CHEAP EATS As we were walking to the car we decided: it was not only the best pozole, it was the best thing either of us had ever ate. I should have gone back and told her so, but when we’d left Sal the Pork Chop’s penthouse sweet it was almost midnight and she was in her pajamas. She’d already fallen asleep in the middle of the season premier of “Downton Abbey,” and we’d had to clear our throats and knock on her head after, just to say goodbye. It was a knockout pozole, really and truly.
I love my Secret Agent Lady for a lot of reasons, and now this: We were halfway down the hall when she called us back. “I forgot to give you the leftovers,” she said.
I pinched myself. Hedgehog swooned.
“Steady,” I whispered, hooking her arm and holding on while our hostess and best friend ever was filling up a yogurt container. “We don’t need two faller-overs in the fambly.”
Sal the Pork Chop, everybody . . . New. Favorite. Person. Ever. And (not entirely coincidentally) maker of the pozole that changes everything.
True, she is not technically a restaurant. But then, I am not exactly all-the-way not on strike, either. I mean, agreement was reached, I am thrilled to say, over salt-and-pepper prawns and clay pot chicken at my new favorite restaurant in Chinatown.
Agreement = check’s in the mail. It is not, however, in my hands. So let’s just say that relatively real restaurant reviews are in the mail . . . and keep talking about Sal the Pork Chop’s pozole.
Or let’s hear from Hedgehog first: Dear Sir or Madam or etc. etc.:
Youse’re going to miss me when I’m gone. Like, by the time you read this, you will already be missing me. The long strike of twelve dash thirteen will be over! And right on time, too. I just contacted the accountant, in preparation for the annual clenching of the jaw and wrenching of the wallet and found out that, due to our domesticational partnership status, and additionally due to our residing in the state of happy cows, I get half of what Chicken Farmer doesn’t make, whether I write half of her column or not. It’s called “community property.”
Meaning, conversely, that she communally appropriates half of what I make, as well. I’m trying to train her to become an Emmy-winning sound editor, but I suspect she won’t be kicking in as much labor on my job as I have been on her’s when the time comes so … so long, suckas. It’s been swell, but the swelling’s gone down now.
Most sincerely, etc. etc.,
P.S. VIVA LA EL CHEAPO SPORTOS!
Yeah but mine has not! Swelling, that is, and gone down, that is, respectively. We decided we liked my face better like this, and I did not let the nose doctor “set” my nose. He showed me how to rub it so the swelling would go down, but I don’t.
I just …
So the pozole: she made it mostly in a blender, she said. The saucy part, which had about eighty cloves of garlic in it and I forget what she said else. This she then fried in a pan, as I understand it, and that she poured into some chicken broth and other things, in which were then simmered legs and thighs until heaven happened, and was garnished at the table with cilantro, radish, cabbage, avocado, and a squeeze of lime.
There. Now you know how to make, more or less, the best thing I ever ate. But I forgot to mention she roasted some poblanos in her broiler and then threw them in at the end. Christ, I wish I’d been paying better attention.
It was my first meal back from the three-day dead I was in. My second was the melty juicy crunchy salt-and-pepper prawns I savored with jalapeno slices in the company of my favorite living Bee Gee, at a big round table in the small, square second-floor Chinatown Cheap Eats gem:
APPETITE Authentic Asian cuisine of every category is one of California and the Bay Area’s strengths, with constant new openings, including Richmond’s mellow Daigo Sushi (www.daigosushi.com) and Szechuan outpost Chili House (www.chilihousesf.com). These three spots stand out for one (or a few) reasons.
Passing Muguboka many a time over the years, I meant to visit but never did until recently. What I found: a humble, all-day respite serving an impressive array of free and abundant banchan (mini-dishes accompanying a Korean meal), like myeolchi bokkeum (crispy mini-anchovies), and bottomless tea — making even upper teens-priced entrees a deal. Dining alone, I attempted to finish the banchan… and fail.
There’s a plentiful selection of soups and stews featuring tofu or Korean sausage, and dishes like go dung uh gui (broiled salted mackerel), or hae-mool pajeon, those ever-fabulous seafood and green onion Korean pancakes. I finished with a complimentary, cool pour of sujeonggwa, a sweet Korean punch alive with cinnamon, ginger, peppercorns, and dried persimmon.
Best dish: Muguboka serves a mean hae-mool (seafood) dolsot (stone pot) bibimbop ($16.95), the scorching stone pot arrives with sizzling rice, egg, squid, shrimp, mussels, and veggies, with nori on top. Best suited for: A mellow setting with copious amounts of Korean food. Expect two meals for the price of one.
401 Balboa, (415) 668-6007
Here’s my early word on Rockridge hotspot Ramen Shop, opened at the beginning of the year and packed since day one with long waits (no reservations). A short, ever-changing menu offers three types of ramen, one dessert, and a handful of appetizers so it’s possible to try the entire menu in one visit.
Chez Panisse alums Sam White, Jerry Jaksich and Rayneil De Guzman already have a hit on their hands, if crowds are any indication. Although early online comments have been trending towards the “frustrated to spend $16 on a bowl of ramen” kind, this is quality ramen — house-made noodles, salt-cured eggs, ultra-fresh ingredients. Meyer lemon infuses shoyu ramen ($15) with bright dimension, while spit-roasted chashu (literally pork roast, often known as char siu) adds heft to particularly flavorful spicy miso ramen ($15).
But my favorites aren’t of the ramen variety. Meyer lemon shows up again in a unique kimchi of house-pickled Napa cabbage ($5) to winning effect, a spirited contrast to chili. Then, wild nettle fried rice steals the show (see “best dish” below). Another surprising winner? Liquor. It’s a rarity to see cocktails with ramen. Straightforward, refreshing mezcal, and rye-based punches ($10) make fine ramen companions, as does a classic hi-ball ($12) of Hibiki 12-year Japanese whiskey with soda. A nutty-tasting black sesame ice cream sandwich ($5) with brown sugar cookies is the right finish.
Best dish: Easy… wild nettle fried rice ($9) interlaced with Monterey Bay squid and Llano Seco pork is as comforting as it is gourmet. Best suited for: The joyous convergence of ramen and Japanese whiskey — and for those with time on their hands.
Since JapaCurry’s Jay Hamada opened Roku in October at the busy Market and Octavia intersection, it’s been imilarly bustling inside. Groups of friends down Japanese beer and fried chicken in the form of karaage ($7) or chicken nan ban ($8), the latter a specialty of Kyushu, Hamada’s Southern Japanese hometown island. Unframed vintage Japanese posters hanging on wood walls impart a warm atmosphere, as do hearty house-made noodles and dishes like mochi bacon yakitori.
During opening weeks, I went straight for dishes I’ve never tried, including shio-kara ($4): room temperature, fermented squid swimming in its own innards. Salty and gummy, it is, as the menu states,”an acquired taste.” Likewise, hotate butter ($12) topped with vivid orange tobiko (fish roe) is unexpected. Scallops are sautéed in butter, but unlike most of our Westernized experiences with the succulent bivalve, the stomach and membrane skirt are left around the scallop flesh. Call it umami, call it funky, the taste is more accurately both. Look elsewhere for better well-known izakaya favorites — Roku’s rare dishes with bold flavor make it interesting.
Best dish: a surprisingly good seafood salad ($13) in an izakaya, laden with red king crab and smoked salmon, tobiko, boiled eggs, yellow bell pepper, and tomatoes over romaine, bright in a yuzu wasabi dressing. Best suited for: The hardcore who want authentic dishes they won’t find on typical menus. Also for groups of friends.
SUPER EGO The vivacious, vocal, and sweeter-than-sweet Honey Mahogany (www.itshoney.com) has graced the cover of the Guardian, sang at my wedding reception, and scraped me off the sidewalk outside Safeway innumerable times. But now that she’s “MISS HONEY MAHOGANY OF RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE SEASON 5” (premiering Monday, January 28 on Logo TV), I had to apply two months in advance for a 15 minute phone interview via her Beverly Hills agent. OK, OK, I could have just ambushed her at her new weekly Mahogany Mondays drag show at the revamping Midnight Sun (8pm, free. 4067 18th St., SF. www.midnightsunsf.com), but I wanted her with her “fame” face on, for kicks.
