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San Francisco—April 12 to May 26, 2007
It is Saturday night and there is not much to do so I drop by Aunt Charlie's down in the Tenderloin for the Saturday night show. It starts about 10 but I usually wait until 11 or so when things have warmed up. It is a drag show that attracts a lot of people, some gay, others, like myself, straight. Everyone is welcome. You can't go to Aunt Charlie's and watch the show without shedding a tear or so for Fennochio's in North Beach, which closed in 1999 after 53 years.
Jeana is the MC at Aunt Charlie's, a gal or guy, depending on how you want to think about it. He, or she, is full of spirit. Jeana is a hot-air balloon ready to burst. Jeana likes to turn things upside down, make you think. "Hey, guys, what's this sex thing all about? HA! "
There is fun and expressiveness at Aunt Charlie's that you don't find anywhere else. It is the essence of the fennel herb. It is that dark black sweet bitter licorice loved by the Italians. It tickles you in a way that changes your perspective. Same thing Fennochio's in North Beach did, bringing whole bus loads of straight tourists just to get a buzz from it. It was like visiting the fun house and eating cotton candy. It wrenched you out of a mood, made you feel light-headed. If you were totally bummed on some bad American president, responsible for untold death and destruction, it made you forget it for awhile. It made you forget the bad decision, the poor judgment, the tangled expression, the stubbornness that kills—at least for awhile. It was a little pill of forgetfulness that everyone needs to take now and then to get their perspective back.
But back to Aunt Charlie's. Jeana is the MC but she also introduces herself and performs as "Miss Jeana Lola ..." This is a bawdy Italian babe belting out a song. She dazzles you with the glitter of her jewels, the gush of her spirit. Though anatomically male, she is the essence of everything female. She is the attractor, the magnet, the hips, the vagina, the breasts. She loves to call herself a slut. "Hey, guys, are you all hard now? HA!" She doesn't hold back. Aunt Jane from Florida is probably not going to appreciate Jeana, so take her to Fisherman's Wharf and stuff her with crab. But any visitor who is into a little shock therapy, take 'em to Aunt Charlie's so they have something to talk about back home.
But enough about Aunt Charlie's. You just gotta experience the place.
Dropped by Octavia Lounge on Wednesday to hear singer Elena de la Rosa. As sometimes happens, I had my times mixed up, and she was done singing when I arrived. But she hadn't left. Singer Vicki Burns (photo below) was also there, one of my favorites, and she sat in for a couple of numbers with the Michael Parsons Quartet. It was the first time I had heard Parsons' Quartet, featuring Parsons on Piano, Will Jhur on tenor saxophone, Adam Gay on bass, and Ulf Bjorkbom on drums. Very nice stuff. Parsons is tight and whimsical, with the ability to hold back, then do something angular and weird, reminiscent of Telonious Monk. Jhur has the lyrical sound of Stan Getz.
I will catch Elena another time.
Friday I'm at Taverna on Belden Lane in the late afternoon. The business crowd that swarms the place for lunch has mostly cleared out and gone back to the office or home early. Taverna is mostly empty. The bartender, whom I do not know, is eating lunch at the far end of the bar. At a table near the window at the front are three older ladies having lunch. Two are gray haired, the other dyed and rigid looking. I pick the middle of the bar to avoid their conversation. Nevertheless, they are loud and I can't completely avoid it.
"She's looking for someone to go with her," one of them says.
Another says she is going to Hong Kong in the Summer. She repeats several times, as her friends don't seem to be listening, that she is leaving China through Shanghai. It is not clear if she just has a connection flight in Shanghai or whether she is visiting there as well. I think the former.
They look like they have all been through the mill. This is one of these late lunches with enough wine that things come out. I wasn't sure I wanted to hear much more. I felt like I was listening to tales of compromised lives and late attempts to compensate for them. I concentrated on my wine, a nice full glass of Sauvignon Blanc from Napa, Cisneros Winery, I think. I am surprised that the bartender is being so generous with the boss's wine. But I'm not complaining.
