Category Archives: Music

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 www.garrin.com.

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

Bansuri Meets Recorder

Ganges_Ghat_Varanasi
Rana Mahal Ghat, Varanasi.
Photo by Mark Mardon.

Varanasi, India
January 2007.

The thin, wavering, reedy, warbling sound of a bansuri, the genuine sound of India, wafted up from the river’s edge every night for the eleven nights I slept in Varanasi, in a guest house overlooking Rana Mahal Ghat.

After the ceremonial fires of the big puja at nearby Dasaswamedh Ghat had been extinguished, the crush of onlookers had gone home or to their hotels. The ghats emptied and the din turned to silence. The boatmen had tied up their boats until morning, settling into the bottoms with their blankets. The masseurs, haircutters, vendors and other denizens of the Main Ghat had rolled out their mats to sleep. All the water buffalo herders had settled their beasts and rolled into corners with their thin blankets pulled over them. The burning ghat in the distance heaved a perfume of wood fire and charred corpses into the dark — then the flute player came out.

He would sit on a platform, under a lamppost, surrounded by his acolytes, gently playing. I couldn’t see him clearly. Sometimes I couldn’t see him at all. On the far side of his platform, steps descended to the Ganga, the water lapping the stone, inviting prayer as it had for centuries. He and his troupe sometimes occupied the steps, out of my view. Yet hear him I could. The flute-playing sadhu, holy man, chillum smoker, musical guru sent sweet strains floating into the night, echoing across the river and back. Ma Ganga herself rode that sound, a goddess on a swan.

For several nights without leaving my room or its old, crumbling stone balcony, without seeing the face of this flute player on the ghat, or knowing anything about him, without knowing for sure where the sound was coming from, I played concerts with him. For, as clearly as I could hear his flute, he could hear mine. He led the dance. I gently followed. He created the melody; I offered accents. The way I play recorder, alternating different rates of vibrato with pure tone, bending some notes, as well as the deeper sound of the tenor, creates a sensuous voice, the plaintive sound I brought back from the Andes decades before. It’s non-Indian, but worshipful, full of power and emotion appropriate for Shiva, the patron god of Varanasi.

Finally I went to meet him. We became fast friends. He treated me as if I were another sadhu, a respected spiritual elder. His group crowded around us to watch and hear us play and talk about music. We played the Peruvian Andean song “El Condor Pasa” together. Most of all he wanted to hear me play “A Few of My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music and when I did he exclaimed with delight. I played my tenor recorder, which everyone admired and handed around to examine, its beautiful African blackwood turned in classic English recorder fashion. We discussed its monetary value and decided it was worth a great deal. I gifted him a plastic alto recorder, nice quality, good sound, and he treated the gift as an honor worthy of a king. He in turn gave me one of the bansuris he sells to tourists. I tried to play it but as always found the transverse flute defied my puckering ability. I’ve never been able to get such a transverse flute to sing. He helped me, though. He turned the flute just so against my lips, and for that instant I found I could make the instrument soar.

About that time some young girls came by offering little leafy bowls bearing flowers and flaming votive candles to be set afloat on the Ganga, another way to worship Shiva. I took a few and offered silent prayers for peace, harmony and healing as I watched them bob and drift onto the current. The flute player and his acolytes watched and applauded.

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.; www.cafedunord.com), 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 www.holcombewaller.com

 

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 (vague-terrain.com), 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

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 (www.roir-usa.com). 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 (www.slims-sf.com), 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.]

Brian Epstein and the Beatles: All he needed was love

How Brian Epstein’s passion for the Beatles
shaped world history.

 

 

epstein copy
Brian Epstein

No figure in rock ‘n’ roll history did more to trailblaze the road for future band managers – defining the path to success for all great bands – than Brian Epstein, who managed the Beatles, boldly shaping their ascent from Liverpool obscurity to global superstardom. Elvis may have had Colonel Parker, but compared to Epstein, Parker was a mere carnival barker. In marketing the Fab Four to the world and setting countless precedents in doing so, Epstein set in motion cultural forces that irrevocably changed not just the music industry, but global society. What motivated him therefore becomes a question of significance not just to Beatles fans, but to those who want to understand Western Civilization in the late 20th century.

