars and loads speakers on the rear. "That’s one of our promotional schemes," B-Janky informs me during a group interview at their West Oakland studio. "We ride around on scraper bikes eight deep, with speakers slappin’ our music."
Hustlers and entrepreneurs, the Trunk Boiz bring a whole new meaning to the Bay-slang term "out the trunk." The phrase refers to the marketing strategy immortalized by Too $hort, who early in his career famously sold music out of his car. Yet when the Trunk Boiz slang CDs "out the trunk," that trunk is less likely part of a Cutlass Supreme than a double-axle three-wheel cruiser essentially, a tricycle on the back of which is a wooden cart painted in Oakland A’s colors with the words "That Go!"
A rather endearing sense of juvenalia surrounds the Trunk Boiz mystique. After all, their average age is about 19. As one might expect of a group of more-or-less teenage boys, songs tend to focus on adolescent preoccupations such as partying, looking fly, and getting girls. But unlike blunt rappers like Lil’ Weezy who endlessly employs stale metaphors to describe their male members the Trunk Boiz make sex romps sound clever. In the track "Cupcake No Fillin’," MCs Filthy Fam and NB drop double entendres, extending the concept of "cupcaking" Oakland slang for flirting into a confectionary ode to casual, no-strings-attached hookups (i.e., with "no feeling").
It may not be a message mothers want their daughters to hear, but the kids love it. The video for "Cupcake No Fillin’" has nearly 100,000 YouTube views, and helped expand the group’s female fanbase by casting the rappers in a loverboy light.
Given the group’s penchant for high-energy antics, the Trunk Boiz were happy to ride the hyphy train while it lasted. They even got scraper bikes into videos for the Federation’s "18 Dummy" and Kafani’s "Fast (Like NASCAR)." None other than Too $hort called Champ the day of the Kafani shoot, urging the scraper bike crew to roll through and bring some local flavor. They continue to glean game from the legendary rapper through their involvement with East Oakland nonprofit Youth UpRising, where Too $hort volunteers.
Inspired by such mentors, the Trunk Boiz have become more civic minded than one might expect of a group that raps about going "SSI" ("Socially Stupid Insane") a track off their sophomore album, due out this summer. Not only are they involved with Youth UpRising and Silence the Violence but also with the "Ban the Box" reentry-reform efforts in Oakland as well as Bikes for Life, an antiviolence campaign launching July 13 with a ride around Lake Merritt. In August, they’ll attend the National Hip-Hop Political Convention in Las Vegas, where they’ll roll down the Strip on their scraper bikes.
Fortunately, when it comes to homegrown innovation, what happens in Oakland doesn’t always stay in Oakland. *
For more on Bikes for Life, call (510) 238-8080, ext. 310.
Jazz has always been about fusing rather than fusion. But there’s a new generation of improvisational players from around the world who are effortlessly blending wide-ranging cultural and generational ideas in their music. These artists are equally conversant in Ben Webster, Kanye West, and Fela Kuti. They might cover Coltrane and Radiohead, but using contemporary Western instruments. It’s jazz with a global scope, modern sensibility, and an intimate, personal feel.
One musician who is naturally engaging a world of influences in his music is Puerto Ricoborn saxophonist David Sanchez. When he brings his new sextet to the Herbst Theatre June 13 to debut music from his just-released album, Cultural Survival (Concord), Sanchez will cap an expansive run of so-called multilingual jazz artists coming through the Bay Area. Preceding Sanchez at venues across the region are saxophonist Charles Lloyd, pianist Marc Cary, bassist Esperanza Spalding, and pianist Edward Simon, who are all bringing variations on the theme of modern jazz as a genre informed by worldwide cultures.
It all starts next week with SFJAZZ’s "Miles from India" concert at the Palace of Fine Arts, a live presentation of the recent Four Quarters album of the same name. Producer Bob Belden and Indian keyboardist and co-arranger Louiz Banks reworked the music of Miles Davis and recorded it with such Davis alumni as bassists Ron Carter, Michael Henderson, and Marcus Miller; keyboardists Chick Corea, Adam Holzman, and Robert Irving III; drummers Jimmy Cobb and Lenny White; and such Indian musicians as Ravi Chari on sitar, Vikku Vinayakram on ghatam, and V. Selvaganesh on khanjira. The composer himself used sitar and tabla on numerous sessions throughout the 1970s, when he began making funkier and more layered, open-ended music.
