Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cometbus #51: The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah

I’ve always been a huge fan of Cometbus and I must admit that one of my prouder moments was realizing that my verbiage from an Aaron Cometbus interview I did for Snipehunt magazine in the 90s ended up gracing the back cover of Despite Everything, the Cometbus Omnibus. That said, the last several issues of the zine haven’t captivated me as much as the output from the 90s and early 00s. In more recent issues, Aaron has been expanding his stylistic palette, playing more with both the novelette and various cultural study and journalistic forms. Enjoyable, but not as strong as the diaristic/personal rumination bent he developed throughout the 90s.

That said, I can’t rave enough about Cometbus #51 entitled The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah. #51 is a full-on, cultural history of the booksellers of Telegraph Ave. Moe’s, Cody’s, Shakespeare and Co. take center stage, as do many of the businesses that spring up in their wake such as Rasputin's, Amoeba, Black Oak, Shambala and others. The issue, chock full of Berkeley history and lore from the late 50s to the present, is more than a straight, journalistic investigation. Aaron leaves himself on the page in a big way. This issue is his own ode to books, bookstores, and his beloved Berkeley. A landscape filled not with businessmen, but with larger than life characters and impossible dreamers, petty feuds and gestures of goodwill. The bookstores, their owners and their employees are equal parts intimidating, irritating, and beautiful. Cometbus #51 tries to uncover what drives a person, a place, and an era. At the end of the day, it’s full of reverence, nostalgia, hope, and sadness.

In one review I read of the issue, I saw someone complain that not being from Berkeley and not being familiar with the stores, he just didn’t care about the characters that much. I’ve only been to those stores a handful of times in my life and know nothing about their owners, but I don’t think that matters. I think the writing hits on more universal themes about community—how they’re formed, how they’re maintained, and how they can unravel. Cometbus #51 should connect with anyone who has been part of a scene or who has been trying desperately to break into a scene or is simply trying to make sense of the city around them.

Scott Walker: 30th Century Man

Just had the pleasure of taking in the new Scott Walker doc, Scott Walker: 30th Century Man. I can’t recommend it enough. Lots of great moments, but for music heads out there, the biggest complement I can give is that it’s a music film that is all about the music. Did Scott drink? Don’t know. Did petty rivalries fuel The Walker Brothers break up? Don’t know. The film steers clear of the personality crises, the tales of drink and drug debauchery and focuses solely on the music. Each incarnation of Scott is given a thorough examination—The pop wunderkid of chart toppers The Walker Brothers; The first four solo records with their ornate 60’s production and Jacques Brel-fueled lush melancholia; The Walker's comeback and the re-emergence of Scott as a solo artist; and finally, the newer, darker Scott Walker.

Walker, who has been fairly reclusive for much of the last 20 years, comes across as charming, affable and well spoken in the interview which serves as the spine of the movie. Additionally, the film is filled with incredibly articulate interviews from musicians who were Walker’s peers or who have been influenced by his singing and songwriting. Eno, Bowie, Julian Cope, Marc Almond, Jarvis Cocker, Radiohead and Lulu all weigh in. There are great moments in the film where the music just plays, accompanied by some iTunes visualizer-like effects. It may sound cheesy, but rarely in these kind of docs do you just get to listen to the music. Similarly, there are some nice moments where we see some of the above musicians just sit and listen to Scott Walker records. 15-20 seconds will go by while they listen, enthralled by the sounds, before dissecting the track in question and analyzing the songwriting, the production, or the vocal arrangements. It’s a really nice touch.

The last ½ hour is a bit long for my likes as the film delves deep into Walker’s most recent offerings Tilt and The Drift. These two records are blacker than black, gothic, and melody-free albums that I personally find unlistenable. Their sound is claustrophobic and as a result the film follows suit. Unfortunately, the only time Walker let film cameras into the studio during his solo career was during the recording of The Drift, so it’s no surprise we spend a lot of time there. And to be fair, the recording process is a trip. Percussionists punching sides of beef and lots of weird set-ups to record sounds. Walker seems giddy during these sessions, a far cry from the persona he puts forth on these records. But that said, I’m more of a fan of what Julian Cope refers to as the Walker Brothers “MOR slop”. I’ll take it over the odes to Mussolini’s, strung up, dead lover any day.

