Volume 44 Number 17

White out

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CHEAP EATS Dear Earl Butter,

Not you, but people say, “You will be stronger.” I wonder how, when I am in a million pieces. Of course I know I will come together, but what if the forearm is on top of the elbow and the upper arm below? What if my fingers are in the wrong order? How can this make me stronger?

I thought I would ask you, because don’t you have some experience with cubism?

Right now I’m on a train crossing the border between Germany and France, sitting backward. I’d puke, but I’m too tired, and completely empty. I haven’t slept in days. I haven’t eaten. Last night I looked at a bowl of onion soup, which was a start.

If I still weigh anything by the time I get to La Rochelle, then survival is almost guaranteed, since the French are certain to feed me.

It was beautiful. When word got out that a sister was down in Europe, this net of unexpected kindness opened up under me. Christ, I love my extended family. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I hate life, but you gotta love the people in it, don’t you? Some of them. Thanks to my brother Jean-Gene the Frenchman and Andi Lu Who, my French sister, my road-to-recovery stretches from roughly Bordeaux to Rome. I knew I had cugini over here, and old best friends of brothers, their exes and exes’ sisters, in-laws of in-laws and such … What I didn’t know is that they would circle up with their arms stretched out and interlocked to catch a farmerly kook they’d met only once, or twice. And years ago.

I need this. I need friendly, familiar faces and hours and hours of ping-pong. Can you believe that I have been through what I’ve been through without the consolation of so much as one bowl of duck soup?

Ah, but the grass is greener in France. The countryside is beautiful. Germany was beautiful too, from the train, but it was a black-and-white kind of beauty. All branches and snow. I wish I could white out what happened to me there.

Well, I take comfort in the fact that I lasted a couple weeks longer in Germany than my mom did in St. Paul, where she moved recently to more easily stalk her own great love, Garrison Keillor.

But she got off easy. I’m pretty sure Garrison Keillor never kissed my mom’s ring finger after making love to her, for example. I don’t think he called her his wife about a million times, or soul mate, or the love of his life. In fact, I’m not sure he knew she existed.

Wait, that’s right — he signed a book for her.

If only I’d gotten an autograph and left it at that. It’s dizzying, like death or sitting backward on the train. If I can stay vertical, Earl, I will eventually fly from Italy to Ohio to the Caribbean, to help wash windows and paint a hurricane-damaged house my other brother built there. Then I should be warm enough to come crawling back and curl up in your closet. Start cleaning.

Dear Dani,

That is great. There is nothing I look forward to more than a lunch date with Joel. At Valencia Pizza and Pasta, here are some of the things I have eaten with him: lemon chicken sandwich ($6.25), chicken-bacon-red pesto sandwich ($6.95). I’ve seen Joel eat breakfast there with corned beef hash and also a roasted chicken plate that was so big it almost stopped him cold. Today he got the pollani picata, which, I think means chicken breast with lemon and capers. What a beautifully full plate!

I got the meatloaf sandwich. A meatloaf sandwich of ridiculous pomposity ($6.25). Honestly, for a moment, I thought they had put the slices in sideways just to thwart me. There was no way to include the lettuce, tomatoes and pickles. You just have to treat them as sides. It was so juicy. I tricked Joel into looking out the window before I attempted a bite. I did not want him to see my jaw unhinge. Listen, this really is my new favorite restaurant. We walked out, as we always do, full, and happy, and friends. — E.B.

VALENCIA PIZZA AND PASTA

Mon.–Fri. 11 a.m.–3 p.m., 5–9:30 p.m.;

Sat. 9 a.m.–3 p.m., 5–9:30 p.m.; Sun. 9 a.m.–3 p.m.

801 Valencia, SF

(415) 642-1882

Beer & Wine

AE/MC/V

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

Appetite: Hoist your stein for Beer Week

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2/5-2/14 – SF Beer Week is going to be a big one this year

We’ve been buzzing awhile now about next week’s SF Beer Week. This one, only the second, is slated to be huge with over 200 events going on in a 10-day span. There’s a lot of beer sampling to be had, my friends! Celebrating craft beers at large, and the rich diversity of our local craft beers, the event is sponsored by local breweries in the SF Brewers Guild. There’s an event to suit every beer lover, from meet-the-brewer nights, to tours, tastings and dinners, to special casks and releases. Navigating the sudsy waters is a bit daunting, but here are a few to consider:

**The big shindig, 2/5, is an Opening Gala at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, featuring 30 of Nor Cal’s best (including some rare) brews, a tapping of the Brewers Guild collaborative brew (a barrel-aged Imperial Common), live music, commemorative stemware for each attendee, and food for purchase from the likes of 4505 Meats, Tacolicious, and Tataki Sushi. Get tix now as they’re $45 but will be $55 after 1/31.

**Every day of Beer Week, kick-ass Humphry Slocombe, in collaboration with Beer & Nosh, is offering a variety of beer ice creams. If their boozy Laphroig, Secret Breakfast, Guinness Gingerbread-type flavors are any indication of what’s coming, it’ll be good.

** On 2/8, Bar Tartine, Chef Chris Kronner, and Chez Panisse chefs, Rusty Packer, Rayneil DeGuzman and Nico Monday, host a four-course dinner with beer pairings from Magnolia and Dogfish Head Breweries. Seatings are at 6 and 9pm; tickets at tartinebeerweek.eventbrite.com.

**I’m a fan of Allagash beers (particularly bourbon barrel-aged Curieux) from Portland, Maine. Just one of many brewers you could meet over the course of this week is Allagash brewmaster, Rob Tod. He’ll be at Monk’s Kettle on 2/7, Superbowl Sunday, from 6-9pm, and on 2/9 (6-8pm), he’s speaking over Allagash beers, charcuterie and cheese at Oakland’s The Trappist.

**On 2/14, it’s a proper Valentine’s Day at Beer Week’s closing party (4-8pm) at Trumer Brauerei in Berkeley. There’s BBQ, beers from 20 local breweries (like Anchor, Speakeasy, Sierra Nevada, Moylan’s), music, silent auction and free shuttles from downtown Berkeley BART. Tickets are $40 pre-party (including unlimited 4 oz. pours, dinner, free shuttle) at www.celebrator.com. Or maybe you’d prefer to break down a whole pig for Valentine’s? Then La Trappe’s Porcine Valentine (3-11:30pm; $95), where Belgian beers and butchery meet, will be just your speed.

www.sfbeerweek.org

All together now

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SONIC REDUCER What do you get when you mix air and earth, combine boisterous and baroque exuberance and densely layered yet bouncily buoyant guitars, incorporate baby Scorpions with full-blown ELO?

Voila, you just ordered Citay, the city’s musical mega-maximalists — now jumpier, rockin’-er, and more exhilarating than ever, judging from the sound of the new ‘un from this fab fantasy confab of Bay Area music-makers, Dream Get Together (Dead Oceans), all united under the imagination of one man: songwriter and guitarist Ezra Feinberg.

“I love the first album [Important/Frenetic, 2006], and I love Little Kingdom [Dead Oceans, 2007]. But whenever I listen to Little Kingdom, I’d think, God, this is sooo mellow,” drawls the chatty Feinberg by phone as he maneuvers between the raindrops and tollbooths, making his way to, sorry, the citay by the Bay. “I don’t really feel like I’m this mellow. This doesn’t feel like me. So in a sense, it’s just been a more honest record. This record is more excitable, and I’m more excitable than Little Kingdom.”

Picture a well-attuned supergroup of SF musicians like Warren Huegel (Tussle), Josh Pollock (Daevid Allen’s University of Errors), Diego Gonzalez (3 Leafs), Sean Smith, and Tahlia Harbour — a dream get-together, if you will — woven together and levitating blissfully, beneath the intense gaze of Feinberg and longtime collaborator Tim Green (Fucking Champs) as they constructed the ornate “sonic architecture,” as Feinberg puts it, of Dream Get Together.

That edifice took a year to make — “I don’t churn it out,” Feinberg confesses — as the group assembled parts like the space-rock synth solo by Howlin’ Rain’s Josh Robinow, heard on “Hunter,” and flotillas of crazily interlocked, airborne guitars. (“I like a lot of what is considered to be pretty bloated and overly athletic 1980s heavy metal guitar playing,” Feinberg says.) Drummer Huegel turned to a full rock kit, in contrast to the last album, and the vocal harmonies came to the fore. The result: songs like the title track take classic rock as its starting point then swoop and soar and leave you shaking your shag, tucked in your party van, and marveling at the sound of a rippling guitar solo in flight. “I wanted to take Citay as it was known on the first two records and blow it up, set a grenade to the first two albums,” Feinberg muses. “It’s like the other albums went off their meds.”

The phrase Dream Get Together refers to a specific relationship, also the center of this collection of songs. “It’s about how difficult it can be if you have a fantasy of a relationship with somebody and it’s met with the reality of that other persona and the real relationship,” explains Feinberg. But it also nods to the dream community of musicians that Citay itself seems to have become — despite the issues of scheduling so many busy players (“Omigod, you have no idea,” the bandleader moans. “It’s a logistical nightmare”) — it’s the same idea, or dream, of supportive, collective art- or music-making that has inspired so many in recent years.

“Citay has become this solo project that also has aspects of a collective because there are so many people,” Feinberg observes. “We’re all friends, and we encompass so many bands in San Francisco — I think there’s something really ideal and beautiful at the heart of what Citay has become.”

Now if we can only get our dream on — together.

CITAY

With Fruit Bats and Extra Classic

Fri/29, 9 p.m., $15

Slim’s

333 11th St., SF

www.slims-sf.com

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CLIPD BEAKS

Seventies-era Cali-rock was the starting point for the off-and-on-again-Oaklanders’ next-level To Realize (Lovepump Unlimited). With Late Young, White Cloud, and Raccoons. Fri/29, 9:30 p.m., $6. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com

DO MAKE SAY THINK

The Toronto post-rock thinkers make a rare appearance, toting the recent Other Truths (Constellation, 2009). With Happiness Project and Years. Tues/2, 8 p.m., $16. Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF. www.gamh.com

NOMO

Yes, mo’ super-heated Afro-rock-inspired awesomeness, pweeze. With the Actors. Tues/2, 9:30 p.m., $10–$12. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com

THEE OH SEES

Oh, say, can you see Kelley Stoltz, Ty Segall, and the Sandwitches joining with T.O.S. for this Stand with Haiti benefit. Tues/2, 9 p.m., $10–$50 sliding scale. Café Du Nord, 2170 Market, SF. www.cafedunord.com

Beneficence

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SUPER EGO The Bay Area nightlife community is pulling out all the stops (and the big guns) to aid the victims of that horrifying earthquake in Haiti this week. There already have been some stellar benefits at Afrolicious, Element, Levende East, and others — and even our local stars of comedy came together at Deco last week to lend support. Below are some more huge efforts, as our club kids continue to spread the love and funds.

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SAN FRANCISCO HEARTS HAITI

It’s a live global funk extravaganza, blending Afrobeat, Latin roll, street strut, and bhangra bang at the Independent, with 100 percent of proceeds going to the Haiti Relief Fund (www.haitirelieffund.org). Featured: Sila, Haiti’s Kalbass Kreyol, Bayonics, Native Elements, DJ J-Boogie, Joe Bagale, Meklit Hadero, Aima the Dreamer, Thank You Julius, DJ Jeremiah & the Afrobeat Nation, NonStop Bhangra, DJ Felina, DJ Amar & Electric Vardo, Gibson Pearl, live belly dancers.

