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Father’s day



LIT In late-1980s San Francisco, Steve Abbott hosted a gay writer’s workshop at his small apartment at the fabled corner of Haight and Ashbury. One fleeting but reliable occurrence was an appearance by Alysia, the daughter he’d raised since his wife died in a car accident years earlier.

Each week, the teenager stormed about just long enough so we could feel her wrath before slamming the bedroom door. It was funny, but also understandable: at that age, who wants their personal space regularly invaded by strangers? Let alone gay male adults, reinforcing your separation from the heterosexual family norm?

Steve was a significant presence in SF’s literary scene for nearly two decades, publishing his own adventuresome small-press books in various idioms (poems, essays, fiction). He edited small magazines including the influential Poetry Flash; was first to promote such edgy “postmodernist” voices as Kathy Acker and Dennis Cooper; and was an idiosyncratic cultural commentator for local weeklies (including the Bay Guardian). He was unfailingly generous with other fledgling writers, myself included.

He barely kept the rent paid via rote day jobs, while raising a child alone — an awkward match to the carefree gay community he joined upon moving to SF (and coming out) in 1974. As Alysia Abbott writes in her acclaimed new release Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father (W.W. Norton and Company, 352pp., $25.95), there were no role models then for gay single parents. Their very close but turbulent relationship amplified the clash between her often-peevish parental needs and his belated self-discovery in a sexual-artistic bohemia. They found balance as she found her own identity upon leaving for college. But then the AIDS epidemic swept both up in its devastation.

Abbott, now living in Boston with a husband and two children, answered questions in advance of two local appearances this week.

San Francisco Bay Guardian You had an unconventional childhood with an unconventional parent. Has that influenced your own parenting?

Alysia Abbott My father was raised in a strict Catholic household where family members rarely showed affection. He kept his feelings bottled up. By the time he had me, he wanted a completely different family experience, transparent and open. He often shared his romantic and professional woes, sometimes seeking my advice.

I absorbed a lot of my dad’s worry, and sometimes found myself in situations where I had to be more adult than I was ready to be. I want to be my true self with my children. But I also want to protect their innocence to some degree.

SFBG You’re frank about having been an “obnoxious” unhappy teenager. Are there things you or your father could have done differently? Was it a phase you just had to work through?

AA We were trying to create a life with a lot of setbacks, sharing a cramped one-bedroom in the Haight with little money or family help. My father was lonely, and trying to get sober just when I discovered drugs and alternative culture. We did our best under the circumstances. But as often as we clashed, there was a lot of love. This was a period we needed to go through.

SFBG Your father identified so strongly as a writer, but Fairyland doesn’t address how you became one yourself.

AA I’d always wanted to be a writer, or an artist. But after watching him struggle financially, I pursued steady-paycheck work in cushy corporate structures (which I now hate). I also didn’t know if I had his native talent, or could be as intellectually rigorous and pure. I always had our story to tell, but worried I wasn’t worthy of it. The idea of writing Fairyland and having it not meet my own expectations was unbearable. Now I realize perfectionism is the enemy of creativity. To succeed, you have to be willing to fail.

SFBG When Steve was facing mortality, he wrote that you’d probably better appreciate his writing after he’d passed on. What do you think about his literary legacy now?

AA I’m embarrassed to admit I really didn’t read my father’s books until ten years after he died. During his lifetime, the work’s weirdness, its attraction to transgressive figures and ideas threatened me. I accused him of not being a “real writer” because no one had heard of him and he didn’t make any “real money.” What a terrible thing for a daughter to say!

Researching for Fairyland, I came to respect his contributions and integrity. All the writers I know today have to be such master self-promoters. My father was almost embarrassingly naïve in this regard. That may be why few people know his work today. But he was so devoted to writing, and supporting writers that impressed him, even if that effort did nothing for his own career.

I now really love several of his poems and books, especially Lives of the Poets — but some still make me uncomfortable. I’m not sure if it’s because they aren’t good, or still too “out there” for me.

SFBG After so many years, how do you feel about returning to SF? Many of your father’s creative generation are dead. It’s a much yuppie-er burg.

AA San Francisco is very different from the city I knew in 1974, or even 1994. I’ve worried that those who remember the old San Francisco, or appreciate its history, are dwindling — they’ve died or been forced out by Ellis laws. But new residents are attracted by the city’s beauty just as we were. And though much better-heeled, these tech workers and professional types are also trying to reinvent culture, if with much greater odds of profit — and interest in profit.


Wed/19, 7pm, free

City Lights Books

261 Columbus, SF



Thu/20, 6:30pm, free

San Francisco Public Library

100 Larkin, SF


Who saves the world?



LIT Even humankind’s saviors need a little help from their friends to max out on destiny. In local writerperson Michelle Tea’s world, that support has been culled from the closely-knit community of queers, feminists, and outspoken loud mouths that make up the extended family of the Sister Spit and Radar reading series that she assembled in the open mic wilderness of early 1990s and 2000s San Francisco.

All good young Bay Area writers know what followed: Tea went onto write a series of smashing, lyrical novels and memoirs detailing her journey from daughter of the beleaguered town of Chelsea, Mass., to sex worker, and finally into the lit star firmament with Valencia, a cult classic about the Mission’s slutty turn-of-century Lexington Club set.

Bully for her, but we can’t all chart such exceptional trajectories. Thanks goddess, then, that in Tea’s second young adult novel Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, help comes to 13-year-old Sophie Swankowski from a more likely cast of characters: a flock of well-spoken activist pigeons, a spell-weaving corner store zhakharka, her grandmother’s hot genderqueer garbage dump assistant, and an absolutely filthy mermaid who assures Swankowksi that despite the six-pack plastic rings stuck in her hair, she is big in Poland.

“It’s sort of a bad world,” the put-upon Swankowski is told by Syrena the mermaid. “I come here to help you fix it.” The declaration arrives while Sophie is playing the “pass-out game” (you KNOW) with her obsessive, set-upon-by-hormones best friend Ella at the polluted creek near their depressing homes. The scene takes place at the start of summertime in Chelsea, where “there isn’t any right side of the tracks,” as our protagonist puts it.

What follows is not the story of Swankowski’s world rescue, but a different struggle entirely: the young woman’s realization that she need not hold to the boundaries erected around her by family and childhood friends. She is, as Angel the dump worker-curandera’s daughter puts it, one of the “girls who knew things and had powers and a certain destiny.”

I refuse to consider this a spoiler because the excellent Mermaid of Chelsea Creek, the first book published under McSweeney’s new young adult imprint McMullens, is but the first in an upcoming trilogy involving Sophie and her motley crew. Believe me, there is a lot in the book you’ll have to read to discover (psst dog-grandfathers and the effect superpowers have on dealing with rude neighborhood boys.)

Tea, it would appear, has had a penchant for the epic recently — the hotly-anticipated movie version of Valencia has been crafted by no less than 21 filmmakers, each in charge of their own story chapter and distinct cast. (Cop your tickets to its June 21 and 27 Frameline world premiere, on sale starting Fri/31, at www.frameline.org.) One of Tea’s next projects is said to be a novel imagining the world in the wake of a 1990s apocalypse.

But enough of this future-mongering, because Mermaid of Chelsea Creek is a triumph in its own right, a stand-alone treat that I could not eat without chortling about to my own social circle at every possible juncture. I hope it makes its way into schools across the country, and trickles across the radar of those too young yet to attend Radar. Young adult literature, thank Harriet the Spy, is not without its strong young heroines, but Swankowski’s working-class journey goes beyond pluck. You never saw Ramona Quimby plump for a cereal dinner in solidarity with a hot-mess single working mom, nor decide, ultimately, that gender ambiguity is fine when it comes to a budding friendship-crush.

Ultimately, the book becomes what all Tea projects tend to be: assertions that survival is possible, if not inevitable — and that through achieving survival, we make the world a better place. Not all pigeons talk, but everyone deserves the freaky, feathered friends they need to get them through the summer. 


Booksmith Pride bookswap

W/ Ali Liebegott

June 7, 6:30-9:30pm, $25 for dinner and open bar


1644 Haight, SF


June 18, 7pm, free

Moe’s Books

2476 Telegraph, Berk.


Joyful noise



LIT If the intrinsic value of an ephemeral experience is its very impermanence, then attempting to capture it for posterity is an exercise fraught with peril. No sanitized textbook description of such chaos-driven movements as Dada, Situationism, and Fluxus could ever hope to capture the raw vibrancy of being a part of the action, and the true value of such movements has really never been in spectating, but from the transformation experienced by the participants while pushing their personal boundaries.

With that caveat in mind, the gorgeously-rendered, scrap-and-patchwork anthology Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society (Last Gasp, 300 pp., $39.95) does a pretty good job of conveying not just the external hi-jinks of a group bound together by a yen for the unpredictable, but also the internal philosophical trajectory of many of its members.

Designed to resemble a hardbound EC Comics collection, boldly adorned with a zombie-green, six-fingered hand further deformed by the presences of a bloodshot, unblinking eye smack in the middle of its lined palm, Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society is a collaborative effort between key cacophonists Kevin Evans, Carrie Galbraith, John Law, and, in a sense, the whole of the multi-faceted, loosely-knit “society” which ebbed and flowed through the secret pathways and deep underground spaces of the Bay Area and beyond from 1986 through the mid-aughts.

The comprehensive yet quirky tome gathers together an abundance of flyers, photographs, descriptions of momentous pranks and experiential escapades, and newspaper columns documenting such shenanigans as a Thomas Pynchon Walking Tour; the bunker-squatting “Atomic Café”; bridge-climbing; sewer-spelunking; art-car parades; a hide-and-chase game of “Smuggler” at Fisherman’s Wharf; and a rowdy afternoon of shopping cart sled-racing known as the Urban Iditarod. Strewn with colorful collages of ephemerabilia designed by Galbraith and brightly illustrated “Cacophony Factoids” by Evans, the densely-layered visuals bear a whiff of the cheerfully Dada-tastic aesthetic of counter-culture classic The Book of the SubGenius as well as the Cacophony Society’s own former newsletter of events, Rough Draft.

Birthed from the relatively short-lived but highly influential prankster cadre the Suicide Club, which operated from 1977 to 1982, the Cacophony Society itself has “spawned” a veritable pantheon of offbeat occurrences such as SantaCon, the Bay to Breakers Salmon Run, and that bloated megalopolis of arts festivals, Burning Man. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a San Francisco without the insidious influence of an organization dubbed “the Merry Pranksters of the 1990s.” Even organizations and events (local and national) not specifically born of the society such as Improv Everywhere, Atlas Obscura, the Yes Men, and the Maker Faire bear its imprint: a sense of irreverence combined with a belief in the possible.

“There wasn’t anything that we could think of that we couldn’t figure out how to do,” reminisces Galbraith — who is notably the original instigator of the organizations’ iconic, unmediated Zone Trips (which came to include the first expedition to Black Rock Desert with Larry Harvey’s “man” in tow). This sentiment is echoed by Evans when asked his opinion on the key traits shared by cacophonists, “curiosity, creativity, a deep appreciation of the absurd and the silly, [and] an addiction to making something from nothing”.

Although the idea of a book about Cacophony had been floated around as early as the mid-’90s, it wasn’t until Evans called a meeting between some of his former cacophony comrades in 2010 that the idea began to take a concrete shape. A Bay Area-based fine artist and illustrator, Evans came to the meeting with an already thought-out concept for a “visual history” of the Cacophony Society, and though most of the other people at that first meeting decided against participating, Galbraith, who has a master’s degree in book arts, jumped onboard, eventually spearheading the layout and working most closely with publisher Last Gasp on the final incarnation.

Joining the project soon after Evans and Galbraith got rolling, John Law — a founding member of the Cacophony Society, and a long-time member of the Suicide Club before it — brought his extensive archive of flyers, newsletters, and more to the mix, and, with Galbraith, provided much of the written content. In the end the grueling, three-way editorial process became less about finding enough material for a book, but whittling all the available material down to 300 pages, a process Law likens to lopping off fingers.

“We could have compiled a thousand-page book without repeating anything, or becoming dull,” he muses ruefully by email. “My hope is that others who were involved will write their own books about the period.”

Until that happens, however, pranksters, subversives, free spirits, and urban explorers alike will want to go ahead and splurge on a copy of The Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society. And remember, though now technically defunct, the society has always been open to all. You may already be a member. *


Thu/16, 7pm, free

City Lights

261 Columbus, SF



Sun/19, 6pm, free

Green Apple Books

506 Clement, SF


For more readings and related events, including a May 31 party at the Castro Theatre, visit www.lastgasp.com or www.talesofsfcacophony.com.

