Whiskies of the World is a little smaller in scope and selection than Whiskyfest, both of which come to few cities in America — and we’re lucky to always be one of them. On March 27, WoW, as Whiskies of the World is known, was chaotic and overly packed in a Hotel Nikko ballroom. Bushmills Pipe and Drum band kept it festive walking through once an hour with rousing bagpipes, while classes, like the Craft Panel Discussion (led by craft distilling masters, including our own Fritz Maytag of Anchor Steam), were an educational high point.
For your imbibing pleasure, I’m highlighting just three of the non-whisk(e)y treasures at this year’s WoW:
Bend Distillery: Already a favorite and properly stocked in my home bar, Oregon’s Bend Distillery makes award-winning vodka and gin — but do what you must to get your hands on these unique, wonderful vodkas they’ve created: Cofia is a lush blend of roasted hazelnuts and fresh-brewed coffee. Only lightly sweet, it’s aromatic, robust, dark. Mazama-infused Pepper Vodka is named after a volcano that erupted to become Crater Lake. A blend of six different sweet and hot peppers, blissfully hot (as in spicy) it also tastes of fresh pepper skins. Recommended in cocktails or with mango juice on the site (and even for cooking), I actually love a splash of it on its own.
Death’s Door Spirits: I’m quite taken with Death’s Door Spirits, a small-batch distiller out of Wisconsin (Washington Island, to be specific, near Madison). Their latest packaging is elegant, turn-of-the-century classic, and their spirits are made sustainably and from local grain. Reflecting the terroir and ingredients of Washington Island, their awesome white whiskey is one of the best in the genre. But in the non-whiskey category, its gin, is amazing – a recent favorite. Plenty of juniper and botanical notes dominate in this clean, beautiful gin.
Corsair – This is a small artisan distiller out of Kentucky, I’m at first titillated by the hip packaging. While Corsair’s Wry Moon rye may not be the stand-out for me, I find the Pumpkin Spice Moonshine a playful white whiskey with the spirit of a pumpkin ale. RED Absinthe particularly intrigued with a pinkish-red hue from hibiscus and floral fennel notes on the tongue.
Where can you get it? Bend has a Web site list. Death’s Door is on its way to California but is already served in savvy, local bars like Nopa and The Alembic. Corsair is tougher to locate as its only available in four states at the moment.
Recently Kitchen Table Talks, a monthly series of discussions on the US food system, invited a panel of SF entrepreneurs from the emerging underground food scene for a QA, hoping to answer big questions like what’s driving the trend and whether or not it has a future. As Iso Rabins from forageSF, Leif Hedendal, a veteran chef of secret suppers, Lucera Muñoz Arrellano, the owner of a bacon-wrapped hot dog cart in the Mission, shared their stories, I got a sense that no one had an overarching theory about the recent surge of popular interest. But it’s clear a lot of passionate people are firmly committed to redefining our food culture whether the man likes it or not.
Rabins originally began forageSF as a way to educate people about wild food with guided foraging tours that served to recontextualize nature as not an abstraction but an integrated environment to which we are inherently bound; it can even feed us. As he saw more and more people’s interest in preparing food grow and their resources dwindle, forageSF evolve to include the Underground Market, a venue for foragers and other uncertified producers to sell their goods. He’s had a few run-ins with the health department, but since he’s now operating under the quasi-legal status of a club he said he pretty much plans on running the market till forced to shut down.
In the long term, though, Rabins doesn’t have much interest in “legitimizing” the market considering enough certified farmers markets already exist, and to him, adjusting to the regulations would circumscribe the innovative spirit of the project. But he does see it developing into more of a launching pad for those wanting to make the switch over to the mainstream.
Hedendal, after working in brick-and-mortar food establishments, became disillusioned with what he described as kitchen culture — the demanding schedule and strict hierarchy that disconnected workers from the community, and thus, one of the main pleasures of cooking. He’s also critical of the “cheating” that many restaurants resort to in order to still be considered sustainable and not go broke. After getting out of the professional world almost a decade ago, he’s been involved with various food projects and secret dinners that sought to uphold the values of community, affordability, and creativity — it’s a pretty long and impressive resume. As of right now, he’s cooking for Dinner Discussions, which brings together food and socially-engaged artists. But for all his negative experiences working in restaurants, Hedendal’s ultimate goal is to open one that satisfies his values of true sustainability and community—maybe impossible now but who knows what will be eventually possible with the changing tides in our food and economic culture.
Lucero Muñoz Arrellano, though, kept the conversation grounded in the practical reality for a lot of those who informally vend on the streets. When asked why she began selling the popular Mexican hot dogs, she answered, assisted by a translator, that her biggest reason was to find a way to support her children, bringing it home that for many in this recession, underground food is a means to surviving in a shrinking job market that’s squeezing out the marginalized—especially those who might lack formal education or English language skills.
I don’t want to sell her short, though; her experiences and trials as an informal street vendor have given her a goal other than just subsisting. With her recent acceptance into the incubator program at La Cocina, a nonprofit geared towards nurturing low-income food entrepreneurs, Arrellano has been inspired to convince others to legalize their businesses. She’s intimately familiar with the hurdles that are almost impossible to navigate—like the bureaucratese of the necessary documentation that frustrates many non-English speakers or those who have limited education. And she also knows the risks that informal vendors suffer. At a minimum, the $250 citation fee can wipe out more than a day’s worth of work, not to mention the threat of having the cart confiscated and losing what may be their only livelihood. Some work in fear of arrest and deportation. A very big risk indeed.
In some ways the talk was illuminating and in other ways it confirmed ideas I deeply support. I suspect, given the wide-arching participation in decentralizing the mainstream food industry, the underground scene is not solely about hipster novelty-seeking. (Though, let’s not lie, that does play a significant part.) It also reflects the growing public re-evaluation of dysfunctional socioeconomic systems and support for those who are redefining how and what we eat.
CULT DVD Alejandro Jodorowsky and Fernando Arrabal have overlapped their whole lives. The Chilean Jodorowsky and Spanish Arrabal arrived in Paris is the mid-1950s, eventually cofounding (with late, lesser remembered artist French artist Roland Topor) the Mouvement Panique — a post-surreallist group named after the god Pan and dedicated to “terror, humor, simultaneity.” The two initially focused on theatrical performance and have in subsequent decades created massive bodies of plays, poetry, novels, visual art (paintings for Arrabal, comic books for Jodorowsky), and more. Internationally, they’ve been most widely experienced as filmmakers of some notoriety whose sporadic work in that medium was busiest during the wide-open late 1960s and early ’70s.
Jodorowsky, of course, rates high on any cineaste’s list of cult idols for the blood-soaked spaghetti western Christ parable El Topo (1970) and mystical-baroque colossus The Holy Mountain (1973), both recently freed from decades of legal trouble for legitimate DVD release. Arrabal’s films have been even harder to see and have fallen into comparative obscurity, partly because they’re less “fun” despite sharing much in the way of striking, shocking, and frequently blasphemous imagery.
In 2005 Cult Epics brought out a collection comprising his first three features: Viva la muerte (1970) and The Guernica Tree (1975), two violently grotesque fantasias about the Spanish Civil War whose dead included his own assassinated painter father, a loyal Republican; plus I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse (1972), a no-less surreal yet strangely touching love story of sorts between an urban playboy on the run and the three-foot-tall male desert hermit.
Given their penchant for full-frontal nudity, antifascist politics, desecration of religious iconography, and other MPAA-unratable themes, perhaps the weirdest overlap between the two most famous “Panique” insurrectionists is that each once strayed into the alien realm of family entertainment. (They no doubt seized this inapt moment as a respite from perpetual funding woes, which famously scuttled Jodorowsky’s ready-to-go Dune and his El Topo sequel.)
Unsurprisingly, the results did not send Disney into a market-dominance panique. In fact, Jodorowsky’s 1978 for-hire project Tusk was, at least until recently. one of the most infamously unseen movies ever made, a literally and figuratively elephantine India adventure deemed unwatchable for any audience. Check out the cruddy French-language dupe with Spanish subtitles on YouTube and see how far curiosity gets you.
Arrabal’s kid flick wasn’t quite so fully buried, but it too has remained an obscure object of completist desire. Fortunately his second and final DVD collection from Cult Epics just arrived to fill that need. Nominally released in 1982, French-Canadian coproduction The Emperor of Peru stars Mickey Rooney — there goes the scenery in one big chew — as a wuvvable wheelchair-bound eccentric found living in the forest by three children on summer holiday. A former steam train engineer, he teaches them to run an abandoned locomotive so they can take their Cambodian-refugee friend back home to his parents. Never mind that there’s probably not much rail linking the South of France and Phnom Penh, let alone that in 1982 the Khmer Rouge remained very active.
How many children’s films would have dialogue like “Father’s in a concentration camp”? Emperor‘s real raison d’être, in any case, is its myriad fantasy sequences, sprung from the childish imagination of Toby (Jonathan Starr). In his daydreams he’s a firefighter or astronaut whose heroic deeds are applauded by such bystanders as Napoleon Bonaparte. Amid the goofy, mostly innocuous proceedings are stray moments of unmistakable Arrabal — as when Rooney, in full Arabian Nights regalia, is surrounded at imperial court by dwarf attendants. (Arrabal has a thing for little people.)
The new collection also includes Car Cemetery, a 1983 New Wave “punk” pose fest with Gallic pop king Alain Bashing as a postapocalyptic rock star Christ (ouch indeed). Among other rarities are Arrabal’s delightful hour-long 1992 video Farewell, Babylon!, a collage of past works, impish narrative, and sampled New Yorkers including Spike Lee and Melvin Van Peebles.
DANCE This past weekend, Kendra Kimbrough Barnes and José Navarrete with Violeta Luna — CounterPULSE’s winter artists-in-residence — showed what artists can do, given time and space to work. Both tackled complex issues that extract high human costs. For Barnes it was imprisonment; for the Navarrete-Luna team, water. Both half-hour pieces will benefit from some refinement and rethinking.
Barnes calls her Home Is That Way? a work in progress, so one can hope it will return in a modified form. Home doesn’t even to attempt to untangle the morass surrounding the justice system, instead trying to shed light on the personal cost for prisoners and their families. Intimate yet far-reaching, Home has strong bones; they need to be fleshed out. Seen through Shelley Davis’ chain-link fence, Barnes, Clairemonica Figueroa, Kayos Makaya, and Travis Rowland are four automaton prisoners who do their own version of walking the walk. When Figueroa puts a slight drag into her step, she fills it with the weight in her soul.
