Volume 45 Number 52

Musical alchemy

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MUSIC I’ve never defended the idea of a “best of” record. Some anonymous curator is typically given the task of sifting out a musician’s hits from the misses, of establishing an artist’s definitive compilation once and for all. A fairly daunting project for judging something as fickle and varied as musical taste. So I have to admit I was skeptical when I picked up The Best of Quantic album put out by the British imprint Tru Thoughts earlier this month.

Best of? Quantic, a.k.a. William Holland, is only 31-years-old. And the talented producer, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist is hardly through with making music. Quantic has completed eleven records on Tru Thoughts in the span of a decade, ever since the label flipped his demo into The 5th Exotic, a fluid recording of instrumental grooves crafted from the percussive roots of hip-hop and the beat experiments of Brighton’s downtempo electronic scene. A track culled from that record, “Time is the Enemy,” launches the new retrospective into a geography of sound that Quantic has persistently navigated in unexpected ways — between the contemplative and the effusion of the dance floor.

Few musicians are as prodigious as Quantic, as methodical, as ready to throw away conventional formulas and risk leaping into the wandering spirit of rhythm. A couple years after his solid debut, Quantic abandoned strict sampling techniques in favor of forming a break driven funk group: the Quantic Soul Orchestra. Powerhouse songs like “Pushin’ On” and “Don’t Joke with a Hungry Man,” respectively featuring vocalists Alice Russell and Spanky Wilson, stamps The Best Of with the frenetic pulse of deep-in-the-pocket soul.

With a crate digger’s fervor, Quantic traveled to Ethiopia and throughout the Caribbean, absorbing and researching and translating the diaspora of the polyrhthm. Four years ago, he relocated to Santiago de Cali, Colombia — a city built from second wave 1950s Art Deco and the more typical mass concrete structures of the ’60s — where the radio still broadcasts Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, and the boogaloo of 1968 saturates the air.

“I see Cali as a crossroads, almost like a test tube, or a gateway from the Pacific Coast [of Colombia] to Bogota,” Quantic tells me from his home, trucks rumbling in the background. “It’s a very creative place, although fairly unbeknown to the outside world.”

Once settled in Cali, Quantic reforged his orchestra into his Combo Bárbaro. In 2009, Quantic and his group released perhaps his most exhilarating album yet, Tradition in Transition, a testament to the vitality of percussive heritage on the fringes and yet in the subterranean core of the Americas.

“I wanted to really explore the side of music from Barranquilla and Panama City where you have bands playing soul, funk, salsa, cumbia, boogaloo … not necessarily one genre,” Quantic says. “What I appreciate in this music is that there’s tremendous diversity — culturally, ethnically, racially — and so many different rhythm experimentations.”

For his Combo Bárbaro, Quantic tried to synthesize precisely this kind of musical alchemy. He paired British drummer Malcolm Catto with frenetic Colombian percussionist Freddie Colorado; Peruvian pianist Alfredo Linares weaved the melodies, and folklore singer, Nidia Góngora, from the Afro-Colombian region of the Pacific Coast, wrote and delivered the lyrics. What comes out of these creative tensions is a brilliant and resonating song like “The Dreaming Mind,” which also features lush string arrangements from the often overlooked Brazilian composer Arthur Verocai.

After a few rotations, the best of record won me over. It’s more of a stitched together mapping of Quantic’s rhythmic wanderings — musically and physically — than a set of highlights towards a destination. “The traveling of my own life as a musician is intertwined with the music I make,” he says. “It’s like looking at the rings on the tree; there’s a pattern to it, but it just develops naturally without so much of a plan.”

Quantic hopes to redraw a bit of that map during his performance this Friday at SOM. Without his bárbaros on tour, he’ll spin some 45s to chart out influences, and then bring the studio on stage, mixing recorded sessions live while adding dubbing and keys. 

Quantic

With Guillermo and Wonway

Fri. 9/30, 10 p.m., $10–$15

SOM

2925 16th, SF

www.som-bar.com

Channeling darkness

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM One of the longest and most unsung stretches of film noir’s half life as an enduring aesthetic sensibility has played out on television. From such former Nick at Night staples as Dragnet and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to The Twilight Zone, to the neo-noir of Twin Peaks, and more recently, AMC’s drama The Killing, TV has long been home to those lawbreakers, revenge-seekers, and poor souls tormented by unexplained phenomena and sinister plots who once populated the black and white cinematic pulp of the 1940s.

In fact, Hollywood’s fingerprints are all over “TV Noir,” a highly detailed survey of the various types of malfeasance and mystery one could find on television sets during the medium’s golden age. The series’ seven nights of double bills, which kick off at the Roxie Fri/30, are packed with small screen rarities that frequently feature big Hollywood names (or soon-to-be big names) behind or in front of the camera for episodes of now forgotten shows with catchy titles such as Suspense, Danger, Checkmate, and Tales of Tomorrow.

Series curator and Roxie resident noir expert Elliot Lavine has dug deep, unearthing such treasures as Blake Edwards’ unsold 1954 pilot for Mike Hammer, a series that was to be based on Mickey Spillane’s famous hard-boiled detective, which screens opening night. Things get more highbrow with Saturday night’s showcase of “Great Directors.” The aforementioned Hitch is present, directing and producing the tense Cornell Woolrich-inspired “Four O’Clock” from his program Suspicion, which stars E.G. Marshall as a clockmaker who becomes the unwilling victim of his plot to blow up the wife he thinks is cheating on him. I doubt you will squirm through a tenser five minutes than during the episode’s penultimate scene, which showcases Hitchcock’s uncanny ability to manipulate the viewer’s emotions through editing. Also of note is 1951 Danger episode “The System,” an early scorcher by a pre-Hollywood Sidney Lumet, who directs a terrific Eli Wallach.

Of course, a survey of the darker side of the small screen would be incomplete without Rod Serling. Serling, who had catapulted his TV career with Kraft Television Theater’s live 1955 live broadcast of his screenplay Patterns, was in high demand and turning out top quality work pre-Twilight Zone, as evinced by the John Frankenheimer-directed 1958 episode of Playhouse 90, “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” which confronts racial prejudice in a poor, drought-ridden town in a way that Mad Men really has yet to do.

Like “A Town,” the other two Serling-scripted episodes in “TV Noir,” “Nightmare at Ground Zero” (a live drama from 1953) and “The Arena” (1956, from Studio One), hold up a cracked mirror to their times, reflecting growing anxieties over nuclear annihilation and the gradual erosion of the established political order.

These themes are given a less refined treatment in some of Lavine’s campier sci-fi selections showcased on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, in which extraterrestrial is more often than not an anagram for communist. Although, the 1958 pilot for Now is Tomorrow offers a more psychologically taut portrayal of the men entrusted to push “the button,” which is paired with the odd Edward R. Murrow-hosted docu-drama “The Night America Trembled” (1957, from Studio One) — a recreation of the night of Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds with a cameo by Welles himself. Five years later America would face down the threat of annihilation via broadcast during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“TV Noir” also packs in a few outliers that aren’t to be missed. In the 1954 episode “Bond of Hate,” from British series The Vise, a bitter married couple realize their only recourse is to kill each other. Pamela Abbott’s performance as the harpy-like wife stands next to the late Ann Savage’s turn as the powder keg hitcher in Detour (1945) as an example of how to completely own nearly every second of screen time. Another must-see is the bizarre quiz show, The Plot Thickens (1963); it features an older, but still randy Groucho Marx as part of an “expert” panel that attempts to solve a short whodunit penned by Robert Bloch of Psycho fame. It even had its own mascot: a black cat named Lucifer, which guests were instructed to pass around for good luck. Also of note: television’s early years were also the golden age of sponsorship, and many of episodes in “TV Noir” include each show’s original commercials — including a very young Mike Wallace shilling for Revlon lipstick.

 

“TV NOIR”

Sept. 30-Oct. 6

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St., SF

(415) 863-1087

www.roxie.com

Counting calories

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caitlin@sfbg.com

HERBWISE An old factory sits in the outskirts of Oakland. In decades past, this building produced name brand snacks, but the smell of baking still permeates the factory air.