Epstein had the bad luck to be gay in Britain at a time when that country’s criminal penalties for homosexuality were particularly harsh. The fact of Epstein’s gayness, however closeted he may have been out of necessity (his homosexuality was well known to and accepted by those close to him, just not talked about publicly), figures hugely not just in his own life, but in the Beatles’ vast legacy. Though Epstein hardly conjures up the image of a conquering warrior, his gayness turns out to be as significant in the course of human events as that of Alexander the Great. The decisions Epstein made in orchestrating the Beatles’ meteoric rise were both revolutionary and hugely informed by his being gay.

____________________

Though Epstein hardly conjures up the image of a conquering warrior, his gayness turns out to be as significant in the course of human events as that of Alexander the Great.

____________________

Whether these statements accurately reflect the historical record, or exaggerate for the sake of erecting yet another icon in the pantheon of manmade deities, they are impressions inescapably drawn from viewing Arena: The Brian Epstein Story, a documentary film by British television and film producer and director Anthony Wall, to be screened at this year’s San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

“He was one of the great original tragic stories of the new rock era,” Wall told the Bay Area Reporter during a recent visit to San Francisco, “a kind of person that changed the world. He died in 1967, four years after he was running a record shop in Liverpool, absolutely unknown to the world. Then he managed to become one of the most famous people on earth.”

 

Brian and ‘the boys’

Wall’s documentary, produced in cooperation with Paul McCartney and many others close to Epstein, benefits enormously from having first-hand access to archival footage of Epstein and his “boys,” as he was forever calling the Beatles. We get to see intimate views of John, Paul, George and Ringo, often together with Epstein, learn about their party habits, meet their friends and colleagues of yore, hear them as they rehearse and perform, and relate to them on a profoundly human level, rather than at the level of untouchable superstars.

The striking thing in the film is the contrast starkly revealed between the rough-and-ready boys, with their working-class accents and manners, and the refined, impeccably tailored, elegant Epstein, whose personal style masked his attraction to “rough trade,” as made clear from interviews with those close to him. Though Wall steers away from delving into the details of Epstein’s love life, he in no way shies from conveying the nature of Epstein’s desires. The film revels in telling the story of Epstein’s gayness, in many ways emphasizing that being gay determined the course of his life. In particular, especially in a contemporary interview with an affable and articulate Paul McCartney, it seems clear that the question of whether Epstein’s well-known love for John Lennon remained unrequited or not becomes central to almost everything else in assessing the man’s life and tragic death.

Did he or did he not have a one-time fling with Lennon in the south of Spain, just a week after Julian Lennon was born? Did he or did he not commit suicide over the hopelessness of his love, or was his death accidental, as officially ruled?

“The trouble is, the only two people who really know are dead,” says Wall, who nimbly raises the issues in the film, delicately balancing points of view and, perhaps, softening the edges of the controversy. Moreover, he adds, “Lennon would certainly not have been above saying one thing to this person and another thing to that person.”

The film’s US producer, Debbie Geller, joins with Wall in explaining that “one of the evergreen and reductionist views of the Beatles and Brian Epstein was that Epstein was in love with John Lennon, and that was really his only interest in the group, and that had he not had that hangdog, unrequited love – which only came true in that one little instance in Barcelona – then the Beatles never would have happened.” This view, she insists, does “a real disservice to Brian Epstein.”

 

Lennon the tease

Geller does feel that Lennon most likely teased Epstein about being gay, maybe even manipulated his attraction “as a way of maintaining power over him.” From the outset, Epstein’s gayness was known to the Beatles and completely accepted. But a bit of perversity in the relationship seemed inevitable.

“Brian liked a bit of punishment,” says Wall. “So Lennon – that was his stock in trade, dishing out, taking people to the end of their tether, seeing how far he could push them. And they were all very amusing, witty, but Lennon had that sort of ambitiousness about it, seeing what he could do next.”

In the film, McCartney addresses the question of whether Epstein and Lennon ever had sex, and considers the possibility unlikely but not impossible. Even if something did happen between them, though, he believes the matter relatively insignificant.

McCartney’s obvious eagerness to address the question on screen is remarkable. Geller explains that during the interview, McCartney said: “Are you going to ask about his being gay? No one ever asks me about that.” Considering the extent to which the Beatles’ lives and careers have been put under a microscope, this omission in the record seems astounding, but it helps explain McCartney’s readiness to take part in the film project. Says Wall: “He didn’t need any persuasion, because he himself had come to this point where he thought it was time to tell the story. He was quite clear that he wanted to do it because it was time the record was set straight, and that Epstein had been largely forgotten and hadn’t been given his due.”