The often haunting Home reworks all-too-familiar images well. The dancers spread-eagle themselves against the wall, and you don’t know whether there is guard behind them or whether they are trying to push the stones down. A lineup turns into a row boat with a futile dream of getting away. In a prison yard, the men work at bodybuilding, the women at connecting with each other. When Home attempts to recall a time of innocence, it runs into a common theatrical conundrum. It’s almost impossible for adults to slip into the skin of children. So these games of pattycake, kick the ball, and hopscotch look imposed instead of embodied. The piece’s un-credited writing, though undoubtedly heartfelt, also has a stiff earnestness to it that undercuts its emotional thrust. Davis’ set, including what looks a place for dreaming, needs better lighting.
At the end of another work in progress, New Rituals for a Desperate Era, Navarrete invites the audience to fill out a petition to Congress to recognize water as a human right. He explains that he wants the audience to go away having done something hopeful. Audiences will also take something good with them if a piece is rounded off successfully. He and Luna might try to do that in addition to the political gesture. Luna is a performance artist from Mexico whose finely tuned theatrical skills complement Navarrete’s more exuberant antics. Together they have created a wild ride that starts cosmically and ends in a carnivalesque phantasmagoria. Major credit has to go to long-time Bay Area designer Lauren Elder’s stunning set and costumes, the key to which are that detritus of modern society: the plastic water bottle.
Rituals is divided into distinct episodes, with Luna taking the lead in evoking a holistic perspective of nature with slow-paced but tightly controlled images of birthing and growth through sacred practices. Navarrete is a motor-mouthed huckster of “agua mágica” — the product of multinational greed — that promises to heal everything from asthma to sexual dysfunction. He also beautifully segues into a transformation from an oil-slicked subhuman into a dying fish who dreams of clean water. The final image of the transformation of the gods takes too long, though it’s worth the wait.
CAREERS AND ED Quick — what art, sport, language, trade, or superpower would you acquire, given the opportunity? Answer in mind? Sweet! And attainable. In this wild and woolly city of ours, there’s an expert waiting to teach you just the skill you’ve been missing. Here are a few to get you started.
HEAVY METAL AEROBICS
Jane Fonda had no idea that one day her neon Spandex would stretch and sweat to strains of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, but there you have it. Get in shape with Workshop’s cardio/strength-training rock routine.
Learn to interpret the urban wonderland around you à la Cézanne, with pencil and watercolors complimenting each other’s touch. This City College Continuing Education class takes you out in the field to get your art on.
Ever want to build a mandolin, learn about electromagnetism, or construct your own steel forge? Nonprofit organization the Crucible has got you covered. Woodworking 101 is a good way to ease in for the hands-on newbie.
April 24–25, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. $235. The Crucible, 1260 Seventh St., Oakl. (510) 444-0918. www.thecrucible.org
INTRO TO CLIMBING
Wondering where all the healthy beautiful people hide themselves in SF? Get thee to the climbing gym. Just make sure you take the intro course before scuttling up that nearest wall. Babygirl’s not impressed by unintentional abseiling.
Mon–Fri 12:30, 2:30, 6 and 7 p.m., Sat–Sun 10:30 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. $28. Mission Cliffs, 2295 Harrison, SF. (415) 550-0515. www.touchstoneclimbing.com
BASIC MARIJUANA SEMINAR
Your gateway class into the world of Oaksterdam University’s encyclopedic knowledge of all things ganja related. Its 101 weekend course schools you in weed history, law, horticulture, treat-making, and “budtending,” sure to snag you that sweet gig at the dispensary down the street.
DISCOVERING YOUR LIFE PURPOSE AND CAREER DIRECTION
This class clearly isn’t for you — because you have the rest of your life healthfully, successfully planned and plotted … right? Just in case you don’t, Randi Benator leads a workshop on finding the career path that will help you give your best to your community and yourself.
July 17 10 a.m.– 5 p.m. $150. SF State Downtown Campus, 835 Market, SF (415) 817-4247. www.cel.sfsu.edu
CAREERS AND ED Just a thought. As our country becomes an economic-cultural stew fraught with problems so complex we don’t even know yet what they are, different approaches to education may be necessary for tomorrow’s good guys. Which is why it’s so positive that Bay Area higher ed institutions have developed unique degree programs that anticipate tomorrow’s issues today. From robot wars to social stratification — learn about this stuff and you’ve got the skills you need for the battles to come.
Rare is the program in our country that offers a concentration in the culture and history of the Philippines. But with 40,072 Filipinos in the Bay Area, that’s an oversight USF was happy to correct with this concentration, which can be paired with any of its undergraduate degrees to create a Filipino context within science, art, nursing, or the humanities.
University of San Francisco, 2130 Fulton, SF. (415) 422-5555, www.usfca.edu
LABOR AND COMMUNITY STUDIES
This associate degree program focuses on giving working people the educational background they need to be effective in the world of labor union activism — collective bargaining, labor law, and workplace discrimination issues, among other things. The school also runs not-for-credit programs that link minority students and workers up with job training for careers in the trades. Kicking ass for the working class, and all that.
City College of San Francisco, Evans Campus, 1400 Evans, SF. (415) 550-4459
On the slightly less tangible end of the spectrum, the California Institute for Integral Studies offers an online master’s degree program for “personal transformation and creating positive change in the world.” Courses focus on group mediation, identifying one’s own strengths and weaknesses, and effective leadership. Let Your Love Shine 101 (for professionals).
California Institute for Integral Studies, 1453 Mission, SF. (415) 575-6100, www.ciis.edu
EQUITY AND SOCIAL JUSTICE IN EDUCATION
There’s no way an equitable educational system wouldn’t improve this crazy old country of ours. To that end, the future teachers and leaders in this concentration of the master’s program in education study historical/political perspectives of injustice in schools, with a mind to changing things about the way Americans learn.
San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway, SF. (415) 338-1111, www.sfsu.ca
A unique minor at Berkeley examines how the concept of disability has been shaped and created by our social constructs over time. Attention is also paid to how the interpretation of disability has been highlighted in law, art, and politics. The Web site on the study features a wheelchair basketball league open to all comers regardless of bodily capabilities.
Look, not everything in the future’s gonna be heavy! We’re still gonna need people who are real good at making blood look realistic and keeping a step ahead of everyone’s World of Warcraft avatars. The students in this undergraduate major have seen the light: if we don’t master the machines, they master us.
University of California Santa Cruz, 1156 High, Santa Cruz. (831) 459-0111, www.ucsc.edu
THEATER “I didn’t know you were still alive” is an unflattering salute to a long-lost relative, especially one on her deathbed. But it’s one of the nicer things to come from estranged nephew Kemp (Marco Barricelli) as he arrives at the home of his, as it turns out, interminably terminal aunt Grace (Olympia Dukakis). In American Conservatory Theater’s production of Vigil, the 1995 play from leading Canadian playwright-director Morris Panych (The Overcoat), a morbid yet gentle comedy of mismatched loners and reluctant roommates also marks, in its cast and playwright, a series of happy returns to the Geary stage.
After 30 years without contact of any kind, duty dictates that Kemp attend to his dying aunt as her sole surviving relative. In the decades since last seeing her, the once lonely child Kemp has become a 40ish misanthrope, without friends and with what he reports as a decidedly asexual bent (despite the promising homoeroticism of an upbringing spent in dresses supplied by a willful mother with a yen for daughters).
Grace, seeming at times rather spry for someone at death’s door, also seems not to be able to speak, which Kemp no doubt considers a blessing. Utterly caught up in his own self to be seemingly incapable of the most basic tact, let alone empathy, Kemp reels off the details of the funeral he’s planned, including a nifty notion about what to do with her ashes, while giving her brusque encouragement not to hang around on his account. Grace, for her part, takes these machinations and recommendations with slightly addled good nature, clearly not willing to look a gift horse in the mouth, no matter how large it might be.
Grounded in the verbal-gestural dialogue that Barricelli and Dukakis mount with such accomplished ease, the initial short scenes in Vigil have about them the gleefully sardonic urbanity of a New Yorker cartoon, bracketed by the “wonk wah” effect of a not-too-rapid blackout. But there’s a built-in need to escalate such a dynamic for momentum’s sake, and the animated humor can occasionally skirt the Warner Bros. end of the spectrum, though not without a certain cheeky flair. At one point, Kemp, possessed by impatience and channeling Rube Goldberg and Jack Kevorkian in equal measure, wheels out a makeshift euthanizer — a coarse contraption composed of a few choice household items held in taut suspension by a scaffolding of two-by-fours, hinges and strings, with helpful options for the user involving electrocution or bludgeoning, as the mood might strike.
Matching the mischievous tone precisely is scenic designer and longtime Panych collaborator Ken MacDonald’s loft apartment, with its soiled half-papered industrial windows and ramshackle furnishings. The whole thing is tellingly askew, expansive yet intimate, gloomily dilapidated yet airy as a whimsical line drawing.
The situation and the witty half-mute dialogue sustain the first act well enough, but what comes in the second act should ideally take us somewhere unexpectedly further. Here Vigil only halfway succeeds, although the major plot twist is nicely managed by all. Much of the tone and comic strategy of the first act otherwise continue forward, at least until the final scenes. And while it’s far from unpredictable that Kemp and Grace’s fraught anti-aunty-relationship would resolve into something more meaningful and healthy for both, Panych’s route there can at moments feel forced, a bit too “written.” Nevertheless, the actors movingly infuse a respectable measure of poignancy and, sure enough, grace to the play’s final turn, which neatly turns grand topics and outsized characters toward something as truly miraculous as it is utterly commonplace, a quiet little understated metamorphosis.
Barricelli, artistic director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz, last strode the Geary in 2005 as an ACT core company member. Few actors then or now can so effortlessly fill that cavernous stage like he, and he characteristically proves as commanding as he is subtle. Esteemed costar Olympia Dukakis also has a long connection with ACT, including another two-hander with Barricelli in 2002, For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, by French Canadian playwright Michel Tremblay. Dukakis’ largely mute and wonderfully elastic performance as the bedridden, bemused but hopeful Grace holds the stage as fully as Berricelli’s bounding Kemp with his onslaught of self-obsessed verbiage. There’s a palpable generosity between the two actors that makes all the more enjoyable the darkly comic tentativeness between their characters.
MUSIC Can two voices get any closer — or be laid any more bare — than those of the xx’s Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim? The band’s spare, pared-down pop is so minimally cloaked, with either instrumentation or pretense, that you could swear the pair were scarily close-knit sibs: the Chang and Eng of U.K. rock — the doubled letters of the xx seem less like a set of female chromosomes than a symbolic representation of Croft and Sim’s doubling.
But then what else would you expect from two 20-year-olds who’ve known each other since they were 3, growing up together and into their roles as music-makers? “We went to kindergarten together,” Sim says of their early childhood bonding. “I don’t remember a time in my life when she wasn’t in it.”
The twosome met the xx producer-percussionist Jamie Smith when they were all of 11, forging a tightness that has outlasted the coming and going of keyboardist-guitarist Baria Qureshi — and has comforted Sim during the group’s current journey round the globe. “I’m so glad I’m doing this with my best friend,” Sim says, complaining of the lack of creativity and privacy on the road (he’s been taking refuge in Polaroid picture-taking). “I can imagine it being very lonely being this far from home.”
