Volume 43 Number 23

Talk about the passion


There’s an argument to be made that record love really begins when you start noticing the labels. Slumberland was one of my earliest such epiphanies. I was bit by one of the label’s groups, Velocity Girl, because, as much as anything, I felt I had come to them on my own. This secret knowledge kept me satisfied until an older friend made me a cassette mix heavy on the Slumberland set: pastel guitar music by Rocketship, the Softies, Lilys, Black Tambourine, the Ropers, and Amy Linton’s much-missed Bay Area groups, Henry’s Dress and the Aislers Set. I started paying more attention to the sleeve.

Slumberland has been a byword for the more melodic runoff of post-punk since 1989, when its premier release — a three-band 7-inch titled What Kind of Heaven Do You Want? — closed the gap between New York noise and English indie-pop. This is an area of music subject to quarrelsome subdivisions (see shoegaze, C86, dream pop), but Slumberland’s common denominator is the taste and passion of Mike Schulman, former member of Black Tambourine, Powderburns, and the underrated Whorl.

Though still associated with its initial crop of D.C.-area groups, Schulman has run Slumberland from the East Bay since 1992. After a dry spell in the early aughts, the label is disproving F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quip about second acts with a much-buzzed-about round of releases by Brooklyn pop stylists Crystal Stilts, Cause Co-Motion, and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart — an impressive slate that puts Schulman in the unusual position of encountering his own footsteps.

“I look at what we’re doing now, and I could easily imagine any of these bands being on Slumberland 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago,” Schulman tells me between sips of coffee on a gray Sunday morning in Oakland. He’s expansive about the joys of record collecting and vicissitudes of music press in spite of having been up since 4 a.m. with his new baby. Schulman’s tastes are eclectic — he ran the dance record store/label Drop Beat in Oakland’s Rockridge District from 1996 to 2000 and is happy to gab about doo-wop or Japanese noise — but Slumberland was dedicated to scruffy pop from the start. It was an obvious niche, though striking for its proximity to D.C.’s thriving hardcore scene. “I used to go see Minor Threat, Rites of Spring, and I loved those bands, but there were tons of hardcore labels,” Schulman reflects. “I couldn’t have named three labels in America that would do stuff by HoneyBunch or Small Factory. That music just seemed underserved.”

The Slumberland aesthetic was also a romance with a format. Schulman traces his own 45 rpm fixation back to his father’s R&B collection as well as a life-altering experience with the Jesus and Mary Chain’s 1985 A-side “Never Understand” (Blanco y Negro). “It just makes so much sense — the one great song on the one great side, something that fits in your hand. You can pick it up and carry it around. You can have a little box to take it to your friends to play it for people…. Historically, it was a very economical way to transmit the most amazing three minutes of music you’ve ever heard.”

This kind of object-oriented pleasure, along with visual aesthetics and the relative gender equity of the Slumberland bands, tends to get short shrift from blog critics who take the label to task for “playing it safe” with unabashedly melodic music. “I just think rock music is inherently conservative,” Schulman weighs in. “Everyone goes back to the same 15 references. I love the Siltbreeze stuff — those are great records — but you can’t tell me that there’s something shocking or new about them.”

Of course, a credible brand has the upshot of generating its own ancestry. The Brooklyn bands are all well-versed in the Slumberland back catalog — easily navigable on the label’s smartly designed Web site — though the Pains of Being Pure at Heart earn extra points for tapping Archie Moore (Velocity Girl, Black Tambourine) to mix their eponymous debut. Listening to the first 10 declarative seconds of every song on the album is a humbling refresher course in the elevating art of the single.

The Crystal Stilts don’t play for the same caffeinated high, but their 2008 full-length, Alight of Night, is addictive nonetheless. The disc’s zoned out, organ-laced stomps pull off the neat trick of making New York City post-disco punk sound good again. The creamiest song on the album, “Prismatic Room,” lights up the same pleasure zones in my brain as those early Velocity Girl tracks. I find myself going for seconds as soon it finishes — something I didn’t think I did anymore


Grimm tales


› kimberly@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER "My father told me never to play covers. It’s such a hole to fall into. People want to hear stuff they’ve heard a thousand times. Especially white people — they all want to be safe, and covers just make them feel safe."

Larkin Grimm takes the briefest breath, standing beside a frozen creek next to a cowboy trading post in South Dakota’s Badlands. The ice is starting to melt, and the 27-year-old songwriter’s on a roll, talking ’bout her hippie parents — they met here, her father who once lived at the San Francisco Zen Center, and later played southern rock to "toothless hillbilly women" with an Appalachian bar band to support the family ("A huge transition from meditating all day") — as well has her studies at Yale, studies in shamanism, pals Lightning Bolt, and the Providence, R.I., noise scene she emerged from.

"My music doesn’t do that. I’m trying to do a thing where I make people feel safe and at the same time say the most brutal things I can."

She shares the name of the darkest of yarn-spinners, her music rests on a foundation of folk and acoustic instrumentation, and her sensibility — despite her queer punk past — clearly stems from the spiritual quests of her footloose forebears. But Grimm’s one of a kind — even if her soul is old, she’s been here before, and she may be here once again.

Just listen to her new album, Parplar (Young God, 2008). Songs like "Be My Host" may bear the folk-pop fragrance of Joni Mitchell’s early Beat-girl rambles and tunes like "Durge" may ring with the bared-skull minor-key drama of Kurt Cobain writing for a Balkan women’s choir. But listen closely to the lyrics of such songs as "Hope for the Hopeless": "I turned my head against the wicked world you’re in / So there you are I hope you are suffering / I hope you feel the hopelessness and you can’t bear the cost / of being an ungrateful shit," she intones. "… I hope the wind has marked your face and you don’t have a hope / You’re drifting free above the ground / Gently stretching out your rope." Beyond black, yet often alight with an austere beauty. Grimm — a veteran of Dirty Projectors (a band she met at Yale and describes as "what happens when you have an egomaniac trying to control everyone") — knows how to channel the most intense of spirits.

Parplar revolves around female sexuality. "I was going through a period of my life where I was having a gender crisis, and I wasn’t sure if I was a woman or not, but I was starting to get really attracted to men, which was new," she explains. The album was intended to fund her gender reassignment surgery. "I had this plan: get a dick and cut off my breasts."

But then she ended up writing all these tunes about women, including "other women who were having major crises at the time: Britney Spears, Nicole Richie, and Beyonce. All these women are fascinating and intelligent, and they’re in everybody’s mind, and they’re archetypes, and we’ve built them all up so much. They’re sort of like virgins that have been thrown into the volcano. We’ve torn them apart," says Grimm, believing Spears "reached enlightenment for a second. When she shaved her head she was turning her back on materialism. But her publicist and record label wouldn’t allow her to go through the process of rebirth and forced her back into slavery, and it’s tragic, you know. I kind of wrote this record for her, in a way."

Sisterhood — and brotherhood — is powerful: Grimm now hopes to find other kids who lived in the SF-originated Holy Order of MANS commune, which she characterizes as "a co-ed monastic order of energy healers." "We had a very magical childhood, which we lost," she says. After a near-suicide at Yale, she says, "I just live fully all the time. Don’t let anybody tell me what to do. Coincidences and amazing things happen to me all the time." For instance, she recently created an altar with a human skull and twinkling lights in her car. "I felt like it wasn’t magical enough — we need feathers! Five minutes later I see a dead pheasant on the road. Suddenly I realize everything is connected. As soon as you lose your sense of isolation, anything is possible."


Fri/6, 8 p.m., $20

Swedish American Hall

2174 Market, SF



What is this mysterious thing called a Hungry Saw (Constellation), the title of the Tindersticks’ new album and one of its tracks? "It’s one of quite a few songs on this record that I don’t understand totally and I don’t really want to!" Tindersticks vocalist Stuart A. Staples says almost jubilantly from France, where he now lives. "It’s something that drives me and hurts me at the same time." Staples has been on an intuitive tip of late — especially after the band’s last disc, Waiting for the Moon (Beggars Banquet, 2003), which took a year and a half to make. With the addition of new drummer Thomas Belhom and bassist Dan McKinna, and a directive to record in eight days, the group have come up with a fresh slice of Tindersticks tunefulness — almost breezy ("The Flicker of a Little Girl") and moodily somber ("Mother Dear") in turns. As for that tremulous instrument called Staples’ voice, he believes the best is yet to come: "I think it’s always changing and always growing," he says, citing French vocalist Léo Ferré as a discovery that raised his game. "I think it’s something that really drives me, finding my voice. I don’t think it’s arrived."

Sun/15, 8 p.m., $28. Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF. www.gamh.com



Kanye West took a Shine to his "American Boy" collaborator, whereas the Knowles scion attempted to break with the pop mold with her second CD. Thurs/5, 8 p.m., $35–$50. Mezzanine, 444 Jessie, SF. www.mezzaninesf.com


Choral harmonies and impressionistic orchestrations rise from the Copenhagen, Denmark outfit. Sun/8, 9 p.m., $10–$12. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com

The big throwdown


For someone notoriously press-shy, composer and band leader John Zorn is really a friendly, chatty mensch. The modern-music icon brings five of his working bands to Yoshi’s next week for a remarkable residency showing off the breadth and depth of his musical interests — and he didn’t mind at all talking about it.

"I’ve been doing these kind of residencies for the past couple of years in Europe because I got pretty tired of shlepping around on airplanes, as you could well imagine," Zorn said from his home in New York City.

Touring schedules dictating performances in 12 cities over 14 days had Zorn’s body rebelling, so he decided, instead of bringing one band to many places, he would bring many bands to one place and only take two planes to do it.

"I present a wide variety of my passions to the audience, and right now that’s where my commitment is," Zorn explained. "For people to know not just one aspect of what I do, but many aspects."

The alto saxophonist has often been labeled a jazz artist, but the tag has never truly fit. "It’s completely erroneous. Jazz is one of many musics I’ve referenced and studied and paid tribute to." Though his musical influences include jazz artists as varied as avant-garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman and bluesy hard-bopping pianist Sonny Clark, Zorn’s Jewish heritage has had a strong impact on his work as well.

More than anything, though, a defiant, unencumbered personal aesthetic defines the composer — a quality cultivated amid the community of kindred musicians who grew up in New York City’s Knitting Factory scene, playing new genre-less music. Both composed and improvised, his music is sourced and referenced through world culture and structural devices alternately meticulous and random. "It’s music that falls in the gaps," he said. "It’s exciting that it’s been misunderstood, but it’s frustrating."

Once an aspiring filmmaker, Zorn relates most to experiences that are both aural and visual. "There has always been a connection to what I hear and what I see — between film and music," he said. It’s not surprising that Zorn’s most essential record, The Big Gundown (Nonesuch, 1986), comprises music by Ennio Morricone written for films by Sergio Leone and Gillo Pontecorvo. "There’s always a dramatic narrative in the work that I try to do — a kind of extra, musical layer that is very important in all my music."

For his five nights at Yoshi’s, Zorn brings his definitive original Masada quartet with bassist Greg Cohen, drummer Joey Barron, and trumpeter Dave Douglas, along with two offshoots of that ensemble, the Masada String Trio and the electric Masada ensemble. His Bar Kokhba group, which he calls a "Sephardic surf band," and his group the Dreamers, which includes keyboards and electronics, also perform. The stunning array of musicians in those lineups include guitarist Marc Ribot, violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander, and percussionist Cyro Baptista.


