Volume 45 Number 25

Appetite: 3 reasons 2011 Whiskies of the World worked

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There’s always fine pours to be had at the (12th) annual Whiskies of the World, a.k.a. WoW, particularly from smaller distilleries. Bourbon, rye, scotch, Japanese and Irish whiskies all flow freely. As I said in my coverage last year when it was held at Hotel Nikko, the downside was tight, body-to-body crowds. This year, that was remedied in the still packed but ample space of the SF Belle. 

Classes and panels are a highlight at WoW, though this year there was some confusion about where they were held since most were actually on a neighboring boat. But the riverboat setting with cigar pairings, smoking deck, Bushmills rousing pipe and drum band, and convivial spirit set it apart among whisky events. 

1. Whiskies on a boat

A little bit Reno and a whole lot of Mississippi, Hornblower’s SF Belle evokes a classic riverboat with pleasingly dated kitsch in casino-reminiscent carpeting and gold brass. As our docked home for the 5-10:30pm event, climbing aboard for dinner and whiskies was transporting. The dispersion of buffet dinner on the bottom floor, spirits on second and third levels, and cigar bar on the top deck, allowed for proper flow and plenty of diversions. Though walking up and down steep steps on a gently rocking boat while whisk(e)y tasting could be hazardous (and was for some), it certainly was great exercise. 

2. Small, craft distiller

Whiskyfest may have more whiskies and all those special pours (like 30 and 40 year old scotches during VIP hour), but WoW showcases (alongside bigger names) smaller distillers that may not be able to afford a booth at Whiskyfest, like Corsair out of Nashville, or Bend Distillery in Bend, OR. This year I noticed newer Northern California distillers making white whisky or rye, like Petaluma-based Wylie Howell Spirits or Fog’s End near Salinas. Award-winners like Copper Fox from Virginia had unaged versions of their rye and single malt alongside the aged product. Distillers showcased latest releases of established product. As ever, I take pleasure in sipping the latest from local treasures like Old World Spirits (try their rye or brandy!), or returning to Prichard’s for delightful rum or double barrel bourbon. 

There were a few fine cocktails on hand during the event from the likes of the Bon Vivants and Rye on the Road. Jon Gasparini of Rye served his frothy, bright Royal Warrant with a peaty punch from Laphroaig 10yr scotch, balanced by Earl Grey syrup, lemon, egg whites, kumquat bitters and bergamot zest.  

3. Cigars on the top deck

Here’s the magic you can’t get at any indoor drinking event in California: on the riverboat’s top deck was an open air cigar bar replete with stunning views of the water, Bay Bridge and city skyline. Sure, cigars ran out early (complimentary, thanks to Rocky Patel — though I fear some attendees did not play fair, as I saw guys walking by with six in their coat pocket). But some of us shared, reveling in the crisp night air and twinkling lights before heading back for more whisk(e)y tasting. 

–Subscribe to Virgina’s twice monthly newsletter, The Perfect Spot

 

Black tassels for Eddie

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culture@sfbg.com

BURLY Q A pink bunny suit. The forbidding mustache of a Latin American militarist. A skulking spy, a washed-up punk rocker, a burly lumberjack. This was SF’s burgeoning neo-burlesque scene, but Eddie Dane’s outfits stayed firmly in place on stage. Shouldn’t the women shuffling off their lacy purple push-ups — not this giant carnival barker! — be the ones in grabbing the spotlight with their tongue-in-cheek costumes?

But it was always apparent that Dane, cofounder of SF’s notorious troupe Hubba Hubba Revue who died March 10 of heart problems and kidney failure, knew burlesque was about more than just the boobies.

“He offered burlesque in its true form: a variety show. With Dane’s Dames it wasn’t just about the strippers — we had skits, comedy, we had Gorilla X!” Nicollete Daly, a.k.a. Desire d’Amour, says it was Dane who inspired her burlesque career — indeed, his original group’s show at Bruno’s in the late 1990s was the first time her eyes were opened to that curvy road to glory that the art form offered.

Dane started the “bevy of beguiling ecdysiasts” (so-called by that aforementioned Hubba Hubba perennial, Gorilla X, a.k.a. performer Mig Ponce) dubbed Dane’s Dames in 1999, a mix of skin-baring sexiness and the baggy pants comedy of 1940s and ’50s. The group performed at the 2001 Tease-O-Rama convention in New Orleans that many credit with providing the meeting space-crucible that tipped the old vaudeville form into its current renaissance. Nowadays, your neighborhood dive bar gives Burly Q classes and the Pussycat Dolls have made a marabou-sequin-satin splash all over the faces of MTV and Cher — but back then it was up to the performers and troupe leaders to dictate the sentiment of the new movement.

“Eddie showed everyone that a male troupe leader could be respectful of the women and not just trying to make a buck off a woman’s body. He used to be like a mother hen, making sure we were all ready and set for the stage,” Daly says.

“Eddie was always looking for new and different acts to evolve the genre rather than give continual homage to what it was at its inception,” chimes in Fritz Striker, Dane’s closest compadre for 15 years who shared a flat with him for the last three before his untimely death. That hunt for the new and unusual led to the Hubba Hubba Revue, which Dane started with friend and dedicated heckler Jim “Kingfish” Sweeney in 2005. The two managed one of the city’s best burlesque teams and provided comedic relief while dresses and bra tops were swept off the stage.

“We were doing a show a couple years ago where I was dressed as a dictator of a tiny country and he was my military strongman,” recalls Sweeney. “We’re both in these fake mustaches. As we’re barreling along through the dialogue, Eddie’s mustache comes off little by little, until one whole side of it is flapping around every time he talks. We’re starting to laugh and forget our lines. Eddie stops in the middle of the scene in front of 500 people and says, in character, ‘I think my mustache is making a break for it!’ I laughed nonstop for about a minute.”

The community will be out in force April 14 for Hubba Hubba’s planned memorial show for Dane at the DNA Lounge. Just don’t expect it to be a stoic affair, especially considering what those close to him say Dane will be remembered for. Says Sweeney: “Mostly he’ll be remembered for the fact that nobody — absolutely nobody — loved a gross joke more than Eddie.”

Preaching Tikkun

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Michael Lerner recently endured death threats, attacks on his house, and a cyber attack that shut down the website of his beloved magazine Tikkun. But it’s nothing new for an outspoken outsider whom infamous former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover once dubbed “one of the most dangerous criminals in America.”

The 68-year-old rabbi jokes that his middle name is chutzpah (Yiddish for audacity, good or bad) and says he has been a magnet for controversy his entire life. But that doesn’t make the recent threats from Zionists and other strong advocates for Israel any less scary.

The latest controversy comes on the heels of Tikkun’s silver anniversary celebration, held March 14, when the progressive Jewish publication honored human rights advocate Judge Richard Goldstone, whose report condemning Israeli war crimes in Gaza was strongly criticized by Jewish leaders. The day after the Tikkun event, vandals plastered posters outside Lerner’s Berkeley home depicting him as a Nazi cooperating with an Islamic extremist to destroy Israel. Previously vandals broke into his home, wreaking havoc inside and leaving graffiti to communicate their message.

After all these years, Lerner bears the threats and accusations with eternal optimism and resilience, preaching the still-radical message of “peace, justice, nonviolence, generosity, caring, love, and compassion.” The message has been at center of the Berkeley-based magazine’s mission for 25 years.

Aside from being a vibrant spiritual community based on traditional Jewish and other humanistic values, Tikkun has deeply influenced the discourse in the wider Jewish community. It has challenged the Jewish community’s automatic support for Israel and Zionism and started a spirited debate, triggering an angry backlash in the process.

As its readership has diversified across religions, so has its mission, leading Lerner to found the Network of Spiritual Progressives in 2005. Dismayed by how conservatives use the notion of family values, Lerner has sought to create a progressive framework to address the human need for spiritual meaning.

“Tikkun is the major thing I did with my life,” Lerner tells us.

The recent celebration included an award ceremony for those Lerner’s team deems most “Tikkunish.” The title of the magazine comes from the old Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, a principle of shared responsibility to “heal, repair, and transform the world.” Previous winners include poet Allen Ginsberg and historian Howard Zinn.

Goldstone is known for helping to dismantle apartheid in South Africa and prosecuting war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Most recently, Goldstone headed a U.N.-sponsored investigation into Israel’s attack on Gaza two years ago. The investigation concluded that indiscriminate bombing in densely populated areas by Israeli forces amounts to war crimes.

Israel and many Jewish leaders have harshly criticized Goldstone’s report on the Gaza attack for its purported biases, saying it unjustly jeopardizes Israel’s international standing and reputation. But at Tikkun’s award ceremony, Goldstone reaffirmed the findings of his investigation and said that he was compelled to act because he believes in the “right of civilians to be protected even in war.”

Lerner sees Goldstone’s actions as important and deeply Jewish, calling him “a person who takes seriously a central command of Torah: ‘Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.'” The two men have had a relationship since Lerner reached out to Goldstone a year ago. At the time, Goldstone was facing so much backlash that some members of South Africa’s Jewish community sought to bar him from attending his son’s bar mitzvah. That was when the first attack to Lerner’s home occurred.

Berkeley Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Mary Kusmiss said the police have “no leads or identified suspects.” She went on to say that the latest incident may be classified as a hate crime.

“When people start coming to attack your house, you don’t feel safe,” Lerner said. “You don’t know what these crazy people will do next.” But he insists he does not want to make a big deal out of the threats, saying extremists have never altered his actions or politics.

Lerner has always tried to challenge the American Jewish establishment, a term for organizations with an array of religious, cultural, and political concerns but a common hawkish stance on Israel and American foreign policy.

“Israel has been turned into God,” he explains. “You can walk into any synagogue in America and you can tell them ‘I don’t believe in God, I don’t like the Torah, and I’m not following the Ten Commandments’ and be welcomed. But if you go into that same synagogue and say, ‘I don’t support Israel,’ you are kicked out. People are worshiping Israel and God has been abandoned.”

But Lerner notes shifting public opinion, especially among younger Jews. Many are experiencing ethical dissonance between the righteous and heroic Israel commonly portrayed in the Jewish community and the increasingly visible reality of Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian lands, human rights abuses, and violations of international law.

While criticism of Israel coming from non-Jews is often dismissed as anti-Semitism, Jews who express dissent often get called “self-hating.” But Lerner said the illogical conclusion that Israel is the same thing as the Jewish people, and that if you criticize Israel you hate yourself has become less effective in silencing dissent. “It simply isn’t true that people are angry at Israel because of some internal psychological deformation,” Lerner said. “[Increasingly] people are saying ‘If being ethical is the same as being a self-hating Jew, then I choose to be ethical.’ “

But Lerner comes under fierce criticism from Jewish hardliners for his views. Attorney Alan Dershowitz, an outspoken supporter of Israel’s government, famously wrote a 2006 commentary in j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California detailing Lerner’s “offense against decency and the Jewish people,” concluding that Lerner is a “rabbi for Hamas.” According to Dershowitz, “Tikkun is quickly becoming the most virulently anti-Israel screed ever published under Jewish auspices.”

But Lerner isn’t really on the radical edge in criticizing Israel. Although Tikkun courted controversy in 1988 by denouncing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, the magazine today doesn’t support the movement that is pushing a policy of boycott, divestment, and sanctions of Israel initiated by Palestinian activists in 2005 as a nonviolent tactic to pressure Israel to change its policies. But Lerner still seeks to foster debate on the topic, as he did in the July/August 2010 issue, which featured Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace arguing for at least a partial support of the tactic.

Lerner’s ire has always been directed at powerful institutions, from the military to the white Southern power structure. As a college student, Lerner directly engaged in the nonviolent protests of the 1960s. While working toward his first PhD (philosophy) at UC Berkeley, Lerner was president of Students for a Democratic Society. Later, while working on his second PhD (psychology) in Seattle, Lerner was arrested and found guilty of instigating a riot during a protest against the Vietnam War. The conviction was later overturned, but his reputation as a dangerous radical was solidified in the minds of Hoover and other establishment figures.

