The Statistics of Suicide.

I actually wrote this about a year ago in my personal blog, about something that happened on my way home from my old job.

I guess if I had to pick a day to die in San Francisco, today would have been a pretty good one.

It started with helicopters, just as it always does at the Discovery Museum. Normally, the sound of passing aircraft doesn’t elicit a response from me, but this time the motors sounded close. I figured it was just a low-flying plane; not much cause for concern. Outside the doors of the Playhouse, I could see Brian and Matt standing in the middle of the plaza, talking into their radios and looking upward.

Liz came in moments later. “You hear that?” she said as the thud-thud-thud of the helicopters stagnated above us. “Come with me,” she said. I had been out the last time this happened. We have a big field next to the museum; the nearest open area to the bridge. If someone survives, the Coast Guard lands in the field until an ambulance can get there. Sometimes they wait there as a precaution.

“Yeah, I should mention that this happens sometimes,” she said to Zoe and Justine, two new-ish girls who hadn’t yet been present for a ‘situation on the bridge’. It happens with stunning regularity, and, due to our waterfront location, we almost always end up inadvertently affected by it when it does happen.

We went to the front gate to see what stage of crisis they were in. A small CHP helicopter was parked near the edge of the grass, with a handful of emergency personnel standing near the head of it; waiting. Making smalltalk until they were needed. It was 4:15 and nearing the end of my shift, so twenty minutes later I was in my car and headed for the bridge.

Traffic didn’t seem awful until the on-ramp. Cars for miles, just short of a standstill. But at least they were moving, and moving faster than the cars on the northbound side, which weren’t moving at all. It was a tough merge, but we were still more go than stop. It didn’t seem to indicate anything more traumatic than maybe a fender-bender.

I kept an eye out. Besides the traffic, and besides the fact that it was 72 and sunny, it looked like an average Saturday afternoon in San Francisco. Joggers, cyclists, and dog-walkers ambled by. Everyone had their windows down; Top 40 songs wafted over the rumble of engines. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. On one side, the city on the edge of the world, and on the other, just the Pacific and the great, gaping horizon.

Just when I had assumed it was another mysterious traffic jam without rhyme or with very little reason, I caught the caution tape out of the corner of my left eye. It was surprising. It was pretty far down; near the toll booths — most people aim for the center.

I knew it was tacky of me and I knew it was going to hurt, but I looked anyway.

I made a quick glance and caught it all. The long-haired cop presiding over the scene, flanked by his colleagues in harnesses ready to make a quick dive if necessary. All of them an equal distance apart from one another, hands on hips, looking down. Their motorcycles leaning lazily against the railing just outside the tape.

And at their ankles, a dirty-looking man in a red windbreaker on the other side of the bars, looking down and clinging to the side of the bridge. A clear, sharp city skyline behind him.

“Oh my God,” I breathed without even really thinking about it. I got what I asked for, so I turned to face my windshield and drive away.

And just like that, the traffic was gone. In one quick motion all the rubberneckers in front of me were sliding through the toll booths and on their way home.

There was a flush of adrenaline, and my limbs went a little weak. I lifted my foot to the gas. It felt heavy.

And the whole way home, a statistic floated in front of me:

They always pick the San Francisco side.

Update: According to my stats, this entry is getting a lot of interest. For all who are interested, there is a fantastic New Yorker piece from a couple years back that gives some background to this little vignette: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/10/13/031013fa_fact

I Wrote This: Frank Turner: Hardcore-Folk’s Barroom Hero

Remember this entry?

I made it happen.

Last week I sat down with the talented and charming Frank Turner before his show at Bottom of the Hill. It was supposed to be just a review, with a possible Q&A, if the interview turned out to be compelling enough to read. It ended up being, without a doubt, the best thing I’ve written in about two years.

The version that was put up today was edited, in some cases rather heavily. I’m posting my original draft here so you can get a clearer, fuller picture of what went down, and a better understanding of his personality. I am also working on a way to link to a transcript of the interview, because he had a lot of really interesting stuff to say. He just used a lot of words — about 4,500 of them, to be precise — to say it, and I know that long of a draft will only interest a certain amount of people and totally alienate the rest.

