James H. Miller

Local musicians reinterpret Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” at the Rickshaw Stop


Had you been skeptical about the “UnderCover Presents: Nick Drake’s Pink Moon” event Sunday night at the Rickshaw Stop you wouldn’t have been alone. It had the potential to be disastrous. Coordinating the sound alone must have posed a considerable challenge. How do you get 11 eclectic local bands — 50 performers each with specific sound needs — to play one song from one album without frazzling intervals between each performance and each set up? And then of course there’s the album to consider, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. How can the bands perform the covers without butchering the album?
In the case of coordination and sound, it was a flawlessly organized UnderCover event, co-produced by Faultline Studios. Band set ups were seamless, the sound was first-rate, and the visuals by Joe Case that projected behind the stage were diverting. There were also pre-recorded interviews with band members shown before each performance, which made for an altogether different concert experience. With regards to Pink Moon, if you had hoped to hear covers that faithfully honored the songwriter’s final album, the event was likely a let down, but not a catastrophe.
Pink Moon is an odd choice for this kind of an event. For one, it’s terse — with only 11 songs, it clocks in at 28 minutes, and so each band is on stage for only a moment. It’s essentially a bleak piece of songwriting as well, recorded with only guitar and vocals, aside from the light piano on the title track. As John Wood, who produced Pink Moon said in a 1979 radio interview, “[Drake] was very determined to make this very stark, bare record and he definitely wanted it to be him more than anything.” However, the event’s music director Darren Johnston saw this as an invitation. He in fact chose the album because of its sparseness and the endless ways to approach it. “It’s not even my favorite Nick Drake album,” he said in one of the pre-recorded interviews.
It’s worth noting that many of the bands did not seem to be Drake aficionados, nor did they pretend to be. A series of pre-recorded interviews showed that they were unaware that a “pink moon” or “bloody moon” represents imminent disaster in other cultures, and that Drake was possibly foretelling his antidepressant overdose, which happened two years after the album was released.
Needless to say then, the bands tweaked and reinvented the songs on Pink Moon. If the result wasn’t sensitive tributes to Nick Drake, it was still seasoned musicians putting on compelling performances. Music Director Darren Johnston’s own band, Brass Menažeri, started the night off with the title track, “Pink Moon” which was a rumpus of snorting tubas, trumpets, and French horns. It was followed by the Oakland pop band Kapowski who managed to churn out a memorable piano take on “Place to Be.” The Real Vocal Quartet turned some heads with their cover of “Road,” sticking to the song in the beginning, then veering into a blasting collage of strings before coming back up, rather reluctantly, for another verse.
The performance that best embodied Pink Moon was the saxophone player David Boyce’s rendition of — interestingly enough— the only instrumental on the album, a song called “Horn.” With an array of effect pedals, Boyce withdrew from with the original song, but managed to embody the whole album with it. He puffed away and evoked its desolation, adding layer upon layer of drifting, sometimes ear-splitting sounds that encapsulated something like panic and nausea.
In many ways, you wanted to hear these bands doing their own material and performing longer sets. It was a shame that we only got a taste of the Billie Holiday inspired voice of singer Kally Price, for instance, who was spell-binding in the very, very brief amount of time she was up on stage.

Brass Menažeri (“Pink Moon”)
Kapowski! (“Place to Be”)
Real Vocal String Quartet (“Road”)
Kally Price (“Which Will”)
David Boyce (“Horn”)
Pocket Full of Rye (“Things Behind the Sun”)
Broken Shadows Family Band (“Know”)
Freddi Price (“Parasite”)
Ramon and Jessica (“Free Ride”)
Aaron Novik (“Harvest Breed”)
Jazz Mafia (“From the Morning”)

All photos by Jessica Trimmer

The reluctant soloist


MUSIC Michael Beach is not the conventional — or, cliché — singer-songwriter. Granted, he writes stripped down folk rock, but he’s not locked in the style. He can swallow the comparisons to Nick Drake or Mason Jennings, but he hasn’t modeled himself after those (or any other) singer-songwriters really. “I think that I would get bored if that’s all I listened to,” he says. It explains why there’s more to his bare bones sound — the dude simply doesn’t fit the mold.

“It’s not like I sit at home and read Greek mythology,” Beach tells me over the phone. Yet, in answer to a question about his newest record, Mountains + Valleys, released on Spectacular Commodity/Twin Lake Records, he evokes narratives and characters from biblical text and classical myths.

“You take something,” he explains, “a character from a myth, a religious tradition, or a historical figure and that symbolizes an idea. And then you manipulate those ideas by explaining it through the characters.”

“So you make it your own in other words,” I counter.

“I mean I’m certainly not under the impression that nothing like this has ever been done before.”

Beach is quick to pass on credit to others, whether it’s his predecessors or the musicians who’ve lent him a hand in the studio. It makes you think he’s still vaguely uncomfortable as a solo artist. First and foremost, Beach is the guitarist and lead singer of Electric Jellyfish, a rock band based out of Melbourne, Australia. Beach, who’s from Merced, attended La Trobe University in the suburbs of Melbourne and formed the band with Peter Warden and Adam Camilleri roughly seven years back.

It was when Electric Jellyfish took a short break that Beach started recording on his own. “I didn’t want to be idle, so I recorded an album.” It was as simple as that — Blood Courses was released in 2008. However, two years later, Beach’s visa expired. He was forced back to the states and made his home in San Francisco.

Now the members of Jellyfish take turns touring their respective countries. They have a forthcoming seven-inch entitled Trouble Coming Down, and are on the bill to play Austin, Texas’ SXSW in March. In the meantime, Beach is left to his own devices.

