SONIC REDUCER "Obviously I wanted to be part of this wealthy cause … whoops, I mean, worthy cause a Freudian slip!" blurted Seal to amassed gowns and tuxes at a packed Davies Symphony Hall May 31. Well, it was pretty B&W at this, the Black and White Ball 2008. He went on to explain that he was more than glad to play the benefit bash for the San Francisco Symphony’s Adventures in Music education program, until he realized that night’s event was just a day before wife Heidi "And sometimes you’re out … in the doghouse" Klum’s birthday. "Even though it was written almost 20 years ago, I never knew what this song was about till four or five years ago," he drawled graciously, before easing into a swooningly romantic "Kiss from a Rose." The coiffed and painted debs swayed in the seats behind the stage like tropical palms, the gray-tressed oldsters in tuxes yawned as if their jaws would dislocate, and all the right and leftie blondes flitted to the front as if drawn to a gyrating, white-scarfed flame. The irony that Seal was putting in a high-energy set and working in an establishment-jabbing anthem titled "System" "but you won’t get to hear it here because record companies aren’t what they used to be, but this isn’t that kind of show," according to the UK crooner was not altogether lost on the assembled partygoers at this very establishment affair.
Still, the Grey Goose quaffing, shrimp chomping, and dance-it-up musical offerings lining the closed-off swath of Van Ness added up to a surprisingly solid good time not to mention further confirmation of the latest urban SF curiosity: packs of underdressed, strapless-clad or micro-miniskirted, microclimate-besieged fashion victims who insist on braving hypothermia sans outerwear. Is it really that toasty over the bridge and through the tunnel?
Nonetheless I got a kick out of Extra Action Marching Band, its flag girls drooling faux-blood while chilling, kicking it iceberg-style beneath the polka-dot-lit, fireworks-bedecked City Hall. Pete Escovedo still had what it took to pull me to the dance floor and get the salsa out. Hot on the heels of Harriet Tubman (Noir), Marcus Shelby riled up Strictly Ballroom wannabes in the bowels of the War Memorial Opera House, and upstairs DJ Afrika Bambaataa turned in an unforgettable old-school hip-hop and rock-pop set, sweetly warbling, "I just want your extra time … " to Prince’s "Kiss," as a mob of gorgeous freaks mobbed the stage. Be it ever so old-fashioned and ever so obligatorily glammy, the B&WB was such a ball that I was inspired to use it as the barometer of sorts for a few other music-fest contenders.
B&W BALL BY THE NUMBERS Kilts: two. Turbans: three. Closeted waltz-heads eager to make the Metronome Ballroom lessons pay off: more than a dozen. Misguided ladies who looked like they tried to repurpose their wedding gowns as white formalwear: two. Gavin Newsom look-alikes: a toothy handful. Jennifer Siebel look-alikes: hundreds. Former hippies in formalwear: six. Men in all-white who looked like they stepped out of an alternate "Rapture" video: two. Burning Man references as City Hall was bookended by pillars of fire at midnight: two. Screeching highlights-victims upon seeing their girlfriends: more than two ears can handle. Sneaky types who looked like they’ve probably worn the same thing to B&WB every year since 1983: more than designers and luxury goods manufacturers would care to know.
HARMONY FESTIVAL (June 68, Santa Rosa, harmonyfestival.com, including Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, Arrested Development, and Mickey Hart Band) Expected Gavin look-alikes: zip unless you count the Cali boys who look early Gavin with dreadlocks. Rich hippies with perfect hair and lavishly embroidered coats: three.
BERKELEY WORLD MUSIC FESTIVAL (June 7, Berkeley, www.berkeleyworldmusic.org, with Dengue Fever, and Sila and the AfroFunk Experience) Expected turbans: the Sufi trance music guarantees at least a couple. Kilts: zero. Swirlie dancers: a dozen-plus.
OUTSIDE LANDS (Aug. 2224, SF, www.sfoutsidelands.com, including Radiohead, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Jack Johnson, Wilco, Beck, and the Black Keys) Expected bikes piled in the racks: a thou. Concert-goers overcome by heat: C’mon, this is San Francisco.
TREASURE ISLAND MUSIC FESTIVAL (Sept. 2021, Treasure Island, treasureislandfestival.com, with Justice, the Raconteurs, TV on the Radio, and Tegan and Sara) Projected number of great views of SF: innumerable. Gold-trimmed "ironic" sunglasses: a gazillion. Concertgoers who discover far too late that shorts are only ideal for an hour a day: 135.
LOVEFEST (Oct. 4, SF, www2.sflovefest.org) Ever-recyclable ’70s-style bells: a couple-dozen. Fabulous-faux hairpieces: Wigstock is forever. Swirlie dancers: you got ’em.
YOU BREAK IT YOU BOUGHT IT
FROG EYES, LITTLE TEETH, AND CHET
Eke out a few tears of valedictorianism: it’s an Absolutely Kosher explosion of untrammeled, happily eccentric talent. Fri/6, 9:30 p.m., $10<\d>$12 Café Du Nord, 2170 Market, SF. www.cafedunord.com
FOOT FOOT AND FOX PAUSE
Lo-fi dust-ups coupled with folkie meanders are aFoot Foot, flanked by the solo musings of ex-Guardian-ite Sarah Han. With Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. Sat/7, 9:30 p.m., $8. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com
Taking a break from the sweltering, disco-imbued exotica of Quiet Village and its Silent Movie (K7), producer Matt Edwards dons his dark techno persona, Radio Slave. Sat/7, call for time and price. Endup, 401 Sixth St., SF. (415) 646-0999, www.theendup.com *
The White Stripes may be dormant and the Black Keys may be slowly incinerating their blues-rock genre confines, but elsewhere the minimalist, ’00s-styley, binary-busting power of two remains potent. Recent releases by No Age and Crystal Castles Nouns (Sub Pop) and Crystal Castles (Lies/Last Gang) respectively demonstrate as much. At first listen, the pair of twosomes seems spazzily coupled, sharing a short-attention-span feel and what-the-fuck adventurousness.
Yet it only takes a few listens to uncover major divergences. No Age’s two-part cluster bomb boasts forward-facing rock juxtaposed with moments of Sonic Youthlike distorto-delicacy. They may be a two-fer, but they’re also a clear segment of a community: witness the rainbow connection of faces in Nouns‘ booklet. Meanwhile Crystal Castles finds Ethan Fawn, né Kath, and Alice Glass looking determinedly toward the future, in us-against-the-world lonesomeness armed with keys modified, as legend has it, with an Atari 5200 sound chip. Though their simultaneously noisy and dancey, agitated pop searching, sample-heavy, and propelled by Glass’s effects-doused coos and cries comes off as surprisingly accessible, theirs isn’t a trillion-bit future of audiophile perfection. And definitely don’t call the Toronto twosome nu rave, even though they remixed pals the Klaxons early in their four-year existence.
"There is nothing ‘rave’ about the way we sound," Kath writes in an e-mail from Moscow. "There is nothing ‘rave’ about the way we look." Instead, he adds, Crystal Castles’ earliest idea was "to try putting a New Order beat under noise-punk."
The duo met while reading to the blind as part of "community service punishment," as Kath puts it. "I was in a metal band, and we could not cross the US border because I had a criminal record. I did the community service work to clear my record. Instead I met Alice. We bonded over our shared love of noise-punk bands. She invited me to see her noise-punk band [Fetus Fatale], and I fell in love with her lyrics."
According to Kath, he left his group, Kill Cheerleader, on the verge of major record deal to make music with Glass under a name cribbed from She-Ra’s stronghold. "We are named after a line in a commercial for the toy version of She-Ra’s castles," writes Kath. "The line is ‘the fate of the world is safe in Crystal Castles.’"
The collaboration grew from a handful of Kath guitar-noise tracks supplemented with Glass’ vocals, to a second batch that, he offers, "were 100 percent based on samples (Madonna, Joy Division, Death from Above 1979, 8bitcommunity, Grand Master Flash). In 2005 we abandoned the idea of using samples and began looking for own our songs."
Meanwhile their experiment has been catching on: an early "Alice Practice" track put out as a 500-copy 7-inch by London’s Merok Records sold out within three days. More recently Crystal Castles which compiles "Alice Practice" and other sold-out singles, unreleased tracks from the same era like "Courtship Dating" and "Vanished," and new tracks such as "Black Panther" and "Through the Hosiery" has established a beachhead on CMJ charts.
The duo may never have thought their remixes of Bloc Party, among others, would be popular ("The [Klaxons] remix was so well-received that other bands began offering me money to remix them as well. It was at a time when we couldn’t afford a small bag of chips, so I was saying yes to everything," writes Kath). And they may have never imagined their so-called failures would find life online. For "Crime Wave [Crystal Castles vs. Health], Kath says, "I tried to cut up the vocal track from a Health song and place it over an unused CC rhythm track. I believed it was a failed experiment, but the track leaked and people were trading it on the Internet and finally in 2007 a label called Trouble Records decided to release it as a limited seven-inch single. It sold 2,000 copies in a week." But at least part of the world outside Crystal Castles listened closely.
All of which explains some of the controversy swirling around the band. In April the Torontoist and Pitchfork reported on the duo’s use of Trevor Brown’s black-eyed Madonna image for T-shirts, the "Alice Practice" single cover, and an early "banned" Crystal Castles cover. The band has stated that they initially found the art uncredited on an old flyer, and went on to form a handshake agreement with the artist. Brown, on the other hand, alleges he was never paid for the work’s use, while the group and its management allege that they tried to contact him without success.
Furthermore, the chiptune or 8-bit community appears to be up in arms regarding Crystal Castles’ sampling, leading BlogTo.com to report on Crystal Castles’ alleged use of Belgian producer Lo-bat’s "My Little Droid Needs a Hand" for their track "Insecticon," which some say is outside the provisions of Creative Commons licensing (the work was available free for noncommercial uses, though some chip-tuners claim "Insecticon" has been used promotionally in a way that violates Creative Commons’ spirit).
Meanwhile Crystal Castles, which has deferred comment on the allegations, continues to navigate a fine, fragile line. Though the fortress has clearly been breached, the duo emphasizes its hermetic remove ("We created the songs in isolation," Kath writes), which is colored by a somewhat understandable defensiveness. ("We think there is hostility in all the tracks"). "People seem to love or hate the music," Kath writes. "We never thought about our listeners. We put these songs together for ourselves, and it’s a shock that anyone is listening."
At the very least, the twosome have retained the kind of fatalistic humor that surely led them to create the Crystal Castles CD art: an image of the pair looking down, faces hidden, and bowing or rising up. "In the universe of pop music," Kath opines, "we are the litter collecting at the sewer grate."
Pianist Chick Corea’s band Return to Forever was the last of the fusion fruit to drop from the tree of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970). From its early-1970s start, RTF followed the Joe Zawinul/Wayne Shorterled Weather Report and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra into the critically thorny but audience-friendly avenues of rhythm-based electric jazz. Corea fronted several versions of the band, but from 1974 to ’76, a balanced muscular quartet variation with the leader on keyboards, Stanley Clarke on bass, Al Di Meola on guitar, and Lenny White on drums became a popular and resonant standard of the fusion genre. RTF confidently balanced jazz, funk, and rock on three studio albums before Corea reconfigured the ensemble as a more bloated lineup that included four horn players and his wife Gayle as a vocalist. Now, after more than three decades, the definitive RTF quartet has reunited for an international tour and a two-night, four-show stand in San Francisco. And on May 27, Concord Records released a newly remastered two-CD anthology of music by the foursome, including 1973’s "Hymn to the Seventh Galaxy" with Di Meola’s predecessor, guitarist Bill Connors.