Tues/10–March 14, 8 and 10 p.m.; March 15, 7 and 9 p.m., $20–$50

Yoshi’s SF

1330 Fillmore, SF

(415) 655-5600


Everyday wisdom


Taking her cue from the oft-cited Socratic proscription that "the unexamined life is not worth living," Winnipeg-born director Astra Taylor returns from the success of her 2005 documentary Žižek! to offer a Lyceum of pontificating sophists. Examined Life finds the 20-something Taylor, a New School graduate turned New Waver, engaging in itinerant tête-à-têtes with some of the most venerated — and occasionally vilified — theorists of the last 40 years.

Interviewees, who appear in roughly 10-minute blocks, include civil rights advocate and cultural historian Cornell West, queer theorist and Gender Trouble provocateur Judith Butler, and Slovene Lacanian Slavoj Zizek, the so-called Elvis of cultural theory. Channeling the philosophic tradition of flânerie, Taylor purposely extracts her subjects from the academic setting in which they are usually immured and films them in mid-stride — at the street corner, boutique and even the garbage dump. The final product has a jet-setting, gonzo aesthetic, as the documentarian shuttles from London to New York to San Francisco to interrogate her subjects.

Butler, Zizek, and Michael Hardt (Duke professor and coauthor with Antonio Negri of several notable Autonomist tomes) are the most fascinating to inspect onscreen, likely because of the contentious aura that surrounds their collective work. Butler’s ambuutf8g meditation on the politics of disability has an introspective subtlety when paired with Zizek’s screed on the ecology movement, delivered amid piles of rubbish — while Hardt’s discussion of revolution is all the more odd set on Central Park’s limpid Turtle Pond. Throughout, Taylor is determined that motility (walking, rowing, driving) is a dominant leitmotif, whether it be languid and reflexive or brusque and pedantic. While the conversations self-consciously aim toward jargon-free transparency and inclusivity, the film’s attempt at hipster populism will probably fall on deaf ears outside of the university circuit.

Examined Life’s choice of celebrity theorists will, of course, provoke questions as to why certain icons were included and others were left out. So, obnoxious as it may sound, where was Paul Virilio or Giorgio Agamben or Michael Taussig? A sequel may be in order.

EXAMINED LIFE opens Fri/6 at the Sundance Kabuki.

The illuminated room


› johnny@sfbg.com

It would be revealing, if not revelatory, to ask Nathaniel Dorsky to name his favorite times of the day in which to film — if asked to comment on seasons in San Francisco, one senses he could likely break down the differences in quality of light from hour to hour. This assertion is probably presumptuous, but a single shot in Dorsky’s Sarabande (2008) — of a woman and child and a glass door — prompts it. Just one of many of Dorsky’s moving pictures that pierces through its sheer clarity — a kind of beauty that hurts and heals — the shot is brighter than most of Dorsky’s daylit visions. It has a downtown light that is different from that of the avenues and garden paths where some of his recent work resides.

As Dorsky inspires some of the most open-mindedly and -heartedly conversant writing on film today, perhaps it’s time to claim him as a San Francisco filmmaker, acknowledging that while such a tag suits him, his films strip away such restrictive labels. In an excellent preliminary response to Sarabande and Winter (2008), the critic Michael Sicinski referred to the latter as a corollary to the "sharp, biting cold" of San Francisco winters, a description that makes me want to replace sharp and biting with wet and lingering, while adding bone-deep for good measure. Somehow, Winter makes these qualities revivifying.

Winter is bejeweled by rain — its splendor is an earthy, non-campy variant of the bedazzled visions of gay filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger, James Bidgood, and Jack Smith. I’ll switch to a confessional voice and admit that, in comparison to Michigan’s windy and below-freezing baptisms, I find San Francisco winters tortuous to endure. They’ve played host to my worst depressions. To behold and then remember a film devoted to them — Dorsky’s brief note: "San Francisco’s winter is a season unto itself. Fleeting, rain-soaked, verdant, a brief period of shadows and renewal" — is to receive a gift.

Shadowplay and reflection are the essence of cinema, and Dorsky makes cinema from their occurrence within daily life. Dorsky’s films are elemental. One can posit them as a manmade form of photosynthesis — just as sunlight passes through leaves and makes them semi-transparent (a process that attracts Dorsky’s gaze), so light passes through celluloid so it can become something on the screen. A passage in Song and Solitude (2005-06) looks up at the moon in the night sky, and what a star — the greatest movie star? — it is.

Dorsky’s films are silent. They are also songs, an inference present in Sarabande‘s title and the name this week’s San Francisco Cinematheque program, introduced by Bill Berkson. "Dark and stately is the warm, graceful tenderness of the Sarabande," writes Dorsky in his brief description of that film. Yet faster and livelier is Dorsky’s editing there, so that — as Sicinski perceptively notes — the singular montage he (and perhaps the late Warren Sonbert, in a brotherly way) developed undergoes a transformation, and certain images recur or echo in a musical or Apichatpong-like manner. The first time I saw Winter and Sarabande I had a terrible headache, and by their conclusion, I felt better than "normal," so it was funny to reread Dorsky’s book Devotional Cinema (2003–05) recently and see him relate a similar experience about attending a Mozart opera. These films are more than cinematic Tylenol, though. Composed from a singular point of view, they’re ravishing — on a human, rather than crushingly panoramic, scale.


Thurs/5, 7 p.m.

Phyllis Wattis Theater

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

(415) 357-4000




› le.chicken.farmer@gmail.com

CHEAP EATS I love how, on the train, you can see into people’s backyards. Backyards are so much more interesting to me than front ones. What you don’t see from the road … it’s the same in California as Iowa as Pennsylvania: piles of colorful plastic trash, tarp-covered mounds of mysterious not-yet-trash, broken-down swimming pools with bikes sticking out of them, neurotic dogs and malicious children tied to trees …

Sometimes, just outside of cities, between the tracks and the freeway, you see tent towns or hobo jungles, cluttered camps tucked into clusters of trees or just trying to hide in weeds and bushes. Sometimes there is smoke billowing up from a fire pit and you are free to think about coffee or a can of beans.

But litter is more beautiful than people think, especially blooming in an otherwise pristine "natural" landscape. Although … I would argue that our trash is natural too, that Coke cans and candy wrappers are to rocks and leaves what Miles Davis is to wind and rain. We make stuff that outlives us, get over it. Or not. Either way, detritus makes me want to dance.

What I don’t like about train travel, on the other hand, is the museum piece doofus who gets on in Sacramento and blabs about the Donner Party and this scenery and that history, PA system crackling, fracturing, and feeding back, all the way to Reno. I tried to drown him out with my headphones but Utah Phillips wasn’t loud enough. But Abba was, thank you for the music.

After Reno it doesn’t matter. You are too rattled and fuzzy to care — about the sunset or canyons, or the Colorado River, or the Great Plains. Of course, without the voice directing you to look at this, look at that, you tend to notice every single thing.

Two nights in a row I dreamed about tornadoes. The first night I was home in bed, and the second night I was on the train. Only thing tying the two nights together was what I’d had for dinner: Zachary’s pizza. So if I dream about tornadoes tonight, after eating Zachary’s yet again, then we will know the cause.

I’ve got a little cooler and am the envy of this choo-choo train, because I’m holding Zachs.

My thinking: nothing packs more caloric and nutritional value per square inch than a slice of deep-dish pizza. One little piece is a whole big meal. Plus pizza is good hot or cold, as every rocker knows, and it travels well. Well, it travels well in a cooler on a train. Not so much so in a pizza box in the rain. I had to walk five or ten blocks in a downpour, trying to hold my little umbrella over both me and this two-ton pizza. We both got soaked, and the toppings slipped off of the pie and my hat fell off of me. But we made it, and reassembled, and dried off, and by the time I get to Chicago I will have eaten Zachary’s for four straight days, and presumably will have dreamed about tornadoes for four straight nights.

But I mean to tell you about Christopher’s burger joint, which is my new favorite burger joint by virtue of being a little closer to my house than Barney’s. The burgers are made out of Niman Marcus designer cows, but the place itself has a lower brow feel to it, which of course I like.

And they have shoestring french fries, which I like.

Just be ready with the salt and pepper and hot sauce, because nothing, not even the spicy burger, was seasoned very much.

I ate there on a date (speaking of flavorlessness) with one of those guys who only really knows how to talk about himself. You know, the one with an hour-long answer to every question you ask, but he doesn’t have one single question for you. While not exactly what I’m looking for, these dates always go well for me, because while he’s talking, I get to focus on my burger. And fries. Which is ultimately what I’m more interested in.

My date said (among 9 million other things) that he’d met the owner of Zachary’s and, ha ha, told him that Zachary’s was the second-best pizza he’d ever had. And when Zachary asked whose he liked better he said his own homemade pizza. Dude makes better pizza than Zachary’s! And I have no reason not to believe him, except that — and this is pretty flimsy as well as retroactive — I did not dream about tornadoes that night.


Mon.–Sat.: 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m.; Sun., noon–9 p.m.

5295 College, Oakl.

(510) 601-8828

Beer & wine


L.E. Leone’s new book is Big Bend (Sparkle Street Books), a collection of short fiction.

An interesting turn


› andrea@altsexcolumn.com

Dear Andrea:

I am a 39-year-old straight woman having the time of my life with sex. I have two questions for you.

First, my current somewhat exclusive (28-year-old hottie — irrelevant, I’m just braggin’) sex partner and I both know that nothing that touches the anus should then touch the vagina without washing first. However, sometimes in the course of, well, intercourse, it accidentally happens, whether an accidental brush with the anus during vaginal intercourse from the back, or an accidental penetration of the vagina during anal intercourse. Is there anything that can be done to prevent weird vaginal consequences when this happens? Douche? If so what kind would be best?

Other question: My current SESP has a rather large penis (braggin’ again) with a downward bend. This makes vaginal intercourse doggy style AMAZING, but every other position from the front that we’ve tried pretty painful. Any suggestions for positions we may not have thought of that would benefit from this kink in the dink?



Dear Ouch:

Excellent bragging! And who could blame you?

The anus/vagina question is eternal and vexing and probably (thankfully) somewhat blown out of proportion. There is of course a subset of women (heavily correlated with that subset of women who e-mail columnists who offend them, as it happens) who have vaginas like the princess and the pea, except the pea is anything and everything that could possibly cause a vaginal infection, and the princess is a vagina. So, pace the prolifically e-mailing vaginas, who shouldn’t be taking my advice on this, many or really most vaginas simply aren’t that delicate. You should try to avoid cross-contamination, of course you should, but as long as you stick with the front-to-back wipe and other basic common-sensical hygienic measures, honestly, you’ll be fine. Has anything bad happened yet? How long have you been back-to-fronting with this wow-that’s-young-but-hey-good-for-you hot guy, anyway?

The accidental brushing-up against I imagine must happen in so many acts of intercourse that if it were a likely route to infection we’d all be … well, ew. There’s no funny, clever way to describe the state of suffering from bacterial vaginosis. Let’s just not be.

Your other accidental exposure, the "it just slipped in" part, though: really? This I don’t think I’ve ever even heard before, that he’d be going about his anal business and accidentally perform vaginal intromission now and then. That doesn’t sound like such a great idea (although, again, have you had any problems?) but I think it could be avoided. Ask him to pay attention! Maybe he could use a hand as a sort of vestibule-guard (a doorman, if you will), or you could use yours. Maybe one of you could adjust an angle to make it less likely. Maybe you could, I dunno, insert a small device to block the entrance, which could be fun anyway?

