Sunday, October 26, 2008

O Mom and Dad: Laurie Anderson 30 Years On

On a bright October Saturday I strolled over to hear a staged conversation with performance artist Laurie Anderson at Wheeler auditorium on the UC campus...

I first saw and heard Laurie Anderson perform thirty years ago this December. The occasion was a celebration of William S. Burroughs called The Nova Convention which took place in New York city. It was my first opportunity to see Burroughs whose works and whose persona I had been keenly investigating for the ten years previous. That year, 1978, I had been working on a land-surveying crew for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but the job had mercifully lapsed. It was just in time to avoid having to work outdoors in the cold weather and, any road, I was planning to leave for California the first week in January 1979. So I was free and had a little scratch for a change. I called the Intermedia theater for tickets and booked a room at the Chelsea Hotel.
What a thrill it was to meet our fearless leader at last--the mythic Hombre Invisible in person. Opening night was a Friday and it was fraught. After Bill's rather brief apparition on stage, came elusive exemplars of the 20th century avant-garde including Burroughs' doppel-ganger Brion Gysin. John Cage performance consisted of amplifying the sounds of himself brewing and drinking tea while Merce Cunningham minced around as if to music.
Along with these legends whom I was seeing for the first time there were other artists on stage most of whom were well-known to me. Others were completely new, such as the two striking women who were introduced at separate points in the show to do quite similar acts. They were both attired in man-tailored tails and both recited texts with sound effects added to their voices. One of them was Julia Heywood whose voice became a chorus of sped-up penguins. The other woman performed a gripping piece contriving to be the authoritarian voice of a pilot during a near plane-crash. She had sparkling eyes a wide smile and in those days brown bobbed hair and she made a rather wholesome overall impression. This was Laurie Anderson 1978. The shock of the new, the recognition of a new modality of expression, post-modernity before the word became a commonplace, all these premises were mingled in my unmitigated appreciation of her. How corny Ginsberg and Orlovsky's hootenanny seemed that evening.

I recall a few notices of Julia after that night but when Burroughs went on tour a year or so later it with John Giorno and Laurie Anderson. She was the one selected to filled the bill. By then she had had an international hit single with "O Superman" which actually entered the U.K. top twenty pop records. In that short time, it had become her fame that was helping to introduce Burroughs to the young and trendy. Her arsenal of special effects and electronic trickery was state-of-the-art and second to none. The charm of her demeanor and the unmistakable presence and yet ambiguity of her social and political critique of America served to support a big tent.

In 1986 I hosted a in-store appearance by Laurie at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco in support of the publication of the book of her project entitled The United States. A vast amount of people showed up to meet her and in the course of a long evening I became somewhat acquainted with her. I found her to be an authentic, genuinely sweet person who gave me the distinct impression of a school teacher type. She put a thumb fingerprint in ink in each book she signed and received much affection in return.

Twenty years later, I find myself interested in what she's up to but not terribly so. She turns up on the high-brow circuit in Berkeley and San Francisco every few years with an incredibly ambitious project such as an operatic treatment of Moby Dick. The reviews are always positive--fawning verging on yawning is how I would describe them. If someone gave me a ticket I probably would go to, for example, her latest opus, Homeland, a play on The Homeland Security Act one doesn't doubt. Yet I am not particularly curious about it. It was however a unusual opportunity to see her in the unrehearsed venue of this talk and one I was determined to sacrifice my Saturday afternoon to attend.

Minutes before the start time I was able to glide in and find a seat in the fifth row center. It may have helped that the ceremonial blood-letting on the grid-iron was taking place at the same time--worthwhile events with free admission tend to be packed hereabouts. The predictable preambles were delivered by operatives from the academic culture-crats. We were consoled for the difficulty in obtaining parking spaces on a "game day." Laurie came out with her interlocator for the occasion. She looked ever the same--a very-well preserved version of her perennial self. The interviewer was a fairly young guy from a campus office of art and technology.
He seemed to exhibit a trait I have often observed in the young scholars of today's academia--they throw out some undigested slab of something they read that they think may relate to a discussion at hand. After a loose citation, they then turn to the older person--a professor, or a distinguished visitor in this case, and expect them to make the sense out of it that they did not. Some of his thinking indicated that, while he might have the mind for an artist, he was not perhaps the best person for the present job. He had a sloppy note-pad full of semi-organized jottings rather than a set of questions. Everything was "fascinating" or "really, really interesting."
After he asked her what growing up among ten siblings did for her, she seemed to decide that she would set the agenda for what she said rather than fictionalize a narrative of herself as was expected of her. Laurie is one of the great crowd-pleasing school marm types of the era. When she saw how screwy things would be if she allowed this guy to bring up all his own baloney--I now know that his daughter's name is Odessa-- she told her own stories and only let him in now and then. Not to say she didn't show him a good time--when William S. Burroughs came up, he decided to perform his favorite quote of Bill's in a thoroughly lousy impression of him. Then Laurie who certainly knew better said "What a good imitation of Bill's voice." Was this stroke to humor him while winking to those in the know? Her work is characterized by no single thing more than the double entendre.

The defining moment came right away. He was one of these smug people at UC Berkeley who think that they are part of the anti-establishment associated with historical Berkeley. He said he had heard her brother was an alumnus. She said that was true and that he was here today with his daughter. Interviewer responded, " So you are one of us then." "Keep drawing those lines," she incisively relieved him of his unchallenged hubris.
When he continued to describe Berkeley as the last remaining bastion of resistance and free speech. She recollected her own time in the 60s and asked if it were still that way. I shook my head with a regretful expression. This was entirely visible to Laurie who was seated in a chair eye-level with me, and invisible to the hapless and naive interviewer. Just as well, I didn't dislike him and had no desire to put him off his game. Laurie on the other hand noticed and said she would like to hear more about how Berkeley has changed while appearing to look directly at me. In my fresh fade military haircut, my Lou Reed Raybans, my T-shirt and vegetarian build, and my hearing aid, maybe I looked like someone she could relate to, or maybe she actually recognized me from her book party at City Lights 20 years ago, or maybe it was just my delusion of reference, but she seemed eager to talk to me.