“It’s seriously a more-than-fulltime job being Honey Mahogany right now,” the Bay beauty practically panted. “If I think about everything I’m doing I’ll get overwhelmed. But the response has been so incredible — a couple of times at parties I’ve felt I needed a bodyguard!” And what would her dream bodyguard look like? “I just want to live that whole movie The Bodyguard,” she laughs. Has all the attention — and working with a catty cast — changed her at all? “I’m still sweet me, but if a queen crossed the line and went for someone I loved, oh, there was some reading.”
Besides releasing a single called “It’s Honey,” shooting videos, working on an EP, maintaining a social media empire, throwing a weekly party, and guest-hosting practically every damn party in the city — whew! — the “everything else” she doing, and why she really deserves this moment, is her day job as youth director at the Rainbow Community Center in Contra Costa, which offers HIV tests, counseling, a food pantry, and much more for an oft-overshadowed queer population.
But social worker selflessness isn’t the only way Honey can proudly claim to be first queen from San Francisco to represent us on the Race. “I channeled so much of what I learned growing up gay in the Bay for the challenges,” she said. “When we had to make something out of nothing, I thought of [drag fashion genius] Mr. David. And whenever something called for a different style, I had no problem, since the scene in San Francisco embraces everything from avant-garde to more traditional lipsync performances, and I had always been around all that, because it’s all in this family.
“In fact — you’ll see in the first episode — Rupaul pokes fun at me about being from San Francisco. But I’m proud to be a little bit gritty and a lot glamorous!” Well, good luck to you, Honey.
ICEE HOT’S TWICE FOR THRICE
“Weirdo house, outsider artists, and underground pioneers,” is how Ghosts on Tape, one-quarter of the feisty-eared Icee Hot party crew (www.facebook.com/iceehot) categorizes the slew of awesome guests that have graced its tables in the three years the unpredictable party has thrown down, mostly at Public Works. This sounds, of course, like my kind of party — and for what launched as a joint devoted to some of the newer UK bass permutations crossing the pond via Internet, Icee Hot has grown into something much more fascinating: a full-fledged vibe. No decorations, no bells and whistles, cute but hardly groundbreaking flyer design, no distinct genre profile, an irregular schedule. But then: a packed floor, much respect, and a jaw-dropping roster of guest artists backed by the musically unhindered Icees (also including Shawn Reynaldo, Low Limit, and Rollie Fingers).
Those guests? MK, Jeff Mills, Robert Hood, Anthony “Shake” Shakir, Stingray, Bok Bok, Hieroglyphic Being, MikeQ, Ramadanman, Martin Kemp, Kingdom, Brenmar, Falty DL, and many, many more of my secret boyfriends … And, um, when house god Todd Edwards unveils a surprise, specially-composed Icee Hot theme song at the start of his set, you know you’re the shit.
The Icees are blasting a two-part third anniversary party at Public Works (www.publicsf.com): Sat/19 sees dreamy R&B chopper Jacques Greene (yes from the Azaelia Banks video) and Dutch hyperdubber Martyn on deck. Part two on Sat/26 brings in alien techno soundscaper Space Dimension Controller and astral floor-pounder Basic Soul Unit. It’s gonna be a crazy couple weeks of great music — and if you hit this link before it’s too late, you can go to both parties for a mere $15: www.tinyurl.com/iceehot3.
An excellent prestidigitator. San Francisco man of many talents samples himself live, looping sounds he coaxes from soda bottles and tin cans into multi-genre journeys that lead you by the ear onto the dance floor, as if by musical magic.
Caught this intense (and handsome, hubba hubba) Brit techno-dubber when he was here a few months ago, right before his Luxury Problems EP dropped and cemented his reputation as one of the smartest electronic musicmakers going. Deep and hypnotic, but totally danceable, with a focus on industrial textures and maximum throb — should be perfect on Mighty’s soundsystem.
The SF Dirtybirder delivered my favorite moody bass mixes of 2012 — and he just dropped an awesome Soundcloud set called “Winter Jungle Mix” that’s doing wonders in pushing ahead the nascent drum ‘n bass revival. He’ll be working downlow wonders with the great J.Phlip, Leroy Peppers (a.k.a. the goofier side of Justin’s brother Christian) and Worthy at the Dirtybird label’s 2013 Winter Quarterly party.
The happy, unholy house-techno coalition of the Dubalicious and Freeform crews celebrates a sixer, with the Odyssey party’s excellent Robin Simmons joining Jonboy, Floorcraft, and many other SF faves on deck.
FILM It’s a peculiarity of our moment that the worse things get, the more people seem inclined to think everyone else is going to hell. Their interpretation of the Bible (or Quran, or whatever) is seemingly absolute, yet God seems to stay on their side no matter which way the worldly wind might blow. Righteous judgment of others has practically become the American way, not that we were ever less than an opinionated bunch.
There is much talk of “God’s love,” but in popular and pious discourse these days it seems exclusively to be tough love — the emphasis on cautionary corrective smack downs and threats of everlasting hellfire rather than comfort and salvation, to an often lunatic degree. Just when did so many get so interested in, even quite eager about, waggling a finger at those presumed to be headed Down There?
Documentarian Kevin Miller has an answer: 9/11. At least that provides an easy and dramatic turning point, from which a great many Americans seemed to become experts in who should be doomed to sizzle in that never-ending frying pan. As one political pundit put it on CNN soon after the Twin Towers tragedy, America now had a license to “Blow them all away in the name of the Lord.” A national desire for revenge was understandable. But that event did seem to trigger a fundamental shift in our society, and the public discourse hasn’t much calmed down since.
Miller’s Hellbound? uses reactions to 9/11 as one recurrent measure of why the “eternal conscious torment” theory of hell — as opposed to annihilationism, in which only the righteous experience immortality (the rest are simply destroyed), let alone namby-pamby, forgiveness-based universalism — holds such sway today. All three concepts are equally supported by Biblical passages; various historians and theologians here note how hesitantly Judaism first accepted the notion of a punitive afterlife (apparently inherited from Zoroastrianism), and how debate of such slippery ideas was often — not always, but often — considered a healthy part of religious devotion through the history of Christianity. After all, so many events and messages in the Bible are open to interpretation — not to mention the drastic changes in understanding that can occur when you take into consideration the linguistic, historical, political, and social contexts in which they were originally written (then frequently revised).
Yet as everyone knows, today a great number of people — some loud and influential — overlook all that in the hard certainty that they understand exactly what the Bible means and what God is saying. Particularly what and whom he doesn’t like, which inevitably points fingers at others (the gays, the welfare cheaters, the Muslims, Piers Morgan) rather than oneself. Miller spends a fair amount of time chatting up the hate-a-holics of Westboro Baptist Church, and while you might groan anytime they get a public forum, he actually engages with them sufficiently to avoid a yelling contest — and to demonstrate how “Not only do I damn you but God damns you too” bile is a cartoon masquerading as evangelical faith.
After all, as one calmer voice puts it, playing “paper Pope” as a smug individual interpreter of Biblical condemnation runs counter to a vast majority of what’s actually in that book.
“The irony is that you have this teacher named Jesus and then you essentially side with his enemies in [your] behavior,” says Crazy for God author Frank Schaeffer. “Evangelicism is for America what the Pharisees were in ancient Israel. These guys wreak vengeance on the people who bring the good news about a loving god … because that message puts the gatekeepers out of a job.”
Why would God create enormous numbers of folk — say, all those non-Christian ones — just to send them to Hades? If you’re a Buddhist or a Sikh raised in religious isolation, how have you exercised a personal “choice” against the true God that justifies sending you there? Don’t ask, just shut up, feel the fear, and hate who I hate — or such seems to be the message of many prominent “Christians” of late. But: “If you have a paradigm that doesn’t allow you to ask questions, there’s something wrong with your paradigm,” as another scholar puts it here.
In fact, Jesus was all about the loving enemies, plenty of the Bible suggests ultimate reconciliation and “washing of sins” for all, and isn’t making God hateful just a way of justifying the hate we feel ourselves? Maybe hell was merely meant to be “your condition, not a place … the malice we feel within our own conscience that ‘burns’ us,” an Orthodox rabbi says. God’s justice as restorative and healing, embracing all — the dread word is not heard in Hellbound?, but one could easily imagine many fervent believers of today feeling that that long-running yet currently unfashionable interpretation is dangerously close to, y’know, Socialism. *
Thu/17-Sat/19, 7:30pm (also Sat/19, 4pm); Sun/20, 2 and 4pm
FILM “In Somalia there are no such things as kid actors and stage moms,” explains the trailer for Asad, an 18-minute film about a Somali boy forced to choose between fishing and piracy. “There are just survivors telling a story.”
