Saturday, December 11, 2010

'16th And Valencia Roxy Music' (Devendra Banhart)

"Riding six white horses/Wearing pressed blue jeans/Gonna behead the king/And give the queen everything/Cause tonight, we're gonna find our lover/Tonight, we're gonna find our man/We don't know where to go (We know where to go)/We don't know what to do (we know what to do)...I know I look high/But I'm just freak dancing/ I know I look hypnotized/But I'm just table-tapping/Cause tonight, we ain't gonna find our lover/Tonight, we ain't gonna find our man..."
The intersect of 16th and Valencia Streets in SF's Mission District has been jumping for far longer than I've lived here, perhaps even beyond that. The 16th Street end claims blocks comprising such watering holes as Delirium which, in its late 80's/early 90's life as The Albion, harbored a lively microscene of local performance artists and folk-tinted rockers within its backroom. Poetry performances still occasionally take place in adjacent bars like Dalva and Gestalt, and even joints like sidewalk luncheon spot Ti Couz.
Another venerable attraction is the comfortably musty Adobe Books, once host to an art project formed by organizing the shop's collected stock by the colors on their spines. And while Dr. Bombay's (infamous for its Pixie Piss house specialty) has departed the 'hood, the Roxie Theater - the City's premier repertory showcase - still packs in discerning movie fans and psychotronic trash hounds alike.
Meanwhile, the perpendicular Valencia side is somewhat tamer than it was in the days when the legendary Deaf Club punk dive rocked the block. Geegaw gifteries and boutiques better suited to a Melrose crowd have crept in, neighbored by older, more budget-conscious mainstays like the Muddy Waters Coffeehouse and longtime taqueria fave La Cumbre. Much like the daily stew of Latinos and Anglos, working class and loft dwellers, crackheads and greedheads that flows along its sidewalks, the businesses here maintain and reflect a sort of resigned coexistence.
I have yet to spot Devendra Banhart strolling 16th and Valencia, although I have seen him all the way across town and closer to GG Park, wandering amidst the Asian markets and dim sum houses found on Clement Street (as well as one of the City's best printed-word dealers, Green Apple Books), sometimes in the company of minstrel pal and Avenues resident Andy Cabic from the group Vetiver.
Banhart is very much a polarizing artist, and I can understand aspects of why people both like and loathe him and his music. The positive, neohippie outlook of his personality - as expressed in interviews and in performance - can be as offputting as the enthusiasm and restlessness with which he embraces a wide spectrum of musical influence is exciting and attractive.
Yet if one is open to it, there are gems scattered amongst Banhart's output thus far, of which '16th And Valencia Roxy Music' - from his 2009 major label debut What Will We Be - is a personal favorite.
For all the 'freak-folk', Old Weird arcane agrarian hoohah that's been kicked up in Banhart's wake, this song was a genuine surprise. A chugging, honest-to-goodness Pop Song, it fizzes in the way a properly constructed and executed, contemporary pop/rock nugget should. Banhart's feline purr, so often compared to Marc Bolan, for once does that comparison justice within this brightly shaded setting.
And if the cutesy, locally colored pun perhaps adds to the ammo of Banhart deriders, it's actually appropriate, given that the song inverts the scenario found on Ferry and cohorts' classic 'Love Is The Drug'.
For instead of charting the successful catching of that love buzz, this song's hero may start off optimistic about the potential pleasures of the Mission, but in Banhart's twist, ends up in that all too common date-night state: dissipated and empty-pocketed, with testicles the color of robin's eggs.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

'Mission In The Rain' (Emory Joseph)

'Ten years ago I walked this street, my dreams were riding tall/Tonight I would be thankful Lord, for any dreams at all/Some folks would be happy just to have one dream come true/But everything you gather is just more that you can lose/All the things I planned to do, I only did half way/Tomorrow will be Sunday, born of rainy Saturday/There's some satisfaction in the San Francisco rain/No matter what comes down, the Mission always looks the same/walking along in the Mission in the rain..." (lyric by Robert Hunter)

It's a late October Sunday here, and the rain has been steadily pissing down for the past 24 or so hours. Which in certain parts of town that are home to sports bars, or any bar with a TV really, will help wash away whatever technicolor effluence collected in the curbs and sidewalks outside such estabs last night, commemorating the Giants' playoff win.