One of the women is now talking about an office mate. "I never knew she ..." I didn't listen to what she never knew. Older women can be sad trying to fill a void that cannot be filled. I know that void and don't even try.
I ask the bartender about the lunch crowd. "Awesome," he says, his voice tired sounding. On Friday on Belden Lane it usually is. The offices purge themselves of their workers, depositing them into the alley with the European-style restaurants and the workers get their reward for laboring in San Francisco. Is slavery really dead in the United States? And is the toilet seat all that clean? Some of these workers look like they are suffering from rashes on their behinds. Anyway, it seems like a sad reward, that forced hour or two of wine, French bread, pasta, pate, prosciutto ... Then what? Or as Miles Davis used to frequently say to folks, "So what?" And what did he mean by that? "So what?" "Who cares?" "Big deal!" Miles was not one to paint a pretty picture and please others. Maybe I will try that on a couple of people.
"Hey, I just found the greatest little new restaurant down on ...?"
"Hey, are you in some kind of mood?"
"Me in a mood? HA!"
And I just walk off.
Okay, I am in a mood. Sorry. I will try to cheer up. But not to please you, god damnit. I'm just tired of the funk. So there!
On the positive side, I have actually come up with something good. On Saturday I was headed down Bush Street in route to Cafe Claude. Earlier in the evening I had heard a PSA for a jazz group at Vignette Restaurant at the Orchard Hotel. I know the Orchard Hotel and told myself nonsense; they don't have music there. But just to be sure I poked my head in the door and jam jam kblam blam, heard the sounds of hot jazz coming from the Vignette restaurant inside the hotel. As usual I was wrong, which is the reason I so frequently check myself. In fact, they were the lovely sounds of a tight jazz trio. Drums that were drum drumming, electric piano that was actually electrifying, and bass that went kplumb, kplumb, kplumb, almost grabbing your hand and making you take a walk with it.
But it was the drums that really caught my attention. I have been paying a lot more attention to drums in recent times. Before, they were just there, like a metronome, to keep the beat, to coordinate the other players so they were in sync. But ever since I read Miles Davis biography, Miles, I started paying a lot more attention. Bad drummers, like his nephew whom he hired, then fired for dropping the beat, drove Miles nuts; great ones, like Tony Williams, he loved. But that wasn't the only reason I started listening. I had started paying attention to Elvin Jones. I had started to hear what others could do also. I heard how the drums, like fine needle work, can stitch the music together. I heard how they could play between the lines, binding the music together in little empty places with rapid ratatatat's that added excitement and bound one unit of sound or measure to another. I had also begun to pay attention to drum solos. For some reason I did not know that drummers base their solos on the tune being played and count the measures as they play; they do not just slam away for awhile till they are exhausted and the other instruments are bored. Okay, see why I check myself so frequently? I'm just plain wrong a lot of the time.
"You actually hear the melody while you're pounding away?" I asked Kamala down at Les Joulins Jazz Bistro down on Ellis Street one evening.
He gave me a look, then said, "Well, of course I do."
"Well, well, yes, of course you do," I said and changed the subject.
I began to listen to drum solos, realizing that they were a lot more than just frenetic pounding—the good ones, anyway. I raised drums to the status of a respected musical instrument, several levels about the metronome. Now I still believe that some drummers just pound away till they become exhausted, playing solos that have little relationship to the composition, but the good drummers do a lot more than that.
At Vignette I was hearing one of the good ones, a young woman by the name of Sheryl Mebane, 30 years old she told me and playing since the age of 11. Tangria is the name of group which she put together and that plays every Saturday at the restaurant. Located on Bush near Powell, it is worth a visit. Sheryl is somethin' else; the lady got rhythm.
One other little discovery at Vignette is the bar. There are two or three page of specials that are expertly prepared. With so many bars in San Francisco that are just run-of-the-mill with bartenders who are not really bartenders at all but people who are between jobs, this was refreshing. But I did not stay forever in the bar sampling specials. I completed my evening's mission by heading down to Cafe Claude where I had noted early that the Terrence Brewer Trio was playing.
