Gimme Shelter

London’s latest neo-psych export, Temples, offers vintage folk so haunting and crisp that you might confuse it for The Beau Brummels. The band found its way to our shores after media nods from the Guardian and NME; and a stint playing the Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia. Its latest single, Shelter Song, slips in a dose of San Francisco Sound–a sunny, drug-addled reminder of better days for we winter-trapped bohemians and creative dandies.

Band lineup: James Bagshaw (vocals, guitar), Thomas Warmsley (bass, backing vocals), Sam Toms (drums), Adam Smith (keyboards).

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EDM Meets Politics in The Looking Class

The Looking Class

Four years have passed through the tangled netting of hindsight, but the 2008 election still feels like lightening in a bottle. Now faced with another electoral decision, we voters, couched with the demons of pervasive cynicism, are waiting for reason to catch fire again.

LA-based collective, The Looking Class, has taken up the challenge of reinvigorating our political apathy through an inspired new project that marries the group’s interests in design, art, technology, and social engineering.

The project, entitled Radi-o-bama, is an online mixed media explosion. At first blush, Radi-o-bama is a distribution channel for a flood of free electronic dance mixes in congress with the Obama reelection campaign. But the project also explores music’s ongoing evolution with technology and, because it comes as a response to the election, EDM’s penetration into pop culture.

As with jazz, folk, and rock & roll predecessors, EDM artists have leveraged new-found attention to make waves in the political arena. In this election alone, we’ve seen an increase in the amount of political involvement streaming out of the EDM community—from songified debates produced by The Gregory Brothers to Steve Aoki’s DJs for Obama and even a kitschy anti-Romney single by Devo.

Radi-o-bama is less heavy handed.

“We feel that a lot of the trends that are driving a shift in consciousness are a lot of the same things that opened the way for Obama to become president,” said TLC member Thomas Kelley. “A lot of those same dynamics are coming together [now] to combat him; and we wanted to combat that and put together a positive message that we felt was getting lost.”

The project puts value on the role that the senses play in informing political opinion. In the world of The Looking Class, feelings precede thoughts; and, thus, our political problems stem not from being out of touch with the issues, but from being out of touch with our feelings.

The Looking Class

Dance mixes hosted on the group’s site are recombinant structures of EDM that, along with provocative imagery, strive to awaken our slumbering senses. The resulting effect lays the foundation, and serves as a conduit for, the headier conversations and connections that ultimately lead to progress.

“The power of electronic dance music is the power of expression and creativity in the hands of a person willing to accept it and express it back,” said Kelley. “It’s the power of self-discovery.”

“[This] was our attempt to share some [EDM] history both for people who have been following rave music for a long time, for people who know the history or don’t know some of the history, to find new things that they haven’t discovered before,” said Kelley. “It’s ultimately about discovery, about discovering new feelings, and hopefully discovering new ways of seeing our current moment.”

The project’s smattering of potent homemade mixes, twelve in total, draw on over thirty years of American EDM. Averaging four hours in length, each mix gives an encyclopedic lesson in artists and styles of the electro milieu. These mixes are then hosted under cities significant to both EDM history and the current election.

“We wanted to do something positive and challenge anyone who engaged with our ideas to go a bit deeper than we’ve all been asked,” said Kelley. “The EDM history is in a way a parallel to that depth, the idea that there’s a lot more to our present than we may know or want to recall. And we wanted to do it in a context that was broader but also more untrodden.”

Political optimism continues to build because of the coaching and encouragement of loving devotees, like The Looking Class. Borrowing from the adage, the collective embodies the change it wants to see in the world—pushing us to reach the boundaries of a better tomorrow together.

“What keeps us apart is too dangerous to walk away from now. For us to retreat into our crouches and our defenses is not what the moment asks of us,” said Kelley. “This election is a challenge to evolve… [a] challenge for people to think bigger.”

As the election nears, it’s unclear what trajectory we’ll be headed; but provided we take cues from The Looking Class, we’re certain to be on a better path. As they explain online:

“Techno stands as a beguiling outlier of the American future. Just as the Detroit auto industry rose from the ashes of the Great Recession to become a bright spot of economic and technical revival, techno (EDM) has finally reached a critical mass with the mainstream. And as Obama has struggled to find his voice in the narrow corridors of Washington power, lashed every step of the way by an equally powerful code of old resentments, techno reminds the new generation of what is still possible in 2012. It is not just a dream. It is the human spirit motoring at infinity.”

Cabrillo Festival Unearths the Hidden World of Girls

Many NPR programs have made the jump from the airwaves to center stage in order to gain attention and grow an audience. In the case of Hidden World of Girls: Stories for Orchestra, which kicked off the 50th anniversary season of The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, the theatrical leap was managed with grace, earnestness, humility, and an eye towards arts making.