Far they are. The mild-mannered bassist-vocalist-songwriter has to struggle to make himself heard, against all odds, in a loud North Carolina bar carved out of an old train car, where the xx is performing that night. The success of The xx (Young Turks/XL, 2009) — which landed with a soft yet palpable thump atop critics’ best-of lists last year — has sent Sim, Croft, and Smith off around the world for far longer than Sim feels comfortable with. As for the recording, “I don’t think we even intended to perform it,” Sim explains now. “Going from that to a world tour is very weird.”
Weird because the xx’s bone-piercing, emotionally perceptive music — crafted by two barely legal 20-year-olds who likely wouldn’t get past the bouncer at many of the bars they’ve played — has spoken to so many. Few have used so few tools — an old Casio kids’ keyboard, a drum machine, guitar, and bass — to say so much, so intimately: The xx‘s plangent, eerie spaces and iChat-honed lyrics echo the aural landscapes of Young Marble Giants and kindred student of London’s Elliott School, Will Bevan of Burial. Taking barely traceable cues from the latter as well as from 1990s R&B performers like Aaliyah (who the xx has covered, along with Womack and Womack), the xx is the rare band that makes the space between the sounds, the pauses between the words, speak just as loudly as lyrics. “We’re big fans of subtleties of music,” Sim says. “If you give it room to breathe, you can bring forth a different sort of drama in them.”
At first the sparse arrangements were all they were capable of. “The synchronicity of it came partly from us just trying to play our instruments,” Sim says. “We couldn’t have complemented it if we tried, and as time has gone on, it’s been about restraint, and we try to go for simplicity for itself. Me and Romy don’t have particularly loud voices as well. It wouldn’t make sense to make a overwhelming sound that we had to contend with vocally.”
And in many ways breaking these songs down to their bare pop parts — crystallizing its elements in such boiled-down beauties as “Crystalised” — is a way of distilling the intensity of adolescence, and the cacophonous overwhelm of 21st century experience, down to its very vivid essence. Or a way of capturing on 11 tracks, a few fleeting moments from age 16 — when Sim and Croft wrote “VCR” — to 20. “For me it’s quite strange looking back at the album,” says Sim. “Even though the three or four years doesn’t seem like so much time, going from 16 to 20 is such a big change. I kind of see myself growing up in the whole album. It’s a bit of a diary.” *
MUSIC My original topic for this article was how indie-rock artists exploit modern R&B and soul music for their nefarious gains. I planned to center my rage at Village Voice “Pazz & Jop” doofuses who ignore future soul overachievers like Sa-Ra Creative Partners; random idiots who bop around to the likes of Trey Songz and T-Pain in ironic, condescending fashion; rock-crit gatekeepers like Pitchfork’s Scott Plagenhoef, who claimed on ilovemusic.com that “I think your best bet is to turn music crit readers into R&B fans, not R&B fans into music crit readers,” as if R&B fans (re: black people?) aren’t smart enough to develop critical philosophy; recidivists who shill for mercury-laden masterpieces like Iggy Pop’s Funhouse and Weezer’s Pinkerton while shunning slickly produced wonders like Aretha Franklin’s Sparkle and Mary J. Blige’s My Life; and any dumbass who wails about how great Motown and Stax 45s are but stubbornly blocks them from the all-important Great Rock Albums canon, arguing that soul artists make classic singles, but not classic albums (in other words, sit in the back of the bus).
The turning point for my paranoid hipster conspiracy would be Little Dragon, who will conveniently return to San Francisco on April 14 for a gig at the Independent. Hailing from Sweden, Little Dragon fuses neo-soul and R&B with the whimsicality of electronic pop. So, for several minutes, I asked lead singer Yukimi Nagano to pick apart Little Dragon’s sound. It seemed silly in retrospect, and not just because Little Dragon already does that on its Web site. Nagano exudes a cool serenity that tames you like Pixar movies temper sugar-addled children and grownups. Focusing on her influences feels like analyzing the computers Pixar uses — worthwhile from a factual standpoint, but ultimately missing the point.
“My favorites were Faith Evans and Brandy, then also a lot of classics like Prince. I love Erykah Badu and a bunch of different stuff,” Nagano said. She and her bandmates — Erik Bodin, Frederik Wallin, and Hakan Wirenstrand — write songs in the classic pop format, blending in “electronic sounds and electronic music because you can experiment so much with it. We have so many different influences, everything from South African house music to soul, R&B, hip-hop and whatever. All the guys produce, and everyone has their own character in writing, so that also gives our albums a lift. It’s not just one person making everything.” Nagano’s character, so to speak, “is that I try to be free in my writing. And people can hear the soul influences in my vocals, I guess.”
Little Dragon’s 2007 self-titled debut was full of slow-burning ballads that owed as much to modern R&B, with its singers’ penchant for subdued melisma and jazzy inflections, as to the synthesized blue tones of 1980s New Wave. “No love left in here/No love in this room/No love in my soul left for you,” she sang on “No Love,” her dourness seeping through the downbeat track. A poetic writer, she used her bandmates’ atmospheric melancholia to coin strangely elliptical lines: “Walking down the stairs, anonymous detached, on the corner I turn, I turn, I turn left.” Not surprisingly, there is homage of sorts to Billie Holiday in “Stormy Weather,” although the lyrics concern something else.
Last year’s Machine Dreams also had lollygaggers wandering aimlessly about, but the music was fuller and more vibrant. Instead of ballads with sad little keyboard riffs, there were panoplies of sounds, from the percussion titters of “A New” to the dense yet airy washes of “Fortune.” Much of the album is kookily uptempo, with clockwork rhythms reminiscent of Howard Jones and Thomas Dolby (in a good way). “Playing live [during the tour for the first album] made us want to pick up the tempo,” Nagano said. “We really love playing dance music. There’s nothing as great as seeing people dancing.”
As Little Dragon pushes in a new direction, the R&B sounds that once inspired them drift into the past. The band is listening to different stuff now, like Depeche Mode, DJ Cleo, and Gui Buratto. “Obviously the first album was written a long time ago, and it’s been a few years. Those songs were written even before 2007. They were already old for us then. Time has passed and you change.”
Machine Dreams is a qualitative leap from the debut album, which Nagano dismisses as “demos” that the group’s label, Peacefrog Records, released without their permission. (She was pleasantly surprised when audiences responded so well to it.) And if Little Dragon is better equipped to harness its current Kraftwerk obsession than the R&B passions of the past, then so be it. Regardless, the results don’t sound like anything else.
“I love music so much, and the guys do as well,” Nagano said. “You know how you get that kick from something you haven’t heard, and get inspired? It’s a great kick to have in your life. We want to find that as often as we can.” That seems painfully obvious to me. *
FILM One frontier in which Israel remains politically left-forward is that of gay rights. Civil marriage, military service, foreign-partner naturalization, and job discrimination issues are all much more progressively legislated than in the U.S. let alone the rest of the Middle East, where flogging, prison, or even execution punish homosexual "crimes." Nonetheless, as in much of the world today, fundamentalist religious currents endanger progress already made and still being worked toward.
Three out of five films in the "Out in Israel" series at the Roxie deal with strife between gay and Orthodox religious communities. Copresented by San Francisco’s Jewish Film Festival, they’re all part of a larger lineup of April events assembled by the Israeli Consulate in honor of Israel’s Gay Pride Month.
The oldest feature here is from 1992, though it feels like 1972 Amos Guttman’s 16mm-shot Amazing Grace has the technical simplicity and variably professional acting of early gay-themed movies from just about any nation, whatever their era. And like most such, it’s a downer in which everyone is depressed, isolated, and broke. Young Jonathan (Gal Hoyberger) is fed up, especially with his quarrelsome family and slutty ex-boyfriend, when he meets handsome new neighbor Thomas (Sharon Alexander). Unfortunately the New York City-returned older musician is more interested in using drugs than love to drown his HIV-positive self-pity.
Israel’s gay cinema pioneer, Guttman died of AIDS the following year at age 38 without achieving anything like the popular success that greeted Eytan Fox a decade later. Fox’s 2002 international breakthrough Yossi and Jagger, originally made for local TV, stars Ohad Knoller and Yehuda Levi as IDF officers stationed in a mountain bunker on the Lebanon border. They’re carrying on a giddy affair almost no one knows about till tragedy intervenes. But Avner Bernheimer’s astute screenplay is still only half done: the rest of Fox’s finest effort to date finds closeted grief exacerbated by psychological theft and stinging injustice.
Moving from secular to religious conflict, the remaining "Out in Israel" features focus on clashes with those who view homosexuality’s mere existence as an affront to God. Nitzan Giladi’s documentary Jerusalem Is Proud to Present (2007) opens with Jewish, Muslim, and Christian clerics united at last condemning the city’s planned hosting of the 2006 International World Pride Parade as "nothing less than the attempted spiritual rape of this holy city." Violent rioting by Orthodox sects, death threats to gay leaders, and more attempts to shut down the event before it happens, succeeding somewhat yet also prompting righteous obstinacy from the LGBT community. One can laugh queasily at the grandmotherly type who claims HIV infection will jump 300 percent because those gays "just grab people" for their "orgies." But you’ll want to sucker-punch the loudmouthed Brooklyn rabbi who flies in just to spew his smirking homophobia.
Two recent features illustrate the impasse between homosexuality and ultra-Orthodox values in intimate dramatic terms. Haim Tabakman’s debut feature, 2009’s Eyes Wide Open (the only series program with a ticket charge; all others are free), watches trouble brew when a kosher butcher (Zohar Shtrauss) grows dangerously fond of the alluring new assistant Ezri (Ran Danker), whose reputation as a "curse to righteous men" precedes him. While borderline mannered in its minimalist dialogue and direction, the film packs a potent
Contrastingly not at all interested in restraint is Avi Nesher’s The Secrets (2007), about two girls (Ania Bukstein, Michal Shtamler) discovering Sapphic love at a women’s seminary. They also embark on a secret program of ritual cleansings for a prison-released French murderess (Fanny Ardant, atypically hammy) dying of both cancer and heart disease. It’s too bad the series’ sole lesbian feature is so melodramatically over the top. Then again, it’s probably pretty tasteful by the standards of a director previously associated with schlock like 2000’s Raw Nerve (Mario Van Peebles meets Nicollette Sheridan!) and 2001’s Tales from the Crypt Presents: Voodoo.
CAREERS AND ED It’s not everyone’s idea of a good time to be choked from behind and thrown into a wall repeatedly, although this is San Francisco. But this is no kinkster playground; rather, it’s an unprepossessing mirrored studio on the Nob end of the Tenderloin where a diverse group encompassing just about every age, gender, and athletic quotient gathers to learn the hand-to-hand combat and self-defense techniques of Krav Maga. Krav is martial without the art: crude but effective street-fighting techniques and counter-weight defenses honed into body memory through repetition, use of full force, and peer coaching. Unlike more rigidly codified martial arts systems, which put an emphasis on form and fair play, Krav puts an emphasis on “whatever it takes.” Whatever it takes to get home alive.
