Volume 45 Number 49



MUSIC One way in which to think about the development of what could now be called “ambient electronic music” is to trace the attempts by musicians who fall under that banner to work against and around time.

Terry Riley’s legendary all night concerts of the late ’60s and early ’70s were enabled by a simple tape delay mechanism he dubbed the “time lag generator,” which repeated and echoed the notes Riley repeatedly sounded whether on organ or saxophone. Brian Eno devised Ambient music as a way to make the passing of “free” time — whether spent (as in Eno’s case) bed-ridden recovering from an injury, or, as with his breakthrough 1978 album Music for Airports (EG), waiting for a departing flight — less noticeable. And experimental duo Coil took things to new extremes when they claimed that the slowly evolving synthesizer drones on their composed-under-the-influence-of-psychedelics 1998 release Time Machines were meant to “dissolve time.”

It is fitting then, that J.D. Emmanuel prefers to be thought of as a time traveler rather than as a musician (the self-designation is practically everywhere you look on his website). There is something undeniably transportive about listening to Emmanuel’s expansive meditations for synthesizer and electronic keyboard. Clusters of notes gradually coalesce and dissolve around a dominant drone. Occasionally, he’ll introduce field recordings of environmental sounds — birds, lapping waves, wind — into the mix, but these serve as compliments to the synthesized elements rather than as sonic footholds of the outside world (the point of Emmanuel’s music isn’t to hold on to anything, but to drift).

But, as is now so often the case, were it not for the Internet (another sort of time machine) far fewer listeners would be drifting along. The three LPs of ambient music that Emmanuel self-released in the early to mid ’80s were long considered grails for private press collectors until a Belgian label did a limited re-release of Wizards, Emmanuel’s second album from 1982, in 2007 (followed by its inevitable distribution on file-sharing networks). A compilation of electronic works from 1979-82 followed in 2009, and last year Important Records re-issued Wizards to a wider audience and much critical acclaim which lead Emmanuel to start playing concerts after a near three-decade hiatus.

His closing night set is undoubtedly one of the anticipated highlights of the 12th annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, whose location at the Brava Theater should provide a comfortable venue for time traveling without moving.

Emmanuel expressly admits that his own musical approach was greatly shaped by listening to Riley and Steve Reich in 1970. Riley, is in many ways, the Kevin Bacon of electronic music, and his name — along with Reich’s and that of their New York minimalist associate LaMonte Young — make up a cannon unto themselves, leading to inevitable comparisons when discussing younger artists working in a similar vein. The appearance at SFEMF by another elder statesman of drone, Bay Area composer Yoshi Wada, who will be performing with his son Tashi Wada (a composer in his own right) actually brings things full circle.

The elder Wada moved to New York in 1967 and got introduced to drone music via Young and later studied with Pandit Pran Nath, the great North Indian singer who was also Young’s teacher at the time. Their influence is audible in the sonorous, shimmering drones heard on EM Records’ steady output of re-issues of Wada’s two official albums and various concert recordings from the ’70s and ’80s. The younger Wada has very much continued to in his father’s footsteps, exploring harmonic overtones and dissonance in his own practice, and their joint headlining performance on Saturday night is bound to be resonant in more ways than one.



Sept. 8-11

Brava Theater

2789 24th St., SF

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 3rd St., SF.

(415) 641-7651


Instant replaya


SUPER EGO Dear burners,

I am absolutely NOT BITTER that I couldn’t join you this year. And I certainly DID NOT wrap myself in a hot-pink bedsheet, spin around until I saw Ganesh, puke up 23 packets of Tasty Bites, and throw a fistful of chickpea flour in my roommate’s face, screaming “Rites of passage, bitch!” so that I could virtually burn. And then I didn’t fist-pump to vintage Bassnectar, nor construct a 12-foot flashing Alexander Wang Summer 2011 fun-fur ankle strap high-heeled sandal in our foyer out of wire hangers, chicken bones, old Dell motherboards, and tuck tape.

Does anyone have a couch I could crash on? Preferably one of those big red lips-shaped ones?

In a sort-of pathetic attempt to even things out a bit, here’s what you missed: a gaggle of the hottest nerds in the world cruising Zinefest; the best Bloody Mary ever at my new-old favorite bar, Little Shamrock; Optimo DJs blowing minds at Public Works by dropping one of the first industrial tracks, Liasons Dangereuses’ “Los Niños del Parque”; German frenzy-whipper Matthias Tanzmann slaying with Maxwell-sampling summer smash “Entrance Song” by Eats Everything at Mighty, the supernova heat-explosion of Oakland Pride … and I’m not even on Sunday evening yet. So, you know, nyah.


Young Rhode Islander Abraham Orellano, a.k.a. Araabmuzik, is actually of Dominican-Guatemalan descent – his crew dubbed him Araab when he was a teen. (Why? Because he’s so fine like the rest of us Arab brothers?) But beyond the Google-gold moniker, Araab’s emblematic of a neat trend right now in our frantic niche-crossover times: he’s a hip-hop beatmaker (Cam’ron, Duke Da God) with a touching love for poppy old dance music, using his genius manual dexterity with big-buttoned, retro-looking Music Production Center devices in his live act to melt dance floors into stunned lumps of woah.

This year’s Electronic Dreams album subtly warps goofball “Night at the Roxbury”-type ’90s dance anthems like Future Breeze’s “Why Don’t You Dance With Me” and Starchaser’s “So High” – and even gabber-house noise-blast “Underground Stream” by Nosferatu – into haunting documents of a young man’s often-lonely street life. Araab’s polishing songs I spent a good part of my life running in terror from into weird mirrors of interiority, fusing futuristic bedroom-producer headspace with retro big-room boom. And the dude’s just getting started.


Also headlining this month’s Lights Down Low party is DJ Funk, a Chicago booty-bass legend who pioneered the “ghetto house” sound that still holds the Midwest underground in its filthy, rump-slapping grip. Funk’ll get the panties wet; up to you to rip ’em off.

Fri/9, 9:30 p.m.-3 a.m., $15. SOM, 2925 16th St., SF. www.som-bar.com


The word “timeless” sure gets thrown around a lot in this retro-minded era. And I’m fine with that, as long as the hype keeps fuelling comebacks like Virgo Four’s. At the moment, timeless, in techno terms, is almost a spatial distinction – and records like the Chicago duo’s wonderful “Vision” from 1989 really do sound like something that steps swiftly out of the distant past and into tomorrow’s speakers.

Merwyn Sanders and Eric Lewis expertly stroked the house-techno-acid nexis of the time with a series of releases that now serve as a few vinyl collectors’ 401ks. They’ve been relatively silent in the 20-odd years since, but from what I’ve heard on the virtual grapevine, their reunion DJ sets are deep and smoking. Honey Soundsystem and the No Way Back boys are pairing up to present this one, so the party should be mixed-crowd, no-attitude bliss.

Fri/9, 10 p.m.-4 a.m., $15. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com


One of San Francisco’s cutest macho gay bars is having a makeover-do-over, with new co-owner Matt Bearracuda from the West Coast’s insane Bearracuda bear dance parties joining already-owner Paul Miller at the helm. Apparently, a new menu, new parties, new faces are in store (and I bet a lot of those faces will be fuzzy in a good way).


First up, the actually insane trash drag rapper r&b clown-whore Christeene (www.christeene.org) performs some “opening” numbers. I don’t really “get” her, which just might be an endorsement!

Sat/10, 8 p.m., free. 1900 Folsom, SF. www.trucksf.com

Original sin



FILM Early this year came the announcement that Brian De Palma was hot to do an English remake of Alain Corneau’s Love Crime, saying “Not since Dressed to Kill have I had a chance to combine eroticism, suspense, mystery, and murder into one spellbinding cinematic experience.” Apparently he thinks his intervening decades’ meh-to-awful “erotic thrillers” Body Double (1984), Raising Cain (1992), Femme Fatale (2002), and Black Dahlia (2006) don’t compare (a good call, that).