Wed/27, 7:30 p.m., $10. Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF. www.theindependentsf.com

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INDULGENCE HAITI CHARITY EVENT

Hey, even the fancy-pants crowd is activated (yes, bottle service and dress code is in effect). Harry Denton’s Starlight Room, high atop the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, is hosting a shindig with Sebastien Presents featuring ambitiously facial-haired stripper-rock DJ Meikee Magnetic and live drummer Mateo G of Heroes, plus funk-rap DJs Nile and Big Bad Bruce. Did I mention this is for charity? All proceeds from Ketel One sales (and a portion of the door) go to the American Red Cross, so drink up.

Wed/27 8 p.m., $20. Harry Denton’s Starlight Room, 450 Powell, SF. www.harrydenton.com

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UNITE FOR HAITI

Surefire Sound, Big Up magazine, and YBR promotions offer up two big rooms and the Venus Tour Bus outside, bumping dubstep (DJs Joe Nice, Ultraviolet, Sam Supa, Blackheart, NTRLD, Dubsworth, Maneesh the Twister, Lud Dub), reggae (Green B and Daneekah, Stepwise, Nowtime Sound, I&I Vibration) and blunted breaks (Coop D’ville, Ripple, Bogl, Jon Holiday, DJ Cruz, General Nao). With classic MCs Emcee Child and Chronic G. All proceeds go to Yele.org.

Thu/28, 10 p.m., $5–$15. Mighty, 119 Utah, SF. www.mighty119.com

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HAITI AID

Woah. Woah, woah, woah. The city’s best electro, indie, and globaltronics clubs are joining forces to bring the relief, and it’s gonna be a madhouse. All door proceeds will be donated to the Red Cross. Tearing it up live: inimitable rap trio HOTTUB and live electro-bangers Tenderlions. Smashing DJ sets by Bad Neighbors, Eric Sharp, Disco Shawn, Jeffrey Paradise, Nisus, Omar, Richie Panic, Shane King, Sleazemore, Sticky K., and White Girl Lust.

Sat/30, 9 p.m., $10–<\d>$15 suggested donation. Mezzanine, 444 Jessie, SF. www.mezzaninesf.com

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HAITI SWING DANCE BENEFIT

C’mon, you know you want to do the Shorty George with Big Bea for Haiti. Join the Queer Jitterbugs (straight people, beginners, and straight beginners gladly welcomed!) for a night of whirling and twirling for the cause. No need to bring a partner, even — there’ll be plenty to go around.

Sun/31, 7 p.m. beginners lesson ($10 suggested donation), 7:30 p.m.–9:30 p.m. dance ($5–$10 suggested donation). Live Art Gallery, 151 Potrero, SF. www.queerjitterbugs.com

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HOPE FOR HAITI

Did someone say classic San Francisco house bonanza? I did. Mark Farina, Miguel Migs, Fred Everything, Garth, Jeno, Julius Papp, David Harness, J-Boogie, M3, Galen, Solar, MFR, Frankie Boissy, Chris Smith, Chris Lum, and Consuelo are taking us back in style. Part of the international House4Haiti.com movement, which is coordinating parties worldwide, this lovely event is giving 100 percent of its proceeds to Doctors Without Borders. It’s also going to wear out my new pumps.

Monday, Feb. 1, 7 p.m.–1 a.m., $10 suggested donation, Mighty, 119 Utah, SF. www.mighty119.com

Marijuana goes mainstream

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I’ve smoked marijuana on and off for most of my adult life, usually in the evening to help let go of the anxieties associated with being a progressive wage slave in an increasingly conservative capitalist country.

Buying my pot, which is California’s biggest cash crop, has always been a criminal transaction: in hushed tones or coded language, I arrange to meet a dealer I’ve been set up with through friends. And when I meet him (they’ve always been men), I give him cash in exchange for an eighth- or quarter-ounce of whatever kind of pot he’s selling.

I don’t know what variety I’m buying, who grew it, or how it was grown; whether violence or environmental degradation have occurred along the supply chain; or even whether it is an indica or sativa, the two most basic cannabis families that have differing effects on users.

I’ve been completely in the dark, both in terms of what I was buying and who was benefiting from the transaction, but that changed recently. I obtained a doctor’s recommendation to legally smoke weed — honestly citing anxiety as my affliction — and set out to explore the area’s best cannabis clubs.

It was a little strange and disorienting at first, this new world of expert purveyors of the finest Northern California marijuana and the various concentrates, edibles, drinkables, and other products it goes into. But what eventually struck me is just now normal and mainstream this industry has become, particularly in San Francisco, which has long led the movement to legalize marijuana.

Unlike in cities such as Los Angeles, where the rapid proliferation of unregulated pot clubs has made headlines and raised community concerns, San Francisco years ago made its clubs jump through various bureaucratic hoops to become fully licensed, permitted, and regulated, free to join the mainstream business community, pay their taxes, and compete with one another on the basis of quality, price, customer service, ambiance, and support for the community.

As Californians prepare to decide whether to decriminalize marijuana for even recreational use — on Jan. 28, advocates plan to turn in enough valid signatures to place that initiative on the fall ballot — it’s a good time to explore just what the world of legal weed looks like.

Pretty much everyone involved agrees that San Francisco’s system for distributing marijuana to those with a doctor’s recommendation for it is working well: the patients, growers, dispensary operators, doctors, politicians, police, and regulators with the planning and public health departments.

“It works and it should continue to be replicated,” Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who created the legislation four years ago that led to the current system, told us. “It’s now mainstream.”

Public health officials agree. “In general, we’re very happy about our relationship with the industry and their commitment to the regulations,” said Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, San Francisco’s environmental health director. “We did this well and we did it cooperatively with the clubs.”

Bhatia said there are now 22 fully-permitted clubs (and two more under review) in San Francisco, less than half the number operating when the regulations were created. He also said the city no longer receives many complaints from neighbors of clubs.

Misha Breyburg, managing partner of the nonprofit Medithrive, which opened just a few months ago on Mission Street, supports the process too. “The regulations generally are not easy, but I think that’s okay,” he said. “The process was long and cumbersome and stressful, but very fair.”

Martin Olive, director of the Vapor Room, one of the city’s largest and best dispensaries, agrees that the permitting process professionalized the industry: “I’m proud to be here because the city government has been amazing.”

Richard Lee — founder of Oaksterdam University in Oakland, which teaches marijuana cultivation and is the main financial backer behind the initiative to legalize and tax pot — said San Francisco and Oakland have demonstrated that cannabis clubs can function like any other legitimate industry and become a real asset to their neighborhoods and the local economy.

“Once they started legalizing the clubs, they had no more problems,” Lee told us. “It really is boring and really not a big deal. It’s only the prohibition that makes it exciting and a little scary.”

In fact, Lee said that normalizing and legalizing the marijuana industry is the best way to deal with the problems associated with the illegal drug trade, such as violence, creation of a criminal class, respect for law enforcement, wasted public resources, lost tax opportunities, unsafe growing operations, and environmental damage.

“We need to end cannabis prohibition to end the violence,” Lee said.

Bringing marijuana above ground also has created an artisanship that’s similar to the wine industry, elevating cultivation practices to an art form, improving the science behind it, and making users more sophisticated about subtle differences in taste and effect among the dozens of varieties now on the market.

But the growers themselves still exist in a murky gray area. Although they can get some legal cover as registered caregivers to a cooperative’s members, they’re still exposed to thefts, shakedowns, logistical difficulties, and raids by federal agents or even local police, such as the series of raids in the Sunset District last fall that targeted even legitimate growers for the clubs.

“Right now, cultivators have no air cover at all and they’re getting mixed messages,” Mirkarimi said, calling for the city to better protect growers and even consider getting into the business of growing pot for the clubs and patients. “General Hospital should dispense medical cannabis.”

That issue and others related to the city’s relationship with the industry are currently the subject of a working group convened by Sup. David Campos, a byproduct of which is the proposal to create a Medical Cannabis Task Force to advise the Board of Supervisors, an item the board was scheduled to vote on Jan. 26.

Mirkarimi said he’s also concerned about current rules that ban smoking in clubs that are within 1,000 feet of schools or drug treatment facilities, which has served to prohibit smoking in all but a few San Francisco clubs. Oakland bans smoking in all its clubs. “That’s where the laws could be modified, because you don’t want to take away that social vibe,” Mirkarimi said. “San Francisco needs to be a leader in activating the next step.”

Olive, whose club allows smoking and has a great social scene, agrees that something is lost when the clubs are forced to be simply transactional.

“This is a social healing medicine, and we’re here to promote an inviting atmosphere where people can share their stories,” Olive said. “The whole point is not to just come in and get your medicine, but to be a part of a community.”

That community can range from young stoners to dying old patients, who can both benefit from their communion. “It’s the hippies and the yuppies. Everyone comes here,” Breyburg said. Or as Olive told me, “There is something intrinsically rewarding to sharing a joint with someone, as silly as that sounds.”

The voter-approved Proposition 215 and state law are deliberately vague on what ailments qualify for a doctor’s recommendation, spawning a sub-industry of physicians who specialize in pot, like the ones at the clinic I visited, Dr. Hanya Barth’s Compassionate Health Options in SoMa.

The busy clinic charges around $130 for an initial visit and patients walk away with a legal recommendation, which is all state law requires to legally use marijuana (the clinic recommended also buying a $100 state ID card or a $40 card from the Patient ID Center in Oakland, but I didn’t need them to enter any of the clubs I visited).

The long forms patients fill out even suggest anxiety as an affliction that pot can help, but the clinic also asks patients to sign a waiver to obtain detailed medical records supporting the recommendation. When Barth learned that I have a shoulder separation for which I underwent an MRI a few years ago, she requested those records and added “shoulder pain” to my “anxiety” affliction.

“My goal is not just to give people a recommendation. I look at how I can help or support the person beyond just giving them a recommendation,” Barth told me, illustrating her point by showing me two packs of cigarettes from patients whom she said she convinced to quit smoking.

Her vibe combines the healer and the old hippie, someone who sees a plethora of uses for marijuana and generally thinks society would be better off if everyone would just have a puff and chill out. The clubs also don’t draw distinctions based on their customers’ reasons for smoking.

“There is a distinct difference between medical use and recreational use,” Olive said, telling stories about amazing turnarounds he’s seen in patients with AIDS, cancer, and other debilitating diseases, contrasting that with people who just like to get high before watching a funny movie, which he said is also fine.

But Olive said there’s an important and often under-appreciated third category of marijuana use: therapeutic. “They use cannabis to cope, to unwind, to relax, to sleep better, or to think through problems in a different way,” Olive said.

This third category of user, which I officially fall into, seems to be the majority people I encountered in the local clubs. And while it may be easy for cannabis’ critics to dismiss such patients as taking advantage of laws and a system meant to help sick people, Olive says they play an important role.

“They make it easier for the cannabis clubs to give it away to the people who really need it,” Olive said, referring the practice by most clubs of giving away free weed to low-income or very sick patients, which is supported by the profits made on sales.

The Vapor Room is widely regarded as having one of the best compassionate giving programs, and Olive estimated that the operation gives away about a pound per week through local hospice programs and by giving away edibles and bags of cannabis vapor at the club.