And the tradition of Krav Maga — “contact combat” in Hebrew — takes that mantra very seriously. Developed in the 1930s by Slovakian boxer Imi Lichtenfeld to help Jews defend themselves from anti-Semitic attacks, the “Israeli jujitsu” technique was honed by the Israeli Defense Forces for military purposes. Krav Maga San Francisco, founded in 1999 and owned by brown belt Barny Foland, offers 70 classes, and prepares you for any untoward situations.
A relative newcomer, I attend level one classes at Krav Maga San Francisco once or twice a week, schedule permitting. This week we’re learning to break free from a choke from behind, followed by a push. The first thing we learn when being thrown into a wall from behind is how to protect the face, blocking the impact with our forearms and turning our heads to the side. “That part’s pretty important,” our instructor quips. “You can’t see them now, because we painted over them, but there used to be blood spots on the wall where people bashed their noses.” Good to know.
The next step is breaking the choke, and though the movement itself is not complicated, training it to feel intuitive takes longer. Basically, the chokee shoots an arm straight into the air and quick turns, breaking the hold through leverage. Of equal importance to the choke-break is the follow-though, defensive moves morphing into offense: hammer strikes, groin kicks, a few rapid-fire punches to the soft tissues. Without pads, we mime the strikes, which earlier we practiced at full force on unwieldy foam “shields”. The choking is real enough, though, as is the body-slam, and two days later, a tender spot the size of a thumb rests below my jawline, and bruises on my elbows attest to how I finally learned to not block with them.
The hardwiring process and use of full-force is what inspired me to take Krav in the first place. I had already taken an IMPACT (www.impactbayarea.org) self-defense seminar, which taught me how to take a fall and fight hard from the ground. But Krav aims to keep students on their feet. I find the benefit to training face-to-face against my peers (instead of a “padded suit”) is two-fold. Firstly I learn to strike with force against a person whose face I can see, and secondly, I learn to absorb their blows, a crucial key to surviving a real-life attack. Taking the time to help each class member master every skill genuinely is a top priority at Krav Maga SF. I’ve attended aerobics classes that were more competitive.
Foland assures me it’s the norm. “Anybody who wants to come in and train for competition, we send them down the street to the local kickboxing gym. You can be in a level one class and have level four students in there with you, and the only reason you would know it is because they’re really good, and they’re trying to help you learn. You show your skill by how much you help your partner.”
Of course, folks looking for a more graceful, philosophy-based martial art might ultimately decide that Krav Maga is just too rough around the edges. I think of the earnest man who attended an intro session about a month ago. He’d been blocking well all night, but balked when our instructor urged us to aim our punches for the throat, in order to cause “the most amount of damage in the quickest amount of time.”
“But couldn’t you damage someone permanently if you hit them in the Adam’s apple,” the man asked, concerned.
“I didn’t start the fight, remember,” our instructor said firmly. “But I’m going to finish it.”
CHEAP EATS My cowboy hat had mold in it. My chicken farmer coat had mold in it. Even the buttons were fuzzy. My brother doesn’t take baths, he takes showers, and so the outdoor tub was full of insect skeletons, spiders, spider webs, and junk mail. There is a rumor that a guest of his hid some weed in the chicken coop. Not that I’m interested, but I took a look anyway and only saw straw.
I am tempted to get chickens again. There is no buried treasure that chickens will not eventually uncover, and I’ve always kind of wanted stoner chickens. I’ve always wondered what it would be like if they, as a species, were a little more chill and slept longer. Not that it would matter much to me at this point. Ten years of chicken farming has permanently programmed me to snap awake at first-light. In the year or so since I last farmed actual chickens, nothing has changed on this front.
Anyway, I don’t know if I can keep this place. My brother, who had been subletting it, went bust and lit out for Ohio, leaving me, for the moment, his van. Which burns oil, has a badly cracked windshield, no horn or high-beams, electrical problems, and a slow leak in at least one tire. What this all reminds me of, naturally, is every other car I’ve ever had except for that last little one, the new one, which I sold last year when I sold my soul to the devil, and my heart to someone even meaner.
So wheels being wheels, I am able at will to visit my old, now-haunted shack in the woods, at least until the brother comes back.
Should I get chickens?
Can anyone help me pay the rent? Surely I must have me some friends in town who like to sneak away and be haunted for a weekend by the ghost of broken water heaters, all-night face-touching in the dark, and the squawks of long-ago stewed chickens, scratching and pecking from dusk to dawn in search of rumored grass.
The editor of the paper I write for, if not the world, wrote to me while I was still in Europe and said, “If you come back, I will buy you duck soup.”
Technically he said when you come back, but for fun I want to think of this — this duck soup business — as just that: business. Like a contract extension. Or a contract renegotiation. Or a contract.
So correct me if I’m wrong, my lawyerly readers, but I interpret it like this: If I come back (which I did), what’s in it for me is one bowl of my favorite thing to eat in the whole wide world, duck noodle soup, and — as a kind of a signing bonus — an unwritten, nonverbal, body-languageless, and in-no-way-even-hinted commitment to continue to publish this column for as long as I am alive and can make a sentence — whichever comes first.
That’s a no-brainer, innit? No brain, no heart, no soul, but I’ve still got me my stomach, don’t I? And a healthy appetite and this shit van for a month, and two places to live and at least two bikes …
So I wrote back just as soon as I was in the country, give or take exactly 13 days, and agreed in spirit to the editor of the paper I write for’s proposal. Then I donned my best business skirt and matchingest sneakers, hopped on one of my at-least-two bikes, and pumped it to the Tenderloin to iron out the details.
The details: wide egg noodles, one whole, delicious, fall-apart tender duck leg quarter, and wontons in a wonderfully businesslike broth. Times two. As a show of support and solidarity, Mr. Redmond ordered the same exact thing!
So I told him my story, like I tell all my friends, only instead of making him cry or puke or curse or have to walk around the block a few times to clear his head, he came back with an even better story. And by better I mean worse. Which makes me feel kind of actually, I don’t know, good — knowing that shit happens to everyone, even editors.
It’s no frills, not undiscovered, cheap-even-if-you-have-to-pay-for-it, and by far my new favorite restaurant.
MUSIC Sonny Smith is sitting at a window table at the Latin with a cap on his head and a small glass of red wine and some 7-inch single cover art by Stephanie Syjuco in front of him. I get a whiskey and sit down to talk about the matter at hand: art, music, mythologies, and “100 Records,” the gargantuan yet in some ways quite local show of sounds and images he’s putting together at Gallery 16. One man, 100 records — with help from dozens of artists, a number of musicians, a carpenter, and an electrician, Smith not only has created a number of 45s by fictional musicians and bands, he’s built a jukebox to play them.
The due date for Smith’s mammoth creation is a week away, and he’s in the final stages of assembling it. “I’ve been struggling to write down all the bios,” he says, as we talk about some of his imaginary recording acts, which range from New Orleans drag queens to Utah nature lovers. “They’re not Wikipedia-esque, but more like entries in a Rolling Stone Encyclopedia [of Rock & Roll]. At the beginning, I was swapping names and titles all the time — if a surf jam turned out to be a folk song, I could give it to another character. But now, with the last three [records], it has to be what it is.”
What is it? An open-ended project, not solo and self-enclosed in the manner of the Magnetic Fields’ 1998 69 Love Songs, where Stephin Merrit’s formulaic writing reached its apex. Instead, Smith is allowing “100 Records” to form itself as he assembles it. “I’ve only brushed up against the edges of it all becoming interwoven,” he explains over the post-work barroom din. “It’s almost as if I’d rather it not be — if you read the Harry Smith Anthology [of American Folk Music], or a biography of a musician, it’s enjoyable that there are so many loose ends.”
The visual artists contributing to “100 Records” — including William T. Wiley, Alicia McCarthy, Harrell Fletcher, Paul Wackers, and Mingering Mike (who knows a thing or two about creating folk musical figures) — have responded to Smith’s call for cover art in a variety of ways. “Alice Shaw was this character Carol Darger, and I was Jackie Feathers,” Smith says, to give one country-tinged example. “Their biography is that they’ve gotten married and been divorced twice. We took photos together for cover art. And Jackie Feathers also has solo records with art by different artists.”
When one thinks of Sonny Smith, band names don’t come to mind, though his latest endeavor Sonny and the Sunsets plays wittily off of his current San Francisco neighborhood. For years, Smith has put his plain name forward rather than come up with musical monikers. “100 Records” changed all that. “What’s weird is that I tried for years to come up with cool band names,” he says. “I’d come up with one and think, ‘That’s dumb.’ I’ve never had a knack for it. But because [the acts in “100 Records” are] fictional, it was easy to come up with band names — the names came left and right. A lot of the names that came to me I’d be happy to use as real band names. In fact, I’m trying to get a couple of the bands to become real bands.”
Indeed, one of the groups on “100 Records,” the Loud Fast Fools, will soon make the transition from fiction to the reality of today with a gig at the Knockout. Smith’s recording process for the project has been varied. He’s taken instrumental passages from obscure ’50s, ’60s, and ’80s songs, patched and lopped them with Guitar Hero, and put vocals on top. He’s recorded solo. He also knocked out dozens of songs with a multi-instrumentalist group of largely San Francisco musicians, some of whom he refers to by last name: Stoltz, Dwyer.
“There are a couple of balls-out, crazy ‘Louie Louie’-type numbers, and Spencer [Owen] played drums on those,” Smith says, describing the sessions. “It was some of the best drumming I’ve ever played with. He had these bizarre beats and fills. I thought, ‘This is so perfect — this is probably how a song like “Louie Louie” happened.'”
A spaghetti-narrative project like “100 Records” is a natural for Smith, a storyteller who has documented his life in comic book form and written plays. Later in the interview, with the Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You on the stereo at my apartment, he tells me that one of the first singles he bought was by Mick Jagger. “I didn’t buy it because I knew anything — the guy at the record store just told me to buy it,” he says. “It was a record store in Fairfax that was Van Morrison’s parents’ record store. He just bought the store and put his parents there to run it.” This anecdote then spirals into a funny one that a member of Morrison’s band told him about being stuck playing an endless version of “Domino” on a darkened arena concert stage while Morrison secretly caught a cab and a plane to L.A.
Smith has a keen eye for the mythologizing involved in music, and how a college radio DJ can build the guy down the street into a mysterious cult figure. Around the release of one album, his label pestered him to write a fake Pitchfork review, but he declined. “I’d be more into writing a fake Playboy interview,” he says. Ironically, Pitchfork has come calling of late, writing about Sonny and the Sunsets.
