Volume 41 Number 03

TUESDAY

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Oct. 17

Discussion

Prop. 89 debate

Hear expert panelists discuss the pros and cons of Proposition 89, the campaign reform ballot measure that would allot 0.2 percent of corporate tax funds to state campaigns and also lower contribution limits. (Deborah Giattina)

Noon
Commonwealth Club of California
595 Market, second floor, SF
Free
(415) 597-6700

Film

Running with Scissors

Augusten Burroughs’s autobiographical tome gets a surefooted film adaptation from Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy. As a child little Augusten thinks nothing of being woken in the middle of the night for a command living room poetry performance by his mother, Deirdre (Annette Bening), or being a less-willing witness to the fights between her and the “oppressor” husband (Alec Baldwin). By age 13, Augusten (Joseph Cross) is sorta-kinda orphaned. Dad has bolted, and Mom in her infinitely selfish, manic-depressive wisdom has deposited Augusten whole in the “care” of her shrink. Swinging tonally from comic highs to scarifying (but still comic) lows in tune with its characters, Murphy’s first directorial feature is a tad uneven in its quality. But overall it does a pretty fine job with tricky material, especially within the all-important area of casting. (Dennis Harvey)

In Bay Area theaters

MONDAY

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Oct. 23

Music

Be Good Tanyas

Some of the finest purveyors of sepia-toned old-timey sounds, Vancouver’s Be Good Tanyas whisk together the scatterings of John Steinbeck’s dust bowl with the slow drawl of southern gothic to create songs that conjure images of moonshiners on the lam and hobos hopping trains bound for nowhere. Every now and then, they toss in a sly anachronism to remind you this isn’t your grandma’s bluegrass. This evocatively soulful troupe of dusty-trail wanderers will seduce you with their subtle coupling of bygone-era themes with a 21st-century sensibility. (Todd Lavoie)

With Ana Egge
8 p.m.
Independent
628 Divisadero, SF
$20
(415) 771-1421
www.theindependentsf.com
www.begoodtanyas.com

Music

Cursive

Three years after The Ugly Organ, Cursive find themselves in an unenviable position: how do they follow up a monolith? With Happy Hollow (Saddle Creek), the band builds a mythical Midwestern town that is happy on the surface, but upon a peek through the windows, this happiness is revealed to be hollow. Vocalist-lyricist Tim Kasher sets out his thesis on “Opening the Hymnal/Babies”: “The beautiful truth of it is, this is all we are/ We simply exist/ You’re not the chosen one/ I’m not the chosen one.” Musically, Happy Hollow moves between guitar screeches and nickelodeon keyboard riffs, but it’s the horns that never seem to stop punctuating the fact that if God isn’t dead, he’s certainly on vacation. (Duncan Scott Davidson)

8 p.m.
Fillmore
1805 Geary, SF
$18
(415) 346-6000

SUNDAY

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Oct. 22

Visual art

“Semina Culture: Wallace Berman and His Circle”

It’s been almost 50 years since Wallace Berman withdrew his art from public spaces after facing obscenity charges for a show he put together in Los Angeles. The traveling exhibition “Semina Culture: Wallace Berman and His Circle” brings the late Berman’s creativity and that of his many associates – including Jack Smith – into a museum space. Every one of the dozens of varied contributors to Berman’s journal Semina opens up a fascinating universe. (Johnny Ray Huston)

Opens Wed/18, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (through Dec. 10)
Berkeley Art Museum
2625 Durant, Berk.
$5-$8 (free for children and UC Berkeley students)
(510) 642-1295
www.bampfa.berkeley.edu

Dance

Imagenes Flamencas

When it comes to flamenco, Yaelisa more than knows how to bring the drama and the beauty – she’s been dancing onstage since she was four, and for the past decade she’s been bringing the best of her chosen form to the Bay Area through classes and performances. Fresh from a recent collaboration with Savion Glover, she’s reuniting with a number of artists from Spain for Imagenes Flamencas, the latest show by her company, Caminos Flamencos. The show draws inspiration from the flamenco pictorials of painter Roberto Zamora. (Johnny Ray Huston)

3 p.m.
Cowell Theater
Fort Mason Center
Marina at Buchanan, SF
(415) 345-7575
www.caminosflamencos.com

SATURDAY

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Oct. 21

Dance

Daughters of Haumea

The latest show by Nā Lei Hulu i Ka Wēkiu doesn’t just promise to be another terrific piece of choreography by 2002 Goldie winner Kumu Hula Patrick Makuakāne – it’s also a work of scholarship. In Daughters of Haumea, Makuakāne draws from a recent book that rescues two lost centuries of indigenous Hawaiian women’s history. Using both hula kahiko and Makakuāne’s modern hula mua, Nā Lei Hulu move beyond the typical focus on Pele to bring oracles, fisherwomen, and dragon totems to the fore. (Johnny Ray Huston)

8 p.m. (also Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Oct. 29)
Palace of Fine Arts Theatre
3301 Lyon, SF
$30-$35
(415) 392-4400
www.naleihulu.org

Performance

Going Through Kathy Acker’s Stuff and October Country

Given to willfully crude rewrites of works like Great Expectations, the late Kathy Acker knew a thing or 300 about going through other people’s stuff. If anyone in the Bay Area is qualified to go through Acker’s stuff, it’s Dodie Bellamy, whose novel The Letters of Mina Harker takes Acker-like cannibalistic writing practices and runs with them in new directions. Bellamy rummages through some of Acker’s belongings in a new performance-lecture; she’s joined by Donal Mosher, whose October Country is a photographic exploration of his family’s haunted fall traditions. (Johnny Ray Huston)

7 p.m.
SF Camerawork
657 Mission, second floor, SF
$2-$5
(415) 512-2020
www.sfcamerawork.org

FRIDAY

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Oct. 20

Music

Slim Cessna’s Auto Club

Colorado’s harsh geographic and metaphoric isolation have given rise to a whole subgenre of hellfire-and-brimstone-tinged balladeering perhaps best exemplified by Slim Cessna’s Auto Club. Part old Appalachia, part new country, part salvation, and part eternal damnation, the Auto Club epitomize “the Denver Sound,” and their manic live presence, dueling vocalists, and frenetic fingerpicking will have you breaking out your best bling-bling belt buckles and spurs. (Nicole Gluckstern)

With Rykarda Parasol
and Ill Gotten Gainz
9 p.m.
12 Galaxies
2565 Mission, SF
$10
(415) 970-9777
www.12galaxies.com
www.slimcessnasautoclub.com

Music

Lyrics Born and Cut Chemist

The pairing of Lyrics Born and Cut Chemist seems like a match made in heaven. The former is a rapper for people who don’t like rappers, and the latter is a DJ for people who hate DJs. Lyrics Born’s melodic vocal style is singing as much as it is rapping, and Cut Chemist’s groovy, organic spinning is light-years away from the cut-and-paste mush-ups of everyday hip-hop DJs and the sterile pulse of the techno raveheads. (Aaron Sankin)

Also Sat/21
With Pigeon John
9 p.m.
Independent
628 Divisadero, SF
$25
(415) 771-1421
www.theindependentsf.com
www.lyricsborn.com
www.cutchemist.com

THURSDAY

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Oct. 19

Event

“Inside Storytime: Bad Girls”

“What exactly is a bad girl?” you might ask. According to Cameron Tuttle, author of the popular Bad Girl’s guides, this headstrong vixen can be defined as a woman who “knows when to work a room, when to work the angles, and when to work her curves – or all of the above.” Tuttle will participate in the all-girl reading “Inside Storytime: Bad Girls.” The fierce female lineup includes Jennifer Solow, author of “Booster,” and Kathi Kamen Goldmark of the Rock Bottom Remainders. The MC for the night is comedian Mary Van Note, whose stage antics would make even the most jaded devilette blush. (Hayley Elisabeth Kaufman)

7 p.m.
Rickshaw Stop
155 Fell, SF
$3-$10, sliding scale
(415) 861-2011
www.rickshawstop.com
www.insidestorytime.com

Theater

Passing Strange

There’s nothing that critics love more than jumping on bandwagons (except maybe jumping off them a few months later). So it’s best to take an artist with a boatload of great reviews with a grain of salt. However, sometimes an artist’s reviews are so hyperbolically positive because there’s some fire under all that smoke. Take Stew, for example, who has created a piece of musical theater titled Passing Strange that paints an alternately uproarious and heartbreaking picture of the black experience from suburbia to bohemia. The New York Times said it may be the best thing anyone’s done all year, and Entertainment Weekly gave Stew its Artist of the Year award – twice! Now if you know what’s good for you, you’ll get your butt to Berkeley, plant it in a seat, and be wowed by one of this generation’s greatest talents. (Aaron Sankin)

8 p.m. (Through Dec. 3; see Web site for dates and times)
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison, Berk.
$33 ($16.50 for 29 and under)
(510) 647-2949
www.berkeleyrep.org

Online Exclusive: Method Man at the crossroads

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a&eletters@sfbg.com
When a bumped phone interview with hip-hop legend and putf8um artist Method Man mushroomed into a proposed
backstage post-show encounter, I naturally jumped at the chance.

Being a devotee of the ultimately more funk-based grooves of Bay Area hip-hop, I tend not to pay
attention to the doings of NYC, and I can’t claim to have ever followed the Wu-Tang Clan in general or Meth
in particular, though I have always admired both from afar. Yet one needn’t follow the Big Apple’s scene in
great detail to appreciate its impact, and with Meth’s successful film and TV career, most recently as a recurring character in this season of HBO’s cop drama The Wire, one needn’t even listen to hip-hop anymore
to appreciate his.

