Fog City News celebrates 20 years of great reads (and sweet treats)

Adam Smith of Fog City News. Photo by Sonja Malik

1200+ magazines carried. 4000+ chocolates evaluated. 1000+ greeting cards displayed. All in the cozy 920 square-foot Fog City News downtown, which is celebrating 20 years of spreading news—and selling some of the city’s best chocolates—Fri/8 and Sat/9. Is there any better spot to wash down the oft-bitter news of today with a sweet, sweet dose of cacao?

Although he was a news junkie from a young age, proprietor Adam Smith never thought he’d end up running one of SF’s most storied newsstands, winner of Best of the Bay for almost two decades. He originally made a career in restaurants in New York City and Los Angeles. But soon his true avocation swept him up like the rifling of a perfect periodical’s pages.

I found that newsstands—with the daily ritual of newspaper and magazine purchases by regulars, and quick exchanges about current events—suited me more than restaurant work ever had,” Smith says. “It soon led to my opening Fog City News in 1999. My hope was that the shop would come to be considered one of the better newsstands in town (especially since I was giving the business such a singular name).”

Photo by Sonja Malik

Smith also wanted to build something that hummed with nostalgic spirit. “Customers encounter plush wall-to-wall carpeting, alabaster pendant chandeliers, crown moulding, custom oak cabinetry, gold foil storefront lettering, “old-timey” background music, and antique artifacts that evoke a bygone era,” he says, making me salivate for a lost generation of watch repair, typewriter display, and jewelry store spots.   He calls Fog City’s ambiance a blend of San Francisco’s cosmopolitan sophistication, old-fashioned elegance, and personable service.

No wonder it’s been one of my top spots to holiday shop for years. (Seriously, this is a one-stop for anyone whose family loves chocolates and glossies.)

The anniversary celebration will feature a personal appearance by Michael Mischer of Oakland’s Michael Mischer Chocolates (Friday/8, 12:30pm-2pm, free tastes for the first 50 attendees); a drawing for different prizes, including a 40-truffle gift assortment donated by Richard Donnelly of Santa Cruz’s  Donnelly Chocolates, discounts for FCN members; and limited edition 20th anniversary shirts, available for purchase while supplies last. 

I asked Adam a couple questions about surviving in changing times, and being one of the Best.

48 HILLS As one of the few surviving news stands in the Bay Area, how have you continued to cater to a changing audience? 

ADAM SMITH We didn’t sit back and just watch the audience of print magazine lovers shrink. We offered customers other reasons to shop with us, so while we already had the duality of mags and chocolate, we expanded into being a greeting card specialist too. It’s just luck, but all three of those product categories are somewhat immune to e-commerce.

Photo by Sonja Malik

48 HILLS What are some of the challenges you’re facing as a small business, and what do you think would help? 

ADAM SMITH I think for myself — and many other wonderful independent stores in SF — a couple of the biggest challenges are: (1) the hectic pace of life and distraction caused by “screens” has caused a lot of consumers to stop really living in the moment and taking in the world around them, and (2) the media narrative that all retail is transitioning to an all- or partial-online model. In the last few years I’ve heard more customers commenting “I didn’t know stores like this still existed.” And they don’t just mean newsstands, they mean independent retailers with character.

48 HILLS You were named Best Store Staff in Best of the Bay 2019 — what’s your secret? 

ADAM SMITH Oh God, Marke, you don’t want to work for me! I’m tough! I tell every new hire, look, you may think you’re working at a newsstand, but you’ve also just enrolled at Chocolate University! Most people really don’t know how to taste all the flavor that’s going on in food. I literally have to train new hires how to taste. It sounds like an exaggeration, but it really takes at least 6 months to understand this job!

Fri/8, 10am-6:30pm and Sat/9, 11am-6pm
Fog City News, SF.
More info here

Marina Times editor freaks out about diversity

A parody of the Marina Times, but it took us a minute.

Everyone knew this was coming.

When the San Francisco Chronicle hired restaurant critic Soleil Ho to replace 30-year veteran Michael Bauer, the question wasn’t so much “Does this indicate a sea change?” as much as “Will they be emptying the contents of the Mediterranean and dumping them into the Sea of Tranquility?”

Ho’s insistence on contextualizing restaurants and examining them through the lenses of cultural appropriation, labor exploitation, environmental degradation and the like has its champions and its detractors, but it certainly put her on the map from the very beginning. (It probably didn’t hurt that she started off with a takedown of Chez Panisse that was so thorough Alice Waters had to Marie Kondo her whole life three weeks later.)

“She doesn’t even write about the food!” has been the consistent refrain from the aggrieved, whether they be restaurateurs over a lackluster review or foodie aristos put off by millennial wokeness. Ho definitely does write about the food, but a backlash has probably been simmering for eight months now, and it came to a boil this post-Election Day morning in the form of an “ok boomer” faceplant from Marina Times editor Susan Dyer Reynolds.

Reynolds’ article “Cirque du Soleil” is a cri de coeur against political correctness, and a very tired one, a colander leaking streams of anger over the direction of the wider culture. It’s the pernicious kind, the kind that delegitimizes someone without substantively critiquing their words. It contains lots of adjectives like “rambling” and “tortured,” all without marshaling any evidence that Ho rambles or tortures — because Reynolds’ real point is that having to read about cultural appropriation when you prefer to read about moules frites is torture. Worst of all, it insinuates that Ho’s hiring was strictly a political decision by the Chronicle’s “politically correct management.”

That’s the red line here. You can critique someone’s judgment without also calling into question the legitimacy of a major newspaper hiring a young, queer, woman of color. For too long, the dwindling number of places to write about food have been occupied by white dudes — among them me, and I’m waving bye-bye pretty soon — and major institutional course corrections are urgently needed. Reynolds recognizes that Bauer no longer fit into “the new normal,” but she seems pretty dead-set on inveighing against it herself.