The portrait of Epstein that emerges is one of a fantastically ambitious, driven, fastidious and brilliantly passionate man, handsome yet woefully unlucky in love, who repeatedly put himself in harm’s way because of his secret desires.

Apart from his obvious (and necessarily platonic) love for his “boys,” Epstein was never able to establish a lasting love relationship. One California lad, Diz Gillespie, whom some characterize as a hustler, for a time seemed to be working out for Epstein. But the relationship turned sour.

“Everybody’s down on Diz,” says Wall. “But Epstein seemed to find some kind of consolation in Diz, although Diz fucked him around knowingly.”

And thus was gay life in Britain, even for the man who helped move his once bombed-out, burned-out country back into modernity and renewed prestige on the world stage.

 

The Brian Epstein Story screened at the Castro Theatre on Monday, June 19, 2000 at 12:30 p.m.


Mist Covered Mountains of Home

CD cover
Mark Mardon performs Celtic and American folk melodies on a Dolmetsch tenor recorder

Folks, I invite you to listen to my second album-length CD, Mist Covered Mountains of Home! It’s a deeply soulful collection of Celtic and American folk melodies on tenor recorder.

The 15-song album  showcases my playing on a vintage Dolmetsch tenor recorder made of African blackwood — one of the hardest, densest woods in the world. The Dolmetsch, unlike most Baroque-style recorders, renders a bell-clear sound, vibrant and rich with character.

The result is a unique album: I have been playing by ear since the mid-1970s, when I first took a recorder to the Andes and learned the traditional huaynos of the Quechua people. I have been playing for mountains, rivers, lakes, oceans, skies, birds and people ever since.

This recording took place in the summer of 2012 at BlackMardon Studios in Millbrook, New York.

Recording Engineer Aaron Black captured a clear, resonant sound in a CD that brings out the finest shadings and brilliant highlights of my recorder playing. The songs on this album reflect my life-long passion for misty mountain landscapes, echoing valleys, ocean cliffs and the romance of ancient times.

The tenor recorder — played in the distinctive style that has earned me rave revues from YouTube viewers all over the world since 2007 (where I have been known as Cinderbutte) — forms a soundscape of traditional and modern Celtic and other folk songs and original compositions. One paean to Americana, “This Land is Your Land,” honors Pete Seeger and provides the context for all the other songs.

MistCoveredMountainsBackCoverPeople who have heard me perform live in outdoor settings — including a host of appreciative folks at world-renowned spiritual retreat Omega Institute in New York’s Hudson Valley — will especially appreciate the high-quality rendering of this recording. The clear-as-a-bell audio brings out the Dolmetsch recorder’s exquisite sound, and every inflection of intonation. This sound has made me a host of friends and admirers for over 35 years, from mountain climbers, kayakers, yogis, and meditators to harpists, classical and folk guitarists, forest hikers, wild birds, barn animals, world musicians, Burning Man festival participants and more. Legions of tourists and young lovers have experienced me performing live in the tunnels and arboretum of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Now residing in New York’s Hudson Valley, near Omega, I have brought my sound to the East Coast and am taking New York by storm!

Copies of the Mist Covered Mountains of Home can be purchased for $15 each plus shipping. PayPal payments welcome.

 

Serenity. Reverie. Romance. Soul.



 

email me for more info

 

What people have been saying about my music on YouTube:

“Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.” — Celtic Angel

“I feel from your playing and general presentation you are deeply spiritual and also quite an old soul.” — Alexis Abrahams

“Wow… and to think, I’ve always thought of the recorder as that instrument that our music teacher had us all learn in 4th grade… I never knew a recorder could have that rich of a tone. Positively beautiful.” — stwsti5926

“I can’t believe you can’t read music! This gives the rest of us hope that one day we could play as well as you.” — Paul E

“WOW! WONDERFUL, FANTASTIC!! — Juankauf

“You inspired me to play more and more.” — Jimmy Christyan Weinschutz

“Very good vibrato.” — James Keige

“Your tone rocks big time!” — 88flex88

“You speak with your instrument.” — fi3nd3r2012

“A true inspiration.” — driftingoncloud9

“You brought that sound out with such beauty and musicality that I nearly cried.” — StopTheMotion

“I sometimes set your music to porn for that extra bit of class.” — Alex N

 

Anything Goes: The State of Performance Art

The two-dozen or so artists and members of the audience that gathered one night last weekend at 455 10th Street, a performance gallery south of Market, were young and very hip. They were all pretty much insiders in the avant-garde art scene in San Francisco, and though they were expecting to be entertained and entertaining, they were not expecting the evening’s events to be either polished or particularly innovative. The fact that there were glimmers of outstanding artistic achievement was probably more than anyone had hoped for.