And weed. It smells like weed too. Bhang Chocolate churns out medicinal marijuana sweets here, bars that are smartly packaged in Bhang’s sleek black, orange, and green boxes that are a far cry from the plain wax envelopes and saran wrap that most marijuana edibles used to be sold in. The company is part of the current expansion in edible products — these days, patients can buy medicated cheesecakes, and even savory trail mix.

Adjacent to Bhang’s factory floor, about ten marijuana edibles producers are listening to a man talk about quality control for weed food. Robert Martin, Ph.D., worked for years in corporate food product development and quality assurance. He tells the class his specialty was frozen foods.

Martin is the co-founder of C.W. Analytical, a business that consults marijuana producers and has cannabis testing facilities. A patient himself, he says that marijuana-medicated foods are technically subject to all the same guidelines for commercially-produced non-pot products, although actual enforcement is sparse. C.W. offers these classes for free to interested entrepreneurs. They teach professional skills and serve as an introduction to the for-sale services the business provides.

The students are being treated to quality assurance fail stories from Martin’s career in the corporate world. A sherbet producer he once knew bought a wildly expensive machine to make fudge bars, but when he failed to make the proper tests on his treats, they caused a nasty spate of diarrhea in consumers and he ended up losing his shirt.

“That’s the kind of crap that can happen to you guys,” cautions Martin, and starts reading from a tongue-in-cheek guide to how you can tell food has gone bad. “Flour is spoiled when it wiggles,” he reads. This is quality assurance humor. “I love this stuff!”

One of the day’s students Lacey (not her real name) says she learned a lot from the class that she’ll be able to implement in her own business, Laced Cakes Bakery. She’s been making prettily iced cannabis cookies and brownies since 2007 and has seen the industry requirements shift dramatically.

“Years ago, you could just bring down a tray [to a dispensary] and drop it off,” she says. Nowadays, to sell in San Francisco she has to package the sweets in opaque material and make sure that the design can’t be interpreted as too appealing to kids. “The laws keep changing.”

She had heard about C.W. Analytical at some of the cannabis expos she’s been a vendor at — the firm will have a booth at next weekend’s West Coast Cannabis Expo as well — and was happy that the class was offered for free. She hadn’t finalized her opinion, however, on Martin’s suggestion that producers get their foods analyzed by the company so that they can put nutrition labels on their packaging. “It seems like they might just be trying to make money off of us,” she mused. 

WEST COAST CANNABIS EXPO

Oct. 7-9. Fri/7, 3-9 p.m.; Sat/8, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun/9 11 a.m.-7 p.m., $18 one day/$45 weekend pass

Cow Palace

Geneva and Santos, Daly City

(650) 591-0420

www.westcoastcannabisexpo.com

 

The sight of sound

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arts@sfbg.com

HAIRY EYEBALL “Home taping is killing music”, declared the 1980s anti-copyright infringement campaign waged by British music industry trade group, the British Phonographic Industry. History has proven BPI’s concerns to have been mis-targeted, with cassettes becoming an increasingly irrelevant medium in the ensuing decades, even as the music industry still struggles to respond to ever-mercurial forms of bootlegging and pirating. The cassette tape, however, has—perhaps unsurprisingly— re-emerged in recent years as both an object of nostalgia and a more exclusive format for more out-there musicians to release their small, home-made batches of black metal, experimental electronica, or noise out into the world for listeners for whom Tumblr is not enough.

Composer and musician Christian Marclay’s visual art often engages with our complicated relationship to outmoded technologies of audio-visual reproduction, particularly vinyl records. The photograms in his current show at Fraenkel Gallery continues this line of inquiry, playfully condensing the cassette tape’s arc from boon to perceived threat to obsolescence to fetish object.

For the gorgeous 2009 photogram “Allover (Dixie Chicks, Nat King Cole and Others),” Marclay exposed photo-sensitized paper to light after he had strewn over it the magnetic innards of cassette tapes and fragments of the broken plastic shells that once contained them that had been coated in a photosensitive solution. The resulting sprawl of tangled white lines on blue brings to mind the splatter canvases of Jackson Pollock or the chalk squiggles of Cy Twombly (associations Marclay’s titular “allover” winks at). In other photograms, such as “Large Cassette Grid No. 9,” also from 2009, Marclay has arranged plastic cassette cases in block-like patterns that cover the entire paper, with each cases’ accumulated wear and tear providing subtle variations.

That cyan-like blue color is what gives Marclay’s chosen process, the cyanotype, its name. Discovered by English scientist Sir John Herschel in 1842, the cyanotype process was historically used to make blueprints. I’d like to imagine that this irony isn’t lost on Marclay. By using an outmoded photographic technology to make visual art out of an outmoded audio technology, Marclay underscores the eventual obsolescence of all reproductive technologies. His cyanotypes aren’t blueprints so much as headstone rubbings.

In “Looking for Love” (2008), a single channel video shown in the gallery’s backroom, Marclay’s stationary camera stays zoomed-in on a well-worn phonographic stylus, as his giant hands roughly skip the needle around record after record searching for any utterance of the word “love.” The film’s exaggerated scale combined with Marclay’s increasingly impatient and roughshod sample hunting can be read as a parody of the audiophile as techno-purist. But the film also speaks to our enduring investment in music—be it the Dixie Chicks, Nat King Cole, or any of the other inaudible “others” that went into the making of Marclay’s cyanotypes—even as our experience of listening to it becomes more and more immaterial.

 

HOMETOWN GIRL

Fran Herndon was not a name I was familiar with, so I’m glad to now be acquainted with this largely unsung player in San Francisco’s artistic firmament of the 1950s and 1960s (and all around bad-ass) thanks to the eye-opening selection of early oil paintings and mixed-media collages organized by Kevin Killian and Lee Plested currently on view at Altman Siegel.

An Oklahoma native, Herndon moved to San Francisco in 1957 with her husband, the California teacher and writer Jim Herndon, who she met while traveling in France. She quickly fell in with the likes of the Robin Blaser, Jess and his partner Robert Duncan, and Jack Spicer, with whom she formed an intense intellectual and aesthetic bond. Together, they founded the mimeographed poetry and art magazine J, and Herndon created lithographs for poet Spicer’s 1960 master-work The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether. All the while, Herndon continued to produce her own varied body of work that was as much a response to her newfound creative circle of friends and collaborators as it was to the times in which they were making art.

The series of sports themed collages she made in 1962 are especially representative of Herndon’s gift for exploding the hidden currents of emotion contained in her source material—in this case, images clipped from popular magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Life are transformed into near-mythological tableaux of victory and defeat in which race and the volatile racial climate of Civil Rights era-America are front and center (Herndon, who is of Native American heritage, has said “[America] is no place for a brown face”).

In “Collage for Willie Mays” the baseball legend is depicted hitting a homer out of a Grecian colonnade whereas in the decidedly darker and Romare Bearden-esque “King Football” an actual mask has fallen away from the titular ruler, revealing a skull-like visage wrapped in a cloak of newspaper clippings about the 49er’s then-scandalous decision to trade quarterback Y.A. Tittle for Lou Cordilione. The headlines about devastation and death speak to other off-field losses, though.

Other pieces resonate on a more emotional level. The gauche-smudged greyhounds in “Catch Me If You Can” bound past their bucolic counterparts like horses in a Chinese brush painting—all speed and wind—and are as much signs-of-the-times as the more politically overt anti-draft and anti-war collages Herndon made later in the decade.

Certainly, there was no time to wait. So much of Herndon’s art seems to come from an urge to document her “now” with whatever tools she had on hand, a present being lived and produced in the company of so many extraordinary others, from Spicer to Mays. Even her paintings seem to have been worked on only to the point at which their subjects just emerge distinct from their swirled backgrounds of color. Nearly fifty years later, Herndon’s urgency is still palpable.


CHRISTIAN MARCLAY: CYANOTYPES

Through Oct. 29

Fraenkel Gallery

49 Geary, Fourth Floor

(415) 981-2661

www.fraenkelgallery.com


FRAN HERNDON

Through Oct. 29

Altman Siegel Gallery

49 Geary, Fourth Floor

(415) 576-9300

www.altmansiegel.com

Volume 45 Number 52 Flip-through Edition

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Twang on

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM Hillbilly horror is nothing new. Some might mark its heyday as the 1970s, a decade containing Deliverance (1972), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and I Spit On Your Grave (1978). Others might point to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ immortal Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), probably cinema’s most persuasive example of why Yankees road-tripping below the Mason-Dixon Line should never, for any reason, detour off the main highway.

Twenty-first century hillbillies are still scary, at least on the big screen; this is one stereotype that’ll never die. Any number of recent horror films — most of them remakes of the films noted above (or directed by Rob Zombie) — have drawn their clichéd plots from a checklist that always includes city slickers, cars that break down, cell phones that don’t work, and inbred locals. The lesson remains the same: stay the hell out of the backwoods, yuppie!

But what if, asks Eli Craig’s Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, you were totally misjudging those sinister-seeming whiskey-tango yokels? What if, despite being a little unwashed and fond of sharp objects and power tools, they happened to be really nice guys? The film — about a couple of blue-collar dudes (Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk) hanging out at their mountain cabin who unwittingly terrify a group of vacationing college kids — finds a sense of humor in the tired genre. The result is blood-spattered comedy gold.

“The initial premise was: what if Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre was really just a good guy with an unwieldy chainsaw? It’s the good-looking college kids that have been terrorizing him!” explains first-time feature director Craig (he also co-wrote the script). “In order to pull this off, there has to be a series of misunderstandings. My writing partner, Morgan Jurgenson, and I made a rule that Tucker and Dale would never hurt the college kids. They just kept on accidentally killing themselves and leaving their mangled corpses in Tucker and Dale’s yard to deal with.”

The accidental suicides (most memorably, via wood chipper) are gruesome enough to please genre fans — but are also pretty goofy. The label “splat-stick” has rarely been so aptly applied.

“The film satirizes and often pays homage to the clichés of the slasher-horror genre. So it has the look and feel of a horror film, but I think of it as a comedy,” Craig explains. “I always erred on the side of big laughs, and for the stuff that was meant to be more horrific, I tried to push it into a realm where it was so big that it wasn’t quite believable, and hence allowed people to still laugh.”

Horror comedies may not traditionally rake it in at the box office, but they often become cult sensations — see: 1985’s Re-Animator and 2004’s Shaun of the Dead. For Craig, whose film is firmly in the midnight-movie tradition, the lasting appeal of the genre (which goes back even farther than hillbilly horror — see: Abbott and Costello) is obvious.

“To me [horror comedies are] a subcategory of black comedy which basically deals with the farce that is human existence,” he says. “We are all stuck within these hopeless limitations — we can only see life through one pair of eyes, and we will all face our own demise. But to laugh at it all, to see that the world is both cruel and hilarious, to find joy in the hopeless, that allows us to transcend our problems. Good horror-comedy is about laughter amid despair, [which] really is the best option we have sometimes.” 

 

TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL opens Fri/30 in Bay Area theaters.

Not new, but renewing

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arts@sfbg.com

THEATER New plays are usually big selling points for theaters, and they have a certain pizzazz for audiences too, but their power to renew interest in theater is a different matter. The best play seen on a local stage so far this season is not a new play, as it happens, but an old one, with a big name attached and a Pulitzer in tow. But Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (1966) reminds you why people go to the theater in the first place.

Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre opens its 20th anniversary season with a terrific revival of this invigorating play, set amid the deceptive comfort of an upper-class drawing room (realized in unfussy but suitably expansive detail by scenic designer Richard Olmsted) and never far from its well-appointed and well-loved liquor cabinet. Here, aging richies Agnes (a serenely superior Kimberly King) and Tobias (a gently affable, subtly perplexed Ken Grantham) have settled into a tentative bargain called marriage, the chop on the otherwise placid surface coming only from Agnes’s tippling live-in sister, Claire (a strong, almost swaggeringly tough Jamie Jones), and the couple’s spoiled serial divorcée of a daughter, Julia (a vital, nicely wound-up Carrie Paff).

Into their collective, quotidian sniping and maneuvering comes, unexpectedly, a touch of the paranormal in the form of old friends Harry (a quietly overwhelmed Charles Dean) and Edna (Anne Darragh, projecting an eerie combination of panic and power), who arrive on their doorstep as supplicants fleeing an unknown terror. Suddenly, hard on the heels of peacemaker Tobias’ anecdote about a cat he once had put down after it stopped liking him, the patriarch confronts a supreme moral challenge: what to do with Harry and Edna? What to do, for that matter, with the whole family?

Enduringly interesting and moving, A Delicate Balance (and its dream cast of veteran actors shrewdly helmed by artistic director Tom Ross) revels in the niceties and byways of language even as it limns the ineffable breach between individual and other, madness and sanity, unforgiving fact and accommodating memory — the whole teetering “balancing act” that plays out across a pair of long evenings into a flat, hazy dawn.

Albee’s mode here is a sort of torn naturalism: a naturalism into which something incomprehensible intrudes, making the artificiality of received reality suddenly, disturbingly apparent. For the terror that descends on scared, and vaguely scary, Harry and Edna — driving them and their “plague” into the midst of Tobias and Agnes’ home — that terror emerges from the same waters Tobias and Agnes inhabit. It swarms the land and then, just as unexpectedly, it recedes, like a tsunami that leaves things more or less as before, at least on the surface.

You could call this word-drunk, witty, and boldly imaginative drama an endlessly engaging exploration of the phrase “domestic harmony” — in all its fear-bound resignation, calculation, and codependency. You could also call it a philosophical musing on the problem of community and the obligations we social animals owe one another. But definitions are almost beside the point with a great play because it’s too alive for any label, always sliding out from under it.

What is certain is that a play like this leaves you awake and wandering around the world you share with it. It also, less happily, makes a regular theatergoer realize how these days many new plays (those being produced locally, that is) have been forgettably thin, however clever or amusing. Even Aurora, which does an admirable job with the Albee play, last season premiered one called Collapse full of the typical vices: a play whose bid for social relevance, lacking any significant insight or imagination, remains only superficially meaningful. Comfortable platitudes and conventional tricks substitute too often for intellectual and aesthetic daring. Who could say that about A Delicate Balance

 

A DELICATE BALANCE

Through Oct. 23

Tues. and Sun., 7 p.m. (also Sun., 2 p.m.); Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m., $10-48

Aurora Theatre

2081 Addison, Berk.

(510) 843-4822

www.auroratheatre.org

Time and space pilot

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MUSIC Pioneering electronic composer Pierre Schaeffer used a specific word to describe his work, which took ‘common’ noises and manipulated them into music — acousmatic: “referring to sounds that one hears without seeing the causes behind it.”

Every sound on genre-defying musician Amon Tobin’s latest album is a mystery. The 2007 album Foley Room utilized cinematic studio techniques, reaching back to the roots of electronic music. Now Tobin has shot that line of inquiry into the other direction, seemingly returning from the future with ISAM, an album as alien as it is familiar. “As technology develops, you can go one of two ways,” Tobin says in a phone interview. “You can do the same things that people did ten years ago just with less stress involved, or you can take that tech and try to get more out of what it was designed to do — things other people haven’t figured out yet.”

Tobin occasionally lets people peak behind the curtain. A video earlier in the year showed his hands at work, recording light bulbs (they make sounds, if you know how to play them), plugging them into a high-end, triple axis, pressure sensitive MIDI controller. This last instrument, a Haken Continuum, comes with enough of a learning curve to exclude most people from duplicating what Tobin does with it: morph conventional sounds into conceptual instruments that only exist in the artist’s mind. When it came time to post ISAM online, Tobin annotated the album, revealing sonic origins. The enchanting female vocals that appear on tracks like “Wooden Toy,” for instance, are his own, gender-modified.

There was also a warning: “anyone looking for jazzy brks [sic] should look elsewhere at this point or earlier :). it’s 2011 folks, welcome to the future.” A clear statement, breaking away from the sample heavy style that Tobin was once known for, material tailored for DJ sets, in a club. With ISAM, that’s not the whole story. “Electronic music isn’t always dance music, in fact dance music is just a section of electronic music,” Tobin says. “This record isn’t dance music, its not about raving or any of that stuff.” It’s the kind of album that might make you want to put on headphones and let the mind run wild. For all its meditative qualities, though, it’s hard on the bass and expressive, with a range that begs to be heard in a louder arena.

Thinking of a tour, Tobin “had the problem that all electronic musicians have, which is how the fuck do you present electronic music, which is so not to do with performance, as a live thing that’s engaging?” The solution, a next-level stage set created by L.A.’s V Squared Labs, Chicago’s Leviathan, and S.F.’s Blasthaus, has Tobin cast as the pilot of a space-going vessel in a narrative that the artist admits is “not War and Peace, not a brilliant epic thing, but it’s enough to give meaning and direction to the visual content.”

A 25-foot-long, multi-dimensional structure of giant pixel cubes resembling a game of Tetris going very badly, the ISAM installation comes to life via a system that allows multiple projectors to transform every surface into a screen. It’s effectively 3D without the need for dorky glasses and eye strain. (A promo video released on YouTube surely sold more tickets than a hundred articles like this.) Tobin’s place on stage is within the piece, positioned like a magician or contortionist: inside a box. Which, perhaps, is just where he’d like to be. “I always kind of put myself in the corner of a stage if I can,” Tobin says, “because there’s nothing worse than standing in front of a thousand people who are all staring at my every minute movement and feeling like maybe I should just turn the lights off, because there’s nothing to see here.”

The unconventional choice of positioning the artist more like ghost in the shell than man on a pedestal has its limit. Alex Lazarus, the creative director on the project says in conceptualizing the performance Tobin “wanted people to focus more on the actual music and visual representation as opposed to focusing on him.” But Lazarus says “he can’t just not be seen, so I had to open my big mouth and tell him that we could use this smart glass in his cube, which can be turned on and off to see inside. It’s cool and all, but it’s extremely expensive and every single time we have to touch it I’m petrified that we’re gonna break it.”

Seeing the wizard at work alleviates the creeping possibility of a Milli Vanilli situation, but still, like Brad Pitt in Se7en, I want to know what’s in the box. (What can I say? I’m no fun — I also want to know how magicians do their tricks and how Pepperidge Farms draws the little faces on Goldfish crackers.) Is Tobin manning extra controls to sync the visuals? Is it all automated? Specific details, however, are generally off limits, as both Lazarus and Tobin invoke “proprietary technology.” Which is fair. Considering how many people worked on innovating the project, a trade secret is valuable. (Years after debuting, the similarly impressive LED tech behind Daft Punk’s ‘pyramid’ paid off again when its designers essentially reshaped it into deadmau5’s ‘cube.’)

Tobin says there’s absolutely no compromise musically. Even when he does a more traditional DJ set, he has it all worked out ahead of time. “When I go and see a show I don’t want to see people wanking off on their equipment,” Tobin says. “I love to watch things that have been really well thought out and practiced.” Whatever he’s doing in that box, he’s enjoying it. “I feel like I’m in an Apollo 13 capsule. The whole thing is based on the idea of it being a spaceship and the funny thing is I come into the cube and it literally looks like a cockpit from the inside.”

I ask him if this means he doesn’t have to pretend for the part. “Well,” Tobin says, “if I was pretending I’d probably have a band up there trying to play the record. Kind of a waste of every one’s time.” His voice is deadpan, but sounds like he’s grinning, just a bit. *

 

AMON TOBIN

Sat/1 (sold out) and Sun/2, 8 p.m., $29.50–$39.50

The Warfield

982 Market, SF (415) 345-0900 www.thewarfieldtheater.com

Legends of the underground

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emilysavage@sfbg.com

MUSIC “There are people like us who decide we no longer want to deal with what is fed to us through commercial forces,” says infamous hardcore singer Mike Apocalypse, “We strive to create new things — if I couldn’t create new music, I would fall apart in a month’s time.”

It’s wretchedly hot on a Sunday afternoon at Mission bar Laszlo when Apocalypse, 37, makes the above statement while ordering a shot and a Red Stripe. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, he orders many more shots and beers, and excitedly bumps into a cadre of fellow music-maker friends.

With a broad grin, his sea-green eyes widen as he recalls the early 90s origins of Gehenna, his longstanding hardcore-black metal band. He folds his tattooed fingers (one reads “83%” in ode to Gehenna’s first song) over a beer with a mention of the upcoming chopped and screwed Gehenna mixtape.

In addition to his role as Gehenna’s singer, Apocalypse is also a respected local DJ. He beams while giving me the rundown on his daily routine: recording music at home in the Excelsior District every morning, DJing at Laszlo, Showdown, or Argus Lounge every late night; recently spinning disparate tracks by the likes of Infest, Stone Roses, and Nipsey Hussle.

This, his openness and agreeable demeanor, are in direct contrast with his fabled persona. Mind you, he’s only a legend in the underground, in small pockets of cities like San Diego, Orange, Calif., and Reno, but within certain crowds, the rumors are alive. If you’ve heard of him — and chances are, you haven’t — than you’ve heard the drama.

The rumor mill: Apocalypse stabbed a guy at a punk show. He punched someone in the face at a record store. He contributed to another musician losing his mind. And so becomes a legend. There have been outsized rumors and half-truths, tattooed cupped hands whispering circles around Apocalypse, also known as Mike Cheese or DJ Apocalypse, for decades.

“You know more of the rumors than I do, and you know more of the falsehoods than I do,” he says. Without addressing any specific incidents he lays it out: “The rumors also come from people who have attacked me physically and they thought they could fuck me up. Fact is, I don’t bullshit. If you think you’re going to fuck me up, unfortunately, I’m pretty good at handling my hands, I’ve got some good fist game because I grew up in Detroit.”

That last part is unquestionably true, he lived in Detroit until age 14, when he moved to San Diego alone. By age 17, he was straight-edge and on a cheeseburger diet (hence the name “Cheese”). He met fellow musicians through the hardcore scene and formed Gehenna. With its pummeling drum beats, black metal riffs, droning breakdowns, and Apocalypse’s tortured, growling vocals, it brought something new to the 1993 hardcore table.

“I brought in some of the more metal elements, Mickey [Rhodes Featherstone] brought in 70s proto-punk and DC [Grave] brought in the really fucking heavy stuff and the straight thrash — we were able to incorporate all the things we liked into one sound.”

Through 17 years, the band has self-released seven-inches, splits, and a few full length LPs — most recently, 2011’s re-issue of Land Of Sodom II/Upon The Gravehill — and moved from San Diego to Phoenix to Orange to Reno. Apocalypse, far from straight edge, settled into San Francisco in 2008, but since the other members are spread elsewhere, Gehenna only plays SF once a year. “San Francisco, is one of the greatest cities in the United States. This is the most open-minded city I’ve ever been in.”

He seems pleased with his current lot in life; it might be the alcohol or recreational drugs talking, but he’s truly inspirational in his takes on art, music, life. Truth to those whispered rumors or not, legend or not, Apocalypse is a man of convictions.

“[Gehenna] is not making money, we’re not going to ever sign with a major label, we’re never going to do anything that’s outside of our realm of control. It’s always been about control.”

 

GEHENNA

With Hoax, Neo Cons, and Neighborhood Brats

Wed/28, 8 p.m., $8

Sub-Mission

2183 Mission, SF www.sf-submission.com

Editor’s notes

1

tredmond@sfbg.com

Every mayoral candidate who wants the progressive vote showed up for the Guardian forum Sept. 21. Everyone except Mayor Ed Lee.

Yeah, the mayor’s a busy guy. But state senators and city attorneys and public defenders and city assessors and supervisors are busy, too, and those people managed to get to the LGBT Center, where more than 100 people were packed into the fourth floor room.

Jeff Adachi made a point of talking about “showing up” — and everyone knew exactly what he was saying. Where was Ed?

Well, maybe the mayor isn’t interested in votes from the city’s left, but I kind of doubt he’s written off such a huge sector of the population. In fact, by that standard, he would have written off most of the neighborhoods, and most of the political clubs. Because the mayor isn’t showing up much at all.

There have been more than 50 forums, debates and candidates nights over the course of the election season. Sure, some of them happened before Lee got in the race — but since the day he filed his papers, the other candidates have gone to between 12 and 15 events. Lee has made it to maybe two or three — and when he does show up, he often answers one question then leaves.

I get the strategy: Lee is pretending to be above the political fray. He’s the incumbent in the Rose Garden, refusing to lower himself to the level of all that riffraff out there trying to communicate with the voters. He’s making sure nobody gets to ask him any embarrassing questions; that way he won’t make any mistakes. And his entire reelection will be one big scripted event, paid for with big corporate money and managed from behind the scenes by the same slick operators who brought you Gavin Newsom.

Do we really want four more years of that?

Tony Winnicker, who was Newsom’s press secretary, is now handing the media for Lee. He’s just as hostile and dismissive of legitimate journalistic inquiries as he ever was, just as full of spin and vinegar. He acts as if campaigning — you know, the stuff all the others are doing — is beneath the dignity of His Honor.

Come on, Mr. Mayor. Come out and campaign like everyone else. We’re starting to wonder what you’re trying to hide.

The attack on public finance

0

EDITORIAL The two most important political reforms in modern San Francisco history were the restoration of district elections and the creation of a public-finance system for mayoral and supervisorial elections. Both give candidates who lack big-business support a chance to win elective office. Both give independents a chance to compete against the downtown interests. Both have improved local government considerably in the past decade. And now public financing is directly under attack.

The Board of Supervisors was slated to meet in closed session Sept. 27 to discuss amendments to the public disclosure law — allegedly, according to Supervisors Mark Farrell and Sean Elsbernd, to avoid legal liability. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down in July that an Arizona law giving increased public money to candidates who were being badly outspent by well-financed opponents. One aspect of the city’s law, which allows extra public money for candidates once their opponents break the spending cap, might fall under the high court’s ruling.

But the city’s right in the middle of a heated mayoral election, and all of the candidates entered knowing the current rules — and more important, nobody has come forward to sue, or even threaten to sue, over the city’s law. So there’s no urgent reason to rewrite the ordinance.

The very fact that so many qualified candidates are in the race is an argument for public financing. Many of the current candidates would be unable to raise the vast sums required for a serious campaign without the help of public finance — and that opens up the field to more ideas, more debate, more policy discussions. It also gives the voters more of a choice — which, is, after all, what democracy is about.

Besides, as activist Larry Bush pointed out to us, “you have two choices with money in elections — you can pay up from with public funding or you can pay afterward with sweetheart contracts. And we all know which one is cheaper.”

Mayor Ed Lee, who has refused to take public money (because he doesn’t have to — he’s got plenty of rich and powerful backers) is attacking the campaign law, complaining in a TV ad that his opponents are “using taxpayer money” for “attack ads” — and that’s spurring discussion about whether there ought to be limits on how public money can be used. Any move in that direction would undermine the whole point of the law — if candidates can’t do negative ads (which, like it or not, are part of the modern campaign world) with public funds, they’ll raise outside money instead.

There are plenty of ways to improve the city’s public finance law (increasing disclosure requirements for late money and expanding the restrictions on donation by city contractors would be a good start). But amending the law in the middle of a campaign when there are no existing legal threats is a bad idea, and the supervisors should scrap it.

PS: If Lee wants to be mayor, he needs to start showing up — at debates and forums. That’s part of the job.

Fair muddling

2

le.chicken.farmer@gmail.com

CHEAP EATS Tell you what I’m not eating this week: I’m not eating funnel cake, Amish whoopie pies, fried pickles, or fried macaroni and cheese. I’m not eating Running Deer potato pancakes, Grotto’s pizza, May’s barbecue, Mootz’s fudge, Hewlett’s hot sausages, Bowman’s French fries, Cain’s chicken and waffles, Top-of-the-Beef’s pit-roasted sandwich, or fire-roasted sweet corn. I’m not washing all these things down with three different colors of birch beer.

The river crested at 32.75 feet and the Bloomsburg Fair was cancelled. First time ever, 156 years. We cooked for two days until we had filled Hedgehog’s mom’s freezer with frozen lasagne and wedding soup, and then we got the hell out of Dodge while the gettin’ was half decent. There was a couple-hour window of opportunity between the interstate being reopened and all the surface streets being closed on account of barns and tool sheds floating down them.

We splashed right through that window to Ohio, to my nephew’s wedding and to C. Staples, the last-standing of Youngstown’s locally famous fried barbecued chicken joints. Where, craving smoke, I got ribs on the side; but the ribs weren’t true barbecue either. They were just ribs. And barbecue sauce.

Hedgehog failed to see the humor in this.

“You have to grow up with it, I guess,” I said, glorying in my sauce-soaked white bread. It’s a good sauce, sweet and strangely gritty, but Hedgehog couldn’t keep her head in the game. She kept going on line and looking at pictures of her hometown’s washed-away bridges and half-underwater homes. The whole time we were in Ohio she’d be eating chickens with one hand and

Twittering and Facing Book with the other.

I said, “Okay. Maybe we should go back, see if there’s anything we can do to help …”

Of course, at that time they hadn’t officially cancelled the fair yet, so we were planning to go back anyway, eventually, the last week of the month.

That’s this week! And the only reason I even know what I’m missing in Central Pennsylvania, friedwise and otherwise, is because all year this year, probably since before I met Hedgehog, she’s been telling me about the fair the fair the fair. Even her friends in New Orleans, New Jersey and New York were talking about it. The fair! They were going. They had been. They all had favorite stands and strategies: what to eat first. What to save room for …

Argh, talk about wait till next year!

Anyway, it took us a few days back in the state-of-emergencied disaster area to find anyone to help. First we joined a mud-out crew and went around with shiny donated shovels and brand new five-gallon buckets looking for work, but the only useful thing I did that day was help carry a soggy box spring to the curb.

See, the thing about God- and neighbor-fearing people, it turns out, is that no matter how sunk they are, they would rather help than be helped. Everyone wants to volunteer — and no one needs anything. Their whole first floor and basement are in pieces on the curb, yet they feel pretty lucky, somehow, and at any rate don’t need sandwiches.

We soon realized the only way to be truly useful to these strong, good people was to accept their help. And then was the chicken farmer in national disaster area heaven, going from church to church to fire department trying to look pathetic and eating their bean soup, corn chowder, and chopped ham sandwiches before they went to waste.

On the third day we had the advantage of actually being muddy and exhausted for one of these meals, on account of our friend Sue’s brother had gotten soggy up to his kitchen cabinets — the up-high ones. When we left there, the curbside pile of drywall, soggy insulation, cracked linoleum, etc., was almost as high as the roof.

Next morning, to fuel us up for the long drive back to California, friend Sue drove us to D.W. Moss’s farmhouse, which is your typical off-the-grid middle-of-nowhere suspender-grandpa’d dirt-road no-menu pay-what-you-want weekend breakfast joint, with sausage and bacon that taste like they just went out back and scraped it off the pig. It’s not a restaurant. It’s my new favorite restaurant.

Seriously, if you ever accidentally find yourself out Benton way, Pennsylvania, of a weekend morning, go find Moss’s farm. It’s on Moss road. Look for cars and kittens.

Standing up for Troy Davis

0

news@sfbg.com

OPINION We were all standing there in different states of hegemony — some of us bought in to the lie of security and police, believing we had done wrong or fucked up and some of us not. It was Wednesday, September 21, the day of the state-sponsored legal lynching of Troy Anthony Davis, and there were easily 210 of us standing in a line snaking out of the building. We were in the Cop Store the Police Bank, the building known simply as the Hall of (In)Justice, 850 Bryant.

In the last six months since budget cuts have sliced deeper wounds in society’s collective flesh, yet more cops roam the streets issuing more tickets. The line for traffic tickets outside room 145 has begun to expand like a python ready to strike, like an unchecked levy after a storm. The people are piling up and the workers to help them diminishing.

I was there standing in that line. I was rocking my hand-made, life-size, “Yo Soy Troy Davis … I am Troy Davis” shirt/body patch. It was 11:00 am and I was tweeting, calling, petition signing, and calling again. My heart had dropped to the bottom, heavy as a boulder crashing through the window of my soul. And then I remembered, I had a voice. Maybe that’s all I had, but I had a voice and I could speak up and then….

“Excuse me, can I get everyone’s attention…..”

I had waited until the halls were clear of police and the only sound you heard was the silent tapping of fingernails on touch screens — and then I did it. I stepped outside of excepted norms of behavior, violated all those unseen, unsaid demands on speech, the rules on when it’s okay to speak up.

“They are about to execute an innocent man in Georgia in less than five hours, and you all can do something about it, right now, from right here…”

I went on to explain a little back ground about the case of brother Troy and fact that seven out of nine witnesses recanted their testimonies and how so many people, including several politricksters in power, have stood up to say this is wrong.

“I have the number on my phone that you all can call. I have the link to the petition that you can sign. Please consider it. We aren’t doing anything else for at least the next hour, right?”

And then it was over. I finished speaking and people looked away. They continued ticking on their meta-keyboards, and looking at their nails, and reading their papers, and looking at their feet. And it was if I have never said anything. Or was it?

My brother in my POOR Magazine family of poverty scholars and reporters told me he did a similar thing on the evening of the S-Comm threat of deportation his family had just had to deal with in Oakland.

“I looked around, it was a crowded BART train and no one was saying anything or doing anything. We were all just standing there. I knew no-one else would say anything so I decided to speak up. I busted out with my poem about the criminalization of immigrants.” He said that when he was finished with the piece, no one said anything — but the air was heavy with his words.

Some organizers and conscious folks talk about moving on — but at POOR Magazine, will not move on. We will continue to speak up in places we are not supposed to about things we are not supposed to mention, and we will make art and cultural work about things and people that never get art made about them and we will work daily to make sure that all silenced, removed, deported, lynched, incarcerated, criminalized, harassed and abused peoples are heard and loved and remembered — and we hope you all do the same. Even when its uncomfortable. 

Tiny, aka Lisa Gray Garcia, is an editor at POOR magazine.

Gin, with wings

0

virginia@sfbg.com

APPETITE For those who have been following my Guardian Appetite column, you know I’ve been there since the beginning of 2009, reviewing food and drink, cocktails and wine, restaurants and hole-in-the-walls, both in the Bay Area and on my travels. I am delighted to share a myriad discoveries with you each week here, from my daily meals, tastings and adventures, ranging from whisk(e)y releases to stand-out dishes at new restaurants. Here are four intriguing tastes this week:

 

HOT SAUCE AND PANKO

One of my favorite openings in recent weeks, and my top wings spot in San Francisco, is Hot Sauce and Panko (1545 Clement St., (415) 387-1908, hotsauceandpanko.wordpress.com). Not only is the hot sauce collection — reaching from the deep South to Japan — about the best around, but its blog reveals the owner’s quirky hilarity. As a chicken wing take-out shop selling a wide range of hot sauces, a good 20-plus are available to sample at any given time, so prepare for some serious heat (and note that they sometimes sell out of wings early in the day).

I walk away with a tub of cooked-to-order wings for $19.99, or plenty for two at $14.99. What makes me giddy is they let me choose as many of their appealing preparations as I want in one order. There’s a regular menu offering classic buffalo, honey mustard, or kuzu salt and pepper wings. Wings and waffles come together as a combo ($5.99) or just add a waffle onto your order for $1.99. The specials menu gets crazy with tequila-chipotle-raspberry jam wings or one-week-aged cognac-habanero-lime-bitters wings(!) These aren’t typical menu offerings. Favorites are creamy Thai peanut sauce wings, KFC (Korean fried chicken wings), and a “Pucker Your Mouth” special of wings in lime, fish sauce, garlic, blue agave, and red pepper flakes. A side of spicy slaw ($1.99) further pushes your heat tolerance.

 

ST. GEORGE’S TERROIR GIN

St. George Spirits (also Hangar One) consistently wears the crown for renegade inventiveness. Master distiller Lance Winters and distillers Dave Smith and Chris Jordan lead the way in out-of-the-box creativity. Never have I seen the like of their test tube apothecary of experimentation where they’ll try anything, from foie gras and beef jerky, to carrots and Dungeness crab, to see what works as a spirit.

I love all three of their brand new gins, including Botanivore to Dry Rye Gin. If I had to choose a favorite, however, it’s the Terroir. A true Golden State tribute, this gin reflects the glories of Northern California, with hand-harvested juniper berries, Douglas fir (from Mt. Tam), coastal sage, fennel, California bay laurel, cinnamon, cardamom, lemon — to name but a few of the ingredients. Plus, a portion of sales go to support California wilderness, preserving our mighty state’s nature as the gin reflects its diversity. To me, this is the most striking of the three, with a fresh, pine-y essence… a unique expression, unlike any other spirit out there. You can purchase online at www.stgeorgespirits.com. By the way, Bar Agricole (www.baragricole.com) is making beautiful cocktails with St. George Gins, including a Dry Rye Old Fashioned and Botanivore with Riesling and stonefruit bitters.

 

DRINK OF THE WEEK: POTRERO PINOT AT MICHAEL MINA

It was a privilege recently to have lunch with Franco Luxardo, a sixth-generation member of the Luxardo family of the famed liqueur company. In Northern Italy, Luxardo facilities are surrounded by 20,000 cherry trees from which the company makes its legendary Original Maraschino Liqueur. What particularly stood out over lunch was sweet-yet-dry Cherry Liqueur Sangue Morlacco, made from their Marasca cherries. Full and round, it expresses sour cherry tart while remaining smooth. Michael Mina’s lead bartender Carlo Splendorini crafted exquisite drinks for each of our courses, utilizing Sangue Morlacco. He serves it in a wine glass with VSOP cognac, Old Potrero Rye and his own pinot noir gum syrup, flaming off the alcohol for a whisper of Islay Scotch peat. With the look of deep red wine, it is tart, smoky, lush. Splendorini just added this cocktail to the menu and I helped him name it. Ask for the Potero Pinot. You won’t be sorry.

 

CAN’T MISS EVENT: SUNDAY SUPPER

On Sunday, October 2 at 6 p.m., CUESA’s Sunday Supper Fundraiser (proceeds go to CUESA’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market) starts with a pre-Supper reception and guests as noteworthy as Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and Cowgirl Creamery’s Peggy Smith and Sue Conley. Following is a four-course dinner at communal tables upstairs in the Ferry Building under white lights. The chef line-up is stellar, including Michael Tusk of Quince and Cotogna. Chefs like Frances’ Melissa Perello and 4505 Meats’ Ryan Farr carve sustainably raised whole beasts (beef, boar, lamb, etc.) tableside. $200, tickets and full chef line-up: www.cuesa.org/events/2011/sunday-supper *

Subscribe to Virgina’s twice monthly newsletter, The Perfect Spot, www.theperfectspotsf.com

 

Censorship — or something else?

8

Project Censored highlight stories that didn’t make the national mainstream news media. And in this issue, we’ve got a story that shows something about how news judgments are made in two of San Francisco’s largest newsrooms.

Journalist Peter Byrne (who once worked at SF Weekly and wrote some critical stories about us) shares the tale of what happened to a story that the San Francisco Chronicle assigned him — but never published. The people at the Chron and the Bay Citizen (a nonprofit whose work runs in the New York Times) have different perspectives on what happened in this case — and whether powerful people like Richard Blum influence whether critical stories end up in print. Readers can decide for themselves how to see this situation.

But what was striking to us at the Guardian — and why we chose to print both Byrne’s account and the final story that the Chronicle chose not to print below — was that the suppressed story was actually quite tame and well-balanced after Chronicle writers, editors, and lawyers spent months working on it (Bay Citizen also invested weeks of work and never published anything relating to the story).

It simply raised the issue of whether the University of California should be doing private equity investment deals that are overseen by wealthy, politically connected people like Blum, whose own funds were also involved. It ultimately wasn’t a screaming indictment or accusation of illegal activity, but just a modest peek behind the curtain of an important institution whose focus has strayed from its core mission of serving college students.

We reviewed email exchanges that confirm the basic outline of Byrne’s story, conducted some interviews that guided our editing of this story, and included responses from the Chronicle and Bay Citizen at the end of the story. Ultimately, whether this is a case of censorship or something else, we thought it deserved to find its way into print. (Steven T. Jones)

 

BlumGate

Why two Bay Area newsrooms dismissed my story about conflicts of interest in UC investment deals

 

By Peter Byrne

news@sfbg.com

In September 2010, the journalism website Spot.us published my investigative series, “The Investors Club: How University of California Regents Spin Public Money into Private Profit.” It detailed how members of the UC Board of Regent’s investment committee oversaw the investment of nearly $1.5 billion of UC’s money into business deals in which they themselves held significant stakes.

One of the conflicted regents was Richard Blum, the financier husband of U.S. Sen., Dianne Feinstein (D-CA); another was Paul Wachter, a business partner of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (who is also a regent).

The story caused a stir, particularly at a time when student groups were protesting draconian cuts and tuition hikes. Several newsweeklies published the series. The Los Angeles Times ran a story about my findings. And the investigation was honored with journalism awards by several local, state, and national organizations. So I was not surprised when Nanette Asimov, the higher education beat reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, called me last October.

“I know it’s a Herculean task, but is it possible to charbroil your opus down to 800 words?” she asked. The paper offered to pay me $350 for the story.

Intrigued, I squeezed the investigation that Spot.us had paid $7,000 to produce into a few paragraphs. Little did I know that Asimov and I would be expanding and cutting and tweaking this story for the next eight months, as publication was delayed again and again by foot-dragging editors.

But I was patient. Even after Metro Editor Audrey Cooper told me that Blum had “threatened” Chronicle editors if they ran the tale, I waited several more months before going public. It is my belief that journalists must as accountable for what we do not print as for what we do print.

When Elizabeth Lesly Stevens, a staff writer at the Bay Citizen, inquired about the delay in publishing the story, I told her what I knew and gave her dozens of emails between myself and Chronicle staff. Ironically, the Bay Citizen never ran the story about the story.

 

THE GORY DETAILS

It quickly became obvious that the complex financial story would not easily squeeze into a few paragraphs. But since the Hearst Corporation had cut the Chronicle’s reportorial throat several years ago by laying off its investigative enterprise staff, there appeared to be no one left capable of editing it. Asimov had to constantly badger editors to work on the story.

Shortly before Thanksgiving 2010, Chronicle business reporter Tom Abate got involved. He sent me an outline indicating places where I should insert a “FIRE BREATHING QUOTE” and then a “QUOTE OF OUTRAGE.” The idea of daily news writing, he told me, was “make the readers spit up their coffee.” Okay! I dreamed that the streets of San Francisco would soon flow with rivers of regurgitated java.

By early January 2011, Asimov and I had worked up a coherent version, focusing on Blum and Wachter’s conflicts of interest. On January 31, Assistant City Editor Terry Robertson emailed, “I’m aiming to get it in the paper by the end of the week.” A few days later, he backtracked, “Well, I just found out that the story needs to be lawyered. That throws a bit of a wrench into the works. Sorry.”

By mid-February, Robertson had evidently lost interest. Determined to see it in print, Asimov recruited a veteran Chronicle reporter, John Wildermuth, to edit it. He whipped it into shape at 1,600 words. Now it was time for Asimov to call Blum for comment, since he refuses to talk to me.

According to Asimov, Blum was “spitting nails.” He called the allegations of conflicts of interest made by an array of ethics experts “obscene.” He said, “Nobody has ever told me that we had to ask UC for an OK before we invested in something. I wouldn’t be on the Board of Regents if I have to ask for permission to go to the bathroom.” And I was told he threatened the Chronicle with legal action if the story was published.

In late March, the copy was again sent to Cooper. On April 11, she decided it needed yet more attention from the lawyers.

 

COOPER GETS MAD

On April 14, the Daily Nexus, which is the student newspaper at UC Santa Barbara, reported on a group of students who had gathered hundreds of signatures on a petition to the state Attorney General asking for an investigation based upon the conflicts of interest identified in the Spot.us investigation. In the article, UC scholar Gray Brechin opined that the Chronicle was failing to print my story due “to the political influence of Blum and Feinstein.”

Shortly after the story was posted online, Cooper called Daily Nexus Editor Elliot Rosenfeld. She complained that Brechin’s comment about the Chronicle was “libelous.” The student editor removed the quote from the newspaper’s website.

When I asked Cooper about this, she emailed, “As for the Nexus, I think it’s a learning experience for them. As I told the paper’s editor and Dr. Brechin, I have never been intimidated into publishing anything—nor to refrain from publishing an article. And it won’t happen in the future, regardless of whether the pressure comes from a scientist, another journalist, or a senator.”

Then Cooper stopped responding to my emails.

 

THE PLOT THICKENS

On May 6, I received an email from the Bay Citizen’s Stevens. She had been at a dinner party with Brechin. She asked me why the Chronicle story was languishing. She said the Bay Citizen might publish it. I told her I was not ready to go public.

On May 18, I emailed Asimov about the status of the story. She said the lawyer had it.

I called Cooper. She told me, “I would like to get [the story] in for Memorial Day because we need the copy. … I am not responding to emails because I don’t want any of this shit in print. … Dick Blum can go fuck himself! Excuse my language. I don’t know the guy. I am not afraid of him. If he is doing something shady I want to publish that … [but] I am not going to be bullied into not printing it by Dick Blum and I’m not going to be bullied into printing it. … The fact that he’s called the editor and has an attorney in waiting makes us want to do it more. … I absolutely want to run it. I would like to run it next weekend.”

I asked if Blum was threatening the newspaper.

Cooper replied, “Yeah. The only people who know that are me and the executive editor and the managing editor. I don’t think Nanette knows that. So you are now like the fourth person that knows that besides Dick Blum. … People threaten to sue us all the time. But if we are going to mess with, you know, a billionaire, we are going to be a little cautious.”

A few weeks later, on June 2, I asked Asimov if she knew about Blum’s threat. She replied, “Of course, I knew. Heck, Blum told me as well. The presence of Blum’s lawyers won’t influence whether we run the piece, however. But this is getting increasingly ridiculous, and I’ve asked someone to find out the status for us.”

On June 27, Asimov told me that the “final version” of the story would “run over the weekend” and that it had been cut to 1,200 words. It did not run.

On July 6, I asked Asimov what was going on. She replied, “What happened is that the lawyer looked at it, and made some tweaks. Most were minor, but a small number of them struck me as simply wrong—like he didn’t understand the point. So I told Audrey, and its been the big chill ever since. So I don’t currently know what’s happening.”

That same day, July 6, the Chronicle ran a profile of Feinstein praising her as “the most effective politician in California.” Her well-documented conflicts of interest with her husband’s various businesses were not mentioned.

A week later, July 12, the Chronicle printed an op-ed by Blum in which he said online education is the future. He did not mention that Blum Capital has a multi-billion-dollar stake in two of the nation’s largest for-profit education corporations, each with a growing online component. Nor did the oped note that UC had invested $53 million in these companies after Blum joined the investment committee in 2004.

On July 19, Asimov told me, “The story was re-sent to the attorneys last night with the latest edits.” She said that nothing was likely to happened for at least two weeks since people were going on vacation. She said she would “leave [Cooper] a note saying that if the lawyer approves it, you must approve the final version.” And that was the last time I heard from anyone at the Hearst Corporation.

A few days later, Stevens contacted me again. She wanted to write about my story for the Bay Citizen’s section in The Sunday New York Times. Not being gifted with second sight, I did not know if the Chronicle would ever run the story, but they damn sure had let it get rigor mortis. So, I gave Stevens the email trail. I warned her that she might run into a similar problem at the Bay Citizen, which was founded by Wall Street financier Warren Hellman. It turns out that Hellman sits on the Board of Directors of the Berkeley Endowment Management Company, which controls half a billion dollars in UC Berkeley Foundation investments. Public records show that Hellman’s investment bank is partnered with the same two private equity funds that count both UC and Blum Capital as limited partners. And one of the Founding Patrons of Bay Citizen is the Blum Family Foundation. And one of the board members of the nonprofit Bay Citizen is Jeffery Ubben, a former managing partner of Blum Capital. But I digress.

[Editor’s Note: The Bay Citizen’s newsroom is run independently of its board members, and journalists there say none of the funders have influenced the selection or editing of news stories.]

A week later, Stevens informed me that the story was being pushed to the following week. And then she went on a month-long vacation and the story died. Go figure.

But Stevens did alert the Chronicle staff to my complaints, and the fact that I had provided her with emails and documentation to back up my claim that the Chronicle had bowed to Blum’s threat.

On August 8, Asimov emailed a UC instructor, Kathryn Klar, who had inquired about the status of my story. Asimov recounted, “I worked for nearly a year to get Peter Byrne’s—frankly awful—story in good enough shape to run in the Chronicle. It was poorly written and confusing. He will tell you how hard I worked to get that thing ready for publication. … By the end of July, the story was in great shape and the lawyers were taking a final look.

“And then Peter did the unthinkable. He forwarded a year’s worth of my private correspondence to another journalistic organization—not a newspaper—who then contacted me and others at the paper threatening to write a story about how the Chronicle had suppressed Peter’s story. … They behaved like blackmailers. Of course they had no story to write, and they didn’t. Needless to say, Peter’s story will not run in the Chronicle now. But it was his actions, not ours, that led to its death. We, my editors included, liked the story and were pleased that it was finally in great shape. Even the lawyers agreed.

“Its such a shame.”

Editors note: We asked Chronicle Managing Editor Steve Proctor for his response. He told us:

“The decision not to publish the story was made by the paper’s two top editors, me and Ward Bushee. After reviewing Mr. Byrne’s previously published articles and his interactions with the Chronicle, we decided that we were not comfortable publishing his work.

“The story was brought to the Chronicle after having been previously published on a journalism web site. The editors here who worked with Mr. Byrne decided that his reporting would need to be double-checked if the piece were to appear in some form in the Chronicle. This was done intermittently, over a period of time, as there was no urgency to publish given that a version of the story had already appeared.

“We want to be clear on one point. The Chronicle is never intimidated by threats made prior to the publication of a newspaper story — and they are hardly infrequent. We make all of our decisions about publishing stories based on the high standards for journalism that we seek to uphold in the newspaper every day.” Bay Citizen reporter Elizabeth Lesly Stevens told us: “After much reporting we ultimately decided that Peter’s story was a lot less interesting than he thought it was, and wouldn’t make for a very worthwhile column in the NY Times.”

Editors note: This is the final version of the story that was supposed to run in the Chron:

By Peter Byrne

news@sfbg.com

The University of California has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in business deals in which two regents who have helped oversee UC’s investment portfolio also had financial interests, records show.

Since 2003, UC has invested in five private equity deals in which Regent Richard Blum also had investment interests, according to federal, state and university documents. Regent Paul Wachter had a substantial financial interest in one of those deals.

In such cases, Blum and Wachter were in a position to benefit — or lose — from university investments they oversaw. Blum served on the investment committee from 2004 to February 2010. Wachter joined in 2004 and is its current chairman.

Both regents deny any wrongdoing. The university’s chief attorney has examined the investment overlap and concluded they were likely coincidental.

Yet some ethics experts say the overlapping investments create an appearance of conflicted interests. Critics say the deals may violate state and UC ethics guidelines.

Blum, an investment banker and financier who was appointed to the regents in 2002 by then-Gov. Gray Davis, is the husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Wachter is CEO of Main Street Advisors,?a financial management company. He was named to the board by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004.

The regents’ 10-member investment committee sets policy for and oversees the management of UC’s $70.8 billion as of March 2011 portfolio of investments, which includes the retirement, endowment and campus foundation funds. UC’s chief investment officer, Marie Berggren, regularly reports to the committee, explaining where the money is being invested and how well the investments are doing.

The investment committee’s conflict-of-interest policy prohibits committee members from telling the investment officer what specific funds to invest in. But they can, and do, direct her to invest greater or lesser amounts in certain categories of funds.

Committee members must also adhere to conflict-of-interest guidelines established by the state and UC, both of which prohibit officials from influencing or voting on matters in which there is even an appearance of a personal conflict of interest. In particular, UC’s policy says a conflict exists “if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect on one or more of your economic interests.” A material interest is defined as being worth more than $2,000.

DEALS EXAMINED

Blum had investments of more than $1 million in a number of the business partnerships that UC put money into, while Wachter had up to $1 million invested in one of the deals.

UC’s general counsel, Charles Robinson, examined these investments in 2010. Robinson concluded that the investment overlap was probably coincidental, and that neither Blum nor Wachter improperly steered public funds.

“Any overlap is substantially more likely to be the result of independent decisions by like-minded investors than the result of coordination,” Robinson reported.

Blum called the idea that he would coordinate investments and profit from UC’s financial dealings “ridiculous” and even “obscene.”

“Nobody has ever told me that we had to ask the UC for an OK before we invested in something,” Blum told The Chronicle. “I wouldn’t be on the Board of Regents if I have to ask for permission to go to the bathroom.”

Wachter also dismissed the idea that the overlapping investments represent a conflict. “It just doesn’t make sense at all,” Wachter said, adding that he’s surprised that he and Blum had so few overlapping investments over the years, given the extent of their holdings. “The key thing is that you’re not telling each other what to do.”

But ethics experts say conflict of interest laws and regulations do not allow for such overlaps. “The regents’ overlapping investments pose clear conflicts of interest,” said Kirk Hanson, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. “It is really striking that members of the investment committee stood to gain so significantly from co-investing with UC.”

Robert Weissman, president of the government watchdog group Public Citizen, was more direct: “A third-grader can see that what the regents on the investment committee were doing is unethical.”

FINANCIAL DETAILS

Minutes from committee meetings show Blum and Wachter consistently voted to instruct the investment officer to increase the amount of money invested in private equity funds, a sector in which the two regents have substantial financial interests.

More importantly, some of those investments were tied to private equity deals in which Blum and Wachter held financial stakes.

In one example, Blum, Wachter, and UC all invested in private equity funds that partnered to buy the Las Vegas casino corporation Harrah’s Entertainment in 2008.

It worked this way: The regents’ investment committee oversaw an investment of $199 million in four private equity funds that helped finance the $30 billion Harrah’s deal, according to documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and UC financial records.

Blum held “more than $1 million” in one these funds, called TPG Capital V, according to Feinstein’s economic disclosure statement. Wachter owned “up to $1 million” in two of the funds that financed the Harrah’s buyout, according to his financial disclosure statements.

Blum denied any conflict. He said the money resulted from a 2006 merger between Blum’s Newbridge Capital and TPG Capital. Newbridge became TPG Asia, with Blum as its co-chairman.

As a result of the merger, “I wound up having some extremely minor — less than 1 percent — interest in some of (TPG Capital’s) funds,” Blum said, referring to his $1 million-plus asset.

Blum said he did not engineer the arrangement, and is never consulted on matters concerning TPG Capital, which did the deal with Harrah’s.

“You couldn’t pay me to invest in a casino,” he said. Wachter agreed that the Harrah’s case presents no conflict. “With investors, there will always be overlap. The point is, if one of the regents told the UC to invest in a particular fund, manager or company, that would be a different conversation. But that’s what our policy prohibits.”

OTHER DEALS

During his six years on the investment committee, Blum had a financial interest in four other deals in which UC was involved, according to SEC filings and UC records.

They involved Univision and Freescale Semiconductor in 2007, Sungard Data Systems in 2005, and Kinetic Concepts in 2004.

Blum said he had no control over any of the deals involving TPG Capital, but said his firm, Blum Capital Investments, was very involved with Kinetic Concepts.

He scoffed at the idea that he engineered any UC investment to enrich himself. “This is how ridiculous it is,” Blum said. “So someone’s going to whine because of $1 million? And somehow I’m taking advantage of the UC? I probably give away a bigger percentage of my net worth” than many people.

Private equity, in any case, has not been a cash cow for the university. In February, investment officer Berggren reported that the 10-year rate of return on the private equity portion of the UC retirement fund was averaging less than 1 percent annually, far less than the 6.5 percent return of UC’s fixed-income portfolio during the same period. Nanette Asimov contributed to this report.