Her point-of-no-return appears to be Ho’s recent dissection of racist anachronism Le Colonial. She juxtaposes a leaden description of salad from Bauer’s prior review with Ho weaving in the perspective of a historian—and a Vietnamese-American with a French name at that. “The rest of the article is devoted to why the restaurant shouldn’t exist,” Reynolds writes. Well — maybe it shouldn’t, just like other ill-conceived Asian restaurants shouldn’t.

But strictly in terms of a cost-benefit analysis when it comes to picking your battles, this is the hill to die on? An orientalist dinosaur with “clumsily plated $36 entrees and nigh-undrinkable $15 cocktails”? The name alone suggests that Le Colonial is woefully out-of-step with the times — but then again Hayes Valley still has a boutique called Plantation so we’re not there yet.

Soleil Ho’s perspective has brought fresh eyes to the Bay Area restaurant scene, and bared some uncomfortable truths.

In the section titled “Hypocrite Ho,” Reynolds takes the reviewer to task for not slamming Thomas Keller’s Yountville Mexican restaurant La Calenda. “Cultural Appropriation Done Right” was Ho’s verdict, a headline that would seem to indicate she’s not some rigidly doctrinaire killjoy hellbent on sweeping the world clean of everything she deems slightly problematic. Serving really good food still counts. Would Reynolds honestly prefer a more dogmatic critic? It doesn’t look like it.

But this isn’t putting “Cirque du Soleil” in its proper context, which is an enraged string of tweets from Reynolds this morning. Anyone who bemoans how Christmas comes too early is sure to love a pinned tweet that begins “Ho Ho Ho! The holidays are coming, so I’m taking a break from politics to talk about #politicallycorrect #SoleilHo, the  @SFC_FoodHome #woke #foodcritic who never talks about food. She hates #culturalappropriation — unless it’s done right!”

Coal is about as un-PC as it gets these days, but I’d rather Santa Claus bring me a sulfurous lump of anthracite than dump some racist puns down my chimney.

As with Chez Panisse, “woke culture,” however you want to define that [and it would be nice if it wasn’t the thinly veiled anti-Black way most knee-jerk critics of wokeness doEd.] isn’t sacred. But just as you should never kiss the poisoned tip of your javelin just before you chuck it, it’s important not to snort your way into a K-hole of righteous outrage that begins to undermine your initial point.

Not content with getting ratioed, Reynolds went on a social-media tear responding to critics of her article, interspersed with opinions about yesterday’s election. She accused a writer who didn’t call her racist of calling her racist, then all but encouraged people to get him fired. She got offended about the presumably classist accusation that she goes to dinner parties in the Presidio an hour after tweeting about how it’s relaxing to hang out with mini horses in Montana.

She leaned on absurd dot-connecting and put forth an odd belief that newspaper advertising is tied to food journalism. There’s the requisite “why-does-everything-have-to-be-about-race-and-by-the-way-my-nonwhite-friend-agrees-with-me” and (of course) some “grow a sense of humor.”

The most surreal tweet involves Reynolds calling someone “clownist” in response to being called a clown, then adding “no seriously” so that we know she’s actually not kidding. (Reynolds’ forebears worked for the circus, apparently. But remember, the title of her piece is a circus pun.)

One thing that Reynolds is absolutely right about is how under-reported the issue of labor exploitation is. As #MeToo engulfed the food universe, taking down Mario Batali and other predators, it seemed as though more commentators would draw connections between sexual harassment and other forms of abuse — like, say, outright stealing employee wages.

But that didn’t really happen. It’s frustrating that the owners of demonstrably malevolent restaurants like Burma Superstar haven’t been banished to the outer darkness with Ken Friedman. As Reynolds observes, the fact that La Taqueria retains its cachet is also pretty glaring. But if anything, that’s the failure of the food writing establishment to be consistent, not evidence that political correctness run amok has ruined everyone’s collective ability to sit down to a nice meal.

Still, nobody who fondly remembers a wonderful anniversary dinner that cost their significant other a lot of money wants to read that some self-anointed tastemaker has decreed the restaurant to be trash. And food writers take a lot of heat, partly because the job inevitably entails yukking other people’s yum like that.

But a self-contradictory grievance-vortex bedazzled with racist jokes is never the right position from which to launch an assault on someone’s right to be in the profession. Ho, ho, ho, the holidays are coming. Maybe take that break, but from the internet.

Local musicians step up to ‘Blanket the Homeless’

Fantastic Negrito contributes a track to the 'Blanket the Homeless' album. Photo by Lyle Owerko

When I spoke with storied music producer Scott Mickelson last month, San Francisco was in the midst of a nationally covered anti-homeless kerfuffle. Housed residents of Clinton Park street had fundraised to install huge boulders on the sidewalk, to prevent unhoused people from sleeping or gathering.

Mickelson, an internationally touring musician who works out of his Marin studio when home, hadn’t yet heard about the rocks. But the sentiment behind them didn’t surprise him. “It just goes to show that San Francisco wants to project itself as liberal and open-minded,” Mickelson said. “But if something might potentially lower property values, all that goes out the window.”

Mickelson, moved by the plight of the homeless especially over the past few years of surreal equality in the Bay Area economy, has produced a double album called Blanket the Homeless, featuring some awesome local musicians and benefitting the Blanket the Homeless organization (A benefit concert, co-produced by Another Planet Entertainment, takes place Thu/7 at the Independent and the album will be available for purchase via national outlets starting Fri/8.)

‘Blanket the Homeless’ Album cover

Blanket the Homeless, launched by Ken Newman with other local musicians in 2016, works with volunteers to hand out kits containing emergency blankets, socks, first-aid supplies, and other essentials—more than 3500 have been handed out so far.

“What I love about Blanket the Homeless is that it’s a direct action organization,” Mickelson told me over the phone. “It doesn’t just trickle down to the street level. You know your contribution will immediately make a difference.”

Mickelson teaming up with Newman to help the homeless highlights a wonderful web of Bay Area talent stepping up. Blanket the Homeless was originally inspired by the #BeRobin fundraising campaign, launched by comedian Margaret Cho and others to combat homelessness, which in turn was directly inspired by Robin Williams’ philanthropy and activism.

