Still more San Francisco cultural lifelines
November, Year Four: so call me Tennessee Ernie, slowest milkman in the West. For eight months older and deeper in muck, more by will than judgment, here am I. Call it writer's block, call it literary laryngitis - hell, call it late for supper; this summer found your reporter uninterested in writing much of anything, preferring to submit to a regimen of bone idle laziness. In between occasional dribs and (usually) drabs to maintain cash flow, it was all too easy to sit back and read other people's seemingly more succinct and eloquent opinions of the passing parade. One quick gander at the amount of online blogs in operation is all it takes to show there's a lot of people convinced you're entitled to their worldview. This surfeit of info only served to winnow away at what creative self-confidence I hang onto, like a meager lifeline keeping me tethered to what I clock as vital and worthwhile in the Outside World. Guess I was concerned that I not contribute more to this inverted tower of cyber-babble. Showoff, fool, subterranean retard, what makes you think your words are of value to the world? But then, I kept thinking of what the great Adele Bertei said this summer here in San Fran, at a reading she gave of excerpts from a forthcoming, semi-autobiographic novel. Adele said the biggest lesson she's had to learn, after all these years in the artistic trenches, is that A Writer Writes. So simple, and yet, so complicated.

Which also relates to the time spent thinking recently about what responsibilities I have to anyone willing to read anything coming from my brainpan. Mostly considering, first and foremost, the idea that maybe all one can accomplish as a writer is to, if not put forth The Truth, at least One's Own Truth as best as one can. And just as I found Mr. Fitchett and his contributors' truth to be of abiding interest, with any luck there's folks out there who will feel the same about mine. Anyway, so much for excuses - just like Phil Ochs, I'm going to say it now.

Naturally, it didn't make matters smoother to have the summer book-ended by the passing of two of the greatest guitar stylists to come out of New York in the past thirty years (nor knowing that the use of such a description would surely have branded me a leftwing loony in the now late Mr. Ramone's mind). I am especially missing Robert Quine. To be sure, Johnny's clan were accidental geniuses, he himself teaching successive generations how to mow down an audience with down-stroked impunity, but Quine's ferociously askew, yet eternally tasty approach was a genuine one-off. Much has rightly been made of his work with Lou and the Voidoids, yet Quine's later work with Lloyd Cole and Matthew Sweet is so remarkable that it too must not go overlooked. In tandem with the equally astounding Richard Lloyd, Quine's work on Sweet's Girlfriend and Altered Beast albums adds a weight and an intensity to what otherwise would've been merely adequate power-pop craftsmanship. I don't normally fetishize guitar technique (not since I was sixteen, anyway), but those albums are two great Rock Guitar showcases that I hope in time will be recognized as such. (And as a sidebar, I was glad to see the recent tangent on Velvet Crush, for 'tis the redoubtable Ric Menck swinging mercilessly behind the drum kit on the Sweet discs as well.)

So then, who was it that wrote 'beauty is truth, truth beauty'? Certainly the search for both, with the occasional scavenging of Fun for its own sake, dominated my mental state this past summer. Fortunately, it usually didn't require much more than a rummage around my beloved Fog City, USA.

One area I've been frequenting lately is Valencia Street in the Mission District. It's been observed that San Francisco is many neighborhoods under a single arbitrary geographic decree; that all one has to do is walk a small series of miles, or even blocks, in any direction to find yourself in another cultural climate. Recently I've come to believe that no better example of this exists than simply walking the single block between Mission Street - with its continual bedlam of bodegas and budget stores, watering holes and pawnshops, and the steady sidewalk shuffle of local families and layabouts, sprinkled with goings-on of a more suspicious nature - and Valencia Street.

Where Mission Street is a riot of multilingual commerce and human traffic, Valencia Street is far calmer and unassuming, its buildings unevenly spread out along each block. Mission Street's overbearing aggression is replaced by a measured, collective passivity, each establishment biding its time, waiting to be encountered, almost taking the casual pedestrian by surprise. Well well, what's this art gallery doing here? Hey, how did this science fiction bookstore end up over there? And what's the deal with this shop hawking 'pirate supplies'? (The latter, occupying 826 Valencia, merely being a front for regular creative writing classes for teens held there. Some are even taught by the space's main benefactor - feted, hated, internationally debated author Dave Eggers.)
It's good on any given day to walk the stretch of Valencia between 16th and 21st Streets, just taking in the sights and the shops, altogether as agreeable an opportunity to clear one's head as any S.F. has to offer. Jump on the always crowded and anxious ride offered by the 22 Fillmore bus, to 16th and Valencia. There you find yourself in front of the Roxie Theater - one of the City's well-nurtured fistful of excellent repertory houses - and catty corner to Clothes Comfort, with their storefront proudly hyping third-hand attire sold by the pound.