Mountains + Valleys shares similarities with Beach’s previous album, but with some notable differences. “[Blood Courses] was really, really sparse and brittle; purposefully one guitar track and one vocal track. I wanted to stretch my legs a little bit and incorporate some other instruments for a whole band sound. But I still wanted to keep things sparse and basic.”

Mountains + Valleys is sparse. However, as the title indicates, it ascends in dramatic directions too. Beach may hold back at times, but he can yank those chains off and embrace a devil-may-care attitude. It’s painstaking calculation as much as pure impulse. If Beach is fairly abstruse with his words, he’s clearly vulnerable in his vocal delivery. If “So Said the Birds” has elements you might ascribe to folk, “Straight Spines” gushes with enough drive to call straight indie-rock.

Interspersed throughout the album are brief instrumentals that vary from the electric rock collage of “Central San Joaquin” to the more subtle and dissonant “Shasta.” Beach says the inspiration for the instrumentals was Chris Smith’s Bad Orchestra, which wasn’t widely released outside of Australia.

“I think [the instrumentals] made me less one-dimensional, less like ‘I’m a guy who writes songs and strums my guitar.’ There’s more than one way of conveying meaning in music.”



With Brian Smith, and the Same

9 p.m., $6

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk, SF

(415) 596-7777



Kenneth Patchen centennial: poetry that still resonates


Poet Kenneth Patchen was born in Niles, Ohio, 100 years ago on December 13, 1911. He died in Palo Alto in 1972. Due to a ruptured spinal disk that was never properly treated, Patchen produced some 30 volumes of poetry and prose largely from the confines of his bed — work, nonetheless, that fiercely engaged the modern world that raged on outside. In his words, “I speak for a generation born in one war and doomed to die in another.” For this, the Beats were deeply indebted to his work. Patchen however, who lived in Telegraph Hill in the 1950s, referred to “Ginsberg and Co.” and the media hype surrounding them as a “freak show.”

Patchen had a broad range — he could be political, tender, devotional, and surreal — and unlike the Beats, he vehemently opposed being labeled as one kind of poet or another. Kenneth Patchen: A Centennial Selection (Kelly’s Cove Press, paperback, $25), edited by Patchen’s friend Jonathan Clark, marks the 100th birthday of the indefinable poet. Clark first met Patchen in the 1960s as a teenager living in the same Palo Alto neighborhood as him. He describes the collection as “a personal selection of some poems in which I hear most clearly the voice of the man I remember…those seeking perfection had best look elsewhere…” Fair enough. However, the collection is also a reasonable review of the poet’s scope. And, if indeed modest, it’s still the only book that has observed the centennial.

Although he wrote poems of all kinds, Patchen was always an adamant pacifist with a social conscience. He could be blunt and unsparing in this regard. In an essay from 1946, novelist Henry Miller described Patchen with slight terror and open-mouthed awe as “the living symbol of protest:” “He is a fizzing human bomb ever threatening to explode in our midst.” It’s a disputed description of the man. But if one had been reading Patchen’s work and nothing of his life, it would sound befitting enough. In one poem alone, “What I Want to Know Is,” he refers to politicians as “filthy lying lice,” “foul bastards,” “lousy bastards,” and “frauds and fakers.” Patchen’s pacifism is closely tied to what he sees as the loss of innocence in society, the corrupted human spirit, and is often expressed with animals. Such is the case with the forbidding “The Lions of Fire Shall Have Their Hunting:”
The lions of fire
Shall have their hunting in this black land
Their teeth shall tear at your soft throats
Their claws kill

Because you are sick with the dirt of your money
Because you are pigs rooting in the swill of your war
Because you are mean and sly and full of the pus of your
     pious murder

Clark has also included a selection of Patchen’s artwork in the book (though the cover and back images are not the poet’s best). Patchen first started painting in 1942 to make cover illustrations for his book The Dark Kingdom, and it eventually led him to reimagine all his subsequent volumes. Larry Smith, Patchen’s biographer, notes that Patchen pioneered “the painted book, the concrete poem in which type set is used to paint the poem on the page, the drawing-and-poem form, the poetry-prose experiments of his anti-novels, and finally the picture-poem form.”

In A Centennial Selection, the artwork ranges from animals reminiscent of Chagall with words floating around them, such as “peace now for all men or amen to all things,” to an untitled work that would have been in line with Patchen’s New York School contemporaries. The latter is proof that Patchen was a painter in his own right, not simply a poet with a paintbrush. Franz Kline, upon seeing his art, called Patchen “more of an artist than most artists today.”
Patchen’s poems, especially those with a political edge, are as relevant as they ever were. It’s an appropriate coincidence that the Occupy Movement — and more recently, Take Back the Capitol — should correspond with Patchen’s 100th birthday. From his first volume of poetry in 1936, Before the Brave (which the New York Times categorized as Marxist), Patchen wrangled with the same questions that many people are weighing today — questions of power and greed, corruption, accountability, and of course, war. Patchen, who was invariably poor his whole life, saw things as a collective human struggle, and he placed himself squarely in that struggle with his poetry.
As Clark admits, A Centennial Selection has its shortcomings. But it’s a nice way to revisit Patchen’s poems and artwork and to see how both continue to work and be relevant today. Newcomers to Patchen, however, best refer to The Collected Poems.

Here are two of Kenneth Patchen’s best recordings, poems which are included in A Centennial Selection: the droll “State of the Nation” and the unusual “The Origin of Baseball.” Here you can pick up on Patchen’s dark and uncanny sense of humor.