Some of the profits are also used to offer free massage, yoga, chiropractic, and other classes to their members, a system being taken to new heights by Harborside Health Center in Oakland, which has fairly high prices but uses that revenue to offer an extensive list of free services and laboratory analysis of the pot it sells, identifying both contaminants (such as molds or pesticides) and the level of THC, the compound that gets you high.

Olive said there’s also a positive psychological impact of legitimizing the use of marijuana: “It no longer feels like you’re doing a bad thing that you have to be sneaky about.”

As I created my list of the clubs I planned to review, I found abundant online resources such as www.sanfranciscocannabisclubs.com and www.weedtracker.com. But an even better indicator of how mainstream this industry has become were the extensive listings and reviews on Yelp.com.

I combined that information with recommendations from a variety of sources I interviewed to develop my list, which is incomplete and entirely subjective, but nonetheless a good overview of the local industry and the differences among the clubs.

Also, like our restaurant reviewers, I didn’t identify myself as a journalist on my visits, preferring to see how the average customer is treated — and frankly, I was amazed at the high level of friendly, knowledgeable customer service at just about every club. To comply with city law, all the clubs are fully accessible by those with disabilities.

So, with that business out of the way, please join me on my tour of local cannabis clubs, in the (random) order that I visited them:

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DIVINITY TREE

While the reviews on Yelp rave about Divinity Tree (958 Geary St.), giving it five stars, I found it a little intimidating and transactional (although it was the first club I visited, so that might be a factor). But if you’re looking to just do your business in a no-frills environment and get out, this could be your place.

The staff and most of the clientele were young men, some a bit thuggish. One worker wore a “Stop Snitching” T-shirt and another had “Free the SF8.” But they behaved professionally and were knowledgeable and easy to talk to. When I asked for a strain that would ease my anxiety but still allow me enough focus to write, my guy (patients wait along a bench until called to the counter) seemed to thoughtfully ponder the question for a moment, then said I wanted a “sativa-dominant hybrid” and recommended Neville’s Haze.

I bought 1/16 for $25 and when I asked for a receipt, it seemed as though they don’t get that question very often. But without missing a beat he said, “Sure, I’ll give you a receipt,” and gave me a hand-written one for “Meds.”

Buds weighed on purchase

Open for: three years

Price: Fairly low

Selection: Moderate

Ambiance: A transactional hole in the wall

Smoke On Site: No

Thug factor: Moderate

Access/Security: Easy. Membership available but not required

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GRASS ROOTS

Located at 1077 Post St. right next to Fire Station #3, Grass Roots has the feel of a busy saloon. Indeed, as a worker named Justin told me, many of the employees are former bartenders who know and value customer service. With music, great lighting, and nice décor, this place feels comfortable and totally legit. Whereas most clubs are cash-only, Grass Roots allows credit card transactions and has an ATM on site.

The steady stream of customers are asked to wait along the back wall, perusing the menus (one for buds and another with pictures for a huge selection of edibles) until called to the bar. When asked, my guy gave me a knowledgeable breakdown of the difference between sativa and indica, but then Justin came over to relieve him for a lunch break with the BBQ they had ordered in and ate in the back.

Justin answered my writing-while-high inquiry by recommending Blue Dream ($17 for a 1.2-gram), and when I asked about edibles, he said he really likes the indica instant hot chocolate ($6), advising me to use milk rather than water because it bonds better with the cannabinoids to improve the high. Then he gave me a free pot brownie because I was a new customer. I was tempted to tip him, but we just said a warm goodbye instead.

Buds weighed on purchase

Open for: five years

Price: Moderate

Selection: High

Ambiance: A warm and welcoming weed bar

Smoke On Site: No

Thug factor: Low

Access/Security: Easy

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HOPENET

Hopenet (223 Ninth St.) is one of the few places in the city where you can smoke on site, in a comfortable, homey style, as if you’re visiting a friend’s apartment. In addition to the loveseat, two chairs, and large bong, there is a small patio area for smoking cigarettes or playing a guitar, as someone was doing during my visit.

Although the small staff is definitely knowledgeable, they all seemed stoned. And when I asked about the right weed for my writing problem, a gruff older woman impatiently dismissed any indica vs. sativa distinctions and walked away. But I learned a lot about how they made the wide variety of concentrates from the young, slow-talking guy who remained.

He weighed out a heavy gram of White Grapes for $15, the same price for Blue Dream, and $2 cheaper than I had just paid at Grass Roots. That was in the back room, the big middle area was for hanging out, and the front area was check-in and retail, with a case for pipes and wide variety of stoner T-shirts on the walls.

Buds weighed on purchase

Open for: seven years

Price: Low

Selection: Moderate

Ambiance: Like a converted home with retail up front

Smoke On Site: Yes!

Thug factor: Low

Access/Security: Easy

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VAPOR ROOM

Vapor Room (607A Haight, www.vaporroom.com) is San Francisco’s best pot club, at least in terms of feeling like an actual club and having strong connections to its community of patients. It’s a large room where customers can smoke on site, giving this collective a warm, communal vibe that facilitates social interaction and fosters a real sense of inclusiveness.

Each of the four large tables has a high-end Volcano vaporizer on it, there’s a big-screen TV, elegant décor, and large aquarium. There’s a nice mix of young heads and older patients, the latter seeming to know each other well. But, lest members feel a little too at home, a sign on the wall indicates a two-hour time limit for hanging out.

Its early days in the spot next door were a bit grungier, but the new place is bright and elegant. It has a low-key façade and professional feel, and it strongly caters to patients’ needs. Low-income patients are regularly offered free medicine, such as bags full of vapor prepared by staff. Mirkarimi said the Vapor Room is very involved in the Lower Haight community and called it a “model club.”

But they’re still all about the weed, and they have a huge selection that you can easily examine (with a handy magnifying glass) and smell, knowledgeable staff, lots of edibles and concentrates, a tea bar (medicated and regular), and fairly low standardized pot prices: $15 per gram, $25 per 1/16th, $50 per eighth. And once you got your stuff, grab a bong off the shelf and settle into a table — but don’t forget to give them your card at the front desk to check out a bowl for your bong. As the guy told me, “It’s like a library.”

Buds weighed on purchase

Open for: six years

Price: Moderate

Selection: High

Ambiance: Warm, communal hangout

Smoke On Site: Yes!

Thug factor: Low

Access/Security: Easy, but membership required

————-

MEDITHRIVE

The newest cannabis club in town, MediThrive (1933 Mission, www.medithrive.com) has a bright, fresh, artsy feel to it, with elegantly frosted windows and a welcoming reception area as you enter. This nonprofit coop takes your photo and requires free membership, and already had almost 3,000 members when I signed up a couple weeks ago. Tiana, the good-looking young receptionist, said the club recently won a reader’s choice Cannabis Cup award and noted that all the art on the walls was a rotating collection by local patients: “We’re all about supporting local art.”

The decorators seemed to have fun with the cannabis concept, with a frosted window with a pot leaf photo separating the reception area from the main room, while the walls alternated wood planks with bright green fake moss that looked like the whole place was bursting with marijuana. There’s a flat-screen TV on the wall, at low volume.

The large staff is very friendly and seemed fairly knowledgeable, and the huge selection of pot strains were arranged on a spectrum with the heaviest indica varieties on the left to the pure sativas on the right. Lots of edibles and drinkables, too. The cheapest bud was a cool steel tin with a gram of Mission Kush for $14 (new members get a free sample), while the high rollers could buy some super-concentrated OG Kush Gold Dust ($50) or Ear Wax ($45) to sprinkle over their bowls.

Prepackaged buds

Open for: three months

Price: Moderate

Selection: High

Ambiance: Professional, like an artsy doctor’s office

Smoke On Site: No

Thug factor: Very low

Access/Security: Easy, but membership required

————

KETAMA COLLECTIVE

At 14 Valencia St., Ketama is a testament to how silly it is that clubs within 1,000 feet of schools aren’t permitted to allow smoking on site. This former café has a large, comfortable seating area and full kitchen, both of which have had little use since a school opened way down the street last year, causing city officials to ban smoking at Ketama.

Pity, because it seems like a great place to just hang out. Yet now it just seemed underutilized and slow. The staff is small (one door guy and a woman hired last summer doing sales), and we were the only customers during the 20 minutes I was there (except for the weird old guy drinking beer from a can in a bag who kept popping in and out).

But it still had jars of good green bud, several flavors of weed-laced drinks and edibles, and a pretty good selection of hash and kief at different prices, and the woman spoke knowledgeably about the different processes by which they were created. To counteract the slow business, Ketama has a neon sign out front that explicitly announces its business — another indication the industry has gone legit.

Buds weighed on purchase

Open for: five years

Price: Low

Selection: Limited

Ambiance: Dirty hippie hangout, but with nobody there

Smoke On Site: No

Thug factor: Low

Access/Security: Easy, but free membership required

————

MR. NICE GUY

Belying its name, Mr. Nice Guy (174 Valencia St.) thrilled and scared me, but not necessarily in a bad way. Located across the street from Zeitgeist, the thug factor here was high and so was the security, allowing no human interaction that wasn’t mediated by thick Plexiglass, presumably bulletproof.

After initially being told by a disembodied voice to come back in five minutes, I submitted my doctor’s recommendation and ID into the slot of a teller’s window, darkened to hide whoever I was dealing with. Quickly approved, I was buzzed into a small, strange room with three doors.

I paused, confused, until the disembodied voice again told me, “Keep going,” and I was buzzed through another door into a hallway that led to a large room, its walls completely covered in brilliant murals, expertly painted in hip-hop style. Along the front walls, a lighted menu broke down the prices of about 20 cannabis varieties.

Then finally, I saw people: two impossibly hot, young female employees, lounging nonchalantly in their weed box, like strippers waiting to start their routines. The only other customer, a young B-boy, chatted them up though the glass, seemingly more interested in these striking women than their products.

I finally decided to go with the special, an ounce of Fever, normally $17, for just $10. I opened a small door in the glass, set down my cash, and watched the tall, milk chocolate-skinned beauty trade my money for Fever, leaving me feeling flushed. It was the best dime-bag I ever bought.

Prepackaged buds

Open for: ???

Price: Moderate, with cheap specials

Selection: High

Ambiance: Hip hop strip club

Smoke On Site: No

Thug factor: High

Access/Security: High security but low scrutiny

————-

BERNAL HEIGHTS COLLECTIVE

Bernal Collective (33 29th St. at Mission) seemed both more casual and more strict than any of the other clubs in town — and it also turned out to be one of my favorites.

After refusing to buy pot for a guy out front who had just been turned away, I entered the club and faced more scrutiny than I had at any other club. It was the only club to ask for my doctor’s license number and my referral number, and when I tried to check an incoming text message, I was told cell phone use wasn’t allowed for “security reasons.” On the wall, they had a blown-up copy of their 2007 legal notice announcing their opening.

But beyond this by-the-book façade, this club proved warm and welcoming, like a comfortable clubhouse. People can smoke on site, and there’s even a daily happy hour from 4:20–5:20 p.m., with $1 off joints and edibles, both in abundant supply. Normal-sized prerolled joints are $5, but they also offer a massive bomber joint with a full eighth of weed for $50.

The staff of a half-dozen young men were knowledgeable about the 20 varieties they had on hand and offered excellent customer service, even washing down the bong with an alcohol-wipe before letting a customer take a rip from the XXX, a strong, sticky bud that was just $15 for a gram.

