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.