The results, should they come to fruition, may well prove a landmark in the annals of lurid guilty-pleasure trash. (Although you could argue it can’t possibly get any guiltier than Femme Fatale already managed.) And who doesn’t want to wish De Palma well in nostalgic salute to 1976’s Carrie, 1973’s Sisters, 1974’s Phantom of the Paradise, 1983’s Scarface, and such? But with the original Love Crime finally making it to local theaters, it’s an opportune moment to be appalled in advance: because there is no way he’s not going to pour the equivalent of greasy massage oil, Hershey’s Syrup, and vermilion stage blood over what is a neat, dry, fully clothed model of a modern Hitchcockian thriller, one more Rear Window (1954) than Psycho (1960).

No doubt in France Love Crime looks pretty mainstream. But here its soon-to be-despoiled virtues of narrative intricacy and restraint are upscale pleasures, an occasion to get just a little dirty at a Landmark, as one can feel both high-minded and devilish reading a Patricia Highsmith novel. Ludivine Sagnier, France’s limpid answer to Chloë Sevigny, plays assistant to high-powered corporate executive Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas). The boss enjoys molding protégée Isabelle to her own image, making them a double team of carefully planned guile unafraid to use sex appeal as a business strategy. But Isabelle is expected to know her place — even when that place robs her of credit for her own ideas — and when she stages a small rebellion, Christine’s revenge is cruelly out of scale, a high-heeled boot brought down to squash an ant. It doesn’t help that Isabelle has by now fallen in love with Philippe (Patrick Mille), who is Christine’s boy toy and may merely be enlivening the other woman’s bed on loan.

Halfway through an act of vengeance occurs that is shocking and satisfying, even if it leaves the remainder of Corneau and Nathalie Carter’s clever screenplay deprived of the very thing that had made it such a sardonic delight so far. The rest is a question of whether that crime (which really doesn’t have much to do with “love”) can be covered up or not, a matter that holds interest but stretches story and performance credibility somewhat. Nonetheless, this is pulp fun of an elegant and intelligent type. With Scott Thomas’ inherent frostiness — which she is actor enough to completely lose on other occasions — ideally employed as the chic superior anyone would eventually want to strangle, Love Crime has no need of the naked writhing across desktops and Playboy “lesbian” frissons very likely to surface as “improvements” in the forthcoming Brian De Palma joint.

Corneau (who died at age 67 last August, just after the film’s premiere) had an interesting, diverse, not-always-distinguished career, some highlights being the 1979 Jim Thompson adaptation Série Noire and 1991’s glacial costume-drama hit Tout les Matins du Monde. No masterpiece, Love Crime closes the book on his career not with a bang but with a crisp, satisfying snap. 

LOVE CRIME opens Fri/9 in Bay Area theaters.


Earth mover



MUSIC I didn’t mean to bring the earthquake to Eleanor Friedberger’s Brooklyn — it just felt that way when I rang a few weeks ago, minutes after her ‘hood shivered and shook like it was attempting a weak imitation of, well, San Francisco. “Actually it sounded like someone was stomping on my roof,” she says wryly, phasing in and out over the line as if spirited away by unexplained forces.

A coincidence, too, that she closes her first, wonderful solo long-player, Last Summer (Merge), with a number titled “Early Earthquake,” a minimalist love song that evokes early solo Lou Reed and spins from those ground-bending emotions that hit far too soon, far too hard. “It was an early earthquake and my heart’s trembling just for you / And when the walls came crumbling down / You know I was waiting right here for you,” she sings with her charmingly verbose hipster-priest phrasing, in a feather-light voice.

“Early Earthquake” ends with a sliver of exotica culled from an optigan. “It’s almost like a toy for adults,” Friedberger says of the ’70s-era instrument. Her brother, Matthew, used one on a song for their band, the Fiery Furnaces, and, she adds, “I said if I ever found one I’d buy it.” That she did, from “an expensive music store in Brooklyn — not very cool,” she murmurs.

That brand of disarming, hyper-self-aware honesty — dotted with a dry, playful sense of irony — runs like a startling thread throughout Friedberger’s conversation, making me wanna be instant BFFs. I can see us now: telling the truth about birthdays (“Always bleak,” Friedberger declares of her Sept. 2 birthday, though she’ll be in the Bay Area that week, so bring her a gift), laughing that she’d make the perfect Patti Smith in the film version of Just Kids, scaring ourselves with the spooky effects in “Inn of the Seventh Ray,” pondering the puzzle of Google-ing dates in “Scenes from Bensonhurst,” and cruising through the borough with the rubbery-bass-bumping “Roosevelt Island” blaring. The latter is the closest thing to a genuine summer song on Last Summer; Friedberger agrees — it’s built to be pouring out of “a Buick, definitely an American car, if there are any of those left,” she says.

Last Summer is the solo record she’s always wanted to make — and when she had the time and summoned the confidence that comes with age and experience, she did, writing the songs last summer and recording them that fall, in Brooklyn. “I felt it was now or never. I always thought I’d regret if I didn’t do something myself,” Friedberger says. “There was no lightning bolt of inspiration—I don’t believe in that.

And in contrast to all those who refuse to ‘fess up to the autobiographical nature of their work, Friedberger offers, “All of it is drawn from my personal life — no imagination used. I’m trying to decide if it’s lazy or brave, I don’t know.”

In the same spirit of full disclosure, she opens the album with an infectious ditty called “My Mistakes,” climaxing with a gloriously cheesy tenor sax solo. “I was trying to copy a Van Morrison-sounding saxophone solo,” she freely admits, though it was a fight trying to get sax player Dylan Heaney to agree. “He has a jazz school background and wanted to do something new or original. I don’t believe in that, though — I’m all for copying.”

Yet Friedberger, whether solo or with the Fiery Furnaces, still manages to have one of the most original voices of her generation. Perhaps it stems from the creative support of a sib. “We have this musical language that I just don’t have with anybody else,” she says of Matthew. “But at the same time, we constantly feel like we need an excuse to do something together — because we’re not a normal band. There has to be an elaborate thought process that justifies it.”

“That’s getting tiring. So it’s liberating to make something that’s small and personal. For me, it’s more about expressing my tiny pathetic feelings.” Slight pause. “I’m kidding.”


With the Kills and Mini Mansions

Fri/9, 8:30 p.m., $29.50

Fox Theater

1807 Telegraph, Oakl.

(510) 302-2277



Boxing Room



DINE It does make a difference, I must say, when you step into a restaurant and find the people at the host’s station smiling and nodding at you, riffling their stack of menus before showing you to your table — instead of not. The last time I made an attempt on Citizen Cake, a few years ago, at lunchtime, I found myself confronted by a rather steely-eyed maitre d’ who advised me, in a spirit of what I took to be barely suppressed glee, that there was no possibility of seating my party of two even though the restaurant was all but empty. I left and did not look back.

If only for a marked change in tone, the Boxing Room, which opened recently in Citizen Cake’s old haunt at the corner of Gough and Grove, is a welcome turning of the page. Just as welcome is the remodel of what was once a shirt factory into a wonder of woodiness, from the ceiling of exposed joists to the impressive swaths of sauna-like blond paneling along the rear wall. Best of all is the long, sinuous bar in place of Citizen Cake’s boxy, glass-and-steel dessert cases; the bar’s reassuring jiggle, like a well-banked S-curve on a freeway, softens the hard, high angles of the space. And while the floor (of poured concrete) is of a cold hardness that usually means reverberant noise, that isn’t the case here. Even when the restaurant is nearly full, it’s possible to have a pleasant conversation without having to raise your voice.

Are there bitter cold nights in New Orleans? The Boxing Room is one of the latest entrants in what seems to be spate of bayou-themed spots in our chilly city. As at Roy’s, I felt a slight dissonance in eating the food of some faraway warm place while awaiting the little tongues of clamminess that would slither into the dining room every time somebody came in the front door. (The front door is gorgeous, incidentally, a masterwork of glass and iron, but very heavy and unwieldy.) The restaurant belongs to the Absinthe group, and the chef is Justin Simoneaux, whose name speaks for itself, at least if you speak French.

The obvious question is how Boxing Room’s food stacks up against that of Criolla Kitchen, the new, Louisiana-accented successor to Baghdad Cafe in the Castro. As we might expect, there is considerable overlap, including red beans, handlings of mirliton (the cucumber relative), various versions of the po’boy, and fried chicken. The cooking of the Mississippi Delta is well-defined and has, for North America, deep historical roots. If there’s a meaningful difference between the two menus, it’s probably Boxing Room’s upmarketiness; a couple of the main dishes pop the $20 boundary.

