Have you voted yet? Categories like Best Burrito and Best Bike Shop are always competitive—and this year, Best Nonprofit, Best Dance Party, and Best Art Gallery are really heating up! Join other Bay Area lovers in expressing your affection and allegiance to your favorite things about living here.
For more than four decades, the Bay Guardian Best of the Bay has been the best guide to all the great things about living here! Vote now, and tell all your favorite people and businesses. Voting ends September 3!
At last year’s Outside Lands, a new area was introduced—Grass Lands, a showcase and safe space for cannabis users. Which, come on, it’s a giant music festival, the idea had truly come. This year, a last minute city permit approval allowed Grasslands to actually sell the stuff, and Outside Lands made history. Now you didn’t just have to listen to your favorite budtender expound on the miracles of this or that dab. You could walk away with some for later use.
Now that Grasslands has tested the water, will other fests like Hardly Strictly Bluegrass follow? (There is no Treasure Island Fest this year.) If they do, Grass Lands will have shown a way. The edition that was unveiled this past weekend featured dozens of products, vendors, and demonstrations—plus its own music stage, massage station, chill-out areas, and more. Photographer Jon Bauer was on the Outside Lands scene all weekend. Here’s what he saw at Grass Lands. — Marke B.
“Hunny, I cannot tell you, it’s so weird being history.”
Terence Alan Smith, aka Joan Jett Blakk, is over at my apartment for lunch, and we’re discussing Ms. Blakk for President, a new play written by and starring Moonlight author Tarell Alvin McCraney, which has just finished a run at the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. The play tracks the vivid life of Smith’s trailblazing drag alter ego, in particular Joan Jett’s Blakk’s Chicago mayoral campaign and subsequent presidential campaign in 1992. Yes, Joan Jett Black was the first drag queen to run for president.
“The mayor of Chicago was there [at a performance],” Smith continues, referring to Chicago’s new out lesbian leader, Lori Lightfoot. “She sure the fuck is history. The first thing I said to her was thank you. I remember [Chicago’s first black mayor] Harold Washington. There’s a moment in the play when the actor playing me says, “Lick Bush in ’92.” The way they say I did it was by raising two fingers in the air by my mouth. I watched her do it—there she was, the mayor, licking Bush in ’92.”
One hopes that Ms. Blakk for President eventually makes it to Smith’s longtime hometown of San Francisco, where his popular non-televised talk show “Late Night with Joan Jett Blakk” originated. For now, he is clear that he’s made an impact. “We’re still here, and that’s the important thing,” he says. “That is really the important thing. To have these kids say, ‘Thank you for doing this.’”
48 HILLSWe’ll be talking about drag, but you’re a very snappy dresser every day. When did your fascination with men’s clothing begin?
TERENCE ALAN SMITH Very early. I wanted to dress like The Temptations. Of course, my mother was like, “I don’t think so.” Then with rock ’n roll, it was rock stars. If it was worn by someone on TV who looked great, I had to have a pair.
In 1967, today was the last day of what music festival? The answer is Monterey Pop. We’re talking Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix. Brian Jones walking around like a total mess. People were like, Oh, she better sit down. Things were never the same again.
There’s a moment in the play where I’m asked who I fell in love with, and I say David Bowie, and a guy comes out singing “Starman,” looking just like Ziggy. It’s amazing. I cry every time I see it. After Bowie and Andy Warhol, my whole world went from zero to 100. It just did.
48HIs your love of cars connected to growing up in Detroit?
TAS Oh yeah, I went to the auto show every year. I had model toys, every magazine. Cars, cars, cars. I’ve only owned one, but even now I’ve thought I should buy a model, another toy car, and start increasing my collection.
I can name almost any American or European car from 1955 to about 1975. Those are my years. I’m big on cars with fender skirts. Citroens – anything beautiful. I wanted to design cars, but I found out there was math involved. I did win an award at Greenfield Village once, because I designed a car I called the Ponce de Leon.
48HTell me about growing up in the Detroit area and your long friendship with [raunchy gay magazine Straight to Hell editor] Billy Miller.
TAS I grew up in Inkster, which is on the other side of Dearborn. I used to go all over town looking for gorgeous fascinating cars. Going to Cass Tech [in Detroit] really saved my life. I was getting beaten up at St. Martin de Porres. I wasn’t black enough for those kids. I had formed my ideas about what I enjoyed and much of it was rock ’n roll. When I got to Cass, seeing that I was a natural for the Performing Arts department, I felt like all doors had swung open.
I don’t remember how I met Billy. I think it may have been on the 1B Wayne bus that went straight into downtown Detroit. We struck up a friendship and hung out some. Those light blue eyes! Then I saw him again when I moved to Chicago in 1977 and we’ve been friends ever since.
48HWhen Joan Jett Blakk arrived, did you just run with her?
TAS Running for mayor of Chicago was perfect for me, because I’d always been political. It was a lot of fun to take politics and theater and mix them together.
48HWas it in sync with your activism in Queer Nation?
TAS It was at the same time. My “Can’t Keep a Secret Service” team would walk into the room before I did and it would work every time. We marched in the St. Patrick’s Day parade that year—the same year they told [gay] people in Boston they couldn’t do it. Senator John Cullerton gave us his spot. He was a fan of mine because I liked to stir up trouble.