‘Maximus’ through Flarf



LIT Mm-hmm

Yeah, mm-hmm, it’s true

Big birds make

Big doo! I got fire inside

My “huppa”-chimpTM

Gonna be agreesive, greasy aw yeah god …

In 2000, Gary Sullivan’s grandfather fell victim to a then-familiar poetry.com scam. (“You’ve won a poetry contest! Order the book with your poem in it now!”) In revenge, he went on the scam site and wrote what he thought was the worst, most offensive poem ever — which of course won its own scam contest. Then a curious thing happened:

“When Sullivan sent his poem to friends online, they decided to write their own purposely bad poems,” editor Paul Hoover tells the tale in the introduction to his updated Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, released last month. Soon a whole listserv of sniggering poets were randomly Googling phrases from bad poems (this was when Google was brand new, mind you) and “plugging in” the random juxtapositions to create new, worse ones — which incidentally also captured the logorrheic splooge, misfired proto-snark, corrosive cuteness, pornographic troll-holes, and manic self-hype of the Internet itself.

Thus a new poetic movement called Flarf was born.

A lot has changed since the first edition of NAPAP came out, in 1994. Back then, hyperacademic multicultural poetics and practitioners of the Language school, which sought to “scatter attention” over the poem with discursive overload and deliberate (yet often hilarious) difficulty, were riding high. In the color-saturated days before the Internet, the first edition was a revelation. Hoover, a San Francisco-based poet and teacher with a knack for highlighting the emotional resonance in abstract practices, served as a perfect guide to postmodern poetry, or at least a certain exciting type, which he broadly defines as “an experimental approach to composition, as well as a worldview that sets itself apart from mainstream culture and the sentimentality and self-expressiveness of its life in writing.” In other words: “truth” is out, truthiness in. And enough weeping over your dead great-grandmother’s recipe book, already.

I met with the tall, calm Hoover in his frighteningly humble San Francisco State office, where he’d been “locked up for months” working on the second edition (see my full interview this week at www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision). “We called the anthology ‘post-modern’ rather than ‘experimental’ or ‘avant-garde’ mostly because those terms are problematic, and have enough cultural baggage to really turn people off. So we started with the poet Charles Olson, who was the first poet to label himself postmodern and attempt to break with the grand modernist past. ‘And had we not ourselves (I mean postmodern man) better just leave such things behind us — and not so much trash of discourse, & gods?’ he wrote to fellow poet Robert Creeley. And he put this into practice in his ‘Maximus’ poems.”

The anthology is chronological: after Olson, in almost 1000 pages, we get almost all the big avant-garde-y names like John Cage, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Jack Spicer, Allen Ginsberg … Uncontroversially, Hoover takes his lodestars to be the Black Mountain School, the New York School, and (somewhat shakily to me, in terms of intellectual rigor, yet still charming) the Beats. Then come the Language poets, near where the first volume ended, and afterward a multitude of newbies — Vanessa Place, G.C. Waldrep, Noelle Kocot, Ben Lerner — begin.

“In order for this book to not be 13,000 pages, I had to make some hard decisions, about who was not to be included, and who needed to go. It wasn’t so much a matter of redefining what is ‘post-modern’ or even what’s ‘American,’ although maybe those things have also changed. But so much has happened — the Internet, social media, September 11, the expansion of global capitalism, mass media, and multinational corporations. I don’t think there’s been such a fundamental change that we’ve moved out of this thing called ‘postmodernism’ into something completely different or new. But poetry reflects these changes with constant innovations of its own. There’s a lyricism completely of the time in the best of these poems, but also completely outside of it.”

So what are some of the innovations? Besides the hyperreal grotesqueness of Flarf poets like Sullivan, Sharon Mesmer, and K. Silem Mohammed, there is its nemesis — at least in a poetry beef possibly ginned up for attention — Conceptualism. Whereas Flarf adrenalizes visceral response within a poem’s span, conceptualism often makes the poem into nothing but the static result of grand idea: the best example of this is Kenneth Goldsmith’s epic “Day,” in which he reconstructed the entire September 1, 2000 issue of the New York Times into a 900-page book (excerpted in the anthology).

In between lie practices like Proceduralism (Christian Bök’s strangely affecting “Vowels” made out of words that contain the same letters as the title, and which ends “wolves evolve”), Google sculpting and cybernetics (Muhammed’s hilarious “Sonnagrams,” in which he puts Shakespeare’s sonnets through an online anagram generator, then “sculpts” the results in Microsoft Word, dragging the words around to form a new sonnet). There is also the deliberately “girly” “Gurlesque” poetry of Catherine Wagner, and the eerie and complex “ambient” poetics of Tan Lin, which is just a beautiful drift of words across a page, a “gossip of the mind.” And much, much more in this fascinating and necessary volume.

Funny, infuriating, dangerously familiar, hauntingly strange, way too intellectual, true despite itself: poetry is the same as it ever was. The next edition, in 2034, ought to be a real corker.

POSTMODERN AMERICAN POETRY READING CELEBRATION with Paul Hoover and 16 more poets: Fri/3, 6:30pm, free. Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, SF. 


Laid bare



LIT “I met Johanna at a party in New York in 1998 — actually I was talking to her boyfriend first, barrettes in his dyed black hair and painted nails, I was trying to figure out if he was a fag or from Olympia.”

If you were “alternative” in the ’90s, that priceless sentence should ring strikingly true, as will this one: “Obviously we believed in attitude: if someone said something about not wanting to judge people, that was New Age garbage. New Age garbage was almost as bad as a trust fund, it was the same thing as stealing from your friends because you were stealing their rage.”

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore — outspoken queer anti-assimilation activist, genderblending thriftstore style icon, archetypal Mission District character, huge-hearted den mother, insufferable gadfly — is the posterchild for all that was culturally alternative in San Francisco in that pierced-lip poser decade, while at the same time possessing one of the loudest voices cutting through the bullshit clamor back then and questioning it all.

She’s also a brilliant writer, with two novels and several anti-assimilationist essay anthologies, including last year’s Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?, under her sparkly little purple belt. Her new memoir The End of San Francisco from City Lights Books is written in such a hypnotically elliptical style (summoning City Lights’ Beat poet legacy) and contains so many spot-on observations and era-damning epigrams that anyone who lived through the period described will cling to its pages while wishing to hurl the book at a wall in embarrassed self-recognition.

Searing, funny, maudlin, elegiac, infuriating, and confessional, The End of San Francisco is a deliberately disordered collection of vignettes dealing mostly with Sycamore’s span living in the city and launching the highly influential Queeruption, Fed Up Queers, and Gay Shame activist movements.

“At some point I realized that the book centered around the myths and realities of San Francisco as a refuge for radical queer visions in community building,” Sycamore told me via email.

“I first moved to San Francisco in 1992, when I was 19, and it’s where I figured out how to challenge the violence of the world around me, how to embrace outsider visions of queer splendor, how to create love and lust and intimacy and accountability on my own terms. I left San Francisco in 2010, and in some ways this book is an attempt to figure out why or how this city has such a hold on me, in spite of the failure of so many of my dreams, over and over and over again.”

Along the way we get drug overdoses, AIDS, lesbian potlucks, heroin chic, crystal meth, ACT UP, the birth of the Internet, the dot-com boom, the dot-com bust, mental breakdowns, outdoor cruising, phony spirituality, Craigslist hookups, hipster gentrification, Polk Street hustling, fag-bashing, shoplifting, house music, the Matrix Program, crappy SoMa live/work lofts, “Care Not Cash,” gallons of bleach and hair dye, and processing, processing, and more processing.

It’s definitely not a nostalgia-fest: Juicy passages about SF club history, ’90s queer life in the Mission, and Gay Shame’s internal dynamics and gloriously kooky pranks (guerrilla Gay Shame Awards ceremonies blocking Castro traffic; a Pride adjacent, corporate-sponsor-tweaking “Budweiser Vomitorium” where you could “barf up your pride”) are accompanied by an Oprah-load of issues including chronic pain, incest, personal betrayals, anorexia, depression. The moving opening chapter describes Sycamore confronting her father in the upscale Washington, DC home she grew up in about her recovered memories of his sexual abuse, as he lay dying.

And Sycamore has surprising words for those who think queer punk, riot grrrl, the bathhouse disco and clone-look revival, or the scene at the SF Eagle were essential to the queer activist movement (Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill makes a memorable appearance — Sycamore befriended her without knowing who she was, and later attended the first Le Tigre show.) Her habit of questioning everything can often paint her into corners of abrasive self-absorption, but she continues to raise interesting points about the fetishization of machismo in the FTM, leather, and punk communities, the emptiness of hipster activism, and the capitalist-colluding hypocrisy of “alternative culture.”

As usual though, she saves her heaviest judgments for the mainstream gay morass, its Borg-like drive toward cultural hegemony via marriage, military, and consumerism — even as she acknowledges the necessary symbiosis that binds queer outcasts together. At 1993’s March on Washington, “where suddenly there were a million white gay people in white t-shirts applying for Community Spirit cards”: “Gays in the military was the big issue and what could be more horrifying but here’s the thing: freaks actually found one another — we were so alienated that we went right up and said hi, I like your hair…”

This, then, is the tenderness that drives Bernstein to keep speaking out, despite the personal costs. As we weather another dot-com boom of homogenizing gentrification, The End of San Francisco is a timely reminder of the community that can spring from resistance.

MATTILDA BERNSTEIN SYCAMORE reads Tue/30, 7pm, free at City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus, SF. www.citylights.com, and Thursday, May 9, 7:30pm, free at the GLBT History Museum, 4127 18th St., SF. www.glbthistory.org


Free the free


VISUAL ART It starts with the streets. Walls, the texture of walls, rough and colored in swirls of graffiti letters. Walls you feel you could reach out and touch their cold and grit. Establishing shots — the streets of San Francisco in the dot-com era. The photos are of their times: an unattended shopping cart in the streets appears as early as page three. Soon follows the spray-painted legend, “Don’t let the good times fool you.”

The pictures are inscrutable, their sequence seemingly random. Yet other than the gnomic title (Friendship Between Artists is an Equation of Love and Survival), the only text in Xara Thustra’s self-published new book’s 500 pages is a brief intro from the author insisting that the book is meant to be read from left to right, from top and bottom in the order the photos appear. There are no captions or prompts to lead the viewer. It is the mute gravity of the photos that pulls you in. What is happening here? It’s like finding a box of photos on a trash pile in the Mission — old furniture, clothes out on the curb, a pile of books and CDs. Why is all this stuff in the trash? Did the owners die? Or get evicted? Photos of strangers. You go from one photo to the next and the outline of a missing life starts to appear. What is happening here?

The action moves in and out of the streets, cinematic — the interiors dark, claustrophobic. The streets provide narration. Everything is spray painted. Demand Community Control. Everything bright, everything clean. Everything they build be like fuck you, fuck you, fuck you. Familiar everyday locations have become enlisted as battlegrounds. At the Dolores Park tennis courts, someone has hung a screen on the fence, painted so that it reads “Sink the Ship” in shimmery, see-through letters. A subliminal message to the tennis players visible on the other side? Or a secret signal to an unseen underground army?

Cut to the interior. Some dim locations start to become recognizable: a performance crammed into a corner of Adobe Books, a crowd seen through a doorway at the old Needles and Pens. The images are at times grainy and low res, like bad cell phone photos or surveillance camera footage. Much is shot in indistinct rooms or hallways, tightly cropped. The people in the interiors model homemade clothing or stare back at us from unmade beds. They are dancing in high heels or fucking each other, holding whips and dildos. No one is smiling. Instead they stare defiantly into the camera as if to ask, “Who are you to watch? Which side are you on?” This is not the careless and fashionable hedonism of Ryan McGinley photos. Instead, like the subjects of Nan Goldin photos, the people in these images know how much their search for freedom costs, and who will have to pay.

Meanwhile, the battle in the streets continues. Scum bags dressed as imposter yuppies stand in front of the mall on Market Street, holding handmade signs reading, “The bombs are dropping, lets go shopping!” An effigy of Gavin Newsom burns at 18th and Castro. Back inside, homeless guys from Fifth and Market calmly eat free breakfast at the 949 Market Squat. More drab interiors, more surveillance footage, and then what is happening here? Scenes of naked people grimly carving designs into each other with razors, holding dripping, bleeding arms up to the camera. It must be 2005, I think, when we all started to give up on ever stopping the war and just started hurting each other.

