Duncan Scott Davidson

To Helltrack and back


FILM I had a lot of hope for Rad. Every month in BMX Action there’d be a new scrap of news about some top pro who was going to ride in the movie, including my personal favorite racer, “Hollywood” Mike Miranda. When photos of the Helltrack — site of the film’s climactic race — came out, you could lean your ear to the ground and hear the hearts of BMX groms beat just a little faster.

I watched the movie at Cinedome 7 East in Fremont with my buddy Dave. The opening footage of pro freestylers Eddie Fiola, Ron Wilkerson, and Brian Blyther killing it at Pipeline Skatepark seemed poised to fulfill the print hype, until we became aware of the backing tune, “Break the Ice,” by John Farnham: “Getting ready to break the ice / Feels like time is standing still / Aiming right for your heart / Getting ready to take another spill.” The Rad soundtrack was cheesy even in 1986, especially to a 15-year-old punk rock kid.

And the movie? Pure Hollywood schmaltz: local hero Cru Jones (Bill Allen) beats a corporate greed-meister at his own game. But more than two decades later, Rad wears a little better. For a movie directed by a stunt performer, it did hit the crucial themes of being a BMX kid: riding your bike all day, getting chased by the cops, jumping anything that crossed your path, and having big dreams about being one of the handful who could make a living at it. It’s no wonder old-timers on the chat boards at vintagebmx.com and os-bmx.com are constantly making Rad references. Rad is the BMXers’ Rocky Horror Picture Show. It got no love in the theaters, and it hasn’t officially been released on DVD, but it’s achieved timelessness as a cult classic. (Duncan Scott Davidson)

Over the phone from SoCal, Rad star Bill Allen talks BMX, berms, and bicycle boogies.

SFBG You had stunt riders doubling for you in the film, but had you been into BMX at all before you made Rad?

BILL ALLEN I came at it from an actor’s standpoint and not a BMX background at all. The ugly truth of it is my mother wouldn’t let me have a bicycle growing up, but of course I always rode my friends’ bikes and got into trouble anyway.

SFBG How was it working with the professional riders on Rad?

BA There were a lot of actual BMX guys from the freestyle and the racing worlds and a lot of stunt guys, and they pretty much all had the same crazy blood pumping through their veins. And I tend to hang out with stunt guys anyway, so it was a great time.

SFBG Did any crazy, unscripted stuff happen while you were filming?

BA I remember fooling around on the bike and nearly cracking my skull open just before I had to go do a take. Use those helmets. They really can save you. Also, I don’t know if many people know this, but in [Rad director] Hal Needham’s style of filmmaking, he’d start off a situation like Helltrack with half a dozen cameras or more and just let the guys go at it. So a lot of the stunts that you see are not stunts — these guys really are going down hard.

SFBG What was Helltrack like in person?

BA It was unbelievable. That first drop-off would give you heart attacks just standing there looking at it. And these were teenagers having to do these things, like going into that Kix cereal bowl and off the spoon. There were a bunch of little berms where I know at least one guy broke his ankle — really incredibly dangerous stuff that had never been tried before.

SFBG I’m sure a lot of people ask you about the bicycle boogie scene.

BA Oh god. [Pause] It’s [like] being beaten over the head with an ’80s stick. It’s just very indicative of that time period, and that’s not always a great thing, if it’s the ’80s we’re talking about.

SFBG What about the ass-sliding? Another classic Rad moment …

BA It was really cold, and they gave us these wetsuits which did zero good if you’re just gonna be in and out of the water. It was one of the less glamorous parts about the job.

SFBG When was the last time you watched Rad?

BA Probably 10 years. It’s hard for me to watch anything as an actor. You just wish you could change everything. But the racing sequences are stellar, and I guess that’s why people watch the movie time and time again.

SFBG Is it true that they’re thinking of doing a Rad sequel?

BA I think that’s one of those rumors that refuses to die. They haven’t even put the movie out on DVD yet, but people ask about [a sequel] all the time.

SFBG The time is ripe for a Rad revival — did you know that, for the first time, BMX is going to be a sport in the 2008 Beijing Olympics?

BA I did not know that. That’s incredible. That’s so cool! (Cheryl Eddy)

For more on Bill Allen, visit www.billallenrad.com; to sign the online petition for a Rad DVD release, visit www.petitiononline.com/RAD/petition.html.




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True to the post-postmodern hyperreal world of the inner-Web, I hit the Trucks’ MySpace page before I’d heard their 2006 self-titled CD (Clickpop). Browsing through their photo pages, I saw toy xylophones, lots of keyboards, underwear on the outside, leg warmers, pigtails, and more stripes than a Quiet Riot promo photo. A brief listen to their posted tracks left me feeling old and arrhythmic. I felt my receding hairline burn, like youth was talking behind my back.

Determined to find the dark lining in even the fluffiest of pink clouds, I kept the disc in heavy rotation while driving. At first it felt like a guilty pleasure — infectious synth pop–dance punk, with a menagerie of female voices singing choruses and cracking wise in concordance with or contradiction to the main vocal line. The issues are put out there on the opening track, "Introduction": "I’ve been in therapy for five years / I’ll be in therapy for five years more," Kristin Allen-Zito sings. (I think it’s her — three out of four Trucks are credited with vocals.) "I wake up depressed, I wake up manic / You never know what you’re gonna get."

Still, as the opening beats of the unequivocal dance jam of the decade, "Titties," come through the speakers, it’s hard to feel that there’s any kind of subliminal bum-out happening beneath the Peaches-esque query "What makes you think we can fuck just because you put your tongue in my mouth and you twisted my titties, baby?" "Titties" is one of a series of songs touching on the theme of failed relationships and inept lovermen. The poignant indie pop perfection of "Messages" has Allen-Zito serenading an absentee boyfriend whose voice mails are more attentive than he is: "Well, I save all my messages from you / Just in case you’re not there / When I want you to be."

A dozen tracks in, the concept of a boyfriend has been jettisoned for the much more accommodating vibrator in "Diddle Bot," which is closer to a lover than any mentioned heretofore: "You made me feel brand new / You love me through and through." The album ends with "Why the ?," an indictment of a beau who’s prepared to woo with everything but his tongue, and an a cappella request: "Dear Santa, please don’t bring me another boyfriend for Christmas / Oh no! / The last one sucked." Or didn’t, as the case may be.

Never do the Trucks jettison humor for histrionics in their tales of love gone awry in the great wet Northwest: the band members, who share songwriting duties, get their point across in a way that transcends merely grinding the storied ax of feminism. Sisters are doing for themselves, sure, but it’s not a girls-only joint: everyone’s invited to dance their woes away. Thematically, the disc gets heavier than the tales of missed connections and inept sexing. "Shattered" has implications of rape: "You could not keep your pretty hands off me … You shattered my image of love / While I was naked in the tub." "Man Voice" is call-and-response song play touching on predatory types, with a gothic-baroque feel that resembles Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies meeting Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Finally, "Comeback" tells the tale of love turned obsession turned homicide from a male point of view: "You don’t have to run away / I’m gonna kill you anyway."