The media ate it up, they thought it was great fun, they didn’t make it stupid. I’d get touchy because people would say, “What’s your platform?” and I’d think, I’m not going to say my shoes, I’m not. Even though I’m wearing them I’m not going to say it—fuck you. I tried to say things that made sense. Healthcare for everybody. Take the military budget and education budget and switch them. Hire all my friends and fire everybody there. Legalize all drugs.
48HYou were truly progressive.
TAS Yes, I was a progressive candidate. People would say, “What if you did win?” and I’d say, If I won, the world would spin the other way. You don’t have to worry about that. I don’t want to be assassinated.
48HThere’s a great musical performance by you, “Drag Queen Blues,” on YouTube.
TAS We closed the gay pride parade that year . We did a kick-ass version of “Venus in Furs.” For some reason, because of stuff at [Club] Lower Links, I was doing this band, and the song came out of that. I’m not a singer, but I can sing. It was fun. I love music enough that I’d want to be in a band all of the time.
TAS They asked me. I ran into one of them. Djola [Branner] was his name. He lived in Minneapolis and I met him through the faeries in Minneapolis. When he came to [Castro bookstore] A Different Light one day, he asked me if I would be interested in filling in for him. That’s how I ended up doing it.
That was really cool. We were on TV almost every time that we performed. We did the first gay comedy special here, and we were on the Phil Donahue show at one point. I already knew Essex Hemphill. I’d met him at different performances, like at SPEW [queer zine fest]. I love that I’m still friends with people I met at SPEW 2—Don Baird, Marc Geller, Adam Block. Because Adam’s brother worked at the White House, we came that close to him taking me to a dinner.
48HDid your mayoral campaign in Chicago lead to the presidential campaign?
TAS It was a natural progression. We were about publicity, we were about getting queers out there. And we did it, goddamn it, we won that part. There are fags all over TV now. We were successful. It seems like such a long time ago.
48HWhat attracted you to move to San Francisco in 1993?
TAS The weather. My friend Charlie moved out here and he loved it. I didn’t want to go through winter [in Chicago] again. Friends here were saying, “C’mon out!” so I did.
There was no particular reason. The very first week I went out walking and ran into Jerome [Caja]. We were both like, “Who was that?” I was living with [zinemaker] Fluffy Boy of Homoture. He lived above Powerhouse. It was there that I met Derek [DJ Derek B]. I remember leaning out a window and seeing someone I knew and yelling “Mindy!” and now they were Matt. I moved here a week before the Folsom Street Fair.
48HOut of the frying pan and into the fire.
TAS The next thing I knew I ended up working at A Different Light and at Eichelberger’s. It was tough sometimes, because I would say no to nothing. I was super busy doing the talk show and working at A Different Light.
48HHow did “Late Night with Joan Jett Blakk” come into being?
TAS When I left Chicago, I’d wanted to have a talk show.
48HChicago was a talk show nexus.
TAS Yes—Oprah, Phil Donahue. I love the whole idea of a talk show. I’m a big fan of Dick Cavett. I just came up with the idea of a live talk show. I was talking about it one night in the Detour, and Rick Jacobsen was standing right next to me and said, “I like that!” and it was over. Of course his gallery [Kiki] was right next to Red Dora’s Bearded Lady and I did things over there.
48HBut it did start at Kiki.
TAS Yes, where Yoko Ono did call one day. That was very cool. Silas [Howard] was next door at Red Dora’s, and all these incredible people. When I was asked to speak [at Red Dora’s] I read from the SCUM Manifesto. That was fun. I’ve always been pretty lucky. At the first SPEW I did the Bongwater song “Obscene and Pornographic Art,” and I would never have done it if my friend Brad hadn’t suggested it. He was right.
48HWho do you remember being on the show during the Kiki days?
TAS Well, Jerome [Caja] took a bath in there [at Kiki]. It was wonderful, it was fabulous. Because Kiki and Red Dora’s were right next to each other, it was a good atmosphere. Now I see it as one of San Francisco’s last vital moments. Though some of that energy went to Trannyshack.
48HWho were some of your favorite guests on the show, at Kiki and at Josie’s [Cabaret and Juice Joint]?
TAS Kiki & Herb did one of their first performances. With Stone Fox, I told Jorjee [Douglas, lead singer], If you jump up and down on me like that on stage, I will get hard—I am wearing a dress, please don’t do that. We had Jack Davis on. Willie Brown came on and surprised us because he knew where to show up. Tom Ammiano. Pansy Division. Kevin Killian came in and talked about his autograph collection. Imperial Teen did one of their first shows.
We had porn stars. One situation that was scary was when this porn star found out I was into feet and took off his shoes off and put them in my lap. That was a lot of fun.
Nao Bustamante. Kris Kovick—seriously, this woman came on the show and said she could piss higher than a man on a wall. I thought, Ok, can we do this, I gotta see this. Susie Bright and all these wonderful people. It was a lot of fun. People came from out of town.
We couldn’t get people like Lypsinka—wouldn’t let us in the dressing room. I also did Wigstock West with Lady Bunny, and she didn’t talk to anybody here. A snob, the whole time. So was RuPaul. RuPaul I met at A Different Light because we did a reading of Straight to Hell. What I did was, I read just the titles. I found it much funnier. I’m still that kind of fag—there’s just not enough sex anymore, people get all scared. One of my favorite Tumblr sites has these guys, they are exhibitionists. You’re like, That guy is on the bus! Wow. I love it. I’m not doing it, but I love it. I love to watch.