Now I thought I knew who Terrence Brewer was. But here again, wrong, wrong, wrong! I had some other group in mind. The music I heard was tight, original, and thoroughly mesmerizing despite the number of cocktails I had consumed up the street. Guitarist Terrence Brewer is a talent formidable, one that I want to know better. Fortunately he's at Cafe Claude at least once a month, so I should be able to do so without much trouble. I see that he's playing the San Francisco Jazz Festival down in Palo Alto in June, but Palo Alto is a long way to go. I do not mind going to Paris or Shanghai but Palo Alto? Never. I either walk or fly where I go.
So what about the weather? Does it matter any more? Isn't the weather just a mood, really? And with climate change, isn't it more of a mental disease? Probably. Nevertheless I still enjoy reporting the weather. So here it is. Walking down Bush Street, it was damp, wet, misty with a little breeze blowing the moisture along. At the Stockton tunnel I stood staring for awhile at the Green Door Ecstasy Massage parlor. It is about where Dan Archer was supposed to have fallen, shot by Briget O'Shaughnessy in Dashiell Hammett's novel, The Maltese Falcon. Only that never happened, whereas this night is real. And there is music and I am in love and you are in love and we are together, one love plus another creating a whole new universe, luminous, glowing, alive. Well, it is nice to think so. Later I walked down Bush to Kearny and over to Sacramento. I broke my rule of only walking or flying. I took the number 1 line bus back up the hill.
On Friday afternoon I went down to Cafe Bastille for a martini. On the way down I walk by Le Central and as usual see ex-mayor Willie Brown in the window having lunch with buds Wilkes Bashford and others. But this time I see the ex-mayor staring out the window looking detached, a little old. He does not seem to be involved in the conversation. This is not the Willie Brown I know. His dark skin looks pale, puffy.
Now a martini is a good way to start your Friday, at least to my way of thinking. Let the others go to the office; let the stupid ones even stay there the whole day. I solve the problem on both sides. I don't go in, and I therefore have no qualms about staying.
I had not been down to Bastille in a few weeks, and it was nice to see that at least one person noticed that I had not been around.
"Right," I said, and "So what?"
She looked hurt but the kid'll get over it. She's tough.
"Hey, sugar," I said.
"Don't hey-sugar me," she said. "You gotta treat your girl right. I'm the only one who even knows you exist."
"Well, the bartender knows I exist," I said, "'cause he just fixed me a drink."
"He fixes anyone a drink."
"Thanks," I said.
"So what?" she asked. She was getting me down. Not good.
I could see she was listening to the music now, ignoring me.
"Coltrane," I said. "The bartender says he doesn't like Coltrane."
"So what?" she said. "I love 'trane."
"'trane?" I asked. "Sound like a friend of yours."
"Now that is not nice," she said.
"So what?" I asked. "Does it matter?"
"No, I guess not," she said, faking a thoughtful look.
"The bartender is from Normandie, not Paris," I said.
"Is that a problem for you?" she asked.
I pretended to think about it. I let out my breath wheezily. "No, I suppose not."
"Are you feeling less depressed," she asked seriously.
"About the same," I said.
I ordered le pâté from the jazz-hating Normandie bartender.
"I didn't say I hate jazz," he said. " Je préfère les classiques."
"Bien sur," I said. " Vous êtes un ennemi du jazz!" I dropped the matter.
Le pâté I have begun to love. It is a bit of an acquired taste with Cornichons and the little olives and lettuce, and you have to learn how to eat it. Once you get it down, though, it can be a whole meal for the price of an appetizer. But it has to be fresh pate, creamy. Then you can make a meal of it, spreading it on pieces of bread, whatever you like. And today the pate was top-notch; fresh, creamy, a little oily, almost, one might say, youthful.
"How was it?" the jazz-hater from Normandie asked.
" Détestable ," I said. I wasn't about to give him an inch. If he hates jazz, I hate le pâté."
And the weather: Weird, as always. You don't want to know about the weather.