Buds weighed at purchase

Open for: five years

Price: Fairly low

Selection: High

Ambiance: A clubhouse for young stoners

Smoke On Site: Yes

Thug factor: Low

Access/Security: Fairly tight

————-

LOVE SHACK

This longtime club (502 14th St.) has had its ups and downs, the downs coming mostly because of its location on a fairly residential block. After taking complaints from neighbors, the city required Love Shack to cap its membership, although that seems to be changing because the club let me in, albeit with a warning that next time I would need to have a state ID card. It was the only club I visited to have such a requirement.

Once inside this tiny club, I could see why people might have been backed up onto the street at times. But the staff was friendly and seemed to have a great rapport with the regulars, who seemed be everyone except me. The knowledgeable manager walked me through their 20-plus varieties, most costing the standard street price of $50 per eighth, or more for stronger stuff like Romulan.

On the more affordable end of the spectrum was the $10 special for Jack Herrer Hash, named for the longtime legalization advocate who wrote The Emperor Wears No Clothes, a classic book on the history of the movement.

Buds weighed at purchase

Open for: eight years

Price: Moderate

Selection: High

Ambiance: Small, like a converted apartment

Smoke On Site: No

Thug factor: Moderate

Access/Security: Tight

————-

COFFEE SHOP BLUE SKY

Blue Sky (377 17th St., Oakland)is based on the Amsterdam model of combining marijuana dispensaries with coffee shops, although it suffers a bit from Oakland’s ban on smoking. Still, it’s a cool concept and one that Richard Lee sees as the future of marijuana-related businesses because of the synergy between smoking and grabbing a bite or some coffee.

Most of Blue Sky is a small coffee shop and smoothie bar, but there’s a little room in back for buying weed. “We’ve got the best prices around,” said the guy who checked my ID, and indeed, $44 eighths and $10 “puppy bags” were pretty cheap. Customers can also sign up to do volunteer political advocacy work for free weed.

The only downside is the limited selection, only four varieties when I was there, although the woman at the counter said the varieties rotate over the course of the day based on the club’s purchases from growers.

Prepackaged buds

Open for: 14 years

Price: Low

Selection: Very limited

Ambiance: A fragrant little room behind a coffee shop

Smoke On Site: No

Thug factor: Low

Access/Security: Easy

————–

HARBORSIDE HEALTH CENTER

I have seen the future of legitimized medical marijuana businesses, and it’s Harborside (1840 Embarcadero, Oakland). With its motto of “Out of the shadows, into the light,” this place is like the Costco of pot — a huge, airy facility with a dizzying number of selections and even a “rewards card” program.

All new members are given a tour, starting with sign-up sheets for daily free services that include yoga, chiropractic, acupuncture, reiki, consultations with herbalists, and classes on growing. Then we moved to a section with the clones of dozens of pot plant varieties available for purchase (limit of 72 plants per visit), along with a potted marijuana plant the size of a tree.

Harborside is also blazing the trail on laboratory services, testing all of its pot for contaminants and THC content, labeling it on the packaging just like the alcohol industry does. Some of the smaller clubs don’t like how over-the-top Harborside is, and they complain that its prices are high. But those profits seem to be poured back into the services at this unique facility.

Prepackaged buds

Open for: three years

Price: High

Selection: Huge

Ambiance: A big, open shopping emporium

Smoke On Site: No

Thug factor: Low

Access/Security: Tight

————-

SANCTUARY

The people who run Sanctuary (669 O’Farrell St.), the first club to fully comply with the new city regulations and get its permanent license, have been active in the political push for normalizing medical marijuana, as a wall full of awards and letters from politicians attests. Owner Michael Welch was commended for his work by the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, where Sanctuary employee Tim Durning has been an active longtime member and former elected officer.

Sanctuary has a generous compassionate giving program and caters to lots of poor residents of the Tenderloin neighborhood. While the club is prohibited from allowing smoking, they fudge the restriction with a Volcano vaporizer. “A lot of patients are on fixed income and live in the SROs, where they can’t smoke, so we let them vaporize here whether they buy from us or not,” Durning told us.

Those who do buy from them find a huge selection — including 20 different kinds of hash and 17 varieties of buds — at a wide price range. Staffers know their products well and take their business seriously, giving a regular spiel to new members about responsible use, which includes maintaining neighborhood relations by not smoking near the business.

Buds weighed on purchase

Open for: five years

Price: Low to moderate

Selection: High

Ambiance: Campaign headquarters for the marijuana movement

Smoke On Site: No, but vaporizing OK

Thug factor: Low

Access/Security: Easy

————–

GREEN DOOR

If low prices or a huge selection of edibles are what you seek, Green Door (843 Howard St., www.greendoorsf.com) could be the club for you.

Eighths of good green buds start at a ridiculously low $25 and go up to just $50 (the cheapest price for eighths at many clubs and also the standard black market price). If that’s not low enough, super-broke users can buy a quarter-ounce bag of high-grade shake for $40.

If you didn’t already have the munchies going in, you’ll get them perusing the huge menu of edibles: from weed-laced knockoffs of Snickers bars and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups for just $5 to cupcakes, ice cream, or Chex party mix. They have lots of hash and other concentrates as well.

Somehow, the club also manages to have a strong compassionate giving program and contibutes to local civic organizations that include the Black Rock Arts Foundation, Maitri AIDS Hospice, and Friends of the Urban Forest.

The club itself is a little sterile and transactional, with an institutional feel and employees stuck behind teller windows. But even though that and the steady flow of tough-looking young male customers raise its thug factor a bit, the employees all seemed friendly and helpful, giving free edibles to first-time customers.

Prepackage buds

Open for: 8 years (4 here, 4 in Oakland)

Price: Cheap

Selection: High for edibles, moderate for weed

Ambiance: Like a community bank of cheap weed

Smoke On Site: No

Thug factor: Moderate

Access/Security: Easy access, high security

————–

RE-LEAF HERBAL CENTER

While I had heard good things about Re-Leaf (1284 Mission St.), my first impression was that it’s a little sketchy. As the door guy was checking my recommendation card and ID, I asked whether they allow smoking on site. He looked as if this was a difficult question, paused, and finally told me to ask the people behind the counter.

The small club was blaring gangsta rap when I entered, after a while lowering the volume to compete less with the blaring television set to an ultimate fighting match. It had two small fridges filled with tasty-looking edibles and lots of vaporizers and other merchandise for sale, but only eight varieties of marijuana.

But the service was good, and after knocking $5 off my gram of Jim Jones (a variety I only found here) because I was a first-time customer, he told me it was OK to smoke on site. I sat down on the couch, but there were no bongs, vaporizers, pipes, or even ashtrays to use.

Buds weighed on purchase

Open for: two years (three years at previous SF location)

Price: Fairly low

Selection: Limited

Ambiance: A loud head shop that also has some weed

Smoke On Site: Yes and no

Thug factor: Moderate to high

Access/Security: Easy

Doom and decay

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MUSIC The Bay Area has a strange relation with its musical past — accounts of Phil Lesh’s recent somnambulation among the living attest to this, but the same can be said about much of the past 10 years. For better or worse, as the early ’00s crawled back into the woods to die, many of us were left with the impression that the past 10 years were composed of a series of disorganized, vaguely parasitic gestures, a theme party where every group of new guests seems to ape a different decade. Was this an era where mainstream pop music spun its wheels, the occasional ingenious act breaking free from its orbit and gaining some degree of forward drive?

This was also a decade that saw heavy metal — as a music, aesthetic sensibility, and subculture — grow in labyrinthine complexity. Perhaps the hallmark of this growth was an awareness of its immediate history, redirecting its typical drive toward progress, increasing its speed and techniques with mechanized precession, into an exploration of the forgotten pathways and alcoves of its byzantine evolution.

It’s no coincidence that the emergence of a group of historically-aware metal titans ran parallel with the publication of several fantastic metal histories (Ian Christe’s 2003 Sound of the Beast being probably the most well known), a string of successful reunions and new releases from reenergized legends (Maiden, Priest, Dio Sabb … er, Heaven and Hell), and — what I would argue is most interesting — an influx of creative energy directed toward the supremely retrograde doom metal subgenre. Reemerging from the movement is Saint Vitus, a band that in many ways is the spiritual ancestor to this much-welcome ongoing metal mutation.

Though Saint Vitus’ slow, stoned sound had been marinating in fuzzy ’70s goodness, the band’s Scott “Wino” Weinrich-fronted classic lineup came into its own on SST Records, a label dedicated to pushing the boundaries of rock. In many ways, the members of Saint Vitus were the shitty longhairs at the party. The same year the group released its monolithic Born Too Late (SST, 1987), not to mention three years after the release of fragmentary, futuristic milestones like Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade and the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, SST was busy signing Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth.

On the metal side of the spectrum, Vitus was inevitably entrenched in the thick of the famed “growing arms race” of efficient, mechanized speed and aggression that defined progress in terms of BPMs. The emerging stoner doom set, which Vitus was in the process of engendering, erected towering, sustained riffs in the classical (metal) mode, watching them deteriorate after the initial attack, fading back into the mix’s opaque bass drone. In many ways, doom metal’s current obsession with the sound of decay can be traced to Saint Vitus’ still-audible feedback.

“Born Too Late,” the title track off of the group’s 1987 SST release (and the first Vitus record featuring Wino on vocals), expresses the genre’s sense of temporal exile. The verse deals with this disjoint on a surface level — the hypothetical peanut gallery hassles Wino over his long hair and clothes — but behind the sartorial concerns, there’s something gripping about the band’s conception of its place in time. The main chord progression is the kind of tough, three-power-chord stomp we’ve heard hundreds of times before in heavy rock, yet Dave Chandler allows each of the foreboding chords to linger, reverberating against the persistent low-end and metronome drumming, treating his SG like a monstrous 500-year-old pipe organ in the process. The riff is played with a cumulative power, repeatedly driving the chord progression into the song’s landscape; as one chord dissociates, another materializes to take its place. Wino howls that he was born too late, that he’ll never be like you; the last syllable devolves into an abstract growl, and Chandler annihilates the history of the song with an atonal, dive bomb solo.

While “Born Too Late” may have become the unofficial anthem of both Saint Vitus and perhaps the whole doom metal sensibility, “Living Backwards,” the opening track on its less famous but still awesome V (Hellhound, 1989), further articulates this nebulous relationship with time. Is the band moving backward through looking ahead, creating the forward momentum through facing backwards? Or, like the paradoxical title, does the band’s obsessive cycling back to metal’s origin point roll the group forward into the avant garde terrain of ’80s underground rock? Not incidentally, “Living Backwards” is probably Saint Vitus’ most driving song.

Of the three acts opening for Saint Vitus on its upcoming date at the DNA Lounge, Saviours’ music articulates this strange relationship to past and future in some of the most exciting ways. (Also on the bill are subtle, unsettling funeral doom masters Laudanum and Dusted Angel, a stony five-piece featuring members of Vitus’ SST Records contemporaries Bl’ast!.) Though by no means entrenched in the tradition of glacial, cavernous riffing, Saviours’ historically savvy songwriting approach picks up from the backward-facing cycles that wheeled Saint Vitus into new creative terrain.