48HSpeaking of watching, what was it like to see the play?
TAS Weird. It’s weird. I never planned to do anything that would leave a mark, but it’s nice to know that I did, that we did. It’s a strange sort of fame, because it’s not famous famous. I don’t have to worry about TMZ looking for me. I didn’t make any money doing this. I did it because it’s much more fun to stir shit up. I’ve been in a few books, and that’s great. But this [play] has blown all of that away. My parents knew I had done something, but they didn’t know it was like this. It’s really interesting to have the support of my cousins: “Oh my goodness, Terry.” It’s just wonderful.
The show was great. She [director and co-writer Tina Landau] got everything right that I would want her to get right.
48H“Late Night with Joan Jett Black” was revived in conjunction with the play. How did it feel to do the talk show again?
TAS Rae Bourbon has a song called, “Back in Drag Again,” and that’s how I felt. It was like riding a bike. Of course, now I’m a woman of a certain age. I used that dowager queen joke more than once. That was me, the dowager queen. I kind of looked like Queen Mary—the one who had all the jewels. My mom said to me, “I love your wig.” I said, Ma! It was a smart look.
48HPhotography is another one of your passions. When did you begin to love it?
TAS When I was really young because of Life and Look magazines, National Geographic, Boys’ Life. It’s simple, to me.
48HIt has an immediacy.
TAS Yep, you can just take a picture.
48HBut you take pictures that are very much your own style. They’re more abstract.
TAS I work on them. My friend Jay [McElaney] has learned how to do that too. I love working with light. I used to take pictures with an Instamatic camera and was working on this series of bare feet on chrome bumpers. It was an excuse to get boys to take their shoes off.
48HI know that you love feet, but you also have very specific tastes about shoes.
TAS And I love jewelry. People don’t realize how important it is what they wear, and what it says about them. With the whole Harlem Renaissance, they were poor as dirt but nobody looked like they did, head to toe. Nowadays, guys can’t even pull their pants up.
48HWhat designers do you especially love?
TAS Halston. I can’t wait to see the documentary [about him]. The whole idea of Halston. I went on a sojourn the last time I went to New York – I went to Andy’s house, Halston’s house, and Jackie’s. Just to stand in front of the doors. I like fag designers. Karl Lagerfeld—I mean, c’mon! They had to change the spelling of the word fag for her. There’s a clip where he’s going from the house he’s at back to Paris. He’s got this big drawer and opens it up and it’s full of rings. Andy Warhol really appealed to me once I found out he grew up a sickly, timid little pansy. People did not like him in the art world because he was a queen.
A strange queen at that. Warhol would wear expensive jewelry under his clothes. I’m so excited by the creativity that gay people innately have. We have it. It is our duty to dispense it. We make the world a prettier place as well as make the world a less sexually safe space. What puritans have done to the impulse of sex is ridiculous, and I like to think I’m totally free of that, but I’m not. I’m more of a prude now. But I go to Eros—steamroll, sauna, and all I have to do is sit there and someone’s gonna grab it. Then I can leave. I don’t have time for Adam4Adam.
48HIn the online realm some people are really comfortable being racist.
TAS People love to tell me, “I’m not attracted to black men.” Well, neither am I dear, so we’re even. But that’s not entirely true. Still, as sure as I’m sitting here, one of the things I’ve said is, “By the time I get there, some n—— has fucked it up already.”
I’m such a voyeur. I can sit next to somebody who is having sex. At this point, I’ll watch. What I like about the faeries or Harry Hay is that it’s not that big a deal, it’s kind of wonderful that we get to do the things we do and explore. We would go to the park at night. Mosquitoes everywhere, but did that stop us? No, no, no. The cops would drive by and shine a light and there’d be 10 guys walking out of the bushes.
On hot nights, those were the nights everybody got laid. But I can’t remember the last time I ducked into an alleyway and got a blowjob from someone I was walking past. I couldn’t do the whole bushes thing because there are critters. The first time I was at Buena Vista, something ran by me. I’ll scream at the wrong time and it’ll be the wrong scream. Not the scream in the middle of the night when there’s 50 guys around you.
There was really something cool about meeting people that way though. Sometimes you wouldn’t say a word, not a word, but you’d have great sex! That atmosphere still pervades at a place like Eros. Online, not so much.
48HOne last question. Through our conversations, I know you have the idea of a radio show or station called KFAG. Let’s say KFAG is going on the air. What are the first few songs you’d play?
TAS I’d start with a lofty dub song, then a Bowie song, then James Brown – and then something rare, like [Mike Clifford’s] “Close to Cathy.”
48 Hills is proud to host the 44th edition of the Bay Guardian Best of the Bay! Here’s where you get to tell the world about your favorite places, people, and things in the BEST place to live on Earth.
This year, we’ve streamlined our categories for easier voting and to keep up with a changing Bay Area. Ever since Best of the Bay launched in 1974—the first “Best of” to appear in a local paper—it’s served as a snapshot of of the Bay Area, from Best Burrito and Best Bike Shop to Best Politician and Best Drag Queen (or King!).