"It’s pretty standard turning pain into comedy, trying to somehow make peace with things that have happened to us or to people that we’ve known," Allen-Zito says on the phone from Seattle.

Does the fact that their songs are still fun and danceable lead people to dismiss the Trucks as fluff? "That’s what I enjoy the most," she explains. "I think it’s really great when we play shows and there’s a mixture of people in the audience. There’ll be dudes who are, like, ‘Play the titties song! You guys are hot!’ They’re obviously not getting the lyrics at all. And then, on the other hand, there’s these two feminist friends of mine who are definitely a little overboard. Just seeing them next to these dudes that were just falling over themselves — it was hilarious and perfect. This one woman came up to me outside and put her arm around my neck and was, like, ‘Kristin, they just don’t get it. They don’t get it!’ It’s kind of funny, because maybe she doesn’t get it."

And for me, that’s what I enjoy most. The fact that you can get it on one level and miss it entirely on another. Free your mind, and your ass will follow. Or, perhaps, free your ass, and your mind will follow. You can have just as much fun missing the point as getting it: the Trucks are simultaneously above your head and below your knees. *


March 24, 9 p.m., $8


1600 17th St., SF

(415) 503-0393


Noise Pop: Blag, guts, and pussy


› duncan@sfbg.com

Love ’em or hate ’em, the Dwarves are as close to punk rock royalty as San Francisco is ever gonna have. They’ve been in the game since emigrating from Chi-town in the ’80s, with nary a letup for soul-searching acoustic meandering or trips to rehab.

"What you wanna do, B? What you wanna do?" a voice queries in "Demented," from 2004’s The Dwarves Must Die (Sympathy for the Record Industry). "I wanna fight, fuck, and destroy like they used to" is vocalist Blag Dahlia’s answer.

Dahlia, born Paul Cafaro, and the ever-naked (except for a Lucha Libre mask) Hewhocannotbenamed on guitar have been the core of the Dwarves for longer than some of their audience members — and dates — have been alive and got the band booted from Sub Pop in 1992 for engineering a Hewho death hoax. Living in San Francisco, one can count on good burritos, high gas prices, and experiencing six or fewer degrees of Blag separation at all times. I made out with a girl who claimed he’d stolen her spiked belt when they lived together. On a snippet from Thank Heaven for Little Girls (Sub Pop, 1991), an audience member at a Dwarves show says, "The lead singer’s a fucking shithead, man. He broke a fucking glass onstage. I get bumped by the crowd. The next thing you know, my hand’s fucking sliced." I could swear this happened at a show I was working security for at Slim’s.

While Dahlia has certainly created an impressive myth, just how worthy of their legacy — or relevant — are the Dwarves in 2007? The Dwarves Must Die has the middle-aged Dahlia rapping, of all things, to hilarious effect on "Massacre," on which he spouts the line "This one goes out to Queens of the Trust Fund: you slept on my floor, now I’m sleeping through your motherfucking records," which led to a much-publicized dustup with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme at a Hollywood club. I’ve even spotted Dahlia playing around town as MC Blag. He takes swipes at "fake punkers" Good Charlotte, but he’s apparently cowritten songs with them, as well as produced more than one Offspring album.

"I don’t ride a skateboard and love what you hate for / And don’t give a fuck about punk-rocking no more," Dahlia raps on "Massacre." To me, it’s this willingness to not be punk rock that makes the band even more so. Musically, things took a turn for the poppy on 1996’s The Dwarves Are Young and Good Looking (Epitaph), and that’s when they got interesting. Far from being merely a glass-smashing nihilist, Dahlia is also a frustrated romantic, a ’50s protorock crooner like Dion or Del Shannon in fingerless leather gloves (see Must Die‘s warped piss take on Shannon, "Runaway #2").

According to one of Dahlia’s ex-lovers, "He’s very mellow and affectionate. I’d get random 3 a.m. voice mails with him singing old soul songs where every word that was romantic would be changed to my name." She went on to say that despite his onstage calls for violence, during their time together she’d never seen him in a fight: "He’s kind of a pacifist."

All this, of course, is neither here nor there. As far as I’m concerned, after 1990’s death blast Blood Guts and Pussy (Sub Pop), with its iconic, Michael Lavine–photographed cover of two naked women and an equally buck-ass midget drenched in blood (the midget appears to be making nice with a bunny rabbit), they could have basically shit in jewel cases for the rest of their career and still worn the crown. That record is basically the punk rock version of Slayer’s Reign in Blood (Def Jam, 1986): 12 tracks in 13 minutes and six seconds — pure punk bliss. And they were smart enough to not try to repeat it every record. Really, what’s Josh Homme have that can hold a candle to that? *


With Girl Band and the White Barons

March 4, 10 p.m., $12

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF

(415) 621-4455


Stand in the place where you live


› duncan@sfbg.com

I guess I’m a snob. It’s not easy to admit, since I like to fancy myself a salt of the earth type, but there it is. I’d just assumed that after making two albums for Fat Possum, 2005’s Stairs and Elevators and last year’s amazing All This Time; opening shows for the Drive-By Truckers and Lucinda Williams; and touring clubs relentlessly in the headlining spot, the next logical step for Cincinnati’s Heartless Bastards would be a change of geography.

I’ve never been to Cincinnati. My only experience with Ohio — besides the Neil Young song — was driving through the opposite end of the state on the I-80. What’s "hi" in the middle and round on both ends? Not Ohio — seemed to me it was flat all the way across. And humid. But what do I know? The only time I stopped was to gas up and indulge in an ill-advised all-you-can-eat steak (i.e., sinew and cartilage) special at a Truckstops of America. What I am familiar with is the great rock ‘n’ roll migration tale, featuring groups such as the Dead Boys moving from Cleveland to New York, which probably had more to do with the ready availability of smack than it did with making it. The West Coast version plays itself out as a southerly flight to the home of clapped-out hair bands and cheap tacos: Los Angeles. Even our beloved Melvins, who wended their way down from Aberdeen, Wash., and lodged in San Francisco for a magic period, ended up there, chasing the dragon of rock success.

So it’s ironic that after years of thinking it was lame when bands left the Bay for a chance at the big time I’d ask Erika Wennerstrom — the vocalist, guitarist, and principle songwriter for the Heartless Bastards — if the trio were thinking of moving away from their place in the heartland. I’ve bought into the stereotype that the edges are where it happens and that the center — with the exception of Chi-town — is a cultural vacuum.

"No, not really," Wennerstrom says over the phone. "I like Ohio." If I didn’t know where she was from — Dayton, originally — I’d be baffled by her accent. There’s a lilt, a slight twang, and a flatness to it, all at once — high in the middle and round on both ends, a hominess that’s entirely absent in her soulful, from-the-gut singing voice. Isn’t it just like a snobby SF bastard to find it quaint?

"I just think if we tour enough," she continues, "we’re eventually going through enough cities anyway. Plus, sometimes you end up being part of the whole rat race. I hate to use that word," she adds hastily. "There’s lots of big cities I enjoy, but I don’t know if it’s worth having to juggle three jobs."