Kenneth Patchen “The State of the Nation” by jmill116

Kenneth Patchen, “The Origin of Baseball” by jmill116

Lit shorts: Cocker, on paper


Mother, Brother, Lover
By Jarvis Cocker
Faber and Faber
208 pp., hardcover, $17

Books of lyrics — words uprooted from the music and set down naked on the page — are traditionally published with either self-congratulation or doubts by songwriters. Jarvis Cocker has some doubts.

“Lyrics are not poetry: they are words to songs,” he writes in the reluctant and faintly self-conscious introduction to Mother, Brother, Lover: The Selected Lyrics of Jarvis Cocker. But the former Pulp front man doesn’t give himself enough credit. His persona as a sexual fantasist makes for devilishly entertaining stories — scotched lovers, adultery, watching someone’s sister from the bedroom closet — all of which become more vivid here. Pulp classics like “Do You Remember the First Time?” are plain funnier when you can pick up on the subtleties in punctuation and position of words. Notes in the back are similarly revealing. The title of the misfit anthem “Mis-shapes” comes from chocolates called by the same name that are too malformed to fit in boxes.

Read more reviews in our Books Issue, on stands now

Lit shorts: ‘Beck’ by the book


By Autumn de Wilde
Chronicle Books
176 pp., hardcover, $35

For more than a decade and half, pop culture photographer (and video director) Autumn de Wilde has chronicled Beck, the iconic songwriter and her personal friend, on tour, in the studio, and as he’s posed before the camera — the latter especially.

Indeed, in Wilde’s photos we find Beck looking as impenetrably cool as ever. Incorporating fewer candid shots and plenty of showy staged ones — Beck in a white suite; Beck lifting an enormous red egg; Beck surrounded by loosely clad dancers — the collection has few insights into the mythologized songwriter and too many into his eclectic wardrobe. Wilde is a fine photographer, but her photos evoke the same Beck we’ve been looking at for decades. For real insights, look to the front of the book at the conversations between Wilde and Beck, where the two are finishing each other’s sentences and looking back on their collaboration. 

Read more book reviews in our Books Issue, on stands now

Cass McCombs greets the Great American Music Hall crowd warmly


There’s been a lot of talk about how Cass McCombs is an impenetrable character, so much so that it’s become tiring. We’ve heard about his elusiveness and nomadic lifestyle; about his tendency to either act bitterly in interviews (i.e. Pitchfork interview) or shun them altogether. Oh, and that he’s never happy. Admittedly, McCombs has shaped this cryptic persona himself — he’s even made it difficult to know what he looks like (recent photographs have been vague, he’s always altering his “look”). It was an enormous pleasure then on Sunday night to be able to experience the songwriter first hand when he performed at the Great American Music Hall, where it was all about the music.

Before a dazzling wall of batting lights, McCombs stood with his band and seemed to take pleasure in every moment of the concert. The audience gave him a very warm reception and was perhaps appreciative for the same reasons I was — at long last we were having our own experience of McCombs.

The better part of the set was downtempo and tinged with melancholy. Wit’s End, the first of two albums that he released this year on Domino Records, is slow, ethereal, and rooted in what feels like the aftermath of tragedy. Listening to the band perform the single from that record, “County Line,” was grand. If one didn’t appreciate how lovely and original that song was before, one certainly did after last night. It has the mood of an R&B track, and the slow, hushed rhythm section seems to reflect the hopelessness of McCombs’ voice as he sings so simply “you never even tried to love me / what do I have to do / to make you want me?”

Humor Risk, McCombs’ second album of this year, is an effective supplement to Wit’s End in a live context. Compared to Wit’s End, it’s a more buoyant and melodic album. When the band performed songs like “The Same Thing” and “Robin Egg Blue,” it felt like McCombs was taking the audience up for a breath of air before plunging it back into the chilling gloom of Wit’s End.

Earlier in the set, the band performed “Bradley Manning,” a song that McCombs premiered a few days before on the television news show Democracy Now. The “protest” narrative tells the story of Bradley Manning — the 23-year-old intelligence analyst that was arrested for dispatching thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks. McCombs’ detailed story-telling recalls Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” and it was played to shouts and whistles of approval from the audience. “Bradley you know you have friends even though you’re locked in there,” McCombs says at the very end of the song. It was one of the highlights of the night. How many of us had forgotten about Bradley Manning, and how many are now discussing his arrest?

As the audience poured out of the venue then, the overwhelming thought on everyone’s mind was probably not “who is Cass McCombs?” but something like “wow — so that’s Cass McCombs.”

No more introduction needed: Pterodactyl at El Rio


On Saturday night in the cloistered show room at El Rio, Joe Kremer of Pterodactyl passed through the idle crowd to consult the sound guy about his microphone reverb, making a whacking hand gesture to illustrate the slap back resonation he wanted — something he’s probably had to do at every venue between Brooklyn, NY, (where the band is from) and San Francisco because it’s so essential to Pterodactyl’s sound.

Kremer has mischievous blonde facial hair and a sarcastic glint in his eye that’s hard to read. It’s not unlike Pterodactyl itself, a band that creates dissonant indie-rock by lathering sunny harmonies in reverb for a murky, psychedelic sound. But Spills Out (Jagjaguwar), the band’s newest album, has one major difference from its previous two: it teases with catchy melodies.