Across the street you'll also clock Adobe Books, only the first in the plentiful array of bookshops interspersed around these parts. Abandoned Planet and Forest Books, with a sedate, slightly mannered staff mirroring each store's ambience. Modern Times and its always on-point political activism laying in wait amidst the stacks. Borderlands Books' gleaming mahogany shelves and floors, tightly stocked with enough science fiction, horror and fantasy literature to keep graying Lewis/Lovecraft devotees and duster-clad cybergeeks happy. Dog Eared Books with its overflowing stall of bargain books outside and Billie Holiday on the sound system inside. Factor in the presence of New College of California's micro-campus, and you've got yourself one well-read neighborhood.

For me, an afternoon on Valencia Street is never complete without a visit to two particular and reputable establishments, each at either end of the trek. Community Thrift between 17th and 18th is a junkshop lover's wet waking dream, its high-ceilinged warehouse space chockfull of bargains of every stripe imaginable. An ever-changing array of just about anything wearable or legally consumable is available to customers, and as you might imagine I'm a constant lurker of a sizable, varied and infinitely budget-priced music selection on offer there, one of the store's major draws. And do make sure, on your way in or out, to also walk the length of Clarion Alley just around the corner. There along its walls, you'll discover an equally unpredictable outdoor gallery of local artists' work. Some mural-sized, others blatantly graffiti-inspired, even the odd mixed-media installation - the sum of it dazzles, engages and brightens what otherwise might have remained a magnet for incontinent dogs and drunks.

Then at the 21st Street end of Valencia we have, in addition to havens for both the musical outsider (Aquarius Records) and fringe-theater enthusiast (The Marsh), none other than my favorite video-rental emporium in all of S.F., Lost Weekend Video. From the day I first got my membership card I was a happy box goggler indeed, slavering to take advantage, and not just for the pleasure of patronizing the direct opposite of your underachieving mainstream video chain-store. Providing alternative viewing at its most choice and far-reaching, this is where I picked up the Cockettes documentary raved over in my last column, and another recent local film production, Josh Kornbluth's Haiku Tunnel. Comic actor/monologist Kornbluth, one of SF's artistic treasures and an ordinarily stage-bound one, adapted this ten days' wonder from one of his one-man plays. Haiku Tunnel chronicles Josh's previous life as a temporary legal secretary in the downtown business district; those who think The Office has the last word on presenting the 9 to 5 world in all its farce and absurdity will be in for a treat. Haiku Tunnel is hilarious, compelling, contains some hip surprises on its soundtrack, in addition to the best cinematic views of San Francisco this side of Hitchcock's Vertigo. Well, maybe not - but it's still an unassumingly shiny little nugget of a comedy, from a guy some consider the rightful successor to Spalding Gray's monologue mantle. (And keep eyes peeled for a new concert film based on another Kornbluth stage piece, Red Diaper Baby, recollecting the unsentimental education received by Josh at the hands of his New York Communist scholar dad.)

And if the attraction of scads of indie flicks wasn't enough, Lost Weekend is also in possession of two world-beating specialist areas. One is a vast British TV and film selection; it is here I've been able to somewhat pacify my Anglophile curiosity, checking out the work of so many I'd only ever heard or read about. Spike Milligan's short films that inspired the Beatles to heist his director for their own movies. An episode of Tony Hancock's Half Hour, in which 'nothing happens' far more creatively than it does in a year's worth of Seinfeld episodes. Alans Bennett and Partridge, present and correct. TV fare both high and lowbrow, from then to now equally represented. I'll even admit to being tempted to rent the best of Bo Selecta!, just from the title alone, but have thus far managed to resist its dubious sub-Spitting Image charms. The same goes for that Peter Cook On Golf tape as well.
Then there's Lost Weekend's music section, and what a gullet-stuffing feast of goodies it is. All manner of classic and cult-level viewing on hand here too, with a sizable amount of rarities one would be hard pressed to find anywhere else. God knows I've never known another video shop offering the original PiL, in full-on dub-wise cacophony, live in New York circa 1980. Or a cheaply shot but fascinating early set by the Go-Betweens (and is that a Bruce Lee flick on a screen next to Grant McLennan?). Vintage performances by Orange Juice and Teardrop Explodes, an illuminating BBC documentary from the 80's on the Velvets. Another one on Northern Soul, burrowing as deep into the minutiae of the scene as a Casino DJ his record crates. Iggy and The Stooges' peanut butter benediction of an unsuspecting Cincinnati rock-fest rabble. A thrilling James Brown performance from Boston, the night Martin Luther King was shot. Any number of clips of Sixties bands, some of less squintable, contrast-free quality than others.