They may not be juggling, but the HB’s are no strangers to work: drummer Kevin Vaughn works at an incense factory in nearby Oxford, while bassist Mike Lamping works for his family business, Superior Janitor Supply, which receives a shout-out in the "Very Special Thanks" section of the new album. After the last trip around the country in a van, Wennerstrom finally felt that she’d made enough to cut back on bartending and focus on songwriting.

And maybe that’s where my whole "why don’t you move" thing comes from. Listen to Wennerstrom’s dreamy ooh-wooh-hoos over the violin and viola on "I Swallowed a Dragonfly" — "in hopes that it would help me fly" — and you’ll hear a magic that transcends punching clocks and pulling beers. All This Time is so good, it gives me this "go tell it on the mountain" feeling, which, in turn, leads to a mild bitterness: Why aren’t the Heartless Bastards famous yet? Why are they opening for Lucinda Williams, great as she is, at the Fillmore and not headlining the Fillmore? How can they win Best Rock Group and Best Album of the Year two years in a row at the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards and still be featured in Tom Moon’s "The ‘Overlooked 11’ of 2006" on NPR? Moon has the right idea, and I know I put them on my top 10 list, so who dropped the fucking ball here? And so, somewhat subliminally, my mind starts thinking that maybe it’s Ohio that’s holding them back.

But would they be as good, would the songs sound as sweetly powerful, if there was nothing quotidian to transcend? If they were ensconced in a Hollywood bubble of yes-men attesting to the brilliance of every note? I mean, Jesus, someone in Los Angeles convinced A Simple Plan that they don’t suck. Band members could get lazy if they didn’t have to make an honest living, though I’d have to add that’s what’s so damned appealing about the Heartless Bastards: there’s something honest and unassuming, something unpremeditated about their songs. Despite their name, their music clearly comes from the heart. More precisely, it comes from the hearts of working-class Ohio musicians who haven’t been feted by the same painfully out-of-touch A&R assholes who learned nothing from Nirvana’s momentary pimp-slap of the artistically bankrupt LA record industry: you can’t fabricate honesty.

"I really don’t need a lot," Wennerstrom sings on "Blue Day." "Just trying to hold on to what I got." *


With Beaten Awake and Ride the Blinds

Fri/26, 9 p.m., $10

12 Galaxies

2565 Mission, SF

(415) 970-9777


I heart your dark side


› duncan@sfbg.com

I’ve got to admit — I was intimidated. I’ve done enough interviews that I don’t usually get the jitters beforehand, but San Francisco songwriter Rykarda Parasol’s sheer self-possession on last year’s full-length Our Hearts First Meet (Three Ring) had me a little spooked. Yeah, I’ve sat through enough interminable creative-writing workshops to know not to confuse the author with the story, the narrator with the narrative, the singer with the song. Nonetheless, on such numbers as "Night on Red River," there’s a glow of eternal bad-ass that outlasts the spinning of the CD. "So my steps were slow and my swagger [pause] deliberate," Parasol sings at her throatiest — almost on the edge of phlegmy, really. "And if ever my heart grieved, now my body must not confess it." And she walks and wails, more in triumph than lament, into the Texas dark, leaving the jeering crowd back in the bar, "walking through everyone out on Red River tonight."

The situation plays itself out more than once. On "Arrival, a Rival," Parasol sings, "So this is Texas, so this is ache / So this is Texas on your knees now don’t you break." With "En Route," she tells the story of a lone motorcyclist, an ex-lover, who died on the way to New Orleans. At his funeral, she mourns, "Not a dry eye was to be seen / Unless you looked into mine." The record — set largely in Texas but also in New York — has a novelistic, dare I say, cinematic feel to it. There’s crashing thunder, and there’s light. There are lonesome plains and evil deeds, with only the sound of "Texas Midnight Radio" to hold off the darkness. But what in lesser hands (and with lesser voices) could come across as ham-handed and weepy, another alterna–heartbreak opus, rises above. Parasol’s background — yeah, that’s her real name — as a University of San Francisco literature grad shines through, and the songs come across as the tales of a woman, an outsider, in crisis situations. Parasol’s character digs deep and summons an inner strength just strong enough to edge out self-doubt and to stand up and walk on.


So yeah, I was intimidated a bit. Our Hearts First Meet feels like literature to me: it makes me think of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and — I’m a little reticent to say it because I think she gets this a lot — Nick Cave.

Of course, when I met Parasol for coffee in the Mission District, she wasn’t swaggering deliberately. She didn’t put her cigarette out in my drink, like the famous story of Cave dousing his smoke in Richard Butler’s cocktail at a London party. Really, what the fuck did I expect? While careful, which is to say trained with an almost Pavlovian rigor, not to confuse the writer with the writing, I could see the path she’d taken from being "extremely shy my whole life" to the "I shall overcome" — or, to take another quote from "Red River," "To myself I will be true" — attitude of the disc.

"I was told not to sing in the school chorus," Parasol told me. "I used to lip-synch. I was … I wouldn’t say ‘tone deaf,’ because that’s a real clinical term. They call it a ‘lack of relative pitch.’ " She went on to say she had "no natural aptitude" for music, rather "such a strong desire. I just wanted to push myself further."

This desire led to opera lessons. Although Parasol wanted to sing rock, she also knew her parents wouldn’t bite, so she pitched opera to appeal to her mother’s sense of elegance. "I was kind of a ratty kid," she added, laughing. From opera lessons she went on to a few bands, none of which she wanted to name. Finally, toward the tail end of a venture with ex-Jawbreaker drummer Adam Pfahler, wherein she didn’t write any of the music, he asked her if she had any songs. "It was, like, ‘Somebody actually wants to hear what I’ve written. Oh, my god.’ I never felt I had any business being a musician."


Beyond feeling musically unworthy, Parasol felt like a cultural outsider. Her father is a Holocaust survivor. Born in Poland, he spent his early years hiding from Nazis before immigrating to the newly formed State of Israel and later, through the beneficence of a distant relative, to California. He met his future wife, a Swedish woman, in a San Francisco bar. "He probably saw a big, tall blond lady and thought, ‘I’m going to have kids that will be Hitler’s worst nightmare,’ " Parasol said. "Aryan Jews!" Holidays saw "Hanukkah wrapping paper underneath the Christmas tree that we referred to as ‘the bush.’ You know, like the burning bush. We were very confused."

Despite wacky Decembers, Parasol’s upbringing was largely secular. Nonetheless, she grew up feeling outside the main current of American culture. Having recently seen the PBS documentary on Andy Warhol, she related to the artist as an outsider who came to the States as a child and never really fit in. "Although I was born in the US, everybody around me was a foreigner," Parasol explained. "My parents didn’t have any American friends. Everything in their house was sort of European." What she calls her "funny accent" as a child was drilled out of her in school as a "speech impediment." When she studied American literature in college, "it was a brand-new world."

Maybe it was the relative unfamiliarity of the surrounding culture that led her to move from Northern California to Hollywood and later to Austin and New York, where she seems to have continued in her role as a perennial outsider. Looking back on the interview, I think we had a bit of a misunderstanding about the setting of the album and its overarching Southern Gothic tone. Texas has a mythos to it, one that’s certainly embraced by Texans, right down to their "Don’t Mess with Texas" anti-littering campaign. It’s the Lone Star State, and everything’s bigger there. I don’t know, but when I brought Texas up, I think Parasol thought I was somehow challenging her right to use the state as a backdrop. Which, of course, I would have — had it felt unearned or tacked on. She even went so far as to send me an e-mail addendum stating, "Art is frequently artificial. These songs are not grand statements about Texas or the South. They’re about hurt, loss, and isolation."