When Pterodactyl kicked into song, it was Kremer who had the stage antics — riffing on electric guitar, swinging around rambunctiously, and closing his eyes to enter into his own little world at the microphone. He had an unfading, boyish enthusiasm that lasted all night. Matt Marlin sat behind the drums with his sweating shirt sleeves rolled up, harmonizing on each song and looking to the others for signals (and giving them) with a blank face. He seemed to quietly run the show. Duncan Gamble on keyboards and Jesse Hodges on bass guitar were the more stationary and restrained of the group. The four had a likeable presence on stage, as though each one had a role to play: there was the ebullient charmer (Kremer), the mysterious one (Marlin), and the two nervous and loveable characters (Gamble, Hodges).
When Pterodactyl performed songs from Spills Out, the coherence and melody of songs like “Searchers” and “School Glue” was somewhat lost. Those two songs have a conspicuous presence on the record and represent a significant departure for a band that has preferred atonalism. However, when performed live, they fell indistinguishably in with the rest of the discordant, highly effected set. Kremer’s voice also was different from the record and the live performance. It sounded higher in pitch, even cartoonish. It wasn’t necessarily a drawback musically speaking — the band sounded impressive and put on a fine show — but you sometimes wondered if Kremer was involved in some inside joke that no one else got.
One highlight on Spills Out is “Allergy Shots,” which the band performed terrifically on stage. The four minutes of droning bass has a kind of mystical lugubriousness. It feels
like a trudging descent into an ever-expanding pit. “The grass isn’t greener/when there is no grass at all,” Hodges sang mechanically. In the hopeless mood of the song, his
singing was appropriate.
Even after releasing three albums, Pterodactyl is still having to introduce itself to moderate sized crowds like the one at El Rio. It’s can be a difficult introduction. Listen to the band’s albums in succession — the self-titled debut, WorldWild, and Spills Out — and you’ll see that Pterodactyl has never been content doing the same thing. The debut thrashes around rampantly; WorldWild is psychedelic and airy, while Spills Out is less experimental and more dulcet. But if Pterodactyl makes more first impressions like
Saturday night’s, the band will soon need no introduction at all.
All photos by Ryan Kauffman

Kimya Dawson keeps it confessional, relatable at the Rickshaw Stop


The recurring theme of Sunday night’s Kimya Dawson show at the Rickshaw Stop was: be who you are and plainly say whatever you have to say. It began with Dave End— whose eccentric set included a cover of Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose” in a dress made of flowers — followed by Clyde Pattersen, from Your Heart Breaks, who flat out told the audience that one song was about his schizophrenic mother. It all culminated with Kimya Dawson. Some would have disparaged the night’s roster of confessional, fun-loving songwriters — it’s the prey of critics. But the night was about relating to people and — dare I say it? — Having fun.

In the case of the ex-Moldy Peach (Dawson), she’s where she is now not because of the critics, but because young people have long been able to relate to her honest songwriting. More than perhaps most other songwriters playing today, Dawson seems to write with her audience in mind. She wants to improve fans’ self-esteem and make them feel better about themselves: a fact that makes the skeptics wince.

However, watching Dawson summon what must be pages and pages worth of risible lyrics on stage from memory could easily turn the heads of any one of those skeptics. With an acoustic guitar scrawled with doodles and an octopus necklace around her neck, Dawson faithfully performed songs that spanned her solo career with an emphasis on her new album, Thunder Thighs, and the one prior, Remember That I Love You. She also played a few songs off her children’s album, Alphabutt. Not many stood out in the set besides those where the audience, seated on the hard cement floors, joined in. On “Loose Lips,” for instance, everyone chanted, “remember that I love you.” It was in those moments, however brief, that what Dawson does became clear and even profound.

She wasn’t up there by herself all the time. A highlight of the night happened when someone from the audience shouted out a request for “It’s A Hard Knock Life,” and Dawson and Dave End decided to do an animated, wickedly funny duet of “Tomorrow”— a spontaneous and comical moment that you couldn’t have seen anywhere else. Rapper Aesop Rock, who makes many appearances on Thunder Thighs, performed a few songs with Dawson as well. But these felt unfamiliar to the audience, perhaps even awkward, and obviously a disappointment for anyone who came to hear, say, the popular Juno soundtrack material.

Dawson’s performance was hardly perfect: she made some slips. By the time she was finishing her set, at least a third of the already modest audience had vanished. Does anyone go to a Kimya Dawson show to see a flawless performance? You would think not. But perhaps honesty alone is only charming for so long.

We love the sound: Wild Flag will play the Great American Music Hall


Back in 2010, when the members of Wild Flag initially started playing music with one another, whether a band would be forged or not wasn’t altogether clear. Carrie Brownstein, Rebecca Cole, and Janet Weiss (all from Portland, Ore.) had been writing the score for art documentary !Women Art Revolution when they tapped Mary Timony, who lived in Washington D.C., to record vocals. One project naturally led to the other.

Given the bands they had played in before, you would think there’d be no question as to whether or not they’d make a good group: Brownstein and Weiss had Sleater-Kinney until it disbanded in the 2006, Timony led Helium in the 90s, while Cole had backed the Minders. However, the four weren’t certain. In theory, sure, but: “Everyone knows, whether, you’re a fan or a musician, that theories do not make good music,” Carrie Brownstein said in a phone interview on Thursday. Wild Flag is now north in San Francisco for a two-night stint at the Great American Music Hall starting Friday, Nov. 4. “We spent a lot of time working to figure out if the band was necessary.”

Necessary — it’s something Brownstein stresses about the band. And it seems that it not only determined the fate of Wild Flag, but also determines her involvement in just about any project, which likely explains the reason why everything she does, she does extremely well — she needs it, and it undoubtedly needs her. Her co-created IFC sketch comedy with Fred Armisen, Portlandia (whose second season begins in January), is spot on and hilarious. Her blog at NPR Music, Monitor Mix, was intelligent and delightful. And Sleater-Kinney was one of the most talented feminist-punk bands of the late 90s and early 2000s.

Now, Brownstein and the others have found Wild Flag necessary — the songs were telling them so. “The songs felt like they were being played by a band,” Brownstein explained, “not individual people with separate ideas that weren’t congealing into something interesting.”

After they announced that Wild Flag was official late last year, the band set out on tour, without an album or recorded songs, to play fairly small clubs (including Bottom of the Hill) and to give fans a pure, unadulterated listen to the band. Over the course of that tour, the band earned a reputation for its passionate live performances. Then, in April of this year, Wild Flag went into Sacramento’s the Hangar studio to record its self-titled debut, releasing it five months later on Merge.

The record is tough but catchy, original but accessible, and recalls just about every sub-genre between post-hardcore and classic hard rock. It also speaks to just how important music is to Wild Flag. “We love the sound, the sound is what found us/Sound is the blood between me and you,” they harmonize on the dynamic single, “Romance.” Most of the music besides the vocals on the album was recorded live as well, making it a raw and undisguised release.

“For our first album, we wanted an unadorned, mirror document of who we were — our capabilities, our presence, and our sound,” Brownstein said. “It was exciting to have a blank slate; to not be comparing or measuring ourselves to any previous body of work.”

Although the four musicians have been playing in bands for decades and they feel familiar, Wild Flag is itself still a very new project. Even for someone like Brownstein, who is in familiar territory. “I feel like this band is very recent and still in its infancy,” she says, “there are still a lot of places to go with it, and there are a lot of things I still don’t know about it.”

Clearly, this is just the beginning for Wild Flag. The members are anxious to move on from this point and explore the band and it’s ultimate potential. “We’re trying to just be present in the band and be in the middle of it. But at the same time, we’re impatient. I really want to have new songs, those are what I love playing live.”

“But,” she adds, “that’s not going to happen between now and San Francisco.”

Wild Flag
With Drew Grow & the Pastors Wives
Fri/4 and Sat/5, 9 p.m., $19
Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell, SF

The awesome video for “Romance”

Poet of dissonance: Anna Moschovakis at Meridian Gallery


I bought Oprah’s O Magazine in March — my first — after learning it had 24 glossy pages to honor (or degrade, depending on how you look at it) National Poetry Month. In the issue, among other things, was a photo spread of eight female poets modeling the latest spring fashion. “Spring Fashion Modeled by Rising Young Poets” was one of those rare occasions when mainstream culture and poetry awkwardly attend the same party. It’s the kind of thing that makes poets and scholars blink in disbelief and send heavy sighs over the Internet. One of the poets featured in O was Anna Moschovakis: the author of two books of poems, a translator, and an editor at Ugly Duckling Presse. (Moschovakis, who lives between Brooklyn and Delaware County, NY, reads at San Francisco’s Meridian Gallery Sat/29.) She was modeling a pink Candela dress ($359) and an Haute Hippie jacket ($995). 

It started something of an Internet brawl.

David Orr for the New York Times: “It’s impossible to say what Moschovakis was thinking during this shoot — I certainly hope one of her thoughts was ‘I better get to keep this damn jacket’.”

Jessica Winter for Slate Magazine: “How have eight lady poets and their outfits managed to put Orr in such a despondent frame of mind?”

Orr’s criticism of Moschovakis was warranted in some respects. Her latest book of poems, You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake (Coffee House Press 2011), which was awarded the 2011 James Laughlin Poetry Prize, is a critique of gluttonous contemporary culture — a culture she arguably sold into.

So, naturally, you do wonder what she was thinking. In the stark, analytical poems that make up You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, Moschovakis assualts materialism, waste, and the internet and repossesses elements of that culture in her poems — Craigslist ads, Wikipedia articles, and MySpace posts — in such a way that proves how demoralizing it can all be. Her style is somewhat similar to Rae Armantrout’s. Both poets are infinitely curious, and not only do they approach each poem with a question, but they often end the poem with a question. There’s rarely a straight answer. Nonetheless, the poems manage to tear down our comfortable preconceptions anyway. Here’s an excerpt from “The Tragedy of Waste”:
Human wants:

First the necklace of bone
then the shift of leather

tea, tobacco, and gambling

in other words

Ten men could live on the corn
where only one can live on the beef

Emily Warn, writing for the Poetry Foundation blog, called Moschovakis to ask her about the feature in O Magazine and to see whether Moschovakis could resolve her “cognitive dissonance.”

Warn writes: “[Moschovakis] asks whether ‘cognitive dissonance’ — mine or Orr’s — is necessarily a bad thing, if it might lead us to be more critical of our assumptions.” In essence, this is what Moschovakis’ poems do: challenge our assumptions. A quote from the poet by her photo in O reads: “Poems allow us to hold two ideas that don’t hold up.”
Perhaps this doesn’t resolve the overwhelming question. I myself cannot say for certain what Moschovakis was thinking. But I enjoy and appreciate her philosophically bent poetry, her austere use of language, and the sense of violence that charges her poems. She is always second-guessing herself and I like that, too. Besides, dark times call for a dark poet like Moschovakis.

With John Sakkis
Sat/29, 7:30 p.m., $10
Meridian Gallery
535 Powell, SF
(415) 398 7229

‘Medical miracle’ Ozzy Osborne at Booksmith


Trust the Prince of Darkness – when it comes to health-matters, Ozzy knows what he’s talking about, and I say that with only a slight hint of sarcasm. The man who once cleaned four bottles of cognac each day, dumped a library of pharmaceuticals into his system, and was banned for a decade from San Antonio, Texas, for drunkenly urinating on the Alamo, is today a vegetarian on a diet of rice and beans, a regular exerciser, and sober, sober, sober. For the last year roughly, Ozzy (with the help of Chris Ayres who co-authored his memoir, I Am Ozzy) has been writing a hit column for Rolling Stone and the Sunday Times, answering questions about everything from hangovers, bedbugs, bad breath, love, and parenting with ribald humor, frankness, and lots of personal experience to reference.

In a new book, Trust Me, I’m Doctor Ozzy: Advice from Rock’s Ultimate Survivor (Grand Central 2011, Hardcover, $26.99), Ozzy and Chris Ayres collect the best of those columns, and on Saturday, Oct. 22, at 3 p.m., the Prince of Darkness himself comes to Booksmith in Upper Haight for a book signing. Bring on the doom!

Trust Me, I’m Doctor Ozzy is full of other zany stuff, too, like charts, quizzes, historic facts (“longest-ever attack of hiccups went on for 68 years–68 fucking years man!..”), and longer memoir like chapters such as the one about Ozzy getting his genome mapped. In 2010, an editor at the Sunday Times called Ozzy to tell him some scientists wanted to map his genome, because he was a “medical miracle.” Ozzy supposedly agreed after learning a disease might get named after him. Ozzy learned a few things after his genome was mapped, like that he was close cousins to Stephen Colbert, related to Jesse James, and they found 300,000 variations that they hadn’t seen before, like a gene that rapidly metabolizes alcohol.

So what does advice sound like from Ozzy Osbourne? Well, if you wanted to know how to, say, recover from jet-lag, Ozzy suggests “staying at fucking home.”

3 p.m., Free
The Booksmith
1644 Haight, SF

Haunting the lens: Ralph Eugene Meatyard at the de Young


Photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972) is an anomaly. There’s little consensus about the nature of his work beyond its unusualness. Throughout the late 1950s and 60s, Meatyard drove his wife and kids to dilapidated farm houses outside Lexington, Kent., where he used them as models for his photographs. He adorned them with cheap masks and accessorized the settings with broken mannequins, mutilated dolls, and other props that he would obtain from thrift shops and junkyards. He ultimately created a series of heavily shadowed, black and white photos that are chilling (but sentimental), surreal (but in an everyday sort of way), and at times, plain weird (I guess?)

Needless to say, the series is not an obvious one. “Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks,” now showing at the de Young through February, collects 60 of the photos from that period — all of them not much larger than a CD case. But even the museum is ambivalent about explaining the work to visitors. They refer to quotes from Meatyard and have them by certain photos hoping they might shed some light. They mention, for instance, how Meatyard cited Zen Buddhism as an influence, and that he turned the idea of the family photo on it’s head. In truth, though, Meatyard was notoriously silent about how his work should be viewed. Guy Davenport, a close friend of Meatyard’s, said in the nine years he knew Meatyard, his friend  said relatively little about his work: “He never instructed one how to see, or how to interpret the pictures, or what he might have intended.” Virtually all of the photographs in “Dolls and Masks” are untitled, too, which certainly makes the tour guide’s job difficult. “I will try my best to answer your questions,” I heard one guide say, overcome.

However, one influence that’s often mentioned and that does seem to ring true about Meatyard’s work is literature. Meatyard was a devoted reader (he even read while driving), had an immense library, and walked in the same circles as writers and poets; it seems, to a certain extent, the reason why it’s difficult to narrow down what the photos in “Dolls and Masks” are doing is because they aren’t necessarily exploring a theme, an idea, posing a question, or trying to evoke a particular sensation or response. Rather, Meatyard imagined an entire world with these photos as though he’d written a story, in the same way Lewis Carroll imagined a world in Alice in Wonderland and Franz Kafka evoked one in The Trial or The Castle. In Meatyard’s so-called world, it’s normal for people to be wearing hideous masks and wandering outside abandoned buildings with mutilated dolls; so that, in fact, the masks and props are secondary to understanding the work.

This makes the series as rich and elaborate as a novel, and it’s why it can be all the aforementioned things at once: chilling, surreal, sentimental, commonplace … etc. Collectively, they are like illustrations for an unwritten story, perhaps a children’s story. Occasion for Diriment, for instance, one of the few titled photos within “Dolls and Masks” that combines the words “Dire” and “Merriment” (something, of course, Carroll was known to do), shows two kids in the dark, one wearing a cartoonish mask, jumping up in the air and pounding their chests. The photo is not haunting, but instead, speaks to the spirit of childhood, like a scene out of Peter Pan. The same could be said of one of Meatyard’s more famous untitled photos, which shows a shirtless boy standing in a doorway and holding a mannaquin’s hand. It recalls the lost boys.

“I remember thinking that here was a photographer who might illustrate the ghost stories of Henry James,” Davenport wrote. Meatyard’s work suggests he could have illustrated James and more: Edgar Allen Poe, for instance, or even some poems by Samuel Coleridge (I’d appreciate an illustration of “The Devil’s Thoughts”). But Meatyard died of cancer in 1972 at the age of 46, shortly after the photos in “Dolls and Masks” were taken. And, as has always been the case with his photography, in life and posthumously, Meatyard will hold a relatively quiet and humble place in the museum.

“Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks”

Through Feb. 26, 2012

de Young Museum

50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., Golden Gate Park, SF


Notes from the indie underground: the ATA Film Festival


For more reviews from the sixth ATA Film and Video Festival, check out this week’s film listings. The fest kicks off tonight with an opening reception.

Piena En Mi Alexandra Cuesta’s short film “Piena En Mi” is an impressionistic portrait of Los Angeles, where, in addition to Quito, Ecuador, the filmmaker lives and works. Primarily shot from a bus that traverses the sprawling metropolitan, the film is told with the the city’s different neighborhoods, its sounds, and its patchwork of ethnic groups. It’s an honest portrait of  LA — economically depressed in most places, polluted, congested – but beautiful, nonetheless, and unapologetic. Cuesta treats her city with tenderness and it renders her film graceful and intimate. It’s sensitive to the very subtlties that make LA radiate with character, whether it’s odd haircuts, dirty bus windows, or bells on an ice cream carriage. It’s in these shots that the filmmaker’s background in street photography shows, and make it a highlight of the ATA festival. Program One, “City Symphonies”
Imperceptihole Vivid and atmospheric, “Imperceptihole” is a high contrast, black & white film by Lori Felker and Robert Todd. Developed from a correspondence wherein the two filmmakers exchanged film rolls, “Imperceptihole” is shot between desolate woods, a hay bail structure, an ice skating rink, and several other seemingly random places. Using sychzophrenic pans, transparent shots, breathing and harsh grating sounds that gradually intensify, the film creates the sensation of a deep, hair-raising descent. It’s the camerawork that builds up this sensation, which is either swinging, crawling, sprinting or dead still. And it’s that very camerawork that is most impressive about the film. Vaguely disquieting, the film is initially very stimulating, but in light of its ambiguity, rather too long. Over the course of the fourteen minutes,  the visual experience is lost and you’re wondering what it’s all about. Program One, “City Symphonies”

Workers Leaving the Googleplex While working for a company called TransVideo, Andrew Wilson was subcontracted by Google to work at its Silicon Valley headquarters where he started an investigation into the company’s class structure and what the different colored badges worn by employees represented. “I found the social situation interesting,” he says in the film. He became particularly interested in the yellow badge wearers, employees who are denied most of the Google benefits such as bikes and gourmet meals. Wilson’s investigation led him into conflict with Google when he was caught filming the yellow badge wearers in the parking lot and trying to interview them. Ultimately, he was fired from TransVideo. Wilson’s film is an interesting look at class as well as an honest personal story, and an inside look at the workings of one of America’s most powerful companies. It’s a story you could very well have heard on “This American Life.” Program Two, “Sling-Shots”

“ATA Film and Video Festival”

Opening reception Wed/19, 7 p.m

Short film screenings Thurs/20 (“City Symphonies”) and Fri/21 (“Sling-Shots”), 8 p.m.

Super 8 film workshop, Sun/23 and Nov. 12, 1-4 p.m., free-$35

Artists’ Television Access
992 Valencia, SF

Get lit! A handy guide to Saturday night’s LitCrawl


LitQuake has been rough. You’ve been dashing out of work, shoving people away from their cabs to make it to the Chuck Klosterman event and sprinting after buses to catch Karen Russell; you’ve had to make the hard decision between “Kafkaesque” and “Rock Out with your Book Out;” and all the while, you keep thinking Jeffrey Eugenides has just passed you on the street. With LitCrawl coming up Sat/15, things become even more overwhelming and terrific. In the Mission, bars, cafes, and bookstores together host 450 readers in 79 readings, all free and open to the public. One way to navigate the event might be to pick your favorite bar or cafe, find a chair, order a drink and wait for something to happen. Or, you can check these readings out:
I Live Here: SF. How We Got Here, Why We Stay
Not a lot of us can say we were born and raised in San Francisco. Most of us fled here from elsewhere for one reason or another: failed relationships, parents kicked you out, a nervous breakdown, a mid-life crisis, you formed an indie-rock band. Maybe you came for LoveFest and simply forgot whom you were. There are a thousand reasons for arriving and a thousand more for staying. In Clarion Alley, writers and non-writers alike including Mark Bittner and M.C. Mars talk about what brought them here and why they haven’t budged. 6 p.m., Clarion Alley, between Mission and Valencia, and 17th and 18th Sts, SF

BARTab’s Blame it on the a a a a a Alcohol: Tall Tales of Inebriated Adventures
Alcohol and writers have always had a vital, if tumultuous relationship. Hemingway said that when you worked in your head day after grueling day, the only viable remedy was whiskey; that “The only time it isn’t good for you is when you write or when you fight. You have to do that cold.” Luckily, a drunken night can become a source of inspiration, if not the next morning, sometime when you’re “cold.” At this reading, writers like Daphne Gottlieb, Jon Ginoli, Brenda Knight, and the editor of BARtab, Joe Provenzano, read about nights of drunken debauchery. 6 p.m., Martuni’s, 4 Valencia, SF
Come Cheer the Reaper: Readings from the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto
The San Francisco Writers’ Grotto was founded because, dammit, this writing business can be agonizing, but it’s more manageable when others surround you with whom you can collectively suffer. Convening at the Elbo Room for a night of readings tied around death, you might think that collectively suffering wasn’t working out so well for the Grotto. However, tonight is not a night for morbidity and gloom. Nine writers, including Janis Cooke Newman, Marianna Cherry, Gerard Jones, and Chris Colin read work that looks at death with humor and lightheartedness. 7:15 p.m., Elbo Room, 647 Valencia, SF
The Three-Penny Review Presents…
The Three-Penny Review, based out of Berkeley, would naturally host a night of premium writers at LitCrawl. The journal has been hosting the best authors, poets, and critics in its pages since 1980, and it publishes reviews and essays about everything under the sun (their recent issue features 3 great essays about live music). A good way to gauge the journal’s breath is looking at tonight’s lineup at the Summit. Kay Ryan is, of course, the former Poet Laureate of the U.S. and the Pulitzer Prize winner for The Best of It: New and Selected Poems; Walter Murch is a three-time Oscar-winning film and sound editor famous for his work on Apocalypse Now and The English Patient; Louis B. Jones is an author whose most recent novel is Radiance. Others tonight are poet Victoria Chang and the playwright and screenwriter Erik Tarloff. 7:15 p.m., Summit, 760 Valencia, SF
Zyzzyva Presents…
If you’ve taken a look at the West Coast writers and artists magazine Zyzzyva lately, you probably noticed some substantial changes: a new design, a full color art spread, an additional 40 pages of content. The changes are credited to the magazine’s first new editor since its founding in 1985, Laura Cogan. At 29, Cogan has breathed new life into the magazine and given it more presence in the community by doing, among other things, events like this one. Contributors to the fall issue of the magazine W.S. Di Piero and Troy Jollimore are joined by Heather Altfeld, and Malena Watrous. 7:15 p.m., Blue Macaw, 2565 Mission, SF
From Buddha to Batman
If you’re a fan of comic superheroes and also have a costume you’re dying to wear before Halloween, this event is most certainly for you. Gotham Chopra, co-founder of Liquid Comics and co-author of the comic Bullet Proof Monk, discusses our persistent fascination with muscles, spandex, super powers, and sidekicks. If you’re one of the first 20 to arrive to the event in a superhero costume, you get a free drink, while the best three costumes win signed books. 8:30 p.m., Laszlo Bar, 2526 Mission, SF

McSweeny’s and The Believer Present…
McSweeny’s and The Believer need no introduction. They are of what they are, and everyone knows that, together, the publisher and magazine support the very best writing. This event features a handful of those talent writers and personalities: poets Matthew Zapruder and Tess Taylor, columnist Daniel Handler (known by some as Lemony Snicket), and Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz, founders of Mission Street Food, and authors of the book Mission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas from an Improbable Restaurant. 8:30 p.m., Latin American Club, 3286 22nd St., SF

The World Cries Out for Revolution
Some, like the protestors defiantly camping outside the Federal Reserve Building for OccupySF, get their voices heard by taking to the streets. Others, like us at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, stir things up with the written word. You can see this every week in the articles written by our own Steven T. Jones (check out his article on the pot club crackdowns in this week’s issue). At Cafe La Boheme, Jones reads in the spirit of dissent with former Black Panther Richard Brown, as well as Larry Everest, the author of Oil Power & Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda.
8:30 p.m., Cafe La Boheme, 3318 24th St., SF

City Lights celebrates a vital, veteran publisher


The avant-garde publisher New Directions was founded in 1936, but the idea was borne two years earlier when Ezra Pound gave some fairly harsh advice to James Laughlin, a 22-year-old aspiring poet and Harvard undergrad. In 1934, Laughlin was ambitious enough to travel to Rapallo, Italy, to meet and study under Pound, who was by that time a fascist and outspoken anti-Semite, but still respected by young writers as the force behind Eliot, Joyce, and Hemingway, as well as Imagism, the movement he helped shape. After two months, though, Pound didn’t think Laughlin possessed enough talent, and told him to return to the states and “do something useful.”
Three quarters of a century later, “useful” hardly describes New Directions (which will be celebrated Tues/11 at City Lights Books) and its dedication to publishing eccentric and groundbreaking work, beginning with the likes of Dylan Thomas, Denise Levertov, Tennessee Williams, and Marianne Moore, and continuing today with contemporaries like László Krasznahorkai and Javier Marías.

Birds, Beasts, and Seas: Nature Poems from New Directions (New Directions Publishing, 191 pages, $14.95) testifies to that dedication. Published to commemorate its 75th anniversary this year, and edited by the poetry editor, Jeffrey Yang, the anthology draws from the New Directions’ exhaustive archive, piling together over 140 poets of every nationality, period, and style into a handsome little book. Arranged chronologically by date of birth, and spanning from antiquity to the present, the anthology explores the vastly different ways poets have responded to nature: worshipping it, vilifying it, and bemoaning its loss. As luck would have it, four contributors to the anthology will read at City Lights to commemorate New Directions’ anniversary: Michael Palmer, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Nathaniel Tarn.
As conventional or even dry as an anthology of nature poems may sound, Birds, Beasts, and Seas is impressive simply because New Directions’ specialty has always been renegades, rejects, and intransigents. It’s an anthology of nature poems, of course, but the poems are by no means characteristic of the genre. They are, however, characteristic of New Directions. Several of the poets here are rarely anthologized at all, and stumbling onto them is like bumping into old friends suddenly back from oblivion. William Bronk, for instance, whose poem “Aspects of the World Like Coral Reefs” dismantles science and asserts “It is absurd to describe the world in sensible terms;” or French poet Saint John Perse, Chilean poet Vincente Huidobro, and some of the very poets reading at City Lights on Tuesday, like Nathaniel Tarn whose brooding poem from “The Fire Season” wouldn’t appear in your typical nature anthology:
Our pines continue to die and continue to die—
funeral carpets of needles around their base.
You could sleep there, you could suffocate
soundly and be in harmony with all of nature.
Editor Yang writes in the preface that nature poems could change our way of thinking about the environment, and while Yang’s faith in the poem is admirable (however naive), the most anyone can really expect from Birds, Beasts, and Seas is an anthology that, at its finest moments, is new and invigorating.

New Directions Publishing 75th Anniversary
Tues/11, 7 p.m., free
City Lights
261 Columbus, SF