A very hilarious moment occurred next that would be difficult to describe and induce hilarity as such--but it may be amusing nevertheless. The ever homey interviewer mentioned that Laurie had recently gotten married. She said yes, she married her partner of 15 years. In her homey humble way she said, "He's also a musician, his name is Lou Reed." And a lady seated in the row behind us said "O-oh," sounding as if she thought she were having coffee alone with Laurie. I scour the world for laughs and was stoned, so I laughed, but the student-aged girl next to me, and even more so two guys in front of us, were all quaking with laughter. Laurie missed the lady but saw us laughing. She was a little non-plussed for a second, probably curious, but then just she assimilated it as welcome good feeling.

Laurie was very much on about the state of the Union so to speak. She remarked at one point that at least it looked like the Democrat would win and tried to raise a cheer. Small cheer it was too--one thing the interviewer got right was that Berkeley presents a tough audience. Many may think that Senator Obama is too little, too late.
We learned where she will be election night--in Tel Aviv. The intrinsic wrongness of it seemed apparent to many including herself. It seems there had been a switcheroo on the date pulled on her by the Israelis whose concern for American public relations is constant. Perhaps they want a prominent quasi-anti-US government artist to appear on the night Joe Lieberman's preferred War party loses the election. That was pure conjecture on my part. What she said next is more a matter of record. A Israeli official asked her to remove references to the occupation of Iraq from Homeland. He said the reason was that the War was very popular in Israel. It goes without saying naturally that nothing must ever upset or challenge the Israeli people. Her vacillation over this her latest career move--to play Israel-- was obvious. There was however no uncertainty in her following statement that it made it very angry when people try to get her to take things out of her show. I tried to say "Well?" with my eyebrows.

Then it was time for the questions from the peanut (and other assorted nut) gallery. Right away, a guy who eschewed the formality of lining up at the microphone asked her a version of the first question many of us were thinking: "What do you hope to accomplish by going to Tel Aviv?" She bristled slightly which is unusual for her and said she didn't think an artist should have to "accomplish something." In one of a couple of references to Bob Dylan*, she said it was like expecting Dylan to always write protest songs. She may have been a wee bit evasive.
All the other "questioners" really had no questions for her but wanted her response to a few minutes of them rambling on about themselves. The one-hour talk had already been stretched to beyond that and, frankly, I was ready for the out-of-doors. One girl whose point I actually liked--that upon coming in from the country she was struck by the militarization of society citing as an example greenery kept trimmed very short or tall trees with their low branches cut--just went on for too long. In a slightly exasperated but not at all hostile tone of voice I said, "q-u-ess-tion-n!" Nobody gave me a "You're mean" look. She did get to a question of sorts and Laurie picked up on the tree trimming in particular in her reply. "It's not for our safety it's to keep surveillance on us."
The last questioner was the farthest out. Laurie had just advised artists to try changing their voices to discover sides of themselves heretofore unseen. A tall gray-haired woman approximately the same age as Laurie began to address her in a deep, "sexy-knickers" sort of voice. Absurd from the git-go, when she between piling on the ambiguous sexual innuendos it became a humorous performance art act. Laurie, a lover of stories, never cuts people off and seemed interested, maybe she was somewhat flattered. Then the lady said, "It's really great great when we can bounce off each other like this." I had to remark to the young lady next to me--"There's an attempt at seduction to this." "Oh totally," she laughed. "Laurie Anderson taught me to see everything as a double-entendre," I joked.

Then it was smiles all around as the conclusion seemed foregone. Interviewer jested that he could have gone on another few hours. As I shook my head and mouthed "no," Laurie spoke up to say "Don't worry that's not going to happen... and I want to hear from you how Berkeley has changed." It was few only hours before her big show that night and I wasn't joining the scrim of fans eager to chat. I gave her a hearty pranam with arms extended, then I hit the aisle leading toward the rest of the afternoon.

Four days later phony "former-Arab terrorists" were allowed to spread disinformation in the same Wheeler auditorium where Laurie appeared. The University Republicans were allowed to put on this foulness despite the fact that these guys, who toured around the time they were first selling the occupation of Iraq, have already been exposed as frauds in in the NY Times and in the Israeli press. But the people who sold America the bogus "war on terror" wanted another propaganda event to scare voters one more time on the eve of the election. Huge expensive color posters covered the neighborhood. They showed eyes behind an Arabic scarf with "Why We Want to Kill You" written large. I tore down a half-dozen myself.
The reason I mention this is to contrast it with the delusions expressed by Laurie Anderson's interviewer regarding the legacy of free speech at Berkeley. The campus paper The Daily Cal reported that the night of the unwelcome appearance of these evil stooges, UC Police lined the walls of Wheeler. They intimated many out of freely challenging these lying propagandists, and escorted off any who took the microphone to express outrage at government support for toxic Zionism.

*The other mention was to say that Dylan romanticized the loser, made losers cool. In my own thinking, that is why "Like a Rolling Stone" is not a put-down song but a song endorsing personal liberation, the abandonment of bourgeois values.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Back Streets of October

Vignettes of the vibrant life under the stars the quiet hiker sees that the hurrying motorist never sees but can only disperse with his headlights and his noise...

On Dana street approaching Derby, I was aiming home with groceries after an errand-dominated afternoon--cheerful because of my relative success. As I covered the new paved surface I looked out at the glimpse of the Golden Gate you can get from the corner of Ward. It was after seven and the sun had set in rusty dark orange. The seasonal darkness gathered under the trees and it still seemed so early, the way it always does.
Just then, an old delight reawakened when I saw a window lit up for the Hallowe'en season. As I passed I noted the most flamboyant feature a chorus of ceramic pumpkins with a light inside. Next to it was a homey faux-patchwork quilt of a black cat in a leafless tree against a full moon. But what was that spooky face in the small poster above it? By the light of the pumpkin lamp, it looked like a woodcut of Karloff, maybe as the Mummy. What did it say? Oh...OBAMA.
Well, he's an Arab, ain't he?

