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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Friday
Oct302009

In Which These Are All The Hot Places In San Francisco

Go West

by DANISH AZIZ

I recently read a piece on This Recording about "hot places" in LA, which Alex asked me to replicate for my adopted home of San Francisco. I agreed, but with the caveat that there are no hot places in San Francisco. The closest thing to a celebrity you're likely to encounter here is some dude who's "big on Twitter" or who perhaps even "founded Twitter."

The lack of celebrities is actually one of the better things about this city though, maybe second only to the fact that we have the most restaurants and bars per capita of any city in the country. 

When other people write about SF they generally focus on the BoBoBo© (boutique bourgeois bohemian) side of things and/or the Mission. It almost cannot be argued that the Mission is the best place to go out in the city for the non Ed Hardy crowd, so I've included a few of my favorites from the NorCal Silverlake, but the "I'm a contrarian, just like you" spirit of the Mission (cf. Williamsburg) influenced me to settle in a slightly less cliché neighborhood (Nob Hill/The TenderNob/The Tenderloin) for a mid-20s non-bro which I've tried to sort of focus on here.   

Drink

THE ATTIC I never really thought of the The Attic as anything more than another dive bar until my girlfriend pointed out that they have a capable DJ in house every night. Since "discovering" this fact, it's quickly become my favorite place to hit up when I make it to the south of the city.

EL RIO Hot days are rare in SF, so when they do arrive people flock to drink outside. Of course you can always hit up the Hipster Hamptons for free, but many people prefer Zeitgeist. On a recent 90 degree day, though, I actually witnessed a NYC/LA club line outside of Zeitgeist and after pointing and laughing decided to hit up El Rio instead, which boasts both a music stage and friendlier bar staff along with a spacious outdoor patio. 

geary clubPHONEBOOTH/AMBER/GEARY CLUB Bars that allow smoking in SF are kind of like cities with winters, they weed out the wimps. If you want to know what it's like to hang out in a bar before the year 2000, these three establishments are able to skirt the smoking ban by virtue of their cooperative ownership/bartending.

UPTOWN/KNOCKOUT/POPS Along with the above Phonebooth and the aforementioned Attic, these bars form the Mission's "frat free corridor" where you likely won't find any Marina refugees on the weekends.

TONGA ROOM This place is like Disney Land for old people. Located in the historic Fairmont Hotel, Tonga Room is the ultimate in Tiki Bar experiences. Not only are there endless tropical drinks in bowl-sized servings, but on some nights there's a cover band that floats out into the middle of the artificial lagoon and plays in the "rain" while empty nesters get their grooves back. Ex-This Recording CFO R. Rutherford once had the time of his life here. 

Listen

BOTTOM OF THE HILL Shows here are usually under $12 and whoever handles their booking here is very good, usually landing acts that are still in their blog hype stage.

RICKSHAW STOP Similar to Bottom of the Hill in terms of landing great acts early in their careers, although with a slightly more electronic/pop leaning.

HEMLOCK Like El Rio, this is a bar with a separate but attached venue. Great place to catch local bands with national followings, or visiting bands with cult followings.

EAGLE TAVERN This place is usually a gay bar with a great outdoor space, but on Thursdays it transforms into an all persuasions live music venue. 

Dance

CEREMONY OR BOOTY BASEMENT AT THE KNOCKOUT The 90s alternative night every first Saturday of the month at The Knockout, is fun but you can't go without ruining a pair of shoes. For similarly well-curated but slightly less sloppy fun check out Ceremony every third Monday for New Wave/Industrial/Dark Pop or Booty Basement for Hip Hop every third Saturday.

SHUTTER AT THE ELBO ROOM Goth and New Wave night. When I went Davey Havok was there...

DIARY AT POPS Named for the Sunny Day Real Estate album, this Emo/Screamo/Pop Punk night isn't actually one you're likely to dance at, but the nostalgia's deep and the booze is cheap every first and third Tuesday.

