Tag Archives: San Francisco music scene

My Daughter (A Guest Post by My Father)

My father picked this picture because he loves to prove me wrong. I went with my parents on a winter vacation a few years back and hated every minute of it. When I start to rag on him about it, he pulls out this picture and says, “Then why are you smiling?” Prick.

Hey! I’m the guy who has spent a good chunk of his adult life in the company of two very demanding women and I’ve loved every minute of it.

Like my wife, I want to set the record straight on something. Early on my daughter described herself as having “learned English from disciples of the Berkeley Free Speech movement.” I guess that’s true in spirit, but her dates are off. I was still in high school when Mario Savio was doing his thing back in 1964, and my wife was still in France preparing for a career in classical music. We didn’t meet until The Summer of Love, three years later. That doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but when you’re my age and you grew up believing that you were dead once you hit thirty, every year counts.

I grew up in Cole Valley, just south of the Haight. My family wasn’t unusually musical except around the holidays when the whisky-laced punch would bring out the Irish tenor in everyone. The first record I ever bought was “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Tokens, on RCA Victor, and I still think it’s a great song. My interest in music took a quantum leap with The British Invasion and Bob Dylan, and I think it had more to do with the energy they brought to the scene than anything else. Things were pretty listless before those guys. After that awakening, most of the money I earned in my father’s construction business went to records and concerts (after the 50% parental deduction for future college expenses).

I met Nique while lounging on the grass in The Panhandle in ’67, while listening to some guy rap over a portable loudspeaker about some bullshit I couldn’t quite follow. She made the first move, of course, coming up to me and asking, “Why are you staring at me?” in that irresistible accent. I was pretty shy back then, but I couldn’t hold back what I was thinking: “Because you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” She smiled, sat down and we spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the Haight and environs and telling each other about ourselves. Nique really wasn’t that familiar with rock ‘n’ roll, having grown up on classical and jazz, so when we came across a poster showing upcoming gigs at The Fillmore and I asked her to pick one for our first date, she chose Count Basie and Charles Lloyd, skipping right over Chuck Berry, The Byrds and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band,  That blew me away, but it turned out to be a match made in heaven: she taught me about jazz and I taught her about blues and rock ‘n’ roll.

And what better place was there for music than San Francisco in the mid-60’s? It wasn’t all about The San Francisco Sound—music was a like a religion for us. There were so many new ideas and directions in the mix that you could hear something new every day without even trying. San Francisco had great underground radio stations like KMPX and KSAN that would pull music from everywhere and play it around the clock. That’s how I got turned onto Dave Van Ronk, The Move, Bert Jansch, Stephane Grappelli, The Strawbs and all kinds of great music by people who flew under the radar of the pop stations. Of course, it didn’t hurt that we had The Fillmore (both the auditorium and then the Carousel Ballroom) and Winterland. Nique and I spent a majority of our weekends at one or the other until the mid-70’s when the quality started to fade. During the peak, though, we saw Butterfield, Bloomfield (when he decided to show up he was the best there was), Procul Harum, Jethro Tull, The Kinks, Cream (they were booked for like ten shows in a row at one point, first with Butterfield and then Electric Flag), Muddy Waters, The Chambers Brothers, Love, all the classic San Francisco groups—everybody played either The Fillmore or Winterland back then. For some reason, though, that asshole Bill Graham booked the hell out of Iron Butterfly, so we took those weekends off and headed for Tahoe or the beaches.

I remember one gig in particular in, with Eric Burdon & War and a new group called the J. Geils Band playing second bill. Eric Burdon came on stage in one of those tank tops with “Cocaine” in the Coca-Cola lettering, surveyed the crowd and his eyes landed on us . . . well, Nique, especially. Then he looked at me and said into the microphone: “Can I fuck your wife? Yeah, you. Can I fuck your wife? ” Nique stood up and jiggled her tits at him then threw her arms around me. “Guess not,” he said. What was amazing about it is we’d just gotten married the weekend before and we had no idea how Eric Burdon could have figured that out.