Saviours’ most recent release, Accelerated Living (Kemado, 2009) is damn close to being the perfect heavy metal record, an overgrown wilderness of exceedingly heavy riffs that traverse the genre’s 40-plus years in existence. The metal-attuned ear can discern everything from Thin Lizzy to Slayer in the mix (as the band is from the Bay Area, I’d like to imagine I can even hear shades of Blue Cheer’s late, great Dickie Petersen in Austin Barber’s vocals). But, like any of the group’s guitar solos, the real explosive chemistry of this combination of patterns is unpredictable — the result is as heavy as it is timeless, a vision of heavy metal not segregated through arbitrary demarcations, but rather metal as a continuum, a nebulous, interwoven chain radiating from a dim, misremembered past. Accelerated living backwards?

SAINT VITUS

With Saviours, Laudanum, Dusted Angel

Fri/29, 8 p.m. (doors 7:30 p.m.), $15–$20

DNA Lounge

375 11th St., SF

www.dnalounge.com

Sound effects

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MUSIC One can infer a lot about a musician’s relationship to hardcore from their effects pedals. Black Flag pissed off the jocks by growing their hair out and exploring ponderous jam-band territory, but modulating the guitar signal might have been a more serious affront. Black Dice took the latter tack, with Bjorn Copeland’s guitar playing the role of sound generator in contrast to Greg Ginn’s Tourette’s-stricken riff machine. Philadelphia’s David Harms goes by Mincemeat or Tenspeed and does the narrative one better by dispensing with the guitar altogether: his rig consists of a feedback circuit of effects pedals and a mixer.

There may be only one other notable instance of this kind of setup: Nurse With Wound’s uncharacteristic triple-LP of rippling metallic drones, Soliloquy for Lilith (Idle Hole, 1988). NWW’s Steven Stapleton claims to have created the album by gesturing in the air above the circuit — he puts it down to an electrical anomaly in the studio — but Mincemeat’s Harms is more accurately imagined trying, with limited success, to contain his own in-the-red squall by throwing his upper torso over a guitar-pedal-ringed Eye of Sauron. The sound-dust Harms assembles into the seven well-structured pieces that make up Strange Gods (Zum) moves at a velocity and with a restlessness that recall minimalist composers as well as the formal noise bacchanal of Kevin Drumm’s Sheer Hellish Miasma (Mego, 2002). It’s all-American, free-form blood ‘n’ guts noise that takes formal and textural cues from early electronic music — Hair Police listening to Gordon Mumma.

If Mincemeat or Tenspeed’s noise Ouroboros encircles hardcore, their Zum labelmates High Castle (note the initials) use it for rocket fuel. The band shares the bill for tomorrow’s show at the Stud Bar with Mincemeat, but invites comparison with late-1990s punk, though it’s hard to point to a single band. Easier to call out the signs: the trio takes their name from a Philip K. Dick novel, sings in unison without harmonies, features aggressive but rhythmically elastic drumming, and named their best song “Filth.” Fidelity-wise, High Castle’s debut 12″ You’re on Your Own Way sounds damp and fuzzy, like the band (all three members are So Cal natives) is trying to thrash their way to heat. Though the band’s lo-fi production style sounds rote, the way they’re pulling inspiration from neglected corners of underground rock gives a different impression.

MINCEMEAT OR TENSPEED

With High Castle, Strip Mall Seizures, Zoo

Thur/28, 9 p.m., $3

The Stud Bar

399 Ninth St.

www.studsf.com

Welcome to violence

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MUSIC Late last year, Stones Throw Records announced it would release a full-length album of tunes by its veritable resident producer, Madlib, in 2010 … every month. Dubbed Madlib Medicine Show, the 12-part series sounds like a rap nerd fantasy.

Ever since his critically-lionized Quasimoto adventure, 2000’s The Unseen (Stones Throw), when he adopted a helium voice and crafted adult cartoons straight out of Fritz the Cat (1972) and Le Planete Sauvage (1973), Madlib has defined an idiom of crackling sampled loops, slightly buggered raps, and thick clouds of weed smoke. Over 15 years deep into a career that kicked off with a cameo on the Alkaholiks’ 1993 debut 21 and Over (Loud), the L.A. musician’s enigmatic vision perseveres, even as the idealistic underground scene he once occupied — remember back in the ’90s when his old group the Lootpack chastised wannabe gangsta rappers on “The Antidote”? — has turned cynical, becoming obsessed with the same “mainstream” guns-drugs-porn-money quadrangle it once criticized

Meanwhile, onetime critics who complained that Madlib produces too many records have been hushed by a rapacious Internet age, where weekly emissions of tracks and mixtapes are de rigueur. For example, L.A. indie rapper Blu, a promising inheritor of the West Coast hip-hop tradition, has been on “hiatus” for well over a year as he crafts his major label debut, yet still manages to upload several albums’ worth of free online “demos.” Madlib’s dozens of aliases (Yesterday’s New Quintet, DJ Rels, take your pick) and chaotic forays into post-bop, free jazz, soul-jazz broken beat, Brazilian tropicalia, and deep funk might seem quaint in comparison.

Smartly, Madlib doesn’t give his music away for free. The Madlib Medicine Show may resemble those Internet “loosies” and “street albums” you downloaded last night, but he makes you pay for the privilege of hearing his work. (Or at least he tries to; no one is immune to the Web’s torrential bootlegging.)

The first installment, No. 1: Before the Verdict, is particularly pointed in its message of commerce as a soul-destroying, mind-blowing shit-stem. The cover depicts a charred $1 bill (with a weed leaf embedded in a corner), an industrial plant spewing toxic waste, and the World Trade Center being bombed by an airplane. The interior features photos of strangely voodoo-fied Africans — one has a hand protruding from her mouth — and the cryptic message: “There were only three witnesses. Two are dead. The other isn’t talking.”

Before the Verdict’s 17 tracks consist of remixes of Guilty Simpson’s 2007 album Ode to the Ghetto, and a few previews of a forthcoming collaboration tentatively titled OJ Simpson. (Again, just like those damned Internet “street albums.”) Guilty is a decent if ornery thug rapper, but he’s clearly no match for Madlib’s symphony of ’70s soul “rapps,” funky howls, vinyl hiss, DJ cuts, burps and farts, pungent jokes culled from ’60s comedy albums (Redd Foxx and Millie Jackson!), and police scanner snippets. The Detroit rapper’s litanies about “Gettin’ Bitches” and “Robbery” are vocal anchors drowned by the Madlib Invazion’s furiously funky creativity.

Remember when that Quasimoto album intoned at the very beginning, “Welcome to violence”? These days, Madlib doesn’t just promise it. In rave terms, he has entered his hardcore phase. No longer positive and consciousness-expanding, the blessed weed smoke is fuel for a crank personality. The transformation is compelling, hilarious, and frightening. As the rap world’s version of “reality” narrows into a handful of masculine fantasies, Madlib has become the era’s pamphleteer, printing out screaming headlines like a crazed prophet of doom.

Not all of his current work sounds like a ghetto dystopia. On his 2008 homage to his late friend James “J Dilla” Yancey, Beat Konducta Vol. 5-6: A Tribute To …(Stones Throw), Madlib employed the same collagist techniques with melancholy, loving care. And then there’s the other album Madlib produced this month, Strong Arm Steady’s In Search of Stoney Jackson (Stones Throw). The L.A. group fares somewhat better than Guilty Simpson. Madlib lets their hard-rock rhymes breathe a little, before snuffing them with musical ether

MADLIB

with DJ Shortkut

Fri/29, 10 p.m., $20

Mighty

119 Utah, SF.

www.mighty119.com

Buzz kill

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GREEN CITY Everyone loves a juicy red tomato. But who knew that the burgeoning hothouse tomato industry, which now accounts for 17 percent of the U.S. fresh tomato supply, imports millions of loudly buzzing commercially reared bumble bees to pollinate its crops? And that pathogen spillover from Bombus impatiens, a bumblebee reared commercially on the East Coast, could be decimating wild bee populations in California and Oregon?

These concerns are outlined in a petition filed with the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to regulate the movement of commercially reared bumblebees.

“Bumblebees are excellent crop pollinators and serve as an insurance policy for farmers when honeybees are in short supply,” the Jan. 12 petition states. It’s signed by Robbin Thorp, professor emeritus of UC Davis’ entomology department, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Recent research by Thorp and Xerces established that four species of formerly common North American feral bumblebees have experienced steep declines and two species are teetering on the brink of extinction.

“The most dramatic decline in North American bumblebees is most likely caused by introduced disease from commercial bee-rearing and movement,” the petitioners state. They believe commercial bees spread pathogens by escaping into the wild where they forage for nectar on flowers visited by feral bees. And they want APHIS to prohibit the movement of bumblebees outside their native range, which the petitioners define as “the state line closest to the side of the 100th meridian,” which runs, roughly, from Texas to North Dakota.

USDA’s Larry Hawkins said APHIS is examining petitioners’ claims. “We need to evaluate whether there is a need, whether it’s practical, and whether the pest is so widely distributed to make that infeasible,” Hawkins said.

James Strange, a USDA-APHIS researcher, acknowledged that “a couple of scientists from Canada put out pretty convincing papers suggesting that something is happening to wild bumblebees that live in the close vicinity of commercial greenhouse operations that use commercial bumblebees to buzz-pollinate their crops.”

But he doesn’t believe Thorp and the Xerces Society have convincing proof that what’s happening to feral bumblebees in California and Oregon is related to commercially reared escape artists.

“They are basing their conclusions on anecdotal stuff,” Strange said. “The idea that the greenhouse tomato growers use of commercially reared bumblebees is what’s causing population declines in the wild is not a good connection because we found the pathogen in natural forests, too.”

Strange noted that the Xerces Society’s petition could be disastrous for some agricultural sectors, if such a rule became hard and fast tomorrow. “But if it’s phased in over the next five years, it could give the industry time to find an alternative,” he said.

Bumblebees are more effective pollinators than honeybees for plants like hybrid sunflowers, watermelon, squash, tomatoes, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, and peppers. Their thick, tundra-adapted fur helps them survive cold, foggy conditions and their loud buzz, which sounds like someone blowing a raspberry, helps them pollinate plants like tomatoes by shaking pollen out of the flowers’ anthers and onto their velvety pelts.

But bumblebees don’t form permanent colonies, and hothouse tomato growers were forced to pollinate crops with handheld electric vibrators until R. De Jonghe, a Belgian veterinarian, figured how to trick pregnant queens into laying eggs year-round.

Today the four major U.S. hothouse tomato growers use commercially reared bumblebees to pollinate crops. A single greenhouse can be as large as 20 acres and contain 200,000 plants and 23,000 commercially reared bees. According to a hothouse tomato industry report, growers spend up to $2,000 per acre on importing bumblebees. In 2001, 309 million pounds of hothouse tomatoes were grown on 718 acres nationwide.

Strange is trying to find ways to raise local species of bumblebees in captivity so agriculture can use locals instead of the East Coast imports, a technique that involves tricking pregnant bumblebee queens into ending their winter hibernation early.

So far, he has managed to trick one West Coast species into nesting this way. “So it seems like it is possible,” Strange said.

Potrero punk power

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When I meet with the triad that makes up Dadfag at Four Barrel Coffee, Eva Hannan explains that they are operating on no sleep. She and fellow guitarist-vocalist Danielle Benson had woken up at dawn to drive their Sacramento friends from Ganglians home after they’d stayed in the city to see Dadfag play the previous night at El Rio. The exhaustion doesn’t show. Instead, Dadfag have the same delirious energy one witnesses when they perform, except that Benson has blown out her voice.