Eat

SHALIMAR Food like your moms used to make, if your moms is Pakistani.

ON THE BRIDGE Yoshuko style Japanese food for when you're in search of authentic inauthenticity.

CORDON BLEU Vietnamese chicken joint with excellent imperial rolls. 

YAMO The hole in the wall alternative to Burma Superstar for Burmese cuisine, though it will always be Myanmar...ian cuisine in my heart.

The vegan "chicken steak" sandwich with everything on it is warm, fresh and satisfying.LOVE AND HAIGHT SF is notoriously lacking in sandwich shops, but this family-run spot in the Lower Haight gets it right. I'm no a vegetarian but their fake chicken sammich is off the hook.

EL TONAYENSE Best known for their taco trucks scattered throughout the Mission, I find the goods at the brick and mortar location just as delicious. San Francisco burritos are wiki-famous, but the tacos are where it's at.

Danish Aziz is the senior contributor to This Recording. He tumbls here.

"Buried In Ice" - The Felice Brothers (mp3)

"Boy From Lawrence County" - The Felice Brothers (mp3)

"Sailor Song" - The Felice Brothers (mp3)

Thursday
Oct292009

In Which I Want Your Skulls, I Need Your Skulls

Seismograph, Phonautograph, Skull: On Useless Recordings

by COLIN DICKEY

The first known seismograph was invented in China by Zhang Heng in 132 CE, during the Han Dynasty. It consisted of a bronze urn about 3 feet in diameter, adorned with eight dragons around it.

Each dragon’s mouth held a ball, and when an earthquake hit, the closest dragon’s mouth would open, dropping the ball into the urn and indicating the direction of origin of the earthquake.

The modern seismograph came into development in the late 1880s. The basic principle has remained unchanged since then —a free-floating weighted pendulum sits above a recording drum which moves during the earthquake, while the pendulum stays still, recording relative motion.

The seismograph doesn’t record an earthquake in the way a video camera records an event. One does not record an earthquake to play it back later. The seismograph works by translating the earthquake into data, into something that can be read, analyzed, cataloged. Likewise with the phonautograph, the first known sound recording.

The first phonautographs were made in 1857 by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, who attached a hog’s bristle to a membrane and focused a horn on it, so that sound waves would vibrate the hog bristle, which in turn scratched its movement on a lamp-blackened glass plate.

The phonautograph had no playback mechanism—it wasn’t until 2008 that they were made audible through digital analysis—but it could translate sound into a graphic form, allowing de Martinville to determine the frequencies of various musical pitches.

But while not as practical as an mp3, the phonautograph makes for a beautiful image—an eerie translation of sound into image, into a thing that can be analyzed.

I’ve been thinking about skulls, about phrenology. There’s something I find so captivating about Franz Joseph Gall, the inventor of phrenology, about the way his mind worked, about how one comes to see the human body in new ways. Gall was a young medical student, struggling in school, and jealous of his peers who could memorize facts so much easier than he could.

He wanted to know why they were so much better at memorization, and so rather than studying harder in school he started staring at them in envy, trying to figure it out. Finally he came upon the notion that their eyes were bigger, and deduced, in his inimitable way, that big eyes somehow correlated with increased memory.

That’s the basis of phrenology (what Gall originally called “cranioscopy”): different parts of the brain do different things, and that brain size indicates capacity. Gall went on to theorize that these different parts of the brain would press on the skull and make an indentation, so that one could map these corresponding parts of the brain, and their relative strengths and weaknesses, on the skull itself. Thus, “bump reading”: feeling the scalp or a skull to learn about the person’s brain and personality.

Yes, all of this is ludicrous. Yes, at times it got downright offensive: the world-famous criminologist Cesare Lombroso, for example, argued that women’s natural inclination was to marry and have children, and if this didn’t happen they turned out bad (the virgin-assassin Charlotte Corday, and the bumps on her skull, was a prime case for him). No, I don’t believe in any of it. But what I find so elegant about Gall’s theory is the way he made the skull into a recording device.