I remember Hallowe'en the October of the Cuban missile crisis, 1963. I stood on the sidewalk out in front of a place selling Kennedy and Krushchev masks. I thought that it seemed scandalous. How could anyone find fun in the frightening story I'd seen on television?
There's a photo of Bob Dylan from that year, crouching in front a store window with the same masks and grinning. Within a couple of years I was listening to his records and before long I had acquired that wry perspective myself, maybe more so.
Sadly political humor is rarely fun for me any more. After Nixon and Reagan there have few laughs left. The current occupant of the White House makes you laugh with his latest malapropism or inadvertent admission of wrong doing but the laughs dry out fast. The criminal caught out still pays no price and Congress and the Press let his disclaimers go largely unchallenged.
I've become somewhat grave once again, I guess. I'm like the pensive child I was discovering the masks, having heard about the game with nuclear stakes as reported on the black and white picture-tube at home. But I'm younger than that now.

A month ago I had passed a sidewalk border garden with the huge tornado of a cherry plant spilling over its fence over the sidewalk. I tried a few and they were sweet. I firmly believe that food grown on public air-space belongs in part to all. Take only what you can use short term would be a good motto too. California has a tremendous amount of fruit and so forth that goes unused by people often creating a lot of sidewalk mess. It just makes ecological sense too.
So last week I thought of the probability of late ripening tomatoes waiting there for rain and cold nights to spoil them. It was time for my 11 PM walk and I thought I'd go and see. The moon was full or nearly so and the light was brilliant. Clearer weather meant that planets like Mars were still vivid even with the bright moonlight. Orion's belt was making the scene, underscoring again the change of season.
I took Telegraph which had a few revelers who seemed no more full moon-wrought then most nights of lesser moons. Up to Bowditch I walked by the temples and the Park--all the day sleepers are gone from the spot-lit shrubbery now patrolled by a languid shark-like police car.
How boring and adverse to the mind is surveillance to those who do the watching.
Then on Dwight a tall black cop was hand-cuffing a young man across from of the Maybeck temple. They stood behind the revolving strobing cop car while I simultaneously realized someone was wiggling a green laser light on me. Judging by the angle it was from a high-rise dorm across the street. I moved right near here to an apartment on Benvenue shortly after I'd relocated to California. Right after I did, 50 feet from this spot, I was shot by a pellet from one of these dorms, so this game is no mystery to me now. I just hoped it wasn't a gun sight and then it was gone.
So a little flushed by all of this, I turned onto Benvenue. Way down the sidewalk I saw a figure approaching that got more and more familiar as it did. It was an rather intense person, a work acquaintance who I had socialized with a little. We greeted and kept on trucking. It was to my relief. I didn't particularly want to explain my mission, really. Seen walking away from home at midnight, I had intrigues of my own.
I arrived at the garden sidewalk and there certainly was fruit. Most had been picked but an abundance lay close to the earth. I harvested a modest amount. From the other direction a guy with his dog came home to the house next door. He must have seen me sitting on the stoop as he ran inside. Perhaps he was not so much frightened of me but rather loathe to embarrass a peaceful gleaner. This is what we expect in Berkeley--co-existence whenever possible. And I soon had enough of the ripe fruit.
Heading back through the mystery-laden streets home, I took a path through the deserted Willard park. Away from the street lamps off in the grass, the full moon and the redwoods came forth. The night sounded a faraway train.
When I got in I started the tomatoes in garlic and olive oil while I boiled a pot of water for some whole wheat fusilli. Greatly reduced, somewhat seasoned, the cherry tomatoes made a sweet fresh sauce for my midnight repast. Some indefinable element is added to such a meal, like food cooked outdoors, or from farmer's markets, some conscious naturalism that enriches quotidian life.

Darkness had fallen while I was at 5 o'clock Mass. It was the Mass of All Hallowed and it took place on All Hallowed's Even, commonly called Hallowe'en. It was the Celtic New Year and the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest at this point in the year.
Lacking a carved turnip lantern and a disguise, I relied on my usual seasonal demeanor to carry me through the residential streets of Berkeley on my long walk from the Rockridge to my Southside digs. I had even worn a necktie, a rich shiny paisley brocade cut thin contrary to prevailing fashion. This was with a dark grey shirt, a burgundy coat bought for my Canadian train journey in 2005, and my usual ensemble of black pants, boots, gloves and beret--I looked to be dressed for the occasion.
Outside a hair salon where she worked I told a girl in a sexy bunny costume that I had just seen another bunny girl outside the post office if she was looking for her. She was gracious-- beautiful young women can be so nice to non-threatening middled aged guys. I also hailed a guy in the smoker's courtyard of that little subterranean bar along the way. He was dressed as a giant glass of Guinness stout and on Hallowe'en I feel friendly liberties are in order, a carnival esprit de vie.
Next I traveled down through Fairview Park to the Elmwood, my neighborhood for twenty years, fifteen of them in a quiet place on Woolsey. I often still walk the flowery neat sidewalks of Benvenue, street of my first Berkeley address almost thirty years ago. Or I take Hillegas, its stately tree-lined first block south of Alcatraz avenue, kids dreaming in the leaves, which culminates at Woolsey with a rustic looking cottage towered over by a magnificent redwood stand. Other times I slink along the strange overgrown lane called Bateman that locals have long altered to read Batman on the street signs.
This night I was seduced by a booth overtaking the Benvenue sidewalk near Webster. You passed through opaque curtains of filaments and maybe clear plastic strips--I was already spellbound, had smoked me wee smoke on the block previous with the pumpkins. Indeed, there had been a remarkable jack-o-lantern composed of a synthetic fractal-esque material yet lit by a live candle--time marches on.
Exiting the booth, I entered a very floral yard containing two houses and tonight there was spooky sound and various eerie tableaux arranged through its narrow garden. A lady attired as a witch busied herself with some arcane activity in one place, a group of little ones were collecting candy at the other. I enjoyed walking out again with the happy kids and parents. On the sidewalk approaching the post office a very serious and intent little girl walked came toward alone dressed as a sort of glitter fairy--it is fascinating to witness the intensity kids bring to Hallowe'en.
I crossed Alcatraz and entered into a more frenzied zone of holiday observation. Russell street has become a magnet for area kids and someone on nearby Benvenue had gone to some lengths to erect an attraction as well. I don't know what it was life-sized crude cubistic figures in some sort of frightful gore scene. I tuned in more to the kids and their vibes, a contact high of sorts.
Older kids cruise around subject to public displays of loud off-key, tuneless singing of insipidly sexy pop hits. Younger kids keep on eye on the older ones lest their need to show-off suddenly involve themselves. Most of the really young have hovering parents anyway.
One year I walked up Russell and was less than rewarded by what there was to see by way of spook houses and Hallowe'en ambiance. But to kids it's fun alley and I ca dig that. Locally speaking, I have always favored the upper Solano avenue area for a neighborhood Hallowe'en experience. Especially back in the days when all the shops would have school kids paint Hallowe'en scenes on their store windows. One could stroll around as an adult costumed or otherwise and see trick-or-treaters, get a scoop of store-made ice-cream and stroll by the schol park and the Masonic lodge with its occult glyphs. Ah, twentieth-century pleasures all flown, all changed...who cares?