My best advice after "don’t do that," though, is just to keep everything clean. Wash before (not douche, just wash). Wash after. Pee a lot. Cleanliness is next to, well, possibly not godliness in this case, but certainly UTIlessness. If you don’t believe me, you can ask a porn star. I was looking around for one to quote on this and found one I happen to know personally (although not that personally), being interviewed at my very own home paper. It’s Lorelei Lee, in the Bay Guardian‘s sex blog www.sfbg.com/blogs/sexsf/2009/02/ask_a_porn_star: "Shower immediately after every shoot," Lorelei says. "We are probably some of the cleanest people you know. That said, sometimes we do get UTIs or yeast infections or BV, in which case we go to the doctor like everyone else. Not too sexy, but not the end of the world either."

So there you have it. Take a shower. Take two.

Now, about your bendy guy. That’s really funny, since people who talk about women’s sexual anatomy and response (that would be me) are forever pointing out that you can have things stuck up there all your life and never have an orgasm from it because that spot, you know the one, just doesn’t get enough attention unless the penetrative device has a bend in it. Fingers (crooked) work. Purpose-made toys work. That thing most obviously intended for penetrative purposes, though, that just doesn’t work. Except when it does! You’re having the time of your life? Isn’t that good enough? I’m sorry, but there really is no other fix. Your fella’s may bend, but it doesn’t want to bend back. You don’t want to be responsible for what could happen if you try to bend it back. So I think you’re going to have to count your blessings and stick with what works. At least, in your case, it works very well indeed, and that is so much better than it works for so many other couples that all I can say is keep that guy; you’d miss him.



Check out Andrea’s new column "Now What?" in the cool new sex zine Carnal Nation (carnalnation.com). Catch Andrea’s workshop "Is There Sex After Baby?" at Recess Urban Recreation (recessurbanrecreation.com ) March 30. Andif you have wondered about San Francisco Sex Information’s famous sex educator trainings but never did anything about it, here’s your chance. Classes start soon. Info and registration at sfsi.org.

Stimuutf8g transit


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Public transit agencies in the Bay Area are being hit with deep cuts to their operating budgets, thanks to the recent state budget deal, and are hoping to use money from the federal economic stimulus bill to maintain their operations.

That conflict played out during a Feb. 25 hearing by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in Oakland, the agency that distributes federal transportation funds to the nine Bay Area counties, which was considering how to distribute $341 million in funding intended for public transit agencies and $154 million for road projects.

Caltrain, AC Transit, Bay Area Rapid Transit, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, other Bay Area districts, and transit user groups urged the MTC board to direct most of the money to immediate needs rather than long-term projects.

Community groups urged the MTC to abandon plans to use $70 million for BART’s Oakland Airport extension and $75 million for the Transbay Terminal rebuild in San Francisco.

“People who are most affected when Muni makes fare increases and service cuts are people who are transit-dependent,” said Razzu Engen, who represents the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and the Transit Justice Project. “You can have the best capital expansion project there is out there, but if you don’t have the money to run it, forget it, it’s not worthwhile.”

While the MTC voted to remove the Transbay Terminal expenditure — noting that it could tap into a separate pot of $8 billion for high-speed rail projects in the stimulus measure — they kept the BART extension project in place, leaving $271 million to be divided among the transit agencies.

“Our ongoing need is to maintain continuing operations. But maintenance doesn’t have a very big constituency on the commission. We have a firm commitment to capital programs,” MTC spokesperson Randy Rentschler told the Guardian.

Judson True, spokesperson for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (which operates Muni), said the money will help offset state funding losses of $61 million over the next two years and allow the agency to “rehabilitate the system.”

Among the expenditures approved by the MTC was $11 million to install 67 new Muni ticket vending machines and money for new Muni vehicles and rail interchanges.

Jose Luis Moscovich, executive director of San Francisco County Transportation Authority, supported the MTC’s decision. “[We’re] going to see money flowing through formulas to Muni to alleviate service conditions on the T-Third, N-Judah, the L.”

Moscovich maintains that the region “needs to take the opportunity of the stimulus package to do things that are going to change the way we live. Paradoxically, these big projects like the Transbay project are the things that are going to take us in that direction.”

Yet the removal of the Transbay Terminal funding, while upsetting to Sup. Chris Daly — who serves on both the MTC board and the Transbay Joint Powers Authority board — turns out to be even more complicated than it seemed at the time.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported March 2 (“Transbay high-speed rail station hits a snag”) that both the California High Speed Rail Authority and Caltrain — systems expected to share the new Transbay Terminal rail terminus — are now expressing doubts about whether they will use the facility after all because of design flaws with its rail component.

CHSRA chair Quentin Kopp was quoted as saying, “Three sets of engineers met and concurred that the design for the station was inadequate and useless for high-speed rail.”

TJPA spokesperson Adam Alberti, who has been sparring with Kopp in recent months over whether Transbay will be the terminus for a high-speed rail system extending from San Francisco to Los Angeles (see “Breaking ground,” 12/10/08), told the Guardian, “I don’t think it’s as bad as it sounds.”

He said the TJPA is currently working to resolve the engineering problems and handle the increased volume expected from high-speed rail and Caltrain and he hopes to have a solution in place by March 12, when he said the MTC will revisit the matter.

BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger also defended the Oakland Airport extension, telling the Guardian, “The challenge in transit is not one over the other. We need to address all those requirements if we’re going to end up with an effective, functioning system that continues to attract people out of their cars and into the smart environmental choice — which is public transit.”


Blaming the system


› rebeccab@sfbg.com

The Grand Sheraton Hotel in downtown Sacramento was buzzing Feb. 24 as some 400 conference-goers representing myriad geographies and political perspectives gathered in one room to tackle an enormous question: should California’s constitution get an overhaul?

Hosted by the Bay Area Council, a San Francisco-based business group, the summit introduced the idea of staging a statewide constitutional convention that would grant Californians the opportunity to make major revisions to the state constitution and streamline the government reform process.

The council hopes to place a measure on the ballot as early as November 2010 to ask voters if a convention should be called. If the effort gets a green light, it would mark the first time in 130 years that a meeting of this kind was convened in California.

The state’s government is dysfunctional, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters opined during the summit. Full of stakeholders with disparate viewpoints who are too often unwilling to collaborate, he said, the Legislature either tends to roll out "unworkable monstrosities" or have its efforts stalled by a small number of representatives who disagree with the majority. "The problem isn’t really which party is in charge," he said. "It’s the fundamental structure of the government."

The summit attracted diverse interests ranging from Chevron Corp., an icon of big business in the Bay Area, to the Courage Campaign, a left-leaning political organization cast in the mold of Moveon.org. Despite being divided on other issues, all parties seemed to be in agreement on the main point that California’s government is desperately in need of a fix.

"I think of the government in California as being like the Winchester House — you keep adding rooms, but there are no corridors," Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) joked at the summit, referring to a historic mansion in San Jose renowned for its monstrous size and complete lack of a floor plan.

The idea for holding a convention was first floated last summer, when Bay Area Council President and CEO Jim Wunderman published an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle titled "California Government Has Failed Us." Wunderman struck a nerve, and organizations such as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters signed up to partner with the business group to launch the constitutional convention effort. Clamor for government reform got louder still in recent weeks, as a disapproving public witnessed legislators sink into a debacle over the budget deal.

An arduous budget debate further intensified when it came to extracting the last vote needed to achieve the required two-thirds majority. The Democratic majority wound up negotiating with Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria), who turned his vote into leverage to force concessions on his own demands. Maldonado was able to single-handedly eliminate a proposed 12-cent increase on the gas tax, and he stipulated that an initiative be placed on the May ballot for an open primary.

"The budget was held hostage to right-wing ideology when the people of the state were demanding a real solution to a real problem," says Lenny Goldberg, executive director of the California Tax Reform Association and the owner of a lobbying firm. "For example, the only way they could get the votes was to give away huge corporate loopholes."

The lesson learned? "We have tied ourselves in knots with the two-thirds vote requirement," declared Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, a moderate Democrat and gubernatorial candidate, spurring a round of applause at the summit. Garamendi called for "majority rule, plain and simple, on every issue." He also suggested extended term limits, and transitioning to a 120-member unicameral legislature to allow representatives to better represent smaller districts.

Other ideas for reform that got bandied about during the summit included reinventing election procedures and considering approaches such as instant-runoff voting, establishing proportional representation, changing the number of signatures needed to place an initiative on the ballot, and establishing an automatic review process for state agencies.

In order to hold a convention, California voters would have to approve two separate ballot initiatives. The first would create an amendment to the current constitution allowing voters to call the convention, while the second would call the actual convention. Both questions could be put to voters on the same ballot, according to the Bay Area Council. Any changes made to the constitution would then have to be ratified by voters.

The process of calling a convention is clear enough, but questions abound on how to proceed from there. For example, how would convention delegates be selected? How many would attend? How would the organizers ensure inclusiveness across ethnic, gender, and economic boundaries? Would the convention open up the entire constitution to debate, or would parties agree to narrow the scope to a few key issues? How would the convention itself escape the same gridlock that critics say has rendered the Legislature dysfunctional?

Without hammering out the fine points, it’s hard to know whether the enthusiasm exhibited at the summit could survive the nitty-gritty details of actually going through with a convention. It’s also too early to say whether progressives could emerge from such a process satisfied with the results.

Assemblymember Tom Ammiano adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward the constitutional convention. "I wouldn’t tell you at this point I’m enthusiastic about it because it could be too much blah-blah and not enough action," he told the Guardian. "I do definitely support budget reform — I’m going to make that a priority — and really want to look at the budget infrastructure, certainly the two-thirds majority. I think we need to deliberate on it and make certain that it wouldn’t have any unintended consequences."

Sen. Mark Leno shared Ammiano’s view that the two-thirds majority requirement tops the list of problems. "I think we could take some modest but profound steps before we open up an entire potential Pandora’s box," he said of the convention idea. "I don’t wish to dampen the spirits of our friends at the Bay Area Council. Their intentions are very good. But should it go forward, the devil will be in the details."

Goldberg took a similar stance. "The biggest problem is the two-thirds vote requirement for taxes and a budget," he told the Guardian. "If a constitutional convention is the way that issue gets resolved, that’s positive. But the question is, how long is that going to take? How are they going to do it? There are so many unanswered questions that I would say, if that’s the only way to deal with the two-thirds vote, let’s do it."

Robert Cruickshank, public policy director at the Courage Campaign and a blogger with the political Web site Calitics.com, said he feels confident that a convention is a worthwhile pursuit for progressives. His organization conducted a poll of its membership to gauge whether there was progressive support for the idea, he said, and results showed that 92 percent of respondents supported it.

For his part, Wunderman emphasized the convention as a tool that could be used by voters rather than elected officials in Sacramento. "I’m excited about changing the game, changing the rules," he told the Guardian. "And I’m more confident than ever that if you lead Californians to revise their constitution, once they see it, they’ll know what they have to do, and they’ll do it. And the fact that it was them that did it will give rise to support for the product."

The Chronicle death watch


› sarah@sfbg.com

Is San Francisco really the frontrunner in the race to become the first major U.S. city to go without a major daily? Or is it a victim of disaster capitalism, in which powerful corporations exploit economic meltdowns to exact otherwise unacceptable concessions from employees and/or antitrust legislators?

Media critics chewed on those questions last week, following Hearst Corporation’s abrupt Feb. 24 announcement that it is undertaking "critical cost-saving measures including a significant reduction in the number of its unionized and non-unionized employees" at the San Francisco Chronicle, and will close or sell the paper, which has 1,500 employees, 275 in the newsroom, unless these changes occur within weeks.

Noting that the Chronicle lost more than $50 million in 2008 — the worst in a string of nonstop losses the paper has suffered since Hearst bought it in 2000 — Hearst vice chairman and chief executive officer Frank A. Bennack Jr. and Hearst Newspapers president Steven R. Swartz warned that "without the specific changes we are seeking across the entire Chronicle organization, we will have no choice but to quickly seek a buyer for the Chronicle or, should a buyer not be found, to shut the newspaper down."