Returning to strict mental normalcy on Saturday, I headed over to the Herbst Theatre on Van Ness. I had been invited by the 2nd Annual High School Chinese Singing Contest of San Francisco to be a judge for their contest. Why me, you might well ask. Martin does not sound very Chinese. And your ping ying is pitiful. We have seen it in CoastNews.com before. Fair question. This is the reason: I sponsor a wonderful young Chinese high school girl and she, knowing that I was once a musician and still act like one a lot of the time, thought I was a good choice. I accepted the invitation after checking that there would be other judges as well and that they would be Chinese. In fact there were were five total judges, including Professor Law, who specializes in Asian music at City College of San Francisco. I decided I would concentrate on intonation, phrasing, and general style. Since they were all love songs of one kind or another, the exact words did not matter so much. Nevertheless, I had been supplied with Li Li, a young Chinese high school girl, to translate whenever I wanted. She did an excellent job. "Oh, that means my eyes are only yours." "Oh, that means you are gone but I am being positive." (A little twist there, huh? Whenever do we Anglos take a positive attitude when someone leaves?) "Oh, that means I express my individuality." (And another twist there. We Anglos are so "individual" that many of us never get it together to connect with anyone! Kind of Sad, or Kinda Blue, wouldn't you say Miles My Man?) "Oh, that means my heart bleeds." (Right on with the West there. We are big on thorns and bleeding.)
The contest was to be conducted in two rounds, with seventeen contestants in the first and seven in the second, the judges having eliminated 10. Three winners would be picked from the second round.
I arrived a half hour early. In fact, I was the first judge to arrive, and took my position in the fourth row, which had been reserved for the judges. The view of the stage was excellent. I sit down, relax, look over the program. It is fairly quiet in the theatre. Or it was until I hear some yelling off to my left. I look around.
"You get that tapped down or this show is being cancelled right now," bellows someone. I see a big beefy guy—white, Caucasian, or whatever you want to call it—shouting and running up the side of the theatre. Then the shouting subsides and I contemplate the program again. Li Li comes by and begins to translate some more of the song titles for me. "That one means unlimited love," she says smiling. "No angry ones?" I ask. "No," she says laughing. She is a sweet girl.
The show begins with some ab-lib comedy that is beyond my comprehension. It is youth stuff. They are having fun. There are three guys and two girls on the stage, one of the guys in a cowboy hat, the others with their hair spiked Asian style, and the girls are, well, good looking by anyone's standard. They make me wish I could peel off age. Freshness, aliveness, you know what I mean? Le pâté. Fresh. Creamy. The opposite of the ladies in Traverna; the opposite of our ex mayor, or the guy I glimpsed in the window of Le Central the day before. And sad to say, the opposite of me, I suppose. Youth is fleeting, so grab it hard kiddies! Enjoy it while it is your gift and before you discover that time has stolen your gift. Taste its lips but gently, so that your passion is not judged harshly if it goes a little astray. Love songs, yes, love songs, that is what this event is about, or supposed to be.
My own favorites in the first round were Haimin Chloe Yu (photo below), Sailo Jiang, and Nadie Fung.
When the first round was over we went up stairs to tally our scores and discuss the winners. I had failed to add up my scores downstairs, so I first had to do my additions. I'm embarrassed to say that I'm not good at addition, even though I have a degree in mathematics as well as music. Perhaps if I had been solving differential equations, things would have gone faster. Finally, one of the Chinese guys asked kindly if I needed a calculator. Beads of sweat were beginning to form on my forehead. Finally, I had the numbers. Each was rated on Expression, Style, Audience Reaction, and Overall Impression. Professor Law protested that we should really not judge them on Audience Reaction, an opinion that I partly shared. After looking over the scores and some discussion, we came up with the top seven: Kevin Yu, Terry Yu, Sammie Cheng (photo below), Nadia Fung, Mandy Zhao, Haimin Chloe Yu, and Rebecca Wong.
We went back down stairs and the winners were announced. Round two began. This time I added up the numbers as I went. I rated Sammie, Haimin, and Terry the top three.