Corea modeled the band on the power of McLaughlin’s group, but his spunky RTF had more personality onstage, more subtlety in its playing, and more diversity in its songwriting. Clarke, who figured in all the RTF variations, was just coming into his own as a writer and performer with the quartet. The bassist would go on to show his versatility by playing in a number of jazz styles with George Duke, Pharaoh Sanders, and McCoy Tyner, as well as taking a rock ‘n’ roll side-trip with Ronnie Woods’ New Barbarians and sharing the stage with Keith Richards during the New Barbarians’ tour in 1979. Di Meola was just 19 when he joined the combo in 1974 and became an international star through his collaborations with fellow guitarists McLaughlin and Paco DeLucia. White, a veteran of the Bitches Brew sessions along with Corea, was playing with the Escovedo brothers’ legendary Azteca when Corea asked him to join RTF. White has since balanced drumming with mainstreamers like Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Henderson while producing Nancy Wilson and Chaka Khan, among others.
All RTF members wrote music for the outfit, and though Corea’s compositions were prominent, the others’ contributions were integral to the quartet’s accessibility. The quartet’s first album, and RTF’s fourth overall, Where Have I Known You Before (Polydor, 1974), sports a heavy, fuzzy sound: Corea plays Moog synthesizers on a recording for the first time, and the group searches for identity in its use of electronics and its blend of jazz and rock influences. The project’s next and best album, No Mystery (Polydor, 1975), includes more funk as well as tunes by each band member, all while mixing electric and acoustic instruments. Clarke’s groove-driven "Dayride" leads to a rock-based jam titled "Excerpt from the First Movement of Heavy Metal" RTF had a generous sense of humor and eventually Corea’s elegant title tune. The pianist’s complex "Celebration Suite" closes the disc. No Mystery‘s follow-up and the quartet’s last album, Romantic Warrior (Columbia, 1976), was the ensemble’s best-selling full-length, again mixing electric and acoustic textures in ways that most fusion bands wouldn’t dare.
Three years and three albums doesn’t necessarily add up to a legacy, but this foursome always was more than the sum of its parts.
LIT An interviewee in Grant Gee’s excellent 2007 documentary Joy Division posits that the gloomy Manchester band inverted punk’s initial "Fuck you!" to convey a more atmospheric and ultimately unsettling sentiment of "I’m fucked." If so, the contemporaneous No Wave bands from New York City melted down those two approaches to one primal howl. Spiritually indebted to punk but suspicious of the first wave’s rockist stance, the No Wavers pursued aggressive detachment and tongue-in-cheek dissonance with the all-in brio of performance artists.
With its loose aesthetic boundaries, abbreviated timeline, and incestuous collaborations, the No Wave years are ripe for the kind of anthropological studies offered by two recent illustrated histories, Marc Masters’ No Wave (Black Dog, 205 pages, $29.95) and Thurston Moore and Byron Coley’s No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York 1976-1980 (Abrams Image).
No Wave’s bylines make for an unwieldy taxonomy: Rhys Chatam studied with LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad; Lydia Lunch was a teenage runaway; Arto Lindsey of DNA and Mark Cunningham and China Burg of Mars all met at Eckard College in St. Petersburg, Fla. Moore and Coley have the most fun with the movement’s eclecticism. A No Wave coffee-table book may be a paradox, but they cram a fantastic level of detail into a handsome spread. If you want to learn that the artist Jeff Wall suggested the name of Glenn Branca’s group Theoretical Girls, theirs is the tome for you. But Masters gets several broader trends right, like when he makes the crucial point that No Wave filmmakers like Beth and Scott B. were upsetting an established avant-garde just as much as No Wave’s musicians were troubling their punk godparents.
Both No Wave overviews go to pains to limit their sphere of focus, though one does wish to read a little more about the movement’s literary influences (William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, William Gibson) and outliers (Lizzy Mercier Descloux, please). Likewise, it would help to learn how the same set of city blocks produced Lydia Lunch and Madonna, and what exactly Jean-Michel Basquiat was doing all those nights at the Mudd Club.
But what these books skimp on context, they make up for in their rich detailing of No Wave’s internal split between Lower East Side habitués and SoHo aesthetes. There’s no question that Glenn Branca has influenced as many Mogwais as James Chance has Liars, but at the time of the movement’s heyday, downtown NYC was contested terrain. Brian Eno’s 1978 folklorist survey No New York (Phantom) conspicuously ignored the more outwardly intellectual SoHo contingent, and one still senses the bruised egos in Branca’s stinging account: "We were doing music that was too similar to what [Eno] was thinking about," the composer explains, elsewhere fuming, "If those East Village bastards had ever come down to Barnabus [a Tribeca bar], they would have found … as much sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll going on in our scene as theirs."
Never mind the bollocks, there’s one clear constant refrain in all the No Wave testimonies: gimme cheap rent. Robert Christgau is right when he muses that No Wave’s bundling of nihilism and self-righteousness was "symptomatic of formal exhaustion"; but beneath, one finds an obvious irony. Where the movement’s progenitors were reacting to a perceived state of endless urban decay, their actions have, in retrospective, taken shape as an essential pre-gentrification story. As with Weimar Germany, No Wave is compelling for what was and for what followed.
For the last two years I have been trying to plant the term Afro-surreal into the collective unconscious. Unlike Afro-futurism, Afro-surrealism is about the present. In sound it conjures everything from Sun-Ra to Wu-Tang. In speech, it brings you Henry Dumas, Amie Cesaire, Samuel Delaney, and Darius James. In visual realms, the Afro-surreal ranges from Wifredo Lam to Kara Walker to Trenton Doyle Hancock. Afro-surreal stages are set for new productions of Jean Genet’s The Blacks (1959), George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum (1986) and Leroi Jones’ The Dutchman and The Slave (1964).
I’m always looking for an Afro-surreal movie. Maybe I’m the last of a dying breed.
The 10th San Francisco Black Film Festival (SFBFF), is billed as a bridge between worlds. But which worlds? Sirius and Earth? Black and other? Local and global? Oakland and San Francisco? San Francisco and itself? Dammit, they all apply.
Most of the SFBFF is taking place in the Fillmore District, and many sites are redevelopment showcases. Opening night at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema presents Nogozi Unwurah’s Shoot The Messenger (2006), a UK import about paranoia, self-loathing, love, and redemption. The after-party is at Rassales, so I might get a haircut and brush off the derby.
Yoshi’s Fillmore is hosting Donnie Betts’ Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress: The Story of Oscar Brown Jr. (2005). Despite its connection to ongoing gentrification debates, the venue will be an apt and stylish location for a bio on Brown, an overlooked poet-singer-playwright-composer-social activist who penetrated the zeitgeist with his song "Forty Acres and a Mule." Certain other issues also spring to mind: The black derby again? The brown? Pin-striped wool pants and well-shined shoes, or suede boots?
The Melvin Van Peebles Awards Brunch (props to the festival for naming its short film award after the Afro-surreal mastermind behind 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song) is taking place at 1300 Fillmore, which will also host a screening that includes the 2007 short film Lifted. Directed by Randall Dottin, it’s a magical realist piece about a dancer on the edge who finds herself on the wrong side of a subway platform, trapped by a spirit named "High John." The actors are great, which is just one reason why the supernatural story takes simplicity to the brink of facile schmaltziness without tottering over.
A housewife realizes she has superpowers in Chad Benton’s Women’s Work (2008), a warm, funny sitcom short with animation screening at the African American Art and Culture Complex. Around the same time, Yoshi’s is showing Nijla Mumin’s Fillmo (2008), a documentary about the gentrification currently taking place in the Fillmore. How’s that for mixed signals, homey?
Footsteps in Africa (2007), showing at the Museum of African Diaspora, is about the lives of the beautiful, mysterious, and enduring Taureg/Kai of Mali. These African nomads have survived thousands of years of drought, flood, and famine, and withstood acts of genocide. Director Kathi von Koeber’s portrait reveals the wisdom and strength of some of this planet’s greatest human survivors.
Considering the documented decline of black people in San Francisco, it’s a minor miracle that SFBFF continues to grow. Like MoAD, the festival is a testament to the artists and benefactors who’ve come to San Francisco, as well as to the aesthetes among SF’s native population. This year’s festival promises glimpses of vast black realities the kind that appear to be diminishing locally, yet somehow still manage to thrive.
Jacques Demy’s raindrops keep falling on the heads of French filmmakers. While Jean-Luc Godard has to be the French new wave’s historical and critical favorite, the legacy of Demy has arguably inspired more imitation or homage. In the past decade, François Ozon (2002’s 8 Women) and Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau (1998’s Jeanne and the Perfect Guy) have mined or mimed Demy’s distinct use of color and musicality, though even Ozon’s bright red is blue-blooded, and the charms of Ducastel and Martineau’s effort don’t include Demy’s graceful staging and assured storytelling. Now, with his third feature Love Songs, new wave lover Christophe Honoré has forged an uneasy marriage. He’s set out to connect and update the romantic wisdom and classical dramatic structures of Demy with the arch political wit of ’60s Godard.
Love Songs proves few movies are entirely terrible or terrific. Its crushworthy final half-hour is touching and sometimes magnificent. But much of its initial hour is maddening. It begins well, because Honoré is attuned to the mood-setting power of well-deployed credits. Handsome, last-name-only opening titles are the first of the film’s textual nods to Godard, which continue when various books play cameo roles much as they do in Godard’s 1961 musical A Woman Is a Woman. Tomes by Henri Michaux and Hervé Guibert become effective shorthand for characters’ desires. But novelist and playwright Honoré’s sole moment of spine-chilling as opposed to groan-inducing wordplay takes place when he simply makes his protagonist Ismaël (Louis Garrel, attempting to channel Jean-Pierre Léaud) read the nighttime signs of the 10th Arrondissement.
Garrel’s character is the focal point of Love Songs, but the film’s hidden star is Honoré’s longtime musical collaborator Alex Beaupain, who appears in a pivotal scene, performing the lovely piano ballad "Brooklyn Bridge." Beaupain is stuck with the job of bringing Michel Legrand’s jazz-inflected pop orchestrations for Godard and Demy into the 21st century. Melodically, he’s up to the task, especially when evoking the neo-Gainsbourg rock of Benjamin Biolay. But he isn’t helped by Honoré’s libretto contributions, because Honoré seems to misinterpret the pop opera of 1964’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg as a basic copying of old Hollywood musical traditions, when in fact it was a radical yet classical revision. Honoré assumes the casual multigenre musicality of Love Songs is more contemporary, but that’s arguable.
In their previous film together, 2006’s Dans Paris, Honoré and Beaupain discovered naturalistic, inventive intersections between drama and music sequences. Love Songs is more traditional in form, saving its radical aspect for a view and presentation of sexuality that’s far more fluid than one finds in contemporary cinema, straight or gay. Honoré is out to disavow exactly those kinds of divisions, and if he’s not helped greatly by Garrel, he’s aided immeasurably by Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, whose arrival in the film’s second half takes the story out of a tritely fatalistic ménage-a-trois realm. He’s also saved by Chiara Mastroianni. Her presence is Honoré’s ultimate invocation of Demy, since she’s the daughter of signature Demy star Catherine Deneuve. (She also brings the off-camera baggage of a recent breakup from chanson specialist Biolay to her part.) Her role might appear secondary, but her solo number signals the return of the melody at the film’s heart. Her melancholic understatement testifies that Honoré hasn’t lost the attraction to eroticism that inspired his brash attempt to bring Georges Bataille to the screen with 2004’s Ma mère. He’s just made it as pop as he possibly can by setting it to music.
"Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?" Rock critic Simon Reynolds opens his recent survey Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 (Penguin, 432 pages, $16) with that famous piece of invective, courtesy of Johnny Rotten from the stage of San Francisco’s Winterland. Rotten sneered those words during a Sex Pistols show. Tellingly, they arrived at the end of an American tour that contained both a zeitgeist and its own annihilation or so it seems from Lech Kowalski’s documentary D.O.A. (1980), one of four features comprising the Pacific Film Archive’s "Louder, Faster: Punk in Performance" series.