In 2017, Mickelson produced After the Fire: Vol 1, a charity album which raised thousands of dollars for victims of the devastating North California fires—he partnered with Undocufund, which focuses on helping the estimated 38,500 undocumented immigrants in the Sonoma County. For that record, Mickelson had asked local musicians to contribute original, stripped-down or acoustic songs

Scott Mickelson

Later, as Mickelson was working with Newman on an album, they hit upon the idea of approaching Bay Area musicians to record something to benefit Newman’s organization.

“For this record I wanted all original work again, but I wanted it to be bigger in terms of production. After the Fire‘s sound reflected the moment of devastation; for Blanket the Homeless I wanted to go all out to show we could help.” Artists were invited for a one-day session in Mickelson’s studio to engage with his state-of-the-art technology and production skills.

“At first I was banging my head against doors in terms of getting artists aboard,” Mickelson said. “But once Fantastic Negrito signed on, the floodgates opened.” The Grammy Award-winning local act enthusiastically submitted a track, and Blanket the Homeless quickly evolved into a 15-song enterprise, including contributions by Con Brio, Stone Foxes, Whiskerman, King Dream, and Rainbow Girls.

The Stone Foxes contribute a song to ‘Blanket the Homeless’

Newman contributes his own song, “We Should Do This Again.” As does Mickelson, whose nearly epic “Odd Man Out” reflects his own musical aesthetic, a rock journey with a rootsy twinge that starts quietly and grows into a statement. “I like to write songs that really go somewhere. I had spent so much time on producing the other songs, that I was suddenly like, I have to come up with my own good track now! ‘Odd Man Out’ fit in perfectly with the others and is also a track I’m really proud of.”

“There’s so much depth to the whole record,” Mickelson says. “It’s a beautifully packaged double-album, a real collector’s object. We had to ask ourselves, What format do people buy music in these days? This is  a great answer to that.”

“You don’t want to miss the release show, either—it will be full of special guests, and you can buy the record there. It’s going to be a true celebration of the Bay Area music scene, and what we can do together.”

Thu/7, 7:30pm, $15-$17.
Independent, SF.
Tickets and more info here

Red-hot but clear-eyed, Flea recounts his youth in ‘Acid for the Children’

Photo courtesy Flea

Michael “Flea” Balzary told 48 Hills that he credits three things with keeping the fiery Red Hot Chili Peppers together for almost four decades.

First, each member of the flamboyant three-time Grammy-winning funk-rock band has a “diligent work ethic,” so when they commit to performing a series of gigs the following year — they always follow through. 

Second, when the quartet of singer Anthony Kiedis, bassist Flea, drummer Chad Smith, and guitarist Josh Klinghoffer get together to rehearse for the said shows, someone often says or plays something interesting that triggers a new song or album idea that the group simply can’t resist exploring.

Last but certainly not least, there’s a “mysterious alchemy” between Flea (rated the number two bassist of all time by Rolling Stone readers in 2009) and Kiedis, who first befriended each other at Los Angeles’s Fairfax High School in 1976.

It’s never been the easiest of relationships, as Flea describes in his new memoir Acid for the Children, which chronicles all the pivotal moments that shaped him as an artist, starting with the departure of his biological father and ending with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ first show in 1983, for a crowd of 27 people at Hollywood’s Grandia Room.

Anthony Kiedis and Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers. Photo: Flea / Fabulosfab

Not fully understanding how or why he and Kiedis work so well together makes him reticent to delve too deeply into their time in the Red Hot Chili Peppers in his new memoir, which he’s promoting in San Francisco this week (Fri/8 at JCCSF), preferring instead to focus on his formative years growing up in Australia and New York state and his teen years spent running wild on the streets of Hollywood.  For Kiedis’s perspective on the band years — the addictions, infighting, and departures as well as tremendous commercial successes — read Scar Tissue.

“There are times that Anthony and I argue, fight, and hurt each other and then times when we’re incredibly supportive, loving, and understanding of each other,” said Flea. “But we always end up drawn to one another. It’s something that I wanted to understand in the book, but it’s still this raw, emotional, open thing, and I don’t know that I understand it well enough that I could look at it in a way that wouldn’t be swept up in emotion. Maybe I never will.” 

I spoke to the musician and perennial actor  — who is currently in the middle of co-producing the next Red Hot Chili Peppers record and next appears in the film Queen & Slim, opening in the Bay Area on Nov. 27 — about Acid for the Children, overcoming childhood traumas, and helping his book readers to feel less alone.

 48 HILLS Why is now a good time to release your first memoir?

FLEA I had been asked many times to write a memoir. I’d always declined because I felt that my life’s still going, so it doesn’t feel right to write one. To tell you the truth, when I agreed to do one, I don’t know why outside of the fact that it just seemed like a good challenge to write one and I finally felt ready to do it.

48 HILLS Did you look to Anthony Kiedis’s 2004 memoir, Scar Tissue, as a model?

FLEA I’ve never read his book, because I knew that we’re very different people with very different world views. So I was kind of scared to read his take on our shared experiences because they might be so different. 

I know he worked with someone else in writing it, but it was very important for me to write mine on my own without a ghostwriter. 

48 HILLS What was your process for writing the book?

FLEA I wrote it in fits and starts. But when I broke my arm in 2016, and I had a couple of months where I was immobilized and just had to sit on the couch, that was the time when I wrote most of it. Once I got off the painkillers and my mind was clear, I would write every morning. 

I read about Toni Morrison’s writing process and how she would write freely in the morning without thinking about organization or grammar and would go on later in the afternoon and revisit what she wrote and then organize it into a more palatable format. So I did that.

Also, when I first wrote it, I wrote in a ranting, sprawling style. Then I decided to refine and simplify it and to only write about my childhood through the period that The Red Hot Chili Peppers started. Later, I went in with an editor and took everything out that didn’t specifically shape me and wasn’t pertinent to the story I was telling.

