The Price Of Bread On Divisadero Street:
´another the letter' from San Francisco

First week of September, Year Three: things were looking grim, now they're looking good again...amazingly, your humble West Coast scribe has not dropped off the planet in a solipsistic mope. Nor have I - as a reader and subject within my last missive, the great smart-pop tunemeister Martin Gordon (his new CD, Baboon In the Basement - out now. Digaroonie), suggested - taken anger out on my Mission District ´hood from atop a Sherman tank. Nosirree, I have instead, at least temporarily, moved home-base to an area of San Francisco not only within shouting distance of the legendary Fillmore Auditorium, but providing of a vantage point from which to better appreciate the uniquely local variables in climate found at this time of year. There is a rule of thumb here - ´if you don't like the weather, wait 48 hours' - and while not having to suffer through the extreme temperatures visited upon other parts of the world this summer, we City folk have had our share of dog-day heat. This being San Francisco, however, it never lasts but so long - and you can bet dollars to donuts that a week later, one can be found standing on any corner uptown or down, huddling in a previously suitable suit jacket, teeth in full chatter effect and wondering ´Hey - wasn't it 90 degrees here a week ago?'

Either way, there's been much to entertain and while me into the beyond recently, be it new books at the beach among the surfers and sunbathers, or tunes on the box over coffee and fig-bars, huddled from the foggy and overcast. One development looming on the lit. front, for ex., is the upcoming 33 and a Third series of slim volumes, each by a different writer, each devoted to a classic album of recent times. Surely a potential recipe for needless, tiresome nostalgia, but if the three I've been lucky to snag are any indication, it might instead make for rather worthwhile reading. One immediate, positive factor in the publisher, Continuum Books' favor, is no two being stylistically alike. True, Andy Miller's take on the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society is pretty much your standard 'track-by-track, what inspired this or that song in Ray Davies' mind' sort of overview, albeit not bad for what it is. Andrew Hultkrans, however, in taking on Love's epochal Forever Changes, chooses to view it through the bigger picture of the social and cultural seismology of the era from whence it sprung, even throwing in some surprising observations regarding the possible effect of Gnostic philosophy on Arthur Lee's lyrics. Blame my East Coast upbringing, though: my personal favorite of the batch has to be Joe Pernice's autobiographic-fiction fantasia on The Smiths' Meat Is Murder. As a musician, Pernice has already been responsible for some fine and charming tuneage -case in point, the Pernice Brothers' Overcome By Happiness - but I was totally unprepared for this. Over little more than a hundred pages, he manages a vivid recollection of a teenage New England Catholic school life circa 1985, in all its conflict and alienation, sexual fumblings and misplaced longing. Along the way occur episodes of early death, bonding with fellow teenage mutant misfits - from a gay musical-theater prodigy attired like something out of John Hughes' movies, to a fellow aspiring musician with Cystic Fibrosis - and weaving through all this, Pernice's own budding interest in music, spurred on by a second hand cassette of the Smiths album in question. Stirring, evocative reading, and like the other two books, it made me want to seek out and hear the music again.

There will be others to follow in the series, spotlighting everyone from Joy Division to MBV, from Dusty Springfield to ABBA, but these first few installments set the bar pretty high for those to come.

So then, to the musical-salvage issue: I must say, I can't not agree with the assembled yelps of glee among this site's staffers, about stuff like the Ze Records catalog being available again. If nothing else, it's great having the original version of 'Contort Yourself' (on Ze's NY No Wave anthol) out in the world again - the one that first appeared within a 12' sleeve, emblazoned with the definitive B/W portrait of Mr. Chance/White in all his Chet Baker-meets-Daffy Duck young man's vainglory. An altogether splendid pileup of atonal slide guitar, random fistfuls of organ and the then Dreaded Disco Beat, over which the tragically underrated Jody Harris applies the Jimmy Nolen mojo underpin to Chance's howls and yowls, it has a fierceness and intent that the more accessible Buy The Contortions LP version, and the ´proper' discoid take essayed by J. White's Blacks, could never replicate.