Lerner never abandoned his belief in the validity and power of protest. “I would like to see young Jews confront the Jewish institutions,” he said. “I want to see sit-ins and demonstrations to challenge those who are willing to give support to the right-wing governments of Israel.”

Yet he has also grown skeptical of many leftist groups. “As spiritual progressives, we are critical of progressives,” Lerner explains. Although he agrees that a major redistribution of political and economic power is necessary, he argues that something is missing on the left, with its focus on secular ideas and neglect of real spiritual needs.

Lerner says the left’s shortcoming has allowed the right to tap into popular discontent and win support by championing church and family.

While working toward his PhD in psychology, Lerner was part of a team that interviewed thousands of working Americans. “What we discovered was there was a spiritual crisis in peoples lives. There was a deep hunger for a framework of meaning and purpose to life that would transcend the individualism, selfishness, and materialism that people are working all day long in the workplaces,” he said. “People don’t like the message of the work world that the bottom line is to maximize money and power, and to do that you must look out for No. 1 and not care about others.”

His response was to found Tikkun, whose message can attract even agnostics. Alana Price does not describe herself as religious, but she has recently been promoted to be the co-managing editor of the magazine. “I knew Tikkun built a bridge between the religious left and the secular left, so I was excited about that,” Price said. “What drew me was the deeply humane quality of Tikkun.”

Appetite: Cynar buzz… the next Fernet?

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Not sure if you’ve noticed, but Cynar, a classic Italian bitter (that works as both aperitif and digestif), is taking over your local cocktail bars. Otherwise remembered as the artichoke liqueur (among the 13 total herbs and plants that go into it), its label stands out with a green artichoke over a red background.

But don’t expect Cynar to actually taste like artichokes. It does not. Compared more often to Fernet Branca, it’s in that amaro family, most commonly drunk in Europe straight, on the rocks, with a splash of soda or even orange juice. It’s bitter just like other amari greats, with an elusive, herbal richness.

Cynar really makes a drink like the Kentucky Bubble Bath at LA’s Library Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel. Without the gently bitter tinge Cynar imbues, it could easily have been a sweet and soapy bourbon/lavender cocktail. Or here in SF at The Hideout speakeasy in Dalva, Cynar is a stimulating layer in the appetite-inducing Nobody’s Dirty Business: Batavia Arrack, Bonal, Maraschino liqueur, lime, and Cynar, topped with Prosecco.

Though a European classic since released in the 1950s, Cynar has been growing in popularity in US cocktail bars the last couple years, lately reaching a fever pitch. After I decided to comment on the trend, I received an email from the USBG about an upcoming bartenders cocktail contest where Cynar is the base ingredient. No doubt about it, the “artichoke liqueur” has arrived when it has a seminar and bartender showdown surrounding it.

Try a shot of Cynar or behold it adding intriguing layers to your next cocktail.

–Subscribe to Virgina’s twice monthly newsletter, The Perfect Spot

SXSW Music Diary wrapup

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MUSIC South by Southwest was completely overwhelming, and my feet are killing me. It’s hard to avoid the constant feeling of missing out on something, because you always are. But once you get over that fact, it’s possible to have a really good time. Here’s a highlight reel from my first time at the Austin festival.

Wed/16 Made it to Dallas on the early-early flight from SFO and found the gate for Austin, a hipster ghetto in DFW’s sea of middle Americans. The first musician sighting was Toro y Moi, then it was off to the live music capital of the world. Post-credentialing, we attempted to catch Raphael Saadiq at the much-hyped Fader Fort party … but the line stretched for hours. The first of many scrapped plans. We then stumbled across the Palm Door, where Anamanguchi was playing irresistible Nintendo-core power pop. Later that eve I saw the sweet Icelandic troubadour stylings of Olof Arnalds and caught an amazing version of “Benny and the Jets” by piano gods Marco Benevento.

Thurs/17 Biked straight to a loft party featuring Brasileira MC Zuzuka Poderosa, who was spitting out Funk Carioca lyrics on top of beats by DJ Disco Tits. Tried to go to the NPR showcase, which was done, then tried to see Big Freedia, the “Queen Diva” of Bounce … all I got was a taste from the sidelines. Ran into SF local Meklit Hadero as she and her band tried to find the venue where they were showcasing. Saw Boston’s David Wax Museum at the Paste party and crossed paths with J Mascis on my way out. Caught the tail end of Meklit’s show at Marco Werman’s “All Music Is World Music” showcase, then Abigail Washburn’s stellar bluegrass set. Rode clear across town in the hopes of catching Devotchka at Lustre Pearl, but the line nixed that plan. Came back for the Atlantic Records showcase hoping to check out Lupe Fiasco, but B.O.B was playing in his place. Decided to forgo Janelle Monáe’s show (she’d been subbed in for Cee-Lo) so I could get off my feet.

Fri/18 Ran into Red and Green of Peelander-Z, the outrageously festooned Japanese punk band, who sweetly obliged a snapshot (they’ll be playing DNA Lounge on April 7th with Anamanaguchi). Got dished up a tasty burger at the Alternative Apparel Lounge as my cohort Matt Reamer was summoned to take pics of Linda Perry. We shared our table with Shane Lawlor of Electric Touch, who chatted about his band’s road from getting signed to playing the big festival circuit this year. Checked out James Blake at the Other Music/Dig For Fire lawn party. It was kind of like listening to all the sexy backing elements of a Sade song, without Sade. I loved Tune-Yards’ pygmy-esque vocal layering and percussive fervor. Her last song got everyone to their feet with a Fela Kuti vibe. And !!! brought the crazy dance party. I finally felt like I’d arrived at SXSW.

Later that eve, the Shabazz Palaces set was weighed down by sound issues. Ran into the ladies of HOTTUB as I went to see Toronto’s Keys N Krates, who killed it: two DJs and a drummer juxtaposing amazing sampling and turntablism with live percussion. Cubic Zirconia’s electro funk set at the Fool’s Gold showcase was also great. Singer Tiombe Lockhart held court. The closer was seeing Chief Boima during the Dutty Arts Collective showcase.

Sat/19 Last day in Austin. The hot daytime ticket was the MOG.com party at Mohawk. That meant getting there early and committing the entire afternoon … but the payoff was catching headliners TV on the Radio and Big Boi with just a few hundred other folks. Austin’s Okkervil River was playing the outdoor stage when I got there, and then Brooklyn’s Twin Shadow was playing inside. Even though they’re on the ’80s synth-pop bandwagon, they managed to keep things fresh. TV on the Radio’s SXSW shows officially put an end to their two-year hiatus and previewed their highly anticipated upcoming album Nine Types of Light. Next up on the outdoor stage was Big Boi. Songs from his recent release had some traction, but whenever an OutKast jam dropped, the crowd lost their shit. A funny moment: when he invited a sea of hipster girls to the stage to shake it with his ATL crew.

That eve, the rumor mill about surprise shows was alive and well. Kanye, Jay-Z, and Justin Timberlake were breathlessly being mentioned around town. The conundrum became one of whether to chase those dragons or stick with a confirmed showcase.

After briefly checking out the Red Bull Freestyle DJ contest, I decided on the confirmed showcase approach. The globetrotting Nat Geo showcase at Habana Bar was stellar. I walked in as Khaira Arby, the legendary queen of Malian desert rock, was rocking the house. Up next was Brooklyn’s Sway Machinery, then Aussie roots-reggae group Blue King Brown. Things really got packed for the closing act of Austin’s own Grupo Fantasma. The recent Grammy-winning group marched the crowd through the paces of their super tight cumbia, salsa, and funk grooves while experimenting with heavier psych rock influences. I enthusiastically made it through about half their set until my feet cried uncle. I made my way through the sloppy Sixth Street madness, dodging teenage lotharios and puddles of sick on the way to my bike, and then home.

A PHOTOGRAPHER’S ADVICE FOR SXSW FIRST-TIMERS

You have to let go. You will not see half the acts you want to, but there is always a good band within a few hundred yards — so be where you are and enjoy it. Discover some new music.

Live music photography is best when there’s a mosh pit. It’s much easier to move through a swirl than a dense crowd. I’m not the type to post up 30 minutes before the band starts — but I am the type to push up once they’re on. Sorry, short people.

Wear comfortable shoes.

There is a lot of free booze — but not as much as I thought. (Matt Reamer)

Read all of Mirissa and Matt’s coverage of the fest here

Volume 45 Number 25 Flip-through Edition

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Editor’s Notes

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tredmond@sfbg.com

Calling for painful spending cuts, it turns out, is the easy part. Calling for relatively painless tax increases requires real political courage.

— The New York Times, March 13

The Times is hardly a crazy socialist rag; it’s always been the voice of the establishment, more Democrat than Republican but never even close to radical. The Gray Lady certainly can’t be accused of fomenting class warfare.

But in a calm, measured tone this week, the paper made the exact point about New York State that some of us whose politics lean a bit more to the left have been making about San Francisco.

The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has presented the state Legislature with an all-cuts budget. The Times suggests that the wealthier residents of the state should share just a small amount of the economic pain. Extending a surtax on high earners would be more than tolerable, the paper notes:

“A couple with $350,000 in taxable income would simply continue to pay an extra $3,500; a couple with taxable income of $1.5 million would continue to pay $31,800 more. Those payments would be more than offset by the federal tax breaks those same taxpayers got with the recent renewal of the Bush-era tax cuts.”

Of course, in New York, as here, those state tax payments are deductible from the already-too-low federal income taxes the rich are paying.

It’s too much to ask that the San Francisco Chronicle pick up that line; the Chron, out here on the Left Coast, is far more conservative than the stodgy old Times. But you’d think that in a city where Republican voter registration is below 10 percent, that local officials — including a mayor who calls himself “progressive” — would be able to go at least as far as a moderate national newspaper.

Because the argument is pretty simple and basic.

Cuts in public services fall hardest on the poor and middle class. Families that can afford to join a private club don’t have to worry when hours at the city pools are cut back; their kids learn to swim anyway. People with good health insurance can try to ignore the conditions at San Francisco General Hospital. Private school parents think the size of classrooms in the public schools isn’t a big factor in their lives.

But it all comes back to haunt us, every one of us, in this city. When the number of beds in General’s psych ward is cut from 80 to 20, more people with severe mental illness are out on the streets. Cutting public schools not only makes class divisions more deeply entrenched, it damages the city’s economy.

As the Times says, painful cuts are easy. Taxing the rich never seems to be on the table

Shut down Diablo Canyon

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EDITORIAL The six-unit Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant was designed to withstand the strongest earthquake that geologists said could reasonably be predicted for the region near northern Japan. It was designed to withstand the largest tsunami that the experts expected. It had triple backups to keep the reactor cores cool in the event of a natural disaster.

But, as is often the case with spectacular catastrophes, nothing went according to plan. The earthquake was far stronger than anyone figured was possible. The combination of the flooding and the shaking overwhelmed all of the emergency systems. The radiation releases are already severe enough to cause significant causalities — in the best case scenario, the danger already far exceeds that of the Three Mile Island fiasco. In a wide array of worst outcomes, large geographical areas could be uninhabitable for hundreds of years — and 39 million people living in and around Tokyo could be at risk.

The news comes just as Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has been asking state and federal regulators for permission to renew its operating licenses for the two reactors at the Diablo Canyon plant. The licenses expire in 2024 and 2025, but the utility wants to front-load the process and get approval quickly to operate the plant for another 20 years.

That’s a bad idea on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start.

The plant sits almost on top of the Hosgri Fault, which has the same dangerous characteristics as the fault outside of Sendai, Japan. And geologists just discovered another fault running 300 yards from the plant gates. PG&E says the plant is designed to handle a 7.5-level earthquake, which is the greatest tremor anyone can foresee for those faults. Remember: nobody thought the 9.0 Japan quake was possible either. The truth is, even the best experts are only making guesses.

