Volume 46 Number 22

The unidentifiable dance grooves of ESG

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MUSIC Even the strangest sounds tend to lose their unfamiliar aura after a few listens. But no matter how many times I spin ESG’s “UFO,” I find myself utterly incapable of identifying that synthetic warbling that meanders through the minimal groove. Is it water gurgling in old gas pipes, a whirling police siren, the ferocious grumbling of a subway train? Or something more disturbing: Clanging echoes of gunfire, successive bursts of city noise filtered through apartment hallways?

It’s as if the song prompts a flux of associations that never find a place to rest. But as much as the song prompts a heavy dose of uneasiness, it works a curative spell on the body. That mysterious noise, whose relentless growth heightens the pulse of the rhythm, ultimately triggers an urge to break out in rhythm, and to put it quite simply: dance.

“Coming up in the South Bronx, in the 1970s, we watched Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” says lead vocalist and writer, Renee Scroggins, who together with her sisters — Valerie on drums, Deborah on bass guitar, and Marie on congas — originally composed ESG with a couple friends. “At the end of Close Encounters, they have that do do do do in the background when they communicate with the aliens,” she continues. “So I was sitting at home one day, and I thought: What would it be like if a UFO just landed in the middle of the projects? And that’s how I wrote the song. It begins with chaos and craziness, because I know what would happen,” she laughs.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1o5vuMYQyhE

Over 30 years have passed since ESG (Emerald, Sapphire and Gold) pressed “UFO” to wax on its debut seven-inch for Factory Records in 1981. Today, the unlikely story of the vinyl’s origins seems to be the stuff of lore. While still teenagers, the Scroggins sisters had been performing in New York’s downtown scene for a couple of years. “We were opening for A Certain Ratio at a club called Hurrah in New York when Tony Wilson [of Factory Records] heard us,” Renee recalls, “and he said, ‘how would you like to make a record? I was like, yeah sure, because I didn’t think he was serious. But this was on a Wednesday night, and by Saturday, we were in the studio recording with Martin Hannett.”

Hannett, Factory’s eccentric in-house producer who is likely best known for his work on Joy Division, lent his uncanny touch to ESG’s sound. Bookmarked by the diss song “You’re No Good” and the other end of the love spectrum, “Moody,” with its emotional highs and lows, the EP consists in a stripped down polypercussive funk that would mark ESG’s style for the rest of its output: loosely structured drum patterns weave around pockets of emptiness and stark bass lines, letting Renee’s vocals flutter and hypnotize. It caught the attention of Ed Bahlman at NY’s 99 Records, who was already unofficially managing the outfit but hadn’t realized its full potential in the studio. The Scroggins followed with another EP and recorded their debut full-length for 99, Come Away with ESG, at Radio City Music Hall in ’83.

Come Away solidified its magnetic role during a fertile period of New York’s musical history, in which at least three strands of musical forms encountered each other to unexpected effect. The angular edge of post-punk deconstructed the blues guitar, no wave bands challenged rock purism by stressing the danceable groove, and block parties exploded in the South Bronx, establishing the conditions for what would eventually come to be known as hip-hop. ESG — which shared the stage with the Clash, Gang of Four, and Grandmaster Flash, and performed at Paradise Garage, Danceteria and the Mudd Club — was at the threshold of all this momentum.

What might single ESG out from its peers, though, is its rooted lineage in soul. “James Brown is definitely one of the biggest influences on my writing style,” says Renee. “He would always take it to the bridge, and cut loose, and I’d be like — ‘I didn’t want that part to ever end!’ But, I thought, if I could write a song, and just keep that bridge part going, then people could dance all night.” It’s not all that surprising that ESG’s talent for elaborating, intensifying, and prolonging the aesthetics of the bridge, in frenetic jams off its debut like “Dance,” “The Beat,” and “Christelle,” would correspond with the birth of the DJ, who would attempt a similar effect by looping breaks found in dusty bins of soul, funk, and rock. Soon enough, “UFO” became one of those sampled records.

Listening to “UFO” is all the more disorienting because of the overwhelming dispersion of offspring it calls to mind. That synthetic siren has been sped up, modulated, faded behind layers of reverb, or even spliced in its pure form onto a new backbeat. There are too many to name: Big Daddy Kane’s “Ain’t No Half Steppin’,” Notorious B.I.G.’s “Party and Bullshit,” and countless more from J Dilla, Beastie Boys, Q-Bert, among hundreds, if not thousands of others. You’d think that such an influential legacy would neutralize “UFO,” finally render it to that sterile status of the familiar, but the effect is much the opposite, as if its staggered mutations have only increased the alien, yet maddeningly ecstatic element, within the song.

ESG returned to the recording studio in the 2000s, introducing both Renee’s daughter as well as Valerie’s to the family venture. It dropped two albums of solid new material for Soul Jazz, which also released compilations of its classic singles and rarities. But after more than 30 years of performing and making raw grooves as well as some pop oriented songs in the mix, ESG plans to self-release its final record, Closure, this month (esgclosure.com), to coincide with a farewell world tour. So this might just be the last time its unidentified funk touches down live in San Francisco. 

 

ESG

Presented by No Way Back, With DJ sets from Solar, Conor, and Junior

Sat/March 3, 9 p.m., $20

Mezzanine

444 Jessie St., SF

www.mezzaninesf.com

Back in sight

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MUSIC Roky Erickson spent much of the past few decades as the subject of endlessly rehearsed cautionary tales about the dangers of mind-altering drugs and mental illness, and romantic anecdotes framing him as a quasi-oracle, gifted and cursed with a second hearing into the weirder vistas of rock ‘n’ roll.

Following the release of Keven McAlester’s You’re Gonna Miss Me in 2005, Erickson reemerged as a subject of a different kind, as McAlester’s documentary dispelled some of the more profound biographical shadows, shedding light on the catalogue of ghosts and demons that haunt Erickson’s expansive body of recorded work.

Now 64, Roky Erickson has had such an indelible influence on psychedelic music, many would call him an architect. In the 1970s he reappeared, Rip Van Winkle-like, to a changed pop music landscape, where he would take a nascent approximation of punk and run it through his own esoteric sensibilities (“horror rock,” he called it), stumbling upon a lo-fi home recording aesthetic in the interstices of this period, though largely out of necessity, mind.

Most recently, Erickson carved out a provisional home in windswept and country-inflected indie. Never permanent, these dwellings serve as temporary shelters — motel rooms — for a restless and untethered voice, part Hank Williams, part Howlin’ Wolf, but even this doesn’t do it justice, and the veritable grimoire of demonic (lately divine) lyrical figures through which it moves.

His most recent record, True Love Cast Out All Evil (2010, ANTI-) — his first new material in more than a decade — saw collaborating band Okkervil River orchestrate a ghostly kind of folk rock capable of tracing the unpredictable contours of Erickson’s musical ideas. But the most memorable moments occur when the smooth continuity of the record is punctuated by intimate and acoustically frayed sounds emphasizing the fragile nuances of Roky’s performance.