What DadFag does musically is simple. Their potent punk power chords simultaneously assault and envelope. The rabid hardcore recantations (“Tits”) and sludge-y post-punk numbers (“Water”) on the band’s debut album Scenic Abuse (Broken Rekids) reflect a natural tendency to prefer extremes — love/hate, strong/soft, superfast/slow — over anything banal or middle-of-the-road. Witness drummer Alan Miknis’ description of the band: “We’re really sweet and also the biggest assholes at the same time.”

In concert, Dadfag’s fervid spirit compels curiosity. The band is aware of this. “I think having enthusiasm, like true enthusiasm about things, and life, and music, and your friends –” Benson says.

“And not just doing it to get laid,” Hannan interjects.

“Yeah, well that’s a perk,” Benson quips, before concluding, “People are attracted to that. They want to be around people who are excited about things for real.”

It’s hard to decide if the members of Dadfag are disrupting one another or finishing each other’s sentences. It seems that it might work both ways. Hannan explains how Benson “lost her shit” and moved out to the Bay, and Benson explains how Hannan “lost her shit” and followed suit.

“She came and slept on my air mattress with me for a little,” Benson says, going on to observe that air mattresses are more comfortable with two people. “Yeah, it evens it out,” agrees Hannan. “But you both roll to the middle, so it’s always funny.”

The members of Dadfag knew each other back in Athens, Ga., where Hannan grew up, Benson went to graduate school, and Miknis drove up from Americus, an even more secluded Southern town, to see shows. But their friendship didn’t truly commence until they all landed in the Bay Area. “We had the same circle of friends, but we never talked,” Miknis explains. Through another Athens transplant, the now-defunct fuzz-rock band Long Legged Woman, the three eventually found each other.

Dadfag didn’t just find each other, they also found themselves here. “Living in San Francisco is so great, everyone should move here,” says Hannan. Their explanation of why they despised Georgia is a bit fragmented, but with no shortage of reasons: “It’s a drag.” “There’s nothing going on.” “Everyone is drunk all the time.” “I got called a fag a lot more.”

The three found (or rediscovered) music after arriving in San Francisco. Hoping to start a band, Benson and Hannan began sharing the song scraps they’d written. Justin Flowers of Long Legged Woman suggested Miknis join Dadfag, and the three subsequently started squatting in Long Legged Woman’s practice space in Potrero Hill. “Sometimes with music, people will really match up well,” Hannan says. “And it just so happens that our first real experience playing music with one other person or trying to write with one other person worked that way.”

A year-and-a-half and more than 200 shows later, they’ve come a long way from not being able to follow Miknis’ drumming and just trying to play as loud and fast as possible. “Until I played in this band, there were a lot of things I didn’t feel empowered about, especially playing music loud in front of people,” says Benson. “It gives you the confidence to say or do or be anything you want to.”

DADFAG

With the Baths, Neighbors and Making Tents

Thurs/28, 9 p.m., $6

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk, SF

(415) 923-0923

Scraping bottom

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The job of scrubbing down a city bus after it’s gone out of service is no picnic. At a Jan. 20 Budget and Finance Committee hearing called by Sup. Chris Daly to discuss health and safety impacts related to Municipal Transportation Agency layoffs, supervisors took a virtual tour of a Muni bus that was trashed on multiple levels: tagged inside and out, soiled with vomit, and strewn with garbage. Among the roughly 100 Muni workers who will lose their jobs to midyear budget cuts are 10 “car cleaners” — those unsung heroes who scrub away late into the night, tackling the residue left behind by the Sharpie-wielding, litterbug masses.

“We do send out all of our vehicles clean,” MTA spokesperson Judson True told the Budget and Finance Committee members at the hearing. “We do not send out any of our vehicles with any health issues … and we will not.” Despite his assurances, members of the Board of Supervisors and some Muni staffers voiced fears that with fewer and more overworked car cleaners, the overall experience of riding public transit could suffer.

It’s just one small example of on-the-ground impacts of painful budget cuts inflicted to solve a steep shortfall affecting the city’s transit agency. The fiscal woes aren’t unique to Muni. In coming months, San Francisco city departments across the board will have to contend with revenue shortfalls and find ways to continue providing services with diminished resources.

But with layoffs and other proposals such as raising fares, reducing service, and charging more for discount passes on the table, many are raising objections — including several members of the MTA Board of Directors, a body that is wholly appointed by Mayor Gavin Newsom. In a rare show of defiance at a Jan. 19 MTA Board meeting, several directors even resuscitated the idea of extending parking-meter hours and raising meter fees to generate new transit revenue, an idea Newsom previously rejected.

$49 MILLION IN THE RED

Muni has lost $180 million in state funding over the last three years due to “the nightmare in Sacramento,” as True put it, and no one seems to believe the fiscal crisis can be resolved without some degree of pain.

At the Jan. 19 MTA Board meeting, transit agency Chief Financial Officer Sonali Bose outlined the dismal financial picture, explaining that Muni has been hit hard by declining parking and taxi fees and impacts to the city’s general fund, leaving it about $49 million in the hole for the current budget cycle. After the layoffs, Muni will still face a $17 million problem. To solve it, suggestions include jacking up the historic F Line trolley fare from $3 to $5, charging $30 for discount monthly passes for seniors and passengers with disabilities, and reducing service.

Even against the gloomy fiscal backdrop, the prospect of eliminating jobs to make up for the losses drew serious concerns from MTA directors. “Once somebody’s gone, they’re gone,” Director Shirley Breyer Black noted. “I think moving forward with cuts in these classifications will send us into deeper fiscal crisis.”

All the affected workers — most of them frontline employees — are slated to lose their jobs by May 1, and around one-third of them were dismissed Jan. 22.

Muni Executive Director and CEO Nathaniel Ford emphasized that the decision to cut jobs was not made lightly. But at a Budget and Finance Committee meeting the following day, progressive members of the Board of Supervisors expressed alarm after hearing union members sound off about how the cuts disproportionately affect lower-paid classifications. The majority of layoffs target members of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, San Francisco’s largest labor union, which represents frontline workers across city departments.

“I understand that there are no good decisions,” Daly told the Guardian, adding that a certain group of workers seem to bearing the brunt of the cuts. “What progressive supervisors are calling for is for the budget to be handled more evenly,” he said.

A single Municipal Executives’ Association (MEA) employee — an MTA manager earning between $105,950 and $135,200 per year — was let go during this latest round of about 100 Muni layoffs, according to an agency memo. In the past year, MTA reduced its upper-level management team from 108 to 96 employees. In contrast, 33 members of SEIU Local 1021 — the majority frontline workers earning between $45,656 and $64,272 a year — will be affected by the cuts.

“Unfortunately, when MTA discovered that they had a budget problem, they didn’t bring all parties to the table,” SEIU Organizer Leah Berlanga testified at the Budget and Finance Committee hearing. “The way we got invited was via pink slips. That’s the only time they will talk to people who do direct services.”

When asked whether Muni had assessed mid- and upper-management level jobs to even the scales, True responded that a few mid-level managers were included in the latest round of cuts. One reason the layoffs seem disproportionate, he added, is that there are so many more frontline workers than others. “The budget picture has affected the entire agency,” he said. “No one is happy about these decisions.”

But SEIU Local 1021 characterized the layoffs as misguided, and attempted to identify waste and mismanagement within the agency in a packet of alternative cost-saving measures it submitted to MTA. At the top of the list was the suggestion that the agency eliminate 35 retired Muni employees, who are allowed to work up to 960 hours per year and earn wages in addition to their pensions. And according to the union, there are 21 temporary workers in the agency who’ve exceeded a two-year limit for short-term employment. SEIU recommended that those temps be dismissed too.

SEIU also criticized the decision to lay off 24 parking control officers (PCOs) — uniformed workers who have the unenviable job of issuing parking citations to bring in revenue for the city. “To me, if you do the simple math, it doesn’t make any sense. They make most of the money for the MTA,” said a PCO who testified at the hearing.

According to SEIU’s calculations, eliminating 24 employees who dole out parking tickets could result in a $7.2 million loss for the city in parking revenue. But True said MTA disagrees with this figure, and pointed to an internal memo showing how revenue from parking citations dropped in recent years even as more PCOs were hired. Nonetheless, at the urging of SEIU, the MTA Board agreed to postpone those 24 layoffs until February to buy time to study the impact. For other positions, negotiations between MTA and the union are ongoing. The details on still more layoffs, which will affect transit operators, is yet to come.

Sup. David Campos is asking for a management audit to see if Muni is spending its money efficiently. “I think we should look at best practices and how we’re operating before we finalize any cuts,” he said.

THE PARKING POLITICS

During a round of MTA budget talks last fall, the idea of extending city parking meter hours and raising meter fees was floated as a means of recouping losses — but Newsom balked at the idea, saying higher parking fees could harm small businesses. Now MTA Director Bruce Oka has revived — and endorsed — the concept.

“I can hold my nose and vote on anything, but I refuse to vote on something when I believe we have not looked under a rock for every source of funding,” Oka said at the meeting. “We have to extend the parking meter hours — we have to find dollars. If Room 200 [i.e. Newsom] doesn’t want that to happen, well then … he’s got to come up with a way to do what we need to do. If he’s not going to raise parking meters or extend parking meter time, he’s got to come up with some money.”

Tom Radulovich, executive director of nonprofit Livable City and one of the individuals who helped to create MTA in 1999, summed up Oka’s comments with a note of surprise: “He really called out the mayor,” he said. “I haven’t seen MTA Board members do that — they usually cover for him.”

Radulovich — who is also on the BART Board — says targeting motorists for more revenue instead of transit riders would be more equitable, sustainable, and in keeping with the city’s Transit First goals in the long run. Proposition A, passed November 2007, established “a strong mandate to reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions,” he pointed out. But, he noted, with layoffs that could affect the qualify of service and possibly deter people from riding, “We don’t see how MTA is going to get to those voter-mandated transit goals.” *

MUNI MEETINGS

PUBLIC MEETINGS ON SFMTA BUDGET

Saturday, Feb. 6, 10 a.m. to noon

Tuesday, Feb. 9, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Saturday, Feb. 20, 10 a.m. to noon

One South Van Ness Ave. at Market Street, 2nd Floor Atrium

SFMTA BOARD MEETINGS

Friday, Jan. 29, 10 a.m.; discussion of FY10 options, including Muni service reductions

Tuesday, Feb. 16, 11 a.m.; public hearing on proposed FY10 budget actions

Tuesday, Mar. 2, 2 p.m.; public hearing and possible board approval of FY10 budget actions

Location: City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, Room 400

Do make drone

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MUSIC “One, 1,000 … two, 1,000 … three, 1,000 …” I’m counting down the seconds, by phone, between rare Bay Area lightning flash and thunderbolt with dAS, experimental composer and core member of Big City Orchestra. He’s at the 30-year-old noise-collage collective’s studio in Alameda, preparing for the BCO radio show, ubRadio, streamed live every Wednesday afternoon through a Web site in Amsterdam. “Maybe I’ll just put a box of microphones out in the storm today,” dAS says with a chuckle, to catch the air’s anticipatory crackle

Big City Orchestra, an “art/anti-art organism,” is a stunningly prolific entity boasting dozens of members and 130 hour-long releases on more than 100 labels. Its output ranges in diversity from collections of microtones coaxed from coffee beans and popcorn kernels to full-orchestral whirling dervish drones and bursts of nervy circuit-bending. Entrancing sculpted-static epics slither into its catalog next to winking pop cut-ups like now-legendary album Beatlerape (Staalplaat, 1993), which shoves the Fab Four into a blender with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy and pushes “pulverize.”