Critically acclaimed, winner of much festival love, and just nominated for a Live Action Short Film Oscar, Asad is one of many stories filling the Mostly British Film Festival, a week-long spotlight of works from the UK, Ireland, Australia, and South Africa. Some of these tales are less-than-inspiring — like the Downton Abbey-biting Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, based on a 1932 novella, though its period setting is mostly conveyed cinematically by some fetching gowns and hairstyles. As uncertain bride Dolly (Felicity Jones) guzzles rum in her bedroom, her boisterous, moneyed family (headed by Downton‘s Elizabeth McGovern) makes nice through gritted teeth while waiting for her to emerge in her wedding dress.
The tension cranks to 11 when Dolly’s rather recent ex (Luke Treadaway) shows up for the ceremony. We see their relationship unfold in golden flashbacks, and though it’s clear they deserve each other — neither character is particularly likable, for one thing — a reunion between the two is clearly not in the cards; heavy symbolism like the pair finding a rotting fox carcass on one of their summer jaunts makes this all too clear.
Fear not, though — a far more satisfying doomed romance, if such a thing is possible, unfolds in Jump, a Northern Ireland-set crime thriller whose jumbled-up chronology is contained within a single night. Though his script (co-written with Steve Brookes) gets a bit coincidence-heavy by the end, director Kieron J. Walsh brings a crackling energy to this tale of Greta (Nichola Burley, from last year’s Wuthering Heights), a gangster’s daughter who decides to end it all on New Year’s Eve. Teetering on a bridge rail, dressed as an angel (cough), she meets a man (Martin McCann) who convinces her not to take the plunge.
Once they discover a connection (long story short: they both hate her dad), they decide to rip off her father’s club and blow town. Elsewhere in time, dad’s goons (one rabid, one reluctant) chase down the missing money, while Greta’s two friends (one of whom is costumed as a slutty Mary Poppins) bumble through New Year’s and somehow get involved in the events described above. Everyone’s life is a mess (typical NYE: someone’s sobbing on the sidewalk, someone’s in jail), but all the loose ends are tied up by act three. As Greta points out in her fantastic accent, “Nothing’s real. It’s like a fillum.”
Other new films: opening-night pick Hunky Dory, starring Minnie Driver (who’ll appear in person) as an inspirational music teacher; Her Master’s Voice, a documentary about “world famous British ventriloquist Nina Conti,” who also directs; The Sapphires, about a 1960s girl group determined to find fame beyond the Australian Outback; Michael Apted’s 56 Up, the latest in his long-running doc series; Ken Loach’s love-beyond-borders tale Ae Fond Kiss; and the closing-night film, James Marsh’s IRA drama Shadow Dancer, starring Clive Owen and rising talent Andrea Riseborough.
Classic films also have their place at Mostly British. Fans of James Mason take note, as both Carol Reed’s 1947 noir Odd Man Out (starring Mason as an imperiled IRA agent) and Sidney Lumet’s 1966 espionage drama The Deadly Affair will screen. The latter features a sweet Quincy Jones bossa nova score — so incongruous to the setting and action it’s both distracting and awesome — and a blustering turn by Mason as a spy whose job woes are eclipsed only by the anguish he feels over his cheatin’ wife. All kinds of juicy Cold War intrigue in this one: code names, suspicious deaths, mysterious postcards, and bag-switching plots, plus stellar supporting turns by Harry Andrews as a tough guy (who also loves bunnies), and fading sexpot Simone Signoret as a secretive Holocaust survivor.
Another pair of oldies well worth revisiting, or seeing for the first time, are included in Mostly British’s David Lean double feature, which also happens to be a double feature for star Celia Johnson. In 1944 family drama This Happy Breed — as plot-twisty, character-stuffed, and entertaining as a soap opera, and shot in color to boot — she’s the brow-furrowed matriarch of a working-class family that tumbles through the decades between World Wars I and II. In 1945’s lusciously black-and-white Brief Encounter, she’s a lonely housewife who rediscovers desire after a chance meeting with an also-married doctor (Trevor Howard). Speaking of doomed romances, Johnson’s Oscar-nominated performance is a major reason why this film has become such a classic of that genre. *
THEATER/DANCE Choreographer Mary Armentrout’s itinerant, site-specific performance installation, reveries and elegies, passed through CounterPULSE last weekend. A post-solstice meditation on dislocation and flux, it was also the harbinger of a striking new season at the SOMA performance incubator. In fact, reveries and elegies, true to its theme of displacement, can be considered the odd one out among programming whose defining structure is the duet.
A broad range of interpretation and subversion of that basic form comprises CounterPULSE’s Queer Series, running January through March and showcasing new work from artists as diverse and far-flung as New York’s Faye Driscoll, the Minneapolis-based BodyCartography Project, San Francisco’s Annie Danger, Berlin-based American Jeremy Wade, and conjoined local choreographic dynamo Jarry (aka Jesse Hewit and Laura Arrington).
If you’ve followed the vicissitudes of programming at CounterPULSE even intermittently, a glance at this year’s calendar prompts a double take for the careful concentration of work and the thematic consistency it evinces, in addition to its impressive international lineup. The rigorous queering of the duet structure underlined by the series, for instance, comes further elaborated through complimentary work like DavEnd’s well-received 2012 debut, F.A.G.G.O.T.S.: the Musical! (which turns on a duet of sorts with a wall mirror) as well as some rich auxiliary events.
The latter include a talk on gender by Judith Butler (on February 16) and, on February 28 (the eve of Danger’s genuflection to sexual healing and empowerment, TheGreat Church of the Holy Fuck), a screening of Community Action Center (2010), the aesthetically and politically astute, 69-minute, queer, trans, women-centered celebration/subversion of 1970s porn by A.K. Burns and A.L. Steiner. (That program includes a post-screening Q&A with Steiner, whose film was recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art).
The duet form (and the act of reimagining it) is an apt metaphor for the programming model behind the season too, which represents something of a departure from business as usual.
CounterPULSE’s Julie Phelps, central in the development of the season and currently serving as interim artistic and executive director for Jessica Robinson Love (who is on sabbatical), explained that the Queer Series and the season as a whole had emerged from some serious rethinking at the organizational level.
“We were sort of primed to embark on this new season, which [comes directly] after our strategic planning process, where we really identified who we are, how we do what we do, and what limits we still have on our impact.”
Phelps says one limit they identified was a single-minded commitment to the bottom line that was keeping certain kinds of work almost permanently out of reach — for example, much work by touring artists from out of the state or country, for which there is relatively little foundational money available for tapping.
“We’re actually, financially, a very conservative organization,” says Phelps, “which has brought with it a lot of stability — very important especially in the young years of an organization, but ultimately stopping us from taking risk on vision. We were always on a break-even model. Either it needs to be some mix of foundation support or some other kind of funding with some tickets sales. The bottom line always has to equal zero. So we’ve been pushing ourselves to think bigger about the types of risks that we can take.”
That’s far from inviting recklessness, Phelps stresses, but it does mean modifying notions of financial success and failure, bringing them in line with an artistic spirit of experimentation and what might be thought of as the useful flop.
“Actually, failure is just as valid a result as success,” says Phelps. “When we had been building failure out of every income model we had, we’d also been building out risk from some of the artistic selections, and from the way we were making artistic selections. We’ve really only just recently moved into curating in the first place. Before we were like, we have a space, if you want to do a show, come ask us and we’ll work it out. [In this] season, every artist was someone we approached and worked with, found out ways that they could intersect with CounterPULSE, what was financially viable for us and for them, what was artistically interesting for us and for them — actually build something from the inside out, instead of the outside in.”
Despite the considerate design in the program, Phelps calls it more art than science and insists it’s all “still a very organic process,” noting that the queer label is at least partly one of sheer convenience.