Then there’s the fact that Diablo continues to generate, and accumulate, highly radioactive waste — and there’s no place to put it. So spent fuel rods containing plutonium (among the most toxic substances on earth) sit in the bottom of a glorified swimming pool — which, the utility’s experts tell us, is perfectly safe. (Remember: executives at the Tokyo Electric Power Company said the same thing about the waste material at Fukushima Dai-ichi.)

The reactors were designed to last 30 years; the relicense would push their lifespan far beyond that, increasing the likelihood of an accident. And the company has a long history of safety problems, human error, and outright lies. (Remember: these are the same folks who said the pipelines under San Bruno were safe.)

Let’s face it: there’s no possible way for anyone to be certain that the plant isn’t vulnerable to an unexpectedly strong earthquake. And the damage that of a serious accident to a nuclear plant 150 miles north of Los Angeles could cause is incalculable.

PG&E has asked the California Public Utilities Commission to allow it to charge ratepayers $85 million for relicensing studies. State Sen. Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo), a research geophysicist with a doctorate in earthquake studies, wants PG&E to conduct extensive tests on the new fault before applying for new licenses. That’s a start, but it’s nowhere near enough.

This plant should never have been built, and California is lucky that it’s survived so far. The quake in Japan is a harsh reminder of how inherently dangerous nuclear power is — particularly in densely populated areas. The CPUC should refuse to allocate a penny for anything except a study on how quickly the plant can be shut down, for good.

Conning immigrants

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By Lauren Rosenfeld

news@sfbg.com

To many of his clients, former immigration attorney Martin Guajardo seemed capable of performing miracles. He claimed to have unique access to judges and immigration officials. He wore slick Italian suits and drove a Rolls Royce. When other attorneys couldn’t help Victor Jimenez, a Mexican waiter from San Mateo, Guajardo promised to save him from deportation for a $15,000 fee.

Jimenez figured that since Guajardo charged high fees and had won tough cases in the past, he must be worth the money.

But Jimenez did not know that Guajardo had been charging clients six to nine times the market rate for services he allegedly failed to deliver. And when Guajardo was forced to resign from the California State Bar two years ago, he illegally continued to advise clients, according to documents filed in a civil lawsuit by the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office.

"The purpose of this case is to put a stop to one of the largest immigration frauds in the Bay Area," said Deputy City Attorney Josh White.

In November, the city filed suit to stop Guajardo from practicing law, seek civil penalties, and demand repayment of unearned fees. It targets the last two years of a three-decade career — after Guajardo resigned from the State Bar of California with disciplinary charges pending. The suit alleges that Guajardo practiced law after his effective disbarment and failed to notify clients he was no longer a lawyer. Additional defendants in the case include the law firm Immigration Practice Group and Christopher Stender, a San Diego attorney who allegedly covered for Guajardo.

Immigration Practice Group closed its doors in San Francisco soon after the city filed the case, and Guajardo vanished as well. He has not responded to the charges filed against him and no one, including Stender, claims to know where he is. Stender declined requests for comment, but in a February declaration for the case, he stated he was unaware of Guajardo’s whereabouts.

In December, Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe, a private firm that filed a class action lawsuit in conjunction with the city’s case, organized a free legal clinic for Guajardo’s former clients. "The line was out the door and around the block," Orrick attorney Mike Aparicio said. "There were hundreds of people."

When the city began an in-depth probe into immigration fraud in San Francisco two years ago, Guajardo soon dominated the investigation. It is usually difficult to build solid fraud cases because victims are often afraid to come forward, and the state bar couldn’t do anything more about Guajardo because he is not a member. But the City Attorney’s Office had the resources and the will to pursue the case.

"We built a network of contacts — nonprofits, academics, private attorneys," White said. "Virtually 100 percent of them had known Guajardo was continuing to practice without a license."

Nora Privitera is a staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and an expert witness in immigration fraud trials. She said Guajardo made a powerful impression on people and gave them false hope.

"When people are desperate, they suspend disbelief," Privitera said. "Hope is like a drug."

Jimenez and his partner, Macrina Mota, have lived in the United States for more than 20 years. They panicked at the thought of deportation and being separated from their six American-born children. Jimenez worked 15-hour days as a waiter to support the family and was willing to sacrifice anything to keep them together.

Guajardo secured a work permit for Jimenez and appealed his case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. While collecting additional fees over the years, Guajardo assured Jimenez that the case was in process and that the court "just takes time," according to Mota. So it was a complete shock to her when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents came to the couple’s home, arrested Jimenez, and told Mota she had to turn herself in to immigration officials the following day. Guajardo failed to tell Jimenez he had in fact lost his case and faced immediate deportation.

"Guys like Guajardo are worse for immigrants than immigration authorities," said Angela Bean, a private immigration attorney who works with some of Guajardo’s former clients. "When he couldn’t get more blood out of the turnip, he’d let them go."

Mota and her children had trouble paying rent after Jimenez’s deportation in December 2008. They were evicted from their home and moved to a shelter for five months. The trauma devastated the couple’s oldest daughter, who attempted suicide shortly after her father’s sudden deportation.

"That was the worst nightmare my family ever lived," Mota said. "Guajardo knew we had a big family. He gives you a lot of hope, and you believe it because you have six kids. You don’t want to be torn apart."

Mota said Guajardo was a powerful presence in court and knew how to work the room, but he was sometimes more humble during private meetings at his office. As a Mexican American and the son of California farm workers, Guajardo appealed to many clients’ cultural roots. He often wore traditional guayabera-style shirts and conversed with them in Spanish.

"He had all the opportunity in the world to empathize with clients who had similar backgrounds," immigration attorney Angela Bean said. "He was in a unique position to understand their issues and fears — but instead he exploited those fears for his own economic advantage."

Bean said some of Guajardo’s clients mortgaged their homes to pay fees that reached tens of thousands of dollars. One victim was Jagdeep Singh, a convenience store cashier who lived in Contra Costa County with his U.S. citizen wife and children. Guajardo told Singh to stay in the United States and promised he would obtain a green card, according to Singh’s declaration for the case.

"Sometimes we waited three to four hours to see him," said Singh. "He didn’t seem to know the details of my case very well. He asked me to pay more money every time I came to meet with him."

Singh borrowed from relatives, spent his savings, and contributed large portions of his salary to pay Guajardo $95,000 over the course of three years. He later discovered that the best chance for his case was to voluntarily return to India.

The state bar disciplined Guajardo three times in the 1990s for taking thousands of dollars from clients while neglecting to take action in their cases. Documents filed in the lawsuit claim that he refused to refund fees for work he promised but never performed.

The class action lawsuit also alleges that Guajardo sexually coerced female clients. In the case of one woman whom Bean characterized as a domestic violence victim, he "filed frivolous petitions that had no hope of success and instead ‘engaged in a pattern of sexual misconduct with her over the course of nearly six years,’ " according to the suit, which quoted from several other lawsuits involving Guajardo.

Finally in 2007, the state bar brought multiple charges against Guajardo "alleging that he continued to charge excessive or unconscionable fees for inadequate representation," according to the city’s lawsuit.

With the threat of disbarment looming, Guajardo voluntarily resigned in 2008 — but not before changing his firm’s name from "Martin Resendez Guajardo, A Professional Corporation" to "Immigration Practice Group (IPG)" and making Christopher Stender the CEO.

But IPG and Christopher Stender were just fronts for Guajardo, who continued to run the show, the city alleges in court documents. Plaintiffs say Guajardo maintained control over their cases and never revealed that he was ineligible to practice law.

On March 18, a judge approved the city’s motion for a preliminary
injunction barring Stender and IPG from doing any legal work on
Guajardo’s behalf and requiring them to notify his clients that he’s
ineligible to practice law.

Attempts to reach Guajardo were unsuccessful, and city officials say they don’t know where he is or if he has retained an attorney. Stender’s attorney, Kristin Caverly, told the Guardian: "We are not able to provide comments to the press at this time given the ongoing litigation."

White said that an important goal of the civil suit is to get the word out to immigrants so that they look into attorneys’ backgrounds before hiring them. "If clients had gone to the state bar website," White said, "they would have seen that Guajardo resigned in April 2008."

Smart meters, stupid company

9

news@sfbg.com

Smart meters seemed like a good idea at first glance — a little wireless device that, unlike it’s dumb analogous predecessor, would track precise readings of household energy usage in real time, identifying wasteful activities and helping consumers make informed choices about conservation and consumption.

Considered a crucial first step in enabling a smart grid that would modernize the existing power grid for the information age, the technology was touted as offering potential benefits such as cheaper service, fewer new power plants and transmission lines, cleaner air, and more reliable services.

But Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s $2.2 billion program for installing smart meters has now become the subject of caustic criticism by thousands of customers and activists as the culprit for skyrocketing rates, adverse health effects, and threats to privacy.

Since deployment began in California in 2009, consumers have mobilized to halt the spread of the devices, demanding further studies of the technology and options for those who don’t want to join the rush toward a wireless world. Thirty-three local governments have called for moratoriums on the installation of the devices.

The California Public Utilities Commission, which in 2006 authorized the state’s investor-owned utility companies to install more than 10 million meters in California, has done little to quell the storm of protests and concerns. But that began to change March 10 when CPUC President Michael Peevey announced that the agency would require PG&E to develop an opt-out proposal for consumers within two weeks.

Prefacing the decision with an observation that almost every speaker against smart meters the CPUC heard from was a PG&E customer, Peevey called out Northern California residents as the main opponents to the program.

“I am directing PG&E to prepare a proposal for our consideration that will allow some form of opt-out for customers who object to these devices, at a reasonable cost to be paid by the customers who choose to opt-out,” Peevey said at the hearing. “Obviously I cannot prejudge how this commission will evaluate any such proposal by PG&E, nor can I predict what PG&E itself will propose. But I think it’s clear the time has come for some kind of movement in the direction of customer opt-outs.”

But the announcement did little to quell the opposition by the scores of customers, local governments, health professionals, and advocacy groups that claim it undercuts the true concerns while simultaneously opening another avenue the utility behemoth could profit from.

“Admitting to the problem is the first step to resolving it,” says Joshua Hart, executive director of grassroots organization Stop Smart Meters!, which has been at the forefront of the rebellion. “But we obviously think a ton of things were left out of this.”

The makeup of the meter haters spans interests and ideals, from Tea Party conservatives to liberal environmentalists. Their unifying trenchant criticism of Peevey, who was president of Edison International and Southern California Edison Company until 1995, has only increased with each meter installed. PG&E has already replaced 74 percent of its analog electrical meters and 83 percent of its gas meters.

Resolutions critical of PG&E’s smart meter deployment have been passed by many Bay Area cities and the counties of Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo. Assemblymember Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) introduced a bill in December 2010 that would create a statewide system for opting out.

Although PG&E officials didn’t return repeated Guardian calls about the controversy, they have told other media outlets that the meters are completely safe and installation is continuing as scheduled, despite the growing furor.

 

BABY STEPS

A total of 670,000 meters are planned for San Francisco, and installation has already begun in the Marina and Richmond districts, much to the dismay of many residents. During a series of public meetings at the CPUC since 2010, dozens of people regularly line up to ask for alternative options and conclusive, third-party studies on the technology.

Speakers mainly consist of those claiming to suffer from exposure to electromagnetic fields, a condition known as electrohypersensitivity (EHS) that causes headaches, nausea, fatigue, and ringing in the ears. Sufferers liken themselves to canaries in coal mines and say smart meters are just one aspect of larger problem: understudied, overhyped wireless technology.

“The bottom line is it’s a debacle that been rolled out without any public input, without any long-term study,” Hart said. “This is the wireless technology industry being too greedy and going too far.”