The music dissociates into a field of droning harmonies, interspersed with snatches of studio banter, of singing birds and rapidly cycling TV channels. It’s hard not to hear these fragmentary moments as consciously referencing the intrusive sounds and voices that partially characterized his mental illness, yet here they have the feel of an exorcism, casting out, as it were an insistent static.

If there’s an underlying consistency to his immense and scattered catalogue, it’s that Erickson is a consummate blues singer, keenly attuned to the expressive potentials of rock n’ roll, and moreover, preternaturally skilled in reaching his listeners. Roky built up a rich lyrical world of vampire bats and B-movie extraterrestrials, and intangible vibrations that, in the minds and ears of listeners, came to stand in for a wealth of emotional timbres.

We feel, however faint or garbled, a connection through the cadences and inflections of Erickson’s voice. Like reading a novel written in a language you only half understand, you experience his music through these shifts in tone, through his alternating waves of anger and frustration and sadness, and the rare moment of contentment where Erickson retires into a sonic labyrinth of his own design.

When Elvis Presley died, Lester Bangs made the observation that we were all, effectively, saying goodbye to one another, having lost a figure whose music we could all come to a tentative agreement. Bangs’ fantasy of a capacity for a radical and far-reaching empathy encoded rock ‘n’ roll is one that we’ll most likely never stop repeating to ourselves.

Presently, it’s an invitation to patiently listen as the haunting and singular voice of the 13th Floor Elevators, of Roky Erickson & the Aliens, and a vast catalogue of hotel tapes and live recordings and rarities drifts from Austin to San Francisco. 

 

ROKY ERICKSON

With the Night Beats

Sat/3, 9 p.m., $25

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750

Awesome explosion

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FILM It’s almost impossible to describe Adult Swim hit Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, but “cable access on acid” comes pretty close. It’s awkward, gross, repetitive, and quotable; it features unsettling characters portrayed by famous comedians and unknowns who may not actually be actors. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, who are much more low-key than the amplified versions of themselves they play on the show and in the new Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, discussed the spoils of cult fame the morning after a recent screening in San Francisco.

“Seeing the last ten minutes with our hardcore fans — that was the best, because they’re laughing at everything,” Wareheim says. “Versus, we just came from the Sundance Film Festival, and there were good crowds, but there were a lot of people who didn’t know us. It takes awhile to adjust to what we do, like a learning curve.”

Though it opens theatrically this week, Billion Dollar Movie has been available On Demand since the end of January.

“The idea is to get it out to as many people as possible, especially people who won’t be able to see it in theaters, since it’s a limited theatrical release,” Wareheim explains. “But I also think that by getting it out there [early], our fans are talking about it, and they’ll go again in the theater.”

So, how do you transform something comprised of bite-sized insanity into a feature-length film? “Early on, we made a choice not to do a sketch movie, or just make a long episode of the show,” Heidecker says. “We felt that the pacing would never sustain itself. We tried to pace it in a way that the craziness would be there, but it just wouldn’t be coming at you so rapidly. But still, some people are saying that it’s completely exhausting. For us, we feel like we scaled down, but that might not be the reaction of the man on the street.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88pv0cbw8yQ

“For someone who’s unfamiliar with us, it’s at least an interesting take on comedy,” Wareheim says. “Some people are really going to enjoy it, some people are not going to get it, and some people are going to hate it.”

And though Billion Dollar Movie contains its share of boundary-pushing gags (literally, you will gag), Heidecker and Wareheim’s humor also springs from their deliberately crappy production values, inspired by commercials, TV outtakes, and promo videos — and necessitated by their own low budget (title notwithstanding). Still, Heidecker sees the movie as a turning point for the pair.

“We’ve been playing with that aesthetic for awhile now, and it is getting a little redundant,” he says. “As in any kind of aesthetic trend, you’re gonna run out of ammunition. I think in a lot of ways, the movie moves past the aesthetic [of the TV show]. We use it in certain places where it’s appropriate, but it wasn’t like, this is all we do. You gotta have other tools in the toolbox.”

TIM AND ERIC’S BILLION DOLLAR MOVIE opens Fri/2 in Bay Area theaters.

Volume 46 Number 22 Flip-through Edition

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The war is over. Fun won.

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steve@sfbg.com

>>Read Sup. Scott Weiner’s op-ed on SF nightlife here

Two years ago, the war on fun that the Bay Guardian had been chronicling and decrying since 2006 — involving overzealous cops, NIMBY neighbors complaining about noise, escalating fees on outdoor events, and politicians scapegoating nightclubs for urban violence –- seemed to be reaching a peak of official intolerance.

The San Francisco Police Department and California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control were running amok, with an especially troublesome pair of enforcers harassing disfavored club owners and guests, getting rough with patrons at private parties, and seizing laptop computers from DJs and cameras from those who documented the abuses (see “The new War on Fun,” 3/23/10). Then-Mayor Gavin Newsom and then-Police Chief Heather Fong and their underlings only fed the conflict with brash statements and by refusing to support the nightlife industry.

But today, all involved say the situation has turned completely around, with the nightlife industry asserting its importance to San Francisco’s culture and economy and getting key support from a new generation of political leaders. It may be too early to say the war on fun is over, but everyone is certainly enjoying a welcome cease-fire.

Police Chief Greg Suhr has longstanding relationships with many leaders in the nightlife community -– and he’s someone who says that he goes out regularly and has a son who plays drums for a local band.

“I consider many of the people in the entertainment community to be personal friends,” Suhr told us. “And if there’s a problem, I don’t think anyone has been shy about approaching me personally.”

At the same time, the industry has taken on a higher political profile in town since forming the California Music and Culture Association two years ago during the height of the conflicts with the city and the ABC. The group now has monthly meetings with a nightlife liaison that Suhr has assigned to work through issues.

“The lines of communication are open. Despite some differences in opinion, there is a growing sense of trust and respect that is developing in these meetings,” CMAC co-chair Alix Rosenthal told us.

Rather than bashing the nightclubs as a source of trouble, political officials have been openly courting CMAC, which holds regular public events and forums on nightlife issues, including an “Industry Cocktail Hour with Mayor Ed Lee” on the evening Feb. 29 from 5-7 p.m. at The Grand, a club owned by the newest Entertainment Commission member, Steven Lee.

Sup. Scott Wiener has also been a strong advocate for nightlife issues, and has commissioned a city study on the economic benefits of the nightlife industry, which he discusses in this week’s Guardian Op-ed and which will be the subject of March 5 rally and hearing at City Hall.

Preliminary results in the study, with was conducted by City Economist Ted Egan, show that the nightlife industry generates $4.2 billion in annual spending, $55 million in taxes, and employs 48,000 people. And those figures don’t include outdoor events such as street fairs or the Outside Lands Festival, which another recent study by concert organizers found generated $60.6 million in San Francisco and $6.6 million in surrounding communities last year.

“People coming into the city to enjoy themselves is our number one industry,” Suhr said, noting how important it is to balance public safety concerns with support for the city’s cultural and entertainment offerings.