Based on the eponymous NPR series, The Hidden World of Girls chronicles the stories of female trailblazers and unlikely heroes through the interweaving of spoken word radio stories, live orchestral accompaniment, and visual projections.

The program’s ultimate goal was to create a work that bridged divided communities, engaged curiosity and conversation, and addressed issues sometimes difficult to broach all while attempting to explore the complex and shifting ways we experience contemporary culture through media. (A tall order and one that inevitably fell short because of its demands on the audience coming in with prior knowledge of the material or a stomach for complicated, cerebral art.)

This ambitious world premiere, the brainchild of Cabrillo Festival execs and radio producers Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva (known as The Kitchen Sisters), was three years in the making and the largest commissioned project in the festival’s history to date.

The bulk of the evening was scored by Laura Karpman, the project’s creative director and lead composer. In building out a team for the project, Karpman invited young female composers Alexandra du Bois, Clarice Assad, and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum to contribute compositions in response to stories featured throughout the night. The resulting performance was a compelling, perplexing, and, at times, anxious tapestry of competing sonic voices.

Courtesy of HerryLawford via creativecommons

In Beneath Boundaries, for example, Alexandra du Bois explored the work of Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian. Ghadirian combines and juxtaposes traditional and modern images, as a means of reflecting the complexity of her culture’s gender norms. Du Bois’ work, while at times lush and moving, drowned out these statements in favor of her own opinions. Surging percussive lines, restrained viols, and declarative brass fought form, melody, and key, which stretched the subject of gender identity beyond contemporary art and into social critique. The resulting composition was an audacious political statement on the plight of Middle Eastern women; without use of Middle Eastern instruments or non-Western chords; and ultimately pitied a culture whose customs, while seemingly oppressive, can also be quite empowering.

Clarice Assad, a festival participant in 2004 and daughter of famous Brazilian guitarist Sergio Assad, also skirted the line of editorial overstep in subverting the hidden story of her subject. Her piece, The Disappeared, was by turns contemplative and an instrumentally- explosive, sardonic jaunt that opted to reflect general statements against authoritarianism rather than converse directly with its source material—the story of Claudia and Patricia Bernardi. Assad’s work hinged on a circus theme making for vivid and delightfully expressive moments; but any dictatorial regime under the gun, and even unfavorable candidates in democratic societies, has been painted as clownishness, pompous, unsavory, and violent. Without reflection on the Bernardis’ situation, this piece could have been performed on any stage—to both its benefit and detriment.

Projected visuals were equally misplaced during the performance. Photos and video had been collected by The Kitchen Sisters and redesigned for the concert by Obscura Digital (the design team behindthe YouTube Symphony). Viewing these materials on-screen was difficult due to an obstruction caused by a large window-like installation hanging above the orchestra in front of the screen. Not only was the installation distracting, but when the source material was displayed in and through the installation, media was imbued with unintentional meanings. The work of photographer Deborah Luster, for example, was hailed within The Kitchen Sisters’ radio program for its vulnerability, humanity, and character insight, which is tough to accomplish live when a large window thwarts that view. Luster’s photos came off caged and calloused, which is certainly unintended, as Luster herself was shooting these photos within a Louisiana prison.

[Editor’s note: The installation also called upon the specter of the glass ceiling and, worse, drew comparisons to Laura Mulvey’s objectified female of the cinematic male gaze.]

Hidden World thrived when the potential in its medium was fully realized—or, rather, when some media kowtowed to others to reveal both source and created hidden stories. Double Adventures, written by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, was masterfully balanced in this regard. Charming, whimsical, and not too ostentatious given its service in a contemporary music festival, Kroll-Rosenbaum’s piece on childhood sci-fi fantasies was one of the successes of the evening.

The night, however, belonged to Karpman, whose brilliant underscoring showed her cinematic chops through and through. Karpman is a true craftswoman, whose sensibilities in, and understanding of, multimedia served to uncover new emotional dimensions. Her compositions were bold and self-assured; and though she surrounded herself with big names, like Herrmann, Schifrin, Williams, and Bernstein, Karpman certainly proved herself worthy of the associations.

The faults of this program—its competing voices, its many distractions, its missing the mark in spite of heavy responsibilities—are the very issues facing Feminism itself and ultimately distract from the true potency of this program: its ability to take on the typically male-dominated world of symphonic music and create art and advocacy with reckless aplomb and fearless celebration. The potency of this risk is worth commending.

Bold women are making strides every day by flavoring typically male spheres with their own suffragette voices: we bandied about in the health care debate, we petitioned teen magazines to change photo editing practices, we took over major media corporations, and we might even moderate the presidential debates. In Hidden World, we not only advance the medium of storytelling, but mold advocacy in an altogether new and artistic direction.