Smart meters emit less powerful electromagnetic fields than many smart phones, but activists worry about the effects, both cumulative and on those with EHS, a condition recognized by the Swedish government. But here in the United States, few experts outside of holistic and alternative health circles take it seriously as a health threat.

Hart pointed to the recent publication of a study by the National Institutes of Health finding cell phone emissions affect brain activity, calling it the “smoking gun.” But most scientists found the report inconclusive about how that stimulation affects the brain.

Yet the activists have held regular protests lambasting PG&E for endangering their health and invading their privacy. “This is forced installation of untested devices on an unwilling public,” Carol Page of Marin County told us at a large Feb. 24 protest outside the CPUC meeting in San Francisco. “It’s time this commission stopped enabling and started regulating.”

CPUC officials have said there was no need for additional analysis of the program, arguing that the meters are safe and that installation is a routine procedure allowed under existing utility contracts.

But the venerable consumer watchdog The Utility Reform Network (TURN) has long-opposed the program, focusing primarily on its cost and privacy threats from the data that is being transmitted. Hundreds of customers have contacted TURN to complain about the meters, and the group says Peevey’s policy change misses the mark.

“It’s certainly a step in the right direction, but the devil is going to be in the details,” TURN spokesperson Mindy Spatt told us. “We would review any proposal to charge customers very carefully. We don’t want to see them have pay again.”

She said PG&E’s consumer outreach efforts have been “abysmal,” and TURN supports a moratorium on smart meter installation.

“We are not hearing from any people who are benefiting from it,” Spatt said. “We are hearing from people who are upset about it, and we remain unconvinced that these meters offer any benefits commensurate with their costs.”

TURN’s website offers a flyer that reads “Do Not Install,” which customers can print and place on their analog meter. Wellington Energy, the company performing installations, has respected the signs, Spatt said.

“The flyer is still getting tons and tons of play,” Spatt said. “PG&E has done nothing to address customers who say that the smart meter is unwanted and unwelcome. We are very anxious to see what sort of an opt-out they can offer.”

Although the flyer conveyed a direct message to utilities, some chose the more radical route of blocking installation physically. In January, two women, one a grandmother, were arrested in Rohnert Park for blocking a Wellington truck carrying a load of smart meters.

Sandi Maurer, founder of the EMF Safety Network, believes the movement from the CPUC falls short of taking real action addressing the threat of harmful electromagnetic frequencies to the environment and human health.

“We really need a moratorium while we study the health impacts and have evidentiary hearings where we could determine whether they are safe,” she said. In December 2010, the EMF Safety Network’s request for the CPUC to open an investigation into smart meters was denied.

 

CUSTOMER DISSERVICE

One smart meter claim the CPUC did investigate was the allegation that the new meters weren’t accurate, following up on more than 600 complaints from customers that their energy bills shot up after the new meters were installed.

The Structure Group, a Houston-based consulting company, tested 750 smart meters and 147 electromechanical meters and concluded that they worked fine. But the study also found that PG&E didn’t properly handle the complaints.

“PG&E’s process did not address the customer concerns associated with the new equipment and usage changes,” the report said. “Some customers interviewed during this assessment did not consider their complaint resolved, despite indications from PG&E and the CPUC that the customer agreed with the resolution.”

As a demonstration of how the program could have been rolled out differently, one needs only to look up the road to Sacramento. The publicly owned Sacramento Municipal Utilities District has installed 184,000 meters and encountered little opposition.

“I’ve seen what’s happening in the Bay Area and we haven’t seen anything like that whatsoever,” SMUD spokesperson Chris Capra said. “I’m amazed at the difference in our customers compared with customers around the country. “

Capra credits the relative embrace of the meters to the method SMUD used to mobilize them. Before installing any meters, SMUD build its wireless network. Then SMUD installed 78,000 trial meters in two separate areas — one in close-quartered downtown and one in suburban areas — to see how the meters behaved under topographical and proximity challenges. Then it led the meters through automated trials doubled with traditional manual reads and found that they were 99 percent accurate.

“We wanted to be certain before we began with full deployment,” Capra said. “We had estimated reads, manual reads, and made sure everything is functional. “

But some problems go beyond customer service. Along with health and safety concerns, critics remain unconvinced that the smart meters live up to their purported benefits to consumers, even though they’re the ones paying for the program.

“If I wanted to monitor my usage, I could go buy an in-home electricity monitor myself and just plug it in,” Maurer said. “For utilities to say we absolutely need this technology to reduce energy costs is false.”

Privacy advocates warn the meters could erode the privacy of daily life unless regulators limit data collection and disclosure. In a joint filing in March 2010, the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation urged the CPUC to adopt rules to protect consumer’s energy usage information.

“Smart meters generate more information in formats easier to share and analyze, which is part of the future of energy utilization,” said Jim Dempsey, vice president of public policy at CDT. “That being said, some significant questions remain.”

Smart meters collect 750 to 3,000 data points a month per household. This detailed energy usage data can indicate whether someone is at home or out, how many people are in the house, and if they are using particular appliances. In effort to stave off data mining by marketers or hackers, CDT and EFF urged the CPUC to adopt comprehensive privacy standards for the collection, retention, use and disclosure of consumers’ household energy data.

Smart meters represent a worst case scenario in terms of security, Dempsey warned. Not only do they lack sufficient power to execute strong security software, they are easily accessible and installed in numbers large enough that a few may not be missed if they are stolen. The safest way to protect cyber security is to assume from the outset that they will be attacked.

“You are not going to stop technology and the benefits,” said Dempsey. “It’s hard to say we should not take advantage of something that gives us more information, but you need corresponding security. It’s not too late to adopt the privacy rules, and we certainly hope that the commission will do that soon.”

CDT and EFF say that utilities collecting the data from smart meters must set rules specifying in advance how data will be used. Disclosing information to marketers and government agencies should be restricted.

“Smart meters really do penetrate into the ways we live in ways that no other technology is doing now,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at EFF. “It’s a special circumstance because there isn’t anything else like this that is in everyone’s home.”

 

STUDYING METERS

As opposition increased along with the installations, further requests for investigation into the program were filed. In July 2010, Huffman asked the California Center for Science and Technology to analyze whether the federal safety standards were sufficiently protective of public health, a move that was supported by fellow Assemblymember Bill Monning (D-Carmel) and the City of Mill Valley.

In December, Huffman also introduced Assembly Bill 37, directing the CPUC to offer an opt out alternative to customers who did not want smart meters and to disclose important information to the public. However, like the ordinances passed throughout the state, the move was largely symbolic and wouldn’t be implemented until the time most installations would have been completed in 2012.

The report released by the CCST in January analyzed the threat posed by smart meters, concluding that additional research was needed to accurately gauge the potential threat and had found “no clear evidence that additional standards were needed to protect the public from smart meters or other common household devices.”

The report has since served as a reference point for both PG&E and the CPUC as evidence of safety of the meters. Nevertheless, consumer groups dispute the findings.

“We need investigations from a truly independent third party, not an industry-promoting group hired by PG&E,” Maurer said. “We need evidentiary hearings on the health impacts of microwave facilities. Every time someone buys a new wireless router on a cell phone, it’s a drop in the bucket of more wireless technology. But [with smart meters] we’re talking about a massive increase of the density of these wireless emissions.”

The CPUC’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates was also unconvinced by the CCST’s conclusion. It noticed that the report did not fully explore issues related to cumulative exposure or from multiple co-located meters, as would be the case on apartment buildings and close quarters typical in San Francisco.

A California Senate bill imposing restrictions and revisions on utilities regarding their handling of smart meter information passed in February 2010, and in June the CPUC announced it had adopted a framework requiring utilities to modernize security standards, but details on upgrades have not appeared.

For now, protesters remain focused on pressuring regulators to stop the installation and they plan to keep up the fight for as long as needed.

“It is shock and awe to get the meters installed before people figure out that they are being scammed,” Hart said. “Until there is a moratorium called, we are urging people to resist. Stopping smart meters is just one part of the battle against the telecommunications companies.”

Sacramento needs a foreign policy

0

OPINION “The country is rich, but not so rich as we have been led to believe. The choice to do one thing may preclude another. In short, we are entering an era of limits.”

Presidential candidate Jerry Brown said that in 1976. Thirty five years later, second-time-around Gov. Jerry Brown has a profound opportunity to finish the thought — by pointing out that we can no longer afford follies like the Afghanistan war.

Any reluctance Brown might feel about discussing foreign policy — an area of responsibility clearly not assigned to the states by the founding fathers, or anyone else’s fathers — must be weighed against his understanding that when it comes to budget matters, the buck stops at the California statehouse — and the other 49 state houses. The feds can print money, but the states can’t.

California famously faces an immediate budget deficit in the $25 billion range. This, while the federal government burns through taxpayers’ money on a war that even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledges as insane. He recently told an audience of West Point cadets: “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”

The National Priorities Project puts the current cumulative cost of the war to California taxpayers at $48.5 billion. The $110 billion Washington plans on spending in the upcoming year pencils out to another $14 billion from California taxpayers, while they deal with what the California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates will be an annual $20 billion state budget shortfall through 2015-16.

Brown, then, has everything to gain from a serious domestic redirection of funds now squandered in this war, yet runs little risk in going out front for a national movement in that direction. After all, it’s not just Robert Gates having second thoughts: A CNN poll found the U.S. population opposing the war by a 63 percent to 35 percent margin last December. Last month, 24 of the 53 members of the California congressional delegation voted in favor of a budget amendment to cut all but $10 billion of the war’s funding, with the remaining money to be used to withdraw troops.(Jackie Speier voted for; Nancy Pelosi against.) The California Democratic Party called for “a timetable for withdrawal of our military personnel” well over a year ago, and last month the Democratic National Committee told the president to get a move on in ending this war.

When Brown first became governor, best-selling author Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock had posed the question of whether the country was suffering from too much change, too fast — a type of thinking the new governor appeared very much in tune with. In the interim, Naomi Klein has written a less known but probably more important book called The Shock Doctrine. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman describes the “shock doctrine” as an ongoing effort to exploit “crises to push through an agenda that has nothing to do with resolving those crises, and everything to do with imposing” a “vision of a harsher, more unequal, less democratic society.”

As the governor of the largest state in the union, with the nation’s biggest deficit, Jerry Brown is in a unique position to influence the national debate by simply pointing out the elephant in the room: A healthy portion of the nation’s economic crisis will melt away if we will just do today what the secretary of defense says we should do tomorrow — get out of Afghanistan. 2

Former Massachusetts state legislator Tom Gallagher is a San Francisco writer and activist.

Dinner with the Clams

1

arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC “This is where the heartbeat is. Does that sound cocky?” Shannon Shaw, bold-voiced singer and bassist from Oakland’s Shannon and the Clams, is cautious how she answers my question. She’s in a booth, finishing up her fries at Grubstake, just off of Polk Street. The eatery is my suggestion for a pre-performance chat about the band’s new album, Sleep Talk (1-2-3-4 Go! Records), slated for release April 5.

Amid the bustling dinner-time sounds of the restaurant, Cody Blanchard, the guitarist, eats something vegetarian, while Ian Amberson, the group’s drummer, opts for the more traditional caldo verde soup. In a few hours Shannon and the Clams is playing a show at the nearby Hemlock Tavern, along with openers Guantanamo Baywatch — a Portland, Ore., band they admire — and Uzi Rash.

The heartbeat Shaw refers to is the Bay Area and its seemingly tight-knit music scene. I’d asked if the group’s members if they thought their success could have been achieved anywhere, or if it’s something particular to their Oakland stomping grounds.

“The Bay Area is defined by its history of fun punk — stuff like the Mummies, the Trashwomen, and the Bobbyteens,” Cody says, in acknowledgment of our locale’s rich garage rock history. But as much as they’re influenced by the “weird and wild people” they consider like-minded allies, and the strange beauty of Oakland’s abandoned neighborhoods, Shannon and the Clams’ inspiration also comes from a place in the past, no less strange, sort of dark, yet innocent. Their music is the sound of teenage despair.