The brain's workings are invisible and silent: it doesn't work like other organs. Take the heart: Cut open a body and there it sits, at the center of the human world. You can trace its veins and arteries threading out in every direction, in order to understand its networks. If you cut open a still living body, you can see it going about its bloody work.

The brain is a different matter. It sits removed; it keeps its secrets to itself. When the Egyptians embalmed a body, they placed each organ in a separate urn; each was sacred, each was worthy of reverence—except the brain. It works not with blood or food but with its own electricity, and it keeps its own counsel. The Egyptians didn’t know what it was for, so they threw it away. By the eighteenth century, anatomists knew more about the brain and its networks, but it still remained remarkably aloof.

The motivation that drives phrenology, at its heart, is a quest for the visible. The Enlightenment was a time when people were obsessed with sight and metaphors of vision—you can see the obsession in the name itself, an age of illumination. To see a thing was to know it.

The metaphoric connection between sight and knowledge drove much of Enlightenment thought, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s desire in 1761 to become “a living eye” to Ralph Waldo Emerson, ninety years later, becoming a “transparent eyeball” in moments of transcendence.

As one modern commentator points out, the Enlightenment conceptualized a reasoning mind whose “processes appear to have been closely akin to those of the seeing eye.”

Gall was ultimately a man of his age, who sought knowledge in sight and did his best to bring the study of the brain into an era in which only sight mattered. Maybe he can be forgiven if in trying just a little too hard to solve this problem he created one of the most egregious pseudosciences of the nineteenth century.

Two hundred years earlier, Rene Descartes had written, “All the management of our lives depends on the senses, and since that of sight is the most comprehensive and the noblest of these, there is no doubt that the inventions which serve to augment its power are among the most useful that there can be.”

He was speaking of telescopes and microscopes, but cranioscopy would soon find its place as just one more such lens, opening up what was hitherto invisible to the eye.

What Gall did to the skull was to re-envision it as a recording device, something like a seismograph, or a phonautograph. The skull took the ineffable, incomprehensible workings of the brain, and not only recorded them, but translated them into something that could be mapped, decoded, read.

As if a weirdly organic precursor to the phonograph, the skull appeared to phrenologists as something like a recording device, a malleable surface onto which a record of the ineffable could be printed. The etymology of the terms is telling: whereas “phrenology” means “mind-knowing,” Gall’s own term, “cranioscopy,” means “skull-seeing.”

Electroencephalography, or EEG, came into its own in 1920, and at that point we finally had a reliable method for recording the electrical signals emitted from the brain. Phrenology had already been debunked by then, and the last century has done much to blot its most obscene prejudices and claims from popular imagination.

But the effects that remain—the ceramic busts, the charts, and, most of all, the odd beauty of Gall’s thought process—continue to permeate the world around us. As the phonautograph and Zhang Heng’s urn show, it’s when a science ceases to be useful that it becomes beautiful.

Colin Dickey is a writer living in Los Angeles and the author of the recently published book Cranioklepty: Graverobbing and the Search for Genius.

buy "Cranioklepty" at Amazon or Unbridled Books

THIS RECORDING IS AN INTERNET RECORDING DEVICE


Thursday
Oct292009

In Which Our Upstairs Neighbor Is A Major Painter

with fairfield porterJane Freilicher

by JOHN ASHBERY

I first met Jane Freilicher one afternoon in the early summer of 1949.

james schuyler, ashbery and kochI had recently graduated from Harvard and had somewhat reluctantly decided to move to New York, having been simultaneously rejected by the graduate school of English at Harvard and accepted at Columbia. Kenneth Koch, who had graduated the year before me, had been urging me to come and live in New York. He was at the time visiting his parents in Cincinnati, and told me I could stay in his loft (loft?) till he got back; his upstairs neighbor Jane would give me the keys. Accordingly I found myself ringing the bell of an unprepossessing three story building on Third Avenue at Sixteenth Street. Overhead the El went crashing by; I later found that one of Kenneth's distractions was to don a rubber gorilla mask and gaze out his window at the passing trains.