But today promises to be sobering and depressingly damp, which gives me the perfect excuse to put up this song. Not for its associations with a certain 'legendary' local group (and we promise our dear readers not to make a habit of it). More really for this particular version by a more contemporary local singer/songster.

Emory Joseph capably captures the mixed emotions, the mope and magic, about spending a day out in the rain, head full of insecure plans and dreams, with no special purpose but to absorb the vibe of the storefronts and enduring culture of the Mission District.

(listen to excerpt or dl)

Official website:

(And for a more detailed personal view of the Mission... a piece by yours truly, from the great UK ezine Tangents)
'Paradise Found In A Lost Weekend'

Sunday, August 01, 2010

‘Russian Hill’ (Jellyfish)

“I dreamt about a tranquil Sunday drive/A sensory lullaby/We trade the comics, cartoons, and magazines/For pistons and gasoline/…Past cathedrals filled with God's favorite guests/Dirty hands feel clean when dressed in their Sunday best/Tree-lined village oh so heavenly/Cross a bridge of gold to landscapes of juniper/Watch the clouds turn into faces, it's fun to play/Shift the gears for years and age a single day/Until we spill/onto Russian Hill…”

By the summer of 1993 I had been living in San Francisco for little over a year, and not exactly having the best time of it. With no dayjobs attainable, I had signed onto the city’s GA (for General Assistance) program.

A last resort for the underclass of the city, GA provided twice-monthly stipends that were still never enough to maintain steady room and board. Usually it covered a week at one of the downtown firetrap flophouses along Sixth Street (‘at the corner of Crack and Drive-By’, as a local stand-up comic and onetime fellow resident put it).

When inevitably kicked out, I’d sleep in friends’ cars, or in the camouflaging bushes of Golden Gate Park. I’d also busk in the Upper Haight, making enough to afford my then staple diet of microwave burritos and 40-ouncers, basically toughing it out until the next GA check arrived.

Among the reasons I moved to S.F. was to somehow get in on the local music scene, and in the year I’d been here managed to get sufficiently up to speed to be conversant. The big commercial buzz in town at the time was being generated by two groups. One was a hard-rocking clique of Mission/Lower Haight party girls called 4 Non-Blondes. They were led by your proverbial little lady with a big voice, the floppy-hatted, exotically inked Linda Perry.

The other was a quartet of flamboyantly attired power-poppers known as Jellyfish. The latter band was disdained by the local community for the pompish excesses of their tunes. This, combined with their candy-colored Krofft Brothers/Seuss/West Coast rave look, put me off more than a bit on first hearing/viewing. Later immersions that revealed a deft flair for harmonies involving the entire group, along with solid live covers of chestnuts from Badfinger and the Move, softened my opinion somewhat.

One rare sunny midsummer Sunday afternoon, while lolling around the Panhandle with that day’s 40 and burrito, I heard Jellyfish’s song “Russian Hill” (from their latest and, as it happened, final disc Spilt Milk) on KUSF, the University of S.F.’s FM station. It made quite the impression, conjuring an atmosphere that fit the moment.

Based in a slow guitar strum, like a major-key take on Nick Drake’s "River Man", on a drifting cushion of strings, flutes and ghostly Garcia pedal steel, lead singer and (Moe Tucker-like standup) drummer Andy Sturmer relates a dream.

Driving from town across the GG Bridge into the Headlands of Marin County, then back to where the infamous downgrade of Lombard Street and Armistead Maupin's fictional Barbary Lane both reside.

Only in the final verse does Sturmer discover, on awakening, that he’d been at his title destination all along. Or maybe not.

That day, with all the nonsense occupying my mind, thoughts and fears of future survival, “Russian Hill” helped restore (for a time lasting the length of the song, anyway) my fantasies and ambitions towards making as proper a home here as I possibly could.

Since then, Andy Sturmer has been a major player in the career of J-pop duo Puffy AmiYumi. His Jellyfish partner Roger Manning has done records like The Moog Cookbook. Linda Perry of 4 Non-Blondes, meanwhile, is now a for-hire songwriter for other little girls with big voices - close, but no Ellie Greenwich.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

'Get It Right' (Rhon Silva aka Fillmore Slim)

California-based record label Stones Throw has blessed fans of vintage funk, soul and hiphop with many a choice salvage effort over the years. First I was aware of was their Funky 16 Corners collection, which still sounds effortlessly danceable and groove imbued, and seeing there‘s at least one blog in Cyberspace which shares its name with this disc, I’m clearly not alone in my altogether high opinion.