It may not be a Helen Reddy tune, but Hidden World reminds us of the secret worlds we have already conquered and the many exciting paths we have yet to forge.

Hula Finds a Home at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival

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Photo courtesy of chrisyee via creative commons

Tourism might be down, but Americans still have a love affair with Hawaii. Only now our interests center on authentic birth certificates and property acquisitions. The Hawaiian culture is so intrinsically tied to its land (which has been slowly gleaned from Hawaiian control) that some preservationists ballyhoo its inevitable extinction. All this anxiety skews people into two camps: advocates and abandoners. In the world of Hawaiian dance, or hula, if you’re not keeping to strict traditions then you’re camp or kitsch or somehow treading on the sacrosanct. So, how do you preserve a culture that desperately needs to evolve? Enter Patrick Makuakane, founder of the Bay area’s most unconventional hula troupe, Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu. Makuakane’s blend of traditional and contemporary styles with theatrical, non-Hawaiian elements is uncomfortable, but nevertheless innovative. For nearly thirty years, Na Lei has struggled for acceptance in both the worlds of hula and high-minded, avant-garde dance. It now takes on the 21st century, entering into a phase chalk full of media stunts, commercialization, and even Twitter. Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu participates in the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival this weekend with a free, family-friendly offering. If you can’t make it to the islands this summer, Na Lei is certainly the next best thing.

Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu performs July 28 at 1 p.m. (and continues to 2:30 p.m.) at the Yerba Buena Gardens, 760 Howard St. (at 3rd St.), S.F. Admission is free; call 543-1718 or visit http://www.ybgf.org.

Crunchyroll

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Image licensed via cc and Ollie Crafoord

Here’s a Best Of piece that didn’t quite make the cut. 

Best Hometown Fandom Site- 2012

Crunchyroll

http://www.crunchyroll.com/

Over the last decade, we’ve stood witness to the mammoth rise in popularity of Japanese cultural content—chalk it up to the internet and the ease with which to connect to fans across the globe. Who would have thought, though, that an epicenter for all this noise sits right here in our backyard?

Founded in 2006 by a group of UC Berkeley undergrads, San Francisco-based Crunchyroll is an online fan community and video streaming service. The site offers free full-length episodes and movies of Japanese anime and other English-subtitled East Asian content. For a nominal fee, users can access high resolution, ad-free simulcasts of popular shows an hour after Japanese broadcast. The site has already delivered content to over six million online community members worldwide.

At its inception, Crunchyroll functioned like Youtube—a service driven by users uploading their own videos. High demand and a rise in popularity, however, made the site difficult to monitor, and Crunchyroll soon struggled with the legal hazards of copyright infringement.

Now restructured, with a healthy dose of venture capitalist funds, the law-abiding Crunchyroll has grown into multimedia force. The site continues to offer the best in Japanese content, and has branched into the fields of manga, music, gaming, and sports. It also produces a live weekly broadcast of news and interviews with industry insiders.

With budding partnerships and plans to distribute content across multiple digital spaces, the sky’s the limit for this rising sun. 

A Vegetarian Goes Rogue: Considering the Benefits of a Paleo Diet

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Image by Martin Cathrae. Licensed through Creative Commons.

It started with a pointed finger.

“Now, you,” said my cousin, Mike, disapprovingly, “I think your lifestyle is absolutely the worst!”

It was about time someone in the family confronted my life choices. Three years had already gone by—long enough for what seemed like a passing fad to solidify into an actual threat. This was the last straw. I had flown in the face of convention, I had alienated my loved ones, and now my membership in the Cult Vegetarian had actually warranted an intervention.

“Look at your diet,” Mike continued, “it’s incredibly dangerous. You eat like a rabbit to maintain your energy. Our bodies aren’t meant to process food this way.”

Vegetarians and lawyers share a commonality in that they’ve heard every dumb joke and every poorly-constructed argument against their case. Mike, a failed stand-up comedian, was an accomplished medical professional—a back specialist whose credits have earned him to the right to proselytize the holy gospel of fad diet du jour. His wasn’t the first argument I had heard for my dietary salvation, but it was certainly the most confrontational.

Why someone’s choice in food warranted a lengthy conversation was beyond me—but, then, my family was the type to have long conversations about food. Hell, we watch the Food Network in between courses. We take more photos of the dessert spread at special gatherings than of each other.

My choice to go veg was based purely on its health benefits. Adult-onset diabetes runs in my family—the disease is one of the most prevalent afflicting Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders in the United States—and I thought a change in diet and lifestyle might nip it in the bud. The benefits to Vegetarianism—a decreased carbon footprint and the potential to lower US spending on diabetes in this econ-challenged time—seemed an added bonus. Silly me.