They’re outsider songs, I’d add. Which isn’t to say they don’t conjure up a set of imagery and the aforementioned mythos — they just know when to transcend it. They’re powerful enough to transcend it. Parasol mentioned a well-meaning fan with a video idea. "He was talking about sticking me in period costume with 1930s hair, and I was, like, ‘This isn’t 1930,’ " she said. "I wasn’t keen on the concept. I want it to be timeless." This is where I think we weren’t seeing eye to eye. Just because something has a setting in time and space, that doesn’t mean it’s not timeless.

I’ve got to admit that I see a woman on a barren plain when I listen to Our Hearts First Meet, in the middle of a thunderstorm, and damn it all if she isn’t often wearing a worn gingham dress, reminiscent of Dorothea Lange’s famously destitute Okies. This woman doesn’t have fancy hair, because it’s pouring rain, and besides, she can’t afford an expensive hairdo. But it’s not a helpless, waifish image, even though the woman may very well be weeping in the rain. The feeling I get from it is that of the final scene in King Lear. Lear is half naked and half mad, rid of everything he once held dear. And he’s shouting, taking a stand against the very universe. He’s been sunk to the depths in terms of worldly stature, but his humanity has been raised to its zenith.

It was funny to hear Parasol talk about "Night on Red River." Never mind separating the singer from the song: the scenario is that she’s in a bar with her boyfriend and "a young girl who passed judgment on people she didn’t know. A clique person." When the protagonist’s boyfriend does nothing to stand up for her, she takes that burning walk down Red River. But whereas the song’s narrator comes across as pure bad-ass, Parasol herself frames the real-life situation differently: "I have no power in this situation," she said of that night. "Nothing I can do can make it better or worse. I’m going to have to stick this out. But I don’t have to stay here."

And I guess that’s it: finding the sense of power in powerlessness. Parasol seems to have done this in her life as well as in her music: she’s found her bad-ass gland and tapped it. *


With Elephone, French Disco, and Dora Flood

Fri/5, 9 p.m., $10

Cafe du Nord

2170 Market, SF

(415) 861-5016


The best show I never saw


› duncan@sfbg.com
My daughter, Dolores — otherwise known as Dolly, though only to family, as she’s getting a little too sophisticated for nicknames — is a born rocker. The first music she heard, pipin’ hot out of the womb, was London Calling by the Clash. Now that she’s five, she wants more of the same when her father, mellowing in his old age, tries to catch the news on NPR on the way to kindergarten: “Dad, what is this? I don’t want talk…. I want rock.” When I inevitably cave to the pressure of the younger and cooler, the air guitar and air drums start right up.
Beyond rocking out in the car, Dolly fronts a semi-imaginary band called the Rock Girls, featuring a rotating lineup of her cousins Chloe and Abby on bass and drums, respectively, and Katie Rockgirl, Lisa McCartney, or Veronica Lee Mills (Dolly’s stage names) on — what else? — vocals and lead guitar. Now, I realize every parent in the world thinks their kid is somehow more gifted and magnificent than the common rabble of paste-eating snot noses, but I’m serious here: she’s got some intense, Tenacious D–style talent at coming up with extemporaneous rock lyrics, from her early punk hit “Step on a Pigeon, Yeah!,” made up on an evening stroll through the streets of Prague a few years ago, to her current repertoire, which is leaning lyrically toward the inspirational power ballad (“I can do anything in the world, yeah!”), and exhibits an intuitive grasp of song structure and phrasing. Beyond this, the kid’s got serious moves. She takes ballet and tap classes, both of which influence her Rock Girls routines, but lately she’s been working in flamenco-type flourishes and bounce-off-furniture, Martha Graham–meets–the Solid Gold Dancers modern dance maneuvers.
And while she’s seen the Sippy Cups during a matinee at Cafe du Nord and her namesake, Dolly Parton, at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, she hasn’t really seen any show-shows. You know, shows that happen after dark, with mosh pits and people in leather jackets drinking bourbon and acting cooler than they actually are. So I decided to take her to see Radio Birdman at the Great American Music Hall on Aug. 31. Why not? It was an all-ages show, I had an extra set of headphone-style ear protection left over from my days of shooting guns, and besides — she was born to rock.
As we walked down O’Farrell on the way to the show, we came to one of those sparkly sidewalks. Dolly has a rule: when there’s a sparkly sidewalk, you’ve got to dance. Doesn’t matter where you’re going or what you’re doing, sparkles equal boogie. This stretch of sparkle motion lasted half a city block and included a new move, the likes of which Britney Spears can only dream about.
“Did you see that, Dad? Did you see the DJ thing?”
She showed me again, cocking her head to the side as though holding headphones in the crook of her neck and doing an exaggerated Jam Master Jay–style zip-zip-whir scratch. I don’t know where she got it, but she’s got it.
We arrived at the hall around 9, and openers the Sermon had already played. I ran into my friend Brett from back in the day — he’d ridden his motorcycle from Denver to see Radio Birdman. It was a good night for Dolly’s first real show. Radio Birdman, who’d formed in 1974 in Sydney, Australia, broke up in 1979 and, despite occasional reformations, had never toured in the United States until now. They were in their 50s; Dolly was midway through five. The torch was about to be passed, rock ’n’ roll–style. The Black Furies came on with, “Fuckin’ fuck yeah! We’re the fuckin’ Black fuckin’ Furies from San Fran-fuckin’-cisco, motherfuckers!” I’m not sure how much Dolly caught from the balcony next to the lighting booth, where former Guardian intern K. Tighe hooked us up with the primo seats and free Cokes. Dolly’s had a few more cherries than mine, but I’m not one to hold a grudge.
Dolly had been talkin’ about rockin’ all day, from when I dropped her off at kindergarten at 10 to 8, to when her mom picked her up. We made sure she caught a nap after dinner, but it was a little shorter than planned, as she was superexcited to see the show. Halfway through the Black Furies, however, her eyelids started drooping, and she leaned into Pops, sleeping right through the Furies’ continuing flurry of fucks. I asked her if she wanted to go home, but she didn’t want to leave without accomplishing the mission.
She had a slight rally between sets. We did a little call-and-response in the bathroom:
“Are you ready?” I asked.
“Yeah!” she shouted.
“Ready to what?”
“Ready to rock!”
The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. We walked around the floor for a bit, which kind of freaked her out because it was dark and there were a bunch of punker types dressed in black. Plus, when you’re five, your eyes are level with most people’s butts, which has to be a drag. Then we went outside, where we spotted another kid with shotgun earmuffs. Went back upstairs to the lighting loft. My friend Heather stopped by and tried to chat with Dolly, who looked at me and said, “I want to go home now.”
I’m not going to lie to you: I was disappointed. But not all that much, strangely enough. I mean, if it’d been a date and my date was, like, “I’m not feeling this,” I’d have said, “Here’s a 20. Catch a cab.” But I’ve seen a lot of rock bands, and none of them are as cool as my kid. I’m sure Radio Birdman will come around again in the next 30 years. We’ll see them then — and I’ll be the one to fall asleep.
It’s not about me anymore, and I find that comforting. During the first six months of Dolly’s life, I found it terrifying, depressing, and just plain weird. I no longer played the lead role in my own life. I went through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of death over that fact: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. And that’s where I am now: acceptance. Not a grudging but a welcoming acceptance. Hertz may have you believe that “when you’re number two, you try harder,” but the fact of the matter is, when you’re number two, you can finally relax. SFBG
• Radio Birdman (sort of) with Dolly, Great American Music Hall, Aug. 31
• The Melvins and Big Business, Great American Music Hall, Nov. 29. The Melvins killed rock. Rock is now dead, and all the other bands can unplug, go home, and stop pretending.
• Slim Cessna’s Auto Club and Rykarda Parasol, 12 Galaxies, Oct. 20
• Hot Mute, Hot Mute (Hot Mute)
• Easy Action, Triclops!, and Red Fang, Parkside, Nov. 10
• Viva Voce, Get Yr Blood Sucked Out (Barsuk)
• Bronx, Priestess, and Riverboat Gamblers, Independent, Jun. 24
• Bronx, The Bronx (Island)
• Silver Jews, Tanglewood Numbers (Drag City)
• Rykarda Parasol, Our Hearts First Meet (Three Ring)
• Rocky Votolato, Makers (Barsuk)
• Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Anti-)
• Islands, Return to the Sea (Equator)
• Favourite Sons, Down Beside Your Beauty (Vice)
• Heartless Bastards, All This Time (Fat Possum)

