09 October 2006

In Which Larry Goes To Golden Gate Park And Is Captured By Deadheads

I caught the 1 California bus at the bottom of Nob Hill and found myself sandwiched in among a standing room only crowd of Chinese ladies carting their shopping home, 30-something moms with extraordinarily bulky and expensive strollers (some containing kids; others, inexplicably, not), and a smattering of the usual disgruntled types talking either to the air or themselves. My nearest neighbors, though, were a fresh-faced teenage trio having an earnest discussion about - no, not the scandalous price of illegal drugs these days or the best place to obtain a quick abortion without parental notification - the meaning of the Book of Genesis.

Specifically they were trying to decide whether God had created human beings as intrinsically flawed, therefore predestined to rebel and cock up the program, 0r if the serpent in the garden and the subsequent unleashing of sin upon the world had caught God unawares, therefore - possibly, anyway - calling into question his Godability, as one might put it. I was all set to butt in with my own thesis, something about rebellion being the soul's means of individuating itself and acquiring a personality, but realized I couldn't put it into words any more articulate than those already being used by the kids, and that I would no doubt come off as merely another San Francisco bus weirdo talking to the air and/or myself.

But it put me in a Biblical mood, and I wound up musing on the story of Lot and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Not so much the Sodom and Gomorrah bit; it's well known that San Francisco fancies itself as a modern-day S&G, and I don't want to encourage any vainglorious musings of that sort. Fact is, there's nothing notably "wicked" or "evil" about Podunk-By-The-Bay apart from it being a rather singularly smug and boring little place that might best be described by inverting Hannah Arendt's phrase, to wit, the evil of banality.

But yes, I digress again; I was thinking more about this poor fellow Lot, who was told by God that if he wanted to save Sodom and Gomorrah and all their inhabitants from a divine incineration, he need only find ten decent people living therein. As all you Biblical scholars will be aware, he failed to find even one, and down came the fire and brimstone. Well, I was fancying myself a modern-day Lot, challenged to find a reason or reasons why San Francisco should not be destroyed, and in pursuit of that quest, devoted most of my weekend and a small fortune in BART and Muni fares to prowling the streets of Frisco in search of an angry... no, wait, wrong poem... Let's just say, as would Rod Stewart, that I was looking for a reason to believe.

I started out with great optimism. After a week of miserably dank and cold weather, the sun had burst out all over, temperatures were in the mid to high 70s, the air was crystalline, visibility practically limitless, and the bay, the ocean, the hills with their carpetings of rich yellow grass, deep green forests, white and pastel houses, all practically shimmered in the soft October light. At least it looked that way as long as I stayed isolated on a hilltop overlooking the panorama; as soon as I descended into town, it was a clear case of every prospect pleasing and only man being vile, if you know what I mean.

Let's just put it this way: the California temperament, the Northern California, Bay Area temperament, anyway, clashes rather harshly with my own. But there I go straying off into negative territory again, when all I wanted to point out was that this weekend offered, in addition to fabulous weather and scenery (and, let us not forget, several excellent, impossible-to-obtain-anywhere-else burritos), a host of events. There were parades, on land (Columbus Day/Italian Heritage) sea (battleships et al. in conjunction with Fleet Week), and air (the Blue Angels, a US Navy airborne daredevil act, also Fleet Week-related). There was a Cal football game, an Oakland A's playoff game, about half a dozen concerts and festivals, and most of all, there was Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, three days of absolutely free shows on five stages in Golden Gate Park.

Apparently this was the 6th annual HSB, and I'd never even heard of it before. In fact I only found out about it because I was perusing The List, which mostly covers punk and ska-type stuff. I came across one item with about 300 names followed by "free," and when I saw that those names included the likes of Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, I thought, "Well, I probably wouldn't pay to see any of those guys, but who can argue with free? And besides, I love bluegrass and hillbilly music.

So I moseyed on out there for two days running. Granted, I took my time, and both days didn't get there till near the end, but then I wasn't going to see anyone in particular; I was just going to wander around from stage to stage seeing what was on offer. Much as I like the stuff, I have to admit that most bluegrass tends to sound pretty much the same - kind of like one of my other favorite kinds of music, pop-punk - so I figured it would all be pretty good.

One of the first things I stumbled across was Billy Bragg, in a cowboy hat, talking like Tony Blair in a ridiculous cockney-cum-cowboy accent. When I say that, I don't mean to imply that Tony Blair talks in a cockney-cum-cowboy accent (though it wouldn't surprise me one bit if he did), but that BB was doing that same hokey, folksy man-of-the-people thing that Tony does when he yanks out all the glottal stops and launches into a full-estuary attempt to get down with "you guys."