Weary, I sat on some familiar cement steps a moment or two. The last time I sat had there, a puzzling young man had asked my opinion on a small tree's likeliness to fall on a parked car sometime soon. I recognized the same tree this night despite the darkness. What looked like a little headless skeleton emerged from it--it was a little black boy carrying his mask.
As I forged on, I found myself being rapidly followed by a group of six excited 13 year-old girls all sugared-up, chattering and laughing. I had to start laughing myself as they closed-in. It grew to be too much and I finally stood aside and let them pass. My life is like a Val Lewton movie. I nodded to their smiling dad-figure coming up behind and let him go too.

I approached the slightly more mature precincts of the Southside. This early in the evening the students had not yet got their proverbial freak on. Perhaps a few fireworks, rockets were launched in People's Park as I passed by, that sort of thing. Fibrillations of portent vibrated in the dry plants in the trees and phantom rain was perceived. Ahead of the stars, two planets hung brightly in an arc as I orbited back down Bancroft way on foot.
I think back to the Hallowe'ens of my fifties youth in New England, of bat-haunted Goodrum's tower, homespun witches and gypsies, little pirates with burnt cork beards, silhouettes around a bonfire of leaves. And I know remembering that bonfire I can still catch a fire from it and enter the dream of haunted All Hallowed's Eve.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Another Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Weekend

Weather forecast predicted showers Saturday for the music festival in the park, but I let not that prognostication slow down my intrepid quest for euphoria in the rough...

When I saw the poster for this year's festival--a pig wearing a bowler hat and smoking a pipe-- it resonated well as a simple amusing design and it gave me an idea for verbal self-defense if necessary. In a couple of years past I have noted, and have had to deflect some myself, voracious pot mooches. They scan the crowd for innocent self-provident smokers and their companions who observe the quaint but seriously out-moded custom of passing the pipe. Acceptable perhaps for lovers and kissing cousins, for most others I tend to forfend. who wants to absorb the saliva of strangers? Particularly with this moocher type who just wants to hoover-up everyone's stash despite his having had plenty already. And as Mr. Carlin once observed, you can't get stoned twice, you are just wasting your stash. The surplus THC is like air traffic circling waiting to land.
Once you have had three to four deep inhalations of smoke, held for ten seconds or so, of high quality medical grade marijuana, you are high as you can get. Actually if you wait a minute after just one hit it's enough for a lot of people. If you smoke more you won't necessarily get higher you will only be stoned longer. I say necessarily only because if you switch to another variety of marijuana you can add nuances of different THC genetic fibrillations and arguably get higher. I tend to make blends that are comprised of both Sativa and Indica varieties and usually have strains that contain both.
So if such a character should have asked me for some of what I was smoking, and if then he didn't quietly accepting my right to refuse his demand, I might say, "Hey, you look familiar...isn't that you on this year's poster?" With relief, the snappy comeback wasn't required.
The preceding digression was in fact very much to the point concerning Hardly Strictly. A classical musician from San Diego I met at the N-Judah stop Sunday night, remarked to me, "I was surprised at the sheer amount of marijuana being smoked at the festival." I told him one of my favorite moments was when they announced from the stage that tobacco smoking was completely prohibited but that medical marijuana smoking was permitted everywhere in the park.

Saturday turned out to be sunny and the air and the greenery seemed freshened by the rain. Looking out over the crystal clear Bay as I inclined down Bancroft, I saw no more weather clouds looming to the West. I set out on my hejira carrying my food and water.
A lot of young people waited on the train platform most looking more like old time hippies with post-mod incongruities. The country herbal hippies were headed for Hardly Strictly but a another fascinating group were headed to the Love Parade and event in downtown San Francisco. These were even younger than country-types and were festooned in more glittery and garish apparel--the drug of choice for rave-style dance events such as this one tended toward the artificial energy variety.
In the Muni station a different crowd than the weekday commuters filled the waiting area. No seats at first for my already achy skeletal-muscular system. But I happily stood among really attractive teen-aged girls wearing, as one did, outfits like a fishnet shirt over a bikini top, eye-catching make-up, and short-short skirt. Everyone was smiley and a wee bit excited.
"You young folks ought to give seats to the old folks. You'll get to heaven faster," said somebody-- maybe it was me. Anyroad, I scored a seat among another contingent of two girls laughed about it when I sat with their cute boyfriend. He sullenly left his leg rubbing against me--it's all barely sublimated sexiness with this crowd.
When their stop came up and off went the crystalline revelers, an old Chinese guy who spoke fairly good English sat next to me and asked what they were about. I said they were going to the Love Parade. "What is the meaning of that?" he asked. It's about love-- they are young and sexy and they love each other.
At long last we were out on Judah and I knew my proper stop--the previous day I'd gotten off too early 31st street and had to traverse a little of the kind of hill and dale in the park that I try to avoid. Young athletes abounded as I rounded the polo field to hit the Star stage. It was relaxed and roomy as I joined the crowd in front of Chris Hillman and the Desert Rose Band. This was a one-off reunion and it was immediately clear there was no rust on them--they sounded unmistakably like musicians who play all the time--in other bands though not this classic line-up. Hillman sounded great and really stirred up great feeling when he played songs he did with the Byrds ("You and Me") and with the Flying Burrito Brothers ("Wheels") both among the turntable hits in my home for decades. His lead guitarist was real virtuoso and played those perfect country runs like a speeded-up special effects phenomenon.
I had my shortbread cookie made with canabutter washed it down with a jar of coffee. In no time the music was having a profound effect and that elusive and endlessly compatible euphoria set in, The world once again seemed a very lovely and welcoming place.
Which is not to say it is always a utopia at the festival. While at that spot I was mildly put out by cigarette smokers in the thickets upwind and then some miscreant lit a long-burning cigar in there. Then a wispy haired hippie crone camped nearby with an increasingly nervous pit-bullish dog. I petted him and tried to chill him out a little but there is no peace for a dog in a large crowd with amplified music unless he has been so-trained.
Next up the fine Del McCoury band and their state-of-the-art bluegrass. Their song "Moneyland" perfectly fit the current state of affairs in which tax-payers are being forced to socialize the losses incurred by Wall Street greed-monsters who made immoral private fortunes out of their pyramid schemes. I stood and cheered it from my hillside spot and Del nodded to me in acknowledgment. Bluegrass stars are down-to-earth people.
I sat down and resumed my lunch of garden fresh tomato, cuke, and carrot slices, with some Ryvita sesame crackers. I noticed a little girl with her family the next blanket observing me, I said hi. You can bring spirits, beer, wine, whatever--but I wasn't drinking, people enjoyed their pot right and left--but I wasn't smoking. Perhaps she wondered about this old guy who clearly enjoyed the music and danced whenever possible, what was my secret? She wouldn't have noticed the massive cookie I ate when I first arrived here.