Davis and numerous jazz musicians before him from Duke Ellington and Yusef Lateef to Randy Weston and John Handy integrated musical elements from non-Western cultures into their work. So it’s not surprising that a younger player like Sanchez, who is equally at home improvising with Latin jazz piano legend Eddie Palmieri as he is touring with guitarist Pat Metheny, would meld ethnic nuances of his Caribbean heritage with a postmodern jazz sensibility.
Sanchez’s Cultural Survival is a cycle of seven original songs and one Thelonious Monk ballad. The disc culminates in the 20-minute "La Leyenda del Canaveral," inspired by a poem written by Sanchez’s sister Margarita about African and Caribbean sugar cane plantation workers. It’s a relatively new and spare, though lyrically rhythmic, sound for Sanchez, forged during a three-year immersion in African folkloric recordings from Tanzania, Cameroon, and the Congo, and his impromptu tour with Metheny. "Doing the tour with Pat was really a confirmation for me that there are different sounds out there," Sanchez said from his Atlanta home. The saxophonist has mainly played with a pianist but now works with guitarist Lage Lund in his band.
"In some ways there is more space for me there," he added.
Also exploring new concepts is veteran saxophonist Lloyd, who performs at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival May 31 with his Indian-musicinspired Sangam Trio, which includes percussionist Zakir Hussain and drummer Eric Harland. The band uses its ethnic edges as stepping stones. "It’s really what propels the music," Harland said of the intuitively improvisational trio during an SFJAZZ rehearsal in the city.
Venezuelan pianist Edward Simon also mixes new and old approaches: he studied classical piano at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and jazz at the Manhattan School of Music before joining trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s band. His new Ensemble Venezuela, which plays the Herbst Theatre June 8, is a sterling gathering of major young players including Mark Turner on saxophone, Marco Granados on flute, Aquiles Báez on cuatro, Ben Street on bass, and Adam Cruz on drums. Báez will also perform with his own band while the local VNote Ensemble (formerly the Snake Trio) offers its take on jazz and Venezuelan traditional sounds.
Such explorations vary conventional presentations and inject unexpected aural flavors. "Jazz is one of the most immediately gratifying art forms there is because it’s spontaneous development," pianist Marc Cary explained from New York. "It documents a moment, and that’s the moment you want people to hear."
Cary’s Focus Trio performs in Healdsburg June 5. His partners onstage are Bay Area musicians Sameer Gupta on drums and tablas and David Ewell on bass. "Sameer is from India and David is from China," said Cary. "I didn’t pick them because of that. I play with them because they’re good, but they’re bringing that too." On his 2006 album Focus (Motema), Cary wanted to get out of the standard chorus-solo-chorus cycle that has sometimes straitjacketed jazz. "I like continuous movement, a straight line, and I like to color that line," Cary mused. Gupta cowrote one song with Cary and contributed the reflective ballad "Taiwa," and his tablas close out the last three Cary originals with a distinctive flourish.
Cary played behind the übervocalist and band leader Betty Carter and has toured with hip-hop vocalist Erykah Badu, whose influences find their way into his work. "If you’re really going to play this music in today’s times, you have to bring in elements of the past, the present, and what you consider to be the future," Cary said.
That future is now with 23-year-old bassist Esperanza Spalding. The Portland, Ore., native, who graduated from and now teaches at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, recorded her 2006 full-length Junjo (Ayva) with two Cuba-born colleagues from the school: pianist Aruán Ortiz and drummer Francisco Mela. Their rhythmic approaches subtly imbue the recording’s sound as Spalding sings wordless, hornlike runs in a bright, fluttery alto. Her latest album, Esperanza (Heads Up), includes flamenco guitar virtuoso Niño Josele, drummer Horacio "El Negro" Hernández, and saxophonist Donald Harrison. She brings her new band to Yoshi’s in Oakland June 12.
Why have all these players connected with sounds so far afield? The world has not gotten smaller it’s just better connected. Through technology even the most obscure genres find new and far-flung listeners. The communal spirit informing jazz performance and appreciation also transcends differences: jazz musicians have to be open; otherwise they can’t play the music. "At the end of the day, jazz is about how you relate to things happening at the moment," Sanchez said. He heard a reality in the African tribal drumming music he listened to and wanted to bring it to his own playing. "You have this feeling when you hear it that the music is like water or air for them."