Rosenthal said CMAC was happy that Wiener commissioned the study. “This study is going to be helpful,” she said. “We’ll have hard data to show how much the entertainment economy contributes to San Francisco’s entire economy.”

Maven

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virginia@sfbg.com

APPETITE Enter through a corner door into a restaurant lined with high communal tables, upstairs seating area, and a redwood bar backed by a stone wall overflowing with plant life. Formerly RNM, Maven is a sleek new cocktail haven in Lower Haight. I knew the drinks would be good, but I was pleasantly surprised at how strong the food is. Maven opened as a “drink with food pairing” concept venue: the menu lists three pairing columns. In the middle are generously-sized “small” plates, a couple entrées and dessert. To the left is a “distilled” column of cocktails, to the right, “fermented” beer and wine offerings.

While co-owners Jay Bordeleau and David Kurtz (Kurtz is also executive chef) have worked in numerous fine dining and popular establishments like Michael Mina, Saison, Beretta, in keeping with the times, Maven is decidedly casual yet chic, focused on quality over pomp. Sous chef Matt Brimer, formerly of Maverick, works with Kurtz on dishes more interesting than they read on paper.

Wise they were to bring on Kate Bolton to oversee the cocktail menu. Elegant restraint is something she honed during her days at Michael Mina. Working my way through each of her balanced drinks, there was little down time.

Jamie Pait, who worked in pastry at Slanted Door, made the slew of house syrups, like ginger and five spice, which Bolton uses in her recipes. Pait’s hazelnut orgeat simply rocks. Orgeat is a creamy, nutty almond syrup. With hazelnuts instead of almonds it is equally silky — fantastic even on its own. In Nauti’ Mermaid ($10), it adds sexy layers of nuttiness to Jamaican rum, lime, orange and coconut juices. Thai spirit shines in the cocktail’s vacation-like smoothness as it cools a dish of Monterey Calamari ($9) laden with Thai chilies, ginger, coriander. The calamari cleverly comes two ways: fried and grilled.

Another happy match occurs in braised fennel and watercress ($9), again far more satisfying than it sounds. Grilled fennel works beautifully with creamy burrata cheese and charred cherry tomatoes — a twist on a Caprese — over grilled toast. Its cocktail match is International Mistress ($11), a soft but powerful mix of Nonino amaro and Sombra mezcal, luxurious with orgeat and grapefruit, with just a hint of mezcal smoke. Also more exciting than the overwrought sliders category would suggest are Chinatown duck sliders ($9), like a gourmet Chinatown sandwich with tender duck, shiitake mushrooms, bitter greens and a smack of bacon. Its cocktail pairing is the 5 Spot ($10), a bright blend of La Favorite rhum agricole, lime, maple, and house ginger and five spice syrups, crowned with a Thai basil leaf.

Lush and subtle co-exist on the menu — and Bolton generally keeps cocktails light enough on alcohol so as not to overwhelm the food. Global Warming ($11) is a unique aperitif. Not only do you get dry riesling, but sake, even a splash of Ransom’s Old Tom Gin. Tart with lemon, a little scoop of absinthe sorbet permeates the drink as it melts. Brilliant. Its food spouse is a superior scallop crudo ($12), silken paired with hazelnut, shiso, and tart apple.

Contrast raw scallop freshness with rich broccoli agnolotti ($11/$18), a pasta meaty with southern Tasso ham, savory with orange-hued mimolette cheese and cipollini onions. Its drink mate is a full-bodied, but not overwhelming, Hometown Vixen ($9). Bolton infused black pepper in Four Roses bourbon, mixing it with lemon and two house syrups: gomme and a luxurious roasted pistachio.

The only dish I wasn’t as taken with is still well-executed: seared arctic char ($23) swimming in smoked fume broth with carrots and turnips. There’s nothing wrong with the soft white fish — it just lacked the flavor punch found in its accompanying pickled PEI mussels. Its match was one of the best cocktails on the menu, Hibiki Highball ($12), showcasing Japanese whisky — Hibiki 12-year in this case — with a giant ice cube, house ginger syrup, bitters, and soda water. Wine and beer pairings are likewise thoughtful: Hennepin, Ommegang’s farmhouse saison beer, with a mushroom tart, or Poco a Poco’s funky, fun Chardonnay with the arctic char.

Dessert could easily be Beach & Hyde, an off-menu cocktail named after the cross streets of legendary bar Buena Vista. Inspired by Buena Vista’s famed Irish coffees, the drink is Evan Williams bourbon, coffee brewed with cocoa nibs and vanilla, plus egg white and orange zest. If you want to actually eat dessert, you won’t suffer with dark Mayan chocolate in brownie-reminiscent slices, accented by black cardamom ice cream.

In fact, you won’t suffer here at all.

MAVEN

598 Haight, SF.

415-829-7982

www.maven-sf.com

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

 

Revisiting the classics

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arts@sfbg.com

DANCE This past weekend two master choreographers, each with more than 30 years experience, still managed to surprise us with fresh goods in their dance bags.

Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company has a well-deserved reputation for physically lush though highly disciplined choreography. Again presented by San Francisco Performances, Batsheva brought the 2007 Max, whose name may be derived from Naharin’s pseudonym of "Maxin Waratt" as the work’s composer — or simply is an abbreviation of "maximum."

What packed in the audience, which included many dancers, was the Bay Area’s first public opportunity to observe "Gaga" in action. Naharin developed this dance technique in the 1990s while recovering from a back injury. Influenced by yoga and improvisation, this new road to expressive potential has developed an almost cult-like following, in part perhaps because it can only be learned from those accredited for teaching it. At the very least, that is new in contemporary dance.

Max, though fabulously performed by an ensemble of five men and five women, looked only partially successful. Naharin’s coupling of explosive individuality with strict unisons works as well ever. But this piece’s primary satisfaction came from watching individual dancers so clearly listening to themselves and each other, and then translating the resulting sensations into unadorned and spare movement. Even at their most flailing and angular, they proposed stillness and vulnerability. The jerkiness and matter-of-factness in much of the choreography suggested avoidance of transitions, which might be partially responsible for the impressive clarity of Max‘s intent.

The regimentation of Naharin’s unisons, while implying a sense of community, often looked disturbingly forceful. Max had plenty of those. The family portraits made you want to become a hermit. In its more percussive moments, Naharin’s score of chanting, babbling in made-up languages, and falling water sounded too much like strict commands. But it was in its overall trajectory that Max fell short. The emphasis on stasis within the dance itself — despite its vigorous individuality and countdown of accretions in its latter part — did not sufficiently take into account theatrical time.

Early in his career, Bill T. Jones, and his late partner Arnie Zane, pioneered the use of text in dance. At the time, they shocked some, delighted others. Jones has ever since worked to find structural formats with which to employ both of these languages. In his latest endeavor, Story/Time, he has created one of his most delightful pieces yet. In this delicious though quite serious 70-minute entertainment, Jones talks, the dancers dance. Both do it well.