The set drew to a close with widespread dancing and as it did all the spaces between folks seemed to become filled. The next set was to be Planet Drum led by Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead and tie-died and tangled haired youngsters filled every available space in anticipation of it. The commotion frightened the nearby dog to the extent that he was shivering, cowering and growling. I said so to the lady who pretended not to hear me. But the guy behind her nodded vigorously with a frightened look of his own on his face. Hardly Strictly should really take a look at their policy on dogs because people will do the dumbest things.

I made my way to the center of the festival on Speedway meadows. My objective was the Arrow stage where the venerable country swing aggregate Asleep at the Wheel fired-up their theme song "Miles and Miles of Texas" as I approached the stage front. It was all dancing at this stage and the band was happy to cause some revelry. One tipsy gal dancing with her friend tried to get me to contact dance with her but I was doing my best just to be able to stand and groove. I finally said that maybe if I had a drink... "Oh you don't need a drink," she pestered. At last she found a willing partner and let me be. Very cool steel pedal player with a cocked cowboy hat looked like the real Texas roadhouse thing and played that way too. I stayed for most of their set before setting out to see an hear Steve Earle.
Using my round the white tent approach I got fairly close to the Banjo stage. "Here's one I'm going to keep singing until it comes true," he announced before performing his paean for peace in the Holyland, "Jerusalem". To be honest it began to seem to me that I had heard him sing most of the songs he was singing here before. I began to fade toward the Western horizon before his set was finished. I could hear him in the stirring moments that I turned to look back as I got farther and farther way. You see first the Banjo stage then both the Banjo and the Star stages still lit up still emanating music as you move toward the far end of the meadows into the shadowy areas of the park. "This Land Is Your Land" followed until I crossed the hillock and descended to the polo field with only the moon and stars for company.

Every night after returning I have diner, a bath, and rest up watching a film. By Sunday I awoke in sort of an achy state of grace and after a brief wavering period I am bound for my trip. Breezy and cooler but under full sunlight I left wearing my trusty all weather-coat with the lining zipped-in--it sometimes makes for overly warm or somewhat encumbered travel, but it is my clothing, shelter and stand-by for the maritime end of Golden Gate park in October. Travel was freaked-out only by a crowded N-Judah train that despite it's destination sign knocked-off around Kezar stadium. The disgruntled crowd stood waiting for the next crowded train in no great mood. Fortunately it had room for us and I found myself in conversation with an 80 year-old German-American man who urged a lot of health and body-care ideas on me. Heard his story of moving to Canada, then San Francisco in the early sixties where he bought a house despite low wages in those days. He takes a ferry to Marin for a hot-springs and spa--seems very glad to meet with cordial conversation. I try to be at least a minor saint and offer a sympathetic ear to those whom fate puts in proximity.
Then I am the last of the apparent Bluegrass pilgrims to climb off way out at 33rd avenue. A brilliant day over the park and, down another street, on the glistening ocean. Once again I hook a turn a the end of the Polo field to the Star stage where I can already hear "Friend of the Devil" the old Grateful Dead chestnut being performed by another old chestnut--Elvis Costello. If I count carefully I can remember how many times I have seen him play since the first time in 1978. Yet he's always good and often great. To his credit he made a Country LP way back around 1980 so he can't be called a roots Americana band-wagon hopper.
The hillside where I easily settled-in yesterday has become quite heavily-populated for his set but I found a suitably rustic spot with a fair view. It felt like a balcony seat off above the stage.I'd had a wee bit of caramel before setting out but here it was time for my cookie--an oatmeal-raisin with it's little "medical use only" sticker. Elvis brought Emmylou to join him on "Love Hurts" the perennial weeper she recorded with Gram Parsons. The energy level seemed to climbing or was it just my confections coming on? He hit a predictable peak with his classic version of "What's So Funny 'bout Peace Love and Understanding?" Its author Nick Lowe had played here yesterday, unwitnessed by this reporter.
Then, with a good deal of pomp and circumstance, Elvis brought out thirty or forty members of a Welsh male chorus. Their voices got to come in for half of the end of the song. Costello certainly doesn't lack for taking himself quite seriously.
Next up was Gogol Bordello-- crazed punked-up Hungarian Gypsy sword-dance music of which I am no fan. They seemed an unfortunate choice to me and like Planet Drum yesterday brought in a younger wilder crowd as if this scene needed another demographic hoard. But One accepts and moves on, in my case to the Rooster stage where the gentleman who calls himself Iron and Wine was playing. The new hard-line traffic control of the one road makes for horrendous chose points at the few built-in crossing points. This was only schoolyard fun compared to the traffic on the path that leads up the hillside over the Rooster stage. I was much too high for such sluggish situations and used my all-terrain boots to make better time in the margins. But the whole area including my old strategic post over the side of the stage was packed. So I just continued my hike around to the back of the bowl around Marx Meadows to a vantage over the back of the stage. Quite plainly I could see and hear the lone singer strumming acoustic guitar and facing away from me toward the crowd. I found the least precarious spot to camp and enjoy my fresh vegetables and Ryvita. A little girl and a smaller boy had wandered from their guardians to play on the hillside opposite from me in the ravine. It's steep with plenty of sharp cuttings around I watched them a little. After a while the little boy had hurt himself and was crying--I wanted to help him but it meant climbing down then up, and would probably only end up scaring them.
Iron and Wine sounded fine, a really good voice is actually quite rare. Most in hearing range would affirm that they were hearing one then in what is probably the prettiest setting of the festival. From my perch it was inevitable that I would contemplate the larger picture as well as simply digging the music like every one else. Just then in my revery a couple climbed up from to the edge of a cane break of reeds across from me. They was some distance away but very plainly visible, when suddenly the girl's pants went down and buttocks gleamed in the sunshine.
I laughed wagged my finger humorously then held up and read my program while she squatted. People bring in beer and other liquids and sit in the crowd and drink all afternoon. She was down a long time--maybe this was as far as she could make it. I might have been more huffy if I had never sneaked a leak in this park. Poor girls--its seldom as easy for them urinate without facilities.
As Gogol Bordello frenzied attack echoed down the meadow from the distant Star stage. I packed-up for my next Stage--the Arrow with Pegi Young and if we were lucky her husband Neil. On my route I stopped for one song by Loudon Wainwright III. He had a good draw and they were eating his wry educated humorous song schtick right up. Some respect to him but I caught him in Northampton once over thirty years ago. That was kind of enough. I recall I boldly asked him from my seat in the crowd where he was from. "Katmandu, Nepal," he fibbed.