48 HILLS You talk about some very powerful things in your memoir — from the abandonment and abuse you experienced as a child to being a petty criminal in your teen years as well as your earliest drug experiences — in a very analytical way. At what point in your life did you begin to make sense of these traumatic events?

FLEA To be honest, I didn’t really begin to understand what I went through as a kid or begin to make peace with it till I was in my early 30s. That’s when I stopped doing drugs and drinking alcohol and became conscious of what was around me. 

I went through a period of a lot of anger and frustration because I realized that I was faltering in my life a lot. I was failing in relationships, acting in ways that were embarrassing and hurtful to others, and had been kind of a mess — and I was kind of mad at my parents for it. When I started realizing, especially being a father myself, that they weren’t there when I needed them, I had this real anger at them. Then after going through that, I started realizing, “OK, how do I deal with this in the best possible way?” That’s when I started finding forgiveness.

Also, I’ve been in a shitload therapy. For a good 25 years, I’ve been seeing a therapist on and off.

Photo: Flea / UncleMarc Wolin

48 HILLS So many people wouldn’t have overcome even half of the things you’ve experienced in your life. What helped you to persevere?  

FLEA Music, literature, art, and film are a huge component. Then my connections with people who I’ve felt have seen me and whom I’ve been able to see in profound ways.

But the running thread through all of those things — even when I felt my most alienated, sad, frustrated, and disappointed with things around me or in myself — is love. I’ve always felt a deep love inside of myself and I think that that’s been the main thing that’s guided me and helped me to survive all the difficult things in my life.

48 HILLS What do you hope that readers take away from your book?

FLEA It’s my true heart as best as I’m able to express it, so if reading my stories can help anyone feel less alone in what they’re going through, then that’s my greatest hope for it. Beyond any rockstar Red Hot Chili Peppers thing, I hope that it can just be a book that can sit on someone’s shelf and be of value.

Fri/8, 7pm, $75-$95 (Includes a copy of Acid for the Children)
More info here.

At Dirtybird Campout, chasing summer’s waggling tail-feather

Dirtybird Campout hijinx. Photo by Angela Yvette.

I never heard so much disco at a music festival as I did at Dirtybird West Coast Campout 2019 earlier this month. One of my longstanding complaints about festivals — that the genre is shunned because performers fret that attendees will associate it with “Disco Duck” and the like — got addressed in what I imagined to be the least likely of places. I’m not talking about Modesto Reservoir, but in a sense, that also applies.

It was not the only surprise of the weekend, which otherwise included lots of rubber-tipped archery, not-technically-sanctioned renegade stages that never stop, and extremely fucked up people holding forth intelligibly on minor distinctions between remixes. Dirtybird, which started as a series of free, barbecue-filled parties in Golden Gate Park almost 20 years ago before expanding to a full record label that now throws quarterly parties and annual campouts, is a vessel in which people place whatever looks and energy they have left over from Burning Man. 

Good vibes are absolutely paramount, so even if it took you and your friends five hours to drive in the gates, it’s unseemly to complain too hard about it in the Dirtybird Facebook group afterward, much less demand a refund. The group is lively, hilarious, meme-filled, and surprisingly kind. The biggest argument seems to be over the question of whether it’s OK for large groups of people to sit in front of the stage, and the winning side is neither “It’s fine” nor “Not cool,” but “Who cares? Let people do what they want.”

Generally speaking, Dirtybird is rooted in house and techno, but its constituent DJs each have their own style, with hip-hop squaring off against acid house and plenty of drum-and-bass on the sidelines. East Coast Campout seems to be on permanent hiatus, but West Coast Campout is where California can flaunt its endless summer for one last hurrah, where the same lit-up pineapple art car keeps appearing like a glitch in the Matrix. It’s where in-jokes become totems, the best of which was “White Clawde,” a mashup of White Claw and cofounder Claude VonStroke, who’s kind of a daddy but mostly a dad. (“All Aboard the S.S. Crackhead” was a surreal second place.) 

The ratio of genuine fans to sponsored influencers is very good even if the food, by and large, is not. Something as corny-sounding as a weekend-capping “family set” that lets every DJ on the label command the decks for two songs actually turns to be a highlight. Unique among festivals, there isn’t a headliner per se. But it’s definitely Claude VonStroke’s party, with undying support from Christian and Justin Martin, the somehow-underrated J.Phlip, and plenty of others. Among increasingly high-profile label signees like Ardalan or Walker & Royce, plenty of non-Dirtybird acts like Bob Moses, Pillowtalk, and Josh Wink perform, too. And the line between between performer and audience is blurred like nowhere else — partly because a third of the Dirtybird attendees are DJs in their own right. You might see a partied-out but laser-focused Steve Darko at somebody’s renegade stage at 6 a.m., just because it’s a good venue to try something out. 

Get those buns on the dance floor. Photo by Glorida Cristina Pulido

That’s just as ordinary as seeing a little cordoned-off “hatching area” for future Dirtybird eggs, or a makeshift memorial to Grill$son, aka Chris Wilson, the longtime barbecue master who died suddenly in 2018. 

It’s not quite as ordinary, though, as seeing a woman squirting breast milk while dancing by the AstroTurf that’s the only thing keeping the main stage Birdhouse from feeling like a parking lot. #TiddyMilkGirl was such a hit that she even made Tosh.0. I hope she at least won a Bravocado Avocado merit patch for being uninhibited to the max, and also a little extra, because her likeness already graces a fan-made commemorative patch for 2020.

Campout is where you might hear the same song during several sets, including the as-yet-unreleased collaboration between Green Velvet and Claude VonStroke “Jolean.” It is much more fun than your music-snob acquaintances will ever admit. I know this because I texted a friend who’s kind of a hater that Philly rave pioneer Josh Wink’s set was one of the most brilliantly constructed things I’ve ever seen, and I think I made him a little jealous. 

Even though the word has lost practically all meaning, Dirtybird is first and foremost a genuine community.

You have to do it the right way, though, which involves a bit of giving in. It’s hot and it’s cold and it’s not for beginners. 

In a burst of end-of-the-decade sentimentality, I totted up the number of days I’ve spent at festivals since 2010. It came out to 115. That’s almost four months, roughly half of which I spent sleeping in a tent. 

What little camping gear I own lives in a storage unit on the ugliest block of Potrero Hill, because I live in a small SF apartment. While walking around the reservoir, I felt a twinge of jealousy for the first time in my adult life of people who live in suburban houses where you can park an RV in a driveway and stash your Mars-colonizing ShiftPod on a shelf in the basement. The trick to Campout is making friends with full-on glampers, keeping their coolers replenished with the extra 30-packs of Tecate you filled your shopping cart with in Modesto. Although my sense of self-satisfaction for remembering toilet paper is near-total, there’s probably always going to be an echelon of festival pros with massive packing checklists far above me and my rat’s nest of a pup tent. I’ve never left a festival so determined to do it better next time.

Dirtybird Honcho Claude VonStroke feted as a ‘White Claude.’ Photo by Jackson Gordon

There’s also the fact that this is basically summer camp. Divided into four randomly assigned teams — red, orange, green, and purple — everyone’s competing to win at volleyball, cornhole, or kickball. Nothing matters and no one cares, but you’re instant buddies with everyone who has the same colored bandana as you, and during the Opening Ceremony, the captains of each team made their case through dance. Joyful nihilism, or maybe the reluctance to ruin the good vibes with excessive competition, wins out. (“It doesn’t matter!” was Purple’s rallying cry.) If people were sensitive about Dirtybird’s reputation for sometimes putting partying above the music, it came out mostly in bashing Fisher, a just-press-play DJ who also has a really good song in “Losing It.” He wasn’t there this year.

Tree Monster at Dirtybird Campout. Photo by Jaime Anne

Part of this always feels like tempting fate, but it never ceases to amaze me when you have large groups of people — mostly young, largely male, mostly intoxicated — come together for four days and nothing completely terrible happens. (That’s not always the case, of course.) Sexual assaults are almost certainly underreported, but even for people like me with virtually zero crowd anxiety, the specter of a few thousand drunk-and-high people funneling through a choke point at 2:15 a.m. without a lot of yelling or shoving is incredibly impressive. 

Dirtybird Campout is incredibly impressive. There was Eprom B2B Barclay Crenshaw (Vonstroke’s government name) on Friday night at the Bass Lodge, there was Shiba San, there was Sacha Robotti, there was the afternoon dance-off between the Counselors and the Lifeguards set to a Billie Eilish remix, Ardalan’s Mardi Gras parade, and Sammy Legs’ silent disco set late on Sunday night when nobody wants to think about Monday. There was Claude’s nephew who had just turned 21 and was attending his first Campout, and there was the somehow-perfect choice of Sade for the transition between Justin Martin and Claude during the family set. It led into — what else but? — “Jolean.”

So: How do you like your eggs? With a lightning bolt through it.

Photo by Matt Longmuir


San Francisco’s doomed! Listen to this mix

Tamara Palmer is a writer, DJ (as TeeMoney), and publisher of food zine California Eating. We asked her to make a mix of some of her favorite SF-centric tunes.

I created this continuous mix, which was recorded live on two turntables with digital vinyl using Serato DJ Pro, as an ode to the musical soul of San Francisco and an expression of fond nostalgia for the sonic subcultures that have made their mark from the city limits to the world.

You’ll hear moments of genuine darkness as well as dark humor, because laughter and music are the best salves for staying happy in this city, but there’s also plenty of light to remind of a time when we were a beacon for diversity and unity — and that’s thankfully still on record.

Crime — “San Francisco’s Doomed” (1978)

“San Francisco’s out of tune,” the late Crime frontman Johnny Strike sung on a song that was made in 1978. “San Francisco’s Doomed” was passed around the city and beyond via live bootleg recordings until it was officially released in 1990. 41 years since it was born and it still holds up pretty well, don’t you think?

Sellassie — “Cops Keep Firing” (2016)

Activist and rapper Sellassie released this song memorializing victims of police brutality shortly before going on a 2016 hunger strike as part of the Frisco Five to protest such violence in San Francisco.

Dead Kennedys — “Kinky Sex Makes The World Go Round” (1987)

Jello Biafra’s fictional phone sex session featuring an American secretary of war on the phone making a prime minister climax with delight over manufacturing international combat could be ripped straight out of today’s not-so-fake news headlines, but it’s 32-years-old, so it’s a lot more chilling to hear now.

J Church — “Last of the Famous International Playboys” (1995)

It’s very 2019 to say fuck Morrissey, but fuck Morrissey and his era of overt racism — this brilliant cover version of his solo hit by SF punk band J Church and its late, great frontman Lance Hahn is henceforth the only version of this song that exists.

Until December — “Until December (12” Version)” (1986)

Leather rockers Until December preceded the local band Consolidated (and shared two members). It’s an early reminder of a local sound popular during the first years of KITS FM, which was known as Live 105 from 1986 to 2018.

Sylvester — “Disco Heat” (1978)

Couldn’t have a rebelliously fun mix about the city without Sylvester bringing some of that “Disco Heat!” Though his life was tragically short, his musical legacy brings continued pride to San Francisco.

Two Tons O’Fun — “I Got The Feeling (Patrick Cowley Megamix)” (1980)

Sylvester’s backup singers Martha Wash and Izora Armstead were best known as the Weather Girls, the duo behind the soaking wet dance hit “It’s Raining Men.” But this earlier single as Two Tons O’Fun is a much better showcase for their powerhouse vocals.

Patrick Cowley — “Menergy” (1981)

I didn’t know that this in-depth story on Patrick Cowley was going to be published by 48hills’ Marke Bieschke over at DJ Mag right as this mix was being finalized, but it helpfully provides vital context to how the late SF producer impacted dance music across the globe well beyond his lifetime.

Romeo Void — “Never Say Never” (1982)

In the early Eighties, it was more than everything to see Debora Iyall, the plus-sized, Native American lead singer of Romeo Void, scoffing at the patriarchy and singing about sexual freedom on MTV. “Never Say Never” still throbs today and could serve as the perfect anti-slut shaming anthem.

Thee Oh Sees — “You Can Have It” (2014)

Taken from the compilation album “San Francisco’s Doomed” (also inspired by the Crime song of the same name), “You Can Have It” by Thee Oh Sees, which became just Oh Sees in 2017, waves the white flag on San Francisco. The raucous song, and this mix, concludes with some expletives to big tech and a sarcastic, “Well done, internet.”

‘Women aren’t funny’? Tell that to Cirque clown Kelsey Custard

Sacramento's Kelsey Custard clowns around in Cirque du Soleil's latest, 'Amaluna.' Photo by Markus Moellenberg

When Kelsey Custard was studying at San Francisco’s Clown Conservatory school a decade ago, she and some of her female colleagues were advised by a guest teacher that they were simply unteachable.

“We were told that women aren’t funny, so he wasn’t really going to teach us because he didn’t think we could make it,” the 35-year-old Sacramento native told 48 Hills. “He just taught the boys how to do hat tricks and cane tricks and things and told us we could learn if we wanted, but we weren’t funny.”

Custard managed to get the last laugh when, within a year of graduating, she was hired by Cirque du Soleil for the Candian-based circus production company’s KA show in Las Vegas.

After six years, she scored a coveted spot — one of six from an audition pool of 80 — in the international touring company of Amaluna, which opens for a two-month engagement under the Big Top at Oracle Park starting Nov. 3. She has since toured with the show internationally and even met the Pope.

What Custard finds so exciting about Cirque du Soleil’s 33rd production, written and directed by Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus, is that it’s a female-centric show, about a magical island named Amaluna ruled by goddesses and lunar cycles and featuring a cast made up mostly of women.

Drawing from tales from Greek and Norse mythology, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, its story centers on Queen Prospera and her daughter Miranda, whose love for a brave young suitor is repeatedly tested.

I spoke to Kelsey Custard, who plays Miranda’s nanny in the show, about her journey from a Theater Arts major at UC Santa Cruz to one of Cirque du Soleil’s premiere clowns, the difficulties of making it in the male-driven field of clowning, and how Amaluna can inspire the next generation of young women to be their best selves.

48 HILLS How did you go from a Theatre Arts major at UC Santa Cruz to a Clown at Cirque du Soleil?

KELSEY CUSTARD I had always been in theatre for a long time and didn’t know that the circus was actually a job that you could have. But when I went to college for theatre, I took a clowning class with a teacher and former clown named Patty Gallagher who’s been my mentor ever since and felt like I came home.

I had always gotten the funny character, side character, and mother character and never that cute little ingenue like Juliette. Then when I found clowning, I understood that I always got those funny roles and different roles because my talents are a little different than most actors. So because of that clowning class, I decided to pursue that and realized that it could actually be a job and a career.

48 HILLS I read that in your audition pool for Cirque du Soleil, you were the only one of 40 women to win a clown spot.

KELSEY CUSTARD I was the only woman who made it at that audition. There are other female clowns at Cirque, but only a small few.

It’s hard for female clowns in the business, in general. It’s a male-driven business and people think that they want male clowns and often don’t want to hire female clowns.

These are the things we face as women in general in any business. We’re taught that men are stronger and better than us. But we’re fighting and showing that we can do it just as good, if not better.

A scene from ‘Amaluna.’ Photo by Matt Beard.

48 HILLS Some people love clowns and others fear them. What appeals to you about clowns?

KELSEY CUSTARD I love their honesty. Clowning is a vulnerable art. You have to put yourself out there in a way. In theatre, you have to hide who you are and take on a completely different character, but in clowning, it has to come from you, from your own flaws and fears.

I think people are scared of clowns because they feel vulnerable and watching [clowning], they can see themselves within it and people don’t like that. They get very scared when you point out their own flaws.

But for me, I find it hard and incredible and fun to put what I’m scared about myself or what I feel uncomfortable about onstage and make people laugh and have them enjoy it.

48 HILLS I always thought that the fear comes from not being able to fully see what they look like.

KELSEY CUSTARD That is the other side of the fear. There’s the fear of the shapeless costume and the makeup that completely takes over and the noses and the feet that are huge.

What I love about Cirque’s clowns is that we are a little more human. In this show, in particular, you really see how human they are, which helps you see how funny life can be when things go wrong. I don’t think we’re the kind of clowns that people are afraid of, but you never know.

48 HILLS How would you describe your character in Amaluna?

KELSEY CUSTARD I’m kind of Miranda’s nanny caretaker. I probably took care of her when she was really young and kind of help everything run on our island. So I’m kind of a maid, nanny, and butler. I take care of everything on the side for our royal family.

48 HILLS Why is Amaluna’s emphasis on women and telling their stories especially important in 2019?

KELSEY CUSTARD One of the things I think is so important is our effect on young women specifically, girls that are coming of age in this day and age. I think it’s important to come see a show where they can see powerful women on stage, women with muscles, women playing rock guitars, and women being funny and beautiful.

It’s really important for them to see that they can do whatever they want and that we can do whatever we want. It’s been a hard road for women, especially in the US. These days it seems even harder, so we need to band together as women and show young women that they can do whatever they want.

48 HILLS With Amaluna coming to San Francisco for three months starting in November, what’s it like to be performing back in the city that you currently call home?

KELSEY CUSTARD I am so excited to come back to San Francisco. For me, it’s a dream to be able to perform a show like this at home and I consider San Francisco to be my home now, because it’s where I went to clown school. It’s where most of my friends live. For me, it’s going to be such a huge and exciting thing because I get to share it with people that would never get to see it.

When you’re out in the world and having all these amazing experiences — my husband’s not with me, my dog’s not with me, and my family can’t see the show. So to be able to go home and do it and have my family and friends and everyone see it and just be in San Francisco for two-and-a-half months, it’s going to be so magical.