 

NOT QUITE QUEERCORE

I first encountered Shannon and the Clams live at Oakland’s Stork Club in early 2009. I’d seen their ridiculous name around before, but didn’t know what to expect. They’d been categorized as everything from queercore to surf punk to the downright nauseating term retro-billy. “I think the people feel a kinship with us,” Cody says, discussing the group’s fan base. “People become really comfortable letting their freak flag fly.”

Still, Cody doesn’t think some of the labels assigned to the band were the best fit. “I’d rather musical genres have more to do with sounds instead of politics, gender, and sexuality,” he explains, while acknowledging that it isn’t how things often work.

On that night two years ago, Shannon and the Clams turned out a solid performance that incorporated oldies elements such as late-1950s, early-1960s vocal styles and instrumental sounds. The group even covered Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” which was the moment of confirmation for me. I knew I was hooked and wanted more.

The group’s version of “Runaway” is a keeper, but Shannon and the Clams isn’t just recycling rock ‘n’ roll hits from a repressive American era when feelings were bottled up, not talked about. The group’s songs and sound possess an individual spirit and personality that ranges from playful to feral, calm (a clam anagram) to cuckoo. Both shine through on Sleep Talk, the follow-up to 2009’s I Wanna Go Home, also on 1-2-3-4 Go! Records. The new collection of songs was written and recorded in three weeks.

The Bay Area’s most recent wave of psych and garage bands draws from the acid-soaked late-1960s, with results that often come out drone-y, druggy, and dreamlike. But the Clams obviously take note of the less-altered dawn of that same decade, before psilocybin and its closely associated synthetic cousin became the remedy reaction of youth and counterculture. Melodramatic songs of angst and lost love were common.

Shannon, a self-described square-but-morbid kid, admits to loving Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” “Any teenager death ballad, I was all over,” she says. A tragic mood is conjured on Sleep Talk‘s “Half Rat,” where the incessantly repetitive lyric longs for a soul mate’s return. It’s almost like when a loved one dies and you dream about them being alive, only to be disappointed when you wake up to the heartbreaking reality that nothing will ever bring them back. It’s no wonder that without a release other than singing, so many of the voices from the past were compelled to do some amazing things.

 

THAT VOICE

Raspy and powerful, Shannon’s voice has become a signature trademark. She shreds words, wails, and lets loose with an extended growl on “Done With You.” Her vocal delivery is raw, real, and out of control — one of a kind. Her vocals are one reason that it’s misleading to tag Shannon and the Clams as simply retro — it’s hard to imagine a June Cleaver-type belting out songs in this fashion, though maybe someone like Wanda Jackson would be up for the task.

“I think it’s out-of-body,” Shannon, says when asked about singing. “I just sometimes feel kind of possessed on stage, or like I’m excreting odd toxins or something.” She notes that other dynamic vocalists like Tina Turner, James Brown, and Irma Thomas bring a similarly unique intensity to live performance.

Wanda Jackson is a queen of rock ‘n’ roll, but it was another Jackson who inspired Shannon to get up on stage sing in public for the first time, at a karaoke bar during her “lowest of lows.” She performed a ballad famously delivered by a little boy who, sadly, was adult ahead of his time. “I didn’t sing publicly at all till I started playing [music] around three years ago, and I just knew I really needed to sing “Ben” [by Michael Jackson], and I needed to sing it right away,” she explains. “I didn’t care about being self-conscious.” After being accepted by her “grizzled karaoke comrades,” she found the strength and confidence to perform her own songs.

Cody, the Clams’ co-songwriter, is also no slouch behind the mic. On Sleep Talk‘s “Old Man Winter,” he sounds brilliant doing his rockabilly best, exaggerating the whooping, keening sounds Buddy Holly could make with his voice. He’s pretty keen on the originality of vocalists Hasil Adkins, Joey Ramone, and Marc Bolan, preferring sound over lyrical content.

“Amazing singing is something that feels to the singer like a compulsion or a nervous tick, as if that singer can’t do anything to keep themselves from crying out,” he says. “They must do it or they’ll go nuts, and they just invent these bizarre sounds.”

 

WE JUST WANNA BE WEIRD

On the subject of songwriting, Cody uses vivid imagery to describe a T-Rex- that “kidnaps” him and takes him away to a “glittery, horny, spaced-out fantasy world.” I guess Clam nation can’t all be doom and gloom. Indeed, a typical Shannon and the Clams show finds the band in colorful costume, making inventive use of capes, fast-food outfits, and other assorted disguises. This past Halloween they even dressed as Devo for a night of cover songs.

Shannon and the Clams’ affinity for cartoons, jingles, and campy commercialism is apparent. On Sleep Talk‘s cover art, photographed by Keith Aguiar, Shannon and Cody are buried in what looks like a landfill of stuffed animal nostalgia and familiar characters. The imagery is indicative of their bubblegum side and love of Jim Henson’s Muppets. Cody points out that the people behind those Muppet tunes were pretty solid songwriters. On “The Cult Song,” listeners might even detect a vocal tribute to the Cookie Monster, if not Keith Moon circa “Boris the Spider.”

The name Joe Meek pops up more than once in conversation. “I love how Meek’s records sound, so inventive and strange,” Cody says, regarding the innovative Space Race-era producer behind “Telstar,” an instrumental No. 1 hit by the Tornados. “And he seemed totally nuts.”

Shannon and the Clams haven’t yet rocketed to the moon, but a trip to South by Southwest and a tour with Hunx and His Punx are part of their immediate travel plans. I ask what comes after that. “I feel like something [currently] brewing in Oakland is much weirder caveman-type music,” Shannon says, in anticipation of the scene’s next wave of creativity. “Can we just be weirdo, other rock ‘n’ roll?”

Cody is convinced that the dedication of the Bay Area music scene is unique and undying. “I can’t think of any other cities that are so enthusiastic about [music],” he says. “It just keeps coming. Waves of all kinds come and go.” If you think Shannon and the Clams are riding the wave for teenage kicks and landing in tragic territory, you’re partly right — and it’s working. Right now, with Sleep Talk, you’ve got a second dose.

Lucky charms, safe journeys

0

arts@sfbg.com

VISUAL ART A sense of play — more street-smart than sentimental; international, but also attuned to a universal understanding of nature — is central to Yukako Ezoe’s art. Ezoe’s vividly colorful paintings and collages and vibrant jewelry work are informed by her experiences as a student and teacher, and often directly connected with everyday necessities and pleasures. Ezoe has curated and contributed to a show of kite art and made a revealing single-edition photo-interview book about the myriad barbershops in the Mission. She and her husband, the artist and DJ Naoko Onodera, often show work under the name Bahama Kangaroo, and she’s used that moniker for her first solo show, at Kokoro Studio. Ezoe has upcoming shows at Ritual Cafe and Edo Salon, and this week she’s taking part in “Rise Japan,” a fundraiser for earthquake and tsunami relief in Japan. We sat down together recently for a midafternoon talk.

SFBG How did the name Bahama Kangaroo come about?

Yukako Ezoe Naoki [Onodera] has an album titled Bahama Kangaroo. It’s beachy ’70s disco. Jonh Blanco and I were working on an event for Indie Mart and trying to figure out what the name of our craft team, and I asked Jonh to listen to the record. He said, “Our team should be Bahama Kangaroo!” Then Naoki and I ran with it.

SFBG The badminton dreamcatchers you’ve made have a number of facets: the spider’s web-like stringing and also the MP3s you place in the badminton racquets’ handles to record dreams or ideas. What was the inspiration behind them?

YE Futurefarmers had asked me to contribute to a show in which the theme was “What’s your learning journey?” While I went to school, I learned and got ideas while I was hanging out with friends and playing. So the voice recorder in the badminton dreamcatchers is like a memo or school tool.

The gold badminton dreamcatchers were part of a badminton show that Hana Lee, Leslie Kulesh, and I did at the Diego Rivera Gallery at San Francisco Art Institute. We turned the whole gallery into a gym.

SFBG Is there a creative interplay between your teaching and art making?

YE I think so. I get ideas from students. Seven-year-olds will draw something monstrous and I’ll be influenced by it.

The homeless kids I work with [at Larkin Street Youth Center] are super-ambitious and straightforward. They’ll crush something to make it fit within a work. The kids at Lark Inn are in survival mode. If I’m trying make a dreamcatcher, they don’t want to do it. If I do sewing or make wallets or notebooks, they’re into it.

SFBG Two artists mentioned in the writing connected to your current show at Kokoro Studio are John Audubon and Yokoo Tadonori. They make for a great, unexpected combination.

YE I love Yokoo Tadonori’s use of composition and his juxtapositions. One of his pieces has a salaryman hanging right in the middle of it. I don’t like it, but it’s brutal and cruel — and true.

SFBG Your compositions are often symmetrical. Why’s that?

YE I used to do monoprinting, and I was obsessed with the geometric [aspects of] library catalogs, airplane tickets, and blueprints. That’s stuck with me. I’m also OCD-ish, too, I have a whole bunch of drawers filled with weird things.

SFBG Kokoro Studio’s writing for “Bahama Kangaroo” also mentions self-portraiture, which might not be obvious when you look at the work. I went in wondering if there were going to be paintings of you.

YE No way! [laughs] A solo show is sort of about you — artist ego [laughs]. But the pieces are portraits of my thoughts and ideas. In one, I’m like an owl, spacing out and thinking. The two lions in some pieces are like me and Naoki doing a high five. Another piece, Too Many Bats, has to do with how hard and competitive it is to be an artist. I’ll think of people and turn them into characters.

SFBG Framing is present as an element within some of your recent paintings and collages. How did that come about?

YE I’ve been influenced by Afghan trucks. There’s a book of photos of them [Afghan Trucks, by Jean-Charles Blanc]. They’re a bit like trucks with murals on the side. Back in the day, travelers would decorate their camels with lucky charms so they’d have safe journeys, and nowadays they do it with trucks.

SFBG What are you working on at the moment?

YE Right now I’m making jewelry, altering clothing, and cleaning my room. I go back and forth [between different activities and forms].

I used to work for a bridal jewelry store that was really bling-y. I want my jewelry to be more sculptural, and to have a clustered quality that’s similar to the collages I make. *

BAHAMA KANGAROO: ART BY YUKAKO EZOE

Through Thurs/24

Kokoro Studio

682 Geary, SF

(415) 400-4110

www.kokorostudio.us

RISE JAPAN: JAPAN EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI RELIEF FUNDRAISER

Kokoro Studio

also: Gallery Heist

679 Geary, SF

(415) 563-1708

www.galleryheist.com

Need a shrink?

0

Dear Andrea:

Due to a prostate operation, my penis is quite small and I cannot get a proper erection. Will the Fleshlight work for me?

Love,

Shrinky Dink

Dear Shrink:

First off, allow me to apologize for the terrible nom de Altsex I stuck you with. I am a bad person. But I am also very sorry for your woes. Postsurgical shrinkage and erectile dysfunction are both common and totally NOT FAIR.

Reading around on urology sites, the shrinkage is not supposed to be that major. Have you spoken to your urologist about what this, since it may be an ongoing process and, maybe, just maybe, something could be done to halt it? Granted, there seems to be something of a dearth of information about these effects, but yours should not go unreported or uncomplained-about.

There are products on the market purporting to restore lost length after surgery, but since I never see them mentioned on sites like WebMD, I’m not about to go touting them myself. They are there. I assume that if they prove harmful, it will be more to your wallet than to your tenderer parts, but proceed at your own risk.

