Volume 47 Number 09
Tofu and Whiskey The phrase “‘woman’ is not a genre” has been popping up again. It’s been in articles, board threads, and subsequently, conversations I’ve been a part of. It’s a good one. Kind of an earworm of a saying, because on its face, it’s implicit, simplistic, obvious, even. But it’s a good mantra, for music writers. “Woman” is not a genre.
Maybe it’s a backlash against Rolling Stone’s recent, ridiculous “women who rock” package, which sought out the “best” woman in rock with votes from readers, and somehow ended up with cloying pop act Karmin plastered across the cover, cleavage-y as all Rolling Stone cover ladies. Can you imagine a “best white guy in rock” contest in RS?
But this is nothing new. As far as I can trace it, Little Boots said “‘girl’ is not a genre” in 2009, but — seeing as how it’s so gosh darn simple — it’s got to have been uttered previously, and certainly, undoubtedly, felt since the first time a woman picked up a different instrument from her female neighbor, and got thrown in concert together.
It was the headline and thesis of a piece on Electronic Beats about the rise of thinkpieces sputtering about a supposed rise of women making electronic music, another fallacy; it’s just the cheap shots in feature pieces clumping heterogeneous acts together again.
One of the only things linking all ladies of wildly divergent sounds at this point is the gendered showcases, or gendered comparisons. That’s not to say all comparisons are entirely inaccurate, they just frequently are made based on little more than appearance.
Ash Reiter, the frontperson for her eponymous East Bay band, saw plenty of comparisons after the release of her first album, Paper Diamonds, in 2010, with passing references to Fleetwood Mac and Cat Power, both of whom she admires. The singer-songwriter-guitarist was also hoping to sound like a mix of Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Grizzly Bear, and OK, Jolie Holland.
Now, Reiter and her band have taken that sound for a walk in another direction. With the new LP, Hola — which see release on 20 Sided Records Fri/30 with a show at the Rickshaw Stop (8:30pm, $10. 155 Fell, SF. www.rickshawstop.com) — the local musicians took notes more from bubbly 1960s pop and classic Motown cuts, arrangements interspersed with bits of funk and Afro-pop.
“With our first album, I was in a folkier place with a lot of those songs, doing the Jolie Holland thing, which, you know, I cut my teeth singing along to her songs,” says Reiter, remarkably cheerful on the phone the afternoon before her current 54-day tour ends. “But I’ve gotten more excited about writing more upbeat pop songs with grooves to them, and working with my band to write music instead of writing it alone.”
On this tour, Reiter and her drummer Will Halsey went to the Motown Museum in Detroit, which was particularly meaningful because of its influence on Hola: “that’s a lot of the music we look up to. Of course, [we’ve always looked up to] the Beatles and the Beach Boys, but also all these girl groups, the Ronettes, and the Shirelles, and the Crystals. And we definitively imitated a lot of what we heard in the background vocals listening to the Supremes.”
She had just gotten the Supremes box set, but also was listening to early Nigerian pop, and Os Mutantes when she first began work on Hola, and brought those inspirations to New Improved Recording, where the band worked for the first time with engineer Carlos Arredondo, who they met at a party at Anna Ash’s house.
You can hear Ash Reiter’s many complimentary influences on Hola opening track, “I’ve Got Something I Can Laugh About Now,” with jangly guitars, shakers, cooing harmonies, and Reiter’s crystal-clear, honey-sweet lead vocals. Funkier, electro-shot “Ishi,” written about the last member of the Yahi, very much a part of California’s history, follows. Reiter read his biography for that song, but also just liked the phonetic sound of his name.
Raised in Northern California (specifically, Sebastopol), Reiter looked to the state’s history for inspiration lyrically this time around; the former modern lit major was reading voraciously during the making of the record, including Joan Didion’s Where I Was From. The song “Little Sandy” has a chorus that’s a quote Didion included from a pioneer girl’s diary.
While Hola was girl group-influenced, Reiter wasn’t about to write a break-up album — she’s dating the band’s drummer, Halsey, who also plays with Oakland’s the Blank Tapes.
Another Bay Area act — freshly rejiggered and condensed — is headlining the release show with Ash Reiter this week: DRMS. It’s also a new progression for the plucky electro Afro-pop act, formerly known simply as Dreams. Down from eight players, the now-four piece has whittled to bandleader-keyboardist Rob Shelton, vocalist-percussionist Emily Ritz, drummer Ross McIntire, and Mark Clifford on vibraphone, melodica, and backup vocals.
DON’T CALL IT FREAK-FOLK
Local singer-songwriter Jessica Pratt just released a mystical, fleeing-through-a-foggy-forest folk album that’s so stripped down, quavering and personal, crackling yet crisp, it sounds like a rare, weird gem from the early ’70s that you’d unearth in the lower racks of Amoeba. The self-titled LP has such a true-blue timeless quality, however, to call it a throwback would do it injustice. White Fence’s Tim Presley is said to have created new label Birth Records solely to release Pratt’s debut, which came out Nov. 13. Pratt recently told Fader: “I was really afraid of some freak-folk comparisons because I’m from San Francisco, and I play electric guitar, and it’s kind of weird, folky stuff.” I’ll refrain.
TALES FROM THE FRONT LINE
Part of Nayland Blake’s ongoing FREE!LOVE!TOOL!BOX! exhibit, Show and Tell: Queer Punks in Conversation will include conversations with Leslie Mah of Tribe 8, Brontez Purnell of Gravy Train!!! and The Younger Lovers, Jess Scott of Make-A-Mess Records, Brilliant Colors, Index, and Flesh World, and Matt Wobensmith, founder of Goteblüd Vintage Zine Store and Outpunk. Full disclosure, the panel discussion will be moderated by SFBG managing editor, Marke B., but I’d have gone regardless.
Fri/30, 6:30pm, free with admission
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF
STREET SEEN “Can I do a small rant on boobs?” Fat activist Virgie Tovar’s boobs — I can see most of them in the swank North Beach cocktail bar we’re sitting in — are really big. Many parts of Virgie are, which is kind of her thing. The editor of the recently-published anthology Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love, and Fashion (Seal Press) talks dirty to telephone sex customers during the day, and carries her curves with a pride that runs completely counter-current to all the ways we are taught to be ashamed of fat in this world.
Obviously, I want to hear her rant about boobs. It turns out to be: Tovar is sick of partners who place their attraction to her squarely on her ample bosom. “I have to have them verbally say that [I’m fat] before we have sex. They can’t accept that they want to have sex with a fat woman.”
So don’t call her busty. Especially since if you do, you’re going to miss the whole point of her look.
“I dress for visibility,” Tovar puts it. You can definitely see her perched somewhat precariously on this North Beach bar stool. Her ample decolletage is emphasized by a floral onesie-now-a-dress, the crotch of which was cut out before our interview for enhanced comfort, a tight skirt, vintage fur coat (“My rule is, I wear fur if it’s 25 years old or older,” she tells me. “I love wearing dead animals”), teal scarf, and knee-high black boots.
You can’t miss Virgie, a fact which our fellow bar patrons quickly learn when we launch into a high-spirited discussion of one of her regular phone sex customers, a “pay pig” who gets off on paying $50 for the pleasure of her telephone voice — $50 every 15 minutes, that is.
She wants you to look at her and see fat, and look at her and see style, and look at her and want to have sex with her — and then she wants you to think about what those things say about your own adherence to normative beauty ideals. Virgie identifies her style as high femme, by her own definition “the intentional performance of femininity in order to subvert masculinity. My fat has become a part of my performance, like jewelery.”
As a chubby child, Tovar shied from glitz and glamour. Girly clothes either didn’t fit, she says, or just plain didn’t fit into her mission to be completely invisible. It was hard to hide, however, from the sartorial impulses of her mother, who loved few things more than embellishing Tovar’s garments with lace and the occasional scene from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, rendered in puff paint.
But Tovar quashed that timidity in adulthood, when she found partners who “found me sexy and wanted to do all these nasty things to me,” she says. “If your liberation comes from somebody eating your ass, by all means necessary.”