We hope you take a minute to vote, recalling some of your favorite experiences and encounters of the past year. Voting continues through September 3, and winners will be announced in October!
Stay tuned for a Best of the Bay party announcement. And HAPPY VOTING!
Do not be afraid; our fate cannot be taken from us; it is a gift. —Dante, TheInferno.
One must imagine Sisyphus happy. —Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.
Pledge allegiance to the world’s most powerful computer/ What will it take to make you capitulate? —Grimes, “We Appreciate Power.”
I mostly thought of these lines as I watched 12 volunteers in shapeless brown flight suits get strapped into the pneumatic exoskeletons dangling by power cords from the ceiling of Gray Area in the Mission. They looked like concept art for a Matrix sequel, or instruments of torture from some runaway cyberpunk dystopia. And perhaps this is the point: In “Inferno,” an interactive installation by Louis-Philippe Demers and Bill Vorn, robots have literally taken over and they are making us dance.
Part of the Gray Area Festival, which started last Thursday and continued through the weekend, “Inferno” is a classic example of the kinds of hybridization the foundation is interested in, the areas where art and technology can dissect or superimpose over each other, revealing; in their own words, forward-looking approaches to advancing culture and common good.
A combination of robotics, haptics, light design, and industrial music, each part of this performance (or piece, the distinction is not clear) seems to indicate a separate kind of worst case scenario we could experience as a species—or indeed, how technology could be leveraged to enable us to experience multiple, integrated varieties of hell all at once.
There is hell as Camus imagined it, as an eternal torment by some repetitive and mandatory activity.Though the dance certainly looked repetitive and almost laborious, some of the volunteers, guided by the hissing hydraulics, seemed to be happy under the command of their new robot overlords. The newly minted cyborgs improvised their own footwork to sync up with the jerky, nonstop movements of their arms, a kind of mandatory duet that more resembled someone, say, walking across a river of boiling pitch or evading the talons of befanged harpies than just enjoying themselves on a Saturday night.
There is then hell as Grimes imagines (or celebrates) it, which is one of total technological control in which we are willing and perhaps even enthusiastic participants.The programmed moves, as a byproduct of the mechanics of the skeleton used to produce them, resembled a uniformed military march or training exercise,as though participants’ bodies had been deputized to serve as unwilling participants in some cybernetic war. The implications are obvious: what if an entire army, hacked by trolls, stopped on the field of battle and just started flossing?
Finally, there is hell as Dante himself imagined it, concentric circles of worsening sin, punished for your deeds with some twisted reversal of your crime for all eternity in a cohort of your peers (for what crime, therefore, is the punishment dancing? The Hypocrites in the eighth circle of Hell are forced to walk around a single track for all eternity, wearing gleaming robes that restrict their movement. Are we the hypocrites?)
While the Inferno raged on in the city, down by the waterfront at Pier 70 the Institute for Sound and Music, Berlin presented the Hexadome, a thankfully less pessimistic but no less immersive series of audiovisual works by artists like Thom Yorke and Ben Frost.Images were projected on six screens surrounding the audience, who may choose to look in any direction.The works were in most cases so abstract they defy any real kind of analysis. (To put it another way, you are probably going to enjoy these works best if you are at least a little high.)
Some scenes resembled physically impossible landscapes or sites of worship for some future digital religion. Some others like what Salvador Dali might produce while designing a screensaver for Windows 97 after having discovered vaporwave. Familiar forms and patterns are rendered unfamiliar. By squinting, tapping into your inner pareidolic intuition, you can glimpse changing lights projected onto ultra thin membranes, and crystals scattering light in obvious defiance of natural optical law, a focus on microscopic constructs, the physics of scale, cellular automata, an entire universe of warped color and light discoverable in the first 12 nanoseconds of a VHS tape.
It is a wonderful tool for activating the imagination. Sonically, the bulk of the pieces seemed focused on a materials science of sound design, so to speak—imagining not only the sound itself but the object that might have actually produced it. (Hexadome runs through August 3.)
The bulk of the festival over the weekend concentrated mainly on talks running the gamut from artists and intellectuals to curators and historians from across the globe, like Monica Bello. She is the current artistic director at CERN, and showcased artists like Ryoji Ikeda—who designed a light display based on the infamous interference pattern of the double slit experiment—and others who built sculptural artifacts out of the wreckage of outdated LHC modules.Another talk focused on solving global food insecurity though technopagan theories of Gaian responsibility wherein augmented reality teaches children to garden (worth a shot).
The highlight of the weekend was obviously electronic music legend Suzanne Ciani, who presented her new work Under the Electric Sea. The piece is a live analog performance on a Buchla 200E, a machine which more resembles the command module of the Apollo mission than a musical instrument.
The diva of the diode humbly stood in line for the bathrooms with everyone else, then took the stage in front of her byzantine instrument, situated in the dead center of the Hexadome (in a visual collaboration with AudeRrose), with the audience on all sides watching her every move with rapt attention. In this setup, musical signals are physically rerouted through different parts of the hardware circuitry using changeable cables, where every module that the signal is directed through transforms the sound at the output in some way.
The adept performer must have some knowledge of the transfer function of each of these modules a priori in order to generate the kinds of sounds they specifically want for a certain piece by patching on the fly. Nobody knows how to tease such intricate soundscapes out of this kind of hardware like Ciani, who has been innovating the form since the ’60s.