Full disclosure: I am in this book. I might be too close to the people and events depicted to discern whether the images are strictly documentary or whether their arrangement is intended to create a new story. But the juxtapositions, eerie and dreamlike, pack a wallop. In one two page spread, my dead friend, Pete Lum, stairs from the left page into another photograph on the right of an unknown drag queen out front of Aunt Charlie’s on Turk Street. Their eyes seem to meet across the gutter of the book and across time and space, as if sharing a secret the rest of us cannot know.

Ultimately, perhaps the one indisputable narrative of the book is the tremendous progression in Xara Thustra’s artwork, as the early agitprop graffiti by “Heart 101” in support of street protests slowly morphs into a far more ambitious project, an ongoing collaboration with countless others through performance, print, and cinema to abandon protest and instead collectively embody through art the autonomy and ethics of a truly different world. Perhaps inevitably then, Friendship Between Artists is both a monumental achievement and something of an anti-climax. The protests, the willful art world obscurity, the dead friends — what did it all add up to?

I am certain, anyway, that nothing in the book was conceived with the idea that it would one day appear in an art book. Instead, the interventions, experiments, and protests detailed herein, while at times quite joyous, were, as the book’s title suggests, originally part of a deadly serious struggle to keep oppositional culture alive in San Francisco, and for many that struggle now feels lost. But life must go on, and this is no museum piece.

The book’s 500 pages positively overflow with life, salvaging from oblivion the raw, visceral feel of 15 years of ephemeral underground freedom. While some will be haunted by the suspicion that the answer to the above question is “not enough,” the people in these photos stare into the camera and demand we consider instead a hard-earned and far more redemptive possibility: that this isn’t an art project, it’s how we live. This isn’t representation of a different reality, but about being a different reality. And fuck you, anyway, because being free is its own reward.

For an interview with Xara Thustra, visit sfbg.com/pixel_vision.


Thu/6, 7-9pm, free

Needles and Pens

3252 16th St., SF



A sizzling tale



LIT Every San Franciscan has at least some knowledge of the city’s pre-1906 earthquake days (Gold Rush!), with the more curious able to rattle off a few more random tidbits (Emperor Norton!)

It’s possible, though, that no other San Franciscan hungers for historical facts like Robert Graysmith, a former San Francisco Chronicle journalist and cartoonist best-known for his true-crime classic Zodiac — the basis for the 2007 David Fincher film. He also wrote The Murder of Bob Crane, which was made into the 2002 film Auto Focus.

Graysmith’s latest is Black Fire: The True Story of the Original Tom Sawyer and of the Mysterious Fires that Baptized Gold Rush-Era San Francisco, which uncovers Mark Twain’s friendship with the real-life Sawyer — a colorful figure in the city’s early firefighting culture — and paints a detailed portrait of San Francisco, circa 1849-1866. It’s jam-packed with notable residents whose long-ago importance lingers in the city’s street names (Broderick, Brannan) — plus mustachioed hooligans and “The Lightkeeper,” an arsonist as mysterious as he was destructive. The book also spills over with highly unromantic descriptions of what day-to-day living must’ve been like: raucous, dangerous, and astonishingly muddy. I spoke with the longtime local about his latest tale.

San Francisco Bay Guardian How did you find out about the original Tom Sawyer?

Robert Graysmith Back in 1991, I saw this little article about “torch boys,” and I thought, “What’s this?” No names or anything. Basically, it was boy firefighters. Like with Zodiac, the Bob Crane book, and the Trailside Killer [in The Sleeping Lady: The Trailside Murders Above the Golden Gate], I always like to do the first book on a subject because you start from zero. You have to go to the actual records. You have to go live where the people did. You immerse yourself. You literally get to live what I call “the great adventure.”

So I decided I was going to write about these boy firefighters, because how could anyone not have written about them? A little bit later, I discovered there was an arsonist — the name I’ve given is a name I’d heard before, the Lightkeeper — who’d burned down all of San Francisco six times in 18 months. I thought, this is an even greater story! And then I came across the original Tom Sawyer, and I was going through these journals and diaries and things, and there’s Mark Twain, and they’re friends! Gradually it developed into the first biography of Tom Sawyer, and yet at heart it’s a true crime story about catching this arsonist, and the making of a great city.

But what I really came away with was, even without meeting Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer was a great man. He saved 90 lives at sea after an exploding steamboat tragedy, he fought for the rights of volunteer firemen, and who knows how many lives he saved during fires. As he said in interviews back in 1898, he’d been with the very first volunteer fire company in California. Every aspect of firefighting in San Francisco, Tom Sawyer encompassed that.

SFBG Even beyond Tom Sawyer, Black Fire talks quite a bit about firefighting history in San Francisco.

RG I love that. Isn’t that fascinating? [When I’m writing] I want to know every single thing. If a house is on fire, I want to know who lives there, who got out, how the fire started, the wind direction, the weather, the kind of food they ate. My goal is this: if Tom Sawyer came back today, he would say, “How did he know that?” I like to play that game with myself and I like to do that with the reader. I’d like the reader, at least once on every page, to say “I didn’t know that!”

But I hope I did a good job. I loved the book and I loved doing the drawings for it. [I had so much material that] the companion book, Black Water, is already done — it’s an incredible story, so I’m really counting on Black Fire doing well so we can bring it out. I can’t really tell you what it’s about, but there’s a lot of archaeology involved, and it’s the exact same time period, with a few of the same characters.

SFBG The characters in Black Fire are pretty memorable.

RG I love the characters, like “the ugliest man in San Francisco” — and maybe in the world, we weren’t sure! You’ve got a US senator, a gunfighter, boxing champs, con men. Incredibly bigger-than-life figures, and these are the guys who saved the city! In a city where everybody was terrible, these slightly bad guys were the heroes. They really were what held us together, pulling these water wagons up hills, fighting fires with tiny hoses. It was so overwhelming, the devastation — because we had paper houses, and they kept building the same houses over again. I love the fact that they fought against impossible odds and succeeded.


Nov. 15, 7pm, free

City Lights

261 Columbus, SF



West Memphis free



LIT When Damien Echols stepped out of the Craighead County courtroom on August 19, 2011 a free man, he’d spent more than half of his life on death row, for a crime he insists he didn’t commit — the gruesome murders of three young boys. His trial and quest for exoneration, along with co-defendant Jason Baldwin and a third accused, Jesse Misskelley Jr., are well documented in the Paradise Lost documentaries directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, and the subject of a fourth documentary, West of Memphis, due out in December. But for a more microscopically focused, day-to-day accounting of growing up behind prison walls, Echols’ book Life After Death (Blue Rider Press, 392 pp., $26.95) delivers a highly personal account of living under a sentence of death.

The timing of the book’s release could not be better for Californians, who are facing the opportunity to overturn the death penalty in the upcoming November election by voting yes on Proposition 34. For the undecided, reading about death row from the perspective of one who lived on it may offer one of the most compelling arguments against maintaining it. Echols’ book offers a vision of life on death row as bleak as it is banal: the glacial grind of the appeals process, the dehumanizing effects of institutionalization on both the incarcerated and the incarcerating, and the unsettling reality that there have been numerous factually innocent people sent to death row for sentences that have little to do with deterrence, and much with revenge. (More information on wrongful convictions can be found via organizations such as the Innocence Project, the Death Penalty Information Center, and Amnesty International.)

Even when you strip away Echols’ penchant for overwrought hyperbole (“I cannot explain it, the way everything in my soul gibbers and shrieks for some sort of closure”), he effectively paints a portrait of an isolated sovereign state characterized by rote adherence to pointless, administrative ritual. The primary focus of Echols and his fellow inmates seems to be staving off boredom and breakdown, chronic death row maladies on which Echols provides plenty of detail. Echols learns to sit zazen, increasing his ability to silently mediate from 15 minutes to five-hour stretches. He watches television — looking forward every year to each Charlie Brown holiday special and baseball season — and offers tips on cooking chili over a light bulb plus novel uses for magazine cologne samples. In fact, at certain points his discourse (written mostly while Echols was still in jail) reads a bit like a “Hello Muddah” letter from summer camp rather than a hardcore exposé of the prison system.

Since he was sent to death row while still a teenager, Echols’ essays and letters are frequently tinged with lingering shades of adolescent angst, and confined as he was to an effectively solitary existence, he can’t help but to come off sounding somewhat self-absorbed (“I look at the people who have done horrible things to me … and I know they would never have been able to rise above the things that I have”). When not writing about prison life, he writes about his poverty-stricken childhood and his side of the criminal case that catapulted him to an uncomfortable celebrity, vacillating between emotional extremes. In one paragraph he fondly describes the way his father could make him laugh, in another he describes being “disgusted” by his “childishness.” His mother, sister, and step-father are all singled out for similar treatment, and he even takes a swipe at onetime best friend Jason Baldwin, for hesitating over the deal that allowed the West Memphis Three to walk out of prison in 2011 with time served — but not with exoneration.

But Echols the person is more than just Echols the condemned, and Echols the writer is more than a one-note diva. Strewn throughout his narrative are wryly humorous observations, such as his glowing description of a sumptuous breakfast at the mental institution where he was temporarily confined as a youth (“The insane do not count carbs”), and his tongue-in-cheek recounting of his teenage attempts to find a summer job (“I was growing desperate because potential employers didn’t seem to value the exceptional intellectual giant who was presenting himself to them”). His glowing tributes to his wife and defending angel Lorri Davis are touching and truthful, and his penchant for poetic phrasing is transcendent when it hits its mark.

“I’ve seen ghosts in the lines of a woman’s face and heard them in the jangling of keys,” Echols writes urgently. “Sometimes I even mistake myself for one.” Fortunately for his audience his writing, at least, tethers him unequivocally to the corporeal world — a man after all, not a shade. *


Parsley, sage, rosemary, and timewarp



CULTURE For any of you (guilty!) who have a kneejerk gag-reflex reaction upon hearing the words “Renaissance Faire,” but can’t quite pinpoint the source of your disdain, author Rachel Lee Rubin breaks it down for you three ways: fear of men in tights, fear of voluptuous women squeezed into revealing outfits, and fear of being engulfed by nerd culture. That third category of Renaiphobia includes my own personal terror, being approached by a merry fool and loudly addressed in “castle talk,” that peculiar grammatical melange which embodieth the thithermost in Faire-y frippery. (I would also add another fear: that of hepatitis A, which my husband’s high school friend contracted from a woefully undercooked giant turkey leg.)

“Part of Renaissance Faire culture is inextricably intertwined with this adjacent culture of Renaissance Faire haters,” Rubin told me over the phone from her office in Cambridge, Mass. “I spent so much time among the trolls on Internet message boards, it really hurt my feelings!”

The fascinating, forthcoming Well-Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture (NYU Press, release date November 19), a study of the phenomenon and its political and cultural echoes by Rubin — a professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston — just might temper any Renaissance indigestion. Its deep and compelling tale of the Faire’s reach, much of it emanating from a specifically Californian aesthetic of soft-golden attitudes and ecstatic liberal expression, certainly had me revisiting some of my own preconceptions, even yearning to be part of the revelry. Somebody polish me a codpiece!

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Faire. (This year’s monthlong Northern California Renaissance Faire in Hollister winds down Sat/13-Sun/14). Amazingly, Well-Met is the first comprehensive historical and anthropological study of the festival, although an official 50th jubilee commemorative album is set to be published next year (www.rpf50book.com).

The Faire’s tale begins with a young Laurel Canyon teacher’s quest to teach her charges at the local community center the history of theater, including the Italian Renaissance form of commedia dell’arte, the rowdy, harlequin-speckled, lute-sountracked populist traveling-theater tradition, a mixed-up version of which the Faire would soon become most identified with. But Phyllis Patterson’s idea of putting on a community festival, dubbed the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, soon became a flashpoint for several cultural and political currents of the time, not least the blacklisting of Hollywood professionals by the House Un-American Activities Committee (with all that out-of-work talent, the first Ren Faire served as both a showbiz bonanza and a backlash to Communist witch hunts); a turning away from mass-produced goods and the harmful effects of global commercialism (with an emphasis on handmade crafts and local community); and the incubation stage of the hippie, including the Faire’s soft-focus, wild-and-free English pastoral style of clothing, soon found donned by top pop minstrels, from the Byrds and the Monkees to the Beatles and the Isley Brothers.