She went onto San Francisco State University’s sexuality studies department, where she focused on fat sex, eventually proposing a fat-positive manifesto to Brooke Warner, senior editor at Seal Press. That morphed into Hot and Heavy, a project that Tovar feels coincides with a surge of fat cultural activism, evidence of which she sees popping up, of all places, in retail.
Luscious shopping spots to embrace your own zaftig fabulosity? If you’re down for big brands, Tovar gives high marks to Forever 21’s plus size offerings (“It’s gaudy, it’s slutty. They’ve really tapped into that audience that I’m a part of”), also to ASOS’ Curve line (www.asos.com), Domino Dollhouse (www.dominodollhouse.com), and Cupcake and Cuddlebunny (www.cupcakeandcuddlebunny.com).
Across the country, a smattering of high femme fat vintage stores have popped up: Portland’s Fat Fancy (www.fatfancyfashions.com), Brooklyn’s Re/Dress (whose stock is available online at www.redressnyc.com). And of course, she says, there’s the old standbys: Lane Bryant, Avenue for tights and boots, and the Stonestown Galleria’s most gloriously trashy clothes purveyor, Torrid. Tovar says she finds fat fashion inspiration in Marie Claire writer Nicolette Mason, Marie “Curvy Fashionista” Denee (thecurvyfashionista.mariedenee.com), and the Near-Sighted Owl (www.nearsightedowl.com)
For Tovar, the key to fashion, for girls big, small, and in-between, is ignoring the rules and becoming the fly, fabulous change you want to see. “The tag says no, but the stretch says yes! When I see a garment, I’m seeing hope for all the hopeless situations in the world.”
HOT AND HEAVY READING
with Virgie Tovar, Deah Schwartz, Abby Weintraub, Jessica Judd
Fri/30, 7pm, free
Modern Times Bookstore
2919 24th St., SF
FILM Unlike the San Francisco Independent Film Festival’s flagship event and its popular DocFest, which more or less put roots down at the Roxie, genre fest Another Hole in the Head spreads its horror, sci-fi, and just plain weird wealth around to various venues. Yeah, the Roxie’s still on its list, but HoleHead also hosts events down 16th Street at the Victoria Theater, and at SOMA’s Terra Gallery and the Vortex Room — the latter an inspired addition, given the Vortex’s reputation as a haven for mondo cinema.
This year, HoleHead opens with a screening of Richard Elfman’s 1982 cult musical Forbidden Zone, presented in — holy Tyrrell! — remastered and colorized form. Elfman will be on hand to answer all your Sixth Dimensional questions, and a party (complete with Oingo Boingo cover band) follows.
Closing night looks to be a decidedly less festive affair, with Austrian director Michal Kosakowski’s unsettling Zero Killed — a feature film spun from his video installation and short film project, Fortynine. From 1996 to 2006, Kosakowski interviewed people about their murder fantasies, then used the tales (suicide bombings, school shootings, dog attacks, dinner-party poisonings, stabbings, shoving people into traffic or letting them slip off cliffs, etc.) as short-film inspiration, starring the storyteller as either perpetrator or victim.
A haunting musical score ups the creep factor, as Kosakowski tracks down each participant (many, but not all, are actors by trade) to interview them about their specific fantasies and other troubling topics, like revenge, torture, and “What is evil?” Zero Killed is a uniquely disturbing mix of fiction and documentary, cutting between horrific, blood-soaked vignettes and clinical talking-head interviews — often featuring the same subject.
There’s plenty of blood gushing forth in slick British standout Axed (listed as “Fangoria presents Axed” on the HoleHead schedule, so that right there should assure you of its splatter cred). When a businessman is, uh, axed from the corporate gig that turned him into an uptight prick long ago, he goes all Jack Torrance on his wife and teenage kids. As you might guess, the titular implement figures prominently in his plans, and Ryan Lee Driscoll’s film spirals from satirical to sadistic as each new body drops.
Changing gears, from in-your-face to perhaps too subtle: posting recently to his Observations on Film Art blog, scholar David Bordwell scrutinized what he called “discovered footage” horror films, with a focus on the Paranormal Activity series. Bordwell took particularly interest in the “rewards and risks” of the genre’s “narrow set of stylistic choices.” In these films, the camera itself occupies a heightened presence within the story. By now, everyone knows the psychological effect that’s supposed to have: if we’re aware of the camera, and it seems like an actual person is filming what we see, the images appear more real — and hopefully, “the reward” translates to genuine shrieks in the dark.
But for every Paranormal Activity sequel that’s seen by millions and rakes in hundreds of millions, there are dozens of copycats. And why not? Found-footage horror is non-traditional filmmaking at its most democratic. It can be made on the cheap, and wobbly production values are de rigueur. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to get ahold of a camera than to come up with an original idea, much less one that yields actual moments of fright.
With that said, The Garlock Incident does make an effort to tread new, albeit Blair Witch-y, ground. The set-up is that a group of Los Angeles actors — appealing 20-somethings all — are en route to Vegas for a movie shoot. Also in the van is ambitious director Lily (Ana Lily Amirpour), who obsessively films everything. After taking a spontaneous detour to visit a ghost town with a sinister back story, they discover a couple of maybe-abandoned shacks — and soon realize that getting off the main road was a bad idea. Oh, kids. It’s always a bad idea, especially for city slickers who can’t function without cell service.
Garlock‘s frustrating ending, which I wouldn’t dare spoil even if I fully understood it (even after watching it several times), is a letdown. Until its last act, though, Garlock is actually a pretty interesting look at how quickly relationships can break down when circumstances slide from uncertain to dire. But once you start puzzling over the ending, other doubts surface — like, by what logic would the actors’ audition footage be neatly edited into this roughly-shot, “found” chronicle of wilderness terror?
Speaking of wilderness terror and, alas, unsatisfying finales, retro-styled sci-fi adventure The 25th Reich screeches to a halt with a “to be continued” cliffhanger, just when shit is starting to get mind-blowingly insane. Argh! Fortunately, for the most part, the film — about a group of World War II soldiers who time-travel back and forth, squabbling among themselves as they pursue UFOs and Nazis — works just fine as a stand-alone, though its gleeful reliance on stereotypes (the Jew, the Italian, the Southern redneck, etc.) feels less like a nod to classic war films than a way to avoid actual character development.
The best gimmick centers on Captain O’ Brien, an erstwhile matinee idol not above reciting cornball lines from his own films at crucial moments. That he’s played by Jim Knobeloch — who also appeared in 2012’s other Nazi sci-fi flick, Iron Sky — is a perfect bit of obscure-genre synergy.
It wouldn’t be HoleHead without zombies. Comic The Living Corpse gets the (re-)animated treatment in The Amazing Adventures of the Living Corpse, which follows the titular beastie’s existential crisis after he — oops! — rips apart almost his entire family. Spared is a young son who is sent to a creepy boarding school for orphans, though he’s soon plucked from its halls to apprentice under a mad scientist. Meanwhile, the guilt-ridden corpse — real name: John Romero; memo to creative types: naming anyone “Romero” in your zombie-related whatnot is no longer a novel idea — roams the underworld and the land of the living, meting out occasional supernatural ass-kickings but mostly searching for his long-lost offspring.
The haunted-school scenes (complete with a kids vs. demons showdown) are clever, and the catchy soundtrack has punky flair, but the sheer number of plot threads nearly overwhelms the 82-minute film — maybe cool for fans of the comic, but viewers new to the material might wonder why, say, the “Spectral Protection Society” is elaborately introduced and then discarded. The overall effect is not nearly as fun (or “amazing”) as it should be.
Amazing, however, is one of many gushing adjectives I might use to describe my top pick of the festival: Mike Malloy’s Eurocrime! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the ’70s — a jazzy, lovingly-compiled homage to some of the trashiest, most mean-spirited films ever made. Everyone’s heard of Spaghetti Westerns, but poliziotteschi movies have yet to make a true cult breakthrough (or be remade by Quentin Tarantino, but I’m sure he’ll get there eventually). A groovy-sleazy score and endless clips, posters, and still shots set the tone for Eurocrime!, which gathers some of the genre’s biggest stars (laid-back John Saxon; gracious Franco Nero; bratty Antonio Sabàto) to look back at their years chasing each other across rooftops, brawling in junkyards, and working with directors like Umberto Lenzi (“the screaming-est director I ever met in my life,” according to actor Henry Silva).