Pure and corrupted sawtooth waves rose with an almost physical heft, practically leaving dents as they pinged off the corrugated metal roof.It was a somewhat more purposefully digital sound than Ciani is famous for. Single notes vibrate and then plunge octaves, structure and rhythm appearing and then collapsing again, Ciani proving that she has not retreated one centimeter from the experimental and radical, and is perhaps now doubling down.
The final day consisted of workshops, hands-on activities allowing those in attendance to explore this interface of art and technology for themselves. The workshop I attended, on the topic of homebrewed synthesizer design, suffered a bit from its ambition, which was to ensure that every random person who signed up (most with no technical background whatever) would walk out with a functional synthesizer they had soldered together themselves, from a kit.
This resulted in the instructor unfortunately having to focus far more time on the finer points of prototype board soldering technique then the more interesting theory of how or why a synthesizer is built this way, what the individual components are for, the electronic theory of why these modules were working at all. (Which, by some technical miracle, most were by the end of the session.) But really, nothing fires up the imagination like completing a project like this with your own two hands, switching it on, and listening to the sounds that come rocketing out.Isn’t that what we all came here for, after all?
Earlier this month, breakout Oakland-born fashion designer, celebrity stylist, and “Project Runway” alum Dexter Simmons launched his first-ever website. It will serve as a one-stop-shop for his eclectic fashion lines, Dexter and Dextrose.
The FIDM graduate, who once styled shoots for SOMA Magazine, 7×7, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian but now calls LA home, has populated his online store with items from his “Wavy” summer collection—rave-inspired camo hoodies screen printed with alien heads, gothic tunic dresses, and psychedelic tie-dye tees—which he recently debuted at Beverly Hills Fashion Week.
For Simmons, the seemingly disparate styles, which merge in many of his broad-based designs, are reflective of a moment in time, almost 20 years ago, when the then-teenaged club kid was a fixture at the Bay Area’s most fashionable nightlife venues. There were the all-ages punk shows at 924 Gilman that bled into raves at underground clubs and later electroclash parties at Arrow Bar. It was a time when style was less prescribed, scenesters were cross-pollinating, and the weeknight warriors didn’t just dress to impress. They came out to slay.
“I was running around San Francisco and taking in all the culture,” Simmons told 48 Hills. “That moment is why I’m the designer that I am now. Those kids and those outfits and not giving a fuck. We knew we were it at the time, so we did what we wanted.”
I spoke to Simmons about his formative years in San Francisco that would go on to shape his design aesthetic, leaving the City by the Bay for greener pastures, and becoming the black genderqueer choice for a new generation.
48 HILLSWhat was it about early 2000’s San Francisco that continues to inspire you as a designer today?
DEXTER SIMMONS I guess I’m trying to pull from my favorite period of living in the Bay Area. There was a variation of us that bounced through all genres, who existed through all of those. There’s something about that rave culture, psychedelic culture, and goth culture that got picked up and took off. That period synonymously set off more fashion than I’ve seen a period set off in my entire time as a designer.
I’m just putting them all in one place, so people, like me, who have a stronger more eclectic understanding of fashion, where you can wear camo and all black but can also wear the pink on the weekends, can do that. So I recreated it in a way that’s still current in 2019 without being literal. Some of the outfits, if you look at them carefully, can be worn in all three scenes and it wouldn’t matter.
48 HILLSIf San Francisco was so great, then why did you leave?
DEXTER SIMMONS It wasn’t that bad before, because I was out there in these mean streets, doing cool stuff with a bunch of cool kids. But now they’re all gone and the new people haven’t thought about fashion or culture yet or what was there before. They’re just doing what’s functional.
Fashion in San Francisco has died and it’s just become an athleisure town, where everything is comfortable. Designers don’t want to create in that market, because everyone just wants what works, not what’s cool.
In cities like New York and LA, you know where to find your fashion. But San Francisco shouldn’t even have the same name, it’s so different. So LA is better for me because I’m still a Cali baby.
48 HILLSYou’ve done so much since leaving the Bay. You competed on “Styled to Rock” in 2013 and “Project Runway” in 2016, interviewed music artists at the Billboard Music Awards for XFINITY in 2017, and showed in LA and New York Fashion Week(s).
DEXTER SIMMONS I’m becoming less of a designer and more of a mogul right now, which is not what I was supposed to do. I never wanted to go on TV. I never applied to go on “Styled to Rock” or “Project Runway.” I never had delusions of grandeur. I never wanted to be a famous reality TV person. But you get that phone call one day and get tired of the San Francisco rent and things not totally turning over there.
I would work for all these companies and they’d keep trying not to pay me, so that’s why I decided to take the shows. I wanted to prove to all those companies that I am that good and worth paying. Pay artists and you’ll have more artists in your city as it gentrifies.
48 HILLSWhat was it like competing on “Styled to Rock” and “Project Runway?”
DEXTER SIMMONS “Styled to Rock” was wild. I met some of the biggest celebrities in the entire world in the period of three months and got to the top 5, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. It’s like being in finals week for three months—no phones, no Internet, and working all day without music—and it’s a very humbling experience when you have to go against that many people and figure your shit out day by day.