Back along the dusty trail, I trudged to vantage point over the side of the Arrow Stage. Soon deciding that this wouldn't do and if Neil came out a stampede for good spots would ensue. So down I plunged on a risky slope that had the advantage of depositing me decidedly in advance of the crowd. Pegi Young came out with a very fine tight band. I was especially impressed by her steel pedal player who was an obvious master. The bass and drums were equally propulsive as well-- these were all cats who were part of the rural California professional musician crowd that Neil Young played and recorded with. Neil however didn't turn out to be waiting in the wings but I stuck with them even in light of Pegi's sort of middling gifts as a singer.
Next to me in front of the stage was a small group of rather obnoxiously bellowing space hogs. Their whooping and growling seemed less in response to the music than an unneeded attempt to enforce excessive territoriality. The alpha figure looked like a Jim Henson version of a wild boar. Pegi finished a song and said it was a cheerful song about the war. "About what? What did she say?" he bellowed a few times. "The war," I said. "The what?" he belched. "About the war," a girl replied no doubt hoping as I had to shut him. "The war?" his stupidity seemed boundless.
"By that she means the invasion and occupation of Iraq," I told him. "Call it anything you want," he replied seeming defensive. I realized that he and his companions, who continually came and went were all very Jewish. He then resumed his oblivious charging about his claim. soon he was joined by a guy looking like he was trying for a combination Old Testament desert prophet and a Rastafarian--scraggly beard, dreadle-locks, shirtless with various identity signifying adornments. He faced the boar and began hopping up and down while they zoomed off each other. I realize that in all my Hardly Strictly history there have been quite a few obnoxious characters spotted in my vicinity but that these were hands-down the least pleasant. I shifted to another area of the crowd nearby.
And after some last coffee and Turkish dried apricots I had renewed energy enough for the traditional closing set my Emmylou Harris. I used my tried and true method of circling the white tents to slip into the crowd quite close to the high Banjo stage where she came on with a band playing all traditional bluegrass instruments--each an accomplished master. Emmylou was as always queen of the scene--Gillian Welsh, who for some reason was absent this year, may well be princess but Emmylou reigns. Dolly Parton is kind of a superstar who transcends the genre the way Eric Clapton is a rock star not a blues guitarist.
Again the issue of a nearby sixty-year-old hippie lady--the velvet, the jewelry, the long dyed hair--with a nervous muscle dog. This one was better than yesterdays but clearly was ill at ease toward the front of a assembly of forty-thousand people. I understand why an older woman might feel safe having a sturdy canine companion living near Haight-Ashbury with its transient population, but what they have to bring them not only to a huge festival but to the middle rather than just to the edge of the crowd, is beyond me. This dogs habit was to shoulder against everyone with a confused urgency. It was time to migrate again but before I did I once again tried to say something to her but she showed little inclination to listen so I left her to impose other peoples fun and safety not mine. The trouble with anarchy is that too often people will do the stupidest and least considerate things when they have the liberty.

Regardless of such thoughts, forgiveness is my religion and I wasn't going to let any trivial matter obtrude on Emmylou's heart-felt Gospel songs and just living-life songs rendered with her subtle and exquisitely expressive voice. As always I stayed until the very end, after benefactor Warren Hellman came out to join them on banjo, after the light began to retreat over the sea, and after the security guys gave up the front-most lawn for dancing. I was the first one there and as I busted my achy body moves I saw Emmylou looking down chuckling and beaming. Then one of the security guys an older black, a Southerner I expect who digs this white country music played by masters, he started dancing a buck-and-wing move similar to the one I fallen into. Ah, but then it was over, the bright lights were on and someone was chattering good-bye on stage.
I turned around and started making my long walk out of the park.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Strictly Hardly Strictly Again

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is the annual free idyll in Golden Gate park with simple provisions, dozens of American music acts on five stages, and forty thousand or so similarly inclined music lovers.