Internet career-makers come and go. For now, Smith is more concerned with opening night of “100 Records” and the debut of his own art contribution to the show, a customized jukebox. “It’s a hell of a thing, ” he says, after breaking down the differences between Wurlitzers and other brands, and explaining that a rat-infested jukebox buried under stacks at Adobe Books first inspired the idea. “My friend who is a master carpenter used this German ’50s jukebox as a reference. It’s almost like a joke — like making a stove from scratch. Why would someone do that? But someone did.” That someone is Smith, and he’s hosting a jukebox party this week.
SONNY SMITH: 100 RECORDS
With music by the Sandwitches and Sonny and the Sunsets
Homes Not Jails (HNJ) has fought diligently for two decades to shed light on the economic disparity that exists in San Francisco, where the number of homeless people would fit almost perfectly into the supply of vacant homes.
So on a cold Saturday night, April 3, as I sit shivering in the back of a van waiting for my group’s turn to covertly enter a vacant house, I’m surprised at the calmness on some of the members’ faces. This group of eight is planning to enter and occupy apartments at 572 and 572A San Jose Avenue. And while only a few have been through this before, the rest make up for their lack of experience with a passion for the cause.
Around 2 a.m., the group somehow manages to enter the building without being caught, but it’s not easy. Between the drunken couple arguing on the street, the cops breaking up a bar fight nearby, and a neighboring couple who keep shining flashlights at the units, the group should never have made it in. But it does, and at the moment there’s no time to dwell on luck because there’s food and water to unpack, entrances to secure, and rooms to search, all while remaining perfectly silent and unseen.
Typically HNJ, a project of the San Francisco Tenants Union, conducts weekly searches it calls “urban exploring” in the hopes of finding useable vacant property to set up as a “squat” for people looking for a place to live rent-free. Every so often, its activism goes mainstream in the form of public occupations like this one, when the media is notified.
The immediate goal is to simply enter, secure, and occupy the apartment until noon the next day when a rally starting at 24th and Mission streets will march right in front of the building. Once there, they are supposed to let fly a couple HNJ banners while the rally outside features speeches, chants, and music by the Brass Liberation Orchestra.
But the catch is that the squatters cannot be seen before the rally arrives outside, otherwise their cover will be blown, they could be arrested, and the goal of shedding light on this waste of vacant housing will be ruined.
After attending HNJ meetings and events for a few weeks, I was allowed to follow the group into the apartment and report on their occupation from the inside as long as I protected the anonymity of those who wanted it. With that in mind, the group included Tim, one of the most experienced HNJ members; SFSU grad-student Aaron Buchbinder; Elihu Hernandez, a candidate for the District 6 seat on the Board of Supervisors; Matt, another experienced HNJ member; and local activists Carling, Scott, and a seventh member who asked to remain anonymous.
The building they targeted had strong symbolic value; it was where an elderly man was forced out by the landlord using the Ellis Act, which for the past decade has been the root cause of a large number of what the group sees as unjust and immoral evictions.
The Ellis Act was adopted in 1985 to give landlords the right to clear their rent-controlled buildings of tenants and get out of the rental business, expanding their previous rights to evict tenants through Owner Move-In (OMI) evictions, which allowed landlords and their immediate family members to oust renters.
Once a landlord invokes the Ellis Act, tenants in the building are given 120 days to move out, although seniors and those with disabilities must be given a year’s notice. Tenants are entitled to almost $5,000 each in relocation costs, or a maximum of almost $15,000 per unit. Seniors and those with disabilities get an extra $3,300 each.
After the building is vacated, it is usually taken off of the rental market for at least five years. During that time, the former tenants retain the right to reoccupy their old units at their original rent for 10 years. If the building is re-rented within five years, the landlord can only charge what the previous tenants were paying. These restrictions are attached to the deed and apply to subsequent property owners as well.
Although the restrictions were meant to discourage the eviction of tenants from rent-controlled units, they also have encouraged some property owners to keep buildings vacant while they wait for property values to increase or to re-rent their units at higher prices. If the landlord wants to convert, remodel, or add any additions to the property, they still must seek the city’s approval.
This landlord power is the primary reason HNJ chose to occupy 572 and 572A San Jose Avenue. A few years ago, the property was purchased by Ara Tehlirian, who sought to remodel it and live there himself, evicting 82-year-old Jose Morales in the process. Morales had been legally renting the property since 1965 and challenged his eviction in court.
Morales won when the judge ruled that it was illegal to evict him for the sole purpose of renovating the building for the new landlord. But Morales’ success was short-lived. Tehlirian invoked the Ellis Act, so Morales was no longer legally able to live in his home. When Tehlirian subsequently asked for permission to renovate his house as he had initially planned, the judge denied the request citing that landlords cannot invoke the Ellis Act for an OMI eviction.
One reason the Ellis Act is used so frequently traces back to the passage of Proposition G in 1998, which prevented the type of eviction initially tried on Morales. Prop. G requires landlords invoking an OMI eviction to move into the evicted tenant’s unit within three months of the eviction and to stay for a minimum of three years.
Furthermore, it limited such evictions to one person per building and banned them if a comparable unit was open in the building. Finally, and the reason cited in Morale’s case, it made permanent an existing law that was set to expire in June of that year that prohibited any OMI eviction of senior, disabled, or catastrophically ill tenants.
Tehlirian, like many others before him, decided to use the Ellis Act to bypass these OMI restrictions. Ted Gullicksen, director of the Tenants Union, said Prop. G had the unintended effect of encouraging property owners to clear their buildings of tenants, a requirement of Ellis Act.
“A vacant building is generally worth 20 to 30 percent more than a building occupied with tenants because the landlord can do whatever he wants with the units, including selling them or renting at market rate,” he told us.
So Morales was forced out of what remains a vacant building. This is why HNJ illegally occupied the property, arguing that trying to effect change through legal avenues is at times just as difficult as Morales’ individual struggle against the Ellis Act. It highlighted the human cost of property rights.
“People who keep vacant buildings for profit tend to be the same ones who donate money to political campaigns,” Tim said. Which is why he is resorting to a form of civil disobedience that is very likely to end with him in handcuffs.
Around 1 p.m. Sunday, April 4, the rally met in front of the property and the occupiers frantically rushed to hang banners and secure any entrance the San Francisco police might find. As the first drops of rain fell, the Brass Liberation Orchestra played, speakers including Gullicksen and Morales said a few words, and the Food Not Bombs organization supplied free food to occupiers and members of the rally.
After a few hours, the rally dispersed with much appreciation from those inside the apartment and what started as a group of seven SFPD squad cars dwindled to two. Tim, Elihu, Scott, Aaron, and Matt decided to remain in the building while the rest of us said goodbye and climbed out an open window.
The remaining members spent their second night in the building, but this time they didn’t have to be quiet. Supporters brought the group pizzas and a neighbor offered to supply water to the group as long as they didn’t mind if it came from her tap. They huddled in the same room playing cards and joking until Tehlirian and the SFPD made it through the front door, ending the occupation.
Each member was cited and released on the premises at 1:35 p.m. April 5 under penal code 602m for trespassing. Tehlirian stood by and observed while his lawyer, Zach Andrews, unsuccessfully pressed him to charge the group with breaking and entering. When the group dispersed, Tehlirian and a few members of the SFPD broke through a second door to gain access to the bottom level of the property.
When Tehlirian came out for a break, I tried to speak with him but he refused to answer my questions. Shortly afterward, I met up with the HNJ group at the Tenants Union and asked Tim if he thought they were successful in accomplishing their goals. “Not completely,” he said. “But we made the most with what we had.”
Tenants may not have the law on their side in many cases, but in a city that is two-thirds renters, they have each other. And for a few days, they had one more home. The group’s feelings seemed to be summed up by this quote on a HNJ pamphlet: “We are too valuable to live huddled in the rain, in the parks, in dangerous unhealthy shelters. Freezing, dying so that others can realize profits.”
Horace Mann Middle School principal Mark Sanchez sounded exhausted when we reached him on March 26. It wasn’t because Horace Mann is such a tough school, although the Mission District campus does have a disproportionate number of at-risk students. And it wasn’t because it was the Friday before spring break, although that might have had something to do with it.
All week Sanchez had been reeling from news that a whopping 10 out of his 20 full-time teachers had been issued pink slips by the San Francisco Unified School District. Including counselors, a vice principal, and other staff, the budget cuts essentially lopped off 24.6 percent of the school’s workforce, an unprecedented blow that speaks volumes about the state of California public education.
“A lot of the kids were wondering if the school was getting shut down,” Sanchez said. And although Horace Mann isn’t closing, with so many axed teachers, it might seem like a new school to many students come August. “If a significant number [of teachers] are moved, we don’t know what we’re in for.”
There is a legend that you will meet the person who will seal your fate long before the final event happens. And in an interesting turn of events, it was Sanchez who, as president of the Board of Education in 2007, hired current SFUSD Superintendent Carlos Garcia. Attempting to close a staggering $113 million budget gap over the next two years, it fell to Garcia on Feb. 23 to send out 645 layoff notices across the district in a list that included 163 administrators, 239 elementary school teachers, 124 high school teachers, and 104 middles school positions. Horace Mann was hit particularly hard because so many of its staff lacked seniority. Final decisions on layoffs will be made next month by the school board.
The first indications of this massive fiscal blood-letting came Jan. 20, when Garcia sent a letter to the entire district on learning of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget. The document was a glaring reminder of how bad things had gotten in Sacramento, and the superintendent wrote candidly of what he saw and what it meant for the district. “These numbers are large, and they will be devastating.”
Aside from the extraordinary blow to personnel, the proposed SFUSD budget will increase class sizes, freeze salaries, cancel summer school except for those who need credits to graduate, and reduce the number of days of classroom instruction to 175 annually, putting the district in conflict with a state law mandating at least 180 days. Given its deep cuts, Sacramento probably won’t enforce the statute.
“The state itself is in such a budget crisis,” Sanchez told us. “And [it’s] refusing to raise taxes. The fix has to be at the state level.”
But that’s been difficult since the passage of Proposition 13, the 1978 measure that limits property tax increases and gives control of whatever revenue is generated directly to the state. Because all state budgets must pass the Legislature with a two-thirds super-majority vote, a disciplined minority of virulently antitax Republicans block budgets that adequately fund education nearly every time.
Yet now, the bill for that political stalemate is coming due at schools like Horace Mann.
Beyond the numbers and politics, the Guardian wanted to get a closer look at how this regular cycle of cuts and layoffs is affecting teachers and students, so we spoke to a couple of eighth grade English teachers at Horace Mann who described it as dismal.
“I try to put it at the back of my mind, to be honest,” said Matt Borowsk, one of the 10 teachers at Horace Mann who received a pink slip. Borowsk reiterated a common sentiment that all teachers — potentially laid off or not — just want to do their jobs and focus on their classes. “I want to be able to stay and do my work and make improvements. And I want to do what I can for the school community and work with students,” he said. “I’m still in it, and I’m in it for the long run, despite what issues the district has about keeping their teachers.”