Even before the blowup, Rotten’s question had already been answered first by the art school oddballs and city poets who pre-dated then capitalized on punk’s groundswell, and later by the younger acolytes who reclaimed the false prophets’ call for "louder, faster" with their authenticity-obsessed rebel yells. Punk was made to be photographed Sex Pistols guru Malcolm McLaren ensured that much but the spirit of the frame depended on who was doing the shooting. The same three-chord assaults could make for social documents (1978-’88’s Target Video) or hipster scrawls (1976’s Blank Generation). They might inspire science experiments (Bruce Conner’s 1978 Mongoloid; Graeme Whifler’s 1978 Hello Skinny), or lyrical love streams (1979’s Deaf/Punk).
Blank Generation is the earliest punk film essay, a given since its New York milieu was already codified and oozing latent celebrity before punk moved to the provinces. Directed by Patti Smith bassist Ivan Kral and future No Wave saint Amos Poe, the film’s chapbook portraiture is heightened via a Hollis Frampton-like use of non-synched sound. Grainy black-and-white 8mm footage floats over the skips and starts of the soundtrack’s mix, creating a jilted effect perfectly suited to the push-pull of Television and the Talking Heads, as well as the tense erotics of Smith and Blondie.
Crappy audio and video smears aside, Joe Rees’s Target Video compilation reveals Bay Area post-punk in full bloom as it moves between Black Flag’s pummeling hardcore and Flipper’s art-damaged sludge to Devo’s proto-Teletubbies weirdness. The austere, one-camera setups anticipate a billion YouTube transmissions. I’ve driven by San Quentin Prison dozens of times wondering how Johnny Cash scored his famous gig there, but that was before I saw Rees’ footage of Crime at the same site thrashing away in mock police uniforms under the harsh glare of the afternoon sun.
Before it is art or communion, punk is permission. For a zenith-like picture of this freedom flight, one should look no further than John Gaikowski’s modest short Deaf/Punk. Gaikowski’s film uncorks a long-forgotten performance at San Francisco’s Deaf Club, using slow motion to revel in punk’s limitless potential energy. This music wasn’t designed to be elegant, but I can think of no better word for Gaikowski’s shocked vision of a singer standing in repose among a small crowd of daydreaming slamdancers.
Competition is seemingly bred into Americans, along with an obsessive-compulsive desire to win that neighbors around the world find variably admirable, amusing, and bewildering. We aren’t team players we’re capable of finding logic and necessity in the phrase "US out of UN." Not so coincidentally, recent US cultural attitudes toward sport and sportsmanship have caused even team athletics to become focused on arrogant and overpaid lone superstars. Why think about the collective good when the whole point, obviously, is to become an American idol?
In taking a trip down just such a road to self-betterment, the unexpectedly delightful and deep documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster bumps up against cosmetic surgery, steroid usage, and wheatgrass juice. As it questions the points at which an investment in exterior or physical perfection might constitute cheating, it holds up a mirror to the American way of life.
Somewhat to the bewilderment of their nebbishy parents, Bigger, Stronger, Faster director Chris Bell and his older brothers, Mike and Mark, developed a childhood fascination with size and strength training that continues to this day. Disillusioned by the youthful realization that all his ’80s tough guy heroes Hulk Hogan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone injected steroids to get their bulked, cut physiques, Chris refused any chemical assistance in the pursuit of powerlifting titles. But his siblings felt no similar need to constrain themselves. As "Mad Dog" Mike strived for World Wrestling Federation stardom and "Smelly" Mark trained for powerlifting events, they lied to their loved ones about continued drug use. They were unable to break their habits, because their habits worked for them.
Frequently onscreen, Bell whose mid-’30s waistline is now as expansive as his biceps provides an ingratiating everyguy perspective on steroids and related complex issues. He’s not so quick to judge, either. Bigger, Stronger, Faster empathizes with the thirst for Superman and Superwoman excellence by any means. It also debunks many myths regarding "’roid rage" while spotlighting the still-unclear health consequences of long-term steroid use, via the cancer battle of NFL star and exploitation flick thespian Lyle Alzado.
Tiger Woods had LASIK eye surgery. Does that constitute dishonest tampering with nature? What about Gramps downing Viagra to reach for Olympic gold in the boudoir? The lines between unfair advantages and the simple good fortunes of technological and pharmaceutical progress can be blurry.
Bigger, Stronger, Faster is no apologia. Ultimately it’s less about steroids than about the never-ending American drive to grow über-masculine and dominant a conviction applicable to select variations of women as well. Bell and his exceptional offscreen collaborators milk considerable parodic joy from deft archival montages and clever graphic elements. The narrow focus of this terrifically entertaining documentary winds up encompassing a much larger cultural truth.
Perhaps cinema is useless. Jia Zhangke entertains this idea as a subtext in his 2007 documentary Useless.
As the waves of raves for Jia have rolled in, I’ve felt a bit detached. In the case of Useless, however, I responded immediately to Jia’s vision. By focusing on clothing and to some extent fashion, he takes on subjects I find inherently filmic. (I’ll watch documentaries about Yves Saint-Laurent, Yohji Yamamoto, and yes, I’m a Project Runway devotee). More important, he appears to be outside his comfort zone. The friction that results, and the deep ambiguity and ambivalence at the heart of Jia’s movie, reward repeat viewings.
Useless takes its title partly from a clothing label of that name started by designer Ma Ke, who is profiled in the second of the film’s three sections. After she muses on the "shame" of China being associated with mass-produced cheap goods, Jia films the unveiling of her debut collection for Paris Fashion Week, where at least one older European model is nonplussed by the weight of the clothing, which has been dug up from the ground after a period of burial.
The potential meaning of such moments ricochets silently yet far from painlessly off the gorgeous gliding images of employees at work in a clothing factory in the beginning of the film, and a somewhat dramatized portrait of an obsolete tailor shop in Jia’s hometown of Fengyang at the close. Some reviews have faulted Useless for not relying on literal touches such as intertitles or voice-overs. But when Ma Ke’s deluxe car heedlessly speeds by a tailor on foot, Jia doesn’t need words to make a point. He isn’t out to damn Ma Ke my guess is that the filmmaker in him identifies with her.
CHEAP EATS You thought you were done with this, I know, but I forgot to say that I did get a couple of correct answers to my months-ago riddle: what my mom said when I came home crying after the beating I took for peeing on my kindergarten teacher’s hot-car-melted poodle.
Two readers got it right, but only one accepted lunch on me, and that was my new friend B.B. Teaspoon, who earned her fried chicken salad by crafting her answer into a brilliant, Ogden Nashish, Shel Silversteiny no, downright Dr. Seussian poem:
If the poodle made you piddle
And the puddle got you paddled
Cuz your teacher was so addled
When her poodle’s life skedaddled
Did your mother try to straddle
Moral lessons that a lad’ll
Never learn when he is rattled
Cuz he’s maybe too gonadal?
Even electronically, her hesitance to hit the send button was palpable, yet B.B. Teaspoon actually did send these exact words, line breaks intact, to me, Chicken Farmer. I publish it here, in spite of pronoun-induced discomfort, because it’s been too long since I printed a poem in Cheap Eats and I was about to lose my accreditation as a literary magazine. Plus what the hell, everybody knows I grew up boy. Or lad, if you will, for the sake of rhyming.
Not surprisingly, B.B. Teaspoon is a songmaker and a teacher of children. I told her about my new part-time job, nannying and cooking for a family of four: two musicians and two budding musicians. They have a dedicated music room full of entirely on-limits drums, pianos, toy pianos, a stand-up bass, and other stringed things. I tried to find a way to express, in words, the cacopho-symphonic potential of a 3-year-old boy, a 9-month-old girl, and me in this room while Mom and Dad are away at band practice.
Words didn’t work, so I tried interpretive dance, but that didn’t exactly come across either.
B.B. Teaspoon was telling me about a kids’ song she sings about a noose, and, in spite of my morbid curiosity, I suddenly realized I was as cold as I had ever been. First unofficial day of summer, sunny California. Could of been New Years Day, Canada.
We were sitting outside because that was the only place you could sit, at one of several ironing boards on the sidewalk. Maybe she said "moose." I happened to be wearing my beloved rabbit fur jacket, not because I’d guessed it was going to be Canadian out so much as to annoy vegetarians.
But not even that, and not even the many jalapeño slivers in the coleslaw, could melt my cold, cold …
Come to think of it, the other guy who correctly punch-lined my stupid joke was a musician too. We could have been a band! A really, really, really annoying band. Sike.
A lot of people love alliteration.
And I’m just going to let that line sit there, by itself, until it proves it’s ready to join the rest of the class and behave. A teacher! Of children! Other people are having kids, right now, even as we speak. Still others are adopting, or having sex real hard.
Me? I’m Dani the Tranny Nanny. As predicted.
I like to rhyme.
My new favorite restaurant is Bakesale Betty. Fried chicken sandwiches, fried chicken salads, sidewalk ironing boards that are probably pretty fun when it’s nice out. By salad they mean coleslaw, no mayo! Also famous for its strawberry shortcake and baked goods, this funky little Temescal district joint is not undiscovered (as in: lines). The good news: you might get a complimentary cookie out of your wait. We did, and we weren’t even in line we were sitting there talking. It was buttery, cinnamony goodness.
I’m a 36-year-old woman who’s been married for nine years. Last year a routine annual exam led to several other tests that led to a diagnosis of early-stage cervical cancer. I had a hysterectomy and will most likely not need any other treatment.
I’m past the initial shock of this, but now there is something I’m wondering about. I have not been tested for human papillomavirus, but I am told that I have it since that’s what caused the cervical cancer. Should I be contacting exes to notify them of this? Should my husband? Neither of us has been with anyone else for more than 10 years, and we have no way of knowing which of us contracted this from whom, or when. Neither of us has ever had an STD with any symptoms. I hate the thought of trying to track down exes from so long ago with such personal news. I’m reassuring myself with statistics that most people are exposed to HPV at some point in their lives and women should be getting Pap smears anyway. Still, I would hate to feel responsible for someone else developing cancer and not finding out in time.
Sorry to hear you had to go through all that. I know, or know of, way too many people struggling with cancers right now and am in a serious "oh, fuck cancer" mood myself. Here’s hoping you’ve heard the last from yours. Now. This is a great question and a nice break from some of the sillier stuff. Let’s see what we can do.
Back in the first half of the AIDS epidemic when the current discourse around infectious diseases, and especially sexually transmitted infectious diseases (oh, how I long for the return of "VD") was forged, a new orthodoxy about disclosure developed. Whom do we tell if we think we might have been infectious with something at some point, however distant? Everydamnedone the "100-percenter" approach was the rule, and only a self-centered pig of a person would consider deviating from that. I’ve followed this myself, once calling a number of long-past partners to tell them that an ex-something-or-other of mine had something, though I, in fact did not. I followed the script but felt kind of dopey doing it. And I can’t say anyone sounded particularly happy to hear from me.
But enough about me. I do have one question I can’t ask you since you are represented only by an anonymous message in my inbox: did your healthcare providers do some sort of sequencing to determine that your cancer was in fact caused by HPV/human papillomavirus? HPV is hardly innocent, but last I heard, it (two strains, 16 and 18) was thought to cause 70 percent of cervical cancers, with the other causes unknown. Thirty percent is a not-insignificant number. I think you might want to follow up on this with your doctors before you start thinking about getting on Facebook (I just joined, finally! I am so cutting-edge) and digging up long-ago partners, or people with the same name as long-ago partners, and telling them something scary yet terribly vague about cancer. If it turns out that they were only assuming HPV, or that you actually don’t test positive for HPV after pressing for a real test (not a Pap smear), you really don’t have anything to worry about except, you know, all the normal stuff you have to worry about.