Every year in San Francisco a wealthy investment bankerearns quantum credits in good karma by spending millions to put on a free music festival. Originally it was a one day event called Strictly Bluegrass, headlined by Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle. I knew about the first event in 2001 as I listen to bluegrass programs radio every weekend--but I didn't make it to that first one.
Great impressions followed it into local legend though. When it returned as a two day event the next year, I began an acquaintance which has become a tradition. Once again an obligation compelled me to miss the Saturday show headlined by Steve Earle. I set out from Berkeley after the days music had started on Sunday. Arriving mid-afternoon leaves me better-equipped to return home at 7PM, a practise I maintain. I make an effort to get moving, but travel can be perilous, and I do miss some acts, but my days of all-day anything festivals are in the past. This is so even for music as mild as bluegrass or chamber music, whatever. There's also the Louvre effect of having passed one's fill of art.

How quaint and ideal was my first Sunday bluegrass concert in Speedway Meadow. Instinctively I decided to use the N-Judah rail line to get close and walk. Waiting for a bus connection at the far end I befriended a young couple also from Berkeley as I recall. A little more acquainted with the area I advised on crossing the last leg of the trip. We took a bus to the de Young museum there a shuttle van offered to drop us at the festival. A winding tour of the park added to the Wonderland effect Golden Gate park can have on you after a rather long journey to it.
At last we were there right on a roadway overlooking the stage, a manageable crowd and a few tents. What was immediately striking was that there was no sign of commercialism anywhere--the no-name bottled water was free, no tickets meant you could approach from any direction, no logos anywhere just the cool stage signs. A bouyant feeling pervaded the smiling crowd of older bluegrass aficionados and young folks like the people I was with. They found friends and we joined them on their blankets. When it looked like nobody wanted to buy the T-shirts they gave them away along with a free poster. Early Sunday they had given away blankets with the festival logo that also hadn't sold well Saturday. It was like you finally found the legendary land of love in Golden Gate park that we heard about all those years ago. But instead of the Diggers and the Dead it was coming from a billionaire with a conscience and a desire to see as many others as possible enjoying the music he enjoyed.

Emmylou closed the show with her soulful voice and music. Just behind the stage is a small man made lake and, as the day receded under a few evocative clouds, a chevron of ducks took off to fly over the stage and the crowd. The magic is palpable and it happens the same way every year despite the ever-swelling crowd.
While my newfound friends were off to other excitements, I made my way out to a fortuitous bus and beyond. I caught buses the first few festivals but in the intervening years I switched to walking out through the darkened park with the others. It is a phantasmagoria in itself with unexpected spaces and abstract-expressionistic tree silhouettes. It redoubles the adventure of the whole day.
One tree that I was struck by resembled a large seahorse. In subsequent years I occasionally doubted that I had taken the right path out until I would look up and see the seahorse tree. In fact I began to notice another sensation just before seeing the tree. On the undulating walkway I would invariably find that my legs felt like they were giving-out. On this walkway you thought you were descending but you were actually walking uphill. It had to be an optical illusion caused by the lay of the surrounding land. This combined with the Seahorse tree that immediately followed it made for quite a Fortean moment for me, a recurring mystery.
Renewed I'd stagger uphill to Judah street and have a rest on Muni and Bart before my last walk home in Berkeley. In the following years I have never missed a day of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. So I come home make dinner take a hot bath watch a movie then get ready to do it again the next morning. Until that blissfully exhausted Sunday rolls around again.

Over those years, the number of stages grew from one to five, very well-known musicians have turned up to perform, and the crowds have grown and grown. Somehow even today it never overwhelms the very accommodating and resilient parkscape. The sound is always good despite the intersections where more than stage is audible. You can enjoy even the most remote performers when you can hear them.
Following what look like a flow of humanity through the wilderness rivaling biblical proportions, I too joined a crowd in the vicinity of the Star stage where Dolly Parton was strumming a dulcimer in a fringed cowgirl dress and a Marie Antoinette hairdo. "She's even pretty from a m-i-i-ile away," I proclaimed in my best hillbilly voice.
I was close enough to know it really was Willie Nelson sparkling up there on the Banjo stage one year. And of course who else could ever sound so good? At the end of one sterling chain of songs played without a pause, the crowd cheered so loud and long that the laconic Willie had to say, "I hear ya."
Beyond the traditional heroes such as Doc Watson, other musical favorites of mine over the years have occurred in little side festivals at the Rooster stage starring cats like great singer song-writer Jesse Winchester, or the guitarists extraordinaire Jorma Kaukonen and Richard Thompson on a day last year. Or last year's Friday afternoon show featuring Jeff Tweedy gifted singer of the consistently fine band Wilco. All in the most beautifully rugged settings with suitably cool marine-influenced October weather.
The sea is just over the not-distant horizon of trees.

I always catch Steve Earle's closing sets on the Banjo stage on Saturdays which alternate between himself with Bluegrass bands and himself with a various others doing more of his solo act--last year with a rhythm machine and his spouse Allison More on vocals. He usually does his "John Lynde Walker" blues a provocative song attempting to take the perspective of the "American Taliban" so-called, a kid from nearby Marin county, who was abused and railroaded. Between this song and others like it and Earle's between song banter, if there are any of bluegrass music's more reactionary adherents in the crowd they know what to expect the message to be.
Steve's act is sometimes subject to the most ironic co-incidence as has been the festival in general the past two years but not this year. That is the simultaneous extreme intrusions by the Blue Angels jet fighters demonstrating their terrible powers in a deafeningly display over the city of San Francisco and Golden Gate park. While I listened to Earle sing "Just another poor boy/ off to fight a rich man's war" with only an acoustic guitar in a quiet glade, four low-flying jets torqued through the sky just overhead. This year when the ducks flew over his stage again, he remarked, "That's so much better than the fuckin' Blue Angels."