Acknowledging a debt to John Cage, who used a similar format in his 1958 Indeterminacy — stringing together randomly-chosen, one-minute stories — Jones assembled a collection of anecdotes, many of them (no surprise from this artist) autobiographical. Then he and his company developed the choreography that stormed, slithered, and leapt around him as he sat center stage, the fulcrum of the action.

With his massive legs bracing a simple table, Jones looked like one of Michelangelo’s prophets. Employing his beautifully modulated and rich voice to marvelous effect, he carefully controlled the timing with pauses, silences, accelerations, and suspensions. Here, the choreographer was also a first-rate musician.

Jones’ words originated in real-life observations, musings, opportunities for name-dropping, family history, and, perhaps an urban myth or two. Into the core of these often humorous accounts, Jones also placed a dark, dramatic meditation on death. The tales occasionally left the audience hanging with unanswered questions. Some, probably too many, depended on a punch line to make their point.

Story kept viewers on their toes, trying to figure out whether the detailed, chock-full-of-ideas choreography swirled by independently, was engaged in a conversation with Jones’s text, or was acting out a narrative. What was certain: the work got its power from affirming life in all its messiness. It was in the text, the individual dances, the communal lines, and even the double roundelays that opened and closed these well-told tales.

Dame good fun

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM What with the internet, the paparazzi, Rupert Murdoch’s CIA-level spy techniques, and the general displacement of actual news by “celebrity news,” it’s pretty hard these days for a star of any sort to keep their debauchery private. Not like the good old days, when Hollywood carefully stage-managed publicity and only those who’d become a real liability risked having their peccadilloes exposed.

Such rare windfalls aside, the public were mostly restricted to watching beautiful people behave badly onscreen — a pastime that took a big blow once the censorious Production Code was instituted in 1934. Elliot Lavine’s latest Roxie retrospective of movies from that golden-shower period of post-silents, pre-Nannywood licentiousness — this time entitled “Hollywood Before the Code: Nasty-Ass Films for a Nasty-Ass World!” — provides plentiful early talkie titillation. Now that the bodies involved are long buried, we also know a few tales of their stars’ off-screen misadventures, too.

The week-long series of double bills sports its share of familiar titles, notably Howard Hawks’ terrific original Scarface (1934); Edgar G. Ulmer’s Karloff vs. Lugosi smackdown The Black Cat (1934); and the first, probably best version of H.G. Welles’ prescient biotech fable Island of Lost Souls (1932). There are women in prison (1931’s Ladies of the Big House), women in Faulkner (1933’s The Story of Temple Drake, a watered-down adaptation of W.F.’s then-notorious Sanctuary), women in everything else (1932’s Three On a Match, whose Depression-era Valley of the Dolls-esque trio includes a very young Bette Davis), and just plain Joan Blondell (1933’s Blondie Johnson).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzxnEDEY2Hs

It’s a few choice dames in lesser-remembered pictures that provide the biggest “nasty-ass” discoveries this go-round, however. March 4 offers a shocking double dose of pure white femininity finding themselves in, ahem, “Yellow Peril” — miscegenation being something Hollywood could only begin to embrace a few decades later. Frank Capra’s atypically erotic The Bitter Tea of General Yen, with Barbara Stanwyck alllllmost surrendering the white flag to a “charismatic Chinese warlord” (Swede Nils Asther, eyes narrowed), has become a minor classic since flopping in 1933.

No such luck for The Cheat (1931), a remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 shocker that was part of Paramount’s brief, failed attempt to make stage sensation Tallulah Bankhead a movie star. Her gambling-addicted socialite gets branded (literally) in lieu of repayment not by the original’s Far East businessman (dashing Sessue Hayakawa) but by a mere rich Caucasian perv with Sinophile pretensions (Irving Pichel). The big courtroom climax is a notable howler.

Bankhead remained a Broadway star and a popular “personality,” her throaty voice hinting at a semi-private life that included a great deal of bourbon, a fondness for unexpected nudity, and sexual appetites all along the Kinsey scale. After two decades off screen she arguably found her camp métier as a berserk Bible-clutching hag terrorizing Stefanie Powers in 1965’s Die! Die! My Darling.

Much less of a survivor was poor Clara Bow, who was beloved when she played the wild thing yet unduly punished when it turned out that role had relevance in real life. The quintessential flapper and “It Girl” (“it” meaning sex appeal) was never much of an actress, but an incandescent, live-wire screen presence.

Call Her Savage (1932) is a pre-Code jaw-dropper that was supposedly her personal favorite. Running an A-to-Z gamut of emotions (and hairstyles), her Texas heiress heroine Nasa “Dynamite” Springer is “never two minutes the same” — a nice way of saying she’s nuts. In 88 minutes she rides a horse like it’s something else, plays with her mastiff likewise, is near-raped by an estranged husband, turns streetwalker, causes a brawl in Greenwich Village café catering to “wild poets and anarchists,” gets in two catfights, hits the bottle, and finds peace upon discovering she’s a part Indian “half-breed,” which apparently explains all.

Emotionally unstable, due in part to a pretty horrific upbringing, Bow must have related. At the time she was enduring myriad problems, notably some embarrassing public revelations spilled by a blackmailing secretary. Savage would be her next-to-last film, after which she retired into a deep and troubled seclusion.

Heading thataway as well was Juanita Hansen, a silent star who’d gone down in flames a decade earlier thanks to a “Queen of Thrills” image that unfortunately she enacted a little too enthusiastically in real life. She quit cocaine, got hooked on morphine, quit that, and became an anti-drug crusader — but nothing re-ignited her career. Certainly not lone comeback vehicle Sensation Hunters, a 1933 Poverty Row exploiter in which she was fifth-billed as “Trixie Snell,” manager-slash-madam to a troupe of “Hot-Cha Girls” who kinda dance, kinda sing, but mostly roll customers at Panama City’s “Bull Ring Club.” It was a sad exit. Puffy and peroxided, Hansen is all too convincing as a woman with too many hard miles on her to go anywhere but further downhill.

Waaaay uptown — glittering Broadway via glossy Paramount — 1934’s Murder at the Vanities offered the last hurrah for pre-Code naughtiness. And what a hurrah: chorus girls in pasties and less (at one point they simply clutch boobs as if on a latter-day Vanity Fair cover); production numbers like “The Rape of the Rhapsody” (the “rape” being Duke Ellington’s “colored” jazz musicians and dancers invading a classical orchestra with something called “Ebony Rhapsody” — until a white gangster jokingly machine-guns them all down); plus sexual humor so blunt that Jack Oakie ends the film telling a giggly blonde “Come on, let’s do it,” meaning exactly what you think.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCoj855Vdo8

On the side of the angels — definitely for losers here — there are numerous horrible songs (excepting standard “Cocktails for Two”), gag-inducingly sweet romantic leads, and kitschy-great ideas like having stage impresario Earl Carroll’s patented “Most Beautiful Girls in the World” pose en masse as tropical waves and cosmetics products. Representing Satan and evening gown-wearing pot smokers everywhere is villainous Gertrude Michael, who infamously sings torch song “Sweet Marijuana.” Michael was an elegant stage and radio star whose own recreational taste leaned more toward cocktails for one. Indeed, she was fictionalized as the hard-drinking love object in one-time lover Paul Cain’s 1932 novel Fast One, an early classic of hard boiled American pulp.