Gail Eigl, a teacher at Horace Mann for eight years who is tenured and therefore not at risk of a layoff, concurred. “No one I know who got a pink slip has changed their attitude. People are trying to stay focused on the present and teach.”
It’s an admirable response, and one Eigl understands well. She was laid off after her first year there in 2001. “Six of us got pink slips,” she recalled. “It was terrible.” She went looking for a job in South San Francisco, but in a strange turn of events, SFUSD called and offered her a job at Argonne Elementary in the Richmond District. A year later, she was back where she started at Horace Mann, and until now, she hadn’t really looked back.
“It’s like the school keeps having problems,” she said, an opinion that also hints at SFUSD’s skewed notion of teaching as a stable career path.
Borowski offers a similar story. This year’s pink slip is his second. Last year he received one after teaching only a year in Burlingame, which is how he ended up in San Francisco. Such rampant doling out of pink slips has nothing to do with Borowski’s performance. Rather, it has everything to do with seniority. And because the state is in such a crunch, it’s hard to stay in any school long enough before the budget’s grim reaper comes to collect.
“People who are able to stick through the first five years, they genuinely want to be a good teacher, make seniority, and not have to worry about it,” he said. And “because Horace Mann is a school where new teachers go, because it’s a tough school, then they’re the most vulnerable to layoffs. Which starts this vicious cycle.”
It’s classic Catch-22. Facing such a budget shortfall, how does SFUSD keep teachers who have little or no seniority teaching in the very schools whose litany of needs put those teachers there in the first place? In many ways, these are the most committed and passionate teachers the district has, and they represent for their classes a level of discipline and stability absent in many of their students’ home lives.
Many of Eigl’s students are low-income, speak English as a second language, or both. Some of their parents are deceased, others are undocumented immigrants, and a few are in jail.
“I honor tenure,” she told us. “I know there’s a reason for it. But right now, it doesn’t seem to be working for us.” Eigl brings up the case of a new parent liaison the school received this year, a critically important position that takes time building solid relationships with students’ families. “She got a pink slip too,” Eigl told us, the exasperation evident in her voice.
“I think people are really defeated inside. It’s so frustrating,” she continued. When asked what she meant by that, Eigl became heated. “It’s California! We’re supposed to be the richest economy. We should have money for schools. Why are other states doing so much more? We’re at the bottom. Where’s the money?” She suggested that Horace Mann should be granted special status because of its high-needs student body.
“It’s almost predictable that students who have a lot of unpredictability in their lives will suffer for this,” Sanchez told us. “It will be destabilizing for them. Teachers will get disrupted as well. A lot of what you do in schools has so much to do with outside the classroom, and it takes a lot of time to get acclimated.” At a tough school like Horace Mann, he says, “there’s been a lot of professional development and new programs.”
Borowski stresses the sentiment forcefully. “It’ll be devastating if the pink slips go through. It’ll be a huge mess.”
Both teachers participated in the massive statewide protests against the cuts on March 4. But other than letting Sacramento know how public educators feel, nothing concrete has come out of it. Sanchez suggested that it might be possible to sue the state for violating its statute on the minimum number of school days. Even SFUSD, at the last Board of Education meeting on March 23, didn’t rule out the possibility of suing the state for lack of adequate funding.
Negotiations are ongoing between the district and the United Educators of San Francisco teachers union about final layoffs. Those will be finalized May 15. Meanwhile, teachers at Horace Mann and across the district will continue to do their jobs despite how grim the outlook may be. As Eigl puts it, “It’s like out of a book from a bad future.”
Annie Leonard, author of The Story of Stuff (Free Press, 2010), sat in her office in Berkeley explaining why we must direct our energy toward making policy and reforming laws, not just individual green lifestyles, to avoid destroying the planet.
Leonard recalled how, at a recent reading to promote her book, she was presented with the claim that people in Berkeley are environmentally superior to other folks. “But people shouldn’t point the finger at other individuals unless those individuals are the heads of Chevron, Dow Chemical, Disney, Fox News, Halliburton, McDonald’s, Shell, or the World Bank,” Leonard warned.
Her point is that the planet’s biggest problems are systemic, not a result of personal choices. “Because our choices are limited to the forces outside the store. We have this big illusion of that ‘free market,’ but I can’t choose pajamas for my kid without them containing neurotoxins because of the law. And I cannot choose an electrical appliance that lasts for more than a year. The overall structure encourages people to use toxics. We have to start looking at these harder issues,” she said. “It’s so easy to think it’s an individual’s fault.”
Leonard’s quest to shine some cleansing light on the toxic effects of capitalism started with her short film, The Story of Stuff, which became an Internet sensation with more than 10 million viewings. It showed how our obsession with buying stuff is trashing our planet, communities, and health, thanks to the hidden costs in how we organize our economy.
Her book goes into the details of how these costs come at the expense of millions of people who live and work in dangerous, unhealthy circumstances. Leonard isn’t saying that people shouldn’t be responsible and smart in their individual and household actions. But she is critical of the idea that we can solve the problems caused by “our take-make-waste paradigm” entirely through green living.
“Unfortunately, there are no 10 easy things individuals can do to save the planet,” Leonard said. “We definitely should engage in these actions, as long as we don’t let them lull us into a false sense of accomplishment or let the effort of maintaining this constant, uptight, rigorous green screen on our life exhaust us. And as long as taking these actions doesn’t stand in the way of engaging in the broader political arena for real change.”
Leonard includes a list of “recommended individual actions” in her book, but it’s tucked behind examples of “promising policies, reforms, and laws” and ahead of a sample political letter warning that “PVC is the most hazardous plastic at all stages of its lifecycle.”
What worries Leonard is that the planet is already bumping up against ecological limits. “If we don’t change, we’ll have change forced upon us,” she said. “If change is by design, it’ll be much more compassionate and strategic. If it’s by default, it’ll be a lot uglier, a lot more violent, and a lot less fair.”
Leonard says our planetary problem stems from approaching product purchases as if we were exempt from the ecological system. “If you think as a consumer, you want the best product and the best price. But if you think as a citizen, you want what’s best for your community, your environment.
“We all know how to be good consumers, but our citizen muscle has atrophied,” she added. “That has limited our ability to know how to solve problems. And often environmental victories here become problems elsewhere, like e-waste that gets taken to third world countries.”
Fox News has labeled Leonard anticapitalist, describing her as “Karl Marx with a ponytail.” But Leonard stresses that she is not anti-stuff, just stuff that trashes the planet, poisons people, and that people confuse with personal self-worth.
“I’m pro stuff,” she said. “But I want us to have a reverence for it, to ask, ‘Who made this, and where did it come from?’ Because someone mixed those metals, felled that forest. And I’ve become fascinated by why folks in the U.S. can’t talk about capitalism. It’s the economic system that must not be named. It’s like we’re in an ice cream shop that serves only one flavor and we’re not allowed to look over the counter.”
If tuition goes up to $40 per course unit at the community college where Dielly Diaz is working toward her associate of arts degree, she’s not sure she’ll be able to afford it. But Diaz isn’t just worried about her own shot at an education. She also wonders what’s in store for her 19-year-old daughter, a student at Laney Community College in Oakland. For parents scrambling in the face of the economic downturn even as their kids prepare for the future, she said, “it’s like we’re getting hit both ways.”
Diaz, who is 39 and originally from Venezuela, says she decided to enter Berkeley City College’s adult education program to earn her degree because the recession threw her into a precarious position, shaking the stability of her job as a mortgage loan officer. When she started just a year ago, tuition was $20 per course unit. It has since gone up to $26, and now the California Legislative Analyst’s Office is recommending ratcheting it up to $40.
Even as students are being asked to shell out more, California’s community colleges are reeling from the impacts of budget cuts: faculty layoffs, swelling class sizes, fewer available courses, and reductions in student services. For students hoping to transfer to other public institutions in the California State University (CSU) or University of California (UC) systems — or even for those seeking to develop a skill set that can garner a living wage — maneuvering the shredded educational framework can be frustrating. This past year, roughly 250,000 students statewide were denied access to community colleges due to a lack of course availability, according to education advocacy group Against Cuts.
“When you see all that, it’s like OK, I feel like I really need to do something,” Diaz said. “It’s not like we can just sit and wait, letting the cuts happen. I think we can really get organized.”
Between school, work, and being a mom, Diaz started pitching in on community outreach for Against Cuts, a grassroots effort that took shape last fall in the wake of devastating education cutbacks. It was one of hundreds of organizations that collectively launched mass demonstrations decrying funding slashes to education on March 4. The newly energized education movement plans to propel another mass rally to descend on Sacramento in the fall, Diaz noted, in the meantime focusing on awareness-raising efforts like an April 17 teach-in at Berkeley City College.
California’s community colleges are unique among the state’s higher education institutions in that they represent a gateway for nontraditional students to get a foothold for career advancement or a fresh start for people trying to improve their lives. They also offer an affordable option to complete lower-division coursework before transferring, a path that’s starting to become a bottleneck since courses needed to meet transfer requirements have been affected by cuts.
Yet even as fees climb and class sizes balloon, more people are opting to go the community college route, and demand for enrollment is only expected to increase. Some are college-age students whose families have been priced out of other institutions.
“We’re having this flood of people from the CSUs and UCs now trying to do their freshmen and sophomore year with us and then transfer,” notes Berkeley City College faculty member Joan Berezin. Others are individuals who can’t find work in an economic climate marked by 12.5 percent unemployment. “When we get hog-tied and cut and restricted, we close off possibilities to everyone,” Berezin says. “People who’ve just lost their jobs, people whose parents have lost their jobs, they’re all coming to us.”
Of the nearly 3 million students attending community college statewide, women and people of color are in the majority, and 80 percent work while attending school. It’s still a relative bargain for education, but fees are keeping pace with the rising costs of housing, transportation, childcare, and food.
“I have students who are homeless, who are living in their cars,” Berezin notes. “So we can say, oh, $40 a unit, that’s not a big deal. But if you’re taking 12 units and you have no income — and you don’t qualify for financial aid ’cause you don’t have an address … that’s a huge amount of money.”
Financial aid is available, but with narrow eligibility requirements — and even some of that funding may be headed for sacrifice on the budgetary chopping block. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year proposes suspending new awards for the Competitive Cal Grant Program, for a savings of $45.5 million. About 70 percent of Cal Grant award recipients attend community colleges.
“This award is dispersed according to income and GPA,” explained Theresa Tena, director of fiscal policy at the Community College League of California. “Many of our students have a high GPA and a low income.” Some 22,500 students receiving this financial help would be affected by the proposal — and Tena says more than 150,000 eligible students already compete for the award packages.