Two days later, the California Media Workers Guild, which represents workers at the Chronicle, reported that Hearst is seeking "a combination of wide-ranging contractual concessions in addition to layoffs, the exact number of which the company said it did not yet have."

"For Guild-covered positions, the company did say the job cuts would at least number 50," read a Guild statement. "Other proposals include removal of some advertising sales people from Guild coverage and protection, the right to outsource — specifically mentioning ad production — voluntary buyouts, layoffs and wage freezes."

Guild representative Carl Hall said he doesn’t see any reason to think Hearst’s threats are a bluff.

"The Rocky Mountain News just closed in Denver," Hall told the Guardian. "The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which is also owned by Hearst, is slated to close in March, if a buyer isn’t found. We’ve seen bankruptcies and disaster scenarios all around the country, and the Chronicle has experienced some of the deepest operating losses in the nation."

Reached for comment March 2, Chronicle publisher Frank Vega told the Guardian, "We’re still in the process," while Guild treasurer George Powell said that "proposals have been exchanged and each side is evaluating them."


Evaluating Hearst claims is hardly an easy task. A privately held corporation, Hearst doesn’t open its books to the public. But one thing is clear, just from reading postings on the corporation’s Web site: Hearst is midway through a squeeze in which it’s trying to turn a profit on the 15 newspapers it owns throughout the country.

And that means more syndicated stories — and possibly the end of free newspaper Web sites.

As Swartz outlined in a recent press release, all Hearst newspapers will be required to allow for "efficient production or common content sharing," use "outbound telemarketing and self-service ad platforms more effectively," increase their subscription rates, outsource printing, and charge for digital content.

"Exactly how much paid content to hold back from our free sites will be a judgment call made daily by our management," Swartz stated. "Our goal is a business model that seeks, by 2011, to get more than 50 percent of our revenue from circulation revenue and digital advertising sales."

And the same day that Chronicle workers learned that their newspaper might be facing the axe, Hearst cut 75 out of 135 newsroom positions at the San Antonio Express-News in Texas.

As San Antonio Express-News editor Robert Rivard told his staff, "Incremental staff and budget cuts, we are sorry to say, have proven inadequate amid changing social and market forces now compounded by this deepening recession."

"It’s like death in here today," a source, who asked to remain anonymous, said. "Everyone who was laid off is still here, working ’til March 20."

And like the growing pool of newsroom refugees nationwide, the survivors of this San Antonio massacre have since met to brainstorm about other newsgathering business models.

"We all have kids, so we need salaries and insurance," our source confided, "but we’re going to start researching some options, see what’s working and not in other places. The time is ripe."


Meanwhile, sources within the Chronicle — who asked to remain anonymous given the ongoing negotiations — claim that there isn’t much hope that Hearst will come up with innovative solutions, but that there is a chance the paper could be sold to Dean Singleton, the only other major Bay Area newspaper publisher.

Singleton’s MediaNews Group owns the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times, and has lost several antitrust cases in recent years. Any deal with the Chronicle would require Department of Justice approval — and would give one owner control of nearly every daily newspaper in the Bay Area.

The media baron refuses to comment on whether he is considering buying the Chronicle.

"We’ll just watch it play out," Singleton told Editor and Publisher’s senior editor, Joe Strupp, last week. "I am not going to speculate on what could happen."

But, as Strupp noted, "MediaNews remains highly leveraged."

Hearst Corporation currently holds a substantial amount of MediaNews debt, owns 31 percent of MediaNews Group newspapers outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, and recently took control of four Connecticut papers that MediaNews was managing for Hearst.

Former Chronicle city editor Alan Mutter believes Singleton could still be in the running.

Observing on his Reflections of a Newsosaur blog that "To wipe out a $50 million loss, let alone make a profit, the [Chronicle] would have to eliminate 47 percent of its entire staff," Mutter later clarified that he believes it’s "extremely unlikely" that the Chronicle will reduce its staff to that extent.

"But, it will try to do some serious cost cutting, and it could be sold, potentially, to MediaNews, because Singleton would not necessarily be expected to put up any money," wrote Mutter, noting that hundreds of people involved in the Chronicle‘s advertising operations could be eliminated if Singleton took over, since ads for MediaNews’ papers are already assembled in India. Another motivation for Hearst to find someone to take over the Chronicle lies in the multimillion dollar printing plant that Hearst just built.

"But no one expects the business to break even now," Mutter said. "If you want to make $20–<\d>$30 million profit over the long term, that’s not a good outcome for a business that has lost $1 billion in recent years."

Michael Stoll, director of the Public Press project, which seeks to launch a nonprofit daily paper, told us he thinks it would be "a real tragedy" if Hearst followed through on any of its Chronicle threats.

"Most San Francisco journalism is generated by reporters at the Chronicle, and its few competitors would be ill-prepared to step in and immediately fill the void," Stoll said.

Concerned that Singleton’s MediaNews could try to make the case that there is a crisis and that the Department of Justice should therefore waive antitrust prohibitions against monopoly ownership, Stoll warned that "the expansion of MediaNews ownership to nearly every other paper in the Bay Area in the last two years has proven to be an unmitigated disaster in terms of a less independent voice from Santa Cruz to Santa Rosa, and from San Mateo to Contra Costa."

The Society of Professional Journalists is calling for a public discussion of Hearst’s threats.

Worried that additional cuts to the Chronicle "will only exacerbate what SPJ perceives as an already growing vacuum of credible reporting and will further limit scrutiny of our public institutions," Northern California SPJ board president Ricardo Sandoval observed that closing the Chronicle "would mean losing the largest source of news for hundreds of thousands of readers in the San Francisco Bay Area."

Asking Hearst to participate in "a high-profile conversation with its community based on the imperative of reinvention," Sandoval said, "We urge journalists, foundations, corporations, the public, and public officials to join us in finding solutions to this increasingly urgent civic challenge."

As University of California at Berkeley journalism professor Bill Drummond warns, "this is not just the decline of the industry. If the mainstream media, which is supposed to be balanced and fair, goes away, if that scrutiny is no longer there, everything will be more partisan and narrower.

"And in this atmosphere where everyone is begging the government to fund their industry, what about the fourth estate?" Drummond said. "Maybe we need the newspaper equivalent of public broadcasting, with pledge drives and bake sales."

Score one for fun


› steve@sfbg.com

City officials and race organizers have dropped plans for a crackdown on partying at the annual Bay to Breakers race in the face of a massive grassroots organizing effort that quickly generated more than 20,000 members opposed to the proposed bans on alcohol, floats, and nudity.

"We’re pleased with the outcome. I think it’s a victory," Ed Sharpless of the group Citizens for the Preservation of Bay2Breakers told the Guardian. "When you have over 20,000 people join your group in two weeks, it means something."

It means that people are tired of the string of crackdowns by Mayor Gavin Newsom (and his special events coordinator, Martha Cohen) that the Guardian has labeled the "Death of fun" (see "Death of fun, the sequel," 4/25/07), which have included canceling Halloween in the Castro District and placing restrictions on the Haight Ashbury Street Fair, How Weird Street Faire, North Beach Festival, North Beach Jazz Festival, and other events.

And the public outcry demonstrates that big events like Bay to Breakers don’t belong to the organizers and sponsors; they’ve become the property of the entire city.

Sharpless was part of a Feb. 27 meeting convened by the Mayor’s Office that included opponents of the crackdown, race organizers, neighborhood groups, and Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who has been trying to balance complaints about public urination, drunkenness, and trash with his concerns about killing yet another party.

Afterward, the Mayor’s Office issued a statement indicating that floats would be allowed as long as they aren’t used to transport alcohol, urging Bay to Breakers participants to register for the race, and stating that alcohol consumption "will be subject to the laws of California. Race organizers will coordinate with the San Francisco Police Department to proactively remove kegs and glass bottles of alcohol from the race course."

While that alcohol policy was left deliberately vague, those involved with the negotiations and the May 17 event say drinking will be allowed as long as attendees don’t get out of control. As with alcohol, nudity isn’t specifically allowed, but it’s no longer explicitly banned.

"The issue was it had gotten out of hand last year," Sam Singer, a crisis communications specialist brought in by race organizers, told the Guardian. He said the race organizers wanted to put a stop to the mayhem and proposed the restrictions, but eventually agreed to work with the partyers this year.

"There was a request by the pro-float, pro-alcohol group to continue what had been a San Francisco tradition. Now it’s incumbent on them to register for the race so organizers can pay for it," he said. "This debate has created a positive social pressure to be a cool person and to be respectful of one’s self and one’s neighbors."

Opponents of the crackdown agree and say they will work to keep things under control. Or as Citizens for the Preservation of Bay2Breakers wrote in a public statement, "The problems with public drunkenness … we get it and agree. People, you need to act more responsibly. Pace yourself. It’s a long day. Don’t get out of hand and don’t ruin it for the majority of folks who are acting responsibly. Most importantly, take care of your friends and each other."

But there are still outstanding questions about whether race organizers (including for-profit corporations AEG and ING) are providing enough portable toilets and trash receptacles to avoid last year’s problems, concerns that were raised but not resolved on Feb. 26 during a permitting hearing before the city’s Interdepartmental Staff Committee on Traffic and Transportation.

Organizers told ISCOTT they would provide 650 portable toilet this year, compared to 550 last year, and that they would be more concentrated around problem areas such as Alamo Square and the Panhandle. But Sharpless told the committee that still wasn’t adequate, describing last year’s problems as "mostly a logistical issue" and saying the proposed crackdown and hiring of Singer, who often charges $400 per hour, were counterproductive.

"Why is it they bring in such a heavyweight to deal with this when they could have applied their resources to these logistical issues?" Sharpless told ISCOTT. "They want to take away the fun in San Francisco to make a buck."

Longtime runner Tony Rossman, who supports the crackdown, didn’t agree and told ISCOTT, "There is a one-word problem here and that is alcohol. And that requires public enforcement."

But Conor Johnstone, a runner who opposes the crackdown, told ISCOTT that banning alcohol was an attack on the character of the 97-year-old event, rather than dealing with the main stated problems. "I think an increase of 100 Porta-Potties is anemic at best," he said.

Jeremy Pollock, who was representing Sup. Mirkarimi, offered ISCOTT and race organizers a long list of suggestions to mitigate the problems, including using large capacity urinals, creating an end point with entertainment and Dumpsters for those with floats, and setting a cheaper registration tier for those who aren’t serious runners. "Nobody wants to see this race end," he said.

Opponents of the crackdown say they will continue working to resolve the outstanding issues.

"We’re not done, folks. There is still work to be done. Issues to be resolved. Details to be hammered out," Citizens for the Preservation of Bay2 Breakers wrote in a public statement. "What wasn’t discussed at the meeting and tabled for later discussion are the logistical deficiencies we still believe exist with race organizers’ plan for the event. Recent research by our group revealed that the New York Marathon sources 2,250 toilets for 39,000 participants in their race, while AEG race organizers source only 500 toilets for 65,000 participants in Bay to Breakers. Could it be that there are such massive issues with public urination because there simply aren’t enough toilets?"

Mirkarimi was happy with the agreement, but said it didn’t address the logistical concerns he’s been raising. "It’s a good step in the right direction. However, this is predicated on the trust that may not be felt until the day of the race. We were looking for specifics to improve this race."

Climate change


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

I’ve heard about a fortuneteller with a tarot deck and a dead fish. I can smell the fish, but I’m daunted by the line in front of the curtain, so I wander into another room and stand before a terrycloth sculpture of some tropical beach getaway. It looks a little like a desert nomad’s tent in Technicolor, and comes fronted by an immobile bare-shouldered woman in vertical repose, cast like a caryatid and basking in cat-eye shades under some imagined equatorial sun for, I’m told, hours on end.