Mike lectured on, which is to say my mind glazed over to the sounds of muted trombones a la Charlie Brown; but somewhere in that mix, Mike mentioned the teachings of Gary Taube and passed along a little red book entitled, Why We Get Fat. (It is, sadly, to his credit that Mike saved this discussion until the self-esteem issues associated with female adolescence had fully matured—which is to say that I could brush the whole thing off as him being an asshole.)

For years now, Taube has been touting the benefits of the Paleolithic diet, which is what some lazily describe as, “Kind of like Atkins.” The diet is different for many people. Like any religion, including Vegetarianism, there are boundaries for what people are comfortable choking down. The main tenants of the Paleo diet revolve around consuming more meat, more dark, leafy veggies, more fat; and less carbs and sugars. The science, which is described in insultingly simple terms in Why We Get Fat (best to read Taube’s Good Calories, Bad Calories), asserts that our bodies have evolved to process meat and fat for energy and that the carb-friendly diets promoted by the National Institutes of Health are flawed and outdated.

It was at this point in the lecture that Mike swayed my boyfriend, Matt, who had been penitently standing by my side, to join Paleolithicism.

The weeks that followed housed what can only be described as the polite discussions of a non-married couple either too self-aware to brawl over such insignificant things as food or too weak because of their respective diets to one-up each other in an argument. Suffice it to say, these food-related tête-à-têtes skirted the line of affective, loving communication.

What bothered me most about Mike’s intervention and the evangelical fanaticism of his newly-recruited disciple was the surety and cockiness of their attacks. It’s one thing to advocate a diet, but does doing so require such personal condemnation? Why must Paleos undermine research promoting vegetarian diets in order to assert their diet as an equal alternative?

Vegetarian diets, after all, have been linked to reducing the risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and forms of cancer.

You’d expect a high fat diet to increase cholesterol—and the research is about 50/50 on that front—but you don’t expect someone to get a big head over something as insignificant as a salad. I chalk up the chauvinism, and indeed it was, to a hormonal imbalance resulting from the Paleo diet (high fat diets have been linked to a rise in the production of testosterone).

There are benefits to living life Paleo, though. The hormonal imbalance that I loathe, actually benefits the dieter—increased testosterone has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease. The Paleo diet has also been shown to cut waistlines (obesity has been linked to diabetes) and lower glucose levels.

Both Matt and Mike enjoyed a noticeable boost in energy and significant weight loss after their conversion. Still, I can’t fully promote the Paleo diet as an across-the-board healthy alternative. Diets with a high intake of animal protein and fat have been shown to prompt conditions that cause kidney problems in diabetics, increase insulin resistance, cause hypoglycemia for those on insulin therapy, and exacerbate an intestinal environment that leaves the dieter vulnerable to heart disease, weight gain, and, again, certain forms of cancer.

There are just too many factors worth considering before jumping aboard the Paleo diet—chief among them are age, gender, ethnicity, income, family history, and lifestyle.

We may never know which diet reigns supreme—this discussion between spoiled children on the benefits of not eating something blathers on. Still, with thirteen percent of the world’s population going hungry, count us both lucky for having more than our foot to shovel down our throats.

Battle of the Bands: Blue Cheer vs. Jefferson Airplane

Licensed through Creative Commons. Image courtesy of velvettangerine

The problem with the Summer of Love was that it was an idea too grand for some people to experience the one time. So rather than tumbling through years of therapy, most boomers did the next best thing by inflicting their nostalgic hippie-flashbacks on unsuspecting progeny.

If you were born after 1975, you were probably told tales about San Francisco in the mid-1960s.  This was the epicenter of radical new ideas about peace, love, and understanding—this was the place Hollywood recreates every year on some forsaken Busby Berkeley back lot.

Growing up in the church of psychedelia meant facing the cold reality that the people responsible for the breakthrough social change you enjoy are the very people glibly retelling that old knee-slapper about memory of the 1960s and its relation to drug use.

For us, psychedelia is less a state of mind and more an abandoned dream in dayglo and gobbly font. The more tragic in our midst, those with childhood issues or unstructured parenting, even try to recreate it.

In some ways, it’s not fair pitting bands of diverse artistic temperament against each other—it’s like a parent admitting a favorite child. Comparing these particular bands, the Jefferson Airplane and Blue Cheer, is a comparison of rock’s royalty to its underdog (a true Rocky versus Apollo). Both groups are quintessentially San Francisco Sound founders; both faced the plight of schizophrenic band members; and both had a lot of artistic turnover.

But, who was the bigger influence? Who left a lasting impression on us Gen Xers and early Millennials?

The Contender

Blue Cheer was originally founded in 1966 by Eric Albronda and Jerry Russell. Named after a street brand of LSD, the group amassed a team of uncompromising, rowdy rockers and rose to prominence under the management of an ex-member of the Hells Angels. The band is known in its power trio configuration: members Dickie Peterson, Paul Whaley, and Leigh Stephens. Its first hit, a cover of Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues, peaked at #14 on the Billboard charts.