After a considerable length of time the door was opened by a pretty and somewhat preoccupied dark haired girl, who showed me to Kenneth's quarters on the second floor. I remembered that Kenneth had said that Jane was the wittiest person he had ever met, and found this odd; she seemed too serious to be clever, though of course on needn't preclude the other. I don't remember anything else about our first meeting; perhaps it was that same day or a few days later that Jane invited me in to her apartment on the floor above and I noticed a few small paintings around. "Noticed" is perhaps too strong a word; I was only marginally aware of them, though I found that they did stick in my memory.

As I recall, they were landscapes with occasional figures in them; their mood was slightly Expressionist, though there were areas filled with somewhat arbitrary geometrical patterns. Probably she told me she had done them while studying with Hans Hofmann, but it wouldn't have mattered since I hadn't heard of him or any other member of the New York School at that time. My course in twentieth-century art at Harvard had stopped with Max Ernst. (For academic purposes it was OK to be a Surrealist as long as the period of Surrealism could be seen as being in the past, and things haven't changed much since.)

max ernst & dorothea tanningDespite or because of our common trait of shyness, Jane and I soon became friends, and I met other friends of hers and Kenneth's, most of whom turned out to be painters and to have had some connections with Hofmann. (This is not the place to wonder why the poets Koch, O'Hara, Schuyler, Guest and myself gravitated towards painters; probably it was merely because the particular painters we knew happened to be more fun that the poets, though I don't think there were very many poets in those days.)

Al Kresch, Near CoshectonThere was Nell Blaine, whom the others seemed in awe of and who differed from them in championing a kind of geometric abstraction inflected by Léger and Hélion. There were Larry Rivers, Robert de Niro and Al Kresch, who painted in a loose figurative style that echoed Bonnard and Matisse but with an edge of frenzy or anxiety that meant New York; I found their work particularly exciting. And there was Jane, whose paintings of the time I still don't remember very clearly beyond the the fact that they seemed to accommodate both geometry and Expressionist surges, and they struck me at first as tentative, a quality I have since come ot admire and consider one of her strengths, having concluded that most good things are tentative, or should be if they aren't.

At any rate, Jane's work was shortly to change drastically, as were mine and that of the other people I knew. I hadn't realized it, but my arrival in New York coincided with the cresting of the "heroic" period of Abstract Expressionism, as it was later to be known, and somehow we all seemed to benefit from this strong moment even if we paid little attention to it and seemed to be going our separate ways. We were in awe of de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko and Motherwell and not too sure of exactly what they were doing.

merce cunninghamBut there were other things to attend to: concerts of John Cage's music, Merce Cunningham's dances, the Living Theatre, but also talking and going to movies and getting ripped and hanging out and then discussing it all over the phone: I could see all of this entering into Jane's work and Larry's and my own. And then there were the big shows at the Museum of Modern Art, whose permanent collection alone was stimulation enough for one's everyday needs. I had come down from Cambridge to catch the historic Bonnard show in the spring of 1948, unaware of how it was already affecting a generation of younger painters who would be my friends, especially Larry Rivers, who turned from playing jazz to painting at that moment of his life. 

Bonnard, Model in BacklightAnd soon there would be equally breathtaking shows of Munch, Soutine, Vuillard and Matisse, in each of whom - regardless of the differences that separate them - one finds a visceral sensual message sharpened by a shrill music or perfume emanating from the paint that seemed to affect my painter friends like catnip.

Soutine, in particular, who seems to have gone back to being a secondary modern master after the heady revelation of his Museum of Modern Art show in 1950, but whose time will undoubtedly come again, was full of possibilities for painters and poets. The fact that the sky could come crashing joyously into the grass, that trees could dance upside down and houses roll over like cats eager to have their tummies scratched was something I hadn't realized before, and I began pushing my poems around and standing words on end.