Saving the sleaziest for last, the series will truly flabber your gast with its closer. Normally prim MGM found itself reviled in early 1932 with the fleeting release of Tod Browning’s Freaks (playing the Roxie March 3), a much-misunderstood, now celebrated fable starring actual circus sideshow performers. It was considered so grotesque and unsettling that Freaks was banned in many areas — Britain didn’t see it until 1963.

Yet there’s no evidence of any similar backlash to the infinitely scuzzier Kongo, unleashed by Metro a few months later. A remake of Browning’s 1928 Lon Chaney vehicle West of Zanzibar, it stars Walter Huston as wheelchair-bound “Deadlegs” Flint. He’s used cheap magic tricks to appoint himself fearsome white-man “god” amongst spear-carrying tribesmen in a “dunghill” African outpost, all part of an elaborate, insidious plan to wreak vengeance on the rival who stole his wife and health long ago.

What this revenge eventually encompasses reads like a list of nearly everything the Production Code would soon bar from the screen: depicted or suggested drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution, rape, sadism, and a convent-bred ingénue (Virginia Bruce) recalling “hot hairy hands pawing and mauling” her unwilling virginal body. Not to mention human sacrifice and a unique substance abuse “cure” using leeches.

One can almost hear the censuring voice of Will Hays, the Code’s original enforcer, when one character tells Deadlegs “The swamp’s wholesome compared to you!” It would arguably be 40 years before MGM distributed another movie so flagrantly perverse — and even then the studio was so ashamed they put it (Paul Bartel’s 1972 Private Parts) out under a fake subsidiary’s auspices.

 

HOLLYWOOD BEFORE THE CODE: NASTY-ASS FILMS FOR A NASTY-ASS WORLD!

March 2-8, $11

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St., SF

www.roxie.com

Agrarian visions

0

By Cynthia Salaysay

arts@sfbg.com

VISUAL ART Artists are makers, though rarely of history. But Fernando García-Dory and Amy Franceschini, two internationally recognized artists, seem to have a gift for it. “Perhaps,” García-Dory says, “when you start with a long perspective on history, you start to make history as well.”

At the David Brower Center’s Hazel Wolf Gallery, their joint show “Land, Use” presents work that is whimsical and futuristic, yet rooted in traditional agricultural values. It’s like Disney’s Tomorrowland — but on an urban farm, where wheelbarrows are pedal-powered. Or on the rolling green pastures of Spain, where sheep wear GPS transmitters around their necks.

Franceschini is one of San Francisco’s own. Her Victory Garden project in 2007 caught the fancy of SF City Hall, with pieces like Trike — a part-cycle, part-wheelbarrow, designed to contain all the supplies necessary to build a small garden. Soon the city began encouraging its residents to grow food, as it did in World War II. City Hall was decked out in raised garden beds, and residents throughout the city began their own vegetable patches.

García-Dory, from Madrid, has worked extensively with the dwindling Basque shepherds of the Pyrenees, where they have lived for centuries. His images and films portray white-haired men stacking golden cheese in ancient caves, or facing the wind, shearing one of their grim-faced flock.

The images come from the Shepherds School he created, and from his World Gathering of Nomadic Peoples (2005), in which shepherds and goatherds around the world came together to talk about their way of life, which has become so rarified in these modern times.

García-Dory’s work, in part, uses new technology to protect mobile pastoralism, as it’s called. His piece Bionic Sheep sits in the foyer of the gallery. The device emits ultrasound waves to repel wolves, as shepherds in Spain are no longer allowed to kill them to protect their flock. It also has a GPS so shepherds can keep track of their flock without being chained to the pasture. “They can stay at the bar, and have another beer,” Dory explains.

Adds Franceschini, “The role of art for us is, in part, utility. It has this negative connotation in the art world, but I think for us it’s important for the work we’re doing to be useful.”

Their first collaboration, Shepherd’s Wagon, a Blueprint, is “like the blueprint for a molecule that was sent on the Voyager shuttle to Jupiter,” says García-Dory. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Here, it’s a model, and it can be reproduced.'”

A canopy reaches out over the gallery, mimicking the awning of a shepherd’s wagon, where they sleep. Wooden chairs and a communal table fold down from the wall. As part of the installation, Franceschini and García-Dory invited young farmers, shepherds, and naturalists to sit together beneath their fragile roof. The forum’s purpose: to discuss how to balance the environmental concerns of naturalists with those of farmers and pastoralists, and forge a new network for social activism.

The gallery still holds some of the collective energy of the group. Remnants of their brainstorm litter the gallery like leaves blown over a sidewalk — a chaos of hopeful thoughts and ideas. Phrases like “We all need to come back to understanding the Farm Bill,” and “Let’s Shadow Each Other Voluntary Exchange Program” hang from the walls.

“Promoting a gathering as we did, it’s a way for us to be close to the people and have the direct communication that very often we lack in our lives,” says García-Dory.

“I haven’t been involved in food politics and land use in the last two years in the Bay Area,” Franceschini says. “For me, it’s a check in. Here’s all the people I’ve met from the Victory Gardens, here’s people I’d like Fernando to meet.”

Although the Bay Area is a hotbed of environmentalism and the slow food movement, awareness of pastoralism is low. “Dory’s reminding us of the history of the Basque sheepherders and the culture that brought shepherding to the American West,” says Brittany Cole Bush of Star Creek Ranch.

In the East Bay hills, Basque and Peruvian shepherds, along with young shepherds like Bush, use sheep and goats to reduce fire hazard, target invasive plants, and encourage native grasses to grow. “These animals are helping to revitalize the lands, and at the same time they’re producing a local grass-fed product that can be taken to market,” explains Bush.

Adds García-Dory, “Maybe sheep are the new celebrity, or should be.”

The Blueprint isn’t finished yet. “The people [at the gathering] said they would like to keep meeting and working, and that was really very encouraging for us,” says García-Dory. “We hope that the heritage of small farmers and shepherds can be a point of anchor for a new movement.”

Such a hope, though ambitious, seems realistic, given their past work. García-Dory’s World Gathering of Nomadic Peoples created an international, politically active community of shepherds that continues to work together. His Shepherds School has graduated 100 people. And Franceschini’s Victory Gardens live on — 10 of the gardens planted from the original 18 still exist. The city of San Francisco, which discovered through the project that people needed to learn how to grow food again, continues to fund educational programs like Hayes Valley Farm.

Although their pieces have created a lasting impact, Franceschini insists that much of that impact is due to the people around her. “An important part of what Fernando and I do is using the community around you to organize and activate ideas. That’s a message I’m always trying to tell my students. Your friends and your closest colleagues are your allies. I think sometimes you don’t see the potential in front of your nose.”

Other pieces on display include Franceschini’s This is Not a Trojan Horse, as well as short films and other artifacts documenting the Victory Garden, Shepherds School, and World Gathering.