It’s a deliberately omnivorous — and very Californian — aesthetic, sonically spanning the impish instrumental inventions of East Bay composer Harry Partch and the arcane postmodernisms of entropy-obsessed Hollywood sound conceptualist GX Jupitter-Larsen. (Jupitter-Larsen’s wonderful quote “Imagine flogging a dead horse your whole life” seems to follow Big City Orchestra around the Internet.) The Orchestra came of age during the fertile underground mail art and cassette culture period of music history, where punk aspiration met industrial machination and hallucinogenic exultation. (BCO toured with Legendary Pink Dots in the early 1990s, and some of its more bitingly humorous compositions summon Butthole Surfers and Negativland.)

And did I mention funny hats? They’re often in abundance at BCO performances, as are giant puppets, swirling backdrops, and arty projections. For the orchestra’s 30th anniversary show, Sun/31 at Café Du Nord, all these elements will be in abundance, including a “reenactment” of Beatlerape. “We’re going to squeeze 30 years of music into three hours with more than 20 guest perfomers and the whole works. Everything from building artforms to chainsawing trees,” dAS promises.

The Orchestra began life in Southern California (“Oh, somewhere around Torrance, Hawthorne, Redondo — those kinds of places,” says dAS) in 1979 as the “in-house music supplier” for a network of houses full of students who “weren’t necessarily into prerecorded music.” dAS himself studied at UCLA, and “probably benefited from or was cursed by having a father who was a rocket scientist and a mother who later became a psychiatrist.” Nomadic in nature — dAS and his wife and musical collaborator Ninah Pixie often tour Europe via camper and couch — BCO “somehow found its way to the Bay Area,” where has made a home in its Ubuibi studios (www.ubuibi.com).

But dAS seems averse to discussing the past, or experimental music lineage and theory in general. As befits the restless nature of Big City Orchestra — or Big Seit Ohr_Kastra, or Pig Kitty Porkestra, or an infinity of other names the group has taken — the musical moment is always now, and the sound of now is the one most suitable to the situation at hand. “Look, we’re all monkeys with thumbs, ” dAS says, “and if I don’t keep my thumbs busy, it’s trouble. Yes, I’ve listened to ‘serious’ experimental composers — I know about that stuff — but I also love pop stuff. Seeing Devo at one of their first performances changed my life, and I think XTC is the best band to have ever existed.”

“The Big City Orchestra approach is always project-by-project,” dAS continues. “We take each case on its own merits, improvising on whatever materials are appropriate. It’s more a matter of pulling a zany, hare-brained scheme out of one of our heads — we’re currently doing a pirate record for kids. It’s just circumstantial. Hopefully that derails a lot of theoretical questions.”

OK, then, what are some of the circumstances? “I just got my hands on three harmoniums. Man, you can do a lot of damage with three harmoniums. Or sometimes we like to just confound expectations. At a recent NorCal Noise Festival, after three days of acts blowing out eardrums, we took everyone outside, sat them in a circle, gave them all teacups, and put the kettle on. Our contribution was the sound of water coming to a boil, and then serving tea.”

Or how about this? “We do a TV show in the East Bay where we basically treat the TV as a light source, just playing around with different-colored lights. There’s 2.4 million potential viewers, so you figure there must be at least 1,000 stoners who happen upon it and hopefully love it. Maybe it even means something to someone — who knows?

“Frivolity is important,” dAS concludes. “Sometimes it’s good to have art that just fills a hole in the wall. Or sometimes it’s not.”

BIG CITY ORCHESTRA 30TH ANNIVERSARY SHOW

Sun/31

8 p.m., $10

Café Du Nord

2170 Market, SF.

www.cafedunord.com

Editor’s Notes

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When Ronald Reagan took office as president in 1981, Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and the Republicans only had a narrow majority in the Senate. Yet Reagan was able to undertake a series of profound, far-reaching and radical policy changes that transformed the United States. He cut taxes on the rich, deregulated industries, drove up the military budget (and the deficit) and reshaped the Supreme Court — all without seeking bipartisan unity or offering major concessions to the Democrats.

That, I think, is why so many people are so mad at the Obama administration — and why we shouldn’t panic about the loss of a Senate seat in Massachusetts. Yeah, it’s terrible (and historic) to lose Ted Kennedy’s seat to a weak and lame Republican. And it’s alarming to think the Democrats could lose several more Senate seats this fall.

But that shouldn’t either stop Obama from pushing a legislative agenda or terrify the Democrats into paralysis.

Look, the Democrats still control Washington. The Republicans still have no ideas of their own, and are doing nothing but obstructing progress so the Obama administration will fail. And nobody seems to be calling them on it. The Democrats were a lot more vocal (and acted a lot more like Democrats) when Bush was in office.

I can’t get too agitated about the loss of a 60-vote majority in the Senate; the Democrats never really had that anyway. One of the 60 was Joe Lieberman, who isn’t even a Democrat in name anymore and who held Obama hostage, demanded concessions and cave-ins for his vote on health care, and still couldn’t be trusted. Now there are 58 Democrats instead of 59; most Democratic presidents in the past century would have loved those numbers. So would most Republicans.

And let’s remember — the economy was almost as bad during Reagan’s first year as it is now, and it wasn’t showing any signs of getting better.

Reagan was a Hollywood-trained actor who’d been a pitchman for cigarette companies; he knew how to look into a camera and make an emotional case for his positions. Obama is by far the best speaker the Democrats have had in decades, and he has the natural ability to go beyond what Reagan did. He can go after the Republicans, make the case for legislative action, push the voters to push their senators and Congress members to approve his agenda, and turn this political funk around. But he’s got to give up the bipartisan rhetoric (been there, tried that), convince the millions of people who put their hopes in him that there’s still reason to believe, and stop looking at the Massachusetts vote as a rejection of progressive policies.

The mood in the country is anxious, restive, impatient, and displeased — not with the ideas Obama presented during his campaign, but with his failure to make them happen. He can still turn this around by talking about the economy, creating (public sector) jobs — now — and using the still-solid majorities in Congress.

Or he can get all defensive and change course. We know how well that’s going to work.

Mockumentary, true love

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QUOTABLE CULT CLASSIC I think Libby Mae said it best: Corky St. Clair has a vision. Or at least, Christopher Guest does — and since he cowrote, directed, and starred as Corky in Waiting for Guffman (1997), I’d say it’s fair to make the connection.

That vision (Guest’s, not Corky’s) became a cult classic, and it’s screening Jan. 31 as part of SF Sketchfest. Star Fred Willard will be on hand to relate his experience filming the mockumentary masterpiece. But because I don’t get to go on stage and talk about my relationship with Waiting for Guffman, I’m taking this opportunity to write it all out. You’re welcome.

Guffman wasn’t Guest’s first mockumentary — that would be Rob Reiner’s classic This Is Spinal Tap (1984), which costar Guest also cowrote. But it did usher in a new era for the genre, as well as an increased appreciation for improvisation. (Let’s not forget that most of Guffman is ad-libbed by its actors.) Guest has released more mockumentaries with many of the same cast members: Best in Show (2000) and the underrated A Mighty Wind (2003), plus the Hollywood satire For Your Consideration (2006). But Guffman has always been my favorite.

Maybe it’s the theater lover in me. I can’t think of a movie that better captures the passion (and yes, sometimes absurdity) of amateur productions. Corky and his actors are so damn committed to Red, White and Blaine — the play within the film — that you can almost overlook its flaws. I wouldn’t really want to watch Ron and Sheila ham it up for two hours, but look how much fun they’re having!

There’s also a charming simplicity to Guffman that doesn’t appear in Guest’s other mockumentaries. It’s not about rock stars or famous folk musicians. It doesn’t have canine costars. But like other quality documentaries — mock or otherwise — Guffman makes the mundane compelling. I care about Corky, no matter how hilariously misguided his dream may be. (“Stool Boom”? Really?)

“There’s a good reason some talent remains undiscovered,” the tagline notes. I suppose that’s true. Still, I’ve always been grateful that Red, White and Blaine gave these oddballs a chance to shine. No — spoiler alert — the long-awaited Guffman never shows, but that doesn’t mean our beloved characters won’t achieve fame eventually. As Corky puts it, “It’s like in a Hitchcock movie, where they tie you up in a rubber bag and throw you in the trunk of a car. You find people.” Well said.

“SF SKETCHFEST: AN AFTERNOON WITH FRED WILLARD AND WAITING FOR GUFFMAN”

Sun/31, 2 p.m., $15

Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center

1118 Fourth St,, San Rafael

(415) 454-1222

www.cafilm.org

The problem with Tasers

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The BART police officer who pulled a weapon and killed Oscar Grant on Jan. 2, 2009 claims he didn’t intend to use lethal force. Lawyers for Johannes Mehserle say their client meant to pull a Taser gun to subdue Grant and grabbed his service pistol by mistake.

That, of course, is a debatable proposition, and a jury in Mehserle’s homicide case will have to sort it out. But it shows the danger of a new San Francisco Police Department report suggesting that Tasers might have saved the lives of some of the eight people shot and killed by San Francisco cops between 2005 and 2009.

The report, written by Assistant Chief Morris Tabak, focuses on 15 incidents in which local officers shot at suspects. Seven of those shootings led to nonfatal injuries, but eight ended with the suspect dead. Some of the shootings were, at best, dubious. In 2005, for example, two officers shot and killed a mentally disturbed man, Asa Sullivan, who was unarmed and hiding in an attic (see “Why is Asa Sullivan dead?” 6/21/06). If the police had a viable less-lethal alternative, the report states, the outcome might have been different. The death of Idriss Stelley at the hands of the SFPD isn’t mentioned in the report, since that happened in 2001,. But Stelley was also mentally ill, and some critics say he should never have been shot .

It’s no secret that Chief George Gascón supports arming the police with Tasers, which use high-voltage electrical current to disrupt a person’s nervous system and render him or her temporarily unable to move. Tasers aren’t exactly nonlethal; by some accounts, 250 people have been killed by Taser shots. They can be particularly hazardous to people with heart conditions.

And they also can be badly abused by police officers who see them as a tool to subdue unruly suspects who otherwise would not be subject to the use of lethal force. Nobody argues, for example, that Oscar Grant (who was lying on the ground, unarmed) was enough of a threat that the use of lethal force was an appropriate police response. The BART officers on the scene, however, apparently thought that using a Taser was fine.

If that’s how the SFPD is going to see the use of Tasers, then the city’s better off without them.

We agree: if the officers who shot Asa Sullivan had used a Taser instead, the young man might still be alive today. (Assuming he wasn’t one of those whose medical condition would render a Taser attack fatal). And it’s always better to subdue a suspect without the use of lethal force. And Tabak is right — if the local cops had (and used) an alternative to their firearms in some of the fatal shootings, live might have been saved.

And if that’s how Tasers are used — and that’s the only way they’re used — there’s a case for adding them to the city’s arsenal.