The sound of evil


› duncan@sfbg.com
Metal people scare me.
Not in an “ooh, I’m scared” kind of way, but in an “oh, that’s sad,” arrested development kind of way.
This is especially true of the black metal cabal. Black metal is supposedly the be-all and end-all of evil, and it’s just so camp that it’s silly. Everyone’s got a fake metal name (Necronomicon or Umlaut), panda bear Kiss tribute makeup (I mean, corpsepaint), and homemade nail-spike armbands. Don’t forget the unreadable band logo that looks like cleverly arranged twigs. Clearly, these are people who spend as much time rehearsing their look in front of a mirror as they do rehearsing their music in the studio, if not more.
Which is why Ludicra is one of the few bands generally classified as black metal that I’ll bother with. For one thing, the group includes vocalist Laurie Sue Shanaman and guitarist–backing vocalist Christy Cather — they’re not in the same old heavy metal boys club.
More importantly, when I want to hear heavy music, I want it to intersect with my life. I haven’t been burning churches or worshipping Thor lately. If I want to hear some fairy-tale shit, I’ll cut out the middleman and listen to Ride of the Valkyries. Alienation, loneliness, the death of relationships, and the sense of anonymity in being yet another face in a big city — this is stuff I can relate to. “Something big and bright/ Looms outside my window/ Choked with promise/ Smothered in hope/ Days plod on like machines of ceaseless ruin/ Lost in a forest of haunted buildings.” These are the opening lines of “Dead City” from Ludicra’s new album, Fex Urbis Lex Orbis (Alternative Tentacles), which quotes Saint Jerome, via Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, meaning “dregs of the city, law of the earth.” Jerome was referring to Christ’s apostles and how they were the lowliest scumbags teaching the highest truth. This is echoed in the album’s verminous cover art: restrained line drawings of roaches, ants, rats, flies, and a club-footed pigeon. The meek shall inherit the earth — or at least the urban parts — but they probably won’t be walking on two legs.
Although it’s not necessarily meant to be a concept album, Fex Urbis feels like one to me: five epic tracks, the longest almost a dozen minutes, about the entropy of modern city living. From that hopeful light outside the window, just out of reach, to “the sign that modern times is finally crashing down” in the final track, “Collapse,” the full-length reminds me of the Red Sparowes’ At the Soundless Dawn (Neurot, 2005), which, in turn, reminds me of Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi. For all its double-bass drum bombast, dark screams, and perfectly timed twin-guitar riffing, Fex Urbis Lex Orbis has more in common with Philip Glass’s score to that film than with anything released by Mayhem.
Putting in the CD for the first time, I was kind of spooked out by Shanaman’s voice. It’s an otherworldly death rattle. But when juxtaposed with both the lyrics and the relatively clean backing vocals, also sung by Shanaman, the result isn’t evil — a tone that has held so much sway over the metal community for so many years after the first, eponymous Black Sabbath album — but heavy. The music is epic without being cheesy fantasy, which makes it resonate.
I think it’d be fair to say at this point that I don’t believe in evil. I believe ignorance and delusion exist at the base of willful choices. Evil is supernatural. Ignorance is human and therefore that much scarier. Even on Halloween, nothing is going to reach out from the land beyond and get you.
Sure, Shanaman’s voice sounds evil, but when I talked to her in person, the first word that came to mind was sweet. She laughs easily, sometimes because she thinks something is funny but mostly out of nervousness, it seems. She’s a self-admitted “total choir geek.”
Drummer Aesop Hantman knew he wanted to be in a band with her since the mid-’90s, when he was in Hickey and she was in the local noise-grind act Tallow. “Here was this totally demure, nice girl that would fucking explode,” he says in a phone interview. “It was really unnerving.”
Ludicra, which includes guitarist John Cobbett and bassist Ross Sewage, are likewise unnerving. They remind you that just because there’s no bogeyman under your bed and Satan is real only to country bumpkins like the Louvin Brothers and unrepentant metal geeks, it doesn’t mean you won’t be swallowed up by forces greater than yourself: “Gone are the days of reckless vanity,” Shanaman howls as the album winds down. “Gone are the old songs from the shore…. Here’s the end of what we have dreamt of. Here’s the face of the collapse.” SFBG
Tues/31, 9 p.m.
Elbo Room
647 Valencia, SF
(415) 552-7788

Bad art, no donut


A lot of the promo CDs that cross the river Styx and wind up at the fiery gates of the Guardian don’t even have cover art. However, a good portion do have art, and a good portion of these have very bad art. Thus, we are blessed with the opportunity to snigger derisively at the poor choices made by everyone from major label mega-acts and their legions of artistic decision-makers down to the smallest DIY indie bands with ironic moustaches long before you lunge across the aisle at Amoeba, thrust a disc in front of your pal, and snort, “Would you look at this shit?” So it is with a sense of solemn duty — and the burn of coffee coming out of our noses from laughing too hard — that we open these storied annals with a double dose of new, bad, adolescent fairyland schlock: Hello Stranger’s self-titled disc (Aeronaut) and Captain Ahab’s After the Rain My Heart Still Dreams (Rave).
The Hello Stranger cover is overwhelming: spandex bodysuits, falconry, wolves, George Harrison holding a crystal ball, a lake of stars, a rain of diamonds, a sunset of blood, and the final nail in my temple — what appears to be Sammy Hagar jamming out in an Angel Flight polyester pantsuit in a crystal fire. To quote the girl in the bad acid trip sequence of Easy Rider: “I’m dead! I’m dead already! I’m dead — do you understand?”
If the original Captain Ahab ever wandered out of the pages of Moby Dick, his embittered, cetacean-obsessed ass wouldn’t have anything to do with After the Rain, which is described as a “conceptual exploration of the rejection of identity.” Ahab certainly wouldn’t be fucking around with faeries, especially ones that look like a bad tattoo on a stoner chick from Hayward — to say nothing of cities in the clouds and unicorns. There was a moment in, say, 1993 when you could pick up a framed Boris Vallejo fantasy art poster at a Clearlake garage sale, put it up in your bathroom, and have it be funny and kitsch. That moment is gone. Slayer would never put a unicorn on one of their CDs. (Duncan Scott Davidson)

What’s the Damaged?