"MILES FROM INDIA"
Sat/31, 8 p.m., $25$56
Palace of Fine Arts Theatre
3301 Lyon, SF
CHARLES LLOYD QUARTET AND LLOYD’S SANGAM TRIO
Sat/31, 7:30 p.m., $45<\d>$70
Sonoma Country Day School, Santa Rosa
MARC CARY’S FOCUS TRIO
June 5, 7 and 9 p.m., $26
231 Center, Healdsburg
EDWARD SIMON AND THE ENSEMBLE VENEZUELA
With Aquiles Báez Ensemble and VNote Ensemble
June 8, 7 p.m., $25$56
401 Van Ness, SF
June 12, 8 and 10 p.m., $10$16
510 Embarcadero West, Oakl
DAVID SANCHEZ SEXTET
June 13, 8 p.m., $25$56
401 Van Ness, SF
In Thorsten Fleisch’s five-minute Energie! (2007), an untamed 30,000-volt current exposes photographic papers that are then sequenced in a manner that suggests or reveals systems of electrons. Fleisch’s film is a blast. Its black-and-white lightning formations resemble angry veins in the eyeball of an electrical beast and the veins in your eyes will sprout similarly after gazing at this strobe attack by Fleisch, a student of Peter Kubelka.
The orb that gradually rises to the center of the screen during Energie could be a ferocious cousin of the eclipse that forms the insignia for the digital projects of Other Cinema, Craig Baldwin’s space for visions in the Mission. It also serves as a core symbol for Other Cinema’s latest calendar-closing "New Experimental Works" program.
Here’s an orb, there’s an orb, everywhere’s an orb, orb! There’s one at the center of Shalo P’s Vengeance 2.0, which begins with a word of warning from Michael Jackson before mixing Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo (1958) and numerous Batman symbols into a brew fans of Paper Rad and Michael Robinson might enjoy. There’s even a character named Orb in Apple, a sword-clanging, sprite-eared, and typically ingenious vision from "from the hideous director of Dawn of the Evil Millennium," Damon Packard, whose movies are as potent as laughing gas and better than all other drugs.
Eli Marias’ and Amos Natkin’s An Internal Camaraderie might not feature an orb, but its new age mix of hilarity and potent hypnotism includes just about everything else, including fluorescent rainbow colors, a sea of testifying infomercial faces, and one well-deployed white turtleneck.
Other highlights among "New Experimental Works" that this reviewer was able to see include: Roger Deutsch’s Act Your Age, where a pencil is not just a pencil; Tony Gault’s Count Backwards From 5 (2007), in which images of water with a powerful use of voice-over convey the mystery of family and death; and Danny Plotnick’s Out of Print, a four-minute testimonial that should be placed in a time capsule.
OTHER CINEMA: "NEW EXPERIMENTAL WORKS"
Sat/31, 8:30 p.m.; $7
Artists’ Television Access
992 Valencia, SF
Some kinds of artistic ostentation possess a breadth of scale and insularity of purpose that have everything to do with privilege. Matthew Barney is responsible for some enormously pretentious cinematic objects, but even he hasn’t dreamt as self-indulgently big as the mono-monikered Tarsem (birth name: Tarsem Singh) does with The Fall. Shot in 20 countries from Chile to Fiji to Namibia to Romania to all over his native India, plus plain old Hollywood it’s perhaps the ultimate "Why? Because I can" movie, sumptuous and useless to equal degrees.
The film’s story (inspired by an obscure 1981 Bulgarian children’s film called Yo ho ho, something the filmmakers haven’t gone out of their way to acknowledge) is a haphazard clothesline on which to hang two hours of pictures. Collected in a coffee-table book, these images might suggest that The Fall is the greatest surreal epic ever an update of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 magnum opus The Holy Mountain.
Actually watching the thing, however, is a different experience.
You might remember or might still be trying to forget Tarsem as the director of 2000’s J-Lo vehicle The Cell, an odious serial killer tale tricked out in the biggest wholesale cribbing of Art History 101 imagery since the more enjoyable Altered States (1980). He also directed numerous TV commercials and music videos (most notably REM’s 1991 "Losing My Religion"), two forms of media that suit his empty pictorial flash. The Fall is like an endless high-concept shoot of extravagant fashions no one could ever really wear, presented against backdrops few could ever visit unless, like this movie’s director, they’re the kind of global citizen who (according to biographical notes) "lives in London, Italy, Los Angeles, and India."