“I mean, ‘queer’ is basically the only banner that you could fly over that season, and only because it is so indistinct — because actually each of these works is hugely different. So there’s still a patchwork element to it, but it’s a little bit more deliberate [than usual],” she explains, laughing at the metaphor carrying her away. “At least the patches were picked out, and the fabric was cut to shape before they were added to the quilt this time.” *
FILM Though it’s much more a Southern than a Western — closer to Mandingo (1975) than Red River (1948), that’s for sure — Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained nonetheless pays specific homage to spaghetti westerns in its title and some stylistic fillips.
The subgenre of Euro-westerns that briefly revived the flagging American genre in the mid-to-late 1960s, spaghettis remain defined by their most famous creator, Sergio Leone. He kickstarted the vogue with 1964’s sleeper hit A Fistful of Dollars — a stark, nihilistic tale of greed and revenge that borrowed heavily from Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 Yojimbo and turned Clint Eastwood into an international idol. It wasn’t strictly the first of its type, but the unexpected splash it made, plus its director’s singular cinematic voice, would continue to define spaghettis long after their heyday had passed. The huge close-ups, austere widescreen vistas, sparse dialogue, and cynical and violent content were Leone signatures that would be widely imitated — not just because these films were highly commercial for a time, but because their essences were ones that could be mimicked effectively enough by the lowliest fly-by-night production company.
Before it breathed its last, the genre had coughed up about 600 such knockoffs, the vast majority between 1965 and 1972 or so. Most of them were made in haste, interchangeable in flavor and story, and tedious to all but the diehard fan. As with many Italian-born film export waves, this one ensured its quick demise by cranking out so much crap.
Of course, there were exceptions beyond Leone’s, probably the most beloved and certainly the most influential of them being the original Django. Playing a rare theatrical revival, Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 bloodbath took the morbidity and weirdness of spaghettis — at least compared to their generally wholesome American forebears — and ran amuck, pushing gallows humor to the edge of black comedy. While not nearly as well remembered in the US as the Eastwood films, it was huge at the time, so much so that at least 30 features with “Django” in the title followed, even when no character with that name appeared on-screen.
The reason for all this is that Django, and his movie, remain dead cool. At least you couldn’t get any cooler than that most alarmingly handsome of Italian actors Franco Nero in black floor-length duster and leather hat, dragging a coffin around the desert, striking a stylishly sinister balance between Eastwood’s Man With No Name and José Mojica Marins’ Coffin Joe. His Django was a sardonic figure of mystery seeking revenge on bandits led by a corrupt military officer. Umpteen unpleasant altercations later, there’s a great climactic shootout in a graveyard, cementing Django’s vaguely evangelical air with some outright blasphemy.
Just what was in that box? Death, natch, but not in the way you might think — Django used his coffin as a plus-sized version of the way a movie gangster uses a violin case. The film was so violent for its era, what with ears sliced off and a body count of nearly 150, that it was banned for many years in various countries. The multilingual, far-left-leaning Nero preferred to pursue artistic adventure rather than genre success, making few other westerns. He does, however, duly make a cameo appearance in Django Unchained, sans coffin but still looking mighty fine for 71.
STREET SEEN First, I saw the socks. Half sheer, half solid, the pair’s blue rose design made me flash on stained glass cathedral. Like a sock-crazed zombie, I turned on my heels and entered the most unassuming, unmarked shop on Hayes Valley’s row of quirky boutiques and designer collections.
The pair was wildly expensive, and not being a swanky sock kind of lady, that threw me. But Japanese import shop Cotton Sheep is not for those unacquainted with the transformative power of superlative readywear. A few weeks later I was back for a tour, and to talk style philosophy with owner Eiko Critchfield’s son Rue, who credits his mother with awakening his own sense of personal flair.
“You can appreciate this story with your eyes closed,” Rue tells me, holding out an impossibly soft cotton scarf from his favorite of the shop’s handful of imported Japanese brands. The piece is by Kapital, a vaunted label that hails from Okayama, a town traditionally known for its indigo dye and denim. The true, deep blue of Kapital’s jeans, in particular, make them denim head cult items.
After Eiko impressed the company’s higher-ups with the fastidiousness with which she examined pieces in Kapital’s Japanese showroom, Cotton Sheep became the first American store to stock the brand, and the biggest US selection can still be found there — denim, hand-woven scarves, quirky button-down shirts, and of course, my wonder socks. The shop’s other brands include Merveille H, FITH, and Nuno. Each piece is handpicked for sale by Eiko.
“When you walk out the house with these pieces you know you are the only person in the country wearing them,” Rue says. He’s wearing Kapital khakis with an exposed, intricate button fly, and eye-catching strap along the backside waistband. Rue was a self-described jock before joining the family business (“sweatpants and white T-shirts,” he says ruefully), but got hooked on the line after Mom told him he needed a more fashionable dress code if wanted to work in the store.
Eiko certainly brought him up to appreciate a good outfit. She and husband Victor became pickers when they moved to San Francisco in the 1990s from Osaka, joining the hardy ranks of those who troll thrift stores for treasure, hustling to flip quality pieces to vintage stores for profit.
When they’d exhausted the Bay Area’s bins to their satisfaction, Eiko packed up the family into a Chevy Astro and took to the road, sending shipments of Americana (used Levi’s, Raggedy Ann dolls — Japan was nuts for anything that screamed “United States” at that time) to her boutique friends in Osaka whenever the van was too packed to fit more finds. “My parents relied on their sense of style to survive,” Rue says.
“I wanted to show people of San Francisco what I see in Japan that I know they would never find,” Eiko wrote me in an email when I asked her about her idea to open a shop across the street from the site from Victor’s now-defunct music store, BPM Records. “Our store is about an idea: to care for fabrics, to appreciate them, and to teach people that great fabrics will last you forever if you treat it with the care that I do.”
And please, do have care: Eiko’s a stickler for boutique etiquette, chiding those that enter with icecream cones from the Smitten kiosk down the block and cautioning careless types that don’t show the proper respect when handling her precious textiles. Check her Yelp reviews if you don’t believe me.
But the family’s about inspiring a different kind of relationship between us and our wardrobe, one with an emphasis on craftsmanship often lacking in the era of mega-brands and micro-trends. Who knows, maybe Rue will even talk me into those socks one day. “It might be a little scary to walk out of the store like that [with an expensive clothing item],” he laughs. “That’s my job, to help people be less scared.”
The Synthesis 2012 Festival, which marked the end of the Mayan Long Count Calendar, was supposed to be an opportunity to bring spiritually minded people together around the Kukulkan Pyramid in Chichen Itza, Mexico to help usher in a new age of cooperation and goodwill. That was the vision espoused by Executive Producer Michael DiMartino, a Californian who said he had been leading tours in the area for decades and setting up this event for years.
Instead, this anticipated moment of enlightenment became what can politely be called a clusterfuck, a descent into utter chaos for many volunteers and attendees. Hundreds of Bay Area people traveling to an uplifting holiday event found themselves stranded in an isolated location without the transportation, sustenance, or communications they’d been told would be available.
Now DiMartino is trying to settle a long list of refund demands, and there are threats of lawsuits on all sides.
When I first interviewed him about the festival, back in October, DiMartino was talking like a New Age prophet: “We, through our actions and intentions, create the world and take the path that we are creating,” he said.
So DiMartino is walking the rocky path of his own creation, facing recriminations for ignoring warnings about looming problems, and vilified both for his alleged managerial failures and for the sometimes appalling way he treated people.
About 150 people have joined the “Synthesis 2012 Scam Awareness” group on Facebook — which has barred Synthesis staff from joining the discussion — where they’re telling their stories of hardship and woe, sharing research into DiMartino’s history with other events, and organizing collective responses to the problem.
Micaela Teal Santos, who helped create and administer the Facebook group, told us her honeymoon trip turned into a nightmare of missing shuttles and meals and being forced to camp alone in the jungle after local authorities shut down the festival campground for several hours, missing the long-anticipated sacred ceremony at sunrise on Dec. 21.
It was one of many similar stories. People who were promised hotel rooms by DiMartino arrived to find those rooms had been given away to others and no vacancies were available — at a site far from any other accommodations. Shuttles that were supposed to bring revelers from other towns to the festival site never arrived, forcing people to spend hundreds of dollars on cabs or private shuttles, and volunteers who came early to create the festival often weren’t provided food or water at a site that turned out to be five miles from the nearest town.