But I highly recommend.

NOTE: Great review of the film and a thorough overview of the Walker career at my friend Val's blog Beyond Asiaphilia. And for what it's worth, we saw the movie together.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inauguration Mania

As someone who came of age in the 70s, whose first political memories revolve around Richard Nixon, and who has ultimately lived in an era defined by cynicism toward politicians and politics in general, the election and inauguration of Barack Obama has been nothing short of energizing, exciting, and revelatory. When boomers talk about the promise and hope offered by JFK, RFK, and MLK and the tragedies of their deaths, those are things I’ve understood in theory, but never really felt. The hope offered by Obama, the hope Obama has offered to so many has finally made me see the legacy of those other figures in a new light.

Watching the inauguration and the festivities surrounding the inauguration has been a blast. The campaigning done, the nerves around the election in the rear view mirror, the inauguration has been a time to kick back and revel in the wonder of it all. Do I care about inaugural balls? Not really, but it’s just exciting to watch so many people excited about politics and bask in the glow at the victory party.

I even watched We Are One – The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial. Though I’m about to say a couple of critical things about that event, I don’t want to be perceived as the little black cloud that rains on the parade. Let it be said, I’m digging the parade. I’m glad this event happened, I dug watching it, but I got to throw my two cents in the ring.

If you didn’t see the event, it took place under the steely gaze of Abe Lincoln and essentially alternated music acts and little history lessons delivered by A List actors. The history imparted conjured up the ghosts of Lincoln, FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, JFK, and MLK.

My only beef with the event was that in channeling the spirit of great American leaders, thinkers, and policy makers, the message was delivered by celebrities. I’ve never understood or related to America’s feverish worship of celebrity, but was somewhat disappointed that an event that served to usher in a transformative moment in American politics had the feel and guest list of an awards show. If you turned the sound off, it would have been hard to tell if you were watching an inaugural celebration or the Academy Awards, Grammys, MTV Music or Movie Awards, Golden Globes, etcetera, etcetera.

As Obama clearly recognized in his inaugural address, this country is in crisis. We’re at a crossroads. The path out of our predicament is not clear. The country will need its leaders, its top thinkers, politicians, innovators, and scientists to help pull us out of this mess. It would have been exciting if people who actually embody the intelligence, the spirit, and the fortitude of JFK, FDR, Lincoln, and MLK had been chosen to deliver the historical message surrounding those great leaders.

No offense to the guy who played a talking panda, the women who played the pole dancing love interest of a washed-up wrestler, the guy who does a good impersonation of Ray Charles, or the guy who got the motherfuckin’ snakes off the motherfuckin’ plane, but they’re not going to be the people that pull us out of our national quagmire. They’re actors. They act in movies. They’ll distract us from our problems. And that’s great. Escapism isn’t so bad. And I’m sure we’ll need it.

At least the musicians got it right. They shut up and played their songs. They understood their role and the role of music and did it right. Well, everyone except Bono of course. Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Pete Seeger—did any of these guys use this stage as a platform for their own agenda? No. It’s called class. Bono on the other hand wasn’t content to let the music do the talking. Ego outshines class with this guy. Shout outs to his Irish heritage, to the Israelis and to the Palestinians. Dude. Not the time, not the place. Take a lesson from Little Stevie, From the Boss, from Pete Seeger. A little humility can be a good thing.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Those Clowns in Washington...er...San Francisco Are At It Again

Like many Americans, I was particularly energized by this year’s presidential campaign and overall politicized climate. But rather than just focus on national political issues, I took a little more time exploring local politics. My neighborhood is a working class neighborhood with a lagging commercial corridor filled with 99 cent stores and crime has been a hot button issue with a high profile murder dominating the news earlier in the year. Our supervisor was up for election and I took in my first-ever supervisorial debate back in October. My candidate won, and since I know him in passing, I’m excited to have the ear of someone at City Hall. I had the day off this past Thursday and was therefore excited to go to City Hall for the swearing-in of the new slate of city supervisors.