This situation is exactly what’s troubling Method Man. His very success in the cultural mainstream, he
feels, has been held against him by the hip hop-industry, a curious situation considering
mainstream success is the perceived goal and direct subject matter of most raps these days. Unlike the
recent fashion among rappers like Andre3000 to pooh-pooh their interest in music in favor of their
“acting career,” Meth wants to be known primarily as an MC. But Hollywood success has proved to be a
slippery slope, paved by Ice-T and Ice Cube — each in his turn the most terrifying, authentic street rapper
imaginable — to the end of your hit-making potential in hip-hop.

Couple this perception with Meth’s vocal challenges of the effect of corporate media consolidation, and it’s
not difficult to imagine why Def Jam released his fourth solo album, 4:21: The Day After, without a peep
at the end of August, as if the label had written him off despite his track record of one gold and two
putf8um plaques.

Still, no one who’s heard the angry, defiantly shitkicking 4:21 (executive produced by the RZA, Erick
Sermon, and Meth himself) or saw the show Meth put on that evening (leaping from the stage to the bar and
running across it by way of introduction, later executing a backwards handspring from the stage into the crowd by way of ending) could possibly doubt his vitality as an MC. He put on a long, exhausting show,
heavy with new material, that utterly rocked the packed house.

Shortly after the show ended, I was brought backstage by Meth’s road manager, 7, to a tiny corridor of a
dressing room crammed with various hangers on. A man in a warm-up suit with a towel over his head was
sitting alone on a short flight of steps in the center of the room.

“That’s him,” 7 said, before disappearing to take care of other business.

It was like being sent to introduce yourself to a boxer who’d just finished a successful but punishing
brawl. The face that looked up at my inquiry was that of a man who’d retreated somewhere far away into
himself, requiring a momentary effort to swim to the surface. Quite suddenly I found myself face to face
with Method Man, whose presence immediately turned all heads in the room our way as he invited me to sit down
for a brief discussion of his new album and his dissatisfaction with his treatment by the music
industry.

SAN FRANCISCO BAY GUARDIAN: I read the statement on your Web site [www.method-man.com] in which you
discuss your problems with the industry. Could you describe the problems you’ve been having?

METHOD MAN: My big problem with the industry is the way they treat hip-hop artists as opposed to artists
in other genres. Hip-hop music, they treat it like it’s fast food. You get about two weeks of promotion
before your album. Then you get the week of your album, then you get the week after, then they just
leave you to the dogs.

Whereas back in the day, you had artists in development, a month ahead of time before you even
started your campaign, to make sure that you got off on the right foot.

Nowadays it’s like there’s nobody in your corner anymore. Everybody’s trying to go into their own
little club, for lack of a better word. Everybody has their own little cliques now. Ain’t no money being
generated so the labels are taking on a lot of artists because of this at once that they don’t even have
enough staff members to take care of every artist, as an individual. Their attention is elsewhere, or only
with certain people.

SFBG: Your new single [“Say,” featuring Lauryn Hill] suggests you’ve had problems with the way critics have
received your recent work and even with the radio playing your records. How can someone of your status
be having trouble getting spins?

MM: You know what it is, man? A lot of people have come around acting like I’m the worst thing that ever
happened to hip-hop, as good as I am.

Hating is hating. I’ve been hated on, but just by the industry, not in the streets. They never liked my crew
[the Wu-Tang Clan] anyway. They think we ain’t together anymore and they try to pick at each and
every individual. Some motherfuckers they pick up. Other people they just shit on. I guess I’m just the
shittee right now, you know what I mean?

SFBG: Do you think it has to do with the age bias in hip-hop? The idea an MC is supposed to be 18 or 20?

MM: You know what I think it is? As our contracts go on, we have stipulations where, if we sell a certain
amount of albums, [the labels] have to raise our stock. A lot of times dudes just want to get out their
contracts so they can go independent and make more money by themselves. There’s a lot of factors that
play into it.

SFBG: Are you not getting enough label support?

MM: A label only does so much anyway. It’s your team inside your team that makes sure that you got a video.
Or that you got that single out there, or that your tour dates are put together correctly. The labels,
they basically just do product placement. They make sure that all your stuff is in the proper place where
it’s supposed to be at. They’re gonna make sure your posters are up. They’re going to make sure that
they’re giving out samples of other artists that are coming out also. [But i]t’s really up to us [the
artists] to make sure our music is going where it’s supposed to.

Right now there’s so many artists people can pick and choose from, don’t nobody like shit no more.

SFBG: Do you think you’re getting squeezed out of radio play as a result of corporate media
conslidation?

MM: Absolutely; this shit ain’t nothing new. It isn’t just happening to me. It’s been going on since dudes
have been doing this hip-hop music. They bleed you dry and then they push you the fuck out.

That’s why I always stress to the fans to take your power back. I always hear people talking about things
like, “Damn, what happened to these dudes? What happened to these guys? I always liked their shit.”
But the fans, not just the industry, tend to turn their backs on dudes. They get fed so much bullshit,
they be like, “Fuck it; I’m not dealing with that shit. I’m going to listen to this.”

SFBG: So what about your acting career? Do you feel like you’ve been overexposed as an actor or that
you’ve been spread too thin and are readjusting your focus?

MM: Fuck Hollywood, B.

SFBG: But I heard you say on the radio today you wanted to play a crackhead and get an Oscar….

MM: I do want to play a crackhead in a movie. I’m going to be a crackhead who dies of an overdose at the
end of the movie, and people cry, and I’m going to get me an Oscar. But fuck Hollywood; tell ‘em to come see
me. Tell ‘em to come to my door.

SFBG: Obviously, from what you said during the show and the lyrics on 4:21: The Day After you haven’t
renounced smoking marijuana, so could you discuss the concept behind “4:21”? Is it about the difficulties
of living the hard-partying lifestyle of the rap artist?

MM: It was just symbolic of a moment of clarity for me. I made a symbol for myself of a moment of
clarity. You know I’ve always been an avid 4:20 person. I like to get out there and smoke with the
best of them. But I picked “4:21” as like, the day after. I got tired of people running up on me and
being like, “You was funny in that movie,” because I was an MC first and foremost. It used to be like, “Yo,
that fuckin’ verse you did on that song, that was hot.” Now it’s like, “My kids love you; they love that
movie, How High.”

It gets to the point when even when I’m having a serious moment, or a serious conversation, people
laugh at the shit like it’s funny. But they laugh cause they thinking of the movie; they thinking of
some sitcom shit.

SFBG: Besides yourself and RZA, Erick Sermon executive produced the album. Can you talka bout your
connection with him?

MM: I’ve been fuckin’ with E ever since I’ve been fuckin’ with Redman. E knows what I like, you know
what I’m saying? The same way he knows what Redman likes. And RZA, that’s a given right there. I’ve been
down with RZA’s shit A1 since day one.

SFBG: 4:21 also features a collaboration with Ol’ Dirty Bastard. When did you guys record this track?

MM: “Dirty Meth” — that’s a posthumous joint with O.D.B. It was after he was gone already. I tell everyone
that so they know.

SFBG: But he seems to permeate the new album.

MM: He does. Good word, too. He permeates it.

Volume 41 Number 3 Flip-through Edition

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WEDNESDAY

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Oct. 18

Music

“Freaky Folkie Magic”

With the immense popularity of Bay Area artists such as Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, who have revitalized stuffy notions of folk, it is no surprise that the Rickshaw Stop decided to host “Freaky Folkie Magic,” an evening of mysticism and musical whimsy. Tonight’s main act is LA’s Entrance, whose haunting, spectral sounds conjure up early permutations of the blues and Syd Barrett-esque madcap psychedelia. San Francisco’s White White Quilt, known for their soothing homespun melodies, get the support slot, with Nevada City’s Mariee Sioux and perennial vagabond Joseph Childress opening up. (Hayley Elisabeth Kaufman)

8 p.m.
Rickshaw Stop
155 Fell, SF
$8
(415) 861-2011
www.rickshawstop.com

Music

Hippie Grenade

According to UrbanDictionary .com, a “hippie grenade” is a bit of hot ash that you accidentally suck down your throat while smoking marijuana. The wonderful sound made by the band Hippie Grenade, on the other hand, is something you won’t mind going down your windpipe. Hippie Grenade are local heroes who effortlessly blend musical styles ranging from Parliament Funkadelic to Phish and come out sounding a little like early Incubus. Their live shows are so epic that if you’re smoking at the time, you might make a hippie grenade if you’re not careful. (Aaron Sankin)

9:30 p.m.
Boom Boom Room
1601 Fillmore, SF
$5
(415) 673-8000
www.boomboomblues.com
www.myspace.com/hippiegrenade