Even if it turns out that you are HPV positive, I’m not entirely sure you need to turn your whole life inside-out at this point by contacting people. (I don’t expect that everyone will agree with me here, but when do they anyway?) Ten years is a hell of a long time. Fifteen years is (duh) even longer. How far back is the reasonable woman (and you do sound like one of those) supposed to go?
It’s not that one’s ethics should be built on a foundation of "is it convenient for me?", but one does have to take into account whether something can even be done before deciding that doing it is the only ethical choice. If you and your exes tended to get around rather freely and not keep much track, then there is a very high probability that they have been exposed, completely independent of any contact with you or your contacts. Women with lots of partners are probably getting Pap smears too or at least we’d better hope they are. If you were HPV positive back then, it’s possible you were responsible for a secondhand infection. But you will never find that person now, and she will have discovered it one way or another.
If, on the other hand, you had two boyfriends and your husband had two girlfriends, and one of you may have infected one of that small group, drop them a line if possible. After you get your (positive) HPV test. Otherwise, forget it. Love,
Andrea is home with the kids and going stir-crazy. Write her a letter! Ask her a question! Send her your tedious e-mail forwards! On second thought, don’t do that. Just ask her a question.
TECHSPLOITATION Every year in late May, several thousand people descend on Madison, Wis., to create an alternate universe. Some want to build a galaxy-size civilization packed with humans and aliens who build massive halo worlds orbiting stars. Others are obsessed with what they’ll do when what remains of humanity is left to survive in the barren landscape left after Earth has been destroyed by nukes, pollution, epidemics, nanotech wipeouts, or some combination of all four. Still others live parts of their lives as if there were a special world for wizards hidden in the folds of our own reality.
They come to Madison for WisCon, a science-fiction convention unlike most I’ve ever attended. Sure, the participants are all interested in the same alien worlds as the thronging crowds that go to the popular Atlanta event Dragon*Con or the media circus known as Comic-Con. But they rarely carry light sabers or argue about continuity errors in Babylon 5. Instead, they carry armloads of books and want to talk politics.
WisCon is the United States’ only feminist sci-fi convention, but since it was founded more than two decades ago, the event has grown to be much more than that. Feminism is still a strong component of the con, and many panels are devoted to the work of women writers or issues like sexism in comic books. But the con is also devoted to progressive politics, antiracism, and the ways speculative literature can change the future. This year there was a terrific panel about the fake multiculturalism of Star Trek and Heroes, as well as a discussion about geopolitical themes in experimental writer Timmel Duchamp’s five-novel, near-future Marq’ssan series.
While most science fiction cons feature things like sneak-preview footage of the next special effects blockbuster or appearances by the cast of Joss "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" Whedon’s new series Dollhouse, WisCon’s highlights run toward the bookish. We all crammed inside one of the hotel meeting rooms to be part of a tea party thrown by the critically-acclaimed indie SF Web zine Strange Horizons (strangehorizons.com), then later we listened to several lightning readings at a stately beer bash thrown by old school SF book publisher Tor.
One of the highlights of the con was a chance to drink absinthe in a strangely windowless suite with the editors of alternative publisher Small Beer Press, whose authors include the award-winning Kelly Link and Carol Emschwiller. You genuinely imagine yourself on a spaceship in that windowless room or maybe in some subterranean demon realm with everybody talking about alternate realities, AIs gone wild, and why Iron Maiden is the best band ever. (What? You don’t think there will be 1980s metal in the demon realm?)
Jim Munroe, Canadian master of DIY publishing and filmmaking, was at WisCon talking about literary zombies and ways that anarchists can learn to organize their time better, while guest of honor Maureen McHugh gave a speech about how interactive online storytelling represents the future of science fiction and fiction in general. Science fiction erotica writer/publisher Cecilia Tan told everybody about her latest passion: writing Harry Potter fan fiction about the forbidden love between Draco and Snape. Many of today’s most popular writers, like bestseller Naomi Novik, got their start writing fan fiction. Some continue to do it under fake names because they just can’t give it up.
Perhaps the best part of WisCon is getting a chance to hang out with thousands of people who believe that writing and reading books can change the world for the better. Luckily, nobody there is humorless enough to forget that sometimes escapist fantasy is just an escape. WisCon attendees simply haven’t given up hope that tomorrow might be radically better than today. They are passionate about the idea that science fiction and fantasy are the imaginative wing of progressive politics. In Madison, among groups of dreamers, I was forcefully reminded that before we remake the world, we must first model it in our own minds.
Annalee Newitz (email@example.com) is a surly media nerd who bought way too many books at WisCon and can’t wait to read them all.
OPINION Local government is frozen. The mayor’s office and the Board of Supervisors have been engaged in open warfare for months. This week, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that in order to balance San Francisco’s budget, city services and community-based organizations will have to undergo draconian cuts.
In a preemptive move against embarrassing protests, the mayor’s press office did not reveal the location of the annual budget presentation to the news media until late Friday afternoon. Even the supervisors, who will be debating and voting on the budget during the month of June, were left in the dark until then.
While the mayor didn’t blame city workers for the financial crisis, he did suggest that Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents the low-wage, frontline, service-providing city workers, should "help out."
Well, we have. SEIU members stepped up to "help out" in fiscal years 200304 and 200405 by agreeing to wage freezes and self-funding our pensions. All the recent midyear cuts were in public health agencies and among SEIU-represented nonprofits.
Most recently we stepped up by helping draft and vigorously campaigning to pass Proposition B, which freezes city workers wages for two years and tightens eligibility for retiree health care benefits in exchange for a modest increase in city pension benefits.
The mayor’s budget director repeatedly has said that this is a spending problem, not a revenue problem. Talk about spin.
Moreover, in his June 2 budget presentation, the mayor made no mention of raising revenue as an answer to our fiscal problems. You could almost hear Gov. Schwarzenegger’s voice as Newsom presented a slash-services budget with a "no-new-taxes" slogan waiting in the wings for his next campaign.
Everyone knows it’s expensive to live in San Francisco. Paying city employees a wage that allows them to stay in the community they serve isn’t a budget "problem." It ought to be a basic part of what City Hall does and cares about. And if that means looking at bringing in new sources of money, we should have that conversation.
We believe there are various revenue sources that make more sense to explore than some of these service cuts, including a real estate transfer tax increase for high-level properties.
Fortunately, the mayor’s proposal is just a starting point. Soon we will be proposing specific alternatives.
Toward that end, the San Francisco Human Services Network and Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth have organized a citywide forum on the mayor’s proposed budget cuts. SEIU 1021 is cosponsoring this event. The San Francisco budget and revenue town-hall meeting will be held June 9 from 2-4 p.m. in the San Francisco Main Library’s Koret Auditorium, 100 Larkin (at Grove)
Don’t get angry. Get organized.
Robert Haaland is a longtime San Francisco activist who works for Local 1021.
GREEN CITY At long last, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission appears to be moving forward with plans to address long overdue environmental justice issues (“It Flows Downhill,” 08/08/06) that are directly related to its sewage treatment plant in the city’s southeast sector.
At a May 27 SFPUC meeting, SFPUC staff recommended that the agency build a new digester facility in the southeast part of town and divert 12 percent of its sewage flow to the west side’s Oceanside plant, (which, incidentally, a current signature-gathering campaign hopes voters in November will rename the George W. Bush Sewage Treatment Plant).
For decades residents of BayviewHunters Point have endured foul smells, thanks to the close proximity to their homes of the Southeast treatment plant. The site treats 76 percent of the city’s sewage in facilities that are almost entirely outdoors. By contrast, facilities at the Oceanside plant, in a wealthier side of town, are mostly indoors and/or underground.
It’s an unequal division that has long had southeast residents claiming environmental racism. To make matters worse, the Southeast plant contains nine pancake-shaped digesters that could experience problems in an earthquake, with worrisome corrosion on the undersides of the digesters’ covers.
Cost estimates for a new digester facility range from $700 million to $1.3 billion. This variation depends on the location choice for the new digesters: if the agency builds new digesters on the south side of its existing Southeast plant, the agency is looking at the cheaper end of the scale.
But if the SFPUC follows another option to build a new facility on the back lot of Pier 94, a Port of San Francisco property, it would remove the plant from a residential neighborhood but be left facing a near doubling of the cost.
Replacing the digesters was a pet cause of former SFPUC General Manager Susan Leal, and continues to be a priority for District 10 supervisor Sophie Maxwell, so it’s likely to remain a key focus for former City Controller Ed Harrington, who took over as general manager of the agency after Mayor Gavin Newsom ousted Leal.
"You’ll see immediate work on the digesters," Harrington assured the commissioners. "The PUC is suggesting doing on an environmental impact report on both sites."
That report likely won’t be complete until 2010, when the agency leaders will have to choose an option. PUC project manager Jon Loiacono seems to be keenly aware of the thorny issues at play and told the commission that "staff would like to work with an advisory group and hire a consultant sensitive to community issues to find the best solution."
"It would almost certainly be less expensive to rebuild on the current site, but we don’t want anyone to make the digester decision based on cost," PUC spokesperson Tony Winniker told the Guardian.
"We really want it to be a public health and safety decision," PUC Citizens Advisory Committee chair Alex Lantsberg told the Guardian.
The digester replacement cost represents a significant chunk of the total estimated price tag of the PUC’s proposed sewer system master plan, which ranges from $3.8 billion to $4.4 billion. PUC staff is also outlining plans to send some of the waste westward in what the PUC currently calls "the Upper Alemany diversion."
The plan involves building a tunnel near Cayuga Creek, where runoff water tends to back up, and carrying it to the Oceanside plant. So, is this the return of the dreaded cross-town tunnel, an idea that had irate Bernal Heights residents waving plungers at City Hall three decades ago? PUC staff claim it is not.
"It’s a different concept, but similar," Loiacono said of the current plan.
"This reduces how much waste is treated in the Bayview and shifts it to a plant where there is excess capacity," Winniker explained, further noting that while the old cross-town tunnel would have run under Bernal Heights, this diversion will use city rights of way.
The project would improve drainage for the Cayuga and divert about 10 million gallons of sewage per day from the Southeast plant to the Oceanside plant, PUC spokesperson Tyron Jue told us. The alignment hasn’t been chosen yet, but Jue said, "we’re considering different routes, like Brotherhood Way or Ocean Avenue."
Whatever path the SFPUC pursues, the project won’t be cheap economically or politically.
City Attorney Dennis Herrera made San Francisco the first government entity in the nation to accuse two major players in the pharmaceutical drug industry of conspiring to illegally manipulate the price of prescription drugs when he filed a lawsuit May 20. Connecticut followed Herrera’s lead days later, and filed an almost identical suit making the same charges.
The cases could have far-reaching implications. If Raymond Hartman, an economist and visiting professor at Boalt Hall School of Law who testified in a related case filed by a group of East Coast labor unions two years ago is correct, then consumers, insurers, and Medicaid administrators nationwide have overpaid for prescription drugs by billions of dollars as a result of the price manipulation scheme (see “Big Pharma’s Shadow,” 12/20/06).
To explain the highly complex litigation, consider how goods are usually priced. Take the 99¢, three-ounce bags of chips that are reliably available at the corner store near your house. Cool Ranch Doritos. Chili Cheese Fritos. Sour Cream and Onion Ruffles. It wouldn’t be a true bodega if there wasn’t a rack of them situated near the front door or register.
For as long as anyone can remember, it seems, they’ve cost just 99¢, regardless of the local cost of living, from Richmond, Va. to San Francisco. That’s because the suggested retail price of 99¢ is printed ubiquitously by the manufacturer on the packaging.
So you’d notice if a sticker suddenly appeared, lazily affixed to your bag of Sun Chips, stating a new price: $1.99. The manufacturer didn’t place it there because behind the sticker you can still see the old printed price. And the counter clerk didn’t place it there, because he knows the true suggested retail price is still just 99¢ and the laws of supply and demand never called for a price increase.