What may work, both to prevent or, one hopes, restore lost length and lost function, is an element both abundant and well understood: our old friend oxygen. It would be awesome if you could just go hanging your business out in the fresh air and up it would sprout like those time-lapse movies of beanstalks unfurling. You cannot, but Viagra and its cousins, while pricier than oxygen and requiring a prescription, are hardly difficult to acquire. Here is eminent urologist Dr. Larry Goldenberg on using sildenifil citrate nightly as a postsurgical therapy, on the Prostate Cancer Canada Network’s site:

The main premise behind treating erectile dysfunction is to stimulate the circulation of blood into the penis. Doing this will protect the smooth muscles in the penis, the nerve tissue, and the blood vessel linings. Stimulating blood flow to the penis, even if it doesn’t give men an erection, is “keeping the tissues healthy while the nerves are recovering or the blood is finding its way back down there” more regularly.

I urge you to see if popping a pill at night is all it would take for you to get all your function back. It may not work, but it is so very worth investigating.

On to the Fleshlight, definitely the best-known male masturbation device. It vaguely hardware-y looking, heavily marketed, and offers a variety of disembodied orifices for your orifice-entering pleasure. It is not, however, an erectile dysfunction therapy or a magnifying glass, so I am not sure how it is supposed to either heal or enlarge you. But there’s something to be said for “use it or lose it” in these cases. Even urologists don’t seem sure if the loss of erectile function that often follows prostate surgery is due to damage or simple lack of use (or lack of faith). So yes, actually, I think a toy could help. Like Viagra itself, an uncomplaining, expectations-free inanimate object can help alleviate performance anxiety.

Love,

Andrea

Synapse lapse

0

le.chicken.farmer@gmail.com

CHEAP EATS Dear Earl Butter,

That’s great about the synapse package. Synapse packages are very important, as the Pod surely knows. I can only imagine what having had yours brought “to the fore” has done for your creative output and pulled pork with barbecue slaw. Because in terms of thinking and cooking and playing Scrabble and guitar, I mean, it all boils down to synapse packages. Wait. What’s a synapse package?

What I know is — and this is a beautiful thing about reality and air travel — your most recent pulled pork and barbecue slaw samwich kept me up until 2 a.m. in the morning. In a good way! I got a lot of important work done, like studying the 1985 Chicago Bears defense and inventing an eight-woman version of their famous 46.

Did you know that when the Attack was telling you about having “the most fun she ever had” playing football she was talking about playing with me and my friends? And this is saying something, since we are a respectable 0-1, and her old team is something like 58-3 in league history. We play against them Sunday and it is my goal, as defensive coordinator, to not lose by more than 80.

So the next day I tried feverishly to explain my late-night 46-inspired 242 defense to Coach, but unfortunately a human being had pooped in her garage, and she was despondent. Not even taking her out to Chilli Cha Cha 2 and sitting under the mural with boobs on it could revive her zest for life and interest in defensive schemes in general.

Will try again tonight.

Meanwhile, I just wanted to thank you for keeping Cheap Eats unreal while I was away, and for accidentally even throwing in a little sports talk. In light of recent developments, and speaking of keeping it unreal, I see us becoming this fine, radical, and all-around conscientious alternative weekly’s sports section.

Sssh. I’m trying to sleep.

Your Dani

Dear Mrs. Downstairs Neighbor,

That all sounds great and, of course, welcome back, but the point is that Kris and I went to the Great American BBQ in Alameda. I got the brisket with beans and greens ($12.75) and she got the St. Louis style pork ribs, coleslaw, and beans ($10). I’m in the middle of this cleanse and am not supposed to be eating stuff like this, but I thought you would be proud of me if I could say that I cleansed with beef.

We liked it there. It had a good, classic BBQ place feel. We talked about Matt Stahl, whom we have in common, and how Matt and I teach similar things but he probably teaches them better. He is like my hero in all sorts of ways, but mostly in the guitar and singing and being-Matt way. I think we probably talked about music. We also have that in common. Remember? She used to play in Fibulator, back in the day.

We evaluated the place like good critics. We thought the meats were very well done. We decided that the heat of the sauces could be upped a notch so order your hotness one past what you would. If you like medium, get hot.

Anyway, a little bit of the table hot sauce fixed it up for us. At first we were like, maybe this is not the best BBQ we’ve ever had. But then we both agreed, that, wait a minute, if we lived a little closer, we’d be eating here all the time.

The owner came out and gave us a nice chat and some peach cobbler, which we thought was very good. Then our time together was over. I was supposed to watch either the space station or an iridium flare on my roof with my across-the-hall neighbor, Hazel, and had to get home. I would eat here again. I enjoy BBQ. You taught me how.

Yers,

Earl

GREAT AMERICAN BBQ

Tues.–Thurs. 11:30 a.m.– 8 p.m.; Fri. 11:30 a.m.–-9 p.m.;

Sat. noon–8 p.m.; Sun. noon–8 p.m.

2009 High, Alameda

(510) 865-3133

MC/V

Beer and wine

Motion pictures

0

arts@sfbg.com

DANCE Dance and the camera have a long-lasting love/hate relationship. Films that honor the art, such as 1948’s The Red Shoes or 1951’s An American in Paris with its extraordinary dream sequence, are rare. Although dancers like that their performances acquire an afterlife, they also hate giving up three-dimensionality for two-dimensional space. Nor are they fond of editing practices that alter continuity, control a viewer’s focus, and favor smiles over feet. Nonetheless, a recently discovered snippet of film that showed Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in a blurry clip of Les Sylphides, apparently the only extant film of the legendary company, sent dance historians into a tizzy.

Now in its second annual incarnation, the San Francisco Dance Film Festival concerns itself with more contemporary dance films. The advent of inexpensive, lightweight cameras has made possible a new genre, “screendance,” which features choreography designed for the camera. Los Angeles and New York City have long had had festivals honoring these creations. Now the Bay Area, after previously unsuccessful attempts by presenters like Cynthia Pepper and Charlotte Shoemaker, is getting its own look at what’s floating out there. “We received 110 submissions from 25 countries,” producer Greta Schoenberg says of this year’s selection process.

Schoenberg has assembled a program in which shorts are bookended by longer films such as Victoria Marks’ ground-breaking 1993 Outside In and the San Francisco premiere of Finite and Infinite by RJ Muna, who is best known for his spectacularly airborne dance photography. Historian/critic Joanna Harris will also show rare films of Bay Area dance pioneers and work by avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren.

In the Bay Area, a small but growing group of dancers is intrigued by the specific requirements of dancing for the camera. Among them are Private Freeman, Nol Simonse, and Maria Kotchekova, who in 2009 won the solo gold medal on the TV show Superstars of Dance. Schoenberg cast her film noir Nightingale, which receives its world premiere at the sold-out opening night gala, with local dancers. Freeman is one of them.

“I like the idea that film can focus a viewer as long as it wants,” Freeman says. “I also like that you have a 360-degree sense of space. You are working with different concepts of continuity and detail. At the same time, when you have several takes, you need to remember how exactly you had positioned your leg.”

Brevity, with most works typically lasting between three and 10 minutes, characterizes most “screendances” Even the experienced Mitchell Rose, who recently moved to the Bay Area to teach Dance on Camera at Mills College, stuck to this YouTube-friendly time frame when making his wondrous Modern Daydreams: Part One (2001).

The 18 selections in this year’s San Francisco Dance Film Festival stick to the norms. Marta Renzi’s Texas Plate (2007), a romance to music by singer-songwriter Patti Scialfa, is two minutes. A journey onto a wooded mountain, Stronger (2010), by the U.K.’s Wilkie Branson, takes four minutes. Dutch director Carmen Rozestraten’s trip into a Catalan woman’s dream world in After the Water the Clouds (2009) requires nine.

Neither Schoenberg nor documentary and experimental filmmaker Ben Pierce — a former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer who showed work in last year’s festival — can explain the logic behind the short format. Perhaps, they suggest, it’s what audiences want to see, and what festivals like theirs prefer to program. The time frames of YouTube, where a lot of these works end up, is a definite reason. Lack of financing for bigger projects may be another. It’s also possible that the creators of these collaborative ventures haven’t developed the necessary technical chops to master longer works yet.

One festival juror intrigued by the buzz around dance on screen is ODC associate director and choreographer KT Nelson. She finds herself fascinated by the idea of honing in very closely to the body (“Let’s say to the crook of an elbow”) or to create a work in a completely different setting (“Water, for instance”). She hasn’t jumped in yet — but there’s always next year.

SAN FRANCISCO DANCE FILM FESTIVAL

Thurs/24 through Sun/27, $10–$25 ($75–$125 for workshops)

See website for venues

www.sfdancefilmfest.org

Charanga

5

paulr@sfbg.com

DINE Charanga, which will celebrate its 13th birthday this summer (and restaurant years are Hobbesian, i.e. nasty, brutish, and short), is not only a survivor but a pioneer in what is pretty routinely called today “pan-Latin” or “nuevo Latino” cooking. When chef/owner Gabriela Salas opened the restaurant in 1998, Fresca was a single small joint in West Portal selling Peruvian roast chicken and burritos and Limon didn’t exist. These days Fresca and Limon are a pair of colossi bestriding the city. But Charanga abides, having managed to remain fresh without changing itself much.

The restaurant offers a faceful of iron gate to the street. Behind is a shallow patio set with a couple of tables for those with a taste for al fresco or who fear the noise of the dining room. For, yes, Charanga is pretty noisy, as befits a place named after a kind of Cuban dance-music ensemble. On one chilly evening, we were chatted up by a man strumming a short-necked, 12-string Cuban guitar at the next table. He was not named Leo Kottke, and, noise-wise, he wasn’t the half of it. There was loud thump-thump music blaring from the sound system, and the crowd (which dramatically swelled by mid-evening) was young and boisterous. The ceilings of the deep, narrow space are high, but not enough to overcome the echo-chamber effect created by the tile floors.

But enough carping. The interior is nice-looking in a relaxed way, and the food is wonderful . This is not surprising, given the chef’s pedigree, and, with roots in the Caribbean islands, the cooking is different enough from the that of the Peruvian-inflected colossi to make it a worthy variation on what has become a semi-familiar theme. Salas put in stints at Cha Cha Cha and Firefly, and from there seems to have carried away a sense of the value of having the chef/proprietor on the premises much if not all the time, undistracted by issues at other imperial possessions or having to tape a cooking show or peddle branded convenience foods to supermarkets. Nothing can adequately replace this presence; as with butter, there are work-arounds but no real substitutes.

Some of the dishes have been on the menu a long time. One is the picadillo Cubano ($14.50), a huge plateful of ground beef seasoned with olives and raisins (giving a salty sweetness that make one think of Sicily or the Middle East), along with black beans and ripe bananas. As peasant food goes, this could hardly be more satisfying, though it was a nick sweeter than I would have preferred. A small historical note: this dish cost less than $7 in 1998.

The menu includes other powerfully peasanty choices, but none is more earthy than the chifrijo ($9), a stew of rice and beans mixed with crackling pork, which, with its juicy crispness, reminded me a little of duck confit with properly crisped skin. The stew was topped with pico de gallo, whose acidity helped balance the pork fat, and the whole thing was presented in a nifty little Dutch oven of brushed aluminum.

The other major influence on the food is vaguely Asiatic. The camarones Puerto Viejo ($13), a half-dozen plump shrimp, were sautéed in a thick, glossy sauce of chilis and ginger. The sauce was quite chili-hot and might have been thickened with cornstarch (as in Chinese cooking), but most of all there was the preponderance of ginger. A sprinkling of flash-fried ginger threads, almost like bits of broken-up tempura batter, were scattered over the top for emphasis.

And the pachanga ($19.50), a seafood stew that is one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, could nearly have passed as something from Thailand or south India, with its broth of lemongrass-infused coconut milk, not to mention an SRO crowd of shrimp, mussels, calamari, and chunks of whitefish. Representing the western hemisphere were those tropical staples yucca and plantain, along with chayote squash.

Two other longtime fixtures can be found on the dessert menu. One is Mexican chocolate ice cream torte ($8), which is largely as described: a cake of Mexican (i.e. cinnamon-breath) chocolate, with a layer of vanilla ice cream stowed below decks and drippings of dulce de leche on top. The other is the more elaborate Charanga foster ($8), a quartet of caramelized maduro slices laid pinwheel-fashion on a bed of buko (young coconut) ice cream and topped with a shower of toasted coconut shreds glued in place by dulce de leche. Postscript: the ice creams come from Mitchell’s, a nice period touch.

CHARANGA

Dinner: Tues.–Wed., 4–10 p.m.;

Thurs.–Sat, 4–11 p.m.; Sun., 4–9 p.m.

Brunch: Sat.–Sun., 10 a.m.–3 p.m.

2351 Mission, SF

(415) 282-1813

www.charangasf.com

Beer and wine

AE/DS/MC/V

Noisy

 

Fruits of labor

0

arts@sfbg.com

FILM One of the first things cinema learned to say was “you are there.” The Lumières sent their lightweight cameras around the world and were soon able to transport their Parisian audience to remote settings — a fine flexing of industrial capitalism. If Werner Herzog used to have the market on art-cinema primitivism cornered, the recent films making up the “First Person Rural” series at the Pacific Film Archive take a different tack, disavowing outlandish narratives of madness and expedition for reality-hungry visions of work and rough beauty. As a group, they privilege phenomenal experience to exposition; affective texture to intelligibility; nonverbal utterance to patent explication. They often seem more in line with epic poetry than documentary realism.

Argentine director Lisandro Alonso’s stoic debut La Libertad (2001) led the way to many of the decade’s shorn agricultural narratives. To begin, we watch a young man work a tree into lumber and eat and nap in a lean-to a few shades rougher than Thoreau’s Walden. In the film’s second half, the man turns his labor into capital, transporting, selling, and spending before returning to camp to eat a freshly caught armadillo as lightning flashes in the distance. The slow time of the man’s routines defines the temporality of the film, and Alonso’s bold compositions in turn monumentalize the man’s tasks. What to make of this aesthetic surplus of the man’s labor remains an open question.

The issue of poetic license is even more pressing in Agrarian Utopia (2009), a work of social (hyper) realism focused on a family of Thai subsistence farmers. In contrast to their crushing penury is the rich HD cinematography: every grain of rice and droplet of water makes its stunning mark. Hitching scripted social drama to a loose documentary style joining scenes, director Urophong Raksasad proposes three possible utopic frameworks for the farming family: urban demonstrations calling for political reform, a hippie neighbor’s sustainable farming practices, and the ecstatic vision of the camera itself. The limitations of the first two should give us pause over the third; this is the rare film about poverty that doesn’t imagine its lyricism as a redemptive force.

There’s no question of any kind of utopia in Eugenio Polgovsky’s Tropic of Cancer (2004), a video report from the Mexican desert that’s bruising and cunning in equal measure. Polgovsky shows us the hard lives of peasants who scour the arid landscape for (unfriendly) critters they can sell alongside a godforsaken highway. Their middle-class customers seem primarily concerned with animals’ living conditions — one of many bitter ironies registered in Polgovsky’s sharply assertive montage.

Strong as it is, Tropic of Cancer doesn’t cry out for repeat viewings — not the case with Sweetgrass (2010) and Alamar (2009), both among the finest films of recent years. With Sweetgrass especially, it’s only after you’ve surrendered to its sensory richness as a recording (the multichannel sound mix combines with the physical camerawork for a nearly Whitmanesque extension of perception) that you can begin to digest its cross-purposed contemplation of the final sheep drive across a mountainous western-mythic landscape.

Writing about Jean-François Millet’s peasant subjects, the critic John Berger observed that the French painter’s personal nostalgia extended to history: “Most of what he knew about peasants was that they were reduced to a brutal existence, especially the men. He sensed, it seems to me, two things which, at the time, few others foresaw: that the poverty of the city and its suburbs; and that the market created by industrialization, to which the peasantry was being sacrificed, might one day entail the loss of all sense of history.” The “First Person Rural” films mark this loss with immersion, and in so doing leave us with the lingering sense that it is we and not the films’ subjects who are “out of time.”

“FIRST PERSON RURAL: THE NEW NONFICTION”

March 26–April 27, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-5249

www.bampfa.berkeley.edu

#Winning

1

cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM Is Tom McCarthy the most versatile guy in Hollywood? He’s a successful character actor (in big-budget movies like 2009’s 2012; smaller-scale pictures like 2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck; and the final season of The Wire). He’s an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (2009’s Up). And he’s the writer-director of two highly acclaimed indie dramas, The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2007).

Clearly, McCarthy must not sleep much, though he was perky on a recent visit to San Francisco to discuss Win Win, a comedy set in his hometown of New Providence, N.J. Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, a lawyer who’s feeling the economic pinch. Betraying his own basic good-guy-ness, he takes advantage of a senile client, Leo (Burt Young), when he spots the opportunity to pull in some badly-needed extra cash.

Matters complicate with the appearance of Leo’s grandson, Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer), a runaway from Ohio. Though Mike’s wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), is suspicious of the taciturn teen, she allows Kyle to crash with the Flaherty family. As luck would have it, Kyle is a superstar wrestler — and Mike happens to coach the local high school team. Things are going well until Kyle’s greedy mother (Melanie Lynskey) turns up and starts sniffing around her father’s finances. Lessons are learned, sure, but the script delivers more genuine laughs than you’d expect from a movie that’s essentially about the recession.

SFBG You were a high school wrestler. Did you always want to make a movie about your experiences?

Tom McCarthy I don’t think when I was [wrestling] I ever thought I would be doing this. But one day I was thinking about high school wrestling — that it would be a funny thing that’s not touched on very much in movies, not since [1985’s] Vision Quest, really. I’m always looking for something that I can connect with that I haven’t seen before, however simple that thing might be. So I called Joe [Tiboni], who developed the story with me. He used to wrestle with me, and we had a really funny conversation about how weird the sport is and what our memories were. When I decided to do that [for my next film], I brought him on, because I thought it would be a really fun experiment working with an old friend like that. Our lives are so different now, but we’re still very connected.

SFBG Obviously you had to cast a kid to play Kyle who could wrestle first, and act second. Was that tough?

TM Wrestling is a really tough sport to fake. So I just made a gut call: “Let’s get a wrestler.” I think the dialogue, and the way I crafted the script, lent itself to it. I said, “Let’s go find the right kid.” And we did. He just had a unique sensibility about him, and I knew he had such a great group of actors around him that it felt right. When we got to the wrestling sequences, they were a joy to shoot. What you see there is real.

SFBG Did you see the wrestling theme as a metaphor for Mike’s struggles?

TM It certainly presented itself to that. I think it’s gonna be hard for a lot of people for a long time. Decent people, like Mike Flaherty, will find short cuts, and those shortcuts might not always be, morally or legally, the right way to go. My philosophy is that’s how we got into this mess: a lot of pretty good people made a lot of bad choices. Selfish decisions. That, to me, is more interesting that this idea of, like, the hundred evil men of Wall Street who pulled these strings and put us all in this situation.

SFBG Gotta ask, since you’re from New Jersey and you use one of the band’s songs in the film. Are you a Bon Jovi fan?

TM Who isn’t? [Laughs.] I actually wasn’t a huge Bon Jovi fan, but whenever it’s on, how can you not rock out? And I gotta say, [Jon Bon Jovi] was awesome. He gave us the song for a bargain-basement price. And it felt really right for Jackie’s character — it felt like it was coming directly from that world.

WIN WIN opens Fri/25 in Bay Area theaters.

 

Satisfying crunch

1

arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC For three nights, Burger Boogaloo is going to sate the appetites of Bay Area garage fiends with a hunger for rock. It makes perfect sense that the weekend event is building to a Sunday night finale involving Midnite Snaxx. Sharing the stage with Nobunny, as well as Shannon Shaw’s side project, Egg Tooth, the Snaxx bring a skilled chef’s resume to the bill: Tina Lucchesi, a hairstylist at Down at Lulu’s by day, has blasted amps in bands such as the Bobbyteens and Trashwomen, while Dulcinea Gonzalez, who does time at the Guardian while the sun is out, was a member of the Loudmouths. (Bassist Renee Leal of the LaTeenos completes the trio.) I recently caught up with guitarist-vocalist Gonzalez and drummer Lucchesi.

SFBG You two are garage rock veterans. How do you feel about the Bay Area garage scene right now?

Tina Lucchesi It’s different now, for sure. It’s younger.

Dulcinea Gonzalez I’m happy to be playing music. We haven’t lost our lust for rock ‘n’ roll.

SFBG One of your songs is “October Nights.” What’s special about that time of year?

DG October is when Budget Rock is happening. We tend to party hard, and the weather tends to be better. [The song’s] a celebration of rock ‘n’ roll and living in the Bay Area.

TL It’s Rocktober!

DG Tina wants us to have a record cover where we’re werewolves, like Ozzy Osbourne [on the cover of Bark at the Moon].

SFBG Are there any looks you have in mind for upcoming shows or photos?

DG Don’t give Tina any ideas, she loves to dress up. We had taco suits for Halloween. We hope to do a video soon where we can express our funnier side.

TL This is a T-shirt, tennis shoes, leather jacket kind of band, which is good. It’s cas.

SFBG Why do you think there’s such a connection between garage rock and food, especially in the Bay Area, with bands like yours and Personal and the Pizzas, and labels like Burger Records?

DG I guess it has to do with wanting satisfaction right away. We like our music a little dirty, sleazy, fun, and poppy, and those kinds of foods are the same way — a guilty pleasure.

SFBG What are some of Midnite Snaxx’s favorite snacks?

TL Probably nachos — the vegetarian nachos from [Taqueria] Cancun, with cheese. The midnight buffet that drunkenly happens at my house dips into anything in the fridge.

DG Pizza from Lanesplitter’s. We’ve had some terrible, terrible Taco Bell runs after practice and going to the Avenue.

TL Sometimes we get healthy and go eat sushi at Koryo because they’re open until 3 a.m.

DG That’s when we just got paid.

TL They have half-off specials now. [laughs]

SFBG What’s on the Midnight Snaxx menu, recording and release-wise?

DG We put out our first single on Raw Deluxe. Our next single is on Total Punk Records, an offshoot of Floridas Dying. It comes out in May. Then we have big plans to record our LP for Red Lounge Records in Germany, which will be out in the summer.

SFBG How did you wind up on a German label?

DG This guy [Martin Christoph of Red Lounge] follows a lot of the bands that Tina’s been in and he knew one of my past bands, and he liked the rawness of our recordings. We’re stoked. Hopefully this means we get to go to Europe.

TL Time for schnitzel and beer [laughs].

DG Jason Testasecca from Nobunny is recording the album at Tina’s house.

SFBG Is there anything that people should expect from Midnite Snaxx at your Burger Fest show?

DG Tina, what are you gonna do?

TL They should expect a full-blast snack attack all over their faces.

BURGER BOOGALOO

Fri/25–Sun/27, $10

Thee Parkside

1600 17th St., SF

(415) 252-1330

burgerrecords.webs.com

www.theeparkside.com 

 

Teenage ghosts

0

MUSIC Hold a séance on a wet afternoon or rainy evening. Party down and commiserate with the ghosts and dancing skeletons of wrecked love past as they float from your stereo. Put on Dirty Beaches’ Badlands (Zoo Music) and Hunx and His Punx’s Too Young to Be in Love (Hardly Art) and invite the dead boyfriends and lonesome girlfriends of ’60s teenage rock and pop to shimmy with your ex- memories in the living room. Meet 2011 with them, alone.

The motor at the center of Dirty Beaches’ “A Hundred Highways” is the melody of “I Will Follow Him,” an emphatic-to-the-point-of-crazed declaration of affection made popular in 1963 by a four-foot nine-inch 14-year-old named Little Peggy March. A man-band from Vancouver, B.C., Alex Zhang Hungtai transforms the vocal of March’s hit into a brittle, rusty bassline that’s like a piston from the title vehicle of John Carpenter’s 1983 film Christine, and then douses it with corrosive flames of distorted guitar, brooding into his mic all the while.

The sinister allure of “A Hundred Highways” is enhanced by a cultural connotation that flickers outside of the song itself, namely Kenneth Anger’s use of March’s version of “I Will Follow Him” (as well as her pathos-ridden 1963 ballad “Wind-Up Doll”) in the 1964 film Scorpio Rising. In Anger’s movie, March’s song strikes a comic note, accompanying Hollywood footage of Jesus, but the malevolent spell characteristic of Anger’s overall work is what carries over to the sound of Dirty Beaches, as much as the anguished yelps and cries and sonic minimalism of Suicide, the group always referenced in writing about Hungtai’s music.

History, personal and societal, has a way of adding dark undercurrents to songs that might seem innocent at first. David Lynch and Martin Scorsese learned this from Anger, and the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis mines this to revelatory effect in the 2009 movie It Felt Like A Kiss, which uses songs produced and recorded by convicted murderer Phil Spector — most potently, the Crystals’ 1962 “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss” and Tina Turner’s 1966 “River Deep, Mountain High” — to score an account of the 1960s that’s as attuned to all-too-human triumphs and failures as it is to the insidious undercurrents and machinations of governmental forces. Good times go bad.

Hunx of Hunx and His Punx is familiar with a different kind of Badlands than the war zones zeroed in on by Curtis, or the Jesus and Mary Chain-esque one invoked by Dirty Beaches’ album title. The songs on Too Young to Be in Love are overtly gay, in the sense that he’s singing about boys and men, but to pigeonhole them as gay music would be not just blinkered, but blind to the innovative aspect of the group’s dynamic, which refashions and outright recasts old rock and pop sounds of female and male desire and emotion in new ways.

The traditional if not downright hoary emblem-bearer of “gay music” is the dancefloor diva, ever ready to express the need for everlasting love or tonight’s trick via a sampled or studio-processed wail. Hunx and His Punx create a different dynamic, with Hunx (a.k.a. Seth Bogart) and bandmate Shannon Shaw trading vocals in a manner that counters unbridled true romance with an irony gleaned from experience.

Too Young to Be in Love‘s opening track “Lovers Lane” sounds as classically ’50s-’60s retro as its title, yet Shaw’s untamed, hair-raising voice haunts the deathly boy-loses-boy scenario that Bogart stars in and narrates, arch and sincere in turn. We all want to go to lovers’ lane, but do we want to stay there, in the dark?

At other ingenious times, Hunx’s band is a girl-gang warning bashers and bullies to back off from his romance (“My Boyfriend’s Coming Back”). They harmonize with Hunx as he traipses faux-innocently away from heartbreak (Too Young to Be in Love‘s sublime title track) and with Bogart as he stares down the legacy of his father’s suicide (the closer, “Blow Me Away”). On the classic “The Curse of Being Young,” Hunx does his best Mary Weiss while his bandmates supply the sophisticated boom boom, adding a little more yearning with each chorus, until the listener is left alone with Shaw’s feral, fateful incantation. Games of keep away have lasting impact. Bad boys navigate badlands and sometimes wind up bad men. Maybe you’re never too old to be too young to be in love.

Harmonic canons

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THEATER A gorgeous clutter of instruments fills the stage at Z Space/Theater Artaud this week, and audiences, after an eye- and earful of Schick Machine, are invited to go up and play them, too. A musical background is unnecessary: Nothing on stage likely resembles anything you grew up practicing, and anyway all that’s called for is a little rhythm. The show itself gives you a healthy dose, amid a wonderfully designed, gently madcap, almost cosmological musing on the nature and origins of rhythm as well as our yearning embrace of it (and vice versa).

The Paul Dresher Ensemble’s Schick Machine — a collaboration with, among others, writer/director Rinde Eckert — gives the stage over to master percussionist and contemporary music veteran Steven Schick. In the character of musical inventor Laszlo Klangfarben, Schick wanders around a garden playground laboratory of ingeniously crafted percussive and stringed instruments (composer Dresher’s fanciful yet practicable inventions), against a video backdrop evocative of everything from superstrings to abstract expressionist painting to architectural blueprints and scientific scribblings. The instruments of wood and steel form elegant ridges, playful spirals, majestic fans, Ferris wheel–like magic circles, and sonic tulip patches — a kind of Eden for a lone but rarely lonesome madman. Schick’s balding head and glasses compliment the mad scientist look, though his outfit — a high blue apron over white shirt and thin tie — calls to mind an old fashioned small-town grocer.

The thinly-sketched narrative is an excuse for a quiet and contemplative piece of theater, though great explosions of rhythm are mixed in with the goofy humor and crisp, enrapturing visual aesthetic. At the center of it all, the piece suggests, is a single heartbeat.

 

LADY GREY AND OTHERS

Will Eno’s plays (or at least the half-dozen I’ve seen and/or read) tend toward being tongue-in-cheek questions about the relevance of theater, whether as an art form, a social undertaking, or a compliment to dining out. Self-consciousness is both a conceit and strategy here, the basis for playing with inherited forms and conventions as well as an unevenly successful but sometimes rich brand of humor. The best plays not only win laughs but some pang of recognition, through a deft balancing of the profound and the banal. The less successful plays devolve into pretentiousness and sentimentality. In any case, the idea that the traditional theatrical stage is being overturned can only be indulged if you consider a pretty small section of it.

In Cutting Ball Theater’s presentation of Will Eno’s Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and other plays it’s those inconspicuous “other plays” that are most worth seeing. Lady Grey, like the title suggests, is a shadow of former glory, to wit, Eno’s 2004 breakthrough play, Thom Pain (based on nothing), whose structure — up to and including the title itself — provides the template for this play. Cutting Ball had deserved success with Thom Pain, thanks to actor Jonathan Bock, playing no small part but a big and lonely one: the angry, tortured, sarcastic young man who single-handedly holds the audience hostage for an hour or so, assailing it with words, suspect memories, and bold staring contests.

Lady Grey calls for a similar fearlessness and fierceness, depositing onstage something like a female version of Thom Pain to accost and cajole the “audience” (here too much a written idea of one to avoid those scare quotes) across the fourth wall. In the title and only role, Danielle O’Hare, as directed by Cutting Ball’s Rob Melrose, was inconsistent if occasionally beguiling, rarely seeming to step out from behind the text, or rather to completely own its conceit of not being a text. But Melrose and O’Hare, who have done memorable work together in the past, are also essaying a less inspired play. Grey adds up to a hit-and-miss series of one-liners, not a very compelling total.

The other two short plays that make up the fairly brisk evening prove more rewarding. Intermission, which opens directly after one, is an amusing and almost wise desultory conversation between an older couple (Gwyneth Richards and David Sinaiko), and a younger one (Galen Murphy-Hoffman and O’Hare), during the intermission of a seemingly tedious play about life and death. Melrose gets superbly dry performances from his cast, doing full justice to this light but cunning little play riffing on theater’s capacity for channeling yearning, regret, and blank obliviousness.

Cutting Ball regular Sinaiko then returns for the archly histrionic monologue Mr. Theatre Comes Home Different, a piece that the actor — playing an actor reveling in a state of decidedly Eno-esque self-consciousness — rocks with utter conviction. It’s a high note to end on and, for all the seeming ambivalence and sentiment in this slice of Eno’s oeuvre, went perfectly well with dinner.

SCHICK MACHINE

Through Sun/27, $10–$20

Z Space

450 Florida, SF

(800) 838-3006

www.brownpapertickets.com

LADY GREY (IN EVER LOWER LIGHT)

Through April 10, $15–$50

EXIT on Taylor

277 Taylor, SF

(800) 838-3006

www.brownpapertickets.com

King of the spook house

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BRAZILIAN CULT HORROR English-language horror cinema has had its share of actors identified with playing one particular role over and over, from Bela Lugosi’s Dracula to Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger. But we’ve never had anything quite like José Mojica Marins and his infamous Zé do Caixão (José of the Grave). Known to cult movie fans worldwide as Coffin Joe, this top-hatted, cape-flaring, bearded undertaker with extra-long curved fingernails and a mile-wide sadistic streak has been a sort of folk hero in Brazil for nearly 50 years.

His vehicles are unique fever dreams — alternately silly, shocking, or surreal, when not all three at once — that take great pleasure thumbing nose at traditional morality and any institutional authority, whether state or (especially) church. “Destroy me, I believe in nothing!” he dared God while desecrating graves in his first film, 1963’s At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul. God demurred, perhaps intimidated.

This week sees the U.S. release (in Synapse’s Blu-ray/DVD combo pack) of 2008’s Embodiment of Evil. It’s Marins’ return to the role after a long layoff, and to the director’s seat after a longer one — apparently since 1987’s 48 Hours of Hallucinatory Sex, last among the porn movies he was reduced to during an extended career lull. (Those films are said to be stubbornly, grotesquely anti-erotic, which would be entirely in character.) It’s an official conclusion to the “Coffin Joe Trilogy” left off in 1967’s This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, which was advertised promising “200 Snakes! 300 Spiders! 1,000 Extras! The most terrifying film in the world!” and certainly gave sensation-seeking patrons their money’s worth with a prolonged color climax depicting the torments of a papier-mâché hell.

That makes Embodiment perhaps the longest-delayed end to a horror trilogy, kicking Dario Argento’s ass — you will recall his “Three Witches” triptych of 1977’s amazing Suspiria, 1980’s incoherent but picturesque Inferno, and 2007’s daft Mother of Tears. Perhaps Embodiment‘s biggest shock arrives when it opens with the 20th Century Fox logo — clearly somebody is still very big in Brazil. Otherwise it’s back to blaspheming basics for our antihero, who after many years is being released from prison, despite having apparently “killed nearly 30 guys just in jail.” (Never a paragon of political correctitude, Marins has the warden reluctantly “letting the beast loose” and telling his terrified guards: “Any of you turns chicken on me, I’ll get you to stand watch at the queers ward!”)

Once out, Coffin Joe resumes his lifelong quest to find a “perfect woman” capable of bearing a child “higher than God, lower than Satan,” thus allowing our “visionary of the superior bloodline” to achieve immortality. This he’ll do “even if it means imploding the entire cosmos!” For all his hubris, however, this archvillain is still scared shitless whenever his past victims appear as accusatory apparitions.

As ever, auditioning mates (most screaming kidnapees) involves “testing” for fear and resilience in ways they’re unlikely to survive. En route he also acquires lots of new enemies and is happy to orchestrate their grotesque demises too. If Coffin Joe is a sort of spook house incarnation of ideas from Nietzsche and Sade — he’s a mortal superman imposing his will on those haplessly constrained by the societal conventions he scorns — his horrors are hardly grandiose; instead they are manic plunges into the realm of ick.

One unfortunate’s face meets a bucket o’ bugs; another is coated with hot cheese, followed by hungry rats. While CJ evinces disgust at how the world has changed during his long absence (favela kids sniffing glue, etc.), his new adventure takes advantage of some new cultural norms, including goth-punk henchmen, seemingly real body piercings, and a young priest who enjoys applying electric nipple clamps at the altar. (None of this is as memorable as one “terrifying” vision in 1970’s LSD-themed Awakening of the Beast: mooning butts with cartoon faces painted on, several clutching plastic “noses” ‘tween cheeks. Run for your lives!)

Far from the best Coffin Joe movie, Embodiment nonetheless brings the crazy with Marins’ distinctive zeal for outrageous offense. His once frequently-banned works now look loopy and quaint, yet there’s still a subversive edge. Then again, he’s also a lot like the snickering older brother at the Halloween party who thrusts blindfolded kids’ hands into cold wet spaghetti, crowing “WORMS!”