However, I am very, very proud of this story, and pleased I got to meet Frank and hear what he had to say. I hope he was pleased to meet me, too. I’d love to do it again sometime.

http://www.crawdaddy.com/index.php/2011/05/12/frank-turner-hardcore-folks-barroom-hero/

If Frank Turner weren’t a professional musician, he’d likely be a paleontologist – or possibly a sea captain; he hasn’t decided yet. He’s already been a research assistant, and also a computer programmer, a career that, as I suggest one evening in San Francisco, he can always fall back on if his current gig doesn’t work out. However, in light of the sold-out show he’s hours away from headlining, that doesn’t seem very likely.

photo by Megan Amable

Frank on stage at Bottom of the Hill, May 2011

Turner has, in only a handful of years, become the kind of artist that inspires tattoos in his fans. Of his lyrics, mostly, but also of his logo: a large black X, with his initials filling the horizontal gaps and “HC” on the vertical — Frank Turner Hard Core. It certainly helps that most of his choruses, even out of context, represent a credo, a code, a battle cry. His songs are cast in a sense of urgency, bordering on panic, about the looming threat of death.

But they’re also coated in a rare glee, a giddiness to even be alive in the first place. None of it is very punk rock at all, but that’s what most people would call him.

On the spectrum of punk rock, which has only grown more complex and accommodating since the genre’s big bang in the late ’70s, Turner is still an outlier. In sound, he’s one of the last people you’d expect Epitaph Records to snap up. But in all other respects — his desperate, breathless delivery, his defiance and his unwillingness to settle down — he’s right at home on the flagship punk label, which became his American home in 2009.

Turner has arrived in San Francisco just in time for the city’s annual heat wave — 85 degrees in the first week of May. He doesn’t mind: as soon as I find him, waiting at the bar in the dimly-lit Bottom of the Hill, he requests that we “go sit in the sunshine”. I oblige, as the sun has retreated behind the rooftops and a breeze is coming in, the latter of which can’t be good news for the fire that’s raging somewhere across town. We escape into a central atrium, a place that, even amidst the sound of helicopters droning somewhere in the distance, is still the quietest place in the already-quiet Potrero Hill neighborhood. Aside from the amorphous swatch of smoke that hangs over the downtown skyline, it’s one of those pleasant, postcard-pretty evenings in the city.

“That is a well-worn notebook,” he observes as I take out the notebook I’ve had since college. The notebook is almost full, and makes sort of a sad, defeated sound when I drop it on the table in front of me. He folds up a pair of limited-edition Ray-Bans and places them on his side of the table. We get down to business.

All of your songs have such a sense of urgency; they’re all about life and death. Did anything happen to inspire this?

“No, I’m not like a plane crash survivor or anything…A lot of what I do is motivated by the fact that I’m terrified by the concept of death, but in a good way,” Turner doesn’t make eye contact when he speaks. When he talks, his head is often down or to the side, his eyes searching for something to focus on. “Time is short, and well, uh…I can’t remember who said it; I think it was Pliny who said, ‘Art is long and life is short’. I think. It might be Cicero.” (I look it up later. It was Hippocrates.)

“So yeah,” he continues in his charmingly anxious way. “I don’t know, it just kind of seems to me like we should get on with things. Like, I would love to be a paleontologist…”

He pauses and pulls a vibrating phone – and then another phone – out of his pocket.

 Two phones?

“Oh, I know, it makes me look like a drug dealer. American phone, British phone, that’s my excuse,” he says.

“Yeah, and, you know I’d love to be a paleontologist but that’s kind of a lifetime. I’d love to be a botanist, I’d love to be a sea captain, I’d love to be a stunt pilot…”

 Are there even any jobs for sea captains these days?

“Yeah, you know, apparently! I was reading somewhere – this is actually my long-term plan, if everything goes to shit…apparently they’re having a real difficulty finding people who want to captain oil tankers because it’s a really, really lonely job…but you get paid a shit-ton of money to do it as a result. And it’s like man, that’s what I’m gonna do, fucking hell. If I’ve got a tragic story to hide, I’m gonna be an oil tank captain.

“…Um, yes. So, anyway, unfortunately there’s no kind of dramatic story about me getting wiped out in a plane crash or anything.”