But most of them don’t, and the tapas-like nibbles called lagniappe are just $5 each. (This might be a small joke, since the word supposedly means, more or less, “gift.” Maybe the modest charge is the equivalent of shipping and handling.) Of these, the one that particularly caught our eye was the small cast-iron pot of Cajun boiled peanuts. We were expecting something flamingly spicy — Cajun is one of those words — and were surprised to find the legumes mildly seasoned and rather soggy, like the bits of wood that splinter from old decks in rainy weather. At first this was disappointing, but in true bar-food fashion, the peanuts built up a subtle momentum and, by the end, were nearly addictive.

You may have had grilled Monterey Bay squid ($9) before, but you probably haven’t had it like this — with tasso (a form of spicy cured pork), fried okra, and aioli made with roasted garlic, all of it brought together into a voluptuous faux-stew. Just as good, if more conventional, was a little cast-iron pot of red beans and sausage ($6) — all the cast-iron pots, incidentally, amount to a small detail that makes a big impression — while a green-tomato ratatouille ($5) seemed underpowered, though beautifully diced.

Apart from the occasional small smear of foie gras, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a savory item as rich as the fried-oyster po’boy ($18). The quite-large oysters had been battered with corn meal and slathered with mayonnaise before being snuggled between slices of fabulously fresh baguette — a kingly sandwich. The throw weight was increased slightly by a small litter of hushpuppies on the side.

“Gumbo” is derived from the West African word for “okra,” and there was okra aplenty in the gumbo ($9), along with andouille coins and shreds of chicken in a thick, smoky broth. Okra is like cilantro: You either love or hate its unmistakable flavor. As I happen to love it, I loved this gumbo. But it isn’t for doubters.

The dessert menu includes beignets ($7), and they’re fine — shaped like hamantaschen here. A livelier choice would be the pralines and cream ($7), a sundae of vanilla ice cream embellished with chunks of praline, candied almonds, and little squares of blondie bar — a ghost of pastries past? 


Continuous service: Mon.-Wed., 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Thurs.-Fri., 11:30-1 a.m.; Sat., 5 p.m.-1 a.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.-midnight

399 Grove, SF

(415) 430-6590


Beer and wine



Wheelchair accessible


Happy accidents



MUSIC What’s so funny about sweetness and light? Bright, explosive jolts of jubilance and snappy uplift? Everything and nothing, Givers might say. The Lafayette, La., band embraces an ecstatic fun-for-all aesthetic on its debut, In Light (Glassnote) — though sultry-voiced vocalist-percussionist Tiffany Lamson still feels a need to defend her group’s rollicking, bubbling bliss bombs.

“This is the era where we need to support each other as a human race,” she says from Lafayette as Givers readies itself to hit the road for a tour that lands in SF Sept. 7. “There’s not enough space to be a band that sings about depressing shit and stuff that’s negative toward others. That era is kind of over.”

Still, Lamson, 23, sounds the teeniest bit defensive. “We do get the whole happy coin — that we’re obsessively happy,” she continues, “which is fine. I’m not going to say we’re not. If you come in the van with us for a couple days, you’ll see we’re more like a family. We have our trials and tribulations in turn that help us grow, though we generally love life and try to be happy. Who doesn’t want to be happy?”

So there — hater nation can just go suck on Givers’ generous odes to joy. As Lamson and band co-founder, vocalist, and guitarist Taylor Guarisco yelp, “I choose life!” in In Light‘s final word, “Words,” a shimmering backdrop of elastic West African-inspired guitar, glassy synth textures, and punchy polyrhythms sing out behind them in affirmation.

“The stigma is that the only thing we provide is surface-level statement,” adds Lamson. “There’s deeper roots and introspection, too.”

That music flowed forth immediately, the first time in 2008 that Lamson and Guarisco, both studying music at the University of New Orleans, played together at a friendly, last-minute fill-in show in Lafayette. Drummer Kirby Campbell, trumpet player Josh LeBlanc, and keyboardists Will Henderson and Nick Stephan joined them, improvising two hours of music. “We were just friends who all played in different bands with each other,” recounts Lamson. “It was a magical thing. We were having a really naturally good time, and we were just moving around with these instruments, being free, playing any instrument we wanted to at the moment.”

That night’s music continued to resonate for Givers, providing the basis for the self-produced In Light when the combo sat down to assemble the album last January. “We spent a lot of time arranging the songs and working on them, so they could be the best they could be for the record,” Lamson says. Engineer Ben Allen (Animal Collective, Cee-Lo) and mix engineer Chris Coady (TV on the Radio, Beach House) helped the process along.

Those veterans might have helped to make In Light an album with surprising dimensions, with fresh angles on shiny, happy sounds, but the band would likely look to their upbringing in southwest Louisiana, steeped in the music of the Cajun-zydeco capital of the world, as having a greater impact. “We were born and raised in this environment, this very rhythm-oriented environment,” explains Lamson.

“It plays a huge part in the way that we play music and the way we live ourselves. Without putting cliches on it, there’s a huge sense of unity — it’s such a diverse area, and you have West African music and Haitian music, and those all soak into Cajun and zydeco culture. People live life a lot slower here — there isn’t the hustle and bustle, and people tend to slow down and appreciate things.” She chuckles. “Maybe it’s the heat.”


With Kopecky Family Band

Sept. 7, 8 p.m., $10–$12

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell, SF

(415) 861-2011






CHEAP EATS Some people wanted closure, so we went around the circle and each said what we got out of our 10 days of writerly camaraderie, intense productivity, and snorkeling. OK, chicken farmer, here’s where you thank the people who brought you here and lick the asses of all the new, important writerly friends you’ve made, I thought. Which should have been easy, because I did love my new friends and got a shitload of good work done in Mexico; but exhaustion and head problems got the better of me, and by the time my turn came the circle was already aslosh with gratitude, spinning its wheels in good vibes and wonderfulness. I was suffocating. I was drowning. I was dizzy. And it was my turn to say what I got out of it.

“An ear infection!” I said.

If I’d have stopped there it would have been funny, but I’d been out of my stomach for four days and couldn’t stop bitching and whining: My head felt like it was going to explode every time I nodded, the smell of toast made me want to puke, and if I bent down to scratch a mosquito bite I would pass out, I was so dizzy. How the hell was I supposed to get in the van that was taking us all to the airport next morning, let alone fly in an airplane at 39,000 feet with entirely clogged ears? Did anyone have any decongestants?

Heads shook in sympathy. People promised to check their pill collections before going to bed.

“The food was really really good,” I added.

Then it wasn’t my turn to speak anymore, and the circle continued to gush toward closure. Hard to say how many enemies I’d made, but — since everything else in the world is hard to say too –hey, who’s counting?

At the airport, I wasn’t the only one having a nervous breakdown. Irene was scheduled to land in New York at the same time some of us were. The East Coast was closed. Flights to other places were full.

And, worse, the Starbucks where we awaited our fates was playing squirrely jazz.
I set up a little Ativan dispensary at our table. See, here’s where being a complete spaz comes in handy: I’d been tracking the hurricane for half a week, and had already changed my return trip from JFK to Pittsburgh. So alls I had to worry about was my head exploding before reaching cruising altitude.

It didn’t!

Hedgehog was waiting for me at the bottom of the escalator by baggage claim, big smile. She’d left her
stupid movie one day early, drove to Pittsburgh, and got us a nice hotel room near the airport and even nearer to one of the satellite Primanti Bros. To which she immediately whisked me for a pastrami and French fry sandwich and a romaine salad, also with French fries. As if I weren’t loopy enough already.

“Not as good as Giordano’s,” I declared, “but better than the original Primanti.”

The fizzy water did not have French fries in it.

Hedgehog set a half-full bottle of West Indies Creole habanero sauce on the table between us. “I didn’t know what you’re supposed to take with you in an evacuation,” she said, “but I grabbed this.”

“I like your style,” I said, putting it mildly while pouring my favorite hot sauce all over everything.

“You did the right thing.”

She liked my ativanitude, she said.