ST mainmen
Egon, Peanut Butter Wolf and cohorts do have an unassailable gift for pulling some serious gems from the landfill of regional music history, be it national or worldwide; check out ST's recent Eastern European funk collections (yes, you read right).

It's been a cratedigger's delight to witness the exemplary work in the salvage field that ST and labels like the Numero Group and Light In The Attic have been doing. Now another company, Now Again, seems to be stepping up, given the evidence of their recently released California Funk anthol.

It compiles twenty-one cuts from small independent North and South Cali-based labels, primarily from the early 70’s. Local combos drawing from the wellsprings of
JB, Sly, Marvin, barrio jams, recorded mostly on the cheap, with 7-inchers hawked out of car trunks or on card tables in the back of clubs these groups frequented on the weekends. Quite the haul of superfine funky wax, Golden State variety, to be sure.

Favorite cuts change from day to day, as they do: one day it might be King Saloman’s pinpoint satire 'Politician Rag', another day John Heartsman's smooth Lou Rawls knockoff. Or maybe this almost New Wave-anticipating instrumental workout, 'Smokin’ Tidbits' by the Edwards Generation. But right now I’m especially taken with
Rhon Silva’s horndog inner city S.F. travelogue 'Get it Right'.

Raggedy, conga-driven hucklebuck/Funky Broadway propulsion powers our man’s nocturnal creep. Silva starts off in the Haight-Ashbury, making sure to load up on ‘
some sike-a-delic guitar…doin’ it hippie style, y’all’ (and it‘s true, albeit more of a BB King meets Jorma six string thing). Proceeding down hilly Hayes Street and Van Ness Avenue into the Tenderloin, in his Eldorado Biarritz, leaning on the armrest, Silva’s cruising and looking for his baby. There is no doubt, with that car, with that musical backdrop, that he'll find who he's looking for.

Further research reveals that this guy definitely knew his way around this city’s less genteel zones in his time. Rhon Silva is in fact the recording pseudonym (one of a few, in fact) taken by a gent better known as
Fillmore Slim, right around then one of the City’s most notorious pimps. He even showed up in a 1999 documentary called American Pimp.

Long out of that business after time in prison, Slim still plays music, as a regular performer in local blues joints like the formerly John Lee Hooker-approved Boom Boom Room.

Regardless of that outcome, ‘Get It Right’ is a 7” slice of Bay Area life that I’d bet both Max Julien
and Ron O’Neal would have approved of.

Friday, June 04, 2010

‘San Francisco’s Doomed’ (CRIME)

Spring to fall of 1976 was, ah um, eventful personally speaking. One of the most zeitgeistically savvy pals I was lucky enough to hang with at the time was a gent named Kim Kane.

Kim sported jet black, waist length hair and a Ming/Manchu beard atop a tubercular, mantis-like frame, and when it came to rock and roll, the real stuff, he was a true believer and avid proselytizer. Kim played guitar in the Slickee Boys, one of pitifully few bands in the Washington DC area to even acknowledge a world beyond early dinosaur arena tarpit fillers, Southern boogie and prog-rock, never mind disco.

People who were interested in the same sort of music and cultural impulse found each other, if not quickly, eventually during those days. The guys (and girl) that comprised Kim’s band did and, in the process, even connected with management: a DJ on the Georgetown University FM station feeding diverse outsider musical lifeblood to us with ears (and the gray matter between them) to listen up.

Many afternoons, and a few evenings after getting off from my wage slave gig at a local ice cream parlor, were spent over at chez Kane in Bethesda, Md., up in Kim‘s attic bedroom. There he gladly turned me on to countless sounds from a ginormous record collection: everything from rare 60's Asian garage combos and backwoods Southern rockabilly, to the newly revitalizing rock coming from Boston, New York, London and elsewhere.

One day I fell by his place and, as usual on my visits, Kim wasted no time in throwing a 45 on his battered component turntable, and its picture sleeve in my face. “You won’t believe these guys! They’re from San Francisco, one’s called Frankie Fix and another guy’s Johnny Strike!”