Michael_Brown_Performance_Art

When I entered the gallery, a shabby, converted warehouse, I immediately saw that the far end of the space was bathed in projections of typewritten words — big, bold, black-and-white lettering cast onto three walls, the floor, the ceiling, and all the stage props.

Interesting, I thought; it had the same dramatic impact as enlarged headlines in scandal sheets. The words leaped out, unintelligible but insistent. The projection spoke plainly: it was “art” large enough to fill an entire space with a minimum of investment in materials, time or imagination. It was functional and put me in the appropriate frame of mind: weirdness.

I seated myself in one of the plastic chairs angled toward the back corner of the gallery and waited to see what would take place. A quartet of musicians in another corner, arranged in a circle so that the backs of some of them were toward the audience, separating us from them, was playing a crudely enchanting music, seemingly spontaneous.  They played recorder, violin, mandolin and drum. It was an oddly primitive music, contributing to the atmosphere of ritual that filled the gallery, as if some ancient rite were taking place.

At center stage a sheet was draped over a square metal frame, perhaps a clothes rack. The projections cast over the walls also partially obscured the sheet, making it blend in with its background, camouflaged. At an apparently predetermined point in the playing of the music, a hand from under the sheet reached out and pulled the sheet down.

Ropes inside the frame suspended a man’s slender, naked body. The ropes looped around his side so that he faced the audience frontally, his feet pointing to the bottom angle of the frame, his head pointed diagonally to the top. His nakedness was obscured by projections onto his white-powdered body.

The projections were of clothes and abstract images. So perfectly placed was his body in relation to the projector that the images of clothes, ever changing, perfectly matched his form, neatly dressing him. Then there were bizarre projections, full of wild colors and unidentifiable images that sometimes made his body look ghastly, as though it were a corpse brought out of a terrible battle in the midst of war.

_______________

The gallery presented a potpourri of individual pieces bearing little relation to each other, a feature that much of what is called “performance art” has in common.

_______________

The people responsible for this captivating scene — m.c. schmidt, Wayne Niethold, and Michael Brown — originally devised the concept in New York for the Palladium. It was created, they said, to honor an acquaintance’s death.

“Performance art is just about anything you want it to be,” says Michael Brown, organizer of the events at 455 10th St.  Better known in the city as one of the infectiously good-humored workers at Café Flore, Mike is an installation artist whose vision and energy regularly brings together the works of various artists at the gallery, many of them, like him, recent graduates of Humboldt State College in Arcata, California.

The artists assembled a potpourri of installation, video, film, live music and performance art, individual pieces bearing little relation to each other, a feature that much of what is called “performance art” has in common.

One piece followed another in the course of the evening. The live music ended, and recorded, synthesized music took over, vibrating in deep, eerie, quadraphonic sound, a collection of found sounds and instrumental music with an overall ominous feel.

This was particularly true when the suspended nude climbed down out of his ropes, to be replaced on stage by four video screens pulsing eerily in the darkness with a taped segment entitled “Mechanical Spectacle.”

Created by Bill Smartt, Mykill Misrok, and Mark Misrok, it consisted of a mechanical farm, with mechanical chickens, ducks, farmers, cows, tractors and other such things, all in their proper settings of farmhouses, barns, and corrals, As the camera panned around and through the set, the pieces moved mechanically, as though they were magnetic and a magnet were being run underneath them. This movement was accompanied by strange electronic sounds, including echoes, claps, sticks clacking, and a farmer’s voice singing, in Hillbilly accent, “Jump down, turn around, pick a bail of hay.” It was a freakish and unsettling combination of sight and sound, nightmarish in effect.

This was followed, in startling contrast, by an outrageously funny act performed by Bill Smartt sitting at a desk, his face the center of a giant sunflower. In a Southern woman’s accent, he portrayed Kimberly, the receptionist for Temp Force, the temporary personnel agency.