LAND/USE

Through May 9

Hazel Wolf Gallery

David Brower Center

2150 Allston, Berk.

(510) 809-0900

www.browercenter.org

Nightlife: Fun plus jobs

8

By Supervisor Scott Weiner

OPINION We all know the cultural benefits of nightlife. It’s fun. We get to meet people — friends, lovers, and all the rest. We build community. We hear great music. We dance. We spend time outside on our streets. For LGBT people, we meet other LGBTs and keep our community strong. The list goes on: Without a strong entertainment scene, including bars, clubs, live music venues, arts venues, night-time restaurants, and street fairs, our city would be a less interesting and less diverse place.

But the undisputed cultural importance of nightlife isn’t the whole story. Nightlife is a significant economic contributor to San Francisco. It creates jobs, particularly for working-class and young people. It generates tax revenue that helps fund Muni, health clinics, and parks. It allows creative entrepreneurs to start businesses. It generates tourism. It draws foot traffic into neighborhoods to the benefit of other neighborhood businesses.

This is all pretty intuitive. Yet, as a city, we’ve never actually measured the economic impact of our nightlife scene. One of my first acts a member of the Board of Supervisors was to request the city economist to conduct an economic impact study doing just that.

The study is almost done, and we already have a few preliminary results. Nightlife in San Francisco generates $4.2 billion a year in spending, with $1 billion of that amount coming from bars, clubs, performance venues, and art spaces. Some 48,000 people are employed in nightlife businesses, and these businesses contribute $55 million a year in local taxes. On March 5, we’ll announce the full results of the study at a hearing of the Land Use and Economic Development Committee.

This data will help us make smart public policy around nightlife. In the past, those decisions frequently have been driven by anecdote and over-reaction to isolated events. Trouble near a small number of nightclubs? The city responds by making it difficult for all nightclubs to operate, even those with excellent safety records and despite the dramatic improvement in the Entertainment Commission’s oversight. Or, the city goes even further and proposes requiring all clubs, even small ones, to scan ID cards of everyone who enters. (That proposal, thankfully, was roundly rejected.)

When we make these decisions, we should do so with a full understanding not just of the downsides of nightlife but of the positives, including cultural and economic benefits.

Entertainment is under pressure in San Francisco. There are neighborhoods with significant friction between housing and nightlife. Some of that friction results from a small number of problem venues. Other times, a good venue is jeopardized for simply conducting its business within the limits of San Francisco law — for example, a single neighbor got Slim’s shut down for a few weeks for noise, despite the club’s compliance with our noise ordinance.

We also continue to have bizarre Planning Code restrictions that undermine entertainment, such as the Mission Alcohol Special Use District, which makes it difficult or impossible to start creative new businesses in the Mission if alcohol is involved. This provision almost prevented a new bowling alley from locating at 17th and South Van Ness. Similarly, some are concerned that the Western SoMa Plan, as currently written, will undermine nightlife on 11th Street by surrounding clubs with new housing and by reducing the number of venues.

A thriving nightlife scene is key to our city’s cultural identity and economic future. Now that we have the data on its benefits, we can take a more balanced and thoughtful approach.

Supervisor Scott Wiener represents District 8 on the Board of Supervisors. The March 5 hearing will start with a noon rally on the steps of City Hall followed by the hearing at 1 p.m. in City Hall Room 263.

 

The mortage crimes

5

EDITORIAL The mortgage crisis in San Francisco isn’t just devastating to homeowners and to the southeast neighborhoods where foreclosures are most common — it’s clear evidence that lenders and their affiliates are and have been acting illegally. This city ought to be taking the lead on pressing civil and criminal charges against the mortgage outfits.

City Assessor Phil Ting commissioned a report in February that showed that nearly every one of 382 foreclosures actions in the city between January 2009 and October 2011 had at least some irregularities. In more than 80 percent of the cases, the report identified direct violations of law.

It’s a stunning revelation: In nearly 100 percent of the cases studied, the mortgage companies did something wrong. Homeowners were not notified that they were in default. Properties were seized and sold by companies that didn’t have the proper title to them. Documents were backdated or signed by an entity that didn’t have the authority to sign. In some cases, it wasn’t clear who actually owned the mortgage, because the corporation that filed for foreclosure had never property taken title to the loan.

The report comes as Occupy protesters in San Francisco are moving aggressively to target banks that are tossing people out of their homes and at a time when county sheriffs in other parts of the country are refusing to execute foreclosure orders.

There may not be much San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi can do — mortgage foreclosures in California can be done with almost no oversight and by the time the sheriff is called in there’s nothing left but an eviction. But the report makes clear that there were both violations of business regulations and crimes, in some cases felony crimes — and the San Francisco city attorney and district attorney should be moving as quickly as possible to take legal action.

Both City Attorney Dennis Herrera and District Attorney George Gascon have asked for more material from Ting’s office, although neither has announced a formal investigation. But every day that this goes on, more people lose their homes and more crimes are committed — and both offices should move as quickly as possible to take action.

There’s nothing in the federal settlement over fraudulent mortgage activity that prevents local officials from taking this sort of action. There’s nothing preventing Herrera from seeking an injunction against further foreclosures or preventing Gascon from indicting the lenders and their executives.

Meanwhile, Ting told us that he’s asking Attorney General Kamala Harris to investigate, because the pattern of violations almost certainly goes beyond San Francisco.

State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier has introduced a bill that would mandate transparency in foreclosures, so at least homeowners would know who to contact to seek a modification. That’s a good start. But holding these sleazy operators accountable would send a message that San Francisco isn’t going to let this sort of behavior continue.

The losing bets

26

By Darwin BondGraham

news@sfbg.com

Wall Street’s massive taxpayer funded bailout, initiated by the Bush administration and carried forward under President Obama, never really ended — it just shifted from federal to local sources of funding. Even while local and state governments have been forced to cut back on crucial services, wealthy banks and investment firms are being padded with enormous cash flows sucked directly from the already strained budgets of cities, counties, and public agencies.

That’s the message a growing chorus of activists in the Bay Area are bringing before the boards, councils, and commissions that entered into complex financial deals with Wall Street banks, deals that turned toxic in the crash of 2008. Activists want elected officials and the banks to cancel the contracts and refund the public.

The Bay Area is the epicenter of this renewed movement for financial justice. Last week, teachers from Peralta College, organizers with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Oakland religious leaders, and Occupy Oakland activists organized four protests contesting what they say is bank predation on local communities.

At issue are arcane financial instruments called interest rate swaps. Sold by banks to virtually every sizable government and local agency in the US through the 2000s, rate swaps promised governments the ability to “swap” their potentially costly variable rate payments on bonds into a synthetic fixed rate. Seeking to protect local taxpayers during the volatile 2000s, when floating interest rates were rising, local leaders eagerly signed on.

But the economic meltdown turned those tools into golden handcuffs for local government agencies. Taxpayers are now forced to regularly pay millions to the banks simply because variable interest rates, at the urging of the Federal Reserve, have fallen far below the synthetic rates. These deals might seem numbingly complex, but the effects on local communities are clear and painful.