If The Fall‘s exotica had something, anything a heart, a point, some philosophical intent behind it, Tarsem’s movie wouldn’t end up seeming like such monumental upscale baloney. But this director has no feel for pacing, actors, or tone; he wobbles from labored whimsy to maudlin realms before abruptly opting for nasty violence.
Just who is The Fall‘s cold pageant-cum-travelogue for? People who wish they had Tarsem’s life, I guess. Perhaps this is his way of sharing it with the proles. Isn’t that generous.
Opens Fri/30 at Bay Area theaters
An utterly complete retrospective of Johnnie To’s films would be too much to ask, really. To’s résumé to date involves nearly 50 features, with at least one release nearly every year since 1986. His work also spans such a gobsmacking array of genres that even an audience of dedicated fans might experience exploding-head syndrome. And genre is the key word here; the man’s a master at it, a trait that has earned him admiration if not fame stateside probably a good thing, given the cautionary tale of the Hollywoodized John Woo. Though even his most bizarre Chinese New Year farces occasionally pop up at the 4-Star Theatre (and probably nowhere else in the Bay), To’s most internationally acclaimed entries are his action flicks, filled with blazing guns, taciturn antiheroes, and, inevitably, at least one scene in which several characters pause their killin’ to enjoy a hearty meal.
So, sorry, completists To’s exercises in romance (including 2001’s gloriously offensive Love on a Diet, which makes Eddie Murphy’s fat-suit adventures look subtle), his 1993 supernatural tough-chick classic The Heroic Trio, and his goofy comedies (like 2003’s young-doctor yukfest Help!!!) are not repped in the Pacific Film Archive’s "Hong Kong Nocturne: The Films of Johnnie To." Even the PFA admits, in their notes on the series, this is a "small sampling" of To’s output. But if I had to pick nine To films culled, as the PFA’s are, from To’s output under his own Milkyway Image banner, created in 1997 my sampling would likely resemble what’s on tap through June.
The essential To screens first: 1999’s The Mission, as close to perfection as he’s ever come. Spare, gritty, and obsessed with the business of male bonding (a To leitmotif), The Mission is about five gunslingers (all character types: a hairdresser, a barkeep, a pimp, etc.) who come together to protect a mob boss, then close ranks when they’re ordered to off one of their own. To regular Anthony Wong plays the hairdresser a guy so grim he’s known as "The Ice" so you know this shit is serious.
The theme of loyalty among assassins who’ve become friends despite themselves is echoed in 2006’s Exiled, which brings back much of the Mission cast. In this modern-day spaghetti western, the gang is charged with killing a former comrade who’s left the organization and settled down with wife and baby. A straightforward execution is discarded in favor of an endlessly complicated scheme that involves a gold heist, double-crossing mob heavies, seedy operating rooms, and more; naturally, slow-motion bullet ballets punctuate every act with gory grace. Wong, as a sad-faced killer caught between doing the right thing for his boss and the right thing for his conscience, is typically top notch.
The more overtly linked Election (2005) and Triad Election (2006) also address the gangster code, taking a darkly realistic look at how Hong Kong gangsters select their leadership honor takes a back seat to power, and money, of course, means everything. Breaking News (2004) adds eager TV crews to To’s usual cops-‘n’-robbers stew. There’s a lesson learned about not turning police business into a media circus, and yes, it’s a lesson tattooed into Hong Kong streets with many, many bullets.
"Hong Kong Nocturne" may be the PFA’s program title, but not every selection is a dark tale. Throw Down (2004) is a judo comedy. The amusing if overlong Fulltime Killer (2001, codirected with frequent collaborator Wai Ka-fai) follows dueling hired guns O (Takashi Sorimachi, stone-faced but Snoopy-obsessed) and Tok (a particularly smirky Andy Lau). To’s meta-intentions are signaled at the start, when Tok voiceovers, "I like watching movies, especially action movies." My general feeling on Fulltime Killer, from a later Tok observation: "Not the best movie, but I like the style." For an even more bizarre Lau performance, 2003’s Running on Karma is recommended; the star plays a psychic bodybuilder turned stripper. A muscle suit that eclipses even Love on a Diet‘s stunt-costume gimmickry is prominently featured.