But when the Police Commission reviews the Tabak report and discusses a policy change that could allow the SFPD to carry Tasers, it should start and end with one rule: a Taser should be treated like any lethal weapon, and used only when deadly force would be authorized.

The danger of less-lethal weapons is not just the fact that they can be fatal to some people, or that they can be mistaken for a firearm. If the cops think they can use the devices any time they want a shortcut to other forms of physical restraint, then Tasers become a liability that can lead to tragic consequences.

Queer and present

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DANCE In the middle of Keith Hennessy’s “A Queer 20th Anniversary” performances — which end this weekend with the Bay Area premiere of his 2008 Crotch (all the Joseph Beuys references in the world cannot heal the pain, confusion, regret, cruelty, betrayal, or trauma …) — the reprise of his two-part How to Die (2006) nearly filled Dance Mission Theatre. At the end of the evening, he asked for donations to help him defray a looming $5,000 deficit. Just about everyone gave.

Perhaps Hennessy didn’t mind begging. Stepping out of a persona and addressing the audience directly, after all, is part of his artistic make-up. Still, I winced. After two decades of investigating theater as a locus for truth-seeking, of innovating formal structures, of honing performance skills and creating work that is serious and thought-provoking, an artist deserves better.

Although Hennessy has a sizable, loyal audience, primarily in the queer community, his theatrically pungent work rattles everyone’s cage; injustice, poverty, violence, and hypocrisy set him off. Broadway it ain’t. Compelling — and sometimes uncomfortable — dance theater it is. You don’t have to agree with Hennessy’s perspective on sex’s redemptive power to appreciate the richness of his references, the skill with which he translates ideas to the stage, and the force of his commitment to what he does.

Hennessy is a stripper, not because he often performs in the nude, but because he tears off the blinders that protect him and us from what we don’t want to see. The question, of course, is what remains. Vulnerability for sure. But perhaps Hennessy is also a romantic, hoping to find something pure underneath all the garbage we accumulate.

In Homeless USA, part one of How to Die, he makes us look at the homeless in front of our noses. In part two, American Tweaker, he conjures up the drug-addled sexual abandon of the early 1980s. Even on second viewing, neither work was easy to watch. There is something of the fleshy rawness of a Francis Bacon canvas about them. But Hennessy also pushes theatrical verisimilitude to the point of absurdity, which allows an audience to step back from the emotional onslaught.

Homeless USA was derived from research on homeless men — many of them veterans — who commit suicide by being decapitated by passing trains. Hennessy started out gently, with Jules Beckman as a pugnacious sidekick, but turned up the heat by “masturbating” on the train tracks, and stumbling over the list of reasons to commit suicide. While “drowning” himself in a bucket, he became his own lighting designer. Attached to a string threaded through his nose, he recalled a delicate Petrouchka. In these scenes, Hennessy’s intensity — he often approaches a kind of religious fervor in his performances — was riveting.

At the core of the manic American Tweaker, a train-wreck evocation of a sex-obsessed disco and bathhouse scene, was a prolonged, extremely violent (though simulated) scene of anal intercourse. It ended with Hennessy whimpering on the floor. Addressing the audience, he confessed that at this point “I usually don’t know what to say.” Neither did I. The final healing ritual had Hennessy hanging upside down, Seth Eisen as an apparition from A Thousand and One Nights, and Beckman’s wondrous music. Rituals necessitate a community of believers. I wish I could have been one of them.

In Crotch, Hennessy draws props from his performance theory studies and (as the piece’s full title suggests) the work of the late German artist and philosopher Joseph Beuys. Among the most clearly referential are a tub of lard and a piece of felt: Beuys claimed after his Luftwaffe plane crashed on the Crimean Front in 1944, Tatar tribes people saved his life by wrapping him in lard and felt. The way Hennessy uses the lard is simultaneously freaky and profound.

CROTCH (ALL THE JOSEPH BEUYS REFERENCES IN THE WORLD CANNOT HEAL THE PAIN, CONFUSION, REGRET, CRUELTY, BETRAYAL, OR TRAUMA …)

Fri/29–Sun/31, 8 p.m., $15–$25

Dance Mission Theatre

3316 24th St, SF

www.brownpapertickets.com/event/82278

Volume 44 Number 17 Flip-through Edition

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The Richmond

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On the list of life’s most perplexing questions, Where can I find a quiet restaurant? is rising fast. Increasingly I find myself presented with — even beseeched by — this inquiry, and increasingly I fumble. It’s not that there aren’t any, but their numbers seem to be dwindling, like those of book-readers or subscribers to newspapers. So when I find one, I am elated — quietly, of course.

The Richmond isn’t exactly new — it opened about five years ago, in an inner Richmond District space long occupied by Jakarta — but it opened with such media fireworks that I put off going there. Then tempus fugit, as tempus has a way of doing, and suddenly it is years later. Noise has increased throughout the restaurant kingdom. And, glory be, the Richmond turns out to be one of those wonderful neighborhood restaurants where it is actually possible to have a conversation with the other people at your table without having to shout and wave your arms or (in the extremely rare opposite case) fear that you are disrupting a funereal hush.

The restaurant’s singular layout certainly conduces to this balance. As in Jakarta days, the lateral storefront space divides into a warren of nooks, many of which are now cloaked by wine-colored curtains. It’s like being inside a voting-booth factory, with interesting peeps and murmurs leaking from tables behind half-drawn curtains. The tone is relaxed but not sloppy; the walls are painted a neutral beige, and few of the tables are far from a window. Not surprisingly, the clientele is a little older than that of, say, Namu down the street. I had the sense of being in the faculty club of some small but august urban institution.

Chef John Owyang’s food, it must be said, is better by a country mile than that of any faculty club I’ve ever been to. Owyang’s pedigree includes a stint at Elisabeth Daniel, the Daniel Patterson venture in the Financial District that was, in its short life, one of the toniest and most innovative (and expensive) restaurants in the city. Owyang appears to have taken a sense of culinary style away from that experience while paring away the Upper East Side preciousness. You can get a five-course tasting menu (matched with wine, if you like) at the Richmond, but you can also get a cheeseburger.

For me, the difference between good and great so often turns on grace notes and little touches, like fine, almost invisible brush strokes on a painting. Even the best neighborhood restaurants don’t typically offer amuses-bouches, but the Richmond does. It might be something as simple as mulled apple cider topped with a bit of whipped cream and served in demitasses — a clever hint that the little, clove-steeped sip isn’t just a play on a traditional winter favorite but also on the Italian drink macchiato, a shot of espresso finished with a dollop of foamed milk.

Owyang’s kitchen is clever but doesn’t wallow in cleverness. The basic style is elegant Californian, with a rich variety of flavors, colors, and textures and tasteful presentations that don’t become precious. In an age of feature creep, in food as in software, restaurants aren’t immune, and the temptation to embellish and embroider dishes is great. But Owyang understands the value of restraint, or counter-creep; his wonderfully earthy pumpkin-celery root soup ($7) was subtly enhanced by the crunch of candied pumpkin seeds and a few pipings of crème fraïche over the surface, and that was all. And enough.

A scallion flatbread “sloppy joe” ($7.95) turned out to be basically a small pizza, made sloppy by crumblings of Italian sausage and augmented by a bit of whipped goat cheese and some watercress. A plate of seared Pacific cod ($18.95) mounted the flesh — as dense, moist, and white as wet snow — on a bed of sautéed squid, slivers of red cabbage, and steamed broccoli florets. Not too much, not too little. Markedly richer was the so-called chicken and ravioli ($17.95), flaps of chicken scaloppine waltzing with chicken-mousseline-filled ravioli in a broad bowl of glossy black truffle sauce, with some leaves of baby spinach added for color and penance.

If you’d like a pause before your dessert arrives, you’ll appreciate the chocolate-peanut butter torte ($7.50), which takes a soufflé-like 15 minutes to prepare and turns out to be our old friend, the molten chocolate cake, except the lava is peanut butter. A conversation piece.

THE RICHMOND

Dinner: Mon.–Sat., 5:30–10 p.m.

615 Balboa, SF

(415) 379-8988

www.therichmondsf.com

Beer and wine

AE/DC/DS/MC/V

Comfortable noise level

Wheelchair accessible

Pit bull in a pony tail

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FILM There’s been a string of movies lately pondering what Britney once called the not-a-girl, not-yet-a-woman syndrome. Two 2009 entries will earn Oscar nominations: Lone Scherfig’s An Education, about a 1960s British 16-year-old who learns a hard lesson about trusting an older, slippery suitor; and Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire, about a 1980s Harlem girl who’s already learned a lifetime of hard lessons by her 16th birthday. I’m not the first reviewer to compare either of these films to Fish Tank (both it and Precious snagged prestigious festival prizes in 2009), and I’m probably not alone in saying that Andrea Arnold’s gritty new drama is the superior choice among the three. If there’s justice, Fish Tank won’t be forgotten when next year’s award nominations roll out. (Arnold’s no stranger to Academy gold, having already picked up a statuette for her 2003 short film, Wasp.)

I’ll admit it: I’m an Arnold fanatic. If I had to point to one new filmmaker whose work most excites me, I’d likely pick Arnold. Her films are heartbreaking, but in an unforced way that never feels manipulative; her characters, often portrayed by nonactors, feel completely organic.

When I spoke to Arnold before the release of her 2006 Red Road — about a CCTV operator who hatches a slow-boil revenge plot — she elaborated on why she populates her scripts with such ordinary, yet deeply complex, characters: “I think all human beings are very complicated in their circumstances and their environments — sometimes people don’t always behave in the best way. It doesn’t mean to say that they’re bad. I like seeing people who may not be easily likable to start. But then when you get to understand them more, you have empathy for them.”

She was referring to the main character of Red Road. But she could have just as easily been describing Mia, Fish Tank‘s 15-year-old heroine. (In a story that kicks Lana Turner’s famous star-is-born moment in the teeth, first-time actor Katie Jarvis was discovered while arguing with her boyfriend at a train station.) Mia lives with her party-gal single mom and tweenage sister in a public-housing high-rise; all three enjoy drinking, swearing, and shouting. Mia is particularly good at slamming doors and sprinting away from trouble. The other girls in the ‘hood hate her; her only friend is a neighbor’s raggedy pony, whose tied-up existence both frustrates and fascinates her.

But much like sparkly-dreamer Precious, Mia has a secret passion: hip-hop dancing, which she practices with track-suited determination. And much like An Education‘s Jenny, Mia’s stumbling path toward womanhood becomes ever-more confusing with the appearance of an older man — here, mom’s foxy new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender, from 2008’s Hunger). At first, it’s unclear what Connor’s intentions are. Is he trying to be a cool father figure, or something far more inappropriate?

Without giving away too much, it’s hard to fear too much for a girl who headbutts a teenage rival within the film’s first few minutes — though it soon becomes apparent Mia’s hard façade masks a vulnerable core. Her desire to make human connections causes her to drop her guard when she needs it the most. In a movie about coming of age, a young girl’s bumpy emotional journey is expected turf. But Fish Tank earns its poignant moments honestly — most coming courtesy of Jarvis, who has soulfullness to spare. Whether she’s acting out in tough-girl mode or revealing a glimpse of her fragile inner life, Arnold’s camera relays it all, with unglossy matter-of-factness.

FISH TANK OPENS FRI/29 IN BAY AREA THEATERS.