Economy class

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› superego@sfbg.com
SUPER EGO “Please pass the grilled Moroccan spice-rubbed lamb loin,” I dewily asked the cute investment banker from Philadelphia on my left.
Me and Hunky Beau were seated under the Saturday stars at Escondida, a “hidden kitchen” — a.k.a. renegade restaurant in someone’s home or backyard — deep in the Outer Mission, at a table that also included four hip lady lawyers and a postgrad neurobiologist from UCSF who makes headphones for birds. (Don’t ask. Well, OK — first you implant screws in the skulls of small finches, and then you jury-rig a sort of “fly-pod” out of two Q-tips and an old transistor in order to test their hearing skills. Someday, I swear, those poor, deaf birds will have revenge on us all.)
Hidden kitchens are big these days, especially since the permit processes for restaurants and clubs seem to be getting more complex by the minute, and most of the time the underground menus are cheaper than the real thing: you get multicourse gourmet eats plus drinks in a lively underground setting for the price of appetizers at Andalu. And there’s a naughty inspectors-be-damned thrill to boot. (It’s all very hush-hush, but you can usually find hints about upcoming covert cucina events on chowhound.com or Craigslist — just don’t sue me if you get botulism. I got nothin’ for ya.)
The food and company were delish. But me? I was more interested in shoving as much entrée as I could into my faux-leopard baguette handbag — the Hunkster and I were due on a plane to Honolulu in a few hours to attend the biggest gay wedding of the year in Waikiki. And a girl can’t survive a five-hour ride on $4 minicans of Pringles alone. It was bad enough I had to pack my in-flight Stoli in three-ounce saline solution bottles just to get past the damn check-in.
Waikiki? Why not, I say. But first, a real drink to get the whole aloha ball rolling. So we hit up Jet, the new Greg Bronstein joint in the Castro where the Detour used to be, and ordered us up some primo alco-Dramamine. Although I partially miss the hurricane-fence decor and tragic queen atmosphere of the Detour, Jet’s awfully cute, with black padded leather walls, Broadway marquee lighting, and a fuzzy pink double bed in an alcove in the back. There’s also a small dance floor, rare these days in the Castro without a giant video screen playing Kylie Minogue. The club, in all its luxuriant gay sleaziness, is either a pint-size Studio 54 or Liza Minnelli’s future mausoleum. Probably both. Right now, the music is all hip-hop lite — pretensions to be the next Pendulum? — and there’s a velvet rope on weekends — as if! — but something could definitely be done with the place.
Lemme tell you though, Honolulu in October is fabu. The mangoes are huge, the agua is aqua, the gay scene is horrid — new club coming in November: Circuit Hawaii! — and the 14-year-old tranny hookers in six-inch clear plastic heels are gorgeous. Plus there’s, like, five military bases nearby, for those into raping drunk Marines. And who isn’t? Me and Hunky were hopping around like we had humuhumunukunukuapuaas in our Volcoms.
My dearest amigos from the old EndUp days, ChrisP and Armando, got betrothed right on the water in a tear-jerking all-hula celebration bursting with orchids and sunlight. There weren’t any conch shell blasts or caged white doves (or earthquakes), but the grooms were rowed into the friends-and-family ceremony on an outrigger by four hot muscle dykes in sports bras — an ancient tradition, I’m told. It was the second amazing gay wedding I’d been to this year, and although I used to rail against such things politically — why be normal? — I cried like Tonya Harding at the 1994 Winter Olympics. Love is real. And so was the open bar, which me and my sadly, gloriously bare ring finger quickly sidled up to for a post–gay marriage mai tai, studiously avoiding the moony-eyed intimations Hunky Beau was sending my way. I’m not quite done playing hard to get yet. Or am I? Aloha! SFBG
JET
2348 Market, SF
8 p.m.–2 a.m.
www.jetsf.com

What Is Crispin?

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CULT ICON Over a decade ago a pair of first-time filmmakers approached Crispin Glover to ask if he would act in their movie.
Glover signed on — but to direct, with the condition that most of the roles be filled by actors with Down syndrome. Best known for eccentric fringe roles in films such as River’s Edge, Bartleby, Back to the Future, and Rubin and Ed, Glover had written other screenplays involving people with the condition and had kept it in his mind’s eye for some time. “Looking into the face of someone who has Down syndrome,” he says during a recent SF interview, “I see the history of someone who has lived outside of the culture.”
Glover maintains that the resulting film, What Is It?, is not about Down syndrome. But he raises a valid point about the benefits of casting underutilized actors. “There is not necessarily a learned social masking [in their performances],” he says.
Though Glover’s casting decisions were backed by then–executive producer David Lynch, they soured Hollywood’s corporate entities and led to a plan to shoot a short film proving the viability of a disabled cast. That short flowered into the realization that a feature-length movie could be made without kowtowing to studio execs and for less than $200,000. After almost 10 years Glover emerged with What Is It?, a 72-minute film he describes as “being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are snails, salt, a pipe, and how to get home. As tormented by an hubristic racist inner psyche.” However tenuous a tagline that may seem, it hits the mark dead-on.
Glover has taken strenuous liberties with narrative structure, resulting in split sanctums. The outer realm — an atmospheric ringer for a Diane Arbus print — concerns itself with the travels of the Young Man (Michael Blevin), who is slighted by his friends and finds solace in snails (one of them voiced by Fairuza Balk) before several violent if childlike murders take place in a graveyard. The second, inner sanctum is the young man’s psyche, a kingdom presided over by one Demi-God Auteur (Glover), populated by concubines, and disrupted by a minstrel in blackface (Apocalypse Culture author Adam Parfrey) who aims to become an invertebrate by injecting himself with snail juice.
Overflowing with incendiary imagery, What Is It? juxtaposes Shirley Temple with swastikas, features buxom monkey-ladies crushing watermelons, and documents a praying mantis claiming the lives of a snail and a child. “Some of those things start out as emotional, and then you intellectualize them,” Glover says.
After What Is It?’s Sundance premiere, many critics liberally employed words like exploitative, weird, and inflammatory. The latter two I’ll concede. But whatever What Is It? is, a deeper plot than what’s suggested by those words is afoot. “There are things in this film that would not necessarily be taboo in 1910,” Glover says. “In certain silent films, racism, sexuality, violence are handled in a more frank way than they are right now. Why should these things not be put in front of the public? They exist. They’ve got to be able to be talked about and processed in the culture.”
Glover is traveling with What Is It?, preceding each screening with a slide-show presentation from eight of his books. Most were created in the ’80s using cut-up techniques akin to those of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. The large-screen format and dramatic readings by Glover breathe new life into the books, which were published in small, beautiful editions by his own press, Volcanic Eruptions. After the movie there is a Q&A in which the filmmaker takes the time to speak with every viewer, be they friend, member of the press, or regular part of the audience.
It seems that we are approaching the disclaimer part of the text — the part wherein the responsible reviewer urges the reader to shed all preconceptions and bring an open mind to the Castro Theatre this weekend. The caveat is that each viewer’s point of view is vital to the film’s life. Glover chops art down to its most basic method of consumption: from the mind of the creator to the eye of the viewer and out into whatever cultural context is born from that interaction. In this regard, he is a purist. Note that the title of the film isn’t Why Did He Do That? or What Does He Mean By This? but What Is It? That interpretation is yours alone. (K. Tighe)
WHAT IS IT? AND THE VERY FIRST CRISPIN GLOVER FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WHOLE WORLD
Fri/20–Sun/23, call or see Web site for times
Castro Theatre
429 Castro, SF
$5–$18
(415) 621-6120
www.castrotheatre.com
www.crispinglover.com

Head of Hopper

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CULT MOVIE Movie history is full of figures who could do no wrong one minute, then blew it — never trusted to do right again — the next. This year alone something like this happened to the richly deserving M. Night Shyamalan, and it might soon be happening to Darren Aronofsky, whose sci-fi soap opera The Fountain is arguably the most daft hijacking of major-studio cash in 35 years — since Dennis Hopper morphed from princeling to pariah via something called (with masochistic foreboding) The Last Movie.
An eccentric journeyman actor onscreen since 1955, Hopper was way past 30 when he codirected Easy Rider with Peter Fonda. Any studio would have supplied him any sum to get the follow-up. Universal gave him half a mil for The Last Movie, and he stayed on schedule and on budget throughout shooting in a far-flung Peruvian Andes village.
Then the aging boy wonder returned home to edit — for 18 druggy, hazy months, as executives freaked and anticipation rose to a tottering peak. A documentary chronicling that period, The American Dreamer, shows Hopper in extremis — doffing clothes (“symbolically,” he says) to run around suburban Los Alamos; cohabiting with a harem of hippie goddess freeloaders; comparing himself to Orson Welles, then exhaling, “I’d like to go about a month with three chicks in a hot tub.”
Upon release, The Last Movie — which screens in a new, Hopper-funded 35mm print this weekend — looked like the nail in the coffin of acid casualty cinema. The film was a mess, a freak show, an indulgence par excellence — with an incoherent quasinarrative that had Hopper as a stuntman on a western who stays on during postproduction to reenact the mythic pulp action with villagers who can’t or won’t separate the phony spectacle they’ve hosted from more spiritual yet violent reality.
“I only hope that after this game is over, morality can begin again,” prays (in vain) the local priest, played by spaghetti western icon Tomas Milian. But morality has left the building. The Last Movie isn’t the balm for stoner egos that Easy Rider offered. It incriminates everybody — colonialists, swingers, industry suits, the greedy (like our hero’s covetous Indio girlfriend), and filmmaking itself. Periodic “scene missing” titles help make this a deconstructive metamovie well ahead of its time. It’s an antiaudience picture, now more breathtaking than ever in sheer gall.
Who could make such a movie now? Might stars align again to permit such major-studio strangeness? Hard to imagine: The Fountain is nutty and navel-gazing but sentimental in a way Hopper’s auto-excoriating wack-off abhors. All those lysergically and vaginally oversatiated months spent editing The Last Movie make it a stand as memorably bold — if ruinous — as Custer’s.
Hopper is 71 now, but The Last Movie will always be a boy-man’s definitive up-yours against pricks in suit and tie. It’s a lyrical abstract as yet unchallenged for discombobulation by any film made under a major studio’s umbrella. It remains a startling finger driven straight up the Universal. (Dennis Harvey)
THE LAST MOVIE
Fri/20–Sat/21, 7:30 p.m.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, screening room, SF
$6–$8
(415) 978-2787
www.ybca.org