The doc, a tad long at 137 minutes, also explores why the films became so popular, despite the fact that their scripts were often ripped wholesale from American “angry cop” films (and, later, from each other) — and why that popularity didn’t last (possible culprits: laughable dubbing, distracting mustaches, brutal violence against women). Newcomers won’t believe that such a world of insane film exists, longtime aficionados will dig the nostalgia, and both camps will enjoy Eurocrime!‘s high-energy appreciation of a genre long overdue for this kind of treatment.
ANOTHER HOLE IN THE HEAD
Nov. 28-Dec.9, $10-$12
Various venues, SF
SUPER EGO If, by some miracle, I manage to make it through this entire column about a new gay sports bar in the Castro without dropping a single awful double entendre, then I totally deserve a Stanley cup, a Heisman trophy, and a Super Bowl ring. IMPOSSIBLE! Why does everything jocky sound so dirty when you sprinkle a little fairy dust on it?
“Well, our barbacks will be wearing jockstraps pretty frequently,” Jesse Woodward told me of new venture Hi Tops (2247 Market, SF. www.hitopssf.com), set to launch with a big free shindig Sat/1, 6pm-2am.* Woodward, who’s opening Hi Tops with former QBar manager Dana Gleim and Matt Kajiwara, knows the value of a good double-wordplay: “Cold pitchers, hot catchers” is his bar’s motto, and a handmade Buster Posey dreamcatcher recently adorned its Facebook page.
But other than a few ironic touches (“No, we won’t be playing that Huey Lewis Sports album,” the painfully lithe and hip Woodward assures me), Hi Tops will be all about the gayme: 15 screens, including a video wall and hanging Jumbotron configuration will pump out local tourneys, while the kitchen, headed by former Top Chef contestant Jamie Lauren, turns out gourmet takes on “stadium food,” including warm pretzels, chicken wings, beef-bacon burgers, Cobb salads, and pork chops on a stick.
“The pork chop on a stick is a pork chop we put on a stick,” Woodward clarifies.
No worries about this being an overcompensative no fats no femmes dude-bro move: Woodward, who’s no stranger to underground alternaqueer dancefloors, merely wants to complement SF nightlife with some unique flavor. “What inspired me to do this was the lack of any place to go with my teammates after a basketball game where we could hang out and talk, but not have to shout over music. I also think that, looking at the Castro, the neighborhood could use something like this to make it exciting. A lot of bars offering something different have closed, and the scene here has become really one note.” Yes, Jesse, and that one note is Rihanna shrieking at us through her tiny, alien nose.
Hi Tops takes the place of fuschia-tinted hetero barf puddle Lime, where I used to go through purses. Anything would be an improvement, but a totally gay (and lesbian!) sports bar that plans to sponsor local queer teams and host fundraisers sounds pretty neato. Plus, barbacks in jockstraps hello. This place will totally be my new Hooters.
I haven’t always fallen for his post-modern, Scion-sponsored Blaxploitation schtick — skinny white DJs in Europe still think it buys them instant street cred to sample him; annoyingly they’re often right. But Kenny Dixon Jr., known to the world as the mercurial Moodymann, sure knows how to pump out the classics, foretelling the current wave of re-edit mania by about a decade and representing the Detroit house scene with a soulful flair for experiment and a thrilling rage against the obstacles that still stand in the way of international recognition for many African American dance music artists. He’s a talker on the decks and often anarchic: last time he was here, he got bounced from his own party. Buckle up and work it out, finally some danger. With UK deep techno martialist Untold and the Icee Hot crew.
Fri/30, 9:30pm-late, $20 advance. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com
Are you even ready for Finnish acid? Of course you are: Tin Man’s hypnotic, energetic yet urbane tracks have been staples on quality dance floors for well-nigh half a decade. Johannes Auvinen was actually raised in Cali, thus the extra bit of sunshine peaking out of his peaks and polishing his deeps. On 222 Hyde’s great soundsystem, he should have the basement walls swaying in no time for his SF debut.
Fri/30, 9pm, $20 advance. 222 Hyde, SF. www.ayli-sf.com
House purists took a moment to warm to Dyed: he seemed to leap fully formed from the Paris club scene and land too perfectly near the top of the Ibiza favorites list. But in the past few years, he’s delivered some incredibly lovely and historically-eared mixes and remixes (many coproduced or inspired by the European scene’s exceptional female cohort) that have everyone convinced. He’s the real deal. And so smiley!
Sat/1, 9pm-4am, $10 advance. Monarch, 101 Sixth St., SF. www.monarchsf.com
Um, in case you missed it, 90s house is back. But rarely do we get a chance to hear the story of that interesting and incredibly varied decade from the San Francisco DJs and producers who made it all happen. (When Doc Martin plays a retro set here, it’s a main event.) So having Fred Everything, David Harness, Jay-J, Solar, and Jayvi Velasco hit the decks on Mighty’s big-room rave-worthy system, for free, all night long is an education no young neophyte should pass up.
Sat/1, 9pm-late, free. Mighty, 119 Utah, SF. www.mighty119.com
How much does SF adore this British-Italian disco mage, 1/4 of the wildly popular Horse Meat Disco crew? Find out in a sweat on Honey Soundsystem’s dancefloor as he tours in support of a new compilation of his favorite tracks (including some local faves) on Classic Records. Love!
Sun/2, 9pm, $5. Holy Cow, 1535 Folsom, SF. www.honeysoundsystem.com
*The original party, as listed in the print version of this article, was set for Thu/29. This version has been corrected.
DANCE This weekend the parade of holiday entertainments started off on a festive note, and it wasn’t thanks to another interpretation of The Nutcracker or good old Scrooge. It was a brand new charmer from two experienced choreographers who pooled their artistic resources in 2008 to form Garrett + Moulton Productions. Given Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton’s different artistic temperaments, this union sounded like an iffy proposition. But with three hits to their credit, the duo has proved that opposites do indeed attract.
Garrett and Moulton’s newest endeavor for their four dancers, Angles of Enchantment, might not have been quite as consistently involving as their previous collaborations — but it was such a pleasure to watch the skill with which they handled the tasks they had set for themselves.
Angles was a frothy, endearing, and at-times rambunctious quartet that manages to suggest that we may not be doomed to live frantic lives without time or space for fantasy, abandon, and such a thing as pure fun. It was an excellent antidote to holiday anxiety.
The work’s biggest surprise, and one of its chief attractions, was Peter Whitehead’s imaginative score. In dance, music usually fulfills a supportive role. Here its high profile often drew not-unpleasant attention to itself. With his splendid collection of instruments — from kids’ noisemakers to homemade banjos — Whitehead called up a vibrant soundscape. A gentle singer, his lyrics spoke about the small joys and small pains of ordinary people. This kept Angles’ sometimes madcap fancifulness grounded. The music even suggested narrative threads. It made me wonder how effective Angles would be without that emotional backbone.
In the beginning, when the four dancers momentarily hooked up one-on-one, only to frantically pursue someone else in the next spotlight, it wasn’t clear whether they were playing or escaping. They leaped and grasped and tumbled, piling up on top of each other. But then, after a blackout — there were several — the dancers reappeared as if kissed by fairy dust, cavorting in the most ridiculous tutus and matching headdresses. The whole thing began to feel like a Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Tegan Schwab became an airborne, mischievous fairy with fingers and feet aflutter, when she was not interfering with Whitehead’s music making. A little later she morphed into a majestically promenading tree under which Nol Simonse found momentary respite. Lanky Carolina Czechowska, perhaps a wood sprite, sported what might have been an acorn hat — until she returned in a black tutu and sexy gloves, as a sexy sorceress whose breath made everyone tremble.
Tanya Bello and Simonse, both of them longtime colleagues in the company, paired up for a series of quasi pas de duex. They were our lovers, teasing each other with playful touches and kicks. Sitting together on a bench, they looked like the end of a Hollywood movie.