As my daughter said, she was a big surprise for both of us (my fault, really), but when Nique decided to go for it, I was really excited. Since she already told you about how we decided to raise her, I can skip that part. My relationship with my daughter has always been more like we’re pals than anything else. She liked hanging out with me and I liked hanging out with her, whether it was walking around the neighborhood or listening to music or going with me to check up on the houses (I became a contractor myself after burning out real quick on the world of social work). She loved sitting next to me watching the Giants on TV and picked up baseball really quickly. I mean, when your eight-year old daughter tells you, “The Giants don’t have a fucking chance against the A’s” in the Loma Prieta series, that’s pretty impressive insight for a kid. Yeah, I know it’s pretty colorful language for a kid, too, but we never thought of it that way (as “disciples” of the Free Speech Movement, I guess). We did tell her to cool it with the language when she was playing with other kids, and she was okay with that.

She also picked up on music pretty quickly, since she heard so much of it growing up and her mother was so good at it. I can play guitar okay, but I’m the only one who likes to hear me sing. Anyway, I remember we’d be hanging out in the living room with the music on, playing games or coloring, and she’d always ask me “What was that sound?” when she heard an instrument or effect she didn’t recognize. I remember when she was about nine or ten she wanted to play in the school band, but wasn’t sure what instrument she wanted to play. When we got to the music store, she made the clerk take out every instrument he had so she could try it. I remember when the guy tried to play the trombone, she stopped him and said, “You’re not very good with that, are you?” I should have known right then she’d be a music critic some day. The upshot was that she wound up learning Nique’s instruments—flute and piano. In her teens she taught herself how to play guitar, but she was into the hard core punk scene then, so it was all white noise at high speed to me. What she hasn’t told you is she has a beautiful singing voice and she used to sing all the time around the house when doing chores or homework. I really miss that.

As far as her reviews are concerned, I think she’s a damned fine writer but I have to confess some of her reviews have been pretty painful for me. Like I said, music was a religion for us baby boomers, and to read someone attacking the music of our heroes and the albums we all thought were unquestionable masterpieces is kind of hard to take. The worst part about it is that she’s often (but not always) right—some of the music I revered really didn’t stand the test of time.

But I still think she has some blind spots. Trying to get her to appreciate Dylan has been like pulling teeth, although lately she seems to be coming around a bit. You may have noticed that most of her classic rock reviews cover British bands and artists, and a lot of the people on her no-fly list are American artists (or American-Canadian). I’ve never been able to get her to appreciate The Band, Bonnie Raitt, Janis Joplin, Tom Waits and a few others who I think have made pretty significant contributions to music. I’ve never figured out how we can be in total agreement on people like Mike Bloomfield and Joni Mitchell and be totally at odds about others who aren’t that far off. Well, it does lead to some pretty entertaining debates, so I guess that’s something. Lately I’ve been trying to get her to appreciate Neil Young a little more, nudging her to start with a little Buffalo Springfield and see where that goes. She’s an independent little cuss, though, so it may take some time.

I just read her post where she described me as an over-the-top enthusiast about music. Guilty as charged. She’s mentioned my music collection, and I have to say it’s either impressive or excessive depending on your perspective. I have around three thousand LP’s (what they call “vinyl” today). It was a bitch to move all of it overseas and make sure nothing got damaged in the process. I tend to be a pack rat, so I’ve kept a lot of things I haven’t heard in years, and though I have some pretty embarrassing moments in my collection, sometimes I get a nice surprise. The other day I stumbled upon Pamela Polland’s debut album—she was a singer-songwriter and pianist from Marin with enough cachet to have Taj Mahal appear on the record—and it’s still a damned fine record.

I think the most important thing about the collection is that my daughter heard all of it and it gave her an understanding of and a love for music that she wouldn’t have had otherwise. You can always tell when someone’s passionate about something because they do it for free. I know she puts a lot of time and energy into the research and the repeated listening, but I also know that she’s doing it only because she loves music and wants to understand it better. Once we had some friends over—it was during her last trip to see us in San Francisco—and one of them suggested she should send some of her stuff to Rolling Stone and earn some real money for her work. She looked at the guy like he was the dumbest motherfucker on the planet and said, “Now why in the fuck would I want to do that? Don’t you see—it would ruin everything!”

For an anti-materialist hippie father, that was a moment of parental nirvana.