And we went to our hotel room, made category 4 love,
and in the morning drove back to New York where we had dinner plans and US Open tickets. After this we head back west, finally, stopping only for nephewish weddings, state fairs and I guess gas and shit.

We might go to a Steelers game.

Meanwhile, in time for football season, Giordano’s has opened a restaurant in the Mission, without me.

It’s where Ti Couz used to be, on 16th Street at Valencia, and rumor has it they have pieroghis.

So my question to you, Mr. Earl Butter, is why the hell are you still eating at Valencia Pizza & Pasta?

Keep it raw



MUSIC Does the Godfather of Punk really need an introduction? It’s Iggy Pop. He’s been doing this — this meaning spitting out underground ethos in a signature growl and writhing shirtless — for nearly 50 years. With the untimely death of original Stooge guitarist Ron Asheton, Pop regrouped and tapped Raw Power-era player James Williamson to rejoin the band a couple of years back.

I spoke to Pop in Paris over the phone — his current world tour was supposed to land in San Francisco on Sept. 12 and 13. As we were going to press, however, we were informed that the ever-wild Pop broke his foot and his appearance here will be rescheduled, with new dates TBA Dec. 4 and 6 at the Warfield. We wish him a speedy recovery!

SFBG: What songs are you playing this tour?

Iggy Pop: All of Raw Power, some of Funhouse, some songs from the eponymous debut the Stooges, and some stuff that was too hot to handle, too raw for the times — stuff that came out on bootlegs in the ’70s like “Cock in My Pocket,” “Open Up and Bleed,” “Head on the Curve.”

SFBG: And James Williamson is on guitar?

Iggy Pop: Yeah, it’s James. The three principles in the group are James, myself and [drummer] Scott Asheton, — [Scott] had a medical emergency…after our appearance at the Hellfest. He’s now home — he’s benched for the rest of the year. I expect he’ll fully recover and be back next year. His replacement on drums is somebody that grew up listening to our records — Toby Dammit. And Mike Watt is with us, and Steve Mackay. Mike’s there being Mike, you know?

SFBG: I do. At this point in your career do feel pressure to maintain this ‘Wild Child’ image?

Iggy Pop: You mean you’ve noticed my style? [Laughs]. It’s interesting. I feel a desire to — [screams] “still do that, BABY!” — at certain times when it’s going to do me good. And I can’t think of a better time than when the Stooges are cranking, and there are a bunch of people who are sick of this shit-soup that white rock has become and want to see some action. I let some of those elements live and breath, and I always feel good about it.

I don’t think there’s so much an image I have to live up to because one of the beautiful things about being me and about being the Stooges is that we never, ever received any legitimate or uncontested exposure from either the official music industry, when it existed, or the official media. We’re more popular now than we ever were. I’m 64 and I’m just starting to hit a career peak. I consciously try to introduce as many new things as I can into what I do and try to keep moderating it. My hair’s not gray, I haven’t lost interest in life.

SFBG: So what are you looking forward to in the future? The future being later tonight, and six months down the line?

Iggy Pop: [Laughs] well, later tonight, my wife’s with me, and I’m going to open half a bottle of Bordeaux, watch the French news, and practice my French. I’ve made a small album of my own [Existence] that’s along the lines of [2009’s] Préliminaires so I’m working on seeing if I can bamboozle some record company into putting that out. But I’m also working on [Stooges] stuff with James. He’s a real prolific talent, and wasn’t playing music for something like 37 years — he’s got a lot of pent-up energy. It’s funny because he’s an eminently sane, responsible family man who has become a very successful tech executive in San Jose. But he has still reserved his unreasoning, adolescent, spiteful side for our group — so out it comes!

SFBG: How did you end up on American Idol?

Iggy Pop: Well, my agent was begging and threatening — and I’m the sort of person that likes to take a dare. I don’t know how many times I’ve slunk past the television set when that thing was on fuming, “this stinks, what a bunch of shit this is, look at these people — they might as well be parrots!” Yet, behind all that you’re always thinking, “I can do better than that.” I thought of all 102 reasons why I shouldn’t do it, but you’re being offered a chance to do one of your own songs…on the same stage, with the chance to do it your way. I did it for that. To give four minutes of my life and put that on the record in America.

SFBG: On that same note, what was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame experience like for you, finally getting inducted in 2010?

Iggy Pop: It always reminds me of that movie Carrie. She didn’t start out wanting to be homecoming queen, did she? They keep nominating you, and I didn’t ask, nobody asked me if I wanted to be nominated. So then with every nomination comes the rejection, so you start feeling all like, “fuck!” Then you start looking around and think, “well there’s a silly-ass prick and he’s in the Hall of Fame” and “there’s a no-talent weasel and he’s in the Hall of Fame” — why the hell can’t I be in the Hall of Fame?

Shortly after Ron and Scott and I started working together again I said, “are there any specific things you want to accomplish?” And both said, “well, I want to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That would be the big thing.” So at that point I started doing things that would tend to let that happen. I did a couple of Grammy-related events. And then we did Madonna’s [induction]. I figured if the voters for this thing didn’t know who we were before, they’d know now. It’s a shame, Ron was really pissed when they didn’t induct us the next year — he hated doing the Madonna song but I didn’t mind. Hell, we could do “Happy Birthday” and it would sound good, too. It would sound like us. 

Roeg, warrior



FILM It’s grown obvious in ways it couldn’t have been originally that from 1970 to 1980 Nicolas Roeg was the most adventuresome English director, even if then as now his work seems less “British” than just about any colleague you could name. Perhaps not quite knowing where he was coming from — in any sense — made Performance (1970), Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), and Bad Timing (1980) messy, strange, and interesting in ways that then felt borderline gimmicky, as disjointed as they were deliberately dislocative. Yet all those qualities have helped the films age beautifully. In fact they’ve scarcely dated at all, perhaps because their lateral rather than linear storytelling, seemingly contrary audio and visual cues, and pervasive cultural unease reflect a mindset familiar enough now but very strange those decades ago.

That remarkable run comes to mind because of Earth‘s return in a newly struck 35th anniversary print that offers the complete 139-minute “director’s cut.” That version has in fact been available for years — the heavily-cut original U.S. theatrical release is doubtless harder to find now — but remains full of surprises. Even after so long a span, it’s a science fiction movie unconventional enough to annoy the hell out of many professed sci-fi film fans. But then their template was formed the next year by Star Wars (1977), then shortly thereafter by Alien (1979) — two expressions of sci-fi rooted in comic books and ’50s monster movies respectively, spawning innumerable imitations since equally focused on action over ideas.

The Man Who Fell to Earth, stubbornly, has no interest in spaceships, let alone battles or creatures. Instead, its subject is human society, which from the title character’s viewpoint really is nothing for our planet to brag about. It’s still an alien piece of filmmaking because Roeg wants us to view earthly life with fresh eyes that gradually dim from amused curiosity to the cynicism of a reluctant émigré forced into permanent residency in a land he despises.

In his first major film role, David Bowie plays Thomas Newton, who turns up in the American Southwest out of the blue — no one realizes at first quite how literally — with ideas for “toys” of extraordinary technological advancement that quickly make him a very, very wealthy man. Amassing money seems to be his only real interest, toward a goal he eventually reveals to hand-picked confederates including patent attorney Buck Henry and technician Rip Torn, plus singularly dim companion Mary-Lou (Candy Clark). That goal is constructing a space vehicle capable of returning Newton to his planet, which is dying from drought. (Our protagonist’s decline is charted in his changing beverage choices, from precious water to the cheap consolation of alcohol.) He intends no harm. But despite all efforts at evading notice, he inevitably attracts invasive government attention as a freak of potential scientific, capitalist, or militaristic use.