I only hope the initial opening of the Ze floodgates will come to include later, equally deserving pieces of work from their catalog. Two that especially warrant singling out are Cristina's Sleep It Off album from 1984- a showcase of sharp, caustic musical snapshots of sex, dying and debauch among downtown aspirants to uptown society and vice versa - imagine a Lower East Side Dottie Parker or Carrie Bradshaw with the nicotine pipes of Mme. Faithfull.
Then there's John Cale's stunning Music For A New Society from '82, an album that literally kept me awake the night I first heard it, so affecting and terrifying were its contents. Cale has always been a fascinating to me as a creator, innovator and catalyst within the world of modern music; how his work encompasses delicate, genteel classicism and perilous, deafening discord without one seeming necessarily a contradiction to the other. And if they are contradictory, then that makes Cale all the more a hero and a genius, in my mind anyway.

It would appear that there might be, in fact, a Cale demi-renaissance on the horizon. After seven years without a peep in the pop arena, there came the totally unexpected release of Five Tracks, an EP of five new Cale songs anticipating a full LP, supposedly titled Hobo Sapien, sometime next year. The teaser is indeed a pleaser; it presents all the shades of the man, from the tentative patter (and, yes, right off the bat, even a spot of the patented unhinged Cale shriek) of opening cut ´Verses', into the subway claustrophobia and distinctly NYC millennial nightmares of ´Waiting For Blonde' and ´Chums of Dumpty', eventually depositing the listener off with the all-too-brief piano ballad ´Wilderness Approaching'. It's lush and romantic, edgy and fear-inspiring - pretty much what one has come to expect from John Cale, in other words - elegant proof that his talents as a sound painter, vocalist, and all-around creative animal remain undiminished.

There is also what might well be the definitive - certainly long overdue, in any case - biography of Cale's life, Tim Mitchell's Sedition And Alchemy (Peter Owen Publishers - out now in Europe, due out in the States in October). Mitchell was also responsible for a remarkable and thorough bio of a Cale ´discovery', Jonathan Richman, and he is equivalently unskimping when it comes to the details and drama of Cale's brilliant and wide-ranging career.

Finally, on the local front, there is the pleasure personally derived from Bay Area instrumental collective Mushroom, a band well-versed in the more immediate, visceral aspects of rock/jazz/improv, from 70's Deutscher to Miles Davis street-corner funk environmentalism and further. One might in fact be tempted to mentally crowbar them into the loathsome post-Grateful Dead ´jam-band' pigeonhole, were it not for theirs being a far more substantial and pithy stream than that found in the aimless, herbulent flailings of the Widespread Phishes of the world. Affix to that a firmly respectful disrespect for their musical forebears, in the form of - among other things - song titles like ´The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, But It Will Be Auctioned On Ebay', and you have a musical force to be reckoned with.

Mushroom's most recent effort is yet another musical gauntlet-toss to the stodgy and narrow-minded among us. Mad Dogs And San Franciscans (on the Black Beauty label) is the band's first predominantly non-instrumental album, and in doing so pays tribute to a particularly checkered musical era. Truth be told, it's a sublimely East Bay grease-soaked take on albums like Bowie's Pinups, albeit one that substitutes the interchangeably sweaty and suave strains of early 70's R&B and white soul for those amphetamine Mod ravings so beloved of Dame David. Mushroom's drummer and primary musical theorist Pat O'Hearn (who is also quite the literary light as well, having penned brilliant, as yet unpublished histories of both the British folk and 80's L.A. ´Paisley Underground' scenes) scored big time in his choice of main vocalist, namely San Fran-via-Texas punk/blues legend Gary Floyd, who negotiates his way through tunes by everyone from Curtis Mayfield to Clarence Carter, to the Sheffield soulman venerated in the LP's title, with serious and imperious cool.

So it is, then, that some of us wait for Fall, season-wise - while others wait for The Fall (as in their delayed latest offering, Country On The Click, solely abated a few months ago by a typically stunning Peel Session) - while others still dread the distinct possibility of having a certain celebrity who is no politician and barely an actor run this state. I'm one of those lying in fear of said Terminator, and unlike the great Mr. Blood Ulmer - as famously stated in his song 'Are You Glad To Be In America?' - not lucky enough to have Superman live next door. But what the hey - at least we have Aragorn (OK, so it's a bus kiosk poster of Mr. Mortensen - something else much anticipated in itself) watching over our humble block. As in with music, as in with most things, really, it's all about small comforts when it comes right down to it.

© 2003 Michael Layne Heath.