I’m going to eat all the burritos. My favorite burrito in the whole world is El Farolito on Mission and 24th. I dream about it and can’t find a burrito like that anywhere else in the world.

Sun/3 through January 12, 2020
Under the Big Top, Oracle Park, SF.
More info here.

The San Francisco Mint is haunted!

Inside the Terror Vault. Photo by Jon Bauer

It’s hard to be a jaded adult and walk through a haunted attraction without failing to suspend your disbelief at least a little.

“Ooh, that actor playing a homicidal maniac really knows how to shriek,” you mind may involuntarily start saying to itself. “And damn, this art direction is impressive. The budget for fake blood and damask haunted-bordello wallpaper alone must run into the thousands!”

Well, last year’s Terror Vault—a haunted attraction put on at the San Francisco Mint by Into the Dark, itself a joint effort between Peaches Christ and David Flower Productions, along with special-events firm Non Plus Ultra—had so much going on that even the most un-frightenable cynics stayed in the moment. In addition to all the really gross stuff that only a bunch of truly twisted minds could come up with, there was that room with all the spring-loaded rat traps and the other room with the strobe light and the clown punching bag that had a real clown behind it. That was sick!

At this year’s Terror Vault, David Flower tells us, coulrophobes have lots more to look forward to.
“If you’re not a fan of clowns, you’re really going to hate this show this year,” he says. “It’s exploded into a giant area, way bigger than it was last year. The overall show is way more developed, I had double the crew that I had.”

Umm, yea? Worse, Peaches Christ tells us that the 145-year-old building in whose vaulted catacombs Terror Vault and its companion installation Apocalypse reside is unquestionably haunted. As in, for-real haunted, not part-of-the-experience-LOL haunted. And she’s not even much of a conduit to the spirit realm.

“I was telling my therapist that I saw a ghost in the Mint,” Peaches says. “As much as I love horror and spooky stuff, I’m not really a believer in ghosts. I haven’t had any supernatural experiences in my life. I’ve done a Ouija board with [fellow drag queen] Heklina, and she said I’m the reason it didn’t work.”

She was downstairs on the set, near one of the curtains that actors pass in and out of between and behind the scenes, when she saw someone’s hand holding one up. Thinking no one else was around, she went over to investigate.

“Then the curtain dropped as if the person decided not to come through, and there was no one there,” she says. “I was questioning it, like ‘Am I having an acid flashback?’ I decided a ghost was watching me.”

Flowers notes that when he and Peaches were doing auditions in the basement, they heard a loud banging noise directly overhead. When they went upstairs to check it out, they realized the sound was coming from the middle of the Mint’s courtyard, which was empty.

“It was right above our heads,” Flowers says. “It didn’t make sense. We said, ‘All right, whatever.’ And then it started again! Ghosts, you have no reason to be angry with us.”

That last part may not be entirely true, as the immersive haunted attractions are disturbing the spirits’ place of rest and drawing attention to their existence with a much-larger set-up than last year. Terror Vault is longer and more elaborate, and Apocalypse—an escape experience which is entirely new—includes a whole set of actors cast as guards and zombies.

It’s changed “in every way you could evolve a scene,” Flowers says. “From what it looks like to what it smells like—to what it tastes like.”

More than 100 artists worked on it in all, and there’s a full bar, vintage pinball games, and something called Madam Zola’s Fortune pop-up cafe. Tickets run $35 to $62 for the various attractions, but you can also just check out the non-scary bits while waiting for your friends to emerge glassy-eyed with their hair turned all white for $10.

Overall, there’s more interactivity, from “random reaching and grabbing” to actors really getting in people’s faces. To add to the sense of unease, there are two segments where audiences have to sit down.
“That’s very unusual for a haunted attraction,” Peaches says. “People want to see what’s behind them and look around. Part of the fear and they way they’re managing it is to hurry their way through, and so you when you stop them it’s very uncomfortable for them.

“You might be fed something,” she adds. (It’s vegan, as if Impossible Foods had branched into plant-based cannibal alternatives.)

Photo by Jon Bauer

For research, Peaches — aka Joshua Grannell, who’s best-known in San Francisco for elaborate drag re-enactments of campy films and cult classics — went with Flower and Non Plus Ultra’s Ryan Melchiano to a horror trade show in St. Louis called TransWorld as well as a more Halloween superfan-focused convention in Long Beach called Midsummer Scream. The result is a 45-minute chamber of nightmares that, in spite of all the many moving parts, evolves from night to night and group to group. (Apocalypse, which is separate, runs for half an hour.)

The actors have scripts to fall back on, but apart from one dangerous stunt that must be executed in a precise way each time, they have the freedom to improvise — both to freak you out and to avoid giving truly freaked-out people a full-on panic attack. Last year, KCBW reporter Betty Yu couldn’t even take it, effectively reporting her own demise on camera after she fled to the safety of her news van (something Into the Dark used for its 2019 trailer).

The best reaction came from Emmy-winning, low-budget horror-meister Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions, who went through Terror Vault without any of its producers knowing it.

“The next day, he tweeted, ‘I survived #terrorvault it was amazing!’ ” Peaches says. “Today, he responded to my reply elaborating on how incredible he thought it was. This is the producer of all the major horror movies right now. This is the guy whose opinion really matters. That, to me, is like, ‘Holy shit!’ ”

All this leaves only one question: After months and months of work, what are they going to be for Halloween?

“I’m going to let Peaches and David dress me up and put makeup on me,” Melchiano says, and without hesitation they conclude that he will be going as a beautiful woman, although possibly one who has not shaved.

“We’re open and we have a show, so we’re going to be behind the scenes making sure everything is up and running,” Peaches says. “Usually, I come up with some sort of elaborate Halloween costume, but this year and last year I’ve just been a spooky version of Peaches, which is so embarrassing.”

“I’m going to be exhausted for Halloween,” Flower says.