$wingin’ Utter$ – Poorly Formed – Review

Poorly Formed Swingin' Utters
There are three things I miss about San Francisco:

  • The food. Seattle’s okay, but it sure ain’t The City. The bread sucks, the pizza sucks, the delis suck, you can’t get good Chinese or Mexican and the fucking place is obsessed with salmon. I hate salmon. The only purpose of salmon is to provide oil for capsules that men can take regularly to decrease the possibility of erectile dysfunction.
  • The whole leather scene, from the omnipresence of kink shops, BDSM instructional resources to the Folsom Street Fair. Seattle is kink-friendly, but horribly lacking in infrastructure.
  • $winging Utter$.

I owe a lot to the Utter$, my favorite local punk band during my high school years. In concert with the whipping and bondage demonstrations at the Fair (for which I was an eager volunteer), the Utter$ provided me with valuable assistance in my efforts to raise my pain threshold, something I felt was absolutely necessary in order to develop a full understanding of BDSM from both ends of the riding crop.

My education progressed by leaps and bounds one weekend when the Utter$ played back-to-back nights for an all-ages crowd at a venue called Bottom of the Hill. This was one of the few places in the City that forced me to insist that my parents provide the transportation. The neighborhood gave me the creeps. Situated at the foot of Potrero Hill in an area populated by auto body shops, construction companies and big rig trailers taking up all the parking spaces, Bottom of the Hill was off the beaten path when it came to reliable public transportation (not to imply that reliable public transportation exists anywhere in San Francisco), and it was a long, unpleasant walk from Noe Valley, day or night. I didn’t drive then, and none of my girlfriends wanted to drive there. So, after agreeing to do the dishes and clean the toilets for a whole month, my mother agreed to chauffeur two girlfriends and me to the dark side of The City and back so we could slam our bodies into strangers to the glorious sound of the $winging Utter$.

This was totally unfair by the way, since it was my mother’s fault I got into BDSM in the first place by leaving her copy of Histoire d’O in plain sight. I blame negligent parenting for the kinky slut I have become.

After two late-night shows featuring two opening acts and the main attraction, I had more bruises than an overripe banana due to my rather enthusiastic moshing style (I never needed a pit). Now, don’t get the impression that this was all about the delightful physical stimulation, because it wasn’t. The Utter$ were a damned good band featuring a lot more variation than most of the punk rockers on the scene. Oh, yeah, they played loud and growled and pounded away at high speed, but they’d also throw in an accordion, a fiddle and hints of Celtic influence. They had expressionist range, too: they could do pure outrage and they could do funny as fuck. I must have seen them half a dozen times (visits occasionally facilitated by a fake ID), and I had a great time every time.

Anyway, in a couple of years I was off to college, and when I returned, San Francisco was well on its way to becoming another soulless financial center with a shit arts-and-music scene and, worst of all, the Utter$ were no more. It seemed that all the stars had aligned to ship my beautiful ass to Seattle, so I left the chilly fog of my youth for the chilly drizzle and sub-par cuisine of the Northwest.

So, it was much to my chagrin or cautious delight that I learned a couple of years ago that the Utter$ had rolled away the stone and experienced rebirth. It wasn’t quite enough to get me to move back home, but it was good to know that they were still kicking ass, as shown on their 2011 release, Here, Under Protest. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the altrockchick back then, but I now have the opportunity to atone for my poor timing by reviewing their new release, Poorly Formed.

It’s an ass-kicking, laughter-shaking, paradigm-breaking blast!

They “shoot-shoot-shoot-shoot-shoot” out of the gate with “The Librarians Are Hiding Something,” a song that indeed made me “drip-drip-drip-drip-drip” (the quotes refer to the ending lines of the verses). Johnny Bonnel still has that natural distortion gate on his voice that gives his vocals an immediate intensity, and he’s perfect for get-your-ass-out-of the-seat openers like this one. The dual vocal on the bridge adds a touch of power-pop to the mix, showing the Utter$ aren’t afraid to piss off the purists. The band is tight, the song sticks in your head and the whole concept of librarians hiding something makes me want to giggle; it’s such an absurd, provocative image, and the lyrics are a hoot!