The series’ local premiere, 2007’s Mad Detective, is unfortunately non-noteworthy. The rubber-faced Lau Ching-wan, a To favorite, stars as the titular detective. He hears voices! The voices are embodied by actors who follow him around! The conceit gets old fast. For a better Lau-To pairing, pick up 1999’s Running Out of Time not part of "Hong Kong Nocturne" but worthy enough to be. *
"HONG KONG NOCTURNE: THE FILMS OF JOHNNIE TO"
May 29June 27, check Web site for schedule, $9.50 $13.50
Pacific Film Archive
2575 Bancroft, UC Berkeley, Berk
(510) 642-1412, www.bampfa.berkeley.edu
SUPER EGO Springtime in Clubland’s looking gorgeous so far: it could totally move covers and dominate the next cycle. A special double pinkies up to all the fab promoters throwing AIDS ride-run-walk-collapse fundraisers and shining limelight on the No on Prop. 98 campaign. I’d air-kiss you to death, but it would crust my Cover Girl Hipster Neutral No. 140 Lipslicks Lipgloss. Ack.
On to biz: yep, the hardcore electro banger sound think ELO meets Spank Rock, filtered through acid house and bare-bones punk has set my fuchsia radar to stunned, even though it’s already glitzed up most of the city’s edgier dance floors. It certainly makes me question the meaning of “underground” in the MySpace age. And despite the scene’s sometimes perilous “Girls Gone Wild” flirtations, it’s total ferosh to see so many banger women bringing real DJ and promoter power: Emily Betty, Queen Meleksah, Parker Day, Nastique, Kelly Kate …
Stuttery vocals, ripped-needle basslines, Justice influence, and hands-in-the-air breakdowns are the genre’s sonic commonalities, but the sound’s a mutt, streamlining electroclash and iDJ kitsch into a neon ball-slap to the brainiac minimal techno boyzone. That means it’s stylistically elastic, and two of my favorite San Francisco DJs and people from other scenes have vaulted to the banger forefront. Richie Panic (www.myspace.com/richiepanicisagenius) got big spinning mod classics and electroclash before teaming up with DJ Jeffrey Paradise, the banger godfather, to rock the new sound. He fronts an all-out ultrabananas punk energy Gorilla Biscuits trumps Hot Chip and his unerring ear blows dragon smoke from my broken lightbulb. Check out Mr. Panic’s top bangers here.
Vin Sol (www.myspace.com/vinsol), on the smoother hand, is a hometown hip-hop hero who tells me he found rap crowds too resistant to experimentation; electro has freed him to splash freestyle classics like Debbie Deb’s "When I Hear Music" over the lowdown banger sheen, and startle laptop lovers with dazzling vinyl pyrotechnics.
Newbies? "Ableton’s my homeboy," 22-year-old PUBLIC (www.myspace.com/publicworld), a.k.a. Nick Marsh, recently said to me with a laugh. He’s been blowing banger minds with his live shows at parties like Blow Up (www.myspace.com/blow_up_415) and software edits of the Cardigans, ELO (yes!), even When in Rome’s melancholic 1988 dance jam "The Promise." And his hypnotic new tune "Colorful" is a hit. "I played in a hardcore band, then went through an acoustic Postal Service phase," said the longtime record collector and musician. "So harder but really melodic stuff is natural to me. I think one way to get everyone on the floor is to take softer songs and make them more aggressive, so there’s a broader energy." He’s sliced and diced Metallica too.
Also fresh is 23-year-old LXNDR (www.myspace.com/djlxndr), who used to spin at raves and dreamt of being Armand Van Helden (!) before gravitating to Felix da Housecat and Richie Hawtin. He describes his sound as POPalicious heavy beats over classic trax, but tasteful and widely appealing and presides over the No More Conversations (www.myspace.com/nomoreconversationssf) weekly and wild Youngbloodz monthly (First Fridays at Milk, www.milksf.com). "I like to turn heads with my mixes and really make people notice that I put a lot of thought into how I drop a track. That’s what I always liked about the older dudes when I was coming up," he told me. Aw, sweet. Look for his seven-song EP on which he plays guitar, bass, and synths to hit this summer and munch up the younger clubbables.
CHEAP EATS "It’s hard to find people to eat pork bellies with me," he said, over pork bellies, and I thought: I’m your girl.
This was my second date of the day. I’d had a chef salad for lunch in another town, with someone else, and was not his girl. I could tell. Still, we walked down the hot sidewalk and into a famous bar with trophied animal heads all over all the walls. I’d always wanted to go there, and liked it inside, so I asked if he wanted to stay, have a Coke, or something. Stare at a moose.