I try not to stare at her beach towel, which not only conforms to her shape but also a life-size photorealistic representation of what you imagine to be the body underneath. Somebody finally offers her a color-appropriate drink through a straw as my eyes dart over to a bedroom scene of vaguely subconscious associations: an inanimate, incongruous couple pokes out from under a duvet, the whole scene partially obscured by a murky plastic curtain on which a playfully frenetic lightshow dances. Titled Sea of Dreams and fashioned by Joegh Bullock — landlord and Anon Gallery proprietor, in addition to being one of more than 20 artists with work on display here tonight — it stands just to the left of a DJ booth, and attracts a group of costumed art lovers who also break into dance.

Taking in Unseen/Unsaid, as this one-off evening of curated art and performance is called, is a lot like trying to take in the history of the Climate Theater itself, full of blurring boundaries and strange echoes. In some ways it’s as labyrinthine as the floor plan of the former bordering house at Ninth and Folsom streets whose second floor contains the theater, its offices, and Anon Gallery. Branching out in several directions at once, it also stitches together the fringe arts, tech, and underground party scenes of the mid-1980s to those of the present.

Next year the Climate turns 25, an impressive run for any theater, and probably a better occasion than just now to trace this one’s full baroque lineage. Suffice it to say that the Climate Gallery, as it was originally known, was an accidental theater started by artists who, by their own admission, had no background or even interest in theater per se. But in opening its doors in 1985 to Nina Wise, who had recently lost a performance space, it quickly became a vital scene and vibrant avenue for some of the most dynamic and promising crossover and experimental work around.

In the last year and a half, as a result of a spurt of new energy via new management — as well as a larger recrudescence, if you will, of some of the old SoMa arts scene of the ’80s — the Climate has been looking pretty spry for a decades-old theater. Granted, this is happening at a time of supreme social and economic uncertainty. But what’s particularly striking about this fresh whirl of eclectic programming, as well as some wider neighborhood networking, is how naturally it harks back to the early history of the quirky black box, founded by artists and famed trend-setting party impresarios Bullock and Marcia Crosby — also founders, with Mark Petrakis, of the famed Glashaus parties of the ’90s and the still-influential Anon Salons. The current vibrant and dedicated bustle on this little corner of the city frankly inclines one to wax wise: do not the biggest downpours also give rise to the most unexpected blooms?


Then again, a few months ago Great Depression II: the Reckoning was just the big coming unattraction. By now it has officially hit theaters, and already set more than one teetering. Most dramatic cases so far: the Magic Theater — whose recent close shave with the bill collectors put in jeopardy the rest of the current season before a massive donor campaign was launched — and Shakespeare Santa Cruz, which underwent a similar, narrowly averted disaster. If this can happen to established, midsize institutions, what of the little guy? And with funding for the arts promising to be an even shakier proposition than usual — $50 mil in the stimulus bill notwithstanding — it’s small wonder that GDII is the inevitable topic of conversation in theater circles.

Climate Theater artistic director Jessica Heidt, however, is talking to me about sloths. We’re parked at a table outside Brainwash, a couple blocks east of Climate, and it’s becoming clear she admires them. "There’s this theory," she says, "that the reason sloths are so sedentary and stay in one tree is that they then fertilize their tree."

I wait for the relevance of this remark to wash over me. I had thought we were discussing the Climate.

"I’m really interested in being rooted in the neighborhood that you’re living in," she continues. "So you can fertilize what’s around you and have a more symbiotic relationship."

Heidt took over Climate in September 2007, shortly after leaving her associate artistic director position at the Magic. Since then, and true to her words on symbiosis, she has been strengthening the theater’s area ties. Recently she banded together with colleagues from other small neighborhood theaters and dance venues under the banner of the newly formed SOMA Culture Coalition, organizing the first theater crawl between the Garage, Boxcar Theater, and Climate.

Meanwhile, Heidt has been coordinating some theater and dinner packages with Climate’s downstairs neighbor, the Medici Lounge. Then there are the collaborations she’s facilitating between Climate artists and neighborhood organizations. She describes one involving women in the penal system based out of the women’s re-entry program on Bryant Street. "That’s been key with the resident artist program," she says, "figuring out partnerships for my eight resident artists to go work with social service organizations, specifically in this neighborhood, where they can give back a little bit — the sloth theory."


So much sprang from the Climate’s operation in the 1980s and ’90s that the outfit was soon labeled "the biggest little theater in San Francisco." And no wonder, since the space managed to be at the precise center of some mighty major trends. Tapped into the local vanguard geek scene of the burgeoning tech industry, for instance, Climate opened the country’s first Internet-wired restaurant-bar downstairs, the Icon Byte Bar and Grill. Meanwhile, the same confluence of art-types and venturesome techies spurred on new social networking strategies, including the earliest version of ex-Climate board member Craig Newmark’s ever-expanding online message board.

In the performance world, Climate helped spawn the storied Solo Mio Festival in 1990, a jaw-dropping who’s who of the form — which enjoyed a real vogue as the most promising segue out of a performance art shtick everyone was getting pretty bored with. Solo Mio’s principal curator was also, as it happens, its second performer, after Wise, to grace the Climate’s new stage in 1985: former SF denizen Bill Talen, a.k.a. Reverend Billy, followed by a runaway hit that solidified Climate’s new status as a serious alternative venue, "avant-vaudevillian" Helen Shumaker’s turn as Mona Rogers in Person, which ended up ensconced off-Broadway. One could go on. There was the international avant-puppetry performance showcase Festival Fantochio …

Climate worked with the hand they were dealt: once, Winston Tong, one "performance art crossover guy" who sparked Fantochio, was stabbed onstage. "Suddenly there was this big blood-spurting thing that we knew wasn’t special effects," remembers Crosby with a cringe. Soon afterward she discovered, while putting up flyers for the show, that the accident had helped them in the all-mighty word-of-mouth department. "’Is that the show where somebody got stabbed?’ they asked. I said, ‘Yeah, you should see it.’ They went, ‘Yeaaah!’<0x2009>"

Bullock — while still a practicing artist and one of the biggest events presenters around, associated with everything from the Sea of Dreams NYE parties to the SF Burning Man events, Decompression, and Flambé Lounge — notes wryly that these days he’s not always recognized when he strays from Anon to the other side of the building. In truth, his and Crosby’s involvement with the theater side of Climate is limited. "I’m still a board member, and I’m still sub-landlord of this space," he says. "But I don’t have much to say about the programming."

The theater itself is the Climate’s second incarnation — after a progressively overtaxed Bullock and Crosby finally decided to hang up their theater hats and vacate the storefront space at 252 Ninth St. in the late ’90s — and it’s the handiwork of magician, actor, showman, and impresario Paul Nathan of Dark Kabaret — a lavishly popular event that has served in part, like Bullock and Crosby’s famous Glashaus parties, as a fundraiser for the theater.

Nathan happened to be driving by, contemputf8g a sojourn in Europe in the wake of the dot-com bust, when he saw the for-rent sign at Ninth and Folsom. He knew the space well from Glashaus party days and the old Billboard Café, which derived its name from the sheets with painted messages that regularly hung from the roof. "I thought, you know, small theater is a dumb idea," he says. "But with a billboard there, we might be able to make a go of it." He got a good deal on the rent from Bullock, built a stage in the empty space, and took on the Climate name again with Bullock’s hearty approval.

"We started with Devil in the Deck and Titillation Theater," Nathan recalls. The evolving smart and sexy sketches of Titillation Theater (favorite program title: Let’s Pretend I’m Not Your Mother) produced another long-running success for the Climate. "We got huge crowds, but we were also advertising in the Chronicle, so our advertising budget was just insane," he adds. "We were breaking even, or making a little bit of money each week. But we really didn’t know what we were doing. There was no grant money." Eventually, Nathan says, they couldn’t afford to continue: "You do the numbers — it just can’t happen."


Journey across the gulf of the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, during which the theater briefly disappeared along with many other art spaces and artists, to the moment when Heidt joined the Climate in 2007. In step with the intrepid optimism she detects in her SoMa environs, she has cheerfully and tirelessly overseen a remarkable resurgence of activity at the 49-seat black-box theater. With its all-volunteer staff, the venue hit a high point in February, presenting in that one month 16 downright disparate shows, including the current West Coast premiere of Skin, a smart, bold, adults-only rumination on lust and fidelity by the sharp and whimsical young Atlanta playwright Steve Yockey, a coproduction with Encore Theater, which coproduced Yockey’s Octopus at the Magic last year.

As offbeat as any play by Yockey promises to be, it remains one of the more straight-ahead components in an unusually varied theatrical lineup. The Climate’s programming stretches beyond the average small theater fare and its audience, to encompass a range of performance and visual art styles and solid Bay Area microscenes — like those around clowning or belly dance — as well as a laidback, brew-in-hand atmosphere of cultured fun, or just funny culture, amenable to a more general bar-hopping crowd.

The first show Heidt produced, You Tubed, a performance series codirected by the artistic director and Richard Ciccarone, was a crowd-pleasing blend of quotidian Internet technology and live reenactments. At the same time, Climate is also making forays into exploratory works in other media: one of Heidt’s first initiatives was establishing both a music and (now defunct) film series. She also repeatedly brought in acclaimed clown and Cirque de Soleil vet John Gilkey’s rollicking band of bad-boy "anticlowns," Your New Best Friends.

"The great thing about this space is that we get to try stuff out and to be much more experimental," Gilkey explains, taking a break from rehearsing a new show he’s developing for the Climate stage. Gilkey’s association with the Climate runs back at least 15 years, but it’s not nostalgia that brings him back.

"The history of San Francisco is that of producing amazing clowns," he says, citing Geoff Hoyle, Bill Irwin, and Larry Pisoni. "I think we have to push a lot harder to be more subversive, more daring, and bolder in the kind of clown we’re creating. This is the place that has open doors for the forward stuff, and that’s what excites me."

Climate’s forward programming last month included installments of the Wednesday night Music Box concerts; another Improv Soapbox open jam session hosted by resident champs Crisis Hopkins; the Monday night Clown Cabaret directed by Paoli Lacy and showcasing students and grads from the Clown Conservatory, as well as faculty and seasoned clowns of the likes of Gilkey, Joel Salom, and James Donlon; another boisterous staging of the matchmaking show and runaway hit, The Dating Game; and Unseen/Unsaid, one in a series of irregular, curated, multi-artist, multidisciplinary, and multi-roomed art parties.

Looking back at its history, the Climate’s success then, and now, has resided in its talent for bridging not just disciplines and genres, but audiences and whole scenes in what was once — and increasingly is again — a flourishing hub of arts and nightlife in SoMa. While it remains to be seen if this gradual crawl back to life can weather the full brunt of the coming economic storm, Heidt’s sloth theory dovetails comfortably with her vision of a diverse but tight-knit artistic community.

Her extensive theater background has held her in good stead: Heidt knows how to produce, direct, and write grants — although ticket sales are still the main source of operation revenue. At the same time, she’s been inspired by what she was not familiar with. "For me that’s been one of the most exciting things about being here — going to Burning Man, knowing it’s a city of crazy artists, incredibly talented people, and it’s all sort of below the surface of what you’re seeing in the mainstream," she says. "To be able to tap into that world a little has been really fun."

As for Bullock and Crosby, who both have remained deeply involved in the culture and organizing of Burning Man and its year-round Bay Area events, they are clearly gratified with a direction they see as consonant with the theater’s long, remarkably fruitful tradition of cultivating crossover communities and promoting the edgy, fun, experimental, and unexpected. "She’s doing the kind of programming that we used to do," says Bullock, "which is eclectic."