“Project Runway” was harder because they wanted to make me more stressed out, but I think “Styled to Rock” was more real. You have to realize that every week on that show I had to be good enough to have my stuff pulled to even have someone look at them. A stylist would look through our stuff and pull for the actual celeb we worked for—Khloe Kardashian, Kylie Minogue, Kelly Osborne, Neo.
On “Project Runway,” it would be someone from “The Vampire Diaries,” whom I’d never even heard of. So I wanted to be with the celebrities from the last show.
48 HILLSNow that you’ve had so much time in front of the camera, have you thought about acting?
DEXTER SIMMONS I just signed a modeling contract with Slay Model Management, the first transgender agency. I’m the first genderqueer person on the board and my agency’s trying to get me to go on more acting auditions. I’m not personally looking to be an actor, but if I get cast in something because I happen to be weirdly queer and perfect for the spot, then that’s cool.
48 HILLSI am loving the fact that a Black genderqueer person is in demand in so many different areas in 2019.
DEXTER SIMMONS I just had this conversation with my best friend. It’s really trippy because I have always been the same way. If you know me from the Bay, I’m the same. If you’ve seen me on TV, there’s no TV acting. It’s just being normal.
It’s crazy to me that now these femme queer creatures who don’t necessarily need to identify are now becoming the “it factor” in fashion, which is pushing them in everywhere else. Yeah, people have been wanting me for things more. I just auditioned for a Netflix series, where they wanted me to learn fight choreography for a show about two queer superheroes.
Ever since high school, I always found a way to win in my small scene, so the idea of my scene being the larger scene—I don’t even understand that. I’m so used to creeping around behind everyone else. But the world’s changing and people are opening up. It’s still a dark place, but I smell revolution.
ONSTAGE Out New York-based comedian Matteo Lane didn’t dream of a career in comedy, growing up.
In fact, the “Moving On” (2015), “Crashing” (2018), and “The Comedy Lineup” (2018) star told 48 Hills that stand-up wasn’t even a draw for him, initially. That is until he discovered more inclusive, gay-friendly comedians like Kathy Griffin.
“I didn’t watch stand-up as a kid, because it didn’t feel like it was speaking to me,” Lane said.
“So I didn’t become interested in it till I saw Kathy Griffin, because she was the first comedian I saw who didn’t make fun of gay people like we were the butt of the joke. We were in on the joke. I was lucky to have women like Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, and Joan Rivers lead me to comedy.”
As part of this weekend’s Clusterfest, Lane will be paying tribute to comedy queens Lisa Kudrow, Mira Sorvino, and Alan Cumming with the Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion Live Read alongside RuPaul’s Drag Race alums Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova.
“I’m playing Alan Cumming’s part where they do the interpretive dance at the high school reunion where I think Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ is playing,” he said. “So I have to learn the dance.”
At the annual comedy and music festival, now in its third year and featuring Amy Poehler, Fred Armisen, Neal Brennan, Issa Rae, John Mulaney, Leslie Jones, The Roots, Chelsea Peretti, Courtney Barnett, and My Favorite Murder, among many others, Lane will also appear in Todd Barry’s Crowd Work Show, Saturday’s Chi Guys, and Sunday’s Patton Oswalt show.
I spoke to Matteo Lane about coming out with humor, relating to Alladin’s Jafar, and why he refuses to make Trump jokes.
48 HILLSMatteo, you went from being an opera singer and oil painter in Italy to a stand-up comedian. Do you ever imagine what your life would have been like had you pursued those other talents?
MATTEO LANE I just don’t think about it that way. Your life just happens as it happens and stand-up has allowed me to do all sorts of things including drawing because I have my comic book with Bob the Drag Queen called “Kickass Drag Queen” that we’re going to hopefully get made into a cartoon, and I’ve been able to do my own singing show, which I tour the country with.
I feel like none of those would have been possible had I not done stand-up, so in a way I don’t look at it as separate. I look at it as other ways to explore my creativity, so if anything it’s helped me be more of a singer or artist than I ever was.
48 HILLSYou have a bit called “Every Disney Character is Gay.” Do you really think so, or are you just trying to piss off conservatives?
MATTEO LANE I’m just trying to write material that makes people laugh. If we wanted to have an existential conversation about those types of characters, I’d say, “Yeah, usually the villain in a Disney movie doesn’t bend to the male or female roles, like the prince or princess. They’re somewhere on the outside, look different and feel different. They’re some sort of an other.
I think that gay people growing up often fall into that experience of being the other, at least in my experience. So I feel like I’ve always latched on to the villain, as most young queer kids do. I don’t relate to Princess Jasmine and Aladdin. I relate to Jafar.
But I don’t write my material to say, “Who am I going to get?” Or to do a bigger conversation about something. I’m doing it, at the end of the day, to make people laugh.
48 HILLSYou also talk about growing up on the same block as your 22 cousins in your act. When you came out, was your family supportive?
MATTEO LANE I am very lucky because my brother’s gay and my cousin’s also gay, so we’re all gay. [Laughs] I’m very lucky to have a very supportive family.
My mom had a very difficult childhood and my grandfather grew up in an immigrant family, went blind at the age of five, put himself through law school, and became a judge. So my family was able to see that there are bigger things out there than just being gay. So being gay was like, “OK, cool, pass the butter.”
My family communicates through humor, so I used humor to make it not this taboo subject we couldn’t talk about, and, as a result, I feel just like the rest of my cousins.
48 HILLS You’ve said before that while you don’t discuss Trump directly in your act, your “material in itself is a stand against Trump.” What did you mean by that?
MATTEO LANE What I mean by that is a technical thing. I’m not the kind of comedian who writes topical jokes about what happened or what I saw on MSNBC yesterday because the news cycle is going so quickly that even if I do a joke that’s funny about what Trump said yesterday, it’s forgotten the next week. So it doesn’t serve me or an audience in any way, because they’ve forgotten because he’s done something else that’s stupid since.
So I have some jokes that are political but I’m not a comedian who’s only interested in talking about Trump. So yeah, if I’m onstage in Ohio and I’m gay and talking to voters who may have voted for Trump, by me not living my life apologetically or editing or censoring myself to hundreds of people I’m performing for daily, that’s something. It’s better than me just sitting at home and tweeting about it.
48 HILLSGay material makes up a lot of your act. Do you feel like you’re a comedian or a gay comedian?
MATTEO LANE I don’t think about it as being a gay comedian. I think about it as doing good work and being as funny as possible.
But I probably am in the last generation who grew up not having the Internet and not having the easy access to a gay community. So now that it’s so prevalent, the only thing I think about is that it’s cool that young kids can look at the TV and see me or other gay comedians and it’s just normal.
48 HILLSCan you envision a day when your sexual identity won’t matter to audiences?
MATTEO LANE When I started stand-up, I would have thought, “I just want to be a stand-up and not have my sexuality determine who I am.” But now that I’m doing it and onstage and talking around the country, I’m proud of it.
I don’t care how anyone reads me — that’s a gay comic or that’s just a comic — because it doesn’t matter what someone else says. I know who I am and I’m proud of being gay and proud of being a comic.
I think where we start to go wrong is when we start labeling everything. So however you want to describe me, I don’t care. I think as we have more diversity onstage we can start having the idea of stand-up not being just for straight men. But I think it’s happening right now.
Editor’s Note: Word came Saturday from his wife and fellow writer Dodie Bellamy that essential SF queer writer Kevin Killian—poet, teacher, playwright, gossip, Kylie Minogue super-fan, heart of the New Narrative literary scene that electrified SF in the ’80s, and Amazon Hall of Fame reviewer—had passed away. Here, Alvin Orloff of Dog-Eared Books remembers the prolific writer. (Read a short, vital essay Kevin wrote for the Bay Guardian’s “SF Stories” issue in 2012 here.)
I met Kevin Killian by taking writing workshops with his wife, Dodie Bellamy, some 20-plus years ago. Climbing the stairs to their third floor South of Market apartment, I always felt anticipatory tingles for the fun and stimulation ahead. Dodie and Kevin’s small living room, cluttered with cats and books, felt like a refuge from the dull, mercenary forces that were (even then) erasing the old bohemian San Francisco, and the writers I met there were uniformly clever and charmingly offbeat. Many are still friends today. Within that enchanted bubble, wit, good manners, and the tough-minded analysis necessary to inculcate literary talent reigned supreme.
At the time, Kevin was workshopping a novel in progress that became Spreadeagle, a wryly twisted and rather noirish tale of literary celebrity, criminality, and perversion. I loved it so much I immediately read his earlier novels, Arctic Summer, Shy, and Bedrooms Have Windows, as well as his short story collection, Little Men. All terrific! (He published a lot of poetry too, which I’m told is also great.) It confused some people that Kevin was considered a queer author because he’d left his louche, homosex-y youth behind him and married a woman, but he and Dodie had transcended the constraints of such mundane, petty classifications.
Once I’d befriended Dodie and Kevin, I discovered a cultural milieu I hadn’t known existed. They and their friends were constantly rushing around between book release parties, poetry readings, and art openings. At such events one could always count on Kevin for a friendly smile, spicy gossip, or some delicious tidbit of information about Australian pop phenomenon, Kylie Minogue, with whom he was obsessed. Just the sight of Kevin, always ever so slightly disheveled with bangs falling boyishly over his forehead, was enough to raise my spirits.
Kevin was also prone to writing and producing hilariously wacky and absurdist plays for the Poets Theater using literary and musical celebrities as characters that he and his friends would play. I wasn’t alone in being mystified as to how Kevin, who worked a full-time office job, managed to regularly stage plays, attend seemingly all of his numerous his friends’ events, and still find time write.
More amazing yet, Kevin also found time to be a tireless promoter. He was forever introducing one to new authors, talking up someone’s latest work, and booking out-of-towners to read at some bookstore or gallery. As if that weren’t enough, he co-edited My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer and, along with Dodie, Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative Writing 1977 – 1997. He gave me a lovely blurb for my third novel and spoke of my writing in terms flattering enough I not only felt embarrassed, but tempted to question his sincerity. Kevin’s tireless championing of LGBTQ writers is justifiably the stuff of legend, and he (along with Dodie) acted like a social glue, bonding San Francisco’s more adventurous, if less commercially successful, writers into a community.
For all his myriad virtues, what I enjoyed most about Kevin was his mischievous sense of humor. For example, when he was recovering from a heart attack and too doped up to write, Kevin (at Dodie’s rather brilliant suggestion) tried to get back in the swing of it by penning Amazon reviews. These quickly progressed from a few words about books, music or movies to amusingly off-kilter mini-essays about random items like plaster pineapples or Lycra thongs. The reviews were eventually collected into a pair of zines that (who knows?) may well end up becoming the foundational texts of a new literary genre.