“Thank you for calling,” she’d answer the telephone, her voice singsong, and then proceed to humiliate, degrade, and condescend to caller after caller seeking employment. The skit was done with great wit and devastating accuracy, even if the sunflower bonnet was something of a funny flop.

The most powerful piece of the evening, however, was Michael Brown’s own video presentation documenting the destruction of the old Falstaff brewery. It began with Mike engaging in a physical demonstration, a sort of rite in which he slowly and painstakingly moved a giant I-beam from the back of the warehouse onto center stage by rolling it on sticks.

At the same time, images of a crumbled building were projected onto one wall, first in black-and-white, then in color. My first thought was that it was the bombed-out embassy in Beirut, but then other images started appearing on video screens on other walls and I recognized the brewery.

The quadraphonic sound system was emitting magnified noises of traffic and jackhammers and the deep, echoing voice of a woman speaking in German. What was being said was never made clear, but the voice gave a documentary-like quality to the images, as though a member of the underground in World War II Germany was narrating an account of the atrocities she had witnessed.

Michael Brown and his colleagues at 455 10th St. did a remarkable job of providing fresh and interesting entertainment to a sophisticated, if not too critical, audience. Their ideas are as representative of the trends in performance art as anything else. Which is to say, in performance art, anything goes.

 

This article appeared in print in the San Francisco Sentinel, April 3, 1987.

Burroughs for opera lovers: Erling Wold’s ‘Queer’

Reviewed by Mark Mardon.

Erling_Wold's_Queer
A scene from Erling Wold’s “Queer” chamber opera.

Brilliance characterized every facet of Erling Wold’s Queer on opening-night, April 11, 2001, at ODC Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District. From conception through execution, the chamber opera based on the William Burroughs novel more than did justice to Burroughs’ spirit – it rekindled that spirit vividly for the audience, a sophisticated crowd that paid rapt attention to every subtle nuance of inflection and expression from orchestra and actors alike.

Truly the night belonged to composer Wold, whose latest, possibly greatest work follows previous chamber operas A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil (1993-94) and Sub Pontio Pilato (1995-98) and a host of recordings, chamber pieces, and New Music-style electronic experiments. The concept of turning a classic of queer literature into a post-postmodern chamber piece, complete with on-stage orchestra and what amounts to a singing William Burroughs, dares to be taken seriously. In lesser hands, it could have turned Burroughs’ dry humor and desperate longings into farce. But the combined prodigious talents of Wold, stage director Jim Cave, dramaturgist John Morace, conductor Deirdre McClure, choreographer Cid Pearlman, lighting designer Clyde Sheets, and costume designer Hank Ford, together with a stellar cast, orchestra, and crew, skillfully brought life to Wold’s idea, turning Queer into an exceptionally well-rehearsed, well-executed, inspiring work of high art.

Wold’s composition for trumpet, guitar, piano, synthesizer, violin and contrabass, flawlessly executed by an orchestra including Wold on guitar, creates an atmospheric, classically based soundscape reminiscent of works by Philip Glass, David Del Tredici, and Ned Rorem; aptly, the Village Voice once described Wold as “the Eric Satie of Berkeley surrealist/minimalist electro-artrock.” Here, though, minimalism and melody go hand in hand, with lovely passages, including suggestions of Mexican mariachi music, offset by sections more mood-setting than melodic. The various passages cohere into a gorgeous tapestry, as intricate and interesting as any woven textile.

Part of Queer‘s appeal is its marriage of modern music with a text dear to the hearts of queer literati. It would have been easy to parody Burroughs using his own words. Fortunately, the caustically funny Burroughs temperament came across dazzlingly in the characterization of William Lee – Burroughs’ alter ego – by Trauma Flintstone, who turned in a bravura performance. Flintstone was a joy to experience as Lee, singing passages in recitative and flowing across the stage in hot pursuit of his love object. At times he soared in touching, elegant arias – usually just after he’d downed a drink or two, or tried to get his hand down Allerton’s pants and been yet-again rejected.

Not only did Flintstone exhibit rich vocal qualities and a prodigious feat of memory – he sang practically the entire libretto, whole passages expertly pieced together from the text of the novel – he convincingly personified the novel’s chief protagonist. He did this not by imitating Burroughs’ style, but by channeling the writer’s corrosive spirit with seeming effortlessness. Flintstone is a natural for the part, with lanky body, balding head, growly voice, and an apparently innate ability to tell fanciful yarns illustrated with expansive hand gestures and quirky facial tics.