I’m hearing echoes again. "South of Market is starting to come back," he continues. "I think there’s a resurrection of the arts right now. I think this corner and this block are key to it, with New Langton Arts and Eighth Street. I mean, this is becoming what it used to be 20 years ago." Bullock laughs. "It’s like, what the hell?"


Through March 21

Thurs.–Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 7:30 and 10 p.m.; $15–$20

Climate Theater

285 Ninth St., SF

(415) 263-0830

For info on this and other events, go to www.climatetheater.com

Lupino Noir


REVIEW A Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts-trained Londoner born to Brit vaudeville parents, Ida Lupino improbably wound up one of hardboiled studio Warner Bros.’ favorite tough all-American dames in the 1940s. Albeit not quite favored enough: WB already had Bette Davis and Ann Sheridan, and then acquired Joan Crawford, so Lupino didn’t get the pick of parts despite some stellar work. When they let her go in 1947, she continued to act but proved her mettle by becoming something extremely rare: a director, writer, and occasional producer. She was, in fact, the only woman occupying a Hollywood director’s chair at the time. Lupino directed features just between 1949 and 1953 (then innumerable TV episodes for another 15 years), but they’re all admirably taut little black-and-white "B’s" with a penchant for taking on sensational themes in a no-nonsense manner.

This Film on Film Foundation double bill revives two. The Bigamist (1953) stars Edmond O’Brien as a businessman explaining to a shocked adoption agency investigator (Edmund Gwenn, Miracle on 34th Street‘s Santa) how he came — with the best intentions, really — to be married to both elegant San Franciscan Joan Fontaine and working-class Los Angeleno Lupino. The latter character is striking for being the kind of unapologetically self-reliant single woman portrait Hollywood generally wouldn’t get around to until much later in films like 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

The real find here, however, is 1950’s Outrage, a surprisingly frank (even if the word "rape" is never uttered) study of a young woman’s psychological deterioration as a consequence of sexual assault. Attacked after a long, Expressionistically atmospheric stalking through a late-night warehouse district, young Ann (Mala Powers) has to endure the subsequent whispers and stares of neighbors and coworkers. (Her name was printed in the newspaper crime report — something not uncommon then.) Unable to cope, she flees town, ending up incognito as an orange-farm worker. But her lingering trauma can’t simply be run away from. Outrage has its flaws. Yet there’s still considerable force in the way Lupino stylistically conveys Ann’s panic attacks, and the screenplay’s unusual, sympathetic focus on aftereffects rather than the crime itself.

"LUPINO NOIR" double feature, Sun/8, 7:30 p.m., $7. Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk. www.filmonfilm.org

SEX SF Mar 6


Vanishing points


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

ESSAY/REVIEW There is a wry but hilarious scene near the very end of Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 912 pages; $30), in which a French literary critic finds a German writer, Archimboldi, lodging at what the critic calls "a home for vanished writers." After checking into a room at the large estate, the elderly vanished writer wanders the grounds, meeting with the other vanished authors, residents whom Archimboldi finds friendly but increasingly eccentric. Gradually it dawns on Archimboldi that all is not as it seems. Walking back to the entrance gate, he sees, without surprise, a sign announcing that the estate is the "Mercier Clinic and Rest Home — Neurological Center." The home for vanished writers is an insane asylum.

As we enter the Obama era, with all its promise of "change," I’ve found it impossible to read 2666 without being haunted by the memory of those who vanished into the lunatic asylum of the long George W. Bush years — not just the nameless and unlucky left to rot in the Bush administration’s secret torture cells throughout the world, but also those who disappeared right here at home. For instance, a guy I worked with a couple of years ago. One day he was training me on the job, and a week or so later he was in a federal prison, labeled a "terrorist" — which in his case meant that he edited a Web site called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty.

There were other ghosts, those who vanished after refusing to speak to grand juries. They were rumored to have gone over the border, or back to the land, or who knows where, their very names now superstitiously verboten to speak out loud, lest we bring the heat down on ourselves. Now that Obama is here and everybody is eager for "change," who will remember the once-bright hopes and dreams of the generation that beat the World Trade Organization in Seattle at the dawn of this decade — the hopes that would later be chased down and gassed and beaten by riot police under cover of media blackout in the streets of Miami, St. Paul, or countless other cities? Of course, there were the suicides and overdoses, and other kinds of disappearances, different but related, too: the abandoned novels, or the guitars taken to the pawnshop. Three people in my community jumped off bridges. Only one survived. The human toll of the Bush years in my life has been enormous.

Watching the celebrations in the streets of the Mission District on election night in November, I could tell all of this was soon to be trivia. I saw a virtually all-white crowd of completely wasted people take over the intersection at 19th and Valencia, shouting "Obama!" and dancing in the street. In one way, this scene was touching: the spontaneous gathering was a product of the true feelings of human hope that people have for a better world. Yet the moment already had the scripted feel of something self-conscious or mediated, like the Pepsi ad campaign it would soon become. I had a sinking realization: those of us who have spent eight years battling the post-9/11 mantra of Everything Is Different Now were now going to soon be up against a new era of, well, Everything Is Different Now.

The narratives we tell ourselves about our country are important. Just when a Truth and Reconciliation Committee is most needed to write a detailed narrative of the Bush era’s torture, spying, illegal war, and swindling, I could already see the opportunity for that kind of change slipping away into the blackout amnesia aftermaths of the street parties taking place all across the nation. The election of a president of the United States from among the ranks of the nation’s most oppressed minorities has offered the country a new triumphant storyline. We have symbolically redeemed our sins against civilian casualties and third world workers, without too much painful self-examination. I could see that Obama’s brand of change was really so seductive because it offered a chance to change the subject.

Like Ronald Reagan, elected while the U.S. was mired in recession and post-Vietnam soul-searching, Barack Obama developed campaign narratives that made the U.S. feel good about itself again. Obama guessed correctly that national morale is low partially because we don’t want to deal with the nameless guilt we feel from the atrocities Bush and company committed in our names. Accordingly, he stated during his campaign that he would not pursue criminal prosecution of members of the Bush administration. Nor has Obama questioned the preposterous idea that we can win either a War on Terror or the war in Afghanistan. If you think about it, "Yes We Can" — his campaign’s appeal to good old American can-do spirit — isn’t far off in substance from Bush’s faith-based convictions about U.S. power. Both Bush’s crusade to make democracy flower in the desert of Iraq and Obama’s notion that the auto industry could save itself — and the planet! — with electric cars are fantasies that appeal to our sense of pride about being the richest and most powerful.

When a country that is owned by China and is getting its ass kicked simultaneously by ragged guerilla armies in two of the most impoverished and backward parts of the world keeps finding new ways to tell itself that it’s the richest and most powerful country, it is in deep trouble.

When political leaders and journalists seek to generate false narratives for our consumption and comfort, the difficult task of remembering the truth falls to literature.

Roberto Bolaño completed 2666 in 2003, shortly before he died, too poor to receive a liver transplant, at the age of 50. Born in Chile, Bolaño counted himself a member of "the generation who believed in a Latin American paradise and died in a Latin American hell," and was himself something of a vanished writer. Briefly jailed during the 1973 coup in which Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew the popularly elected socialist government of Salvador Allende, Bolaño wandered in exile from Mexico City to Spain, working variously as a janitor and a dishwasher, entering obscure literary competitions advertised on the backs of magazines, while his generation was consumed by Pinochet’s secret prisons and torture cells.

Fittingly, disappearance is perhaps the main action of characters in Bolaño’s works, from the vanished fascist poet and skywriter in 1996’s Distant Star (published in English by New Directions in 2004) to the entire romantic generation of doomed Mexican poets and radicals followed across the span of decades and continents to its vanishing point in a desert of crushed hopes in 1998’s The Savage Detectives (published in English by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2007). In 2666, the terminally ill Bolaño wrote as if in an urgent race against the moment of his own departure, unwilling to leave anything out, as if he wanted to save an entire lost underworld from banishment. Taking on every genre from detective noir to the war novel to romantic comedy in an exhilarating, nearly 1,000-page race to the finish, the book is Bolaño’s epic of the disappeared.

The periphery of 2666 teems with Bolaño’s archetypal lost and doomed, a host of minor characters including a former Black Panther leader turned barbecue cook, various Russian writers purged by Stalin during World War II, a Spanish poet living out his days in an asylum, and an acclaimed British painter who cuts off his own hand. There are the usual obscure literary critics and lost novelists, and we even briefly meet an elderly African American man who calls himself "the last Communist in Brooklyn." This last communist could speak for all of Bolaño’s lost and departed when he explains why he presses on: "Someone has to keep the cell alive."

The book’s action, however, centers upon the unsolved serial killings of hundreds of women in the fictional Mexican border city of Santa Teresa during the late 1990s, events based on real-life unsolved killings in Juarez, Mexico. The majority of the women murdered in Juarez were workers at the new factories along the border with the United States, the unregulated maquiladoras that have sprung up in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In the book’s longest section, "The Part about the Crimes," we learn the names, one by one, of 111 of these murdered women. In terse, police-blotter language, Bolaño describes the crime scenes — the girls’ clothing, their disappearances, and the police investigators’ attempts to construct the last hours of their lives. Their bodies are discovered slashed, stabbed, bound, gagged, and always raped, in ditches, landfills, alleys, or along the side of the highway. Seen from these vantage points, Bolaño’s Santa Teresa is a disjointed place, seemingly patched together from snatches of barely remembered nightmares. Shantytowns and illegal toxic dumps spring up everywhere in "the shadow of the horizon of the maquiladoras." It is a city that is "endless," "growing by the second," a new type of urban zone in a Latin America that has become a laboratory for free trade policy experiments. It is a city made unmappable by globalization.

Bolaño clearly intends the reader to see the disappearances as the inevitable byproduct of the cheapness of life in the maquiladora economy, yet the killings also eerily evoke the disappearances in fascist 1970s Chile and Argentina. These murders are an open secret, virtually ignored by the media. Residents almost superstitiously refer to them only as "the crimes." The Santa Teresa police respond to the killings with a staggering indifference and ineptitude that might suggest complicity. The maquiladoras are ominous, hulking windowless buildings often in the center of town, not unlike the torture cells once hidden in plain sight in Buenos Aires (Bolaño even names one of them EMSA, an obvious play on Argentina’s most notorious concentration camp, ESMA), and many of the women’s bodies are discovered in an illegal garbage dump called El Chile. 2666 suggests that the unrestrained capitalism of the free-trade era is the ideological descendent of the 1970s South America state repression from which Bolaño fled, and that the killings in Santa Teresa are in part a recreation of the Pinochet-era disappearances.

While the scenes Bolaño describes are grisly, his language is clinical, the cold camera eye of the lone detective gathering evidence. The collective impact of story after story starts to accrue into its own profoundly moral force. By giving name and face to hundreds of disappeared women, Bolaño suggests that literature is a political response, a way to make wrongs right by bearing witness. While it would certainly be a mistake to read 2666 strictly as a political tract, Bolaño explicitly ties writing to justice in a rambling digression about the African slave trade. A Mexican investigator of the killings points out that it was not recorded into history if a slave ship’s human cargo perished on the way to Virginia, but that it would be huge news in colonial America if there was even a single killing in white society: "What happened to (the whites) was legible, you could say. It could be written." For Bolaño, the search for justice is partially about who can be seen in print.