Emmylou closing set remains the consistent highlight for me. As the daylight fades and the colors of the leafy painted scrim behind the stage stand out, as the clouds coming in from the sea turn dark violet, and a certain tired timelessness settles in over the crowd, her songs of the pain of life and a gospel-like hope could not felt as deeply anywhere else. One early year her mother was present introduced and sitting on stage and Emmylou always brings out the festivals benefactor at the end and he gets a real hand.
Then there was the year I found myself face to face with Emmylou and a helper after her set. This was the year that Arnold Schwartzenegger fronted for the Republicans in a recall of our recently and duly elected governor. This, as everyone knows, led to a state of affairs where the unelected governor of my state was the Terminator and the unelected president of my country was one of the fucking flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. Trying in vain to avoid that fate, in an effort to lose Arnold some votes from the so-called "values-voters," I made poster-sized copies of a photograph of him that I suspect he wished wasn't taken. I remembered an old issue of SPY magazine that ran a piece about Arnold's somewhat unsavory time starting out to be a celebrity body-builder. The article ran with a photo of him posing in full frontal nudity. I found it in an old box--saved for a Beat Generation piece it also ran--and and they say, blew it up. Lest anyone think it was unambiguously admiring of the extreme vanity shot, I added the caption "Fuck Arnold."
I left copies around and inserted them in the front windows of free newspaper boxes and what have you and I happened to have brought some to that Hardly Strictly. I had one left when I ran into Emmylou and thinking quickly I offered it to her saying it was a picture of you-know-who. She took it, unrolled it halfway for a look, and thanked me for it. I like to think that it ended up on the wall of her tour bus, or maybe her band's.
Our meeting took place in near darkness while the crowd dispersed in all directions. That was part of the thrill in the past but now they have installed many more light towers that are turned on before the last notes resound. In doing so they have reduced that sort of slightly frantic excitement of leaving the darkened and dispersing festival.

This year, the eighth festival began at the end of the first gloomy week of October. Rumors of economic devastation and yet another massive dirty deal by the administration rained on everyone's garden. I felt a cold coming on, I was out of brandy and out of smoke and had no opportunity to restock in time. I would have to brave the festival largely on edibles from my freezer--not a terrible fate rather almost a preference for me now. Never is the music and fun of the event more experienced more profoundly than after a cookie made with high-grade cannabis butter.
The weather was in transition as well, a somewhat humid overcast day was forecast to turn to rain by five o'clock. That was just about the time the headliners would take the stage at the rain-or-shine-music festival. Adding to a sense of foreboding was the fact that the headliners were a duo that included the lead singer from of the most notorious and popular hard-rock bands of all time. Robert Plant together with American country singer Allison Krause would showcase works from their celebrated collaborative album together with producer and musician T-Bone Burnett.
Over the years I have devised certain strategies for travel into the festival and for enjoying the music while negotiating the crowds. I stick to my N-Judah strategy and stay on as fellow bluegrass-seekers disembark from 19th to 25th streets. I remain on board all the way to 34th street--sometimes I see a fellow local or two take this knowledgeable route. I had found through previous experience that all the earlier stops which may be more lateral with the Speedway meadow center of the event, nevertheless entail dusty trails over hill and dale with tempting but ill-advised shortcuts. While the way I go takes straight path a gradual slope down to the polo field which is encircled by a smooth paved track that I can walk swiftly with little impact on my feet and legs. Such impacts accumulate over the course of the weekend and together with a great deal of sitting on the ground produce a great many aches by the time it's over.
Predictably the crowd for the single Banjo stage show was biblical as well. Wending my way to the extreme right flank I advanced as far as I could without a lot of effort and sat down in one of the interstices of exposed ground between the land claims of the earlier settlers. Kids lolled around in Led Zeppelin t-shirts and in general it was the highest level of unlikely bluegrass fans I had seen there to date. Jerry Douglas was finishing up his set no doubt to the satisfaction of the more authentic country music devotees. I devoured a caramel with a jar of coffee I'd brought in.
After a long pause between acts the stirring vocal harmony of Plant and Krause brought the crowd to life. I realized that I was behind a typical forest of standing tall guys and must relocate in order to enjoy the show. The crowd extended well into the area between the food vendors with not a promising direction to be seen. So I resorted to joining the refugees who take precarious positions on the ever-eroding hillside that flanks the field. After a steep climb I found a spot with a good sight-line to the stage and all I had to do to remain there was to stamp down the sliding loose dirt and brace myself to sit down.
Binoculars would have helped but otherwise I was good for a third of the show. From this distance Plant still looked fair and young. He cranked up a few Zeppelin-sized vocals as well to the cheerful approval of the audience. "Fortune Teller" the old Northern Soul classic in a sweet and hoodoo-inflected new version was a show-stopper.
I had a view of the whole stage framed by the branches of a tree, but I was too far from the stars to fully enjoy myself. Unlike 75-80% of the present day attendees, I don't come for the elaborate picnics, for endless beer or wine, for the socializing, the cell-phone calls, and the incessant loud gabbing that drones on and on-- I come for the music.
I took advantage of a momentary twilight-zone created by T-Bone Burnett's eerie tune "Earlier Bahgdad" and came back down onto the meadow. As cooking food smoke and the strange music and the overcast loomed over the huge crowd they were lulled like tranquilized bees.
I was determined to try a ploy that had previously been successful to get up close. The roadway, where I was once courteously dropped off, is now heavily structured with fencing that keeps people from crossing except for at a few choke points this is so a firetruck as I did so observe can drive through despite the crowds. The front of the stage is now this way as well with hard-fencing, a large area for invitees only, bleacher seats that form barriers, and other intrusive facts-on-the-ground--frankly it ain't the wide open space it used to be.
My route entailed following the road as if to leave then slipping in behind the white tents and merging into the crowd up front. Walking directly toward the front of the stage is hampered by profuse security guards in yellow jackets who determine who can pass back to the blanketed area and who will be blocked and have to mill around off to the side.
I just go wide and there is always room for me. I work my way forward and I'm generally in front of the stage by the last phase. There it was that I finished the show dancing to "Gone, Gone, Gone" an old Everly Brothers tune revived by these professionals who take a long view of country music.
But for a few drops, the rain had held off as I walked out past the dark deserted polo field. I past the last stretch of trees where I had spied a coyote last year. This time I noticed a massive vine growing up a tree to resemble the artist Jeff Koons' work "Puppy", a large topiary sculpture of a terrier.
I mentioned the coyote to another exiting pilgrim. As we walked on he said he was originally from Iowa and mentioned Kerouac's descriptions of his travels through it. We glanced back at the 20th Century America Jack wrote about. Then I had to dash to catch the train. When we came out of a tunnel shortly afterward, it was raining.