At its debut, the release of Vincebus Eruptum, the band was a hellish, deafening nightmare of everything that had come before. The album, full of distortion and speed rock, was, as author Tim Hills puts it, “the epitome of San Francisco psychedelia.”

The late 1960s saw personnel changes; and Cheer’s sound mellowed from a bludgeoning, over-amped heavy metal to commercial hard and blues rock (a la Steppenwolf or Cream).

The band temporarily split in 1972 after its fifth release, The Original Human Being. By that time, Peterson was the only remaining member of the group’s original configuration, having been joined and then abandoned by Randy Holden and Bruce Stephens.

Though the band was inactive through the 1980s, which was marked by fruitless attempts at a reunion, it wasn’t until Peterson death in 2009 that Blue Cheer’s reign officially ended.

It’s easy to see Cheer’s mark on its successors in heavy metal and blues. The band’s screaming vocals and acid guitar make up the bulk of what we heard from rock in the 1980s and what we still hear today on Sixth Street. At home, the band’s sound echoes through almost every punk and alt metal product from the east bay.

The Reigning Champion

The Jefferson Airplane was founded in 1965 by Marty Balin, who, inspired by bands attempting to merge folk and rock music—acts like the Beau Brummels and the Charlatans—endeavored to create a rock revolution in San Francisco.

Balin purchased a pizza parlor on Fillmore Street, which he transformed into a rock club called the Matrix. He met with guitarist Paul Kanter; and together the duo recruited musicians to form the club’s house band. Signe Toly, Jorma Kaukonen, Jerry Peloquin, and Bob Harvey rounded out the original lineup.

The group’s popularity escalated after a series of positive reviews from San Francisco Chronicle jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason; and the band signed with RCA Victor. Personnel changes marred the band early. Peloquin left the band shortly after its formation—dissuaded by the group’s frequent drug use. He was replaced by Moby Grape founder Skip Spence. Spence was later replaced by Spencer Dryden.

The band’s single most influential personnel overhaul took place in 1966, when Grace Slick, then singer with the Great Society, replaced Toly, who left the band to focus on motherhood. Slick brought with her two singles that would become the group’s most well-known hits: White Rabbit and Somebody to Love.

The release of Surrealistic Pillow launched Airplane into the mainstream. The album peaked at #3 on the Billboard charts and spurred an avalanche of copycat artists. In 1967, famed Bay area entrepreneur and promoter, Bill Graham, signed on as the band’s manager—garnering commercial interest for the group. Airplane was invited to perform on Carson’s Tonight Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, and participated in the Human Be-in, a famous day-long Happening in Golden Gate Park.

Despite rampant drug use, interpersonal turmoil, and shifting alliances, Airplane remained prolific and regularly toured. It is the only band to have performed the concert triumvirate: the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock, and Altamont.

As the group mounted commercial and critical success, its creative direction slowly and awkwardly shifted. Brooding, cerebral love songs were replaced by vitriolic messages and political statements. (An affair between Slick and drummer Dryden influenced the song Lather, which she later performed in blackface to show support for the Black Panther Party. Dryden left the band in 1970 and Slick began a relationship with Kanter.)

After 1970, the band saw another shift towards heavier, improvised music. Songs were longer, disenchanted, and increasingly anti-establishment. Airplane embodied the drug-taking, antiwar ethos of the era with screams, albeit empty ones, of revolution.

Personal turmoil continued to plague the band; and drugs and alcohol ripped through its productivity—curtailing the group’s ability to record and tour. By April 1972, band members had shifted focus to side projects Jefferson Starship and Hot Tuna. Airplane never formally split; but still reunited in 1989 for an album and tour. It was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

Airplane influenced bands today in a host of different ways: musically, through its choice in instrumentation; artistically, in aesthetic and fashion; and politically, in its constant pursuit of perfection.

The Verdict

The San Francisco Sound was a collusive rock music acid trip into bohemian counterculture. Inherent in the Sound were louder, improvised, and explorative jaunts in chord progression, lyric, and instrumentation. The style was our counterattack to a British Invasion; lead with a screaming charge by forefathers like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jerry Garcia.

We wanted to be less commercial. We wanted to be all-American. As a nation, we needed to rebound from the wounds we were inflicting on ourselves socially and unite through some means, in this case, locally, through the chaos of ground-breaking music.

Today’s climate is no different. Our art scene faces a nation wrought with polarizing women’s issues, diplomatic missions to China, banal racism; and it is as diverse and innovative now as it was then.

Blue Cheer stands, at least artistically, as the most influential band to today’s sound. Rage will always be en vogue and Cheer’s brand of euphoric raucousness is truer, rawer, and edgier than that of Jefferson Airplane.