"No," said the guy whose girl I was not. He had better get going, it was the weekend, hard week, and he wanted to be home, had things to do. Long drive.
My therapist wants me to speak on the topic of dating at a conference on gender identity issues. I suppose that I can take this as a compliment. Maybe I will, and maybe I will speak at this conference. Or, hey, hell, maybe I’ll write an actual restaurant review! It’s been a while …
The pork bellies were delicious. Thick, crisp, fatty slices of fried pig in a dark, salty sauce with Chinese broccoli. The duck came with celery and lychee, the Chinese fruit, which is way weirder to the teeth, tongue, and taste buds than any animal organ that I’ve ever eaten. The name of the restaurant is not important.
My date insinuated that I must have some kind of skinny gene.
I speared another square of almost pure fat and, chewing on it, both literally and figuratively, reckoned that hmm, maybe I did. Plus there’s the soccer … sometimes two or three games in one day, ooga.
Really, I don’t know a lot of people who like duck.
"When I was a kid," I said, "my brothers and sisters used to pass me all their pork fat and chicken skin."
My therapist thinks I am articulate and well-spoken, but he’s never been on a date with me. I actually said that about pork fat and chicken skin on a date, and knew almost immediately that I wouldn’t be seeing this guy again, even though there was no doubt in my mind that I was his girl.
It was cold outside, after dinner, so he gave me his coat. We walked to a book store. I picked up a book that I have but hadn’t read yet and said, "Did you ever read this?" So he bought it. I wondered if I looked cute in his too-big coat, my hands lost way inside its dark sleeves.
I’m trying to understand guys who like girls like me. The best thing I’ve heard, so far, is that they love femininity, and that I represent a very complicated form of femininity, and therefore they love me. Except they don’t, because and this is just a guess, but it’s one thing to eat pork bellies with a pretty woman, I’m guessing, and something else entirely to envision them engulfing a pile of table-scrapped fat or three chickens’ worth of chicken skin.
I can understand their problem with the image. Honestly, I get it, only not quickly enough to not hand them the picture.
It’s like: they want you to watch football with them, but do they want to watch you play football? Probably not. What we have here is a balancing act. Everyone knows you have to walk a line everyone and that’s hard. For all of us. I begin to suspect that for girls like me and for the guys who go for us, there’s not a thin line. There’s nothing at all beneath our feet. Try to look graceful, and act balanced, while free-falling away from yourself. Or toward yourself. Or both at the same time.
I get motion sickness. Last night, to distract myself, I opened the book that I have but had not read, and I started to read it. The name of the book is not important.
My new favorite restaurant is Soi 4. It’s just a couple of bucks more than other Thai restaurants, but definitely worth it. Especially if someone else is paying. The short ribs are fantastic. Perfectly tender and juicy and then, as if they needed any help, the most amazingly smooth-tasting peanut curry by way of a smother. So good it’s kind of terrifying. I can’t stop thinking about it and have been having nightmares. *
Mon.Sat., 11 a.m.9 p.m.
5421 College, Oakl.
Beer & wine
This is probably the only time the Alt Sex column will cover the same territory as my new venture, a nice, moderately wholesome blog about kiddie consumer culture (www.gogetyourjacket.com). I was prepared to let the "expectation of blow jobs on Mother’s Day" thing go, especially since US Mother’s Day itself is a few weeks gone, but now the Father’s Day press releases are trickling in they’re not gushing manfully yet, but I suppose that’s to follow and the picture that’s emerging of the state of sex in the modern Western (hemisphere, not yippee-yi-yo-ki-yay) bedroom is so weird I can’t let it alone.
First there was the Mother’s Day gift basket meant to get horny, aggrieved husbands with feelings of entitlement to bug their wives for sex instead of going out and getting them a pain au chocolat (the baskets contained paint au chocolat, but that is not at all the same thing). To me, this implies a target audience of couples who aren’t having sex, the female halves of which have to be jollied into it with cheesy "romantic" gifts and who, even more weirdly, can be jollied into it with cheesy "romantic" gifts.
And now I have a "New! For Father’s Day!" ad from the last place I’d expect to produce a sleazy and ultimately sad commentary on the perceived state of modern child-having marriage: a mom ‘n’ pop, organic, non-sweatshop-made "family fashion" (novelty T-shirt) company. I mean, women, would you get your husband a shirt that says "Daddy needs some love’n?" How about one that reads, "My wife likes to spoon but I prefer to fork?" Bear in mind that these are supposed to be gifts. What are we saying here? Why not just go to CafePress and make him a shirt that says, "You’re not getting any and I think that’s pretty funny, har har har!"?