She said you’re never alone with a schizo
Picked up the phone and said “Is not, is so!”
She’s here to stay I’m here for a visit
The other line will know who the fuck is this?
Just then I make out a sign
And the small print on her book’s spine
One says we’ll never close
The other one belongs to Edgar Allen Poe

The next song, “Brains,” is another great song, both for the vocal interplay and a series of quotable gems, like “If you don’t mind, I’ll say it bluntly/I’ve been acting kind of cunty.” The chorus features a back-and-forth vocal with lines I’ve always wanted to whisper in the ears of all the stupid people I encounter in daily life: “If you want to know a secret, come closer . . . make one wish for brains.” While Johnny wrote these brilliant lyrics, I have to give a kudos to post-hiatus addition Jack Dalrymple for writing a great piece of music with a melodic line that’s both smooth and sufficiently diverse.

Darius Koski gets into the act with his composition “Stuck in a Circle,” a song that begins with a lovely melody over a subdued background before shifting to power mode on the choruses. The song deals with the complexities of relational communication, a topic vulnerable to a flood of traditional clichés, but one which Koski revitalizes with freshness and poignancy:

Sometimes the only things I stumble on are words
The pain is worse than falling down a flight of stairs
We’re all in a circle, it all comes back to you
We’re all recycled, put together with old news

“Pour Beans” provided me with unpleasant memories of airhead young girls invading Union Square in limos to spend a night on the town barfing all over the sidewalks. Despite the grim trip down Memory Lane, I love the sardonic humor of the song. My mood perked up pretty quickly with a C&W tune replete with banjo (!) and slide, “I’m a Little Bit Country,” a first-person exposé of dumb-ass red-state belief systems, full of killer, tortured rhymes:

I’m a little bit country,
And a little bit of an asshole
I’m a little bit hungry
With this little bit of casserole
I’ve a little bit of Sundays
In my little bit of rigmarole
I’ve a little bit of controversy
In this little bit of turmoil

Beneath the humor, though, is a clear disgust with the stupidity of the American yahoo, and their belief that life is better with a “little bits” approach, creating a culture where getting by is preferable to doing anything about the fucking mess we’re in and the mediocrity towards which we continue to slide:

It’s watered down and yet it’s fortified with everything you need
Don’t be bogged down unless you’re horrified with everything you see

The rest of the album displays both the Utter$’ versatility and willingness to surprise us. “In Video” brings the sound back to street punk, featuring a soaring lead guitar solo and counterpoint. It’s a good lead-in for the title track with its memorable theme and intense drive. We then experience an abrupt shift to violin, accordion and acoustic guitar in the introduction to “Greener Grass,” but the song’s middle is a solid rocker about conflicting desires between escaping the bullshit and immersing oneself in the action. “Temporary Contemporary” kicks ass, pure and simple, and the song “A Walk with the Postman” is a hoot with a great fist-shaking crowd response opportunity with the “Hey, Hey” shouts in the final chorus.

“Military Barbara Billingsley” (what a great title!) in an exercise in absurdist punk, contrasting contemporary faces such as Ricky Gervais and Stephen Colbert with the everlasting image of Beaver’s mom. “Dreadlock Dread Reggae” and “The Fake Rat of Dave Navarro” are solid power punk tunes that would make for great back-to-back live performance piece. The album-ender “Sevita Sing” is a sweet duo with Latin touches and lyrics in English and California Spanish.

Never having been one for nostalgia and always skeptical of groups who re-form (see my review of the latest Cranberries album for confirmation), I approached both Here, Under Protest and Poorly Formed with my wariness turned up to full volume. On both albums, these guys broke through my defenses in about 11 seconds, making me want to get up, dance, shout, sing and laugh. The new lineup is their strongest yet because Jack Dalrymple gives them three first-rate songwriters and some very exciting possibilities for new directions. Although purists may frown at the relative eclecticism of the album, I think Poorly Formed is one of their best. Even the most tone-deaf, emotionally-inhibited listener has to be moved by sheer energy of the band and want to share in the fun they’re having making this great music.

Johnny Bonnel said it best in an interview with SF Weekly: “Working together to create something unique should be the world’s motto!” It’s a great motto for Poorly Formed.

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