At a literary conference in Seville six months before his death, Bolaño joked that his literary stock might rise posthumously. Sure enough, Bolaño the man has, ironically, vanished after his untimely death, lost in the fog of fame in the English-speaking world. Mainstream critics call his work "labyrinthine" — perhaps English-language critics’ stock adjective for Latin American writers — in a rush to "discover" a new Borges. Bolaño was a high-school dropout who bragged of discovering literature by shoplifting books. He claimed to be a former heroin addict who hung out with the FMLN in El Salvador. His genius deserves comparison to the great Borges, but it’s safe to say that, unlike Borges, a literary lapdog of Argentina’s generals, Bolaño would never have addressed the military leaders of the fascist Argentine coup as "gentlemen." Bolaño wrote without a net, over the abyss of atrocity into which his generation vanished. He did so in an effort to make a literature that recorded for all time where the bodies were buried. As a female reporter in 2666 says, "No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them."

The dangers of believing false narratives should be evident by now. In the wake of our current financial collapse, it is now widely understood that the U.S.’s sense of itself as the richest and most powerful nation in the world has been kept artificially afloat in the recent past by the import of cheap goods and credit from China. These cheap goods are manufactured under labor and environmental conditions much like those of Bolaño’s maquiladoras — conditions we tell ourselves we would never allow here at home, yet which are vital to our economic survival. Dealings with China have, instead, spread repressive tactics in reverse back to corporations from the United States, such as when Google memorably agreed to remove all reference to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre from its Google China site.

There is a crucial difference between hope and self-delusion. In its dogged search for uncomfortable truth, 2666 creates a hard-won hope that is different from the way in which that word manifests on the campaign trail. It respects the hope that truth matters, that staring it down can provide the shock of self-awareness that makes real change possible.

In the meantime, there is the hope of literature itself. In 2666, Bolaño devotes a scene to one of his disappeared characters, a Spanish poet who lives out his days in an insane asylum in the countryside. The poet’s doctor — who in a classically deadpan Bolaño twist tells us he is also the poet’s biographer — reflects on the asylum the poet has vanished into. "Someday we will all finally leave (the asylum) and this noble institution will stand abandoned," he says. "But in the meantime, it is my duty to collect information, dates, names. To confirm stories." *

Erick Lyle is the author of On The Lower Frequencies: A Secret History of The City, out now on Soft Skull Press.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater


PREVIEW If success breeds success, why has Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater not had any imitators? The company celebrated its 50th anniversary in December, and Revelations will be half a century old next year. Yet Ailey and Revelations continue to be as unique as they were on Jan. 31, 1960, when the company thought the work had failed because the audience greeted it with a stunned silence. Then, of course, the roof came down, and Revelations continues to move audiences around the globe. So would the Ailey company be such a hit wherever they go without Revelations? It’s on every single program of this year’s Berkeley run, and my suspicion is that it wouldn’t.

Still, the company has more going for itself than one masterpiece. For one thing, there are the dancers. They all are virtuosic, generous, and committed to each other. A sense of inclusivity was also key to Ailey and continues to be vital for artistic director Judith Jamison. Ailey never wanted this to be an Ailey-only, American-only ensemble. Today the company still takes chances — with younger choreographers such as Hope Boykin, whose 2008 work Go in Grace will be on Program A. Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen’s 1997 Solo, also seen at San Francisco Ballet, will be on Program D, as will Festa Barocca, a 2008 commission from the Italian Mauro Bigonzetti. One definite highlight should be the West Coast premiere of Ailey’s 1969 piece Masekela Language on Program C. It makes you wonder, what took them so long?

ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER Wed/4–Fri/6, 8 p.m.; Sat/7, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun/8, 3 p.m.; $36–$62. Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, Berk. (510) 642-9988, www.calperfs.berkeley.edu

Radio Africa and Kitchen


› paulr@sfbg.com

Radio Africa and Kitchen is described by its Web site as a "nomadic" restaurant, but if it has anything like a home, it’s Coffee Bar, the Multimedia Gulch spot kitty-corner from Circolo. This juxtaposition isn’t as unlikely as it seems. Although the first thing you smell when you step into Radio Africa is Coffee Bar’s coffee, the smell reminds you that coffee is native to the highlands of east Africa — and Radio Africa’s food is east African in influence.

The maestro of the project is Eskender Aseged. In the autumn of 2004, having cooked professionally in Bay Area restaurants for two decades, he began Radio Africa on a small scale in his own home, serving dinners that reflected the cuisine of his native Ethiopia to groups of 15 or 20 people. Today, more than four years later, the heart of the drill remains much the same: inventive and elegant cooking that emphasizes healthfulness and carefully chosen ingredients in an atmosphere of (sometimes raucous) festivity.

Despite the arresting name, Radio Africa and Kitchen is several steps removed from Africa. It doesn’t even much resemble the Ethiopian restaurants you find along Divisadero Street in the Western Addition. Coffee Bar, as a locale, is a redoubt of pure Mission District monied hipsterdom: a vault of brick, concrete, and stainless steel, with industrial-style lighting, a gigantic, heavy door, and a large mezzanine.

On that mezzanine you will find the flickering light of votive candles, for a monastery effect. There are also big tables for big parties, along with a dining counter overlooking the bar. The Wi-Fi connection must be especially good at the counter, because it seems to attract diners with laptops, who sit there with plates of food while gazing into glowing screens like hardworking controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, gobbling some takeout while maintaining radio contact during a space walk.

I do wonder about the etiquette of peering at a laptop, or into a handheld, while having dinner, especially when the food is as good as Radio Africa’s. Much as I love the traditional way of presenting the highly spiced dishes of Ethiopia and Eritrea — family-style, on mats of injera — I was delighted to find some of the flavors of east Africa handled in a different way. They’ve been passed through a California filter, in a sense. Also I was pleased to find meat de-emphasized, though I like meat. If you’ve been to one of the old-line places, you’ve probably noticed the prominence of beef. Radio Africa favors seafood and chicken instead, and many of the best dishes have no flesh at all.

We were particularly impressed by a green-bean salad ($6) — really an arugula salad with green beans, slivered almonds, dabs of notably creamy goat cheese, and long fingers of white, faintly blushing radish bound together with a simple vinaigrette. A salad like this one reminds us that there is an art to salad-making, particularly in winter, when not only is matériel in short supply but the human response to greens and uncooked vegetables is at its most reluctant and in need of coaxing.

Edamame hummus ($6) was very much like the usual chickpea kind, except with a faint sheen of green. The hummus was dressed with argan oil, which is derived from the pits of a fruit tree native to Morocco and is thought to have many health benefits similar to those of olive oil. For dipping, the kitchen offered rounds of Tartine sourdough baguette instead of the usual pita bread or lavash.

Were the mushroom crostini ($6) mounted on rounds of toasted Tartine bread? The menu did not give the bread’s provenance, and Tartine would be a reasonable guess, but the question was mostly mooted by the tastiness of the topping: a coarse purée of brown mushrooms seasoned with berbere (an Ethiopian form of chili powder) and swabbed onto the toasts along with bits of basil and shreds of manchego cheese, for a hint of tang.

Seared Maine sea scallops ($6) came embedded in a granular purée of cauliflower (about the consistency of riced potatoes) that had been stewed alicha-style. Scatterings of minced chive helped this plate avert a complete white-out, as did the nice crusting on the scallops themselves, which can be overpoweringly rich and sweet but weren’t here.

Usually a special vegetarian plate makes me suspicious, but Radio Africa’s fantasy ($16) was a small ensemble masterpiece. The dramatis personae included lentils in two guises (green were mashed into something like dal; beluga remained whole), an expertly seasoned eggplant caviar, a wintry tagine of fennel and chard spooned over a foundation of couscous, and (also charmingly wintry) a chestnut salsa to bind the players into a whole of still-discernible parts.

The fantasy was so good that the menu’s premier item, a chunk of true Alaskan cod ($20), crusted with flaps of artichoke heart and seated on a low hill of couscous in saffron broth, slightly paled by comparison. We devoured it nonetheless, while noisy birthday parties unfolded at spacious tables on either side of us.

As befits the abbreviated menu, dessert is typically limited to a single possibility, such as vanilla ice cream ($6) — organic, in two scoops — with a couple of fabulously intense lemon cookies, a few blueberries, and a puddling of chocolate sauce, the last two items combining in a strange harmony as well as providing a wealth of antioxidants and going well with coffee, which — not surprising given the circumstances — is available. Wine and beer too.


Dinner: Thurs.–Fri., 6:30–10 p.m.

1890 Bryant, SF

(415) 420-2486


Beer and wine


Bearable noise

Wheelchair accessible

Anthony B


PREVIEW Keith Anthony Blair, also known as the fiery Rasta reggae sing-jay Anthony B, is becoming a multigenerational artist. The 33-year-old began recording in his late teens and over 15 years has helped usher in a cultural revival via a dozen albums, thousands of singles, and relentless touring. Still, he was surprised while on his last trip through Europe when promoters asked him start his shows early to accommodate his many preteen fans. "The shows were full of kids," Blair says, speaking by phone from Jamaica. "We had 10-, 12-, and 14 year-olds come out — that’s a fanbase for the next 10 years." Apparently the youth are drawn by Blair’s lively shows and enthusiastic recordings. "But they’ll go home and ask their parents what my lyrics were talking about. So a conversation can build in the home between the parents and the different generations over music."

Blair arrived on the reggae scene in the early-1990s among a Jamaican cultural contingent that included Luciano, Sizzla, and others. Blair and his camp stood out with their turban-wrapped locks and Bobo Ashanti Rastafarian faith — a sect that imposes restrictions on diet, conduct, and appearance — as well as songs that promoted a positive identity, equal rights, and gave a voice to the poor in Jamaica. After recording for Star Trail, Xterminator, and Fat Eyes, he formed his own Born Fire imprint and issued three self-produced full-lengths, including 2008’s brilliant Life Over Death. His music has always contained conscious content, dating back to 1995’s daring political indictment "Fire Pon Rome," a track recorded at considerable risk. "I’ve had to sidestep police," he explains.

Blair’s latest album, Rise Up (Greensleeves), continues that social justice thread: the title track is an acoustic number that echoes Bob Marley ("emancipate from mental slavery") and urges listeners to be mindful of global issues. With its innovative roots-meets-hip-hop production ("Stop Fight Reggae") and great combination tracks with Chezidek, Lukie D, and Horace Andy, Rise Up is an exemplary recording by a reggae artist that has no problem setting an example. "We have to go out into the world," Blair says, "and come back and show people what can achieved by doing good."

ANTHONY B With Native Elements. Tues/16, 9 p.m., $25. Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF. (415) 771-1422, www.theindependentsf.com



PREVIEW Dear Akron/Family: When I first got my hands on your self-titled 2005 release (Young God), I wasn’t immediately grabbed by your music. Its spare ethereal quality had to stew. But it wasn’t long before the album had brewed, and I was pressing repeat. "Before and Again" and "Running, Returning" led me through the looking glass into a timeless fairy-tale land of fleeting fright and fancy flight. I fell the hardest for "I’ll be on the water." This is kinda embarrassing to admit, but eventually the track even found its way onto a summer mix for my boyfriend at the time, because I loved the line, "Thinking of you / there’s lightning bolts in my chest," the subtle field recordings of ocean waves and children voices, and everything else I thought it said about us.

After that I continued to eat up all of your releases. Meek Warrior (Young God, 2006) and your split album with Angels of Light (Young God, 2005) were both delicious. I found myself liking them even better than your first record — or just as much, but for different reasons. They still have that folksy warmth, but they feel more fractured. "Blessing force" begins with bursting beats, blossoms into intricate polyrhythmic interplay, turns to free-form chaos, and ends with a spiritual climax. Then Meek Warrior follows with the melodic, acoustic mantra "Gone Beyond."