Soutine's "View of Ceret"It seemed to fire Jane with a new and earthy reverence toward the classic painting she had admired from a distance, perhaps, before. Thus she repainted Watteau's "Le Mezzetin" with an angry, loaded brush, obliterating the musician's features and squishing the grove behind him into a foaming whirlpool, yet the result is noble, joyful, generous: qualities that subsist today in her painting, though the context is calmer now than it was then.

The one thing lacking in our privileged little world (privileged because it was a kind of balcony overlooking the interestingly chaotic events happening in the bigger worlds outside) was the arrival of Frank O'Hara to kind of cobble everything together and tell us what we and they were doing. This happened in 1951, but before that Jane had gone out to visit him in Ann Arbor and painted a memorable portrait of him, in which Abstract Expressionism certainly inspired the wild brushwork rolling around like so many loose cannon, but which never loses sight of the fact that it is a portrait, and an eerily exact one at that.

After the early period of absorbing influences from the art and other things going on around one comes a period consolidation when one locks the door in order to sort out what one has to make of it what one can. It's not a question - at least I hope it isn't - of shutting oneself off from further influences: these do arrive, and sometimes, although rarely, can outweigh the earlier ones. It's rather a question of conserving and using what one has acquired. The period of Analytical Cubism and its successor Synthetic Cubism is a neat model for this process, and there will always be those who prefer the crude energy of the early phase to the more sedate and reflective realizations of the latter.

Picasso's "Still Life With Chair Chaning"Although I have a slight preference for the latter, I know that I would hate to be deprived of either. I feel that my own progress as a writer began with my half-consciously imitating the work that had struck me when I was young and new; later on came a doubting phase in which I was examining things and taking them apart without being able to put them back together to my liking.

I am still trying to do that; meanwhile the steps I've outlined recur in a different order over a long period of within a short one. This far longer time is that of being on one's own, of having "graduated" and having to live with the pleasures and perils of independence.

In the case of Jane Freilicher one can see similar patterns. After the rough ecstasy of the Watteau copy or a frenetic Japanese landscape she once did from a postcard came a phase in the mid-1950s when she seemed to be wryly copying what she saw, as though inviting the spectator to share her discovering of how impossible it is really to get anything down, get anything right: examples might be the painting done after a photograph by Nadar of a Second Empire horizontale (vertical for the purposes of the photograph) with sausage curls; or a still life whose main subject is a folded Persian rug precisely delineated with no attempt to hide the face of the hard work involved. Her realism is far from the "magic" kind that tries to conceal the effort behind its making and pretends to have sprung full-blown onto the canvas.

Such miracles are after all minor. Both suave facture and heavily-worked over passages clash profitably here, as they do in life, and they continue to do so in her painting, though more subtly today than then. That is what I mean by "tentative." Nothing is ever taken for granted; the paintings do not look as if they took themselves for granted, and they remind us that we shouldn't take ourselves for granted, either. Each is like a separate and valuable life coming into being.

I was an amateur painter long enough to realize that the main temptation when painting from a model is to generalize. No one is ever going to believe the color of that apple, one says to oneself, therefore I'll make it more the color that apples "really" are. The model isn't looking like herself today - we'll have to do something about that. Or another person is seated on the grass in such a way that you would swear that the tree branch fifty feet behind him is coming out of his ear. So lesser artists correct in nature in a misguided attempt at heightened realism, forgetting that the real is not only what one sees but also a result of how one sees it, inattentively, inaccurately perhaps, but nevertheless that is how it is coming through to us, and to deny this is to kill the life of the picture. It seems that Jane's long career has been one attempt to correct this misguided, even blasphemous, state of affairs; to let things, finally, be.

John Ashbery is a poet and critic living in New York. This essay is excerpted from here.

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"This Drift" - Uninhabitable Mansions (mp3)

"Static State" - Uninhabitable Mansions (mp3) highly recommended

"The Brain Is A Slow Wave" - Uninhabitable Mansions (mp3)