Surfing new turf

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› a&eletters@sfbg.com
Listening to the warm analogs, e-bowed guitar, and post-jazz swing that manifest on “Medium Blue” off Surf Boundaries (Ghostly International) — one of two new albums by Christopher Willits — you might assume that the instrumentation was performed by an ensemble of helping hands rather than simply the Bay Area electronic musician. And you’d be half right. The 28-year-old Kansas City, Mo., native executes many of the album’s compelling melodies and fizzling, ambient textures on guitar, laptop, and synths — aided at times by compañeros including Adam Theis, Brad Laner, and notably, R&B-pop vocalist Latrice Barnett on the calming orchestrations of stringed instruments and horns.
“My name’s on the record, but tons of collective energy came into making it happen,” explains Willits at a Mission District bar. “I outsourced some things to the brilliant friends around me.”
Their impact is evident: the CD shifts dynamically from the usual guitar-run-through-a-laptop drone and fuzz of Willits’s live sets. He says that he hopes to someday put together a band to perform a release like Surf Boundaries on tour. That plan isn’t a surprise, considering Willits’s determination to always have a full plate.
The Mills College graduate’s musical career has quickly taken flight since his move to the Bay in 2000. It’s amazing that Willits even has time for solo endeavors between playing with Flössin — his side project with Hella’s Zach Hill featuring guest noisemaking from Kid606, the Advantage’s Carson McWhirter, and Matmos — and ongoing collaborations with avant-garde musicians such as Ryuichi Sakamoto, and former Tool bassist Paul d’Amour. When not on tour, Willits spends his time at the Bay Area Video Coalition in San Francisco, where he began teaching digital audio workshops five years ago. With John Phillips, he also founded Overlap.org, an online community that aims to give exposure to electronic and experimental artists through blog feeds, podcasts, and live music events.
Much of Willits’s work as a solo artist and a collaborator is documented on labels such as Taylor Deupree’s 12K and Sub Rosa, but his recent alliance with the Midwestern electronic imprint Ghostly International may prove the most promising. “I really like Ghostly, because they’re more into artist development rather than boxing in artists’ sounds and constraining them from branching off,” Willits says.
Likewise, his latest offerings are all over the sonic map. The art alone for Surf Boundaries illustrates its ethereal mood: soft hues delicately wash images of animals scattered around a portrait of Willits. The music within strikes a wonderful symphonic balance between electronic composition and live instrumentation as Willits and his collaborators frolic with a blend of jubilant French pop, glitchy guitar, and shimmering psychedelia.
Along with Surf Boundaries’ cozy, sleepy appeal comes Willits’s shrill wake-up call with guitarist Brad Laner (Medicine, Electric Company) — the North Valley Subconscious Orchestra. The space pop–oriented unit gives the Creation Records class of ’91 competition with white-noise guitar treatments and alt-rock rhythms.
The duo met through mutual friend Kid606, and for Willits the collaboration was a dream come true.
“Laner is one of my guitar heroes,” he says, adding that when he first listened to his old Medicine cassette in high school, he mistook Laner’s nails-on-chalkboard approach to guitar playing for a stereo malfunction.
“I realized that the way he’s making that sound is that he’s running all his guitar effects into a shitty four-track and then cranking the preamps up on it, so it’s getting this full …” — Willits makes a fast, circular motion with his arms — “whish!”
Released in August as Ghostly’s first full-length available exclusively via download, NVSO’s The Right Kind of Nothing highlights Laner’s signature guitar bluster and Willits’s ability to dabble subtly in an aggregation of soundscapes. What results is a continuous squall of beaming shoegaze discord that feels like sunshine bursting into a dark room — only to be broken by heavy kraut rock tempos and Swervedriver guitars.
Though Surf Boundaries and The Right Kind of Nothing radically differ in sound and structure, both discs showcase Willits’s ambition to crack the electronic mold and move toward a contemporary vein of experimental rock.
“All I’m trying to do is feel out my own energy and relationship to my creative process,” Willits explains. “I could have never envisioned the albums sounding the way they do. I love being surprised by my own creativity.” SFBG
CHRISTOPHER WILLITS
With Daedelus, Caural, and Thavius Beck
Fri/20, 9 p.m.
Bar of Contemporary Art
414 Jessie, SF
$10
(415) 777-4278
www.sfboca.com
www.overlap.org

Hailing a Japanoise guitar maestro

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› a&eletters@sfbg.com
FULL CIRCLE For more than three decades Masayuki Takayanagi (1932–1991) has served as a cult figure to a small but rabid coterie of listeners searching for the roots of extremity in improvised music and free jazz. The Japanese guitarist has received kudos from renowned experimentalists like John Zorn and Otomo Yoshihide yet has remained obscure because his recorded output has been generally unavailable. During the last decade a slew of his reissued recordings have been available only as hard-to-find, pricey imports, while the original vinyl pressings have changed hands for ridiculous amounts of money.
So what’s the big deal? Beginning in the late ’60s, Takayanagi blazed kamikaze musical assaults of a previously unheard violence and abstraction in the jazz idiom. Long before the pure Japanoise of artists like Merzbow, Masayuki Takayanagi threw down a gauntlet. “I always feel that beauty of form and tone are lies. Playing music that’s muddy and violently splattered is an essential way of getting at the truth,” he once wrote. This approach manifested itself in a concept he called “mass projection” — a gushing, sweaty arc of maximum density and energy that was savagely defiant of melody, interplay, and structure.
Unfortunately, a good portion of Takayanagi’s early free-music output is marred by lousy recording quality: early ’70s performances on the DIW and PSF labels suffice as archival documents but barely hint at the true strength and articulation of the music. The newly issued CD versions of the mythically scarce 1975 diptych Axis: Another Revolvable Thing Volume 1 and 2 (Doubt Music, Japan) should rectify this situation, presenting almost 100 focused minutes of Takayanagi and his classic New Directions Unit in full fury.
Recorded live in Tokyo on Sept. 5, 1975, the quartet revealed their manifesto in six movements, roughly building from agitated, spacious quietude to climactic, sustained catharsis. Although the volumes mix up the sequence, the release’s freshly translated liner notes suggest that the music can also be pondered in the order it was executed. The first part — a display of Takayanagi’s more minimal “gradual projection” style — evokes the low-volume scuttling of English guitar pioneer Derek Bailey’s early Company groups. Spotlighting acoustic guitar, flute, slide whistle, rubbery acoustic bass, and skittering percussion, the music is pervaded with a deceptively delicate sense of restraint. A second gradual projection concerns isolated, dynamic sounds that burst through silence in their own mysterious tempos. After a few minutes, Kenji Mori’s lumpy bass clarinet croaks while Takayanagi surprisingly sneaks in a few brief melodic shards that allude to his straight-ahead roots. Part three — a dull drum solo — fills space before the final half of the concert: three mass projections. The first builds very slowly, with sustained cymbal wash and sinister tremolo bass bowing before revealing the perverted grunts from Takayanagi’s now-electrified strings. The second pushes the intensity up but still feels like a tease, threatening to explode before receding into sustained tones penetrated by pricking soprano saxophone curlicues and tumbling percussion.
In the final segment the floodgates open, and we are assaulted by a lengthy tirade that appears to start at maximum intensity but manages to blow straight through the roof, ascending into unknown levels of forceful cruelty. Hiroshi Yamazaki’s superhumanly dense drum attack violently propels the onslaught. Bassist Nobuyoshi Ino ditches his main ax, creating an acidic wall of fierce noise on cello while Takayanagi goads his guitar into shrieks of feedback and crusty slabs of distorted density, bashing it with a metal slide. Intermittently cutting through the din on his alto saxophone, the unflappable Mori is eerily eloquent. Throughout this hypnotic overload of information, one might concentrate on the detail of parts, the texture of the whole, or nothing at all. After 16 minutes the saxophone lapses into outright screaming. Takayanagi’s guitar coasts arrogantly over the damage in thick sheets of atonality before rising into dog-whistle range, calling an end to a harrowing 22 minutes of sustained devastation. If only the first and last sequences of this concert were paired alone on one release, Axis might have been Takayanagi’s single finest recording. With these discs, at least, the secret is out, and the tortured innovations of an obscure musical pioneer are finally revealed to a wider audience seeking buckets of blood in their music. SFBG