Flintstone brought to the role natural charm, an easiness in body language, a measured pace, and inner motivation outwardly manifested by apt facial expressions, vocal tones, and gestures. His comfortable stage presence allowed him real interactions with his fellow actor/singers. Hints of music-theater training emerged in his vocal style, suggesting a potential for affectation and exaggeration, yet Flintstone nailed the operatic form, bringing heft to his performance and grounding it in the meaning of the text, rather than letting fly simply for the sake of melody.

Shane Kramer ably carried off the challenge of serving as Lee’s mostly unresponsive love object, Eugene Allerton, a young man of sullen good looks and aloof (not to mention alcoholic and heroin addicted) behavior. At first Kramer seemed an odd choice for the part, being perhaps older and more rugged in appearance than the novel suggests Allerton to be. Rather than a corrupt pretty kid, Kramer embodied the character of a jaded young tough, sullen in the way Brad Davis was as the sought-after sailor/sex object in Querelle. Yet Kramer pulled it off well, keeping himself aloof, disinterested, but never wooden. His sexuality always was palpable, and you could understand why Lee obsessed over him.

Lending lusty weight and powerful vocals to various character parts was Ken Berry, his acting and singing abilities indispensable to the overall tone and success of the piece. This is Berry’s second production with Wold, after playing the father in Wold’s A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil.

Dancers doubling as characters – the lovely Stacey Em Jackson, Zenón Barrón, and Norberto Martinez – popped in and out of the scenes, gracefully, artfully merging dance and drama. At one moment they served as foils and counterparts to Lee’s lusty imagination; the next they were creating evocative tableaux on the wide, deep, beautifully lit stage. The set, with benches, tables, and bar at the front of the stage and an alluring bed toward the rear, allowed much space for the dancers, and choreographer Cid Pearlman made great use of the openings. Barrón and Martinez paired off frequently in sensuous dance-play that formed a continual backdrop to the goings on with Lee and Allerton. Especially in the second half of the show, together with Jackson, they infused the production with a sexy perfume of teasing, come-hither looks, and slow-motion seductions.

Queer, the chamber opera, conveys the story of a queer American bum south of the border in the 1940s as artfully as Queer, the novel. One might have expected a musical version of the book to incorporate grunge rock, or jazz, or blues, or tango – but a chamber opera? It works, and that’s all the encouragement anyone should need to check out this instant classic.

 

Erling Wold’s Queer played through April 22 at ODC Theater, 3153 17th St. Phone (415) 863-9834.

Tripping over Tricia: The Cockettes on film

San Francisco filmmakers David Weissman and Bill Weber restore the long-lost Cockettes film  Tricia’s Wedding.   

Screen shot 2013-10-15 at 1.15.10 PM
A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

Preserving cultural trivia is no easy task. Much of the fluff of life disappears without a whimper, gone before anyone notices. By the time anyone realizes a thing’s importance, it may be too late to salvage. Fortunately, the world has documentary film makers such as David Weissman and Bill Weber, two San Franciscans feverishly dedicated to preserving the legacy The Cockettes, one of the more outrageous queer hippie performance collectives of the 1970s.

Screen shot 2013-10-15 at 1.20.05 PM
A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

In the course of assembling their documentary, Weissman and Weber salvaged a precious piece of trivia, a campy film produced by The Cockettes, called Tricia’s Wedding, long lost and mostly forgotten, but now restored, thanks to their efforts. Scenes from that film will show up in their documentary when they complete it (in roughly a year). Meanwhile, the story of Tricia’s Wedding and its restoration deserves telling, because it says a lot about how queer culture has evolved, and what it takes to ensure that a colorful part of the past remains accessible to us at present.

Tricia_Nixon_Wedding
Wedding day 1971: Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon, Tricia Nixon and Edward Finch Cox.

It was 1971, and Tricia Nixon, the President’s daughter, was about to wed beneath the klieg lights of the national press corps. Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, a gaggle of wild drag performers calling themselves The Cockettes decided they wanted to celebrate the joyous occasion in their inimitable way. The manager of the flock, a fellow named Sebastian, proposed they film their own version of the wedding. They would screen it on wedding night at the Palace Theater in North Beach, where they had been holding regular Friday night “Nocturnal Dream Shows,” at which gender-bent hippies gathered to take acid, watch offbeat movies, display their feathered finery, and camp it up until dawn.