 Your sound is such a funny little blend of kind of quiet and introspective, but also very defiant. How did you develop that?

“Something I try really hard not to do is to think in an analytical way about songwriting. Because, to me, that’s when bands kind of break the spell. It’s funny; lots of people use folk-punk and all those kinds of things (to describe me).”

 I saw country on the website for this place.

“Funnily enough, I think if I had to choose a genre I’d call myself a country singer…I play my own songs, therefore I’m not a folk singer. Punk, OK fine, but country seems to make sense to me, in the sense that TownesVan Zandt, Gram Parsons, and Ryan Adams are like 3 of my fucking heroes. Especially Townes Van Zandt. He’s like the songwriter’s password. You meet somebody who writes songs, you say, ‘Townes Van Zandt?’ and if they know what you’re talking about, then they’re in the club. If you meet someone who’s a songwriter and they don’t know who Townes Van Zandt is, then you have to play them some, and if they still don’t get it, then they can…get fucked as far as I’m concerned.”

How has coming from a punk rock background influenced your life?

“You know what, I think this is – OK – right – I’m wary of saying what I’m about to say cause I’m aware that I’m partisan on the issue, but, to a degree punk is a youth tribe…(but) I feel like the kids that grew up with punk come away with a philosophy about life. And that to me is why punk is better,” he chuckles. “And that’s why I’m wary of saying that, ‘cause I don’t want to be denigrating to anybody, but it is more or less a youth culture…”

In the end we all grow up to be the same people, more or less.

“Yeah, but I do really strongly feel like punk taught me a lot of things…punk is like a playground for kids to experiment with life; how to treat other people, how to deal with politics, all those kinds of things. Punk taught me things about self-reliance, and about just being honest, and not taking any shit from anybody, or giving anybody else any shit. For me, Black Flag still define how I think about it…” he extends his arm to point out the Black Flag logo tattooed in the inside of his left wrist.

It’s around this time that his tour manager, Jimmy, slips out onto the patio with us and slides a dinner menu in front of Turner. He briefly scans it while I continue.

A lot of songs are so autobiographical…I mean, you don’t necessarily call people out, but…how do your friends, exes, enemies, feel about being used in your songs?

Turner gives a low, devious chuckle. “That’s a good question. For my part, it’s fine because it’s kind of hard to tell unless you know the back story. I write true stories because I’m not very good at making up fiction, but I think it’s always with a degree of circumspection. Certainly, in a number of cases, names have been changed to protect the innocent…in some cases they haven’t. There have been occasions when I’ve had altercations based around songs. Which is a shame, because you know I don’t actually feel like it’s my place to interfere with other peoples’ lives…”

Jimmy comes back out. He needs Frank’s dinner order.

“Um, can I get the pasta special? The penne marinara?” He pronounces pasta in the British custom, with short vowel sounds.

“…And that’s it? You don’t want anything else?” spurts Jimmy, almost incredulous. “I mean, look over the whole menu just to make sure.”

“ OK, with the green salad,” Turner acquiesces. “Thank you.

“So yeah, I’ve had some…I’ve had a shoe thrown at me once.”

 In public?

“Yeah, kind of…it was in a dressing room, but there were other people there. She threw her shoe at my head. She missed, I’m pleased to say. But that was…that was pretty bad,” he laughs a little, at the ground.

 What it’s like to have a room full of people singing your life back at you?

“For the most part it’s cool, that’s what I’m trying to achieve. If I didn’t want that, I wouldn’t be doing this. But there are days when…particularly ‘Long Live the Queen’ can be…”

He looks down and away again, and this time his voice drops off. “Long Live the Queen” is a true story, a song about a dying friend that won him that adoration of fans and some media in England a few years back.

“And it’s funny because that’s, like, everyone’s favorite song. Which is great and fine, and…”

He takes a long pause.

“And the thing is, I know that Lex would be stoked about that.”

 So there’s a real name.

“Yes. And in fact she’d find it hilarious. With that song I made damn fuckin’ sure that Lex’s family were cool with that song before going anywhere near anyone with it. So yeah, there are days when it just feels weird but…such is life, I guess.”

 That’s what you signed up for.

“Right. And that’s a general rule about pretty much everything I do; it’s very difficult for me to complain about, because I could simply not do this, and I’d be fine.”