Bello barely comes up to Simonse’s chin, but their yearning arms interlocked as equals. And if Bello and Simonse are physically different, temperamentally they are even farther apart. It’s what gave their dancing together such frisson. Bello was a witty whirlwind, whether she spun like a top or raced circles around a partner. Languid and fluid, Simonse could not deliver an inexpressive gesture if he tried. He remains a marvel of a dancer.
There was something vaudevillian about the way Angles’ individual scenes, separated by darkness, followed each other. The structure did not quite sustain itself for a whole hour, delightful as this flight into a world of fairies, pixies, and playful Pucks was. Angles ends on a note of pure hilarity. For the finale, the dancers dressed in ballet wedding outfits: the women in huge white tutus, Simonse equally splendid in half a frock coat. And just to top it off, designer Margaret Hatcher adorned them with strings of Christmas tree lights. Happy holidays to one and all.
ANGLES OF ENCHANTMENT
Thu/29-Sat/1, 8pm (also Sat/1, 2pm); Sun/2, 2 and 7:30pm, $30-$36
3153 17th St, SF
CHEAP EATS Do you want to know how to settle a strike? Here’s how to settle a strike: Capitulate. It’s
fun and easy — just … give ’em what they want. In this case, the letter ‘e.’
Hedgehog, I says, henceforth, you can spell youse however the hell you want. In fact, you can spell all the other words however you want, too. I trust you to get the thing said, however you spell it. We’re all good communicators here.
In fact, we’re in the goddamn bidness of communication, ain’t we.
Yet, my last couple missives to higher ups at the B.G., Maurice and Robin, have been more-or-less dismissived.
If it were me — which it is, but let’s say if, for example, it were me who owed somebody else say, for the sake of argument, $3,300 for services rendered, and I knew it and knew that I was good for it but couldn’t decide which of my bank accounts to take the money from, I would just … pay.
Fun! Easy! Settled! The owe-ee(eee) is all squared away. Then, my lower-downs having been seen to, hypothetical me sleeps real nicely at night. Or, hyperhypothetically speaking, Maurice, Robin, the alive one, or, hell, even Andy for all I care, coughs up the Amount Owed, and then they can bicker amongst themselves until the cows come home.
And sleep at night, if that makes sense. And I kinda hope it doesn’t. Hedgehog?
CHEAP SPORTS Good morning from last Friday! Did youse miss mese like Ise missed youse?
Today I’m thankful for the Chicken Farmer. She’s asleep at the moment but yesterday, when she was awake, she smoked a turkey, baconed up some Brussels sprouts, and baked a gluten-free pie — all in honor of our first little movie taking third prize at the “little movies made in a big hurry” contest down in Hollywood. That her celebratory act of catering happened to fall on Thanksgiving is only a coincidence because she happens to feed me well all the time. It’s not just when the rest of youse are honoring the arrival of the pilgrims and blah blah.
Normally there would be three “blahs” up there, but I’m on a strict word count this week. Because I need all my available words to tell you this:
We’re buying an elliptical. Or not. It’s all very confusing and frustrating and, quite frankly, annoying. The romantic-musical-comedy-sometimes-road-trip that is usually our lives has this albatross circling over it, threatening to dump a load at any moment.
See, Chicken Farmer (aka the Athletic One), tweaked her knee several columns back. And then she spent a lot of time icing it. And then it felt better. And then she tweaked it again. Rinse and repeat for over a month and the end result is a fat Hedgehog. Because, as it turns out, hedgies don’t exercise unless their farmer’s take them out and make them. I don’t have anyone to play racquetball with. Or soccer. And my recently unbroken wrist has not been feeling so great about the bat finding the ball lately. I would ice it, but all available ice has been allocated to Chicken Farmer’s knee and we can’t afford to buy more ice. So naturally, turning our studio apartment into a fitness center is the only way either of us can see out of this morass.
Not that we can afford an elliptical machine either, but the free one at the Mission Rec center is wobbly and sticky and we need to put on clothes in order to get to it. There are elliptical machines in other places (they are called “gyms”) but you have to pay to use them. They are not wobbly or sticky, but you still need to wear clothes and then also, the money. Of which we are low.
So here’s our desperate plan: we’re going out, for the first time in either of our little lives, into the despair that is Black Friday. We’ll drive around until we find a sports supplier in need of a mob. Then we’ll rush in, waving our arms and making lots of noise (so as to give the impression that there are more of us) and run straight to the ellipticals. We’ll pick the one with the best stride length and degree of incline and assure the salesperson that we have the money for it; we just don’t know where exactly we put it.
Surely any salesperson worth their sale-salt will see what good consumers we are and reward us with an interest-free loan and free delivery on-the-spot. Right? That’s how companies do business. Right? Chicken Farmer?
CHEAP EATS continued…
APPETITE West Portal has long warmed my heart. Maybe it’s the removed setting, tucked in the shadow of Twin Peaks where T line ends and the M emerges. Or it’s a sense of stepping back in time to a 1970s San Francisco, a sleepy area unfazed by trends and hipsterization. It’s a family neighborhood, residential and small town in feel — and like any corner of our city, has its food gems, like old school blue cheese buffalo burgers at charmingly dated Bulls Head, or vividly fresh sandwiches and salads at the original location of Market and Rye.
For the past couple months, West Portal residents have been flocking to Orexi, which has quickly made a name for itself and is bustling even on weeknights. It’s Greek… sadly a rarity in the Bay Area despite a plethora of Mediterranean eateries. The upscale Kokkari has long been the Greek queen of San Francisco (sister restaurant Evvia rules Palo Alto) and it has no equal. Downtown’s Ayola also offers Greek favorites, but on the cheaper side. Yet I find myself longing for restaurants like Taverna Kyclades in Astoria, Queens, a mid-range, family-style seafood Greek restaurant typical of New York City’s famed Greek neighborhood, convivial with families, rounds of crisp, Greek white wines, and platters of octopus and grilled fish.
Orexi is a step in the right direction — a comfortable, mid-range neighborhood Greek restaurant using quality ingredients. Owners John and Effie Loufas have created an approachable dining experience — I ate here a couple weeks after opening, returning again one month later to the same waiter who remembered a wine I ordered the month before and a busser who recalled the shirt my husband was wearing last visit. No wonder they’re securing repeat diners.
The understated dining room is chic rather than rustic, warm with a honeycomb-like wall hanging and mirrors reflecting the room’s glow. As for the food, first the bad news: grilled octopus ($11 — there’s also an octopus salad for $12.50), typically a favorite of mine, is a bit rubbery over arugula, while gigantes ($7) baked white beans, suffer from blandness but for a dousing of appropriately sweet-savory tomato sauce and crumbled feta on top.
My appetite (the meaning of the Greek word “orexi”) is satiated in unexpected places. House pita bread arrives humbly from the oven, belying its addictive nature, gratifying with small scoops of house dips ($6 each), my favorite being a salty taramosalata, a creamy, fish roe spread laden with olive oil and lemon. The eggplant dip, melitzanosalata, is a balanced expression of the vegetable’s smoky notes, while I wish tyrokafteri, a spicy feta spread dotted with jalapeno, was actually spicy.
Zucchini fritters ($7) with tzatziki (a tangy cucumber yoghurt dip) are a solid starter. Lamb riblets ($9) or lamb carpaccio ($10.75) step it up in tenderness and meaty (not gamey) flavor. In terms of entrees, I’m smitten with homey moussaka ($17). Layers of ground lamb and beef meld with allspice and stewed eggplant under creamy bechamel sauce, reminiscent of the melty, homemade lasagna of my childhood. Simple and also enticing, the “signature” rotisserie chicken ($17) is a generous half-bird (free range, thank you very much), over greens and unremarkable potatoes, marinated in lemon, oil, and spices, tender inside, with slightly crispy, oregano-laced skin.
In the mix with zippy Greek whites and California wines, the wine list holds a rare treat (and I always head straight for the unusual): retsina. Retsina ($6 a glass at Orexi) is a thousands year old Greek tradition of white or rose wine aromatized with pine resin (used to seal ancient wine vessels from excess oxygen). As you might imagine, pine resin gives the wine a foresty flavor, which some describe as turpentine or sap: “Not for everyone,” our waiter clarifies. Its herbal green notes work beautifully with the roasted chicken.
Orexi’s amiable welcome and candelit glow is comfortably gratifying, like slipping on a pair of slippers by the fire. Thankfully not about “the scene” or the next hot trend, the restaurant is about well-executed comfort food in a neglected category with effortless service paramount.
Tue.-Thu., 5-9:30pm; Fri.-Sat. 5pm-10:30pm, Sun. 5pm-9:30pm, closed Mon.
243 W. Portal Ave.
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VISUAL ARTS Glossy and matte stripes alternate across the walls and floor of the 941 Geary gallery in the Tenderloin, occasionally illuminated by striking reflections from the exhibition’s 10 hanging canvases. These are perfectly symmetrical morphs of traditional letter-form graffiti, each done in Easter-ready pastels, save for a black-and-white tag that takes up one enormous gallery wall.
“I just want to continue painting different visions I have,” says the creator of this immersive art experience, visual artist Ricardo “Apex” Richey. He got his start tagging the streets of San Francisco in the early 1980s, perfecting his now-revered, precise hand forms inside Muni buses and walls around the city.
“Reflected,” this new solo show, plays on the entrance into the gallery world of an art form once done covertly on exterior walls. He’s taking graffiti and, like artists before him, skewing and reimagining it. “Abstracting the notion of Apex,” he tells me.
With the current mania for street art-inspired pieces, Apex has been able to make a career of his work. He capitalizes on the legions of graff-nerd followers on his social networks, and his drive to refract and skew the recognizable shape of graffiti in endless ways. The 941 Geary show was inspired by an iPhone app that allowed him to mirror pre-existing works. After speaking with Justin Giarla, founder of 941 and the rest of the White Walls family of urban art galleries, the two decided the idea merited more exploration.
But during the same week “Reflection” opened, Apex’s personal life was morphing as well. After three years in an epic factory-cum-studio on Market and Sixth Street, his building was sold and he was out. Goodbye to its 13-foot ceilings and the rotating, 10-foot high windows that look out on Market.
And goodbye to the museum he’d been curating upstairs on the roof, where SF street artists Chez and Neon had contributed massive works, among others. Painted vegetation by muralist Mona Caron curled to the sun in a piece one could nearly see from Trailhead, the pop-up cafe down the street in the Renoir Hotel whose back wall, by chance, is graced by a collaboration mural done by Caron and Apex.
If you wander around the Mid-Market neighborhood, it’s not hard to see that Apex spends his nights working in a neighborhood studio. He’s certainly left his mark. The first piece in the area was Yerba Buena Liquors’ sign, years ago. Since then he’s painted all over the place. The corner of Turk, Mason, and Market Streets is graced by a super-burner of his, a phrase coined to describe his pieces that use hundreds of hues of aerosol.
“I would love to stay there,” he tells me at his new FiDi day job (more on that in a sec.) “In that regard, this is kind of sad.” But Apex knew he was in the studio and roof space on borrowed time — rumors had swirled since he first moved in that the building was for sale. He sees the “gradient” of real estate prices, that Sixth Street was an anomaly in a ridiculously expensive city to live in.
“On one hand it sucks, on the other, I understand it. Overall, it’s better for the city.” He’s looking for a new space anywhere in the “industrial band” that loops between his old studio and Potrero Hill, hoping to get lucky with one of the city’s few remaining industrial spaces.
And, as his solo show is testament, he’s not letting the forced move stop him. That day job? He bought a coffee kiosk. The business is about him “trying to be mature,” he says, laughing as he talks about Otis Cafe, the Four Barrel-equipped stand he’s set up in the Otis Lounge nightclub entryway (25 Maiden, SF) where you can now find him weekdays from 7am to 3:30pm.
“This idea popped into my head,” he says. ‘Coffee cart, that’s a low end startup.” The Maiden Lane micro-‘hood lacks designer coffee, and on the day I visit, new regulars are already lining up.
For Apex, the kiosk is just product of a creative mind. “I feel very blessed, fortunate,” he muses. “Like, I’m an idea person. Painting, art allows me to get the most of those ideas to come to light.” The Otis Cafe sandwich board and cart bear Apex’s signature loops of color — a new home in the downtown area for the artist himself.
Through Jan. 5
941 Geary, SF
LIT If you’re seeking the perfect present for the music obsessive in your life, consider picking up a copy of David Byrne’s How Music Works (McSweeney’s, 332 pp., $32). A thorough exploration of the many facets of music-making, including music industry contracts, philosophical musings on the art of creation, and the scientific principles of tonality, Byrne’s book can be read like a field guide by aspiring musicians, and as an armchair adventure for those whose knowledge of music begins and ends with Pandora.
Intelligent without being overly-analytical, detailed without being didactic, what Byrne conveys most successfully is his own exuberant curiosity for his chosen topic. Like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, in which Bryson painstakingly researched the scientific foundations of the universe in order to be able to make sense of them himself, How Music Works often reads like an earnest inquiry conducted by a passionate amateur. That Byrne comes by his knowledge of the workings of the music industry a little more easily — as an elder statesman of art rock, he has decades of personal experience and anecdotes to draw on — fortunately doesn’t render his presentation self-aggrandizing or abstruse.
Although the title of the book seems to indicate a focus on the principles of music theory, a large bulk of the book actually focuses on the technological processes that music has been subjected to over the centuries — from the invention of the first musical instruments to that of Edison cylinder recorders and eventually MP3 players. In his first chapter, “Creation in Reverse,” Byrne presents the theory that specific music has been created to fit certain acoustical contexts. He examines a variety of musical styles — unamplified, percussive ensembles of West Africa, whose music sounds most optimal when heard outdoors, unconfined; long notes and modal structures of Medieval church music, created to fill the vaulted echo chambers of Gothic cathedrals — speculating on how they evolved first to fit the given architecture, and how architecture subsequently evolved to fit the music, as with Wagner’s uniquely-designed opera house in Bayreuth.
He points out how the architecture of even a respected venue like Carnegie Hall might actually be detrimental to the overall sound of a percussion-heavy, experimental rock band, while later he describes the perfect balance of architectural elements that conspire to support such a band and its satellites.
Organized in ten chapters, each tackling a specific thread of thought, the flow of the book can be likened to that of a rock album: a few obvious hits, a couple of minor throwaways. One of the latter is the chapter entitled “How to Make a Scene,” which is also one of the shortest, a moderately interesting rumination on what it takes to create an identifiable music “scene” in terms of architecture, policy, and business philosophy (his exemplar being the now-defunct CBGB). While it makes some interesting points, it could just as easily be missing from the book and no one would particularly mourn its absence. Another, entitled “Collaborations,” is similarly brief, and its appearance between a chapter on the mechanics of recording and the financial realities of the music business doesn’t make for a smooth transition, tonally or thematically.
On the other hand, chapters such as the two entitled “Technology Shapes Music” (covering both analog and digital) are as thorough as they are fascinating. Beginning with the earliest sound recordings in 1878 to an in-depth user’s guide to the music software that has become the industry standard (even for confirmed oddballs such as Byrne), these chapters offer a thoughtful analysis on not just how music works, but also how it’s worked. Finally, in chapter ten (“Harmonia Mundi”), a mere 302 pages in, Byrne turns to the scientific and spiritual principles of music and music theory. Music, it appears, has been around about as long as human beings have, as fragments of 45,000 year-old flutes and pictorial evidence found in Mesopotamia and Egypt help prove. He veers off into Pythagorian territory by expounding upon the so-called Music of the Spheres, and ventures into tantric philosophy, which asserts that the vibration of the universe is generated by Shakti and Shiva having sex.
The book ends on a note of bittersweet optimism, contemplating a future where human composers could actually become obsolete. It’s a future Byrne claims not to fear — while still expressing admiration for music makers past and present, and gratitude for his own place, in this moment, within their ranks.
Dan Rosen, the co-founder of Solar Mosaic, told us there was an ironic note to the devastation that Hurricane Sandy recently brought to New York City. The same power grid that helps create such fierce hurricanes through the burning of fossil fuels was unable to distribute power to thousands of homes, in mostly low-income neighborhoods, for weeks in the wake of storm.
Sandy brought to the forefront a huge energy challenge: how to move over to renewable energy fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change and the killer storms in generates, build more efficient and reliable grids, and ensure that everyone can equitably participate in the new renewable energy economy. Bay Area energy entrepreneurs such as Rosen are working on innovative energy models that address those issues.
So far, the solar debate has mostly been between proponents of personal solar projects such as residential rooftop installations, also known as distributed generation, and those who back industrial-scale projects in far away plains and deserts.
But Rosen and other entrepreneurs are championing a middle route: They propose vastly increasing the prevalence of large solar power arrays and other renewable power plants close to where the energy is consumed, and opening up creative new ways for more people to buy into those projects.
This kind of approach to energy has the potential to democratize power production, avoid costly and environmentally unsound transmissions lines, and prevent utilities from monopolizing renewable energy.
CROWD FUNDING SOLAR
One of the barriers to the proliferation of solar is the relatively high upfront cost of purchasing and installing the panels. But with the rising costs of fossil fuel and the government incentives around renewable energy, investments in solar infrastructure can pay off big.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance crunched the numbers and according to a report that came out in June, large solar projects may soon pay a 5-9 percent return on investment. Big financial institutions and other corporate players have taken note of these figures and potential for profit they represent.
For example, Google has invested almost $1 billion in renewable energy that it plans to sell into the grid, including opening a $75 million fund for residential rooftop solar this past September. The problem is that big lenders are only looking for large-scale solar deals in order to cover their costs.
Enter Rosen and Solar Mosaic, who are coming up with a way to harness the power of crowds to fund the local and decentralized projects that big financial institutions tend to overlook. Solar Mosaic specializes in raising seed capital for solar projects by collecting many small investments into one pool.
That idea won Solar Mosaic a $2 million grant from the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, and attracted $3.5 million in venture capital.
“Our job — not just as Mosaic, but as society — is to make sure that the next energy economy has participation and ownership from millions of people and communities around the world,” Rosen said. “Crowd funding is really the beginning of a broader movement to democratize and distribute capital — enabling people to invest in projects they otherwise wouldn’t have had access to.”
This vision proved itself initially with a successful Kickstarter-like crowd funding platform that facilitated the development of five solar projects with the participation of more than 400 small investors and over $350,000 raised. The money went to fund solar panel installations on the roofs of community organizations in California and Arizona, including People’s Grocery in Oakland.
But there’s a catch. As the law currently stands, Solar Mosaic, or any company engaged in crowd funding, cannot offer any interest on the money invested by small online contributors. Since there is only a limited pool of people who believe in an energy revolution enough to shell out money for free, these examples are not entirely replicable. “We chose to start with those ones because they have very strong constituencies and we were using more a philanthropic model,” Rosen said.
The new model the company is developing is “getting people who are not necessarily just environmentalists invested in the clean energy economy,” Rosen said. “I want people who are like, ‘Oh, cool, I can make [a decent return] if I invest in this,’ and that gets more stakeholders than Sierra Club members. Let’s have millions of stakeholders with skin in the game.”
So how to move forward? The controversial federal Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act passed in April by Congress included a much-trumpeted crowd funding provision. The bill charged the Securities and Exchange Commission with the responsibility of putting meat on the legislation’s skeleton.
The SEC has until the Dec. 31 deadline to come up a set of rules allowing start-ups to gather small investments from ordinary people online while still offering provisions to protect the public from fraud. Many are skeptical that the SEC will complete the rule-writing process by the end of year.
Impatient to wait for the SEC and unsure whether the provisions will be practical for their purposes, Solar Mosaic is following a different path. It is using the funds raised already to pay for a lengthy and expensive filing with the SEC to upgrade its financial status.
Rosen said he couldn’t discuss details, but he said the new status should grant Solar Mosaic some leeway on offering financial returns to a wider variety of investors.
ENERGY IN THE CLOUD
Investment opportunities in local solar projects may be a good way to get people financially involved in clean energy but what about Californians who simply wish to purchase renewable energy for their homes or business?
California leads the country in rooftop solar installation, much to the credit of two programs: rebates that offset the cost of the panels through the California Solar Initiative and a program that allows those who own a rooftop with solar panels to offset their utility bills with credit from the energy they produce. California Public Utilities Commission statistics indicate these programs are largely responsible for some 1,379 megawatts of solar that have been installed in California at 131,874 different sites; about as much energy as one large nuclear reactor.
There has been record growth in adoption of solar by homeowners in the past two years, according to the CPUC, including a 364 percent jump in low income areas in since 2007. Yet that’s a far shot from the goal of 12,000 megawatts of local clean energy by 2020 called for by Gov. Jerry Brown in July.
Californians who do not have savings or a high credit score or who have shaded roofs usually can’t participate in the state’s renewable energy programs. But the most significant obstacle to increased participation is that only homeowners are eligible, while renters must contend with whatever power they can get from their utility. In a city like San Francisco, where almost two-third of residents rents, that is the overwhelming majority of citizens.
One solution that would circumvent the property-owning restrictions is allowing people to subscribe to solar gardens and other renewable energy facilities in their area and receive the same credit on their utility bill for their share of energy delivered to the grid. Decoupling where energy is made from who is able to buy it “allows everyone to participate, it makes it so it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, the only thing that matters that you have a utility bill,” said Tom Price of CleanPath, a solar project investment firm.
California Senate Bill 843, introduced by Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis) and coauthored by Price, attempted to create the legal framework for this kind of virtual transaction. Over the summer, it died in the Assembly Committee on Utilities and Commerce as result of late session lobbying by Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison. Notably, the state’s other largest utility, San Diego Gas and Electric, supported SB843. Also supporting the bill was a wide and diverse coalition ranging from the US Department of Defense to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Wolk plans to reintroduce SB843 in the next legislative session.
Price and other supporters see the bill’s eventual passage as inevitability: “In an age when so many transaction are virtual [and] we can put so many parts of our lives in the cloud, why can’t we put energy in the cloud and let people virtually subscribe to it? From the grid’s perspective, there is no difference.”
Democratizing the green energy industry is about allowing everyone to participate easily, but it is also about empowering those who are typically left out of the conversation.
Low-income and marginalized communities are often the ones most impacted by the environmental and health effects of burning fossils fuels. As the green energy revolution expands, those same communities will potentially be last in line to benefit from or exert influence over the transformation.
Considering that solar can be small scale and still financially sound in the long term, “there is an opportunity to rebuild the energy infrastructure…from the grassroots,” said Shiva Patel who co-founded Energy Solidarity Cooperative. Patel and his partner Dave Ron want to set up multi-stakeholder cooperatives that promote ownership and decision-making by consumers.
In a low-income neighborhood, residents are most likely tenants with little leverage and no eligibility for California’s renewable energy incentives. The cooperative model suggests residents can pool space, financial resources, and labor to become players in small-scale power production.
Normally, consumers considered downstream along the energy supply chain do not have the financial or political means to make decisions about the energy their communities use. “We are flipping that on its head,” said Ron “We want those people to be upstream. We are taking a very horizontal approach.“
The nuts and bolts of the coop’s structure may be new, but the distinction between those who own and control the community power project and those who finance it is important. There are three types of members in the cooperative: consumers, workers, and community investors. The consumers initiate the community power project and then maintain ownership of it. They contribute labor and money toward the project according to their ability. The workers are a group of energy experts organized into a collective that provide support and advice for the project. Decisions about the coop and its projects are left to the consumers and workers. Community investors are drawn to the project by crowd funding, but financial support does not buy them a decision making role. Once the upfront costs of the project are paid back to the community investors, consumers can keep the revenue or use it to foster more community power projects.
One source of inspiration for the duo is Co-op Power based in Boston, which has more than 150 full-time green jobs with living wages, spawning 10 businesses in the decade since its founding.
“We had a large number of people trying to solve the puzzle of how communities could come together and create sustainable energy models,” said President and CEO Lynn Benander. “It’s the brain child of many people.”
On October 6, 2010, longtime civic leader and financier Warren Hellman stood before the Bay Area Council’s annual dinner and announced the presence of a special guest. MC Hammer stepped forward to introduce the man of honor. His name was Ron Conway, and, according to the SF Business Times, he’d moved to San Francisco from Atherton six years earlier.
But now, he was acting like he owned the place.
Former Mayor Art Agnos was in the audience, and he remembers the moment well. “This guy stood up and said that we have to take the city back from the progressives,” Agnos told us. “I barely knew who he was. I’ve been in San Francisco since 1966, and here he comes telling us what to do.”
Agnos minces no words about the man who is, by some accounts, now the most powerful unelected person at City Hall despite suddenly bursting onto the political scene just last year, shortly after that event. “He’s come to San Francisco using his multimillions of dollars to buy systems and people to effectively mandate his views, to project his way of doing things onto liberal San Francisco.”
So who is this guy? He’s one of Mayor Ed Lee’s closest advisors. He’s poured more than $1 million into the last two local elections — dropping at least $625,000 in this year’s election cycle (journalist Larry Bush reports this year’s total at about $800,000). That includes $275,000 to help pass Prop. E, which lowered the business tax rates for technology companies in which he’s invested, and $69,000 to help oust Sup. Christina Olague for defying Lee and Conway on a couple of key votes.
Conway is one of the Silicon Valley’s preeminent angel investors since just after the dawn of the Internet, parlaying his early successes bankrolling Google, PayPal, and Facebook into investments with a vast array of SF-based tech companies, including Twitter, Digg, Airbnb, and Zynga.
His net worth is widely reported at $1.5 billion, but he disputes that he’s a billionaire. Business Insider obtained a leaked list of his investments in 2011 and it included 228 companies. A report on his investments that appeared on Crunchbase.com quantified many of Conway’s investments, including $10 million each in Square (the SF-based startup by a Twitter founder), Stitcher, Yammer, and Pinterest; $20 million in AddThis, $8.3 million in AirTime; $8 million in BuzzFeed; and $5 million each in Twitter, Friend.ly, and Magnetic, among more than 200 tech investments.
It’s difficult to discern his precise financial worth — but nobody doubts that it’s more than enough to funnel vast amounts into local politics, as Conway has been more willing to do than anyone in these last couple years.
There have always been wealthy people in San Francisco who have tried to throw their money — and political weight — around. Walter Shorenstein, the developer and commercial landlord, dominated Democratic Party politics for decades. Warren Hellman and Gap founder Don Fisher put money and time into political initiatives. The list goes on.
But most of them were fairly homegrown — they’d been active in the city for many years before they became political players. And they tended to make their mark in major charitable and philanthropic efforts as well as partisan politics.
Conway, while he does give money to charities like Ronald McDonald House, is a different type, part of the impatient tech generation that’s right-wing on economic policy (Conway was a registered Republican before switching to decline-to-state as he became political active here in early 2011), wants things done his way, and sees no need for community accountability.
“Warren Hellman was interested in children’s issues, public education, he wanted to invest in building community,” Sup. John Avalos told us. “Conway is all about the bottom line of his industry, and nothing more.”
Avalos complained that Conway (like many in his industry) disdains openness and public access. “It’s all behind the scenes,” he told us. “That’s how he likes to operate.”
In each of the last three years, Conway has doubled or quadrupled his political contributions. He’s the first big spender to operate in the city in the post-Citizens United era, when one rich person can play an outsized role in politics, creating independent expenditure committees that can throw around unlimited amounts of money.
And right now, a lot of City Hall insiders say, this unelected, unappointed operative is helping undermine progressive policy and send city politics in a very different direction.
WEALTHY, CONSERVATIVE ROOTS
Conway declined to be interviewed for this piece, with his press spokesperson — Aaron McLear, who served as press secretary to then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other prominent Republicans — offering up a canned statement for print. So what little we can glean of Conway’s beginnings come from public records, other media reports, and Gary Rivlin’s insightful book The Godfather of Silicon Valley: Ron Conway and the Fall of the Dot-coms.
Ronald Crawford Conway was born in San Francisco on March 09, 1951. The middle child in an Irish-Catholic family of 12 siblings, Conway also has a twin brother, Rick. Ron Conway went to St. Stephen’s boys high school in San Francisco until he was 15, when the family moved to the wealthy nearby enclave of Atherton.
Conway’s father was a top exec at the then-Oakland-based American President Lines, which today is a major shipping company for Walmart’s goods. The elder Conway cashed out for what Conway described as “a couple million dollars,” according to Rivlin.
Driving through Atherton, you get a feel for how starkly different it is from San Francisco. Stone walls 10-feet high surround most homes, many that look like Spanish villas or small castles to the eye of a San Francisco native. The Conways home there was valued at $18 million in 2001.
It was in wealthy, conservative Atherton that Conway found his political voice, according to Rivlin’s book. “It was in high school where I became more outspoken,” Conway told him. While studying political science at San Jose State, Conway served on the Atherton City Council starting at the age of 21, mostly to “counteract the noisy student protesters at nearby Stanford,” Rivlin wrote.
While his father had been active in San Francisco politics as a Democrat, Conway got involved in local Republican politics as a teenager and worked on Nixon’s 1968 campaign for president, telling Rivlin that he and his twin brother were “dyed-in-the-wool conservatives.”
That ideology apparently stayed with Conway, who records show gave $50,000 to George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign and $90,000 to Schwarzenegger, his “recover team,” and the California Republican Party in 2005-06.
But, Rivlin noted, “he was hardly someone you would describe as politically engaged.” On the issues, Conway told him, “I could care less.” He cares about government, Rivlin noted, “to the extent it has an impact on the business climate.”
GETTING HIS WINGS
Conway worked for National Semiconductor in the 1970s and cofounded Altos Computer Systems in 1979, selling it in the early ’90s and using its proceeds to become an “angel investor,” providing early capital in exchange for an ownership stake, in small tech startups in the early years of the Internet.
To Conway, being an angel seemed to be about helping the rich get richer by pumping up the first big tech bubble. His Angel Investors, LP consisted of Conway and a number of already wealthy Internet and film luminaries, from hardcore investors and disinterested tinkerers, each contributing to the pot that was controlled by Conway.
To be a part of his exclusive investment club you had to have a minimum net worth of at least a million dollars, or have a famous name, according to Rivlin. Countless of the Internet’s rising stars joined Angel Investors and its successor companies. Cobbled from myriad business journals is a small list from among many of Conway’s chosen: Dean Morton of Hewlett Packard, golfer Tiger Woods, Stanford University Engineering Dean Jim Gibbons, Twitter CEO Biz Stone, entertainer MC Hammer, venture capitalist Frank Quattrone, and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.
For a man who made his fortune investing in the hottest names in tech, Conway is often described as a bit of an anti-tech Luddite. Not relying on product knowledge, his strategy boils down to this: Conway trusts his first impression of a startup’s CEO. He goes with his gut, as he explains in a free Stanford YouTube class featuring Conway.
And though sometimes his companies would fail, the successes more than made up for those failures — so much so, that he had to expand. Conway started new LLCs to handle his expanding investments. Angel Investors II started with $150 million, according to Rivlin. SV Angel III and IV were no slouches either, starting with investments of $40 million apiece, according to SEC filings for the companies.
The number of investments from Angel Investors at the time of Rivlin’s 2001 book was already well over the hundreds. And the most recent numbers for SVAngel, from 2011, list the number of startups they’ve invested in at 290 companies.
Conway disciple David Lee officially took over as head of the Angels last year, according to California business filings, but several sources indicate Conway is still the largest investor in the various “Angel” branded companies.
Conway is also the head of a long list of other shadowy businesses, all incorporated in Delaware for its lax tax and regulatory policies. Among the more than a dozen companies just in San Francisco that list Conway as president, partner, founder, or agent-of-service — for which most have little information publicly available — are SV Angel Management Holding, RC Chirp Fund LLC, RC Chirp Management LLC, 2000 Washington Street, 2006 Washington Street, Conway Family Foundation, and Magillicutty LLC.
What separates Angel Investors, though, from the usual investment angels, is Conway’s unique way of leveraging his network, known as his “Rontourage.” Hundreds of tech luminaries and celebrities tied to Conway’s Angel companies have an understanding that they will trade favors, according to Rivlin’s book.
“The only caveat, whether you joined a side fund, an advisory board, or Angel Investors, was that you should lend a hand when you could,” Rivlin wrote. “If you’re in the club, you can do someone a favor and trust that somehow you’re going to get repaid for that favor,” tech entrepreneur Jad Duwaik told Rivlin.
That strategy goes a long way towards explaining what Conway is doing in San Francisco.
CEO OF SAN FRANCISCO
Mayor Lee nows seems to be getting the royal Conway treatment, and the companies Conway invests in are getting strong support from the Mayor’s Office at City Hall, from the tax breaks that Twitter and Zynga received last year to this year’s unsuccessful effort to maintain Ainbnb’s exemption from the transient occupancy tax (a decision made by the Treasurer/ Tax Collector’s Office, which defied Lee’s public lobbying on the issue).
SV Angel has investments or equity in over 103 total San Francisco startups, according to SV Angel documents leaked to Fortune last year, including Airbnb, Digg, Formspring, Wikia, EventBrite, Zynga, StumbleUpon, Justin.TV, and a little company called Twitter.
It was Twitter’s threat to leave San Francisco in early 2011, which newly appointed Mayor Lee countered with a multi-million-dollar exemption from the city’s payroll tax — followed by a repeal of the city’s tax on stock options — that first attracted Conway and his wealth to city politics as Lee’s biggest benefactor.
Conway formed the independent expenditure group San Franciscans for Jobs and Good Government to back Lee and undermine his challengers, seeding it with $100,000 and urging fellow tech titans including Benioff and Sean Parker, founder of Napster and an early Facebook backer, to do the same (see “The billionaire’s mayor,” 10/18/11).
Beyond just money, Conway tapped his connections to back Lee, filling a re-mix video of MC Hammer’s “2Legit2Quit” promoting Lee with members of his Rontourage, including local sports stars Ronnie Lott and Brian Wilson, former Mayor Willie Brown, Twitter CEO Biz Stone, and Google exec Marissa Mayer — all performing their parts on the roof of Conway’s Pacific Heights home during a party he threw for them.
Emboldened by Lee’s decisive victory and the mayor’s apparently willingness to move Conway’s agenda of propping up tech companies, Conway upped the ante this year.
RAISING THE STAKES
After successfully pushing last year’s measure exempting Twitter and other mid-Market businesses from paying taxes on new hires, Conway this year supported broadening out those tax cuts through an overhaul of the business tax that voters approved as Prop. E this year.
The measure initially pitted Conway and the technology companies against more traditional businesses, at least in terms of which companies would see tax hikes and which would get the cuts. With large payrolls and low revenue streams until they take off, tech companies stood to gain the most from the measure.
Some technology companies could see their business taxes decrease by 25 percent, while large real estate firms could see theirs increase by a similar amount. The San Francisco Controller’s Office estimated “information” companies saw their share of city tax revenues drop from 8 percent to 6 percent under the change, while “Finance, Insurance, Real Estate” rose from 23 percent to 28 percent.
In October, Reuters reporter Gerry Shih reported on an heated exchange during a closed-door meeting at City Hall in April, where Conway reportedly cut off SF Chamber of Commerce leaders, telling them they “need to get on board” with backing the tax overhaul because “the tech industry is producing all the jobs in this city.”
That may not be entirely true, but Conway and his tech allies are certainly acting as if they are indispensable to both the business community and the city’s political landscape. The next month, on May 11, Conway donated $49,000 to the newly formed Mayor Ed Lee for San Francisco Committee.
And that was just the beginning of spendy year for Conway, from the $275,000 he spent to help pass Prop. E to the $69,000 that he and his wife Gayle contributed to San Francisco Women For Accountability to go after Olague for defying Lee by supporting efforts to have Prop. E bring in some extra revenue, creating CleanPowerSF, and the reinstating Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.
Now, Conway has pledged to fund the campaign to recall Mirkarimi, continuing his efforts to support Lee and undermine progressives into the new year.
Whether the Conway-funded attack on Olague was about power, payback, domestic violence, or something else is difficult to say for sure. But his formation earlier this year of San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation (sf.citi) made clear his politics and agenda in a strange video it made.
The video talks about the range of San Francisco’s problems — you can’t get a cab fast enough, Muni doesn’t work very well, and there’s trash and graffiti on the streets. All of these problems, the video suggests, can be solved with technology. But there’s nothing in the video, or in sf.citi’s agenda, about homelessness or poverty or the gap between the rich and the poor — or the fact that the tech boom is making a lot of those problems worse.
In fact, sf.citi — and Conway’s agenda — offers nothing for San Franciscans who are not middle class or above. There is no suggestion of an app for facilitating improvements to dilapidated public housing in the city, or for a map of free immunization clinics in low-income neighborhoods, or a database for easily tracking the political influence of Conway and his wealthy friends.
In the end, Conway had only this to stay in a statement delivered to us by McLear: “I am very proud to support Mayor Lee and members of the Board of Supervisors who are tackling the important issues facing our City head-on, from creating jobs for San Francisco residents to building more affordable housing to improving our parks, transit and infrastructure.
I became involved in San Francisco politics and formed sf.citi with leading technology companies because we believe that the technology industry shares in the responsibility to solve our City’s challenges and give back to our community. That’s why I donated generously this year to support consensus measures for our parks, City College, affordable housing and protect Hetch Hetchy, and why sf.citi and so many of its member companies supported these measures as well. sf.citi member companies and I will continue to partner with City leaders and communities to give back to the City we love and work together to create jobs and to improve our public transit, public schools, public safety and the lives of every San Francisco resident.”
But his record shows that he’s mostly interested in how the public sector can help the private sector. McLear says that Conway has supported many Democrats; that’s true of almost anyone who tries to be a power-broker in a city where Republicans are a tiny minority.
“He is not right-wing,” McLear said, but when we asked McLear to tell us if Conway had ever supported a measure to raise taxes on wealthy people, we got no response.
That’s because Conway’s agenda is about — as he himself announced at the Bay Area Council and again later at the Commonwealth Club — repealing the progressive agenda. “He wants to make this a totally business-friendly city with nothing that would slow down his plans or those of his friends,” Agnos said.
Adds Avalos: “He wants San Francisco to be a mirror image of Silicon Valley, but he doesn’t have any real concern for the social impacts for working people, renters, and the rest of us.”
Conway’s role in the campaign to defeat Olague showed a fascinating, and dangerous, side of his politics. When Lee first named Olague to the Board of Supervisors, she told us she was introduced to Conway as someone who would support her.
“Willie Brown collected some checks from him,” she told us. She also said caustic mayoral aide Tony Winnicker, who sent Olague a vicious text message after the Mirkarimi vote with a vow to “defeat you,” is Lee’s main liaison to the tech industry. That vote was the last straw after she didn’t play along with Conway on taxes and defeating CleanPowerSF, so the Conway shithammer came down.
“It was a calculated, cruel political strategy to punish her, and to send a message to other politicians that this is what happens if you cross him,” Agnos said. “And that message is going to spread unless progressives stand up against it.”
Added Olague: “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
And Conway doesn’t like to operate in the sunshine. In fact, that’s a key part of his political strategy: Rather than contributing to existing organizations — the Chamber of Commerce, for example — Conway sets up his own independent committees, sometimes several in an election cycle. That can make it harder for the public to follow the money.
Avalos said the main problem with Conway is that “his campaign contributions gives one person, him, overwhelming influence in San Francisco elections and puts San Francisco’s democracy at great peril. ” Steven T. Jones and Larry Bush contributed to this report