› a&eletters@sfbg.com
Look, I tried — as much as any 35-year-old can be expected to try — to get excited by, or even minimally interested in, the Warped Tour. Excuse me — what I mean is the Vans Warped Tour, featuring the Volcom Stage, and the Guitar Center Warp Your Summer with NOFX contest, and the Energizer Encore, wherein you can vote to see your favorite Warped band play 10 minutes longer. Why, if I could only see Davey Havok’s frontal mullet, Cure fan circa ’86 hairdo for one-sixth of an hour longer, I think I’d need to change my underwear. Oh, wait — AFI aren’t playing? Well, I’m sure that haircut will be prominently featured on a good percentage of soul-crushing, woe-is-me, mall-rock bands out there on Piers 30 and 32 on July 8. They’ll be soaking in the ultraviolet-ultraviolent radiation of sun and prepubescent adoration, smashing the state, and killing you softly with their songs and pouty lips.
OK, you got me. For someone with a master’s degree in writing, a five-year-old kid, and a copy of Damaged on vinyl, poking fun at the Warped Tour is like hunting geriatric cows with a shotgun.
Warped just isn’t my thing, nor is it supposed to be. Like it or not, gramps, punk rock — and all of its attendant bastard children, Emo, Screamo, Puddin’, and Pie, and the rest of the seven dwarves — is big business. An uncool outcast who just can’t relate to mainstream society, man is the cool thing to be. The punks are now the jocks. The hipsters are the cheerleaders, and the whole thing plays in Peoria quite well, thank you. It plays in the food court as your little sister and her friends compare the bitchin’ spiked belts they just purchased over chicken nuggets and coconut-banana Frappucinos.
Having graduated from high school in 1989, I missed both the Sex Pistols at Winterland and the Warped phenomenon, and here I am — stuck in the middle with you. I had a couple friends who went one year, mainly to see the Descendents and Bad Religion, and I almost joined them, but discretion is the better part of valor, and the whole circus atmosphere just didn’t seem like it’d be fun. More specifically, it didn’t seem like it would be punk rock in the way that I thought punk rock was fun. It wasn’t a dark, dangerous club with dark, dangerous individuals singing from their dark, dangerous hearts about dark, dangerous things. Of course, all of this dark dangerousness has been an illusion since Iggy rolled around on broken glass during the recording of Metallic K.O. (Skydog, 1976). Nonetheless, punk rock shouldn’t require suntan lotion and plenty of hydration.
But that’s precisely the point. I can’t keep carrying this cross around. It’s covered in Iggy’s blood and Dee Dee Ramone’s track marks. The Warped Tour is not about punk rock. It’s about the kids having fun in the sun, and I’m no longer a kid. Point blank, whoot — there it is. It’s time to put the dharma where my mouth is — no more ignoring reality. I’m not a kid, but I’ve got one, a rock ’n’ roll kid who, like her dad, loves Joan Jett and would go positively ape-shit hearing “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” live for the first time.
Aside from Jett, there are a handful of other acts confirmed or rumored to be playing Warped who are actually worth checking out. Duane Peters’s band Die Hunns is performing, despite his vow to “never play that fuckin’ thing again,” and you know that’s got to be good — the Master of Disaster has no off switch, and his wife, Corey Parks, is a surgically augmented, tattooed, fire-breathing rock Valkyrie.
Peters told me that the Buzzcocks are playing, though I’ve yet to see it in print. They’re probably on a tiny stage in the back, next to the generator truck, the burrito shack, and the roadie break room. You know, where the good artists play. Artists like Mike Watt, God of the Thunderbroom and flannel-flying Pedro (that’s Pee-dro to you, youngster) good guy. And despite how bored you may be with lowbrow prankster punks turned political activists NOFX — the last time I saw them was at the Stone in ’86 — they are guaranteed to be entertaining.
Finally, the Warped tour features some bad-ass BMXers and skaters. I’m not really sure who, as finding a list of the athletes on the tour is harder than finding a complete band list. I will say that Vans sponsors skaters like flowmaster Tony Trujillo and tech king Bucky Lasek, as well as BMX wunderkinder Ryan Guettler and Scotty Cranmer, who can both do front flips 10 feet out of a spine, so it’d be worth it to go on the chance of seeing one of those guys. There’s bound to be enough wheeled heroics and side-stage real rock action that even a crotchety parental type like myself can get something out of the whole fandango. And that’s what I’m gonna do, 5-year-old daughter and 10-year-old niece in tow. Long live the new breed. SFBG
Sat/8, 11 a.m.
Piers 30 and 32, SF
(415) 421-TIXS

Schlock tease


› duncan@sfbg.com

"I must have been bit by a spider when I was very young," Country Teasers vocalist Ben Wallers drones on "Spiderman in the Flesh," the opening track to the band’s new album, The Empire Strikes Back (In the Red). "Because now I’m grown-up I spend five days a week going up the fucking wall." This wall makes a reprise midway through the tune, as the music ratchets up from a sleepy, two-step waltz to the fascist grandeur of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, with a lyrical nod toward "In the Flesh" from that psychodepressonervous breakdown rock opera: "Are there any queers in the theater tonight? Get ’em up against the wall!"

And thus, halfway through the first track, with a borrowed lyric "jacked from the sonic matrix," as Sonic Youth would say from a prog rock magnum opus, the Teasers arrive at the type of lowbrow social satire they’ve turned into high art. Well, high lowbrow art. They take a frail, empty stereotype and strap a rocket pack to its back. Of course it’s not going to survive, but it’s hilarious to see it zoom about the cosmos, flailing.

Take my personal favorite Teasers tune, "Black Change," from 1996’s epic Satan Is Real Again, or Feeling Good about Bad Thoughts (Crypt). In it, the narrator undergoes a transformation akin to John Howard Griffin’s in Black Like Me, "a black change operation." The results? "My dick went long, my hair went fuzzy … I traded in my white friends for pretty white ladies. My new black body drove them crazy." Ten years later, he’s got to go back to the surgeon to have the procedure reversed: "Too much trouble, from those envious white men…. My wife won’t touch me…. ‘Once you go black,’ she says, ‘you never go back.’"