 How do you keep yourself from going crazy on the road?

“By staying on tour. I would go fucking crazy if I stayed at home…It’s a funny contrast, cause I live a life that’s predicated around freedom, but at the same time, actually I live a very organized life when I’m on tour: you get up, you travel, you do press, do sound check, do the gig. I know what I’m doing for the next like year and a half. It’s in my phone,” he picks up one of his phones and waves it around. “And if I don’t have that structure around, that’s when I start getting too fucked up and start getting back into doing too many drugs and stuff, and just kind of being a fucking mess of a human being, basically.

Photo by Megan Amable

Frank Turner: Songwriter, tattoo enthusiast, and aspiring sea captain.

“And, you know, if you look at the number of shows I do in a year it’s roughly the number of Mondays to Fridays in a year.”

 That’s very true. And I’m sure it’s preferable to sitting in a chair all day.

“It absolutely is, but that’s why to me it’s not a particularly remarkable amount of touring to do. B.B. King did 300 shows a year for like 30 years, without ever once saying to anyone, ‘Check me out, I’m amazing.’ And he’s still doing 150 shows a year, and he’s like 80 years old. And that to me is the inspiration. I don’t really care about bands saying like,” he adopts a mocking rock-star voice that’s sort of Spinal Tap and sort of Tommy Chong, “’Man, we just toured for like 2 months, man,’…well, so did the guy at the office. The guy at the factory just spent 2 months clocking in every morning. I think there is a tendency within rock ‘n’ roll for people to kind of play the martyr card to a degree, and it’s kind of like, do your fuckin’ job, shut up, get on with it. You have the fucking best job in the world.”

 I take one last look through my well-worn notebook.

 OK, that should about do it.

 “Okay! Sweet. We have been yakking for a massive 25 minutes. Now, let’s see who has been texting me…”

He turns his attention toward one of his phones, and I turn my attention toward finding a taqueria, as it is now 7:30 p.m. and I am starving.

There’s a long line outside when I return. Inside, there’s a Johnny Cash pre-show playlist happening as fans filter in. The very first time he came to San Francisco, he played to a room that amounted to “about eight people”. Tonight’s a little different – a sold-out show.

There’s a crush of beards, body jewelry and firmly-raised fists towards the foot of the stage when Turner takes it sometime in the 10 o’clock hour. He starts in on a set list of songs that celebrate folk heroes of all variety, from Bob Dylan to William II to Steve Slater (you know, this guy). People who embody the things Turner took away from his punk rock past, or who seem to demonstrate that they’re pretty happy to be alive.

Even when it’s just him and an acoustic guitar, his shows are passionate. They take on the energy of some kind of religious congregation, especially in smaller venues like this. His stage presence is ebullient, joyous; his fans speak the word of FTHC. Turner shuts his eyes tight when he sings, but opens his mouth so wide that sometimes it’s possible to see a gap in the back of his teeth. You can’t really dance to it, and you can’t really form a pit, but there’s so much emotion bouncing off the walls that your body is telling you to do something in response. All you can really do at a Frank Turner show is shout until your face turns red, and that’s what everyone does for an hour and a half.

Judging by the sold-out crowd, this might be one of the last times he’ll be able to get away with playing small clubs like these. He’ll be back again in the fall to celebrate the release of a new full-length album, England Keep My Bones, by embarking on another tour, this time with a full band to back him up. Maybe it will be easier to dance next time around.

Two days later, Turner posts a photo on Twitter of a new tattoo, just under (or above, depending on your viewing angle) the Black Flag logo: TVZ, for Townes Van Zandt, and a small skeleton key next to it: the songwriter’s password. No matter how big a rock star gets, he’s still someone’s fan.

I Wrote This: The Dresden Dolls at the Warfield, San Francisco

Thanks to the Captain from over at Brainrotting for being my plus-one and holding the camera high above everyone else’s heads.

http://www.crawdaddy.com/index.php/2011/01/03/live-show-review-the-dresden-dolls-at-the-warfield-san-fracisco/

Click the link for more photos and fun stuff. Also, if you wouldn’t mind, click the Facebook ‘like’ button at the bottom. Each and every like feels warm and soothing against my ego.

There are certain cities where the newly-reunited Dresden Dolls must know they are always welcome. Though, there are bound to be Dolls fans in most urban regions of the US and beyond, the Dresden Dolls, a band known for their theatricality, gender-bending and debauchery, thrive in well-known freak capitals like Seattle and New York. Ergo, it makes a whole lot of sense that the Boston-based band felt comfortable spending their first New Year’s Eve together since their 2008 hiatus in the end-all, be-all of freak capitals: San Francisco, California.

The Dresden Dolls, comprised of singer/pianist Amanda Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione, quietly slipped off fans’ radar after the release of their last album in 2008, taking an unannounced, indefinite break. Palmer went solo while Viglione lent his talents to other groups, and most fans lost hope, but remained on standby in the event of a reunion. In October of 2010, the Dolls announced a reunion tour and very quickly hit the road, winding up at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre on New Year’s Eve.

YouTube sensations Pomplamoose kicked things off, setting the tone for the evening with a contagious enthusiasm and an arsenal of fun covers that got the crowd, even those in the balcony, moving. Longtime friend of the band Jason Webley made a surprise appearance, staying just long enough to perform his patented “Drinking Song” and get the crowd inebriated in his own unique and “rather economical” way.

A typical Dresden Dolls show is nothing if not festive, usually marked by costumes, chaos, and pre-show performances organized and acted out by fans. Instead, the night’s show played out like a happy homecoming, like old friends reuniting. Ditching the usual showmanship for a quiet entrance, the band tiptoed onto the stage during Webley’s performance. Palmer was dressed for the occasion in gloves and an elaborate bustle, and Viglione wore track pants instead of his traditional face paint and felt bowler.

After welcoming them with raucous, piercing applause, the audience stayed silent, almost reverent for the Dresden Dolls’ soulful version of T. Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer.” From there, it was a revue of the band’s older material. Viglione lounged behind his kit and Palmer sat at her keyboard with legs stretched out at comfortable angles as the two smiled, narrated, and laughed their way through mellower selections from their 2003 self-titled debut and the popular follow-up Yes, Virginia, easing into heavier songs like “Gravity” and Palmer’s “Astronaut” as the night went on. The audience knew the words to every song, some of which were, as of midnight, eight years old—a lifetime in the age of digital downloads.

Most of the evening was casual and relaxed—so relaxed, in fact, that the set list the band had mapped out ran short. Amidst several unsolicited requests from the audience for the Dolls’ version of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”, a live standard from their glory days, they began killing time with covers and extended versions of their more upbeat songs like “Mandy Goes to Med School.”

As midnight approached, the Dolls invited all of the night’s performers onstage for a round of “Auld Lang Syne”, led by Webley as balloons rained from the ceiling. The Dolls then quickly launched into U2’s “New Year’s Day”, confetti cannons deploying around them.

Though both midnight and the show itself had come and gone, the audience refused to leave. The two encores that followed were closer to the Dolls’ usual antics, with Palmer ending up manhandling fans in the balcony. At 12:37am., the band finally caved and wrapped with “War Pigs”, to the clapping, shouting delight of the audience. Before exiting the stage, the two took a bow and embraced, and seemed genuinely happy. San Francisco has long been known for taking in wanderers, dreamers, and misfits, and if their New Year’s performance was any indication, the Dresden Dolls will always have a loving family of fans in San Francisco.

I Wrote This: The Life and Death and Life of Psychobilly

I owe a lot of people a lot of thanks for making this happen. First, the well-oiled machine at Hellcat Records, where both Nekromantix and Horrorpops are signed. Hellcat’s lightning-fast response times are nearly unheard of in my experience. I might send them a little thank-you in the mail. I’m super-impressed by their work ethic — not something you usually find at record labels.

I also owe a big thanks to my good friend and fellow J-kid Jayne Liu, who worked with me on ye olde Phenomenauts feature for [X]Press way back when. I chose her because, as I told her in my initial e-mail, she’s  good with live shots, and can hold her own when working around the screaming, flailing, shin-kicking masses.

Thanks to all my sources for helping me out, hooking me up, and playing phone tag with me. Everyone I talked to was a really interesting person. Not a boring one among them. I wish I could write about them all separately. People are fascinating. I love meeting them.

And I don’t know who provided the adorable  illustration, but thanks to him/her as well. (I’m sure most psychobilly kids would recoil at the word ‘adorable’, but LOOK AT THOSE HAPPY SMILING MONSTERS IN THE BACK. Cute as hell.)

I’m not going to copy and paste this story, because, well, it’s 3,000 words. So put on some comfy clothes and settle in with…

Psychobilly’s Roots and Renewal: The Genre of Death Lives On

I Wrote This: San Francisco Mixtape Society

With this piece, I officially declare myself a freelancer.

http://www.crawdaddy.com/index.php/2010/07/15/the-san-francisco-mixtape-society-a-conversation/

Annie Lin talks fast, and flaps her hands around while doing it. This could be the gravy boat of coffee in front of her, but it seems natural. Only in San Francisco could she comfortably have a bowl of minestrone soup and coffee for dinner on an evening in July.

Lin has just moved to Potrero Hill, but it’s not the first move she’s made in her lifetime. “I knew John when I lived back in New York,” says Lin. “It’s funny; the two of us are not only from New York, not only from Brooklyn, but from Williamsburg.”

She’s talking about John Verrochi, her co-founder of the San Francisco Mixtape Society. San Francisco Mixtape Society is a bi-monthly meeting at the Makeout Room for mix-making enthusiasts in the Bay Area. Many have tried to install similar events in the Bay Area in the past—there’s a cautionary tale going around of a former mixtape event in San Francisco that required participants to arrive armed with enough copies of their mix for the entire group—but Lin and Verrochi’s SFMTS has been the only Bay Area mixtape-trading event to actually work.

In 2008, both she and her friend John Verocchi happened to find jobs in the Bay Area around the same time. Having frequented an NYC event called Fixtape together, they decided to import the mixtape party to their new home.

“I don’t know if this ever would have happened if it weren’t for the two of us,” says Verrochi. “She was all about it; I was all about it. We just wanted to do it and we did it. We never really had a business model.”

Though based on its East Coast predecessor, San Francisco Mixtape Society feels uniquely San Franciscan: It has all the community and come-as-you-are vibes of a classic Haight-Street collective, but the precise organization and engineering of a Silicon Valley startup.

 

At the July 11th meeting, the theme is “Foreign vs. Familiar.” It’s a small crowd compared to the explosive turnout for the inaugural event in February this year, and the stormy Easter Sunday meeting drew a soggy but sizable crew. This time it’s a scant 40 or so, but they are no less enthusiastic. Prizes are given for audience’s favorite playlist, judge’s choice, and best artwork, which, this time, goes to a woman who has encased her disc in a globe. And they’ve put a new rule into effect: Anyone who brings a mixtape—a mix on an actual audio tape—gets a drink ticket.

It’s no wonder that interested parties from across the country are reaching out to them, asking how they can start their own branch of SFMTS. Groups from Washington DC, New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle have all come knocking, asking if they can start spin-offs in their home cities. The press is heralding SFMTS’ success as evidence of a renewed interest in the art of the mix. Even rumors of a possible book deal are in the air.

Verrochi isn’t ready to start thinking about that just yet. “Besides getting the website in order, I’d simply be happy if we were still around a year from now.”

“I feel like it’s harder to talk to people out here,” says Lin. “The good thing about Mixtape is that it’s a music event you can talk to people at. A show is a common first date, but you can’t really get to know someone while you’re watching a band.

“That’s my dream. I’d love to hear that two people traded mixes and then later hooked up, all because of our event.”

I Wrote This: The Phenomenauts at Homestead Lanes

After a long break from writing due to some family trauma, I’ve returned with a small box in the back of the Metro this week. It was on the front page of Metroactive as of this morning. Not bad for 250 words.

http://www.metroactive.com/music-clubs/phenomenauts.html

THE Phenomenauts are gods among geeks these days, but it wasn’t always as such. Ten years ago, singer/guitarist Angel Nova, drummer Jimmy Boom and former ‘Naut Joebot 1.0 set up camp on Fisherman’s Wharf, busting out ’80s covers on accordions and ukuleles. “We thought we’d show up in costume, make a whole bunch of money, and go home rich and cool,” says Nova. Under the name Space Patrol, they hopped out of a van in white jumpsuits and attracted the attention of passersby. “A lot of people took pictures, but not a lot of people gave us money.”