Luckily for DiMartino, he has been surrounded by people who really do embody the positive, patient, and resourceful values that the festival was meant to highlight, from his co-producer Debra Giusti (founder of the Harmony Festival) to Tulku and the Bay Area crew that created the AscenDance stage to the many volunteers who stepped up to address the myriad problems and voids that manifested as the event unfolded.
“That’s the real story, it’s how people under extreme adversity came together to make this happen,” said Giusti, who has been working almost every day since the festival officially ended on Dec. 23 to deal with its fallout, from the attendees still stranded in Mexico without money to get back to the bus filled with festival supplies that still hasn’t returned, to the dozens of attendees who say they feel cheated by DiMartino.
Many of the DiMartino’s biggest critics have made efforts to remain positive and couch their criticisms in the New Age style of empowerment and acceptance but it’s clearly been a bitter disappointment to attendees who hoped the festival would be a launching pad into a new era of harmony and hope.
In an interview with the Guardian, DiMartino disputed many of the characterizations on the Facebook site, darkly warning that his lawyer is looking into “the bandwagon of people on a witch hunt.” But he repeatedly said that he takes full responsibility for problems at the event and accepts that he will probably lose a significant amount of money once the final accounting is done.
“There were logistical breakdowns, but that doesn’t constitute a scam,” DiMartino said, noting that he is issuing some partial refunds and “dealing with people on a one-by-one basis.”
But both in his public and private statements, DiMartino’s tendency to blame the festival’s problems on Mexico, or on volunteers, or on forces beyond his control — or, as he repeatedly told me, “systemic problems,” as if it was a system he didn’t create and run — has only added to people’s frustrations with the festival.
Giusti defends DiMartino as a “visionary” who has problems with organization and follow-through. “Michael would act like everything was handled and it obviously wasn’t. It was very frustrating.”
We heard many stories of DiMartino not responding well, an approach that seems to have helped create many of the problems at the event. Two of the more compelling and condemning narratives come from two longtime festival organizers, Xochi Raye and Corey Rosen, who say DiMartino responded vindictively when they raised concerns about looming problems.
Rosen didn’t actually attend the festival, saying he was forced out of his production manager role for raising questions about preparations, such as the ill-fated decision to save money on transporting materials to the festival by using a volunteer crew and bus, which was turned around at the border by officials with concerns for their safety.
“My biggest issue was transportation and safety. Within the festival community, there is an ongoing joke about ‘safety third,’ but that is just a joke,” Rosen told me. “For them to call these unforeseen circumstances is bullshit…There are a lot of unforeseen circumstances that happen in events. But if you plan for the foreseeable one, you can handle the unforeseeable ones.”
Rosen goes so far as to say he doesn’t believe DiMartino’s claims to have made advanced reservations for shuttles and other services that didn’t materialize. “People were trusting that Michael had things taken care of, and when I wanted to double-check, people said we didn’t need to do that,” Rosen said. “Michael told me my negative comments would not create a positive outlook.”
DiMartino said his computer and many documents were stolen from his car in Playa del Carmen before the event, complicating festival logistics and making it difficult to provide the proof that people are requesting.
To those who believed that the end of the Mayan calendar, coinciding with other New Age beliefs that Dec. 21, 2012, would be signal the beginning of an era of expanded human consciousness, Chichen Itza was considered a place of spiritual power and significance. That clearly made people more trusting of DiMartino’s intentions.
Raye took over some of Rosen’s duties — and much more in Mexico, as problems developed in the run-up to the event. She wrote out a long narrative for the Synthesis 2012 Scam site that tells a harrowing tale created largely by DiMartino’s undelivered promises and bad behavior when questioned.
“Michael said he had been focusing on getting basic needs such as toilets and water in place by the time we landed, and yet basic needs were not established until we had been there for several days, resulting in production time and volunteers lost, as well as many people becoming sick,” she wrote.
Dozens of people told us that things would have been even worse if people on the ground didn’t take the initiative, noting that DiMartino even refused to come to the campground for five hours while police blocked access to weary attendees until after 2am, an incident he minimized to us, calling it a miscommunication and insisting “I had a personal arrangement with the property owner.”
Giusti said she and other staffers are moving rapidly toward resolution of all the problems surrounding Synthesis, from refunds to attendees (many of whom paid $499 each for a “full experience pass”) to compensation for staff, both financial and spiritual.
“Michael does need to come forward and apologize to people,” Giusti told us, noting that she is planning a healing ritual to bring closure to this whole saga. “He will sit in the center of a circle and hear what everyone went through.”
In the Netherlands city of Eindhoven, the streetlights lining a central commercial strip will glow red if a storm is coming. It’s a subtle cue that harkens back to an old phrase about a red sky warning mariners that bad weather is on the way. The automated color change is possible because satellite weather data flows over a network to tiny processors installed inside the lampposts, which are linked by an integrated wireless system.
Lighting hues reflecting atmospheric changes are only the beginning of myriad functions these so-called “smart streetlights” can perform. Each light has something akin to a smartphone embedded inside of it, and the interconnected network of lights can be controlled by a central command center.
Since they have built-in flexibility for multiple adaptations, the systems can be programmed to serve a wide variety of purposes. Aside from merely illuminating public space, possible uses could include street surveillance with tiny cameras, monitoring pedestrian or vehicle traffic, or issuing emergency broadcasts via internal speaker systems.
The smart streetlights aren’t just streetlights — they’re data collection devices that have the potential to track anything from pedestrian movements to vehicle license plate numbers. And, through a curious process distinctly lacking in transparency, these spylights are on their way to San Francisco.
On Minna between Fourth and Sixth streets in downtown San Francisco, theSan Francisco Public Utilities Commission has installed a pilot project to test 14 streetlights that are connected by a wireless control system. The city agency plans to gauge how well this system can remotely read city-owned electric meters, wirelessly transmit data from tiny traffic cameras owned by the Municipal Transportation Agency, and transmit data from traffic signals.
The pilot grew out of San Francisco’s participation in an international program called the Living Labs Global Award, an annual contest that pairs technology vendors with officials representing 22 cities from around the world. At a May 2012 LLGA awards summit in Rio de Janeiro, far outside the scope of the city’s normal bidding processes, a Swiss company called Paradox Engineering won the right to start testing the high-tech lights in San Francisco. Within six months, Paradox Engineering and the SFPUC had the Minna streetlights test up and running.
Meanwhile, the city has issued a separate Request for Proposals for a similar pilot, which will test out “adaptive lighting” that can be dimmed or brightened in response to sensors that register pedestrian activity or traffic volume. The city is negotiating contracts with five firms that will test out this technology in three different locations, according to Mary Tienken, Project Manager for LED Streetlight Conversion Project for the SFPUC.
Under the program, five vendors will be chosen to demonstrate their wireless streetlights on 18 city-owned lights at three test sites: Washington Street between Lyon and Maple streets; Irving Street between 9th and 19th avenues; and Pine Street between Front and Stockton streets.
LED streetlights are energy-efficient and could yield big savings — but the lights do far more than shine. The RFP indicates that “future needs for the secure wireless transmission of data throughout the city” could include traffic monitoring, street surveillance, gunshot monitoring and street parking monitoring devices.
So far, the implications of using this technology for such wide-ranging objectives have barely been explored. “San Francisco thought they were upgrading their 18,000 lamps with LEDs and a wireless control system, when they realized that they were in fact laying the groundwork for the future intelligent public space,” LLGA cofounder Sascha Haselmeyer stated in an interview with Open Source Cities. “Eindhoven is pioneering this with … completely new, intelligent lighting concepts that adapt to the citizen not just as a utility, but a cultural and ambient experience. So many questions remain,” he added, and offered a key starting point: “Who owns all that data?”
LUMINARIES IN LIGHTING
Phillips Lighting, which was involved in installing the Eindhoven smart streetlights system, played a role in launching the San Francisco pilot. Paradox Engineering recently opened a local office. Oracle, a Silicon Valley tech giant, is also involved — even though it’s not a lighting company.
“Oracle, of course, manages data,” Haselmeyer explained to the Guardian when reached by phone in his Barcelona office. “They were the first to say, ‘We need to understand how data collected from lampposts will be controlled in the city.'”