Boy, did that experience bum my high.

After each of the supes was sworn in, there was a public election of the President of the Board of Supervisors. But before the supervisors could vote on their new President, the floor was open to the public to weigh in on the choice. Now, San Francisco politics often get made fun of on the national stage but I think for all the wrong reasons. I guarantee you that most of those who laugh at our city's political reputation have never been to a supervisors’ meeting. Any topic up for vote is met with a parade of public Joes and Janes weighing in on the topic at hand. First off, let me say, I am glad this is the case. Public debate over civic decisions is a great component of democracy. At these meetings there is always lots of intelligent discussion. That said, there’s always a level of lunatic fringe on display as well—some guy or gal getting up to blow hard and pontificate about the state of things, yet wildly off-topic. You stare at your feet and wonder when their two minutes will be up. That’s a classic SF political moment and ripe for ridicule.

In any event, the public got to weigh in on this election…for about 30 minutes. Glad I brought my book. Not only was it long in the tooth, it really seemed like a waste of time. I honestly couldn’t believe that any supervisor was going to be swayed by what was being said. Come on. They all had to have made up their minds. Right? I’ve seen Milk. I know how SF supervisors handle their business. I know the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” mode of politics. This had to be a done deal.

But boy was I wrong. The actual election was one of the most bizarre and depressing things I’ve seen in a long time. Currently SF has a good method of electing supervisors. Supervisors need to win a majority of the vote in their district to win the election, but because 7-8 people run for each seat, very rarely does a supervisor win the majority on the first ballot. Runoffs are needed and in the past, people have had to head back out to the polls to cast their ballots for the top two vote getters. SF has moved to ranked-choice voting, where you put down your top three candidates on the initial ballot. Once the top two qualifiers are identified, the board of elections can conduct the runoff through the ranked-choice tallies. Simple, yet brilliant.

You would think that voting for the President of the Supervisors would run the same way, but that’s not the case. I’m not sure I can do this justice, but I’ll give it a shot.

In the first round of voting, Sophie Maxwell received 5 votes, and a smattering of supervisors got a couple of votes a piece. You need a majority of 6 votes to win. Nobody got six, so a revote was needed.

In round 2, the roll was called, and Sophie Maxwell got 5 votes and John Avalos (my supe) got 4 votes, and Ross Mirkarimi received 2 votes. No winner. Let’s do it again. People with only a few votes (Ross Mirkarimi, we’re looking at you) were asked to withdraw their candidacy. This request was declined.

In round 3, the supervisors voted the exact same way. Maxwell 5, Avalos 4, Mirkarimi 2.

In round 4, the supervisors voted the exact same way. WTF I was thinking to myself. How long does this go on for?

After round 4, Michela Alioto-Pier makes a passionate plea on behalf of Sophie Maxwell. Fair enough. Let’s try to move out of deadlock with some straight talk and campaigning. Eric Mar of District 1 gets up and makes a passionate plea for considering the candidacy of David Chiu. David Chiu? What? Huh? Did I hear that right? You mean the guy who got no votes through four rounds of voting? (Now to be fair he might have gotten 1 vote in the first round, I can’t be sure). But regardless, What The Fuck? Two candidates have almost enough votes to win, and now we make a plea for someone who hasn’t gotten one vote. What kind of ridiculous political theater is going on here?

It all gets hazy after this. In round 5 Maxwell holds onto her 5 votes and Chiu picks up a couple of votes. In round 6 Avalos votes for Chiu, but other people keep voting for Avalos. Does that make any sense whatsoever? Not to me, especially because Avalos voted 2nd, given his name is at the top of the alphabet. He votes for Chiu and other people are still supporting him? WTF?