Straight outta Mill Valley

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› a&eletters@sfbg.com
Some time has passed since people routinely looked in 924 Gilman Street’s direction to familiarize themselves with what’s new and interesting in Bay Area rock. However, this doesn’t mean that nothing worthwhile passes through its doors. Topping the bill of the annual Punk Prom earlier this year were the Abi Yoyos, whose cavalier, recklessly hooky normal-dude brand of punk is totally outlook brightening.
Over beer and burritos at a San Francisco taquería, guitarist-vocalist-songwriter Matt Bleyle and lead vocalist Shawn Mehrens, both 21, recently strolled down a nearly five-year-long footpath of memories, including problematic tour vans and onstage pleas for Albuterol inhalers. Unlike a lot of local groups, the Abi Yoyos openly rep the North Bay: namely, Mill Valley. Its members’ paths crossed when Bleyle, Mehrens, and bassist Jeff Mitchell attended Tamalpais High.
“The band was sort of an offshoot of the conversations that Matt and I would have while taking all-night walks in Mill Valley,” Mehrens said. “Nothing is open past 10 p.m., and nobody really presents any options as to how to change things aside from maybe starting a band.” Originally, they played straight hardcore; since then, they’ve adopted a more complex, melodic approach. They cite Charles Darwin — or as Mehrens calls him, “Chuck D” — and Phil Ochs as inspiration for their evolution, along with bands like los Rabbis and the Fleshies.
“Originally we were called Gutter Snatch, as we tried to just come up with the most offensive name possible,” Bleyle said. The moniker Abi Yoyos came to pass courtesy of a Pete Seeger song and an African tale that prophesied “if we turn our back on music and religion, Abi Yoyo [a bogeyman who symbolizes Western civilization] will come and get us.”
The musicianship of the band — which includes drummer Blaine Patrick and saxophonist Kyle Chu — is remarkably solid. “Blaine has won ‘Outstanding Soloist’ awards at Stanford Jazz Camp,” Bleyle explained. “Jeff was in a band called Turbulence that sounded like a cross between Weezer and Hendrix.” Chu joined the band after the Abi Yoyos’ first 7-inch, “The World Is Not My Home” (Riisk), and the lineup solidified to what it appears as on their new debut, Mill Valley (Big Raccoon).
To put out that record, Mehrens worked 80-hour weeks between three jobs, including one at ellusionist.com, a magicians’ supply Web site. “We’re really hard to pigeonhole,” said Mehrens, who now runs Big Raccoon. His friend Corbett Redford, who ran S.P.A.M. Records, along with other industry-seasoned pals, gave the Abi Yoyos the guidance needed to release Mill Valley, an altogether inspired, infectious set of songs.
“I think we can all agree on our hometown heroes,” Bleyle said with a smirk. Sammy Hagar was one of the first names to be mentioned, along with “the guy who invented the toilet-seat guitar,” Huey Lewis, Clover, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. “Cruisin’ and boozin’, my ass!” exclaimed Mehrens to much laughter. “I hate Sammy Hagar.”
Instead the band takes after punkier forefathers. John from the Fleshies introduced the Abi Yoyos to the Punk Prom audience as what Flipper would sound like “if Flipper were good.” After a few minutes of searching for the drummer, that description gained credibility as the band, donning dresses and sparkly makeup, ripped into their cover of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.”
They routinely jam “Helter Skelter” in their practice space — a large metal storage box with electrical outlets by San Quentin State Prison — skirting lunacy in their proximity to inmates and in their unusual reverence for both the sticky melodies of ’60s pop and the fast, snotty punk that emerged from LA in the ’80s. In a scene where, in Mehrens’s words, “image means a lot,” the Abi Yoyos tend to defy punker conventions, adopting an unusually eclectic aesthetic. “Quagmire” moves from medium-paced hardcore to a full-blown anthem about halfway through — a nod to Bleyle’s recent “openness to prog” and odd song structures — and they pop hooks in a forcefully shameless manner; Mehrens was, after all, “raised on R&B and Motown.”
“We have friends in a lot of different scenes,” Mehrens said. “Bands that play hardcore, dancy punk, crusty punk, and some that don’t do anything at all. At every show, there are different types of kids rockin’ out.”
Their first nationwide tour began in late July and has included such transcendent experiences as Dumpster diving, playing a farm in Las Cruces, and shooting Roman candles out the passenger-side window of their van on the Williamsburg Bridge. “We’re a little too weird for the South,” said Mehrens by phone from Ohio. “And one show flyer described us as ‘strange punk,’ which we all think is pretty awesome.”
With any luck, their sharp wit and taut songwriting will take them much further than would the gas tank of Sammy Hagar’s convertible. SFBG
ABI YOYOS
With This Is My Fist, Onion Flavored Rings, Giant Haystacks, and Robocop 3
Sat/21, 7 p.m.
Balazo 18 Art Gallery
2183 Mission, SF
$5
(415) 255-7227

Deliverance

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Few American independent features in recent memory have seemed as truly capable of turning something old into something surprisingly new as Old Joy — an achingly beautiful ode to the varieties and vagaries of iPod-era young male disaffection based on a short story by Jon Raymond and transformed into something richly steeped in the increasingly remote cinematic traditions of ’70s New Hollywood by Kelly Reichardt, a filmmaker all-too-little heard from since her startlingly downbeat Badlands rethink, River of Grass, played film festivals more than a dozen years ago.
An oft-times emotionally elliptical tale of two increasingly estranged friends, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), approaching the end of their 20s, Old Joy is, however, far more than yet another return to the once-hallowed terrain of Amer-indies past. It is resolutely modern and of the moment — in everything from its narrative nuances and politically loaded peripheral details (including a startling glimpse of the marquee for a movie house called the Baghdad) to its cognoscenti-inclined casting of Oldham as the philosopher-fool at the (off-)center of its tear-shaped universe. Old Joy finally attains escape velocity from the anomie of the past by deciding to wear its hand-me-down stripes inside out. In the process it rediscovers the sort of between-here-and-there heartbeat once found within Henry Gibson’s archly overblown anthem to Americanarama in Robert Altman’s Nashville: how far we all have come till now, and how far we’ve got to go.
Set mainly among the verdant, mountainous Cascades of rural Oregon and poignantly bookended by brief episodes in the quasi-Buddhist backyard retreats of suburban Portland and the vagrant-haunted halogen corridors of its (relatively small-town) inner-city nights, Old Joy ultimately extends well beyond those parameters even as it dissolves into them. “It’s all just one huge thing now,” Oldham’s Kurt at one point rather blankly declaims. “Trees in the city, garbage in the forest. What’s the big difference?” And though Reichardt’s film scarcely seems to have an answer to that question, her filmmaking paints a wholly deliberate picture of contemporary America in contrasting tones of talk radio babble and freak-flag-flying drum circle excess. Old Joy finally comes to limn a new millennium mural within which the collapse of dissenting voices on both the right and left of the political spectrum is an indistinguishable part of one great, awful, swirling whole.
With betweenness a central, dynamic element of Reichardt’s film, it seems somehow entirely surprising and altogether natural that she proves to be a filmmaker intent on discovering a new frontier by following the bread crumb trails of some joyfully old-fashioned cinematic extremes. No better example of that tendency can be found than in the way that Reichardt counters her own heartfelt if generationally predictable fealty to a ’70s touchstone like Five Easy Pieces (implicit in a roadside diner scene) with a far stranger red wagon reference to an altogether unlikelier era’s angry-funny relic, Steve Martin’s The Jerk. Old Joy’s adenoidally intoned expression of age-old alienation manages to escape the antigravity of tradition. Reichardt’s movie trumps the oppressive politics-present-and-accounted-for exertions of cornball kitsch like World Trade Center with a succession of mumbling inarticulations, inchoate male intimacies, and the barely stressed but overwhelmingly evident assumption that when it comes to rediscovering certain perpetually misplaced American verities, Two-Lane Blacktop may be just another way of saying Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Loading a dog and a doggie tent into the back of a Volvo and running down the road to nowhere (occasionally in reverse) on their way to half-remembered paradises among the mighty pines, Mark and Kurt slowly begin to explore their mutual and individual disappointments with the world, themselves, and each other. Not since the windscreen mindscapes of Wim Wenders’s Kings of the Road has the conjunction of motion sickness, modern living, and the struggles of overgrown boys seeking to finally attain the status of men seemed so moving — and so at pains to find a way to get moving at all.
As the strains of Yo La Tengo’s dream-drift soundtrack and cinematographer Peter Sillen’s high-def digi-vistas of roadside splendor increasingly blur together and as Mark and Kurt at last begin to haltingly immerse themselves in the baptismal fluids of Old Joy’s promised land — the Bagby Hot Springs, a remote and rustic respite for body and soul nestled deep in the old-growth woods — Reichardt’s film finally finds a way to cross the myriad bridges briefly glimpsed from Mark’s Volvo windows as Old Joy’s relatively brief but precisely calibrated screen time whizzes by. But if what you find once Old Joy finally reaches its destination seems neither precisely a sense of uplift or letdown, rest assured that’s a carefully patterned part of Reichardt’s picture too — a moment that seems neither an ending or a new beginning but yet another frozen teardrop in a world that’s only just begun to thaw.

OLD JOY
Opens Fri/20
See Movie Clock at www.sfbg.com for theaters and showtimes
www.kino.com/oldjoy
For an interview with Old Joy writer Jon Raymond, go to Pixel Vision at www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision.

Cooking with genius

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Kenny Shopsin is a philosopher-cook who shrinks his kitchen to the size of the world and enlarges the world to the size of his kitchen, likening his old stove to ”a whore’s ass” and pasting terrorists onto the wings of flies. Here are the rules at his General Store in Greenwich Village, New York City: no parties of five or larger, and everyone has to eat. Don’t insult the cook by ordering just coffee unless you want to eat it. Also, most legendarily, if you’re not a regular, you can go fuck yourself.
Why all the candy on the shelves?
“People like to take candy,” Shopsin tells Matt Mahurin in I Like Killing Flies. And as for whomever is waiting to kill themselves to blow up America, “I wish them luck.”
Mahurin, a committed regular at the General Store, is always in the right place with his camera. We hear from kindred spirits, meet the Shopsin family, and watch Kenny, an alchemist, turn soup into soup the way Harry Smith turned milk into milk. This is the cook as a cook in a kitchen where total collapse is fended off by duct tape, cups on string, a busted red flyswatter, and the metaphysics of telling fuckers off. A tin of shredded coconut, apparently invented to keep the dish rack from collapsing, is also and finally a tin of shredded coconut — useful for dusting a stack of pancakes speed-glazed with a flaming-hot spatula.
Mahurin’s film makes this clear: genius has something to do with food if the cook is a genius and everything to do with doing what you must do.
The Shopsins were squeezed out of their old shop of 32 years in 2002. I Like Killing Flies documents their lucky move down the street. Unscrewing the front door from the jambs, Shopsin cracks that he might use it as a cheap headstone. Compared to the original spot, the new Shopsin’s General Store is a sprawling, airy tree house but still quite funky. The West Village is getting way too slick and specialized, and everything about Shopsin’s funkifies through overdiversity — too much creativity. I counted 138 different soups on the menu, including pistachio red chicken curry and Peruvian shrimp avocado, as well as dozens of “Breakfast Name Plates,” including the Twain (“huckleberry Finnish crepes”) — yet all Shopsin cares to eat, he tells Mahurin, is his own chili stewed with a splash of coffee. He compares such counterintuitive fusions to sodomy. Mara and Zach Shopsin took orders from me and my girlfriend, and the cook himself, in his Shopsin’s T-shirt (he doesn’t remove it for the whole movie) made sure that we walked out with free candy.
Mahurin’s documentary is one you can live in. Your head fits right into this furnished hollow tree. The film mentions but does not explore the death of Eve Shopsin, Kenny’s wife, in 2003, but we get to enjoy her presence for the whole first hour or more, which is a blessing in itself. (Julien Poirier)
I LIKE KILLING FLIES
Opens Fri/20
Roxie Film Center
3117 16th St., SF
(415) 863-1087
$4–$8
www.thinkfilm.com