Instead, a local company that buys chips from the manufacturer and distributes them to the bodega in your neighborhood put it there. The bodega owner didn’t complain because now it’s possible for him to earn an extra dollar for each bag. In fact, as a result of the new sticker, he’s more likely to take his business back to that particular distribution company over a competitor since that company is willing to artificially inflate the retail cost of a bag of chips on his behalf simply by putting a new price tag on the bag.
Now imagine that the product isn’t a cheap bag of chips but billions of dollars worth of pain-reducing or life-saving pharmaceuticals. And the distributor isn’t a local guy who drives a delivery truck full of boxes of chips but a multinational corporation, headquartered in San Francisco, that’s ranked 18th on the Fortune 500 list, with $93.6 billion in annual revenue and a CEO, John Hammergren, who received compensation in 2007 worth more than $22 million after presiding over the company’s record profits that year.
Imagine, too, that the distributor is powerful enough to slap new price stickers on cartons of drugs around the country, not just at your corner bodega, so you can’t simply elect to shop elsewhere to protest the new prices. Neither can you just stop consuming needed medicines the way you can snack chips.
Herrera’s federal civil suit probably has escaped media attention due to its esoteric nature (not to mention a potential conflict of interest at the San Francisco Chronicle, but we’ll get to that in a minute). It charges that McKesson Corp., along with a tiny drug data publisher based in San Bruno called First DataBank, conspired in an "elaborate scheme" to unfairly mark up the price on more than 400 name-brand prescription drugs. The conspiracy allegedly resulted in the San Francisco Health Plan being forced to make thousands or even millions of dollars in excess payments to cover the cost of such medications.
The SF Health Plan is not the same as Healthy San Francisco, the city’s historic 2006 bid to grant universal health care to the 82,000 adults here who live without insurance. The SF Health Plan extends mental, medical, and dental health coverage to about 50,000 people, including approximately 28,000 children in the city, and offers in-home support workers to the disabled and elderly. The plan is funded through a combination of federal and state dollars known in California as Medi-Cal and elsewhere as Medicaid.
The programs help low-income residents get health care, but its public subsidies are being endangered by a massive state budget deficit. So making sure the SF Health Plan is paying the appropriate price for prescription drugs, a $200 billion industry in the United States, is more important than ever.
McKesson and First DataBank, the lawsuit alleges, placed new stickers on drug packages so that everyone from private insurers to Medi-Cal to consumers without insurance who simply walk up to a pharmacy window and cover their drug treatments with cash paid far more than they should have, based on an industry calculation that’s similar to the suggested retail price printed on our analogy of a bag of chips. Herrera says he took on the suit because San Francisco is not alone in overpaying for pharmaceuticals and he saw a chance to force greater reforms in the system.
"We make our decisions based on the facts and the law, and we do our best to protect consumers, taxpayers, and businesses alike," Herrera told the Guardian. "This impacts a lot of things. It’s about protecting consumers from having high drug costs passed on to them. It’s about protecting taxpayer dollars since this is the San Francisco Health Plan, and it’s something that emanates out of a city program. But it’s also about protecting businesses, because a lot of businesses and health plans are the ones footing the bill for increased drug costs."
First DataBank is not listed as a defendant in Herrera’s suit but is described as "an unnamed co-conspirator." The company is a little-known subsidiary of the private, New Yorkbased media conglomerate Hearst Corp., which owns dozens of major publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Esquire, and The Oprah Magazine. Spokespersons for McKesson and First DataBank refused to comment for this story.
As far as revenue is concerned, First DataBank is a bit player in the world of pharmaceuticals. Court records in a related 2006 suit describe its annual pretax income as just $19 million, barely enough to cover the McKesson CEO’s compensation last year.
But the company is nonetheless important to people who rely on prescription drugs. It’s one of the few major companies in the United States that maintains a sophisticated electronic database of information on tens of thousands of prescription drugs. Plus, First DataBank possesses a virtual monopoly on the market because the company merged with its only real competitor, Medi-Span, in 1998. Its database includes numbers, for instance, on what a drug manufacturer like Aventis might charge distributor McKesson for the allergy medicine Allegra, a figure known as the "wholesale acquisition cost."
Because it’s almost impossible to track every transaction between McKesson and retail chain pharmacies that McKesson distributes bulk drugs to, like Rite Aid and CVS Caremark McKesson, it’s First DataBank’s job to survey the distributors and come up with an "average wholesale price."
After you obtain a bottle of Allegra with a co-pay to take care of your stuffy nose, your insurance provider, say, Blue Cross or Kaiser Permanente or the SF Health Plan, refers to First DataBank’s massive catalog of drugs for which they’ve paid a hefty subscription fee to make sure the price they’re paying for your allergy medicine is the one properly set by the market.
First DataBank claimed for years that it was surveying multiple drug wholesalers like McKesson to come up with its average published prices and that it was increasing the number of surveys it conducted. But there aren’t that many wholesalers to actually survey because so many of them have merged with one another in recent years. Also, two out of the nation’s three top wholesalers apparently declined to participate in the surveys as a matter of policy.
Troy Kirkpatrick, a spokesperson for Cardinal Health, one of McKesson’s few competitors, said his company doesn’t give out proprietary information to anyone, let alone First DataBank.
"We have a long-standing policy of not providing confidential pricing information to external sources," Kirkpatrick said. "So if we get asked to share that type of information, we decline."
By 2001 it appeared that First Databank wasn’t really surveying several wholesalers or even the two major companies that compete directly with McKesson, according to court records. First DataBank allegedly conspired with McKesson to establish an artificial baseline markup on hundreds of drugs that didn’t accurately represent their true suggested retail price
But if the bodega, or in this case, the retail pharmacy, is benefiting from the new stickers, then what’s in it for McKesson?
Herrera’s suit contends that if pharmacies like CVS and Rite Aid saw McKesson pressing the scales for them, they’d return to McKesson with their business instead of its two other major American wholesale competitors, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen.
The three companies aggressively compete with one another for business just like they’re supposed to in good ol’ free-market America. But now it appears that McKesson has found a way to game the system and edge ahead of its two rivals. Indeed, McKesson is narrowly beating them in total revenue according to the Fortune 500 list.
Profit margins from drugstore chains were sagging at the time the alleged scheme between McKesson and First DataBank took off, and chain pharmacies had been pressing manufacturers to help them earn higher profit margins. According to the lawsuit, distributor McKesson came to the rescue.
So the final question, then, is whether the drug stores were enriched by all this.
Longs Drugs last year made more than $5 billion in revenue. About 20 percent of that, or $1 billion, came from the government-subsidized health care programs Medicare and Medicaid, according to company records.
In its most recent annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Longs admits that if insurers began using a different benchmark than the prices published by First DataBank, such as a pricing guide that more accurately reflected market prices, there could be a "material adverse effect on our financial performance."
EDITORIAL If you think the June ballot was busy, wait until November. San Francisco will be electing six district supervisors. The mayor and organized labor are going to be pushing the mother of all bond acts, roughly $1 billion to rebuild San Francisco General Hospital. There’s likely to be a public power charter amendment mandating that the city mount a real effort to take over the electric grid. There will probably be a major affordable-housing initiative that includes a set-aside for low-income housing and perhaps some affordable-housing bond money. It’s shaping up as an election that will change the city’s direction for years to come but there’s still a crucial piece missing.
There’s no money.
Public power will, of course, generate vast amounts of new revenue, but not immediately: the process of setting up the system and fighting Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in court could drag out for several years. That, of course, is all the more reason to get started if the city had done this years ago, we wouldn’t have a budget crisis today.
But in the meantime, right now, San Francisco needs cash and there needs to be a November ballot measure that brings in new revenue to pay for more affordable housing and to save the services Mayor Gavin Newsom is cutting.
It’s tough to pass new taxes in California. Most of the time, state law mandates a two-thirds majority vote by the people to enact any new form of taxation. But it’s a bit easier when the supervisors are up for election; on those ballots, the threshold is only 50 percent. And with at least four tightly contested supervisorial races bringing out voters, labor bringing out the troops for the General Hospital bond, and the Democratic Party pushing to get voters out for Barack Obama, the turnout should be excellent.
So if there’s ever a good time to try to pass a tax measure, November 2008 ought to fit the bill.
All sorts of tax proposals have floated around City Hall in recent years and some of them for example, a higher real-estate transfer tax were defeated at the ballot. Some groups will oppose any tax proposal, and it’s hard to find constituencies that want to work hard for higher taxes.
So the key to crafting a revenue measure is to ensure that it’s as progressive as possible, and that it takes into account the concerns of those small businesses and homeowners who aren’t rich and can’t afford huge new levies. We see two good options:
1.A city income tax. This hasn’t been seriously discussed since the 1980s, but it ought to be. California law bars cities from collecting traditional income taxes that is, San Francisco can’t tax the incomes of everyone who lives here. But in 1978 the state Supreme Court ruled that cities can tax income earned from employment in the city. The upside is that a San Francisco employment income tax would hit commuters, a huge group who use city services and don’t pay for them. The downside is that people who live here but work, say, in Silicon Valley would escape the tax.
But overall, income taxes are the fairest method of collecting revenue, and a city tax could be set to hit hardest on the wealthiest. The city could exempt, say, the first $50,000 of earned income, levy a modest (say, 1 percent) tax on the next $50,000, then increase the marginal percentage so that people with enormous salaries pay as much as 2 or 3 percent.
The beauty of this: most of the people who paid the top-end income tax would simply write it off their federal income taxes meaning this would be a direct shift of cash from Washington DC to San Francisco. And it would come primarily from people who have already received a huge tax windfall from the Bush administration.
Yes, some people would cheat. Some businesses would try to claim their employees all really worked out of a satellite office in another city. But New York City has a municipal income tax. So does Philadelphia. They manage to deal with the cheaters. The supervisors at least ought to consider the idea.
2.A new business tax. Almost everyone agrees that San Francisco’s business taxes are unfair. The city places a flat tax on businesses a small merchant pays the same percentage as a giant corporation and some partnerships, like law firms, get away with paying no city taxes at all. The best way to fix that may be to create a single, progressive business tax (probably on gross receipts), with no loopholes, that exempts the first $100,000 or so and actually lowers the levy on small businesses while significantly raising it on big ones. Most small businesses would get an actual tax cut while the big guys would pick up the tab.
Together, a tax package like this could bring in the $250 million a year or so the city needs and some of the money could go to cutting, say, Muni fares or reducing the sales tax so working-class San Franciscans would pay less.
Almost everyone at City Hall knows the current tax system is unfair, regressive, and inadequate. We’ve been calling for the supervisors to do something about it for years now. November 2008 seems like an excellent time.
I think it’s safe to say that most people in the real estate business tend to oppose raising taxes on real estate. And generally speaking, you don’t find the industry well represented at dinners for urban environmental groups. But John Barry is different. He’s a Sunset District Realtor who is full of ideas about how to get the city more revenue, and after I ran into him at the San Francisco Tomorrow dinner May 21, he sent me a proposal he says would bring in more than $5 million a year.
Barry was digging around in property records recently and learned that a parcel out on 19th Avenue sold a year ago, in June 2007, for $2.5 million and the new owners still hadn’t received a property tax bill. The owner "most likely won’t be getting the bill until July or later," Barry wrote. "He will then have another 30 to 90 days to come up with his payment."
Although the city will eventually get the money, the late property tax bill means that cash is sitting in a property owner’s bank account, earning interest that ought to go to the city. At the current tax rate of 1.141 percent of market value, which is typically the sale price, the lost interest on this one property is about $2,800. Multiply that times all the commercial and residential sales in the city, and Barry estimates San Francisco is losing some $5 million in interest every single year.
"Who is to blame? All of us," he wrote. "If taxpayers had been raising a fuss, the city would have found ways to do this all quicker."