In its hyperbole, "Black Change" is the quintessential Country Teasers song. It’s satire that’s offensive if you do get the joke. It’s up there with Jonathan Swift’s essay "A Modest Proposal," which suggested that the Irish eat their children to prevent the latter "from being a burden to their parents or country." Up there with Lou Reed’s "I Wanna Be Black,” a song that exposes racism, white guilt, and the white co-opting of black cultural idioms, but does so with lines like "I wanna be like Malcolm X, and cast a hex over President Kennedy’s tomb. And have a big prick, too." A song that makes Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher look like the teatime for pussies that it is. Either you get the satire and are loose enough to laugh at the stereotypes that are still imbedded in our culture, or you start getting that itchy feeling up under your collar, afraid that your good liberal friends the "clean white citizens" in "Black Change" might hear what you’re listening to, and shamefacedly pull the disc from the deck.

Like moralistic ’80s punks Crass, the Country Teasers make their statement, but they use humor to do it, as opposed to histrionic art-house punk screech. They too go for the jugular: They find your comfort zone and blissfully stomp all over it. Besides "Black Change," they’ve got songs called "Young Mums up for Sex," "Man v Cock," and "Country Fag." More recently, The Empire Strikes Back is likewise true to its title, dipping into geopolitical analysis vis-à-vis whether the world is currently more like the Death Star or Mos Eisley spaceport. Mix these lyrical fixations with the lo-fi schmaltz of Smog and all the early Drag City bands, the "we’ve got a fuzzbox and we’re not quite sure how to use it" of early Pussy Galore, and the straight-ahead rhythmic sensibilities of vintage Johnny Cash, and, well, to this humble music writer, what you get is fuckin’ genius.

Now don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying they’re genius. Einstein was genius. Mozart, Walt Whitman, Jonas Salk, what have you. Fuckin’ genius is the guy who decided to package beef jerky and that dyed-orange cheese right next to each other in the same package. Just how do they get the cheese to be crumbly and greasy at the same time?

The Teasers gestalt reads like the opening line of a joke: OK, so a noise band, a drunk Scottish football team, and a boy named Sue walk into a bar … And when they walk into the Hemlock on Friday, May 26, all the way from Scotland, the land that invented whiskey, it’ll be much the same.

If you come expecting a noise band, you’re screwed. If you come expecting a country band, you’re screwed. If you come expecting stand-up comedy or social satire, you’re screwed. And if you come expecting a punk band, you’re screwed. Then again, the Country Teasers are noisy like vintage Honeymoon Killers; twangy in that same crooked-teeth, British Isles way that Billy Childish can be said to be twangy; bitingly satirical like mclusky; and definitely the punkest thing to come out of Scotland since the Rezillos. SFBG

Country Teasers with E-Zee Tiger and 16 Bitch Pileup

Fri/26, 9:30 p.m.

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk, SF


(415) 923-0923

Sleazy does it


› duncan@sfbg.com

Sometimes you want to be, as Thomas Gray so eloquently put it, "far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife." This is exactly how I felt as, against my quasi-agoraphobic intuition, I walked into the Make-Out Room to see San Francisco’s Cotton Candy this spring. Feeling friendless, dateless, lifeless, and down after a huge blowout with an old friend of mine, and unable to procure a warm body to fill up my plus one, I walked into the dark club only to be reminded by the smattering of plastic beads and silly hats and feather boas that it was Mardi Gras.

Feeling the need for some kind of psychic security blanket, I stopped at the bar. I probably should’ve ordered a double bourbon, but I just wanted something in my hand, you know. Like, "Hey, look, I’ve got a beverage." I may not have beads, but I am enjoying myself like a motherfucker. I got a Coke and shuffle-stepped my crotchety, dejected ass over to the darkest, most uninhabited corner and sat down behind some sort of homemade percussion wingding a two-by-four with a bunch of metal crap nailed to it and did my best Greta Garbo "I vant to be alone" impression.

Almost immediately someone found me, dressed entirely in black in a dark club. Sometimes, you’re just lucky like that. I don’t have many people I don’t want to see. Usually if you’ve been in my life long enough for me to know your name, I’m always glad to invite you back. But this was someone I had a crush on, long ago in some other reality, and I think she kind of made me look like a buffoon. More likely, I made myself look like a buffoon, and she turned the screw a little, wound up the buffoon box, and let it go, careful to hold at least some of her laughter until I was out of the room. And now here she was, in the dark on Fat Tuesday, asking me about my personal life. There must have been something on my face that said, "I love to chitchat."

Phat blues day

My cover blown, I grabbed my chair and slid in a few rows back from the stage, under the disco ball, as Cotton Candy set up. I’d seen them before, at least once, and I knew that if any band was going to cheer me up, they might be the one. Actually, it’s a stretch to call them a band at all. I think once you include a marimba player, you are officially not a band. Maybe you’re an ensemble. At the very least they’re a quartet. In addition to Matt Cannon on the marimba, they have an upright bass player, Tom Edler, who uses a bow most of the time, the lovely Linda Robertson on accordion and violin, and Heidi Kooy, who can really only be described as a chanteuse. The ladies were bedecked in full-length Easter Parade dresses, though somewhat less flouncy, Kooy’s a gauzy pale yellow, topped with a putf8um Veronica Lake wig, and Robertson’s a bright blue. They looked like a Victorian engraving delicately splashed with watercolors. They calmly began playing an instrumental number, with the seated Kooy tinkling gracefully on a sort of laptop xylophone.

Me? I was striving to be enraptured. I leaned forward and tried to will myself out of a nightclub and into a setting where the music would’ve been more appropriate: perhaps a garden party with those small, crustless finger sandwiches. It’d be sunny and warm, and instead of plastic beads maybe there’d be a parasol or two. But despite the delicacy of the music, I remained in reality thanks to the steadfast shouting of a girl in rabbit ears standing next to me, her back to the band, totally unawares. I scanned the crowd, and it seemed much the same: pint glasses bonking in revelry. No one in the cheap seats meaning the people who were standing seemed to notice they’d even begun playing.

That is, until Kooy said, "Well. Hhhi. We are Cotton Candy. There’s so many of you this evening." As the Candies started playing "A Public Service Announcement about Clowns," a psychological sea change took place in the music and in me. With the addition of lyrics, the dainty hues of the presentation mixed with ribald reds, the color of a freshly spanked ass.

"Clowns," Kooy sang. "Clowns get urges too. In the backseat of the clown car we can do a trick or two."

For me, this is where it all happens with Cotton Candy: the collision between long, delicate fingers on a microphone, a stately soft-shoe across the stage in an ankle-length dress, and bawdy lyrics about horny clowns, psycho roommates, and on a song omitted from the set that evening but featured on their self-released 2005 debut, In the Pink a perverted landlord who’s fond of public enemas. (A second CD, Fairy Floss, is due this fall, and HarperCollins will publish Robertson’s autobiography, What Rhymes with Bastard?, in 2007.) Flash back to the garden party, and you’ll see that next to those repressed sandwiches are some cock-shaped cookies sitting serenely on a doily. And what’s that rustle in the bushes? Victorians have the rap of being antisex only because they were so sex-obsessed they had to put some strictures on it. Strictures that, I might add, must have added up to some frantic unlacing of lace bodices in pantries.