Well, that's what Billy B was doing, only in a more-socialist-hence-even-more-boring manner than Our Tone. "You guys" were walking away in droves as it became clear that Billy was out to shatter even the Jello Biafra blabbermouth standard, but eventually he did sing a song or two, one about the Diggers (the 17th century English variety, not the 1960s Haight-Ashbury kind, though I think in his long, convoluted discourse Billy may have been trying to establish a linkage between the two). There was another one about sleeping under the California stars that was kind of touching and reminded me of how much I used to love this state before another 20 million people moved here, but not having been born here myself, I guess I can't complain too much about that.

Some skinny girl called Gillian Welch, who I guess is a big deal in some circles, just not mine, was singing on the next stage, and she was all right, although I'd been listening to her for about 20 minutes before I realized she wasn't Emmy Lou Harris (I was standing way at the back of a very large crowd). I'd had a headache all day, not the fault of any of the singers/bands, but it wasn't being helped any by the crowds of morons puffing up great clouds of marijuana smoke all around me. You'd think this was some hippie love-in rather than a hillbilly music festival, until it dawned on me that it actually was a hippie love-in, so long as you define "love-in" as a massive crowd of badly dressed stoned and drunk people wallowing and rutting in a vast muddy field. Yes sir, it was just like old times; I'd been to free concerts in this very same location - Speedway Meadows - some 35 or more years ago, and no doubt some of these very same people had been there, too, and had remained stoned ever since.

It's not necessarily pleasant to find yourself suddenly surrounded by the human wreckage of your past, and not just because it makes you think, "Oh my, did I really look that bad when I was cavorting around fields high on pot and acid and talking utter nonsense about, well, about anything that came up, actually?" No, there's also the creeping suspicion that these people, who are basically the same age as me, might come closer than I'd like to think to representing how I too appear to the world these days.

Then there's the young hippies, who I find even more disconcerting in a way. They hadn't even been born in the 60s or 70s when we were committing our moral, ethical and fashion faux pas, yet they have the look, the language, the costumes and the drug abuse down pat, so much so that I'm constantly confusing them with people I used to see in Provo Park or spare changing on St. Mark's Place some three or four decades ago. Which causes me to have a momentary lapse of reason, to think I'm still the same age I was when I was first surrounded by hippies, and simultaneously wonder why all those ridiculous old people are hanging around our groovy young scene.

The usual unsightly bits were on copious display: acres of tie-dye, children watching in slack-jawed boredom as their somewhat feral parents got blotto on bong hits, voluminous hindquarters stuffed (barely) into Indian bedspread dresses, but I also spied a long-haired and bearded fellow passing a joint back and forth with a whole passel of like-minded and coiffed individuals while wearing a NOFX "Never Trust A Hippy" hoodie. Unless I'm missing something here, this may be the first irony-enabled hippie I've come across in 40 years of observing the species.

Anyway, that was all yesterday; today I came back sans headache and with a slightly better attitude. Caught a bit of Richard Thompson, who I've never liked, and had to admit that even though I still don't care much for his singing or songwriting, he is one astounding guitarist. Noted from the sign nearby that I'd missed Elvis Costello for the second day running and wasn't that bothered. Then wandered over into the next meadow and heard something that sounded remarkably like the Grateful Dead, made doubly eerie by the fact that I've seen the Grateful Dead before playing in that very meadow, albeit some 35 years ago. But the closer I got the more they sounded like the Grateful Dead, and the more the crowd looked like a Grateful Dead crowd, complete with gaping, grinning girls doing the twirl and flycatcher dance and swaying drunks with mustaches singing, or rather shouting out the lyrics so badly out of tune that you wonder how much and how often they have to drink and smoke in order such a high order of obliviousness.

It finally dawned on me that a) the band was indeed playing a Grateful Dead song; b) that at least one member of the Grateful Dead, Bob Weir (the one who used to be the baby-faced cutie of the group, but who now sports grizzled mutton chops and looks like the Old Prospector just down from the mountains) was on stage with them; and c) that I was completely and utterly surrounded by Deadheads.

That's where I should have gone screaming for the exits, were there any, but despite the clouds of marijuana smoke wafting at me from all directions, despite the beer belches and other unpleasant eructations of hippies both old and young, despite the youthful Phish fans who danced like Francis the Talking Mule on a diet of Mexican jumping beans, I stuck around because I was actually enjoying the music. They played semi-acoustic versions of about half a dozen Dead songs, including "Dire Wolf" from the one GD album I'll unabashedly admit to liking, Workingman's Dead, and also from that album, "Casey Jones" (the one about driving the train high on cocaine), and an even older Dead chestnut, "St. Stephen," which I first heard at Winterland in 1971, high on about 19 hits of acid. Much to my amazement, I found that I liked the music much better now that I wasn't stoned (contravening the old joke about what one Deadhead said to the other when they realized they'd run out of dope: "Hey man, this music sucks").