Research increasingly shows that students from working-class families are being priced out of college — even community college — and that it’s harder to pay their own way without taking on serious amounts of debt. A California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC) report found that in 1975, a community college student would have earned well over the amount needed for a year of school, including housing and other expenses, by working a summer job in retail. Today that same student would only be able to scrape together about two-thirds of the needed amount — and that’s assuming every single penny was saved.
“In the old days, going to community college was a break-even proposition,” notes Adrian Griffin, assistant director of research and policy development for the CPEC. “With stagnating wages at the low end of the job market, it doesn’t work this way anymore.”
The blow to community colleges caused by a loss in state revenue and consequential budget cuts mirrors the damage done to the entire public education system. While the recession has triggered especially hard times, this low point follows a long-term trend of diminishing state funding for education. In 1965, the state general fund provided $15 for every $1 paid in fees by UC or CSU students, according to the CPEC. By 2009–10, that state contribution had declined to $1.40 for every dollar paid in fees. “We’ve gone from a taxpayer-supported system to a semi-privatized system,” Griffin observed.
This point hasn’t been lost on the education advocates at Against Cuts, who are pushing for reform in tax policy as a solution for restoring public education in California. An information packet created by the group highlights a nearly 50 percent decline in the share of corporate income paid in taxes since 1981, even as corporate profits have shot up.
“There is no reason for education to be cut in California, the world’s eighth-largest economy,” Diaz said. “We can’t just continue to accept and accept and accept. Having a population that does not have access to education is dangerous.”
MUSIC “In a time when people are becoming more and more isolated every day by the Internet, alone at their computers and staring at the tiny, sad glowing screens in their cellular hands, it only makes sense to me that we are all feeling a slight sense of loneliness and (hopefully) the desire for connection with others … Whereas 1980s groups responded to implicit cold, colorless alienation of the repressive regimes of Reagan-Thatcher-era politics and culture, today’s groups I think express a similar frustration responding to what I call ‘the culture of isolation.'”
That’s Pieter Schoolwerth, founder of Wierd Records, a New York City label dedicated to releasing records by contemporary acts that eerily mimic the sounds of obscure electronic new wave, in a recent interview with Austrian music journal Skug. Oddly in the context of connection, he’s talking about some of the most deliberately cold, enigmatic, bleak yet beguiling music ever produced — “lost” underground European and American music that came out roughly between 1979 and 1986 (if it came out at all), was inspired by goth, industrial, and synthpop giants like Throbbing Gristle, Joy Division, Bauhaus, the Cure, and Depeche Mode, and is only being rediscovered now.
It’s igniting fierce interest, with musicological fanatics digging up spooky swaths of unknown angular gems and a slew of current bands channeling the sound. Originally made in decaying urban centers with then-newly-affordable analog synthesizers and drum machines by dozens of often untraceable musical mavericks — Ausgang Verboten, Esplendor Geometrico, Das Kabinette, Eleven Pond, Nine Circles, Zwischenfall, Gerry and the Holograms — these unearthed and unearthly tunes from decades ago are beginning to seep into the Bay Area scene via a handful of excellent compilations, club nights, and musical visionaries. Can something be retro if hardly anyone heard it the first time? That’s just one of the intriguing questions that springs to mind. Meanwhile, humans are dancing. Here’s a mix of some of the originals:
This bracingly unfamiliar music (or rather, slightly familiar — you think you’re hearing some bizarre 1981 B-side by Soft Cell or Visage but it turns out to be a crazy one-off from Columbus, Ohio from that same year) was usually grouped at the time into three fuzzy genres that overlapped at many points, sharing among them a DIY spirit, a dystopian view of the future, an urge to map the melodramatic onto the automatic, erotic astringency, and pretension without pretentiousness. Yes, much of it veers into “Sprockets” territory, but that’s actually part of the appeal.
Dark wave was an umbrella term for goth rock, early industrial, and darker synthpop. It grafted lamentation and cavernous basslines over post-punk’s angular angst and icebox oddity, and was popularized by groups like Fad Gadget, Front 242, and Chris and Cosey and at clubs like London’s seminal Batcave. Cold wave was the French version of dark wave that skewed toward more Pong-like synth figures, fizzling chords, studied malaise, and gnomic haiku. (“Business man/Yet you kill the boss/Computer programs/Shadows in the night,” Lyonnaise duo Deux disaffectedly intone on 1983’s unshakeable “Game and Performance.”) Synth wave, or minimal synth, was a kind of prickly disco: chromatic, sparsely produced, brooding and moody, yet often quite catchy and dance floor-oriented.
All three genres are now generally lumped together as “wave” (or sometimes “retrograde”), which can include a vast array of other period sounds, from John Zorn-like no-wave jazz explosions to Dead Can Dance spooky-tribal incantations. Basically, if it feels like you’re listening to a late-night college radio program somewhere in the Midwest in 1984, one possibly called “Flash Frequencies” or “Shadow Talk,” you’ve caught the uncanny wave gist. If you imagine yourself a fishnet-gloved extra in the movie Liquid Sky who pronounces “paradise” as “pah-rahd-eyes,” then you definitely have.
Dark wavers Brynna and Domini at Club Shutter. Photo by Sadie Mellerio
But just because the sound aimed for frigidity doesn’t mean it didn’t build community. Wave acts may have been what some would call “unbranded,” but they operated within close-knit networks: cassettes were passed hand-to-hand, recording studios were shared in warehouse-based artists’ communes, fans around the world braved dangerous parts of town to attend wave-centric club nights. The music itself attempted to humanize the arctic pitch of analog synths by infusing it with longing, restlessness, ennui, and gloom.
Today, that naive sincerity, refreshing lack of self-conscious irony, and marketplace virginity translate into authenticity, appealing to retro aficionados who vomit a tad at goth’s Hot Topicality, the macho posturing that torpedoed industrial, or the Polly Estherization of new wave. (Like techno, soul, and disco before it, new wave retro is finally purging itself of excess baggage and mainstream complications by going minimal and original.) Dusted-off waveforms and hyperactive web forums attract a network of virtual seekers and posters who salivate at each discovery. Schoolwerth may be right about wave’s cry against a culture of Internet isolation — and the turn toward analog is a specific rejection of the digital — but like an anxious clan gathered around a silicon-chip fire, its current fans watch anxiously online for freshly exhumed and re-chilled visions to appear. Then they go play them at clubs. Here is something old that seems truly new.
FOREVER EXHUMED, FOREVER ORANGE EYES
Wierd Records’ contemporary roster of disquieted simulators, including the almost paranormally attuned Xeno and Oaklander and Led er Est, has been gaining global club-play traction — something many of the original artists, who drifted off into other, often fascinatingly mundane lives, could only have hoped for. (One example: Lidia the Rose, one half of Dutch act Nine Circles, abandoned musicmaking in the early ’80s to raise “a half dozen” children in a commune-like setting. It was only after one of her sons Googled her name that she realized there were fans of her extremely limited, cassette-only output. She has since started making music again.) And wave affectations have garnered larger attention from the breakthrough of experimental synthpop band Cold Cave, which draws on the sound’s pallid idiosyncrasies. “Hear sounds about yesterday’s pain today,” the band’s MySpace deadpans.
Notable contemporary Bay Area wave acts include the excellently jerky Muscle Drum, founded by long-term wave-proponent Rob Spector of the group Bronze, fog-shrouded darkwave duo Sleeping Desiress, cinematic dirgers After Dark, and exquisitely anguished quintet Veil Veil Vanish. The East Bay’s Katabatik Sound System has been producing lurching experimental-industrial music and events for a while, and V. Vale’s Re/Search crew has been exhuming rare tunes forever. A particular favorite around the Bay Guardian office lately is the Soft Moon, a melancholic, pitch-perfectly crepuscular project of punk veteran and graphic designer Luis Vasquez.
The Soft Moon
“Honestly, being associated with the wave phenomenon was a little surprising to me at first,” Vasquez told me, balking, like many retro-contemporizers I talked to, at being associated with any kind of scene. “But I think I understand why. My instrumental formula is similar because of the use of drum machines, synthesizers, rhythmic bass lines, and somber melodies. It could also just be the overall feeling my music has. I’m still not quite sure.”
On the classic side of things, two just-released, high profile compilations — The Minimal Wave Tapes (Minimal Wave/Stones Throw) and Wierd-curated Cold Waves and Minimal Electronics Volume 1 (Angular) — along with recent German comp Genotypes (Genetic Records) have made underground synth rarities more accessible to potential wavers.
“I was exposed to new wave at a young age via my older brother’s small collection of cassettes,” NYC’s Veronica Vasicka of the Minimal Wave label wrote in an e-mail. “Later I’d sneak out of my parents’ apartment at night to go dancing in the East Village. I really associate those teenage days of first discovering record shops and old VHS tapes of bands like Throbbing Gristle with the inspiration that led me to launch the Minimal Wave label.”
Vasicka coined the term minimal wave to encompass her fascination with both cold wave and minimal synth sounds. Her long-running Sunday night East Village Radio show has served as a beacon for American synth fans, and the incredible response to her extensive Web site (www.minimal-wave.org) has established her as the point-person for the movement. She has her own theory about why the sound seems right:
“On one hand, I am surprised that minimal wave has been so easily welcomed in this day and age. But on the other, and when looking at things from an economic standpoint, there’s a distinct parallel between what was happening during the late 1970s and early ’80s and now. The weak economy that led to the recession peak in 1983 is similar to what has been happening during the past several years. And it seems that cultural and artistic output tend to be affected by economic and social struggle. So perhaps this context has provided the openness necessary to embrace minimal, DIY synthesizer music.”
PASSING FIRES, STRANGE DESIRES
I’ve just entered Sub Mission Gallery for underground queer punk party Sissy Fit. The energy is edgy. Clouds of smoke drift in from outside. Patrons in black sway on the dance floor and eye each other from the benches lining the bare walls. DJ Pickle Surprise, whose style ranges from hardcore blasts to camp classics, puts on a throbbing track by early ’80s Marseille synthers Martin Dupont and I’m instantly transported back to my shadowy youth, spent skulking around the checkerboard dance floors of downtown Detroit clubs Bookie’s, Todd’s, and Liedernacht. I whip an imaginary cigarette holder to my pursed lips, checking to make sure my phantom pillbox hat is properly tilted. He follows that up with a selection of wave tracks old and new, including Storüng, Oppenheimer Analysis, and 2VM, that transforms the joint into an electro-sepulchral time portal. The added twist to this nostalgia trip is mystery — the music ventures beyond the “‘remember the 80s party” canon and into some uncanny partial-recall state.
DJ Pickle Surprise
“I find I’m playing this sound more and more,” Pickle Surprise, a.k.a. Joe Krebs, told me. He got into wave after attending one of the parties Wierd has been throwing in Brooklyn since 2003. “It can call up visions of lasers and line-dancing robots, but after getting to know it more, there’s something less cold or android about it, more of a human touch. It’s analog. There’s something supernatural as well. Like Videodrome, where you’re up in the middle of the night and get pulled into something on television. Something haunting that recalibrates you.”