When property changes hands, it typically goes through a title company and an escrow procedure and, at closing, a bunch of money changes hands. The buyer pays a whole list of fees to the title company, the broker, the mortgage company, etc. Why can’t the city be in the mix?
Here’s how it could work, Barry suggests: "The title company calls the tax collector and says, ‘We are closing a sale in two days. The sale price is $1 million. Send us an interim estimated tax bill.’ The tax collector multiplies .01141 [the property tax rate] against $1 million and instantly prints an interim bill of $11,410 and e-mails it to the escrow officer."
Makes sense to me.
So the day I got Barry’s e-mail, I called Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting and left him a message saying I’d found him $5 million. He called back right away. I ran Barry’s idea by him, and he told me it was worth pursuing.
It’s a bit more complicated than it seems, he said, particularly with commercial property which is where the big money is, anyway. In many cases the city doesn’t accept the sales prices as the actual value, and under Proposition 13, you can’t raise a tax bill once you set it. But I have great faith that City Attorney’s Office can figure a way around that.
Of course, Ting has another problem: he doesn’t have the staff to catch up on the existing backlog and Mayor Gavin Newsom wants to cut his budget. "Nobody wants to stand up and fight to fund the tax man," he told me. That, of course, is lunacy. If you’re short of money, you don’t cut the folks who are bringing it in.
It’s hard to talk about taxing anyone, even in San Francisco. "I write this," Barry said, "because I am a founding member of the How a Realtor Can Commit Professional Suicide Club." But you know he’s right.
Erykah Badu disappeared for a bit, taking her musical incantations and majestic head wraps on a retreat into motherhood. In 2006, she flitted back onto the mainstream radar in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, a concert film that takes place in a Brooklyn neighborhood and includes the comedian’s closest muso pals. Badu’s appearance stops the hustle and bustle of the event cold with her tiny frame and a huge glorious Afro, which blows off during her duet with Jill Scott during the Roots number "You Got Me." The movie audience I was with that day gasped in admiration as Badu let her trademark locks sail away while she continued to sing, her head and soul apparent for all to see a diva whose resplendence and power does not rest on borrowed plumage alone.
Back then searching out Badu’s whereabouts led to a stripped-down MySpace page with a selection of songs off her 2003 EP, Worldwide Underground (Motown/Island), and not much else. At one point an old press release showed up, but interjected between the normal publicist-speak were "additions" in block capital letters, which were gentle mockeries of her multiputf8um accomplishments and declarations about "paying bills" and other roadblocks appearing in her life. Her words had the feel of new life forcing its way up through the old. Two years on, that same page is a tricked-out site to behold: a dizzying pastiche of acid-rock tableaus and neo-propagandist political imagery that bears Badu’s likeness many a result of an art contest held for her fans. It was here that she chose to debut many tracks from her new album, New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War (Universal/Motown).
The recording begins with an aural soup: the noise of a ghetto train ride and the booming voice of a marauder telling folks to drop off their valuables while backing vocals exhort the "Amerykahn Promise." Badu’s voice emerges from this cacophony asking for explanations, a metaphor for her own post-sabbatical rebirth. With a quick costume change and tinkling prayer bells, Badu becomes a prophet with "The Healer," a meditation on the restorative properties of hip-hop, which she describes as "bigger than religion / Bigger than my niggas / Bigger than government." Never one to shy away from her role as everywoman cue those propaganda posters Badu emerges amid the muted horns and mellow groove of "Me," underscoring an autobiographical letter to listeners explaining her hesitance to be in the spotlight, her life as a single mother of two, and her fears of martyrdom at the hands of the entertainment industry. Her resolve at the close of the song is evident as she proclaims, "They may try to erase my face / But millions spring up in my place."
Such resolve lies at the crux of Badu’s brilliance, her unerring ability to carry her vulnerability on a dais of steely resilience. Downtrodden tunes like "That Hump" offer funk-laced pipe dreams of a solo mom trying to break even: "We just need a little house / That comes with a spouse." But no matter how broken-down Badu’s New Amerykah gets, there is always an undercurrent fed by the missions for social justice that Badu feels she has been called upon to fight. "Soldier" is both an exhortation and rallying cry: "To my folks think they living sweet / They gonna fuck around and push delete," she warns. Expect the woman to bring this message and attitude to the stage with the help of longtime friends and collaborators the Roots during her "Vortex Tour 2008."
Since the crash of Tallula a few years ago, the Department of Innovative Indian Food has undergone some slight shrinkage. True, the overall standard of Indian cooking in the city has continued to rise, and we’ve been treated to spots that emphasize regional Indian cuisine, such as Dosa. But where oh where is the restaurant that will cook a well-spiced duck in the tandoor, then serve the meat in slices as part of a salad with arugula and bing cherries? Tallula was brilliant at this sort of cross-cultural flourish, and I was hopeful it would be the first of its profuse kind.
Perhaps, despite its too-short life, it was. The second of its kind could be Roti, in West Portal a much better-looking restaurant than Tallula, though shyer about proclaiming its more distinctive dishes. (There is a sibling restaurant in Burlingame.) You could feast quite happily at Roti on the subcontinental foods that have become familiar and perhaps even beloved in certain quarters of blue-state America: tandoori chicken, lamb vindaloo, palak paneer, chana masala. But you might suspect you were missing something, your first clue being Roti’s appearance.
The phrase the restaurant applies to itself is "Indian bistro," and this means, first, no stainless-steel steam tables pushed against the back wall for all-you-can-eat buffets. It also means a Manhattanish look of glossy surfaces and striking lamps and light fixtures arrayed behind a barrel façade of window panes that arc inward toward the door. The effect is a little like that of the original Slanted Door, though with a curve instead of a slant. Certainly the intent of the two places seems similar: to do justice to an ancient cuisine while reconciling it with the reality of modern California.
Hence Roti’s splendid tandoori duck salad ($12), with meat dense, moist, and tender, almost like confit. Tallula’s menu was filled with these sorts of combinations; at Roti, there is a stronger sense of restraint regarding the ecstasies of Californication, along with heightened attention to some traditional Indian dishes that are less well-known in this country. If you think Indian cooks only use lentils to make dal, for instance, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by dal ki mathri ($8), a set of fritters made of several varieties of legumes, including chickpeas. The fritters could have been warmer (they seemed to toughen with cooling) but were complex in flavor and texture. Also, they were endearing in appearance little golden footballs that could have been part of a Pop Warner awards presentation.
Calamari rings ($8) were given the "Bombay" treatment: a heavy dusting of curry-scented chickpea flour, then a turn in the deep-fryer for some golden crunch. The rings were presented with little dishes of chutney, tamarind and mint, but they were tasty enough to be eaten straight up. They were also tender, which suggested skillful handling, since calamari easily turns rubbery with overcooking. One of the blights of Indian restaurants is that so many of the appetizers and starters are deep-fried, and Roti’s are no exception. But if you must go deep-fried, calamari is at least somewhat less usual than pakoras or samosas.
Chicken tikka boneless breast meat turns up in a number of preparations. Among these are the lovable old warhorse, chicken tikka masala ($14), cubes of meat awash in a mild, creamy sauce; and a lunchtime salad ($12) in which the breast meat is rolled up, roulade-style, roasted, and served over mixed greens with naan. Considering the dryness of roasting and the paucity of fat on boneless, skinless, chicken breast meat, the chicken tikka here was remarkably juicy a credit, maybe, to some ingenious marinade.
Lamb vindaloo ($15) arrived with the chicken tikka masala and in some ways resembled it: cubes of meat in a rich-looking sauce. But vindaloo is generally hotter and sharper than its sibling, and here it was markedly gingery, too. (Vindaloo comes from Goa, once a Portuguese colony, and, as the name implies, wine was a long-ago ingredient. In these postcolonial days, some kind of mild vinegar is generally used.)
As so often is the case in Indian restaurants, vegetarian offerings are strong and varied enough to banish any vagrant yearnings for meat. The only one of these dishes we found wanting was, surprisingly, the palak paneer ($11), lightly spiced spinach cooked with chunks of cheese. The spicing here consisted mostly of nutmeg, which really didn’t have the wattage to compete with chana masala ($9), chickpeas cooked in a spicy tomato-curry sauce. Somewhere between these two extremes lay the mattar kurchan ($10 at lunch, with a disk of poori), cubes of cheese cooked with green peas in a moderately athletic tomato sauce. The sauced cheese would have been excellent spooned over the poori to make a kind of pizza, but I didn’t think of that in time. And it would have been tricky to eat.
How about dessert after all that? We stuck to the ice creams and were well satisfied: two scoops of peach-colored lucuma ($5) and a plate of kulfi ($6), flavored with saffron, cardamom, pistachio, and rosewater, shaped into a sausage, frozen, and sliced like a banana.
As we were getting up to leave, the disputatious person seated to my right said, "It’s good, but not as good as Metro Kathmandu." I felt obliged politely! to dispute this diss. Roti is quite as good in its way as Metro Kathmandu, and that’s saying something. (It’s also indisputably better-looking, and that’s saying something else.) The death of Tallula was a real loss but, as Roti proves, not an unredeemed one.
FILM FESTIVAL Sometimes the best thing a movie has going for it is its title, especially if that title happens to be Mutant Vampire Zombies from the ‘Hood!. Far and away the most expressively named selection at this year’s Another Hole in the Head Film Festival, Zombies imagines what would happen if a couple of rival gangbangers, a weary cop, and assorted other ragtag types emerged as the only humans unaffected by a mysterious solar flare. Zombie-movie conventions are followed (the obligatory lesson about shooting ’em in the head, etc.), self-referential jokes are cracked (Shaun of the Dead gets a shout-out). The most distinctive features here casting erstwhile soul man C. Thomas Howell as the cop, an eye-rollingly dated Snakes on a Plane joke, and a truly disturbing twist that renders the zombies brain eaters and sex freaks aren’t quite enough to elevate Zombies to the realm of must-see undeadness. To be fair, though, even Troma would have a hard time fulfilling the promise of something called Mutant Vampire Zombies from the ‘Hood!.
A better bargain for your gross-out buck is 2007’s Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer, a film I seized on after noting the top billing of Robert "Freddy Krueger" Englund. With higher production values than Zombie and a clever script (cowritten by John Ainslie and director Jon Knautz), Monster follows the titular hero (Trevor Matthews), a slacker dude plumber who’s been toting around some serious anger issues since childhood when he witnessed a monster gobble up his entire family. Jack’s princess-bitch girlfriend (Rachel Skarsten) convinces him to enroll in a night-school class taught by the bumbling Professor Crowley, who ropes Jack into taking a look at the rusty pipes beneath his creepy old house. Cue: the unearthing of an ancient evil, and Crowley’s transformation from science geek to chicken-wing-gobbling, Jabba the Huttlike menace.
Naturally this turn of events unleashes the inner warrior in Jack; the film is bookended by flash-forwards that suggest he becomes something of a Buffy for the monster population. But the main reason to see Monster is Englund, who’s having something of a mini-comeback between this film and the recent Zombie Strippers. Always a limber, engaging performer, Englund further proves there’s more to him than vivisecting Elm Street teens though that’d be enough for me, really.
But back to the zombies. One of HoleHead’s programming edicts is apparently "never enough zombies," to the extent of capitalizing the Zed-word in their programming notes. Along with those mutant hood-rats, the fest also includes Wasting Away (2007), Trailer Park of Terror (question: when did zombies and white trash become so synonymous?), and Brain Dead (2007), the latter containing nearly as many gratuitous female nudes (full-frontal, in most cases) as it does alien-parasite-spawned undead beasties. Whatever, dude you want class, look elsewhere. These HoleHead selections embrace crass with pride.