Airplane’ s stark and intellectual sound, once commercialized, disseminated to the masses, and perfected by others, led to what we now think of when we hear someone say “Psychedelic.” The band profoundly changed American art, politics, and spiritual convictions, but much of this was accomplished through its image, excess, and self-indulgence than through its music.

For Airplane, psychedelia, the drugs it required, its constant need for redefinition, and its turbulent lifestyle, was the unfortunate and inherited result of success; and it ultimately led to the band’s downfall.

Living in an extended haze, the froth of a dream filled with free love, drugs, and no consequences, mirrors those watery dreamscapes of Berkley’s early Hollywood. Eventually the cotton candy melts, the champagne goes flat, and you’re left with one helluva mess.

One Big Dust Up

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Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/memespring/ via Creative Commons

The Gold Dust Lounge Vies For Historical Preservation

By Jessica Hilo

UPDATE: A city commission report released March 16, 2012 found that the Gold Dust Lounge did not qualify for historic landmark preservation. Members of San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Commission vote on the Gold Dust Lounge on March 21.

History is a funny thing: at once definite; then, one slip of the tongue, one fantastic elaboration, and history, as we know it, changes.

For months now, San Franciscans have heard the dueling sides of an argument between the Gold Dust Lounge, owned by Jimmy and Tasio Bovis, and its landlord, the Handlery family.

The lounge is a dimly-lit Union Square staple, which occupies a humble1100 square feet of valued commercial real estate. It is one of the last Powell street watering holes; and now faces eviction at the hands of a major, anonymous commercial retailer.

The fight to keep or discard the Gold Dust Lounge has become a bar-backed hazarai; with each new cycle of information amassing more media attention, more political support, and furthering divide.

The bar’s quest has collected more than 3,000 supporters online, including celebrity endorsements by sports writer Bruce Jenkins and the band, Train.

Meanwhile, the Bovis family has prepared a local landmark nomination, which it hopes will stall the impending eviction and, at the very least, protect the space from demolition. The nomination argues for preservation  on grounds of cultural significance—that the bar serves as a palimpsest of San Francisco nightlife history—and design, in that it contains elements of classic American cocktail lounge design with architectural features that date back to the 1930s.

An aura of mistruths bought into by mainstream coverage has blinded us from seeing what this Gold Dust Lounge debacle is really about: whether the bar is indeed architecturally and culturally significant to truly merit its preservation.

The Long, Convoluted History of the Gold Dust Lounge

A central tenet to the preservation movement headed by the Bovis family is that the Gold Dust Lounge occupies a space that served as scene to historically significant nightlife events.

The Gold Dust Lounge resides within the Elkan Gunst Building, which was erected in 1908 from the ashes of the city’s infamous quake and fire.

In 1918, the space served as the entrance to a longstanding establishment, the Techau Tavern. Though touted as a high-end, family restaurant, the Techau garnered headlines at the wake of Prohibition for the uproarious behavior of its clientele and staff. In 1921, Techau was raided by Prohibition agents, when two undeputized, undercover personnel were served alcohol in its dining room. Bottles of liquor were later discovered in lockers belonging to two Techau waiters, John Antonetti and Richard Bucking. Techau manager, Albert C. Morrison, Bucking, and captain of waiters, V.E. Lardi, were arrested and charged with possession and sale of alcohol. During their trial, Daisy Simpson, one of the undercover agents involved with the raid, claimed the chief investigator, Adam L. Estelle, had entrapped the establishment. Estelle purportedly acquired liquor outside the establishment months earlier with the intent of inducing the restaurant to increase its own supply later on.

Much of the folklore about the Gold Dust Lounge takes root here and projects a series of San Francisco nightlife activities that might not have existed in the space at all.

The Techau Tavern closed shop in 1922 and was replaced by Art Floral Company, a city-serving florist that occupied the space through the end of Prohibition.

The Bovis family asserts that this space operated as a speakeasy; and connected, by way of a secret passage, to the building next door. (The adjoining building happens to house the family’s other bar: Lefty O’Douls.) During Prohibition, this would have connected the Techau Tavern or Art Floral Company with the St. Francis Theater. Sanborn insurance maps housed at the San Francisco Public Library depict the space with ten foot thick concrete walls and no hidden passageway.

Historians associated with the Bovis family also wax poetic over the workings of Art Floral Company. A document prepared by architectural historian Christopher VerPlanck claims the florist operated as both a legitimate business, which may have been affiliated with Pelicano-Rossi Floral, predecessor to San Francisco’s longest-running floral company, Rossi and Rovetti, and as an illegal speakeasy. (This latter statement is based on pure conjecture.) Pelicano-Rossi Floral was located on Kearney Street at this time. Art Floral Company vacated the Gold Dust space in 1935.