According to a press release issued by Paradox Engineering, “Oracle will help managing and analyzing data coming from this ground-breaking system.” Oracle is also a corporate sponsor of the LLGA program. It has been tangentially involved in the pilot project “because of a longstanding relationship we had with the city of San Francisco,” Oracle spokesperson Scott Frendt told us.
Paradox was selected as the winner for San Francisco’s “sustainability challenge” through LLGA, which is now housed under CityMart.com, “a technology start-up offering a professional networking and market exchange platform,” according to the company website.
In May of 2012, the SFPUC sent one of its top-ranking officials, Assistant General Manager Barbara Hale, to Rio for the LLGA awards summit. There, technology vendors of all stripes showcased their products and mingled with local officials from Barcelona, Cape Town, Glasgow, Fukuoka and other international cities. San Francisco was the only US city in attendance. San Francisco will even host the next summit this coming May at Fort Mason.
In Rio, Paradox was lauded as the winning vendor for San Francisco’s LLGA streetlights “challenge.” It didn’t take long for the company to hit the ground running. “Soon after the Rio Summit on Service Innovation in Cities, where we were announced winners for San Francisco, we started discussing with the SFPUC the objectives and features of the pilot project,” Paradox announced on the LLGA website. “Working closely with the SFPUC, we also had the opportunity to build solid partnerships with notable industry players such as Philips Lighting and Oracle.”
On Nov. 15, Paradox hosted an invite-only “networking gala” titled “Smart Cities: The Making Of.” The event brought together representatives from Oracle, the SFPUC, Phillips, LLGA, and the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, “to learn about the challenges of urban sustainability in the Internet of Things era,” according to an event announcement.
“The project we’re piloting with the SFPUC is highly innovative since it puts into practice the new paradigm of the ‘Internet of Things,’ where any object can be associated with an IP address and integrated into a wider network to transmit and receive relevant information,” Gianni Minetti, president and CEO at Paradox, stated in a press release.
The event was also meant to celebrate Paradox’s expansion into the North American urban lighting space, a feat that was greatly helped along by the LLGA endeavor. But how did a Swiss company manage to hook up with a San Francisco city agency in the first place — and win a deal without ever going through the normal procurement process?
San Francisco’s involvement in LLGA began with Chris Vein, who served as the city’s Chief Technology Officer under former Mayor Gavin Newsom. (Vein has since ascended to the federal government to serve as Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer for Government Innovation for President Barack Obama.)
To find the right fit for San Francisco’s wireless LED streetlights “challenge” under the LLGA program, a judging panel was convened to score more than 50 applicant submissions received through the program framework. Judges were selected “based upon knowledge and contacts of people in the SFPUC Power Enterprise,” Tienken explained. The scoring system, Haselmeyer said, measures sustainability under a rubric developed by the United Nations.
Jurists for San Francisco’s streetlight program were handpicked from the SFPUC, the San Francisco Department of Technology, Phillips, and several other organizations. An international jurist is designated by LLGA for each city’s panel of jurists, Haselmeyer said, “so as to avoid any kind of local stitch-up.”
He stressed that “the city is explicitly not committing to any procurement.” Instead, vendors agree to test out their technology in exchange for cities’ dedication of public space and other resources. Tienken, who manages the city’s LED Streetlight Conversion Project, noted that “Paradox Engineering is not supposed to make a profit” under the LLGA program guidelines. “We’ll pay them a $15,000 stipend,” she said, the same amount that will be awarded to the firms that are now in negotiation for pilot projects of their own.
“San Francisco is using this to learn about the solution,” Haselmeyer added. “This company will not have any advantage,” when it comes time to tap a vendor for the agency’s long-term goal of upgrading 18,500 of its existing streetlights with energy-saving LED lamps and installing a $2 million control system.
At the same time, the program clearly creates an inside track — and past LLGA participants have landed lucrative city contracts. Socrata, a Seattle-based company, was selected as a LLGA winner in 2011 and invited to run a pilot project before being tapped to power data.SFgov.org, the “next-generation, cloud-based San Francisco Open Data site” unveiled by Mayor Ed Lee’s office in March of 2012.
The mayor’s press release, which claimed that the system “underscores the Mayor’s commitment to providing state of the art access to information,” made no mention of LLGA.
PRIVACY AND PUBLIC SPACE
Throughout this process of attending an international summit in Rio, studying applications from more than 50 vendors, selecting Paradox as a winner, and later issuing an RFP, a very basic question has apparently gone unaddressed. Is a system of lighting fixtures that persistently collects data and beams it across invisible networks something San Franciscans really want to be installed in public space?
And, if these systems are ultimately used for street surveillance or traffic monitoring and constantly collecting data, who will have access to that information, and what will it be used for? Haselmeyer acknowledged that the implementation of such a system should move forward with transparency and a sensitivity to privacy implications.
“Many cities are deploying sensors that detect the Bluetooth signal of your mobile phone. So, they can basically track movements through the city,” Haselmeyer explained. “Like anything with technology, there’s a huge amount of opportunity and also a number of questions. … You have movement sensors, traffic sensors, or the color [of a light] might change” based on a behavior or condition. “There’s an issue about who can opt in, or opt out, of what.”
Tienken and Sheehan downplayed the RFP’s reference to “street surveillance” as a potential use of the wireless LED systems, and stressed that the pilot projects are only being used to study a narrow list of features. “The PUC’s interest is in creating an infrastructure that can be used by multiple agencies or entities … having a single system rather than have each department install its own system,” Tienken said. The SFPUC is getting the word out about the next batch of pilots by reaching out to police precinct captains and asking them to announce it in their newsletters, since “streetlighting is a public safety issue,” as Tienken put it.
Haselmeyer acknowledged that public input in such a program is important: “It’s very important to do these pilot projects, because it allows those community voices to be heard. In the end, the city has to say, look — is it really worth all of this, or do we just want to turn our lights on and off?”
LIGHTS, BUT NO SUNSHINE
One company that is particularly interested in San Francisco pilot is IntelliStreets, a Michigan firm that specializes in smart streetlights. IntelliStreets CEO Ron Harwood told the Guardian that his company was a contender for the pilot through LLGA; he even traveled to Rio and delivered a panel talk on urban lighting systems alongside Hale and a representative from Oracle.
A quick Google search for IntelliStreets shows that the company has attracted the attention of activists who are worried that these lighting products represent a kind of spy tool, and a spooky public monitoring system that would strip citizens of their right to privacy and bolster law enforcement activities.
“It’s not a listening device,” Harwood told the Guardian, when asked about speakers that would let operators communicate with pedestrians, and vice-versa. “So you can forget about the Fourth Amendment” issues.
Harwood seemed less concerned about the activists who’ve decried his product as a modern day manifestation of Big Brother, and more worried about why his company was not chosen to provide wireless LED streetlights in San Francisco. After being passed over in the LLGA process, Harwood said IntelliStreets responded to the RFP issued in the weeks following the Rio summit. Once again, Harwood’s firm didn’t make the cut.
Since his company provides very similar services to those described in the RFP, Harwood said he was “confused” by the outcome of the selection process. IntelliStreets’ Chief Administration Officer Michael Tardif was more direct. “Clearly we think this was an inside deal,” Tardif told the Guardian. Tienken, for her part, declined to discuss why San Francisco had rejected IntelliStreets’ application.
And when a public records request was submitted to the agency last August for details on San Francisco’s participation in LLGA, the response was opaque at best. “After a duly diligent search we find that there are no documents responsive to your request,” an SFPUC public records coordinator responded via email. “The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is not a participant, nor is involved with Living Labs Global Award. Please know that we take our obligations under the Sunshine Ordinance very seriously.” That was just an honest mistake, Sheehan tells the Guardian now by way of explanation. In the public records division, “Clearly, nobody had any familiarity with LLGA.”
MUSIC There will be no bad seats at the new SFJazz Center in Hayes Valley; or at least, that’s the goal.
The brand new jazz venue in the heart of town, a three-story, glass-encased structure with a circular concrete stadium bowl of an auditorium, educational components, rehearsal spaces, a cafe run by the Slanted Door’s Charles Phan, and multiple bars opens Mon/21. It’s a $63 million, 35,000-square-foot addition to Performing Arts Row, near Van Ness-adjacent locations such as the Davies Symphony Hall, and the War Memorial Opera House. It’s the birth of a nonprofit jazz institution.