We then went into the hall to discuss the winners. We formed a small circle and were beginning to discuss the results, when I suddenly heard shouting from in back of our group. I saw Su, who was the main youth organizer of the event, trying to talk with the large beefy guy who had been shouting and running up and down the theatre before the show. But now he was not listening, just shouting. The judging discussion came to a halt, as we all turned around to see what was happening. There were several other young Chinese guys standing next to Su, part of the stage crew of youth volunteers, I believe. The shouting became angry, out of control, abusive. The beefy guy was talking again about stopping the show. I could not pick up why. Finally I had had it. It was abusive and I did not like it. It was also stopping the judging from taking place. Professor Law, who had previously been ebullient, went silent. Ling Zhang, another of the older judges, looked worried; and the other two younger judges, who I understood latter were local disc jockeys, looked concerned. After listening to the abuse for a minute or two, I went over and asked the beefy guy to treat Su and the others with respect. He was like having pit bull loose back stage. He then turned on me.
"I'm the manager of this theatre," he shouted. "I run things here. Who are you? What is your name? What is your name. WHAT IS YOUR NAME! "
I ignored him and walked back over to the judging circle but he pursued me, stuck his face a few inches from mine and continued shouting "WHO ARE? WHAT IS YOUR NAME? ..." I told him we would call the police if this did not stop. The disc jockeys and Su finally got him away from the judging circle, and orders were given to come up with the winners and get back into the theatre as fast as possible to announce them. There was fear, panic in the air. It wasn't clear what was going to happen next. Was the power going to go off? Was he going to charge into the theatre and tell everyone to get out? No one knew.
But we did it. We rushed the judging, got back to our seats, and the winners were announced. With the audience, at least, we saved face. The "pit bull" was still somewhere back stage raging out of control but he hadn't managed to stop the show before the announcements were made. But right after the announcements, the show was stopped—40 minutes short of the time that was paid for—and the audience filtered out. The bully then ordered the volunteer youth crew out of the theatre.
So what was the problem the second time? The first "problem" could have been handled by simply saying "please tape down the cord." What had made him go "ballistic" again? I pondered that as I took the bus back up Van Ness. Was it possibly the confetti that had been thrown on the stage? The little pieces of paper had littered it for a few moments before two stage crew members came out and swept it up. I had not given it a thought at the time. These were good kids. The best San Francisco has to offer. Thirty of them had worked for months to make this event possible. This was the type of event that city officials are always encouraging youth to get involved in. They had done a wonderful job fund raising and organizing. They had gotten some big donations from Chinese business such as Spices II, such as the Portsmouth Square Garage, such as Soyodo. And these businesses had given because they believed in these kids and in their positive and creative energies. Mayor Gavin Newsom himself wrote the introduction to the program: "I acknowledge and applaud all the youth for their efforts to organize and make this wonderful event happen...."
Then SMACK. Right in the face. A bit bull was let loose and everyone was scurrying to get out of its way and back into the theatre and wrap up the show with what grace could be mustered. One moment you see happy faces, the next you see the expression go out of the young faces, replaced by anxiety and fear. It was ugly to see this change, all induced by one adult person's rage.
Was he going to hit someone? Did he have a gun? It was not clear.
I don't know if it was racially motivated or not. I don't know if it were just aimed at youth. I do know this, however. Had my kids been putting on an Anglo Film Festival or concert and this had occurred, there would "hell to pay." I would demand their money back and get it; I would demand they be paid damages for having an event, that had been months in the planning, spoiled; and I would demand a public apology to the Anglo-American community. I think if it had been Italian youth putting on an Italian arts festival, the results would be the same. Ditto Franco. I would therefore expect to see an apology issued to the Chinese-American community. It is well due them.
To the bully of Herbst Theatre: If you want to assault someone, at least pick on someone your own size next time. But people like you never do that. They prefer to crush flowers and silence love songs. "So what?" you ask. Out of the silence I hear trumpet and drums, ratatatatat, playing a tune called Shame on You!
The Herbst Theatre bully has been identified by name: John Bott.
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