Saturday, April 06, 2013

"Small Jean Genie snuck into the City..." (or, D.B. in S.F.)

All the recent hoohah about David Bowie's (not unenjoyable) return to the pop culture arena made me think of a chance remark a friend once made, pertaining to a Bowie song from his Ziggy Stardust '70s heyday.  Quite a primo example of a mondegreen, in fact. 

You all know what a mondegreen is, right?  'Excuse me while I kiss this guy.'  'There's a bathroom on the right.'  That sort of thing.  

This particular one, however, had more than a bit of perhaps unintentional local historical truth. It's from the Aladdin Sane track 'Cracked Actor'

Musically, it's one of those souped-up Yardbirds/British R&B knockoffs Bowie was fond of back then.  The lyric, however, with its seedy recounting of a liaison between an aging Hollywood film star and his male hustler/junkie booty call of the night, led it to being banned by my then favorite Washington DC 'free-form rock' radio station upon Aladdin Sane's release.

In any case, this friend misheard part of the lyric being "You've caught yourself a trick down on Sunset and Vine/but since he pinned you, baby, you're on Polk and Pine..." The actual lyric being ..."since he pinned're a porcupine".

Unintentional or not, my friend - having lived in San Francisco since back when Bowie/Ziggy was making such a big noise -  can be forgiven for making such a mistake.   

Long before the neighborhood of The Castro - formerly known as Eureka Valley - became international shorthand for 'gay Mecca', the main energy center for San Francisco's homosexual demimonde was the area known as Polk Gulch.  Roughly the stretch of downtown's Polk Street between Geary Boulevard and Sacramento Street, there could be found any number of clubs, bars and restaurants catering to and frequented by a gay clientele during the 1970's.

The intersection of Polk and Pine alone was well known for three gay-specific businesses.   The Palms Cafe was a relatively classy restaurant and live music club, at one point hiring a young artist and aspiring musician named Michael Cotten to paint murals on its walls - he later became an original member of The Tubes 

Kimo's (1351 Polk Street), which opened in 1978, consisted of a small downstairs dive bar and an equally intimate upstairs area which hosted drag shows.  Kimo's later became known as a showcase venue for countless fledgling Punk and Metal bands. Metallica  played a secret show there (under the name Spun) in 2002. 

Your blogger also witnessed a fantastic gig there in 2000 by The Triple Gang, performing the entire This Nation's Saving Grace album by Mark E. Smith and The (Mighty) Fall.  Strictly a one-off assemblage, Triple Gang included drummer Jon Weiss (then of local rockers Horsey, later with Ween) and Billy Gould, bassist of Faith No More (who more recently collaborated with This Heat drummer Charles Hayward, among others, to create a most stunning, potent instrumental disc, City of Quartz, under the name House of Hayduk.)

Kimo's unfortunately closed in 2012 after years of dealing with noise complaints from neighbors, and is now a more gentrified establishment known as Playland.  

Right around the corner and still going strong after all these years, though, is the Grubstake diner (1525 Pine Street), well entrenched as a favored after-hours destination for late night revelers, layabout street rats and tweakers to get their nosh on.

Bringing things back to Bowie, some significant events occurred for him here in San Francisco. Bowie and the Spiders from Mars debuted over two nights in October 1972, at the famed Winterland Ballroom/Arena (corner of Post and Steiner Streets, in the Fillmore/Japantown district). Also on the bill were Flo and Eddie, and local sensation Sylvester with his Hot Band.  

Despite the serious buzz Ziggy Stardust was creating, Bowie was only able to draw around 500 spectators to the 5,400-capacity Winterland.  He reportedly shrugged it off afterwards - telling confidants that "San Francisco doesn't need me when they've got Sylvester" - but was clearly stung by the low turnout, enough to exclude the Bay Area as a U.S. tour stop until his Station To Station tour in 1976. 

More successful in terms of furthering Ziggy's name was Bowie's decision to shoot a promotional film while in town for his upcoming single, 'The Jean Genie'.  Directed by iconic photographer Mick Rock and made in one day for allegedly $350, the clip featured performance footage of Bowie and the Spiders shot during both the Winterland engagement and in an actual photo studio.  

Of more local interest, however, were the brief bits Rock and Bowie also shot outside the South of Market flophouse known as the Mars Hotel.  Bowie, in full Ziggy finery, is seen lounging and smoking against a corner of the hotel building, as a young blonde chickadee struts and vamps along the sidewalk before him.  

The blonde in question was part of Bowie's Mainman entourage, one Cyrinda Foxe, soon to become notorious as the girlfriend of David Johansen and subsequently Steven Tyler.  'Jean Genie' was released as a single in November 1972, ultimately reaching #2 on the UK charts and #71 in America.

The Mars Hotel, located at 192 4th Street at the corner of 4th and Howard in the SOMA (South of Market) area of downtown San Francisco, is of course also legendary as having provided the cover and name for the Grateful Dead disc From The Mars Hotel, released in June of 1974.  The hotel was demolished in the 1980's, during the redevelopment that made possible the construction of such buildings as the George Moscone Convention Center, the Metreon Center shopping complex, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.