The room soon exploded in a sound like flick knives mating in an aluminum trashcan, with Johnny? Frankie? pouting out words that I only deciphered bit by bit. Something about tribulation and the radio; maybe a reference to that Ramones group Kim had gone to see a month before. Then Johnny and Frankie and the rest of their droogy, hoodie gang with guitars spat out the title phrase a few times, before retreating back to their highstrung mung.

We both sat there, Kim and I, listening to ‘Hot Wire My Heart’ by CRIME (for it was they), mouths agape. 'Gob smacked’, as the Brits say. Holy crap, we blurted to each other in delighted amazement, what a mess, the guitars barely sound in tune, the drums aren’t even in time till the chorus…

Play that again. No, both sides.

Revered and reviled by all strata of Bay Area music fans, CRIME were everything a rock group should be: they didn’t give a flying, dressed great, and played loud, obnoxious, unforgettable beat noise.

Theirs was a strain of sonic virulence that could only have slinked out of a San Francisco that was (and remains) convivial to Tenderloin trash and South Of Market sleaze. Definitely not a sound that could have emanated from the miniature wetlands of Mill Valley, or the hot-tub nouveau riche playground of Marin.

‘San Francisco’s Doomed’ was one of many CRIME anthems (some would say all CRIME songs were anthems of a sort). As with those few rock songs that count as truly stellar, it’s difficult to make out most of the words, which only throws into relief how the clatter and raucousness of the music expresses all that the words don’t. Utterly vile. And utterly fantastic.

Johnny Strike and CRIME are still around, as this accompanying clip of them doing the song in question ably documents. So is Kim Kane. Both gentlemen deserve to be held in the utmost contrarian cultural esteem.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

'I'm Always Drunk In San Francisco'

Fall 2005: So it came to pass (at least, once upon a time) I found a job at a local sightseeing tour company. On Fisherman’s freakin Wharf no less.

‘The epicenter of culture in SF’, as a deeply knowing, gifted local social satirist, Johnny Steele, once ironically though accurately observed.

Trust me and Johnny, out of townie folks, Fisherman’s Wharf is the last place to go; the last stop as a foreign tourist to do nothing but load up on ephemeral geegaws to take back or send to the family back home.

That said, there are a few halfway decent seafood restaurants along the piers (I recommend Alioto’s), as well as wondrous secret places like the Musee Mechanique, with its array of vintage coin-operated devices offering nothing but fun and a chance to be transported to childhood for awhile.

So it was there I toiled and earned somewhat of a living for awhile, taking photos of riders, haggling with potential tour goers when the impending motorized cablecar bus was already full to capacity, regularly hearing their standard bleating inquiry: ‘So…how long is the two hour trip?’

What lessened the tension and stress were those tour guides blaring tunes off their vehicles to attract the
touristas. One older and most adept tour guide would play a cd mix of one of the more locally relevant classics of sorts, your Tony Bennett and whatnot.

Given his visible enjoyment of his job (which I would only feel on, oh, the third day of each week), I trusted his judgment. In fact, he was responsible for turning me on to a song I’d never heard before.

“I’m Always Drunk In San Francisco” is a silky as sin blues number, written by one Tommy Wolf. Wolf was a pop songwriting lifer who also had a hand in neon cocktail lounge jazz chestnuts like “Spring Can Hang You Up the Most”. It’s a minor but known choon that’s been covered by folks like Carmen McRae and Nancy Wilson.

If nothing else, it’s possessed of an absotively
killer punch line, which makes me think of the morning after times, the mornings of sun glare, hunger and corporeal truth…that call to mind the initial urge of what brought me here to SF in the first.

In specificity, of one night outside the City’s Punchline comedy club to see another worthy, intelligently funny performer and ace social commentator, Will Durst.

I stood outside after his set, having a smoke and absorbing the illuminated buildings surrounding and shielding on the close side of midnight, rising above downtown, reinforcing its skyline.

I was moved to blurt, to no one really, ‘this is why I moved here, what’s precious about this town’.

Behind me, I heard the voice of Mr. Durst himself say, ‘me too’.

"I'm Always Drunk In San Francisco":

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

By Way of Intro

This is intended to be a blog inspired by the blogs THE NEW YORK NOBODY SINGS and its across-the-pond response from veteran UK fanzine maven and wordsmith Kevin Pearce, THE LONDON NOBODY SINGS.

Posts to follow very shortly. Hope you enjoy...

ML Heath/san francisco/march 16 2010