Taking considerable liberties with Walter Tevis’ novel, Paul Mayerberg’s screenplay and Roeg’s direction enlarge several subsidiary characters, add a number of new incidents, and minimize Newton’s backstory. Yet when Earth was first released in the U.S., its 20-minutes-shorter edit removed much of the more outré inventions — including a whole lotta sex scenes, mostly between college prof Torn and myriad female students — oddly re-asserting the story’s science-fiction emphasis. Yet what remains fascinating about the film, beyond Bowie’s silvery performance and Roeg’s arresting stylistic strategies, is that it’s every bit as much a stunned observation of mid-decade middlebrow Americana as the same year’s Nashville. Like a Tibetan monk transplanted to a papier-mâché dinosaur theme park, Newton is agog at a vigorous garishness that’s as invasive as the probes eventually stuck into his body. Chocolate chip cookies, evangelical hysteria, Elvis musicals, and Mary-Lou’s ever-changing hairdos are all an equal amazement to him. The people around him age decades, but he never does, and strangely neither does the culture; when Clark and Torn visit a record store in their twilight years, it’s still selling Jim Croce records to Me Decade longhairs. Newton’s tragic fate is to be trapped in a space-time warp of alien triviality.

Famously crossing over to direction from cinematography (on movies like 1967’s Far From the Madding Crowd and 1968’s Petulia), Roeg brought a sensibility to his own projects that owed less to film and theater than to modern still photography, experimental cinema, and the literary avant-garde. Before anyone else thought likewise, his soundtracks felt like wildly unpredictable (but apt) mix tapes.

None of his features strictly fit any genre they’re aligned to, when there is one. Don’t Look Now is less interested in the supernatural than the psychological deterioration of a marriage. Bad Timing is still under appreciated as the decade’s more disturbing follow-up to Last Tango in Paris (1972), wherein male control of the female sex object grows increasingly desperate and destructive. Performance, co-directed with the late Donald Cammell, was supposed to be a Swinging London snapshot a la Blow-Up (1966) — fashionable, arty, a little kinky, with Mick Jagger acting as lure. It turned out such a druggy, gender-bending mindfuck that Warner Bros. initially refused to release it. A processing lab destroyed some “obscene” footage without permission; even without that, audiences walked out, demanded refunds, even vomited. Performance no longer shocks, but it’s still subversive.

After 1980, Roeg’s output grew steadily less compelling. After years of silence suddenly there was 2007’s Puffball: The Devil’s Eyeball, a seriocomic semi-fantasy curio based on a Fay Weldon novel. No one saw it; they didn’t miss much. At 82, it’s quite possible Roeg won’t make another feature. Yet that single decade of remarkable work still points forward, and has influenced many of the more interesting younger directors’ approaches to style and storytelling since.


THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH opens Fri/9 in Bay Area theaters.

An American blindness


After the first jetliner crashed into the Twin Towers on that September 11 morning, a friend of mine and his 11-year old daughter climbed up to the roof of their Manhattan home to look around. Just then the second plane struck, the young girl fell backward, and went blind from shock.

It took more than a year of examinations and therapies before this girl came out of her blindness to look around.

That’s what happened to America itself ten years ago this Sunday on 9/11, though it might be claimed many of us were blinded by privilege and hubris long before. But 9/11 produced a spasm of blind rage, arising from a pre-existing blindness as to the way much of the world sees us. That in turn led to the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Afghanistan again, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and, in all, a dozen “shadow wars” according to The New York Times.

Bob Woodward’s crucial book, Obama’s Wars, points out that there were already secret and lethal counterterrorism operations active in more than 60 countries as of 2009. From Pentagon think tanks came a new military doctrine of the “Long War,” a counter-insurgency vision arising from the failed Phoenix program of the Vietnam era, projecting U.S. open combat and secret wars over a span of 50 to 80 years, or 20 future presidential terms. The taxpayer costs of this Long War, also shadowy, would be in the many trillions of dollars — and paid for not from current budgets, but by generations born after the 2000 election of George W. Bush. The deficit spending on the Long War would invisibly force the budgetary crisis now squeezing our states, cities and most Americans.

Besides the future being mortgaged, civil liberties were thought to require a shrinking proper to a state of permanent and secretive war, so the Patriot Act was promulgated. All this happened after 9/11 through Democratic default and denial. Who knows what future might have followed if Al Gore, with a half-million popular vote margin over George Bush, had prevailed in the U.S. Supreme Court instead of losing by the vote of a single justice? In any event, only a single member of Congress, Barbara Lee of Berkeley-Oakland, voted against the war authorization, and only a single senator, Russ Feingold, voted against the Patriot Act.

Were we not blinded by what happened on 9/11? Are we still? Let’s look at the numbers we almost never see.



As to American casualties, the figure now is beyond twice those who died in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. on 9/11. The casualties are rarely totaled, but are broken down into three categories by the Pentagon and Congressional Research Service. There is Operation Enduring Freedom, which includes Afghanistan and Pakistan but, in keeping with the Long War definition, also covers Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Second, there is Operation Iraqi Freedom and its successor Operation New Dawn, the name adopted after September 2010 for the 47,000 US advisers, trainers and counterterrorism units still in Iraq. The scope of these latter operations includes Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. These territories include not only Muslim majorities but, according to former Centcom commander Tommy Franks, 68 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves and the passageway for 43 percent of petroleum exports, another American geo-interest which was heavily denied in official explanations.

A combined 6,197 Americans were killed in these wars as of August 16, 2011, in the name of avenging 9/11, a day when 2, 996 Americans died. The total number of American wounded has been 45,338, and rising at a rapid rate. The total number rushed by military Medivac out of these violent zones was 56, 432. That’s a total of 107,996 Americans. And the active-duty military suicide rate for the decade is at a record high of 2, 276, not counting veterans or those who have tried unsuccessfully to take their own lives. In fact, the suicide rate for last year was greater than the American death toll in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has long played a numbers game with these body counts. In addition to being painfully difficult and extremely complicated to access, there was a time when the Pentagon refused to count as Iraq war casualties any soldier who died from their wounds outside of Iraq’s airspace. Similar controversies have surrounded examples such as soldiers killed in non-combat accidents.

The fog around Iraq or Afghanistan civilian casualties will be seen in the future as one of the great scandals of the era. Briefly, the United States and its allies in Baghdad and Kabul have relied on eyewitness, media or hospital numbers instead of the more common cluster-sampling interview techniques used in conflict zones like the first Gulf War, Kosovo or the Congo. The United Nations has a conflict of interest as a party to the military conflict, and acknowledged in a July 2009 U.N. human rights report footnote that “there is a significant possibility that UNAMA is underreporting civilian casualties.”

In August, even the mainstream media derided a claim by the White House counter-terrorism adviser that there hasn’t been a single “collateral,” or innocent, death during an entire year of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, a period in which 600 people were killed, all of them alleged “militants.” As an a specific explanation for the blindness, the Los Angeles Times reported April 9 that “Special Forces account for a disproportionate share of civilian casualties caused by western troops, military officials and human rights groups say, though there are no precise figures because many of their missions are deemed secret.”



Among the most bizarre symptoms of the blindness is the tendency of most deficit hawks to become big spenders on Iraq and Afghanistan, at least until lately. The direct costs of the war, which is to say those unfunded costs in each year’s budget, now come to $1.23 trillion, or $444.6 billion for Afghanistan and $791.4 billion for Iraq, according to the National Priorities Project.

But that’s another sleight-of-hand, when one considers the so-called indirect costs like long-term veteran care. Leading economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes recently testified to Congress that their previous estimate of $4 to $6 trillion in ultimate costs was conservative. Nancy Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers in D.C. — in my opinion, the best war reporter of the decade — wrote recently that “it’s almost impossible to pin down just what the United States spends on war.” The president himself expressed “sticker shock,” according to Woodward’s book, when presented cost projections during his internal review of 2009.

The Long War casts a shadow not only over our economy and future budgets but our innocent and unborn children’s future as well. This is no accident, but the result of deliberate lies, obfuscations and scandalous accounting techniques. We are victims of an information warfare strategy waged deliberately by the Pentagon. As Gen. Stanley McChrystal said much too candidly in a February 2010, “This is not a physical war of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants.” David Kilcullen, once the top counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, defines “international information operations as part of counterinsurgency.” Quoted in Counterinsurgency in 2010, Kilcullen said this military officer’s goal is to achieve a “unity of perception management measures targeting the increasingly influential spectators’ gallery of the international community.”