“Did the passions of the artists shape the way the technology was used, or did the technology shape the people using it? NERD!” DJ Nary Guman, a.k.a. Joe Polastri, teased over e-mail. Along with DJ Inquilab, a.k.a. Nihar Bhatt, he puts on the monthly wave-friendly Warm Leatherette. They started their own party early last year because they found their tastes didn’t quite fit in anywhere. “Once I started digging I found out just how vast the field was,” Bhatt added. “It’s exciting to have something that can be danceable, experimental, popular, and punk at the same time.”
Other San Francisco parties that have embraced the sound include the monthly Shutter (www.myspace.com/clubshutter) at Elbo Room, which packs in the kohled and the beautiful with hits from Sisters of Mercy and Fields of the Nephilim among rarer tracks. Local band Jonas Reinhardt’s Synth City, every last Thursday of the month at the Attic (www.jonasreinhardt.com) mixes a wave feel into atmospheric krautrock and new age rambles. And the Radioactivity happy hour at 222 Hyde (www.222hyde.com) celebrates “low-budget synths and Cold War dance parties.”
LE DECADENCE ELECTRONIQUE
The party most faithful to the retrograde spirit, however, is the energetically opaque Nachtmusik, put on by DJs Josh Cheon, Justin, and Omar. Chilly green lasers strobe live performers, wave-o-philes gather in corners to trade track knowledge, and open-minded dancers try out new-old moves to alien beats. (Surprisingly, this insular music sounds really good loud in a crowd.)
Josh Cheon of Dark Entries Records. Photo by Jon Rivera
If anyone’s the heart of the Bay wave scene, it’s Cheon. One of our most important amateur musicologists, he was integral to the disco revival of the ’00s, tracking down and conducting in-depth interviews with gay bathhouse-era survivors and then moving on to international wave. For him, the music summons youthful memories of dancing at NYC’s the Bank to Clan of Xymox, Q Lazzarus, Cetu Javu, Wolfshiem, Beborn Beton, and VNV Nation. “From the first notes of Ministry’s With Sympathy and Depeche Mode’s Speak and Spell, I’ve been a sucker for synths,” he told me, laughing.
In 2009, Cheon started Dark Entries Records (www.darkentriesrecords.com) to release some of his finds, including Second Decay, Zwischenfall, Those Attractive Magnets, and upstate New York’s Eleven Pond, whose “Watching Trees” has become a wave anthem of sorts. (He found Eleven Pond through a comment one of the members posted on SF synth collector Goutroy’s A Viable Commercial blog, goutroy.blogspot.com.)
Staying true to the “DIY vinyl retrograde” spirit, Dark Entries releases come in hand-numbered batches of 500, and for the most part the digital rights are kept by the artists themselves. There are no CDs.
He shrugs off the possibility that there’s little left to discover. “It’s like gold mine after gold mine,” Cheon told me. “There’s just so much out there — even the artists themselves are surprised to be reminded of this time in their lives that they’d mostly forgotten. It’s actually really touching when they find out there’s an intense interest in what they did in their youth. They’re just amazed.”
Later this year he’ll be releasing a Bay Area Retrograde (BART) compilation, highlighting our own historical wave purveyors. “What many people forget is San Francisco’s rich synthpop and new wave history, with bands like Voice Farm, Tuxedomoon, the Units, and the Club Foot scene for starters. [Factrix, Minimal Man, and Los Microwaves are some others.] But that’s just scratching the surface. I mean, who knows what great tracks are waiting to be heard? And what amazing stories behind them.”
A couple of weeks ago, political consultant David Latterman, who often works with downtown interests, sent off an e-mail warning that the pro big-business, moderate bloc needed to get its act together. "It appears as if different groups are unwilling to set aside their egos or agendas, and pool together resources in a comprehensive plan to take back the [Democratic County Central Committee]," he wrote. "And guess what, we’re going to lose, in June and November."
His point: the DCCC matters, a lot. "The DCCC controls the supe endorsements that matter most," he noted, adding, "The mayor’s race starts now."
And that’s absolutely true and unless the folks downtown are foolish or have given up (and neither is terribly likely) they’re going to get the message, and there’s going to be a big-money push in the next two months to oust the progressive majority on the county committee.
The DCCC controls the Democratic Party endorsements and the party slate card is among the most influential political slates in a city where the vast majority of the population votes for Democrats. The DCCC could well make the difference in some of the key supervisorial races this fall and could play a key role in choosing the next mayor of San Francisco.
But it’s not a high-profile election. More than half the votes will probably be absentees. That means it’s critical that the progressive candidates can raise money, do mailers, and fight back.
At this point, there’s a pretty good consensus on a progressive slate. We published our endorsements last week, and the Milk Club, Sierra Club, Tenants Union, and Assembly Member Tom Ammiano have endorsed most of the same candidates. In the fall, labor, environmental groups, tenants, and other progressive interests will be putting a lot of money into the races for district supervisor. But I could argue that the DCCC is just as important and if we don’t fight this one to win, it’s going to be a lot harder in November.
EDITORIAL The pilot program to privatize taxicab permits is a done deal. It’s a mistake, and its going to cause serious problems, but at this point, short of a new charter amendment, there’s not a lot anyone can do about it. Under the 2007 measure Proposition A, the Municipal Transportation Agency has the authority to revamp the rules for how cabs are regulated, and the MTA board, appointed by Mayor Gavin Newsom, has approved the privatization plan.
But the implementation rules can still be written to prevent some of the worst possible results.
Under the proposal, as many as 300 medallion holders who are now more than 70 years old will be allowed to sell their permits and pocket the money. The city will get 15 percent of the sale price. The idea is to encourage older drivers to retire. Since medallion holders must by law be active drivers and the medallions are issued to drivers until they retire or die and the medallions are highly lucrative the city’s taxi fleet includes a significant number of people who should no longer be behind the wheel.
But since 1978, the medallions have been issued to drivers for only a token fee so in essence, the city just handed the older drivers a massive windfall. The permits public property are expected to sell for around $200,000, with holders pocketing 85 percent of that cash.
Newsom had much more ambitious plans he initially wanted to put all the permits on the market and raise as much money for the city as possible. To her credit, Christine Hayashi, MTA’s taxi director, has held her ground and stuck to a plan she thinks will slowly address the problems in the current system (too many older drivers, too long a waiting list for permits).
But if this is going to be anything other than an utter disaster for cab drivers and the city, Hayashi needs to make sure that the permits don’t become speculative commodities and that cab companies don’t use the new rules as a way to turn medallion buyers into indentured servants.
The rules still require that medallions be held by (and thus sold to) working drivers. But let’s face it: not many drivers have $200,000 cash on hand, so the system’s only going to work if the city can line up financing. Hayashi says she has several banks interested in making medallion loans (in fact, the banks will be the big winners here medallions don’t depreciate and almost certainly won’t lose value over time). But the drivers will have to come up with a downpayment, probably 10 percent and a lot of prospective buyers won’t have that much cash, either. One likely outcome: Cab companies will offer to front the downpayment for drivers who agree to associate their medallions with that company. Hayashi needs to press and enforce a rule that bans any cab company from lending money for permits. If this is going to benefit the average driver, the city ought to mandate low downpayments from participating banks or work with nonprofit microlenders to make those loans. (In fact, the city ought to be reaching out to the nonprofit finance community for advice on how to implement the entire program.)
MTA also needs to set a firm, reasonable cap on prices at a level that a working driver earning the income possible at today’s fares can afford. Medallions can’t be allowed to sell at whatever the market will bear or speculators and unscrupulous companies will be working all sorts of scams to cash in, the drivers will never have a chance, and the whole system will collapse.
OPINION Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut: this is the sound of your government parks, schools, playgrounds, hospitals, clinics, public transportation, programs for youth and seniors, arts, social services, the whole fabric that makes San Francisco what it is fading away as state and local politicians refuse to raise revenue to revitalize our economy.
Mayor Gavin Newsom and big business groups have promoted a defeatist politics of low expectations, cutting spending, laying off city workers by the thousands, and offering tax breaks to businesses and developers rather than tapping San Francisco’s deep pockets of wealth to generate economic opportunities citywide.
It’s time for a new path: a fiscal politics of optimism, opportunity, and addition rather than subtraction. It’s time for an unapologetic progressive taxation movement for this November’s ballot and beyond, to make the city’s great wealth individual and corporate, often badly undertaxed work for all San Franciscans.
As California crumbles, local revenue movements could fuel a statewide campaign of towns, cities, and counties to overturn Proposition 13. San Francisco can take the lead with progressive taxation to create jobs, promote small neighborhood businesses, expand affordable housing and public transit, save public health, and more.
A citywide campaign for progressive taxes is building, including leaders from community-based nonprofits, grassroots organizing and neighborhood groups, labor unions, and some corners of City Hall. There are many promising ideas; with the right political will and organizing, the city could, for instance, tax large-scale real estate and levy profits from large firms. Progressive taxes could, at minimum, bring in close to $100 million and help save critical city services.
To win this campaign, a strong coalition must educate and mobilize the public about the vital importance and citywide benefit of raising revenue through targeted taxes on large firms and wealthy individuals. The city’s political leaders will need prodding, pressure, and support to get this done.
Progressive taxation will benefit all of San Francisco, not just some working-class people of color and immigrants who endure the cuts’ harshest effects, everyone from youths to seniors, and vitally needed city employees like social workers, nurses, librarians, park workers, and firefighters.
The politics of austerity poses false choices between public safety and public health as if health isn’t a safety issue. San Franciscans of all stripes must reject the pitting of services and "constituencies" against each other, reject the wedge politics that pit labor against nonprofits (both of which work to uplift working-class and poor residents), and unify around progressive revenue.
Nobody likes taxes, least of all the middle class, working class, and poor (the vast majority of us) who shoulder the bulk of the burden. But wealthy individuals and corporations can and must pay their fair share. According to a 2007 World Wealth Report produced by Merrill Lynch, 123,621 households in the Bay Area many of them in San Francisco "had $1 million or more in financial assets in 2007, up 10.8 percent from the year before," the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
At a Feb. 14, 2007 Town Hall on Poverty in Bayview-Hunters Point, Newsom asserted, "we haven’t addressed the wealth divide; we haven’t addressed the health divide; we haven’t addressed the economic divide … why in a city like San Francisco has income inequality grown like it has?"
Yet Newsom and others continue to avoid progressive taxation despite polls suggesting such measures can win. Tell Mayor Newsom, and your district supervisor, to make San Francisco’s wealth work for everyone. Now. *
Christopher Cook, an award-winning journalist and former Bay Guardian city editor, is communications director for the Revenue for All campaign of Budget Justice, a coalition of members from dozens of community organizations, labor unions and their allies working to raise revenue and protect the most vulnerable San Franciscans from budget cuts.