Fancy, albeit filthy, pants

The crowd bantering through the instrumental opener was one thing, but after they continued their coarse chatter through the licentious lyrics, the one thing that might have held them in thrall well, that was unforgivable. I officially aligned myself against them. And despite the fact that I probably would’ve enjoyed a quieter setting, I got a good deal of pleasure fancying myself to be a true cultural connoisseur, someone who clearly got it.

This stance on my part was a total farce, of course, but that’s part of the fun with Cotton Candy. You can feel fancy and somewhat dirty at the same time. I liken the group to Shakespeare: On one hand, Cotton Candy are highbrow, and not a lot of people even attempt to understand them. Yet, on the other hand, they’re really just about a bunch of dirty jokes. "I don’t just want to be friends with you," Kooy sang. "I want to rip your clothes off too." They cut through the prim and proper façade while appearing to observe all the social niceties.

So as Kooy gracefully pantomimed a frustrated lover waiting for her tardy beau in "Late" introduced as, "in essence, why Linda now has an ex-husband" my disgust for myself was leavened, even replaced, by my disgust for the "madding crowd," the common rabble, the groundlings who were just too engrossed and gross to understand the finer things. If they only knew that a tune like the closing number, "Pick You Up," is basically a song about midget tossing: "Let me take you in my arms / And see how far I can throw you … I like to pick up short men / And throw them as far as I can / It’s a strange hobby, maybe / But it makes me feel like a man."

Clearly, they hadn’t made it far enough up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to be able to see "self-actualization" with a telescope. Give a starving man a flaky, buttery croissant, and he’s going to jam it into his gullet like a three-day-old dinner roll. SFBG


With accordionist Isobel Douglas

Sat/20, 9 p.m.

Red Poppy Art House

2698 Folsom, SF

$10 donation

(415) 826-2402

With accordionist Kielbasia

May 28, 7 p.m.


4 Valencia, SF


(415) 241-0205

Bright knight of the analog soul


John Vanderslice goes straight for the guy with the bouzouki. He’s taking me on a tour of his recording studio, analog haven Tiny Telephone, located in an industrial space at the base of Potrero Hill, directly across from a giant, rusted rocket engine belonging to Survival Research Laboratories.

He’s about to pick the melon-shaped instrument up from its stand out of sheer exuberance, but he checks himself and asks its owner, "Do you mind?" It has four sets of strings, paired in octaves like a 12-string guitar, and some fancy inlay work. He gives it a tentative strum, trying to suss out the tuning, before gingerly replacing it. "Anything but an electric guitar excites me."

It’s a strange statement coming from a guitar player. But Vanderslice isn’t simply a guitar player he’s a complex commodity. He looks calm enough in his tattered, holey sweater and wide-wale corduroys. But it’s like the surface tension on a water droplet. It can only briefly hold back an inexorable motion, and the seeming stillness on the outside belies the seething, wild Brownian motion beneath.

Tapestry of the unknown

Google "’John Vanderslice’ + ‘analog’" and you’ll get around 100,000 hits. This shouldn’t be shocking. For one, there are five "official" solo albums on Barsuk, as well as three with his previous band, mk Ultra; for another, there’s his studio, boasting a 30-channel Neve mixing board that once belonged to the BBC, and dozens of vintage amps, preamps, and effects, some of them fairly wacky, like the huge anodized metal "plate in a box" reverb. One can comfortably call him an analog purist. He even calls himself that. Sometimes.

Like most purists, there’s a persnicketiness to his passion. I’m reminded of the older guys at the BMX track who refuse to ride aluminum bikes: "Steel is real," they’re always saying. For Vanderslice too, steel is real as are the glass tubes and the magnetic tape that runs from reel to reel to capture it all. When it comes to his own records, he has "these militant rules about what we can and can’t do as far as using effects. If we want an effect on an instrument, we have to record it that way. My thing is, if you want it to be some way, make it that way and commit to it. Don’t be half-assed. If you want it to sound fucked-up or modulated or distorted or delayed, let’s go for it. Record it that way, print it on tape, and then it’s part of the tapestry. It’s done."

"It is done" were that last words of Jesus Christ, and when Vanderslice is up in arms, hunched over his cup of tea, the ardent analog guru preaching the tube gospel, they’re murmured with similar prophetic urgency. But that’s just the molecular lockdown on the surface of the drop. Underneath: movement. His records especially as they move away from being "guitar records" are all about that tapestry. The song, lyrics, chorus, melody, and bridge these are the structural elements that build the house. But you have to peek in the windows to see what’s really going on: the art on the walls, that tapestry he’s talking about and how intricately it’s woven. "Exodus Damage" on his most recent album, last year’s Pixel Revolt, has got mellotron "synthesizing" (sans computer), a choir, pipe organ, strings, and a flute. Instrumentally, the album’s all over the place it’s like a warehouse with cello, Hammond B3, Wurlitzer, glockenspiel, vibraphone, steel drums, trumpet, moog, tape loops, and a "space station," among other things. There’s a lot going on, on different levels, and you’ve got to do more than peek through the windows to really get Pixel Revolt; you’ve got to come inside and sit down.

Vanderslice constructs his music in that honest, brick-by-brick way of the analog stickler, but it’s not as if he just mics it up, tapes it down, and it’s ready to go. He manipulates his songs using techniques that might be more readily associated with the digital side of things. He builds them, then deconstructs them and builds something else. I’m reminded of Bob Geldof in The Wall, where he smashes everything in the hotel room and builds something that, at first glance, is obtuse and impenetrable but is clearly imbued with deeper meaning for having been recontextualized. Vanderslice takes digital techniques and analog-izes them. He uses Tiny Telephone like a punch card machine, a steam-driven computer.

"I like using the analog instruments of the studio, meaning compressors and mic pres and effects as instruments," he explains. "When you start combining all these things the keyboard into some mic pre you found in a pawn shop into some weird compressor into delay you get some unknowable results. Chasing down that kind of shit is fascinating for me."

Covert ops

"I’d harbored hope that the intelligence that once inhabited novels or films would ingest rock," Lou Reed once said. "I was, perhaps, wrong." Like most Lou Reed quotes or songs or looks, he’s both right and wrong. Most rock has ceased to even aspire to the literary. Traditional rock lyrics are the domain of the first-person diarist.

Vanderslice’s songs, however, are sonic novellas, small, encapsulated narratives whose meaning sometimes bleeds into the silence between tracks to form the greater novel of the album. Not surprisingly for an artist with so much happening musically on that other level, stories of the covert permeate JV’s records. Mass Suicide Occult Figurines (2000) takes us behind the scenes of a drug operation on "Speed Lab." Life and Death of an American Fourtracker (2002) follows the semi-institutionalized ruination of its lead character’s life and love. Of late, 2004’s Cellar Door features the shaky ruminations of a special ops type, musing on shady dealings from Columbia to Guant?

The Dirt-y north


Though Noise Pop 2006 technically begins on Monday, March 27, it doesn’t officially get rocking until Detroit’s Dirtbombs “Start the Party,” as they said on 2003’s Dangerous Magical Noise (In the Red). The Bombs feature two drummers and two bassists, which, for the uninitiated, may instill fear of Grateful Dead