Joy sticks

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› kimberly@sfbg.com
SONIC REDUCER Skip the cherries — life at times seems like a big fat bowl of Froot Loops — the type that figure-eight, undulate, and connect in the most unpredictable ways. For instance, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, né Will Oldham, and his ungainly, increasingly ecstatic shadow folk-country — that association’s only right and natural. Oldham and Gen X cinematic hot-spring stoner sagas — it’s altogether plausible. But Oldham and Diddy, the Bad Boy impresario identified in his own PR literature as a “mogul” before proffering the job title “artist” — huh?
What could these two possibly have in common apart from their age, 36? It’s a logical leap if you study Diddy — arriving about two hours late for his recent roundtable interview at the Ritz-Carlton with absolutely zero Burger King Whoppers for yours truly and the other journos who were ready to gnaw their own typing arms off in hunger and antsiness. Instead the mogul packs a makeup artist and hair man (who brandishes a far-from-puffy comb — sorry) and plays us no tracks from his new, still-scarce album, Press Play (Bad Boy/Universal), yet carries it in his bejeweled hand like a salesman. (Perhaps in answer to the inevitable query: with fashion design, artist development, reality TV, label jockeying in his past, and DiddyTV on YouTube currently serving up alleged shots of Sean in the john, why does he even bother making an album? Diddy’s comeback: “It’s a gift and curse, because I do so many things. I’m making sure people know how serious I am about music.”)
Well, Diddy and Oldham name games are the most obvious thread. Like Diddy, a.k.a. Puff Daddy, a.k.a. P. Diddy, a.k.a. Puffy, a.k.a. Sean Combs — Oldham is a man of many hats, personae, songs: a humble troubadour, a rambling tangent-exploring interview, a perpetual touring player, a before-his-time out-folker, a Hollywood-shunning onetime teen star of Matewan. At one point it seemed like he had a recording name for his every sound, if not every album — Bonnie “Prince” Billy was just the latest handle in a line that included Palace Brothers, Palace, Will Oldham, and at least one disc that sported no name at all. It was disorienting, delirious, and hard to track, and at times it just made you want to throw your hamburger mitts up, shave the nearest beard, and beat yourself around the face and neck.
Oldham probably feels much the same after fielding the same question repeatedly, explaining that he once thought of his albums much like films or plays and wanted to label each uniquely. “I thought it would be a way of focusing things on each record,” he says from his native Louisville, Ky. “People would say, ‘I like this record,’ rather than ‘I like the music of …’ I didn’t realize that it was sort of a definitely pointless battle — to see about maybe trying to make people focus on records as independent entities rather than representations of an individual’s or group’s work, and it became sooo energy-expending to always explain this name thing. I was finally just, like, ‘This is just bullshit.’”
And if Diddy and his whirlwind junket offered little apart from the lingering impression that for some reason it was critical for him to leave the scent of power and money (he’s reportedly worth $315 million) on local media — then Oldham is his opposite. On time and generously unearthing the contents of his mind, he’s disarmingly candid and eager to dive into the depths of his past, untangling his feelings and thoughts about acting, recording, and mentoring (he famously championed a solo Joanna Newsom and played her music for their label, Drag City). Yet unlike Diddy, who appears to be jetting around the country in search of the artistic credibility he first found in music as a producer, Oldham has never been more on top of his so-called game.
His new album, The Letting Go (Drag City), is the worthy, relatively full-blown, and outright beauteous studio follow-up to his 2005 stunner Superwolf with Matt Sweeney. This time Dawn McCarthy of the Bay Area’s Faun Fables leaves her imprint — her vocals echoing somewhere in the vicinity of Sandy Denny and Joan Baez. Under the gaze of Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurosson (Björk’s sometime engineer whom Oldham met while touring with the swan queen), The Letting Go is awash with melancholic melodic Southern rock and blues-folk, tunes that revolve around cursed love, child ghosts, and frosty wakes. Captured in Reykjavík and decorated with an image of Makapu’u beach on Oahu, The Letting Go doesn’t sound on the surface like the product of volcanic island ramblings and rumblings — but its lyrics do hint at the tragedy of believing that each man or woman is an island.
That’s why Oldham has gone out of his way to introduce performers like Newsom and McCarthy to his audiences. “Part of it is to reveal how interconnected things could be if you want them to be,” he explains with a soft Southern drawl. “Part of it is also, if the world isn’t going your way and there’s a certain amount always of loneliness to do battle with, sometimes you realize it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to be this solitary figure in the world.” The yearning to connect, this time with an old friend, surfaces in Old Joy, a film by Kelly Reichardt (River of Grass), which has caught praise on the festival circuit for its rapturously, deliberately paced meditation on two men’s slow-growth rambles through old-growth Oregon wilderness. Oldham’s first substantial starring role since Matewan (he most recently appeared in Junebug), his character, Kurt, is a slacker gone to seed, soon to be homeless, and still in search of his next high, his next life lesson, his next brush with grace. After helping Reichardt brainstorm hot-spring locales in Kentucky, the man who could have ended up like Macaulay Culkin or so many Coreys — and instead laid down the blueprint for, one imagines, Jenny Lewis — accepted the part. “I knew Kelly was going to be working in a way I like to work, which is just like a full immersion process,” he says, making the connection much as he pulls together Old Joy, his 1997 album, Joya (Drag City), Madonna, Emily Dickinson, and The Letting Go. “Everybody goes there. Everybody’s basically on call…. The line between tasks is a semipermeable membrane. That’s how I like making records too.” SFBG
BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY
With Dark Hand and Lamplight and Sir Richard Bishop
Oct. 30–31, 8 p.m.
Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell, SF
$18
(415) 885-0750
For more on Will Oldham and Diddy, go to www.sfbayguardian.com/blogs/music.

Inklings

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› le_chicken_farmer@yahoo.com
CHEAP EATS The idea of love at first sight is a ridiculous thing to me. Most people I love long before I ever see them. In fact, if I’m not already in love with you, try taking your knife out of my back and calling an ambulance.
You don’t believe me. I don’t expect you to! I don’t believe me either or you or anything. All I do is see and say. And by see I mean see and feel and hear and taste shit and yeah, by way of a Purpose in Life, try and tell you about it.
For me and Orange Pop #2’s second date we went to my new favorite restaurant, Penny’s Caribbean Café. But I already reviewed it, so here’s a poem:

You can love the world
so so much yet know that
no matter how ultimately it embraces
you, it won’t, can’t return

your box of chocolates

So you hope to find
instead a person
maybe loves the world
as much as you do

or more even, and
you can play together
in a darkened room
while outside, without knocking

the earth sends flowers

That’s my poem. Remember Orange Pop #2? She got some gigs personal chefing around San Rafael and might sometimes need an assistant. So she said she was going to get me a chef’s shirt with Daniella on it.
I pointed out that technically my name is Danielle.
“I like Daniella,” she said.
Me too. She’s the boss. Sometimes, on her days off, we eat at places, talk about food and boys and whether to put the chicken in the soup before or after the water gets hot. And she showed me how to make a tart.
One day Orangey called and asked how I make chicken with rice and tomatoes, because that was what The Man wanted for dinner. I was ashamed to say how simple it was, so I made up some extra steps, like breading and browning the chicken first, and sautéing stuff and reserving this and clarifying that, and the next day she said her client loved it. “Really?” I said. I didn’t tell her (until now I guess) that normally I just throw everything in a pot, put the lid on, and wait for dinner to happen. Out of curiosity, I cooked it up the cockamamie way I’d told her to do, and it came out inedible. But I’m pretty sure that was because the expiration-date chicken I’d bought was bad.
Anyway, this time she had a cute little café in Larkspur to take me to. The Tabla Café, which I loved. Restaurants are just like people to me, except the menu is easier to read. Salads. Soups. Drinks. The Tabla’s specialty is dosas, and they’re great. They’re crepes made from rice flour and dal and wrapped around whatever you want, like scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, chicken, turkey, mushrooms…. I had to have the last one on the list because it was lamb meatballs and I liked the sound of that. It was 10 bucks, but it was big enough to feed two people if you get a salad or something else, which we did — a green one with candied walnuts and vinaigrette ($7.50).
OK, so we split all that and it was delicious. The meatballs were great, punctuated with pickled onions and cabbage and drizzled with tahini. The dosas come with a choice of dip-intos, including avocado orange salsa, apple ginger salsa, raita, and peach chutney. The chutney was good, but the dosa didn’t even need it, really.
Nice place. Like everything else in the North Bay, it’s in a plaza, but — small, bright, airy, arty, and in short, my new favorite restaurant!!!
Are you on to me? With the help of my good friend hyperbole (and maybe a dash of brute force), I mean to completely obliterate any inkling of an idea of a chance in the world for an objective and accurate restaurant review — or love. SFBG
TABLA CAFE
Tues.–Fri., 10:30 a.m.–7 p.m.;
Sat., 10:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m.
1167 Magnolia, Larkspur
(415) 461-6787
Takeout available
Beer and wine
MC/V
Quiet
Wheelchair accessible

Daytripper, yeah

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› paulr@sfbg.com
Among the many excellent reasons to do some daytripping in the Anderson Valley is to refresh one’s sense of hope that the stranglehold of chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon on California’s oenophilic imagination isn’t necessarily eternal. Oh yes, a number of the winemakers along the blissfully unbusy Highway 128 offer versions of these pedigreed old French warhorses along with versions of pinot noir and sauvignon blanc, which are only marginally less familiar and probably no less pedigreed.
But perhaps because land values in the area aren’t quite as insane as in Napa Valley and the better-known parts of Sonoma County, winemakers seem to feel a greater freedom in experimenting with varieties of grapes that are either not well known or not well regarded in this country. Brutocao, for instance, is now offering bottlings of dolcetto (a bright, midweight Italian red) and primitivo, the big red bruiser — and zinfandel sibling — from the south of Italy. Brutocao also offers a zin, and it’s pleasantly smoky, but I preferred the primitivo and its fresh-cherry kiss.
Just up the road, a pair of wineries are quietly working a revolution in white wines. A major theme here is the making of dry wines from German grapes — mainly gewürztraminer and Riesling — better known for Old World wines of considerable fruitiness and sweetness. The gewürzes at both Husch and Navarro retain the grape’s distinctive spicy-floral perfume, along with some fruit, but have a sunny tartness. Navarro’s Riesling, meanwhile, compares favorably, in my view, to many of the great Loire whites made from sauvignon blanc; it is light but solid, not as thick in the nose as the gewürzes but with a wonderful balance of acid, fruit, and a suggestion of minerality.
It is the Husch chenin blanc, though, that most captures my heart. Here we have a grape most of us would associate with one of those Paul Masson orgy wines from a jug, circa 1973. Yet the French have long known that chenin is noble, and if treated right — if not encouraged to proliferate promiscuously, if grown with concentration in mind — it can produce such splendid wines as Savennières. I am not sure Husch is quite at that level yet, but one goal of the winemakers surely is redemption for this undervalued grape, and that much at least they have already achieved.

Got capsicum?

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› paulr@sfbg.com
With time, one finds oneself bidding fond farewells to one’s spicehound friends. Oh, nothing changes too dramatically, except that bit by bit (or bite by bite), onetime fire-eaters lose their taste for the thrill of capsicum. Certain alluring foods of yore — chili, pepperoni pizza, Mongolian beef — start to cause problems, especially if eaten too near bedtime. You still go out with them, your spicehound pack, but when they point at this or that on the menu, wondering which dishes are spicy, they are plotting routes of retreat now, not angles of approach. Everybody is silently hoping to sleep through the night, like babies with dry diapers, not awaken at 2 a.m. with a remorseful jolt and a growing blaze amidships. People sip their green tea, and they do so carefully.
For years I held out against this trend. X and Y might no longer fling themselves into the spiciest dishes they could find, like boys from a Mark Twain novel plunging with a whoop into a water hole of unknown depth, but I still had a taste for flame. Then, recently, I ate at So, a modish Chinese noodle house on that insanely busy stretch of Irving just west of 19th Avenue, and I heard the bell toll. There was no need to ask for whom it was tolling: it tolled for me. It tolled and tolled, in fact, and I ignored it. Later I was sorry, but at the time I was in a bliss of tingling lips and couldn’t be bothered to heed the alarm.
So is an atypical Chinese restaurant in a number of respects. For one thing, its menu consists largely of soup and noodle — and soupy noodle — dishes, as at a Vietnamese pho house. It also has a spare, modernist youthfulness devoid of tired linoleum floors and harsh overhead lighting; the walls are bright yellow and the ceiling a rich gray blue, while a noisy crowd young enough to match the youth of the staff sits at rosewood tables on rosewood chairs. Mainly, though, So is a temple of the incendiary. I cannot recall the last time I found so much chile firepower in one place. It is the gastronomic equivalent of a munitions cache.
So … you have been warned, or summoned. I must also add that portion sizes are simply immense. The noodle soups are served in bowls the size of cantaloupe halves and can easily satisfy two if not three, especially if you open with one of the splendid starters. If you notice that these take a little longer to reach the table than is usual in Chinese restaurants (many of which rush them out in just a few minutes), it’s because they’re made to order and with care. The pot stickers ($5.50) in particular are exceptional; they reach the table nested in a pinwheel pattern, are fragrant with fresh ginger when opened, and — what is most noticeable — are wrapped in homemade dough that has a definite fresh-bread springiness and smell to it. When you eat these pot stickers, you will likely realize that most of the other restaurant pot stickers you’ve ever eaten in your life were prepackaged and reheated items. Mass-market, mass-produced stuff. So’s are revelatory.
Nearly as good are fried shrimp dumplings ($6), also powerfully gingery, and dried sautéed string beans ($5) in a thick garlic sauce. The So chicken wings ($5.25) — really a hodgepodge of wings and drumsticks — are a clever and potent Chinese retort to the American cliché of buffalo wings; So dips its poultry parts into a batter that crisps up nicely, then drizzles them with a molasses-thick sauce of garlic, ginger, and slivered red chiles for some smolder. The sauce accompanying the curry coroque ($4) — three Japanese-style potato croquettes, about the size and shape of Brillo pads — looks similar but has a stronger acid presence: hoisin with some rice wine vinegar?
The starters are tasty but not, as a rule, hot, which makes the arrival of a dish like pork with hot peppers ($6.35) — a platter heaped with a stir-fry of shredded meat, chopped jalapeños, onions, and scallions, with a spicy garlic sauce — rather bracing. Only slightly less forceful is shredded pork with garlic ($6.35), which substitutes serene water chestnuts and willow tree fungus for the raucous hot peppers and adds a splash of vinegar for clearheadedness.
“My nose is running,” said the spicehound emeritus to my left. He found himself confronting the seafood soup noodle ($6.35), a sea of spicy broth clogged with shrimp, calamari, scallops, and napa cabbage — something like an East Asian answer to cioppino. His longing gaze drifted across the table to the seaweed noodle soup ($6.35), a kind of giant egg-drop soup fortified with seaweed and spinach, peas, mushrooms, and shrimp. The flavor of the broth was deep but beatifically mild, like the blue of a lovely sunset at the end of a windless and warm — but not hot — day.
The social experience of So is nearly as intense as the peppery food. We found the place packed early on a Sunday evening; tablefuls of young folk mounted a steady roar of conversation while others waited on the sidewalk, barking into cell phones of many colors until tables opened up. The service at dinnertime is friendly and efficient but forever teetering on the brink of being overwhelmed. During a noontime visit, on the other hand, I found a rather startling calm and was able to notice that a “help wanted” sign was posted on the front door — a clue that business is quite a bit better than so-so. SFBG
SO RESTAURANT
Tues.–Thurs., 5–9:30 p.m., Fri.–Sat., noon–10 p.m., Sun., noon–9:30 p.m.
2240 Irving, SF
(415) 731-3143
Beer and wine
MC/V
Very noisy if crowded
Wheelchair accessible

GooTube is dead

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› annalee@techsploitation.com
TECHSPLOITATION By the time you read this, the meme “GooTube” will already be dead. Everyone will have stopped talking about the freakishly large amount of money Google paid for video-sharing Web site YouTube. They will therefore no longer need to refer to this event as if it were a celebrity marriage like Bennifer or Brangelina.
Despite this extremely desirable state of affairs for the English language, we will nevertheless remain perplexed and obsessed with Google’s latest bid to make all forms of digital expression searchable.
I wouldn’t mind the “make the world searchable” thing if it weren’t for the part where Google accomplishes this laudable goal by owning everything in the world first. As thousands of YouTube contributors have already pointed out grumpily, somebody should be paying them part of that $1.6 billion. Really, somebody should.
Let’s pretend for a minute, however, that Google didn’t buy YouTube for its stellar content. Let’s say — and I know I’m being crazy here, but bear with me — that Google bought YouTube for its audience of millions. News Corp. bought MySpace for the same reason last year. Like News Corp., Google wanted eyeballs, not a bunch of movies with cats freaking out and kids drinking milk until they barf.
Alright, let’s face it: you are the real reason why Google paid all that money to YouTube. And by “you” I mean the person who watched the milk barf video, then watched a bunch of clips from The Colbert Report and briefly searched for videos tagged “kaiju porn.” As those people who are done using the word “GooTube” have already pointed out, Google no doubt plans to turn YouTube into another place to paper with ads, sort of like Gmail or its search engine. It’ll monetize your eyeballs if it’s the last thing it does.
Another possible reason why Google bought YouTube is because it fits with the company’s copyright reformist agenda. Google has already been testing the limits of corporate activism in the copy wars with its frankly awesome Google Book Search. This controversial project, which led to a lot of legal chest-thumping in the publishing industry, allows people to search the full text of thousands of books. Maybe YouTube will be a kind of Google Book for movies, with fully-searchable videos that allow artists, students, and film geeks to appreciate the motion picture in a whole new way.
Even if Google hadn’t intended YouTube to be another Google Book, the media industry is treating it that way. Time Warner president Dick Parsons told the London Guardian last week that his company intends to get its copyright complaints about YouTube “kicked up to the Google level.” And by that I don’t think he means the level where you get free espresso and a lava lamp for your desk.
So Google bought you when it bought YouTube, and it also bought itself a legal headache that will hopefully lead to some better laws around digital copyright. What are you getting out of the deal? Frankly, worse than nothing. You probably won’t see the benefits from Google’s copy war anytime soon. And worst of all, I predict you’ll lose one of the best things about YouTube when Google forces it to submit to the old “make it fully searchable” regime.
The thing is, YouTube isn’t about searchability. You don’t go there to plug in a search term and find information. You go there for the same reason you go to the local independent movie theater — you want a place where somebody has put together a unique and bizarre lineup of films to watch. YouTube rules because of users who act like the owners of very tiny movie theaters or cable stations by finding cool videos and posting them on their “channels.”
These people offer findability, which is practically the opposite of searchability. When you search, you have to already know what you want to find. You have to plug in “espresso” or “fainting goats.” Findability means that you can discover things for which you’d never dream of searching. Findability is what YouTube has now, and what Google has never had.
So what will you lose when Google turns YouTube into one of its searchable data troves? You may lose the ability to find a video of a beautiful thing you never knew existed. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who was once offered $1.6 billion for her Web 2.0 company, but she said, “No way, man. I’m not gonna sell out, ’cause I gotta keep the AJAX real, just like it is on the street.”

Clean freak

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› andrea@altsexcolumn.com
Dear Andrea:
I’m 40 and experiencing a sexual renaissance. I’ve turned into a squirter, which I’m coming to terms with. Guys seem to like it: I haven’t met one yet who complained about being wet all the way down to his toes.
The problem is that occasionally when I’m really having a good time I also lose a little bit of stool. Sometimes it’s just a smearing on the sheets, sometimes it’s a little more significant. This happens with regular vaginal intercourse, even without any anal. I find it incredibly embarrassing, though the guys I’ve been with have been cool about it. One of them was very gallant: we were moving around to a rear entry position when he told me I needed to go clean up because “he had pushed some poop out of me.” Nice of him to take the blame.
So, why is this happening and what can I do about it? I’ve had hemorrhoids, though I don’t have them currently. I have some skin tags around my rectum as a result. I had a vaginal hysterectomy (I don’t have my cervix but do have my ovaries), and I wonder if there might be some rectal prolapse going on? I don’t have health insurance right now and haven’t wanted to see a doctor about what doesn’t seem terribly urgent, just embarrassing. Are there Kegels for the rectum? Do I need to start anal douching before intercourse now?
Love,
Losing It
Dear It:
I’m impressed. Of course you’re embarrassed, but a lot of people would be too mortified to go on. You, dare I say it, suffer incontinence with extraordinary aplomb. You poop with poise. How many people can claim likewise?
This didn’t sound particularly familiar to me so I read around a bit, thinking there must be some study or other connecting vaginal hysterectomy with fecal incontinence, but I really couldn’t find anything. One study specifically queried abdominal and vaginal hysterectomy patients about their bowel health and habits and concluded this: “Patients undergoing abdominal hysterectomy may run an increased risk for developing mild to moderate anal incontinence postoperatively and this risk is increased by simultaneous bilateral salpingo-oopherectomy. An increased risk of anal incontinence symptoms could not be identified in patients undergoing vaginal hysterectomy.”
Salpingo-oopherectomy, for those following along at home, is removal of ovaries and fallopian tubes, and just think, if I’d gone to med school, I could use words like that all day. Oh well. Just because those doctors didn’t find any connection doesn’t mean you haven’t experienced one. Major surgery, with the scalpels and the nerves and everything, sounds a more likely culprit than do hemorrhoids or skin tags. Seeing a proctologist or surgeon seems like a good idea — something’s wrong here — but there’s no rush on that; you’re coping rather brilliantly.
In the meantime, yes, there are Kegel-y things you can do. They’re pretty much self-explanatory: squeeze, release, repeat. Do not douche right before partnered sex, or you may regret it in yuckier ways than I can bear to get into here. The night before is safer, and do what your mother would tell you to do, provided you talked to your mother about this sort of thing: eat more of what she used to call roughage. Lots more. The idea is to get so regular and so thorough in your elimination that there’s nothing left around to put in a surprise appearance later. And then, let’s get real: get some insurance. I don’t care how, just do it. Once we’re 40, running around with no coverage ceases to be devil-may-care and starts being stupid.
Love,
Andrea
Dear Andrea:
You once wrote, “The human ass can clean itself. If it couldn’t, we’d all be dead. Internal ass hygiene requires only fiber (ingested, not shoved up there) and water (likewise).” But when I do anal, “something” is left on my penis. Isn’t there a way that my girlfriend could clean her ass so much that this would not happen? In the porno movies everything seems so clean. Not that if they had such an accident they would record it.
Love,
Tidy Guy
Dear Guy:
Yeah, I should clarify that. By “clean itself” I don’t mean “wow, it’s so clean in here — I’d eat off the floor” clean. I mean clean for the inside of a butt. I was talking about heroic measures, high colonics and suchlike, and the way hosing out your innards on a regular basis cannot possibly be a good idea.
There is, sadly, no way to guarantee that you will never see “something” again (but you might mind it less if you were using a condom, hint hint). Word has it that the pros do douche the night before. That requires a certain amount of planning, which is easy to accomplish if you know you’re going to be having anal sex from, say, 2 to 3:30 p.m., and never on Wednesdays. If you can pull that off, more power to you.
Love,
Andrea

A tough pill to swallow

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The furor over escautf8g prescription drug prices has inspired dozens of state investigations and civil lawsuits in recent years across the United States, most of them targeting manufacturers.
But another factor in the increases quietly surfaced Oct. 6 in a Boston federal courthouse. Two major Bay Area companies were accused in court documents of infutf8g the cost of prescription drugs to the tune of an estimated $7 billion between 2001 and 2005.
The Wall Street Journal first reported in early October that a drug data publishing company based in San Bruno called First DataBank had reached a settlement with a group of unions in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania over how the company gathered and presented prices in the pharmaceutical catalog that it’s maintained for years.
First DataBank is a subsidiary of the New York–based media empire Hearst Corp., owner of the San Francisco Chronicle, Esquire, and dozens of other publications across the country. Another company still being targeted by the plaintiffs is the San Francisco–based drug wholesaler McKesson Corp., which earned $88 billion in revenue last year and is ranked 16th among Fortune 500 companies.
First DataBank’s price listings play an enormous role in determining what Americans pay for medications. When you receive a bottle of antibiotics to treat an infection, for instance, your private health insurer or state Medicaid program (known as Medi-Cal here) will refer to First DataBank’s listed drug prices as a benchmark to determine what it’ll pay the pharmacy as a reimbursement. That means if the benchmark goes up, so too can your insurance premiums and the cost to state governments.
The settlement, according to federal records, forces First DataBank to adjust the formula it uses to determine those prices. An economist hired by the plaintiffs testified that the savings in 2007 alone for consumers could amount to a staggering $4 billion. First DataBank has also agreed to cease publishing the prices in their drug guides within two years.
Physicians, hospitals, pharmacists, and all manner of other health care professionals pay First DataBank a subscription rate for access to a digital clearinghouse of information on drug dosages and allergies, among other things.
More importantly, First DataBank publishes what’s known as an “average wholesale price” for more than 290,000 pharmaceuticals. There are three major drug wholesalers in the United States, including McKesson, that buy drugs directly from manufacturers and then mark up the price before selling the drugs to pharmacies. The average wholesale price — widely used around the country to determine what pharmacies will get as a reimbursement — is supposed to be a reasonable reflection of what the pharmacies pay the wholesalers for drugs.
First DataBank claimed to survey these wholesalers to come up with an average price that includes the markup, which it then lists in its drug-pricing database. But in recent years, the Journal reported, such surveys have been few and far between, and sometime around 2002, First DataBank inexplicably froze the markup at 25 percent, even though the prices pharmacies were actually paying fluctuated dramatically due to competition.
Citing testimony from one employee, the Journal notes that First DataBank began surveying only one company to come up with its average: McKesson. The cost to pharmacies still varied, but McKesson had reportedly standardized its markups on paper at 25 percent. That meant insurers and state health care administrators relying on First DataBank were making reimbursements that translated to higher profits for the pharmacies.
The employee’s testimony and documents in the case indicated that McKesson knew exactly what was happening. What remained unclear at press time was why First DataBank would choose to survey only McKesson or how it might have benefited from the decision.
The Journal notes the pharmacies were the only ones that stood to profit from the standardized markups, not McKesson directly. But internal McKesson e-mails show the company not only was aware of its impact on First DataBank’s published figures but hoped pharmacies would see McKesson working in their best interests — a marketing scheme, if you will.
An e-mail from one McKesson product manager gleefully exclaims that the profit for pharmacies dispensing a bottle of the cholesterol drug Lipitor leaped from $6.86 to $17.18.
First DataBank admitted no wrongdoing and is not paying money to the plaintiffs of the Boston settlement. The company was founded in 1977, and Hearst purchased it in 1980. Federal records show that in 1998, Hearst bought a $38 million company that owned one of First DataBank’s only real competitors, Medi-Span.
A later investigation by the Federal Trade Commission revealed that Hearst had failed to turn over key documents to the Justice Department’s antitrust division during the sale. As a result the feds slapped Hearst with a $4 million fine in 2001, at that time the largest premerger antitrust penalty in US history. The FTC also belatedly concluded that Hearst’s ownership of Medi-Span gave it a monopoly over the drug database market and not only required that Hearst give up Medi-Span but forced the company to disgorge $19 million in profits generated from the acquisition.
Hearst spokesperson Paul Luthringer directed us to a bare-bones statement when the Guardian called with questions about the Boston suit. “The allegations made in these actions have raised concerns with respect to the integrity of the pricing information that is provided to First DataBank for purposes of publishing [the average wholesale price],” the release states. “In light of these concerns, First DataBank has determined to make certain changes in its drug pricing reporting practices.”
Climbing drug costs can’t be attributed mainly to First DataBank or McKesson, of course. In fact, recent investigations and civil suits spearheaded to find out why prices have skyrocketed have focused on the manufacturers. During those inquiries First DataBank has been hit with dozens of subpoenas nationwide requesting company records and testimony, according to San Mateo Superior Court records. Many of those cases are still ongoing.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs in Boston who made McKesson and First DataBank defendants in the summer of 2005 declined to comment. McKesson also has remained tight-lipped since the Journal story was published. Spokesperson James Larkin said the company would not answer questions beyond a prepared statement.
“If First DataBank decided to survey McKesson only, it did so without telling McKesson,” the statement reads. “In fact, First DataBank has affirmed in an earlier lawsuit involving other parties that it never told McKesson that at times McKesson was the only wholesaler being surveyed.” SFBG
Here are links to key documents, including federal court records of the Oct. 6 Boston settlement with the Hearst-owned First DataBank (www.hagens-berman.com/first_data_bank_settlement.htm), the Justice Department’s antitrust fine of Hearst in 200l (www.usdoj.gov/atr/cases/indx330.htm), and the Federal Trade Commission decision requiring Hearst to give up its monopolistic subsidiary, Medi-Span (www.ftc.gov/bc/healthcare/antitrust/commissionactions.htm).