But the first one I rented, the one I was destined to see on procuring my rental card, was a plainly fan-assembled compilation of TV appearances by The Fall. Again for years I'd only read of, for instance, the spectacle of Michael Clark's ballet troupe being put through their paces to the molar rattling racket of Mark E.'s minions du jour. Likewise for the time-capsule worthy sight of dozens of decked out, vintage-1984 trendoids attempting to break-dance and jive, accompanied by the defiantly un-danceable musical affront that is "Smile". They're all here, and much more jaw-dropping footage besides, every one a winner. And now I smile, recalling one particular live clip, from around the time of Shiftwork. At its center stood Smith, poised and self-possessed, cool as a depraved, mumbling Mancunian cucumber, nicotined fingers snapping in time to a pitiless rockabilly cadence. Membership really does have its privileges.

There's no lack of entertainment when the sun goes down around the vicinity, either. Next door to Community Thrift is the Elbo Room - a deceptively cozy bar on its main floor, turn right and ascend red velvet stairs to discover a sparsely lit, low-ceilinged attic, an incessantly packed dance floor, and only the most quality jazz, roots and organically minded musical streams flowing from its stage. A night with Mr. On-U himself Adrian Sherwood working the decks was just one of the Elbo's most recent happenings.

Other walking-distance-close venues keep their nightly lineups packed, keeping clubgoers in a constant state of night-out dilemma and decision making: 12 Galaxies, part-time Latina 'women's bar' El Rio, avant-garage-noise showcase space Balazo Gallery. And Bruno's: a jazz-centric joint so intimate that bands invariably find themselves performing literally wedged into a corner.

A recent night out was spent at another choice Valencia club-land destination, the Make-Out Room, around the corner on 21st Street; a most favorable space for live music, with its high split-level stage, a scattering of tables, bar running along the length of the left-hand wall. Here I witnessed a typically rare yet mind-defining set from the gents that comprise Mushroom. Or at least this current incarnation of Mushroom - beyond the nucleus of founder/drummer Pat Thomas and guitar strangler Erik Pearson, their lineup has a tendency to expand and contract with each performance, from quasi-big band to quintet size ("Lounge Mushroom"). Still they never fail to bring the outer-dimensional noise; on this night totaling somewhere in between, the set spotlighted the bracing, post-Miles stylings of their latest creative associate, minor East Bay trumpet deity Eddie Gale.

It still amazes to me that Mushroom's intense, imaginative jazz/rock goulash has yet to be embraced by, at the very least, the Wire readers of the world. Their musical approach is discordant, dreamy, gritty, outgoing, dynamic, plus they recognize the intrinsic value of a loud, distorted Fender Rhodes electric piano. Certainly Thomas has made it his life's work to be an enthusiastic conduit of diverse avenues of Western musical adventure since the mid 1980's. Back then he was one-fourth of Absolute Grey - Rochester, N.Y.'s self-actualized, rocking nexus for all things hip, bright and paisley/psych-tinged (preserved in full and earnestly raw flight on the newly reissued, expanded edition of their debut LP Greenhouse, from the DBK/Paisley Pop label). Mushroom is but the contemporary and expanded manifestation of this quest, expressed wonderfully on their new Glazed Popems set (Black Beauty). Having never been shy about tipping a hat to artistic forebears, this latest double-attack lays it out blatantly for the listener, by grouping its selections onto "London" and "Oakland" discs. And much like a fine cognac, the romantic flavor of each locale is richly conveyed through its chosen vessel. "London" cuts like the appropriately modal "Hats Off To Bert Jansch" and "Stones Throw From Coe Fen" fairly ooze Hyde Park and Granchester meadow dew and reek of Berkshire poppy perfume. Touching down in "Oakland", one is in for a far more edgy and decidedly urban ride, occasionally disturbed by shadows and ghosts of the city's radical past (made most explicit on the somber "Blues For Bobby Seale", which features some stand-out blowing from frequent Mushroom helpmate Ralph Carney). But like any city dweller, aware of the rough coexisting with the smooth, the melodic drift and intoning female vocals of the title cut would make suitable accompaniment for an unhurried afternoon's sailing along the shores of Lake Merritt. It's a good trip. It's a doozy of a record.

So I find myself at the end of yet another night, smoking a last cigarette as forlorn autos seethe past the front stoop of my apartment building, positioned between the tony residences of Pacific Heights and the everlasting downbeat of Fillmore council housing. Much like my life stands right now, in fact. San Francisco Belongs to Me? I do deep down believe in the essential romance of that notion, so much at times I can even taste it. Some days it's as rich as a freshly turned mole sauce or Ghirardelli chocolate or Salvadoran pupusa, others as bland and impersonal as the Rice-A-Roni tourists see advertised on the sides of streetcars passing on Powell Street. But it's there, and it's here, and as long as that remains halfway possible, I reckon I can manage a heartfelt smile, a bemused shrug and say I'm indeed working on it.

© 2004 Michael Layne Heath.