Through November 10
San Francisco Mint
Tickets and more info here

Can a museum exhibit capture Burning Man?

HYBYCOZO, ​'Trocto,'​ 2014. Photo courtesy Oakland Museum of California

It has blinky lights, art cars, the gifting of trinkets, and the Temple of Reunion by legendary temple-builder David Best. There’s cool video from Black Rock City, burner fashions on mannequins, storytelling about the history and ethos of Burning Man, and even founder Larry Harvey’s iconic Stetson hat.

All the ingredients were there, minus the dust, but it still just felt a bit sterile and self-important. No Spectators: the Art of Burning Man (through February 16, 2020), which recently opened at Oakland Museum of California after its ballyhooed premiere at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in DC last year, is a reminder how crucial context is to Burning Man art. 

Experiencing art in the desert at Burning Man is a full sensory experience. It’s not just the art piece you’re looking at, it’s the sonic cacophony of myriad moving sound systems, the alkali dusty air, the silhouetted mountains in the distance, the wide-eyed friends and strangers around you, emotions altered by work, drugs and/or the journey to this spot.  

Maybe it’s impossible to convey the Burning Man experience in a museum setting. Perhaps it’s enough to display some interactive art for the virgins (like the glowing, moving shrooms of Shrumen Lumen… dude) and nostalgia for the burner veterans (wow, Michael Mikel’s HellCo jacket and Cachophony Society’s six-fingered neon hand…cool). 

Duane Flatmo, ​’Tin Pan Dragon,​’ 2006. Photo by Steven T. Jones

But it’s just not the same without any kind of soundtrack—a notable omission that reflects OMCA collaborator the Burning Man Project’s disdainful disregard for the DJs and sound camps that helped popularize the event—except for the narrator’s voice on the Burning Man documentary. I kept waiting for a playa-inspired prank in the droning narration, but no, he played it straight and earnestly. 

The artists and theme camps that build Burning Man every summer are undeniably a major creative force in the Bay Area, which is still the cultural and artistic center for the event it birthed, producing incredible artworks of growing complexity and innovation. 

And the curators of this exhibit, both here and from the Smithsonian (who were all new to Burning Man), were smart to tap that amazing creativity by commissioning veteran artists to build original artworks for what became a traveling show, including the Five Ton Crane crew that built the Capitol Theater art car, the Paper Arch by Michael Garlington and Natalie Bertolli, and Best’s Temple. 

In fact, the curators offered more support than most artists ever get from the Burning Man Project, which rarely fully funds even the projects it deems worthy of art grants, leaving crews to do big fundraisers and often struggle with debts long after their projects have burned to ash. 

Burning Man costumes. Photo by Steven T. Jones

So it’s great to see burner artists gaining a new patron and being able to show their work closer to home. The Capitol Theater—which combined a retro theater art car with an original silent film production featuring Bay Area burner luminaries as actors—was particularly impressive, marrying builder and performance art in a way that embodied Burning Man’s participation principle more than any piece in the exhibit.

Temple of Reunion, like the Hayes Green Temple that Best built in San Francisco in 2005, was also an authentic example of a playa staple artwork recreated in the Bay Area for a wider audience to appreciate, to write messages on, to use as a place for reflection.

The temple’s accessible placement outdoors in the Oakland Museum’s courtyard, along with a scaled-down replica of Marco Cochrane’s amazing “Truth is Beauty” sculpture—which debuted at Burning Man in 2013 and is currently at San Leandro Tech Campus—help open the exhibit up. 

Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti, ​The Paper Arch​, 2018. ​Photo courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California.

But overall, No Spectators suffers from some of the same problems that plague Burning Man itself. It lacks self-reflection and resists prompts and opportunities to evolve with our changing times. Burning Man brass buy into their own we’re-changing-the-world bullshit while cultivating a velvet-rope elitism and cult-like devotion, seemingly unaware how off-putting and off-key that is to outsiders.  

Burning Man claims high-minded countercultural values—“radical inclusion, decommodification, radical self-reliance”—that its leadership rarely even tries to live up to. The event’s cultural and artistic dynamism is delivered by attendees who pay for privilege to do so, in the context of a calcified event structure that hasn’t significantly changed in decades, except to just grow bigger and bigger.  

As KQED’s critical review of the exhibit pointed out, it would have been nice to see more than “a surface-level celebration of a cultural phenomenon with so many other angles worthy of exploration,” such as why an event populated mostly by relatively affluent white people is relevant to the larger world. 

One of those angles was on vivid display this year when the Burning Man Project proposed to grow the event to 100,000 and loudly cried foul at the resulting federal permit conditions. They responded with an ambitious environmental pledge—but the whole saga was a top-down approach that belied its claim to “radical inclusion.”

Photo by Steven T. Jones

I’ve covered Burning Man as a journalist for 15 years now, sometimes sparking or feeding controversies that leaders of the event always try to gloss over or ignore. So I’ve come to expect very little in terms of true introspection or evolution from the six people who have run Burning Man since 1996, minus Harvey, who died last year.

They seem content to just stay the course, which has worked out remarkably well for them as Burning Man has grown from countercultural happening to a must-see bucket-list event for the mainstream. 

But that journey, and the many contradictions and critiques that it entails, could have been interesting material for an exhibit that wanted to do more than scratch the surface or sing Burning Man’s greatest hits for the default world spectators. 

That would be art that illuminates, not just celebrates, what really happens at that thing in the desert and beyond.    

Through February 16, 2020
Oakland Museum of California
Tickets and more info here

Steven T. Jones is the author of The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Couterculture.

Join us for the Best of the Bay party this Thursday!

You’re invited! Join 48 Hills editor Tim Redmond, publisher Marke B, and the winners of this year’s Best of the Bay for a FREE celebratory happy hour featuring a champagne toast, music, and nibbles—this Thu/24, 6pm-9pm at The Stud, 399 Ninth Street, SF. (Facebook invite here.)

Come out for this Bay Area tradition — 44 editions strong! — and toast the winners! Thanks for making the Bay Area the Best!