“The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is paying upwards of $53 million a year on rate swaps,” said Alia Phelps of ACCE at a protest on Feb. 21 outside of the former Bank of America building at 555 California Street. “This is money that isn’t going to keep routes in service, that isn’t paying drivers, nor going to repair buses, or to keep fares lower. We need these swaps renegotiated.”

That protest included visits to half a dozen banks. Activists demanded branch managers fax a letter to their corporate headquarters calling on the banks to voluntarily renegotiate swaps signed with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the Bay Area’s regional transportation authority, which has lost over $100 million on toxic swap deals.

In 2002 the Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA), a state-level agency operated by the MTC, issued more than $1 billion in bonds to pay for repairs and seismic upgrades of regional toll bridges. Three financial giants stepped forward promising to lower MTC’s long-term borrowing costs on these bonds by using interest rate swaps. Ambac, Solomon Smith Barney and Morgan Stanley signed deals with the MTC to cover $300 million in debt.

“With this transaction, we are getting the peace of mind of a fixed debt payment at a significant discount from traditional price levels,” MTC’s Chief Financial Officer Brian Mayhew said at the time of the deal.

Basically the swap agreement had the MTC paying a fixed interest rate of 4.1 percent to the banks, while the banks paid 65 percent of the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), a key benchmark used in global financial markets. Whichever party’s sum happened to be higher when payments came due would pay the difference. The advantage of the deal, in the eyes of the MTC’s managers, was that it would lock-in a low interest rate on MTC’s debt, potentially saving as much as $45 million.

“We think it’s a good time to lock in these low rates,” Mayhew said in 2002.

Fast forward to 2009. A year into the financial crisis, interest rates collapsed. LIBOR, which had been fluctuating around 5 percent and reached a peak of 5.8 percent in September of 2007, plummeted to virtually zero. The flow of payments became entirely one-sided, from MTC to banks that offered this deal. The advantage of the swap evaporated, and it became a toxic asset. While the Federal Treasury would offload similar toxic assets from the “too big to fail banks” using the TARP program, local governments were stuck with them.

As Ambac careened toward bankruptcy in 2010 due to its absurdly over-leveraged portfolio of credit default swaps, the MTC was forced to terminate its swap agreement with the company, paying the exorbitant sum of $104 million, after already having paid out $23 million in interest. All of this was essentially bridge toll money, surrendered by drivers crossing the seven state-owned bridges administered by BATA: the Bay, Antioch, Benicia-Martinez, Carquinez, Dumbarton, Richmond-San Rafael, and San Mateo bridges.

The drain on MTC funds indirectly affects all of its programs, including operational support for AC Transit, Muni, and other regional bus and train services. According to its most recent Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, MTC and its transit agency partners are on the hook for another $235 million in interest rate payments due on swaps with a rogue’s gallery of banks including Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Bank of America, JP Morgan, Bank of New York, and Goldman Sachs. All of this money will be diverted from the MTC’s various transit infrastructure, planning, and operations accounts.

“The big picture is service cuts, pay cuts, work speed ups, fare hikes, route eliminations, and other things that harm working people who ride transit,” said retired Muni worker Ellen Murray.

The MTC’s quarter-billion dollar rate swap nightmare is only the most obvious part of a more systemic problem. Until at least 2030, given current conditions, San Francisco’s Airport Commission must make costly rate swap payments to numerous banks, including JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Depfa, Bank of America, and Merrill Lynch, on agreements associated with more than a half-billion in debt. Much of this is linked to commercial paper issued to pay for infrastructure at the Airport (SFO).

Unlike the MTC, SFO’s financial managers were more prudent in entering swap agreements, and therefore secured better terms that have produced a net savings. “The Airport has saved about $92 million to date,” Assistant Deputy Airport Director Kevin Kone told us, referring mostly to gains made between 2005 and late 2007.

But since 2008, SFO’s swaps have been losing money. When Lehman Brothers collapsed, and Bear Stearns imploded and was absorbed into JP Morgan, SFO was forced to terminate swaps with both companies, costing $6.7 million. Last year SFO paid $6.65 million to terminate a rate swap agreement with Ireland’s Depfa Bank. In September, the Airport paid another $4.6 million to end yet another rate swap with JP Morgan. These specific swap agreements, Kone says, “were functioning as they should have early on, providing savings,” but now they’re draining public funds.

SFO’s seven remaining swaps have a negative value of $67 million, according to San Francisco’s 2011 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. As with the MTC, SFO’s debts will ultimately be paid by passengers and taxpayers. Kone says nobody really knows how much these swaps could ultimately impact the airport, either in terms of cost or savings.

“If interest rates rise, they could have a positive cost savings impact on the airport,” he said.

Joe Keffer of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 said at the Feb. 21 rally that Oakland has already paid Goldman Sachs $26 million on a swap that dates back to 1997, and that under current market conditions, the city will have to pay roughly another $25 million until the contract expires in 2021.

Oakland’s toxic deal with Goldman Sachs is now the subject of much scrutiny. The newly formed Coalition for Economic and Social Justice —made up of churches, labor unions, neighborhood groups, and Occupy Oakland activists— took up the issue with the City Council on Feb. 21, packing the chamber with one of the more diverse activist coalitions in recent memory.

“We’re here to implore you to get the City of Oakland out of this toxic relationship,” Rev. Daniel Buford of the Allen Temple Baptist Church told the council.

Members of the Oakland City Council are sympathetic to this message. In a letter sent last June, Council member Rebecca Kaplan implored Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein to spare Oakland’s taxpayers: “By bringing the contract to conclusion with no penalty fees, and negotiating a reasonable exit strategy, you would be demonstrating good faith to public taxpayers in the most substantial way.” At the conclusion of public comment Tuesday night, Oakland Council member Libby Schaaf promised the public action on the swap.

In a Valentine’s Day protest the previous week, 50 activists visited the Oakland offices of Morgan Stanley. Faculty and students from the Peralta Community College system went there demanding the bank renegotiate a rate swap that is estimated to have cost the college $1.6 million last year. The same day the college’s board of trustees discussed the need to cut $12 million more from the budget in 2012. Morgan Stanley CEO James Goreman’s pay for 2011 was $14 million, opponents of the swap point out.

Peralta student and Bay Area transit activist Adam Ross attempted to reach the 9th floor offices of Morgan Stanley in a small delegation to deliver a letter demanding the bank renegotiate the swap: “There were signs on the door saying the office was closed. They probably got tipped off and locked the doors.”

Afterward, Caesar Swaby of Riders for Transit Justice addressed the rally, connecting dots for the different constituencies present: “Morgan Stanley is taking money from Peralta College, causing classes to be cut. Morgan Stanley is also taking money from transit riders. Morgan Stanley has a $3 million rate swap with the MTC, causing cuts to bus and train services.”

A Morgan Stanley representative declined to comment for this report. Goldman Sachs did not return calls and emails. A spokesperson for the MTC was unable to be reached by deadline.