This new war of perceptions, relying on naked media manipulation such as the treatment of media commentators as “message amplifiers” but also high-technology information warfare, only highlights the vast importance of the ongoing WikiLeaks whistle-blowing campaign against the global secrecy establishment. Consider just what we have learned about Iraq and Afghanistan because of WikiLeaks: Tens of thousands of civilian casualties in Iraq, never before disclosed; instructions to U.S. troops to not investigate torture when conducted by U.S. allies; the existence of Task Force 373, carrying out night raids in Afghanistan; the CIA’s secret army of 3,000 mercenaries; private parties by DynCorp featuring trafficked boys as entertainment, and an Afghan vice president carrying $52 million in a suitcase.

The efforts of the White House to prosecute Julian Assange and persecute Pfc. Bradley Manning in military prison should be of deep concern to anyone believing in the public’s right to know.

The news that this is not a physical war but mainly one of perceptions will not be received well among American military families or Afghan children, which is why a responsible citizen must rebel first and foremost against The Official Story. That simple act of resistance necessarily leads to study as part of critical practice, which is as essential to the recovery of a democratic self and democratic society. Read, for example, this early martial line of Rudyard Kipling, the poet of the white man’s burden: “When you’re left wounded on Afghanistan’s plains/ And the women come out to cut up what remains/ Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains/And go to your God like a soldier.” Years later, after Kipling’s beloved son was killed in World War I and his remains never recovered, the poet wrote: “If any question why we died / Tell them because our fathers lied.”



An important part of the story of the peace movement, and the hope for peace itself, is the process by which hawks come to see their own mistakes. A brilliant history/autobiography in this regard is Dan Ellsberg’s Secrets, about his evolution from defense hawk to historic whistleblower during the Vietnam War. Ellsberg writes movingly about how he was influenced on his journey by meeting contact with young men on their way to prison for draft resistance.

The military occupation of our minds will continue until many more Americans become familiar with the strategies and doctrines in play during the Long War. Not enough Americans in the peace movement are literate about counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and the debates about the “clash of civilizations”, the West versus the Muslim world.

The more we know about the Long War doctrine, the more we understand the need for a long peace movement. The pillars of the peace movement, in my experience and reading, are the networks of local progressives in hundreds of communities across the United States. Most of them are voluntary, citizen volunteers, always and immersed in the crises of the moment, nowadays the economic recession and unemployment.

This peace bloc deserves more. It won’t happen overnight, but gradually we are wearing down the pillars of the war. It’s painfully slow, because the president is threatened by Pentagon officials, private military contractors and an entire Republican Party (except the Ron Paul contingent) who benefit from the politics and economics of the Long War.

But consider the progress, however slow. In February of this year, Rep. Barbara Lee passed a unanimous resolution at the Democratic National Committee calling for a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan and transfer of funds to job creation. The White House approved of the resolution. Then 205 House members, including a majority of Democrats, voted for a resolution that almost passed, calling for the same rapid withdrawal. Even the AFL-CIO executive board, despite a long history of militarism, adopted a policy opposing Afghanistan. The president himself is quoted in Obama’s Wars as opposing his military advisors, demanding an exit strategy and musing that he “can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.” At every step of the way, it must be emphasized, public opinion in Congressional districts was a key factor in changing establishment behavior.

As for Al Qaeda, there is always the threat of another attack, like those attempted by militants aiming at Detroit during Christmas 2009 or Times Square in May 2010. In the event of another such terrorist assault originating from Pakistan, all bets are off: According to Woodward, the U.S. has a “retribution” plan to bomb 150 separate sites in that country alone there, and no apparent plan for The Day After. Assuming that nightmare doesn’t happen, today’s al Qaeda is not the al Qaeda of a decade ago. Osama bin Laden is dead, its organization is damaged, and its strategy of conspiratorial terrorism has been displaced significantly by the people-power democratic uprisings across the Arab world.

It is clear that shadow wars lie ahead, but not expanding ground wars involving greater numbers of American troops. The emerging argument will be over the question of whether special operations and drone attacks are effective, moral and consistent with the standards of a constitutional democracy. And it is clear that the economic crisis finally is enabling more politicians to question the trillion dollar war spending.

Meanwhile, the 2012 national elections present an historic opportunity to awaken from the blindness inflicted by 9/11.

After more than 50 years of activism, politics and writing, Tom Hayden is a leading voice for ending the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan and reforming politics through a more participatory democracy.

Fresh and Easy displacement


OPINION You could cut the hate with a knife. All eyes were on my fumbling fingers, unable to sign my WIC coupons fast enough with one hand while holding my 13-month-old son with the other. “Somebody’s using welfare checks to pay for their food,” A 20 something man in a polo shirt shouted into his phone next to me.

I spend so many days like this while trying to shop as a poor mama, its hard to even think about them. The life of a poor parent in the U.S. is always a scarcity model rollercoaster ride of hate, system abuse, subsistence crumbs and criminalization, best exemplified in the supermarket experience where the so-called paying customers suffer through the bother of waiting for poor parents to pay with our WIC coupons, working poor mamas to pay with payroll checks or indigenous elders to count out their multiple coupons.

I began to reflect on this when I heard about the new fresh and Easy Markets opening in the Bayview-Hunters Point, the Mission and the Portola district. It’s a new supermarket chain from England that by policy doesn’t accept WIC coupons.

WIC — the federal Women, Infants and Children’s program, is not welfare, but rather a supplemental program that allows low-income parents to get milk, grains, cereal and other basic foodstuffs. It’s a program used by many working poor as well as mamas on government crumbs so we can feed our children a balanced diet.

The Bayview, Mission, and Portola neighborhoods are peopled with a lot of multi-generational, multi-lingual mamas, and families in poverty like mine, who need access to affordable fruits and vegetables and non-hormone-filled meat like Fresh and Easy has, but are these stores really being built for us?

Like so much of San Francisco and the whole Bay Area, these communities are under attack from redevelopment and gentrification efforts. Removal and evictions of poor families and elders happen everyday in the city to make way for the corporate veneer of Lennar and John Stewart properties, condominiums, lofts and the rich young people who they are built for.

So who is Fresh and Easy for? They don’t take coupons, personal checks or WIC — and like their Whole Paycheck counterparts, they don’t hire union employees, or ultimately many employees at all, as they have the new self-pay check-out stands.

Fresh and Easy claims it doesn’t except the manufacturers’ coupons for the same reasons it doesn’t accept paper personal checks, W.I.C. vouchers, or cash payroll checks: That elimination of manual paper processing, combined with its self-service checkout system, saves money.

Pressured by community members who protested outside the Bayview store on its opening day, Fresh and Easy CEO Tim Mason now claims that Fresh and Easy in the Bayview will eventually begin taking WIC.

As this poor mama tries to move out from under the lie of criminalized government crumbs and the non-existent, bootstraps centered, corporate underwritten American dream, I have come to realize our collective, self-determined liberation begins with growing our own food in our poor neighborhoods with people-led community gardens, taking back stolen indigenous land and resources with organized poor people led/indigenous people-led efforts and whenever we have the energy, after all the other things we have to do to survive in this capitalist society fighting the exclusion and removal efforts of us by the smooth talking corporations who don’t see us as part of their grand profit-making plans.

Tiny aka Lisa Gray-Garcia, daughter of Dee and mama of Tiburcio is the co-founder of POOR Magazine/PoorNewsNetwork and author of Criminal of Poverty: Growing up Homeless in America

Mayor Lee and PG&E


EDITORIAL Pacific Gas and Electric Company is the number one corporate criminal in San Francisco. The company’s malfeasance caused the deaths of eight people and destroyed an entire neighborhood in San Bruno last year. The National Transportation Safety Board, in a report issued August 30, denounced PG&E’s “integrity management program without integrity” and blasted the company’s efforts to “exploit weakness in a lax system of oversight.”

That doesn’t even address the fact that PG&E has been operating an illegal monopoly in San Francisco for more than 80 years, engaging in an ongoing criminal conspiracy to violate the federal Raker Act. Or the fact that the utility spent $50 million of ratepayer money on a ballot initiative aimed at eliminating consumer choice in the electricity market.

So why was Mayor Ed Lee out at a PG&E public relations event Sept. 1 praising the “great local corporation” as a “great company that gets it?”

Well, the mayor’s campaign press spokesperson, Tony Winnicker, says that PG&E was at the event to donate $250,000 to a program for at-risk youth, and that the mayor was only recognizing that, for all its flaws, the utility “also [does] something good for our public schools and low-income kids.”

That’s not enough, and that’s not acceptable — and the mayor should apologize to the residents of San Francisco, San Bruno and everyplace else in California where the giant corporation has done serious and lasting damage.

It’s nice that PG&E gave a contribution to a program that helps Soma kids learn to read and to play baseball. We support the RBI program and its goals. Never mind that the $250,000 is about 0.005 percent of the money that the utility spent trying to block public power in California. Never mind that PG&E pays such a low franchise fee that it robs of city of millions of annual tax dollars that could fund programs like this one. It still sounds like a large sum, and to the nonprofit program at Bessie Charmichael School, it is.

But there’s a reason PG&E gives money to community groups and programs like this all over town — it’s a way to buy support and respect. Corporate largess of this sort is a relatively cheap public relations strategy — and for the mayor not to see that is embarrassing.

It’s a particularly notable conflict of interest, too — Lee’s top patron and biggest political supporter, Willie Brown (who knows a bit about corruption himself) has been on PG&E’s payroll as a private attorney for the past several years, earning about $200,000 a year.

Most of the candidates for mayor have been taking a gentle approach to Lee, and that makes a certain amount of sense — in a ranked-choice voting environment, negative campaigning often backfires. But there’s nothing inappropriate about saying that the mayor of San Francisco has damaged his own reputation and the reputation of the city by allowing himself to be used at a PR tool by PG&E. Remember: He didn’t just show up and thank the utility for the money. He called PG&E a “great local corporation,” which is, quite simply, false. This ought to become an issue in the race, and Lee should be forced to explain his position on public power, his ties to Brown and PG&E and his willingness to put aside years of malfeasance in the name of a small contribution.

Editor’s notes



I’ve been wondering for months now how all of the rich people who come into San Francisco for the America’s Cup are going to get around. The event plans call for the Embarcadero to be closed during the festivities, which means no cars. The F-line is nice, but slow — and even with new trains, has limited capacity. And I don’t expect to see a lot of the millionaire yachting types riding the bus with us commoners.

Walk? Yeah, from a couple of blocks away, but not from hotels South of Market or on Nob Hill or Union Square. Not in their $500 shoes. Cabs? The traffic will be unbearable.

So here’s an idea I’ve heard floating around: The city makes the project sponsor (that’s you, Larry) buy a fleet of several hundred pedicabs, bicycle-powered taxis. Then the city hires hundreds of unemployed teenagers to drive the visitors from their hotels to the waterfront, giving local youth a chance to earn some money off the cup events. Ban all forms of motorized transportation — no limos, no town cars.

Advantages: Zero carbon emissions. No traffic jams. Youth employment. Healthy exercise. And think about the chariot-race-and-bumper-cars action that will give the swells a thrill. It’s a winner for everyone.

I’ve also been thinking about how the abomination of a condo project at 8 Washington is going to affect the festivities — and it’s a concern. The city has published reports on both the luxury condo project and the cup, and the folks working on the two don’t seem to be talking.

For example, the 8 Washington developer wants to excavate 110,000 tons of soil for a massive parking garage, from a spot right on the edge of the Embarcadero, right while all the cup events are taking place. Where are the dump trucks (hundreds of them every week) going to go if the Embarcadero is closed? How will that construction add to the congestion mess?

I’m not a fan of 8 Washington anyway. It’s a project designed to create the most expensive condos ever built in San Francisco — which is just what the city needs. More second or third homes for very rich people who won’t live here more than a few weeks a year. Another project that will put the city further out of synch with its own General Plan goals for affordable housing.

And building these units for the rich will interfere with the entertainment for the rich that’s supposed to trickle down to the rest of us. I wish it were just funny.

Team Avalos


When Supervisor John Avalos chaired the Budget & Finance Committee in 2009 and 2010, his office became a bustling place in the thick of the budget process. To gain insight on the real-life effects of the mayor’s proposed spending cuts, Avalos and his City Hall staff played host to neighborhood service providers, youth workers, homeless advocates, labor leaders, and other San Franciscans who stood to be directly impacted by the axe that would fall when the final budget was approved. They camped out in City Hall together for hours, puzzling over which items they could live without, and which required a steadfast demand for funding restoration.

“One year, we even brought them into the mayor’s office,” for an eleventh-hour negotiating session held in the wee morning hours, recounted Avalos’ legislative aide, Raquel Redondiez. That move came much to the dismay of Steve Kawa, mayoral chief of staff.

Avalos, the 47-year-old District 11 supervisor, exudes a down-to-earth vibe that’s rare in politicians, and tends to display a balanced temperament even in the heat of high-stakes political clashes. He travels to and from mayoral debates by bicycle. He quotes classic song lyrics during full board meetings, keeps a record player and vinyl collection in his office, and recently showed up at the Mission dive bar El Rio to judge a dance competition for the wildly popular Hard French dance party.

Yet casual observers may not be as familiar with the style Avalos brings to conducting day-to-day business at City Hall, an approach exemplified that summer night in 2010 when he showed up to the mayor’s office flanked by grassroots advocates bent on preserving key programs.

“My role is, I’m an insider, … but it’s really been about bringing in the outside to have a voice on the inside,” Avalos said in a recent interview. “People have always been camped out in my office. These are people who represent constituencies — seniors, recipients of mental health care, unions, people concerned about violence. It’s how we change things in City Hall. It’s making government more effective at promoting opportunities, justice, and greater livelihood.” Part of the thrust behind his candidacy, he added, is this: “We want to be able to have a campaign that’s about a movement.”

That makes Avalos different from the other candidates — but it also raises a crucial question. Some of the most important advances in progressive politics in San Francisco have come not just from electoral victories, but from losing campaigns that galvanized the left. Tom Ammiano in 1999 and Matt Gonzalez in 2003 played that role. Can Avalos mount both a winning campaign — and one that, win or lose, will have a lasting impact on the city?

Workers and families

No budget with such deep spending cuts could have left all stakeholders happy once the dust settled, but Avalos and other progressive supervisors did manage to siphon some funding away from the city’s robust police and fire departments in order to restore key programs in a highly controversial move.

“There’s a Johnny Cash song I really like, written by Tom Petty, called ‘I Won’t Back Down.’ I sang it during that time, because I didn’t back down,” Avalos said at an Aug. 30 mayoral forum hosted by the Potrero Hill Democratic Club. “We made … a symbolic cut, showing that there was a real inequity about how we were doing our budgets. Without impacting public safety services, we were able to get $6 million from the Fire Department. A lot of that went into Rec & Park, and health care programs, and to education programs, and we were able to … find more fat in the Police Department budget than anybody had ever found before, about $3 million.”

Last November, Avalos placed a successful measure on the ballot to increase the city’s real-estate transfer tax, which so far has amassed around $45 million in new revenue for city coffers, softening the blow to critical programs in the latest round of budget negotiations. “Without these measures that community groups, residents, and labor organizations worked for, Mayor Ed Lee would not have been able to balance the budget,” Avalos said.

More recently, he emerged as a champion of the city’s Local Hire Ordinance, designed as a tool for job creation that requires employers at new construction projects to select San Francisco residents for half their work crews, to be phased in over the next several years. That landmark legislation was a year in the making, Redondiez said, describing how union representatives, workers, contractors, unemployed residents of Chinatown and the Bayview, and others cycled through Avalos’ City Hall office to provide input.

His collaborative style stems in part from his background. Avalos formerly worked for Service Employees International Union Local 1877, where he organized janitors, and served as political director for Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth. He was also a legislative aide to former District 6 Sup. Chris Daly, who remains a lightning rod in the San Francisco political landscape.

Before wading into the fray of San Francisco politics, Avalos earned a masters degree in social work from San Francisco State University. But when he first arrived in the city in 1989, with few connections and barely any money to his name, he took a gig at a coffee cart. He was a Latino kid originally from Wilmington, Calif. whose dad was a longshoreman and whose mom was an office worker, and he’d endured a climate of discrimination throughout his teenage years at Andover High in Andover, Mass.