In the auditorium, 700 seats encircle and hover above a central stage — chairs behind the stage, up in the balcony, and practically up in the artists’ faces on the ground level. Because the room so surrounds the stage, there’s a direct sight line for every instrument being played, every hand grasping a horn, tickling keys, or plucking strings. There are platforms that can accordion and retract, making that enviable space near the stage open up into a temporary dance floor.
And all the seats have cup-holders. We’re a long way from the smoke-filled, underground jazz clubs of the past.
EXCITING AS ALL HELL
And from those seats in the Robert N. Miner auditorium, patrons will see an impressive first season of SF Jazz at its new home. Fans already have high expectations, given SF Jazz’s 30 years of hosting concerts and festivals at other venues like the Paramount in Oakland, and smaller clubs like Amnesia. Now with its own multi-use facility, the nonprofit has taken eclectic routes with its programming and contributions.
“This first season, when you look at some of the things we’re doing here, it’s just exciting as all hell,” says founder and executive artistic director Randall Kline, barely able to contain that excitement, clad in a hardhat and reflective vest on the first level of the still-under-construction building. “[These events] fully take advantage of what we can do with the theater — something we couldn’t do when we didn’t have our own place.”
For starters, there’s a sold-out opening night celebration Jan. 23, hosted by Bill Cosby, along with a grand opening week of shows spotlighting McCoy Tyner, the SFJazz Collective, and more, followed by a week of big band with the Realistic Orchestra (Jan. 31), and swing with Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickets (Feb. 3).
In March, virtuoso Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain will perform four nights, and in April there will be a Weimar Germany themed weekend with Ute Lemper, Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester, and a screening of the classic Metropolis (1927), with live music by the Clubfoot Orchestra.
But even more to Kline’s point: there will be five resident artistic directors for the 2013 through ’14 season (along with Kline’s overall vision). The five — Jason Moran, Regina Carter, Bill Frisell, John Santos, and Miguel Zenon — are musicians with distinctive backgrounds and viewpoints, programming four days of thematic events.
For his days, Santos hand-picked colleagues and artists working and performing in the Caribbean style. He chose De Akokan, a duo made up of Cuban singer-songwriter-composer Pavel Urkiza and Puerto Rican saxophonist-composer Ricardo Pons, because “they’re phenomenal artists…and they rarely come here.” He also invited cutting edge trombonist-composer Papo Vazquez, who lives in New York but is steeped in the Afro-Puerto Rican tradition.
During a phone call a few hours before my hard-hatted venue walk-through with Kline, architect Mark Cavagnero, and Marshall Lamm, who does public relations for the center, Santos discusses his anticipation and interest in the upcoming schedule.
The Bay Area bred percussionist will also be premiering his own Filosofia Caribena II, which refers to Caribbean philosophies and traditions — those that have informed his entire body of work. “[It] blends all the experiences of Black American music with Caribbean traditions, and it goes into the whole socio-political aspect of how the music really represents resistance and the identity of a whole group of people that identify culturally, even though we don’t live in Cuba or Puerto Rico, but we certainly grew up in and maintained those traditions.”
Adding, “Jazz was born in that environment, in New Orleans, in the Caribbean community. We’re making those connections between jazz and the Caribbean roots.”
Frisell’s batch of shows, beginning April 18, will include multimedia pieces with projections and orchestras, readings of Allen Ginsber’s Kaddish, and Hunter S. Thompson’s The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved (the latter of which is rumored to be narrated by Tim Robbins).
Moran’s residency likely represents the scope of the auditorium’s versatility best: he’ll open with a solo acoustic piano night (May 2), followed by a “Fats Waller Dance Party” with Meshell Ndegeocello that utilizes the dance-floor, then break out the inspired, possibly nutty, concept of a skateboarding jazz piece. There will be an actual half-pipe on the lower level of the room — seats pushed back — with professional skateboarders riding back and forth in the curved structure to Moran’s musical accompaniment.
It’ll be one of many configurations for that striking room. The specifics of the auditorium were big challenges for architect Cavagnero — the acoustics, the balance of sound (such as making sure solo piano and thundering skateboarding dips both fill the space equally), isolating street noise, creating those excellent sight lines from every angle.
“The idea of the building was to make the big concrete room the sacred space for music, the focus space,” says Cavagnero, walking up the stairs in the building’s glass-encased entryway. “That was going to be the closed, sacred space, [and] everything else would wrap around it and be as open and public as we could make it.”
To that end, the rest of the building has floor-to-ceiling glass, and the staircase has no columns supporting it, just thin titanium rods that double as the guardrail. The second floor has bars on either ends and terraces with glass doors that fully open, along with tiled murals representing the history of jazz in the city, with long-gone clubs painted throughout.
It’s clear that this building is meant to be more than a standard music venue, the goal is to be an institution.
“So, if the paradigm is: clubs are harder to run and have live music, well, if we could have the same kind of vibrant music in an institution that supported that kind of thing, to build up a community of people that cared about that kind of thing — which is the gamble I guess we’re making here in this building — we can build it for the jazz community,” says Kline. “[The goal is to have] a great place to hang out and hear live music, where new artists can grow and premiere, and be nurtured.”
And it is hard to run live jazz venues in the city. Nearing the end of 2012, the owners of Oakland’s Yoshi’s filed for involuntary bankruptcy to put its San Francisco location in Chapter 11 if it couldn’t meet an agreement with its partners, the Rrazz Room switched venues under a cloud of controversy stemming from an allegedly racist former manager of its then-location, and Savanna Jazz had to fight off foreclosure.
“We have not seen an increased interest for the art form [recently] primarily because the economy is down significantly and the arts are usually the first to suffer,” says Savanna Jazz co-owner Pascal Bokar.
Because of this, I ask Bokar if other jazz club owners in the city see the center as a contentious new rival. He categorically denies that assertion.
“Jazz is an art form and it has no competition, every club and club owner adds to the fabric of our community and SFJazz is the big brother. I know how hard it is to promote jazz and [Kline] has been working at it for several decades,” he says. “He deserves tremendous credit for bringing this to San Francisco. SFJazz is a very powerful organization and I think that there is an opportunity for [it] to partner with the smaller venues like Savanna Jazz. The smaller venues are the incubators of local talent and I think that they would benefit from a closer relationship, which in turn would solidify community commitment.”
It may be the older sibling to smaller clubs, but given the economy, and the tough climate for all music venues in San Francisco really, the SF Jazz Center does also feel like a gamble itself. But to extend and belabor the metaphor, Kline’s got a good hand.
Santos describes the center to me as a “bold experiment.”
“The amount of money that it has taken to build that place and keep the doors open is phenomenal, and in a lot of ways, it’s a step out into the darkness,” he says. “But I see the potential of it as just limitless. It can be such an incredible thing, if the community supports it. That’s what I’m hoping will happen.”
NATIONAL ART FORM
Santos points out that the jazz center is unique in its fans and patrons differing from the typical performing arts donor, and will have specific obstacles because of that.
“In a way, it’s abstract, when you think of it like, OK, there it is, next door to the symphony hall, to the ballet, to the opera, within one block of those institutions. It’s wonderful to have jazz there, and standing toe-to-toe with those institutions, and getting the respect it deserves. Getting public support from the city and the country and the state, as it should be, because jazz is our national art form. The symphony and the ballet and the opera are not.”
“The difficult part is that the opera and the symphony and the ballet have traditional well-heeled audiences of supporters. Jazz does not. Jazz is grassroots; it’s working class. The audience for jazz and the community from where jazz comes out of is not a deep-pocket kind of community. And that’s where the challenge lies.”
If anyone can face that, it’s Kline. It’s part of his whole bootstrapping essence, how he’s kept SFJazz up, running, and prominent for the better part of three decades. From its humble beginnings as the three-day Jazz in the City festival, promoted solely by Kline, to the Summerfest, the SFJazz High School All-Stars group, the monthly Hotplate series, and finally, the SFJazz Center.