Save our homes

9

yael@sfbg.com


This story has been edited


Bay Area activists, fueled in part by the Occupy movement, have recently taken stands against police brutality, for the rights of the homeless, against the corporate power of banks, and much more. But, arguably, nowhere has the movement been more successful than in the fight against foreclosures and evictions.


With the support of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) and the Bayview Foreclosure Fighters, several Bayview residents whose homes had already been sold continue to occupy them, and in some cases sales have been rescinded. Occupy Bernal has used civil disobedience to postpone six housing auctions, keeping their neighbors in their homes that much longer. They secured a meeting with Diana Stauffer, Wells Fargo Home Mortgage senior vice president, and David Campos, District 9 supervisor, to delay foreclosure proceedings.


But the activists are pushing for a full moratorium on foreclosures and evictions in San Francisco. Such a moratorium is not without precedent. In recent years, sheriffs have stopped evictions and foreclosures in Wayne Country, Michigan; Cook County, Illinois; Butler County, Ohio; and Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania.


When Cook County Sheriff John Dart imposed his moratorium in 2010, he said, “I can’t possibly be expected to evict people from their homes when the banks themselves can’t say for sure everything was done properly. I need some kind of assurance that we aren’t evicting families based on fraudulent behavior by the banks.”


San Francisco seems ripe for a similar stance, as Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting recently released a report revealing widespread lawbreaking in foreclosure proceedings. The report found that 84 percent of foreclosures in San Francisco over the last three years involved faulty paperwork, some of it amounting to fraud.


Representatives from the District Attorney’s and the City Attorney’s offices told the Guardian that they are concerned about the report. These bodies may be starting the process of further investigating findings. Last week, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, whose office carries out the county’s evictions, said he has begun an initiative to collect and analyze the city’s foreclosure data.


But Mirkarimi’s hands may be tied. As he told Ann Garrison of KPFA radio Feb. 25, “I don’t have the latitude or discretion, much as I would like, because there would need to be a change in state law that empowers municipal sheriffs to be able to use that discretion.”


Occupy Bernal formed just a couple months ago, but it has emerged as a powerful advocate for homeowners facing foreclosure. The neighborhood-based branch of the Occupy movement chose to focus specifically on preventing the evictions of Bernal Heights residents, where over 100 homes face foreclosure.


They kept the pressure up Feb. 25, when a group of supporters convened at 1090 Chestnut Street, the residence of John Stumpf, the CEO of Wells Fargo. That bank owns the majority of mortgages on Bernal homes facing foreclosure.


The protest wasn’t meant to block the street and no one tried to enter the building where Stumpf owns three of the 14 floors. But police decided that the group of about 150 warranted blocking off the entire block to traffic, to the annoyance of many neighbors.


“You collected $43.7 billion in taxpayer money and have since made record profits at the expense of low-income communities, while repeatedly breaking your legal and moral obligations as a creditor. You have failed to comply with loan modification requirements under your own lending agreements,” said a blown-up “foreclosure notice” outside Stumpf’s home.


In the spirited street theater scene, activists dressed as an auctioneer and a larger-than-life John Stumpf played out a fake auction of Stumpf’s property.


Dexter Cato, a father of four whose wife was recently killed in a car crash in the midst of months-long loan modification proceedings, faces foreclosure from his Bayview home of 40 years.


“Stumpf, we want a new address for you,” said Archbishop Franzo King of the Western Additions’ John Coltrane church, “850 Bryant Street!”


The crowd then proceeded to chant this address: the San Francisco Hall of Jusice and County Jail.


“We understand that some of our customers are going through difficult times during this economic recovery,” said Jim Foley, president of Wells Fargo’s Greater Bay Area region, in a press release responding to the Feb. 25 protest. The company plans to hold “Home Preservation Workshops” in Richmond March 7 and 8 to help homeowners facing foreclosure.


Public officials may be a long way from locking up CEOs for foreclosure fraud, but some have taken notice of complaints against the banks. On Feb. 2, the Berkeley City Council voted not to extend its contract with Wells Fargo to manage $300 million in city assets, citing its foreclosures on city residents.


On a national level, activists have been successful in persuading people to transfer their money to local banks and credit unions in recent months. Javelin Strategy and Research came out with statistics that 5.6 million Americans have switched bank service providers in the past 90 days, three times the normal transfer rate. Bank Transfer Day in early October was specifically cited as the trigger by 610,000 of those people.


The recent $25 billion settlement between the five largest banks and attorneys general in California and other states over mortgage fraud made big headlines, but activists note that it allocates a measly $2,000 to some people who have lost their homes to foreclosure. Occupy Bernal’s Buck Bagot said people need more protection from powerful banks. “Banks suckered people into this stuff, and they have made billions,” Bagot said. “We’re not saying people shouldn’t have to pay off the money they borrowed, but it took two to tango.”

Wicka wicka

3

HERBWISE I absolutely hated the hemp wick the first time I saw one on of my stoner friends’ lighters – and oh yes, at the moment this particular product will only show up in connection with your most stoner of friends. 

“What the hell is that?” They were sparking a joint with this awkwardly long waxed hemp string that they’d wrapped around the torso of their lighter. 

I was an idiot. I apologize, hemp wicks. Now I know you only have my best interests at heart. 

You’ll have to excuse my insta-hate. There are a lot of superfluous weed products out there (I’ve bitched about it before). Generally, I think the system we have going – plant, smoking device, flame, occasionally ingesting bud-inflected edibles – has served fairly well up until this point and anyone who messes with it runs the risk of a gimmicky high. See: the cannabis aphrodisiac shot. Case in point. 

But – as my red-eyed friend mellowly explained – the hemp wick is a different sort of animal. It’s not adding superfluity to one’s toke, it’s taking it away. Namely, it’s taking artificial gases out of your smoking experience. If you’re lighting your spliff, blunt, pipe, bowl, bong with a lighter, you’re channeling butane right at your point of inhalation. That’s a bummer not just because you’re adding chemicals to your high, but also because butane messes with your ability to taste whatever strain you’re smoking. Believe me, your Banana Kush sloughs its peel when it doesn’t have to combat that stream of gas you’re bathing it in with the lighter. Not to mention, with a steady flame you can spot control where your heat winds up, all the better for working that bowl. 

And so: the wick. Though HempWick claims to be the originators of the commercially-produced organic spool, Humboldt Hemp Wicks is experiencing a certain vogue as the choice strand in the Bay Area. The company has been selling wick for four years through the Internet, and its website proudly proclaims that it has every shop in Arcata and Eureka hawking its wares. You can get 10 feet for under two bucks, 200 feet for about $17. 

Not that hemp wick doesn’t come without certain professional hazards. Managing an – albeit waxed – thread with flame on the end does require a certain amount of grace. Does your focus intensify or wane when stoned? Beware the flailing wick. (And distinct possibility that, with the purchase of this product, you will graduate to the next echelon of stoner identity. This can either impress or upset those around you.)

But if my stoniest of baloney friends can wield the wick, I’m confident that my fearless readers will be able to. Just what you needed, right? Another reason to smoke.