Over the next two decades, Gold Dust tussled between owners, but remained a liquor-serving establishment. By the mid-1950s, the space had conjoined with Milton F. Kreis’ signature eatery located at the corner of Geary and Powell streets.

Kreis, a shop owner and restaurateur from southern California, revamped the space, then operating under its former title, the Techau Tavern. This new bar, called Bustles and Beaus, was an ornamental throwback to the heyday of Barbary Coast saloons. Female servers, adorned in netted stockings, were said to have served drinks after sliding down a brass-plated fire pole.

In Gold Dust myth, B&B was co-owned by crooner Bing Crosby, who was said to have installed the tavern’s chandeliers and who commissioned a mural of cherubs and naked women from an MGM set designer. The mural and chandeliers adorn the ceiling of the Gold Dust today.

“I spoke directly with Kathryn Crosby, Bing’s widow,” said Judy Schmid, publicist for the Bing Crosby Estate. “She affirmed my suspicions that Bing’s supposed owning the Gold Dust Lounge is merely an urban myth.”

“Now, that’s not saying he might not have popped in during his lifetime, as he was known to happily grab a drink or two with his fishing, golfing or acting buddies;” Schmid continued, “but no, he was never an owner or investor in the property. Kathryn told me that Bing invested in no pubs, restaurants, clubs or watering holes. Horses, golf, cattle ranches, and the like were more his style.”

“We [also] had our [vice president] of marketing and production look through Bing’s business files from the 1950s through the 1970s,” Schmid said. “We can heartily confirm that Bing never invested in nor owned any portion of the club under any of its names.”

Bustles and Beaus was a bust by the mid-1960s. Jimmy and Tasio Bovis purchased the bar in 1967 and redesigned its interior, in part, to pay homage to the gold rush era. The bar has maintained a tradition of nightly live music, with selections varying from Dixieland jazz, to tinkering piano, and Rock and Roll.

The era of the Gold Dust Lounge is perhaps the space’s most iconic. The bar was seen in the opening shots of Bullitt; and, fittingly, a bevy of celebrities have festooned its barstools, including Liza Minnelli, Cloris Leachman, Lee Marvin, Jack LaLanne, Jimmy Hoffa, Nick Nolte, and Janis Joplin.

“It was a very popular place to go to for our incredible Herb Caen,” said Lee Housekeeper, a spokesperson for the Bovis family, on the venerable Chronicle columnist. “He actually played drums there. He’d stop in for last call or stop in at the end of the evening from whatever wonderful places he was reporting on; and was known to sit in on the drums and play with the house band…Herb was a regular there until he died.”

The Messy and Unforeseen Future of the Gold Dust Lounge

This past December, the Bovis family received a letter of intent from its landlord, which invoked a 90-day termination clause within the Gold Dust’s lease.

The Bovis family recruited Burlingame attorney Joseph Cotchett in filing a suit against the Handlery family on February 23. The suit charges the Handlery family with intentional misrepresentation, unfair competition through misleading advertising, breach of contract, injunctive relief, and financial elder abuse.

The Historic Preservation Commission vetted the Bovis’ landmark nomination in February and ruled to postpone a decision on the case until March 21. Even if they are successful in gaining landmark preservation, said Sam Singer, a representative of the Handlery family, the Bovis’ will still need to vacate or suffer significant financial and legal penalties.

“I think that the Gold Dust Lounge has got a very loyal following, but there’s nothing that keeps the Bovis family from continuing to operate the Gold Dust Lounge at a different location and take that loyal following of people with them,” said Singer. “There [are] many other places they can rent in Union Square [and] in San Francisco. There are many famous San Francisco institutions that are not in their original locations.”

“There are many, many nice bars and wonderful eating establishments around Union Square. This is one of many. It is a nice spot, but it’s not in any way a significant spot,” Singer continued. “Cities—and San Francisco is a major American city—change all the time. That is the nature of major metropolises. And this is another chapter of the history of Union Square.”

For nearly a century, the Gold Dust Lounge has been a meeting place for San Francisco natives and outsiders alike to glimpse at a dream—whether that dream was in ivory linens and top hats; in the bucking wilds of legal impropriety; tangled in the seedy strings of saloon faire; or in the faces of local luminaries as they brushed elbows with the common man.

Like any bar, this is a spot where our realities are escaped; defeated by the companionship of others. We’ve all been spoon-fed egregious facts, exaggerated truths massaged by representatives who have probably recited the script enough times that they bought into it themselves. But what this debate muddles down to is an age-old decision over whether to preserve our formidable institutions or accept the changing tides of our future.

The Gold Dust Lounge, though understandably revered by locals and endeared by celebrities, is merely a collection of quasi-cultural baubles—leftover artifacts of a tall tale housed in a quaintly antiqued jewelry box.