Roughly a decade ago, Avalos and a group of youth advocates were arrested in Oakland following a protest against Proposition 21, which increased criminal penalties for crimes committed by youth. Booked into custody along with him was his wife, Karen Zapata, whom he married around the same time. She is now a public school teacher in San Francisco and the mother of their two children, ages 6 and 9, both enrolled in public schools.

“John has consistently been a voice for disenfranchised populations in this city,” said Sharen Hewitt, who’s known Avalos for more than a decade and serves as executive director of The Community Leadership Academy & Emergency Response Project (CLAER), an organization formed to respond to a rash of homicides and alleviate violence. “He understands that San Francisco is at a major turning point in terms of its ability to keep families and low-income communities housed. With the local hiring ordinance, most of us who have been working around violence prevention agree — at the core of this horrible set of symptoms are root causes, stemming from economic disparity.”

Asked about his top priorities, Avalos will invariably express his desire to keep working families rooted in San Francisco. District 11, which spans the Excelsior, Ingleside, and other southeastern neighborhoods, encompasses multiracial neighborhoods made up of single-family homes — and many have been blunted with foreclosure since the onset of the economic crisis.

“Our motto for building housing in San Francisco is we build all this luxury housing — it’s a form of voodoo economics,” Avalos told a small group of supporters at a recent campaign stop in Bernal Heights. “I want to have a new model for how we build housing in San Francisco. How can we help [working-class homeowners] modify their loans to make if more flexible, so they can stay here?” He’s floated the idea of creating an affordable housing bond to aid in the construction of new affordable housing units as well as loan modifications to prevent foreclosures.

“That’s what is the biggest threat to San Francisco, is losing the working-class,” said community activist Giuliana Milanese, who previously worked with Avalos at Coleman Advocates for Youth and has volunteered for his campaign. “And he’s the best fighter. Basically, economic justice is his bottom line.”

Tenants Union director Ted Gullicksen gave Avalos his seal of approval when contacted by the Guardian, saying he has “a 100 percent voting record for tenants,” despite having fewer tenants in his district than some of his colleagues. “David Chiu, had he not voted for Parkmerced, could have been competitive with John,” Gullicksen said. “But the Parkmerced thing was huge, so now it’s very difficult to even have David in same ballpark. Dennis [Herrera] has always taken the right positions — but he’s never had to vote on anything,” he said. “After that, nobody comes close.”

Cash poor, community rich

There’s no question: The Avalos for Mayor campaign faces an uphill climb. Recent poll figures offering an early snapshot of the crowded field peg him at roughly 4 percent, trailing behind candidates with stronger citywide name recognition like City Attorney Dennis Herrera or the incumbent, Mayor Ed Lee, who hasn’t accepted public financing and stands to benefit from deep-pocketed backers with ties to big business.

Yet as Assembly Member Tom Ammiano phrased it, “he’s actually given progressives a place to roost. He doesn’t pussy-foot around on the issues that are important,” making him a natural choice for San Francisco voters who care more about stemming the tides of privatization and gentrification than, say, rolling out the red carpet for hi-tech companies.

One of Avalos’ greatest challenges is that he lacks a pile of campaign cash, having received less than $90,000 in contributions as of June 30, according to an Ethics Commission filing. “He can’t call in the big checks,” said Julian Davis, board president of Booker T. Washington Community Service Center, “because he hasn’t been doing the bidding of big business interests.” A roster of financial contributions filed with the Ethics Commission shows that his donor base is comprised mainly of teachers, nonprofit employees, health-care workers, tenant advocates, and other similar groups, with almost no representatives of real-estate development interests or major corporations.

Despite being strapped for cash, he’s collected endorsements ranging from the Democratic County Central Committee, to the Harvey Milk Democratic Club, to the city’s largest labor union, SEIU 1021; he’s also won the backing of quintessential San Francisco characters such as renowned author Rebecca Solnit; San Francisco’s radical bohemian poet laureate, Diane di Prima; and countercultural icon Diamond Dave.

While some of Avalos’ core supporters describe his campaign as “historic,” other longtime political observers have voiced a sort of disenchantment with his candidacy, saying it doesn’t measure up to the sweeping mobilizations that galvanized around Gonzalez or Ammiano. Ammiano has strongly endorsed Avalos, but Gonzalez — who now works for Public Defender (and mayoral candidate) Jeff Adachi — has remained tepid about his candidacy, stating publicly in an interview on Fog City Journal, “I like [Green Party candidate Terrie Baum] and John fine. I just don’t believe in them.”

Ironically, Sup. Sean Elsbernd, often Avalos’ political opposite on board votes, had kinder words for him. “John is intelligent, John is honest, and John has integrity,” Elsbernd told the Guardian. “I don’t think he knows the city well enough to serve as chief executive … but I’ve seen the good work he’s done in his district.”

Meanwhile, Avalos is still grappling with the fallout from the spending cut he initiated against the police and fire departments in 2009. Whereas those unions sent sound trucks rolling through his neighborhood clamoring for his recall from office during that budget fight, the San Francisco Police Officers Association (SFPOA), the San Francisco Fire Fighters union, and the plumbers’ union, Local 38, have teamed up now that Avalos is running for mayor to form an independent expenditure committee targeting him and Public Defender Jeff Adachi, a latecomer to the race.

“We’ll make sure we do everything we can to make sure he never sees Room 200,” SFPOA President Gary Delagnes told the Guardian. “I would spend as much money as I could possibly summon to make sure neither ever takes office.” Delagnes added that he believes the political makeup of San Francisco is shifting in a more moderate direction, to Avalos’ disadvantage. “People spend a lot of money to live here,” he said, “and they don’t want to be walking over 15 homeless people, or having people ask them for money.”

If it’s true that the flanks of the left in San Francisco have already been supplanted with wealthy residents whose primary concern is that they are annoyed by the sight of destitute people, then more has already been lost for the progressive movement than it stands to lose under the scenario of an Avalos defeat.

The great progressive hope?

Despite these looming challenges, the Avalos campaign has amassed a volunteer base that’s more than 1,000 strong, in many cases drawing from grassroots networks already engaged in efforts to defend tenant rights, advance workplace protections for non-union employees, create youth programs that aim to prevent violence in low-income communities, and advance opportunities for immigrants. According to some volunteers, linking these myriad grassroots efforts is part of the point. Aside from the obvious goal of electing Avalos for mayor, his supporters say they hope his campaign will be a force to re-energize and redefine progressive politics in San Francisco.

“All the candidates that are running are trying to appeal to the progressive base,” Avalos said. But what does it really mean? To him, being progressive “is a commitment to a cause that’s greater,” he offered. “It’s about how to alter the relationship of power in San Francisco. My vision of progressivism is more inclusive, and more accountable to real concerns.”

N’Tanya Lee, former executive director of Coleman Advocates, was among the people Avalos consulted when he was considering a run for mayor. “The real progressives in San Francisco are the folks on the ground every day, like the moms working for public schools … everyday families, individual people, often people of color, who are doing the work without fanfare. They are the unsung heroes … and the rising progressive leaders of our city,” she said. “John represents the best of what’s to come. It’s not just about race or class. It’s about people standing for solutions.”

When deciding whether to run, Avalos also turned to his wife, Zapata, who has held leadership positions in the San Francisco teacher’s union in the past. She suggested rounding up community leaders and talking it through. “The campaign needed to be a movement campaign,” Zapata told the Guardian. “John Avalos was not running because he thought John Avalos was the most important person in the world to do this job. Our question was, if John were to do this, how would it help people most affected by economic injustice?”

Hewitt, the executive director of CLAER, also weighed in. “My concern is that he has been painted as a leftist, rooted in some outdated ideology,” she said. “I think [that characterization] is one-dimensional, and I think he’s broader than that. My perception of John is that he’s a pragmatist — rooted in listening, and attempting to respond.”

Others echoed this characterization. “He doesn’t need to be the great progressive hope,” said Rafael Mandelman, an attorney who ran as a progressive in District 8 last year. “If people are looking for the next Matt Gonzalez, I’m not sure that’s what John is about. He’s about the communities he’s representing.”

As to whether or not he has a shot at victory, Mandelman said, “It’s a very wide field, and I think John is going to have a very strong base. I think he will get enough first-choice votes to be one of the top contenders. And with ranked choice voting, anything can happen.”