Other notable picks in this year’s festival include the locally made Home World, an uneven if ambitious sci-fi tale that owes a debt to Battlestar Galactica; a revival of Roger Vadim’s 1968 Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy (free entry for Jane Fonda look-alikes and other costumed attendees); The Machine Girl, about a one-handed Japanese schoolgirl who exacts tasty, gory revenge on the baddies who offed her family; and, just ’cause it’s Uwe Boll, ‘Nam drama The Tunnel Rats, potentially the first film he’ll direct that spawns a video game instead of vice versa. HoleHead kicks off with the Bai Ling-starring The Gene Generation (2007), followed by a party headlined by all-girl psychobilly quartet Thee Merry Widows.
REVIEW The Contemporary Jewish Museum was founded in 1984 as the Jewish Museum San Francisco, and "starchitect" Daniel Libeskind’s building design, which seemingly bursts out of an 1881 vintage brick facade opposite Yerba Buena Gardens, began taking shape nearly a decade ago. But for all intents and purposes, the CJM’s opening this week marks the launch of a new art space that must affirm its brand identity on our cultural landscape. The folks behind this identity-based museum aim to instill a sense of belief in the place as a meaningful institution and to lure repeat visitors Jews and non-Jews alike. With a prominent public location and what could be a decent café the odds are in its favor.
Other factors might continue that momentum. The building itself is a bold yet restrained move by an architect whose Jewish Museum in Berlin tends to overshadow its contents. The CJM, however, succeeds in feeling both formidable and intimate. The spaces balance form and function: they look good and seem like they can accommodate and contextualize the works within. Still, the programming itself should be the primary element in attracting viewers.
The opening offerings include a delightful survey of work by the New Yorker cartoonist William Steig, organized by the Jewish Museum, New York, and a sound series selected by John Zorn. But the centerpiece exhibition, "In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis" an ambitious, CJM-organized conglomeration of newly commissioned installations and historical and contemporary artworks and artifacts is a clear sign the admin is taking the museum’s challenge seriously and thinking big.
The show is designed to offer entry points to a range of viewers, its biblical foundation rooted in the Old Testament volume of Genesis, which speaks to Christians and Jews and allows the concept of creation to relate to art, religion, and science. The curators museum director Connie Wolf, deputy director Fred Wasserman, and assistant curator Dara Solomon abide by an imperative not to restrict exhibited works to pieces by Jewish makers. "In the Beginning" unfolds in a hallway antechamber with a flat-screen monitor displaying a grainy video of images of the Earth and the moon as seen from Apollo 8, television footage widely seen on Christmas Eve 1968, with audio of the astronauts reading the opening verses of Genesis. The inclusion points to a curatorial openness to pop-cultural artifacts as part of a contemporary art dialogue.
The seven commissioned installations are the headliners in the expansive temporary exhibition space, and they’re by a deliberately diverse group of artists. There are pieces by Matthew Ritchie and Trenton Doyle Hancock, artists who set down complex personalized cosmologies that essentially are their own elaborate creation myths, and both manage to create works with visual appeal. For a piece titled Day One, Ritchie uses a couple of gently angled walls for a graphically ornate mural that accommodates orb-shaped projections of roiling, animated landscapes, sun flares, flocks of ambiguous black shapes, and a soundtrack of the artist pondering existence and creation. A more rambunctious spirit pervades Hancock’s In the Beginning There Was the End, in the End There Was the Beginning, which is set against dizzying cartoonlike wallpaper and depicts a mythological narrative involving characters called Mounds and lowly Vegans.
The exhibit’s inspiration is literary, and text appears frequently, as in the somewhat vertigo-inducing animated work by Shirley Shor, an ex-Bay Area resident who swirls projections, in English and Hebrew, of Web-gathered references to Genesis down a wishing-well structure. Ben Rubin contributes God’s Breath Hovering over the Waters (His Master’s Voice), a sound sculpture inspired by an antenna developed by Bell Labs physicists in the 1960s that, according to the artist, led to audible evidence of the Big Bang. A Kabbalistic-inspired work by Mierle Laderman Ukeles is the show’s most spiritual, and involves layered audience participation including forging a personal covenant with the artist, the public, and the self.
Filmmaker Alan Berliner adds a more crowd-pleasing form of participation with Playing God, a satisfying interactive, seven-channel video one for each day of creation installation that emulates a slot machine as it generates phrases with words from Genesis. Audio-visual jackpots can be had, and pushing the glowing buttons quickly becomes addictive.
The show’s inclusion of historical and archival material is a riskier gambit. While designed to enrich the exhibition themes, adding objects such as a 15th-century biblical manuscript page, a Tiepolo drawing, Tom Marioni’s shadowbox assemblages, and Barnett Newman’s 1948 painting Onement II starts to seem cluttered, or, as they say in Yiddish, ungehpotchkeyed. Still, the "something for everyone" approach clearly stems from a gracious perspective or brand, not an obfuscating one. And that’s a curatorial position worth a return visit.
CONTEMPORARY JEWISH MUSEUM
Opening exhibits include "In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis," Sun/8Jan. 4, 2009; opening events include "Dawn 2008," Sat/7, 8 p.m., $10-$15 with Dengue Fever and Jonathan Safran Foer; grand opening Sun/8, 10 a.m. ribbon-cutting, 11 a.m. doors, free.
I push off and head down a makeshift plywood runway, compressing as I roll over the edge and into the Technicolor graffiti of the drainage ditch. The transition between the banked wall and the flatbottom has an abrupt kink in it, enough to send you to your face if you’re caught sleeping. I take some weight off the front end and try to maintain my speed as I pump into the opposite corner and carve the far end of the ditch where there’s an over-45-degree wall that runs behind what my friends and I call the "death pit" a gaping cutaway in the bottom of the culvert, five feet deep, filled with broken glass, and frequently used as a urinal. Since I’m at the apex of my backside carve, up a wall 10 feet above last week’s Miller Time, I’m jolted by the crackle of a loudspeaker:
"You are trespassing. Leave the area at once or you will be arrested."
My concentration shot by the sheriff’s announcement, I jump off my deck and over the chasm at the base of the bank, barely clearing the skater’s version of a Vietnam tiger pit, and land on the rough concrete beyond the edge. My board bullets straight in, though, so I’ve got to lower myself gingerly into the mostly dry detritus and rescue it before my friends and I jet out of the spot and into the manicured back nine of Pleasanton’s Castlewood golf course. We get to the car, throw the boards in the trunk mine has a "Skateboarding Is Not a Crime" sticker on the bottom and head to the next spot, a ditch called the Rat Trap.
The year is 1987. I’m 16, in high school, and living with my parents in Fremont. The scene plays out over and over in much the same way: a drainage ditch, a nicely painted curb or ledge at a shopping center, the occasional backyard pool, and night sessions at the Tar Banks, a set of embankments around a loading dock with curbs at the top. It’s an underground railroad of repurposed architecture, none of it designed with a skateboard in mind but all of it highly skateable.
Every weekend my crew hits as many spots as we can, and the constants shape up like this: urethane, aluminum, Canadian hard rock maple, concrete, and asphalt. Maybe blood, maybe beer we’re teenagers after all but nearly always: cops.
Skateboarding may not be a crime, but it sure as hell feels like one.
Flash forward 20 years. I’m with a different crew as I pull onto a street in suburban Redwood City, and I’m no longer rollin’ in my mom’s Plymouth Sundance, but my own truck. The other thing that’s changed is the number of wheels per head. There are four heads to eight wheels, and we’re here to ride the Phil Shao Memorial Skatepark. On bikes.
The park does not disappoint. There are a million kids trying tech ollie flip tricks around the perimeter of the park, but the bowl is what I’m about. Big and shapely with almost burlesque hips poured into her concrete, I’m in love as soon as I roll in. There are a few local bikers who have the place dialed, nonchalantly airing a few feet out and throwing the bars before heading back down the tranny. The only two skaters riding the bowl are a tall skinny teenager and his little sister, who looks to be about 10, and they have it on lockdown: lipslides on the spine, grinds, rock and rolls everything smooth and fast. "Yeah!" I yell as they take their runs, stoked on their skills.
I know the times have changed when I see the little girl come up out of the bowl in the $450,000 public piece of silky-smooth concrete perfection, walk over to her mother, who’s posted up on a ledge, get a cell phone and make a call. Not five minutes later there are seven (I counted) Redwood City police officers converging on the bench where my friends and I are sitting. They randomly collar my buddy Scott though I was the last one to drop in and write him a ticket for $100. I have to admit, I’m flabbergasted.
Guess what: skateboarding isn’t a crime anymore it’s gone mainstream. Successful companies hire lobbyists to promote the sport, and communities spend big bucks building new facilities for skaters. And now some skaters, many of them kids who never had to live in the underground world that I did, are using their legitimacy to push out the new outlaws people who ride BMX bikes.
It’s crazy two cultures that share so much, fighting over how many wheels they ride.
"Is that your daughter’s bike?"
The question comes from one of my coworkers, and, believe it or not, it’s not intended to be snarky. I can’t ride in public without someone saying "cute little bike," while giggling to themselves or laughing and pointing. Seeing a six-foot-tall, 200-pound, bald-headed, tattooed white dude on a "kid’s bike" is like being passed on the sidewalk by a bear on a unicycle. At one point reactions like these would’ve rubbed me the wrong way, but nowadays, I nod and smile. Sometimes, I try to explain what constitutes a "full grown" BMX bike. While it’s got small wheels 20 inches in diameter the top tube, from the seat to the stem, measures 21 inches, and the handlebars are considered pro-sized at eight inches high by 28 inches wide.
Bicycle motocross, or BMX, is purported to have started in 1963 when the Schwinn corporation of Chicago unveiled the Stingray, which was basically a downsized version of the company’s balloon-tired cruiser-type bikes. Kids pretended to be grown-ups by aping Roger DeCoster and other moto heroes launching their bikes off jumps, racing in empty fields and abandoned lots, and cranking wheelies down the sidewalks of Anytown, USA.
"It all began the way most individual sports start," motorcycle customizer Jesse James says in a voiceover at the beginning of the 2005 BMX nativity story/documentary Joe Kid on a Stingray, "kids pretending to be grown-ups, but acting like big kids."
I have been riding since I was seven. After three decades, one truism remains, and I can’t candy-coat it. I’ve got to speak it like a true BMXer: BMX is rad. It is and always has been an entity unto itself, progressing from wheelies, skids, and bombing hills to encompass myriad styles and surfaces, from streets to pools to dirt jumps to ramps to the balletic grace of flatland freestyle.
This summer, big kids on little bikes will be jumping 30-foot gaps at as many miles per hour as BMX pays homage to its racing roots at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. On June 12 in New York’s Central Park, Kevin Robinson will try to break the legendary Mat Hoffman’s record for the highest quarter-pipe air on a bike 26 feet, 6 inches.
It doesn’t take death-defying world records, the X Games, the Olympics, or the stupefaction of squares with cameras to make BMX legit. That feeling of overcoming fear and doubt by jumping a little farther, a little higher, the rush of nailing a trick, or carving a bowl, hasn’t changed in half a century. The legitimacy lies in that feeling, behind your breastbone, and it doesn’t change as you get older. Your wrists hurt, your ankles hurt, and your back hurts, but the feeling is the same. Kid’s bike? Hell yeah, it’s a kid’s bike.
It’s not as though I was blissfully unaware of a beef between bikers and skaters that day in Redwood City. Ask any BMXer to tell you a story of friction between the two and four-wheeled sets, and it’s not going to take them long to come up with something.
"When I was 12 years old, a skateboarder threw my bike out of the bowl at Ripon skatepark," says Jackson Ratima, now 19, a Daly City rider sponsored by Fit Bikes. "He was, like, 20 years old or something."
Tim "Wolfman" Harvey, 21, another up-and-coming pro, tells a similar story about a visit to the Bay Area from his native Massachusetts, when a local skater hassled him at the Novato skatepark. "I didn’t even know anything about California. It was my first time out bike riding, period. The guy was giving me all kinds of crap, yelling at me."