Oh, and men, would you wear it? Would you write to me and tell me why? And if you’d order it yourself and wear it out to lunch (real men don’t brunch, right?) on Father’s Day to mortify your wife, explain that too. By e-mail, please, you don’t sound like the sort of people I would like to meet in real life. I’m embarrassed for those women and I don’t even know any of them.
I truly don’t. I swear I know a goodly number of heterosexuals one does run into them now and then and the cartoony vision these products are promoting is just not something I see a lot of. I’m happy to report that I don’t hear from or even hear about a lot of marriages in which the wives refuse sex out of contempt, complete loss of interest, or utter lack of concern over whether their mates are happy or not. Recently I’ve been meeting a lot of women who are hoping to regain lost sex drives and lives after having babies, and even they (of course these particular women are the ones who are motivated enough to talk about it) never show a hint of contempt for the men they aren’t doing it with. They’d like to do it. They want to want to do it. They’ve just lost touch with it. Desire disorder is the dysfunction of the day just wait till the drug that fixes that hits the market. People will be all, "Viagra who?"
And while cheesy dad gifts are on the table, I would like to register one more complaint. I don’t know what the gift-promoters are trying to pull here, but it struck me as quite completely unfair that after the stupid Mother’s Day come-ons, which were both sexed-up and creepily infantilizing, the first thing I got that was aimed at dads said simply that you should get him a bottle of really nice single-malt scotch. What, no boxer shorts on a stick?
Also, on the subject of knowing a few heterosexuals here and there, I was asked if I would comment on the California Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage (um, they were for it). Sure. I have to admit I have nothing particularly pithy to say about legal gay marriage. I’m for it. I’m a lot more for it than some of my gayest friends are, as a matter of fact: they’re in the "Why should we beg you to let us pretend to be just like you?" camp, while I’m over here in the "It’s not fair that I should get to claim a certain kind of legitimacy for my relationship that you don’t get for yours" camp. They pat me on the head. Me, I’m just dorky enough to be all rejoice-y about this, and hope that my Midwestern friend’s "spousal unit" gets to make an honest woman of her after, oh, 15 years and two kids. And how can any event that occasions this headline "Star Trek’s George Takei to Marry Longtime Partner" fail to produce a "Woo!" and a "Hoo!"?
Andrea is home with the kids and going stir-crazy. Write her a letter! Ask her a question! Send her your tedious e-mail forwards! On second thought, don’t do that. Just ask her a question.
Andrea is also teaching two classes: "You’ve Really Got Your Hands Full" a realistic look at having twins at Birthways in Berkeley, and "Is There Sex After Motherhood?" at Day One Center in San Francisco and other venues.
TECHSPLOITATION I just love saying that scientists are creating "human-animal hybrid clones" because that single phrase pulls together about 15 nightmares from science fiction and religion all at the same time. Although if you think about it, one fear really should cancel out the other one. I mean, if you’re worried about human cloning, then the fact that these are clones created by sticking human DNA inside cow eggs should be comforting. I mean, it’s not really a human anymore at that point, right?
But the real reason I’m gloating over this piece of completely
ordinary biological weirdness is that last week the British Parliament began the process of legalizing human-animal hybrid embryo cloning. While not explicitly illegal in the United States, the process has been so criticized (including by former president Bill Clinton) that most researchers have stayed away from it. Now, however, this law could make it easy for Brits to advance their medicine far faster than people in the supposedly high-tech and super-advanced United States.
You see, these scary hybrids could become stem cell goldmines. One of the barriers to getting stem cells for research is that they only come from human embryos, and human embryos come from human women. Some of us may be cool with donating our eggs to science, but a lot of us aren’t and that means scientists don’t have a lot of material to work with if they want to do stem cell research that could do things like reverse organ failure and cure Alzheimer’s.
And that’s where these human-animal hybrids come in. We can already inject DNA into the nucleus of a cow egg and zap it with electricity, thus reprogramming that egg to be human. And we can even get that egg to start dividing as if it were an embryo, creating a bunch of human stem cells. Beyond that, we just aren’t sure. Will these embryos create viable stem cells to treat all those nasty human diseases? Or will they just be duds that act too much like cow cells to be usable by humans? If there’s even a small chance that the former will come to pass, it’s worth investigating and we’ll have solved the human stem cell shortage problem.