In fact I found myself feeling sorry for the near-catatonic crowd around me, who were witnessing a display of musicianship that was simply stunning and yet would probably remember little more than how high or drunk they'd been. But then I also started noticing that there were many others who were enjoying the music every bit as much as me, everything from 70 year-old whitebeards to 14 year-old Bob Dylan fans who went mental when the band launched into an inspired cover of "Like A Rolling Stone" (joined by the aforementioned Gillian Welch on backing vocals and guitar). There were a couple of Rolling Stones covers, too, "19th Nervous Breakdown" and "The Last Time," and, so ludicrous that it was actually kind of cool, Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir."

These were all songs that I'd heard played by the original artists many, many years ago, and yet, thanks to the treatment they were given - a bit of country, a bit of Dead-type jamming, a bit of just hanging out and playing some great old songs - they sounded, if not brand new, still fresh and, well, evergreen. It's painful, at least a little, for me to admit that I went in among the Deadheads and not only survived, but actually enjoyed myself, but there you go. I'm even tempted to suggest that perhaps my generation wasn't entirely worthless after all, though I'm not sure I'm prepared to go quite that far just yet.

But the upshot of it is that by the end of the concert, followed by a walk out to Ocean Beach where I met a group of friends for a bonfire, I was prepared to give San Francisco a pass, at least for now. Can't vouch for how God feels on the subject, but I personally am willing to hold off on the fire and brimstone for a while yet.

Which is just as well, because I've just learned I may be stuck here for as long as two to three months. As some of you know, I'm having surgery on my foot to correct the consequences of the fat stage diver who landed on me at Gilman Street in 1988, and I'm going to be essentially crippled for much of that time, and confined pretty much to bed or near it for the first two or three weeks. So I don't know how much blogging I'll be able to do; maybe a lot, maybe none at all, depending how I feel. But if all goes well, by December my foot should be better than new (they're putting in an artificial joint, so I'm assuming that will be an improvement over this decrepit natural one I've got) and I'll be back in action, hopefully on the far more sane East Coast. I might be posting here one more time before the operation (which is Tuesday), but if not, please wish me well (or not, depending on your inclination).

P.S. The whole Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival is funded by one of SF's local billionaires (there are quite a few, apparently), one Warren Hellman, who I don't think has anything to do with the mayonnaise, but you never know. I imagine he must drop a few million on it every year, at least, but he seems to be enjoying it. To tell the truth, if I'd realized you could do that sort of thing with your money rather than just sit around your mansion being grumpy, I might have been more motivated to become a billionaire myself. But you know what, I didn't, and it's a bit late in life to start now, so good for Mr. Hellman and other billionaires who like to give their money away. But knowing that all this music and fun (not to mention all the performers' paychecks) had been underwritten by one very successful investment banker lent a special piquancy to Billy Bragg's rants about the bloody capitalists. He would have been better advised to shut up and sing, which, I forgot to mention, is mostly what Steve Earle did over on the main stage. I was expecting a whole lot of Dixie Chicks-type "Bush sucks" rhetoric from Mr. Earle (a cheap way to wow any Frisco crowd), but apart from urging people to give the finger to the Blue Angels if they should fly over, he mostly stuck to his music which is pretty decent. Okay, a little bland, but decent. Not that I stuck around for the end, but that was Saturday, when I had a headache. Anyway, I'm babbling now; think maybe it's time for bed.


Nick G. said...

hey larry, i dont know how long into december you plan on staying the the bay area, but it would be cool if you were to stay for the three night 20 year anniversary of Gilman bash (with no foot bashing, if all goes well), because as you can imagine, its going to be pretty amazing. 20 years! thats a long time. and i mean, you should be there, you were part of the original gilman scene.

Larry said...

Hi I'm Larry.

File this under: San Francisco sucks.

Larry Livermore said...

Yeah, it does suck, but you didn't read the story carefully enough. Its main point was that in my explorations I actually found enough redeeming value to the place that, upon proper consultation and discussion, my pal God and I decided to let the place live a little longer.

Lefty said...

man, larry, that guy hates you. is there anything that upsets bay area people more than someone pointing out that the bay area is not perfect?

re: greatful dead. in the words of dianne arn: "i don't get what this (pointing to wildly undulating uc davis sweatshirt-clad group next to us) has to do with this (pointing to greatful dead)."

irenie said...

Glad you enjoyed the Bobby and Waybacks set!