“Even now, the spectre of the long-haired hippie looms in many older conservative minds. And he — it is always a he — belongs to the aesthetic of the Renaissance Faire, guitar in one hand, flower in the other,” Rubin told me.

Also involved in the Faire’s history was the reinvention of theater — the New Vaudeville, including such bigtimers as Firesign Theater, the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Pickle Family Circus, and Bill Irwin — plus the explosion of public community radio (LA’s KPFK and our own KPFA owe much of their golden years to the Faire), and a revisionist historical movement in education. Rubin traces the New Left political movement’s break with the Old Left to the Faire’s liberating effect. But mostly the Faire operated as America’s freak magnet, the most visible manifestation of the counterculture emerging from the conformist 1950s — and a safe space for outsiders of all types.

“Again and again, people told me how the Faire made them feel safe,” Rubin said. “Vietnam veterans told me it was only at Faire that they felt welcome back in the country. There was a huge gay and lesbian presence from the beginning, and the bawdiness encouraged there attracted different sexual expressions. Class difference, too, could be left behind. The costuming echoed that of the masquerade, where a certain amount of anonymity — a shedding of the self at the gates, which is a very important ritual at the Faire — opened up new possibilities.

“The central paradox of the Faire is that it allows you to be more yourself while being someone else.”

Another paradox is the overwhelming anachronism of the Faire — starting with those emblematic turkey legs and continuing through the revealing custom-made chain mail “wench wear” that’s lately become all the rage among female Faire regulars (“playtrons” in castle talk). Somehow, reimagining the historical past makes the Faire more authentic.

“The inspiration to write this book actually came when I took an English friend to one of the fairs,” Rubin said with a laugh. “He was horrified: ‘what have you done to my country’s history?’ And yes, it’s called the Renaissance Faire, but it’s really the idealization of probably 10 years of the whole historical period, in England, and only very select parts of that. But the central notion of the festival is play — even a play on the meaning of ‘renaissance’ itself. It’s almost like steampunk’s relationship with the Victorian era. Except that steampunk starts with one historical period and imagines the future, whereas the Renaissance Faire imagines the past.”

And of course the one constant of every historical endeavor is change. The Faire is now a national institution with a broader appeal than ever. After functioning as an artistic haven in the 1960s and a working class escape in the late ’70s and ’80s (the titillating “freakfest” alternative to Six Flags’ “redneck Disneyland”), it’s lately settled into the role of suburban theme party and gamer-nerd paradise. But that’s changing as well.

“The video game role-players are still there, but the faire doesn’t seem to resonate as much with the current tech crowd, which may be more attracted to material gain than fantasy escapism,” Rubin said. And many regular playtrons are dismayed at what they see as the Disneyfication of the Faire. “Even as a suburban and working class phenomenon, the Faire always functioned as an alternative narrative to everyday life. But now we’re seeing more ‘handmade crafts’ manufactured in China and attempts to corporatize the Faire on larger levels. There has always been an argument about authenticity among playtrons, but now there are more contemporary forces affecting the Faire.”

Yet the original spirit of transformation and togetherness persists. For Well-Met, Rubin visited dozens of Faires across the country, not only documenting several intriguing regional differences but also talking to dedicated playtrons about their personal experiences at the Faire. What emerges is a candid family portrait, full of self-aware whimsy, goofy charm, and awkward situations. (Rubin speaks with playtrons of color about the faire’s often ethnically challenged demographics and writes about the widening of the Faire’s aesthetics to include Islamic World elements, in acknowledgment of the actual Renaissance’s roots.)

Also persistent: the wilder, bawdy side, especially on the last day of many Faires, when parents are warned and much of the self-censorship vanishes, like mead from a sterling goblet gripped by hairy Hobbit knuckles. Profane insults and hilariously vulgarish displays fill the fairgrounds. Will that be the case on Sun/14 at the NorCal Ren Faire? Squeeze yourself into corset and tights and come findeth out.


Sat/13- Sun/14, $25–$35 (Kids under 12 free), 10am-6pm

Casa de Fruita

10031 Pacheco Pass Hwy, Hollister


Shake, rattle, and read


LIT What do you get when you bring together a horde of ravenous bibliophiles in a city that’s known for the possibility of a future catastrophic event? No, not the zombie-nerd apocalypse: Litquake, the largest annual independent literary festival on the West Coast. This year’s nine-day festival runs from Fri/5 through Sat/13, ending with Lit Crawl, the infamous booklovers pub-crawl that words up the Mission. The festival’s venues are as diverse as its writers, ranging from theaters, coffee houses, bars to a barbershop, a bee-keeping supply store, even a parklet. The jam-packed program is expected to bring even more attendees than last year (a whopping 16,581), and features 850 authors in 163 events including hundreds of readings and a multitudinous array of panels and cross-media events.

Originally dubbed Litstock, the festival was conjured up by Jane Ganahl and Jack Boulware at the Edinburgh Castle pub in San Francisco, a watering hole where local authors had been doing readings of their work. Ganahl and Boulware’s idea was simple: get a bunch of writers together to read their work in Golden Gate Park, and see what happens. With the help of Phil Bronstein, then editor of the San Francisco Examiner, they got $300 for a sound system, and on July 16, 1999, Litstock was born. Twenty-five writers read from their work, and to the surprise of Ganahl and Boulware, 300 people came to hear them. In 2002, the festival acquired its new, quintessentially San Francisco moniker, Litquake, and has been growing exponentially — more than 3,650 authors have presented to more than 83,500 people.

(About this year’s installment, Boulware tells the Guardian, “”This year, the festival feels like the programming has more depth than in previous years. We’re including more events at museums, more events outside the city, in particular the Berkeley Ramble, more tributes to noteworthy authors — Lenore Kandel, Woody Guthrie, and Juan Rulfo — and much more diversity in our expanded Lit Crawl schedule. We’re overjoyed to help cement the Bay Area’s rightful place on the national and international literary map.”)

As the story goes, the renaming of the festival in 2002 was partly inspired by an article in USA Today reporting that San Franciscans spend more money on books and alcohol than the residents of any other major city in the nation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Added to the festival in 2004, Lit Crawl has becoming the living, breathing embodiment of San Francisco’s happy marriage of books and booze — more than 6000 scribes and fans take part in venues in the Mission. San Francisco’s Lit Crawl (this year on Sat/13) has been so successful that there are now Lit Crawls in New York, Austin, Brooklyn and, soon, Seattle.

As neighborhoods go, the Mission is the perfect setting for the event, given its noteworthy independent bookstores and Dave Eggers’s brainchild, 826 Valencia. Like North Beach and the Haight, the city’s former literary hotspots, the Mission has an inherited bohemian spirit (some would call it Beat) that gives life to the idea of literary community.

This year’s Liquake roster of readers is a hefty one, spanning various genres and including such notable participants as Christopher Coake and Daniel Alarcón, both among Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists, along with local legends like US Poet Laureate Robert Hass and poet D.A. Powell. A bound-to-be-popular panel featuring cartoonist Daniel Clowes and Eggers himself will surely to draw a crowd, as the two discuss everything from the creative process to their favorite comics, books, and movies.

And for history buffs, there will be panels on little-known and formerly censored poetry of Beat poet Kandel and a tribute to Jane Austen featuring Karen Joy Fowler, author of bestseller book The Jane Austen Book Club.

It’s a fitting testament to San Francisco’s rich intellectual heritage that, in a city known for its ballooning tech industry (the oft-feared culprit behind literature’s “imminent demise”), San Franciscans’ literary love affair shows no signs of waning. Our lust for books still causes the city to tremble.



Various times, venues, and prices, SF.



Downtown development


LIT/VISUAL ARTS The term “Mission School” was coined in these pages by Glen Helfand in 2002 to describe a loose-knit group of artists based around the Mission District who were then just beginning to break through into international art world success. These artists — including Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Chris Johanson, Alicia McCarthy, Rigo 23 and others — made use of found materials and shared an informal aesthetic that was influenced as much by the low rent streets of the city around them as a relaxed, collective Bay Area vibe.

A decade later, it seems safe to say that the Mission School was probably the last major art movement of its kind in this country, and itself the end of an era. For over three decades, significant art and music breakthroughs in this country were linked to specific urban neighborhoods (hip-hop to the South Bronx; Warhol’s Factory to downtown Manhattan, riot grrrl to Olympia, Wash.; grunge to Seattle; Fort Thunder in Providence, RI, etc.) Today, with the rise of the importance of MFA programs as a means to enter the art world, and the lack of locality fostered by the internet, the era of geographic specificity as arts incubator has perhaps passed us for good.

Two new books take us back to those freer, more experimental days at the inception of the SoHo and East Village arts scenes of New York in the 1970s and 80s. 112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970-1974) (Radius Books, 192 pp., $50) is a brief, but invigorating oral history from the early years of what we now know as SoHo. This just-released catalog to last year’s exhibition at Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea brings to life the sense of discovery and improvisation of the nascent neighborhood scene that centered around the legendary pioneering alternative arts space and its north star, the late Gordon Matta-Clark.

In October 1970, when Jeffrey Lew and Matta-Clark opened 112 Greene Street in the storefront of a “rundown former rag picking factory,” the area south of Houston Street was a wasteland of abandoned former textile factories known as Hell’s Hundred Acres. The space, with its lack of heat, and its raw walls, uneven floors, and poor artificial lighting resembled the city then falling apart all around it. The ruins of the city not only influenced the work; sometimes they literally became work.

Alan Saret remembers walking near Canal Street with Matta-Clark one night when a cornice simply fell off a building right in front of them. Saret found some other cornices on the ground nearby and paid the crew of a passing city garbage truck to haul them back to 112 Greene where they became part of a sculpture piece he called Cornices.

Far from the uptown galleries where Manhattan art world power then was consolidated, 112 Greene’s isolation and state of decay fostered a certain kind of “anything goes” artistic freedom and collaborative spirit. For the first opening at 112 Greene, Matta-Clark jackhammered a hole in the basement floor and filled the area with dirt, where he planted a cherry tree that he kept alive all winter with grow lamps. For a later exhibition, George Trakas wanted to do a two-story sculpture, so he simply cut a hole in the floor so his piece could rise up out of the basement into the main floor. The only rule seemed to be that work had to be created on site and could not be made for sale.

Perhaps predictably, with this last rule, the space could barely keep its doors open. Yet, there is a timeless lesson here for those running arts spaces today: the downfall of 112 Greene came ironically only after it finally achieved financial stability. When Lew landed a big NEA grant in 1973, pure art experimentation and spontaneity gradually gave way to formal scheduling and programming guidelines from the funders in DC, who demanded more and more say in the operation of the space. “The excitement that anything could happen waned as paperwork and schedules were enforced,” remembers Lew. The core group of artists slowly drifted away from 112 Greene, just as the original SoHo, too, was beginning to change all around them into the high-end shopping district it is today.

The SoHo model has become a cynical real estate gentrification strategy, as developers create prefab arts — and shopping — neighborhoods in empty warehouse districts across the country from Miami to Portland, Ore. to Brooklyn. But if, say, Bushwick’s art scene feels less like a real place than the shores of a desert island where hundreds of young artists have been randomly washed up by the storms of the global economy, 112 Greene Street reminds us that the first art neighborhoods were formed organically around genuine community. In 1971, Matta-Clark and artist Carol Goodden started an artist-run collective restaurant in SoHo called Food. By all accounts, Food was not some relational aesthetic stunt; it was a well loved and sincere attempt to provide cheap meals, a gathering place, and jobs to artists in the scene.

112 Greene Street ends before Matta-Clark’s untimely death from pancreatic cancer at age 35 in 1978, and before the artist would famously take the work he developed in the ruins of 112 Greene out into the ruins of the city with a practice he dubbed “Anarchitecture.” He took the city as his canvas, transforming raw space by sawing dramatic cuts in the floors and facades of abandoned buildings in the South Bronx and industrial parts of New Jersey. But the charm and dreamy freedom of the era 112 Greene Street depicts comes through in Matta-Clark’s film, Day’s End. In it, Matta-Clark works calmly with a blowtorch, cutting holes in the steel ceiling of an abandoned city pier on the Hudson River (with no apparent fear of getting caught) as the space slowly fills with radiant light.

A decade later, another artist who would die too young, David Wojnarowicz, would also find a wide-open playground in the rotting piers along the river. Wojnarowicz would spend hours at the piers, writing about what he saw there, having sex with strangers, and drawing murals or writing poetry on the crumbling walls. Wojnarowicz delighted in the ruins and saw the piers as a sign that America’s empire was fading away before his eyes. That today we know it was actually only Wojnarowicz’s world that was about to disappear is just one of the many poignant aspects of Cynthia Carr’s beautiful new book, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (Bloomsbury USA, 624 pp., $35), the first comprehensive biography to date of the artist, writer, and activist who died of AIDS at the age of 39 in 1992.

On the run from an abusive father, Wojnarowicz started sleeping with older men for money while living on the streets in his teens. Drawn to other criminals and outlaws, his first published writings were based on interviews he did with street hustlers, travelers, and homeless people he met in skid row waterfront diners and on hitchhiking trips. In the works of Jean Genet, he found a literary moral universe that helped him make sense of his own worldview. One of his earliest surviving works, a collage entitled St. Genet, depicts the French writer wearing a halo in the foreground while in the background, Jesus is tying off to shoot up. While Wojnarowicz would continue to use such blunt religious imagery in his work, the collage resonates in other ways. Carr reports that it was Kathy Acker who first called Wojnarowicz “a saint” when she appeared with him at his final public reading in 1991. The identification of Wojnarowicz’s life and work with the tragic loss of so many daring, outlaw artists to AIDS is so complete that Wojnarowicz has become a patron saint to young queer and activist artists today, his life story surrounded by an aura of myth.

Carr, a former arts reporter for the Village Voice, carefully picks apart myth from fact: Wojnarowicz didn’t actually start selling his body for money at age nine as he often claimed and he also wasn’t a founding member of ACT UP as many people suppose (though he did participate in some ACT UP protests). Yet, the complex and more human Wojnarowicz that Carr leaves us with is no less inspiring a figure — a self-taught artist whose lifelong struggle to make meaningful art out of his own experience, sexuality, and ultimate diagnosis with an incurable disease would almost by chance place him front and center in the story of the AIDS crisis and the great culture wars of the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Carr, a resident of the East Village now for four decades, became friends with Wojnarowicz late in his life, and she refreshingly breaks journalistic “objectivity” to insert her own eyewitness perspective into the narrative at many key junctures. One senses Fire in the Belly is so good precisely because it is a story only Carr could personally tell. Built on years of observation, Fire in the Belly has the ambitious scope and rich detail of a novel, and, more than a biography, is the story of a fabled East Village scene now irrevocably lost.

Wojnarowicz arrived in a gritty East Village where whole blocks had been abandoned to heroin dealers and bricked up tenements. A nihilistic neighborhood arts scene embraced the decay of the streets as an aesthetic, and galleries like Civilian Warfare Studios presented a giddy cocktail of downtown punk and queer culture mixed with the freshly born graffiti and hip-hop scenes of the South Bronx. Carr relates now-famous events like Gracie Mansion’s “Loo Division” show (mounted in the bathroom of her E. Ninth Street walkup), Keith Haring painting on the snow on the street in front of his show at Fun Gallery, and the exploits of the Wrecking Crew — a team including Wojnarowicz and other artists who would binge on acid and stay awake for days, filling galleries with creepy and crazed collaborative installations.

The artists’ isolation would not protect them from the art world for long. Soon, limos were disgorging passengers at openings on the heroin and rat-filled terra incognita east of First Avenue. East Village stalwarts like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Haring became rich and internationally famous, and even Wojnarowicz became a fairly established up-and-coming art star. The rags-to-riches story of the East Village scene might be the same kind of innocent tale of lost Bohemia as that of 112 Greene, were it not for the AIDS crisis shadowing it the whole time. Carr skillfully juxtaposes the narrative of openings and parties with chronological news reports of the then-unknown new disease. Carr describes a party on Fire Island in July 1981: writer Cookie Mueller read a story from the New York Times out loud to the room about a strange, new “gay cancer”. Photographer Nan Goldin, who was present, remembers today, “We all just kind of laughed.”

Carr’s tale picks up suspense after Wojnarowicz himself is diagnosed with AIDS. Over a breathtaking two-year period, Wojanrowicz embarks on an urgent mission to complete every single art project he’d ever hoped to accomplish in the time left to him in life. In the process he almost reluctantly becomes the fiery AIDS activist we remember today. While working on his career retrospective, he also battles the harassment of his landlord who is determined to evict Wojnarowicz and convert his loft in the gentrifying East Village into a cinema multiplex. He struggles to complete his memoir, even as his work becomes the focus of battles over government funding of art. Soon, Republicans denounce the dying man’s work as obscene and anti-Christian on the floors of Congress, and Wojnarowicz becomes a target of conservative Mississippi preacher Reverand Donald Wildmon’s public attacks. Wojnarowicz absorbed these attacks and the era’s stunning homophobia and turned them into what became the most powerful work of his career, the myth of his own life.

Carr’s book stands along with recent work like Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of The Mind as a corrective to the uncritical nostalgia for the lost New York City of the 1970s and 80s that seems to have flowed like a river from Patti Smith’s 2009 memoir, Just Kids. These works unromantically detail what has been lost and then lovingly describe exactly how painfully it was all lost. Yet, perhaps all is not lost. While arts neighborhoods like the ones described in 112 Greene Street and Fire in the Belly seem like a thing of the past, the towering myths left behind by figures like Matta-Clark and Wojanrowicz still bring young artists against all odds to the rehabbed neighborhoods of San Francisco and New York today. Everytime Sara Thustra serves a meal at an opening at Adobe Books on 16th Street or Homonomixxx shuts down a Wells Fargo bank, we walk, if just for a short time, the streets of our old familiar city.

David Wojnarowicz: Cynthia Carr and Amy Scholder in Conversation
Wed/3, 7:30pm, free
Lecture Hall
San Francisco Art Institute
800 Chestnut, SF

Pop thrills



LIT So much trash lit, so little summer left. It hasn’t been the greatest of years for beach and backyard reading (seriously, more trash than lit), but we struggle on. Some selections:


By Lee Child

Delacourte Press

405 pp, hardcover $28

Jack Reacher is one of the best action characters of our time, up there with Spenser and Travis McGee.

Child came up with a winner, a former military cop who wanders the world like Kwai Chang Caine, doing good work, sometimes reluctantly, with superior fighting skills that make him a true badass.

The Affair is sort of a prequel, and takes us back to Reacher’s army days. It’s absolutely formulaic, completely predictable, just like all the other Reacher books — but so well executed that it’s still a beautifully guilty pleasure.

There’s a murder that puts Reacher in danger, a gang of thugs who get their butts kicked, a hot woman in law enforcement with whom Reacher has what we all know will be a short-lived affair … and plenty of sharp dialogue the keeps the pages turning.

With all the pablum out there, it was nice to sit down and read the work of a master who is still in his prime.


By John Sandford

G.P. Putnam’s Sons

402 pp, hardcover $27.95

Put this one up there with The Affair. If you love Lucas Davenport and his world of twisted murder shit in and around the Twin Cities, then Stolen Prey works fine.

Mexican drug gangs seem to be the Most Evil Fuckers In The World this summer, and in Stolen Prey, they’re particularly horrible, doing a stomach-turning murder that takes place in a nice upper-middle class town. The dead family appears to have no ties to any type of criminal activity — but ah, there is much more here.

Again, nothing radically new (except a suprising ending involving Davenport’s adopted daughter, Letty, who apparently has some of the step-old-man in her), but a fine read for a sunny afternoon.


By John Grisham

Dell Paperback

488 pp, paper $9.99

Grishman practically invented the modern lawyer novel, and most of his protagonists are brilliant (if tormented) legal advocates who fight valiantly against corporate crime.

It was getting old.

This time around, there’s plenty of evil corporation (big pharma) — but the lawyers are bumbling idiots, worthless ambulance chasers who’ve stumbled into something they’re mind-bendingly unqualified to handle. Drunk lawyers, dumb lawyers, lawyers behaving badly … it’s a grand and glorious testament to the noble profession. And it moves right along.


By James Patterson and Howard Roughan


365 pp, paper $9.99

Patterson has written so many books I don’t think even he can keep track. The Alex Cross series is among the modern classics in crime lit. His current M.O.: Find co-writers who can do some of the heavy lifting while he polishes. At least, that’s how much of his stuff reads. And this one, sad to say, is a snooze.

Even in his collaborations, Patterson normally manages to keep things lively. The plots are good, the characters decent, and there’s no shortage of action. He’s into seriously depraved, psychotic villains and seriously evil enemies. Never a dull moment — mostly.

But Don’t Blink bored me. It’s about a reporter (good) who sees a mob killing (cool) and then gets in trouble (predictable). The protag is decent and believable, but the plot goes on and on and gets nowhere. Blink.


By John Verdon


449 pp, hardcover $25

Verdon’s series hero, retired cop Dave Gurney, continues to live in his gruesome Green Acres in upstate New York, where his wife wants a quiet country life and he keeps tangling with psychokillers. I really liked the first two, Think of a Number and Shut Your Eyes Tight, and this one’s fine, although not as stone-cold sick-ass wacked-out crazy as the past two.

Here, Gurney looks into a cold case and everyone thinks he’s crazy except that the killer, who supposedly isn’t around, keeps doing things like shooting deadly hunting arrows into his garden. Between the murderer and the pain of his tormented marriage, there’s enough to keep you turning the pages. But it’s at best a B-plus.


By Ace Atkins

G.P. Putnam’s Sons

320pp, hardcover $26.95

All of the knockoffs suck. Tom Clancy’s Ops Center? Worthless. The Jason Bourne sequels? Robert Ludlum’s ghost is puking. You don’t do that shit; it doesn’t work. And another writer trying to take on the Late Great Robert B. Parker and Spenser? Not a prayer. Give it up.

Except that Ace Atkins actually makes it work. And he does it not by becoming Parker but by staying true to the characters and developing just enough of his own voice that it’s not just a weak parody. You’ve got Spenser and Hawk and Vinnie and Susan Silverman and a 14-year-old terrified girl who hired the detective for a box of donuts and leads him into a fierce FBI-Boston mob frameup gig that sparkles like Parker of old.

For real. I’m amazed.

Pagoda madness



LIT Either I’m terrible at parking or Philip P. Choy was exactly the right person to author his recently-released San Francisco Chinatown: A Guide to Its History and Architecture (City Lights Publishers, 184pp, $15.95). We find a spot for my car in a well-hidden lot, tucked into an alleyway behind the Chinese Historical Society of America. It’s the first sign of the day that Choy’s knowledge of the area goes beyond tea shops and Peking duck.

“Chinatown…” Choy pauses as we stand outside a sidewalk stall whose owner angrily mutters at us (we’re blocking pedestrian traffic by hovering over his dried sea cucumber display.) “Chinatown is real. There are people here living, relying on Chinatown.”

Choy’s newest publication is not just a faithful retelling of the enclave’s social and architectural history. The book goes out of its way to dispel the stereotypes and fanciful constructions of the neighborhood that the outside world maintains. Choy was born in Chinatown, and as a co-professor of the first collegiate level class in Chinese American history at San Francisco State, he’s well-qualified to tell its story.

With apologies to our embattled shopkeeper, we continue to examine the cukes, first brought to the neighborhood via 1800s trade routes between China and the US. We move past other stalls while Choy points out the historical importance of their wares.

He shows me sandalwood, traditionally burned in Chinese temples, and ginseng root, which had been harvested by Native Americans but became a staple Chinese delicacy.

Choy tells me that the Chinese — who were not-so-charmingly called “mongols” around about 1840 — have suffered alongside Native Americans and other people of color throughout our country’s history, enduring ghettoized living situations and sub-par educational offerings.

As Choy and I wander Grant in search of the infamous pagodas that were built after the 1906 earthquake, we take a small detour up the hill to peek at Gordon J. Lau Elementary School. In the late 1800s a Chinatown father sued the city when his daughter was barred from attending other schools. Though the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, the school district opened the originally-named Chinese Primary School rather than integrate. 

We pass quickly by an East West bank, which was once the home of the first San Francisco paper, the Star. Around the corner stands a cheap retail center, originally the Mandarin Theater, a cultural and artistic mecca for neighborhood residents. Its once-lavish stage now serves as a platform for garish home decorations, its grand balconies now providing seating only to building debris.

Our whirlwind tour ends at the pagoda building Sing Fat, nestled at the corner of Grant Avenue and California Street. It was erected by the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce and prominent merchants in a post- 1906 earthquake attempt to repackage the once-funky Chinatown as an ornate, prosperous “oriental city.”

But Sing Fat’s pagodas are actually what Choy (an architect himself) calls a “Disneyland approach” to Chinese architecture: unstudied, inauthentic. The only legitimately Chinese quality of the structure is its green, yellow, and red color motif.

“Does any truly, authentically Chinese institution or edifice exist in Chinatown?” I ask, sidestepping tourists to keep up with Choy, who navigates Stockton Street with shocking deftness.

Choy reaches a hand out to avoid my death-by-delivery-truck and laughs. “Doesn’t exist.”

That’s because Chinatown is first and foremost a Chinese American town. And for all its perceived exoticism, the neighborhood has been around since almost the beginning of San Francisco.

Such is the beauty of Choy’s book. It retells a neighborhood’s story that’s too often render mythic by rumors money-hungry tour guides and ignorant outsiders. San Francisco Chinatown illuminates the untold history of the enclave, urging readers to consider its quiet alleyways and SROs housing six people just above the busy streets. The book wants you to consider the political, historical, and cultural implications of Chinatown’s very existence.

Says Choy of the generations who lived in this neighborhood, “they were pioneers of the city. They did more than just open laundries.”


Oct. 7, 1pm, free

California Historical Society

378 Mission, SF



Oct. 27, 11am, free

San Francisco Public Library

100 Larkin, SF

(415) 437-4844


Beyond the Pink



LIT Molly Ringwald is 44, fabulous, and living a dream life in Santa Monica with her gorgeous husband and three daughters. She’s also far from shy when it comes to talking about her storied past as an 1980s movie legend, the red-headed dream girl of choice for a generation of disaffected teens.

No, she didn’t have anything to do with designing Andie’s prom dress in Pretty in Pink (1986). Yes, director John Hughes almost fired Judd Nelson from The Breakfast Club (1985) for being mean to her (Nelson was staying in character). And — sorry those of us who spent hours pushing our boobs together — she cannot put lipstick on with her cleavage. That was “movie magic.”

Also? The quote she gets most on the street is “What’s a-happenin’, hot stuff?”

Ringwald is hot stuff for something else right now. She’s just released When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories (It Books, 256 pp., $24.99), a debut novel comprised of linked short stories that’s been garnering raves. (She’ll be appearing courtesy of Litquake at the Verdi Club, Thu/6.)

The book deals with the dissolution of the marriage of Phillip and Greta, and the unsettledness that ripples through their family and friends. It’s a naturalistic mosaic of betrayals, full of lovely observations of contemporary human behavior and well-wrought passages that jibe with her love of Gustave Flaubert, Raymond Carver, and poet Mary Oliver — yet still reveal a voice distinctly her own.

The promotion she’s been doing for the book has been revealing too: her sharp wit and playful literary intelligence have had many realizing how much they’ve missed her. (Example: She basically slayed all of Reddit during a community interview when she casually mentioned that she drinks the blood of Kristen Stewart to stay young.) Ringwald called me during a tumultuous morning at her household: her twins were starting their first day of preschool, and she was getting them ready to go. She briefly put one of them on the phone with me, who told me she was excited about her “new backpack and pink nail polish.”


San Francisco Bay Guardian Um, I just talked to one of Molly Ringwald’s kids — that’s kind of a weird time warp for me.

Molly Ringwald Ha, I can see that. Are you OK?


SFBG A bit dazzled, but I’ll survive. Another time warpy thing is finding out how much you’re a self-described “Internet junkie.” I feel that I and so many others connected with your ’80s movies because we were so isolated as weirdos and outsiders. Those movies were like the social networking of the time — not in terms of actually communicating with others like ourselves, but just knowing there were people like us out there …

MR I’ve never thought about it that way, but I certainly know how the presence of the Internet has changed the lives of young people now, which has so much to do with reaching out but also moving forward, always going on to the next thing. My children are Internet natives. And I have to limit myself because I can just dive in to all the distractions. I’m fascinated by the effect it’s having on movies, the opening up, the distribution. I’m working to adapt my book to a screenplay right now, but I could see writing a Web series someday.


SFBG I’m curious how your book took on the form of linked stories. One of the most famous examples of that form is John Steinbeck’s Pastures of Heaven, set in Monterey. Did you model When It Happens to You on any particular linked story collections?

MR You know, the form came about on its own — I wrote one story, and then I was so curious about what was happening with some of the other characters, another came out, then another. I was thinking about all the ways people betray each other, and that theme guided me forward. I didn’t want to do a lot of reading research while I was writing, I was afraid it would overly influence me. After it was all done, I found other linked story collections, like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kittredge, which I loved. But there were no intentional influences on the book.


SFBG Themes of motherhood pervade the book — from Greta’s chemical fertility rituals and presence of the super harvest moon in the first story, through the maternal ambivalence of Betty later on, and in between, Marina’s surprise at how much she loves her child Olivia, and her struggle to accept that child’s transgender identity.

MR Motherhood is obviously a huge part of my life right now, and in a way those characters define themselves by their reactions to it. Especially with Marina, I could never understand growing up how anyone could imagine a fulfilling life without wanting or having children — but of course people do. So that character lead me to live in that perspective for a while, so different from what I feel. And society really does judge women through the prism of motherhood.


SFBG You mentioned how much you admire Michel Houllebecq and love Georges Perec — both considered radical experimentalists. Would you ever write something outright experimental?

MR I would love to explore everything I can with my writing, and I do love challenging things. But I feel it still has to retain an emotional component that I can interact with — otherwise it’s like super-abstract jazz fusion [Ringwald is putting out a jazz album next spring], and my brain can’t handle it. I’m reading D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace right now, and I can totally see where his style was coming from, but that might not be my individual path. But this is my first fiction book, so who knows? *


Thu/6, 8pm, $12–$15

Verdi Club

2424 Mariposa, SF


A Republican feminist



LIT “Do you consider yourself sex-positive?”

If you have a chance to interview John McCain’s daughter, and she identifies as a feminist, and is demonstrably more comfortable in strip clubs than the “liberal comedian” with whom she has embarked on a tour with in promotion of their book America, You Sexy Bitch! (Da Capo Press, $26, 352pp), you have to seize your moment to ask the big questions.

The pause from the other end of the telephone line tells me Meghan McCain, however, does not know what this term refers to. “Do I consider myself sex-positive? I’m not sure what you mean.” See?

She and Michael Ian Black will be in conversation at the Castro Theatre on Tue/17 at an event sponsored by the Commonwealth Club, by the way.

“It’s a term that we use — keep in mind I’m calling from San Francisco,” I say. “To mean not ashamed of sex. Of the opinion that having sex with people is OK. Different kinds of sexualities?” Apparently I don’t know what sex-positive means either, or else I am awkward in explaining the term to Republicans.

McCain, having been raised in the belly of a well-oiled political machine, is wary of potentially loaded questions from reporters. But she has also built her adult career on being a fiscally conservative woman who delights in bucking the social mores of the Republican Party. As such, she is able to compose a categorical response that is still pretty charming to her commieweirdo interviewer.

“I’m a big supporter of the gay community, if that’s what you’re asking me. And when it comes to my personal life, I am not abstinent, if that’s what you’re asking me as well. I am straight, if that’s what you’re asking me. I only date men. But sex and sexuality, I’m not terribly prudish. I think it’s private in nature but as far as I’m concerned, everybody can do whatever they want as long as it’s legal. In the privacy of their own homes, that’s their business, literally. As long as they’re not hurting anybody, I don’t care. Do your thing.”

Despite the many pages McCain and Black spend casting themselves as a “real” conservative and liberal — McCain as a gun-loving war eagle, Black as a snarky priss — the secret-not-secret point made by America, You Sexy Bitch is: politics don’t make the person. To that end, readers are taken on a RV tour of the country with McCain and Black, a trip that threatens to reveal the real America. We learn that McCain is far more comfortable in strip clubs than Black and is happily single at 27, while the Ed veteran has been married since his early 20s, rarely gets drunk, and lives in the suburbs with the wife and kids.

One of my favorite aspects of McCain (and I have many), is the way she speaks out against the treatment of women in the media. Her fervor should come as no surprise: last year, she wrote a scathing open letter to Glenn Beck when he called her fat on his radio show. (“As a person known for his hot body, you must find it easy to judge the weight fluctuations of others, especially young women.”)

“I would have an entirely different career, an entirely different life if I were a man, which I think is just ridiculous,” she tells me. She laments the fact that women politicians have to deal with the “complete BS” that is appearance-driven mainstream media reportage.

She’s great! We’re best friends! Hang out with me, Meghan! But then, this, meant to be completely free of irony: “I hate this idea that the feminist movement has been caught up in the pro-choice movement and somehow the denial of femininity, which is something I don’t understand. For me being a feminist means giving women the choice to do whatever they want.”

Wa-wahhh. Still, I’ll take her over Beck any day.


Tue/17, 7pm, $15–$45

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF



Black and white and red all over



LIT “Death at SeaWorld.” The phrase implies a gruesome demise, combining the man vs. beast connotations of Siegfried and Roy’s last show with the amusement-park horrors of Wikipedia’s “incidents at Disneyland” page. Death isn’t supposed to pop up in environments carefully choreographed for family fun. But as David Kirby’s eye-opening Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity (St. Martin’s Press, 469 pp., $26.99) discovers, the marine-themed attraction has hosted its share of tragedies, and not just of the human variety.

Its most high-profile loss was Orlando employee Dawn Brancheau, killed in 2010 by a 12,000-pound orca named Tilikum. Though SeaWorld has long been a target of animal-rights groups, Brancheau’s death set in motion a rigorous Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigation into whether or not trainers should be allowed to keep performing the spectacular aquatic stunts that SeaWorld has long been famous for. (As of this writing, the case is still in legal-wrangling mode.)

Kirby, a journalist whose previous books include Evidence of Harm and Animal Factory, found the OSHA inquiry — and the fact that it had been met with strong SeaWorld resistance — instantly compelling. He soon understood there was much more to the story.

“I started out to write a book about corporate malfeasance and obstructing a federal investigation,” he remembers. “[Killer whale] captivity had not ever struck me as an issue. But I realized that even though a lot of people were screaming about how safe it was to be in the water during performances, the much larger question was: do these animals belong in captivity at all?”

As a kid in SoCal, Kirby says, he visited SeaWorld and went on whale-watching trips. But until he started writing Death at SeaWorld, “I didn’t know that killer whales are dolphins, that they don’t kill people in the wild, how highly intelligent they are, or that they are so attached to their families,” he says. “When Dawn Brancheau died, I remember feeling very bad for her and her family, but I don’t remember feeling bad for the whale.”

His research made him rethink his ambivalence toward not just Tilikum, but all killer whales in captivity. Very few “display industry representatives” were willing to speak on the record, but Kirby connected with several “anti-cap” figures — including the Humane Society’s Dr. Naomi Rose, a whale expert who was involved in the campaign to return Keiko, star of 1993’s Free Willy, to his native Iceland.

“When you write narrative nonfiction, you really do need one character who is going to carry the reader through the whole story,” Kirby says. “[Rose] was the best person to do that because she started studying these animals in 1985. She spent years doing field research, and [later became] involved in organizing against the industry, starting anti-captivity campaigns, and trying to protect these whales through federal law. She was also involved with the OSHA investigation and the media.”

In addition, “I was so lucky to have ex-trainers who came forward after Dawn died. [They had] come to the same conclusion through different channels [than Rose]: captivity is bad for the whales. I felt super-fortunate to have first-person accounts of whales in nature and whales in captivity,” Kirby says. “I really wanted to bring readers to two different worlds that most people have never been to: the far Northern reaches of Vancouver Island, where these whales live — and then, backstage in Orlando. I felt that juxtaposing them would really show why captivity is inappropriate. I wanted the readers to get to know the whales in the wild, and to appreciate their life in the wild, in order to understand why captivity for this particular species is so wrong.”

Though Brancheau’s death was the impetus for Death at SeaWorld, it is not the book’s sole focus. The “death” referred to in the title has multiple meanings.

“Two people [Brancheau, plus an after-hours trespasser in 1999] have died in SeaWorld pools,” Kirby says. “Two other people have died because of SeaWorld whales: in British Columbia before Tilikum was bought by SeaWorld, and in the Canary Islands by a whale owned by SeaWorld.”

But while human deaths grab headlines, whale deaths are far more common. According to Rose and other experts, orcas live far fewer years in captivity than they would in the wild.

Death at SeaWorld also absolutely refers to all of the orcas who have died at SeaWorld, and continue to die at SeaWorld,” Kirby says. “To me, the whales are as important as any of the people in the book — Tilikum becomes a main character that you get to know. I used to tell people when I was writing the book, it’s like Jaws, only it’s non-fiction, more people die, and you actually care about the whale.”


July 25, 7pm, free

The Hub

901 Mission, Ste 105, SF


Pipe dreams and nightmares


LIT In the early pages of his new memoir, Steven Martin admits he’s obsessive. This is not uncommon, he explains, for collectors — not to be confused with the dilettantes he calls “gatherers.” Serious hobbyists hunt down highly specific items, fervently scrutinize them, and then evangelize to whoever’ll listen about their findings.

This kind of behavior can manifest around just about anything that people collect: Civil War artifacts, Depression glass, Beanie Babies. San Diego-born Martin became fascinated with Asian culture at a young age; after a stint in the military, he ended up living in Bangkok. A few decades later, he’s chronicled his adventures thereabouts in Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction (Ballantine, 396 pp., $26).

Yep: as unlikely as it sounds, he became hooked on opium. If you thought what Martin calls the cause of “the world’s first real drug epidemic” vanished along with the Model T — well, you’d mostly be right. Opium Fiend, which is crammed with plenty of historical information as well as Martin’s first-hand experiences with the drug, explores how an obsessive interest in antique opium-smoking paraphernalia — a formerly obscure thing to collect, at least until Martin’s own photo book, The Art of Opium Antiques, came out in 2007 — led to, perhaps inevitably, a full-blown dependence on opium itself.

He’s clean now; in the first chapter, he discusses the gruesome agony of detoxing. Later, one of his close friends, a fellow addict, doesn’t survive the experience. It’s a sobering moment in a book that, though clearly a cautionary tale, propels forward with the particular energy of someone who’s really, really stoked to share his story.

“Some people watch movies or sports, but my favorite past time is seeking out and studying whatever I happen to be collecting at the moment,” Martin says. “When I got serious about collecting opium-smoking paraphernalia, around 2001, I realized there was just nothing really out there about it. I took it as a challenge to collect as much as I could, and learn as much as I could about it.

“It had this outlaw chic about it that was interesting. But it also seemed to have this really odd juxtaposition — you have these beautiful, finely-crafted pieces of art, made from the best materials a century or so ago: jade, silver, or ivory. Really, really strikingly beautiful. But in actuality these things were instruments of self-destruction. It’s a bit dark, but I found that appealing.”

Though he’d dabbled in smoking even before he began building his trove of implements, he did not expect to become a raging addict — mostly because he didn’t think becoming an opium addict was even physically possible.

“Most of the research that I did was coming from Victorian-era accounts of what opium smoking was like. I was very skeptical of what these books said. The tone was often very shrill, almost like a Reefer Madness kind of thing, so I didn’t take it as seriously as I should,” he says. “But opium’s not like these modern drugs we hear about, a one-hit-and-you’re-hooked-for-life sort of thing. It can take months — or in my case, years — to develop a serious addiction.”

And “opium tends to rebuff the amateur,” Martin says. “People often try it once and never try it again. But I happened to be in a place where it was possible to get opium that was processed specifically for smoking, which is actually a misnomer. The paraphernalia that’s used is designed to vaporize the drug, not burn it.”

For the curious, Opium Fiend describes the actual experience of smoking, including the specific feelings associated with the high (tranquil, but “it turns you inward,” says Martin; he took detailed notes daily, even at the height of his addiction) and the preparation required to achieve the highest-quality result. It’s a delicate, time-consuming process, but for Martin that was part of the thrill.

“For me, that was the best part. I was really hooked on the ritual. Once I’d actually learned to prepare the pipes myself, that became my favorite source of entertainment: lying there next to the opium layout, within the glow of the opium lamp, watching myself prepare pipe after pipe. It was just mesmerizing,” he says.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I miss it very much. Sometimes I’ll have these very vivid dreams about smoking, and I’ll wake up in the morning, lying on my left side, in the same position I used to smoke in. It’s crazy — even though I’ve quit, it won’t leave me alone. I think about it all the time.”

Prancing at the revolution



QUEER ISSUE “Right now it seems we have more in common with the Christian Right than the gay liberation movement. We’ve become so focused on marriage as the end-all and be-all of gay rights that it’s completely within the realm of possibility that the next leader of Focus on the Family could be a gay man. We all have to get married now for tax breaks, health care, or to stay in this country? Are you kidding me?” Mattilda Sycamore Bernstein spilled some truth into my hot pink Princess phone.

“I don’t know how we got to this position where we’re either agitating for more tax breaks for the rich via marriage, or we’re treating people like disposable objects on hookup sites because they don’t conform to certain standards. It’s really sickening. How does any of this further any agenda at all besides becoming what we’re supposed to be fighting against? I don’t get it.”

Sycamore Bernstein, who often writes for the Guardian, was speaking about the impetus behind her latest book, Why are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform (AK Press), an invigorating collection of essays from a vast variety of queer people that “challenges the assimilationist norms of a corporate-cozy lifestyle.” (Let’s just say that President Obama’s limp “evolution” on same-sex marriage was not going to be a topic of conversation.) From envisioning a more faggoty Internet and reclaiming perversity as a proud, queer norm to honestly exploring the complex cultural confusions that Western-originating political expressions of gayness can wreak on immigrant and native homos, Faggots goes there with inspiring directness.

“I wanted to put out something that captured the spectrum of radical queer thinking that’s been going on while it seems everyone else was in line to get married. There are so many topics that affect our lives that have just been completely bulldozed by the ‘gay rights’ corporate lobbying groups’ crazed marriagemania.

“For example, Chris Bartlett, in his contribution ‘Gravity and Levity’ talks about how the idea of ‘risk’ in the gay community has been so associated with AIDS that it may have pushed any aspiration towards risk — emotionally, politically, socially — right out of gay consciousness. Yet being gay used to be all about taking risks. It’s what got us so far in the first place!

“I think exploring how the medicalization of AIDS terminology may have numbed us from each other — or how race still defines us in the ‘community,’ or how every dollar sucked into the corporate marriage machine means less for those in need of actual life or death help, or how hate crimes legislation ridiculously puts more power and resources into the hands of the very system oppressing us — is something we desperately need right now. We’re raising an entire generation to think that marriage is the only fight. Meanwhile, we’re discriminating against ourselves in so many other ways.”

Faggots is no mere spitting into the wind, either. Although Sycamore Bernstein has been sounding the assimilationist alarm for years, the prolific author and activist, now living in Seattle, has been surprised by the tome’s positive reception. (“It’s quite shocking!” she says with a lilting laugh.) Edmund White, Samuel R. Delaney, and Mx Justin Vivian Bond offered blurbs, and younger readers and the press have been grabbing onto Faggots’ incendiary yet sophisticated tone. Could the recent wave of AIDS activist nostalgia and a Occupy-like disillusionment with big money Pride sponsorships (embodied locally, especially, by a Wells Fargo advertisement covering the entire front page of Bay Area Reporter’s Pride Issue and a Stoli-sponsored GLAAD Pride float) be buoying the book’s popularity?

“I think the re-emergence of interest in things like ACT UP is very interesting. When I came to San Francisco I was part of ACT UP, and — with everybody dying from drugs, suicide, and AIDS — there was a real drive to come together to confront this massive structural neglect and recognize how brutalities align themselves to bring about our annihilation. But nostalgia can be dangerous without recognizing the reality. There was a very real, very dangerous moment in the 1990s when activism suddenly became about discrimination in the military, of all things.

“It turned from trying to guarantee health care for all to being about whether or not we could go die faster in wars. Whose decision was that?”

Marke B. is the author of Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Gude for Youth (Zest)


Big trouble in old China



LIT It was a cold, windy January morning in 1937 when a horrifically mutilated body was found sprawled at the base of a rumored-to-be-haunted watchtower in what was then called Peking.

Intrigued yet? Paul French’s Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China (Penguin Books, 260 pp., $26) reads like a mystery thriller, with its dramatic cast of characters (a Chinese-British detective team, a cranky old father with something to prove, a budding beauty filled with secrets, and multiple sinister figures with shadowy pasts) and exotic setting (Peking’s fusty, foreigners-only Legation Quarter — and utterly lawless Badlands district — on the eve of China’s occupation by Japan).

As he wrote Midnight, the Shanghai-based Brit was able to solve the long-cold case — or at least present a rather convincing theory about who killed 19-year-old Pamela Werner. Satisfying closure in a true-crime book about an unsolved murder? Read it and weep, Black Dahlia obsessives. I caught up with French amid his tour to promote Midnight‘s American release.

San Francisco Bay Guardian How did you research what it would have been like to live in 1937 Peking?

Paul French There are quite a lot of both Chinese and foreign memoirs — all of the diplomats, and a lot of the journalists, scholars, and missionaries wrote them. People wrote travel guides. There’s a lot of Chinese literature from that time, too.

SFBG Was the story of Pamela’s murder mentioned in one of the memoirs?

PF I was reading a biography of [journalist] Edgar Snow, which was very dry and boring. The first time I saw the Pamela story was in a little footnote: “and then this girl was murdered, and there was a British detective who worked with a Chinese detective.” There was a whiff of opium, and a bit of sex floating around it, and scandal, and I just thought, “Wow! That sounds really interesting.”

SFBG Was it difficult to dig up more information?

PF At first, I was able to dive in and get all the newspaper reports and the autopsy. I was doing quite well. Then I sort of hit a wall, and thought, “This is all I’m gonna get. I’m going to write a book, but it’s not really going to have an ending. It’ll just be lots of atmosphere, hopefully, and at the end I’ll just say, murders don’t always get solved.” Right on the brink of this collapse of civilization to barbarism, this one girl briefly becomes a kind of symbol of the horrors that China’s about to go into.

So I thought I’d get away with that. But I was in the National Archives in London, and that’s when I completely stumbled across these 150 pages of evidence that Pamela’s father [a former diplomat named E.T.C. Werner] had put together for his own investigation. It had been filed and forgotten for 75 years.

At that moment, the project moved to a whole other level. I looked through everything, and — of course the official line is that I solved the crime, but the truth is, her father really solved it. I compared [his findings] with what the police knew at the time, what the newspapers reported at the time, and the autopsy, and I managed to find four or five people still alive who knew Pamela.

When you cross-reference all of that, I think that it stacks up, which is why I footnoted the back of the book. If people want to have a look at the documents themselves, they’re more than welcome to. And since the book came out — it came out in Australia and Asia first — I have had a few people come to me with new bits of information that sort of confirm what Pamela’s father discovered. Werner was cold, unemotional, and wrapped up in his scholarship; he didn’t pay enough attention to Pamela [while she was alive]. But in the end, he dedicated his whole life, all of his money, and all of his health, to try and track down some kind of justice for her. I came to admire him in the end. *


May 9, 7 pm, free

Books Inc.

1760 Fourth St., Berk.

(510) 525-7777


May 10, 7pm, free

Book Passage

51 Tamal Vista, Corte Madera

(415) 927-0960


Panther cry



LIT Over a five-year period in Oakland, California, archivist Pat Thomas befriended key leaders of the Black Power movement, dug through Huey Newton’s archives at Stanford University, spent countless hours and thousands of dollars on eBay, and talked to rank and file Black Panther Party members. He uncovered dozens of obscure albums, singles, and stray tapes. Along the way, he began to piece together a time period (1967-1974) when revolutionaries were seen as pop culture icons.

The result of Thomas’ discoveries is Listen Whitey!: The Sounds of Black Power 1967-1974 (Fantagraphics, 224pp, $39.99), a 70,000-word hardcover book with 200 full-color images of obscure recordings and ephemera, and an accompanying CD that traces the vast cultural output of the black power movement.

Besides being a visually stunning collection of photographs and album covers, Thomas’ book shines as a concise, clear-sighted history of the Black Panther movement and the ascendance of black power in American life. “While I can’t claim to know what happened, much less what it felt like to participate,” he says in the introduction, “it’s my hope that readers will find the personalities and music inspiring as I did. Dig deep; blood is thicker than mud.”

Done with a reverence of the times and people, Thomas distinguishes the Panthers from black nationalist movements like Karenga’s US and Amiri Baraka’s Black Arts by focusing on the diversity of the contributors and supporters. Listen, Whitey! steps outside of the boundaries established by other books covering the culture of the movement by showing black power as an engine that generated a multi-cultural global resistance.

This Black-Powered cross-cultural revolution is Bob Dylan’s album Highway 61 Re-visited in the hands of black radical imagination. A transformative album for Jimi Hendrix, the song “Ballad of a Thin Man” was on Huey Newton’s heavy rotation list during the early drafts of the Panther doctrine. Dylan later reciprocated with an elegy to “George Jackson”, an homage to Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, and other songs in service to the movement. The most curious inclusion on the CD, in fact, is white folk singer Roy Harper’s “I Hate The White Man,” a track that — to this day — is as enigmatic as it is honest.

Known musicians like Gil-Scott Heron and John Lennon mix with under-appreciated or unknown talent like Gene McDaniels and the marvelous Marlena Shaw. From the humorous seriousness of the Watts Prophets’ “Dem Niggas Ain’t Playing” to the serious humor of Dick Gregory, and on to the sublime sounds of struggle from Elaine Brown, the music is full and beautiful. The omission of any of any New Thing jazz and Jimi Hendrix (though Thomas sees Hendrix as disengaged, if not apathetic to the riots, “Look At The Sky” from Electric Ladyland opens the dialogue even further beyond the typical), makes the CD function more as a primer to the genre than a definitive review. But when all is said and done, this honky wrote a great black book. *


April 10 7 p.m., free

The Booksmith

1644 Haight, SF

(415) 863-8688



April 11 7 p.m., free

Pegasus Books

2349 Shattuck, Berk.

(510) 649-1320


It’s not what you get, it’s what you keep



LIT In Redefining Black Power (City Lights Books, 206pp, $16.95), Joanne Griffith’s assemblage of her interviews with black thought leaders, Obama is not the focus, but his presidency is the frame. Journalists, activists, an economist, a theologist who wrote speeches for Martin Luther King, Jr. — each chapter of the book is a dialogue faithfully transcribed from Griffith’s well-informed questionings, reminding readers that the fight for expanded democracy in the United States didn’t end when the brand-new First Family took the stage that night in Chicago’s Grant Park.

Because when it comes to the fight for equal rights in this country — as economist Julienne Malveaux quotes from Lauryn Hill in her Redefining Black Power interview — “it’s not what you get, it’s what you keep.”

Griffith wants to make sure that the words of black leaders are kept in history’s permanent ledger. The Redefining Black Power project was born after she visited KPFK in Los Angeles, where the Pacifica Radio Archives are kept. The archives, a repository for interviews with African American leaders going back for decades, inspired her role as a modern day chronologist. With the help of Brian DeShazor, director of the Archives, Griffith has been airing one historical interview a week on her BBC Radio 5 Sunday evening show.

She also started conducting interviews herself. This edition of Redefining Black Power (she hopes there will be more) is structured as a look at the state of black America since President Obama ascended to the Oval Office, public fist bumps, and dolorous battles over health care.

The book is important, more readable than you’d think interview transcripts would be, and includes seldom-heard perspectives like those of an activist who refuses to vote and calls President Obama “crack” for African Americans, and a Ghana-born New York journalist who asserts we must never forget what it meant when Malia Obama wears her hair in twists.

Griffith acts as the conduit of information, rarely the pontificator herself. That’s why we tapped her for a Guardian interview via email last month, eager to hear what she’s learned about black power today.

SFBG: Explain where the interviews in the book came from. How did you become acquainted with the Pacifica Radio Archives and why are they important?

JG: The idea for the Redefining Black Power Project, of which the book is part, was born out of the historic audio held in the Pacifica Radio Archives, a national treasure trove of material charting America’s history from a progressive perspective dating back to 1949. But it was one recording of Fannie Lou Hamer addressing the 1964 Democratic national convention that sparked the idea for Redefining Black Power. Brian DeShazor heard the tape and wanted to find a permanent way to preserve and share the voices held in the Archives with a wider audience, and what better way than through the written word? Brian approached City Lights Books with the idea, and this book is the result, drawing on the voices of history to link us to the election of Barack Obama, one of the most significant moments in the social and political history of the United States. Through this project, we hope to preserve the voices, opinions and perspectives of African-Americans in this so called ‘Age of Obama’ for historians to digest and explore in years to come.

How did I get involved? As a complete audio nut, I always make a point of visiting local radio stations wherever I travel in the world. Back in 2007, I was in Los Angeles, called KPFK to arrange a visit and was introduced to the Pacifica Radio Archives. Because of this work and the extensive list of people I have interviewed over the years, Brian invited me to do the interviews for the Redefining Black Power project. Through this book, we delve into the role of the activist from different perspectives; the legal system, the media, religion, the economy, green politics and emotional justice.

SFBG: Was there an interview from the book in which your subject’s answers deeply surprised you? 

Joanne Griffith: It was Dr Vincent Harding, the man behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech that surprised me the most. A true veteran of the civil rights movement, he made the point that the election of President Obama was never the goal of the movement; instead he prefers to call the work “the movement for the expansion and deepening of democracy in America.” Put this way, it made me realize more than ever, that the work we do today is not in isolation, but part of a wider movement, stretching back all the way to slavery. And the work isn’t over.

SFBG: Who should read this book? How should it be used? 

JG: Use it as a conversation starter to discuss issues in your own community. Parents, use it as a way to engage your children in history. Students, use it as a resource for papers on race and the Obama presidency. Most importantly, everyone, share your thoughts at www.redefiningblackpower.com. This book is not the end of the project; we’re only getting started.


Just longing for sameness


[An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Paul Robeson as Renee Gibbons’ lover, when in fact it was William Marshall. We regret the error]


IRISH Yesterday she and her husband received notice that it would soon be converted into a condo. But for the moment, it is still hers. We are sitting in Irish author Renee Gibbons’ rent-controlled North Beach apartment of 31 years and she is telling me about the time she saw Van Morrison walking down Columbus Street in the 1970s.

“I was looking pretty foxy,” she remembers. Gibbons still recalls what she was wearing: a woven Irish sweater, hippie skirt, and knee-length camel-colored boots.

Morrison had always been one of those celebrities who she knows — she just knows — would fall in love with her if only they knew each other. So imagine the scene: a pretty girl and a boy pass each other, walk on, and then turn with their entire bodies to look at the other. Only then he resumed his journey and the moment was over.

Not that Gibbons hasn’t had enough torrid love affairs to fill a book. In fact, she’s done just that with Longing For Elsewhere: My Irish Voyage Through Hunger, History, and High Times (self-published, 250pp, $16.95). And though she took William Marshall for a lover at the age of 19, and was a fashion model in Paris, Longing‘s short folk stories revolve around places, not people. It’s her first book, though she did write a column in the Irish Herald for 13 years.

An inveterate traveler, Gibbons and husband, 84-year old retired radical longshoreman Lew, have made their home in the North Beach neighborhood, which to Gibbons has the feel of a small village. But the evictions are rampant on their block, and the day before our interview the daughter of Gibbons’ landlord sent her a letter stating their intention to convert the building into condos. The couple pays $1200 a month for their space. The letter said they could buy their unit for $2 million.

Steering from that painful subject, I ask Gibbons where — since this is the St. Patrick’s Day issue of the Guardian after all — people should go to see the real (read: not green beer) Irish community of San Francisco.

She recommends bars, primarily. Irelands 32 and the Plough and the Stars in the Richmond, Berkeley’s Starry Plough, where she and her daughter used to sing (a natural talent, her daughter now tours with Prince), O’Reilly’s down the street from her home. The Irish Castle Gift Shop is also a hub, a place where the San Francisco Irish can shop for Barry’s Irish tea, fishermen’s sweaters, Irish baked beans, and “the real” kind of Cadbury’s chocolate, and travelers can dip in for some Éire hospitality. “They take the time to chat and all that,” Gibbons says.

Longing is a self-narrated look at the life of a radical bohemian, a woman who came from poverty unheard of in this country (she calls this part of the book “Angela’s Ashes without the dead babies.”) to become an adventurer. Gibbons and Lew once traveled from Santiago, Chile to Dublin — without flying on an airplane. The journey took them to Argentina, Africa, Istanbul, and they did it in two months.

So she doesn’t limit her community to the Irish and Irish Americans in town, relating more to the activist set. She and Lew been occupying with the best of them (“I have a photograph of Lew on his cane giving the cops in riot gear the whatfor,” she tells me. “They were trying to stop him from protesting in front of the docks where he used to work!”) When the two alit on San Francisco, the city fit them like a glove.

She’s prepared to fight for her right to stay in North Beach, where every morning she does tai chi in Washington Square, where she celebrated Nelson Mandela’s release from prison with her daughter, and where she can always depend on the local green grocer for the block’s gossip.

“But we’re not going quietly,” she says. “I told the landlord the only way we’re leaving here is in urns or pine coffins.” Gibbons doesn’t drive, and honestly has no desire to live anywhere in the United States besides San Francisco. Maybe she’ll go back to Ireland, she says. They take care of their elderly there better than we do.

“North Beach is known as a bohemian community. There’s hardly any poets or artists left in the neighborhood.” It may just be that the San Francisco she loves is in its last days. Maybe it’s always in its last days, making it doubly important that all its remaining freaks and artist-types get record of their lives on paper. 


Fri/16 7 p.m., free

Books Inc.

601 Van Ness, SF



Frilly werewolf


LIT “When you’ve lived so far like I have,” Christine Beatty’s wry voice came crackling through the phone as she drove to Las Vegas to play the slots, “you sometimes just have to catch your eye in the rearview mirror and laugh. I’ve led such a charmed life, really.”

Some doe-eyed Wisconsinite may have snagged the Miss America crown last week, but in terms of representing this nation’s glorious variousness, that tiara should be tucked neatly into Beatty’s glovebox. A transsexual activist, author, and good-time girl, Beatty just published her memoir, Not Your Average American Girl on her newly christened Glamazon Press (available at Modern Times bookstore in the Mission, www.mtbs.com). In it, she tells her story of growing up and discovering her inner self during a very turbulent time in Northern California, through the stoner 1970s to the economically rocky ’80s to our own time, when trans people have gained an unprecedented visibility yet still find themselves the targets of discrimination from both conservative quarters and other LGBTs.

“I started Glamazon Press because I want transwomen to have another outlet for expression that I think is lacking, ” Beatty said. “I feel that the Internet has brought us more visibility, but we’re still tucked under the wing of the gay movement, and maybe it’s time to move out. I don’t want to divorce the ‘T’ from LGBT, it’s been very politically beneficial in many ways. But we need to develop our own voice. There are situations unique to us — the surgery costs money, and we’re completely vulnerable in the work place from a legal viewpoint, if people employ us at all.”

In her memoir, a significant amount of valuable San Francisco history is unearthed. Not Your Average American Girl’s juiciest bits, for me, recall her life as a trans newbie in the Tenderloin in the ’80s, hanging out at the Spirit Club and embracing sex worker life — a period vividly evoked, the city seething with a grimy energy and sense of family, a lost drama of payphones, sex ads, and backrooms. And then she’s a ’90s rocker with her band Glamazon, the book also nailing the electrifying live scene of the time.

The most resonant parts, all recounted with a kind of surprised honesty, deal with Beatty’s deathly drug habit and recovery, her HIV diagnosis 25 years ago, and her journey into transwomanhood, something she approached with such unrelenting drive that her ex-wife and her mother became two of her biggest supporters, despite initial upset.


Even considering Beatty’s storytelling talents, however, it’s a wonder that Not Your Average American Girl exists at all. It meticulously recreates scenes from Beatty’s experiences using entries from the journals that she’s kept all her life. And really, if your mortal coil encompassed typical suburban mama’s boy, stoner hippie, macho soldier, undercover married cross-dresser (or “frilly werewolf”), Tenderloin call girl, recovering heroin addict, pioneering rock musician, and author-publisher, how legible would your diary be?

“When I went to write the book, I looked at these old journals and I was filled with gratitude,” Beatty said. “I was so scared, hopeless, resentful in parts. But I see how far I’ve come and I’m still alive. And I must have known I was going to survive — otherwise why the hell would I write all this down?”