That’s why scientists in the United Kingdom are doing it, and why their government is debating exactly how the process should be regulated. You wouldn’t necessarily know that from the way it’s been covered in the media, where even the normally staid International Herald Tribune began an article about the potential UK law with this sentence: "The British Parliament has voted to allow the creation of human-animal embryos, which some scientists say are vital to find cures for diseases but which critics argue pervert the course of nature." Nice move, throwing in the word "pervert" there.
When the media writes about how scientists might "pervert the course of nature," and the anti-science group Human Genetics Alert is bombarding me and pretty much every other science journalist on the planet with crazed, uniformed screeds about how this law will lead to "designer babies," you start to feel like a huge portion of the population doesn’t know the difference between science and science fiction. Indeed, one of the most anticipated sci-fi horror movies for next year is Splice, which is about a pair of rock star geneticists who create a human-animal hybrid. Of course the hybrid happens to be a deadly, exotic-looking woman with wings and a tail and a super-hot body. Early images released from the production show her naked, with her animal parts looking sexy and dangerous.
The completely impossible "designer baby" in Splice is what most people think will happen when scientists create human-animal hybrid clones. But creating something like the sexy Splice lady is not only beyond the reach of current science, it is also illegal under the proposed UK law. The hybrid clones will only be permitted to develop for about two weeks, which is the time required to create stem cells. After that, they must be destroyed. So the UK law actually makes the nightmare scenario impossible, not possible.
And that’s why I’m psyched about getting my human-animal hybrid clones. *
Annalee Newitz (email@example.com) is a surly media nerd who can’t wait to see the world populated with human-elephant-dolphin hybrids.
OPINION How would you like to be represented by someone who flacks for the insurance industry, serves real estate developers and landlords with zeal, opposes consumer privacy, and is a role model for corporate Democrats with a firm allegiance to big business?
You wouldn’t know it from the vague aura of his slick ads, but Joe Nation is hoping to be that someone in the state Senate. He’s the third candidate in the hotly contested race that includes two stalwart progressive politicians incumbent Senator Carole Migden and Assemblymember Mark Leno.
Nation jumped into the Senate race in the 3rd District just three months ago. He’s trying to win in a sprawling district that includes half of San Francisco along with all of Marin and parts of Sonoma County. And he could pull it off.
The real danger of a Nation victory hasn’t been apparent to many San Francisco voters. Eyes have been mostly focused on the Leno-Migden battle, and Nation has never been on the ballot in the city before. But those of us who live in North Bay are all too familiar with Joe Nation.
When Nation’s campaign Web site trumpets him as an "advocate for universal health care," the phrasing is typical of his evasive PR approach. While in the state Assembly, Nation pushed for legislation that would force consumers and taxpayers to subsidize the health insurance industry. Meanwhile, he continues to oppose a single-payer system that would guarantee publicly financed health care for all in California.
Likewise, Nation leaves out key information when he calls himself an "international expert on climate change" for an "environmental consulting firm," ENVIRON International. He’s not eager to disclose that much of his work at the firm is for Coca-Cola, which excels at greenwashing its image to obscure its dubious environmental record.
In the Legislature, where he supported charter schools, Nation was problematic on public education. He earned distrust from the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, both of which endorsed Leno in the Senate race.
When lawmaker Jackie Speier put forward a tough bill to safeguard consumer information rather than allowing financial institutions to sell it to the likes of telemarketers, Nation worked to undermine the legislation.
In 2006, nearing the end of his six corporate-friendly years in the state Assembly, Nation launched a Democratic primary challenge to US Rep. Lynn Woolsey who has strong support in the North Bay congressional district because of her courageous leadership against the Iraq war and for a wide range of progressive causes. Nation attacked her from the right. She trounced him on Election Day.
Nation’s long record of siding with powerful economic players inspired the San Francisco Apartment Association and other landlord groups to throw a big fundraiser for his Senate campaign a couple of weeks ago. To big-check donors with an anti-renter agenda, plunking down money for Nation is a smart investment.
Independent polls now show a close race between Nation and Leno, with Migden a distant third. As a practical matter, the way for progressive voters to prevent Joe Nation from winning the state Senate seat is to vote for Mark Leno. *
Norman Solomon is the author of many books, including War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death (Wiley, 2005).