In round 6, it moves into a 5 to 5 tie between Maxwell and Chiu. Strangely, the other vote does not go to Avalos. Gadfly extreme Chris Daly casts this rogue vote. Who does Daly vote for? Why that would be himself of course . WTF? Now I don’t know many people who like Chris Daly. This guy seems like the ultimate grandstander. I saw in the paper last week how he bragged about always voting for the winning board president. Well I can see why you can’t lose when you’re playing some dirty pool like that.

In round 8 David Chiu won. You remember him. The guy no one voted for the first 4 times around. Well that guy is your new Board President. I repeat, What The Fuck?

Now keep in mind I didn’t keep copious notes on this, and some of my info might not be totally accurate, but this is a pretty good snapshot of what went down. Now let me also say I know that politics is about alliances and deal making and what not, but this sort of political theater was disheartening. At an event where the city should be celebrating moving forward, where the city should be celebrating the new blood that will run the city, it’s frustrating to see such a blatant display of backroom politics on public display.

And don’t ask me what was proven, what alliances were made, and what factions were formed? I don’t know. I couldn’t figure that out. But it all smacked of politics as usual. The kind of politics that have made Americans so distrustful of their elected leaders. The hope that the Obama election has provided has made it feel like we could be at the dawning of a new era in American politics. With the coming Obama inauguration as a backdrop, I found it particularly disheartening to witness such a public display of politics as usual, especially in a town like San Francisco.

If my take on this is too skewed, jaded, or cynical, please let me know. For another view of the event, one that is more positive and hopeful, check out my good friend Valerie Soe’s thoughts on Beyond Asiaphilia.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Hit It And Quit It: More Movies

The Wrestler directed by Darren Aronofsky
Believe the hype. Mickey Rourke plays aging wrestler Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson who refuses to give up the game even though some serious medical conditions combined with the punishing brutality of the ring suggest that he should pick a new career path. In the wrong hands this could have been a melodramatic mess. Kudos to Darren Aronofsky for playing it downbeat, thoughtful, and introspective. It’s grainy and the quietude is powerful. What do you do when your dream is dying? Heavy stuff man. Great job by Rourke as well. He doesn’t ham it up and doesn’t chew the scenery. Plus the first scene where he serves up deli slices at the grocery store is one of the great comedy scenes of the year. Moments of levity, moments of sincerity, and moments of wrestle-mania mania break up the bleakness at all the right moments. Sure there are a couple of cheesy moments. The over emo blowout with the “I hate you, you were never there for me, get out of my life,” daughter and the “I’m a stripper, you’re a customer, I can’t do this, it’s not right,” love interest are a little cringe-inducing. But those moments are few and far between and those characters have some great scenes of their own to counterbalance the schmaltz. One of the movies of the year.

Revolutionary Road by Sam Mendes
Newsflash. The 50s weren’t all Happy Days and Jan and Dean moments. If this is news to you, you’ll love this film, think it deep and powerful. If you already had a clue to the creeping malaise infesting suburbia and its denizens, then you will like this film, but find a lot of clichéd or “I’ve already seen this" moments. Snark aside, this is a really good film. Leo and Kate play a couple with artistic dreams, but settle down into a Mad Men-like relationship. She’s going quietly insane in the burbs and he’s unwilling to make changes. The film gets really interesting when they hatch a plan to chuck it all, move to Paris and live out there dreams. This ½ hour section in the movie is great and adds a unique dimension to the story and to this story that we’ve all seen before. I won’t play spoiler too much, but the plan doesn’t come to fruition, and all the obstacles in their way, that subsume the last 1/3 of the film, are all the 50s clichés piling up toward a tragic end. Great final scene though, strangely reminiscent of Harold & Maude. And I’ll take my hat off to Leo, he was great. I’ve never felt all that strongly about him either way, but he was fantastic. At the end of the day, this is a good movie. It looks great, evokes a mood, but it could have been a bit more. As a side note, I think Kate Winslet's lips are a bit out of control. They’re kind of a character in their own right. Distracting.

R.I.P. Ron Asheton

All I can say is, take 5:30 minutes today, listen to No Fun, and pay a lot of attention right when Iggy says, "Come on Ron, let me hear you tell 'em how I feel."