They still don’t get paid much more than most local indie acts, but they’ve gained a few more fans since then. The Phenomenauts have come a long way since hustling tourists on the wharf. Not only is their name known far and wide across the Bay Area and in certain geeky circles, they’ve got a slightly bigger budget to work with. These days, it’s Have fog machines, lasers and toilet-paper gun, will travel. The band has become legendary for its ghetto-rigged live shows, featuring audience-interactive toys, gadgets and games, and has attracted legions of devout followers who dress alike, organize into regional chapters and write themselves into the Phenomenauts storyline.

 Constantly playing and prepping for the release of The Electric Sheep EP on Aug. 6, the band is busy unleashing new songs on its audiences. “I don’t know what we’re gonna do in the future; the industry’s changing so much,” says Nova. In appropriately futuristic form, Electric Sheep will be available for download only. No matter what they do, it’s always in the name of their ubiquitous slogan: science and honor.

And for old times’ sake, here is the story that started it all. I’ve got more material on these guys than I know what to do with.

I need your opinion.

I’m pretty sure nobody is reading this (yet), but I’m going to throw this out there anyway.

I’m considering submitting one of my features from my last year of school to the SPJ Awards.  I think there is prize money involved.  At the very least, there is some sort of convention in Vegas where I will shake a lot of hands.

I have two features I think I did a pretty darn good job on, and that I think would give me a good shot at winning something.

The first is “Invasion of the Cadets”, from the May/June 2009 issue, and it can be read here.  ‘Cadets’ was a project that started in late January and is still going on.  I got the idea when I decided to swing by a Phenomenauts show at Slim’s a few days before school started, and a man in a helmet gave me a flyer about the upcoming Phenomenaut fan convention at Disneyland.  I had always known their fans were pretty gung-ho, but I didn’t know they were motivated enough to meet up for a day at a theme park nine hours away from the band’s home base in Oakland.  I got in contact with some people from their street team/fan club/whatever and the more people I talked to, the more complex the story became.  The version that ran in [X]Press barely scratched the surface.  There is a much bigger story here than just ‘here are some goofy people that like to dress up in costume and sing songs about space’.   There is so much psychology to the band and to the Cadet movement itself.  I am dying to write a longer version of it.  I still take notes every time I go see them.

Also, keep in mind that I will be sending in PDFs of the pages in the actual magazine, not links to our snoozer of a site.  The art on the ‘Cadets’ looks pretty cool.

My other option is “Return of the Bellows”.  This one is about the accordion beginning to surface in independent music.  It can be read here.

My gut reaction is to turn in ‘Bellows’.  I had a lot of fun writing ‘Cadets’, but often times I feel like the story is only interesting to me and people who already know about the band.  ‘Bellows’ has a broader appeal, and I feel like the writing is much better.  I know I’m never going to be able to write a better lede than ‘Aaron Seeman still smells like propane’.   However, I was also told by a lot of my sources that the story was kind of old news, and a whole bunch of journalists had come sniffin’ around lately to write about it.

I’ve never worked on a story as hard as I worked on ‘Cadets’. I’ve never done that much reporting.  In the same word count as ‘Bellows’, I was able to squeeze in six sources, whereas Bellows only had three; two and a half at best.  The writing in ‘Cadets’, for the sake of efficiency, is very newsy, but the story, I feel, is inherently more colorful.  The characters are much clearer, and the details are very telling.  For a contest called ‘Mark of Excellence’ awards, I want to make sure I show that not only can I write, I can report.

I’m too close to both of these stories, so I’m leaving it up to you. I’ll leave this up for a week or two and ask some human beings before I make my decision.

Also, feel free to leave comments! Talk to me. This blog is pretty lonely right now.

I Wrote This: The Man Behind The Music, [X]Press Magazine

My very last story for my student publication at San Francisco State University. Farewell, 3rd floor Humanities! It’s been a good run.

If you’re in the city, pick up the print version, or check out the digital edition at http://www.sopdigitaledition.com/xpressmag/. There are pictures and stuff.

http://xpress.sfsu.edu/archives/magazine/014251.html

  It is lit like a desk: a reading light skims the top of the console. Daily, David Hegarty punches in and sits down to work, staring fixedly at the documents in front of him, just a cog in a big, big machine. He has been doing this job for the last thirty-one years. And he would not have it any other way.

Patrons of the Castro Theatre in San Francisco have come to expect one thing with their classic movies – a musical introduction by David Hegarty. He comes and goes quietly before almost every evening show. A few minutes before the movie begins, he emerges from behind a black curtain and takes his seat at The Mighty Wurlitzer, the theatre’s in-house organ. He strikes a chord, and suddenly the entire building seems to turn on.

The Castro is closed today, so he is sitting in front of the organ in complete darkness. The only light is the one above the organ console, and the faint shadows of cars on Castro Street creeping through the open door at the back of the theatre. “I don’t have the key to turn the lights on in the house,” he says.

He is a small man – not tiny, but in comparison to the Wurlitzer, anyone can seem diminutive. He is quiet and humble. Everything he says is just barely above a whisper, almost as if he is afraid to disturb the sanctity of a silent, dark theatre.

“I find the organ works best with Broadway; show tunes,” he says, flipping a few switches and drifting into a song. The organ in front of him has four steep tiers of keys, surrounded by a circular panel filled with a dizzying array of buttons and toggle switches. After receiving a degree in Organ Performance and a Master’s in music, he knows his way around a theatre organ. Even when he is surrounded by pitch black that morning, he is snapping switches and pressing buttons like a NASA engineer.

The sound The Mighty Wurlitzer makes has a dreamy, ghostly quality to it, only made dreamier and ghostlier by the dark. The keyboards he plays are connected to a towering collection of pipes on either side of the theater by huge tubes that run under the stage. Hegarty is still captivated by the noise it produces after thirty-one years. Sometimes he will begin a song to demonstrate the settings on the machine, and disappear for minutes at a time.

There was a time when theatre organs were everywhere – before sound was introduced in the twenties, movie houses were built around them. Now, the Bay Area is the last organ outpost before hitting the Pacific. The Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto and both
The Paramount and The Grand Lake in Oakland still have working theatre organs that get regular use. Hegarty has played them all.

Known primarily as the man behind the music at the Castro Theatre, Hegarty has been the head organist since 1978. From his work at the Castro, he has emerged as the go-to guy for the theatre organ in San Francisco. His only job is to play and teach the organ. “I mostly play in churches, and theatres like this one,” he says. “Sometimes I’m hired out for parties and whatnot.”

Hegarty migrated from the Midwest thirty years ago. He was working full-time as a composer in his native Michigan when he decided to leave for California. “I came out here in 1976. It was a nice excuse to get away from those Michigan winters,” he says, allowing himself to crack a smile. “Also, this is just such a colorful place to live.”
He also considers himself a ‘film music historian,’ something that propelled him into the theatre organ world. “I greatly admire the film composers of the early twentieth century,” he says. In Hollywood’s infancy, composers from Eastern Europe began fleeing to the United States to escape Nazi terror. “Many of them settled in Hollywood, and began contributing scores to films.”

Every night, Hegarty deals directly with the ghosts of these composers. It is his job to decide the pre-show playlist. “If it’s a movie that has famous music, there are certain songs I need to play,” he says. “I will rent the movie, listen to the music, and write it out.” Sometimes it’s not so clear. “Often times there are movies that have very little music, or music that isn’t recognizable to people,” he says. “I try to find a link between the movie and the music. If I can’t, there are always great standards that I know people enjoy – Cole Porter and such.”

As soon as he got to San Francisco, he began looking up “influential people” in the Bay Area organ community. Now, some say, he is one of them. He is the only organ instructor in Northern California. He currently teaches seven students, one of which comes all the way from Reno to work with him. “There are no real academic programs for the organ, you just listen to organists that you admire,” he says. “You never really stop learning. It’s a genre of its own – you learn it over time.”

Hegarty is a very lucky man. He has found a way to spend his entire adult life getting paid to do something he loves. Hegarty is a fixture at The Castro–he has been there so long that some people take him for granted. “They come to expect me. Sometimes I get a crowd that isn’t as appreciative, but when I get a good, lively audience, it’s really quite a thrill.”