Ironically, Harvey, as friendly and easygoing a guy as you could hope to meet, almost turned pro for skateboarding before an ankle injury made it nearly impossible to ollie, an essential trick in street skating. He now lives in Petaluma and is a member of the painter’s union in San Francisco, where he’s a familiar face at street spots, but now on a bike. Back then, though, he "thought California was a scary place."
The Bay Area and SF in particular may be the worst place for bikers seeking a vibe-free session. "I’ve never experienced hostility like it is out here," Ratima says.
Smoldering after the Redwood City incident, I began to fixate on the "Skateboarding Is Not a Crime" slogan from my youth. Originally a bumper sticker made by Transworld Skateboarding magazine in the mid ’80s, Santa Cruz Skateboards currently makes a deck with that written on it, so the skate community has gotten a lot of mileage out of being oppressed.
"Skateboarding isn’t a crime?" I’d ask myself. You’re damned straight skateboarding isn’t a crime: it’s the law. BMX is a crime. There isn’t a biker alive who rides transition who hasn’t rolled into a taxpayer-funded park and had a knee-high grommet point to the sign and say, "Bikes aren’t allowed."
Not allowed, huh? Son, I skated my first pool when you were doing the backstroke in your papa’s ball bag.
Look: I love skateboarding and always will. Both skaters and bikers are doing the same thing, copping that same feeling rolling over the same terrain. The war makes no sense.
"We have religion and race and class dividing us. I refuse to be divided by what type of wheel size I have," says Jon Paul Bail, a local at Alameda’s Cityview skatepark.
Bail, 40, is the artist and pundit behind politicalgridlock.com. Through the Home Project, a program run through the Alameda Unified School District, Bail helped raise $150,000 to build the park, $8,000 of which came directly from his company’s coffers. He helped design the park, and he helped pour the concrete in the park, which opened in 1999. Mixed sessions of bikers and skaters were going down for six months with minor tensions but no major incidents when thenCity Attorney Carol Korade advised City Hall that mixed use was too dangerous, and shut the bikers out.
My call to Corinne Centeno, Redwood City’s Director of Parks, Recreation, and Community Services, got off to a rough start: "I understand [the Phil Shao Skatepark] is not bike-legal, right?"
"Right. It was built as a skatepark," she replied, subtly italicizing the first syllable with her tone of voice.
"It wasn’t designed for bikes," she repeated, before adding, "but their having been prohibited from the start hasn’t necessarily kept people out." In an effort to do just that, the city is building a fence around the park, with bids currently ranging from $23,000 to $60,000.
The semantic argument "it’s called a ‘skatepark,’ not a ‘bike park’<0x2009>" is usually reserved for laypeople who don’t know enough about skateboarding or bike riding to see its inherent lack of logic.
Drainage ditches are not called a "skating ditches," nor were they designed for skating. Swimming pools are not called "skating pools." Yet, therein lie the roots of the modern skatepark, along with full pipes, which are based on industrial-size drainage systems also not intended for wheels. Every day skateboarders and bikers transcend these limits through creative repurposing.
Collision, and the fear of collision, is the main thing public officials cite when shutting bikers out of parks. "It’s unnerving," Vancouver pro skater Alex Chalmers wrote in a 2004 Thrasher manifesto, "BMX Jihad: Keep It in the Dirt."
"BMXers cover so much ground so quickly, especially when they’re pedaling frantically to blast a transfer, that it’s particularly hard to gauge these collisions," he wrote.
But the fact is that in any given park BMXers and skaters take different lines, and the best way to acclimate each group to the other is through exposure. If bike riders are banned, it increases the risk of collisions when a few bikers decide to chance the ticket or brave the vibe-out and ride anyway. A lot of bikers hit parks early in the morning because they don’t want to deal with hassles. During the overlap in "shifts," this leads to bewildered skaters who aren’t used to the lines a biker takes, and vice versa.
And the head-on menace is greatly overstated, largely disappearing when a park is integrated, if only unofficially. At Cityview, the police have displayed somewhat less zeal in ticketing bikers during the past few years. "They treat us like gays in the military," says Bail. "Don’t ask, don’t tell." And yet everyone manages to coexist.
At the new $850,000 skatepark in Benicia, which opened in October, integration isn’t a big deal. "From its conception, we designed it to be a skateboard park and also for bikes," says Mike Dotson, assistant director of parks and recreation. Technically, the park has designated bike hours, but since it’s largely unsupervised, there’s a mildly laissez-faire approach to enforcement. "In the very beginning there was a lot of concern about the use of both bikes and skateboards," Dotson says, stating that the park was packed the first few months. "Initially we had one or two calls on it. Since then I can say I haven’t had any calls on it in relation to bikes and skateboards being in it at the same time or other complaints."
And there are mixed-use parks all over the world, as far away as Thailand and as nearby as Oregon: "You go to Oregon, and you can ride wherever you want," says a stunned Maurice Meyer, 41, lifelong San Francisco resident and founding member of legendary bike and skate trick team the Curb Dogs. Long Beach, Las Vegas, Phoenix, even Alex Chalmers’ hometown of Vancouver all have parks where bikes and skates legally ride at the same time. What’s up with the Bay?
Lawyers, insurance underwriters, and city hall types may never understand how a park works. "It’s out of ignorance," Bail says. "To them it looks like chaos. To anyone who has skate etiquette which is everyone we all take turns."
Besides, let’s face facts: a skatepark is a dangerous place to different degrees at different times, and for different reasons. "I swear to God, every time I go to the skatepark I see a hundred boards flying all over the place," Ratima says, "and I’ve never seen a bike go flying and land on a guy’s head." It’s not an inflatable jumpy house it’s fun, but it’s not made out of cotton balls and your mother isn’t here. Usually.
Rose Dennis, press liaison for the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, seemed baffled that someone would want to ride a bicycle inside the skatepark part of the new Potrero del Sol. Perhaps as a way of distracting me from my damn-fool idea, she kept hyping the park’s "other amenities."
I live three blocks from Golden Gate Park if I want to play Frisbee, I’m not going to drive across town. I want to ride. When I brought up the possibility of scheduling bike-only sessions in the yet-to-be opened park, she suggested I draft a letter to general manager Yomi Agunbiade, before adding that "the facility wasn’t designed for that type of recreation."
When I (graciously, I thought) let her know that it would be not only possible to ride a bike there, but highly gratifying, she got a little heated: "At the end of the day, the buck stops with us. If one of you guys breaks your skull open and you’re bleeding all over the place, believe me, no one’s going to have any sympathy for Rec and Park if they make really nonjudicious decisions."
In other words, like a lot of city officials, she’s worried about getting sued.
But you know what? There’s actually less chance a BMXer will successfully sue the city. I give you California Government Code Section 831.7, which states the following: "Neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable to any person who participates in a hazardous recreational activity … who knew or reasonably should have known that the hazardous recreational activity created a substantial risk of injury to himself or herself and was voluntarily in the place of risk."
The law lists "bicycle racing or jumping" as being a "hazardous recreational activity." It’s on a fairly extensive list, along with diving boards, horseback riding, and the ever-popular rocketeering, skydiving, and spelunking, which, as I’m sure you’ve heard, are all the rage with the kids these days much more popular than BMX.
But the words "skateboarding," "skateboarder," and "skateboard" are not listed anywhere in the text of the Hazardous Recreational Activities law, commonly called the HRA law. In fact, the International Association of Skateboard Companies has been lobbying to get the bill amended to specifically include "skateboarding" since 1995, when Assemblymember Bill Morrow (R-San Diego) took up the issue. Morrow’s bill was rejected by the state Senate Judiciary Committee in 1996. In 1997, Morrow and skateboard association lobbyist Jim Fitzpatrick gave up on amending the HRA and instead pushed Assembly Bill 1296, which added Provision 115800 to the state’s Health and Safety Code, which states, in part and in much less forceful language without using the word "liable," for instance that owners or operators of local skateparks that are not supervised must require skaters to wear helmets, elbow pads, and knee pads, and that they must post a sign stating said requirement.
It doesn’t say anything about "if one of you guys breaks your skull open and you’re bleeding all over the place" while wearing a helmet, then you can’t hold the operator liable.
When I asked San Francisco Deputy City Attorney Virginia Dario-Elizando how the law might apply to the city’s skateparks, she told me, "This question has never come up. I must tell you, I’ve never even seen the rules for the skateparks no one’s ever asked me to look at them."
BMXers are willing to compromise if that’s what it takes. In May, San Jose opened the 68,000-square-foot Lake Cunningham skatepark, built by the same design firm (Wormhoudt) as the Benicia park at a price of $4.7 million, and the place has bike hours. Like any park, there are rules. Like some parks, there’s supervision, so the rules are enforced: separate bike sessions; helmet, elbow, and knee pads required at all times; brakes required on bikes; no smoking; no songs with swear words over the park soundsystem; no bikes in the three bowls with pool coping even though they only allow plastic pegs, which are undoubtedly softer on coping than metal skateboard trucks … it’s a long list of restrictions. It’s inconvenient for guys who don’t like pads or don’t run brakes, and there’s some griping, but we’ve got our eyes on the prize: the place is amazing, with a huge full pipe, massive vert bowls, and a decent street course.
I would like skaters to realize a couple of things: skating and BMX aren’t so different from each other, at least in the feeling each gives you, right there, behind your sternum, where your heart beats.
Bikers are going to ride no matter what, just like skaters are going to skate. Legal or not, we’re not going to go away. "I got arrested for riding there when I was 14," Ratima says of the Daly City skatepark. "They took my bike and threw it in the back of the car. I just kept going every day, and finally they just gave up."
"I’ve ridden bikes on vert," Thrasher editor Jake Phelps tells me during a phone conversation. "I can ride a bike in a pool, I can do that. I’m stoked when I ride a bike in a pool. Feels hella fun to me. Catching air on a bike is awesome, no doubt about that."
This, from the longtime editor of the bible of the "fuck BMX" set. It’s either baffling or heartening. I can’t decide which. "I don’t mind people that are just regular," he says. "If they’re skateboard people or they’re bike people too, I’ll respect anybody that respects me."
That’s what it comes down to: respect. I respect the fact that skateboarders did not come into this age of skateparks easily. I faded out when there was nothing, and I came back when they were in small towns across America, and I missed all the politicos and dreary meetings. It’s time for bikers to stop feeling like second-class citizens and demand a seat at the table. In the words of Black Flag, it’s time to rise above.
PREVIEW Stephen Pelton’s full-bodied and thoughtfully structured choreography fits his dancers like second skins. It’s one of the most appealing aspects of the work from this longtime San Francisco artist who now spends half of his time in London. Another of his gifts is choosing music whether it’s Radiohead, Schubert, or Edith Piaf that supports his purposes ever so smoothly. Often drawing inspiration from literary sources, Pelton is a storyteller in the manner of poets who suggest, evoke, and analogize but don’t spell out. The results are dances that resonate like a Zen bell. He may be best remembered for The Hurdy-Gurdy Man (1998), that strangely haunting solo drawn from documentation of Hitler’s body language. He also has created such epics as The American Song Book (1997), which uses popular American music to evoke three different periods in US history. But Pelton’s choreography is most at home in intimacy, full of contradictory impulses in which violence looks lyrical and tenderness totters at the edge of the abyss. A note of melancholy and resignation permeates much of it; perhaps this is not unexpected from an artist who came of age during the worst days of the AIDS crisis. Pelton describes and a white light in the back of my mind to guide me, this season’s premiere, as a meditation on aging. Performed solo and as an ensemble, the piece grew out of a World War II poem by Anglo-Irish poet Louis MacNeice. The work’s accompanying music is from the English composer Gavin Bryars. This program includes a preview of next year’s Citizen Hill, last season’s Tuesday, Not Here (created for the remarkable Nol Simonse in 2003), and Christy Funsch in her reworked 2007 Solo for Somebody.