Will we lose the soul and spirit of San Francisco if the Gold Dust Lounge leaves? History belongs to the victors.

The Gold Dust Lounge is currently located at 247 Powell Street (at O’Farrell St.) S.F. Call 397-1695 or visit http://www.golddustloungesf.com.

Boom Boom Thao

ImageHere’s my very messy, very self-indulgent original review copy–for you die-hards eager to know the new band line-up. Happy reading!

Thao w/ John Vanderslice

Bird by Snow

Garrett Pierce

Thursday, February 24, 2012

Bottom of the Hill/Noise Pop Music Festival

Better Than: Every live performance Thao has given to date

If anything is left standing at Bottom of the Hill after last night’s Noise Pop festival performance, it is certainly by the good graces of powerhouse indie songstress, Thao Nguyen. With a new band and edgier demeanor, Nguyen decimated last night’s performance with magnificent velocity.

The show was destined to make waves when it sold out a week prior to performance, in no small way influenced by the ingénue’s work outside of her band. Nguyen is known for lobbying government officials on behalf of musicians and works to benefit domestic violence shelters and sexual abuse counseling services.

She delved into film composition last year, providing the score for American Teacher, a documentary on our educational system. Nguyen has also written scores for WNYC’s Radiolab podcast and is set to perform in its latest round of touring shows.

This past December, she brushed elbows with the Portlandia crew (Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein), performing a cover of Salt-N-Pepa’s Push It.

Still, celebrity ascent aside, last night promised the same subdued, red dirt, guitar-heavy collective we have come to recognize as the Thao Nguyen sound. We all expected the same lyrical simplicity and child-like vulnerability that has often cast comparisons to Cat Power. Well, my friends, Cat Power is dead; and in her place, a hissing, yowling hellfire sex kitten.

Last night, clad in a denim jumper, thwacking her jet black hair about smoldering eyes, Ngyuen taunted, “Will you be off, be on, and be out of my sight?”  (Three songs later she broke into a cover of Ludacris’ What’s your Fantasy.)

There were signs. Know Better, Learn Faster released in 2009 was a propulsive, raw, and angst-frayed post break-up production. Its songs were hopeless tomes cheaply marinated in a sauce pop music. Live performances took on an increasingly strained feel—what hindsight calls artistic growth. Nearly three years later, and now deeply embedded in work on a new album, we find that a once broken inner child has emerged a fighter.

The new tracks performed last night thrashed together Nguyen’s countrified sound with elements of blues rock, gospel, and R&B. The result, exemplified in So Neck and Move, rests along the lines of R.L Burnside and Lou Reed Live.

The performance aspects of these new tracks are no less spectacular. New instrumentation and a smattering of fresh band mates, gave way to flourishes of Mr. Dynamite himself, James Brown.

“Baby, I was on your conscience, you were only on my mind,” Nguyen exploded; and later, took a swig of Jameson and thanked the crowd for indulging her.

The audience couldn’t be happier united under Nguyen’s thumb. It had been tied together all evening without a leader at its helm. The lo-fi offerings of opening performers Bird by Snow and Garrett Pierce hadn’t even warranted its attention (which both artists took in great professional stride).

Co-headliner John Vanderslice proved a worthy adversary. Dressed in a “Danielle Vanderslice 2004” t-shirt, the troubadour presented an intimate, ruminative, and experimental sampling of his vast repertoire. Vanderslice was as earnest and approachable as ever, but this did little to assuage the audience—which, on the whole, was more fascinated by its own self-importance to be bothered to show the artist the respect he deserved.

No, the spotlight truly, and justifiably, belonged to Thao. The new Nguyen was a temptress slicked in thick garters of self-assuredness—a testament to resilience and the transformative powers of the will. It is no small feat suffering heartbreak while finding the means to stay positive, grow, and give to others. If last night proved anything, it’s that we’re all capable of making such waves, but this one belonged to one bad ass bitch—and her name is Thao.

Critic’s Notebook

Thao’s new band:

Andrew Maguire – drums vibes

Eric Kuhn- drums guitar bass

Rob Shelton- keys

Kacey Johansing – vox

Emily Ritz – vox

Jesse Cafiero – bass lap steel

Thao’s setlist:

Body

When We Swam

Swimming Pools

The Day Long

So Neck

Beat (Health, Life and Fire)

Move

Know Better Learn Faster

Holy Roller

Bag of Hammers

The Give

Age of Ice

Encore: If You Were Mine (R. Charles)

Favorite Quote:

“Fuck, I missed the end. I was so close,” said John Vanderslice after performing Plymouth Rock. “I won’t be able to sleep tonight if I don’t complete this.” (He then went on to repeat the final measures of the song with perfect execution.)

Random Notebook Dump:

Thao Nguyen: Bitches Are Hustlaz 2

D-Fyne