Screen shot 2013-10-15 at 1.12.11 PM
A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

“It took two days to make the movie,” says Weissman, who works out of an office in the South of Market space occupied by Frameline, the organization dedicated to promoting queer cinema. “It was made at a place called Secret Cinema on 16th Street. This was Steven Arnold’s warehouse. They put together the sets overnight, and filmed the sort-of-sober parts on Saturday, with the understanding from Sebastian that Sunday was the day they would all go completely berserk and have the post-LSD reception. There was a certain amount of consumption of substances during filming.”

Screen shot 2013-10-15 at 1.12.46 PM
Reggie spikes the punch in a scene
from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

As Weissman describes it, the film Tricia’s Wedding is “basically is a psychedelic drag parody.” Among its huge cast of characters – all portrayed by wacky transvestites – were many of the notable political and cultural figures of the time: Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir; Lady Bird Johnson; Vice President Spiro Agnew; India’s Indira Gandhi; Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon’s attorney general; and Mamie Eisenhower, the former president’s wife. The recently widowed Coretta Scott King was portrayed by Sylvester, whose rise to fame as a disco diva was just beginning. A Cockette named Reggie played the key role of Eartha Kitt, who spikes the wedding punch with LSD in revenge for having been blackballed from the White House, the result of criticizing the Vietnam War during an intimate performance for Lady Bird Johnson, which had caused Lady Bird to cry.

Screen shot 2013-10-15 at 1.11.58 PM
A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

“It wound up being a huge, wild orgy at the end of the show,” says Weissman, describing the film’s wedding-reception scene. “Wigs and clothes come off and people flip out and have a lot of fun. Mamie Eisenhower, who was the mother of our country, has a wonderful drunken performance.” And Tricia Nixon herself was played by “the eternally hideous Goldie Glitters.” That she was marrying a man named Cox was ripe for Cockettes parody.

Weissman recalls first viewing the half-hour-long Tricia’s Wedding when he was about 20 years old, a few years after it was made: “I don’t know exactly when I saw it, but it changed my life. It really brought home to me the subversive power of comedy and particularly of drag. It was a really entertaining assault on all the norms of bourgeois American culture. It was just one of the funniest things I’d ever seen.”

For years, Weissman has wanted Tricia’s Wedding to be shown publicly by Frameline or some other group, “because I knew it was a piece of gay history.” Yet one big stumbling block prevented this: the only print anyone in existence was in the hands of Sebastian, and it was in very bad condition.

“Every time it would play,” says Weissman, “it would catch at a particular point and burn in the projector, and everyone in the audience would scream and yell.”

Screen shot 2013-10-15 at 1.10.17 PM
A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

Weissman knew that Sebastian, who now lives in Los Angeles, had made a video copy of it, but it was made from the one bad print, so he worried Tricia’s Wedding would be lost once this print finally shredded. But making a fresh print proved highly problematical since neither Sebastian nor Mark Lester, the film’s producer, had any idea what happened to the original materials. They assumed everything had been lost.

Undeterred, Weissman looked up the film’s cinematographer, Paul Aratow, figuring he might know which laboratory the film was done in. Through an Internet search, he found Aratow in Los Angeles, and asked him “Did you shoot Tricia’s Wedding? He laughed and said: ‘Oh my god, I haven’t thought of that in 25 years!'”

Aratow said he thought the film had been processed at a lab on Columbus Street, Monaco, which still exists. Weissman called there and asked: “What are the chances of finding a piece of film from 29 years ago in your vaults?”

The person he spoke with knew the film, but said it had been processed at Palmer’s, which had long since closed down. The inventory from Palmer’s, he later learned, had been picked up by Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, and by an archive in New York City.

It was at the latter that Tricia’s Wedding turned up.

“They had no idea what it was,” says Weissman. “They had the original sound track, and the original negatives.”

Once Sebastian authorized the release of the materials to Weissman and Weber, the two were quick to turn it around: “We just now completed making a brand new, absolutely perfect print and preservation negative of Tricia’s Wedding to save for posterity,” says Weissman.

And in this way, yet another chapter of queer history gets beefed up.

For information about Tricia’s Wedding and the making of The Cockettes documentary, contact David Weissman at GranDelusion Production, 346 Ninth St., San Francisco, CA 94103. Phone (415) 703-8661.

 

This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter.