Category Archives: Bay Area Reporter Archive (1997-2006)

Garrin Benfield: This Side of Nowhere

“It could be that the nowhere place is the brighter place.” — Garrin Benfield.
Photo by Mark Mardon
Garrin Benfield. Photo by Mark Mardon

“There have been times in the last couple of years,” says Garrin Benfield, the bluesy young San Francisco singer/songwriter, “when I’ve felt like there couldn’t be one more thing that was up in the air that was ambiguous, that was undecided or ungrounded. I was just floating around in all of these elements.”

It’s a classic blues sentiment, and goes a long way toward explaining the dark beauty of Benfield’s bitter-sweet new album, Nowhere is Brighter (Eighth Note Records), a semi-thematic work born out of the tensions of love and life in the urban gay world. Benfield gives vent to a lot of the hard knots of being in a relationship where boundaries are ever dissolving and reforming.

“I’ll be really angry, really dark,” Benfield says in anticipation of his CD release concert at the Great American Music Hall on Thursday, May 9. “That’s generally the space I’m in when I’m writing.” He hopes the end product doesn’t come across as bitter or jaded, “but that’s sort of what inspires me to create, getting into those spaces.”

When he stops writing and starts playing, it’s a whole different tune. To hear Benfield play live is to rise above petty cares, to float dreamily on the waves of his voice, sweetly seductive even as it cries of loneliness. That voice’s distinctive, plaintive quality is what draws people into Benfield’s musical world of introspective pop songs and urban folk narratives.

NowhereIsBrighterThe collected songs are masterfully performed by Benfield and his core band members, Ricky Fataar on drums and James “Hutch” Hutchison on bass, along with a star-studded line-up of contributing musicians, including Benfield’s famous pal Boz Scaggs on guitar, and long-time collaborator Michael Rodriguez on keyboards, plus Julie Wolf of Ani DiFranco fame on B-3 Organ and vocals, Bonnie Rait collaborator John Cleary on honky-tonk piano, and Charlie Gillingham of Counting Crows on B-3 Organ, among others. The results are seamlessly presented in an album of great stylistic variety, with zero glitches either in artistry or engineering, demonstrating the truth of the old adage that the best art is created not in times of contentment or elation, but in the down times.

“I just feel so much I’ve lost my sense of you,” Benfield sings in “Lonely Journey,” a lush, bassy, guitar-driven lament at not being able to extract from love all its possibilities. Benfield’s voice sweeps across plains like the wind rolling tumbleweeds. “Won’t you take me away from here,” he pleads, and when the voice rises into a peak of country-western wailing, in the distance you can almost hear coyotes howling.

The album, engineered and mixed by Rodriguez, takes Benfield’s bluesy vocals and masterful guitar playing, adds a country twang, brightens it all up with infectious pop melodies, gives it extra oomph with the classy line-up of collaborating musicians, and sends it cascading one glorious song after another down a waterfall of deep soulful regrets.

“Nothing that I saw on your face/Told me which way to go,” Benfield sings in “To Know,” the inscrutability of his lover gnawing at him, driving him crazy. But the beat and catchy tune, plus the vocal harmonies with Wolf, give the song a happy-go-lucky air. If love gets you down, sing a happy tune and all is well, at least on the outside.

In “I Swear,” Benfield says he’s looking for “the kind of love that dares speak my name.” This snappy Beatles-esque number, which employs Charlie Gillingham on B-3 Organ, fades out gracefully, leaving us pondering a key phrase: “What I’m looking for/Is someone to receive me.”

In “The Sense That I Get,” a straight-up blues number, Benfield employs both acoustic and electric guitar riffs to urge his indecisive lover to “hurry up and make up your mind/Before the door closes on us both.” Boz Scaggs sits in on this one, playing a mean second guitar solo.

What most distinguishes “Home” – another of Benfield’s wind-swept songs, evoking rocky shores far, far from home – is its resonating percussion, a deeply reverberating drone, like rumbling thunder. “When we recorded it, we set up a timed delay,” says Benfield, so that drummer Ricky Fataar “is actually hitting one note and it’s reverberating.”

The saddest-sounding, most gorgeous song on the album is also the simplest: “Nowhere,” the title song, the lyrics of which consist of only those few words: “Nowhere is brighter,” hauntingly sung to the strains of Benfield’s mesmerizing fingerpicking. What he likes about the song is its darkness and lightness colliding: “It could be,” he says, that “the nowhere place is the brighter place, and that’s sort of where I choose to reside.”

Some of the fairy-tale glow that has enveloped Benfield’s life and career up to now – scores of friends and fans have taken inspiration from Benfield’s long-term relationship with photo-artist Joshua Smith, because flowers seem to spring up everywhere the couple steps – some of that brightness has given way to a less carefree, more guarded spirit. While lovers’ bliss was the hallmark of Benfield’s debut album, Living A Dream, with Nowhere is Brighter, you get more of the struggle and estrangement. The overall impact is positive: The blush of innocent youth has faded, leaving a more confident, subtly expressive artist.

“I don’t really have a sense of who my audience is,” says Benfield, but clearly he’s touching a universal chord. On tour with blues-master Scaggs last fall, playing to large crowds at Napa Valley wineries, Benfield found much appreciation from members of the gray-haired set, but he finds just as much enthusiasm from college and nightclub crowds, either on tour or here at home. Certainly he’s popular in San Francisco among fellow gay and lesbian singer/songwriters, as he’s had a slew of artists play at the “GLBT Songwriters Series” he hosts monthly at Bazaar Cafe, a bastion of folk music in the Richmond District.

garrininmarin7-1“Before I die,” says Benfield, having just come from a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young concert at the giant Compaq Center in San Jose, “I want the experience of playing to 30,000 people.” As he stood in the midst of the audience, he kept looking at the stage and saying to himself, “I could do that.”

Indeed he could, as anyone who has experienced Benfield in concert understands. He’s a shoe-in for the big time. And who does he most want to play with before those 30,000 people?

“Well,” Benfield replies in a blink, “I’m just looking forward to playing with the guys on this record, you know, because that’d be great. With these guys I know we’re going to get out there and it’s going to totally be good.”


For more information, visit

This article originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter, May 2, 2002

Outsider moves

FreshMeat_Outsider Moves_Cinderbutte
Sean Dorsey and Mair Culbreth in “The OutsiderChronicles.” Photo: Max Ferman.

When a dance production comes along that involves beauty and imagination to the nth degree, and I’m lucky enough to be there to witness it, I feel incalculably grateful. In the midst of fractured times, for a choreographer/dancer to pull together a full-length evening of flawless dance and story telling is immeasurably wonderful and healing. The boundlessly gifted Sean Dorsey and his Fresh Meat crew performed perfectly this past Friday, November 18, at that jewel of a dance space, ODC Theater, and when it was over, a packed house gave the dancers, musicians and tech crew a much deserved, prolonged standing ovation. No one wanted to leave. Everyone was smitten.

“The Outsider Chronicles”, billed as “a dance theater journey into the world of the gender outsider,” stripped off layers of confusion surrounding the transgender experience, baring a simple, spare, sublime representation of otherness, while retaining that certain mysteriousness that makes transgendered people so alluring. Five dances encompassed a lifetime of experience, mostly told in duets with super handsome Sean and exquisitely beautiful Mair Culbreth, or by Sean solo. In the opening piece “Second Kiss,” Sean and Mair represented two school girls, nine year olds, exploring romance and reeling from confusion. Mair was the cute, pushy girly girl who wanted her first taste of boy lips. She looked over her options, and mistaking Sean for a boy, chose him. Sean, realizing he’d be taking part in a deception, dragged Mair away from his playmates, who knew his true gender, to indulge in the desire he and Mair both shared, albeit with different levels of awareness. They kissed, just once, and rolled around, and found their limbs entwined, then they were lying side by side, breathless. Her passion aroused, Mair then wanted to have a look “down there,” and Sean knew the gig was up. “Oh gross!” reeled Mair, confronted with the evidence. She fled, but soon edged back, taking Sean’s hand. There would be no second kiss. The first kiss, however, was unforgettable.

By the second dance, Sean was all man, androgynous to be sure, but male without a doubt. There was no question he had transitioned. “Red Tie, Red Lipstick” opened with him dressing at a sink, fixing his pressed, starched white shirt and dark suit jacket, arranging his red tie, as Mair, the seductive woman in a red dress, circled slowly around him, dancing to sophisticated electronic lounge music, closing in on her man, the two of them preparing to embark on a night on the town. In a voice-over by hip hop poet/writer Marcus Van, we heard of the couple’s brutal queer-bashing by thugs posing as cops. It was a gritty, gut-wrenching urban tale. The faux-cops spat out the word lesbian as a slur, and dragged the one with the red dress and red lipstick into the shadows. Sean and Mair, danced exquisitely, reflecting all the punches and insults, even as the red dress became irreparably soiled. The dance continued after the physical violence was over, but clearly the saga of the red dress would always be with them.

The other dances were equally affecting, “Six Hours” involved a road trip by car to meet Sean’s dad, who didn’t know Sean now identifies as a man. Mair and Sean in the car bickered endlessly, employing passive aggression and other tricks to work out some of their relationship kinks. In “Creative,” Sean solo danced a hilarious piece about a teenager in school sent to a Guidance Counselor to discuss gender inappropriateness. That piece was about courage, how a teenager wants it and needs it, and how it can fail at crucial times.

A tragic, poetic, adventurous life: Rimbaud

rimbaudRimbaud, by Graham Robb; W.W. Norton & Co., 2000.
The original rebel poet adventurer


SAN FRANCISCO, March, 2001:  


Many Rimbauds have haunted San Francisco. Once this city was resplendent with Rimbauds reciting fiery, fragmented poems in dingy cafés, drinking and carousing, ingesting all kinds of dope, defecating and puking in alleys on their stumbling way home. The general populace appreciated them for channeling our Bohemian spirit with anarchist fervor and literary zeal. They were our anti-heroes.

Now, in a city that even Beat-era poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti concedes has succumbed to the sludge of corporate monoculture, Rimbauds are scarcely seen or heard outside of the Haight and a few other select neighborhoods that still make room for wretched visionaries and vagabond geniuses. Who here now even knows who the original Rimbaud was?!


To loosely paraphrase and embellish upon the latest, most exciting tome in the always churning Rimbaud-studies industry – Graham Robb’s splendid Rimbaud (W. W. Norton & Co., 2000) – he was a teen literary terrorist of late 19th century France who famously sucked up to and came to dominate a married Parisian poet 12 years his senior, Paul Verlaine, who was smitten with the provincial lad’s radical verse, tender body, crude habits, irreverent attitudes, and vast, poetic insights into the nature of humanity, himself, and the written word.

Arthur Rimbaud shredded poor Verlaine emotionally, financially, and poetically (not that Verlaine didn’t try giving as good as he got), turned poetry on its head, gained ill repute as a sodomite, boozer and home destroyer, crossed paths often with the cops, and alienated every other poet and friend. He abruptly said “fuck you” to poetry at age 19 and went slogging around the continent and the East Indies, struggling to find work, constantly destitute, suffering countless indignities and hardships. He eventually made his way to mostly uncharted eastern Africa (Abyssinia/Ethiopia), there to take up trading – of coffee and arms mainly, and possibly of slaves, though Robb takes pains to note that while this latter “commodity” was being heavily traded in the region at the time, and Rimbaud certainly would have had contact with it, no evidence shows Rimbaud’s direct involvement.


With his radical verse he had tried to be a spiritual seer, but his vision took root too slowly among his poet contemporaries to do him much good; now he would strip away all spirituality, looking reality directly in its hard, cold, unforgiving face. Adventure and cash became his goals.


In his new career Rimbaud persevered and eventually excelled under the harshest imaginable conditions, becoming one of France’s most infamous explorers and adventurers, a man of extraordinary cunning and ambition, portrayed by Robb as hard-bitten but fair, often reclusive but engaging and even charming in social circumstances, respectful of and perceptive about his African friends, neighbors, clients, rivals and potential enemies, all of whom in turn respected Rimbaud. Though he complained bitterly of his circumstances in plain-prose letters to his mother and sister, he felt at home under African skies, no matter that his hair had grayed and his skin turned leathery. He emerged a master of the incredibly brutal trading game, constructed of the same outlaw mold (judging from Robb’s description) as contemporary American commodities trader Marc Rich, he of the infamous pardon.

Rimbaud, too, was on the lamb – from his pederastic past, from scandal, from anything even resembling poetry, from the draft board he kept eluding, from the clammy climate back home, from his implacable mother, from the sheer miserableness of his life. He had been a superior perceiver; alas, others (save Verlaine) did not share his perceptions, nor even understand them. With his radical verse he had tried to be a spiritual seer, but his vision took root too slowly among his poet contemporaries to do him much good; now he would strip away all spirituality, looking reality directly in its hard, cold, unforgiving face. Adventure and cash became his goals.

It’s a seamless life Robb vividly portrays, an enormous accomplishment. The great challenge for biographers has been to make sense of Rimbaud despite the distressingly slim documentation of his adult years and the marked difference in personas manifested by Rimbaud in his teens versus his 20s and 30s (he died agonizingly of a cancerous leg at age 37).

Invariably, every biographer comes to the question: Why did Rimbaud give up on poetry? And the answer to that question must serve as the transition from one Rimbaud life to another. Robb’s reply (in part): “Rimbaud’s interest in his own work . . . did not survive the failure of all his adult relationships . . . . Without a constant companion, he was writing in a void. . . . He might have felt in any case that his poetry had crossed the limits of communicability and turned into a simple waste of energy.”

Robb’s intimacy with Rimbaud’s poetry and the field of poetics shines in this work, and those who most savor textual analysis will feel amply rewarded by the book. But Robb’s skills transcend literary interpretation, gripping readers with his delight at historical sleuthing, eagerly filling in gaps with new information and insights and telling us where other biographers have gone astray (he’s particularly harsh on Enid Starkie, one of the first and most famous of Rimbaud’s biographers, who cleaned up Rimbaud’s image to suit Victorian tastes). Robb is both a master researcher and storyteller, having honed his skills on previous, highly acclaimed biographies of Victor Hugo and Balzac. He displays a poetic sensitivity not only to the vulnerable teen versifier but to the rugged adventurer, telling a well-documented tale sure to hold armchair adventurers in thrall with details of camel caravans, Koranic debates, bloody wars, secretive deals, intolerable climates, international intrigue, and daring escapades.

A sense of sheer delight at the subject matter pervades Robb’s Rimbaud. You sense his enthusiasm, and share it. He strips away veils of myth about Rimbaud, who since his death in 1891 has been romanticized to death. Careful not to take too much poetic license (unlike Jeremy Reed’s fabulously impressionistic Delirium, which goes overboard for a wonderful romp), Robb nonetheless breathes life into Rimbaud and all the remarkable characters in his Dickensian life.

From a queer perspective, one shortcoming of this work, as of all speculations on Rimbaud’s life in Africa, is it’s inability to track Rimbaud’s sexuality as a post-poet adventurer. Robb speculates a bit on the relationship of Rimbaud to an Abyssinian woman, Miriam, with whom the trader apparently had a liaison from 1884-86. But any hints of lingering homosexuality on Rimbaud’s part – apart from slim evidence of something between him and his long-time servant, Djami – have vanished. Says Robb: “In fact, there is no sign that Rimbaud had any lasting emotional attachment at all after 1886.”

While that may be true, the conclusion is unsatisfying. It is difficult to accept that the man who as a teenager flaunted his buggery and wrote paeans to the anus now had ceased to be sexual, or at least to take sensual delight in the Abyssinian and Muslim men who constantly surrounded him. Yet Robb, being a responsible scholar, dares not take readers into the realm of speculation, and we must be content for now, until some invaluable, long-lost correspondence turns up to help further demystify Rimbaud, to let Rimbaud remain sexless.

This review originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter, March 15, 2001

A Woman’s India

The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri, Norton, 2008.

the_age_of_shiva_manil_suriSoon after I started reading the novel The Age of Shiva by Bombay-born, Maryland resident Manil Suri — in which the fabric of India unfolds from the perspective of a young woman coming of age just after India’s liberation from British rule — I had to double check the author’s name to confirm that a man, not a woman, was the writer. So few men have the knack for conveying the mind, body, heart and soul of women convincingly, and this novel, written chiefly in the first person, convinced me from the outset that I was experiencing India from a Hindu woman’s point of view. Suri’s portrayal of this woman’s interior life pulses with verisimilitude, and his descriptions of the political and religious currents swirling around her afford a gripping, deeply penetrating portrayal of India’s complex clash of cultures. The novel, Suri’s second, following The Death of Vishnu, possesses the same potent combination of exquisite intimacy, vivid portraiture, rich cultural insights and powerful setting and storyline that enraptured me when I read Anita Diamant’s brilliant The Red Tent, which took me deep into the heart of woman territory in the days of Genesis.

Suri’s novel builds its momentum amid events of Biblical proportion as ancient animosities between Muslims and Hindus give rise to turbulent politics, yet Suri keeps his sharpest focus on the tightly regimented world of Meera, growing up in a family that has known too much of wars, mass migrations, and shattered dreams. The cloistering environment, suffocating traditions, and male-dominated society Meera must navigate as she seeks her own independence illustrate the challenges for Hindu women that persist even today. Meera’s family, after fleeing the new Pakistan for old India, must cope with rising Hindu Nationalism, virulent anti-Muslim sentiment, strict religious traditions, and sharply limited options for women. They’ve settled into some form of upper-middle-class normalcy, yet through Meera’s childhood and as she reaches womanhood, the currents of history and tradition sweep all around her, constantly threatening to ruin her life.

“Everyone knows the bride isn’t supposed to return to her father’s house for three months,” Meera’s new mother-in-law tells her after she marries a young man from a poor family and soon regrets being away from the comforts her father had provided her. Her life with her ineffectual, sad excuse for a husband, and her will to overcome the domineering of her father, all drive her to pursue her perilous course in a turbulent world constantly buffeted by Lord Shiva. But she is Parvati, Shiva’s wife, able to overcome the brute stupidity and dull egotism of males while basking in the sweet sensuousness and keen survival instincts of the females in her life.

In this global age of shifting fortunes and cultures, India looms huge on the American horizon, yet we barely know our new cousins. For many here, India is a caricature of smiling Ganeshas, intense yogis, high-tech call centers, Bollywood and Gandhi.  The Age of Shiva gets under the gloss, exposing the heart of India, connecting us emotionally and spiritually with our Indian kin.

Still Haunting After All These Years: Arthur Evans

It’s Witchcraft!

Arthur Evans

“My goal in writing Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture was to create a better society,” says activist, historian, and philosopher Arthur Evans of the radical gay history published 20 years ago by Fag Rag Books and still in print today. “Every sentence in the book has a political edge to it. Some people view that as a weakness; I view it as a great strength.”

Evans’ tone on this recent afternoon in his tidy Upper Haight Street apartment, where he has lived since the mid-’70s, is one of both aggressive pride and bold defiance. No doubt he has his critics in mind when he touts his own work’s determined bias and intentional lack of neutral “objectivity.”

Though the first and undoubtedly most famous and influential of Evans’ three books to date (the others being The God of Ecstasy in 1988 and Critique of Patriarchal Reason in 1997), Witchcraft, which painstakingly documents centuries of persecution of gay and lesbian pagans by Christians and others, has never been regarded seriously by mainstream scholars, not even by those who are gay or lesbian.

Not that Evans has ever sought mainstream recognition or praise. On the contrary, he has always relished working outside academia. But operating in near isolation can be a lonely endeavor, bound at times to rankle even the most stalwart misanthrope.

Never has Evans harbored any great love for mankind. Which is not to say that, as an openly gay man, he hasn’t loved specific men, and maybe even certain classes of men (likely those who live up to his rigorous ethical standards, or whose marginalized existence as victims of persecution exempts them from critique). But for men in general, Evans holds a great contempt.

The males of our species, Evans has averred both in his writings and in numerous conversations with this writer over the years, are responsible for most of the ills of this world. The term he utters repeatedly with special contempt is “patriarchy,” generally coupled with industrialism, militarism, and organized religion, especially Christianity.

When such man-made institutions “were used to suppress what was called witchcraft and heresy” in Medieval Europe, insists Evans, they “actually created the grounds for reinforcing misogyny and homophobia in the modern world.

Midnight hags

Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture: A powerfully influential book in the gay counterculture of faeries, pagans, witches, and rebels.

Those who have delved into Evans’ Witchcraft understand very well that the image of “midnight hags” hunched over stew pots, muttering “double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble,” is not merely Shakespearean artistic license. Rather, that sort of prejudiced characterization stems directly from the relentless campaign by Christians over the course of centuries to wipe paganism off the face of the earth.

The people who came to be called witches in Medieval Europe were believers in pagan gods. They practiced ancient agrarian rituals and celebrated human sexuality, including homosexuality. For this affront to the monolithic, sexphobic, and harshly intolerant Christian church, according to Evans, they paid a dear price.

“The term ‘witchcraft,'” says Evans, “originally derived from ‘wicca,’ a word that meant knowledge of craft or skill. A witch was a woman, or sometimes a man, who was skilled in the craft of communicating with the powers of nature, of conjuring them up. This could be good or evil, depending on the intentions of the practitioner. However, from the Christian point of view, it was all evil. They viewed it as a form of heresy, the hankering after false gods.”


“Being gay has spiritual and historical implications. When you create for yourself a lesbian or gay identity, you are creating meaning and history. Your sex life is not just something that you do in the dark in a corner, unconnected with value and meaning. It’s one of the avenues into your humanity, history, and spirituality.”


Particularly repugnant to the Christians was homosexuality, adds Evans: “A lot of the people accused of heresy were accused because of their sexual practices, not primarily because they were advocating heretical dogmas.”

In a time when conservative gay Catholics like Andrew Sullivan hold sway in the gay community, preaching the gospel of assimilation while an adoring gay choir sings the virtues of Puritanism, writing about witches in relation to queer people still sounds, well, radical, and radicals these days are an endangered breed of political animal.

Yet, a surprisingly large number of queer people have not only read Evans’ book, but taken to heart many of its historical lessons. So profound has been the volume’s influence over the years, Witchcraft has assumed a place of primary importance in the annals of gay and lesbian history.

By the time Evans started work on Witchcraft during his first years in San Francisco, he had already established his radical gay credentials as an activist in New York City. He joined the radical Gay Liberation Front soon after the Stonewall uprising, where he and friends formed the Radical Study Group to examine the historical roots of sexism and homophobia.

“We didn’t have queer theory in those days,” says Evans. “We had something better: gay activism. I’m not a queer theorist, I’m a gay activist, and proud of it!”

Soon after, Evans and others founded the militant Gay Activists Alliance, where they engaged “zaps”- non-violent, face-to-face confrontations with homophobes in positions of authority.


 Sodom and SF

Eventually Evans wearied of urban life and politics, so he and his second lover, Jacob Schraeter, left New York in 1972 to live in a small wooded settlement outside Seattle that they named New Sodom. After two years in the commune, Evans and Schraeter moved to San Francisco, where Evans was to make his most lasting contributions to gay culture.

“In 1975 I helped create a group in this room called the Faery Circle of San Francisco,” says Evans. “We held rituals, trying to evoke the pagan sensibility of nature and sex.”

As he soon discovered, similar gatherings were taking place – by coincidence – across the country, with queer pagan groups in New Mexico, Washington state, and Texas.

“For the most part we were independent flowers popping out of the soil,” Evans laughs. “It was a really wonderful spontaneous outburst.”

Participants in the Faery Circle were the first to buy and read Witchcraft when it was published in 1978. The book got a further boost after 1979, when Harry Hay and friends formed “a gathering of radical faeries.” Soon, large regional faery gatherings were taking place around the country, with Evans’ book being widely read by the participants.

“The book reaches far beyond faeriedom,” says Evans, “either my early vision of it, or Harry Hay’s. The central theme of the book, and one that I think makes it relevant to every generation of lesbian and gay men, is its insistence that being gay is not just an isolated fact hanging in the air. Being gay has spiritual and historical implications. When you create for yourself a lesbian or gay identity, you are creating meaning and history. Your sex life is not just something that you do in the dark in a corner, unconnected with value and meaning. It’s one of the avenues into your humanity, history, and spirituality. That is the cornerstone of everything I’ve ever written.”


A celebration of the 20th anniversary of Arthur Evans’ Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture took place at 3 p.m. Saturday, October 24, 1998 at A Different Light Bookstore, 489 Castro St. in San Francisco. Evans encouraged those interested in queer history to first read The God of Ecstasy, a re-working of Euripides’ The Bacchai, which details the persecution of gays and lesbians in ancient Greece and Rome.


Arthur Evans died Sept. 13, 2011 at the age of 69 in his apartment in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. 

Holcombe Waller reborn

Holcombe_Waller_headshotFor years I’ve been writing about this man, one of the most intriguing artists/human beings I’ve encountered, a former dot-com boomer in The City who jumped off the bandwagon just as the bust loomed large, selling off all his belongings and returning monk-like to his artist/musician roots and joining the mass artist exodus to Portland. There Holcombe Waller hangs with an artsy crowd including such other queer San Francisco exiles as filmmaker David Weissman, visual artist Stevee Postman, and a bunch of others who moved north to find community. Yet he’s missed here, and many of his fans will be on hand to greet Holcombe enthusiastically when he returns to San Francisco to perform on Sunday, December 4 at Café Du Nord (2170 Market St.;, which of course is the great funky former underground speakeasy where the cool crowd-in-black goes. In the circles I inhabit, word of Holcombe’s recent artistic surge has been passed eagerly around, with everybody saying the dark, brooding genius has been creating some of the most exciting work of his career, which means a lot, since his latest album, Troubled Times, emerged recently as one of the banner albums of our fractious era, addressing the angst and anxiety so pent up in a society at war with itself and the world. Holcombe is a rare talent, so distinctive, yet so far un-tarred and feathered by the ravenous mainstream press. He’s also a true survivor, something his friends can attest to, and that his official biography points out.

In June of 2001, Holcombe suffered a devastating car accident that left him unable to stand or even sit up and play guitar, a severe blow to his music career. Following September 11th, Holcombe went through a spiritual crisis. He developed strong animosity toward automobiles, as well as a displaced phobia of elevators. He remained addicted to anti-depressants, prescribed to him since a suicidal period in college. Finally, he realized that a major life change was in order. Through the help of a strict yoga regimen, raw-food diet, and the shamanic use of San Pedro cactus, Holcombe weaned himself of the anti-depressants, quit his corporate job, sold every possession except his recording equipment, and went on to make Troubled Times with long-time friend and collaborator Ben Landsverk. It was a good move, a wholly successful transition in life. His haunting, plaintive voice with its soaring high falsetto notes will take you into a moody world characterized by pessimism — “Literally the End of the World” is one of the anthemic songs on the Troubled Times album — but which offers a break in the clouds, rays of sunshine that will beam down on you and transport you to a safer place. The world may be decaying, but Holcombe will rock and cradle you, so relax and let his gentle voice lift your spirits.

The fact that I know Holcombe through yoga circles means nothing. I’m sending that subjective energy directly into the ground and stomping on it just to prove I’m being totally objective when I say Holcombe is one of the great artists of our day and if you haven’t been paying attention, listen up! Head to Cafe Du Nord on December 4 and catch a truly inspiring show.

To get a taste of his style, go to his website at


This article appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on Dec. 1, 2005.

Acupuncture for music lovers: Matmos

Björk collaborators Matmos take an acupuncture break.

MatmosonLettermanIt’s karmic that I encountered Matmos in my acupuncturist’s office. They look ordinary enough, but you know just by listening to their albums that if anyone is entitled to claim the word “alternative,” it’s this gay San Francisco electronic-music duo.

Appropriately, by weird coincidence, when I called licensed acupuncturist Joseph Chang one weekday to see if I could get him to stick his needles in me after work, at that very moment, Matmos boys Drew Daniel and M. C. (Martin) Schmidt were occupying the two tables in Joseph’s place, the House of Qi, just around the corner from the Jon Sims Center for the Arts. “Come on over early, Joseph said, and I’ll get them to hang around for an interview. Bring your tape recorder.”

It helps to have such pull, especially when your interview subjects are in the midst of a world tour along with icy-hot music goddess Björk, serving both as her opening act and as her band. The day I met them, they just happened to back in town for a short break during the middle of their tour. They had come to Joseph to get body tune-ups and energy overhauls in preparation for the next leg of their journey.

They’re just regular guys, but they’re not. They’re sexy and sweet natured, confess to naughy behaviors, and brainy but not show-offy (at least off-stage), and they welcome the chance to talk about acupuncture.

“Keep in mind we’ve known Joseph since he started acupuncture school,” said Drew, the younger of the two young lovers. They’ve been letting Joseph poke them all these years. And that, too, is an odd fact in light of the fact they both are the progeny of medical doctors. Nevertheless, they have a healthy respect for Joseph’s profession, and a particular fondness for Joseph’s methods.

When they’re in town, they both regularly come to Joseph for treatments, and he lovingly pokes and prods them and twists and massages them to move their qi (chi) around and get them feeling refreshed. His treatments have been instrumental in Matmos’s stunning, meteoric rise to fame.

They do things with sounds you wouldn’t expect, generating all kinds of strange clicks and beeps and electronic hisses and pops and rhythms that somehow coalesce into listenable albums. Their mixing abilities and odd choices in instruments are what got them noticed by Björk, and why Matmos is now recognized as one of the most creative forces in the New Music genre.

And they have Joseph to thank for one of their hits, the piece they open all their solo sets with, and that’s prominent on their latest album, A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure (Matador). It was from Joseph that they acquired a key noise-making instrument for the song ur tchun tan tse qi, Chinese for “acupuncture point detector.”

“At one point in the process of becoming an acupuncturist,” said Drew, “Joseph used as a teaching aid an acupuncture point detector that helps you find acupuncture points. The way it works is that you hold a metal rod in one hand and you move a pin across your skin – your skin is completing the circuit, and your skin is more conductive at acupuncture points than at other places on your body. This machine makes little clicks, and the closer it gets to an acupuncture point, the more clicks and faster, and it makes this incredible noise. We thought, wow, this noise is really cool. Can we borrow that? And we made a song entirely out of it.”

“It was so long until we returned it that we bought another one,” added Martin. Basically we stole it.”

Joseph produced one of the devices for my inspection, but the boys quickly dismissed it as inferior to the one they stole.

“We looked for other acupuncture point detectors,” said Martin, but none of them made the right noise. This one was perfect. So we pretty much stole his technology, and we use it every night on the Björk tour; it’s the first song of our set when we open for her.”

As Martin spoke, Joseph ran the device over, in and around one of Martin’s ear’s, and the thing occasionally beeped at an annoyingly high pitch.

“Right now everything is kind of healthy,” said Joseph of Martin’s health, as determined by the beeps (and his extensive knowledge of how to interpret those beeps). “But the lungs definitely make more noise. The liver is healthy. Stomach is good. Beep! Ah, the kidney has something, so you need to cut down on salty foods.”

Drew winced at the sound, and shook his head. “The version we have makes these pops and clicks like bacon frying,” he said. “It sort of goes from being rhythmic to being tonal. The clicks are so constant it has tonal qualities, and the higher the pitch the more conductive it is. And I sample that and build up a song.”

The duo pride themselves on bringing blatant homoeroticism into their act, and the Acupuncture Point Detector helps them do it. On national television, they’ve been captured by cameras indulging in blatantly homoerotic music making, as Drew sensuously runs the device over Martin’s skin, lovingly producing the kinds beeps and groans that distinguish their songs.

“We do it macro,” said Martin, making a gesture with his thumb and forefinger. “It only shows this much of my skin at a time.”

The album liner-notes for A Chance to Cut presents their technique more dryly: the song “Ur Tchun Tan Tse Qi” is “composed entirely from sounds generated while measuring the galvanic response of Martin’s skin to a constant flow of electricity. Changes in pitch are produced as the detector pin moves closer to acupuncture points.”

This is just the sort of techno-geek speak much appreciated by New Music enthusiasts. Dry and to the point.

For those not attuned to the niceties of electronic music in the 21st century, keep in mind that melody is out, rhythm and tonalities and textures are in. When you buy a Matmos album, or go to their show, you’re not expecting violins; you’re expecting all manner of weird devices employed in ways that have nothing to do with their originally intended uses.

Apart from the Acupuncture Point Detector, the boys gather sounds from actual liposuction surgery, refractive eye surgery, and plastic surgeries (rhinoplasty, endoscopic forehead lift and a chin implant, all performed in California); a hearing test booth; pieces of human skull, goat spine, connective tissue, and artificial teeth; and the plucked and bowed cage of their late pet rat Felix.

As they confess on their website (, presenting such eccentric music live on-stage present extraordinary challenges. They have “survived on-stage computer malfunction and recalcitrant helium tanks” in locations as diverse as Paris, London, New York, Stuttgart, Lausanne, Frankfurt. Their sound effects alone do not make a song; the success they enjoy comes from a strong sense of musicality mixed in with a desire to channel distortion in interesting directions. It’s their technical skill – sampling, sequencing, mixing, editing – mixed with their keen music sense and a smattering of guitar and keyboard effects that keeps their sound sharp and distinct, if not for the masses, at least for all those unemployed computer geeks searching for inspiration. 


This article appeared in the Bay Area Reporter, November 22, 2001

The Dots have it: The Legendary Pink Dots

The Legendary Pink Dots

Imagine if Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett, the founder of Pink Floyd, hadn’t freaked out early in the band’s history, possibly from too much LSD, and hadn’t dropped out of the band after only a few years and a couple of albums. Perhaps he wouldn’t be the recluse he is today, having decades ago turned his back on his own history, altogether unimpressed with his own cult fame, holding a special aversion to the psychedelic rock genre he helped create. Had Barrett not gone mad, he might still be turning out experimental albums, creating lush atmospheric soundscapes with quirky instrumentation, enigmatic lyrics, and the occasional pop melody. He might still be drawing fans into his obscure personal terrain, marked by brooding, calloused takes on the state of the world and his own state of mind. Had his fragile mind not shattered under the pressure of success, he might have become something like Edward Ka-Spel has become today as lead vocalist/songwriter for the Legendary Pink Dots.

The London-born, Amsterdam-based experimental/psychedelic rock band known affectionately as the Dots (or LPD) has embarked on its 25th Anniversary tour in North America. The band is due to arrive at Slim’s in San Francisco on Saturday, July 8. The tour marks the release of LPD’s new album, Your Children Placate You from Premature Graves, now available via ROIR ( It takes its place among more than 50 albums released by the band or its individual members, making LPD one of the most prolific rock bands on the world scene. If LPD hasn’t achieved the renown of Pink Floyd, it’s only because it formed more than a decade later, when the clamor for psychedelia had died down. Being well aware of Barrett’s crash and burn, Ka-Spel has managed to keep his head on straight even as he tweaks his music in very queer ways.

A couple of years ago, when the Dots played Café Du Nord in support of their 2004 release The Whispering Wall, I experienced the delirious combination of Ka-Spel’s curiously understated, British-accented vocals and his band’s trippy sonic journey through strange, atmospheric landscapes rich in aural surprises. Ka-Spel sang lyrics of the sort a young artist scribbles on a napkin, of his angst, longings, and heartaches, with an air of street philosophizing and dark doomsaying. With his frizzy mop of hair, his handsome, square face a bit puffy with middle age, his ever-present shades, he looked sober enough, maybe like a recovered Beat poet, not like some stoner acid-head. His body language suggested he could be playing cool jazz in Vegas rather than in a room full of old freaks and young geeks. Next to him, bandmate The Silverman (Phil Knight) played keyboards with fierce inventiveness. He, too, looked past the age of experimentation, yet there he was, manufacturing sounds as off-the-wall and innovative as can be. LPD’s creations are awash in the kind of electronic contortions and wild musical journeying that come only with a certain derangement of the senses, a la Rimbaud. Something tells me the LPD guys are no strangers to whatever muse drove Syd Barrett mad. Somehow, though, even while peering into the abyss, they’ve held their heads above the level of despair, thriving under the stress.

Joining Ka-Spel and The Silverman for the Slim’s show will be bandmates Niels Van Hoorn on saxophones, Erik Drost on guitars, and Raymond Steeg doing sound wizardry and production. Violinist/guitarist Martijn de Kleer will join the Dots for this leg of the tour, a big plus for fans of his rich sound.

“In a world that seems to become darker by the second,” writes Ka-Spel to his fans, “be glad the dream is not dying. Be part of it — make this planet a better place!”

“The Dots are riding the waves of chaos with the rest of us,” says the band’s promotion. “Staring our impending cataclysm straight in the eye, they’re ready to bravely confront the decidedly bleak future, ready to conquer all the malignant spirits our sick, wheezing planet has to offer up.”

That’s a tall order for any band, and not since Pink Floyd has any band seemed as likely as LPD to succeed.

The Legendary Pink Dots perform at Slim’s (, 333 11th St., on Sat., July 8, at 9 p.m. with Big City Orchestra opening. Tickets ($18): (415) 255-0333.


[This article appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on July 6, 2006. Ironically and sadly, the very next day Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barret died of diabetes complications at age 60.]

Hardest of the Hard: William Burroughs

Word Virus cuts close to William Burroughs’ granite core.

Word_VirusWas there ever a writer more hard-bitten than William S. Burroughs, either in person or in prose? Genet, a close contender, by comparison was flowery and sentimental. Raymond Chandler’s detective stories? Not nearly as crusty. Burroughs’ writing, as metallic and riveting as the bullet casings he left littering his real and fictional paths, reflected not only his ultra-cynical worldview, but his own emotional straight-jacketing.

Lise so many others enamored of the Burroughs mythology, I’ve read a few of his novels (Queer, Junkie, the third installment in his “Red Night Trilogy,” The Western Lands), digested articles about him, seen him in a few films, discussed him in literary circles, observed punk rockers and art fags idolizing him, heard his gravely recorded voice droning on about filth, drugs, boys, corruption, disease and death, and imagined him as the height of cool. But until recently, I’d never had a chance to dig underneath the myth.

So I welcome Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader (Grove Press; $27.50, cloth; 1998), edited by James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg. As the only anthology reflecting Burroughs’ entire literary output, from his teens into his 80s, the volume lets readers trace the evolution of Burroughs’ style and preoccupations over the course of nearly 50 years. Burroughs himself, shortly before his death in 1997, approved the final selections in Word Virus., thereby stamping the anthology with his imprimatur.

The excerpted writings, however, while showcasing Burroughs’ brilliantly caustic mind at work and fascinating in their enormous variety — the selected passages range from a previously unpublished collaboration with Jack Kerouac in 1945 to Burroughs’ Yagé letters to Alan Ginsberg in 1953, his alternately acclaimed and reviled novel Naked Lunch in the late ’50s, his experimental “cut-ups” from the late ’50s and early ’60s, his monumental “Red Night Trilogy” from the early ’70s to the late ’80s, and, near the end, his most sentimental writing – about his cat – from the mid-’80s — do not by themselves offer a satisfying grasp of Burroughs’ enormously complex motivations.

For that, readers need some backgrounding by the editors. Fortunately, adding immeasurably to the volume’s strength, Word Virus includes extensive biographical commentary by Grauerholz, Burroughs’ long-time editor, manager, and close friend (co-editor Silverberg, also a close friend from the early 1980s on, who served at times as Burroughs’ publisher and personal publicist, provides only a brief but illuminating editor’s preface). These reflections, largely journalistic and objective, at other times personal, cast considerable light on Burroughs’ state of mind as he moved from phase to phase of his career.

The commentary is also, simultaneously, adoring of the man. Grauerholz seems to want to humanize Burroughs, but he never really gets at the man’s emotions. He seems cautious, respectful, even over-protective. He and Silverberg were, after all, members of Burroughs’ extended queer family. We’re assured Burroughs had many deeply felt, long-lasting friendships and affairs, yet despite Grauerholz’ efforts, Burroughs still comes across as the stiff, coldly intellectual, emotionally crippled figure of popular imagining.

Shedding further light on the man, at the outset of the anthology, is a brief but excellent introductory essay by writer/scholar Ann Douglas, who analyzes Burroughs’ literary legacy and situates his work in relation to that of his peers, most notably his fellow Beat Generation progenitors Ginsberg and Kerouac.

“Cool, even icy in manner, acerbic in tone,” Douglas writes, “Burroughs once remarked that all his intimate relationships had been failures-he had denied ‘affection . . . when needed or supplied [it] when unwanted.’ He had not responded to his father’s sometimes abject pleas for love nor visited his mother in her last years in a nursing home.”

A little later, Douglas quotes a Burroughs’ line from Queer: “I don’t mind people disliking me. The question is, what are they in a position to do about it?”

The whys and wherefores of Burroughs’ tough shell are related, to some degree, by Douglas, Grauerholz, and Burroughs himself through his writing, which all focused, ultimately, on himself. We learn details about his accidental (if wildly irresponsible) killing of his wife, Joan, by gunshot; his rebellion against his privileged upper-white-class inheritance (he was grandson of inventor William Seward Burroughs, who perfected the adding machine); his first experience with morphine, when he was a mere 13; his fascination with hoboes and gangsters; and similar such details, all of great interest and a welcome contribution to Burroughs scholarship.

In this respect, to the extent any single volume can simultaneously magnify and dissect an author’s legacy, Word Virus proves moderately successful in penetrating the hardened Burroughs mystique.

Still, I can’t help feeling there’s much more to be said about why Burroughs comes across generally as such a desiccated crank-case. Even with this book, Burroughs’ psyche remains shrouded in mystique. Has his pop-culture persona been built on a foundation no sturdier than the bamboo scaffoldings Burroughs must have stumbled past often after drinking all day and shooting up nights in those crumbling Latin American cities he once haunted?

Perhaps Grauerholz, as both intimate friend and executor of Burroughs’ literary estate, could not or would not expose the innermost feelings of the man he so obviously reveres. Then again, he would know as well or better than anyone whether there was something to be exposed. Whether Grauerholz held back or not, the casual reader has little way of knowing.

What remains to be written, it seems, is a memoir about Burroughs that looks into the man’s eyes and asks squarely: “What did you feel? ” The problem is, maybe Burroughs never supplied a straightforward answer.

Winds of Peace

How do you measure Gay Pride? Its power, poetry, song, and spirituality? How it affects not only those of us who dwell in this grand Gay capital, but the masses beyond these isolated peninsula shores, to the far reaches of the globe? How is our collective spirit, so intensely concentrated during Pride Weekend, affecting the larger universe?

A sage whispers in my ear: We’re changing the planet, for good, and none too soon. Our Pride, with all its multitudinous forms densely concentrated into a mass of hopes and dreams, is a force capable of shaping human destiny, something we’re only now beginning to comprehend, much less guide wisely. All of us – questioning, transgender, bisexual, gay and lesbian – are deeply concerned about Destiny, since it seems not so far off anymore. We have to wonder where we’re going not just as as participants in a movement, or residents of a city, or citizens of a nation, but as members of a species. Fate has been looking iffy lately, and Prozac more attractive than ever, so why don’t we just shrug and go belly up to the bar? Do you ever wonder why so many queens dance on ecstasy? It’s not to reach accord with the Republicans by suddenly making them feel all lovey dovey. It’s more like trying to find a safe place in the wilderness where ordinary cares can be shed, allowing for revelations to seep in. The problem is, in that ecstatic rush of intoxicating compassion and brotherly/sisterly love, a lot of guys lose contact with something basic. All the dancing and hugging in the world won’t win us peace here and now if it doesn’t have a direction, and a solid foundation. For flighty love to work earthly miracles, it needs community support and guidance, which means everyone in the community looks out for and respects everyone else, not just those with similar hair cuts and cars.

The way of savoring the heights of gay love, or any love, is the way of savoring a fine wine – knowing it intimately, breathing it in with complete clarity, pausing to reflect on its aroma, remembering where it comes from – the kegs, the vines, the earth. What makes a peaceful bouquet? A cornucopia of Pride mixed with sweat, tears, and soil.

Imagine. Peace. Last year at this time I dared to imagine peace was at hand, but in the yin/yang way of the world, my illusion was soon to be shattered. Global turmoil has reached proportions my boomer generation always feared, but never really expected to have to witness and bear. But why sweat the End of the World? My parents went through hell and back with the Great Depression and World War II, and somehow kept dignity intact. Can’t I do as well?

As a boy, I imagined peace my whole life. I don’t know why. My family fought. It was a blue-collar household in the old Southwest. My dad was a liquor salesman, and my mom the prettiest nurse in the the territory. Dad was always jealous. Imagine. Not peace.

Love, respect, dignity – these are qualities Arthur Anderson couldn’t balance in a ledger book even if they tried honestly. Why then am I always wanting to save the whole cruel world, and not just my own sorry ass?

Because I’m gay! There’s just something about it, when your focus is not on conceiving new life, but on nurturing the life that already exists, you discover inwardly what’s needed to help the species survive outwardly. Maybe it’s in the genetics of being gay. I can’t allege it with any scientific certainty, but I feel it. It’s a poet thing. To contemplate peace is poetry, and no one is in a better position to do the task than queers, who are forever thinking outside and all around boxes. Maybe we were born to be peacemakers.


This essay appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter on July 4, 2002, following the LGBT Pride Parade and Celebration in San Francisco.