In your music I hear everything from the Beatles’ "A Day in the Life" to "Blackbird," Zeppelin to Zappa, and in the repetitious gospel moments, I hear Spiritualized. But mostly I find a chaotic, incoherent experience — which in your case is a good thing. Your sound is far too eclectic to fit into any Allmusic genre I’m familiar with and instead sounds and feels more like a spiritual awakening. I’m really looking forward to your three-day residency at the Hemlock, and I can’t wait to hear the new material from your upcoming album, Set ‘Em Free, Set ‘Em Wild (Dead Oceans). P.S., I heard y’all made up your own religion called "AK." Is that true? (Michelle Broder Van Dyke)

AKRON/FAMILY With Avocet (Fri/6), Citay (Sat/7), and Howlin’ Rain (Sun/8). Fri/6–Sun/8, 9:30 p.m., $15. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. (415) 923-0923, www.hemlocktavern.com

“Yan Pei-Ming: YES!”


REVIEW James Elkin starts off his wonderful book What Painting Is (Routledge, 1998) with the simple statement that "painting is alchemy," an elegant encapsulation of the process by which combining oils and pigments, applying that mixture onto a canvas, and generally getting one’s hands dirty results in something as ethereal as one of Monet’s Water Lilies. Elkin’s words came to mind while looking at Franco-Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming’s massive watercolor and oil paintings. Yan’s paintings are alchemical double exposures: we are asked to view them simultaneously as palimpsest-like records of their material creation and as indexes of their subjects. Their visceral emotional impact comes from the tension between these two ways of seeing, a tension that is present in every brush stroke and paint globule.

Take Yan’s portrait of our new president, painted last year. Obama regards us cautiously. His sober visage and weary gaze — the products of roughly brushed, smeared and daubed blacks, whites and grays — seem to anticipate the disappointment that will invariably accompany the enormous, near-impossible task before him. The spattering mist of paint droplets that streak his face and suit make the canvas look as if it has been left for the birds, so to speak. This is not the face of the Great Progressive Hope enshrined in street art hagiography. This is not a presidential portrait. This is a portrait of a man — a rightfully exhausted and undoubtedly doubt-filled man — who happens to be the president. The aggregated crudeness of Yan’s technique is not in the service of caricature or grotesquerie. Rather — much like Yan’s earlier portraits of Pope John Paul II, Bruce Lee, anonymous prostitutes, and himself — Obama displays the battle scars of a forceful struggle with portraiture itself.

The political resonances of that representational struggle echo resoundingly throughout this solo exhibition, and the struggle is often one of life and death. On the wall adjacent to Obama, there are four equally large black and white oil portraits depicting unnamed U.S. soldiers and veterans. Each is ambiguously titled Life Souvenir, followed by a different date. Do the numbers mark when these people returned home, or the hour of their death, or both? A morbid terminus is suggested, metonymically, by Returning Home (2008) which depicts the flag-draped coffins of the recent war dead; an image that the Bush administration so pointedly tried to remove from the public domain. A similar ambiguity suffuses the more recent "New Born, New Life" series: I couldn’t help but think of the gore porn photos used by anti-abortion extremists when looking at Yan’s watercolors of newborn infants emerging from murky pools of placental red. Even Obama faces a presidential memento mori in the massive watercolors of U.S. currency on the gallery’s upper level, each mottled denomination bearing the portrait (in this context, rendered worthless as legal tender, while being worth quite a lot, since Yan tends to receive blue chip bids at auction) of a "great man" who has come and gone.

YAN PEI-MING: YES! Through May 23. Tues.–Sat., 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute, 800 Chestnut, SF. (415) 749-4563, www.waltermcbean.com

It’s a depression. Let’s get cracking


By Calvin Welch

OPINION It’s time we called it what it is: this is a depression. And we need to figure out the politics of the new age we are entering, especially in cities, which will be the ground zero for economic hardship.

While President Obama and the media continue to use euphemisms (the "subprime mortgage collapse," "the recession," "the credit crunch") for fear of causing a panic. But the recent tsunami of lost jobs and frozen credit, coupled with the long-standing structural problems of nearly 30 years of Republican magic-of-the-marketplace economic policies — shrinking real incomes for 90 percent of Americans, an obscenely expensive healthcare system that neither businesses nor workers can afford, and an outmoded and deadly carbon-based energy system — have created a new global depression, one the experts said could never happen again.

The current global depression differs in three important ways from your grandparents’ (or great-grandparents’) depression.

First and foremost, this depression was worldwide from the start. Although made in America, the global financial capital system infected the world economy one trading day after it affected ours. Second, the Great Depression was agricultural- and industrial-based, hitting small towns and the countryside the hardest. The current depression is financial service-sector based, and will hit cities and suburbs the hardest, especially the housing, real estate ,and retail sectors. Since the nation is far more urban than it was in the 1930s, our depression will put far greater strains on our urban politics and life-supporting social services to low income people, than anything that occurred during the Great Depression. Finally and saddest, this depression comes at a time when organized labor is weak, divided, and confused.

San Francisco leaders seem unequal to the challenges confronting us. Recently Mayor Gavin Newsom has come up with the usual policies that transform a bad recession into an even greater depression: cut urban health and human services, lay off city employees, and massively accelerate speculation in condo conversions in the midst of cratering real estate values and zero mortgage lending while providing an anemic stimulus proposal for a handful of small businesses that pay their workers very little and are no longer capable of providing health care.

But in the land of the blind, the one-eyed person is king. What is the progressive answer to these mindless proposals? The usual default answers: no cuts, no layoffs — and silence on all the other issues confronting us. This simply won’t do this time. Its not about the budget, folks, it’s about the economy.

We need to start talking with each other — now — about how we rebuild a sustainable urban economy that runs on renewable energy, provides health care for our people, and houses us all. Lets get cracking. *

Calvin Welch is a community organizer and resident of San Francisco.

Fisher’s Folly threatens the Presidio


EDITORIAL The latest proposal for developing the Main Post at the Presidio national park shows exactly what’s wrong with the privatized, developer-driven planning that has plagued the 1,400-acre site since Rep. Nancy Pelosi took control of it away from the National Park System.

The centerpiece of the new plan, released last week, is the same old monument to the greed and ego of Gap Inc. founder Don Fisher. The octogenarian billionaire still gets his art museum, a three-building, 200,000-square-foot development that has no place at the Presidio. Oh, it’s not quite as ugly and intrusive the original design: most of the main gallery will be underground, and the roof will be green. How lovely.

The essential problem with the museum remains, and will continue to plague this development plan. The park is making room for a museum, which was never part of anyone’s vision for the new national park when the Army abandoned the post, purely and simply because a billionaire with powerful political connections wants a place to show off his personal art collection. Fisher’s desires are driving the shape of what ought to be a crown jewel of an urban park. The folks who once upon a time thought the Presidio could be a center for sustainable ecology never had a chance.

And a museum of contemporary art is a total mismatch for the Presidio’s main post. A museum is, by its nature, designed to attract large number of visitors — and since there’s only limited transit capacity in the Presidio, most of them will come by car. The center of the park will be overwhelmed with traffic — and so will the surrounding neighborhoods and the streets that serve as the chokepoints for the Presidio’s limited number of entrances and exits. Those cars will compete for space with the growing number of hikers and bicyclists trying to carve out a space in what is, by definition, a park.

The Main Post proposal also includes a large hotel (described as a "lodge," to conjure up images of rustic accommodations) that will feature a high-end restaurant and bar.

This commercialization of the Presidio stands as the legacy of the speaker of the house, who back in 1994 bowed to Republican demands and decided to take the new park away from the people who run every other national park in America and turn it over to a developer-run Presidio Trust. The trust was saddled with a mandate something no other park has ever faced — it has to develop enough real estate to become self-sufficient. And with Fisher as one of the early trust members, the Presidio has become part office park (with a big George Lucas complex that won the moviemaker a $60 million tax break), part shopping center — and now part museum and hotel complex.

This plan — and the overall dreadful direction the park is taking — can still be changed. The seven-member trust board is appointed by the president, and the Obama administration will soon have a chance to fill three of the slots. By tradition the local Congress member (Pelosi) would have a major say in those appointments — but Pelosi is close to Fisher and has set the Presidio on the wrong course. Obama ought to appoint credible environmentalists and preservationists who are wiling to question and oppose Fisher’s grand scheme.

Some well-meaning local museum foes think the best answer is to encourage Fisher to build his personal edifice somewhere else — say, in downtown San Francisco, where other museums are and where there’s adequate transit infrastructure. The Board of Supervisors voted 9-2 to encourage Fisher to follow that path.

We wish he was willing to donate his contemporary art to SFMOMA which is perfectly suited to handle and display it. But Fisher wants total control, and no professional curator would ever accept that. So we’re willing to consider a new Fisher museum downtown. But the city shouldn’t roll out the red carpet for it. If the Republican who made a fortune selling clothes sewn by children in third world sweat shops wants to buy some land and apply for a building permit, the city should treat him like any other developer. But Don Fisher, who has done almost nothing but damage to this city, deserves no special favors.

Editor’s Notes


› tredmond@sfbg.com

When the news broke last week that Hearst Corporation was threatening to shut down the San Francisco Chronicle, the pundits across the country raised the obvious question: will San Francisco become the first American city without a major daily newspaper?

I think it’s a little early to say that Chron is actually going to vanish; part of what’s going on is clearly a shot across the bow of the paper’s unions, a warning on the part of tough-guy publisher Frank Vega that he’s deadly serious about cutting costs. That will mean widespread layoffs, outsourcing of union jobs, etc. Hearst is a big corporation run by bean counters, one that has major financial problems at many of its media properties. It’s not going to keep sustaining $50 million a year losses in San Francisco.

But Hearst is also a major political player in the United States, California, and San Francisco, and a big-city newspaper carries with it a lot of influence. Shutting down the Chron would be a huge step, one that the Hearst board members, who include William Randolph Hearst 3rd, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, are going to do only as an absolute last resort.

What happens if we lose the Chron? Well, in the short term, we’re stuck with the Examiner, which recently lauded Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s CEO as an icon of alternative energy. I need say no more. In the longer term, something will arise to replace the Chron, probably several Web-only daily newspapers, but they’ll never achieve the clout an old-fashioned morning paper had on the political, cultural, and civic dialogue. Those days are numbered anyway; the urban news media of the future will be smaller, less concentrated, and less individually influential.

I’m not a huge fan of Hearst’s San Francisco flagship, but it’s always a shame to see a newspaper die. And I’m convinced that the creaky old Chron could still survive. But it will need major surgery — not just on the finances, but on the content. Because these days, nobody I know under 30 bothers to read it.

So for Mr. Vega and his editor, Ward Bushee, allow me to offer some hints at reviving the moribund publication:

1. Become a San Francisco paper. Nobody reads the Chron for national news any more. You can get The New York Times delivered or read it on the Web and get far better coverage than anything the Chron offers. So give it up. Go local. And by local I don’t mean Walnut Creek and Orinda; forget the suburban readers and try to convince people in your central circulation area that you have something worth reading every day.

2. Trade C.W. Nevius to the Examiner for a draft choice and a writer to be named later and hire seven young, progressive columnists who can talk about issues that people in one of America’s most liberal cities actually relate to. Run a front-page opinion column every day, by a different one of them — make every powerful interest in the city nervous.

3. Redirect the energy and money from the national news to local investigative reporting. A team of five reporters can break a dozen major stories a year. We do it here on much less.

4. Since David Lazarus left for the L.A. Times, there’s not much muckraking on the business desk. Forget the wire stories and the puff — kick some corporate asses.

5. Hire a liberal editorial page editor.

6. Ray Ratto. Go team.