As the years rolled by, Kevin gradually began to get the recognition he’d always deserved. City Lights put out his hilarious collection of erotic short stories,Impossible Princess, which won a Lambda award, and Semiotext(e) reissued his out of print early works as an anthology titled “Fascination.” He got to quit his office job, began teaching creative writing, and started jetting off to attend panel discussions and symposia in distant cities.
Everyone was glad for him. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, came word came that Kevin, a mere 66 years old, had died. My Facebook feed instantly filled with more heartfelt tributes than I’ve ever seen, all of them extolling his talent, generosity, kindness, and good cheer. Kevin was, and I am being quite literal here, universally beloved.
In the days ahead, I see three duties for Kevin’s friends and fans. First, we must offer whatever support we can to Dodie. Let her know that the massive outpouring of love for Kevin belongs to her as well. Second, we simply must work to see that Kevin’s books are given their rightful place of honor in the queer literary canon. And third, we must try and be more like Kevin, allowing our lives to be guided by the love of writing and writers. None of these things will make up for the lack of Kevin in our lives, but they’re the least we can do to honor his memory.
Alvin Orloff’s memoir Disasterama: Adventure in the Queer Underground 1979-1997 comes out in October from Three Rooms Press. Learn more at www.alvinorloff.com
When Dr. Douglas Goldman went to the Stern Grove Festival as a child, he remembers cherry trees in the concert meadow with tables arranged in the shade under them, and women wearing hats and white gloves. When his great-grandmother started the free music festival, it featured only classical music. One thing Goldman doesn’t remember is San Francisco’s notorious chilly summer weather.
“It was more formal and more staid,” Goldman said about the concerts. “The interesting thing is I remember sunshine, not fog. Maybe we were going to the first concerts in June and probably got the pre-fog pre-summer weather.”
Goldman’s great-grandmother, Rosalie Meyer Stern, bought the land in 1931, and had an acoustics expert from University of California, Berkeley, come and test it, pronouncing the acoustics spectacular.In 1938, to honor her late husband Sigmund Stern, she created the Stern Grove Festival, which offers free concerts on Sunday afternoons in summer.
“The country was still in the throes of the Depression at that time and classical musicians did not have year round contracts,” Goldman said. “So it was summer employment for musicians. And for an audience who couldn’t afford to go see music, they were able to go because it’s free.”
Goldman, who worked as an emergency room physician at Mount Zion before he founded the software firm Certain Inc., is the fourth generation of his family to be involved with the Stern Grove Festival Association. For the last 23 years, he has stewarded the festival, diversifying the offerings with performers like Janelle Monáe, Fantastic Negrito, Smokey Robinson, and Rufus Wainwright, along with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Ballet performing.
Goldman has made other changes to the festival, including a significant renovation of the concert meadow with the late landscape architect Larry Halprin.
This summer, with concerts including Toots and the Maytals, Digable Planets, The Isley Brothers’ “Big Picnic,” and Los Van Van, will be Goldman’s last spearheading the festival. Next February, his twin sons, Jason and Matthew Goldman, will take over, becoming the first ones under 40 to lead the festival.
The family has a deep commitment to philanthropy beyond the festival, with Goldman running the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund, which supports democracy, civil liberties, education, literacy, and the environment. Goldman is also president of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, which awards the $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots environmental activism every year.
Growing up, Goldman remembers his parents talking about the nonprofits they were involved with over dinner. His great-grandmother had a deep commitment to her community, he says, and that has been passed down through the generations. Some of it he attributes to Jewish values, and he says the family feels proud to be able to do it.
“I like to think I’ve improved it in some ways,” Goldman said about the festival. “Now my sons can impart their version of it and find ways they can improve and expand and make it more relevant.
Jason, who, like his brother, has a Bachelor of Arts from UC Berkeley in Interdisciplinary Studies with an emphasis on Nonprofit Management and Philanthropy, says they have learned from their father’s example of the time, effort and passion he put into running the festival. They won’t be making any huge changes right away, he says.
“We’re not going to come in and rip the whole thing out,” he said. “We might possibly look at updating or modernizing, but we’re very much tied to what’s already worked well.”
At Berkeley, the brothers started a course where the students gave away money, Matthew says. They’ve also done consulting for nonprofits, so they had more than theoretical experience into how philanthropy works.
They’re excited to bring their experience to the festival, which after eight decades still provides something important, Jason says.
“Not a lot of things in life are free, especially experiences, and people are really into experiencing things,” he said. “Music is universal, and here we’re experiencing it in nature with others rather than listening to it on AirPods.”
His father agrees that listening to music outside in a grove as deep as a 14-story building is high, surrounded by eucalyptus and redwood trees, is exceptional.
“You’re hearing beautiful sounds in a gorgeous natural setting,” Goldman said. “You’re in the middle of an urban setting, not off in some wilderness. It’s a unique and special experience, as if you removed yourself from the hustle and bustle of the city.”
STERN GROVE FESTIVAL Sundays, June 16-August 18, 2pm, free 19th Avenue and Sloat, SF. More info here.