There are huge, expensive, city-sponsored monuments to the arts lined up on Van Ness Avenue, opposite City Hall, and I’ve seen some of the best music in the world performed there.
The formidable San Francisco Symphony took a run at Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at Davies Symphony Hall years back — a feat not dissimilar to juggling chainsaws while riding a unicycle along a plank over a pit of alligators — and pulled it off with both precision and gusto. And more recently, the San Francisco Opera made me, a lifelong doubter of wobbly-voiced wailing, an instant convert. The occasion was a spectacular staging of Billy Budd, Herman Melville’s great tragedy of miscarried justice as hauntingly rendered by Benjamin Britten.
The opera and the symphony — though deriving much of their revenue from foundations, corporate sponsorships, and ticket sales — also enjoy considerable subsidization from government. According to the SF Symphony’s IRS Form 990, it received almost $800,000 in government grants in 2005 alone.
These subsidies are good, but there needs to be a lot more of them — and they need to serve all citizens of San Francisco much more effectively. It could not be said, for example, that a typical Friday night at the SF Opera is either affordable or appealing to a significant portion of the city’s residents.
And it’s certainly not true that there isn’t enough music and art in San Francisco for all its citizens. This place is bursting at the seams with creativity. You could put on a live performance by a local band or DJ crew in Justin Herman Plaza each week for a solid year and not run out of talent.
In fact, that’s not a bad idea! Why not, as a matter of city policy, support the staging of one free, live, outdoor musical performance per week year-round? We can keep it cheap. Once you bring things inside, it gets a bit expensive, stops being DIY, and starts meaning forms, insurance, and union-scale wages — all substantial barriers to entry for your local experimental jazz combo. The space would, in fact, have to be donated — not impossible, but not always likely.
So outdoors it is. Rain or shine. Bring your own PA. Do your own flyering. According to Sandy Lee of the Parks and Recreation Department, the nonprofit rate for using any outdoor musical facility is $500 for as many as 1,000 people. If you want to do one show weekly for a year, that’s $26,000 total. I’ll wager that San Francisco’s major arts funders could easily cover that annual fee through a matching grant program paid directly to Rec and Parks.
That’s a bump on a log in the world of arts funding, and such an arrangement isn’t unprecedented. San Francisco’s Hotel Tax Fund picks up the user fee for the Golden Gate Park Band, which has a regular Sunday gig April through October in the unremodeled band shell in the newly remodeled Music Concourse.
So we’re certain just about everyone will agree that more free live music outdoors would also be pretty much awesome. Now we get to program 52 weeks of free live music in San Francisco. Booking, or perhaps curating is a better term, would be done democratically, ethically, and, of course, pro bono by volunteers called up from the performance and presentation community. Local venue and club bookers, noncommercial and — ulp! — pirate radio DJs, festival programmers, musicologists, and the like. Remember, we have 52 weeks to fill, so there’s room for everyone.
At this point it’s clear that there would be hang-ups to unhang. There would be the danger of favoritism and payola in the booking — underpaid musicians and bookers are often hungry and desperate. There would definitely be aesthetic disagreements. Where, for example, will the punk and metal bands play? The thumping DJ crews? Lee noted that the department is “very sensitive” to NIMBYs opposed to amplified music.
Nevertheless, she said, the city is full of outdoor venues for amplified music, all available for the $500 nonprofit use fee. These include McLaren Park, the Civic Center, Mission Dolores Park, Union Square, Justin Herman Plaza, the Marina Green, and Washington Square. In Golden Gate Park the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival has sprawled magnificently across the Speedway, Marx, and Lindley meadows; both Reggae and Opera in the Park regularly occupy Sharon Meadow; and the band shell, a.k.a. Spreckel’s Temple of Music, is also back in action after being closed for three years during the de Young reconstruction.
“The band shell is open to any group that wants to perform there,” Lee said, and that’s a great place to start.
Get city backing for a pilot program and set up a spring-to-fall season similar to that of the Golden Gate Park Band, whose musicians are volunteers. Shoot for radical diversity in the booking to get a true cross section of the city’s ethnic, cultural, contemporary, and historic musical palette. Schedule performances opportunistically: during lunch hours downtown, at 2 p.m. on a sunny Saturday in the park. Stage local music showcases on weekends or holidays for full afternoons of free music. Pick the lively bands for fog season so folks have a reason to jump around. Switch venues each week to keep the NIMBYs off balance. And remember that commercial radio stations would have to pay the commercial user fee of $5,000 if they want to get in on the game. This will keep things focused on the grassroots.
We must create an expectation for this kind of low-cost local arts subsidy. It’s true that music and culture thrive like weeds in the cracked cement of oppression. But keep in mind that $26,000 for a year of venue-user fees for local music is 3.25 percent of the symphony’s government subsidy. The city can take an unprecedented step in support of genuinely accessible, relevant arts programming. At a time of gutted arts funding around California and the nation, San Francisco could set an example for pragmatic, affordable, nonelitist, human-scale public arts for the entire community.
The only thing stopping us is cultural elitism, NIMBYs, and acres of bureaucracy. Piece o’ cake! SFBG
JOSH WILSON’S TOP 10
•Project Soundwave’s experimental, participatory music showcase
•Godwaffle Noise Pancakes at ArtSF and beyond
•Resipiscent Records release party, Hotel Utah, Oct. 20
•Sumatran Folk Cinema and Ghosts of Isan, presented by Sublime Frequencies at Artists’ Television Access, July 14
•William Parker Quartet, Yoshi’s, May 24. Jazz wants to be free!
•Experimental music showcases staged weekly at 21Grand
•Deerhoof! Castro Theatre, April 27
•Gong Family Unconvention, the Melkweg, Amsterdam, Nov. 3–<\d>5, featuring Steve Hillage playing his first rock guitar solo since 1979, Acid Mothers Temple with the Ruins guesting on drum ’n’ bass, and local guitar superstar Josh Pollock invoking the spirit of Sonny Sharrock with Daevid Allen’s University of Errors (a truly explosive combo including ex-local DJ Michael Clare)
•Hawkwind, the same weekend as the Gong Uncon, in nearby Haarlem, full on with alien dancers, lasers in the stage fog, and Dave Brock announcing the encore: “If fuckin’ Lemmy kin play ‘Silver Machine,’ we kin fuckin’ play ‘Motörhead’!”
•Noncorporate radio in San Francisco: KUSF, KPOO, Western Addition Radio, Pirate Cat
Volume 41 Number 11
December 13 – December 19, 2006
James Taylor’s early-’70s status as the king of sensitive male vocalists is mere VH1 countdown fodder now. Yet in 2006, more than a few male artists seemed to have recollected being reared in Taylor’s soft rock FM heyday or at least had some of his sunny-voiced sincerity channeled down to them by sonic osmosis. I am no JT disciple — and the Isley Brothers did the best version of “Fire and Rain” (Free Ron!) — but these ears have been grateful for his example this twelvemonth because the “sensitive man” paradigm has yielded the first masterpiece of the digital age: Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere (Downtown).
To be sure, Justin Timberlake worked overtime this season to bring the sexy back, but other pop artists, as varied as the Coup’s Boots Riley, Chris Stills, and Ray LaMontagne, labored to achieve a semblance of organic authenticity in their work — King Solomon Burke went to Nashville, and even Hank III went straight to hell. While their female counterparts — go Natalie Maines, Bitch, Lily Allen, and posthumous Nina Our Lady of Myriad Reissues! — raised hell and exploited bad-girl tropes, many of the men (if not purely saccharine crooners) got raw via their interior landscapes rather than external provocation. From the Southland, see Centro-Matic’s Fort Recovery (Misra), Bobby Bare Jr.’s The Longest Meow (Bloodshot), and Sparklehorse’s Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (Astralwerks) for the wide-screen, psych-twang versions of this impulse. In this, the boys of ’06 heralded the arrival of another sensitive phase in pop music.
No pop star embodied the nu sincerity more than this year’s key Grammy winner, John Legend. Exploiting the goodwill fostered by the 2005 smash hit “Ordinary People,” Legend took to the woodshed with cream collaborators — including Californian producers Craig Street, Raphael Saadiq, and will.i.am — and the result was Once Again (Sony), the autumn’s most significant release. Onstage and in personal appearances, Legend worked his charm as a nice, discreet, well-groomed church boy made good. Meanwhile, the marrow of Once Again’s song cycle dealt with cuckoldry, lust, longing, and the sorrow of life in wartime — all riding on a complex sonic bed recombining classic soul, “easy rock,” AM pop, bossa via Burt Bacharach, and the myth of the era’s leading crooner icon, Jeff Buckley. From the Buckley homage “Show Me” to the yearning cries of “Where Did My Baby Go,” Legend waxed lyrically vulnerable and rendered himself the prime man for all our seasons of discontent.
All in all, it seems no accident that Legend’s hero Marvin Gaye got key DVD reissue treatment this year: Live in Belgium 1981 and The Real Thing: In Performance 1964-1981 (featuring a heartrending live version of “What’s Goin’ On”); is he not the ever-fruitful father of all late-modern, ambitious, sensitive popcraft? And another angsty politicized black man, the Dears’ Murray Lightburn from north of the border, dropped the fine, woeful Gang of Losers (Arts and Crafts). Lightburn appeared to walk a tightrope between Morrissey and metasoul prophet Seal on “Fear Made the World Go ’Round,” “I Fell Deep,” and “Bandwagoneers” — plus the wryly scathing “Whites Only Party.”
The great New Orleans Christian rock crossover quartet Mute Math seem to be after arena glory rather than the somewhat hermetically sealed cloister Lightburn’s music suggests, but these groups share a tacit commitment to revitalizing rock’s lyrical and sonic palette.
Jonny Lang did an effective reverse of Mute Math’s sonic journey, from blues and pop rock categories to inspirational, on the uneven but great Turn Around (A&M). Lang espouses the open, clean, lighthearted benefits of living the Christian life. Mercifully, the sermonizing and sentimental treacle are kept to a minimum. Featuring guests such as new grass master Sam Bush and yacht rock’s last crowned king of soulful sincerity, Michael McDonald, Turn Around kicks Timberlake’s narrow white-negro hips to the Amen Corner and back via blazing guitar licks and true Memphis grit. Lang also goes further than any other nice guy in this gallery by letting his wife play God on “Only a Man.”
Adopting an inevitable singer-songwriter vein, considering his country-rock-confessional-chansonnier heritage, Chris Stills’s album title said it all: When the Pain Dies Down — Live in Paris (V2). Referencing Buckley’s keening as well on “Landslide” and covering Americana’s most revered purveyors of sincere music, the Band, en Français on “Fanny (The Weight),” Stills strums his way simply and soulfully into the hearts of the Studio du Palais audience and any listeners tolerant enough to separate him from his famous parentage.
On the urban front, Robin Thicke transmuted Stills’s blue-eyed soul crooning in a less twangy and more radio-friendly direction. While Beyoncé was declaring a false state of independence this fall and assuming Diana Ross’s mantle with finality, Thicke was telling the fellas you don’t always have to be hard, that thug love has had its day, on The Evolution of Robin Thicke (Interscope). Besides the boilerplate sagas of escape from music biz demigods and monsters and an interesting cod-reggae interlude (“Shooter”), Thicke strove to bring the love back instead of the sexy. And the vulnerability on display in “Would That Make U Love Me” and “Everything I Can’t Have” versus the robotic rump-shaker “Wanna Love U Girl” seems to suggest that’s more disturbing.
Even 1970s and ’80s relic Ray Parker Jr. got in on the singer-songwriter act, dropping I’m Free (Raydio) independently and attempting to bum-rush a perhaps nonexistent market for a horndog sepia Jimmy Buffett. And, up to the moment, “freak folk” pied piper Devendra Banhart and his Hairy Fairy boyz posed in dresses for the New York Times Magazine, the black-and-white images meant to invoke both old-fashioned guileless authority bootlegged from the prewar era and the liberated power of hirsute girly men brave enough to transcend gender boundaries. These New White Savages might be too bohemian to actually cook and change a diaper — yet, as with their ’70s profem forebears, they’re unafraid to let their lady muse wear the mustache in the relationship and concoct weird sonic utopias of her own.
Utopias of any kind eluded the musician refugees dispossessed by Katrina: to wit, beautiful bleeding-heart releases like The New Orleans Social Club: Sing Me Back Home (Burgundy) and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s reprise of Gaye’s antiwar masterpiece What’s Goin’ On (Shout Factory). These discs are suffused with sincere calls for peace, love, understanding, and an end to greed and environmental destruction that no listener in 2006 could refute or afford to ignore.
What’s happening, brother? Gnarls Barkley’s landmark release of St. Elsewhere in the spring encapsulated the 2006 response to Gaye’s eternal query and signaled a subtle yet seismic shift in pop possibility. Sensitive singer-songwriter, soft rock poster boy, Hip-Hop Nation troubadour — Cee-Lo was all of these personae, armed with poetic confessional lyrics and complex, distinctive melodies. Soundwise, courtesy of brilliant Danger Mouse, St. Elsewhere is a very liberated recording, trumping ATLien superstars OutKast and their problematic Idlewild (La Face) in the act of aesthetic and racial revolt. Although enigmatic and evocative lyrics abound (especially moving are the title track, “The Boogie Monster,” “Online,” and of course, “Crazy”), my favorite song is “The Last Time.” What’s more sensitive and sincere than: “Under an endless sky/ Wish I can fly away forever/ And the poetry is so pure when we are on the floor together”? (Even if nothing rivals the Chi-Lites’ twangy begging throughout the classic “Oh Girl,” surely that’s in the wings for next year?)
With all its grating and grillz, hip-hop has reached its end point and become not a revolutionary social force but a genre full of sucka MCs I cannot relate to. Cee-Lo and Boots (via Pick a Bigger Weapon’s humorous sociopolitical commentary) have taken their stands at a very crucial moment. Above all, St. Elsewhere is a vital sign of the times.
That the war and a multitude of social ills have not frozen any of the artists cited above seems miraculous. That they foregrounded introspection and personal transformation in their work rather than simply abdicated as fugitives from the turmoil of these dark days is as close as any damsel in distress is likely to get to emotional rescue in 2006. Yes, with politicians masked and callow and other art forms muted by material glut, these knights in sonic armor are just about the only effective soothsayers for the way we live now. SFBG
KANDIA CRAZY HORSE’S CRAZY TOP 10:
•Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere (Downtown)
•Solomon Burke, Nashville (Shout Factory)
•John Legend, Once Again (Sony)
•Alejandro Escovedo, The Boxing Mirror (Back Porch)
•The Coup, Pick a Bigger Weapon (Epitaph)
•Bobby Bare Jr.’s Young Criminals Starvation League, The Longest Meow (Bloodshot)
•Dears, Gang of Losers (Arts and Crafts)
•Karen Dalton, In My Own Time (Light in the Attic)
•Cassandra Wilson, Thunderbird (Blue Note)
•Centro-Matic, Fort Recovery (Misra)
Choices! You’ve got choices. And you better make them wisely. In cyberspace your tastes define you. It’s your space, your tube, your shared pod. You’re all your bandwidth allows. Be all you can feed. After that OCD-chosen primary photo, it’s all “about me.” But hit that select button carefully. Get those lists exactly right. Not too few favorites, not too many — just enough to embrace your current unique user’s criteria, to pique his or her browsing interests. You’re just one click away from rejection.
Eclecticism is the new aphrodisiac. And yet it’s a tightrope. One wrong combination of favorite musical selections and — next! The perfect come-hither “Interests: Music” DNA — one part wacky unheard-of-yet indie, one part sentimental oldies, some classic Brazilian or Afro-Caribbean, a stream of your friend’s bedroom electro, something involving damaged hair, a wild card from inner space — and voilà, instant Top Viewed. Too bad this list is copyrighted. You’ll have to get your own.
But how? How to pick and choose your nimble-footed way through the Internet audio wilderness? How to fragment the flood of dinformation into listenable chunks, to find the very perfect swells among the aural whirls that represent yourself to others? There’s just too much, it seems.
It’s a challenge that many of us face — some better than others. Already the enormous freedom of musical choice is having negative effects. Certain individuals — your friends, your coworkers, maybe even you — may be suffering from what psychologists are now calling streaming audio archival decision disorder, or SAADD. SAADD manifests itself through a combination of various symptoms: lack of updated profile, aversion to Pitchfork and Pandora, obsessive list sharing. Sometimes, victims of SAADD can disappear completely from your Friends List, deleted by a site’s inactive-user bot.
We here at Bristol-Meyers-Squibb-Def-Jam want to help. That’s why we introduced Klikemol this year, to help combat the growing number of SAADD diagnoses among the general population. Klikemol is a mild anti-agoraphobic that allows people to once again wade bravely into the streaming music marketplace and begin to reconstruct the online personality they were born to inhabit, to reach the maximum gig space in their lifePod. It also gets you high if you snort it, so at least you can post some funny shit on your Interests list. Maybe that vid of the Chihuahua on fire playing piano.
If you’ve stopped enjoying music because there’s too damn much available, maybe Klikemol is for you.
“OK, fine. We give up,” the major record labels announce in a widely ignored teleconference. “We’re folding up the shop.” What were they making anyway, like a penny a download? That could hardly keep them in town cars, darlings.
Suddenly, major recording artists everywhere are left to fend for themselves. What are they to do? They could self-release, but that would put them in the same boat as their former labels: no one buys CDs anymore, and as everyone knows, recording artists need a lot of town cars. Cashing in on live performances and swag is no way out — anyone can watch their performances on cell phones for free, and unless they can project themselves back into Def Leppard, no one covets their T’s.
So they do the only thing they can and begin recording and releasing commercials. Fans don’t mind, since these artists’ songs had basically been about nothing in particular to begin with. Love, blah blah, betrayal, blah blah, I want/hate you, blah blah. In fact, the former arena acts’ embrace of well-known and emerging products in their new ditties actually gives them a fresh resonance, a contemporary sense of purpose and connection.
Soon these “jingle-singles,” called “prod-casts” in the vlogosphere, fill up iPods everywhere, and the artists walk away with affirming paychecks, courtesy of such cultural megoliths as Depends and Love’s Baby Soft. The airwaves are ads; the streets become walking commercials. The ascendancy of this new popular art form is clinched when Kelly Clarkson releases a top-downloaded iTune that packs a grillion product name checks into one helluva pop wallop — Orbitz on the verse, Go-gurt in the chorus and, at the end, a heart-stopping trademark melisma: Ri-co-laaaaa …
Ever attuned to a comic opening, “Weird Al” Yankovic releases a jingle-single for iPod itself, titled “iCod” and sung loosely to the tune of “Dear God” by the British pop group XTC. In it, a sassy urban contemporary-sounding fish (think Mo’Nique with fins) climactically links “a menu wheel, an electric eel/ Turning on its heel just to zap you in the ear” and asks humans to “save the waves and steams of Earth/ We’ll choke, if you don’t net the last of us first.” The joke here is that fish can’t sing. It becomes a top-selling ringtone and scores a coveted Googlie for Best Practice: Unique Penetration.
Have you got it yet? SFBG
MARKE B’S TOP 10 GUILTY PLEASURES
•Downy the Anti-Queen
•DJ Bus Station John’s Manhattan
•Whodat and Bugo, Housemusique, Netmusique.com
•The Cowbell Project
•Quentin Harris and Monique Bingham, “Poor People (Saxy Dub)” (Syam US)
•Leela James, “My Joy (Timmy Regisford Shelter Mix)” (Restricted Access)
•Claude VonStoke, “Beware of the Bird,” Beware of the Bird (dirty bird)
•K-Fed on The Teen Choice Awards
•Steve Reich’s 70th birthday
•Gladys Knight, “Love Is on Your Mind,” Still Together (Buddah, 1977)
We can all stop hoping and pretending now: The facts are in. No matter what anyone, right, left or center says, no matter what the truth is on the ground, no matter how clear and powerful public opinion has become, President Bush isn’t going to change anything about the war in Iraq.
That’s what we saw from the president’s press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair Dec. 7th, and from his statements since. He’s not going to start withdrawing troops, and he’s not going to negotiate with other regional powers.
The Iraq Study Group report has its flaws. It talks about diplomatic discussions with Iran and Syria, but it stops short of describing the real reason the U.S. is bogged down in the Middle East (the lack of a coherent energy policy that doesn’t rely on foreign oil). It suggests that the U.S. should leave the job of rebuilding Iraq to Iraqis, but fails to state that the country that created all the problems should play a role in paying for their solutions. And it would leave thousands of U.S. soldiers in Iraq as advisors for the long term, putting them in serious jeopardy.
Still, it’s at least a dose of badly needed reality here. The report acknowledges that the Bush Administration’s current policies have made an awful mess of Iraq, that the situation is deteriorating, and that continuing the current path isn’t an acceptable option. And it recommends that all combat forces leave Iraq by 2008.
That such a broad-based, bipartisan panel, which includes hard-core conservatives like Edwin Meese III and Alan Simpson, would reach that conclusion unanimously isn’t really that much of a surprise. Everyone with any sense in Washington and around the world these days agrees that the U.S. needs to set a timetable for withdrawal. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist who initially supported the war and who has long argued that some good could still come out of it, wrote Dec. 8 that the group’s recommendations “will only have a chance of being effective if we go one notch further and set a fixed date – now – for Americans to leave Iraq.” Even George Will noted the same day that “the deterioration is beyond much remediation.”
Let’s face it: Iraq as a modern nation is entirely an artificial construct, lashed together by the British out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. There are bitter, ancient divisions between religious, ethnic and tribal groups, and it’s no surprise that once the dictatorial central government of Saddam Hussein was overthrown, the factions would have trouble working together. Now, through U.S. bungling, they are engaged in what can only be called a civil war.
As long as the United States retains combat troops in Iraq, they will be the target of sectarian violence and will be the focus of that war. When they leave, the Iraqis will have no obvious villain, and there might be an actual hope for a long-term resolution.
The notion of an all-out Kurd vs. Shiite vs. Sunni civil war isn’t going to make anyone in Damascus or Tehran happy, since those two countries will be caught in the middle. And a clear statement from the U.S. that American troops will be leaving on a specific date, not too far in the future, is, the majority of experts agree, the only way to bring all the parties to the table for a serious and meaningful discussion. That could lead to a United Nations conference, among all the regional powers; the final outcome might be a division of Iraq into several states, as Senator Joe Biden and others have suggested.
And yet, Bush and Cheney remain alone, aloof, refusing to acknowledge that military “victory” in Iraq is utterly impossible and that the old mission of establishing a U.S. client state in the middle east will never be accomplished.
The death toll for U.S. troops is approaching 3,000. The cost is running at $250 million a day. This simply can’t be allowed to continue. If Bush and Cheney refuse to begin a withdrawal program, then Congress needs to act, decisively, on two fronts.
The first is to inform the president that under the Constitution, Congress has the sole power to declare war, and this Congress will no longer pay for Bush’s military adventure in Iraq. Congress should set a deadline for troop withdrawal and announce that funds for the war will be cut off on that date.
But there’s a larger problem here. Bush and Cheney have lied to the American people, taken us into war on the basis of fraudulent information, perpetrated an unjust and unjustifiable war and violated their oaths of office. Back in January, we called on Congress to begin debating articles of impeachment; the GOP-controlled House wasn’t about to do that. But things are different now. The voters have made it very clear that they don’t like the president’s war, and the Democrats have a clear mandate for change.
Impeachment is serious business, but Bush has left us no alternative. We can’t simply allow the war to continue as it has been, year after bloody year, until Bush’s term expires.
The only thing holding up impeachment hearings is the word of the incoming speaker, Nancy Pelosi, who said during the campaign that that option was “not on the table.” Well, it ought to be on the table now. Pelosi should publicly inform Democratic leaders in the House who support impeachment know that she won’t block an impeachment effort. And her constituents in San Francisco need to keep the pressure on her to allow Congress to move forward on its most important responsibility in decades.
This isn’t going to be easy. It will take a re-energized peace movement and a huge new national mobilization. But the stakes are too high to wait. It’s time to start, today.