Leaning against the guardrail on the second floor of the building, gazing out through the wall of glass to the greater Hayes Valley neighborhood, Kline smiles as he talks of the city’s history with jazz, his own life mirroring it for quite some time. “I’ve been here since 1976, and I’ve seen a lot of patterns in the scene; it ebbs and flows, the economy changes. This building is a reflection of the sociology; we’re trying to be relevant, so we’ve chosen a different model, we’ve chosen institution.”
It’s one of a few times that will come up in my conversations with those involved with the center.
“Could we apply that older model for culture to a younger, vibrant art form that’s relevant to the city?” he asks, rhetorically. “That’s the aim here, to try something that’s of our time.”
Jazz hands: Some SFJazz season highlights
A rare old school jazz legend in the center’s inaugural season — stunning and dapper pianist Tyner will “consecrate” the space by performing with the SFJazz house band.
Jan. 24, 7:30pm, $50–$150
MONTCLAIR WOMEN’S BIG BAND
Swing is still huge in SF, and this celebration of the classic big band sound pairs the 17-member Montclair Women with the 20-member Realistic Orchestra (who’ve big-banded Bjork) for a wall of swingin’ sound. The SFJazz High School All-Stars Orchestra opens.
Jan. 31, 7:30pm, $25
AFRO-CUBAN ALL STARS
Oh heck yes.
Feb. 22-24, 7:30pm, $25–$65
The gorgeous longing of Portuguese fado washes over the Bay in the form of the wonderfully voiced Mariza, a spellbinding star whose repertoire spotlights acoustic melancholy melodies from Brazil, Cape Verde, North Africa, and beyond.
Mar. 14-17, 7:30pm, $25–$65
“JOHN SANTOS: FILOSOFÍA CARIBEÑA II”
Beloved Bay Area bandleader and jazz evangelist digs deep in his knowledge of Cuban, Latin, and indigenous Caribbean styles to deliver a heady trip through ancient Iberian influences and contemporary island expressions.
Mar. 23, 7:30pm, $25–$65
San Francisco’s Club Foot Orchestra performs its renowned futuristic soundtrack to Fritz Lang’s silent sci-fi masterpiece.
Apr. 14, 7:30pm, $20–$40
“ALLEN GINSBERG’S KADDISH” AND “HUNTER S. THOMPSON’S THE KENTUCKY DERBY“
Überhip guitarist Bill Frissell, an SFJazz resident artistic director, applies his downtown cool pedigree to two überhip literary iconoclasts. He’ll be conducting an ace team of musicians for multimedia presentations of Ginsberg’s epic poem of mourning and Thompson’s notorious, uproarious 1970 article about the grand horse race. With visual design by Ralph Steadman for both programs, classic counterculture will be out in force.
Ginsberg: Apr. 18, 7pm and 9:30pm, $35–$80
Thompson: Apr. 20, 7:30pm and Apr. 21, 4pm and 7pm, $35–$80
BANDWAGON AND LIVE SKATEBOARDING
“Jazz wild card” and MacArthur Genius pianist Jason Moran gets contemporary with new trio Bandwagon, performing a rolicking set as a who’s-who of SF skateboarders shows off the flexibility of the new center.
OPINION Given that Gov. Jerry Brown put out his proposed budget the same day that Oscar nominations came out, it’s tempting to make some comparisons.
Brown’s budget, like the nominated musical “Les Misérables,” has plenty of numbers, and will make some people cry.
But I take the new budget seriously, the same as every budget I’ve seen since I got to Sacramento. Unlike most of the recent budgets, this one doesn’t feature a big deficit. Give the Governor some credit for that, but let’s look at how he’s done it. Not all of it is pretty.
To start with, education gets a boost. That’s clearly what California’s voters wanted when they passed Proposition 30 in November. The budget will give more generous increases to the school districts that have more education challenges, and it boosts funding for higher education. We can cheer that.
It also funds the next steps for implementing federal health care reform. That bodes well for efforts to make sure all Americans and all Californians are insured. Under ideal circumstances, of course, we’d be talking about single payer.
There are other, less cheerful things in our future.
There’s an across-the board 20 percent cut to In-home Health Supportive Services beginning in November. This comes from an odd “optimistic” assumption from the governor that the courts that kept him from making those cuts earlier will let him do it now.
Child care funding is flat, which would be tolerable if it weren’t for past cuts. It’s hard to find a better investment in our state than child care. Kids in good child-care programs do better when they get to school. Child care allows more people to work and attend job training. Restoring child-care funding is critical for the state.
Keeping CalWORKS benefits at half of what they used to be is similarly shortsighted, as are cuts to the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, reductions in Medi-Cal provider rates and funding changes for students in higher education.
While preaching austerity, Brown keeps pouring money into a prison system that needs more reform. Sentencing and release programs could be altered to reduce the need for overstuffing prisons without risk to Californians. Overcrowding continues, with one women’s prison in the Central Valley at 180 percent of capacity. This is not stewardship that inspires confidence.
Prison programs to help people beat drug addictions and find jobs when they come out are gone. We are missing a chance for long-term reductions based on rehabilitation. Instead we continue to shuffle bodies around.
Spending choices are not the only problem. The governor skipped some ways of boosting revenue. What about the rules surrounding Proposition 13? Local jurisdictions would benefit from closing loopholes that allow corporations to avoid reassessment when property changes ownership.
I also want discussion of an oil severance tax. Here in the Bay Area — in Richmond and San Bruno — we’ve seen and lived with major downsides of the energy industry. I think it’s time that the oil producers who continue to make big profits pay a tax for the oil that’s taken out of California.
You can see that the Governor’s “director’s cut” budget doesn’t deserve a little gold statue — even if it is the best picture (fiscally) we’ve seen in a few years. We’ll look for silver linings when the Legislature starts working on our playbook.
Assemblymember Tom Ammiano represents the 13th District.
EDITOR’S NOTES The guy who runs the San Francisco Housing Authority is in pretty serious doo-doo: His agency has just been placed on the federal government’s “troubled” list, and he’s getting sued by his own lawyer, and he’s hiding from the press while tenants complain that they can’t get basic repairs.
Although Mayor Ed Lee has so far officially stuck by Henry Alvarez, he’s already backing off a bit, and it’s pretty likely Alvarez will be gone when his contract expires this summer. He may be gone even sooner than that; there’s a growing chorus of voices calling on the mayor to fire him.
So at some point we’ll get a new director, who will make a handsome salary (Alvarez gets $210,000 a year plus a car and seven weeks paid vacation) and live in a nice house and go into work every day to deal with problems that are pretty damn far from his or her life.
That’s always the case to some extent with the heads of agencies who deal with the poor, but it’s particularly dramatic when you talk about the Housing Authority. Public housing is never luxurious, but in San Francisco, it’s been riddled with problems for many years. And frankly, I’m much more concerned about the tenants than about Alvarez or his management style.
I get that the Housing Authority has financial problems. The federal government long ago abandoned any serious commitment to funding housing in American cities, and the authority only recently managed to pay off a multimillion-dollar judgment from a lawsuit filed by the families of a grandmother and five children killed in a fire on Housing Authority property.
Yet, tenant advocate continue to complain that it can be hard, even impossible to get a response from the agency. When critics complain, the agency goes after them: The Housing Rights Committee went after the Housing Authority over evictions, and wound up getting investigated by SFHA employees who wanted to gut their city funding. And while some say Alvarez is a hard-charging person who demands results (and thus pisses some people off), nobody has used the words open, accessible or compassionate to describe him.
I’ve got an idea for the next director (or for Alvarez, if he wants to stick around). Why not live in public housing?
Seriously: Why shouldn’t the person who controls the safety and welfare of tenants in more than 6,000 units spend a little time understanding what their lives are like? Why not spend, say, one night a week in one of those apartments?
In the old days, judges used to sentence slumlords to live in their own decrepit buildings, which seemed to work pretty well: Once the guy in charge has to deal with the rats and roaches and broken windows, he’s much more likely to expedite repairs.
But it wouldn’t have to be punitive — just a chance to get a first-hand look at how the agency policies are working on the ground. The city employee unions have had a lot of success asking members of the Board of Supervisors to do a union worker’s job for a day; the director of the San Francisco Housing Authority could certainly live like one of his tenants every now and then.
Think of it as a management tool: What better way to figure out whether his staff is doing the job than to look at the end product? Or figure it as a way to stop being an asshole and see what people who live on less than ten percent of his salary really think of his administration.